Catalyst: Martine

About a year ago I posted a long, self-indulgent bit of backstory for one of my TTRPG characters. Now I’m posting another. Please enjoy the story of Martine, my arcane trickster rogue. For location inspiration, I think this tree in a hiking area near me could perhaps have existed in the woods where Martine spent her early years.

One day when Martine was about 8 years old, which is still very young for an elf, her grandparents, who raised her somewhat begrudgingly, sent her out of the house again, as was their habit. “Go play,” they told her, shutting the door in her face, probably expecting her to run off and find other kids from the village. They didn’t realize that even though Martine had only just recently begun attending school she was already an outcast because she turned up barely able to read and in clothes that were appropriate but completely unfashionable. Sure, her grandparents kept her fed and clothed and housed and weren’t cruel, but it always felt to Martine like there was something missing that she couldn’t name, but which made her feel hollowed out and cold like the depths of one of the nearby caves in the woods when she saw her peers laughing together or saw a child hug their parent. Her own parents were traveling merchants who came back to the village so rarely that Martine could hardly describe what they looked like. When her parents did come to town, Martine would open her arms to them asking for hugs, but they would just pat her on the head in a somewhat detached manner before shooing her away, the pit in her chest growing wider and colder. She had yet to learn the word lonely, but she knew the feeling better than anything else.

So having no one to play with, Martine set off to do as she always did when she was forced out of the house, wander off around the edges of their little down, meandering in and out of the woods proper until it felt like enough time had passed for them to let her back in. Sometimes she got it wrong and was sent away again. Sometimes she managed to sneak back into her room and and her grandparents would seem surprised to see her later as if they’d forgotten she’d existed. It was the first particularly brisk day of autumn and the wind howled bitterly through the fabric of Martine’s cloak.

Carried on that wind was a scent of fresh bread. Martine realized she had wandered close to the local bakery without even realizing it. She was still a small distance away from it and could see a cooling pan of small buns set on the windowsill just inside an open window on the back of the building. She eyed the buns jealously from afar, having no pocket money to enter the shop and buy one. The window was set a bit above Martine’s little head, but the longer she looked the more it seemed to her that she might be able to reach up and take one without anyone noticing. If she was spotted she could merely return the bun or perhaps even coax the baker to let her have it anyway.

She glanced around to check if anyone was watching and then approached the window from the side so as not to be seen by the people inside. She walked casually, knowing from previous times she had been caught misbehaving that it was better to act like she was doing what she was supposed to instead of sneaking around. She pressed her back against the bakery wall beneath the window and listened for a long moment. There was a lot of hustle and bustle but it didn’t sound as though anyone was coming near. She turned to face the wall, raised her hand up, and felt blindly on the ledge for where she had seen the tray of buns. Her fingertips just barely brushed against warm bread, startling her and making her flinch and pull her hand back down to her side. Frowning to herself for being so silly, she ventured another reach, her heart racing. But it was no good no matter how she strained, even when she rose up on her tiptoes, she could only just barely touch her fingertips to the closest bun, and couldn’t get a good enough grip to retrieve it without doing anything to call attention to herself.

Then somehow something happened that Martine couldn’t explain. The bun seemed to move itself closer to her, until she could fit the palm of her hand over it and take it out of the window. Her heart pounded as she tucked her hands and their soft warm prize under her cloak and walked away, again, trying to be as casual as possible. She was certain that at any moment someone would come to the window, realize something was missing, and yell at her to come back, but no one did.

When Martine was completely out of sight of the bakery, she broke into a run heading deep into the woods and seated herself among the massive roots of a tree, knowing she couldn’t possibly climb with the bun in hand. It was still very warm and Martine bit into it to find it was filled with goat cheese and nuts and honey. It tasted all the sweeter to Martine for having been taken instead of given. The warmth of it filled her completely, even that aching, cold hollow in her core. Filled with adrenaline and excitement, she had never been so warm in her life.

