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Friday, 13 September 2019

The personal touch

Gamebook maven John Jones was in touch with the Fabled Lands team recently with an intriguing suggestion – indeed, a creative challenge – that occurred to him while watching Jessica Jones:
“What is interesting about the conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave is the personal nature of it. Unlike other villains, Kilgrave has only one very goal he wants to achieve and any effect he has on the larger world comes in service to that goal. At the same time Jessica has her own very personal goal. I mention this to contrast it with the main conflict in The Serpent King's Domain. To Namagal it's a very personal situation involving his death and/or humbling. To the viewpoint character playing the book, it is (or can be) little more than an item on a to-do list toward achieving a different goal. I make that contrast because one thing I'd like to see in The Lone and Level Sands or perhaps a later book is for an important quest to be personal and important to the viewpoint character.”
Of course, conflict is almost always more interesting when it’s personal. After a love story, perhaps the most compelling of narratives is a war in the family:

It only works when it’s earned, of course. Batman v Superman did nothing but lay popcorn-brained waste to the surprising-yet-inevitable showdown which in Frank Miller’s original story came at the endpoint of a difficult friendship that had struggled on against the odds for decades.

The point of the personal conflict is to up the stakes. The story has more bite, more pain, more inner struggle. We, the readers or viewers, feel more strongly involved. But writing rules are no substitute for commonsense. All those screenwriters who feel the need to make Robin the Sheriff of Nottingham’s half-brother, take note. And let’s also point an accusatory finger at the recent Harry Potterization of the 007 franchise, in which every adversary must be tied to Bond’s angsty childhood. Puh-lease. It’s more Charlie Higson than Ian Fleming.

The sharpening effect of personal conflict is why I don’t object to a little PvP in my roleplaying games. The civil war that happened in our Tekumel campaign was a classic tragedy in the making, with the player group splitting right down the middle. Jamie told his wife that the Tsolyani civil war was the most important thing in his life at the time. I can believe it. Think of any time you and somebody you care about have ended up on opposite sides on an issue of passionate importance. There’s a wrench in the gut that goes far beyond mere difference of opinion.

The Tsolyani example reminded me of a letter I got from Professor MAR Barker back in November 1985:
"Eyloa the Wizard of the Tlashte Heights, played by Mike Callahan, just discovered that the Pariah Deities' chief agent in his sector, Torsu, is in reality his own father. I was told later that this is a rip-off of the Star Wars plots, but then I have been running this particular campaign since before The Empire Strikes Back and all along the storyline has been the same."
So you can pull off the same trick between player and NPC. I must have been aiming for something like that in my second-ever gamebook, The Temple of Flame, which begins by establishing the backstory between the lead character and their former colleague Damontir the Mad, who is the book’s antagonist. Players of Heart of Ice have remarked that though the possible endings include saving the world and seizing ultimate power, nothing compares to meting out just deserts to the weaselly Kyle Boche. And even in Fabled Lands we have recurring adversaries like Talanexor the Fire Wizard and your persistent frenemy Lauria. You want to see more of them, don’t you?

Which brings us back to John Jones’s suggestion. I’m not going to reveal what he proposed because it was really cool and maybe Paul Gresty will want to run with it in future books. All I will say is that it made me think of Fritz Leiber Jr, and that’s never a bad thing.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Yakety yak

A little while ago, I was asked by my Italian publishers to do an interview for Tom's Hardware. Then it occurred to me that some of the answers might be interesting to readers of this blog, so if you don't speak Italian here's the meat of it:

Dave, in Italy, you’re known especially for the Blood sword series. Since those books were originally published a lot of time has passed. How do you think gamebooks have evolved? What was the market like in the ‘80s and how is it different today?
It was totally different. Gamebooks were a huge craze among what we now call “middle grade” kids (roughly 9-12 years old) and you pretty much only had to walk into a publisher with an idea to get offered a contract. Gamebooks would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. I think it was because kids were ready for videogames but those were still quite expensive and the graphics were quite primitive. So gamebooks filled a gap.
Blood Sword was the first multiplayer gamebook. How did you transform a solitary experience like a gamebook into a shared game?
Oliver Johnson and I always start the planning process for one of our gamebooks by thinking about events we’ve used in our roleplaying games, so multiplayer comes naturally to us. I was also aware when we wrote Blood Sword that a lot of the readers would be people who already played Dragon Warriors (set in the same fantasy universe) which meant that they probably would have gaming friends who they wanted to share the adventure with. We made sure that every character type has a chance to shine, and if you are playing it as a team there are some sections that only one character gets to read. We find that a dash of secrecy and competitiveness adds an edge to any roleplaying game.
Recently you ran a Kickstarter campaign for a new edition of Blood Sword 5 The Walls of Spyte. Why that book in particular?
I’d already edited the rest of the series for re-release in 2014, but when I got to the fifth book I found that the work needed to make it playable was more than the other four books put together. There were parts of the flowchart that simply didn’t link up. If I’d left it till I had time to revise The Walls of Spyte then none of the books would have got back in print, so I published the first four and put book five aside. I kept meaning to return to it but there was so much work involved that I couldn’t justify it as something to do in my spare time. The Kickstarter provided the funds needed to do it properly.
What should a gamebook have today to be current? Do you think that classic forking-path stories are still enough, or should gamebooks dare to try something new?
I’m always interested in something new. In my Frankenstein digital gamebook, the focus is not on solving “the problem of the plot” but on your relationship with Victor Frankenstein, the narrator. The variables are things like Trust, Hubris and Alienation. If you give Victor bad advice, he loses trust in you and that affects whether he’ll listen to your suggestions in future.

