Pathfinder: Kingmaker has the Makings of a Great Game

A long while ago, I pledged to an interesting looking Kickstarter that was described to me as “Pathfinder the computer game.” Now, as the usual Game Master for a few different groups, I don’t get much of a chance to play in any tabletop games, so I instantly pledged to support the project just so I could maybe enjoy a game where I got to be a player. Like most Kickstarters, I pretty much forgot about it until October, when it came out. Unlike most Kickstarters, I shoved the emails into my Kickstarter folder and promptly forgot about it again. To be fair, I was rather caught up in a lot of stuff at work in addition to preparing myself for National Novel Writing Month, so I didn’t really have the time to be playing anything as time-consuming as Pathfinder: Kingmaker. It likely would have stayed in that folder, forgotten until my physical rewards showed up at whatever point in the future (they had a much later delivery date than the digital rewards that included the download code for the game), except I found out my grandfather was dying rather more quickly than I expected and I couldn’t process it emotionally because I’d been kept awake until seven in the morning that day.

After spending a few hours trying to deal with my emotions, eat something, get enough caffeine to pretend I wasn’t basically dead inside from emotional and physical exhaustion, I tossed aside my writing and decided to just find some dumb game to play so I could forget about Chris Amann and all his problems for a while. Which is when I remembered getting the notification email that my download code and digital rewards were ready. It took a couple of hours to track everything down, create accounts I’d forgotten to create. download the game, and figure out how to make it run optimally on my computer, but I got sucked into it immediately. I got sucked into it so thoroughly that I accidentally stayed up until almost four in the morning on a work night, playing it. And then I accidentally stayed up until almost two in the morning the following night. Since then, I’ve only allowed myself to play it on days when I don’t have anything going on the next morning, since I severely doubt my ability to stop myself from getting sucked into this game. I still play it pretty frequently, though. At least once a week, since I still need the escape it provides me. I just make sure to avoid it when I’ve got something important to do the next day that requires me to have gotten enough sleep, like writing.

As far as being “Pathfinder the computer game” goes, I’d say that’s a fairly accurate summary. The developers made some concessions when it came to adapting the rules since Pathfinder is a bit more complicated than most computer game audiences are looking for, not to mention how difficult it would be to program different numbers for all of the easily combined or excluded skills. It makes sense to get rid of crafting and profession skills because few tabletop gamers actually use them. The benefits of trying to implement those systems in a way that fits with Pathfinder doesn’t seem worth the absolute headache (and probably one or more years of development time, since they’re super complicated) including them would cause in everyone working on the project. It also makes sense to reduce the available spells a bit since there are so many “incredibly useful” spells that are actually only useful in one specific scenario that almost never comes up and can be neatly avoided thanks to video game mechanics.

The only real “tabletop game to computer game” issue is how encounters work. In the tabletop version of Pathfinder, encounters are supposed to drain the resources of the party until they are forced to rest in order to restore said resources. This means that only the weakest encounters won’t be a drain on the party and mid-to-low level encounters will still drain the party if they encounter enough of them. Since the rules are drawn from the tabletop version of Pathfinder, this same effect still applies to encounters in the computer game. However, since time is more compressed when one players is making the decisions for every character, you can get through a larger number of encounters in a smaller amount of play time on the computer game. That wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that a lot of those encounters require expending resources and, since there are more encounters than you’d expect due to video game design logic (players need something to fight or interact with every so often or they get bored), you find yourself needing to rest more frequently than you’d like. Throw in the time management mechanic the game has–stuff like hunting up food for six people can take seventeen hours despite the skill in the tabletop game stipulating that foraging for food happens during travel time–and the fact that camping supplies weigh ten units per single-use (which is measured per-person), and you’ve in the awful position where you can’t bring supplies to cut down on time but can wind up spending over a day just finding food for everyone. I get that the game developers needed to separate the movement speed effects of hunting for food from the “find enough food” effects of hunting for food since it’s difficult to track modifiers like that ahead of time and the computer game actually measures minutes and hours while the tabletop game measures days, generally. Still, it’s frustrating.

That being said, those are my only gripes about the game. Sure, spellcasters feel super weak at low levels, but that’s true in the tabletop game as well. In every version of it. They always have and probably always will. Any problems with using casters in Pathfinder: Kingmaker are a result of the weird resting and camping gear weight issues, so I wouldn’t call that a gripe in its own right. It’s an auxiliary gripe. Given the monumental task the developers set out to accomplish, how well they’ve done overall, how active they are in their fan community, and how often they roll out patches to fix the issues players find, I’m more than will to overlook these issues. In fact, I’m willing to advocate that you buy this game if you want something immersive, entertaining, and downright absorbing. Still, you should only buy it if you actually want Pathfinder the Video Game. It feels so much like the tabletop game that I’ve mixed up the video game with the tabletop game I’m in on Monday nights. I’ve called each character by the other’s name and forgotten who had what magic items frequently enough that I’ve started making lists to keep near each character so I can remember who has what (one is a bard and the other is a sorcerer, so they have a lot of magic item overlap). It feels like a good problem to have.

