Sunday, November 28, 2010

On Gamesmastering and World Weaving

There is a distinction I would like to make between Gamesmastering and World Weaving. How one would Gamesmaster a scene happens to be based on a set of skills that are completely different than what it takes to World Weave one. I am thinking that this distinction I have not discussed here yet and so I’d like to take a moment to bring the topic to light. I will start with World Weaving.

First, a clear definition of World Weaving would be the right place to start, so here it goes. World Weaving is the act of creating the background material for an RPG World, and it is very much like authoring a fictional story. It can, and usually does, incorporate historical backdrop, sociology, economics, politics and principal characters of the story and how they relate to one another and what their position in the World is. What skills go into World Weaving? Well, principally the same ones that go into story writing. An understanding of the above topics is a good place to start. It also requires creativity and probably good writing skills. I also include artwork and photography as part of my own World Weaving. And I read a great deal of classical literature and mythology to inspire my back-stories and non-player characters.  I’m not sure what else, but that’s a fair enough summary of the basics.

Gamesmastering, on the other hand, is a different thing all together and has to do with all of the activities that go toward running an RPG. A Gamesmaster need not be a World Weaver as he can use someone else’s World, such as the modules put out by TSR which comprised someone else’s World Weaving. But Gamesmastering is certainly an art unto itself. What skills are required? Well again, creativity is required, but of a different sort. In this case improvisational acting and a sense of plot development are good and necessary skills. A thorough understanding of the rules, and the ability to handle whatever mathematics are required is a must.  And the ability to manage a group of people with potentially conflicting interests, objectives, desires and personalities through the game experience is a great asset to Gamesmasters. That can be more challenging than it sounds. Keeping a RPG going over a period of time is in and of itself a major achievement.

In other words, Gamesmastering and World Weaving are two separate things, requiring different sets of skills, and it is possible, and not uncommon, that a person can be quite good at one, but not so good at the other.  Those Gamesmasters who can do both well are not very common in my experience, though I have met a few.

It takes quite a bit of creativity to be a good Gamesmaster, and quite a bit more to be a good World Weaver.   And despite the fact that both require unique skills, when the two abilities are found in one Gamesmaster, that person has the potential to run a truly Literary Quality World... if they also happen to focus on that aspect as well.  Which of course is yet another tier of mastery to be achieved.

When I started Gamemastering in 1978 no one said it was going to be an easy skill to master.  Indeed, it is not. However, for those who do master the various skills necessary for Great Gamesmastering, it is a tremendously rewarding experience.   I encourage Gamemasters to work hard at the art, and develop their skills.  One day those skills will come in very handy, I think, in the new art form that is bound to take a central place in the world of entertainment.   It will take time, and there are a number of tools that are still required to make the art form flourish, but they are being worked on, and in due time things will piece together it we will one day find that the greatest art form of all is that of a truly great Gamesmaster.

I'll try to follow up on exactly what I mean by that over time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Homeward Bound – Part 5

Suddenly there was a knock at the barn door.

Thum Thum Thum.

No one moved.

Thum. Thum. Thum.

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ stood in combat ready positions facing the door. No one spoke. After a pause the barn door slowly creaked open. A beautiful woman stepped into the flickering light cast by the lantern. She was wearing a black leather skullcap from which flowed long red hair in waves over her shoulders and down the back of her black cape. She was armored in jet black chain male, tall black boots, and she carried a long silver sword in her right hand.  Stopped at the entrance, she looked into the barn with a steady gaze. No one moved.

“You’re trespassing,” said Juliette.

“Why didn’t you answer?” she asked.

“You’re trespassing,” repeated Juliette. "You shouldn’t be here anyway."

“I’ve come to negotiate,” said the beautiful woman.

“About what?” asked Juliette.

“I think you know about what,” said the woman with her steady gaze locked on Juliette's eyes.

“About this giant crow-plant growing? You can have it,” said Juliette impulsively. But after a moment’s reflection she changed her mind.

“No, actually,” Juliette continued. “You can’t have it.”

The woman looked rather disappointed, for a moment, but then regained her composure and said, “I will take it off your hands for you.”

“I’m concerned,” said Juliette, “that you may do bad things with it.”

“Why do you think that?” asked the woman.

“Because the last time we met you knocked me out. And pushed me down the stairs. I think you remember. It was at the McFearson barn. I believe we were both trespassing then.”

“It was a confusing situation, I admit,” replied the woman. “But we know each other now.”

“Do we?” asked Juliette with an inflection in her voice that conveyed her disbelief.

“We do,” replied the woman with a serene tone. “I will pay you a fair compensation.”

“What will you do with the plant-man?” asked Juliette.

“I will take it away from here. You won’t have to worry about it,” the woman replied.

“I don’t trust you,” Juliette replied after a short pause.

“I will give you fair compensation,” repeated the woman.

“You already said that, and I don’t care,” replied Juliette.

“Would you like to know what the fair compensation is?” asked the woman.

“You can tell me, if you wish,” said Juliette.

The woman removed from a leather bag a parchment scroll, and said, “This.”

“That doesn’t look very … fair,” said Juliette. “What’s on the parchment?”

“It’s a very old scroll. One that people around here have been looking for,” the woman replied. “I happened to have found it. And I’d be willing to trade it to you in exchange for what is in that jar,” said the woman pointing to the glass jar on the table in which stood the little bark-man, his hands pressed against the glass, his tiny black eyes darting this way and that.

“Is this the scroll that our brother Water Wizard got in trouble for allegedly stealing?” asked Juliette almost to herself. As there was no reply she went on. “Where did you get this?”

“I have my sources,” replied the woman as she pulled aside strands of red hair from her face. She was indeed, very beautiful.  All of the men in the room would have sworn to it.

“Would your source perchance be the dead bodies of my brothers?” asked Juliette sternly. “I haven’t seen them in a while.”

“You haven’t been around for a while,” replied the woman unmoved by the accusation.

Meanwhile outside on the snow crusted beams of the barn roof Storm Wizard watched the three figures who had taken up positions at three points in the snow drifts surrounding the barn. They remained motionless, and so Storm Wizard listened as best he could through the wooden slats of the roof to the conversation occurring below him. The snow shrouded wind through the nearby apple trees, while all around, crows, unseen against the night sky, cawed steadily from the darkness.

“Indeed, they have been around, and no, they are not dead,” said the woman. “Do we have a deal?”

Juliette was wavering. On the one hand she wanted to be rid of the bark-man. She also wanted to be rid of the woman. Sending them off together in exchange for the scroll that had been the source of considerable trouble in their family, and greatly desired by the Guild Lords did seem tempting to her.

“You should say ‘Yes’,” the woman went on after a pause. “I do not think you know how to handle the little man in the jar.”

“You’re probably right,” admitted Juliette. “But what about the other seeds? And why did you give us the seeds in the first place?”

“I didn’t,” said the woman, with a hint of surprise in her voice.

“Well why did your friend with the short furry skin give us the seeds, then?” asked Juliette impatiently.

“He’s not my friend,” the woman said with a raised eyebrow.

“Then why didn’t you knock him out and push him down the stairs?” asked Juliette.

“I was hiding. You people, in fact, interrupted my plans at the time. I would have obtained what I wanted, had you not interfered.”

Juliette considered. She began to see the logic of accepting the trade. Nor did she sense that the woman had malevolent intentions.

“These deals never turn out well,” said Bran from the shadow he was hiding in on the loft.

“That may be true,” said Juliette in response, “but she is probably right that we can’t handle the bark-man.”

“But what makes you think that she can? And why does she want him? She hasn’t explained that yet, either,” said Bran. “She’s giving us a musty old scroll for a little wooden person.”

“It’s a very important scroll,” said Juliette.

“What is the scroll?” asked Bran. “Let me see it,” he said to the woman.

“I’m not making the trade with you, I’m making it with her,” said the woman pulling the scroll back.

“I’m here,” replied Bran. “and I want to see it before we make the trade. That’s common courtesy in trades such as this. After all, how do we know if you’re presenting us with a real scroll, or some chicken scribble on a parchment unless we see it?”

The woman glared at him. Bran then felt a strange feeling as he looked into her penetrating blue eyes. It felt as though some power flew past him, brushing past his mind with the force of a hurled stone or arrow.”

“Did you just … cast something at me?” asked Bran angrily. But the woman just smiled, and turned her gaze back to Juliette. At this point Storm Wizard decided that the negotiations were not going well, and he thought it would be a good idea to begin taking out the opposition surrounding the barn. He thought about casting a stun beam, but realized that she would probably hear him chanting, and so instead he flew along the beam of the roof toward the door of the barn so that he could fly down quickly in case he was needed inside. Meanwhile, Bran was still arguing with the woman, insisting that she show them the scroll before any decision was made.

“It is what I said,” and unrolling the first section of the scroll, she pointed and showed them the strange illegible text that had been written on the parchment by some ancient hand long ago in a language that was no longer known. “You see?”

“This could be recipe for chicken soup for all we know,” said Bran.

However, Juliette found the fact that she did not even recognize the language a persuasive fact, indicating that this indeed most probably was the scroll that the Gravitavius, the Grand Master of the Adventurer’s Guild, had come to all the way to Hamfest to fetch in order to bring back to Glendale. It was well known by the membership that the scrolls that had been found were written in a language that no one knew, and that made them all the more important.

“What are you going to do with the little wooden man?” asked Juliette again.

“I’m going to take him away from here,” said the woman.

“And then?”

“I don’t know yet,” she replied candidly. “I should mention… I’m not the only person who is interested in what you have growing here.”

“Who else?” asked Bran.

“Other people, who happen to be far more … aggressive negotiators than I am,” came the cryptic reply.

“Will you get rid of the crows and the rest of the plant as well, if I agree?” asked Juliette.

“The crows will follow me away from here, but the rest of the plant, I’m afraid I don’t know anything more about it than you do at this point.”

“What is the little wooden man?” asked Bran. “If you want to take him with you so badly, surely you must know what he is, and so you must tell us before we agree.”

“I’m not entirely sure,” she said. “What I know is that he was created by the use of one of the three scrolls. That much I know because I observed it. There were three scrolls. Now there is one. One of the scrolls was used to create the black seeds that made the little plant-man.”

“Who are you?” asked Juliette.

“My name is Mordalia”, said the woman.

Juilette searched her memory for that name, and remembered that there was a folk tale that told of a far off land that was ruled by a line of powerful Queens, the last of whom had three adventurous daughters, all noble princesses. One of these Princesses was named Mordalia. However, Juliette had no way of knowing if that folk tale had anything at all do with the woman standing before her. But it did strike her as a very curious name indeed, and certainly not a common one.

Juliette made up her mind. She decided that it would be best to give the little bark-man to Mordalia in exchange for the scroll. The little bark-man began to bang his little fists on the glass walls of the jar.

