TheCultDen Article – Tabletop Review – The Darkening of Mirkwood

“The forest of Mirkwood features heavily in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing and appears in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In the history of Middle Earth, Mirkwood falls under the sway of the Necromancer, Sauron and while he is cast out of it during the events of The Hobbit, a great darkness remains. This darkness will steadily grow until all falls before it – unless, of course, heroes step forward. The Darkening of Mirkwood will tell the story of those heroes.”

You can read the rest of the article here.

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TheCultDen Article – D&D 5e Player’s Handbook Review

“The Player’s Handbook (PHB) is the first of the three core books to be released for D&D 5th Edition (the second, the Monster Manual is due out at the end of September and the third, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, in November). While publisher Wizards of the Coast have released the basic rules for free online, the PHB repeats and expands them, furnishing players with additional options. Within these 310+ pages are rules for each race and class as well as new equipment and abilities. “

You can read the rest of the review here.

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“I’m not racist but…”

By and large, I’m happy with what I’ve written for Man of Clay. I have fleshed out Karen and created at least one other character for my Changeling setting. I think my writing was strong and with a little work, could actually be polished off into a short story. However, when re-reading my notes (my term for the random words I scribbled down, I saw something that made me uncomfortable:

“Ashvin . Asian Constable. Monkey?”

I can repeat the thought process that led me to writing those words rather well. The Constable in my last Changeling campaign was described as an African-American woman by White Wolf, the company who wrote the original module I based the campaign on. I enjoyed the character and she became an integral part of the campaign so when I wrote her out during the big finale, I didn’t want to lose the diversity she offered. At the same time, I didn’t want another woman in the role because I already had one as the protagonist in the form of Karen and I wanted to have a degree of conflict by having different genders. I wrote Ashvin (which means light in Sanskrit) as a Hindu because there is a sizeable population of Hindus in London and made him young to symbolise a new start for the office of the Constable.

As players of the game will know, some Changelings can take on the appearance of animals (in a loose sense) and while my immediate thought was “elephant”, I wasn’t that keen on the idea. I wanted something that reflected the character I wanted Ashvin to be: smart, crafty and nimble. As I don’t know much about Indian wildlife, I chose “monkey” at random and noted it down.

So, reviewing the process that led me to writing what I did, it’s clear that there was a logical process behind the decision I made and it was nothing to do with race at all. Phew! I’m not a racist.

Then I think a little further back to a short story I started writing last year but never finished.  In short, it was a detective story where Sam Davies, a vampire, had to find a young woman, Nancy, to get himself off the hook with his vampire superiors. He finds out that Nancy ran away from home when she was a teenager but Davies thinks maybe she’s returned to her mum out of desperation and uses his contacts to find her address – one that takes him to a council estate. Of course, things don’t work out as planned and Davies discovers that the mum moved away a while ago and now it’s another young woman who lives there.

A White single mother with a mixed race-baby.

In all honesty, I never explicitly stated that the woman was a single mother because it was a detail that popped up in my head during the planning stage to help the character feel more real to me. I described the baby was being mixed-race because I was searching for a way to quickly describe the kid other than, you know, baby. It was a simple scene designed to serve one sole purpose and lasted about a third of a page.

While both of these examples may have been the product of separate logical processes devoid of any political or racial subtext, they do illustrate stereotypes.

In my defence, I grew up on a council estate and saw first-hand the people who live there, including White single mothers with a child and – for whatever reason I will not pass judgement on – are no longer with their non-White partners. Some of those relationships result in children. But there are also White single mothers with White children and also stable mixed-race relationships. However, while the above examples do not reflect everything that I have written over the years, it does show that, without thinking about it, I may be perpetuating  internalised stereotypes about other races.

As a White, middle-class, cisgendered straight male I am aware that I am the “establishment” and part of a socio-economic group that has not exactly treated others very well throughout history. Part of that mistreatment and the mechanism by which Whites have retained control has been done via words: racist words, sometimes overt and sometimes not so. Historically, non-Whites have been presented in the media as sub-humans or animals such as rats, apes and monkeys so seeing one of these words in my own handwriting is…disturbing to say the least.

I don’t consider myself to be racist. I don’t believe that I am inherently better than others simply because of my skin colour and I certainly don’t think people are worse than I because of it. I will concede that I am possibly, sub-consciously a little bit racist because I am the product of the society I grew up in and the media it produces. I include non-White characters in my writing because I want to have that diversity but at the same time, is what I do just as bad as if I hadn’t included those characters at all? Is in this case no attempt better than a bad one?

It isn’t just race either but sexuality. My first story with Davies had him involved with a murder witnessed by Christian, a male prostitute. As I haven’t met any male prostitutes, I couldn’t base the character on anyone and so I decided to write him as a scared man in the wrong place at the wrong time. I did have Davies wipe his hand when he shakes Christian but because Davies was quite an old man who was homophobic because of the era he grew up in so the disgust he felt at shaking Christian’s hand was me attempting to accurately portray a common attitude about gay people at the time. Yes, I did have Davies reflect slightly on the fact he treats male prostitutes differently to female ones but I didn’t have him suddenly have a change of heart because that would nt cynical. People rarely do that.

So what is the point of this article other than to convince you that I’m really not a hateful bigot?

I’m beginning to realise just how difficult it can be writing about people different to yourself in a way that’s truthful and respectful if your only experience of them is via the media of a society built around…well, you, really. I have and have had gay and non-White friends. My fiancé and likely mother of my children is British-born Chinese and I will be the first one to kick your teeth in if you make a bigoted “joke” around me. but none of this means that I don’t have to be careful about what I write and the characters I create. Just knowing someone who is non-White or gay or trans or anything else does not automatically mean I cannot write something that will be hurtful or a rehash of the bullshit they’ve already experienced from others. Sometimes writing something and dismissing any criticism with “well, I know someone like that”, is not only just enough but actively shuts down any conversion about how to prevent it from happening in the future.

Sometimes creating a character as a stereotypical depiction of a minority just “because” is sometimes just as shitty and wrong as not having that character at all. Diversity for diversity’s sake isn’t diversity at all.

It’s tokenism and I might finally be starting to get what that word means.

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Catch up

Sorry for the lack of posting but that was due to ill-health and generally being insanely busy. I finished off my Pathfinder “do- whatever-the-Hell-you-want” campaign yesterday. This means that other than the dragon-hunting game due to take place later on this month, I won’t be running Pathfinder until the mega-module-based-campaign begins next year (more on that in a future post).

I’ve also stopped writing/playing Man of Clay because, while it was really good fun, it took too much time from my other projects. However, it was really useful as a GM to force me to think on my feet. There were a few keywords that popped up that really pushed my creative abilities and stumped me for a little while. I did enjoy the feeling of writing for writing sake but without a clear idea of what I was trying to do, it did feel like a writing exercise rather than a game. I may revisit Karen and the story in the future but I’m likely to use Mythic and the emulator when I run online sessions with an idea in mind but none of the connecting bits.

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C:tL – Man of Clay – Part 3

New Scene – something is unexpectedly positive (Karen discovers that she has an informative book at home about the creature.)

Karen’s journey back to her flat in Camden was an anxious one. Usually she’d listen to the radio, to Capital Gold or whatever the digital radio on her second-hand silver Volvo estate could pick up. Tonight, however, something was troubling her. She was trying to pretend she didnt know what it was or that it was something else – anything else but that thing in the tunnel.

I think it walked here.

She’d laughed when Ashvin had spoken. Yep. Sure. Whatever you say, Ash. Afterall, there was no evidence, bar a hunk of material he claimed was clay and that sticky residue on the metal stairs and railings. He had no proof. So why was she so nervous? It was the perfect, she knew, of the construct. It was beautiful. A work of art. A masterpiece. It would take centre stage in any art gallery in London. So why was it hidden below ground, in an abandoned tunnel, forgotten? Why was it down there and how had it remained so flawless (bar the missing piece of buttock) down there in the damp?

[Q. Is the construct enchanted? 50/50 A. The answer involves the exact opposite of insight]

NOTE: The construct removes insight from viewers.

[Q. Is the construct alive? Unlikely A. No]

[Q. Is the construct a goblin token? 50/50 A. No]

[Q. Is the construct involve a spell of some kind? Likely. A. Yes]

[Q. Does the construct originate from Arcadia? Very Likely. A. No]

The construct is not alive, not a goblin token, does originate from Earth and involves a spell that robs viewers of insight. Karen and Ash are under -1 to any rolls involving Wits for 24 hours, then moving to -2 after 48 hours.

