Summer Break RPGs with Kaylee, #4: Lines and Veils

The title for this post doesn’t have anything to do with the story of what happened in the game. It has everything to do with what happened with me and my player.

“Lines” and “Veils” are terms originally used in this context with Ron Edwards’ Sex and Sorcery, a supplement for Sorcerer. The basic idea is there’s a line that marks subject matter that isn’t allowed in-game, and a “veil” behind which lie events with are allowed, but not described in detail.

I try to be the best dad I can be, but sometimes I miss the mark. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Dragon Age that there’s some subject matter that doesn’t suit everyone, either because it’s a bit too graphic, or (more often) because it plays hardball with the emotions, and sometimes I don’t successfully identify what those elements are, and need them pointed out.

It’s like this: every time I’ve run any tabletop game based in Thedas, someone at the table has teared up. Once it was over a dog, and I stuck to my guns. Once it wasn’t, and I realized I’d missed the mark.

This time, I flubbed up or nearly flubbed up a couple times, so by all means learn from my mistakes.

Before we played, I made a few notes about the main NPCs in this part of the story, and what they wanted, so I could act accordingly. The two main ones:

  • Arl Rendon Howe – wants to “reclaim” the seat of Highever that his family once held (many generations ago). He will stop at nothing to accomplish this, up to and including the murder of innocents. He has orchestrated a situation in which he has the overwhelming advantage, playing on the trust Teryn Bryce Cousland has in him.
  • Duncan – needs a strong Grey Warden candidate to bring back to Ostagar. He has several options within Castle Cousland, and won’t leave without one of them, unless staying means the failure of his whole mission.

Howe Treachery

In the night, Arl Howe’s “delayed” troops reveal themselves and attempt to seize the castle. This force vastly outnumbers the skeleton crew of Cousland guards within the keep, and it’s only through the quick thinking of one (now deceased) guard that the Howe forces don’t take the castle and kill everyone in a matter of minutes: most of the attacking troops are still outside, trying to bash their way through the keep’s heavy portcullis and front gates, both of which have been secured with deadman weights that take a dozen men to lift.

Although she went to bed early, Elana does not sleep well. Her rest is troubled by a disturbing dream in which she relives the earlier conversation with her father, while the face of a simpering Arl Howe transforms into the narrow, long-nosed mask of one of the fat grey-bodied rats she fought in the pantry.

It’s almost a relief when Wolf’s ferocious barking wakes her. Normally, she’d try to keep him quiet, as her quarters connect via a large common room with the other family apartments (one suite for her mother and father; the other for her brother, his wife, and their son), and she’s gotten in trouble for her furry companion’s noise, in the past.

She shushes her pet, but he won’t be entirely silenced, and continues to growl menacingly at the door to her room. Elana remembers both the pantry and her “Arl Howe as Evil Rat” dream, and both things prompt her to action: she eases out of her bed and over to a chest where she’s tossed her armor and other weaponry.

Finally, she shushes Wolf properly, and prepares to pull open her door to see what’s going on out there.

Kaylee doesn’t know why yet, but this action triggers a Defy Danger move, and I have her roll.

No one, least of all the two soldiers on the other side of the door, were expecting the result.

She nails the roll, and pulls open her door just as the soldier outside was about to kick it in. He sprawls in the doorway, doing a painful split, while his companion (holding a nocked bow), gawps.

To her credit, Elana’s first instinct isn’t to run a helpless man through. She demands to know what’s going on, but the only response is the man on the ground scrambling back and getting to his feet (she notices the emblem of Arl Howe on his shield), and the other man growling “kill her!”

Kaylee pulls a nice little tactical move, drawing back to the right and hard against the wall, so the archer has no angle on her and the closer soldier will have to come partway into the door to engage her, blocking his ally.

After some goading, the guy with the shield surges in, head on a swivel, and he locks in on Elana.

Unfortunately, he forgot about Wolf, who rushes him from the side, and with that distraction, Elana is able to run him through, just above the neckline of his armor.

This was the first point where we hit a slight disconnect between Kaylee’s expectations and the fiction. She’s played tons of games with me, but they’ve almost all been supers genre, or inspired by stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender or pulp adventure. In short, they may have a lot of action, but generally, no one’s dying.

