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Friday, 19 May 2017

Forget about storytelling and your games will yield better stories

“Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure… Structure should grow out of character.” -- Colum McCann

My friend had just paid several hundred dollars to spend a few days being taught the secret sauce of Hollywood scriptwriting by a self-proclaimed guru.

‘I’d pay to hear Kaufman or Mamet,’ I said. ‘But I reckon they’d start off by saying there is no magic formula.’

‘I knew you’d scoff. Here, I’ll prove it works. Give me one of your Knightmare novellas.’

He counted pages to the plot points, the mid-point, the break into two. ‘See? Fits the three-act story structure exactly.’

‘That’s not proof of your point, though -- quite the opposite. 'Cause I just wrote that book. I didn’t map out where I should put the inciting incidents and reveals and reversals. If you tell a story, sure, it may very well fit the structure - but that doesn’t mean that knowing the structure will help you tell better stories.’

Here’s an analogy you may have heard me use before. Toss a ball and it follows a parabola. But there is no rule in nature that fits the ball’s trajectory to the equation for a curve. The universe doesn’t do equations. Instead the parabola emerges because of the force of gravity making incremental changes to the ball’s velocity. Then we look at it, get our maths on, and say, "Ooh, a parabola."

So too with stories. The changes in velocity are the deep rules of human interaction. The three-act structure is just one curve that you might perceive from a specific set of interactions.

People are suckers for an easy fix. Hence snake oil, superstition, and Trump. And hence also role-playing game design, which has been tempted off into the shrubbery with the seductive promise of a formula for better stories. Things like this:
"Each player around the table gets to write one of the fifty-six Johari adjectives in one quadrant of your character’s Johari window. Pick your character's primary defining adjective from the façade quadrant. The player who gave you that adjective that now assigns your character a Goal, a Grudge and a Geis of her choice. Every time you evoke one of those, the player who assigned it to you takes over as GM to direct you in a scene with potential for a Character Development roll…"
My view on this kind of malarkey is that I turned up to play my character, not to author yours. More importantly, you’re going to get better stories – more interesting, more complex, more surprising, more emotionally affecting, and more transformative – by setting out simply to inhabit the characters rather than by sitting at arm’s length and pulling their strings.

I would never try to shoehorn an RPG session into story shapes when I’m running the game, much less when I'm playing. Let the game take the course it wants without self-consciously imposing story templates and from time to time it will really amaze you. OK, so it probably won’t end up with the tidy three-act form of a blockbuster movie. But what’s more compelling: watching a precision-crafted screenplay tie everything up with a bow, or experiencing life with its shifting, overlapping, unexpected patterns?

The other day I heard somebody talking about a ‘crafted narrative’ RPG system. ‘We enjoyed creating the characters more than playing the game!’ he said – as if that was a good thing. But it’s not, it’s a fail. If you enjoy creating characters, fine. Become a writer. Though, if you do, for pity’s sake don’t subject us to stories wrangled through a Hollywood paradigm. Writers soon learn that it’s more fruitful to let the characters drive the story organically than to try to corralling them with reductive mechanics like goal achievements and epiphany moments.

Human beings evolved to perceive in events the shape of a story, because then it becomes a lesson we can learn. The events themselves aren’t a story, they’re just a cascade of cause and effect. The universe doesn’t do stories any more than it does equations. The story is the parabolic curve mapped onto the events afterwards.

Likewise, the experiences you have while playing the game are the uncollapsed wave function, and all the more interesting for that. When players recount their adventures later, that’s when the storytelling happens. Each character will come away with a different story – for example in this write-up, which describes things from my character’s point of view. If you asked another of the players you’d hear a very different tale. You get it. You’ve seen Rashomon.

In short, you’ll get better stories if you don’t try to create ‘stories’. Because it really is the case that truth (or a simulated life) is stranger than fiction.

Monday, 15 May 2017

What a great fantasy movie looks like

Last time I was over at Leo Hartas's he recommended some movies I needed to catch up on. One of them was Kubo and the Two Strings and - wow. Just wow. I don't want to say anything spoilery (even the trailer gives away a little surprise that's waiting in the end credits) so I'll just urge you in the strongest possible terms to watch this asap. It packs in ten times the wit, charm, imagination and originality of the typical blockbuster SF/fantasy movie. Oh, and Blood Sword fans will realize by the end why I especially cherish the story. A real delight.

Friday, 5 May 2017

"The Right Duke" (a Shakespearean World War 2 scenario)

