Author Topic: [S/lay] Among the Danukin  (Read 2059 times)

Eero Tuovinen

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[S/lay] Among the Danukin
« on: July 05, 2017, 06:53:02 PM »
We started a peculiarly slow S/lay w/ Me campaign with Tommi four years back. We live in different parts of the continent, so we play a session here and a session there, when an opportunity occurs. Last time was a year and a half ago. Obviously, writing campaign notes is essential to the exercise, as the pace is glacial and we never know when and if there's going to be another session. The actual sessions are pretty slow and detailed, perhaps in part because it takes a while for the creative dynamic to get going again each time.

Here are the campaign reports so far:
In the Refugium (feat. Kiuru)
Fear of Death Crystallized (feat. Maru)
The Sunken City of Ys (feat. Kiuru)
Oracle of the Moon (feat. Maru)

Last week Tommi visited me shortly here in Upper Savo, and we made time to for another session. This was the fifth session of the campaign, featuring Tommi's character Kiuru for a third time. Kiuru is a wandering rune-singer in the mythical prehistorical "hyborian" age, when the current interglacial period was just starting and the land was still shaking off its icy coat. He's a melancholic character convinced of an ill-defined doom that haunts his music, railing against the fates that oppress him so. Let's hear in his own words, where he's at:

Quote from: Kiuru
I am myself. I am canny, brutal, experienced. I laugh at the gods. I delight in life. My foes meet death swiftly. My Songs are beloved wherever I go, but I fear they sow doom and horror in my wake. My hair is dark and long, my frame lean and sinewy, my voice bright. I dress in strange animal skins, cut in foreign ways.

I wished to disappear in the wilderness, remove myself from human society, so as to avoid having my curse befall anybody else. I traveled far to breathe the clean, free air of the mountains. Encountering the slope-brow Rald and his daughter Rachel, I was forced out of the refuge and back into the world of men.

But, before then: my suspicion of the company of man, that drove me into utter despair and that fateful encounter, was borne out of my experiences in the last days of the decadent Ys; it was when I first had left my tribe and eastern homeland, when I first traveled west as far as land would carry me. Therein I heard stories of the wondrous silver harp of Ys, known as the Angelic Instrument; this I had to have, and thus to Ys I journeyed.

However, the fabulous city, protected from the cruel waters by a great dam, proved an unreal and incomplete place, reigned by the impotent king Gradlon, yet ruled by the frivolous impulses of the beauteous princess Dahut. I became her singer and boon-companion for a time. The princess was in pain, strangled into perdition by her own urges, yet none could help her. I found friendship in another man borne to Ys by destiny; one Vinwaloe was the only sane and wakened man in a city of sybaristic dreamers. I also found the Harp, yet I lost it anew - perhaps for my sake alone did the princess Dahut drown her fair city, and my ambition alongside.

I wished to remove myself from human society, but as afore told, my doom followed me to the refuge of the wilderness. Dejected I returned back to the human world, not knowing how I might continue on. When I heard rumours of my old friend Vinwaloe, the other survivor from the sinking of Ys, I knew that I would have to track him down and ask him of the laws of cause and consequence, the laws that seem to dominate my purposeless life. Vinwaloe had been seen entering the Forest of Flowers, and that thus became my next destination.

We've been playing Kiuru's story in an achronological order: his second story was a prequel to the first one, and this one was a sequel to both. Most significantly, the monster from the first story, the irredeemably savage Rald Ermine, was alive and kicking still, and might well follow Kiuru into the lowlands. I mulled over the prep as the "I" player for an unusually long time before settling on the setting, Lover and Monster:

The Forest of Flowers was a mysterious valley of alien flora, somewhere in the Medieval basin. It featured giant fern-seeming plants that flowered in savage ways, causing the forest to become uninhabitable in the "Dust Season". Nevertheless, the mysterious denizens - the Danukin - thrived there, producing vines and honeys greatly demanded by the sea peoples.

Lover (1): Lai Netrill is a young and healthy Danukin with the Disney princess virtues of curiousity, bravery and traditional talents of their people. Netrill is innocent in the ways of the outside world. They are manipulative of habit, thinking they know what's best for others; the Danukin sexual mores are permissive, and Netrill is knowledgeable in the ways of love, as is approved and expected by their elders.

