Tales From Gloomhaven: A Rock and A Rat

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Coming down from the rarefied – and possibly illusory – oxygen of Pursuing Practical Perfection is a strange experience. Beyond the dread lands of Actually Considered Critique and Good God Why Is There So Much Shit, sits the tiny hidden campfire of Good Stories. It turns out, to the surprise of absolutely no one but myself, that beyond my desire to elevate criticism to something with actual value, and behind my need to quantify everything to it’s most most useful, I’m just a storyteller.

So today, I don’t want to dive into the interplay of board game mechanics, or explain…anything much. And as a post, there will be no pictures, or witty captions. Honestly, I just want to tell you guys about a bitter, pious Vermling, and the creation of Gloomhaven’s very first cinnamon roll.

*

It’s a normal day in The Sleeping Lion – bitter drunks and watered drink, friendly gambling with unfriendly smiles. It’s busy, not bustling. The clientele ranges from the lowest of the low, to…anyone who dares, really. It’s a peculiar place; it doesn’t scream welcome, but anyone is.

In one of the many grimy corners of the bar, a mercenary deal is being made. This is not unusual; this is Gloomhaven after all. A miserable city that, by virtue of being slightly less miserable than the bandit-and-disease plagued lands around, somehow continues to be a better option than just putting a cloak over a stick. Most of its denizens – and they most definitely are denizens – are eking out a living in whatever way they can.

For the two seated figures at the bar, it’s the mercenary life: Will Work For Cash, whatever that ‘work’ happens to be. The third figure at the table is obviously in charge – the richness of their clothing and the intricate gold jewelry that glints from every limb puts them in charge, always. They have money, the others do not. From their style and clothing, you would guess successful merchant. And if it wasn’t for the fact that, in Gloomhaven, you don’t get to be a successful merchant without knowing how to spot threats and – more often than not – shiv them accordingly, this gesticulating figure would be silently marked as ‘potential victim’ to everyone in the building. But this is Gloomhaven, and this is The Sleeping Lion. Unlikely figures and shady deals are just another Tuesday morning.

The two figures not currently covered in gold are our heroes. One sits, a hulk of a figure, playing with his fingers. His rock-encrusted skin marking him as a Savvas – the empty shattered sheets of crystal that sit, clearly visible, in his chest marking him as a Cragheart. An outcast. A racial embarrassment.

This is Boab. Unusually for a Savvas, he is a he. In addition to not mastering the elements, he has also not mastered the genderless pronoun as is the norm for his race. Perhaps all this explains why he is sat here, in a miserable pub, listening to a deal that seems too good to be true.

Next to him, half-hidden in Boab’s shadow, sits Snix. Whisker-twitching, matted and miserably furred, the tiny humanoid rat is almost missed. On consideration, this is probably deliberate. Forced to live in the sewers, and living life as the most despised race around, it is perhaps unsurprising that Snix doesn’t like to be noticed. He is petty, bitter, and universally hated. When he talks…Snix is a bitch, undeniably so. The fact that he can mind-control groups of rats and, occasionally, other people may well explain why he is allowed to the table. You don’t have to like someone for them to be useful.

After much gesticulating, a deal is struck – not that there’s much choice. Jobs for a well-meaning Savvos and a prickly Vermling are rare. And now, together, they set out to crack skulls and find some papers.

It would be exciting to say that many adventures are had – and it truth they are. But again, this is Gloomhaven. Mercenaries don’t take the jobs because they are heroes, but because they want to eat. Breaking into crypts, fighting unknowable horrors – this is old news. It’s not that it’s not amazing, but really, I’m busy right now, maybe tell me another time, bye.

People just don’t want to know.

*

Along the way our dubious heroes do, in fact, have some good times. They enter a pie eating contest. They try their luck with some exotic foreign street-food. A number of other eating-related memories are born. They even, one day, try some genuine do-goodery and go to help an old lady. These moments are few and far between in life, so our duo revel in the events, their little victories forming gold threads in a shared tapestry.

Somehow, somewhere, Snix performs a mind-swap. The last desperate trick to beat a seemingly impossible situation; an undead-filled crypt that just cannot be overcome. Until, with bodies and minds transplanted, it can. New tactics and strategies unwind. All of a sudden Snix softens – still sharp, but somehow less mean. And his new thinking opens the crypt like a clam. Maybe it’s the taste of reputation; something universally denied to Vermling. To the world at large, Vermling = bad. But now Snix has a companion who not only doesn’t seem to care that Snix is a Vermling, but who doesn’t even notice. And now, the new Snix is able to dart in and out, tripping the dumb undead with a smile – or at least a smirk.

Boab, meanwhile, loses his fear. He runs into fights and hurls boulders – knowing full well that every hit he takes is one that Snix doesn’t, and Boab finds that his fear was needless; his flinty hide shrugs off the blows. The world can’t hurt him.

Somewhere, somehow, in the melee these two people pass from each other’s nuisance, to each other’s colleague, to each other’s ally. They work, and work well. A tiny ball of fur and mind-manipulation the counterpoint to the animate pile of stones who just wants to open a bakery. Boab remains an innocent, a pure soul, even in the horror-doused lands of Gloomhaven. And Snix has, for the first time, a friend.

And then, out of the dark, a lead emerges, and in a moment of mind-merging, Boab’s past comes to light: A murder, a dead friend, a corrupt guard who let it happen. A mystery that burns in his truly broken heart, his sweetness all the more sad for the gut-wrenching, life-destroying rage that grips beneath. Boab needs to follow this. He has to know. He has to know.

And like the note of grace, all unexpected, Snix comes along. Not as a favour, not as a deal, but to help. As far as Snix is concerned, someone needs to look out for Boab and his big stupid head. Someone needs to look after him.

The night passes in a flurry of blood; Boab tears open a city guard barracks to find the corruption and cracks apart his target like an egg. A document takes him to a bloodied shack – a ritual site – and with rage and ruin Boab holds off the animate-earth horrors that stumble for him, while Snix dashes inside. A slow and grinding fight ensues, no way to retreat.

A showdown emerges. Crammed into a tiny shack, barely space to move, Boab faces down a true months. And with Snix’s help, Boab plunges the very weapon that was used to murder his friend into the chest of their killer.

And just like that, it is done.

What now?

A villain uncovered, dark magics exposed. The unfamiliar rage that has been twisting under the skin for years is drained, and with it goes every part of his life.

Boab needs to go. He can’t stay here, in this place. And yet, all unexpected, it tears at his shattered heart, because in this place, at this time, he will be saying goodbye to his only friend. A friendship born in horror, but a true friendship for all that.

Poof. He is gone.

…And Snix is alone again.

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