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Thursday, 24 September 2020

Let me be ruled by laws, not by men

"It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are the creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, your campaign next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do!"
That's Gary Gygax's idea of roleplaying. I'm in the opposite camp. Like John Adams, I want to be ruled by laws, not by men, and I don't like autocrats. The "story" of a roleplaying game is there to be discovered by the players. It might well be different for each player. Roleplaying is not is one person telling everybody else a story. You want to do that, go write a novel. If a player points out that the rules contradict the story you'd got planned, don't throw your toys out of the pram. Embrace it. There's another story waiting to emerge, and probably a better one than your not-even-a-novel.

When Gazza grumbles about barrack-room lawyers, I'm guessing a player called him on his own rules. I don't mind that. I'm glad of any group that includes a rules maven, as I can never remember the rules even when I wrote them myself. The ideal rules are capable of covering any eventuality and might only rarely get looked at. You can have a great game (and usually a better game) when there are hardly any dice rolls. The rules are only needed when they're needed, an impartial court of appeal that any player can turn to so that the referee at the end of the table doesn't get too big for his or her boots.

"But I want to be told a story!" What are you, five? Still, OK, that's fine. À chacun son goût. Personally I would always rather have an outcome delivered by my own choices and by dice rolls than one prearranged by the referee to fit a plot, but you don't have to invoke the rules at any point. If you're happy to jump through the referee's story hoops, sit back and enjoy it. Seems like you'd be Gary's ideal player.

An honest cop doesn't carp about a guy knowing his rights. Running with that analogy, we all hope to live our lives without recourse to the law, and most of the time we can. But it's good to know, if you're innocent but on the spot, that laws exist that ensure you're treated without fear or favour. And even if you're not innocent, in fact; only a brute or a twit dreams of a world where cops mete out their own justice without deferring to the law.

We don't live our lives accepting government by somebody who says, "Never mind the rules, I know what's best." So why would we play games that way?

Friday, 18 September 2020

Don't call him Chun!

Before you read a word of this scenario, written by Oliver Johnson and originally published in White Dwarf 58, for goodness’ sake read Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. If you’ve already read it, read it again. Imprint it on your mind, because this is the literary equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to a Fabergé egg collection. I don’t know what Oliver was thinking (he admires Vance as much as I do) but we were young and we had to pay the rent.

To minimize the vandalism and to preserve the mystery and wonder of the original stories, I’ve changed the names. Chun the Unavoidable (never described in the story, and therefore all the scarier) becomes Papu the Ineluctable here, and so on. I’ve left archveults and IOUN stones because D&D already laid its sticky fingerprints all over those. Why am I even publishing it, then, you ask? Because Games Workshop didn’t buy the copyright, it’s Oliver’s scenario, and completists may want to see it. But those are excuses, of course, not explanations.

All right, don't say you haven't been warned…


a Dying Earth scenario by Oliver Johnson

The following short adventure is based on “Liane the Wayfarer”, one of Jack Vance's excellent fantasy stories from the first Dying Earth collection. It provides a basis for introducing some of Vance's creatures to the campaign – particularly appropriate because Vance was one of Gary Gygax's prime sources of inspiration.

Lith the Weaver has entered into an infernal agreement with Papu the Ineluctable, a supernatural being who is custodian of the Tapestry of Ariventa in the Palace of Whispers. In exchange for the human eyeballs with which his cloak is embroidered, Papu gives Lith a thread or two of the tapestry. Lith is gradually reweaving the tapestry in her cottage. When it is complete, the tapestry forms a gateway to the magical world of Ariventa, where the process of ageing is arrested and all the fields and orchards are perpetually golden with harvest. The tapestry is now, after many years' work and grisly payment on Lith's part, almost half restored.

As the characters are travelling across moorland close to the Forest of Illimitable Green, which is on their left, strange blue scaled and crested humanoids burst from the bushes — an ambush!

No Appearing: 1-20
Armour Class: As worn, usually 5
Movement: 12"
Hit Dice: 1+1
Treasure: Individuals N, S,T
Attack: By weapon type or galvanic impulse
Alignment: Any Intelligence: Average and up

Archveults are an intelligent species from another world. They have shimmering blue scales, a large black crest over the domed skull, and a hooked beak/snout, but otherwise essentially humanoid in form. Archveults can reach 12th level as fighters and 9th level as assassins or thieves, but are not restricted at all as to level of magic-use. There are no archveult clerics.

All archveults have the special ability to generate an electrical discharge through their bodies which will cause a character touched to pass out for 2-12 rounds if a saving throw vs paralysis is not made. Whether or not the save is successful, the character will take 1-4 points of damage. Once the galvanic impulse has been used, an archveult will take 10-60 minutes to build up the electrical charge for a second such attack.

Archveults mine IOUN stones (see Dungeon Master’s Guide), and any archveult magic-user of 4th level or higher has a 10% chance of having 1-10 Stones.