The story is what really does it for me, though. You’re essentially a mercenary hired by a local noble to take out a bandit lord set up in a neighboring unclaimed land with the hopes of establishing you as the baron of said land once the bandit lord has been killed. There is a great deal of additional political maneuvering behind their move, but you’re never really sure which side is in the right. You could make a snap judgment that one side is good and the other is bad, but honestly it’s more of a “Chaos versus Law” thing than good versus evil. The side setting you up as baron is the Chaotic side and the side trying to recruit you to their cause is the Law and Order side. There’s far more to each side than that, but that’s really the distinction between the two. The chaotic people seem nicer than the law people, but that’s often how it seems to anyone who isn’t lawful. You get a lot of information and a good number of chances to pick a side or help one cause or the other. It’s a lot of fun working through the game with these larger concepts in mind.

The combat is a bit dense at times, but that’s because you’re trying to manage up to six people’s worth of combat abilities and resources. There’s a lot to keep track of and, as long as you think of it as a turn-by-turn combat, similar to how the tabletop game does it, you’ll figure it out just fine. Aside from that, it’s actually really fun to do. I love watching the characters charge across the screen, see them line up their shots, or watch spells go whizzing around the battlefield as they all engage in the chaotic dance of combat. It’s a very cinematic experience, actually. To the point where you need to be careful or else a character might get mismanaged as you try to just enjoy the special effects on your screen.

The skill usage is a little opaque at first, but you figure it out pretty quickly. Everyone makes checks, but the little information ticker only tells you when a passive check (perception, for instance) is successful. Which makes sense, since you shouldn’t know that your characters failed to stop a hidden treasure chest. Active checks are made by finding icons on the screen or as dialogue options when talking to people. The number you’re aiming for is given and the roll plus the math happens behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there’s no part of the game that explains what happens when you fail a skill check, so it can be a mystery as to why the trap went off this time and not the last few times you failed to dismantle it. Unless you’re familiar with Pathfinder and know that failing to meet the Dice Check number by a certain amount or more results in the trap going off, you’ll be unable to figure out what’s going on. That being said, I have players I’ve been DMing for years who still don’t know how this works, despite almost exclusively playing rogues, so that’s not necessarily a failing of the game. Just, you know, keep it mind.

Character management is a bit dense, but that’s mostly because you have to become an expert in six or more character classes so you can manage their upgrades properly. Because of the wide variety of upgrades available in the game, you spend a lot of time reading up on what things do and comparing it to what your stats are. As someone familiar with Pathfinder, I expect this sort of thing but I can see how it might be difficult for someone with less knowledge or willingness to read a few walls of text. I recommend doing all your research ahead of time and rely on forums to help you pick what you should do since people who love to build characters and figure out how to do weirdly specific things are also the kinds of people who like to talk about both those things on dedicated forums.

Honestly, this game feels like a good bridge between the hardcore audience and the more casual audience. There’s everything here the hardcore min-maxing power gamer needs to build his ultimate murder-hobo but there’s also plenty of options that give less invested players recommendations and easy options for powering up. There’s even an option that’ll do the powering up for you, so you don’t need to think about it and, based on my own research into the matter, it actually builds good characters. They’re pretty focused around their core mechanic and lack the sort of weird-but-fun powers you get from a fully customized character, but they’re still very good (as in, they’re both effective and fun to play).

If you want a game that’s got a lot of gameplay hours for you, that’ll suck you in with a myriad of tasks, fun combat, and a great story, look no further than Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I love the game and am constantly looking forward to playing it again. The wide array of characters you can add and the sheer variety of characters you can create means that even multiple play-throughs could be fun and new. I suggest putting this game on your Christmas wishlist. Or just your Steam wishlist, if you think it might be a bit late to add something new to your Christmas one. Either way, get the game. You’ll enjoy it.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 17

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


True to her word, Camille knew where the guns were. They were a few armories scattered throughout the entire base, one in each wing and two inside the main hall. Unfortunately, the ones in our wing was locked and none of our keys fit. Either Trevor hadn’t been given a key to the armories or Lucas had somehow gotten both. All that really mattered was that we were stuck, weaponless, trying to sneak through the wing and find our companions.

By the time we were eventually discovered, Camille had killed another five guards. In that time, we’d found two Wayfinders, all of the Nomad children, and the old Nomad matriarch. We’d sent them to the far end of the wing, that we cleared first, to wait for weapons and more people, so only Camille and I were getting shot at as we hid around a corner and evaluated our nonexistent options.

“All I’ve got is a few good ‘I surrender’ and ‘please don’t shoot me’ puns, but I don’t think they actually cause people pain, despite what Lucas is always saying.” I gently massaged my bruised temples and tried to ignore the burst of pain that accompanied the report of every gun.

“I’ve got a few throwing knives, but I wouldn’t chance them at this range.”

“Too far?”

“That, plus body armor and not being able to take my time while aiming. It’s easy to point and squeeze around a corner, not so much throw a knife.”

“Fair.”

“We could just wait until reinforcements show up now that whatever passes for an alarm in this concrete hole has to be going off. Then, when they come around the corner to kill us, we can try to disarm them and take their guns.”

