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Friday 24 March 2017

Where to buy a blessing

You’ll be pleased to hear, especially if you were one of the people who backed it, that The Serpent King’s Domain is nearing completion. Paul Gresty has delivered the manuscript to editor Richard S Hetley, Russ Nicholson is more than halfway through the interior illustrations, and Kevin Jenkins is clearing a space in his busy Hollywood schedule to paint the cover. 

I'm not in charge of the production (the Kickstarter was run by Megara Entertainment, not Fabled Lands LLP) but at a guess the backers might have their copies by the summer, and paperback editions could be on sale in the autumn. Fingers crossed, anyway.

In the course of editing, Richard is coming across some interesting points which force us to revisit some of our rules choices. I say “force”, but to be honest it’s fun having these intensive game conversations. The process is making us all quite eager to run a Kickstarter for The Lone and Level Sands – though maybe this time we should get the book nearly complete first.

* * *

Richard: I continue to proofread by playing, and… ack! It's not so easy to keep track of blessings anymore!

Paul, is the plan that all these new deities would be worshipped in book 8 as well? Or, Dave and Jamie, would it be culturally appropriate? If so, then good. That makes this change much simpler for the reader.

Likewise, you added more than one new type of blessing. Would these blessings (no more and no fewer) be available in book 8? Also good from a game design standpoint, because then they would be “special blessings you get from the southern continent” instead of “weird quirks this new author added for one book.”

And questions which might involve Dave and Jamie:

The price on these blessings keeps changing. I depended on stability in pricing in the northern continent to allow me to update my budget without flipping through too many pages: “Oh, Tyrnai in this port? Combat blessing restored for 25 Shards.” Should “inflation” be allowed in these blessings for the higher-level books? And whether yes or no, should there be such variation from one town to the next?

And this isn't about gods necessarily, but is the entire world called Harkuna or just the northern continent? Book 1 is ambivalent on this.

Dave: I can see that it makes sense to have widely varying prices. On the northern continent cities are linked by trade, stabilising prices to a large extent. In the south, the jungle tends to isolate each community into its own pocket economy. Less trade means less standardisation -- and an opportunity, of course, for daring merchant-adventurers to make a profit.

Wrt the name of the world... I think Harkuna is just the northern continent. It certainly isn't a word that southerners would use. However, ambiguity exists in real scholarship and can do in FL too. When the Maya spoke of “the One World” did they mean just Central America, or all the Americas, or the entire planet? The fact is that usage changes to fit changing ideas of reality, so you might find one sage who'll tell you that Harkuna means all the lands, where others might say it's just the northern part. Jamie, any thoughts?

Blessings... well, I doubt if the regions of book 8 will have many deities in common with book 7. They're different geographies with little commerce between them, except perhaps along the coast. Blessings acquired in any book to date have worked in all books, regardless of whether the deity in question is locally worshipped, but it's possible we could have blessings that are more restricted. (In one of my Tekumel games, players came from a small island where they grew up worshipping a local god; once they travelled to the mainland he had no power to aid them.)

Jamie: “Originally there were three gods, those who created the world. These are hardly mentioned in the legends. They are dim, shadowy figures of a primordial age. Even their names bespeak dream-like obscurity: Harkun, He Who Is Like Harkun, and The Third God. These three having died, their place was taken by powerful demiurges, each with his or her own delineated jurisdiction. Thus there is Tyrnai, overseer of war; Elnir, lord of the sky; irascible Maka, who brings disease and famine if not appeased with sacrifices; Lacuna, lady of the hunt; Nagil, king of the dead; wise Molhern, deity of craftsmen; Sig, who guides the soft footsteps of thieves; the Three Fortunes, goddesses of destiny; and the twin gods Alvir and Valmir, who rule the land under the waves. Those, at least, are the gods of the northern continent...” (3:357 ).