Archveults are only encountered on this world in small adventuring groups of 1-20 individuals. This particular group of bandit archveults consists of:
  • Xexamedes: 5th level archveult magic-user; AC9; HP15; Move: 12"; Spells: friends, jump, magic missile, shield, strength, web, lightning bolt; six IOUN stones (types 2, 4, 6, 6, 7, 14); 6 platinum pieces.
  • Xexamedes' bodyguard — Three 2nd level archveult fighters; AC4; HP11, 9, 10; one attack at 1-8 (longsword); each has 1 platinum piece, one has a Potion of Healing.
If Xexamedes is searched, a small map will be found, showing a clearing in the Forest of Illimitable Green. It also mentions the Tapestry of Ariventa, apparently a gateway to another world.

As the characters are passing through the forest they eventually come across a cottage in a picturesque clearing. All is not well, however, for a muffled sobbing can be heard within. On closer investigation they find a beautiful woman lying on the floor before a tapestry stretched on a frame. It appears to have been torn in half, the remaining. section showing a pleasing panorama of golden fields and meadows where happy folk cavort and play.

Looking up, the woman blurts out, 'I am Lith. The tapestry you see before you is the last artistic representation of the paradise of Ariventa. It has been rent by the monster Papu the Ineluctable, who but half an hour ago burst in and ravished me before tearing my cherished tapestry in a spirit of gleeful malice. Track him down to his haunt and bring back the half of the tapestry he has taken — he cannot be far hence — and my gratitude will be forever yours.'

Any ranger, and any thief or assassin above 3rd level, will spot the inhuman tracks leading from Lith's cottage. (A ranger of greater than 3rd level will also notice that the tracks have been made on more than one occasion in the last week or so.) Lith will not accompany the party. If anyone attempts to coerce her, she will call on the magical defence which protects her within her cottage: daggers which materialize out of the air. She can call on up to twenty daggers. Each strikes as a 6th level fighter. After striking once, a dagger will disappear forever, so Lith will be sparing in their use.

Lith: 3rd level MU; AC10; HP6; Chaotic Neutral. Spells — friends, dancing lights, pyrotechnics.

The tracks lead out of the woods onto a barren moor. An ancient city must once have stood here; as far as the eye can see are ruined plazas, shattered columns and low, crumbling walls. High above in the sky, the characters notice what at first seem to be half a dozen hawks or large bats. They swoop down from an immense height, nearly blacking out the sun with their enormous wings. More closely, the characters can see the possibility of many antecedents combined in a single nightmarish hybrid—each has a globular belly covered with silvery fur, claw-like hands on dingy leather wings, a horny snout like that of a stag beetle, an array of white fangs like knife blades... They emit almost human cries of pleasure as they swoop to attack.

No Appearing: 1-12
Armour Class: 6
Movement: 6"/24"
Hit Dice: 2d8+ 1
Treasure: None
Attack: 1 bite/claw for 1-8
Intelligence: Average

They are about five feet long and have a fifteen foot wingspan. Vicious predators, they will attack anything that appears vaguely edible. They are not stupid, however, and will break off any combat if necessary.

Passing further into the ruins, the characters discover a partially ruined grotto. Standing in a recess is a beautiful black statue of a strange being. It is draped with creepers and blotched with patches of moss.

This is not a statue but a creature called a teostalt. It will wait until the characters pass before leaping to attack them from the rear. If they do pass, characters should be automatically surprised.

No Appearing: 1
Armour Class: 3
Movement: 15"
Hit Dice: 6d8+ 1
Treasure: 30% chance of 1-3 pieces of jewellery
Attack: Two claws for 2-9 each
Alignment: Chaotic Evil
Intelligence: Average to high
Notes: Surprises a party on 1-5; is never itself surprised

Perhaps created by some ancient magician, teostalts have the form of a handsomely muscled man with dull sable skin, and slit golden eyes like a cat's. Teostalts are able to remain motionless for many hours at a time in order to catch their victims unawares. Their only food is human flesh, which they desire with a constant and terrible craving. They will often taunt people they are pursuing, or implore them to surrender in tones mockingly plaintive. Teostalts are about human sized on average.

Further on, the tracks are lost on the edge of a broad plaza bordered by broken pillars. Many long-dead corpses lie around — both of noble fighters and serfs, bound together only by death and the fact that their eyeballs have been gouged out. Ahead there is a ruinous temple, its inner recesses lost in shadow. A curious whispering noise seems to come softly from all around, but the characters cannot make out what is being said.

They approach the temple and enter its pillared hall. On the far wall, above an altar carved to represent thousands of tormented faces, they see the golden radiance of the other half of the tapestry. No sound can be heard now. The susurration they noticed outside has gone. They cannot see any other entrances to the building apart from the one they entered by, but the dust on the floor here has not been disturbed for some time.

By standing on the altar stone, characters can easily reach the tapestry. As they take it down, they uncover a dark recess in the wall behind it. From this leaps Papu the Ineluctable.

Papu the Ineluctable
No Appearing: 1
Armour Class: 1
Movement: 15"
Hit Points 36 (from 8 dice)
Treasure: G, H
Attack: Two claws for 2-16 each, surprises on a 1-6
Special Attacks: Surprised characters must save vs fear (at +1) or stand defenceless for 1-3 rounds.
Special Defences: Cannot be surprised.

