Fantasy


Let the Games Begin …

On the weekend I ran a one-off adventure set in Neolithic England, in the area around Stonehenge. I ran this after being inspired by my recent trip to the area. These ancient sites, and the lives of our stone age ancestors, are a complete mystery to us, which means they provide an excellent backdrop for adventure, since you can use the adventures to fill in gaps about the history of real places, and the few things we do know as an opportunity for new stories. Neolithic England also appeals because the extremely low technology means that adventurers will be defined entirely by their abilities and not their gear, which always appeals to me. Of course I chose to include magic in my neolithic world, because I always want magic in my settings. As with my last two one-offs that I set in real locations, I gave every character a suite of special powers regardless of whether they were identifiably wizards, with the hope that the game would depend heavily on the use of special powers rather than skills. I think I was not disappointed.

The setting

The adventure starts in Stonehenge at the winter solstice, with all the people of the local community gathered in the Avenue to watch the rising of the sun through the stones. The PCs have been invited to join the chieftain of the community along with the Head Priest at the Heel Stone itself, as guests of honour, because of a recent heroic deed they had performed. I asked the PCs to decide what that deed was, and they settled on the slaying of a half-man, half-wolf creature that had been terrorizing the people. Having described the stones and the people, and had the PCs describe themselves, I then introduced the chieftain, a weak-jawed old stick-in-the-mud who was a fighting hero in his youth but has begun to become indecisive. Recent weak harvests are blamed on a decision he made when he first ascended to the chieftainship, to move some of the bluestones inside the Stonehenge circle itself, and there are rumours of moves against him, though nothing solid will happen until the priests of the heavens shift their allegiances. I also introduced three factions within the People, and asked the PCs to pick one. These are listed here.

  • The Farmers: A conservative faction that wants things to stay roughly as they are, no major changes to the way things are done, who support the current chieftain but are uncertain about his religious views and the decision to move the stones. They are currently neutral on his position but could be convinced to switch sides if they could be convinced that his leadership threatens the harvest or the natural order
  • The Drowners: A small and radical faction who believe that a time of change is coming, and who think there needs to be a major period of human sacrifice to appease the changing forces of nature. They are led by a young priest, and contain amongst their numbers some of the poorer, landless folk who live on the edges of the community, some younger more radical priests, and wilder people generally seen as troublesome. They advocate the sacrifice of all who commit crimes, and some elderly people, by drowning in the marshes and in the heads of streams, to appease the gods of the underworld. They even mutter about abandoning the traditional worship of the heavens for darker, more sinister religious ideals
  • The Dawntreaders: A convocation of warriors and priests of the heavens (the main religious sect among The People), this faction sees the recent difficulties as the work of outside enemies. They think their religious ideas and beliefs are fundamentally correct, but that people from Cornwall, Wales or the barbaric tribes to the East are trying to undermine them. They advocate punitive expeditions to the moors, with their most extreme members in favour of extermination. They believe that stealing the other peoples’ harvest and bringing some of their young back as slaves and human sacrifices will warn them and remind them that The People are at the centre of the universe, not to be trifled with.

The PC’s choices were kept secret. They were then asked to pick a language from amongst the neighbouring areas – Welsh, Eastern Barbarian, or Cornish – and the adventure began with the solstice rites.

The system

I used a variant of the Coriolis system, which is a very simple and easy to use system that is very easy to generate characters for. Available skills were slightly reduced and reorganized, primarily to strip out skills like Data Djinn and Technology, and to shift Survival to an advanced skill (survival is the primary skill used to understand and assess new technology in this world of stone and wood). I also added a Darkness attribute, which is basically a limit each PC has on how many darkness points they can use. Every time they use a darkness point to push a roll, the GM gets one darkness point and the PC’s tally increases. When their tally reaches their limit they are consumed by darkness, and something horrible happens to their character, after which they reset. I renamed mental points as will, and this was used for invoking powers. Each PC had a special method for quickly recovering will in combat – drinking booze, or killing a helpless enemy, for example. Each PC also had a method for shedding some darkness points, which usually took longer and was slightly more difficult.

Something I did not expect was that my players would roll really badly. At one point in the session two players rolled a combined total of 24 dice and got no successes. Even with large dice pools and pushing things they seemed to fail a remarkable amount of the time. This would be bad in the normal rules, but with the darkness mechanic it proved a little punishing. I haven’t run Coriolis before but I have run mutant, and I never noticed this problem in Mutant. This session it produced some punishing results, though.

The PCs

Three players joined this session. I made all the PCs as bespoke characters, and they had a choice of four, listed here.

  1. The Dark Priest: a priest of earth and shadow, who specializes in magic that can bring the spirits of the dead back, drain people’s health, heal people, and curse them. He is old, weak and creepy. He sheds darkness by sacrificing a helpless person, and regains will by injuring himself or sacrificing helpless person.
  2. The Nature Priest: A priest who specializes in tracking, learning the secrets of the wild, and granting boons to his allies. He can transform into a bear. He sheds darkness by making a tincture of rare herbs, and can recover will by sparing an enemy he could have killed, with no benefit to himself.
  3. The Berserker: A warrior type who can fly into a berserk rage, commands rituals that make him a superhero in battle, and can intimidate and terrify his enemies. He sheds darkness by killing foes in battle, and recovers will by drinking alcohol.
  4. The Rogue: A scout and assassin, who is accompanied by a bird familiar that he can use for spying and vigilance. He can also go invisible, and has special powers with his bow. He can shed darkness by doing something that causes an ally to be harmed, and can recover will simply by running out of combat.

Everyone decided the Rogue was too much of an arsehole, so in the end the Dark Priest, the Nature Priest and the Berserker started the adventure, lined up next to the Chieftain at the heel stone as the ritual of the winter solstice began …

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Last week I visited the Boolean Library in Oxford to see the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition. This exhibition combines work from Tolkien’s estate, material from various museums, and published material to produce a detailed description of his life and the process of producing his seminal work, The Lord of the Rings. It includes a lot of the original artwork he produced, and notes and scribblings from his entire career. Interspersed with these are letters, diary entries, photos and details of his daily life, including memorabilia and ephemera (?) such as the rocking chair from his office.

