I want in on the DF trainwreck, and this short story was published in the DF RPG Vol.2, so I feel entitled to snatch it from Farla. There are miscellaneous minor spoilers for future books, including one regarding Harry’s new position in the Council. So, all the three of you who care about it, you’ve been warned.
Without farther ado, let’s begin.
The story opens with Harry, who is a Warden now, giving a lecture to a class of young Wardens on proper conduct of investigation of supernatural crimes, which is a hilarious concept given Harry’s track record on that front.
He begins, naturally, with bragging:
The kids had all come to Chicago to learn about independent investigation of supernatural threats from me—which also made sense, because I’d done more of that, relative to my tender years, than any other wizard on the planet.
So, yeah, about that underdog status…
His first words to the assembled Wardens (said before the quote) is “Okay, children.”
It should be noted here that the story is used as an introduction fiction for an RPG. In the context, the young Wardens stay for the audience, prospective players and GMs, with Harry here sharing his wisdom on, basically, how you would want to behave in a game. And the thing is, the patronizing tone Harry has going here is really bad for it. It’s tolerable in the book because the readers – in theory, at least – are supposed to identify with Harry, to see the world from his perspective, and thus partake in his patronizing and feel superior to other characters. Here, we get to be on the receiving end of this attitude, and it’s not a comfortable place to be.
On the plus side, here is a description of our first introduced female character:
Ilyana, a young woman with extremely pale skin and eyes of nearly white ice-blue, raised her hand and spoke in a clipped Russian accent when I nodded to her.
Pretty good, considering what we’ve seen so far! You may notice the lack of focus on leer-worthy aspects of her appearance. The description is brief and to the point. Perhaps too brief, but it’s fine for a minor character like that.
So, there is something to praise. Let’s see if the story manages to keep the good stuff going.
Harry opens his lecture by saying that he isn’t going to talk about dealing with warlocks, another Warden would do that later, instead he is going to talk about more commonly encountered threats. Ilyana mentioned above asks him just what kinds of threats he dealt with personally, so Harry proceeds to lists various foes from the books published before the RPG. The list includes cultists and necromancers, who I’m pretty sure count as warlocks, rendering his previous assortment that he isn’t going to talk about them false. Editing: you should do it more often.
Dominance firmly established, Harry continues with the lecture. His first point of order is about the power of knowledge:
“Knowledge is quite literally power and will save your life. When you know what you’re facing, you can deal with it. Walk into a confrontation blind, and you’re begging to get your families added to the Wardens’ death-benefits list.”
It is a good concept, and I like when it’s implemented well. Take Pact, for example, in which it’s vitally important to know what and who your opponent is, precisely. Not only various supernatural species have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, individual Others may very well have a unique set of these traits. Practitioners there also tend to not have much in terms of direct firepower, so they’re forced to devise clever traps and bindings designed specifically against their intended foe.
DF books, however, are not like that. While we do occasionally see Harry preparing for an upcoming fight, the preparations amount to pretty obvious decisions: bring canned sunlight against vampires, bring ghost dust against ghosts (and fae because it works on them as well, conveniently). When he brews potions, they tend to have broad applications: there are plenty of situations you’d want to escape, there are plenty of situations where you’d want to go around unnoticed and there are plenty of women Harry Bob would want to fuck.
And even these basic preparations don’t play a major role in the narrative. More often than not, Harry falls back on fire and bullets, which works just fine for him. As we’ve discussed before. while Harry wants to be Batman, he is not batman. He would never be Batman. He’s more Hulk or Superman when it comes to fighting paradigm.
And so, our first lesson from Harry rings hollow: you don’t need to prepare if you want to be like Harry, you just need to make sure your blasting rod is polished and throbbing with power.
But moving on. Harry proceeds to explain his paradigm of occult investigation, which consists of four As, giving this story its title.
