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The Council of Arches

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Everything was laid out and ready, sharp pencils, character sheets, drinks and snacks at the center of the table -- but no, it wasn’t like it had been on Earth, because we were using a deck of cards in lieu of dice, with a suit given to each player, and instead of a stack of rulebooks, we had the simple rules I’d written myself, meant to streamline the tabletop gaming experience into something that four novices and one seasoned DM could be reasonably expected to not have a clusterfuck of a time with. The snacks and drinks were far different too, a barely alcoholic, herbaceous wine that reminded me of kombucha, made by Solace and definitely an acquired taste, with dried jerky, bread, and a large ball of soft cheese on a platter, in place of chips.

I explained the system to them; they had four attributes, Physique, Endurance, Wits, and Charm, and whenever they had to do something, they would flip up a card from their own, personal deck, add the value of the card to the attribute in question, and then see whether they succeeded or failed. There were nothing like classes, feats, or skills, and you could have fit the whole system of rules on a single page of paper with room to spare, which I had. I thought that we could probably get through a small adventure, something like the fifth edition Kobolds of Kher Keep, in about two hours.

“Okay, so step one, everyone choose a deck, they each have fifteen cards, the suits are more for flavor, if you want it, than anything else,” I said.

Grak reached across and took bones, while Fenn and Amaryllis both reached for flowers at the same time. They stopped, each touching it.

“Are you serious?” asked Amaryllis.

“I say we flip for it,” said Fenn.

“I’m not an idiot,” said Amaryllis. “I’m not going to play a game of chance with an elf.”

“Only a half-elf,” said Fenn with a smile.

“Just play a psychological game,” I said. “Do you have rock-paper-scissors on Aerb?” I got a bunch of quizzical looks. “Just do this, this, or this on the count of three,” I said, quickly making the gestures. “Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, and scissors beats paper.”

“Why does paper beat rock?” asked Grak.

“It’s -- short answer, it’s a cultural thing, that’s all you need to know,” I said.

“She’d still have an innate advantage,” said Amaryllis with a frown. Neither of them had taken their fingers off the deck.

“Not more than thirty seconds or so into the future for someone like her, right?” I asked. “We’ll just have Fenn make her throw beneath the table, then Amaryllis can make hers thirty seconds after that, I’ll be the arbiter.”

“On reflection,” said Solace. “I think that I would like flowers for my deck as well.”

“I’m ready to make my character,” said Grak, who had been looking at my single sheet of rules.

“Well, wait,” said Fenn. “If I don’t get flowers then I want bones.”

“No, Grak already picked that,” I said. “And he wasn’t holding up the game on something incredibly unimportant. We’ll just do odd one out, all three of you throw either a one or a two,” I demonstrated, “The odd one out gets first pick, then the two who remain do rock-paper-scissors, and that should settle everything. Fenn, you throw first, thirty-second rule.”

“I think I’ll take cups,” said Amaryllis. She took her hand off the deck of flowers and deftly picked up the deck of cups.

“That’s … okay,” I said. “Whatever.”

“Wait, she gets her second choice without having to play for it?” asked Fenn. “I don’t want to get stuck with tines.”

“Are you doing this on purpose?” I asked.

“You said that this was how it goes with a gaming group,” said Fenn with a smile. “I just wanted the experience to be authentic. Should I have waited to get distracted on side topics until we’re roleplaying?”

“I fear for my sanity,” I said.

Even after Solace and Fenn played a game of rock-paper-scissors (which Fenn lost), it wasn’t the end of the cards, because Fenn wanted to trade away her two unsuited cards, the virgin and the brute (the so-called ‘arches’, which I’d named the system after), and she eventually managed to give over her brute card for Grak’s whore card, at the cost of her share of the money they’d made from selling off the unicorn meat. This was either an outrageously good or bad deal, depending on whether you placed any value on money -- we had enough I wasn’t too worried.

“Okay,” I said after that was all finally squared away. “So the world that we’ll be playing in is called Alphalon, and the four of you will be starting in the town of Gramp’s Hollow. The tax collector is coming in five days time, but the taxes for the village have been stolen out from under the mayor’s nose by a band of scurrilies, small, furry, treacherous creatures cursed by their god with profound greed. The scurrilies have taken their prize to the run-down Crumplebottom Manor a mile outside of town, and the mayor is desperate to have it back before the taxman comes.” I put on my best DM voice for this, and watched them carefully as I gave the intro. “So now you need to decide who you want to be. This world only has humans --”

“Boo,” said Fenn. “That’s not fair.”

“That’s exactly fair,” said Amaryllis. “How could it be unfair that we all have the same race?”

“This system, as designed, doesn’t really have the complexity necessary to handle different races,” I said. “I mean, if you were another race, then it would only be for the purposes of flavor, I’m trying to keep everything compact and streamlined.”

“So we can have our choice of race and it doesn’t matter?” asked Grak.

“You know what, sure,” I said. “Be whatever you want to be.”

“I think I’ll be a scurrily,” said Solace.

“Be whatever you want besides that,” I said.

“Are they sapient?” asked Amaryllis. “They must be, if they can steal from the mayor.”

“Hey, why would their own god curse them?” asked Fenn.

“They are sentient, yes, but within your culture it’s permissible to engage in violence against them given the consent of the mayor,” I said, trying to anticipate her objection. “Fenn, their god cursed them because they rebelled against him.”

“Does every race have a god like that?” asked Amaryllis.

“Uh, yes,” I said, briefly looking down at my sparse notes. “They’re mostly absent though, high on Oros Olympos at the center of the world. But that’s not really important, you just need to make your characters now. I’d suggest picking something compelling to you, but you have to have a reason that you want to answer the mayor’s call for adventurers, and no one should hate anyone else, because you have to work as a team.”

“You can work as a team even when you dislike each other,” said Grak.

“Is he talking about me?” asked Fenn. She shuffled her thin deck of fifteen cards. “I feel like he’s talking about me.”

“It was hypothetical,” said Grak.

“Can I be an itinerant scholar?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yes, sure,” I said, thankful that someone was taking the lead. “You came to Gramp’s Hollow looking for books, and you know that there are bound to be some in the basement of Crumplebottom Manor, which is where the scurrilies happen to be. All the best books are made from whitewood, which doesn’t rot or burn once it’s been inked, so you’re hopeful that you can find something to salvage. Does that work for you?” Amaryllis nodded.

“Did you just make all that up?” asked Fenn with a frown.

“Well, you can believe what you want to believe,” I said. “Personally, I think the game plays better if you believe that the DM has it all in his head and isn’t just making it up as he goes along. But no, I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and most of that was prepared ahead of time.” The stuff about the whitewood wasn’t, but she didn’t need to know that.

“I will be a stout young woman,” said Grak. “A fighter wearing plate mail handed down from her father. She is eager to reclaim her family’s honor, which her father tarnished. Bachewin, of the Court of Wolves.”

“That … is surprisingly good,” I said.

“Okay,” said Fenn, “I’ve got one, I’m going to be a slink-thief who has regrettably been forced, by circumstance, to find legitimate work. Oh, and I’m Mary’s identical twin sister.”

“You absolutely are not,” said Amaryllis with a scowl.

“I actually think that could work well,” I said. “One of the things that you want when you’re building a team is a connection to other characters. You don’t have to like each other.”

“We don’t,” said Amaryllis. “Why would we even be traveling together, given our professions?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “You have to figure that out, maybe she helps you steal books that you need for your collection?”

“Oh, oh!” said Fenn. “I know, she keeps getting into trouble, because people mistake her for me all the time, and so now we stay side-by-side so that she can keep a leash on me.”

“An actual leash?” asked Amaryllis, with a faint, devious smile.

“Um,” said Fenn, suddenly unsure.

“Fenn, if it’s alright with you, you’ll have a magical compulsion to be with your sister,” I said. “It’s something that you voluntarily committed to but also chafe under. You’ve stolen from one too many people, some of them important, and this is the price of your sister’s help.”

“But I can still steal things?” asked Fenn.

“Of course,” I replied. “But remember there might be consequences, and you’ll be flipping cards to see whether you succeed or fail.”

“I still think I’d like to be a scurrily,” said Solace.

I turned to her and opened my mouth to say no again, but I’d always thought that one of the keys to being a good DM was knowing when to say yes. “Okay,” I said. “You can be scurrily. The game rules aren’t really set up to handle that at the moment, and that race is under the curse of greed, so … what are you greedy for? What makes you different?”

“My greed is for myself,” said Solace, after a moment of reflection. “To be free from everything, including from that greed.”

“Huh,” I said. “And is there a reason that you’d want to be adventuring to, presumably, kill the scurrilies?” I asked.

“Is there something that makes diplomacy impossible?” asked Amaryllis.

