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Friday, 12 October 2018

Jackanory for gamers

It's strange to find yourself a fan of something that's based on your own work, but I'm completely addicted to Guy Sclanders' gripping weekly playthroughs of Fabled Lands.

It's not just self-indulgence; the bits I enjoy most are Guy's unexpected characterizations (Sean Connery as Estragon the wizard, for instance) and his hilarious asides. Every show has several laugh-out-loud moments, which is more than you can say for a lot of TV comedy these days.

If you haven't yet had the pleasure, start from the beginning and be prepared to lose a few evenings to unbridled fun. Some of the episodes can be hard to find on YouTube, so here are the links:
And these bonus episodes, which were originally run live with the audience making the decisions (and, not always so successfully, rolling the dice...)

And how about that interactive adventure sheet by Michiel Helvensteijn, incorporating Anton Natarov's nifty online dice-rolling app?

Friday, 5 October 2018

“The Climate of a Foreign Logic” (scenario)

If you tried out last year's Victorian roleplaying scenario “Murder Your Darlings” then you might like to give this much simpler and more traditional adventure a go. It’s also set  in Oxford but a few years earlier, in 1884. Incidentally, in our campaign there is no magic as such, as it’s a science-fictional universe which has room for Cthulhu, time travel and even Victor Frankenstein, but not sorcery. All the same, psionic abilities are real (if rare) and are usually accepted as magic by those who possess them.

Teddy Trittfield has recently gone up to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read Literae Humaniores. Teddy has always been a dutiful child and a hard worker, but in his first term he has not been in touch with his parents and reports suggest that his studies are slipping. His mother (who could be one of the player-characters) is worried that Teddy is neglecting his studies, running up some whopping debts, and falling under the spell of some pretty unsavoury types.

On investigation, it soon turns out Teddy has fallen in with a group of friends who have a dining club called the Procrusteans. They are:
  • James Orpington-Soames (Christ Church, English)
  • The Hon Reginald Wincanton (Christ Church, History)
  • Count Konradin (“Konnie”) von Hegel und Vasserkind (Magdalen, postgrad Music)
  • Basil Hinge (Keble, Chemistry)
The Procrusteans at Christ Church are in the circle of the senior History tutor, Sir Nicholas Tollens, who is said to be a member of a club called the Five-Sided Table (motto: Tuta petant alii – “let others seek security”) itself a remnant of the once-notorious Hell Fire Club.

Sir Nicholas has a fellow Five-Sider staying with him, the Spanish spiritualist Jose Lunares.

Sir Nicholas’s coachman is Jollyback and his valet is Chifton. They have some handy skills and can find a half dozen ruffians if needed.
If the player-characters visit Telbeck & Sons in the High Street, who supply hunting equipment to Sir Nicholas, then a bribe of a few pounds will reveal that Sir Nicholas has his bullets engraved with a special symbol. An Occultism roll identifies this as a Satanic rune.

They might also want to buy some firearms of their own:

If the characters search Teddy’s room they will find a burnt scrap of paper in the hearth with part of the Lord’s Prayer written backwards.

Other notable NPCs
The President of Magdalen is Dr Frederick Bulley (73 years old, distinguished, tall, white-haired; quite infirm now).
Teddy’s tutor at Magdalen is Dr William Cove.
The Senior Dean of Arts is Dr Waverly Bamfield.
The Dean of Divinity is the Rev Dr John Joyce.
The Head Porter is Dannock.
The SCR Butler is Carndyce.

What’s going on
Lt-General Augustus Pitt Rivers is relocating his famous collection of obscure ethnographic artefacts to the University Museum. The majority of the collection will not be moved until an new annexe is built to the Musuem in two years’ time, but a few items are already on display. Sir Nicholas and Jose Lunares have a plan to break in, get the mask of Saaga the Devil Doctor, and perform a ritual that will make them both immortal.

To complete the ritual, they intend to sacrifice Teddy, whom the Procrusteans have had doing a bunch of initiation tasks that are actually components of an old spell. So far he's completed the first two of these. The recital of the Lord's Prayer will take place on the final day of Michaelmas term:
  • Taking the sacrament while wearing an inverted crucifix
  • Climbing the Martyrs’ Memorial to put kindling around their feet
  • Reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards on Advent Sunday
Teddy is important to the ritual because he has some Haida blood – his great-great-grandfather had a child by a native woman in British Columbia in the 1770s. The ritual is actually irrelevant, as is Teddy’s ancestry, but Lunares and the others believe these to be important components of a spell. The truth (at least in our campaign) is that it is all a psionic effect and the mask and Satanic elements are just window-dressing.

“Spells” (psionic effects) to which Lunares has access:

  • To enrage dogs and turn them upon their masters.
  • To call a fog: 10 yards visibility in which Lunares has a lantern that shines clearly (a mental effect, but one that covers a very wide area).
  • To cause people to become drowsy (WL roll) or, if asleep, to remain so.
  • To incite paranoia (EQ or argue with friends, to the death if EQ failed again).
  • To foresee elements of the future by means of automatic writing.

