It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 5: Tough Charity

Time for another installment of It Came From My Hard Drive. These are short, high-fantasy vignettes I wrote for Goodman Games around ten years ago. They were used to introduce chapters in various RPG supplements I was working on at the time. This one comes from a book called Hero’s Handbook: Tieflings. If you haven’t been playing Dungeons & Dragons for most of your adult life, you’re likely wondering what the hell a tiefling is. Short answer: tieflings are folks who have a demon or a devil somewhere in their family lineage. In this book, we took the approach that every tiefling is descended from a powerful devil associated with one of the seven deadly sins. The idea is that a tiefling character would try to overcome the temptations and urges of their infernal blood and work toward becoming heroes.

Anyay, this short vignette introduces the chapter about tieflings descended from Mammon, the devil of greed.

Tough Charity

Tarro emptied the coin purse into his hand, curling six long fingers around the platinum coins. One hundred eighty gold pieces, he counted the gold equivalent of the platinum in his head. It took me thirty-four days to accumulate this money. The tiefling stared across Dhavosin’s main road to the squat temple of Elyr. A white-robed priest stood outside the plain brick walls with a wooden collection tray, entreating passersby to donate to the church. The money Tarro held in his hand, earned from adventuring, would feed and clothe the children and other destitute souls within the temple for most of the year. He scratched a spot between his horns, a spot that bore the invisible mark of Mammon, the great devil whose blood and avaricious nature were part of his being.

“Come on, lad,” Rodren said beside him. The stocky dwarven warrior was two feet shorter than Tarro but half again as wide. His ruddy, bearded face beamed up at the tiefling, his eyes full of pride and hope for his devil-tainted companion. “All you have to do is walk over there, put the money in the collection tray, and you’re done. It’s that easy.”

Tarro set off across the street, his dwarven companion in tow. “Are you sure this temple will use these funds appropriately?” he asked.

Rodren chuckled. “Tarro, it’s a temple of Elyr, the god of charity. “I don’t think the priests are like to run down to the nearest brothel with it.”

Tarro frowned but could think of nothing that would contradict Rodren’s appraisal of Elyr’s clergy.

The Elyran priest saw them coming, and his eyes widened in alarm. It wasn’t every day a tiefling warlock and a dwarven warrior paid a visit to the poor house. “My good sirs,” the priest said and bowed, his voice trembling. “Blessings of Elyr upon you.”

“Good day to you, your Holiness,” Rodren said, using a title meant for a high priest on what was obviously a simple lay cleric. “My friend has an offering he’d like to make.”

“Oh?” the priest said and cast a critical eye on the horned, scaly tiefling standing in front of him, grimacing, as if in pain. “Elyr is always glad to accept charity . . . from anyone.”

Tarro grunted in reply and glanced at the collection tray. Eight copper pennies and two silver stars rested on its worn surface, not nearly enough to feed the orphans and other poor folk who lived in the temple. He thrust his hand out, causing the priest to jerk back, likely expecting some dire enchantment from the black-robed tiefling.

“Here,” Tarro said through clenched teeth and opened his fist. Platinum coins fell onto the collection tray with a clatter.

The priest’s eyes grew huge and round at the sight of the money. “Elyr bless you, my son! What would possess you to part with so much?”

Tarro opened his mouth to reply, but Rodren answered for him. “Don’t mind the horns and scales, your Holiness. Tarro’s a good sort, and he likes to give back now and then. It’s good for the soul. Right, Tarro?”

“Absolutely.” Tarro said, unable to look away from the mound of platinum on the collection tray. Finally, he smiled up at the Elyran priest, flashing a mouthful of crooked fangs. “Can I get a receipt?”