“The mental compulsion,” I said. “They would rather fight and die than give up what they’ve stolen.”

“Even though we’re going to murder them all and take their stuff?” asked Fenn with a frown. “Because if someone was going to murder me and take all my stuff, I would say, ‘Hey guy, how about you take all my stuff and don’t murder me, or take only most of my stuff in exchange for you not having to risk a knife in the guts, and then you can come by again later and hit me up when I have more stuff maybe’.”

“Like a tax,” said Amaryllis.

“Did I just invent taxes?” asked Fenn with alarm in her voice.

“It’s a curse for a reason,” I said. “Within a handful of generations, the scurrily will probably be dead.”

“But why would their god do that to them?” asked Solace with a frown.

“That’s an excellent question,” I replied. “One that you don’t know the answer to.”

“Are we ready to start playing?” asked Grak.

“Not yet,” I replied. “First we’re going to need names for everyone that doesn’t already have a name, then we’re going to need to roll -- flip, I guess -- for stats, and then we have some scene-setting to do, which is what I would argue is usually meant by ‘playing’.”

“I already filled out my character’s sheet,” said Grak, holding up his piece of paper. I could see that he’d filled in all the boxes with numbers (boxes that I had hand-drawn). Dammit, I left him unengaged for too long and he did it all on his own. I had seen him flipping cards, and he’d had the rules in front of him, but I hadn’t realized that he was rushing ahead.

“Er, good,” I said. “Everyone else, flip up two cards a total of five times, keeping them in their groups, then take the highest card from two groups, and the lowest card from two of the other groups --” Fenn was staring at me with narrowed eyes. “Yes?”

“Are you trying to make this confusing?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “I’m trying to get a distribution of stats that will work well for the game, but it’s hard to do it with cards. Based on the way I set the rules up, with the halving of card values, your attribute bonus to actions should be between plus zero and plus seven, and since there’s no replacement the numbers should be as if you specialized. I can help, if you want to flip up the cards.”

My system wasn’t elegant, but we only had to do it once, and really, fumbling through poorly written, inelegant rules was part of the tabletop experience. Halfway through, Grak suggested that a better rule might be to have four static numbers that everyone used instead of flipping up cards, which everyone but me agreed would be better. I vetoed the idea, but was mildly impressed that he’d hit on using a stat array though.

“Wait,” I said, looking at Fenn’s cards, “The four cards you ended up with were the Virgin, the King, the Jack, and the nine?” I asked. “That would give you a seven, a six, a five, and a four. That’s the best you could possibly have gotten and way too unlikely.”

“It’s not that unlikely,” said Fenn. “Not that I think you would implicate my luck, but --”

“Less than one in a hundred thousand, I think,” said Amaryllis with a frown.

“Okay, since you’re identical twins, Fenn, you and Amaryllis will have the same pool, but you can put your abilities into different things,” I said it quickly, not giving Fenn a chance to object. “You have four cards, just take half their number value and assign those four numbers however you want. Remember that ace is one, off-arche is zero, and on-arche is fourteen.” There were eight of the arches, two in each deck, one good and one bad, which I was effectively using as a red and black joker, special cards with special rules. “Oh, and round down. Minimum of 0.”

“I’ve put a 6 in Physique, a 5 in Endurance, a 2 in Wits, and a 3 in Charm,” said Grak.

“Bachewin is more charming than witty?” I asked. “I sort of thought she’d be … gruff.”

Grak nodded. “It is not a subtle charm.”

“Sorry, what’s the difference between Physique and Endurance again?” asked Amaryllis. “Can I see the rules?” Grak slid her the sheet that I’d written all the rules onto. As rules systems went, it was quite brief. It also hadn’t been playtested at all.

“Physique is your ability to move quickly and exert quick power, Endurance is more about, ah, stamina, how hard of a hit you can take, holding your breath, things like that,” I said. “It’s a bit fuzzy, and we’ll take it on a case by case basis, but the general dynamic is that you use Physique for quick things and Endurance for slow things, and you use Physique for physical attacks and Endurance for physical defense, with exceptions to both. Got it?”

“It says here that I should ask you about magic,” said Amaryllis, looking down at the paper, then up at me. “I’d think that as a scholar that would suit me.”

“Eh, I wasn’t sure that I wanted something that complex for our first game,” I said. “But sure, if you want to be a wizard, there are basically two types of magic in this world, one that centers around Wits, and another that centers around Charm. You need a 5 in the respective stat, and you’ll take a malus of one on Physique if you pick either. Salvers are Charm-centric. They have little trees growing from their heads that only they can see, and little fairies inhabit these trees, which the salver is under some obligation to entertain in some esoteric way, called a Compulsion. In exchange, the fairies will do your bidding, so when you attack, you’ll flip up a card and add Charm rather than Physique, like, for example, if you were firing a bow. Your defense will still be Endurance based, so either make that a priority, or stay away from combat. And the fairies aren’t bound by the rules of reality, they can do some fantastical things that you simply couldn’t on your own, like healing. The flip side of that is that they can be a liability, or they can fail you. You should think of it like having a partner who isn’t really all-in on the relationship.”

“And the other magic?” asked Amaryllis.

I had really been hoping that she would bite on salvers, because they seemed like a perfect fit for a wandering scholar to me. “The enates are focused around Wits, and their deal is basically that they can gain abilities from out of the ether. How it works is that if you have some time, you can crystallize out a broad skill, like swordfighting or lockpicking, and when you do, you take a card from your deck and set it aside, face-up. Then when you use that skill, you use the card that you set aside instead of flipping like normal, so it’s a lot more stable, at the cost of having that card removed from your deck. You also add half your Wits, rounded up, instead of whatever else you would normally use for that skill.”

Amaryllis frowned at that. “Are there limits?” she asked.

“She wants to break your game,” said Grak.

“There are limits,” I said. “The first is that you do it all at the start of your day, so you have to plan ahead. The second is that you can only set aside a number of cards up to your bonus in Wits. The third is that once a card is set aside, you can’t cancel it until the next day.”

“You can’t set aside half the deck to leave yourself with only the good cards,” said Grak with a nod.

“You could, technically, you’d just have to get really lucky,” said Amaryllis, with a glance toward Fenn.

“I’m going to go ahead and prohibit Fenn from becoming an enate,” I said. “For my own sanity.”

“Fine,” said Fenn. Crossing her arms. “I already said that I was a slink-thief.”

“I don’t suppose that I can be an enate and a salver?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I replied. “The styles are famously incompatible, mostly because of the fairies.”

“I’ll be a salver then,” said Amaryllis, looking down at the rules again.

“And I will be an enate,” said Solace with a nod. “The adaptability appeals to me.”

“Okay,” I said, “And Fenn, you’re sticking with slink-thief?” We didn’t actually have character classes at all; it was kind of a pointless question.

“Already on it,” said Fenn. She looked down at her character sheet. “I believe the concept of ‘dump stats’ has been explained to me enough times, and Charm, I’m sorry to say, you’re a big, fat, zero.”

Amaryllis leaned over and looked at Fenn’s character sheet. “I think that we’re going to end up as opposites.”

“All the better!” chirped Fenn. “Joon, just so you know, I put my 0 into Charm, so pretend that I’m less charming than I actually am. I’m not a charming thief, I’m an in-and-out type who probably gets raked over the coals by her local fence whenever she goes to sell her wares.”

“I’ll try to pretend that I’m not charmed,” I said with a smile. “I’ll probably have you flip for social interactions more often than the others.”

“Do we need to tell you our abilities?” asked Solace. “I thought that the purpose of this was to be a sort of play, where we each were taking a role. Hence ‘roleplay’?”

“There’s some inherent flex,” I replied. “It’s really hard to play a character that’s dumber or smarter than you are, or one from another culture, or with a tragic backstory that you never experienced, so some of that stuff we sort of let slide a little bit. I’m not always going to respond to good roleplaying by asking you to flip some cards, that seems lame to me, but it’s nice for me to know what everyone’s capabilities are so that I don’t accidentally kill you all or present you with an obstacle that you can’t overcome.”

It took us about an hour to start the game, all told. Amaryllis settled on Miranda as a name, and Fenn immediately picked Adnarim, which was Miranda backwards, which led to another bit of detail about their backstory, which was that they weren’t actually identical, they were mirror images of one another, it was just that their features were so symmetrical that few people could tell. Solace picked the name Case, and when I’d asked her why, she’d smiled and said that it was a traditional scurrily name.

“You meet in a tavern,” I said. I loved those words, they always felt like the five words that held the most possibility for the future of the campaign. “Bachewin, you’ve been sitting here stewing for quite some time, wanting to go after the scurrily at the decrepit manor they’re staying in as a way of starting down the path to restoring your family’s honor, but without the raw might necessary to accomplish it on your own. How do you feel about scurrily?”

