Monday, April 28, 2008

Ruzalia and the Prince of Ardova: A Tale of Ribaldry, and Intrigue

Went to Okemos again to visit Joe, and the first order of business was to find out what happens next with Ruzalia.

I was going to use consciously improv'ed GMing again, as I had last time. Having enjoyed Play Unsafe, I had gone one step further and had bought a copy of Keith Johnstone's Impro, the Bible of improvisational theater, and Graham's main source for Play Unsafe. I was about halfway through Impro at the time, having just read the part about narrative structure.

This is an important part for me -- the idea that you can make stories whole by a two-movement process; first, spinning out ideas, then, connecting all the dots you've painted. Expansion and contraction, opening and closing, to a point of literal closure.

I had no idea what was going to happen this time; I'd tossed around some vague ideas in my head but none of them made it into the game.

So what happened?

We very much wanted this adventure to happen in a city. Ruzalia is kind of a Gray Mouser-esque figure in some ways, and we wanted to put her back in that environment; also, the rules of TSOY make it very hard on an isolated character -- it's impossible to refresh your attribute pools without human contact, and that was killing her last time. (Nearly literally killing her.) So this one was going to be about people.

Joe brought to the table the idea that she'd paid for a few months at a tavern called the Dancing Goat (its signboard: a satyr leaping) with the loot from the tower in the last adventure, and was taking it easy. He also had the idea that she would be exercising her storytelling skill, and that she was going to use it to impress a woman in the audience, whom she had identified as a magician -- establishing a relationship with her, so that she would have someone to teach her three-corner-magic Secrets in the future. (It turns out Ruzalia is bisexual. Hey, why not?)

At some point in this process I threw out the following:

- A group of bearded, burly men in the corner, led by an older guy, always talk politics. They always shut up when certain people come into the tavern -- the pattern of who they shut up for is not yet clear to Ruzalia.

- A young guy named Benido, who's reasonably good on the guitar, accompanies Ruzalia when she's storytelling. (Uninvited.) He's got a pretty obvious crush on her.

- The mage is named Ilona, and seems rich and well-dressed. She's blonde, which is unusual except for amongst the nobles in Maldor, but she doesn't quite look like a typical Maldoran noble; something foreign about her features.

Ruzalia's tale is something she composed herself, the Ribald Tale of the Prince of Durillo. Durillo is a principality just to the north of Ardova, and a political rival. Ardovans have a rivalry with Durillans, and a low opinion of their morals and habits, comparable to England's rivalry with France. (And vice versa, of course.) The Ribald Tale is worthy of Chaucer, and dwells unflatteringly on the Prince's predilection for well-endowed goblins.

The tale is well received, and Ruzalia joins Ilona at her table, bringing some Ammenite rice wine, and gets to know her. It turns out that Ruzalia's description of the Prince of Durillo is pretty accurate... and Ilona is a former lover of his! [Aggressive and improbable reincorporation on my part. Sue me.] Ilona had grown tired of his increasingly perverse habits, and fled Durillo.

Ilona is receptive to Ruzalia's advances, but insists she has other business tonight -- at the palace. Ruzalia manages to make her forget her other business [successful Savoir-Faire roll], and they retire to Ruzalia's room, where their newfound friendship proves quite exhausting. And Ilona proves quite vocal. (Everybody in the Dancing Goat is going to be looking at Ruzalia a little oddly from now on...)

The next morning, Ilona leaves Ruzalia a bracelet with her signet on it, telling her that it will get her into the Palace if she wishes to visit. Then Ilona leaves for the Ardovan palace, an errand which she says she cannot delay any longer.

OK, what have we got out there now? 1. Ilona and her newfound affection for Ruzalia, 2. Ilona's urgent journey to the palace, and her history in Durillo, 3. the old burly guys in the corner talking politics, 4. Benido, 5. Signet jewelry gets you admission to the palace in Ardova.

Wow. Lots on the table. Will it all be pulled together by the end of the adventure? That's how the story-improv'ing works. Expand then contract; create then reincorporate. Right now we're just creating.