What the players might do to stymie the ritual:

  • Prevent Teddy being abducted. The Five-Siders will use Basil Hinge instead. The ritual can still go ahead but less successfully.
  • Prevent Teddy doing the third task. The ritual can still go ahead but less successfully.
  • Save Teddy before the sacrifice. The ritual will feed off Lunares’s own essence.

Fully successful ritual:
Both Sir Nicholas and Jose Lunares become immortals. Saaga’s spirit (actually an aspect of Lunares’s own personality) “awakens” in the mask which will float in the air.

Less successful ritual:
Saaga’s spirit (see above) will be available for the Five-Siders to consult and get a “spell” from once each new moon.

Using Lunares’s own essence:
Lunares dies horribly and Sir Nicholas, driven quite mad, insists that he is the reincarnated Saaga.

Background: the year is 1884
The British prime minister is William Gladstone
The American president is Chester A Arthur
The Poet Laureate is Lord Tennyson (until this year just plain Alfred Tennyson)

What you might be talking about:

The electric street lighting starting to appear in London
The first automobiles (early models reaching 10 mph)
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show now touring the USA
The eruption of Krakatoa last year (still said to be affecting the weather)
The ongoing siege of Khartoum by the Mad Mahdi
The invention of the machine gun (not yet in production)
The opening of the first Underground stations (parts of the Metropolitan & District lines)
The first commercially available fountain pens (1884’s iPod?)
Scotland Yard’s dismissal of the concept of fingerprinting identification
The patenting of linotype earlier this year
Construction of the Cresta Run
Laying of the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty
The architecture of Gaudi
The banking crisis that is threatening an economic depression
The terrorist attack by the Irish Republican Brigade on Scotland Yard

What you might be reading:

Stevenson (Treasure Island)
Twain (Huckleberry Finn)
Edwin Abbott Abbott (Flatland)
Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilyich)
Das Kapital volume two in early pre-publication pamphlet form
Works by Wilkie Collins, Ambrose Bierce, Jules Verne, Mrs Oliphant, Henry James

Where you might be seen of an evening:

Plays by Oscar Wilde (just starting his career) and Ibsen
Operas by Gilbert & Sullivan (at the height of their success) or Puccini
Concert works by Bruckner and Wolf

What you might be whistling:

“Oh my darling Clementine”

Who you might know:

George Bernard Shaw, 28 years old, unsuccessful novelist (a Fabian)
Oscar Wilde, 30 years old
Richard Burton, explorer, 63 years old but mysteriously left London 12 years ago for Trieste
Lewis Carroll, 52 years old, still resident at Christ Church but no longer teaching
Richard D’Oyly Carte, impresario, 40 years old
Henry Irving, actor, 46 years old.
Sir William Kelvin, scientist, 60 years old
Rudyard Kipling, journalist, 19 years old
Arthur Machen, editor and private tutor, 21 years old
Robert Louis Stevenson, author, 34 years old
Bram Stoker, literary critic, 39 years old
Ellen Terry, actress, 37 years old
Beatrice Potter, sociologist and Fabian, 26 years old
Charles Booth, sociologist, 44 years old, currently compiling London Labour & the London Poor
Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, ethnologist and collector, 57 years old
Thomas Neumark-Jones, occultist, 43 years old

Naturally these or other prominent figures would need to be paid for as Contacts.


Average                      -10 points
You have a job and are dependent on it for living expenses. Income £100 a year.

Comfortable               no points
You have lodgings in a respectable part of town (if that’s where you want to be) and income of £200 a year.

Wealthy                      10 points
You have a townhouse or pleasant home out-of-town and the use of your club. Income £400 a year.

Very Wealthy             20 points
You have a country estate and a townhouse, each with its own staff, plus a coachman and valet who travel with you. Income £1000 a year.

You can live quite well on £400 a year (roughly £60,000 in today’s terms). 

Adventure seed 

The following incident has nothing to do with this scenario, but is a real newspaper report from 1884 that might provide the seed for a follow-up adventure:


Lastly a few notes about how it panned out in our game. Lord Eidolon (Tim Savin) opened the luggage of one of the other characters, Teddy's father, and was affected by a paranoia rune left there by Lunares. This was a powerful hypnotic influence that caused him to distrust the others, which of course soon led to nobody trusting anybody very much. Sensing trouble, Henry Morton Stanley (Paul Gilham) moved from the Randolph Hotel to the Eastgate. That saved him when Eidolon burst into the Randolph lounge and opened fire with a shotgun, crippling a couple of characters before leaping through the window and disappearing into the fog. A city-wide manhunt ensued. The others learned that Eidolon could be cured by burning the rune and giving him the ashes to drink mixed in wine, but that if he failed to do so by midnight the paranoia would be permanent. (Merely a matter of belief, of course, not real magic, but it was the only way to break the hypnotic suggestion.) There seemed little hope of catching him before midnight, or of convincing the police to let them in with a goblet of wine if he was apprehended. As for the fate of Eidolon himself, my write-up of the session ends with this note of finality: "Even his dog now fears him."

Friday, 21 September 2018

I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous

I knew if I waited long enough Brexit would give me something to laugh about, and this video is worth the price of -- admission isn't the right word, I guess. The opposite.