“I’m still not sure about this deal,” said Bran. “What if you take the little man, and do something evil with him? Then we would be responsible for having given him to you.”

“I think the real question is,” replied Mordalia, “What evil might the little man do if you leave him to grow up here, and don’t allow me to take him away with me?”

“Perhaps, but it might do something evil period…. Now, we don’t know you. I think it would be better if we took the little man to the township of Glendale and bring him to the one of the Arch Mages of the Guild for study,” concluded Bran. “After all, we don’t know you. And what if he grows up into a wood-monster and starts rampaging through the land?”

“I strongly suspect that you can’t handle this,” said Mordalia.

“I am willing to make the exchange with you, Mordalia,” said Juliette, the idea of a wood-monster coming out of her barn some day persuading her that it was the best thing to do.

Mordalia held out the scroll, and held out her other hand. Juliette put the jar with the little bark-man in it (he seemed none too pleased at this turn of events, but was ignored entirely by those making the arrangement regarding his future) in Mordalia’s hand, and took the bag with the scrolls in it.

Mordalia then backed out of the barn door, signaled her men-at-arms, and they vanished off through the snow into the dark blizzarding night. The crows, still cawing, lit into the air, and in a great raucous cloud followed her away.

Juliettte wanted very much at that point to go visit her parents, having discovered, and somewhat resolved the mystery of what, exactly, had grown from the black seed in the Bellowick barn.

Bran offered to take the scrolls back to town with Ben and Morgana, and at Juliette’s suggestion Laraby was asked to accompany them. Daniel and Brian, being Bellowicks, of course, wished to see their parents as well, and so it was decided that the Bellowicks would enjoy their reunion together, and everyone else would head into Hamfeset with the scrolls.

“Yeah, Laramy, you should come with us,” said Bran with a big grin. Laraby gave him a disinterested gaze, but agreed to go with them. Morgana, he thought, though hearty and hail, deserved to have someone along who could help to ward off the dangers of the night road, whatever they might be.

As a last matter, Juliette went to the plant that was laying in a mound of dirt on the table below the shelf from which the pot had fallen when she had called upon Minvar to destroy it. From the dirt a long green strand of vine descended to the floor and disappeared between the floorboards. Juliette found that trying to cut the vine with her dagger was much more difficult than she expected. She could not cut it. She also found that where she touched the vine her hand began to sting, and she saw little red welts growing on her skin. And so she  decided it might be a good idea to go back to the Monastery and see if the good Abbess of Minvar might know of some way to kill the vine.  Brian, who was as mystified by the plant as everyone else, decided to pry up the floorboards to see where the plant went. He took a crowbar to it, and found that the vine vanished into a crack between two large rocks on it's way past the wooden planks of the barn wall.

Meanwhile Storm Wizard had flewn off after Mordalia. As soon as he did a large arm of the crow cloud began to fly toward him. He flew high up into the air to evade them and the crows attempted to follow him, but at that height it became bitter cold, and they were all hampered because of the wind and snow. Flying was very difficult in those conditions. After a while, having tried a number of evasive circling maneuvers, Storm Wizard lost track of where Mordalia had gone. The snow became thicker and visibility at night was quite low, and so after a final failed attempt to regain her trail, and having met once again with a cloud of crows, he gave up and flew back to the Bellowick’s barn, and rejoined his friends and family. The crows did not follow him once he turned to head back home.

“Where’ve you been?” asked Bran as Storm Wizard came in through a window covered with snow and frost.

“Oh just out on a little fly about,” he said as Morgana threw a blanket over him.

“You folks go and see your family,” said Bran. “Go. We’ll take care of getting the scrolls to the Guild. Don’t worry. Go, see your mom and dad. Go!”

“Well, so much for having bothered to get all our chores done ahead of time,” said Storm Wizard to Juliette thinking back to the day that they began their adventures as they headed up the path toward the house. She chuckled at this, and they all began to laugh out loud. Brian and Daniel carried logs for the fire from the barn, and in a few moments they were at their old front door, safe and sound, finally. Without knocking Juliette opened the door and they stepped into the warm comfortable light of home.

When old man Bellowick saw his children enter the house after such a long absence he stood up ran toward them, hugging them all in his great wide arms.

“My children! Where have you been for so long?! I am overwhelmed with joy that you have come home at last! We have been worried to death for you!” he said, emotion choking his words, as tears streamed down his strong, weathered face.

“Hi Daddy!” cried Juliette hugging him madly. All of the other children in the house surged down stairs and out of the kitchen and up from the cellar to meet the four siblings who had returned. Out from the library stepped Water Wizard, and from the den stepped Fire Wizard. They looked approvingly on their young brothers and sister, and came and hugged each of them.

“There’s many adventures to tell of, I imagine,” said Water Wizard, the eldest brother of the household.

“Of course, my brother,” interjected Fire Wizard, “but now is not the time. First everyone should be fed, and warmed by the fire, and given time to rest and enjoy home after their long journey!”

Juliette, seeing her two brothers who were such rivals when they left actually getting along, was warmed at heart by this, and so, being reminded, she said, “Oh, we found the scrolls.”

“The scrolls?” the two young men asked incredulously.

“Yes. In the barn.”

“You found THE Scrolls… in … the barn?”, they asked almost as one person.

“Yup,” said Storm Wizard. “We found the scrolls in the barn. Yup.”

The two young men looked at each other, then at their younger siblings, and then back at one another again. They rolled their eyes, and were it not for the fact that they were so delighted to see them after such a long absence, they would have been quite a bit more peeved than they were. After all, they’d gone through quite a bit of trouble over those scrolls, and to think that their younger siblings simply found them in the barn, well, it was a bit much for the two of them to bare. And then the entire family burst out with laughter, and sounds of joy.

“Children, children,” said old man Bellowick. “Please! Quiet down! You know, you must keep quiet. Your mother,” he said turning to four returned siblings, “fell ill, you see, soon after you left at the beginning of winter. She’s been bed resting since then, so everyone, remember your manners and please be quiet.”  And so everyone except the youngest hushed and looked up the stairs toward the master bedroom.

When they heard this, the four prodigal siblings were alarmed and aggrieved.

“Ill?!”, said the four together. “What happened?”

“It is hard to say, but it was late in the autumn, after the had crows come, and she tripped on a root in the garden, and banged her head on an old stone, and when I found her she was laying unconscious on the ground. I don’t know for how long exactly. Her recovery, such as it is, has been slow, and fitful. She has had dreams, of a sort, and sometimes we don’t know of what she is speaking, or sometimes if she can see us at all.”

This greatly alarmed the children, and they went immediately up to their mother’s room to see her. She was laying in bed under the covers, a warm fire glowing in the hearth, and a candle by her on the night table. She was sleeping when they came in, and Juliette gently took her hand, and so she awoke a little from her dreams, and looked at Juliette and smiled warmly. “My dear daughter,” she said. “You’ve come home from the dark river at last, and brought my dear stalwart warriors home with you. I’m so glad,” she said softly. And then she looked at Storm Wizard, and said, “Many things are due to change, now that a pig has flown, and such a brave one, too.” And then she fell back to sleep. She seemed quite at peace, smiling in her sleep, and murmuring to herself from within her dreams.

And so it was that the Adventures of the Black Seed came full circle, and the Bellowick Family was reunited, and the matter of the disappearing scrolls was resolved. And all seemed well with the world, at that moment. And everyone went downstairs for a huge feast of ham, and biscuits, and pork chops, and cheese, and bacon, and broccoli, and warm cider, and Juliette and Storm Wizard recounted their adventures as best they could, leaving out much that they deemed would probably have sounded highly improbable to some of their family members, including especially their dear old father, who didn’t believe much in magic, or superstition, or tiny insect-men, or flying pigs after all.

After the feast and the stories, Storm Wizard flew off into the night to pay a visit to old Biddy Mable, to see if he might not be able to obtain from her a bowl of her most wonderful healing soup. And Juliette sat by her mother’s side, and held her hand as she slept, dreaming dreams.

Previous Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 4

The End of the 2009-2010 Play Test Campaign.
The Beginning of the 2011-2012 Play Test Campaign.

Next Episode: The Mystery of the Yellow Robed Man

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Homeward Bound – Part 4

“That seems rather odd,” said Storm Wizard a bit disconcerted at the enormous number of crows dotting the snow, perched on the trees and flying in numerous circles around his barn, which they could see from a distance as they rounded the top of a hill still a fair way off.

“It does,” said Juliette with a discernable note of unease. It was rather eerie, they thought.

On the crest of another small hill that they were passing Juliette noticed a movement out of the corner of her mystic eye. She gazed at it, her eye briefly glowing a fiery red, and saw against the darkening gray skyline a silhouette of a lone wolf crouching low against a log, stealthily watching their little group pass by.

“There’s a wolf on the hill,” said Juliette, pointing toward it, but as soon as she did, the wolf slid away down the other side of the hill out of view, and out of the range of her mystic vision. They kept to the path, and conversation again wandered back to the more mundane aspects of life as Bran tried to distract the group from the eerie sight of the crows on Bellowick farm.

“Must be pretty good being a swine herder,” Bran was saying. “I mean once you get the pigs where you want them, you can just lay down for 40 winks and take it easy, eh?”

“Well, it’s milking the pigs that’s the hard part,” Juliette replied, a little miffed at the insinuation that the swine herders were a lazy lot.

“Huh,” said Bran. “I never thought about that… but then again, I didn’t know anyone milked pigs to begin with. I mean, I never heard of anyone drinking pig’s milk, or anything. I wonder if it tastes good.”

“Oh no, not at all. It tastes horrible,” replied Juliette earnestly. “Pigs are awesome for everything tasty – except milk. It’s their one failing in life,” she said with a slight smirk. Storm Wizard and the others looked at her with various shades of surprise. After all, she was kidding. But Bran, who was a town dweller, didn’t know anything about swine herding, and so he missed the joke. Or seemed to, at least.

“Really. Well, that makes sense then,” he said pleasantly. They trudged on through the snow a little further and Bran’s curiosity again pricked at him.

“So Juliette, what is your new eye made of?” he asked.

“A stone,” she replied.

“Oh, cause when it glows like that, I noticed there’s a kind of spiral pattern in the fire, and it reminded me of the design that’s engraved on the stones out behind the Hogsworth farm, you know. Do you know what the symbol means?”

“No,” said Juliette.

“But you let someone put it in your eye?” he pressed.

“Well it seemed like a good idea at the time,” she answered with a laugh.

“Hey, if you had the chance for Super-Vision, you’d take it wouldn’t you?” asked Storm Wizard of Bran.

“Well, no… I don’t think so”, replied Bran thoughtfully.

“Well, then your silly,” answered Storm Wizard.

