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Friday, 16 February 2018

"The Temple of the Doomed Prince" (scenario)

I vividly remember the evening I ran this scenario. It was in 1982 or ’83. Mike Polling and Mark Smith had been in my Tekumel campaign at Oxford, and on moving to London I started a new game that included their school friend Jamie Thomson as well as Oliver Johnson, who also role-played with me and Mike at college but only in my Medra campaign.

I can even tell you where we played. It was Yve Newnham’s flat in Edgeley Road, Clapham, and I can remember how Mark read out the entries from the temporal codex and then concluded grimly, “A brave man…”

Nomikaru, who appeared in the published scenario as an NPC, was Jamie’s character before he began playing the much more esteemed and exalted Baron Jadhak hiVriddi. I don’t recall what system we used. This was years before Tirikelu with its tactical choices of full- and half-attacks. I think we must have used was a modified form of Mortal Combat that I’d adapted based on what Prof Barker revealed in correspondence about the (then) forthcoming Swords and Glory rules. We used to use hit location back then, which made the conversion to RuneQuest less arduous than it might have been.

The RQ and AD&D stats included in the White Dwarf version of the scenario were a sop to ensure I could get away with including Empire of the Petal Throne stats too – even though Games Workshop had no interest in EPT, and neither did TSR by then. Because I had the Rune Rites column and an instalment of Castle of Lost Souls running in that issue of White Dwarf (#54, June 1984), this scenario went out under the byline “Phil Holmes”.

The Jalush was inspired by Steve Ditko, by the way, as so many of my ideas have been. On Dr Strange’s first foray into the world of Nightmare he was threatened by the spinybeast, and obviously that left a powerful impression on my young mind because fifteen years later this thing leapt out of the unconscious. It gave the players quite a scare, if for no other reason than that a monster you couldn’t find in the rulebook might be capable of anything.

by Phil Holmes

An adventure for five to eight Dungeons and Dragons or EPT characters of 4th-6th level or RuneQuest characters of 45%-65% weapon skills. Tirikelu characters should have main skills around 8-10th level.

Referee’s introduction
This adventure is based on Professor M A R Barker’s fantasy world of Tekumel described in Empire of the Petal Throne. For AD&D or RuneQuest just assume that the adventure is located in some distant part of your campaign world. Where EPT monsters are used I have reinterpreted these for AD&D and RQ use. I apologize in advance for having to reduce the complexity of Tsolyani religion and moral philosophy to D&D’s simplistic alignment system.

The worship of Lord Ksarul
Ksarul, Ancient Lord of Secrets, Doomed Prince of the Blue Room, Master of Magic and Grammarie, is the god of those who seek knowledge for the sake of power. Long ago, when gods still walked among men, Lord Ksarul gathered his forces and brought these against the other gods in a war for supremacy of the Universe. He was aided by his monstrous servant, the minor deity Gruganu, the Black Sword of Doom. Together these two came close to attaining the ultimate victory they sought, but at last the other gods joined together and defeated Lord Ksarul at the fabled Battle of Dormoron Plain. They stripped him of much of his power and then imprisoned him in a place between the planes of existence – a chamber of flickering azure light where Ksarul is sunk in deep stasis-sleep. Even the dreaming mind of Ksarul is still powerful, however, and thus he guides the loyal Gruganu (who escaped his master’s fate) in an effort to find the Ten Keys of the Blue Room which will free him to wreak vengeance on all the gods.

The priesthood of Lord Ksarul (who wear smiling masks of silver, black velvet robes and a mortarboard-shaped head-dress) is very highly organized and secretive. But despite their theoretically ‘evil’ aims, many of the priests are simply dedicated men of learning, respected scholars and physicians. In D&D terms most of the Doomed Prince’s followers are thus Lawful Neutral in alignment - although there is a small inner clique of zealots, the Ndalu Society, who devote their lives to the search for the Ten Keys and whose methods and alignment are definitely Evil. [Ugh – how it pains me even after all these years to have to leave those lines in! – DM]

The Goddess of the Pale Bone
This should be revealed at the appropriate time only to clerics, Lhankor Mhy Initiates or EPT characters with the scholar skill. The Goddess of the Pale Bone is one of the Pariah Gods, an utterly inimical and Chaotic deity whose worship is almost universally proscribed. Her few followers are the sort of psychotic outcasts who give Chaotic Evil a bad name; human sacrifice is the least appalling of their activities.

By chance one of you discovered some information concerning a temple to Ksarul located in the Do Chaka Protectorate, a region far to the west. The records you have looked at show that the temple was founded in the year 2157. (The year is now 2361). Another brief reference, dated 2270, states that the temple was abandoned during the reign of the Emperor Heshtuatl (sometime between 2168 and 2234) and that the priests’ exodus was apparently so hurried that most of the temple relics and treasures had to be left behind. You set out at once.

Your journey west has brought you over a thousand miles – much of this along the Sakbé roads, huge raised causeways twenty feet or more in height and up to fifty feet across. You left the Sakbé road three or four days ago and travelled north along the River of Red Agates towards the mountain range known as the Atkolel Heights. Through a pass you have come to the village of Mandir, nestled at the foot of impressive cliffs. Somewhere beyond – only a few miles away now – lies your goal


The Village of Mandir
The sun is low over the western hills as the party approach Mandir. In the north, storm clouds gather. The village consists of about thirty houses - low wooden buildings with many-sided totemic pillars at each corner supporting roofs of black tile.

