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Friday, 22 May 2015

A brandy with the monster

I've talked about Frankenstein's Legions on this blog before. Here, for instance. And here. I'll be talking about it more over the month ahead because I'm involved in a Kickstarter with Cubus Games, who will be creating an interactive story set in that world, under its new title The Frankenstein Wars.

The concept is simple. In the 1820s, Victor Frankenstein's secrets are recovered. Some of them, anyway - specifically, the ability to sew a body together from scavenged parts and bring it back to life. In France, a new revolution brings the Zeroistes to power. Named for the their "Year Zero" mentality, they are willing to do whatever it takes to usher in a new society. And that includes recycling the bodies of those killed in battle to create an endlessly-respawning army.

And what about Frankenstein's monster? He represents something more than a patchwork revivified man. In Mary Shelley's novel he was a new lifeform, a homo superior, with greater strength, endurance and intellect than any normal man. If you want to read his origin story, it's a lot more interesting than the Universal sparks-n-stitches version, and my interactive novel is as good a place as any to start.

But here in The Frankenstein Wars, the monster is thirty years older. He's learned to be warier and more ruthless - and this is a guy who was willing to strangle kids and murder innocent people even in his formative years. He calls himself Mr Legion now. Here's a scene between him and Lord Blakeney:
That night. Blakeney warms himself in front of a crackling log fire, a glass of brandy cupped in his hand. In the leather armchair opposite him sits Mr Legion, also slowly swirling a brandy. His cigar glows in the gloom of the dining room, where they have just finished a meal.
“I think Miss Byron’s vacation might need to come to an end quite soon,” remarks Blakeney.
“You know, Blakeney, when I was thirty years younger I would have thrown you in the fireplace, burned down the house, and killed every man between here and Hastings. I also would have settled for the cheap brandy.”
“Why is that? The burning and the killing, I mean.”
“You were expecting them to kidnap Ada Byron.”
“Not exactly. I merely made sure we had a contingency in case you failed. As sometimes you do.”
“And now you’d like her back.”
“Her improved revitalizing serum, at any rate. I’m sure Napoleon doesn’t care for the cheap stuff either.”
Mr Legion blows a smoke ring and watches it drift in the firelight, like a god contemplating the constellations he has made. “You’re not counting on Clerval for that?”
Blakeney smiles. “Doctor Clerval is one of those men you can count on utterly. Their moral code is so predictable.” Blakeney gets up and walks to the window, pulling aside the curtain to gaze into the night. “And he’s a man who doesn’t shirk from a challenge. So also there’s that. But what’s really at the bottom of it all, I suppose, is love.”
Legion drains his brandy in one gulp and tosses the cigar stub into the fire. “All right,” he says, rising. “I have my own reasons, of course.”
Blakeney watches the door close behind him. “Of course you do," he says to the empty room. "But in your case it's a long way from love.”
Lord Blakeney, as you will have guessed, is the former Scarlet Pimpernel. Now in his mid-60s he commands the British secret service (officially known as the Alien Affairs Committee). In a very real sense he is the “M” of his day.

The Frankenstein Wars app is based on my world and story, but that's not all. It's being written by Paul Gresty, who is also the talent behind the new Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King's Domain. At Cubus's request, Paul is adding some steampunk tech to the mix. There was a little bit there already in my story outline, in the devices Ada Byron had constructed. Personally I'd have have left it at that, not feeling the need to add a gilding of steampunk to the lily of Frankensteinian body horror. But I'm not writing it so I've given Cubus and Mr Gresty carte blanche to take whatever liberties they need to. Without a doubt Paul will be adding his own unique style of interactive storytelling to the bare bones of the plot and characters that I provided.

You'll be hearing more of The Frankenstein Wars over the next few weeks - not just here but on the project's Kickstarter page as well.


  1. Efrem Orizzonte23 May 2015 at 18:34

    That's a great project, Dave. I wonder why you're not writing it yourself? I don't doubt Paul Gresty's talent, but I do like your prose. Looking forward to this!

    1. Thanks, Efrem. I'm busy on other projects so I couldn't spare the time to write The Frankenstein Wars myself - and when it's a Kickstarter, the demands on one's time go far beyond the writing.

      Even if I hadn't been otherwise engaged, though, I have already written my Frankenstein book app. This is a very different story, but it's still partly derived from the same material (very distantly in FW's case, admittedly) and Paul Gresty will bring a fresh take to it. Added to which, Cubus wanted an injection of that kind of JPRG-style quasi-Victoriana which didn't fit with my image of Regency body-horror/war/SF. So I wasn't the right writer for this app, believe me.

  2. Total sidetrack:
    I was at one of our local conventions, Kubla Con, today, and I saw an advertisement for one of the other Bay Area conventions Celesticon. Celesticon is running a Tekumel track, based off the upcoming Tekumel game "Bethorm".
    Are you familiar with Bethorm?

    1. I haven't seen the game, Michael. but I got a sense of what it's like by looking at the online character sheets, and that instantly cured me of any wish to buy it. The rules appear to be strongly influenced by 1980s tabeletop wargames with lots of numbers and calculations. The best that can be said for them is that they seem to be simpler than Swords & Glory. And the claim that the new system is "skill-based"? Well, yes - except all the skills seem to be combat manoeuvres.

