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Friday 24 August 2018

Blood Sword cover design

A while back I mentioned how the cover of The Lord of Shadow Keep would have been a real mess if the artist hadn’t had the sense to ignore my brief. That time I dropped the ball, but mostly I get it right. Here’s the proof, in the form of the briefs I sent to Sebastien Brunet for Blood Sword. A friendly warning: this could get technical…


A lot of gamebook covers avoid depicting the player-character, which makes sense as gamebooks are seen through the protagonist’s eyes. Way of the Tiger does it another way, more like the view in a third-person CRPG where you get to see the hero. Let’s do that with Blood Sword. That way we can get a sense of scale in the scenes and monsters the hero is facing.

As there are four character types to choose from in Bloodsword, we can have a different character type depicted as the hero in each cover. Then in the fifth cover maybe we could show all four. The character types are:
  • Book One: a warrior (male)
  • Book Two: a rogue (male)
  • Book Three: a sage (female)
  • Book Four: a wizard (female)

The Battlepits of Krarth
A huge four-limbed creature of solid shadow is about to attack a human warrior.
The setting:
A long hall or temple with bronze doors. The place is lit by bowls of burning coals that produce clouds of incense. Those bowls are on bronze stands. To give some movement to the image, perhaps the monster is knocking some of these bowls aside as it closes in on the player-character.

The monster:
A hulking creature of living shadow. Its entire form is jet black except for its eyes, which blaze with blue-white light. It has four arms, and in each hand it grips a massive scimitar (also jet black). In the book this monster is known as “Nebularon, Drinker of Souls, Swallower of Sorcery” and I based it a little bit on Eternity in the Doctor Strange comics.

As the monster is supposed to have a skin of shadow that contains the blazing blue-white light, you could have lines along its body and limbs where we can see thin cracks of light shining through. That’s up to you – I just mention it in case having it entirely jet-black doesn’t look right.

The player-character:
He is a warrior who could be armed with a spear or a sword and shield (but not a bow). A low-angle shot to emphasize the size of the shadow monster, so that the warrior is in the foreground with his back to us looking up at the monster.

The Kingdom of Wyrd
A funeral procession of sinister monks carries a shrouded body along an underground tunnel, watched from the shadows by a rogue-like player-character.

The setting:
A stone tunnel deep underground. There are various round ventilation shafts built high up in the walls of the tunnel. We are viewing the scene in the tunnel from one of these ventilation shafts.

The bad guys:
A procession of evil monks wearing peaked hoods. They are carrying a shrouded body on a wooden bier and each has a tall candle to light the way. We are looking down at them as the procession goes along the tunnel. In case it helps, here is Russ Nicholson's picture from the original book.

The player-character:
A rogue (thief-type character) has climbed down the ventilation shaft and is braced against the mouth of it peeking out as the procession goes by underneath him. He is lightly armoured (leather, not plate metal) and has a bow, a quiver of arrows on his back, a sheathed dagger at his belt.

The Demon’s Claw
The sage levitates high above a mountain stronghold.

The setting:
We’re high in the air looking down at stronghold that is built on a ledge among high mountain peaks above an almost sheer drop. The dawn light glances off its sharp cornices and columns of glassy grey-black stone. The central tower of the stronghold is capped by an egg-shaped dome encrusted with carnelian and topaz. It hangs above the grey buildings like a second sun, catching the rays of dawn and seeming to magnify them. Here’s the drawing from the original book:

The bad guys:
A group of Magian wizards have run out onto the terrace and are getting ready to cast spells at the player-character. (They are tiny at this distance, so we probably can’t make out much detail of their clothing, but in fact they wear gold-trimmed red robes and tall copper crowns.)

The player-character:
A female sage (priestess-type) in simple white tunic. She carries a plain wooden staff and is levitating in midair. Our view is therefore looking down past her from behind as she descends towards the stronghold.

The sorceress gazes up in awe at the Angel of Death who stands like a skyscraper in the centre of the desolate land of Sheol.

The setting:
A vast flat plain strewn with small rocks. In the far distance, the plain is ringed by sharp mountains, but they are so far off that they don’t look tall. Certainly not as tall as the central figure, Azrael.

The “monster”:
This is the archangel Azrael, the angel of death. First of all, he is huge - as tall as a mountain, so that his head is actually hazed by clouds and distance.Azrael is naked, but some states in the US tend to be prudish and won’t allow us to show genitals on a book cover, so he should stand facing slightly away from us. He’s just turning his head as if he has noticed the presence of the player-character – though to him she is insignificant, barely more than a gnat.

In appearance he’s like the classic Greek-Roman ideal, with muscles that look almost sculpted. His skin is dark grey, but that’s offset by the rich colours of his wings. The pattern of feathers on the wings is like a peacock’s tail, covered with eyes – only most of the eyes are closed, only about a tenth of the eyes are open. Here’s the description from the book:
A naked giant as large as a mountain. Wrapped across his face is a white blindfold. A colossal sword is planted on the ground in front of him, with his mighty hand resting on its ivory pommel. His face is beautiful beyond mortal comprehension, and he has wings which touch the edges of the sky. The plumage of these wings has a pattern like a peacock's tail, with countless eyes - except that many of the 'eyes' in the pattern are closed. You know from folklore that each represents a man or woman in the mortal world, closing when that individual dies. When all the eyes are closed it will be the Day of Judgement, and that day cannot be far off. Many more are closed than are open: the dead far outnumber the living.
I’ve done a sketch but there’s a big problem with it – Azrael isn’t nearly tall enough. He should be a thousand feet tall!

The player-character:
A sorceress. She is standing looking up at Azrael and has her left hand raised to her face as if she’s shielding her eyes from a dazzling light. Her other hand grips an elaborate jewelled staff. She wears long flowing robes as you’d expect of a wizard. Her body language doesn’t suggest that she intends to fight Azrael – he’s far too huge and powerful, you may as well think of attacking a mountain. Instead, her posture should convey awe and wonder.

The Walls of Spyte

The setting:
An arctic wasteland. In the background is the city of Spyte, a walled citadel of grey towers and spires surrounded by a high basalt wall. The city is completely encircled by a broad chasm almost a mile across. From this chasm rise sulphurous fumes that form patches of yellowish haze in the icy air.

The monster:
An ice bear – a creature with the heavy frame and shoulders of a bear, but covered in quills like a porcupine. Its claws and quills seem to be made of ice, in fact.

The player-characters:
All four of our heroes from the earlier covers – the warrior with a spear, behind him the rogue aiming his bow, the sage with her quarterstaff, and the sorceress conjuring a powerful spell. All of them are wearing heavy furs to protect themselves in the cold environment.

*  *  *

As a final note, these are very different from the covers I envisaged for a new streamlined edition of Blood Sword a few years ago. The design has to fit what you're trying to do. Those would have been more of a grown-up rethink of the books, with emphasis on the interactive novel aspect. Because in the end we just opted to re-release the original kids' books, complete with tactical maps and rules as complex as a few months of Brexit negotiation, the more vibrant in-your-face cover designs were more appropriate.

Friday 10 August 2018

Bundles of neuroses

The other night I got a close-up view of a massacre.

Not in real life, thankfully. It was the finale of a Victorian-era campaign I’d been running for over a year. The player-characters caught up with some people who were responsible for a series of horrible deaths in the name of mad science.

The PCs found the scientists unarmed at an Arctic base and they blew them away in cold blood. An old man, a woman, and a child who happened to be in the way. One of them shot in the back, too.

So they saved the world, but in hunting monsters they had indeed become monsters themselves.

Now, I’m not complaining. I love that the heroes of the piece might turn out to be stone killers. Afterwards I mentioned to the players that refereeing a session like that like is having a front row seat at a really gripping movie, but actually it’s much better. Movies these days, impressive though they may be with their CGI-candy, too often lay themselves down in the well-worn story patterns taught in screenwriting classes, like old dogs with a favourite spot before the fire. I want to be surprised, even shocked. I want characters who act in unexpected, complex, and non-trope-driven ways. For that you need a roleplaying game.

There’s a but. We use GURPS for most of our games these days. The reason is that 4th edition is well-designed (at the core anyway; all the special cases slightly break it) and has the breadth to cover everything. The characters go to buy hunting rifles for their trip to Norway, or need to check fatigue for trekking through a marsh in a thunderstorm. Fine, there are rules already written for that, so I can just focus on the game.

The trouble is that GURPS doesn’t easily make provision for the character who develops in an unexpected direction. You have to set out everything about the character before you start playing them. In the case of my campaign, one of the characters had Honesty, which in GURPS 4e doesn’t just mean an inability to lie but indicates that you are rigidly law-abiding and, says the rulebook, “you may never commit murder”. Yet that PC did commit murder in a form that should appall any Victorian gentleman. And so did others of the PCs who had traits like Code of Honour (Gentleman’s), which in GURPS are classed as mental disadvantages and are worth extra character points.

I wouldn’t want to straitjacket the players by forcing them to stick to the stereotypes encouraged by the GURPS rules. Enforcing that would be barely any advance on D&D's boneheaded alignment system. As I said, the fun is in seeing the surprising yet inevitable way players respond to their experiences. Bloody and brutal murder seems inconceivable in the lounge of the Reform Club, but out on the rim of the Empire Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen had their own Mỹ Lais. How dull if a player had to say, “My character sheet has Law-Abiding for -10 points so I stop before committing the murder.” Might as well just let the sheet turn up and play the game, in that case.