Grak looked at Solace. “I pity them,” he said. “They are in a situation not unlike my own.” He shifted his paper in front of him. “They were betrayed by a protector, and now beholden to that.”

“Okay, good,” I said, “Case, you come into the tavern at Gramp’s Hollow looking for some way to move up in the world, a way for you to first of all prove that you’re not like the others, and second, to grow in power so that you might one day challenge your god.”

“I go to Bachewin, who seems like she’s both strong and restless,” said Solace with a nod. “You seem good with a sword, are you so offended by my race that you would turn down a drink?”

“No,” said Grak. “Something with no alcohol. I need to keep sharp.”

“Oh?” asked Solace-as-Case. She was doing a bit of a voice, not what I’d intended the scurrily to sound like, but noticeably different in pitch from how she normally talked, higher and with a bit of growl. “For what purpose do you need sharpness?”

“I prefer to keep my wits,” said Grak-as-Bachewin. “I am looking for someone who keeps theirs. Someone with skills.”

“Oh, skills I have aplenty,” said Solace. “I look down at the weapon on her hip, it’s a sword?”

“A sword,” nodded Grak. “The sheath does not fit it. The blade is naked near the hilt. Blue-silver, like zinc.”

“Have you heard the mayor’s call?” asked Solace. “He wants someone to go after the scurrily at Gramp’s Hollow, my people, in some sense, but not anyone I’d claim alliance with.”

Grak nodded. “It will take more than just the two of us.”

“We come in through the door, scuffling!” said Fenn, taking her cue. “I push Miranda to the side, trying to get her off-balance.”

“No PvP,” I said.

“PvP?” asked Fenn.

“Player versus player,” I replied. “And we’re not going to do it. For one, the game system doesn’t really handle it well, and second, it’s usually not any fun, in my opinion.”

“But I can assent?” asked Amaryllis.

“Sure,” I nodded. “It’s sort of about player autonomy, not wanting to subject people to things that they didn’t agree to.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “She pushes me to the side and I lose my balance, right?”

“Right,” I said. Normally that was the sort of thing that I would allow a save for, but whatever.

“I get back up, make sure that my clothes are fine -- a cloak in chartreuse that comes down to mid-calf, a buttoned brown vest, matching slacks, a white shirt, hrm,” said Amaryllis, getting sidetracked.

“Clothes?” asked Fenn. “Seriously?”

“I suppose you’re naked?” asked Amaryllis with a frown.

“Can I be naked?” Fenn asked me. “In the game, I mean.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I guess if you have a reason, but -- is this derailment?”

“Clothes are important,” said Amaryllis. “They tell you something about a person. My character doesn’t have much, but she treats it well, and cares about her appearance.”

“It’s probably good for everyone to know what they’re wearing,” I said.

“Heavy armor,” said Grak. “Also a pack and a sword.”

“I wasn’t thinking that scurrily wore clothes,” said Solace.

“No, they don’t,” I said. “They’re fur-covered, so maybe some straps or packs to hold things, but they don’t need clothes as much, except maybe for modesty, or to pretend that they’re like humans.”

“Then no clothes,” said Solace. “A sheath for my dagger, and a bandolier that holds all the things I need.” She looked down at her paper. “I’ll need to make a list.”

“Probably also a good idea,” I said. “Whatever mundane things you want, but keep in mind how it would feel to carry it around all day. We don’t have carrying capacities per se, but don’t go hog wild.”

“I have a heavy pack, which I guess I’ll set down on the ground and check over,” said Amaryllis. “Then I’ll tackle Adnarim across the nearest table in retaliation.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, looking to Fenn. “You do that?”

“I want to steal someone’s beer as we go over,” said Fenn. “That’s Physique, right?”

I gave an aggrieved sigh, one that I’d had ample opportunity to perfect over the years. “Yes,” I said. “That’s probably going to get you kicked out of the tavern though.”

“I never really liked this place anyway,” said Fenn. She flipped a card and placed it on the table. “Nine!”

“Plus a seven in Physique,” said Grak. He had looked at her character sheet, and apparently memorized it.

“Yeah,” said Fenn. “Comes out to sixteen, is that enough?”

“For benchmarks, the average person has a score of three in each of the attributes, and a value of six on an imagined card, so, nine total,” I said. “Sixteen is just barely possible for a normal person if they get really lucky, so I’m going to judge that in this case, yes, you rolled -- flipped -- well enough that you can grab a mug of beer as you slide over and disrupt the table.”

“Hooray!” yelled Fenn. “I sip it. Smugly.”

“The owner immediately comes out from behind the bar to berate you and kick you out,” I replied. “You broke glasses, you disrupted his other patrons, and most important of all, spilled beer.”

“I set my fairies to work cleaning things up and setting them back how they were,” said Amaryllis. “I also profusely apologize to the owner and try to explain that my sister is deranged --”

“You pushed me!” yelled Fenn, giddy about being maligned.

“She’s deranged, and if you don’t answer her provocations, she’ll just keep escalating, so it’s better to push back immediately and with great force,” Amaryllis continued. “I’ll also promise him that I’ll pay half again as much for any damages my fairies can’t undo. So I flip a card for talking to him, and for sending the fairies out to do their work, right?”

“You don’t need to do it for talking,” I said. “The innkeeper finds you sufficiently charming, and he knows a good deal when he sees it. But for the fairies, make a flip.”

Amaryllis flipped up a card. “Seven of cups,” she said.

“Yours are all cups,” said Fenn.

“It’s part of the flavor,” replied Amaryllis. “I want to do this right. So, is fourteen enough?”

“It’s enough,” I replied. “The fairies, invisible to everyone else, dry off the patrons that got beer on them, repair the broken glasses, replace some of the beer, which tints it green. One of the patrons takes a cautious sip, and finds it delightful, which defuses any threat of a fight breaking out and soothes hard feelings.”

“I’m always cleaning up after your messes,” Amaryllis said to Fenn.

“You’re being loose with my coin,” said Fenn. She turned to me. “I made good money as a slink-thief, before we came to our current arrangement.”

“You said that you wanted my help in staying out of trouble,” said Amaryllis. “This is the price to be paid.”

“I go up to them,” said Grak.

“I follow,” replied Solace. “I’m somewhat worried about what they’ll think of me, tail between my legs.”

“Hullo friends,” said Fenn. She sipped at her herb wine and brought the mug down with a dramatic flourish. “I have a proposal.”

“About the mayor’s offer?” asked Grak.

“What?” asked Fenn. “No, I was going to say that we should all play a game of my own invention. We’ll each have three attributes, and to see whether our characters succeed or fail, we’ll --”

“No,” I said. “No, we’re not going to go down another level.”

“But you love going down,” said Fenn. She winked at me, almost too quick to see.

“Someone, please, take the wheel,” I said.

“The mayor’s offer,” said Grak. “He is looking for people with skills. Case and I are going to Crumblebottom Manor.”

“Crumplebottom,” said Amaryllis.

“You know of it?” asked Grak.

“I -- yes?” asked Amaryllis. She looked to me. “I can say I know it, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s up to you whether or not you’ve heard the mayor’s call, but you know there are books you want there.”

“Very well,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “Yes, my sister and I will go with you.”

“Your names?” asked Grak.

“Miranda and,” Amaryllis sighed. “Adnarim. We’re twins.”

“I could tell,” Solace replied.

“So, wait, why do you want to kill the scurrily?” asked Fenn.

“I don’t,” replied Solace. “But there’s something important sitting in Crumblebottom Manor, and I intend to get it. If others of my species have to die, so be it.”

“And what is it?” asked Amaryllis. She glanced at me, and I maintained that particular type of bemused expression that might give the impression that this was all going according to plan.

“I cannot say,” replied Solace with a grin.

“Are you actually grinning, in character?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” said Solace, still grinning. “I am serious and solemn.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. She looked to Grak. “I can see what skills you possess, certainly, but the scurrily concerns me. What does she bring to the proposed venture?”

“Are you talking past me?” asked Solace. I couldn’t tell how much of the affront was real; she was getting more into her character than I’d have expected.

“Forgive my sister,” said Fenn. “She’s a bigot.”

“I’m not a bigot,” frowned Amaryllis. “I wanted to know how the scurrily had convinced you, which would answer many questions at once.”

“See that?” asked Fenn. “She said ‘the scurrily’, that’s something only a bigot would say.”

“We don’t know their names,” said Amaryllis.

“Bachewin and Case,” grumbled Grak.

“I mean, obviously I know your name,” replied Amaryllis. “But in-character, we wouldn’t have heard them, would we?”

“Just like Mary’s not a bigot, but Miranda is,” said Fenn, doing her best impression of a helpful friend.

