New Wargame Wednesday Series: Battle of the Bulge

It’s been awhile since I’ve had time to document my wargaming here or at Castalia House, so I thought it would be worth highlighting that I’ve got a new one going that will carry us through into the new year.

Recently, I finished a series of Avalon Hill’s The Battle of the Bulge, which I’ll be going over in-depth at Castalia House.

Spoilers, the Nazis went 1-3, with two crushing defeats, a razor thin game-loss and one Strategic Victory (Two mechanized corps across the Meuse, in supply, on their way to Antwerp). But stay tuned each week to find out just how it went down!

This has been one of my favorite games in ages.

Been playing a beer & pretzels Russian Front game the last couple weeks, and may give a run down on those, but it’s been awhile since I’ve gone all out reviewing a game like Battle of the Bulge.

Part 1

Part 2

Also, playing BotB led to an impulse-buy of a biography of Skorzeny (there are special rules for his operation griffon commandos and the 150th Panzer); I don’t know that I’ll be getting many posts out of that (though I may yell at people on twitter about stuff). Still, if I ever run a “Nazis in Pellucidar” game again, I’ll probably make Skorzeny the big-bad.

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ARPG-Con DCC Session Report (Pt. 2, Evening)

The second DCC session I was in on Saturday at ARPG Con was a run through the level 0 module The Arwich Grinder.

Unlike other DCC modules I’ve played, this one was rather story and role-play heavy, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all!

We had three players and were allowed 6 characters.

The Arwich Grinder is a bit of a fun-house module that is bigger on building atmosphere than instant kill traps. A local family is your typical Lovecraft villain family: reclusive and prolifically inbred with a penchant for the occult. But they’ve got some good will in the town because during a famine they provided everyone in the town with foodstuffs. Well, it turns out they were breeding meat-men; a couple meat-men got out, including one who had the bonnet of “Bessie”(the one young pretty member of the family) in its hand before collapsing dead in the middle of the tavern.

There were a few things that were odd about this session:

  • We were playing as about 10% of the town’s populace, going to check in on the Curwen family to see if everything was all right, in turn-of-the-century America, but none of us had any fire-arms with us. This made it a bit hard to suspend disbelief.
  • It was always a strong point of discussion among the players about meta-gaming vs. roleplaying. While we always opted for the latter, it was funny, because we were all “The obvious solution would be to burn their house down, but we’re here to check on our neighbors and we’re convinced that they need to be rescued from something”.
  • While we “Lost Characters”, they didn’t die—in wargamer parlance, they “successfully exited the map”.

Even for DCC, we had pretty impressive manpower, but we used our resources wisely, treating our characters as the normal townfolk that they were trying to do a normal townfolk thing in the face of otherworldly horror.

  • The meat-man eating pig-slop and brandishing a human rib-cage? The poor retarded lad had to be put down, he was a danger to the community and our neighbors the Curwens!
  • The crazy lady locked in the upstairs? When she came running and shrieking at us, we subdued her, talked her down, put her on a cart and had a few characters drag her back to town for medical treatment.
  • The giant invisible baby in the attic? The characters who saw it were convinced it was a ghost, those who didn’t didn’t believe them or decided it was best not to muck with; we were there to save the Curwens!
  • The crazy old man downstairs? He’s hungry and senile and not a problem; we gave him some food and were all “We’ll come back for you.”
  • In the under-area we run into one of the Curwen couples. “Horrible stuff’s been goin’ on! We’re here to rescue you!” Husband attacks, gets killed because there are still a dozen of us after a few folks went back with the crazy lady. We subdue the wife, because it’s not gentlemanly to kill one of the ladies you’re trying to save. She tells us what’s going on, that the chanting we hear is the patriarch with Bessie and “he’s gonna fix it”. A few characters escort the wife into a room where she’ll be locked up for a minute; we’ll come back for her once we know Bessie’s safe.
  • Patriarch is gonna sacrifice Bessie, tossing her into a pit of boiling mud; a couple folks grab Bessie while we D’Onofrio the Patriarch.
  • Another Curwen couple shows up; we knock out the husband but were unable to apprehend the wife and toddler.
  • We continue sending Curwens back to town in waves, having “rescued” them. Our best characters stay to mop up and look for survivors. Characters going “off-the-map” run into the Constable and tell him they need to send a rider or telegraph to the city, get out the state militia, somebody who actually has guns.
  • We kill a couple of out-of-town cousins who didn’t believe that we’d solved the problem by not letting them summon a tentacle monster and calling up the militia.
  • While we’re unable to find the one woman who escaped or her child, we consider it a job well done that we saved most everybody, our neighborly duty was fulfilled, and G-Men could handle the rest. Also, it seemed like a good time to pack up and move out of New England.