The first A is Ascertain:
“Ascertain,” I said, firmly. “Before you can deal with the threat, you’ve got to know that it exists, and you’ve got to know who the threat’s intended target is. A lot of times, that target is going to cry out for help. Whatever city you’re based in, it’s going to be your responsibility to work out how best to hear that scream. But sometimes there’s no outcry. So keep your eyes and ears open, kids. Ascertain the threat. Become aware of the problem.”
“Then ignore it completely until someone dies, like I did with Mrs. Onewizardindustrialrevolution, Kim and Lydia.”
Also, holy shit, I just realized the first three books had exactly the same opening: a woman comes to Harry in search for help, Harry half-asses something and refuses to do anything substantial for a better part of the story. You know, if Pact‘s karmic system was in effect, that would have marked a point where Harry’d have reaped some major karmic backlash and solidified his identity as someone who doesn’t help people in need, resulting in a shift of spirits around him as he would attract more unpleasant ones. Too bad his Mary Sue aura protects him from it.
Anyway, the story then jumps to Harry driving to Kansas City to answer a distress call he’s got from Paranet, to show what “Ascertain” looks like in action.
I’d gotten the address from a contact on the Paranet—the organization made up mostly of men and women who didn’t have enough magical power to be accepted into the ranks of the White Council or to protect themselves from major predators, but who had more than enough mojo to make them juicy targets. For the past year, I and others like me had been working hard to teach them how to defend themselves—and one of the first things they were to do was notify someone upstream in the Paranet’s organization that they were in trouble.
Still have no idea why such an organization only now starts gaining traction. Internet would help with connecting people together, sure, but even in the dark days before we were caught in the glorious web of our digital masters there were means to maintain contact across cities. I would also note here that Harry is an official enforcer of the White Council, yet has no issues supporting an independent quasi-organization, which apparently doesn’t result in it tripping over Accords. That means that the Council could have established something like that a long time ago, which would have helped with the whole warlock problem nicely as there would have been people capable of alerting the Council of trouble or even preventing warlocks from becoming such by explaining new kids with magic on the block the rules of the game.
More evidence of Council being evil.
Notably, Harry’s car breaks on the way and he spends a few hours getting it moved and calling up a rental car, breaking computer network in the office in the process, which is brought up only as another source of inconvenience to him. It would have been an example of techbane actually biting him in the ass, except he meets with the caller just fine, and it doesn’t look like he missed any important developments on the road. So, ultimately, techbane once again amounts to a faux flaw: it’s something Harry can complain about because it makes his off-page life harder, but it doesn’t actually affect the narrative in any meaningful way.
Anyway, Harry meets with a man called Yardly, who apparently called him on behalf of his sister, Megan.
He himself suspects Harry of being a fraud and threatens him with legal consequences if he “abuses Megan in any way.”
I felt my mouth lift up on one side. “You’re a cop.”
“Detective Lieutenant,” he said. “I asked Chicago PD for their file on you. They think you’re a fraud.”
“And you don’t?”
He grunted. “Megan doesn’t. I learned a long time ago that a smart man doesn’t discount her opinion out of hand.”
So, what I’m getting out of it is that Megan is the one with an occult problem, she’s the one who wanted Harry to help, Yardly doesn’t trust Harry and isn’t into occult stuff himself, and yet Megan wasn’t the one to call him for some reason, even though she would appear in the next scene, so Yardly’s presence here is really unnecessary. Coupled with his last remark:
“Megan says shrinks can’t help with this one,” he said quietly. “She says maybe you can.”
I’m really not looking forward to how it’s going to go.
Also, notably, Harry doesn’t suggest to just conjure a fireball to prove he’s not a fraud. He already introduces himself as a wizard, here to solve a supernatural problem, so what’s his deal, anyway?
This section is capped with an image of Harry I find hilarious, so I will share it with you:
I have no idea what this image is doing here. The story so far was Harry giving a lecture and meeting with a potential client. Are we supposed to assume he does everything with this expression while tightly holding onto his rod? I mean, I wouldn’t put it past him, but I don’t think we’re supposed to take it from this story.