“I’m used to it,” said Solace with a shrug. “Answer them, tell them how you were convinced.”

“She’s enate,” replied Grak. “It’s a rare skill in a short-lived species. That indicates great power.”

“And how did you know that?” I asked.

Grak looked at me for a moment, and I wondered what was going through his head. I hadn’t meant it to sound accusatory, or like I’d caught him out, I wanted him to improvise something that I’d run with, since that seemed to be the direction he was taking the game. We were running rules-light in a bare bones single-use setting, I didn’t mind.

“There are cleavages,” said Grak, looking at me for a moment before turning back to the others. “Cracks. In reality. Visible to only a few bloodlines. I can see the edges of her crystals.”

Solace nodded along, then looked at me. “I should have flipped for skills, shouldn’t I?”

“Er, right,” I said. “You can do that now.”

“And I can select any skills?” asked Solace. There was something about the way she said ‘any’ that was giving me flashbacks to Reimer asking me loaded questions about mechanics.

“Sure,” I said. “You have to name all the skills ahead of time, give me the order you’ll flip them in, and then flip. The skills can’t overlap with each other, and if they somehow do, you take the worse result.”

“Okay,” said Solace. “In that case, I’ll crystallize out daggers, spears, slings, lock-picking, and climbing. Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied. I watched carefully as she flipped up her cards and set them aside. One thing I hadn’t thought about was how we would mark them, but she tore off a piece of scratch paper and wrote little notes on each of them. It was a minor mechanical mess that a better game designer than me wouldn’t have made, or at least something that got hammered out in playtesting, but Solace didn’t seem to mind.

She got the matron for daggers, and a one and a two for climbing and slings, with a five in spears and an eleven in lock-picking.

“Does this mean that Solace is the god of daggers?” asked Fenn.

“At least for today,” Solace said with a wry smile. “We enates are subject to the whims of the fates, which have been kind to me for the moment.”

“So instead of a flip, Solace just says that she got a fourteen?” asked Amaryllis.

“Plus half her Wits, rounded up,” I said. “So that’s an automatic seventeen when she uses her dagger. Plus an extra degree of success, because it’s the on-arche, which for daggers usually means an extra damage.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “I now understand why we’re taking her along.”

“We’re not taking her along,” said Grak, scowling slightly. “She is a full member of this adventuring group.”

“Wait wait wait,” said Fenn. “Is Miranda actually a bigot?”

“If she were, she would be the sort of bigot that would fervently deny it,” said Amaryllis with a small smile.

Fenn had her mouth slightly open as she stared at Amaryllis. “But I would know, wouldn’t I, since I’m your sister?”

“We’re not terribly close,” said Amaryllis. “Maybe you’ve seen a few things that make you question my beliefs, but if questioned directly, I’ll say innocuous, boring, things.”

“Huh,” said Fenn. Her eyes were slightly downcast. “That … hits sort of close to home.”

I could definitely see that.

“You wanted to be the evil one?” asked Amaryllis.

“I’m a slink-thief, not evil,” said Fenn. “I steal from people, and because I’m with you I can’t steal, so mostly I just take odd jobs, that’s not --” She shook her head. “I knew those people, I had to deal with them, it was almost worse than when they were just upfront.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “Then don’t fucking joke about Miranda being a bigot.”

Fenn stared at her. “Was that all to teach me a lesson?” she asked.

“Of course,” said Amaryllis. “And for the record, I had to deal with those people too, except they weren’t just bigots, they were bigots writing the laws and pretending that they weren’t motivated by their idiotic beliefs. You think I found the joke funny?”

Fenn waved a hand. “Alright, alright.”

“We’ve gotten a little off-track,” I said.

“Just like you wanted!” said Fenn, brightening considerably.

“It actually was pretty reminiscent of home,” I said. “Miranda, Bachewin just grumbled at you, do you have a defense?” Nevermind that Bachewin didn’t have much of a reason to feel so strongly about Case.

“She’s scurrily,” said Amaryllis. “They’re a race cursed with overwhelming greed, if it’s a cursed race, I care a lot more about the ‘cursed’ part than the ‘race’ part. I think that’s completely fair.”

“You must still treat her as a person,” said Grak.

“That’s also completely fair,” said Amaryllis. “I’m sorry.”

“For what it’s worth, I aim to break the curse,” said Solace. “I won’t say more on it, but the artifact I want from Crumblebottom might help, or at least point me in the right direction.”

Amaryllis nodded. “It would be a rather more noble pursuit than my sister and I normally take on,” she said.

“Doesn’t seem like it would pay that well,” said Fenn. “Though I guess we’ll still be paid by the mayor, right?”

“Right,” I said. “He’s willing to pay a shilling per left ear taken as proof, plus whatever you find that’s not the tax, naturally.”

“How do my fairies feel about the prospect of helping the scurrily?” asked Amaryllis.

“We’re going to say that your Compulsion is the Pursuit of Knowledge,” I said. “Solace -- Case -- is tantalizing to them. They’re enamored with the possibility of you learning something arcane like how to deal with a curse by a god.”

“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Then we should get going.”

“Just to be clear, you’re not party leader,” said Fenn.

“I never said I was,” replied Amaryllis. “Now do you want to get going, or would you rather wait around here for some reason?”

“I’ll take a beer for the road, if you’re offering,” said Fenn with a smile. She looked to me. “Is there a penalty for adventuring while drunk?”

“Reflip any result higher than twelve,” I said, hoping that was onerous enough.

“No fun,” said Fenn, taking a swallow of her herb wine.

“Okay,” I said. “The four of you leave the Lady Finger and head down the well-worn dirt path to Crumplebottom Manor. Weeds and grass are growing up in places, and where rain has washed away part of the path, it hasn’t seen any repairs. The place was abandoned decades ago because of a shifting foundation, but it’s only relatively recently that the scurrily moved in. You talk amongst yourselves during the trip, until the manor itself comes into view, enormous, delapidated, and listing to one side. Miranda and Adnarim, your vision is keen enough to spot eyes peeking out from the broken windows, just for a moment, before they retreat from view.

“They know we’re here,” said Amaryllis.

“I approach, dagger in hand,” said Solace.

“I’ll follow,” said Grak.

“Miranda, Adnarim?” I asked. “What are you doing?”

“I should have taken a bow,” said Fenn. “But I guess I’ll be up front with Case.”

“I’m staying back,” said Amaryllis. “The fairies give me some range, right?”

“They do,” I said. “But be wary of relying on them too much, since you use up their goodwill. If a problem can be solved without calling on the fairies, you should probably solve it that way. I’ll warn you if their interest in helping you starts to wane.”

“Can I send one in for a lookout?” asked Amaryllis.

“Sure,” I said. “Make a flip.”

Amaryllis flipped over a card, her slender hands moving fast. She frowned at the result. “One. Plus my Charm is eight.”

“The fairies flit around your head-tree, as though they’re going to obey, but after a wide circle, they return, having not done your bidding, laughing merrily among themselves. When they land on one of the tree branches, it grows, now slightly crooked.”

(I wasn’t quite making up things as I went along, but it was a near thing; I had a metaphor in mind for the tree and fairies, that of an online community and its denizens, with branches being threads of discussion, the Compulsion being the subreddit or forum topic, and the powers being, essentially, calls to action. When I made decisions about how the fairies behaved, it was within that framework. The crooked branch was something like “the fairies are not your personal army”.)

“Can I try again?” asked Amaryllis. Her eyebrows were pulled together slightly in either focus or frustration; on her, it was quite fetching.

“You can, but there will be a penalty, minus two on the flip,” I replied. “Just to pull back the curtain a bit, in order to help you make choices, I set the target at thirteen; the average salver’s got five Charm, the average flip is seven, and having the fairies do things out of your sight is somewhat difficult -- half the time for a normal salver, but you’re better than normal. Failure by five or more represents significant failure, which is why you get a penalty, rather than it just costing you time and some of the fairies’ goodwill, which I’m tracking but is opaque to you.”

“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “Can I pretend that I didn’t try at all?”

“You want to retcon your actions?” I asked. “Retcon means, um, retroactive continuity.”

“You’ve explained it before,” said Amaryllis. “And no, I want to keep it from the group in order to save face.”

“Ah,” I said. “Yeah, commands are non-verbal, non-somatic, you do it through thought alone.”

“You just want to hide it from the group?” asked Fenn. “Wow.”

“I’m trying to play the part of mysterious wizard,” said Amaryllis. “You don’t do that by admitting that you failed at the one thing you were supposed to be good at.”

“But if we asked you?” asked Grak. “Miranda, can your spirits scout?”

“The way ahead is hazy,” said Amaryllis. “There’s a noxiousness to the air that doesn’t suit them.”

