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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.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Dark Lord - the board game

A big shout-out to Manvinder Singh Dev, creator of the Dark Lord board game! Jamie and I would love to play this.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The exercise of their power

A while back I ran a few excerpts from The Mage of Dust and Bone, a fantasy novel set in the Fabled Lands world (well, sort of). I wrote the opening chapters for Jamie to continue with, the same process we used for The Wrong Side of the Galaxy, but in this case the thing refused to get up off the slab. Should've used AC instead of DC, I guess.

The lead character was Forge Burntholm, a young wizard, and the first part of the story had some flashbacks to his apprenticeship at Dweomer, which in the novel was not a university town but a crumbling fortress where a single Archmage taught a handful of students. The Fabled Lands literary agent wasn't happy that in those flashbacks I made Forge quite a bully. "He's too unlikeable," he complained. On that subject, I agree with this piece by Celia Walden:
“One of the tricks of the books,” says Anthony Horowitz, “is to make [James Bond] likeable.” I couldn’t agree less. As a philandering, cold-blooded killer, with – as Horowitz accepts – “unfortunate attitudes towards women, gays, Jews and foreigners” – Bond can and should never be made likeable.
My thinking with Mage ran something like this. Wizardry is all about power and force of will, so not addressing the abuse of power would have seemed like a cop-out. JK Rowling has already done the nice version of wizard school so I wanted to show Forge behaving badly in his mid-teens, more out of boredom and the urge to flex his magical muscle than out of malice. Then he is abruptly forced to face the consequences of his behaviour when some magic goes wrong in a very horrible way. The older Forge is already shaken by that experience. He's chastened. He's trying to be a better person - but people don't change overnight, so as the story unfolds he's still struggling with that change rather than suddenly turning into Ron Weasley.

When it comes to fiction, likeability is over-rated. I prefer the interesting characters myself, especially the outrageous ones. We all find Han more compelling than Luke, don't we? Check out this chapter from the novel and then have your say...


