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Friday, 10 May 2019

A journal of the play years

Here's the thing about write-ups. The point of a roleplaying game isn't to create a story. "But, but..." you may say, especially if you've bought into all that genre-flavoured, trope-carbonated Hollywood screenwriting fizz. And I do like stories. I read a lot of them. I even write a few. But the second life conjured up by a good RPG session goes way beyond any of that break-to-act-two nonsense.

I'll give you a really good example. Watch The Knick. The first eighteen episodes are tour-de-force writing, as superficially formless as daily life and yet driven by conflict, emotion and need. In the last two episodes the writers were forced by Cinemax's cancellation of the show to tie everything up with a bow -- not even a suture -- and that meant scraping the barrel of trope-driven, by-the-numbers storytelling. Suddenly characters were having arguments that the actors obviously couldn't bring themselves to believe. Previously complex characters stood revealed as dastardly villains. An interesting and rather touching romance turned out to hinge on an improbable master plan. Two of the hospital staff abruptly decided to turn into psychotic murderers and then got together. Where before we'd had great original drama, now we had the most disappointingly cliched melodrama.

That's the kind of cookie-cutter plotting that comes from treating the narrative as an artifice to grab the attention of bored audiences rather than, as they had done previously, allowing it to find its own shape from the many nuanced processes going on inside. The determination of incident driving the illustration of character.

So I'm wary of going into a game with the intention of doing write-ups because it can make the roleplaying self-conscious. Players start worrying about whether their character will come across well, get enough of a starring role, be perceived as having an interesting (ugh) arc. That said, when the write-up is done in character and comes with all the unreliability and partiality that implies, it can be fun. And as I get older it gets harder to remember what happened in the session two weeks ago, so write-ups are useful mnemonics.

Preparing for one of our Christmas specials, it occurred to me that, although my group don't often bother with write-ups, nevertheless we'd accumulated enough of them in twenty years to fill a book. So I put them all together and printed up a dozen copies to hand out to the players, with this introduction:
Getting around the table for an evening’s gaming is a highlight of the week, and lots of fun even when (as often) we’re simply larking about.

But when the magic starts to work, and we steep ourselves in the world, and the characters speak through us – then our imaginations join together and take flight. And that’s when we might say to non-gamers: we have seen things you people wouldn’t believe…

Stories matter to human beings. They entertain, but they do more than that. They are how we see the world. And in our games we’ve had the privilege of getting inside the story. The joy of creating it together with good friends. The wonder of experiencing things beyond the everyday.

This book collects some of the fugitive scraps of those marvellous moments together. Long may it continue.

ADDENDUM: The point here, of course, is "the joy of creating [a story] together with good friends". That's why roleplaying is such a unique experience -- like life, what matters is not the story that emerges, but the fact that you make it happen and you experience it with people you care about. But for those who are interested in my group's write-ups, you can find a lot of them just by excavating the deeper strata of this blog. For instance:

I could go on, but it's safe to say that's probably more than enough.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Pitching a gamebook series

A real curiosity today. When Mark Smith and I were pitching the idea for the Virtual Reality gamebook series, we had between us already written about two dozen gamebooks. Even so, publishers wanted to see a sample; it's like a knee-jerk reflex to them. So we quickly cobbled together a jailbreak scenario to show how the diceless VR game system would work.

This little sequence was my part, and I have a feeling that Mark was going to develop Leshand and the undersea kingdom, at least to get the total up to fifty sections. Whether he did so or not I can't remember. We sold the books to a publisher called Mammoth and they did moderately well, but the gamebook craze was already tailing off. We should have done them a few years earlier. I remember the series with mixed feelings. On the one hand it inspired me to write two of my best books (Down Among the Dead Men and Heart of Ice). On the other hand, I had to help out with editing and rewriting Coils of Hate, and memory of that still has me waking up in cold sweats.

(original pitch)

The rules

All you need do in order to play these adventures is choose four skills from the list given below. These four skills will determine your options during the adventure.
In addition, at the back of the book we will provide sample characters for those who wish to begin play straight away. Here is an example:

The Soldier
Life Points: 10
Possessions: Bow & arrows, sword, and a money-pouch containing 20 gold pieces.
Profile: Your character is a roving mercenary. You put more trust in your own skills than in friends, of whom you have few. A self-sufficient and perhaps somewhat intimidating individual.

