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Thursday 30 July 2015

Monkeys with low morals

One of Megara Entertainment's amazing army of backers on Kickstarter posted up this extract from Over the Blood-Dark Sea. It's a perfect reminder of what Jamie and I always wanted the Fabled Lands to be - a dazzling tapestry of adventure where you're constantly finding hints, clues, information or items that point to quests elsewhere in the books.

`In the great forests of that southern land known as Ankon-Konu abide creatures whose like is not found elsewhere at any part of the world. In the higher branches there are fungi that can float on the warm breezes and ensnare monkeys and birds. With my own eyes I beheld a man slain by the crimson moss which can grow in great swathes overnight, suffocating the unwary. In leafy groves as dark as caverns I met with men whose eyes were like great jewels atop their heads. There are insects as hard and bright as glass, large as a man's fist, and monkeys with the morals of a Metriciens street-thug. But strangest of all are the creatures that give Ankon-Konu the name by which mariners commonly know it. These creatures are the plumed flying fish of the jungle, and the name by which the continent is thus called is the Feathered Lands.'

"Not all authorities agree," says the librarian, looking over your shoulder. "I have heard other, quite different, accounts of that land."

I don't need to tell you about the current Kickstarter campaign by Megara Entertainment to open up the continent of Ankon-Konu. There's a tab in the sidebar to the right there if you want to back it. And if you did already, then on Megara's behalf I thank you. The campaign is swiftly sailing towards excitement and thrills in exotic climes, and all with your help.

Friday 24 July 2015

Half in Harkuna

We're getting our money's worth out of Paul Gresty - or would be, if we paid him anything. He's writing both The Frankenstein Wars app and the new Fabled Lands book The Serpent King's Domain - which is currently soaring towards the skies on Kickstarter, in a campaign that has been planned and run by Megara Entertainment, as if you didn't already know. This week Paul has written a guest post explaining how he came to be locked in the FL dungeon - er, I mean how he came to be working with us on gamebooks that he loves.

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The Fabled Lands series completely passed me by the first time it was published. I don't know how that happened. It might simply have been because my local bookshop didn't have any in stock, back in those dark, pre-internet days. Or maybe it was because back in the mid-90s I was busy dyeing my hair bright colours and learning to play guitar, and I didn't have time for gamebooks. But for whatever reason, while readers and adventurers were taking their first steps into Sokara and Golnir, I remained ignorant, quietly teaching myself to play Soundgarden songs.

Y'see, the Blood Sword books were my gamebooks. This, not Fabled Lands, was the series that had a colossal impact on my reading habits, perhaps on my youth as a whole. Yes, I also liked the Fighting Fantasy books, and Lone Wolf, and The Way of the Tiger. But it was Blood Sword, with its multi-player mechanism, that I would badger my friends into playing with me, and that I played innumerable times on my own, with every possible combination of characters. My first ever role-playing game was one that my brother and I invented ourselves, using the rules from the Blood Sword books. When the fourth Blood Sword book, Doomwalk, proved impossible to find, I spent a good ten years tracking it down.

I'm sure I would have loved the Fabled Lands books as well. Fabled Lands and Blood Sword did, after all, share an author and an artist. I just didn't know they existed.

It was Russ Nicholson himself, the books' illustrator, who recommended Fabled Lands to me. Which is a crazy way to hear about the series, actually. Russ had done some artwork for Loup Solitaire, the French edition of the Lone Wolf RPG; in 2011 he and Joe Dever were invited to a trade show in Paris by the game's publisher, Le Grimoire. I was living in Paris by then, and I'd done some translation work for Le Grimoire, so they asked if I'd come along to interpret for Russ, and to generally be on hand in case of any language difficulties.

That was a fun weekend. I pestered Russ with a whole bunch of questions about Blood Sword, and Dragon Warriors, and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. And Russ showed me one of the Fabled Lands books for the first time - one of the large-format editions from the '90s, that a fan had brought along for him to sign. 'You should keep an eye out for them,' Russ told me. 'They're worth a look.'

Man alive, was that ever the understatement of the year.

