Coldheart and Iron: Part 9


The next morning, we woke up and tried to return to our routines. One of the hardest parts of the morning was reassigning the duties of the two Wayfinders we buried the night before. Harder still was splitting up their gear amongst the rest of us. We couldn’t afford to leave anything behind but the clothes we buried them in. The tundra wasn’t that forgiving. After that and a breakfast of plain oatmeal that tasted especially bland after the hamburgers of the night before, I moved through the barn. The laborers and nomads had slept on opposite sides of the barn and stuck to their groups as they continued to mourn and slowly prepare to set out.

When both groups were finally ready to go, two hours later than planned, the first of the scouts was just reporting back. The coast was clear and they’d found enough landmarks to put our location on a map. Despite our deviation from our intended course, we would be able to make our target town the day after tomorrow. That would mean we’d still have at least three days before the blizzard arrived to prepare and hunker down. I shared the news with everyone, but only the Wayfinders seemed cheered by it. The nomads and the laborers merely nodded, picked up their things, and followed us out of the barn, carefully avoiding each other.

It was a long day of walking. Since we’d left late, I pushed the group until it was almost dark. We had to set up camp quickly, but we still had fifteen minutes before the sun was completely down when I set the last sentry in place. After doing a few patrols of the camp and making note of how far apart the nomads and the laborers had grouped themselves, I headed back to my tent and my friends.

Inside, Natalie and Camille were talking over their dinners while Lucas lay to the side, arms behind his head, and occasionally adding something to the conversation. Without really tuning in to what they were saying, I finished taking off my gear and then helped myself to some of the reconstituted soup. As I took my first bite, their conversation finally filtered through to my brain.

“Hold on, what?” I turned to Natalie. “I thought this was one of the towns we’d scouted on our last trip through. Didn’t someone say it was perfect for us?”

“Yes.” Natalie nodded scraped the last of her soup into her mouth. “The problem is, that was a few years ago. While it is still probably just fine, it won’t be exactly how we found it back then. We’ll probably need to do a little extra work to make sure we find enough new food and safe water.”

Camille grabbed Natalie’s bowl and, placed it insider her own, preparing to wash them out. “That, or we need to dip into our supplies a little more and spend time fortifying our camp. If we haven’t gotten any kind of update on the area since the last time we were through, it is possible there will be more bandits nearby.”

“Though any group small enough to survive in a town this size probably wouldn’t pose much of a threat.” Lucas had propped himself up on his elbows. “If we can make it until the blizzard starts, we’ll be fine for a few days and then we can always sneak out under cover of the end of the blizzard. Most bandits won’t go out in it, but we’d be fine.”

Natalie sighed. “All of these things are true. I’m just frustrated we don’t have any good intel and, aside from basic scouting, we’ll all be too busy preparing for the tri-monthly blizzard to do anything but frantically prep.”

“I can push us harder tomorrow.” I stirred my soup as I thought. “If we can just pick up the pace a little bit, we should be able to get there early tomorrow evening, which will give us three full days to prepare.”

“Or spring a bandit trap.” Camille grabbed a handful of snow from the bucket inside the tent and used it to scour the bowls.

“Yes. Or that.” I had a few more mouthfuls of soup.

“I have a few places on the maps that might work, but only one if we want to let the nomads and laborers keep away from each other. It won’t be great and would require more work, but we should be able to get it ready in time anyway.” Natalie yawned. “Either way, I’m going to bed soon because I’m going to be super busy for the next four days.”

“Me too. Scouting leaves at sunrise.”

“Okay you two, get some sleep.” I pointed to Lucas in mock severity. “That’s an official order from your Captain!”

Lucas nodded and saluted, letting himself fall over backward as he did so. “At once, sir!”

After I finished my dinner and washed my bowl, Camille packed them away while I took care of cleaning the soup pot and turning off the camp stove. Fifteen minutes later, we were all asleep.

The next morning, I woke as the sun started making its existence known. Lucas was already gone and Natalie was in the process of leaving. Her opening the door was what woke me up, but the feeling of the air is what got me out of my sleeping bag an hour before I needed to. Sleep was precious, especially given that I hadn’t had much lately, but something in the air made me anxious.

I quickly dressed and scooped half of the leftover oatmeal out of the pot, shoveling it down as I zipped up my jacket and pants. Once I’d finished and dropped some of the snowmelt from the bucket into the bowl to prevent the oatmeal from sticking, I hurried out the door. Once I was outside, I snuck around the camp. Creeping between buildings and staring out past the perimeter as I went, I kept myself hidden as I looked for whatever had me on edge. Fifteen minutes and two circuits of the camp later, I was forced to look elsewhere.

I went around the camp again, still sneaking, but this time I focused my attention inward. As I made my first round, I realized there was far too much silence coming from the nomad and laborer tents. Even if we had to wake them most mornings, there should have been someone who was up or moving around at that point. All the Wayfinders were waking up at this point, even if I was the only one outside who wasn’t on duty.

