Mountain 1

Obligatory Game Design Stuff: Torchbearer's beginning playtest. I'll post more on it when I have something substantial to say. Until then, fiction.

The scent of foxgloves hung in the air, and beside them, Blackbird Lantern wondered about what had just happened. Feneng had run by with a bird on her shoulder—a scarlet lark, maybe—and commanded him, "Send me Desolate Vessel and Creator-of-All-Things"; she was out of earshot before had composed a response.

Something has ignited the golden blood in her, he thought.

Run was the first thing she said to them when they came to her at the temple gate. She was already several yards downhill, chasing that red bird.

So they ran.

Soon after, they could no longer see the temple, and they did not stop. The forests fell away and plains rolled up at their feet like a yellow sea. They did not stop. The sun streaked across the sky many times, and before long Desolate Vessel and Creator-of-All-Things were aware of nothing else but the ground passing beneath them and the slow beat of eight wings. Still they did not stop.

When a white-bearded mountain reared up before them and filled the sky, they stopped.

They landed at its feet.

Vessel croaked.

Feneng laughed. "Go, drink water and when you return here we will pray." They hadn't noticed they had changed, so they would not be able to change back on their own.

The acolytes flew off, and, some time later, three priestesses stood up after their meditations and began to build a fire. It was cold under the mountain's shadow. "Feneng, what are we doing here?" Creator asked.

"The lark wishes us to move this mountain. It blocks the route to his home, he says." Feneng sipped her tea complacently. "We will carry out the task in the morning." Desolate Vessel and Creator-of-All-Things exchanged a look. Neither could tell whether it was a look of amusement or alarm.

Shut the windows. Close the doors. Turn the keys. Where are the horses? Blackbird Lantern was battening down the monastery.

A storm was brewing. He could smell its pain.

Blackbird Lantern, for the first time in many years, was afraid.

It did not take long to move the mountain. Underneath it was a beautiful valley full of trees. Never having touched the sun, all their leaves were white.

Desolate Vessel
Nanjyar Móe


Feneng 7: Magnificence

"You honour us with your presence."

Blackbird Lantern shrugged. "Not at all, Magnificence."

"Not yet," Feneng corrected.

"You wear the Serpent's Crown."

"What does that mean?"

He caught her eyes with his own, and for a while she was lost in them. It was like gazing into a banked fire; they were so blue, so black, and filled with tawny sparks. He slowly turned his head and she watched the sunlight play across the angles of his face. What was he? Shadows skated down his arm and pooled in the palm of his hand. Feneng realised then that he had stood up. His jaw was clenched, his eyes downcast. "I wish I knew what happened to you there, in the forest."

Feneng shook her head violently, to clear her mind of cobwebs. Blackbird Lantern's presence was simply too distracting, hypnotic. "What does it matter to you? I'm just some damaged heiress; you are perhaps the most precious thing the church of Veamándhi has ever encoutered."

Somehow, she was now holding a pendant, its fine gold chain looped round the dancer's neck. There was a hazy recollection of someone's hand reaching under his jacket to retrieve it, but now Feneng could not remember whose. The pendant was a thin disc of amber. Trapped inside was a tiny butterfly, made black by resin and the passing of years. One of its wings was missing.

Blackbird Lantern touched Feneng's hair. Her crown coiled happily into his fingers, and he held it for her to see. Beneath one beaten-gold leaf was a little sphere of amber, another three-winged butterfly. "This is why, cousin. I am not so much a stranger as you think." He replaced the crown. He smelled like fire, too, like smoke and heat and pine.

Feneng fled.

A long time later, Hospitable Sword refilled his friend's wine cup.

"It would be easier," the dance master murmured, "if only she were less beautiful." They finished more bottles before the kohl stopped running down his face in angry carmine streaks.


Designing for the Inter Nets

It's not something I consciously do, but it's something I do: I design games that are deeply rooted in the physical world. People find it bizarre to play Mridangam without being able to sling gestures; Refreshing RAIN has a go board and mahjongg tiles, Torchbearer is nonsensical without physical Torch objects. Limitless is probably most efficient with, like, mancala cups for your Method dice.

These are all data-storage techniques that turn abstract information into physical things that can be rapidly and easily manipulated. How do you do this digitally, under the constraints of, for instance, IRC?

I realise that there are like ten people, tops, reading this thing. I don't do cool theorising like my colleagues at anyway. and This Is My Blog, or have a game coming down the print pipeline soon enough that you should be saving for it. Nevertheles, I encourage you to think at me.


Torchbearer Has Rules

...and they are right here. I'm working on writing Examples of Play for each of the major process sections, and then it's to prettifying and clarifying the language of the rules, with the Scarlet Lark Encyclopedia and stories serving as breaks in between.

Webspace provided graciously by the excellent Thomas Robertson.


