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Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Conclave: "Things Hidden In Books"

Here's another extract from Tim Harford's Earthsea-inspired Conclave campaign. The player-characters are all wizards, some of them affiliated with the College of Hythe, others (like my character Surma, or Oliver Johnson's character Wax) loners who are along for the ride.

As in Ursula K Le Guin's novels, the College is entirely male; women who practice magic either don't exist or keep quiet about it. Not having read the books, I don't know why that is or how that dominance is maintained, but the players who were familiar with the Earthsea stories seemed to get it. Surma neither knew nor cared about Hythe's affairs, so I didn't ask.

In the whole of a three-hour session I think the dice were rolled half a dozen times. That for me is the mark of a great game.

A note about Aareth so that the account makes sense. The player described him arriving at the feast last session: "The late Master Hand's favourite boy, not yet thirty and now intimate counsellor in a notorious ducal court, left his lord's fiery hospitality when Master Summoner called. It's well known he's always up for a fresh gaiety -- one learns so much when men take their ease. Wolf as he is most commonly known today (though conversely also as Rabbit to some) is immaculately dressed in iridescent black, as though cock feathers had been woven into a sleek, graceful robe. An emerald pendant tickles on his chest. He slinks into the feast flashing a mischievous, hungry grin."

The one who had been the Master Summoner, having lost all his magic in banishing the White Watcher, declared he was now simply ‘Moss’. He gave me the secret of the Watcher's name, fixed within a jewel on his broken staff. We decided to walk back to the town (a novelty) and he told us that he now realized a coercive influence had taken control of him from the time of his arrival in Port Karmon.
‘The Watcher was summoned originally, long ago, by a wizard who directed him to kill all other wizards.’
‘Ah yes. We have all felt like that at one time or another.’
‘He wanted to reign supreme, but his plan went instantly awry. The Watcher began by killing him. The combined strength of the College was necessary to banish the Watcher to the Gallowglass Isles, and even that took the sacrifice of a Great Mage to accomplish.’
And he had given me the being’s name. I looked around my companions. A sacrifice, was it? If it came to that, which of them could the world best afford to lose?
‘We are summoning conclaves of wizards,’ said Moss uncertainly. ‘I don’t know if I was to summon you, though there is some logic in the selection. Wax is from the far south, you from the far north. Eli from the east…’ He trailed off.
‘There is no eastern pole, is there?’ I pointed out. ‘Your theory of cardinal points does credit to you as a mortal, for whom any rational thought is a triumph over brute glimmerings, but would have embarrassed the mage you once were.’
We had arrived at the port. ‘There is danger here,’ said Idhelruin.
‘I will summon my sword and armour,’ said Aareth, starting to work a spell.
‘Good. You are thinking like a sorcerer, not like one of these nannying wizards of Hythe.’
‘Oh no,’ spoke the voices of Hythe, twittering like old women. ‘Using magic so ostentatiously is bad manners. Uncouth it is not to tiptoe around the great spells. A wizard’s robes should be hand-me-downs with leather patches on the elbows. Why not have it that your armour was left at the Library for you to pick up?’
Aareth gave in. Briefly Wolf, he had become Rabbit again.
I spoke to Moss. ‘You will come with us to the Library. Your knowledge will still be of use in our research,’
‘No, I'm no use. I'll just go off on my own.’
‘You are mortal now?’
‘Then it is not your place to question my will.’
The unknown influence was working on him still. With magic I removed the veil from his mind and he saw again with clarity for a time – long enough to introduce us to the Librarian, who took umbrage at Wax's nakedness and called him a savage. Wax heatedly pointed out that, as a savage, he might well make use of his coral spear upon the Librarian's person. Libraries should not be so noisy. Already I miss the solitude of my own realm.
The others, prissy Hythe wizards to a man, took the Librarian's part and Wax went to stand outside for a while.
‘We need books on three topics,’ I told Moss and the Librarian. ‘The White Watcher, historical attempts on wizards' lives, and cases of beings or objects with no true name.’
‘We could use patterning,’ suggested the Whisperer.
‘Good idea. While the rest of us search for the books we need with Moss’s and the Librarian’s help, you and Idhelruin attempt logomancy.’
‘We are just going to look for random clues?’ snorted Eli, presumably forgetting that the entire world is built of magic, furnished in magic, roofed over with magic, and stands on magic foundations. He and Aareth went off among the stacks on their own.