“Or we could quietly leave and find a different way to the other cells?” I picked at a bit of dried blood just below my hairline and, after a moment’s examination, flicked the small brown flakes away. “Though, I don’t really like our chances if they realize we retreated down this long hallway full of nothing but cells.”

“Speaking of.” Camille poked her head around the corner quickly, flipped the bandits at the far end the bird, and then ducked back as the bullets started flying again. “Gotta make sure they know we’re still here.”

“I thought we wanted them to rush us or turn around the corner unaware.”

Camille nodded and flicked a bit of concrete into the open. “That would be good. Risky, but good. Instead of something with a high likelihood of getting us killed, I’m prefer it if Lucas noticed the gunfire from our wing and came to our rescue.”

“That’d be convenient, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Camille poked her head around the corner again, at a different height. “You assholes ready to give up, yet?”

“Come out with your hands up right now and we will not harm you as we return you to your cells.” The same voice that urged our surrender during every lull in the hail of bullets called out again. “We don’t want to keep wasting ammo and none of us are dumb enough to come around the corner to get you.”

Camille pulled her head back and arched an eyebrow as I gestured for her to swap spots with me. “How do we know you’re not just saying that so we let our guard down?” I gestured for Camille to head toward the stairs and winked. “I don’t think shooting at us over something as little as a jailbreak is very trustworthy.”

Camille silently got to her feet and moved past me, heading toward the stairs that led down to the first floor and the only other path out of the wing. I saw her roll her eyes as I continued over the occasional bullet. “I might be willing to give surrender a shot, but I’ll admit I’m worried about you doing the same thing.”

Camille stopped moving as the bullets stopped entirely. Once the commanding voice started speaking, she went right back to creeping down the hallway. “I’m sorry, but are you making puns right now?”

“Yeah. I’m gunning for ‘comedian of the year.’”

There were almost a full minute of silence that I filled with manic laughter, loud enough to continue covering Camille’s movement toward the stairs while still quiet enough to hear if the heavily armed bandits started moving. Finally, the commander spoke again. “You’re making puns. Right now. While we shoot at you.”

As if to prove the absurdity of the situation, someone fired off a few rounds that embedded themselves into the concrete wall opposite me, sending more dust and small composite chips flying through the air. After the echoes died down I watched Camille slip down the stairs as I continued my assault. “You can come get us, if you want, but I’m going to warn you that people who meet me for the first time usually find my behavior rather disarming. I’d really hate to jump the gun on moving to that stage of our relationship.”

In the silence that followed, I heard someone mutter. “Anyone got any grenades?” followed by “That’d destroy the whole hallway. Just give it another minute or two and this will all be over.” Without missing a beat, the first voice muttered “I don’t know if I can take this for another minute or two.”

“Don’t count your bullets before they’re fired!” I poked my head around the corner and threw a couple of the larger chunks of concrete at the bandits. “Also, gun to my head, I’m pretty sure I could take your entire group single-handedly.”

I ducked back as more bullets chipped away at the corner and tried to hold back the tension bubbling out of my throat as laughter. If we weren’t at risk of dying, I’d find the whole thing hilarious. It was so easy to goad them and all they did was waste bullets in response. Five minutes into the dumbest standoff in my entire life and I could barely keep it together because all they had to do is go wide around the corner and they’d have us. Keep a few people on the near wall, but further away, to rush us if they wanted us alive. If it was any of my Wayfinders on the other side of this engagement, it would have been over four and a half minutes ago.

I kept hurling puns and bits of concrete for another two minutes before Camille returned, toting two assault rifles, a few clips of ammo, and a fresh gash in her left arm. I quickly bound it while Camille loaded both guns and parsed the ammo. A minute after I fell silent, as the first brave soul started adventuring forward, Camille and I poked around the corner, guns blazing. Thirty seconds later, we were gathering up all the gear we could before retreating back to where we’d left our companions.

Twice more, we got into a stand-off. Twice more, they tried to outmaneuver us by sending a few people around behind us using the lower floor. Twice more, we killed them all while they dithered about what to do. This time, though, we had more Wayfinders and the old woman Nomad who turned out to be a better shot than me. By the time we’d cleared the wing, we’d gathered up a total of six more Wayfinders, two more Nomads, a dozen extra guns, ammo, and a key to the armory where we found all our insulating gear and some basic body armor.

When it finally came time to leave the wing, we were met with a steel door. No amount of pushing or shoving would budge it and hammering on it did nothing but make my head ring. One of the Nomads tried to shoot it, but only succeeded in nearly taking out one of the Wayfinders with a ricocheting bullet. After scolding them and taking away their gun, Camille went back to the armory for a few grenades. Blowing the wall up around the door worked better than I thought it would, but it left us with a giant hole down to the first floor.

I volunteered to be the first across, since we could only four people could provide covering fire if it was needed. After they’d all lined up against the walls and Camille gave me the nod, I leapt across the hole, rolled to my feet, and caught the gun one of the other Wayfinders tossed me. I cleared the hallway and gestured for the Wayfinders to follow. The Nomads were going to take refuge in the armory with their children and our gear, so we could focus on sweeping through the bandit stronghold.

