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Monday, 27 July 2020

The Conclave: "The Unmade Future"

My write-up for the fourth session of Tim Harford's Conclave campaign went a little differently -- I did it before we played the game. It seemed natural, my mage character Surma having his unique view of things, and as a player I hoped it might encourage the others to fight together as a team.

‘Get into the carts,’ I told Ironside and Aareth, ‘and gird yourselves for battle.’
The names of the horses were already on my tongue. I bent them to my will – the beasts, that is, not my mortal companions – and they dragged the carts around to face the foe, arraying themselves wearily for the charge.
‘More foolishness from you!’ snapped Ironside. ‘These poor clapped-out beasts are not fit to fight.’
‘Nor fast enough for us to flee,’ said Aareth, a little of Rabbit coming to the fore.
There is no need to tell when you can show, as the storytellers say. Reality buckled, melted, shifted at my command. In place of the blown and sag-backed nags that had drawn us here stood proud champing mares, flesh-eating thoroughbreds from the stables of Diomedes, scalding steam snorting from their wide nostrils, rolling eyes abrim with bloodlust, their hooves striking white-hot sparks from the ground.
With difficulty our two warriors pulled back on the reins, biding their time for the charge. By means of fortification enchantments they hastily honed their strength and skill for the fray that was to come. The advancing line of nameless ones were only fifty yards off now, but stumbling despite their discipline as Eli worked magic so that each tangled clump of grass and every loose pebble, each cleft in the earth and cranny of treacherous gravel, made sure to turn their feet and cause them to falter as they came.
Hurstyk stood in silence, deep contemplation furrowing his brow. I knew without needing to ask – he was reading the pattern of flaws in our foes’ weapons, the minuscule cracks and impurities in the worked metal of their blades. When they struck, by his most potent art those dormant weaknesses would be exposed, to blunt their blows and even shatter the weapons in their hands.
Wax, who had been mustering shelves of black cloud across the star-glutted heavens, brought down his gaze and the sky spat fire, each bolt crashing and rebounding around the enemy leaving them scorched and smoking. Despite their unnatural resolve, they seemed warier now, their onward march less relentless.
Following my lead, Idhelruin now wove a change in the carts in which Ironside and Aareth stood, changing them into bronze-flanked chariots with iron-studded wheels built to crush flesh and splinter bone. Another flourish occurred to him even before I had time to ordain it, or perhaps it leapt from my mind to his, and great scything blades grew out from the axles. Their edges were as sharp as the midwinter wind that scours my realm when the sun is in his grave.
‘Now ride,’ I exhorted our charioteers. ‘The god of swift death blesses your endeavours. Be the hurricane that flattens the crop of nameless ones. And Farris – ’ I looked him in the eye as mortals do when they intend words of special import – ‘go through them and strike to their master, for your sword yearns to slice the white gold from his finger.’
There came a rush – wind, darkness, chaos, the unmade future. I can see no further. Let us hope my deific sight has vouchsafed the outcome that our determination will bring to birth…

*  *  *

As it turned out, they couldn't bring themselves to work from Surma's playbook, so instead it went like this in the conventional account, ie the one written after the game. The dramatis personae incidentally are: Aareth (sometimes known as Wolf or Rabbit), Eli (a self-proclaimed inquisitor), Farris Mundir (also known as Ironside), Hurstyk the Whisperer, Idhelruin, Surma, and Wax of Ear.

