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Friday, 20 May 2022

Two timing

'Do you remember a guy that's been in such an early song?' asked Bowie. Until reminded by a shout-out from Alexis Kennedy, I'd completely forgotten that in Dragon Warriors book 6 I included some advice on handling passage of time in a roleplaying session:

Very long journeys often mean that a game-time period of many months will be skimmed over in a matter of a few minutes of real-time. However, it is not in the best interests of the game to be too quick about this. A sense of the ludicrous may creep into a game where the GM says something such as, ‘You ride south through Algandy, spend a few days in Ferromaine where you charter a ship, then you sail across the Coradian Sea and down the Gulf of Marazid until you reach the mouth of the Mungoda River after about a month. You find a guide and bearers and make your way inland through thick jungle, finally arriving at the ruined temple Sengool told you about three months after you set out.’

Such an introduction is implausible and does little justice to the adventure that is to follow it. I recommend that you never spend less than half an hour gaming each campaign month. Something of interest must happen in that time. Devise a meeting with officials in Ferromaine – are the player-characters stung for duty tax, or wrongfully arrested by the city guard? Embroil them in a subplot which may take up the whole gaming session (though try not to lose the impetus of the main adventure in doing so). As a last resort, at least throw in a pre-planned but ostensibly random encounter.

One useful trick that allows you to move through game-time at an accelerated rate is by means of a film-like montage. Wait for the players to begin a discussion amongst themselves – a plan of action, an argument over spoils, or whatever – then run them fairly freely through their journey, interjecting briefly sketched events or remarks from NPCs, such as the ship's captain, at intervals to show that time is passing. As in a film, a few minutes’ action can thus be made to seem to cover days or weeks. 

It's that montage technique that Alexis and Lottie were talking about, and it's very generous of them to give me the credit for it. I just swiped it from cinema, after all. But which filmmaker came up with it in the first place? It's almost but not quite what Welles uses in the breakfast montage in Citizen Kane. One flash of light but no smoking pistol -- where did he get it from? And who was the first to use it fully? By which I mean carrying on a continuous dialogue through a succession of scenes in which time is passing.

As with most fictive tricks, we can go right back to Shakespeare. He has two clocks, so to speak, running throughout Othello. (No montage there, obviously.) Montage as a cinematic technique predates dialogue, so at some point while cutting an early talkie it must have occurred to the director and/or editor that it would be neat to hold together the montage sequence with one voiceover or dialogue sequence. It's really just an extension of overtonal montage (a sequence of cuts linked by theme) which was well-established in the silent era. When talkies came along, some bright spark must have made the intuitive leap to using the dialogue as the overtonal glue. But who? Lev Kuleshov? Alfred Hitchcock? Don Siegel? In the absence of any further info, I'm going to have to bashfully submit to Mr Kennedy's attribution and call it the Morris Effect.

If you want to experience it in a game, the obvious pick is The Lady Afterwards, now available on Steam. If the story and game design are as gorgeous as the visuals (and Fallen London suggests they will be) then it's a must-have.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Become a Destiny angel

I'm filled with envy and admiration for what gamebook author Michael J Ward is doing with the crowdfunding campaign for the DestinyQuest world sourcebook. I couldn't produce such a beautiful-looking book and I certainly couldn't whip up that sort of exciting marketing frenzy. 

The book is an illustrated hardback and the campaign goes live on Kickstarter on May 17. It includes:

  • A detailed history of the world, from its creation by the celestial Fates, to the current End Times of crumbling empires and war-weary kingdoms.
  • A comprehensive timeline that charts the key events that have shaped the world of Dormus, right up to the present-day narratives of the gamebook series.
  • An overview of the magic system, detailing the chaotic forces of the Shroud and the effects of its demonic taint, as well as the runic magic of the dwarves and the dangerous arts of elemental sorcery.
  • Character stories and biographies, exploring some of the key characters who have influenced the DestinyQuest world, including the legendary witchfinder, Eldias Falks, and the enigmatic archmage, Avian Dale.
  • Descriptions of the main factions that vie for power and influence within the kingdom of Valeron, from the secretive enclaves of the Arcane Hand to the scheming masters of shadow, the Nevarin.
The blurb promises: "Whether you are a fan of the DestinyQuest gamebooks or a referee looking for a new and immersive setting for your homebrew roleplaying campaign, the World Companion promises a wealth of exciting secrets and discoveries – everything you need for the epic adventures ahead."

This also seems a good opportunity for some of what Sam Harris calls housekeeping. First up, gamebook fans of a certain vintage may have already noticed that booking for Fighting Fantasy Fest 4 is now open. Jamie Thomson and Paul Gresty will both be there, along with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, Martin Noutch of Steam Highwayman fame, Rhianna Pratchett, Jonathan Green, and other FF stalwarts.

Even more exciting (in my book, anyway) is that you can now sign up for the Fabled Lands CRPG beta build. That includes the whole of the northern continent and coastal waters -- with more to come.