The skills


The guards strip you of your weapons and money but do not bother to take any other items you may have. Then they lead you through a maze of passageways whose walls of rough-hewn stone are blackened under centuries of grime. As you pass the heavy iron-barred doorways on your route, you hear the moans and pitiful shrieks of other inmates. “That’s how you’ll sound after a few years in this place,” remarks one of the guards. “Madness is the only escape from here.”
Shoving you roughly into a small cell, they slam the door. The scrape of the key in the lock makes a doleful sound in the gloomy cell. One of the guards slides open a panel in the door and sneers: “Don’t bother getting comfortable. You won’t be here that long.”
The panel bangs shut and you listen to their footfalls recede along the corridor outside. Apart from the rats snuffling about in the corners of the cell, you are alone.
Then the full horror of your predicament falls on you like ice water. They mean to execute you for a crime you did not commit! You must escape.
If you have ROGUERY, turn to 2
If you have SPELLS, turn to 8
Otherwise, turn to 14

The lock is child’s play for someone of your unique talents, You have the cell door open in no time.
Turn to 29

The old man who is the cell’s sole occupant thanks you for freeing him. He draws his tattered robe around him, managing to muster a shadow of the dignity he must have possessed before his long incarceration in this dreadful place.
“You go on without me,” he insists. “I’m too slow to keep up with a young blood like you, and in any case I travel best alone. But I won’t forget your kindness, and I want you to take this ring as a token of my gratitude.” He pulls a ruby signet out of the ragged folds of his robe and presses it into your hand.
“I can’t accept this,” you protest, perhaps not too adamantly.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “A trinket only. Someday I’ll repay you properly, though –
be sure of that.”
You nod, wasting no time on farewells. Make a note of the signet ring. If you have not previously done so, you can now try the door to the guardroom – turn to 25. If you do not want to go into the guardroom, or did so already, then turn to 29

You step through the door and immediately collide with a group of guards who have just finished breakfast. It takes them only a split-second to realise you are an escaped prisoner. One grapples you as the others pull their swords from their scabbards. Within moments you are embroiled in a deadly struggle.
Without martial training you have no hope of survival. If you have either SWORDPLAY or UNARMED COMBAT, turn to 23

Against a master of the sword, your strategy is simple suicide. He calmly parries your barrage of desperate attacks, finally disarming you with a deft twist of his blade. You feel his sword-point prick the skin of your throat. “Enough. I yield.”
Attracted by the commotion, a couple of guards rush into the practice halls “Careful, sarge,” says one. “That’s the escaped prisoner.”
The weapons instructor smiles at you. “Oh, not just a common thief, eh? In that case, let me escort your personally to the scaffold.”
It is a short walk across the courtyard, and an even shorter drop to the end of a rope. Your adventure ends here.

Escape is impossible. Guards pour down onto the beach and you are swiftly surrounded. Despite a valiant struggle, you  are recaptured and taken back to your cell, where a constant vigil is kept until it is time for your execution.
You are led out to the scaffold and the hangman slips the noose around your neck. You take a breath, see the grisly excitement on the faces of the guards, hear a panel drop away. There is a moment of weightlessness, followed by a blaze of light… and then silence, forever.

At last you succeed in, chipping away enough of the mortar to work one of the blocks free. By squeezing through the gap you have made in the wall, you could get into the corridor running behind your cell.
Glancing up at the narrow window-slit, you are alarmed to see that a pale silvery glow has replaced the velvet blackness of night. The guards will soon be coming for you.
If you want to leave the cell immediately via the exit you have made, turn to 13
If you have CUNNING and want to try fooling the guards, turn to 19
If you have UNARMED COMBAT and wait to fight them, turn to 24

You bide your time until, at last, you hear the footsteps of the gaoler bringing your supper. He slides open the panel in the door and raises a cup of gruel to the bars. Then you hear him give a gasp of surprise, for he has seen what your magic has wrought.
To your eyes the cell is as before – clammy, dingy, infested with vermin. But, by dint of your magic, the gaoler beholds a different sight: a vision of gold stacked to the ceiling, of glittering jewels and caskets full of rubies like giant drops of blood.
Excited fingers fumble with the key. The door is flung open and the gaoler rushes inside, laughing wildly, to hurl himself at the pile of filthy rushes that served as your bed. Presumably the spell causes him to see it as extravagant jewellery, for he holds each rush up in the torchlight and mutters, ‘Rich! I’m rich!” His rheumy eyes light up with greed, his tongue slavers across thin lips.
The weak-minded dolt. You put paid to him with a swift clout to the back of the neck, then hurry from the cell. You can take his keys if you wish. Turn to 29

Taking up the bow, one of the guards nocks on an arrow and shoots at your retreating back. You cry out as searing pain rips through your shoulder. Lose 2 Life Points unless you have CHARMS, in which case a rapidly-muttered protective rhyme saves you from injury.
Now turn to 26

You step into the steam, griddle-smoke and clamour of the prison kitchen. Almost at once, a burly man with arms as thick as beef joints stares. at you with an expression of fury. “Get out of my kitchen!” he bellows.
If you retreat as he demands, you can go either to the refectory (turn to 4) or down the passage beside the kitchen (turn to 17).
If you ignore him turn to 12

The weapons instructor’s skill is truly impressive. if he were a younger man, he would be one of the most dangerous swordsmen in the world. As it is, your best efforts at defence only just manage to hold him off. Taking advantage of a momentary lapse in your concentration, he breaks through your guard to inflict the loss of 1 Life Point. But by this time, his age and weight are beginning to tell. His breath comes in wheezing gasps and he is moving more slowly. “You wretch...” he puffs. “You’re good… but I’ll get you yet...”
“Sorry;” you reply, “but I’ve got to be off.”
You suddenly dodge away and race out into the courtyard. The weapons instructor is too out of breath to give chase, or even to shout for the guards to stop you. Turn to 22