Monster (5): Rald the "Ermine" is a half-neanderthal, socially dysfunctional hermit who has been following Kiuru down from the highland wilderness, unknown to the latter. He desires nothing more than the death of the man who is responsible for the death of his daughter in the eyes of the dim-witted monster. He is followed everywhere by the stench of carrion, and all his clothes are darned of the skins of small animals, which he attracts with the eldritch tunes of his secret pipe. Rald slays you fast, up-front, savagely and alone.

So yeah, I opted to bring Rald back for a second round. That was the last thing I decided on, though, and only because nothing in particular struck me as monstrous in the forest itself, which captured most of my attention here. I wanted to do the gaming fantasy "elf" (romanticized forest-dwelling human) thing in an impressive way, which is the sort of dead-horse beating that takes some fancy footwork narratively, as one might imagine. I think my reasoning in going for elves at all was that the "Forest of Flowers" sounded sort of hippy, and I had this idea that a gender-ambiguous tomboy Lover might hit it off with Kiuru.

The adventure proper began essentially as a tour of the milieu, as Kiuru arrived in the traditional trading camp of the Danukin and was accosted by them. The locals proved rather friendly, but they insisted that Kiuru would have to respect their customs if he was to have their help in locating his friend Vinwaloe in the woods. Vinwaloe maybe was living with them, but they wouldn't say unless Kiuru would travel to meet with the "Kale Council" to present his case and so on. Netrill of the Lai family was assigned to guide the man in the dangerous forest.

The Danukin and their forest became a clear center-piece of the session, so a few words more about them. All this world-development stuff came up and was fleshed out incrementally during play, of course.

The Forest of Flowers is one of these super-lethal-yet-pretty hellholes that were in the vogue in speculative fiction like 40 years ago. I think I've read several novels with a similar premise, although the only one that comes to mind off the top of my head is the amazing Child of Fortune from Normal Spinrad. Anyway, the Danukin are culturally convinced that their forest is essentially impenetrable by outsiders due to the inimical plant-life foreign to everywhere else in the world; they are a peaceful people that hide within the woods and satisfy themselves with stranding evil people to their deaths, rather than avenging wrongs personally.

The Danukin themselves are pale, lithe, ageless-looking humans whose ecological concert with their environment involves bunker living: every year they spend like three months cooped up in subterranean communities so as to avoid the dust season that makes the forest unlivable even to their kind. They use some sort of large-scale water-filtering to purify air for their hill-claves during the dust season, and they've got primitive gas masks of sorts of course for emergency purposes - sort of like forest-dwelling Fremen, the lot.

I'll note that all of this stuff was told in a pretty careful and considerate way in play. It's admittedly sort of a mish-mash of genre stuff, but as is often the case in the literary arts, presentation reigns: reveal things in appropriate ways at appropriate times, and the contrast between preconception and discovery makes things feel fresh.

Kiuru realized well that he was travelling in an unknown land, so he made a point of sitting down with his guide to figure out some basics from the start. Pretty romantic comedy posturing ensued, things like trying to figure out whether the other person is of legal age (what does it mean when somebody's age is "I have seen ten summers overground") and such. I understand that Kiuru took a liking to the perky, curious youngster at this time, perhaps finding some contrast to his own permanently morose habit in conversing with the Danukin.

The first real move by the Monster ensued when the two travelers were intercepted by other elves - er, Danukin - who reported on the arrival of the savage in the woods. He'd slain some members of the Lai family, relatives of Netrill, which segued naturally into a debate about what was the culturally appropriate thing to do about a barbaric foreigner, how the Danukin see revenge, and so on. Kiuru wanted to help the bravely grieving youngster with revenge, but was talked out of it by Netrill, who insisted on their duty to bring Kiuru to the Kale Council. The forest would claim the murderer as the Danukin withdraw their protection from him, they reasoned.

The psychological plot deepened when Kiuru and Netrill arrived at the Kale Hill, the home of the Kale family (a sort of a royal family among the Danukin) and the moot of their ruling council. Kiuru learned more about the Danukin way of life there, and was subjected to a psychologically testing interrogation as the Danukin dosed him with weird drugs and questioned him about his real intent in coming to them. Netrill, being a nice person, warned Kiuru in advance, and he decided to trust the Danukin despite his misgivings about his music - what if he should sing by accident under the influence, casting doom all around him?

