Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Making Your Bones: Honor

Summary: Today I wrote a short story using a new writing technique informed by my experience running RPGs. First, I laid the groundwork for a new campaign with five Fronts. Fronts are a concept derived from Apocalypse World: existential dangers (to the world, to a community, to the PCs, etc) that advance along a series of phases or events towards an extremely disastrous outcome. They will continue along their set path without the intervention of the PCs. Once the PCs intercede or affect the world in a relevant way, the Front is either unraveled, or it shifts appropriately to account for the party's actions.

Here's an example of a very broad, overarching Front (which I didn't use for this exercise):


Invasion of the South Sea Archipelago
Danger: The Cynthian Empire (Rapacious Organization)
(I won't write a full cast here, but I generally write that character's primary motivation if there's a strong and relevant one)

Events in order
The Fall of the Kingdom of Kadwa
The Battle of Mandrake Strand
The New Games of the Fire Isles
The Subordination of Mandrake
The Glossolalian Debellatio
The Siege of the Sorcerers' Grave
The Purgation of Bombaryx
The Lobotomy of the Tutelary God
A Firestorm for the Star Viruses
The Alliance of the Bandit Tribes

Dark Future: Total war is brought to the Northern Cities via their undefended southern flank.


After this, instead of running the game for a group of players, I created a character (Jon Dart, a newly-graduated Starling & Shrike detective) and began the adventure like a game of chess where you rotate the board, playing the world just like I would as a GM, and then switching to player-mode where appropriate, doing my best to shield my character's decisions from information he's not privy to so that it can be an exploratory, revelatory exercise to the degree that I can make that possible.

This is set in the same interwar-era otherworld as most of my content on this blog.

Artist Unknown

It was three o’clock in the morning. Jon Dart sat in a bright, cream-colored room at a long chestnut table lined with highbacked chairs. Snow was falling past a lamppost beyond the three tall, narrow, wrought-iron windows.

Graduation was yesterday. Fourteen years of training. Jon was eighteen.

He was a detective. He would now go out into the world and sell his services to foreigners, from the fishwife to the imperial potentate. He would send a portion of his earnings back to the institution that had raised, trained, tyrannized, and freed him: the mountaintop city-state of Starling & Shrike.

He was waiting for some kind of state official to give him his outbrief. This was to include a contract arranged by the Starling & Shrike government on his behalf. His very first contract. The test of fourteen years of training. A test of his character.

He still wore a variant of the city-state's traditional garb. A loose, white Henley shirt, black slacks and black wingtips. A silver belt buckle and a silver semiautomatic .45 caliber pistol holstered just above his left thigh.

There was an ornate samovar of coffee in the center of the table. Jon drank it black out of a porcelain teacup which steamed across his face as he gazed into the snow.

The door opened.  A lean, hard, weathered man in a brown tweed blazer and khaki slacks walked in. He had only one arm, with which he was carrying a steel briefcase upholstered with light brown leather. He had a silvery beard and wore thin square spectacles. He kicked the door shut with his heel.

Yoshitaka Amano

Jon recognized this man. George Currant. He had spoken at Graduation. He was a member of the Council Inspectors, a cadre of a dozen experienced field agents who no longer took contracts abroad, instead devoting themselves to important missions for the Council. They were the executors of state, and the city’s Internal Affairs squad.

Dark folk. Killers par excellence.

Jon knew that every one of them had encountered the inexplicable, the supernatural at some point in their lives. This was a prerequisite for membership. Some of them bore unlikely and numinous wounds.

They kept their own counsel.

Jon stood. The Inspector set his briefcase on the table and shook Jon’s hand. “George Currant. Pleased to meet you, Jon. Have a seat and let’s do this thing.”

The Inspector popped his briefcase open and began thumbing through some papers, glancing down here and there.

"According to friends of mine at the schoolhouse you’re a real stud in some ways, but you need to mind your P’s and Q’s. You’re supposed to be adaptable and creative, but apparently you kind of suck at laying groundwork for your practice ops. Word is you tend to fuck up paper trails for cover identities and you flunked the financial investigation course once and almost failed it a second time too." He looked up over his glasses. "Watch out for that shit. Find somebody who’s good at that and lean on them if you have to. Don’t try to take it all on yourself if fucking it up would blow your mission."

