Mass Effect Retrospective 21: Geth of Honor

By Shamus
on Nov 5, 2015
Filed under:
Mass Effect


This is the last post on the squad members in Mass Effect 2. Next time we will finally start talking about the plot. But now, I’ve saved the two bestUnless you think Mordin is the best. I’m cool with that. Or Garrus. Thane’s pretty cool too. I dunno. for last:


Hi Shepard. Don`t mind me. I`m just setting up a side-plot that won`t go anywhere.

Tali’s recruitment mission has you rescuing her from a Geth attack during a research project. She’s studying a star that’s burning out too quickly because of mumble mumble dark energy space magic. According to lead Mass Effect 1 writer Drew Karpyshyn (who departed BioWare just before Mass Effect 2 was completed) this was supposed to lead in to the overall Reaper plot. PC Gamer has a transcript of a podcast where Karpyshyn discussed an early concept for the big Mass Effect 3 reveal:

Dark Energy was something that only organics could access because of various techno-science magic reasons we hadn’t decided on yet. Maybe using this Dark Energy was having a ripple effect on the space-time continuum.

Maybe the Reapers kept wiping out organic life because organics keep evolving to the state where they would use biotics and dark energy and that caused an entropic effect that would hasten the end of the universe. Being immortal beings, that’s something they wouldn’t want to see.

Then we thought, let’s take it to the next level. Maybe the Reapers are looking at a way to stop this. Maybe there’s an inevitable descent into the opposite of the Big Bang (the Big Crunch) and the Reapers realize that the only way they can stop it is by using biotics, but since they can’t use biotics they have to keep rebuilding society – as they try and find the perfect group to use biotics for this purpose. The Asari were close but they weren’t quite right, the Protheans were close as well.

Again it’s very vague and not fleshed out, it was something we considered but we ended up going in a different direction.

I’m a little wary of talking about this here, if only because it strays dangerously close to the blame-game stuff I’ve been trying to avoid. Also, it’s a little unfair to compare this half-baked idea to the Actual Ending, because this Dark Energy plot has a lot of blanks that need to be filled in. It’s entirely possible this idea would have fallen apart just as violently as the one we got.

Sure, it might sound like a promising ideaOr not. I dunno. A lot would depend on the execution. when Karpyshyn outlines it, but if you put this explanation in the mouth of the Star Child and offered a Red, Green, Blue ending-o-tron then it probably would have been just as big a disaster as the ending we got.

But I bring this up because this is the only part of the entire game that makes any effort at all to set something up for Mass Effect 3, and it sets up an idea they abandoned later. You don’t need to do some kind of “big mind-blowing reveal” at the end of the series. But if you are going to go that way, then you really need to set it up properly ahead of time. A big twist is more than just “unexpected information”.

Everyone points to the end of Mass Effect 3 as this point of failure, but I maintain the seeds of that eventual failure were planted much, much earlier. Yes, the eventual reveal of the purpose of the Reapers was awful, but it would have been easier to deliver a good ending if there had been something to build on here in Mass Effect 2.

Tali’s Trial

The Quarians don`t need to wear their suits when on their own ships, but I don`t blame them for keeping them on here. The cumulative body odor of removing all these rubber suits at the same time would almost qualify as a biological attack.

While stopping the Reapers (and later, stopping Cerberus) remains the overarching plot, the Mass Effect series also has two major sub-plots that cover all three games: The Quarian / Geth conflict, and the Genophage. While the Reaper / Cerberus plot eventually disintegrates into frustrating nonsense, the other two plots remain uniformly excellent. Mordin’s loyalty mission advances the Genophage plot, while Tali’s advances the Geth / Quarian plot.

Tali is called back to the flotilla and put on trial for smuggling live Geth onto their ships. Tali isn’t actually the one to blame. It was her father. But Tali wants to take the blame to protect the memory of her father. I just want to point out that last week on Spoiler Warning, we ran into that exact situation in KOTOR, where one Wookiee wanted to take the blame for another, to protect the honor of the dead. Everyone notices when BioWare re-uses the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, but little ideas like this often show up again and again without being noticed.

I’d love to know if the same person wrote both stories.

