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Friday 28 April 2017

Winning the smart way

Quite a few reviews of my second-ever gamebook, The Temple of Flame, claim that it's too difficult. You have a series of metaphorical fiery hoops to jump through at the end that are sure to whittle away your few remaining hit points. Mission utterly impossible, right?

Well, after thirty-three years of silence I'm here to tell you it ain't so. There's a clever way to win, and it's not listed as any of the options in those fight paragraphs. Look away now if you haven't played the adventure yet and want to test your mettle.

So here's the thing. Before your final showdown with Damontir the Mad, he summons a doppelganger to fight you:
‘Damontir,’ you say flatly. ‘You will die by my sword.’

He looks at you sharply, then laughs without mirth. ‘Dragon Knight of Palados! Were we to cross blades, perhaps you might be the victor. But I have a dozen sorcerous ways to kill you before you reach me.’ He draws something from his tunic. Light flashes across your face as he turns it towards you. ‘The Mirror of the Moon.’

Damontir carefully angles the mirror to reflect your own gaze back at you and then releases it. Instead of falling to shatter on the hard stone floor, it floats in mid-air. It starts slowly to rotate, growing larger as it does so until it seems a swirling pool of quicksilver filled by your image. Then, as you stare in stunned incredulity, your own reflection steps out of the mirror and stands before you. Illuminated by the unearthly half-light of its mirror world, it does not quite seem to be your twin. Rather, it looks like a vivid portrait of yourself rendered in unnatural hues.

‘This is your simulacrum,’ explains Damontir. ‘A soulless duplicate of yourself.’ The simulacrum utters an unreal cry and advances on you with a look of wild malice. ‘It is an unreasoning automaton, quite dedicated to its single purpose. Killing you.’
Contemptuously, he turns away from the fight and resumes his translation of the runes on the podium. The simulacrum has the same VIGOUR as you have at the moment. It is like you in every respect, except that it has neither soul nor intellect, and does not cast a shadow. You prepare yourself for battle.

Turn to 43
So reviewers sometimes grumble that means a fight at fifty-fifty odds followed by having to take on Damontir himself. Did you spot the exploit? Earlier in the adventure you should have picked up a Ring of Healing, which you can use at any time to restore your VIGOUR to full. The simulacrum has the exact same stats as you have at the moment that Damontir creates it. So just hold off using that ring. Make sure you have only a few VIGOUR points left when you catch up with your foe, that way the simulacrum will be created with the same VIGOUR. You can use the ring (the clue is in that line "prepare yourself for battle") to make that a very unequal fight, then you're ready to tackle Damontir almost at full strength.

Friday 21 April 2017

Looking back to see the future

Another piece from the dim and distant today. Back in the mid-80s I used to edit the RuneRites column in White Dwarf. I didn't actually use the RuneQuest world of Glorantha for my own games, but Oliver Johnson and I were writing an RQ-based book called Questworld for Games Workshop, and running a lot of games in that setting, so we knew the RQ rules pretty well.  

Questworld was one of the many projects I wrote for GW that were never published, but Oliver and I reworked a lot of the material for the Invaders and Ancients book - also never published, come to think, but maybe one day we'll find the time to correct that.

This article by me and Oliver, derived from our Questworld setting and then retrofitted to Greg Stafford's Genertela (yikes), was originally published as "Forecasting the Runes" in White Dwarf 65 (May 1985).

*  *  *

Prediction is a sub-category of Perception skills, open to any character with a POW score of at least 13. Rune Casting is a form of Prediction common to all RuneQuest universes; others exist (Pyromancy, Hieromancy, etc), and the referee can develop these along similar lines.

The Rune Casting skill starts at 0 (plus any modifiers due to INT or POW) and can be trained up to 15% if a teacher can be found. The sort of people who might be able to teach a character Rune Casting often travel in minstrel troupes or operate fairground booths. The problem with training is not really cost. It takes only an hour or so to instruct a character up to 15% level, and the teacher will probably ask only a few silvers for this. But it is not always clear when one has found a real master (or mistress) of the runic arts.

When a character wishes to use his Rune Casting skill, the appropriate roll is made by the referee. If the roll is successful, the referee selects the runes so as to give an accurate (but always vague) prefigurement of game events that he has planned. If the Rune Casting roll fails, the prediction is random.