“Well, I like what I’ve got here,” he said pointing to himself with his hands. “I mean the Elkron gave me a pretty good package,” he said with a bit of a smug air. Everyone looked at him. Bran was short with a wide girth, long thin tangled hair, and a bit of a pushed in nose due to a childhood accident. He was certainly not much to look at, though Bran always thought that he could have been good looking, if he exercised a bit, and combed his hair, but he just didn’t care to go through the effort. Juliette rolled her one natural eye.

“Uh, yeah, pretty awesome,” commented Morgana dryly.

“The Elkron gave me a pretty good package,” said Bran, “and besides I’m not going to go stick some hokus-pokus stone in my head because some fish thought it might look nice there.”

Everyone laughed at that as they rounded the last bend near the Bellowick’s farm.

“It was a salmon,” corrected Juliette.

“Well, actually I got it for her from the Tower on Black Hill,” interjected Storm Wizard. “It was in a little grotto along the outer rim of the parapet nestled within one of the stone blocks, inside of which is the Temple of the Aphids. After we grew big the first time, I flew up and took it, and then gave it to Juliette, as stones are her thing, you know… being an acolyte of Minvar and all.”

“Well having Super-Vision, or whatever you call it, might be nice, but I’m pretty happy with myself the way I am,” concluded Bran.

“Good for you,” said Storm Wizard, as they trudged along the snow-covered lane towards the old homestead. The Bellowicks were not a wealthy family, but they had a large family, and so the house was two stories, and quite large for the area. Up in the windows the adventurer’s could see that the evening candles had been lit, and they caught the aroma of sizzling pork chops, and they all thought about how good it would soon be to be nice and cozy at home with their family safe and sound at last. But first, there was an important piece of business that they had to attend to, before anything else.

Finally, they had arrived at the Bellowick’s big old barn. The crows were flying in circles forming a large cawing cloud of black dots against the darkening purple-gray sky. The cawing was ceaseless.

“I think I just grew some crows…?” said Juliette, mystified.

“You planted … something?” asked Bran looking to the sky nervously.

“It was an accident, I didn’t mean to plant it,” said Juliette quietly.

“You planted something … bad?” he asked, now looking directly at her, and wondering if that could possibly have anything to do with the crows.

“Well we didn’t know what it was at the time! …It was all his fault,” she said pointing to Storm Wizard.

“It wasn’t My fault,” protested Storm Wizard.

“Yes it was,” insisted Juliette with finality.

“I wasn’t the one who planted it,” Storm Wizard replied emphatically.

“What did you plant?!” demanded Bran incredulously.

“A seed,” Juliette replied.

Bran raised an eyebrow.

“A seed from the McFearson farm,” said Storm Wizard as if that would clarify matters.

“You mean that old spooky McFearson farm house that burned down last year?” he asked.

“Yup,” said Juliette.

“So you just planted a weird seed that you got from the spooky McFearson’s. Did you have it checked out first?” asked Bran, trying to exercise patience as he watched the crows circling in the gray sky.

“I wasn’t the one who planted it!” said Storm Wizard. “So don’t look at me.”

“No,” said Juliette bewildered. “It planted itself.”

“It just planted itself?” asked Bran again incredulous.

“Yeah well it sort of just hopped out of the bag and planted itself,” she blurted out suddenly.

“Yes, actually,” added Storm Wizard, as if that too would clarify things sufficiently.

“A seed?” repeated Bran.

“Yeah, … a Black Seed.” said Juliette miserably.

“Yes!” added Storm Wizard with emphasis. “And you wonder why we’re suspicious of it.”

“I would be suspicious of it,” agreed Bran. “Have you told anybody?”

“Noooo…”, replied Juiette, her voice broadcasting a guilty conscience.

“Well, lets go to Hamfest and tell the town elders that you poked a spooky black seed into the ground and it grew into a huge flock of crows,” Bran insisted.

“But we’ll get in trouble,” whined Juliette.

“Well, you know what? You should have thought of that before you did it, and then ran away,” scolded Bran.

Juliette, feeling miserable, decided it was time to get out of the freezing chilly darkness, and so she headed into the barn, and everyone followed after her. Daniel lit one of the lanterns and the barn’s dark interior revealed a very ordinary swine herder’s barn. There were swine sleeping in their stalls, some of whom stirred briefly and then rolled back over. There was a mud pool on the far side, farm implements hanging on the walls and leaning against the posts, hay covering the floorboards that spanned half the barn floor, a table, a workbench and plenty of cobwebs in the shadowy corners everywhere. Next to the mud pool, above the table, on the wall there was a shelf on which there sat a flowerpot, half obscured in the shadows.

“Are there always these many crows around your property?” asked Laraby, still watching the sky from the door of the barn.

“Nooo…”, whined Juliette.

“Hmmm…,” was his only answer. He had been far and wide and had yet to see a single location that possessed quite such a huge murder of crows. It was, he thought, definitely strange. He fingered the hilt of the sword at his side.

“Are these the same kind of crows that poked out your eye?” asked Bran. Juliette thought about it, and answered that they were not. These crows did not have a scarlet beaks and talons, so they could not be the same. That at least was some relief, she thought.

Juliette walked cautiously toward the flowerpot on the shelf carrying the lantern before her. Growing out of the pot was a thick woody stem on the top of which there was a dark green bulb that had hairy black stubble all over it. Along the side of the pot, out from the soil, there was also a thin green vine with thin green leaves that had crept over the edge of the shelf and grew all the way down to the floorboards, where it vanished through a crack into the ground. Juliette was as fascinated as she was alarmed. It was a very unusual looking plant.

“I don’t like this seed,” said Juliette suddenly. “It creeps me out.”

“That seems a little … severe,” said Storm Wizard in reply. That broke the tension and everyone burst out laughing at that, because her voice had been so filled with dread, and yet it was after all only a plant sitting on the shelf and they weren’t in any danger as far as they could see.

“Its Gross!” insisted Juliette. “I don’t want to touch it.” She was clearly disturbed by the strange dark plant. They then noticed that a large number of crows had landed on the all of the open windowsills and were staring down at them silently. This made Juliette ever so much more nervous than she already was.

“Great Minvar!” Juliette suddenly burst out, “I’m really sorry, but I didn’t know what would happen. This is clearly an unnatural plant, and it shouldn’t be here anymore! For heaven’s sake, please, destroy this pot!” she cried. And just as suddenly as that the old clay pot broke into three pieces and the plant fell off the shelf and onto the wooden table beneath it, and lolled onto one side in its clump of dirt.

And then, the hairy black bulb slowly opened. Everyone stepped back, except for Juliette who was so shocked by this that she didn’t even think to move. She just stared at it in horror and morbid fascination. Something slid out of the bulb. It looked like a black salamander, perhaps. It was difficult to see by the flickering light of the lantern. Juliette’s first reaction was to give the dark glistening thing a swift kung fu kick to try to kill it. However, before she could it slithered into a crack in the wood slats of the table and disappeared.

“Catch it!” yelled Juliette. Bran started looking around for a glass jar in which to capture the thing, and found several jars set on a shelf and so took one while everyone else dodged back and forth around the table trying to spot where it had disappeared to. At that point Bran would have called down a flame strike on the entire area and burned the barn to the ground, along with the house if necessary, but that was, clearly, out of the question because it was impossible. He had no such power. Not even close. Nor did anyone he knew, except perhaps for some of the highest ranking members of the Adventurer’s Guild. But none of them were there, and so it was out of the question, as it were.

They caught site of it again, but the black salamander-thing slithered back into the cracks and shadows. Fortunately, Bran, if nothing else, had amazing skills with his fingers. It was one of his chief talents, as it happened. He put the jar down and stood over where he thought the thing was hiding, and flicking his hand downward, he snatched it up by the tail, or head, or whatever it was, and plopped it into his hand.

It was much heavier than he would have expected. Everyone crowded around to get a look at it. It was wriggling in the palm of his hand. Actually, when they looked at it more carefully they realized that it was not a salamander at all, but a little person. It looked like it was made of black wood or bark, had tiny little hands and feet, and two itty bitty jet-black eyes, and was covered in tiny black stubble. The glistening appearance had vanished by then, and it was entirely dry. They marveled at the little bark-man.

“Mmm… this probably isn’t good,” said Bran.

“Crazy,” said Storm Wizard, thinking it didn’t look much like any of the other little people they had met on their adventures. Juliette took the jar from where Bran had put it down, and they put the little man into the jar. It stood in the jar and looked around with his hands against the glass.

“Make the crows go away,” said Juliette. But the crows did not go away.

“Why are the crows interested in you?” asked Storm Wizard of the little man, but he only stood in the jar with his little hands on the glass looking around with his tiny black eyes.

“Well, do we know that, yet?” asked Bran.

“No, we don’t,” admitted Storm Wizard with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. So Bran picked up the jar and took it out the barn door, but the crows did not follow or give any sign that they had noticed it.

“My suggestion, if you will accept it,” said Bran, “is to look around and check if the plant is growing out any farther than what we’ve seen. If there’s more of these we better catch them now before they grow. ‘Cause they're plants, and they’re gonna get bigger, right? I an’t no farmer, but that’s what plants do.”

They agreed that this was a sensible idea, and looked all around the barn for more of the little bark-men, but found none. Meanwhile Juliette, Morgana and Ben, the three acolytes of Minvar the Golden Sheaf Elkron, conferred with one another about what the little bark-man might be, but none of them had ever heard of such a thing before.

“Well,” said Bran, “you’re the plant people. Figure it out.” But there was nothing they could figure out at the moment, and so they wondered greatly at what the Black Seed had wrought.

“We were promised the Black Seeds would grow no matter what,” commented Storm Wizard. Bran wondered mightily at who exactly had promised them anything about the Black Seeds, but he put the question aside for the moment.

“And it did,” replied Juliette a bit awestruck. “I think I remember that we were told to only plant the Black Seed on the first day of spring,” Juliette went on, “so maybe something went wrong, and this is what happens if you don’t. Which we didn’t.”

“So you planted the crazy seeds, which are probably magical, on the wrong day and …” Bran started to say.

“Planted one seed - by accident,” Juliette interrupted. “And it seemed happy in there, so we left it and I’ve been worrying about it ever since.”

“If I recall, it caused a minor earthquake at the time,” commented Storm Wizard.

“Uhm huh,” said Juliette with a little scowl. “Yeah, well, it was just a little one,” she said.

“Wait a second,” Bran bellowed, “Woah! Woah! Woah! … you put the creepy black magical-mystery seed in a pot, which you did at the wrong time, and it caused an EARTHQUAKE - and you didn’t think to take the seed out, or tell anyone about it?!”

“No, I suppose not,” replied Juliette with an embarrassed giggle.

“Hey, well, alright, I guess. I was curious. I mean I guess you’re farmers and all, so that’s what you people do. Plant stuff. I guess. And now its growing,” said Bran sarcastically. “That’s really great.”

