Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Critical!: Go Writerly--The Immortal Empress

In round about 2011, I co-wrote a tabletop role-playing game with my good friend Jonathan Lavallee. This game is called Critical!: Go Westerly.  It's a rules-lightish fantasy game that allows you to play a character who lives in the fun and funny Kingdom of Westerly.  We were inspired by D&D games of yore, the works of Pratchett, Gaiman, and Adams, and by the riffing that we do whenever we're in a room together for more than five minutes at a time.

Go on, buy a copy.  You know you want to!

After finishing the game, Jonathan and I realized that we weren't quite ready to close the door on Westerly just yet.  So, in the fall of 2012 (I think?) we started working on Do Not Contact, which was a novel set in the kingdom.  It features quite a lot of things that we mentioned in the setting materials for the game, as well as a whole pile of new stuff that we made up just because we could.

As of this writing, we are two chapters (and an epilogue) away from finishing up the third draft of the book.  We're both quite happy with the amount of polish we've put on it and we are very hopeful that people will want to pick it up and give it a read.

I will, of course, update you once the book becomes available.

Now that we're almost at the end of this project (which, at over 100k words, is the single longest thing I've ever worked on), Jonathan and I are starting to talk about future projects in the Critical!: Go Westerly Universe (I'm coining the term "Westerverse" right now, so mark that on your calendar). We have a few ideas.  Westerly, it turns out, is a substantial kingdom despite its relatively small size, and we think that there's quite a few stories and characters still lurking in the alleys and forested areas somewhere.

One of these ideas isn't officially on the list, but it's something that Jonathan and I have talked about. It has to do with the Eastern Empire, Westerly's nearest neighbor, and the rather...ah...unique situation surrounding the dynastic succession of its empress.  While walking around today, a very vivid picture of the empire and its empress popped into my head.  I have set it down for your amusement below in screenplay form.  No, I don't know why.  I took one screenwriting course in college and probably have the formatting all wrong. 

Still, I had fun with it, and I hope you enjoy it.

Black, slowly resolving into animated images.   A woman, red and angular, dominates the frame, mastering various types of deadly-looking magic.  Lightning.  Fire.  Meteors from the sky.

In ancient times, in a land far to the east, there arose in might a woman whose skill at magic was matched only by her terrible cruelty. She became so powerful that she dared to call herself the Immortal Sorceress.

Animation continues.  Woman is shown leading an army of monsters and blasting apart her enemies.  Attackers attempt to strike her down, but to no avail.  In the end, we see her crowned and seated upon a tall throne, a spiky crown on her brow.

KWIMBITZ (cont.)
Summoning up an army from the depths of the Netherworld, she conquered the disparate kingdoms of the east, striking down all who stood against her.  By force of magic and skill at arms, she forged the East into a vast empire, and crowned herself its Immortal Empress.

Animation continues.  Woman surveys the empire from a balcony on a tall tower.  A man slips up behind her, poisoned blade in hand.  He stabs her in the back.  She falls to her knees.

KWIMBITZ (cont.)
One fateful night, while she surveyed her vast domain, an assassin from Geth slipped undetected into her chambers and struck her down with a envenomed blade.  Not even the Empress’ power could protect her from the terrible poison.

Animation continues.  Assassin stands over the Empress, looking smug, dagger in hand.  He gets blasted by magic and thrown off the balcony.

KWIMBITZ (cont.)
“I suppose you are the Mortal Empress now,” said the assassin.  Historians do not recall whether or not the assassin was satisfied with his quip.  He should have been.  As final words go, they were fairly witty.

Animation continues.  The Empress is dying but defiant, surrounded by her councilors.

KWIMBITZ (cont.)
As she slipped into death, the Empress swore, “this is not the end.  My magics will sustain me through this death and into next life.  Find me again when I am reborn and return me to be your Empress.  Forever!”

Animation continues.  The Empress breathes her last.  Councilors set out into a small village, returning to the palace with an infant child.  Close up on the child’s head that dissolves into the terrifying visage of one of the Empress’ communication statues.  New councilors bow and scrape in front of it, looking terrified.

KWIMBITZ (cont.)
And as the Empress commanded, so it was.  Thirty-four times the Empress died.  Thirty-four times she was reborn.  Her iron rule was unbroken for many centuries, her cruel edicts communicated to her councilors through enchanted statues placed throughout the empire. 

Animation continues.  A wagon train, bearing the imperial standard, is crushed beneath a landslide.

