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Friday, 2 June 2023

Verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways

John Whitbourn, like his Binscombe Tales character Mr Disvan, seems somehow to know just about everything that's going on. Out of the blue he sent me a clipping from the 2023 Salute show guide. 

It was gratifying to see a nod to Dragon Warriors from esteemed author Sarwat Chadda, and all the more so because it sounds as if DW helped to teach him the right lesson about both writing novels and running roleplaying campaigns, namely that "character is king" and it's the player-characters and not the plot that should drive the flow of the narrative.

We've talked long and often about the importance of going with the flow, how games best create stories, narrative emergence from character, and embracing chaos as the way to drive the story forward. It's the key to how Stan Lee swept Marvel to success in the 1960s, as Reed Tucker explains in his book Slugfest:

I was always concerned that the scenarios in the original Dragon Warriors books mustn't give first-time GMs the impression that adventures should be planned out like that. To me the prepared adventure is the safety net, the characters are the trapeze artists, and ideally the net doesn't need to be used -- or at most is the MacGuffin that gives the characters an ostensible reason to interact.

That's even more the underlying ethic of Jewelspider, my second look at the lands of Legend through a more folkloric lens. The Jewelspider book is being illustrated by Inigo Hartas (Leo's son) and you can see from his blog that it's in safe hands. The Patreon page pays for the art and maps, and as well as the prototype versions of Jewelspider you get regular articles and adventure seeds, access to various things I've worked on over the years, and rough cuts of upcoming work such as the endlessly-deferred Tetsubo. Tempted to quit the well-travelled path and strike out into faerie woods? Then join us.

Friday, 26 May 2023

He showed us marvels

It’s impossible to imagine the Fabled Lands without the involvement of Russ Nicholson, who died this month. His filler drawings are my favourites, little vignettes necessary for gamebook layout so that options don’t spill over a page, but also perfect for evoking the ambience of each book’s setting. He always put something extra into all the pictures: comic book style inserts, fragments of unknown scripts, characterful onlookers in the background of a scene, a thousand touches that convey personality, colour, humour and reality.

For some reason we had a struggle getting the Pan Macmillan art director to let us use Russ for the world maps. They had a different illustrator lined up but, as you can see by comparing the first four FL books with the last three, Russ’s cartography was streets (and forests, and mountains) ahead. In FL book 3 they printed the two halves of their map the wrong way round, at which point they admitted that maybe we’d been right all along and Russ should handle it.

I put a personal tribute to Russ on my Patreon page (unlocked) and I asked other members of the Fabled Lands team to contribute their memories. Here’s Paul Gresty:

“I first met Russ in 2010, when I was his interpreter at a gaming event in Paris. He’d illustrated many, many books that I owned and loved, and I was incredibly excited to spend a weekend with him. Throughout that event, Russ was interesting, and kind, and humble; whenever a fan of his work asked him to sign a book, Russ also took the time to draw an illustration in there, too.

“At some point that weekend I asked Russ if he’d sign a copy of Citadel of Chaos for me. I was expecting a signature, and perhaps a quick sketch. Instead, Russ took the book back to his hotel room so that he could spend some time on a picture. When he returned the book to me the next day he’d drawn a phenomenal illustration (an axe-wielding warrior and a dragon) right across the book’s copyright and title pages – and he actually apologised that it wasn’t as good as he’d hoped. The paper in the book wasn’t ideal for ink drawing, he explained; the ink had bled on the page a little. I guess that’s an artist term. Bleeding ink or not, I was overjoyed with the illustration.

“I’m happy and grateful that I was able to work with Russ after that, and to meet him in person a few more times. He was a creative powerhouse, and a joy to be around. Incidentally, it was Russ who introduced me to the Fabled Lands books, showing me a book that somebody had brought for him to sign. He (correctly) told me I’d enjoy reading them.”