The party are greeted formally by Tulkesh hi-Nraga (surnames carry the ‘hi-’ prefix.) Tulkesh, a slightly-built man about forty years old, is village headman and senior member of the Clan of the Advancing Shadow, a foresters clan which traditionally reveres Lord Ksarul, to which more than three-quarters of the villagers belong. He is quite affable towards strangers – particularly if the party includes Ksarul worshippers – and will invite them to dine with him and stay for a few days. No payment is expected unless the party presume too much on the villagers’ hospitality.

Also at dinner is a strange young man called Nomikaru hi-Teteli, the local priest of Lord Ksarul. As soon as the meal has begun he starts to chew hnequ weed (a narcotic) and becomes by turns either vague or abstractly argumentative. He is in fact a disgraced member of the Ndalu Society, who chafes at his demotion to lowly village priest.

Tulkesh will freely answer any questions. Mandir was settled by pioneers from the east two hundred years ago. The temple that the players are interested in was founded at about the same time, but it appears to have become deserted only a half-century later. Tulkesh is not sure of the details – just that the priests abandoned the place after a number of unexplained events. One story he has heard is that the priests were later attacked and killed by outlaws as they made their way back to the Sakbé road, so a full report was never made. From time to time since then there have been mysterious disappearances, and nowadays people try to give the temple a wide berth.

Nomikaru adds that there are probably Hra and Vorodla (see below) guarding the temple compound, and will relish describing these creatures to the ignorant. The party may choose to look around the village before heading for the temple. If so, they will certainly encounter Major Chengath hi-Lantau, a retired army officer who carves and lacquers decorative wooden screens. He will carve a screen to order for 200 kaitars / 100gps / 200 lunars.

Getting There
The trail from Mandir into the hills is steep and overgrown, and now quite arduous after a recent storm. There is a steady, grey drizzle and the skies threaten further storms, for this is Shapru, the month of rains.

The whole trek takes about seven hours for a moderately-burdened party. This assumes ten minutes’ rest each hour. The last part of the journey involves trudging up a particularly steep and muddy path, and characters who don’t take a ten minute break at the top will fight at -1 for the next hour owing to fatigue.

Temple background (for the referee only)
Although founded ostensibly as a centre of worship for the people of Mandir, its major value to the priesthood of Lord Ksarul must have been as a spiritual retreat; an isolated monastery where priests could conduct their studies and research without disturbance from the factional disputes common within city temples. A number of Hra and Vorodla were provided by the funders of the temple, the Society of Blue Light, a faction devoted to pure scholasticism and opposed to the Ndalu Society.

Unbeknownst to the temple founders, the caverns below the shrine were used millennia ago by devotees of the Goddess of the Pale Bone. In fact this was the root cause of the troubles at the temple, as will become clear.

The abandoned temple
As the party approach, the temple’s ruined state becomes clear. Some time in the past the gatehouse was shattered by lightning, charred, and then rotted by the elements. The stone wall around the temple compound has collapsed at several points. The paving stones within are cracked and subsided, the buildings are tangled with vines and in disrepair.

Dominating the temple is the twenty-foot pyramid on which stands the shrine dedicated to Lord Ksarul. Just as the party pass through the ruined gate, dark, winged shapes rise up from here and the colonnade below, soaring aloft and then swooping down to attack.

These are Vorodla, guardians of the temple. There are seven of them:

RQ: 5-point armour; HP10, 11, 12, 13, 13, 14, 15; Move: 6/12; POW: 13; Sword (1d8+1+1d4 and exposure to Soul Waste), SR7, 45%.
AD&D: AC5; HD4; HP12, 18, 21, 10, 15, 22, 23; Move: 6”/24”; 1 attack for 1-8 +20% chance of energy drain.
EPT: AC5; HD4; HP1O, 14, 16, 9, 12, 18, 19; 20% chance of level drain.
Tirikelu: Melee 19, 1D10+3, hit points 11 [-/-/-], armour 3/2, Evade 8, Mag Res 13.

Notes: Vorodla are winged undead; dead warriors restructured and reanimated by the arcane sorcery of the priests of Lord Ksarul. They fight fanatically until cut apart, and must then be burnt or they will regenerate and rise up within two turns. By night, or in pitch darkness, Vorodla fight at +2 (RQ: +10%). There is a 20% chance that a hit by one of these creatures will lower the victim by one experience level (RQ: exposure to Soul Waste. Tirikelu: a wounded character makes a Psychic Ability check at +4; failed roll costs 1 from Psychic Reservoir and requires another check (this time at +2) after one hour; each failure reduces Psychic Reservoir by 1 and necessitates another hourly check, with the modifier diminishing by 2 each time; stops when the character either succeeds in one of the checks or has had Psychic Reservoir reduced to 0). AD&D: Vorodla are turned as wights by priests of Ksarul and as ghasts by other clerics. (On a ‘D’ result, a priest of Ksarul has a 35% chance of bringing the creature into permanent, if grudging, service.) They are Neutral (evil).

Because it is heavily overcast they attack at + 1 (RQ: +5%) even during the day, unless one of the characters uses weather control or the like to dispel the clouds.