Rune Casting takes the form of shak¬ing tiny pebbles marked with the runes, then casting one down. This is done three times for a full prediction. The first casting is of an Elemental rune, and this indicates the underlying forces which pertain to the character's situation. The second rune cast is of Form, and it indicates the principal way in which events will influence the character. The Power rune, last to be cast, indicates the outcome of the prediction.

The interpretation of a Rune Casting is up to the player. The referee merely tells him or her which runes come up:
Darkness: Secret or unclear forces are at work. There is a suggestion of evil or hostility.
Water: Events and forces are set in a state of flux.
Earth: A solid and definite change will occur.
Air: Events now in the offing will be without lasting significance.
Fire: Forces from above (earthly superiors or divine agents) may be at work. Violent emotions have been stirred up. A chance for great gain or great loss.
Moon: Past deeds continue to operate in the character's life. A man who has committed evil acts may soon have to pay. Sorcery and ancient spirits may play a part in things to come.
Plant: The future is tied up with the character's profession or finances. Investments may grow or wither.
Beast: Not just animals, but also natural forces in general, may play a part. Combined with the Water rune, for instance, it might suggest to a general that storms will hinder his troops - particularly if Stasis were next to come up.
Man: The character's fellow men will be the executors of his fate. Will it be for weal or woe? Consult the other runes.
Spirit: Ideas and knowledge have a significant effect on the future. The character should examine his beliefs. More mundanely, there could be spirit combat in the next few hours!
Chaos: The entire casting is ill-aspected. Unpredictable and sorrowful trends are at work. This is not a time to consider dangerous actions.
Harmony: There will be no drastic alteration.
Disorder: Things will change radically and it will be a long time before those affected resume their normal routine.
Fertility: There may be a birth, or the maturing of a worthwhile investment. At harvest time, the crop will be good.
Death: A single major event will cause permanent change. Fatality is not the sole instance of this; there may be a promotion.
Stasis: There will be a period of inertia.
Movement: There is likely to be a long journey, or news may arrive from afar.
Truth: Many secrets from the past will be unraveled.
Illusion: Things are not what they seem. Do not take events at face value.
Luck: Matters now under consideration will come to a head. There will be a time to gamble.
Fate: The prediction is sealed. Whatever is read is a Fate, possibly a Doom. No man can change what is decreed.
As a final note, we recommend setting an upper limit of POWx5% on Rune Casting. (Or make it POWx4%, or POWx3%. There is no reason for the players to know how accurate their predictions can be.) After using the skill twice in one day, a character drops 10% in accuracy for each subsequent casting.

The Four Parts of the Soul
A side-effect of active imperialism, of the sort practiced by the Lunar Empire, is the appearance of bizarre hybrid cults and beliefs. These sometimes gain favor among those who have travelled widely and been exposed to a variety of cultures - notably, soldiers, sailors and adventurers.

The belief that a man's soul has four parts began to gain traction in some distant Lunar outposts around the year 1617, probably as a result of the unusual teachings of some enslaved shamans. The idea appealed to well educated junior officers whose intellectually-based faith sought some functional alternative to pure Red Moon doctrine.

The four parts of the soul are:

The Crystal Knife, which is that aspect of the self which deals with positive, aggressive action and the outward channeling of energy.

The Morning Mist, which is the passive, yielding principle – the individual’s ability to be acted upon or moved by externals, to take what he experiences into himself and to learn.

The Obsidian Rock represents the individual's capacity to negate actions directed against him, to hold firm and not to submit or fall in the face of adversity. It is the concentration of self, the boundary separating the individual from the world around him.

The Fleeting Shadow recognizes the need to negate even the Obsidian Rock, the self, in some aspects of the individual's life. It leads to awareness and the willingness to understand and to grow. It represents the transcendent, mystic element in the individual's nature.

These aspects are commonly ordered into two sets of complementary functions: Active/Passive and Outward/Inward:

The four parts of the soul are treated as 'skills' which the character can master through meditation. At the end of every two weeks in which the character has spent at least two hours a day in meditation, he rolls for each soul-discipline to see if he can increase it. The initial skill in each soul-discipline is derived as below:

Perfecting the soul-disciplines enhances the character's relationship with the world. One effect of this is to enable him to learn more readily from experience. Any time that a character fails an increase roll, he has a chance equal to his skill in the relevant soul-discipline of making a reroll. This only applies if the character is at least 25% in the relevant soul-discipline, however. Each soul-discipline thus assists the character in developing certain skills:

The soul-disciplines are sometimes referred to as 'the Cornerstones of the Self'. When all four are in balance, the character may go on to great things. Developing one discipline to the exclusion of the others tends to make for an unstable and ill-balanced nature. When all four disciplines reach 90%, the character automatically achieves Illumination (see Cults of Terror).