“Actually, as a farmer I understand that the bark-man’s desire to grow is a sure sign that we need to kill it. That’s the art of farming. If it wants to grow, it’s a weed, and you have to kill it. But if it needs tons and tons of help to grow and would die without all that effort, then it’s food, and you have to break your back to encourage it to survive. So you can eat it. And this, clearly, wants to grow.”

“That’s good farm thinking,” said Bran, who knew, after all, that swine herders are not actually farmers, and most likely don’t know the first thing about planting or harvesting. In fact, there was quite an ancient rivalry between those who herded animals and those who cultivated plants in the earth. Quite ancient indeed.

“So that’s that,” said Bran. “By the way, you mentioned that there were other Black Seeds, didn’t you? Where are they?”

“We hid them,” said Juliette, now suddenly concerned about what might have become of them.

“We should probably check on them,” Storm Wizard said as he walked over to where they had hidden them in a pouch beneath the floorboards. Before he got to the hiding spot, however, he heard a noise outside the barn. It sounded like people walking through the snow toward the barn door. Storm Wizard paused for a moment, and then turned and walked to the barn door to peer out into the darkness. Against the dimly lit snow thought he could see figures approaching from over the fields. He could not make out anything about them, as it was almost dark out by that time.

Meanwhile, not having heard the noise, Juliette had walked over to where the plant had fallen onto the table. From its roots, hidden in the ball of dirt, there extended a thin green vine that had grown down into the floorboards. She pulled out her knife and began to cut it, however, though it looked tenuous, it seemed quite difficult to cut. And as she did so the black furry bulb from which emerged the bark-man began to vibrate most disturbingly. And at the same time, the little bark-man in the jar began to bang on the glass with his tiny fists and this caused it to rock back and forth, and nearly fell off the table. Juliette stopped cutting, and the bark-man stopped banging his fists.

“Juliette,” Storm Wizard then said, “there appears to be people heading over the field this way. Can you see anything more about them?”

Juliette stood up and focused her Stone-Eye toward where Storm Wizard was pointing, and it began to glow with its fiery light. Through the wall of the barn she peered into the darkened snowfields and saw four figures approaching. They were lead by a woman whom Juliette recognized as the one they had encountered way back at the beginning of their adventure at the McFearson’s… she was a beautiful woman with long red hair, a black leather skullcap, and wearing jet-black chain mail. She carried a long rapier at her side. Beside her there were three men who were bent over oddly, and appeared to be covered with pelts of black fur. They were wearing green vests and carrying short swords at their sides, and little round wooden shields on their burly arms. The woman used hand gestures to signal her companions to take up positions around the barn, which they did. Juliette, alarmed, explained as much to her companions.

Bran took a pitchfork from the wall and climbed up the wooden ladder to a shadow on the loft, being a sensible combat tactician, as Laraby put his hand on the hilt of the Locust Prince’s Sword and walked to where Juliette was standing. The others prepared themselves for whatever might happen. Bran and Daniel took up positions before the barn door, their swords at the ready, while Storm Wizard cast a flying spell on himself and flew out the window to take a post on the roof of the barn. Juliette faced the door with Ben, Morgana standing close behind her. And everyone waited with baited breath for whatever might happen next.

Previous Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 3
Next Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 5

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Homeward Bound – Part 3

Storm Wizard fingered the silver inlaid Ladybug calling card that Isabella had given him in his pocket wondering if it would work again as they walked away from the ‘Leaves and Roots Pathway’ through which Isabella had just vanished with her Warrior Ferdinando. He wondered, briefly, if he would ever see her again. But other matters pressed on his mind, and he soon left his reverie.

Eastward from the canyon wall the tiny sized ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ found a frost covered clearing amid the towering brown tinged grass blades in which they formed a circle. It seemed suitable. Storm Wizard took out the Red Pearl from his pocket and everyone held hands. Juliette, Brian and Daniel Bellowick, Morgana Feyton, Laraby Jones, Ben Simon, and Storm Wizard all looked from one to another as Storm Wizard made his wish to the Red Pearl for everyone to grow to their normal size again. And the Red Pearl began to glow with an inner fiery light casting a scarlet glow over them all, and everyone grew larger and larger until their heads were above the grass blades, and larger still until they were the size of cats, and then larger still until they were finally all normal sized people. One would be hard pressed to comprehend the great relief they all felt as they looked at each other, and round about them, at their old comfortable size once again. One simply can not fully appreciate the blessing of being normal until one returns to it after a long time.

Storm Wizard noted that the Red Pearl appeared a little less lustrous than when he had taken it out, but then put it away back in his pocket without comment. He was just glad that it had retained enough power to grow them to their normal size. He thought he ought to give it time to recuperate its energies before using it again, if that were possible. He was not very certain how the Pearl worked, and whether or not it was capable of regenerating it's power, or if it would last only until it's last spell had been cast. It was cold out, but Storm Wizard realized that while he held the Red Pearl the frost seemed to have scarcely any effect on him.

It wasn't long before the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ found themselves back at Biddy Mable’s shack between the hills. It was a lovely little shack, they decided, with a thin column of hickery smoke ascending from the chimney. Though it had been snowing in the hills round about, and the air was brisk, her spot between the hills was actually still verdant with green grasses and her garden still had flowers blooming here and there.

“Biddy Mable,” called Juliette when they arrived at the old green door, “it’s Juliette and Ember, and lots of company!”

Biddy Mable opened the door as delighted as could be and ushered the weary adventurers inside. She set the table with aromatic bowls of hot herb soup and poured cups of fresh clear water from a translucent stone pitcher. Though everyone hesitated for a moment before eating the soup on account of their recollections of the last time they'd eaten there, Juliette sat right down and ate heartily. At this point she trusted Biddy Mable, and thought much better of the old lady than she had originally. Everyone quickly followed suit. When she was perfectly full, and feeling warm and cozy, she pulled her little black kitten Ember out from the folds in her cloths, and handed the purring feline to the old woman. Ember happily passed into the old woman’s arms, and so Mable sat in a corner by the fire with the kitten purring on her lap and began to fall asleep. Everyone ate and drank and though no one spoke they were all quite satisfied, and by the time everyone had finished eating they all felt completely refreshed and healthy.

There was a knock on the door. Biddy Mable lifted a contented eyelid and smiled. She said, “Someone is at the door! It’s a wonderful day for company, isn't it?!”

“Biddy Mable, it is Bran from Hamfest. I've brought you a basket of Tansy from my mother.”

“Oh do come in, Bran. It’s lovely to see you!” called Biddy Mable, still sitting by the fire.

Bran entered the shack, which was crammed full with people sitting around the table, on boxes, or logs, or wherever else there was a seat as the case may be. He carried himself with a melancholy expression, his long tussled brown hair wet from the snow.

“Oh, hi Bran,” said Juliette, as the others greeted him with various shades of disinterest. Bran was not the most popular kid in Hamfest, as it happened.

“Hi, Juliette,” Bran replied as he found a seat at the table by pushing Juliette and Storm Wizard to the sides. Biddy Mable brought him a steaming bowl of soup, and he ate heartily. He was a big kid, and nothing pleased him more than a hearty meal.

“Juliette,” said Bran, while hunched over his soup. “What happened to your eye?”

“Well, it’s a long story, Bran, but … I gave it up for a new one in order to escape from the River of Death,” she said plainly.

“Oh. That’s interesting. Hey, by the way, this soup is pretty good, Mable,” he said. It was, in fact, a very good soup. Biddy Mable gave Bran a bag full of special herbs for his mother. “You take these home when you go, and give them to your dear mother with my blessings. And don’t forget to tell her that they must be used with the other herbs I sent along last time, ok dear?”

“Mmm, sure,” replied Bran. He was not the most talkative person in the world, though one would be mistaken to assume that there was not a bright intellect beneath his melancholy demeanor. He was quite an intelligent young man, actually, but he preferred to hide that fact. He looked around and recognized everyone at the table, except for Laraby, and greeting people with the casual air of someone who had been with them all along.

“So you folks heading back to Hamfest any time soon?” he asked.

“Well, yes, we’re heading home as soon as we’re finished eating,” said Juliette.

“Oh, ok. I’m heading that way, too. Mind if I join you?” he asked.

“Not at all. We’ll be leaving soon,” she said.

“So, you lost your eye at the River of Death, eh?” he asked as he sopped up soup with a crust of bread. "That's too bad."

“Well, yes. I did it so I could escape, and rescue Pamela McFearson, actually,” she replied, a bit frustrated at his apparent lack of awe at her statement. It's not as if people sacrificed their eyes at the River of Death every day, you know.

“Oh. Huh. I thought she died in the fire at McFearson barn last year,” he said between mouthfuls.

“Well she’s fine now. She’s at the monastery of the Golden Sheaf with Abbess Penelope,” continued Juliette matter of factly.

“Huh. Really,” he said. “Its too bad that her boyfriend Robert died looking for her then. I mean since she’s safe and sound now. He never believed she died in the fire to begin with, from what I hear. Well, I mean, its kind of a pity, isn’t it? According to the ‘Golden Sheaf Society’ guys, he died while trying to find her down in some tunnels near the McFearson place, or something. You know Arthur, right? He can’t tell a story to save his life, to be honest, but that's what he said. Anyway, that’s too bad… if it’s all true, that is, of course.”

“Well, I can tell you for sure that Pamela McFearson is safe and sound at the Monastery. As for Robert, I really haven’t any idea,” said Juliette, though she felt sorry to hear the news just the same. Robert was one of the local kids from Hamfest who had joined the Adventurer's Guild, and she'd always thought he was a brave and honest lad. It was indeed a pity if he had died. But she took what Bran said with a grain of salt. Not everyone who died around Hamfest lately seemed to be quite completely dead after all, she thought. So perhaps there was some hope for Robert.

“So, it sounds like you people have been on an pretty interesting adventure, anyway,” said Bran. “Another one of those Kinda-Hard-To-Believe adventures, but an adventure just the same. So… what happened?”

“It’s a pretty long story,” said Juliette, “but in a nutshell, we went to tell the Abbess about an earth tremor we felt in our barn after we planted one of the black seeds we got from a furry miner of some sort someplace, and wound up getting lost on our way back after we rescued Besty the Pig and her idiot brothers, and being attacked by the Little Ones in the northern forest where we discovered the Green Dragon Inn, and I got a magical kitten named Ember from landlady Lucia, for Biddy Mabel here, who turned Storm Wizard into a talking pig with wings, whereupon we called him Storm Pig, and then Morgana was kidnapped at night by the man she later married after he drew the Death Card from her Tarot Deck, and we went to rescue her in the mountains the next morning after Storm Pig had a dream in which he followed a black bird to where Morgana had been taken, and we met Laraby among the lumberjacks there who agreed to help us, and we found Morgana, but her husband-to-be was slain on the ruined tower by the black bird-shadow of death and fell from the Tower of Black Forest Hill in her stead while we were trying to save her, and so we had to fight Mr. Montague’s boss, who happened to be a vicious villain with long white hair and an eye patch, and his shadow wolves, and a tiny-wolf shaman riding one of the wolves almost killed Storm Wizard with lightning, and his gang of brigands tried to trap us in the tower, where we found a hidden passageway into another world of symbols or something but didn’t go there, but instead escaped with Biddy Mable's help when we were shrunk down to tiny size as we we went through the blue door up a long stairway," she said and took a long breath.

"And then we fled with Tinkin and Kintin the Aphid Princes past a huge centipede into the stone Temple where we met the old Holy One of the Aphids and feasted with him and listened to the a sacred song of the Celestial Elkron, and then the Red Locust Ambassador arrived demanding all the food of the ants which would have starved them all to death, or he said the Grand United Army would come because they were starving on the far side of the western desert and devour all of the living things in Glendale valley, so we formulated a plan with the Holy One that the Insect King approved, which would have burned all of the locusts at the base of Mount Zim to the north, and we went down the Great Ivy Way on the backs of aphids, to execute the plan after we captured the Red Locust Ambassador, but we had to fight our way through the terrible spider cave because Rohar the Silver Locust Prince showed up and was helping us to escape his brother, but things were complicated by the Mosquitoes with hypnotic powers, and so we went back into the spider cave to escape and had visions, and Morgana got married to Mr. Montague who had died but was revived we think, and there were baby spider-children singing creepy nursery rhymes, while above us the Silver Prince of the Locusts was captured in the Insect War in which the Moon-Tiger Wasp Squadron fought the Crimson Heart Mosquitoes, and the Water Bugs, after Lady Isabella of the Ladybug Empire hired Storm Wizard because she had some foreknowledge about the Locusts, and then helped us escape with the Red Locust Ambassador, along with Ferdinando her Wasp Warrior Guardian who got bit by a spider along with Brian and almost died of delirium, and we went through the Plant Kingdom on the ‘Leaves and Roots Pathway’ somehow, after I came back from the River of Death without my real eye by climbing a tree after the Raven took my eye and the Salmon put the new one in my head, which is a mystical Sight-Stone from the Tower because I needed to sacrifice my eye to save myself from that dreadful black beach on the River of Death after the boat was drifting toward the waterfalls of oblivion, but the oarsmen arrived from the glyph stones, and I found Pamela McFearson being carried by the black bird who took my eye. I left her with Abbess Penelope at the Monastery after carrying her up the tree toward the ray of sunlight, and we took the ‘Leaves and Roots Pathway’ a second time through the black walnut portal and got back to Hamfest and grew large again and came to Biddy Mable’s to eat some soup, when you showed up. Whew!" she said panting. "That’s the story, for the most part, or some of it anyway, a bit jumbled up, but pretty much what happened Bran. See?”

“Hmm… that sounds pretty interesting,” said Bran, wiping some soup from his mouth on his sleeve. “Of course it’s not really very believable, to be honest with you. But it’s a good story, more or less.” Bran then tried to get Laraby to show him the sword of the Locust Lords on the pretext that it might help convince him of the story, but Laraby didn’t care to show it to him. There might have been an argument at that point but Juliette made a show of the power of her Mystic Sight-Stone to prove the story was true by using it to see everything in Bran’s pockets, and so she told him every item he had. He would have most likely taken it as a pretty good parlor trick had her eye not glowed with a fiery light when she did so.

“Woah… ok that’s different,” said Bran, finally impressed, and now showing some indication that he was persuaded that at least some part of the tale might have some true elements to it.

“Well, it’s all true and we have plenty of proof, anyway,” said Juliette somewhat peeved.

“I guess so,” said Bran as he finished his soup. “That really was some pretty darn good soup, Mable,” he said again, but Biddy Mabel was sleeping in the corner by that time, with Ember purring on her lap.

With that the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ decided it was high time they head back to Hamfest, as everyone was longing to get home and see their families. On the road they went, and it didn't take long before the Bellowick farmstead was finally in sight as the sun set and the sky was turning a deep shade of purple.

All around barn there was a huge murder of crows. Hundreds of crows cawing, and flying about the barn in large dark circles, gathered on trees and all around the area they were perched in clusters of ten or twenty. Crows everywhere. Cawing.

Previous Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 2
Next Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 4

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Homeward Bound – Part 2

Having concluded matters among the Insect peoples the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ were ready, finally, to return home, relieved to learn that the Locust’s plan to swarm the Grand United Army over the Glendale Region and destroy it utterly had been thwarted by the capture of the two Locust Princes. Ben, who had taken up residence at the Aphid Temple decided that it was time to return home with the great wisdom he had learned from the Wise Old Aphid.

"The Aphids are a very wise and ancient people, and the farmlands round about will soon benefit from all that I have learned," he said.

Brian and Ferdinando were brought up from the infirmary looking fit and ready for action, having been healed by the Aphid doctors who were able to provide an antidote for the dreadful spider poison.  It was unlikely, as it happened, that either of them would have survived had they not returned to the Temple.  Daniel was overjoyed to see his brother back on his feet and looking lucid again, and so began to recount the entire story of the spider cave to him, since most of the time there Brian had been in a state of delirium and semi-consciousness. Everyone was pleased and delighted that the danger had passed and that it was now time for them to return home.

Juliette took a handful of the Silver Moon Seeds and put them in her sacred pouch, and closed the jade flower chest. It was enough, she felt, to take a handful, and not be too greedy. The old Holy Aphid nodded with approval. And so everyone made their way through the long dark corridors of the Aphid Temple out to the bright and elegant Palisade that overlooked the Black Forest below. The trees swayed in the wind, and it seemed to be sometime in the late spring by the look of things, though no one dared to conjecture as to what season it might be back home, nor how much time might have passed while they were in the tiny world of the Insect Kingdom. Time there, they found out, had a strange way of twisting and turning unpredictably. It would not be long enough, thought Brian to himself, if he never saw the ruined Tower of the Black Forest again, as he remembered the battles they had fought there, and the dangers they all endured. It was lucky, he thought, that all of them had come out of the adventures alive.

As they stood on the Palisade overlooking the forest Storm Wizard asked Brian if he happen to recall what had happened while they were all down in the spider cave.

“Well, not really that much,” replied Brian. “It seemed like a dream to me then, and even more so now. The thing I remember most clearly was the wedding, of course.”

“The wedding?” exclaimed Juliette, again caught by surprise.

“Really!” exclaimed Storm Wizard. “Again, with the wedding!”

“Between whom, might I ask?” inquired Juliette quietly, half fearing the answer.

“Why Morgana and Mr. Montague,” replied Brian, who was puzzled by everyone’s confusion.

“Where was I when all this happened?!” exclaimed Juliette with a shout. The answer to that question, which came to her mind again as soon as she had asked it, she kept to herself. There were memories from the spider cave of her own that she did not wish to share, beautiful and troubling as they were.

“It was a beautiful wedding,” Brian concluded quietly as though he was no longer sure it had taken place after all.

They all turned to Morgana who was standing off by herself overlooking the forest below through an open archway.

“It was a beautiful wedding,” she said quietly. “We were on a boat. I think this happened after I got caught in the spider webs, but I’m not sure. I found myself on a boat, on a black river. My feet were cold, and it was foggy. I was holding Brian in my arms because he was suffering so. We were drifting toward a waterfalls I think. Suddenly a huge black shadow flew over the boat, and then circled once around us, and came down and landed on the stern. It was a great black bird, and it lay Mr. Montague on the boat. He was covered in a white cloth, as though he had been buried, or perhaps it was spider webs. I couldn't tell.”

“Right,” shouted Brian excitedly. “I remember! I was staring into the horrible black eyes of that shadow bird. I felt as though it were pulling me into it, and I suddenly felt deathly cold. But there was an oarsman on the boat. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and he looked at me kindly. He said something to me, but I can’t quite remember what it was. But suddenly I felt warmth on my face, and I saw a ray of sunlight coming down from high overhead, and I found that I was holding a golden sword in my hand and it caught on fire in the rays of the sun. And I stood up and fought with the black bird. It tried to take me into its other scarlet talon, and was going to fly off with both the shrouded man and myself, but the fire from the sword burned it, and it let go of us both and vanished into the dark starless sky like a shadow within a shadow, or a nightmare.”

“Yes," continued Morgana, "and then I went to the shrouded figure and pulled away all the white webbing and saw Mr. Montague's face. Poor silly man, he opened his hazel eyes and looked up and smiled at me so foolishly. And the ray of sunlight landed on us both, and he lifted his hand to mine and said, “You are my bride forever.”

Then it seemed as though the boat floated into a silvery place beneath the moon, and the stars shone in the sky brighter than I’d ever seen them before, and we stood at the prow of the boat and beheld the light of the moon mingling with the rays of the sun in the heavenly clouds all around us and we held hands and he kissed me. And it was the most beautiful thing that I think has ever happened in the world,” she said and then began to cry.

“Well!? What happened then?” asked Ben, completely absorbed by the tale.

“I don’t know. It seemed to me that I woke up in the spider webs, and they were floating like billowing sails all around me, and there were runes in the webs that were ancient and frightful, and I managed to free my arm, and I looked everywhere for Mr. Montague, but I could not find him. And then we got whisked away through the tunnels and fled the spider cave and came out into the grassy forest, and joined the rest of the party on the legs of the ladybug, and you know the rest," she concluded with tears streaming down her face.

“There is more to that spider cave than meets the eye,” thought Juliette to herself, remembering her own fateful encounter in the darkness.

“I’m sure you will see him again one day,” said Juliette to Morgana, trying to console the poor girl as she sobbed quietly to herself.

“Well, I don’t mean to cut things short, but I believe it is time to head home,” said Storm Wizard. Everyone heartily agreed with that, and so the tiny adventurers flew down on the ladybug to where the Black Walnut shell was half buried in the ground, which was the portal into the ‘Roots and Leaves Pathway’ of the Plant Kingdom. Lady Isabella with a brief wave of her arm and brief song lead them into the walnut shell, and onto the wild flashing 'Leaves And Roots Pathway' via which they sped homeward.

All around them the fluttering light of the bright green leaves and the deep brown shades of enormous roots flew wildly past like so many flashes of emerald lightning amid pools of dark water and deep stones of the earth. As they flitted between the roots and the leaves from plant to plant in that crazy mad dash through the Arboreal Kingdom, Storm Wizard began to hear a whispering sound in the winds. It sounded to him as though the trees were whispering in a great thrush in the wind. And somehow he knew that only he could hear them. It was the trees of the Black Forest, he realized, and they were whispering amongst themselves ... about him.

