Discworld Read-a-thon 4 — Mort

This is the bright candlelit room where the lifetimers are stored — shelf upon shelf of them, squat hourglasses, one for every living person, pouring their fine sand from the future into the past. The accumulated hiss of the falling grains makes the room road like the sea.

This is the owner of the room, stalking through it with a preoccupied air. His name is Death.

Opening lines of Mort, by Terry Pratchett

Mort! Book four in the series. It’s one of the books most regularly advised as a jumping in point, so if you’re looking for a good time to start your Discworld adventure, then why not jump in now and come back to the blog later. For everyone else, let’s get cracking. Last time I shook the format up slightly, but we’re back to the standard set-up this month. Starting with a quick recap of the book, then a couple of examples of taking something from the book to use in TTRPGs, and then finally a selection of random quotes from the book in question (and my oh, so witty comments).

For reference, Death always speaks in capital letters in the Discworld, and the quotes below reflect that.

Learning the trade

I? KILL? Said Death, obviously offended. CERTAINLY NOT. PEOPLE GET KILLED, BUT THAT’S THEIR BUSINESS. I JUST TAKE OVER FROM THEN ON. AFTER ALL, IT’D BE A BLOODY STUPID WORLD IF PEOPLE GOT KILLED WITHOUT DYING, WOULDN’T IT?

Mort is the first of the books in the Death series, centred around the anthropomorphic personification of death, Death, the Discworld’s Grim Reaper character. We follow the titular character as he trains to become Death’s apprentice. Along the way, he makes friends, falls in love, and severely disrupts the timeline by saving someone that should have died. Rookie mistake there, fella. You should never try and change the flow of time on your first day; I learnt that one the hard way. Anyway, the course of history tends to not care much about the opinions of mortals. Mort, assisted by Ysabelle, Death’s Granddaughter (who we briefly saw back in book two, The Light Fantastic), spend the rest of the book trying to find some way of stopping time correcting Mort’s mistake.

It’s a story that digs deep into the notions of duty, reality, and love. As usual, it includes some absolutely exquisite writing that manages to strike a balance between thought-provoking and laugh out loud funny. It’s one of those books in the series that I desperately want to love, and I can objectively find several reasons to do so, but I just can’t manage it. I like it, and yet it doesn’t seem quite to hit home. I have a hard time emphasising with Mort, and it’s a love story at its heart. It’s a tongue in cheek one, certainly, but still a story about young love and its follies, and that’s something that I never quite understand. I suppose this dulls the edge of the story somewhat for me, and the edge is important in Pratchett.

It’s a slightly bittersweet ending, one that reminds us of the weight of reality and that life isn’t a fairytale. It’s been mentioned before, but one of the charms of Discworld is to put the mundane into a magical situation, rather than simply adding a veneer of fantasy over an otherwise ordinary world. For a story about Death’s apprentice, a princess, and wizards, it’s remarkably grounded. It’s a story about people and all the better for it. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t mine it for inspiration!

Cover of Mort by Terry Pratchett. Art designed by Josh Kirby. It depicts the character of Death riding his white horse Binky, along with the rest of the cast. It's in a very bright colours with lots of visual effects in the drawing.
Cover of Mort by Terry Pratchett, designed by Josh Kirby.

A place between worlds

NO FURTHER THAN THE THICKNESS OF A SHADOW, said Death.

What happens when a character dies? In many TTRPGs, the characters will simply slip off the mortal coil, and we won’t hear from them again. We either don’t know what happens next or merely have a vague idea of the afterlife in the setting. What happens, though, when a TTRPG gives you access to some form of resurrection and, more importantly for this discussion, what do they remember when they come back?

Of course, you can just pull the veil over it, have characters with no recollection of what happened during their time away. Or maybe they do remember glimpses of the afterlife they were in (and maybe regret being taken from it if you want to steal a plotline from Buffy). There is, however, another option: Death’s dimension. Home of whatever version of the Grim Reaper lives in your world and a holding room for souls currently in transit; lives who, according to Death’s bookkeeping, aren’t finished yet. 

