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Wednesday 29 April 2015

So, Interstellar...

I don't put up a lot of movie or book reviews here, figuring that my Mirabilis blog is the appropriate place for more personal interests like that. Still, you might find this one of Christopher Nolan's big ol' SF flick Interstellar worth a look. It's a bit spoilery, but at least it's over faster than the movie...

So, the Earth is dying because they can't figure out to use hydroponics. And Cowboy Farmer finds mysterious symbols in his ramshackle old house (= Signs, Close Encounters). And he says, "It's not a ghost. It's gravity!" (Though why shouldn't that mean a ghost?) And he looks at a bunch of numbers in binary and he doesn't say, "WTF are these numbers?" he goes, "They're coordinates." And they are the coordinates for a secret base within driving distance of his house. And he gets there and they say, "Oh yes, those are mysterious gravity things sent by these aliens who put this wormhole near Saturn" (2001). And nobody says, "Hang on, you're our best pilot and the gravity fairies told you the coordinates of NASA? So let's think about that for five seconds."

But you soon realize why nobody tries to have conversations like that, because one guy would say, "Could the arrival of the wormhole have anything to do with Earth's climate getting messed up?" but then another guy would say, "Faith is about reaching your hand up and knowing there will be something there to hold onto." And then they'll all nod gravely and the first guy will be secretly thinking, "I'm locked in here with the crazy people." So they get into the ship and even though the robots seem to be the only intelligent ones, nobody pays any attention to them, probably because whenever you go, "I have a cold, maybe homeopathy and love and peace will cure it," they would say, "Are you absolutely sure you're the species that created us?"

OK, so off into space and more running about like a bunch of teenagers forced to go on a survival weekend (this crew could get a job on Prometheus, no trouble) and when they come back after 23 years in a gravity well, and Lady Scientist says, "Let's go to planet A" and Cowboy Pilot says, "Hang on, planet B is better but your boyfriend is on planet A, right?" she doesn't say, "Ya got me," she starts coming out with asinine twaddle about maybe that's the best criterion for judging stuff, and love is energy, like, innit, and it's the only thing that transcends time. (And also hate, lust, fart jokes, etc, in that case.) And the others don't say, "Oh, stop wriggling. We caught you out and you know it." No, they listen to her whole critically-failed Fast Talk roll as if it was a valid point. And then Dr Man (geddit?) turns out to be yet another famous actor, and he is mad and evil and tries to kill them, saying that nobody would go on risking their necks to save the whole human species, they'd only do it to specifically save their own family - even though history is full of examples of people putting the group first, and that is kind of the whole USP of homo sapiens. Obviously not a regular churchgoer, Man tries to kill everybody and take over the mission for HAL-like reasons, but everyone is saved thanks to the robots (what did I say about them?). This doesn't stop Cowboy Pilot from telling the robots they have to be sacrificed in a black hole. Lady Scientist doesn't come out with one of her love-is-energy speeches there, but she does at least query whether you should tell an intelligent, loyal being to sacrifice itself for your sake. Luckily Cowboy Pilot has an answer: "They have to do anything we tell them." (Hah, you fool, Aristotle, why did you waste all that time on that Ethics book, ya booby?) Anyway, Cowpoke sacrifices himself too, and he falls through the event horizon into Inception, where he gets a view of his daughter's bedroom as she's growing up and he can send her messages by pushing books and making the dust spell out binary messages. This would all be very confusing, but luckily one of the robots is on hand to explain absolutely everything to us (ya see? ya see?) and it turns out not to be God doing all this, but the gravity fairies are are, like, 5-dimensional people from the future. And they have just enough vestigial interest in the fate of the entire species (from which they evolved, let's not forget that) to give Cowboy Pilot limited access to one room on his farm over a 30-year peiod. Contacting humanity and giving us the answer to climate control, terraforming, wheat blight and wormhole tech would have been just too easy. And you can see the discussion (imagine this in 5 dimensions): "Shall we explain what they need to do to survive?" "Explanations are a bit too sciencey. Love is energy, dude." "Oh yeah. Just give this one guy a mystic experience, then. After all, we already know he must succeed or we wouldn't be here." "Point. Also, without the woo there's no movie. And we're shooting for M Night Shyamalan to direct."