With all this over we had kind of a quiet spot. Nothing impelling immediate action. Ilona was gone; the Dancing Goat was very quiet. Ruzalia took the day off to recover from the previous strenuous night. That evening she noticed that the guys in the corner who talk politics weren't there at all. That was the first time she'd seen that happen. Odd. And now that she remembered, they'd shut up when Ilona was there.

The next day, OK, enough lazing around. Time for Ruzalia to do normal Ruzalia things, whatever those are.

Well, she's a treasure hunter by trade. So she went to Ardova's market district, to Antiquarians' Corner, to talk to the old antiquities traders she sells treasure to, and buys treasure-maps from. She asks her best customer, Maimonides, about the guys in the corner of the Dancing Goat, the ones who talk politics. He recognizes them by their descriptions. The older man who seemed to be the leader is Aramón, a former captain of the palace and city guard. The others are all former guardsmen, who had been removed from service at one time or another.

Hm. Perhaps sinister chaps. Plotting revenge for being let go?

Ruzalia considers paying a visit to the palace, using Ilona's signet bracelet.... or at least scouting out a part of town she's basically never been to.

Soon we find her in the more noble sections of town. This is Maldor, so we don't have gleaming marble buildings in perfect condition; the difference between the rich center of Ardova and the poor outskirts is that in the rich center, the glorious buildings have been crudely repaired wherever they are blasted and broken, whereas in the poor section they're just inhabited the way they are or else torn down for building stones, which are used to make smaller, rough buildings.

She finds herself sticking out a bit, in this part of town, in her lower-class clothes, and realizes she'll never make it into the palace dressed that way. She's still fairly well heeled after her last adventure, so she decides to upgrade her wardrobe. She finds a dress shop and convinces/pays a very surprised and skeptical tailor to make a dress immediately... And she walks out of the shop resplendent in finery. [New element: noble dress, and blending in vs sticking out]

Which gets her into trouble. One of the city guards from this part of town was following her before she entered the shop, and watched till she left, and he lays hands on her and accuses her of the crime of dressing above her station.

He himself has hands laid on him from behind -- It's Aramón! Aramón is not someone you mess with, he's built like Brain Blessed, and intimidates the guard into leaving Ruzalia along. She casts a divination on him to find out his general disposition.... and gets the answer "Protective," which surprises her. [Reincorporation: Aramón]

He walks Ruzalia back to the Dancing Goat and they confide in each other. She finds out that he and his little coterie are all royal guards who have been fired, one by one, after being accused falsely of various crimes by agents of the Chamberlain (never trust a Chamberlain!). Aramón has taken it upon himself to keep informed about the politics inside the Palace, trying to find out what's going on. Hence the discussions about politics all the time. They have clammed up whenever anyone who had, or seemed to have, palace connections, and whom they didn't trust, appeared.

Anyway, one by one their informants within the palace have shut up or been expelled, they're in the dark about what's going on in the palace, and they've become increasingly certain that a coup is in the works. (They're all loyal to the Prince, who's young and not necessarily very wise, but a good guy by their standards.) At first they thought that Ilona might be involved, perhaps as part of a plot from Durillo, which is why they'd clammed up around her and not shown up the next day, but some frenzied intelligence-gathering on their part was able to rule that out. Now they have no eyes, ears, or mouthpiece inside the Palace, and they wish to get a warning to the Prince.

Aramón and Ruzalia having joined the rest of the group, he asks Ruzalia, hesitantly, if she would be able to get in touch with Ilona, and perhaps get a message to the prince through her. She agrees to try... for a price. (She's got the Key of Glittering Gold and is getting hooked on the feel of fine clothes.) The men agree to her price and pay it beforehand, give her a scroll with a blank seal with the message inside, and she sets off for the palace.

[OK, threads are beginning to be drawn together. We're closing in. We've accounted for the men in the tavern talking politics, and connected them to the Palace, and given them an interest in Ruzalia, and flipped them over from menacing to benevolent.]

