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Friday, 29 May 2020

Sayings of the High One

Grim Jim Desborough gave Dragon Warriors a nice video review the other week. I'm not sharing it here out of immodesty (of course not) but because Jim accepted the geas of wearing the eyepatch of Bolverk Bor's-son, who is one of his household gods. (Mine too, actually, and that sort of thing is rare among atheist lefties like us.)

I've been finding Jim's YouTube games pretty useful while writing Jewelspider, as they're reminding me of staples of DW gaming that don't feature in our games much (the mystics' sense of premonition, for example - or indeed mystics themselves) but that the new rules should at least include nods to.

While we're talking of Legend, I should mention that there are two very tasty DW books available free on DriveThruRPG: Cadaver Draconis, which collects material that the Players Guide unfortunately didn't have room for, and The Nomad Khanates, a sourcebook for the Great Steppes. These are good hefty books written by DW authorities like Shaun Hately, Damian May, Wayne Imlach -- well, I won't list everyone here, they're on the credits page, but suffice to say you're all appreciated by me and Oliver. For anyone unfamiliar with the Khanates:
An expanse of temperate grasslands and scrub lies to the east of the New Selentine Empire. It has never been explored or mapped; its exact limits are unknown. Somewhere further east and south are the strange, tradition-steeped lands of Khitai and Yamato. More southerly are the rich countries of Zinj and Batubatan, and the Palace Under Heaven where the Emperor of the Nine Mountains holds court. In the south-west, the grasslands must abut the far fringes of Opalar. But a traveller wishing to visit any of these exotic places would take the seaward passage along the Gulf of Marazid, not travel across the grasslands. These wild plains are the home of nomad peoples as fierce and untamed as the landscape they inhabit.  
The nomads are horse and oxen herders who move continually as the seasons and the abundance of grass for the herd dictate. They obtain everything from their herd - the horses are steeds for war or hunting, cattle draw the tribe’s wagons. Both are a source of meat and clothing and bone utensils. Horn and sinew are used in the construction of the nomads’ composite bows, which in the hands of a skilled archer can rain arrows on their enemies at a range of over two hundred yards. 
The social organization of these people consists of extended tribe-alliances whose ruler is called a Khan. The balance of power shifts as tribes change allegiance and as incautious Khans are assassinated. At the time of writing, the principal power resides in Sitai Khan of the Oshkosa. Other khanates are the Katagai, the Gunguska, the Khanate of the Sweeping Vast, the Khanate of the Black Pavilion, and the Hunkunkai. 
One westerner is famous for his travels among these wild people. Niccolo of Wissenstein was sent in a party of explorers from the court of King Vorlest of Kurland, who charged them with discovering a safe land-route to Khitai. Niccolo quickly learned the nomads’ tongue and set about his task; trying to establish contact with the Khans and make a deal with them guaranteeing ‘safe conduct’ for Kurlish caravanserai. In this he was not successful, but he did produce a record of nomadic life which is quite unique. His visit to a nomad’s home occurs early in the account of his travels: 
"The clan are continually on the move, and for this purpose carry their homes with them. When the time comes to make camp, a family can set up one of these homes in under an hour. First a prepared lattice of willow hoops is raised, this being secured in the ground with heavy pegs. Large bolts of felt are wrapped onto this framework to form the walls of the home. The felt and the ropes used to lash the structure together are made from horsehair, and the clan’s herd animals provide oils to make the home proof against cold and rain. The finished home is a roughly circular tent which the steppe people call a gyur. ‘Invited into one such tent, I found the ulterior decorated with rugs and trinkets. The central part of the roof, above the fire, is left open as one also finds in the mead-halls of Mercania and Thuland. Despite this, I can attest that the home remains warm and comfortable even when the bitterest steppe wind is blowing outside. My own host, whose name was Shweymar, invited me to sit beside him on the brown rug occupying the northernmost third of the floor, opposite the entrance. This was a great honour, as the steppe people keep this area for the head of the household, his elders and guests of high status. Behind us were several idols depicting Shweymar’s household deities. In front of this area of high status, the floor is divided into two other sections. To the left of the doorway sit the women and children. The host’s sons and younger male guests sit on the right. Utensils for cooking and other household purposes are kept in the left-hand area while weapons are placed in a rack between the right-hand area and the host’s rug. I was to discover that this tradition of signifying status extends throughout the steppes, even to the homesteads of the citadels.Whether this is happenstance or real evidence that the tribes once belonged to a single unrecorded civilization – this question can never be answered."
Got any fond memories of Dragon Warriors games past or present? Share them in the comments. If we get a dozen, I'll chip in with one of my own from our DW playtesting days.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Don't listen to Hydra

It'd be a reckless gamer who'd dive back into face to face roleplaying right now. Whatever the Red Skull says, the coronavirus is not going to magically disappear. Fortunately there are plenty of online alternatives, and taking the glass-half-full view I quite like not having to travel to a game during London's rush hour or faff around cooking supper for a room full of hungry gamers.

Here are Scott Dorwood of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias and Joe Trier of How We Roll with a smorgasbord of suggestions for gaming over the internet. (I'll append my obligatory quibble, which is that HPL probably pronounced the "dh" in dhole as an eth. So, not like the Asian canid. But I realize it spoils a perfectly good pun, so I won't press the point.)

In our games we've stripped it all back to Discord with the Dice Maiden bot installed for the rolls. Discord supports video now, but we stick to audio because it stimulates the imagination. After a session's over my mental impression of the game-world lingers as vividly as real memories. If your games involve a lot of tactics and combat, though, you might be better off with one of the other options Scott and Joe discuss there.

One of their recommendations is ViewScream:
"Three to five players assume the roles of desperate people trapped in a world of high-tech horror. A typical game session lasts 60-90 minutes." 
We haven't had any problem with seven or more players at a time (audio-only seems to help) for games of three to four hours, but I've heard several people say that online gaming works better with shorter sessions and smaller groups, so I plan to try it out and report back here.

In the meantime, don't go drinking any bleach, will ya? Take vitamin D if you like (it won't hurt) but there's no evidence it has any effect against covid-19. As for hydroxychloroquine -- no, just no. Though if you buy into that stuff and you have a few hundred dollars to spare, why not pick up a USB stick (sic) which, as any fule kno, uses authentic quantum woo to "re-harmonize" 5G radio waves. Between Trump's twitterings and barmy internet medical myths, the coronavirus has some pretty stiff competition in its quest to wipe out humanity. Your best defences are reason and evidence. So stay alert -- to nonsense.

That's been our public health information broadcast for this week. Come back tomorrow when we're plunging into a time of superstition, plague, violence and apocalyptic fear. No, it's not another current affairs post -- I'm talking about Legend, the world of Dragon Warriors.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Making choices matter

I’m often asked if there’s a future for gamebooks. It’s hard to imagine them having anything like the success they enjoyed in the 1980s. People read less these days, for one thing, and videogames are better at the dungeon-bash adventures that made up many early gamebooks. New gamebooks do get written, yet they rarely try to keep up with the richly involving interactivity you find in a good videogame.

One advantage gamebooks do have is the special FX are cheap. The Witcher has to shell out millions of dollars on artwork, music and voice talent, but in prose you can sink Atlantis or have aliens invade, and all it costs is a few minutes’ tapping at a keyboard.

The same lessons that apply to gamebooks hold true for all forms of interactive storytelling, whatever the medium or the budget. Most important of those is that the interactivity must deepen the player’s engagement with the story. Plot choices tend to be authorial and therefore distancing. Emotional choices work better because they are more like our interactions in daily life. When a friend asks, “What should I do?” they aren’t expecting you to wave a wand and make the universe reconfigure itself. They’re looking for sympathy and support - and suggestions too, but that runs a distant third.

To see how that works in practice, let’s take a look at a traditional drama and consider how it could be adapted to include interactivity. The example I’m using here is Danny Brocklehurst’s 2014 television show The Driver. There are spoilers ahead and the story is too good to waste, so I recommend you watch it first before reading on. Go ahead. I can wait.

OK? Seen that? Good, wasn’t it? Now for how to transform it into an interactive story…

Vince (David Morrissey) is a taxi driver in Manchester. He’s borderline depressive, struggling to make ends meet, his son has run off to join a cult, and he has an increasingly distant relationship with his wife, Ros. Vince’s life needs a shake-up, and it comes in the form of his old friend Col (another superb performance by Ian Hart), just out of prison after serving six years for armed robbery.

