I only play video games when I’m burned out or depressed. I’m not counting Pokemon Go! or computer chess when I say that. Those aren’t the kind of games one plays in a dark room alone for hours. One of them, I occasionally use to track mileage and look for trailmarkers or keep my hands busy when I’m at the gym and treadmilling, the other I use to fill minutes with something innocuous while I’m waiting for something or someone. No, these aren’t the games I mean. The games that I mean are the kind I played when I lived in a converted garage one-bedroom in Houston, when I was struggling to find work in a city reeling from the collapse of its largest employer, and alone with very little in a very small place. These big, narrative rpg games provide goals and direction and clear boundaries with how to succeed. It’s comforting to pretend to be a mighty warrior and to be told exactly how to be the hero of the day, and to go and do it with plenty of quicksaves to ensure success. These are things life does not give us: a clear path to victory, cues along the path, and limitless opportunities to reload from a past save and try again. It is in this fog of near-burnout and a perfectly normal funk from being stuck at home and no gym, no restaurants, no dropping the kid off with grandma for a date night in the city that I turn again to the legends of the spine of the world.
When I was in college, there were a limited palette of games everyone played. Starcraft, Counterstrike, Diablo 2, and… Everything in the Infiniti Engine! If it was a Bioware game, in that game engine, one could be sure there would be plenty of young men putting their homework off a few more hours to push on ahead a little further on the map. It was sort of odd, looking back on it. We were the first generation of nerds to play more Dungeons and Dragons on a computer screen than with our friends over beer.
I’m going to play one of them again. All the way to the end. I haven’t done it in almost 18 years, but the thing about the old Infiniti Engine games set in Faerun is that the complex mechanics baked in by decades of paper prototyping in advance of any video game design team means that the way the game combat mechanics works is both tremendously complex and easy to pick up in a pinch with a ton of replay value. One can muscle one’s way through with barbarian axes and big, booming fireballs. One can slide and finesse and control with complex spells and sneak attacks. A popular tactic with druids and mages is to cast entangle, grease, and web at the edge of the screen, where enemies are, and then cloudkill them before they even know why they are being rendered dead. Different styles of play are well-supported by the game mechanics. The engine is simple enough, and provides a clean interface, that allows a birds-eye-view of the action, reminiscent of the old pen and paper prototypes. The newest re-release, through Steam, also includes features lacking from the original title: dual-wielding weapons, interesting class “kits” that permit subtle shifts in gameplay, and all sorts of behind-the-scenes tweaks to improve the experience for new players.
I played this game a lot, once upon a time, when I was writing my first novel. The two things that really inspired me was the soundscape, and the character portraits. Just today, I paused the game in Kuldahar, so I could hear that quiet, sad intensity of the strings and flute, and the long bird calls, and the feeling it gives, in the background while I worked on other things. I even based characters off of some these portraits, in part, once upon a time, in that very first novel. I see the pictures now, and I don’t still feel that, at least. They’re excellent portraits, gritty and dark, right at home in a Joe Abercrombie or Glen Cook fantasy realm. But, they do not inspire me to create such characters, anymore. I’m more interested in the feeling of the game, and the sounds. I am interested in clear goals, easy heroism, and reliving my lost youth. I am interested in reloading to a time in the back of my mind, running the game again, smarter and more meta and more strategic. Since I cannot go back and shout warnings from the rafters about the mess we have allowed to be made of our lives, I will slay the evil I can actually slay. Tonight, I’m pushing on into Kresselack’s Tomb, where Bone Dancers of Myrkul swarm like a plague army. But, this is getting ahead of the order of things.
The young Baron Charles, a foolish and foolhardy fifth or sixth son of some noble house in Waterdeep that had no use for him indulged his sense of adventure with a commission from the holy church of Tyr, the even-handed. But, as he was very foolish and very foolhardy and accustomed to a comfortable life, young Baron Charles was sent off on a missionary quest to the wild north. He is too foolish to understand that the church was trying to get rid of him. He truly believes he was sent on a Missionary Quest to spread justice in the wild lands at the Spine of the World. Naturally, on his journey north, he was robbed blind of all his finery and signet rings and swords and axes and armor. He found himself working on a small fishing vessel just to go north, at all, to avoid returning back to the church robbed and broken and a failure. He assumed he would find new armor and weapons and finery, even better than what was stolen, and with tales of glory in his wake.
He fell in with a rough bunch, who see, in this foolhardy would-be-hero an opportunity to profit and/or meet their own goals. Gary Jansen, the holy quest for Baravar Cloakshadow was to raise as much revenue as possible among the barbarous races through means mostly legal. He was, of course, also working on the lake when the young, foolish Paladin arrived, and the clever gnome saw an opportunity to return to his home village with far more gold than whatever he could nick in dice and cards. Another member of the fish-gutting crew, Hera has as many enemies as friends wherever she goes, and has to work for passage among the fishermen and caravans of the Ten Towns, to continue her journey home to a father she never knew, somewhere in Everaska. Roderick, the powerful sorceror, follows the whims of the weave, and he has followed them into ditches and holes and tree-hollows long enough to know when it is good to have a foolish patron for his powerful arts, instead of working among the vats of dried and drying fish. For the half-orc Berserker, Targos, he merely wished to find a strong group that would not judge him harshly for his heritage, for his own protection, and stumbled into the company of would-be heroes in the very bar in Easthaven that begins this tale. Finally, Jack is our narrator, of course, telling us all about the adventures he stumbled into when he sought refuge from the bitter cold in a new village, seeking only to perform his little plays and dance his little dances, and there is that odd little table of outsiders at the tavern, all out of place, all strange and filthy from the mud and the guts of fish.