No good points? Oh sure. I liked the explanation of why wormholes are spherical, the black hole FX, and the robots.

Friday 24 April 2015

The Hollow Men - a Legend scenario using GURPS

My roleplaying group's days of being able to game two or three times a week are unfortunately long gone. Children, spouses and office hours will do that. But we still get together once a fortnight for our traditional Thursday night games, and also four times a year for Sunday specials. The latter sit outside of our regular campaigns and are often an excuse to revisit old characters.

I mentioned this to Lee Barklam, keeper of the Cobwebbed Forest, and he asked permission to adapt last year's spring special, "The Hollow Men", as a Dragon Warriors scenario. That involved quite a lot of work, as (a) we use GURPS 4e, not DW, and (b) my typical scenario notes would fit on the back of a cereal packet. You can download Lee's thorough reworking/buffing-up of "The Hollow Men" here and some other Legend adventures here.

I'm posting the original (scrappy, non-DW) version of the scenario here as a reminder that roleplaying as actually practised doesn't conform to the tight structure of a published scenario. A real scenario should never be a script to force the players through; it should merely be a set of notions that you and they can start from to improvise the shared story that emerges from the game session. But when we're writing scenarios for publication, we're making something that's intended to be read rather than played. It's designed to show the referee one way that the game might go. So in that sense it's more like a short story - and, as you'll see, Lee has done a brilliant job of bringing the settings to life with rich descriptive text and evocative details. Anyway, compare the two versions and drop a comment at the end if you like.

OK, some background to the adventure. I’ve been privileged to join in some superb Legend roleplaying games over the years. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but if we’re going by popular demand from the players it would have to be Tim Harford’s Iron Men campaign. Tim is the master of creating a foundational concept to bond the player-characters together, a formula that he then stirs up by lobbing in an unexpected inciting incident that changes everything.

Here’s how Tim introduced the campaign:

“It is the end of days. The seers and the signs agree that the world is exhaling its last breath before the fall of eternal night. The last struggles of greed-blinded lords plough the land while the people drift confounded through the crumbling rituals of their lives.

“It is a good time to be a mercenary.”

The Company of Bronze was commanded by Pieter de Fleur and was one of the largest and most successful mercenary groups in Ellesland. Yet the company was almost entirely wiped out in a massacre, the sole survivors being the player characters, who had been absent on another mission that day.

Rootless, the characters wandered until they hit on the idea of exploiting their connection to the company by forming a small band called the Iron Men, on the principle that adversity had forged them into something stronger.

And meanwhile: an Axe Age, a Sword Age, as storm clouds gather for the world’s ending.


The characters are in the army of Baron Verlaine of Trefell, who is fighting an insurrection by his younger son Keele working in concert with a Cornumbrian lord called Pengarth.

On the day of the big battle they are sent to a small hamlet with a stream running through it. The manor house that overlooks Appleford is fortified, and could provide a bolt-hole for a sizable part of Keele’s forces even if Verlaine’s army can carry the day.

The characters have waded upstream to avoid patrols of Keele’s men. Advancing through the orchard, they get to within 250 yards of the manor. The only cover that can get them right up to the walls are the graves in the churchyard. The church itself stands about 100 yards from the wall, then they have to get stealthy.
(I based the manor layout on Stokesay Castle, shown here.)

A familiar face
As they are attacking the walls, they will see one of the defenders is Gorshin, who was supposed to be on sentry duty the night the Company of Bronze was wiped out in a surprise attack. One of the player-characters was present as Pieter de Fleur instructed Gorshin to hand-pick the sentries, just before Pieter ordered Joseph Lynch and his friends out on the scouting mission that spared them from the massacre.

As the battle for the manor begins in earnest, Gorshin, recognizing his former comrades, jumps on a horse and rides off.