Leaving the rest of the Wayfinders behind to protect our backs and hold the hallway connecting the wings and the main hall. Camille and I took off down the eastern wing. As soon as we unbolted the heavy steel door to get into the main part of the wing, we heard gunfire coming from around the corner and started running. We came upon the back of a nearly sealed checkpoint, a steel barricade propped in the hallway with only a few openings in it for the bandits to fire through. Fortunately for us, they were facing the other direction.

Without breaking stride, Camille started firing, mowing down bandits as she charged up to engage in hand-to-hand combat. I dropped to a knee and started putting rounds into the backs of bandits, working my way from the middle to the opposite side from Camille. After I ran out, I ran forward, ejecting the magazine from the rifle as I went. Camille had already disarmed a couple of the surviving bandits, but two still had guns and were about to start shooting again, their allies be damned, until I crashed into them. Using the rifle as a club, I knocked them both senseless quickly and then turned to help Camille with the last couple she was fighting.

While Camille finished off the bandits, I started dislodging the barricade while yelling “don’t shoot! Camille and I killed them all.”

“Took you guys long enough!” Lucas and a couple of the missing Wayfinders poked their heads around the corner. “I thought we were going to have to wait for them to run out of bullets!”

I finished pulling open the barricade and flinched as I finally got a look at what lay around beyond it. Lucas’ group had run into a trap. There were a handful of dead Nomads and two dead Wayfinders lying on the ground, just around the corner. Lucas was being supported by the two Wayfinders with him as he limped toward me with a hole in his thigh. “Sorry, Cap. We’d cleared out two groups already and didn’t think there’d be a barricade. Every other group just collapsed as soon as we rounded the corner. We’ve got a lot of injured.”

I nodded and carefully made my way to the corner. Sitting on the ground was the rest of the nomads and most of the missing Wayfinders. Most of the Wayfinders and Nomads had minor injuries and were getting to their feet, but a few had injuries as bad as Lucas’ leg and two Wayfinders were on the ground, unconscious. Natalie wasn’t anywhere amongst them and the quiet anxiety that had been gnawing at the pit of my stomach roared to life and started taking giant bites.

Before panic could set in, I busied myself with helping the less injured Wayfinders rig up stretchers for the unconscious Wayfinders. After that, we moved back to toward the hallways between the wings and started figuring out how to get everyone across the hole in the floor of the western wing.

By the time we’d gotten everyone collected together and the severely injured down to the first floor of the western wing and into the armory, the bandit base felt eerily quiet. There’d been no sign of movement or sound of any kind from the main hall while we went about fortifying the guards outside of the armory and no one approached us as we gathered outside the door we’d blasted off the wall.

“Natalie and Jonathan are the only Wayfinders unaccounted for.”

Camille nodded. “And we’ve checked every nook and cranny in both wings. There’s nowhere else they could be but the main hall.”

“You hear that, everyone?” I turned to the group of Wayfinders and Nomads, each grimly clutching a rifle and a few extra rounds of ammo. Only a few Wayfinders had grenades, since Camille had used most of what we had to blow up the door and Lucas’ group hadn’t found any. “Check your fire and make sure you’re not shooting one of our people. If anyone surrenders, collected them and bind their hands. We’ve got plenty of heavy-duty zip-ties thanks to all the guards.”

“Keep an eye out for officers and the Laborers.” Camille stepped forward and addressed the Nomads specifically. “Anyone who looks important or familiar. Our people will probably be with them. Try to remember that the Wayfinders will be slim but well-built and a bit older while all of the laborers will be young men with a decent amount of muscle. Shoot the laborers but not the Wayfinders. If you think you’re not going to be able to tell the difference, turn around and go back to the armory. We don’t have time for hesitation.”

After a few seconds, Camille nodded. “Alright, we’re going to go in as fast and as hard as we can. Don’t waste bullets, follow the Wayfinders in your group, and keep an eye out for our people. We need them to survive once we get out of here. Got that?” Every one of the Nomads nodded. “Good. On my signal.”

I turned to Camille. “I’m following you. Lead the way and I’ll sweep up whatever you don’t catch as you go.”

“Always batting cleanup.” Camille smirked and disengaged the safety on her rifle. “I can’t promise there’ll be anything for you to do.”

“As long as we get Natalie and Jonathan back, I don’t care.”

Camille nodded one last time, took a deep breath, and yanked the door open.

Hope for a Brighter Tomorrow is All the Light I Need

This week has been rough on me. Emotionally draining, full of waves, and I’ve been unable to find a way to work through what’s been going on inside my head. While things haven’t gotten bad enough to do anything self-destructive, I will admit to spending a significant amount of time fantasizing about running away. Stuff like smuggling myself to Europe and joining a monastery of monks who swear vows of silence, or making my way to the wilder parts of the US, somewhere with mountains, and living off the land is a shabby cabin until I’m ousted by the land’s original owners or I go completely feral. Pretty much anything that’d mean changing every aspect of my life.

