Serendipity and Scale

This past weekend I participated in the fifth event of Heathen, a LARP campaign based around a historical fantasy take on King Alfred’s war against the Danish invaders of Dark Ages England. I had a great time, in part because I came in with a different player character type which meant I could better target the parts of the game I found interesting than my previous character did.

Specifically, I was playing a character in the “cunning folk” archetype, a practitioner of pagan-tinged magic. (Some PCs in the system are outright pagans, some are Christians, I am specifically choosing to play a character who’s a bit of a syncretist.) One thing which impressed me with how the referees ran this part of the game is how they gave it sufficient rules and structure to feel like it wasn’t totally arbitrary, whilst at the same time being very open to what effects your ritual might bring about and adopting what in tabletop circles is called a “fail forward” approach a lot of the time: even when rituals went awry, it seemed like the referees made sure that something substantive which could prompt further action still came of them, even if it wasn’t as helpful as a successful ritual would have been.

The way you are encouraged to construct rituals in Heathen is that you are meant to find a suitable Focus for the ritual – an object or place appropriate to the ritual being attempted – a Connection to the target (an enemy NPC was cursed by the player characters using his hair, blood, and teeth acquired through various means), and a source of power like prayer, blood, or the sacrifice of a soul.

Within that framework, you can ask for a wide range of things, but there’s obviously limits. There’s several examples in the current version of the rules calling out things which won’t work – making the sun rise at midnight, driving the Danes into the sea and winning the war in one fell swoop, turning invisible, walking through walls, or killing people with a mere glance – all come down into two fairly simple categories: stuff which would spoil the game by “solving” the entire plot or otherwise making it trivially easy, and stuff which can’t really be adequately physrepped. (Apparently the refs have had to say “no” at least once to the “sunshine at night” thing on grounds of it being impossible to meaningfully implement.)

Within those restrictions, though, you could achieve a lot, and what impressed me was how the ref team were able to very effectively take players’ spontaneous rituals and roll with them, both tweaking pre-planned plot stuff to help it reflect what the PCs had done and going the extra mile with what was possible. There’s two examples I particularly want to talk about here.

In the first example, I’d managed to intercept a letter between two NPCs (having blagged it off a faery herald), and I decided to do a solo divination ritual with it to see if I could discern information written between the lines – in other words, pick up details which were not written in the letter (I could just find someone who could read Latin for that!) but which were germane to its subject, recipient, or sender. I’d already had indications that a particular Celtic cross erected in the game area was something to do with my elf-lord patron, Mabon ap Modron, so I used the cross as a Focus, the letter as a Connection, and my blood as a power source (represented by fake blood, obviously).

All this was fine, and the ritual went off successfully, and I got some very useful information which I hastened to tell to others. But less than five minutes or so after I was done, Mabon and his entire faery court showed up in the game area, kicking off a memorable sequence in which the player characters had to contest with Mabon to gain certain prizes, including invoking the magic of the Celtic cross to communicate across long distances. They specifically made a bee-line for me, and Mabon was quick to tell people that I had summoned him.

Now, OOC, it’s obvious that Mabon and his court showing up was a planned encounter, which the referees had put together before they knew I was going to do that ritual – it involved a significant number of crew with fairly extensive makeup jobs, getting it prepared would have taken a good chunk of the morning prior to them rolling out, I’d only mentioned I was doing the ritual some 5-10 minutes before they showed up. The referee who adjudicated the ritual was doing some fairly intensive talking into his walkie-talkie at the time out of my hearing, but it’s not hard to guess that he was telling them to hold off on rolling out the encounter until the outcome of my ritual could be built into it.

So on the one hand, Mabon and his court were always going to appear, whether or not I did the ritual and whether or not I succeeded – but at the same time, the referee grabbed onto the lucky coincidence of me doing that ritual right as the encounter was primed to go out in order to give extra flavour to the encounter. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me at least (and quite likely for any other player who was trying to suss out my character) it made the encounter land very differently, and making the effort to incorporate the ritual like that was something the referees 100% didn’t have to do but enriched the overall story of the event by doing. It’s the sort of thing where if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have noticed or felt short-changed, but because it did happen it was really cool.