If you've been curious about my and Jamie's new gamebook Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain? now is your chance to try it out as a free online PDF. (Oh, and incidentally if you need to backtrack you can use Alt + left arrow in a PDF just like the Back button in a browser. That's for PCs. There are options for other devices but you don't need me to tell you about those; you've got the internet after all.)

Share the PDF if you like. This book took us a year to write and, although I'm aware most gamebook readers would rather we'd done something with goblins, I think it's kind of important. Possibly the most worthwhile book we've written, in fact. With just six months to go before the UK and the EU part company, we now just want as many people as possible to get the chance to play it. And don't be put off by the sheer mind-crushing horror of Britain's current political fubar. Can You Brexit? may not be quite as laugh-out-loud as the Titanic video, but we've done our best to inject it with plenty of humour along with all the informative stuff.

And the print book is still on sale for another six months if digital gaming just doesn't do it for you:

And finally, as the newscasters used to say, there's this too. Oh, I can see Brexit is going to usher in a whole new era of deliciously bitter satire:

Friday, 7 September 2018

Critical IF cover design

Following on from the previous post, here are the cover briefs I sent to Jon Hodgson when Fabled Lands LLP decided to republish the Virtual Reality books overselves rather than partnering with Osprey to do them.

*  *  *

These are my initial ideas. I’m open to any suggestions or changes, as the briefs were originally prepared on the assumption I’d have to hand them off through a chain of editors and art directors at Osprey and would get no direct communication with the artist. Hence I’ve probably over-managed the details... however, here’s the cover Osprey intended for Down Among the Dead Men so you can see why I’m getting a tad control-freaky.

The top third of each cover will need to be for the author and title, and the logo extends about 2.5cm from the bottom. Maybe we should have the background and main foreground elements on separate layers, so that a hydra’s head or a sword could partially overlap the title lettering if necessary.

Ideally each book should each have a unique palette with one predominant colour to help it stand out.

Necklace of Skulls

I based the new design on the original Virtual Reality cover with these changes:
  • Removed the second (kneeling) figure. Now it's just the warrior.
  • The warrior is holding a flaming torch and a sword.
  • The view is straight-on from directly behind the warrior to make the threat of the hydra more dramatic.
  • I've put the warrior on a raised ledge of rock a few feet above the desert floor. This allows the hydra to be nearer to him and to appear to be rearing up out of a chasm.
But... it would be better not to be looking at the back of the hero’s neck. If (unlike in my sketch) one of the hydra heads were further forward, the hero could be partly turning to keep an eye on it, giving us the opportunity for a partial or full profile – just to create more engagement with him as a character:
Background and palette - as we’re looking up past the hero with a slightly low-angle shot, I think the background should be a midnight blue night sky dotted with stars. It reinforces the desert setting and astronomy is part of the mythological context of the adventure. The hydra dark-scaled. The torchlight picks out the blaze of colour (feathered head-dress, etc) in the warrior’s garb and his glistening skin, the yellow light picked up in the sand and rocks where he’s standing.

The Maya sword is made of hardwood with sharpened spikes of knapped flint or sharpened volcanic glass fixed along the edges. Just the thing for killing a hydra.

Down Among the Dead Men
A pirate fantasy adventure, a little bit earlier in history than Pirates of the Caribbean – think Elizabethan/Jacobean period. It’s pretty obvious how I’ve changed this one from the old Virtual Reality version:
  • The zombie pirate is looking straight at us.
  • He’s closer, more threatening.
  • He’s already climbed halfway over the rail.
  • The rail tilts up left to right rather than down as on the VR cover - more dramatic that way.
Put a few wisps of mist in the foreground, picking up the fog in the background. Also the original colour scheme is a bit of a dog’s dinner. We need a more limited palette to give the image more impact.

Once Upon a Time in Arabia

The classic Thief of Baghdad type adventure. It’s not even worth looking at the original cover – I never liked it. So, on to new ideas...

This drawing is a bit sketchy, so I’d better explain what’s going on. It’s a aerial shot above an Arabian Nights city looking steeply down at the towers and domes below.

Our hero is flying on a magic carpet, the wind whipping at his clothes. In one hand he has a sword. From a ring on the other hand he has called forth a genie - the swirl of smoke curls out of the ring and under the carpet, solidifying into a giant demonic figure who is ready to assist the hero.

I don’t think the hero should have a full beard (though the genie can). He should either be clean shaven or have a little hipster goatee. Or it could be a heroine (no goatee in that case). The traditional Douglas Fairbanks Arabian look, ie flowing white like the Prince of Persia used to wear before he went all moody black leather.

I envisage the genie as taking shape out of smoke that looks like a storm-cloud – dark violet/black shot through with inner flashes of lightning suggesting violence and magical power.

Overall colour palette: how about that haze of golden yellows and ochres that you get in hot, dusty climates as the sun is close to setting? If that suffuses the background, we can then pick out some bright colours (the carpet, jewels on the hero/heroine) and contrast that with the white flowing clothes of the hero/heroine and the black, billowing smoke of the genie.