This could provide a fun place to explore for the downed party member, to stop them twiddling their thumbs while waiting for their comrades to get what’s needed to resurrect them. It might even be an interesting way out of an unfortunate TPK, as the party figures out some way of getting back to life (a game of chess is the traditional bargaining method, but I’m sure they can find other creative ways of negotiating). 

For those who haven’t read the books but would still like to use the idea, here are a few aspects about Death’s Dimension to get you going.

  • It moulds to the will of its Master, suiting their temperament, style, and needs. Traditionally its main style is gothic, with plenty of black and maybe a bit of velvet. The house is bigger on the inside than the out, adding rooms as necessary.
  • Time doesn’t function the same way within this dimension. It moves but doesn’t truly flow, ensuring that Death can get to where they need to be on time.
  • It isn’t lifeless, despite its Master. There might be plants growing, black roses are a real sign of taste, and indeed be other inhabitants than Death. A servant or two, who have prefered to make this home rather than moving on, and of course, Death needs a horse to ride.

Above all, you should make it fit your version of Death. Maybe they aren’t the traditional Grim Reaper type? Perhaps they are a creature of light, or a friendly boatsman with their domain floating on a river? What about a giant beetle that pulls the chariot of souls across the veil? Maybe their form changes to match the wishes and beliefs of their observer? It’s important to make it your own.

Cover of Mort by Terry Pratchett, designed by Joe McLaren. It depicts Mort and Death on the back of the white horse Binky. It's in a modern mminimalist art style.
Cover of Mort by Terry Pratchett, designed by Joe McLaren.

The Duty

IT’S NICE OF YOU TO SAY SO, BUT DUTY CALLS. He extended a bony hand. YOU KNOW HOW IT IS.

Ah, The Duty. This isn’t just a job or even any ordinary duty. This is a Duty with a capital D. It’s one of those essential things, more important than absolutely anything else. It’s what Death calls his role as shepherd of souls from the mortal realm on to the afterlife. In the book, Mort takes on the part of Death’s apprentice, and therefore also swears to fulfil The Duty. For some reason, this sent me spiralling down the path of writing a Paladin Oath of Duty for D&D 5e. After my escapades in my read of The Light Fantastic, I had hoped not to get back into subclass design again so soon, but alas, inspiration cares little for my wishes.

The Oath of Duty paladin is sworn to accomplish a specific task or role in life, no matter what obstacles might be in the way. This isn’t meant to perfectly resemble the position of being an apprentice to the Grim Reaper, but something more general. Definitely, a case of inspired by rather than based on. You can find a free PDF version of the subclass here.

The subclass is based on getting the job done, as it were. Therefore, it is heavily focused on providing additional movement for the paladin and their allies and ensuring that they can’t be easily stopped. It’s probably too heavily focused on that aspect to be fair, providing nothing in the way of offence (except the ability to stick to a target) and little in the way of defence. While this could be fun for a while, the subclass is likely to end up with some of its features feeling redundant rather than exciting additions. 

If I reworked it, I might try to theme The Duty more as something linked to keeping the order of the universe running correctly, in keeping with Mort, rather than the more generic notion of Duty. However, I’ll admit that some other ideas of Duty slipped into my thinking when considering other bits of folklore. There is possibly room to provide more tools for creative thinking rather than simply making sure that the Oath of Duty Paladin can never be restrained. For example, I initially considered including Geas in the spell list, as a higher-level version of Command, as I felt it fit thematically with them bestowing a duty on someone else. Still, in the end, I decided to stick with the movement spells and see how I feel about it when (if) I come back to the subclass at a later date.

Other thoughts and miscellaneous quotes

Scientists have calculated that the chance of anything so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.

But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.

One thing that Discworld has taught me is that you should lean into your players absurd plans.

Reannuals are plants that grow backwards in time. You sow the seed this year and they grow last year.