“Will you be fine to go in?” asked Grak.

“Yes, I think so,” said Amaryllis. “But the fairies are gentle things, easily disturbed. I’ll be having them stay near my tree.”

“You lying liar,” said Fenn. She looked at me. “Joon, can I tell she’s lying?”

“Um,” I said. “You’ve got a Charm of 0, she’s got a Charm of 7, so I’m going to say no, especially since she was being evasive to cover, rather than outright saying something factually untrue, though it was a bit borderline.”

“It’s what Vervain would have done,” said Amaryllis.

Solace laughed. “He was always making up the most outrageous stories about why he couldn’t do this thing or that thing,” she said. “Of course, he was the most powerful flower mage to have ever lived, in a time when it was a little-known art, so no one called him on it, but we figured it out after the fact.”

“Wait, so he just lied about what he could or couldn’t do?” I asked.

“He was a mysterious old wizard,” said Solace with a shrug. “It’s what they do.”

“Next game we play, I think I’m going to play a mysterious old assassin,” said Fenn. “You don’t see many of those, do you?”

“Dexterity and strength fade with age,” said Amaryllis.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Solace with a smile. “I’m fairly spry.”

“So,” I said. “The four of you go into Crumblebottom Manor?”

“Yes,” said Grak. “My weapon is drawn.”

“Me too, I guess,” said Fenn. “Really not a fan of close-up fighting, shouldn’t have grabbed a rapier.”

“I have my dagger,” said Solace.

“Amaryllis?” I asked, when she didn’t add anything.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll stay toward the back, waiting for a good moment to strike.”

The scurrily were waiting for them as soon as Bachewin kicked in the manor door. Initiative was in order of Physique, which meant that it was Adnarim, Bachewin, then the scurrily, then Case and Miranda. Adnarim raced forward and killed one of the eight scurrily, then Bachewin took out another, and both of their characters got surrounded, leaving Adnarim with a bleeding gut wound and Bachewin unscathed beneath her armor. Case ducked into a roll as she came into the room and popped up with dagger in hand, murdering the two scurrily that had gotten Adnarim in a single slice of her dagger. Miranda used the spirits to heal her sister, while Bachewin moved to block them from harm. That left Case high and dry, because while she was, for the day, the god of daggers, there was only so much parrying you could do before an attack slipped through, especially if you were still trying to attack back. The fight ended with Case well and truly bloodied, Bachewin winded and bruised, Adnarim complaining that people stole her kills, and Miranda desperately pleading with the spirits for more healing, something that they didn’t seem inclined to do.

In game, this was at most twenty seconds. It took us about an hour and a half to get through.

In D&D, a single bout of combat usually lasts for thirty to sixty minutes of real-time, and maybe a minute of time in-game, but usually quite a bit less. The more people you have, the longer it takes, not just because each person has their own actions, but because there’s addtional overhead in getting everyone to actually take their turn. In my experience, four was about as many players as I liked, since once you got to five, there would be inevitable side conversations while people were waiting their turn. Those side conversations and distractions meant that when it was someone’s turn, they needed more time to reorient themselves to what was going on in the game, which ate up time and made the others more prone to the same side conversations and distractions that caused the problem in the first place.

Arches was a simple system, but in some ways that made it harder to play, because there was a lot in the way of adjudication. It also took time because not only were the rules unfamiliar, but these were people who had never played a game like this before. But by far the biggest contribution was Fenn, who could get derailed at the drop of a hat.

“No,” said Fenn. “That’s what I’m saying, in elf culture it’s basically like … all the focus is on the finished product, right? They don’t care at all about a thing being made, except that you have to have good technique. Time spent making a thing isn’t time wasted, exactly, but no one says, ‘hey, good job cleaning the floor’, they say talk about how it’s nice that the floor is clean. Talking about process is like talking about how you wipe your butt in other cultures.”

“The dwarves of Darili Irid made process their focus,” said Grak. “Our hrelon celebrated improvements of their work. The results were an afterthought.”

“I almost don’t believe that,” said Amaryllis. “You’re talking about farming, that’s elemental to how a society is run. Your farmers weren’t concerned about crop yields and keeping everyone fed?”

“Feeding is not the issue,” said Grak with a small shake of his head. “They worry about their joints and muscles, or the collapse of their hral.”

“Ah,” said Amaryllis. “Well that makes more sense, if there’s still a focus on the dangers, just from a different direction.”

I had been quietly sitting there, waiting for their conversation to wrap up, not wanting to interrupt so we could get back into the game, especially when we were still in combat and they wouldn’t necessarily be taking their turns. This was it though, the perfect moment to remind Grak it was his turn --

“So how would you compare the rock muck to barren bread?” asked Fenn. “Equally crap?”

“Grak, it’s your turn,” I said.

“I have never had barren bread,” said Grak. He turned to me. “Three scurrily are left, and a ten hits?”

“Yes,” I said. “You can either go on the defense, which will give you a bonus to your attempts to tank the hits and prevent them from going around to the people you’re trying to detect, or you can try to attack. It’s your choice.”

“I will continue to protect the others,” said Grak.

“How is it that you’ve never tried barren bread?” asked Fenn. “How frickin’ long were you living in Barren Jewel without trying their bread?”

“I was told it was unpalatable,” said Grak. “Why would I eat it?”

I had long ago made my peace with the game being broken up by conversation. Part of the whole point of tabletop was to be with friends, having fun. But if it was just conversation being broken up by the game running in the background, that I had a problem with, mostly because it left me in the unenviable position of constantly trying to move things along. On top of that, I couldn’t really participate in the conversation, not without essentially abandoning the game entirely (which was something that I’d seen happen when my other friends DMed).

“Okay,” I said. “The last of the scurrily falls, blood flowing freely from the slash Case made across his neck … and I think we’re going to call it here for tonight.”

“What?” asked Fenn. “We’ve hardly done anything!”

“It’s been three hours,” I said. “Character setup took a lot longer than I thought it would, meeting in a tavern took longer, and the first combat took, essentially, eons.”

“We are still learning,” said Grak. “Some more than others.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m not complaining, I’m just saying we set aside two hours for this, and it’s been three, and if we keep going to the next thing, it’s going to be more like four or five.”

“Well, I’m having fun and I don’t want to stop,” said Fenn, frowning at me slightly.

“We do still have food,” said Solace. “And another skin of wine, which I’ll go get now.” She got up from her chair and slipped away, down into the cellar beneath the tree house.

“So we’ll keep playing?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “I’d like to keep going until we’ve actually accomplished our goals.”

“Well,” I said. “You do have eight corpses.”

“Oh, fuck yeah,” said Fenn. “Loot!” Her smile slipped a bit. “I mean, looting the dead is never exactly fun, but sometimes you find a guy with a gold watch and you just want to kiss him.” She was smiling again by the end of the sentence. “Loot!” she finished.

“What do we find?” asked Amaryllis.

“Aside from the ears, which you’ll need to cut off, you find a few baubles and trinkets in the pouches they had on them, worth some shillings, but nothing to write home about,” I said. “The true treasure cache must be elsewhere.”

“What kinds of trinkets?” asked Solace, sliding back into her chair and placing the wine skin on the table, which Fenn promptly grabbed.

I hated that kind of question, but I had strong improv muscles. “You find a picture of a young girl in a silver frame, the golden chain to a necklace whose pendant is missing, a handful of carved rocks used as part of a religious ritual, and a pair of fine quality candlesticks.”

Fenn narrowed her eyes at me, like I had just made that up, which I had. I smiled at her.

“We take the stuff,” said Fenn. “I’ll cut off the ears and put them in my ear-pouch.”

“I say a silent prayer of scurrily goodwill,” said Solace.

“We take their souls,” said Amaryllis. She poked a finger at her character sheet. “I’ve got the equipment listed on my sheet.”

“There are no hells,” I said. “Nine thousand hells and no heaven isn’t really the norm, at least in my worlds.”

“So what happens when we die?” asked Amaryllis with a frown.

“There’s an afterlife,” I said. “I don’t think that you would know too much about it, other than maybe having heard a multitude of contradictory theories.” Theories that aren’t really important to the plot, and Jesus Christ are we ever going to get to the second room of this manor?

“Can I flip for it?” asked Amaryllis. There was something very innocent about the way she said it that I didn’t trust.

“Okay,” I said. “Sure. Flip Wits. But the target is going to be high.”

“I’ll flip for it too,” said Fenn.

“Can we all flip for it?” asked Grak.

“The target is nineteen,” I said. “That means that only Miranda and Adnarim could possibly know it, and even then, they’re not likely to.”

“Solace has a five, she could get a nineteen,” said Grak.

“No,” I said. “Because her on-arche, the matron, is crystallized out for daggers, not in her deck.”

