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Saturday 24 December 2016


When I was first asked to write a novella to tie in with Heroquest (no, not HeroQuest, which I would have preferred) I came up with the idea of four round-robin narrators vaguely inspired by Jack Vance, Bret Easton Ellis, the Beowulf poet, and Terry Pratchett respectively. And before you raise a very legitimate objection, I did say vaguely.

I don't recall there being a Heroquest world at the time I wrote the first book, so I created part of one and drew my own map of it. By the time I was asked to write the second book, Games Workshop had designed their own version of the world, which included some of the place names from my novella but with a quite different geography "loosely based on the Warhammer world" as it said in the front. I just mention that because if you refer to the map from the second book while reading the first, you will see that the route the characters take makes no sense. One view at the time was, "Well, it's for ten-year-olds," but I can tell you that when I was ten that sort of thing would've annoyed the hell out of me.

As well as the novella, the book The Fellowship of Four included a mini-gamebook, "In the Night Season", and that's this year's Christmas freebie. Grab it now here while stocks last.

Somebody also created an actual HeroQuest set-up based on the novella, here. And while we're about it, an early Christmas freebie was the second Heroquest book, The Screaming Spectre, and if you missed that 'tis the season to be jolly all over again, here.

Friday 9 December 2016

An unearthed relic

Normally I'd put the Yule freebie up on Christmas Eve*, but as it's a scenario I figure it's not much use unless you have a little time to play it. Much as you and I would doubtless enjoy spending Christmas morning around the gaming table, our non-RPGer wives, husbands and other significant others might take a dim view.

This scenario originally appeared in White Dwarf 71 (November 1985) and for commercial reasons had to be dual-statted for Dragon Warriors and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It later got resurrected for Magnum Opus Press's In From The Cold book, where James Wallis wrote of it: "A Box of Old Bones has been out of print [since 1985], though clandestine copies have been circulating among the game’s fans. Not only is its action set in the middle of Baron Aldred’s fief, at the heart of many campaigns — Osterlin Abbey is marked on the map on page 219 of the Dragon Warriors rulebook — but it also gives important insights into the organization and workings of the True Faith, particularly its institutions such as abbeys and monasteries."

Belatedly I should thank Penny Newman, who mentioned the brisk trade in stolen relics during the Middle Ages and thus gave me the idea for the adventure. One monastery could embarrass another by taking a relic, for if providence allowed the theft then presumably the original monastery wasn't worthy of the relic in the first place. Naturally there is no centralized authority that you can appeal to, and local lords will be only too happy to side with whichever monastery lies in their own fiefdom, as the presence of a relic brings pilgrims and hence wealth and prestige.

An adventure for six characters of 1st-2nd rank

Referee’s introduction

The life of an adventurer is constantly threatened by the powers of evil and darkness, and the advantage of owning a relic is obvious. Relics—the bodily fragments or personal effects of saints—possess sacred power, and are physical evidence of the truth and history of the religion. Monasteries prize these items for another reason, however. Possession of a relic gives the monastery status and prestige. Still more mundanely, a monastery that owns a renowned relic is more likely to attract notice, and to receive the rich endowments that nobles hand out in their pious moments. Men (even holy men) being what they are, this means that fake relics abound, and monasteries vie for ownership of the authentic ones with a zeal that is often all too secular.
This, then, is a tale of human greed.
Osterlin Abbey [marked in red on the map above] houses a priceless relic: the mortal remains of Saint Giles. Great lords and ladies come from far away to venerate the relic, often bringing lavish gifts for the Abbey’s coffers. The monks of Osterlin live well as a result.
Recently, a knight called Notker of Balcom was engaged by the monks of a rival abbey who wish to obtain the relic. They had already sent one of their number to join Osterlin as a novice and thus have a spy within the abbey walls. Their spy had assessed the lay brothers whose job it is to guard the relic. When the time was right, he bribed those he deemed most venal so they would allow Notker to enter the church at dead of night and substitute the bones of some nonentity for those of the famous saint.
The plan is for Notker to visit the abbey for a few days. One of the travelling-chests of his entourage will contain a skeleton which he can switch for the true relic on the last night of his visit. The theft should not be detected until he is long gone—if indeed it ever is.
But this elegant plan has developed a fatal flaw at its outset. The spy misjudged the character of one of those he tried to bribe; as soon as he pocketed the money, this man went secretly to the abbot and told him what had happened. Seeing a means to embarrass the local monks, weed out untrustworthy lay brothers, and even pick up a little cash from the bribes the spy was offering, Father Eorwin instructed him to give no indication that anything was amiss. ‘Accept further bribes as they are offered, invent difficulties for which you will need even more. Breathe no word of this to any other lay brother, for others may not have your own exemplary nature.’
As the lay brother left (perhaps happily contemplating the advancement which he had surely secured for himself ), the abbot began to make plans of his own. Calling the monks together in the Chapter House, he told them the whole story. Many were outraged, demanding immediate expulsion of the guilty lay brothers, and some form of action against the rival order. Eorwin lifted his hand for silence. ‘But if they want our relic so badly,’ he said with a smile half saintly and half rather devilish, ‘we should allow them to steal it...’
The relic was quietly removed to the abbot’s house for temporary safekeeping. Thus, unbeknownst to Notker and his accomplices, they will merely be switching their skeleton for another that is no more sacred.

