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Monday 31 December 2018

That was the year that was

"Night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous colour like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue."
Like H G Wells's time traveller, we've careened through another year. There should be a lever to slow this thing down, shouldn't there? But as "minute by minute the white snow flashed across the world, and vanished, and was followed by the bright, brief green of spring" I've had the chance to glimpse a few standout moments of 2016.

My best roleplaying experience was getting to sit in on a session of Dom Camus' Earth Force campaign. This is a modern take on superheroes, with a dash of existential threat and a background swirl of geopolitics. I played a scientist and got through without actively needing to use my powers, but nonetheless getting multinational backing for my open source research program, which made me feel quite Tony Stark. The whole thing was helped along by an elegant, streamlined system that did everything you need of rules and kept out of the way of the roleplaying. I hope Dom will publish it.

Talking of sweetly simple rules, my favourite new game system has been Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders. If you're familiar with the sagas, this captures them perfectly. I ran it straight -- no fantasy, no 21st century mores, just bleak neighborhood struggles against the unsentimental elements and your fellow man. It's quick, easy, atmospheric, and the perfect antidote to decades of GURPS.

Proudest achievement of the year was publishing Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain? This is my and Jamie's first gamebook in more than twenty years. I have no idea what will happen to the UK in 2019 (good luck -- by then I should have regenerated as an Irishman) but I am sure that the book will give you a better understand of the Brexit process than any of the government ministers charged with negotiating it. And Britain's godfather of gamebooks, Ian Livingstone himself, has taken a look at Can You Brexit? and pronounced it "very clever". He may be partial, of course.

Around the time I was finalizing Can You Brexit?, Ashton MacSaylor was getting ready to deliver on his Kickstarter for The Good, the Bad and the Undead. If you've hung around the saloon for a while, you'll remember that was the Wild West gamebook that Jamie was going to write but couldn't get beyond the outline. Ashton took it over, roped and threw and branded it, and now it's riding in out of the desert with a mean eye and a belt full of bullets.

Talking of gamebooks, I wrote two audio adventures for the Amazon Echo, one an all-new interactive drama, the other a reskin of my first ever gamebook Crypt of the Vampire. With very tight deadlines those were hard work, but luckily I like hard work, as long as it's work on something that interests me.

The highlight of the summer was travelling to Germany for Manticon. Good beer, nice people, an open society, fabulous landscapes, and the best trains I've ever been on. I might move there. (See Brexit, above.)

Earlier in the year, I got a call from Lawrence Whitaker at The Design Mechanism, publishers of the Mythras RPG. (Yes, I know; apologies for the spelling. I have to grit my teeth every time I type it, but it's the Runequest system with Glorantha stripped out, so it actually is rather brilliant.) TDM have acquired the licence to do a roleplaying game based on Jack Vance's fantasy trilogy Lyonesse, and having heard me talk about it on the Fictoplasm podcast they thought I might like to contribute a section to the book. You bet. I owe Jack Vance a huge creative debt and it's an honour to pay a little of that back.

Then there was Daniel Fox of Grim & Perilous Studios getting in touch to bring Tetsubo back from the Land of Roots. Nothing's forgotten, as we Robin of Sherwood fans know. Watch for that in 2019, if you still have money left after food and medicine rationing.

I also got roped in by Ian Turnbull, one of the Black Cactus co-founders, to do some work on a Virtual Reality game. Don't reach for your Oculus headset just yet. The developers originally hoped to get the game ready by October this year, but Ian's and my combined half-century in game development told us that was never going to happen. Maybe next October. My role was, as it often is these days, to clarify, simplify and focus the design and creative goals of the game. (And to chuck out all the bloody cutscenes on the principle of "discover, don't tell".)

In October my time machine lurched off into a pocket universe of misery for a few weeks when I came down with a nasty virus followed by a racking cough. It stopped me from going to TekUKon, which was a blow, but every cold has a silver lining. Unable to get on with any of my new projects, I whiled away the time for the fluid link to repair itself by editing the fifth Blood Sword book, The Walls of Spyte. It's still a slapstick dungeon bash but at least the flowchart now makes sense and the pieces of the key you find are properly numbered, so for the first time ever you can actually complete the adventure.

Surprising creative experience of the year was discovering I still have a copy of the Lord of Light boardgame that Nick Henfrey (creator of Spacefarers) and I pitched to Ian Livingstone (yes, 'im again) and Steve Jackson back around 1980. We didn't have the rights, which might or might not have been a problem. Nowadays there's always Kickstarter, so who knows?