Anyway, we jump back to the lecture, with Harry defining his second A:
“Second A,” I said to the Wardenlets, writing on the chalkboard as I did. “Analysis.”
“How do you get an ogre to lay down on the couch, Harry?” called a young man with the rounded vowels of a northern accent in his speech. The room quivered with the laughter of young people.
“That’s enough out of you, there, McKenzie, you hoser,” I shot back, in a parody of the same accent. “Give me a break here, eh?”
I got a bigger laugh than the heckler. Which is how you make sure the heckler doesn’t steal the show from you.
Sure, Harry, keep telling yourself that they laughed with you. One day you may even believe it. That would also be a day when you stop finding imitations of someone’s accent hilarious.
The gist of his point is that it’s important to understand the motives of involved parties: ghosts rampage for a reason, ghouls move in next door for a reason, etc., and you should understand why your enemies are doing what they’re doing in order to deal with them effectively and anticipate their plans.
I’d say that Harry fails on that front pretty badly, disregarding investigation in favor of bumbling his way into the situation, but he actually acknowledges it:
“I used to have a similar attitude,” I said. I held up my left hand. It was a mass of old scars, and not the pretty kind. It had been burned, and badly, several years before. Wizards heal up better than regular folks, over the long term. I could move it again, and I had feeling back in parts of all the fingers. But it still wasn’t a pretty picture. “An hour or two of work would have told me enough about the situation I was walking into to let me avoid this,” I told them. It was the truth. Pretty much. “Learn everything you possibly can.”
It’s nice to see Harry admitting to being an idiot, at least.
People with fresher memories about more recent books, is it true that Harry could have avoided scarring his hand with better info? And does he actually take his advice to heart and start investigating more intensely afterwards? Examples are welcome.
His practical advice on how to learn more, however, is lacking. He starts with this:
“Learn more. Okay. How?”
I spread my hands. “Never let yourself think you know all the ways to learn,” I said. “Expand your own knowledge base. Read. Talk to other wizards. Hell, you might even go to school.”
Yeah, Harry, real nice. You were asked a practical question about the content of your lecture, and you went off on an abstract tangent. That would certainly be helpful.
Here it becomes clear that Butcher has a fantasy of being a “fun” teacher liked by students and holding their interest with jokes and various antics. He doesn’t notice that it comes at a detriment to the actual content of the lesson, ultimately wasting everyone’s time and depriving people from potentially important information.
His next point is better but very abstract:
“Warden Canuck there was onto something earlier, too. People are people. Learn about what makes them tick. Monsters are the same way. Find ways to emulate their thinking,”—I wasn’t even going to try a phrase like Get into their heads, thank you—“and you’ll have insight into their actions and their probable intentions.
It is a good point, but also pretty obvious. What’s important is how to do it, and Harry doesn’t actually elaborate on it, rendering the point an empty platitude. Sure, it would be good to emulate your enemy’s thinking, that sounds helpful. So. How to do it?
Next point is hilarious coming from Harry:
“Information-gathering spells can be darned handy,” I continued, “but if you’ll forgive the expression, they aren’t magic. The information you get from them can be easily misread, and it will almost never let you see past one of your own blind spots. You can seek answers from other planes, but if you go bargaining with supernatural beings for knowledge, things can get dangerous, fast. Sometimes what you get from them is invaluable. Most of the time, it could be had another way. Approach that particular well with extreme caution.”
I remind you that Harry sold part of his true name to a demon for public information on that werewolf guy. He also routinely asks Bob for advice on everything, sometimes paying in rape and death.
So, he’s right in his point, but it’s very clearly a “do as I say, not as I do” situation.