Heart of Ice

The idea here is we’ve got a guy slogging through a blizzard out on the Saharan Ice Wastes towards a city in the distance. Deep snow. He’s dressed in arctic weather clothing: parka, fur-lined hood, snow goggles, etc.
He’s heard something and he’s turning back to face us to shine a flashlight at whoever or whatever is coming. (So he’s twisting at the waist, insofar as his bulky clothing will permit.) In his other hand (held out to the side so we can see it) is a barysal gun - the raygun of the 23rd century.

In the background is the place he was heading for – the city of Du-En, abandoned and empty for a hundred years. A bit Gormenghast, a bit Mountains of Madness. Massive walls, so hazed by distance and snow that the architecture (half sci-fi, half ‘30s futurist fascist) seems to render our human endeavours and dramas insignificant. We can’t see the city walls and towers that clearly because of the snow-haze.

This is a variant cover I did. Disregard the image/concept here, but I do like the colour scheme of the background. I’m thinking that this one can be the most monochrome of the series - all icy blues, whites, greys. Even the figure shouldn’t be too colourful, and possibly the only variation might be a bit of backlight from the flashlight reflected in his tinted goggles or something.

By the way, that figure - he could be the hero, he could just as easily be one of the adversaries. This is quite a morally ambiguous book and the anonymity of the figure reflects that.

*  *  *

The brief isn't the end of the story. Just like with game design, where you come up with an initial plan but then have to work out during development how to implement that and which parts work and which need changing, the cover concepts go back and forth before you arrive at something that everybody's happy with.

Take Once Upon A Time In Arabia. Jon's first sketch featured a female protagonist in historically credible but determinedly unsexy garb. Well, fair enough; we're not in the 1980s now. As Jon said:
"I went for a female character on Once Upon a Time in Arabia, which I'm kinda regretting - maybe a male would have more appeal to the readership, and I'm not keen on making a 'sexy' female character."
I agreed that a young male hero might be better, not least because I thought Jon might be more comfortable making him attractive and athletic. I went on to say:

"His clothing probably needs to be as much like the Fairbanks-style stereotypical 'Arabian adventurer' costume as you can bear to go. I know it's not historically accurate, but I'm minded of what Jonathan Miller said when staging Anthony and Cleopatra: 'I'd like to dress her in Greek-style clothing, but audiences think it's wrong if she's not in Hollywood's idea of Ptolemaic fashion.' Also, the image is going to work better if the flying carpet is moving left to right. And can we add the jinni's taloned hands for extra impact?"

Of the first Heart of Ice sketch I said:
"I like the icy colours in the cover, but would like to get a real raging blizzard. It makes the situation more life-or-death -- will this lone figure even survive to reach that city..? -- and injects some doomy apocalyptic feeling into the scene."
I'm very pleased with the end result, but you can judge for yourself whether our cover creation process was a success - Jon's final book covers are here.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Blood Sword cover design

A while back I mentioned how the cover of The Lord of Shadow Keep would have been a real mess if the artist hadn’t had the sense to ignore my brief. That time I dropped the ball, but mostly I get it right. Here’s the proof, in the form of the briefs I sent to Sebastien Brunet for Blood Sword. A friendly warning: this could get technical…


A lot of gamebook covers avoid depicting the player-character, which makes sense as gamebooks are seen through the protagonist’s eyes. Way of the Tiger does it another way, more like the view in a third-person CRPG where you get to see the hero. Let’s do that with Blood Sword. That way we can get a sense of scale in the scenes and monsters the hero is facing.

As there are four character types to choose from in Bloodsword, we can have a different character type depicted as the hero in each cover. Then in the fifth cover maybe we could show all four. The character types are:
  • Book One: a warrior (male)
  • Book Two: a rogue (male)
  • Book Three: a sage (female)
  • Book Four: a wizard (female)

The Battlepits of Krarth
A huge four-limbed creature of solid shadow is about to attack a human warrior.
The setting:
A long hall or temple with bronze doors. The place is lit by bowls of burning coals that produce clouds of incense. Those bowls are on bronze stands. To give some movement to the image, perhaps the monster is knocking some of these bowls aside as it closes in on the player-character.

The monster:
A hulking creature of living shadow. Its entire form is jet black except for its eyes, which blaze with blue-white light. It has four arms, and in each hand it grips a massive scimitar (also jet black). In the book this monster is known as “Nebularon, Drinker of Souls, Swallower of Sorcery” and I based it a little bit on Eternity in the Doctor Strange comics.

As the monster is supposed to have a skin of shadow that contains the blazing blue-white light, you could have lines along its body and limbs where we can see thin cracks of light shining through. That’s up to you – I just mention it in case having it entirely jet-black doesn’t look right.

The player-character:
He is a warrior who could be armed with a spear or a sword and shield (but not a bow). A low-angle shot to emphasize the size of the shadow monster, so that the warrior is in the foreground with his back to us looking up at the monster.

The Kingdom of Wyrd
A funeral procession of sinister monks carries a shrouded body along an underground tunnel, watched from the shadows by a rogue-like player-character.

The setting:
A stone tunnel deep underground. There are various round ventilation shafts built high up in the walls of the tunnel. We are viewing the scene in the tunnel from one of these ventilation shafts.