If you’d like to check out the other vignette’s in this series, click here:

  1. It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 1 – The High Road
  2. It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 2 – The Challenge
  3. It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 3 – A Red Night
  4. It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 4 – A Pointed Education

It Came From My Hard Drive Part 4 – A Pointed Education

Here’s another little vignette I wrote for a Dungeons & Dragon supplement that never made it into print. This one would have been the introduction to a character build focused on throwing weapons. It’s one of those pieces that’s always left me wondering what happened to the characters, and maybe there’s a longer story in here somewhere. Anyway, it’s called “A Pointed Education,” and like the rest of these, it’s high fantasy, dwarves and elves kind of stuff.

A Pointed Education

“Master, would it not be better to take up our axes and blades and face the enemy in honorable battle?” Arimus asked. The dwarven youth’s lips were turned up in a smirk as he balanced a practice javelin in one thick-fingered hand. “My father always said that missile weapons were for elves and cowards not true warriors.”

The other students had been pulling their own practice javelins from a row of vaguely anthropomorphic straw targets, and all turned to look at the insolent Arimus, as he prepared to match wits and wills with Master Iocretian again. A hush settled over the small practice range – anything that broke the monotony of daily drill was highly regarded.

Iocretian, the aging dragonborn master peltast, continued to pull his javelins – real ones with barbed heads – out of one of the straw targets. Once he had gathered his six missiles, each of which had struck the center of the target from nearly sixty paces away, he turned to regard his most difficult student with a toothy grin.

“Well, Arimus, your father may have a point there,” Iocretian said, scratching the spines at the base of his chin as if considering the dwarf’s words. “However, I seem to remember it was an orc javelin and not a battleaxe that pierced your father’s skull during the battle of Gulgur’s Canyon. Pity that orc wasn’t versed in the ways of ‘honorable combat’ like your poor sire.”

Arimus’ face turned bright red, his cheeks flaming through the fuzz of his first beard. It was a brutal riposte by the master peltast, and the other students shrank away from the awful truth of Iocretian’s words.

“My father was a hero!” The young dwarf shouted, tears filling his eyes. “He killed fifty orcs that day in Gulgur’s Canyon, and I’ll fight anyone who says different!”

Iocretian’s face softened, and his scales seemed to sag more than usual. He knelt down to the fuming Arimus and put one clawed hand on the young dwarf’s shoulder. “Arimus,” he said. “No one is claiming your father is a coward. Only a fool would name Utren Stoneaxe so. But you must understand your uncle sent you to me so you don’t suffer a similar fate as your father.”

“To die in battle?” Arimus said, his eyes now filled with stubborn pride. “There is no greater glory.”

“No, you young fool,” Iocretian said and cupped the dwarf’s bearded face. “Your uncle didn’t want you to die young like your father because he couldn’t be flexible in battle.”

“I don’t understand,” Arimus said, hurt and anger still staining his words. “My father was a skilled warrior.”

“Yes, your father was as skilled warrior, but he knew axe and shield and straight-into-the-teeth-of-the-enemy and not much else. Think, boy! If you’re father could have thrown a hammer or a javelin with the same skill he wielded his axe, it would be him teaching you the ways of a dwarven warrior and not your uncle and me.”

Arimus opened his mouth to reply, then shut it, his eyes wary but intrigued.

“Yes, now you understand,” Iocretian said with another toothy grin. “Flexibility, boy. Adaptation. These are the traits that will ultimately lead you to victory in battle not just a ‘glorious death’ in your first skirmish. Learn the way of the axe, learn the way of the shield, but let me show you a trick or two as well.”

“i’m . . . I’m sorry, master,” Arimus said softly, and then found something very interesting to look at between his feet.

“Keep your apologies, boy,” Iocretian said. “I’d rather have you hit that target more than three out of six casts.”

Arimus smiled. He had been the only student to hit his target three times, and the backhanded acknowledgement of that feat was not lost on him. “Yes, master, four at least on my next try. I promise.”

“Then let’s see it . . . young warrior.”