Recently I wrote Fright Tonight, which is billed as an interactive drama for the Amazon Echo, but it’s effectively still a branching-path gamebook in terms of structure. I’ll be releasing that as a Kindle book later this year, and one of the things that makes it different is there are no stats, no character sheet, no dice. You just answer yes or no to the characters’ questions. Trust me, it’s as gripping as any gamebook I wrote back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Some say we are living through a renaissance of gamebooks. What do you think about that? In a world dominated by videogames and mobile games, do you think is there any space for gamebooks? What kind of appeal can they have for new, especially young, players?
Fewer people are reading books these days, and on average those people read fewer books per year, so it looks as if gamebooks will have to come up with some new tricks. For one thing, there’s not really a lot of point doing more fantasy quest-style gamebooks. Computer games do the same thing and they do it better. Gamebooks have traditionally tackled stories from a problem-solving angle. That’s natural given the menu of choices structure, but again it’s not enough to entice somebody away from a computer game or a movie, or even playing Fortnite on their phone. So how do we write gamebooks that offer the reader something they can’t get elsewhere?

One clue to the answer comes from looking at how television drama competes with cinema. Even the most lavish TV show can’t match the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster, so it has to play to its strengths. A 13-hour TV drama has a lot more room to explore character complexity than a 2-hour movie, with the result that if you sit down to watch Mission Impossible after The Americans, or Warcraft after Game of Thrones, it’s like going from a novel to a newspaper cartoon. Gamebooks can do something similar, involving the reader in difficult moral choices and options that will change other characters’ opinion of them. Modern audiences in all media expect this emotional depth. As a medium, gamebooks have to grow up.
You have written scores of books; gamebooks, novels, comics, and RPGs in your career. What have been the most difficult things to write? And of which are you particularly proud?
Most difficult was my recent gamebook Can You Brexit? as I had to research all of the details of immigration, free movement, defence, policing, trade, and a dozen other things – and then make them both amusing and comprehensible to the reader. Of all my gamebooks I’m most proud of Heart of Ice, just because it came out exactly how I wanted it. You can’t always count on that as there’s a tension between delivering the sense of real freedom of choice while (in old-style gamebooks) keeping it all down to about 500 sections or less. Heart of Ice was loosely based on an old roleplaying campaign of mine and many of my players’ characters were the inspiration for the player’s rivals in the adventure. To keep myself interested while writing, I changed the setting from the fantasy world of Tekumel, which it had been in my campaign, to 23rd century Earth. That gave me a story structure to work from while still having plenty of scope to improvise details as I worked.

The work I am most pleased with overall, though, is my comic book epic Mirabilis – Year of Wonders. I care passionately about the characters, it’s exactly the blend of funny, scary, mysterious and thrilling that I was aiming for, and I think the artwork (by Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and Nikos Koutsis) is beautiful. Unfortunately the project ground to a halt about a third of the way through for want of a publisher. In Britain, sadly, there’s not much of a market for comic books.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
I’d like to have done more Dragon Warriors books. There were originally supposed to be twelve books in the series, but the publishers messed up the distribution and then cancelled the series after six books. Oliver and I still use the setting for some of our own roleplaying games, and we’re thinking of releasing the Jewelspider RPG, which is a much more modern, freewheeling set of rules. And instead of all those polyhedral dice it just uses two six-siders.

My biggest regret, though, is not having been able to continue Mirabilis. Leo and I planned it as four seasons, but when I was halfway through season two the money ran out. It costs a lot to pay for all that art! I have the whole story blocked out and I love the characters, so maybe I’ll return to it as a prose novel – but that will be a shame, as I think it really works best as a comic book.
How did you get involved in gaming? What do you like so much about games?
That’s a very good question. I think it’s because I get to exercise my imagination and my analytic mind at the same time. It’s the same reason I design games and write fiction – you’re having to be creative and flexible while at the same time solving problems. And because they are all sorts of different problems I have to think on my feet, which I enjoy. It’s why I prefer real-time strategy games to turn-based, because of the adrenaline. In roleplaying games you’re constantly improvising, whether you’re playing in the game or running it, and I get fired up by that. Also there’s the social aspect of gaming. I like hanging out with my friends, and most of them are gamers. It’s just a shame that my wife isn’t into games, because if she did I’d happily play a boardgame most evenings.
What are your favourite games?
In face-to-face roleplaying: Empire of the Petal Throne, and other rules and spin-offs set in MAR Barker’s world of Tekumel. I like it so much I designed a set of rules myself for it, called Tirikelu, that are available free online. Recently I’ve also enjoyed Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders, which is an Apocalypse World variant.

As for videogames, I like What Remains of Edith Finch, Return of the Obra Din, Inside, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, The Witcher, This War of Mine, The Talos Principle – oh, too many to mention. Lately I’ve been getting into VR games as I’m doing some design work on one. My favourite computer game of all time: Outcast. That’s twenty years old and I still go back to it.
Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?
I host a roleplaying session every two weeks, and my group also try to fit in four weekend specials each year. It’s not like the old days when we could game several times a week, but everybody used to live nearby back then and none of us had families.

We’re currently playing an investigative campaign set in the 1890s. We use GURPS 4th edition for that, quite a crunchy set of rules but much better than 3rd edition. I recently wrote some chapters for the Lyonesse RPG, which uses a d100 system, but I probably won’t play it – even though Oliver and I are both devoted Jack Vance fans – because tonally the setting isn’t very different from our own world, Legend, and we really need to test out the Jewelspider system for that.
Is there a game (or even a setting) you haven't written yet but you definitely want to try?
I’d like to have a crack at a complete reboot of the world of Tekumel. As originally conceived it belonged to a style of pulp sci-fi of the mid-20th century. That’s not something that today’s players can really get into, yet behind the game lies Professor Barker’s concept of a “real” Tekumel. I think there’s a better way to present it to the current generation of roleplayers that strips away the slightly cheesy pulp style and makes it feel more solid.
Any advice for someone who would like a writing career?
I’d say, “Do you have a Plan B?” Harrison Ford trained as a carpenter, remember, so that he had something to fall back on if the acting didn’t pan out. These days, millions of books are being published every year – most of them self-published – so it’s very hard to get noticed.

