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What Life Looks Like

Title: What Life Looks Like
Podcast: Friends at the Table
Arc: Winter in Hieron
Episode: 28
Gamemaster: Austin Walker
Party: Jack de Quidt, Ali Acampora, Art Martinez-Tebbel, Janine Hawkins
Game engine: Dungeon World
Rating: ★★★★☆
Bottom line
: Thoughtful if frustrating philosophical exercise with the GM and party totally on the same wavelength, with beautiful world-building and adept characterization

I didn’t expect to have a religious experience listening to podcasts this morning. But the conclusion to this episode had an intense emotional effect on me. Austin Walker’s description of a world with a loving God caring for his people, keeping a personal and respectful connection to each one, maintaining a deep and fulfilling life in balance for them all — it was a beautiful concept of an Augustinian heaven.

Let me first of all admit that I’m not at all caught up on FATT. I only started listening about a month ago, but I’ve been hooked since the first few episodes. I love the use of Dungeon World, Austin’s thoughtful GMing, and the party’s ability to rise to the occasion. I used the “Ali Cut” — starting with the Seasons in Hieron arc, then jumping back to the 4-episode season 1 arc, then forward to the Marielda arc, and now to Winter in Hieron, the current arc. I’m at episode 10 or 11 or something on my regular listening, but I felt like I should probably hop in with the current ep just to do a review.

And it’s a good place to leap in. The opening finds our party in a rowboat, trying to destroy Hella’s dark magical sword, and instead being transported into a pocket universe apparently in the sword. They are ghostly observers as their god, Samothes, plays chess with his court — mainly people who have been killed by the sword. Samothes, like the other gods in Hieron, has a complicated history; among other things, he’s been murdered by his son and friend, both of whom kind of became him? And then another part of him went into the whole world? And another part went into this sword? Austin Walker does a good job of mimicking the WTF of real human religions. It sounds so crazy, it must be true, right?

The party pops out of the vision into the “real world”, where they land on an island populated by Samul, the God of Everything, and some deer-headed people dog-riders we don’t really get to see much of. Samul is dying, and he tells the party the story of how he is dying, why, and what’s going to happen to the world when he does. Over breakfast, he gives them an overview of the Marielda arc, which happened hundreds or thousands of years before their own time. The masterful Four Conversations episode, which I think might be one of the best actual-play podcast episodes ever done, happens during this time period. How Austin got the party to be at the right place at the right time, to hear this story told over a year ago in real time, is beyond me. He’s taken good care of this party.

The upshot is that the kind and loving god Samothes is dead, kind of, and that everything will soon descend into the nothingness it came from, destroyed by a mindless force called the Heat and the Dark. Soon meaning decades or centuries — not today, but not infinitely far away, either. And Samul, the pantheist god, is resigned to it. Living with pain, old, tired of struggling, he is kind but unhelpful to the party. They have a nihilist struggle in conversational form, trying to find a way to save the world, which is what parties are supposed to do. But Samul (and Austin) deny them any hook to hang on. “I wish I could tell you there’s a unicorn out there that if you bring me its horn, I’ll be healed,” says Samul, “but there isn’t. Nothing is going to fix this.”

His suggestion? Go to the south of Hieron, where it’s safe. Find a bakery you like. Get a job as a knight in service to the king-god, Samat, or as a musician. Make yourselves and others happy for a while. Janine’s Adele says, that’s not what life looks like for most people. They struggle, they suffer. Samul says that a contented life is the best illusion he has left for them. At least it has a chance to succeed.

The party deals with Samul’s story in different ways. Lem, the orc bard who practices pattern magic, gets angry and leaves. “I feel like I was sent here to do something,” he says. “But I don’t know what.” Almost all of the party are tragic heroes, central to the story. Two are fighter-types with magic swords; Lem is the promising up-and-comer maverick in an ancient order, the last hope of his people. The only character that’s not touched by the finger of Fate is Adele. Janine does a great job of playing this character straight — just getting things done in an interesting way. It’s a hard job to have in a party, but not everyone can be the Messiah. Some of us just have to be good at our jobs.