‘Well? Can you see?’
Forge balanced on the thick slab of ice over the top of the rainwater barrel and peered through the tavern’s bottle-paned window. The glass was steamed up, but he could see a mop of carroty hair among the youths pressed shoulder-to-shoulder by the fireside.
He grinned down at Bartholomew. ‘He’s there.’
Kim was standing a little way off, half pretending she wasn’t with them. ‘Let’s go back. It’s cold out here.’
‘Go back, go back,’ mocked Bartholomew in a sing-song voice. ‘Try wearing thicker drawers next time.’
Forge jumped down with a muffled crump. The snow was deep-piled, powdery dry and greenish-white in the light from the window. He blew out a big cloud of steam. ‘What’s it going to be this time?’
‘Hanging around here is stupid,’ complained Kim. ‘I’ve got three chapters and a rune diagram to get through for tomorrow.’
‘That’s theory. Nothing beats practice,’ sneered Bartholomew.
There was a drunken bellow from inside, a half-hearted attempt to get a song going that soon petered out. They heard jeers of laughter.
‘Was that Ruggins’s tuneless warbling?’ said Bartholomew, cocking a hand to his ear. ‘Or was it the howl of a weasel giving birth to a warthog? Either way, I think it calls for…’
‘For punishment,’ said Forge.
‘My very thought. Corrective punishment. Severe and memorable punishment.’
‘A lesson never to be forgotten.’
Kim shuffled her feet. ‘Just leave him alone. Why have you got to torment him?’
‘For the same reason that you are standing here with us, Monksilver,’ said Bartholomew, ‘and not scribbling away at your prep. Boredom. The need for amusement amid the scholastic tedium. And the natural desire to administer justice to a red-headed yokel with a face like a fishwife’s backside.’
After first arriving at Dweomer, the apprentices had not taken long to learn what the local youths thought of them. The ringleader, Galt Ruggins, a farmer’s lad a little older than they were, had forced Forge and Bartholomew into the ditch as he brought his pigs to market one day. ‘Bookworms,’ he said with a guffaw, kicking mud at them. The smirk on his face, milky pale under thick red shock of hair, was full of spite.
For a while they put up with his bullying, and found ways to avoid going into the village. Forge had been the first to grasp the practical applications of the magic they were learning. They bent over their books and workbench with even keener interest. After a while they tried out a spell that caused seagulls to gather over Galt Ruggins’s head whenever he went out, swooping and shrieking. It went on for a week. Forge and Bartholomew found him sitting on a bench outside the village, his clothes fouled with the birds’ droppings. The gulls had settled all around to stare at him with their wide blank eyes.
‘It must be your ridiculous hair, Ruggins,’ said Bartholomew. ‘If I were a bird, I’m sure I’d want to void my bowels on you.’
‘Go,’ Forge had added, and the gulls took off at once.
Galt had sat stunned, the way an animal kept in a cage won’t always bolt as soon as the door is opened. Until that moment when he saw the birds fly away he had no notion that the apprentices were the cause of his misery.
Forge leaned in close. ‘I said go.’
Galt jumped up and hurried away up the high street, and Forge and Bartholomew looked at each other in mutual delight of their power.
After that, Galt Ruggins became a convenient test subject for any new magic they learned. A diabolic voice spoke from the tavern hearth one night and described his secret wishes and fantasies, to the great amusement of the other drinkers. There was a period when milk would spoil in any house where he slept, forcing his parents to put his bed out in the barn. He suffered two weeks of uncontrollable flatulence, a curse that was only lifted when he agreed to run through the village naked on market day.
The apprentices revelled in the exercise of their power and would swagger through the village, smiling like young wolves at the sight of older boys scurrying out of their way. As for Galt, he grew morose and bitter. He took out his feelings of impotence on his friends, acquiring a reputation for sullen and unpredictable violence.
Once he snapped. Insulted by Forge as he came into the village on his family’s best mare, he tried to ride him down. By now the apprentices didn’t need to cook up curses in a laboratory. They had spells ready at their fingertips. Forge stepped contemptuously aside and ensorcelled the horse with a gesture and a word. Eyes rolling, spraying spittle, with Galt clinging terrified to its back, it thundered up to the cliffs and galloped along the very edge as if pursued by hounds from hell. On it went until Galt lost sight of the village. On one side was the wind-flattened grass, on the other a sheer drop to the pounding foam of the waves hundreds of feet below.
After screams for help, Galt tried threats. He felt sure the apprentices were watching him from affair. He grew angry, then pleading, then too frightened to make any sound at all. Finally he could take it no longer. He threw himself clear, breaking his wrist in the process, and the horse went straight over the cliff.
‘You didn’t need to kill it.’ Forge remembered Kim’s accusing glare. What had his answer been? He remembered it now with terrible clarity, with a stab of shock that physically hurt. He’d laughed.
‘I think,’ Bartholomew was saying, ‘boils this time.’
‘Interesting choice,’ said Forge, as if picking a dish from a menu. Kim tut-tutted.
‘I’ve noticed Ruggins has had his doltish bovine eye on that blonde milkmaid at Undertree Farm,’ Bartholomew went on. ‘No doubt his intentions are squalid. Once his face comes out in a great mass of angry red boils, his hopes of a stolen kiss decrease dramatically.’
‘I like it. Preserving the girl’s honour and giving Ruggins a suitable rebuke for his gross animal lusts at the same time.’
‘Quite. Anything we can do to prevent the Ruggins bloodline from propagating itself is a worthy exercise of our talents.’
‘You’re both disgusting,’ said Kim. ‘Do you think this is what the Arch Mage teaches us magic for? To persecute ordinary folk for our amusement?’
Bartholomew was suddenly serious. ‘You’ve learned nothing, Monksilver, if you think he cares a jot what we do to the common herd. He’d raise his finger and wipe out a kingdom, and then get a sound night’s sleep.’
‘That’s not true. Magic is about having a feeling for everything around you. You can only become a true wizard when you know you’re part of everything.’
‘So?’ spat back Bartholomew, relishing an argument, ‘My toenails are part of me, and I don’t mind cutting them.’
There was a scuffing noise from the roof. Bartholomew and Kim, who had been circling each other as they argued, stepped out further into the street. That saved them. Forge stayed where he was under the eaves and looked up in time to see a heavy ledge of snow come crashing down on his head.
He was on his back. He couldn’t breathe and he felt a stinging, suffocating lump in his throat. He coughed out snow and struggled up, shaking off Kim’s hand.
In the door of the tavern stood half a dozen of the local youths. They hung back nervously but their eyes bright with excitement. One of them was carrying a jacket stuffed with straw and topped off with a bundle of red hair.
‘That’s what you do with bookworms,’ came a laugh from above. ‘Bury ‘em in the snow.’
‘Ruggins.’ Forge narrowed his eyes. ‘What a costly prank this is going to be.’
He raised his arm, already swirling with a web of shadows that he intended to implant forever inside Galt’s eyes. But Kim surprised him by stepping in the way. Galt gave a sudden bark of nervous laughter, apparently surprised not to have been blasted off the roof already, and dropped out of sight on the other side.
The youth with the straw dummy flung it away as it burst into flames. ‘Back inside, you!’ snarled Bartholomew, slamming the tavern door on them with another spell.
‘Leave it,’ said Kim.
‘Get out of the way,’ said Forge, walking past her and swiftly down the alleyway to the other side of the tavern. Just visible in the bar of lamplight from an outlying cottage, Galt was already fifty yards away and running for home.
‘You could just let him go.’ But she said it wearily, more to herself than to Forge, seeing from the light in his eyes that it was futile.
Bartholomew also wanted nothing to do with it now, but for different reasons. ‘We can catch up with him another time. Let him stew for a bit, Forge. Then, in a week or two, he’ll wake up with a face full of boils.’
‘Boils?’ Forge looked at him with a feral grin. ‘We’re way beyond that. I’m going to do something permanent. Something that’ll remind him of this evening for the rest of his life.’
He brushed the remaining snow off his sleeves. Ruggins was out of sight in the darkness but Forge wasn’t in any particular hurry now. He set off at a measured tread across the white-blanketed field and Kim and Bartholomew watched him go in uneasy silence.

