So why does one play an RPG? Why do we live and die by the dice?
Some people love rules. Their hearts desire to crunch numbers, using and exploiting the respective systems they play in order to deliver maximum “l33t Ub3r Pwn4g3” as the kids say, or at least used to say like 13 years ago. The characters they create are vessels to deliver the sweet stats and abilities they’ve selected and lovingly crafted. Players like this focus on the “G” in “RPG”.
Others focus on the “RP”. They love the escape. They love getting lost in characters and stories, and the stats and skill trees are just there as a vessel to get into the headspace of another person.
This post is in essence an extension of the latter. In a departure from this blog’s usual fare, I present to you, the reader, a story in two parts. This story takes place in the Dresdenverse, that is to say the universe of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels and accompanying Fate-based RPG, appropriately named The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. It takes place in the year 1937, and it’s from the perspective of a certain famous author.
And for those who enjoy a s’more, (some crunch with their fluff, get it? Food jokes. Man, we’re killing it right now.) at the end we’ve included a ready-to-use character sheet for your own Dresden Files RPG campaign.
With that, pour yourself a brandy, a hot cup of tea, a Faygo, or whatever you would normally pour yourself, and enjoy “Probation”.
Rating: PG-13 for brief language.
It was warmer than it should have been. Winter in New England is a presence in itself, and January of 1937 had been no exception. Icy winds blowing in from the Providence River normally harden the ground as much as they harden the populace, but tonight could only be described as balmy with the arrival of a warm humid front from the south. The unseasonable thaw and melting snow brought in January what the locals normally had to wait until March to see – exposed piles of refuse built up over the past weeks that had been hidden under snowdrifts, and dark, brackish puddles that smelled of soot and stained one’s boots.
Howard trudged up to his dingy apartment on the third floor. He had been trying desperately to sell another collection of stories to several local and national publishers, yet again to no avail. A few of his works had been purchased by a few minor pulp magazines, and that paid the bills, if just barely. His fans, and he used that term generously, were few and far between, and he dreaded the thought of forgoing yet another week of groceries in favor of paying rent. Howard would again have to beg Derleth to pick up a story or two. It paid to have friends in places that, if not precisely high, were certainly higher than Howard’s own.
The writer made his meager living weaving tales of cosmic horror, with creatures from strange dimensions that had no love for Earth or her people spreading plagues of madness to herald their arrival. The few that read his stories claimed that they enjoyed them because of how “real” they felt. The readers, Howard often mused, had no idea how right they were. Born with a modicum of arcane ability and a thirst for the darkest lore, Howard lived in poverty but was hardly resolved to die in such a state. Yog-Sothoth was not merely a monster to fill the pages of pulps but a being who, along with his strange brethren, had promised Howard a glorious place in the new world after the Outer Gates had been opened.
The Outer Gates. The final barrier between our reality, our universe, and the one that lies on the other side. Those who hailed from beyond would, in short, ravage all of creation should the Gates be compromised. Howard’s benefactors, those who fed him knowledge and power, would become the unquestionable rulers of all. On that glorious and terrible day, Howard’s myriad problems would be solved.
“Just for now,” thought Howard, “When the equinox comes, it’ll all be worth it.”
His preparations had come at no small cost of time and lucre. Years of his life spent communing with these voices from beyond the stars, and a substantial percentage of his yearly take set aside to pave the way for the day of reckoning when the Old Ones would devour this reality.
“All men aspire to greatness, but some have a larger scope.” Howard smiled.
Panting as he always did after three flights of stairs, heels aching after an arduous day of unsuccessfully whoring himself out to publishers, Howard removed his keys from his pocket with a light jingle. He went to unlock his door, but it appeared to be already unlocked.
“Probably Sonia,” he muttered to himself. He raised his voice, opening the door with a creak “I told you, Sonia, the divorce papers are finalized. Leave me be or -”
Howard stopped. The room was dark save for three dim glowing orange lights – two glowing reptilian eyes and what appeared to be a cigarette beneath them. With a cloud of smoke that made Howard’s eyes water, the door slammed and locked with a startling thud.
“Evening, Howard!” Greeted a smooth, smoky drawl from the corner of the room, “How’s tricks?”
