Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ode to an Urchin

When I started gaming with the Metal Gods crew, about a year and a half ago almost, we ended up with a lot of zero-level urchins in our party. Most of them died (of course), but for some reason I was taken with the idea of this band of urchins, with the thought that I could write a story worth telling and have those children of the streets tell it for me, with me the instrument of their speech. I didn't think it through this rationally, of course, but on some level it was always happening.

The next adventure I wrote (Mysterious Crypt of the Serpent God) involved human sacrifices. The blood of a whole village's children had been used by serpentmen to fuel their terrible machines. In a later revision, I changed that horrible aspect of the adventure: The corpses of the dead ones piled head-high, their hearts ripped whole from their chests, and the blood... the rivers of blood... flowing down the drain in the altar, and overflowing onto the floor when the drain wasn't enough to contain the flow. They hadn't gotten to all of them, though. Just in case more zeroes were needed, I had stashed eight extra zero-level urchins in a holding cage, nearby the altar.

The situation was done just that way, because it is the very heart of horror, for me. It is the sickness of the world. It is the stealthy sound in the black of night. It is the creepy bastard with the leering eyes, who smiles brightly at the little kids, with dead, dead eyes, and a burning, sickly hunger in his heart. It is the lamentations of every mother who has lost a child. It is the screams of the dying, too small and weak to fight back against those who would harm them. It is the most horrible thing I can imagine, there on the page of that adventure, as a device to show my players that there is something worth fighting for, something besides glory, or treasure, or a righteous kill. There are some things in the world that need killing, because failing to kill them is to excuse depravity and, thus, to perpetuate it. The serpent men weren't bad enough on their own. Monsters, yes, but not monstrous. The deaths of a generation of children, though, that made them truly monstrous. Dirty trick? Yes. Manipulative? Yes. Did they die for their sins? Oh, hell yes, they did.

Later, that adventure done, I turned to new things. Again, there were the urchins. In this case, it was the Streetkids of Ur-Hadad adventure I wrote and later published in the recent Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad 'zine (On sale now, by the way, for any price you name). In that situation, all the PCs are zero-level urchins, trying to make a name for themselves by impressing the Divine Order of the Purple Tentacle, the mercenary band at the center of the Metal Gods campaign--Think The Black Company, but with more silliness and a bad drug habit. These are kids who want a better life, and who look up to the Divine Order for what they've done, certainly. They also see them as a way out. A way to escape a short and brutal life on the streets. A way to avoid the compromises and outright surrenders that are forced upon the powerless. A gang so powerful, and so formidable, that no one will ever be able to do that to them again.

We all like our stories about heroes from humble beginnings, who make their own way in an uncaring world, who rise to unlikely triumphs. Sometimes they're kids to begin with, and sometimes they're just guys (or women), you know. But it's the kids' stories that I find the most fascinating and compelling. Mind you, nothing terrible happened in my past to spur me this way. Sure it wasn't idyllic, and, yeah, I had to deal with some bullshit at times, but I wasn't one of those kids. I knew a few who were, though, friends and acquaintances. Maybe that's where it comes from. I honestly don't know why, but there you go. If there is a heart to the stories I want to tell, it's the kid from the streets who wants a better life, and who is willing to risk everything. For that kid, "everything" is him- or herself, because there's nothing else. No possessions. No family. Just a few friends, maybe. Death is only a release from the bondage of a hard life, at a young age. I'm not trying to provoke depression among my readers, mind you, just trying to establish the frame of reference.

Here's an interesting and compelling (to me) model of the classic Thieves' Guild, one I've encountered in something I'm reading (the Night Angel trilogy). I that book, the way it works is that street kids pretty much form around gangs led by older kids. To remain in good standing, and not be beaten or killed, they must come up with a weekly take. Maybe it's just a few coppers. They have to get them, no matter what. Nobody cares about excuses. If you don't get them, you get beaten, maybe killed. Eventually, if you survive, you get older: "littles" become "bigs," and when you get big enough, if you're hard enough, maybe you rise to lead your gang. When you get a bit older, maybe you can save enough of the take (what you don't have to funnel upward into the Thieves' Guild, that you're able to buy in. You secure a place in the Guild by buying a stake in it, and becoming a real member, if only on a probationary status. However, what this means is that the Thieve's Guild is built on the backs of the streetkids. The live (sometimes), suffer (always), and die (usually) to fill the coffers of the Guild. It's only a few coppers at a time, but there's thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Most die. All will contribute before they do. Pretty soon, you're talking about real money. It's the most brutal form of multi-level marketing, Amway with a hard heart and a truncheon, and no labor laws.

This is one of the most depressing versions of the Thieves' Guild I've seen, but it's also the one that seems the most real to me. This is what happens, isn't it? When there is no boundary to our brutality, when there is no check on our greed, when we make disposable the lives of the least of us, we get this game. To be clear, I'm not talking about the "sanctity of life" like some anti-abortion zealot. I'm talking about the already-born, not fetishizing fetuses as if they matter more than kids who actually have been born. That's enough about that, though.

This has been a bit rambling, I know, but there's something important about it, to me, at the heart of this discussion. In my fantasy campaign world life is cheap, and it is especially cheap when you're young and poor. Every wealthy boss stands astride a million corpses. The boss didn't even have to kill them. The boss just had to extract the wealth they generated. There's nothing more efficient for doing that than a Guild. Poverty provides the engine. The system breeds itself, perpetuates itself, and eats itself. And copper, silver, gold, and power all flow up to the top. Maybe fantasy is realer than I thought.