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Thursday, 22 April 2021

Analyze this


Maybe you’re still in the halcyon days of roleplaying. I mean the Goldilocks time when you’re safely past the juggernaut of finals and have yet to be distracted by career or kids. The days of dossing around, some might call it. You get to see your friends all the time and together you can slip into the parallel life of your roleplaying world whenever it suits you. Nothing beats it for immersion. Arguably it’s the only true way to roleplay.

For me it was back in the ‘80s. We’d have at least one evening’s gaming a week with the whole group, and usually two or three side sessions featuring one or two players who could then flesh out their characters’ extracurricular activities. And after the big Thursday night game, often we’d sit into the small hours (or even dawn) talking about the world of Tekumel, or chatting in or out of character. It was at one such post-mortem gathering, after our characters had disrupted the summoning of the tempest demon Kirikyagga, that the wind started to pick up and somebody mentioned that Kirikyagga was annoyed. That was October 1987.

But I digress. The reason I mention all this is that there was an interesting difference of approach in those post-game chats. Some players (eg Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith) liked to talk about their characters’ goals and personality and what we’d nowadays call story arc. “As Jadhak I used to be very cruel,” Jamie might say. “But since that Llyani curse caused me to lose my sense of fear I'm much mellower. I was cruel out of fear, you see, as a defence mechanism, and now my need for that has gone.”

This was a foreign language to players like me and Paul Mason. We threw ourselves into the role while playing, but I didn’t ever think about my character in an authorial way. On reflection, that might just be because I don’t think about myself in an authorial way. I would never map out how my character was going to develop, or even have any interest in analysing his behaviour. “You must have planned it that Drichansa is always kind to children,” Jamie might protest.

Drichansa was my character. All I'd started with was a mannerism: tugging at my earlobe when really trying to get to grips with a problem. Everything else about Drichansa I discovered as I played him. Jamie found the kindness to children surprising because Drichansa was otherwise notably lacking in tenderness.

“Kind to kids? I suppose I am,” I said. “I never thought about it.”

“You told Jadhak you were adopted. Could that be why?”

“Maybe. Want another whisky?”

You might think it’s odd that an author wouldn’t go in for that kind of character analysis, but I don’t tend to do it with the characters I write about either. Sitting at a keyboard making stuff up can get boring if the characters don’t surprise you from time to time.

This could explain why I’m not much interested in narrative mechanics for roleplaying. I don’t want to control my character like an author; I want to be them. I recently saw the latter method derided as the Actor Approach, and the person went on to say, “That’s not even how real actors do it.” Quite right. An actor has a script (most of the time) and even if they’re in a Mike Leigh or Christopher Guest movie they’ll have sat through extensive character workshops and discussions of the storyline first. But the attraction of roleplaying for me is to be neither author nor actor. It’s more like life: fielding stuff as it comes at you, and finding the story (or rather, stories) that emerge from all that noise only when you look back at it – and even then only if looking for story patterns is your thing.

But that style of playing is not so easy once you’re out of the sweet spot between college and adult life. We get fewer opportunities for gaming (my sessions are down to once a fortnight) and less time (no more playing till after midnight). No wonder that today’s games look for ways to jump-start inter-PC relationships and squeeze your fantasy life into the familiar shapes and tropes that stories take in creative writing courses.

And it occurs to me that’s what dungeons were, back in the dim mists of roleplaying history: a story shape, admittedly crude and built out of rooms and ten-foot corridors, that led you to a Big Bad at the end and allowed for campfire moments back at the town in between expeditions. A three-act structure in architectural form.

Modern games do a lot better – although arguably a physical environment is just as effective a way to shape a story as using plot points and scene breaks. Still, I gave up dungeons pretty early in my roleplaying career and I enjoy the emergent unpredictability of just-dive-in roleplaying stories too much to want to wrangle them with plot paradigms. Also, one of my day jobs is sitting with other writers planning characters’ story arcs. I enjoy that exercise of craft very much, the problem-solving and the personality construction, but I can’t see an evening spent doing pretty much the same thing as relaxation.