The first four Fabled Lands books had recently been republished - and, fortunately, the internet had been invented - so I ordered them as soon as I got home. When they arrived, I put them on my shelf and left them there awhile. I work from home a lot, and I'm not great at doing things in moderation; any time I get sucked into a game, my level of productivity takes a battering. I don't play a lot of computer games for just that reason, and I was worried that Fabled Lands would have much the same effect.

But curiosity is sometimes as distracting as gaming. At last I pulled the books down from my shelf, and tentatively crept into the world of Harkuna.

My productivity took a battering. I don't regret it. I've never really left Harkuna yet. 

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You can read Paul's brilliant Dunpala demo for The Serpent King's Domain here. Did I mention that Megara Entertainment still need backing for great art, a colour cover, magnificent Nicholsonian maps, etc? Oh, I did? Okay then.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Fabled Lands at #1

More news about the Kickstarter being run by Megara Entertainment (based in France) to create a new Fabled Lands book. We could already see the campaign was going great guns (already at 340% of its intial target as I write this) but now Richard S Hetley, who planned and is running the campaign for Megara, tells me that it is the top-rated project originating in France that's running on Kickstarter at the moment. Not near the top, right there in pole position. Formidable!

The campaign may have attained its initial target (within 45 minutes of launch, as a matter of fact) but when you're climbing the mountain of launching an all-new book from scratch, every pledge counts. More money raised means the book can have more artwork and more story content, some of it in the form of personalized locations and characters.

Personally I'm hoping for a full triptych painting by internationally renowned movie concept artist Kevin Jenkins (see below) as well as maps and interior illustrations by Russ Nicholson (who else?). And a high enough final figure means that Jamie and I can seriously reopen the possibility of completing the series. Want to see that happen? You can pledge here.

 Concept art by Kevin Jenkins

Friday 17 July 2015

Ties that bind

What keeps the characters in a role-playing game together? When I started gaming, it wasn’t something we thought about much. With no template for how we were ‘supposed’ to role-play, we took turns. Each player got 20 minutes with the umpire (‘GM’ to you non-wargamers) and it took a few sessions before we twigged that by banding together we’d all get more playing time.

Having come by that route to the whole notion of group play, we were lucky to have begun with the best: Empire of the Petal Throne. In EPT's rich social setting there are many ways that player-characters might be colleagues, united by family, clan, temple, legion, or political faction - and usually more than one of those at once.

In our non-Tekumel games, Tim Harford has given most thought to group cohesion in the campaigns he’s run. I’ve spoken before of the Company of Bronze, a group of mercenaries held together by long comradeship and the desire to avenge the massacre of the rest of the company. In Tim’s Spartans campaign, we’re all survivors of Thermopylae who grew up together through boua and Crypteia to phalanx – a stronger band of brothers you couldn’t find.

Both of those campaign set-ups could be characterized as ‘Starship Enterprise’ groups. The characters are first and foremost a team. There may be rivalries or close friendships, but nobody gets left behind. In Tim’s Redemption campaign, however, he brought us together with a shared need (the clue is in the campaign name) and a means to achieve it. But, although sent out with nominally a common goal, there was plenty of scope for the betrayals, alliances and disharmonious aspirations that make for an interestingly fraught drama.

The Redemption idea works well for a quest campaign. The characters are thrown together, usually en route to some geographical objective, so to a large extent they are held together just by that plot momentum. But how about campaigns that aren’t built around a single goal? In Jakalla or Lankhmar or Lyonesse Town, characters inhabit a fully realized social milieu. Why should they stick together?

As I mentioned above, the characters could be held in a group by membership of the same factions or institutions. In a 19th century British setting, for instance, they might have gone to the same public school. That helps to explain a friendship in later life, but it’s not a sufficient condition. Tom Brown may or may not have hung out with Harry Flashman in later life – stranger things have happened, but more likely they’d belong to different clubs, different social sets, and pass each other with but a faint curl of the lip going up Pall Mall.

