What Life Looks Like

tl;dr Thoughtful if frustrating philosophical exercise with the GM and party totally on the same wavelength, with beautiful world-building and adept characterization

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: ★★★★☆

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.