Thursday, 30 September 2010
Appearance: Niamh is blessed with the body of a goddess. Her golden hair spills down to her waist, and is bound by garlands of flowers. She wears diaphanous robes that shimmer with the colours of mother-of-pearl. Her ears are delicately pointed, and she has oily butterfly wings that are veined like those of a fly. She carries a delicate flute carved from bone.
History: In ages past, when the power of the Shadar pantheon was waning, the androgynous trickster God Sig transformed itself into a songbird and tricked its way into the house of the Three Fortunes for the purposes of ravishment. The offspring was Niamh of the Whispers, a faery princess who was cursed to always fall in love with wicked men.
Blessed with immortal beauty beyond reckoning, Niamh wandered the earth for hundreds of years, her life an endless cycle of heartbreak and woe. Her stories became her songs, and were capable of bringing even the sternest warrior to tears. Famously, Niamh was once persuaded by one of her treacherous lovers to “sing down the walls of Jerubar”: a Shadar Capital in the great steppes that is now known as the City of Ruins. Her voice drifted across the city and broke the hearts of the Shadar army, most of whom fell upon their blades.
Niamh’s curse was lifted when she scaled the Peaks at the End of the World and sang her most heartbreaking song to Sig. As the god blubbered in sorrow, Niamh tore out Sig’s thighbone and used it to beat the god until it agreed to lift the curse on her. She carved Sig’s thighbone into a flute, and wandered the Fabled Lands for many years, singing for a husband. Alas, she outlived all her mortal lovers, and with her own heart broken, she threw herself from Sky Mountain.
Character: Niamh is surprised to be back, and now that she is dead, somewhat embarrassed that she killed herself. She is kind, loving and possesses a pleasant humour. Of all the party, she is the most fearful of the threat to the Fabled Lands.
Wednesday, 29 September 2010
...and really bad eggs
THE ROGUE: RUSTY JACK, KING OF THE REAVERS
Appearance: Jack wears the faded red jacket of a Sokaran Admiral. A rusty duelling pistol is tucked into one of his many belts, and he carries a rusty cutlass. His hands are adorned with rusty rings and rusted finger gauntlets, and his wild eyes carry a look of insane amusement. A rusty clockwork parrot sits on one shoulder.
History: Rusty Jack was a pickpocket from the town of Smogmaw who rose to become leader of a mighty pirate empire. As a child Jack had stolen from a temple of Sig, and had been cursed so that everything he touched turned to rusty iron. He soon turned this curse to his advantage, first by turning the Stitcher-King of Smogmaw into a statue and taking his place as the king of cutpurses, then by founding a spectacularly successful scrap metal business.
Funded by Rusty Jack’s benevolence, Smogmaw became a haven for thieves and pirates, all working under the umbrella of his scrap metal business. In time the traders of the Violet Ocean could stand it no longer. Goaded by the jealous industrialists of Copper Island, the Sokaran Empire dispatched an armada to destroy Smogmaw and bring back the head of Rusty Jack. The city was reduced to rubble, but Jack escaped into the jungles.
He returned a decade later at the helm of the Thunderbound, a flying Arkship stolen from the gold-skinned people of the Desert of Bones. After famously sacking the sky-city of Dangor, Rusty Jack wrecked havoc for decades across the shipping lanes of the Violet Ocean, ultimately founding a vast pirate empire in the Unnumbered Isles under the banner of the Red Reavers, and establishing himself as the first Reaver King.
Finally his crimes against Sig caught up with him. Unpopular for refusing to pay his tithes to the god, Rusty Jack was sold out by his own first mate, who arranged for Sig’s assassins to be allowed onboard as belly dancers. Jack took his attackers with him to the grave by cutting the power to the Arkship’s selenium engines. The wreck of the Thunderbound, and its fabled treasury, has never been found.
Character: Jack is the joker of the party. He has a soft spot for Tam, and enjoys poking fun at the other heroes.
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
THE PRIESTESS: KERROL, THE WOAD WITCH
Appearance: Kerrol wears a shift made from moss and cobwebs and a necklace of bones and twigs. She carries a gnarled wooden spear adorned with shrunken skulls. Her green-skinned body is painted with stripes of blue woad, and her hair is a mass of dreadlocked vegetation. Her eyes glow bright green.
History: Many ages ago the God Tambu challenged the Goddess Lacuna to a race across the Spine of Harkuna. Tambu tricked Lacuna by spiking her water gourd with wine, and Lacuna tripped drunkenly upon Sky Mountain and lost the race. Her falling body formed a great rift between the mountains: the Pass of Eagles. So angered was Lacuna that she made Kerrol, a human priestess born of wolves, whom she charged with the total destruction of Tambu’s followers.
Wild and fearsome, Kerrol waged a decades-long war against the priesthood of Tambu. Her battle cries echoed across the steppes as thunder, and her spear was dressed with the shrunken skulls of Tambu’s priests. So untamed was Kerrol that she fought on even after Tambu had bartered a truce with Lacuna, which angered the Goddess. Lacuna summoned Kerrol to her court, where she was bound as a pet for many centuries.