As you press on towards the door leading to the kitchen-yard, you stumble into a pile of pans and bring them crashing to the floor. “I told you to get out,” roars the cook. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“Hey...” realises one of the servants, evidently more astute than his master. “That’s the prisoner they brought in last night!”
“Is it, by, all the gods?” snarls the cook, snatching up bloodied cleaver. He advances on you with several of the kitchen servants bringing up the rear.
You are forced to fight your way past them. Lose 6 Life Points. (Exception: if you have UNARMED COMBAT lose 4 Life Points; if you have SWORDPLAY lose only 2 Life Points.)
If you survive, the kitchen workers back off and allow you to escape past them to the open doorway. Turn to 18

You squirm through, emerging into a narrow passage from which two doors lead off. If you want to try either of the doors, will it be the first that you come to (turn to 20) or the one nearer the end of the passage (turn to 25)? If you carry straight on to the end of the passage without delay, turn to 29

You languish in the dank cell for several hours. Although cannot think of a way to escape, still your mind is awhirl and sleep will not come. Late in the evening, the panel in the door slides open. You are on your feet in a trice. Is the end to come so soon? But it is only your gaoler. He grins at you, displaying rheumy gums and cracked teeth. “Here’s your supper,” he says, pushing a bowl of gruel at you between the bars.
“But it’s nearly midnight.”
“I’ve been busy” he grunts. “Lodge a complaint with the management if you don’t like the service.”
With a jeering laugh he departs, but you don’t bother to hurl insults after him. Your attention has been caught by the metal spoon in your bowl of gruel. You glance at the stone blocks of the wall. The mortar is old. Crumbling. It will be arduous work, but it is your only hope. You set to work with the spoon.
Turn to 7

Snatching a sword from the weapons rack you stand in the doorway and let them come to you. That way they can only fight you one at a time.
The battle is short but furious. You lose 2 Life Points – but they lose their lives. You can now take the bunch of keys and also the bow if you wish.
If you have not already done so, and now want to use the keys to unlock the cell adjacent to this, turn to 3
If you carry on to the end of the passage to look for a way out, turn to 29

The presence of the shields and tilting-posts tells you that the building is almost certainly a weapons practice hall. A good place to pick up a sword, if you need one. On the other hand, can you spare the time to take a look?
If you enter the practice hall, turn to 27
If you make straight for the main gate, turn to 22

Since breakfast is not yet over, the scullery is almost deserted. There is only one maid here, who favours you with a bored look and a yawn before going back to her chores. The door beyond her is open, and the cool tang of pre-dawn air wafts in.
As you step past the maid, you notice a large cleaver resting beside the sink. At a pinch it would serve as a sword (allowing you to use SWORDPLAY if you have that skill). Take it if you wish, then turn to 31

You emerge into the open air. Grey pre-dawn twilight suffuses the sky. Seeing the main gate is open, you race towards it ignoring the sounds of pursuit. The two guards at the gate stir themselves, but you have run past before they realise what is happening.
Your headlong flight brings you to a. narrow strand of shingle. There are some boats a few hundred metres further along the beach, but you could never reach them in time.
If you have SEAFARING, turn to 28
If you have CHARMS, turn to 33
If you have neither of these, turn to 36

You conceal yourself under a pile of rags and lice-ridden blankets in the far corner of the cell.
To a casual observer it is as though the cell is empty – and indeed, when the guards arrive that is exactly what they assume. They are so startled by the sight of the gap in the wall that they do not so much as glance at your hiding-place.
After a moment of slack-jawed astonishment, one of them yells, “Escaped prisoner! Sound the alarm!” They run off to fetch their comrades, leaving the cell door open. You follow at a circumspect distance, slinking back into the shadows of a side passage as they come racing back with reinforcements.
Now, with most of the prison’s available guards searching for you through an escape hole that you never used, you are able to saunter out into the open unobserved. Turn to 31

It is locked. Hearing a moan from inside, you slide open the barred aperture in the centre of the door. You peer into a cramped cell where an old man cowers miserably in chains. “Eh?” he says weakly, looking up. “You’re not the regular gaoler.”
“I’m escaping,” you reply, raising a finger to your lips.
He nods, understanding. “The guardroom is directly adjacent to this cell,” he tells you in a whisper. “Be careful – and godspeed.”
If you have a set of keys and wish to free him, turn to 3
If you risk entering the guardroom despite his warning, turn to 25
Otherwise, turn to 29

The first guard comes straight at you, holding his sword back for a thrust to the vitals. You wait until the last moment, then grab the edge of the door and swing it half-shut as he stabs with the sword. His blade impales the wood, stuck fast, and you have no trouble despatching him with a kick to the jaw.
The others are harder now that they have seen enough to be wary of you. Even though you keep to the doorway, the narrow space cancelling out their advantage of numbers, it is a gruelling melee in which you lose 4 Life Points.
If you survive, you manage to overcome them all in the end. You can now take any or all of these items: a bunch of keys, a sword, and a bow. Remember to make a note of anything you keep.
If you want to use the keys to unlock the cell adjacent to this room (assuming you did not do this previously), turn to 3
If you carry on to the end of the passage to look for a way out, turn to 29