It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 3 – A Red Night

Once again I’ve delved deep into the digital ruins of my hard drive and unearthed a tidbit of ancient fiction. Well, seven years ancient, but it’s never been read by anyone. (You’ll have to decide if it should have stayed that way.) This is yet another piece from when I was an RPG designer/writer/editor for Goodman Games (posted with their kind permission). Like the others in this series, “The High Road” and “The Challenge,” this is from an unpublished manuscript for a player-oriented 4E Dungeons & Dragons supplement. Also, like the others, this is a vignette meant to introduce a gaming concept through the narrative, in this case a wresting/boxing-type option for the the fighter class. (I know, grappling; what was I thinking?)

As I was reading this thing for the first time in seven years, I realized it’s a Robert E. Howard (Conan) pastiche (sincere apologies to REH fans). I can’t remember if that was on purpose or not, but there you have it. Anyway, this one is called “A Red Night,” and it comes with the usual warnings for this series. It’s basically a first draft, high fantasy world, blah, blah, blah.

A Red Night

Narl studied his target from across the crowded tavern, barely noticing the noise and stink of the Wastrel’s patrons. A full tankard sat untouched on the stained table in front of the half-orc assassin, but he was not drinking. This was a red night, and he needed to keep his wits sharp to complete his contract, for this was no ordinary target. This was no fat priest or slovenly merchant with muscles of sodden dough and fighting skills that would shame a child. This target was dangerous.

His name was Bjorngar the Great, an infamous pirate captain whose moniker Narl had found ridiculous until he’d seen the northerner in the flesh. Narl was hardly small, but Bjorngar dwarfed him. The massive human was well over seven feet tall and had to be three hundred and fifty pounds at least, most of it iron muscle by the look of him. To make matters worse, the red-haired pirate was armed with a long-hafted executioner’s axe, a weapon far too massive for anyone without Bjorngar’s strength and size to wield properly. If his sources were correct, and they usually were, his target could swing that axe with a skill that bordered on supernatural.

Despite his target’s physical advantages, Narl was not overly concerned. Bjorngar lacked the training of a Black Throat assassin, training that had turned Narl’s body into a living weapon more than a match for the best armed and armored warrior. Plus, he had another advantage: Bjorngar had been drinking steadily for the better part of the night. Most of his crew had either retired or lay in a drunken coma around their humongous captain, who sat behind a graveyard of empty flagons.

The giant northerner suddenly lurched to his feet, lurched around the heaped and snoring bodies of his crew, and then staggered toward the tavern’s front door. It was what Narl had been waiting for, and when Bjorngar walked out into the night, the assassin counted to thirty then followed.

The Wastrel was one of the more popular taverns in the port district, and this late at night, it was one of the few businesses still open. When Narl stepped outside, Bjorngar was nowhere in sight, but he soon heard the sound of piss splashing against brick in the alley next to the Wastrel. He crept into the concealing shadows of the narrow corridor of trash-strewn dirt that connected Eel Shadow Road and the Way of the Mermaid. Business and personal dwellings crowded in on either side, blocking the silver glow of the moon and creating a stretch of blackness that was nearly complete. Narl’s orcish blood allowed him to see in the gloom, and he spied his mark a short way down the alley, leaning against the wall and voiding enough steaming urine to fill a horse trough. The great oaf had left his weapon in the tavern.

Narl smiled. At no time was a man more vulnerable than when he had his most prized possession in hand. The half-orc glided toward his target, his massive hands outstretched to seize Bjorngar from behind. From there he would lock his arms around the big northerner’s bull neck, and not even Bjorngar the Great’s great strength would save him from being throttled to death. He was within a few feet of Bjorngar, who was still doing his best to piss a hole in the stone wall of the Wastrel, when the northerner whirled around, spraying Narl with a shower of warm urine. The disgusting assault caused him to recoil for an instant, long enough for his foe to reach out with one apishly long arm and grab him by the throat.

Bjorngar’s grip was like a steel vice, and Narl realized his target was not as drunk as he should be. He twisted like an eel, momentarily slipping free, but again, the northerner’s absurdly long reach allowed him to lock his fingers around Narl’s shoulder and pull him back and off-balance. He became alarmingly aware his opponent was not only far larger and stronger than he, but he was also no stranger to unarmed fighting. With a twist of his hips and feet, Bjorngar spun Narl around and pulled him into a bear hug, locking both gargantuan arms around the half-orc’s back. Narl squirmed and fought, slamming his fists into Bjorngar’s head and shoulders, but the pirate’s strength was unrelenting.

