Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The SUE Files: Dragonslayers

When last we left off, our players had a new toy, albeit one they were apparently forbidden to use except on the Dragons. This means, naturally, that we need a new prophecy, because whenever anything happens in-game, some old person on a mountaintop has predicted it in a meditative trance. GM!Marty has a little spiral notebook of “various prophetic musings”; these, once inexpertly rhymed, are the plot hooks. He loves this stuff, especially when he can put it in his own alphabet and expect us to sit and translate it on our own time – and then accuse us of metagaming when we do, because “[our characters] could never break such a detailed code].” Bear in mind, it’s just a set of glyphs that stand in for English letters, 1:1. That isn’t a code; that’s a font. It’s the handwritten, awful equivalent of putting the players’ briefings in Webdings. This prophecy, though, is in plain Common/Basic/Standard; it’s also a dry, boring slog through meter that’s too lengthy by half (and mostly monosyllabic), with a completely unvarying rhyme scheme. Of course, it’s also read in this deep, exaggerated, ludicrously booming voice, and no one can do anything else. We’ve had combat stop for one of these.
I can’t fully describe the experience without resorting to film. Take any fight scene from Star Wars and have Vader stop in mid-swing to read the contents of a random Goth teenager’s poetry journal, then jump around screaming “ask me what it means, ask me what it means!” It was the campaign equivalent of a Big Lipped Alligator Moment, only without the plot insignificance, because we’re expected to analyze these for “hints”.
This one is relatively straightforward. Frozen Lily and the Cauldron’s Child (Vitae Womb, how deep) have to go to the island they were already going to. On the way, Lily significantly changes the wind blade, having taken advantage of Moonballs Tower’s “enchanter’s thurible”. Yes, a thurible is an incense burner and Marty meant crucible, but he has utterly refused to change it so far. Apparently the Orb did something involving a lot of magitechnobabble to give a +10 bonus to enchanting, and this made the sword awesome.
I had forgotten, several posts ago, to mention that the wind blade got re-enchanted several times; by the end, it was basically the best sword imaginable. One of those enchantments, which I thought was a separate blade, wreathed the thing in frostfire, so they named the thing Winterflame, and during downtime Lily just kept injecting more magic into the thing until it was, hands down, the best weapon in the campaign. Yes, Riceball had better numbers, but Riceball was verboten except for use on the Dragons. Besides, it traveled in a nice little case; the frostfire sword was the thing that got pointed at the monsters all the time. Probably half of the party’s increases in skill and stats went to making this weapon more effective. This will be significant later.
Anyway, along the way they have to face an enemy that makes illusions of their worst fears, because Cliché Bingo is the only game GM!Marty can capably play. Rick, Big Damn Hero that he is, is afraid of letting his personnel down, and accordingly many are killed in front of him. Then he goes berserk, and kills an impressive number of these fear demon things. Lily, being less violent by nature, just iceballs everything in sight rather than be dragged back to her own personal circle of Hell.
This was, of course, a test, which they “more or less passed”, and their reward is more prophecy! This time, it’s a ritual…and it is a long one. It takes dozens of pages of melodramatic poetry to describe, and it needs everything to be just so. It won’t kill the dragons; once they’ve already been killed, this massive magical endeavor will render them re-killable, for lack of a better word, although they’ll be banished instead. No reasons for any of the ritual stipulations are given; it’s just one big, long, stupid series of hoops to pad out the final act.
And that, readers, is why I don’t like running fantasy RPGs. Ultimately, the explanation for the fantastic elements frequently comes down to “it’s magic” or “a wizard did it”; I never found this satisfying, and neither do my players. For all that the reasons can easily be ludicrous, at least (reasonably hard) science fiction usually pretends to have a rationale behind the apparent weirdness, and my groups can take that and come up with something creative and interesting. Given technology and the internally consistent logical framework it implies, they’re an endless source of surprises. Given enough “it’s just magic”, they quit trying…and the story is that much less for it. Yes, I know there are Magic A is Magic A type of settings out there, but they still just feel wrong.
Thankfully, real life intruded, and if he was going to have the campaign done by the end of the semester he couldn’t send the players on a hunt for literally hundreds of rare ingredients. Instead, the liches and Fantasy Japan volunteer to do most of the “real work”, so the party can just focus on fighting the dragons. Most of their plans are still shot down, but eventually they even get to do something useful with their month of preparation and make a fleet of alcohol-powered V-1s. They’re powered by dwarven Decanters of Endless Booze, one per plane, and this is why there were so few of them, but still, progress; they even have as much as a third of their reasonable payload! Marty was in rare form here.
Naturally, they did precisely nothing; most of their “primitive guidance systems” missed the island with the dragons entirely. However, Rick was handy with a sword and an army of Lily’s ice minions; while he was hacking and charging, Lily was coordinating the ritual, miles away.
I have to say, this was actually a good fight. Everyone liked that they had a part that played to their strengths, and everyone’s part was vital enough to hold their interest. Of course the ritual part was just a series of checks, but still. It felt the good kind of cinematic; by chance, the switching of focus from one player to another was handled almost perfectly on time, increasing in tempo as events reached their crescendo. Rick was backflipping off one dragon to stab the other in the chest, switching between blaster rifle and katana as the opportunity arose and keeping them too close together to flame him; Lily was handling complications in the ritual almost before they cropped up. The GM even got the weather right; lots of lightning and swirling spirals of clouds, like the sky was spinning around them. I think the volcano erupted at some point, and everyone was too focused (and in Rick’s case, too airborne) to notice.
The fight ended at dawn, with the clouds parting as the last dragon dissipated; the island started to sink just as the lava reached the escape boats. But hey, they’d just beaten the Dragons of Eternity; molten rock was no big deal. They flung Riceball at the nearest lich, told him to get it back to its rightful owner, and leaped through the portal, elated to finally go home.
On the subplane on other side was Marty, calmly sipping tea and thanking them for “giving me so much time to take over the multiverse while you were handling this little matter for me.”
Damnit, Marty…


  1. Just to emphasize a few points,
    -Marty really wanted us to bring onigiri and Rick gently handed it to the lich to give it back, he didn't want to be in anyone's debt, and we said we would give it back, and weren't going to be coming back to do so if this was one way.
    -The lich tried to convince me it was better for me to bring it with us in case we needed it, and made a decent and fairly pushy case that i should take it just in case, but I counter-argued that rick wouldn't use it if I basically went against what he wanted and brought it, out of spite. So hah no "this sword is rightfully mine" moments for you Sue.
    -I also wanted my sword to be the one used in the final battle defeating the potential threat to all of reality, since I wanted my sword to become legendary, and being used in a battle against a threat to all of the apparently multiverse we were in certainly would be legendary ...
    -The tea was actually Rick's idea to confuse the GM or something, since he had me make it in advance and shrink it for him. I think he wanted to convince Marty to let his people go home before having their final showdown and needed to be civil for a bit to do so.

    1. Also I think you understated Lily's Response. She flipped the hell out and tried to basically annihilate the island with ice magic, ignoring the repercussions of spamming high level magic in order to kill the spiders, which after being tormented in the demonweb pits for decades she was justifiably phobic of. Luckily she didn't die from the spell-casting although she came close.

  2. Bad writing is bad writing, and this bad writing has nothing to do with it being the fantasy genre. Writing a story that's just a bunch of hoops to jump through is no good no matter the setting or the hoops in question.

    "Ultimately, the explanation for the fantastic elements frequently comes down to “it’s magic” or “a wizard did it”" -- that's just bad writing. It is not endemic to fantasy. It's the equivalent of technobabble.

    1. This actually caused me to comment. No, that's *bad* fantasy that falls back on "it's magic" to explain away stuff. There should be specific reasons why a certain magic ritual is needed, and if you have the time you can make the magic internally consistent and make sense.

    2. Agreed. If I have to tip over a goblet hidden in a tomb to stop an unkillable army, and I ask why it's bad writing to say "It's magic." It's god writing to say "The magic of the grail has been corrupted by necromancy, any whose blood touch it is brought to the brink of death and no mortal force can push them one way or the other as long as their blood still taints the chalice."

      Magic should not be without rhyme or reason, even if it is more sensitive, more temperamental and more sentient then the laws of physics that we know.