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Friday, 8 November 2019

The ticking clock

The ticking clock: one of the mainstays of dramatic tension. I may have first become conscious of it watching First Men In The Moon. The lunar ship had been painted with hot liquid cavorite, which would cut off gravity and launch the ship into space when it cooled down. The snag was, our heroes were bustling about loading their equipment on board but somebody had left the greenhouse doors open and that cavorite was cooling fast…

If you’re going to get an early lesson in great storytelling, it helps if it’s from Nigel Kneale.

Though often put to effective use in movies and television drama, the ticking clock usually ends up going cuckoo when deployed in a roleplaying game. Cthulhu will rise if the ritual isn’t stopped by midnight? What if the characters mess everything up (c’mon, it can’t just be my players) and arrive at the wrong address twenty minutes late?

You can fudge it, obviously, but if you do that a ticking clock is forever after going to feel like a fake threat. Or you could embrace the catastrophe. Cthulhu rises, and what used to be an investigative campaign abruptly shifts gear and swerves into post-apocalyptic territory. Now, I like that approach, obviously, because it lets events take the narrative wherever it needs to go. But, again, you can really only pull that trick once.

A more reliable staple is what we might call the “soft” ticking clock. The players aren’t given an exact time when the balloon will go up, but they do know that delays will be costly. The enemy forces are mustering. The elements of a dire spell are being worked. The colony is dying for want of the medicine shipment. Or maybe they just have Mr Wolf breathing down their necks:

Instead of having to count off exact time periods (always a headache when running a game) you can now label various options as just quick or slow. The characters need to retrieve the heir to the throne from a convent in the woods before her father dies, otherwise her cousin will be crowned. They can go straight through the woods – that’s quickest, but there’s a risk of getting lost and these are the hunting grounds of faerie folk after all. Or they can go around the woods, which avoids faerie foes and lets them stick to the road, but is going to take longer. A series of choices like that will determine how promptly they deliver the princess to the castle.

Now, here’s the crucial point. If they chose all the swiftest solutions, that’s its own reward. Their forethought and gambles and shortcuts paid off, they arrive in good time, the adventure ends in a triumphant flourish. But the longer they took, the harder the endgame is going to play out. A short delay gives the nasty prince time to put his agents on the approaches to the castle ready to intercept them. A longer delay means he has replaced their loyal seneschal with his own sorcerer under a magical disguise, and if they don’t see through that the princess may not survive as far as the throne room. A very long delay means the coronation is already starting, the prince has framed them for the death of the old king, and now they need to fight their way past the castle’s entire garrison.

The real fun there is you can make the missed-deadline outcome almost impossible to beat. After all, to have arrived at that ending they will need to have turned down every single opportunity to get a move on. I’m often too lenient with my players. I think I’ve thrown a tough fight at them but they sail through it. This way, I’d figure that the finale they get to if they were too slow is meant to be all but unwinnable. They were given the chance to avoid it but they dawdled, even knowing that time was a factor. So then you can throw a TPK-level threat at them without a qualm.

Or – even worse for their pride – have an NPC step in to save the day, as here:

But all that's just mechanics. Details. What's important is how it feels. A race against a deadline must have a sense of urgency at all times. If the players stop for twenty minutes to talk about their plans, don't accept that twenty minutes makes no difference in a twenty-four hour time frame. Dithering is dithering. "We're talking while we ride," they say? Can't be riding very fast, then.  Call for snap decisions. Keep up the pressure. Every time they start idling, call attention to the swift sinking of the sun in the clouds, the long miles still to go, the chill of approaching night. The sands are running out; make sure they know it.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

The face of the fays

If you happen to be in Oxford anytime between now and mid-January, the Ashmolean has a very fine exhibition called "Last Supper in Pompeii". What particularly interested me, though, wasn't the lava bread but a well-preserved statue of a woodland sprite. It was the face. The wide, high cheekbones, slanting almond-shaped eyes, the grinning mouth and sharp chin. Show that to any child today and they'd still know it for a goblin or an elf. And those are faces you can see from time to time even on the street. I walked past two chaps in Brighton, both on the short side, wiry of frame, and with the same bright vulpine features. Some few with faerie blood still walk among us.

It's curious to think that a particular look has been thought of as elfin for thousands of years, and from the Mediterranean to the Western Isles. There's even a genetic condition, Donohue Syndrome, that used to be called leprechaunism because of the distinctive facial features it produces.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that many of our best-known fairy tales occur throughout the world, and some may go back as far as 6000 years. Here's a nice one from County Kildare, and if you want to get into the spirit of Oíche Shamhna, there are a few more in the same vein here.
Thomas Fitzpatrick, a young farmer of Kildare, was sauntering along one holiday when it came into his head to shake out the hay and bind up the oats, as the weather looked like changing. As he was doing so he heard a stump-tapping sound like a stonechat, only it was late in the season for a stonechat to be calling. So he stole along to see what it might be, and, peering through the bushes, he saw a little wee man with a wee leather apron tied round his waist hammering away fitting a heel-piece to a little bit of a brogue. Tom knew it was no other than the Leprechaun. He knew the Leprechaun was the richest creature in all Fairyland and he knew if he could keep his eye fixed on him he could force him to give up one at least one of the crocks of gold he had hidden about in the fields. So he made a sharp pounce on him and held him tight and threatened him with all the worst things he could think of unless he showed him where his gold was hidden. He was so fierce that the little man was quite frightened, and he said, ‘Come along with me and I’ll show ye where it’s hidden.’ Tom fairly glued his eyes to the little fellow, who directed him through sticks and stones, and up and down and to-and-fro till they got to a field just covered with bolyawn buies (ragwort). He pointed to a tall one and said: ‘Dig under that bolyawn and ye'll get a crock chock full of golden guineas.' It was a holiday, so Tom hadn't his spade by him, so he tied his red garter round the bolyawn. ‘You’ll not be wanting me again,' said the Leprechaun. ‘No, no,' says Torn. ‘Now you’ve showed it me I'll off away for a spade.' So the Leprechaun melted away like a drop of water in sand. Tom ran for his spade as fast as the wind. He was gone no time at all, but when he got back there was a red garter round every bolyawn in that field.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Different strokes

Games designer, critic and journalist James Desborough put up this video in response to a furore at UK Games Expo back in June. James's points are pretty much what I think myself about all the fuss, but that's not why I'm linking to it here. What I am particularly interested in is his succinct definition of "indie" vs "traditional" roleplaying from 9m 55s on.

