The Mortuary

I was never exposed to Dungeons & Dragons while growing up in India. During my later years, as I came to know about it, I have always been fascinated by the game that plays in the theatre of your mind. My friends at work set up an introductory D&D session for me. Another friend suggested a new campaign “Waterdeep: Dragon Heist” which I am having too much fun playing. My character in the campaign is Neldor, an Elf Druid. The story presented here, “The Mortuary”, is not the beginning but somewhere in the middle of the campaign, where our heroes have brought a Cleric, Loren,  with them who knows how to speak with the recently deceased. This is the version of the story, and how it played in my mind and the dialogs are how I imagined them.


The Mortuary

The torso of the gnome corpse stood upright taking in a deep breath, as Loren Allspark finished her incantation. “You have 5 questions. Make them simple”, she said while turning around to face the group. The group had already determined from the appearance that the gnome was Drakhaal, the spy who was hired to tail Renéer, by his father.

The eeriness of the blank dead eyes of the gnome and charred skin was making everyone uncomfortable. Blue nodded to Tig’rod indicating to go ahead and ask the questions the group had decided. Tig’rod took a step forward while everyone stayed back. Loren was the only one who seemed comfortable. She gave Tig’rod an encouraging smile.

Hello Drakhaal, my name is Tig’rod. I wanted to know how did you die?”, Tig’rod asked in a shivering voice.

Drakhaal’s blank eyes seemed to look in Tig’rod’s direction, and in a hollow breathy voice, he replies. “I was … coming to deliver … the stone to folks … at the Thunder Ale Tavern. Then I saw an orange glow, there was fire, heat and then I guess … I guess … I died”.

Ersi, Roh’gar, and Neldor were looking at Drakhaal with wide eyes. They knew about the spell. The spell granted the semblance of life and intelligence to a corpse of your choice within the range of the spell, allowing it to answer the questions you pose. The corpse must still have a mouth and can’t be undead. The spell was only effective on the corpses that had died in the last ten days. Until the spell ends, you can ask the corpse up to five questions. The corpse knows only what it knew in life. The answers are usually brief, cryptic, sometimes repetitive. Seeing the spell in action was unsettling for everyone.

Loren nodded at Tig’rod indicating that he should continue.

Where did you get the stone, Drakhaal?”, Tig’rod asked his next question.

I … I stole the stone … from the lair …”, he took another breath, “the layer of the beholder … Xanathar … in the sewers”, Drakhaal continued in his breathy voice.

Neldor’s eyes widened to know that the Xanathar, the head of the Xanathatr’s guild is a beholder. He had not even considered that. Beholders found mostly in the Underdark, are large, orb-shaped beings with ten eyestalks and one central eye, each contains powerful magic. They are powerful and intelligent creatures and are among the greatest threats to the world. Neldor’s elf ears started twitching. Roh’gar put his scaly Dragonborn hand on his shoulder. Neldor looks at Roh’gar who tilts his head towards the gnome. Tig’rod was getting ready with his next question, and his hand was slowly moving towards his whiskey flask around his hip. Blue slaps his hand and indicates him to ask the next question they had decided.

Do you know who killed you, Drakhaal?”, Tig’rod voice was quivering now.

Drakhaal’s eyes never blinked and in his breathy voice, he started talking again. “No, I do not. I … I saw the fire and then … then I died”.

Loren rolled her eyes, as if Tig’rod had wasted one of the questions. With everyone so quiet, she was the only one who seemed to think, this was not uncanny. Tig’rod continued, “Can you tell us if Xanathar or Zantarum were involved in your death?

I think … Xanathar must have me tailed … when he realized … realized the stone was stolen. I heard”, Drakhaal took another breath, “I heard … Xanathar blamed … Zantarum for the robbery. But … but … Zantarum came to know … that it was me… so they started tailing me too … black cloaks … three folks in black cloaks … were from Zantarum… I saw their tattoos. And then … and then … I died”.

Loren winked at Tig’rod, glad that this question got some answers. “The last question”, she said to Tig’rod.

You had two pouches, we found only one. Did the other pouch with the stone in it; where is it?