Even by the standards of my group’s seasonal specials, this scenario is an odd one. The specials, held four times a year, are used for epic events in our regular campaigns. At least, that was the original idea. But one of our campaigns involves a group of immortal Spartans, and as that campaign plays out slowly over the centuries, we decided it would be fun from time to time to have non-canonical specials that would allow us to fast-forward in the characters’ lives. So, while the campaign is actually now up to the eighth century AD and the characters recently met Alfred the Great, in various specials we've played them in Victorian times, 1930s New York, a ‘60s spy adventure, and even policing the mean streets of Mega-City One.
As you can see from that list, not only are the Spartan specials non-canonical, they’re usually an excuse to play around with tone and genre in a way we don’t tend to do in our regular campaigns. The adventures don’t even have to make strictly logical sense. You know Moonlighting? The Taming of the Shrew episode? Like that.
Before I go on, there are spoilers ahead. If you’re going to be playing in this scenario, better look away now. Still here? Okay then…
There’s a reason I mentioned Shakespeare. This scenario was set in World War Two and followed on from events in the Immortal Spartans campaign that happened two millennia earlier. Back then, Julius Caesar had heard of a ruined city across the Atlantic where there was a marvellous device (alien technology, naturally) that could make him immortal just like the player characters. He and Cleopatra tried to use it to raise themselves up to be gods over mankind, but the characters thwarted that plan and Caesar seemed to be dissolved in the heart of the machine.
Fast forward to the 1940s. My idea was that on a mission to kidnap Mussolini, the characters would stray through a “tempest” created by an experimental atomic device, arriving not in Milan but in a parallel pocket universe where Caesar, exploiting the consonance between his shadow existence and Mussolini’s isolation as a puppet ruler, now imposed a different reality in which he was the exiled duke seeking a return to power. The characters are sucked into this pocket universe where “Il Duce” = “the Right Duke of Milan” and unless they can stop Caesar from completing the final ceremony, his reality will overwrite our timeline. All the centuries in which he was trapped as a shadow, his “gold complexion dimm’d”, will never have happened and he will become the immortal ruler of all as his original plan decreed.
As for tone – exiled dukes, mistaken identities, storms that warp reality, a magical unity of place and time. It had to be Shakespeare. Try and do some of the NPC dialogue in Elizabethan style. It doesn’t have to be the Bard, but just a few touches will add a lot of flavour. Of course, to use this scenario at all you’re going to need to do a lot of rejigging, even if you run it for one-off characters. Your best bet is probably just to read through it for ideas and then remake it in a form that suits your group. Let us know in the comments how it plays out. 

[This is how my players came in, but you may decide to ditch the immortal Spartans thing entirely.]
It is the summer of 1943, and you have lived for nearly two and a half thousand years. You are healthy but, having seen so much, inevitably some experiences are hazier than others. Sometimes you wake dazzled by the blazing light on the brass walls of Athena’s temple, or with the taste of a fresh fig plucked from the groves beside the Eurotas. Early memories are always sharp. Others may come into focus for a while, uncertainly poised between recollection and dream, as each successive era sees you in new clothes, speaking a new tongue. Who knows how many loves and friends and foes you have forgotten, how many once-cherished experiences are lost forever in the unstopping torrent of your lives?
And now mankind, whom you have lived among like gods, is on the verge of harnessing the power of Apollo. What wonders the rest of the 20th century may bring, if the world survives the dark abyss of conflict into which it has lately fallen.
You have 480 points to spend. We are using only the two core GURPS 4e books: Characters and Campaigns, both to keep things simple and on the basis that some of the later books break more than they fix. So if it isn’t in those two core books, it isn’t in the special.
Also, no cinematic or paranormal abilities. Exotic abilities are probably okay, but we’ll look at those on a case by case basis rather than list them here.
Stats: IQ should not exceed 14. Other stats can go up to 20, and you can buy Lifting ST and Striking ST up to +5.
Skills in excess of 16 are capped by your IQ. For example, with IQ 12 you can have two skills at 22, or three at 20, etc. Your attitude to modern skills is up to you. Spartans despised long-range missile weapons such as bows as cowardly, but twenty-five centuries is a long time in which to moderate your views.
You have no disadvantages or quirks – at least, not that earn you any points.
Your pooled wealth is already assumed, so you don’t need to allocate points for that.
You don’t have to bother with allies and contacts; as the setting of a special is so limited it makes little sense for you to pay for them. I will automatically assign you contacts if appropriate. However, if you want to specify contacts, in full knowledge that they may not be accessible, feel free to do so.
You should decide if you have sympathy with the Axis or Allies, or are neutral. For the sake of this scenario, it’s assumed that in June 1943 you are at least purporting to be on the side of the Allies and so taking status or rank in the Allied forces may make sense. (If you choose to be a double agent, pay only for your status/rank on the Axis side; their intelligence resources will have arranged equivalent rank for you among the enemy at no cost to you.)
Languages: you have Greek, Latin, English and one other modern language free. You probably will need more. Area Knowledge could also come in handy. (The adventure will take place largely in the European theatre.)
Equipment is mostly going to be standard WW2 kit. Assume that you can have one weapon or other piece of gear of fine quality (adds +2 to skill) and the rest at good quality (+1 to skill). Rationale: this is a time of constant missions, so there’s a lot of churn on the gear you’re using, and not always time to resupply with the top-quality stuff between operations.
Body armour just wasn’t practical for field use in the early 1940s. You might put a bulletproof jacket under an overcoat if you were expecting an assassin to take a potshot at you, or don a flak jacket while aboard a bomber (they are effective at stopping slow-moving shrapnel, not high-velocity bullets), but you’d be lumbering about like Iron Man with his power switched off. The only armour usable on active duty is a helmet (DR4, weight 3lbs).
Your airship, the Apollo, is 250m long with a duralumin hull and seventeen helium gasbags. It is powered by four 1250 hp engines with swivel mounts allowing them to be angled in almost any direction. It has a top speed of 85 mph and a range of 7000 miles.
The bridge and radio room are in the control gondola located at the fore of the hull, with a secondary main crew/passenger area molded into the lower deck area further back. The main quarters include kitchen, dining room, sixteen two-person passenger cabins, further cabins for forty crew behind a bulkhead, and an observation lounge. Access between the control gondola and living quarters is via the interior deck.
The control gondola can be detached from the hull in extreme emergency, deploying chutes that allow a controlled descent to the sea.
Observation nacelles are located fore and aft on the upper curve of the hull. An observation pod called the Eyrie can be lowered from the midpoint of the vessel to keep lookout when hovering in cloud.
An internal hangar holds five single-seat Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes: Phobos, Deimos, Thanatos, Aidos and Aite. These can be lowered for launch by means of a trapeze mechanism, onto which they can hook to return to the ship.

Act I:

Summer 1943. We open over the North Pole, aboard the characters’ airship Apollo, where they are helping Dr Otto Frisch and his assistant Auberon Farley conduct tests using the Lady Godiva Device. The aurora borealis is like being inside a glowing curtain. When Dr Frisch turns on the device, the aurora intensifies and bends in towards the ship. Realizing that the Demon Core of the device is going critical, Farley reaches in and pulls out a component, deactivating it just as the glowing plasma flows through the ship.
They receive a message to proceed to Dounreay Castle on the northern coast of Scotland. The message is tagged “Blenheim”, indicating highest urgency.

En route to Scotland, the airship is attacked by a squad of Bannerboys (Blutfahnejugend). These are young (16-18 year old) Aryan super-soldiers created by a process (“Der Agoge”) developed by Nazi scientists of the Thulë Society in the early 1930s. Bannerboys refer to the Spartans as “Die Golemen” (to distinguish them from so-called Übermenschen).
The control gondola loses contact with the observation nacelles on the upper part of the hull. (Snipers in the Nazi glider took out both spotters.)

The Nazis are attacking in two waves. Inside the hull, commandos are planting bombs while a machine gunner covers them from by the Sparrowhawks. The LMG takes a few rounds to set up, so if characters move fast they will only have three covering snipers to worry about.

The second wave attacks the passenger gondola with the aim of stealing or destroying the Lady Godiva Device. They abseil down the hull, blow the windows with concussion grenades (HT-5 to avoid stun) and move in.

During the attack, the Lady Godiva Device begins to activate. Physics roll at -2 to deactivate it.

The characters get their initial mission briefing from Winston Churchill. The Allied invasion of Sicily has been brought forward and will begin imminently. They are to abduct Mussolini to prevent Hitler from continuing to use him to legitimize Axis control of northern Italy.

Upon arriving in Malta they are greeted by Rear-Admiral Gareth “Bay” Bayswater and his staff.
In Bay’s office they meet an operative called Rasenna who gives them a plan of the Italian coastal defences, and tells them that “Il Duce” is in Milan. They will need to grab him there before he returns to Salo, where the German fortifications will make the job all but impossible.
They need to decide how to equip for the mission. The plan is to parachute near to the city. Bay’s people advise that mostly they should be in civilian gear, as military patrols are more likely to be questioned or even co-opted by superiors.
Two of the party could go in as an Oberstleutnant (Wing Commander”) and Feldwebel (Sergeant) of the First Fallschirm-Jäger Division (“the Green Devils”). As Luftwaffe special ops, they are not subordinate to the SS officers they may run into. They can be supplied with forged papers that confirm they are under orders from General Kurt Student.
The civilians will have to make do with concealable weapons. The two German officers can carry SMGs or FG42 automatic rifles, but need to be careful not to attract undue attention (no actual machine guns!). They can also wear steel Fallschirmhelms (DR 5 on skull).
Incidentally, we use GURPS 4e for the Immortals Spartan campaign. Why? Here’s why.

There is an Italian agent whom they should attempt to contact at a nightclub called Il Fungo a Mezzanotte on the Via del Fieno. They are to ask for the head waiter and say (in Italian) “There is no chance of a mint julep, presumably?” (“Non vi è alcuna possibilità di un Julep di menta, presumibilmente?”) and the agent will contact them.
The agent will know Mussolini’s whereabouts and can provide them with whatever clothing and papers are needed to get access to him. Failing that, they should return to their radio set (wherever they leave it) and request new orders.

As per orders: take the Apollo over Milan to parachute in, seize Mussolini, and bring him back alive across the Swiss border 50 miles away. It’s midsummer night.
A fierce storm is raging over northern Italy. This is where they discover a saboteur (Frisch’s assistant) has planted the Godiva Device in the upper rigging of the Apollo and set it to go critical. As they jump, a vortex of glowing light surrounds the city and they leave a “vapour trail” of sparks as they descend.
If they try to get away from the city, they’ll find a force field now surrounds it at a distance of a couple of miles.
(This list of some of the major Milan landmarks may be useful to provide colour.)

The nightclub is called Il Fungo a Mezzanotte – the Midnight Mushroom. The agent they have to meet is Mira. She unrolls from a carpet and does a slinky Egyptian-style number. (Eidetic memory identifies her as Cleopatra, but not right away – say “she reminds you of someone”, then later give them an IQ roll.)
Mira tells them “Il Duce” will be at the castle tomorrow morning for a state proclamation, but that he will be heavily guarded by SS troopers then. She will try to find out his whereabouts tonight, when it will be easier to kidnap him, but her informer hasn’t got in touch yet.
“They say his agents are out searching for something called the Proserpine Key. I don’t know where that is, but if you find it then you may find him. I was given this ring, which is supposed to be a clue of some kind.”
As they talk, there’s a raid on club by the police, whom Mira calls the Calibanieri (sic). They might try to fight it out, but Mira hurries them to the back door. “They’ll call for Pineborn and Il Brute. Go to the Love-in-Idleness café near the cemetery. I’ll join you there.”
If they demur, have Il Brute and Mr Pineborn arrive. (See later for stats.)