I finished my circuit and went to the guard I’d stationed near enough to the laborers and nomads to keep an eye on them. When I got over to him, I nudged him with my boot. “Nichols. What happened?”

Nichols shook the snow off of himself and stretched his impressive length. “Caught a couple of the nomads sneaking around last night, Cap’n. Sent them packing. You know I’ve got a good loom. Spooked them a bit and then told them off, but that’s about it. Did the same thing to a couple groups of laborers who were trying to do the same thing.”

I helped pull Nichols to his feet and the skinny giant towered over me. He was about seven feet tall, but you could practically see through him. He was an excellent sniper and enjoyed the Wayfinder life, but outfitting him was the biggest administrative challenge of my life. After brushing him off a bit, I turned to face the tents. “Can you tell me who?”

“I don’t have any names, Cap’n. I just wanted everyone back in their tents before they caused a ruckus.”

“Thank you, Nichols. I’ll see what I can do about preventing that from happening again.”

“Sure thing, Cap’n.” He stretched again, sighing. “If you want to know, the last group of laborers came out of this tent, here.” He pointed at the nearest tent. “I wouldn’t have caught them if I hadn’t been watching for something by then. They were silent as they snuck out and didn’t say a word when I confronted them.” He cleared his throat and leaned closer. “And they were a bit under-dressed, if you catch my meaning.”

I nodded, keeping a tight leash on the sudden anger I felt, and waved him toward where a couple of wayfinders were preparing breakfast. “Go get yourself some breakfast. I’ll take care of it.” Sneaking around at night was one thing, sneaking around at night without the proper thermal gear was something else entirely.

As the lanky behemoth walked away, I walked over to the tent that belonged to the laborer spokesperson and Mitch, the drunken moron who wouldn’t take no for an answer from one of my trainee Wayfinders. When I was standing right outside it, I could hear the faint sounds of muted conversation coming from inside. I stood and listened for a minute, trying to make out what they were saying, but they were being too quiet. I decided a direct confrontation was probably my best bet, so I unzipped the door to their tent and stepped inside.

There were five laborers sitting around their small camp stove, but they weren’t cooking anything on it. They all turned to look at me, shading their eyes against the morning light. Mitch and his friend, the man acting as their spokesperson, were sitting facing the tent door, so I locked eyes with them first. Mitch looked away quickly, but the other man set his face in the same business-like neutral expression he had used while talking about refunds.

“Good morning, Captain.” He stood up and flashed a perfunctory smile. “To what do we owe your company?”

I zipped the tent closed behind me and kept my tone and face as neutral as his. “Someone told me that the people from this tent were sneaking around at night. Was that you and your friends, Trevor?”

He smiled, trying to be disarming. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Cut the crap.” I stepped forward and let some of my frustration and anger from the past few days heat my voice. “One of my guards saw you come out, confronted you, and told me about it this morning.”

“We didn’t do anyth-” Mitch was in the middle of gingerly clambering to his feet when he was interrupted by his friend, who placed a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back down.

“Fine. We had arranged a small meeting with the nomads last night and didn’t see that it was any business of yours if we chose to talk to them about it. Since they didn’t show up here, we went to find them.” Trevor glared down at his companions. “When we were told by your guard to return to our tent, we did.”

“And what do you want to discuss that isn’t any of my business?” After a moment of silence, a blank look from Trevor, and uneasy stares from everyone else, I sighed and spoke a little louder. “Do I need to remind you that literally everything that happens while I am guiding you is my business? Especially when it involves breaking the rules I set when we left the Madison enclave?”

“We wanted to continue our discussion from last night, about who owed who what as a result of the bandit attack.”

“That wasn’t a discussion, it was a shouting match that would have erupted in violence if my people hadn’t been separating everyone.”

“Be that as it may, we wished to continue to talk and you clearly do not want that to happen.” Trevor crossed his arms, his neutral tone disappearing. “If there’s nothing else, Captain, I’d like for you to leave.”

I nodded. “One last thing, and then I’ll leave.” I stepped forward, dropping my voice to a low, angry snarl. “If you pull any of this shit again, remember that we’re the justice out here and I can promise you that anything you do that might endanger us, like walking around at night or being careless with your heat signatures like you were last night will not go unpunished.”

I stepped closer to the group, leaning over a little. “Were you just careless? Did you think that almost two decades of experience didn’t count for anything? I know you’re all young, but even you should know what happens to groups that get caught outside the enclaves.” Even Trevor was looking away now, unwilling to meet my eyes. “If we get attacked, we’re just going to leave you behind. That single, moronic move was a worse violation than anything that might have happened because of the nomads.”

I straightened up and walked back toward the tent. “Sneaking around at night is a violation, but mostly a harmless one if you really meant to just talk. Sneaking around at night without full thermal gear is beyond moronic. If I or my Wayfinders catch anyone outside without their thermal gear again, we’re just going to bury them in the snow and leave them behind.”

I unzipped the tent and stepped outside. I zipped the tent back up and took a deep breath of the chill morning air. I was still angry. A firefight that ended barely forty-eight hours ago and now people wandering around at night without their insulating gear. Chances were good that we were going to draw attention from something worse than bandits and blizzards unless we make good time and took extra care setting up for the snowstorm. Something we’d be helpless to fight against.