In the former, the players get together to tell a story (if you've worked in a writers' room or collaborated on a novel you'll know how that goes) whereas in the traditional form of roleplaying it's not authorial. You play a character. The umpire (or GM, or referee, or MC, or whatever) creates situations. Your characters do things in response to those situations. In retrospect, that can be seen as a story (or a plot, as in, "The king died, and then the queen died of grief") but nobody knew what was going to happen in advance. There was no author. The story emerged from what the player-characters said and did.

Personally I prefer that because my day job (one of my day jobs) is being a writer. I don't want to repeat that in my downtime. Also, I play RPGs to discover and be surprised. The stories that are generated spontaneously from players' in-character words and deeds are more unexpected and more interesting than the ones we'd get if we sat around applying the cookie-cutter of Campbellian story paradigms to the pastry of a story set-up.

That's a personal preference, of course. I bristle if I hear players talking about their story arc and whether it's time for another player to move their relationship on in order to incite a plot point. But then, I'm not much of a fan of genre drama or fiction, and much of that "indie" take seems to derive from genre shapes for stories. As Roger Bell-West says here (at 1:26:20) in such games the goal is not to simulate any physical reality, but to simulate a genre.

In any case, every gaming group is entitled to play in whatever way they most enjoy. There's no One True Roleplaying religion. It gets interesting (and matters) when proponents of one style run up against and misunderstand the playing style and intentions of the other -- as seems to have happened in the Things From The Flood game at UKGE. But if you want to know more about that, continue watching James's video from 12m 12s onwards. I have to say, though, that I ran a Powered by the Apocalypse game (Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders) and my players enjoyed it in a thoroughly traditional, in-the-moment, inhabit-the-character style, with absolutely no authorial discussion or narrative analysis. Maybe we were getting PbtA "wrong", but it worked, and I might post some of the scenarios now that the nights are drawing in.

Friday, 11 October 2019

"The End of the Line" (scenario)

This adventure was written for GURPS but would work equally well in a Cthulhu By Gaslight campaign, or any rules that support a Victorian or Edwardian cosmic horror game. It owes a lot to HPL's "The Whisperer in Darkness" so, if you don't know the story, read that first.

The characters have been abducted by Mi-Go and are being transported to Yuggoth (Eris) for preparation for the much longer journey to Carcosa (Aldebaran). This adventure should ideally follow on from an apparent TPK in a larger campaign, though you can also launch into it with a cold open, as I did.

The characters are all experiencing an illusion of relative normality. Instead of a spaceship to Eris, they seem to be on a night train heading north. Though they are disembodied brains trundling around in metal canisters with fragile metal grippers for arms, they see themselves as normal.

Personally I loathe describing roleplaying games in that Hollywood jargon of acts and plot points, but for once it could be helpful, so here goes:

The characters are just brains on trolleys, on a small ship bound for Yuggoth. So an actual Mi-Go (if they confront one) will be unbeatable.
1. Card Tricks
2. The Faceless Man

They are still brains on trolleys, but if they escape they may take the Mi-Go unawares (ie unarmed) in which case all of them together might be a match for one or two Mi-Go. (But any such confrontation risks alerting the other Mi-Go, if the characters allow one to get away.)
1. Finding Cavor
2. The Morgue

They are now back in their own bodies but still hallucinating.
1. At the Docks
2. Across the Void

Epilogue: HOME AGAIN
Back on Earth, normality restored.
1. Landfall

Ways into the adventure
The version I ran started in medias res: ‘You’re on the night train to Scotland.’ Of course, it took very little time for the characters to start trying to figure out why they couldn’t remember boarding the train, or even the reason they were travelling.

I used two NPC characters in Act I who you may or may not need, depending on how you've brought the characters into the adventure:
The Good Friend
A Mi-Go construct taken from the characters’ memories of someone they trust. The Mi-Go are not clear on whether death is final, so in the case of my campaign the Good Friend was an NPC who had been killed years earlier. When the characters raised that very point, he responded blithely: ‘I like to be back in the swing of things. I don’t think it helps to cleave too strongly to logic, eh? It’s a very deceptive tool.’ His function is to keep the characters focussed on reaching their destination.

The Lost Comrade
This could be a missing or former player-character, or another NPC friend of the party – not dead, though, because he or she is not a construct, but has been abducted just like the characters have. The difference is that he or she has managed to see through the illusion and is trying to snap the others out of it.


The characters are on a night train. They can’t see anything outside. Just darkness and scraps of steam flitting by. The train is very cold, and getting colder. They check their watches, which have stopped. In their cabins, they have their luggage and any equipment (guns, etc) they might normally travel with. Or so it appears.

The carriage they are in contains their own sleeping compartments, with a corridor running past, and the dining car. The doors at either end of the carriage are locked and they cannot get through them by any means, even though from time to time a steward or guard will appear who must have come through one of those doors.

Card Tricks
In the dining car, they see a man with his back to them performing magic tricks. This is the Good Friend. He asks them to join him for dinner. ‘You’ll be accompanying --- , no doubt,’ he says, mentioning the name of the Lost Comrade.

Where is the Lost Comrade? ‘Oh, a long way out,’ says the Good Friend. ‘We’ll have to go right to the end of the line.’

Check for claustrophobia. Since they are actually in much smaller spaces than they seem to be – the train and the steamer, that is – claustrophobia could be triggered without any obvious reason, and that is a clue that all is not what it seems.)

Some odd things:

  • Bottles behind the bar – for a moment they all seemed to have blank labels 
  • The deck of cards – for a moment they all seemed to be the ace of spades 
  • The ashtray – didn’t notice the steward empty it 
  • A man looks in from the corridor – just a silhouette of a figure in a long coat and floppy hat.