In time Kerrol was tamed, and sent back to Harkuna to spread the faith of Lacuna. She became something of a saint to wayfarers across the Fabled Lands, and after her death shrines were built to honour her alongside those of Lacuna. Kerrol met her end at the spears of the Uttakin, fighting to stem the ceaseless march of their diabolic, polluting technologies. It is said that every wolf across the Fabled Lands howled as one at the moment of her passing.
Character: Kerrol is short-tempered and has little time for fools. Her manner is brusque and humourless, and she is prone to rage. She simply wishes to get the job done.
Monday, 27 September 2010
The red archer
THE WAYFARER: ROKU, THE RED ARCHER
Appearance: Roku is an athletic oriental clothed in a scarlet kimono. He holds a large bone bow engraved with lightning flashes and thunderclouds, and carries a quiver slung over one shoulder. His features are handsome yet haunted.
History: Roku was the greatest archer in Akatsurai, perhaps even the whole world. Many of the deeds attributed to him are pure fancy. He is said to have fired an arrow across the Unbounded Ocean to kill the traitorous Daimyo of Yarimura, and on the order of the Shogun he even shot down one of the stars.
In truth Roku was indeed divine. He was sent to earth by Nai, God of Earthquakes, and his bow was an earthly replica of Nai’s own bow: the Shatterer of Worlds. As the ground would never tremble beneath his feet, Roku passed from village to village, providing safety to the poor people of Akatsurai whenever the God of Earthquakes was angry.
Roku was once asked by some villagers to slay a terrible dragon that had been eating their livestock. Venturing to the cave of the dragon he discovered that she had been badly injured in a recent battle with a samurai, and took pity on her. He nursed her back to health, and in time, fell in love with her.
For many months Roku and his dragon wandered the land, until at last they met the brother of the samurai who had injured her when they first met. The man announced that he had sworn to slay the dragon and reclaim his family’s honour. In killing him Roku angered the Nine Lakes Clan, and they sent their ninja to assassinate him. They caught up with him in the depths of the Kwaidan forest, where Roku had finally mustered the courage to ask the dragon for a kiss. As their lips met the dragon turned into a beautiful maiden princess. “My lips have been sealed for an age,” she breathed, “but now you have freed them and they are yours.” At that moment the poisoned arrows of the ninja peppered their bodies, and they were sealed in their embrace forever.
Character: Roku is quiet and dignified. He is always alert, and is generally the first to warn Tam of danger.
Sunday, 26 September 2010
A blue preacher
THE ADVENTURER: TAM, THE BOY HERO
Appearance: Tam is clothed in the garb of a Sokaran peasant. He wears a brown cloth tunic, patchy green tights and a green cloth hood. A tousled red fringe spills from the hood, partially hiding his young and freckled features. Tam is weighed down by a magnificent golden broadsword, which he struggles to hold onto as he moves. The fabled Eye of Heroes is set into the pommel of this sword.
History: Tam is the son of a Sokaran farmer, and has very little history to speak of. To date his life has consisted of nothing more than feeding chickens, ploughing the cornfields with his father, or taking the pigs to market. Tam’s life takes a dramatic turn when the local bully tries to drown him as a witch in the village millpond, and he finds a glittering broadsword submerged in the murk.
Guided by the Eye of Heroes, Tam sets out on a quest from the Gods to capture the souls of six dead champions, and save the Fabled Lands from destruction.
THE WARRIOR: AMMUNAS, THE SWORD DANCER
Appearance: Ammunas is a blue-skinned nobleman with grave and dignified features. He is swathed in white desert robes embroidered with golden decorations. Despite his age, his physique is daunting. He wears an ornate Persian helmet and wields a silver scimitar in each hand.
History: Ammunas the Baptister was the fanatical first King of the Uttakin; famous for uniting the nomads of the Blue Plains under the banner of the God Ebron, and leading them to war against their age-old enemies, the gold-skinned nomads of the Desert of Bones.
Despite many great victories, Ammunas’s army was finally defeated by the legendary Arkships of their enemy, and the Uttakin were driven across the Violet Ocean to Harkuna, where they established a mighty kingdom. Ammunas did not join them. Shamed beyond measure, the blue-skinned dervish turned his back on his people and remained in the Feathered Lands. In time he earned the name “Sword Dancer”: a near-mythical figure who would appear from nowhere to serve the enemies of the gold-skinned nomads. Every sky charioteer who fell to his whirling blades earned him some small measure of redemption; but never enough.
It is said that toward the twilight of his life, Ebron set Ammunas a task to redeem himself in the god’s eyes, and earn his rightful place in paradise. Cruelly, the quest proved impossible, even for one such as Ammunas. Tasked to pluck out the eye of the war-god Tyrnai, Ammunas was finally struck down by the faithful of Tyrnai and cast into Nerech, where the ravenous Manbeasts devoured him.
Character: Ammunas is a natural leader for the party. Military minded, no-nonsense, and sharp-witted. His only downfall is his arrogance: like most Uttakin, he sets himself above others.
Thursday, 23 September 2010
Eye of Heroes
Fabled Lands: Eye of Heroes
“Fabled Lands: Eye of Heroes” was planned as a turn-based strategy PC game steeped in the mythology of the Fabled Lands game books. Eye of Heroes tells the story of a young Sokaran farmhand who travels the Fabled Lands in search of the souls of six long-dead heroes.