Jamie Thomson adds:

“A sad loss indeed, both personally and professionally. I remember meeting him in our White Dwarf offices a few times way back when, just a nice guy and so talented. Iconic game book and WD illustrator. I guess the ink blot story is my favourite. He was doing a Fabled Lands map and blotted it by accident. Me and Dave immediately came up with 'The Hole in the World' so it looked like it was deliberate. Well, I think we did, maybe it was Dave or Russ that came up with it, I can't remember. Anyway, there were quite a few things that we added to the stories and the lore that came from Russ; he inspired us too.”

At first I wasn't sure about Jamie’s recollection there because Russ's world map for FL didn't appear in print until books 5 and 6, so how come he drew the Hole in the World before anyone else? It's probable that he drew his own version of the world map right from the outset in order to have a context for the regional maps in each book. It's typical of Russ's boundless enthusiasm for and professional pride in his work that he'd do that even without a commission from the publisher. He improved every idea we gave him. He was our Jack Kirby, our Billy Preston, the Eno to our Roxy Music. As film directors value a great cinematographer, we valued Russ – as a good friend as well as a collaborator. He won’t just be missed, he’s irreplaceable.

He leaves behind his partner Jacqui. His wife, I should say, as they had planned to get married while Russ was in hospital, only he got moved to another ward which couldn’t accommodate a bedside ceremony. Had he come home I’ve no doubt they would have had the wedding then, but sadly he died in hospital. Fans will remember him fondly, friends with love, but the real wrenching loss is Jacqui’s.

However, as long as we have Russ’s art we can still see the expression of his personality. In that sense he’s with us always. Here is a small selection of illustrations by him that you might not have come across before.

This from the summer 1978 issue of Fantasy Tales:

This from A Dying Trade:


A sample page Russ did for The DFC:

Two more sample pages for The DFC, this time for the John Blake strip:


A test page for Mirabilis, because in the early days we thought Leo and Martin would be too busy on the gazetteer book to handle the comic strip chores as well:

Layout page for “Rich and Strange”, one of several Mirabilis standalone stories I wrote to run in The Guardian newspaper:

(Only one story, “A Wrong Turning”, was ever fully illustrated, and that by Martin McKenna whose loss we also mourn.)

Part of the layouts for the Camelot Eclipsed comic book (originally The New Knights of Camelot):

Some concept art for Shadow King:




A rough that Russ prepared for A Town Through Time, a project we pitched without success to publishers in the late ‘90s:


You can see how much on-spec work an artist has to produce in order to nab a few paying gigs. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Here's another -- Russ's drawings for the Conquerors game.

Friday, 19 May 2023

Elves as cosplay

“My name is Eildonas of Hulda Hoo,” I tell him as we walk. 

“I take you to be one of the Grey Elves,” he says with a sidelong glance, provoking in me a short laugh, since such categories have meaning only to mortals.

I recently quoted that (a line from the elf’s story in Heroquest book one, The Fellowship of Four) when somebody was telling me about their game: "The other players assume my character's an imp, which is funny because actually I'm playing a sprite."

It’s the sort of distinction that probably makes sense in a D&D campaign, where the Monster Manual is treated as a diegetic text. (“It’s a ghoul.” “No it’s not; it’s a shade. Ghouls have red fingernails and regenerate.” Something like that, anyway.) It would make no sense in Legend, the setting of the Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider RPGs, where the peasant warning you about that damned thing out on the moors might call it an imp, pixie, sprite, goblin, redcap or elf all in the same breath.

Another gamer I know, after reading the blog post in which I elaborate on that theme, singled out this line:

“The point is: you don’t need player-character elves or dwarves.”

He asked the other players in his campaign:

“What's your take on the tendency to play 'furries'? I include the Dragonborn (half man, half dragon playable creatures in D&D) and the Tieflings (humans tainted by demonic heritage in D&D) in this. I think it's the same impulse. It's a very millennial thing, perhaps? How does everyone feel about playing nonhumans? Does it appeal? What's the appeal? Does it repel? Could there be a race that would be enticing to play? What would that be like?”

By the way, the faerie folk in Legend never say “human” or “nonhuman”. It’s a bit too Desmond Morris, that. They say “mortal”, stressing their own point of superiority but perhaps also betraying their envy of the part they don’t share, the immortal soul.