If that doesn’t put you off, OK, write your book. Send it out to agents. While they’re looking at it, start writing the next book. If an agent or editor says that something in your story doesn’t work then you should listen to them. On the other hand, if they tell you how to change the book, be more sceptical – other people know if a story doesn’t grab them, but they can’t write the book your way.

Hopefully your agent will get more than one publisher interested. If they do, there may be a bidding war, which is the only way you’ll get a fair price for your work. Pay attention to contracts. What is the publisher agreeing to do, and what happens to your rights if the book isn’t successful?

Read. You already read? Read more. Read really good authors: Hemingway, Calvino, Austen, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Dickens, Eco. Don’t only read your favourite genres or authors. Think about what effect the author was striving for and how they achieved it. Always be learning.

They say, “Never give up,” but I’ll say, “Don’t reinforce failure.” If you try one thing and it doesn’t work, try something else. Short stories, novels, flash fiction, poetry, theatre. Mix genres. Ignore genres. The point is that entertainment is a fashion-driven industry, and there’s no point in plugging away at one thing if the public aren’t buying it. I know a couple of great writers – we’re talking about award winners, best-sellers in their day – whose books are not getting publishing offers these days because fashions have changed and their style of fiction is out of favour. No writer should ever try to chase fashions – you have to give the readers or viewers or players something they didn’t even know they wanted. But, at the same time, be aware of whether you’ve set up your stall in right place to get noticed.
Last question: is there any secret project you’re currently working on and can share with us?
There’s the world of Abraxas that Jamie and I devised for a massively multiplayer game we were set to work on at Eidos Interactive in 1999. Eidos closed down internal development so we never got to do the game, but I like the setting, which is science fantasy in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. So I’m going to release that as an RPG using a variant of my Tirikelu rules. I’ve commissioned a great cover by Tancred Dyke-Wells, so now it’s just a case of me finding a spare couple of months to write it.

I also want to do a gamebook (probably digital; think 80 Days rather than Tin Man Games) based in the village of Crossgate from my Dragon Warriors campaign. This would be an open world gamebook where you can have various NPC companions and your experience of the adventure is different depending on which of them is with you. There would be multiple side-quests that you can pick up in more than one location using a sort of object-oriented approach to the story rather than the usual procedural gamebook design. (Apologies to my coder friends; I’m using these terms very loosely!) The working title for that is Winter’s Rage, but it’s another project that will have to wait for me to free up some leisure time to work on it.

The Jewelspider RPG is likely to happen much sooner, mainly because it’s very light on rules so most of it will be adventures and background for the world of Legend. And I have a science fiction setting called Earthwrecked that I ran as a roleplaying campaign and that I really should dust off and write up.

Friday, 23 August 2019

It's in the trees

I've shown you this before, sort of. While working on a book I like to print up prototype versions rather than read the text on-screen. The upside is it provides a different perspective. The downside is that by the time the print company gets the book to me, often I've changed most of it.

I prepared these two copies of the Jewelspider RPG (2nd edition Dragon Warriors, if you prefer) so that my group could start playtesting the rules. I'm sorry to say the finished book probably won't have Jon Hodgson art -- I don't have the money to pay him, and if I did I'd spend it on Mirabilis -- but for private use around the gaming table I can indulge my wildest dreams. And I really wanted to have a proper look at that gorgeous Players Guide artwork without the book title inexplicably covering up half the image.

Some people have asked about the new rules. Details are still changing week by week, but the core of the system seems pretty solid now. There are eight abilities, ranging from 2 to 18, which determine your chance of succeeding in any action. There are also four qualities, ranging from -3 to +3,which don't affect your chance of success but rather your degree of success. So if you attempt an action using Agility (ride, dodge, climb, etc) or Dexterity (shoot, cut a purse, pick a lock, etc) then having a positive score in the Graceful quality would make any successful roll more effective.

There are also masteries, ranging from 0 to 6, which give the character more control over how they use their abilities for actions relevant to that mastery. Mastery in swordplay, for example, lets you finesse your Dexterity rolls when attacking or parrying with a sword. The way a mastery works is that you can trade off chance of success against degree of success, up to your level in that mastery.

The system is designed for ad hoc play. Any action you want to attempt will be governed by one of the eight abilities, and masteries can be extemporized too.

That's not quite all. There are two very rare qualities, Holy and Fey, that can be unlocked and give access to actions that ordinary people can't attempt. You can't have both at once, of course, and Fey doesn't necessarily indicate faerie blood, it's just the Jewelspider equivalent of DW's Psychic Talent.

When will all this be available to the public? I'm currently running a short campaign with junkable characters. Then Oliver Johnson is planning to run a Jewelspider campaign through through the autumn, and Tim Harford will hopefully give the rules a spin in one of his eagerly-awaited Christmas specials, and then I'll go back and revise the whole caboodle in light of my players' comments. So not till next spring, at the earliest. But, as you know, nothing's forgotten and it's coming.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Get real

The realism versus playability debate has been going on for decades. Which is odd, because there aren’t really any games that err by being too playable. I can cite lots that are too realistic, though. There was the CRPG where you had to remember to restock on shoe leather. If you didn’t, your character would go “Ow!” every so often and lose a hit point. A long journey could kill you before you even got to the dungeon.