Each of the game’s levels would be played out across a colourful isometric battle map. Each unit in the party has a reserve of action points (AP) that are expended to move, attack, deploy special powers or interact with the environment. You and the computer player take turns to move your units, with each side moving any or all of their units in a single turn. AP can even be saved as “Opportunity” to interrupt your opponent’s turn with your own actions.
Eye of Heroes gameplay also includes “Distraction” - all units rotate automatically to face what they perceive as their greatest threat, even during their opponent’s turn. Combat rewards attacking to the flank or to the rear, so players must carefully coordinate their party’s attacks to counter and exploit the enemy’s ever-changing facing.
THE EYE OF HEROES
Each soul you rescue is stored within the Eye of Heroes: a magical jewel set into the pommel of your adventurer’s ancestral sword. You can call upon the Eye to summon the ghosts of six heroes to your side, but only for a short time. Each ghost needs Soulfire to take material form, and the Eye only holds so much. In order to boost your reservoirs of Soulfire you must drive your ancestral blade into the corpses of the evil dead.
Each hero conforms to one of the game book professions: Warrior, Mage, Wayfarer, Priest, Rogue and Troubadour, and each has their own unique powers. Players must spend their Soulfire wisely in order to triumph over the traps, monsters and puzzles resident on each level.
Between levels you’ll have the opportunity to mould your adventurer into a real hero.
The heroes of the Eye represent the pinnacle of each class, whereas your adventurer is something of a Jack-of-all-Trades. Although weak in comparison to his allies, you can draw upon the wisdom of the Eye to learn new powers. Concentrate on one class and your hero will ultimately match the abilities of one of his party members. Spread his Heroism between all six classes to develop a varied arsenal of powers that combine close and ranged combat, healing, magic, and trickery.
LOCATIONS AND ENEMIES
Each of the locations in Eye of Heroes draws inspiration from one of the game-books. As the series ran short after six books, fans will finally get to see something of the realms that were still to come: the steaming jungles of Ankon-Konu, the Desert of Bones, mythical Chrysoprais, ancient Atticala, the metropolis of Dangor and the Underworld itself.
Each battle map depicts a single adventure location, depicted in scale to your units. The first six locations detail the final resting places of the six heroes: the objective here is to find their bones and acquire their souls. Each enemy type conforms to one of the six classes: for example, the Manbeasts of Nerech use Warrior powers, whereas the snivelling Ratmen exploit the powers of the Wayfarer. The bones of each hero are watched over by monsters that conform to their class - before you can take advantage of the class for yourself you must witness its powers in combat.
Sunday, 19 September 2010
The shape inside the bone
That was how we began one of our best games. In a few hours we had somehow dredged up, inferred and/or mutually created the background of Oliver's character, Jasper Faze, and how he came to be orbiting Tekumel even though there are no other inhabited worlds in its universe.
At one point Jasper beamed down to the city. When an ionic storm prevented his swift return, we began to suspect his ship's computer was not wholly reliable. Accidentally offending against the Jakallan code of etiquette, Jasper became embroiled in a struggle. A crowd gathered. "I use my anti-gravity belt to rise above them,” Oliver said.
We hadn’t discussed equipment at all, but obviously he had to have an anti¬gravity belt or he couldn't have mentioned it. “You rise above the crowd and drift over their heads in a sweeping arc. The breeze is carrying you towards the seafront.”
"I'll engage the thrusters to correct my course.”
"No effect. Worse, as you pass over the quayside you realize you're losing height.”
Jasper complained to the ship's computer, only to find that it was unable to broadcast power to his personal equipment because of the necessity of sustaining the ship's shields during the ion storm. The prime directive to protect the ship was one Jasper had issued himself. Naturally, he could not now change it because the computer could not verify his identity until he was back on board. He went down in the sea, was picked up by a prison patrol boat—and so on from frying pan to fire, and worse, throughout a very enjoyable afternoon's session.
We had learned a lot about improvisation just by doing it. For one thing, we discovered that the important rules aren't the ones written in the book (which we didn't have to hand, nor any dice) but the rules that derive from the nature of group storytelling. Like the thing with the anti-grav belt. We saw straight away the fun of trying to thwart each other's intentions without actually blocking—or, alternatively, to take an idea in an unexpected direction. To stymie without refusing and to outdo without competing.
I came across Keith Johnstone's book Impro a few years later. Johnstone describes improvisation techniques that he uses in theatre to free up people's creativity, both as actors and as writers. I liked especially this quotation from the Tao Te Ching which also sums up how I believe narrative should emerge from a role-playing session:
The sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words. When his task is accomplished, the people all say, "It happened to us naturally." I take no action and people are transformed of themselves.
Carl Weber, writing about Brecht, says: "...the actors would suggest a way of doing something, and if they started to explain, Brecht would say he wanted no discussion in rehearsal—it would have to be tried "
That's what goes wrong so often with character generation. As soon as players start to think about what's needed, they start to get authorial. Then they think, “I mustn't come up with anything boring.” So you get players saying, “We're ever so creative in our games. Like, I play a mutant sponge with an IQ of 197 who is strapped to the head of a crocodile from the New York sewers. Bill is a Babylonian priest who was kidnapped by Venusians but who led a slave revolt that caused Venus to become a molten wasteland, but he escaped in a time machine to an alternate 1960s where he became a superhero. And...”