I shuddered and moved away from the laborer tent. I had another group to tell off, still, and then my usual morning duties to attend to. Today was going to be another long day.

Tabletop Highlight: How to Please the Dice Gods and Other Useful Rituals

As one of the many humble priests of the dice gods, I often field questions from supplicants, believers and non-believers alike, about how best to get on their good side. The first lesson you must learn is that the gods are fickle and the only way to truly get what you desire is to avoid their influence entirely. However, your companions who rely on the whims of the dice gods and any pastimes that depend on their influence may decry you for such heresy. Eventually, the gods will have their due and any heretical successes will only contribute to the eventual retribution against you when you finally re-enter the realm of the dice gods.

First, you must always take proper care of your icons and totems. Do not lose them, or else the gods may be angered by the lack of care you show their representatives. Keep them clean using proper sanitation techniques and do not lend them to individuals who practice poor personal cleanliness. If you lose part of a matched set, be aware that you can replace individual pieces without needing to replace the entire set. However, you must monitor the set to ensure that they properly bond as it is possible for the remnants of a matched set to reject all new pieces. You can increase the adoption rate by ensuring the new pieces are a visual match for the set.

Second, regularly handle and use all of your icons and totems. If a set goes a long time without use, the dice gods may come to look upon it with disfavor. A good practice is to include a single use as a part of icon and totem selection for each ritual or service. If the gods decide to bless a certain set, they will make their good will known through this initial usage. Such signs should be trusted without question and not second-guessed if find yourself not getting favorable results from the dice gods. They are merely testing your faith and perseverance will be rewarded eventually.

Thirdly, do not dispose of any icons or totems until they no longer represent the gods. Any disfiguring action, such as melting, shattering, or defacing with the intent to retire will be respected by the gods and you will incur no penalties or disfavor for tossing aside one of their representatives in the mortal world. Carelessly tossing aside an icon or totem can incur the gods’ wrath and all will come to recognize you as one so rejected and cursed by the gods for their disfavor will be written clearly upon any other icons of totems you use.

If you do not use physical icons or totems, instead relying on the electronic ones provided behind the scenes of your computerized rituals or services, you need not fear the gods’ wrath for carelessness relating to the icons and totems. The care for these totems and icons rests upon the shoulders of whoever generated the computerized rituals and services. Bear in mind that their care and maintenance can still impact the outcomes provided to you by the gods. Therefore, it is in your best interest to let the creators of computerized rituals and services know if you find a way to remove them from the realm of the dice gods. Their curses fall upon your head as well.

If you are currently under a curse by the gods or RNGesus refuses to hear your supplication, there are a number of rituals or penances you can perform in order to find your way back into their good graces. The easiest is to simply obtain a new set of icons or totems. It is possible that, seeing your purse support their church, the gods will grant you clemency. You may also speak with whoever leads your rituals or services in order to take a penance upon yourself, further worsening the results of the gods’ will so that you can show your contrite spirit. If all else fails, the wailing and gnashing of teeth accompanied by continued supplication of the gods during participation in their rituals and services will eventually bring you back to rest in their benevolence.

While I hope this guide was instructive, know that there is no one correct way to worship the dice gods. Consult with your local priests and ritual leaders to find what works best for you and in your particular case. Do not forget that the results of rituals and services, while not directly related to day-to-day life, are a good indication of what you can expect from the dice gods and their pantheon-mates in more ordinary situations. May the dice gods bless you and may you o in peace, all the rest of your days.


It started with a small crack. He had underestimated just how much small cracks mattered, but it made sense. A small crack was all it too to eventually break down any rock. One sentence, said once, and it changed everything.

It was always there, in the back of his mind. Other moments that would have meant nothing now had a way to worm their way into his mind. Fears that previously would have had nothing to latch onto now found a foothold. As time wore on and the crack grew bigger, he started to feel like he was looking at life through it. Everything came back to the crack.

If he’d done something about it when it was small, he might have been able to avoid the eventual breakdown. A small discussion or some work to try to patch things up. Anything would have been better than letting it go.

Eventually, it was ruining his life. The fear and doubt had wormed their way in so that there was almost nothing left to him but the rubble of his once unified sense of self. So he ended it. He broke it off.

It did not go well. She didn’t see what the problem was and she wasn’t willing to talk about how bad things had gotten. He wasn’t willing to try to make her see it. Eventually, after many tears on both their parts, they split up.

In the weeks that followed, as he swept away the rubble and tried to figure out what to do with what was left. Once he started picking up the pieces, it became clear he would never be the same. Eventually, he knew he’d be okay. Different, but okay.


Saturday Morning Musing

I really don’t like the hype train. I’m very patient when it comes to people and obligations. When it comes to things I get excited about or that don’t have a specific wait time, I absolutely suck at waiting. Which means I hate watching trailers for movies and video games because they get me super excited for something cool and then I have to wait four months or a year or, in Breath of the Wild’s case, three years. Last week, Nintendo announced the latest Super Smash Bros. game would come out on the Switch this year and all I can do now is wait and think about it. It probably won’t come out until the holiday shopping season, but a soft release date is not very helpful to me.