Yes … yes … the stone of Golorr” Drakhaal seemed to be running out of time and started to struggle to answer. “Just before I died … one of the black cloaks … took the pouch … and then … and … then … I … died”. With these words, the air seemed to leave Drakhaal’s body, his eyelids shut, and the animated torso lost any sign of life and slammed against the table.

Everyone was looking at the dead gnome. Loren voice startled everyone, “This spell doesn’t return the creature’s soul to its body, only its animating spirit. The corpse can’t learn new information, doesn’t comprehend anything that has happened since it died, and can’t speculate about future events. So ask the questions accordingly. And yes, remember, the corpse is under no compulsion to offer a truthful answer if you are hostile to it or it recognizes you as an enemy”.

Tig’rod face contorted as if he was about to throw up. He took a flask from his hip and took a big sip of his whiskey. That seemed to calm him a bit. Loren notices everyone still looking at the burnt corpse. “He is dead now. Who do we want to talk to next?

I can’t, you do it this time. Blue?”, Tig’rod looked at Blue.

A beholder? Xanathar is a beholder?”, Neldor was muttering.

Yes. And let’s not discuss this here. Remember where we are. We need to finish what we came here for”, Roh’gar said in his groveling voice. And a small whiff of smoke escaped his nostrils. Neldor composed himself, nodded and looked at Blue.

Looks like the stone is with the Zantarum. Two out of the three black-cloaked figured are here dead. The third one must have escaped with the stone”, Blue said, thinking out loud.

We need to find out where was the stone to be taken by Zantarums”, Roh’gar made a point. “We must talk to the dead Zantarum guys”.

Would they know if we are from Zantarum”, Ersi asks Loren.

Well, they will know, but they may or may not tell the truth. Keep the questions simple”, she replied, checking the back of her hand, looking bored.

Okay Blue, it’s time to disguise yourself in the illusion spell. The black cloak and with the tattoo of Zantarum – the flying snakes”, Roh’gar said. “We need to find out where they would have taken the stone”. 

Blue’s eyes sparkle, and he looks at Loren and nods to her to do her spell. Loren starts her incantation under her breath, while Blue starts his illusion spell. As Loren’s spell ends, the Zantarum corpse gets animated, takes a deep breath and turns its head towards the group. Only the white of the eyes is visible, which makes Tig’rod to take another sip from his flask. This time even Ersi takes a step away from the animated corpse.

I am from Zantarum. We sent three of you to get the stone for us. We haven’t heard from any of you. Where was the stone to be taken?”, Blue asks while making sure the tattoo of the flying snakes is visible as his illusion to the corpse.

The stone, eh”, this guy’s voice is screechy, like small stones grinding against the metal sheet. “The stone was supposed to be taken back to Gralhund Villa, right after we get it.”

Did you hire the Nimblewright automaton to help you obtain the stone?”, Blue asks his second question.

Nimblewright? No, I do not know about any automaton”, everyone flinched at his voice.

None of you made it to the Gralhund Villa with the delivery. Not sure how many people are supposed to be at the Villa. Do you know?

There should be ten or maybe fifteen people there. We were following orders to take the stone and deliver it there”.

Did you know the gnome Drakhaal and what was the stone?

No, we were just following orders. We were asked to take the artifact and deliver it to the Villa”.

Who gave you the orders?”, Blue shoots his last question.

We were following Urstul Floxin, he was with us when we were tailing the gnome”. And with that, the corpse lost the air and his torso slammed on the metal table, making a loud clang! sound.

Well, that was informative” Blue exclaims.

Yes, very interesting”, Ersi said and seemed to be glad that the interrogation was quick.

Yeah, it looks like the stone was …” Tigrod said, while raising the flask towards his mouth. Before he could say anything else, Roh’gar jumped in, “Let us not discuss the matters here. We are here for information. Let’s get it and get out”. This time there was a small spark along with the smoke that escaped his nostrils. Everybody got quiet.

Blue nodded to Loren, who smiled, winked at Blue and started her incantation. The third corpse torso stood up, took a deep breath inside turned it’s head slowly towards the group. The upper right side of his face was burned where the red veins were showing. The mouth and jaw were still intact.

