Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Once a geek…

Lucas had been lobbying me for a while to teach him how to play pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons. He had played Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale on the computer, and seen some of my artifacts in the basement from the ancient days when we did such things by hand. Stuff I had not touched since the early 80's. I knew that the rules had gone through several editions since the old AD&D tomes I used to know by heart, and decided that I should investigate to see what the state of the art in fantasy geekdom was. I have to say that said state (I'm talking Version 3.5) struck me as quite a bit improved. I particularly liked the skill system and the way it makes all the basic character abilities have repercussions, even the ones that are not key to your class. For example, back when I played as a kid, if you were a fighter, you could care less what your intelligence and wisdom scores were. They were almost never relevant. Now if you have low wisdom you'll be bad at spotting bad guys or hearing them sneak up on you. If you have low intelligence you’ll be bad at finding what you’re searching for. And so on. I also liked the new melee rules, which incorporate miniatures to make battles a lot more tactically complex and interesting, and enable you to figure out with some consistency questions like "what happens if I stop to drink a potion while a hobgoblin is trying to skewer me on its halberd?" Reading of all these improvements, I started to get resentful that they hadn't existed back when my friends and I were playing. Why is there an inverse proportion between the quality of available pastimes and the amount of free time you have to enjoy them in?

You can probably guess where this is going. Someplace very scary. Because, you see, now I'm grownup and gainfully employed. Which means I actually have disposable income to spend on rulebooks, plastic miniatures, and battlemats. I'm now DMing my first campaign in over 20 years. (It stands for Dungeon Master, which I know sounds very S&M, but try to work with me here.) The players are Lucas, three of his friends, and two of his friends' fathers. I'm trying to make this a real role-playing campaign, one with an over-arching story line and characters that mean something beyond roll-miss-roll-hit-get-treasure. (I rationalize my efforts as providing a potentially useful educational experience, as the three of us adults interact with the kids in solving various tactical and moral dilemmas. Yeah. That's why I'm doing it.) So after they all rolled up characters I spent several weeks creating detailed backgrounds for them. I gave each of them a fancy printed copy of his deity's creed. I gave each of them an independent back story containing his unique motive for embarking on a quest, as well as important information that would be unavailable to the other characters unless voluntarily shared. I printed spellbooks in calligraphic fonts. Each person's backstory ended with his entrance into a particular tavern to meet with other potential travelling companions. And so on our first session I sat them all down at the table and let them negotiate what they wanted to do. It's been a very interesting dynamic. It seems that my telling them they had personal information not accessible to the others has made them regard that information as a resource to be jealously guarded. They're being very cagy with each other, even as they travel together and depend upon each other's abilities to survive. Which, I suppose, is just the psychological realism I was looking for. It will be interesting to see how long it takes them to learn to trust each other and work as a team. Right now there's almost no consensus building, no sharing of information that would benefit everyone. That will need to change if they're going to make it …

So since I'm putting a fair amount of time into this, I feel I may as well start documenting the storyline as it develops. Some day it will be a nice souvenir for Lucas. I'm not even going to attempt to produce anything of literary value--just tell the story so we'll have a record of what we spent all those Friday evenings doing. In fact, since some of the players might read this, I have to be careful not to say anything about the characters' backgrounds or motivations that hasn't been revealed during the game yet. If you have low tolerance for fantasy geekery, you'd best skip the rest of this post now. Otherwise, you can regard this as the pilot of a weekly series of low-rent serial adventure episodes.

Thus begins...the saga of the Ethrils.

Our story is set in the Forgotten Realms, a fantasy world about which you can find as much or more information on the web as you can about many real countries in this world. Of course, the more I flesh it out for purposes of my own campaign, the more it will diverge from its multifarious other incarnations. In planning my storyline, I drew from the huge array of published resources available, combined a couple of pre-written adventures, and added my own twists and details as needed. I can only plan the storyline up to a point however, because it largely depends on what the players do. Which of course is what makes it fun.

The region that concerns us for now is known as the Dalelands, and our tale begins in Dagger Falls, on a warm summer evening during the month of Kythorn in the Year of Wild Magic. Dagger Falls is a rough frontier town where people openly wear weapons in the street and one senses that social order might be rent by open warfare in the blink of an eye. Until recently it had been occupied by the Zhentarim and their Black Network, but for the moment the traditional ruler of Daggerdale, Randal Morn, has succeeded in retaking the town and is imposing a welcome but precarious benevolent order.