"Yes, Inspector."

"The good news is you’re a whiz in the shoothouse, so I guess you’ve got some leeway when your cover story doesn't cut the mustard. You’ll get your cherry popped sooner or later."

Artist Uncertain

He looked down into his briefcase and started going through papers again.

"So here’s what’s gonna happen. I’m gonna give you some contracts to look through and you’re gonna pick one that you think you can handle. We can talk about it and get you comfortable moving forward, I’ll tell you how I’d go about it, and you can ask questions. Once you sign, I’ll head to the quartermaster’s office and arrange your tickets and gear. Then I’ll come back and take you to the airstrip, and you’re up, off and away. Any questions? Anything about me and why I’m the guy telling you all this?"

"Well I was wondering, you were with the Kindler people when the Centrifier Cities invaded their homeland, right Inspector? In the mountains?"

"Yep. Yeah, I was, actually. Me and Joe Carter and Tom Wimbley. We lived with the Kindlers in their villages. We ate their food. We learned their customs. We bled together side by side. You never have a bond like that with anyone, not ever again, except maybe with your own family. Yeah, we did everything we could from- for them. Didn’t matter we’d come from a city of stone on a mountaintop and just floated down out of the sky. Didn’t matter they were hill people who didn’t even wear shoes. Their guns were the only high-tech they had. God, we stacked up Centrifiers. These were warriors we were living with. They knew the hills. We…"

He trailed off. He began to cry quietly.

Jon said, "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought that up."

The Inspector wiped his eyes inwards with his thumb and forefinger. "Yeah, well…"

He sat with his eyes closed and sobbed silently for a few moments. He held the bridge of his nose with his fingertips for a little while, then opened his eyes, which were raw but steady.

"Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?"

Jon nodded.

The Inspector drew an alligator skin folding ledger from his briefcase and opened it in his hand.

"We’ve had a whole wad of choice contracts come through this week. I've ‘curated’ a few for you here. Read these over and let me know which of them you find the most interesting. Go ahead and ask questions. These all pay about the same, in case you were wondering. When I give a new cat a spread of prices he usually feels like he’s gotta pick the highest one cause it must be the hardest. Don’t get used to thinking like that. No one knows how to price contracts but you. You’ll get a feel for what your time’s worth once you get your feet wet."

He laid a few papers side by side before Jon.

"First, the ‘Grand Duke’ of Periapt… his wives have been disappearing, and he’s not super geeked about that…

Maxwell Landry, he was around when I was a kid. Shipping guy. Wants to investigate the Anarcho-Syndicalists in Thanofane… guess he’s afraid they’re gonna turn his longshoremen sour.

Lastly… the City of Diadem. The International Aviation Society’s having a summit in Diadem a week and a half from now and they’re worried about security. They want a roving Starling & Shrike agent going around sniffing people’s balls during the leadup to the grand gala. So you can scoop that up if you want."

"An Aviation Summit, Inspector? So… there'll be a lot of airplanes there?"


"Woah…" he picked up the contract and fixed his eyes on it. The Council Inspector stared at him.

Jon put the paper down and took his hands off it.

"Ok, so…"

"Have you been to flight school?"

"No, Inspector."

"Then don’t worry about that. Focus on what you’ll be doing for each contract. It won’t be flying airplanes."

"Acknowledged, Inspector. I just think they’re beautiful."

"What are your questions?"

Akiya Kageichi 

"The Grand Duke of Periapt. His wives have been disappearing… is that serially, or several at a time?"

"The latter. So, polygamy’s not the norm in Periapt but he insists on having multiple wives. The local clergy cut him off at eight. He said that a man of his virility and stature requires that many nubile maidens. The clergy told him to get his pecker under control or they’d excommunicate his ass and let the lay nobility have at him. Don’t ask me how he can stand eight wives, I can barely handle one. What else."

Jon leaned his elbows on his thighs and clasped his hands together.

"The Syndicalists. We learned about them in Ideologies, but I’m wondering how exactly they fit into Thanofane. It’s a crypt-city. It’s a place where they bury important people from cultures with ancestor worship or hero cults."