Wax returned, behaving very strangely and ranting in odd dialects. Again he menaced the Librarian’s posterior with his spear. I suspected that whatever fell magic had influenced the Summoner now had a hold on him.
Guided by Moss and the Librarian, I searched the bookshelves for the subjects we wished to research. Eli and Aareth conducted their own search without assistance. Meanwhile, Idhelruin and Hurstyk literally stumbled over a heavy tome with a black cover.
Wax rushed forward to kick it away, breaking his toe. ‘Don’t open it, don’t open it!’ wailed the Hythe chorus, wringing their hands in dismay. The main lesson taught at the College seems to be to fear any new thing.
‘It is called The Black Knot,’ said Hurstyk.
‘That is a labyrinth on the island of Tartuva,’ said Idhelruin. ‘The people there worship the Sightless Ones and perform rituals to them in the unlit tunnels.’
By means of an arduously slow process called consultation, it was decided we should travel there. From that, new consultations threatened to spread like an unkillable plague, spawning a thousand other unborn decisions such as when to travel, on what vessel, by what route, and so forth. I saw now why men need gods.
Eli announced that he had found a palimpsest whose words erased themselves as he read. ‘The wizard who summoned the Watcher was called Obsidian,’ he told us. ‘I won’t give you his true name in case it alerts him.’
‘Alerts him? But didn't the Watcher kill him?’
‘The Watcher came from the Dry Lands, which is the realm of Death. That’s how he knows our true names, as our mentors are all there in the Dry Lands.’
‘I have no mentor, living or dead. I named myself.’
‘Only the Summoner could bring the Watcher back from the Gallowglass Isles. He was controlled by a wizard who goes by the name of Birch, who may be in league with the man Jude who has no true name.’
‘Easily settled face to face.’ I intuited Birch’s true name and summoned him.
But – and this was most remarkable – he had set a hundred snares and gates to redirect any conjuration. By the time my summoning reached him, it had only the force of a gentle tug. ‘He has been here in Karmon a long time,’ I concluded, ‘making the whole port his own lair filled with traps worked over years. This is his home territory and it may be difficult to confront him before we know more.’
Moss and the Librarian had finally found the books I asked for: Attempts on the Lives of Wizards, Slayings of the White Watcher, and On Those Who Have No True Name.
‘How is information extracted from these?’ I asked. ‘Never mind, I’ll deal with that later.’
‘Are you going to carry them?’ asked the Librarian.
‘Why, when they are capable of flying? Surely that’s the reason they have these leather wings?’ The books flitting along behind me, I set off for the docks.
‘But Birch is in a tavern near the docks,’ came the timid refrain of Hythe. ‘We don’t want to run into him. Shouldn’t we skulk out of town, tiptoe around the island to another bay, and from there shyly send word for the ship to come to us?’
‘This College has unmanned you all. I will fetch the ship and bring it to whichever bay you decide is sufficiently remote that Birch cannot find you.’
At that they decided the threat was not so awesome after all. We set off together, distracted from thoughts of the long voyage ahead by Wax’s graphic descriptions of his carnal relationships with giant turtles. I began to suspect that it was not Birch’s sorcery that had overthrown his mind, but simple drink.
‘Where’s Moss?’ noticed Idhelruin.
We looked back. The man formerly known as the Great Summoner was clambering up the side of the Library, apparently with the intention of dashing himself onto the cobbles below.
A sigh.
‘I could arrange for a haycart to be beneath him as he falls…’ said Hurstyk.
‘I’d go after him, but my arm is withered,’ said Eli.
‘We warriors are famed for our climbing skill,’ said Aareth uncertainly.
As Moss turned to leap, Idhelruin gestured. The masonry of the building reached out to snag Moss’s cloak. He hung suspended a hundred feet above the ground. I called all the seagulls of the bay and sent them up to bring him down to us.
As Moss was deposited safely on the street, Aareth put a hand on his shoulder. ‘From now on, Summoner, I will not let you out of my sight.’
Wax was on the shore below the docks, fondling his turtle and rubbing its nose into his groin. ‘I’ll come on the ship with you, Aareth,’ I decided.
It was a good choice. The Sea Lion is of ducal quality, sleek and resplendent with silken sails.
‘We’d better call at Hythe on our way to Tartuva,’ suggested Idhelruin.
‘If we must. Like dropping in on maiden aunts, I suppose. But perhaps if we admire their knitting and praise them for only using their magic with genteel restraint, they’ll reveal something that might actually be useful to our quest.’
Wax waved to us. ‘I go to the spawning grounds in the far east,’ he called.
‘He is in his own adventure,’ observed Hurstyk. ‘A dreamberry reverie unclouded by mortal peril. We might come to envy him.’