And then it’s followed by the best passage:
To emphasize those last two words, I stared slowly around the room in pure challenge, daring anyone to disagree with me. The young people dropped their eyes from mine. Eye contact with a wizard is tricky—it can trigger a soulgaze, and that isn’t the kind of thing you want happening to you casually.
Some ALPHA MALE things ALPHA MALE never ALPHA MALE change.
Honestly, Harry’s insistence on maintaining eye contact never made any sense, and narrative treating it like some kind of proof of his ALPHA MALE status makes even less. Everyone in this room is a wizard, they know what would happen if they were to meet Harry’s eyes for too long, and they aren’t eager to have a trip during what is supposed to be a lecture on a vital skill. That they avert their eyes says nothing about them except that they aren’t idiots. It’s a completely natural reaction for someone who knows the risks, like flinching when some lunatic waves a gun in your face- Oh. Ohhh. I get it now.
Harry caps this section of the lecture with a genuinely good if rather trite point: talk to people. More often than not, they know what you need to know to resolve the issue, though sometimes you’d need to connect the dots yourself. Of course, Harry’s own record on that front… well, you know already.
The section ends with the following:
“[…] Most of the time, that’s the fastest, safest, easiest way to get it.”
McKenzie raised his hand again, and I nodded.
“Most of the time?” he asked.
“That’s the thing about people,” I said, quietly, so they would pay attention. “Whether it’s to you or to everyone or just to themselves—people lie.”
Someone, quick! Shoot Harry in the leg!
I would note that that’s our segue into the next section of the story about Megan. In this context, the comment about people lying takes rather different undertones, considering Harry’s history of dismissing women’s testimonies. Let’s see how bad it gets.
We finally meet Megan and Learn Yardly’s name (Ben). Despite the latter, the narration still calls him Yardly, while Megan is Meg.
Here is her description, by the way:
Megan Yardly was a single mother of three. She was in her early thirties and looked it, had gorgeous red hair and bright green eyes.
As we can see, the narration slides back to common ground when it comes to focus. Still better than description we’re dealing with in the regular readthrough, though.
Also, the town she lives in is called Peculiar, apparently.
Peculiar, Missouri. You can’t make these things up.
I hate when books do it.
Megan greets Harry by demonstrating her psychic power:
Megan opened the door, nodded to her brother, looked up at me and said, “You’re him. You’re the wizard.” Her eyes narrowed. “Your… your car broke down. And you think the name of our town is a bad joke…” She nodded, like a musician who has picked up on a beat and a chord progression. “And you think this probably isn’t a supernatural problem.”
Harry immediately confirms that he thinks she’s lying.
“There’s at least a fair chance that if someone is late to what is perceived as an important appointment that car trouble is to blame, particularly if they show up in a rental car. Most people who hadn’t grown up around a town named Peculiar would think the name was odd.” I grinned at her. “And gosh. A lot of professional investigators are just a tad cynical.”
Part of the issue here is show and tell. We hear about Harry dealing with deluded people who don’t actually have supernatural problems, but every case we actually see on pages does involve supernatural shit. Likewise, there are no fake psychics in prominent roles, even the resident con man we’re going to meet soon in Farla’s readthrough has some genuine mojo to throw around.
As a consequence, Harry’s suspicions here and in the first book come across not as reasonable doubts but as dickery.
Even when we take all those off-pages cases that weren’t supernatural into account, Harry still knows a lot of people with genuine powers, so the least he can do here is keep an open mind and not make snap judgments. Especially since Megan being the real deal is confirmed literally in a few minutes, which makes the entire exchange pointless.
Anyway, next we learn that child service came to Megan’s home “again,” concerned over her children. Ben apparently wants her to see a doctor, but Megan is convinced that the problem is supernatural and Harry can solve it. I can buy the former, I have troubles with the latter. I’m also not sure writing a storyline about how terrified children are not abused, they’re actually tormented by a monster is such a good idea to begin with, but we’ll see how it goes.
