Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why I am Anxious about OSR Gaming.

The observant Burrower might notice that out of the several blogs listed on the side of the page here, more than a few of them deal heavily in Old School Renaissance/Revival content. This is not because I am particularly interested in OSR, though. It just sort of happened that I found them and happen to like a few ideas from each. And I still encourage any of you to go and check them out.

But this post is more about my weird feelings toward OSR than any writers of it. To be honest, nothing has prompted this post, either. I am not responding to any reader comments (though I would be happy to find some sort of question box feature for Blogger). This is just Furt trying to work self-therapy via text, because as it happens to be, the OSR is a source of a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for me.

First I should probably properly define the OSR- more for myself than for the reader, since you folks might very well be more into it than me, and in any case you have the Google at your fingertips. It's a loose term still, but it usually refers to modern tabletop role-playing games and their communities which go back into the history of tabletop RPGs, particularly D&D, and draw influences and mechanics from their earliest incarnations. A retro-clone of AD&D 1E, or of "Original" D&D, would be included in the Old School Renaissance. Often, rules bloat is consciously avoided and a much smaller body of rules is preferred, with individual DM or group rulings filling in the gaps on a case-by-case basis.

More than mechanics however, OSR games try to recapture the "feeling" of old RPGs. Feeling is hugely subjective, but a common agreement I've read is that the feeling includes a greater potential for danger, an emphasis on player skill, developing characters over time, and embracing various different approaches/deconstructions/reconstructions/love-letters to the classic act of dungeon crawling.

An excellent resource for helping to understand this "feeling" and getting started on your own old school experience is this primer from Mythmere Games. A lot of these "zen moments", or what I've for some reason come to call "pillars of OSR" will be guiding my haphazard rambling from this point onward. I guess I'll get right to it then.

Pillar #1

The first moment of zen is, as alluded to before, the use of "Rulings, not Rules". The players are not expected to have access to the whole ruleset of the game, and may even be discouraged to. They describe what their actions are, because there are no predefined rolls and checks with modifiers for them to use for those given actions. Rolls come in when there is something unexpected or variable, and it might just as easily be a d6 as a d20 roll. The DM or Referee has access to the rules, but they are meant to be used as a reference, not to define or even guide their actions.

The example given for this difference in approach by Modern vs. Old Style gaming is the disarming of a pit trap. In the modern style, the back-and-forth between player and DM is fairly brief, with checks made to detect and then disarm the trap in question. In the old style, the DM asks the player how they try to disarm the trap, and the player describes the exact feelings and actions of their character, as well as asks what they see. No die is rolled in the given exchange, and it ends without the pit trap being disarmed at all- just sidestepped by the rogue and party.

I had a vague understanding of what D&D was before 2000, but I didn't get into it until I got the boxed orange 3E set for either Yulesmas or my birthday, I forget which. As such, a d20+mod roll was the only way I knew how to solve a problem for the longest time. Unfortunately, my parents eventually took my orange d20 away when I started using it to determine my own hunger levels. More recently, when I broke my ~10 year streak of not actually getting to play the game and only dwelling in the theoretical elements of the game all by my lonesome, I approached it with a strong emphasis on character-building. It's a hobby of mine. Some people garden, or collect stamps, or consume massive quantities of recreational drugs. I boot up PCGen and fiddle with the math of a 20 point-buy and Wealth By Level in order to get the most satisfying, mechanical approximation of a neat character concept I can think of. I think of character ability in terms of feats and skill points, even when that can be limiting on approaches to a problem. And while the idea of stepping outside of that well-ordered box is enticing in theory, it also distresses me.

Another important bit of context is that, aside from one haphazard and charmingly abysmal attempt in my Junior year of high school, I have only ever played D&D or any other tabletop RPG over the internet. And the vast majority of those experiences have been PbP (Play-by-Post) games on message boards. In classic D&D, you get together with your buddies whom you know outside of the game, and hopefully you all have a sense of one another and your interests or ways of thinking about things. On the internet, where you send in character sheets and descriptions or biographies as part of a literal application process to the DM, things are a lot more anonymous. And that is where I think a strong body of rules is way more useful than fast and loose rulings. Rules become a means of communicating ideas to other people who have different starting points or wildly conflicting notions of common sense, and in many ways the ruleset becomes a specialized language used to facilitate the conversation of playing the game. Also, trying to play out that entire thief-referee conversation of what is seen and done in single-line posts over the course of several real-life days can severely hamper the progress of a game where people's availability is always shifting.

I suppose that feeling could be different, or would have the possibility of changing, if I ever play a face-to-face or at least real-time game with mutually-known people (I have yet to give something like Roll20 a real shot). But as it stands, "crunch" is a grounding, comforting thing which I can nonetheless use to my advantage, and I meet rules bloat and mountains of splat-books with delight rather than disdain because it comfortably widens the "box" I find myself within.

Pillar #2

"Player Skill, not Character Abilities" is a phrase that makes me quake with fear, and my insides tremble in such a way that I have to be careful how I stand up. In my mind, it strips away almost all of the role that luck has to play in the failure of my character, and it instead becomes a failure of me, the player. And I hate that feeling. I hate knowing that somehow, in a flexible game of options and possibilities where there is no intended "right way" to play, I have managed to play the wrongest way. It makes me feel useless to my (hypothetical) group of friends, and perhaps bad enough that it erases any gratification I might get from playing well. I don't trust myself to be skilled enough, or to ever gain the level of skill to be able to play. Even the possibility of a learning experience and the hope of doing better the next time around makes me feel stupid.

Don't ask me how the hell I managed to get through college with that attitude- I have no idea.

"Just play smart(er)" sounds like an obvious response to the problem, and that would in fact fix it. But then, in attempting to play smarter, the game becomes an exercise in suspicion, fear, and anxiety, and all of my creative energy goes toward imagining ways that things can or will go wrong. The simple act of sorting out the inventory of a relatively fragile shaman and their horse once became a grueling, months-long process where I (literally) weighed every single pound of encumbrance against its value and utility.

I agonized over how much space I had left below the Medium Load threshold for 11 Strength, and how any particularly valuable items were divided up between backpack and saddlebags. It became obvious (in my fevered mind) that the first monster we faced would immediately try to kill the character's horse and throw all of its items into a river or ravine, or disable the encumbered shaman to the point they'd be defenseless and dead. Every single possibility, even the ones with mutually exclusive possible solutions, became an inevitable scenario where It Was All My Fault™. And this was all for the relatively bloodless beginner levels of a Pathfinder Adventure Path!

This paranoia raised the question then of what I could reasonably expect a Dungeon Master to do. I don't think that many DMs are automatically sadistic, high-and-mighty, and out to get their players. But I do think that ORS games make it a lot easier for them to be. Again, maybe this would be changed by a face-to-face game where I do not imagine the DM as a shadowy figure behind a fortress of expensive referee screens decorated in images of Total Party Kills.

Another, smaller concern I have with this is the issue of effectively role-playing your character when you're relying on yourself, rather than them. A wizard with 18 Intelligence, for example, is objectively vastly more intelligent than most real-life humans are likely to be, and possessed of a greater ability to memorize details or absorb complex information. Yes, everyone has their dumb moments, but playing like you possess that high mental stat, especially if it's magically aided, sounds borderline impossible for an average player, or at least for me. So this character that should be able to handily meet a challenge has an even lower rate of success than what fickle dice would allow for in a modern style gaming context. And despite my reliance upon crunch, I value RP a good deal as well. This isn't so much of an issue with physical ability scores, since it's easier to imagine and describe feats of strength or speed, unless you have to show your work with body mechanics and physics homework.

Pillar #3

You ever stare at a word long enough that it looks misspelled, or just plain weird? I'm starting to get that way with "pillar" right now. Like the "ll" should be pronounced with the Spanish digraphic "y" sound. Or something entirely different, like pie-LAR... Anyway, on to the actual substance.

I actually have no problem with "Heroic, not Superhero". I like humble origins for characters, and just sort of stumbling into adventuring rather than starting off better than everyone else has its appeal to me. If they should be more powerful, for whatever reason, just raising the starting level and giving them a modest career history is perfectly fine. E6 is something that strives for that lower-magic,  grittier feel, and it's been around since the fairly early days of 3rd Edition. Pathfinder has a similar homebrewed meta-game, and a few 3rd-party publishers have even written gems about playing literal peasants.

