Mar 17 2021

Shady and Androgyny

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Shade-Of-the-Candle, Like a BOSS

It’s no secret that my preference is for leading ladies in my work. From Tiffany Tiger to Verity Anjo, there are reasons both practical and philosophical that nine times out of ten I will pick a gal to be my hero. And while Shade-Of-the-Candle is a character who grew organically in my mind rather than being deliberately created, the same is true for her. But of all the female leads I’ve created, Shady is probably the least “feminine.” Physically, she’s a skinny beanpole, “all elbows and knees,” and while lithe and flexible as any other cat (and, let’s face it, clad in a leather corset and thigh boots), she’s not Superhero Sexy like Catwoman or Black Widow. Depending on her age and circumstances, Shady ranges from a scraggly alleycat to a scrappy tomboy to a Georgian duelist in a longcoat and feathered tricorn hat. In terms of her personality, she is snarky, aggressive, goal-oriented, and covers pain or vulnerability with bluster or bravado… all of which are pretty typically “masculine” (or at least boyish) traits.

Which led me to thinking about the role womanhood plays in the makeup of her character. I know some male writers whose women come off pretty much as “men with boobs,” and I have always worked to avoid that. But as I examined it, I found that I couldn’t really picture a male Shade-Of-the-Candle, and have it be the same character. The closest analogue I could come up with was Disney’s take on Aladdin—he’s got the imposter syndrome, the very cavalier ideas about property, the swashbuckling physicality, and so on. Aside from the fur and tail, a male version of Shady would probably hit a lot of the same beats.

But at the same time, there’s an external-vs.-internal difference between Aladdin and Shady. Aladdin is “unworthy” because he’s poor, because society says he’s unworthy—the words may sting, but he never actually believes them. He just has to get past it, like an obstacle. Shady, on the other hand, has internalized it. When Maraldo and the pawnshop owner and however-many-other people told her over the course of her life that she was nothing and nobody, on some level she believed it. Even with her own ship and crew and having slain a dragon and more, the fight that Shady can’t win is inside her own head.

That’s not an inherently “male/female” dynamic—lots of women know they’re more than society says they are, and lots of men never get over toxic voices from their childhood. But in our culture at least there is a “masculine/feminine” dichotomy that it does play into. (“Male/female” and “masculine/feminine,” while closely related, are not actually the same.) And I think it’s a dynamic that would express very differently in a male Shady who’d grown up under the same circumstances. I suspect male Shady would have ended up a lot meaner, certainly more wrathful, and run with a more cutthroat crowd. He’d also be a lot less clever, more inclined to intimidation or violence than charm or wit. Would he have even Shady’s sketchy version of a conscience? Hard to say. Shady’s feminine aspects inclined her to identify more with Velas’s kindness than Maraldo’s brutality (and I notice that she has diametrically opposed father figures but no mother to look to); I think in a lot of ways it’s the push-pull between her aggressive and “masculine” traits and that quiet-but-persistent “feminine” side that make her compelling, to me.

-TG

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Sep 08 2020

Being a Player or a DM in D&D

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GeekQuery! A new web channel featuring InkBlitz and myself, talking all things geeky. We jump right in this week, discussing what it’s like to switch to being a player in tabletop RPGs if you’re used to being the Gamemaster—or vice-versa. We’re just getting started and we’d love some feedback!

-The Gneech

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Aug 27 2020

Shady the Bard, Revisited

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The business end of Shade-Of-the-Candle
So I think I’ve talked myself into multiclassing Shady with bard instead of fighter. The question now becomes… when? My initial thought was that it would start at 11th level, because Reliable Talent is a broken class feature anyway, but I would miss the ability score bumps at 8 and 10, not to mention Evasion (which is amazing) and Panache (which is also amazing).

On the other hand… 11th level is really far away, if we even take it for granted that the game will get there. As players, we (admittedly, mostly me, but other players bought in to my reasoning) asked Inkblitz to slow levelling down when we hit sixth, and, well, it’s very rare for any D&D game to survive long past 10th. And since Bard Shady’s spells top out at 3rd level, if I wait for 11th to roll around, they’re going to be a lot more limited in application.