The same debate occurred long ago in movies and TV – although there it was “realism vs enjoyment”. Thankfully, the realists were beaten back into a tiny corner. Other than 12-hour Andy Warhol epics watching a flag flap on the side of the Empire State Building, visual narrative is free of realism. Arnie says, “Let’s go to Cairo,” and – alakazam! – there he is.

The guys at Pyro got it right when they talked about narrative games (like CRPGs) involving a contract with the player. It’s what happens all the time in movies when there’s a flashback. Sixty years ago, audiences needed a wash dissolve to believe it. Now you can play around with time using just an ordinary cut.

Why have realism at all? Well, take an example I used when designing my RTS Warrior Kings. Without any rules for supply in such a game, conquest works like infection. You can take a single worker behind enemy lines and build a massive base to attack from. That will lead to some pretty odd strategies if the game is set in the Trojan Wars.

But you don’t want real realism. Full-on true-to-life supply line rules can so easily lead to a player struggling against the game rather than against the other players. So you need to find a way that rewards the player if he does it right, but still allows him to ignore supply lines if he wants. One way to do that is to have injured characters automatically recover hit points if they’re in supply, for example, which is how I had it work in Warrior Kings. The player doesn't have to micromanage supplies, but they do get a bonus for not letting a force get cut off behind enemy lines.

Still, games aren’t movies. The whole point of a game is to give the player a hands-on experience. And sometimes that experience might be of inevitability. I played a wargame of the Cuban revolution. The government player couldn’t possibly win (Michael Corleone was right) but it was fun to see why they couldn't. Only games can do this. Which is why the debate will rage on. And there will always be a case to be made – even for shoe leather.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Rune blades

This was an early piece that I wrote for White Dwarf (issue 39, March 1983). Evidently I'd already been asked to work on Questworld. Most of these magic swords later found a home in Dragon Warriors, but to do them full justice you really need to include the Rune associations. Looking at it again 35 years on, I was struck by the reference to "humanists". Does that mean the Renaissance kind, or modern humanism? Seems a little anachronistic given that Greg Stafford's Genertela (always cracks me up; at times my sense of humour is quite puerile) is a Bronze Age world filled with quite irrefutable spirits and deities, but obviously it made sense at the time.

The pillars of any RuneQuest universe, more fundamental than the gods who make use of them, are the Runes themselves. Many non-theistic cults on both Questworld and Glorantha strive to interact directly with the Runes and to use their power to shape the world around them. Even some of the more familiar religions can be interpreted this way. The Black Fang Brotherhood involves shamanistic worship of the Death Rune, while Kralori philosophers would be able to see the gods (especially those, such as Humakt, linked almost exclusively to one Rune) as mankind's anthropomorphised view of the powers and workings of the Runes in nature.

The consequence of this philosophy is a reversal of the individual cult member's approach to the world: he doesn't necessarily behave according to certain rules simply because 'the god wills it', but accepts responsibility for his own actions and ethics, and associated himself with the Rune or Runes which embody his own philosophy. For example, a humanist Knight of western Genertela might wear the Death Rune on his shield in the same way that a Humakti would, but with a quite different feeling and personal philosophy behind this.

By focussing on the Runes, the Wizards of such a cult acquire the ability to channel their power and so create magical artifacts. In a world where many cults have to fight for their existence, the creation of magic weaponry is of obvious importance; this is what will be covered here.

Rune weapons are usually swords, created by the priests of a Rune cult for use by the cult champion. The priests gather and together perform the rituals while permanently sacrificing some of their POW to enchant the sword. The Ritual of Enchantment is a skill (see below), and each priest must make his roll in this skill or the POW he contributes is wasted. If any one of the priests fumbles then the entire ritual is disrupted and all the POW is lost to no effect. (This can create really bad blood among the other cultists!) The ritual requires 30 points of POW to be successfully relinquished in order to enchant the sword.
The Ritual of Enchantment skill is learned at the rate 750/1000/ 2000/3500, though it would be common practice inmost cults for the priests/wizards who had mastered it to give free instruction to the others. Rune weapons can have any ability, limited only by the imagination of those who create them and the power of the Rune involved. The more common types are listed here.

Volcanic Sword
The sword is tied to the Fire Rune. Whenever needed, its blade will rise in temperature to red-heat within seconds. This effect does not damage the blade itself. Any damage that penetrates armour is doubled.
Example: Lord Balin of Dorgoth is fighting a cave troll. He hits the creature with his iron volcanic sword and rolls 5 on the damage dice, of which 2 points penetrate its skin. In addition to the 2 points, the troll takes an extra +2 from the heat of the blade. (In this case, being a troll, it also takes another +2 just because the sword is made of iron).
Fireblade cast on such a weapon will not add to the damage done but will merely convert it to doing 3d6 damage for the duration of the spell.

Blades of this type are commonly shortswords, created for use by Death Rune cult assassins. The weapon does normal damage, but is kept supernaturally sharp and cuts easily through armour. The amount of damage the armour would normally absorb is halved (round fractions up). Magical protections such as shield are not affected.

Severblades can be enhanced by bladesharp, but will temporarily be converted to normal 3d6 weapons by fireblade.

The most common of several Mobility Rune weapons, the blurblade moves with dazzling speed. The wielder of a blurblade always hits with it at Strike Rank 1 (even if he or she had it sheathed at the start of the round), and opponents subtract 05% from their chance of parrying. If the opponent is unaware of the sword's ability, he will be automatically surprised on the first attack and his parry chance will be halved.