Huddling into your jerkin, you affect the exhausted gait of a servant returning home after working all night. The few guards nearby take no notice of you. Ahead lies a narrow stretch of shingle. Beyond, looming in the morning mist like a faded tapestry, you can see the towers and domes of Port Leshand.
If you have SEAFARING, turn to 28
If you have CHARMS, turn to 33
If you have neither of these, you will have to go in search of a rowboat - turn to 36

You push the first guard aside and block desperately as the others close in. The force of their attack drives you back despite your skill, and you give a gasp of pain as one -of their-blades lays open a gash in your leg.
Against such overwhelming odds, you are hard pressed. With SWORDPLAY (and a sword.) you lose 5 Life Points. If you have UNARMED COMBAT you lose 9 Life Points.
Assuming you survive, you manage to break free and race across the vestibule to the passage. It takes you through the scullery into the courtyard.
Turn to 18

You stand in the middle of the cell with your back to the door. Your concentration is intense as you prepare yourself for battle. At last your patience is rewarded by the sound of footsteps and the key grating in the lock. “Come on, you”, snarls a voice. “Haven’t got all dayZ
You ignore him.
“Not in any hurry to check over the scaffold?” asks another guard nastily. “But we had it built just for you!”
Seeing that you still remain immobile, one of the guards enters the cell. The scuff of his boots on the flagstones tells you his stance, left foot advanced towards you. You picture him in your mind’s eye: sword arm held back, reaching for you with his left hand…
The moment you feel his grip on your shoulder, you reach up to seize the wrist and apply a nerve pinch, twisting the arm around as you turn so as to block any possibility of a sword thrust.
When the other guard hears his companion cry out, he rushes in to give aid. Both have swords, but they are hampered by the narrow confines of the cell. You overcome them both with the loss of only 2 Life Points.
You can take one of their swords if you wish. Then turn to 29

The door opens and you stride boldly into a room where four guards sit playing knucklebones by the light of an oil lamp. They look up in surprise. It takes them a moment to realise you are an escaped prisoner – but only a moment. In that brief time you take in your immediate surroundings: the bunch of keys hanging beside the door and the weapons rack off to your left. A number of swords have been left there, along with one bow.
If you decide to run for it, you have time to snatch one item – keys, sword, or bow. Note which you take and turn to 30
To fight them, you will need either SWORDPLAY (turn to 15) or UNARMED COMBAT (turn to 21).

You sprint to the end of the passageway, emerging into a vestibule with several doors leading off it. A servant is just coming out of the door directly ahead of you. You shoulder him aside, upsetting the tray he is carrying, and race into the prison kitchen. All around you, huge pots emit the steam and reek of boiled vegetables.
Hearing the commotion in your wake, the cook and two of his helpers take up cleavers and run to intercept you. You have no choice but to fight your way through them as You try to reach the exit. Lose 6 Life Points. (Exception: if you have UNARMED COMBAT lose 4 Life Points; if you have SWORDPLAY lose only 2 Life Points.)
Assuming you survive, you reach the bloodied but unbowed. The guards are pouring into the kitchen behind you, but the debris of your battle delays them for a few precious seconds. Turn to 18

The practice hall is little more than a barn where guards can practice and take exercise when the weather is too wet to use the courtyard. You search around, soon finding a weapons rack with a few old swords resting on it. You check them for balance and the quality of the blade, and have just chosen the best of a fairly poor selection when a voice rings cut from the doorway behind you.
“You varlet! Stealing weapons, are you?”
You turn. A portly middle-aged, man is standing there, wearing the chainmail tunic of a sergeant-at-arms. He has a fine sword in his hand, its tip resting lightly on the ground in front of him. His florid face, bald pate and bristling grey moustache give him a somewhat comical look.
“Back off, grandad,” you say, shaking your head as you heft the sword you’ve just found. “Why stick your neck out when you’re so close to retirement anyway?”
He glares, then suddenly raises his sword-point, twirling it in an elegant flourish. Despite his girth, he moves into a perfect fighting stance. A cold realization hits you as he says, ‘It is your neck that is at risk, you dog.” Of course – he must be the weapons instructor here. Almost certainly he is a master of the sword!
If you have AGILITY, you might be able to get past him to the doorway. Turn to 32 if you want to try that.
Otherwise, you have the option to either fight defensively, keeping your guard up (turn to 11) or to battle furiously in an attempt to break past him and run off (turn to 5).