Basically, this more brutal fantasy setting was a surprise to her, and she hesitated more than a little when she realized her character had actually killed someone. It didn’t freak her out, exactly, but it set her back on her heels a little bit.

The archer had pulled back further into the common room, and Elana didn’t have any desire to charge a drawn longbow. Much better to engage in kind. Elana’s bow was still on the chest, on the other side of the room, so Elana dove across the doorway to get to it.

I called for a Defy Danger + DEX, and Kaylee blew the roll (and got a point of XP!). I asked her if she was going to get hit, or if Wolf was going take the damage for her (and be out of the rest of the fight) – the bow sang, Elana pushed Wolf ahead of her, and the arrow went halfway through her calf muscle. OW.

Kaylee’s character actually got the crap beat out of her during this and the next session – by the time it was all done, she was down to single digit hit points and I was skimming the “Last Breath” move.

Another side note: There’s actually a Ranger move that lets your animal companion soak a hit for you, then recover later. I wasn’t using that move (Kaylee doesn’t have it), but simply giving her a hard choice on her failed roll. Kaylee really doesn’t like her pet taking a hit in her place (also, he really does help with the fights).

Elana gets her bow while the bowman taunts her. She readies her arrow, holds Wolf back by his collar, and then whispers “Go.” Wolf charges through the door, and Elana steps out (onto her good leg) and Kaylee rolls Volley + Dex, getting perfect boxcars. The archer wastes his shot, missing Wolf, and drops before the war hound even reaches him.

Elana calls the dog back immediately and scans the large common room. Two more guards are pounding on the double doors leading into her parents apartments, making a great deal of noise (they’ve almost gotten through and are shouting threats at whoever’s inside). They haven’t noticed what’s going on on behind them.

Kaylee wants to sneak out and surprise them with her bow, and a successful Defy Danger lets her do a called shot and take one guy out before they realize she’s there. The other guy dies before he can reach her.

She rushes to the door and calls out, and her mother responds, then forces the door open. She’s donned armor as well, and has a well-worn (if not recently worn) sword in hand. Her eyes go wide at the arrow sticking out of her daughter’s leg, and tears up a sheet to make bandages while they catch each other up. Elana’s father never came to bed – he was up talking with Arl Howe, and he mother doesn’t know if he’s even still alive. If he is, he’s probably in the main hall, defending the main entrance into the keep. Her mother, once shown the Howe blazon on the soldiers’ shields, is livid and swearing a blue streak.

Her mother then has Elana bite down on one of her own arrow shafts while she works the other shaft out of Elana’s leg, bandages the wound, and tells her they need to get to the main hall.

Heading back down the common room, they see the door to her brother’s rooms, broken off its hinges, and two bodies on the floor within – one woman, and one child.

We stop there for the night.

On the whole it was a good session, and Kaylee was really into the scenes and the tactics of it, but a few minutes after she went to bed, she called me in and told me she wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep playing.

I asked her why, and she told me that she wasn’t used to the kind of fighting we were doing. I’d been going into lots of detail about what was going on the fights, but thing is, I was going into the wrong kind of detail – stuff she wasn’t comfortable with. I told her that I could be more vague about certain things – saying “he goes down” or “she out of the fight” to kind of soften things up (put it behind a “veil”), but the setting was the sort of thing where people were going to die, so we needed to be at least okay with that, or we should stop.

She was okay with “vague death,” but then went on to say she really wasn’t okay with what looked like her character’s six year old nephew getting killed. This was much more of a “lines” kind of conversation, and I reassured her that while things were pretty grim in her brother’s room, they weren’t as bad as they seemed, and if she’s trusted me to do another session, we could work through that.

So: some stuff goes behind veils, and some stuff needs to be behind a line and just not get touched. In hindsight, I should have guessed all that ahead of time, but I got wrapped up in (a) getting the narration to work with and for the rules “right” and (b) the setting and the story. My bad. I have to say, I came away from the after-session conversation very impressed with how Kaylee was able to articulate exactly what bothered her and what she wanted to do about it.

And the next session ended up being pretty darn awesome for both of us, even though…

Well.


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