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Wednesday 27 December 2017

For art's sake

Finally all the pieces are in place and The Serpent King's Domain, seventh book in the Fabled Lands gamebook series, is about to hatch out into the world. Thank you for your patience – and there I’m not just talking about the two years since the Kickstarter campaign, which is actually a pretty quick turnaround by KS standards, but the twenty-year gap before that. When Pan Macmillan pulled the plug on the FL series back in the ‘90s, Jamie and I thought it was stone dead. Various attempts over the intervening decades to bring it back as a massively-multiplayer game, a CRPG, an app, etc, only raised hopes to dash them again. And then crowdfunding came along and opened up a new way of funding books. Not a particularly efficient way, admittedly – most KS projects are still barely-funded labours of love and/or duty – but it did the trick.

We’ve had Paul Gresty’s finished text for some time now. Richard Hetley meticulously edited it (all 1200 sections) by setting up spreadsheets to keep track of stats and make sure this is the best-balanced and most challenging FL book of all. I typeset it over a month ago, for both the paperback editions (large and regular format) and Megara’s hardback edition for backers. Russ was held up on the interior illustrations for a while for personal reasons, but happily he returned to the job with renewed energy and has delivered some of his best work.

And the final piece of the puzzle arrived at the start of this month. Kevin Jenkins, who these days is swamped with work on Marvel and Star Wars movies, graciously found the time to provide us with three different cover designs, one of which he painted up in some detail before deciding that it would make an interesting change to go for a night-time effect. I've got both paperbacks set up on our print-on-demand service ready to go on sale on Amazon in the New Year, and meanwhile Mikael Louys can be getting on with shipping out deluxe hardbacks to all the backers.

Some people have asked why the new cover isn’t a panorama like the first six. The fact is we have no way of printing books with fold-out covers like the Pan Macmillan editions. The back cover of the large format paperback will be needed for the colour map, in any case.

I’ve never actually seen the physical paintings for the first six books, but I know they’re big. I met Kevin once, back in 2010, to ask if he could help us find clean, text-free copies of the cover art for our new paperback editions. “I’ve got them in my attic,” he said. And he dug them out, set them up in his studio, and spent a good chunk of his weekend photographing them for us to use. How much did he want for us to re-use them? Not a penny. That’s one of the reasons I insisted that he and Russ should be fairly recompensed at their normal rates for work on this book. I’ve seen artists and writers exploited far too often, the people who actually make the content struggling to pay their bills while publishers luxuriate in second homes, which is why I won’t be a party to it.

Some FL fans have asked how the Kickstarter funding will be shared out to pay for the content. The campaign was run by Megara Entertainment SARL, not by Fabled Lands LLP directly, but I can share the details as they have been stated throughout to all backers on the Kickstarter page. The campaign was a model of transparency, thanks to Richard S Hetley, who managed it under the express instruction of Mikael Louys of Megara, who decided to take a back seat following his summary cancellation of the Crypt of the Vampire campaign back in June 2015.

Richard began by showing backers how their pledges would be spent:

That's nicely straightforward, isn't it? As I have commented before, the tricky thing about a Kickstarter for a new book is that you have to pay for writing, editing, typesetting and artwork on top of print and shipping. This pie chart explains where the money is going to be spent in terms anyone can understand.

But wait, it's not quite as simple as all that, because not everybody was simply pledging €35 for a copy of the book. There were other pledge levels such as personalized character drawings. So for the sake of further clarification, Megara maintained an art meter on the page:

That's how it looked by the end of the campaign - gratifyingly full. In the early days there was no guaranteeing it was going to get that far, so Megara identified the two highest art priorities:

First, a new regional map by Russ Nicholson. As the KS page stated: "You cannot play a location-based game if you cannot see a map. At [€550 on the art meter] we will be able to afford a new map. It will be printed in the book as black-and-white, but Russ will draw it in color for the map print also available during this campaign."

Next, upon reaching the €1150 mark on the art meter, €650 could be set aside as the base cost of "a new cover painting by Kevin Jenkins. To be clear: a painted cover by a famous artist costs far more than the above. If we reach the meter mark, we will continue to pay half of all art funding to Kevin Jenkins after this point on the art meter."

Well, the campaign raised €30,589. So, by the art meter formula that was made explicit to backers, the final allocation results in €3300 being owed to Kevin Jenkins for a new cover. Russ's map and interior illustrations meant that €7209 was set aside to pay him. Meanwhile Paul Gresty's 10% share as author netted him €3058.

It's not much considering the talent and creative work involved, is it? Of the total raised, after content costs, Megara has €17,000 left that's earmarked to pay for the printing and shipping of around 490 hardbacks. In other words, the physical production costs are considerably more than the amount allocated to the creative team. So you can see that it's only possible to do a project like this, and attract art and writing skills of this calibre, because of the love and commitment those guys have for the series. In fact, Russ and Kevin were better paid than this back in the mid-90s when they originally helped us create the Fabled Lands series. When you consider that UK inflation since then has been a whopping 78%, our stalwart creatives are getting barely £1000 each in 1995 terms. That's why I'm so grateful to them for agreeing to work at the rates specified on the Kickstarter page, and thus for lending their names and reputations to make the campaign a success.

And by the way, that  €17,000 left for printing and shipping might look like a windfall, but bear in mind these are quality hardbacks and they're being sent to backers all over the world. At least €10,000 is probably eaten up just by printing and postage costs, and that's before you even get to the organizational side of it: spreadsheets of addresses, tracking who paid for what reward, signing bookplates and producing other extras. Even if you ran a successful Kickstarter like this every month, the "profit" isn't enough to run a company on. That's why I've said that it's simply not possible to run a publisher using Kickstarter as the core funding model. Something like this has to be done from the heart. If you've seen Mikael Louys's comments on Kickstarter and Facebook where he lays into me and Jamie, that's my response. I take my hat off to him.

A Kickstarter campaign is a public contract with backers. It tells them what they will get for their money. If they like the deal, they pledge. If not, they click on to another project and spend their money there. It's incredibly refreshing to see a campaign like this where the contract with the backers has been so open throughout. Many projects avoid making promises because they know that Kickstarter's Terms of Use require them to fulfill those promises or refund the money, but Megara has shown exemplary transparency in putting those promises front and centre from day one.