“I’ve always wanted to try my strength against one of you Black Throat killers,” Bjorngar said, blowing ale-sodden breath into Narl’s face, and grinning. “I’ll be very disappointed if you’re the best they have.” The northerner’s grip tightened, crushing the breath from Narl’s lung’s and turning his shout for help into a weak, rattling gasp. He slipped into darkness to Bjorngar’s booming laughter and the sound of his vertebrae snapping like rotten twigs.

It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 2 – The Challenge

Here’s another tidbit from ancient history, back from the days when I was working full-time as an RPG designer/writer/editor for Goodman Games. Like the first vignette in this series, “The High Road,” this one comes from an unpublished manuscript for a player-oriented supplement for 4E Dungeons & Dragons. Also, like the previous entry, this tiny tale is meant to introduce a new rules system for the game in a narrative fashion (the crunchy bits came directly after the vignette).

This one is called “The Challenge,” and, like the “The High Road,” it’s high-fantasy, sword & sorcery type stuff. Oh, and like the last one, this one is in a first draft-ish kind of way.

The Challenge 

Karog brought the axe down with a satisfied grunt. His victim’s head came away from his neck in a warm, red spray, and Karog kicked the twitching corpse off the butcher’s block he’d been using as a makeshift executioner’s slab. Two of his men hurried forward to drag the body away.

The half-orc wiped blood from his face and breastplate and offered a tusk-filled smile to the remaining townsfolk of Harvest Tide, herded together before him and staring in open-mouthed horror at the carnage in their town square. His men stood behind the crowd, weapons drawn, faces and armor caked in the blood and soot of their conquest.

They’d ridden into Harvest Tide at dawn, drawn by rumors of an adventurer who had retired in the village with fabulous wealth. There had been little resistance, and Karog and his twenty followers had looted and slaughtered for a full day, but they had not found the treasure they sought.

“Right,” Karog said. “That’s fourteen of you sorry sons of whores dead by my axe because you fools won’t tell me where the treasure is hidden. Will it take fourteen more?” Karog grinned; nothing made him feel more alive than murder. “Or, if one you is brave enough to step on out here and stop me …” He let his last statement sink in–the absurdity of one of these bumpkins actually fighting him was just too rich. “I thought not,” Karog said after moments of silence. “Okay, Yarl, bring me the mayor—“

“What assurances do we have your men will leave us in peace once you are defeated?” a voice called out.

Karog’s yellow eyes narrowed. “Which of you dead men said that?” he said, searching the crowd of frightened faces for the speaker.

“I did.” A slim figure moved through the crowd and into the blood-soaked square.

Karog threw his head back and laughed. The elven man stood just under six feet in height–tall for an elf–and wore a simple leather kilt and a rough spun shirt. His feet were bare, and he was unarmed.

“I am Eodain,” the elven man said. “If I defeat you here, now, will your men leave this town?”

“Defeat me with what?!” A chorus of derisive laughter burst from Karog’s men; laughter tinged with greedy anticipation of more bloodshed. “I’ll tell you what, Eodain,” Karog said after the laughter had subsided. “If you defeat me, my men will leave Harvest Tide like a herd of gentle lambs.” He looked around at the band of thugs and cutthroats that followed him. “Right, men?” More laughter.

“Swear upon Nygor, and I’ll believe you,” Eodain said softly, his emerald eyes boring into Karog’s.

The half-orc reflexively grasped the holy symbol of his god where it dangled from an iron chain around his neck. The joy he had felt moments before drained away, leaving only cold, murderous anger. A promise made to Nygor the Nightbringer, the bloody god he and his gang of bandits followed, was the only thing that would hold them to their word. The fact that Eodain had known that poked holes of white-hot rage in the thin veil of Karog’s self-control.