The bad guys:
A procession of evil monks wearing peaked hoods. They are carrying a shrouded body on a wooden bier and each has a tall candle to light the way. We are looking down at them as the procession goes along the tunnel. In case it helps, here is Russ Nicholson's picture from the original book.

The player-character:
A rogue (thief-type character) has climbed down the ventilation shaft and is braced against the mouth of it peeking out as the procession goes by underneath him. He is lightly armoured (leather, not plate metal) and has a bow, a quiver of arrows on his back, a sheathed dagger at his belt.

The Demon’s Claw
The sage levitates high above a mountain stronghold.

The setting:
We’re high in the air looking down at stronghold that is built on a ledge among high mountain peaks above an almost sheer drop. The dawn light glances off its sharp cornices and columns of glassy grey-black stone. The central tower of the stronghold is capped by an egg-shaped dome encrusted with carnelian and topaz. It hangs above the grey buildings like a second sun, catching the rays of dawn and seeming to magnify them. Here’s the drawing from the original book:

The bad guys:
A group of Magian wizards have run out onto the terrace and are getting ready to cast spells at the player-character. (They are tiny at this distance, so we probably can’t make out much detail of their clothing, but in fact they wear gold-trimmed red robes and tall copper crowns.)

The player-character:
A female sage (priestess-type) in simple white tunic. She carries a plain wooden staff and is levitating in midair. Our view is therefore looking down past her from behind as she descends towards the stronghold.

The sorceress gazes up in awe at the Angel of Death who stands like a skyscraper in the centre of the desolate land of Sheol.

The setting:
A vast flat plain strewn with small rocks. In the far distance, the plain is ringed by sharp mountains, but they are so far off that they don’t look tall. Certainly not as tall as the central figure, Azrael.

The “monster”:
This is the archangel Azrael, the angel of death. First of all, he is huge - as tall as a mountain, so that his head is actually hazed by clouds and distance.Azrael is naked, but some states in the US tend to be prudish and won’t allow us to show genitals on a book cover, so he should stand facing slightly away from us. He’s just turning his head as if he has noticed the presence of the player-character – though to him she is insignificant, barely more than a gnat.

In appearance he’s like the classic Greek-Roman ideal, with muscles that look almost sculpted. His skin is dark grey, but that’s offset by the rich colours of his wings. The pattern of feathers on the wings is like a peacock’s tail, covered with eyes – only most of the eyes are closed, only about a tenth of the eyes are open. Here’s the description from the book:
A naked giant as large as a mountain. Wrapped across his face is a white blindfold. A colossal sword is planted on the ground in front of him, with his mighty hand resting on its ivory pommel. His face is beautiful beyond mortal comprehension, and he has wings which touch the edges of the sky. The plumage of these wings has a pattern like a peacock's tail, with countless eyes - except that many of the 'eyes' in the pattern are closed. You know from folklore that each represents a man or woman in the mortal world, closing when that individual dies. When all the eyes are closed it will be the Day of Judgement, and that day cannot be far off. Many more are closed than are open: the dead far outnumber the living.
I’ve done a sketch but there’s a big problem with it – Azrael isn’t nearly tall enough. He should be a thousand feet tall!

The player-character:
A sorceress. She is standing looking up at Azrael and has her left hand raised to her face as if she’s shielding her eyes from a dazzling light. Her other hand grips an elaborate jewelled staff. She wears long flowing robes as you’d expect of a wizard. Her body language doesn’t suggest that she intends to fight Azrael – he’s far too huge and powerful, you may as well think of attacking a mountain. Instead, her posture should convey awe and wonder.

The Walls of Spyte

The setting:
An arctic wasteland. In the background is the city of Spyte, a walled citadel of grey towers and spires surrounded by a high basalt wall. The city is completely encircled by a broad chasm almost a mile across. From this chasm rise sulphurous fumes that form patches of yellowish haze in the icy air.

The monster:
An ice bear – a creature with the heavy frame and shoulders of a bear, but covered in quills like a porcupine. Its claws and quills seem to be made of ice, in fact.

The player-characters:
All four of our heroes from the earlier covers – the warrior with a spear, behind him the rogue aiming his bow, the sage with her quarterstaff, and the sorceress conjuring a powerful spell. All of them are wearing heavy furs to protect themselves in the cold environment.

*  *  *

As a final note, these are very different from the covers I envisaged for a new streamlined edition of Blood Sword a few years ago. The design has to fit what you're trying to do. Those would have been more of a grown-up rethink of the books, with emphasis on the interactive novel aspect. Because in the end we just opted to re-release the original kids' books, complete with tactical maps and rules as complex as a few months of Brexit negotiation, the more vibrant in-your-face cover designs were more appropriate.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Bundles of neuroses

The other night I got a close-up view of a massacre.

Not in real life, thankfully. It was the finale of a Victorian-era campaign I’d been running for over a year. The player-characters caught up with some people who were responsible for a series of horrible deaths in the name of mad science.

The PCs found the scientists unarmed at an Arctic base and they blew them away in cold blood. An old man, a woman, and a child who happened to be in the way. One of them shot in the back, too.

So they saved the world, but in hunting monsters they had indeed become monsters themselves.

