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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.

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:

Thursday 9 May 2024

A baker's dozen

There's very little new material released for Dragon Warriors these days, but I prefer to take a goblet-half-full approach, consoling myself with the thought that what is released is of top quality and written and drawn by the best creative team an old-school RPG designer could possibly wish for. Yes, I'm talking about Red Ruin Publishing, whose latest offering is Casket of Fays #13.

If the cover alone isn't enough to tempt you, look at the contents: a couple of adventures (one of them solo, one of them with orcs), rules FAQs, some very useful campfire magic for travellers, a two-part article adding some details to the light-level rules and how they interact with spells, and creatures both new and really old. And you get bonus campaign material about the port of Gatina on the Azure Coast.

What do you have to pay for such riches? This is where the goblet magically runneth over, for Red Ruin are giving it all away for free. (The madness rules are in DW book 5, you'll recall.) Go and clear out the treasure hall now on DriveThruRPG.

Next year is Dragon Warriors' fortieth anniversary. I'd like us to mark it with lots of new stuff -- Robert Dale's brilliant Brymstone campaign for starters. Here's hoping the stars will align.

Friday 3 May 2024

Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors - part 5

The Walls of Spyte is the last installment in Oliver Whawell's series of rules conversions from Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors rules. The stat blocks are available in PDF form here.

I had a lot less to do with the writing of the fifth book than the rest of the series. Oliver Johnson was supposed to write it, but ran out of time. Luckily Jamie Thomson was on hand to step in, but necessarily it was a rush job so he didn't have time to read the earlier Blood Sword books. I came in right at the end to tie up the last 40 sections or so.

Patreon backers can see how I'd have liked the series finale to pan out. Tambù's Blood Sword 5e campaign and rulebook drew on those notes, and I have a feeling so will Prime Games' forthcoming CRPG.

Various player-characters guest starred in the Blood Sword books, in a manner of speaking. This time it was the turn of Zaraqeb (Zara in the book) and Karunaz, who were played in my and Steve Foster's Empire of the Petal Throne campaign by Gail Baker and Paul Mason. The original PCs weren't a lot like their gamebook incarnations, incidentally. The real Zaraqeb wasn't a sorceress and wasn't that nasty; the real Karunaz was neither posh nor noble, though he was a much more interesting kind of hero because of that.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

You want fries with that?

In a very short time (I say that with fingers crossed) I'll be ready to put my Jewelspider RPG on DriveThruRPG. Urged by regular correspondent Stanley Barnes, and with the help of Simon Barns of Red Ruin Publishing, I thought I'd better learn the DriveThru ropes by uploading some books I did earlier.

So, if you're looking for digital gamebooks, you can now get the Critical IF series from DriveThruRPG:

As well as the grand finale of the Blood Sword series:

And a former Fighting Fantasy title that has been reworked as a standalone adventure in the Fabled Lands series:

And the first Fabled Lands book:

You get a watermarked PDF with all the sections hyperlinked and the original illustrations by Russ Nicholson and Leo Hartas. In the case of Once Upon a Time in Arabia that makes this quite a collector's item, incidentally, as the print version currently lacks Russ's pictures.

Monday 15 April 2024

Great men can work miracles

A trope I enjoy in folktales is the one that recounts the deeds of great heroes as achieved by wizardry, because of course there's no other way they could have done half of what they did. In one of the Knightmare novellas I had the protagonist thaw out a dwarf who'd spent the last fourteen centuries inside a block of ice in an Alpine cave. He'd eaten one of Hannibal's elephants, so Hannibal froze him solid.

The following tales of Drake, taken from Anna Bray's book The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, were an influence on Dragon Warriors and even more so on Jewelspider:

* * *

Tradition, in this part of the West Country, is still busied with the fame of Drake; and all the stories told of him are of a wild and extravagant nature. No doubt this originated from the terror of his name and the wonder of his exploits—exploits so extraordinary that they were here considered to owe their success to something supernatural in himself, and that he often performed them by the power of enchantment. Nor can we feel surprised at this credulity when we recollect that even in these days, with the peasantry of Devon, witchcraft is still believed to be practised in the county, and extraordinary circumstances or sufferings to be brought about by the active agency and co-operation of the devil.

Thus was our hero converted, by popular opinion, into a wizard; and as such the ‘old warrior’ (for so the lower classes here call Drake) is to the present time considered amongst them. The following traditionary tales will serve to show the sort of necromantic adventures which credulity has fastened on the memory of the great naval admiral of the reign of good Queen Bess.

One day whilst Sir Francis Drake was playing at the game of kales [ninepins] on the Hoe at Plymouth, it was announced to him that a foreign fleet (the Armada, I suppose) was sailing into the harbour close by. He showed no alarm at the intelligence, but persisted in playing out his game. When this was concluded, he ordered a large block of timber and a hatchet to be brought to him. He bared his arms, took the axe in hand, and manfully chopped up the wood into sundry smaller blocks. These he hurled into the sea, while at his command every block arose a fire-ship; and within a short space of time a general destruction of the enemy’s fleet took place, in consequence of the irresistible strength of those vessels he had called up to ‘flame amazement’ on the foes of Elizabeth and of England. Wild as this story is, there is something of grandeur in the idea of Drake standing on such a commanding elevation as the Hoe, with the sea, which spreads itself at its foot, before him, and that element together with the fire-ships obedient to the power of his genius, whose energies were thus mar­vellously exerted for the safety of his country.

The next tradition respecting Sir Francis was communicated to me by our esteemed friend, Mr. Davies Gilbert, who has shown the interest he takes in such fragments of the ‘olden time’ by the very curious collection he some years ago published of the Cornish ballads.

In the days of Drake the vulgar considered the world to be composed of two parallel planes, the one at a certain distance from the other. In reference to this space it was commonly said that Sir Francis hadshot the gulf,’ meaning that his ship had turned over the edge of the upper plane so as to pass on to the waters of the under. “There is,” said Mr. Davies Gilbert, “an old picture of Drake at Oxford, repre­senting him holding a pistol in one hand, which, in former years, the man who acted as showman to strangers was wont to say (still further improving upon the story) was the very pistol with which Sir Francis shot the gulf!”

Another story told of this hero is, that the people of Plymouth were so destitute of water in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, that they were obliged to send their clothes to Plympton to be washed in fresh water. Sir Francis Drake resolved to rid them of this inconvenience. So he called for his horse, mounted, rode to Dartmoor, and hunted about till he found a very fine spring. Having fixed on one that would suit his purpose, he gave a smart lash to his horse’s side, pronouncing as he did so some magical words, when off went the animal as fast as he could gallop, and the stream followed his heels all the way into the town. This assuredly was not only the most wonderful, but the most cheap and expeditious, mode of forming a canal ever known or recorded by tradition.

The next story of Sir Francis is a very singular one, nor can I in the least trace its origin to any real circumstance which might have been exaggerated in the relation, till it became, like the other tales about our hero, necromantic. It seems in every way a fiction. The good people here say that whilst the ‘old warrior’ was abroad, his lady, not hearing from him for seven years, considered he must be dead and that she was free to marry again. Her choice was made, the nuptial day was fixed, and the parties had assembled in the church. Now it so happened that at this very hour Sir Francis Drake was at the anti­podes of Devonshire, and one of his spirits, who let him know from time to time how things went on in England, whispered in his ear in what manner he was about to lose his wife. Sir Francis rose up in haste, charged one of his great guns, and sent off a cannon ball so truly aimed that it shot right through the globe, forced its way into the church, and fell with a loud explosion between the lady and her intended bridegroom. “It is the signal of Drake!” she ex­claimed, “He is alive, and I am still a wife. There must be neither troth nor ring between thee and me.”

Another legend of Sir Francis represents him as acting from motives of jealousy and cruelty, in a way he was very little likely to do. The story says that whilst he was once sailing in foreign seas he had on board the vessel a boy of uncommonly quick parts. In order to put them to the proof Sir Francis ques­tioned the youth, and bade him tell what might be their antipodes at that moment. The boy without hesitation told him Barton Place, (for so Buckland Abbey was then called) the Admiral’s own mansion in his native county. After the ship had made some further progress Sir Francis repeated his question, and the answer he received was, that they were then at the antipodes of London Bridge. Drake, surprised at the accuracy of the boy’s knowledge, exclaimed, “Hast thou, too, a devil ? If I let thee live, there will be one a greater man than I am in the world.” And so saying he threw the lad overboard into the sea, where he perished.


British Folk Tales & Legends by Katherine Briggs, on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

The Vulcanverse is almost complete

OK, that took a little longer than I thought. Finishing the Vulcanverse gamebook series, I mean. I expected to tie up the saga last summer, but I didn't reckon on how complex it would be to pull together the threads of hundreds of quests spanning almost three-quarters of a million words and over 6000 sections.

But the finish line is in sight at last. You see me there with the typeset proof copy of Workshop of the Gods. I have checked all the logic (with the help of John Jones, without whom this Gordian knot would never have been cut) and now I just have to sort out any typos and the book will be ready to go on sale.

I think this might be the first open world gamebook series ever to be completed. (Eagle-eyed readers will correct me if I'm wrong.) Now if anyone has $100 million spare, I'll make the movie.