KWIMBITZ (cont.)
And so the empire was to have been, changeless and unchanging, until a freak accident slew the search party that was tasked with finding the thirty-sixth incarnation of the Immortal Empress.  Although the misfortune was discovered quickly, the infant empress was not.  Indeed, she was not found again…

Animation continues.  Close up on cracked communication statue, its eyes dull.  Slow zoom on face.

KWIMBITZ (cont.)
Until twenty-five years later…

Dissolve from animation to face of actual communications statue.  SENATORS in purple-bordered togas are standing in front of it, looking restive and concerned.



We are in the interior garden of the house, walkways on four sides, pool of water in the middle.  METELLA, a harried-looking but happy mother of two is playing a game with her two small daughters, AVIA and ZOIA.

AVIA (holding a game piece)
And then Deneva the Scutaria takes her big sword and…

METELLA, seeming to remember something, looks over at the garden sundial.  She does not like where the shadow has fallen.


METELLA (standing)
I’m sorry, darling.  Mama just remembered that she has to take care of something.  Would you be a good big sister and play quietly with Zoia for a little while.

All right.

I promise I’ll be right back.

Maternal hugs, kisses, and a few more words of encouragement before we follow Metella into the Roman-style villa.  She moves quickly and somewhat furtively to a small bedroom that features a tall, wooden cabinet.  One window overlooks the garden.  After a last look out the window at her kids, Metella closes the door, opens the cabinet, and takes out a fearsome-looking golden mask.  She settles herself on the edge of the bed and puts it on.


The senators are looking bored and perhaps a touch angry.  SENATOR CALLUS looks like he’s going to have to start doing damage control, but is rescued by a chiming note that sounds inside the statue.  Then the statue speaks.  It has a woman’s voice, booming and mechanical sounding.

METELLA (v.o.)
Good afternoon.

Greetings, oh most high, we are pleased that you could turn your mind aside from your eldritch pursuits to help with certain delicate affairs of state.

Of course.  Go on.

Senator Nevina bears some disturbing news regarding our border dispute with the Westerlians.

Senator Nevina, a nervous-looking woman, steps forward.  She clears her throat and addresses the statue in a slightly too-loud voice.

Greetings, oh most high!  The Westerlians…

METELLA (v.o., angry)
What have I told you about yelling?

NEVINA (terrified)
I’m sorry, most high one?

Metella has pulled the mask off of her head and is in the process of running to the window.  The kids are shouting in the courtyard.

ZOIA (loud and sing-song)
Mama, ma-maaaaa!

Metella comes to the edge of the window and hides the mask behind her.  Avia is in the process of restraining her sister, who is still cheerfully shouting.  Metella is flustered, but not really angry.

I’m right here.  I can…


METELLA (v.o.)
…hear you perfectly well.

NEVINA (bowing her head)
Yes, most high one.  Of course.

Senator Nevina has been on the frontier these many months and is no longer familiar with courtly protocols, my empress.  She just…


…wanted to ask you something.

METELLA (whispering)
Can it wait just a few moments, sweetie?  Mama’s right in the middle of something.

AVIA (over the top of her)
I told her that, Mama, I did.

METELLA (over the top of her)
I’ll be out soon, I promise.

ZOIA stands up on tiptoes and shouts very loudly.

I want…


ZOIA (v.o., loud.)
A drink!

The senators all look at one another, fearfully.  Then they scatter.


METELLA (whispering and a little frantic)
Of course.  Avia, take her into the kitchen and get her something, won’t you?  Oh, and take down some of that bread and cheese I’ve been saving.  We can have that for a snack when I’m done.  All right?

All right!

Hurry up, mama!

The girls hustle away from the window and into the house.  Metella sits down on the bed, blows a stray hair off her forehead, and gently lowers the mask over her face.  She straightens up, as if in shock.

Callus, what…


The senators are huddled around tables bearing numerous cups.  One of the senators is clutching a wound on his arm and is bleeding into one of the cups.  As the statue speaks again, everyone snaps alert.  One senator in the back faints, dramatically.

METELLA (v.o.)
Are you doing?!

You demanded a beverage, most high one.  Not knowing your pleasure, we have procured for you a number to choose from.

METELLA (v.o.)
Is that…blood.

Yes, most high one.  I thought…In the accounts of your twelfth incarnation, it mentioned how you supped on the blood of the people of Bellrendo and I though, perhaps…

METELLA (v.o.)
That’s fine.  Thank you.  That’s very…generous.

We are pleased that you are pleased, most high.  Which of these would you prefer?

METELLA (after a pause)
Oh, they all look…nice.  All of them, I suppose?

The senators surge forward to hurl the contents of the various cups at the feet of the statue.  Pan up to the statue’s face.  We can hear Metella’s metallic sigh.