So I started thinking about what would happen if I made the switch immediately: what would I gain, and what would I lose? Since 9th level’s Panache and the 10th level ASI are sort of my benchmarks of pure rogue, I tried statting up Shady Rogue 10, and Shady Rogue 5/Bard 5, and this is what I got:

—–

SHADY: Rogue (Swashbuckler) 10
AC 17; hp 74
Speed: 30′, x2 w/ Feline Agility
Initiative: +8

Str 10, Dex 20, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 16
Saves: Dex +9, Int +4
Acrobatics +9, Animal Handling +1, Arcana +0, Athletics +8, Deception +3, History +0, Insight +1, Intimidation +7, Investigation +4, Medicine +1, Nature +0, Perception +9, Performance +3, Persuasion +11, Religion +0, Sleight of Hand +9, Stealth +13, Survival +1
Prof: Concertina, Dice Set, Thieves’ Tools

Cunning Action, Evasion, Fancy Footwork, Panache, Rakish Audacity, Sneak Attack +5d6, Uncanny Dodge

Crescent Moon: +10 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing (+5d6 sneak attack*)
Cutlass (off-hand): +9 to hit, 1d6 slashing
[average combined DPR 31.5]
Pistol: +9 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing (+5d6 sneak attack*) [average DPR 28]

*Sneak attack can only apply once per turn.

—–

SHADY: Rogue (Swashbuckler) 5/Bard (College of Swords) 5
AC 17 (+d8 Blade Flourish**); hp 74
Speed: 30′, 40′ w/ attack action (Blade Flourish), x2 w/ Feline Agility
Initiative: +9

Str 10, Dex 20, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 14
Saves: Dex +9, Int +4
Acrobatics +9, Animal Handling +3, Arcana +2, Athletics +8, Deception +6, History +2, Insight +3, Intimidation +6, Investigation +4, Medicine +3, Nature +2, Perception +9, Performance +4, Persuasion +10, Religion +2, Sleight of Hand +9, Stealth +13, Survival +3
Prof: Concertina, Dice Set, Navigator’s Tools, Thieves’ Tools

Bardic Inspiration d8 (2/short or long rest), Blade Flourish, Cunning Action, Fancy Footwork, Fighting Style (Two-Weapon Fighting), Jack of All Trades, Rakish Audacity, Sneak Attack +3d6, Song of Rest (d6), Uncanny Dodge

Spells: 0-level—Friendship, Mage Hand, Vicious Mockery; 1—level (4 slots)—Charm Person, Healing Word, Heroism, Longstrider, Sleep; 2-level (3 slots)—Blindness/Deafness, Enthrall; 3-level (2 slots)—Stinking Cloud

Crescent Moon: +10 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing (+3d6 sneak attack*, +d8 Blade Flourish**)
Cutlass (off-hand): +9 to hit, 1d6+5 slashing
[average combined DPR 34]
Pistol: +9 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing (+3d6 sneak attack*) [average DPR 21]

*Sneak attack can only apply once per turn.
**Blade Flourish cannot add to AC and weapon damage on the same turn, can only apply damage once per turn, and expends a use of Bardic Inspiration.

—–

CONCLUSIONS: Bard Shady’s swordsmanship suffers when not using blade flourishes, but is actually superior when she does use them. Unfortunately, she only has two per short rest. Her marksmanship drops noticeably, however. On the other hand, with Sleep, Stinking Cloud, and spammable Vicious Mockery, she has other options at range. She loses both Uncanny Dodge (ouch) and Panache (ouch), but gains a much more robust skill list, gets to plug a hole in her mariner skills w/ Navigator Tools, and becomes a better leader, with Bardic Inspiration, Healing Word, and Song of Rest available to bolster her crew.

If we assume that her “spells” are actually just items she’s carrying around in that utility belt, Mage Hand becomes her yoinking things from across the room with her grapple hook, Sleep can be sleeping powder or a sucker punch, and Blindness/Deafness and Stinking Cloud both become bags of stuff she lobs at her foes.