The devotees of the Fabled Lands obviously liked the deal being promised because you pledged in your hundreds to revive the Fabled Lands series. I only hope that if and when Fabled Lands LLP launches our own Kickstarter campaign for book 8, The Lone and Level Sands, that Paul, Richard, Russ and Kevin are still so amazingly generous with their time and effort. It's really because of their help that we are able to do projects like this at all. And because of the passionate intensity of Mikael Louys, who kept asking us if he could publish some of our old gamebooks and finally convinced us to authorize a new one. And, last but very far from least, because of all the FL fans who are willing to put down their hard-earned dollars (okay, euros) to see more exhilarating artwork and thrilling prose by our dedicated creative team.

Monday 25 December 2017

Uncovering Fabled Lands book 7

Happy Christmas. I know you'll have presents to open and crackers to pull, so I won't keep you. I just thought you might like this glimpse of Kevin Jenkins' cover for The Serpent King's Domain.

Well, sort of. The fact is that Kev changed his mind about the cover after painting this rough, so the finished article looks quite a bit different. You'll see that soon enough. (If you're one of the Kickstarter backers you'll have already seen it.)

In the meantime, if you've been given any book tokens then why not take a look at our US or UK gamebook stores? Or browse through some gamebook and RPG goodies on the Spark Furnace site.

OK, that turkey ain't gonna cook itself....

Friday 22 December 2017

Khan say fairer than that

When I wrote the second Heroquest book, The Screaming Spectre, there was a fellow at Hasbro whose job was to liaise with me and Corgi Books, also publishers of Dragon Warriors and Knightmare. He didn't like what I was writing -- right from the first page of the manuscript, which bore the title The Singing Skull.

"Singing isn't very threatening," he complained.

"Maybe it is a little, when a skull does it."

"And there's that. How can a skull sing?"

"Er... You know this is fantasy, right?"

You can see our working relationship was off to a good start. His list of objections to the book, which included not enough references to Chaos, clothing descriptions not being "gothic" enough, and too much insistence on magic not being about lists of spells, ended with the doomful words, "It is difficult for me to see how this book could ever be made publishable."

Philippa Dickinson, who ran Corgi, called me up. "What are we going to do?" I told her I'd have a revised version of the manuscript ready in an hour or two. We sent that off and the Hasbro chap decided that it was all okay after all. Which just goes to show that if you're hit with what seems to be a multi-megaton criticism warhead, keep calm and carry on. Most likely your critic is just getting themselves in a panic over nothing much.

By the time I was working on the second book, Games Workshop had dashed in and changed my map of the Heroquest world to something more like their Warhammer map. It wasn't actually the same as the Warhammer one, but it had a lot of place names in common (including the curious "Trullheim" - did they know what a trull actully was?) and also made no sense in relation to the events of the first book, The Fellowship of Four. Go figure. Anyway, if you saw my sketch map of the original Heroquest world, here's the detailed version I did while writing Fellowship:

When I got to the third Heroquest book, The Tyrant's Tomb, which is this year's Xmas freebie, I knew to ladle on the Chaos references, objectionable though it was to have to go along with the lazy Chaos-as-evil theme of the Warquest, or do I mean Herohammer, series when I knew that in Mike Moorcock's original concept it was all so much richer, stranger and genuinely nastier.

Only one part of The Tyrant's Tomb fell afoul of the Hasbro liaison guy. I had a sequence in the novella where the barbarian hero has had to smash his way through a stone wall with a mallet. A serpent rears up and his arms are too weak after all that to wield his sword. So he headbutts the thing, smooshing it against the wall. "This doesn't seem credible," scoffed our man; "what if he kills the serpent with a flying kick instead?"

The headbutt was a sort-of homage to Conan biting a vulture's head off. I don't know about you, but the flying kick just doesn't seem as personal. Nor really what I expect Norse-type barbarians to be doing. So this time, sick of pandering to every whim, I threw my hands up. "We'll just cut that entire scene from the book," I told Philippa. It left the fourth chapter a bit short, but along with the novella you were also getting a 193-section gamebook adventure for your money. Or in this case, entirely free. Grab The Tyrant's Tomb here - and happy Christmas.

Friday 15 December 2017

Bullet time

I hoped to have news today of Jamie's latest project, a book about the early years of Games Workshop, but it turns out I have no more info to impart than is already on the crowdfunding page, so instead I'm going to talk about a passage that caught my eye in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian:
"We rested our rifle barrels on the brimstone and we shot nine more on the lava where they ran. It was a stand, what it was. Wagers was laid. The last of them shot was a reckonable part of a mile from the muzzles of the guns and that on a dead run. It was sharp shootin all around and not a misfire in the batch with that queer powder."
These fellows are ordinary NPCs, which in GURPS terms might be 100-point characters. The highest that most of them would be in Guns skill is around 15-16, but we can assume the final shot that Tobin, the narrator, is talking about was made by the company's best sharpshooter. Let's say he has a skill of 22.

"A reckonable part of a mile" -- that's got be at least 1000 yards, which is -16 for range. And the last Indian shot was "on a dead run", and even though a component of that motion would be directly away from the shooter, it's got to be at least another -6.

So far our shooter needs 0 to hit. But he can aim for three rounds, which gives him the Accuracy bonus of the weapon (+3 for a Sharps .59 caplock) and another +2 for the extra rounds spent. Also he can brace the rifle for +1.

With an adjusted skill of 6 the shooter had a 9.3% chance of success (GURPS makes skill rolls on 3d6). I wouldn't take that shot myself. Ammo's too precious. But it was the last of their enemies and everyone's blood was up, so obviously our man decided to go for it.I bet the referee gave him a character point in Guns for that, too, which is pretty much useless at that level and in any case you learn more from failure than from success -- but hey, nobody turns down a CP, am I right?