And entertainment highlight of 2018 was discovering Guy Sclanders' hilarious Fabled Lands playthroughs on YouTube. Many of the comments focus on how nasty things used to happen in games in the old days. Well, nasty things are more fun. Whatever doesn't kill you helps you level up.

And on that note, best wishes for the year ahead. See you on the other side.

Monday 24 December 2018

Warm heart

You didn't think I'd forget the traditional Christmas freebie, did you? This year it's a fully interactive version of Heart of Ice, coded as a labour of love by Benjamin Fox. You can plunge into a world on the brink of icy apocalypse right here. Ho ho ho.

Oh, and the artwork at the top there is by Tazio Bettin. Looks like a character to be reckoned with. Hands up who'd like to see a Heart of Ice graphic novel.

Friday 21 December 2018

The thought that breeds fear

I didn’t get to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen until my thirties, and only then because I started going out with a girl who grew up in Alderley Edge, which is the setting for that and most of Alan Garner’s stories. She had in fact lived in the house he identified as the home of the Morrigan.

“What did you think?”

“Those kids are going to suffer from PTSD. It’s traumatic enough just reading it.”

The trauma wasn't caused by Garner’s prose. That’s beautiful. It was the descriptions of narrowing lightless tunnels and wobbling planks propped across sheer drops; that’s what I thought would scar those characters for life.

Alan Garner wrote a sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, but left it nearly fifty years before completing the trilogy. If only other fantasy authors showed such restraint. What I loved about Boneland was what many fans hated. Garner didn’t give us jolly japes with elves and ginger pop, he returned to the main character to find him broken, his twin sister missing if she ever even existed at all. If you’ve played any Dragon Warriors you’ll understand why that was the sort of conclusion to the story that would really appeal to me.

How about a role-playing game that digs under the surface of a children’s cosy fantasy epic to see what crawls out? It turns out Becky Annison has done exactly that with her game When the Dark is Gone. She discusses it in this episode of Fictoplasm with Ralph Lovegrove and explains the design principles here.

In brief: the players are adult survivors of such an adventure, uncovering their repressed memories with nudging by a therapist character who’s the nearest the game gets to a referee. Minimal set-up, raw character interaction, no dice, emergent stories… What are you waiting for?

Saturday 15 December 2018

Dave's and Jamie's Christmas party

Every year at this time, Jamie and I get together for a marathon gaming session at his computer, which is nicknamed "the Beast" either because it's the real McCoy or because it's heavy enough to use in a smash-&-grab raid on a cash machine. This is our opportunity to catch up on some computer games we've missed, so we download a bunch and work our way through until we find one worth sticking with. It has to be said that usually the best games are the indies: Inside, Papers Please, This War of Mine, Pathologic -- though we have been known to binge on hours and hours of The Witcher too.

This year our serendipitous find was What Remains of Edith Finch. We thought we were getting a horror game, but it's much more intriguing than that. There are elements of horror, but also black comedy, tragedy, innocence, loss, grief, identity, madness, pastiche, and the awareness of the precious fragility of life. It's superbly written and voice-acted and you can play the whole thing in a few hours. We really enjoyed it.

Also on the theme of madness was Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. We gave that an hour and then lost interest. Unaccountably it was about a 1st century BC Celt wandering around an 8th century AD Norse underworld -- called in the game not Niflhel, Hel or even Niflheim, but "Helheim", suggesting that historical research went no further than leafing through a heavy metal magazine. Still, you might like it if your paradigm of a game is a twenty-hour, one-note cutscene interspersed with occasional fights and arcade-style match-the-symbol tasks. Almost the opposite of Edith Finch in every respect, that.

And we finished off with Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a monumental CRPG set in the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Wenceslas IV (most definitely not the one in the carol). It's so thoroughly researched that you could use the source material text to run a tabletop campaign, and in fact the absence of magic/fantasy reminded me of a purist Legend campaign. The writing and acting are excellent, and if I had a spare one hundred hours I'd throw myself into it with gusto.

Other recommendations if you're looking for last-minute Christmas presents are Gregor's Vuga's gem of a roleplaying game Sagas of the Icelanders, David Nicholls' miniseries Patrick Melrose (the best thing on TV this year), and Posy Simmonds' long-awaited new graphic novel Cassandra Darke (surely soon to be "a major motion picture" with Gemma Arterton).

And if it didn't have a price tag in the stratosphere I'd have treated myself to the White Album, my old vinyl copy being scratched to acoustic fuzz by too much use over the years. If you've never listened to it, don't dip in track by track like some pill-popping Megacity juve perp with ADHD. Put on each side in turn and just sit back. People say it's not a concept album, but ninety minutes later you'll think differently. Good night, good night, everybody.