The world felt new and different to Martine. She was a girl who felt like nobody wanted her, but that day she learned she could fill the void in her life by filling her hands with exciting things that were not hers. She found herself itching to try taking more things just to see if she could. She started small, with more more assorted pastries from the cooling window at the bakery or the windowsills of townspeople’s houses. Her first indoor theft was a small bottle of fancy ink from the stationers, which she didn’t even want to write with. She just liked the color and how it swirled around in the little glass bottle. She tore prized flowers from people’s gardens. She took a carved wooden brooch pinned to a shawl hung to dry on a clothesline. Her favorite prize was a beautiful, perfectly white owl feather quill her biggest bully bragged about. As she got older she eventually went after more significant prey, like when she took a religious artifact from the local prayer hall. Martine squirreled things away in secret places around her home and in a scattering of knotholes in the woods. Eventually she was caught enough times that the town leaders compelled her parents to take their kleptomaniac daughter with them, much their chagrin.

Martine was nearly 40 and excited to finally be able to spend time with her parents. She swore to behave and be helpful, and she did. But their long years spent mostly apart were an insurmountable gap. Her parents treated her more like an employee than anything else and were still working more than they paid attention to their adolescent daughter. She knew now to name the hollowness inside of her loneliness, and it felt all the worse on the road because of the endless repetition of work – travel – work. When they would stop by their hometown to offload goods, Martine was confined to her grandparents’ home, the townspeople unwilling to forgive her for her crimes even though she had tried to change.

After a few years of trying to be an ideal daughter, Martine cracked. Without consciously deciding to do it or even considering the consequences, her quick hands started slipping items away from their rightful owners again. She pocketed a little something in most towns they stopped in, initially small things of value that she didn’t think would be missed, although one time she managed to get away with a whole pie someone had left to cool on a windowsill. She tucked the items away in the family wagon and when her parents came across them she would “remind” them that they had bought it a few cities back because they thought they could make a profit off of it somewhere else. They would go along with it because it was easier than acknowledging that their daughter was a problem. As she got older Martine got better about keeping her prizes hidden until she could make a profit off of them herself, and she loved having her own money even if her parents insisted on not letting her go until she had reached the age of adulthood despite the fact that they didn’t seem to take much of an interest in her at all.

Years on the road quickly gave way to decades and Martine’s confidence grew. She took greater and greater risks until one day her luck finally ran out. Sort of. In the city of…well, she never named it to anyone because of what came later….but in one particular city Martine managed to make off with a particularly nice amethyst pendant on a long chain from a market stall. She was making her way out of town to her family’s wagon using some backstreets she had scoped out earlier when someone suddenly yanked her back by the arm and hit her over the head. She woke up in a cold, damp stone room with no windows and a barred door. ‘Ah, so prison then,’ she thought dimly, her head throbbing, resignation coursing through her. She had supposed that sooner or later this might happen to her, but she assumed they wouldn’t keep her for long for only one theft (that they knew of).

Hearing her stir, a nondescript looking human man came to the cell door and looked at her through the bars with some amusement. Martine judged him to be below middle age, although it was hard to tell in the harsh shadows cast by the torch outside the cell. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me what I’m accused of before your throw me in jail?” she asked, trying to sound braver than she felt.

“You’re not in jail,” the man said. “You stole something from me – well me and my friends – and I wanted to get it back.” He pulled the pendant she had stolen out of his pocket, dangling it from its chain so the gem caught what little light there was.

“Fair play, then,” Martine replied. “Then then why am I locked up here?” He explained that he wanted to offer her a very special invitation. He had seen her pilfering little things into the pockets of her skirt and her voluminous sleeves all week while her parents had been selling their goods, all while mostly evading the attention of the town guards. He told her he was impressed with her handiwork, although she bristled when he called it a bit amateurish, and invited her to join the Thieves’ Guild he was part of, where he promised they would polish her up into a top notch thief.

“And why should I trust you?” Martine asked when he had finished giving his spiel.

“Because most of the time when people try to steal Guild goods, well, I put a dagger in them. Potential like yours is too good to waste like that,” he replied.

Martine broke out in goosebumps, and she knew it wasn’t just from the chill of the cell. “Understood,” she Martine, getting to her feet as he unlocked the cell door.

He introduced himself as Jack and brought her to meet the Thief King, who agreed that she could join the guild. That same night she and Jack returned to her parents and explained that she had been offered a job, obviously being vague about the specifics. They were hesitant, as she was barely 80 years old, but agreed in the end because they were secretly glad to be rid of their troublesome daughter.

