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Friday, 9 November 2018

Summoned back from oblivion

A little while back I mentioned the Citadel Miniatures box of demonic critters based on the "Dealing With Demons" articles I wrote for White Dwarf, and the tactical battle game I wrote to go in that box. (Purely as a charitable gesture to help out Citadel's struggling finances, you understand; I certainly never saw anything as exotic as a royalty statement.) I assumed that scenario was lost in the mists of time.

But nothing's forgotten, as any Robin of Sherwood fan knows, and so I shouldn't have been surprised when Lee Barklam got in touch to tell me he'd found "The Best Laid Plans" scenario out there on the internet. Steve Casey, the author of the blog where it was posted, described it as "well-written, gripping, and smattered with dark humour." Which seems a far kinder comment that it deserved in my memory, but then I hadn't seen it in thirty years.

Lee has converted the scenario to Dragon Warriors rules (thanks, Lee!) and you can find it among other Legend scenarios on the Cobwebbed Forest site here, or follow the direct download link to get the PDF here.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Fright Tonight

Fright Tonight is an interactive audio drama that I've written for Amazon Echo. It's pretty ground-breaking, too, even if I have to say it myself. I needed a model of interactivity that would allow the listener to influence the characters in the story while still being surprised by what happens. So the way I've done that is --

No, I can't just tell you. You have to play it for yourself. Trust me when I say that Fright Tonight is much more than a game. It's a compelling and completely innovative form of audio entertainment which is destined to be as talked-about as Orson Welles's 1938 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds, only this time without the traffic jams and the shot-up water towers.
Experience an interactive ghost story set in Heskill Hall, England's most haunted stately home, where a great tragedy took place decades ago. Now the cynical radio host of the niche horror show “Fright Tonight” might just get the show of his life, as the crew gets ready to record their live Halloween special at nightfall in the deserted manor house...
Oh, and it's free too. Just dim the lights (easy if you have your Echo hooked up) and say, "Alexa, start Fright Tonight."

There are already some fun adventure games for Alexa -- such as The Magic Door, which is effectively an audio walking sim -- but Fright Tonight is nothing like that.. The style of interaction doesn’t require the listener to be a “game player” as such, meaning that they can be gripped by the narrative. I admire The Magic Door, but it’s the equivalent of a ghost train ride at a funfair, whereas Fright Tonight is genuine interactive drama. The developers are Mythmaker Media. Remember the name, as I'm hoping to do a whole lot more projects with them.

Who is the target audience? An interesting question, that, whenever you attempt something new. The appeal of something like Fright Tonight is certainly not limited to readers of Choose Your Own Adventure or to people who’d play a traditional adventure or CRPG videogame. While I’m sure I’ll pick up lots of listeners/players who would play, say, Layers of Fear or >observer_ , I'm aiming to appeal to lean-back audiences who just like a good scary story. So I see the typical audience being the entire family, from kids up to grandparents, and including lots of people who would never normally play a game.

Who knows, this could be the big comeback for audio drama. I hope so. As my dad always used to say, the great thing about radio is the pictures are better.

Friday, 19 October 2018

By the light of the night it'll all seem all right

A few weeks ago I got a call from Amazon to talk about the Halloween releases for Alexa. They’d seen my Frankenstein app and wondered if it could be turned into an interactive audio story.

I’d already talked to a few audiobook companies about that. Frankenstein is tailor-made for audio. It’s narrated by Victor Frankenstein, whose confidant and advisor you are, and written “to the moment” (ie in the present continuous tense). And I’ve been banging on about audio adventure games since I worked at Eidos in the mid-90s. So Amazon’s suggestion was perfect, except…

It’s over 150,000 words. That’s about twenty hours of audio. I’d have to edit all the text, it would need to be cast, recorded, have sound effects added, coded – and all that within five weeks, assuming one month was enough for testing.

So naturally I said I’d do it. Not only that, I’d recently talked to a company called Mythmaker Media about working on an interactive audio project, so how about hooking them in?

“We already have a developer in mind for Frankenstein,” the Amazon guy said, “but why don’t I talk to Mythmaker anyway? Maybe there’s another project you can do with them.”