The enemy
The manor's garrison comprises two Cornumbrian captains and ten men-at-arms. (Eleven until Gorshin took off.)

Pursuing Gorshin
The player-characters are under the command of Turvatelle de l’Abîme, who will not take kindly to anybody charging off after Gorshin in the middle of the battle. To do so would count as desertion, punishable by death if they are caught. If they ride off after the manor has been taken, there'll be a fine to pay later (assuming they return) but that's all.

A Tracking roll (-1 per hour that they delay pursuit) will reveal Gorshin’s destination to be the town of Axbridge.


Axbridge is medium-sized town. The characters arrive to find the spring festival in full swing. Because of the approach of the year 1000, the celebrations are tinged with a note of hysteric abandon.

Events at the festival include:
  • The Jacks-in-the-Green (dancers) who go around whacking people with padded sticks
  • The passion players (they’re doing the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah).
  • The procession of giants (local characters called Millstone and Hobbler, represented by large costumes operated from within).
  • Bear-baiting
  • Cock fights (you can place a bet)
  • Wrestling
  • Jugglers, etc
  • Puppet show (the story of St Millais grabbing Old Nick and drowning him in a pond that’s been said to boil ever since) 
Take on the champ
The current wrestling champion is Bors Jellybones (so called because he reduces other people’s bones to jelly), a Cornumbrian giant with a thicket of golden hair and a face like a badly made stone wall. He suffers from overpowering body odour – or rather, his opponents suffer from it; roll HT each round or you're at -1 to attack.

  • The Nonesuch
  • The Sheaf of Barley
  • The Old Mustard (Gorshin is hiding out here)
  • The Three Legged Mare
  • The Hangwell
Finding Gorshin
To save his skin, Gorshin offers to tell all about the night the Company of Bronze were ambushed. He was on sentry duty, but an officer called Brother Lowring came round with some other mercenaries and told Gorshin to make himself scarce. Gorshin says he was given a silver florin to go off to the nearest tavern.

IQ roll at -3 to recall there was no tavern within ten miles of where the company was camped that night.

If pressed, Gorshin admits he was in cahoots with Brother Lowring, though he claims it was under duress. He was led off across the stream and they watched as a surprise attack was launched and, without sentries, the company was wiped out.

The truth: Gorshin is still Lowring’s henchman, and is supposed to get supplies from the apothecary here in Axbridge to take back to Tallowden. If Gorshin is killed, a scrip for the apothecary, whose name is Dr Banders, is found on him.

The apothecary
Dr Banders has been making up prescriptions of a liver potion for Gorshin for the last year or more. Gorshin arrives every six weeks and collects enough for six or seven heavy drinkers (the medicine is supposed to ease digestive ailments). This last trip the batch wasn’t ready, so Banders told Gorshin to come back in a fortnight’s time.

Presumably Gorshin figured on earning some extra cash moonlighting for Keele in that time. Being from this area originally, he met a friend called Ambrose who was already in Keele’s employ.

Of Tarrowden they are told: “You could say it’s disputed land. Neither Albion nor Cornumbria wants it.”


The route to Tarrowden lies across the Coronach Marsh. The land rises up to a wild landscape often shrouded in fog and drizzle. It’s not too bad going as long as you stick to the old road, but finding Tarrowden is very hard unless you have a local guide.

Each time characters venture off the road without a guide, roll d6. On a 1-3 they end up in a dead end hemmed about with quagmire. To get back to the road requires a Tracking or Survival (Swamp) roll.

In thick fog or rain, there is a chance of being attacked by swamp goblins. These have Stealth 19 (Stealth 14 vs a sorcerer) and will try to pick off stragglers and haul them down into waterlogged hollows where they will drown.

Initially the goblins attack with skill 15. Typically four or five will leap up and attack at once from all directions around the target. If they get surprise, remember the target can only defend (at -4) and must roll IQ, IQ+1, IQ+2, etc to snap out of it and act normally.

If a goblin’s attack succeeds, it grapples the target. Treat each goblin as ST 10 and on each subsequent round match total strength versus the target’s. On a failure, the target is pulled down into the water.
Drowning: You can survive HT rounds, then lose one fatigue per round. This assumes the character specified they were taking a breath. If not, make a Swimming roll to get your breath, otherwise deduct the number you missed by from the rounds before you start to lose fatigue. A character who is submerged hasn’t only got to worry about drowning, though. The cold water saps ST at the rate of d6-1 per round (armour protects at half value). Therefore the character’s fatigue is likely to be reduced by the time they start losing fatigue anyway.
Once submerged, a character is partly hidden by the goblins’ magical stealth no matter how much they fight back. Treat as Stealth 16 (11 v sorcerers) and remember to allow for poor visibility.

If overcome, the character will be stripped of all they own and then left unconscious on the path.

Sunken lane
Leading down off the moors to the west is a very steep hill that leads into a sunken lane overhung with dank trees. This part isn’t so steep but it’s dark and eerily silent.

The lane emerges at the head of fields that descend towards Tarrowden.


Jammed at the bottom of a wedge of land that slopes down between two heavy growths of ancient forest. There is a church, a manor, and a few cottages.

The fields
Last year’s crop was obviously left to rot. The whole hillside is a mass of tangled, rank vegetation in which dark rat-like forms root and scurry.

Nearer to the cottages there are some furlongs at the edge of the lowest field that have been ploughed and sown. They are obviously not the best plots, but are the ones typically allowed for villagers’ private use.

These have a baleful appearance. There are three of them. On close inspection they can be seen to be cured human skins that have been stuffed with straw and roughly stitched up.

The truth: they are people who came snooping after the treasure and whom Lowring and his men drowned in the mere, then left them here as a warning. The cottagers don’t go near them.

The cottagers
There are a dozen households here:

They say that they don’t dare touch the crops because they belong to the lord, and he stopped taking an interest in the fief a year or so back.

The church
There is no priest. “Well, there is.” “But he run away.” “Father Wissell his name was.” “Might still be.”

In the church, astute characters may notice carved wood panels on the pulpit that show St Millais drowning the Devil in a mere.

But there’s more. Returning to the village, St Millais discovers men drinking and wenching with the gold the Devil gave them, so he takes them to the mere and makes them throw the gold in. The inscription reads: Redde Caesari quae sunt Caesaris.

The cottagers will freely volunteer their belief that the mere is the Old Kettle.

The manor house
This stands deserted. The cottagers say the lord moved out of it last summer and they have hardly seen him since – “Only that Gorshin that runs and fixes for him.”

The lord of the fief
This is the original fief of “Brother Lowring”, who has no religious rank but acquired the nickname because of his silent mien, which among mercenaries suggested a priest-like introspection.

Lowring abandoned his rather impoverished fief to become a mercenary, but returned here when he needed to lie low after accepting a payment to betray the Company of Bronze, of which he was a senior officer.

He brought with him five accomplices. In the woods, looking for a place to hide their loot, they found an old Cornumbrian drinking hall and, nearby, a pool known to the locals as the Old Kettle.


Off in the woods is a long, lichen-spotted stone wall overhung with a low moss-covered roof. It is so deep-set into the bank, weathered and overgrown that you could easily miss it.

Roll Survival (Woods) to notice the trees around it are not quite so old, ie a hundred years at most.

This is the old Cornumbrian hall which was the nucleus of the original settlement. Lowring and his henchmen moved here after discovering the treasure in the Old Kettle.

The treasure in the hall amounts to 2000 crowns (about a million farthings). If you dare take it.

The Old Kettle
A mere that, every evening, froths and bubbles. At other times it is so icy cold as to sap the strength in moments, but when boiling up it can be swum in. One of Lowring’s men discovered this and dived down, returning with gold coins. They have been hoarding the coins they retrieved in the old hall ever since, finally moving into the hall, ruinous and inhospitable though it is, so as to be nearer to the Old Kettle.