Mira’s ring is a large diamond on a silver setting. Scrutinizing it closely reveals a tiny imperfection inside the gem. A Vision roll at -10 allows them to see the “imperfection” is in flux.
To view the image, they either need a magnifying glass (could break into a jeweller’s) or hold it up to a bright light like the lamp on the side of the Cathedral plaza. The image shows Cleopatra and Caesar as glowing figures. (This is a good point for someone to realize that Cleopatra is Mira.)
The ring itself is not the Proserpine Key. Mira herself is the Key.

It’s likely that on the way through from the Via del Fieno to the Love-in-Idleness, they will pass by the Cathedral plaza.
The image of Mussolini is projected onto the side of the Cathedral at night, hundreds of feet high. Except… it’s not Mussolini’s face, it’s Caesar’s. 

The informant in a guy in a trenchcoat who they need to spot (Vision at -5 for the darkness) across the plaza. As they see him (100 yards away) he ducks into a telephone kiosk.
The informant’s phone call summons the Calibanieri – unless they shoot him, in which case the shot brings a patrolling SS jeep.

They’re fleeing from police cars (why? maybe they pursued and killed the informant) and are cornered, until Baron Glauer pops up from a manhole cover and leads them to safety.
Baron Glauer is a psionic of the Thule Society. He tells them that he can see both worlds, theirs and Caesar’s, having the ability to send out his astral form between realities and even teleport by Tibetan meditation. He promises to help the characters, warning that they must find the Proserpine Key or Caesar will use it to replace their time line with his own. He says that as long as they stay within five yards of him, he can cloud the minds of ordinary patrolmen not to notice them.
In fact Glauer just wants the Proserpine Key in order to have a bargaining chip with Caesar.

Mira sends word to them at the café to meet her at the cemetery nearby. Her note says, “I will wait at the  grave of Signor Einstein,” which refers to Hermann Einstein, Albert Einstein’s father.
At the grave they do indeed find Mira waiting for them. She tells them Caesar is at the Cathedral. “He is getting ready for some kind of ceremony at dawn.”
However, Baron Glauer recognizes Mira as the Proserpine Key and teleports her away with him just as Mr Pineborn and Il Brute arrive for a big fight.

Some special effects for if/when this happens:

         Lights flicker – that’s the “they’re here” warning.
         Pineborn may put lights out altogether (both he and Il Brute can see in the dark).
         Il Brute can rip out tables and use them as shields or to throw.
         Il Brute can throw Mr Pineborn at someone -- a highball special.

As the characters race to the Cathedral, they’ll see that parties of workers in many streets are decking out Il Duce’s statues with purple robes and laurel wreaths, as for a Roman triumph.

Act III:

Caesar is conducting a marriage ritual that will transform him and Mira into full immortals and replace our reality with his. The characters have to disrupt the ceremony.
They face Caesar and his bodyguard – not as tough a fight as the one earlier, unless the bodyguard were alerted to use gold bullets. [The Spartans can regenerate most damage, but gold weapons disrupt this ability so that they heal from such injuries only as fast as normal men.]

If the characters successfully disrupt the ritual, this pocket universe reverts to real-world Milan, Caesar becomes Mussolini (alive) and they will need to reach the Swiss border. Baron Glauer could help if they haven’t killed him, though he can only teleport so large a group a few miles.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Winning the smart way

Quite a few reviews of my second-ever gamebook, The Temple of Flame, claim that it's too difficult. You have a series of metaphorical fiery hoops to jump through at the end that are sure to whittle away your few remaining hit points. Mission utterly impossible, right?

Well, after thirty-three years of silence I'm here to tell you it ain't so. There's a clever way to win, and it's not listed as any of the options in those fight paragraphs. Look away now if you haven't played the adventure yet and want to test your mettle.

So here's the thing. Before your final showdown with Damontir the Mad, he summons a doppelganger to fight you:
‘Damontir,’ you say flatly. ‘You will die by my sword.’

He looks at you sharply, then laughs without mirth. ‘Dragon Knight of Palados! Were we to cross blades, perhaps you might be the victor. But I have a dozen sorcerous ways to kill you before you reach me.’ He draws something from his tunic. Light flashes across your face as he turns it towards you. ‘The Mirror of the Moon.’

Damontir carefully angles the mirror to reflect your own gaze back at you and then releases it. Instead of falling to shatter on the hard stone floor, it floats in mid-air. It starts slowly to rotate, growing larger as it does so until it seems a swirling pool of quicksilver filled by your image. Then, as you stare in stunned incredulity, your own reflection steps out of the mirror and stands before you. Illuminated by the unearthly half-light of its mirror world, it does not quite seem to be your twin. Rather, it looks like a vivid portrait of yourself rendered in unnatural hues.

‘This is your simulacrum,’ explains Damontir. ‘A soulless duplicate of yourself.’ The simulacrum utters an unreal cry and advances on you with a look of wild malice. ‘It is an unreasoning automaton, quite dedicated to its single purpose. Killing you.’
Contemptuously, he turns away from the fight and resumes his translation of the runes on the podium. The simulacrum has the same VIGOUR as you have at the moment. It is like you in every respect, except that it has neither soul nor intellect, and does not cast a shadow. You prepare yourself for battle.