That running speed, tho. With Blade Flourish and Feline Agility, she can run 80′ on a turn and still attack someone—who then can’t hit her back when she’s running away thanks to Fancy Footwork. Add Longstrider to the mix and we’re looking at Sonic the Hedgehog. Bard Shady has a higher initiative than Rogue Shady despite having a lower Dex, but won’t be laughing off fireballs. She might just outrun them, tho. >.>

Ugh! It’s a tough choice! Bard Shady is better for the social pillar, Rogue Shady has more sustain in combat (at least against foes that don’t resist slashing and piercing), and the two of them bring different strengths to exploration.

At the end of the day, I think I need to pick the one that is most “in character” rather than being optimized. Given how much Shady loves to talk to people, pulls weird things out of her bag of tricks, wants to be a competent seafarer, and pokes her nose where it doesn’t belong, I suspect Bard Shady edges out Rogue Shady at the end of the day. But I’d love to hear opinions!

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Aug 19 2020

The Ridiculous Brokenness of Shady the Bard

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Shady and Raiwys bonding over shanties

A discussion w/ Inkblitz last night about levelling and suchlike prompted me to noodle around some more with 20th level Shade-Of-the-Candle builds. My general plan for her has been to stick with swashbuckler rogue through level 9 in order to get Panache and then… not sure? Maybe tack on some fighter, since she tends to like to get in and mix it up. Maybe stick to 10 to get the stat bump.

Weirdly, for all my cursing of dice, I don’t actually like the 11th level rogue ability Reliable Talent, which lets you treat any roll with which you’re proficient as if you’d rolled at least a 10. By the time you’re 11th level you’ve got expertise in four skills, a proficiency bonus of +4, and probably +2 to +4 stat bonuses on any skill you’re likely to use a lot, so you’re looking at rogues who are literally incapable of rolling below a 22 on Perception and Stealth (assuming that any rogue worth their salt has at least those two expertised up).

But then I started pfutzing around with bard and… holy crap. O.o Jack of All Trades doesn’t stack with Reliable Talent (thank goodness), but it DOES add to Initiative checks (which Swashbucklers get a bonus to) and, oh yeah, they get another skill proficiency to toss on the pile while they’re at it AND expertise with TWO MORE skills. Aheh. So for your pleasure, assuming no changes in equipment, please compare 20th level Shady as Rogue/Fighter vs. 20th level Shady as Rogue/Bard:

—–

SHADY: Rogue 15/Fighter (Champion) 5
AC 19, hp 169
Initiative: +8

Str 10 Dex 20 Con 16 Int 10 Wis 12 Cha 16
Saves: Dex +11, Int +6, Wis +7
Acrobatics +11 (min 21), Athletics +12 (min 22), Deception +3, Intimidation +9 (min 19), Investigation +12 (min 22), Perception +13 (min 23), Persuasion +15 (min 25), Sleight of Hand +11 (min 21), Stealth +11 (min 21)

Action Surge, Blindsense, Cunning Action, Dual Wielder, Elegant Maneuver, Evasion, Extra Attack, Fancy Footwork, Fighting Style (Mariner), Improved Critical, Panache, Rakish Audacity, Reliable Talent, Second Wind, Sneak Attack +8d6, Uncanny Dodge

Multiattack: Shady attacks twice with the Crescent Moon and can choose to attack with her cutlass as a bonus action
Crescent Moon: +12 to hit, crit 19-20, 1d8+6 piercing +8d6 sneak attack
Cutlass (off-hand): +11 to hit, crit 19-20, 1d6 slashing
Pistol: +11 to hit, crit 19-20, 1d10+5 piercing

—–

SHADY: Rogue 14/Bard (College of Swords) 6
AC 18, hp 164
Initiative: +11 (holy crap)

Str 10 Dex 20 Con 16 Int 10 Wis 12 Cha 16
Saves: Dex +11, Int +6
Acrobatics +17 (min 27), Athletics +12 (min 22), Deception +9 (min 19), Intimidation +9 (min 19), Investigation +12 (min 22), Perception +13 (min 23), Persuasion +15 (min 25), Sleight of Hand +11 (min 21), Stealth +17 (min 27), no skill bonus less than +3 thanks to Jack of All Trades