“Wh – Who are -” Howard stammered, but his query was cut short as the floor came to life beneath his feet. The wood from the floor began to grow upward. Tendrils of solid yet pliable wood wove their way around Howard’s ankles, up his shins, past his knees, completely immobilizing him. The smell of fresh pine filled the room as these new roots grew up and around Howard and only then, too late, did he notice the circle of wood and copper nailed to the floor in front of his door – the circle in which he was now inexorably trapped.
Howard tried to scream, but when he inhaled his mouth and lungs were immediately filled with smoke, thick, sweet, and floral. Howard’s scream was stifled with a cough, and instead came out as a whimper. When his coughing fit subsided, Howard realized that he felt strangely calm considering the circumstances, a calm not entirely his own. He found himself only wanting more of the smoke, more of the euphoria, the relaxation.
“That should help settle your nerves a bit,” the voice in the corner said. A lamp turned on with a click. The man smoking in the corner was not what Howard expected. Howard’s captor was a dark skinned man, tall and thin, almost skeletal, though Howard could not tell if that assessment were truly accurate – the room’s dimensions were warped and curving, as if seen through a mirror at a carnival. He wore a brown suit with a faded red shirt, and a straw skimmer-style hat. The wooden handle of a large handgun protruded from a shoulder holster, making no effort for concealment, and the man’s eyes were like that of a serpent, orange with vertical slits, glowing with a light not of this world.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” His voice resonated into Howard’s bones, “My name is Monsueir Pierre LeRoux, and I’ve come here this evening to talk to you ’bout your most intriguing publications and where you and Derleth plan on completing the ritual.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re -” Howard’s protestations were silenced when from the stranger’s hand flew what appeared to be a rope of brightly colored glass beads. The beads, seemingly possessed of their own will, sought out Howard’s mouth and lodged themselves firmly inside, gagging him.
“I don’t recommend trying to bite down on those. A mouth full of broken glass’ll hurt like hell, and I’m just gonna keep talking no matter what.” He sighed and took a breath, leisurely rolling up his shirtsleeves.
“Let me explain something to you, mon ami. We ain’t gonna play the ‘What the devil are you talking about’ game right now,” LeRoux said in a relaxed, mocking drawl. “I know you’ve been chattin’ with beings from the Outside, and so do the authorities in charge of such matters. In plainest terms, friend Howard, judgment’s already been passed. You don’t just drop the name ‘Yog-Sothoth’ in a national publication and hope nobody notices.”
The dark man walked over to Howard and plucked a hair from one of Howard’s eyebrows, making the writer flinch in pain. Upon doing so, he lingered inches from Howard’s face and stared deeply, purposefully into Howard’s eyes. Howard could feel heat from LeRoux’s gaze. Not a searing wave of heat, but a low, deep smolder. The smoke emanating from his eyes – ye gods, the smoke was wisping from the man’s very eyes – combined with an intensifying light to make Howard’s own eyes tear up and sting.
Howard’s mind was promptly sucked in, as if by an enormous vacuum. In the haze of the intoxicating smoke, Howard’s guard was down. As an arcane practitioner, he had the blessing and curse of the soulgaze. Pierre would see Howard’s true essence, and Howard would see his in return. Howard had not wanted to look into the eyes of this . . . this creature, terrified of what horrors existed behind those smoking, glowing jewels. This soulgaze, this horrifying visage, would come to haunt Howard’s nightmares for the remainder of his days.
There sat Pierre in a well-worn but well-maintained rocking chair, smiling contentedly, humming a tune, and cleaning his ornate antique pistol. He sat on the front porch of a palatial plantation-style manor that was perhaps in need of a coat of paint, but still no less than opulent. Suddenly, a gray-green tentacle attempted to creep up the porch to LeRoux’s left foot, and just as suddenly a cluster of mangrove roots sprung from the ground nearby and tore it apart. This happened again at his right foot, and again the roots sprang into action, tearing it apart. A third tentacle from a column near his head, a third root cluster intercepted it, coming from the column itself. Tentacle after tentacle, root after root, over and over again. LeRoux did not even look up from his gun and cloth; he was completely unfazed by the constant attacks of these creatures. That changed when what appeared to be a grotesque eye stalk shot out from a dark portal in front of LeRoux’s face. The eye, as it lunged at him, opened like a mouth full of jagged teeth dripping with dark ichor. As quickly as it shot out, LeRoux drew the antique pistol which began to glow with a yellow sphere of light at the tip of the barrel. The eye stalk stopped, mid lunge. LeRoux stared at it for a long beat, then said, smoke emanating from his mouth, eyes blazing, “Never again.” The dark man then pulled the trigger, filling the entire scene with blinding yellow light.
