Gamebook store

Sunday, 26 July 2020

The Conclave: unreliable narrators

For the third session of our Earthsea-adjacent campaign The Conclave, here are three write-ups of what happened, one from the point of view of my character Surma, another by Frazer Payne's character Idhelruin, and a third version by Tim Savin's character, an inquisitor called Eli. (I didn't actually know what inquisitors are in Earthsea, not having read the books, and even after the campaign wrapped I wasn't much wiser.) The rest of the Conclave were: Wax of Ear (Oliver Johnson), Farris "Ironside" Mundir (Inigo Hartas), Hurstyk the Whisperer (Paul Gilham), and Aareth "Wolf"/"Rabbit" (Aaron Fortune).

As we sailed east, I walked the ship familiarizing myself with the true names of the strakes and timbers, sheets and sails. Hurstyk took note. ‘Why are you doing that?’ he asked.
‘Wait and you will see.’ I had forgotten that the minds of mortals are bound by Time.
In due course we spied a ship athwart our course, its sails furled and barely stirring in what had been until now a brisk breeze. Its flag hung limp, yet we could make out the design of a pale moon on a white field. It was the ship of the nameless man, Jude.
‘A trap?’ was Ironside’s judgement.
‘We could go round,’ suggested Hurstyk.
At sea Aareth was once again a wolf, not a rabbit. ‘My crew are well trained. Let’s go alongside and board it.’
‘I’ll sink it, shall I?’ called Wax from the back of his turtle.
‘But there might be innocents aboard,’ protested Eli. ‘Women and small children, or slaves.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose and looked with other senses. ‘No, it’s just our enemies.’
Sprugel the turtle submerged, but soon returned. ‘Around the ship is dead water,’ said Wax. ‘Fish writhe and die as they approach. I did not like to go closer.’
By now the vessel had begun rowing towards us. There came a sense of taint on the wind, and with it a dulling of magic. I called for a hurricane I know of and it came in a rush. No hurricane is of temperate manner, but this one was in a foul mood. It swept down on us and on the other ship. The masts bent. Rigging snapped. The sails strained and were torn away.
‘Mercy on us!’ cried a chorus of terrified voices. ‘We split! We split!’
But I knew every name of every part of the vessel. Even as it lurched and spun before the wind, I remade it. The mast, twice as stout, sprouted in a strong spiral like the tree that holds the world. The hull reshaped itself, sleeker and stronger than ever. Vast sails spread like dragons’ wings, catching the full fury of the storm and bearing us swiftly before it.
Our foe, his vessel surrounded as it was by a zone of dead magic, could not transform it in like manner. We soon lost sight of it floundering far astern amid the crashing waves.
As we sailed on, it seemed a good time to consult the books I had brought from the library. ‘It will be arduous to make these pages speak aloud,’ I mused, holding one by its cover as though it were a dead bird.
‘I shall read,’ said Eli, opening On Those Who Have No True Name. He stared at the title page, trying to focus. ‘That’s strange. Can you make out the author’s name? It is obscured.’
I looked. The letters were a blur, but I discerned the name. ‘Lord Pale. I’m getting notes of maggots, grave cerements and decayed bones.’
Eli concentrated for a moment. ‘It seems connected to the ship we saw… Yes, I have it! The last person to look in this book was a man called Felt, or something of the sort. He was aboard Jude’s vessel, I’m sure of it. He has a true name, but by some means he has made it indiscernible.’
‘Let’s look at one of the others,’ said Aareth, taking up Slayings of the White Watcher. The first page showed a woodcut of a pale figure far off in a barren landscape. The pages turned themselves, more and more swiftly, and in each successive picture the figure drew nearer, nearer.
‘Enough of that.’ Ironside stepped forward, reached over Aareth’s shoulder, and slammed the book shut.
‘Let’s not look at the third one,’ agreed Aareth, visibly shaken by his literary encounter with the White Watcher.
Idhelruin was gazing up into the sky, now scoured to a clear blue as the hurricane veered off in a huff. ‘That gull…’ he mused. ‘Is it a gull?’
‘Shoot it down, men,’ cried Wax.
‘Come here,’ I told the bird, and it alighted on the deck. Idhelruin was right, this was no gull but a transformed wizard. I discerned his true name, or as much of it as I needed, and restored him to his normal form. An old man with a long white beard was crouching there on the deck before me.
‘I would not want Surma to learn my true name,’ remarked Ironside to Eli.
‘Of a certainty he would use it to destroy you,’ agreed Eli – this conversation occurring just seconds after they had seen me rescue a wizard who had become trapped in his own enchantment.
The old man looked up. ‘I thank you. I took that form to flee a dreaded foe, but I began to lose my own nature within that of the gull.’
‘I need no magic, then, to divine who you are,’ I replied. ‘You appear a trembling dotard, you are motivated by timidity, and your own spell nearly doomed you. Clearly you are one of the wizards of Hythe.’
‘Mirrorwaith!’ cried Idhelruin, helping the old man to his feet. ‘This man is my master. Fetch him a cloak, someone.’
‘Whom did you flee?’ asked Aareth.
Mirrorwaith pressed a hand to his brow, recalling his human memories. It was clear he recognized Aareth. ‘In Franmouth, Duke Dartness has a new advisor. You are supplanted by one calling himself Feltas, who now has the lord’s ear. He wears a ring of white gold. It was fear of him that drove me thence.’
