A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 121: Ship of Magic, Chapter 20

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.


The following chapter, “Crimpers,” begins with Althea aboard the Reaper on her return journey from her hunting expedition, laden with cargo. A brief resupply stop has the crew on a night’s liberty, and Brashen watches over the fortunate “Athel.” He approves silently of her conduct and her comportment on the voyage and ashore as he nurses a dose of cindin. He muses on it, finding himself feeling strangely and making to excuse himself from the tavern where he and many of his crewmates have been drinking and dicing. One of the servers suggests he overnight in her bed, and he moves to accept the offer.

Sailors Carousing - National Maritime Museum
Might be something like this…
Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s Sailors Carousing at the National Maritime Museum, used for commentary

Meanwhile, “Athel” and some crewmates make to wrap up their night of drinking. One of them mentions that another ship in port has lost crew to disease and is starting to press-gang sailors found alone. The crewmates make for the ship, and “Athel” goes looking for Brashen, finding him just as an attack comes. “Athel” yells a warning and is struck down.

When the ship’s “boy” wakes, “Athel” finds “himself” under some scrutiny. There is disbelief that the tavernkeeper and server are complicit with the press-gang, but there is another other disruption that “Athel” is able to collect Brashen and get him back to the Reaper. As they hobble along, Brashen suggests that Althea head for the Six Duchies; she refuses, citing the barbarism of the people there.

Later, Brashen summons the ship’s “boy” for medical treatment; blows to the head do demand some consideration, after all. They confer about their narrow escape from kidnapping, and he doses her with cindin in the absence of more appropriate medicines as he stitches her scalp. The drug and the danger and the damage to their heads combines to push them to have sex. In the wake of it, Brashen comments on the prophylactic wizardwood charm in her belly button; Althea relates the story behind it. And, despite their better judgment, they have sex again.

As I reread the chapter, I find myself thinking that it introduces cindin–something of an analogue of chewing tobacco, and not the first appearance of addictive stimulants in the Realm of the Elderlings novels (as witness here, here, and here, in addition to the noted addictive qualities of the Skill in the Six Duchies). Brashen’s musing on the substance and his old captain’s insistence against it rings true to me; I work in substance abuse treatment at present, and there are no few employers in my area who will fire employees on suspicion of drug use–unfairly, to be sure, but it is an at-will state, to its misfortune–or who will send them to my agency for drug testing. (If they are fired after that, it is not quite so unfair, I think.) And I know many, many people who got into trouble with substance use through something like Brashen describes: a need to take an edge off of sensation and dull pain just a little bit so that they can relax. It is certainly the case that may substances will harm the body; it is also certainly the case that overwork and excessive stress will, as well. So there is that to consider.

Also worth considering is the disregard in which Althea holds the Six Duchies. She remarks aspersively upon their lack of sophistication, comments that seem excessively colonialist, even if the Bingtown Traders from which she hails are not colonizers in the sense of pushing out indigenous peoples. Still, it is a haughty and imperialist perspective, and one that reveals a surprisingly lingering blindness to the level of privilege with which Althea grew up; the conditions that she deplores in the Six Duchies are doubtlessly current among the other-than-Trader families in Bingtown. They are all too current even now in supposedly affluent places; how much more must they be so in a parallel of the Golden Age of Sail?

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More Ruminating on Roleplaying Games

I continue to play roleplaying games, as might be expected from such a nerd as I am, doing so almost exclusively through online platforms even before COVID-19 prompted many people to retreat from public spaces, ushering in an Age of the Introvert likely to be brief. Most of them have been campaigns following a predictable power curve, with most of the advancement a returning character achieves happening between games and only moderate advancement occurring “in-game.” It makes sense on the surface of it, although it is sometimes a bit of a drag.

Warehouse 23 - The Munchkin's Guide To Power Gaming
Yes, it’s on my shelf.
Image from Texas-based Steve Jackson Games, its publisher;
support the Texas economy!

Other games, though, do more with advancement. One I recently played in offered more benefits in game than usual, a few more points to put towards character purchases, but nothing exorbitant. Indeed, there’s a lot about that game, Heavenfall, that I think I will use if and when I go in for running a campaign of my own; Canary (Birb), Bakuriel (Underbirb), and Tyrus did a hell of a job, I feel. Another, ongoing now, goes even further, running right into powergaming–and that, dear reader, is what I mean to ruminate on this time.

Tabletop roleplaying games are, by their nature, escapist. I’m not about to go through the “scholarly” part of my undergraduate honors thesis in full–nobody wants to read that–but I will note that the history of the genre speaks to it, as do most of the settings. Few play in “the real world,” and most do not play in something too close to it; even those games that focus on milieux akin to the “real world” bring in and make use of concepts foreign to it (magic and extradimensional horror are the usual examples). It is not to be wondered at, then, that play would exaggerate things, sometimes greatly, and ostensibly for the entertainment value of it.