Maybe this was an “easy” module? Or maybe we just “did it right”? The GM was impressed with our run, saying she’d never seen anyone play it the way we had; usually folks would either burn down the house, kill everybody inside, or mess with the giant invisible baby and get killed. I liked it, though, because even though it wasn’t hack & slash, the story emerged from the setting and things we could interact with; nothing felt forced. The GM rolled with our ideas of sending “rescued survivors” back with PCs for medical attention or to jail. The module had a story, but it was non-linear and could’ve played out any number of ways. For us, it played out with no PC casualties, minimal NPC death, and no eldritch horror “fixing” the problem. Ironically, had we NOT investigated, other than at the cost of Bessie’s life, the problem would’ve fixed itself.

It was a great Halloween horror module, even if it wasn’t a particularly good “Funnel”. I don’t think any of our characters would become Level 1 Adventurers following the escapade, but given that no one died, it’s probably the closest you could get to a “flawless victory” in a level 0 module.

Still, I’d like to see this with guns. “Giant nekkid deaf-mutes are shamblin’ into town? A bonnie lass may be in danger? Let me fetch the match-lock from me mantle…”

ARPG-CON DCC Session Report (Pt. 1, Morning)

Over the weekend I attended the inaugural ARPG Con and played in a couple of DCC games. Funnels, of course, since that’s what most folks are into and surviving a funnel is something that you can do in the time-frame of a con one-off and leave the table with a sense of accomplishment.

I don’t know the name of the first module, or if it was even a full module or a portion of a whole, but the second session was The Arwich Grinder. They were good sessions, and I had fun in both, but they were very different. Most significantly, one of them was a story-driven Call of Cthulhu module and I didn’t hate it!

Morning game was framed as a “Mystery” adventure. It was set in the Sutterlands or something. There’s a wedding, the PCs drink from a mystery jug, and they wake up on a haunted farm. It was less of a mystery and more of a puzzle; a puzzle that had to be solved before ghosts killed you.

Table was myself, an experienced gamer who’d not played DCC, and two kids who were experienced players (parents were DCC Judges, and I think they may have been niece & nephew of the folks who organized the con). We each had 4 characters.

Deal was there were 4 farm-houses, a well, a graveyard, and a cornfield. One house had an instant kill death-trap that made no sense so could not have been avoided by smart play (seriously, who would have expected a ramshackle wood cabin would instantly fill with flesh-burning acid in a single round the moment you stepped inside it?). Another house was a “safehouse”, with sigils on the doors that keep the ghosts out, plus two halves of a broken hawthorn staff that you could actually hit the ghosts. Third house had a spellbook that would’ve been great if we were using this to launch an ongoing campaign. Last house had images depicting the puzzle’s story. Cornfield had a pile of corpses around a scarecrow, Graveyard had a pair of earthhounds in it, and the Well had a debris monster.

So, we wake up in the middle of these houses and are almost immediately set upon by ghosts from the woods. Not wanting to make things easy on the GM, we all sent our characters in different directions. Two of my characters got instant killed by the trap (was it a Trap House or an Acid House?) while the other two headed for the house with the sigils that seemed to hold. Other players’ characters ran around in all directions; some with me in the safehouse, at least one other killed by the trap, one triggered the earthhounds, others ran for the other two houses, while one found the scarecrow and the pile of bones. All over the course of a couple rounds.

So, the “story” of the site was that the people who lived there were evil (natch), and a priest had gone to visit them. They killed the priest, broke his staff, threw his holy symbol down the well and left the body as an offering before the Corn Lord.

