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Friday, 2 December 2016

Joe Dever (1956-2016)

Joe Dever died this week. I'm not greatly familiar with his work, but if you're a fan of gamebooks then you will already know much more than I could say anyway. He wrote what must be the most epic gamebook saga ever, and he was probably the first to use an original and fully detailed campaign setting and an ongoing character across multiple gamebooks. A true pioneer of the medium.

We didn't know each other very well. He wasn't part of the roleplaying social circle that included me, Jamie, Oliver Johnson, Mark Smith, Paul Mason and Steve Williams. Joe and I chatted a couple of times back in the '80s about gamebook ideas, but our paths had never crossed before that at Games Workshop, where he and Gary Chalk were working when they came up with Lone Wolf.

Gamebooks were big business then and every publisher was desperate to have their own series or three. I admired the solid design that Joe and Gary put into the underlying mechanics - the clear rules for where inventory was listed on the character sheet, things like that.

There's a tribute to Joe Dever over on Stuart Lloyd's blog and Paul Gresty has written this fan's-eye view of Joe Dever's work, a heartfelt paean to the priceless gift of fantasy that a good author can bestow.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Four ways into fantasy

This is the text of a talk I gave at a role-playing convention in Coventry in the late '80s. I'd been sweet-talked into doing it by Gail Baker and Paul Mason. I thought what I'd do was throw out something contentious and then get a debate going. In those days I was quite combative about good fantasy. Ah, but you say 'good' is an elite word? All right, then!
There are a number of qualitatively different ways in which the fantasy element can be incorporated into a fantasy role-playing campaign. These different “registers” are built into the game world.

At one end of the spectrum, worlds such as Tekumel or Jorune are essentially Realist fantasies, in that all aspects of the world are viewed as logical and internally consistent. Such worlds are “absolute sub-creations”, to use Tolkien’s phrase. Tolkien’s words on the successful sub-creator apply equally to the referee of a Realist fantasy:
“He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it while you are, as it were, inside.”
Obviously the magic of Tekumel or Jorune is not rationally feasible in true scientific terms, but it is treated as logical within the framework of the fantasy. We are asked only to believe that in these worlds there exists a natural phenomenon that is indistinguishable from magic. The day-to-day logic of a Realist fantasy world is as close as possible to that of the real world. This is not to say that characters in the world will be like modern individuals, but their understanding of their world will ride on the same logic as ours. Nations go to war for political reasons, and people in the world resist convenient categorization as “good”, “evil”, “chaotic” or whatever. On Tekumel, Baron Ald of Yan Kor is prosecuting a war against his southern neighbors, the Tsolyani, because an expansionist policy is the only way to unify the fragmented Yan Koryani political structure. The war has become more bitter for certain acts perpetrated by the Tsolyani, most notably the massacre at the fortress of Ke’er. For their part, the Tsolyani regard Ald as a renegade – he was formerly a foreign mercenary in their army. When the whole situation is studied it is rather difficult to say who is in the right, and this is what one would expect of any Realist fantasy.

The most common environment in games and fiction is the Pseudo-Real fantasy. The mark of an Pseudo-Real fantasy is that it shows the roots of its creation. Most are based on medieval Europe and usually make no bones about this. The setting for RuneQuest 3 is overtly called Fantasy Europe, and Legend from Dragon Warriors is but a thinly disguised evocation of the medieval world as medieval people believed it to be. Other Pseudo-Real settings are possible (for instance Bushido’s Nippon) but all share the same heritage: they swipe much of their scenery from things we are all familiar with, on an intellectual and/or emotional level. Such a world cannot be utterly accepted as real, as it will contain elements which the players cannot avoid recognizing as fantastical. A Realist fantasy can fool your subconscious with the semblance of internal logic – it is the viable “Secondary World” Tolkien speaks of. But the only approach to a Pseudo-Real world is the temporary suspension of disbelief. Tolkien seems to be addressing us on this, too:
“But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make believe.”
This would make the Pseudo-Real world seem like a pretty poor thing in comparison to Realist fantasy. In fact, I would say (using reasoning much like Tolkien’s) that it can never quite match up as a game setting. It does, however, have its interesting features. It allows the players to explore the re-creation of legendary themes and imaginative landscapes we all share. Certainly it is easier to enter the half-familiar territory of a Pseudo-Real campaign, especially if you’re not playing frequently with a group of intensely committed gamers, than it is to key in to the fully reshaped tropes of a Realist campaign.

A step further from the real world is the Semi-Mythic fantasy. There is no longer any need for events to follow a “real” pattern, and the world cannot be accepted on an intellectual level. You must enter it as a make-believe. Rather than lurking as a half-glimpsed shadowy force that occasionally impinges on the world (as in a Pseudo-Real setting), the power of magic in the Semi-Mythic universe is great enough to affect world events. Often such a world is “kind of” medieval Europe, but with an overlay of dark lords, barbarian hordes of chaos, and taverns full of drunken dwarves. People wage war because they are Evil with a capital e, and are opposed by other people who are therefore Good. At its very worst this kind of environment is the stereotypical DnD cod-medieval world, and is to be encountered all too wearisomely often in fantastic fiction. But if handled expertly it can be very powerful indeed, tapping into tremendous emotional sources. It can be approached through the channels of dream, and the great Semi-Mythic achievements are perhaps Glorantha and Tolkien’s own Middle Earth.

Perhaps it is misleading to look at these various kinds of fantasy in a linear sequence depending on the amount of “myth” in the mixture. That is one categorization, but it is also worth considering the way in which the fantasy must be approached and experienced. With the final category, the Mythic fantasy, we have come almost full-circle. Such a world is not accessible on a realistic level, but the player (or reader) must shift his own role to one where his perception of the world is “real-like”. A Mythic fantasy is one where archetypal figures and landscapes are directly represented in the world. There will be no complex social setups; the world seems dark, passionate and primeval. Characters are apt to be hall-heroes full of human foibles but capable of great glory: Dark Age gangs à la Beowulf. Players thus see this world through different eyes. It is not realistic from our modern standpoint, but to the player-characters no other world is conceivable. The suspension of disbelief is no longer a problem, no longer grates against the player’s imagination, because the primal nature of the Mythic environment is so raw and primally strong that reason is lulled into submission. In such a world a hero might learn from a wise woman that if he swims the Rymchild Sea with a silver coin in his mouth, he will come to the Land of the Dead. If he rides far enough north he might come to an endless wall, beyond whose gate lies Faerie. Emotion, poetry and dream act with the force of natural law.