Friday 7 December 2018

"The Dean's Folly" (a Christmas scenario for Legend)

“I encountered a description somewhere of an unfinished church,” Tim Harford told me, “looming in the mist like the ribs of a whale. That seemed like a great seed for an adventure. Then I recalled that William Golding had written about the building of an impossible cathedral, and I thought - hmm, worth a read. I didn't think I'd get both a column and a Christmas game out of it, though.”

Tim was talking about Golding’s The Spire. Inspired (no pun intended) by a vision, Father Jocelin, dean of Tatchester Cathedral, wants a 400 foot spire built above the square tower. He has brought in Roger Mason and his “army” of builders, oblivious of the costs – both social, as the work forces the suspension of church services and the builders carouse drunkenly at night, and financial, as Jocelin puts his seal to promissory notes secured against the fortune of his aunt, Lady Alison.

Roger Mason warns Jocelin that the spire is an impossible folly. The cathedral’s rudimentary foundations are barely up to supporting the weight of the existing building. He excavates the floor of the nave to show Jocelin that the cathedral sits on rubble, mud and wooden pilings, but Jocelin is blinded by faith and takes this as evidence that the existing building is a miracle.

Despite his certainty that the spire will collapse, Roger is forced to keep working in order to hold together his army of builders. He takes to drink and begins an affair with Goody Pangall, the young wife of the club-footed cathedral handyman who is the butt of the builders’ taunts. Roger and Goody meet in the sparrow’s nest, a wooden cabin built way up in the scaffolding, where they are safe from discovery by Roger’s wife Rachel owing to her fear of heights.


The characters rendezvous at the Paternoster Inn, also known as the Stump Inn, seven miles away from Tatchester. It’s the 18th day of Yeol-monath (December). From here the spire is visible across the bleak, flat, wintry landscape. They notice how, even incomplete, the spire is beginning to change the layout of the roads, with new tracks cutting straight across the fields where carts of stone and wood have travelled.

Why might they be here? They could be summoned by Father Anselm, the sacrist. For the two years of construction the faithful have not been burning candles in the nave of the cathedral. Anselm derives an income from the sale of candles, though that might not be his only motive for opposing the construction work. As Jocelin’s confessor, Anselm is in a good position to appreciate the intensity of the obsession driving him.

So the characters could be here to help maintain order in the town. A particular concern is that the Bishop is sending a holy nail, a relic of the True Cross. Jocelin believes that this, secured below the stone cross on top of the spire, will protect the building from collapse. Such a relic is worth a lot of money and rival churchmen might try to steal it, hence the need for security.

A local rumour is that cloven footprints have been found in the morning frost. Locals think that the Devil has come to watch the spire fall.

19 December

The characters arrive at Tatchester. Some of Roger Mason’s builders are on drunken revels in the town. The characters spot trouble and have the opportunity to prevent an assault. It’s the beginning of taking sides.

They may meet with the mayor, Quercus, who is concerned at the disruption caused by the builders, but happy that they will soon finish their work and move on. He is concerned, however, that the funds Jocelin has promised may not materialize, and that the builders might riot when they realize that.

20 December – Solstice Eve


Opportunity to meet Jocelin and Roger Mason. Do the characters want to climb up and inspect the spire? If so they will get a breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside.

On the way down, a perceptive (or sensitive) character may notice the high note of tension in the stone, like a high-pitched bell ringing far up in the sky.

They may also notice the four gargoyles being raised to position around the spire.

They might hear or even surprise Roger Mason and Goody Pangall in the sparrow’s nest.

Jocelin’s plan is to complete the spire. That requires the capstone to be fitted with a vast cross of stone.

Anselm’s game may become apparent: cathedral is dark, no candles. He makes his money selling them.


The builders’ army murders Pangall in the undercroft unless the characters intervene. His organs and blood are used to strengthen the gargoyles. They may possibly explore the undercroft, which has been desecrated by the army. (The foundation pit is dug in the undercroft, which is fenced off.)

21 December – Solstice / Yule Eve – Deadline


The pit shifts as the intolerable weight of the spire bears down. Pillars scream. Stones crack and skitter.

Lady Alison arrives at the Cathedral with the holy nail.


The builders’ army sets up pagan bonfires on the ridges around Tatchester.

Four major gargoyles: Flame, Fate, Fracture and Falsehood. These will animate if the characters fail to break up the rituals at the bonfires. It’s impossible that the characters can stop all the rituals, but at least they may not face all four gargoyles. There are also eight minor gargoyles whose singing causes weakness and dizziness.