‘You don’t seem frightened now,’ pointed out Hurstyk.
‘Of a truth, I recall the fear but as I stand among you it seems like the unreasoning dread a child might have experienced. I suspect Feltas ensorcelled me.’
‘We’ll learn more at Hythe,’ said Aareth.
Ironside was struck with a sudden realization. ‘We’ve sailed past Hythe. It was masked from us by magic.’
‘This comes as no surprise,’ said Wax, who stood alongside the rail on the back of his turtle. ‘There are myriad deadly dangers bestride the land. A plague. Men with no name whom magic cannot scathe. An unstoppable figure from the realm of death. The assassination of wizards. Faced with such calamities, of course the reaction of the knitting circle of Hythe would be to hide in a cupboard and twitter fearfully.’
It was agreed we would sail on to Franmouth, and enter the port not in our own ship – now very distinctive with its masts like fantastical saurian spines, its living alar sails, the organic moulding of its bulwarks and the glittering tegument that now armoured its hull – but aboard one of the trading vessels whose captains were known to Hurstyk.
Before we transferred to the other ship, I took a flying fish that one of the sailors had caught and stripped it of its scales, putting these in a small leather pouch.
The quayside at Franmouth was teeming with travellers from other isles, so we presented not too outlandish an appearance – other than Wax, standing naked with his coral spear.
‘We’ll travel in these carts,’ said Idhelruin. ‘I know a place up in the hills above the port, close by the abandoned lighthouse. Feltas goes there each night in the small hours to converse with the twelve grandees of the town, newcomers all, who now hold sway over its trade and commerce.’
‘I will walk,’ announced Wax.
I could see his point, but I had never before travelled in a cart and was intrigued by the novelty of it. The god of swift death riding in a slow cart – the poetic fancy of it struck me. At some point I must find a talented dramatist and command him to author a play with such a scene in it. But that is for another day. We set off up the track into the hills.
Idhelruin had promised us a ghastly hovel and he was as good as his word. The windows were gaping holes in the dank wattle and daub, the door a rotted plank, the roof mere scraps of straw. Behind it on the crest of the hill stood the lighthouse, in scarcely better repair.
Inside was of course colder than out. Taking a clay pitcher from something that must once have been a table, Idhelruin poured himself a cup. ‘Be welcome, friends,’ he said. ‘This is poor stuff, but to me it tastes like the finest wine.’
‘It is the finest wine,’ I told him. And so it was, now that my word had made it so, and yet I saw a trace of disappointment cloud his brow as he sipped. Could it be that he preferred his own imagination to the reality I wrought?
We fell to planning. It was agreed that our most skilled shape-changers should enter the lighthouse at midnight in the form of a bat and a mouse in order to eavesdrop on what Feltas said to his lieutenants.
The door fell open (quite literally) and Wax staggered in. ‘I met a nice man called Harper who gave me drugs and I gave him drugs and he wanted me to go home with him but I said no there are people waiting and I went and he didn’t follow me but he waved and I saw his sapphire ring.’
‘It wasn’t sapphire, was it?’ I said. ‘It was white gold.’
‘Mmm,’ agreed Wax, sinking to the dirt floor in a stupor. ‘White gold.’
Hurstyk shook his head. ‘And it was such a good plan.’
Eli looked around. ‘He is coming here now with twelve others. And those twelve have no true names.’
Aareth began to weave an enchantment that would selectively admit or bar the door against whoever he chose. Hurstyk bent over Wax, using herbcraft to restore his senses. Ironside magically fortified his strength in readiness for battle.
I went outside and addressed every insect, rodent and night creature for a mile in all directions, commanding them to my will. A second spell transformed them into monsters of their kind – bats with scything fangs, mosquitoes bigger than hornets, adders whose toxin would cast a man into blistering agony, crickets with bladed limbs to slice skin as the fabled river fish of southern jungles are said to.
At a hundred yards off we saw them coming up across the downs, moonlight painting their faces pale as mannikins. ‘Zombies..?’ mused Aareth.
‘Let us find out. Even zombies can be stripped clean by sharp teeth and rasping mandibles.’ And I sent my swarm, a vast black bank like a thunderhead, up out of the grass and thickets to assail them.
They staggered, but even with a hundred cuts and their eyes swollen shut with stings they continued towards us, axes and clubs in their hands.
‘I’ll make their trousers fall down,’ said Eli. But even that had little effect beyond the simply comical.
Wax lurched out of the hovel, gulping fresh night air to clear his head. ‘I’ll call on lightning,’ he said. A trifle jejune, I thought, us having already tried that same ploy in our fight with the Watcher on Dain, but after all why change a winning formula?
And as the heavens crackled, reluctant to spew fire out of a clear sky, the twelve marched on, serene and deliberate, drawing inexorably closer. And behind them, his white gold ring lambent in the starlight, came Feltas.