      So, in my opinion it's another pointless exercise in extracting money from devoted hardcore of existing Tekumel fans. It won't attract any new players. Tekumel ought to be thriving, given that things like Numenera are doing so well and they are pallid reflections of the real thing. But it is doomed by the marketing strategy that thinks that yet another set of rules will make a difference.

      In his sign-off editorial in the final issue of The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder, Steve Foster explained what needed to be done for Tekumel gaming to survive:

      That was 20 years ago and the only reaction at the time was outrage. "How dare this man shatter our cherished illusions!" And so Tekumel gaming has stayed in the shadows of obscurity where, I fear, it is destined to remain.

  3. Not everyone realized that what I wrote was a lament, not an attack. Even with people acting with good intention in what they saw as Tekumel's best interests we got into a shooting war. That in itself was a symptom of the problem - a combination of "shoot the messenger!" and "kill the heretic!".

    I do have some sympathy for the need for a new rule system. The existing systems are all paper-and-book heavy. We can do better these days. However, it would be a huge mistake to try to make the rules a selling point. They are a necessary evil and can easily be hidden in a spreadsheet or app. (One of my many unfinished projects: make Tirikelu more automation friendly)

    My recipe for securing Tekumel's future: open-source the world and put game mechanics on to an iPad. It's a shame that there's no-one brave enough to try.

    1. One of the difficulties of bringing Tekumel to a wider audience has always been its very originality. Anybody could get into a Westeros RPG in minutes - it's medieval Europe with a winter wonderwall, innit. The richness of Tekumel's cultures can't be communicated so simply, and I think there is still no better starting point for a newbie than getting off that boat in Jakalla harbour - and probably no better starting point as a player than the original Empire of the Petal Throne, not least because the situation in 2354 AS is more accessible than jumping in during the reign of Dhich'une or whoever.

      The last thing that newbie in the harbour wants is to have to master a new set of number-crunching rules at the same time, and Prof Barker's biggest mistake was to turn down Steve Jackson's offer of three GURPS Tekumel books. Not that GURPS is exactly streamlined by modern standards, but at the time (1990s) it was widely played. Nowadays I suppose the equivalent would be a Tekumel Pathfinder book. (A guess; I am not up to speed on which RPG rules systems are popular.)

      There seem to be two strategies the Tekumel copyright owners could now follow. First: open up the world, simplify the rules, and reach out to new players who are tired of the usual dragons-n-knights stuff - and, good grief, that field sure needs to be left fallow for a while. So I gather that's what you're suggesting, Steve. But the other option is to cater to the tiny (and shrinking) group of existing Tekumel fans by issuing a new, expensive set of rules every few years. I get the feeling more people will buy Bethorm than will ever play it.

  4. Well, I plan to try the Tekumel track at Celesticon and report back. I don't have any experience with Tekumel, but I can at least tell you if I had fun.
    Can you point me to the original sourcebook, so I can at least read up on the setting ahead of time?

    Regarding accessibility (e.g. High fantasy vs more weird settings), I think you need to think carefully about the effect of an inaccessible/unusual setting on GMs.
    When I GM, one of the things I think most about is whether I understand the setting well enough, because players inevitably go off the plan, and when they do, I need to be able to generate content on the fly.
    An excellent current setting that I love but fear is too inaccessible for me to GM without extensive play experience is Eclipse Phase. I just don't think I could generate content off the cuff.
    Another setting that I had the same issue with back in the day was Mage: the Ascension. Loved it, wanted to play in it, but couldn't grok it well enough to GM convincingly.
    The big advantage of accessible settings is that it's much easier for the GM to extemporize.

  5. You can get the original Empire of the Petal Throne book from DriveThruRPG, Michael:

    If you like it (jumping ahead a bit now) you should also buy Swords & Glory Volume One, which is the most comprehensive Tekumel sourcebook out there:

    Wrt your point about extemporizing, inspiration follows enthusiasm. I love the world of Tekumel and that love has led me to read about exotic cultures and societies, that knowledge then informing my interpretation of Tekumel. It probably helped that when I started out roleplaying in the 1970s, the fantasy books I read were Moorcock, Lin Carter, Tanith Lee, Robert E Howard - so that interest in the exotic was there from the start.

    Professor Barker always said that you create your own Tekumel. You don't have to "get it right" from the git-go. Our early interpretations of Tekumel were less authentic (if that means anything) and later we rebooted the campaign as the players all became intimately familiar with Tsolyani culture. I certainly never had any problem with improvisation, as earlier posts on this blog have discussed.

    What are the rewards? I've never seen role-players as committed to their characters and immersed in the reality of the game world as our Tekumel group. They have been on profound moral, emotional and even spiritual journeys as a result of their belief in the world. Mike Polling, one of our group, described it as going beyond "suspension of disbelief" into a parallel life. But I can only speak for our group. Some people are always going to get on better with a medieval/European kind of setting.