When done well, the exaggeration adds to the enjoyment of the group–because, for all its association with introverted, nerdy types, the tabletop roleplaying game is a social endeavor, and group cohesion matters a great deal in it–either by making things funny or by making them larger than life, such that players can feel like they participated in something that matters, something epic (as the literary genre more than as the intensifier). Some of Tolkien’s comments in “On Fairy-Stories” come to mind–the ones about not blaming the person who feels imprisoned for a longing to escape; many look at modern life as stultifying, ossifying, and while I am still medievalist enough to know that earlier times were not necessarily better about that, I am not immune to scraping myself on the walls of my life’s many ruts.

The “When done well” is telling, however. It is not always done well, not always done with the intent of being done well (and there is a difference between trying something that does not work and not even trying it). Oh, no, sometimes it is done for the aggrandizement of a single player, and it inevitably happens when such cases are indulged that the one player does well at the expense of the others at the table, for whom the game is also supposed to be enjoyable. It is not that the one player–usually referred to as a powergamer–gets a chance to shine; it is that the powergaming precludes others from getting their own chances to do so. Powergaming as anti-polish, as it were, occluding rather than enhancing.

The game now going does seem to move towards powergaming; each of the characters is able to do quite a bit, especially so for the normally-assumed level of capability at the event around which the game centers. I feel myself looking for ways to display my character’s power–and, given how the game is set up, there’s a damned lot of that to go around, even if other characters have as much or more. And there’s the offsetting factor; my character, powerful as she is, is but one of many; to mix a metaphor slightly, she is not Supergirl among humans, but Supergirl among other superheroes.

Even so, some of the online discussion of the game–because such games attract nerds, and nerds gonna nerd–turned quickly to ways to “get over” on the system and on other players in the game, and there was more to say about such things than usual due to the power-curve. I soon found myself checking out of the talk; I know I need to look at it because it is going to be used in the game, but I do not play quite so intently as I used to do. I used to be a fan, remember. And I probably ought to think more deeply on a game that obliges me to be wary about what will be used against me, even if I have enjoyed playing thus far.

My character’s story does try to bring in others. That’s about as much as I can do to counter the powergaming. I try not to let others’ shenanigans keep me from enjoying my play. Sometimes, I even succeed.

Could you send a little my way to help me roll more dice and tell more lies?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 120: Ship of Magic, Chapter 19

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.


The next chapter, “Testimony,” starts with the Vivacia hurting from the bond with Wintrow. Despite the correctness of his earlier actions, he still suffers the onus of the crew’s disdain–and his father’s–and the ship aches with Wintrow. His progress is rehearsed, as is an accident that has left him significantly injured and the relationship between boy and ship that is strained as a result of it. She ponders his ponderings until he voices the certainty that he will have to have a finger amputated.

Full color would likely not help, here.
Testimonies by Crooty on DeviantArt, image used for commentary

Wintrow muses to the ship about his injury and the work he has done caring for others’ wounds. He rails again at being ripped from the monastery to take up a life at sea that he does not want; the Vivacia offers him strange comfort. Emboldened by it, Wintrow calls upon his captain to attend to the injury, displaying its worsening condition to affirm his decision and persuading the captain to have the amputation up on the foredeck where the ship can observe best. The captain refuses to do the work himself, however, assigning it to the first mate.

The mate agrees, at least, that the finger needs to be removed and issues a rare rebuke for it not being seen to sooner. The ship overrules the captain’s objections and demands his presence. The crew assembles to watch as the mate begins the surgery, guided by Wintrow, who steadies himself in prayerful discipline. The amputation is successful, and Wintrow’s blood soaks into the planking of the Vivacia‘s deck.

Wintrow challenges the captain with his finger; the captain turns away, knowing he will not master Wintrow now. The mate issues orders to see to Wintrow’s healing and the ship’s operations, relocating Wintrow’s berth to the fo’c’sle with the rest of the crew and ordering a low dose of laudanum for him. The ship takes the discarded finger and considers it closely before eating it.

Near Bingtown, the Paragon sits in the wintry rain, vaguely annoyed by it, until he is intruded upon by Amber and a broker. Amber had been interested in working with the ship’s wizardwood, believing the report that the ship is dead, but the evidence that the Paragon remains thinking deters her; she stalks off. She later returns, however, to converse with the ship; they swiftly forge a connection, and he invites her into himself.

The chapter seems almost to eroticize Wintrow’s injury and the removal of the injured digit from him, spending time considering it from multiple gazes and perspectives and going into substantial detail regarding the process of removal itself. That the Vivacia takes the appendage into herself, even as she takes Wintrow into herself, reinforces the impression. It is, for me, a strange realization, although I have spent enough time on the internet to know that some people are very much into such things…I do not judge such, but I do not quite share the fascination.

There is something of the erotic, too, in the interaction between Amber and the Paragon. It is made more overt, in fact, with the comment that “the warmth of her shot through him the way the heat of a woman’s hand on a man’s thigh can inflame his whole body.” Leaving aside the heteronormativity of the description–problematic as indicated by the work of several scholars, as noted here–the sexual overtones of the connection between woodcarver and ship are clear. Again, I do not judge such, though I do not share the fascination that I know is out there. It is something that comes to bear later on, however, and so bears attention in the present chapter, where it appears to begin.

School’s coming; help me get supplies?