Tedious. My heart sinks at the thought of refereeing such a game. It's just an explosion in an ideas factory. Imagine a novel written that way. Those people should try actually playing—they'd see that the real possibilities come when your character fits within a context. Drama, in fact, is not about character description (ie, what is so-&-so like), it is about character interaction (how does so-&-so relate to other characters).
Anyway, I reckon Keith Johnstone and I agree that theory is over-rated. We're impatient to do the deed, to get in there and make it happen. That's why this book isn't a lot of high-faluting dramatic theory — it's all practical advice, with plenty of examples.
We were talking about character interaction. Johnstone gets right to the heart of it with a long chapter on 'Status'.
"Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner's," I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal... Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance.
One status relationship that gives immense pleasure to audiences is the master-servant scene. A dramatist who adapts a story for the stage will often add a servant...
I have played servants, but I think the only way for this to be personally rewarding (I mean, to the extent that you can inhabit the character rather than just playing them) is where the power relationship between the characters is not as clear-cut as it seems. An obvious example is a bound demon, genie or sandestin. On one level it's the inferior partner, the servant that must do as it's told. On another it's a powerful, cunning and malicious entity that the master knows he must command with care.
More subtly, a servant character could have advantages denied the master. (These should arise because of his servant status or they're not interesting. A servant who just happens to be a brilliant assassin is a yawn; one who is streetwise and wily where his pampered master is naive—now, there you have something to work with.)
When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone had only one shape inside it, the artist didn't have to 'think up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there—and this is crucial. When he'd finished carving, his friends couldn't say, "I'm a bit worried about that Nanook in the third igloo,” but only, "He made a mess getting that out!" or "There are some very odd bits of bone about these days."
Anyone can run an avant-garde theatre group; you just get the actors to lie naked in heaps, or outstare the audience, or move in extreme slow motion, or whatever the fashion is. But the real avant-garde aren't imitating what other people are doing... they're solving the problems that need solving, like how to get a popular theatre with some worthwhile content, and they may not look avant-garde at all.
Dice are not the problem. Why? Because the system itself should be almost irrelevant. It's just a last court of appeal for players or referee to appeal to when inspiration or credibility fail. So, I use dice in my games but I prefer the sessions where dice are not needed. Nonethless, I see no stigma in saying to a player, “I wonder what the innkeeper thinks of what you've just said?” and then rolling dice to decide. When I'm refereeing, I like to be surprised too—and I like the players to know that this isn't just a story I'm telling them.
Would I use tarot cards, or the I Ching, or suggestions drawn from a hat? Not if it was obtrusive. But you can use anything, can't you? The music that's playing on the hi-fi (especially effective if the players don't notice the connection), the book titles on the shelves, the opposite idea to the one you first thought of. There are some odd bits of bone about, and that's no bad thing.
Many teachers get improvisers to work in conflict because conflict is interesting, but we don't actually need to teach competitive behaviour; the students will already be expert at it, and it's important that we don't exploit the actors' conflicts. Even in what seems to be a tremendous argument, the actors should still be co-operating and coolly developing the action.
Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story... the reincorporation does give them pleasure. They admire the improviser's grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.
I have to digress for a moment because, of course, you can break any rule once you have learned properly how to use it. So, when I said the referee should not block that player-character, there are ways to do so and still make it work. I could say (in character as a clan elder who happens to have overheard): “You only pretended to stammer to get out of lessons, you wretched boy. And you didn't fall off the temple roof at all, you pushed your cousin. He broke his wrist!” It isn't blocking because the player has the opportunity to take it either as what really happened or as an unfair and inaccurate view that others have of him. But this does remind me of a golden rule I would never break, which is that the player has complete authority for what his own character is like. It would be bad faith for me, as referee, to say, “You could have saved your cousin but you deliberately decided not to.” That’s the player’s decision alone.
I hate it when the referee makes value judgements about my characters, too. Who is he? He's not a player character, he's just the bloody referee. For all the power he has over the narrative from above, he has no right at all to intrude himself into it like the omnipotent narrator in an early Victorian novel. That's why I don't like the term 'game-master'. Master? Master of what? Bollocks. He's not a master of anything, he's a referee.
Sorry, Keith, I got a bit carried away. What do you reckon?
If I say, "Make up a story," then most people are paralysed. If I say, "Describe a routine and then interrupt it," people see no problem.
You have to trick students into believing that content isn't important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere.
At three in the morning the players finally go home. Why didn't they have that adventure hours earlier, during the 'session'? Because they thought they had to create the content. But it was waiting inside the bone all along.
I wrote the article above, which was inspired by Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, for Paul Mason’s classic RPG fanzine Imazine. You can get Impro here, and back issues of Imazine are available here. The reference to diceless RPGs dates the article, which appeared in 1999. At the time, dice-free gaming was the latest fad of the "too cool for rules" set. (Actually, for all I know it may still be.)
Thursday, 16 September 2010
Marvels yet to come
On top of that, and now that we're all clear that this is gossip over the washing line, I'm hearing rumours that a new publisher may be about to approach Fabled Lands LLP with a proposal to take over the Dragon Warriors license after Magnum Opus Press bows out early next year. The good news for DW players is that this would ensure a smooth handover, hence an uninterrupted flow of new titles. So cross a finger or two, Legend fans. It ain't over till you see the white of Balor's eye.
Anyway, leaving aside all the scuttlebutt and promises, you might like to hear about a cast iron take-it-to-the bank certainty, which is that my current project Mirabilis (co-produced with Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and Nikos Koutsis) will be out in the form of two splendid full-color graphic novels in plenty of time for Christmas. Mirabilis is a whole other blend of whimsical fantasy from the swords-n-spells of Legend, Orb and FL. Find out if it's your cup of tea right here.
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Return to the Fabled Lands
To support the core RPG there'll be a series of sourcebooks for each nation, so you'll be be able to get a bunch of friends together for adventures in Golnir, Sokara, and so on, and then on to Ankon-Konu and beyond. The guys at Greywood are still trying out a few layouts, so no final decision has been taken on cover design (the picture above is just a mock-up) but we do know they will feature some sumptuous and scintillant digital artwork from the forthcoming Fabled Lands apps by Megara Entertainment, made available courtesy of Megara's heroic and gentlemanly patron, Mikael Louys.
But that's not all; we're also going to be reissuing the FL gamebooks. These will be standard paperback format, which ought to make them more accessible to readers of conventional-sized gamebooks, and they'll be on sale on Amazon from early December priced around $7.99 each. The covers will feature the original paintings by Kevin Jenkins, who's taking a quick time out from his packed movie schedule to give them a retouch that'll make them more eye-poppingly stunning than ever; and the interior illustrations will of course be by the da Vinci of Fabled Lands, Russ Nicholson. Yep, the gang's all here.
Wait, there's more. If those first six books sell well enough, the management of Fabled Lands LLP are talking about giving Jamie and me the green light to complete the series with books 7 to 12. So it could be quite an eventful year ahead for Fabled Lands fans. For further info, keep an eye on the Fabled Lands Facebook page and the Fabled Lands website (soon to have a major overhaul).
Sunday, 12 September 2010
People don’t want to role-play anymore…
Great atmosphere! Inigo and his friends ate it up, and quite right too. Fantasy is at its best when it shades over into fabulist areas like that. Michel Tournier or Mervyn Peake rather than screeds of yawnsome sociology about orc tribes. Fantasy needs to have a dash of the dreamlike and the strange about it. Like life, in fact.
What about the rules? No rules, Leo told me. Or only a very rudimentary and largely improvised system. Roll a dice and see what it suggests. Carried along by the story, his players didn't want to break the spell by having to do lots of number-crunching and book-keeping.
I know that role-playing isn’t commercial these days. Sales are maybe 5% of what they used to be in the early ‘80s. People would rather log in to World of Warcraft. It’s easier.
Except… Inigo and his mates play WoW, but they were still up for the face-to-face experience and real immersion in the story that an RPG can give you. So I think that part of the reason that role-playing games and gamebooks have faded away is that they’re just too bloody complicated. “Roll two dice, add your stamina score and compare with the opponent’s modified defence factor.” Blah blah blah. It’s an extension of homework.
And why? What’s the point of such convoluted rules if the aim is to have a shared experience of improvised story-creation? You want some kind of rules. Enough to ensure a grandstanding player doesn’t hog all the fun. But those rules don’t need to look like an end-of-term maths test.
Role-playing got stuck in the same sucky whirlpool that comic books did. As sales started to tail off, publishers tried to pump more money out of the remaining customers by narrowcasting – making the experience more and more focussed on a tight hardcore group. But in catering to that group (who probably did prefer a combat system based with modifiers for every different weapon type) they made role-playing far less attractive to the casual crowd. And thereby accelerated its demise.
Arguably this problem is what the whole retro-clone movement set out to solve. But as to that I would say: to become simpler and regain the freedom of inspiration: move forward, don't look back. I was there for Dungeons & Dragons the first time round, and slogging around a dungeon with a half-elf in saggy tights was always pretty lame. Really, one dungeon expedition is quite enough, then you need to move on. What was exhilarating in the early days was the spirit of improvising adventures, of having fun as a group unfettered by stacks of rules. That comes from the players and the setting, not the mechanics - though the wrong mechanics can sure get in the way.
In The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn and Hal Iggulden wrote of role-playing:
“There are few inventions of the twentieth century that can combine entertainment with imagination so well. In a very real sense, it is a training ground for the imagination and, in particular, a school for plot and character.”I would love to see the Iggulden brothers create a simple, cheap, accessible role-playing game that (like Dragon Warriors back in the mid-1980s) would be sold in bookshops and that would attract a whole new generation of players. A game that wouldn’t be all about arithmetic and dice-rolling but that would put the focus on imagination, acting and a shared narrative. And hopefully nary a mention of orcish tribal customs.
Friday, 10 September 2010
Dear Psyche sweet entranced
Mike originally ran the campaign up at Oxford in the spring of 1980. The players included Oliver Johnson, Mark "Min" Smith, creator of Orb, and Robert Dale, sometime contributor to DW and the creator of Brymstone. Mike had intended us to use Dungeons & Dragons rules, but I had recently been commissioned by Games Workshop to design a roleplaying game called Adventure (based on Steve Foster's Mortal Combat rules) and I begged, pleaded, cajoled and arm-twisted until Mike agreed to give that a playtest.