Brothersword and Sisterbow

The Rgye Vô Shchang have a strange custom. Sometimes, when a woman is in an interesting position, she goes into the bush and finds a fine stave of myrrh, or sandalwood, or the horn of a hkh'on antelope, and she fashions a bow from it. Meanwhile, her husband makes a sword of watered silver, or Eastern damask bronze, or perhaps of jade or tiger bone. They only have nine months to do so, for the blade must be quenched for the last time and the bow strung for the first time on the day of the baby's birth.

The three are named together: the child, his brother the sword, and his sister the bow. The three grow up together and learn to know one another inside and out; with the passing of years the swordgod and bowgoddess become more alert and awake, and before his nineteenth year, the child has become a warrior and shaman, experienced in combat and skilled at taming gods.

These children become dangerous. They have lives of leisure and ease; there is little that can thwart the will of such a trinity. By the same token, they do not become heroes.

But sometimes the brothersword breaks.

Sometimes the sisterbow snaps.

Sometimes someone kills them.

This invariably drives the child insane. A bond forms between the child and his battle gods, and when this is cut, the child's mind shatters like a dropped egg. These are the heroes of the Shchang: men and women who have had pieces of their heart formed into instruments of war and then cracked. Some of them are thirsty for vengeance. Others are hungry for completion. Still others lust after their own deaths. It makes no difference. A leg of the tripod has come out, and thus, it collapses, and crushes whatever ends up beneath it.


Tentative Torchbearer Table (of Contents)

So, I am struggling with a small puzzle here with Torchbearer; how to organise the book? Here is one possibility, but I welcome discussion of it; I am not totally certain in it.

  1. Story: From Water Does All Life Begin. A story of the Scarlet Lark setting. This sets the mood of languid, lush, watery excess of the setting. Subsections of the rules-chapters are separated by SL vignettes no longer than a page, as well, even when the chapter-introductory fiction is non-SL in nature. Approximately half of the vignettes should feature Feneng or Blackbird Lantern; the rest are excerpts from fictional literature of the setting, in the manner of Nobilis.
  2. Step-by-step How To Play; this presents the game rules in a condensed, but not simplified, fashion, suited to just grab the book and learn as you go. Probably does not contain any interspersed vignettes, for ease-of-use.
  3. Story: ??? Not something of the Scarlet Lark setting. Lighthearted, impression of dryness and scarcity, for strength of contrast.
  4. The rules of the game in long form, including some designer's notes and discussion of emergent properties.
  5. Story: Red Saffron. A story of the Scarlet Lark setting, featuring Feneng.
  6. Scarlet Lark resources, including:
    1. Sample characters, of varying extremeness. Naturally the recurring characters of the fiction are represented, either here or in the next subsection.
    2. Sample Torches, at least one of which was once a character.
    3. Bites of setting material, in encyclopedic rather than narrative form. These should give an impression of interconnection but confusion; they contain repeating motifs but also contain contradictions and outright impossible situations.
    4. A note about the special properties of the setting materials and their use in play.
  7. Story: ??? Not something of the Scarlet Lark setting. Dark, impression of savagery and ill-temper, for contrast.
  8. Designer bling, including a list of inspirations and Other Cool Games, acknowledgements and dedication.
  9. Story: ??? Something with Blackbird Lantern; should make reference to the water temple in FWDALB and Feneng of RS. A story of the Scarlet Lark setting.
  10. Appendices: copyable materials and a "cheat sheet" rules summary which has page references to the two larger rules sections.


Feneng 6

Today at Red Cliff, it is very quiet and the halls thrum with excitement, because with his old books, Blackbird Lantern brought sweet-bitter news: the famous grave play Rûnâ Srighaxindvaroùn, Songs of the Serpent Archivist, is to be performed on the night of the harvest moon at Floating Cove.

The grave play, you may recall, is a custom adopted from the worshippers of Láyammúra'mu, who wrote in the Book of Emperors, "Sing songs upon me and the joy I have built for you, for only one thing pleases me better: the tears in eyes and the cracking of hearts that are the regalia of grief." They hold that performance and grieving are the most exalted forms of worship, and so, one famous priest, whose name is lost to us, devised a new thing: a play that was performed only once each generation, and then not again until all those that witnessed it have passed away, so that each time it was shown, it would be as though it were the last time, and each line would be like a mourner's wail, singing for the dead.

It is somewhat a dark custom.

So, he says, it has finally happened that the last of the audience of the previous performance, a Tarag Tháni prince by the name Careless Sword, died on military campaign, eighty-eight years after the play was last performed, and it will be shown to commemorate the first anniversary of his demise. This particular play is a legend told by a snake spirit of ancient times, who recounts the tale of Rustam the hero with a boat of living trees, and Rustam's quest to slay the selfsame demon, aided and impeded by the romantically fickle circle of allies he has gathered.