The second example happened later. Many of the PCs were off on a combat encounter, but I was observing the Kabbalists at work. The Kabbalists are essentially the monotheistic-flavoured magicians in the game system, using magic along much the same lines as the cunning folk in terms of ritual framework, only with more use of prayer and saint’s relics (but not actually that much less in terms of blood). They had a bit more social clout, because in the setting Christianity is the default religion of the Saxons and pagans are either a) on the back foot or b) in the case of the Danish invaders, often our adversaries; this is balanced by, among other things, cunning folk having the ability to act as healers whilst Kabbalists don’t. That’s why I was sat to one side as they worked – rituals sometimes causing injury when they fail.

In this case, the Kabbalists were investigating a theft of an artifact from a sacred reliquary, and applied some lateral thinking. The artifact in question had exhibited a tendency to spontaneously appear back in the reliquary when given the opportunity to – so summoning it back felt like a waste of time. Merely divining the identity of the thief might be worth doing, but wouldn’t necessarily help get the relic back, and a previous attempt by me and some others to divine the identity had backfired. However, summoning the thief would not only identify them, but also get the relic back – either because it was on their person or because distracting the thief would allow the artifact to use its own capability to return.

Amazingly, this worked. Sure, they drew a black bead (which usually means a ritual backfires) in the resolution, but that just meant they took some horrible consequences; as the ritualists were coming to terms with the curse that had been placed upon them, another PC walked in, a blind monk, and after a moment we realised from something he said that he’d been summoned. (As it turned out, he’d been possessed for multiple events, and had been acting as a traitor in the player party all that time, in a magnificent bit of play from the player concerned.)

The thing which impressed me about this was that the PC in question had been out on the combat encounter – which meant that the ref adjudicating the ritual had used his radio to contact the refs running the combat and get them to tell the player in question to go back to the main camp and enter the longhouse, due to being summoned. In more or less any other LARP I’ve played, that wouldn’t have happened; at a fest-scale LARP it wouldn’t even be viable to have the result happen that quickly (because at something like Empire there’s thousands of people on the field and only a fraction are in sight of a ref at any particular time), and at many smaller-scale games the refs would most likely have just waited until the combat encounter wrapped just to make it logistically easier.

Indeed, it’s entirely possible the Heathen refs would have had second thoughts about doing the summoning had the combat encounter been way over on the other side of the site – but things happened to line up in such a way to make it possible. As it happened, all this led to a really intense scene as the exposed traitor cackled and the blighted Kabbalists resorted to dire measures to resolve the situation, and it wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic if we’d all had to wait half an hour or so for the combat encounter to resolve.

What I think is interesting about both of these incidents is that they’re the sort of thing which is only possible in a game of roughly the sort of size of Heathen. Make the game much larger and your ref team is probably spread thin enough that they’re not going to be able to keep the same track of where everyone is and what everyone is doing (in terms of ritual use, at least) that the Heathen team were, and the less scope they’re going to have to delay things, change things, or work out a plan on the fly to take the effects of a ritual into account. But if the game were significantly smaller, these little techniques wouldn’t have seemed so impressive – if a game is of a scale where most participants are able to see where everyone is at all times, then it’s that much less of a surprise when these happy accidents line up.

One could argue, in fact, that part of the point of involving randomisers in tabletop RPGs is to allow for these serendipitous moments – because otherwise, in a tabletop session an attentive player can keep track of more or less everything that is happening in the game, because the action is entirely contained in the conversation at the table. At the other end of the scale, in very large fest LARPs and the like, such coincidences might be much harder to design for – but arguably they don’t need to be, because there’s so many people doing so much stuff in the field that plenty of interesting quirks of fate happen entirely organically. This is just one of a great many respects in which the scale of your game has such a big influence on your design considerations that it’s often misleading to treat the design of fest-scale LARPs and smaller-scale LARPs as though they were just larger or smaller versions of the same task; like relativity, classical mechanics, and quantum mechanics, different tools are called for at different scales.

