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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Windows on another world

First off, let me say that I’ve been merrily posting up examples of Russ’s brilliant artwork from the Fabled Lands books on the assumption that Fabled Lands LLP (the company that controls the book rights) had paid him for the artwork rights too. Not so, as it turns out; we acquired only the Abraxas art. Well, that’s my mistake so I shall stop putting up any of Russ’s FL pictures (other than by his permission) with this last glorious example, the purpose of which is simply to send you over to Russ’s own blog, where you can see plenty of his work both fantastic and otherwise. When you get to see the versatility of Russ’s talent beyond the areas of fantasy, sci-fi and horror in which he is the pre-eminent British imagineer, I think you’ll be amazed. I have sung his praises here often enough, so I won’t say more. His work, in any case, speaks for itself.

These front and back covers were for a proposed book to be published by Fabled Lands LLP - a visual guide to the FL world using Russ's images and text taken from the books. We got sidetracked by non-fantasy projects, but if anybody else wants to step in and do something along those lines then pop over to Russ's blog and see if a deal can be struck. In our view a retrospective like this is long overdue.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Darkness of Morning (sleeve notes)

The title was one of those ideas that bubble up to your consciousness from who-knows-where. I suppose I wanted to capture the sense that not every daybreak floods the world with light like Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy. Sometimes day comes as a Pyrrhic victory against the night. Or perhaps I had in mind those dawns that set the high places alight but leave troughs of cool darkness below the hills.

At any rate, “The Darkness of Morning” it was. In story terms the title fitted the mood, because I anticipated players would be getting their first taste of the incomplete and somewhat bitter triumph that's the best you can hope for when you have dealings with faerie creatures in the lands of Legend. In DW, heroism usually comes with a high cost; it’s not Boy’s Own.

How it started was like this. Magnum Opus Press wanted an introductory scenario for their revised Dragon Warriors rulebook, Frazer Payne is one of the best Dragon Warriors GMs I know. I put his name forward and, just to get the ball rolling, sent him a few notes. Over time it became a fully worked-out scenario by Frazer, at some point acquiring the title of “The Darkness Before Dawn”.

The idea of this post is to give you the behind-the-scenes of how the scenario got developed. So you don’t need a spoiler alert at this point, do you? If you haven’t already played the scenario, I recommend scooting off to buy a copy of the book here. You may not survive the scenario (when we played it, the party attacked the White Lady on first encountering her and got wiped out) but at least you’ll know what Frazer and I are talking about here.

Okay, so my original and very rough notes were as follows:

Say the players meet for the first time in a village in the early morning after a heavy storm. They all got caught out in the rain and are cold, tired, wet and hungry as they arrive at the village.

The inn has only one guest room, so there's immediately a bit of possible jockeying for status as they decide who will get that room with its nice soft bed while everybody else has to put up with a pallet in the common room - normally all right, but this is daybreak now so they'll be trying to kip with farmers in and out all morning.

To top it off, there's a big commotion in the village square. It seems the young lord of the manor, call him Sir Olvar, went off last night and hasn't come back. The steward Cethric comes to tell everyone Sir Olvar’s cousin Maxim le Cloche is in charge. There are grumblings at that, as many peasants are loyal to Sir Olvar's young bride Lady Angela, but what can they do? Lady Angela is currently in the throes of childbirth, so nobody can get to see her.

If the players ask, they are told that a ghost house is said to haunt the local woods. Each time it appeared in the past is when somebody in the village is giving birth, and the child has then been stillborn. The legend is that the mistress of the house, a "white lady" known locally as Queen Fhionn, eternally mourns her own lost child and so steals the lives of unborn babies. Last night in the storm, the lights of the white house appeared between the lashing branches of the trees. As Lady Angela had gone into labor that afternoon, Sir Olvar rode out to seek the house and demand of Queen Fhionn that she spare his child.

The point of all that btw is that most novice groups will just cut straight to the adventure. But there's enough set-up there (the snake-like steward, drunken wastrel cousin, pure and plucky young wife, doughty peasants, etc) that they could improv a bit if they want to, and that way cotton on to the way scenarios are really planned - ie hardly at all.

Anyway, most players will head off to the woods and you can make much of the dank, dripping undergrowth after last night's storm. This is the run-on-rails bit that Magnum Opus are looking for in the introductory adventure, as I envisage a series of encounter areas (say a clearing, a cave, a hollow oak, or whatever) where you can put fights and/or tests for the players to get a feel for their characters' abilities.

The Hollow Oak

The players find a clearing. The oak has a hole in the side which has a curtain of ferns over it. The curtain pulls back revealing a sort of puppet booth. Puppets corresponding to the players start to enact a story, beginning with a comedy version of their attempt to get to sleep at the inn. This could especially poke fun at whoever got the private room. Anyone watching for more than half a minute has to save or be rooted to the spot – they then take damage as the play turns nasty and their puppet self starts to be injured.

The puppeteer (hidden from view inside the tree) is a red-headed goblin called Erkiss. If a player manages to get into the tree, Erkiss will flee up inside the trunk and run off in the form of a squirrel.