I was pretty happy with the romantic tension between Kiuru and Netrill by this point - they made more headway than usual for this campaign, I might say, in terms of chemistry. Kiuru had by now figured out that he really wasn't so sure if the Danukin even had genders (Finnish isn't grammatically gendered, remember, so the plot point wasn't that obvious from the start), but whatever the case, Netrill seemed like a worthy friend who helped him get over the interrogation and allowed him to talk about his insecurity with singing. Singing is, of course, a big deal for the Danukin, who appreciate all performance arts that can be executed in an underground bunker.

The second move by the Monster was, of course, to set fire to the Forest of Flowers while the above was occurring. This was an immediate crisis situation for the Danukin, as the fire would quickly release poisonous sap fumes all over the woods, causing what would essentially be a second dust season for the year - everybody would have to hole up or perish in the unbreathable atmosphere that washed over the valley.

What ensued was several weeks of bunker living for Kiuru, who had an opportunity to learn more about Netrill, who stuck by him as one of the few locals who knew the trade tongue and could talk with Kiuru. Besides, Netrill was consistently curious about the far-travelling stranger, and worried about his mental well-being. After two weeks in a bunker it was Netrill who made the first move about getting into Kiuru's pants - something appropriate for Danukin to do during the dust season, of course.

Kiuru learned a bunch more about Danukin while living with them (and sharing a bed with Netrill), and this is where the setting gets really fantastic. The Danukin are androgynous and radically gender-egalitarian, to the extent that they can't tell each other's gender without peeking any more than outsiders can. Neither do they care. Exogamous families (clans, properly) live in separate hills, and fathers do not directly participate in child-care, leaving that entirely to the mother's clan - procreation occurs by sexual tourism, essentially. The sexual mores are very liberal when it comes to "guests" from other hills, who are generally assumed to entertain and be entertained. Quite a pickle for the sour Kiuru, one might imagine - and understandable background for why Netrill kept pestering him so insistently.

As an amusing anecdote: I did not know Netrill's gender either before Kiuru disrobed them. As it was Tommi's turn, I just told him to make the call, which he did by rolling for it with the dice. Proves that Netrill was anatomically male, which I assume the Danukin have some word for, despite not having much social use for the concept. Kiuru was expecting/hoping for a female partner, but I think maybe the Danukin really are so androgynous that he could make it work anyway?

Whatever the case, Kiuru kept yearning for freedom, and for his friend Vinwaloe; despite Netrill's youthful attempts at psychotherapy, he kept believing that Vinwaloe would be able to help him be rid of the doom he felt was riding on his shoulders. No chance was wasted in querying Netrill about the forest, and ways to travel there; Kiuru learned that although the sap mists rolling in the forest after the fire were as poisonous as any dust season, the Danukin breathing masks could be used in a crisis situation. The elders of the Kale hill had decided to help Kiuru anyway, so it was just a matter of waiting for the outside air to become breathable again.

Of course, this was the time for the Monster to strike a third time: a large boulder crashed through the reed mat patio of the Kale hill, and it was soon obvious that the impossible had occurred - the savage slope-brow had traversed the width of the woods despite the poisonous miasma, seemingly unaffected. The Danukin panic, of course; it's a central tenet for them that foreigners are good as dead in their woods, but here's one who's just too much of a neanderthal (or dare I say, orc) to submit to the cruel laws of nature.

The stir-crazy Kiuru, of course, goes on overdrive when confronted by his old burden. He steals a breath mask and goes out to confront the lurking Rald, or perhaps to escape and lead him away from the Kale hill. Either way, it's time for the Climax: Tommi got a total of four good dice (largely because I rolled a '1' on my very first die), but he lost the Match, leaving him in something of a difficult position. Kiuru could only get two of the following:
- find Vinwaloe
- survive unscatched
- defeat Rald the Ermine
- save Netrill (who'd followed Kiuru unthinking into the miasma, so as to protect the hapless stranger)
Tommi chose for Kiuru to find Vinwaloe and defeat Rald, which was such a tragic choice to make - I'm so soft that I'd have satisfied myself with saving everybody.

What followed was a mad-cap escape, as Netrill guided Kiuru and the relentlessly pursuing slope-brow man-thing through the poisonous woods. He took them to the high cliff route to mitigate the miasma, and made sure to replenish the water and moss in the rebreather, but it was tough going anyway. They only had one breathing mask, too, as Netrill hadn't thought to grab one for himself. Kiuru had to have it, as he was much less accustomed to the subtle poisons of the Forest of Flowers, of course.