Now, I’m not complaining. I love that the heroes of the piece might turn out to be stone killers. Afterwards I mentioned to the players that refereeing a session like that like is having a front row seat at a really gripping movie, but actually it’s much better. Movies these days, impressive though they may be with their CGI-candy, too often lay themselves down in the well-worn story patterns taught in screenwriting classes, like old dogs with a favourite spot before the fire. I want to be surprised, even shocked. I want characters who act in unexpected, complex, and non-trope-driven ways. For that you need a roleplaying game.

There’s a but. We use GURPS for most of our games these days. The reason is that 4th edition is well-designed (at the core anyway; all the special cases slightly break it) and has the breadth to cover everything. The characters go to buy hunting rifles for their trip to Norway, or need to check fatigue for trekking through a marsh in a thunderstorm. Fine, there are rules already written for that, so I can just focus on the game.

The trouble is that GURPS doesn’t easily make provision for the character who develops in an unexpected direction. You have to set out everything about the character before you start playing them. In the case of my campaign, one of the characters had Honesty, which in GURPS 4e doesn’t just mean an inability to lie but indicates that you are rigidly law-abiding and, says the rulebook, “you may never commit murder”. Yet that PC did commit murder in a form that should appall any Victorian gentleman. And so did others of the PCs who had traits like Code of Honour (Gentleman’s), which in GURPS are classed as mental disadvantages and are worth extra character points.

I wouldn’t want to straitjacket the players by forcing them to stick to the stereotypes encouraged by the GURPS rules. Enforcing that would be barely any advance on D&D's boneheaded alignment system. As I said, the fun is in seeing the surprising yet inevitable way players respond to their experiences. Bloody and brutal murder seems inconceivable in the lounge of the Reform Club, but out on the rim of the Empire Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen had their own Mỹ Lais. How dull if a player had to say, “My character sheet has Law-Abiding for -10 points so I stop before committing the murder.” Might as well just let the sheet turn up and play the game, in that case.

Diehard GURPS players will say this is already catered for by the rules. You can spend future character points to buy off those mental disadvantages that no longer apply. But… ugh. That’s spreadsheeting, not roleplaying.

This is of course the old debate about how PCs should be created, which was discussed in some detail by Tim Harford in a guest post on this very blog.
“This discussion has been called ‘DAS vs DIP,’ or ‘Design At Start’ versus ‘Develop In Play’. GURPS is both the archetypal design system, and the classic method of producing full formed characters. I turned my mind to the problem of Develop In Play with GURPS characters and it turns out to be almost impossible to do this without chucking out the whole character system. Many other systems turn out to be strange hybrids in which—for instance—attributes are rolled, but skills are chosen within some kind of budget. This is less logical, but fits much better with a Develop in Play approach.”
The sensible answer is simply not to allow mental disadvantages in the game. As Tim said in his referee notes at the start of the Redemption campaign:
“GURPS mental disadvantages are all caricatures, so I want to avoid using them. This will save us all the hassle of dealing with the inevitable string of stubborn, overconfident, impulsive characters with pirate codes of honour. Another reason to avoid the official mental disadvantages is that characters tend to settle in over time, and the original set of disadvantages tend to be inappropriate.”
To which I would add that mental disadvantages, because they are slapped down on a sheet before you begin to inhabit your character, usually get forgotten anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of times players have said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you I have Claustrophobia. I probably should have mentioned that in the mines back there,” or, “Would my PTSD flashbacks have had any effect when we had that desperate gunfight three sessions ago?”

So my ruling from now on is that nobody will get points for mental disadvantages. Bad traits are part of the fun of playing the character. They’re their own reward; you shouldn’t get points for them. And in any case, characters need to be free to change, otherwise we’re allowing the gaming side of the hobby to smother the roleplaying.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Manticon notes

Jamie and I are just back from Heppenheim, where we were the guests of Nic Bonczyk, our German publisher, at Manticon. Paul Mason, who used to be a regular in our Tekumel games, was also over from Japan so it became quite a reunion.

We got to watch an axe-throwing contest (Jamie actually threw a few himself; nobody was maimed), gave a couple of talks (on roleplaying and on gamebooks), chatted to lots of great people who we previously only knew from the internet, feasted mightily on fine Teutonic fare, and drank our fill of great beer - including the justly fabled Mantibräu.

This all took place at Starkenburg Castle, which overlooks the town like the backlot set for a James Whale movie - and, as a matter of fact, Berg Frankenstein is just a few miles up the valley. While sitting in the town square I couldn't help thinking of the scenes from my comic Mirabilis, themselves hommage to The Fearless Vampire Killers, in which the villagers are watched from on high as they go unsuspectingly about their business.

My only regrets: one, missing the Heppenheim lantern trail, a jaunt around the folklore-themed streetlamps of the old town; and, two, not getting to join in Nic's every-hombre-for-himself Wild West one-shot game, which he was running in a dark corner of the battlements while we gave our second talk.