Created by Air Rune cults, a sword of this type allows its user to summon storms once a day. The storm will muster within one minute and will then last for up to fifteen minutes. The main force of the storm is concentrated to a zone 160m around the sword; within this zone, visibility drops to 6m, all movement is halved, normal communication is impossible and flying creatures must roll DEXx5 each round or be buffeted helplessly by the winds. There is a clear zone (the eye of the storm) for 3m around the sword. While the storm rages, the user can cast lightning bolts from the tip of the sword at the rate of one every five melee rounds. These bolts leap for 1-8 beings within 16m, with a 60% chance of hitting. If the target has a Defence, this will count. A bolt that hits deals the target 1-4 blows for 1d8 damage each; armour gives half normal protection.

The Darkness Rune is another favourite with assassins. Night-blades give their user the ability to see in darkness, to Hide in Shadows at +30%, and to create a globe of darkness 3m across around himself at any time. Shades will not attack the wielder of a nightblade.

Deriving its power from the Magic Rune, this sword acts as a variable matrix for any battle magic spell up to 4 points. That is, the user can cast any such spell with the sword (and his own POW). It takes one full turn (five minutes) for the sword to switch from one spell to another.

Fortress Sword
Weapons of this type, tied to the Stasis Rune, protect their user by enhancing his chance to parry. 30% is added to the user's parry ability, but this concentration on defence reduces his attack chance by 10%.

Vigor Sword
This is another common Mobility cult weapon. Essentially it is the opposite of the Fortress Sword mentioned above. In this case the sword impairs its user's parries by the ferocity of its attacks, ie +30% to user's attack and -10% from his parry.

Vorpal Blade
Through its Fate Rune powers, the Vorpal Sword has a knack of finding openings in an opponent's guard. If the attack roll is half (or less) of what the sword's user needed then he can specify where he's hitting his opponent.
Example: Ericre Bloothaux has a shortsword with a Vorpal Blade. In combat with a dream dragon, Ericre rolls a 13 for his attack. With his shortsword skill of 70% this is not only an opportunity to hit the dragon wherever he wants, but also happens to be an impaling blow. 16 points in the head puts the creature down, and Ericre is forced to admit that the line dividing Fate from Luck is often a fine one.
For arcane symbolic reasons, Chillblades (created, of course, by Ice Rune cults) are always impaling weapons. Any damage an opponent takes from the icy blade of the weapon is matched against his CON on the Resistance Table. If the roll is successful, the victim takes damage to his CON (as with systemic poison) and suffers -2 from STR and DEX for ten melee rounds. An unsuccessful roll simply means that the victim takes an extra 50% damage in the area hit.
Example: Archos the Lame is hit for 4 points in the arm by an enemy's chillblade. Matching 04 against Archos' CON of 11 gives a 15% chance that he will also take 4 points of CON damage. Archos' foe rolls a 82, however, so the only effect of the chillblacle is an extra 2 points of damage in Archos' arm.
Chaos Knife
The name is euphemistic; Chaos 'knives' are often greatswords. The effect of the weapon is simply to bestow the user with a random Chaotic feature, different each time he draws it.

Vortex Sword
The Vortex Sword, or nullblade, is the rarest of all these rare weapons, being connected with the ancient Void Rune of Questworld. Its powers absorb and annihilate magic. Any spell cast at, by or on the user is reduced by 6 POW points: a countermagic 8 becomes a countermagic 2. Non-variable spells are rendered ineffective if reduced below their minimum POW by the sword's powers. Remember that Rune magic is twice the strength of battle magic, so that a shield 4 cast on the user would count as shield 1.

The secondary effect of the Vortex Sword is still more terrible: anyone slain by it is utterly annihilated by being drawn into the Void, and cannot be resurrected.

Final points
Once the Rune weapon is created, the cult champion (or whoever is going to use it) must sacrifice one point of characteristic POW in order to attune it. Having done this, he cannot attune a magic crystal until and unless he relinquishes use of the Rune weapon.

Rune weapons are very, very rarely found as treasure. Having cost the cult wizards at least 30 points of POW between them, the weapon is not going to be allowed to lie in some treasure hoard somewhere. The exception to this is when the cult champion was killed in the middle of the quest and the cult found it too difficult or dangerous to retrieve the weapon. In this case, whatever killed the champion may be hanging around where the weapon fell, ready to fight anyone else who'd like to own it.

Anyone who manages to get hold of a Rune cult weapon will be able to use it by attuning it as above, so long as they are members of a cult incorporating the appropriate Rune.

A couple of notes on the use of Rune weapons in campaigns. First, do not sprinkle them around too freely. Remember that it takes quite a powerful cult to make such a weapon – at least ten priests or wizards at say 95% in the Ritual of Enchantment and prepared to reduce their characteristics POW from 21 to 18. Such a cult would presumably have a highly skilled champion (perhaps one of the wizards?) who would be more than a match for a few player characters. Even if the cult lost the weapon, it would tend to end up in the hands of a powerful character who would do his best to hang onto it. Secondly, Rune weapons will almost be made of iron and will thus require the use of Divine Intervention to allow the casting of spells while holding them.

Rune weapons are intended as special items for full campaigns. Initiate-level player characters who found one could use it for the rest of the adventure and would then be well advised to hand it over to their own cult (in exchange for goodwill and a rich reward) rather than become a target for the most powerful treasure-seeking adventurers in the land!

Friday, 19 July 2019

"Turned To Stone" (scenario)

I often find myself thinking of role-playing campaigns as akin to seasons of a TV drama. Like any comparison it only goes so far, but typically you’ve got one or more big events growing in the background and then each session there’s often a problem that gets wrapped up neatly in an evening or two.