But that's fiction, or it's gaming. How about real-life skills? I found this assessment of 1911 handguns. Now, those aren't rifles and they are from 60 years (a whole Tech Level) after the events of Blood Meridian, but still Mr Kolesar is getting a spread of 2 inches with his Colt at 50 yards. That would be good enough to ensure a face hit every time, which in GURPS terms is -5 and another -8 for range, so -13 overall. The Colt has Accuracy +2, so with three rounds to aim and holding it in both hands that reduces the penalty to -8. To hit pretty much every time means adjusted skill must be 17, so Mr Kolesar's actual Guns skill in GURPS terms must be at least 25. He's built on more than 100 points, I bet.

Incidentally, Tobin also says they didn't get a single misfire from a batch of black powder they just mixed up Captain Kirk style. They shot sixty-seven of their enemies and not every shooter can have been as good as that eagle-eyed guy who downed the last one, so let's say at least a hundred bullets were fired. This is the mid-nineteenth century and misfires occur on 16+ on 3d6 at Tech Level 5, so you'd expect four or five in every hundred shots. That must have been some magic formula.

Anyway, I recommend Blood Meridian. It's what you'd get if Michel Tournier and Lord Dunsany collaborated on a fabulist Western. And if that doesn't pique your interest, what would?

Friday 8 December 2017

"The Holly King" (scenario)

It's the time of year for the seasonal Legend scenario again. Admittedly "A Ballad of Times Past" wasn't actually set in Legend, and "Silent Night" used GURPS stats instead of Dragon Warriors, but you know it's the thought that counts.

This year we have a real treat. My gaming group likes to get together for a pre-Christmas special, and what we like best of all at that time of year is to sit down for one of Tim Harford's brilliant blends of solstitial magic, Vancean charm, gruelling fights, and nail-biting fear. In past specials we've faced a vampiric tree at White Bay (geddit?) and an ancient threat that sailed the currents of the ley lines. Last year's game, "The Holly King", was perhaps the best of the lot, and Tim has kindly given permission for it to be posted here.

I'll just add that Tim's own notes for the scenario consisted of two maps and about two hundred words on a sheet of A4. (You get better games that way, as discussed here by AsenRG and others.) I've captured it below as best I can, but really you had to be there -- or you have to play your own version. Spoilers from here on in, so don't read on unless you'll be running it.

Tim's own description of the adventure: "The idea behind the game is that the Holly King is summoned to Ellesland by the singing of the children on Sunrise Peak. The Magi plan to substitute mechanical changelings for the children and to incarnate themselves instead, perverting the ritual so that it summons them, not the Holly King."

The Holly King
The characters are mercenaries being sent to the village of Sunrise Point at the request of its lord, Sir Haskel. Alternatively they could be coming to stay with friends for Christmas.

They are approaching up the coastal road on the afternoon of December 22. Their route takes them past Cyprian Abbey, which stands on an islet accessed by rowing boat. The monks will offer lunch – wholesome, but not substantial, comprising fish with herbs and laverbread. They can also tell the characters something about the area.

Sunrise Point

Sunrise Point is the easternmost point of Ellesland. The village here has a population of about a hundred. The lord is Sir Haskel de l'Aube. His wife is Lady Salme (more accurately she is Salme, the Lady de l'Aube) and his son, aged 9, is Herbert. Sir Haskel has six men at arms, and in an emergency can also call on the able-bodied men of the village. The local priest is Father Guent.

Sunrise Peak

The hill that rises behind the town, Sunrise Peak, is the first place to see the dawn. The legend is that on Christmas Day the Holly King and his sidekick, Black Peter, are summoned to Ellesland by the singing of the town’s children on Sunrise Peak. The tradition is that children go up on their own, without adults, and return bearing gifts from the Holly King.


Arriving at the hall, the characters find there is already something brewing. A Krarthian warship has been seen off the coast. This tallies with reports that Lord Haskel has previously received (either by magical or mundane means; you decide) of an impending attack – his reason for engaging the characters, if they are mercenaries.

That evening a lookout rushes in to say that a warship is sailing towards the northern beach, a few hundred yards from the village.

The ship bears the standard of Blue Moon (Magus Tor). From it comes a raiding party of just thirteen warriors – which is a puzzle, as the ship is large enough to carry far more.

The purpose of these warriors is simply to provide a diversion while the four Mordant Knights disembark under cover of an illusion. An extremely attentive character (ie not engaged in a melee on the beach; Perception -7) might notice splashing in the water, but otherwise the illusion conceals the Mordant Knights perfectly.

The raiding party will pull back to the ship if hard pressed, if necessary with an illusion of a creature of sand to cover their retreat. However, once the Mordant Knights are away the Knight of Illusions will no longer be on hand to cast that. Instead the illusion of the sand creature must be provided by an ordinary Krarthian sorcerer who now appears on deck. If he is picked off by arrows, the raiding party may well have little choice but to stand their ground, as there wouldn’t be time to get aboard and get out to sea without the illusion to cover them.

If the ship is captured, there are clear signs of several large animals having been in the hold: claw marks, the dent of hooves in the planking, feed pails (some with oats, some with raw meat), smears of excrement, etc.

If the characters specifically look around for tracks, they may (Tracking or Perception-5, with modifiers for poor light) pick up something leading up the sandy path at the north end of the beach. Hoof prints, but also the marks of a large bear and the deep ruts left by a heavy cart.

These are the tracks of the Mordant Knights’ steeds and also of the Punch and Judy cart in which the kidnapped children will be spirited away during tomorrow’s festivities.


The next day there is feasting in the hall for the free men of the village. This is from midday on December 23.  The characters are invited too. Sir Haskel tells them the legend of the Holly King, while Father Guent protests that the festival should not celebrate pagan traditions but rather recall the Saviour’s birth.

Meanwhile in the streets a fair is in full swing. Food and ale are taken outside for the rest of the villagers. There is juggling, acrobats, games, and a Punch and Judy show for the children. Lord Haskel’s son chafes at being unable to see the show because his formal duties require him to stay at the feast in the hall.

Some of the children could have previously served at the tables in the hall before going off to the Punch and Judy show. That way the characters could have met one or two of them in order to make later events more personal.