Nic's game was being played in German, mind you, which would have presented me with something of a challenge as I can understand about ten words - among them, Können Sie Brausgang? which Paul suggested as the German title of our latest Spielbüch. I can forgive continental gamebook fans not being much interested in that one, though; after three days away, returning to Britain felt to me and Jamie like coming back to a madhouse. The newspaper headline was "Doctor" Liam Fox accusing the EU of putting "theological obsession ahead of economic wellbeing". Wait, what? "We've arrived at Heathrow Terminal Decline," said Jamie. We felt like turning right round and getting the plane back to a place of sanity. I can see why most Europeans take no real interest in what's going on in our politics -- probably out of polite embarrassment for the recent British collapse into utter senility.

Here's a spooky small-world moment from our trip. Eating al fresco on the final night, I noticed a guy on the next table wearing an Iron Man t-shirt. I don't mean some johnny-come-lately movie-Shellhead fan, either. This was a proper Gene Colan armour design from the Tales of Suspense days. I wanted to go and shake his hand, but he wasn't one of the convention attendees (they were all up at the castle) and I figured we'd just end up trying to communicate in sign language. Then he looked over at our table and said: "Jamie?" Turns out it was Garry Shaw, a writer and Egyptologist whom Jamie had met at a book festival in Wigtown a couple of years ago. Surrounded by all that Hessian folklore on the street lamps, the chance encounter didn't even seem all that strange.

Just to digress for a moment (as if I hadn't already), some of the Manticon attendees were asking me what I thought of today's gamebooks, and Martin Noutch's Steam Highwayman got some love. So this seems as good a place as any to point out that he's running a Kickstarter for the second SH book. If you like Fabled Lands you'll want to back this. There's just over a week to go and the campaign has already made its target, so what have you got to lose?

Anyway, many thanks to Nic and the Manticon folks for making us welcome. It was our first trip to Germany but it won't be the last.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Things from another world

Now that we’re just past midsummer, up here in the northern hemisphere anyway, how about an Antarctic horror to cool the blood? I came across this piece (which uses Runequest stats, but should be easy to adapt) in White Dwarf #48 while rooting out “The Lone and Level Sands” scenario. I was inspired by John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, obviously, but the timing seems off. The Thing was released in the UK in the summer of ’82, this appeared in White Dwarf in December 1983. Maybe I watched it on home video, then a technology in its early stages, but as I’m such a stickler for the cinematic experience – and was a fan of John Carpenter’s work – that’s a little unlikely. Another mystery whose answer is lost in the murk of memory.

I based my version of the creature on one interpretation of what’s going on in the movie. In the original 1938 short story by John W Campbell it works a bit differently, devouring and imitating prey rather than infecting them. Take your pick. In the absence of a name for the species I called my version the "jesmai", probably as a riposte to Jamie (who edited WD) for insisting that I give it a name at all. But all Campbell tells us is that it is
These creatures are usually encountered in remote territories – arctic climes, lonely heaths, or high mountain peaks. They can appear to be normal humans (or other animals) and are always encountered singly, often passing as hermits or trappers.

When attacking they grapple their opponent and then, if successful, lash out with a razor sharp proboscis hidden at the back of the creature's throat. Damage done by the proboscis is determined solely for the purpose of puncturing armour – the victim takes no actual damage as the proboscis only penetrates a centimetre or so, but a venom with potency equal to the Jasmai's CON is injected.

If the venom overcomes the victim's CON they black out and must roll CON as a percentage to come round. This roll is attempted at the end of each round until the character recovers. After recovering, the character experiences no ill effects from the venom for 2d6 days, whereupon they will suddenly lapse into a terrible fever characterized by alternating bouts of sweating and uncontrollable shivering. At this point the character can still be cured with a Dispel Magic 8, but if the fever is allowed to progress then the character lapses into a coma within 1d4 hours and then loses their own identity as they transform into an exact duplicate of the creature that infected them. The transformation takes one hour and can be reversed only with Divine Intervention.

At the end of the transformation the character will have all the skills, memories and motivations of the original creature. The character's own soul/ identity has been destroyed.

The creatures can be distinguished from humans when cut. Instead of bleeding they exude a greenish sap, and the inside of the body is a homogeneous pulp without bones or organs. They take 1d3 CON damage per full turn for every 10° Celsius above freezing.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Why sharks get jumped

Maybe one reason why I enjoy role-playing campaigns is because I came early to episodic stories. Long before discovering my great love, comic books, I was glued to Doctor Who and big books of Norse myths. The weekly UK comic TV Century 21 (which I collected from the second issue; it was always just “TV21” to me) presented all those Gerry Anderson shows as taking place in one universe, which fuelled the idea that stories don’t have to have an end.

But that’s for kids. The Norse myths mirror the dramas of childhood, where massive fallings-out and reconciliations can happen in the space of a summer’s afternoon and we don’t mind that each morning is a chance to reset the games and interests of the day before.

As we get older, we demand that stories go somewhere. Things must change. And that’s where they can go wrong, because if you’re going to have change you must also have an ending. When a story is forcibly kept going beyond its natural life, the shark is going to be waiting and one day you must jump it. And then we end up wondering what we even saw in that setting and those characters in the first place.