They will occasionally catch a glimpse of gangling men in long coats with floppy hats. These are the illusory form of the Mi-Go. If the hat is pulled off (not easy) it seems to be part of them and reveals momentarily a grey-pink "face" of thick frills and fins. Check IQ to avoid stun, check for Flashbacks, etc. My players soon took to calling these fellows the Mushroom Men.

A Mi-Go on the train can do anything to them: blindness, causing them to start melting. (A note of panic: what if they flow right down through the bottom of the train?)

The guard as he takes their tickets mutters something about them travelling to Carcosa.

The Faceless Man
Later, either when they are trying to sleep or are in the dining car, a figure with a scarf across his face tries to sneak (Stealth 26) into their compartments, get their bags and throw them off the train. This is the Lost Comrade, trying to snap them out of the illusion. If they pull off the scarf, they see he has no face.
The Lost Comrade
Punch 17   2d crush   plus Pressure Points 13
Wrestling 25   ST 22
Parry 17
Dodge 19  Armour 0  Stealth 26  Perception 26
If he can’t get their luggage, the Lost Comrade returns later and tries to abduct and bodily throw one of them off the train. If thwarted, he jumps just as the train passes over an unfeasibly massive suspension bridge. Possibly they are left holding something from the struggle: a mask of the Lost Comrade’s face.

If anyone has Flashbacks, they find something under a seat: it looks like crumpled paper but it’s a thin cellulose mask of the face of the steward.

More creepy stuff that might be revealed through Flashbacks:

  1. Noticing that a newspaper another character was holding has crimped pages as if it had been gripped by a metal claw. 
  2. Waking up, touching your face and feeling a mask. 
  3. Catching a glimpse of yourself reflected in the window as a Meccano-type structure with a glass brain case, spindly gripper-tipped arms, and a cellulose mask face.
  4. Machine oil stains in place of blood stains.
  5. Rubber wheel-marks on the floor where you might have expected to see footprints.
  6. An impression left on the bed in one of the sleeping compartments – not of a human form, but a heavy box.

The reality:
They are being conducted to Yuggoth, ie the dwarf planet Eris. The Good Friend isn’t really here, it’s just a Mi-Go construct to get them to cooperate.

They are in brain canisters throughout this sequence, so seeing through the illusion should carry a risk of mental breakdown.

Ways to see through it:

  • Flashbacks: any Flashback gives some glimpse, albeit distorted, of the real situation. 
  • Claustrophobia attacks can occur even in apparently large spaces – a hint that things are not as they seem.
  • Hypnosis: can remove the illusion, but the character will need to pass a fright check not to immediately reject that and retreat into the illusion.


They arrive and walk through billows of steam to find themselves in a town of dank, narrow alleys and cobbled streets. There’s a sweet scent of mushrooms in the air. Foggy. It’s still night.

If anyone has Flashbacks: they might feel a wall that’s smooth, like a painted board, or hear a whirring mechanical sound, something like that.

They hear footsteps behind them in the fog. Looking back, they see the tall cloaked figures in floppy hats.

If they tackle any Mi-Go at this stage, they have no chance of overcoming them. The Mi-Go are herding them to the lab (Cavor’s basement flat, as it seems). The Mi-Go plan is to convey them from Yuggoth (Eris) to Carcosa (Aldebaran). Their brains have been removed, and their bodies are being kept on Yuggoth for study.

Finding Cavor
They see a light over a narrow door. Down in a basement flat they meet a Scotsman called Lionel Cavor (pronounced “caver”). He offers them a drink but seems rather infirm, keeping a blanket over his knees next to the hissing gas fire.

If anyone has Flashbacks: they momentarily see Cavor as a waxwork. Drifting shapes like pinkish fungi adjust struts and arms to move the brandy he offers them. His voice comes from a metal box suspended behind the waxwork’s head.

Cavor indicates his telescope by the window. It’s pointing up through a grating and the foggy air, but if anyone looks through it and rotates the wheel on the side they will see, in succession:

  1. A distant pale blue dot. 
  2. Then ten times bigger, a cluster of stars centred on a tiny sun. 
  3. Then part of the sweep of the Milky Way. 
  4. Then an arm of a vortex of lights.
  5. Then a flattened disk of lights. 
  6. And further out: something like tendrils of smoke wrapped around the disk, extending from a pulsing blackness in the centre.
  7. If they keep watching, they see the disk rotating as the tentacular thing sucks birthing stars into its central maw.

‘It is blind Azathoth ye see there!’ says Cavor. ‘See him batten on whole systems that will never live. A hundred thousand stars every eon, yet he’ll keep devouring till this galaxy is but a husk…

‘Were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare…’

Cavor refers to the rotation of the galaxy every 250 million years, and how the sweep of Azathoth’s polyp will either doom life on Earth this time or it won’t. That’s inevitable, it will either happen or it won’t. Of course, this being the 1890s, the characters will not be aware that our galaxy is only one of billions. If they know anything of astronomy, they may be aware of Herschel's estimate of the shape of the Milky Way, however, and so recognize the "disk of lights" for what it is. (Most astronomers in the late 19th century don't realize that it is rotating.)

Another chance for Flashbacks now, even the players who haven’t bought them as a mental disadvantage.

‘You should get back to the warm and your ain loved ones,’ Cavor reckons. ‘I’d take ma ticket and be on my way, but I’m waiting till I’m a bit firmer on ma feet. Ma ship’s the Selene, but if ye want to go home you’d best find your ain ship and your ain ticket.’

He’s worried, though; what if the “custodians” didn’t keep all his “bits”? (Ie body parts.)

Cavor also refers to his old friend. ‘He’s gone on ahead. Lang syne he’s been gone. I’d not like to go if there’s any chance he’d come back.’

He refers to Bedford, who has indeed been sent to Carcosa. They will find a cellulose mask of Bedford in Cavor’s bookcase which they can use to imitate him if they think of it. That will help get Cavor to talk more plainly.

And where is the Lost Comrade?

‘He’ll be in the Quiet Place, no doubt. That’s where they took ma friend. Past the Last Wall, you’ll find a square. It’s the building on the far side.’ ‘The Last Wall?’ ‘Last Wall and testament, man!’ Cavor laughs madly.