Turn to 43
So reviewers sometimes grumble that means a fight at fifty-fifty odds followed by having to take on Damontir himself. Did you spot the exploit? Earlier in the adventure you should have picked up a Ring of Healing, which you can use at any time to restore your VIGOUR to full. The simulacrum has the exact same stats as you have at the moment that Damontir creates it. So just hold off using that ring. Make sure you have only a few VIGOUR points left when you catch up with your foe, that way the simulacrum will be created with the same VIGOUR. You can use the ring (the clue is in that line "prepare yourself for battle") to make that a very unequal fight, then you're ready to tackle Damontir almost at full strength.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Looking back to see the future

Another piece from the dim and distant today. Back in the mid-80s I used to edit the RuneRites column in White Dwarf. I didn't actually use the RuneQuest world of Glorantha for my own games, but Oliver Johnson and I were writing an RQ-based book called Questworld for Games Workshop, and running a lot of games in that setting, so we knew the RQ rules pretty well.  

Questworld was one of the many projects I wrote for GW that were never published, but Oliver and I reworked a lot of the material for the Invaders and Ancients book - also never published, come to think, but maybe one day we'll find the time to correct that.

This article by me and Oliver, derived from our Questworld setting and then retrofitted to Greg Stafford's Genertela (yikes), was originally published as "Forecasting the Runes" in White Dwarf 65 (May 1985).

*  *  *

Prediction is a sub-category of Perception skills, open to any character with a POW score of at least 13. Rune Casting is a form of Prediction common to all RuneQuest universes; others exist (Pyromancy, Hieromancy, etc), and the referee can develop these along similar lines.

The Rune Casting skill starts at 0 (plus any modifiers due to INT or POW) and can be trained up to 15% if a teacher can be found. The sort of people who might be able to teach a character Rune Casting often travel in minstrel troupes or operate fairground booths. The problem with training is not really cost. It takes only an hour or so to instruct a character up to 15% level, and the teacher will probably ask only a few silvers for this. But it is not always clear when one has found a real master (or mistress) of the runic arts.

When a character wishes to use his Rune Casting skill, the appropriate roll is made by the referee. If the roll is successful, the referee selects the runes so as to give an accurate (but always vague) prefigurement of game events that he has planned. If the Rune Casting roll fails, the prediction is random.

Rune Casting takes the form of shak¬ing tiny pebbles marked with the runes, then casting one down. This is done three times for a full prediction. The first casting is of an Elemental rune, and this indicates the underlying forces which pertain to the character's situation. The second rune cast is of Form, and it indicates the principal way in which events will influence the character. The Power rune, last to be cast, indicates the outcome of the prediction.

The interpretation of a Rune Casting is up to the player. The referee merely tells him or her which runes come up:
Darkness: Secret or unclear forces are at work. There is a suggestion of evil or hostility.
Water: Events and forces are set in a state of flux.
Earth: A solid and definite change will occur.
Air: Events now in the offing will be without lasting significance.
Fire: Forces from above (earthly superiors or divine agents) may be at work. Violent emotions have been stirred up. A chance for great gain or great loss.
Moon: Past deeds continue to operate in the character's life. A man who has committed evil acts may soon have to pay. Sorcery and ancient spirits may play a part in things to come.
Plant: The future is tied up with the character's profession or finances. Investments may grow or wither.
Beast: Not just animals, but also natural forces in general, may play a part. Combined with the Water rune, for instance, it might suggest to a general that storms will hinder his troops - particularly if Stasis were next to come up.
Man: The character's fellow men will be the executors of his fate. Will it be for weal or woe? Consult the other runes.
Spirit: Ideas and knowledge have a significant effect on the future. The character should examine his beliefs. More mundanely, there could be spirit combat in the next few hours!
Chaos: The entire casting is ill-aspected. Unpredictable and sorrowful trends are at work. This is not a time to consider dangerous actions.
Harmony: There will be no drastic alteration.
Disorder: Things will change radically and it will be a long time before those affected resume their normal routine.
Fertility: There may be a birth, or the maturing of a worthwhile investment. At harvest time, the crop will be good.
Death: A single major event will cause permanent change. Fatality is not the sole instance of this; there may be a promotion.
Stasis: There will be a period of inertia.
Movement: There is likely to be a long journey, or news may arrive from afar.
Truth: Many secrets from the past will be unraveled.
Illusion: Things are not what they seem. Do not take events at face value.
Luck: Matters now under consideration will come to a head. There will be a time to gamble.
Fate: The prediction is sealed. Whatever is read is a Fate, possibly a Doom. No man can change what is decreed.
As a final note, we recommend setting an upper limit of POWx5% on Rune Casting. (Or make it POWx4%, or POWx3%. There is no reason for the players to know how accurate their predictions can be.) After using the skill twice in one day, a character drops 10% in accuracy for each subsequent casting.

The Four Parts of the Soul
A side-effect of active imperialism, of the sort practiced by the Lunar Empire, is the appearance of bizarre hybrid cults and beliefs. These sometimes gain favor among those who have travelled widely and been exposed to a variety of cultures - notably, soldiers, sailors and adventurers.

The belief that a man's soul has four parts began to gain traction in some distant Lunar outposts around the year 1617, probably as a result of the unusual teachings of some enslaved shamans. The idea appealed to well educated junior officers whose intellectually-based faith sought some functional alternative to pure Red Moon doctrine.

The four parts of the soul are:

The Crystal Knife, which is that aspect of the self which deals with positive, aggressive action and the outward channeling of energy.

The Morning Mist, which is the passive, yielding principle – the individual’s ability to be acted upon or moved by externals, to take what he experiences into himself and to learn.

The Obsidian Rock represents the individual's capacity to negate actions directed against him, to hold firm and not to submit or fall in the face of adversity. It is the concentration of self, the boundary separating the individual from the world around him.