Idhelruin’s version:

We fled Port Karmon and the invisible webs of the wizard Birch, in search of some sort of vulnerability for the White Watcher. The plan was to sail to the Great College on Hythe, en route to the Black Knot, a labyrinth in Tar Tuva.

We neared the ship of the nameless Jude. Wax approached the ship from beneath the waves, riding on his turtle familiar, but retreated when he ascertained that the ship was surrounded by a defensive spell which killed any sea life that approached it.

We sailed on. I sighted a seagull flying near. There was a strangeness to it. I brought it to the attention of Surma, who, with great force, named the bird as Mirrowaith (my former master), and commanded it to land and resume its former shape. An old man appeared.

Mirrowaith had been struck by terror of a new arrival in Franmont, Fellteth. This man had quickly become first adviser to Lord Dartness, and stayed close to him. Strangely, Mirrowaith could not recall the exact nature of his fear.

Hurstyk and I both deduced that the wizards of Hythe had suffered a similar fear-inducing attack, for they had hidden the place and disappeared into animal forms, in which someone had trapped them. The scale of the spells being accomplished by the enemy seemed almost insurmountable. We felt isolated from our comrades, alone against an enemy that eluded comprehension.

I asked the company to come with me to Franmont, a city that is dear to me. At once the preening began, as they devised great, gaudy contortions of reality in order to dock the ship in the harbour. As we approached Franmont, I hailed one of the many coastal cutters. The captain was eager to lend an inconspicuous skiff, via which we were conveyed towards shore. A series of small boats came alongside, one after the other, to talk in hushed tones to me before casting off again.

A pair of union carters waited at the quay. Wax, contrary as ever, eschewed the carts, preferring to walk in his gaudy and conspicuous way through the streets. Indifferent, I bade him go where he wished. The carts carried us up towards the hills to the north of the city, through the shanty area, to High Road House, a crumbling inn. It is the last place on the track along the promontory to Fyfeld Light, a derelict lighthouse.

My spies had learned a little about Felteth. He wears a white gold ring. He rarely leaves Dartness’ side, except on nights when he steals away to Fyfeld Light to join twelve newcomers who have all risen in power as swiftly as he. I informed the company of what I knew, and pointed out the two hundred yards of clear ground approaching the lighthouse, and invited proposals for how they might begin to collect information.

Wax reappeared, very late. He was intoxicated by the magic substance of some man who had bewitched him in the side-streets of Franmont. The enemy most likely knew of our presence, and what little subtlety had been contrived lay as if trampled by a childrens’ carnival.

Eli deduced that Fellteth was approaching on foot with twelve men, shortswords drawn. One wore a white gold ring. Eli saw that they were Nameless Ones.

