This article was submitted by NUPSA Project Officer and geek extraordinaire, Hugh Milligan.
Lady Nyssara Tempesta stared morosely out the window of the carriage as it trundled through the forest. It was already well into the evening; there was little to see in the torchlight but sickly, emaciated branches, scratching at the woodwork as they passed.
Hands folded in her lap, she kept her eyes on the gloom. It was a more welcome sight than the cramped interior: to her right was seated a roguish foreigner in merchant’s leather (Varisian, at a guess), nursing an elaborate pistol against his thigh. Across from her, a dwarf with a stein-shaped scar on her face, gripping with both hands the pommel of a hammer at least as tall as she was. And beside the dwarf, a grubby ink-smudge of a boy, dressed in little more than rags, who gaped at her in curiosity every time she glanced at him.
From outside, she heard the snort and canter of the horses, the rustle of trees. The wheel hit a pothole, and the entire carriage shook as if it might come apart at any moment. She held her breath.
Nyssara was on her way to a funeral. She wondered briefly if it might be her own.
I’ve always been a geek. From my earliest days in kindergarten, all the way through high school, university and well into adulthood, my life has been measured out in stages by whatever comic book, sci-fi series, card deck or video game I was obsessed with at the time.
Sonic the Hedgehog comics. X-Men trading cards. (I still have a complete, mint-condition set tucked away in a folder, which made me deity incarnate back in 1995). Life-or-death Pokémon battles in the playground. Twinsen’s Odyssey – married to a constant, terrifying nausea, since I played it in a hotel room for two weeks while stricken with giardia on a family holiday.
Warcraft. Starcraft. Warcraft 2. Starcraft 2. World of Warcraft, to which I committed more intellectual energy throughout high school and university than any of my actual assignments. And Super Smash Bros., of course: a video game series that has matured about as much as I have in the past twenty years.
I cannot overstate the comfort these things brought me as a child, and then as a teenager. They were pure imagination, sweet relief, fantastical escape. Reality was dreary by comparison; I felt more at home in Link’s tunic and leather boots or Emma Frost’s impeccable couture than my own school uniform – more sure of myself, more in control.
And I loved stories. To read them and, eventually, to write them. Even now, I’m working on a sci-fi novel (a process I’ve previously written about here and here, if you’re interested) that’s tied heavily to Greek mythology – something else I’m a total geek about.
Yes, I’ve always been a geek. Never was it otherwise.
My childhood. I was a HUGE Storm fan; when someone at school is picking on you, it’s comforting
to imagine you could snap your fingers and drop a hurricane on their house.
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Lady Nyssara and her ill-fated carriage ride. That particular saga began two years ago, when some similarly geeky friends of mine asked me to join their Pathfinder group; they were about to embark on a new campaign, and had room for one more in their party.
Pathfinder – for those of you uninitiated – is a tabletop fantasy role-playing game. You may have called it ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ back in the 90s (as I did), though D&D is now very much its own franchise, with a different setting and rules. Tabletop gaming has been a cornerstone of geek culture for decades, popularised in recent years by TV shows like Big Bang Theory and web series like Critical Role, but interestingly, it was something I’d never really dabbled in, despite my geeky proclivities.
Perhaps it was my social anxiety. Pathfinder is a game played entirely through conversation, with players inhabiting their characters and (with the aid of dice and written rulesets) directing their actions through the narrative. One member of the group is the Game Master (GM), whose job is harder still; they are the narrator that weaves each storyline, describes every scene and acts as every other character, leading players through the game.
It’s an experience far removed from video games or a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity. It asks you to invest yourself in a persona, immerse yourself in another world, and – since there are few visual cues beyond maps and pictures – truly engage your imagination. Though I said yes without hesitation, I was more than a little nervous as they led me through the basics.
First, I had to make a character. I had a few dot points to guide me: we’d be playing a campaign called Carrion Crown, set in a grim, Transylvania-esque nation called Ustilav, and our characters had all been invited to the funeral of a mutual acquaintance who’d perished in unusual circumstances. I had immediate visions of frightened townspeople and severe, ashen-faced nobles, all jumping at shadows and rounding up lynch mobs at the slightest hint of witchcraft or devilry. Lots of bloodletting and Gothic architecture. Gargoyles on every door and window.
After reading a little more about Pathfinder’s world (which is huge and strange, governed by maddening geopolitics and populated by strange races and powers), I settled upon a human sorceress named Lady Nyssara Tempesta. The Tempestas (as I wrote them) were once among the wealthiest and most respected noble families in the country, but – due to the unfortunate rise of democracy – had been overturned by the populace and stripped of their power.