Bardic Inspiration d8 (3 uses/short rest), Blade Flourish, Blindsense, Countercharm, Cunning Action, Dual Wielder, Elegant Maneuver, Evasion, Extra Attack, Fancy Footwork, Fighting Style (Two-Weapon Fighting), Jack of All Trades, Panache, Rakish Audacity, Reliable Talent, Sneak Attack +7d6, Song of Rest d6, Uncanny Dodge

Spells: 0-level—Friends, Mage Hand, Vicious Mockery; 1-level (4 slots)—Dissonant Whispers, Healing Word, Heroism, Longstrider, Sleep; 2-level (3 slots)—Blindness/Deafness, Calm Emotions, Enthrall; 3-level (3 slots)—Stinking Cloud

Multiattack: Shady attacks twice with the Crescent Moon and can choose to attack with her cutlass as a bonus action
Crescent Moon: +12 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing +7d6 sneak attack
Cutlass (off-hand): +11 to hit, 1d6+5 slashing
Pistol: +11 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing

—–

CONCLUSIONS:
Bard Shady is slightly squishier but not that much: the biggest defense she loses is proficiency with Wisdom saves (which she doesn’t get until Rogue 15 anyway). On the other hand, her initiative and skills are off the charts. She trades 1d6 of sneak attack for being able to add a reliable +5 to her off-hand attack, that’s kind of a wash in terms of combat numbers.

Blade Flourish and spells bring a LOT to the table, tho. All the spells I chose were things that I could convincingly reflavor into things Shady just does, rather than being actual spells—e.g., sleep becomes a sucker punch, blindness/deafness becomes blinding powder tossed into somebody’s face, etc. Mechanically, however, they add some exotic damage (particularly psychic) to her kit, in case they go up against something that just stabbing is less effective against. Blade Flourish can situationally make up for the AC and damage drop, while also opening up opportunities for mini-AoE damage or shoving targets around the field.

Finally, Bard Shady is a much better leader, with Bardic Inspiration, Song of Rest, Countercharm, Healing Word, Heroism, and Calm Emotions to rally the crew, vs. Fighter Shady, who is a gloryhound, more durable in a long fight and can get off SPECTACULAR CRITS a little more often.

Honestly, of the two, Bard Shady is much more interesting, but that Reliable Talent and +11 Initiative just break my brain.

-The Gneech

Aug 11 2020

Creating Five Star Adventures

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I’ve been running a somewhat-modified Tomb of Annihilation lately, and while my players seem to be having a good time, I must admit that I’m not quite feeling the connection with it that I would like. Perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the group has had some seriously bad luck with navigation rolls and so keeps getting lost in the jungle, the game largely feels to me like a string of random fights, with little or no through-line of story or character development, which are famously the parts of any game that I’m the most interested in.

While I was looking for ways to address this for my next session, I happened across this video from Runesmith, in which he enumerates “five things an adventure should have.” What immediately struck me is that I’ve seen this concept before: the first time was in West End Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, way back in 1987, but it’s also a core conceit of the Five Room Dungeon concept. Some of the specific bullet points of the five items vary, however, and if we map them to Dungeons & Dragons‘s “Three Pillars of Adventure” (Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat), we get…

Star Wars RPG Five Room Dungeon Runesmith
  1. Firefight (C)
  2. Ship Combat (C)
  3. Chase (E/C)
  4. NPC Interaction (S)
  5. Problem-Solving (E)
  1. Entrance/Guardian (E/S/C)
  2. Puzzle/RP Challenge (E or S)
  3. Trick/Setback (E or S)
  4. Climax/Big Battle (S or C)
  5. Reward/Revelation/Twist (E/S)
  1. Go Somewhere Cool (E)
  2. Talk to Someone Interesting (S)
  3. Learn Something New (E/S)
  4. Fight Something (C)
  5. Get a Reward (E)

Why five? First, it’s complex enough to be meaty without being so complex that it bogs down in detail or analysis paralysis. Second, it nicely maps to the familiar five-act story structure of setup > rising action > complication > climax > denouement. Finally, it’s a handy pocket size. The Star Wars example doesn’t quite map to the other two—”firefight,” “ship combat,” and “chase” are all more-or-less specific flavors of “fight something”—but the Star Wars setting, with its alien creatures and exotic worlds, has “go somewhere cool” baked into it universe design assumptions (and the inherent reward of any adventure assumed to be “victory for the Alliance”).

Looking at my Tomb of Annihilation game, I actually think that most of the individual sessions have hit the five points fairly consistently: the Burning Coast is an exciting region with dangers and wonders galore, there have been plenty of colorful NPCs, and so on. It has leaned a little heavily on the combat and exploration, but I think the point that may be falling down is rewards. Not just in terms of treasure (because there hasn’t been much, but in this setting gold and such is largely irrelevant), but in terms of the inherent reward of “moving the story forward.” The party came to the Burning Coast to find (and hopefully end) the Wasting Curse, and so far they’ve gone dino racing, rowed up the Amazon Soshenstar River, and now they’ve gotten entangled with the troubles of a lizardfolk village that may or may not have anything to do with the Big Problem. The barbarian, of all people, is wondering “Are we getting anywhere?” and maybe he has a point.

With this in mind, I think I’m going to remix a few of the elements of the next session to tie them more closely to the Big Problem, but more importantly, to show the players that it’s tied to the Big Problem. In an adventure where “loot” is not a metric, “plot coupons” are the actual reward, and I think maybe I’ve been too stingy with those. So I will address that.

-The Gneech

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May 23 2020

Shady and the Tiger, Revisited

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Shade-Of-the-Candle and Silma on the discussion of not having sex.
Just a quickie story from the D&D game I play in, for your enjoyment. :)
I apologize for all the names being so similar; that’s just something that’s happened organically in the campaign as it’s progressed.

SHADY = Shade-Of-the-Candle, my tabaxi swashbuckler
SILMA = weretiger amazon who recently joined the party
SHANA = another player’s tiefling warlock

—–

“So this is the Laughing Axe Tavern, it’s the closest thing we have to a base of operations really,” said Shade-Of-the-Candle, holding the door open. The enormous weretiger Silma had to duck her head to clear the door coming in, drawing more than a few turned heads, which neither Shady nor Silma acknowledged. “Maybe not the Lady Patrician’s Manor, but it beats living in an alley,” the much smaller tabaxi said.

“More than adequate,” said Silma. “I’m used to life on the road.”

The group drifted off to various open seats in the crowded room; Rulita, Rai, and Shana ended up at one small table, while Leuco and Capsaicin went to the bar. Finding nowhere adequate to the task of seating her, Silma went to an apple barrel in the corner and climbed up onto it for a makeshift stool. As if taking a cue, Shade-Of-the-Candle hopped up and sat on the end of the bar next to her.

“Oy!” said the bartender, putting his fists on his sides and scowling at the tabaxi. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m ordering a round of drinks for me and my friends, that’s what,” said Shady, slapping a few gold coins down on the bar.

“Well put your butt on a stool, not on my bar.”

What stool?” demanded Shady. “The place is packed! Besides, I’m having a conversation with my friend here.” Turning to Silma, she said, “Whattya wanna drink, Simmie?”

The weretiger blinked. “Simmie?”

“Yeah?” said Shady. “Whattya wanna drink?”

“Wine and water will be fine,” said Silma.

“You heard her,” said Shady. “Same for me. Get a move on.”

The bartender frowned, but collected the coins and stepped away all the same.

Silma cocked her head at Shady. “Where did ‘Simmie’ come from?”

Shady shrugged. “I dunno. Easier to say than ‘Silma.’ I give people names. It’s just a thing I do.”

“Like ‘Sea-Legs’ and ‘Devil-Girl.’”

“You got it.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Silma. “You are a tabaxi, after all.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“I meant no offense,” said Silma.

“No, I mean seriously, what does that have to do with it?”

“Oh, just tabaxi, and their propensity for nicknames. I’ve always found it a charming quirk.”

“Tabaxi have a propensity for nicknames?”