The central theme of the exhibition is the long drawn out process by which Tolkien developed Middle Earth, from its first sparks in his teen years and early university days to its final realization. To describe this process they use a lot of material from his study and workshops, and present a lot of maps, as well as some of the content of his interactions with colleagues, publishers and his friends The Inklings. The exhibition does not set out to give a background or introduction to Middle Earth, though it contains some fascinating exhibits that link his art and his voice to the contents of his world. There are several readings of Quenya by Tolkien himself, that were recorded at some point and which you can listen to, and there is an excellent interactive map of the journeys of the Fellowship, with locations that you can click on to see pictures that Tolkien drew or painted that describe the settings (his 3-D pencil sketch of Mordor is particularly good). There is a section devoted to various pictures he drew attempting to visualize the world of the First Age and the Silmarillion, which indicate that this period was not settled in his own mind. There are also stories about how others reacted to his illustrations. Of particular interest here is the reaction of publishers to his pictures, with (for example) the publisher of the Hobbit being very happy with his picture of Bilbo drifting through the forest on a barrel, but not so interested in other pictures. From all of this the visitor can gain a deeper insight into just how long it took him to produce the Lord of the Rings, how intensively it was worked and reworked, and how close it came to never being published.

I’m not a big fan of Tolkien’s illustrations, many of which are amateurish and in a style I don’t really like, but even many of the illustrations I don’t like are evocative of a particular vision and style that really helps to define how Tolkien saw his world (and, given his authorial authority, how we should too!) Some, like the Bilbo on a barrel picture, are quite beautiful in a kind of art nouveau style that I think really summarizes Tolkien’s romanticism and his anti-industrial sensibilities. Others give a sense of the scale and power of the world he wanted us to wander through, and help us to understand how he imagined the journeys at the core of the story. They also give an insight into another interesting thing about Tolkien’s imagination: just as he centered the story of Middle Earth in the world of the Third Age, and depicted the First Age as a lost realm of dreams and myth, so he himself had a very concrete vision of the Third Age, but a very vague and shifting view of the past of his world. His pictures and descriptions of the First and Second Age do not provide much clarity about what it looked like, as if he was drawing on memories and dreams, while from his pictures of the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings one feels as if he was really there. This might help to give some sense to the conflicting myths and legends underlying the story, and suggests that Tolkien never intended anyone to draw any single clear and definitive strand of history from the First Age to the Third.

I cannot review an exhibition of Tolkien without touching on the recurring theme of my analysis of his work, the problem of scientific racism. The museum does not touch on this issue or discuss it in any way, and nor does it need to – this is an exhibition about Tolkien’s life and how he developed his stories, not about any single theme that underlies it, and it had no great interest in the impact of his work on subsequent writers (except to present some excellent examples of how enormously popular his work has been). However, the exhibition does present a single piece of extremely strong evidence in support of the claim that Middle Earth represents Europe, and the Haradrim are Africans. One of the central pieces of the exhibition is the map that Tolkien worked from in preparing the book. On this map he has written in blue ink the names of real world places that correspond with the places in Middle Earth. Hobbiton is Oxford, Minas Tirith is somewhere in Italy, and the southernmost city on the map – somewhere north of Haradwaith – is Jerusalem. It is abundantly clear from this map – prepared by Tolkien himself and a core part of his working materials for the book – that he envisaged Haradwaith as Africa. This should help to settle debate on how we should analogize the Haradrim in his stories.

Although the exhibition does not intend to – and obviously does not need to – describe Tolkien’s political views in detail, it does give a brief account of his role in the war and his reaction to it, which are generally agreed to be important to the development of some of the ideas behind his imaginary world. There is a tragic picture of his graduating class from Oxford (I think it’s Oxford) with all those who died in the Great War shaded out, showing how terribly that war affected his generation, even those like himself who were relatively cushioned from it by their comparatively elite status. There is a sad letter from a friend heading to the front, urging him to continue his writing even if the friend will never live to see it (that friend died at the front). This helps to give an insight into Tolkien’s personality. But the real insight into Tolkien’s personality comes from excerpts of his letters, and the description of some aspects of his personal life. Though he had been appointed professor of Old English at Oxford, Tolkien had no office, and worked from a study at home. In this study he supervised students, prepared lectures, and did all his philological work. The museum also tells us that he never closed this study to his children, and that it was a popular place for them. It has to be said that from these insights into his personal world the museum really gives the impression of a man who was kind, gentle and in no way an arsehole. This may not seem like much but I have worked in Academia for 10 years now and I have to say that not being an arsehole in Academia is a rare and special trait. Furthermore, in this age of #metoo where we are increasingly discovering that the people whose work we love are arseholes, losers and/or abusers, it is genuine pleasure to find that a man whose work was of such towering importance, who was in an elite position in a world where men of his position were protected from all forms of retribution for their behavior, and an academic to boot, really appears to have just been a decent chap. It’s a balm for the soul in these troubled times, and although I had no special impressions of Tolkien’s personality in any direction, it is nice to be given some evidence that he was not the arsehole so many other famous people have turned out to be. Well done Dr. Tolkien!

Because I have written many blogposts analyzing the racism in Tolkien’s work, and the negative influence of its racist and conservative content on the fantasy genre, I am often mistaken for someone who doesn’t like Tolkien’s work and doesn’t consider it especially influential. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. I love his work and think it was hugely influential. As part of my trip to the UK I went on a tour of some famous sites in Wessex and the area I grew up in, and I realized through these journeys that I really was strongly influenced by the bucolic vision of a green and perfect England that Tolkien incorporated into his works, as well as the Christian and pre-Christian ideas that drive it. I think his work is an amazing and beautiful construction and undoubtedly one of the most important cultural products of the 20th Century (along, perhaps, with heavy metal, role playing, social networks, modern combat sports and computer games). He did something no one else had ever done, and unlike Gary Gygax he did it beautifully on his first try. This exhibition really does a great job of reinforcing that impression, and gives a detailed and careful description of the process by which he achieved his vision, from a clearly sympathetic but not sycophantic perspective. If you have a chance to see this exhibition, please do so. If you like Tolkien, or even if you don’t but are interested in how this important literary figure built and conceived his world, then I recommend you visit this exhibition and immerse yourself in his creative vision. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Klorg sleep now!