Supplement Supplemental! (Chivalric Bestiaries, Arcane Cauldrons, Roman Republics, and OpenQuest Additions)

Time for another entry in my occasional article series covering game supplements which didn’t inspire a full article but did prompt some thoughts. This time around it’s a classic fantasy special, with supplements for various fantasy RPGs with long, distinguished lineages: a Chivalry & Sorcery monster tome, a significant D&D 5E rules expansion, and some material for Basic Roleplaying and OpenQuest.

European Folklore Bestiary (Chivalry & Sorcery)

Like much of the 5th Edition Chivalry & Sorcery lineup, this is the product of a Kickstarter – in this case, a carefully unambitious one, in which stretch goals were sensibly not used to bulk up the book itself but to unlock various 3D printer files for printing miniatures. That’s not something which is necessarily all that interesting if you’re not into using minis for RPG or wargaming purposes, but it’s a nice approach to running a Kickstarter regardless, since it helps steer well clear of the “we added too many stretch goals and now our core product is too ambitious” trap.

Weighing in at a shade over 150 pages, the European Folklore Bestiary is an extensive collection of additional creatures for Chivalry & Sorcery – the schtick here being is that they are derived from medieval bestiaries and folklore, and so represent the creatures as people of the era might have thought of them. It’s a fun concept that’s suitable to the game’s overall focus on historical detail, and I don’t mind owning a hard copy now that it’s out, but at the same time I think it’s a product I would have been happy to just get the PDF for.

The main reason for this is that it’s just a little light for a 150 page supplement. Each creature has a full-page illustration accompanying, and whilst some of these illustrations fill that space nicely, others seem a little under-detailed – like the plan was for them to be smaller initially and used in the corner of a page, rather than blown up to full size.

Pretty much all the creatures here fit onto a single double-page spread, and since each creature has a full-size illustration this means that around half the book is artwork. In the remaining half of the pages, the fairly extensive Chivalry & Sorcery stat blocks often take up half the page, and the written details on the creatures in question are sometimes a little sparse. Not always – some carry more detail – but often enough that this is noticeable.

Of course, this may well be that you’re dealing with some creatures which just aren’t widely mentioned in the bestiaries, just a brief aside here or there, and so there’s not that much authentic detail to provide – but it still makes the book feel a little sparse. There’s a good bibliography at the end, though perhaps it would have been helpful to provide individual citations in the creature entries to better indicate the specific sources of particular beasts. I’m still glad to have the resource, but I think customers coming to this late might be well-advised to consider just getting the PDF.

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A Tattered Triptych

Tim Wiseman’s Tatters of the King is a Call of Cthulhu campaign released by Chaosium in 2006. It is notable for being one of the last long-form Call of Cthulhu campaigns released when Lynn Willis was co-running Chaosium alongside Charlie Krank; in 2008, Willis would step down due to ill health, and it would be after that that Chaosium would enter the period of decline under Charlie Krank’s near-sole control until Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen enacted their boardroom coup in order to save the company. The presentation of the material, in terms of layout and art and overall production values, really isn’t that much further developed from material that Chaosium were put out in the mid-to-late 1990s, and whilst at this point in time that wasn’t as incongruous as it would become when they were still using essentially the same approach in the later years of the Krank regime, it can still feel a little rinky-dink at points compared both to the nicer products the market was producing in the mid-2000s and the sort of production values we expect from Chaosium under the new management.

That said, the simplicity of the layout has made it easy for the current powers that be at Chaosium to make the campaign available via print-on-demand. The POD version is a straight reprint of the 2006 release, without updates for the 7th Edition rules (not that many are really needed – multiply all the attributes by 5 and you’re basically there) and without correction of typos, of which there are a few. (Not, admittedly, as many as there were in products from the later years of Krank-era Chsosium – Lynn Willis helped maintain tighter standards as long as he was able – but enough that it’s noticeable.)

What of the content itself? Well, as more or less anyone with a smattering of Mythos knowledge will have guessed from the title, it’s a King In Yellow-themed campaign. Wiseman has good taste in the sort of material he draws on – as well as Chambers himself he looks to Thomas Ligotti and Ramsey Campbell for inspiration – but perhaps the most important touchstone he looks to comes from Chaosium’s licensees at Pagan Publishing.

