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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.

Friday 7 June 2024

Actions and consequences in an open world

When I mentioned on social media that Vulcanverse would be the first open-world gamebook series to be finished, somebody rightly pointed out that "finished" is a moot term when we're talking about open-world adventures. Fabled Lands, for example, is famously incomplete -- but all that actually means is that you can only explore about two-thirds of the areas shown on the map. If and when we ever type "The End" on Fabled Lands book 12, that wouldn't constitute an ending in the way a linear story ends. You can go round and round forever. That's what open worlds are all about.

Vulcanverse is different. Superficially it is like Fabled Lands, a sandbox for adventuring in, but that's deceptive. It's actually more like an open-world CRPG where you can take up quests in any order, but they feed into a central story thread that will lead you to a grand finale. Minor quests allow you to qualify for major quests, and some of those have payoffs that change the landscape of the game (literally) or win you allies who may rally to your side at the showdown with the Big Bad.

The last half of Workshop of the Gods (around 880 sections out of 1667 in total) is devoted to that endgame track, and once you complete it the game is over. You can bide your time entering the endgame, gathering everything and everyone you think you'll need, but once you're on it the structure is pretty linear. It's like a traditional gamebook from that point, sacrificing complete freedom of choice in favour of a dramatic conclusion.

I got to wondering how many quests are up for grabs in the whole five books. One clue might be in the codewords that we use to keep track of earlier decisions. For instance, if you begin your adventures in Book Five you start with the codeword Reverie. That remembers that you have a home and family in the city, and that you are familiar with the main landmarks. Titles such as Amazonian Queen or Tricked by a Water Nymph serve a similar function, the main difference being that you can see what the title records whereas the function of a codeword is usually not obvious immediately.

There are about two hundred codewords and seventy-odd titles across the five Vulcanverse books. As a quick yardstick, that might suggest around 250 quests (given that you might pick up more than one codeword on the bigger quests) but actually it's the tip of the iceberg. We only use codewords and titles when a player choice can have consequences anywhere in the Vulcanverse. All sorts of people you meet will react differently if you're the Amazonian Queen, for example.

But there are plenty of quests that don't have global repercussions, so to avoid having to check codeword lists too often we use a non-global logic filter: the tickbox. A tickbox is located "in the code". At the point that you arrive at a location, say, a tickbox could record whether this is your first visit (in which case you get the longer description) or a follow-up. Multiple codewords can be used to trigger different events each time you visit the location, as in the case of the tengu king's court in FL Book Six:

With a little extra tweaking, a tickbox can serve to filter a quest that is not yet complete, or that has just been completed, or that you completed a while ago. Here's an instance of that from Vulcanverse Book Four:

In this case, section 912 gives you the set-up conditions before the quest is dealt with and asks if you have what's needed to fulfil it. Usually you'll go away and come back later with what you need, though you might be lucky enough to have it already -- an item, a codeword, a companion, etc. If and when you do, 912 steers you to a section (or a whole subquest loop consisting of many sections) that if successful routes you back to 408 with the instruction to tick the box. At that point, you'll then go to section 1043 and be told the outcome and what reward you get. If you return to the Atlas tree later on, you'll see that the box is already ticked and so you'll go to section 1007, which tells you the new status quo that applies since you resolved the quest.

There are a lot more localized quests than globally significant ones, just like in a CRPG, so at a rough guess that means the whole Vulcanverse series comprises about six or seven hundred distinct quests. Some just earn you an item or a stat boost. Others unlock bigger quests. Each of the first four books features three major quests called labours, and when you've completed all twelve of those it unlocks the possibility to jump into the endgame in Book Five whenever you're ready.

I haven't seen a breakdown of the quest structure for something like The Witcher or Baldur's Gate, but I'm curious to know how the scope of those games measures up beside Vulcanverse. If you know the numbers, share them in the comments. And if you have a loved or loathed gamebook design feature -- maybe you can't stand writing in books, or you don't like logic gates -- let us know about that too.

Tickbox and codeword spreadsheet for all 5 Vulcanverse books
Buy the Vulcanverse series on Amazon

Sunday 2 June 2024

How To Back Horses & Yourself

Friend of the blog Andy Fletcher will need no introduction to anyone who follows the comments around here. He can be relied on to contribute to any discussion with wit and wisdom, so it's no surprise that his book How To Back Horses & Yourself is a thoroughly enjoyable read that will half the time have you laughing out loud and the rest of the time scribbling notes to remind yourself of all the brilliant insights.