Peering through the morning mist, you can just discern the ghostly outlines of the mainland. It would be an impossible swim for most people, but merely arduous for an experienced seaman like yourself.
You plunge out into the waves, ignoring the biting chill of the water, and drive with swift powerful strokes in the direction of Leshand’s harbour mouth.
Turn to 37

At the end of a winding corridor you come to a vestibule with two doors leading off it. There is also a narrow passage beside the door nearer to you. Just as you are deciding which route to take, one of the doors opens and the smells and sounds of cooking waft out.
You dodge back out of sight just in time. A servant emerges from the kitchen bearing several bowls of porridge on a tray. He crosses to the other door and goes through. As the door swings shut, you hear a voice saying, “About time! Don’t you know we’ve got to be on duty in a few minutes?”
Obviously the further door is the refectory, and the nearer door must be the kitchen. The passage probably leads to the scullery or the kitchen yard.
If you enter the refectory, turn to 4
If you take the door to the kitchen, turn to 10
If you head along the scullery passage, turn to 17

You spin round and sprint along the passage. Behind you, the guards pour through the open doorway with shouts of rage. If you did not take the bow from the weapons rack, turn to 9. If you did take the bow, turn to 26

You emerge into the prison courtyard. A scaffold stands here with a noose strung from its crossbeams, no doubt awaiting your neck. You have every intention of avoiding that fate, however.
The sun has yet to rise, but the sky is now aglow with a limpid azure gleam, making  it seem like a startlingly clear ocean. The stars are fading, Two guards are at the main gate directly ahead of you, but they are lounging against the gatehouse and yawning. You guess they must be close to the end of their watch, so you may be able to slip by unchallenged.
You are halfway to the gate when you notice a long low building off to your right. There are a couple of stout wooden posts outside it, heavily scarred as if by sword-blows, and some wicker shields rest beside the open entrance.
If you have SWORDPLAY (whether or not you currently possess a sword), turn to 16
If not you hurry on towards the gate: turn to 22

You charge at the weapons instructor, sword raised high as if you intend to chop down at his head. As he lifts his own sword to deflect the blow, you suddenly weave to one side and go into a forward roll which carries you right past him and through the open doorway. Coming to your feet, you sprint off across the courtyard towards the main gate. The weapons instructor bellows a variety of curses at you as you go, but this seems to excite little interest from the gate guards. Presumably, if he is anything like the weapons instructors you’ve known, they are used to seeing him yell at people.
Turn to 22

You recite an enchantment that protects the caster from drowning, then plunge out into the chilly water. Waves surge up over your head, but you continue until you are completely submerged. No doubt if anyone saw you they will assume you have chosen to drown yourself rather than die meekly by a hangman’s noose. The truth, however, is that you are able to stride along on the sea bed with no discomfort to speak of. Fish glide past you, gaping stupidly at the sight. The ocean currents take some getting used to, since it is like walking in the depths of a dream, but your progress is amusing rather than difficult.
As you get your bearings, intending to strike out towards the quays of Port Leshand, you spy a glitter of myriad lights through the blue-green murk. Straining your eyes, you think to see shapes like towers of coral, out to sea beyond banks of eerily swaying seaweed.
If you have FOLKLORE, perhaps you have heard legends of an undersea kingdom – turn to 35. Otherwise, you can either head in the direction of the mysterious lights (turn to 38) or else continue with your original intention of walking back to Leshand harbour (turn to 37).

Friday, 12 April 2019

Game rules that lead to ridiculous results

One of the problems with game design is that the rules you come up with may have unlooked-for consequences. Well, I say it’s a problem; actually it can be rather satisfying. Early playtesters of Deus Ex realized they could get out of a maze by planting a limpet mine on a wall and rocket-jumping off it. The designers accepted that as a rather neat bit of lateral thinking. Not a bug, a feature.

Early Dungeons and Dragons was a whole other matter. The world it presented was ostensibly medieval, but if you really plugged those rules into the Middle Ages then you’d get something unrecognizable. I don’t mean because of elves and dwarves. It’s the rules themselves that skew everything. The different physics. One lone paladin confronting a regiment. Magic users firing off spells like 19th century artillery.

That’s why I made magic extremely rare in Dragon Warriors, so as to make it credible that the world looked and behaved like the real Middle Ages. Or you can go the other way, as Professor Barker did with Tekumel. He worked out how many powerful sorcerers a city or a nation could deploy and worked that into the fabric of Tsolyani society. You haven’t been in a real battle until you hear your own lines beginning the chant for a Doomkill.

The biggest source of counterintuitive behaviour in my own games comes from GURPS’s attempts to have a set of rules for all worlds and all times. I’ll give you a recent example. I was planning a commando scenario set in 1943 and the players wanted to equip with flak jackets. In the real world that’s utterly insane. Flak jackets of the period were bulky and restrictive, not to mention mostly useless against gunfire as they were designed to stop slow-moving shrapnel inside the body of an aircraft – and weren’t terribly good at even doing that.

But here’s the snag. GURPS lists flak jackets as weighing 20lbs and stopping 7 points of damage. That means a moderately strong character (ST 13, say) can have a flak jacket plus all their other weaponry and still count as completely unencumbered. Which is nuts. And that jacket won’t just stop shrapnel; in GURPS terms it will stop most handguns. In fact, if you just went by the GURPS rules, you may as well go on your commando raid wearing medium plate (DR6, weight 20lbs). Hey, you should be able to parachute jump wearing that, right?