The entire quest is fantastic. You get to see the famous Quarian flotilla up close. (A payoff to something ME1 set up!) You get to meet the Quarian leadership. (Worldbuilding!) You get to participate in the trial and make some fairly weighty decisions that aren’t just lame paragon / renegade binaries. (Choices that matter and make sense!) You get to shoot some Geth and hear all their delightful robo-noises, which was one of the most aurally pleasant parts of Mass Effect 1Aside from the soundtrack..

Also, this quest introduces characters and ideas that will return in Mass Effect 3 for a large dramatic payoff. We get character development, story development, choices, worldbuilding, and continuity between games. It’s wonderful, but it also highlights how much the main plot failed to do these things.


Maybe it`s the musical sting, but Legion`s big reveal gets me every time. What a fantastic moment.

Legion is a fan favorite. He made the rounds in the memes and comics when the game was fresh. Why do people like him so much? That cool voice? The fact that he’s a rare sci-fi robot that doesn’t suffer from Pinocchio Syndrome? Is it that intriguing N7 chestplate that the writers are smart enough to not explain?

Those are all good reasons, but I think an overlooked reason for Legion’s popularity is that he’s a character made almost entirely out of worldbuilding. Legion is a payoff to numerous questions posed in Mass Effect 1. His explanations about Geth existence, motivations, and behavior are all interesting. It expands on what we already know without rewriting existing lore or clashing tonally. Since the moment Tali explained their shared history, I’ve wanted to hear the Geth side of the story.

His recruitment takes place during a main story mission, so we’ll talk about it in a later entry. For now let’s talk about his loyalty mission, which poses the most interesting question of the entire Mass Effect series…

Link (YouTube)

The Geth have broken into two factions: One believes that they should join with the Reapers, and the other believe they should remain independent. Legion is with the independants, and calls the other faction the “heretics”, (Which makes me wonder if the pro-Reaper Geth think of themselves as “normal Geth” and Legion’s faction as the heretics.) The two sides don’t openly war on each other, but they have broken contact and avoid one another.

So then Legion hits you will this conundrum: The pro-Reaper Geth have a base where they are developing a software virus. This virus will alter the anti-Reaper faction, making them pro-Reaper. This is a pretty big danger. The Geth are already a pretty formidable foeIgnoring the fact the Shepard destroys hundreds of them with only modest danger to himself, because this is a shooter and That’s How Shooters Work. The Geth are like stormtroopers: A massive danger to everyone but the heroes., and now you’re discovering you’re only facing some sub-section of them. So Legion asks for Shepard’s help in eliminating the threat that this base poses.

During the mission, Legion offers Shepard a choice: Blow up the base along with the virus, or turn the virus around and use it to convert the heretics to our side.

As Extra Credits describes it:

Imagine this Geth sect is you, and the belief in question is something you feel very strongly, or hold very dear. Now imagine someone could take that belief from you – say, the religion of your father, or the belief in the worth of your own individuality. Imagine they could do it without asking you, without you ever knowing, and without your volition at all. Imagine that they could wipe away your beliefs to thoroughly that if you met your former unaltered self, you would disagree so violently that you probably couldn’t stand each other. Now imagine that the only way to prevent that from happening was a struggle to the death.

It’s a shame the writers tried to map this decision to the paragon / renegade system. This question is much too nuanced for so crude a tool. On the other hand, leaving out paragon or renegade considerations would have felt wrong from a gameplay perspective.

Some people come at this from the practical approach: Which is best for the galaxy as a whole? Other people come at it from a moral perspective: If it were me on the receiving end, would I prefer death, or alteration? Or maybe you could view alteration using some sort of MAD doctrine: If you don’t want to be at risk of alteration, then don’t try to alter others. Since these Geth made the first move towards this kind of weapon, turning it on them might be an important lesson for the Geth. Then again, it might just break the taboo and cause the Geth to abandon all attempts at dialog and embrace “brainwashing-via-hotfix” as a means of debate.

My one complaint about this mission is that Tali has almost nothing to say. This mission should have enormous historical significance for her, and she barely reacts.