Not only was the Tirandor campaign a big influence on Legend, it was the major inspiration for the second Blood Sword book, The Kingdom of Wyrd, with its story of a king who - but no, that would be too much of a spoiler. It also achieved Mike's goal of measuring up against great literature, in that playing it changed our lives a little. And why not? A role-playing game, after all, has as much right and potential to explore crucial themes and emotions as a novel or a play. You may or may not get the same effect from the written version because, like all great roleplaying referees, Mike let us run his scenario right off the rails. In the end it all hinged on a poem and the redemption of a character who didn't even know he'd gone bad. Near perfection!
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
The baby and the bathwater
If I can try the patience of Fabled Lands fans with just one more bit of Dragon Warriors business, here's news of a rules vs setting discussion that has been started by Cameron Smith, one of the guys behind Ordo Draconis, over on the DW Wiki. The debate is about whether to decouple Legend from the rules system, and if so by how much. Cameron has made a very thorough and interesting start on this, and it looks like being a proper structured discussion aimed at reaching some solid conclusions.
One possibility is to describe Legend in terms of a vanilla set of rules-like parameters that allow players to understand how tough an NPC or threat is supposed to be so that they can adapt it to their own preferred rules. I'm going to throw out some ideas here, with the caveat that these are right off the top of my head and not official Legend/DW. I'd like the DW creative team to debate these, grab or modify anything that's useful, and freely jettison anything that isn't. Okay, guys?
Average 10, with a low of 3 and an upper limit around 20 for humans. Attributes are:
Cleverness (practical intelligence)
Reasoning (academic intelligence)
Psyche (innate affinity for and sensitivity to magic)
Size (good for hit points, bad for stealth)
Average 10 for a normal human male. Ranges from around 4 to 25. Admittedly not all systems use hit points but this gives a sense of how physically robust vs damage a character is.
Range from 0 to a hard upper limit of 20:
0: no ability
10-12: craftsman (1st Dan black belt, PhD, etc)
13-15: master craftsman
16-18: senior master
19-20: grand master
Some skills come with a few levels pre-loaded, others need to be learned from scratch. Most people start with 0 levels of Magic, for example, but if forced to fight will find they instinctively have at least a few levels of Melee.
Skill categories (core)
Survival (includes perception)
Craft (armoury, carpentry, etc)
Sorcery here is the practical skill-set: ie, can you cast a spell. There would logically be subsets of Academic that included Magical Lore (knowing it takes stakes to kill vampires, ways to deal with faeries, etc). I envisage that more people would be smart in the ways of Magical Lore than would actually have levels of Sorcery. How often do you see Gandalf actually use Sorcery? He is just as effective using his Magical Lore cleverly.
The number of subskills need not be defined. We might describe a character as having Sorcery 7 (necromancy +5) without listing two dozen other subskills of sorcery that the character is less adept in.
I do however envisage that a few subskills will be very important. Perception, for instance. Magical Lore is another obvious one. Any adventurer ought to aim to pick up a few levels of that, or have a comrade who has, because it’s probably the only line of defence against magical attacks apart from your innate Psyche.
To get rules-y for a moment: if a character can use his Magical Lore score as a defence against magic, he can also give some of that defence to his comrades too. This would be because of charms he’d advised them to carry (wild garlic flowers, clover, whatever) and precautions you can take when attacked (cross yourself, etc). Say if I have Magical Lore X, I can give comrades I’m with (and who can hear me) X/2 in defence, and when they’re not with me they’ll have X/4 in defence for the next few days – until those herbs wither and they don’t know how to replace them. (Not that I want this to get all rules crunchy, you understand, but the way magic works is part of the world definition.)
Just to maintain consistency with systems like GURPS and RuneQuest, armour values range from 1 (padded leather) to 8 (plate). That applies whether you’re using armour bypass rolls as per DW, or the more usual armour absorption rules.
Anyone interested in this topic might also want to take a look at Tim Harford's notes on our discussions of DW2. Though that's really a whole other layer than the task of creating a system-agnostic language for describing Legend adventures.
Picture above by Jon Hodgson, as if you couldn't tell; even the man's sketches are works of art. In fact, I realize that I often prefer drawings at this stage to the finished article, and that's something I've been discussing this week on the Mirabilis blog. As for fully finished paintings, if you want to feast your eyes on some of the most beautiful fantasy artwork of this century - and maybe the last century too - don't miss this gallery of Edwardian magic by the incomparable Martin McKenna.
All right, that's the Dragon Warriors stuff almost over for now. We've got big Fabled Lands news coming up very soon, then a solid run of about three weeks of all-new FL stuff. Don't miss.
Monday, 6 September 2010
Back to the cold
Reviving the game was always a longshot, considering that it came out in the mid-'80s and was heavily rooted in a gritty, low-magic world that owed a lot to miners' strikes, the Falklands War, poll tax riots and Thatcher's Britain. US gamers didn't take to it for some reason - perhaps because of the out-of-date rules rather than the low fantasy setting. Whatever the reason, Dragon Warriors has now, alas, sunk back onto its deathbed - at least as a commercially viable enterprise - and this time it looks like there'll be no miraculous resurrection.