These kind of fantasies have always been an outlet for me. Ever since I was a child and planned my first attempt to run away from home (I was going to live in the forest preserves near the business district of my home town, eating nothing but McDonald’s because it was cheap and no one would question why a child showed up there every day), I’ve used fantasies about literally escaping my current situation to help me cope with it. I’ve used stories to escape as well, but these mental exercises are always readily available and have the bonus of being entirely plausible. Well, mostly plausible. Smuggling myself to Europe would be a bit difficult, but living on my own wouldn’t be. I’d figure it out eventually, I’m sure, and I’ve got a car and all sorts of modern camping gear to help me get through the rough patches until I’ve gotten it down. And a Costco membership so I can spend a paycheck on buying all the cliff bars they have so I’ve got food until I figure out the whole hunter/gatherer thing.

Thoughts of literal escape always beat out thought of self-destructive behaviors, thankfully. A lot of my self-destructive thoughts are a product of my OCD, an unfortunate obsession that brings things to mind that I’d otherwise never consider longer than it took me to realize what I was thinking. Self-destructive options are so final. There’s no undoing them. If I decide to leave, I can always come back. Sure, I’d need to accept the consequences of coming back, which would be pretty severe if I left suddenly and without warning like I also imagine I would, but I would have the option.

I like these fantasies because they are about hope. They embody the hope that tomorrow could be a better day if I do the right thing. They’re somewhat extreme, compared to what I usually wind up doing or what would actually help in any given situation, but they’re fun to plan and they play into my desire for a simpler life. The hope they give me, while entirely impractical, is still usually enough to get me through whatever is going on. I know that things aren’t going to drastically change for the better or become simpler. I know running away from my life and its problems isn’t actually going to help me at all. I know that all I really need to do is just be patient and wait until enough time has passed for the waves of my depression to still. Yet the simple hope that they could be, strengthened by the imagined scenario in which they are, is enough to make it easier to bear.

Hope for a better tomorrow is important to me. In some shape or another, it has kept me going through the worst moments of my life. The simple mantra that “maybe things will be better tomorrow” is often the focus of meditations I use to calm myself down after a horrible day. It is also probably my most repeated thought. It can be exhausting and incredibly disappointing to be constantly looking for a better tomorrow that is often delayed by just-as-awful-if-not-worse days, but it is what I’ve hung onto for years.

There’s a saying often repeated on the internet that bravery or strength is the quiet voice that, at the end of the day, says “I’ll try again tomorrow.” A lot of the people I know who struggle with mental illness or other chronic illnesses have shared that one at some point or another. It does a good job of reaffirming people who don’t give up and continue to work toward their goals or toward having a better day. The problem is that it is most-often shared by people encountering temporary setbacks. As anyone with a chronic illness can tell you, “trying again tomorrow” gets old eventually. You don’t stop trying because you’re not ready to give up and all of what that entails, but seeing the desire to try again as “true strength” or “true bravery” starts to feel hollow when all you have is a lot of trying without a lot of success. The quo

I still prefer my version over that one because it suggests the little spark of hope that maybe I won’t have to try so hard tomorrow. Not because I’m lazy (though I am incredibly lazy if I can get away with it), but because I need to be able to think that I won’t have to struggle as much as I do. I have a lot going on most weeks, and the added complication of emotional turmoil in any of its forms can create a feedback loop that leaves me exhausted and wanting nothing more than to just cease existing for a few days so I can rest and recuperate before I have to exist again. Without the hope that, someday, I won’t have to struggle as much, I’d have a hard time justifying each day’s struggle. I don’t think I’d do anything self-destructive, I’d just be a lot mopier. A gigantic sack of sadness and sorrow.

The downside is that hope can set you up for some pretty nasty falls. If I’m struggling for a long time without things improving at all, I start to feel like all my hope was wasted energy that would have been better spent blanking my mind or losing myself in some other form of escape. I usually wind up crashing even lower. If it’s a bigger hope, like a change in my personal situation or visible progress on a tough issue in my life, losing it can create tidal waves.

In a way, that’s what I’m dealing with today. I had a very strong, very important hope that fell apart today. I crashed, a new wave showed up, and I’m feeling even more worn out and beaten down that I felt earlier this week, during the first tidal wave. It took a lot more than I expected to get from that point to where I am now, but thankfully my friends were up to the task of helping me. I’d have managed it on my own eventually, but they made it a lot easier. Despite this danger, and even today’s example hasn’t changed my mind, I prefer finding and holding on to hope over trying to slog on without it.

The crash sucks, but it is important to let myself feel beaten and down sometimes. To do otherwise is to deny the reality of my situation and such denials are far more dangerous than any hope-related crash I’ve ever experienced. Denial crashes are far worse. They’re earth shattering. Hope crashes are bad, but all you have to deal with is the impact. With a denial crash, you have to reconcile your view with how the world really is and that’s like crashing all over again.

I am willing to bet that it doesn’t work like this for everyone, but trying to get along without hope sets me up for denial. I need something to help me through the bad days, even if it is only because I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t have something inside myself to hold onto, and I’d rather it was hope than grim acceptance that almost always leads me to denial. A hope that comes to fruition is much more rewarding than being able to drop the “grim” part of grim acceptance.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 16

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I woke up in a dark room. I had a few confused moments of wondering who had let the lamps burn out before the throbbing of my head started up. As the steady beat of pain pounded against my temple, everything came back. I fought down a surge of panic and settled for quickly standing up. In my haste, I didn’t realize that my hands were still tied behind my back so I pitched forward onto my face.