You could argue that your decision doesn’t matter because the damage was already done when the heretics opted for this sort of solution. Up until now, Geth have always disagreed peacefully. But this virus demands aggression. No matter what you choose, this conflict makes them more like organics, who solve large conflicts by settling who has the best guns instead of who has the best ideas. This change in behavior might damage their intelligence and development in the long run.

This. This is why I love details-first sci-fi. The rules of a well-defined universe give us some frame of reference so we can examine this question in detail.In a drama-based universe where robots are just human-style personalities inside a metal body, it would be really awkward to slow the story down to ponder something like this and lay all the ground rules for what technology can and can’t do.

In a drama-based world, if someone reprogrammed C3P0 to hate Luke, the expectation would be that Luke could appeal to him as a friend to break the “spell”. Maybe right before he kills Luke, he would be reminded of some moment of friendship they shared, and he would realize his mistake at just the last second, proving that evil can’t win over good because love is true. Actually, since C3P0 is a comedy character, he’d probably be “fixed” by (say) hitting his head or being electrocuted. Or whatever. I’m sure you’ve heard that story before.

I’m not knocking those drama-based stories. They’re good. In Return of the Jedi, the good guys win because of love. Luke finds the strength to overcome Vader without resorting to the dark side because of his love for his sister. In turn, Vader betrays the dark side because of his love for his son. Han and Leia overcome the stormtroopers because of their love for each other, which Han finally professes right at a crucial moment. And the Ewoks overcome the Empire because of George Lucas’ love of merchandising.

The point I’m making is that while I enjoy having good drama pluck at my heart strings, sometimes what I really want is a challenging”Challenging” by the standards of mass-market entertainment. philosophical exercise within a properly framed hypothetical, and the question of what to do with the Heretic Geth is exactly that. The quandary is endlessly fascinating, and every time I think about it I find a new idea to play with or a question to ask.

Speaking of questions…

What do these guys argue about?

I actually laughed out loud when Joker silently mocked Legion. For one, it`s nice that they finally nailed Joker`s sense of humor, which was kind of weak in the first game. Second, because it`s usually hard for videogames to pull of jokes based entirely on body language and facial expression. Thirdly, I love the idea of secretly mocking a robot who doesn`t take offense. It`s amusingly pointless, like flipping off a raincloud.

Legion makes it clear that this particular Geth conflict is the result of Reaper influence, but he also makes it sound like this is not their first disagreement. The Geth presumably have the same hardware, they begin discussions with the same priorities, and they spend the majority of the time loaded into massive server racks where they aren’t going to have divergent sensory experiences. So how is it that they have differing opinions?

Humans are wildly divergent. We’ve got different genes, different conditioning, different experiences, and different outputs of hormones resulting from different behaviors and diets. But in Geth? Where would these differences come from? They presumably run on the same hardware. They spend most of their existence downloaded into server farms, which means they’re not out in the world having different sensory experiences.

Let’s say uncle Bob would drag us kids out to the lake every summer and feed us burgers that were raw meat inside and scorched carbon outside, and we were all tormented by mosquitos while we ate them. The repeated negative experience has conditioned me to hate the entire grilling experience regardless of location or skill of the chef. This makes me a bit of an oddball in my culture, where people love grilling outdoors.

How would such a divergent opinion arise among the Geth? What would make any of them diverge? If the same hardware takes the same input and rates it according to the same priorities, then disagreement isn’t diversity, it’s a software bug.

All of this is an exhaustive way of asking: What do the Geth talk about all day?

I’m not saying that Mass Effect should have answered this question. I’m saying that the detailed framework provided by the worldbuilder has created a universe where we can play around with ideas like this. This sort of exploration of hypotheticals wouldn’t workOr wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. in a schlock-based story where robots are just humans who are bad at idioms and have chrome skin.

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Good Robot #37: Get Things Moving

By Shamus
on Nov 4, 2015
Filed under:
Good Robot


Let’s talk about little things that make a big difference.

The game was lacking something. It was just too static. The world didn’t move, didn’t animate, didn’t react. The screenshots looked good, but when you were playing the game it felt like you were flying past a painting or something.