Our heroes have successfully infiltrated the first half of the Cragmaw Hideout, and they now know that ahead of them lies a water trap of some kind, and a Bugbear leader. After they allowed cook Yelmick to leave they moved back down the tunnel they had entered by, passing the scree-scattered scarp they had hauled themselves up to get here, and moving on along the tunnel to the bridge that overlooked the lower tunnel that lead to the entrance. The bridge was rickety but held their weight, and they crossed it safely. On the far side Mouse moved ahead, sneaking along one goblin piss-stained wall towards a larger room that roared with the sound of falling water. This room was larger than the previous caves, and had a refreshing breeze drifting through it. The tunnel opened into a large flat area of slick stone, which overlooked a wide pair of pools, that had obviously been created by damming the stream that had made these caverns. On the far side of the room a waterfall fell into the higher pool, bringing welcome fresh air into the stuffy and stinking confines of the lair. A huge tree trunk hung in the air, held up against the cave wall by a series of ropes connected by a rickety and makeshift-looking apparatus to a lever on the floor near the pool. This was obviously the source of the water trap that the party had just avoided. There were no goblins in the room, but from the southern side a dim light glowed from a connected cave. A single exit ran out of the north side of the room, following the line of the stream back down under the bridge towards the cave entrance.

Mouse brought the others forward and moved ahead again, to check the light source. He found a set of rough-hewn stairs leading up to a large cave, where the light was revealed to be a firepit in the middle of what must be the leader’s cavern. Crates and supplies lined the far wall of the cavern, and in one corner a human sat naked, tied to a barrel of some kind by tight ropes that had cut many burns and marks into his pale skin. A single goblin sat in front of the fire, spitting and cursing that he had to stay in the cave while the rest of the tribe got all the fun and treasure.

It took but a moment to subdue this pathetic beast, and it soon told them all they wanted to know. A goblin had been hiding on the bridge and had seen them as they entered the cave. It had called down to the cave with the ponds, and the goblins had released the first of two water traps. The goblin on the bridge had seen the light stone that Mouse cast into the flood, sweeping away down the stream, and had assumed the party had all been swept outside. Klorg had taken all the goblins except this pathetic beast and gone down the stream to find the PCs and slaughter them. They would no doubt be coming back soon. The PCs freed the human, Sildar, gave him the goblin’s sword, killed the goblin, and rushed back to the bridge to set their trap. Tyge went down to the lower tunnel under the bridge while Sildar and Mostly Simpson waited by the pond, and deCantrus and Mouse took the bridge. The goblins soon returned, marching up the tunnel with no regard for safety, spitting and cursing at each other the way goblins do when they have no one else around to hurt. Klorg marched in the middle, accompanied by a fat, mangy wolf.

They released the trap. Two of the goblins were swept away, though Klorg and his wolf stood their ground next to one goblin, and two goblins escaped the deluge, though the characters did not immediately know they had ducked and hidden. deCantrus cast a sleep spell that knocked Klorg and his wolf, while the remaining goblin opened fire on them. After a short moment a goblin returned from the cave mouth, and deCantrus tried to hit it with a flame bolt that only succeeded in setting the bridge alight. Beneath the bridge a goblin emerged from hiding to stab Tyge, and Sildar and Mostly Simpson rushed down to help her in battle. Another goblin emerged on the bridge to attack Mouse, giving deCantrus cause to run to the other side of the bridge. The remaining goblin in the tunnel woke Klorg and the wolf, so deCantrus cast another sleep spell. The goblin on the bridge fumbled his attempt to attack Mouse, smashing a piece of burning bridge down onto the goblin below the bridge, and giving Tyge a chance to mash it into oblivion. The battle was soon over, and Klorg slept through the whole thing, never to wake. If only the goblins were as good at resisting their traps as they were at making them …

They looted what they could, though the reward for their risks was paltry. In the cavern they found a stash of supplies that had been looted from another caravan on its way to Phandalin, and resolved to return it to its owners (for a reward, of course). They also spoke to Sildar, and he told them:

  • Gundren Rockseeker and his brothers had found the lost Wave Echo Cave, a location of some fabulous treasures
  • Klorg had orders to capture Gundren, given to him by some nefarious figure called the Black Spider
  • Gundren had a map to the cave, but it was sent to the goblins, probably at Cragmaw Castle
  • Sildar has his own contact in Phandalin, a wizard called Iarno, but has not heard from him for two months. Having lost contact, he was heading himself to Phandalin to see what was going on

They decided to travel together to Phandalin, rest there, find out the location of Cragmaw Castle, and free Gundren before he became useless to this mysterious Black Spider. Since all goblins look the same to the party they could not easily tell if Yelmick had been in the group of goblins they killed, but Tyge seemed to remember he had a big hairy wart under his left nostril, above a rudimentary tusk that protruded through an infected piercing in his cheek, and which she could not keep her eyes off when they were talking to him; looking at the goblins in the cavern they guessed he wasn’t there based on this hideous telltale, and decided to assume they now had a plant in Cragmaw Castle, though not the most reliable kind. They decided to return to Phandalin, and see what they could learn.

At Phandalin they secured accomodation and returned the stolen trade goods in exchange for a reward of 50gps. Now they were ready to seek out the Cragmaw leader, and this mysterious Black Spider, and kill them. First a warm bath and some ales – then the world!

The party had a simple task – escorting a wagon of mining goods from Neverwinter to the small town of Phandelver. An easy job through peaceful vales for our four adventurers, who were:

  • Mostly Simpson, A human Cleric of the Storm
  • Tyge Trip, a half-elf Paladin
  • Raymond d’Cantrus, a human wizard forced into adventuring after his grant funds dried up
  • Nithren Mar, “Mouse”, a half-elf rogue

They had been hired by a dwarf named Gundren Rockseeker, who dropped hints of a big find in the town of Phandelver and offered paltry pay for the group to escort his provisions in a slow wagon, while he hurried on ahead on horseback with his hired sword, Sildar Hallwinter. His fine speech gave the impression of riches and further jobs waiting to be had, so they agreed to his poor payment on the promise of future chances. Like good entrepreneurs, they hustled along the road to Phandelver, throwing caution to the wind in the hopes that they would move quickly and not burn their entire payment on provisions, and were soon within a half day’s ride of Phandelver, on the Triboar trail. It was here that the Goblins struck.

