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Friday 9 December 2011

Greater than mere spells

One of the problems I have with fantasy as a genre of fiction is that most of the time it's not actually that fantastic, reducing sorcery instead to a sort of dull pseudophysics. I'm not taking a subtler-than-thou position here. I've been guilty of the fireballs and the Boolean divination spells myself. Sometimes you have to, for the sake of having rules, though that's why in my own games there are no player-character wizards - or not so much that you'd notice.

In my novella The Screaming Spectre... No wait, I have to say something about that. It was supposed to be called The Singing Skull, but the publishers overruled me on the title. Just so you know. Anyway, I put in a scene to show what I thought about the "type II fireball" approach to magic, and here it is. Heroquest, the boardgame on which the story was based, is still available, as indeed is the book itself on Amazon UK. Don't care for prose fiction? Well, you may like the 148-paragraph gamebook section in the back. And if you do like it, try comparing it with this passage from one of my Knightmare books that also describes what a sorcerer of the Dragon Warriors world is like.
`You are both too young to remember much about Balthazar,' said Baskaino. 'He was a legendary figure — like one of the great wizards of ancient times.'

`He must have had many powerful spells,' said Kashor, whose thoughts always turned to the lure of great magic when he had to work at his books.

`Of course he did,' said Baskaino. 'Spells you can never imagine. But, Kashor, you understand nothing if you think that is the measure of a wizard.' He put down his pen. 'Listen, then, if you want to learn the ways of magic. One story that was told in my childhood recounted how a plague had settled on the Empire. Whole villages became deserted, and if you walked the streets of any town you could never escape the sound of mourning from behind shuttered windows. Bodies had to be piled on to carts and buried in mass graves, since the plague was vicious and swift. You might see a friend hale and hearty one day, only to be startled by the sight of his lifeless corpse on a burial cart the next day. . .'

By now even Kashor, despite himself, had put aside his pen to listen to Baskaino's tale.

`Balthazar went looking for the plague,' he continued, 'and met it on the road to Borghaven. The plague had taken the form of a little old woman carrying a broom, though of course no-one could see that except a wizard like Balthazar. They walked on for a league or so without exchanging a word, but the plague was curious and finally asked Balthazar where he was bound. "To Borghaven," said he. "I mean to claim many lives there."

`Well, "That you cannot do," complained the plague-spirit. "I have prior claim on those lives . . ." Oh, but this is no doubt just a silly story,' said Baskaino suddenly, turning back to his copybook.

`No, no!' cried Osric and Kashor together. 'Do go on.'

Baskaino shrugged indulgently. 'Well, the upshot of it was that Balthazar challenged the old plague-hag to a dice game. She readily agreed, and the two of them hunkered down in the middle of the road over the dice she had — two yellow dice carved from dead men's knuckles. "If you win," said Balthazar, "we'll agree that you go on to Borghaven and beyond. But if you lose, you must go back to the land of the dead and never again visit the world of mortal men." The hag nodded, and then they threw the dice…'

`And Balthazar won?' said Kashor in an awed tone.

`No, he lost. So they walked on again towards the town. But after another league or so had gone by, the plague could not restrain her curiosity and she said, "You must have claimed many souls in your time."

`At this Balthazar only shrugged, smiling as though modesty forbade a reply. The plague licked her bloodless lips with a bloodless tongue and doubtless thought, why take the long walk to Borghaven when she could feast on one who had in turn (as she supposed it) feasted full on mortal souls? Another league passed, then Balthazar said, "I might consider another wager, for it is fine sport. Let us dice again. This time, if I win you must go and never return, just as before. But if you win, you may have the life that beats here . . ." Balthazar touched his heart . . . "but then you must be gone from the mortal world."

`The plague readily agreed to this, since she now believed that Balthazar's one life would sustain her more than a thousand paltry normal souls. So she took out her dice and again they rolled.'

`And this time Balthazar won?' said Kashor.

`Of course not!' said Baskaino scornfully. 'This was Death whom he diced with. So when the dice were cast, the plague-spirit took Balthazar and led him away to the end of the world and then said, "Now I leave this world never to return, but first I shall have your life." And she raised her broom whose touch was death.

`But instead of flinching, Balthazar only stood there and said: "Our pact was that you would have the life that beats here . . ." So saying, he opened the front of his robe and took out a tiny mouse that had been nestled against his chest, asleep. This he gave to the plague. She uttered none of the hideous curses that a mortal might when thwarted, but just gave a sort of sigh and then drew back out of the land of the living. And so Balthazar drove away the plague.'

`But how did he know he'd lose the dice games?' Kashor wanted to know. 'Both times? And how did he know to have the mouse under his robe?'

`He knew,' replied Baskaino with a condescending smile. 'That was how great a wizard he was. Great enough to cheat Death.'

`But he didn't even use a spell!' Kashor blurted.

`Pah, you fool!' replied Baskaino in a voice dripping with contempt.

Kashor turned to Osric for support, but Osric could only shrug and say, 'What spell could you use against Death, after all?'


  1. Hi Dave,

    Its got nothing to do with this new blog entry, but I have the feeling that lately you've been working on too many projects at the same time, and as a result none have yet come through at the end of 2011...

    So by no means I want to tell you how to run your job but maybe if you focused more on one single project like say, the next volumes in the FL series we'd have something to chew on for xmas instead of spending hard earned cash on xbox games I dont even play.

    Anyway I'm looking forward to see some of your new (printed) stuff on amazon soon enough, and until then take it easy !

    PS: please forgive my poor english, its not my main language.

  2. Hi Anon - thanks for the advice, though actually I've really only been writing a couple of main projects this year. One is my comic Mirabilis, book 2 of which is finished and due out early next year, and book 3 is written (ie I've done my bit) but is waiting for Leo Hartas to illustrate it. The other project is the Frankenstein book - sorry, app book. (Btw not an ebook, that's for e-readers.)

    I've had to take care of some minor writing/editing jobs during the year, mostly developing new story concepts and laying out the Binscombe Tales books for Fabled Lands LLP, but I can assure you that 90% of my creative time has been spent on one project (Mirabilis). I totally agree with you that it's better to complete one thing than to start half a dozen and never finish any of them.

    As for more FL titles... if the Fabled Lands company decides to press ahead with the series, Jamie and I will be full-time on those. But it's too early to say anything definite on that score.

    Btw your English is excellent.

  3. The cleverness of wizards is often overlooked, isn't it? I do like your story - it's a very Earthsea approach, I think, the understanding that it's encounters with the supermundane that make a wizard, and all the tricks and fiddles are side-effects of that essence. Food for thought, for sure.

  4. Gosh, this was a good wee story.

    How could anyone prefer "The Screaming Spectre" to "The Singing Skull"?

    At least they spelt 'spectre' right.

  5. I agree with Von that a wizard's skills are often overlooked and too much emphasis is placed on their magic. Being a wizard is as much to do with cunning and knowledge of human nature as it is magical power. Many magicians and 'psychics' can appear to do works of magic with skills such as cold reading, sleight of hand and a quick tongue.

  6. Yes indeed. If Derren Brown went back to medieval times in a Tardis, he'd be the most powerful wizard in the kingdom.

  7. You write about player-character use of magic in your games being determined by a quick skill check, with the in-game result then determined by the player. Has this ever been taken advantage of to the detriment of the adventure? Does it require a level of maturity and a sense of co-operation in the players to work?

    I have put together a simple adventure for family this Christmas, a magical adventure in the vein of 'The Midnight Folk' or 'The Children of Green Knowe'. I don't anticipate the need for complex mechanics - a simple die roll at most. But PCs will be able to add their own fantastic events into the story as it progresses.

    If they can roll under their 'adventure' points (if I can think of a better name I will use it) they may draw number of tarot cards: one during the day, two in the evening, and three after midnight. They may choose and play one. Each suit has a different effect (wands bring things to life; cups cause the past to live again; trumps indicate a meeting with someone magical - a talking fox, or Herne the Hunter, or someone). The higher the card the greater the more wonderful the resulting magic.
    The player then gets to describe what occurs and the adventure continues from there.

    I haven't ever used such an open system before - or given players so much power! - so I'm wondering whether the whole thing will come off. None of the players are regular gamers, so that might be in my favour...

  8. @Tom - let me know how that works out. Is the adventure online somewhere?

  9. That whole question of improv magic deserves a post of its own, Tom. We have guidelines (designed by Frazer Payne based on Alexander Scott's concept in Maelstrom) that provide a benchmark for how difficult it is to pull off any given effect. I'll go into more detail at a later date.

    Strange you should mention The Midnight Folk, as I'm designing a big Legend scenario called "Silent Night" for our gaming group this Christmas and The Box of Delights is one of the inspirations - though, being Legend, it'll end up being the Tim Burton version, if not the Rob Zombie.

  10. I once did that! - in my version of Legend - with sinister monks walking the roads (although never at the same time as a certain hungry pack of wolves was stalking the hills), dreadful snowstorms, and the local clergy disappearing one by one. It ended at midnight on Christmas Morning with a group of tired knights forming a ring around the sole attended church, keeping the darkness out while the Christmas mass was said.

    It all got a bit obvious and bloody, losing the playfulness of the source material. But then, they were such different genres. I expect your scenario will be just a little more subtle than ours was... I know if I did it again, now fifteen years later, I would certainly plan it differently. But you can never tell where the game will take you; usually far from the sort of carefully detailed notes I can't help preparing, anyway.

    I have always wondered at Masefield's influence on Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' (the book, not the quintet). I think I remember her writing about hearing a radio drama of it in the war years.