Within a few years the Thief King that had inducted Martine died, falling off of a building in a heist gone awry, and Jack had enough respect to be elected as his successor. Martine was his lieutenant, seeing him as a mentor and close friend, ready to do just about anything for him besides kill. Martine would threaten and maim and maybe even torture a little, but drew the line at taking a life, and Thief King Jack respected that and never sent her on any jobs that were expected to get too bloody. As they continued to work together over the years, Martine came to realize that this human man who was decades younger than she, an elf in the latter portion of her 100 year long “youth,” was more of a father to her in many ways than her actual father had been.

She never forgot the aching loneliness of her early childhood, but once she joined the Thieves’ Guild she never felt it. She had plenty of opportunities to keep her hands occupied and when chances for stealing were low, she found the other guild members pleasant company. Martine was good at her job, almost unnaturally so it seemed to some. She had a knack for getting people to like her or getting her hands on items that seemed just out of reach. She could through things farther than anyone else and was very good at hiding. If she was lighting a fire the tinder always caught light on the first try. But no one complained or tried to call her out for anything, because she explained everything away as luck and used her skills to enrich the guild.

After a couple of decades passed, an upstart young human man calling himself The Fox joined the Guild. Martine quickly decided he was a brash loudmouth who was not to be trusted and started openly calling him The Weasel, even when she knew he was in earshot. Somehow he weasled his way into gathering a large base of support who wanted to overthrow Jack and install The Weasel as the new Thief King. Despite Martine’s well known and long lasting loyalty to Jack, he thought he could sway Martine by offering her riches and more power. But he miscalculated, because Martine got more of a rush from the act of taking items than she did from plain money, and she was already content with the amount of power she had.

When she of course objected he had her knocked over the head and locked in a cell. A cell which Martine’s long memory recognized as the same one Jack had put her in the day they met. Martine knew now that the locks were shitty and easily picked, but the opposing faction had of course stripped her of anything useful, including her hairpins and the dagger that Jack had given her with an amethyst pommel that she carried mostly as a miscellaneous tool and empty threat rather than a weapon.

Martine rattled the bars of the cell door desperately, growling in frustration, her mind and heart racing. She was so stupid. She should have lied to The Weasel, made him think she liked him and was on his side, and then betrayed him to the Thief King. She needed to get out of this cell NOW, needed to find the Thief King, to warn Jack —

Suddenly the lock sounded a creaky click and she nearly fell as the door she had been clinging to swung open. “Well that’s fucking weird,” she muttered in a half moment of wary consideration before sprinting through the Thieves’ Den looking for the Thief King. She passed several people, but she asked them nothing because wasn’t sure who was in on The Weasel’s scheme. Some of them stared at her or called after her, but nobody tried to stop her.

She found Jack in his chamber, lying on the floor in his own blood, her dagger sticking out his chest. She knelt numbly beside him, reaching out a shaking hand to stroke Jack’s cold cheek and then close his unseeing eyes. Then there was a chuckle from the doorway and she whirled to see the fucking Weasel leaning casually against the doorframe.

“Martine,” he said in mock shock, “how could you just kill the Thief King like this?”

Martine’s body moved without her mind, which was filled only with fire. In a few fluid movements she seized her dagger from Jack’s body as she rose from her kneeling position on the floor, and plunged the knife into The Weasel’s gut as she screamed. He was barely able to emit a yell of surprise before he died, slumping against the wall. Her first kill. She spat on him before sadly turning back to Jack. She took one last long look at him and then fled the room, as she heard footsteps running closer, drawn by the commotion.

She ran for the exit the Thieves’ Den, her grief mingling with anger at her fellow guild members who had allowed this to happen, who had allowed The Weasel to attempt to have his way. Out of spite, and also to give them something they had to worry about more than following her, as she went along Martine grabbed some of the lanterns and torches that lit the interior of their lodgings and forcefully threw them at the walls or floor behind her, determined to let them burn. A little voice in Martine’s head thought that the fire flared up more than it ought to, but she didn’t really pay it any mind and concentrated on fleeing.