Reannual growers tended to be big, serious men, much given to introspection and close examination of the calendar. A farmer who neglects to sow ordinary seeds only loses the crop, whereas anyone who forgets to sow seeds of a crop that has already been harvested twelve months before risks disturbing the entire fabric of causality, not to mention acute embarrassment.

It’s a little thing, but things like wine made from reannual grapes as some sort of very expensive wine at a posh ball is a great way of adding those little touches to the world. They’re not major parts of the lore, but they do say “this world is different to ours” just by their presence.

Mort was getting interested in the rock. It had curly shells in, relics of the early days of the world when the Creator had made creatures out of stone, no one knew why.

I always approach religion in my world much as it might be in ours, even if the gods in a TTRPG are often much more present and can have an actual direct influence in the narrative. The fact that the gods can be proved to exist, doesn’t mean that all the stories we tell about them are true (always helpful for conflicting creation myths and the like).

Then there was the puzzle of why the sun came out during the day, instead of at night when the light would come in useful.

Asking the real questions here.

Official thieves were rare in the Ramtops, where people weren’t rich enough to afford them.

Yet another problem created by the rich.

The figure’s hood fell back, and a naked skull turned its empty eyesockets towards him.

Not quite empty, though. Deep within them, as though they were windows looking across the gulfs of space, were two tiny blue stars.

A description of Death, who is for all intents an purposes, a skull with no facial features. Just goes to show that you don’t need much for an evocative description.

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, he said, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.

Just because he’s the Grim Reaper, doesn’t mean have can’t let his hair down occasionally. Figuratively speaking of course.

There were flares, and jugglers, and assorted sellers of instant transcendence.

‘Sellers of instant transcendence’, what a wonderful turn of phrase.

They weren’t mere shops, they were emporia; they had purveyors in them, and chairs, and spittoons.

A wonderful little phrase about the idiosyncrasies of the English language.

‘How do you get all those coins?’ asked Mort.

IN PAIRS.

Damn, this is a good reference.

Mort stared down at his fried eggs. They stared back from their lake of fat. Albert had heard of nutritional values, and didn’t hold with them.

Albert is my spirit animal.

It is a fact that although the Death of the Discworld is, in his own words, an ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION, he long ago gave up using the traditional skeletal horses, because of the bother of having to stop all the time to wire bits back on.

Skeletal horses: the epitome of style over substance, though flaming horses presumably have similar problems.

Albert grunted. ‘Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?’

Mort thought for a moment. ‘No,’ he said eventually, ‘what?’

There was silence. Then Albert straightened up and said, ‘Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ‘em right.’

I’ll admit I don’t know what happens either.

‘Won’t people notice there’s a horse up here?’ he said, as they strolled to a stairwell.

Death shook his head. WOULD YOU BELIEVE THERE COULD BE A HORSE AT THE TOP OF THIS TOWER? he said.

‘No. You couldn’t get one up these stairs,’ said Mort.

WELL, THEN?

‘Oh. I see. People don’t want to see what can’t possibly exist.’

WELL DONE.

I always find it amusing the Douglas Adams used pretty much the same logic in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

They walked out through the wall. He was halfway after them before he realized that walking through walls was impossible. The suicidal logic of this nearly killed him. He felt the chill of the stone around his limbs before a voice in his ear said:  LOOK AT IT THIS WAY. THE WALL CAN’T BE THERE. OTHERWISE, YOU WOULDN’T BE WALKING THROUGH IT. WOULD YOU BOY?

‘They did not know it was impossible…’

‘Can you see me?’ he demanded.

The stallholder squinted critically at him.

‘I reckon so,’ he said, ‘or someone very much like you.’

I love how bloody-minded Pratchett’s background characters are.

This part of Ankh-Morpork was known as The Shades, an inner-city area sorely in need either of governmental help or, for preference, a flamethrower.

The Shades always remind me of the streets of York, but in a good way.

The Shades was not the sort of place to have inhabitants. It had denizens.

Again, another little touch of the English language.