I’ve never really enjoyed the anticipation portion of anything. I like knowing when stuff is going to happen and then mostly ignoring it until it is time to do something about it. This can sometimes backfire on me, as it did with the Switch, because I missed my 12-hour window to pre-order one. I managed to get on by waiting in line for 12 hours and freezing my butt off, but my life would have been better if I’d just pre-ordered it. For the most part, though, I don’t actually lose anything by avoiding stuff until right before it comes out. I got movie tickets to see Star Wars just fine. I can just go into most book stores to grab books I want. Game stores never actually run out of games these days. Steam makes pretty much every game easily available since I don’t know if it is even possible to run out of digital copies… Heck, most “physical” games are just download codes concealed inside plastic rectangles these days.

There’s only so much planning you can do for stuff like that before it starts feeding into anxiety. I already have enough trouble properly allocating my mental energy without marketing companies doing everything they can to convince me to uselessly spend mental energy on substanceless hype. I really don’t need the encouragement since I’m already to get overly invest in pretty much anything. This means I can be susceptible to marketing because it feeds into behavior I’m already prone to, so I spend a good deal of effort to stay away from marketing geared toward my interests. Which unfortunately means I miss out on a lot of things I might enjoy until long after they’re out.

Thankfully, I’ve got plenty of friends who all advocates of the hype train, so I can ask them what is coming up and get all my gaming news without any of the hype beyond their excitement. Books are a little bit easier to follow on my own because there isn’t as much energy put into marketing them via excitement like there is for video games and movies. Most of the time, we just get news from conventions or author blogs, such as Patrick Rothfuss confirming that The Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy is actually just the beginning of the story. Which I am super excited about, because it means I was right to suspect that there was too much left unanswered at the end of Wise Man’s Fears to wrap up in one book. I love the series, so I am excited to hear there will be more books, but there is no urgency behind this. We don’t even have a release date for the book that was for-sure happening, Stone Doors, so information like this is close to news than marketing.

Honestly, even if I do miss out on things sometimes, I feel a lot better when my life isn’t full of a constant stream of advertisements, marketing promotions, and pitches for things that I probably want. It is a lot easier to focus on what I am doing and what I already have to enjoy when I’m not being bombarded by what I don’t have. Inner peace, and all that.


Inertia rules my existence.
It wears the crown and bears the scepter,
Commanding me to march and obey.
I’m no conscientious objector.
I would gladly march like a toy soldier
To keep away depression’s specter.
So long as I am moving forward
I can pretend everything is fine.

If I take a break or push too hard
I will fall into a self-made mine
Where crystallized despair waits for me
Like an old god sitting in its shrine.
Do enough to be making progress
But not so much I will fall apart.
With fiery determination
And bone-deep weariness in my heart
I know I’ll someday find my balance
Even if I don’t know where to start.

Platformers Never Fall Flat

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s review, I’m a fan of platformers. When they’re well-made, they can be some of the most rewarding single-player games out there, in my opinion. They provide the opportunity to tell wonderful stories through the visuals and the interactions between characters in the game without getting bogged down by complex levels or difficult controls. For some platformers, the whole point of the game is the controls, telling a passive story as you move through levels expanding your ability to explore as you go. There’s so much variety out there that I can’t cover them all.

While most of my favorite games are not platformers, it is easy to say that it is my favorite genre of game. Ever since I played Math Blaster as a kid, I have enjoyed working my way through levels by solving simple puzzles and jumping from one bit of safe ground to another. The various Super Mario Bros games, most of the Game Boy games I enjoyed that aren’t Pokemon, tons of great indie games now, and so many easter eggs in bigger-budget games.

Platformers have been in the news a bit more than usual lately. With the advent of Super Mario Maker and games like Cuphead, platformers are getting a lot of attention as a result of their often higher-than-average difficulty. In a lot of games the difficulty is adjustable, making the enemies tougher or weaker, or by giving you more or less information for solving the puzzles. Platformers, though, don’t always have adjustable difficulty. Celeste, for example, did not. There are levels you can unlock, though, that are basically more difficult versions of each level.

For a lot of platformers, the difficulty is set by the precision with which you must control your character. There are Mario Maker levels that require you to pretty much get your timing and movement down to the pixel in order to succeed.  Cuphead is notorious for difficult fights due to the shifting nature of the boss battles, which require you to constantly stay on your toes. Celeste requires you to repeat the puzzles until you succeed, trying to navigate around barriers and use the various game rules and moves to figure out how to move through the stage. This includes adding in a few false-leads that require you to fully consider your actions before you take them. Even replaying levels doesn’t necessarily make them easier because knowing what you need to do doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. I ran into that a lot. I’d get 90% of the way through a screen, die, and then struggle to get past the 50% mark all over again.