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Kult: Divinity Lost, Second Wave Released

A while back I reviewed the first wave of products released for Kult: Divinity Lost, the fourth edition of the infamous horror RPG whose previous English editions had a patchy record when it came to the core rulebooks and supplement line and some adventures where… well, the kindest thing I can say about them is that they have aged very badly. To be fair, the latter is a perennial problem of modern-day occult RPGs: pretty much no prewritten scenarios for early World of Darkness games are particularly good examples of game design, and even Unknown Armies, perhaps the most accomplished of the genre during its 1990s boom, had an issue with adventures which might have been edgy and avant-garde but weren’t necessarily very fun to actually play.

I found that the new core book for the new edition was about as good a presentation of the concept as the game has ever enjoyed (and, reassuringly, includes some wise pointers about the use of safety mechanics and not cracking players over the head with content they’d find OOC traumatic), the support material was useful but not essential, and the adventures… meh. Now, thanks to the second Kult Kickstarter coming to fruition, I’ve received the second wave of support products for the line – a brand new referee guide and some additional adventure and support material in addition to that. Let’s have a look at the new books and bits and see what new goodies the Archons are offering us…

Beyond Darkness and Madness

This is billed as a referee’s guide, and is light on significant new crunch and heavy on refereeing advice, guidance, and tools. That, however, rather makes sense for a game derived from Powered By the Apocalypse, because that family of systems puts a big emphasis on the referee actually paying attention to the GMing advice and following the agendas and principles outlined to guide play. (Well, at least in principle. In practice… does any Powered By the Apocalypse game have any real safeguards against the referee abandoning one of the Agendas mid-play if they think it’d make for a better game? I’ve never seen one.)

The book is divided into three sections. The first goes into deep dives on the various scenario construction principles already presented in the core book, providing further details and explanations on such things as the concept map you are encouraged to draw as play progresses and how these may can be used; this is arguably the part of the book which risks tipping into being mechanistic most (a bit of a risk in game systems which purport to be about a fiction-first approach, but then try to define the fiction in a somewhat mechanical way), but I can see how these exercises can be useful to spur creativity and assist inter-session prep work, and it’s useful to be offered alternate ways to use these techniques rather than necessarily abandoning them. (Relatedly, an appendix provides a print version of the PDF guide for using the Kult tarot deck to designing scenarios.)

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On Pausing the Game At a LARP

I encountered a situation I don’t remember running into at a LARP this past weekend (Land Without a King, run under the auspices of EyeLARP, as it happens). This was when the entire game was paused in order to deal with a breach of the conduct policy.

Pausing the entire game for this sort of thing is generally more common in tabletop, because it’s vastly easier to pause the game when every single participant is sat around the same table (whether in person or over voice chat). Various safety mechanics like the X-card have been developed for the tabletop context; whilst the X-card can be used in a way which maintains the flow of play (if everyone at the table is happy for that, and if the thing which triggered the X-card is unambiguous enough that it’s clear what content needs to be steered away from), the X-card writeup makes it clear that in some contexts taking a break from play would be necessary.

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LARPing Internationally At Short Notice

Recently I took my first foray into the world of international LARP, attending the first run of A Meeting of Monarchs. This was a historical game based around the meeting of King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold; it took place in a scenic French chateau, with a player base from a range of European countries, and boasted an exceptionally good quality of both costuming and performance from the players in question, the majority of whom had booked for the event months in advance and had the advantage of spending a long time preparing for the game.

I, on the other hand, had picked up a ticket late – having acquired it following a player dropping out in early March – and, with other LARP commitments intervening, essentially had less than a month or so to prepare for the game. Here’s how I prepared, and how well that preparation served me.

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Sorties Into the Dark Ages

So, despite having been involved in LARP in some capacity for twenty years or so, for a good long while I’d never been to what you might call a “traditional” Vampire: the Masquerade LARP, despite the prominent role those have played in the field over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Vampire LARPs – of both Masquerade and Requiem flavours – but never one which used the venerable Mind’s Eye Theatre system as maintained by By Night Studios.