“It is him,” they whispered. “He is the one... It is him,” they whispered in the wild thrush of the winds that covered the whole of the forest. But what they meant by it, he had no idea. And it mystified him greatly that the trees should whisper such a thing, or how they knew of him at all, or why they had singled him out among all the creatures and peoples in the land. He was greatly mystified indeed.

“The one, What?” whispered Storm Wizard back to the trees of the Black Forest, but there was no answer, and the wind-voices faded.

Suddenly the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ stepped out of a small root clinging to a rock along the side of a canyon wall, and they were back in the open air. The sky was gray and the air was cold, and there was snow on the ground. They were still at tiny-size as they stepped forward, but even from that odd angle they recognized the canyon as the one wherein they had met “The Little Ones”, what seemed like a long, long time ago. There they could see the grotto in which there was the rock on which had been the small loaf of bread, the taking of which had so incensed the little warriors. High above they could see the cave of the Little Ones, but no one had any thought of investigating it just then, as everyone's mind was on one thing only: getting home.

After they had gotten their bearings, Storm Wizard approached Isabella, who was standing at the edge of the root-doorway with Ferdinando. She looked at him with a deep and penetrating gaze.

“Lady Isabella,” said Storm Wizard politely, “we have arrived near our home, thanks to your help. We are very grateful. It seems, however, that the adventures for which you required my service have concluded themselves...”

“Despite our best efforts,” interjected Juliette.

“...yes, despite our best efforts,” he repeated with a wry smile. “So, unless you have anything else that you require of me, we may as well part ways.”

“Thank you for your help,” said Lady Isabella with a regal tone in her voice. “The Insect Kingdom, indeed, the entire Region, is indebted to you all, though I suspect that no one in your community is very likely to quite appreciate just how much so that is.” Storm Wizard, as she spoke, seemed to feel that there was more going on within the heart and mind of the little dark haired princess than she was expressing through her words or gestures, but said nothing of it. She looked at him with her wide brown eyes, and despite the imperious aspect of her silent gaze, he felt she meant something by it. She looked quite pretty, he thought, in her bright red dress with the black pokadots and her little black antennae waving lightly in the breeze.

“Um... if you would like to ... maintain company with us, I am sure ... we would welcome that, but ... I assume, naturally, that being a Noble of the Ladybug Empire ... that you have more important matters to attend to...” he said awkwardly fumbling for his words.

Ferdinando, who had been standing next to her maintaining a stern and regal gaze of his own on Storm Wizard, said quietly, “My Lady… we have matters that call for your attention..."

And with this, Lady Isabella turned her eyes to the horizon, and said simply, “Yes, Ferdinando, I know. Farewell, Storm Wizard. And thank you. You have served me well.” And with this she departed into the root with Ferdinando, and was gone.

Previous Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 1
Next Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 3

Homeward Bound – Part 1

Everyone was alive, some just barely, and two, Brian and Ferdinando, were deliriously poisoned by spider venom. The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ looked below them as they sailed away from the battle on the legs of the ladybug that Lady Isabella had summoned to their aid. Far below them the Insect War raged on. The flashing black and blue striped Wasps of the Tiger Moon Squadron were annihilating Mosquitoes of the Crimson Heart one after another in a series of high speed blitzes, piercing their opponents before they had a chance to apply their hypnotic mind-grip on their fierce adversaries. Meanwhile the Ant Army converged from all sides on Rohar the Silver Locust Prince. Fiercely the battle raged on, and Ants could be seen hurled through the air in every direction by Rohar's vehement defense; limbs, antennae, heads and thoraxes scattered the ground around the Silver Warrior. As the ladybug flew beyond the brambles and grass blades, the stalwart Prince was last seen vanishing under a seething mound of black and red Ant Warriors, blood running from a thousand wounds.

Isabella looked relieved as they flew away from the battle as fast as possible. Her arms were around Ferdinando, but her eyes were upon Storm Wizard, who took no notice of her, but instead watched the battle rage below with great interest.

“We must get Emmanuel back to human civilization as quickly as possible,” he shouted to Juliette over the roar of the winds gusting around them.

“Perhaps we can get through the pathways of the Plant Kingdom again,” rejoined Juliette hopefully.

“Well, I for one wish to return to normal size! I tire of being assaulted by spiders, mosquitoes and mites!” shouted Storm Wizard. Everyone was in hearty agreement with that. But it was possible, said Juliette, that they might make faster time back home at their current size if that would help them to speed through the mysterious flickering green fire of the Plant Kingdom's 'Roots and Leaves Pathway', as Isabella called it.

“Besides,” she shouted, “I wonder what Emmanuel would look like to us if we were at full size? I wonder if we would be able to see his tiny face and human features, or if he would look to us like a normal locust.”

“Well, I’m kind of thinking that he’s going to grow large along with us,” pointed out Storm Wizard, clinging to the shiny black spines of the ladybug leg as they flew high over the gigantic grass blades. Looking down to the ground far below gave poor Brian a dreadful fright, and he heaved up what was left of his breakfast as the discussion went on, to Morgana's sudden displeasure, as she was holding him.

“Poor Brian,” said Daniel to Morgana, who nodded in agreement with a frown.

“But it would be so much easier if we could put him in a glass jar first!” insisted Juliette. “After all, it would suffice, I think, to bring him back to the Manors to show the Aristocrats a Locust Man, even if he were small. And besides, he’ll be a lot easier to control than at human size. I’m sure he will definitely be itching to kill us all if he can get himself loose, and it would be better if he were tiny if that should happen,” shouted Juliette, her long silky brown hair flying about her head.

“Yes, but remember, we’re asking the townsmen to help us fight off the threat of the Locust Plague, and it would be a lot more convincing to see him as a huge terrifying monster than a tiny locust man in a glass jar bound up in spider silk, don’t you think?” retorted Storm Wizard.

“Uhuh,” conceded Juliette with a nod.

“I agree with Storm Wizard," yelled Ben from another leg. "The towns people are much more likely to help us, the more threatening Emmanuel appears to them, I should think.”

Meanwhile, Emmanuel, bound in ropes and spider silk, struggled vehemently to escape his bonds. He would have, they were sure, belted out a huge, mind-crushing Thunder-Roar, had his mouth not also been bound tight and stuffed with webbing. The thought of that happening at their current height gave Juliette pause. She eyed the savage warrior with dismay, and wondered if he would indeed break his bonds.

As the discussion concluded they found that Isabella was directing the ladybug to land beneath a huge old Black Walnut tree in the middle of a grassy glade. In between several gigantic roots there was an open patch of ground surrounded by moss, in the center of which there was buried in the dirt a half of a black walnut shell, the open side facing them. It formed a shaded round dome into which they could all quite easily fit, as compared to them at their tiny size it was rather a large edifice.

“This is one of the entranceways into the Plant Kingdom,” said Isabella. “Through this portal we can safely flit along the ‘Roots and Leaves Pathway’ and return to your village very quickly. There is an exit portal that is not far from the town of Hamfest, near to where Old Biddy Mabel lives.”

They agreed that this was the best plan, and so decided to take the pathway before growing to their normal size. As they walked toward the walnut shell they had every intension of returning home as soon as possible. This, however, was not to be. A thunderous voice rang out from the green shaded sward behind them from somewhere among the looming grass blades.

“Halt!” thundered the voice. Turning around Storm Wizard saw that the booming voice emanated from a sturdy looking Black Ant Warrior, his black armor crested with the insignia of the Legion of the Black Ant Army. He held a large and gleaming black sword in his right hand.

“You there! Stop where you are!” he shouted.

They stopped.

“What seems to be the trouble, officer?” asked Storm Wizard of the stern looking Ant Man.

“That man,” he said pointing to the Emmanuel, who was bound quite handily in ropes and spider webs, and being carried along on a pole by Laraby and Daniel, “is under arrest.”

“Yes, that’s why we tied him up,” replied Storm Wizard.

“Yes, well, we’ll take over from here. Thank you,” said the Ant Man.

Juliette and Storm Wizard both stammered, and Storm Wizard managed to blurt out, “But he’s a material witness!”

“We know, that’s why we’re taking him to the Insect King,” replied the Ant Man without hesitation.

“We’re taking him as a witness to a different trial,” retorted Storm Wizard, who was growing increasingly impatient.

“Well, that may be true,’ said the Ant Man, “however it is not germane.”

“Sure it is. We need him,” said Juliette. “We need him, however, can have him back when we’re finished with him," she offered.

“You can even come with us, if you like,” added Storm Wizard hopefully. “So you can make sure he doesn’t escape, or we don’t escape with him, or whatever else it is you're worried might happen.”

“My orders are to bring him back immediately,” said the Ant Man curtly.

There was a long silence.

“But we need him,” protested Juliette. “See you later,” she said then, and with a certain primness to her sudden pivoting on her heels, began to walk toward the Walnut.

“How difficult would it be for us to hop into the walnut and get away?” whispered Storm Wizard to Lady Isabella while grabbing Juliette's arm by the elbo.

“Not very,” reported Lady Isabella. “However it doesn’t mean he couldn’t follow us, though,” she added thoughtfully. The Ant men, she knew from long experience, were dogged and tireless, and believed very whole heartedly in the concept of the “long arm of the law”.

“Yes, but ... we could then get big ... and ... “ whispered Storm Wizard thinking aloud.

“Yes, that’s true. But remember, you have seen me big as well,” reminded Lady Isabella.

“The question is, can *he* grow big?” whispered Storm Wizard.

“Well, any of the Nobles among the Insect Kingdom can grow big, if they have that power,” whispered Lady Isabella while watching the Ant Man out of the corner of her eye. He for his part was standing a bit of a ways off still, waiting to hear what the adventurers would decide. His own reaction would depend entire upon their decision. And so he waited patiently.

“And... he’s a Noble among the Ants?” whispered Juliette, having not yet fully understood the nature of the Insect Kingdom.

“Indeed. Only the Nobles can take a humanoid form and speak your language,” whispered Isabella in reply. They all considered the implications of this statement, and turned to look at the writhing Emmanuel who was still struggling mightily to escape. The idea of a human sized Red Locust Ambassador gave them all pause.

Juliette, frustrated and dismayed, was very tempted at that time to leap into the walnut and be gone. She very much wished to get home, and to be rid of the complications that were keeping her from doing so. However, Storm Wizard was still contemplating the ramifications of all that had been said.

“It wouldn’t do us very much good to get the Red Locust Ambassador back to the townsfolk if in the process we lose the alliance with the Ant men, would it? After all, the entire plan relies on our cooperation with the Ant Men,” he whispered to Juliette who he sensed was on the verge of leaping into the walnut.

“Oh... well, ... yes, that’s a good point, I suppose,” she conceded unhappily.

