Retired: Talis of the Otter Clan

Character: Talis
Episodes: 25
Theme Song: Damp Animal Spirits by Tanya Tagaq
Keywords: Flighty, chaotic, twitchy

Years ago my friend James decided to run a game using GURPS (I still don't know why) based on Michelle Paver's great young adult novel series The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. It was a series I had read and had listened to on audiobook narrated by Ian McKellan. I was super excited to get into the game and make a character and see the world come to life. If anyone could do it, James could do it justice.

Chronicles of Ancient Darkness takes place in a pre-agrarian society in the Northern part of the world. When talking about her work, Paver notes that she researched the Lapplanders a lot for the books. There is magic in this world, but it's ritualistic and very based on spirits. There aren't magic healers or people who just touch you to make magic happen. It's slow. And requires a lot of thought and planning.

Within the world, there are clans, each based on an animal or nature totem of some kind. So when we began the game, we had to choose which clan we belonged to. The GM had made different ones outside of the books, as they took place in the same world but at a different time. And because we were playing GURPS (lord knows why) we had to create our characters in very specific ways.

So I made Talis. I wanted someone sneaky, acrobatic, and more of a trap maker than the kind of person who would go toe to toe with other people. In the books, there's a line about the otter clan that I took to heart, which is that the otter clan is like their animal, scattered, playful people who live bits of fish everywhere. In the books, the otter clan leave offerings of fish to their clan animals. So there are just bits of fish everywhere.

I was playing a sea otter clan member. When I was deciding on my advantages and disadvantages, I decided to take infertile as a disadvantage. Talis was technically intersexed, and was one of my first experimentations with playing someone who didn't have a solid gender. I found her confusion about herself, which she shoved to the back of her mind, comforting compared to the harsh reality of the question in a world where fertility mattered.

Her way of dealing with this was to be mostly an outsider looking in. While still accepted by the clan, Talis spent most of her time with Makar, the other strange sea otter. He was large, very large, giant-like, and a crafter. He embroidered. Really really delicate embroidery. Talis was small. Slight. Boyish and not all that sturdy but very acrobatic and sneaky. They were constant companions and the best of friends. Neither questioned the other's ability to belong, and they both used bows. Just Makar's bow was the same size as Talis.

The campaign had the group, which consisted of Kym-Mae of the Wolf clan, Makar and Talis, Valkilmer of the Auroch clan, and Anya of the Bear clan. Eventually we had a serpent clan mage join us, and at the end, a prince from a clan in the valley. He had bronze. He was different than us. And thus, we didn't trust him.

The story wandered slowly towards a climax of finding a Soul Eater mage, which is a bad mage in that world, and stopping him. It was Talis who shot him before he got to finish his bad guy speech... she had a problem with getting bored and lots of talking. Talis was never one to talk to people. She was twitchy in the corner by herself and had no interest in trying to engage people. The couple times I tried, I failed.

Instead, she tended to irritate people with her disrespect and continual interest in things other than what was going on. If there was a dark tunnel, she'd be the first to jump inside. If there was a trap, she'd wanna figure it out. If there was a mystery, she'd follow it. She was so easy to lure into anything that the GM had no problem throwing story at us because Talis was always taking the bait.

But on the other hand, there was something intimately childish about Talis that slowly got destroyed as she spent more and more time figuring out what horrors were happening in the world. The Wolf clan had almost been destroyed. The serpent clan was gone. Plague was spreading. Darkness was corrupting parts of the open forest. There were not-breaths (zombies) found in some of the darkest parts of the forest. Talis was terrified. And her solution was to push forward hard and without looking back. It wasn't determination, it was stubbornness and a child's fear of letting the monster get them.

She's the kid who would run and flick on the light switch.

Except when she did only horrible things could be found. It was so heartbreaking for her to get to the end, feeling useless and unable to fight back (because low tech gurps is fucking brutal), killing the bad mage and damning her own spirits, and having nothing to show for it because there was so much more happening beyond killing that mage. In the end, she went with Makar and hung out with some of the other outcasts and kinda made her own outcast clan. I liked that bit. Even if the forest was doomed.

I loved and hated playing Talis. She was so easily frustrated that I walked away agitated a lot (oh bleed) and I ended behaving rashly in game because Talis couldn't deal with just hanging around. I tried to make her more patient, but she was so accustomed to people ignoring her that she was used to doing her own thing. Being seen and heard and treated differently other than with disdain made her leery of people, and she didn't like most of her companions.

When I made her, I was challenging myself to play someone rash and irresponsible and an outsider who had no urge to actually save people. It turns out she became a somewhat hero and was one of the driving forces behind keeping people on task. She wasn't friendly, or warm, but she was pointed and direct and that surprised people. She never broke clan law, deeply respected the open forest, and had an ardent love for the world she occupied, which she didn't see matched in those around her. Everyone seemed selfish and wrapped up in stupidity and petty politics when the world was ending. Like a child, she couldn't understand or access those politics. So she ignored them and pushed ahead.

Talis was close to my heart, and I still get annoyed thinking about her because she was perpetually annoyed. It was interesting playing a character who legitimately didn't understand social politics and had no concern towards those social politics. Now that I think of it, she kinda reminded me of a friend of mine at the time who struggled with boundaries and understanding social cues.

I can't say I would ever play her again. I was happy with her ending, and I would play in that world again, but never again with gurps or with Talis. I wanted to shake her off. She was one of those folks who burned you out being around because you were constantly waiting for her to do something wrong, and she was exhausted because she was always doing something wrong and didn't get it.

Overall, Talis was a success. No one liked her. She didn't like anyone. She saved the day. And she ran way to never return, because she discovered, harshly, that people weren't worth it and didn't deserve saving.


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