But the idea about the original three, a kind of Trinity (actually something similar to Finnish old gods if I recall correctly) were the creators of the whole world of Harkuna through their deaths. Harkun falls from 'heaven' or 'the land of the Gods' and his spine becomes the mountain range that runs through northern Harkuna ie the Spine of Harkun. His blood is the ocean and so on. But as Dave says, it's the northern folks word for Earth or the 'One World'. I don't think the southern continent would actually call it Harkuna, though they could. They ought to have a similar kind of back story as it were. A different name, but still 3 elder gods. I say 'ought' and not 'must' or 'should' so it's not that important. Some southerners might also name a mountain range after the bones of Harkun and scholars would argue endlessly about who was right. Perhaps fight a war about it, that kind of thing.

The Uttakin take a different view of course... And we shall have to wait and see what the scientists and scholars of book 8 think about that too. Also Atticala and Chrysoprais would have their own versions as well.

As for Blessings, having different prices is fine. But bear in mind that you could start in book 8. That is of course a problem with our whole system - getting to very high levels. And starting with a level 8 character and then just sailing straight to book one makes things a lot easier. But still. Not sure what we can do about that.

I'd think about getting rid of the one god rule perhaps? You can have one God per 'culture' as it were? That means you could have multiple blessings, but hopefully that won't be too unbalancing because it would be very hard to get another blessing of Tyrnai for instance if you are inland. Except of course Ebron where you can never worship anyone else without renouncing him and becoming an Apostate.

Dave: We can't change any meta-rules (like having one god) because those are written into the start of each book. But you can build in special casing within any book, of course -- Ebron being an example of that.

As for the creation myths - well, we can say that's one story. Other cultures will have different stories. The people of Dangor think that the rest of the world outside their city state hasn't been fully created yet, but is just a dream their god is having. Q: “Is the whole world called Harkuna?” A: “No, it's called Dangor.”

Jamie: I meant just for books down south as it were. Part of the problem being that you'd be unable to renounce Enlil for instance whilst in Dunpala. You can have local gods on top of your legacy gods from books one to six. And of course, yes, each culture has their view on the world, like Ebron etc.

Paul: In some (most) cases in FL7, the blessings you get are the same as in the earlier books, so that only the source is different. You can get a THIEVERY blessing from Ko, a SCOUTING blessing from Kel Kin, etc. So it's rarely a problem that you'll need a blessing, but can't get hold of it without crossing the world.

The Sage of Peace in book 6 is a good example of how you can use a specific case to change the meta-rules - it specifically says that you can be an initiate of the Sage of Peace as well as an initiate of another faith, at the same time.

There is a loophole to getting out of the church of Ebron without becoming an apostate, for the record - you become an initiate of Ebron in book 5 as normal, but instead of renouncing the faith as normal you head over to book 2, and have the encounter with the 3 knights of Nagil. They give you the option of becoming an initiate of Nagil on the spot, which replaces the god you're currently an initiate of - that is, you can leave the faith of Ebron without picking up the necessary codeword to say that you're a heretic.

You want loopholes in FL1 - 6? I got 'em.

Jamie: Hah, though not in the eyes of the Expungers! But that’s typical of a lot of stuff – book 2 having been written before book 5 came along and buggered around with the rules. That could be fixed in a later edit though. However, it’s a mild problem in the grand scheme of things I think.

Dave: We really should have written all twelve books and fully standardized the rules before releasing the first one. Not that videogame developers work that way either, but patches for print gamebooks are harder to deliver.

Richard: Yes, well, if you want to change the history of the real world, I can think of more important things to perfect than the development of Fabled Lands. I wouldn't stop you from the latter, of course…

Before commenting on these blessings, I used the search button to look for familiar blessings (Combat and so on) in books beyond what I'd read in 1-3. I saw things like randomized blessings, which is fine. What I didn’t see was “Yes, you non-initiates need to pay thirty Shards on this page, but thirty-five Shards on this other page in the same book. Gotcha!” Remember that, unlike with checking a local market, the player needs to go through (to use a computer metaphor) sub-menu after sub-menu to find the price on just one local blessing, then repeat this from the top for the next one. So, inflation for the book as a whole might make sense, but I'd argue that the gameplay benefit of standardization between cities would benefit players greatly, despite the “sense” of local supply and demand.