So my first solution is dust particles. Here is a shot of them, zoomed in so everything looks terrible:

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Half Time CH6: Fat Chance

By Rutskarn
on Nov 3, 2015
Filed under:
Lets Play


The fix is in. I’ve finished playing a raw, unrehearsed, honest, no-save-scumming league, and the results are…interesting. The next two posts will share my results in the usual grim detail. But for now, an interlude:

What I’m ending on this manky barstool is a moderate type #45 Bad Night, with deep foundations of rotten karma, shades of last Winter when I’d gotten a molar yanked out by an indignant bookie, and a sassy garnish of migraine. All that’s drizzled with a rich sauce of humiliation and despair I’ve only begun to catalog since becoming manager of this team. I beg my sommelier to recommend a wine pairing.

“Dwarf moonshine,” says the barman.

Excellent choice.

Now that I’ve had one–let me set the scene for you. No full recap is necessary, no blow-by-blow. Elves have been ruining my life for so long it’s become its own genre, and the story I’m about to tell you is replete with cliché.

Flash back to a day ago. I was flush with—let’s not call it victory. Let’s say I was flushed with the heady absence of defeat after my early-season draw with the Wood Elf team. So flush, in fact, that when I discovered I’d be up against them again for day two I was cautiously optimistic. “I have put my faith in the smallest and humblest of creatures,” I thought. “Because they desire neither power nor glory, but only superlethal doses of mayonnaise, they are truly the wisest among us and will ultimately prevail.” I would describe my state of mind as “stunned.” It couldn’t last.

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Experienced Points: Pokemon Coding and DRM

By Shamus
on Nov 2, 2015
Filed under:


This is the 245th column I’ve done for the Escapist, and I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’ve ever discussed Pokemon.

Also we talk about DRM and how my thoughts on DRM remain unchanged, even when I’m putting out a game.

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Diecast #127: Human Resource Machine, Life is Strange, SWTOR

By Shamus
on Nov 2, 2015
Filed under:


Saturday is our day to record the show. It was also Halloween this year. Everyone mysteriously went to fun Halloween parties instead of doing an internet podcast with an old man and hang on that’s actually not mysterious at all.

But we have a guest and we talk about games, so it still counts.

Direct download (MP3)
Direct download (ogg Vorbis)
Podcast RSS feed.

Direct link to this episode.

Hosts: Josh, Shamus, Rachel.

Episode edited by Rachel.

Show notes: Continue reading »

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The Altered Scrolls, Part 13: IPISYDHT#4

By Rutskarn
on Oct 31, 2015
Filed under:
Elder Scrolls


It’s hard to see how Oblivion could have ever gotten a fair shake. Halfway between two paradigms, the end product of an earthshaking hypetoberfest, it’s a huge credit to the game that anyone still plays or likes it in retrospect. And really–the game’s heart goes a long way. Whether or not it makes any sense or includes any interesting gameplay from moment to moment, it’s startling how much charm Bethesda could coax from four or five overworked voice actors and a few simple scripting tricks. They set themselves up with outlandish story hooks, bright colors, a camera that zooms right up on rubber-faced NPCs and lets them mug their way through scenes, and a huge pool of assets repurposed every possible way (in this game, painting easels alone provide: quest items, quest rewards, an easter egg, a doorway, a worldbuilding prop, background clutter). All this to ensure that the game’s energy, preserved at the expense of more thoughtful mechanics from predecessors, is spent going forward–never in circles. There’s always something worth finding the next room over.

I hope you’re beginning to see how every Elder Scrolls game since Arena can be viewed as the first “recognizable, modern” entry. Daggerfall crystallized the canon and brought staples like guilds and skill-based leveling to the franchise. Morrowind introduced custom-tooled storytelling environments and wonderfully responsive 3D, without which the exploratory and dungeon-crawling aspects of the game would have remained too abstract and repetitive to hook the player into the world. Oblivion fashioned from whole cloth the infrastructure of scripting, NPC invulnerability, quest arrows, and voice acting that has defined the moment-to-moment gameplay ever since. It’s hard to point at one of these titles and say that’s where the revolution happened–and it’s perverse, then, that this is exactly what I’m planning to do for Oblivion.