Papu's face resembles that of a large baboon, the white face patch composed of bare bone, with empty sockets where the nose and eyes should be. The rest of his enormous body is covered with black, glistening fur and there is about him a noxious animal reek. He wears a cloak of human eyeballs laced on silk threads. Papu runs with ferocious speed on all fours after anyone who attempts to escape him. He tears the eyes from his victims and laces these onto his cloak. After slaying any group of adventurers whom Lith dupes into going after him, he detaches some threads from the tapestry and takes them to her cottage as repayment.

Papu is very large — he would stand some eighteen feet tall if upright. He takes his soubriquet from a special magic power. Once on a victim's trail, he can follow unerringly until the victim is caught. Even travelling to another dimensional plane will not shake off Papu's pursuit.

It may seem that Lith cannot lose out in this scenario — if the players defeat Papu, how will they ever know they've been suckered? In order to give them a chance to lay the blame where it belongs and exact revenge on Lith, have Papu speak to himself while he is fighting. 'Ah, Lith, you have sent fine sets of eyes for me this time!' That should give them enough of a clue. The players may take the tapestry back to Lith, and she will indeed be grateful (after her initial shock of seeing the players alive). Unfortunately, she doesn't actually have anything of value to give them as reward. The players may themselves engineer the situation so that they can use the tapestry. In this case, the referee will have to work out the results — perhaps a campaign set in the world of Ariventa?

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The fire-god's forge

If you listened to Jamie's interview on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, you might have been intrigued by the glancing reference to a project called Vulcanverse. I'll let Jamie explain it:
"The world itself is based on the premise that the god Vulcan is tired of mankind embracing virtual worlds and pushing the gods out of their lives, so instead of fading into the sunset, he embraces it by creating these four quadrants of land. The books will be a prequel to the virtual game, documenting the journey from technology and atheism taking over to the point when the old gods must choose either to fade into memory or to take things into their own hands."
In strictly game-terms it's a Second Life type virtual world in which players can own land and construct and trade their own assets. As this article explains, there are in-world creatures called vulcanites, virtual pets that I'm hoping could mean that something like my Mean Genes idea could finally get developed. (In a nutshell: players can breed and train a stable of nonhuman gladiators who then compete online, and others can watch the gladiatorial battles as a virtual sport whether or not they actually compete themselves.) I thought that one up at Eidos over twenty years ago but couldn't get anyone then to understand it. Now that e-sports are big business and Minecraft has shown the value of user-created content in virtual "playground worlds", maybe these guys will make it happen. Ian Livingstone, who was chairman of Eidos back then, is also involved in Vulcanverse so I'm keeping my fingers (and claws, and mandibles, and tentacles) crossed that we'll see a lot of gaming there.

Of course, in a freely configurable virtual world I could put Mean Genes together myself. That's the beauty of these virtual environments. They are (as I tried explaining to the Eidos execs in the original Mean Genes overview doc back in 1997) the equivalent of a playing field and a ball -- and lots of other things besides -- and you can use them to create games or theatre or tourist spots or sports or political rallies or discussion groups or whatever you like, just the way you can in the real world. I don't know what Vulcan would think of that, but Prometheus would surely approve.

CORRECTION (15/09/20): Ian Livingstone is not a partner in the Vulcanverse venture, at least not at the time of writing. I know it says so in the press release I linked to above, but it also says I'm a partner and in fact I only heard about it last week! So, well worth investing in (I hear they raised over a quarter of a million dollars from sales of plots on the first day) just don't expect a Fighting Fantasy connection.

Friday, 11 September 2020

A wizard prang

I never have managed to get a game of Ars Magica up and running, despite at least two concerted attempts. We even got as far as full character sheets. Why didn't it happen? Perhaps the degree of world-building needed looked too daunting -- though you wouldn't expect that to deter a group battle-hardened by Tekumel and Glorantha.

Mike and Roger were talking about it this month on their Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast. I'll put money on their campaign happening before mine. (I'd even consider putting money on their campaign actually happening.) And I was reminded of one aspect of the Ars Magica rules that was certainly original but that never thrilled me. The troupe system.

I prefer to really steep myself in a character, which means one character at a time. In Ars Magica you play the magi and also their companions (non-wizardly adventuring friends) and sometimes the magi's servants ("grogs") -- the point being that the magi initiate things and formulate plans, but they don't all swan off adventuring together on a regular basis. For me, one of the line-up would feel like my real character and the other two would just be NPCs that I'd play for the sake of the campaign.

The reason for the troupe is that you typically have your group of players turning up each time, and nobody wants to sit out in the kitchen, so the magus/companion/grog arrangement ensures there's always a character for everybody to play. But hang on a tick. If you're playing online, you're no longer constrained by the need to physically assemble a limited number of players at the same time each week. Now you could have some players take the magi; they might be the ones who can't turn up regularly or who are living a long way off and couldn't travel to a physical session anyway. A different group of players could then take the companions. You can assemble a regular game around whoever can show up (usually the companions and one or two of the magi) and keep the grand planning between the magi for special sessions.

There must have been a point where somebody said, "What about if we got two different actors to play Cordelia and the Fool?" Playing over the internet is meant to shake things up. There are different and possibly better ways for your players to enjoy themselves. So I think it's worth considering, at least.