Friday 14 April 2017

Rumble in the jungle

A picture is worth a thousand words. More than a thousand when it's by a master artist like Kevin Jenkins. So I'll keep this short. Kev has been madly busy on visual design for the next Star Wars movie - or maybe the next but one - but he cleared some time recently to do a few sketches of the cover for the seventh Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King's Domain. And when I tell you this is one of the designs we rejected, you'll get a hint of how amazing the finished cover is going to look.

Kev says of this one: "Our hero is taking down an attacker while being surprised by a second assailant, below massive jungle waterfalls with temples carved with massive stone faces." Of course we apologized for dragging him away from a galaxy far, far away but he added, "Believe me, after four years on the same subject it was nice to sketch a dragon."

An awesome guy and an awesome talent. We're lucky to have him. And anyway, I'm a Trekker.

Thursday 6 April 2017


A little while back, Erik observed in a comment that sometimes when I post a scenario I can seem to be holding it at arm’s length, as though it’s “old hack and slash stuff you're slightly embarrassed about”.

Well, it’s true that I’ve never really cared for dungeon bashes. I mean by that the kind of adventure that’s just one damned thing after another – a hydra in this room, three orcs in the next. Sometimes with a riddle, but never with any rhyme or reason.

The trouble with that kind of scenario is it fails the criterion that SF author Damien G Walter identifies as necessary to generate a powerful and satisfying experience:
“Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the huge problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.”
Now, not all dungeons happen underground. Sometimes you can be on a quest of hundreds of miles across forests and deserts and swamps, but if that’s just an excuse to thread together a bunch of unconnected encounters then – yeah, maybe interesting, as Damien says, but never compelling.

Likewise, going underground doesn’t always lead to a dungeon bash. Empire of the Petal Throne players who’ve visited the wizard Nyelmu’s Garden of Weeping Snows will know that sometimes you can descend into a mythic dreamtime where the journey through the underworld mirrors an inner psychic journey. By the way, that's also why (despite the picture above) I never use figurines. I want players to use their imaginations and be the character, not look down on them like counters on a board.

Most of the times dungeons are just a way to pre-plan a highly structured session so the GM can be lazy and not have to engage with the player-characters. Or have to think up anything interesting, come to that. I’ve perpetrated a few dungeons in my time - mostly for White Dwarf, for which I wrote to order. There are some dungeons too in Dragon Warriors, a concession because we knew the game would initially be played by 10-13 year-old novice GMs for whom a dungeon can be the refereeing equivalent of bike stabilizers. Though I hope (and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) there is something special in those scenarios that raises them above the level of goblins in ten-foot-square rooms.

In my own games, the nearest I might get to a dungeon is something like “The Honey Trap”. More usually the scenario is a set of loose notes that can be fitted around the player-characters’ current activities, as in “Friends in Foreign Parts”, “Just off the Boat”, or “In the Wrong Hands”.

Here are some other scenarios that I most definitely wouldn’t hold at arm’s length. You won’t find an ochre jelly or black pudding in any of ‘em.
  • "The King is Dead" - a scenario set in 5th century BC Greece. The version I ran took the sci-fi road into Highlander territory, but you could play it as straight whodunit or throw in a pinch of Cthulhu horror.
  • "The Hollow Men", set in the Dragon Warriors world of Legend. In our game the characters were members of a mercenary band out for revenge, but there are other ways in.
  • "Silent Night", a scenario and mini-campaign setting in Legend, which you can run with new or existing characters.
  • "A Ballad of Times Past", a one-off scenario set in a world where magic is rare and hard to come by. Originally published in White Dwarf 51.
  • "Wayland's Smithy", my version of what "finding a magic sword in treasure" ought to feel like.
  • "More Precious Than Gold", set in the Ophis universe that Oliver Johnson and I originally devised for Games Workshop's never-published Questworld book.
  • "Internecine!" - a Tekumel scenario involving the Hlüss with a few nods to the first season Star Trek episode "Arena".
  • "A Box of Old Bones", a very early Dragon Warriors scenario from White Dwarf 71. Are those bones a real holy relic or is it all just down to the power of belief, persuasion and propaganda? You decide.
And lastly there's the Champions scenario "The Enemy of My Enemy". Here's something to get you in the mood for that...