“Ah,” said Grak. “Clever.” I couldn’t tell whether or not he actually found that clever, but I suspected he didn’t.

“I flipped the fop,” said Amaryllis. “That’s my on-arche.”

“Should it really be?” asked Fenn. “I mean, ‘fop’ doesn’t exactly seem to fit with the others. Scholar, virgin, matron, I get those, but fop doesn’t fit.”

“The deck got adapted into opposing pairs,” I said. “I don’t think that fop was meant to be good, but it worked better for our purposes if I could have four opposing pairs. I mean, virgin, matron, and whore are a trifecta, not a pair.”

“What does fop mean?” asked Solace.

“Someone who dresses well,” said Amaryllis.

“Someone who dresses too well,” said Fenn. “What’s with you and clothes tonight?”

“Don’t start with me,” said Amaryllis.

“In my day, a fop was a man who took pride in his appearance,” said Solace, rubbing her chin. “The connotation is negative now?”

“Taking pride in your appearance is by default negative among the lower classes,” said Amaryllis.

“You wound me,” said Fenn.

“We have practically the same amount of money right now,” said Amaryllis.

“Ah,” said Fenn. “But not the same amount of class.”

“Fenn?” I asked. “What did you get on your flip?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Fenn. “Did you pick cards so that my luck wouldn’t work?”

“So that it would work less well,” I said. “And no, that’s just a fringe benefit.” The cards in the deck were as they’d been shuffled, and her luck wasn’t powerful enough that it could see that far into the future so as to give her bad flips when they didn’t matter and good flips when they did. With dice, I was pretty sure that she’d constantly be rolling hot, even though they wouldn’t be straight 20s.

“I understand why people without means look down on dressing well,” said Amaryllis. “Just to clarify.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” I said. “Amaryllis -- Miranda, you seem to recall hearing about a group of thantonauts who have briefly crossed over into the afterlife. They describe a great planar bough with bulbs hanging off it, each of the bulbs immensely large, but with only a few hundred people in it. Beyond that,” I hesitated. The on-arche was supposed to be really good, and count as an extra degree of success even if you just barely hit the target. And pursuit of knowledge was a core character trait. “The people there seem happy enough, their communities universally pleasant, at least as far as the thantonauts could determine.”

“So if I kill myself … ?” asked Fenn.

“Some people have, on hearing that news,” I said. “The empire is trying their best to keep a tight lid on things, worried that it will become an epidemic. We should really move on though, since this isn’t at all important.”

“It seems important,” said Amaryllis. “It informs our characters, doesn’t it? If I know this and choose not to share it, that means something different than if I do share, and if I know that an anti-hell is waiting for us … doesn’t it make sense that we should figure this out about ourselves?”

I paused for a moment, because she was right, but I really did want to get on with the adventure I had planned. The afterlife I’d described was one lifted from an old campaign, which itself was adapted from a sitcom on NBC. “Okay,” I said. “When you first learned this, what was your reaction?”

“Fear,” said Amaryllis.

I frowned. “Why?”

“I worried that all my life was meaningless,” she said. “All the knowledge I had gathered would come to nothing, all the sacrifices I had made in the name of my spirits, all of it totally devoid of purpose, if the end result was that I was going to spend an eternity in this other place with people I didn’t know.” She smiled slightly. “The story that I’d grown up hearing --”

“That we’d grown up hearing,” added Fenn.

“That we’d grown up hearing was that you got to see out into the world at the place of your death and would slowly fade away to nothing over the course of a year,” said Amaryllis. This sounded oddly specific to me, and not at all like improvisation. “So death was just the last year of your life, when all you could do was watch, and life was what was important.”

When did children on Aerb get told about the hells, exactly? Going off what she was saying, my guess was that there was a more palatable version told to them. Sort of like Santa Claus.

“So have you told me?” asked Fenn.

Amaryllis bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she said. “Are you the sort of person that I would tell? I’d presumably know you well enough to know what your reaction would be.”

“Well I’d presumably know you well enough to know when you’re spouting bullshit about your spirits,” said Fenn. She turned to me. “Spirits or fairies?”

“Fairies, in the game doc, but the flavor isn’t too important,” I said. “In my head, they’re basic geometric shapes of different sizes, colors, shapes, and textures, sort of like floating dice, but it’s Mary’s ability, so she can flavor it however she wants. To me, fairies are capricious, while spirits are ineffable.”

“Spirits then,” said Amaryllis. “And yes, Fenn, I think I’d have told you, because you always treated life like it was meaningless to begin with, and I was shaken enough to have needed to lean on my troublesome sister, since I have no one else.”

“Aww,” said Fenn. “That’s so sad!” She leaned over to Amaryllis and gave her a hug. “Alright, and that’s why we’re traveling together.”

“No, we’re traveling together because I kept getting in trouble when you stole things,” said Amaryllis.

“Ah, but I agreed because you were in a bad place,” said Fenn. “And also because I owed some people some money and didn’t have a great relationship with the law,” she added.

I wanted to ask if they were done, but thought that would betray too much of my annoyance. It was good character work, but it was only character work, and the sort of thing that would have been better done at the start of the session. It was a valid way to play, but if that was what you were doing with play, then why even make it in the form of a structured game?

“Okay,” I said. “Solace? Grak?”

“I don’t hold with foreign ideas,” said Solace, smiling at me. “In the scurrily culture as it existed before the curse, we believed in a long, wide river that the souls departed down.”

“Bachewin has no strong feelings,” said Grak. He stopped for a moment and licked his lips. “The afterlife is confusing and distant.”

“Alright,” I said. “There are three doors in the main room you’re in, with partly broken stairs leading up to the second level, and another set of stairs leading down to what were presumably servants’ quarters or a larder or something. What path do you want to take?”

“Down,” said Amaryllis. “If I were hiding things, that’s where I would hide them.”

“Agreed,” said Solace. “The scurrily once lived in home-holes, that instinct remains.”

There were a few traps laid by the scurrily to protect their hoard, then another round of combat. The second group were more vicious but less experienced than the first, and greater in number.

It took us another hour to get through.

I tried to make the combat more dynamic, not just with environmental obstacles, but also by varying how they attacked, including their abilities. I added in scurrily mages who could make you discard a card you’d flipped once a round, and joint strikers who would make you do two flips and discard the higher one. It wasn’t great, but it did help to keep up interest.

(It still took an hour.)

“I have a bad feeling,” said Fenn, halfway through.

“I have a bad feeling too,” said Grak. “As I have been stabbed and am dying.”

“It’s not fatal,” I said. “But another one like that and you’ll probably be on the floor, bleeding out.” (The game’s health system was simple; you had four health, plus your Endurance, and each degree of success on an attack against you was another damage. Grak had taken a nasty hit, thanks to flipping the off-arche on defense, but he still had health to spare.)

“Alright,” said Fenn. “I’m going to run.”

“The fuck you are,” said Amaryllis.

“No, I am,” said Fenn. “It’s been real, but I’m not dying down here. Joon, I run.”

“Joon, I use the leash,” said Amaryllis.

“You can only use it to limit her movement,” I said. “And she’ll still be able to run up the stairs, out of the fight. It’s not mind control, it’s just controlling her distance from you, a metaphorical leash.”

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis.

“Can I go out of character?” asked Fenn, directed at me.

“Sure,” I said.

“I’m pretty sure that the rest of my deck is junk,” said Fenn.

“I’d really rather people stop counting cards so much,” I said.

“I have not been,” said Grak.

“Not you,” I said. “Not Solace either, you’ve both been good about the spirit of the deck. It’s just that it adds overhead to the process, and seems fun-draining rather than fun-enhancing.”

“Well I haven’t been counting cards,” said Fenn.

“I’m trying not to,” said Amaryllis. “You’re asking me to deliberately forget things, that’s understandably difficult when it’s life or death.”

“Wait,” I said. “Fenn, if you’re not counting cards, your feeling is … wait, luck?”

Fenn stared at me like a deer in headlights (perhaps an insensitive metaphor, given that the locus was occasionally poking its head in), then nodded. “My hand goes to my deck and I freeze up,” said Fenn. “It’s never the right thing to do, it all ends in crap plays, getting injured, missing my attacks, stuff like that. So … I run.”

“That’s …” I paused and tried to think about it. “Understandable. It’s going to make the fight difficult, if not entirely unwinnable. I do appreciate that you front-loaded your explanation with character stuff.”

(There was some subtext here. Bad shit tended to happen to Fenn when she ignored the feeling that told her she was going into a no-win situation. I knew of at least two times; one had been when Anglecynn was coming down on her for looting the exclusion zone, and the other had been just before she’d been cut in half, not that she had great options either time.)

“So she just runs?” asked Amaryllis. “You slimy shit.”