In a 19th century campaign of ours, some of the player-characters actually walked around in plate armour. You can't blame the players; under the rules as written that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but that was the end of the road for me and GURPS. If a system that claims to be believable throws up results like that, it's really not worth the effort of memorizing all 570 pages. I went cold turkey with the much more enjoyable (and more realistic, even) Sagas of the Icelanders and haven't looked back.

As it turns out, the British did experiment in the early 1940s with infantry body armour weighing just 3lbs. The US Army took a look at this and, to nobody’s surprise, concluded that:
“…all reports indicated that any advantages of such armor would be very slight as compared to the overall loss of combat efficiency and to the increase in the soldier's carrying load.”
And, yeah yeah, you’ve seen videos of re-enactment fellows doing press-ups in full plate. But listen to the impressively scary Stan W Scott explaining why “travel light is travel right”. I wouldn’t argue with him, would you?

It’s annoying because I don’t want to have to say to players, “You can’t have that item.” The rules should rule; on that I’m with Hammurabi. If it's going to come down to arbitrary decisions by the umpire, why bother with game rules at all? Yet if the rules are supposed to be generic and universal, then they should not lead to wildly unrealistic tactics.

Yet… we don’t want more fiddly rules. It's bad enough that you need to fire up Excel just to create a GURPS character sheet. At least that's all in the prep, but nobody likes book-keeping in the middle of a nail-biting game session, which is why encumbrance and fatigue rules tend to be more honoured in the breach. Hence the rules for them are often quite abstract. But it would be very simple for GURPS to factor size into the weight of armour, as Runequest does. I say simple because the weight of armour for a given protective value (ie thickness) goes up with the square of linear dimension - and so too does strength, more or less, being a function of muscle cross-section. So twice as strong means almost twice the weight of armour to carry.

Another factor that many game systems ignore is that even modern body armour is hot. It may not matter in a ten-minute engagement, but it would certainly tell in the course of a ten-mile yomp over the Brecon Beacons. And that aspect is independent of strength. Indeed, greater muscle bulk heats up more, because the surface area goes up with the square but the mass goes up with the cube - meaning that the guy with bigger muscles already loses heat less efficiently, and thus gets fatigued regardless of how easy it is to lift that gear, with or without armour. How might we represent that without continually having to cross off fatigue points? One solution could be like the Psychic Fatigue Rolls in Dragon Warriors. When you fail the roll, you’re fatigued by one level. It’s a little arbitrary, but people do have some days when they’ve got more energy – and the virtue of that kind of rule is that there’s not much book-keeping.

And then there's the restrictive nature of armour. However well articulated, full covering is never going to allow the full fluidity of movement possible without armour. And armour cannot perfectly replicate the weight distribution of the human body, meaning that in effect there should be a separate skill (with defaults, of course) for fighting in armour. Again, that’s not too arduous to factor in – especially not in GURPS, with its veritable thicket of default skills.

What about your games? Have you ever had by-the-letter rules interpretations leading to bonkers results? Georgian adventurers with chainmail overcoats? Private eyes going around ‘30s New York armed with flame throwers? Medieval footmen using longbows like sniper rifles? Share the craziness below.

Friday, 29 March 2019

The other side of reality

I finally got around to watching Stranger Things. After all the hype it came as a disappointment. I get that it's a pastiche of '80s movies, but I like my pastiches to be more than just familiar ingredients slung together and reheated. Nostalgia doesn't rule out putting something fresh in the mix. Think of Super 8, or even Fargo (season 1, obviously). Without the spark of originality, you might just as well be listening to greatest hits covered by a tribute band.

But I digress. I don't want to talk about 1980s, Stephen King, or pastiches in general. It's just that the Upside-Down in Stranger Things jogged my memory about a game concept I sketched out at Eidos in the mid-'90s. We needed a quick-n-dirty game (famous last words that have brought many a developer low, those) to show off Sam Kerbeck's cutting-edge 3D engine. It needed to be a realtime strategy game because that's what our game Plague, later renamed Warrior Kings, was. Sam happened to flip the landscape upside-down while showing off what it could do, and something in my brain put that together with the Aztec land of death.

We never got around to doing the game, as Eidos shut down internal development a few months later and Sam went off to do other things. His engine got used for another RTS game, Warzone 2100, but never in the freaky way I had in mind.


A variant on Plague set in pre-conquest Mexico, using the same engine and basic game design principles. It's anticipated that Plague will make quite a splash, and Aztecs will satisfy demand for follow-ups in the long wait for Plague 2.

Aztecs will however not be simply a copy of the original game swapped into a different setting. The Mesoamerican world is uniquely colourful. The architecture, costumes and imaginative mythology have rarely been used in computer games and merit a product that stands alone.

City management will be less intricate than Plague. This will be a game of warfare and keeping the gods happy.