Players’ introduction

You have often heard travelers mention Osterlin Abbey, famous for the bones of St Giles the Martyr that are kept in a reliquary in the church there. The hospitality shown to wayfarers is scarcely less famous and perhaps this is why, on your way to Hesard’s Ford (or any other destination), you consider it worth a slight detour to visit the abbey.
It is late in the afternoon as you approach. Sunlight sparkles off the brook that provides the monks with drinking water and a plentiful supply of fish. A few peasants in shabby rags wander in a line through the meadows. They have just collected pork and grain from the abbey’s almonry. Lay brothers have been hard at work tending the fields, but now they are hurrying back for vespers.
You are met by a slightly built monk who seems to be the guest-master. ‘Alas!’ he says, shaking his head as you approach. ‘We cannot take you in. Sir Notker of Balcom and his retinue presently occupy the larger of our guest houses, while the other must be kept ready for a group of pilgrims who will be arriving shortly. I am sorry.’
‘What are you saying, Giraldus?’ calls out an elderly monk who has been helping pass out the alms. ‘Would you have these good people sleep in the fields, with this cold wind coming down from the north? There are a few pallets in the lay brothers’ dormitory, I’m sure.’
Brother Giraldus complies at once. As he leads you away towards the lay brothers’ dormitory, he tells you that the elderly monk was Eorwin, the abbot.

The Abbey

1. Smaller Guesthouse    The guest-master, Brother Giraldus, and two assistants occupy a room here. The other rooms are empty, awaiting the arrival of a pilgrim group on the morrow.
2. Larger Guesthouse    This is where Notker and his companions have been staying.
3. Well
4. Almonry
5. Stables
6. Fishpond
7. Orchard    There are apple and pear trees here, and a number of beehives clustered by the cellarium.
8. Lay Brothers’ Dormitory    This occupies the top floor of the building above the cellarium (store room) and lay brothers’ frater, or living quarters. The player characters will be sharing it with the menials from Notker’s entourage, and with fifty lay brothers and novices. Apart from Cadric, all the NPCs here are normal men with no combat experience.
9. The Cloister    The hub of monastic life. The section adjacent to the church constitutes the scriptorium. Here, in bays called carrels, monks spend part of each day reading and copying manuscripts.
10. Water-Trough    This stone bowl has running water for the monks to wash their hands before dinner.
11. Kitchen
12. Dining Hall
13. Calefactory    A fire burns here throughout the day in winter, so that any monk who gets too cold while working in the scriptorium can come to warm his hands.
14. Monks’ Dormitory    The dormitory is over the monks’ frater (common room), and extends above the chapter house and library right up to the south transept of the church. From here, the night stairs (24d) lead down into the church. There are some twenty-five monks usually resident in the dormitory, and none of these have more than basic fighting skill.
15. The Abbot’s Lodging    This is Father Eorwin’s private house, usually also occupied by a couple of monks or lay brothers who act as his secretary and servant.
16. Reredorter, or latrine. An ingenious sewage system leads underground into the stream.
17. Chapter House    This is on the ground floor, under the monks’ dormitory. The monks assemble here daily to discuss the running of the abbey and other secular business.
18. Library    This houses about two hundred scrolls and five hundred books—many of the latter chained up. Even if they could gain access (it is kept locked and only the librarian, claustal prior and Father Eorwin have keys) most adventurers would find the contents rather boring.
19. Chapel    This small place of worship is attached to the infirmary.
20. Infirmary    This is for the treatment of sick and elderly monks. The infirmarian here is Brother Odilo, a jovial fellow whose cheeks are often flushed with drink. He sees to all medical treatment as well as the blood-letting which every monk enjoys twice yearly. In these tasks Odilo substitutes enthusiasm and goodwill in place of medical skill.
21. Infirmary Kitchen
22. Barn
23. Mill
24. The Church    By night this is an eerie place, illuminated only by the red glare of the sanctuary lamp and the moonbeams streaming through stained glass windows. The first service of the day, consisting of Nocturns and then the Lauds of the Dead, takes place a half-hour after midnight. The various parts of the church are:
a. The nave
b. Rood screen: a large carved and painted screen surmounted by an ornate crucifix.
c. A newel stairway that leads up to the belfry and down to the undercroft. Several abbots and prestigious benefactors are buried in the undercroft, while others are in the graveyard outside.
d. Night stairs down from the monks’ dormitory. When the PCs come upon Notker et al, the stairway will be occupied by the ghostly manifestation of Adamnan’s magic Whispering Hat.
e. Chancel with altar and decorated with ornate paneling
f. Sacristy
g. Chantry chapel bequeathed by Gefmund, father of the present baron.
h. Reliquary chapel. The cause of all the trouble is kept here in a silver casket inlaid with mother-of-pearl and supported by two partly gilded silver angels. Tonight, of course, the remains of St Giles reside elsewhere and the bones of an old peasant are accorded a temporary honor.