A few days later, that one got the green light too. Now, as well as editing Frankenstein, I had to write an interactive audio drama from scratch. Only seven thousand words, but it had to be scary (Halloween, remember) and it had be a completely innovative model of interactive storytelling. (Otherwise why do it?)

Skype chirruped again. “What about your gamebook Crypt of the Vampire? That could be an Alexa app, couldn’t it? Can you get that ready for Halloween?”

I said yes on the basis that you can’t have too many irons in the fire; something always goes wrong. And a few days later the Frankenstein developer, having run the numbers for actors’ fees and studio time, asked if it would work with synthesized speech.

“Not really. Victor has to come across as impassioned, driven, stressed, increasingly desperate… But look, the story is in six parts. The second part is different from the others. It’s the monster’s story told in second person, so you are the monster. That might just work with synthesized speech. And it’s just thirty thousand words, so I’d have time to edit it and add markup. Pauses, interjections, that kind of thing.”

They lost interest. Not to worry, as I still had the drama with Mythmaker Media (that’s called “Fright Tonight”) and the gamebook, by now retitled “The Vampire’s Lair” because it’s snappier. Or bitier.

For The Vampire’s Lair I’ve teamed up with a programmer called Kevin Glick. We decided to strip out all the game-heavy mechanics: hit points, skill rolls, things like that. It’s audio, after all, though in fact there’s a Fire Tablet option with some toothsome graphics by Leo Hartas. The way it works now, you play until you die, and you can then either buy another life and keep going, or you can restart from the beginning. (And, yes, of course it’s possible to play right through to the end without having to buy a single life.)

So I hauled out a copy of Crypt of the Vampire, my first ever gamebook from way back in 1984, and embarked on what I thought would be a simple editing job. But no plan survives contact with the enemy, as they say, the enemy in this case being reality. Too much of Crypt was a dungeon bash when what Kevin and I needed was a haunted house adventure. Too many encounters depended on dice rolls. All of that needed to be rewritten. Also, it needed to be scary. Fun-scary, you understand, like pumpkin lanterns and spray-can cobwebs. The orcs had to go.

Luckily I wrote “Fright Tonight” first, because plunging into the flowchart for Crypt and completely rewriting about half of the book would have burned out my creative psyche for weeks. But I got it done, and the result should be soon available on Amazon as an Alexa Skill. (Yeah, don’t blame me; that’s what they call them.) Just say, “Alexa, enter The Vampire’s Lair,” and get ready for some agreeable chills.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Jackanory for gamers

It's strange to find yourself a fan of something that's based on your own work, but I'm completely addicted to Guy Sclanders' gripping weekly playthroughs of Fabled Lands.

It's not just self-indulgence; the bits I enjoy most are Guy's unexpected characterizations (Sean Connery as Estragon the wizard, for instance) and his hilarious asides. Every show has several laugh-out-loud moments, which is more than you can say for a lot of TV comedy these days.

If you haven't yet had the pleasure, start from the beginning and be prepared to lose a few evenings to unbridled fun. Some of the episodes can be hard to find on YouTube, so here are the links:
And these bonus episodes, which were originally run live with the audience making the decisions (and, not always so successfully, rolling the dice...)

And how about that interactive adventure sheet by Michiel Helvensteijn, incorporating Anton Natarov's nifty online dice-rolling app?

Friday, 5 October 2018

“The Climate of a Foreign Logic” (scenario)

If you tried out last year's Victorian roleplaying scenario “Murder Your Darlings” then you might like to give this much simpler and more traditional adventure a go. It’s also set  in Oxford but a few years earlier, in 1884. Incidentally, in our campaign there is no magic as such, as it’s a science-fictional universe which has room for Cthulhu, time travel and even Victor Frankenstein, but not sorcery. All the same, psionic abilities are real (if rare) and are usually accepted as magic by those who possess them.

Teddy Trittfield has recently gone up to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read Literae Humaniores. Teddy has always been a dutiful child and a hard worker, but in his first term he has not been in touch with his parents and reports suggest that his studies are slipping. His mother (who could be one of the player-characters) is worried that Teddy is neglecting his studies, running up some whopping debts, and falling under the spell of some pretty unsavoury types.