This scenario was one of those monster-of-the week episodes in our Immortal Spartans campaign. The Highlander-type concept allows us to zip through history, and in this case it was 878 AD and the player-characters were on their way from Constantinople to Wessex. I know what you’re thinking, and they did meet King Alfred, but that wasn’t the reason for the trip. They had to deal with a time-travelling weaponized AI that crash-landed in Mercia pursued by other factions in a future war and had ended up allying itself with a Welsh priest called Frych. Highlander meets Terminator meets 12 Monkeys sort of thing.

Anyway, en route they put in at Pylos, on the west coast of the Peloponnese and this is one of those single-session scenarios I mentioned. Its particular significance to the Spartans was that it had been the scene of a notorious defeat by the Athenians in 425 BC, so there were some old demons festering away there.


The characters put in at Pylos (west coast of the Doric peninsula) for re-supply. Note on the map that modern Pylos is on the mainland, and the site marked Pylos to the north is the ruins of the classical city.

They are met by Dioscorus, a local representative who takes them to their lodgings (his house) where they are soon visited by Brother Bruno (see below) and the Governor’s servant Mikos.

The governor of Pylos is an Italian, Malvio Buonarotti. He is concerned for his son, Joffredo Buonarotti, who lies paralyzed (a kind of sleeping sickness) because of an encounter with “the Gorgon” on Sphacteria, where he had swum on a dare from his friend Festus Kontostephanos, son of Lord Falkon, Controller of the Port Authority.

Joffredo is being attended by Brother Bruno and some lay brothers from the local monastery of St Cyriacus. Drops are administered to his eyes, which are open but unseeing. Brother Bruno believes “ossification is setting in; it would be well if His Eminence the Cardinal would say a benediction.”

Unlike the Governor, the monks believe in the Gorgon and say it settled here attracted by the blood of heroes, and to feast on their bones.

How long has the Gorgon been here? The local legend is that she originally inhabited the ruined temple of Artemis on Corfu, but that Pope Nicholas I exorcized her by cock-crow on his visit to the island in 860 AD, and that her spirit fled aboard a ship whose crew were all found turned to stone when it drifted into Pylos harbour.

The “Gorgon” is really a psionic with acromegaly, shunned by others so she fled to the island twelve years ago. She is inarticulate and somewhat mad, and would prefer to be left in peace, but if harassed will respond aggressively.

She can effectively turn invisible (using psionic power to achieve Stealth 30) and then unveil her face to her chosen victim. If two characters attack her at once, let them both roll, then resolve those attacks against each other. This is the power of confusion that she can exert, but after the first time characters get a Will roll to resist it.

Her first action is to wait until the characters have climbed up the island a way, then sink their boat and/or paralyze the boatmen.

If she is killed, that does nothing to help Joffredo - at least, it didn't in my game; you might decide to be more lenient. (And incidentally he is of course not turning to stone, whatever the superstitious Brother Bruno thinks.) 

Among various trinkets of no real value (threaded seashells, etc) she wears an old scratched-up amulet of Artemis Orthia, probably of Spartan origin. On the back, an acronym that stands as an abbreviation of a common Spartan proverb: “Your own hand use when Fortune you would call.”

Also on the island are low stone walls that may be the remains of the Spartan fort here. If they search around, Observation at -5 to spot a shield buried among the stones. On the back of it is scratched a prayer to Aidos, the aspect of Aphrodite dedicated to shame and modesty:
“Goddess, let me face injustice with the same disregard as danger,
Let me face dishonour with the calm I would meet death;
Allow my best actions to endure after I have fallen;
Though Man is mortal, smile forever on Sparta’s halls.”

Friday, 12 July 2019

"Yes, I include roleplaying games in art!"

These days, if you want to get your work out there, you have to plunge into the world of social media. Recently I remarked how polluting and disappointing that experience often feels, and somebody said, "Hell is other people." But that's not it. I like people -- that is, in real life I like them. Some of my friends (OK, not many, but a few) support Trump and deny climate change, and I even like them, because in real life they're also warm, funny, provocative, caring, interesting, infuriating. All the things people are supposed to be.

But humans in other situations don't always come across so well. Driving on the motorway, for example. And you might say the arseholes who tailgate and make V-signs are just the vile minority, and I'm sure that's true of many of them. But I'm just as sure that many dangerously zig-zagging road ragers get out of the car at the end of the journey and promptly turn into perfectly nice people.

I used to commute out to Woking. At Waterloo, at the end of a long week, passengers would be scowling, snarling, barging past others in their haste to get on. Manners were in short supply. But those same people, getting off the train half an hour later, would be smiling, holding doors for each other, saying sorry if they bumped into you. Circumstances change us.

Somebody with a beer or a book in his or her hand can be pleasant company. Give them a pitchfork and a burning torch and you've got the makings of an angry mob. Social media too often works as the latter. So I liked this video by James "Grim Jim" Desborough because he absolutely nails what I think about all the intolerance, cult-justice and groupthink that sloshes around the internet. Or maybe it's just because I've always had a soft spot for a blistering full-on rant.

And for another take on games (computer games this time) as an art form, here's Ernest W Adams.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Lasciate ogne speranza

Edizioni Librarsi, who are the publishers of the Italian editions of Blood Sword and Fabled Lands, have revealed Mattia Simone's breathtaking cover for Cuore di Ghiaccio (aka Heart of Ice, as if you didn't know).
At last you see a streak of dark rubble against the dazzling skyline. You fear it might just be a line of hills or even a trick of the light, but as you approach on quickened footsteps it is possible to make out the details of brooding towers, empty palaces and gargantuan snow-bound walls. You have arrived at the lost city of Du-En.
You can find the English edition here or, if you're so hard up that you can't toss a few shekels to a starving writer, why not try Benjamin Fox's online version here? (And if you enjoy it, and can find the time to write an Amazon review, it all helps.)