Nyssara, born into the ruined shell of her family’s name and estate, was a gifted spell-caster but a thoroughly unhappy woman: elitist, brusque, quick to anger and slow to trust. I felt this would make her interesting to play, and allow me a chance to fumble; if I got a little tongue-tied, and said something unspeakably gauche at a critical moment… well, it would be entirely in character.
I finished fleshing out her character sheet – her height and weight (which were significant in determining how fast she could run, how much she could carry, etc.), the languages she spoke, the spells she could cast and the items she’d brought with her – and then, before I knew it, we’d all boarded a carriage as strangers to each other, and the story was underway.
A character model from Guild Wars 2. I used images like
this to help me conceptualise Lady Nyssara.
So what happened next? Our Game Master, Adam, set the scene much as I did earlier: a carriage, travelling along a dirt road through a forest in the dark of night. Somewhat awkwardly, our characters introduced themselves to each other; the dashing Varisian was Floren, the dwarf was Ragenhild and the scrappy kid was Tomil. (I had Nyssara introduce herself with more than a little disdain. She certainly didn’t shake anyone by the hand.)
And then, almost immediately, the carriage began to speed up. It was Tomil that noticed it first. We all rolled a 20-sided die for Perception, to determine what each of us observed in that moment, and his result was easily the highest. (Dice-rolling is frequent in Pathfinder, to represent the interplay of chance and skill. One can be a gifted athlete with a high Acrobatics modifier, but – perhaps distracted, or fearful, or caught off-guard – still roll a 3 and fall off that rickety rope-bridge.)
As the carriage hurtled forwards, we opened the wooden divider to find the driver gone and the horses assailed by stirges – large insectoids with bat wings, spindly legs and a mosquito’s needle-sharp proboscis. And (of course!) we were heading straight for a cliff.
We leapt into action. Tomil squirmed through the divider and made a grab for the wooden brake; unfortunately, his Strength roll of 1 (a natural 1, or ‘nat 1’) meant that the brake snapped clean off, and the carriage plunged forward. I, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to save the day with some dazzling display of magical prowess. I had Nyssara lean out the carriage window and attempt to blast the wheels off.
Alas, this required an Acrobatics roll. And Nyssara – as a young noblewoman who’d never engaged in anything more vigorous than a morning’s stroll through the gardens (and who was currently wearing a full corset and finery) – had a very low modifier.
Thus she found herself falling half out the window, shrieking for help and getting whipped in the face by branches in a most unbecoming manner. Ragenhild grabbed her dress with two meaty hands (and a respectable Reflex roll, much to my relief) and began to pull her in; Floren, meanwhile, clambered masterfully out the other window, across the top of the carriage and into the driver’s seat, taking the reins.
I didn’t make a complete fool of myself in the end. With Ragenhild holding me steady, I was able to fire off a pair of magic missiles that made short work of the stirges, allowing Floren to finally regain control of the horses and return us to the path. And while Her Ladyship had been knocked thoroughly off her perch by the time we reached our destination, I found myself absolutely exhilarated as a player.
Tabletop gaming, I realised, was true collective storytelling. It scratched my every itch as a writer: the desire to craft and inhabit interesting characters, and to allow them their own agency to fail, react and persevere. To take me places I hadn’t expected to go.
As she became more experienced, Nyssara developed an affinity for pyromancy; she had a quick
temper, and a habit of setting things on fire. Not really a people person.
We ran that campaign for two years, meeting once a fortnight to play out the next chapter in the story. Adam led us broadly through the narrative, though many of the scrapes and encounters we found ourselves in were of our own making, the product of our choices and interactions with each other.
Pathfinder soon surpassed all other geeky pursuits for me, and is now something that brings me singular excitement and joy – particularly at the end of a long and busy week, when I find myself weighted by all the stresses and concerns of daily life. It’s a relief, sliding into someone else’s skin and living their adventures. Sharing in their achievements and, yes, their woes.
We’ve started a new campaign now. Nyssara’s story has reached its conclusion, at least for the time being. I still have fond memories of sneaking into castles (unsuccessfully), fighting necromancers, dispersing an angry lynch mob with a fireball (quite successfully), and escaping from a herd of zombie cows. So many zombie cows.
Crafting stories with others like this has given me copious inspiration for my own book, and I’m even convinced that it has improved my confidence. I’m now considering the next frontier: to run my own campaign as GM, something that would have left me paralysed a few years ago.
All postgrad students, I firmly believe, have an innate tendency towards geekiness. Reading, learning and (yes!) imagination are in your blood, so if any of this sounds fun or intriguing to you, I’d recommend you get a group of friends together, jump online and find out more. And if you want to see just how hilariously entertaining it is when led by a group of professional voice actors, check out Geek and Sundry’s Critical Role channel on YouTube.