Breaking Bad and The Shield were designed right from the start so that their narrative trajectory would have an end. Likewise the Harry Potter novels. The Sopranos was originally expected to run for a single season, hence the frenzy of plotting in the twelfth and thirteenth episode when commercial success demanded a jolt of boosterspice. I’d rather have had one perfect season myself. A good show should build in its own Hayflick limit.

What goes wrong with an indefinite run? There’s the escalation of dramatic twists. Take Cracker, Jimmy McGovern’s seminal ‘90s TV drama that started so well. After a time, story logic demanded that the danger Fitz and his colleagues tackled would have to strike close to home. But once we’d seen the team sprint to Fitz’s front door once, the next shock twist had to be bigger. One police officer raped another, and then jumped off a roof. Fitz’s family began to be threatened on a regular basis, until finally his son was targeted by a serial killer who strapped him to an electrified bedstead. He was saved from electrocution in the nick of time. If the show had continued, the only place left to go would have been strapping a bomb to the baby’s pram.

Drama isn’t an Escher staircase. You can’t keep upping the threat. But once you succumb to the understandable urge to grab audiences with a big shock, where else can you go? The Doctor has to save the universe every season, and it has to be from a bigger and badder threat, and the personal secrets revealed (or cooked up) have to be ever more profound, ever more earth-shattering. It’s like taking a hit of heroin. You think it’s the answer to everything, but the doses get bigger and eventually you’re going to OD.

But just as toxic as escalating threat is the self-referential archness that creeps into the writing on a long-running series. It’s narrowcasting, as each instalment calls back to events that only the diehard fans remember – and those fans are the ones who wriggle and giggle at every knowing quote, while the rest of us just wonder why the characters are behaving like they’re in a pantomime.

When I began my comic Mirabilis, it was with the intention of telling the story of a single miraculous year. “Everything will change,” was the logline, because it would. Before the green comet appeared, it was the real historical 1901 – no vampires, no steampunk. Then there’s a year of wonders. One year. When the green comet departs, we’re back to the real world.

The first idea was to tell it all in fifty-two episodes, only they couldn’t have been fifty-two of the 5-page instalments that ran in The DFC. Fifty-two full-length comic books, maybe. Then I could tell the story. But it would still reach an end.

“Unless it’s a huge success,” said the publisher, David Fickling. “Then you’ll have to come up with more story.”

“After the comet goes we’re back to a non-fantastic universe, so there’s nothing more to tell.”

“You can just invent a new reason for there to be fantasy, can’t you?” asked Mr Fickling, flinging up his hands.

“Uh-uh.” I can be pretty stubborn in defence of what I see as creative honesty. “The whole point is that on either side of the year of the comet this is the ordinary world. The story is told. It’s over.”

Of course, having an end in sight doesn’t guarantee the writer won’t jump the shark before they get there, but it does at least let them plan out the gear-shifts of surprises and reversals so that they don’t have to start competing with their own ideas to keep the thing moving. And they can be fairly confident that they’ll never get so bored with the characters that they start having them talk with, as it were, repeated winks to the reader.

Have you been disappointed when a favourite TV show, comic book, or series of novels jumped the shark? How would you have fixed the problem? Don't say, "Get a bigger boat."

Friday, 29 June 2018

Games people are playing

I haven't played it, so don't take this as an endorsement, but indie developer Panic Barn have announced a "post-Brexit Papers Please" called Not Tonight. Apparently they're expecting "a flurry of negative reviews". Well, all publicity is good publicity, so that's a better thing to hope for than the crashing silence Jamie and I got in response to Can You Brexit?

Probably the mistake we made is that we made our political gamebook (there's a very nice custom "character sheet" for it here, incidentally) fairly balanced. The media really aren't interested in something unless it gets them spitting with outrage. You can judge for yourself in this episode of the Brave New Words podcast from Starburst magazine. The presenters start the show with a trigger warning, if that's any guide.

Speaking of trigger warnings, the trailer above opens with footage of Nigel Farage. In my house that can provoke a reaction that scares cats and breaks crockery. But hey, your tolerance levels may be different.

Other interactive things I haven't played include Charlie Higson's stab at a Fighting Fantasy book, The Gates of Death. It's for younger kids than the original '80s FF fandom - or maybe kids are just kiddier these days. Anyway, apparently that means fewer gory/scary encounters and more pop culture references and bottom jokes. Try it on your kids and see what they think. You may first need to convince them it's not a Miss Marple mystery, though, judging by the cover design.

I'm told by Mark Lain, aka Malthus Dire, that his gamebook Destiny's Role is the first of a planned series. There is very little about it on the web, but from the Amazon product page I've gleaned that this book comprises four different adventures in different genres, including a noir-style private dick scenario. (That's dick as in detective, of course, not what it would mean in a Higson book.) Marco Arnaudo's video review below should give you an idea of what the adventures are like.

French company Celestory, who seem to be a European answer to Choice of Games, have announced a forthcoming academic book called Interactive Story which will be published in both Europe and the US around Christmas 2018..

And while we're doing a round-up of games and gamebooks, let me put in another plug for Martin Noutch's excellent Steam Highwayman, in part inspired by Keith Roberts' SF classic Pavane. The Highwayman is building up pressure for another outing, so if you're a Fabled Lands player and you're into steampunk, this is for you.