Eventually they arrive at the white house. Around the back of the house is a forlorn, overgrown garden, gloomy because of the low-hanging branches of trees and the fact that it lies north of the house, so never sees daylight. In the garden are row upon row of infant graves with sad little headstones. These are the children whose lives have been taken by “Queen” Fhionn over the years.

They are met at the door by Queen Fhionn’s manservant. They may recognize him as the goblin, Erkiss. (It shouldn’t be obvious – just give them the hints and see if any players cotton on!) In his servant’s costume, Erkiss is not obviously a goblin – he just looks like a wizened young-old man. Mention his ginger eyebrows and maybe he gives a wink that a player might have seen if he climbed up to the treetop in time to see Erkiss transform into a squirrel. Recognizing Erkiss gives the character who first says so a bonus: his next successful blow will automatically bypass armour and strike for double damage.

In the parlor is a small fire that is dwarfed by the huge stone hearth. The coals creak and shift sullenly as if on the verge of going out. The fire does little to dispel the dank chill that pervades the house. It is impossible to imagine ever being warm or comfortable here, and after their trek through the dripping boughs of the wood, the players feel chilled to the marrow of their bones. In front of the fire stands a big, black-canopied cradle awaiting a newborn child. It’s empty at the moment. The black drapes make it seem more like a funeral pyre than a cradle.

Now at last they will have to face Queen Fhionn. She has ensorcelled Sir Olvar who is now her slave.

Here again there's the opportunity for bargaining or guile, but most beginner groups will presumably just lay into her. It'd be a tough fight but maybe things they picked up in the woods will give protection from her power. After they defeat her and leave, if anyone looks back the white house has vanished, and the little infant graves, now exposed to daylight for the first time, have sprouted clumps of flowers.

Then they've got the job of taking Sir Olvar home. He's still dazed by her magic. Maybe they found a pool earlier that reflected one's true nature or something, and if they get the smart idea to take him back that way and show him the pool, he'll recover. Otherwise it's a bittersweet kind of victory, as they return Sir Olvar to his young wife (whose unborn child now seems safe) but he remains addle-witted and therefore the drunkard Maxim le Cloche is still guardian of the manor (though he seems to be under the dominance of the steward). Maybe the players take up Lady Angela's cause, vowing to visit Sir Olvar's liege (Baron Aldred) to ask for help.

The adventure illustrates the key things the introductory scenario will need, which are:

  • Very structured adventure with bits of flavor text to guide the novice GM
  • Opportunity for players to flex their muscles in simple self-contained encounters as they learn the rules
  • A little bit of optional character- and intrigue-based stuff that they can take or leave
  • A lead-in to the further adventures in Baron Aldred's fief
My accompanying email to Fraz:

I think that an introductory scenario should show players what they cannot do as much as what they can. If I were running the scenario, I'd be inclined to make Queen Fhionn impossible for any but the greatest heroes to beat in a straight fight, and novice players would have to outwit her - eg by tricking Erkiss into shapeshifting into a baby and lying in the cradle, or simply putting one of the puppets into the cradle, so that while crooning over her stolen "child" she wouldn't notice the players leading Sir Olvar away.

Realistically, though, I suppose you’ll have to include the possibility of a big fight at the finale. You could say something like, "Normally, beginning characters would have no hope of overcoming a creature as ancient and powerful as this White Lady. Armed with the items they won from their various challenges in the woods, they may be able to defeat her temporarily in a fight. Alternatively, they might be able to outwit her, perhaps substituting a puppet for the child she wants so that she's distracted and allows them to leave with Sir Olvar."

The challenges in the woods are at least in keeping with the tradition of gaining power over a supernatural creature - no matter how powerful - by moral tests and/or cleverness.


Fraz replied:

I hope to enhance the Arthurian 'blighted land' flavor at the front end.

Fhionn = “white cow, she of white cattle”. This made me wonder if the creature should not appear as a grossly fat female (making the players wonder what her diet is!) rather than the fey lady of the lake I had first imagined. In this case, I could allude to her being a kind of twisted avatar of the primitive Earth goddess, the aspect which carries souls back into the earth.

This made me think that the white house might be more primitive, from the outside. I imagine a chalk embankment in a wooded hillside with windows for eyes, surrounded by burning brands which roar up, lighting the mists as the party approach.

Do you like this rather Blair Witch conception, or am I barking up the wrong tree?


I replied:

Well, I would say that the "fey lady" appearance is more in keeping with Legend generally, at the outset anyway - ie kind of saying to the players: beware, in this world things are rarely what they seem. I took it from the Irish "Bean Fhionn" which means literally "White Lady" (cf Bean Sidhe = ghost lady). The grossly fat image - I dunno, that does seem more of a D&D-ish monster idea to me.

But perhaps there's a compromise: she appears to them as the gentle, fey, beautiful but of course heartless lady at first, but if they fight her she gradually changes as her anger grows, becoming the fat, distended hag you're describing. That's in keeping with the way Celtic heroes and villains transform in combat (think Slaine) so imo fits the Legend setting more.