I lay there for a few minutes, doing my best to let my pain fade a bit while I ignored the bubbling sound my nose made. I didn’t think it was broken, but the sharp pain of landing on it had cleared my head. After the pain of my nose and head faded enough to ignore, I took stock of my surroundings. The room was completely dark, but not entirely soundproof. Every so often, I could hear the shuffle of feet passing by two of the walls. The fact that I could hear it and the rough, cool feeling of stone against my knees told me they’d taken my watch and my insulated gear.

My feet were free, so I rolled onto my back, tucked my legs to my chest, and slipped my hands around to my front. The zipties had been replaced by nylon rope, but it was tied too tight for me to shift my hands at all, so it was still awkward to push myself to my feet. I cautiously stood all the way up and, after encountering no ceiling, I lifted my hands above my head. I couldn’t reach whatever ceiling there was, even standing on my toes, so I shifted my attention to the walls. Careful shuffling footsteps brought me to the wall. I put my hands on the wall and used my feet to measure my room.

I was in a rather large room, some twenty by thirty feet, but there didn’t seem to be anything else in here with me. At least nothing against the walls. As I made my way back to the corner, I stopped every few steps to listen for the shuffling sounds from earlier. Once I’d located them, I stood in the corner and listened to them walk around me. After a few hundred heartbeats, I sat down. There was no way out. I couldn’t see any glimmers of light and I hadn’t felt any seems in the wall as I went, so I was either in a pit or they’d somehow managed to conceal the door from me.

“Hello?” my voice croaked into the empty room, but nothing happened. No one answered and the steps outside didn’t change.

Just as I was settling down to try to sleep off the throbbing pain that covered my head, I heard a few rapid, light steps beside the wall. A moment later, part of the wall near me silently swung open. I was behind the door, so I was saved the worst of it, but I still couldn’t see anything for a few seconds. Just as my eyes started to adjust, the door started to close.

“Hey!” I started coughing as my voice caught. I needed a drink badly, but my attempt had attracted the attention of whoever had opened the door. A tall figure stepped into the room, pulled out a battery lantern, turned it on, and shut the door. I blinked in the harsh fluorescent light, trying to see who it was.

“Here.” I recognized Camille’s voice as the figure held out a water bottle. I took it gratefully, but couldn’t get it open with my hands tied like they were. Camille twisted the cap off, and I downed the water quickly.

“You’re the best.” I dropped the flimsy plastic bottle and leaned back. “Anything you can do about these?” I held up my hands.

“Sure.” Camille reached into her pocket and pulled out a switchblade. “I’m surprised you weren’t able to conceal anything when they stripped you. This is the shoddiest operation I’ve ever seen.” Camille popped the blade out and started cutting through the nylon strands, careful not to hurt my hands. “They didn’t even strip us naked. Half the bandits seemed like they were afraid to touch a woman, so I was able to hide all of my knives easily.”

“Excuse me for my failures.” I watched as Camille slipped the knife between my wrists and cut the last strands without so much as marking me. “I fell unconscious before we were unloaded and I just woke up about half an hour ago.”

“Shit, Marshal, you’re going soft.” She smiled as she pulled me to my feet. “And that mouth on you! No wonder they punched you in the head.”

I shot her a smile that became a grimace when it cause a flare of pain. “Tell me they didn’t ruin my good looks, at least.”

Camille made a show of looking me over in the lantern light before shaking her head. “Nope. Can’t ruin what you didn’t have.” She winked and resisted the urge to smile again.

“Anyway, Mar. You’ve been out for about six hours, then, since that’s how long we’ve been here.” She held up a hand. “I can answer any questions you’ve got, but not right now. Trevor will be here in a couple of minutes and he’s our ticket out of here.”

“Trevor?” I stood to the side as Camille switched places with me.

“Yeah. He’s the leader of the little squad the bandits made from the laborers, so he’s got a few keys, including the one to this room. I heard he was planning to stop by after dinner, so I stole a key and made my way over here as fast as I could.” Camille grabbed a few of the longer strands of nylon and started arranging them on my newly freed wrists.

“Then I’m going to pretend I’m still tied up so he can come inside to beat on me, at which point you’ll jump him and take his keys?”

“More or less.”

“Neat.”

Camille rolled her eyes and picked up the lantern. “Just do what I tell you and we’ll all get out of here alive.”

“Always.” I took a deep breath and went back to my spot on the floor. The entire room was just as empty as I thought and the only signs of the door was that it was a slightly different color. There was no handle, no visible hinges, not even the tiniest gap. Whoever had made the door had been a master. After another moment’s thought, I turned to Camille. “There’s no way to open this door from the inside.”

“Yeah. All the cells or storage rooms are like that.” Camille hunkered down and switched off the lamp.

“What do we do if he doesn’t show up?”

“Wait for someone else to. I should have a few hours before they notice I’m missing.”

I was silent for a few moments, listening for the sounds of people walking around the room. “Thanks, Camille.”

“You’re welcome, Mar.”

