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Friday 25 September 2015

A journal of the Plague years

Jamie and I went to work at Eidos Interactive in late 1995. I don't even think it was Eidos yet - that was some kind of reverse takeover manoeuvre cooked up by Charles Cornwall to finagle ailing software house Domark into a big money-spinning confection. As he put it at the time, "It's a minnow swallowing several whales."

None of that made any difference to us developers. Jamie was hired to do level design on the Deathtrap Dungeon computer game, while Ian Livingstone asked me to design a SimCity-type management and building game set in medieval London, or something like London. The inspiration was Daniel Simpson's short claymation movie H, in which a mark in the form of the letter h appears on the hand of a medieval stonemason who is sculpting a gargoyle for a cathedral. The stonemason is branded a heretic - or something else beginning with h - and burned at the stake We decided to call the game Plague, happily having talked Ian out of calling it P.

After struggling with economic models and architectural plans for a few weeks, I saw Ian in the corridor brandishing a copy of Warcraft 2 that he'd brought back from the States. He knew Warcraft was a favourite game of mine. "Have you played this yet?"


He chucked me the box. "You better take a look. Plague's got to be like this."

"OK, but Plague is a SimCity game."

I might have sprouted antennae, the way he looked at me. "Nobody wants more sim games. We want excitement. We want realtime strategy."

This was news to me, since I'd been hired to design a sim game, but I loved Warcraft 1 so I wasn't about to argue. I duly started to pack RTS elements into the city-building game the team were working on. It was going to be nearly a year before I realized that what was needed was to throw Plague out and start afresh - which is how Warrior Kings came to be conceived. That got mixed up in the political and business fallout of extricating a team from Eidos and forming Black Cactus, so the Warrior Kings that got released was a bit of a mishmash. A story for another day, that. We were talking about Plague.

As the wargame elements started to get bolted onto the original design, I realized that the team were still thinking of it as a city-building game. Our lead artist was an architecture graduate, and he had a lot of sway in the company, so it wasn't politic to junk the SimCity stuff right away. To help steer everyone's vision onto the new page, I wrote a script for the game intro sequence and got Martin McKenna to storyboard it. This wasn't even the intro I intended to use (more on that next week) but it made the team aware that the game they were working on was going to be about rather more dramatic issues than where to put the fish market...

Opening titles cards appear in sequence:

“The High King is dead.”

“The rule of law and justice is dead.”

“The dragon wing of night o'erspreads the world…”

We see the funeral of the High King. He's carried by his knights and laid in a burial mound, which is then sealed. As the knights and mourners file away, a storm-cloud darkens the sky.

Unhindered by the old King's edicts, resentment festers among his former knights. Each believes himself the rightful inheritor of the crown. Honour withers and treachery takes root, spreading like a poisoned weed in embittered hearts.

Across the countryside, the peasants huddle in fear. Murder, acrid-smelling, wafts on the air. The knights scent it; they grow grim and battle-keen. Each dreaming of dominion, they marshal their forces and prepare for the carnage to come.

In the court, knights look at each with hooded eyes, distrustfully. Some glance towards the empty seat at the round table, behind which hangs the dragon's-head banner of the High King.

Shadows on a castle wall: an assassin stabs a man in the back.

Kindled by intrigue, old grudges ignite. The kingdom is plunged into civil war. Armies surge and clash. Ringing steel and the wailing of widows drowns out the voice of reason. While Death sharpens his scythe, men who were once closer than brothers slaughter each other like wild beasts.

Crops and homesteads burn, great castles are shattered and left to ruin. A hundred noble knights lie dead, swords buried in mud, armour rusting. The victors bay for yet more blood. No quarter is given. The vanquished are hung on gibbets, ripe fruit for ravens.

Scenes of erupting battle, fire, dying men, executions...

A shadow sits now upon the vacant throne: the shadow of terror. The High King's dream has become a nightmare.

Sunset, falling through a narrow window on the deserted hall of heroes, leaves a slash of blood-coloured light across the dusty throne. The dragon's-head banner is by now moth-eaten.