As they rounded a bend through a copse of trees they stumbled on two horses dead in the road, obviously shot down. Tyge moved forward to investigate, and a hail of arrows fell on them from both sides of the road. Tyge was struck down immediately, and in haste Mostly Simpson cast a fog cloud over the ground to the right side of the road, from which half the arrows had come. d’Cantrus hopped down from the wagon, and Nithren slipped into the shadows of the woods just as a harsh voice yelled “Gank the mage!” in goblin, and a second fusillade of arrows hit Mostly Simpson, felling him immediately. d’Cantrus crouched by the wagon, listening to the muttering and cursing of goblins in the fog to the far side of the road, as Nithren tried to creep up on the archers. Another volley of arrows felled d’Cantrus, leaving only Nithren upright. He ambushed one of the goblins as two others emerged onto the road and started looting the bodies, one on Mostly Simpson and one on Tyge. Mostly Simpson lay in a dire state, blood pouring from deep wounds, and his final moments fast upon him. Nithren fled deeper into the woods, drawing a goblin after him, and disappeared into the underbrush to lay another ambush.

It all looked lost, at least for Mostly Simpson, his last lifesblood draining into the mud of the road, when Tyge recovered consciousness, to find the goblin rifling her pack. It had already tried taking her greatsword but, finding it too heavy, cast it down at her side in disgust. Much obliged, Tyge hauled it around and smashed the goblin to pasty muck, rolling over and staggering to her feet to find another panicked goblin staring at her over Mostly Simpson’s paling body. The goblin, seeing her ichor-slicked sword and enraged face, panicked and ran for the brush, dropping all it had stolen. Tyge staggered over to Mostly Simpson and lay on hands, a gentle blue light suffusing him and bringing him suddenly alert. Staring around madly, he grabbed his spear and rushed to d’Cantrus’s side. Meanwhile in the bushes Nithren Mar killed a goblin, and was fast on the heels of another when the fleeing goblin came screaming past. They both turned and fled, but not fast enough – d’Cantrus struck one down with a bolt of wrathful magic, and only one escaped.

They had survived an unexpected goblin ambush, though only just. They regathered at the wagons to rest and recuperate, while Mouse inspected the horses. These horses were the same horses Gundren Rockseeker and his guard had left Neverwinter on some days before, shot down perhaps a day ago and thoroughly looted. With no sign of Gundren or his guard, the group presumed they must have been captured by the goblins. They decided to hide their wagon on the trail and follow the goblins to their lair, either to find and rescue Gundren or to take back his belongings if, as they feared, the worst fate had befallen him.

The goblin trail was easy to follow, and the traps they laid on it pathetically easy to spot and avoid. The trail led to a low cliff face with a cave entrance, obviously regularly used by goblins. A stream seeped out of the entrance, running strangely low in its banks for the end of the storm season, and a brace of bushes near the entrance contained an obvious goblin watchpoint. Mouse sneaked up to the watchpoint and lay low near its entrance. Here he heard the goblin that had fled the ambush, bragging about how he had single-handedly ambushed a party of warriors and driven them back down the road with his cunnning. As the other two goblins in the hide oohed and aahed at the brave goblin’s story, Mouse rose up behind him and cut his throat, pulling him back from the hide and into the open while grunting “No he didn’t!” as he ran.

The goblins came charging out after Mouse and straight into the trap, cut down on the river’s edge by arrows and spells. One fell immediately but the other fled into the cave. Not wanting the alarm raised, Tyge and Mostly Simpson charged in after. They stumbled in the dark, and were just orienting themselves when a ragged, starving wolf emerged from a cave mouth to their right. Mostly Simpson set his spear and the wolf impaled itself on the spear, but soon two more came charging out. Grimly beset by the river’s edge in the dark, they beat the two wolves down and killed the last goblin too. Silence fell on the caves, and blood slicked away down the torpid stream.

Though sluggish and shallow, in the narrow confines of the cave interior the stream drowned all sounds from further in the cave. Confident they had not been heard further in, they explored the cave to their right. It was a filthy, stinking kennel, where the three wolves had been confined on chains and fed scraps. Holding in their vomit, the party searched through the filth and the shit for signs of Gundren rockseeker but found no human bones or remains. At the back of the cave they found a natural chimney that carved a narrow passage up to a higher cave, from where they could hear the faint sound of voices. They opted not to climb it for a surprise attack, and returned to the main passageway. This passageway was wide enough for the stream and a narrow walkway next to it, suitable for them to walk in single file. They devised an elaborate strategy for the humans to move forward using a light spell cast on a stone, and Mouse crept ahead to investigate the tunnel. After a short time the rest of them came forward to join him. The passageway curved ahead of them, and a passageway branched off to their left from the far side of the stream. Ahead of them a very unsafe wooden bridge balanced precariously over the stream, linking passageways that crossed the tunnel they were in. As they stood their discussing which way to go, they heard a roar ahead of them and suddenly a wall of water surged around the bend of the tunnel, rushing towards them under the bridge. They dived in separate directions, Mouse for the side tunnel, de Cantrus and Tyge back to the filthy wolf cave, while Mostly Simpson just stood his ground and weathered the storm. As Mouse ducked into the side tunnel he threw the stone with the enchanted light into the swell, and it bobbed away into the darkness. After the water had passed they rejoined in the side tunnel and climbed hastily up its scree-strewn slope to a higher tunnel, hoping that any pursuit would pass them. The constant chattering of the stream hid the sound of any pursuit, and they found themselves standing in a narrow tunnel that obviously must cut back to the bridge under which the water had raged.