Karog’s men had grown silent at the request. Invoking the Nightbringer’s name was no mean thing, and all of them, Karog included, feared the deity’s wrath. “Very well,” Karog said between clenched teeth. “I swear upon the wings of Nygor my men will leave this village in peace if you defeat me.”

“Good enough,” Eodain said. “Let us begin.”

“Gladly.” Karog surged forward, axe in a two-handed grip. He meant to end the life of his unarmed, unarmored opponent with one brutal strike.

Eodain had other things in mind.

Karog had never seen anyone move so fast. His opponent whirled away from his blow with a liquid grace, letting the axe flash through the empty air where his neck and head had been a heartbeat earlier. Missing with the heavy strike caused Karog to lose his balance and stumble forward. He was a veteran of a hundred battles, though, and he regained his footing swiftly and turned to deliver another strike with his axe.

This time Eodain did not move away. The elf shout out a lithe, muscular arm and caught Karog’s axe by the haft as it descended, halting the blow with bewildering strength. Then, Karog’s opponent, whom he outweighed by nearly two hundred pounds, punched him in the face.

It was like being struck with a battering ram. Karog’s bones and teeth shattered like glass beneath the impact, and the rough cobblestones felt like a father bed in comparison as he crashed down upon them, stunned and bleeding. He struggled to suck air through his pulped nose and mouth, and only his bubbling breath broke the silence that had bloomed around him. Above, the stoic face of Eodain loomed, his thin lips set in a slight frown. The elf held something shiny between his fingers.

“This is what you seek, Karog,” Eodain said and tossed the single gold piece onto the half-orc’s breastplate. “My treasure.”

Karog fought down a tide of frantic laughter and tried to move, but a sharp pain at the base of his skull and the spreading numbness throughout his body told him Eodain’s strike had done much worse than break a few teeth.

“Quickly,” Karog whispered as Eodain again loomed over him, this time with his own axe in both fists–fists Karog now saw were little more than clubs of callus and scars.

“Gladly,” Eodain said and brought the axe down.

It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 1 – The High Road

I’ve been working in the tabletop gaming industry for over ten years. In that time, I’ve written more RPG adventures, supplements, and bits of game-related fiction than I can easily count. While most of that stuff was published in one form or another, some of it never saw the light of day. I have entire manuscripts for 100-page RPG supplements collecting digital dust on my hard drive, and I found a few recently I thought I might share. Well, parts of them anyway.

One of the publishers I used to work for was Goodman Games, a great company run by a great guy, Joseph Goodman. They’re doing some awesome stuff right now with their Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and I most definitely urge you to check them out. Anyway, around 2009, I wrote or co-wrote a bunch of player-centric Dungeons & Dragons supplements for Goodman Games. Two of them were never published, and they included a bunch of short fiction vignettes I’ve always liked. With Joseph Goodman’s kind permission, I’m going to post some of them here.

These really are vignettes, not full stories, and they were meant to introduce a gaming concept (usually a new class option for players of 4E D&D). They’re also what you’d call high, epic fantasy. Oh, and these are kind of first draft-y, so, you know, cut me some slack.

Here’s the first one.

The High Road

Tarnak snorted in irritation when he saw the two dwarven warriors standing in the middle of the road, blocking his path. Both were armed with short-hafted battleaxes and wore sturdy coats of riveted mail. Each dwarf also carried a heavy wooden shield nearly as tall as the warrior behind it.

“This is King Ivar’s road, beast,” one of the dwarven warriors called out. “Your kind has no business on it.”

Tarnak wasn’t overly surprised at the dwarves’ reaction. He was a minotaur and that meant ‘monster’ to most. No matter he had served in the dwarf king Ivar Stonehammer’s armies as an auxiliary field commander. No matter he had personally led the charge that shattered Azagar Bloodfist’s goblin horde in the Battle of Ivory Plateau, assuring victory for the dwarven monarch whose name was now used to reinforce dwarven bigotry.