Still, you’d prefer not to have everything sweetness and light in the group. Conflict and rivalry make for sparkier character dynamics and more interesting sessions. In Tim Savin’s upcoming Victorian campaign, there’s a gathering thunderhead of mutual antipathy between my own Anglo-Indian aesthete (Who's Who entry above) and Oliver Johnson’s bulldoggish hearty. It promises to be fun. But players should never have their characters act in way that simply serves the entertainment value of the ‘narrative’. For the really interesting and unexpected developments that make role-playing unique, you need to think entirely from inside the character. So why would my and Oliver’s characters not simply decide to have nothing to do with one another?

A useful pointer comes from Joss Whedon. Xander and Spike loathe each other, but both care about Buffy. If you have one character in the group who is a really good friend, relative or dependent of all the others, there’s the gluon that will hold them together. Ideally it should be a particularly well-liked player-character, but at a pinch you could make it an NPC. Affection for a sweet little mutual godchild might make even Holmes and Moriarty grit their teeth and shake hands.

With the gluon character, you can have as disparate and mutually hostile a bunch of characters as the players care to (or happen to) create. They can’t escape from each others’ orbit, so the tensions can freely crackle around the group and nobody gets to just shrug and walk away. And trust me, that kind of role-playing beats multi-classed thief-witch gnomes doing Detect Traps hands down.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Thunderbirds are go

Everything's on Kickstarter these days. They had one to build a Death Star. Some bloke raised $55,000 to make potato salad. At any given time there are a gazillion campaigns for some combination of zombies, steampunk and Sherlock Holmes. You already know that Jamie and I licensed a KS to create a new Fabled Lands book. There was even a whip round to pay off the Greek national debt, until backers cottoned on that there's a reason the Germans aren't rushing to break open any more piggy banks in that cause. Although that last one was on Indiegogo, not Kickstarter. Same difference.

And now: "Calling International Rescue..." Film-maker Stephen La Rivière has had the rather splendid idea of taking some 1960s audio-only Thunderbirds adventures starring the original cast and using those as the voice track for some new short movies.

We're not talking about your bland, soulless, Uncanny Valley CGI malarkey here. Oh no. This will be puppets. This will be proper models. This will be glorious big explosions. In short, ladies and gentlemen: this will be Supermarionation. Anything can happen in the next half hour. Oh, that's -- well, you get my point.

You can back the campaign here. It's already hit its first target, so that's one adventure ("The Abominable Snowman") in the can. The stretch goals are to do two more, "The Stately Home Robberies" and "Introducing Thunderbirds", which is the prequel episode in which Lady Penelope meets the Tracy family for the first time. Huh, and I thought she and Jeff were old flames from way back. I guess that's the slashfic of my 8-year-old imagination.

Thursday 9 July 2015

Take another kick

You don't need to be Clint Barton to have spotted the new Kickstarter tab in the sidebar. Under licence from Fabled Lands LLP, Megara Entertainment are looking for backing for a new Fabled Lands book. See, it only took nineteen years.

The Serpent King's Domain is being written by Paul Gresty (pictured below with me and Jamie). I've just been reading the 127-section playable demo that he's already finished. Take a look at that demo and you'll see that Paul's writing style achieves the perfect blend of modern, up-to-date immediacy and prose quality (something the old '80s and '90s gamebooks were always weak at, to be frank) while retaining the authentic feel of classic FL-style encounters and characters. The best parallel I can think of is the Battlestar Galactica reboot: a thoroughly fresh and exciting new take that still manages to show warmth and respect for the original.

The Kickstarter page itself is here. It's not running for a whole month like a lot of KS campaigns; the last day is August 3. If you're interested in backing it, then, it's probably best to get over there sooner rather than later.

So is the money being raised to pay Paul? Not really; he's working on this mainly as a labour of love. So is it for typesetting? No, Mikaël Louys at Megara will be doing that. Mostly the Kickstarter is centred around the 'art meter' which is a nifty little financial instrument that Richard S Hetley has devised so that you can see how your pledges go towards funding a magnificent colour cover by Kevin Jenkins (that's his work above from Guardians of the Galaxy) and of course maps and interior artwork by Russ Nicholson. There's a pie chart on the Kickstarter page on which Megara Entertainment set out exactly how they are going to spend every dollar raised. So here's hoping that 7 is a lucky number.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

New adventures with old friends

Today's the day. No, not George Osborne's budget plans for selling the United Kingdom to non-dom billionaires. Nor do I mean Greece's "hello, it's us again" to the EU negotiators. The red letter is because today Megara Entertainment are launching the Kickstarter campaign for an all-new Fabled Lands book.