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Serpent's Venom

White Dwarf was getting a circulation boost or something, so Jamie (who was the real editor of the mag, whatever the punters thought) asked me to knock off a beginners’ scenario for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Ah, dungeons – I’m sure you know by now how I feel about those. But I did my hack duty, and it went out under the pseudonym Liz Fletcher because I already had The Castle of Lost Souls and my RuneRites column appearing in the same issue – which was number 52, April 1984, if you’re interested.

It was later modified slightly by James Wallis to appear in the platinum-rare Dragon Warriors supplement In From The Cold. I’ve taken the stats from that, but reverted it to a more generic world background. Looking at it now, I’m not sure what the ‘awkward situation’ was that Galadria had ostensibly approached the player characters to help out with, and they may well ask so you’d better have her invent something plausible. As Galadria will have researched the characters' background before approaching them, she might be able to come up with a story that relates to their recent adventures, in which case it could be quite an effective sting.

The Serpent’s Venom

An adventure for 1st to 3rd-rank characters

Players’ introduction
Finding themselves somewhat impoverished, the player characters enter the town of Overdale one cold evening, and are forced to make do with only a meager supper of bread and cheese at the Black Rose inn. Naturally they are quick to accept when a tall, slender blonde woman in robes of green and grey approaches and invites them to dine with her.

‘I am Galadria the Gifted,’ she says. ‘I know what it is to be down on one’s luck, so I extend this charitable hand to a group of fellow adventurers.’  

The charitable hand in question glitters with a number of heavy gold rings. She sweeps gracefully between the benches where the common patrons of the inn sit drinking, leading the characters to one of the partitioned tables off to one side of the room. She orders stew and mulled wine for them, all before explaining that she is  looking for a party of suitable adventuring companions to help her deal with an awkward situation.

As the food is brought, there is a brief lull in the conversation, and the characters cannot help overhearing something of what is being said by the group at the next table. ‘Treasure’ is mentioned several times. Discreetly listening at the thin wooden partition, they hear snatches of discussion—the other group are also adventurers, planning to explore and loot an abandoned temple a day’s ride to the north. The temple appears to be located in an underground complex hidden beside a lake surrounded by weeping willows. Galadria whispers that she knows the lake, having recently passed that way—it is called Willow Lake.

Suddenly one of the men at the next table rises to leave. Galadria and the player characters immediately pretend to be chatting to one another. The man who has risen says goodbye to his friends. At the door, he turns and calls back, ‘I’ll get some horses and see you back here in two days, then,’ before walking into the night.