Friday, 28 June 2019

How to roleplay

Paul Mason is famous in roleplaying circles as one of the uber-fans involved with Dragonlords and as the editor of the superb if infrequent imazine, in which he treated us to a stellar series of articles and reviews in his inimitably trenchant and thought-provoking style. He was also for many years one of my Tekumel players and has written Outlaws, a great but so far unpublished RPG of the heroes of Liangshan Po, which I used as the basis of my (also unpublished) Heian Japan roleplaying game, Kwaidan.

These days Paul is too busy with his academic career in Japan to do much roleplaying, but the last time he was over in Britain I asked if he wouldn’t mind me running some of his articles as guest posts, and he gave a kind of oblique permission. That is, he looked at me with an expression that was more 'are you serious?' than 'don’t you dare'.

This piece might strike you as very basic stuff if you’re a roleplayer – but hey, I’ve been roleplaying since the mid-70s and I found it useful. Remember that once you reach 10th Dan you go back to wearing a white belt. Nobody should ever think they’re anything but a novice. Take it away, Paul...

In a role-playing game the rules are details: they are the trees from which part of the wood is composed. So let’s consider a different approach to writing rules for role-playing games. Let’s try to look at the wood.

The purpose of this game is to take part in a story. The story isn’t told by anyone, but is built up from the improvised contributions of all the participants. See the sample for an idea of how this works.

how to play
The game creates a story. Participants in the game all play a part in creating the story, by making contributions. The goal of the game is to make it as easy as possible for participants to act or describe their improvised contributions to the game without spoiling the sense of immersion.

There are two basic types of participants in the game. Players are a little like actors. They will usually act the life of a single person: their character. The referee is more like a director. The referee describes sensory information in the story, and may occasionally act other characters in the story, as needed.

A participant who contributes to the game by acting does so by saying what their character is trying to do. So in the sample, Fred says: ‘I climb up the gantry to the deck above.’ If you like, when this action is speech, the participant can act the speech by actually speaking as the character. So later in the sample, when Fred says ‘Set it to stun!’ he’s actually saying what his character is saying. In some cases you might need to check which it is, but usually it will be obvious. Two or more participants can thus act the roles of their characters, conducting a conversation which forms part of the story.

Anything which is acted by a participant takes place as described, unless it is challenged by another participant (usually this is the job of the referee, but other players may also challenge if they like). A participant whose action has been challenged must prove that the character could succeed. To do this, they need to use an agreed game mechanic (such as Outlaws Light, presented in imazine #33). An example of a game mechanic is that you must roll 9 or less on two dice to hit with your phaser. Really skilled characters like Worf need an 11 or less. Other Klingons need 7 or less.

Some complex interactions, such as fights, often involve continual implied challenges, and therefore may require a lot of use of mechanics. Other actions, if they seem reasonable given the character and the story, can pass unchallenged.

A participant who contributes to the game by describing does so by talking about something accessible to the senses of characters in the game. This is usually the job of the referee, but players may also occasionally describe things connected with their characters. So in the sample, Sam describes what the players can see once they have climbed the gantry, and what they can feel.

Descriptions, like actions, can be challenged. They shouldn’t be contradicted outright, but senses can be mistaken! A player who describes a scene is speaking only for their character, and other players, or the referee, may perceive things differently. Note that the referee is privileged in description: because they speak for ‘everybody’ a player who challenges a referee’s description is simply describing what their own character perceives, and not what anyone else does.

Obviously, not everything needs to be described, and referees should beware of trying to act events in the story in the guise of description! For example, if Sam in the sample goes on to say ‘When you walk on to the transporter pad, there is an explosion’ this is wrong, because the players haven’t yet said that they are acting by walking on to the transporter pad. Remember, you’re not telling a story by crafting it authorially, you’re creating one by inhabiting it.

There are no fixed rules governing how and when you can contribute to a story, but there are some obvious guidelines that should be followed. The most important is: take your cues from the story. If you act something your character is doing tomorrow, then everyone else’s actions today will have to be done in flashbacks. This will be difficult, and may even cause a contradiction with what you acted about tomorrow. Challenging other player characters, or getting into conflicts with them, is fine, but blocking the story itself is generally bad form.

A typical sequence of contributions will be:
  • Referee describes the situation facing the player characters, and/or uses a character to act a stimulus.
  • Players respond by acting their character’s reaction. There’s no fixed order to this, but if a player feels that their character should be able to act first, they always have recourse to a challenge.
  • Participants respond to the actions. This may lead to further description—the referee, or a player, may describe the result of actions.
  • Out of all these contributions, a sequence of events will soon be evident. This is the story.
Even in your own mind, separate Action from Description. At first it’s tempting to think that your character could do absolutely anything, but soon you find that the limitations are what create drama. Maybe you can’t leap that chasm, maybe you’re not fast enough to outrun the fireball. Maybe the Ferengi saw you pick his pocket. Sometimes you should challenge yourself, not wait for other players to do it.

Time for the characters in the story does not pass at the same rate as it does for the players. At times, it will pass very slowly, if you’re working out something that doesn’t take long, but needs to be explained in detail. At other times, it will pass very quickly, as with a long journey in which nothing much happens. As with most things in the game, time can be skipped over, subject to challenge by any of the other participants.

There are no rules to cover winning. Players can decide on their own ideas of what constitutes winning. However, they may find that other players don’t agree with them. So how do you win? Well, how does a character win in a story?

The game takes place in game sessions. A game session is when the participants get together to play the game. It can end at any time that is convenient for the participants. The end of a game session doesn’t mean the end of a story. The story can continue in the next session. A story only ends when everyone agrees that it’s finished, and you start a new one, or when you stop playing the game entirely!