They had the heavy, stolid look of those thugs whose appearance in any narrative means that it’s time for the hero to be menaced a bit, although not too much because it’s also obvious that they’re going to be horribly surprised.

This is how I’m introducing all the mooks in my D&D games from now on.

‘Well, – – – – me,’ he said. ‘A – – – – ing wizard. I hate – – – – ing wizards!’

‘You shouldn’t – – – – them, then,’ muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes.

I always get a good giggle out of this sort of silly joke.

WHAT IS THAT SENSE INSIDE YOUR HEAD OF WISTFUL REGRET THAT THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY APPARENTLY ARE?

‘Sadness, master. I think. Now—’

Damn, this hits hard.

‘What time’s sunset around here?’

‘We normally manage to fit it in between night and day,’ said Cutwell.

Yet more bloody-mindedness. Wonderful.

Albert was at the stone sink, gazing thoughtfully at his chip pan, probably wondering whether it was time to change the fat or let it bide for another year.

My grandmother used to have a breakfast pan like this. Best fry up this side of the channel.

‘Yeah, them, and the princesses were beautiful as the day is long and so noble they, they could pee through a dozen mattresses—’

Tehehehehehe *snigger*

In fact, there are fashions in wizardry as in more mundane arts, and this tendency to look like elderly aldermen was only temporary. Previous generations had gone in for looking pale and interesting, or druidical and grubby, or mysterious and saturnine. But Keli was used to wizards as a sort of fur-trimmed small mountain with a wheezy voice.

I’d never really noticed this, though despite the different fashions you can always recognize a wizard. Probably because of the following quote.

‘Oh, it’s very essential. You’ve got to have the proper hat for wizarding. We wizards know about this sort of thing.’

This goes for Witches too, of course.

‘You’re dead,’ he said.

Keli waited. She couldn’t think of any suitable reply. ‘I’m not’ lacked a certain style, while ‘Is it serious?’ seemed somehow too frivolous.

No comment.

Wizards are specially trained to see things that are there and not to see things that aren’t.

Unlike the rest of us, that spend a lot of time living in our own imaginary version of the world.

You see, everything’s fixed. History is all worked out, from start to finish. What the facts actually are is beside the point; history just rolls straight over the top of them. You can’t change anything because the changes are already part of it. You’re dead. It’s fated. You’ll just have to accept it.’

This can seem a bit pessimistic, but I don’t think it should be taken this way, though this probably isn’t the place to go into a diatribe on determinism.

—YOU SHOULD HAVE WORKED OUT BY NOW THAT EVERYONE GETS WHAT THEY THINK IS COMING TO THEM. IT’S SO MUCH NEATER THAT WAY.

‘I know, sir. But that means bad people who think they’re going to some sort of paradise actually do get there. And good people who fear they’re going to some kind of horrible place really suffer. It doesn’t seem like justice.’

THERE’S NO JUSTICE. THERE’S JUST YOU.

Ah, religion.

He’d been wrong, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.

Ah, 2020.

History isn’t like that. History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, knitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always — eventually — manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.

Again, not the place, but always a good reminder about how the world moulds us as much as we’d like to mould it.

Mort had never really felt homesick, possibly because his mind has been too occupied with other things. But he felt it now for the first time — a sort of longing, not for a place, but for a state of mind, for being just an ordinary human being with straightforward things to worry about, like money and sickness and other people…

I don’t think I’ve seen such a good description of the human condition.

They were the sort of people generally called the salt of the earth. In other words, they were hard, square and bad for your health.

Ah, my old neighbours.

The landlord looked sideways at his customers, a clever trick given that they were directly in front of him.

I’ve been to some of those pubs.

The streets were nevertheless a-bustle with people and shrill with the cries of hucksters, gamblers, sellers of sweetmeats, pea-and-thimble men, ladies of assignation, pickpockets and the occasional honest trader who had wandered in by mistake and couldn’t now raise enough money to leave.

I wish I could write like this.

She’s only met you once, you fool. Why should she bother about you?

Yes, but I did save her life.