The backstory rationale would be that she was historically a real woman (probably a sorceress) who lost her child by miscarriage. Her grief caused her to do away with herself, and the distraught ghost then attracted the mythago/residue of an ancient but much degraded Earth Mother spirit, as you say, which merged with her to create the creature folk now refer to as Queen Fhionn. I'm thinking of the way that Herne was both a historical figure (Henry VIII's gameskeeper, who hanged himself) and also a carry-over of the Horned God of Celtic times.

I like your conception of the look of the house, most certainly.

Frazer:

My dodgy old mythology book gave me Bo Fhionn, and starts going on about cattle. I like that merging very much. The encounters in the forest could reveal the tragedy of her story, as well as hint at the presence of this older wood-spirit, perhaps by alluding to ancient 'babes in the wood' fireside tales.

Me:

I realize the way I worded it before made it sound a bit like I was damning with faint praise, whereas in fact I think the transformation to gross, ugly hag is a huge enhancement. In that form, the encounter will memorably introduce players to the idea that the faerie creatures of Legend should be feared - much better than just beating up on a pretty lady in a white dress :-)

And I like that the concept was so serendipitous - a sort of misreading of Bo Fhionn (white cow) giving us a really evocatively nasty encounter. Excellent! Great idea to draw in a local babes-in-the-wood myth too. That's nice and creepy. If it was a movie, it should be Pan's Labyrinth.


Postscript: I pre-loaded this post months ago, as I do most of them, but only the other day got some news about Magnum Opus's publishing plans for a new Dragon Warriors book collecting old scenarios from White Dwarf. These adventures were written over a quarter century ago by me, Oliver Johnson and Mike Polling for the unsung editor of WD at that time, none other than Jamie Thomson. Most of the scenarios were originally designed for RuneQuest and/or Dungeons & Dragons, but they've all been adapted to Legend and the DW rules by the brilliant and madly prolific Ian Sturrock. The book is titled In From The Cold (why? why not?) but there have been conflicting rumours about publication date and format, so I recommend you go over to the Magnum Opus website for the latest info. The reissued DW books are splendid, a far cry from the cheap but well-loved paperbacks of yore, and you can buy these deluxe editions here. An asset to any role-playing collection.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The language of the gods

We are running out of Jamie's and my old Fighting Fantasy pitches that have proved so popular, but here is another one. It was based on one of our Empire of the Petal Throne campaigns, though with the exuberantly imaginative setting of M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel tamed down instead to fit into the committee-designed comfy quilt that was FF’s “Titan”. The Puffin editors preferred Keep of the Lich Lord so that is what posterity got.

CURSE OF THE GOD KINGS

Because your journeying has brought you, without any particular plan on your part, to the city where your friend Aramanthis the wizard lives, you decide to pay him a visit. However, on arriving at his home you are shocked to discover him lying on his bed surrounded by worried servants. When he sees you, he tells them all to leave. His voice is very weak, and it looks to you that Aramanthis is not long for this world. Once you are alone together, he struggles to hold off death long enough to tell you something of great importance.

"I have been beyond the world's edge," he says. "To the unknown land beyond Marpesia. You do not know Chargan the Golden, I think, but he is a sorcerer who has studied occult matters for as long as I. Together we undertook a voyage to the uncharted land, for Chargan had found ancient scrolls that told of a great empire that ruled there a hundred centuries ago. This empire was called Kamada Varrentis, and its rulers learned the Language of the Gods, whose nouns are worlds and whose grammar speaks with the force of natural law. Any wish or whim of the Emperors of Kamada Varrentis would instantly be gratified, as long as they phrased it in the Language of the Gods."

You can see that your old friend is fading fast. "Save your strength," you tell him soothingly.

"For what? I will be dead before the sands have run through yon hourglass. Listen to what I say, my friend. Chargan and I struggled through terrible hardships - ice jungles the like of which I have never seen in any part of the known world, three eyed savages who chased us with weapons of living liquid, pinnacles that rose a thousand feet sheer out of bleached salt marsh... But we found it. We found the ruins of Kamada Varrentis. And we found the books containing the Language of the Gods. Overcome with a lust for power, Chargan read three pages, and whatever it was he learnt has driven him mad. He no longer knew who I was, and as he turned from the book he spoke a syllable that made the sky shake! I fled from him in terror, and by some miracle I managed to get back here to tell the tale. But I am an old man, and the arduous voyage has proved too much for me. I must leave matters in your hands. You must stop Chargan before he tampers with the very fabric of our world. The mountains, the seasons of the year, the course of rivers even the motion of the stars - all of these can be altered as easily as a child builds a sandcastle, by someone who knows the Language of the Gods."

And our accompanying notes to the Puffin editors:

Probably this has the scope to be the toughest Fighting Fantasy book ever! The dangers of the uncharted continent are, as Aramanthis said, unlike anything in any other part of Titan. For the protagonist it is a case of sink or swim. He or she will have to quickly find out how to survive while trying to locate Chargan.

The protagonist will not recognize Chargan when they do find him. He has lost his memory and will attach himself to the protagonist's expedition in the belief that he is a travelling priest. Only as they penetrate further inland towards the ruins of Kamada Varrentis will Chargan begin to remember who he is and what has happened to him. His power to alter reality manifests itself in short bursts, and the protagonist will have to be alert to such clues in order to find out the truth.