“Are you familiar with the details of the King’s Plan?” asked Storm Wizard of the Ant Man.

“No, I’m not,” the Ant Man replied, still at a distance.

“Part of the King’s plan is that the Locust Ambassador comes with us,” said Juliette.

“You seem like decent people,” replied the Ant Man, “but I have my orders.”

“We only need him for a short while,” said Juliette.

“I’m sure that the King may be willing to release him into your custody afterwards, but my orders are very specific. I must return with him immediately, and without delay,” replied the Ant Man, himself beginning to lose patience.

“Ok, fine. But we’re coming with you.”

“That’s fine,” said the Ant Man. He whistled, and a battalion of Army Ants came out from behind the grass blades. The ants had been all around them hidden in the foliage.

And so the Ants returned Emmanuel, bound in ropes and spider silk, to the Temple of the Aphids high up on Black Hill Tower, and the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ returned there with them. The King, as it happened, was not present, however his representative was there in his stead. He was a tall handsome man with two antennae, wide smooth dark insect eyes, and a glowing green chest plate. He also had long narrow wings. Juliette and Storm Wizard surmised that he must have been a Noble of the Firefly people. As the participants of the council met and began to discuss the matters at hand, Brian and Ferdinando were taken to the infirmary and given treatments that soon would heal their wounds and cure them of the poisonous delirium.

The old Wise One of the Aphids presided over the council in the Great Hall, deep at the center of the Aphid Temple. It seemed to Juliette that he looked rather weepy and unhappy, and she commented on this to Storm Wizard. The young man spoke up an asked, “Why are you so weepy and unhappy, wise old Aphid?”

“We have been disgraced,” said the Old Holy Aphid, “by the way the matter of the Locust Ambassador was handled. Attacking him in the Temple... it was a disgraceful bit of treachery after all, whatever the cause. He was quite right about that. One doesn't treat an Ambassador this way for any reason. There are protocols that must be upheld or all of civilization will crumble. And so, I am sorry for that, because I was too weak willed to prevent it. I have disgraced our people by my poor conduct.” And all the little aphids round about the hall gave out a little cries of shame, and shuffled their feet, and looked rather miserable.

“You weren’t the one being treacherous,” said Storm Wizard. “We were.”

“I do not wish to burden you with our sorrows,” replied the Wise Old Aphid, “and you should think nothing of it. The sorrows of the aphid people are many, and they should not be heaved upon others to bear. If we appear unhappy to you, please forgive us, and let it not trouble your hearts. You did what was best for you and your kind, and for that no one should blame you.”

Juliette bowed to the old wise aphid, and so did the other members of the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’. Seeing the old wise aphid so sad reminded her that ever since they’d left the spider cave it seemed that Morgana was also quite a bit sadder than usual, even for her. The fact suddenly came to her full attention, and so Juliette, as an aside, asked Morgana quietly what was the matter.

“I just can’t understand why we had to leave Mr. Montague behind in the spider cave,” she said tearfully.

“What?!” exclaimed Julittet a little too loud for that august and somber company. She went back to whispering. “What do you mean?”

“But the wedding was so beautiful,” Morgana continued, half to herself, as if still in a dream.

“The … wedding?!” exclaimed Juliette a little too loud once again. She went back to whispering again. “What wedding?! What do you mean! You don’t mean ... you married Mr. Montague in the spider cave, do you?!”

“Yes I did. And it was the most beautiful wedding I could ever imagine,” she replied and then burst out into tears. Juliette, perplexed beyond belief, held Morgana and let her cry quietly on her shoulder.

Meanwhile, Storm Wizard was negotiating with the Firefly Prince.

“So, Sir, I am lead to understand that you are the King’s representative in this matter. I believe therefore that you must be familiar with the King’s plan regarding the Mountain of Zim and the Great Wall of Fire, is that right?”, he asked.

“Indeed, I am familiar with your plan, yes,” replied the Statesman.

“Well, it seems to me, that the Insects can not execute this plan alone. You will need we humans to carry the lumber to that place in sufficient time for the plan to work, do you not agree?”

Suddenly there was a commotion. Into the wide echoing hall of stone was carried Rohar, the Silver Locust Prince, bound and trussed onto a pole by the Ant Men, and placed on a beam directly across from his brother, the Red Locust Ambassador. Both of them writhed with enormous efforts to break their bonds. The wooden beams shook and bent under the strain. Juliette tried to void eye contact with Rohar. He was absolutely glowering.

“How dare you leave me in the middle of battle against my enemies! I was helping you, and this is how you repay my loyalty! Emmanual was right – you are betrayers!”

“You were helping us to escape,” said Storm Wizard.

“Indeed I was!” spat Rohar.

“Well, we escaped! So ... thanks!” said Storm Wizard. Rohar gazed at him in such a way as one might have thought the rocks in the hall would soon melt under such a withering glare. Storm Wizard smiled in the hopes that Rohar would see it his way, somehow, but it was not meant to be.

“It is no matter,” said the Firefly Magistrate. “Take them away to the dungeon.” And without further ado the Ants hauled the writhing Princes of the Locust people out of the Great Hall.

“As I was saying,” said Storm Wizard, “you need the help of the humans to haul the lumber needed for the Great Wall of Fire to the mountain of Zim..."

“We do not need the help of the humans!” interrupted one of the Ant Warriors, clanging his armor with his mailed fist. “We have never needed the help of the humans. We have been here much longer than you have, and we have our own ways of dealing with the matters within our own Kingdom! You may rest assured about that!” he concluded, to the general applause of the Ant Men who had crowded into the Hall.

“Oh, I see. So have you suddenly gained the power to cut down a gigantic trees of the forest and carry them far off to Mount Zim in time to ignite it before the arrival of Locust’s Grand United Army?” asked Juliette incredulously. “I was unaware that ants could perform this feat.”

Storm Wizard added mockingly that such a thing was impossible for the insects, but easily done by the humans.

“Please, good people. There is no need to argue,” spoke the Firefly Magistrate, his chest glowing a brighter green than before. “We do not need the humans to cut down the trees of the Black Forest. We have another way of dealing with the threat of the Grand United Army, and it does not require your assistance any further. You see, you have already performed all of the tasks necessary to eliminate the threat.”

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps” stood dumfounded in silence. The Firefly Magistrate went on, more calmly now.

“You see, now that we have imprisoned Rohar and Emmanuel, the Locusts have lost any hope of uniting under the flag of the Locust’s Grand United Army. They will descend into chaos as soon as they enter the desert, and they shall devour themselves in a billion petty squabbles for power and sovereignty without their Noble Princes to unite and lead them. The Locusts shall be destroyed by their own insatiable hunger and lust for power. And so it shall be, my friends, as the King has foreseen it.”

“But are Rohar and Emanuel the only Nobles among the Locusts who can lead them?”

“No, they are not,” replied the Magistrate, “however, we believe they are the only two of that particular horde, and so it will not go well for them, and the horde will devour itself as soon as it rises into the air.”

“And here we were dismissing the assassination plan,” said Storm Wizard with an note of irony.

“Well, no, the assassination plan would not have worked,” replied the Old Wise Aphid breaking his reverie. “You see, at that time we did not know of Rohar, nor have him in our custody. Had Emmanuel been slain Rohar would have returned across the desert and lead the Locusts here with a terrible vengeance. I fear that nothing at all would have survived in the entire region had that happened.”

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ again stood dumfounded in silence.

“And so,” the Magistrate went on, “you have been instrumental, to no small degree, in helping us to capture the two Princes of the Locust people, and for that the King wishes to express his gratitude.” The Ant Men all bowed toward the humans as well, for their own livelihoods and property, and very lives, had been saved by the efforts of the 'Steel Wool Sheeps'.

The Firefly Magistrate's keen eyes then alighted upon the sword that Laraby was carrying at his side in the black lacquered scabbard.

“That sword,” said he, “where did you get it?”

Laraby looked at the sword, and then the Magistrate, and then the sword, not sure what he should say. Storm Wizard spoke up and announced, “I gave it to him.” And Laraby agreed, and said “He gave it to me.”

“And were did *you* get it?” asked the Magistrate with a grave tone in his voice.

“From a worthy advesary,” replied Storm Wizard confidently.

“It has the markings of the Locust Princes upon it. Are you aware of that?” asked the Magistrate.

“I am now,” replied Storm Wizard. “Do you have need of it for some reason?”

“Well it is part of the Regalia of the Lords of the Locusts. I do not have a need for it specifically, no... and given the facts as they stand and the great service you have rendered so recently, I’m inclined to ask no further questions about it.”

“Ok then,” replied Storm Wizard with a smile toward Laraby, who then unclenched his grip on the hilt of the Noble weapon, and relaxed with a twinkling of joy in his eyes. It was, after all, by far the best sword he’d ever had the privileged to bear.

“Did you obtain anything else, by chance from the Locusts?”

“Not that I can think of,” replied Storm Wizard searching hard through his memory. “Well there was the curious copper armor of the Red Ambassador, which we could not figure out how to remove.”

“No, that’s not what we’re interested in. You didn’t happen to obtain any parchments from either of them?”

“No, we did not,” said Storm Wizard.

“Guards, go to the dungeon and search the prisoners. I want them picked clean. We must have those parchments!” said the Magistrate, and with that two guards bowed and left the Hall.

“The King wishes to reward you for your services,” said the Firefly Magistrate to the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’. A deep and wide chest made of bright green jade carved with flowers and intricate spiral designs was brought forward and placed on the table before them, and two Ant Men opened the lid of the chest.

“We understand that you value this sort of thing,” said the Magistrate.

Inside the chest were silvery grains.

“What are these?”

“Seeds,” said the Magistrate. “Very good seeds. The Holy One of the Aphids has recommended them for you. They are called Seeds of the Silver Moon.”

“Better than the black seeds that the witch gave us from the dragon chest?”

“Black seeds from the dragon chest?” repeated the Magistrate. He looked at the Holy One of the Aphids pensively, and the Old Holy One gave him a slight nod.

“You may find these seeds more useful than you think,” said the Magistrate finally.

“Indeed,” said Juliette, “that reminds me. We still have yet to find out what the fruit of the black seeds will turn out to be. I am particularly eager to discover it.”

And so their minds all turned once again toward home. It felt like many years now since they’d been away from their family and friends, and it felt like they had gone terribly far away in all that long time. The longing for home suddenly welled up in Juliette’s heart, and with that Ember, her magical little kitten, who was still nestled away within the folds of her cloak, woke up and began to purr quietly on her breast.

And with that, the Magistrate said that he must be off to report to the King, and with a bow, exited the Great Hall with his retainers, and was gone.

“Well, old Wise Aphid, do you think their plan regarding the Locusts will actually work after all?” asked Storm Wizard.

“It would be a great shame if it does not,” he replied soberly. “A great shame indeed.”