Lowring and his men soon discovered that each dive made them feel ill, particularly with liver pains, but greed kept them going. Gorshin was sent to Axbridge regularly to fetch medicines from the apothecary.

The real cause of the pain
Lowring and his five men (Ulfar, Olbeck, Quintus, Guston, and Fyfe) are infected with hellion flukes. These are eating them away inside. They still think they are normal men, but the truth is they are mere shells – and inside the shells are devils.

The hellions 
At first they fight in human form:

If struck for more than 4 points (after armour) their skin splits, releasing a gout of flame. The character who injured them must drop his weapon or take 1d3 burn damage (no armour). There is a chance (10% for ordinary weapons, 1% if magical) that the weapon will be destroyed, but in any case any edged weapon loses 1 from damage until an armourer can fix it.

After being hit, the hellion’s outer skin burns away and you know have something much nastier to deal with:

The reason for the massacre
The story behind this is that the Company of Bronze were in the employ of Baron Grisaille, and as part of an “arms limitation” deal with Montombre, and to avoid paying them, he agreed to arrange the massacre as a two-birds-with-one-stone solution.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Talking heads

There's been a slew of interviews on the Lloyd of Gamebooks site this month, and with so much going on you might have blinked and missed them. There's one with the redoubtable Paul Gresty, whom most FL blog regulars will know for Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, and another with the very talented Michael J Ward, author of the Destiny Quest gamebook series. Oh, and not forgetting the master of death-rock space opera, Kyle B Stiff, creator of Sol Invictus.

And there's even an interview with yours truly, in which I spill the beans (well, one or two beans, not the whole can) about a couple of new gamebook projects I'm working on with the aforementioned Mr Gresty. One of those is the ever-so-long-awaited new Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King's Domain, for which we are hoping to team up with Megara Entertainment. (Incidentally, search around on Megara's site and you might even see The Thief of Memories on sale. Be prepared to do some Howard Carter level digging around to find it, though.)

And then there's the first mention of a gamebook app that I'm helping Cubus Games to launch on Kickstarter sometime soon. This is being written by Paul Gresty based on my setting, story and characters. The picture above is your teaser.

Best of all, though, there's an interview with Emily Short, co-creator (with Richard Evans) of Versu. She talks about someof her favourite examples of Interactive Fiction (capitalized here because it refers to the specific parser-type definition, rather than just "fiction that you can interact with" which is what I usually mean by the term) and anything in the IF field recommended by Ms Short has to be worth a look.

Friday 17 April 2015

Imaginary relationships

A while back I gave a talk at the Groucho Club in London's Soho about creating emotional bonds in games and interactive stories. If that rings a bell, it's because I've posted it on this blog before. And yet the generations stream away and still gamebooks struggle to haul themselves out of the '80s mire of orc-infested dungeons where treasure chests come with riddles on the lid.

"You come to three doors and -- " Who cares? Interacting with a story can deliver so much more than that. So here I am again talking about the relationships that you might forge with fictional characters. The slides are a little out of sync; you'll see I start talking about Walt but his image doesn't come up on screen for a few seconds.But if you can get past that and the patchy audio (try here for the full text) hopefully it'll spark off some interesting comments for us to debate below.

Some takeaway points to get started on:

"I don't care about crystal meth distribution in Albuquerque, or even that much about crime dramas. But I am fascinated by the problem of Walter White. Character - that's what is compelling about a great story. And when we put character and interactivity together we have the ingredients of relationship."

"What kind of relationships can we put in these stories? All kinds. One example: you're not James Bond, you're his controller at MI6. You're in touch with Bond all the time, giving him orders, but a man who's licensed to kill doesn't play well with others. So you have an adversarial relationship. And conflict, of course, is the motor of drama."

"Those two land masses [stories and games] are connected now. There's going to be some evolving together, some exchange of creative DNA, some blurring of boundaries."

What do you think? What makes you connect with a story and want to come back for more? Don't say doors with riddles on them.

Thursday 9 April 2015

How to park a jumbo

We've talked about it before, the elephant in the room of gamebooks. Text is what I mean. Prose. Words words words. The "book part" of this strange hybrid medium that squeezed its way into existence at a time when people had got a thirst for interactivity but games still took twenty minutes to load up off a cassette tape.

Earlier posts have thrown the elephant a bun or two. We considered the problem that text gets in the way of interaction. In which case, do gamebooks even need text at all? And if we have to have text, how do we make people want to read it?

Jon Ingold of Inkle was discussing these points at GDC. You can see the talk here. It turns out he never liked what I did with Inkle's engine, namely my interactive reimagining of Frankenstein. Ouch. Turns out he also doesn't care for Crime and Punishment, though, which takes the edge off.

I got the same vibe from the editors at Profile Books (the actual publishers of Frankenstein, though you would hardly guess it). They loved Telltale's Walking Dead - and quite right too. Why couldn't I have given them that instead of 150,000 words of text? But, publishers, here's a tip: if you want videogame production values, you can't pay the typical minimum-wage advances to authors and expect them to return a few months later with a nifty 3D interactive movie.

All right, I'm being disingenuous there. These days you don't have to spend north of five million dollars to make a decent-looking game. Indie development has brought the focus off Uncanny Valley emulation of blockbuster movies and back onto gameplay, panache and style. Apotheon, say, or This War of Mine. This might be your Golden Age, gamers; make the most of it.

People think a writer's job is moving words about, but that's the first fix. In the very beginning, as you're laying the foundations and erecting the scaffolding of the story, what's churning around inside your skull is a flood of images, character traits, emotions. The shape starts to reveal itself in snatches of dialogue, mood, key events. When you're ready, when it's fully marinated, that's when you put it down in words. If your medium is the novel, it will all be rendered into words eventually - but even that is only a program, a code that will run in the reader's brain so that they can construct their own experience of your story. It's those cassette tapes all over again.

For writers working on a movie, or designers on a game, that process of communicating the final experience is far clearer. You know right from the get-go that all that documentation you're writing is not the thing itself, it's the blueprint that will be used to make the thing. It differs from a novel only in that the reader of a novel has to do for themselves, and in their imagination, all the work of the development team.

If gamebooks have a future, we can surely agree it will be in digital form. No one disputes that the medium is evolving and that its boundary with videogames is getting so blurred as to be meaningless. Is Sorcery a gamebook? With each instalment the prose fades further into the background. In a game like This War of Mine we don't even talk about a "text component"; the text is just one more way of presenting the game world to the player. So it must become with gamebooks. The writer must think in terms of all the media (text, audio, images) and mix them as the story and the budget allow.

I've recently been discussing a new interactive story app called The Frankenstein Wars with Jaume Carballo, content director of Cubus Games, and Paul Gresty, who will be writing it. Referring to how an all-new interactive story needs to be conceived right from the outset so as to make full use of all component media, Jaume said:
"Keep in mind that we have to write the text over a structure comprising interactive maps, plans, images and so on. We're not doing an adaptation of a '90s gamebook, we're creating an interactive story app, so the team must work together. We don't want to end up with tons of text written thinking just in the story and not in the mechanics."
With that, I'd say he bagged the elephant. And just before it could go into musth. Phew.

Friday 3 April 2015

Caught red-handed!

There was panic at Fabled Towers this week when reader Gabriel Chase pointed out that the new edition of The Court of Hidden Faces (Fabled Lands book 5) was missing section 614. Cue some hasty reformatting, so the book you order now is complete. To those who bought the flawed edition, I can only apologize and offer the consolation that maybe scarcity will make your copy worth more in years to come.

The missing section (complete with overlooked lexical repetition - oops) reads:
You are caught red-handed with the jewellery box in your hand. The masked lord calls for his retainers, and you are seized by many armed men.
     Make a CHARISMA roll at Difficulty 15. If you succeed, you end up thrown into the dungeons of Aku – turn to 350. If you fail, you are sold into slavery in Aku – turn to 321.