I am from Zantarum. How did you all die? Did the gnome kill you?

No. We cornered the gnome, and then, there was fire and I died”, the Zantarum man had a deep throaty voice.

I am here to find out the whereabouts of the stone you were supposed to deliver to the Gralhund Villa. Where is it?”, Blue asked continuing his illusion.

We were with Urstul. He pickpocketed the pouch from the gnome. Then there was a fire and I died.

Blue pretended to be annoyed, “That’s why I am here, man. Urstul did not show up at the Villa. If he escaped, where would he go, if not the Villa?

Urstul and we were supposed to take the stone and go straight to the Villa. We died, but I saw him escape the fire with the pouch. If he is not at the Gralhund Villa, he must have gone to the safehouse twenty-three B”.

Blue looked back at the group, and several heads nodded, edging him to continue.

Did you know what was in the pouch and what was it for?” Loren raised her four fingers at Blue indicating that this would be the fourth question.

It was a stone of some sort. It was supposed to make us rich beyond our wildest imagination. That’s all I know”, the corpse was slowing down and his voice was fading. Tig’rod was already looking away from the corpse.

What did the stone look like?” Blue asked his last question.

It was dark stone … greyish … the size of my palm. And there were …” the voice started to fade, “blue lines were going across it.”

As the torso of the last corpse fell on the table, Blue ended his illusion. Before anyone could say anything, Roh’gar jumped in “Time to go, everyone”. Tig’rod walked in front of everyone, taking another swig from his flask.

The group walked out of the mortuary, through the corridors of the old constabulary station. As they walked past the reception desk, they thanked the older constable whom Renéer had contacted for access to the corpses.

As the group stepped in the daylight, everyone felt like they have come back to the land of the living. Tig’rod handed Loren the twenty-five gold Dragons for her services and donation to her temple. Loren thanked him, “Thank you for your donation. If you ever need any more help, you know where to find me”. With that, she left. Everyone in the group exchanged looks, and with the new knowledge about the Xanathar, Zantarum, and the stone of Golorr, the group starts walking towards the ThunderAle Tavern.


JPS Nagi
April 20, 2020

He-Man and Managing Your Universe – Five Management Lessons learnt from the TV series of the 80s

1024full-he--man-and-the-masters-of-the-universe-photo[1]Few weeks ago, I was surfing the shelves of a local bookstore when I came across an omnibus of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. My daughter, who was with me, was surprised that I knew about He-Man. Little did she know that I used to get up early on a Sunday to catch up on the show on TV during the 1980s.
As I look back, the lessons at the end of the show, which I used to find “interesting”, to say the least, are so relevant.
Here are five (plus a bonus) management lessons that we can learn from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