“And that’s Fenn’s turn, which means that the scurrily get to go,” I said. “Miranda, make a Charm flip.”

“For what?” asked Amaryllis.

“Make the flip and I’ll tell you after,” I said.

“I want to know if my spirits can block it,” said Amaryllis.

“It’s directed at your spirits and the tree on your head,” I said.

Amaryllis flipped a card, not seeming happy about it. “Three of cups plus seven Charm is ten,” said Amaryllis.

“One of the scurrily near the back is using a device, something from the ancient times, and you feel it come over you like a wave, sending your spirits into disarray. From now on, when you make a salver flip, flip twice and take the lower result.”

“I see,” said Amaryllis, in a tone that said, ‘why have you foresaken me’. “So I’m fucked, basically, plus the negative from earlier.”

“No,” I said. “That was ‘simple’ failure, actually getting fucked would have been if you’d drawn the off-arche.”

“And they have magic specifically to go against a salver?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “But someone did when they fought the scurrily, and they didn’t fare too well.”

Amaryllis folded her arms and didn’t look too happy, but I tried not to feel too bad about that. I was pretty confident that if Solace flipped at all well, the fight wouldn’t last too much longer.

Unfortunately, Solace didn’t flip at all well.

Oh, she certainly killed scurrily with ease; they didn’t have much health, and she constantly had the on-arche, meaning that she was getting a total of seventeen without having to flip, and including the extra degree of success, more damage on top of what she was already doing. The problem was, she still needed to make defense rolls, and while she was pretty far from being a glass cannon, she was flubbing them more often than not, taking too much damage.

“Okay,” I said, two rounds later. “Solace, one of the remaining scurrily moves in to disarm you.”

“Oh?” asked Solace. “Don’t I just cut him with my dagger?”

“The disarm rules are only for players,” said Grak.

“Right,” I said. “I didn’t think it would come up. All of the rules are essentially reversed for the enemies though, because they don’t flip, and since the rule is that you’d double flip and need to get ten higher than normal, I’m going to use the opposite. Solace, you make a double flip and take the lowest, then see whether it’s five or more below his attack. Since, as you’ve said, you have godly skill with daggers, the on-arche will count as your first flip, meaning that you only have to worry about a really crummy second flip.”

I was pretty sure she’d gotten all the bad luck out of her deck.

She flipped the off-arche.

“Ah,” she said. “I do believe that’s a failure.”

“Okay,” I said. “You’re disarmed, he uses his spear to send the dagger flying off to clatter against the wall, and since it was off-arche, you get cut in the process for one Health.”

“How many are left?” asked Amaryllis.

“Just two,” I said. “The other one goes after Bachewin. Make a defense flip.”

Grak frowned and tapped the top of his deck. I had no idea what he was thinking, because he knew the rules almost as well as I did. Defense was just an Endurance flip, unless you wanted to dodge, and for Bachewin, dodging was always strictly worse. He couldn’t have even been thinking about the probabilities, because he’d just reshuffled his deck.

Grak flipped up a three of bones and said a curse in Groglir.

“I am dead,” he said.

“Only mostly dead,” I said. “There’s a line in the rules, it’s --”

“Flips,” said Grak with a nod. He flipped another card, which was the jack of bones.

“See?” I asked. “You’re not dead. Your Endurance goes down to four, and you’ll flip again on your turn. You need either on-arche or Miranda to save you. Oh, and you go prone, dropping your weapon, because you’re not well enough to stand.”

“Don’t count on me,” said Amaryllis. “The spirits are weak right now, and not looking like they’ll get better any time soon.”

“I must count on luck,” said Grak with a nod.

“That’s their turn,” I said. “Just two left, both of them blooded. Case, your dagger is across the room, what do you do?”

“I run after it, then throw it at the one nearest Bachewin,” said Solace. “Our only hope is that she can get healing in time to save her life.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s going to be your full turn then, moving, picking it up, and throwing it. You don’t need to flip, so that’s a seventeen, which is enough to take him down as your dagger strikes him in the base of his throat. Miranda, you’re up.”

(I was happy to notice that the side conversations had stopped, and everyone was paying attention, even Fenn, who had been out for quite some time now.)

“We wouldn’t be in this mess if you hadn’t left,” said Amaryllis with a glare at Fenn.

“I already apologized,” said Fenn. “I just decided that I’m not going to die in Crumbbottom Manor.”

“You have a choice,” I said. “Go for the kill on the last one, or try to heal Bachewin.”

“Spirits are being useless. I’ll go for the kill,” said Amaryllis. “Cursing my sister’s name under my breath.”

“You should curse it backwards,” said Fenn.

“How is Miranda going to go for the kill?” I asked. “You’re taking both a negative one penalty to anything involving your fairies, plus you’re going to have to flip twice and take the lower.”

Amaryllis winced and looked at her deck. “I need to do some math,” she said. “Give me a moment?”

“Um,” I said. “Special circumstances, and probably the last round, so sure.”

“Isn’t that a bit cheating?” asked Fenn. “Mary might know how likely something is to succeed, but Miranda wouldn’t.”

“I accept a bit of ludonarrative dissonance,” I said.

“Huh?” asked Fenn.

“I feel like we’ve talked about this,” I said as I watched Amaryllis make marks on her paper. “Dissonance is the disconnect or tension between two things, ludo means game, narrative means story, so it’s the disconnect between game mechanical stuff and story stuff. Probably the wrong word in this case, since it’s actually a disconnect between game mechanical stuff and the constructed reality within the game.”

“Oh,” said Fenn. “You’ve definitely talked about that before.”

“So no, Miranda doesn’t know anything about the deck, or the probabilities, and Amaryllis does and is making decisions based on them, so there’s a dissonance, but that’s something you have to accept every once in a while if you want people to actually have fun.”

“Where does Miranda’s decision come from?” asked Grak.

“In-universe?” I asked. “Nowhere. Or it’s created post facto to fit what Amaryllis decides.”

“Disconcerting,” said Grak.

“Because of our personal situation?” I asked. “Yeah, kind of.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis, looking up from her paper, which now had cramped numbers in one corner. “I’m incredibly uncoordinated and weak, but I’m going to try using my hands.” She looked down at her character sheet, then up at me. “Will you penalize me for trying to use a pocket knife?”

“Is that all you have?” I asked. I’d been fairly loose with action economy, mostly limiting it to the 5E standard of ‘major action’, ‘movement’, and ‘minor action’, but without being formalized in the rules. We were building up a communal understanding of what could be done in a turn, which was how I liked it. I thought it would have been permissible for her to scoop up Case’s dagger from the floor, which was why I asked the question.

“I have it on me for eating and when things need cutting,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve used it to ward off unsavory types a few times, but never drawn blood with it.” She seemed happy with that pronouncement, and it was, I supposed, a good character moment for Miranda.

“Wait,” said Fenn, looking over at Amaryllis’ character sheet. “Your Physique is 0. How is it better to take no bonus on the flip than a weak one?”

“Shush,” said Amaryllis. “You ran away.”

“It’s probably because of the double flip,” I said. “She knows what’s in her deck, and knows that if she has to take the lower of two cards, she’s more likely to get a result that her bonus can’t make up for.”

Amaryllis nodded. “It’s a two in ten chance one way, and a six in ninety the other,” she said. “If I’ve counted the cards right, which I might not have.” I had made a rule about the discard pile being face down, which she wasn’t a fan of. “I have my penknife in hand. Can I make the flip?”

“Go ahead,” I said.

Amaryllis flipped up her king of cups.

“You dart forward, leaping over Bachewin’s prone form and stepping between Case’s legs, moving more with desperate energy than any actual skill,” I said. “The scurrily raises his stolen sword to fend you off, and you jab straight out without regard to your personal safety, stabbing him through the eye. He doesn’t die, but he does stumble back, screeching in pain. Your follow-up is enough to end him. What is it?”

“Taking his sword and stabbing him in the guts with it,” said Amaryllis with satisfaction.

“He falls to the ground, groaning in pain, still not dead but definitely out of commission,” I said.

“I’ll slit his throat,” said Amaryllis. “Just to make sure he’s not going to be a problem. Then I’ll go over to Bachewin and attempt some healing.”

“It’s his turn first,” I said. “Bachewin, make your flip, fourteen minus Endurance, which should be lowered by one, I think gives you a target of, um --”

“Ten,” said Grak. He poked his deck with a finger, as though mulling it over, or maybe just running the numbers. One in fourteen chance that he flips the on-arche and lives, three in fourteen chance that he flips a high card and lives another turn, and ten in fourteen chance of death.

He flipped up the king of bones, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, myself included. I didn’t want Grak’s character to die, but I wasn’t going to bend the rules, since that would undermine the entire point of using random numbers. I also couldn’t fudge anything, not when I never rolled or flipped anything of my own, and all the numbers were known to them.