The soulgaze ended. Howard was sweating, shaking. This was clearly not a being to underestimate. Pierre continued to stare at Howard without pity, without fear, without . . . anything. He only stared, knowingly. The smoky man broke the gaze after several intense, uncomfortable moments before speaking, his tone having shifted, a warm and friendly smile on his face.“That’s good, Howard!” LeRoux continued, “You haven’t let any of them into your psyche in any meaningful way, so this will be much, much easier. Mostly for you. Frankly, it’d be easier for me to just kill you right here, right now, which I would do with exactly zero hesitation if I detected any presence of the Old Ones in that noodle of yours.”
Pierre LeRoux took Howard’s aforementioned eyebrow hair over to a small table in the opposite corner of the room, placed the brow hair delicately upon it, and withdrew a twisted, curving stick from his jacket pocket. No, not a stick. It was, more accurately, a wand. Howard’s eyes widened. He tried to spit out the beads and protest, but without even looking up LeRoux waved his wand, and a root slithered up and tightened around Howard’s neck.. LeRoux closed his eyes, and the air in the room began to tingle with power. Howard heard the tall man – he was tall, Howard could tell now, well over six feet – whispering in what almost sounded like French mixed with a Caribbean dialect. At the climax of the incantation, he heard his own name “Howard Philips Lovecraft,” and a searing pain shot through Howard’s lower abdomen.
“What have you done to me, you mad Negro?”, Howard thought, and tried to yell, but all that came out was a choked gasp.
“You may be experiencing some discomfort. Permit me to proffer an explanation. Howard, I’ve just used my not inconsiderable abilities, for better or worse bestowed upon me by my lineage, to give you a rather severe case of cancer of the small intestine. See a doctor about it if you wish, but we both know you don’t have the funds to treat such a thing, and frankly it wouldn’t do a damn thing either way. The growths will increase. They will strangle your innards, and one by one, said innards will shut down, submit to necrosis, and liquefy.”
Pierre let this piece of information linger for several heartbeats. Howard was silent, eyes wide and thoughts racing.
“Now I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I’m not some monster who goes bump in the night, contrary to what you might think at the present. Truly, friend Howard, I’m all for second chances. May not seem like it, H.P., but this don’t have to be a death sentence. Hell, you’re lucky Monsueir LeRoux came to darken your doorway tonight and not one of the Wardens. Morgan or Fontaine’d have your head on the floor without even this level of politeness. For that matter, you’re damn lucky that that crazy-ass kraut across the pond is stirring up all manner of trouble. Left the Wardens a little short on bodies, but I suspect that’s what you were counting on. What you didn’t count on, mon ami is the finely sculpted piece of Louisiana mahogany standing before you here tonight. Consider those tumors – yes, plural, for I assure you they are quite numerous – consider them your probation. If you cooperate fully and tell me everything that you and Mr. Derleth would be doing on the night of the Vernal Equinox while the Winter and Summer fae will be too busy with the transition to pay attention, you might make a miraculous recovery.”
With a swish of Pierre’s wand and a whisper of power, the root unwrapped from Howard’s neck. Walking over to his prisoner, Pierre gingerly plucked the beads from the author’s mouth. The feeling of freedom would have been a narcotic in itself if it were not for the masses in Howard’s gut that he could feel growing still larger by the minute. He felt as if he were being consumed from the inside out which, of course, he was in the most literal way. He managed to choke out “Newport Tower…” through the agony. The ancient building, possibly the oldest standing structure in the region, was no stranger to mystical energies, with a rather potent ley line passing right under it. A veritable pipeline of chaotic energies ran right through that very spot, and all Howard would have to do is tap into it.
“Thank you, Howard, that was very helpful,” Pierre said with a satisfied smile. He waved his wand again. “You’ve just earned a treat.”