Galadria leans forward and speaks in hushed tones, glancing from time to time at the next table as if to reassure herself that the eavesdropping has not been detected. ‘Luck has delivered us an excellent opportunity. If that group aren’t planning to depart for another two days, we can steal a march on them. I hope that none of you consider this dishonorable—they do look rather disreputable types themselves, and honor must go by the board when one’s pocket is almost empty of gold.’

Referee’s Background
This has actually been a con, an elaborate charade enacted to dupe the player characters. Galadria is the accomplice of the men at the next table. She and they are worshippers of an evil god. (In From The Cold interpreted this as a cult sacrificing to the pagan deity Balor; see Prince of Darkness. The original scenario had the god down as Set, who in the can't-be-arsed but vaguely Old Testament mythology of Dungeons and Dragons is a snake god - which explains the scenario's title, at least.) The abandoned temple was their own, but it was attacked over a year ago by a knightly order. Galadria and the others were the only ones to escape. They would like to retrieve the idol of their god and the coffers from the temple, but have been unable to do so because several of the skeleton guards of the temple were not destroyed by the knights and now patrol parts of the complex following their original orders: to attack anyone not accompanied by a full priest of the god (of at least 5th level).

For some time, Galadria and the others have been luring adventuring parties to the temple in order to whittle down the number of undead guards without risking themselves. Then events were complicated by a group of orcs moving into the abandoned temple. Their leader, a human sorcerer, instructed the orcs to board the skeletons into one section of the complex. Although many died in the attempt, this was achieved, and the skeletons do not have the orders or the intellect to dismantle the barricade.

The remaining worshippers of the god know about the orcs. They have evolved new tactics. Galadria will take the player characters into the temple and make a drive straight for the main shrine in order to get the sacred idol. On the way out, Vargus and the others plan to mount an ambush—whereupon Galadria will reveal her true colors and (they intend) the player characters will be slain.

The Journey to the Temple
The ride north takes the characters through rolling green countryside, through vales and gentle hill, past small hamlets and farms where peasants till the fields. The terrain gradually becomes more craggy and less populous. At one point they espy a somber black chapel or monastery across the valley. Even at a distance it is easy to see that it is deserted and overgrown.

This chapel was the home of the knightly order that raided the temple. So many were slain in the endeavor that the wounded who returned decided to deconsecrate their chapel and move south. As a consequence it is deserted.

Finally their objective is in sight. As the characters ride towards the lake, however, they are suddenly attacked by a party of five orcs who are out foraging.

These orcs will not attempt to reach the temple (if they try to escape, it will be into the wilderness) because they know that the look-out there will have seen the characters approaching and will have given the alarm, so the way in will be barricaded (see below). Galadria will try not to use her spells unless absolutely necessary. She does need at least three of the player-characters to carry the idol out of the temple, however, so she will bear this in mind

The entrance to the temple is a cave mouth on the lake shore. This is concealed behind the trunk of a weeping willow but Galadria will soon ‘stumble across’ the entrance if the characters don’t spot it. Once inside the temple, her aim will be to lead them directly to the major shrine and the temple treasury. This will involve Galadria ‘noticing’ several secret doors and although she will try to pretend that she is just doing this by luck, her eagerness to complete the mission may make her find the secret doors suspiciously quickly.

The Temple Complex

1. Entrance Passage
Crudely hewn steps lead up about six feet behind the willow tree. The passage then levels out and carries on for another five feet or so—just more than the range of torchlight.

2. Entrance Hall
Barricades to the left and right block the exit passages from this room. Sturdy ropes lead across from behind the left barricade and are secured to the other. As the characters enter, they can see several orcs peering out from the left-hand barricade.

Suddenly the ropes go taut and the right-hand barricade is pulled down. There is a noxious tittering from the orcs as four skeletons advance through the collapsed barricade and attack the characters. There is a total of nine skeletons in the temple complex, previously trapped in the passage to rooms 12, 13 and 14. They will issue forth to attack the characters at the rate of 1-3 a round until all have been killed. They will also attack Galadria, even though she is a worshipper of their deity, because she is not accompanied by a priest of the god.

