Rules of Engagement

This may well be the longest blog post I’ve ever done. But see, last year, The Tome Show read Brimstone Angels for their book club, and some of their discussion of this fight scene I’m going to talk about made me think of this blog post. And think. And think.

Which does no one any good, because I already wrote the damned thing and I know pretty well why I did what I did. If I don’t write it down, I’m just wasting brain space, right?

So here’s the gist: When you are writing shared world fiction based on a game, you are going to run up against rules. The art of writing tie-in game fiction is largely about knowing when to adhere to the letter of the rules, when to ignore that but embrace the spirit of the rules, and how to do both without anyone going, “Oh, that’s on page 16 of my Player’s Handbook.” While many people enjoy reading Forgotten Realms because it reminds them of their game, none of them are going to be as engaged by a fight scene where they can “hear the dice rolling.”

“Hear the dice rolling.” That is the kiss of death when it comes to game fiction. Because while you can write a scene following the rules of the game (and you sort of have to at least try) you don’t want it to sound like you have consulted anything of the sort.  If your hero very clearly “makes her saving throw” instead of “narrowly escaping,” you are doing a shitty job. Period.

I like to think about it the way I would a game: There are times the DM is going to do things a little unorthodox because that makes for a better experience. There are times he’s going to throw a monster at you that you can’t defeat, because he wants you to run or get captured or make a deal. There are times you are going to get lucky and beat that monster anyway! There are times where she cheats at the dice roll, because you need to beat the monster, and there are times where she makes up something crazy, because the story your game is telling wants some spectacular scene or fantastic spell. The rules are a guideline—not something to be broken willy-nilly, but not a holy writ. If you don’t at least mostly follow them, then you might as well play something else.

Or write something else. So what follows is a scene where I adhered pretty strongly to the letter of the rules, with comments from me about why and how I did that.

If you have not read Brimstone Angels, and would like to avoid spoilers, you should stop here. But if you haven’t read it and are a little curious, I think you should read it anyway. I think you’ll still like the book.

The air suddenly sizzled with magic. Lorcan spun around, reaching for his sword, when the fabric of the planes split, and a path to the Hells appeared.

            Nemea and Aornos stepped through the portal, undisguised and heavily armed. Surging out from behind them came a pair of Glasya’s hellwasps.

            “Well, well, baby brother,” Nemea said. “Looks as if you’ve finally gotten Mother’s notice.”

            “There’s been a mistake,” he said, holding his arms up in a gesture of surrender.

            “Has there?” Nemea drawled. “We’ll have to sort that out another time.”

            “Exonerate you after death,” Aornos added.

            “Or not,” Nemea said. “Whatever you’ve done, Invadiah is furious. She says we don’t need to be careful. She says Rohini can have your little warlock.”

            Shit and fire, Lorcan thought. What did Invadiah think he’d done? The orc? Not hellwasps for a bloody orc whose soul Asmodeus couldn’t claim as fast as he wanted.

            “And then we can help Rohini finish things.” Aornos grinned, her pointed white teeth as sharp and hungry as any predator’s. “In proper fashion.”

            “So thank you, little brother,” Nemea said. “If you hadn’t gotten all those cultists killed, we would still be on guard duty.”

            “Cultists?” Lorcan said. He twisted the ring. Nothing. “I haven’t killed any cultists.”

            Nemea clucked her tongue. “Seems you might have done something foolish.”

            Aornos drew her sword. “Something that gave some Ashmadai the idea they ought to be killing Glasyans. Hmm?”

Okay, set up’s done. Four opponents against our POV character. This would be a nasty trick for your DM to pull. This is a spirit of the rules kind of thing—you’re probably not going to face this in a pre-made encounter because it’s not what the rules intend, but your DM might craft something like this to attempt to overwhelm you. The erinyes are cocky, they’re not going to go at Lorcan at 100%. They want to draw this out. The hellwasps have entered this game basically to send a message to Invadiah, the erinyes and Lorcan’s mother—Glasya is not happy and is going to start watching your every move. They may even have been ordered to keep Lorcan alive so Glasya can find out what’s going on.

Which is where we get to some “letter of the rules” trickery.

            Lorcan turned the ring again, and still he was standing on Toril, his half-sisters advancing on him with naked blades, and a pair of hellwasps circling them. He let loose a stream of curses, spinning the ring over and over. Nothing.