I really enjoy platformers because of this. I get frustrated, sure, but it feels super rewarding to be able to zip through a screen by nailing every move perfectly. I’m not terribly discouraged by failure, so it is easy for me to sit there and attempt to pull of the same sequence of moves for five or more minutes if I encounter a particularly difficult puzzle. My main problem with most platformers is that they’re often on the computer and I don’t really enjoy playing them on the computer. Getting Celeste for the Switch instead of my PC was the best decision I made in the last month. Being able to pick it up for only five minutes and then being able to put it down without worrying about accidentally closing the game is invaluable. I own a bunch of PC platformers that I’d probably re-buy in an instant if they made a version for the Switch.

I’m no platformer god. I’m persistent and I learn by doing, which means I tend to think better by making split-second decisions without too much time to analyze. This gives me an advantage because that’s what platformers, especially ones based on momentum, need most of the time. Only a few times has Celeste given me the opportunity to look ahead so I can determine what I need to do and it is the only platformer I’ve ever played that lets me do that. I enjoy the challenge of momentum-based games, even if I often flub the ending of individual challenges because I continuously forget to watch where I land instead of the difficult bit I’ve just navigated. I’m pretty sure this habit of mine accounts for at least half of my deaths in Celeste.

Climbing the Mountain of my Heart

First and foremost, I want to thank one of my readers who contacted me, Ryan, for recommending Celeste. I would not have played it without your suggested because it wasn’t even on my radar before that. I enjoy platformers, but I’m not very good at staying up-to-date on video game news. Trying to follow everything that’s happening is super stressful. Normally, I rely on my friends for that kind of information, but none of them are really into platformers, so thank you so much for recommending a game I have immensely enjoyed.

Like most indie platformers, the game is fairly simple in concept. The game follows a young woman, Madeline, as she attempts to climb Celeste mountain. The controls are basic, based around jumping, an air-dash, and climbing. The levels are often only as big as your screen and the simple move set means it is fairly easy to figure out how to move through them, but the game is still very challenging because the maneuvers require precise timing and execution. Timing your jumps, dashes, and climbs so you wind up being able to combine them all in a quick string that lets you finish by dashing to the final platform at the right moment, to avoid the floating spikes that are moving back and forth, becomes a real challenge. Dying only set you back to the start of the screen or the last mini checkpoint, but it can become the right kind of frustrating when you’ve died a couple dozen times on the one screen.

In addition to the move, there are a number of level-unique gimmicks and a few game-wide ones that get introduced to add variety and further complication to your play. Platforms that fall or crumble a second after you land on them, bouncy clouds, little bubbles that throw you a certain distance in whatever direction you’re pushing, and even little feathers that turn you into a little orb of light dashing through the sky. Moving spikes, weird black round shapes with eyes, and moving platforms that catapult you in the direction they’re moving if you time your jumps well. All of it comes together to create a wonderful and challenging platformer offers you a ton of variety.

To up the ante, there are various collectibles spread throughout the levels. Strawberries scattered throughout the level, little mini-game screens with “B-side” tapes on them, and crystal hearts in hidden rooms that will encourage you to leave no room or direction unexplored. The strawberries are just collectibles, but the B-sides and the crystal hearts add things in your game. Each level has a second, harder version you can unlock by finding the tapes while the last level, Level 8, is stuck behind a wall you can only unlock with four crystal hearts. Like most good collectibles in these kinds of games, you can enjoy the game without needing to gather them, but they add a lot to the game if you do.

Thematically, this game is far more complex. Madeline is climbing the mountain because she feels like she needs to make a change in her life. As you learn throughout the game, Madeline suffers from some pretty bad depression and anxiety, resulting from something bad that happened to her (it is never specified, but the game hints that it may have to do with a past relationship). She has to learn how to deal with the problems that come up as a result of her mental health issues all while trying to cope with the mountain itself, which seems to be doing everything it came to make her journey more difficult. You can even see her slow growth throughout the game in the ways she interacts with and talks about the other people she encounters.

My favorite part, which hit super close to home, is an exchange between Madeline and Theo, a hiker she encounters throughout her climb who she just rescued from the materialization of her inner demons. They’re sitting around a campfire, talking about what happened why it is happening. Eventually, Theo asks her a question (I’ve trimmed out non-relevant or spoiler-y bits of dialogue):

T: Why not take a vacation instead?
M: I guess I feel like I need to accomplish something.
T: It sounds like you have enough on your plate already.
M: I guess it is kind of extreme. But that’s how I am. I need something to challenge me. And I can’t just do something a little bit. It’s all of me, or nothing.

As someone whose main coping mechanism is “find projects to do” and who has often said that I find it much easier to commit 100% that hold back, I felt a little called-out by the game. Madeline even describes depression similarly.

I’m currently climbing my own mountain. Trying to update this blog every day for what’ll wind up being at least thirteen months, trying to work enough to pay of my loans quickly, trying to work out regularly, trying to work on my novel five days a week, and trying to maintain my relationships (romantic and platonic) by staying socially active. So far, I rarely ever accomplish all of those things, but I try every day and don’t give myself a hard time if I can only do one or two of those on any given day. I remember learning the lessons that Madeline learns in this game and this was an excellent reminder that I need to be careful or I’m only going to wind up making my life difficult for myself.

