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Friday, 7 December 2018

"The Dean's Folly" (a Christmas scenario for Legend)


“I encountered a description somewhere of an unfinished church,” Tim Harford told me, “looming in the mist like the ribs of a whale. That seemed like a great seed for an adventure. Then I recalled that William Golding had written about the building of an impossible cathedral, and I thought - hmm, worth a read. I didn't think I'd get both a column and a Christmas game out of it, though.”

Tim was talking about Golding’s The Spire. Inspired (no pun intended) by a vision, Father Jocelin, dean of Tatchester Cathedral, wants a 400 foot spire built above the square tower. He has brought in Roger Mason and his “army” of builders, oblivious of the costs – both social, as the work forces the suspension of church services and the builders carouse drunkenly at night, and financial, as Jocelin puts his seal to promissory notes secured against the fortune of his aunt, Lady Alison.

Roger Mason warns Jocelin that the spire is an impossible folly. The cathedral’s rudimentary foundations are barely up to supporting the weight of the existing building. He excavates the floor of the nave to show Jocelin that the cathedral sits on rubble, mud and wooden pilings, but Jocelin is blinded by faith and takes this s evidence that existing building is a miracle.

Despite his certainty that the spire will collapse, Roger is forced to keep working in order to hold together his army of builders. He takes to drink and begins an affair with Goody Pangall, the young wife of the club-footed cathedral handyman who is the butt of the builders’ taunts. Roger and Goody meet in the sparrow’s nest, a wooden cabin built way up in the scaffolding, where they are safe from discovery by Roger’s wife Rachel owing to her fear of heights.


Opening

The characters rendezvous at the Paternoster Inn, also known as the Stump Inn, seven miles away from Tatchester. It’s the 18th day of Yeol-monath (December). From here the spire is visible across the bleak, flat, wintry landscape. They notice how, even incomplete, the spire is beginning to change the layout of the roads, with new tracks cutting straight across the fields where carts of stone and wood have travelled.

Why might they be here? They could be summoned by Father Anselm, the sacrist. For the two years of construction the faithful have not been burning candles in the nave of the cathedral. Anselm derives an income from the sale of candles, though that might not be his only motive for opposing the construction work. As Jocelin’s confessor, Anselm is in a good position to appreciate the intensity of the obsession driving him.

So the characters could be here to help maintain order in the town. A particular concern is that the Bishop is sending a holy nail, a relic of the True Cross. Jocelin believes that this, secured below the stone cross on top of the spire, will protect the building from collapse. Such a relic is worth a lot of money and rival churchmen might try to steal it, hence the need for security.

A local rumour is that cloven footprints have been found in the morning frost. Locals think that the Devil has come to watch the spire fall.

19 December

The characters arrive at Tatchester. Some of Roger Mason’s builders are on drunken revels in the town. The characters spot trouble and have the opportunity to prevent an assault. It’s the beginning of taking sides.

They may meet with the mayor, Quercus, who is concerned at the disruption caused by the builders, but happy that they will soon finish their work and move on. He is concerned, however, that the funds Jocelin has promised may not materialize, and that the builders might riot when they realize that.


20 December – Solstice Eve

Day

Opportunity to meet Jocelin and Roger Mason. Do the characters want to climb up and inspect the spire? If so they will get a breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside.

On the way down, a perceptive (or sensitive) character may notice the high note of tension in the stone, like a high-pitched bell ringing far up in the sky.

They may also notice the four gargoyles being raised to position around the spire.

They might hear or even surprise Roger Mason and Goody Pangall in the sparrow’s nest.

Jocelin’s plan is to complete the spire. That requires the capstone to be fitted with a vast cross of stone.

Anselm’s game may become apparent: cathedral is dark, no candles. He makes his money selling them.

Night

The builders’ army murders Pangall in the undercroft unless the characters intervene. His organs and blood are used to strengthen the gargoyles. They may possibly explore the undercroft, which has been desecrated by the army. (The foundation pit is dug in the undercroft, which is fenced off.)


21 December – Solstice / Yule Eve – Deadline

Day

The pit shifts as the intolerable weight of the spire bears down. Pillars scream. Stones crack and skitter.

Lady Alison arrives at the Cathedral with the holy nail.

Night

The builders’ army sets up pagan bonfires on the ridges around Tatchester.