I closed my eyes, trying to focus on listening. I lost track of my heartbeats, but eventually a louder set of footsteps appeared and stopped near where the door should be. A moment later, the door opened and I was almost blinded through my eyelids. I opened my eyes the tiniest amount, trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

“Hello, Captain Marshall.” Trevor’s voice made it all too easier to see the sneer on his face. “I guess we get to have our time together today, after all.”

I blinked a bit, trying to pretend I couldn’t see. “Fuck off, asshole.” I took a look out the door and saw two more laborers standing just outside, watching Trevor as he stood a few feet away from me. I glanced over at Camille and cleared my throat twice before turning my attention back to Trevor. “I’m not into guys so either beat me up or leave me alone. Whatever you do, just cut it out with this obnoxious flirting.”

When Trevor growled and stepped forward, Camille silently rose to her feet and pointed from me to Trevor. “I got it.” Camille nodded. “You’re intimidating. Just do whatever you came here to do and get out. I’ve got better things to do that talk to you.”

“Like think about your girlfriend?” I stopped shuffling around and looked him in the eye. He smiled like he’d just won the lottery. “Don’t you worry about her, Captain Shithead. I’ll make sure she sees what horrible shape you’re in after I’m-”

I leapt to my feet from my position on the floor, closed the gap with Trevor, and punched him in the stomach with everything I had. As he doubled over and I grabbed the back of his head to bash his face into my knee, I saw Camille slip around the door. I heard a satisfying krack as I broke his nose and he fell bonelessly to the floor. Trevor groaned and squirmed, trying to clutch his face without actually touching it. I watched him for a moment before kicking him in the nuts for good measure.

By the time I turned my attention back to Camille and the two laborers outside, Camille was already wiping her knives on their jackets. “Grab that one.” She pointed to the one a couple of steps outside the door and then hauled the other dead laborer inside. I leaned out the door and admired the concrete structure around us for a moment before grabbing the other laborer and dragging him inside. Thankfully, neither had bled much, so the floor were still mostly clean. I grabbed the shirt off my laborer and wiped up the floor as best as I could, and then ducked back inside the room.

“Now what?” I dumped my dead laborer next to the other one.

“I take his keys, stab him in the kidney, and we leave.” I watched as Camille did just that and then grabbed the lantern from where she left it. Trevor twitched a little bit, but he’d stopped by the time Camille closed the door behind us. I absently touched my nose, checking to see if it was broken, as I followed Camille down the hallway.

Camille was in her element. She moved almost silently and took out four bandits as we walked down the hallways, killing them so quickly they didn’t have time to do more than register our presence before they died. I did my best to keep up with her between scuffles and stayed out of her way during them. My head was still pounding and I thought longingly about ibuprofen. There had been some in the medical supplies we’d recovered before the blizzard settled in, but Camille and I had higher priorities.

I followed her back to where her cell had been located, and she started going from door to door, checking for more Wayfinders. All of the rooms right around hers were empty, but one at the end of the hall contained Lucas. The bruise on his face had grown darker, but he seemed in better shape than I was. His zip-ties had been replaced with a set of loose manacles on his wrists and ankles. Enough to discourage him from attempting an escape, but not so much that it would restrict him from working.

He grinned up at us as Camille tested keys on his manacles. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. Except you, Marsh. From the sight of you, it looks like you’ve got sore eyes.” He chuckled as Camille found the right key and yanked him to his feet.

I rolled my eyes at Lucas as he started rubbing his wrists. “You’re one to talk. Your face is worse than anything I’ve gotten today, and you’re stuck with it constantly.” I smirked, careful not to move the side of my face that was still throbbing. I glanced around Lucas’ cell while Camille loosely wrapped the manacles around her left arm. It was a small room, about ten feet long and six feet wide with a small pallet that Lucas had been sitting on, a bucket, and a couple rings bolted to the concrete walls.

“How’d you get out, Camille?” Lucas stretched and started cracking his knuckles. “I didn’t manage to conceal anything on me and the bastards didn’t come close enough for me to take them out.”

“I stole my guard’s keys while he was busy watching me strip to be searched.” Camille shrugged. “I just wrapped the keys and my knives in my shirt, stood around in my underwear for a couple of minutes, and got dressed again. Like I told Mar, these young guys seem pretty timid when it comes to anything but pointing guns at people.”

“At least we have that going for us.” I shook my head slowly. “We need to cover more ground. Can we afford to split up?”

“Negative, Captain.” Lucas shook his head. “They have us spread out. We’re going to need to check every door and, if we start killing people now, we’re going to get found out before we’re ready. Better to stick together, hide, and find everyone first.”

I sighed and Camille chuckled. “It’s a bit too late for that, Lukey-boy.” Camille poked Lucas in the ribs and cracked her knuckles. “So far I’ve killed seven people today and four of them are just sitting in hallways.”

“Alright. Speed and murder it is.” Lucas held out a hand. “Give me half the keys and I’ll go check the eastern wing. You guys can handle the western one.”

“Just how big is this place?” I looked from Lucas to Camille. “Did someone give you guys a map? How do you know it so well?”