But I also like high-powered games, even if I am terrible at managing magic items and spell slots. Both types of games seem equally enjoyable to me, subject to my flip-flopping weekly preferences of course. Combined with some of the above arguments, this power-level of game might make me more worried that common house cats will succeed in disemboweling my characters if they get pet the wrong way, but my anxiety doesn't reach a peak the same way. Eberron, one of my favorite settings, actually gives me an inkling of this same feeling because of how rare truly high-level characters are in the world. Sure, magic is everywhere, but it's mundane enough that you aren't a Superman among Batmans (Batmen?) for it.

Related to that note, does it make sense that I so closely associate the level of magic in a setting with the level of heroism vs. superheroism? I'm still mulling over what makes something "gritty" or "low" or "epic".

Pillar #4

Being told to "Forget Game Balance" is something I would be very tolerant of in a different medium. In a console RPG or MMORPG where a low-level player might make a wrong turn and get faced with a Hellobear, the penalty for dying is reverting to the last save, or respawning with some equipment damage, experience debt, whatever have you. Even in a roguelike game where death is permanent, a bewildering encounter with a nasty monster way higher up than its normal depth probably doesn't lose you a huge amount of time invested in a beloved creation.

But in a tabletop game where you can put in months of forum correspondence or hundreds of real-time hours, and using a system where resurrection magic is a pipe dream for many up until a certain level, I can't help but feel that that sucks for the players. The paragraph for this Moment of Zen claims that the old style campaign is in a fantasy world as opposed to a game setting, but it's still a game that is being played, and I think some degree of balancing should be implemented as such. I see the criticism of hand-holding in newer games a lot, but is it necessary to remove the handrails as well? What causes greater risks for smaller rewards inherently more fun?

I realize that some people can have fun while losing, and that a valid point in this is that if you can't have fun losing, then OSR possibly isn't the best choice for you. And in theory, I think I'd be fine with that if I could completely avoid attachment with my character in the event of their death by comical fluke. But I can't. In all of my years spent playing or thinking about playing D&D and its associated camp of RPGs, I have never had a character die on me. Granted, this is because all of the games I've been in have died before the PCs themselves. But I still fear the possibility (or maybe eventuality) of character death. It goes beyond the hours of investment or the list of gear on their person for me, since so many connections and story lines, as well as a part of myself, would also be dying with them. I guess I'm one of those people for whom a bad ending kinda spoils the good stuff leading up to it.

There's another sort of game balance I take a bit of issue with, and that's actually something that exists in many d20 games past and present, with the possible exception of games like D&D 4th Edition which emphasized power systems and things so heavily. This issue is party balance, and the ability of one character to contribute compared to another. I realize that prior to 3rd Edition, things like the God-Wizard and CoDzilla didn't really exist, but there were still areas of the game where one class outshined another. That is fine and expected with regards to party roles, but in my opinion it's kind of bizarre when it's applied to the progression of time.

I refer to the idea of Linear Fighters and Quadratic Wizards, and how characters will gradually transfer mechanical importance from one to the other as they level up, with a relatively narrow period of equality between them before mundane characters become redundant around formerly too fragile or specialized magic-users. The importance of player skill in OSR (and modern style games as well) can help mitigate this, sure, but it can also exacerbate it and make it even worse. I think this is the only point where I have a legitimate disagreement rather than a subjective anxiety attack, because a game works best when everyone feels like they can offer something at least seemingly equal, and aren't being overshadowed or overshadowing others. Both experiences can be unfun and guilt-inducing.

Miscellaneous Considerations

Not fitting into any of these major points are some of the specific bits which OSR games seem to lift from older games with confusing regularity. It might be nostalgia, or the grandfather clause at work, but they just vex me to no end.