Unknown to the characters, the children of the village (about fifteen children in all, between the ages of three and twelve) are replaced during the Punch and Judy show with mechanical changelings. The punchman rounds up the real children and puts them in his cart (the same one that left tracks off the beach) while the changelings return home, indistinguishable from the real children even by their parents.

The punchman (actually the Knight of Illusions in disguise) will take the real children to the abandoned watch tower a little way to the north. The plan is that the ceremony on Christmas morning will be performed by the mechanical changelings, who will thereby not summon the Holly King but instead the True Magi of Krarth, who will be able to incarnate on Sunrise Peak.

To complete the plan, the Knight of Illusions must also get Herbert, the lord’s son. He will attempt to do that during the night when everybody is asleep.


A mercenary platoon of thirty soldiers led by Captain Hland arrive at the village in the middle of the afternoon. If the characters are mercenaries then they belong to the same company. If not, these are the mercenaries Lord Haskel has hired.

The night after the fair

The characters should not have too much trouble dealing with the raiding party and can return to the hall to sleep.

During the night, soft music drifts across the village like wind chimes. Roll Hearing -5 for an adult to notice this, or -10 to be woken by it if already asleep. A character who wakes will see Herbert, the lord’s son, sleepwalking to the door. If they let him out of sight for more than a moment, he’ll be switched for a mechanical changeling.

To prevent the switch they really need to keep Herbert in the hall. If they follow him through the streets they’re going to lose him in the darkness. He only needs to drop out of sight for a moment behind a dune on the outskirts of the village and then they’ll see him walking back towards them – now a changeling, that is, while the real Herbert is bundled into the cart with the other children.

The mannequins

The real children are connected to the mechanical changelings. Each changeling has eyes made from the tears of the children. A changeling cannot be killed without killing the child, as any harm that comes to the changeling will also affect the original. So they need to be deactivated. The skin can be sliced off (there is no blood, and it tears like parchment) and there is a pendulum where the heart should be. If that is stilled, the link is broken and the changeling deactivates.

Detecting a changeling is not easy. Close scrutiny, if the character has any reason to be suspicious of a changeling for instance, allows a Perception-5 check to notice small gears whirring at the back of the throat.

A further complication is that when one of the changelings is detected, the others will know and immediately scatter to hide on the downs or up on the hillside. Only one of them is needed for the ceremony on Christmas morning.

The watch tower
The children are taken to an old watchtower on the downs a few miles north of the village. They are guarded there by twelve Krarthian soldiers and the Mordant Knights.

The tower has three floors plus the roof. An alarm spell has been placed around it which characters may notice (Perception roll) in the form of an intricate cobweb threaded between the scrub. Crossing that boundary alerts the Mordant Knights.


The characters may have already found the watch tower and realized that it has been occupied by invading troops. Failing that, they will need to do some detective work: spot the switch, figure out the threat, track the real children, perhaps ask for assistance from the beachcomber.

The beachcomber

Tamar is a hermit who lives in a driftwood shack near Barrel Cove, a mile or two south of the village. Like most loners she is a little touched. She scours the beach constantly despite the meager pickings, and one local legend is that she is a selkie who lost her seal skin and now cannot return to the water until she finds it.

She can offer the characters a music box she claims to have found washed up on the beach. They will need to deal with her diplomatically to get that. The music box summons the mechanical changelings, so that even if they’ve gone into hiding around the countryside the characters have a chance of rounding them up.

The second assault

Towards evening three more Krarthian ships attack, bearing standards that are respectively red (Red Death), pale green (Gift Star) and yellow and besmirched with foulness (Plague Star). The aim of this wave is to land about a hundred Krarthian soldiers, allowing the countryside to be locked down so that the ceremony can continue unopposed.

One of the ships makes for the northern beach, the other two for Barrel Cove. Each carries a complement of thirty soldiers. The maximum force Lord Haskel’s side can muster is thirty-eight (Hland Haskel and their men) plus the player-characters and about ten villagers armed with axes, cudgels or pitchforks. So it should be a tough fight, assuming they try to oppose the landings at all.

If any prisoners are taken, and if the characters are still unaware of the Mordant Knights at this stage, they could find out now by using Interrogation or Intimidate.

The Mordant Knights seek to block the way to Sunrise Peak, so will not take part in the landings on the beach.

The Mordant Knights

The Knight of Illusions (Blue Moon) rides a donkey and has the power to confuse opponents by altering the way they see things. Shoot an arrow at the knight, and it might turn out you shot yourself or a friend instead. Is that your sword in your hand or is it a poisonous snake? And so on.

The Knight of Carnage (Red Death) rides a polar bear (yes really) and wields a sword that causes profuse bleeding. Any untreated wound he inflicts bleeds at a rate equal to its original damage every minute until staunched using First Aid.

The Knight of Sickness (Plague Star)  rides a diseased horse whose ribs show through rotted, maggot-infested skin. His sword kills if it touches flesh.

The Knight of the Wheel (Gift Star) rides a unicorn. His is the power of strange fortune. Rolling to hit him you might use four dice instead of three, but then you might get to use two dice to parry. The effect changes continually, as often detrimental to the player-characters as not.

The finale

The Krarthian plan requires only a single changeling to reach the peak at sunrise on Christmas morning. Even if the characters rescue the other children, it should be possible for the Mordant Knights to ride off with at least one. (Ideally that should be either Herbert or one of the children who served them at the feast.)

The Mordant Knights’ goal will be to block the route up to Sunrise Peak so that none of the real children can get there in time for the dawn. As long as a single changeling is there to perform the song, the Magi will incorporate again on the mortal world and then you’ve got a pretty apocalyptic campaign ahead.

If changelings and real children both turn up at the peak, it is the real children whose singing takes precedence.

No adults are allowed at the sunrise ceremony, and if they are there then it won’t work. Normally parents take their children up to within half a mile of the peak and then the older children lead the rest.

Assuming that the characters are successful in preventing the Krarthian plan (and let’s hope so for the sake of Christmas) the children will come back down the mountain carrying gifts, including spiced honey cakes that will heal any character still suffering from the powers of the Mordant Knights.

Lines from our game

“We've got twenty-four hours to turn these children into soldiers.” (Luckily we didn’t have to!)