“Solace?” I asked. “You go before Miranda, technically.” I didn’t directly say that her turn didn’t matter, but it sort of didn’t.

“I’ll pick up my dagger,” said Solace. “Then I begin my prayers for the many dead.”

“Save me,” Grak said to Amaryllis.

“I can try,” she said. “I wasted a good card on killing the other scurrily.” She pursed her lips. “I’m just deciding how I’ll feel when I fail. One in thirty-six chance, I think.” She was silent for a moment, then reached forward and flipped two cards. They were an eleven and nine of cups, which I was pretty sure were the only two cards that would actually have worked. She stared at the cards in momentary disbelief.

“The spirits dart forward and slip beneath the armor,” I said. I turned to Grak. “Bachewin, you feel your wounds being knit, not completely, but enough that you start to stabilize and regain your strength.” I felt incredibly relieved, probably more than any of them. Killing off Grak’s character would have made me feel terrible; maybe I was just having flashbacks to intentionally killing off characters.

“I climb to my feet,” said Grak. “I try to give a bow to Miranda, even though it pains me.”

“Stop,” said Amaryllis, as she slowly realized that the cards had actually been on her side. “I’m the one that should be bowing, you sacrificed yourself for me.”

“I clamber back down the stairs,” said Fenn. “We won!”

“I glare at my sister,” said Amaryllis. “Who knew that a reflection could be so ugly?, I ask.”

“Harsh but fair,” said Fenn. “We loot the bodies.”

“You find more in the way of trinkets and baubles, including stolen weapons like the sword that last scurrily was holding,” I said. “The scurrily at the back had the tree disruptor that hit Amaryllis. Each of the mages was holding a special pendant that allowed them to do their magic, which you can now use for yourself, three times a day, to boost your abilities and attacks.”

“I call one,” said Fenn.

“You ran away,” said Amaryllis. “You ran away when I needed you, like always.”

Fenn pouted. “Okay,” she said. “We can share one between us, I get two uses one day, you get two uses the next day.”

“Grak should take the other,” said Solace. “My skills are already crystallized.”

“I take the pendant and move,” said Grak. “I’m looking for the tax.”

“You find it in the corner, hidden beneath a bit of collapsed wall, stuffed there intentionally,” I said. “It’s together with the other things you’ve been looking for, the whitewood books and an orb that seems to spin inside its shell without any motive power to cause that.” I gave Solace a nod at that last one.

“The God’s Tongue,” she said in a solemn whisper.

“How much do you know about what it does?” I asked.

“I’ve heard only whispers,” she said. “But those whispers seem to indicate that it allows a discussion with the gods, so long as you stand within their place of power. I snatch up the orb from the pile and place it into a pouch I had kept empty for it.”

“Good,” I nodded.

“I pick up the gold coins and scoop them into my pouch,” said Fenn.

“Gold coins?” I asked.

“The tax?” Fenn asked.

“The tax isn’t coinage,” I said. “You’re in the Thaumic Empire, where the tax levied against a town is in the mana collected from the surrounding land by a thaumic array. The tax is nine vials of hardened glass, each filled with a bright blue liquid.”

“So … how much is it worth?” asked Fenn.

“The lives of everyone in town,” I said. “If the taxman showed up and thought there was malfeasance on the part of the mayor, he has full authority to murder as many people as he pleases until he gets his mana. Some are better than others, but people usually think the worst. If you hadn’t handled things, the town would have raised a militia, but who knows how that would fare.”

“But we’re not actually citizens of the town, right?” asked Fenn. “And there’s nothing precluding us from stealing the mana and selling it on the black market … right?”

“We’re taking it back to the mayor,” said Amaryllis. “You might have sullied your reputation, but I’m trying to repair mine. I’ll take the whitewood books and wrap them in a leather strap to carry back home.”

“Okay, you do, and you can instantly feel your spirits hearten at the sight of new books, though you’ll also have to devote some time to reading over the next few days and weeks. I should say that the mayor is offering a reward,” I said. “And that the nearest black market, where you could only hope to get a fraction of the value, is quite some ways away.”

“Fine, fine,” said Fenn. “Smells like railroading to me.”

“Smells sensible,” said Grak. “The empire has its interests. Gramp’s Hollow is small.”

“I’ll still cut off the remaining ears,” Fenn said. “Since someone has to.”

“And it really should be the girl who ran away,” said Amaryllis.

“Girl?” asked Fenn. “How old are we?”

“Twenty?” asked Amaryllis.

“Hrm, twenty-one,” said Fenn.

“Because you can’t help but be contrary?” asked Amaryllis.

“You know, sometimes I think we’re estranged, but it’s moments like this that warm my heart and remind me of the bond of sisterhood,” said Fenn with a smile.

“It would seem we’ve all accomplished what we wanted to,” said Solace. “Do we now go our separate ways?”

“We need to speak with the mayor,” said Grak. “The payment was secondary for me, but I will need to be on the road. There are costs to travel.”

“Wait,” said Fenn. “This can’t be the end, can it? Aren’t we going to be, like, an adventuring party?”

“That’s up to you,” I said with a shrug.

“Places of power interest me,” said Amaryllis. “I wouldn’t be averse to following along with Solace’s quest to speak with her god, not if there’s esoteric knowledge to pick up on the way.”

“I as well,” said Grak. “It is a noble quest that might restore Bachewin’s name.”

“Then I guess, I’ll tag along, but I make it very, very clear to everyone that I don’t like it,” said Fenn.

Amaryllis rolled her eyes, then looked to me. “And that’s it then?” she asked. “We’re done?”

“There’s some other stuff we could do with the mayor, and I had planned a little thing with the taxman, but yeah, it’s late,” I said. “We didn’t get through as much as I had planned, but I had planned on not getting through too much.” I didn’t want to ask the question, but I couldn’t stop myself. “Did everyone have fun?” That was gauche, like asking a girl if she had an orgasm or not. Maybe not quite like that, but it was the comparison that came to mind.

“Absolute blast,” said Fenn. “I really think Adnarim needs a bow though.”

“I think it helped me understand some things,” said Amaryllis, which I thought was incredibly non-committal.

“I think I will have some notes on the rules,” said Grak. “I can understand why such systems would appeal to you. Next time we will iron out a few things.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Health and damage,” he said. “The exact mechanics of salvers. I also don’t think enates are balanced.”

“It’s rules-light,” I said. “It’s meant to have relatively few rules so that they don’t get in the way of actually playing the game.”

“The lack of rules gets in the way,” said Grak.

“Kind of with him on this,” said Fenn. “It’s why I ran away.”

“Not because there was only garbage left in your deck?” I asked.

“A girl can have two reasons for doing a thing,” said Fenn. “Three or four, even.”

“Well, I quite enjoyed myself,” said Solace. “It reminded me of fireside storytelling. Will we be playing again?”

“Tomorrow night, same time,” said Fenn, before I could say anything. “Looking forward to it.”

I did talk with Solace after the fact, when we were practicing Horticulture together, and asked her about fireside storytelling.

“Oh, it was very much like what we did last night,” she said. “Someone would start a story, and someone else would continue it, until we had circled around to the first person, or the story had found its natural conclusion. There was something of a competition to it, in a few ways, both to speak well, to further the story, to tie up the threads, and be merry. It was a good time for all.” She gave a wistful sigh. “Back before the Second Empire came about and it all went up in flames, there was a man in the circles who always sat next to me, and whenever he was the one handing the stories off to me, he would leave me the most absurd, impossible plots, filled with threads that needed resolving and people in desperate, dramatic situations.”

“And … it was your job to solve those problems?” I asked.

“Oh, certainly, you were considered a bad storyteller if you left things dangling, or if you didn’t apply artistry in how you handled things.” She laughed, a pretty laugh with an edge of melancholy. I sometimes forgot how old she was, but there was something about her laugh that brought out her age. “It was a form of flirting, of course, though I didn’t see it until it had been going on for months. Eventually I cottoned on when he kept setting people up for romances, making me be the one to breathe their union to life.”

“Huh,” I said. “And … what happened with him? Sorry if that’s a delicate question.”

“It’s fine,” said Solace. “I bedded him, naturally, and told him that he had a very strange idea of foreplay. It wasn’t a serious thing between us, but that wasn’t the fashion of the time within the circle.”

I nodded. She hadn’t said what his ultimate fate was, and I didn’t want to push it further. Had he died after the Second Empire came to power? While they were on the run, given up to the ritual that gave them the answers to their most important questions? I did want to know, but it seemed like a link back to an enormous well of sadness and pain, and if she preferred to remember the happy, simple times, I wasn’t one to begrudge her.