Race-as-Class and Class Level Limits have gotten a lot of criticism and a lot of support in the past, and I don't mean to dredge up the played-out depths of the argument here. I can see how they would be useful for effectively marrying together mechanics and story, but only ever in a specific setting which they have been designed for, to reflect the unique conditions which characters in that world or universe experience. Beyond that, if they are the assumed way of things in any given setting in which the system is being used, that seems to me like a limitation of role-play and gameplay caused by overbearing mechanics, which is the exact opposite of what a lot of the OSR strives for. I think it would be better for the basic game rules to make no baked-in judgements on who can do what, and then leave that up to the specific DM, because barring existing but inappropriate material is a lot easier than but just as effective as making it from scratch to fill in gaps left behind by the authors' ideas of how the game should be played. 3.5E and Pathfinder DMs do that all the time when navigating the thousands of pages of printed materials to find what fits their campaign.

(This is also the part where I whine about so few deliberately old school games having playable, non-villainous orcs/goblins/what have you in the base rules, but that is because I am a one-trick pony with weird aesthetics, and I understand that faceless minions of darkness are an important facet of the feeling of the old days.)

Alignment is just... weird and difficult, and I don't get why so many (but not all) D&D retro-clones  embrace it like it isn't a source of needless out-of-game conflict. I admit I'm biased against objective morality in stories in general, but I feel like a big quality of life change could be to make it an optional rule boxed off from the rest of the game somewhere in the middle of the book. Unless of course the book is about Planescape, or another game where Outer Plane shenanigans are so integral to the plot. Then it gets a pass from me.

All of this said, I still like some of the ideas presented by OSR gamers. The blogs I follow have some bizarre ideas totally unlike what classic fantasy throws at you, and they remind me of how the Old School Renaissance, regardless of certain trends, is currently an absolute powerhouse of creativity and DIY-style world-building that allows for many cool and ironically new things to flourish. And that alone is good enough for me.

I do not know where I was going with any of this, if I even had a goal in mind. But it feels good to get this off of my chest and out into the ether. Thanks for bearing with me.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 9.

The interrogation began with almost insultingly simple questions, such as how to locate a person's pulse, or what the shapes of leaves of common but irritating vines come in. But they quickly grew more and more difficult, and now Sarq has gone from from quietly suffering through the experience to being significantly more engaged. Now he actually has something to prove, it seems. Elrusyo is delighted at this, even as he produces vial after vial of strange concoctions for our companion to identify and then explain the full and proper use for. Purgatives, topical solutions, ointments, even a narrow glass tube of highly potent and highly illegal analgesic extracted and diluted from crimson honey.

A brief respite plays out now, as Sarq is finally given a chance to take a drink of water and remedy the cotton-mouth his new tutor is afflicting him with through this intensive and unorthodox quizzing. Ciudo and Hraela are both impressed by this point, both by our newcomer and their fellow, and earlier misgivings seem to be banished- or at least temporarily subsumed beneath a lively layer of novelty and spectacle. A bump in the road missed by the carts ahead of and behind us causes water from Sarq's ladle to be thrown up into his face, and so the exam break ends with a chill and some sputtering.

The farther away from the topic of medicine and the use of herbs they move however, the longer Sarq's pauses become, the more uncertain his answers grow. But he hasn't answered incorrectly yet, and Elrusyo seems sensitive to that. He's leaned in now, rapt concentration in his features as he stares almost unblinking at Sarq, as if he were instead listening to a flowing, informed lecture not of his own partial creation. All this does is cause Sarq to sweat more and more, however. He fidgets with his black hair, and one leg bounces up and down unceasingly and unevenly, with the occasional rap of his boot sole sounding dully against the floorboards.

Next comes the treatment of bodily trauma, with issues of blood loss and an avoidance of infection seeming to be of very great importance to Elrusyo. It appears that he also has an... elaborate system developed for the measurement of volumes of blood and other bodily fluids in creatures. A system in which the contents of an average-sized human are the standardized unit of measure. So, for example, as he explains to a bewildered-looking Sarq, one human's worth of blood is equal to two-and-a-half dogs, and the volume of blood carried by the draft horse at the head of our caravan is equal to approximately eleven and one-fifth humans, or "one deca-human plus change" as he puts it.

The cart-drivers within earshot of us are beginning to grow uncomfortable.