I say all this with great sadness. It may say Fabled Lands at the top there, but you all know that DW is my and Oliver's baby and even after 25 years we're still more attached to the world of Legend than anything else we wrote back in them days. Magnum Opus's 2nd edition DW was a true and glorious rebirth for the game. The scenarios and rules material by Ian Sturrock, Jon Reed, Kieran Turley, Damian May, Shaun Hately, Robin Low, Frazer Payne, Ben Monroe... and others. Guys, I can't list you all but you were the greatest team. Jon Hodgson's covers were the most gorgeous pieces of artwork I've had on any of my books - hell, they're the best any roleplaying game could boast - and for me his style defines Legend now. (That's no hyperbole btw. Look at the Bestiary cover below. This is a man who has seen right to the heart of Legend.)
And of course, none of this would have come about with the amazing efforts of James Wallis, owner of Magnum Opus Press, who championed the game, managed the project, ran the business, directed the team and personally edited and laid it all out. In the DW renaissance, James was the renaissance man. Oliver and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for giving DW its Indian summer.
For those of you who've thought about trying the game, there's still time to do so (and to ensure something goes back in royalties to that stellar creative team into the bargain) before the books go out of print. Mongoose have the entire DW series on sale here. I'd recommend starting with the core DW rulebook and the Sleeping Gods scenario book. (It's an investment. Trust me, in another two or three decades those 2nd edition books will be gold dust.) And the excellent Ordo Draconis will continue to keep the torch burning, we hope. There is even talk of the long-planned DW Players' Book appearing as an Ordo Draconis special in time for Christmas. James has pledged his full support to the old MOP team and will be continuing to give them the benefit of his experience and commercial acumen, which is certainly unsurpassed in the UK role-playing industry, so maybe it's too soon to be playing "Paint it Black" at full volume.
Looking to the future, the rights to Dragon Warriors are controlled by Fabled Lands LLP and, although the game is not a high priority for the other FL LLP guys, I'm hoping they won't give up on it. If there looks like being any way to bring it back in a commercially viable form - my own preference being Jon Reed's suggestion of a series of system-agnostic Legend books - then Oliver and I will keep prodding at them to chase up all leads. I doubt if another publisher will take up DW now; as James has revealed, it never made MOP anything more than pin money. But the energy of fandom is unconstrained by mere lucre, and DW has a host of enthusiastic fans. And perhaps Legend as a game world can be commercially successful where the quarter-century-old rules of DW were not. I'd like to think so.
Where now? Well, as one door slams shut another is apt to fly open, and the sad news about Dragon Warriors has spurred on some developments we had in the pipeline that are going to have Fabled Lands fans dancing on the tables. There is a silver lining. More on that in a week or so.
Sunday, 5 September 2010
The ends justify the means
Tancred is pretty much what a player-character sorcerer would look like in our own Legend campaigns. The distinct absence of DW fireworks is made up for by the much greater versatility inherent in an improvised magic system. (Improvised by the player, that is, not the character.) If you make your Sorcery skill roll, you remember a spell to do the job. It's more usually this kind of thing - divination, potions, charms - than zap effects. When the latter do occur, they can be spectacular. One player was flung hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye to land naked on the eastern shore of Ellesland. But it was a faerie king did that. In "real" Legend I only once saw a mortal wizard wave his hands and knock a half-dozen soldiers down with a magic blast - and he was in the Selentine army.
I seem to recall that Tancred was based on a real-life luminary of the role-playing world, but I shall leave that little bit of hommage shrouded in the mists of time. And although I'm talking about player-character wizards here, I ought to reiterate that those are very few and far between in Legend. "A Christian wizard! A thing as rare as roosters' eggs." Well, quite. That's said later in the novel by none other than Morgan le Fay. What's she doing in 13th century Outremer? It's a long story...
"Brother Rupert! The magician is here to see you."
Rupert of Armitage stood at a window of the Templars' preceptory, hands resting between the bars, looking out into the velvet dusk. The clouds were distant wisps of amber in a midnight blue sky, and the heady scent of jasmine hung in the evening air. It was an idyllic scene, a moment of rare respite from the turmoil of a crusading life, but Rupert was too preoccupied to savour it. A moment passed before he noticed the servant's arrival.
"Show him in," he said, turning away from window. He suddenly shivered and, pulling his white cape around him, called sharply after the servant: "And light the torches. It's almost dark in here."
His eyes were focused on the gothic arch of the doorway, where now a figure took shape in the light of the servant's candle. Like Rupert, he wore white robes emblazoned with a scarlet cross - but the inside of his cloak was deepest black, and embroidered in silver with tiny alchemical runes that were revealed only when he moved.
"Tancred," said Rupert, acknowledging the magician's arrival with a nod, "it has been two days now. I hope that by your arts you've gleaned something useful in this time."
Tancred came forward, fondling the crucifix around his neck with slim delicate fingers. He was a slight man, with a scholarly mien, and unlike the others of the Order he wore no armour or weaponry. Nor did he have the usual Templar's expression of unyielding zeal. With his thinning thatch of carroty hair and limpid eyes, he looked more like a clerk. Certainly no-one who did not know of his reputation would have guessed him to be the greatest Christian sorcerer in the Holy Land.