The barricades are made of logs and branches. The left-hand one must be broken down for the characters to reach the orcs. This will take 4-6 combat rounds, with the orcs sniping at the adventurers all the time. Galadria will prefer to take the party this way even if all the skeletons haven’t been destroyed, because she knows about the skullghast guarding the armory and regards it as the safer of the two routes.

The orcs and their leader occupy the section of the complex covering rooms 3, 4, 5 and 6. Their leader is Althalos, a sorcerer. He regards the temple complex predominantly as a convenient base from which to raid and perhaps eventually take over the local district. Though he reveres no specific deity, he does also think there’s a possibility he may be able to tap into whatever dark sources of magical power were once associated with this place. 

3. Storeroom
This was originally the temple storeroom. Some game hangs from hooks in the ceiling for a banquet the orcs were planning. The smaller chamber off to the end is where the food is prepared.

4. Refectory
There are plain wooden benches and a table.

5. Dormitory
This is where the lower-ranking worshippers slept (Galadria, Vargus and the others). It is now the orcs’ dormitory, of course. One orc lies in bed here. He has Swamp Fever (see Dragon Warriors, p. 126), and could not join his fellows in defending their lair. Anyone who touches him has a 5% chance of contracting the disease.

6. Outer Shrine
There is a black bas-relief of a muscular red-eyed demon on the opposite wall. Originally the room was hung with tapestries and was a place for solo rituals devoted to the god. It is now Althalos’s private chamber, and he uses the tapestries for his bedding.

7. Robing Room
Several black robes with a stylized eye design in white over the abdomen hang on hooks around the room. A wooden cupboard contains six black iron crowns, with tines in the form of rough, icicle-like spikes. There are five moldering corpses in the room, two of which wear rusting armour. (Roll a d20; on a 1, the player-character with the highest perception will notice that Galadria is unusually disturbed by the sight of these corpses. The three unarmoured ones were priests of the temple; the other two were knights slain in the attacks.)

8. Major Shrine
This is a large chamber of black marble veined with quartz. On the altar stone there is a solid onyx idol to the god, with eyes of red gold and a leering forked tongue, this is the idol Galadria wants. (Note: as a worshipper of the god, Galadria should perform a genuflection as she crosses the threshold of this chamber. She won’t actually do this because it would be an obvious giveaway, but from that point she will be at –1 to ATTACK, DEFENCE, MAGICAL ATTACK, MAGICAL DEFENCE, STEALTH, PERCEPTION, and EVASION, until ritually absolved by a priest of the god.)

There are two traps on the idol that even Galadria doesn’t know about. Firstly, if touched anywhere except behind the head, it will shoot out its forked tongue (speed 19, damage 3, normal poison) to strike any character standing directly in front of the altar stone unless they have taken specific precautions against this. Armour will not help, unless the player has specified that the character is wearing a full-face helmet, or has his visor down, in which case the tongue will have no effect.

Secondly, a 5’ × 5’ trapdoor will open directly in front of the altar, dropping anyone standing there down a sloping chute to room 17 unless they can evade its Speed of 16. The idol is worth 450 florins and radiates a palpable aura of evil.

9. Priests’ Dormitory
There are five beds with decaying linen. There are two corpses here. It seems that an armored knight slew one of the sleeping priests but was then struck down from behind.

10. High Priests’ Room
Two decomposing bodies lie together on the floor. The armored knight thrust his sword through the High Priest, but the latter locked his hands around the knight’s throat and choked him even in death. The knight’s sword has not rusted, unlike his armour. A black pentangle amulet hangs on the far wall. The high priest was trying to reach his Amulet of Sovereignty over Violence when the master of the knightly order caught up with him. The knight’s sword is +1.

When the characters have been in this room for two combat rounds, a shadowy form will rise from the high priest’s corpse. It will attack anyone except a worshipper of the god. It is the high priest’s spirit, now a wraith. The strength of the god’s spirit in this place, and the high priest’s fanaticism, are such that the he was able to become a wraith in far less time than usual.

If this wraith is struck with the paladin’s sword it will be destroyed immediately because some of the paladin’s goodness has remained in this weapon which was the cause of the priest’s death.