Still, Sarq eventually gains a sound grasp of the math, and with a bit of exercise in the physics of liquids, he is able to satisfy Elrusyo's questions regarding exactly how quickly one has to act and what steps must be taken if someone were to sustain severe lacerations of an artery or major vein. He produces objects of his own now, demonstrating that he did not leave home unequipped to deal with such injuries. Somehow, he had managed to obtain a surgery-grade set of tools and many, many yards of bandaging, gauze, and gut string. Neatly tucking it all away after the last nod of acknowledgement from Elrusyo, Sarq seems quite pleased.

Then Elrusyo asks if he's ready to give a demonstration.

Sarq begins to ask what he is talking about, when no one is injured.

Elrusyo pulls back one of the loose sleeves of his coat, reveals the inside of his forearm, and then draws a hitherto-unseen blade from his belt diagonally across it, cutting a fairly deep-looking gash into himself.

"You now have approximately ten minutes to treat your patient before blood loss becomes life-threatening; that's a little over four talecks, for you University kids!" Elrusyo exclaims almost cheerfully as he presents his maimed arm to my trio of horrified companions.

I quietly pull my legs in under myself in order to avoid bloodying my shoes.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Courtship in the Fokari Tribes.

((Happy Inverted Silphium Seedpod Day, Burrowers! I hope that each of you and your significant other (or others) have had a tolerable middle of the week together. And if you haven't, or you don't have an other, well, screw it! The holiday's a soulless commercial juggernaut anyway, and indulgence chocolate will be half-off tomorrow.

Seriously though, be good to yourselves out there.

As for myself, I've decided to stop with the crippling fear of exposure and launch a donations page! A few of your fellow Burrowers have already contributed, and I am humbled by the quick responses and willingness to support me.

This doesn't mean I'm retiring my plans for a Patreon, however. Things are progressing in that respect, albeit slowly. I just gotta make sure the banner art and video voice-over are good...

For now, I thought I'd write something appropriate for the occasion, as well as revisit our perpetually present yet narratively separated wasteland friends to the east.))

"Here are all of the things you will need to furnish your tent, Aymajah."
"Incense, perfumes, a brazier for the fire, a new dress with a cut that would make father's heart seize up from horror... a dagger, mother?"
"Even the finest pashdehm cloth should be hiding steel, child."
- Bisnaj, educating her daughter on the finer points of keeping a suitor tent.

"I heard that Ghaanbold offered up three carved wooden staves to that girl from the Zirkh family."
"Hah! Poor, love-struck fool. Doesn't he know how she looks at the Speaker's nephew?"
"By the end of the month, he'll find his staves propping up the flap of some stranger's marriage tent!"
- Banter filtering out of the Sheyhan tribal elders' tent.

Marriage and procreation is a public matter of some consequence in many Fokari tribes, often involving the input of family members and several key authorities within the camp. But that does not mean that the Fokari abstain from love or romance otherwise. Quite the opposite, in fact.

After a Fokar has graduated into adulthood through various deeds or consensus, but before they branch off from their family unit with a spouse, they are considered to be bachelors and bachelorettes. Though they are limited to the family tent and are expected to contribute to family affairs as full-fledged adults, single young Fokari are expected and sometimes encouraged to spend less time at home. The friendships they cultivated in earlier years are expected to develop into practical connections which will support them throughout life. Additionally, a certain degree of field-playing is considered to be the makings for an ideal partner. Inexperience breeds weakness and leads to death out on the wastes, and it could be said that this outlook has to some degree influenced Fokari perceptions of intimacy.

Of course it would be indecent, or at least awkward, for young Fokari to progress their flirting and courtship rituals within or around a family's tent. The solution to this is, somewhat surprisingly, simply to make an entirely new one.

These tents are made by the family of a young woman, and situated several meters away from the primary family dwelling. Normally, they are made of plain felt and are left completely unadorned. They do not incorporate any of the imagery of motifs of the family's patchwork ceiling program into their roofs, and when they are eventually deconstructed for the last time, nothing from them is added back to the family tent either. Instead the finer, more usable material from the tent is recycled into articles, garments, rugs, rags, or anything of the sort, which the woman would bring with her into her new married life. Thus her time spent in this tent is almost akin to living within one's own hope chest.