“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” (When one of the characters had tried telling the others, ‘The Holly King isn’t real. He’s just somebody’s dad dressed up.’)

I said afterwards:The Iron Men got to save Christmas and there were so many brilliant touches that I can't list them all. Just a few: the cobweb perimeter defence spell, the way the Ring of Far-Seeing affected Cracknut when he used it, the clockwork mechanisms inside the fake children, the extremely Grand Guignol version of Punch & Judy from Krarth, the strange powers of the Mordant Knights, and the truly magical moment when the children ran back down the hill with presents from the Holly King, made all the more numinous from Cal's point of view as I was lying on my back on the point of death, gazing up into the sky as the sun rose and the kids came down the hillside. I can just see that scene in the movie. I'm in awe of Tim's knack of creating opponents who put us on a knife-edge of survivability -- it makes the victory all the sweeter.”
Tim Savin said:Great session. Tough as nails. Very cinematic stuff, the magical Harfordian blend of fairytale charm with Legendary darkness.”
Oliver Johnson said: “It was a blast from the first moment to the last suicidal leap from a cliff onto the Illusion Knight’s galloping horse.... oops, Joe just missed it – that had to hurt.  In brief, we went up the mountain with the kids on the solstice morning  -- the Illusion Knight, the Gift Knight, a small army of Krarthian warriors and the mannequins awaited. There was another epic battle, with more illusion leading to a serious blue on blue involving Cracknut and Caliburn. Joe Lynch and Duryakin leapt onto the charging knights, as above, and after many gaping wounds, broken bones, plague infection and carnage we emerged victorious. At first light the Holly King visited the kids on the mountain top and all was right with the world apart from the dead lord’s son and the aforementioned gaping wounds, broken bones, plagues, oh, and burns, etc No PC died, anyway. Merry Christmas, one and all!”

Tuesday 5 December 2017

I dodged a bullet

A couple of recent posts have picked away at the problems I have with GURPS, but that's only one half of the picture. My relationship with GURPS is as much love as hate. At the core of it, 4th edition is a very elegant edifice. The trouble is that the edifice in question is overgrown with a riotous ivy of special cases and the rules are scattered all over the place like so many broken vases.

But I’m not going to gripe about GURPS today. Coming up on Friday we have the Christmas special scenario. That’s actually system-agnostic but when my group ran it we used GURPS 4e, which gives me an excuse to redress the balance a little by defending a much-maligned GURPS rule, namely the ability to use Dodge against missile weapons.

First off, this isn’t Matrix-style stuff. You aren’t leaning aside to let that bullet go whistling past. There’s a temptation to think that one dice roll means one specific action, but that’s not it. When somebody’s shooting at you and you make a Dodge roll, that roll represents all the ducking and weaving you’ve been doing to make yourself a harder target.

Recently in our Wild West game we had a situation where we were shooting at some fellows on horseback. How do you make a Dodge when you’re planted in the saddle?

You could say that it’s impossible to Dodge while on horseback, but the logical outcome then would be for everybody to dismount at the start of every battle. Not much in keeping with the spirit of a Wild West game, that. Which is why GURPS 4e does allow Dodging while riding.

The rule is on page 398 (you really have to go digging around for these rules) and it states that you can Dodge normally in the saddle if you have Riding skill of 12+, but you lose -1 from Dodge for each point of Riding skill below 12.

How is it possible? Remember what I said. Dodge isn't one single action, like darting out of the way before a bullet hits. It's more of a way of representing dodging and weaving about during the fight that makes you less likely to get hit. So when you're firing from horseback, the horses aren't stationary firing platforms like the turret of a tank. Horses don't stay stock-still like that. They would be constantly wheeling and milling about. And if you can ride well, you can combine that with crouching in the saddle and so on to make yourself a trickier target to get a bead on. You see exactly that technique in a movie like The Outlaw Josey Wales. That’s what the rule on page 398 is modelling.

Love-hate, remember, so I still can’t resist a little gripe. That “full Dodge if you have Riding 12, but…” is a typical off-the-cuff GURPS rule. These special cases are strewn throughout the books. They’re obviously just made up out of desperation as the designer was having to colour in these corners of the game, and because the number is arbitrary it’s hard to remember. It’s not a rule that’s repeated throughout – “you can do First Aid on jet-skis if you have Skiing 12”, etc.

Control of the horse isn’t automatic at Riding skill 12, so why create a special case? Just use the rules that are already written, for Pete’s sake. That’s what infuriates me about GURPS. It’s like going round the Ashmolean Museum to find it’s been redecorated by a Vegas hotelier. The GURPS books list a few dozen people responsible for “rules refinement”, so that’d be why. Too many cooks, guys.

A better rule would be this: "in order to qualify to make a Dodge roll when mounted, you must first succeed in a Riding roll". So that way you can attempt to dodge if you can control the horse. Easier to remember, and more logical.

One day (I mean, one month) I’m going to rewrite GURPS 4e to streamline and rationalize the whole thing. In the meantime, here are some GURPS Legend character generation rules to be going on with. And whatever system you favour, be sure to come back on Friday for the Yuletide adventure.

Friday 1 December 2017

Dealing with demons - part 3

Now, these demon lords. The fact is they were originally devised for Medra, the campaign world of my 1980-82 Oxford campaign. So if you’re wondering why the names don’t sound very much in keeping with other Questworld material I’ve posted here, that’d be why. If we’d got as far as publishing the book I’d probably have changed that, but it was a rush job to write half of White Dwarf and get that QW book finished. Gosh, I was prolific in those days. That’s the energy of youth for you..

Anyway, here’s the final part of “Dealing With Demons”. Next time, as it's just about acceptable to mention Christmas now that we're into December, we'll have something to get you more in the holiday spirit.


The demon lords and princes are individual beings of immense power who rule the demon planes. They have, of course, been summoned far less frequently than the lesser demons, so no exact canon of knowledge is available as with the latter. A summoner who does some research may find suggestions and theories as to how to deal with the demon lords (“Rokash the Pious records that the powers of the Lord Eldyr are diminished by bright light...” and so on), but exact wards—if any—are a matter of conjecture.