Such brutal passion soon is spent. The fury of battle at last is lulled to sullen silence. In the aftermath thrive pestilence and famine. The soil, blood-clogged, yields weeds instead of wheat. Grain rots in dank barns where rats breed in the darkness. Behind the fortified walls of their towns, the survivors cower in dread of the plague that now sweeps the land. The sick are nailed inside their houses and abandoned to die. Bodies thrown into carts are left to blacken and bloat, the living too few and too fearful to bury them.

Prophets preach that Doomsday is near, that God means to wipe Man from the world for his sins. To most this is welcome news. The suffering is too much. Better the endless sleep of death than to endure the relentless horrors of the world.

Scenes of hardship. Narrow empty streets in a town, with smoke drifting on the breeze. Flagellants wearing crowns of thorns shuffle along, crying out as they whip themselves. A few peasants trudge miserably past – a weeping funeral cortege carrying the bundled body of a child.

Then, one night when the high winds howl, a traveller comes to your court. In these times, strangers are feared as carriers of the plague but he walks past your guards unchallenged, as if in a dream. With your ministers you listen to his words, even though he comes from far away and his tongue is hard to understand. In your hearts you hear him, in your memories you recognize the ring of noble speech. There is wisdom in his strange words. And he reminds you of the secret that in these terrible days of turmoil and death had been forgotten:

The court. Lightning outside. Knock at the doors, which swing open and a stranger enters. He looks like the High King seen on his bier in the first scene. This whole bit seems dream-like. We’re closing in on the stranger's face and into his eyes, sparkling in the firelight, and we hear the stranger speak:

“The soul of the land is its King. It withers because its soul, the King, is dead. So there must be a new King. His reign will mark a new beginning. For good or evil? Time will tell. But power cannot be shared. Others also come to take the throne. Therefore grasp you now this sword. Conquer by might, rule with right. One land, one King.”

While the stranger speaks, the view pushes into his eyes, fades to black, and then shows the faces of those listening to him. We pan around the court, ending on the lord's face.

The stranger reaches the bit about others seeking the throne and his voice becomes more emphatic and resonant. Cut back to where he was standing to find he's no longer there. A gleaming sword hangs in the air. The lord rises, reaches to take it –

The lord wakes, sitting bolt upright. He is surrounded by his ministers and men, who had fallen drunkenly asleep at the benches. Now they stir and, seeing the resolve in the lord's eyes, are instantly alert. Perhaps they shared his dream? We see his hand close, remembering the phantom sword he was reaching for. Jaw set sternly, he repeats the final words of the dream:

“One land, one king...”

Friday 18 September 2015

Black and wight

A little while back I mentioned a Kickstarter campaign by Megara Entertainment for a hardback edition of Crypt of the Vampire, which was my first-ever gamebook and also Leo Hartas's first illustration job. That was the mid-80s and Leo was still at university at the time - as indeed I might have been, researching fundamental particles and the theory of everything, if I hadn't frittered away the time I should have spent revising for Finals on roleplaying, girls, and punting. But that's a detail.

Anyway, after tweaking the campaign a few times, Megara gave it up as a bad job. I could have told them. In fact I did tell them. A Kickstarter for Heart of Ice might have soared to great heights, but Crypt of the Vampire was written for 9-12 year olds, and they're not the demographic that's going to shell out $50 for a hardback book.

The saddest casualty of the aborted Kickstarter campaign is that we won't get to see Leo's colour versions of his original artwork. When I first heard about that I thought it was a terrible idea. Why not colourize Citizen Kane while we're at it? But I should have trusted more in Leo's talent. As this sample shows, he can do a lot more than drop in some tints using Photoshop.

You can't buy any of Leo's original artwork via Kickstarter, but if you wanted a piece to hang on the wall then you can contact Leo directly via his website. He's got drawings from the Golden Dragon books and from Down Among the Dead Men, as well as a drawer full of fabulous fantasy maps from Fighting Fantasy. It's as great a treasure as any Smaug ever made a pillow of, believe me. And what a great birthday or Christmas present (is it too early to mention Christmas? sorry) for a fantasy fan.

STOP PRESS: Would you believe there has been some talk this week about Megara restarting that abortive Kickstarter campaign? I wasn't going to authorize licences for any more of my old gamebooks, but Leo seems keen and I'd hate to miss the chance to see his colour versions of all those old pics. So keep your eyes peeled for that.