The characters' mission, should they choose to accept, is to carry the holy nail to the top of the spire and drive it into the capstone. Winds buffet the spire, causing it to sway sickeningly.

Here the referee has two options. For the authentically gritty Legend experience, the nail makes no difference. It's no holy relic, just an ordinary nail that Lady Alison got the bishop to bless as a sop to Jocelin and his obsession. The characters may succeed in reaching the top and hammering the nail home, but the tower continues to lurch in the gale, slates and chunks of masonry fly off and crash to the ground, wooden timbers creak and snap. It's clearly coming down and the best the characters can hope for is to get out alive.

Alternatively, for players who expect their adventures to end in that tawdry bauble called triumph*, the referee can allow the possibility of a partial victory. If the characters can secure the nail then the spire lurches to one side but remains standing -- at least for the time being -- although the stone cross falls and crashes through the roof of Pangall’s cottage, killing any occupants.

Without the nail (or even with it, in the downbeat ending) the entire spire topples, shattering the walls of the cathedral and raining masonry on the surrounding houses. And if the gargoyles are brought to life and not defeated, they will add to the devastation and loss of life by hurling chunks of broken stone far across the town. Not that everyone looking out into the storm will necessarily witness that, You've seen Night of the Demon, you know how supernatural horrors can be ambiguous. But this is medieval Legend, and everyone knows that devils are real, even if they don't see them.

Dramatis personae

Father Jocelin: The dean. Driven, obsessed, impossible to reason with. All that matters to him is the completion of the spire, and he has neglected his other duties and made himself ill in pursuit of that.

Roger Mason: Master of the builders’ army. Bullish, practical. He knows the spire is impossible and, forced to keep working on it, he’s turned to drink and an affair with Goody Pangall. He is unaware of the plans of Jehan and the devil-worshippers, so could be an ally for the player-characters.

Rachel Mason: Roger’s stocky, forthright wife. She is frightened of heights, which is why Roger carries on his affair with Goody up in the sparrow’s nest.

Father Anselm: The sacrist. Older than Jocelin, whose confessor he is - though Jocelin has not attended confession for many months, preferring to spend his time up in the tower. Anselm opposed the construction work from the start.

Father Adam: The chaplain. He is quiet and hardly noticed by most people, but in fact he’s the canniest of the priests and suspects there are pagans or devil-worshippers among the builders.

Jehan: Roger’s foreman. He’s the leader of the coven of devil-worshippers who are using this ritual to animate the four gargoyles as harbingers of the Apocalypse to come.

Lady Alison: Jocelin’s aunt and, in her youth, a mistress of the King. She has brought the holy nail from the Bishop.

Brutus and Equus: Lady Alison’s cataphract bodyguards.

Pangall: The cathedral carpenter and handyman. The builders jeer at him and make him the butt of their jokes. He lives in a cottage set between the nave and the cloisters, a small courtyard known mockingly as Pangall’s Kingdom that is now filled with masonry and timbers for the construction.

Goody Pangall: Pangall’s young wife. She is pregnant with Roger’s son, who may be born on Christmas Day if she doesn’t die before then. This travesty of the Saviour’s birth (conceived on high, of a supposedly virginal carpenter’s wife) was not planned by Jehan’s coven but they are happy to co-opt it into the magic of their rituals.

The Stone Carver: A mute idiot savant who carved the gargoyles.

William Barleycorn: The innkeeper of the Morning Cloud tavern that sits in the lee of the spire. The characters may take lodging here, in which case they get to see the ominous bulk of the spire looming against the sky when they wake up each morning.

Mayor Quercus: He is torn between belief that Jocelin’s faith in the spire is justified, which would mean increased prestige and prosperity for the town, and fear that it will topple into the town.

Further reading

Obviously it will help to read Golding’s novel, but if you don’t have time you can look at the Wikipedia summary here. If I share my favourite line you'll see right away why it cried out to be a Legend scenario:
"Nightmares of noseless men who floated beneath the pavements, their flat faces pressed against a heavy lid."

Golding supposedly based his unnamed cathedral on Salisbury. Details and pictures of that here.

And you can read Tim Harford’s Financial Times column, “The Brexit monomania built on blind faith”, in which he gives a slightly different but equally alarming take on the novel, here.

The photo of the interior of the spire is by Topaz172 on DeviantArt and is shared her under a Creative Commons attribution licence.

* It's sometimes said that Legend adventures are about failure. More accurately, the paradigmatic trope is tragedy. Let the player-characters grow to care about those whose obsessions will wreck their lives, or simply those who end up under a ton of rubble. It's the Middle Ages, remember; life is brutish and short, and only the hope of salvation makes it bearable.