Player-characters in a Mythic world can be expected to adopt a dramatic rather than a pragmatic attitude, as they are almost conscious that the events of their lives are not real and immediate, but are in some sense outside of time. A riddling contest may be accepted and entered into with gusto, seen by the character as the proper way to deal with a challenge. A taboo such as is common in folktales (not to wander from the path, not to ask a specific question, etc) will be understood by the character to apply with a force greater than the intellect can grasp – whereas a character on a Realist world like Tekumel would surely require a more logical basis for his actions.

I know of no pure Mythic world in fantasy gaming, though I’m sure they are out there. Pendragon comes the closest of the games I’ve played, as it deliberately sets out to create an obviously unreal time and place, spurring players towards an immersion in the character-attitudes appropriate to that. A campaign based on the adventures of the Norse gods or Grimm's fairy tales would be even nearer to the mark.

Such are the categories. Now, what use are they? There are several lessons to be learned by considering the different categories of fantasy. First, it pays never to mix the approach of one category with the setting of another. As a very simple example, very few people in real life make a definite decision to act in a particular way simply because they see it as “good” or “evil”. In a Realist world it would be inappropriate for characters to talk in those terms. They might say, “We can’t do this; it isn’t right.” But they certainly would not say, “We can’t do that, we’d be acting like we’re chaotic-evil.” Yet in a universe where Chaos is widely accepted as a physical force (as in a teenager’s bedroom), although not realistic, it is credible for characters to take account of it in their discussions.

The other error lies in mixing elements of two categories. Both are usually devalued in the process. In the context of Jorune, it is perfectly reasonable to give the history, habits and social structure of an alien race like the thriddle. They are simply a group of intelligent nonhumans, and can be presented factually just as Larry Niven portrays his kzin, puppeteers, and so on. In the context of a Pseudo-Real or Semi-Mythic fantasy, it is not reasonable to do the same thing for dwarves and elves. Elves represent more than just the outer image; in a science fiction game, people with pointy ears are called Vulcans and we can be told all about them. But in fantasy, elves stand for something in relation to humanity; their soullessness and mystery stirs something in our imagination, and means that they have some bearing on what we are. They have a myth-value which is debased if they are treated as just a nonhuman race. See Robert Dale’s review of the Mayfair sourcebooks in White Dwarf 57 for a more extensive tirade on this theme.

A corollary to this is the use of elves, dwarves, etc, as player-characters. While that might be an interesting experiment for a good role-player over a single evening’s gaming, it can only have a negative effect in the long term. With the best will in the world, if I am playing an elf and adventuring for some reason with a bunch of humans, how long will the music of Faerie hang about me? How long before we reach the crass dungeoneering approach of “Elf at the back with his bow ready, the front rank hits the door...”? If you are trying to play the part of an elf, you must ask yourself a lot of rather mundane questions. Do elves sit in taverns and get drunk? Do they belch and have hangovers? Do they pick their noses, crap and get colds? These are questions that not only should never be answered, they should never be asked.

To focus upon a myth-figure with such boorish scrutiny is to strip away the fragile tissue of suspended disbelief on which it rests. You enter what Michael Polling calls the Cycle of Taxonomic Reduction. Elves cease to be viable myth-images, so (since even the most dedicated aficionado of pulp high fantasy must possess a vestigial imagination) it soon becomes clear one must create something else to fulfill their function in the fantasy environment. Searching a bit deeper into folklore to replace the now unmysterious elf, one might find drow, or spriggans, or bogles. But as soon as these are duly written up and codified, they too are devalued and the desperate slide continues. It is possible to apply a few game-safeguards (“this race is for NPCs only” or “the GM may choose from the following facts about the race, some of which may be only half-truths”) but these do not stop the rot entirely. A close look at any game’s monster listings usually turns up several valiant attempts at remythologisation. I have just flipped through the Fiend Folio, where the meenlock and revenant are good examples. But on the barren soil of rules and stats they can never be more than a pale after-image of the original myths.

This is more important now than ever before because we have a lot of new blood entering the fantasy role-playing hobby. Giving newcomers tips on how to role-play or design good scenarios should not come before warnings on how to preserve the wildness and power of their fantasy. Someone whose induction to fantasy role-playing gets mired in the compatibility of human-orc genetics and contemplating the lifecycle of trolls is on a downward spiral of diminishing imaginative returns. I think we shall not have done our duty by the hobby if we fail to take a stand against that.

Recommended reading
Tree and Leaf by J.R.R.Tolkien
The Language of the Night by Ursula LeGuin (especially the essay “From Elfland to Ploughkeepsie”)
Red as Blood by Tanith Lee
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn

There are of course no definite boundaries between the fantasy categories I have defined here (categories should always be taken with a pinch of salt in any case), but the following are good fantasy works that illustrate the point:

Man of Gold by M.A.R.Barker (Realist)
Lyonesse by Jack Vance (Pseudo-Real)
Night’s Master by Tanith Lee (Semi-Mythic)
The Penguin Book of the Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Mythic)

Friday, 18 November 2016

At the Fey Lantern festival

I've posted write-ups from our games before, fully aware that reading about other groups' escapades can be like hearing somebody recount last night's dream, but I think that now and again write-ups are justified as they give a flavor of what tends to happen in our Legend sessions. Not that your Legend needs to be anything like mine and Oliver's, no sirree, but occasionally I get asked the question, and here's one way of answering it.