By-the-bye, I like the idea of some characters playing strategically while others get their hands dirty. You could use it for an SOE game -- any war-based campaign come to that. Or it could be a Star Trek style exploration game, with the regular weekly players comprising the away team and those who only have odd moments through the week playing the bridge crew.

Also it occurs to me Ars Magica would be a great system for a Wizards of Grand Motholam campaign. Now will I buckle down and run it? I guess we'll see.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Hear ye! Hear ye!

"There are going to be at least twelve Dragon Warriors books, surely," said the chief sales rep at Transworld as he drove me and Oliver around the country to run demo games for the book buyers.

That was thirty-five years ago, before the distributors messed up (they sent all the copies of DW book 1 to one part of the country, all the copies of book 2 to another) and the foreign rights department turned down a gold-plated deal from Gallimard.

Well, stuff happens. Dragon Warriors stopped at book 6, The Lands of Legend, and one calamitous consequence of that was Robert Dale's brilliant campaign set around the town of Brymstone never reached the wider audience it deserved.

Actually, part of it did get published a few years later. Jamie and I were offered the editorship of a new RPG magazine to be called Red Giant. We turned the job down (the title was the sticking point) but we did recommend the publishers get in touch with Robert about serializing Brymstone.

Red Giant sadly only lasted two issues, but roleplayers had got a glimpse of Brymstone at least. Over the years, its reputation rightly grew. But it's been like finding the Finnesburg Fragment -- until now, because (fanfare please) Serpent King Games have done a deal with Robert Dale to release his complete, definitive, remastered Brymstone. Read about it here.

I gather it's going to be a big book but (continuing last week's theme) none of that is extraneous padding or overscripted acts and beats. It's a true sourcebook packed with everything you'll need to run freeform adventures with Brymstone as a base -- the NPCs, key locations, rivalries, alliances, grudges, folktales, customs, and adventure seeds -- whether or not your player-characters engage with the épine dorsale, namely Robert's compelling central plotline of gathering danger, dread and doom.

Talking of the central plot, the big bad of this book is the Brollachan, a mythical creature with no true form that's said to take the shape of what you most fear -- or those you most trust. I still feel a shudder when I remember our encounters with it in Robert's original campaign. Dragon Warriors players have a treat in store.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

And the rest you discover...

"We love writing ourselves into a corner. We love it. Because then it activates all of those how-do-we-get-out-of-purgatory juices. And then you get the next bright idea."

That's Mr Robert Downey Jr summing up the creative approach of the Russo brothers. He says a bit about improvisation so there might be some springboard tips there for roleplayers.

Big news tomorrow for Dragon Warriors players. See you then.

Friday, 28 August 2020

How long does an RPG scenario need to be?

In the comments last time, Nigel asked a question that must have vexed us all at one time or another. We all know you can run a perfectly good adventure from a page or two of notes, but what if you're writing the adventure so that somebody else can run it? Every little detail, obvious to you, soon starts to demand a page of its own. Look at the annual Christmas scenario for Legend. Tim, our secret Santa for those specials, cooks up the adventure on the train to London and runs it from crib notes scrawled in biro on the back of his hand. Yet by the time I'm serving the scenario up to you it has typically swollen like a Quatermass experiment to 5000 words or more.

I don't claim to have a magic formula, but a lot of published scenarios are written to be a fun read rather than a useful template for running the adventure. It's what sells. So an investigative scenario, for example, will lay out the clues and describe how the player-characters are expected to come across them, all wrapped up in a form that reads like a mini-mystery novel. But to run the game you don't need any of that. For maximum compression, you really just need a couple of documents and (maybe) maps of the key locations.

The first document describes what would happen in the adventure if the PCs weren't there. You might include some contingencies here if you think the referee isn't experienced enough to make them up on the fly. Eg: "The Terminator goes to the nightclub to kill Sarah Connor. If she escapes it seeks out her mother or friends, and remember that it can mimic their voice on the phone to get her to say where she is." Take a look on Wikipedia at the plot summary of a few stories you're very familiar with. That's a good guide to how compressed you can go. You should end up with something like this (from The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder on the Tekumel site):

The other doc is just the NPCs. What they want, how they are likely to try and get it, the resources they can call on, and their attitude to the PCs and each other. This is the place to mark how the PCs might get involved, eg: "Du Pont thinks Goldfinger is cheating at cards and asks the characters to find out how. (See: Jill Masterton.)" Whether the PCs take those cues, and how they use them, should emerge in play rather than being baked into the scenario -- and that's where you can save on word count.

The maps don't need to be more than rough sketches. They're just there so you can answer questions like, "To get to the bath-house, do I need to go out into the courtyard or can I get there from the dormitory?" I tend to do my maps on scraps of paper at the table, often improvised when a player first asks a question so as to be consistent thereafter. You know the kind of thing:

A scenario like I'm describing will be a very dry read, but after all it's not supposed to be a novel. The only reason we have these neatly act-structured published scenarios is because that's the way the publishers get a customer to part with their money. Recently I was looking at a scenario in a published RPG which took up twenty-five pages (around 10,000 words) and it could all have been fitted on one piece of paper. As a short story it was fine. As a reference doc for running a game from it was useless. There was too much detail, too many cross-connections, too many assumptions about which order the PCs would do things in -- not to mention assumptions about what they would do.