Items they can acquire here:

  • Cavor says he wants to go on a cruise to warmer climes, nearer to the sun. He has the cruise ticket (he shows them) for when he's well enough.
  • Cavor also has a monocle that reveals actual reality, Eyes of the Overworld style. Anyone using that will need to roll IQ (not Will) to avoid mental stun. This can trigger Flashbacks even if they make the roll.
  • He also tells them to take a hat box to the morgue with a wee hammer. ‘Aye, you can have those. Ye may find them useful.’

Cavor offers them the hat box and hammer, but they’ll have to steal the ticket and monocle, as he won’t volunteer those.

What these really are, if they see through the illusion:

  • Ticket – the key that activates Cavor’s sphere; a brass rod with indentations and a wooden handle bearing a plate that says MADE IN LANARKSHIRE.
  • Monocle – a viewing tube.
  • Hat – a metal headband with a wire mesh over the top, such as you might see used in operations on the brain, only somehow of alien rather than human design.
  • Surgical hammer – a metal probe of strange alien design with a button on the side.

The Morgue
At the edge of town they find a wall with broken glass along the top. Cavor called this the Last Wall. If they walk along they will come to a wooden door, bolted shut and covered in old peeling music hall posters. (They struggle to read the text, as in a dream.) Beyond that wall is interstellar space.

More horror: They will see two Men in Hats leading sleepwalking figures across the fog-bound square. Getting closer, they see the figures are equal in number to the party and the same mix of male and female. Closer still, and they see the backs of the figures’ skulls are open and a thin sulphurous vapour clings to the back of each head. If they look at the faces – but they will have guessed: it’s their own bodies.

The two Men in Hats are Mi-Go lab workers, not prepared for an escape and so the reality of any fight, which looks like the characters versus a couple of tall gangling men in hats, will be that their trolley-borne brains are fighting with crude mechanical grabs against fragile, low-gravity, creatures of floating ‘fungus’: drifting shapes like the fins of tropical fish, in which float sensory organs; their arms are delicate as daddy-longlegs but are many and capable of exerting surprising force.
Men in Hats (Mi-Go lab techs)
Punch 18    1d6+3 crush
Wrestling 14    ST 14
Parry 12
HIT POINTS 25         Dodge 13    Armour 0    Stealth 8    Perception 12
The characters fight with their ordinary unarmed combat skills and damage, or at least so they believe. Any guns they think they’re carrying turn out to be unloaded or otherwise malfunctioning.

For each round the fight goes on, roll 2d6. On snake-eyes another Mi-Go comes along and raises the alarm. The characters must also stop either of the “Men in Hats” from running off for the same reason.

Across the square is a set of steps up to a door like a London club. If they fought the Mi-Go, their sleepwalking bodies will have already gone in. Inside they find the Lost Comrade lying on a slab, motionless, his face covered by a hard wax mask. He wears evening dress but no hat. Further back in the room, four other bodies lie on slabs.

The hammer breaks the mask, then they must put the hat on him.

Anyone able to see the truth: The Lost Comrade’s body is lying on a steel slab. Their own bodies should now be moving to lie on other slabs. Using the “hammer” activates the automated brain surgery arms here. Placing the hat positions a number of drill/saw arms that then reimplant all their brains.


The reality: They are in a laboratory complex on Yuggoth. Locating Cavor’s anti-gravity sphere will be perceived as finding their way to the docks here. They’ll need Cavor’s ticket, which represents activating the cavorite panels aboard the ship. Note that the Mi-Go aren’t expecting an escape at first, but if alerted will arrive in unopposable force.

At the Docks
Cavor’s steamer, the Selene, is at the quayside. (Reality: it’s the cavorite sphere under a huge glass-&-steel dome). They need to have the ticket, which is the key that unlocks the sphere’s instrument panel. If they have a ticket, the engines start up, lights come on, the Venetian blind shutters test themselves. They will see that as the steamer getting ready to sail.

But: some "dock workers" have seen them and are heading off. These are cyborg workers, but they could bring the Mi-Go. If somebody chases the dock workers and/or makes a stand on the gangplank as the ship gets ready to sail, he or she can buy time but at the risk of getting left behind. (DX roll to jump as the gangplank falls away.)

Across the Void
They appear to be on a steamer surrounded by clouds at night. (As in the film Between Two Worlds.) But in fact this is Cavor’s sphere. Roll for claustrophobia because the vessel is much smaller than it seems!

Applicable skills for the voyage: navigation, sailing, physics, mathematics, astronomy. Three or four successful rolls are needed to steer the ship back to Earth. If those go wrong, as they very possibly will – well, your Victorian/Edwardian Cthulhu campaign is boldly going in a new direction. Let them discover some cosmic horror out there where no one can hear you scream.

They seem to be attacked by modern-day (ie 1890s) pirates, led by the Good Friend whose brain patterns and body the Mi-Go still have. The “pirates” just drop to the deck, accompanied by one of the hat-&-coat guys with four arms. The pirates are patchwork cyborgs, fairly tough but fragile. However, against the Man in Hat the characters need an IQ roll just to make an effective attack, and critical fail on that means you are losing the plot.

The Good Friend is just a body with a ghastly organic-looking robot brain clamped to the back of his scooped-out skull. But, slow-witted and clumsy as he is, he carries a force sword.
Man in Hat (Mi-Go fighter)
Punch 18     2d+2 crush x 4
“Shotgun” 15    1-3 targets, dodge or make HT-10 to avoid unconsciousness
Parry 12 (but you need an IQ roll for your attack to be effective)
Dodge 14    Armour 5    Stealth 8    Perception 17
The Good Friend’s body with robot brain
Force Sword 13    8d burn
Parry 11
Dodge 11    Armour 0    Stealth 13    Perception 13

Pirates (8 cyborgs)
Sword 12    1d+2 cut
Parry 10
HIT POINTS 10 eachDodge 10    Armour 2    Stealth 10    Perception 10
The Mi-Go is armed with a stun ray: dodge or you must make a HT roll at -10 to avoid unconsciousness. This looks like a shotgun affecting 1-3 targets. In melee it fights with claws, which are mechanical prostheses extending from an artificial exosketeton. Its actual form within that is a tissue-like translucent growth with internal nodes that floats on gossamer wings in low gravity.

If anybody is aware of the real situation and thinks of it, they could possibly use the cavorite panels to make some kind of gravitational attack on the fragile body of the Mi-Go.

Once the “pirates” are defeated, the ship’s trajectory carries them outside the range of the Mi-Go’s mind control – or perhaps it is simply wearing off with time. Now they can see things as they really are: scars on their shaven scalps, the vessel just a wooden-and-steel icosahedron with cavorite-painted Venetian blinds, and beyond the portholes lie stars and nothingness.

Assuming the navigation rolls, etc, work out okay then they’ll touch down on Horsell Common near Woking in late 1895 or early 1896 with an earth-shaking impact that attracts Herbert George Wells, walking on the common in the early hours before the dawn. 'We're testing an experimental military device,' the PCs told him. 'You mustn't write about it.'

'Of course not...' said Wells, peering at the sphere.


Act I is about hints and eeriness – the should get the sense that all is not what it seems.

Act II is about tension and horror – they learn what’s going on and almost wish they hadn’t.

Act III is about action and terror – this is where character deaths are a real possibility, and where one mistake could cast them into the outer darkness beyond the solar system’s rim.

The point of the adventure was to make some use of the mental disadvantages that proliferate among GURPS characters but that rarely contribute anything to the game, even when players remember to roll for them. If GURPS isn’t your thing, I don’t blame you and I’m sure Call of Cthulhu’s insanity rules would serve just as well.

‘Cauld blaws the wind frae east to west,
The drift is driving sairly; 
Sae loud and shrill’s I hear the blast, 
I’m sure it’s winter fairly.’

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

For hardcore collectors (of paperbacks)

Getting one of my old '80s and '90s gamebooks back into print involves a pretty laborious process. I have to take a Stanley knife to the book, scan each page, put the scans through an OCR program, reconstruct and fix the flowchart, typeset and edit the text, and finally run off an "editing proof" copy to do a final check before publishing.

That last stage means there's a one-of-a-kind copy of each book. As the cover art usually isn't ready during editing, and yet I'm too OCD (not OCR) to print a book with a blank cover, I grab some art online. The end result is too nice to just sling in the bin, but I'm having to declutter my bookshelves, so these two proof copies of Heart of Ice and Down Among the Dead Men are looking for a new home.

If you'll excuse the hard-sell, another thing that makes these copies unique is the filler artwork, which was never used in any other edition. I thought of holding the books back as rewards in a future Kickstarter campaign, maybe for Jewelspider, but to be honest running a Kickstarter is more effort than it's really worth, so in the end I just handed them to my wife and told her to put them on eBay. If you're a gamebook collector and you want a genuine one-and-only, here (and here) is your chance. And, if you're just interested in playing the books, they're still on sale on Amazon and at all good bookstores.

Friday, 4 October 2019

An epic quest begins!

If you're on Facebook or Gamebook News you'll have already seen the big announcement that Prime Games are working on a Fabled Lands CRPG. Unlike previous digital versions of FL, this isn't just an enhanced book, it's a proper computer game. This is what Jamie and I have been hoping to do with our world for -- oh, only the past two decades or so.

Prime Games' founder Victor Atanasov gives more details on the company's blog, so scoot over there for answers to all the questions that I'm sure you're eager to ask. Just to recap the bullet points here, the game will include:

  • An interactive world map that will become the heart and soul of the game with locations from the books.
  • Branching text visualized in a modern, user-friendly fashion. 
  • Turn-based tactical combat system adapted for PC gamers, retaining and expanding upon the balance achieved within the books. 
  • Reworked classes and character progression skill trees.
  • Resource management systems (inventory, blessings, hideouts, resurrection deals, skills, abilities, cargo, etc).
  • Save/load for normal mode and, of course, the lack of such for Iron Man mode.
  • Visual effects and animations.

Jamie and I absolutely love the art style for the game. And if you scroll down to the end of Victor's blog post you'll catch a glimpse of the interactive map of the Isle of the Druids on the screen in front of us. Whetted your appetite yet?

Friday, 27 September 2019

Connecting with stories

Dramatic irony occurs when the viewer or reader of a story knows more than the characters. It can be an effective way of making you connect with the story (“Look behind you!”) though if sustained for too long it tends to distance you from the characters (“Doesn’t that numbskull realise the danger?”) and then you've got the opposite effect.

A less immediate form of dramatic irony might plant a seed that will build over time. For example, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe we learn about Thanos’s behind-the-scenes involvement long before the Avengers even know his name. That doesn’t create emotional distance because for most of the saga he’s not the problem they have to face right away. He’s an oncoming storm, but it’s his proxies and allies who present the immediate threat.

Most film and television dramas aren't like first-person novels. There are scenes that don't feature any of the protagonists -- like those early tease moments with Thanos, for example. But when you're telling an interactive story, jumping away from our heroes to another viewpoint gets tricky. The characters expect us to advise and guide them, and the story really only works if we pick a side. (Even if that side might change.) We form a bond with our viewpoint character and that tends to frame how we expect to see events in the story -- not first-person, exactly, but close third. Under those conditions can dramatic irony serve any useful purpose?

An example: in the opening episode of Mirabilis, I cut within the first three pages between Jack Ember and Estelle Meadowvane, both lead characters, and inserted a scene (above) in which we see series baddie the Kind Gentleman in his true devilish form. The Kind Gentleman closes a web of dangers and intrigues around Jack’s life, but it’s nearly two episodes – that’s 50 pages – before they meet face to face. If we’d been interacting with Jack all that time, and knew what we know in the comic, and hadn’t warned him then he’d legitimately want to know why.

Well, let’s think about how we would interact with Jack and Estelle in an interactive version of Mirabilis. We wouldn’t want to do a lot of head-hopping, because interactivity favours a close relationship with one character, so probably you’d let the reader/viewer choose which of our heroes to follow each episode. The more the reader sticks to the same viewpoint character, the more they'll bond with them – but at the expense of not knowing everything the other one has been up to.