I have to say, this game came at exactly the right time for me. I suggest you pick it up for its super fun platforming and then appreciate it for the wonderful story it tells in a form that doesn’t typically lend itself well to storytelling.



Coldheart and Iron: Part 8


I pushed open the door and took in the scene unfolding in the clear space between empty animal stalls. Standing in two groups, the nomads and laborers were yelling at each other. In between them was Camille and a few Wayfinders with guns trained on the floor. I could see Camille shouting to make herself heard over the hubbub as the rest of the Wayfinders caught between angry mobs uneasily thumbed their safeties. All the other Wayfinders were sitting near their guns and the nomad children were huddled in a corner away from all the commotion with the older woman sitting in front of them.

The scent of hamburgers and my extreme hunger set aside, I tossed my gear to the ground and hurried over to the two groups, waving my arms. As I jogged up, I locked eyes with Camille who grimaced and then fired her gun into the far barn door. As the sharp crack of her rifle faded, silence fell and the two groups became aware that I was shouting at them.

“What is going on here? I want you and you” I pointed to one person from each group, a woman from the nomads and the laborer who stood furthest forward, “to explain to me why you aren’t behaving like adults. While they’re doing that, I want everyone else at opposite sides of the barn. Hands kept clearly visible or I’ll send Wayfinders to find out why they aren’t.” I crossed my arms  and glared from one group to the other. “You couldn’t just sit and eat your dinner in peace?”

The two groups, shepherded by armed Wayfinders, retreated to opposite sides of the barn. A few people from each group shot bashful looks in my direction, but no one split off from their group. After a quick whispered conference, the laborers sent the man I’d pointed at over. He was the friend of the man who had been getting aggressive with Laura a few days ago.  He started to speak, but I held up my finger to silence him while I waited for a nomad to join us. When they finally sent the woman over a couple of minutes later, I pointed at the laborer. “Speak.”

“These idiots led the bandits to us. It is their fault our friends died.” He clenched his fists and his jaw for a moment, but relaxed them a moment later. “We just want them to accept responsibility for these needless deaths.” After a moment of silence, I pointed to the nomad woman who was positively bristling.

“My wife wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for these assholes! If they had any ability to defend themselves, none of the bandits would have gotten close enough to kick down the door and kill my family.” The woman’s voice broke and she clenched her fists. “If only they had been better, Elaine would still be…” She broke into tears and I braced myself to stop her from lunging at the laborer, but the tension drained out of her body and she covered her face.

The laborer turned to step toward the nomad, clearly uncomfortable but unwilling to back down. “If they had come to where we were instead of trying new windows, no one-”

“That’s quite enough.” I grabbed the laborer’s shoulder and pushed him back a couple of steps. “I know both of you lost people today, on top of what must have been an exhausting night and day. I’m not going to ask that you calm down or control yourselves, because grief is important and should not be denied. You should mourn however you see fit, just do it without blaming other people.”

I turned to the laborer. “You all signed waivers. You knew this could happen at any time and that some of you would probably die.” I waved my hand as he started to speak and then put it on his shoulder in an attempt to be somewhat comforting. “Yes, this was awful, but we’re not safe yet. Surviving until after the blizzard should be our focus for right now. We can rest and mourn once we have taken shelter for a few days.” I patted his shoulder and then turned to the nomad.

“Your group has lived outside of an enclave for years. You all knew the risks you took. I’m sorry about your wife and your friends, but the laborers are not to blame for their death. These things happen and we need to stay strong and work together if we’re going to prevent any more loss of life.”

While the laborer stared at the ground and the nomad wiper her tears away, I sighed. “I know how hard it can be to lose people. I’m a Wayfinder because I’ve got no one left to me but this family I’ve created. I’ve buried my own share of people. They were there and then they were gone. There’s no sense to it.” I paused to clear my throat and master the emotion roiling through me before quietly continuing. “I had to do it again today.”

I paused to clear my throat again, letting my feelings of loss and failure to protect my people and those we had taken under our protection wash over me for a moment before pushing them away again. “None of us is alone in our grief. If we want to get through this, we need to support each other. The blame for today’s death lies with the bandits and they’re all dead.”

The laborer shuffled his feet and, after a deep breath, looked up at me. “Thank you for your help, Wayfinder Marshall. I think we all would have died without your aid.” I nodded, and was about to express my condolences, but he cut me off as he stiffened his back and his eyes hardened into a glare. “The thing is, though, we all paid good money to be guided and protected. Sure, we signed a waiver. But we also had a contract!” He crossed his arms and clenched his jaw, but his glistening eyes betrayed the hurt and frustration he felt. “Bringing these people to our group violated that contract!” His voice lost a little bit of its steam and I could hear the hitch in his voice, even if he did his best to hide it. “And it brought the bandits down on us.”