Obviously Chargan is much too powerful a foe to overcome in a straight fight once his amnesia has gone. The protagonist will have to try and outwit him. There are several ways that this can be achieved, but none of them are easy. One alternative allows the protagonist to learn the Language of the Gods himself and engage Chargan in what must surely be the gamebook battle to end them all. The best way to win is to use the Language of the Gods to neutralize itself - thus depriving both Chargan and the protagonist of this "ultimate power" - but there are other ways.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Once bitten

Another never-was gamebook today. This one might have eventually been pitched to Puffin Books's gamebook editor, Marc Gascoigne and could have ended up as a Fighting Fantasy title, except that Jamie and I got sidetracked by working on a number of computer games at Eidos - for Fighting Fantasy originator Ian Livingstone, as a matter of fact, who was then Eidos's creative director, and may indeed still be.

The title of the book/game was either going to be Slurp or Thirst (the latter an hommage to horror author Gerald W Page, as explained here) and the idea was that you played a Victorian vampire lord called the Count. Casting a glance over the design overview today, the only feature of any real originality was that, instead of a power bar, you got to see your current health by the color of the images. Full strength was to be shown by vivid saturated color with strong reds, fading towards sepia monochrome as the Count went without blood. A common enough trick today (eg The Witcher) but new at the time.

The concept of player-as-villain was something Jamie and I were toying with a lot in those days. I've already discussed our gamebook proposal for Keeper of the Seven Keys, and we also had a proposal for a PC strategy game in which good fought evil, which we called Light & Dark. (Yes, Black and White was a much better title - but we came up with ours first, so there.)

Slurp would have been okay as a gamebook, but was rather too vanilla-flavored to work as a videogame. Pea-soupers, hansom cabs, gaslight - needs more, something to make it brandable and unique. A year or so in the industry stripped the scales from our eyes and we reworked it from the grave-soil up as Shadow King. But, just for those completists out there, here's the original book blurb:

Fog swirls thickly, blurring the wan gaslamps that line the narrow London streets. Underfoot, the cobblestones are slick and dark. From far away, beyond the maze of alleys that is Seven Dials, comes the muffled clatter of hansom cabs. The theatres on Shaftsbury Lane are emptying. There is a distant ring of laughter, made eerie and forlorn by the fog.

Here, among the shadows, is another world. A haunted labyrinth of thieves and opium dens, where figures lurk in the dark doorways and human life has little worth. It is a jungle of rain-streaked glass and soot-blackened brick, a jungle teeming with prey whose warm rich blood excites your senses like a drug.

A girl turns the corner, footsteps echoing off the alley walls as she hurries on her way. She glances at you as she goes past. You did not need to see her eyes to sense the fear. It is obvious from the nervous posture, the quick life-scented breath, the triphammer of her heart.

You turn to watch her, her shadow scurrying across the bleak shuttered facade of the street. There is no-one to see her fate. If you had lifeblood of your own you might feel it quicken with excitement, but your own veins are dry and dead. It is the blood of others that you crave to stir your shrivelled heart and give another night of almost-life.

The girl reaches her home - a squalid bedsit. She looks behind her as she fumbles for the key, but she does not see you. You have merged with the fog. The hunter and the jungle are one. You study your prey coldly, as if from a gulf of eons, waiting for the moment to strike.

She closes the door behind her and leans against it. Now, when she thinks she is safe -

The door is no barrier. Like mist you seep around it, taking shape again as the girl lights her lamp. From behind the dead hands seize her - hands that tamed falcons, slew a thousand Turks, played chess with Voltaire, made love to the most beautiful women of Europe. The same hands now hold your prey like a vice and the long white fangs slide into her.

The girl makes the slightest of moans and then goes limp. You stand there with her in your arms, immobile as a statue. As the life drains out of her and into you, your arid veins rush with blood. The sensation is the closest you will ever come, now, to pain or pleasure.

Too soon, there is nothing left. You let the empty carrion fall from your grasp. Your heart throbs again, vigour restored, but the bitterness and frustration are like bile within you. A parched desert washed by sudden rain, the life you gain each time is potent but short-lived. This victim was poor, too underfed to yield much sustenance. Tomorrow you must hunt again.

The door splinters inwards. You turn with a snarl. Engrossed in feeding, you did not sense their approach. There are three of them. The reek of garlic flowers surrounds them and there are lethal hawthorn stakes in their hands. The silver crucifix you sense before you see it, its deathly power is so great.

Van Helsing steps forward, pushing the crucifix towards your face. "Dracula!" he cries. "Fiend, you have slain your last victim."

The fool! Does he think himself well-armed? To challenge you now, in the dead of night, when your strength has just now freshly been renewed? Despite his bluster, you can see the terror behind his eyes.

"The blood is the life, Van Helsing. And now I will drink my fill of yours!"

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Dinosaurs of death!