An example: not long ago I came very close to running a campaign from a published book complete with pre-planned adventure. The book begins by saying that each player should pick one of the other PCs as their closest friend, and another who they most trust, and so on. For me that should all happen in-game. I don’t want written backstories, I want players to forge those relationships out of their experiences as they play. Then they’ll really feel it. If somebody at my table says, “Out of game for a moment, I think my character would…” then I feel like I’ve failed. They should be leaving their everyday life behind. If they’re stopping to view the characters from outside then they’re distanced from the fantasy, and that means the game isn’t working.

By the way, this applies to writing too. If you start a novel or script with two characters already in love, that won’t have anything like the impact of having them fall in love in the course of the story. Games likewise. A year or two back I consulted on the design of a computer game that began with a long cutscene explaining how the player had a pet dog called Jack who was your best pal, and together you got stranded on a desert island. I threw out the cutscene. “Have the player get shipwrecked and then find Jack trapped under an overturned lifeboat," was my advice. "You get to free him -- that's the first time you've met him, and so the bonding between you happens in-game rather than before the game starts." That way the player will actually care, because they experienced it rather than just being told about it. (Game storytelling 101, that, but you'd be surprised how many developers don't know it.)

Some people enjoy being the author of their character’s life, and/or bringing a five-page backstory to the first session, or calling time out to explain (often in third person) how their character arc dovetails with something that's happening in the game. They are more comfortable with the distance that brings. Well, fine -- you should play the game whatever way lets you get most out of it. But given all the RPGs these days that are designed to conform characters to types and tailor events to an archetypal narrative, maybe you should try it at least one time without preconception, script, or safety net. Just put on the persona and be that character. The worst that can happen is you'll lose yourself in the game.

The wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking


I think I picked up a love of literary sailing from Jack Vance. Or maybe it was earlier, as I've been on Captain Bligh's side since the first time I heard the story of the Bounty.

So it was inevitable that Fabled Lands would feature seafaring adventures like you get in Blood Sword and Down Among the Dead Men. Connective tissue though it is for the rest of the series, I think I enjoyed writing Over the Blood-Dark Sea best of all the FL books.

If you've got the brine in your system too, Prime Games have an update on the Fabled Lands CRPG and it's all about the high seas. Hoist the mainsail!

Coming up tomorrow: how dungeons are a simple container to shape stories, and whether it's better to author a character or just play them.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

"Death Is Only The Beginning" (scenario for Jewelspider/Dragon Warriors)

This short self-contained adventure could serve as a monster-of-the-week interlude if you need to insert a lull in a bigger campaign. The setting is rural Ellesland, part of the medieval world of Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider.

The restless dead

Two men, strangers to the district, recently died in the village of Drakelow. They were itinerant labourers who had hired on to help with the reaping, making their beds in an old cowshed across the fields. It appears they must have argued one evening and each stabbed the other in the heart.

The coroner, Sir Achard, duly arrived and assayed the scene. He confiscated the purses of the two dead men. Local enquiries revealed them to be Gerwin and Lampert. They had spent time on several local manors, usually getting driven on to their next location because of drunkenness or Gerwin’s tendency to flirt with milkmaids. The bodies were buried in a potter’s field attached to the churchyard.

To the annoyance of Sir Percy de Grainville, lord of Drakelow, the coroner levied a fine on him for taking on labourers of unknown provenance. He was even more annoyed a few days later when a farm worker returning from the fields with a cart full of wheat saw Gerwin and Lampert in the orchard. He ran off, abandoning the cart, and when a group of villagers returned to the spot they found the whole contents of the cart spoiled, the grain black and rancid as if it had been soaked in sewage water for weeks.