Friday 11 September 2015

Darkness and light

I make no secret of my admiration for the work of John Whitbourn, who I believe ranks as one of Britain's leading exponents of weird fantasy fiction. Of all his books, my favourites are the Binscombe Tales, in which the mysterious and possibly magical Mr Disvan (no, he's not Merlin; avowedly Saxon, see) leads our bemused and mildly Pooterish narrator through an entangling web of supernatural close encounters which are astonishing, quirky, terrifying and hilarious - often all at the same time.

I was reminded that it's time to award myself the treat of re-reading the Binscombe Tales while browsing the internet recently. First of all I came across this astute comment on the series by writing tutor and blogger John Yeoman:
"Some of the eeriest stories ever written, in my belief, are the little known Binscombe Tales by John Whitbourn. They're set in a homely English village that lives on the borderland between reality and a grim alternative world. Disembodied eyeballs float around the pub ceiling, men long dead drop in for a drink, and demons mumble in the rest room. The locals just sigh 'What can be done?' and order another beer. Their acceptance of horror as a universal constant gives the stories, ostensibly humorous, a hideous sub-text. But the horror works only because it is set against a backdrop of banal normality."
And that led to this podcast by Ms Julie D on the website Forgotten Classics. I was charmed by the Texan pronunciation "Bins-COOM" (over here in England we say "BINS-cum") and there are a lot of very thought-provoking observations about the juxaposition of eeriness with everyday life that makes the stories so effective.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Secret lore

I keep forgetting about this, but Mikael Louys of Megara Entertainment recently reminded me that a Players' Book has been released for my old Dragon Warriors roleplaying game.

This ties in with the Magnum Opus edition of a few years back and has new skills and three new adventuring professions, as well as rules about daily life in the world of Legend. Sounds great. Now, if only it were available on Createspace or Amazon I'd have a few Christmas gifts sorted early.

UPDATE (Sept 9): And lo! Because our regular correspondent Anonymous requested it, here's the book's cover artwork unobscured by the title having been put in the wrong place (duh).

Tuesday 1 September 2015

The etiquette of roleplaying

Inigo Hartas, who is the son of my dear friend and long-time colleague Leo, is a roleplayer. My position as Inigo’s godfather is ironic, given that I’m not religious (if you don't count an atavistic reverence for Odin - or maybe I mean Alan Moore, if indeed they're not one and the same on the mythago level), but perhaps I can take credit for having helped inspire his favourite hobby at least.

I began roleplaying when I was a little older than Inigo is now. He often says things that are a lot smarter than I would have come out with at his age. The hobby wasn’t invented back then, that’s my excuse. We had to work it all out from first principles.

There are a few pointers I’ve learned over the years that are de rigueur for a good roleplaying campaign. I don’t think players like Inigo need me to tell them this stuff; they’re breathed it in as they played since their pre-teen years. But it’s the nature of experience to want to share itself around, so here goes.

Oh, first a couple of preambles. I don’t use the term games-master or dungeon-master. The role has too much control anyway, and that just makes it an excuse to boss players around with your sublimated ambitions as a frustrated novelist. Call them referees or umpires.

Also, when a referee foists a plot on the players and has them jump through all his or her story hoops, I call that a “thatched” game, after the way the late and unlamented British prime minister ran her Cabinet. If you want to write a novel, please go right ahead – it’s easier today than it has ever been. But don’t co-opt me to be one of your shoe-horned characters. I’m here to roleplay.

Okay, to the tips:

Keep your mind on the game, stay in character, don’t suddenly start yakking on about how something that happened in the game reminds you of a trailer on YouTube. Honestly, you can natter any time, but to do it during the game is rude to the other players. Also, it wastes 90% of the power of what a roleplaying campaign can deliver. Imagine a play if the actors kept running to the front of the stage to tell you about their day. Commit to the experience, remain in character throughout, and you will go places no movie or novel or videogame will ever take you.