  1. “By means of an arduously slow process called consultation, it was decided we should travel there. From that, new consultations threatened to spread like an unkillable plague, spawning a thousand other unborn decisions”. That’s exactly how I’ve felt sitting in dozens of Project meetings... hilariously droll! Keep it coming...

    1. Thanks, Nigel. I'm only capturing a fraction of the fun we had in Tim's campaign, but that's how it looked from Surma's perspective, anyway. Tomorrow I'll share some of the other players' write-ups.

  2. These posts have been very enjoyable reads, quite inspirational.

    As to the "no women at the College" thing, LeGuin's attitude on female and male uses for magic evolved considerably over the six books, with the original trilogy having it being distinctly segregated by sex and women's magic being downplayed and denigrated by the male wizards. The last three books take a different view, with more female characters and an examination of what the two sexes regard as important, both culturally and magically. It's a credit to her writing skills that neither side is portrayed as wholly correct (although the few Roke wizards who think celibacy helps strengthen their magic are clearly loons) but neither style of magic is inherently wrong, weak, or misguided. Interesting (if lengthy, and somewhat dry) literary analysis of all that here:

    1. Thanks for the link to the article, Dick. It is long, isn't still? Looks interesting, though.

      The rules we were using didn't differentiate between styles of magic, so every player-character had their own approach. As tomorrow's post shows, Eli for example had a bunch of Vanceanly named spells, whereas Surma simply told the universe to behave the way he wanted it to. In our campaign, the exclusion of women by the College of Hythe (equivalent to Roke in the books, I assume) turned out to be the cause of a lot of our troubles.

    2. It is a bit lengthy, and I suppose there are some spoilers if you plan to read the books someday. But it is a pretty balanced analysis of the series and LeGuin's changing relationship with it.

      I do like the variety of takes on magic that your PCs seem to have, which actually fits the full series better than having everyone from a College or something similar. The later books make it clear that there are a lot of ways to do magic and that the "formally educated" ones look down their noses at other practitioners. I'm sure that snobbery is repaid in kind, which makes Surma's snark about cowardly indecisive dithering college wizards very apropos to me. :)

  3. Yes I remember in AWoE it refers to “weak as women’s magic” and “wicked as women’s magic” as being sayings, on the island of Gont at least.

    1. Maybe that also sheds some light on some of Susanna Clarke's allusions in The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Unlike me, Ms Clarke would be familiar with all the Earthsea books and presumably wanted to include a nod to them.

    2. Those sayings are proven utterly incorrect in the later books in the series, but the first three books are so focused on Ged's journey that "women's magic" is sidelined. Although I suppose the "wicked" part could be a mangled remembrance of the number of female magic practitioners who were related to dragons - which are (sometimes rightly) perceived as sinister.

    3. We met a couple of female mages in the campaign. One disguised herself as a man to get into the College, the other applied and was rejected -- and there began a twenty-year masterplan of revenge. But Tim did give himself the get-out clause of saying it was only loosely based on Earthsea. Some of the players carried over the idea that magic was meant to be used very sparingly, if at all, but the reason for that was never explained (maybe it is in the books?) and as you can see it made no difference to Surma.

    4. Going by the novels, either of those takes are at least plausible - although maintaining a male disguise for a long while might be a strain. Then again, plenty of other lasses managed it historically in more difficult circumstances (as crew on a sailing ship, for ex) so who's to say? The hesitance about using magic seems to be a combination of fear of damaging the way the whole world works and (while at school) a desire to keep a bunch of apprentices from doing something awful on a more personal scale by accident. Ged, impressively, managed to accomplish both feats in what amounted to his freshman year. :) Personally, I think Surma's got a better attitude. If the world breaks, just tell it fix itself.

  4. So was your Master Summoner played by Master Thespian?

    1. Lol. I liked him more after he lost his magic -- if only because he was easier to order about.