And so it begins

Now, at this point you may be asking how the player-characters come into this. They could be working in the fields themselves to earn a few coins (the pay is ninepence a week) but it’s likely your players don’t care to trudge around doing menial work. Higher status characters could be guests of Sir Percy, or perhaps they arrive in Sir Achard’s retinue. Another option: they’re sent by the bishop when the first hints of something diabolical start to get bruited about.

Or the player-characters could be wanderers themselves, just passing through, but with the locals already jittery that’s a dangerous position to be in.

Two days after the burial a little boy returns home without his sister, telling a story of how they met a man on the road sitting on a wooden box. He invited the little girl to lie in it, saying that it was a bed he’d been given by the charity of the villagers. ‘Then another man came and they put on the lid and carried her off.’

The sexton notices the soil in the potter’s field has been roughly churned up. ‘I patted those graves down myself.’ Digging at the spot, which is Gerwin’s grave, he finds the body of the missing girl. There is no sign of Gerwin’s corpse or his coffin.

Sir Percy decides there is no need to summon the coroner to investigate the death of a ten-year-old girl, even though the body has been drained of blood.

Further sightings ensue: two figures loping through the fields at sunset; a horrible clamouring and banging in the street at night; plague symbols daubed on the door of the mill house.

The facts in the case

Further investigation reveals some more facts, if the player-characters are interested. On the day Gerwin and Lampert died, they had taken part in a custom where the lord lets loose a sheep in a field and whoever catches it first gets to keep it. They won, but the sheep was not found with their bodies. ‘It must have got loose and wandered off,’ reckons the coroner if asked.

Their purses contained a total of twenty farthings, though they had earned at least two shillings each in the time they’d been working on the manor. ‘Spent the rest in the tavern,’ is the coroner’s opinion.

Apart from the fatal thrusts there were no other knife-wounds on the bodies, but some of the jurors (twelve locals summoned for the purpose) admit to seeing bruises on the arms and necks, as though the dead men had been restrained.

Gerwin had been seen hanging around Lucy, the 16-year-old daughter of Richard the miller. Some villagers think she was sweet on him, others that his attentions were unwelcome. A day or two before Gerwin’s death, he and Richard argued in the lane and each threatened the other. Richard has three strapping sons (Joseph, Barnaby and Abel) who all share their father’s fiery temper and most villagers wouldn’t care to get on the wrong side of the family.

Things get serious

Richard Miller comes down with a fever. He gets weaker and his son Joseph is sent to fetch a physician from the monastery. He takes some money to pay the monks but does not return that night. The next morning he’s found torn limb from limb. His purse is open on the ground beside the body but only some of the money has been taken – a little over two shillings, the sum the characters might expect Gerwin and Lampert to have saved if they make any effort to calculate it.

The coroner is no happier to be called back than Sir Percy is to see him, especially as the circumstances of Joseph Miller’s death don’t admit of any easy explanation.
‘Brigands, perhaps? They tortured him for his money, it seems.’

‘Why not just take it? The purse was in his belt.’

‘For sport, then. They must have tied him to horses. How else could he have been ripped apart like that?’

‘But there were no rope marks. Just hand prints on his limbs.’

‘Absurd. What hands could dismember a strong lad as though he were an over-roasted fowl?’
More calamities ensue. The geese are found with their necks wrung. Among the carcasses lies a severed finger, black and mould-spattered. ‘One of the birds must have bitten it off,’ says the sexton, picking up the finger. ‘I’ll bury it after I’ve got the rector to pour some holy water on it.’ But that night the sexton is taken ill.

Others get sick. The miller’s remaining sons are pursued on their way back from the pub and barely get home and bar the door before there is a terrible pounding and roaring outside which goes on all night. Next day they relate the tale: ‘On the roof it was, and we had to use all the firewood to stop it coming down the chimney. Suddenly the noise stopped, just as the cock crowed. Then at sunrise when we went to look in on Daisy – ’

‘Hush, you fool,’ says Barnaby, kicking his shin.

It soon seems clear that ‘Daisy’ is a sheep the Millers have been keeping tethered at the back of the mill. Nobody heard her bleating because of the sound of the river. The carcass been stripped to the bones.

‘Eaten raw,’ remarks the coroner. ‘Perhaps wolves..?’ But he sounds decidedly uncertain now.


Stake out

Lampert is easy to deal with. He can be dug up in broad daylight. The cloth around his face is soaked in blood and his flesh, though marked with pocks of decay, is ruddy and swollen. The rector sprinkles the body with holy water and directs the villagers to cut off the head and put it face down between the legs.

Gerwin’s grave is already known to be empty, so before he can be dealt with in the same way his new resting place must be found. As a red herring, he’s been seen lingering near Dipcap Wood, a copse on a rolling green hill half a mile from the village. The villagers occasionally gather fallen branches from the outskirts of the copse but never venture in because it is a place of ill repute. The characters could waste a day or two searching the copse for Gerwin’s grave site, which in fact is in the wheat fields much nearer to the village.

Gerwin is able to go about invisible after dark, so the characters need to track him. They can follow his path through the wheat field where he has trampled the stalks flat going to and fro from his new grave, or they must think of some other ploy.

But there is a risk if they leave it too long that Lucy Miller comes down with the sickness, and she is not expected to last the night, so perhaps they can’t afford to wait for the safety of daylight and must go to confront the vampire in darkness.

It’s a tough fight. Gerwin cannot be cut except by weapons that have been forged with magic or else blessed, so all other edged weapons do half damage against him. A mace will be useful only if it shatters a bone (signified by scoring at the upper range of damage), otherwise he shrugs it off.

Holy water? That’s useful only once the monster is down, to stop it rising again. There's no Hollywood acid-in-the-face effect here. Forget too the tigerish snarls and snapping of modern vampires faced with crosses. A holy character might succeed in driving Gerwin back to his grave, just as the sound of cockcrow does, but his departure will merely be accompanied a sough of wind and then he’s gone. If confronted at his graveside, he stands his ground and fights to the bitter end.

Gerwin’s own blows not only land with the force of stout cudgels, they inflict a stinging numbness so that the injured character is at a disadvantage to hit the following round. Meanwhile he is invisible, so characters who are fighting him must be guided by the movement of the wheat stalks, his heavy tread, and the stream of gibbering obscenities he’s uttering. That means a penalty to hit unless the character has a cantrip to see things masked by invisibility or is able to make a sorcery roll, in which case they will know to hold up a stone with a hole through it in order to see him.


Postscript

The idea of the scenario is to highlight the difference between vampires of the world of Legend (such as Robert Dale's memorably grisly Pyron, here) and the traditional Victorian drawing-room variety. Even the word vampire is used interchangeably with revenant, prodigy, fiend or draugur. If you were to use the term undead it’s unlikely most people in Ellesland would know what you meant, and folk theories abound: the corpse is reanimated by an evil spirit; the man didn’t die but became possessed; the individuals were always hellions yet dormant, needing only death to transform them pupa-like into the demonic thing they are now. Remember that the idea of the resurrection of the flesh is accepted as fact by most people – this is just a hellish parody, perpetrated by the Devil, of the Saviour’s return to life that all God-fearing folk hope to share on the Day of Judgement.

As a guideline, here’s William of Newburgh’s 12th century account of a creature modern readers might be tempted to call one of the undead:
‘A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster.

‘Hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart.’
A thought about how to handle that invisibility. Putting invisible creatures into fantasy games can feel a bit sci-fi, not to say tricksily green-screen, so how about suggesting to your players that there's something so horrific about the vampire that they just can't bring themselves to look straight at him. They know where he is, but their eyes just won't stay in that direction and their minds refuse to take it in. It's like somebody in a dream whom you're aware of but can't quite see. Don't use the i-word. Make it strange.

Oh, and who really killed Gerwin and Lampert? I don't really need to spell it out, do I?

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Wide open worlds


The Kickstarter for Legendary Kingdoms ends in a few hours. Better get over there right now if you want to back it.

In case the title isn't enough of a hint, LK is an open world gamebook series in the style of Fabled Lands. What that means is that you can start in lots of different places, take the kind of character you want, pick your own goals, and explore the world however you choose by going back and forth between the books, each of which covers a different region.

The grandfather of open world gamebooks is Eric Goldberg, who pioneered the idea (though he may not have realized it) in 1985 with his boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights. That seemed to me what gamebooks ought to be: a roleplaying campaign in solo Choose Your Own Adventure form.

Jamie and I pitched an open world gamebook series called Hero Quest to publishers in 1987, and later repackaged the concept as Knights of Renown in 1989, but with still no takers. It wasn't until six years later that we convinced Pan Macmillan to do the Fabled Lands series, and by then the gamebook craze was dying out. That's why we only managed the first six books of the planned twelve.


All went quiet for a couple of decades, and then like long-awaited buses came The Serpent King's DomainSteam Highwayman, Alba and Legendary Kingdoms. And, not to be left out, Jamie and I are writing an open world series of five books for his Vulcanverse fantasy setting, and we're hoping that Prime Games's CRPG version of the original Fabled Lands books might rekindle enough interest in those that we can finally finish off the series.

Meanwhile I'd be quite keen to write the Victorian survival horror gamebook Shadow King (think: H G Wells meets The Long Dark) but I'm too averse to social media and too deficient in marketing nous to run the Kickstarter campaign needed to fund it. Fans of open world gamebooks won't be short of alternatives. It may have taken three decades for the wider reading public to catch up with the concept, but I'm betting it has a bright future ahead.



Friday, 9 April 2021

Killing no murder?


It was a Victorian setting, and the player-characters had pursued a mad scientist to the top of the world. (There's something about mad scientists and the Arctic.) They trounced her hirelings, broke up her lab, put paid to her callous experiments, then one of the characters snapped. 'We'll never bring her to trial,' he said before giving her both barrels of his shotgun.

That summary execution might seem shocking, but I've been hardened by years of refereeing. We had one player-character whose thing was butchering 'witches' -- a term he seemingly applied to any woman with a scheme in the pre-industrial era. On Tekumel I've seen captives hurled in their hundreds into the fiery pits of sacrifice, and slaves slaughtered to pay a demon for a minor gift.

Most horrible of all (it still makes my flesh creep) was the time in Crossgate when the characters got hold of their longtime enemy Lord Belvoir, who had unwisely stopped at the manor house without his men. It was Twelfth Night, but what they did made Lavinia's fate in Titus Andronicus look tame. They truly got medieval on his ass -- but then, it's Legend, so 'medieval' is exactly right. Isaac Babel would have recognized it:
'I'll put it this way. With shooting you just get rid of the person. Shooting lets him off easy, and it lets you off easy too. With shooting you'll never get down to the soul -- where it is in somebody, how it shows itself. So I don't spare myself. More than once I've stamped on a foe for an hour or more. You see, I want to get to know what life is like, what it's really all about.'
As the referee, it's not my job to comment on the characters' deeds. Nothing should be out of bounds. Roleplaying, like art in general, should be free to go anywhere, and in refereeing I have to be like God, who never has anything to say when a child is raped or a man has his hands macheted off. After the game it's a different matter, and then I will sometimes confess that the PCs' moral attitudes give me a shudder. I regard capital punishment as barbaric and vigilantes as scum. Vigilantes who dress up their killings as justice are committing plain murder.

Naturally the players get prickly about that. They don't want to be thought of as murder hoboes. They see themselves as heroes -- and so they should. If you're in character, of course you think you're in the right. Hitler believed he was a good guy just as much as Gandhi did.


'I'm not the Red Skull,' one player retorted, 'I'm Judge Dredd.' If the judges of Mega-City One existed in real life, they'd be the goon squad of somebody like Ramzan Kadyrov, not stalwart defenders of civilized society. But let's face it, pretty much all cops in drama are rule-bending, violent, arbitrary, partial, unstable and dangerous. Stories have their own rules and (one of the big mistakes a beginning writer can make, this) likeability is overrated. Player-characters should be interesting, they don't have to be likeable -- at least, they don't have to be likeable to civilians in a comfortable 21st century democracy.

A murder hobo PC is boring. They'll shoot every NPC in the face and they do that because the player's imagination is too limited to see the NPCs as real people. But characters who wreak terrible violence because of their own sense of justice, however warped and self-righteous that may be, can be very interesting indeed. They're Bond, or Dredd, or the Punisher, or Philip Jennings. There's an inner contradiction that has to go somewhere, and the player is inhabiting the character thoroughly which means they're on an interesting journey too. Consider for example E M Forster's self-analysis of his time in Egypt:
'I came inclined to be pleased and quite free from racial prejudice, but in ten months I’ve acquired an instinctive dislike to the Arab voice, the Arab figure, the Arab way of looking or walking or pump-shitting [pissing] or eating or laughing or anythinging—exactly the emotion that I censured in the Anglo-Indian towards the native. It’s damnable and disgraceful, and it’s in me.'
Forster had found in himself a knee-jerk racism that horrified him. He didn't go so far as murdering anyone, of course, but it was nonetheless a darkness within that he came face to face with and, with his scrupulous honesty, confessed to. Roleplaying lets us do the same and come away knowing ourselves and being better people for it. Or so I hope of my more violently inclined players, anyway.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Everything you always wanted to know about gamebooks


Now that Jamie and I are working on the Vulcanverse gamebooks (first two almost ready, since you asked) this seems like a good time to revisit our 2018 trip to Manticon with Paul Mason. Travelling and meeting up with other people, eh -- those were the days.

We gave two talks while we were there. Here's the breakdown of the one on gamebook history and design -- of all the gamebooks that we three had a hand in, that is:

07m 41s: Media outrage about gamebooks as too scary for kids

11m 31s: The Lord of Shadow Keep, originally planned as a Fighting Fantasy book

13m 27s: The Way of the Tiger

17m 22s: Blood Sword

19m 24s: 1980s roleplaying in the world of Tekumel

22m 30s: Fighting Fantasy books by Paul Mason

31m 22s: Robin of Sherwood gamebooks

33m 12s: Heart of Ice

36m 10s: Duel Master

39m 33s: Inspiration for the Fabled Lands

42m 14s: The art of Russ Nicholson

43m 52s: The Keep of the Lich Lord

46m 28s: Fantasy maps by Leo Hartas

51m 01s: Frankenstein

53m 34s: Gamebooks in which you aren't the hero

54m 33s: Can You Brexit (Without Breaking Britain)?

1h 06m 05s: Early days of Games Workshop

1h 11m 51s: Steam Highwayman

1h 38m 09s: On not writing down to kids

Our other talk was about roleplaying games, and there's more RPG stuff coming your way tomorrow.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Crossing the Cauldron

If you missed out on the Kickstarter for Blood Sword 5: The Walls of Spyte back in 2019, here's your one and only chance to jump aboard. Just 250 colour hardbacks were printed* but there was one duplicate**, and it's available on eBay till Sunday.

Alternatively you could be a cheapskate and just get the paperbacks. But that hardback is a thing of beauty, believe me.

I didn't personally have a lot to do with The Walls of Spyte, but while editing the book for re-release I had a whole lot of ideas for what I'd have liked to do to make it fit in better with the rest of the Blood Sword series. If you're interested then there's an article on my Patreon -- or you could wait (see cheapskatery, above) and eventually I'll probably post it here.

*Actually it was probably more like 260 copies, as some of the 250 backers ordered an extra copy, but I'm rounding it off. And only about seventy were signed. 

** I goofed, if you must know, and did one of the signature orders twice. Duh.