The solution to the puzzle was to go into the well, retrieve the holy symbol (the debris monster was entirely optional), and place it in the out-stretched hand of the dead cleric. The cleansing rain would destroy the curse and dissolve the ghosts (but only after they got to attack for a couple more rounds). I got a “bonus” (free mini-dice bag!) from the GM for being the first to suggest improvised weaponry (I started with a mithril ingot that my dwarf fastened to his hammer); we were supposed to fashion improvised weapons from things like the hawthorn sigils, the broken staff and at least one silver key to fight the ghosties.

It was a puzzle and we solved it. There was some satisfaction to it, but not a lot of real resolution. Who gave us the jug of magic liquor? Why was there a jug of magic liquor that would take us to redneck Ravenloft? There was not a massive sense of accomplishment, but as a funnel to kick off a campaign, I guess it got the job done.

I did like its scale, however. It felt like the right amount of adventure that would take a character to first level. One of the things that bothered me about Sailors on the Starless Sea was that the upper-castle should’ve reasonably gotten characters to level 1, and level 1 characters would’ve stood more of a chance against the last set-piece encounter. All but the very end of Sailors could be smart-played, which damn near made it a cake-walk for our group, and therefore an ineffective funnel, other than the fact that it expected you to roll up on the last fight and just slug it out toe-to-toe with a(n admittedly weak) chaos avatar and his army of beastmen. With the exception of the instant-kill acid trap that could not have possibly been foreseen, this adventure could be smart-played to a degree where you’d only lose a few characters. Less experienced players would probably finish this one out with at least one character alive apiece, with some smart-plays mitigating character-death.

  • Go straight for the safehouse and wait for the ghosts to leave
  • Burn any corn-husk dolls; this should’ve been a no-brainer, especially as a one-off, but I kept my characters’, and, of course, they attacked me during the final fight.
  • Without pressure from ghosts (whose raids are intermittent), you’d probably only lose one character to the acid-trap
  • Earthhounds are a tough fight for someone who just stumbles into them, but you have economy of action on them like a mo-fo, especially if the ghosts aren’t attacking.
  • You don’t even need to fight the debris monster.
  • At worst, you lose a few characters in the final ghost attack.

All-in-all, much better than “here’s 40 guys, fight them and the characters who live are your level 1”, at least in terms of giving players as much agency as possible over the outcome.

Next, I’ll talk about our power-house, flaw-less victory run of The Arwich Horror!

Sandboxes?

I came across a bizarre article by DM David yesterday on Sandboxes with the click-baity title “Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think.” His article uses an idea of a sandbox in a way that no DMs I’ve ever played with or who have written on the subject have used the term.

David seems to be using it to describe some sort of absolute free-for-all, nothing planned, no direction to go, the DM just runs with whatever the players decide to do at that moment. It’s nuts, so of course that notion of a sandbox doesn’t work and is not what players really want.

“Sandbox” in every case I’ve seen it used has meant a gaming environment populated with multiple locations to interact with and explore, as opposed to “Here is a dungeon; you are going to explore this dungeon; here is a town; when you’re not in the dungeon, you’re at the town.” The sandbox is typically full of toys; you can play in it and you play with the toys that are there. Sometimes you get more toys, which is always cool, or maybe you find a toy that was hidden under some sand.

Just because players enjoy exploring dungeons doesn’t mean that they’re not in a sandbox game or that they don’t enjoy sandboxing!

Yet David oddly seems to imply that there is some kind of ‘pure’ Sandbox that is devoid of adventure hooks for players to choose from.

sandbox

“Herpty, derp, you put a castle to be explored in your sandbox? Looks like you’re going back towards the rails, friend!”

While there is some sound advice for open-world gaming in David’s post, it’s all derived from attacking a strawman notion of Sandbox gaming that doesn’t exist.

“I think seeding your sandbox with locations for PCs to explore may be pushing your story too hard!” said no ‘railroad-phobic’ player ever.

A sandbox may not have rails, but it has boundaries and things to do; David’s notion of a sandbox sounds more like a desert.

Anyway, ChicagoWiz has also written an interesting rebuttal to David’s piece.

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea went from “This is way too easy for a funnel” to “How the hell’d they expect 0-lvl characters to finish?”*

“Uh… Agatha Agartha, my chaotic alchemist wearing the chaos robe and chaos torc kneels in obeisance and hopes for the best… She uh.. was clearly drawn here to serve the chaos lord–it’s her destiny. Also, she pushes Varra, my elven falconer, into the lava.”