11. Library
Shelves around the room are stocked with numerous books, all of which deal with the revolting and terrible rituals of the priesthood of this deity. Any character of the True Faith who reads one of these books through completely will be subject to a magical attack of 16, permanently losing a point of Intelligence if affected.

12. Barracks
A bare room. This is where the skeletons remained when ‘off duty’.

13. Tomb Chamber
Two sarcophagi contain the mortal remains of earlier high priests of this temple.

14. Cells
Manacles hang from the walls. There is a decayed corpse chained here. This is where victims were kept awaiting sacrifice to the deity.

15. Armoury
A skullghast (see Bestiary, p. 66) guards the special weapons of the temple. The skullghast will attack anyone except the High Priest, so Galadria knows better than to enter the room. The skullghast will not leave this room, even to pursue intruders, as its orders were to stay and guard.

The special weapons and armour are a +1 morningstar; a +1 mail hauberk; two +1 shields.

16. Treasury
The temple coffers contain 328 florins, guarded by two zombies.

17. A Dank Chamber
Contains the temple’s special guardian, which will attack any who fall down the chute into its lair. It is a nargut (see Bestiary, p. 42). It usually subsists on small creatures such as rats and moles which burrow into its lair (the priests used to feed it regularly). A human should provide quite a feast! 

Leaving the Temple
As the characters leave the complex, they are ambushed by Vargus and the other worshippers of the god. The player-characters will recognize them from the overheard conversation in the inn; this may allow them to work out what has happened, if not immediately then later on. Galadria will turn on the party now, if she hasn’t been killed in the temple.

Since the sacking of their temple by the knights, these remaining worshippers have devoted their efforts to recovering the idol and the temple coffers. Losogon, although but an acolyte, is their spiritual leader now but he is not a leader of men, so it is Vargus, as an officer of the temple guard, who gives the orders. Galadria, by virtue of her intelligence and personal power, wields much influence, but the others do not see her as leader because, in the religion to which they belong, women are seen as inferior. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

A fresh start for the Year of Wonders

I resisted Facebook for the longest time. It’s not that I don’t like tech, I just don’t care for people that much. (Only kidding. I like people just fine. It’s the pet photos and soccer chat I wanted to avoid.)

Finally I’ve had to succumb, and the reason is that Leo Hartas and I needed to set up a Facebook page for our comics saga Mirabilis: Year of Wonders (If you need a this-meets-that, try Tintin hunts Fantastic Beasts with a soundtrack by Danny Elfman).

This is part of our big push to get the Mirabilis project moving again. The story was originally serialized in weekly British anthology comic The DFC, published by Random House. When The DFC folded, our story was left unfinished but our rights were tied up in a complicated contractual tangle. It took me months of increasingly desperate negotiation to find a way out of that limbo, made all the more fraught by the fact that none of the people involved in the mess would even return my calls. Luckily I knew Philippa Dickinson, the original publisher of Dragon Warriors and one of the truly nicest people you could hope to work with, who by now had risen to be the head of RH’s children’s publishing division. She pulled strings with the powers that be and got me and Leo our rights back.

Thus unfettered I could stop chewing my nails, but it was still far from plain sailing. We secured a publisher for Mirabilis, but though they did a beautiful job of the production they failed to get copies into any shops. I had to lug a couple of bags stuffed with copies to the Gosh! Comics store in London – if you bought one of those, hang onto it like a Penny Black with Queen Vic in a hipster beard, because they were almost the only copies that ever saw the light of day. The rest, I hear, went astray between the printer (in Bosnia) and the distribution warehouse (in Lancashire) and may now be propping up wobbly café tables somewhere in Germany.

So, back to the drawing board. A comics publisher reached out, but the deal they offered was like a handshake from Don Corleone. We were expected to sign over all rights in perpetuity to them, even though there was no obligation for them to keep the book in print. After the epic struggle with Random House there’s no way Leo and I could accept terms like that. As a creator, all you have is your work. You can't let other people lock you out of it.

