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Friday 27 March 2020

Camelot Eclipsed - a roleplaying campaign

It is the year 438 AD.

Arthur, King of Britain, has fallen in battle. The Knights of the Round Table – Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot. All dead. Years have passed since Merlin was last seen.

Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, survived the final battle. With her army of renegades and monsters, she now advances on Camelot.

The kingdom's last defenders are those who were left behind. Those who were too young or too old to fight, too weak or of too lowly a status to be summoned to the final battle.

As the light of civilization flickers and the Dark Ages close in, those few survivors are the only ones left to keep King Arthur's dream alive.

Their sole ally is Merlin who, though trapped within a prison of stone, is still able to observe the world invisibly. His magic gives him the power to help Camelot’s last defenders.

But an important question remains to be answered: whose side is Merlin really on?


King Arthur and his knights have fallen in battle. As winter closes in, Logres is a lawless land threatened by Saxons from the east and brigands from across the Irish Sea. Without leadership, and with many peasants and their lords having died at Camlann, the harvest is poor and trade gives way to barter or simple theft.

Morgan, Arthur’s half-sister, brings her army to Camelot, meaning to crown her son Mordred as Arthur’s successor. The player-characters are a ragtag group of apprentices, peasants, squires and outsiders who must try to rally resistance to Morgan’s rule – or else bend the knee to her.

The campaign involves missions of rescue, sabotage, interception, fact-finding, and alliance-building. Alongside that, the player-characters find themselves drawn into the psychic and spiritual clash between Merlin and Morgan, who will visit them in dreams, visions and various magical guises in order to enlist them to their cause.

But the question is not only which of the two sorcerers to follow, because neither Merlin nor Morgan truly embodies King Arthur’s ideals. The ultimate choice the player-characters must face is whether to accept magical patronage or to abjure both Merlin and Morgan and take the harder path of independence.

A typical campaign might play out like this:

Session One: “Abandoned”
The characters learn they are the last defenders of Camelot. Morgan brings her army to the gates. Although they successfully prevent her from taking the castle, they have to flee for their lives.

Session Two: “Pursued”
Morgan sends unnatural creatures to hunt the characters down in the wildwood. The characters learn grudging respect for each other’s abilities in the running battle to survive.

Session Three: “Hidden”
They find refuge with an old knight who survived the final battle and now plans to retake Camelot. He arms the characters and makes one of them a knight.

Session Four: “Lost”
Disaster strikes – the plan is a shambles, the old knight is killed, and one of the characters is captured by Morgan.

Session Five: “Underground”
Using the labyrinths constructed years before by Merlin, the characters penetrate Morgan’s tower and rescue their comrade – but she has already been infected by Morgan’s magic.

Session Six: “Desperate”
Retreating into the wildwood, the heroes must undertake a quest to stop Morgan’s spirit from possessing their rescued comrade. In the process, they find a new ally.

Session Seven: “Hope”
The characters are in high spirits with the apparent recovery of their comrade and the arrival of new recruits. But Morgan has tricks up her sleeve yet. And in his prison under the earth, Merlin is scheming.

Session Eight: “Riven”
The highest-born character meets Merlin in a dream and is convinced that the others to have forsworn the oath of chivalry by recruiting commoners. He betrays them to Morgan.

Session Nine: “Armed”
The characters each acquire a sword or other enchanted weapon from the Lady of the Lake, becoming the New Knights of the Round Table.

Session Ten: “Home”
Emboldened by their new weapons, the New Knights return to Camelot and prepare to confront Morgan for once and for all.

Session Eleven: “Embattled”
The characters plan to divert Morgan’s army while the New Knights attack her tower. Finding their way past undead sentries and magical traps, they find she has fled. But the character who was abducted earlier, still troubled by the spell Morgan cast on her before, is able to see where she is headed: the Isle of Avalon.

Session Twelve: “Bereaved”
Morgan intends to destroy King Arthur’s body and prevent him from ever returning to the mortal world. The New Knights take to sea and finally face her on a bleak rocky shore at the western edge of the world. Repenting his earlier betrayal, the high-born character kills Morgan but is himself fatally injured.

Session Thirteen: “Victorious”
The New Knights bury their fallen comrade on the shore of Avalon. Sailing through a titanic storm that threatens to sink the ship, they confront Merlin but manage to trick him back into his prison of stone for another hundred years. As the storm passes they see a vision of King Arthur, who tells them they are now the true Knights of the Round Table. They return to a Britain restored at last after years of civil war.

That’s a very highly prescribed storyline, of course, and provides no more than the scaffolding of how events will play out if the player-characters were to do nothing off their own bat. Your players’ mileage (and direction of travel) will and should vary.


Who are the player-characters?
If you’re using rules that describe characters in terms of their roles (which naturally isn’t how I’d do it) then some obvious archetypes are:
  • Survivor
  • Turncoat
  • Spy
  • Deserter
Another axis would be Novice/Veteran. The novices (probably most of the PCs) aren’t ready for this fight but it’s coming to them anyway. Think Luke in Empire Strikes Back. They don’t have the luxury of waiting till their skills are honed.

It’s also possible to be a veteran: an over-the-hill hero, maybe left out of the final battle (as Sir Ector was) because they’re old and they cannae hack it anymore. Think Obi-Wan in Star Wars. On a good day they might recapture flashes of their former glory, but really they’re more Dad’s Army than Round Table.

What are the PCs doing?
  • Building an army of resistance fighters. 
  • Fighting with or parlaying with the Saxons (usually both). 
  • Deciding who to trust (Merlin? Morgan? Aelle? Or only themselves?) 
  • Keeping Arthur’s dream alive. 
  • Dealing with local threats (raiders, a ‘monster’ in the woods, a renegade knight, a sick child, a starving village, etc).
Missions will include: rescue, sabotage, interception, fact-finding, diplomacy, and small stuff to remind them that reality is woven from ordinary people’s lives as much as from abstract ideas. Of course I would say this, but watch Richard Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood to see how a master does it. Oh, and you should of course watch Excalibur too while you're at it.


Morgan le Fay
Arthur’s half-sister (the daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and Ygraine, Arthur’s mother) is the primary antagonist of the campaign. She is infamous for her ruthless pursuit of sorcerous knowledge.

How should you play her? She could just be the traditional Big Bad, lusting after power for its own sake and installing her own family in positions of authority. There was a time I’d have said that was too superficial to make a credible story, but now we’re in the era of Trump. Still, just because the real world is dumbing down that’s no reason for games to do so. It’s more interesting if Morgan stands for a set of beliefs that are directly opposed to Arthur’s. She wants to show that the ideals of Camelot are unachievable, irresponsible, unrealistic, dangerous. She despises the mass of humanity and is exactly the sort of person to say that Arthur’s better world could never come about “because of human nature”.

That’s why it’s not enough for her just to kill the player-characters. She could accomplish that easily, but she needs to discredit and destroy Arthur’s dream, and to do that she must arrange things so that the heroes fail. It is the death of their hopes she seeks, and only then their physical destruction.

Morgan is an arch-manipulator with an instinct for everyone’s desires and fears. She can use illusion, promises and even the offer of real wealth or power – whatever best works on the character she wants to control. A chance to say goodbye to a loved one who fell at Camlann? She can grant that. If your dearest wish is to be respected she can gift you with qualities of authority or skill in battle. If what’s riding you is guilt, she can engineer an opportunity for you to atone.

Of course she won’t make any of these offers as herself. ‘Join me and together we can rule,’ fools no one. Instead she might talk to you in the guise of a trusted friend, or send you a vision, or contrive for you to be given a sword from a lake or to win glory in a joust. Whatever will be most likely to corrupt you. Those who are being beguiled by Morgan never realize it until too late.

Morgan’s army is a rabble of the lowest sort: malcontents, thieves, drunks and scoundrels. These are the bitter of soul who seethed with resentment through the heyday of Camelot, scowling at every case of neighbour helping neighbour as if it were a personal rebuke. Now they feel vindicated by the collapse of Arthur’s project. The world in its festering state reflects their own nature and how they believe everyone else to be. Where Arthur offered unendurable hope, Morgan presents her followers an easier vision: of hate, vicious struggle, and the salve of tearing everything down to the same squalid depths.

Morgan’s servant is Friar Adge, a sanctimonious toady whose broad rubbery smile never reaches as far as his eyes. He’ll pass himself off as an honest broker between the factions, but the truth is that he cares for nothing and no one but himself.