There’s various factors why that has been the case. I started LARPing in university; at the time, there was a local branch of Camarilla UK (the major Mind’s Eye Theatre-based World of Darkness LARP network), but there was also other options. If you were into a more physically active LARP, with combat actually implemented using pulled blows with latex weapons, Mind’s Eye Theatre wouldn’t be your thing anyway – that system has never used “hard skill” combat but instead uses game mechanics to resolve violence in an abstract fashion. There was a local system which ran frequent afternoon sessions of a Saturday, so if you preferred that, that was what you did.

Mind’s Eye Theatre-esque games are somewhat suited to games which put a strong emphasis on political networking and social skills – but for that there was also alternatives, with at least one (and often several) freeform games which delivered a similar style of play. These would run campaigns in short runs (since they were associated with the local university’s RPG society and so needed to complete their arcs within the academic year due to student turnover), and as the “freeform” title implies tended to be extremely system-light.

This meant there were not much in the way of rules you needed to keep in mind to play, and not much in the way of the sort of long-term baggage that any RPG campaign accumulates over the passage of time. By contrast, the local Camarilla UK game seemed rather unapproachable. The Mind’s Eye Theatre system provided a significant barrier to entry and seemed daunting to handle in play – whilst in a tabletop context it’s much easier to pause and look up a rule when playing a crunchy system, LARPs really thrive on pausing the action as little as possible, so a rules logjam in a LARP can be significantly more disruptive to the play experience than a difficult rules problem in a tabletop context, and needing to keep a large amount of rules information straight in your head to ensure smooth play is a perennial LARP system design issue.

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The Keeper’s Little Instruction Book

Keepers Tips is a small tome put out by Chaosium as part of their celebrations of Call of Cthulhu‘s 40th Anniversary. It’s a short thing – barely over 110 pages, in a small pocketbook size if you get the hard copy – and it’s full of short tips, little suggestions on various subjects relevant to the task of running Call of Cthulhu submitted by a fairly wide spread of Chaosium’s contributors and colleagues.

In essence, it’s like Life’s Little Instruction Book for running Call of Cthulhu; precisely because it consists of a large number of small tips rather than detailed essays on the subjects it covers (fairly broad topics like “Preparation”, “Designing Scenarios” and so on), you aren’t going to get major deep dives into the subject matter at hand. (If you wanted that, the Keeper advice in the main Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rulebook is a better starting point; if you wanted an entire pocketbook of highly insightful essays on horror gaming, you could dig up Nightmares of Mine by Ken Hite.)

Instead, what you get here is a bunch of suggestions, and a proportion of them will make sense but seem obvious, a proportion will probably be an interesting take worthy of further thought, and a chunk of them will probably bug the living shit out of you (sometimes in a way where you instantly know why you’re rejecting it, sometimes in a way which calls for a certain amount of deeper thought to figure out why you’re getting that reaction). The odds of two Keepers agreeing on which tips go in which categories, though, feel pretty slim, which is where the value of the book comes in – it’s a book to argue with, something to look at to interrogate your refereeing style and to better feel out where your preferences lie.

In the spirit of the book, here’s a tip of my own: why not find suggestions you find especially thought-provoking on this book, put them on flashcards, and use them like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies? You can pull a card when you need a jolt of inspiration when you’re developing material for a game and feel stuck and maybe it’ll help you find a new way to get past the block.

Apparently the “Old School” Comes Complete With School Bullies

As some of you might remember, I know Emily Allen in real life – that’s why I was able to land that interview with her about Esoteric Enterprises a while back. In the interests of both news reportage, signal-boosting, and generally wanting to support a friend, I’d like to direct your attention to two recent posts she’s made on her blog.

First, there was her announcement late last month that she’s pivoting away from writing OSR material to write some 5E stuff. Her explanation both of why she felt the need to do this and what she’s trying to do there is interesting and thoughtful, and in an ideal world that would be it. (Honestly, go read it even if you don’t care about the drama aspects of this post, that melancholic journey into the deep Shadowfell she’s talking about sounds intriguing.)

Then, however, she decided that she needed to explain her estrangement from the OSR community more clearly, in a post from a couple of days ago.