The insects and night-creatures proving ineffective, I turned them into savage dogs and they began to tear the nameless ones apart. Ironside hurled daggers that added to their woes. At the same time, Hurstyk dispelled the effect that was hampering our magic, though with the caveat that his remedy was only temporary. Idhelruin caused the hillside to collapse, and I evoked pelgranes that flew Aareth down to sever the heads of our foes. I did not ask why he wanted their heads, but it seemed reasonable.
The clouds parted and the moon shone down, and at that moment my night creatures lost their names and were stuck in mid-transformation, a horde of sorcery-swollen insects, dog hybrids, giant mosquitoes and the like. The impediment to our magic had, we sensed, returned with the moonlight.
‘Now you see why you should not use unnatural magic,’ muttered Eli.
I swept my hand to put a cloud across the moon, lessening Pale’s effect on our powers.
‘Where is Feltass?’ said Aareth. ‘He vanished when the insect swarm first attacked.’
‘He took another form and entered the ruined inn,’ realized Hurstyk.
‘He has rifled our backpacks!’ said Farris.
[Note: a backpack is a fabric container with arm straps that those who practice restrained magic, or no magic at all, must use to carry around their possessions.]
Idhelruin had briefly gone back into the inn. ‘He has taken the bell!’
‘He has the bell!’ the others cried. ‘We must retrieve the bell! At all costs he must not keep the bell!’
Eli sent a whisper to my and Aareth’s ears: ‘Idhelruin has been subverted to the cause of our enemy.’
I knew nothing of the bell, nor of what cause our enemy even represents, but I misliked to have Feltass escape us.
‘He has fled by folding space and time, to carry him of an instant from here to Duke Dartness’s townhouse,’ said Idhelruin. ‘We must pursue in the same way.’
Aareth used magic to invigorate the horses, then glanced at my heavy cloud that was even now sliding away from the face of the brooding moon. ‘Let’s go by cart. If we are between one place and another when Lord Pale’s nullification effect comes back, we might spend eternity there.’
‘We could undo the magic Feltass cast,’ was Eli’s opinion, ‘and that would return him here.’
He was wrong in this conjecture, but there was no time to explain it. ‘If we cannot pursue, or bring him back, let us disrupt his own channel between here and there, stymying his arrival at the Duke’s palace.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Aareth. ‘The Duke must have but one catamite.’
A spell was worked, though as Wax and I do not use spells to achieve our will we stood aloof. ‘It is done,’ said Hurstyk. ‘I do not know where Feltass is, but the image we saw showed the bell wrenched from his grip into a woman’s hand.’
‘The bell!’ shouted Idhelruin again, causing everyone to jump aboard the carts. We rode swiftly down towards the town.
‘Is Feltass the same person as Birch?’ wondered Aareth. ‘He's the one who wrote the book On Those Who Have No True Name, isn’t he?’
‘No, that book was written by the being who styles himself Lord Pale.’
‘Ah, so Birch was the one who summoned the White Watcher?’
‘No. Birch and Feltass are both agents of Pale; they wear similar white gold rings. The wizard who summoned the Watcher was called Obsidian. Apocryphally, Obsidian was killed by the Watcher – specifically, “sent to the Dry Lands”. I now realize that was his plan. In the Dry Lands he made himself into Pale, or merged with a pre-existing entity to become what he is now.’
‘The Dry Lands?’
We had reached the town. Idhelruin and Eli regarded each other with some tension. ‘Give me the true name of the bell,’ said Eli, calling across from the other cart as we raced down the streets, causing townsfolk to leap out of the way, ‘and I will seek out where it has been taken.’
Idhelruin provided a name. Eli gave him a long suspicious look (unfortunate, as with his eyes off the road he squashed a sleeping drunk under the wheels) and then wove his magic, conspicuously using a different name for the bell from the one Idhelruin had given.
‘It is at the palace of Princess Sheytelandin,’ he said.
Idhelruin drew up the horses. ‘Eli, you are in the service of Lord Pale!’
Aareth and I exchanged a glance. ‘Which of them can be trusted?’ he wondered.
‘Eli, you said that Idhelruin had been seduced by Pale,’ I said. ‘Now he accuses you. And for a fact we all heard you use a different name for the bell just now – ’
‘The bell. We must get the bell,’ came the chorus from the back of the carts.
‘Surma, I suspect both you and Idhelruin may have joined with Lord Pale,’ said Eli.
Strangely, this had the effect of making me think they could both be trusted. ‘So where is the bell?’
‘I don’t think it is at the Princess’s palace,’ said Idhelruin, ‘as Eli is trying to lead us astray.’ But he bade the horses walk on and we made our way to a gate in a garden wall. This was the palace – really just a townhouse, though grander than most.
Magic unlocked the gate and we went in. On the veranda two guards stood smoking pipes, and Idhelruin was about to greet them as old friends, but Eli reached past him and made them sleep. With surprising ease given his years, Idhelruin took hold of the ivy on the walls and ascended to a balcony where the drapes of a darkened bedchamber billowed in the night breeze.
Hurstyk, who had come to the quayside in Port Karmon by jumping from boat to boat across the harbour, had had enough of the ‘balance and restraint’ preached by the College. He commanded the air itself to loft him bodily up to the balcony. An unexpected but welcome development, this. He no longer permits his thinking to be shackled by  mortal considerations, and nor does Idhelruin – as we shall see.
They found the Princess suffering from the white plague. After a struggle, Hurstyk cured her but, strangely to my mind, he left her in the dumpy, wrinkled body that time had cruelly inflicted on her. Idhelruin, who seemed once to have been her lover, naturally found himself unenthusiastic for a reunion and became shadows, the better to permeate the palace and find where the bell had fallen.
Down in the garden, unnoticed until now, the roses around us had lost their colour in the moonlight, becoming pallid and sickly with a perfume that threatened to lull our senses. Wax stooped and inhaled deeply. I called on a breeze to dispel the scent, blowing it back upon the one who had conjured it.
Eli noticed that the gate had locked itself behind us. ‘Our enemy is coming!’ he said suddenly, and scaled to the balcony to warn the others.
This came as no news to me. I could feel the gem the Summoner gave me growing warm. ‘It holds the true name of the White Watcher,’ I told Farris, ‘and it tells me he is near.’
Hurstyk descended and, noticing the two sleeping guards also had symptoms of the white plague, he cured them. As before, I took note of the characteristic name of the plague, but I have no art to use that knowledge in healing. If ever I call on the plague – a remote possibility, but one never knows – it will be for other purposes.
Idhelruin emerged from the house, substantial once more. ‘I found the bell in the wall. It is ironic that it should have fallen back into reality here, in the house of one who was most dear to me, but after all there are no coincidences.’
Eli was trying to unlock the gate, but some enchantment was working against his efforts. Farris stepped past him and kicked it off its hinges. They looked out into the street and turned with looks of wild urgency.
‘We have tarried too long,’ said Eli. ‘The enemy is here.’
‘Go through the gate,’ I said. ‘It leads directly to the Sea Lion.’ I was glad I had spent so much of our voyage memorizing every true name of that vessel, as it made the fold in space easier to contrive. Even so, I struggled to maintain it against the dulling weight of Pale’s influence.
They went through. Eli was the last. He turned at the gate, and I thought he intended to make some criticism of my flagrant use of magic, but I had misjudged him. ‘Take some of my strength in case it is needed, Surma,’ he said, and his parting gift filled me with renewed energy.
Now I am here in the garden, the gem hot against my skin. In a story it would look like courage, or even sacrifice, but the plain truth is I could not permit the upstart god to claim my mortals as his own.


  1. For some mad reason my first impulse was to do this write-up as a rap musical. I soon abandoned that when an hour of labour revealed to me that lyric writing is much harder than prose. Here's what I came up with, but you'll be relieved to hear I'm not going to quit the day job:

    “You say, Idhelruin, that the bell’s been stolen,
    Trouble’s in the wind if Feltass should start tolling
    It. But what you’re claiming now – it doesn’t chime.
    Your pell-mell explanation is an obfuscating rhyme.
    I think you’ve been seduced, given in to temptation,
    And now this line you’re peddling is nothing but evasion.”

    “Evasion? Eli, my meaning is quite plain,
    It’s your own allegiance that seems a weather vane.
    I gave you a name, you didn’t use it.
    You looking for the bell or you want us to lose it?”

    “Really? You’re leaning on that rhetorical crutch?
    Accuse me back? Now it’s my fault? You do protest too much!
    Confess. It doesn’t take an oracle as such
    To see your zest for power has succumbed to Lord Pale’s touch.”

    Aareth & Surma:
    “Are we going to dangle here in the middle of the street
    While you two wrangle verses and try to compete
    As to whose cause is true and who’s become the cheat?
    (And mentioning Lord Pale by name – you’re both too indiscreet.)”

    Eli: All right then follow me, the bell is in yon tower.
    Idhelruin: Ridiculous! The place you’re pointing is my lady’s bower.
    Eli: Hollow words, felon, how’ll you convince me?
    Idehelruin: Lead on, then. If our foe is there then vedi, vidi, vici.

    1. I think you’re underselling your rap skills DJ Dazzling Dave...

    2. You're too kind, Nigel. Who do you reckon I should get for the album? I'm thinking Mr B as Eli, Professor Elemental as Idhelruin, and Stormzy as Surma.

    3. Your question leaves me awful vexed
      A rap trivia challenge I must object
      Ain’t no rappers names I know
      Ceptin’ fifty cent and Coolio
      Coz there ain’t nobody uncooler an me
      Cept that bro named Bean an where’s Wally

    4. It's not really in the spirit of hip hop to say this, Nigel, but you're much better at it than me.

    5. They're definitely my two favourite raps since Ant Rap and World In Motion, guys!

  2. Thanks a lot for this write-up! I read the first three books of Earthsea when I was a teenager, so I don't remember them well (I liked them very much, though), but this re-telling is great fun. Just a question - what system are you using? Especially for the magic, since Earthsea magic is so much different from the kinda-Vancian spells in most RPGs (to mention just D&D)... I really enjoyed the part when Surma first learns the names of all the parts of the ship, only to later use this knowledge in his spell.
    This reminded me of a magic system inspired by Earthsea that I tried to design then - where the spells were based on an invented language, where the success of a spell would depend on your mastery of grammar and vocabulary. For some reason, my players at that time didn't like it, or maybe I was a lousy GM... a pity :-)
    Anyway, thanks again for some fun reading.

    1. You could probably get the mechanics from Ars Magica to produce most of the spell effects described, although I don't think that's what they're using. That's another "vocabulary based" system, although you'd need to drop the Middle Ages European setting the game's tied to, obviously.

    2. Tim described his system as a simplified form of GURPS, though I think the only thing he retained from GURPS was the 3d6 mechanic. More about the rules we used here:

    3. Thanks Dave, I somehow missed it. What interests me is how the magic worked: did you have more or less defined spells (á la D&D) or did you construct these spells in-game (more in the style of Le Guins' books, also this is how it looks in your write-up)? And if so - how did you calculate the success chances? Just 3d6 plus modifiers, and DM fiat based on the quality of your roleplay?:-)

    4. There were the arts (Change, Command, Pattern, etc) but those just defined the kinds of things you could do. There were no specific spells. If magic was opposed (eg if I called a lightning bolt down on an enemy wizard's head) then the winner would be the one who succeeded their roll by a greater margin. There was some GM fiat, though -- eg the men who walked through my horde of mutated insects. To run it for more than half a dozen sessions you'd need a more rigorous set of rules, and in fact I later ran a two-part adventure to let Tim experience his world as a player, and beforehand I firmed up a whole bunch of grey areas in the rules. I don't approve of GM fiat even when I'm the GM!

  3. Hah. Great Rap Battles of Earthsea, now? :)

    1. Funnily enough, Dick, Jamie and I are exec producers on a TV musical at the moment. You'll be relieved to hear we're not writing the songs!

    2. Musicals aren't my thing, Dave, but that sounds interesting. Nothing you can reveal at this stage presumably?

    3. I'm not usually a fan of musicals myself, Andy, but this is more Rocky Horror than Sound of Music. When we can say more you'll hear it here first ;-)