Hella, the Ordennan human fighter, Hadrian the paladin of Samothes, and Adele the thief wander into a battle with the oncoming Ordennan army. Ordenna is a fanatical military-industrial complex that is overrunning the rest of Hieron with the mission of destroying all undead creatures. They have metal robot-warriors, the Anchor, they use to burn villages infected with zombieism. They’ve been a force of nature in the Winter in Hieron arc, moving forward the plot and alternately playing the role of antagonist or neutral plot device. The party has been split on Ordennan tactics; most of them agree that killing zombies is a good idea, but they’ve disagreed on how Ordenna gets it done. Hella especially, a celebrated hero to her native Ordenna, has been reluctant to fight their forces directly.

But a battle comes, almost by accident. The three party members begin a fight with about a dozen Ordennan humans and Anchor, stabbing and slashing and hacking and all that. The players comment on what they’re doing. Why fight these Ordennans? What will it accomplish? Samul has already says he’s going to move this island somewhere far away from Ordenna. The party could just leave, or use magic to disappear off the island entirely. “Are we fighting because that’s what we do?” ask Janine. It’s an interesting question in the philosophical context, but as in real life the question goes unanswered as the battle continues.

Meanwhile, Lem is back in Samul’s homely cottage, tearing it apart for his pattern magic spell. He’s using salt and water and basins and books to cause a flood inside the cottage. Samul objects angrily, and tries to protect his belongings, but without direct opposition Lem continues the spell. I’ve commented on Jack de Quidt’s play style before. He tends to run off and execute his own plans without putting any emphasis on supporting the rest of the party. I find it frustrating as a listener, in that it undercuts the illusion of shared purpose among the characters. If Lem is off doing his own thing, is finding the Macguffin really all that important? But in this case, Lem’s pattern magic has important effects.

Back at the battle, Hadrian is attacked with Hella’s sword. He disappears in a torrent of water, without explanation from the GM. Hella goes in next, then Adele, then some corpses and the rowboat. Lem eventually jumps in after them, partly to stay with the party, partly out of curiosity. And that’s when they appear in the pocket universe inside the sword, watched over by a loving God. During the transition, Hella also pulls in the Goddess of Death, who’s been haunting her since the Seasons in Hieron arc. This ends the plague of undead on Hieron, so, y’know, that’s good.

The pocket universe is a clear contrast to the meaningless, violent and doomed “real world” they come from, with its homey and apathetic personification. In this world, there is light, love, the satisfaction of meaningful work well done. I came away resentful of my own reality, and wondering about what’s so wrong with living inside the sword’s. If the real world has no intrinsic meaning, and I as an individual have no hope of saving it from its own destruction, what allegiance do I owe to reality, anyway? Why not embrace another world, equally deep and complex, but overwatched by a loving, present God?

I think this arc, and the Marielda arc before it, have been an interesting exercise by Austin. A lot of GMs spend their time setting up Big Bads for the party to overcome, putting the world in peril and then letting the party save it. He’s not giving the party that luxury here. They have to deal with a world in peril without hope of being saved. What they do in that world, or the virtual ones, is going to be interesting to see.

Once again, Jack’s music paired with Austin’s narration made this show emotional. Ali, bless her gentle soul, gets a little too emotional at parts of it, and has a hard time playing her character through sniffles. But it’s an echo of the audience’s own emotions (well, mine at least), and so it comes off really well. Art does a good job fleshing out his paladin, Hadrian, who has literally given his life multiple times for his God, but ultimately the religious questions of this ep lie in Austin’s hands. Jack and Janine play well, ask important questions, and do a good job rounding out the tough philosophical issues.

Good audio as usual, although I’m a little disappointed there weren’t more of the audio flubs that FATT keeps in for humorous effect. Production-wise and content-wise this episode more than earns its 4-star rating.