What about set pieces? It can be really hard to resist preparing those in advance. You think, aha, if the characters go up this hill, they'll see what looks like a henge of standing stones on the skyline, but as they get closer it rears up and they see it's the dorsal spines of an enormous dragon. Let me stop you right there. You're not writing a movie. Maybe they'll approach the dragon from another direction. Maybe they won't encounter it at all. Murder your darlings. If you try to plan a cinematic set piece, there's a risk you'll then railroad the players to make sure it happens. So what if they go someplace else and do something you didn't anticipate? Have faith that you'll think of something in the moment that's as good as any scene you might have scripted in advance.

No written adventure survives contact with the players. So why go to all the trouble of writing it out neatly like it's the Great American Novel? Everyone's mileage is going to be different here, but if you're producing a scenario for somebody else to run, try paring it to the bone. Think of it as an executive summary for a CEO with a very short attention span. A couple of pages at most. The way the game turns out might be nothing like you or the referee expected -- but as long as the players have fun, who's complaining?

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Party like it's 1982

Thirty-eight years ago today, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson shook up the gamebook scene with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which combined the interactive stories of Choose Your Own Adventure with the dice-rolling of Dungeons & Dragons. To mark that publishing milestone, gamebook author Jonathan Green has organized International Gamebook Day, of which he says:
"We have interviews, read-throughs, giveaways and other things planned throughout the day, but please feel free to post on the event page on Thursday yourself. If you are an author, post links to your books. If you are artist, feel free to post images of your illustrations and links to your gallery. If you are an editor, post stories of your experiences commissioning gamebooks. And if you are a fan, post links to and images of your favourite series and photos of your collections."
You can find it on Facebook and and on Twitter at @GamebookDay. I expect most of it will be about Fighting Fantasy, but if you're interested in some of the series that I've worked on then here's one I made earlier:

That's me, Jamie Thomson and Paul Mason talking about a whole bunch of gamebooks including Fabled Lands, Robin of Sherwood, Way of the Tiger, Blood Sword, Golden Dragon, Falcon, Critical IF -- and, of course, the very best titles in the FF series too.

Friday, 21 August 2020

To live forever (scenario)

Having recently described an encounter my Immortal Spartans characters had with She, I dug out the adventure where they first met her. This is not written to be a complete ready-to-run scenario. Some assembly is required. If you plan on running it you’ll need to decide how it's going to work as part of a meta-campaign. Probably it will be the pilot episode, so you're laying the hints of a much bigger mythos here, and as you'll be developing that mythos over adventures spanning centuries you need to give it some thought. Certainly you'll want to change the adventure considerably from the version written for my campaign, especially in the final part, and it’s worth reading H Rider Haggard’s novel before you start. Just don’t expect great literature.

I ran the game as one of our Sunday specials, starting at midday and playing through till the evening. So you could fit it into about eight hours, either in one epic session or two or three regular ones. The characters don't have to start as immortals, but if they play their cards right they could end up that way, thus kicking off a meta-campaign that could run right through from 800 AD onwards. The setting is historical SF. There are some psionics, often regarded by the player-characters as witches, but in fact this is not fantasy and there is no actual magic.

OK, so it was 80 years before the Constantinople campaign, and the characters were living in Baghdad in the reign of Harun al-Rashid. In an ill-starred foray to the ruins of Uruk, three of the Spartans had lost their regenerative ability. Now mortal and aging, they were willing to clutch at any straw when their agents brought them stories of an undying ruler in Africa. Hoping that she had the secret of immortality and (an even longer shot) that she’d be willing to share it, they set out…


At Sohar , which at this time (800 AD) is a small port, they are warned of bad weather in the southern seas for the next month or so. But time is of the essence. Having established the rumoured location of the kingdom of Kôr (roughly in modern Zambia) they decided the logical beachhead for their expedition would be the islands of Zanzibar, where they should at least find some people who speak Arabic as the local jumbees, or chiefs, occasionally sell slaves to Arab traders. They set sail.

The jumbe (chief) is Uwal. He greets them in a wicker domed hut (tunnel-like entrances low so you have to bow, smoky interior) and recognizes any characters who frequently sail these waters. He asks if the jumbe Haroun of Baghdad got his gifts – “When will he come? I will kill twenty goats and twenty pigs for him, and open forty jars of wine.”

Uwal knows about the Amahagger (“the people of the caves”) who live in the interior of the mainland but has no dealings with them, except for once long ago when his people bought a mummy from the Amahagger for medicinal purposes. “But it was never ground up for medicine. One of our ancestors fell in love with it, so now the mummy has her own hut and speaks to the wise woman Kitar.”

The mummy (known as Hiwah) is perfectly preserved. Around its neck is a crystal pendant in the shape of an eye.

Other townsfolk if names are needed: Bonash, Gurt, Kolo, Febil.

Three days out from Zanzibar, they catch sight of two vessels that the lookout thinks are suspicious. These are indeed pirate ships, crewed by Africans and escaped Arabian slaves. In my game there were about a score of them, but you'll tailor them to your own player-characters.