Naturally, like for anything else in roleplaying, everyone's mileage is different. For me, those elves and dwarves and trolls aren't “races” in the D&D sense. They are the very embodiment of the Other. So it makes no sense in a Legend game to have player-character elves or whatever. Elves don't have souls, nor goals that we could ever relate to. There's nothing about them that's human except in the glamour that clothes them in a form we can perceive.

But lots of people like playing exotic aliens and races, and if that's the style of fantasy they enjoy then why not. I guess it's a kind of role-cosplaying. They do then get tied in terrible knots over issues like “Drow -- oh dear, are they racist?” Well, maybe, if you're interpreting them as another Homo racial line, ie a sort of mutant humankind. But if they are simply manifestations of how we conceive these debased and residual spirits called faerie folk, then no.

One of my gaming friends likened it to picking avatars in computer games. Avatars (and an avatar is clearly not the player; think Gordon Freeman or Geralt) must have influenced players’ choice of character types over the last few decades. I notice that players very often refer to their characters in third person these days, as though they were avatars that the player controlled rather than personas that they put on. Roleplaying has become the middle-aged man's version of playing with dolls. But as for those dolls being nonhuman, there were plenty of halfling thieves scampering about in D&D games back in the ‘70s, so maybe the trend was set by Tolkien rather than by World of Warcraft. 

I also discourage players in my Tekumel games from taking nonhumans, even though those are simply alien species and not mythical beings. The reason for that is they always end up bring played as stereotypes, extreme versions of human types. Then the game almost becomes an allegory with characters standing for Aggressiveness, Greed, Pedantry, etc. Now if a player could portray a truly alien mindset then I'd be intrigued to see them explore that, but it would have to be a lot more out there than the likes of Worf or Spock.

David Kajganikh, creator of The Terror, said he wanted to appeal to the viewers “who would watch the show if it didn’t have monsters”. That’s where my hand goes up. Unfortunately, Mr Kajganikh meant those who would watch whether or not it had monsters. For me, there’s a fascinating story of ambition, egotism, stupidity, bravery and resourcefulness in the Franklin expedition. It’s not only quite unnecessary to tart it up with Eskimo demons, it’s an insult.

Eliot believed that “anything that can be said as well in prose can be said better in prose.” He wasn’t against poetry (obviously), nor am I am against fantasy when I say that whatever can be done as well with human characters is better done using human characters. Legend is a low-fantasy world not because I want to sweep fantasy under the carpet, but because fantasy is a powder worth keeping dry. That way it counts for something when you do use it. High fantasy adventure is a different style, and in a long-running campaign it leads to diminishing returns; eventually even mainlining the pure stuff isn’t going to give you a kick.

But now I’m mixing metaphors, so perhaps it’s time to wrap up and hand over this over for discussion. Let's close with a typically thought-provoking line by Ursula K Le Guin:

“Fantasy is the language of the inner self.”

At its best, fantasy isn't taking us out of ourselves into dressing-up and escapism. It's taking us deep into our dreams where logic cannot go.

Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Fay day

A new issue of Casket of Fays is always cause for great gladness. Issue 9's highlights are too many to list but they include an interview with Lee Barklam of The Cobwebbed Forest. Lee is a man after my own heart, as this comment shows:

"Combat – and magic – is likely the last resort for embattled adventurers, and I place more emphasis on ensuring the lands in which the characters adventure feel genuinely strange, dangerous, and exciting."

That's exactly what I'm trying to do with the Jewelspider RPG, but Lee is way ahead of me with his homebrew rules. He also once played a sorcerer who didn't cast a single spell in the whole adventure, which is exactly as it should be.

The issue also contains new creatures, weapons, rules, a great piece on heraldry, an industrial-scale gibbet, a much-needed system for balanced character generation, and a Q&A with me that I'd entirely forgotten. (Luckily I still agree with myself on most points.)

Did I mention it's free? What are you waiting for?

As well as those in the Casket, there's another Fay celebrating today - the magician Fay Presto, whose birthday it is. I've only met her a couple of times; each time she was mingling with the guests at publishing parties and performing magic literally under our noses. Close-up magic like that I find much more impressive than the million-dollar illusions like making the Eiffel Tower disappear. (I even managed to make Salisbury Cathedral vanish myself once; big deal.) Her tricks are real wizardry and she's one of Britain's best-loved conjurers. So happy birthday, Fay.