Four major gargoyles: Flame, Fate, Fracture and Falsehood. These will animate if the characters fail to break up the rituals at the bonfires. It’s impossible that the characters can stop all the rituals, but at least they may not face all four gargoyles. There are also eight minor gargoyles whose singing causes weakness and dizziness.

The characters mission, should they choose to accept, is to carry the holy nail to the top of the spire and drive it into the capstone. Winds buffet the spire, causing it to sway sickeningly.

Here the referee has two options. For the authentically gritty Legend experience, the nail makes no difference. It's no holy relic, just an ordinary nail that Lady Alison got the bishop to bless as a sop to Jocelin and his obsession. The characters may succeed in reaching the top and hammering the nail home, but the tower continues to lurch in the gale, slates and chunks of masonry fly off and crash to the ground, wooden timbers creak and snap. It's clearly coming down and the best the characters can hope for is to get out alive.

Alternatively, for players who expect their adventures to end in that tawdry bauble called triumph*, the referee can allow the possibility of a partial victory. If the characters can secure the nail then the spire lurches to one side but remains standing -- at least for the time being -- although the stone cross falls and crashes through the roof of Pangall’s cottage, killing any occupants.

Without the nail (or even with it, in the downbeat ending) the entire spire topples, shattering the walls of the cathedral and raining masonry on the surrounding houses. And if the gargoyles are brought to life and not defeated, they will add to the devastation and loss of life by hurling chunks of broken stone far across the town. Not that everyone looking out into the storm will necessarily witness that, You've seen Night of the Demon, you know how supernatural horrors can be ambiguous. But this is medieval Legend, and everyone knows that devils are real, even if they don't see them.

Dramatis personae

Father Jocelin: The dean. Driven, obsessed, impossible to reason with. All that matters to him is the completion of the spire, and he has neglected his other duties and made himself ill in pursuit of that.

Roger Mason: Master of the builders’ army. Bullish, practical. He knows the spire is impossible and, forced to keep working on it, he’s turned to drink and an affair with Goody Pangall. He is unaware of the plans of Jehan and the devil-worshippers, so could be an ally for the player-characters.

Rachel Mason: Roger’s stocky, forthright wife. She is frightened of heights, which is why Roger carries on his affair with Goody up in the sparrow’s nest.

Father Anselm: The sacrist. Older than Jocelin, whose confessor he is - though Jocelin has not attended confession for many months, preferring to spend his time up in the tower. Anselm opposed the construction work from the start.

Father Adam: The chaplain. He is quiet and hardly noticed by most people, but in fact he’s the canniest of the priests and suspects there are pagans or devil-worshippers among the builders.

Jehan: Roger’s foreman. He’s the leader of the coven of devil-worshippers who are using this ritual to animate the four gargoyles as harbingers of the Apocalypse to come.

Lady Alison: Jocelin’s aunt and, in her youth, a mistress of the King. She has brought the holy nail from the Bishop.

Brutus and Equus: Lady Alison’s cataphract bodyguards.

Pangall: The cathedral carpenter and handyman. The builders jeer at him and make him the butt of their jokes. He lives in a cottage set between the nave and the cloisters, a small courtyard known mockingly as Pangall’s Kingdom that is now filled with masonry and timbers for the construction.

Goody Pangall: Pangall’s young wife. She is pregnant with Roger’s son, who may be born on Christmas Day if she doesn’t die before then. This travesty of the Saviour’s birth (conceived on high, of a supposedly virginal carpenter’s wife) was not planned by Jehan’s coven but they are happy to co-opt it into the magic of their rituals.

The Stone Carver: A mute idiot savant who carved the gargoyles.

William Barleycorn: The innkeeper of the Morning Cloud tavern that sits in the lee of the spire. The characters may take lodging here, in which case they get to see the ominous bulk of the spire looming against the sky when they wake up each morning.

Mayor Quercus: He is torn between belief that Jocelin’s faith in the spire is justified, which would mean increased prestige and prosperity for the town, and fear that it will topple into the town.

Further reading

Obviously it will help to read Golding’s novel, but if you don’t have time you can look at the Wikipedia summary here. If I share my favourite line you'll see right away why it cried out to be a Legend scenario:
"Nightmares of noseless men who floated beneath the pavements, their flat faces pressed against a heavy lid."



Golding supposedly based his unnamed cathedral on Salisbury. Details and pictures of that here.