Getting into the palace is fairly easy. She shows a butler the token, and he takes her to a room where she waits for a few minutes. He comes back quickly and looks extremely awkward and embarrassed, and leads her deep into the palace, and opens a door for her and stands aside. Inside she finds the Prince of Ardova himself, and Ilona embracing him... both naked, in a bath.

And Ilona invites her to join them.

[OK, we now see that Ilona's got something of a prince fetish, and while the Prince of Durillo might have been a bit too out there for her, she's making herself quite at home with the Prince of Ardova... reincorporation: Ilona as an ardent devotee of pleasure; debauched nobles]

"Business before pleasure, I'm afraid," says Ruzalia, and she explains her mission and gives the prince the scroll. He breaks the seal, reads the contents, and turns white. He's connected the dots between what's in the scroll and what he's seen in the court lately and has concluded this is going down tonight, that he is possibly minutes away from assassination.

He, Ilona, and Ruzalia quickly plan an escape. They need disguises... Ilona summons the uncomfortable butler from outside the door and explains that they need two maidservants' uniforms and one manservant's, to fit the three of them. She explains that they're going to play a game that they play in Durillo, called "The Naughty Footman," and that they'll need at least an hour undisturbed to do so. The butler reaches epic levels of flusteredness but obeys. [Reincorporation: debauchery among nobles, especially in Durillo; clothes allowing one to blend in or not]

Ruzalia has the clever idea that Ilona use the Living Morph Secret to switch genders between Ilona and the Prince, since either would be recognized in the palace as themselves. She obliges, and soon Ruzalia, the Prince(ess) and Ilona the Footman are escaping the palace at great speed, Ruzalia greatly regretful that she has left her new dress behind!

They make it back to the Dancing Goat, and Ruzalia dresses in some of her old clothes and provides Ilona with one of her tunics... But she's got no men's clothes for the Prince... Till she slips downstairs and gets Benido, who is about the Prince's size, to bring over a change of clothes -- "Ssh! I'll explain later!"

[We've reincorporated Benido! Yay!]

Once they're all dressed again they come downstairs to meet Aramón and his men. The Prince embraces Aramón and they all pledge loyalty to the Prince. He declares them the new, true, and rightful Royal Guard and everyone races back to the Palace, and basically the prince invades his own palace.

They begin securing the palace, sorting the guards swiftly into the ones they trust and the ones they've stripped of their weapons and armor and sent packing. Ruzalia and Ilona think this is going too slow... they exchange glances and slip off to find the Chamberlain themselves!

They find their way to his rooms and only have to disable one guard on the way... [Following Play Unsafe's suggestion: "don't put gratuitous obstacles in the way of success just because things are happening too quickly... Let the players succeed, and play out what happens when they succeed"] They find the Chamberlain in a council-chamber, with two guards of his own. He's a man in his late 40s, looking like something between the Evil Prince and the Evil Count from Princess Bride.

Ilona attacks the guards with flaming hands while Ruzalia takes on the Chamberlain in a bare-knuckle brawl, which is the final battle of the adventure (using TSOY's Bringing Down The Pain rules). She wins. :)

In the denoument, she is offered a Title (Lady Ruzalia) but turns it down; she is instead given an Honor, awarded the name of Defender of Ardova for her efforts, and a sigil-jewel of her own is carved, giving her access to the palace should she choose to return. Oh, and she's richly rewarded in glittering gold. The Chamberlain is tried for treason and no doubt executed; Aramón is restored to his position as captain of the royal guard.

[And all the pieces are brought together. Well, I could have brought Maimonides into it a little more; he was kind of a turning point, where the adventure had started to leave her behind but she found her way back into it by means of learning from him who Aramón and company were. It would have been even better if I'd found a way of getting him back into things but to be honest I'd forgotten about him completely by the end.]

In Impro, Keith Johnstone says that many writers make the mistake of looking forward when they're stuck; they should be looking back at what they've already done to find out where they're going; this is advice which is also reflected in the Story chapter of Play Unsafe. It works!