I'm not too concerned about difficulties in renouncing worship. The biggest ticket items are resurrections, right? I'd sail across the ocean for several hundred Shards; that's the amount you make from cargo anyway. And you also get a free teleport to the location of the temple when you die so you can change things without losing that cash. Otherwise, getting a discount on exactly one blessing out of the crowd has never seemed important enough to risk the opportunity cost of “Oops! I didn't realize I'd want to become the Chosen One of Nagil! Missed opportunity for this Alvir and Valmir initiate, here.”

In books 1 to 3, I felt little reason to the “God” box outside of resurrection. If this changed in 4 to 6, I wouldn't know. (And then there's Illuminate of Molhern, which doesn't go in that box at all and is just good to have.) Thus, in books 7 and onward, I still wouldn't see myself becoming an initiate of anybody without a higher reason: Huan-da and In-da giving Nahual is one such reason. Unless other gods give powers or Chosen One-style plot events, I don't see players choosing them, especially if there's another new crowd in the next book too.

I really like the idea of Obfuscation as a blessing type. I'd want it in there somewhere for the name alone! If it's too similar to other types, though, perhaps players would like to see an older blessing reappear: some overlap in “quirks” with another region in the world. The Clarity blessing, of course, being relevant to Nahual combat, surely would reappear in all subsequent books that use such combat.

I'm noting the conversation about Harkuna. Bumping against the southern edge of “the world of Harkuna” got my attention. For loopholes, well, I'm trying to catch any in this book as I read. Obsessive gamers will always find them…

Thursday 23 March 2017

Never to be servants

Continuing the SF theme, a quick shout-out for the latest Kickstarter from Cubus Games. This one is a sequel to Heavy Metal Thunder by Kyle B Stiff:
"Heavy Metal Thunder is a gamebook hybrid that merges the strengths of two different mediums. You’ve got the immersive experience of a detailed story as well as the character customization, inventory management, and life-or-death struggle that only a really powerful game can deliver. It appeals to anyone who wants to lose themselves in a gritty space age war story. The protagonist is a soldier, a jetpack infantryman separated from his comrades. Alien invaders have taken over our solar system and things look bleak for the human resistance."
This new episode is called Slaughter at Masada and reimagines the famous Judean fortress on Olympus Mons*:
"Masada, a brutal warzone where three sides are vying for dominance, has been under siege for three years, and to overcome despair the people trapped in Mount Olympus have embraced a deadly philosophy of 'war for the sake of war'. They are surrounded by Invader berserkers - criminal psychopaths too dangerous to be trusted inside spaceships. And now the Black Lance Legion has arrived to break the siege and recruit the fighters of Masada - even against their will, if necessary."
The KS campaign runs until Saturday, so jump on quick if you don't want to miss it.
* Fun facts: Olympus Mons is three times the height of Everest but, being a shield volcano, has an average gradient of only 1 in 11. So if you stood on it you wouldn't actually realize it was a mountain!

Friday 17 March 2017

Syfy ho hum

Too many science fiction series are just westerns. A colony of plucky miners is threatened by the hired thugs of evil businessmen. Outlaws ride into town (or land on the planet) bringing danger to the settlers. Somebody wants to drive the railroad/stargate through a peaceful backwater, riding roughshod over the rights of its lawful inhabitants. And then the magnificent six or seven show up to fix it all in a blaze of gunfire.

They were peddling these exact formulae eighty years ago and I've seen SF television shows and B-movies that add almost nothing to it. The weapons fire photons not bullets, but otherwise it's all been done many times before. Even the dialogue sounds like a Gunsmoke repeat.

Why this is a waste: the future offers so many fascinating new stories to tell - just look at Black Mirror, District 9, Blade Runner, Ex Machina. Technology, alien contact, and space travel throw up new opportunities, new perils, and new moral conflicts. If writers stretch their imaginations they can find those stories. Or they can indolently retread a western or a monster movie remembered fondly from their youth.

Have networks decided that SF geeks are content just as long as there's a spaceship in the frame? Don't those viewers care about startling concepts that stretch the imagination? Don't they want drama with compelling characters rather than leather-styled ciphers? Because TV networks are lazy when it comes to SF. They'll continue to fob us off with repurposed western and crime scripts unless we demand great science fiction every time.

Friday 10 March 2017

Videogames killed the radio star?