But the more important use of the tent is unrelated to recycling. It serves as a place to which a young Fokar woman may bring any prospective suitors of her choice. In the case of particularly sought-after women, it becomes a gathering place for suitors either vying for her attentions, or supporting one of their friends in the endeavor. Likewise, a woman's female friends might congregate just within her threshold, competing or cooperating in their own way with regards to the preferable men outside. Physical beauty is unsurprisingly of great significance for both sexes, but other qualities are taken into consideration as well. A man's looks or material gifts will only get him so far, if he cannot also sing or speak poetry, while a woman excelling as hostess but lacking in brusque charm or a biting wit may come across as dull.

Often these gatherings will end with everyone dispersing come sunset, but periodically a match will indeed be made, at least in the short term. The other players depart, the flap to the suitor tent is shut, and private, nightly business is attended to. Several such nights may pass without any explicit conduct between the two, according to the preferences of the pair and the intricate, often reversing games of cat and mouse played through conversations, music, and a surprisingly convoluted ritual of sharing and drinking butter-tea. (A tea which often has contraceptive additives, harvested from the hardy and exotic plants of the wastes or the unspeakable glands and organs of badlands creatures.)

A woman may invite several suitors into her tent over the span of several months or years, and a man may visit several different tents before an agreement it made between a pair (and their families). A Fokar man must be careful not to force a matter, carnal or marital, with a woman however. No matter how ephemeral the tent is, its mistress is considered to be sovereign within it, and there are more than a few stories in Fokari mythology and living memory of presumptive boys being slashed across the face by his date's ranqanj (lit. "thigh-dagger"). Facial scars are considered to be especially unbecoming among the Fokari, due to their close association with the punishments meted out to gravely offending criminals.

Thankfully however, these incidents are quite rare, and the game goes on as normal.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 8.

After properly greeting my long-time quill-companion, Hraela saw fit to sheathe her "practice" longsword and take her seat at the far end of the wagon once more. Though even now, she does not seem very pleased with Elrusyo's presence or continued antics. I find that he is a decent fellow in person, however. We are kindred spirits, after a fashion, with both of us sharing a deep and motivating feeling of frustration with our respective worlds. For Elrusyo, it is the deeply entrenched practices and beliefs which define the use of the supernatural, as well as superstitions and prejudices against it, ultimately resulting in an environment in which an intrinsic and integral part of the world is misunderstood, and access to knowledge of it is limited at best. For me, it is the simultaneous denial and hoarding of more mundane or secular knowledge by certain bureaucratized places of learning.

Hraela does raise a valid question however, breaking the silence which Ciudo and Sarq were awkwardly contributing to for the past several moments. She draws enough of Elrusyo's attention in fact that I have now returned to writing, though now with my off-hand, and a bit more discreetly.¹ Hraela asks how he boarded the wagon unnoticed, why he did so, and what exactly he plans to do now that he's joined us- she could be practicing the flick-release execution of a ranged murder-stroke under the tutelage of her master instead, and she will not have this expedition derailed by witch-men with affectations.

Elrusyo blinks at her, and is silent for a moment. Then he bows his head in acquiescence, but comes back up smiling again in a moment before looking the three of my associates over curiously.

"Oh, she's spirited, 'Ber. You picked your muscle well. I doubt she's the doctor, though. Something about her makes me think she is lacking in... bedside manner." He raises both hands up with flat palms in deference as she once again grips her sword. Now his staff is resting across his front, iron cap glinting dully in the sunlight as we shudder slowly onward. Fortunately our delay did not leave us more than a few moments behind the rest of the caravan.

"Sorry, sorry. But that is why I am here, at least in part. To know that once you've left my territory, you won't be forging headlong over a precipice made slick with blood, tears, and piss. At least, not without someone who can adequately patch you up. Which one of you is the team's medic- this so-called "botanist" among you?" Gradually Elrusyo's tone turns from smalmed and casual to one that is quite serious as he speaks, and his vaguely owl-like eyebrows arch and contort to go along with it. It is enough that, in addition to looking to Sarq, they slightly shift along the bench away from him in either direction. He swallows and hesitantly raises two fingers into the air.