The possessions she had in her room at the Thieves’ Den she gave up as totally lost to her. But she kept a safe house in the woods a few miles outside of town, a small abandoned cabin that she’d restored herself. As far as Martine knew, no one in the guild knew of the place, but she didn’t linger because she knew that if they sent out any proper search parties at all they’d surely find it. She packed up only what she would need to survive on the road and some small items she knew she’d be able to trade for coin or supplies later. When she left, she set her little home and all the items she couldn’t take on fire. She felt very strongly that no one else was entitled to the treasures she couldn’t carry.

By the time she got started on her journey it was just after dawn. She didn’t know yet where she was going, but as she set off she felt her old friend loneliness settle coldly into her chest.

5 Things I’ve Learned as a Beginner DM

You may have noticed that after doing pretty well about keeping to my monthly blog posts for most of the year I’ve fallen off track over the last few months. There are a few different reasons for this (traveling, my chronic focus/procrastination problems, etc.), but also some of the time I would have spent writing blogs has been spent prepping for sessions of Dungeons & Dragons instead. I first started playing D&D at the start of the pandemic, as it was a solid escape from *gestures vaguely at the state of the world* and a way to keep remotely connected to friends on a regular basis. At the beginning of September I took the reins and started DMing for the first time for one of the two D&D groups I’m in.

(These are the 1st nice set of dice I ever bought, for my 1st D&D character, my paladin Ellie Crane. You can find them here on Kraken Dice’s site.)

Up until this point, this group hasn’t been playing with much of a formal system, but I requested that we try D&D 5e because that’s what the other group I’m in uses and I’m someone who really does the best with firm structure, lol. Instead of using one of the many campaign source books that exist, we’re using a setting and story of my own creation, because I was afraid the group wouldn’t enjoy the more structured nature of the 5e ruleset. If at the end of our journey through my little story they want to continue with their characters, I can easily pull a premade campaign book for us to use because I’m not planning on taking us to a very high level, but if they don’t want to continue with 5e then we can move on to another new system.

The original plan in March 2020 was actually for me to be the first DM of this group, but I was nervous and felt overwhelmed by the idea so I gently bowed out and two of my friends took turns to lead us through stories before I finally felt comfortable taking a turn. I was nervous the first night we played in my setting of the marshlands of Fendria because I was afraid they wouldn’t like my more high fantasy/historical-ish setting (there have been both werewolves and the mention of a salt cellar so far). However, they do seem to be enjoying the story so far – yes, I did directly ask because I’m that worried about everyone having fun, lol. I do still feel a little nervous before each session, but am getting more comfortable every time.

Leading the game via DMing has been a whole new learning experience for me and over the past two months of doing it, here are my main takeaways:

ENUMERATE EVERYTHING: When setting the menu at the first inn/tavern the party went to, I casually included chicken nuggets as a fun little throwaway because when I had the players complete character surveys before we began someone mentioned their character enjoying them. Somehow I did not anticipate that player asking, “What is the maximum number of chicken nuggets I can buy?” leading to me having to unexpectedly decide how many orders of chicken nuggets the barkeep had. This incident has since been followed by “How many bowls of porridge will the innkeeper let me have?” and “How many dog biscuits did I loot from the dead werewolf?” Fortunately from the porridge incident onward I realized that having the party member roll a d6 to determine how many of the item they get is a good way to deal with that kind of situation. Going forward though, I do intend to remember to determine proper quantities for more of these grouped items.

(My desk in D&D prep mode.)

PLANNING TAKES A LONG TIME: Probably there are many DMs who can sit down for just an hour or two to prep for a session, but I am not that that person. If I were working from a sourcebook I probably wouldn’t have to spend as much time as I do prepping, but since I’m making this campaign up from scratch it takes me a long time to get ready for each session. A good portion of this is because I basically wind up doing my notes twice, once by hand and the second type when I type them into my computer. I’ve written a bit before about how if you stick me in front of a computer and expect me to easily write, it’s not going to work very well. The words just don’t flow as easily and I also don’t have the self-discipline to prevent myself from wandering the internet instead. The dual process is helpful because I get my ideas down easily by hand and then can revise and reorder them in my computer as necessary when I type them up. However, this combined with my horribly distractable nature means that I can often take up an entire Sunday afternoon prepping for our Monday night sessions, which kind of sucks and I feel like it shouldn’t be that way, but I guess this is my curse to bear.