            “Perhaps,” Aornos said, waving her blade, “Asmodeus will resurrect you. Then we can hear the full story.”

            “Or perhaps not,” Nemea said drawing her own blade.

            “Adaestuo!” Lorcan shouted. The sizzling blast struck Aornos, and gave him time to pull his own sword. But in that breath between the casting and drawing his sword, the hellwasps struck.

            He was fortunate—not every devil’s blood burned hot enough to temper the poison of a hellwasp, but even tempered the pain was excruciating, so bad his arms and legs refused it and went briefly numb. He flung his sword outward, missing the darting hellwasp but forcing Nemea to step back.

This isn’t my favorite bit, but it’s serviceable. Cambions have resistance against poison, so okay, Lorcan wouldn’t take all the damage from the hellwasp, especially when it’s serving someone who’d rather get him back whole. This would be subdual damage. Even if it’s a lot of pain, it’s not going to be too much. The rules-lawyering begins…

            He could not defend against all of them. Aornos slipped into the breach and slashed across his back, while the second hellwasp closed and drove its saberlike arms into his shoulders. Nemea sprang forward again, this time aiming at the joint of his left wing. Lorcan twisted, and her blade struck the hellwasp instead.

            The creature screeched as Nemea’s sword smashed through its carapace as if it were no more than an eggshell. The hellwasp’s sharp forelegs slid from Lorcan’s wounds and the devil vanished in a gust of flame.

And blammo! Demon-insect #1 is gone. But in one strike? Yeah, these are classified as “minions.” The idea of minions is to send a great, teeming bunch of them after your players. They can do a lot of damage, but they go down easily—one point of damage will do it. Which means if I only send two—they’re there to watch and report and maybe rein in the erinyes—I can get away with having Lorcan survive. Letter of the rules, but not necessarily the spirit. When you twist it this way, it had better be entertaining, which I hope being outnumbered by scary wasp monsters and devil-warriors is!

Note on both of these, I tried to find plausible reasons for what happens. Lorcan has resist poison? Something in the blood. Smash a hellwasp in one strike? Carapaces are fragile, strike is aimed just right. Not terribly tricky, but completely necessary. You do not want to drift into “Because the rules say it.”

            Lorcan stood no chance against Nemea and Aornos, let alone against a hellwasp. He loosed another dart of fire at Aornos as she broke forward, but it only gave Nemea another chance to crash her sword against his armor, the hellwasp a chance to sting him again.

            The poison flooded his veins once more and Lorcan’s knees buckled. He threw his sword up to block Nemea’s, and Aornos’s sword forced past his leather armor and into the muscles of his back.

            This was how he’d always suspected he’d die.

            Shit and ashes—if he died now, not only would Farideh be dead for certain, but she’d be right. He’d be a useless bastard.

            Blood weeping from his many wounds, Lorcan drew on everything he had. The powers of Malbolge poured into him and burst out in a ring of flames that burned his sisters and threw the hellwasp back. The magical explosion propelled him into the air, his wings catching the hot air and launching him forward.

Lorcan is based on the Cambion Wrathborn in the Fourth Edition Monster Manual 2. This is burst skyward, an ability that monster gets only when it’s bloodied (has lost half its hit points). Good thing he was getting the snot beaten out of him. This hurts the erinyes (who have no resistance against fire) and also lets him get away—they can’t fly, he can. But now he’s bloodied.

This next part is one I’m particularly proud of…

            He flew, one hand pressed against the deeper wound to his shoulder, one wing rapidly stiffening from the poison. Nemea and Aornos might not be able to pursue, but the hellwasp would be winging after him—and without Aornos or Nemea, he couldn’t count on an accidental ally. He had to slow the hellwasp down.

            He headed toward the Chasm.

            Along the Wall he spied a stretch where no soldiers patrolled—just beyond a jut of broken bricks. He pulled the straps of his armor tighter, making sure what was left of the leather pressed against his wounds to staunch the blood. Landing unevenly, he glanced back. The hellwasp was closing.

If you have watched this video, you have heard me relate—smugly—that I managed to use a healing surge in fiction, and no one noticed. This, dear readers, is a healing surge (which he has to take, but more on that in a moment): He pulled the straps of his armor tighter, making sure what was left of the leather pressed against his wounds to staunch the blood.