The Library
The roof has fallen in at the western end - many of the books are rotten and worm-eaten, but three sealed Chlen-hide (bronze) chests have preserved the most important books in excellent condi–tion. There is also a scroll of necromancy and the grey hand (AD&D: hold monster and disintegrate; RQ: scroll giving 10% increase in Knowledge skills; Tirikelu: Command Undead and Speak With The Dead spells inscribed by a scholar with +8 in the Necromagy phylum) written in the Tongue of the Priests of Ksarul. The real find, though, is the temporal codex of the temple - the daily record of events. The entries of interest deal with the months Hasanpor and Shapru of the year 2215:

13th HASANPOR, 2215
In the midst of preparations for the coming ceremony, two priests who had climbed down to the forest to collect sauqun flowers for the festivities went missing. One crawled back into the temple compound in the early hours of this morning, bloodied and tattered. His tongue had been ripped from his head. Ministrations proved ineffective and he died without providing an account of what had befallen.

15th HASANPOR, 2215
The Eventuation of Holy Pavar was commemorated. The celebration was more muted than in previous years owing to the absence of four of the six slaves prepared for streblosis. These four must have escaped just a few hours before dawn, but their means of egress from the temple precincts is by no means apparent. None of the other slaves seems to have witnessed the escape - a story which they maintain even under diligent torture. It remains a mystery.

27th HASANPOR, 2215
Archdeacon Ishankoi hi-Reshlan has disappeared – spirited away, so to speak, in the middle of the night. Magical means have been employed in an effort to contact him, to no avail. His Holiness the Archimandrite has sent word via Mandir to the Palace of the Realm in Khirgar. Ishankoi has always seemed a stable fellow, and it is difficult to believe him capable of such dereliction of duty as to go missing only hours before the Returning of the Mantle of Blue.

29th HASANPOR, 2215
Those of us who thought ill of Ishankoi have had cause to revise our judgement since his mutilated form was found in the Lower Shrine shortly after lunch. Who can have performed this horrible deed? Recalling the fate of Shrakan and Elvaru earlier this month, one is forced to the conclusion that some monstrous being has come up from the forests. In spite of the heavy rainfall, Yugao hi-Ludum insisted on taking another message to the runner in Mandir.

3rd SHAPRU, 2215
The heavy storms of the last few days continue unabated. Tekketal hi–Kuroda has gone missing. One can only hope he has not suffered the fate of Ishankoi. Yugao hi-Ludum suggested at dinner that these strange events result from an incursion of Shunned Ones from the forest, and is himself preparing a note to this effect to send to the Omnipotent Azure Legion in Khirgar – though some of us believe it would be more seemly to first inform the Temple at Mrelu.

6th SHAPRU, 2215
Tekketal’s corpse has been located in the Hra pit, mutilated if anything even more gruesomely than Ishankoi. To some extent this was due to several of the Hra having mistaken his body for an exotic item of their diet. Further, two acolytes have gone missing.

8th SHAPRU, 2215
Goduku hi-Raitlan has now vanished, along with his personal servant. On the orders of His Holiness, Yugao hi-Ludum used mediumship to communicate our troubles to the Temple at Mrelu. We are assured that investigators have been despatched.

9th SHAPRU, 2215
Like one who is infected with the eggs of the nkek-worm, we have suffered from a traitor within! Yugao hi–Ludum has been uncovered as the source of our woe! Along with two young acolytes he has been worshipping at an ancient shrine to the terrible Goddess of the Pale Bone in the caverns below our temple. After a few minutes of careful questioning he lapsed into a ghastly calm which he retained even when flayed alive. After this his heart was cut out and the corpse flung into the catacombs where he had his shrine. The acolytes were similarly treated, but spoke freely of a baleful influence which called them to the caverns. They died more insane than a Hli’ir. Our troubles are at least now at an end.

10th SHAPRU, 2215
After the Visitation of the Dormant Lord, His Holiness the Archimandrite was found to be missing. A thorough search of the catacombs uncovered his butchered form, treated not unlike that of Yugao. No magic could resurrect him. Moreover, there was no sign of the carrion deposited in the catacombs only yesterday.

11th SHAPRU, 2215
Two more were found dead, and those who remained have been forced to evacuate the temple. Apart from a few slaves only! remain, for l am too infirm to travel far. land the slaves keep to the library now. I have released the Hra and even the Vorodla in the temple precincts, with instructions to attack even those robed as priests of our Supreme Lord. The Vorodla accommodate themselves to such orders with relish, of course, but the Hra seemed dully reluctant. It is tempting to think of this as a sort of loyalty, but I know that the spark of true reason has jaded from their dead minds and it is only the illusion of thought that I perceive in them. The rain is a heavy curtain in the courtyard. Once or twice I thought I glimpsed a figure out there.

12th SHAPRU, 2215
There is food for only two more days, but I do not think it will come to that. I have had an idea for a treatise on the ethology of the Hra. A pity I will never get the chance to write it.

There are no further entries.

The Shrine
The roof of the shrine is of a sturdy, black-lacquered wood which has suffered little from time and the elements. There are steps up the south side of the pyramid. The doors are locked.

1. The Outer Shrine. There is an altar stone of blue marble against the north wall, under a silver crescent moon and azure beetle - one of the insignia of Lord Ksarul.