Mouse stalked left, away from the direction of the bridge. He had found a nest of goblins, and they needed the mage. The wizard came forward to witness a scene of goblin Hygge: Four goblins crouched around a fireplace while a fifth turned a piece of pig carcass on a spit, swigging a mixture of alcohol, oil and pepper and spitting it over the mouldering pig flesh for flavour, while a boss goblin yelled down at them from on high in a torrent of abuse and foul-mouthed suggestions for the cooking pit. Thick smoke roiled around the room and out of a narrow gap in the ceiling, and the walls were smeared with old oil fumes and smoke. One of the goblins limped to a foul pile of straw in the corner and unleashed a lurid stream of piss that steamed in the half light and seemed to cascade forever into the dank straws, while the other snarled and recommended the cook add it to the carcass to improve the flavour.

deCantrus whispered the incantation for a Sleep spell and they attacked. The battle was short and brutal – three goblins fell asleep under deCantrus’s magic, two were cut down by arrows, and the last fell to Tgye’s sword with barely a whimper. The cave was cleared. Having slaughtered his friends, deCantrus cast Charm Person on the cook, and they woke him with the intention of telling him they had saved him from the beast that struck down his friends. Unfortunately as soon as he woke up, the goblin began a terrified bleating and prostrating, a sure sign that the spell had failed. Instead they threatened him, and with barely a raised voice they convinced him to tell them everything he knew:

  • This was the Cragmaw clan
  • Their main lair was in Cragmaw castle, somewhere northeast of here
  • The boss in this cave was Klorg, a bugbear of stupendous power
  • They had been ordered by their chief in Cragmaw Castle to raid wagons to find a dwarf called Gundren and deliver him to the castle
  • They had done just that, but were keeping his guard here for food or ransom
  • There were two water traps at the end of the tunnel, but they could go over the bridge and sneak up on the people in the trap room
  • His name was Yelmick

They cut a deal with Yelmick: They would let him live if he fled straight to Cragmaw Castle and set himself up as a cook there. Then when they invaded that castle, he would be ready to give them all the help they needed. If he agreed, they would give him treasure. If he betrayed them, they would deal with him just as they were about to deal with his friends.

They weren’t his friends, he assured them – he was just the cook. He just liked to cook. He didn’t know about any of the bad stuff and was just acting on orders. He would happily go to Cragmaw Castle for them and set up as a cook, no doubt he would soon become cook to the chief himself, since he was such a great cook.

Mouse recommended him to make contact with a traveling bard called Michelin who rates cooks, and then bade the goblin wretch be on his way. Yelmick was not even out of the room before behind him he heard the crunching, gurgling sound of his tribe mates being put to death in their sleep. Not doubting his new patrons’ power, he fled with nary a backward look.

Their grim task done, the PCs turned towards the bridge, and prepared to invest the inner depths of the hideout.

 

 

Keep slaughter in your heart. A life without it is like a sunlit garden where the flowers are blooming.

– From The Epigrams of Warboss Wilde, Alvin Redmane

The party were four in number:

  • Aurak the Unborn, Lawful Evil Half-orc monk
  • Nemeia, Chaotic Good Tiefling Witch
  • Kaylee Sparklegem, Chaotic Neutral forest gnome rogue (NPC)
  • Ufgram Ironfist, Neutral Good Dwarven cleric of life (NPC)

The four served Mistress Servaine, a retired adventurer who runs a stable of mercenaries based near Baldur’s Gate. She had been asked by an old friend, Shirlwan Hukrien, to send a team of adventurers to her home to find her son and daughter, who had gone missing some two weeks ago while exploring an old ruin known as the Sunless Citadel. The party had been chosen for this mission, which was not seen as a particularly challenging one, as an introduction to their service for Mistress Servaine.

They set off immediately, trekking the two days to nearby Oakhurst, where the Hukrien family lived. Here they introduced themselves to Shirlwan Hukrien, and discovered that though she was once a powerful wizard, recently her powers had begun to wane and she was not herself able to use them to locate her children. This strange weakness was not her unique cross to bear, she revealed, but had been noticed by other powerful wizards in the land of Faerun. Shrugging off Aurak’s suggestion that they immediately take advantage of this strange circumstance by raiding the tower of the Red Wizards of Thay, the PCs asked Shirlwan for the loan of some horses, and set off to the Sunless Citadel.

The Citadel is an old tower that had fallen into a ravine during some ancient cataclysm. The locals said variously that the ravine had swallowed the tower whole as a punishment from the gods for the evil dragon cult that occupied it, or that its collapse had been the result of a horrible magical experiment gone wrong, or that the earth is made of great plates of stone that sometimes move like scales on the back of a sleeping dragon, and in their clashing lay to ruins even the greatest achievements of mortals; in truth no one knew the real reason, but all avoided the tower and its environs. The tower was perhaps five days’ travel on foot, the far side of the Plains of Ash, and easily visible from afar because one ruined tower of the fallen citadel still stood lonely watch on the plain overlooking the cursed ravine.

They found it easily, but their approach to the shattered tower was interrupted by a strange ambush. The land leading up to the tower was rough terrain of scattered bushes and small stunted trees, all dusted with a fine silver-grey layer of dust from the nearby Plains. In the distance, a little removed from the lonely tower, they could see the occasional smoke towers from remote farms, which hereabouts primarily grew apples and some wild fruits that need much sunlight and open space to thrive. Passing through an abandoned and overgrown orchard from one of these farms, the group were attacked by a strange group of four humanoid things, composed of dried up vegetation, tangled vines and tree limbs, all bound together in some hideous mockery of humanity and animated by some vicious spark of magic. The things lurched out of the overgrowth towards the PCs, who, ever on their guard, leapt to the attack. Aurak the Unborn let fly a boomerang, which missed it tendriled target and returned true to his grey-skinned grip; Kaylee fired an arrow into one with no seeming effect on its relentless advance; and Nemeia and Ulfgram the cleric surged forward to melee, where the strange creatures of vine and stick attempted to claw them from their horses with hardened hands of stick and thorn. The beasts, though disturbing in countenance, proved little match for the four, and were soon vanquished. A brief search of their broken remains revealed nothing of interest or use.

“There is,” Aurak the Unborn observed, quoting his icon Warboss Wilde, “only one thing worse than being attacked; and that is not being attacked.” With these wise words, they moved on.