Another of our "lost" Fighting Fantasy books. Jamie and I submitted this proposal on April 13, 1988 - golly, that's a while back. I can't remember why they rejected it. Possibly not in keeping with the subtle themes and high literary standards of the FF series. We must have sat down with a copy of the FF world guide to draft the pitch, because otherwise we would never have known the names of the cities and suchlike. (I thought Vymorna was a brand of wall covering.) Anyway, without further ado:

Dinosaurs of Death

This book takes place some time after the lifting of the siege of Vymorna. Rebuilding is under way, and many who had fled to the mountains or across the sea for refuge are now flocking back with their belongings. The people of the city are looking forward to a new era of prosperity.

You are summoned to the palace. There, the Queen and her generals tell you of a merchant who has recently arrived in Vymorna. This man had been shipwrecked on the coastal flats fringing the Silur Cha swamp. By some miracle he was able to evade the retreating Lizard Men forces and make his way north - on the way gathering valuable information about the enemy's plans. It seems that the Lizard Men have been preparing an entire army of dinosaur-cavalry for a desperate, all-out assault on Vymorna. The generals' assessment is that this assault will be launched quite soon, as the Lizard Men need a breakthrough to restore the shattered morale of their troops.

As captain of one of the long-range patrols that was operating out of the mountains during the six years of the siege, you are used to sustained activity deep behind enemy lines, and have proved time and again that you can act with initiative and courage. Queen Perriel gives you a crystal talisman before personally briefing you for this new mission. You are to skirt the swamplands and penetrate the camp on the edge of the Plain of Bones, where the new army and their dinosaur-mounts are gathering. The camp covers a strip of land nearly fifty miles long - indicating a troop strength of at least twenty thousand. Vymorna's best sorcerers and sages have determined that a vast fault line runs through the rock strata below the camp. At present this fault line is dormant, showing itself only in the occasional slight tremor or hot spring. If you find no other way to disrupt the Lizard Men's plans, you must enter the volcanic caves above the fault and drop the crystal talisman into the main fissure. This talisman will act as a focus for the combined efforts of Vymorna's sorcerers, hopefully allowing them to project sufficient magical energy to break the fault line open. This will drop the entire Lizard Man army into the lava-filled pits deep in the earth's bowels - but you will die, too, if you cannot find an escape route in time!

One unique feature of this book is the aerial joust which takes place at one point between the protagonist and a Lizard Man champion. Special rules allow for a 3D battle where altitude is also a factor to consider. We will flowchart the position and possible manoeuvres of the joust and incorporate these into a sequence which loops until one combatant has been defeated or forced to crashland. The Lizard Knight's tactics are determined by a dice roll at the start of each loop sequence, so that in one case he might decide to dive straight down in attack while at a later point he might spiral upwards to get into a better position. The dice roll is modified by numbers that take account of how the battle is progressing. (In other words, rather than just acting at random, the Lizard Knight acts like an intelligent opponent.) The range of actions the Lizard Knight might take means that quite an extensive battle can be simulated using only twenty or thirty numbered paragraphs out of the whole book.

We also feel it would be interesting to refer to the various dinosaurs by their literal names: Thunder Lizard for brontosaurus, Three-Horn Mask for triceratops, and so on. This reimbues the dinosaurs with a fantasy flavour that their scientific names tend to detract from, as well as giving the reader the fun of working out which is which from the descriptions given.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

"The Honey Trap" - DW scenario part 2

Under the ruins

Endu has cleared a wellway to the palace cellars, and from there broken through to vaults which could not otherwise be reached because the stairways had completely caved in. Steps lead down from this vault to an underground river, which Endu thinks must connect to a lake several miles away.

Endu has a small coracle, large enough for two people, in which he has been exploring the flooded catacombs. He has drawn up a map of sorts, but it would be unintelligible to anyone else but him. (Of course, he hasn't spent every day searching these catacombs; he's also had to excavate areas and forage for food.)

If the characters have access to the Tamorian spell known as The Vessel of the Invisible Seekers, they can reach Prince Gali's tomb in little over an hour. (Special effect if the spell is used: the Vessel simply rises directly from the black water without a ripple, miraculously not full of water or even wet above the waterline. It is a gondola, high-prowed, almost scimitar shaped, lacquered azure blue and white, with room for four people to sit two abreast in the middle and two at either end; total length 7m, widest beam 1.6m. It contains some silk cushions and a lady's green slipper.)

They approach the tomb via a long chamber which is overlooked by a shadowy pillared gallery. At the far end of the chamber is a jetty, from where steps lead up to the gallery.

Before they reach the end of the chamber, three arrows rain down on them from the gallery. There stand three great warriors in scarlet and gold armour, faces wide-eyed with anger and livid in the torchlight. The great crests of their helmets stand out like the plumage of enraged birds of prey as they send volley after volley down among the party.

Despite this inconvenience, the Vessel of the Invisible Seekers continues at a leisurely 8m a round towards the jetty. It therefore takes six rounds to run the gauntlet of arrows.

If the characters survive to reach the jetty, the heroes will discontinue their bow attacks and fade back into the shadows of the balcony. They will be waiting at the bottom of the steps (amazingly) before the characters are out of the boat, ready to give battle there. In their gloriously lacquered armour they somehow seem larger than normal men, and their clenched teeth and fierce stares give them a genuinely alarming countenance.