2. Side-chapel. Behind a locked bronze grille is a small shrine to Ey’un, Knower of Skills, the aspect of Lord Ksarul to whom this temple was particularly dedicated. There is a small steel (AD&D: platinum; RQ: iron) statue of the skeletal Ey’un. This is worth up to 150,000 kaitars / 75,000gps / 150,000 lunars, although it would be considered an act of terrible sacrilege if anyone less than a Cardinal of the priesthood of Lord Ksarul were to remove it from the shrine. AD&D players should not be given its full XP value, if it is taken. (It should be worth about 3,000XP).

3. Steps lead down within the pyramid.

4. A landing. The steps continue down and there is an archway to the east, from the chamber beyond which issue forth four Hra:

RQ: 6-point armour; HP20, 21, 22, 23; Move: 8; POW: 14; Sword (1d10+1+2d6), SR7, 75%; will regenerate unless slain by magic; can detect life at no POW cost.
AD&D: AC4; HD7; HP31,28,28,24; Move: 12”; 1 Attack for 4-11.
EPT:    AC4; HD7; HP24, 22, 22, 20.
Tirikelu:  Melee 22, 1D10+4, hit points 30 [-/-/-], armour 6/2, Evade 5, Mag Res 18.

Notes: These huge (7-foot) undead warriors are sometimes used by the priests of Ksarul as temple guards – but only in the lower catacombs, as they cannot stand the light of day. They are turned as spectres except by priests of Ksarul, who turn them as wights and gain permanent control of the Hra on a ‘D’ result. (Tirikelu: a priest of Ksarul can stop a Hra from attacking by making a -5 Theologian check) Even if completely hacked apart in melee, a Hra will reanimate after two turns (Tirikelu: one hour) and pursue its opponents; it has the tracking abilities of a ranger (RQ: detect life; Tirikelu: 15th level Hunter). In appearance Hra are gaunt and grey, seeming much like a wight. After killing their foes they drain them of all blood and bodily fluids, leaving only a shrivelled husk. If dispelled by a cleric or slain by a paladin with a Holy Sword, the Hra is completely and permanently destroyed.

5. The Lower Shrine. A chamber of black stone, intended for the more sacred and secret rituals. There is a crescent moon symbol inlaid in polished quartz shards into the floor.

6. The stairs end. A locked bronze grille bars the way.

7. Antechamber to the Inner Shrine. Each of the double doors to the east bears the Bound Claw emblem on panels of beaten silver.

8. The Inner Shrine. An effigy of Lord Ksarul, carved of black wood and masked with silver, lies on a couch studded with blue mosaic. He holds a silver staff topped with a large sapphire cut to resemble a beetle. The whole room is faced with blue marble.

The mask is worth about 200 kaitars / 100gps / 200 lunars; the staff, 150,000 kaitars / 75,000gps / 150,000 lunars. The same applies as with the statuette of Ey’un in the side-chapel above.

A search of this room will reveal lines of faint scratches on the floor running between the couch and the east wall. If the couch is lifted up slightly it can be slid aside to reveal a pit. This requires a combined strength of 150 (AD&D/RQ: 28).

The Caverns below the Pyramid

These caverns were a centre of worship for the sect of the Goddess of the Pale Bone centuries before the eastern pioneers colonized the area and built their temple to Lord Ksarul. The only worshipper here now is Yugao hi-Ludum, the treacherous priest of Ksarul mentioned in the extracts from the temporal codex.

9th level cleric; Str: 16; Int: 11; Wis: 10; Con: 15; Dex: 11; Cha: 13; AC6; HP50.
Equipment: Shield +3*, Lucern hammer +1*, Wand of Fear (2ch)
Spells: 1st - Curse, command, cause light wounds, sanctuary.
2nd - Hold person, know alignment, spiritual hammer (x2).
3rd - Cause blindness, cause disease, dispel magic.
4th - Cause serious wounds, poison.
5th - Commune.

9th level priest; Str: 89; Int: 55; Con: 81; Pow: 60; Dex: 52; Com: 1; AC5; HP38; (+2 hit, +2 damage).
Equipment: Shield +3*, Warhammer +1*, Excellent Ruby Eye (6ch), Eye of Allseeing Wonder (31ch).
Spells: Basic MU skills to Nature Control.
I - Fear, plague, shadows.
II - Cold, creatures, the hands of Kra the mighty.
Ill - Doomkill, the silver halo of soul stealing.
(*These items are only magical when used by Yugao.)

STR: 16; CON: 15; SIZ: 11; INT: 11; POW: 18; DEX: 11; CHA: 13; HP16; Defence:5%.
Equipment: Medium shield, warhammer (iron); special powered crystal which gives protection 3 at all times.
Spells: Befuddle, demoralize, disruption, bludgeon 3, darkwall, invisibility, (repair, detect life, silence, extinguish, mindspeech 3, dispel magic 2).
Rune Magic: Shattering, blinding, shield 3, summon small shade.
Skills: Combat skills 55%; stealth 55%; perception 80%.
Allied Spirit in bone talisman: INT: 11; POW 15.