A short ride took them to the tower, empty and broken, where it overlooked the ravine. Here they found a rope knotted tightly to a rock, and dangling down to a ledge and a set of stairs that began some 20′ below. Taking this as sure sign that they were on the trail of their targets, the party were discussing how best to descend when they were attacked from behind by a trio of giant rats. Their logistical discussion briefly disturbed, they slaughtered the rats contemptuously, and descended the rope. Nemeia fell halfway, but they were only descending 20′ and she landed in a lucky position, taking little damage. From the first ledge they found functioning stairs, and descended smoothly to the ravine floor.

At the base of the ravine they found the uppermost level of the citadel itself. It truly had sunken into the valley floor, and much of it was ruined, but the top of the largest central donjon rose above the ravine floor, a single door offering entry into the tower. To their north and south the broken ground swallowed up the outhouses of the tower, but here in the centre the building looked relatively solid and safe, so they pushed open the door.

From inside more giant rats emerged to attack them, but they beat them down with ease and pushed their way inside, finding a large room with doors to the north and southwest. Four goblins had been killed in here, with one still pinned to the far wall by the spear that had killed it. They guessed that the adventurers they sought had passed successfully through here, and though they thought there was little chance of finding anything valuable, searched the stinking, grimacing corpses anyway. They found nothing, but during the search Aurak the Unborn found a secret door in the south wall. After a moment of preparation, they bid him open it.

Pushing the lever that opened the door, Aurak barely avoided a poisoned needle that nearly stuck his hand. The door slid open, revealing a small room with arrow slits that would once have overlooked the inner courtyard of the citadel, before the scales of the earth had ground together and dragged it down into hell. Four skeletons, of archers who must have once defended this room, lay in an untidy pile in the corner. As the party entered to search them these bodies twitched and rose up, drawing rusty shortswords and preparing to attack. Battle was joined, with Aurak and Kaylee fighting in melee while Ironfist and Nemeia conjured eery ghostly fists to strike at the undead from outside the room. Again they prevailed, taking only minor damage, and soon the bones were quiescent again. They found nothing especially valuable here, so they moved onward, through the door in the northern face of the main room.

Warboss Wilde says “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell”

Here they found a corridor, wide enough for them to pass along two abreast, down which they walked cautiously. When they were near the end they found a door on the left-hand side of the tunnel, which they opened and entered. Here was a small 10’x10′ room, with a strange keg-like structure in one corner. Two rusted iron pipes protruded from the keg and curved around into the floor, to what purpose none of them could guess. With some effort they hauled open the top of the keg, and immediately two nasty little demon creatures sprang out of the keg and attacked them – mephits! A steam mephit and an ice mephit, part of some infernal machinery that must once have warmed the castle or powered some ingenious torture device. This fight was harder than the last, and they struggled to hit and subdue the vicious little elemental spirits. When the steam mephit died it let loose a hideous cry of rage and explosion of steam that burnt them all, leaving them stunned and hurt. Ironfist cast a healing spell on Aurak, they shut the door and rested for a half dozen hours, and then they proceeded along the corridor to the door at the end.

The door opened into a much larger square chamber, that held a huge burnt-out firepit and a large steel cage, its bars smashed and burst open on the side facing them. Doors led out of the room at several points, and from a huddle of rags on the far side of a large stone table they could hear snuffling and whimpering. Once they had assured themselves the room contained no threats Nemeia marched over to the bundle of filthy rags and tore it aside, revealing a forlorn and sniveling kobold, its little draconic nose wrinkled in that expression of conniving self-pity that is characteristic of the lowest of the evil humanoids. Aurak raised his axe to end the piteous thing, but Nemeia gestured for him to hold. She hauled the little wretch up, not ungently, and began speaking to it in Draconic, its native language.

Tieflings. Never trust them.

After a short conversation she revealed that the kobold was one of a tribe living in the citadel, that its name was Mebo, and that it had been charged with looking after a white dragon wyrmling[1], that had been trapped in the cage behind them. Some goblins who shared the citadel with the kobold tribe had raided the room and stolen the dragon, and the kobold tribe held Mebo responsible. He was not allowed back on pain of death, unless he was bringing the dragon with him. Nemeia had asked Mebo about the adventurers they were tracking, and he said he knew nothing of any adventurers, so it was Nemeia’s guess that the adventurers had been captured by the goblins, or were in some desperate situation in the area where the goblins lived. She suggested that Mebo could take them to the kobold chieftain, and they could negotiate with the chieftain for a reward in exchange for returning the dragon. This would mean that they could pass unmolested through to the goblin area, with Mebo as a guide, and make haste to the adventurers they sought.

The rest of the party agreed with Mebo’s plan, and he took them down some corridors into a long room lined with ancient, crumbling statues. They passed through the statues into an area thronged with kobolds and reeking of their strange metallic, earthy smell, where they found the kobold chieftain. She wore a mouldering wizards cloak, cut down to size, and lounged on a throne of wood and rotting upholstery that must have been here when the castle was hurled down here by the gods. Behind her stood a platform adorned with various pointless and stupid kobold trinkets – a lizard brain, a rusted dagger, the usual kind of tawdry junk these strange fallen dragon-dogs value – but in amongst it sat a large and impressive bronze key on a special hook. That key obviously opened a treasure room somewhere in this patchwork of collapsed masonry.

They negotiated. The chieftain agreed with their suggestion, and offered them a paltry reward in exchange for returning the dragon. She agreed to let them take Mebo with them as a guide. When pushed about the key, she shrugged, and refused to give it to them because it looked pretty as an ornament behind her throne. They pushed her, and she agreed to loan it to them if they could return the dragon. A loan was all they need. They bowed appropriately, took their leave, and dragged Mebo away towards a door out of the throne room.

To the goblins, and glory!

 


fn1: an annoying recent trend in D&D modules is that they put in baby dragons for 1st level characters to kill, so we can feel like we’ve fought a dragon, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it’s not a real dragon and I want those things kept for when I can really earn the feeling of success that killing a dragon brings with it.