Lastly, I was at Surrey University this week and somebody mentioned they'd had complaints about the lack of story nudges in an open-world game they had written. It's not just me, then. In days of yore, adventures began with an old guy running into a tavern to hand you a quest, and some players of Vulcanverse were irked to be just left to explore the world and find their own adventures, others were happy to uncover those stories for themselves. So as to cater for the former players I'm making sure that the fifth Vulcanverse book, Workshop of the Gods, has plenty of those proverbial old guys (or equivalent of other age/gender) to guide you on your way. If you prefer to be assigned quests and given plenty of hints, then, just be sure to start your adventures in VV book 5.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

A kind of tribalism

The way you choose to roleplay is up to you and your gaming group. Of course it is. But if you’re asking me, I don’t see the point of doing anything if you’re not going to commit to it heart and soul. Roleplaying to me means trying to be somebody else, imagining the reality of their life, and acting as they would. It’s fiction in the moment. And fiction is a parallel reality evoked by imagination that, while the spell lasts, should be taken as seriously as the reality we live in the rest of the time.

The road to Damascus ran through Keble College. It was 1980. I was running a Tekumel campaign and Paul Deacon, playing a pe choi called Keq Yossu, balked after hearing the lead-in to the evening’s adventure. ‘I’m not coming along.’

The others were aghast. ‘But… what are you going to do all evening, in that case?’

‘The whole set-up sounds off to me. You do what you like, but count me out.’ Paul dropped out of character a moment: ‘I’ll help Dave roll for the NPCs.’

It was the first time I’d thought of really getting into the head of a character that way. I admired Paul for it, and I admired him even more when he was proved right a few hours later. The whole party got wiped out. Paul imagined Keq Yossu getting the news back in Jakalla: ‘I did warn them…’

Not long after, in my Medra campaign, Mike Polling’s character Dagronel Kabo-Drasden befriended an NPC who was the sworn enemy of several of the other player-characters. When it came to the crunch, Dagronel sided with the NPC. In the game post-mortem, the other players were indignant. ‘You can’t value friendship with a nonplayer character above your comrades,’ they argued.

Mike pointed out that a roleplaying campaign is a fiction populated by characters. Nobody wears a lanyard saying PLAYER; it isn’t a Westworld style theme park with hosts vs guests. To use Professor Barker’s adage, there are no NPCs. Just characters. It’s only in bad fiction that somebody behaves out of character to ensure the plot goes in a pre-planned direction.

Both Paul and Mike are arts graduates, and it was an eye-opener for this scientist to see them insist on roleplaying as an art form. It was about then I started to eschew underworlds and puzzles. I should’ve known from Columbo that the how and the who are never as interesting as the why. Motivation is what matters. Characters who look at their world and say, ‘This is how it affects me and this is what I must do.’

Without that revelation, heaven knows what Dragon Warriors would have been.

I still come across the old-school approach, but these days it baffles me. A few years back I was playing in an SF campaign set in the Mass Effect universe. One character was a law enforcement agent. Some of the other PCs were rebels or pirates or – look, I don’t know anything about Mass Effect; in Firefly terms most were Browncoats and one was an Alliance officer. When it all kicked off, the agent sided with the local planet’s police and tried to arrest the Johnny Rebs.

Afterwards, one of the players in particular seemed to take it very personally – in real life, that is, not as his character. He went away seething. I asked a friend of his what was the matter. ‘He believes strongly in the players sticking together,’ he said. ‘He’s annoyed that player took the side of the police against the rest of us.’

‘But… what did he expect? The guy was playing a federal agent.’

‘He doesn’t think character should trump party loyalty.’

I honestly don’t know why you’d roleplay if you feel that way. Without commitment to character you might as well be paintballing. If you want PCs to stick up for each other, you have to give them a reason beyond the fact that they're all controlled by people sitting around the same table.

On the other hand, I also care that movies, TV drama and novels maintain integrity to the fiction they’ve created, yet a lot of people seem quite happy to excuse out-of-character swerves that are there to keep the plot on the rails the writer planned. To me that’s just not doing the work. It could explain why when I was a little kid and my school took us all to a Christmas panto it was loathing at first sight.

Everyone’s got their own setting on this dial. An it harm none, do as ye will. But what I want is to plunge right in to the imaginary lives we evoke through roleplaying, convinced there’s something amazing to be found there if just for a few hours we can let go of being ourselves.

