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Tuesday 16 July 2024

A magic moment

If your interest was piqued by news about my forthcoming Jewelspider RPG last time, there's more today. Much more, in fact. I've been working away at the magic system, and finally it's been unveiled to all those patient Patreon backers.

Jewelspider is set in the world of Legend (the same setting as Dragon Warriors) but it's more of a realistic take on Legend's medieval origins. This is the world as the people inhabiting it believe it to be. Magic is real, but it isn't a matter of careening fireballs and glitzy special FX. Typically a spell takes minutes, hours or even days to cast, but the outcome is much more significant than simple artillery.

The theory is that an evocative and flavourful magic system will mean that every spellcasting attempt is an adventure seed in its own right. To achieve that goal I'm eager for feedback from the Patreon backers (that wisdom of crowds thing) and after that I'll be releasing the game, first as a PDF and then in print form.

In brief, this is how the Jewelspider magic rules work:

The Nature of Magic

Magic in Jewelspider is a subtle art, often requiring tools and time to manifest. The core of the system lies in reality's reluctance to be altered by magic; overt magical effects are challenging to achieve.

Spellcasting Mechanics

Mastery Levels: To cast a spell, characters must possess mastery in the relevant type of sorcery.

Skill Use: Most spells are cast using Reasoning, though some can be woven from artistic expressions using Artistry. 

Intrinsic Difficulty: Each spell has a difficulty level that must be met or exceeded for successful casting.

The Seven Magical Laws

Each of these modifies the difficulty of casting.

  • Contagion: Using personal items like hair or nails can influence spell difficulty.
  • Subtlety: Spells cast without witnesses are easier to achieve.
  • Deferment: Delayed effects are simpler to integrate into reality.
  • Proximity: Closer targets make for easier spellcasting.
  • Impermanence: Temporary spells are easier than permanent ones.
  • Invitation: Spells accepted by targets (even unwittingly) are more potent.
  • Sympathy: Artistic mimetic components (e.g., a feather for a levitation spell) can enhance spell effectiveness.

Tools and Time

The effectiveness of a spell often depends on the tools used. Rings, Diagrams, Books, Apparatus, and Laboratories each provide varying bonuses and require different amounts of time to use, from instantaneous to several hours.

Success, Failure, and Partial Success

Success: If the casting effect equals or exceeds the difficulty, the spell works as intended.

Failure: No effect occurs, though mishaps are possible.

Partial Success: Unexpected, often uncontrolled effects occur, adding a layer of unpredictability and excitement to spellcasting.

Counterspells and Wards

Defensive measures like Wards and the innate ability to resist spells by other sorcerers add depth and strategy to magical duels and encounters.

If you want to dive into the full details and join the conversation, head over to my Patreon page. Your support helps bring Jewelspider to life, and you'll get exclusive content and a behind-the-scenes look at the development process. Or just join as a free member, which still gives you access to a whole lot of early posts and ensures you'll get updates about publication.

(The image at the top is from Robin of Sherwood. As if you couldn't tell.)

Thursday 11 July 2024

Stranger than fiction

For Legend games I’ve always liked taking a seed crystal of historical fact (or anecdote) and growing an adventure around that. When a friend of mine told me a story about Notker the Stammerer and a stolen relic, I had the basic set-up for “A Box of Old Bones” right then and there.

Real history offers plenty of inspirational snippets like that. How about these, taken from a review in The London Review of Books of Martyn Rady’s book The Habsburgs?

“Werner the Pious was the first fabricator in the family, forging a charter that confirmed him as the hereditary abbot of the local abbey (where the Emperor Karl’s heart rests today). But this was small potatoes compared to the heroic efforts of Rudolf the Founder, who had his scribes concoct five interlocking charters claiming that previous emperors had confirmed the Habsburgs as hereditary archdukes of Austria, bolstered by letters supposedly written by Julius Caesar and Nero.” 

Cymburga, the Polish mother of Frederick III, renowned both for her beauty and for her ability to drive nails into planks with her bare fists; Frederick the Slothful, who travelled his realm with his own hen coops to save on buying eggs; the Habsburg knights who had to cut off their fashionable long toe-pieces when forced to fight the Swiss infantry on foot; Margaret of Parma, another illegitimate child of Charles V by a different serving wench, who grew and carefully trimmed a moustache to provide her with an air of authority when her father made her governor of the Low Countries.” 

“The slaughter of thirty thousand in the Lutheran stronghold of Magdeburg led to a new word being coined, ‘Magdeburgisierung’. Invaders bombarded cities with shells of poison gas, a fetching compound of arsenic and henbane. After the war, France and Germany signed the Strasburg Agreement of 1675, the first treaty to ban the use of chemical weapons.”

There are ideas for Legend there almost in whole cloth. But they’re trumped by another of Notker’s accounts which is pretty much a ready-to-run adventure:

“In one particularly bad crop year, a certain greedy bishop of Old Francia rejoiced that the people of his diocese were dying because he could sell the food from his storehouse to the survivors at exorbitant prices. Amidst this climate, a demon or spirit started haunting the workshop of a blacksmith, playing with the hammers and anvil by night, much like a poltergeist. The blacksmith attempted to protect his house and his family with the sign of the cross, but before he could, the demon [Notker describes it as ‘pilosus’, ie hairy] proposed an arrangement of mutual benefit: ‘My friend, if you do not stop me from playing in your workshop, bring your little pot here and you will find it full every day.’ The starving blacksmith, ‘fearing bodily deprivation more than the eternal damnation of the soul’, agreed to the demon’s proposition. The demon burgled the bishop’s storehouse repeatedly, filling the flask and leaving broken barrels to spill on the floor. 

“The bishop discovered the theft and concluded, based on the excessive waste, that it must be the work of a demon rather than a starving parishioner. So he protected the room with holy water and placed the sign of the cross on the barrels. The next morning, the guard of the bishop’s house found the demon trapped in the larder. It had entered during the night, but, because of the holy protections placed by the bishop, was unable to touch the stores nor exit again. Upon discovery, it assumed a human form. The guard subdued it and tied it up. It was brought to a public trial where it was publicly beaten (ad palam cesus). Between blows, it cried out: ‘Woe is me, woe is me, for I have lost my friend’s little pot!’ “

If we read that with a modern sceptical eye we can work out what had really happened, but the motif of the devil and the blacksmith is common in folklore, and the world of Legend is the Middle Ages as the people at the time believed it to be, not as it really was. That said, I doubt if any demon or goblin in my game would be quite so easy to deal with.

This is a repost of a piece on my Patreon page, proceeds for which will support the artwork (by Inigo Hartas; sneak peek at the top of this post) for the Jewelspider roleplaying game which is due for publication later this year.

Friday 5 July 2024

The pivot of destiny

I came across this 120-player game of D&D on LinkedIn. Unfortunately the post was whisked away from me before I could note the name of the valorous GM, so apologies for not crediting him here. It reminded me of when my friends Nick Henfrey (co-founder of Flat Earths) and Steve Foster (creator of Mortal Combat) and I turned up at our university D&D society just after Freshers' Week. Dozens of new members had signed up, so we found ourselves crammed into a tiny room (five metres square at the most) with a couple of dozen eager first-timers.

"You can't run a game for a party this size," I pointed out to the GM as we all put down figurines in the traditional ten-foot-wide corridor.

"Course we can," he insisted, announcing that the two people at the front could just make out an ochre jelly or whatever it was.

We played on for half an hour, with most people there watching in bafflement as the experienced players leading the party rolled lots and lots of dice. It didn't look like many of these newbies would be coming back next weekend. Nick whispered in my ear. "Let's liven things up."

We were in the middle of the party, so we started blasting spells and swinging swords in both directions, slaughtering folks on both sides until the experienced D&D players waded back and killed us. Outside in the corridor, one of the first-year players whose characters we'd killed asked, "So what are we going to do now?" I didn't know then, but he was Mark Smith.

I opened the next door. It was another meeting room even smaller than the first, maybe four metres square this one, but it was empty. "Have you ever heard of Empire of the Petal Throne?" I said. And that's where we started a game with the core of a group who went on campaigning together for a long time to come -- decades in some cases. There were several who went on to careers far removed from games (and hi there, Les, Sheldon and Pauline, if you happen to see this) but most notable among them was Mike Polling (yes, the author of "The Key of Tirandor") a friend and creative mentor with whom I did much of my early writing. Mike and Mark had been at school with Jamie Thomson, and Mike soon introduced me to Oliver Johnson -- and so, directly or otherwise, that Sunday afternoon connected me to most of the RPG writers I'd be working with over the next forty-five years.

Maybe life is full of those "Turn Left" moments. I met my wife because of another, but although that's obviously of paramount importance to me personally there's no gaming dimension so I won't recount the story here. What about you? Are there people or games that have changed your whole life which would have gone entirely unnoticed if you'd made just one different choice?

Wednesday 3 July 2024

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe

Traditionally the Fourth of July stands for the people standing up to rid themselves of incompetent and backward-looking government. The UK electorate will get the opportunity tomorrow to claim their own share of that. If you are reading this in Britain: vote for who you like just as long as you vote, try not to demonize people who have a different opinion from you*, and don't let me influence you. Well, beyond saying that the choice is pretty much summed up in this Brian Bilston poem.

And my thoughts too are with our neighbours across La Manche, also in the midst of a fraught election. The result there could have far greater consequences than the vote in Britain, given that one of the party leaders openly supports Putin over the EU. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion isn't even close.

* Unless they really are irredeemable, that is.

Friday 28 June 2024

The sense of an ending

My first memory of the public library is of lugging home a volume of Norse myths as heavy as a thunder-god’s hammer. A red-bearded bruiser with a laugh like the sky splitting. A silver-tongued schemer who can’t help brewing mischief. Together, they fight giants. I was hooked right out of the gate.

Soon after that Doctor Who’s cliffhangers held a generation of children spellbound week after week. James Bond felt like he’d go on forever. (Funny, that.) And the British comic TV Century 21 wrapped all those now-classic Gerry Anderson puppet shows into one shared universe. It all fed the notion that stories don’t ever have to end.

"Give me a child until he is seven..." No truer word, only in my case it wasn’t the Jesuits, it was serial storytelling. And that's fine for kids, in the eternal summer they inhabit, but as we get older we realize the ending of a story is what gives it meaning and value.

What about roleplaying campaigns? In the old days, campaigns were as open-ended as a daytime soap. Campaigns like that can eventually reach a natural conclusion, which is perfect if all the players agree. More often they fizzle out for external reasons, which is rarely satisfying. Nowadays, when campaigns are often built around a high concept with a beginning, middle and end (like Tim Harford's brilliant Redemption campaign, or his equally inspired Earthsea-style saga The Conclave) or designed in seasons like a TV show (Camelot Eclipsed or Keeping the Peace) it's worth thinking about how you can bring them in to land.

Writing guru Rebecca Makkai has some great tips about this. It's a longish series, but worth studying.

  • Part One is about open vs closed endings.
  • Part Two is about endings that come about structurally. For example, in Redemption the campaign ended when we reconsecrated the abandoned chapel we'd been sent to find.
  • Part Three is about meaning, the takeaway you get from the ending.
  • Part Four is about the sound, style and tone of the ending. (To apply this one to roleplaying campaigns requires a bit more work.)
  • Part Five deals with the change brought about at the end.
  • Part Six concerns the way the ending shades into past, present or future.
And author Brandon McNulty has an excellent video essay on what distinguishes good endings from bad ones.

Friday 21 June 2024

Silver linings

Eight years ago almost to the day, a referendum in the United Kingdom voted 52/48 to leave the European Union. Regular readers cannot fail to have noticed that I was one of the 48% (nowadays more like 63%). I didn't imagine I could know in advance whether the eventual outcome would be good or bad, but I do know that extreme perturbations to complex systems (like modern societies, for example) can have highly unpredictable results. Unless the current state of such a system is catastrophically bad to the point of imminent failure, it never makes sense to make revolutionary changes rather than gradual ones. There were indeed British communities where people figured their situation literally couldn't get any worse. I couldn't even start to get my head around such thinking until I watched this, given that median wealth in the UK is twenty times the median wealth globally, though I tried to keep my own preferences (some would call them prejudices) out of the way enough to ensure that Can You Brexit was an even-handed look at the pros and cons.

I strive for an open mind on all issues, so it's only right to admit now that it's not all been bad news since the referendum. Admittedly the UK is considerably poorer as a result of leaving the EU's single market -- unnecessarily so, too, as the Norway model was an oft-touted Brexit plan among the more moderate of the Leave campaigners. But there are upsides. Immigration into the UK has increased since the Brexit vote and, contrary to the beliefs of the ship-'em-to-Rwanda mob, those immigrants are integrating well into British life and bring valuable skills, energy and culture. New citizens are also now coming from a wider diversity of backgrounds rather than just Europe. So that is good news, albeit the opposite of what most of the people voting Leave actually wanted.

By the 2010s the UK had long been in need of a way to break the old political mold. The main parties stood for fossilized versions of the socioeconomic classes of a century ago, not today's class structure, but Britain's first-past-the-post voting system prevented any reconfiguration of the parties to fit modern UK society. The Brexit vote had the effect of radically shaking up what the main parties stand for. The electorate would have done better to switch to an instant-runoff voting system when they had the chance in 2011, but that became another of history's missed opportunities. (See also the US Presidential election of 2000.)

Also, Britain seems to be escaping the trend towards nationalist populism (indeed, let's just call it fascism) that's surging across Europe. The British Isles have always been stony ground for fascists, and the Britain First party (whose leader has publicly supported lynch mobs) are faring no better among voters than Oswald Mosley's lot used to. Meanwhile, although the slightly less toxic Reform Party has been climbing a bit in the polls, that rise is largely matched by the decline in the Conservative Party's fortunes. Between them, Britain First and Reform are effectively Britain's far-right Tea Party/MAGA movement, liable to get noisily vexed about any measure that's even halfway sensible, informed, decent or rational. The greatest shame about their electoral alliance is that it's sullying the good Whig name of Reform, but eventually their supporters will get absorbed back into the Tories where their reactionary stridency will be dulled to a general grumble of dissatisfied resentment at the modern world. The example of Poland shows what harm can be done to the mechanism of state once you let people like the PiS stick their finger on the scales, but that threat seems far greater in many EU countries (and across the Atlantic, sadly) than in the UK.

Europe needs to worry about defence, of course, and while I preferred the days when Churchill could sell the concept of the Declaration of Union, post-Brexit Britain at least didn't vacillate in supporting Ukraine against Putin's invasion. It might make more sense to have a truly united European front, especially if Ukraine falls and Putin starts hoovering up the former Soviet states, and given that the next US President (and maybe the next French government) might be more pro-Putin than pro-NATO, but there's little sign that the EU as a whole is more alert to that threat than Britain is.

In another eight years, will I say that the Leave vote was a good idea? Steady on there. I'd still prefer my Enlightenment dream, but that might be one to put alongside the Mars colonies and controlled fusion for everybody and the von Neumann probes equipped with strong AI. At this point I'll settle for a world with fewer despots and more equality, and if getting that means distracting populists with some shiny trinkets like Brexit then so it goes.

Cambridge Econometrics analysis of the effects of Brexit (PDF)
Post Factum analysis of the pros and cons of Brexit as of summer 2024

Friday 14 June 2024

Growing up in the heart of the Vulcanverse

If you've seen any of the recent posts, you already know that Vulcanverse is a solo role-playing game set in an open world, meaning that you can play the gamebooks in any order, coming back to earlier books whenever you travel to the region they cover. Instead of a single storyline there are virtually unlimited adventures. 

Although it's nominally the fifth and last in the series, Workshop of the Gods is a good place to begin your adventures. You’ll have the advantage of having grown up in the city, so you’ll be familiar with the streets and landmarks, and also there are characters who will task you with quests right from the start. Not only that, they'll give you some hints to help you on your way.

Any one book in the series is enough to get started, as in Fabled Lands, and other books allow you to explore more of the Vulcanverse. You will keep the same adventuring persona throughout the books – starting out as a novice but gradually gaining in power, wealth, prestige and experience throughout the series.

OK, why don't we run through the rules and then you can try it for yourself by launching into the first part of the adventure...

Your Adventure Sheet lists everything you’ll need to keep track of while playing. There's an online Adventure Sheet you can use, but don’t fill it in yet. That will happen as you begin your adventure.

You have four attributes whose values typically range from −1 to +2 as you’re starting out. You will discover your attribute scores as you play. The attributes are:

  • CHARM: Your understanding of people and their motives. 
  • GRACE: How agile, supple and quick you are. 
  • INGENUITY: Cunning and reasoning, and your ability to think on your feet. 
  • STRENGTH:  Physical might and endurance.

The maximum possible innate score in an attribute is +5. If you are at maximum and are told to add to your score, it has no effect.

Items that augment attributes
There are items you can acquire that boost your attributes while you have them. These are:

You can only use the bonus from one such item at a time. So if you had a laurel wreath that gives CHARM +1 and a golden lyre that gives CHARM +2, you’d only get the CHARM bonus from the latter. Similarly, two laurel wreaths still only give you a +1. 

An item can augment your attribute score above the innate limit of +5. If you have a STRENGTH score of +5 and you possess an iron spear, your total STRENGTH bonus when making a roll counts as +7.

Making an attribute roll
Attribute rolls are made to see if you succeed at a task. These are rolls of two dice with a difficulty that you must equal or beat to succeed. For instance, you might be told: ‘Make a STRENGTH roll at difficulty 7’. You roll two dice, add your STRENGTH score (including the modifiers for any one possession that boosts STRENGTH) and to succeed you need to get 7 or more.

Example: You are at the bottom of a cliff. To climb it you need to make a GRACE roll at difficulty 5. You roll two dice and score 4. Your GRACE attribute is −1 but luckily you have winged sandals which give a +2 GRACE bonus, so your modified GRACE is +1, just enough to make the roll a success.

A roll of double 6 (‘boxcars’) is always a success regardless of difficulty. A roll of double 1 (‘snake eyes’) is always a failure regardless of modifiers.

The Adventure Sheet has a box labelled Wound. This is unticked at the start of the adventure. From time to time you may be asked to put a tick in it. You only have one Wound tick at a time; if you’re asked to tick the box when it is already ticked, you don’t add another. While the Wound box is ticked you have injuries, and must deduct 1 from any attribute roll until the box is unticked. 

If you have an item such as tincture of healing that allows you to untick the Wound box, you cannot use it to avoid taking a wound, only to remove a wound after you have taken it. So if you do take a wound, apply any effects listed and when you turn to the next section you can then use the item to heal.

You begin with no scars, but may acquire them from lasting injuries or from returning from the afterlife. Scars are a mixed blessing. Many people will shun you because of them, but others will admire or fear you more.

Possessions are always marked in bold text, like this: iron spear. If you come across an item marked like this you can pick it up and add it to your list of possessions.

You can carry up to twenty possessions at a time. If you come across an item you want when already at your limit, you’ll have to discard something to make room. There are places in the Vulcanverse where you can leave possessions and come back for them later.

You can carry any sum of money (measured in a coinage called pyr). You’ll discover as you play whether you have any money to start off with.

Glory starts at 0 but will grow as you perform deeds that increase your renown. With high Glory you will be recognized as a hero and given more respect by those you meet.

There is a list of codewords at the back of each book. Sometimes you will be told you have acquired a codeword. When this happens, put a tick in the box next to that codeword. If you later lose the codeword, erase the tick.

Titles record the achievements you have earned, marking you as the champion of a city, protector of a temple, admiral of a fleet, or even a monarch. You will be told when you acquire a title.

If you fail an attribute roll, you can use up a blessing to roll the dice again. You can only do that once per roll, so you cannot use a second blessing to get another reroll if the first one fails.

You can have up to three blessings at a time. You start the adventure with no blessings. Usually the place to get blessings is at a shrine or temple, but you may find other opportunities to acquire them.

As you travel the Vulcanverse, you will sometimes meet people who are willing to journey with you. You can have one companion at a time. When you pick up a new companion you must remove your current companion, if any, from the Companion box. You can also part company with a companion at any time just by deleting their name from the box. You do not have a companion at the start of the adventure. 

You’ll use this box from time to time to keep track of where you are. You will be told when to use it. Whenever you are told to record an entry number in your Current Location box, first delete any number that was already there.

Want to try the intro sequence for yourself? It covers your childhood in Vulcan City, generating your character according to the life choices you make, so by the end of it you're ready to set out on your adventures. You can download that demo here.