THE PRINCE’S THANES (Sanik, Ramol, and Lakesh)

ATTACK 25
Sword (d8+1, 5) or Bow (d6+1, 5)
DEFENCE 18
Armour Factor 5
MAGICAL DEFENCE 18
EVASION 6
Movement: 10m
Health Points 25
Rank-equivalent: 14th

They aren't strictly undead. More like mythagos.

Ascending to the gallery, characters find three great coffins of red granite with the images of ancient warriors incised into the lids. The style of armour evokes thoughts of the three they've just fought. Inside these sarcophagi are just mouldered remains, like dank earthy clay in the form of shrivelled bodies. A few scraps of jewellery remain amid the decay - worth maybe 200 Florins from each sarcophagus if you care to sift it out. After opening the sarcophagi, there'll be no sign of the heroes' bodies when they go back to look.

Beyond, a great slab of stone bars the way to the prince’s tomb chamber...

Prince Gali's tomb

A circular stone chamber in which rests another sarcophagus, like those outside but with a more finely-chiselled lid set with bosses of blue jade. To either side, the buttresses which support the low roof are carved with declarations of Gali's triumphs against the Ta’ashim, written in a debased local form of Classical Emphidian. Endu can make a stab at reading this, if he's present.

The sarcophagus contains Gali's mortal remains, along with the following treasure:
* A golden staff of power, probably a copy of a Selentine provincial governor's staff, surmounted by a scarlet-enamelled medallion with a silver thunderbolt.

* Body-ornaments of beaten gold, including pectoral, diadem of office, kilt lappets, sandals, and wrist rings.

* A finely-decorated ceremonial sword with a handle of red gold, genuinely Selentine in origin, which can banish any ordinary undead or unholy creature on contact if the target fails to resist an effective MAGICAL ATTACK of 16. The sword counts as magical but gives no bonuses in combat.

* A scroll of laws set in a silver frame with each page beautifully illuminated, written in the same dog-Emphidian as before.

* A burnished steel javelin-head (the shaft needs replacing) decorated with a pattern of apple leaves, inscribed in true Ancient Emphidian with the words "The Anger of Phoebus". This is enchanted, and scores +1d6 damage when it strikes a blow in direct sunlight. (Phoebus was an incarnation of the god Apollo, as scholars in the party may know.)
Apart from the sword, the scroll and the javelin-head, the rest of this lot is worth about 40,000 Florins just for the gold and gems, while the value of the remaining items depends on finding the right buyer. The treasure weighs as much as an armoured man and takes up almost twice as much space, so someone might not be making the return journey in the boat.

The face of madness

Lastly, returning to the boat, they'll find a cowled figure standing in the prow. Water drips off his ragged robes. He lifts his hands to his cowl to pull it back...

The sensible thing is to yell an order to the Invisible Seekers immediately, if that's the means the characters used to get here. Failing that, they will have to fight the Mere-gaunt:

MERE-GAUNT

ATTACK 20
Bite (d10+1, 7)
DEFENCE 12
Armour Factor 4
MAGICAL DEFENCE 12
EVASION 6
Movement: 10m (20m)
Health Points 30
Rank-equivalent: 8th

Regardless of whether the characters enter Prince Gali’s tomb, killing the disembodied heads will free them of the curse that caused their guide to go astray, and they will soon find their way up to the monastery. However, if the heads are not killed then the characters will wander, getting increasingly lost, until they find their way back to the town of Akshir in a week or so. If they then make a second attempt to reach the monastery, they will be able to do so without difficulty. (In the original scenario, the curse that caused them to lose their way was another of the previous plot threads I alluded to in the introductory notes.)

Monday, 5 July 2010

"The Honey Trap" - DW scenario part 1

Something a bit out of the ordinary this week - a Dragon Warriors scenario, not of the carefully crafted sort you might expect to find in a book, but the rough-n-ready notes I actually use to plan out an evening's adventure.

I should explain that the scenario has none of the character development or backstory you will have seen in previously published Dragon Warriors adventures by me and Oliver. The reason for this is, like I said, that it was not originally written for publication, but simply as a set of notes for us to run a game. The story elements you would normally see in a published scenario – the player-characters’ rivals, the unexpected reversals, the plot twists – would therefore have been improvised based on events in the ongoing campaign. The simple business of a group of players (our players, anyway) travelling from Ferromaine to Emphidor is quite enough to generate plot threads from which to weave several evenings’ gaming, and there is rarely any need to fall back on the written adventure, which is usually only there as a safety net if inspiration and improvisation should falter.

As you will see, this is almost a "dungeon" adventure - at least as it appears on paper. In the actual execution, the dungeony bit would have occupied only the last half hour, if that. I’m presenting the notes here pretty much as originally written to give you an idea of what I might prepare for a game. The jokey headings, for example, are for mnemonic purposes when I’m running the session and do not reflect the tone of the adventure. I never use “send-up" humour, though there is always plenty of in-character humour.

THE HONEY TRAP

The scenario requires some pretext for the characters to fetch a shipment of goods from upcountry in either Emphidor or Analika. If they are acquainted with Melano Fiorensca of Ferromaine (from the “Mungoda Gold” scenario) then he could have engaged them to do this.