With 30 beastmen, a beastman shaman, a chaos avatar, and no win-state in sight, we settled for a non-standard game-over cutscene. Thing is, if we’d had a standard group of level 1 or 2 PCs, I think we could’ve wiped the floor with them.

 So, I’d say that Sailors may be a good 1st or 2nd level module, but was NOT a very good funnel…

I’d like to take a look at the module myself and see just how bad we screwed up, going from unscathed to unconditional surrender.  Ironically, just as predicted, Stinky Pete the Cheesemaker, my -5 character, was the only PC to survive by virtue surrendering to the tax collectors and not hopping on board the stupid dragon boat. As a local, they assumed he’d been captured by the rest of the party, who they’d believed were chaos cultist due to us wearing chaos robes and, in our cockiness, attacking the search party.

The tax-collectors probably weren’t in the module; I think they were there to keep from whittling away slowly and going back to town. The logic was that a) the Barron doesn’t like people messing around the castle, and b) there was some missing tax money, so we had to leave town or get blamed; the tax collectors would eventually look around the keep for the missing money (which was actually either stolen by beastmen or stolen by villagers/thieves who were turned into beastmen, or the thieves who stole it were captured by beastmen). Otherwise we were all “Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the missing new pairs of boots; your sons are dead, Hiram the Blacksmith. Good job, everyone!”

I think that the problem with a lot of funnels may be the lack of incentive for 0-level characters to risk life and limb. Best Funnel I was ever in, we started as prisoners and conscripts of a sewer militia that was a front for cultists. A quick intro, a tough fight with environmental stuff to take advantage of, and a spooky fungus-filled sewer to avoid the stuff in while escaping. One session and we had our 1st level characters.

Someone has recommended to me that it’s a good idea to intentionally kill subpar characters at the first available opportunity, in part because if they do survive, they’ll wreck your campaign experience, but that’s definitely not something I could subscribe to.

I love my crappy sub-par characters! First game, my crappy thief ended up the longest lived and genuinely scariest party member. By the time we ended that game, she’d made it to level 4, had 9 hit points and a collection of faces she’d cured and turned into masks. Plus, with the way the Thief skill tables work, they can be pretty good at doing their jobs regardless of stats. It’s a great class to dump mediocre characters who survive the Funnel into.

But when it comes to funnels, the downside of killing sub-par characters intentionally is that it reduces your economy of action.

Still, as much as I want to like DCC and still want to play more of it, there’s something about it that leaves me feeling a little let down. I like a lot of DCC’s concepts, but every time we put them into practice, we’re all “Gee, I can’t imagine why we ever stopped playing this system D:<” Clerics suck, the magic system is clunky as hell, the crit tables are dumb and don’t work… Really the concept of the Funnel is the one part that my group actually finds appealing (which is why we ultimately rebuilt WHRPG around the concept of a perpetual Funnel).

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*:Ranged characters. If we’d all picked ranged weapons and not lost a few party members to the tax collectors, we probably could’ve taken the hordes with slings and javelins. Also, given the module’s name, I would’ve expected a more nautical theme, not just the train ride to the boss-fight involving a boat.

Alignment Part 3: Some Examples!

Part 1

Part 2

From the comments the other day:

I’m baffled.
Baffled by living in a world where people can’t figure out what words like ‘good’ and ‘chaotic’ mean and act like it is some obscure mystery.

You know, this is interesting, because in the first part of my explanation, I pretty much state that a major reason that Alignment doesn’t work is because people don’t understand what “good” and “chaotic” mean. The relativist approach means that someone can be playing as a demon whose very existence is a blasphemy upon creation and the laws of nature, but because the player wants the demon to be a “nice guy” or within the confines of his demonic culture he is an upstanding citizen, the player is able to declare for Lawful or Neutral Good, and then the rest of the group wonders why Alignment doesn’t matter at their table.