Col takes Vince along to a poker game. At least, it seems to be a poker game but really it’s a job interview. Local crime boss the Horse (Colm Meaney of Next Gen fame) offers Vince work as his driver. It’s obviously dodgy and Vince runs a mile – what Hollywood script gurus call ‘the refusal of the call’.

Here’s where the first major interactive opportunity comes. You could encourage Vince to take the job, or you could back him up with more reasons to refuse it. Obviously it’s a bad idea, and just as obviously he will end up going back to the Horse or else there’s no story. The difference is that when it all starts to go wrong, as it inevitably will, Vince will either blame you for pushing him into it or blame you for not trying harder to dissuade him.

In the TV show, the last straw is when Vince gives a lift to two girls stranded in the rain and they rob him – and, adding injury to insult, one of them hits him in the back of the head with her shoe while the other lets his tyres down. Oh, and they piss in the back of his cab. Vince has had enough. He goes to the Horse and signs his soul away.

Clinging to the fiction that he is “just the driver”, Vince thinks he can avoid getting drawn in. He hides the big pay packets the Horse gives him and tells his wife he’s doing some off-the-books work for “a local businessman”.

Waiting for it all to curdle? That’s not long in coming. Col ropes Vince into an attack on a rival criminal, whom he beats severely and dumps in a sealed pit in some waste ground. The job was ordered by the Horse but it turns out Vince wasn’t meant to be involved – Col just wanted moral support, but now he shrugs off what he’s done whereas Vince’s conscience won’t stay quiet. In the interactive version, you’d be his conscience – or else you’d be the voice telling him not to be such a pussy.

In the drama, Vince goes back to the waste ground in the early morning, hoists the badly-injured gangster out of the pit, and takes him to hospital. It’s likely he’d do that in the interactive version whatever you say but, as before, whether you are complicit in the decision or you counsel against it will make a difference later. All of these choices are affecting your relationship with Vince.

Vince goes back to the Horse to tell him he wants out. But now the bad guys are closing in. The Horse has found out his rival is in hospital and naturally he blames Col, who he thinks didn’t do as he was told. So Vince gets to watch his childhood friend beaten to a pulp. See how your advice earlier is going to colour how he feels about you now?

And then Vince goes home to find the police waiting to talk to him – of course, because he dropped that guy right outside the hospital where the CCTV picked up his car licence plate. Maybe you would have advised him to do that differently, to park around the corner or just dump the guy by the roadside and call an ambulance. Your advice might have spared him the extra problem of having the police taking an interest in his affairs.

Ultimately this story is guaranteed not to end well, but every step of the way your decisions are making a difference to how Vince feels and how much he trusts you. Alternatively you could be playing a game where the choice is whether to turn left and fight some orcs or turn right and solve a dragon’s riddle. Which kind of interactivity do you think would be more compelling?

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

An adventure in a box. On cards. With an app.

Looking for something to keep the kids occupied? Or the parents, come to that? How about Expedition, which is billed as a "lightweight roleplaying game". That's not strictly accurate -- it's more of an app-plus-card game for playing gamebooks with friends. Hmm, that reminds me of something...

It looks like the gamebook is at least partly procedurally generated with some authored content. Personally I'd prefer to play either a real roleplaying game with improv and left-field surprises (see below) or else a card game (try this or this), rather than a hybrid of the two. But in this lockdown or the next I've got plenty of time to change my mind about that.

Friday, 15 May 2020

God's favourite angel

In last year's Kickstarter for The Walls of Sypte, the apocalyptic finale to the Blood Sword gamebook series, the top reward was for a personalized piece of artwork by Russ Nicholson. The price tag was €600 -- which might sound steep but, trust me, it's a bargain for a Nicholson one-off. Teófilo Hurtado obviously thought so too, because he snapped it up almost as soon as the Kickstarter was launched. The original artwork now presumably hangs in his home, but Russ has kindly given permission for me to show it here. (The Magus in the middle has Teófilo's own face, which must make for a spooky sensation when he's eating his cornflakes.)