The characters are to deliver a payment of 25,000 Florins to Father Armend Kalari, patriarch of the monastery of St Meropi, which is a five-day trek up into the heavily wooded Kaldare Hills from the small town of Akshir in Emphidor. The monks are to provide them in return with fifty jars of vechel, a special honey liqueur flavoured by the blossoms of the upland forests.

Lost in the woods

A day or two after leaving Akshir, they may notice that their guide, a middle-aged trapper called Kandoni Agarni who runs errands for Father Armend, seems increasingly uncertain about which way to go. At last he admits that he doesn't recognise the path they're on, but "we just have to keep on east".

Frightened of disappointing the patriarch, to whom he is devoted, Kandoni will not readily admit how inexplicable his uncertainty is – he makes this journey several times a year, after all, and is an experience tracker. If pressed, he will come up with excuses: “I had too much to drink last time I came this way”, “the usual route is flooded, so I took a different path” and so on.

Nice legs…

Passing through forested hills, they see a young woman walking along the lane ahead of them. They see her long black hair, which hangs to her slim hips, swaying gently in the splashes of golden sun between the branches. She is strolling along, not hurrying at all, but takes no notice if they call to her.

They are in for a shock if they catch up to her. Despite her comely body, her face is that of an old lady. Her eyes are bloodshot and she looks listlessly ahead like a sleepwalker.

Village of sleepwalkers

The woman leads them to a village. Everyone here is the same: youthful in body, but with haggard faces. They loll around in the sun or else wander aimlessly around the village. The characters cannot get anything from them.

Kandoni is now getting quite agitated, as he realizes that he has not only led the patriarch’s guests astray, he may even have led them into serious danger. He recommends returning to Akshir.

On a hill overlooking the village, they spy the overgrown tower of an old ruined palace, its stonework glinting in the afternoon sun.

The ruined palace

Investigating, they make their way up a shaded path until they pass between two cracked stone gate-posts into a courtyard full of long grass. Creepers cascade over the toppled blocks of the wall. On the other side of the courtyard they see the twisting roots and limbs of a tree which has grown right around the entrance of the building, enclosing it like bindings around a gaping wound.

A figure emerges from under the foliage of the tree: a thickset man with short greying hair. He waves his arms in greeting.

The antiquarian

The man gives his name as Endu Pocoli, a treasure hunter (though he uses the term historian) originally from Analika. He has spent almost a year in these ruins searching for the tomb of Prince Gali, a local ruler some six hundred years ago whose palace this once was.

By now it is getting on for sunset. Endu ushers them inside and sets out bowls of honey by the gateposts. If asked about this, he says it is for "the wild creatures". Astute characters (Psychic Talent roll) may notice that he is quite nervous about getting this ritual completed before nightfall.

They sit around Endu’s campfire, inside the ruined shell of the palace, and he explains that he has been a treasure hunter (the true description of his job comes out as the wine flows) since leaving the Selentine navy. A fortune-teller told him that this was the year he would make his fortune. Since he had bought a treasure map from a stall-holder in Teleos, Endu decided that fate was on his side. "But now the year is almost up," he bemoans, "and I have explored the underground rivers beneath these ruins again and again. It is a maze! How could one ever hope to find the route to where the prince lies buried with his treasure? Poor Endu! To think I would end my days sculling in the foul mud instead of hauling the canvas at sea, where I was happy."

Suddenly he looks up, eyes narrowing, the wine dribbling from his mouth as he listens in fear. From outside, they hear a ghastly slobbering coming from by the gateposts.

Heads up

Intrepid characters who investigate will discover a number of disembodied heads, fifteen in all, moving in long eerie bounds like bouncing balloons. They are tittering horribly as they lap at the honey.

The heads cannot (or will not) enter the palace, but they will attack anyone who ventures into the courtyard. The grass is so long that it obscures vision (-1 to all the characters’ dice rolls), but this doesn't seem to bother the heads one bit.

DISEMBODIED HEADS (15)

ATTACK 16
Bite (d10, 3)
DEFENCE 16
Armour Factor 2 (7 vs nonmagical weapons)
MAGICAL DEFENCE 16
EVASION 8
Movement: flying – 25m
Health Points 7
Rank-equivalent: 6th

When a head bites, it then latches on to chew its victim. This has two effects. First, the victim loses 1HP every round regardless of armour (the head finds a weak link to gnaw at). Second, each head inflicts increasing encumbrance: the first causes -1 off ATTACK, DEFENCE and EVASION; the second causes -2; the third -4, etc. (Totals are: one head = -1, two heads = -3, three heads = -7, four heads = -15.) When EVASION reaches 0 you cannot move.

Another way to deal with the heads would be to go down to the village and destroy their bodies. If the bodies are not destroyed, the heads will regenerate all damage within an hour and will then pursue.

(A player who has read the Dragon Warriors rulebooks may well say, "Oh, those must be some subspecies of death's-head." But of course, a statement like that is entirely meaningless in the world of Legend.)

A tale of long ago

Endu explains how the heads come three nights a month, at the time of the full moon.