On investigation, it soon turns out Teddy has fallen in with a group of friends who have a dining club called the Procrusteans. They are:
  • James Orpington-Soames (Christ Church, English)
  • The Hon Reginald Wincanton (Christ Church, History)
  • Count Konradin (“Konnie”) von Hegel und Vasserkind (Magdalen, postgrad Music)
  • Basil Hinge (Keble, Chemistry)
The Procrusteans at Christ Church are in the circle of the senior History tutor, Sir Nicholas Tollens, who is said to be a member of a club called the Five-Sided Table (motto: Tuta petant alii – “let others seek security”) itself a remnant of the once-notorious Hell Fire Club.

Sir Nicholas has a fellow Five-Sider staying with him, the Spanish spiritualist Jose Lunares.

Sir Nicholas’s coachman is Jollyback and his valet is Chifton. They have some handy skills and can find a half dozen ruffians if needed.
If the player-characters visit Telbeck & Sons in the High Street, who supply hunting equipment to Sir Nicholas, then a bribe of a few pounds will reveal that Sir Nicholas has his bullets engraved with a special symbol. An Occultism roll identifies this as a Satanic rune.

They might also want to buy some firearms of their own:

If the characters search Teddy’s room they will find a burnt scrap of paper in the hearth with part of the Lord’s Prayer written backwards.

Other notable NPCs
The President of Magdalen is Dr Frederick Bulley (73 years old, distinguished, tall, white-haired; quite infirm now).
Teddy’s tutor at Magdalen is Dr William Cove.
The Senior Dean of Arts is Dr Waverly Bamfield.
The Dean of Divinity is the Rev Dr John Joyce.
The Head Porter is Dannock.
The SCR Butler is Carndyce.

What’s going on
Lt-General Augustus Pitt Rivers is relocating his famous collection of obscure ethnographic artefacts to the University Museum. The majority of the collection will not be moved until an new annexe is built to the Musuem in two years’ time, but a few items are already on display. Sir Nicholas and Jose Lunares have a plan to break in, get the mask of Saaga the Devil Doctor, and perform a ritual that will make them both immortal.

To complete the ritual, they intend to sacrifice Teddy, whom the Procrusteans have had doing a bunch of initiation tasks that are actually components of an old spell. So far he's completed the first two of these. The recital of the Lord's Prayer will take place on the final day of Michaelmas term:
  • Taking the sacrament while wearing an inverted crucifix
  • Climbing the Martyrs’ Memorial to put kindling around their feet
  • Reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards on Advent Sunday
Teddy is important to the ritual because he has some Haida blood – his great-great-grandfather had a child by a native woman in British Columbia in the 1770s. The ritual is actually irrelevant, as is Teddy’s ancestry, but Lunares and the others believe these to be important components of a spell. The truth (at least in our campaign) is that it is all a psionic effect and the mask and Satanic elements are just window-dressing.

“Spells” (psionic effects) to which Lunares has access:

  • To enrage dogs and turn them upon their masters.
  • To call a fog: 10 yards visibility in which Lunares has a lantern that shines clearly (a mental effect, but one that covers a very wide area).
  • To cause people to become drowsy (WL roll) or, if asleep, to remain so.
  • To incite paranoia (EQ or argue with friends, to the death if EQ failed again).
  • To foresee elements of the future by means of automatic writing.

What the players might do to stymie the ritual:

  • Prevent Teddy being abducted. The Five-Siders will use Basil Hinge instead. The ritual can still go ahead but less successfully.
  • Prevent Teddy doing the third task. The ritual can still go ahead but less successfully.
  • Save Teddy before the sacrifice. The ritual will feed off Lunares’s own essence.

Fully successful ritual:
Both Sir Nicholas and Jose Lunares become immortals. Saaga’s spirit (actually an aspect of Lunares’s own personality) “awakens” in the mask which will float in the air.

Less successful ritual:
Saaga’s spirit (see above) will be available for the Five-Siders to consult and get a “spell” from once each new moon.

Using Lunares’s own essence:
Lunares dies horribly and Sir Nicholas, driven quite mad, insists that he is the reincarnated Saaga.