Melee 16, 1d10+1        HP: 14 [3/5/8]         Mag Res +27
19th level Ritual Sorcerer                        Spellpoints: 300
Ceraunics +7
Guarding +6
Malediction +9
Necromagy +7
Psychethesis +3
Vallation +6

Yugao’s life-force has been sustained all these years by the power of the Goddess. He presents a grisly spectacle, still in the state that his erstwhile comrades left him – flayed to the waist, his skin hangs like a kilt leaving an upper torso of raw flesh and sinew, a skull-like mask of a face with lidless, staring eyes. There is a gaping hole where the priests tore his heart out. Most of his abilities now derive from his deity and so he should be treated as a priest (AD&D: cleric) as indicated above. Outside the caverns Yugao’s life would ebb away at the rate of one hit point a turn.

Besides Yugao the caverns hold another danger – the Jalush, a creature which has guarded the Goddess’ fane for hundreds of years. The Jalush may be a unique, demonic creature or it may be the last survivor of an extinct species. It has six limbs, walking on the back four and using the forelimbs for grasping and striking. It has an outer integument, smooth and ivory-pale, with sharp clusters of spines at its joints. It stalks with the slow, precise movements of a praying mantis and strikes with a scorpion’s vicious speed; any NPC of 4th level (RQ: lay member) or less has a 15% chance of fleeing in terror if suddenly confronted by it.

HP28; Move 8; POW 20; Talons (1d8+3d6), SR4, 95%
Right hindleg (01)                 10/9
Right foreleg   (02-04)           10/9
Left hind leg   (05)                 10/9
Left foreleg     (06-08)           10/9
Abdomen        (09-10)           10/10
Chest               (11-12)                        10/10
Right arm       (13-15)                        10/9
Left arm          (16-18)                        10/9
Head               (19-20)            10/10

AC0; HP54 (from 11 dice); Move: 12”; 1 attack for 4-24; Neutral Evil.

AC1; HP44 (from 11 dice); Move: 12”; Other notes: see below.

Melee 30, 1D10+6, hit points 44 [9/16/23], armour 6/3, Evade 9, Mag Res 24.

Any character hitting the Jalush has a chance of being scratched by its poisonous spines: 15% if the character is AC5 or less, increasing by 1% per AC point above 5. If the character fails his saving throw he loses 5 EPT points of constitution (AD&D: 1 point) at once and a further 5 EPT points (AD&D: 1 point) every two minutes. This continues until the character is dead or the poison neutralized. This can only be accomplished with the Ineluctable Eye of Healing (AD&D: Keoghtom’s Ointment or full wish), and even this will not reverse the damage! The poison also causes 1-3 hit points permanent damage whether or not the character makes his saving throw! Nothing short of Divine Intervention will heal its effects. 

RQ: the character must make his luck roll to avoid the spines. The poison is potency 15, and if it overcomes the character’s CON, he should be considered to have contracted the terminal form of Creeping Chill disease. If the poison does not overcome the character’s CON, he merely loses 1 point permanently in the scratched location. 

Tirikelu: Anyone striking the Jalush must roll their armour value or less on D6 to avoid being scratched by the spines. If scratched the character loses 1 point of Stamina every two minutes until they die or the poison is neutralised with Detoxify, Invigoration, or an Eye of Healing. Lost Stamina is not regained without a Restoration spell or a charge of the Eye of Regeneration.

The Jalush has a saving throw of 6 against all spells, technological devices, etc. It has keen senses and moves almost silently despite its size: it surprises the party on a roll of 1-4 on d6 and is itself surprised only on a roll of 1 on d10.

For any encounter in the caverns, roll d6:
1-3       the Jalush
4-5      Yugao
6          Yugao and the Jalush

Of course, Yugao is always somewhere in the caverns. Have the party encounter him in the Goddess’ fane if they haven’t run into him before then.

9. Low chamber. There is a drop of about twenty feet from the floor of the Inner Shrine down a narrow shaft which opens into the roof of this cave. The climb down is not difficult. A tunnel slopes gently downwards from the south-west part of the chamber. The sound of running water can be heard.

10. Underground stream. This dries up in summer, but at the moment is in full flood. The stream is 4 feet at its deepest point.

11. Secret ‘door’. A boulder conceals the narrow passage. It takes a combined strength of 85 (AD&D/RQ: 16) to roll it back.

12. The Goddess’ Fane. This cave is taller than most of those here and seems to have been enlarged by excavation at some time in the past. The walls have been stained white and covered with squarish crimson designs. There is a rough altar, a natural table of rock, to the south-east. On this is a rough, pitted idol of light grey stone, depicting a globular being with six thick, curving legs and the face of a thin-lipped woman.

Anyone touching the idol will receive a fleeting but horrible vision: a tall, unsmiling woman dissolves into the repulsive apparition of a torn, rotting monstrosity – the woman’s head, shoulder and right arm – flying through illimitable darkness towards the viewer. She wields a great warhammer and seems to be shrieking in rage with her hair streaming as if in a wind. However, there is no sound.

After a moment this vision fades; the idol will not affect a character more than once. Removed from the fane, it loses this power.

13. Skulls and broken bones, the Jalush’s victims over the years. There is a 4’ wide shaft in the floor of this chamber, set with many razor-sharp chips.

If a character manages to get down the shaft he or she will feel a sense of tremendous premonition, as though on the verge of a great discovery. Rather than merely telling the player this, the referee should try to create a mood, to heighten the sense of significance. Describe the dank air at the bottom of the pit, the rasping of the character’s own breath in the stillness, the rough wood of the torch in his hands, its heat on his face... There at the bottom of the shaft lies a 6” sphere with a stylized eye-symbol inscribed into it, seeming to watch the character. When the character picks it up it feels almost icy cold, and remains so even if heated. Though it seems to be made of grey marble, it cannot be cracked or damaged in any way.