The timeline

The player-characters and any companions they have with them are given pallets in the lay brothers’ dormitory. This is certainly unusual for persons of any standing (presumably some of the characters, at least, will be knights), but is sometimes necessary at important abbeys such as this, which may have to accommodate several groups at once. If any of the group are wizards of any type, they would know to keep quiet about it. Such folk, often thought pagan, are rarely welcome at a monastery.
Many of the lay-brothers were taken in by the monks at a very early age and have spent their whole lives around the cloister. Some were freemen who joined in later life but these are still for the most part young men. One is of the gentry—Cadric (see stats); he is still learning to be humble and may become very belligerent if the characters try to treat him in an overbearing manner.
Along with the lay brothers, they are sharing the dormitory with the menials from Notker’s entourage. If they care to question these menials they will soon discover they are not peasants from Notker’s manor (as might be expected) but were hired at a good rate from the village of Ashmore. Ashmore lies some three days journey away on the far side of Helfax Wood. It seems that when Notker first arrived there he was travelling with a group of monks. If the characters are beginning to show an interest in their tale the menials will expect a few silver pieces for the last tidbit: the monks who were with Notker were not from Osterlin Abbey.

Supper follows vespers. Everyone, including guests and lay brothers, eats together. The characters sit at Father Eorwin’s table along with Notker and his retinue, but no talking is permitted as one of the monks is reading aloud from Barnabas’s Life of St Giles. The long tables are a flurry of motion as the monks converse in sign language, while the abbot and his guests sit in quiet dignity.
Their first impression of Notker is of an intense, hard-faced knight in early middle age. He seems always alert, watching like a hawk, assessing everything and everyone with sharp intelligence. Not a man to cross. With him are four men and a woman. Three of the men are obviously knights, while the fourth—a short, pudgy fellow with short grey hair—may be Notker’s personal priest. The woman may be a nun, for she wears the black robes worn by nuns or widows.
Supper is frugal for all but the abbot and his guests—but this is after all one of the more luxurious monasteries. Most serve only one meal a day. The meal over, the brothers and lay brothers file off to the church for the short service of compline. Most will then retire gratefully to their dormitories, exhausted from their long day, though a few may walk a while in the cloister, or spend half an hour chatting in the parlor.
Father Eorwin, with Giraldus the guest-master and the claustral prior Willibrord, take all the guests to the abbot’s lodgings. They are offered some of the fine minty liqueur that the monks prepare, and there is the chance for a little conversation. Astute characters may notice a certain coldness between Adamnan (the grey-haired tubby priest) and Lady Marianna (the nun). Notker himself talks distractedly, as if preoccupied. The three knights—Einhard, Grest and Denchille—are glum military types who keep themselves to themselves and seem uncomfortable with small talk, though they can be drawn into enthusiastic discussion on such subjects as campaigning, warhorses, jousts and the finer points of swordplay.
Before very long, Notker gets to his feet. He thanks the monks for their hospitality and, noting their tiredness, bids them goodnight. All the guests see this as the cue to turn in. Willibrord shows the characters back to the lay brothers’ dormitory.

You can approach this sequence in two ways: you can simply tell a PC of your choice what happens, or you can role-play through it, as they wake in the middle of the night with a feeling of dread. Whichever you choose, try to create a sense of strangeness, of the world not being quite right, as if the character is still half in a dream—perhaps the residual effects of the Hand of Glory, or something more sinister.
One of the characters comes awake to see a grotesque shadow looming over his pallet. He sits bolt upright, but manages to stifle a cry of alarm when he sees that it is just a shadow cast by one of the stone figures that adorn the cloister roof. Sweating, he gets up and goes over to the window to breathe in the fresh night air. The stone figure squats outside the narrow window. Whimsically following its gaze, he sees a strange thing: a man in a large cloak steps furtively from the dark cloisters into the courtyard below. Starkly visible for a moment in the light of the moon, he dips his hand into the water-trough and brings out a small item that was concealed there. After a quick glance about, he darts back into the enveloping shadows of the cloister.
The referee should select a responsible and responsive player-character for this—one who will realize that something suspicious is afoot and wake his companions. Attempts to wake the lay brothers will be mostly unsuccessful. This is because Adamnan the sorcerer is using his Hand of Glory, an occult talisman which holds 0th-rank characters in deep sleep. If they go around the whole dormitory, they will be able to awaken only Cadric, Gondris the spy and three others whose monastic discipline makes them equivalent to a ranked character. Of course, if Gondris is woken then he will slip away at the first opportunity and hurry straight to the church to warn Notker.
Trying to wake the lay brothers would cost the player-characters time that they may not wish to waste. The same can be said of armoring up, and in fact only the most wretchedly uncouth of characters would don heavy armour in the monastery without a very good and proven reason. The GM may allow a boorish and timorous barbarian to pull on a mail shirt if he insists on doing so, but others barely have time to put on leather jerkins.
After descending the stairs to the cloister, the characters will notice a flicker of lantern light beyond the scriptorium. This is quickly cut off by a heavy door closing. Someone is in the church—and there is no sign of the four lay brothers who should be standing guard on the church steps.