I kept a page of very quick notes on everything that had happened, and whenever I was unsure where to take things next, I scanned over what we already had for ideas on where to go.

I did kind of a lot of plotting; set the direction for the adventure in many ways, which might have come across as railroading if it had been done beforehand, but, Joe will correct me if I'm wrong, I think that since everything I did grew out of things that he initiated, one way or another, and I didn't come to the game with an agenda of where I wanted it to go, any railroading effect was negated.

I mean, if he hadn't brought in Ilona and the Ribald Tale of the Prince of Durillo, which happened in the first minutes of the game, what would be left of the adventure? Everything grew out of the interaction of those story elements with the group of men in the corner talking politics, which I'd spun into existence out of nowhere at the very beginning as well.

So I'm definitely digging this improv-GMing thing. Hats off to Graham for getting me into this stuff. I've never GMed as much as I might like, because I never prepare anything I'm really enthusiastic about. This is fun.

It'll work better with some roleplaying games than others, of course. It'd be difficult to improv up a well-made Champions villain, for example.... careful construction is kind of the point of that. And even with TSOY I had to make allowances -- you're supposed to give experience points for the players participating in certain Key Scenes, which the GM comes up with beforehand. Well, I hadn't come up with anything beforehand, so I had to decide as they happened which scenes were awesome enough that they ought to be Key.

But I enjoyed this game even more than the last one, and the last one was pretty fun. It's still kind of amazing to me that I didn't know any of this was going to happen before it started taking shape during the game, and yet it hangs together into a unified story.

Good times.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Local Comic Shop Guy Shot

UPDATE: People are raising money to help out.

Friends of a comic-book store owner shot in an apparent robbery said they can't understand why the shop would be a target.

David Pirkola is in critical but stable condition in a local hospital, said Stephen Jahner, who owns Apparitions Comics and Books with Pirkola.

"People open comic stores because they love comics and are lucky if they can make a living," Jahner said. "It's not like we ever have a lot of cash in the store. It's just unbelievable."

Kentwood police said a man entered the store at 2757 Ridgemoor Drive SE around 7 p.m. and demanded money, shot Pirkola and fled.

Jahner said Saturday he has known Pirkola for decades.

"He's just a sweet guy, one of the nicest people you'll ever meet," he said. "He's the kind of guy you want watching your back."

[From Friend: Comic store owner critically hurt in shooting - Latest News - The Grand Rapids Press -]

That's where I buy Knights of the Dinner Table and PvP every month. There are few places I can think of less likely for a robbery an shooting. I heard about this late Friday night in the news and I still can't believe it. Dave's a totally nice guy. Robbing a comic book store? Robbing Dave's comic book store? And shooting? And now Dave's in the hospital in critical condition for a gunshot wound? It's terrible and it doesn't make any sense.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ruzalia by James West

A few weeks ago I contacted James West (author of The Pool and The Questing Beast, as well as an artist for Trollbabe and The Shadow of Yesterday) about doing a commission for me of my character, Ruzalia, from The Shadow of Yesterday game that Ed's been running. Man, did he come through!James has got some great new stuff out there. Here's a sampling of it:

Zoa Space Fantasy: A kick ass space/fantasy comic.

The Wizards of Ur: This a blog that James does with several other like-minded artist, where they share art and other interesting stuff.

Blood Red Comics: WARNING: This site is not work safe. A gallery of swords and sorcery women. Also linked from this site, is his "grab bag sale." Basically you give him some cash and he sends you a random piece of art from the site. So far I've gotten these ones:

Sword Maiden and the Beast
Howzit Going

So yeah, cool stuff. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's Like When Weird Al Mocks Your Song

A threshold has been crossed. For the first time in the history of the comic, Knights of the Dinner Table characters have been depicted playing a Forge-Forged, indie RPG -- to wit, John Harper's Agon, which was reviewed in their monthly indie RPG review column.

Damn. Indie RPGs have arrived.

Congratulations, John Harper.

Of course it's the Black Hands playing it. That little dysfunctional family is at each other's throats no matter what they play. :)