  1. Teamwork Works!
    If you ever watched a show, you will notice that the theme and format of (almost) every show is same – evil attacks and good triumphs. The good side or the evil side are not just one person – it is a team of people. Skeletor heads the evil troupe, and He-Man is leader of the good.
    Skeletor hatches a new scheme to rule Eternia, and attacks Eternia with the help of his cronies. Sorceress warns Masters of the Universe, who come together to save the day.
    Eternia is not saved by a single person but a team of Masters – Sorceress warns, Mech-a-Neck does reconnaissance, Startos provides air support, Man-at-Arms provide strategy, weapons & gadgets, and He-Man and Teela provide the raw power to fight on the ground. On the other side, Skeletor’s team does not work together, each one has their own agenda that conflicts with the others and hence their every attempt to capture Eternia fails. The same principle applies in our work lives. When working on a project, it is important that the team works together. Everyone contributes to the common goal and move forward. When a teammate needs help, the others lend a hand, pick them up and move on. If the members of the team do not work together, then the dysfunctional team will soon face failure.
  2. Alignment to a single goal
    In one of the episodes, the Eternian bees species do not get along with the bird species. Kings of both the species do not want Skeletor to overrun their kingdoms. They take extra steps to fortify their castles, however that does not help the other. In the episode, each (almost) lose their kingdoms to Skeletor. Although they realize their mistakes that they were not aligned and working together.
    Once they join forces, Skeletor is easily defeated. When working on a team, it is important to move forward “as a team” and equally important is moving forward in the same direction. Project teams have members from different departments and each of them bring their own needs and agendas to the table. It is needed that all the needs and agendas of team members have alignment towards the same goal. The ones who do not align to the common goal should not be part of the team; otherwise the project gets pulled in different directions, which will cause delays or worse, failure. When on the same team, work towards a single goal.
  3. Everyone is important
    One of the Masters, Mech-a-Neck, who can stretch his neck and does reconnaissance work in the TV show, starts to feel that he is not as important as the rest of the Masters. He thinks that even one of the robots of Man-at-Arms can replace him. Of course, the show predictably ends in him realizing that the work he does is important. At some point or the other in our lives, we have all felt or made ot feel that we are not as useful as the others. This is an extreme outlier case. Every cog in a machinery is important when they are part of the team. A cohesive team can work together better and faster than a team where folks have their own selfish agendas.
    When in doubt, just take a 15 min break, and recall all the work one has done in the past few years as a part of the team. You will find ample examples where you have stepped up and rose to the occasion and saved the day.
    Another important aspect is to understand that others are also equally important. I have met so many people who feel that they walk on water. Yes, they are smart, but when you fly solo, you can get a meteoritic rise that won’t last forever.
    Everyone on a team serves a function and is important, including you.
  4. Informed Timely Response
    Whenever Skeletor attacks Eternia, Masters have very little time to strategize to do a detailed planning. If they would have spent too much time in planning, Castle Grayskull would have fallen long time back. They gather information (Mech-a-Neck’s reconnaissance), assess the situation, decide on action to be taken and take action. In the corporate environment, we do not have luxury of endless time. The world keeps shrinking their times-to-market.
    There is a time to plan and then there is time to act. Planning cannot go on forever, and action cannot be without any thought behind it.
    When time comes to act, gather your wits & all the information you need, do an assessment,  make a decision and take action. Not taking an action in today’s world will harm your business.
    When you have all or sufficient amount of information needed to take the next step – decide and act upon it. Do stay perpetual planning.
  5. Looking back and looking forward
    In every episode of show, Eternia is destroyed by Skeletor. And in every subsequent episode, the people of Eternia are rebuilding their home. Home insurance must be very high in Eternia.
    Although it may be tough to live there, it shows resilience of the Eternians to learn from past, and then move forward. Man-at-Arms helps build barriers that are stronger and better fortified. That is a very important lesson I think. There is an old Indian saying, “Don’t fret over spilled milk”. I take it a step forward, “clean up and don’t let it spill, next time”.
    We all make mistakes and face failures. What is important is to learn from past and move on. It is very useful to develop a habit of looking back and deconstruct what went wrong.
    Sometimes we are too attached to a project to look objectively. In such cases ask a friend or a colleague you trust for help. Let them help you understand what went wrong.
    Learn from past mistakes, and take steps not to repeat them and move on.
    Moving on armed with new knowledge not to repeat mistakes is an asset that will prove very useful.
  6. Bonus Lesson – Leadership
    Yes, I did say Five lessons, but as I am writing this, I found another lesson. Every time Skeletor and his forces attack, Sorceress, who is the guardian of the Castle Grayskull, provides guidance to He-Man and Man-at-Arms to help steer them in the direction that will change the outcome of the battle. It is through her guidance that Eternia gets saved, no matter how bleak the circumstances. She is the voice of motivation, the voice of reason and the voice of guidance.
    And thus the importance of leadership – a voice of reason, guidance, inspiration and motivation. Leaders are always needed to provide the team with a vision of a goal for the common good and the team has to be able to buy into it. Too many times the vision does not get shared down to the team members. That always results in loss of motivation for the individual contributors on the team. Leaders at every levels of management need to share the vision with team members to keep them “in the loop” and bring overall motivation and alignment.

As a kid, I never thought that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe will have so many lessons, much less management lessons. As an adult, I see so many parallels.
There are also allegorical parallels of the TV series; that is an article for some other time.

For now, that’s all folks!

JPS Nagi
July 17, 2016