This is one of the Ten Keys required to free Lord Ksarul, presumably concealed here by one of the followers of the Goddess of the Pale Bone. It cannot be detected as such by magical means, and only a great scholar could identify it for certain. Nonetheless, anyone who sees it will have some kind of ‘sixth sense’ as to its importance.

14. Cave entrance and waterfall. The stream emerges from the cliff face. The forest is a hundred feet below. From here characters can see Lake Ngusinaa stretching to the west and, mistily through the continuing drizzle, the great mountain peaks in the north. There are a number of ledges and handholds which make the cliff an easy climb.

After the adventure
For those who like to loot, there’s about 900 kaitars/450gps/900 lunars in cash distributed around the temple – mostly in the bursary strongbox in the administration building, but some also in the private quarters.

If the players take the temple relics (the statuette of Ey’un, etc) then they had better be careful about where they sell them if they don’t want the priests of Ksarul as enemies. Even if they return the relics to the priests, the latter may still view the removal of these items from the temple as questionable or even sacrilegious. The optimum course would be to leave the relics in place and bring back a Cardinal from the priesthood to recover them. The priests of Ksarul will give about 25% of the relics’ value as a reward to their discoverer.

If the party show the Key to Nomikaru hi-Teteli, back in Mandir, he may try to get it from them so that he can take it himself to the priesthood. This is not to say that Nomikaru will recognize it as being one of the Ten Keys, merely that it is an interesting artefact which could help him to ingratiate himself with his superiors.
Trivia: This scenario was slated to appear in a different version in Questworld, the supplement that Oliver Johnson and I worked on for Games Workshop. I drew the monastery and a cutaway of the shrine in 3D view, and sketched out some of the book spreads like the one below. The accompanying notes to the artist read:

"The main spread [for this scenario] shows the protagonists' first view of the monastery after climbing up the mountain path. It is heavily overcast and there is a curtain of fine drizzle. Hovering in the sky over the ruined monastery are seven winged creatures ('corposants')." 

So that's what would have been instead of Dragon Warriors, if things had turned out differently.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Snakes alive!

It's here at last. The Serpent King's Domain, that is, seventh in the Fabled Lands gamebook series. This one takes you south of the Violet Ocean to Ankon-Konu and it's a whopper, slithering in at a juicy 1200 sections. Illustrated by Russ Nicholson, of course, and with a new cover painting by Star Wars and Marvel concept artist Kev Jenkins.

There are two editions. The large format (8x10 inch) paperback matches the original 1990s books and has the regional map in full colour on the back, as well as six special starting characters based on the principal backers of Megara Entertainment's Kickstarter campaign. The regular paperback (5x8 inches) matches the new 2010 editions, and the map is in black and white.

You'll find the map and six other starting characters, old friends indeed, HERE.

There you go, FL fans. And it only took 22 years and the invention of crowdfunding to get us here. Enjoy.

Both editions are also on Amazon's French and Italian and German sites. And all over the world; just search locally. Oh, and I know I always say this but it really, really helps us when readers leave reviews on Amazon. Even just one sentence and a rating. If you do that right now, you'll be helping to ensure there's a book 8 almost as surely as if you pledged for it on Kickstarter.

The image at the top of the post is not book 7. Well spotted. It's actually the cover of the forthcoming Italian edition of The War-Torn Kingdom, art by Shen Fei. You can see more, including the cover of the first Blood Sword book, on the publisher's website.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Enchant all the ladies and steal all the scenes

All that talk of aeronauts last time reminded me of another more-or-less abandoned project from back when I was revamping my Tirikelu RPG.

The Time of No Kings was to be set in the Dark Ages of Tekumel, a period of Rhialto-like wizards and Cugel-like rogues.The snag was, under the rules of the Tekumel Foundation I couldn't publish it in print form or make any money from it. I thought of moving it across to a different science fantasy setting. The world of Abraxas, perhaps. And in that form it might yet happen.

Really it would just be a love letter to the genre of science fantasy, which I discovered at an early age with Mike Moorcock's Kane of Mars novels. "Airships and swordplay meet blasters and psionic aliens," as I said in this post. What's not to like?

That's where that painting comes from, by the way. It was James Cawthorn's cover for Moorcock's Barbarians of Mars. Picture the ten-year-old Morris standing in a secondhand bookshop in Woking clutching that battered tome and thinking, "Mars... swords... and airships...!" Possibly the lithe undraped maidens too were starting to dimly register as objects of unsettling emotion on my reason-bright mind; or maybe that was still a few years off. Anyway, with or without a girl on my arm, I wanted my own airship.

You're thinking the balloon envelope looks a little small? That was the attraction, of course. Moorcock set his stories on a long-ago Mars that hadn't yet lost its atmosphere, so the low gravity meant you could get away with using a lot less helium. Tiddly up up!