Silma adjusted awkwardly on her barrel. “It’s just a stereotype, I suppose.” Looking around, still shifting uncomfortably, she asked, “Is it always this crowded?”

“Waxes and wanes,” said Shady. “There’s a big Thessalanian whaler in the harbor, probably half the people here are off of it.”

“I hope there’ll be somewhere to sleep.”

Shady blinked at her. “What, in the common room?”

“That was my plan,” said Silma.

“Oh. Uh.” Shady’s ears twitched. “I’ve got a whole room, upstairs.”

“All to yourself?” The weretiger gave a half-smirk as the bartender returned with her watered wine. “Being the owner of a ship has made you extravagant.”

“Hey, I’m a proper somebody now,” said Shady, grinning. “But what I’m getting at, is you don’t have to sleep in the common area. You can stay up in my room.”

Silma’s ears folded down, and she stood up from the barrel. “No thank you,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“Huh?” said Shady.

“I’ll find a room in one of the other taverns in town. You can find me through the Golden Compass Society when it’s time to continue our pursuit of Captain Aranthé.”

Shady jumped down to the floor after her. “What? Why?”

Silma glowered down at the tabaxi. “I don’t know what kind of person you are, but I don’t fall into bed with someone I’ve just met and I don’t appreciate—”

Shady’s ears shot up and her eyes widened. “Fall into bed? You mean—?” In a loud and confused voice that caused the weretiger to flinch and look around the room, Shady announced, “I don’t want to have sex with you!” A peculiar noise not far off may have been Leuco snorting into a mug of ale.

“Oh, please!” snarled Silma. “Ever since you first showed up in that cave you’ve been following me around, making eyes at me, acting like a show off—”

Shady’s own ears pinned down. “I have not!”

“And now you’re proposing that I share your room.”

“So what? I’d let any of my friends share my room if they asked!”

“But you didn’t invite any of them. Only me!”

Shady blinked at that, and stared at Silma for a beat. Finally she said, “Well… well yeah, okay, I have been coming on a little strong. But it wasn’t because I was hitting on you! I mean, I’m not not hitting on you, I guess, if you wanted to have sex I’m not against the idea, but it’s not… I mean… that wasn’t…”

“Well what, then?” demanded Silma.

“I just…!” said Shady. “I just, I just… you’re the only person I’ve ever met like me.”

Silma furrowed her brows. “Like you?”

Shady looked down. “Everkeep has humans, and elves, and dwarves… and we’re right by Humblewood, so there’s mouse people and fox people and bird people and squirrel people and who-knows-what-else. But I’ve never met my kind. Never another cat person. Never. Not once.” She turned her eyes up to Silma. “Until now.”

Silma’s ears tilted forward. “Not once? No parents or siblings? No—”

“Not. Once.” Shady snarled. “I can’t even speak or read my own language. I know what my name looks like, but I don’t know how to say it. You tell me tabaxi give people nicknames? That’s news to me.”

Silma smiled, gently. “I am not a tabaxi, Shade-Of-the-Candle.”

Shady looked away, rubbing the back of her neck awkwardly. “No, I know you’re not. But… you’re more like… one of us… than one of… them.”

“Shady,” said Silma. Her voice had jumped up a full octave or more, and lost its gravelly sound, but it was unmistakably her.

Shady jerked her gaze back to see not a seven foot tall tiger woman, but a nearly-normal human before her, with a dark cast to her skin and black hair. Only the golden, slit pupils of her eyes hinted at the feline. The tabaxi’s ears drooped, and she somehow seemed to shrink.

“Shady,” said Silma again. “I am not ‘your kind’ in the way you think I am. I am as human as I am tiger. When you say ‘them’ you are also talking about me.”

Shady blinked, and looked down at her clawed hands. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“But you aren’t so alone. Soon you will have a ship. It can take you to Port Nyanzaru, to Setranophis, or even Payit, where tabaxi are plentiful. Maybe you have a family out there still, trying to find you.” Shifting back into her weretiger form, Silma put a massive paw on Shady’s shoulder. “When this business is done, perhaps we could go find some for you.”

“I’m sorry,” said Shady again. She slipped out from under Silma’s grasp, and walked away.