True steel – part three

In which 30-year-old Argothald questions are finally answered.

In parts one and two, I talked about designing Argothald in reaction to ideas prevalent in role-playing games in the late 70s. [1]

Let’s fast-forward three decades. I ran Argothald from 1979 to 1989. I spent 1987 in Chicago doing my physics research (and ran Argothald sessions with a gaming group at Fermilab). I came back to live in Nyack NY, which was difficult for my old NYC-area players to reach. The game could not be sustained with the few players I could still interest, and I suspended the game. In 2011, I was asked to start up Argothald again; by 2012 scheduling issues caused the campaign to falter again.

Throughout that time, I continue to experiment with different self-designed systems, trying to achieve my original goals of the Argothald system: no fixed lists of skills and spells, and no multitudes of tables to roll against. I did not succeed. I was not a game designer, no matter how I tried to educate myself on the subject.

In early 2013 I tried again, with a brand-new group of gamers I met through playing board games at Hobbytown. This time I tried a published game system, Fate Core… and hit the jackpot. This was the system for which I’d been looking for 30 years.

Fate Core is not about tables and lists (though there are some); the rules are about the interaction of different story elements (“aspects”). Fate Core is not for the hack-n-slasher, min-maxer, or the Monty-Haul gamer; it’s for those who care more for the story and the role they play in it.

My 30-year search had delivered a system that allowed the players to solve those 30-year-old questions.

One of the players created an aspect for his character, Cesaré: Crytolos had put his sister’s name on the list some unspecified time in the past; Cesaré wanted to know what happened to her. As he asked around town for information, he learned about the Paths of the Doomed.

He visited the gateway, and was shown the list of the people who’d passed through. I said to the player, “According to the Fate Core rules, you get to decide this story element for your character. So you tell me: Is your sister’s name on the list?” He said yes.

Then he turned to the beginning of the list to look at the first name on it. Something clicked in me. Either I said “The first name on the list is Cesaré” or I asked him “Is Cesaré the first name on the list?” and he agreed.

I then turned to the other two players. “Are your characters’ names also on the list, just after Cesaré’s?” They thought a moment, then decided that they were.

Xavier, another player’s character, has an aspect of being a dedicated researcher. She went to a library and determined that the Paths of the Doomed had been set up about three centuries prior, but no one knew by whom.

It fell into place: Who created the Paths of the Doomed? They had. Why? So Cesaré’s sister could be saved in the present.

Xavier didn’t end her research there. She’d been curious about what happened to Crytolos’ horns. Again, there was no record of exactly what had happened; Crytolos had went on a rampage, and many records were lost. Something clicked in me again. “However, you determine that Crytolos lost his horns three centuries ago, around the time that the Paths of the Doomed were set up.”

Going back to the past was so easy that I’ll leave it to a footnote. [2] A hard part was finding someone to make the magical gateway. They found him, a crazed Dwarf who told them (as they expected) that part of the magic would require the horns of Crytolos; if you wanted a magic gateway that would confuse and delay Crytolos, you needed a piece of him. [4]

There was another problem: They needed an enormous amount of money to bribe Scred, Crytolos’ assistant, for the plan to work. So they looked at the quests on the wall of Crytolos’ palace. They concluded there was no way to complete a quest and claim a reward before they had to leave.

But one of those quests gave Cesaré an idea: “The true steel sword of Damien Deimos.” Why risk getting blamed for a crime when you can frame someone else, especially someone who’s not around? So Cesaré went to a blacksmith and had a new sword made, with “Damien Deimos” engraved on the blade. They could leave the sword behind, 300 years in the past, so that Crytolos would know whom to blame and have a reason to post the quest in the first place.

At this, I started laughing. It was a long time before I could stop. Thirty years ago, Sam had hated Crytolos as much as any of the other players. How pleased he would be to know that his character’s sword, even a fake copy of the “true steel sword of Damien Deimos,” would be used to humiliate Crytolos!

There’s more to the story [5], but I shall end with the resolution of the mysteries: Who created the Paths of the Doomed? Who cut off Crytolos’ horns? Who did the deed with the “true” steel sword of Damien Deimos? The answer: Cesaré, Xavier, and Rhino. [6]

[1] For an excellent overview of the origins of Dungeons & Dragons, including the evolution of the game elements that went into its design and its influence to the present day, I recommend Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World.

[2] Argothald adventurers have traveled into the past before. They visited the Temple of the Void (20-30 years ago it had been the Temple of Space-Time, but I decided to change the name to something a trifle less clumsy). This Temple bounces back and forth in both time and space, in a way that their priests can predict but not control. [3] The players learned they could “hitch a lift” to three centuries in the past if they visited the temple again in a month, then they’d have five days in the past before going back or be trapped in the past indefinitely.

[3] By 1978 I’d seen a few Doctor Who episodes, but I don’t think it had started broadcasting in the NY area. I don’t think the Temple of Space-Time was influenced by the TARDIS. But who knows? Eight regenerations are enough to throw off anyone’s memory.

[4] There’s a lot I’m leaving out, because it’s too long even for a footnote: finding out about Gerard, the crazed Dwarf, in the first place (which caused Xavier to alienate the entire community of Castle Earthrock); rescuing Gerard from Ironmaw Mountain; gathering the stones to make the trilithon that made up the gateway; borrowing money from the mayor, Pollux the Mold; how to make Crytolos vulnerable; and so on.

[5] Like finding a fairy whose name was “Xavier”; dealing with the brothel located on the site of gateway 300 years ago; learning why they couldn’t change anything in the past; fixing up a mistake when they didn’t do something they forgot they’d have to do; why Crytolos screamed “XAVIER!” shortly after they returned to the present. Sorry folks. Sometimes you just have to be there.

[6] Rhino’s name didn’t come up in this story, so I’m forced to give him the place of honor in the final footnote. Rhino is an Ogre, so he did most of the heavy lifting, dragging the stones of the gateway all over town. He also used his social connections to get the characters the money they needed. And he become Gerard’s best friend. Let’s hope Rhino gets a bigger role in the next Argothald story.

Leave a Reply