All flesh is grass
Villages supply food. Food is not an explicit resource in the game as with Plague but is simply shared out to any units within range of your buildings. Rather than bothering with quantitative measures, you can tell how well the farms are doing by the landscape textures used: rich green if there's plenty of food, dusty scrubland if times are hard. Lack of food leads to loss of hit points; an excess is required for units to recover from injury.

As long as your people are healthy and well fed, new Aztec children continually appear in the School. You can pick these up and drop them onto other buildings, which will determine their fate in life. For example, a child dropped onto a Temple becomes a Priest, one dropped onto the War Lodge becomes a Soldier, etc.

Do it this way
Units are given orders through a (graphic) verb/adverb icon system. This means you can tell a unit to Attack (the verb) and just leave it at that, or you can go to the next level of icons to specify how the attack should be carried out: Aggressive, Balanced or Defensive (the adverbs). As with Plague, what you don't specify is left up to the individual unit's AI.

An eye in the sky
Your view is provided by a flying camera giving an eagle's-eye view of the world. You can fly the camera anywhere, but how much you get to see depends on whether you have any units nearby. Within range of a friendly unit, the camera can see enemy units and the condition of enemy farms and buildings. Outside this range the view enters the Fog of War; it becomes sepia-tinted, buildings appear stylized without hit point info, and enemy units freeze and gradually fade as if from a persistence of vision effect.

Trading in secrets
Merchants were notorious in the Aztec world for spying. This is reflected by allowing all players to have a clear view, free of the Fog of War, when within range of any player's Merchants. Thus the Merchant who increases your wealth by trading with another city will also allow you a clear view of that city's defences during his visit there but this advantage is a two-edged sword.

Discriminating views
View of enemy units is subjective. This reflects Aztec warfare, where experienced soldiers were needed to recognize details of enemy deployment. In the game, you can only distinguish the enemy's elite units (Eagle Lords, Jaguar Lords, Arrow Knights and Hummingbird Priests) if you have elite units of your own near at hand. Otherwise all the enemy's troops appear as generic soldiers and you won't know where the danger lies.

The flipside of reality
Slain units become Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld: a subterranean mirror-image of the living world, where mountains ridges become narrow defiles and vice versa. You view the Underworld by flipping the world around to see the underside. The Underworld is another front where you must fight wars, because the concentration of your Skeleton Warrior forces in the Underworld affects the power of your Wizards' magic in the world above. You have only very limited control of your Skeleton Warriors: you can order them to move, but once they get where they're going they'll just attack any other tribe's Skeleton Warriors that are nearby - even if the other tribe are your allies.

Open heart surgery
Morale is improved by human sacrifice, making it worth capturing foes and taking them back to your Temples. This also prevents the slain foes from becoming Skeleton Warriors in the Underworld, as well as earning you the favour of the gods. You can see this as a strengthening of the glowing aura around the shrine on top of the Temple, which is what your Priests draw on to cast their prayer-magic.

Visitors from heaven
Sometimes, when a Temple's aura is very strong, a Hero will emerge from inside it. These Heroes are beings sent by the god to aid you. They have special strengths in battle, magic, etc, depending on the god. (There are gods of Rain, War, Sun, Learning and Luck.) However, the main advantage of a Hero is that they can dreamwalk. This is essentially a way of setting up a long string of orders for the Hero to follow: a dream-self (Nahual) is created which you can run rapidly around the map, giving it a sequence of orders which it will remember. When the dreamwalk ends and the dream-self merges with the Hero's physical body, he carries out the orders you gave during the dreamwalk. This allows you to set up complex tactical patterns of attack and defence and hold them in readiness, waiting to awaken your Heroes at the moment of greatest need.

The nitty-gritty
There will be considerably fewer buildings and unit types than in Plague. The basic buildings featured in the game are:

  • Palace School (spawns new units)
  • Ball Court (increases public contentment)
  • Skull Rack (each unit sacrificed adds a skull, boosting morale)
  • Market Plaza (stimulates trade)
  • Gladiator Platform (combatant is upgraded to veteran or killed)
  • Wizards' Tower
  • Priestly College
  • War Lodge
  • Temple (five types)
  • Canal
  • Well
  • Road
  • Causeway

Buildings concerned with resource production &/or processing:

  • Farm (can be set to produce food or cash crop)
  • Fishing village (produces canoes that can be seconded in wartime)
  • Weaponsmith (upgrades swords, invents spearthrower)
  • Cotton Mill (supplies cotton for armour)
  • Quarry (supplies obsidian for swords and stone for buildings)
  • Mine (supplies gold)
  • Banner Maker (improves the commands you can issue to units)
  • Aviary (supplies Banner Maker)

Resources that the player is told about in detail:

  • Gold
  • Stone
  • Mana (decreases over time, but never below increasing limit based on total sacrifices)

Hidden resources that you have only qualitative control over:

  • Food
  • Cotton
  • Obsidian

Basic unit types:

  • Commoners
  • Merchants
  • Nobles
  • Priests
  • Wizards
  • Scouts
  • Swordsmen 
  • Javelineers

And veteran units:

  • Eagle Lords
  • Jaguar Lords
  • Arrow Knights
  • Hummingbird Priests

Not all of those ideas would have made it into the finished game, of course. This is just a brainstorming pitch document to get the design process started. That's my favourite part of any project, incidentally, though I'm also willing enough to roll my sleeves up and keep toiling away to the finish line.