What kind of interaction would this be? The “Bandersnatch” episode of Black Mirror reportedly entailed shooting more than five hours of story content. If you’re working in a medium where extra scenes cost money (anything but radio or prose, basically) then you’ll want to steer clear of that Choose Your Own Adventure model – oh, and don’t call it CYOA unless you want to get sued.

Luckily there are more rewarding ways to interact with characters than telling them what to do next. You can chat to them, get them to reveal their backstory (cf Lost), find out how they feel about each other, make subtle hints about what they should say or how they should behave that will influence other characters’ attitude towards them over time. These are the kind of subtle nudges and inputs that we get from interacting with people in real life.

To make that model of interactivity work, you’d have most backstory strands only accessible when cued by something that happens in the story. Jack, thrown in prison, talks about how he used books to escape loneliness and poverty as a child – and that leads him to a realisation that feeds into the plot. In the interactive version, there might be several breakthrough moments when you could get him to talk about that, and several different eureka plot developments as possible outcomes.

So the plot as it is in the comic remains largely unaffected by the player's choices. That's not only to avoid drawing the thousands of extra panels needed for a diverging story, but also because interacting with plot is not what's really interesting. The linear surface story is fine as it is. The interactivity can instead be about exploring interiority, discovering more about the character, and building a closer relationship with them so that they start to share their hopes and fears.

In other words, we can't (and don't want to) change the plot, but we can enrich it with foreshadowing. For instance, maybe Jack confides in the player that, "If anything were to happen to Estelle I'd die." When Estelle is captured by the Big Bad, that moment will now land with even more impact. And, yes, you could do that in a linear story too: Jack just tells somebody else how much Estelle means to him. But in the interactive version it’s a shared secret. It’s something you earned from your relationship with the character. Maybe you even encouraged him in those feelings, and because of that he’s now more vulnerable. Now you’re not just watching the story; you’re part of it. And that's what interactive storytelling is all about.

Friday, 13 September 2019

The personal touch

Gamebook maven John Jones was in touch with the Fabled Lands team recently with an intriguing suggestion – indeed, a creative challenge – that occurred to him while watching Jessica Jones:
“What is interesting about the conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave is the personal nature of it. Unlike other villains, Kilgrave has only one very goal he wants to achieve and any effect he has on the larger world comes in service to that goal. At the same time Jessica has her own very personal goal. I mention this to contrast it with the main conflict in The Serpent King's Domain. To Namagal it's a very personal situation involving his death and/or humbling. To the viewpoint character playing the book, it is (or can be) little more than an item on a to-do list toward achieving a different goal. I make that contrast because one thing I'd like to see in The Lone and Level Sands or perhaps a later book is for an important quest to be personal and important to the viewpoint character.”
Of course, conflict is almost always more interesting when it’s personal. After a love story, perhaps the most compelling of narratives is a war in the family:

It only works when it’s earned, of course. Batman v Superman did nothing but lay popcorn-brained waste to the surprising-yet-inevitable showdown which in Frank Miller’s original story came at the endpoint of a difficult friendship that had struggled on against the odds for decades.

The point of the personal conflict is to up the stakes. The story has more bite, more pain, more inner struggle. We, the readers or viewers, feel more strongly involved. But writing rules are no substitute for commonsense. All those screenwriters who feel the need to make Robin the Sheriff of Nottingham’s half-brother, take note. And let’s also point an accusatory finger at the recent Harry Potterization of the 007 franchise, in which every adversary must be tied to Bond’s angsty childhood. Puh-lease. It’s more Charlie Higson than Ian Fleming.

The sharpening effect of personal conflict is why I don’t object to a little PvP in my roleplaying games. The civil war that happened in our Tekumel campaign was a classic tragedy in the making, with the player group splitting right down the middle. Jamie told his wife that the Tsolyani civil war was the most important thing in his life at the time. I can believe it. Think of any time you and somebody you care about have ended up on opposite sides on an issue of passionate importance. There’s a wrench in the gut that goes far beyond mere difference of opinion.

The Tsolyani example reminded me of a letter I got from Professor MAR Barker back in November 1985:
"Eyloa the Wizard of the Tlashte Heights, played by Mike Callahan, just discovered that the Pariah Deities' chief agent in his sector, Torsu, is in reality his own father. I was told later that this is a rip-off of the Star Wars plots, but then I have been running this particular campaign since before The Empire Strikes Back and all along the storyline has been the same."
So you can pull off the same trick between player and NPC. I must have been aiming for something like that in my second-ever gamebook, The Temple of Flame, which begins by establishing the backstory between the lead character and their former colleague Damontir the Mad, who is the book’s antagonist. Players of Heart of Ice have remarked that though the possible endings include saving the world and seizing ultimate power, nothing compares to meting out just deserts to the weaselly Kyle Boche. And even in Fabled Lands we have recurring adversaries like Talanexor the Fire Wizard and your persistent frenemy Lauria. You want to see more of them, don’t you?

Which brings us back to John Jones’s suggestion. I’m not going to reveal what he proposed because it was really cool and maybe Paul Gresty will want to run with it in future books. All I will say is that it made me think of Fritz Leiber Jr, and that’s never a bad thing.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Yakety yak

A little while ago, I was asked by my Italian publishers to do an interview for Tom's Hardware. Then it occurred to me that some of the answers might be interesting to readers of this blog, so if you don't speak Italian here's the meat of it:

Dave, in Italy, you’re known especially for the Blood sword series. Since those books were originally published a lot of time has passed. How do you think gamebooks have evolved? What was the market like in the ‘80s and how is it different today?
It was totally different. Gamebooks were a huge craze among what we now call “middle grade” kids (roughly 9-12 years old) and you pretty much only had to walk into a publisher with an idea to get offered a contract. Gamebooks would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. I think it was because kids were ready for videogames but those were still quite expensive and the graphics were quite primitive. So gamebooks filled a gap.
Blood Sword was the first multiplayer gamebook. How did you transform a solitary experience like a gamebook into a shared game?
Oliver Johnson and I always start the planning process for one of our gamebooks by thinking about events we’ve used in our roleplaying games, so multiplayer comes naturally to us. I was also aware when we wrote Blood Sword that a lot of the readers would be people who already played Dragon Warriors (set in the same fantasy universe) which meant that they probably would have gaming friends who they wanted to share the adventure with. We made sure that every character type has a chance to shine, and if you are playing it as a team there are some sections that only one character gets to read. We find that a dash of secrecy and competitiveness adds an edge to any roleplaying game.
Recently you ran a Kickstarter campaign for a new edition of Blood Sword 5 The Walls of Spyte. Why that book in particular?
I’d already edited the rest of the series for re-release in 2014, but when I got to the fifth book I found that the work needed to make it playable was more than the other four books put together. There were parts of the flowchart that simply didn’t link up. If I’d left it till I had time to revise The Walls of Spyte then none of the books would have got back in print, so I published the first four and put book five aside. I kept meaning to return to it but there was so much work involved that I couldn’t justify it as something to do in my spare time. The Kickstarter provided the funds needed to do it properly.
What should a gamebook have today to be current? Do you think that classic forking-path stories are still enough, or should gamebooks dare to try something new?
I’m always interested in something new. In my Frankenstein digital gamebook, the focus is not on solving “the problem of the plot” but on your relationship with Victor Frankenstein, the narrator. The variables are things like Trust, Hubris and Alienation. If you give Victor bad advice, he loses trust in you and that affects whether he’ll listen to your suggestions in future.

Recently I wrote Fright Tonight, which is billed as an interactive drama for the Amazon Echo, but it’s effectively still a branching-path gamebook in terms of structure. I’ll be releasing that as a Kindle book later this year, and one of the things that makes it different is there are no stats, no character sheet, no dice. You just answer yes or no to the characters’ questions. Trust me, it’s as gripping as any gamebook I wrote back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Some say we are living through a renaissance of gamebooks. What do you think about that? In a world dominated by videogames and mobile games, do you think is there any space for gamebooks? What kind of appeal can they have for new, especially young, players?
Fewer people are reading books these days, and on average those people read fewer books per year, so it looks as if gamebooks will have to come up with some new tricks. For one thing, there’s not really a lot of point doing more fantasy quest-style gamebooks. Computer games do the same thing and they do it better. Gamebooks have traditionally tackled stories from a problem-solving angle. That’s natural given the menu of choices structure, but again it’s not enough to entice somebody away from a computer game or a movie, or even playing Fortnite on their phone. So how do we write gamebooks that offer the reader something they can’t get elsewhere?

One clue to the answer comes from looking at how television drama competes with cinema. Even the most lavish TV show can’t match the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster, so it has to play to its strengths. A 13-hour TV drama has a lot more room to explore character complexity than a 2-hour movie, with the result that if you sit down to watch Mission Impossible after The Americans, or Warcraft after Game of Thrones, it’s like going from a novel to a newspaper cartoon. Gamebooks can do something similar, involving the reader in difficult moral choices and options that will change other characters’ opinion of them. Modern audiences in all media expect this emotional depth. As a medium, gamebooks have to grow up.
You have written scores of books; gamebooks, novels, comics, and RPGs in your career. What have been the most difficult things to write? And of which are you particularly proud?
Most difficult was my recent gamebook Can You Brexit? as I had to research all of the details of immigration, free movement, defence, policing, trade, and a dozen other things – and then make them both amusing and comprehensible to the reader. Of all my gamebooks I’m most proud of Heart of Ice, just because it came out exactly how I wanted it. You can’t always count on that as there’s a tension between delivering the sense of real freedom of choice while (in old-style gamebooks) keeping it all down to about 500 sections or less. Heart of Ice was loosely based on an old roleplaying campaign of mine and many of my players’ characters were the inspiration for the player’s rivals in the adventure. To keep myself interested while writing, I changed the setting from the fantasy world of Tekumel, which it had been in my campaign, to 23rd century Earth. That gave me a story structure to work from while still having plenty of scope to improvise details as I worked.

The work I am most pleased with overall, though, is my comic book epic Mirabilis – Year of Wonders. I care passionately about the characters, it’s exactly the blend of funny, scary, mysterious and thrilling that I was aiming for, and I think the artwork (by Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and Nikos Koutsis) is beautiful. Unfortunately the project ground to a halt about a third of the way through for want of a publisher. In Britain, sadly, there’s not much of a market for comic books.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
I’d like to have done more Dragon Warriors books. There were originally supposed to be twelve books in the series, but the publishers messed up the distribution and then cancelled the series after six books. Oliver and I still use the setting for some of our own roleplaying games, and we’re thinking of releasing the Jewelspider RPG, which is a much more modern, freewheeling set of rules. And instead of all those polyhedral dice it just uses two six-siders.

My biggest regret, though, is not having been able to continue Mirabilis. Leo and I planned it as four seasons, but when I was halfway through season two the money ran out. It costs a lot to pay for all that art! I have the whole story blocked out and I love the characters, so maybe I’ll return to it as a prose novel – but that will be a shame, as I think it really works best as a comic book.
How did you get involved in gaming? What do you like so much about games?
That’s a very good question. I think it’s because I get to exercise my imagination and my analytic mind at the same time. It’s the same reason I design games and write fiction – you’re having to be creative and flexible while at the same time solving problems. And because they are all sorts of different problems I have to think on my feet, which I enjoy. It’s why I prefer real-time strategy games to turn-based, because of the adrenaline. In roleplaying games you’re constantly improvising, whether you’re playing in the game or running it, and I get fired up by that. Also there’s the social aspect of gaming. I like hanging out with my friends, and most of them are gamers. It’s just a shame that my wife isn’t into games, because if she did I’d happily play a boardgame most evenings.
What are your favourite games?
In face-to-face roleplaying: Empire of the Petal Throne, and other rules and spin-offs set in MAR Barker’s world of Tekumel. I like it so much I designed a set of rules myself for it, called Tirikelu, that are available free online. Recently I’ve also enjoyed Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders, which is an Apocalypse World variant.

As for videogames, I like What Remains of Edith Finch, Return of the Obra Din, Inside, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, The Witcher, This War of Mine, The Talos Principle – oh, too many to mention. Lately I’ve been getting into VR games as I’m doing some design work on one. My favourite computer game of all time: Outcast. That’s twenty years old and I still go back to it.
Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?
I host a roleplaying session every two weeks, and my group also try to fit in four weekend specials each year. It’s not like the old days when we could game several times a week, but everybody used to live nearby back then and none of us had families.