The pirates will try to board. However, in the midst of the battle huge black storm clouds sweep down from the north. The characters will need all their sailing skills to avoid a wreck: three ship-handling rolls at -3. Unless any are critical successes, the ship will still limp damaged to the mouth of a wide river where they see the following breathtaking feature.

A massive cliff carved with the face of a man or sphinx. The river leads to an islet that they may (Architecture or Engineer roll) recognize as man-made, albeit very ancient. Beyond stretches a marsh.

They can follow the river for a few miles until it is impossible to get the ship further. They can take a small boat upriver from here, every so often encountering shallow areas where they need to drag it over. The river here leaks out into miles of marshland.

As the temperature and humidity rise, to say nothing of the difficulty of the terrain, overheating becomes a problem:

  • 2-pt armour => Fatigue Points at 70% of normal
  • 3-pt armour => Fatigue at 60%
  • 4-pt amour => Fatigue at 50%
  • 5-pt armour => Fatigue at 40%
  • 6-pt armour => Fatigue at 30%
This is in addition to the encumbrance penalty of equipment, which is doubled.

The crocodiles and hippos are the biggest threats on the lower reaches of the river. If characters are out hunting, they have a 1 in 6 chance of being ambushed by a croc (Stealth 19) and there is really nothing to do but run.

Mosquitoes become an increasing problem as the river peters out into a network of reed-choked canals that eventually merge with the swamp. Characters have a 1 in 3 chance of contracting fever each day.

The swamps are impassable unless you either know the route or have the eye-shaped crystal pendant from Zanzibar, which will reveal a trail where Hiya has sent her far-visioning effect. The latter doesn’t tell you where firm ground is, of course, but at least it gives a bearing for the direction of Kôr. Also, if somebody is looking through the pendant when Hiya is actually watching them remotely it will give the user a glimpse of her.

A party of Amahagger come upon them, led by Bilali, a white-bearded elder. Speaking in Ancient Arabic, he says that “the Goddess” has sent him to escort them to her.

The Amahagger are tall, saffron-brown skinned people with handsome but sullen faces. The womenfolk seem to have considerable freedom and even authority compared to life in Muslim lands.

At the home of this “household” of Amahagger, who live in tombs left by the ancients (there are ten households in all), they encounter a woman called Ustane. (See She for how you might use her in the game.)

Bilali says he must travel to see the Goddess, Hiya, to ask her instructions with regard to the strangers. He will be back in five days.

The other Amahagger are far less friendly to them than Bilali. Their expressions suggest a sort of aloof contempt. Possibly somebody will suggest going hunting to prove themselves.

There are also rhinos, but no sense in even giving stats for those.

If they offend the household, there will be a hot-potting ritual. A firepit is prepared, and jars of corn liquor handed around. Each man has his spear beside him.

One guy: "Where is the flesh that we shall eat?"

All stretch out their right arms towards the fire and reply: "The flesh will come."

First guy: "Is it a goat?"

All: "It is a goat without horns, and more than a goat, and we shall slay it."
Turning half round they one and all grasp the handles of their spears with the right hand, and then simultaneously let them go.

First guy: "Is it an ox?"

All: "It is an ox without horns, and more than an ox, and we shall slay it.”
Again the spears are grasped, and again let go. Then they will start to caress and speak endearments to the one they mean to sacrifice.

First guy: "Is the meat ready to be cooked?"

All: "It is ready; it is ready."

First guy: "Is the pot hot to cook it?"

All: "It is hot; it is hot."

First they entangle the victim in a net (GURPS page 441). Then, taking iron pincers, they remove a heated pot from the fire and clamp it over the victim’s head. There are a couple of dozen Amahagger warriors here:

Hopefully Bilali will return before anybody is actually killed.

Bilali says he will take them to Hiya, but they must leave all their belongings and weapons here.

If they refuse, he says he will not take them. If they threaten him, he warns them that Hiya can see all and will slay them before they have gone half the distance. “And she would kill me, her servant, if I were to capitulate to thy demands. Thus I advise thee to accept the invitation of the Goddess and do as she commands, for thus far thou hast earned only her curiosity and not her wrath.”

They are made to strip and are reclothed in yellow linen robes, and given wooden staves, then put into litters and carried towards a region of miasmic swamp.

Crossing the swamp, a snake bites one of the bearers of Bilali’s litter and he goes into the water. If not rescued, he is sucked down into the mud and drowned.

Built inside a high-sided crater, which the characters might assume is volcanic. The walls of the crater were excavated long ago, making a tunnel right through the side.

Inside, the Amahagger of the main “house” live in the tombs left by the ancient civilization of Kôr.

Far off in the centre of the crater (about three miles away) lie the ruins of Kôr. This is where Hiya lives with her deaf-&-dumb servants, guarded by the Fanewatch (her elite Amahagger bodyguard, numbering about fifty).

The walls of Kôr itself are toppled now, but once must have been mightier than any city built since. At the gates (a collapsed arch) stands the Vaal.

Hiya will use her projection device to appear floating in the air surrounded by a white tesla-coil type aura.


Hiya (= “She”) is ruler of the lost civilization of Kôr in the heart of Africa. She was born Aisha bint Harb, 900 years ago in Arabia, a child prodigy who was raised with the best education possible, and on her parents’ death outfitted her own expedition to Kôr where she came across a crashed alien starship, was bathed in the radiation of its autodoc, and became immortal. Around the crater she found other artefacts of ancient alien technology and has been busy learning about them ever since. (Of course, her understanding of these artefacts is not that they are of extraterrestrial origin, but simply that they are left over from a very ancient civilization.)

Her goal is to sweep away religions and kingdoms to create a new world order in which women have equal status to men. This is not so much for moral reasons, though she certainly remembers and resents how neighbours in Arabia treated her as a young girl with an education. Her aim, having seen what technology is capable of achieving, is to build a society in which learning is paramount so that those ancient marvels can be replicated and surpassed.

She has a Chamber of the Far-Travelling Carpet with a pattern of tiles on the floor that create a dimensional “carpet” which allows her to travel across great distances. The effect is like teleportation, and the portal remains hanging in the air until she returns to it. Using this, she has been disrupting the Silk Road trade from a hidden mountain fortress above Samarkand.

Her own primary skills are Stealth, Acrobatics and Aikido-style martial arts. She only loses -2 per successive Dodge.

Her main ability is Altered Time Rate, allowing her to act two times faster than normal. Usually she’ll all-out defend (+2), use extra effort (+2), and retreat (+3) while looking to get away – which she can do fast.

If forced to attack, she’ll use a baton in each hand (ambidextrous, trained in off-hand use) allowing her four strikes per round (extra -2 to hit location when aiming to use Pressure Points).

Hiya's bodyguard
As well as the Fanewatch, Hiya has three automata* she has salvaged from the alien ship:

Hiya's special items**
Her ancient devices (weapons of a people she calls the Strangers) are:

  • A belt of shield
  • A ring of force
  • A blaster gun
  • A teleportation ring (to a preset location within 5 km)
Each has twenty charges and can be recharged in the “Eternal Flame”, ie the alien ship’s power source.

Blaster Gun
A heavy item that must be held along one arm. The beam will blast open any door, push down walls of  mortar or stone, or smash a 3m tunnel through solid rock. It is aimed, striking a single target at a range of up to 15m. Damage is 20d up to 3m, then 2d less per extra metre.
To activate this “on the fly” requires a critical IQ roll to “remember” its operation, otherwise practice with it and reroll every week.

This creates an invisible barrier at a distance of 1 metre from the user that reduces the momentum of any rapidly incoming (not outgoing) object or attack. Projectiles are automatically stopped, but slow-moving attacks such as lava or poison gas are not impeded. Enemies must spend six rounds pushing through this force field before they can attack the user. Lasts ten minutes per charge.

Ring of Force
It flings the target away (the intensity is optional, from a strong wind to a Ben Grimm sized clobber) but doesn’t necessarily damage them.

She also has:

  • Far-vision screen    Can send out an invisible “camera” – but has to be sent laboriously to a location at a maximum speed of 100 mph because the calibration doesn’t work.
  • “Magic carpet”    A device that creates a circular pattern of whirling coloured lights that she can step to anywhere in the world, but always must return to the device here in Kôr.***

This is a chamber that runs central to the warren of burial chambers and embalming rooms (now used by the Amahagger as apartments). It may once have been a kind of temple, as there is a dais at the far end where Hiya has her throne. She will only come here in person if people are to be tried for crimes.

On the dais is an inscription in a pictographic language that they may recognize as that of “the ancients”. Hiya will translate:

"In the year four thousand two hundred and fifty-nine from the founding of the City of imperial Kôr was this cave (or burial place) completed by Tisno, King of Kôr, the people thereof and their slaves having laboured thereat for three generations, to be a tomb for their citizens of rank who shall come after. May the blessings of the heaven above the heaven rest upon their work, and make the sleep of Tisno, the mighty monarch, the likeness of whose features is graven above, a sound and happy sleep till the day of awakening, and also the sleep of his servants, and of those of his race who, rising up after him, shall yet lay their heads as low."

And if the characters are interested in that, she crosses to the left-hand side of the cave (looking towards the entrance) and signs to the mutes to hold up the lamps. On the wall is something painted with a red pigment in similar characters to those hewn beneath the sculpture of Tisno, King of Kôr. She translates it thus:

"I, Junis, a priest of the Great Temple of Kôr, write this upon the rock of the burying-place in the year four thousand eight hundred and three from the founding of Kôr. Kôr is fallen! No more shall the mighty feast in her halls, no more shall she rule the world, and her navies go out to commerce with the world. Kôr is fallen! and her mighty works and all the cities of Kôr, and all the harbours that she built and the canals that she made, are for the wolf and the owl and the wild swan, and the barbarian who comes after. Twenty and five moons ago did a cloud settle upon Kôr, and the hundred cities of Kôr, and out of the cloud came a pestilence that slew her people, old and young, one with another, and spared not. One with another they turned black and died--the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the man and the woman, the prince and the slave. The pestilence slew and slew, and ceased not by day or by night, and those who escaped from the pestilence were slain of the famine. No longer could the bodies of the children of Kôr be preserved according to the ancient rites, because of the number of the dead, therefore were they hurled into the great pit beneath the cave, through the hole in the floor of the cave. Then, at last, a remnant of this the great people, the light of the whole world, went down to the coast and took ship and sailed northwards; and now am I, the Priest Junis, who write this, the last man left alive of this great city of men, but whether there be any yet left in the other cities I know not. This do I write in misery of heart before I die, because Kôr the Imperial is no more, and because there are none to worship in her temple, and all her palaces are empty, and her princes and her captains and her traders and her fair women have passed off the face of the earth."

This is performed one evening by the Amahagger in the space outside the caves. The characters are led to chairs, facing out into the twilight. They watch groups of dancers waiting far off as the sky grows dark.

Then there are eruptions of sparks. Men dance nearer, waving their spears, and as they come they set fire to corpses that were staked out for the purpose (the embalmed bodies burning easily). Behind them, the fires mark out the stars of the constellation Mulgirtab (as it was known to the Babylonians) or Scorpio or al-‘Aqrab as they know it today. (This is the direction of the galactic core.)

Coming near to a dais where women pour water and pick fruit, the warriors are seen to be covered with scale-like symbols painted in white. They circle the dais and leave three of their number, apparently to guard the women. Then another group (painted in whorls and wave-symbols) rush in from all directions to attack the first, and the fighting is carried off into the darkness. The three left guarding the dais stare off into the dark, spears raised defensively at each cry in the distance, and sparks fly up but no fire catches.

Then they hear others approaching – but it is their enemies. They fight them off, but are mortally wounded. One of the women comes to tend to the last of the scale warriors, who presents her with his torch.

However the characters interpret the dance, they can find out from Hiya about the starship (she calls it “the metal egg”) lodged in caverns in the far wall of the crater. This is where she acquired immortality.

The starship was the cause of the crater. Millennia ago it impacted the ground inside its collapsing energy shield, which liquified the rock but left the ship itself relatively unharmed. It then skidded into the wall of congealing lava at the crater rim and, as the shields finally went down, the ship’s reactor core vented through the lava forming a dendritic network of tunnels – which was how the intrepid Aisha (as she was then) was able to reach it.

The immortality treatment that she received inadvertently was inspired, not to say stolen, from Larry Niven’s novel A World Out Of Time. The journey through the caverns I swiped wholesale from HRider Haggard, adding only a protean creature called the Nammu for the sake of giving them a thrilling battle before they could enter the ship. Tekumel players will recognize that the Nammu is based on the nshe. The rationale for it being here is that it was an artificial sentinel created to protect the ship, dormant at the time of the crash, and something Hiya did on her previous visit here reactivated it.

The Nammu
Tentacles   ATTACK 16    damage: 3d+3  [and acid slime]
Armour 5 (maximum of 1 HP from any missile)

It will extrude 1-4 tentacles each round, generally using these to strike at different targets (but see below). 

Acidic coating
  • Each tentacle is coated in an acidic jelly and will continue to burn through a character's armour after he is touched.  The jelly does 2d in the first round, then 1d. If it has not burned its way through the armour by then, the character will take no damage. Each time armour is burnt through, it permanently loses 1 Armour Point. 
  • Nammu can apply this power in any round in which it extrudes three or more tentacles. The chance it will choose to do so is 45%. The chance of the target evading the tentacles is as a -5 Dodge for three tentacles, -10 for four tentacles. Nammu does not need to make any roll to hit. 
  • The target is lifted aloft if he has not dodged, and Nammu attempts to sunder him limb from limb. Each round, the seized character can attempt to resist by making a -5 HT check. If he fails he takes 4d damage, but if he succeeds he only takes 2d. Armour doesn't count, of course. 
  • While disjecting a character, Nammu cannot extrude further appendages to strike at his companions. Nammu will not normally drop a character it is disjecting until it has reduced the character to zero HP.  However, a single hit for more than 10 HP will cause it to do so; also, the character can try to break free by making a -10 ST check each round.
  • Rather than attacking with its tentacles, Nammu may choose to apply its power to Engulf a character.  This is checked for at the start of each round (unless it is already in the process of disjecting someone); the chance is 30%.
  • Engulfment affects a 3m area (roughly 1-6 people). A target who fails to dodge is caught in a cohesive blob of water in which he may drown.  He makes a HT check each round: first with no modifier, then at -3, then -6, etc.  A failed roll means 2d damage (no armour) and the victim is also drowning (see below).
  • Drowning: roll Swimming every 5 seconds or inhale water, losing 1 FP. When FP = 0 you black out and will soon drown.
  • To break free of Engulfment, critical Swimming. You can also fight back to injure Nammu from within, but this counts as Close Combat and half damage.
* Tekumel players may recognize the assassin android as the Alluring Maiden of Nga, but in fact Prof Barker was inspired by the Silver Maid in Alexander Korda's 1940 movie The Thief of Bagdad. The Vaal was originally inspired by ru'un.
** Most of these will be familiar to Tekumel players as equivalent to some of the "Eyes".
*** My conceit here was to have a device that could be described as a magic carpet, as a nod to the Arabian Nights, without actually having it be a piece of flying cloth.