Friday, 2 February 2018

Dive into the Dune Sea

Fans of fantasy gamebooks will certainly have encountered Destiny Quest, Michael J Ward's epic adventure series. The latest instalment, The Raiders of Dune Sea, is currently on Kickstarter until February 11. See if this teaser whets your appetite:
"A lost race returns from the shrouds of time, armed with the powerful magics of Ragnarok to unleash their bitter vengeance on an unsuspecting world. The shifting sands of the southern desert will run red with blood as the robbers and pirate captains of the Dune Sea are dragged into a deadly war – one which could unravel time and change the destiny of all."
I don't normally get behind Kickstarters - well, not successful ones anyway. But I'm intrigued by the new character profession of aeronaut, having always liked the idea of piloting an airship of my own, as you'll have realized if you found the manta car in Heart of Ice. Blame Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mike Moorcock for that. And, all unbidden, Paul Gresty included some airship travel in The Serpent King's Domain, so don't miss that when it comes out in a week or so, will ya? Still, not to get sidetracked... the Fabled Lands team bearded Michael Ward in his lair and asked him about the new book (or maybe two books -- see below) in this exciting series.

"Michael, can you start by telling us a bit about what makes Destiny Quest unique?"

Like traditional gamebooks, you play the main protagonist and make decisions for that character throughout the story. However, in Destiny Quest, the choices you make also extend to the items and abilities that you choose for your hero. It has the familiarity of a typical gamebook but with the depth of a more involved role-playing adventure.

The Destiny Quest system takes its main inspiration from modern online RPGs (such as World of Warcraft) and hack-and-slash action games (like the Diablo series). In each book, you engage in multiple strategic battles, using your varied abilities to help counter those of your opponent. If you are successful in combat, then you get to choose from a selection of rewards (loot drop, yay!). These rewards will typically come in the shape of armour, weapons and trinkets, all of which can be ‘equipped’ onto your hero to boost their attributes and give them new abilities.

Each book has hundreds of unique items and abilities to discover, giving readers a huge amount of choice when it comes to outfitting and customizing their hero.

"How about other things that distinguish the series? Can you share your creative 'mission statement' for these books?"

As I’ve already touched on, I wanted this series to have a ‘videogame’ feel, with more strategic combat and a heavy emphasis on customization. In addition to that, there is also the quest map system, which again harkens back to open world CRPGs such as World of Warcraft.

Readers use the maps in each book to select their quests (which are colour-coded for difficulty). There are also other locations you can visit, such as towns and cities, and legendary monster encounters – which are tougher opponents you can take on for extra special rewards.

There is also a career system, based on the three paths that you can choose for your hero – warrior, mage or rogue. By discovering career trainers or unlocking careers through special achievements, players can further customize their hero by specializing them in certain professions. As a rogue for example, you could become an assassin or a witchfinder – and each career has its own inherent special abilities which may influence the way you play and the items you choose to equip.

"Players take a new character in each book. Does that mean their former characters are done with, or might he/she return in later books?"

Each book has its own unique hero and story to tell, so they are essentially standalone adventures - so there is nothing stopping anyone jumping into the series at any point. However, when read together in sequence, they do tell a grand over-arching story with returning themes and characters. And yes, you might even encounter your hero from a previous adventure in a later book, but as an NPC who you will be interacting with.

In Book Two, there are also team battles, where you can team up with a hero from another book (either your own or perhaps even a friend’s creation) to battle a super tough boss monster!

"We've often heard DQ likened to Warcraft or Diablo. To what extent have videogames influenced your design decisions, compared to say tabletop roleplaying?"

Destiny Quest was very much born out of my obsession with World of Warcraft (and games of a similar ilk). I became so addicted to the latter that I was playing nearly fifty hours a week and it was starting to consume my life. I don’t regret a minute of it, but sinking all those hours into that experience made me wonder why no-one had really tried to capture that in a book format (admittedly, I wasn’t aware of the Fabled Lands series at the time!). So that’s why I sat down and planned how I was going to approach that type of experience – and the gamebook format was the obvious choice.

Of course, I’m a huge gamer and enjoy all types of gaming experiences, from CCGs to tabletop dungeon crawls. I love exploring different game mechanics and am constantly soaking up ideas and systems that I can tweak and incorporate into gamebooks. Destiny Quest is very much a melting pot of all my game experiences.

Sadly, I don’t really do any roleplaying nowadays, basically due to time and the difficulty of getting people together for that kind of sustained play – but I do remember my AD&D days fondly, and have spent far too much time than is sensible watching Pathfinder sessions and other RPG games being played on YouTube. Again, all fuel for the creative fire.

"Are there any plans to convert Destiny Quest into a videogame?"

Because Destiny Quest is so hugely influenced by computer RPGs, I feel as though the system would offer the perfect blueprint for a multitude of gaming experiences, from card and board games to a fully-fledged open world Diablo ‘hack-a-thon’. Sadly, I’ve not had any offers yet (!) but it’s certainly something I would be immensely passionate in supporting and contributing to.

"How do you map out the books? Do you do a full flowchart first or plan in sections as you go?"

Everything starts with the story, which may sound obvious – but worth stressing I think. Knowing where you want your story to go and the various key stages/moments of that journey, will make everything else a lot easier. Then I usually focus on the maps and the type of environment that will feature in each act of the story. From there, I work on each quest one by one – then add the choices into my master document once each one is complete.

I do create a rough flowchart as I plan up each quest, which helps with keeping me on course – but I rarely stick to it, and often drift off into a multitude of decision trees. I think you have to work quite organically and adapt, as you can never second-guess where your narrative can take you. But having that original road map to come back to is always useful, otherwise you can go overboard and suddenly your 5000 word quest just became a 20,000 word behemoth.