“The person responsible for breaking the contract has been punished according to our rules.” I shifted my stance a little, trying to look a little more stern but still conciliatory. “We did everything we could to guarantee your safety. What’s done is done and I will not tell you who is responsible for that decision. If you have any problems, you come to me. If you try taking issue with any of my people, they will direct you to me.”

“Thank you, Captain, I will make sure to speak with you if anything else comes up.” The laborer nodded, arms still crossed and back rigid, but this time all traces of sadness were gone from his face “In the meantime, I’d like to discuss our refund.”

I hid my surprise and mounting frustration by going into business mode, all expression gone from my face and all emotion gone from my voice. “Your refund.” I arched an eyebrow at him and let a little disbelief and the tiniest trace of humor I didn’t feel seep into my voice.

“Yes.” The laborer cleared his throat. “Since someone in your organization violated our contract, we’d like our money back.”

“We can discuss this later. This is for the two of us to talk about alone, rather than in front of this woman.” I nodded to the nomad woman who was still sniffling. “Is there anything else I can do to help you, ma’am? Or are you and your group ready to retire for the night?”

She nodded and wiped her eyes one last time. “If you cannot guarantee our safety or give us space away from these poor marksmen, we’d prefer to break off on our own.”

I calmly took a deep breath before answering, trying to keep the anger I felt out of my voice. We spent valuable resources and lost people trying to save both of these groups and they were turning on us. “You can do that, if you like. You will have to leave everything we gave you behind, though. All of the weapons and gear we’ve recovered from the bandits, too. Everything you didn’t bring yourselves.”

“No.” She folded her arms across her chest, matching the laborer, and her face went from watery and sad to commanding in an instant. “We fought and died for those. We’re entitled to a one-third share of everything from the bandits.”

“Like hell you are!”  The laborer stepped forward again, dropping his arms and balling his fists. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have been attacked. You’d all be dead if it wasn’t for us!”

She sniffed derisively. “And that’s why we get a share. You defended us, but you wouldn’t have gotten anything without us.”

I stepped in between then, pushing the laborer back as his face turned red and he raised a fist. Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but the rest of me wanted to curl up and cry after eating as much as I could. I settled for remaining calm and neutral. “Stop it.” I turned to the woman. “Wayfinders have rights to all items looted as a result of action on their part. You’re using them because it’s worth our while to invest in you protecting yourselves. If you leave, you leave everything but what you brought. We’re guiding you for free and you are lucky we don’t just take everything you have of value in payment.

“And you!” I rounded on the laborer. The physical and emotional exhaustion I felt starting to wear away the calm facade I had been propping up. “Go back to your group and cool off. I’ll come find you after dinner and we can discuss the contract.  I can tell you now that it won’t change anything. You’re not getting your money back.The field decisions clause means any decision I make in the field will not violate the contract. The conditions outside of the enclave cannot be predicted beforehand.” I gestured for him to return to his group. “You should still have the paper copy you all signed. Read through while you wait. Let me know if you find any holes.”

I turned my back on the man, but shot a glance at Camille, who was watching from a dozen steps away. She nodded, letting me know he’d walked away. I turned my attention back to the nomad woman. “Is there anything else?”

She shook her head. “No. We’ll stick with your group, for now. I’m sure you can expect a poor net review when we get to an enclave.”

I laughed as she walked away, absurdity winning out. “The world doesn’t work like that anymore. The net may still exist, but Yelp sure as hell doesn’t.” I was still chuckling but getting close to tears when Camille walked up a minute later.

I nodded, surreptitiously wiping my eyes. “Thanks for keeping an eye on us. I didn’t think it would come to the point where you’d need to intervene, but everyone was a lot angrier than I expected.”

Camille shrugged. “It never hurts to be prepared.” Camille stood to attention and saluted. “I’m officially handing command back to you, sir. We’re back to people stuff and I’m ready for my first sleep in almost three days.”

“Thank you.” I saluted Camille. “Rest up. I have a feeling we’ll need to keep an eye on these two groups for a while yet.”

Camille grunted and walked off toward the Wayfinder campfire and her bedroll. “Yeah. Especially if we’re going to all be cooped up together for a week or more during that blizzard.” I sighed and followed her, trying to be more optimistic about the likely results of our next few weeks. All I could see in our future, though, was a bunch of fist-fights and more anger. Even though it would be ideal, there would be no way for us to have two separate shelters prepared and stocked in the few days we had left before the next blizzard.


Tabletop Highlight: Working with Your Players in D&D

I know I write about D&D a lot. I have a lot to say about it. Aside from general things like “video games” or “books,” I don’t think I’ve spent more of my leisure time on anything other than this campaign I’m running. I’m constantly running over details, thinking about what I think should come next, and trying to figure out what my players are going to want to see next. After the travesty that was the collapse of my first D&D campaign, way back in college (fun fact: it fell apart almost exactly 6 years ago), I take my players’ input, ideas, and desires much more seriously.