Interlude: Notker’s Plan
By means of his bribes Notker has ensured that the church keys would be secreted in the water trough where he could easily obtain them. The four lay brothers who should have been guarding the church have been paid off. At Notker’s signal they fetched out the two monks who normally stand watch directly in front of the reliquary chapel, claiming they had seen intruders crossing the lawn between the infirmary and the graveyard. The monks (who were pleased to go along with this diversion) took two of the lay brothers on a tour of the abbey grounds. The remaining two guards waited until they saw Notker approaching and then hurried off towards the orchard. If anything goes wrong with the theft, they can later claim to have gone looking for the others.

At this point it is about a quarter to midnight— almost an hour before the monks are due to come down to sing Nocturns. Notker’s intention was to enter the church, have Adamnan place the Whispering Hat (q.v.) at the bottom of the night stairs so no sleepless monk would overhear anything, then quickly substitute his bag of bones for what he thinks is the true relic.
He has nearly accomplished this when a complication arises. A monk called Cedric has been travelling from Clyster Port for the last few weeks and has returned at this late hour. He is accompanied by a man he met on his journey, Ruttgur of the Knights Capellar. Both men being extremely devout, they have entered the church by the porch door at the west end of the nave (normally locked of course, but Cedric has a key) in order to say a short prayer before retiring. Thus neither knows anything about Notker’s theft, or Father Eorwin’s plan to turn the tables on him. As they round the rood screen they come face to face with Notker and his group. With the gate of the reliquary chapel open and the keys in his hand, they have caught Notker in the act of committing the crime. The player characters should arrive on the scene around this point in time.

Dramatis Personae

The villains of the piece
Notker of Balcom intends to divest the abbey of its great relic, the bones of St Giles. With him are three trusty retainers—Einhard, Grost and Denchille. His monastic employers hope for a smooth and uneventful robbery which may not be detected for many months, but just in case anything goes wrong they have provided two magical helpers in the form of Adamnan the sorcerer and Lady Marianne. If anything should upset the plan (as Ruttgur, Cedric and the player characters hopefully will) Adamnan’s Astral Gate scroll should allow for a dramatic exit. Remember that it will take Adamnan four rounds to prepare this spell if he needs it: one to take out the scroll and three to visualize his destination—an ancient stone circle near the village of Ashmore.

Notker of Balcom
Formerly a knight of the most chivalrous and noble sort, Notker became embittered by the atrocities he witnessed on the Crusade. In middle age he has become a sometime adventurer and agent for anyone who can pay him to do their dirty work. This is more out of world-weariness than greed or bad character. He has no desire to see anyone hurt, and his sword has remained sheathed until the point where Ruttgur attacks him in church. Years of adventuring have taught Notker to think on his feet—he can change his plans quickly and cleverly. If things are going very badly, he will abort the mission (probably escaping through Adamnan’s Astral Gate) rather than struggling on to the bitter end. 

A small, fat man who is impressive more for the magical items he possesses than for any personal power. He is timid, and in any confrontation will keep well out of danger. His face is often damp with perspiration and his eyes may be a little watery from too much drink. The latter, combined with his reluctance to use sorcery on consecrated ground, gives him a 10% chance of miscasting any spell. 

Adamnan’s special Items

The Whispering Hat     If turned inside out and placed on the floor in front of an arch or doorway, this black felt hat gives rise to an insubstantial shadowy figure. The figure has the vague outline of a tall man in a spreading cloak and felt hat. It does not attack or move, being merely a vis­ual manifestation of the spell involved. Even the loudest clamor and shouting is muffled by the spell so that from the other side of the figure it can be heard only as a faint whisper – hence the name.

Hand of Glory     This is the severed, preserved and treated hand of a suicide. The candle gripped in its stiff fingers gives off a light that only Adamnan can see by. While alight, it prevents slumbering characters of 0th rank/level from awakening. This effect extends over both dormitories, though in fact many of the monks count as higher than 0th level by virtue of their spiritual tranquility and strength. The hand of glory will burn for about fifteen minutes, and can be extinguished only by blood (of which Adamnan carries a vial), milk or holy water.