Friday, 15 March 2019

A rules rutter

What are we looking at here? A good question. You know I was talking about having another crack at revising the Dragon Warriors system? More like completely rewriting it, in fact. It's a project I've returned to many times over the years, usually abandoned in short order as the need to actually crack on and run a fortnightly campaign gets in the way.

This time of going back to the well, I have a rules mechanic that I'm finding pretty neat. Those could be famous last words. I did remark to one of my gaming group that "designing a new set of rules is like doing a jigsaw. After early frustrating dead ends, everything seems to come together, gathers momentum, gets exciting – and then you see the gaps that the remaining pieces just won’t fit into. Rinse and repeat."

But I think I can punch through the doldrums of design to arrive at a workable set of streamlined rules that will fit any contingency. God knows we need it. The obscure rules lurking in the thousands of pages of GURPS books is starting to try the patience of most of my players. We only get a few hours' gaming every couple of weeks. We need something simpler.

So, that book in the picture. In order not to repeat the false starts I've made in the past, I took all the notes I've made on different versions of DW2 rules and collected them into one volume, which I then printed up on Lulu. I find having a physical book like that is easier than wading through multiple files on the computer. Just behind the rules book there you can see the homemade booklet I used to prep for writing a chapter in The Design Mechanism's upcoming Lyonesse RPG.

Just to give you a taste of all these notes, one of the briefest sections in the booklet is this overview I sent to Grenadier Models UK when we got to talking about collaborating on a new roleplaying game in the early '90s.
Everything is based on a skill system, so a character might be a Rank 3 Wizard and a Rank 8 Fighter, or whatever. Ranks are purchased with Improvement Points, which are acquired by training or experience. There are no "character classes". The cost to acquire ranks of different skills depends on the character's culture. So elves need fewer IPs to advance a rank of Wizardry, more to advance as Fighters. 
Combat is handled by comparing Attack and Defence values. In some ways it is similar to the Dragon Warriors system, but characters can exercise a degree of choice in how much they concentrate on attacking as opposed to defending. The range of choice reflects different styles of combat. When a hit is scored, damage is determined by a single dice roll which is modified by the weapon used and the attacker's rank as a Fighter. Armour works by absorbing some of the damage.

I am in two minds about whether to include hit location or not. It adds a certain colour to any combat system, but it does tend to slow things up - and you get into problems where non-humanoid creatures are involved. The alternative system uses "wound values" - any wound causes Attack and Defence penalties, depending on how much damage is inflicted in a single blow. Characters are more likely to pass out from cumulative wounds than to fight on until cut to ribbons. This means that combat is fairly ferocious and damaging, but as long as the players' side wins in the end they will generally be able to heal up their fallen companions.

Magic is divided into three types. The first is Wizardry. This uses up no spellpoints, but requires a skill roll to work properly. It is also quite difficult to learn. It is the way a magic-user would contrive most of his "special effects" - weird events that are not directly related to combat. About a hundred Wizardry cantrips allow the magic-user to pass through locked doors, go unnoticed, conceal a trail through woods, and so on. I dislike the idea that wizards in many systems have to use up their spellpoints for quite minor effects. I cannot imagine Merlin or Gandalf crossing off a couple of spellpoints for an illumination spell, for instance. The Wizardry rules are intended to represent the popular fictional concept of the magic user more accurately.

The second branch of magic is Thaumaturgy. This is combat related magic. Wizardry illusions do not do real damage, for instance, but Thaumaturgy illusions can. Thaumaturges expend psychic points to cast their spells. The number of points available increases only slightly with rank, but what does increase significantly is the number of spell-matrices the Thaumaturge can hold in his mind. When a spell is cast, the mental matrix for that spell "fatigues". It will defatigue with sleep, but a further casting of the spell when the matrix is still fatigued will cost double points. Higher ranking Thaumaturges therefore never get to the kind of artillery-level capability of a D&D magic-user, as their power really lies in the greater versatility they get from having more spell-matrices available.

The last magical skill is Theurgy. This involves the manipulation of campaign magic. Such things might include gathering information about a foe's army or creating an enchanted artifact. Theurgy is often done in conjunction with other magic-users, as it involves a permanent loss of psychic strength and it is better if this loss can be shared between several characters. It takes long periods of time to work (and must often be performed on specific astrologically-favourable days) so it is useless within the limited time-frame of one adventure.
The idea is to capture all the rules notes from over the years so I can sort the wheat from the chaff. So I'm not sure which of the ideas here will make it into Dragon Warriors 2 (if any) but we'll see. I certainly want magic to be more mysterious, less "artillery".

Oh, and while you're here -- did I mention my Kickstarter for the final Blood Sword book? It's going strong and there's still one day left to jump aboard.