“What sort of work goes into balancing the game system? How do you balance the dozens of special abilities a player might use? (As well as the various possible player builds that emphasise, say, durability rather than speed?)"

A huge amount of work goes into the playtesting – almost as much as writing the book. During the actual writing of each story, I add in items, abilities and monster stats but there is a lot of guess work involved. It isn’t until the writing is done and I am happy with the text, that I actually sit down with a bunch of dice and get stuck into the game.

Some people are surprised when they discover I have no elaborate algorithms or programs that test the combats or streamline the itemization. I literally play through the book as a reader would – and simply do that again and again and again. It can drive you slightly mad, I won’t deny it, and there are frequent times when you just want to throw the manuscript out of the window! But there is also a huge amount of satisfaction in getting it right, when things click into place and everything becomes polished.

I’ve always preferred not to give out my book to others to test (well, I did have a friend briefly test some sections of Legion back in the day) as it would just become too difficult to manage all the feedback and opinions. I feel, with three books under my belt now, that I have a pretty good handle on what works and what doesn’t, and a sense of the right level of difficulty to ensure the adventure is challenging but fun.

"A purely creative/writing type question. What are the main inspirations for your fantasy world?"

I’ve always been fascinated with history. I did two history A-levels (the equivalent of high school diplomas for those in the US) and a history Bachelor’s Degree, so I’ve had a varied experience of different time periods. Also my day job, when I’m not creating gamebooks, is writing educational materials for schools and I was quite heavily involved in designing creative lesson plans linked to the recent National Curriculum changes – most of which were history focused.

So, I think when designing worlds and telling stories, I always try and draw from the events, people and cultures that I have learned about. Perhaps less so with Legion of Shadow, which I’ll admit was quite a generic take on fantasy (owing to a lot of pressure to give the book as much mass/age appeal as possible), but later books have delved much deeper into themes such as religion, segregation, war, politics and so on. 

“On the theme of creative inspiration, what made you decide to base the new book in a desert environment – the Dune Sea?”

I’ve wanted to tell a story in a desert setting for some time. As previously mentioned, I have always loved history, and at one point in my life I was even considering becoming an Egyptologist – so I’ve always wanted to draw on my love of Egyptian culture and mythology at some point. Who wouldn’t want to imagine being Howard Carter or Indiana Jones, discovering a lost tomb or delving into a mysterious pyramid!

Interestingly, one of my biggest influences for the new book was the sci-fi film Hardware (1990, Palace Pictures). [Based on "Shok!" by Steve MacManus and Kevin O'Neill -DM.] For me, back in the day, it was a truly ground-breaking movie, which took a refreshing art-house style approach to the genre – and had a huge impact on me creatively (when I was considering a career in screenwriting and direction). I will never forget its evocative opening sequence of a Mad Max style scavenger trudging through an apocalyptic desert, a lone figure swept up in the crimson haze of a sandstorm. The character, known as the nomad, ends up discovering a piece of military hardware – the head of a robot, which he takes back to a ragtag settlement which passes for civilization in this post-war environment.

Amusingly, I actually misheard the line of dialogue in the ensuing scene when the desert nomad is asked where he found the parts. To me, he always sounded as though he was saying ‘Dune Sea’ but later, when I discovered a copy of the screenplay, he is apparently saying ‘Judas Sea’, which would tie in with the religious iconography and themes of the film. Nevertheless, in my ignorance, I was like ‘wow, Dune Sea… that’s cool’ – and always wanted to somehow incorporate that concept into a story.

"Previous DQ books have been notable for their dramatic, high-quality artwork. How closely do you get involved with that side of production?"

The stunning cover for Book Four [see above -DM] was created by a good friend of mine, Paul Cheshire, who did much of the artwork that you will see on the Destiny Quest website.

"When does the Kickstarter campaign run until?"

The Kickstarter is running until 11 February. I’ve been completely blown away by amazing support – a huge thank you to all those who have already pledged. We managed to reach our funding goal within just a few days – but now it’s all about the stretch goals and unlocking extra goodies, so if you are still on the fence, then now might be the time to take the plunge!

"There's always somebody who'll say they're interested a week after the campaign closes. For those who miss it, will the book be available on Amazon?"

First off, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a late pledge option, so that those who missed the Kickstarter can still pledge for a book. Going forward, the book will be primarily available from the Megara Entertainment website (in both softcover and hardcover format). I also plan to sell some copies myself – perhaps through Amazon UK and/or eBay. Certainly, the book will be in plentiful supply after the Kickstarter so no-one need worry.

“And do you already have plans for Book Five?”

Book Five will actually be the continuation of the story told in this one, so I do have it mapped out in some detail. I ended up splitting the story across two books because I was simply running out of space and wordage to do the story justice.

That being said, I’m not sure when I will get around to starting Book Five. These books take a huge amount of time to write – and it’s difficult to fit other work around them, so inevitably I take a bit of a financial hit during the months when I am focused on DQ. So with Book Four near to completion, it will be back to the day job to hopefully swell the coffers again, so I can afford to write the next one. If only I could win the lottery or discover a rich gamebook benefactor.

“And if you could pitch Destiny Quest in one sentence?”

An epic open world videogame in a book – explore, battle and loot your way to victory!

And that Kickstarter link again. But don't drag your feet -- there's just one more week to go.