Similarly there is some uncertainty as to the precise levels of power of the demon lords. Tsienra’s stats are given here as a guideline, but referees must design these creatures to suit their own campaigns. They should be virtually impossible to overcome with raw power alone, and if your campaign abounds with 150%-plus Rune Lord-Priests then the abilities of Tsienra and the others should be increased accordingly. When the demon lords have suffered defeats in the past it has been through the summoner’s quick wit and daring rather than from spells and swords.

As a general rule all demon lords will have a personal POW of between 80 and 100, and can draw on unlimited POW reserves from their home dimension for casting battle magic. They are hostile about 20% of the time and otherwise neutral. They will only be friendly if there is a very good reason why they should react favourably to the summoner— Umalu prefers Chaotic berserkers, and so on.

The Gifts
While not precluding the possibility of striking completely unique bargains with a summoned demon lord, there are two types of deal which are ‘commonly’ made. These are the Lesser Gifts—minor exertions from the demon’s point of view, made in exchange for characteristic POW from the summoner—and the Greater Gifts, which are permanent abilities bestowed on the summoner in exchange for a soul-pledge.

A soul-pledge means the summoner gives the demon 1 POW point to seal the bargain and promises him a further 3d10 POW later. These further points are intended to be collected on the summoner’s death, but there is a 2% chance the demon will arrive if it feels the summoner’s life-force is burning low—in game terms, whenever the character’s hit points or POW reach 2 or less. Once the demon arrives nothing can stop it from devouring the POW promised to it. These POW points are permanently lost to the character, at which point the soul-pledge is ended and he loses the Greater Gift. If he survives the POW loss he can later bargain again for a Greater Gift with the same or a different demon lord. A character can buy any number of Lesser Gifts from demon lords (if he can spare the POW), but it is only possible to have one Greater Gift at a time. Note that to receive any gift at least 200 Wheels or equivalent must also be offered.

The Demon Lords
There are a number of other demon-lords that could not be listed here—among them Pazuzu, Lord of Fevers, ruler of the lesser demons commonly called by his name; Bakshuro the Screamer, who inhabits a dimension so hostile that only he can live there; Valladolyn of the Emerald Eye, who sees all; and Lady Kleshkala of the Pit, whose face is so terrible that merely to summon her is to court insanity.

The three important parameters for each demon lord are his or her Resistance to Summoning, Resistance to Binding, and Cross Pentacle ability. The last is applied as a negative modifier to the summoner’s chance of correctly drawing the Pentacle of Protection.

The Lord Tsienra
Screaming Metal Spirit, Demon of Ferocity
Tsienra usually appears as a metallic figure, something like a huge tiger armoured in intricately patterned plates of tarnished silver and with a violet light burning behind his eyes and gaping maw. He embodies the lightning attack, the unrelenting ferocity of battle, the prowling spirit of savage death. Possession by the spirit of Tsienra gives great speed and grace to the recipient’s fighting prowess.

Greater Gift: Tsienra can give the power of ferocity. When a character with this power uses it, his STR and DEX are effectively increased to species maximum for combat purposes, 35% is added to his Attack chance and 10% is subtracted from his Parry. The character expends 2 points of battle magic POW to go into ferocity and then another point for every full turn he keeps it going.

Lesser Gifts: For the sacrifice of 1 POW point, Tsienra will teach his summoner the battle magic spell The Talons of Tsienra. For 2 POW points he will use his skill at stalking between the planes to take the summoner within a few miles of any location he specifies, now matter how great the distance. For 3 POW he will enchant any sword with a permanent bladesharp 2.

The Talons of Tsienra
POW used: 4 points
Type: passive, unfocused, temporal
This battle magic spell causes 30cm talons of red light to spring from the caster’s wrists. He can fight with these using either Fist or Dagger skill. The talons do just 1d4 damage (no STR/SIZ bonuses apply), but the only effective defence against them is the Rune spell shield, which absorbs one point from the talons’ damage for each point of shield. The talons are immaterial, so parrying a weapon with them will damage but not deflect it. The spell can only be learned from Tsienra himself, and if the character tries to teach it to someone else then Tsienra will materialize unbidden and kill him.

Tsienra can make one bite attack and two claw attacks in the same round. These do not all have to be against a single opponent. By splitting his attacks he can make even more strikes in one round, of course. Like most demon lords he can cast any standard battle magic spell by drawing POW from his home plane. When he casts a Rune spell he pays for it using his own POW, just as a normal being would pay for battle magic. Like all demon lords, Tsienra is immune to non-Runic weapons.

His Fell Highness Eldyr
Prince of Deceit, Demon of Persuasion
Eldyr is overlord of Incubi, Succubi and Gremlins. He can pass in any guise he chooses, the better to advance his wiles, but will always eventually cast images aside to reveal his true (perhaps true) self. In the Chronicles of the Conjunction, Eldyr’s own description of himself is recorded: “My hair is like black silk, my skin is burnished copper in the moonlight, my eyes are sapphires and my robe embraces the starry night…” This description was for the benefit of the sorceress Cordelia, who had wisely blindfolded herself before the summoning. Without defences such as this, all in time succumb to Eldyr’s charms; the evocator must attempt to banish him at once, therefore, if he begins to use his powers in a hostile fashion.

Greater Gift: Eldyr can give the power of harmonic spirit. This is a combination of charm and blind luck. It costs nothing to activate this power, but each morning the character must roll POWx5 or less on percentile dice to see if the power works for that day. The chance is increased by 15% if the power was working the previous day, and decreased by 5% if it was not. Any luck roll the character has to make has a 50% chance of working automatically without him having to roll for it; on a roll of 05 or less he may have quite incredible luck – a 20m fall broken by some bushes, for instance. He gets a CHA bonus of +4 and can use his CHA as an Incubus or Succubus does. Finally, he gets an Oratory bonus of +35%.