Kiuru was convinced that if only he could meet with Vinwaloe, the sage could help him with Rald, whom Kiuru I think considered some sort of a personal nemesis or curse more than a man of flesh and bone. When the pair finally found their way to the family hill when Vinwaloe was living in Danukin hospitality, Kiuru was near reverential towards his old acquaintance.

Vinwaloe was impatient with Kiuru, it has to be said: he came off as sort of whiny, and his heart-felt grief pretty much proved how little he had learned when the two had shortly journeyed together after leaving Ys. Think of Elric of Melnibone at his most annoying, that's what Kiuru reminded me of. He wanted Vinwaloe to absolve him and allow him to sing his songs of power again, I think; Vinwaloe was insistent that a man could only be worthy of making those kinds of choices (choices about use of power) when he was willing and competent to carry the responsibility for the consequences. In other words, the "law of cause and consequence" that Kiuru was seeking was revealed to be "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" :D

Anyway, Vinwaloe psyched Kiuru up while simultaneously guilt-tripping him about the young Netrill, who was being cared for in his blood-coughing fit by the denizens of the local hill. Too psyched up about Rald, Kiuru paid scant heed as he metaphorically strapped himself to go sing the monster-man to death. Just for starters he cleared the air around Vinwaloe's hill with the wind-calling words, part of his the magical inheritance of his song-runes.

The fight between the two was reminiscent of Finnish epic stylings, as Kiuru kept out of the reach of the cumbersome and tired slope-brow, while singing stinging satire and the words of metal that made Rald's axe blunt and unwieldy. The fight ended up in a call-back to an early bit-piece in the story, as Kiuru's satire enraged Rald and drew him into a patch of poisonous purple grass that Netrill had warned him about early on. The big man finally choked to exhaustion, leaving Kiuru the victor.

However, the price was harsh. Kiuru had to sit deathwatch as Netrill perished, his lungs failing after he chose to help Kiuru reach his goal. And he himself could feel it, how he lost his voice, singing like that in the poisonous Forest of Flowers. As Kiuru would have it:

Quote from: Kiuru
I have lost my voice in the poisonous mists of the Forest of Flowers, such that I now resemble a raven more than anything else in both sound and mien. My hair dark and long, my sinewy frame and soul-less eyes. Even the leathers I prefer black, to all the more resemblance.

The slaying of Rald the Ermine, however, has become a song, as is the wont of these things, and I am now known as a Killer. I am trusted by the Danukin of the flowerwoods for the sake of one of their own. And I know the words of power, of the wind and the steel, even as I fail to sing them.

Tommi thought that this may have been the last adventure of Kiuru, by the way - his story done, so to speak. We'll see, the trilogy of episodes so far does carry surprisingly well in terms of theme and plot. If and when we get to play more, the next session would be Maru's anyway.

Eero Tuovinen

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Re: [S/lay] Among the Danukin
« Reply #1 on: July 06, 2017, 06:33:57 AM »
Tommi tells me that the forum's wrangled his user account in some way - doesn't let him log in. So I'm couriering some additional detail for him:

Quote from: Tommi
Thanks, Eero, for a succinct yet comprehensive report! It was a pleasure to read. However, I feel there was one important story beat that got omitted:

At the end, Kiuru wasn't indifferent to Netrill's fate. On the contrary, it made it all the more important for Vinwaloe to give him the answers he needed to resolve his curse. Then, when Vinwaloe disappointed - the only remotely profound thing he said being "if you don't know when it's time to sing and when not, be quiet" - Kiuru had to finally trust his intuition. So he bent over Netrill and asked if he wanted to hear him sing. Since if it ever is the time to sing, it is when the one you love is there to hear it. So Kiuru sang his last song, at the right time and for the right reasons for once.

Yeah, that's how it went - my rendition of the scene was more from Vinwaloe's perspective. As an elderly, acerbic moralist who wasn't really up to date on what was happening, he found the whole thing somewhat ridiculous. I'm sure he would have been more useful for Kiuru had they had time to talk things over at length.

Ron Edwards

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Re: [S/lay] Among the Danukin
« Reply #2 on: July 09, 2017, 05:50:53 PM »
I love this account. It's almost a full return to the kind of role-playing I'd based S/Lay w/Me on in the first place, between two people who exchanged written letters.