Over to Yeats for some lines that didn't in fact inspire me when I created the Magi of Krarth, but easily could have done:

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye, 
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones 
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky 
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones, 
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side, 
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more, 
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied, 
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Coover story

I just read “The Babysitter”, a short story by Robert Coover which ought to be of interest to anybody who aspires to write interactive stories. I’ll begin with a confession: I’d never come across any of Coover’s work before, which is quite an omission seeing as he has spent his entire career experimenting in nonlinear and game-like fiction.

I won’t spoil “The Babysitter” except to say that it resembles the text of a gamebook with the choices removed. So you get to see a superposition of multiple overlapping possibilities. That’s actually one of the things I like about writing gamebooks – coming up with all the variations on a theme, all the outcomes that might flow from each story node – so it’s a little surprising I never published anything like this myself. (Even if I had, Coover would have got there way before me; "The Babysitter" was published in 1969.)

I’m going to be adding a lot more Coover to my already teetering to-read pile. If gamebooks and interactive fiction is your thing, do read “The Babysitter” before taking a look at any reviews that might spoil it. (There was a movie too, but I have a hunch it’s probably better to disregard that.)

Friday, 8 May 2020


Did you ever read any Ellery Queen? I’m thinking of the early novels such as The Roman Hat Mystery. I’d get one from the library on Friday afternoon after school, then having done my homework I’d read as far as the point where the challenge to the reader was issued: ‘You now have all the clues. Can you solve the mystery?’ Then the next morning, after finishing the rest of my homework, I’d decide on my solution and then read the final chapter to see if I’d got it right.

Ellery always figured out the answer, of course, and pretty often I did too; the fun of the game was standing or falling by my own reasoning. But those classic puzzle whodunits are a very artificial genre. Life isn’t like that, any more than most problems in dynamics can be solved as neatly as the applied maths questions I was doing for homework at the time.

I continued reading crime novels into my teens, but not the Cluedo variety. I was more interested in the why than the who. Ellery Queen’s later novels were more like that. On TV we had Columbo, shabby raincoated embodiment of the criminals’ guilt, who hounded them like Nemesis until he prodded them into making a fatal mistake. In comparison, puzzle whodunits concocted for the little grey cells felt as outmoded as cloche hats and the Charleston. And that branch of the crime fiction family tree survives up to the present day, as author Anthony McGowan points out:

It’s curious, then, that investigative role-playing scenarios often feel like they’re stuck in that primordial era of crime stories when a paper trail of clues would lead an infallible detective to the culprit. The unexamined goal of the scenario often seems to be to cast the player-characters in the role of Sherlock Holmes (how often in a fantasy context are we expected to match the feats of a Conan or Elric? more often we're the luckless foot soldiers who hope never to meet them) and the job then is to make sure they don’t miss the clues they’ll need to reach the correct conclusion.

Justin Alexander addresses that with his three-clue rule. In brief, it supplies the players with three different ways to figure out the next set-piece in the storyline. Certainly I think that if you’re going to have clues, you shouldn’t usually be getting the players to roll Spot Hidden or Search rolls to find them, because there are few ways in which simply not finding a clue leads to more interesting outcomes than finding a clue and drawing the wrong conclusion.

But as Robin Laws points out here, ‘The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story.’

Indeed, it’s also the story if they signally fail to solve the mystery. In “Murder Your Darlings” my players got totally the wrong end of the stick. And so what if they did? Sometimes the dog meows in the night-time. Unsolved crimes are just as interesting as the ones that get neatly wrapped up. Miscarriages of justice are more dramatic than tidy endings.

That said, I’d recommend anyone planning on running (or just playing in) an investigative scenario to try Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. You’re chasing around Victorian London, maybe seeing the whole of the picture, maybe seeing a part of the whole, or possibly cooking up a theory that’s entirely different from the truth. Crazy explanations are also fun, and at the end the Great Detective ties it all up with a bow for you. That’s a boardgame, and I wouldn’t enjoy any roleplaying session that felt so constrained, but it's a useful experience for thinking about mystery scenarios.

Or if you’re more into the thankless, foot-slogging reality of policework, why not try "Keeping the Peace", a mini-campaign I wrote a couple of decades back? It’s designed for Tekumel, but with a little tweaking you could fit it to any urban game setting.