“Millie struck gold during processing. She asked to see plans for the base, to offer some advice on fortifying it.” Lucas wrapped the keys Camille gave him in the blanket from his pallet and tucked them into his pants. “As a result, we’re going to have to face some meaty checkpoints, but we all got a good look at the blueprints of what this place is supposed to be. It’ll put some of our fortified depots to shame if there’s enough of them alive to finish it when we’re done here. See you guys at the main entrance in thirty.”

Lucas started down the hallway, soundlessly making his way down the hallway. I watched him go for a moment before turning my attention back to Camille who was trying to get the manacles to sit comfortably on her arm. “Did you happen to know where they stuck our things?” She shook her head. “How about where to get some guns?”

Finally satisfied, she started down the hallway after Lucas. “Come on, Mar. Who do you take me for? Of course I know where the guns are!”

Tabletop Highlight: To Run or To Play, And Why

I love both playing tabletop RPGs and running them. When I run, I get to tell a story in a different format, hand-in-hand with a group of people who are just as excited about the story as I am. When I play, I get to participate in a story with a bunch of other people who care about what we’re doing and escape from my life for a while. Running a good game leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction and calm exhaustion that make me want to rest up so I can prepare to do it again the following week.  Playing a good game is exhilarating, whether I succeed or fail, because I got to do things I normally wouldn’t and think about things in new ways until I eventually return to myself, ready to coast through the rest of the day on the relaxed feeling I get from not being me for a while.

When you run a game, there are a million little things you’re doing to make it work out. Keeping track of the larger plot arcs as time passes, maintaining a world for the players, playing the part of any number of NPCs the players encounter, designing challenges for your players so they don’t get complacent or bored, telling a story so everyone can participate, and so much more. For every hour of game I run, I do a minimum of one and a half that many hours. Generally, it winds up somewhere in the two-to-four range. For instance, this week’s sessions was mostly travel, a chance to resupply, and a couple random encounters that wound up giving me an idea for an interrupt to the main goal the players are pursuing that also lets me bring in the requirements for a player’s prestige class. In order to get all that ready, I spent all of Sunday afternoon preparing a single item of legacy, adjusting the encounters to fit a party with tons of martial damage but almost no magical support, and digitizing some notes for the players to reference about their character. Throw in the time over the week leading up to that when I fleshed out the interrupt quest(s) and a couple of hours Friday night writing out my notes so I could see how they fit into the campaign plan. All of that adds up to about ten hours of work for four hours of play.

However, I now feel an immense sense of satisfaction that the players are moving along on their quest, that they feel like I’ve reminded them of the dangers of complacency and that they know there’s not just a goal, but actually feel tension because outside forces are quite capably working against them. It felt good to see my plans play out as I intended, to see my player get excited when I let him know we’d be able to get his prestige class stuff worked in soon, and how they all had to play their characters out in a situation that challenged their characters’ normal modes of addressing problems. I wanted to shake them out of their grooves without shaking up the story and I managed to pull it off, so now I’m excited to see what happens as a result of this.

As a player, I can ignore everything but the needs of the body as I place myself in the situation of my character. All of my knowledge except what my character knows and what might be applicable to the situation fades away. Sometimes the buzzing of my phone or my inability to remember the exact terms of an ability require me to break my focus, but those are quickly set aside so I can return to the game. Decisions are make, abilities are used, skill checks are made, and the story unfolds as I walk through halls and dungeons that exist in the murky, semi-transparent realm of my imagination. As a story-teller myself, my mind fills in all the little details as my character moves through their environment and I do my best to play by the rules of the game without breaking the illusory world I’ve created in my head.

Some GMs are better than others at letting this play out and some characters are better for it than others. If my character’s focus is on their own well-being, it is easy. If I need to focus on other characters because I need to protect them, it is more difficult. I don’t like filling in the gaps on other people’s characters and few people describe their character in great enough detail to create an image. A bunch of the people who don’t describe their will, instead, wind up drawing them, and that is better in some respects, but so solid an image can make it stand out from the murkier world I’m creating. Any character who takes the fore or who moves on their own is my preference. Sometimes, though, a character is so different it is hard to really get into their mind, so all of my effort gets focused on playing them correctly (or what I think of as correctly) that I don’t get quite as invested into the game as I would like.

Personally, I’d prefer to have both playing and running happen in the same week so I can get both the escape and the satisfaction, but I only have one group I play in with any regularity, and that game is a bit harder to get invested in for a few reasons that mostly revolve around totally valid stylistic choices by the DM and the fact that I don’t know any of the other players or the DM very well. I know one of them a bit better, and she’s the person who invited me, but everyone else is still basically a stranger. Running happens most weeks, but not every week because of the time and energy commitment involved. If I’m feeling worn out because of work or my mental health, I’m not really in a place where I can run a game and I’ve learned better than to try anyway.

In an ideal world, I’d have one night of fully-immersed play and one night of extremely satisfying running. In this world, I can generally manage one night of play and one or two nights of running, so that’s still pretty great, if more exhausting that I anticipated before agreeing to everything. Still, the benefits are worth the costs.

Keeping Up

I live in a hole that fills with water
And all I have are my two cupped hands.
I can keep up if I constantly bail,
But a single falter is all it takes
To watch the waters slowly start to rise.
I have no time left for thoughts of escape.
I’m not even sure that I would want to.