Howard felt his tumors stop growing, giving him a moment to breathe. “The ritual is taking place at Newport Tower. Derleth-” He coughed, hacking up a small amount of mucus tainted by blood, before continuing. “Derleth doesn’t know anything about the ritual. He thinks it’s a publicity event. A new way of marketing the publication. He’s an . . . an innocent.”
Pierre LeRoux took a long, hard look at Howard Philips Lovecraft.
“There are no innocents in a life such as this, Howard. I’d give you the standard rigmarole of ‘They promised you power, but they lied to you and the fate of the universe is at stake and blah blah blah’, but frankly I don’t give a rat’s ass if you quit this bullshit out of altruism or to save your own skin. Now, I’ve already taken the liberty of destroying those ritual accouterments in your bedroom, and melting that lil’ ol’ summoning circle down into ingots. I’m thinking I’ll make it into a pocket watch. Sounds nice, don’t it? Anywho, as I was saying, consider this your first and only warning.”
Pierre began to pack up his belongings as he casually lit himself another cigarette.
“I’ll give you a few weeks to get your affairs in order and find some other means of income. If I hear of you even considering writing another story, I’ll consider that an act of war, at which point I’ll be back to, shall we say, remove your probation. The unpleasant way. Do you take my meaning?”
LeRoux removed his antique pistol from its shoulder holster, and pointed it directly at Howard’s forehead.
Howard flinched and nodded.
“Say it. Say that you understand that I will end your miserable life if you violate the Seventh Law of Magic again.” His voice began to take on an unearthly growl, eyes blazing and smoke wisping from his nose.
Howard said nothing. He was paralyzed with terror. He was tired. He was drugged. He was bound, and, despite it all, he was not this man’s dog to be made to speak on command. Howard, in a surge of defiance, possibly from the narcotics, possibly from the residual anger of the day he had endured, just stared at Pierre and scowled, shaking out of rage, fear, and a host of other emotions.
This seemed to displease Pierre. The creature bared his teeth in frustration as smoke positively billowed from his nose and ears. He thrust the pistol angrily in Howard’s direction, and thorns sprouted from the roots that bound Howard in place, thorns that continued to grow longer and longer, digging into Howard’s skin and drawing blood. Howard cried out in pain, as Pierre closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. When he opened his eyes, he wore a more placid expression, and the smoke died down and eventually retreated. The thorns retreated as well, shrinking back into the roots from whence they came, gradually smoothing out. Tears streaked Howard’s face. Drops of blood shone through his shirt.
“Let us attempt this dialogue a second time.” LeRoux said flatly. “Repeat after me, if you please. ‘I understand,’”
“I . . . understand.”
“That you will end my miserable life.”
“That you will end my-” Howard sobbed, “My miserable life.”
“If I violate the Seventh Law of Magic again.”
“If I violate the Seventh Law of Magic again.”
“Excellent, Howard!” Pierre cheerfully holstered his pistol, his features returning to normalcy, “I feel we really made a breakthrough here!”
He made his way to the door and removed the nails from the wooden circle he brought to aid in . . . persuading Howard. Pierre picked up the wooden hoop, tucking it under his arm like a briefcase.
“Those restraints will be gone by sunrise. Until then, try weighing pros and cons of career options. Preferably ones that wouldn’t involve death-by-Warden’s-blade. I’ll be watching to see if you’re naughty or nice, kind of like ol’ Santy Claus. ‘Cept instead of coal in your socks, I give ya cancer!”
LeRoux exited the room, closed the door behind him, whistling what sounded like a bouncing jazz tune, and walked down the stairs and out of Howard’s building. Howard was shaking and still feeling the effects of the narcotic smoke. Had that really just happened? He decided that it had, considering his immobility, his host of puncture wounds, and the ache in his belly. “Did that…whatever he was…really just give me cancer?” He resolved to call Doctor Lambeth tomorrow morning.
Howard considered his options that night. He could either abandon his plans of ascension and allow himself to be intimidated by some blackamoor thug claiming connection to the White Council, or he could continue on the path to glory, recreate his supplies, and destroy those who would stand in his way. In truth, there was no real choice. His timetable would need to be moved up, perhaps not precisely on the Equinox. He would have to examine the star charts again and determine a suitable alternative. When was Mercury in retrograde next? These rituals thrive on chaos. All matters to attend to in the morning. For now, Howard tried to clear his mind and began to brainstorm the plot of his next story.