But my players do seem to be enjoying the story/setting I’m creating and so while I’m frustrated with myself for not being a more efficient prepper, their enjoyment makes it worth it. Making my own campaign gives me the space to include all of the silly little in jokes that I find funny. For instance, I created a recurring character very vaguely based on Criss Angel who I’ve named Christoph Engel and the laugh I got when I first introduced him and mimicked his “heavy breathing while doing magic” thing made me so glad I had written him into the story.

I’M BETTER AT IMPROV THAN I THOUGHT: As someone who thrives in planning and organization, the thing I was most worried about as a first time DM was the element of chaos the group would bring. I can only plan for so much, after all, and also the group is very capable of making decisions that could throw my plans off and force me to scramble. We’d been playing narrative games together for a year and a half before I took the lead so I was very familiar with the potential for my friends to do unexpected things, like when we decided not to not go kill the medieval versions of our characters’ bosses in the first story we played through or in our second game when someone rolled a crit to instantly stab and defeat a scary boss fight with a robot. Nothing so catastrophically game changing has happened to me yet, but I have turned out to be better than I thought I would be at dealing with the various surprises the group throws at me. For instance, at one point I created an opportunity in the story for the cleric to provide some spiritual solace to a distraught person and instead she chose to slap them in the face to snap them out of it and I think I rolled with it pretty well. It probably helps that I’m very much the type of DM to say, “well, sure, if it feels reasonably plausible to me, you can do it,” instead of overly analyzing the rules or having a very strict idea of what flies in the setting I’ve created. I’m sure at some point they will find a way to break my story, and hopefully I will be able to handle it gracefully.

(The rest of my shiny math rocks hoard! My favorite dice are from Everything Dice and Cozy Gamer, but I also have a few micellaneous sets that I’ve acquired one way or another.)

THE PLAYERS ARE A FANTASTIC RESOURCE: I mean, I guess this isn’t something I’ve necessarily newly learned because I’ve been playing narrative games with this group for well over a year, but boy are they good providing suggestions for situations that pop up during sessions that I struggle to find a solution to. For instance, a big “problem” has been the fact that one of the party members is a warforged. Warforged are constructs that do not eat or sleep and I have an unfortunately high number of situations in the campaign where eating or sleeping happens, such as waiting until morning to depart from a place. During our first long rest the warforged requested to go in the forest and hunt wolves and I was torn between “don’t squash the player’s fun” and “I don’t want them to take damage because they’re going to a boss encounter the next day.” One of the other party members helpfully suggested, “well, what if he just doesn’t find any wolves?” and so that’s what we went with. I consider this game to be a collaborative effort above all. I’ve written the story, I’m leading the way, and I’m the one making final rulings on things, but I’m also flexible and open to the players’ ideas.

DON’T USE IMPOSSIBLE ACCENTS FOR CHARACTERS: When I was helping one of the players put his character together, he mentioned to me that accents would really help with his immersion in my campaign. That made me internally go, “Well, fuck,” because I’m not terribly good at accents and can’t do very many of them, but now I knew I had to at least try to use them even though I hadn’t been planning on it. For the most part it’s been okay, but there have been a few setbacks. One of the main accents I can do is a rough, deep, gravely British-ish kind of accent that makes me cough when I use it for more than a sentence or two, so the two characters I’ve wound up using that for have been a bit tricky. But even worse was my decision to give the aforementioned Christoph Engel a Russian/Eastern European-ish accent. I’d thought I was okay at that one, but it turns out I am awful at sustaining it for any extended period of time. The party has suggested that it turns out he’s faking the accent, but I want to stick to my original idea instead of going that route, so instead we’ve decided that he’s traveled around so much that his native accent isn’t quite firm anymore. Engel’s accent is something I slightly regret choosing, but not so much that I’m willing to give up yet.

I’m sure I will have more lessons/advice to share the longer I DM. I do feel kind of silly for avoiding it and being nervous about it for so long because while I don’t claim to be the best DM ever, I’m far better at it than I expected. I have what I call my “big sister instinct” where I just want to take care of my friends and make sure they’re having a good time and I suppose that DMing kind of feeds off of that, lol. I’m excited to see what the players do with the rest of my story. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun!