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Friday, 23 October 2020

The Mountains of Instead

The title of the post is a line from an Auden poem, "Autumn Song", which in one version concludes:
Clear, unscaleable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,
From whose cold cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.
There's a different version of the last verse if you're interested. Every so often a poet just can't bring themselves to abandon a work -- think of FitzGerald's endless tinkering with the Rubaiyat. ("The Moving Finger writes..." And gets endlessly rewrit, eh, Eddie?)

It's not just poets. John Whitbourn asked me to put together a cover for his new book Altered Englands, a collection of short stories from his thirty-year career as one of Britain's foremost fantasy authors. Acutely conscious of the honour, I vacillated between half a dozen designs. I started with the painting above by Albert Gleizes, which I thought had a nicely skew-whiff cricketer vibe, but Gleizes isn't in public domain for another three years. Darn it.

So then I tried using this cakes-&-ale image by John Currie, but that was too much of "England" and not enough of the "Altered" and eventually it got rejected in favour of Eric Ravilious's take on the Long Man of Wilmington. Over the centuries the Long Man has altered quite a bit in appearance, and certainly nowadays he's no work of art (unlike the White Horse, say) but there are still some who believe the figure predates the early modern period. John tells me that one interpretation is that he's not holding a couple of staves but in fact standing guard in a doorway, a role I remembered from The Sandman #19 by (do I need to tell you?) Gaiman and Vess:


The door the Long Man is opening in this case is onto a varied selection of stories ranging from the darkly horrific to the purely marvellous and always with the author's startling imagination and sparkling humour inviting you into a state of total immersion.

Among the stories is the very last of the Binscombe Tales, never published before. Altered Englands is an eclectic, idiosyncratic and erudite mix, as you'd expect of the author, with subjects that range from Binscombe to Bratislava, from Allah to evolution, from Stalin to Sussex, and from castle lords to Charleston. And just when you think you have the measure of John Whitbourn's interests, he surprises you by throwing in a shaggy-dog yarn about none other than Jimi Hendrix. A bonus is that every story comes with the author's notes, which further reveal his lively imagination, wide reading and profound deliberation. Trump- and Brexit-supporting readers of this blog who complain about my occasional political posts might be pleased to discover that John holds diametrically opposite views on politics, ethics and even science/religion (I'm Starfleet officer, he's New York street cop) and only one of us has ever been photographed wearing black nail varnish and mascara*. 


Talking of Charleston, Jamie lives near Firle in Sussex and a few years ago we took a look around both Charleston itself and the nearby Monk's House in Rodmell, home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. One of the paintings we came across there is this mysterious image, which the curator described to me as The Liverpool Ghost but which is actually A Man with His Horse, and a Boy. Why mysterious? Why "ghost"? Take a closer look. It obviously intrigued the Woolfs and it suggests for me an encounter between H P Lovecraft and the Bloomsbury Group. That particular story isn't in Altered Englands, but there is one featuring Lytton Strachey. Didn't I say eclectic?

Here are strange and elementally wondrous tales to "stain the wind with leaves", as another poet put it. With Halloween coming and the nights drawing in it's the perfect fireside read. If we could dig Auden up for a quote I have a feeling he'd shout: "Trolls run scolding!" Don't let 'em get there first.



*In my defence, it was the '80s. 

Friday, 16 October 2020

That's dark


Our group are trying Cthulhu Dark. It's a super-simple set of rules, which makes it ideal for playing online, and for the win we have Ralph Lovegrove as our guest referee. From the reviews, it looks like one of those games where you play in an author role rather than strictly in-character:
"If there’s anyone at the table who thinks that the story or mystery would be more interesting if you fail, they can step in, describe what would happen if you failed and roll a Failure die."
My knee-jerk to that kind of thing is to say, "I'll just roleplay going mad, thanks. I don't need insanity points and other players to write the arc for me."

But is that true? I have played in Cthulhu campaigns and I always take it that madness is inevitable -- though there are arguments against that view and in Lovecraft's fiction it's a characteristic of his chosen narrators that cosmic horror drives them mad; it may not be the inevitable reaction of any character to the same events.

Say it is inevitable, though. In GURPS I refuse to take mental disadvantages because they are so prescriptive, but to some extent playing insanity is going to yank you out of character anyway. As the insanity progresses, an ironic distance grows between player and character. You know that complete mental disintegration, suicide, whatever are inescapable. So you can't help thinking authorially -- "Is now the time for me to run gibbering?" "Do I leap off the building?" Unless you have the misfortune to be suicidal in real life, you can't wholly drive that from within. The character's end comes when you step aside and ordain it, more as an author than an actor.


Arguably the authorial approach is the only way to run an authentic Cthulhu game, if you take it as given that the characters are doomed to fail. Their madness can't just be a set of character quirks, like in GURPS. We're talking about the real horror of madness that leaves you absolutely helpless and bereft. And if we're simulating an HPL story there's never any real agency anyway. Against immemorially ancient and vast entities, indifferent to the "trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns", there is nothing you can do to "win". It's only when you intervene an authorial view and recast reality in the shape of a story that you can perceive it as any kind of satisfying closure.

So, it's not how I normally like to roleplay. In fact I wouldn't even quite call it roleplaying. But it may well be the only fit for the subject matter. What I'm less convinced by is the designers' attempt to avoid what they see as the elitism inherent in Lovecraftian fiction, where an uneducated and either foreign or scarily feral mob revere the powerful other-worldly beings. Instead Cthulhu Dark makes the player-characters the oppressed (not that HPL's narrators are often very privileged) and substitutes as bad guys the most empowered people: the wealthy, bankers, politicians, socialites. I've used that as a bait-&-switch trope myself, but it just reinstates the Gothic tropes of degenerate, inbred aristocrats that Lovecraft was reacting against.

And to play a character from a genuinely deprived underclass, you again probably need to go with an authorial rather than an in-character approach. Do you know what it would be like to be brought up without any exposure to education? Like the very poorest people in mid-Victorian London, say? Prejudiced, illiterate, ignorant, made unhealthy and desperate by the most brutal existence. What you most definitely wouldn't be thinking is anything like, "I am of course a victim of the unbridled capitalism of my era and am unfairly kept down by the rich." Fact is, you'd be pretty much semi-feral. I could simulate it after reading Mayhew, but it would require a hell of a leap of imagination to get inside the character's head.


It should be an interesting experience. I'll report back -- if Azathoth doesn't devour my mind first.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

First do no harm


A rare bit of housekeeping this time. Blogger, the platform I use for the FL blog, has recently changed its interface. How best to describe it... You know how if you buy a music gizmo for a baby it will have just a few big plastic buttons in primary colours so that the toddler can play do-re-mi? And then when he or she grows up, if the music bug has bitten then a synth and a mixing desk and all the proper kit can replace that? Well, Blogger used to be the grown-up mixing desk and now it's turned into the toddler's toy.

The idea, presumably, is to make it easier to post from a mobile device. You can snap that cat picture, add a quick note in textese, and you're done. But if you want a longer blog post, with formatted images and videos and so on -- sorry, you're bang out of luck. Google (they own Blogger) have decided to chase the mobile blog market and forget about the desktop dinosaurs like me.

Unfortunately in changing the interface they also broke it. The loss of features like being able to drill down into stats was presumably deliberate, but they've also made it almost impossible to place images where you want them to go. Yesterday I spent twenty minutes formatting a post, a task that used to take a minute or two with the old interface. Half the time you don't even know how to do what you want because some bright spark has decided to switch over to a purely icon-driven interface. You know, like Ikea.

I suspect all this is designed to make people give up on Blogger so that Google can drop it in a year's time without anyone kicking up a fuss. By the time it dies we'll all be glad to see it go.

But what does all this mean for the future of the FL blog? I am looking at migrating over to another platform like Wordpress. Alternatively, once I've got Jewelspider out into the world I could turn my Patreon page into the new home for FL. I'm afraid it would mean paying at least a dollar a month, but the occasional scenarios alone are worth that much, don't you think?

There'll be no immediate change, other than that I'll be checking on and replying to comments less frequently because it's so painful to have to cope with the new interface. And we have a whole stack of posts that I had the foresight to format before the old interface stopped working, so the blog will continue to look okay (if you call this okay) for months yet.

The other upside is that I've been thinking for a while now of doing some best-of books, taking the most popular posts and organizing them into topics - roleplaying, gamebooks, scenarios, and so on. Blogger buggering up its interface might be the spur I needed.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Dragons ahoy!

Here's a moment that every adventurer in the Fabled Lands has experienced: the confrontation with Vayss the Sea Dragon. (Yes, I know he's a sea dragon and he lives in a lake -- but I'm not going to argue with him.)

This gorgeous piece of artwork is by Renie Aganchyan, whose brother Bernar Aganchyan is the game's art director. That's one talented family!

It's just a taste of the goodies Prime Games have in store when their Fabled Lands CRPG erupts from the depths early next year. Players will be able to explore the lands of Sokara, Golnir, the Great Steppes and hopefully Uttaku too. And that's just for starters. Further releases will add other lands, and Jamie and I are looking at writing all-new books in the series if the CRPG kindles fresh interest. The year ahead could be a great time to explore uncharted waters.


Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Witch trees and wooden boys


I hope you've recovered from the recent Brymstone announcement, because here's more Dragon Warriors news. Not content with prepping the second issue of Casket of Fays, the good folks at Red Ruin Publishing have just released a couple of eerie adventure seeds by Nigel Ward: "A Real Live Boy" and "The Witch Oak". 

I can't say more about the adventures because one of our group has called dibs on running them, ideally on or around Halloween. But I can tell you that they're free (right here on DriveThruRPG) and look to be the perfect answer to my recent grumble about overlong roleplaying scenarios. Actually, "The Witch Oak" is a short story rather than an adventure, but our referee has embargoed it to raid for ideas, as I expect most will.

You might want to keep an eye on the Red Ruin page on DriveThruRPG, incidentally, as Casket of Fays #2 is due any day now. Also free and filled with encounters, adventures, items, spells and articles by the top creative talent working on DW today, it's better than the luxury suite at Gully's Inn -- and without the goblins waking you up at two in the morning, too.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Just dive in


"I'd like to try Tekumel," a gamer friend of mine said, "but I'm put off because it looks like a lot to get into. The culture is so detailed and exotic."

And so it is. But you think Medieval Europe isn't? Or Victorian London? Or New York in the 1930s, come to that.

How do we normally deal with the complexity of another society? The usual answer is to cosplay rather than roleplay. We drop 21st century characters into the setting and most of the time the clothing, technology, etc, are just window dressing. When players butt against the mores of the culture, it's just to make a joke of the difference between the locals' quaintly elaborate ways and the etiquette of our own society -- which as any fule kno is simple and completely straightforward and has no oddities of its own. Ain't that so?

Hollywood used to deal with historical epics using the cosplay method. Movie audiences didn't care how the ancient Israelites, Egyptians and Greeks really behaved, they were content to watch modern actors stroll through the theme park version of those eras and cultures.

There's another way. Think about how you'd introduce readers of a historical novel to the intricacies of Regency high society. Most likely you'd start with a viewpoint character who wasn't familiar with that world. A simple bumpkin arriving in the big city to earn his fortune, perhaps, or a gypsy girl with a tray of flowers to sell. They'd learn about the rules and manners of Regency life along with the reader. 

If you look at a modern edition of a novel like Dead Souls, you'll usually find it festooned with notes that the editor has added to explain Gogol's Russia. So you'll be reading a bit about Chichikov visiting a friend and there'll be a superscript number, and at the back of the book that number will point you to an explanation of the grades in the Russian civil service, or the modern value of the kopeks paid for a deed of serfs, or whatever. And it's great to have all that information (or was, before we could just look it up on the internet) but if you stop and turn to each note as you come to it then you'll ruin the story. The only answer is to dive in, enjoy the ride, and if there are details that you don't understand it doesn't matter. You can look them up afterwards. Not only that, but you'll get more value from the notes then, because you'll have the context of a good story to fit them into.

That was how Empire of the Petal Throne introduced new players to Tekumel back in 1975. Their characters arrived as simple foreigners fresh off the boat in the harbour of mighty Jakalla, "the city half as old as Time". As they found employment and mixed with Tsolyani NPCs, they gradually absorbed the background details. The players who cared about that stuff acquired the manners necessary to speak for the group. And it leaves the option, if you're not interested in that kind of thing, to remain a gruff and proudly ignorant barbarian. 

I've tried that introduction many times over the years, with variants. Oliver Johnson started as a marooned space traveller. Others have entered Tsolyanu as refugees or traders from outlying islands where history consists of family anecdotes and social structure is much less hierarchical and mannered than it is on the mainland. Yet after a year or two of that, players know the ways of Tekumel more thoroughly than they ever learn how to be Victorians or Ancient Romans.



Footnote: (See what I did there?) Some US friends have got in touch saying that the word gypsy is a derogatory term over there in America. But here, you see, is yet another case where the very different racial histories and divergent tongue of our two nations has taken us down forking paths. In the UK we have the British Gypsy Council and the National Federation of Gypsy Groups, and gypsy is one of several categories of nomad recognized on this side of the Atlantic.