[Q. Is someone looking for the construct? Very Likely. A. Yes]

Random event: Something negative happens to Karen James involving the postponement of the physical.

Her belly rumbled in complaint and Karen remembered the takeaway she’d promised herself earlier. Shaking her head in an attempt to clear her mind, she slowed at the next set of traffic lights and began to plot a route to the nearest kebab house.

[Wits + Composure, dif 7 = 2 successes]

She saw black Nissan stall sharply before lurching off the road and onto the curb. It stopped after a few feet with thankfully no one injured on the street. She bite her tongue to keep from cursing and checked her rear mirror: clear. If she moved her vehicle now, she might be able to reach the crashed car before anyone crashed into her.

[Intelligence + Drive, dif 8 = 9]

There was something about the car itself that was compelling her to help. Against her better judgement, she pulled out of traffic and tried to coast across the lane…

[Wits + Drive, dif 7 = 0 successes]

…but cant do it in time. A guy on a pizza delivery bike (and how’s that for irony? Karen’s mind commented almost leasuirely as the headlight beared down on her) pulls out of a side road…

[Driver rolls Dexterity (2) + Drive (2) + Handling (5 for street bike), dif 8 = 2 successes]

…and despite the driver reacting like a cat and trying to go around, he slammed into the front right bumper. This time, biting her tongue wasnt enough to stop the curse from bubbling up.

Shit! Stupid, stupid…” Chiding herself, she rolled down the driver window and managed to shout out “accident” albeit with an exaggerated jabbing of her finger to the stationary sedan. She got a stronger curse and a raised index finger in response but the driver didnt take it further and restarting his bike, sped off through the junction.

Without watching him leave, Karen released the brake and pulled up alongside the sedan without further incident.

[Wits + Investigation, dif 7 = 1 success]

Her head foggy from everything that had happened that evening, Karen’s mind was awash with images. Looking at the car, however, she could just about see a figure sitting in the driver’s seat. She tapped twice on the glass.

Hello?” She called, dimly aware that people were starting to call the emergency services. “Hello?”

A flash of lightning lit up the sky overhead and the lapsed Catholic in Karen prayed that wasn’t an omen although the weather expert inside her knew that no thunder meant that the storm was some way off yet. He threw open the door and found Ashvin in front of her. His eyes were bloodshot and rolling around his head like a wildman. He made no sound but a small clustered of foamy siliva had formed at the corner of his mouth. The sight of it made a few of the bystanders step back instinctly. She had no medical knowledge so honestly couldnt say for certain if it was rabies but she doubted it. Perhaps more worrying was the rapid collapse of Ashvin’s Mask, that supernatural disguse that allowed all Lost to live amongst humanity. At the moment it was just slipping – an image of the soft, downy fur common to steepscramblers – was superimposed upon his face. Currently, only another Lost like Karen could see it but if whatever causing…this grew worse, everyone present would simply see him as a wild animal, a misshapen cross between man and beast. And that would put all of them at risk.

Ash?” she asked, moving in only slightly but hoping to use her body to block him from view. The heat radiating off his body was incredible. “Can you hear me, Ash?”

A soft, worldless murmer escaped his lips. Further down the road and growing louder by the moment was the siren of an ambulence. They would be there in a few seconds, giving her just enough time to send one text message. For not the first time, the message to Dr Eira Whyte read: the constable needs help.

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C:tL – Man of Clay – Part 2

She narrowed her eyes and stepped inside – and what she saw killed the question forming in her throat.

[Wits + Investigation, dif 7 = 2 successes]

The room was circular – almost a Colosseum with concave, moss-covered walls at least 15 feet high. Three industrial-grade halogen lights had been arranged into an uneven triangle, fat wires snaking away and merging with bundles of ancient cabling that dangled from the ceiling. Karen shuddered to think of the risks the person who set them up must have taken to do it.

[Wits + Investigation, dif 7 = 3 successes]

Detritus was strewn all around and most of it was old – Karen even spotted a Lion wrapper with a design she hadn’t seen since childhood – but against the far left wall there was an electric blue sleeping bag, possibly no older than 12 months. Around it were Tesco carrier bags. As a store only opened in the area two years ago, the bags were unlikely to be any older than that. Those, combined with the sleeping bag, meant that someone had made this their home.