There's a pie chart on the KS page showing exactly how Megara are promising to spend the money you give them: on a new cover by world-famous movie concept artist Kevin Jenkins, dazzling prose by the crown prince of 21st century gamebooks Paul Gresty, and maps and illustrations by our own Russ Nicholson. The entire campaign has been carefully planned by Richard S Hetley on behalf of Megara Entertainment, and Richard will be running it throughout.

More details to come, including a link to a free 127-section demo of the book. That's about, what, a sixth of the total? So dust off those 19-year-old character sheets now.

First, though, I wanted to share this lovely note from Mikaël Louys on his Facebook page. It really gives you a sense of the marvellous friends we have made as a result of the Fabled Lands, and of the boundless verve, joy and passion they bring to the project. Succeed or fail, it will have been worth the journey. But what am I saying - there is no try, right? So here we go on the next great Fabled Lands adventure!

Saturday 4 July 2015

Not on the nose!

People enjoy stories for lots of reasons. Early man used storytelling to map the landscape around him. A good chat-up line is the beginning of a story. Our whole social life is woven around the exchange of stories in various forms.

In storytelling, less is more. The most effective films don’t consist of chunks of static exposition interspersed with bursts of action. Facts are not baldly stated, they are revealed for the audience to notice and interpret. I think it was Billy Wilder (quoting Lubitsch) who said that if you let the audience work things out for themselves they will love you for it.

It’s true in games too. Elements of plot should be there to be discovered through action, not shovelled on between levels. Games are a lean-forward medium, after all, and gamers tend to be bright people. So drop a hint, plant a seed. Trust that the player will put it all together.

There’s a level in Warcraft 3 where your hero has endured a long siege and then you get a cutscene where the old king shows up and tells you jolly well done, followed by loads of natter amounting to: “The bad guys are there, go kill ‘em.”

Warcraft 3 is a great game, but its storytelling won’t win any awards. Two guys telling each other stuff is boring in any medium, especially when what they’re saying merely restates things we can already see or guess. It just makes you want to quit and read a book instead.

Black and White (yes, we're looking at old examples; but they work) did a number of clever things with storytelling which may have been inspired by silent movies. Storylines were set up with vignettes – a sick man stumbling through the woods, a figure leading children off to a cave. The story then became what you made of it.

Black and White was of course all about “sandbox” gameplay. But you could apply something similar to more formally structured games too. Suppose there’s a knot of musketeers watching darkly as those two victorious heroes congratulate each other. Then, in the next level, a group of your musketeers turn renegade and attack you.

That way you’ve got a plot twist – a reversal, no less – and you’re leaving the player to join the dots. There’s even a political resonance in the way those grunts you keep getting killed might eventually turn on you, blue blood or no.

Who says games can’t do irony?

Friday 3 July 2015


We made it! The Frankenstein Wars campaign on Kickstarter was a rollercoaster, a melodrama, a war of nail-biting anxiety. At one point we had a pledge for €2000. Then we lost it. Honestly, guv'nor, it was this big. But the whale came back. We went a few hundred euros over target. Then at the eleventh hour, in fact with two seconds to go, somebody pulled back their pledge level and we ended exactly on the nose: €8000.

That's not quite as extraordinary as it sounds. When a campaign has hit its target and is in the closing stages, Kickstarter's code automatically stops people dropping their pledges so far as to scupper the project. You knew that. I'm burbling. Excited, you see.

Anyway, I just want to thank everybody involved in reaching this point. We've had support above and beyond the call of duty from Jamie Thomson, Kyle B Stiff, Jonathan Green (who has his own Kickstarter upcoming btw), Tin Man Games, Stuart Lloyd and others. You know who you are, and we love you.

Also, of course, thanks are due to the chaps behind the campaign: Cubus Games, Rafa Teruel, and Paul Gresty.

But most of all, we should all thank you, the backers, for getting behind this attempt to do something new and different in the world of digital gamebooks. Stay tuned for updates as the Frankenstein Wars get under way.