She stepped back, and I came into the little house, crossing over the threshold, the curtain of gentle, powerful energy that surrounds every home. Her invitation meant that the curtain parted for me, letting me bring my power with me. I exhaled, slowly, tightening my metaphysical muscles and feeling my power put a silent, invisible strain on the air around me.
Megan inhaled suddenly, sharply, and took a step back from me.
“Ah,” I said. “You are a sensitive.”
Well, that was dickish. I mean, come on, he’s already here, so it’s not like he’s going to waste much more time than he had already by listening to her and investigating the apparent issue. The power play was rather unnecessary and seems to serve demonstrating Harry’s awesomeness more than moving the plot along.
Well, at least he didn’t insist on an eye contact. That’s progress.
They sit down and get to business. Megan thinks something is tormenting her daughters, Kat and Tamara.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Tell me about what happens.”
Sometimes I seem to have the damnedest sense of timing. No sooner had I asked the question than a highpitched scream cut the air, joined an instant later by another one.
So, about that advice to talk to people?
Anyway, Megan fetches screaming Tamara from one room and gets her to Kat’s room. Kat is also screaming, asleep. Megan wakes her up and comforts the two kids for some time.
Megan’s face was anguished, but her voice and her hands were gentle as she touched them, spoke to them, reassured them. If she was an empath as sensitive as her file and her reaction to my test suggested, then she had to be in terrible psychic pain. She pushed enough of it aside to be there for her kids, though.
So Harry has a file on her as well, yet still felt the need to suspect her of fraud? Despite himself having that reputation, apparently? Yeah.
The next passage is, frankly, bizarre.
I turned and paced down the hallway to the younger child’s room, and nearly tripped over a dark-haired child, a boy who might have been eight. He was wearing underwear and a T-shirt with a cartoon Jedi Knight on it, which raised my opinion of his mother immediately. The kid’s eyes weren’t even open, and he raised his arms blindly.
I picked him up, and carried him with me into the little bedroom.
It wasn’t large—nothing about Megan’s house was. One of the beds was pink and festooned with the same three big-eyed girls. The other was surrounded in the plastic shell of a Star Wars landspeeder. I plopped the young Jedi back into it, and he promptly curled into a ball and went to sleep.
So, to summarize, Harry stumbles upon a third child, apparently unaffected by the terror, yet sleep-walking? No questions are asked by the narrative over the kid maybe being kinda suspicious. Instead of delivering him to Megan, Harry just picks him up and brings to a room from which a girl emerged not long ago absolutely terrified, and just routinely puts him back to sleep. Which he does, despite the house being filled with screams of terror until a few moments ago.
Seems legit. The boy is most definitely not Damien or anything.
He then observes the room and finds a shady closet.
I closed my eyes for a moment and reached out with my wizard’s senses, feeling the flow and ebb of energy through the house. Within the defensive wall of the threshold, other energy pulsed and moved—emotions from the house’s inhabitants, random energies sifting in from outdoors, the usual.
But not in the closet. There wasn’t anything at all in that closet.
Yeah, so, about those information spells being unreliable…
This section in general does a bad job of showing the point of the lecture Harry is telling: he doesn’t really talk to anyone involved, thus rendering his best advice irrelevant, and there doesn’t appear to be any lies said, making his dire warning come across as more dickery. He says that information spells are irrelevant but uses them as him prime source of information. Again, without cross-checking it with people involved. That’s a failure of connecting the narrative to your framing device, plain and simple.
Speaking of, we return to the lecture.
The third A is Assemble. Basically, that’s the stage where you’ve got everything you need to plan how to proceed. Here you’re supposed to gather necessary resources, call up allies and generally plan what course of action to take, what consequences you’re willing to accept. It’s a brief section and mostly fine, but there are two points to comment on:
“There’s recipes on these handouts for a couple of the most common things you’ll use: an antidote for Red Court venom, which you’re familiar with, and an ointment for your eyes that’ll let you see through most faerie glamour, which you may not know about. Get used to making these.”