Lesser Gifts: For 1 POW point, Eldyr will aid a character in an attempt to persuade others of something. He gives the character a 45% bonus to his or her persuasion chances for one use only–and this must be some matter where the character’s chance of persuasion was at least 10% in the first place. The bonus is reduced to 10%-30% in attempts to bargain with demon lords because Eldyr’s powers work only erratically against his peers. For 2 points of POW Eldyr will give a luck ring. This silver ring has 100 charges and each charge can be used to change the chance of something happening by 1%. The event to be influenced must occur within 100m of the wearer and have at least a 10% chance of happening in the first place. You can’t make a healthy warrior suddenly die of a heart attack, for example. The wearer must declare how many charges he is committing before the roll is made. When all charges are expended the ring permanently tarnishes and is powerless thereafter.

The Lord Umalu
The Whip of Chaos, Demon of Pain
The spirit of Umalu is that of glorying in the inflicting of pain. He is a fierce, powerful demon who hates Lawful creatures with an intense passion and is little better disposed towards being of Chaos. Umalu manifests himself as a 3m tall muscular black giant with a long mane of white hair, face perpetually contorted in hatred. He wields a glittering whip which can bestow Reverse Chaos features and an envenomed shortsword which inflicts terrible wounds.

Greater Gifts: Umalu can bestow chaos on a character, giving him or her a Chaotic feature. He can also give the power of excruciation, so that any wound the character inflicts has a 20% chance of dealing an extra 1d8 damage to the victim’s hit point total owing to extreme pain.

Lesser Gifts: In exchange for 1 point of POW he will teach a character an extra 20% in the Torture skill. For 2 POW points he grants the Rune spell curse of anguish (see below). For 3 POW he will personally torture a captive to obtain information on the summoner’s behalf.

Curse of Anguish
Range: 160m
POW used: 2 points
Duration: Permanent, Non-reusable, Not stackable
The caster of the Rune spell is able to inflict racking pain on a victim if he can overcome their POW. He can alter the victim’s hit point total at will to represent the pain, and can thus force the victim into unconsciousness, vary the pain so that they must fight at a disadvantage, or merely threaten them with the effects. The curse of anguish cannot kill– its victim will merely lapse into a coma if the pain level is increased too far. This spell does not affect undead, elementals or other creatures which do not actually experience pain.

Torture is a manipulation skill with a base score of 15% and is learned at the rates 200/400/800/EXP. Normally a character must join the Guild of Torturers to learn the skill. A successful Torture roll means that the torturer has extracted all or part (40%+ 1d6x10%) of the truth from his captive, failure means that he has got false information. A fumble means that the captive has died. Torture can usually be used only once a day on a given captive – each extra use in the same day doubles the chance of a fumble. Captives can use their CON +POW as a ‘Defence’ against the Torture ‘Attack’ if they wish.

His Demonic Majesty Adelmar
Lord of the Vaults of Eternity, Monarch of Demons
Summon the terrible Adelmar only when you plan such grand designs of mayhem and destruction as would make lesser demons quail, for he is a proud and potent force and should not be summoned lightly. Standing about two and half metres tall, he is ebony-black with the lower body of a serpent, a human torso, and an armoured, horned head like that of a triceratops. He wields enchanted scimitars in each hand. One scimitar feeds on the blood of victims, the other on their souls. Adelmar is said to dwell in a labyrinthine castle on an island in an unknown lake. When Adelmar is summoned, the evocator and his party (up to six others) are carried to this castle to petition the demon.

Greater Gifts: Adelmar has a limited power over time itself, and can give the ability of temporal navigation. This enables a character to cross up to ten years either into the past or future, arriving within 1-12 weeks either side of the required date. Each use of temporal navigation costs the character 1d4 from characteristic POW.

Lesser Gifts: For 1 point of POW Adelmar will open the veils of time to uncover some secret at the summoner's behest. For 3 POW he will send an army of demonic warriors – equivalent to five thousand elite cavalry–to fight in one battle beside the army of the summoner or his employer. Adelmar can also add to a character’s lifespan— five years for 1 POW, ten years for 2 POW, and so on. A character can only petition for this gift once. During the added years the character does not age, but the deal must be phrased with exceptional caution or Adelmar will surely twist things to the summoner’s detriment.

The Lord Akresh
Spirit of Thunder in the Mountains, Demon of Invincibility
Akresh represents steadfast strength of purpose, the glowering look that intimidates a foe, the essence of power that cannot be assailed. Possession by the spirit of Akresh is called waiting-within-a-fortress; it hardens the will, shields the body from harm and augments the recipient's physical might. Akresh himself can only be evoked in mountains, where he usually appears as a shadow against the sky and a booming echo between the peaks.

Greater Gift: The power that Akresh can grant is indomitability. A character with this power must roll POWx5 or less on d100 whenever he wants to use it; once activated, the power costs 2 points of battle magic POW for each full turn the character wishes to use it. While indomitable the character remains fixed in position waiting for attacks. He can automatically sweep aside all attacks made at 25% or lower, including missile attacks; his STR increases to species maximum; he gets a +20% Parry bonus and any parries he makes do an extra 1 d4 damage to the parried weapon. Finally, he gets an extra point of armour protection.

Lesser Gifts: For 1 point of POW Akresh will teach two points of the battle magic spell parry (usually available only to Humakti). For 2 POW he can enchant any shield so that whoever carries it has a permanent protection 1. For 3 POW he will summon mountain storms that can throw whole armies into confusion, or block a pass with landslides.

Her Eldritch Highness Sarasathsa
Princess of Mystery, Demon of Paradox
Sarasathsa has sovereignty over things impenetrable or unknowable. Possession with her spirit-essence renders the recipient immune to spirit combat, as spirits will recoil from her terrible mysteries, but is double-edged in that the recipient could become sunk into lethargy and pensive introspection (roll POWx5 or less when coming out of possession to avoid this. Sarasathsa may have many forms, but is often described as a very tall (2½m), slender, graceful woman in blue and green robes. Her skin is pale and mottled in a serpentine pattern, and the right side of her face is concealed behind a fantastical mask in the form of an embryonic dragon. All summoners describe her as cold and disdainful and rather draconic in temperament.

Greater Gift: Sarasathsa can grant morphetic counsel. Whenever the character has some problem to solve or mystery to uncover she will whisper clues to him in his dreams. This acts as though the character had 80% in the General Knowledge skill, and also allows him important visionary dreams at the referee's discretion.