Background: the year is 1884
The British prime minister is William Gladstone
The American president is Chester A Arthur
The Poet Laureate is Lord Tennyson (until this year just plain Alfred Tennyson)

What you might be talking about:

The electric street lighting starting to appear in London
The first automobiles (early models reaching 10 mph)
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show now touring the USA
The eruption of Krakatoa last year (still said to be affecting the weather)
The ongoing siege of Khartoum by the Mad Mahdi
The invention of the machine gun (not yet in production)
The opening of the first Underground stations (parts of the Metropolitan & District lines)
The first commercially available fountain pens (1884’s iPod?)
Scotland Yard’s dismissal of the concept of fingerprinting identification
The patenting of linotype earlier this year
Construction of the Cresta Run
Laying of the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty
The architecture of Gaudi
The banking crisis that is threatening an economic depression
The terrorist attack by the Irish Republican Brigade on Scotland Yard

What you might be reading:

Stevenson (Treasure Island)
Twain (Huckleberry Finn)
Edwin Abbott Abbott (Flatland)
Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilyich)
Das Kapital volume two in early pre-publication pamphlet form
Works by Wilkie Collins, Ambrose Bierce, Jules Verne, Mrs Oliphant, Henry James

Where you might be seen of an evening:

Plays by Oscar Wilde (just starting his career) and Ibsen
Operas by Gilbert & Sullivan (at the height of their success) or Puccini
Concert works by Bruckner and Wolf

What you might be whistling:

“Oh my darling Clementine”

Who you might know:

George Bernard Shaw, 28 years old, unsuccessful novelist (a Fabian)
Oscar Wilde, 30 years old
Richard Burton, explorer, 63 years old but mysteriously left London 12 years ago for Trieste
Lewis Carroll, 52 years old, still resident at Christ Church but no longer teaching
Richard D’Oyly Carte, impresario, 40 years old
Henry Irving, actor, 46 years old.
Sir William Kelvin, scientist, 60 years old
Rudyard Kipling, journalist, 19 years old
Arthur Machen, editor and private tutor, 21 years old
Robert Louis Stevenson, author, 34 years old
Bram Stoker, literary critic, 39 years old
Ellen Terry, actress, 37 years old
Beatrice Potter, sociologist and Fabian, 26 years old
Charles Booth, sociologist, 44 years old, currently compiling London Labour & the London Poor
Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, ethnologist and collector, 57 years old
Thomas Neumark-Jones, occultist, 43 years old

Naturally these or other prominent figures would need to be paid for as Contacts.


Average                      -10 points
You have a job and are dependent on it for living expenses. Income £100 a year.

Comfortable               no points
You have lodgings in a respectable part of town (if that’s where you want to be) and income of £200 a year.

Wealthy                      10 points
You have a townhouse or pleasant home out-of-town and the use of your club. Income £400 a year.

Very Wealthy             20 points
You have a country estate and a townhouse, each with its own staff, plus a coachman and valet who travel with you. Income £1000 a year.

You can live quite well on £400 a year (roughly £60,000 in today’s terms). 

Adventure seed 

The following incident has nothing to do with this scenario, but is a real newspaper report from 1884 that might provide the seed for a follow-up adventure:


Lastly a few notes about how it panned out in our game. Lord Eidolon (Tim Savin) opened the luggage of one of the other characters, Teddy's father, and was affected by a paranoia rune left there by Lunares. This was a powerful hypnotic influence that caused him to distrust the others, which of course soon led to nobody trusting anybody very much. Sensing trouble, Henry Morton Stanley (Paul Gilham) moved from the Randolph Hotel to the Eastgate. That saved him when Eidolon burst into the Randolph lounge and opened fire with a shotgun, crippling a couple of characters before leaping through the window and disappearing into the fog. A city-wide manhunt ensued. The others learned that Eidolon could be cured by burning the rune and giving him the ashes to drink mixed in wine, but that if he failed to do so by midnight the paranoia would be permanent. (Merely a matter of belief, of course, not real magic, but it was the only way to break the hypnotic suggestion.) There seemed little hope of catching him before midnight, or of convincing the police to let them in with a goblet of wine if he was apprehended. As for the fate of Eidolon himself, my write-up of the session ends with this note of finality: "Even his dog now fears him."