The Fleeting Shadow recognizes the need to negate even the Obsidian Rock, the self, in some aspects of the individual's life. It leads to awareness and the willingness to understand and to grow. It represents the transcendent, mystic element in the individual's nature.

These aspects are commonly ordered into two sets of complementary functions: Active/Passive and Outward/Inward:

The four parts of the soul are treated as 'skills' which the character can master through meditation. At the end of every two weeks in which the character has spent at least two hours a day in meditation, he rolls for each soul-discipline to see if he can increase it. The initial skill in each soul-discipline is derived as below:

Perfecting the soul-disciplines enhances the character's relationship with the world. One effect of this is to enable him to learn more readily from experience. Any time that a character fails an increase roll, he has a chance equal to his skill in the relevant soul-discipline of making a reroll. This only applies if the character is at least 25% in the relevant soul-discipline, however. Each soul-discipline thus assists the character in developing certain skills:

The soul-disciplines are sometimes referred to as 'the Cornerstones of the Self'. When all four are in balance, the character may go on to great things. Developing one discipline to the exclusion of the others tends to make for an unstable and ill-balanced nature. When all four disciplines reach 90%, the character automatically achieves Illumination (see Cults of Terror).

Friday, 14 April 2017

Rumble in the jungle

A picture is worth a thousand words. More than a thousand when it's by a master artist like Kevin Jenkins. So I'll keep this short. Kev has been madly busy on visual design for the next Star Wars movie - or maybe the next but one - but he cleared some time recently to do a few sketches of the cover for the seventh Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King's Domain. And when I tell you this is one of the designs we rejected, you'll get a hint of how amazing the finished cover is going to look.

Kev says of this one: "Our hero is taking down an attacker while being surprised by a second assailant, below massive jungle waterfalls with temples carved with massive stone faces." Of course we apologized for dragging him away from a galaxy far, far away but he added, "Believe me, after four years on the same subject it was nice to sketch a dragon."

An awesome guy and an awesome talent. We're lucky to have him. And anyway, I'm a Trekker.

Thursday, 6 April 2017


A little while back, Erik observed in a comment that sometimes when I post a scenario I can seem to be holding it at arm’s length, as though it’s “old hack and slash stuff you're slightly embarrassed about”.

Well, it’s true that I’ve never really cared for dungeon bashes. I mean by that the kind of adventure that’s just one damned thing after another – a hydra in this room, three orcs in the next. Sometimes with a riddle, but never with any rhyme or reason.

The trouble with that kind of scenario is it fails the criterion that SF author Damien G Walter identifies as necessary to generate a powerful and satisfying experience:
“Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the huge problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.”
Now, not all dungeons happen underground. Sometimes you can be on a quest of hundreds of miles across forests and deserts and swamps, but if that’s just an excuse to thread together a bunch of unconnected encounters then – yeah, maybe interesting, as Damien says, but never compelling.

Likewise, going underground doesn’t always lead to a dungeon bash. Empire of the Petal Throne players who’ve visited the wizard Nyelmu’s Garden of Weeping Snows will know that sometimes you can descend into a mythic dreamtime where the journey through the underworld mirrors an inner psychic journey. By the way, that's also why (despite the picture above) I never use figurines. I want players to use their imaginations and be the character, not look down on them like counters on a board.

Most of the times dungeons are just a way to pre-plan a highly structured session so the GM can be lazy and not have to engage with the player-characters. Or have to think up anything interesting, come to that. I’ve perpetrated a few dungeons in my time - mostly for White Dwarf, for which I wrote to order. There are some dungeons too in Dragon Warriors, a concession because we knew the game would initially be played by 10-13 year-old novice GMs for whom a dungeon can be the refereeing equivalent of bike stabilizers. Though I hope (and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) there is something special in those scenarios that raises them above the level of goblins in ten-foot-square rooms.

In my own games, the nearest I might get to a dungeon is something like “The Honey Trap”. More usually the scenario is a set of loose notes that can be fitted around the player-characters’ current activities, as in “Friends in Foreign Parts”, “Just off the Boat”, or “In the Wrong Hands”.

Here are some other scenarios that I most definitely wouldn’t hold at arm’s length. You won’t find an ochre jelly or black pudding in any of ‘em.
  • "The King is Dead" - a scenario set in 5th century BC Greece. The version I ran took the sci-fi road into Highlander territory, but you could play it as straight whodunit or throw in a pinch of Cthulhu horror.
  • "The Hollow Men", set in the Dragon Warriors world of Legend. In our game the characters were members of a mercenary band out for revenge, but there are other ways in.
  • "Silent Night", a scenario and mini-campaign setting in Legend, which you can run with new or existing characters.
  • "A Ballad of Times Past", a one-off scenario set in a world where magic is rare and hard to come by. Originally published in White Dwarf 51.
  • "Wayland's Smithy", my version of what "finding a magic sword in treasure" ought to feel like.
  • "More Precious Than Gold", set in the Ophis universe that Oliver Johnson and I originally devised for Games Workshop's never-published Questworld book.
  • "Internecine!" - a Tekumel scenario involving the Hlüss with a few nods to the first season Star Trek episode "Arena".
  • "A Box of Old Bones", a very early Dragon Warriors scenario from White Dwarf 71. Are those bones a real holy relic or is it all just down to the power of belief, persuasion and propaganda? You decide.
And lastly there's the Champions scenario "The Enemy of My Enemy". Here's something to get you in the mood for that...