We’re currently playing an investigative campaign set in the 1890s. We use GURPS 4th edition for that, quite a crunchy set of rules but much better than 3rd edition. I recently wrote some chapters for the Lyonesse RPG, which uses a d100 system, but I probably won’t play it – even though Oliver and I are both devoted Jack Vance fans – because tonally the setting isn’t very different from our own world, Legend, and we really need to test out the Jewelspider system for that.
Is there a game (or even a setting) you haven't written yet but you definitely want to try?
I’d like to have a crack at a complete reboot of the world of Tekumel. As originally conceived it belonged to a style of pulp sci-fi of the mid-20th century. That’s not something that today’s players can really get into, yet behind the game lies Professor Barker’s concept of a “real” Tekumel. I think there’s a better way to present it to the current generation of roleplayers that strips away the slightly cheesy pulp style and makes it feel more solid.
Any advice for someone who would like a writing career?
I’d say, “Do you have a Plan B?” Harrison Ford trained as a carpenter, remember, so that he had something to fall back on if the acting didn’t pan out. These days, millions of books are being published every year – most of them self-published – so it’s very hard to get noticed.

If that doesn’t put you off, OK, write your book. Send it out to agents. While they’re looking at it, start writing the next book. If an agent or editor says that something in your story doesn’t work then you should listen to them. On the other hand, if they tell you how to change the book, be more sceptical – other people know if a story doesn’t grab them, but they can’t write the book your way.

Hopefully your agent will get more than one publisher interested. If they do, there may be a bidding war, which is the only way you’ll get a fair price for your work. Pay attention to contracts. What is the publisher agreeing to do, and what happens to your rights if the book isn’t successful?

Read. You already read? Read more. Read really good authors: Hemingway, Calvino, Austen, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Dickens, Eco. Don’t only read your favourite genres or authors. Think about what effect the author was striving for and how they achieved it. Always be learning.

They say, “Never give up,” but I’ll say, “Don’t reinforce failure.” If you try one thing and it doesn’t work, try something else. Short stories, novels, flash fiction, poetry, theatre. Mix genres. Ignore genres. The point is that entertainment is a fashion-driven industry, and there’s no point in plugging away at one thing if the public aren’t buying it. I know a couple of great writers – we’re talking about award winners, best-sellers in their day – whose books are not getting publishing offers these days because fashions have changed and their style of fiction is out of favour. No writer should ever try to chase fashions – you have to give the readers or viewers or players something they didn’t even know they wanted. But, at the same time, be aware of whether you’ve set up your stall in right place to get noticed.
Last question: is there any secret project you’re currently working on and can share with us?
There’s the world of Abraxas that Jamie and I devised for a massively multiplayer game we were set to work on at Eidos Interactive in 1999. Eidos closed down internal development so we never got to do the game, but I like the setting, which is science fantasy in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. So I’m going to release that as an RPG using a variant of my Tirikelu rules. I’ve commissioned a great cover by Tancred Dyke-Wells, so now it’s just a case of me finding a spare couple of months to write it.

I also want to do a gamebook (probably digital; think 80 Days rather than Tin Man Games) based in the village of Crossgate from my Dragon Warriors campaign. This would be an open world gamebook where you can have various NPC companions and your experience of the adventure is different depending on which of them is with you. There would be multiple side-quests that you can pick up in more than one location using a sort of object-oriented approach to the story rather than the usual procedural gamebook design. (Apologies to my coder friends; I’m using these terms very loosely!) The working title for that is Winter’s Rage, but it’s another project that will have to wait for me to free up some leisure time to work on it.

The Jewelspider RPG is likely to happen much sooner, mainly because it’s very light on rules so most of it will be adventures and background for the world of Legend. And I have a science fiction setting called Earthwrecked that I ran as a roleplaying campaign and that I really should dust off and write up.

Friday, 23 August 2019

It's in the trees

I've shown you this before, sort of. While working on a book I like to print up prototype versions rather than read the text on-screen. The upside is it provides a different perspective. The downside is that by the time the print company gets the book to me, often I've changed most of it.

I prepared these two copies of the Jewelspider RPG (2nd edition Dragon Warriors, if you prefer) so that my group could start playtesting the rules. I'm sorry to say the finished book probably won't have Jon Hodgson art -- I don't have the money to pay him, and if I did I'd spend it on Mirabilis -- but for private use around the gaming table I can indulge my wildest dreams. And I really wanted to have a proper look at that gorgeous Players Guide artwork without the book title inexplicably covering up half the image.

Some people have asked about the new rules. Details are still changing week by week, but the core of the system seems pretty solid now. There are eight abilities, ranging from 2 to 18, which determine your chance of succeeding in any action. There are also four qualities, ranging from -3 to +3,which don't affect your chance of success but rather your degree of success. So if you attempt an action using Agility (ride, dodge, climb, etc) or Dexterity (shoot, cut a purse, pick a lock, etc) then having a positive score in the Graceful quality would make any successful roll more effective.

There are also masteries, ranging from 0 to 6, which give the character more control over how they use their abilities for actions relevant to that mastery. Mastery in swordplay, for example, lets you finesse your Dexterity rolls when attacking or parrying with a sword. The way a mastery works is that you can trade off chance of success against degree of success, up to your level in that mastery.

The system is designed for ad hoc play. Any action you want to attempt will be governed by one of the eight abilities, and masteries can be extemporized too.

That's not quite all. There are two very rare qualities, Holy and Fey, that can be unlocked and give access to actions that ordinary people can't attempt. You can't have both at once, of course, and Fey doesn't necessarily indicate faerie blood, it's just the Jewelspider equivalent of DW's Psychic Talent.

When will all this be available to the public? I'm currently running a short campaign with junkable characters. Then Oliver Johnson is planning to run a Jewelspider campaign through through the autumn, and Tim Harford will hopefully give the rules a spin in one of his eagerly-awaited Christmas specials, and then I'll go back and revise the whole caboodle in light of my players' comments. So not till next spring, at the earliest. But, as you know, nothing's forgotten and it's coming.