I did a good job, back then, of listening to what my players wanted and there were a lot more factors involved in the collapse of the campaign other than my DMing, but I know it certainly didn’t help things. Now, I listen, implement, and predict. I play mostly with people I know fairly well and I generally don’t get into “serious” story stuff until I know what everyone wants well enough to produce a story they want to star in. Before then, I keep it super generic, roll with whatever they respond well to, and do whatever I can to help them figure out where their characters are going.

My best example is a story I’ve referenced a few times now. How the Half-Elf (previously Halfling (previously Rilkan)) lost his body and why Raise Dead wouldn’t work on his Halfling corpse.

The campaign started simply. The players all made level 1 characters using my slightly-modified 3.5 rules and they were all acting as guards for a colony. Typical first-level stuff since this world sends colonies of mixed race out into the wilderness in order to expand the territory held by the federation and sent a large quantity of guards along because colonies had a bad habit of disappearing or falling to wilderness creatures. In exchange, the guards were given parcels of land, money to start a business in a new economy that was backed by the government, and any treasure they accumulated over the course of their duties.

They colony ran into the usual wilderness problems like kobolds, corpse-eating dogs, and zombies. It quickly became apparent that some force wanted the colony gone, so they players set out to discover what that force was. After a few horrible accidents that resulted in the death of a temporary character and the arrival of a permanent character for a new player, they settled in to figuring things out and protecting their colony.

I don’t know if you’ve ever played first level characters with new-ish players, but they often wind up changing their minds about the direction they want their characters to go in. Rather than scraping the character and making a new one, I usually let them make a few adjustments during the first half-dozen sessions. This time, the players got all the way through their first few levels before the Paladin and the Rogue told me they wanted to change-up their characters.

At this point, I had the basics of a story percolating and I instantly had an idea of how to work in their proposed changes AND give them a plot hook none of them would ever want to ignore. So the Rilkan’s subplot became a major plot and the necklace he inherited started becoming a bigger problem than he anticipated. Suffice it to say that, several failed Will Saves later, the demon inhabiting the necklace convinced him to free her of the last abjurations holding her in place and she then used her powers to displace his soul in his body.

After that, she trapped his soul, stunned the whole party (except the Paladin), and gave them to the rather old Black Dragon they were trying to trick. Bargains were struck, the Paladin learned that he couldn’t solo a Black Dragon, and the Black Dragon got to save on shackles because the Paladin had one fewer hands.

Eventually, they were rescued by the demon’s holy opposite. A “minor” deity saw their plight and a few other things that the players might not know about. Being concerned with Justice, he offered them assistance so long as they swore to do as he commanded–hunt down the escape demon and contain or destroy her. Needless to say, the party immediately agreed. Even the Rogue’s soul agreed. In exchange, they all got a measure of the deity’s power to bust them out of prison, the paladin got a divine-magic replacement arm that let him bypass some of the requires for a good prestige class, and the Rogue got stuck in the body of a recently-deceased Halfling that had similar, but slightly different training.

All-in-all, the party got exactly what they wanted, I got a plot hook to carry them along, and the Rogue’s player got to deal with the fact that a Raise Dead spell wouldn’t fix him because it’d call the body’s original soul back. Reincarnate was the only way to bring him back to life that time. Now, though, the new body is his and Raise Dead will work again. Only, it is a Half-Elf and they kinda suck in 3.5, unless you’re specifically picking it for character reasons.

I like to work with my players when I can. The rules are plain enough that adjusting or tweaking things is fine with me, so long as my players are doing it because it helps them create the story they want to tell. If all they want is bigger numbers well… Those are fun, but their place is in a different campaign. I am even adapting a fun prestige class for one of my players because it is super awesome for his character’s arc AND it plays into the story I’m telling so while I might as well have scripted it. A lot of the time, the players are your partners in telling the story, so hearing them out can’t go wrong. They’re just as invested as you are, especially if they’ve been your players for two years, now.

The Nose Knows

Martin “The Nose” Samson could feel something was wrong. He trusted that feeling with his life, because it hadn’t been wrong yet.
He was at home, alone, eating breakfast. A normal Sunday. Afterwards, he was going to do the dishes and read because he had nothing going on until that evening, when he would join his friends for their usual movie night.
After finishing his cereal, he walked around his apartment, looking for anything that would explain his foreboding. Gas wasn’t leaking, doors weren’t mysteriously open, nothing was out of place, and there was no around his house.
Mystified, he returned to his routine. He cleaned up, read, and was making lunch before he heard something that startled him. Something was scratching at his front door. Martin didn’t have any pets. He liked to be alone at home, which included avoiding animals. He preferred plants
Martin walked over to his front window and peered out at his porch. There was a woman standing in front of his door, picking at something. He watched her for a moment, but she kept scratching, occasionally stopping to flick bits of something into his front garden.
Unable to squash his curiosity, Martin went to the door and opened it. “What are you doing?”
After a moment of surprise, she shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, I sneezed when I came to your door and I’m trying to clean off the mess I made.” She held out a hand. “Anyway, I am here to let you know that I’m your new neighbor across the street.”
Martin shook her hand. “Nice to meet you.” As he let go of her hand, he realized it was the one she’d been using to pick at the door and the trepidatious feeling vanished.