However, it was the object that dominated the tableau that defined any explanation. It was a sculpture of a man, seven feet tall, broad-shouldered and created by someone of obvious talent. Every muscle had been perfectly sculpted so it looked like an anatomist’s model – everything, that is, except the genitals. That space between the legs was left completely smooth. The material used to construct the statue was tan, the colour of the earth. The colour of –

[Intelligence + Science + Willpower = 2 successes]

On a hunch, she reach out and touched the left bicep. The contact confirmed her idea: it was made of clay. She told Ashvin.

I know,” he said and in doing so, made Karen’s smile fade a little. Seeing this, he added: “Sorry. I was good at pottery…over there, you know?”

She did.

What about the lights? Did you turn them on?”

He nodded. “Yes, but they were already hooked up to the mains. Each has a little switch I simply flicked. You know, after my heart has crawled back inside my chest after seeing that thing.”

The wires are a professional job – or a very educated amateur. You’d have to know what you were doing otherwise, once bad move and you’d fry. No. Someone made this place their nest. The question is “who?” And, she added to herself, what happened to them? “Who did you think might have made this their hollow?”

A darkling by the name of Matherson. Arrived in London from Crewe about a year ago. But having thought about it…” he looked around.

Karen caught the unspoken thought. “There’s no way a darkling would have gone to all of this trouble to set up the lights. Darklings like the dark. I mean it’s pretty much their raison d’etre. Another Lost? Maybe but not a darkling. Sorry, Ash.”

He shrugged leisurely. Meh. “No big deal. Now, going back to our friend here,” he said, moving a little closer but Karen noticed he maintained a constant, self-imposed cordon.

[Intelligence + Empathy, dif 7 = 2 successes]

He was afraid of it, she realised. “What I don’t understand is what it’s doing down here.”

Karen shrugged. “Maybe it was a project the artist wanted to keep hidden.”

He picked one heck of a hiding place. Beside, I don’t think it was left here. I think it walked here.”

She turned on the spot. “You what?”

He pointed at the clay man’s waist. “Take a look at the backside.”

She did and saw a large gouge in the “flesh” of the right buttock, as if it had caught on something.

Ashvin moved closed but still kept a healthy distance. “I found a chunk of clay about 15 foot back down the tunnel and I’m willing to bet the stuff on the railings – ”

- is clay,” Karen finished, nodding. “So. You say this thing walked itself down here to do…what? Hide?”

Now it was the Constable’s turn to shrug. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

[Intelligence + Occult, dif 9 = 1 success]

Another hunch, the second in 30 minutes. “Golem,” Karen whispered.

Wasn’t that the guy in Lord of the Rings?”

Golem,” she repeated. “It’s from Jewish myth. A man created from clay and brought to life.”

I cant say I’ve heard of it.”

Few people have. It’s an old story and Hollywood hasn’t made a film about it yet.”

OK. A golem.” He struggled with the word. “Do you know anyone who could make something like that?”

She shook her head. “In the real world? No, it’s impossible. But out there, beyond the Hedge?” She lifted her arms and then dropped them to her sides in surrender. “No idea. Maybe. Possibly. But if this is a golem though….” She didnt finish.

Ashvin pursed his lips. “The old Constable said you were smart.”

Karen bristled at the mention of her old employer. “She meant I knew to keep quiet about where the bodies were hidden.” Then, seeing the look on his face, she smiled and added: “Joke!”

[Manipulation + Subterfuge, dif 8 = 0 successes]

Ha ha,” he said with no real humour.

Karen ran a hand through her hair. She’d washed it that morning but being down there made her want to run straight back into a shower. “OK, Ash. You’ve shown me your toy and told me your crazy theory. Now what happens?”

He chuckled. “I, er…I was kinda hoping you would tell me.

She slowly moved around the clay statue in a slow, lazy circle, taking every details. It was truly perfect. There was nothing out of place or incorrectly detailed – bar the missing penis and testes. The face was so lifelike, so handsome it was hard to believe that he wasn’t just sleeping. Karen knew it was her imagination playing tricks on her but she could swear that the muscles around his eyes were twitching as he awoke, that the shoulders were rising ever so gently as he slept.

Karen? You OK there?”

Ashvin’s voice dragged her back to that foul-smelling place and she tried to hide her embarrassment at having been caught staring. “You want my advice, Ash?” she said, shaking her head and walking over to him. He nodded. “Destroy it. Burn it or brick this place up. I don’t know what that thing is, but I’m not going to lie and tell you I’ve got a good feeling about it.” She rested a hand on his forearm. “Please.”