"It’s not just for important people, but yeah, they do that there. Look, Thanofane’s a city, right, they have the same shit as any other city. Streets, sewers, construction companies, you see what I’m saying. There’s a port, too. Isabel Industries, that’s Landry’s company, it’s based there. Shipping and warehousing. So the Syndies, they’re all over the continent but they’re sort of split right now. Weird situation."

"How so?"

"Do you know about the City of Leagues? Used to be broken up into guilds. I mean broken up like they were fighting in the streets when I was your age. Then along comes a guy, I can’t remember his name, and he sort of takes a leaf out of Syndicalism and organizes the guilds along a very similar format. So it turns out to be kind of a peacemaking miracle, they get back on track, everyone’s very psyched about it, kumbaya. So this guy, let’s call him Bob, says, ‘this thing worked, so let’s help all the guilds out there organize and get their shit straightened out, prices and contracts, so that you can stop all this bickering and be productive.’"

Jon nodded.

"Long story short they start sending out advisors to help guilds in other cities get their shit together, they called it the International Guilder Front, and along the way they started helping out the Syndicalists too. Thought it was a similar enough concept, I guess. But they included the Anarcho-Syndicalists in their aid program. Well, governments like guilds when they’re working correctly, but they don’t like Anarchists, and vice versa, and capitalists don’t like Syndicalists, and vice versa, so now it’s turned into a whole shit sandwich and no one knows how to take the first bite."

"I can see that. And the Syndicalists don’t like us. ‘Labor spies.’"

"Yeah, but I think this whole thing goes way deeper than some class war bullshit. Who knows how deep. See, things have been getting weird in Leagues and it’s been making the guilds and the Anarcho-Syndicalists start to sweat a little bit. They love the help they’re getting, but they don’t like the demands that the Leagues cadre have started placing on them these last few months."

"What kind of stuff?"

"Well, the advisors from Leagues have always made bombastic speeches to the guilds and the Syndicalist work crews, but lately they’ve been getting screwy. Millenarian. Saying that ‘the inevitable final state of their movement’ is a world machine that’ll make a product that we moderns can’t fathom in our ignorance. But that it will naturally make itself known once the world’s production lines have all been brought together and synchronized in harmony. "


"Yeah. I read a transcript and they were saying shit like, ‘Every Syndicalist is a dollop of grease and the logs of the final factory will skid across him. Every Guilder is a strut in the final factory and it will arise from him when all the makers of the world have been united within the penultimate enterprise.’"


"Yeah. The guild chiefs still have their good humor about these ‘proclamations’, but the Syndies aren’t too thrilled at all."

"What do you make of it? Mercury poisoning?"

"Yeah maybe, but I think they’re still a little bit too organized for that. Everything’s getting more and more ritualized. Lots of new rules promulgated by that ‘Bob’ cat and his head shed in Leagues per the reports. Shit like how you have to do meetings if you’re getting Leagues aid. Precise movements, recitations, placing lodestones and fires just so before you can start. My gang’s had powwows about how we can PSYOP the local chapters who are disgruntled by all this crazy shit. For now the guilds and syndies all seem to be going along with it. That money and machinery from Leagues is sweet."

"That is interesting."

"But you’re still thinking about airplanes, right?"

"I have to admit that I am still thinking about Diadem, Inspector."

"Ok. I’m gonna give you a few pointers and then we can rubber-stamp it, sound good?"

"Yes, Inspector."

"So, we have great relations with Diadem. Big ally. The cash payout from this op will actually come from the Starling & Shrike Council because it falls under our security pact with Diadem. What that means for you is that you don’t need to make a big show of selling yourself. You’re a known quantity. They won’t give a shit that you’re fresh out of the schoolhouse. All S&S detectives are hot fucking shit as far as most clients are concerned. Just go in, tell the Lord Mayor you’ve arrived, try and find out just what his intent is, what your left and right limits are, and then get to work finding out if someone's about to turn the Summit into a giant flaming clusterfuck. See if they’ve got any leads or suspicions, and have at it. You’re good to pack your forty-five, but don’t ask me to sign you out any grenades or submachine guns. I get asked that sometimes."

He indicated Jon’s elegant traditional clothes.

"Now, you can go in your black-and-whites but I suggest you don’t. You don’t need to impress them and walking around like you’re part of some Starling & Shrike deputation is just gonna warn everyone that there’s a fox in the henhouse."

"Acknowledged, Inspector. I’ll just act like I’m there for the Summit. If I do find out for sure that someone’s plotting something against the Summit, would you try and take them in right away, or take the time to get the gendarmes first?"

"Like everything, it depends. Check with the Lord Mayor and the gendarmerie once you get there. As an Inspector, I’m inclined to say that if you find out a guy’s in on some tomfoolery, you grease his fucking ass if he makes one false move. Even with all your training you wouldn’t believe how fast someone can get the drop on you, and tracking somebody in a city isn’t as easy as they make it sound. Besides, Diadem’s not like Ascension where it’s an unforgivable crime to fart in public. They’re gonna want you to do your job. If you whack some fuckers who are planning to steal their babies and you make a big mess, they’re still gonna love you. That’s not not the case everywhere, so good question."

"Acknowledged, Inspector."

"That all being said, if the summit goes off without a hitch there’s a nice bonus in it for you. There’s also an emergent kill/capture bounty for notional plotters, but don’t go chasing bottom line when your life’s on the line. Take the weregild. Speaking of which, let’s go over terms."

He looked over the contract through his spectacles.

"Twenty-five ounces of triple nine gold for hunter-gather security services until the conclusion of the International Aviation Society Summit in Diadem. An extra ten ounces if it goes off without any hostile incidents resulting in injury to the public. Five ounces for receipt of live, proven plotters, and two and a half ounces per valid stiff."

He looked up. "That’s a few chicken dinners. In my day you were lucky to get half that on your first gig."

"Acknowledged, Inspector."

Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Currant sat back in silence for a few moments.

"So… since you’re going to Diadem, I’m gonna bring something up that I would have left be otherwise. I deal with a lot of the new guys coming out the gate. I keep up with some of them. Others just kind of disappear out into their own adventures. But I do keep tabs on a few of them if I think I need to. You know, see how they’re doing. If they’re staying on the straight and narrow. Lot of temptation when you get out there after fourteen years in the schoolhouse.

There was a kid who came through here about six months ago on his way into the world. Daniel Stanton. Weird kid. Had a lot of ‘concerning behaviors’ listed in his profile. Homicidal ideation written into his practice reports. Weird outbursts on kids he was jealous of. Obsession with weapons once he got to that phase. Just generally saying fucked up shit and getting disciplined a lot. Wasn’t surprised when I met him. You could smell the hate coming off him from a mile away. Kid talked to me like he thought I was some kind of venomous insect. He talked like everyone was.

He bailed on his first op and left us holding the bag. Lost track of him after that. He hasn’t been back to Starling & Shrike since, and he hasn’t taken any contracts that we’re aware of, either.

Last week he popped up in Diadem. Our Contracting Officer recognized him from a civics class that he taught when he was doing a broadening assignment. Stanton was going by the name of 'Judas Pinkerton.' Needless to say we didn’t extend the Aviation Summit contract to him."

"That’s pretty suspicious," said Jon.

"It’s very suspicious. Listen. If something happens and you’ve gotta knock that cat off, then no harm, no foul. Just let me know. It’ll stay between us, and in the unlikely event that it doesn’t then I’ll have your back and so will every other Inspector. Or, if you catch him with a hand in some greasy shit, lock his ass up and drop me a telegram that you could use some hands-on advisement in Diadem. I’ll come and take his ass away and that’ll be that."

"Acknowledged, Inspector. Would there be some kind of problem if he was implicated in a crime and we just brought him back here to face a tribunal?"

"Yeah. I’ve dealt with motherfuckers who were wrong the way he was wrong before. They’re slippery, and what you bring against ‘em doesn’t always stick, so they go back to their ways and then they know you’re on to ‘em. No one can disappear like a Starling & Shrike agent, even some cherry who just got out of the schoolhouse. So you take your chance when you get it, because you don’t know what they’ll do once they get free. And rogue agents, corrupt motherfuckers, turncoats bring shame and dishonor on Starling & Shrike. Make people cynical about the whole enterprise when they hear about what’s been done. Including our people. So we handle our own."

"Acknowledged, Inspector."

"All right then. Initial there and there, and then sign at the x."

He signed. Inspector Currant shook his hand and then left to arrange the flight.

Jon sat, gazing into the snow.

If I run into Daniel Stanton in Diadem, what will I do?

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Art - First Run