Don’t block
This is from improv, and it’s about keeping a smooth flow. If a player says, ‘I call my butler,’ the referee shouldn’t say, ‘You don’t have a butler.’ That’s jarring. If the player-character’s finances don’t stretch to manservants, now there’s a plot thread to develop. What happens when the butler asks to be paid? If the character can’t afford it, maybe the butler goes off disgruntled – and he’s armed with the secrets that have been discussed among the PCs while he poured their drinks. Thus the plot will thicken.

Don’t be authorial
Players need to think about the character from the inside. It should be, ‘I do this,’ not, ‘Geralt does this.’ For this reason I dislike the mental disadvantage rules you find in games like GURPS where being shy, for instance, or sadistic gives you extra points to spend on your character build. The rationale is that NPCs’ reaction rolls will be adversely affected by knowing you’re prone to get off on watching toenails being pulled out. Well, balderdash. First because no referee makes a habit of rolling NPC reactions, second because most of those authored traits will get forgotten in play because they were only taken for the points bonus, and third because all that character stuff should come across in the roleplaying anyway.

Maintain the atmosphere
This is for the referee. You are your players’ eyes and ears. Evoke the scene for them. This isn’t about purple description, it’s about clarity and verisimilitude. As a corollary, don’t lie to players about what they would know. ‘The axe chops you in half. Only kidding, you get to roll dodge,’ is not much funnier than telling a blind man that the kerb he’s stepping off is a ten foot drop. Don’t abuse the power you have as referee, instead help everyone to immerse themselves seamlessly in the events of the game.

Respect the rules
Like Hammurabi, I don’t want to be ruled by whims but by laws. The rules are the court of appeal that allow the players to know that the game world is fair and that they really have agency and aren’t just getting to sit in on the referee’s thatched storyline. You can have house rules, of course, but make sure everybody is aware of those before the game starts.In short, dear referee, don't be arbitrary. People came to play a game and participate in the creation of an emergent narrative, not to give your ego a stroking.
An example: I ran a Dark Ages scenario where the characters were up against a near-immortal time-travelling foe who had a thousand years’ greater experience and skill than they did. At one point, a lone player crept into the enemy base. Unknown to him, this immortal foe was there. The player-character came across him, facing the other way along a passageway. On his own, he stood no chance. But he rolled for stealth, the immortal rolled for perception and – against the odds, he tiptoed right up behind him and killed the guy before he could react. Was I tempted to thatch it, having devised this top bad guy only to see him cut down by one surprise attack? Sure, but I knew that we were now in unplanned territory, and that always makes for a more interesting game. Trust the dice and the rules to be the wings of inspiration.
Freedom is everything
A roleplaying game is not a scripted story. Regardless of what the referee may have planned, the players should feel at liberty to act however they feel their characters really would. That’s why we call it roleplaying, not boardgaming. ‘But what if they ignore my plot?’ you cry. ‘What if they split the party? What if they do something that ends my campaign?’ My reply: they can’t. Because it’s not your campaign, it’s theirs. If they become wanted fugitives, that’s the campaign now. If they split into factions that want to kill each other, go with that and see where it leads. This has happened in my own games and because of that we’ve had experiences (such as a Tsolyani civil war and a long plan to drive a character mad) that none of us could have foreseen. To roleplay well, you must delight in the unexpected. (Control freaks sent into a panic by this concept, please see above re the ease of publishing your own novel.)

For the best advice on roleplaying, I recommend Paul Mason’s articles in this Imazine freeware archive.And for all the truly transformative experiences I've had in four decades of roleplaying, I'd like to thank those I've played with - including, but not limited to: Paul Mason, Steve Foster, Oliver Johnson, Robert Dale, Jack Bramah, Mark Smith, Mike Polling, Sheldon Bacon, Frazer Payne, Les Binet, Pauline Ashall, Penny Newman, Gail Baker, David Bailey, Dermot Bolton, Mark Wigoder Daniels, Tim Harford, Paul Gilham, Aaron Fortune, Zelah Meyer, Andrew Mounstephen, Tim Savin, Simone Cooper, Nathan Cubitt, Nick Henfrey, Andy Murdin, John Whitbourn, Steve Wilshire, Patrick Brady, Mark Wilkinson, Paul Deacon, Roz Morris, and of course Jamie Thomson. It was because of all the years we've spent in imaginary realities that Fabled Lands exists at all.