Yes, I know–no magic there. But think about it: It makes sense. If you are hurt, you do what you can to minimize the pain and minimize the damage. You’re going to try and stop blood loss, block nerve messages, stay off damaged limbs, and so on and so forth. If you’re still in danger, you’re going to do what you can to squeeze every last bit of adrenalin out. You do these things to make yourself stay standing, stay conscious, and get to safety. That is pretty much the same thing a healing surge does–gets you a little better off so you can stay in the game.

But often, if you’re working with a game, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the idea of hit points. In D&D, your character gets so many hit points, and if they lose them, they die (okay, it’s more complicated than that, but you know). In real life, people can certainly dip below a point of recovery, but it’s not due to a quantifiable element like that. You’re not literally ticking down to zero. Finding ways to repair or even just suck it up would be akin to taking that healing surge and getting past the point where you’re bloodied (hurting badly enough to be affected). It’s just hard to see if you get used to thinking about it in terms of healing spells and healing potions that add this many to that number. So Lorcan has no potions, has no god smiling on him, but he has the wherewithal to get some space, put pressure on his wounds, and assess his damage. He can get a little more mileage if he watches those injuries, plans what he’s going to do next.

Like I say in the video, I still feel inordinately pleased with myself for how it turned out.

            Lorcan had no time to cast the spell gently.

            Every inch of his skin felt as if it were full of nettles and sparks. He bit down on his lip to keep from screaming and broke through, filling his mouth with scalding hot blood.

            He held his hands out in front of him, as the pain ebbed starting at the core of his body and spreading to his limbs. At the edge of the agony, his skin faded from red to tan, his nails turned pink. His wings collapsed into nothing, rocking him off-balance as he lost their weight. He ran his fingers through his hair, noting the missing horns. It had worked, hopefully enough to fool the hellwasp that was diving straight toward him.

This is another action the Cambion Wrathborn can take, wicked guise. Now Lorcan looks like a human, and the wasp (which was previously established to hunt first by sight) is confused. But he can only do this if he’s not bloodied. So to go from burst skyward to wicked guise required that healing surge.

And that’s a good example of where it pays to be mindful of the rules. One, it’s right there in black and white—if he does one, he can’t possibly do the other without something between—and ignoring it would be a bit brazen. You’d need a really, really amazing argument for it. And a fight scene isn’t an amazing argument. Two, it’s better for having that space between the actions, in my opinion. It keeps it from feeling like Lorcan has an endless bag of powers to rely on and more like he’s grabbing at straws. He might not win this. Three, it embraces the spirit of the game. How many times have you gotten down to a nail-bitingly low number of hit points, only to rally and, well, do this?:

            The hellwasp halted, hovering in the air ahead of Lorcan. Darting back and forth, peering at him with each of its multifaceted eyes. It might have scented Lorcan, or something like him. But with the Chasm so close, whatever magical trace it might have tasted was obscured. And there, before it, was a man who looked nothing like a cambion. Agitated, its darting paths took it wider and wider as it tried to discern where its prey had gone.

            Lorcan drew his sword, quickly—the hellwasp heard and focused on him, but its moment of disorientation had served its purpose.

            With a great cry, Lorcan swung the sword into the narrowest part of the hellwasp’s abdomen, shearing through the carapace. Like its sibling, the hellwasp screeched and burst into flames, to be reborn—like its sibling—in the Hells.

            Lorcan collapsed bleeding onto the brick wall.

            Ashmadai killing other cultists . . . Rohini and his mother’s plans in Neverwinter in jeopardy . . . That bloody orc could only be blamed for a portion of this catastrophe. For while Goruc’s murder by the Ashmadai hands might have incited them to kill Glasyans, only Sairché would have the wits to tie it to Lorcan.

            He pulled himself up and limped to the nearby tower, a cracked and damaged thing still being built. He had to get Farideh out if Neverwinter. He had to get himself back to the Hells. And now in addition to Ashmadai, mad Rohini, and bloody Sairché, he had Nemea and Aornos to worry about.



I would love to hear stories of your characters (or your players’ characters) escaping what looks like certain doom—by their wits, by pure luck, or by DM’s careful design. Post them in the comments!

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2 Responses to Rules of Engagement

  1. Chris jones says:

    Hi Erin, my evil organisation of choice is Hydra from Captain America, nothing like a good bit of old fashioned world domination.

  2. Whitney says:

    I posted a rough draft is on WTOC under Lunarbeams

    The title is work in progress