There is an inn in Dagger Falls known as the Red Rock. Contained in a stone and wood structure two stories tall, it has a down-to-earth atmosphere assiduously cultivated by its owner Kessla, a strikingly beautiful half-elf woman with long dark hair and a wry alertness in her eyes. Kessla runs a sort of informal referral service for adventurers. The way it works is that you go there and talk to her about the nature of your intended journey—as much as you are willing to divulge—and pay a small fee. Many people do this, so Kessla talks to a lot of people and has a lot of contacts. Dagger Falls is a well-travelled hub for people looking for opportunity, and Kessla is a well-known figure, a close friend of Randal Morn. If you are lucky, there’s a good chance that within a couple days she’ll send a note up to your room telling you to come into the tavern at such and such a time because there are some people she thinks you might want to meet. She makes no guarantee that these people will be suitable to your purposes, or you to theirs, but she’s known to have a good knack for putting people together who share enough common interests that they can work together fruitfully.

Over the course of the tenday before our story begins, a number of people had come into the Red Rock looking for companions to travel south from Dagger Falls, down to the vicinity where the Tethyamar trail meets the Northride. Six of them, to be precise. The first two came in together, a pair of elves, brothers from Tangled Trees in the forest of Cormanthor. Both were uncommonly strong and rather ungainly for elves, and had clearly spent more time alone in the woods than in polite company. The slightly older of the two, Yonnis Ethril, was a ranger from a guildhall in Cormanthor. He had green eyes and silver-white hair, and wore a small symbol around his neck—the green-fletched silver arrow associated with followers of Solonor Thelandira. His brother Lanatil shared the same eyes, but had black hair. Lanatil’s scruffy looks and hide armor pegged him instantly as a druid, and any remaining doubt was dispelled by the large hawk perched on his shoulder. The brothers told Kessla that they had business in the village of Oakhurst, located along the Northride a few days’ walk south of the Tethyamar intersection. They were both headstrong and stubborn, given to brotherly bickering.

Next to arrive was a fledgling monk from the Abbey of the Vigilant Eye, located somewhere within the dark wilderness of Cormanthor. He gave no name. He too was an elf, and he too had an exceptionally powerful frame. He bore his, though, with considerably more grace than the Ethril brothers, despite the fact that he was a good eight inches taller than they. Like most monks, he wore simple robes and had few possessions beyond his serious demeanor. He also told Kessla that he wished to find travelling companions with whom to go south down the Tethyamar trail in the direction of Oakhurst.

Fourth to arrive was a wizard who had made the long journey across Anauroch from Silverymoon in the company of a trading caravan. Yet another elf, short and definitely not strong of sinew, he gave his name as Elvis the Conjurer. He too sought comrades for a journey south. Before long a fifth elf came in, and this one was tallest of all. He stood an astonishing six feet and a half, and had a magnetic presence that compelled the attention of all who beheld him. His came was Cameron, and he was a young sorceror who, like the Ethrils, also hailed from Tangled Trees. Unlike the Ethrils, Cameron tended to listen to those around him and speak only when necessary.

The last of the six to speak to Kessla was far from being tall. He was a halfling, by the name Ogy Hairsplitter. The only native of Dagger Falls, as well as the only non-elf in the group, Ogy was a rogue whose family had played a role in the resistance against the Zhent occupation. Ogy was restless and unruly, seemingly unable to stay still for long. He knew Kessla, and when he told her that he wanted to go south she told him she had just the party for him, provided he wasn’t averse to being stepped on by elves.

The next night they all met in the tavern at Kessla’s invitation. All were wary of revealing anything specific about their aims, stating merely that they “had business” in the vicinity of Oakhurst. At one point during the conversation, Ogy made a reference to the plague of vampires that had afflicted Daggerdale in recent memory, and the nameless monk was interested in knowing when the last sighting had been. About ten years earlier, Ogy replied. They shared little other information, agreeing simply to meet the next morning to buy any needed supplies and set out down the Tethyamar trail.

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