Friday, 12 May 2023

GM in your pocket

When Jamie and I were trying to convince the Eidos execs to fund development of the Fabled Lands MMO way back in the late '90s, one of the features we talked up was a storytelling AI:

"The GamesMaster AI will have a library of partially scripted adventures and story elements that it can bring in to liven things up whenever your character is having too easy a ride. These adventures are templates with slots to accommodate friends and enemies you've picked up in the course of your travels.

"For example: you take a bounty hunter's job and go hunting bandits. You round up most of the horde but the leader, Black Nat Varley, escapes. Later, while implementing a random attempt on your life, the AI fills in the assassin's identity as being Black Nat. If Nat survives your second encounter, he'll eventually show up in another encounter and so on. (Maybe NPC adversaries who survive more than three encounters are classed as "dear foes" and have their own level increases tied to yours so as to always give you a good battle.) 

"And the GamesMaster AI will also take account of your character class, deity, etc, when introducing new missions and encounters. It can also randomly generate adventure locations as needed, spicing things up by adding special elements so that they never seem just random. This means that every campaign will be unique."

We looked at Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale for patterns the GamesMaster AI could draw on. The idea was that it would throw in plot twists and tropes, applying them with common sense. So having a storm at sea might be an interesting random event when you were setting out on a quest, but if you'd completed an adventure and were sailing home to deliver the princess back to her father (or vice versa) then it would realize that a potential shipwreck would just be an irritating distraction.

Fast-forward 25 years and the AI is nearly there. Game developer Hidden Door is working on a platform that effectively creates gamebook-style text adventures on the fly. So when I was talking a little while back about AI-generated covers for Fabled Lands books, I might have been a little too unimaginative. Pretty soon you could have endless open-world adventures whenever you want them, right there on your phone. Not just text, either. This is the current state of play with text-to-video: 

By the end of the year, who knows where we'll have got to. Nick Henfrey and I are using AI artwork for our boardgame A Thunder of Dragons (details on the Flat Earths gaming blog) and maybe by the time we've finished that it'll be time to think about a videogame.

Friday, 5 May 2023

Coronation time

After the death of a Tsolyani Kolumel (= Emperor), all his or her heirs who have not "renounced the Gold" are summoned to the city of Bey SĂĽ to take place in a ceremony called the kolumejalim, subjecting them to "a roster of tests which cover every facet of character thought by the Tsolyani to be needful for a ruler: bravery, endurance, cunning, physical prowess, judgement, knowledge of history and the arts, and a dozen other fields."

Candidates can name champions to stand in for them in three of the trials, but must compete personally in the others. We are told that each event is carefully judged, and the strongest contenders are taken into the temple of Hnalla where the adepts of all the gods and the High Princeps of the Omnipotent Azure Legion make the final selection "according to ancient and secret ritual methods". The winner is taken to the palace at Avanthar and enters seclusion as the new Emperor. All the others are sacrificed at the temple of Karakan.

That bit about "ancient and secret" methods has the whiff of how the House Cup gets awarded at Hogwarts, where you might earn the top score throughout the year only to have the headmaster arbitrarily award enough points to make his favourite the winner. And I've never seen the kolumejalim handled well in any Tekumel game, including the ones I've run. It should be a secret ritual, impenetrable and inscrutable, not a big, brash, crowd-pleasing, last-man-standing arena fight like you'd get in a Netflix or Amazon TV show*.

Supporters of the losing princes have to accept the outcome, not least because their candidate will have been sent to the gods by the time they get to hear about it. That's how it should work in modern elections, mind you, (minus the human sacrifice at the end) but not everybody has it in them to be a good loser.

In one of my Tekumel campaigns I staged a kolumejalim and allowed a few rumours about how it went to reach the ears of the player-characters. The candidates were Prince Eselne, Princess Ma'in (pictured), Prince Mirusiya, Prince Rereshqala, and Prince Taksuru. 