Friday, 21 September 2018

I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous

I knew if I waited long enough Brexit would give me something to laugh about, and this video is worth the price of -- admission isn't the right word, I guess. The opposite.

If you've been curious about my and Jamie's new gamebook Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain? now is your chance to try it out as a free online PDF. (Oh, and incidentally if you need to backtrack you can use Alt + left arrow in a PDF just like the Back button in a browser. That's for PCs. There are options for other devices but you don't need me to tell you about those; you've got the internet after all.)

Share the PDF if you like. This book took us a year to write and, although I'm aware most gamebook readers would rather we'd done something with goblins, I think it's kind of important. Possibly the most worthwhile book we've written, in fact. With just six months to go before the UK and the EU part company, we now just want as many people as possible to get the chance to play it. And don't be put off by the sheer mind-crushing horror of Britain's current political fubar. Can You Brexit? may not be quite as laugh-out-loud as the Titanic video, but we've done our best to inject it with plenty of humour along with all the informative stuff.

And the print book is still on sale for another six months if digital gaming just doesn't do it for you:

And finally, as the newscasters used to say, there's this too. Oh, I can see Brexit is going to usher in a whole new era of deliciously bitter satire:

Friday, 7 September 2018

Critical IF cover design

Following on from the previous post, here are the cover briefs I sent to Jon Hodgson when Fabled Lands LLP decided to republish the Virtual Reality books overselves rather than partnering with Osprey to do them.

*  *  *

These are my initial ideas. I’m open to any suggestions or changes, as the briefs were originally prepared on the assumption I’d have to hand them off through a chain of editors and art directors at Osprey and would get no direct communication with the artist. Hence I’ve probably over-managed the details... however, here’s the cover Osprey intended for Down Among the Dead Men so you can see why I’m getting a tad control-freaky.

The top third of each cover will need to be for the author and title, and the logo extends about 2.5cm from the bottom. Maybe we should have the background and main foreground elements on separate layers, so that a hydra’s head or a sword could partially overlap the title lettering if necessary.

Ideally each book should each have a unique palette with one predominant colour to help it stand out.

Necklace of Skulls

I based the new design on the original Virtual Reality cover with these changes:
  • Removed the second (kneeling) figure. Now it's just the warrior.
  • The warrior is holding a flaming torch and a sword.
  • The view is straight-on from directly behind the warrior to make the threat of the hydra more dramatic.
  • I've put the warrior on a raised ledge of rock a few feet above the desert floor. This allows the hydra to be nearer to him and to appear to be rearing up out of a chasm.
But... it would be better not to be looking at the back of the hero’s neck. If (unlike in my sketch) one of the hydra heads were further forward, the hero could be partly turning to keep an eye on it, giving us the opportunity for a partial or full profile – just to create more engagement with him as a character:
Background and palette - as we’re looking up past the hero with a slightly low-angle shot, I think the background should be a midnight blue night sky dotted with stars. It reinforces the desert setting and astronomy is part of the mythological context of the adventure. The hydra dark-scaled. The torchlight picks out the blaze of colour (feathered head-dress, etc) in the warrior’s garb and his glistening skin, the yellow light picked up in the sand and rocks where he’s standing.

The Maya sword is made of hardwood with sharpened spikes of knapped flint or sharpened volcanic glass fixed along the edges. Just the thing for killing a hydra.

Down Among the Dead Men
A pirate fantasy adventure, a little bit earlier in history than Pirates of the Caribbean – think Elizabethan/Jacobean period. It’s pretty obvious how I’ve changed this one from the old Virtual Reality version:
  • The zombie pirate is looking straight at us.
  • He’s closer, more threatening.
  • He’s already climbed halfway over the rail.
  • The rail tilts up left to right rather than down as on the VR cover - more dramatic that way.
Put a few wisps of mist in the foreground, picking up the fog in the background. Also the original colour scheme is a bit of a dog’s dinner. We need a more limited palette to give the image more impact.

Once Upon a Time in Arabia

The classic Thief of Baghdad type adventure. It’s not even worth looking at the original cover – I never liked it. So, on to new ideas...

This drawing is a bit sketchy, so I’d better explain what’s going on. It’s a aerial shot above an Arabian Nights city looking steeply down at the towers and domes below.

Our hero is flying on a magic carpet, the wind whipping at his clothes. In one hand he has a sword. From a ring on the other hand he has called forth a genie - the swirl of smoke curls out of the ring and under the carpet, solidifying into a giant demonic figure who is ready to assist the hero.

I don’t think the hero should have a full beard (though the genie can). He should either be clean shaven or have a little hipster goatee. Or it could be a heroine (no goatee in that case). The traditional Douglas Fairbanks Arabian look, ie flowing white like the Prince of Persia used to wear before he went all moody black leather.

I envisage the genie as taking shape out of smoke that looks like a storm-cloud – dark violet/black shot through with inner flashes of lightning suggesting violence and magical power.

Overall colour palette: how about that haze of golden yellows and ochres that you get in hot, dusty climates as the sun is close to setting? If that suffuses the background, we can then pick out some bright colours (the carpet, jewels on the hero/heroine) and contrast that with the white flowing clothes of the hero/heroine and the black, billowing smoke of the genie.

Heart of Ice

The idea here is we’ve got a guy slogging through a blizzard out on the Saharan Ice Wastes towards a city in the distance. Deep snow. He’s dressed in arctic weather clothing: parka, fur-lined hood, snow goggles, etc.
He’s heard something and he’s turning back to face us to shine a flashlight at whoever or whatever is coming. (So he’s twisting at the waist, insofar as his bulky clothing will permit.) In his other hand (held out to the side so we can see it) is a barysal gun - the raygun of the 23rd century.

In the background is the place he was heading for – the city of Du-En, abandoned and empty for a hundred years. A bit Gormenghast, a bit Mountains of Madness. Massive walls, so hazed by distance and snow that the architecture (half sci-fi, half ‘30s futurist fascist) seems to render our human endeavours and dramas insignificant. We can’t see the city walls and towers that clearly because of the snow-haze.

This is a variant cover I did. Disregard the image/concept here, but I do like the colour scheme of the background. I’m thinking that this one can be the most monochrome of the series - all icy blues, whites, greys. Even the figure shouldn’t be too colourful, and possibly the only variation might be a bit of backlight from the flashlight reflected in his tinted goggles or something.

By the way, that figure - he could be the hero, he could just as easily be one of the adversaries. This is quite a morally ambiguous book and the anonymity of the figure reflects that.

*  *  *

The brief isn't the end of the story. Just like with game design, where you come up with an initial plan but then have to work out during development how to implement that and which parts work and which need changing, the cover concepts go back and forth before you arrive at something that everybody's happy with.

Take Once Upon A Time In Arabia. Jon's first sketch featured a female protagonist in historically credible but determinedly unsexy garb. Well, fair enough; we're not in the 1980s now. As Jon said:
"I went for a female character on Once Upon a Time in Arabia, which I'm kinda regretting - maybe a male would have more appeal to the readership, and I'm not keen on making a 'sexy' female character."
I agreed that a young male hero might be better, not least because I thought Jon might be more comfortable making him attractive and athletic. I went on to say:

"His clothing probably needs to be as much like the Fairbanks-style stereotypical 'Arabian adventurer' costume as you can bear to go. I know it's not historically accurate, but I'm minded of what Jonathan Miller said when staging Anthony and Cleopatra: 'I'd like to dress her in Greek-style clothing, but audiences think it's wrong if she's not in Hollywood's idea of Ptolemaic fashion.' Also, the image is going to work better if the flying carpet is moving left to right. And can we add the jinni's taloned hands for extra impact?"

Of the first Heart of Ice sketch I said:
"I like the icy colours in the cover, but would like to get a real raging blizzard. It makes the situation more life-or-death -- will this lone figure even survive to reach that city..? -- and injects some doomy apocalyptic feeling into the scene."
I'm very pleased with the end result, but you can judge for yourself whether our cover creation process was a success - Jon's final book covers are here.