Let’s see if he actually does that in Grave Peril, shall we? Something to look for in the future.
“Yeah,” I said. “Here’s where you decide whose life to risk, or whose isn’t worth risking. Here’s where you decide who you can save and who is already gone past saving. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while. Some of my seniors in the Council would call me foolish, or arrogant, and they could be right—but I’ve never met anyone who was breathing who I thought was too far gone to help.”
Yeah, except for all those people he didn’t try to SAVE. Relevant to the current readthrough, he’s going to ignore numerous Red Court victims on the upcoming party and, in fact, he’s going to maybe burn them alive (the narrative is coy about whether it truly happened, but that’s the most plausible version of events) while blasting vampires.
I’m sure you can come up with other examples of people Harry decided not to SAVE, as I recall discussions about the White Court and their victims.
Though, of course, it is entirely in character for Harry to ignore the faceless masses and focus only on named people he cares about. Even then, though, he dismissed Kim even though he suspected she was into something shady, and wondered if Lydia deserved what was coming to her, so the fact that Harry can say what he did and not burst into flame can clearly serve as an evidence that there is no God. Or at least no benevolent God.
In the next section, Harry demonstrates the results of his mighty half-page of an analysis by proclaiming that the house has a boogeyman.
Apparently, we’re dealing with the Little Fears model of boogeyman, since adults can’t sense it at all, which is how it managed to hide from Megan. OK then.
Ben thinks it’s bullshit, Megan berates him, so he leaves, slamming the door on his way. Harry again fails to conjure some damn fire or do anything else magical. I mean, if you think fire is dangerous, there are always his forcefields, and he knows how to create simple veils, if nothing else. It’s not that hard to convince people that magic is real when it’s as flashy as DF one.
In any case, Megan believes him, and agrees to perform an exorcism with him, since apparently a family member participating makes the process easier.
Once again, this section fails to properly connect to the framing device: Harry talked about weighting your options, considering the consequences, but all that is totally absent here. Harry proclaims there is a boogeyman, then immediately goes for an exorcism option. They could have at least talked a bit about just moving to another house or something, since Harry mentioned that the exorcism could be dangerous.
As it is, this section falls flat in its role to demonstrate the point Harry was making.
Back to lecture. Harry describes the last A: Act. I now feel very conflicting over whether I should make a joke about our Act or ACT option in Undertale. Decisions, decisions…
Ah! I have a solution! You do it in the comments.
Anyway, Harry doesn’t have much of a point here. Instead he teases the class with possibilities of complications:
“Ah,” I said, lifting a finger. “But do you know everything? Are you so sure you know exactly what’s happening? Especially when you’re about to put the safety of yourself or others on the line?”
That is a valid concern, though it really feels like it belongs in the previous section.
Ultimately, I feel this section is just too brief and could use more examination on when to act, when to delay to gather more info, how to avoid both indecision and rush actions. The story is ultimately set up to deal with the latter, ignoring the former possibility, which can be just as bad.
Next we proceed to the actual plan, which is pretty batshit. Basically, Megan gather locks of hair of her kids, ties them together with her own, places them inside an incomplete salt circle and steps near them. The idea here is that the hair would act as a bait to lure the boogeyman inside, then Megan would close the circle and do mental battle with the boogeyman, since now it would be vulnerable to her due to her bond with the kids enforced through the hairs.
I would note that Megan apparently has no training in such matters and that’s her first battle with the supernatural, which obviously makes it a great idea.
The issue here is that I have no idea whether it’s truly necessary. In the previous section, Harry spoke as if Megan participating would make it easier, not that she must participate in order to get rid of the monster. So, is it a desperate measure for desperate times or Harry putting an innocent woman in danger to do less work? You decide.
I’m also not sure why the kids should remain in the house, given that the bait of their hair is left out, and the boogeyman is apparently going to consider the hairs the real kids.