[Presence + Empathy + Willpower versus Resolve + Intimidation = +2 successes to Karen]

She could almost feel him relent. “Sure, Karen. Maybe you’re right. I’ll, er…take some photos as a record and then sort something out.”

Promise me?”

I promise.”

[Q. Is Ash lying? 50/50. A. No]

He sighed and nodded. “You have my word, Karen.”

She smiled her most genuine smile and wasn’t able to remember the last person had she done that to. “Thank you, Constable.”

[Wits + Composure, dif 8 = 2 successes.]

Something caught her eye, something small and white half-hidden under the sleeping bag and amongst a collection of yellowing receipts. Leaving Ashvin to take his photos using his camera phone, Karen made her way quietly to it.

[Dexterity + Stealth, dif 8 = 1 success]

She had only a moment to pocket the mass of paper – the texture of the object suggesting that it was a folded photograph – before Ashvin turned to face her.

Find anything interesting?” he asked.

No, not really. Just rubbish mostly.”

[Manipulation + Subterfuge, dif 8 = 1 success]

[Q. Does Ashvin believe Karen? Unlikely. A. Yes]

Just out of interest,” Karen enquired, standing up. “How many people know about…that?”

He answered immediately. “Just me and you.”

[Q. Is Ash lying? 50/50. A. No]

Let’s keep it that way, huh? For the moment, at least. People are jumpy at the moment and stories about clay men coming to life may freak people out a little.”

He considered this. “Sure,” he said after a longer time than Karen would have liked. “I understand, but I’m still going to make a note of this.”

[Q. Will Ashvin stay quiet? Unlikely. A. Yes, Exceptionally]

Karen didn’t know if he would but right now she needed air, even the polluted air of the city above. “Well, Ash. Thank you for having me but I’m going to make a move. Would you mind showing me out?”

He smiled. “Of course.”

They made their way back along the tunnel and up the ladder in silence. At the top, Karen paused to inspect the material on the metal and conceded that it most likely was clay. She wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or worse. Outside on the street, it had begun to rain and Karen found herself strangely relieved. Rain, even the greasy, acidic rain of London felt good against her skin especially after the dry, fetid air below. She checked her watch and was surprised to find it was nine-thirty. They’d been down there barely 90 minutes.

A storm’s coming,” muttered Ashvin, looking at the sky as he came to stand behind her. “Definitely a storm.”

She raised her own eyes to the inky clouds. “Yep,” she said with no real enthusiasm. “Certainly looks that way. You planning on staying here much longer?”

He shook his head. “Nah. I need to think about what to do about…you know.”

She did. “Look, Ash. If you need to talk to someone or if you need help, you give me a call, OK? I don’t want you doing anything stupid.”

I wont, Karen. Thanks. I’ll call you once I;ve made a decision.” He went to move back into the building and Karen ended up saying “goodnight” to his back. Once she was sure he was gone, she took out scrap of paper and found that it was indeed a photograph of a young family: a middle-aged man and woman with a young boy, maybe no longer than 10 years old. They were sitting in a booth of a restaurant or pub – a place for families in any case. They were happy.

[Wits + Composure, dif 7 = 2 successes]

A chill worked its way down her spine when she realised just how similar the man in the photograph looked to the thing beneath her feet. So. She had a photo and a collection of receipts of when that person might have last done some shopping. That had to be enough to dig something up – for better or for worse?

She sighed and looked again at the sky. The wind was picking up and a storm was indeed on its way – Karen could almost taste it on the air – and if she hurried, she might make it home before it hit. And if she was very lucky, that would be the only storm she had to worry about.

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C:tL – Short Story “Pie”

A long time ago, I wrote a short story called “Pie”. It was the first story to feature Karen and to date, the only one featuring Frank and Billy. It details how Changelings might try to deal with the Fetches that have taken their identity. As this is the first story, some details may be different to how Karen appears in Man of Clay but for the sake of completion, I’ve included it here. It is written from Karen’s PoV, which was a style I was doing a lot of at the time.

It is, however, riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes – mistakes I only discovered afterwards. While this story was never intended for publication, the writer in me is irritated by the errors. Annoyingly, I have lost the original Word draft and this uneditable PDF is the only copy I have left.

I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to leave comments.

pie” – PDF

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