The fellowship was composed of five members:

  • Tywyl Neidr, a hobbit and the sole survivor of the sacking of Rhosgobel
  • Eisa the Axe, Dunlending, an Eye of Saruman and Neidr’s oldest adventuring companion
  • Simir the Swan, a Wainrider from the East who sought the secret to his people’s troubles with the Shadow
  • Mercy, a Barding warrior-woman on a quest to avenge the death of her family
  • Olaf, a Barding archer

It was 2946, five years after the battle of the five armies. The fellowship had first met during that battle, and adventured together briefly in the aftermath, chasing Orcs and worst back into their rotten lairs in the iron hills. The fellowship had broken up but they had all made a solemn pledge: That if after five years of peace they still felt that the Shadow was undefeated, they would meet again and reform their fellowship, to commit again to struggle against the creeping evil from the south. Their appointed meeting place was the Easterly Inn, a small inn run by a hobbit family in the far north of the Vale of Anduin.

So it was that five years after the battle of five armies they met again in the Easterly Inn, all grimly certain of their purpose and bearing dark tidings of the Shadow that continued to hang over the west, and especially over the wilderlands. As soon as their greetings and reminiscences were done, they sought a task through which they could rekindle their fellowship.

The innkeep himself offered it to them. Rumour had been flying that the High Pass through the misty mountains was under siege from dark forces, and passage through it growing more perilous with every season. The innkeep had sent his own brother through the pass during the summer to return to the Shire for important supplies – pipe weed, brandy, the usual accoutrements of a well-stocked hobbit tavern – but now his brother was late and as the high summer passed he began to fear the worst. He needed reliable heroes to travel to the pass and find what had happened to his brother, and he was willing to offer a small portion of treasure for their troubles, as well as free lodgings in the Inn this coming winter.

That was all the trigger the heroes needed. They would investigate the High Pass, find the forces troubling it, and see what could be done to rescue the Innkeeper’s brother, Dilly. The following morning they set off.

The first stage of their journey was easy, taking a trade boat down the Anduin River as far as the Old Fort. From there they would need to take the Forest Road west into the Misty Mountains to where it rose into the High Pass. They reached Old Fort without incident and from there headed west, finding the going easy at first but increasingly perilous as the road rose towards the High Pass. Hunting became difficult and the journey wearisome, and on their first night they were forced to camp in a stinking bog where they were plagued by ferocious biting insects. Still, such minor inconveniences are of no account against the maraudings of the Shadow, and so they passed on into their second day.

The second night they set up a good camp in a secluded patch of woodland and old ruins, near the road but safe on slightly raised ground. In the evening as they settled down to eat they were disturbed by a weary, dirty stranger who came shambling out of the woods and set himself down at their fire, introducing himself as Shambler. As soon as he arrived Tywyl slunk off unnoticed into the shadows to search the area, and the rest of them set to interrogating this strange and arrogant newcomer. He claimed to be traveling east and simply seeking rest, but something was off about him. After a few minutes he pulled out a pipe and began smoking pipe-weed, which further bothered them – could this be weed from the hobbit caravan?

Meanwhile Tywyl moved quietly through the bushes until he had a view of the area between their camp and the road, and soon saw them – four men moving stealthily through the long grass, knives and swords out, intent on the fellowship’s camp. He returned stealthily to the camp and placed himself in position where Eisa the Axe could see him, gesturing the number four to her. She did not hesitate, swinging up her axe and striking Shambler full in the face where he sat at the fire. His rotten tooth flew out of his cruelly sneering mouth and he fell backwards away from the fire as the four men burst into the ring of its light, intent on doing evil but ferociously out-matched by their targets. The battle was over in but a moment, with three men beaten down and the other two desperately surrendering.

They revealed themselves to be bandits, but opportunists, who had decided to rob the camp when they saw it from the Forest Road. They had not robbed the hobbit caravan, but had bought a little brandy and pipe-weed from it some days ago when they came across it in the High Pass. They did not know how far behind them it might be, but it appeared to have been fine when they saw it. The hobbit’s bodyguards, four beornings, had been sufficient warning to the gang not to try robbery, and so they had done business and moved on.

This night they would not move further. The heroes tied the bandits to trees, and in the morning rebuked them with a good solid kicking before breaking camp and proceeding west along the Forest Road.

That day and night were uneventful, and the road now began to break apart as it rose into the mountains. The following day and night the road ascended sharply in switch backs and sweeping turns, and by evening they found themselves bracing against a chill wind, now in the highlands proper. They found a good place to camp, but something about its atmosphere disturbed Eisa. Checking tracks carefully, she noticed that wagons and traveling groups seemed to have come here to camp, but left behind no evidence of having ever actually left. The area seemed suffused with some bitter evil. She warned the rest of her fellowship, and they set a trap for whatever fell beast prowled this place.

It came in the deepest part of the night, first a creeping mist enveloping the camp and then a sinister dark shadowy figure gliding smoothly over the cold earth and into the camp. When it made to attack Tywyl the group sprung their trap, everyone surging up to attack it at the same time. Tywyl and Eisa both struck the tall wraith-like beast with their weapons, and felt a horrific jarring cold run through their arms, and a fear clutching their breast. Mercy struck but missed, and then Simir the Swan charged through the mist on his horse, striking the beast in the chest with his lance and breaking it apart into a million torn fluttering fragments of shadow. It disappeared, and the mist dispersed. Tywyl, versed in Shadow Lore, suggested that it must be the restless spirit of some long dead man, and so they searched the area for signs of remains. Finally in a bog they found the bones of a long-dead warrior, his body submerged in the bog, its armour rotted and ruined. They drew up the remains and took them to a hilltop far from the ambush site, giving them a proper burial that the spirit would never rise again. Then, exhausted, they broke camp and marched into the chill dawn.

During that day’s travel they found signs of goblins, and that evening they found what they sought – the hobbit’s wagon. On a hillside near the path a huge fire burned, and in the far distance they heard drums. Drums! In the Deep! A force of goblins must be on the march. They sent Tywyl ahead off the track to investigate, and he returned quickly to report that the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards were drawn up in a small hollow off the road, where once an ancient hill fort had stood. The wagon had been settled inside the partial protection of the fort’s old outer earthen rings, and they had lit a great fire to keep the night at bay. The beorning guard had been reduced to three, all of whom looked exhausted and injured. The drums, they guessed, were goblins coming to finish off the beornings and steal the wagon’s contents.