Anyway, Ben is back, and he and Harry wait outside the bedroom door for the boogeyman to appear and start nomming on Megan. They have a manly bonding with Ben telling Harry about his work on violent crimes. Apparently, he now either believes in magic or at least believes that Harry believes in it and isn’t just a con man. Harry still fails to produce any magic.
I honestly don’t know why Ben is even here.
Predictably, the ritual goes wrong. Kids start screaming, then Megan starts screaming as well. Harry and Ben rush inside the bedroom.
As I came in, Joey sat up with a wail, obviously tired and frightened.
Ah, so he isn’t Damien after all.
I could see something in the circle with Megan, a shadow that fled an instant after the lights came up, slower than the rest. It was about the size of a chimpanzee and it clung to her shoulders and waist with indistinct limbs, its head moving as if ripping with fangs at her face.
I’d say, it’s a rather meh monster. Shadow creatures are innately creepy, but the comparison to chimpanzee diminishes that, makes the monster appear animal-like and dumb rather than something literally shaped by fears, which is a shame.
I also don’t know why Harry can see it now. Boogeymen are supposed to be totally undetectable by adults. Megan can interact with it currently, sure, but that’s because she was connected to her children, who were connected to the boogeyman, and that’s something Harry doesn’t have.
That does make it seems like her involvement was unnecessary since there are ways for unrelated people to perceive and presumably interact with the monster. And, well,it’s always safe to bet on Harry being a dick.
Anyway, apparently the boogeyman is unusually big and strong, but by this point our heroes are stuck with their plan.
Ben gets the children out of the room, Megan screams that they’re hurting, Harry tells her that it’s a lie boogeyman wants her to believe, which gives Megan strength to fight back and win.
The family reunites and the section ends.
Back to the lecture, Harry asks what he did wrong. Nobody says anything, presumably not knowing where to begin, so he explains: the boogeyman was so big and strong because it didn’t need to spend any energy creating nightmares and scaring children, it just fed. The source of the terror was Kat, who is also an empath like her mother, her powers awakening once she hit puberty. She picked images and emotions out of Ben, who was dealing with fucked up stuff on daily basis. Apparently, she could also share those images with others, hence how they bled into Tamara. I guess she wasn’t close with Joey, hence why he didn’t suffer the effects.
You may think that would cause me to change my opinion on Ben since he seems to have a role to play after all, but no. His role as a source of terrors could have been easily folded into Megan. Empathy powers probably not the best combination with violent crimes, but she could have worked as a psychiatrist of some kind, helping people to recover from various traumas and bringing her baggage back home. That would be a more elegant solution since, as it is now, Ben breaks the narrative by being the one to contact Harry despite not actually believing in magic and creating conflict that just goes nowhere and doesn’t really matter. His true role appears to be that of an unbeliever who comes to appreciate and respect Harry, which is just more ego-stroking.
Moving on, Harry laments that all pieces were in front of him, yet he failed to put them together and regarded the situation as a simple boogeyman infestation. Well, no shit, Sherlock. Maybe if you’d spend less time carrying suspicious sleepwalking children around and actually stopped to think about them, you’d have figured out the truth.
The issue here is that it’s painfully obvious that something more is going on: both girls were attacked despite sleeping in different rooms, while the boy was apparently fine, just creepy. True, my first thought was to proclaim him Antichrist, which wasn’t what was really going on (or was it?), but even then it was a clear indication Harry should have stopped and think some more about the situation.
As it is, he comes across less as someone who just missed a few subtle clues and more as someone who, well, half-assed his job and called it a day.
And once again, other people paid the price for his mistakes: Megan received some kind of unspecified mental trauma she took a year to recover from.
Harry concludes his lecture with the fifth A:
“Arrogance,” I said quietly, and wrote it on the board, beneath the rest. “That’s the fifth A. We carry it around with us. It’s natural. We know a lot more than most people. We can do a lot more than most people. There’s a natural and understandable pride in that. But when we let that pride get in the way, and take the place of truly seeing what is around us, there can be horrible consequences.