The Adventure Zone #64: The Stolen Century – Chapter 5

Title: “The Stolen Century – Chapter 5
Episode: 64
Gamemaster: Griffin McElroy
Party: Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Clint McElroy
Game system: Dungeon World (modified)
Rating: ★★★★☆
Bottom line: The party stepped up to a color-by-numbers episode with strong character development and some tearjerker world expansion by the GM

The Stolen Century arc of The Adventure Zone has been going on for a few months now, and it’s surprising how well it’s doing. The whole idea is a recipe for failure — a classic example of GM overstepping. The conceit is that the party doesn’t know their own back-story; they’ve been given amnesia by a former colleague for mumble mumble reasons. The entire arc is a flashback to their “real” lives, hundreds of years before the first campaign. So, instead of being a fighter, wizard and cleric in a magico-technical high fantasy milieu, they’re actually dimension-traveling adventurers who spend one year in each of a hundred planes, trying to mitigate the worst of the damage from an all-powerful enemy called The Hunger.

Amazingly, instead of having a lot of shouting or players leaving the game — what would happen at a real-life table — the whole thing is working pretty well. I think there are five reasons for this.

  1. The McElroy family trusts Griffin implicitly, and they have a strong belief that he’s got 100% creative control of the show.
  2. Griffin has earned this trust. He’s provided an incredibly creative campaign with complex NPC and a deeply intricate narrative.
  3. Justin and Clint are kind of casual about the game overall, and they’re mostly interested in firing off some zingers when they get a chance.
  4. They have great zingers, and Griffin weaves them really well into the world, so that they become more than just masturbation jokes or surrealist silliness.
  5. Travis McElroy, the middlest brother, takes his work as a player seriously, and brings emotional depth to the story by staying true to his character.

I think the Travis-Griffin relationship is potentially the most endangered by this Stolen Century gambit. Travis has asked several times on mic what the story means for his character and who he is. Griffin has done a good job assuaging his concerns, but I think the moment of truth is going to come in the next few episodes as the Stolen Century timeline catches up with the beginning of the campaign. Can Griffin mesh the two together in a way that gives the players (well, the players who care, at least) a sense of control and autonomy, while still providing a satisfying narrative for the listeners? I’m cheering for him. It’s going to be hard.

But back to chapter 5. The Stolen Century arc uses a new game system, Dungeon World. Griffin has modified DW’s D&D-like stats (strength, wisdom, charisma, etc.) to have only three stats: body, mind, and heart. It’s a really good idea for a simplified game, and it sounds like the kind of game system that I’d actually like to play with. It’s nice to see TAZ, which has been true-blue D&D 5e since day one, experiment with other game systems. Griffin explicitly calls out Friends at the Table’s use of different game systems when introducing Stolen Century.

I think the problem with it, in this case, is having two casuals playing puts the onus on Griffin to teach them the game (again), while walking them through a pretty complex new world. Along with the fact that they have to meet up at the end with the beginning of the first arc, it somewhat puts the entire arc on rails. Griffin has picked a clever conceit: the three players plus four NPC allies visit each plane for a single year. Each plane is different, with different challenges. The party can either succeed by finding a MacGuffin (“The Light of Creation”) and saving the plane from the world-destroying Hunger, or they can fail. Or, if there’s no one intelligent on the plane, they can just kick it on the beach for a year.

In this chapter, the party has landed on a plane that focuses on creation of artistic works. They have an annual event where they present performances and artworks for judging to a central mountain, called “The Light of Creation.” The IPRE team realizes they have to create artistic works to get access to the mountain, so much of the show is about what artworks they create.

It’s a nice balance of sweet and silly. Clint’s dwarf cleric, Merle, learns “interpretive jazz dance” well enough to start teaching the class. At the performance, he drives himself into a sexual dance frenzy, collapsing in a “sweaty, dwarven heap.” Taako, Justin’s elvish wizard, uses borrowed self-help aphorisms to put together a book of wisdom that gets rave reviews from the plane’s literary community. And Travis’s Magnus uses the time to develop wood-working skills, creating a pretty good carved wooden duck.

The performance goes well — a combination of Taako and Merle’s oblivious self-absorption with Magnus’s humble submission of his carving. The high point of the performance event is when fan favorite NPCs, shy scientist Barry Bluejeans and Taako’s trans twin Lup, play an impassioned duet that results in a full blossoming of their love for each other. The Barry-Lup story (inevitably called “Bloop” by shippers) is an amazing fan favorite, inspiring a flood of art and comments in the community. It’s made all the more poignant because we know how it ends for Lup (badly — at least for now).

Despite their maestro performances, the party is not allowed access to the mountain directly. So they’re unable to retrieve “The Light of Creation” to save the dimension from The Hunger. With only ten days left before the year is up, they’re worried. But Magnus is later invited into the mountain by one of its residents — a floating, glowing jellyfish child who has fallen in love with his humble duck. Magnus repeatedly visits the mountain, getting to know the jellyfish’s community, and making “three wooden ducks a day” to satisfy the child’s apparently insatiable need for duck carvings. He discovers, also, that the mountain is not actually the “Light of Creation” they are looking for — it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that both have the same name.

This gets to one of the hard parts of the Stolen Century arc — the apocalyptic end of the world. The IPRE team has an OK track record on saving the dimensions, but they’ve had their share of apocalypses. In this one, we get a kind of “Last Night” sentimental glimpse, as Merle and Taako make a last-ditch attempt to find the Light. But it doesn’t work, and they have to say goodbye to students and teachers.

The show closes on an epic scene, which is what bumps up the rating on this story to four stars. Travis asks, at one point, “We have to address the elephant in the room. I’m not leaving this world without that jellyfish.” He and Griffin have done a great job establishing the emotional bond between Travis and the future Voidfish, and by this point the listener entirely believes that the stakes are high. And that’s one of the great things about TAZ: you can believe that a dimension-traveling wood-carver and a baby levitating jellyfish who have bonded wordlessly over some duck statues are willing to do anything for each other. We are rooting for Magnus and the Voidfish, without reservation. When he saves the fish, the tension resolves accordingly — despite the billions of other people blinking out of existence as they are consumed by The Hunger.

This is a solid episode without any major distractions. It’s not a world-changer, but the relationship progress between Barry and Lup and Magnus and the Voidfish are top-notch and deeply personal. As usual, great production quality from the team, and some very nice original accompaniment by Griffin as well as the lovely Salute d’Amour by Edward Elgar, which Barry and Lup play. It’d be a hard entrypoint for a new listener, but for fans it’s a no-miss.

CRITICAL HIT #404: The Afterparty

Title: Weird Western: The Afterparty (PF013)
Episode: 404
GamemasterSam Nelson
PartyStephen SchleicherRodrigo LopezMatthew PetersonBrian BergdalRob Rasmussen
Game system:
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Bottom line: Slow-moving follow-up to last week’s big reveal, rescued by good plot movement and great final GM exposition

This week’s Critical Hit is the 13th episode in the interesting mini-campaign that the Hit Squad is running using the Pathfinder RPG engine. Sam Nelson, who is the biggest fan of Pathfinder in the group, is running the game. In order to keep things complicated interesting, she’s set the campaign in a magic-enhanced Old West of the USA, circa 1880. Pathfinder isn’t really built for changing out of the medieval high fantasy milieu, but Sam’s done an amazing job, with the party, of making an interesting world that maps pretty well to the RPG system.

Sam’s got a great, creative style of world-building, which is par for the course on Critical Hit. Rodrigo Lopez, the GM for the main campaign on CH, always brings his A-game when it comes to world-building. Everything is complex, unexpected, with lightly-skinned homebrew encounters. Sam’s followed this style in the Weird Western campaign, and it works really well. The world she’s created is deep and fascinating.

Last time (ON CRITICAL HIT!), the party had identified the apparent Big Bad for the arc. Mr. Miller is a railroad magnate who emanates tendrils of undead evil into every corner of his opulent mansion for the railroad-opening party. Stephen points out at the beginning of the show how scary Miller was. He’s a good character; clearly outmatching the party in terms of power and resources, which gives a real sense of urgency and dread to this follow-up episode.

Unfortunately, The Afterparty drags at the beginning, caught up with some unnecessary downtime. The party runs all over the tiny town of Redemption in freeze-frame mode doing meaningless tasks like changing clothes and drinking herbal tea. Sam forces a roll on the party’s herbalist, Alder, and when the player Matthew botches the roll, there’s not any significant consequences. This is a pet peeve of mine; if you’re not going to do something interesting with failure, don’t ask for a roll.

The conversation is saved by Rodrigo’s character, the Mexican lawman Chema, and his poignant self-reflection on his encounter with Miller. Chema compares it to the many folk tales about encounters with the Devil that are common in Mexican folklore, and he notes that he never knew how he would handle such an encounter. Rodrigo seems to be really enjoying this campaign, and the Chema character is rich and interesting. Rodrigo digs deep for realistic touchstones in Mexican culture that sketch out a 3rd dimension to the world.

It’s probably worth noting that other race and cultural issues are glossed over in the arc. There’s a brief mention of a Comanche trader in an early episode, but otherwise people of color are not very visible. It’s a hazard of setting a story in the real (or real-ish) world, and there’s a slippery slope into the nightmare scenario of mapping D&D “races” to American cultural stereotypes. It’s a tightrope to walk, and I think Sam has done a good job in her choices, but it’s noticeable.

Another interstitial conversation that gets bogged down is how to contact “D&D” Brian’s vigilante character, the noirish Hanging Judge. It’s a great character, but the exchange highlights one of the weaknesses of Pathfinder with respect to more cinematic RPG systems. In Dungeon World or FATE, the players could declare that they had chosen a signalling system ahead of time, and that would become true. Instead, Pathfinder inherits D&D’s rigid sense of time and narrative, and characters who forgot to exchange phone numbers are forever alone.

I guess I’m a little disappointed with the Judge. Sam puts in a lot of effort to shape the reaction of the townsfolk to him, and I’m not sure Brian is providing enough color. Superheroes are larger than life figures, full of bravado and trademark moves. It’d be great to have Brian step up to that.

But that gets to one of the fundamental dichotomies of Critical Hit. It’s pretty easy to map the CH team along a spectrum from character to crunch. Rob and Brian are stellar in combat and do all the tricky arithmetic in their head. Rob especially is great at planning out tactics to maximize the deadliness of the party. But they both tend to play stern, silent types without a lot of intercharacter dialogue.

On the other side, Matthew and Stephen do great color, but spend a lot of air time wondering which weapon they’re using or what flanking means. In the middle, the two pros Rodrigo and Sam show good skill in both.

Rob’s character in the Weird Western arc is the best example. Eschen is a magically-disguised velociraptor in a duster and cowboy hat. It’s a cool but difficult character to pull off; he’s also crucial to the plot.

Unfortunately Rob is playing him a little too literally. Since he’s an outsider who doesn’t understand humans or speak much English, most of his dialogue consists of long pauses, monosyllables, and confusion. It’s difficult to listen to. The best moments happen when Rob fleshes out the character with 3rd-person description (“Eschen thinks…”). I hope he does this more in future episodes.

Once the team finally reassembles at the house of the competing railway magnate, Mr. Palmer, the story picks up pace significantly. It’s almost too fast. Within a few minutes, we find out that Palmer’s pregnant wife is the victim of a near-fatal attack by Miller, executed right under her bodyguard Russell’s nose. Moments later, we discover that Palmer is highly placed in an East Asian ghost-fighting secret society. He’s interested in working with the party to defeat Miller.

Most surprising, a giant messenger crane busts through the window of Mrs. Palmer’s crowded sickroom to tell Eschen that he’s needed urgently back in the swamp. It’s a plot point that literally intrudes on the story. It feels like a little too much; I wonder how the party will manage fighting on two fronts.

The crowning moment of the episode, though, is a cutaway scene to offscreen dialogue back at Miller’s mansion. Sam does a great job animating Miller and giving life to his cabal of cronies. We find out that he’s allied with the hags of the swamp (the lizard people’s traditional enemy) and that he’s using Chema’s magical artifact to enhance a captive medium. The writing is tight and Sam delivers it well.

As usual, the audio quality is crisp and professional. It always sounds like they’re recording in an NPR studio. It’s only notable in that it doesn’t interfere with the show at all.

Overall this episode did a lot for the arc. The party was doing a lot of riding back and forth, stopping at inns and stabling horses. It’s good to see the structure of the story being played out. Let’s hope this mini-campaign lives up to its promise.