This description of a session is by Frazer Payne, who was running a Dragon Warriors campaign at the time. (Very retro for our group; we normally use GURPS 4e.) My character went by the name of Sir Lazarus. He called himself that because he believed he had been slain in the course of joust with a mysterious knight at a bridge. The player-characters' patron, a mysterious wizard, brought him back to life, but the magic didn't restore him from the ghastly pallor of death, hence he had a very low Looks score. Arundel was Tim Savin; Katherine was Zelah Meyer; Helsceatha was an elementalist played by Aaron Fortune. I forget the other PCs right now.
Jewelspider Campaign
Session 4 write-up by Frazer Payne

Silas led his horse gingerly into the icy black pool. Ripples spread too slowly. As he entered, so he also seemed to emerge, so that for a moment he had the hair-raising sense that he was breaking the surface into an upside down world. His companions followed.

They rose out of a pool identical to the one they had entered: circular, with wide steps winding out of the bottomless depths. The steps led up into a great stone hall. Two upper floors and a beamed roof had collapsed to the flag-stones revealing a gloomy sky. A new ceiling, a tracery of tree branches, could faintly be seen through the drifts of mist that hung in the cold, still air.

The pool lay in an alcove against one long wall. To the right, an opening led into a tower. To the left, where -perhaps- the great doors had been, the wall was gone. In its place was dense forest. The forest crowded in through the windows too, vines questing ahead to clutch the dead hall’s stone bones from the inside.

The pool settled behind them. Slowly, a great bloom of silt rose from the depths of the pool until it clouded the surface. Silence boomed.

Lazarus and Uric went to examine the tower. The door was gone, leaving a black hole. Going through, they found stairs leading up. But only six. The rest of the stairway had collapsed into rubble. The wall of the tower had given way too, rent from top to bottom. In its stead there grew a tall fir tree. Its branches had grown into the tower, filling it. Pieces of masonry hung trapped in its blackness.

Lazarus touched the broken stone. It was newly broken, perhaps within the last couple of weeks. This was no ancient ruin but the site of sudden and recent violence. He retreated, thoughtful.

But Arundel dared the climb. He snaked between the branches, working his way higher and higher, until the branches grew so close together that he feared he would have to shirk his armour in order to get through. He was close to the top but could get no further. He climbed out through the gap in the wall, and made his way inch by inch upwards, the forest floor – faint through the mist – far below him. Looking out, he saw that the trees all around were at least a third higher than the great hall.

Finally he reached the top of the tower. Half the floor was all that remained. Gazing from the ramparts, he saw the forest stretched away in all directions.

Resting against the battlements was a mirror. At first glance, its frame was of the most ornate metalwork: iron and copper and gold. But closer inspection showed that the metal, twisted together, was as it might have been when it was delved from deep beneath the earth: lumpen, pitted, meteoric. The mirror was a sheet of polished metal, blackened and spotted with age. Arundel’s reflection was faint and dim. Strapping it to himself, he made his way back down through the boughs and brought the mirror before his friends. Since the hall was perhaps once Glayve’s own, the mirror seemed likely to be the sorcerer’s property too. Curious, each looked into the mirror in turn.

Arundel went first, for the mirror was his prize. At first he could see nothing. Then, faintly, he began to perceive a pale shape moving in the darkness. It appeared to be a maiden, dressed in white, running down a path that led into a black forest. He had a strange feeling that he knew the girl. She was distressed, and seemed to be trying to find a way forward through the trees, even though she was sore afraid of them. He sensed that she was fearful for someone deep inside the forest. Suddenly, the branches contorted, adopting a more fearful aspect. The mirror went dark.

Next, Katherine took up the mirror.

“I can see my father’s farmstead,” she whispered. “The forest is growing around it, encircling it.” She frowned. Her home, to the north of Jewelspider, was a good half a league from the forest edge. What she had seen could not possibly be real. Perhaps this mirror showed only lies or phantoms?

While the others strained their eyes, none of them could see anything in the mirror until it came to Lazarus.

Lazarus saw a scattering of faint lights in a great darkness. “Perhaps it is the night sky,” he thought. Then, one by one, the lights scattered away into the darkness until he was following only a handful. He sensed they were travelling through the darkness together. One by one, each light flickered and vanished until only a single light remained. Then Lazarus sensed that what he was seeing was, in fact, glinting metal. Suddenly it was enclosed be velvet blackness, lit as if by an infernal flame before being engulfed.

Lazarus pondered the vision as his companions made camp. And even though he was very tired, sleep took a long time to come to him.

Silas took first watch. He soon felt quite alone, sitting by the dim fire, though he told himself it was only boredom. He decided to go hunting. Making his way out into the silent forest, he found himself amongst ferns as tall as a man, and dwarfed by trees that would have towered over a cathedral. Venturing further, he noticed that the trees were tallest near the great hall. Those further away were of far more normal growth, though no less discomforting. There was no game to be found.

He returned to stir Uric.

The muddied water in the pool lurched. Something huge had moved just below the surface. The forest seemed to flex, branches swelling forward, vines clenching the walls tighter. The hall sagged. The floor cracked and buckled. The pool swirled again, and silt and brick dust boiled to the surface.

Everyone was awake now. Helsceatha lurched to his feet and clutched the air. Bellowing words of power, he drew his fists to his chest. With a roar, the wall behind the pool bulged and burst to tumble onto the pool. But the stones fell in and disappeared, and did not fill it at all. Quickly, they led the horses out of the hall and into the forest.

They did not know where – or even when- they were. Which way was north? If this was Jewelspider, which was the way out and which would lead deeper into the forest?

Lazarus examined the great trunks of the trees. Moss had grown on one side, while mushrooms grew among the roots on the other. “East is that way,” he announced with confidence, and so they set off.

It was not long before they came across a path leading northeast to southwest. The mist was still thick, but they could hear that a gorge was close to the south edge of the path. Water churned deep below. They walked for long hours, with the path twisting before them beneath the black boughs of the forest. They ached in their bones. Lack of sleep was taking its toll, so, as evening came on they made camp.

“We should get off the road,” said Uric.

“Anyone could track us on this frosted ground” said Arundel. “Even I, with only passing skill, could follow our trail… anyone intent on finding us could do so”. And, dejectedly, the others agreed. And so they got down in the middle of the bleak path and set a watch.