Scroll. This fine parchment contains an Astral Gate spell. It was scripted by a sorcerer in Beltayn and obtained for Adamnan’s use in this specific mission at considerable expense to his employers. It is designed for affording a rapid escape route if anything should go wrong.

The Casket of Fays     This is Adamnan's most extraordinary item, though he does not fully understand its workings. It is a small silver-bound pine coffer. Each time it is opened, some strange and unpredictable effect results. Adam­nan believes that it may be used twice a day but, if opened a third time, all the fays would escape and its power would be gone. Actually he is mistaken; the casket may be opened any number of times without draining its power, though eventually it will be retrieved by its makers (see 13 below). The casket's effects are:

  1. A tendril of green flame snakes out of the casket to strike a single target within 10m. The user can specify the target, but if he does not then the flame will double back and hit him. (Treat as a Dragonbreath  spell.)
  2. Everyone within 10m is struck dumb for one minute.
  3. A haunting siren song emanates from the casket. Characters must roll equal to or under their rank/level on 1d20 or stand entranced. The roll must be made each round unless the charac­ter can block his ears. The duration of the song is set by a Spell Expiry Roll, unless cut short by closing the casket.
  4. A foul plague of grey rats pour from the casket and rush away in all directions, only to vanish mysteriously when they reach cover such as a wall, thicket or shadows. They attack no one, but all characters in the vicinity have a 10% chance of contracting the Black Death.
  5. A random sorcery spell of 1st-8th level is cast upon any one specified character within 10m. The user of the casket does not know in advance what this spell will be; it could just as well be baneful as beneficial.
  6. Utter darkness fills a zone of 10m radius, and no creature or spell can see within it. This effect also prevents the user from seeing. The darkness lasts until cancelled by a Spell Expiry Roll or until the lid is closed.
  7. An illusory duplicate of one (ran­domly determined) character within 10m is formed. This moves and speaks accord­ing to the casket user's mental com­mands, but has no power to harm a character even if believed. Unless dis­pelled by shutting the lid, it lasts until its Spell Expiry Roll comes up.
  8. An unaccountable blizzard blows out of the casket, affecting anyone in front of it in a roughly 90° arc to a dis­tance of 10m. Torches and unshuttered lanterns are extinguished and charac­ters must roll under their strength on d20 each round or pass out from the extreme cold. The blizzard lasts 1-6 rounds whether or not the lid is closed. A character caught in it for more than four rounds suffers 1d6 HP frostbite damage (but only 1d4 if clad in thick furs, protected by a Survival spell, etc).
  9. The user opens the casket and pulls out a spriggan. ATTACK 9; DEFENCE 9; barbs (d10,1); AF1; 1d4+1 HP; EVASION 8; MAG ATT 16; MAG DEF 6; move 25m. There is a 70% chance that the sprig­gan will attack a character whom the user points out, and a 30% chance it will attack one of his own companions, though it will never turn on the user himself. In addition to normal attacks, this vicious little fiend can lay a curse seven times a day. This ability affects one victim within 15m; use the normal curse rules or the special table in The Elven Crystals.
  10. A booming voice from the casket's depths speaks the name of the most powerful character within 10m. Only if there is no other person within 10m will the user be named. The victim suffers a 1d20 fright attack which may leave him rigid with fear for 2-8 rounds.
  11. A storm of pine needles streams from the casket. Anyone within 10m who was facing the user must roll under reflexes on d20 or be blinded for the next 2-12 rounds. The effect lasts for five rounds, and no one can approach the user until it subsides. It is impossible to close the lid while the pine needles are shooting out.
  12. Seven vampire bats flap out of the casket and swoop to attack a foe indicated by the user. Unless slain, these creatures remain until dissolved into shadows by a Spell Expiry Roll. If the casket is shut before they have van­ished, they abandon their original victim and return to attack the user.
  13. Dank fog swirls around the user. There is a smell of soil and trees and cloying mushrooms. Tall figures glide forward, then half-glimpsed hands wrench the casket from him. The fog dissipates, leaving no trace of the mys­terious figures or the Casket of Fays.
 Unless otherwise stated above, the user of the casket is not affected by its powers.

A slender, imperious woman in early middle age (about thirty). She affects the somber habit of a nun or genteel widow, though she belongs to neither category. The reality is that she is a mystic. She was hired, like Adamnan, to provide magical back-up on this mission: the two of them maintain a vitriolic rivalry. 

Einhard, Grost and Denchille
These three stalwarts have been with Notker for years. He paupered himself to get the four of them to the Holy Land, and they have been doggedly loyal to him ever since. They are very unimaginative except in matters military and for the purposes of this scenario they may be treated as average in all characteristics (including Reflexes of 11).

The other two NPCs who will definitely become embroiled in the adventure are Ruttgur and Cedric. They will be fighting against Notker’s group—probably, but not certainly, alongside the PCs. One of the lay brothers, Cadric, is also detailed here as he may get involved. Other monks should be treated as untrained normal men, if needed.