Lesser Gifts: For 1 POW she will answer any three yes/no questions about the past or present with 99% accuracy. For 2 POW she will convert any powered crystal into another type which the summoner specifies (the crystal's POW is diminished by 1 by this process. For 3 POW she grants a character a permanent 5% bonus on POW gain rolls.

The Lord Kojuro
Who is One with the Sword, Demon of Fighting Skill
Kojuro appears as a slender man with greyish skin and sharp white shark's teeth. He wears white and grey cotton robes and carries a number of swords and throwing knives. His province is skill in combat, particularly swordplay.

Greater Gift: Kojuro can immediately raise a character's skill with swords to 80% or by 15%, whichever is greater.

Lesser Gifts: For 1 POW point Kojuro will increase a character's score in any fighting skill by 5%, to a maximum of 75%. For 2 POW points he will place a single-use truesword spell on a blade; this spell can be activated at any later time by whoever wields the sword. For 3 POW he will increase the skill of an entire army by 5% for a single battle.

The Lord Kesh
Jewelled Serpent, Demon of Confusion and Terror
Kesh embodies the transfixing gaze of a snake. He causes awe by his presence alone, a massive bejewelled, serpentine shape coiling about the Pentacle and rearing up to the roof of the summoning chamber–the summoner must roll POWx5 or less on d100 or lose all power to bargain with the demon. Looking into Kesh's eyes causes demoralization.

Greater Gift: Kesh grants the power of intimidation. Given two rounds in which to talk to foes before he fights them, a character with this power can threaten with such unholy force that those hearing him must roll POWx5 or less on percentile dice or be demoralized. In combat, the character's gaze can transfix like a vampire's.

Lesser Gifts: For 1 POW point Kesh will reveal the location of an ancient treasure hoard of at least 90 treasure factors. For 2 points he will set a giant demonic serpent to guard your treasure for you. For 3 points he will teach you how to brew any venom or acid up to potency 15.

The Lord Engala
Gatherer of Darkness, Demon of the Undead
Engala is usually characterized as the zombie spirit, embodiment of unrelenting attack, but in fact he is the lord of all undead creatures. Engala appears as a dull-eyed, expressionless man with dead white skin, robed in grave-soiled black raiment. His movements are slow and languid, like a corpse underwater, and when he speaks his lips hardly move to his hollow, emotionless tones. Those possessed by his spirit will fight until cut apart.

Greater Gift: Engala can make a character into a vampire or mummy. The customary pledge of POW is useless to Engala because he is an undead being, so instead of that pledge he imposes a peculiar condition on his Gift. Every ten years the character must find a champion to play Engala's representative at a game not unlike chess. If the champion loses, Engala drains him of POW and destroys him. If the character cannot find a champion he must play Engala's representative himself – in this case, if he loses, Engala will come and take the character as one of his personal servants.

Lesser Gifts: In exchange for a powered crystal Engala will give a lead amulet which grants the wearer some protection from undead – hostile undead act neutrally and neutral undead will be friendly, as per the Runequest response table. Occasionally he may give favoured summoners a zombie or skeleton guard to serve them.

The Lord Kyrax
Blizzard Flame, The White Lord, He Who Descends from the Storm
Kyrax is one of the oldest demons. He has the form of a giant white wolf, or sometimes a man of feral aspect. He is the master of stealth and guile, can cause invisibility, blizzards and darkness and particularly aids those who were once mighty, for he is the demon lord of regathering old powers.

Greater Gifts: Kyrax can grant a character 70% in all Stealth skills or raise these by 20%. Or he may personally aid a character in a single master plan.

Lesser Gifts: For 1 POW point he will increase a single Stealth or Tracking skill by 10%. For 2 POW he will give a one-use Rune spell to summon thick mist in a 160m radius; the caster can see up to 30m in this mist but for others the visibility is under 10m. For 3 POW he will summon a blizzard or turn a character invisible for eight hours.

His Excellency Hragahl
Minister of Lightning, Demon of Intellect
This bizarre and ancient demon lord is master of all matters connected with logic and philosophy, and if he is impressed by a summoner's ability in these areas he will have a friendly reaction to him. Hragahl materializes as a giant (1 m) bald, fanged head with silvery-blue skin, incandescent white eyes, and giant wings springing from his temples. He has a tongue of flickering lightning which can snake out up to 20m.

Greater Gift: Hragahl can transform a staff or weapon of the summoner's so that it has powers of a Stormblade [WD39, Runeblades].

Lesser Gifts: For 1 POW point he will summon up a Storm Demon and place it under the summoner's control for fifteen minutes. For 2 points of POW he will give a 5% bonus in General Knowledge (to a maximum of 45%). For 3 POW he can increase a being's INT by one point or summon storms to confound an enemy.

Final Notes
A word of warning: campaigns where demon lords get summoned up every weekend and every other character has a Greater Gift are going to get dull very quickly. Scenarios could involve a demon lord's influence without requiring him to make a personal appearance – player characters could battle a small cult worshipping one of these entities, or inadvertently break a chain of events set in motion by a demon lord long ago.

Bear in mind that even the Lesser Gifts of a demon lord are powerful and hard to come by. There is a high risk factor in any summoning, and the demon lord must have a favourable reaction to the summoner if any deal is to be struck. Few generals would care to swell their army's ranks with demon warriors, even if they can seek out one of the demonologists powerful enough to make such a bargain. Only three cases of military use of demonic powers are recorded in Questworld's history – each time by the extravagant, whimsical Ancients, for whom normal caution and logic seem meaningless.

Lastly, words of thanks to everyone who might have inspired or actively fed me with demonic ideas – in particular, Steve Ditko, P Craig Russell, Richard Lupoff, Miyamoto Musashi, Yvonne Newnham, Mike Polling, Jack Vance, Oliver Johnson and William Burroughs. Vance's short story “TheMiracle Workers” directly supplied the idea of possessions, and gives a vivid account of their effects. For a host of further demons, Professor M A R Barker's Book of Ebon Bindings is recommended. It details, with many colourful anecdotes, creatures designed for Barker's world of Tekumel but usable in any setting.