It was during Lazarus’ watch that Freer awoke. He was weak from his wound, his mind wandering, but he talked quietly to Lazarus about the moment when his former friend, Argelise, had dealt him the deadly blow. He talked about the rag of cloth that Argelise had clutched in his sword hand, ripped from Freer’s own cloak. “That token allowed those puppet-making demons able to deliver this blow to me, I am sure of it,” he whispered, looking fearfully at the black-edged wound in his arm. Then he slept.

Helsceatha had a dream. He was low to the ground, running through the forest as fast as he could go, his arms laden with trinkets. He awoke to find his shadow servant had escaped. Quick as a flash he raised the alarm. From his dream he knew where to search, and the companions ran, bleary eyed, into the forest in pursuit.

Lazarus saw a dark shape in the shadow of a tree and loosed an arrow. Running through the frosted ferns, they gathered around the tangle of roots where the arrow had landed. The frost was disturbed, as if some small animal had gone through death throws on the spot, and the arrow lay in the middle, its tip and shaft burned black. Scattered around were the various items that Helsceatha had purloined, with the help of the shadow servant, from Glayve’s cart. Helsceatha bent to pick them up, careful to recover each one.

They stepped out of the forest to see a barren land stretched out below them. Furrowed fields lay, white and silent under the frost. Far away in the mist the glint of lanterns marked a village. They met a young man on the road leading a donkey. He was cautious of anyone who would dare the Jewelspider road, especially at this time of year, but told them about the village of Hecund.

A festival would take place there in two days time, the Fey Lantern Feast. Banquet tables lined the forest edge in readiness. Before long, rich and poor from miles around would gather to feast, and perhaps be joined by the faerie folk themselves. Notaries would venture beyond the forest eaves with elaborate lanterns. Maidens would enter the forest bearing candles, there to learn the name of the man who would marry them. Of course, said the boy, no iron or steel would be welcome, for the faerie folk cannot bear its presence.

In the town, all was bustle. Young and old, rich and poor, were making ready. The streets were alive with the construction of elaborate lanterns for the festival. There was much honour to be gained by having the finest lantern, for only the best were likely to draw the faerie folk forth. Strange, brightly decorated masks were being made from wood pulp: long, gawping fish-heads, cattle muzzles, arched faerie faces.

The companions took refuge in a stable, as all the inns were full.

Lazarus decided to raise some funds by selling the strange, glowing globe that Silas had delivered from Glayve. Negotiations with a merchant were not to his liking. But word quickly spread of his wares. A carriage drew up on the cobbles outside the stable, and a liveried servant called the companions to the door. Lazarus stepped to the front, picking straw from his clothes. The item had drawn the attention of the haughty Lady Grey, eager to find an unusual bauble to light her festival lantern. Her offer seemed good to him, so he sold Silas’ globe too.

Silas was more concerned with the lady’s maid, and before long had negotiated a meeting with her. “This evening, at the back window of the old mill house, where my lady is guesting,” she hissed, and the carriage rolled away.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Checking in on Fabled Lands book 7

A guest post today from Paul Gresty, who is currently chained to his desk completing The Serpent King's Domain, the long-awaited seventh book in the Fabled Lands series.

Dave has kindly invited me to write a few words on the Fabled Lands blog to talk about progress on The Serpent King's Domain. If you've been following the Kickstarter backer updates, some of the information here will be familiar – and some will be brand new.

It's been a busy year in Ankon-Konu. The Serpent King's Domain will be longer than any of the Fabled Lands books so far. Currently, the draft of the book is sitting at one-thousand-and-something paragraphs. And we're really into the home stretch now – the random encounters are finished, all the main quests are done; we're at the point where we're fleshing out the cities a little, and adding some of those touches that every Fabled Lands book needs (“How much does it cost to book passage to Smogmaw?”).

It's hard to talk about my progress on Fabled Lands without also mentioning The Frankenstein Wars, another Kickstarter project that took place around the same time, and my other big project of 2016. Both projects are moving steadily towards their conclusion; the deadline for a full draft of both texts is imminent (for more information on TFW, feel free to go check out this project update that recently went online.

Regarding The Serpent King's Domain, one of the jobs that remains is to go back and fill in some of the treasures that the player can discover, and include some new and interesting magic items – things that fit neatly alongside the artefacts that you can discover in the first six books, but that also have a healthy dose of originality as well.

I'll confess that item creation is an area I've found surprisingly challenging. I don't want to make SKD into some sort of arms race – the player's focus shouldn't solely be on picking up super-powered items; nor do I want every player to have the same list of possessions once they've thoroughly explored the book. One tentative idea is to include items that have both advantages and disadvantages, such as:
If you possess (XXXXXXX ITEMS TO CONSTRUCT CLOAK) Bellentacq can, quite reluctantly, create a darkling cloak. Such a cloak will grant a +7 bonus to your THIEVERY score while you possess it, but it will also temporarily reduce your SANCTITY score to 1, and prevent your SANCTITY score from rising by any means (including bonuses from other items). Note that you need not actually wear the cloak to receive this effect; so long as it is in your possession these changes to your Ability scores will apply (also note that, of course, leaving this cloak in storage will remove its effect from you). If you ask Bellentacq to carry out this work, remove the requisite items from your Adventure Sheet. In their place note darkling cloak (+7 THIEVERY, SANCTITY temporarily reduced to 1). Should you discard the cloak, or store it somewhere, you lose the bonus to THIEVERY, but your SANCTITY score will return to its normal value. Turn back to 167.
So, you have an item that grants a great big bonus to THIEVERY – but your SANCTITY will take a hit. Is the gain worth the loss? I'm guessing that some players will think it is, and some won't.

Another way to differentiate equipment lists for different playthroughs might be to include items that have various powers for different professions – which has a handy knock-on effect of helping to distinguish the various professions at higher ranks. For example:
The sacrosanct sabre will grant a COMBAT bonus equal to half the wielder's SANCTITY, rounding down, and not including bonuses from items. So, a wielder with a SANCTITY of 11 would use the sabre as a COMBAT +5 weapon. In addition, if a Priest possesses this item, this will allow him or her to have a maximum of two SANCTITY blessings at any one time (rather than the normal maximum of one).
If you keep this item, note the sacrosanct sabre (COMBAT bonus = half SANCTITY) on your Adventure Sheet.
Turn to 488.
The specific advantage for a Priest character is not enormous here; it's more a distinction that adds flavour rather than one that grants world-shattering power. Certainly, the item should be cheaper, or easier to acquire, than some of the COMBAT +6 weapons that appear in the first books (since that's the maximum bonus it'll have anyway).

For a while I've been thinking about opening a discussion on magic items on the Fabled Lands Facebook group – but then I got angry at the internet and deleted my Facebook account. Regardless, I'll open up that conversation here, instead – what sort of items do people want to see in The Serpent King's Domain? Feel free to chime in in the comments section below, or even to contact me directly by hitting the link.

Really, if people have any ideas for magic items – maybe something that isn't too powerful, that fits in with the jungle-themed setting – I would love, love, love to hear them.

So, to round up: the text is nearing completion. Expect a full first draft around Christmastime – which will then have to go through editing and page layout and whatnot. Regarding artwork, we've been talking to both Kevin Jenkins (cover) and Russ Nicholson (interiors) recently. It's a little soon to make big pronouncements, but that's moving forward as well. I'll tentatively say that project backers will have a book in their hands in the early part of 2017.

Friday, 28 October 2016

"The Enemy of My Enemy" (supervillains scenario)

My gaming group has four Sunday specials a year, and this autumn equinox I decided to try a superpowers game based on the Champions rule set from the early '80s.

I'd recently watched The Hateful Eight (and let me just say right now there are spoilers ahead) so that was the germ of the scenario. The reason: disappointment. The Hateful Eight had a great premise, but it turned out Tarantino didn't have the plotting skill to make it work properly. It should have been eight people all with different conflicting agendas. Take the moment when Joe Gage poisons the coffee, and Tarantino actually stops the movie to say, "Ah, they were all talking so nobody except Daisy noticed the guy poison the coffee." But actually they were almost all in the one gang (I did warn you about spoilers) so they would have already had that plan with the coffee, and Tarantino was just wasting our time pretending it was some sort of fiendishly clever mystery. And he had three hours to tell the story. More than three hours! There should have been zillions of twists and turns, cunning plans, reversals of fortune, alliances being made and breaking down, secrets revealed. Instead, after all that, it's just: "Well, we're all members of the gang except for the old bloke, who we threatened so he'd keep quiet."

OK, flame off - but I wanted a scenario where everybody really did have their own agenda.Hence this. In the scenario, five players were supervillains and one was a non-superpowered hero who was caught in the blizzard as he arrived with a new prisoner. As superpowers were being damped for the first third of the scenario, it put the good guy in a relatively secure position. The others could have maybe taken him down if they all piled in together, but being supervillains they couldn't even agree on that.

Your version of the adventure will feature your own players' characters, but just for the record ours are listed on the handouts. I've made those a download so the players don't see them - although if you're going to be playing this then you should have already looked away, obviously.

There were also four NPC villains on the island: Muerte, Holocaust and Belladonna, who together comprised the "Death Squad", and a Doctor Doom type called the Iron Duke. Of those, only Belladonna showed up at the Vistor Centre.

Sycorax Island
Midway between New Zealand and Antarctica
Length 21 miles, Width 3.5 miles.
Highest elevation 1500 feet
Nearest land: the Auckland Islands (600 miles north-west), Melbourne 1500 miles north-east

The island is in two main pieces of plateau of around 150–200 m (490–660 ft) elevation to the north and south, joined by a narrow isthmus close to sea level. The high points include Mount Grimm on the north-east coastal ridge at 385 m (1,263 ft), and Mounts Storm and Kurtzberg in the south at 410 m (1,345 ft).The high security prison complex is just north of the centre of the island.


Severe storms building rapidly. (This coincides with NASA’s dark matter probe being activated in orbit above the island.)

There’s a power glitch to the prison, and minutes later a freak blizzard hits. The cell doors open and there's a mass breakout. The warden orders an evacuation. The escapees find two guards with their necks broken, and everyone else gone.

The escapees may not be aware at first that the power outage occurred before the blizzard. And only someone with technical knowledge will realize that the cell doors were designed to lock shut, not open – in other words, somebody planned this.

The nearest escape route is the hangar where the choppers are stored. That’s near to the Visitor Centre.

On their way to the Visitor Centre, the escapees may catch sight of the Monitor to the east, between here and the docks. Fortunately it is dormant.

They may also catch sight (just a glimpse through the snow) of a beam of light a couple of miles to the south.

The good guy arrives
As the Lucky Gentleman (a Clint Barton type, the only hero in the scenario and crucially not dependent on super-powers; he’s just highly skilled and at peak physical fitness) is incoming with Dr Megalo (think: the Hulk) in a chopper, he sees three choppers outbound through the blizzard.

Strong radio interference. There’s no chance of turning back now, and if he went down in the sea outside the island’s power-dampening zone then Megalo would have him for elevenses, so he goes in.

Dr Megalo notices flickers of Cerenkov radiation on the chopper’s metal frame. Connected with the altered time rate on the island, this tells him that cosmic forces are causing the storm – and that, although the NASA probe may have triggered it, there’s got to be something on the island itself attracting the flow of energy.

In fact all of the staff have evacuated except for two guards who were on patrol and are now stranded. (They’ll show up at the Visitor Centre.)

Visitor centre 
A slightly ironic term for the reception area where VIPs are met. In consists of a large foyer with store rooms, lavatories, a CCTV guardroom and a small cafe at the back.

The characters make their way to the visitor centre but there’s no chance of flying the single chopper that’s left in the hangar there. Along with the PCs, Belladonna is here. If nobody else notices, she’ll point out that they still don’t have their powers.

Then the Lucky Gentleman turns up with his prisoner.

No chance of using the chopper. Only other way off the island is the submarine but it’s in the sub pen two miles away.

This is off the main reception/lounge area. Among other things, it gives a view of the docks on the north-east of the island showing that the ship has gone.

They get a closer view of the light beam that some of them may have spotted earlier. It’s like a searchlight in reverse – ie coming from above and scanning around on the ground.

There’s also a view of the submarine pen on the southern tip of the island. There’s an Ocular Deep 200 sub. It carries only two people, though only somebody who can drive a sub will know that.

The guards
Two prison guards turn up. They’re understandably nervous and they know that a shapechanger (Mr Veils) is in the group, so will voice concern that Lucky (whom they recognize; think Cap) might not be the real Gentleman. He can talk them round – especially if he points out that Veils probably can’t use his power at the moment – but they’ll need some convincing.

The guards’ names are Joe Braben and Kurt Orville.


The blizzard abates – and with it the dampening effect. More importantly, everyone’s powers come back. (Milk that for dramatic effect.) It’s still very cold and blustery, but going outside is at least possible.

The beam of light is now fixed on a point one and a half miles south of the prison complex. (It has found its target, the serpent crown, and is dematerializing a way through the rock.)

The Monitor 
Unfortunately the lifting of the dampening field also reactivates the Monitor (think: the Destroyer). It will attack if they attempt to reach the submarine pen at the southern end of the island, which the region it’s currently patrolling: “Metahumans detected. Threat assessment pending. Maximum force authorized. Neutralize or eliminate.”

Escape routes
The wind is still too severe to risk taking a chopper up. In any case, the Lucky Gentleman’s chopper is the only one in the hangar and that will take a maximum of four people given the remaining fuel. There’s also the sub (if they saw it) but that only takes two people.

The Iron Duke and the Death Squad
Back up towards the prison complex there’s a wheelchair in the snow. It looks like the snow banked up to the point that the wheelchair user had to abandon it and drag himself on.

The tracks in the snow lead to the Vault. There lies the body of Wesley Wellington, the Iron Duke. It looks like he was heading towards the security swipe plate on the outer door but couldn’t reach it and died of exposure.

Optionally he could have a faint pulse if anybody with medical knowledge thinks to check. He could be brought round in the medical bay.

(The Iron Duke predicted that NASA’s dark matter probe would disrupt the weather as it passed directly over the island. He arranged the power outage, setting everyone else’s door to open ten minutes before his so they would all either kill each other or try to reach the docks, giving him free rein to go for his suit.)

It’s right about now that Muerte and Holocaust show up. Belladonna will side with them. Muerte gives the characters a chance to back off. He wants the contents of the Vault for himself. If they don’t leave, Muerte and his colleagues attack.

If the characters search Wesley Wellington’s body (they have to specify they are doing this) they will find a security card in his hand. It’s obviously homemade – a cut piece of plastic, a tape strip sellotaped on. But it works at Level One (highest) for 2-3 uses.

Entering the Vault
If they find the security card and enter the Vault, they can get the Iron Duke’s armour. It has to be fitted by hand (the auto-fit is linked to an implant only Wellington has) and using any power other than augmented STR requires an INT roll. If the character criticals an INT roll, they can then use the suit’s powers normally.

The medical bay
A character who is wounded can recover 1d6+1 Body points here.


The beam of light from the sky (“it's like seeing where the rainbow ends”) is focused on the centre of the island. They can see that it’s fading now.

All the characters feel a very powerful intelligence scanning their mind. Ask them their Ego CV and let those who fail know that the intelligence might even be able to compel them if it chose. There’s a sense that the intelligence is growing in strength.

At the centre of the island
If they approach they see a shaft leading down into the rock. The beam fades completely.

The Serpent Crown is here and forming within it is a translucent humanoid form with bronze-like skin and glowing eyes. This is Nebulos. Centuries ago he was stripped of his crown and banished to the Negative Zone. Now NASA’s dark matter probe has opened up a gateway.

Nebulos is growing in strength as he materializes. Let him begin with a 20-point force field, 8d6 Energy Blast and 6d6 Mind Control and that increases by 3 points/1d6 every round.

He opens with a 5d6 Presence Attack, then proposes to make them his lieutenants in the conquest of this world.

It’s obvious that he is growing more solid and the glow from the crown stronger every second.

* * *

In our game, Belladonna tried to get the others to team up against the Lucky Gentleman but failed. During an argument she broke Dr Megalo's nose - for which, when he later transformed into his identity as the Shark, he ate her. One of the characters was a shapechanger called Mr Veils who variously passed himself off as Gary Brand (Holocaust), prison medical officer Dr William Sullivan, Wesley Wellington (the Iron Duke), and a prison guard. In the final confrontation, which against all odds involved all of the players despite an afternoon in which they had frequently split into three or four factions, the Lucky Gentleman went to grab Nebulos's crown, rolled a 3 on 3d6, and the bad guy faded back into the dark matter universe.

And incidentally, by a strange coincidence that in comics would surely presage the arrival of Galactus, there's currently a Kickstarter for a Champions supplement set in the Golden Age (ie the 1940s). I'm tempted to run a Minutemen scenario but I'm not sure that my players could cope with all the rapes, beatings, betrayals, murders, and toxic secrets. Oh, that's not how you see the Golden Age heroes? I'll get my cape...

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Scare monger

With Halloween coming up, maybe you’re looking for some pleasurable chills. Maybe a few shudders. Even an outright shriek or two? If so, here are a few suggestions to get a little cold grue into your life.

John Whitbourn's creepy short story "Waiting For A Bus" has been collected in various anthologies including The Year's Best Fantasy, has picked up a slew of awards, and even been dramatized on the radio. I was fortunate enough to hear it from the author's lips one dark autumn evening in the late 1980s, and I can still feel the finger of ice that ran down my spine as he read the fateful words --

Ah, but no spoilers. Read it for yourself right now here. And if your hair hasn’t gone stark white after that, you can delve into the other Binscombe Tales here.

If gamebooks are your poison, you can climb inside the skin of the Frankenstein story with my interactive version of the classic drama of hubris, dark secrets, murder, and toxic love-hate. Among other things you get to be the voice of Victor's conscience - although, like Tony Stark, he doesn't always listen.

You also get to see through the eyes of the monster. And if you’re thinking that doesn’t sound too scary – well, you’re probably thinking of the movies, all of which are jolly romps compared to the flesh-crawling horror of the genuine Frankenstein article.

Steve Ditko, probably the greatest artist in the history of comics, produced some of his best work (so far) for Warren's horror mags, Creepy and Eerie, in partnership with Archie Goodwin. Now Dark Horse have collected those masterpieces of the macabre into one beautiful hardcover book. It's right here if you think your nerves can take the strain.

A rising star in the firmament of fantastic fiction is Jason Arnopp, whose novel The Last Days of Jack Sparks has justly earned him comparison with the greats of the horror genre. It's a brilliant Bloody Mary of a story mixing black comedy, postmodern zing, eye-popping terror, poignant notes of regret, all told at a pace that won't let you put the book down.

I'd say Jack Sparks was the best modern horror story out there but - sorry, Jason, that accolade must go to... oh, none other than Jason Arnopp, for A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home. This personalized yarn is so effectively scary that it's probably not safe to read it when you're alone in the house. You can also send it to a friend and enjoy the twitchy, haunted look they'll carry around with them for the next few months.

Lastly, if you just want something sinister to watch, try the classic TV movie Schalcken the Painter, based on a J S Le Fanu story. That'll send you off to bed with an eye on the shadows.

Come back on Friday when we'll put the spooks aside and have a kick-ass roleplaying adventure involving supervillains: "The Enemy Of My Enemy".

Friday, 14 October 2016

The unquiet grave

Here's one I did earlier - thirty-two years earlier, as a matter of fact, in the July 1984 issue of White Dwarf. I used to write so much of the magazine in those days that I had to use pseudonyms or the contents page would have looked a bit repetitive. This piece appeared originally under the nom-de-plume 'Phil Holmes'; Phil because I was and am a huge admirer of Professor Barker, and Holmes being my mother's family from Dublin.

*  *  *
Lost on the barren moors of north of the Hourla Hills after nightfall, you have little hope of surviving to see another dawn. You have trudged through the freezing mud for hours but finally you stumble and sink to your knees, your iron will no longer a match for your weariness. You bow your head and compose yourself to meet your god. Your only regret is that you did not die in battle.

Through the closing haze of darkness you seem to see a light, and dully you turn your head to watch it approach. An old man stands before you holding a lantern aloft. When, in later years, you think back to this moment it seems that you recall vividly the look of quiet strength in his grey eyes, and the sound of his cloak as the gale snaps it around his frail body.

Beckoning you to follow, he turns and walks away. Somehow you find the strength to rise and stagger after him. Holding the bobbing lantern up to guide you, he leads the way to a small cottage where a welcoming light shines from latticed windows. A few more steps would take you to the cottage door, but your fatigue is too much and you pass out. Barely conscious, you sense yourself being lifted up and carried towards the cottage. As in a dream, you abstractly wonder at the strength in the old man’s arms. He takes you inside and lays you on a pallet beside the fire. Your last recollection is of thick fur blankets being drawn up around you.

It is noon before you awaken. At first you remember little, but as fragments and tatters of memory return from the previous night you are amazed to find yourself in a dusty, derelict cottage. There is no sign of your rescuer and there does not seem to have been a fire in the grate in the recent past. Outside, the bleak landscape lies bathed in cold, winter sunshine. You see smoke rising from beyond a wooded hill and head in that direction.

An hour’s walk brings you to the village of Hobvale where you quickly seek out an inn and treat yourself to an ample and warming repast. Then, sitting by the fire with a cup of mulled wine in your hand, you relate the events of the previous night to the innkeeper.

‘An extraordinary tale,’ he says, ‘but one which I have in fact heard once or twice before from other travellers like yourself. Some years ago an old monk called Alaric lived in a hermitage out on the moors. Anyone who came to his door would receive shelter, and he often went out with his lantern when a sudden storm or blizzard might have caught wayfarers unawares.’

‘Why, then, clearly this was he.’ You are on your feet at once. ‘Come man, I am no churl. Tell me where he lives now and I shall go to thank this monk and reward him for his kindness.’

The innkeeper shakes his head and waves you back to your chair. ‘Hah! I cannot think you would care to undertake the journey. He took in a stricken traveller some ten years past and then died himself when he braved the storm to fetch the man a doctor. He is buried up there on the moor.’
For thousands of years people have enjoyed ghost stories. A dip into the folklore and literature of any country will uncover dozens of variations on the theme. Unfortunately this rich vein of imaginative material is all too often reduced to absurdity by the need to frame everything in simple game-terms. How impoverished and inadequate the modern horrors of adventure gaming can seem when compared to the originals from which they were derived (Grendel, Dracula, the Green Knight, the Balrog, et al.)

The problem in part comes from trying to define things exactly, for this can also limit them. It would be very difficult to create anything like the story of Macbeth in a standard adventure, say. Banquo’s ghost would either have to be a genuine Dragon Warriors ghost with a 1d12 Fright Attack, or a figment of Macbeth’s guilt-ridden imagination, which could be established if the PCs have some way of detecting spirits or the undead when the ghost next shows. Storytelling allows ambiguity whereas games enforce the leaden certainty of binary logic.

I am not suggesting that creatures should not be defined at all in game-terms. But there should certainly be a shift away from a rules-and-stats approach which makes it all too easy to roll hosts of uninspired random encounters. There must be a sense of (and fear of ) the unknown when encountering fantastic creatures, particularly ghosts and undead. Player-characters should not think of such things as standard, nor should they ever feel that they or anyone else in the world knows very much about them.

To help deal with the problem, here is a new term for referees to use: revenant. A revenant is anyone who returns from the dead—whether in physical form, as an apparition, or as an ambiguous and undefined combination of the two. There is no one set of stats for all revenants, because they are not all of one nature; some you can fight, some you can banish with magic, but many can only be dealt with by discovering their particular weaknesses.

Alaric’s revenant could be thought of as a sort of ‘psychic residue’. It could not harm a character, nor be harmed. It could not be pigeonholed as a standard Dragon Warriors ghost, because it was not a conscious and reasoning entity, it was a part of this honourable man which did not fade from the world when his body died and his soul passed on. Revenants like this will appear in scenarios as a means of giving the characters clues to past events, assisting them, hindering endangering them or simply to create an eerie effect.

Revenants may be brought into existence when a person dies as a result of gross injustice, or with a task or duty still to complete. This is the nebulous and inconstant magic of the human psyche, there is no ‘Create Revenant’ spell!

If you left a companion to die then his revenant might pursue you with a view to evening up the score. Maybe he can only be laid to rest if you go back, find his body and give it a decent burial. Or maybe you will have to fight the revenant because it will only be satisfied by your death. Possibly the revenant will depart if you can merely fool it into thinking you are dead. Scenarios involving a revenant will thus often revolve around finding out what it wants and then accomplishing this with minimal unpleasantness to yourself!

Revenants are a useful way of keeping powerful PCs on their toes. The characters might be able to defeat ghosts and spectres with their hands tied behind them, but they will just have to rely on their wits when facing a revenant which inconveniently ignores all the usual tricks for dealing with undead.

Any powers that a revenant possesses should be counterbalanced by specific vulnerabilities. These could relate to the way the revenant arose, so if a person died in a fire, his her revenant could manifest itself in a form mutilated by horrible burns, becoming able to utilise flame-related attacks and being driven away with water.

When you’re devising a revenant, start by deciding on its ‘life’ history and how you’re going to bring it into the scenario, and only then work out its stats and powers (if any)—let your imagination take the lead and make the rules run to catch up!

Second, take great care in the way you play a revenant. Supposing you have a revenant which wants a character dead. It might make repeated attacks night after night, but it would not plan its attacks as would a human assassin. Revenants are isolated fragments of a psyche, and they lose their qualities of awe and strangeness if made to act like rational living beings.

Scenario Outlines

The High Priest of Nebr’volent
After discovering the pyramid of a wealthy dignitary of Ancient Kaikuhuru in Opalar, a high priest in times long past, the characters return home with a fortune in tomb treasures. Shortly afterwards, a succession of deaths among the NPCs who accompanied them alerts the player characters to the danger they are in. The next night, one of the PCs is visited in a dream by the high priest’s revenant. In the dream, the character finds himself running, parched and weary, across the desert sands. In the moonlight, he sees an oasis and heads for it. As he cups his hands to drink, however, his relief turns to dread—for reflected in the water he sees a terrible apparition standing behind him. It is the mummified corpse of the ancient, dressed in its priestly finery. It reaches for him with clawlike hands but he cannot move or turn to defend himself. The water in his hands turns to dust and he awakes in a cold sweat. The dream recurs every night, and each morning the character finds he is getting weaker. (In game terms, he is losing a Health Point every four nights.)

Consulting local sages, the player characters are told by the most well-read sorcerers and exorcists that someone must sit with the character while he sleeps and cast Hold Off The Dead the moment that it seems the dream is beginning. This course proves partially effective—it drives back the revenant until the next time the character goes to sleep—but the sorcerers are charging a great deal each time they are called on to cast the spell....

The other PCs probably realise it is their turn once the haunted character is dead, so they do everything possible to keep him alive.

In desperation, and after a gentle hint from the referee by way of local lore, the character goes down to the docks and seeks out a notorious sorcerer who lives there. This fellow consults his books, charts and astrological devices and then explains that the tomb was cursed. He tells the character that he has only one hope (choose the solution which fits best into your campaign):

1. (For long-term campaigns) The characters must gather together the priestly regalia they stole and return it to the tomb. The problems arising from this are that they possibly do not have enough cash to buy back some of the items, or a collector who bought one of the items refuses to part with it. Once they manage to get back all of the items and set off for the tomb, the haunted character loses no more Health Points—but he doesn’t recover the Health Points he’s already lost until all the items are safely back and the tomb sealed.

2. (For episodic campaigns) The sorcerer knows of a way to help the character fight back: he must go to sleep clutching a pile of salt in his left hand and an antique jade shortsword (provided by the sorcerer) tied to his right with a silk cord. When the revenant appears behind him in his dream he is able to throw the salt up into its face and then, with its gaze momentarily averted from the pool, he is freed from his paralysis and able to turn and fight it. This is a straight ‘physical’ battle; no spells can be used. The character and the revenant are closely matched, and neither has armour. The revenant wields a mace of mauve stone, so the character has an advantage in that his weapon can impale – and because of the silk cord he cannot lose his grip on it. If he defeats the revenant, he wakes to find he is back to full health. If he doesn’t defeat it then he never wakes up, and the next PC will have to pay the sorcerer for his services.

A Noble Knight
This is intended as a sub-plot to run alongside whatever main adventure the characters are on at the time. A number of strange events occur over a period of several days—e.g. a golden hawk leading the characters to a companion who has fallen in the hills and broken his leg, a lion which silently approaches when they are lost in the mountains at night and guides them to safety. Mention enough of these that the player-characters have a sense of something significant in the offing, but keep them busy enough with the main adventure that they don’t have time to analyse it all.

Eventually, while traversing a mountain pass, they are ambushed by bandits. Things look bad for a while until the sudden intervention of an armoured knight on horseback saves the day. The knight turns out to be an uncommunicative sort, though he does reveal his name (Helvelas) and seems very pious. He walks with a slight limp. At the next town the characters lose him, but he meets up with them when they continue their trek into the mountains in search of whatever tomb or treasure trove they are after. Helvelas accompanies them when they enter a cavern complex infested with monsters, and several times steps into melee to save a character’s life as the party fights on towards its objective.

Finally, after a pitched battle in the main cavern chamber, the characters look around to find Helvelas gone. But while gathering the treasure, they discover the corpse of a knight in the shadows under a shelf of rock to one side of the cave. Mystics with the party can tell that he died of a wasting infection— probably caught from the monsters when they took him prisoner. His left leg was broken. Although his armour was rusted over the years, the characters can still recognise the heraldic design on the breastplate. A golden eagle on a red sun—Helvelas’s coat of arms. His revenant has helped the adventurers reach his body so that they can administer the proper funeral rites.

Recommended sources
Films: The Fog; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; High Plains Drifter; Rashomon; Don Giovanni.
Books: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M R James; Dracula by Bram Stoker; British Folktales and Legends by K Briggs; The Room in the Tower by E F Benson; The Bull and the Spear by Michael Moorcock

Not all of these are strictly concerned with revenants, but they are valuable as inspirational material.This article is also available in Magnum Opus's beautifully produced supplement In From The Cold - but good luck finding a copy of that.