A tall, broad-shouldered warrior who recently returned from the Crusade. His white tabard with eight-pointed indigo cross on the chest marks him out as one of the Knights Capellar, a fighting order formed in the last few years to protect pilgrims and settlers in the Holy Land. Unlike most people, Ruttgur has no reservations about spilling blood in a church or anywhere else. He is a violent fanatic, and behaves in just the way that a good Capellar is supposed to behave. 

Brother Cedric
Cedric, an intense dedicated man, has been absent from the abbey for over a month. Consequently he knows nothing about the plot and counter-plot. If the player-characters side with Ruttgur then he may leave them and run to wake the monks. Remember that he will have to pass through the shadowy figure formed by the Whispering Hat in order to reach the night stairs, and he has no way of knowing that it cannot hurt him. If the player characters throw in their lot with Notker, Cedric will have to take up his staff and wade in—he will not leave Ruttgur to fight them alone, and the Capellar will not retreat. 

A young gentleman who recently joined the abbey as a lay brother. He has a quick temper which he is trying to curb. He occasionally guards the relic though not tonight; and for this purpose he keeps a heavy iron-shod crucifix by his pallet. In the event of trouble, this serves very effectively as a mace. 

The lay brother who has been acting as Notker’s cloister spy. At the first hint of trouble he will try to warn Notker, if this seems possible without jeopardizing his own safety. After that he will make his getaway over the orchard wall.


The scenario should allow for a talked-out solution or a denouement with drawn swords, according to the tastes of the gaming group. But PCs who prefer a subtle approach, and would rather offer Notker a chance to give himself up, will have their hands full calming Ruttgur down.
If Notker escapes with the skeleton, Father Eorwin may offer the characters the job of going after him. This is only for the sake of appearances—he doesn’t care about getting the bones back, but the rival monks would be suspicious if no force was sent out to retrieve the ‘relic’. Eorwin wants them to put their stolen skeleton on show with all pomp before he reveals it to be fake. This alternative leads to the player-characters becoming innocent dupes of course—the pawns in a game played by far more influential men—but any grudges they develop against the NPCs in question can only be good for the long-term campaign.
If Notker is caught, or at least prevented from accomplishing his theft, the characters should expect some gratitude from the monks. Some, but not much—they may have acted from the very best of motives, but in effect they only blundered in and spoiled a perfectly good bluff. Small consolation comes from the fact that they now have firm friends in Brother Cedric and Ruttgur, who might have been in for a long spell in the infirmary if they hadn’t come along when they did.
Characters who try something crazy like teaming up with Notker or dashing through the Astral Gate after him will not benefit much from the adventure. They should get few experience points, and Notker will soon manage to lose them.
The version of the scenario in In From The Cold included some interesting ideas from the Magnum Opus writing team. One possibility was that if Notker saw the game was up, he might turn the tables on the player-characters, accusing them of being the thieves in order to buy time to make a getaway. There was also a suggestion for how Father Eorwin might reveal the stolen bones to be fake by having previously concealed a note rolled up inside the cracked thigh-bone.

*There may be another freebie on Christmas Eve btw. Maybe. Drop by and take a look under the tree.

Friday 2 December 2016

Joe Dever (1956-2016)

Joe Dever died this week. I'm not greatly familiar with his work, but if you're a fan of gamebooks then you will already know much more than I could say anyway. He wrote what must be the most epic gamebook saga ever, and he was probably the first to use an original and fully detailed campaign setting and an ongoing character across multiple gamebooks. A true pioneer of the medium.

We didn't know each other very well. He wasn't part of the roleplaying social circle that included me, Jamie, Oliver Johnson, Mark Smith, Paul Mason and Steve Williams. Joe and I chatted a couple of times back in the '80s about gamebook ideas, but our paths had never crossed before that at Games Workshop, where he and Gary Chalk were working when they came up with Lone Wolf.

Gamebooks were big business then and every publisher was desperate to have their own series or three. I admired the solid design that Joe and Gary put into the underlying mechanics - the clear rules for where inventory was listed on the character sheet, things like that.

There's a tribute to Joe Dever over on Stuart Lloyd's blog and Paul Gresty has written this fan's-eye view of Joe Dever's work, a heartfelt paean to the priceless gift of fantasy that a good author can bestow.

Friday 25 November 2016

Four ways into fantasy

This is the text of a talk I gave at a role-playing convention in Coventry in the late '80s. I'd been sweet-talked into doing it by Gail Baker and Paul Mason. I thought what I'd do was throw out something contentious and then get a debate going. In those days I was quite combative about good fantasy. Ah, but you say 'good' is an elite word? All right, then!
There are a number of qualitatively different ways in which the fantasy element can be incorporated into a fantasy role-playing campaign. These different “registers” are built into the game world.