Asking not telling

Amazon sent me this link to stream The Wheel of Time on Prime Video. I've never even read the books, nor had any inclination to, but maybe that's an unfair prejudice -- although articles like this and moody TV promo shots like the one above only serve to confirm my suspicions. I just always assumed The Wheel of Time was another Tolkien wannabe and that the TV show was a lame attempt to turn a bunch of third-rate fantasy novels into a new Game of Thrones. Any fans of the series want to disabuse me of that notion? I'd settle for anyone who's looked at the books or the show and wants to warn others off.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Set out on a journey of fabulous adventure

The Fabled Lands CRPG has been on early access for a while now, but in just a few weeks you'll be able to buy the full release in all its glory. Initially the game will feature all the content from The War-Torn Kingdom, Cities of Gold & Glory, The Plains of Howling Darkness, and The Court of Hidden Faces. The plan is to add Over the Blood-Dark Sea and Lords of the Rising Sun as DLCs later in the year -- and after that, who knows? Possibly all-new FL adventures if the 23,000 people who have wishlisted the CRPG all buy it. Find it on Steam here.

If paper-&-pencil games are more your thing, this is a good opportunity to mention the Lyonesse RPG based on the fantasy novels by Jack Vance. I contributed to the book but it's the work of divers hands, all of them very talented and with the forceful gust of Vance's imagination to fill their creative sails. Video reviewer Pauli Kidd gives a good idea of what to expect:

Find out more on The Design Mechanism's website.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Jewels from mire and mud

It's odd what can convince you to read a book. I'd listened to Paul Mason explaining why I should try The Wasp Factory, and he'd made a good case, but it was only when he read the blisteringly hostile reviews in the front ("filth", "should be banned", "the literary equivalent of a video nasty") that I realized I had to grab it off him and read it right away.

Paul also introduced me to the work of James Branch Cabell, of one of whose novels (The Silver Stallion) a contemporary reviewer said this:

“The malignity and malevolence of this monstrous literary sacrilege cannot be pardoned. Its banality is no excuse for its brutality. Its stupidity is no extenuation for its blasphemy. The author has in this book committed the unpardonable sin of art,– hooliganism. He may not be capable of understanding the vision of good that raises man above the level of vermin. He may not be able to feel the mystery of faith. He may not possess the power of reverence or the grace of humility. But he ought to love fellow creatures, and to respect their ideals and their dreams. He may find it amusing to hurt and wound the lowly and the simple, but he should not trample on their highest and holiest imaginings, even if he cannot soar out of his literary mire and mud.”
That's got to whet your appetite, surely? Technically I think Cabell is still in copyright for a few more years, but most editions of his works are long out-of-print or else are modern amateur-press copies, so why not try these online works (The Silver Stallion and others on Gutenberg) and then buy the books if you find them to your taste.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Death's twin brother

If you're a Dragon Warriors player you might already be aware of my project to return to Legend with the Jewelspider RPG. I'm running a Patreon page to fund the artwork for that, but there are also scenarios and articles of general gaming interest. The latest, for example, deals with the matter of first and second sleep in medieval life, leading into a dream-magic adventure seed that's reminiscent of a monster from the original DW rulebooks:

"Wild heaths and glades, moonlit meadows and secluded abbeys – these are the places where the demons called Nightmares are imagined to skulk. Malignant and hungry for souls, they wait and watch for wayfarers to stray upon their haunts. When the characters go to sleep for the night, the Nightmare invades their dreams. The Nightmare cannot be detected because it has no physical presence in the real world. An Eye of Foreboding may (60% chance) flicker as it approaches, but by this time the Eye’s wearer will be asleep and unable to heed the warning. If one of the characters has stayed awake on watch, the Nightmare will try to put them to sleep, matching its magical attack of 2d6 +14 against their magical defence. This is because the character could otherwise awaken their sleeping comrades as soon as they saw they were having an abnormally horrific dream. If the Nightmare’s sleep spell fails to work, the character can (if they have any sense) instantly arouse their comrades and thus drive off the demon.

"Having entered the sleeping minds of its victims, the Nightmare takes control of their dreams. It may or may not allow them to know they are dreaming, as it can make its dream-images completely realistic. One way for the referee to handle this is to start a gaming session in the normal way, gradually introducing a succession of increasingly bizarre elements until the players guess that their characters are actually caught in a Nightmare’s dreamworld. Only then do they remember how they happened to be camping out for the night, and the referee narrates in flashback what they did between the end of the previous adventure to the beginning of the dream sequence.

"The Nightmare will toy with its victims, subjecting them to a horde of weird and disturbing experiences. As it reigns supreme in the dreamworld, it may cancel out some of their powers—or alter various abilities so that weaker characters become strong while their former leaders become weak. Beings who appear to be characters in their dream-adventure may be friend or foe, the advice they offer may be for good or ill. Normal perceptions are perverted; an apparent pushover like a goblin may turn out to have the powers of a master sorcerer. The Nightmare always appears in the dream itself, usually as an archetypal figure such as an evil wizard-king in a high fortress, whom the characters must slay to obtain their safety. It may feature in other ways—as a legendary treasure the characters must find, a haunted place, a secret truth they must comprehend. In a spirit of malicious caprice, it may even enter the dream in a relatively weak persona, perhaps as a friend of the characters—if they can guess its real identity, they would easily be able to destroy it and awaken from the dream."