Friday, 24 March 2017

Where to buy a blessing

You’ll be pleased to hear, especially if you were one of the people who backed it, that The Serpent King’s Domain is nearing completion. Paul Gresty has delivered the manuscript to editor Richard S Hetley, Russ Nicholson is more than halfway through the interior illustrations, and Kevin Jenkins is clearing a space in his busy Hollywood schedule to paint the cover. 

I'm not in charge of the production (the Kickstarter was run by Megara Entertainment, not Fabled Lands LLP) but at a guess the backers might have their copies by the summer, and paperback editions could be on sale in the autumn. Fingers crossed, anyway.

In the course of editing, Richard is coming across some interesting points which force us to revisit some of our rules choices. I say “force”, but to be honest it’s fun having these intensive game conversations. The process is making us all quite eager to run a Kickstarter for The Lone and Level Sands – though maybe this time we should get the book nearly complete first.

* * *

Richard: I continue to proofread by playing, and… ack! It's not so easy to keep track of blessings anymore!

Paul, is the plan that all these new deities would be worshipped in book 8 as well? Or, Dave and Jamie, would it be culturally appropriate? If so, then good. That makes this change much simpler for the reader.

Likewise, you added more than one new type of blessing. Would these blessings (no more and no fewer) be available in book 8? Also good from a game design standpoint, because then they would be “special blessings you get from the southern continent” instead of “weird quirks this new author added for one book.”

And questions which might involve Dave and Jamie:

The price on these blessings keeps changing. I depended on stability in pricing in the northern continent to allow me to update my budget without flipping through too many pages: “Oh, Tyrnai in this port? Combat blessing restored for 25 Shards.” Should “inflation” be allowed in these blessings for the higher-level books? And whether yes or no, should there be such variation from one town to the next?

And this isn't about gods necessarily, but is the entire world called Harkuna or just the northern continent? Book 1 is ambivalent on this.

Dave: I can see that it makes sense to have widely varying prices. On the northern continent cities are linked by trade, stabilising prices to a large extent. In the south, the jungle tends to isolate each community into its own pocket economy. Less trade means less standardisation -- and an opportunity, of course, for daring merchant-adventurers to make a profit.

Wrt the name of the world... I think Harkuna is just the northern continent. It certainly isn't a word that southerners would use. However, ambiguity exists in real scholarship and can do in FL too. When the Maya spoke of “the One World” did they mean just Central America, or all the Americas, or the entire planet? The fact is that usage changes to fit changing ideas of reality, so you might find one sage who'll tell you that Harkuna means all the lands, where others might say it's just the northern part. Jamie, any thoughts?

Blessings... well, I doubt if the regions of book 8 will have many deities in common with book 7. They're different geographies with little commerce between them, except perhaps along the coast. Blessings acquired in any book to date have worked in all books, regardless of whether the deity in question is locally worshipped, but it's possible we could have blessings that are more restricted. (In one of my Tekumel games, players came from a small island where they grew up worshipping a local god; once they travelled to the mainland he had no power to aid them.)

Jamie: “Originally there were three gods, those who created the world. These are hardly mentioned in the legends. They are dim, shadowy figures of a primordial age. Even their names bespeak dream-like obscurity: Harkun, He Who Is Like Harkun, and The Third God. These three having died, their place was taken by powerful demiurges, each with his or her own delineated jurisdiction. Thus there is Tyrnai, overseer of war; Elnir, lord of the sky; irascible Maka, who brings disease and famine if not appeased with sacrifices; Lacuna, lady of the hunt; Nagil, king of the dead; wise Molhern, deity of craftsmen; Sig, who guides the soft footsteps of thieves; the Three Fortunes, goddesses of destiny; and the twin gods Alvir and Valmir, who rule the land under the waves. Those, at least, are the gods of the northern continent...” (3:357 ).

But the idea about the original three, a kind of Trinity (actually something similar to Finnish old gods if I recall correctly) were the creators of the whole world of Harkuna through their deaths. Harkun falls from 'heaven' or 'the land of the Gods' and his spine becomes the mountain range that runs through northern Harkuna ie the Spine of Harkun. His blood is the ocean and so on. But as Dave says, it's the northern folks word for Earth or the 'One World'. I don't think the southern continent would actually call it Harkuna, though they could. They ought to have a similar kind of back story as it were. A different name, but still 3 elder gods. I say 'ought' and not 'must' or 'should' so it's not that important. Some southerners might also name a mountain range after the bones of Harkun and scholars would argue endlessly about who was right. Perhaps fight a war about it, that kind of thing.

The Uttakin take a different view of course... And we shall have to wait and see what the scientists and scholars of book 8 think about that too. Also Atticala and Chrysoprais would have their own versions as well.

As for Blessings, having different prices is fine. But bear in mind that you could start in book 8. That is of course a problem with our whole system - getting to very high levels. And starting with a level 8 character and then just sailing straight to book one makes things a lot easier. But still. Not sure what we can do about that.

I'd think about getting rid of the one god rule perhaps? You can have one God per 'culture' as it were? That means you could have multiple blessings, but hopefully that won't be too unbalancing because it would be very hard to get another blessing of Tyrnai for instance if you are inland. Except of course Ebron where you can never worship anyone else without renouncing him and becoming an Apostate.

Dave: We can't change any meta-rules (like having one god) because those are written into the start of each book. But you can build in special casing within any book, of course -- Ebron being an example of that.