It makes for grim reading, and for the most part I don’t need to add much more to it. To summarise for those of you who are too busy to click the link, Emily explains that a range of harassing, bullying behaviours have been directed at her, stemming directly from her involvement in the OSR. In case you want to grasp for a straw of plausible deniability, the behaviour Emily describes does not exclusively relate to the random trolling of people who could be brushed off as not really involved in the OSR community – there’s also stuff where Emily knows exactly who has done or said something, and it’s been OSR people.

Are all OSR folk terrible? I’d like to think not, but it’s clear that there’s some severely bad actors in the scene, and generally speaking subcultural scenes get that way because they’ve made those bad actors welcome and aren’t making the effort to push them away.

The takeaway line, for me, is this:

Is this level of toxicity unique to the OSR? No, I’ve seen 40k fans. But the OSR is absolutely one of the worst scenes I’ve been involved with (and I like black metal!). 

So you can’t hide behind “all scenes have bad actors”. Emily’s fully aware of that and has been/is involved in scenes with astonishingly bad actors. Some scenes (or some parts of some scenes) make a proactive effort to clean house. Others don’t.

It sounds like the OSR either needs to do better or get used to some of its most talented and original voices exiting.

Incidentally, cards on the table: my comments section is not an unfettered free speech zone and never has been, and I’ve never been keen on approving comments which endorse unacceptable behaviour or espouse bigotry even when the subject under discussion is a total stranger to me. I’m certainly not going to provide a platform on here for people who are coming after one of my actual friends.

Rising From the Grave

Confession time: though I thought the 5E D&D setting books from Wizards I’ve reviewed so far (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Eberron: Rising From the Last War, and Guildmasters’ Guide To Ravnica) were all pretty decently executed, I haven’t actually kept hold of any of them, and indeed I’ve not bought into many of the new setting books Wizards have brought out (Strixhaven, Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the Critical Role tie-in one, etc.).

That’s mostly because I ultimately don’t have that much affection for the worlds in question. Forgotten Realms is so generic that I struggle to care all that much. Eberron is a setting which leans hard into a lot of ideas which were in vogue when 3.X was fresh, because it was explicitly designed for a 3rd Edition-era setting contest, so it largely reminds me of a time when I’d walked away from D&D. I was never that into Magic: the Gathering and don’t particularly care about its settings.

What I do have some affection for is Ravenloft. The 2E rendition of the setting may have had its issues, but it did a great job of adapting D&D to a style of play which on the one hand was several notches spookier than the default but still worked within a D&D framework, and offered an approach to horror distinct from the major offerings of the time like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade. 5E’s first dip into the setting was Curse of Strahd, an update of the original Ravenloft campaign (much as 2E’s House of Strahd was that edition’s update). It was enough of a commercial success to prompt a lavish deluxe reprint (mildly revised to make the depiction of the Vistani less based in anti-Romani racist tropes), and seems to have been pretty critically acclaimed – on a purely anecdotal level, I’m aware of more people who’ve played or run D&D games using Curse of Strahd than any of the other major Wizards-released campaigns.

In this face of such success, it was probably inevitable that we’d get a 5E update of the setting as a whole, and that’s exactly what Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft offers. This brings in a swathe of tweaks to Ravenloft canon, but I don’t regard that as a problem; the design team have done a good job of adding in diversity in a way which enriches and enlivens the stories and makes the setting richer as a result, and if you really want the old canon the old supplements are right there on DrivethruRPG for you to consult.

Some of the changes are more radical than “inject more diversity into the cast of NPCs”, mind you. A major shift is that the idea of Ravenloft’s “Core” has now been abolished. Cosmologically speaking, rather than Ravenloft being a single Demiplane of Dread, its Domains are basically all pocket planes in the depths of the Shadowfell (a clever application of a bit of post-4E cosmology which makes a lot of sense), and when you leave a Domain you enter the Mists and can conceivably end up in any other Domain. In other words, they are all now like the old island “Domains”, and the idea of having (for example) a consistent road between Barovia and Darkon is now gone: now the road out of Barovia goes into the Mist and you don’t know where it will take you when you go in.

Continue reading “Rising From the Grave”