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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?