Gamebook store

Friday 8 December 2023

Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground

If you're looking for a last-minute Christmas present for a friend who's interested in the history and cultural context of roleplaying games, MIT Press have just released Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground: A Guide to Tabletop Roleplaying Games from D&D to Mothership by Stu Horvath.

It's not the kind of roleplaying analysis you tend to get here on the FL blog. What I like about playing RPGs is thinking and behaving as people unlike myself, and what interests me about roleplaying as an art form is that RPGs provide a medium for creating multi-person emergent narratives that are very different from old storytelling media with their three-act structures and whatnot.

This book comes at roleplaying from a whole other angle: the social history of the hobby along with a thorough analysis of its evolution. Gamebooks are discussed too. Be advised that Mr Horvath admits to not being fully comprehensive in his coverage; there are, indeed, holes in this ground. Empire of the Petal Throne, a big early release from TSR and a major event in original worldbuilding, is omitted because of accusations that M A R Barker held clandestine antisemitic beliefs. I have no tolerance for antisemitism myself, most especially not in view of the appalling rise in hate crime against Jews that we've seen in the wake of Hamas's terrorist atrocities on 7 October, but it is nonsensical to write EPT out of roleplaying history on that account. The art is not the artist, and the book is supposed to be a history of the hobby not a teenager's diary. At least, thankfully, Call of Cthulhu is covered here, possibly not so much because the Cthulhu Mythos has had multiple contributors as because HPL's legacy is simply too influential to ignore.

Anyway, those are quibbles -- and frankly, while I was a big fan of Tekumel back in the day, I concede that Barker poisoned his own reputation by signing a deal with a neo-Nazi publisher (we won't get back into the unanswerable question of whether he was actually a sympathizer or just foolishly imagined he was playing them) and consequently if the rest of his work is going to get cancelled as collateral damage, knee-jerk though such reasoning usually is, Barker only has himself to blame. (Game designer Pauli Kidd makes some good points about the ensuing debate here. And if you are interested in how Empire of the Petal Throne fits into roleplaying history, here's a quick overview by Juhana Pettersson.) Meanwhile there are lots of other great roleplaying games to talk about, most of them written by unarguably decent and right-thinking folks, and Mr Horvath's well-researched and in-depth survey of the field should give you hours of interesting reading while you wait for the turkey to finish roasting.

The book does come with a pretty weighty price tag, but it sounds like it's worth it. A friend who bought a copy (he's much richer than I am) commented:

"The book is entirely commendable as an exhaustive archive save for the glaring omission of EPT. It’s a coffee table compendium and a fine gift."

I do have to point out, though, that on Christmas morning for just about the same money you could be unwrapping four Vulcanverse books or the whole Blood Sword series. Sadly there's no chance now of getting the Blood Sword 5e book this Christmas, which would have been my dream come true, but hopefully by next year... (Possibly. Maybe. Who's got the wishbone?) In the meantime let's all try and stay on Santa's Nice list.

Friday 1 December 2023

"The Three Wanderers" (a Yuletide adventure set in Legend)

A treat my gaming group have come to expect (though hopefully never take for granted) at this time of year is a new Yuletide adventure by the multifariously talented Tim Harford. With Tim's permission I share last year's with you. Without further ado, then, here is:


On a windswept ridge in the Bleaks, visible from miles around, are three huge uneven black boulders, each at least four metres in diameter. Locals call these vast stones the Three Wanderers and will not approach. They say the three were fiends who haunted the hills in olden times, murdering travellers until they picked on the wrong victim, St Afric, and he turned them to stone.

More educated folk, of whom there are few locally, scorn the superstitions but warn travellers that those boulders are tombs, and that what was buried should not be disturbed.

Anyone who does get close to the boulders will see that there are crevices in them, perhaps just wide enough for a person to squirm through. Each crevice, however, is blocked by bars of iron, rusted but sturdy, and a chain with a silver cross is attached to the bars on each of the three rocks. It is hard to make out what, if anything, lies deeper in the crevices. Characters who shine a light down them may see a glimpse of bone, or sacking. Perhaps they will see movement – a rat, perhaps, or grass snake?

What lies within? One tale describes three sorcerers from Kaikuhuru, travelling west in search of the newborn Saviour. Some say they followed a silver moon that moved through the sky contrary to the motion of other celestial bodies. Others say they used an enchanted needle, a bone splinter hanging from a strand of a princess’s hair. Whatever the truth, they were led astray by some mischievous imp, and ventured to the wilds of Ellesland instead of the holy land. Dressed for the desert, they wandered in the northern rain and hail, vainly seeking the saviour until they perished from exposure.