Elrusyo smiles, but doesn't look any less sharp and serious for it.

"Ah! Hello there. Sarq, was it? I understand that all of you have been able to take academic leave because of your outstanding marks back home- is that correct?" Sarq nods without a word.

"Splendid!" He raps his stick on the floor once.

"Well, I have my own exam prepared just for you, and just between you and me, I think it will be a cut above the material they've drilled you on, up in that dingy little glorified steeple of yours. Let's begin now, shall we...?"

¹ It is a little-known fact that, despite the huge amounts of red tape surrounding the veneration or even mention of Dherna in Deneroth, the publicly-available resources used to identify and ferret out potential worshipers of the goddess of confessions and secrets include a wealth of information on how to mimic the high-speed and shorthand writing styles of ordained Guilt-Takers. I quite enjoy it, though it does make sharing rough notes challenging when most other readers can't make front or back of it.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 7.

We slow to a stop at another small hamlet to water the animals again. It is past noon now, and we've eaten a meager meal while bumping back and forth in our carts, and sipped drinks at calm or still moments. One of the porters, a graying man with a bald patch on top and ruddy skin, enters deeper into the town and apparently runs into friends or family. The sounds of exclamations and calls come from the firmly locked homes as they suddenly open up, and before long no fewer than four or five people are out in the cold talking to him while we stand around and stamp in a line along the road.

I can hear bits of their speech carrying along on the wind, but I cannot understand much of it. Ciudo explains that it seems to be a pidgin of lowland and hill-dweller tongues, but it changes its own grammatical rules so freely from speaker to speaker that he can scarcely tell us what is being discussed, other than that it is some sort of exchange. This bodes somewhat poorly for his ability to assist us with interpretation in the future, given how varied and patchwork the languages of the land can be beyond the institutionalized sterility of Deneroth. But in this instance we are already covered, and I will keep that concern to myself until it might be mollified.

Eventually we witness the outcome of this, or at least one of them. The various locals, family heads apparently, duck back into their homes at length while the ruddy man, now veritably pink in the cold wind, ambles a few steps closer to us as if to move forward on something he is still waiting on. Then the doors open again, and many more people than before exit. They bear bundled rags or sackcloth bags, none of them very large or heavy or filled, but quite a few being produced regardless. These are promptly handed over to the man, and then to the caravan as a whole. He seems quite pleased with himself, and his fellows, previously taciturn from waiting in the cold, seem willing to give him credit as well. Once farewells are taken care of, the sluggish animals are spurred on again, and we slowly wind our way through the hills once more, now beginning to turn due south, and soon southeast.

The cart stores are now just a little bit heavier with dried fish or salted pork, a cask or two of drink with negligible alcoholic content for on-the-job hours, and a handful of other minor conveniences to get us a few miles further.

And, a man.

Sarq was the first to notice him, just sitting in my shadow at the corner of the wagon where the half-erected cover was most tightly bunched up, providing a windbreak for us. Sarq jumped in surprise and alerted the others, and in a moment the vehicle ground to a halt, stalling the rear half of the caravan. I personally had to pick myself up off of the wooden floor and pretend like I had not cracked my elbow on the edge of a seat going down, while turning to address this tag-along whom no one had seen in the hamlet or with the group.

He chuckles, but in the interest of not escalating our confusion into ire and getting beaten by a half-dozen mule-keepers and grumpy students, he shifts down his seat, out of the shade, and lifts his face up to be seen clearly.

He is... scruffy, in one word. Unshaven, but not given to an actual beard yet either, to give several more. Black hair comes down to his shoulders, a slightly out-of-place tooth juts inward from his smile, his gnarled and pigment-stained fingers clutch a walking stick with an iron cap on one end, and his cloak half-conceals an abundance of small packs, pouches, pockets, and utilities hanging from or sewn into his woolen attire.

He is, as had been foretold, excruciatingly Elrusyo-like, and he reaches out to shake my hand even as he tells me to put down that poor, abused quill and stop scribbling like a Low-Court proceedings recorder.