If it seems like my coverage of the level scaling and quest systems in Oblivion has been a little mild, it’s because, well, Oblivion is a little mild; it’s just that it happens to be mild in a very significant sort of way. It’s not until Skyrim emerges as a point of comparison that it becomes clear just how important Oblivion‘s subtler changes really are. More to the point: it’s not until Skyrim that Oblivion is outed as a successful experiment in creating a new genre of open world game.

I’m going to turn over to Q&A now. Ask any questions about Oblivion–or one of the other games, if you missed your chance back when–and I’ll write up my answers as soon as I can and link to them from the next post. Expect the first round answered by Monday morning.

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Knights of the Old Republic EP27: PURPOL LITESABARZ!

By Shamus
on Oct 30, 2015
Filed under:
Spoiler Warning


Link (YouTube)

Knights of the Old Republic lets you dual-wield purple lightsabers, which qualifies it for Game of the Year. No, not this year. Every year.

About 4 and a half minutes in, Josh tries to go to another planet and the screen goes blank. Chris says “Oh! We’re on Tatooine!” This probably seems strange, so let me explain:

Josh is streaming the game to the rest of us while he plays. KOTOR is ancient in terms of videogame technology, and it does not like our screwy setup. Sometimes it abruptly minimizes itself when trying to play a pre-rendered cutscene. Josh edits this out of the final video, but the rest of us see it when it happens. In this case, the game minimized itself and we found ourselves looking at Josh’s desktop, which features a desert scene.

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Knights of the Old Republic EP26: Hugh Mann

By Shamus
on Oct 29, 2015
Filed under:
Spoiler Warning


Link (YouTube)

Rutskarn is right: Glenn Close does indeed have a cameo in Hook. So do Gwyneth Paltrow and Phil Collins. I’m actually not a huge fan of Hook. It’s fun to see Hoffman and Williams do their thing, but I never thought it was a particularly fun or interesting movie. Then again, I was 20 when the movie came out, so I wasn’t actually part of the target demo. Maybe it’s just what 90’s kids wanted.

In this episode I commented that I didn’t remember the Wookiee noises being this unendurable. Looking back, I’m sure it’s because I was clicking through the dialog at reading speed instead of listening at talking speed.

I think Chris makes a good point: If they couldn’t engineer their own Wookiee talk, then perhaps cutting up the existing samples and piecing them back together at various speeds might have helped to give them greater variety.

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Mass Effect Retrospective 20: Now Hiring for Unknown Position

By Shamus
on Oct 29, 2015
Filed under:
Mass Effect


We’re still playing Mass Effect 2. Still collecting team members. But let’s stop and talk about someone we’re not taking with us:


I`d go with you, Shepard, but it would take me several days just to get these gloves off.

In Mass Effect 1, Liara was a shy, bookish, gentle, polite, socially awkward introvert who specialized in archaeology and geeked out over Prothean ruins. Then we bump into her here in Mass Effect 2 and she’s a tough-talking hard case with her own team of Asari commandos, and she runs some sort of cutthroat information business. That’s not “character growth”. That’s a complete re-write of her personality.

But even if we’re incredibly generous and pretend that this new Liara has simply been transformed by the events of the last two years, this character change feels completely unearned. In the last game she discovered a dire threat to the entire galaxy, killed her own mother, fought in several massive battles, and saved all of known space. It was a big deal and she had a little character growth in the process, but it was nothing compared to this jarring transformation that takes place entirely off-screen.

Worse, this change obliterated one of the most unique personalities in the game. The cast is packed with various flavors of badasses. We’ve got stoic, mercenary, philosophical, military, and berzerker badasses. Liara’s idealism and introversion made her unique. Her Prothean expertise and knowledge of history linked her to the overall plot of breaking a cycle that’s been repeating for longer than anyone knows. Now she’s just another swaggering biotic hardass with a gun.

And now we’re supposed to believe that not only does she have a completely new personality, but she’s changed to a completely unrelated career as an information broker? Somehow she’s even become “one of the best” information brokers on Illium, despite her ignoble backgroundPure-blood Asari are looked down on., lack of experienceBeing socially awkward would actually be a huge disadvantage in a job that involves so much interpersonal wheeling and dealing., lack of starting capitalThere’s a reason “rich like an archaeologist” isn’t a common rap lyric., limited time investmentTwo years is a short time for any career change, and she spent a lot of that time rescuing Shepard for Cerberus., and relative young ageShe’s only 100, on a planet of people who live to be 1,000..