Andy has walked the walk, having had considerably more success picking winners than most bookies have had picking their ties. That said, personally I'd give good money to have a tiepin like the one on the cover, if only because it would please my granddad, who was a great one for the horses. He'd claim not to understand my maths homework and then he'd reel off the statistics for a series of races at a speed that would have left Red Rum in the dust.

Andy has kindly given permission for a little taster of the book. This is one of the appendices, so it doesn't convey the full value of the book's contents but it does show you that our man has the gift to entertain.

Omens and Auguries 

I read somewhere that every book requires a backstory. This is a somewhat self-indulgent one, where I drone on about how my love of fantasy adventure gamebooks and a children’s book series played a part in my book’s creation. So, if you’re only interested in horse racing, I suggest you leave now, no hard feelings. Please just remember to shut the door on the way out.

SLAM! I must admit, I wasn’t expecting that many to leave. Still, we’ve cut the wheat from the chaff so to speak. Quality not quantity as they say. It would seem like it’s just you and I left then dear reader. (Stop trying to write the afterword like Stephen King and get on with it you vile polyp, otherwise prepare for pain! - The Warlock). Gulp! Right you are, oh splendid one!

Blimey, his temper hasn’t improved much this last 40 years or so, has it? That is of course assuming you remember ‘Warlock’ magazine from the mid-1980s, and perhaps more specifically, Jamie Thomson’s ‘Omens and Auguries’ column, which I absolutely loved. (Right, you were warned, prepare to spend eternity dealing with auditors you putrid maggot! - The Warlock). No, anything but that oh mighty one! You’ll find this next bit really interesting I promise!

Phew, I think we’re ok for now. ‘Warlock’ magazine supplemented the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ adventure gamebooks that were so popular in that era. However, it was Jamie Thomson’s gamebooks that were my favourites. (What was that gamebook bilge called which Thomson and his old crony Mark Smith peddled back in the day? The Day of the Toga and Kestrel, that’s it! - The Warlock). Erm, I think you mean ‘The Way of the Tiger’ and ‘Falcon’, oh supreme one.

Being a fan of ‘Monkey’, Bruce Lee and ninja films, it was no surprise that ‘The Way of the Tiger’ were my favourite gamebooks. Undertaking the ‘Teeth of Tiger’ throw was certainly not advisable unless in the vicinity of a bouncy castle. Some of my GCSE artwork were ninjas ripped off from the books. When the artwork didn’t get graded, the school told me my work had vanished. The irony.

‘Golden Dragon’ by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson was another favourite series, though even the fabled WHSmith book ordering counter couldn’t find ‘Crypt of the Vampire’. I roamed across the Midlands for months trying to locate it. A few years later, I bartered my entire magazine collection with someone at school who owned a copy. (WHAT?! - The Warlock). Erm, except ‘Warlock’ of course your greatness.

On a nostalgic internet browse in 2011 many years later, I stumbled across a book called ‘The Dark Lord’ by Jamie Thomson. I wondered whether it could be the same Jamie Thomson, favourite author from childhood? It was, and I was pleasantly surprised when Dave Morris, author of the ‘Golden Dragon’ gamebooks, replied to a remark I’d made on a comments page about it.

Doubtless I wasn’t within the intended age readership range, but the Dark Lord book was brilliant. The humour a throw-back to the author’s ‘Warlock’ column. (Pah, that piffling Dark Lord is no match for me, I could destroy the pipsqueak with my eyes shut! - The Warlock). Oh, I totally agree your wonderfulness.

In 2012, my wife and I went on honeymoon to Sorrento and the only book I took with me was The Dark Lord sequel, ‘A Fiend in Need’. We encountered weather of biblical proportions. Having several gripes with the travel firm Thomson, I had a flash of inspiration to write a book, comprised of increasingly unreasonable complaint letters to them, working title ‘Dear Thomson’. It would be based upon real events, with the irony of only having the Dark Lord book to read. I made notes, but writing a book was too much like hard work.

A few years later, much to my delight, I had another comments conversation with Dave Morris, that led to me discovering he has a blog, ‘Fabled Lands’, which I have continued to read. I also rediscovered his excellent ‘Virtual Reality/Critical IF’ and ‘Bloodsword’ series. (Spare me your sycophantic gibbering about that lickspittle’s drivel! - The Warlock). Of course, brilliantness.

Years later, I mentioned ‘Dear Thomson’ on the Fabled Lands blog. After words of encouragement from Dave, an abridged version of ‘Dear Thomson’ felt the need to expunge itself from my system over the course of a few days, enabling me to sharpen the pencil as it were for the main event of ‘How to Back Horses’. I sent ‘Dear Thomson’ to Dave, who gave me some kind feedback and useful writing advice. I quite like ‘Dear Thomson’, so have left it here for prosperity.

See, that was a really interesting story wasn’t it your appendixness? (Not in the slightest. On the subject of Thomson, he’ll feel my wraith when I find out which rock he’s crawled under, and… hang on, what did you just call me, you snivelling little worm? - The Warlock). Gulp! Erm, just a slip of the tongue oh wonderous one. Anyway, you can’t just go around punishing people anymore, things have changed in the last 40 years! (Yes, I’d heard they’d banned smoking in most places, but we’ll see about that! - The Warlock).


How To Back Horses & Yourself by Andy Fletcher is now on sale from Amazon, and for one week only you can get it at half price. Don't miss your chance to back a winner.

Thursday 30 May 2024

Snake charmer

Big news for Fabled Lands fans: Prime Games have released of the expansion pack for The Serpent King's Domain. Paul Gresty's expansive and ingeniously plotted adventure is now available for players of the FL CRPG. The new DLC includes 180 new items, 34 new achievements, a huge expansion to the explorable world, along with the following:

  • 17 new quests
  • 4 new titles 
  • 48 new enemies
  • 6 new music tracks

There's also new markets, new weapons, new rules (including heat penalties for heavy armour in the jungle), new kinds of blessing and much more. Don't take my word for it -- all the details are here.

Thursday 23 May 2024

Darkness visible -- at last

It turned into a real labour of Hercules -- sorry, Herakles -- but it was worth it because now I can say: the Vulcanverse series is complete! The fifth and final book, Workshop of the Gods, is finally available in either colour hardcover edition or in paperback. As the blurb puts it:

Vulcan City is a place of striking contrasts. A metropolis where marble palaces and gilded rooftops soar against the sky, whose walls and towers seem to approaching travellers like the flanks of mountains, where gold and jewels overflow the coffers of wily merchants, and where nobles in silk finery indulge in epicurean pleasures to rival the banquets of Olympus.

But it is also a place of teeming streets and plazas where cutthroats and spies hide themselves amid the crowds, where narrow alleyways can lead to stinking, maze-like warrens where the unwary visitor is soon as lost as in the deepest wood. In candlelit taverns you may overhear whispered secrets that can make a fortune or ruin a reputation. And here in the magnificent hub at the centre of the Vulcanverse, life is often as cheap as a trinket sold on a marketplace stall.

Meet up again with old friends and bitter enemies. Uncover long-buried secrets, hunt down thieves and murderers, wrestle with demons, cross swords with assassins, join criminal gangs – even come face to face with the spectre of your own death.

Visit the puppet shows where you’ll find hints about the fate of a universe. Seek counsel from the oracle who is privy to the insight of the gods – if you can afford it. Venture into the prison that holds the cleverest man alive, knowing that you must either befriend him or kill him. Lay claim if you can to a mansion brimming with treasures and traps. Rise in society, making alliances among the ruling factions. And attend the glittering party at Vulcan's palace, whose location is hidden from the eyes of ordinary mortals, where you will set out on a perilous journey through space and time to reach the crucial, cataclysmic battle between light and darkness towards which all your choices have been leading.

This is the city where all possibilities meet, where destinies are made, where the fate of the Vulcanverse will finally be decided.

In the Vulcanverse series, as in Fabled Lands, you can begin in any region and travel freely back and forth between the books to pursue your quests. But there are significant differences from the earlier series. In Fabled Lands there's no central storyline, whereas in Vulcanverse most of the hundreds of quests feed into a plot that builds across all five books to an epic finale that occupies the second half of Workshop of the Gods. Your choices in the books have lasting consequences, altering the fate of nations and even the very landscape. You'll develop relationships with recurring characters, both friends and foes. And you will bear the scars as well as carry the glory of your exploits through all 6115 sections (more than fifteen Fighting Fantasy length gamebooks!) and three quarters of a million words. Did I say epic? It's longer than The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit combined.

And what is your ultimate goal through the series? As you'll soon discover, darkness casts a lengthening shadow over the Vulcanverse, threatening all who dwell in the five realms. Queen Nyx, with her dread sons Death and Sleep at her side, has unleashed a devastating war that will sweep away both gods and titans and leave her the unchallenged monarch of all creation. You must hone your skills, win over allies, and gather the weapons and clues that will make you into the Hero of the Age, the only mortal capable of opposing the Night Queen.

Although technically the fifth book, this is actually a good one to start your adventures in. That way you'll have a base in the city which is the hub for all the other regions. You can visit the Oracle in the temple district to get hints, and your family will introduce you to mentor characters who can help you figure out some of the major quests that you'll need to complete.

Jamie and I are keen to hear what people think of this series. So if open-world solo roleplaying is your thing, do pick up a volume or five, embark on some adventures, and tell us how you get on.

You can find a copy of the Adventure Sheet for the book here, and the books themselves (both hardcover and paperback editions) here.

Thursday 16 May 2024

O tempora! O mores!

It's been a long wait -- decades, he's been talking about it; since the last century -- but finally Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis is nearly here. I hadn't realized how much he's modelled the story on the Catiline conspiracy, which resonated with me because six or seven years ago, having had a TV project blow up because of circumstances beyond my (or anyone's) control, I was told by the network executive who commissioned it that she felt I owed her a show.

Unable to return to the original concept, the rights in which Jamie and I were in the process of recovering from a delinquent former business partner, I started developing a couple of alternatives, one of which was this:


Civilization is fragile, and finding that out can be a terrifying thing. When you discover that the laws that kept you and your loved ones safe are being burned down in a firestorm of hatred and hardline politics. When lawgivers are denounced as saboteurs, when fanatics seize power and whip up the mob with ranting and lies. When decency and compromise have fled and you can see the cracks spreading through society all around you…

Welcome to Rome in the 1st century BC.

The life of Cicero, from the Catiline conspiracy onwards, is an amazing, dramatic, twist-filled story of trust and betrayal, alliances and vendettas, triumphs and scandals, optimism and civilized values versus self-interest and the threat of political violence.

Look at that. The story should be fresh as today’s news, but those togas and laurel wreaths and mannered period speeches can make everything seem very far-off. Irrelevant. Safe.

So what we’re going to do is set the whole story in modern dress with modern dialogue. The events are the same. The people are the same – only they look and sound like modern politicians in present-day settings.

It’s a way to bring it all home, uncomfortably so, to make us really feel the gut-wrenching danger and turmoil of those times. It’s a technique we’ve seen applied to Shakespeare (think of Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus) but in this case we’re applying it to an original script based on real events.

We’ll stick to real Roman history whenever possible. This is supposed to be a modern I Claudius meets The West Wing, not a vaguely Roman-themed fantasy. That said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and (just like in I Claudius) we’re taking historical events as the basis for our drama, but we don’t have to be dictated to by them.

Cicero’s life gives us a story spine to connect all the major events in the collapse of the republic, but Mark Cicero is not the sole character. This is an ensemble drama (again, The West Wing springs to mind) that can pick up other characters and include flashbacks to earlier events. We also have the option to show earlier events (in the Social War that established the dictator Sulla, for example) in diegetic form, as newsreel footage for example. (Roughly: events of Luke Sulla’s early dictatorship will appear to take place in the mid-1970s, Serge Catiline’s execution in the 1990s, etc, with the main storyline appearing to happen right now.)

That was the basic idea. I played around with an opening scene just to get a feel. We might never have used the scene in the finished script; writing it was just part of my process. I liked the idea of a bunch of Romans talking in a sauna to start off with, so they’re wearing towels and for all the audience could tell it might be actual Ancient Rome, and it’s only at the end of the scene when the peppy business-suited assistant looks in that we see it’s all styled like modern-day.

The project never happened -- this time for reasons unconnected with deranged business associates, but simply because the show the network wanted was adventure sci-fi in a Doctor Who-meets-MCU mold, like the one we'd written before. Nowadays, after the triumph of Succession and with the possible last days of the US republic on the horizon, maybe it would be possible to go back in and repitch it. But I'm inclined to let Mr Coppola tell his version instead. He's done a few pretty good movies in his time, after all.

Monday 13 May 2024

Counting the days

Workshop of the Gods, the concluding instalment of the Vulcanverse saga, is available for pre-order now in full-color hardcover.

6115 sections. 750,000 words. Hundreds of quests, locations, characters, items. An open-world epic with a central storyline that builds across all five books to a world-shattering conclusion.

(For comparison: the Fabled Lands CRPG has 9200 choices and 400,000 words. I'm not sure how many choices Vulcanverse has, but even if it averages only two options per section that's still well over 12,000 options.)

Both the hardcover and b&w paperback editions drop May 19. That's this Sunday. Just thought you'd want to know.

Pre-order links: