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Friday 22 November 2019

Blood Sword redux: The Walls of Spyte

"A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations."
That was the author Paul Valéry. His quotation is usually attributed to da Vinci (well, it's always Leonardo, Churchill or Wilde, isn't it?) and given in the snappier paraphrased version that Auden came up with:
"A work of art is never finished; it is only abandoned."
More relevant to The Walls of Spyte is Valéry's other comment on this theme:
"In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished (a word that for them has no meaning) but abandoned. And this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public, and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver, is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reverie that fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless."
All right, enough from les éminences grises. Clearly some works of art are abandoned earlier than others, and The Walls of Spyte is the literary equivalent of a baby left on a church doorstep in midwinter. What went wrong?

If you'll allow me to be highfalutin here, I signed off as Blood Sword's showrunner with book four. Whatever came after that, I was but an onlooker, like RTD watching Moffat episodes of Who. When Oliver Johnson and I originally pitched the series to Hodder, we had intended to work on it equally, but Oliver's job started to take up more of his time, with the result that I wrote books two through four single-handed. Then Oliver thought he'd have time to do book five, and we realized that would mean he'd have ended up contributing a quarter of the total work so we could switch our royalty split from 50/50 to 75/25. Nice and simple.

How often do simple plans gang na agley? Oliver had got about a third of the way in when a family holiday pulled him away from ice-bound horror to sea and sunshine. I was busy on other projects, but I agreed to step in and write the finale -- just forty sections, starting from the point where you meet Karunaz and Zaraqeb. I'd already tied up the storylines I was interested in, so it was just the showdown with the Magi. Oliver enlisted Jamie Thomson to pitch in with a hundred sections or so in the middle. I have no idea what shape the manuscript was in when it went to the publisher, but they clearly didn't have time to fix it, or even to proofread it. You cannot, in fact, get through to the end of that original edition without cheating.

The title is an obvious homage to "In the Walls of Eryx" and the story should echo At the Mountains of Madness, but instead of a Lovecraft homage the book came out as really more of a Ross Rocklynne concept rewritten by Robert Lynn Asprin. (You see, I just can't help griping. But, after all, Taika Waititi had a smash hit by turning the end of the world into a silly comedy, so maybe I'd better just go with the flow here.)

I'd always had this idea of astral forces gathering above an Arctic wasteland, and a few years later I got to do it my way in Heart of Ice -- also destroying the universe at the end, you'll note. The idea of the Five having engineered the Blasting in order to Phoenix themselves up to a level of power where they could challenge God -- that bit will have been me. At the time I was probably thinking more of Odin on the tree than self-reincarnating Marvel characters, but that's a detail.

Talking of the Five Magi, W B Yeats's poem seems like it must be the inspiration for them, but in fact I only came across it years later, when I was writing The Chronicles of the Magi. The real seed for the Magi came from a campaign that Oliver ran at Oxford back in the early '80s after we'd all been enthusing about Riddley Walker and Mad Max 2. (Oh yes, about that...) In the campaign we were all feral mid-teen scavengers of a post-apocalyptic tribe, wandering across a landscape of bomb-wrecked highways and nature blighted with chemical weapons. In the sky at night we saw fleeting coloured satellites for which we all felt a degree of "fix". We didn't know what fix was, but any change in fix (as in, "gain +2 Fix with Plague Star") was to be dreaded. I remember an encounter with a local bogeyman we called Smiler, whose face was eaten away in a ghastly rictus and who dwelt in an old bomb shelter permanently shrouded in toxic gas. Oh, if only more of that grim tone had found its way into The Walls of Spyte.

I'm frequently asked about the connection between Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword. They share the same setting, certainly, but I'm not sure I'd class most of Blood Sword as "canonical" Legend. If DW is Robin of Sherwood, which is a pretty apposite comparison, then Blood Sword is the BBC's 2006 show Robin Hood. Or if DW is The Shield, maybe Blood Sword is The Rockford Files . (Both shows I like, incidentally.) On that axis, The Walls of Spyte was Police Squad! -- sorry, there I go again. Anyway, the new edition of the book dispenses with the more knockabout comedy elements (what we used to call "silly dungeon" tone) so maybe it's time to let that go.

What else? Unlike the other Blood Sword redux posts (which incidentally are reprinted at the back of the new edition of The Walls of Spyte) I don't have a lot to say about the writing because most of it wasn't me. Karunaz and Zaraqeb, mentioned above, were characters in my Tekumel campaign, played by Paul Mason and Gail Baker respectively. Gail had recently dumped Paul rather brutally, so I probably let his character behead hers as a salve for a wounded heart.

Oliver must have got the idea for the giant red bat that bedevils you at the start from the Crimson Bat in RuneQuest. I'm just grateful he forgot about the ducks. I also remember Jamie telling me how he was working the word "aoristic", which I think he'd picked up from Greek grammar at school, into one of the riddles. I'm still not quite sure what it actually means, so if anyone can drop a sentence illustrating the aoristic tense into the comments, please do.

I'm disappointed I never got the Blood Sword characters to Ellesland. Or Ferromaine, come to that. There's no sign of Cynewulf, Montombre, Jewelspider Wood, or those other staples of most Dragon Warriors campaigns. On the plus side, I did get to explore the Ta'ashim lands and faith in these books, and that part of Blood Sword -- that is, everything that happens in the muck and mire of the cities of Outremer and the Middle East -- is definitely canonical Legend.

Oh, about that... "Why do the characters refer to their world as Middle Earth?" I'm sometimes asked. "Why not Legend?" Well, Legend of course is a non-diegetic name for the setting, something I'm guilty of with Fabled Lands too. To most DW characters, their world is "the middle earth", ie between heaven and hell. I knew that Tolkien used it for his world, of course, but I also thought everyone knew that he just got it from Middle English literature. Nowadays people think it's his proprietary brand, so where possible I've switched it in this book to other terms like "the mortal world".

Overall, if I'd known the Blood Sword books would still be read today by thirty- and forty-somethings, I’d have been bolder about dispensing with the orcs, goblins and dungeon trappings and made it more like "real" Legend. Especially for the Judgement Day finale, which was much better served in my opinion by Tim Harford's Redemption campaign, of which I've offered snippets here from time to time.

That said, Oliver and Jamie delivered a top-class instance of a dungeon adventure in this book. If I'd played in a D&D game half that good back in the mid-'70s, I might never have spurned it for Tekumel and Traveller. And in the new edition, the more obtrusive Pythonesque bits are gone, Russ Nicholson's marvellous illustrations are reproduced via crisp high-quality scans, and as a bonus you actually can get all the way through to the end. It's still Doomsday, but at least you won't miss it.

Friday 15 November 2019

Patrons wanted for the Jewelspider expedition

My last outing on Patreon didn't work out so well. That was for Mirabilis: Year of Wonders, the project dearest to my heart. In retrospect it was perhaps overly optimistic to think I could fund hundreds of pages of full-colour comic book art through the kindness of strangers, especially since the only publisher of Mirabilis (to date) managed to lose all the copies of Book 2 in a lay-by somewhere between Bosnia and Britain.

Oh well, that's spilt milk. The latest challenge is more achievable (maybe), namely how to fund some top-notch artwork for the Jewelspider rulebook I'm working on. I'd like to get pictures by Jon Hodgson and Tancred Dyke-Wells, among others. And not just covers and a few interiors, either. I'm going to need maps and filler art (to make the layout work) and a tidier character sheet than this one.

If push comes to shove I can do the maps and some sketches myself, but that'll look worse than first edition Dungeons & Dragons so fingers crossed. If you happen to be flush with cash and want to throw some of it at the Jewelspider project, the Patreon page is here. If not, share the link with rich friends and relatives and I'll thank you forever, even if they won't. (According to Amanda Palmer, the secret of raising money is simply to learn the knack of asking people to give it to you, but I suspect I'd also have to marry Neil Gaiman to make that one work.)

What do you get as a patron? Other than the warm glow of satisfaction, you'll have access to sneak peeks at the rules. Like this sorcery phylum, for instance:
Illumination – there are various ways to summon a magical light, each with its own advantages and drawbacks: 
  • Faerie motes accompany you and may even dart ahead to point out hidden things, but are capricious and will shun holy people and places. 
  • Corpse light (Necromancy) or St Elmo’s Fire (Fire mastery) covers you and may affright superstitious companions. 
  • Moonbeams can be captured in a globe and can be directed in a soft beam or dimmed at will, but you need to keep a hand free to hold the globe. 
  • Flames (Fire mastery again) are very bright, which is useful at close quarters but can prevent you noticing things outside the circle of light. 
  • A mirror or piece of glass can be induced to release daylight that fell on it at earlier times. 
  • A glow can be awakened in the heart of a precious gem
  • A hand of glory sheds a light that only the caster can see and has other powers besides: opening locked doors and preventing those asleep from waking. It requires special ingredients: the hand of a murderer cut from the gallows, the hair of a suicide (as a wick) and fat from an unbaptised child. Needless to say, constructing such a thing is considered diabolism by the Church and punishable by death. 
Perhaps the simplest option is to Enhance an ordinary lamp so that even a strong wind won’t blow it out, although note that lamps don’t give off a great deal more light than a few candles would.
At least the pressure of seeing a few dollars trickling in each month will spur me to get on and finish the rules, even if it never tots up to enough to pay for a full-page illustration. However, having included at least one link to Wikipedia above, let me add that they too are looking for donations and their need is greater, and their cause far worthier, than mine. So if you only do one act of patronage this month, make it Wiki not me. Though I won't grumble if you want to make it both.

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.