Sure, it’s “possible” for this change to have happened in some fan-imagined side-story, but this is not how you handle characters in fiction. You don’t radically change their personality entirely off-screen, particularly not between works. Especially if it doesn’t even lead to some dramatic flashback, emotional payoff, or something else that serves the needs of the overall story. Especially not in a game that seems to be selling itself so hard on the characters.

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Knights of the Old Republic EP25: Lore Drop

By Shamus
on Oct 29, 2015
Filed under:
Spoiler Warning


Link (YouTube)

I praised the conversation with the broken hologram guy, but that’s because I have the hindsight of multiple playthroughs. He was actually really irritating on my first trip through the game, which is arguably the most important trip.

The idea of “these details seem dumb at first and only make sense after a later reveal” is a really dangerous game to play. It’s bad enough in a movie, since the audience can lose their trust in the storyteller long before the reveal. But in a game? Players will likely have many hours of gameplay between the seemingly dumb stuff and the payoff. They will very likely have breaks between game sessions to think about what the story is telling them, and thus lots of time to dwell on the apparent problems.

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Good Robot #36: Please Wait, Loading

By Shamus
on Oct 28, 2015
Filed under:
Good Robot


The more I work with a team of people, the more I’m convinced that having open, accessible game data is the path of least resistance. Why make buggy, lame, proprietary in-house tools when you can just stick all the data into text files and let people use their text editor of choice? Why spend time and effort packing simple data into binary files when you can leave it in plain text? As long as the data isn’t binary in nature (text-based 3D models and sound would probably not be a good idea) then open files are a win for everyone: Easier for coders, more comfortable for the artists, and more mod-friendly for enterprising players.

Of course, I’ve always thought this way, but I assumed it was bias from all the years I worked at Activeworlds, which focused on user-generated content, similar to Second Life or Roblox. I often wondered if I’d gravitate towards obscured data if I ever found myself working on a “proper” game.

But no. But if anything, I’m more pro-“open data” than ever.

But what if the users edit their data files to cheat and give themselves a billion hitpoints?

Yeah. Not a concern. Stopping single-player cheating is a lot like stopping pirates: It can’t be done, but if you’re really creative and determined you can waste a lot of time and money trying.

Early in the project, I had a lot of stuff hard-coded. Certain gameplay parameters were set in stone, and you couldn’t change them without changing the source code and patching the game. That’s basically fine for a one-person team. When I’m working alone, it’s just as easy to change a bit of source code as it is to change some text file of game data. But once Pyrodactyl joined, more and more of the game migrated out of code and into text files the artists controlled.

The only downside is…

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Half Time CH5: Cut Short

By Rutskarn
on Oct 27, 2015
Filed under:
Lets Play


“I should tell you,” says the games official, “that you can’t actually ask a question so many times that I invent new league rules.”

“But–look. Does the idea that we’re starting the league all over again because some paperwork got misplaced not strike you as just a little bit stupid? Suspicious? Fraudulent?

“Paperwork is important. Without it, how do we know who won a match?”

“I personally have no problem remembering that. I actually remember who wins our matches before we’ve had them.  But what I’m getting at here is–because the paperwork is mysteriously misplaced, the elf coach gets to field a brand new team?”

“He can’t start the season with two dead players, can he?”

“They’re dead because I killed them! I worked very hard to do that!”

“I know, and we appreciate heart and pluck as much as the next multinational corporation. Wasn’t that the whistle just there?”

My teeth grind like keystones on a halfling barbecue smoker, but I make for the stairs. Halfway up I turn and say, “Can I ask you something?”

“I would love that.”

Wood elves? You’re supposedly impartial–should I be nervous?”

“Normally I’d say yes, that wood elves are formidable adversaries and you should be nervous.” He spits his tobacco. “But for a halfling coach like yourself, I ask this rhetorical question: are wood elves a brisket?

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