At one end of the spectrum, worlds such as Tekumel or Jorune are essentially Realist fantasies, in that all aspects of the world are viewed as logical and internally consistent. Such worlds are “absolute sub-creations”, to use Tolkien’s phrase. Tolkien’s words on the successful sub-creator apply equally to the referee of a Realist fantasy:
“He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it while you are, as it were, inside.”
Obviously the magic of Tekumel or Jorune is not rationally feasible in true scientific terms, but it is treated as logical within the framework of the fantasy. We are asked only to believe that in these worlds there exists a natural phenomenon that is indistinguishable from magic. The day-to-day logic of a Realist fantasy world is as close as possible to that of the real world. This is not to say that characters in the world will be like modern individuals, but their understanding of their world will ride on the same logic as ours. Nations go to war for political reasons, and people in the world resist convenient categorization as “good”, “evil”, “chaotic” or whatever. On Tekumel, Baron Ald of Yan Kor is prosecuting a war against his southern neighbors, the Tsolyani, because an expansionist policy is the only way to unify the fragmented Yan Koryani political structure. The war has become more bitter for certain acts perpetrated by the Tsolyani, most notably the massacre at the fortress of Ke’er. For their part, the Tsolyani regard Ald as a renegade – he was formerly a foreign mercenary in their army. When the whole situation is studied it is rather difficult to say who is in the right, and this is what one would expect of any Realist fantasy.

The most common environment in games and fiction is the Pseudo-Real fantasy. The mark of an Pseudo-Real fantasy is that it shows the roots of its creation. Most are based on medieval Europe and usually make no bones about this. The setting for RuneQuest 3 is overtly called Fantasy Europe, and Legend from Dragon Warriors is but a thinly disguised evocation of the medieval world as medieval people believed it to be. Other Pseudo-Real settings are possible (for instance Bushido’s Nippon) but all share the same heritage: they swipe much of their scenery from things we are all familiar with, on an intellectual and/or emotional level. Such a world cannot be utterly accepted as real, as it will contain elements which the players cannot avoid recognizing as fantastical. A Realist fantasy can fool your subconscious with the semblance of internal logic – it is the viable “Secondary World” Tolkien speaks of. But the only approach to a Pseudo-Real world is the temporary suspension of disbelief. Tolkien seems to be addressing us on this, too:
“But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make believe.”
This would make the Pseudo-Real world seem like a pretty poor thing in comparison to Realist fantasy. In fact, I would say (using reasoning much like Tolkien’s) that it can never quite match up as a game setting. It does, however, have its interesting features. It allows the players to explore the re-creation of legendary themes and imaginative landscapes we all share. Certainly it is easier to enter the half-familiar territory of a Pseudo-Real campaign, especially if you’re not playing frequently with a group of intensely committed gamers, than it is to key in to the fully reshaped tropes of a Realist campaign.

A step further from the real world is the Semi-Mythic fantasy. There is no longer any need for events to follow a “real” pattern, and the world cannot be accepted on an intellectual level. You must enter it as a make-believe. Rather than lurking as a half-glimpsed shadowy force that occasionally impinges on the world (as in a Pseudo-Real setting), the power of magic in the Semi-Mythic universe is great enough to affect world events. Often such a world is “kind of” medieval Europe, but with an overlay of dark lords, barbarian hordes of chaos, and taverns full of drunken dwarves. People wage war because they are Evil with a capital e, and are opposed by other people who are therefore Good. At its very worst this kind of environment is the stereotypical DnD cod-medieval world, and is to be encountered all too wearisomely often in fantastic fiction. But if handled expertly it can be very powerful indeed, tapping into tremendous emotional sources. It can be approached through the channels of dream, and the great Semi-Mythic achievements are perhaps Glorantha and Tolkien’s own Middle Earth.

Perhaps it is misleading to look at these various kinds of fantasy in a linear sequence depending on the amount of “myth” in the mixture. That is one categorization, but it is also worth considering the way in which the fantasy must be approached and experienced. With the final category, the Mythic fantasy, we have come almost full-circle. Such a world is not accessible on a realistic level, but the player (or reader) must shift his own role to one where his perception of the world is “real-like”. A Mythic fantasy is one where archetypal figures and landscapes are directly represented in the world. There will be no complex social setups; the world seems dark, passionate and primeval. Characters are apt to be hall-heroes full of human foibles but capable of great glory: Dark Age gangs à la Beowulf. Players thus see this world through different eyes. It is not realistic from our modern standpoint, but to the player-characters no other world is conceivable. The suspension of disbelief is no longer a problem, no longer grates against the player’s imagination, because the primal nature of the Mythic environment is so raw and primally strong that reason is lulled into submission. In such a world a hero might learn from a wise woman that if he swims the Rymchild Sea with a silver coin in his mouth, he will come to the Land of the Dead. If he rides far enough north he might come to an endless wall, beyond whose gate lies Faerie. Emotion, poetry and dream act with the force of natural law.