It is a beautiful tale, which I have heard retold many times and in many versions, but the grave play is said to be the best version of it by leaps and bounds, and I look forward to seeing it.

To turn death into gleeful anticipation! Such was the art of this nameless priest.

Rûnâ Srighaxindvaroùn:
Songs of the Serpent Archivist; rûnâ srighaxi-n(d)-varo-ùn play (serpent-archivist spirit)-song-NOM.p Like all Murammite grave plays, written and performed in Nrittandih, the sorceror's language.
Floating Cove:
Lethre-rayri Lúsyewem flying-(swamped by water) water-landing
Star Garland; láya-múmu-rá star-neck-enclosure, refers to a myth which concerns the lighting of the sky; the deity (no gender is given) is said to pluck the jewels from its necklace and place them in the firmament as the stars and planets.
Careless Sword:
Tháfyarar Rómo care-(lack abnormally)-3.s sword


Torchbearer: The Story of a Hero

Torchbearer tells the story of a mythology being born; people tell stories, and some of the stories fade into obscurity, but other stories are remembered and retold and stolen from, and they become laws unto themselves, describing the inner workings of the world.

That is to say that a sufficiently strong story doesn't just end when its protagonist resolves his defining Conflict; instead, that story becomes a Torch, and in the next layer of the mythology, it becomes an element that the newer stories can resonate with. Oh yeah.

There are four possible closures for a character when his Conflict resolves:

If his story was weak,
he fades into obscurity.
If his story was ordinary,
he becomes an element of a Torch's symbology.
If his story was strong,
he becomes a Torch in his own right.
If his story was mighty to the point that it defines his people,
he merges with an existing Torch to extend its symbology and influence.

How do you determine this? In the simplest manner possible! A character who relies on Torch contributions, which is to say a character who's moving in lines already tread by older mythology, will have fewer Traits than one who is more self-reliant. Therefore, a character with fewer Traits than the number of Torches in play fades into obscurity; if he has at least as much Fuel as he has Traits, he's absorbed into the Symbology of a Torch he possesses. If he possesses no Torches or has insufficient Fuel, he fades completely, and doesn't have further impact on the mythology.

A character with at least as many Traits as the number of Torches in play entrenches himself into the mythology. If he has at least as much Fuel as he has Traits, then he may merge with a Torch he possesses. This means that the Torch acquires a new physical representation, and the character's Traits are added to its Symbology.

If he does not possess a Torch or his Fuel is insufficient, then he becomes a Torch in his own right, acquiring a physical representation, and converting his Traits into Symbology.


Feneng 5

It was neither the third day of the third week nor the evening of the deepest tide, and so it could not be time for a festival prayer; nor was it a day sacred to any significant saint, nor a time when a dignitary was expected.

Yet the assembly bells were ringing, and so I followed the archivists out of the scriptorium and down the long stair that led to the greater assembly hall. It seemed we were the last to arrive; the banners of the other callings were already looming among the seats. An acolyte stood at the foot of the stage and lifted a hand for silence. This was all very unusual. “The dance master Blackbird Lantern comes to Red Cliff with books from Veamándhi-of-the-Marshes, but the ride has fatigued him. He wishes to dance to shake the stiffness from his bones.” I noticed that some of the elder monks seemed very excited at this announcement, and very soon I was to discover why.

Even from the back of the hall, I could see that Blackbird Lantern, who had stepped out of the shadows as the acolyte scrambled to her seat, was very thin, and his eyes were lined with bright red kohl. His riding coat had one long sleeve.

Without ceremony, the drums began to play, and a trumpet sounded the first notes of “Choking Crane,” which happens to be an aria from my favorite opera, and though I did not know it then, I have seen it a great many times.

Blackbird Lantern's performance was unplanned and unrehearsed, and I have never seen one to equal it. When the bells rang to show the springing of the trap, he planted his right foot on the floor and from that point onward, did not move it from that spot; when the crane, exhausted, fell to the ground, his legs bent at seemingly unnatural angles and I swore that I could hear the bones in his knee grinding and cracking against each other. His sleeve trailed on the ground in front of his open mouth, like a pool of blood. It was a long moment after that final gesture before anyone dared move or breathe. Then the hall broke out in applause.

Afterward, the scriptorium was abuzz with rumours....

Blackbird Lantern
Méemlam Lái (light.v-TOOL blackbird)
Payussen Veamándhi (payuh-sen; swamp-GEN.pl)
Veamándhi-of-the-Marshes is not a temple of any great fame or distinction; sitting as it does on the borders of the Fever Waste makes it more concerned about the health and hygiene of the surrounding people than the sorcery, warfare, and liturgical wonders of the great temples.