Far from home, vengeful and bewildered, their spirits continued to wander the Bleaks until, centuries later, a Cornumbrian saint bound them and laid them to rest in a tomb that would contain their wanderings and their parched enchantments.

Such is the tale. What, then, when the characters approach the Three Wanderers to find the silver crosses missing, and the iron bars ripped out – from the inside?

Dramatis Personae

Crespin Thune – A wizard of no great accomplishment, but with a plan to use his limited talents to acquire the three legendary gifts of the Kaikuhuran wizards, and with those to rise in prestige and power.

Beatrice – a fallen woman. Beatrice is a serving maid (and prostitute) who works at Athgeld’s Inn, a traveller’s stop running to the south of the ridge. Crespin has paid her to serve the Saviour’s mother in his little play.

Sir Thunrulf – an aging knight, lord of Beeley Manor.

His cook, Pessimus Broil, is a blubbery mountain of a man.

Martin Marigold is the innkeeper at Athgeld’s Inn. He is famous for his hospitality, although the prices can be steep, especially for the unwary.

Grauves de Courtai – an upstart knight from Chaubrette. Crespin is paying him for assistance, but has also forged a letter purportedly from Baron Aldred declaring Grauves de Courtai the new lord of Beeley Manor. Grauves has six well-armed thugs in attendance, Hubert, Gaston, Anton, Charles, Hal and Fred.

The local devil, called Hob o’ the Well by locals. Hob is nine feet tall, with spindly arms and legs; when he drops into a crouch, however, he can conceal himself into a surprisingly small space, like a spider in the corner of a web. Hob has several uncanny abilities, including the power of illusion and the power to command animals, plants and the local weather. However he is vulnerable to the cross, and his stealthiness is sometimes betrayed by a faint reek of brimstone.

Old Katy Catkin, who earns a meal and room to sleep in exchange for cleaning and other chores around the inn. She works less and less and appears to rely more and more on the charity both of Marigold and of passersby. She is the most likely source of gossip concerning Hob o’ the Well and may also share gossip about Beatrice and Crespin (who has been paying with silver for her to attend him in his room). Katy has heard Crespin bragging to Beatrice about his plans and, unlike Beatrice herself, she has enough familiarity with folk magic to recognize the makings of a spell in their act of theatre.

Crespin’s plan

Crespin plans to break the locks that keep the three wanderers bound. He hopes to lure them to Athgeld’s Inn on Christmas Eve, where Beatrice will display her “baby” – actually a ghastly little scarecrow of daub and straw, with sky blue little robin eggs of eyes. Crespin has cast a spell over the “baby” to make it appear lifelike. This deception will, he hopes, induce the three wanderers to hand over their gifts to the infant they think is the Saviour. He can then use the three gifts as potent instruments when casting future spells.

The Wanderers

The three sorcerers are long dead, but their spirits live on, carrying a thousand years of rage and frustration. If addressed in the right way, they may recall their original pilgrimage to pay homage to a new spirit of hope in the world.

Calcifer retains the desiccated spirit of the Kaikuhuran desert; if roused to anger he strikes with hot sand and lightning. His visage is swaddled in dry sackcloth.

Shazz Ul Haq has grown a new eye each year since arriving in Ellesland. He now has nine hundred and ninety five, and to glimpse them is to go mad.

Grupus has adjusted best to the climate of Ellesland. He has become a master of mist, mire, and darkness. He is the most likely to stray far from the rocks and the party may encounter him while exploring.

The gifts

Calcifer’s gift for the saviour was a small handful of sand from the desert, in a box of ivory, a symbol of the endlessly shifting sands of Kaikuhuru and of his fealty.

Shazz Ul Haq had brought an orb of diamonds, each diamond showing a different vision of what may come to pass.

Grupus’s offering was an embalming unguent in a silver pot.

These treasures lack the awesome power that Crespin imagines and craves – their significance was largely symbolic. However, they have some value both as magical talismans and as saleable treasures.


Beeley Manor – a decaying manor house with a small study, a feasting hall, kitchen and larder downstairs, and a master bedroom and three small bedrooms upstairs. The house is fortified but vulnerable either to a determined assault or to an inside job, since there is a front door, a back door and a kitchen door.