He set the head of his poleaxe on the ground, letting the haft rest against his shoulder. He took his hands off the weapon and held them out, palms up. “I understand your concern, and your dedication to protecting the road is admirable,” he said. Tarnak had learned long ago those who showed him the most prejudice expected a violent response from his kind, a stereotype he was not about to enforce. “I have papers from the court of your noble king proving I am his servant. Will you let me show them to you?”

Both dwarves scowled but said nothing. This was not the response they had expected . . . or wanted.

Tarnak took advantage of the dwarves’ silence and dug into his pouch for the writ of passage bearing King Ivar’s personal seal. “I promise, if you give me a moment, I can prove—”

“We’re not interested in your forgeries, beast,” one warriors said. He was the older of the two, his beard long, braided, and streaked with gray.

Tarnak stopped looking for the writ. “You would bar passage to a servant of your king on simple bigotry?”

The older dwarf’s face twisted into an ugly frown. “If bigotry means keeping the likes of you off roads used by decent folk, then aye, I’m a bigot,” he said and shifted his shield into a more comfortable and battle-ready position. “The only way you get by the two of us, ghrakha” – the dwarven word for ‘animal’ was not lost on Tarnak ­– “is with an axe between your horns.”

Tarnak sighed and lifted his poleaxe from the ground. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

The elder dwarf smiled and turned to his companion. “Uthar, let me show how you how to deal with a big lummox like this.”

“Take him down, Borgrim,” the younger dwarf said, grinning.

“Oh, this is exactly what I want, beast,” the dwarf named Borgrim said and started forward, axe held high, shield tucked beneath his bearded chin.

Tarnak let the dwarf advance and took his poleaxe in a fighting grip, one hand below the axe head and the other on the worn haft some two feet below that. He spread his legs and let the weight of his body settle evenly over his stance.

Borgrim’s advance turned into a charge, and he dropped his axe low to his side, where he could more easily strike at his opponent’s legs–classic dwarven fighting technique. The stout race had been battling creatures bigger than themselves for millennia, and every dwarven warrior had learned that ogres, trolls, and minotaurs were easier to dispatch when cut down to a more manageable height. But Tarnak had been fighting alongside dwarves for years, and he was well versed in their battle strategies. He took a step back and whipped his poleaxe up over his head, letting both hands slide to the end of the weapon’s haft, then he brought the axe down with every ounce of strength he possessed.

Tarnak’s great reach allowed his blow to strike first, halting his opponent’s advance for a crucial second as the dwarf caught the axe head on his shield. Borgrim had likely anticipated the attack, but he had underestimated the power behind it.  Tarnak’s poleaxe smashed through the dwarf’s shield with a loud crack of splintered wood, then it parted the mail between Borgrim’s head and shoulder, cut through the thick padded gambeson he wore beneath it, and finally plowed a ragged swath through his body, lodging in his breastbone with a hollow, metallic thump.

Borgrim remained standing, his weapon dangling from nerveless fingers, eyes as big as saucers, Tarnak’s axe still buried in his body—it was all that was keeping him upright. Tarnak put a hoof on the dwarf’s chest and ripped his axe free. Blood sprayed from the hideous wound, splattering Tarnak’s face and tunic. Borgrim toppled forward onto the shattered ruin of his shield, dead before he hit the ground.

The remaining dwarf looked on, mouth agape, his weapon forgotten at his side. Tarnak advanced, his axe still red and dripping.

“P-please don’t kill me,” the dwarf said as Tarnak approached. He dropped his axe and shield in the middle of the road.

The minotaur bent down and pushed his horned head close to the young dwarf’s bearded face. He was barely more than an adolescent. “Uthar is it?”

The dwarf nodded, tears brimming in his eyes.

“I will tell you something, so you may learn from this day,” Tarnak said. “All the wood and iron in the world cannot stop a minotaur’s axe at full swing.” He straightened, towering over the young dwarf. “Sometimes you need to get out of the way.”