We laid our plans.

Surma called up a storm of insects from the woods and heathland. Some were huge. His magic was strong that day. But the Nameless seemed able to endure the storm with a calm befitting of adepts.

Eli’s version:

The book about those with no true names was written by one styling himself Lord Pale, as Surma divined. I approached it with habitual caution, anticipating bewitching hexes. My process for reading dark texts written by forbidden omnipotent entities from beyond the Veil is simple. Firstly, I invoke the Light of Ulthuan, lest the air itself by touched by the darkness. Next, I bring my hands towards the book, feeling forth with the Touch of Illithor, such that contact hexes built into the fabric of the cover are triggered and contained like moths within a prison of light. These steps undertaken, I determined it was safe to open the text.

Opening the tome, the book of leather and skin parchment revealed a poem, inscribed in the festering fungal mold from the six week corpse of a holy man. So far, nothing extraordinary. The inside of the book revealed a poem. Naturally, this was laced with patterning designed to entrance and deceive, as even the most mundane of poems is wont to be. I wove the Utterance of the Literal Child to flatten the layers of the text into as simple and powerless a form as possible.

Nonetheless, this poem was powerful indeed. My lips found themselves wanting to chant the refrain, "Lord Pale saves. Lord Pale rises." It took a considerable act of will to set it aside. Happily, such a text leaves a strong imprint from former readers. It was a simple matter to invoke Delver's Indelible Patten, and by this method I divined its most recent previous reader, and his location.


  1. Another great read. I'm getting the impression Eli is a fine scholar but perhaps not the best man to rely on for swift and decisive action in an emergency. "O'll make their pants fall down" indeed. :)

    1. All the Hythe lot were like that. Surma and Wax would be saying, "Shall we call down the lightning? Sear them with lava from a ruptured earth? Overwhelm their minds? Turn them into gnats?" And the others would say, "I make their shoelaces get tied together."

      However, by the end of the campaign all that twitty humble-wizard nonsense had gone out the window, and all the wizards were behaving as Surma and Wax had done all along!

  2. I get the sense there is a significant power disparity between the various wizards? Or is that just clever role playing?

    1. We used a points-based character creation system, so in theory everybody was the same power level, though we were good at different things. Farris, for example, concentrated on Vigour magic, which enabled him to enhance his own physical attributes for a time. Idhelruin was good at Wisdom and Pattern. My specialities were Name and Change.

      But the way we played the characters made quite a difference to how we were perceived. For example, Oliver (Wax) said: "Even when Surma ‘blunders’ it produces an amazing effect, like when the hurricane got out of control and dismasted the Sea Lion, but it was better than ever after he fixed it. Because of your ingenious manipulation and interpretation of the magic system there is a kind of unbeatable poetry to your every action." Which was kind of him. I guess it shows that if you act like a god people will think you are a god.

  3. Sounds like a fascinating magic system (albeit one that would need experienced GM and players). Was that Tim’s original creation as well or co-opted from another system?

    1. I'd been talking to Tim for some time about doing a simplification of GURPS, stripping out the profusion of skills and special cases to get it down to around 50 pages, so when he said the Conclave was going to be loosely based on GURPS I thought that's what he meant. It turned out his system was much simpler -- more like 5 pages.

      Characters have three stats: Skills, Vigour and Wisdom. Those have a base of 8 and cost 10 points per additional point. The major magical arts (Command, Change, etc) cost 3 points per +1; the minor magical (Fortify, Herbcraft, etc) and major nonmagical arts (Warrior, Archer, etc) cost 2 points; the minor nonmagical arts such as Sailor and Rider cost 1 point.

      To do something you take the applicable attribute, add the bonus for art (if any) and roll that or less on 3d6, and the effectiveness of your action is how much you make the roll by.

      The potential drawbacks of ultra-simple systems are that they can encourage referee fiat and they are open to abuse. And we did indeed have some players who immediately proposed powers that weren't included in the rules and suggested how many points they should spend to acquire those. But most of us spent our 150 points and the result was an interesting varied group of mages.

      The campaign was sufficiently short that we never hit the point where we felt Tim was jackanorying us. If you were going to use that system for a long campaign you'd need to close all the loopholes in the rules, and then I think it would end up being more like 50 pages. But for this short (eight-session) adventure it ran like a dream.