Athgeld’s Inn – a large hostelry with a generous common room, a parlour with several snugs (where Grauves and Crespin prefer to have their conversations), a sweltering kitchen and half a dozen upstairs rooms. The Inn also has outhouses, storehouses, and a stable.

Saint Afric’s chapel – a tiny chapel on the steep slope above the road and beneath the great stones that locals call the Three Wanderers. It was Saint Afric who bound the ghosts of the three sorcerers and imprisoned them in cracks in the rocks. The chapel door is jammed – rust or ice? – but may yield to force or to patient prayer. Inside, a candle flame flickers, although there is no sign of a caretaker and everything is covered with dust – it seems to have been neglected for years. A cracked fresco shows a three part scene: three great kings following a man with a crescent on a fishing rod; the same three figures with demonic visages; Saint Afric brandishing a cross, with the three figures dismayed and prostrate.

A sufficiently successful roll on intuition suggests that the paintwork around the cross is of a different quality. Chipping away at the fresco reveals a silver cross concealed within the plaster. It has, it seems, been unearthed and buried once before. A grey hair is wrapped around the join of the cross – a relic of Saint Afric himself?

Hob’s Well – locals know of the well, and water taken from it is said to have a restorative quality provided that a suitable offering of flowers or food is placed by the well, thanks are given, and implicit permission is sought by a declaration of good intent. Without those measures the water has a bad-eggs aroma and unpleasant warmth, but will do no harm.

The well is unusually tall, more like a chimney or a little tower than a well, with the lip seven feet above the ground. To draw water requires a little agility, or fashioning some kind of perch on which to stand. Looking down the well reveals a crescent moon, reflected from the heavens. What is strange is that the crescent moon is there, day and night, whether the moon in the sky is new or full.

At the bottom of the well is a loose stone, and behind it, a sack with the three ancient treasures in it. The sack, oddly, is undecayed. Anyone brave enough to dive into the water can retrieve the moon too (the permanently shining silver crescent with which Hob lured the three scholars astray) but they may have to reckon with Hob or the local fauna – perhaps a savage pike, or a plague of worms and leeches, or an irate owl, as the referee prefers.

The Wanderers - the three black boulders described in the introduction.

Timeline of events, if the party do not intervene

Grauves and his men have demanded entry to Beeley Manor and been refused by Thunrulf and his steward. Grauves claims that Baron Aldred has appointed him lord of the manor in Thulrulf’s place, and has sworn to return with a Warrant of Possession signed by the baron.

Thunrulf sends his steward to Athgeld’s Inn to discover more. The player-characters could enter the adventure either as Thunrulf’s guests or as travellers at the inn – or both.

At the inn, there is an argument between Grauves and Crespin. Crespin sends Grauves and his men up to the rocks with a promise that they will only get the letter when they’ve done their job. The party may overhear this argument, which takes place is Crespin’s room.

Grauves and his men go up to the rocks. Crespin has equipped them with an iron spearhead of ancient Selentine design, enchanted so that it can prise the silver crosses off the iron bars.

Only five of the men return, and they are in a state of terror, having encountered Shazz Ul Haq. Grauves himself is among them, having got separated from the others in the snow; thus he was spared the harrowing encounter with the ghost.

Anyone going up to the rocks now will find the iron bars have been pulled away from the inside.

Grauves presents the three crosses to Crespin as proof of his deed, claims his forged letter, and ventures out to Beeley Manor to try to claim it from Thunrulf. Other men may go missing every time they venture out in the dark.

On Christmas Eve the three magi, now at large, will close in upon the stable at Athgeld’s Inn, to meet Beatrice and Crespin and the “baby”.

Secrets that the party may discover

The Three Wanderers are ancient sorcerers from a thousand years ago.

They were led astray by Hob o’ the Well, who put a silver moon on a stick and stole their gifts.

The moon and the gifts are concealed at the bottom of Hob’s well. The silver moon might be used to lead the sorcerers away towards the holy land.

Crespin has forged a warrant declaring Grauves de Courtai the rightful lord of Beeley Manor.

Pessimus Broil plans to do away with Martin Marigold and become innkeeper (he fell out with Marigold years ago when he worked at the inn).

There is a sacred relic concealed behind the fresco of Saint Afric’s chapel. It is one way to cow the three sorcerers.

Crespin’s magic is unlikely to fool the three sorcerers, but his enchantment to give the “baby “ a semblance of life may be more potent than he anticipates, given the forces assembling at Christmas Eve.


Sir Thunrulf wants to retain his manor and his dignity, but is also duty-bound to protect travellers through his manor from harm – including the residents of Athgeld’s Inn.

Beatrice has been promised money by Crespin but will not risk her life once danger threatens.

Crespin hopes to fool the wanderers and secure their treasures.

The Wanderers are barely sentient now; they are malevolent after their long imprisonment but may be calmed by Beatrice and the baby.

Grauves is hoping to take possession of the manor; if thwarted he is likely to try to make trouble and resort to ordinary theft and assault.

Hob o’ the Well is bent on devilish mischief (the high flavour of mischief that does not balk at causing death or lasting injury) and highly amused by the Wanderers, although there is a risk he oversteps himself. His is only a little local devil, after all, and they are mythic ghosts.

Pessimus Broil hopes to leave Thunrulf’s service and take over at the Inn, although he has not fully thought through how this will be achieved. Murder of Martin Marigold is not impossible. He might also try to strike a bargain with Grauves.

Katy Catkin likes to gossip, knows a lot, and will easily be persuaded by some coin (or perhaps flattery or even earnest curiosity). She may relate some of the legend of the Three Wanderers. She may also point out that, although abandoned, Afric’s chapel has long seemed inviolate and protected by the Saviour.

There's yet another Yule one-shot scenario over on my Patreon page. Tim's are better, I think; he always manages to weave just the right seasonal magic. Agree? Then you should take a look at his books. Perfect Christmas gifts for the thinking people in your life:

and for kids:

Friday 24 November 2023

A sense of shame

These rules for enhancing Tsolyáni role-playing with rules for loss of face were originally published in The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder issue 4 (spring 1995). The rules can be used with Tirikélu or any other Tékumel roleplaying systems

Tsolyáni culture strongly values honourable behaviour. Ignoring this aspect of the culture in role-playing means that the game becomes little more than D&D with interesting monsters. These new rules help encourage players to act more like real Tsolyáni. Players are given the choice: observe the Tsolyáni code of honour and get to the top of the heap, or disregard it and remain a free agent.

The rules measure any blemish against a character as Discredits. Too many Discredits will hinder promotions, and may even result in the character losing rank and social prestige. A new attribute, Honour, is introduced. Characters with high Honour are often forced to act whenever they acquire Discredit; characters with low Honour have more freedom of choice, but may find themselves passed over for promotions.


A character’s Honour attribute is rolled for on 2D10. (Players can just decide their own Honour score.) Honour indicates the degree to which the character feels obligated to act according to the unwritten code of correct behaviour that pervades Tsolyáni life.

A character with high Honour finds it difficult to compromise their ideals of duty and propriety. They are likely to take offence at any remark that might cause himthem to lose face. A character with low Honour is what 20th Century psychologists call "unscripted": a person motivated by free will rather than by the sense of shame and duty that forces the actions of most Tsolyáni.

Having low Honour does not necessarily mean that the character is a scoundrel. He or she might indeed be a Machiavellian schemer hiding behind a facade of noble action, but they could just as easily be simply amoral. Such a one could be an enlightened Adept of Dra, for example.

Stung into action

An unmodified Honour check is made whenever a character incurs a Discredit. If the 2D10 roll is less than or equal to Honour, the character is obliged to settle the Discredit (for example by duelling one who has insulted him). A roll higher than Honour leaves the character free to accept the Discredit without being forced to take action.

Players are free to settle Discredit burdens voluntarily without making an Honour check. If they do this they have the option to increase or decrease their Honour score by 1. This represents the fact that the Honour check indicates the character’s careful weighing-up of the exact limits of his required behaviour. A person who acts without this careful consideration is demonstrating that he is a free agent whose actions are not necessarily dictated by the need for public respect.

Burden of duty

Any duty carries with it a Discredit, the value of the Discredit indicating the loss of face the character will suffer if he fails in the duty.

Example: Lieutenant Vajra hiMichashin is ordered by her captain to carry a message past enemy lines, but she stumbles into an ambush and loses the message while retreating. Vajra makes an Honour check. Success means she must suffer the full weight of the Discredit burden. A failed check means her lack of honour allows her to ignore the shame. (She may still be punished for her failure, but that is a separate matter. The Honour check merely determines if she personally feels compelled to atone for it.)

Discredit where it’s due

A Discredit is any burden of obligation, and one who allows himself to build up a large debt of Discredit will lose the respect of others. This is no slight matter in a society as status-conscious and bound by tradition as Tsolyánu. A lord who has a large Discredit and does nothing about it will find his retainers drifting away. A merchant will lose his customers. A priest may lose the favour of the gods.

If a character receives a very large Discredit (25 points or more) from a single action and then fails to discharge it, they may feel obliged to "do the decent thing"—either resigning or (in extreme cases) sacrificing themselves to the gods. The character can avoid this by failing an Honour check.

Example: Shazir and Khiro are told by their clan elders to escort a clan-cousin from another city and see that no harm comes to him. Unfortunately, while passing through a forest their group is attacked by Dzor and the man is killed.

Both must make Honour checks. Shazir’s Honour is 12 and, rolling 7 on 2D10, his check is successful. He immediately incurs a Discredit of 25 points value. If he is not excused by his clan elders, Shazir will have to lose his life to atone for the shame of having failed in his duty.

Khiro’s Honour is 4 and he rolls a 6. A narrow scrape, but he manages to find some loophole that lets him squirm out of having to immolate himself. He must still tally the 25 point Discredit on his character sheet. The disgrace is such that he is automatically demoted from 10th to 9th social Circle, as a 10th Circle character must not have an outstanding Discredit of more than 20 points. Still, as he notes the preparations for Shazir’s sacrifice to Vimuhla, Khiro reflects inwardly that life without honour is better than honour without life.

Discredit values

When a character incurs a Discredit, the referee should tell them the value of the Discredit based on the guidelines given in the table. The maximum Discredit a character can safely have at any one time depends on their Circle. If they go above this maximum they will find it difficult to hold their head up among their peers. Their influence will decline and they may even be demoted within their profession. No one in Tsolyánu has respect for a man or woman who does not repay their Discredit.

The following sections provide guidelines for you to determine Discredit penalties. You may also decide to enforce smaller Discredit penalties for minor matters, and these can often act as a spur to move the game-action along when players are being a little sluggish.

When two actions conflict and a character is liable to incur a Discredit either way, the proper course is to undertake the action with the larger potentional Discredit. The other action then incurs no Discredit. This is because the character has behaved correctly, and no-one can think ill of him because he was forced into a dilemma. (If ordered by your fathers to refuse a challenge to duel, for instance, you should obey; there is no Discredit penalty for refusing the challenge in this case.) This only applies if both sides of the dilemma are publicly known, though. Discredit represents public shame, and even a character who behaves correctly must accept a Discredit if the reasons for his action are not clear to others.

For most Tsolyáni the paramount duty is one’s duty to family. Bringing the family into disrepute or causing the death of a relative incurs a Discredit of 25-30 points. Failing to defend the family or avenge a relative’s murder incurs a Discredit of 20-25 points. Taking no action when your family is insulted brings a Discredit of 1-25 points (depending on the source and severity of the insult). Disobeying the heads of family incurs a Discredit of 10-15 points. In all cases the heads of family can grant a dispensation which absolves the character of any Discredit.

Next comes duty to the clan. Discredit values for transgressions against clan-cousins of other lineages are 90% of the values given above for family.

A character who joins a legion or temple is expected to give the same loyalty to his superiors that he or she would give their lineage elders. In practice, however, the moral imperative is not quite so strong. Discredit values for transgressing against one’s superiors in the army, priesthood or bureaucracy are about 75% of those listed above for family. Large undischarged Discredit in these circumstances will result in dismissal from the legion, temple or Palace.

Characters are not very likely to receive a direct command from the Emperor, but it could happen. The Emperor’s command should be treated as carrying a potential Discredit just 1 or 2 points less than the command of one’s clan elders or liege lord. A powerful lord could thus countermand an Imperial order given directly to a vassal, but would be uncomfortable if he received the order himself.


It is tremendously important to Tsolyáni that they avoid losing face in front of others. Any disgrace that falls upon a character’s good name, or the name of his family, must be avenged.

When you insult someone, you place a Discredit on them that can only be removed by a payment of Shamtla or a duel. If you succeed in an Etiquette check (with a modifier of -1 to -5, depending on the insult) then the other person has no redress and cannot demand Shamtla. They can challenge you to a duel, but you are perfectly within your rights to refuse. If you fail the Etiquette check, on the other hand, you cannot legitimately refuse Shamtla or a duel without taking a 10 point Discredit yourself.

Wiping the slate clean

It is possible to reduce your accumulated Discredit by outstanding actions that bring strong public approval. Such actions include great bravery, making a good marriage, lavish spending on a family banquet, etc. The referee will permit such actions to reduce accumulated Discredit by 1 to 5 points.

How soon they forget

A character’s accumulated Discredit is reduced by 1 point in any month in which the character has not gained any further Discredit.

Thursday 16 November 2023

When life gives you limes...

Few people have done more to keep the gamebook flame burning than Stuart Lloyd, whose blog Lloyd of Gamebooks continues to feature top-notch news, ideas and design tips. And once a year the cherry on the cake is the Lindenbaum Prize, a competition that Stuart co-runs with Peter Agapov of Augmented Reality Adventure Games to find the new gamebooks pushing the medium forward into fresh territory.

Everything you need to know about this year's Lindenbaum Prize is right here. Entries open on December 6 and run through to February 20. Better get planning.

Friday 10 November 2023

A chill down the spine, not a slap in the face

How do you create a sense of jeopardy without punishing the players?

They’re approaching the archenemy’s sanctum; the stakes are high. You want them to feel like they’re in genuine danger. Let’s say one of them wields the magic sword Doomstream. Here’s the bad way to handle it: ‘Doomstream explodes into a thousand pieces.’

In theory you’ve increased the danger, but all you’ll have achieved in practice is pissing off the player. A better way: ‘You try to draw Doomstream, but the blade won’t leave the scabbard.’

The PC: ‘Is it some sorcery that pervades this realm? Or is Doomstream frightened to face our foe?’

‘Who can say?’

This kind of jeopardy is good because there’s mystery, it has story repercussions (the PC has a whole range of favourite tactics based on fighting with Doomstream; now they have to rethink everything), and as a bonus it doesn’t leave the player feeling hacked off.

A referee might be tempted to emphasize the danger by whittling away at the player-characters: ‘For every hour you spend in the Petrified Forest you’re losing 100 experience points.’ Or permanent stat loss, or drain of charges in magic items. Those are all just ways of punishing the players, though. The referee can always take away hard-won gains, but good luck if you think the players’ reaction to that will be ‘this is a cruel and dangerous place’ rather than ‘you’re a dick’.

I’ve seen cases where the referee has set up a terrifying end-of-season style showdown, then when they see that all the players survived it they thought they’d better underline how close a shave it was: ‘When you get home you realize you’ve all lost a level.’ Again, that’s just punishing them retrospectively for being lucky or resourceful. It's only jeopardy if the players feel it in the moment.

You definitely want to get your players out of their comfort zone. Have reversals and revelations that upend everything they thought they knew. Perhaps an ally turns out to be a foe. Perhaps what they have been told seems to be a lie. Have they made plans? Have things change so those plans need to be quickly and radically revised -- and the clock's ticking. If they rely on standard tactics and weapons, make sure those can't be used. But use good narrative reasons, not punishments. Losing hit points is mechanically tedious, not dramatic and daunting.

Jeopardy needs to create story consequences. A change of circumstances, like a legendary sword refusing to be drawn, that force them to rethink any plans they’ve made. A loved one in peril, an innocent abducted, a quandary where they must choose between friendship and duty. Those are all narrative threats that increase the tension, and most importantly they are calls to step up and be a hero – or not. The player gets to react to the jeopardy, not simply come away bearing the scars.

And then you have the opportunity for a reversal from the All Is Lost moment – the kidnapped child is rescued, the alienated friends are reconciled, and Doomstream is coaxed from its scabbard just in time to blaze its glory in the face of the Dark Lord. Those are the adventures your players will talk about for years to come.

Friday 3 November 2023

Prophecy or blind fate?

I'm always dubious of prophecies. The way they're used in fantasy, the prophecy is often a lazy narrative device that feels like it's more about telling than showing. It's even more obtrusive, though, when prophecies occur in realistic fiction. Recently I was watching The North Water, based on a novel by Ian McGuire, about characters on an 1850s whaling ship that makes the Pequod look like the Love Boat. One of the characters, Otto, is given to vatic pronouncements and one day tells the other sailors that he's had a dream in which they all die except for Sumner, the ship's surgeon, who will survive after being "swallowed by a bear".

If somebody said that to you in the real world you'd know they were the sort of wearying crank who insists on recounting their dreams, and you could safely disregard any possibility of it coming true. But in a novel or TV drama you know for a fact it will come true because a prophecy is equivalent to the author inserting a plotting note several chapters early.

This could be why I'm unimpressed by many so-called narrative games, if by that they mean they're trying to replicate the way things work in a storytelling universe. I like realistic universes (whether or not they contain magic is not relevant) because the stories that emerge from them are far more unusual. In short, they are better at narrative.

The North Water is a first-rate TV drama (in the first four episodes) especially for showing how compelling characters don't need to be likeable, but inserting that prophetic dream can't help but break the suspension of disbelief, because you know that everything will have to unfold the way Otto foretold, and that's easy for the writer to achieve because it's a cheat. The prophecy is like the author whispering semi-spoilers in your ear -- telling not showing, you see. He or she can't expect a pat on the back for signalling in advance how the plot will turn out and then arranging things so that it does just that. (Especially when you can see two episodes ahead that it's going to be a Luke-in-the-tauntaun moment.)

Incidentally The North Water is also worth watching as a cautionary tale of the over-authored story problems that Sarwat Chadda warned about in a recent post. The first four episodes are very powerful: atmospheric character-driven drama, like The Sea Wolf meets Moby-Dick. The last episode, after the prophecy has been fulfilled, disintegrates into mechanical thriller-style plotting, led astray by the literary conceit of the book ("can a civilized man find his bear spirit and so kill the force-of-nature uncivilized man?"). Stop after episode 4 and watch the end of Blade Runner instead, that's my advice.

Some player groups like their game worlds to be arranged as if guided by a storyteller. Others prefer the sense of a dispassionate universe where Fate doesn't have its finger on the scales. You'll know which kind of roleplayer you are, and if you're finding that you chafe at some campaigns it could be because you're in the wrong kind of universe.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

A very witching time

My first published book was Crypt of the Vampire. That was before the Soviet Union fell. A couple of years ago I reworked it as an Alexa app (Amazon call them skills, but apps is what they are) but it never saw the light of day because the coder lost interest. Eventually -- by which I mean after I've finished Vulcanverse book 5, Jewelspider, Tetsubo, Abraxas and Λ -- I'll release that revised version as a book.

But you don't have to wait that long for some sinister vampiric thrills, because Red Ruin Publishing have unleashed another of their top-notch free Dragon Warriors solo adventures, Lair of the Vampire, set in Hudristania, where:

"...tiny villages squat miserably in the isolated mountain passes, like birds’ nests huddled into a crag for shelter. Frightened peasants quake under the rule of a hundred local despots. Terror soars aloft on membraneous wings by night and sifts the carrion in lonely churchyards—for this is the traditional home of vampires, ghouls and werewolves. Black-clad priests trek from valley to valley, but the peasants are always torn between faith and fear. Spend a few days in any of the mountain villages and you will see a funeral procession wending a path down through the narrow streets—old men whose lined faces show the scars of many losses, grim youths with jaws set in sullen defiance, veiled women sending up a shrieking lament, and wailing children who have yet to learn the injustice into which they have been born. The mourners are led by a priest with a silver crucifix on his breast. Watch and wait. After the procession has gone past, once the wailing and the clanging of the priest's bell have faded into the distance, you may see another figure pass by. He follows the mourners at a respectful distance, his eyes showing only a weary determination. On his back he has a heavy knapsack. After the coffin has been lowered into the ground, the priest will linger to pay this man a few silvers before hurrying back with the other villagers to bolt his door. The stranger opens his knapsack and prepares the items he will need. He is a draktoter, a profession that combines gravedigging with another unpleasant duty. He takes the mallet and stake from his sack and turns towards the open grave. It is his job to see that the ranks of the nosferatu will not be joined by this unfortunate soul."

(Incidentally, have I recommended Marcus Sedgwick's My Swordhand is Singing to you? Terrible title for a really down and dirty old-style vampire story that captures that same grim flavour.)

Over on Patreon today there are three adventure seeds for Halloween, as well as plenty of other material relating to Jewelspider and the lands of Legend generally. Also downloadable free from Red Ruin, and packed with the usual high standard of rules, scenarios, discussion and source material, comes Casket of Fays issue 11. Aunty Crookback alone will give you reason to close the curtains as dusk gathers, and you'll hesitate to answer the door to what sounds like trick-or-treaters...