Jack will tell you all exactly what happened in Easthaven, when Hrothgar came to their table and spoke to them as if they were an old adventuring company, experienced in battle and intrigue. He looked them all int he face, looking around at all of them, and seemed to see something few others did. Yes, they were different, but those who stand out from society are positioned well to stand between darkness and home.
Like a real adventuring company, Baron Charles quickly proposed they go about and seek any evil that might be lurking about. If evil was in Kuldahar, it would be in Easthaven soon enough. There would be scouts. Spies. That is how evil works.
And soon, they found a scouting party of goblins at the edge of town stealing fish from children. The mountains are no place for goblins. They found a shipment of critical supplies was missing from the caravans. The local merchants did offer supplies for caravan guards and the like, and the group equipped themselves to seek out evil wherever it could be find. (Did you see Hera rolling her eyes? Did you see Targos sigh and say nothing while he tested the sharpness of a fallen goblin’s little axe?)
The war party scoured the town for clues, and found only mysteries and wild dogs. A strange creature of the sea was haunting a local fisherman over a long-lost love, and a wild dog had gotten loose among the skrimshander carvings. Large, angry beetles had overrun the basement of the tavern. Whatever evil lurked, it was well-hidden.
The temple of Tempus loomed over the village, and the priests therein spoke of a time before, when a great battle was fought on this lake shore. A hero sacrificed himself to close a gate to Hell, itself, and the temple stands there, a testament to the importance of heroic sacrifice.
The makeshift war party found evil. Orcs had slaughtered the supply caravan, and hauled their prizes off into their bandit cave. The little group of would-be heroes were surprised at how swiftly they worked together to dispatch the noxious bandits. It was as if they were an experienced war party, the way they kept their formation tight under Baron Charles’ leadership, and focused fire and disrupted the enemy’s traps and ambushes. Returning to Hrothgar with the blood of bandits still splashed upon their cheap armor and cheaper weapons only swelled their hearts with unearned pride.
The journey to Kuldahar, which Hrothgar sought, to answer the call of the Archdruid of Kuldahar for aid in times of trouble was ambushed. Hrothgar, an experienced warrior and veteran of many battles, was slain, along with nearly all those heroes who followed him back towards Easthaven. Baron Charles led his group towards Kuldahar, which was much closer than Easthaven, on the shouted advice of Hera. It was good advice. Upon arrival, the ice giants had demolished the path, and all who stood in the mountain pass had been crushed by the rocks and snow and ice. What pride they felt then at their swift slaughter of orc bandits was muted by the realization that so many had died in that pass, and Hrothgar should have known. It should not have come to that. They should have seen it coming. They should have tried to plan a course of attack. The battle through the farms at the edge of Kuldahar, more goblin raiders, only led to more questions than answers. Upon arrival in Kuldahar, in the warm shade of Silvanus’ beautiful, ancient oak tree, they were all ready to find a tavern and drink untilthey forgot about adventure. Baron Charles did not share that sentiment. Faced with danger and bloodshed, he was invigorated by a holy passion for more battles, and more opportunities to root out evil down among the roots of the tree.
The Archdruid of Kuldahar was vague in revealing the evil of which he spoke. There are kidnappings, and the warmth of the oak is fading, and winter is seemingly lingering far too long. The town lives in fear and no one is able to express exactly why. But, the goblins in the pass, the orcs in the cave near Easthaven… Something is afoot. Baron Charles leads the way into the first suspected source of this evil: a series of ancient tombs dedicated to a wicked barbarian warlord who carved a bloody path across the ten towns, once. In this place of darkness, where shadows have teeth, there must be some evil loose. To root it out and smash it is a noble cause. And, as Hera wisely pointed out, with the pass snowed in by ice giants, the group is stuck in Kuldahar, anyway. If they sit around and drink and do nothing, they’ll only find themselves among the missing, in the end.
Something foul certainly stinks up these old tombs in the valley of shadows. Dead walk about, armed and angry. Some of them even have the audacity to complain about the living adventurers smashing into their tombs! One can quite nearly see this nefarious bone dancer’s point of view if one forgives him for existing, at all. (He should not exist, at all. It is an abomination and a dangerous thing to permit it to continue to fill these old caves with his wicked magic.) There he was, existing, bothering no one and tending to his duties maintaining the old tombs full of rotten corpses and bones revived by evil prayers and magics most foul, and some band of foolhardy heroes stumbles in to poke their noses into everything dead, and from the looks of things, loot as they journeyed. Baron Charles was surprised by his own willingness to loot these old tombs, but realized he was fine with it because he was seeking the tools of evil beings so that he could use those tools upon those very same evil beings. He was slaying dragons with their own stolen teeth. Tyr probably wouldn’t mind.
Anyway, Jack tells it better than I do. He danced with blades among the bone dancers, and destroyed all that walked in undeath, and as they descend into the deeper tombs, the question remains: Why would any of these derelict dancers, caught as they were in their own pursuits, bother anyone at Kuldahar? Only Kresselack, himself, might know. At the very least, the old monster, if he was still alive in some fashion, might have some insight into the evil that stalks the living. Evil tends to know evil, after all. He would know what defiled the sacred halls of his home. They journey on, into the darkness, then, deeper into the tombs.