They made their way up the hill to a position with a good view of the action. Eisa and Tywyl crept forward to a position in hiding where they thought the goblins would arrive, and Olaf positioned himself well away from the battle field in a patch of rocky cover. Mercy and Simir waited below, a little distance from the fort, ready for the goblins.

The goblins marched down the hillside from hidden tunnel entrances higher in the mountain’s peaks, a force of perhaps 100 of the disgusting, wretched creatures, led by five Orcs and a giant Uruk Hai leader. They gathered in a ring around the fort, and beat their drums and yelled their cries. They obviously did not want to charge into the light of the bonfire, but the brutal urging of the orcs would surely eventually force them forward. The beorning leader stood atop the hill fort embankment and roared his challenge at them, but his voice was tired and it was obvious that he knew what his fate would be. The orcs laughed and the goblin drums beat louder.

It was time to act! Olaf fired a volley of arrows into the leader as Eisa and Tywyl emerged from hiding to ambush him, and Mercy rushed in to attack an Orc. The leader survived the initial attack, but only lived long enough to be ridden down by Simir the Swan, whose horse bore him on a wild careening ride through the goblin horde so that he could strike the leader with his lance. He charged through and up to the embankment, rearing his horse in silhouette against the golden light of the bonfire and yelling a challenge in his harsh native tongue. At the same moment Olaf blew his hunting horn, and its cry reverberated around the mountains, as if a force of a thousand rohirrim were rushing forward.

The goblins did not break immediately, though. Those nearest who could see the action opened fire, shooting Simir the Swan off his horse and injuring Tywyl and Mercy. Eisa, Tywyl and Mercy joined into a tight group and moved to stand over Simir the Swan’s body, beating off the onrushing orc leaders and killing three more. As Olaf rained arrows down from afar the last Orc died, and the three beornings came charging down from the embankment to crash into the nearest goblins. Fearing they were being attacked from all sides, their leaders dead, the goblins gave up a great cry of rage and despair, and broke and ran back up the mountain.

A solid victory! But followed by grim tidings. Though Simir was not badly hurt and recovered his strength soon enough, the beornings were spent. Worse still, one of the two hobbits in their wagon had been abducted by the goblins and was now surely held prisoner in their hideous lair. Would the heroes save him?

They assessed their wounds, gritted their teeth, and nodded grimly. The goblins would be allowed no victory this night. They urged the beornings to move the wagon to the road and make haste eastward while the goblins were in hiding, and set off up in the mountain in pursuit of the vile, grey-skinned monsters.

They found their lair entrance soon enough, and entered cautiously, Tywyl ahead. He found them the path towards the densest part of the goblin lair, but on the way they soon discovered that the goblins had a cave troll. It loomed ahead of them, snuffling around in the caves where perhaps they could pass it by unnoticed. But while Eisa and Tywyl could perhaps creep by, Simir the Swan was no thief in the night, and Mercy clanked in her proud barding mail. They decided to wait until the troll came close, and put an end to its foul life.

The attack was swift and ferocious when the time came. The troll came ambling around the corner straight into their path and they struck, all hitting it at once. It reeled under the blows but was not felled in the first onslaught, and with a roar of rage struck down with its huge club on Eisa the Axe. It struck a great blow on her shoulder but somehow, staggered though she was, she shrug off all the damage, grunted, “Not this day!” and rose up anew, a grim and dark light in her eyes, to hit it again with her trusty Dunlending axe. Its energy wasted on tough Dunlending sinews, the troll was torn down by the fellowship’s second onslaught, and soon lay dead before them.

They cut its head off and, dragging it behind them like a hideous trophy, moved further into the caves. Ahead they could hear cheers and singing, the goblins singing some hideous song about eating men, elves and hobbits, oblivious to their approaching doom. Hundreds of them had gathered in a large feasting hall just ahead, where they sang the song together to impress their leader, an Uruk Hai who made the leader the fellowship had killed earlier look like a leaf against a tree. They had no chance against that horde.

But they had not come to kill, only to rescue. They found the hobbit in a large room off the main hall, toiling over a multitude of fireplaces, preparing roasted meats and peppered potatoes and cooking furiously in the ruddy heat. As they watched from the doorway two goblins came in, one cursing him and the other cuffing him, and he handed over to them a huge tray of some dubious meats, prepared with the loving tenderness that only a hobbit can bestow upon even the rudest of foods. They cursed him again and sloped off to the main room, labouring under the weight of the tray.

The goblins had forced their captive to cook for them, and would treat him so until his cooking bored them – then he would be in the pot. Hideous creatures!

They crept into the room and replaced the hobbit with the cave troll’s head. From there they retreated quickly to the outside world, running as fast as they could to escape from the caves before the goblins realized their little slave-meal was gone. They burst into the chill of the outside world and sprinted down the mountain, listening terrified for the sound of drums behind them.

They heard none – perhaps their earlier attack had terrified the goblins into retreat, or perhaps they had decided they preferred to finish their feast than pursue a single prisoner. Or perhaps it was that faint glow of dawn on the horizon that stopped them putting up a chase. No matter. The fellowship retreated to the road and made haste downward, stopping to rest only when the sun was far enough over the peaks of the mountains that they were sure they would not be pursued. After a brief and dismal meal and the shortest of rests they returned to the trail, heading east as fast as they could while the sun was high. At dusk they did not stop, but beat their way along the now-familiar road all night to put distance between themselves and their enemies. Only the next day, when they had reached lower ground and begun to emerge into the vale of Anduin, under a bright summer sky, did they stop and rest at last, the hobbit safe in their company.

Their first mission against the shadow a complete success, they returned the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards to the Easterly Inn. It was a humble beginning, but in the ice and darkness of the misty mountains their fellowship had been forged anew, and now they would not rest until destiny overtook them. Only time would tell what future adventures they would find in the wilderlands, and what blows they would strike against the gathering shadows. As summer’s long glow faded into the cool of autumn they rested in the Easterly Inn, sure of one thing: they would do their part against the ancient evil that lay over this land, together, and before their bones were finally scattered across the wilderland, they would have songs sung of their deeds as far away as the shores of Gondor!

The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

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