Diehard GURPS players will say this is already catered for by the rules. You can spend future character points to buy off those mental disadvantages that no longer apply. But… ugh. That’s spreadsheeting, not roleplaying.

This is of course the old debate about how PCs should be created, which was discussed in some detail by Tim Harford in a guest post on this very blog.
“This discussion has been called ‘DAS vs DIP,’ or ‘Design At Start’ versus ‘Develop In Play’. GURPS is both the archetypal design system, and the classic method of producing full formed characters. I turned my mind to the problem of Develop In Play with GURPS characters and it turns out to be almost impossible to do this without chucking out the whole character system. Many other systems turn out to be strange hybrids in which—for instance—attributes are rolled, but skills are chosen within some kind of budget. This is less logical, but fits much better with a Develop in Play approach.”
The sensible answer is simply not to allow mental disadvantages in the game. As Tim said in his referee notes at the start of the Redemption campaign:
“GURPS mental disadvantages are all caricatures, so I want to avoid using them. This will save us all the hassle of dealing with the inevitable string of stubborn, overconfident, impulsive characters with pirate codes of honour. Another reason to avoid the official mental disadvantages is that characters tend to settle in over time, and the original set of disadvantages tend to be inappropriate.”
To which I would add that mental disadvantages, because they are slapped down on a sheet before you begin to inhabit your character, usually get forgotten anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of times players have said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you I have Claustrophobia. I probably should have mentioned that in the mines back there,” or, “Would my PTSD flashbacks have had any effect when we had that desperate gunfight three sessions ago?”

So my ruling from now on is that nobody will get points for mental disadvantages. Bad traits are part of the fun of playing the character. They’re their own reward; you shouldn’t get points for them. And in any case, characters need to be free to change, otherwise we’re allowing the gaming side of the hobby to smother the roleplaying.

Monday 6 August 2018

Manticon notes

Jamie and I are just back from Heppenheim, where we were the guests of Nic Bonczyk, our German publisher, at Manticon. Paul Mason, who used to be a regular in our Tekumel games, was also over from Japan so it became quite a reunion.

We got to watch an axe-throwing contest (Jamie actually threw a few himself; nobody was maimed), gave a couple of talks (on roleplaying and on gamebooks), chatted to lots of great people who we previously only knew from the internet, feasted mightily on fine Teutonic fare, and drank our fill of great beer - including the justly fabled Mantibräu.

This all took place at Starkenburg Castle, which overlooks the town like the backlot set for a James Whale movie - and, as a matter of fact, Berg Frankenstein is just a few miles up the valley. While sitting in the town square I couldn't help thinking of the scenes from my comic Mirabilis, themselves hommage to The Fearless Vampire Killers, in which the villagers are watched from on high as they go unsuspectingly about their business.

My only regrets: one, missing the Heppenheim lantern trail, a jaunt around the folklore-themed streetlamps of the old town; and, two, not getting to join in Nic's every-hombre-for-himself Wild West one-shot game, which he was running in a dark corner of the battlements while we gave our second talk.

Nic's game was being played in German, mind you, which would have presented me with something of a challenge as I can understand about ten words - among them, Können Sie Brausgang? which Paul suggested as the German title of our latest Spielbüch. I can forgive continental gamebook fans not being much interested in that one, though; after three days away, returning to Britain felt to me and Jamie like coming back to a madhouse. The newspaper headline was "Doctor" Liam Fox accusing the EU of putting "theological obsession ahead of economic wellbeing". Wait, what? "We've arrived at Heathrow Terminal Decline," said Jamie. We felt like turning right round and getting the plane back to a place of sanity. I can see why most Europeans take no real interest in what's going on in our politics -- probably out of polite embarrassment for the recent British collapse into utter senility.

Here's a spooky small-world moment from our trip. Eating al fresco on the final night, I noticed a guy on the next table wearing an Iron Man t-shirt. I don't mean some johnny-come-lately movie-Shellhead fan, either. This was a proper Gene Colan armour design from the Tales of Suspense days. I wanted to go and shake his hand, but he wasn't one of the convention attendees (they were all up at the castle) and I figured we'd just end up trying to communicate in sign language. Then he looked over at our table and said: "Jamie?" Turns out it was Garry Shaw, a writer and Egyptologist whom Jamie had met at a book festival in Wigtown a couple of years ago. Surrounded by all that Hessian folklore on the street lamps, the chance encounter didn't even seem all that strange.

Just to digress for a moment (as if I hadn't already), some of the Manticon attendees were asking me what I thought of today's gamebooks, and Martin Noutch's Steam Highwayman got some love. So this seems as good a place as any to point out that he's running a Kickstarter for the second SH book. If you like Fabled Lands you'll want to back this. There's just over a week to go and the campaign has already made its target, so what have you got to lose?

Anyway, many thanks to Nic and the Manticon folks for making us welcome. It was our first trip to Germany but it won't be the last.