Watch out for that fifth A, children. The Yardlys turned out all right mostly out of pure luck. They deserve better from me. And from you.
“Always keep your eyes open. Learn all that you can—and then try to learn some more.”
I’ll let is stand here without comment.
The lecture wraps up, and some students come to Harry to ask a question. Apparently, Kat being able to both receive and share mental images marks her as a potential wizard rather than a “sensitive,” which is apparently important.
“This girl,” Ilyana said. “Her talents were born in trauma and fear. This is one of the warning signs of a potential warlock.”
“Yeah,” I said. My talents had started in a similar fashion. “I heard that once.”
I’m not sure I really buy it. Average warlocks seem to just lash out against the source of stress in their life shortly after awakening their powers. Harry himself had an evil mentor intentionally pushing him towards the dark side. On the other hand, Kat had a bad experience, but the source of the terror is gone. She has a loving and supporting family, which is in contact with the Paranet, meaning she would be aware of the Laws. I don’t think her becoming a warlock is such a big concern compared to people who just don’t know about the Laws to begin with.
On the other hand, speaking of Laws, doesn’t what she did count as a violation? She did invade the mind of her sister, after all. Not intentionally, but it’s not like the Council is known for their tolerance. Wouldn’t Harry telling her story here result in her execution?
Well, apparently not. Harry says he keeps an eye on her, and the story ends with this bit:
You do whatever you can.
Except when you don’t.
Overall, it was pretty meh. Our usual issues with DF in general and Harry specifically aside, the story was badly written on the technical level: story sections weren’t properly connected to the framing device and weakened if not outright contradicted points Harry was trying to make. The plot has a glaring hole one could summon a demon through. It’s supposed to be a part of the story, serving to underline the final point, but seriously, look at that passage again and tell me any sane PC would behave like that. No, they’re more likely to shiv the kid right then and there, and I think not doing this is a more important lesson to teach in the context of TRPG introduction fiction. Ben is mostly useless, and the space he takes could have been used to develop the kids a bit more. As it is, they’re just plot devices with names and possible demonic powers.
As a TRPG introduction fiction, it’s problematic due to the framing device talking from the position of authority, from above. Generally, it’s much preferable to approach your prospective players as peers. Advice rather than teach them what to do, since ultimately it’s going to be their game. In addition, the scenario proposed would be hard to implement in the game. If we assume that Harry is the PC here, then the climax is rather unsatisfying since he didn’t get to do much aside from a mental maneuver slapping Megan with an aspect or two she tagged for bonuses in her fight. If Megan and Ben are PCs, then they had to do what a clear GMPC Harry told them for most of the game, which is grating. And if they’re all PCs, we run into the problem of power levels. As such, it’s not a good demonstration of what to aim for in your games.
Then, of course, there are world-building issues. Was it truly necessary for Megan to confront the boogeyman? Were there any alternative solutions? Is it common for empaths to form bonds with their siblings? Should we have expected it? I don’t actually remember anything about it in the main books. Also, what about the Laws? Do they apply in this case? If not, why? This short story raises entirely too many questions for something that’s supposed to ease you into this world.
But I lied. Of course, we can’t put aside our problems with Harry. For all he preaches humility now, he remains his arrogant self, and it shines through everything he does. He still can’t be bothered to do simple magic to convince Ben to work with him, not against him. He suspects Megan of being a fraud for no real reason and puts her to the test (again, avoiding any test himself). He bizarrely manhandles a small boy and puts him into potential danger. And he still does his soulchicken thing with his official charges because that’s just how he rolls.
In conclusion, this story was much less offensive than what we’re dealing with in the main readthrough, but still not worth the paper it’s printed on. That paper could be used to write Harry/Marcone smut, after all. Do that instead of reading this story, that would be a more productive use of your time.