Player-characters in a Mythic world can be expected to adopt a dramatic rather than a pragmatic attitude, as they are almost conscious that the events of their lives are not real and immediate, but are in some sense outside of time. A riddling contest may be accepted and entered into with gusto, seen by the character as the proper way to deal with a challenge. A taboo such as is common in folktales (not to wander from the path, not to ask a specific question, etc) will be understood by the character to apply with a force greater than the intellect can grasp – whereas a character on a Realist world like Tekumel would surely require a more logical basis for his actions.

I know of no pure Mythic world in fantasy gaming, though I’m sure they are out there. Pendragon comes the closest of the games I’ve played, as it deliberately sets out to create an obviously unreal time and place, spurring players towards an immersion in the character-attitudes appropriate to that. A campaign based on the adventures of the Norse gods or Grimm's fairy tales would be even nearer to the mark.

Such are the categories. Now, what use are they? There are several lessons to be learned by considering the different categories of fantasy. First, it pays never to mix the approach of one category with the setting of another. As a very simple example, very few people in real life make a definite decision to act in a particular way simply because they see it as “good” or “evil”. In a Realist world it would be inappropriate for characters to talk in those terms. They might say, “We can’t do this; it isn’t right.” But they certainly would not say, “We can’t do that, we’d be acting like we’re chaotic-evil.” Yet in a universe where Chaos is widely accepted as a physical force (as in a teenager’s bedroom), although not realistic, it is credible for characters to take account of it in their discussions.

The other error lies in mixing elements of two categories. Both are usually devalued in the process. In the context of Jorune, it is perfectly reasonable to give the history, habits and social structure of an alien race like the thriddle. They are simply a group of intelligent nonhumans, and can be presented factually just as Larry Niven portrays his kzin, puppeteers, and so on. In the context of a Pseudo-Real or Semi-Mythic fantasy, it is not reasonable to do the same thing for dwarves and elves. Elves represent more than just the outer image; in a science fiction game, people with pointy ears are called Vulcans and we can be told all about them. But in fantasy, elves stand for something in relation to humanity; their soullessness and mystery stirs something in our imagination, and means that they have some bearing on what we are. They have a myth-value which is debased if they are treated as just a nonhuman race. See Robert Dale’s review of the Mayfair sourcebooks in White Dwarf 57 for a more extensive tirade on this theme.

A corollary to this is the use of elves, dwarves, etc, as player-characters. While that might be an interesting experiment for a good role-player over a single evening’s gaming, it can only have a negative effect in the long term. With the best will in the world, if I am playing an elf and adventuring for some reason with a bunch of humans, how long will the music of Faerie hang about me? How long before we reach the crass dungeoneering approach of “Elf at the back with his bow ready, the front rank hits the door...”? If you are trying to play the part of an elf, you must ask yourself a lot of rather mundane questions. Do elves sit in taverns and get drunk? Do they belch and have hangovers? Do they pick their noses, crap and get colds? These are questions that not only should never be answered, they should never be asked.

To focus upon a myth-figure with such boorish scrutiny is to strip away the fragile tissue of suspended disbelief on which it rests. You enter what Michael Polling calls the Cycle of Taxonomic Reduction. Elves cease to be viable myth-images, so (since even the most dedicated aficionado of pulp high fantasy must possess a vestigial imagination) it soon becomes clear one must create something else to fulfill their function in the fantasy environment. Searching a bit deeper into folklore to replace the now unmysterious elf, one might find drow, or spriggans, or bogles. But as soon as these are duly written up and codified, they too are devalued and the desperate slide continues. It is possible to apply a few game-safeguards (“this race is for NPCs only” or “the GM may choose from the following facts about the race, some of which may be only half-truths”) but these do not stop the rot entirely. A close look at any game’s monster listings usually turns up several valiant attempts at remythologisation. I have just flipped through the Fiend Folio, where the meenlock and revenant are good examples. But on the barren soil of rules and stats they can never be more than a pale after-image of the original myths.

This is more important now than ever before because we have a lot of new blood entering the fantasy role-playing hobby. Giving newcomers tips on how to role-play or design good scenarios should not come before warnings on how to preserve the wildness and power of their fantasy. Someone whose induction to fantasy role-playing gets mired in the compatibility of human-orc genetics and contemplating the lifecycle of trolls is on a downward spiral of diminishing imaginative returns. I think we shall not have done our duty by the hobby if we fail to take a stand against that.

Recommended reading
Tree and Leaf by J.R.R.Tolkien
The Language of the Night by Ursula LeGuin (especially the essay “From Elfland to Ploughkeepsie”)
Red as Blood by Tanith Lee
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn

There are of course no definite boundaries between the fantasy categories I have defined here (categories should always be taken with a pinch of salt in any case), but the following are good fantasy works that illustrate the point:

Man of Gold by M.A.R.Barker (Realist)
Lyonesse by Jack Vance (Pseudo-Real)
Night’s Master by Tanith Lee (Semi-Mythic)
The Penguin Book of the Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Mythic)