What about Random House themselves? Well, Philippa had retired by this point, and the mildest way to put it is that having escaped the clutches of the contract we didn’t really have a lot of friends there. We were in our gulag and, at any other time in history, there we might have stayed. But this is the 21st century, right - with social media and crowdfunding and shit. So Leo and I have spent the last few weeks getting ready for a full and concerted relaunch of this mighty fantasy saga. Our plans include:
  • a Patreon page where aficionados can come and pledge as little as $1 a month to help fund new instalments. Pages of the comic go up there Mondays and Fridays with higher-level backers getting access to backstage blog pieces and other goodies.
  • a new website where everyone can read the comic absolutely free – just a little way behind the paid-up supporters on Patreon, who also get higher-res versions of the art.
  • the aforementioned Facebook page where you can get updates on Mirabilis and any other books, comics, movies or games that we thing might interest you.
  • a Twitter account with daily instalments of the comic.
And we’re toying with the idea of a Kickstarter to fund a Mirabilis gamebook. Or app. Maybe a boardgame. Possibly all three and - I dunno, a roleplaying game too? The Patreon backers may get a say in that. The exciting thing is that it's a community where everyone gets a voice.

Here’s the thing. We could really use your support – which is, after all, the whole point and rationale of what we’re trying to do now. We’re bypassing the publishers and distributors and going straight to the people whose opinion and backing count most. That’s you, we hope. The readers. Already we've got backing from Jason Arnopp, the 21st century's Stephen King, from the Jedi Master of gamebooks Stuart Lloyd, and from musician, artist & game designer Frazer Payne, among others. Good company to be in, and an absolutely priceless vote of confidence when we're starting a new venture like this. Thanks, guys.

If you can spring for a few dollars to actually fund the work, then you’re our BFFs till the sun dies – but even if not, a like on Facebook costs nothing and can really help boost interest. You never know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Friday, 26 August 2016

So you want to be a game designer?

I spent more than ten years working as a designer in the games industry and, although I've also been an author, comic book creator, scriptwriter and TV producer, it's game design that I get asked about most often. In particular people want advice about courses and ways into the business. Well, everybody's story is different, so anything I say probably won't be usable as a route map. Even so, if it's a career that appeals, maybe some of the following will be of interest.

I think of game designers as being "interested in everything" and in particular in straddling the arts/science boundary that tends to divide the majority of people. My college degree was in Physics but I'd always been interested in English too. After college I started writing role-playing game articles, and then choose-your-own style gamebooks, and that got me into writing novels and comics. And then I got a job as a game designer at Eidos (working on Warrior Kings, pictured below) and that seemed like the job I'd been training for without knowing it.

But there are other experiences. My senior assistant designer at Elixir Studios, Sandy Spangler, came into it from a quite different direction. She studied Fine Arts, went from there into character design and animation for TV, and then into art direction at a game developer, and from there into design.

As the game designer is really the "show runner", you need to be able to communicate your creative vision to the artists, coders, writers, voice and mo-cap actors and so on. Design is almost by definition the thing that unifies those disciplines into a new coherent opus. Of course, you have to be able to nudge people to do their best work without coming across as a supercilious know-it-all. Charm, humour, passion and a collegiate manner - what I used to describe as a "bridge of the Enterprise" attitude - will all help.

I'd always been a movie and comics buff right from earliest childhood, so over the years inevitably I picked up some visual skills by osmosis. Two weeks into my time at Eidos, I was showing one of the artists how giving his Tyrannosaurus rex a low, forward-leaning stance with its body parallel with the ground made it look a lot more threatening than an upright Godzilla-style posture. A decade on, working on Dreams (pictured above) at Elixir, I was drawing on rules from cinema to create a game with the focus on character interaction. If I could rewind now, I'd probably add a cinematography or photography course somewhere in my school years.

A designer doesn't need to be able to code but it won't hurt. Coders can be pretty superior types until you earn their respect by proving that you at least understand the architecture of the system. My degree-level maths, rusty as it is, counts as mad skilz in the games industry. Likewise, while you'll probably be hiring writers rather than doing most of the game dialogue in person, you should know enough about storytelling and drama to manage that part of the process. If you like acting or role-playing, that'll help both with narrative structure and performance.

So the skills needed are:
Creative writing
Visual sense (cinematography/narrative art)
Some maths
Some code
Some drama and storytelling
Communication and leadership skills

- and I guess the angle you come at that from (whether science/maths first like me, or art first like Sandy) really depends on what you find most inspiring. Then fill in the other skills as and when you get the opportunity.