"I heard the tale off a woodcutter," he says. "Apparently, long ago, there were rebels against Prince Gali in these hills. They caused a great deal of trouble for him, ambushing his supplies as they went through the woods, and always retreating into the undergrowth when his soldiers were sent out. But finally he caught the rebels by a ruse and had them brought to within sight of his palace, and there he had them buried in the ground up to their necks, so that sun and rain beat down upon their unprotected heads. Finally they died – some by thirst or starvation, others by exposure, others gnawed by wild animals – forced to face the palace of the hated despot until the end. Afterwards the heads were cut off and cast into an open grave outside of the palace gates. But there is one more thing to relate. A serving girl of Gali's court had crept out on the first night, it is said, while Gali and his warriors celebrated their triumph; and she took a bowl of honey for each of the rebels. So it is that one can appease the heads by setting out bowls of honey at the palace gates."

Part 2 on Wednesday.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Avec les ombres de la nuit

Happy Fourth of July, and here's a quick plug for the iPhone version of my novel Florien, published last week by Megara Entertainment, who are the folks behind the iPad version of The War-Torn Kingdom (aka Fabled Lands Book One) that should be out at the end of the year. (I've seen a video of the beta being tested and it is stupendous - not just a gamebook conversion, this is a real 2D CRPG.)

Anyway, enough of that. We were talking about Florien. This is a book I originally wrote for the Horrorscopes series, which put me in the distinguished company of writers like Terrance Dicks and Lisa Tuttle. But between approving the treatment and delivery of the manuscript, the publisher had a change of heart. Originally they intended the Horrorscopes series to cover a range of genres from spooky/supernatural to psychological thriller to slasher fic. So I wrote Florien as hommage to Hitchcock (specifically the Vertigo to Marnie period). Then the publisher got worried that Turn-of-the-Screw type tension wasn't what they wanted after all. "Can't you put in a stalker, serial killer or rapist?" they asked. Well no, not without making it a completely different book.

So my wife Roz dashed off the in-yer-face terror book the publishers were after. She came up with the plot in forty-five minutes (literally - we had just that time before a Desmond Morris programme came on TV that we wanted to watch) and wrote the whole book in fifteen days. And that appeared as Mirror Image in the Horrorscopes series while I kept the rights to Florien.

I thought I'd soon find another publisher for Florien, but it was the one book of mine that I couldn't sell. The snag was, it has a sort-of vampire theme, and a dash of teen romance, but it defies (well, contemptuously ignores) all the conventions of teen vampire romance books. One publisher showed me a series they had in that genre and wondered if I could adapt Florien to fit. Their book started, "Gary turned his head towards the hillock where they were putting her coffin into the ground. As a vampire, he couldn't walk on consecrated ground so he couldn't be there to see her off. But he would be there later, as the moon rose, to welcome her back."

Okay. So you see how the mention of vampires in the second sentence kind of puts it firmly into the way-out-there fantasy category? Well, Florien's not that kind of horror book. It's more of a Hitchcock thing, like I said. It's the kind of fantasy where there's not a sword or a spell in sight. Where vampires don't sparkle or hiss or do that growly thing like a cat in a bad mood. Where things, quite frankly, are not at all what they seem. Indeed, is it a vampire novel at all? Judge for yourself by grabbing a copy of Florien from Amazon.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

7URPS

For our gaming group, GURPS is the role-playing system of choice. We grumble about it from time to time. Combat can be very fiddly, especially when you venture into the maze of special cases involving grappling. As the referee, it's hard to apply commonsense rulings without seeming arbitrary because the rules are so precise, yet they tend to produce absurdities at high skill-levels (in the case of stealth, for example) that risk unbalancing the game if allowed to stand as written.

And yet - it's hugely versatile. (Well: "Generic Universal..." What would you expect?) Steve Jackson and his team have done a heap of work so that you can just get on with your game. It's such a gift to a harassed referee just trying to get the work's adventure ready. Do you want to figure out the relative damage of a Wogdon Dueller or Nock's Volley Gun? Thought not.

For years, the big flaw at the heart of the system was the way it is built on just four stats. This is an evolution from Jackson's earlier Fantasy Trip system, which had its origins in tabletop games. It's simple - but it's a fake simplicity, given the baroque detail layered onto that narrow base. In a nutshell: if you are a great archer, chances are you'll also be a great swordsman and great sneak thief. If you are a great scholar, chances are you'll be sharp-eyed, strong-willed and exceptionally empathic. That's because dexterity (DX) and intelligence (IQ) pretty much drive everything else.

I figured that a little bit of extra detail in the roots of the system would make for more interesting variety between characters without adding any complexity to the game. And so leapt forth 7URPS, a set of quick notes that lets you alter GURPS into a 7-attribute system with the addition of agility (AG), empathy (EQ) and willpower (WL). Take a look for yourself here, and if you think it could be your cup of tea, you can get Frazer Payne's almost magically self-calculating 7URPS character sheet here. A caveat: it will mean nothing to you unless you already have the GURPS rulebook, so go and get that here.

Oh, and the pronunciation? We say "zurps".