That means it belongs to her. Not to you.

Published in 1987 and already pointing out why the ‘friendzone’ is bullshit.

Mort can move absentmindedly through walls and drink neat widowmaker soberly not because he is turning into a ghost, but because he is becoming dangerously real.

In fact, as the boy stumbles while they walk along the silent corridors and steps through a marble pillar without noticing, it’s obvious that the world is becoming a pretty insubstantial place from his point of view. 

I love this take on the world, it’s so fundamental to the Discworld, but so telling about our one little blue ball.

‘All I can remember was that she used to take baths in asses’ milk. Funny thing, history,’ said Cutwell reflectively. ‘You become a queen, reign for thirty years, make laws, declare war on people and then the only thing you get remembered for is that you smelled like yoghurt and were bitten in the—’

Always seems to be the case with the female characters of history, and not the male ones. I wonder if someone has looked into that…

‘I shall go,’ said Mort. ‘Until tomorrow, farewell!’

‘It is tomorrow,’ Keli pointed out.

Mort deflated slightly.

‘All right, tonight then,’ he said, slightly put out, and added, ‘I will begone!’

‘Begone what?’

‘It’s hero talk,’ said Cutwell kindly. ‘He can’t help it.’

Mort scowled at him, smiled bravely at Keli and walked out of the room.

I wish I didn’t write like this…

It was famed not for its beer, which looked like maiden’s water and tasted like battery acid, but for its clientele. It was said if you sat long enough in the Drum, then sooner or later every major hero on the Disc would steal your horse.

This scans with most RPG parties.

‘It’s written in Old,’ he said. ‘Before they invented spelling.’

Another wee titter.

‘It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,’ he said. ‘Have you thought of going into teaching?’

A play on the old idiom, and probably a reference to a British advertising campaign “those who can, teach” which was of course mercilessly mocked as any governmental ad should be.

‘Sodomy non sapiens,’ said Albert under his breath.

‘What does that mean?’

‘Means I’m buggered if I know.’

It took me so many years to actually understand this joke.

They don’t go in for the fancy or exotic, but stick to conventional food like flightless bird embryos, minced organs in intestine skins, slices of hog flesh, and brunt ground grass seeds dipped in animal fats; or, as it is known in their patois, eggs, soss and bacon and a fried slice.

Makes all that squeamishness about snails and grogs legs seem a bit foolish.

Mort arched his back and screamed a curse so ancient and virulent that in the strong magical field it actually took on a form, flapped its leathery wings and slunk away.

Need to steal this too. Imagine the party being attacked by one of thier past swear words?

Mort reached down to swing her up behind him. It was a nice idea, but merely meant that he nearly pulled himself out of the saddle. She pushed him back gently and climbed up by herself.

Media has a lot to blame for our bad ideas about heroism.

Mort swallowed. But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.

There’s a lot to be said for the sink or swim method of life choices. Though I would advise investing in a few friends that own a safety net before you jump.

‘There’s no justice. There’s just you.’

I wonder if Terry Pratchett ever looked into Budhism.

Her Supreme Majesty, Queen Kelirehenna I, Lord of Sto Lat, Protector of the Eight Protectorates and Empress of the Long Tin Debated Piece Hubwards of Sto Kerrig.’

I encourage you all to make up the most ridiculous noble titles you can for your royal NPCs during prep, even if it’s just to give yourself a good chuckle when you stumble upon them later.

‘The Stealer of Souls,’ he said in the faraway voice of one whose ears aren’t hearing what his mouth is saying, ‘Defeater of Empires, Swallower of Oceans, Thief of Years, The Ultimate Reality, Harvester of Mankind, the—’

Now that, is a classy title.

That’s all for August’s read. Next month, we return to Rincewind as we delve into Sourcery, one of the few Discworld novels I currently have available in physical form. If you want to have a chat about the wonders of the Disc, don’t hesitate to get in touch on Twitter, or join the Discord. If you are the sort of person that tracks your reading then you can check out the challenge on the StoryGraph.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s