Thanks to Dave Morris for providing comments and useful examples based on Star Trek. In writing this, I’ve been particularly inspired by all those games which have started with some vague waffle about how role-playing is like improvisational radio theatre, have followed it with a sample dialogue, without any explanation as to how and why people said what they did, and then plunged straight into tables of character generation. I’m also indebted to my own players, half of whom were complete beginners.

- Paul Mason

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Anybody out there?

Sam needs the help of a good friend. You are Sam's guide and only contact outside the evacuated area. Without you, Sam will not survive the next few days.
A character-driven, chat-based, story-rich text adventure game in which trust is as important as problem-solving? Of course I'm going to like Everbyte's Dead City. I'm sometimes asked what the future of gamebooks will look like. Like this.

And while poking around Everbyte's site I also found they've made an audio adventure -- something I was harping on about twenty years ago, and still am. The future of gamebooks is finally here.

But wait, there's more. Storyfix Media have just released Christopher Webster's interactive adventure The Pulse. This is another one that breaks with the old second-person narrative style in favour of building a relationship with a character. You make the decisions, they take the risks. Immediately there's the potential there for conflict, suspicion, unreliability, trust. If you've played my Frankenstein interactive story you'll know it's a development in the genre that I think is ripe for experimentation. To the castle..!

Friday, 14 June 2019

Midnight on the Day of Judgement

"Don't talk to me about spoilers. Winter has been coming for -- "

Oh, well maybe I shouldn't go quoting the Axis of Awesome. Not on a family blog, eh? The point is that after thirty-one years The Walls of Spyte, fifth and final book in the Blood Sword series, is back in print thanks to two hundred and fifty stalwart Kickstarter backers. (You know who you are, and thank you.)

A by-blow of the campaign was the Blood Sword Battle Boards, a large-format book collecting all the combat encounters from the series. Fat? It makes Jamie look like Ebony Maw. (By the way don't you think that sounds like the name of a '70s Motown singer? Not Jamie, I mean. The other one.)

All those unstintingly beneficent backers whose pledges funded the re-editing of the book have now got their exclusive, full-colour, hardcover, collector's-edition copies of The Walls of Spyte, but if you missed the campaign don't go pledging your soul to the nethermost darkness just yet. A paperback edition is available and it's every bit as good as the hardcover except for little details like colour, durability, signatures, things like that. But you do still get Russ's matchlessly brilliant art and the opportunity to complete the epic Blood Sword quest there in the steaming, sulphurous heart of the Cauldron on the last day of Creation.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Like an egg stain on your chin

Recently I’ve been reminiscing about our roleplaying days of yore. Not in order to wallow in nostalgia, but for the sake of some interviews and podcasts I was doing. I talked about the saturnine loner who achieved enlightenment and saved the people he realized were not lackeys but friends. The civil war that split our party when each player-character came to different conclusions about the right and honorable course. The subtle ways that characters within a legion, even at different ranks, could push their disagreements as far as military rules allowed.

I’m forced to the conclusion that the roleplaying was better back then – more immersive, more nuanced, more surprising – when we just took a Tirikelu character and developed them by playing. Now we mostly use GURPS, which encourages you to plot out every preposterous detail of the character before you start playing. It’s not a springboard for the imagination. More often it’s just a straitjacket.

And by the way, I'm just singling out GURPS because it's the game I've played most in the last ten years. Plenty of so-called narrative systems are just as bad, with their nannying insistence on each player writing down which other character they like, which one they have a grudge against, and so on. It's like being at infant school and being made to write about your weekend. The point of playing is to discover these things, not scribble the backstory to a bad novel.

I much prefer the approach taken by Stephen Dove for his Jewelspider Chronicles campaign. There you begin with a short "mission statement" for the character, clarifying some background details but leaving plenty of room for future development. As an example, here's my initial description of the character I played in Tim Harford's Company of Bronze campaign.

I already talked about why GURPS’s mental disadvantages don’t work but there’s a problem with character disadvantages in general. Say you cap disadvantages at -20 points. All the players will immediately take the maximum allowed. What's wrong with this picture? Simply that if the disadvantages were properly priced, you'd expect to see some players not bother with them at all.

“Ah, but character diamonds.” No, giving extra points for disadvantages is the junk food version of interesting characterisation. A lame epileptic drug-addicted albino with the regulation five quirks is not the slightest bit interesting. What makes a character compelling is in the gap between desire and duty, wants and needs, feelings and experience. And better by far if those internal conflicts are drawn with a subtle brush, not the cartoonish personality traits offered by the GURPS rules.

So I'd allow players one disadvantage. Just one. That's it. Not a mental one, either, because they're all anathema to good roleplaying. If you take the disadvantage, you can spend the points on an advantage. Again, just the one.

How are you going to get that interesting characterization? Do what good roleplayers manage without any of the personality-by-numbers stuff. As Laurence Olivier said: dear boy, just try acting.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A slip of the pen

The Kickstarter campaign for the fifth Blood Sword book, The Walls of Spyte, offered a genuine collector's edition, as I only ever plan on printing the 225 copies pledged for by backers. That's the colour hardback version of the book. The paperback will be available for anyone to buy in a month or so.

Of those hardback copies, about 50 needed to be signed. Engage brain before putting pen to paper, I should have told myself. In particular, check the spelling of each backer's name before writing it in one of those expensive collector's editions. Oops.

Well, I have about a dozen copies still to sign and I only made one mistake. That copy (with the klutzed flyleaf carefully removed) is now up for grabs on eBay. So if you missed the Kickstarter and you've been kicking yourself for that, here's your chance -- a probably never-to-be-repeated chance -- to get one of these exclusive hardcovers.

Oh, and while we're here I might as well mention that the latest issue of Librogame's Land has an interview with me. You can find that right here.