As for the creation myths - well, we can say that's one story. Other cultures will have different stories. The people of Dangor think that the rest of the world outside their city state hasn't been fully created yet, but is just a dream their god is having. Q: “Is the whole world called Harkuna?” A: “No, it's called Dangor.”

Jamie: I meant just for books down south as it were. Part of the problem being that you'd be unable to renounce Enlil for instance whilst in Dunpala. You can have local gods on top of your legacy gods from books one to six. And of course, yes, each culture has their view on the world, like Ebron etc.

Paul: In some (most) cases in FL7, the blessings you get are the same as in the earlier books, so that only the source is different. You can get a THIEVERY blessing from Ko, a SCOUTING blessing from Kel Kin, etc. So it's rarely a problem that you'll need a blessing, but can't get hold of it without crossing the world.

The Sage of Peace in book 6 is a good example of how you can use a specific case to change the meta-rules - it specifically says that you can be an initiate of the Sage of Peace as well as an initiate of another faith, at the same time.

There is a loophole to getting out of the church of Ebron without becoming an apostate, for the record - you become an initiate of Ebron in book 5 as normal, but instead of renouncing the faith as normal you head over to book 2, and have the encounter with the 3 knights of Nagil. They give you the option of becoming an initiate of Nagil on the spot, which replaces the god you're currently an initiate of - that is, you can leave the faith of Ebron without picking up the necessary codeword to say that you're a heretic.

You want loopholes in FL1 - 6? I got 'em.

Jamie: Hah, though not in the eyes of the Expungers! But that’s typical of a lot of stuff – book 2 having been written before book 5 came along and buggered around with the rules. That could be fixed in a later edit though. However, it’s a mild problem in the grand scheme of things I think.

Dave: We really should have written all twelve books and fully standardized the rules before releasing the first one. Not that videogame developers work that way either, but patches for print gamebooks are harder to deliver.

Richard: Yes, well, if you want to change the history of the real world, I can think of more important things to perfect than the development of Fabled Lands. I wouldn't stop you from the latter, of course…

Before commenting on these blessings, I used the search button to look for familiar blessings (Combat and so on) in books beyond what I'd read in 1-3. I saw things like randomized blessings, which is fine. What I didn’t see was “Yes, you non-initiates need to pay thirty Shards on this page, but thirty-five Shards on this other page in the same book. Gotcha!” Remember that, unlike with checking a local market, the player needs to go through (to use a computer metaphor) sub-menu after sub-menu to find the price on just one local blessing, then repeat this from the top for the next one. So, inflation for the book as a whole might make sense, but I'd argue that the gameplay benefit of standardization between cities would benefit players greatly, despite the “sense” of local supply and demand.

I'm not too concerned about difficulties in renouncing worship. The biggest ticket items are resurrections, right? I'd sail across the ocean for several hundred Shards; that's the amount you make from cargo anyway. And you also get a free teleport to the location of the temple when you die so you can change things without losing that cash. Otherwise, getting a discount on exactly one blessing out of the crowd has never seemed important enough to risk the opportunity cost of “Oops! I didn't realize I'd want to become the Chosen One of Nagil! Missed opportunity for this Alvir and Valmir initiate, here.”

In books 1 to 3, I felt little reason to the “God” box outside of resurrection. If this changed in 4 to 6, I wouldn't know. (And then there's Illuminate of Molhern, which doesn't go in that box at all and is just good to have.) Thus, in books 7 and onward, I still wouldn't see myself becoming an initiate of anybody without a higher reason: Huan-da and In-da giving Nahual is one such reason. Unless other gods give powers or Chosen One-style plot events, I don't see players choosing them, especially if there's another new crowd in the next book too.

I really like the idea of Obfuscation as a blessing type. I'd want it in there somewhere for the name alone! If it's too similar to other types, though, perhaps players would like to see an older blessing reappear: some overlap in “quirks” with another region in the world. The Clarity blessing, of course, being relevant to Nahual combat, surely would reappear in all subsequent books that use such combat.

I'm noting the conversation about Harkuna. Bumping against the southern edge of “the world of Harkuna” got my attention. For loopholes, well, I'm trying to catch any in this book as I read. Obsessive gamers will always find them…

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Never to be servants

Continuing the SF theme, a quick shout-out for the latest Kickstarter from Cubus Games. This one is a sequel to Heavy Metal Thunder by Kyle B Stiff:
"Heavy Metal Thunder is a gamebook hybrid that merges the strengths of two different mediums. You’ve got the immersive experience of a detailed story as well as the character customization, inventory management, and life-or-death struggle that only a really powerful game can deliver. It appeals to anyone who wants to lose themselves in a gritty space age war story. The protagonist is a soldier, a jetpack infantryman separated from his comrades. Alien invaders have taken over our solar system and things look bleak for the human resistance."
This new episode is called Slaughter at Masada and reimagines the famous Judean fortress on Olympus Mons*:
"Masada, a brutal warzone where three sides are vying for dominance, has been under siege for three years, and to overcome despair the people trapped in Mount Olympus have embraced a deadly philosophy of 'war for the sake of war'. They are surrounded by Invader berserkers - criminal psychopaths too dangerous to be trusted inside spaceships. And now the Black Lance Legion has arrived to break the siege and recruit the fighters of Masada - even against their will, if necessary."
The KS campaign runs until Saturday, so jump on quick if you don't want to miss it.
* Fun facts: Olympus Mons is three times the height of Everest but, being a shield volcano, has an average gradient of only 1 in 11. So if you stood on it you wouldn't actually realize it was a mountain!