People DON’T understand the Law/Chaos spectrum any more than they understand the Good/Evil spectrum. For instance, many people think of Chaotic Good as the either the guy who does some good but is inherently selfish or someone who tries to do good but breaks laws while doing so. A lot of people would give Robin Hood as an example of Chaotic Good, but they’d be wrong, and here’s why:

While Robin Hood lived in the wilds and opposed King John and the Sheriff, he was not doing so from an angle meant to upset Nature’s law and/or the will of the heavens. On the contrary, he understood the natural and divinely bestowed rights of Man and fought against a power that was usurping them. Additionally, the power he opposed (John and the Sheriff) are portrayed as being in opposition to the rightful rule of King Richard – in this sense, Robin has positioned himself as an agent of the legitimate and rightful law that is respectful of the rights of man, acting on behalf of Richard, the true authority. Though certain trickster elements are incorporated, the classic portrayal of Robin Hood throughout many iterations in the 19th and 20th century* would be Lawful Good.

So, what would be Chaotic Good? One of the most remarkable literary examples in fantasy would be Tom Bombadil. He is good and beneficent, but he is outside the realm of Nature and Nature’s law. He is unaffected by the magic of the Maiar; in fact, he is so far outside of the scope of the strugle that Middle Earth is going through, it’s acknowledged by the characters in the book that it would be irresponsible to rely on him – though he’s unaffected by the Ring’s power and evil, he’d probably forget about it!

Melkor would be Chaotic Evil, because his modus operandi was the corruption of creation; everything related to him is described in terms of perversion and marring the true and good intentions of benevolent creators. As an agent of perversion, the more he took on a fixed, absolute, corporeal form with which to rule over his Earthly domain, the weaker he became.

Sauron, as a created being within nature (one of the fallen Maiar) adheres to the laws of creation set forth by the Gods (it’s one of the reasons why he is so vulnerable), and though he wields great power and is able to use that power to corrupt the minds of his foes and cast a shadow over the land, he is still within the sphere of Law. Yes, the struggle in Middle Earth during the 3rd Age is between Lawful Good and Lawful Evil, with Lawful Neutral free people and Neutral Good elder races throwing in with LG against Lawful Evil.

Okay, let’s break away from Lord of the Rings for a minute.

I think that one of the best examples of a True Neutral character might be Garrett from the Thief games.

“But he steals things!” you say; “He’s a law-breaker!” you say; “He may save the world, but he’s probably a bad guy! He’s Chaotic Neutral at best!” you say.

All right, those things are all true, but you need to look at the bigger picture.

While Garrett is a Thief who steals things and breaks the law, he is not a wholly evil person. Assuming that Expert is the canonical way in which Garrett completes the missions, it’s clear that he has a code, part of which is to avoid killing at all costs. There is, if my memory serves, only one mission in which Garrett is allowed to kill his fellow man, and that’s because of an oversight in updating the goals for a mission that did not originally feature human opponents (the magi in the Gold version of The Lost City).

In Thief’s cosmology, there is a conflict between Law, as embodied by the Hammers, and Chaos, as embodied by the Pagans and Fae.** The Hammers aren’t the nicest dudes, in part because from a thief’s perspective, they crack down and crack down hard on criminality; while the current crop of Hammers may seem unnecessarily cruel, their order and the God they serve ultimately fall into the schema of Lawful Good. The Fae who are worshiped by the Pagans are inimical to human life (as it is currently being lived), and the Woodsy Lord is intent on pushing man back into a primeval state. His domain is the Maw of Chaos, so it’s right there in the name.

Someone pointed out in the comments on the previous post that Planes can shift in the relationship to alignment as their leaders change, and we see something of that in Thief 2 with Victoria. Constantine is the sworn foe of the Builder and stands against everything they represent; he is Chaotic Evil in Thief’s cosmology. Victoria, on the other hand, is more pragmatic; I’d place her as Chaotic Neutral – while acting as Constantine’s second, she will have his back, but on her own, her primary concern is not a victory of Evil over Good but preserving Chaos against an encroaching order of Law. Even Garrett notices that the nature of the Maw has changed subtly under her. Neutral Good characters like Lt. Mosley are aiming to find some sort of middle ground between the “Chaos” of the pagans and fae and the Law of the Mechanists.

So Garrett’s place in the “prophecies” is as a balancing agent; when the pendulum swings towards Chaos in Thief: the Dark Project, he ends up finding himself allied with Law via the Hammerites who aid him in sealing the Maw of Chaos. In Thief 2: The Metal Age, the pendulum has swung back the other way, too far in the favor of Law, so he becomes an ally of Chaos to fight against the Mechanist takeover of the city. He is not in those positions because he is a nice guy or a bad guy, but because it is his destiny to act as an agent of balance in the greater cosmic struggle around him.

 

*:Earliest incarnations of Robin Hood which do not incorporate much of the now established lore would be closer to Neutral Good or Lawful Neutral, depending on the telling; before the notion that Robin Hood was stealing money from nobles and returning it to the unjustly taxed, most folks were happy with a Robin who was stealing from nobles because fuck the nobility; with nobles as pieces of a framework of divinely ordained Law, such a Robin would be slightly more chaotic, since he was acting against the natural order of things (divinely righted stripped of their rightful treasures) – when the definition of the order which Robin was opposing changed, along with his reasons for opposing it, the character became Lawful Good.

**:Note that Nature in Thief’s cosmology is depicted as chaos/chaotic as opposed to the mechanical order believed to be set upon the universe by the Master Builder.

D&D Alignment Part 2: D&D’s Cosmology

Q: Why don’t alignment mechanics work in 5e?

A: Because alignment was a mechanic used in conjunction with a rarely used portion of the game.

Alignment in #dnd is not supposed to be a personality test but a simplified representation of how a character or creature relates to the cosmos in chart below.

Cohn_blank_planes500

A shift in D&D’s cosmology combined with the move away from a human-centric model for the adventuring party effectively broke how alignment worked.

While some people have argued that player-selfishness is part of what’s going on, you need to look at alignment not as a play-style but as a mechanic. The alignment mechanic represents an aspect of the world in which D&D is set. Trying to drop that mechanic into a different cosmology just doesn’t work without rebuilding the cosmology it represents from the ground up. It would be like trying to apply Tolkien’s concept of light and dark elf to other settings’ elves, bereft of any meaning due to the absence of the Trees of Valinor in said other setting.

Isn’t alignment just a reflection of the cosmos through a character’s behavior? To an extent, but not exactly. Alignment in D&D is not necessarily an indicator of behavior: a character can be “good” but not fall into the “GoodTM” column of a cosmology. Just look at the “virtuous pagans” in Dante’s hell.

For alignment to work mechanically as designed, it needs to be treated almost like a birth-sign. You don’t necessarily have to adhere to all of the associated tropes and traits strictly, but you need to assume, for game purposes, that there’s something greater in effect beyond your own understanding and control. You also might need a touch of Calvinism in your setting for alignments to work as designed, too.

Changing alignment should not be done lightly, because you aren’t just changing some behaviors or habits – you are revolting against cosmic forces and changing your destiny.

Alignment is generally more important at higher levels, since a bunch of low-level mooks have little effect on cosmic affairs. As a mechanic, alignment exists to say that “this person is aligned cosmically with x in a tangible way” for purposes of spells and magic items.

As one gets access to specific magics or has done things which have drawn the attention of extra planar beings, alignment matters both mechanically and for story purposes. At lower levels, detection and masking magic reveal or conceal those tangible connections to the cosmos. “Hide Alignment” isn’t going to keep someone from noticing whether you’re an obvious asshole or nice guy, but it will keep someone from seeing the tangible links you have to the greater conflict playing out across the planes. But until you’re a heavy, those tangible links will be relatively insignificant most of the time. But it’s those same links that explain why certain magic items work in certain ways for or against certain adversaries – they are attuned to the cosmic struggle in the same way everything else is; alignment is a wavelength, which also perhaps best explains the bizarre phenomenon which is alignment language.

Picking an alignment which fits your character’s personality and shaping the cosmos around those characters’ alignment choices is doing it backwards, which is why many people find alignment rules baffling. Unless you are actually using AD&D’s implied setting and cosmology, of course, there’s no mechanical reason to keep alignment. It becomes almost purely cosmetic since players and DMs use it mostly as a personality marker. It can be entirely discarded because it’s a rule that explains a character’s relationship to 1e AD&D’s batshit cosmology!

Please keep in mind, I’m not defending alignment as a mechanic, I’m trying to give context of WHY it’s not working the way people think it should.

The reason I like the 1 axis scale is that it’s a pretty simple range of “Is this character aligned with Mankind or aligned with Fae?”