In the test of bravery, they were given a shield and had to touch an archer who was shooting at them from ten metres away. Eselne walked straight up to the archer, fending off arrows as he went. Ma'in was hit in the leg and faltered. Mirusiya threw his shield, hitting the archer. Rereshqala ran forwards, took an injury to his arm, but still touched the archer. Taksuru closed in by walking rapidly around the archer in a spiral so that he couldn't get a shot off.

Ma'in lost that one, but it's not obvious who came out best. Eselne and Rereshqala showed the most obvious kind of bravery, but the other two were cleverer. It wasn't supposed to be a test of cunning, but the watching dignitaries want a smart Emperor, not a dummy, so that might sway them.

The test of endurance involved picking up a red-hot metal bar and plunging it into a tub of water ten metres away. Eselne showed some cunning this time; he threw the bar into the tub. Ma'in and Mirusiya both managed to carry it to the tub, showing their endurance for sure. Rereshqala appointed a champion for this contest, and the champion failed. Taksuru dragged the tub over to the bar, and only then picked it up and dropped it in.

I don't recall who won the kolumejalim in that campaign. In another campaign, Eselne won but Mirusiya escaped and began a civil war that split the player-characters and the empire. The argument about whether he was behaving honorably in doing so was a complex and interesting one, and took place in a spectacularly dramatic location. But I'll tell that story another time, hopefully before the next coronation in our world.

*Unfortunately in Professor Barker's ur-campaign the kolumejalim played out exactly like a crap TV show. Read about it here if you really must, but don't say I didn't warn you. Though we may never know Barker's true political opinions, there is absolutely no doubt that his instinct for storytelling was banal and pulpish. Better to imagine the Tekumel he described in his source materials rather than in his dreadful novels.

Friday, 28 April 2023

How to make things stranger

This article originally appeared on my Patreon page for 5 January 2022 -- there with a little extra content -- and I'm reprising it here in hopes of enticing a few more of you to come and back me. 

“The chimera was beginning to bore people. Rather than imagining it they turned it into something else. As a beast it was too incoherent; the lion, the goat and the snake do not readily make up a single animal.”

Borges there, writing in The Book of Imaginary Beings, and he’s dead right. I never quite embraced the Greek myths as a kid because of all those monsters with the forelimbs of animal X and the hindquarters of animal Y. Even as a kid I thought they should have tried harder. The Norse myths came steeped in really dark and dreamlike elements, which I loved and that’s probably why Legend turned out the way it did.

This came up in a recent episode of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, my second favourite fantasy gaming podcast. The chaps were talking about Robert E Howard’s short story “The Tower of the Elephant”, and I got to thinking about how almost every illustration of Yag-Kosha just plonks an elephant’s head onto a man’s body. You can almost hear the scratch of the pen as the artist carefully copied a picture from a zoology book.

But here’s how Yag-Kosha is described in the story:

“Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. [...] This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer.”

Yag-Kosha is an extraterrestrial. While REH was no doubt inspired by the mythology of Ganesha, I think he had something stranger and more original in mind. A body with two arms and two legs, and head that has protuberant teeth or horns and a long, prehensile snout – of course to Conan it looks like an elephant-headed man, but that’s no excuse for artists to be so literal.

One of the worst offenders is the illustration by J M Wilcox from the March 1933 edition of Weird Tales:

No better is Ernie Chan’s depiction from The Savage Sword of Conan. Somewhere there’s a photo of an elephant’s head that looks exactly like this:

Cary Nord put some thought into his version (the header for this post). And here’s a properly alien one I found online (artist unknown):

The takeaway is that we all find our inspiration in the familiar, but when transmuting that lead into fantasy gold it pays off to hide your sources. And, along with that, always to look for a new angle on familiar material. For instance, vampires that seem to have been whisked off the set of a Hammer horror movie will probably not give your players a genuine shudder, but investing a little work in dirtying them up, or adding an outré spin on the concept, can yield a very memorable encounter.

Incidentally Scott is right on the money about both Conan’s physique and the need for realism to ground fantasy fiction -- but those are subjects for another post.