And you can read Tim Harford’s Financial Times column, “The Brexit monomania built on blind faith”, in which he gives a slightly different but equally alarming take on the novel, here.

The photo of the interior of the spire is by Topaz172 on DeviantArt and is shared her under a Creative Commons attribution licence.

* It's sometimes said that Legend adventures are about failure. More accurately, the paradigmatic trope is tragedy. Let the player-characters grow to care about those whose obsessions will wreck their lives, or simply those who end up under a ton of rubble. It's the Middle Ages, remember; life is brutish and short, and only the hope of salvation makes it bearable.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Inevitability doesn't have to mean jumping through story hoops


Victor Mature. With a loincloth and an ass’s jawbone he was the Conan of his day, but Arnie or Sly could never match the performance he gave in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Mature played Doc Holliday, consumed by self-loathing and taking refuge in a bourbon bottle. When Holliday’s girlfriend is shot, Wyatt Earp sobers him up long enough to dust off his black bag and operate. It seems to go all right. The girl is getting better. Holliday glimpses a ray of hope. Maybe he could yet go back.

Then she dies. It’s a throwaway event off-screen – we only learn about it when Earp finds Holliday back in his dark place with the whiskey. And (defying the old movie rule to “make a scene of it”) Ford thereby expresses the whole theme of fatalism that runs right through the movie. Holliday can’t change, he can’t escape his destiny. This is the gunfight at the OK Corral as Shakespearean tragedy.

Then I got to thinking about story-based games, of which gamebooks are an obvious example. I'm sure you've encountered episodes like this one. You race through, bludgeoning enemies who are trying to stop you, only to arrive at the dock a minute too late. The ship has sailed, the bad guy has the girl (or the cute guy, if you prefer) and he’s taunting you. The chapter or game level ends there, and after a long slog through many equally stage-managed scenarios, you’ll finally get the chance to confront him and make up for failing there at the docks.

The trouble with that is it's too artificial. If I’m being invited to interact with a story, surely I shouldn’t be just jumping through the author’s hoops?

Now imagine this scenario. You’re sent to either kill or rescue a character – your choice. But the story requires this character to die. For narrative reasons, she has to be missing from later episodes. So the author says to himself, “If you decide to rescue her, I’ll have a scene at the end of that section where you’re almost home free and a stray bullet kills her anyway.”

I don’t like designing gamebook stories that way. It smacks of authorial arrogance: “You’re only the player, so sit there and watch.” But what would John Ford have done with it? Most likely he’d build the gamebook around the theme of inevitability. He wouldn’t kill the character right there at the end of the chapter, he’d leave it till later. Crucially, he’d let your choice make a short-term difference even if not a long-term one. In the interim, after all, she might have fallen in love. Or got pregnant. Or betrayed you. Dying then comes with a different emotional heft.

The players don’t always have to be able to make a difference – just so long as they aren’t ignored.

Friday, 23 November 2018

White skin, black heart

Jamie based Lauria, the thief who can become your occasional frenemy in Fabled Lands, on my wife Roz. Actually, that's probably not quite true. Jamie likes to use the names of friends for characters in his gamebooks, and on learning that Roz is related to the Lauries of Dumfries he drew on that for inspiration. But I'm happy to report there's nothing in my wife's character to suggest a thief or Becky Sharp trickster type.

Lauria seems to have made an impression with Fabled Lands players, and I have no doubt she'll return in later books. The picture above is one of five private commissions that Russ Nicholson undertook as part of the Kickstarter for The Serpent King's Domain. I don't know for sure if it is Lauria, as the picture is simply titled "Girl Thief", but you can make up your own mind about that.

I got this copy of the picture from Russ's blog, where you can also see his spectacular image of the city of Carapace on the back of the Great Turtle. And if you're as big a fan of Russ's work as we are, you'll also want to take a look at The Writer's Map, a new book that features some of his fantastic cartography. It's the perfect Ebrontide gift for any budding wayfarers in your family.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Tetsubo is coming

We've signed the contract. After thirty years, it's finally going to happen. It --

I should really start at the beginning, shouldn't I?

Tetsubo is a Japanese role-playing game that Jamie and I wrote back in the '80s to supplement Games Workshop's Warhammer RPG.

We had a blast researching it. We've always been big fans of directors like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, so we got to rewatch a bunch of classic movies. And we loved steeping ourselves in the folklore of medieval Japan, with whopping great books like Henri L Joly's Legend in Japanese Art.

One of the things we wanted to capture in Tetsubo is the rural folk tradition in Japanese myth. Monsters are fabulous and strange, like something out of a dream, out of the Land of Roots. For the medieval Japanese the invisible world was never far away and it was the subject of fascination as well as dread. Tetsubo tries to capture that sense of energy and danger and weirdness. It's very far from being D&D with Oriental names.


But the project was not to be. The very week we were going to send Tetsubo over to Games Workshop, our contact there, Paul Cockburn, quit the company. Nobody else was particularly keen to pursue the idea of a Japanese WFRP book, so eventually we returned the advance (that was three pints of beer apiece we had to pay for ourselves, then) and recovered our manuscript. I think I had some vague plan of converting it to Dragon Warriors. But other projects got in the way, Tetsubo went back in the attic, and there it stayed until a few months ago when we got a message from Daniel Fox, founder of Grim & Perilous Studios.

Daniel is the designer and publisher of Zweihänder, a gritty roleplaying game for settings like the Witcher, Game of Thrones, Solomon Kane, and the Black Company. In short, the entire genre of fantasy spawned by Michael Moorcock's Von Bek stories.

Daniel sent us a copy of the Zweihänder rulebook, a truly mighty tome that fully justifies the name. He'd seen the Tetsubo PDF that we used to offer for free -- not the full work, that, just the pages we had in digital form. (Well, it was the 1980s. A lot of it was written on typewriters or stored on floppy disks.)

Would we, Daniel asked, be willing to consider...?

There was no need to say more. A second lease of life for our labour of love? And as a companion book to a great modern RPG like Zweihänder? It was worth the thirty-year war -- er, I mean the thirty-year wait -- to get here. Watch for more info over the next few months, and take a look too at the official announcement on the Grim & Perilous site. There's also an interview here with Daniel Fox that answers some of the questions I hope you're eager to put to us. Obviously there's some work to be done. I've dug out the complete manuscript and have been scanning the chapters that we hadn't stored digitally. And the entire book needs to be edited and converted to the Zweihänder rules system. But within a year we hope to get this thing out into the world. All it took was a little patience.


Friday, 9 November 2018

Summoned back from oblivion


A little while back I mentioned the Citadel Miniatures box of demonic critters based on the "Dealing With Demons" articles I wrote for White Dwarf, and the tactical battle game I wrote to go in that box. (Purely as a charitable gesture to help out Citadel's struggling finances, you understand; I certainly never saw anything as exotic as a royalty statement.) I assumed that scenario was lost in the mists of time.

But nothing's forgotten, as any Robin of Sherwood fan knows, and so I shouldn't have been surprised when Lee Barklam got in touch to tell me he'd found "The Best Laid Plans" scenario out there on the internet. Steve Casey, the author of the blog where it was posted, described it as "well-written, gripping, and smattered with dark humour." Which seems a far kinder comment that it deserved in my memory, but then I hadn't seen it in thirty years.

Lee has converted the scenario to Dragon Warriors rules (thanks, Lee!) and you can find it among other Legend scenarios on the Cobwebbed Forest site here, or follow the direct download link to get the PDF here.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Fright Tonight


Fright Tonight is an interactive audio drama that I've written for Amazon Echo. It's pretty ground-breaking, too, even if I have to say it myself. I needed a model of interactivity that would allow the listener to influence the characters in the story while still being surprised by what happens. So the way I've done that is --

No, I can't just tell you. You have to play it for yourself. Trust me when I say that Fright Tonight is much more than a game. It's a compelling and completely innovative form of audio entertainment which is destined to be as talked-about as Orson Welles's 1938 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds, only this time without the traffic jams and the shot-up water towers.
Experience an interactive ghost story set in Heskill Hall, England's most haunted stately home, where a great tragedy took place decades ago. Now the cynical radio host of the niche horror show “Fright Tonight” might just get the show of his life, as the crew gets ready to record their live Halloween special at nightfall in the deserted manor house...
Oh, and it's free too. Just dim the lights (easy if you have your Echo hooked up) and say, "Alexa, start Fright Tonight."

There are already some fun adventure games for Alexa -- such as The Magic Door, which is effectively an audio walking sim -- but Fright Tonight is nothing like that.. The style of interaction doesn’t require the listener to be a “game player” as such, meaning that they can be gripped by the narrative. I admire The Magic Door, but it’s the equivalent of a ghost train ride at a funfair, whereas Fright Tonight is genuine interactive drama. The developers are Mythmaker Media. Remember the name, as I'm hoping to do a whole lot more projects with them.

Who is the target audience? An interesting question, that, whenever you attempt something new. The appeal of something like Fright Tonight is certainly not limited to readers of Choose Your Own Adventure or to people who’d play a traditional adventure or CRPG videogame. While I’m sure I’ll pick up lots of listeners/players who would play, say, Layers of Fear or >observer_ , I'm aiming to appeal to lean-back audiences who just like a good scary story. So I see the typical audience being the entire family, from kids up to grandparents, and including lots of people who would never normally play a game.

Who knows, this could be the big comeback for audio drama. I hope so. As my dad always used to say, the great thing about radio is the pictures are better.

Friday, 19 October 2018

By the light of the night it'll all seem all right

A few weeks ago I got a call from Amazon to talk about the Halloween releases for Alexa. They’d seen my Frankenstein app and wondered if it could be turned into an interactive audio story.

I’d already talked to a few audiobook companies about that. Frankenstein is tailor-made for audio. It’s narrated by Victor Frankenstein, whose confidant and advisor you are, and written “to the moment” (ie in the present continuous tense). And I’ve been banging on about audio adventure games since I worked at Eidos in the mid-90s. So Amazon’s suggestion was perfect, except…

It’s over 150,000 words. That’s about twenty hours of audio. I’d have to edit all the text, it would need to be cast, recorded, have sound effects added, coded – and all that within five weeks, assuming one month was enough for testing.

So naturally I said I’d do it. Not only that, I’d recently talked to a company called Mythmaker Media about working on an interactive audio project, so how about hooking them in?

“We already have a developer in mind for Frankenstein,” the Amazon guy said, “but why don’t I talk to Mythmaker anyway? Maybe there’s another project you can do with them.”

A few days later, that one got the green light too. Now, as well as editing Frankenstein, I had to write an interactive audio drama from scratch. Only seven thousand words, but it had to be scary (Halloween, remember) and it had be a completely innovative model of interactive storytelling. (Otherwise why do it?)

Skype chirruped again. “What about your gamebook Crypt of the Vampire? That could be an Alexa app, couldn’t it? Can you get that ready for Halloween?”

I said yes on the basis that you can’t have too many irons in the fire; something always goes wrong. And a few days later the Frankenstein developer, having run the numbers for actors’ fees and studio time, asked if it would work with synthesized speech.

“Not really. Victor has to come across as impassioned, driven, stressed, increasingly desperate… But look, the story is in six parts. The second part is different from the others. It’s the monster’s story told in second person, so you are the monster. That might just work with synthesized speech. And it’s just thirty thousand words, so I’d have time to edit it and add markup. Pauses, interjections, that kind of thing.”

They lost interest. Not to worry, as I still had the drama with Mythmaker Media (that’s called “Fright Tonight”) and the gamebook, by now retitled “The Vampire’s Lair” because it’s snappier. Or bitier.


For The Vampire’s Lair I’ve teamed up with a programmer called Kevin Glick. We decided to strip out all the game-heavy mechanics: hit points, skill rolls, things like that. It’s audio, after all, though in fact there’s a Fire Tablet option with some toothsome graphics by Leo Hartas. The way it works now, you play until you die, and you can then either buy another life and keep going, or you can restart from the beginning. (And, yes, of course it’s possible to play right through to the end without having to buy a single life.)

So I hauled out a copy of Crypt of the Vampire, my first ever gamebook from way back in 1984, and embarked on what I thought would be a simple editing job. But no plan survives contact with the enemy, as they say, the enemy in this case being reality. Too much of Crypt was a dungeon bash when what Kevin and I needed was a haunted house adventure. Too many encounters depended on dice rolls. All of that needed to be rewritten. Also, it needed to be scary. Fun-scary, you understand, like pumpkin lanterns and spray-can cobwebs. The orcs had to go.

Luckily I wrote “Fright Tonight” first, because plunging into the flowchart for Crypt and completely rewriting about half of the book would have burned out my creative psyche for weeks. But I got it done, and the result should be soon available on Amazon as an Alexa Skill. (Yeah, don’t blame me; that’s what they call them.) Just say, “Alexa, enter The Vampire’s Lair,” and get ready for some agreeable chills.