Previous Episode: Insect War - Part 3
Interlude: The Terrible Alter
Next Episode: Homeward Bound - Part 2

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Rules as Teachers

As I work on my game system I am discovering an interesting aspect of rules design that I thought I would briefly discuss today. I've been working on my Skill System, and in particular the question of how many skills characters get as they progress through the game.

I've gone through six different formulas so far. Each one seems suited to a different type of player, but it boils down to this. Some players like to advance quickly and build their character's skills in the beginning. Some players are happy to build their character's skills slowly over time.  In the latter case they get a sense of accomplishment over time by seeing their character advance in skills and power.  In the former case the players feel they are able to do more things in the game quickly and so it is more fun for them. So the rules that govern the advancement in skills tends to favor one style of play over another, as they must, because the two rates of progression are mutually exclusive.

The basic outline of my skills system is such that at each new level the character gets a certain number of Skill Learning Points (SLP) which they can spend on learning new skills, or bolstering ones they already have. Spells and Miracles are each considered a skill, and so Mystics spend their SLP on each Spell or Miracle they want to learn. Skills that have not been learned can be used (except for Spells or Miracles), but at a lower level than if they had been learned (at the moment the Skill Level for an unlearned skill is 1/4 the Character's level). Skills are currently divided into two categories, Primary and Elective. Primary Skills are those which are specific to a Class. For example the skill of picking pockets is specific to the thieving class, and so for Thieves it is a Primary Skill. Swimming on the other hand is an Elective skill, and any class can learn it. For each skill on my list I assign whether or not is is specific to a class (or classes), is Elective for the class, or is prohibited to the class. So a very small sample from my Skills chart looks something like this:

Skill Name, Skill Learning Points (SLP), Thief (T), Fighter (F), SpellChanter (S), Cleric (C)
(Y=Yes, is Primary for this Class, E=Elective for this Class, N=No, Prohibited to this Class) 

Name           SLP T F S C
-------------- --- - - - - 
Light Weapons  1   Y Y E E 
Medium Weapons 1   N Y N E 
Heavy Weapons  2   N Y N N  
Pick Pockets   1   Y N N N  
Stealth        3   Y N N N  
Horse Riding   3   E Y E E 
Swimming       1   E E E E 
Writing        1   E E Y Y
Pottery        1   E E E E

The original formula for giving SLP / Level to Characters that I had was this (where the # of Sub-Classes is defined for mulit-class characters, such as Fighter-Thieves which have 2 Sub-Classes):

SLP = (Character Level * # of Sub-Classes) + 1

Nice and simple.  Notice that Skills cost very few SLP to learn, and so few SLP are doled out.  The numbers are small, and the system is designed for simplicity.  However, my play testers noted that this progression of SLP meant that in most cases the tendency would be for Mystics to spend all of their SLP on Mystic Powers because they want to maximize their effectiveness in the game, and therefore they will neglect to spend any on Elective Skills.  Thus, we'd wind up finding Mystics who can cast hefty Fire Bolts and Polymorph, but can not read and write, ride a horse, or anything else with any proficiency (though they can perform any skill at 1/4 their level, so it would be unfair to say that they can't do those things at all).  Therefore at the suggestion of the players we decided to try a new formula that was recommended which doubles the number of SLP per level, and enforcing a new rule that characters must use half of their SLP for Primary Skills, and the other half for Elective Skills, with the following revised formula:

SLP = (((Character Level *(Character Level +1) / 2) * # of Sub-Classes) + 1)

Clearly this is more complicated.  Most people, not being a math wizards, will require a chart of some sort to understand what the number progress for this formula looks like.  That aside, this seemed for a while to work out fairly well, and the players selected a goodly number of skills for their characters, and everyone was happy.   For a while.   But then a new play tester joined the game and immediately noted that he could not fill out his character's skills at the beginning with a good number of skills that helped to "define" his character at 1st Level.  So, because the play testing is just for this purpose, we began a general discussion of what the best SLP system would be.  We're in the middle of that discussion now, and I'm in a bit of a muddle about it at this point.

And so the new play tester's preference brought us back to the discussion, and we noted, after having play tested the revised formula for several months, that actually, it didn't solve the original problem after all.  While the players did select Elective Skills, they noted two things:  1) they had too many Elective Skills that they never bothered to use in the game, and 2) "it's terribly unfair to spellcasters: they need to spend their precious SLPs to learn spells, fighter types pick a weapon type at 1st level and then they're pretty much good to go."

The reason originally that I created Elective Skills was because I noted that there are many skills in life that can be useful, but should not be exclusive to a particular Guild Class, such as Thief or Fighter.  Skills like writing, swimming, horse riding, or what have you, could be learned by any Guild Class.  That was the original idea.  In addition, some skills might serve as career skills, and provide a monthly income for characters, such as leather working, and also give them some additional in-game options such as being able to repair armor, or weapons, or build a house, or whatever.  So the list has a lot of skills that are Elective for all of the Guild Classes, of which Pottery is one example.  As originally intended, I figured each Character would select one career oriented skill, from which they would get a monthly salary (on the assumption that most characters in my world adventure at various times, but have careers that serve as their day jobs, so to say). 

Another thing to understand about the difference between Primary and Elective skills is that Primary Skills are always used at the Character's current level, whenever they learn them, and go up in level as the Character goes up in level.   Elective Skills also go up in usage level as the character levels, but they are used at 1st level when they are learned.  So for example if Ragnar the Warrior learns Swimming when he turns 3rd level then he will use it as a 1st level skill until he gets to 4th level, at which time he can use his swimming skill at 2nd level.  When he is 5th Level he can use his swimming skill at 3rd Level, and so on.

What is interesting to me is that the SLP system needs to serve the players, but the players have different desires.  So no SLP system can make all players happy, no matter what formula is used.   And so the question came down to this:   What do I the game designer think would make most players happy?  Then I thought about that question and realised that it is only one possible way to approach the issue.  I could also and just as reasonably ask:  What do I the game designer want my World to represent, and through that my players to learn?

All games serve, to some degree, as teaching tools, whether game designers realise this, or admit it, or not.   People learn from games.  In fact I would argue that people learn a great deal from games, and perhaps some of life's most important lessons are learned through the playing of games.   If I make my SLP system answer the question of "What will make most players happy?" then I may wind up with a system that teaches some very fundamentally wrong things that I don't actually agree with or like.   For example, perhaps most players at heart are really just a bunch of munchkins and all they really care about is maxing their power and lording it over others.   Human nature 101?  Could be.  If my rules system rewards munchkinism then in effect my game encourages that behavior tacitly.  Is that what I want from my game?   What if my game became wildly successful, but encouraged people to think like, and behave like, munchkins?  Would I be happy with that?   Me personally?  Not really.

What I'd rather have is a game that teaches, if anything, that success in life requires hard work, careful planning and determination.  Those seem like good lessons to learn from a game, and to my mind if my game teaches those lessons in any way then I'll be happier with it.   Of course, some people will argue that there's no point in that if people don't like the game because it makes them feel like success in life requires things they don't want to do, like plan carefully, work hard, and have dedication, then my game will have few players.   Hmmm... true enough.   But what would I rather have?  A game that is loved by billions of people because it encourages their inner munchkin, or a game played by few that encourages excellence?   I think, for me, I'd rather encourage excellence.  Note: I am of course arguing at the extremes of possibility here, but this is in order to make a general point about game design, and using the extreme case to illustrate that point more clearly.

This line of thinking led me to reevaluate my SLP rules in light of this consideration.   I note that as a game designer (or entertainer) I can easily be pulled around by the desire to please my players as much as possible (and of course it is completely impossible to please them all) by offering them rules that give instant gratification to their desires for power and glory.   However, in catering to these impulses I suspect my game would imply through the rules system's reward system that it's just honky dory A-OK to be a munchkin.   But, in fact, it is my opinion that it is definitely not ok to be a munchkin.  And so I don't want my game to cater to munchkins or surreptitiously encourage munchkinism.  No sirree bob.

And so the lesson is this:  when designing a game, any game, you have an option as the designer as to what kinds of behaviors you are going to encourage through your reward system.  But you should be aware that your game will have an effect on people through the nature of the rules you create, and what kinds of behaviors your game rewards and therefore encourages.  Most people may be munchkins (well, lets hope not!), and most game designers may cater to them, and encourage munchkinism without realising it or admitting it.   But that does not mean you have to.   You have a choice.

For the Elthos, I think I will make the SLP system reflect my contention that success in life requires good planning, hard work, and dedication.  Even at the risk of creating a game that only a few people play (again, lets hope not!).  So how does that reflect in the SLP formula?  Well for one thing, I think it means that the progression of SLP, which is a form of reward for leveling, should increase as one levels.  Therefore you get rewarded for planning adventures, and executing them successfully, over time.  The reward is that your characters get more skills and can do more things, and this reward is doled out slowly by building progress toward competency and then if one plays well, plans well, works hard, and has determination they will achieve glory.  And that, friends, is a rules design decision that is based on what I want the rules system of my game to teach. 

Some people at this point might wonder why I would take a stand of this sort in this day and age, when such ideas may be considered by many people to be a form of snobbery or elitism.  It is because I have the feeling lately that people these days do not very much care to be taught the kinds of lesson that tell us to be strong, decent and hard working people, through games, or by any other means.  We are, sadly, and to our detriment I think, being encouraged by most forms of entertainment, that we should aspire only to have fun, and that life's rewards should be easily obtained, and that we should not have to work hard to achieve anything, and if anything does require hard work and determination we are told that it is either too hard, a waste of time, or an insult to right thinking people, or some other such nonsense.   I don't agree, and since my Elthos game is my art form, I intend to apply my principals and philosophies to it.  Through the game rules.  And hopefully in the end the game will be good, and people will enjoy it, and some people will come away from playing it with the notion that working hard, planning well, and having determination might just be good things after all.

All of that said, after further contemplation I also do think I see the point of my play test who likes to front load his character with skills so he has a sense of the fellow out of the starting gate.  My thought is to give a pretty hefty bonus at level 1.   The formula I think that may fit the bill is the original one, with a +6 SLP bonus at 1st Level.   And so, friends, I think this is what I may do.  It is simple, and that's the overriding design mandate of the Elthos "One Die System", so when in doubt, I head in that direction.   In this case what I will have to do as well, is remove the stricture that says you must spend SLP on Elective Skills.  My thought is to provide a set of Primary Skills that are automatically given to the characters when they level, sort of like Primary-Primary Skills if you will.   Mystics would in this case get certain spells or miracles for "free" and have others that they can spend SLP on.    It's still a bit messy, but I think I'm a little closer, once again, to my goal.   I want as simple a system as possible that still maintains the traditional fantasy RPG rules tropes I enjoyed so much in the original D&D (edition 1) so many many moons ago.