Crossing Tom Quad, deserted and sparkling in the December night, gave me the visual inspiration for the roleplaying scenario that eventually became Heart of Ice. The germ of the idea had already come from the briefest of references in Empire of the Petal Throne to “hex 6029: the walled ruins of the Mad City of Du’un”. And the story itself, as I’ve described elsewhere, was an adaptation of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, in the sense that only one person could have the ultimate prize but to reach it meant cooperating with others along the way.

The original Du’un adventure was pretty old school, as you’d expect for something written in the mid-70s, and in fact the first time I ran it really was at my old school, in the Eastgate block at the RGS, where the Guildford War Studies group used to meet. But I digress…At the end of an embrangling underworld filled with interdimensional pathways, the characters had to fight past an avatar of the god Hrsh to win through to the Chamber of the Heart. Alliances died at the door. Beyond that point it became a cathartic free-for-all.

Primitive though the scenario was, it became the one players talked about. I was persuaded to run it two or three times more for different gaming groups. Probably it was the theme of the scenario that made it really memorable. That heart of ice isn’t really the magic crystal McGuffin buried down deep in the catacombs, it’s the cold ruthlessness needed by the winner.

In the original 1976 scenario that gem of ultimate power was the Heart of Durritlamish, the Black Angel, Opener of Catacombs. In the gamebook it became the Heart of Volent, a cult god of the 22nd century. And in the 1990s radio play “The Heart of Hark’un” it transmogrified into this:
“The god Hark'un once ruled the heavens, but the young gods were jealous of his power and plotted to overthrow him. Defeated in a celestial war, Hark'un fell from the heavens, down through the black sky, until he struck the barren lifeless lands. But as he died, Hark'un’s blood brought the world to life. His spine formed the mountains of the world. His veins became the roots of living things. The body of Hark'un became the world of Harkuna. Every part of the slain god became the seed for new life – except for the heart of Hark'un. That remained whole. Untouched by decay, it still beats on. To touch the heart of the god Hark'un would be to destroy the world. But also to take on the power of a god.”
The play, by Jamie and his brother Peter Thomson, featured some characters based on (or at least named after) player-characters in our Tekumel campaign. Kadar was an older, more embittered version of Jamie’s character Qadarnai, while my own character Shazir became the villain – of course! Arcos I’m not sure about, but he may have been one of the PCs in Mark Smith’s Orb campaign.

The point of all this is to say that you can now listen to all six episodes of “The Heart of Harkun” (let’s leave the grocer's apostrophes out of it, eh?) over on the Spark Furnace website. And if you don’t have the patience for podcasts, the comic book version is still available: issue #1 and issue #2. Or there’s the Heart of Ice gamebook, of course. At some point I might even run the original Du’un scenario that started it all, if I can lay my hands on the underworld maps.

Friday 3 March 2017

Expressionist dancing zombies

Leo just sent me the colourized images he's been doing for Megara Entertainment's limited hardcover edition of my second-ever gamebook The Temple of Flame, originally published in the mid-eighties. This picture of undead warriors caught my eye because I'd recently found the original art brief I sent to Leo. I was inspired by Steve Ditko's story "The Spirit of the Thing" in Creepy #9. He showed a corpse coming to life and wresting itself up out of the soil with galvanic convulsions of muscle you could almost feel.

Ditko is of course the master of portraying physicality in a picture - look at those extreme poses Spidey adopts as his momentum flings his limbs in all directions. The horrifying idea of those athletic, almost dance-like, cadaveric spasms stuck with me, so I sketched them for Leo and let him do his thing.

Megara's edition of the book will be shipping soon to the hundred or so Kickstarter backers, and of course the paperback is still available to everyone else.

Another curio from the writing of the book is this map of the catacombs within the pyramid. I remember being horrified when I playtested Oliver Johnson's Lord of Shadow Keep and discovered that he didn't bother with mapping - you might turn right and come into the same room reached by turning left. I think I actually sat down and rejigged the text so that it was consistent, although whether that mattered is another question. I assumed gamebook readers would make a map as they went along, just like a role-player would. What about you? Were you a map-maker or a barnstormer?