"Useful?" he said to Rupert. "I believe so. Firstly, Emeritus' room was redolent of strong sorcery. I am sure a fay had been there shortly before us."
Rupert failed to surpress a supercilious smile. "I rather gathered that sorcery had been at work, brother. We were duped by phantasms, after all; such things do not occur naturally. That's why I sought your advice."
"You were right to do so." Tancred nodded emphatically. "You'll recall that the door was broken in - needlessly, in fact, since it had not been bolted. Well, on a splinter of wood I found this scrap of cloth."
"Really?" said Rupert, sarcastically adopting an interested tone as he scrutinized the torn cloth that Tancred was holding. "And what does this tell you?"
Tancred stared at him, making no attempt to disguise his own contempt. "It was worn by one of those you seek," he said huffily. "When this cloth is fixed within my divining pendulum, I can determine where its owner is now. The direction of the pendulum's swing shows his heading, you see, while its frequency — "
Rupert waved a hand to interrupt. "If true, that's excellent news. I'll fetch some of the brethren, and we'll go to apprehend the fellow."
"It won't be as easy as that," Tancred replied. "Your quarry has already left the city. From my observations, I'd say they set out yesterday morning - the day after Emeritus' death."
"How many are there?" said Rupert, scowling. "And where are they heading?"
Tancred shrugged. "The exact numbers, I cannot say. The cloak that had been draped over the corpse would not respond to my divination — further evidence that our enemies have powerful sorcery. The pendulum only tells me the whereabouts of the cloth's former wearer. As to where he and his companions are going — south, I'd say, to Araby."
"Whoever they are, they must not be allowed to reach the Grail first! Go and pack your magical accoutrements; we shall need you to counter the enemy's sorcery."
As Tancred left the room, Rupert beckoned to the servant: "Send the others to me. And order the horses saddled. We ride out tonight."
Friday, 3 September 2010
Brymstone beginnings 2
The early life of a fanatic
You were born a freeman's son, in eastern Albion. Your father Aldor was a staunch supporter and friend of the lord, Sir Caudris. Often he went to war with his lord, proudly astride the saddle in a coat of ring mail, with his longbow across his back and his sword at his side.
Your father was killed in a quarrel by a young stablehand when you were ten years old. The land and his house went to his cousin in Eckford, who sold it to your neighbours. They said their families were big enough already without taking you in, so Sir Caudris brought you to the manor house. He began to train you in the ways of chivalry. He took you hunting, taught you the use of sword and bow, made you practice long hours at the quintrain till your whole body ached. And he taught you to be a worshipful servant of God, and to seek for the Devil's works and worm them out wherever they lurked.
He bought your armour, sponsored your knighthood by Earl Montombre's sword. And when he rode with his sons on the Crusade, you went also.
Caudris of Leyfield died with all his sons on the crusade - all except his youngest, still at home in Albion, who then left the monastery where he had been studying to take overlordship of Leyfield. You survived the Battle of Ashatim where Caudris fell, and later joined the Worshipful Knights of St Wythan on Barada: the Knights Capellars.
This religious fighting order was formed when the Holy Realm was wrested from the Ta'ashim. It is their sworn duty to guard pilgrims on the road to Imbrahim, the sacred city. They originally called themselves "the worshipful Knights of St Wythan on Barada", but acquired their better-known name through their habit of blessing their swords before a battle in the chapel (or capella) where St Wythan's remains are stored. The Knights (mostly younger sons of the north-western gentry, with piety and chivalry in their blood and no inheritance to keep them at home) take monastic vows and cut their hair short to symbolize the casting off of wordly attachments. After a ceremony and all-night vigil at the Capellars' headquarters on the isle of Barada, the initiate takes up the distinctive accoutrements of the Capellars - a slender, slightly curved sword and a white surcoat adorned with an eight-pointed purple cross.
In the few decades since their formation, the Capellars have grown from a small band of poor knights to an extensive and very wealthy organization. They recognize no sovereign and are answerable only to the Pontiff. They loan and exchange money and have numerous business interests throughout the civilized lands. The Preceptory of the Capellars outside Ferromaine is almost every day crowded with merchants and explorers seeking finance or a secure vault for their treasures.
With regard to the Faith the Capellars are known to take a slightly heterodox line, but their usefulness to the Church gives them immunity from any repercussions. For example, they do not display the image of the cross anywhere in their chapels. The chapels themselves are octagonal halls where the knights stand in a circle facing the raised altar. They freely consort or even intermarry with the Ta'ashim, and some elements of the Ta'ashim religion have become absorbed in the Capellars' worship. They enforce their own laws and treaties, shunning the hospitality and company of other knights. Some practice wizardry and others have developed assassination skills in order to counter the power of the Marijahs. A "Knight" Capellar may thus be a true Knight - or he may be a Sorcerer or an Assassin.
Or, like you, a Warlock. You have studied magic, though you might have an ambiguous attitude to it: "Truly, magic is the Devil's instrument. But we must use any weapons to hand in our holy battle against the Prince of Lies. Let those who are slaves to unholy sorcery beware - some pious warriors have taken up these occult forces, and we are ready to turn them back upon our Lord's foes..." The apparent hypocrisy is unlikely to vex you. Capellars are not usually very rational men, anyway, and they are not prone to self-analysis.