As Arthur’s only surviving nephew, Mordred arguably is his rightful heir as succession in the Celtic kingdom of Logres is through the female line. Many would dispute Mordred’s right to the throne, first because of his lack of honour, second because he is not of the Pendragon lineage, and lastly because he was supposedly run through by Arthur during the final battle. He dragged himself the length of the spear to deal his uncle a mortal blow, sustained and given inhuman strength by either rage or sorcery, but surely nobody could have long survived that?

In fact Morgan placed him for three days and nights in the cauldron of rebirth, but he emerged with a grey pallor, lank hair, dull eye, and a dun aspect as if the sun is unable to fully illuminate him or draw any colour from his flesh. He speaks rarely, and in a voice both cold and gravelly, as if his words were echoing from a deep well. If the King and the Land are one, woe betide the realm when Mordred is crowned.

A long-lived and mysterious master of the magical arts who was trapped within a rock far below the earth by the nymph Nimue. Now he is able to interact with the living only by means of dreams and visions.

Cursed with a vision of the chaos to come, Merlin dreamed of salvaging something from the Dark Ages but has seen his best hope die with Arthur and the civil wars that now ensue. Merlin is capricious and of ambiguous morality, and gradually the characters may come to realize that in helping them he has his own agenda.

How should you play Merlin? He can glimpse far into the future and is even said to live his life backwards, so you could occasionally have him present the characters with a random and seemingly impossible or self-defeating task. Arthur knew how to use Merlin’s counsel without becoming dominated by him, but will our heroes manage that?

Arthur’s queen has retreated to Glestinga convent (Glastonbury) and supposedly takes no part in worldly affairs. Some say that her alleged infidelity was a trick by Morgan, who used a magical glamour to seduce Sir Lancelot in the guise of the queen.

A Saxon chieftain who has taken advantage of Arthur’s death to start carving out his own kingdom in Andredswald, the vast swathe of forest in the south of Britain. He is ambitious for the title of Bretwalda - first Saxon ruler of Britain. Both the player-characters and Morgan stand in his way, but it seems as if Merlin could have a use for him.

What happened to the Knights of the Round Table?

Sir Ector was too old to go to battle. Sir Bedivere left Britain on pilgrimage after returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake; the characters might hear news of him from foreign travellers. Sir Lucan was transformed into a standing stone on the shore where Arthur was taken to Avalon.

If any other Round Table knights appear in the campaign, use them carefully. These are mythic figures (think of Cap’s fight in the S.H.I.E.L.D. elevator) but their day is done. They shouldn’t ride in to save the day. The fight belongs to the player-characters and their allies now.


The themes of a roleplaying campaign should emerge in the moment from the player-characters themselves, not be baked into a plot before the game starts. So, with the proviso that the players are always free to explore whatever interests them in the world – joining Morgan, fighting or allying with the Saxons, opposing or supporting Merlin, even ignoring the ostensible main storyline and instead following their own path – here are the in-built themes.

On the surface, the struggle of the age might seem to be the incursion of the barbaric Saxons into the land of the Romano-British and their allies (mostly Celts, but including descendants of legionaries who might be from anywhere in the Empire). That’s how both Merlin and Morgan regard it, and the existential question for them is whether the Romano-British side should be ruled by laws or by an autocrat – in either case the eventual goal being to drive the Saxons back.

But the new generation of Arthurians may take a broader view. If a civilization is to be ruled by laws then the obvious model is the Roman Empire, a multi-ethnic union in which mere tribal squabbles are to be scorned. In such a context, inexperience and youth may be the very qualities most needed to create a better future. With a Year Zero approach, the characters could build a new culture to replace the old ways – something that is the logical next step from King Arthur’s ideals but that the more inflexible Merlin is not entirely happy about. Though starting as bitter enemies, the Britons and Saxons might reluctantly unite against mutual, arcane foes. Together perhaps they can forge a new world to live in.

Although full of fantastic adventure, this is not a purely action-driven campaign. The simple mechanical detail of what happens is not as important as the effect it has on the people involved. Our story happens to be set at the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain. But it could as easily take place in Nazi-occupied Europe, or central Africa or Syria today.

What did Arthur stand for?
King Arthur’s rule was rooted in Romano-British principles and his principles may indeed seem outmoded as the Dark Ages tighten their grip. He elevated knights on merit rather than birth, promoted trade and the rule of law, encouraged innovation in the arts and sciences, and upheld Christian ideals of peace and tolerance. In the latter days of his reign he used the title Duke more often than King, suggesting that he might abolish hereditary monarchy in favour of a primus inter pares elected by the Round Table. Small wonder that Morgan and Mordred wish to see that ideology crushed into the mud.

Camelot Eclipsed is a story about growth and change in response to adversity. On a character level that allows the players to investigate themes such as responsibility, courage, grief, and jealousy. The things our heroes must choose between are hatred and love, suspicion and trust, treachery and friendship.


Logres is a mythic realm governed by the pathetic fallacy. At the height of Arthur’s rule the orchards and fields brimmed with abundance, Milk was rich, apples crisp, bread laid out on every table. Peasants sang merrily as they worked, wayfarers were greeted with hospitality, each season was the archetype of its weather.

But now the king is gone. As you travel you’ll find abandoned manor houses, half-empty villages, hungry dogs, pillaged chapels, and crops left to rot in the fields. Rain trickles in under your collar, bursts the river banks, raises swarms of mosquitoes, and leaves the roads deeply rutted with fetid, sucking mud. Days are drear and blustery, nights cloudy and cold. Anyone met on the road is greeted with suspicion. Peasants hide from strangers or drive them away. A traveller might be murdered just for his cloak and boots.


Which image of Camelot are you going to go with? The Pendragon RPG is explicitly set in the 6th century, albeit with imagery more suggestive of the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s clearly a mythic time that allows a wide variety of interpretations. I’m not sure now which era Ian Marsh had in mind for his original campaign – it felt quite medieval – but for the sake of this account I’ve settled on the mid-5th century, not long after the departure of the Roman legions, if only to shake up players’ expectations.

Logres is not a Malorian world of rattling knights and weathered ivy-clad castles. To our protagonists, the Round Table does not belong to the distant past. Barely a generation has passed since the legions departed Britain. Older people (30 years and up) were alive when the Rescript of Honorius was sent, telling the British cities to look to their own defence – the very edict that gave Arthur authority to take the throne. People think of Camelot as having held back the tide of barbarism by sustaining the ideals and benefits of the Roman Empire. The Dark Ages are coming, but not without a fight.

Camelot is a fabulous Romano-British citadel built along classical lines, with colonnades and domed halls emphasising the Roman heritage. The look is something between a fortified villa and an early Gothic basilica. The masonry is sparkling white limestone, newly hewed less than a generation ago. This is not the crumbling old castle seen in films. It’s a brand new edifice of sharp stone edges. The interiors of the castle are adorned with vivid wall-paintings, dark tapestries and heavy mahogany furniture creating striking contrast to the dazzling white hallways.

Armour is not the heavy, clanking iron plate of medieval times. Elegantly efficient laminar or scale armour, burnished to a silvery sheen, is as much a work of art as a tool of war. Knights wear muscled steel cuirasses fringed with pteruges, often studded with enamel or jewels, and their limbs are protected by articulated bands of steel. Magnificently crested helms and visors evoke the masks of Greek theatre or images of wild beasts.

This helmet (from the Staffordshire Hoard) is from at least a century and a half later, and Anglo-Saxon to boot, but it's a thing of beauty so I can't resist including it.

Away from the battlefield, robes are admired for being fashionably cosmopolitan. Distinctive decorative patterns and totemic insignia identify each knight and give them a wild, romantic look – as much tribal as chivalric.

Once beyond the confines of Logres, the characters encounter another Britain known to no Roman. A misty and threatening savage land of wastes and forests, of secret cults, proscribed druids, of Celtic rebels and Saxon raiders. A land of dreadful rituals whose gods can only be appeased with atrocities. A place of isolated villages, invisible from the straight Roman roads, where superstition never ceased to hold sway. The land of a darker past – and future – age.

The characters can be multi-ethnic – not for tokenistic reasons, like a quota-driven BBC period drama taking an airbrush to historical credibility in order to flaunt its fashionable colour blindness, but because a mix of cultures, languages and races reflects the world as it really is at this time. The Roman Empire is in collapse, but its boundaries still stretch far, permitting the story to incorporate characters from Numidia, Egypt, Judea, Thrace, Arabia Petraea, even as far as Syria. (Our comic book and TV versions of Camelot Eclipsed included an African farrier, Hannibal, and a Jewish inventor, Ozzy - short for Ozymandias.)


For Ian Marsh’s original campaign we used Pendragon. The campaign was structured around both the character-based conflict of who to trust and the physical challenges of the week’s adventure, and Pendragon’s system of ideals, passions and virtues played strongly into the former.

I haven’t played it, but a recent game that has been compared to Pendragon is Romance of the Perilous Land. I get the sense that it’s designed to recreate a timeless “British mythic” feel rather than a specific setting, but that said you’re going to have to do a little custom work whatever system you opt for.

You could also use a Powered by the Apocalypse variant. I’m imagining something like Night Witches or The Last Fleet, where the characters’ emotional lives defuse or exacerbate the tensions arising from the missions. If you’re thinking of a homebrew PbtA (and aren’t they all?) then the core stats might be Social, Martial, Mystical and Practical.

Alternatively you could forget about formalizing the character’s emotional lives through game mechanics and “just try acting”, in which case a set of rules like Jewelspider will have all you need. In my games I usually prefer to keep characterization loose and steered by the players, on the grounds that actual human beings can play the nuances of human behaviour a lot better than any set of rules can. But that’s for very long, open-ended campaigns where the players are committed to deeply immersive in-character play. It’s far more likely that you’ll run Camelot Eclipsed over a limited number of “episodes” and with overt story themes, so a certain amount of rules straitjacketing does make sense. (Regular readers might want to frame that statement as it’s not something I say very often.)


My introduction to Ian Marsh’s Camelot Eclipsed was at a roleplaying convention in the Midlands. It was the late ‘80s and, if memory serves, that evening offered games by Michael Cule (Tekumel) and Sandy Petersen (Call of Cthulhu) but the moment Ian told me the premise of his scenario I was hooked. I played Uchdryd, a foul-mouthed bully who might very well have inspired Sir Uwain in the fourth Knightmare book, The Sorcerer’s Isle.

After a few years, seeing that Ian had no intention of doing anything with a brilliant concept, I got his permission to try developing it variously as a series of novels (with John Whitbourn, who created the character Aelle), as a comic strip (with Russ Nicholson for The DFC), as a videogame or interactive drama (with Leo Hartas) and even as a television show (with Cat Muir and Rob Rackstraw). None of those came off, but you can read the TV pilot script here for some ideas of one way to take it.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Free gamebooks

OK, don't say I never did anything for you, coz the Critical IF gamebook series is free on Kindle through till Sunday. The four books are diceless, so they actually work pretty well as ebooks (hyperlinked, obviously). Not an offer to be sneezed at, eh?

And come back on Friday for Camelot Eclipsed, a complete roleplaying campaign set in the days after King Arthur's fall. That should awaken the dragon.

Friday 20 March 2020

Life and death are only a dice roll away!

Only a dice roll away? That's never been truer than now for most of us, but while you're battening down the hatches there's no need to lose all contact with the outside world. My gaming group have been looking at Discord, Roll20 and Zoom for roleplaying and Vassal Engine for boardgames.

James Desborough ran a Dragon Warriors game the other night, and as you can see it's almost as good as playing face to face. Even better than face to face, perhaps, if your friends are scattered all over the country and find it hard to get along to an in-person session.

If you've been waiting for the right time to snap up all the Dragon Warriors books, Serpent King Games have them in a Bundle of Holding for the next couple of weeks. And I'm now talking to SKG about them publishing Jewelspider, which would mean wider distribution and more artwork -- which the proceeds of the Bundle of Holding sale will help pay for. See, there's always a silver lining.

Friday 13 March 2020

A look at lawful good

What would a lawful good society look like? I’ve heard a couple of discussions about that recently and, although I think the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is even more trite and unhelpful than the typical glossy-magazine-quiz psychometrics test (eg Myers-Briggs), it did set me thinking.

We know what lawful means. Laws, like rules in a game, ensure a level playing field for all citizens, free of individual whim or fashion. As for good – well, we could take that to simply be the opposite of everything that a Midwestern American senator believes (here's one) but let’s just say that it means an attempt to ensure that everybody has an equal right to happiness once all citizens’ basic needs are met.

What would such a society look like? The most obvious answer is the Federation. Decades of relentless libertarian ideology in the media – the supposed evil conspiracies of government, the fascism of the state, the ‘I aim to misbehave’ and ‘No one wants to be civilized’ mantras – has meant that it’s common now to take a cynical view of the Federation. ‘People just wouldn’t accept a utopia,’ insists the Randian, ‘because we all want more for ourselves than for other people.’

Well, you’d have been pitied for taking that view back in the ‘60s, and it tells us plenty about the speaker and nothing about the human race as a whole, so let’s just take as a given that the people in our lawful good state enjoy living there, enthusiastically support the principles of the society, and aren’t all eager to rush over the border into the Klingon Empire.

The snag is, the Federation is a post-scarcity society, well on its way to becoming the Culture. Most fantasy worlds tend to be more on the medieval side, and unless you assume the place is awash with magic (in which case your game might as well be set in the 23rd century) there will be shortages, famines, plagues, and all the other ills that bedevil humans when we’re not actively bedevilling ourselves.

Another complaint is that utopias are boring because they lack conflict. Would you rather live in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s or today? (The homicide graph might help you decide.) If you’re relying on the volatility of society to maintain your interest in life, I suggest your priorities might be a bit skewed. There can be plenty of excitement and conflict in even a post-scarcity society. Just for starters, the old story of two men loving the same woman – or man, or any combination thereof – will still apply. You can be fed and clothed and warm and safe, but you can’t have everything you want when some of the things you want are other people.

A pre-modern lawful good society – that is, one where scarcity is still a problem – wouldn’t be feudal. You can’t have serfs because (trust me on this) people who are not free are not happy. I suppose you could make it a kind of benevolent hierarchy, where the lords have a strong sense of noblesse oblige, but you’ve still got some poor buggers toiling ankle-deep in mud and shit while another fellow rides by in a velvet jerkin. I’m really not sure if the typical D&D player would call that ‘good’.

How about the Shire? That’s a little more egalitarian. At least the rich folks live and work alongside the poorer ones. It’s just that they live better and work less. Everyone’s technically free, but if you have to slog your guts out while your employer rides the high hog, said freedom is really an illusion.

Your lawful good state would need a form of socialism. Food would be distributed according to each citizen’s needs. Some citizens would work, others would be needed for administration, soldiering, and so on. In times of hardship, everybody would have to pull together. It’s looking less like the Middle Ages and more like the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic in its theoretical ideal, that is, not its messy reality. Or maybe like post-war Britain as envisaged in a movie like They Came To A City.

I’m not sure if most D&D groups are interested in developing the setting to that extent, though. Do they normally just want the background to look medieval, and the difference between an evil and a good country is simply whether the peasants get raped and tortured at the pleasure of the barons or not? Maybe lawful good means you think God would prefer you to be nice Wenceslas-style: just pick one random peasant to give Christmas gifts to and you qualify for sainthood.

The Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast was one of the places I heard this being chewed over. Myself, having no truck with alignment as a system, I probably wouldn’t start out designing a fantasy game setting on the basis of an abstract ethical stance. Economics and history would have more of a bearing. But it did lead me back to the idea of science fiction utopias. What would happen to the Federation if the replicators broke down? Would the principles of the society hold up now that people have to share? If everyone was like Starfleet personnel, then yes – but aren’t there millions of people in the Federation who only know a life of leisure and abundance? How would they cope? Would they cope?

In putting the whole idea of ‘lawful good’ to the test, you might find out something interesting. It doesn’t make me want to play D&D or use alignment in my games, but I can see it making fertile ground for an SF campaign. That really would be to boldly go.

Friday 6 March 2020

Don't tear down the temple

My friend was angry. A television director, he’d been working on a documentary about an African bishop with a bit of a maverick reputation in the Catholic Church. ‘The Jesuits want to give this guy the sack for laying on hands and casting out devils,’ he grumbled. ‘It smacks of racism to me.’

Normally you don’t come to me for advice on ecumenical matters, but it happened that I knew some senior Jesuits because I’d been working on a scientific project for them. Generally they struck me as sincere people—and they accept evolution and the Big Bang, which puts them at the rational end of the religious spectrum. I tried for a conciliatory note. ‘Did they give any reasons?’

He showed me the interview he’d filmed with a top Jesuit at the Vatican. The chap was all but wringing his hands, perhaps envisaging the headlines if they went so far as to expel an African bishop. ‘The thing is, you can’t just take it on your own authority to say somebody is possessed and to cure them of that. Not even if you’re a bishop. It’s not official doctrine. If he wants to preach that line… He can’t do that and stay in the Church.’

‘OK, I’ll be devil’s advocate here,’ I told my friend. ‘They have a brand. Stuff goes with the brand. You and I think it’s all equally nonsensical, but if somebody won’t get with the official line, I don’t see how he can be one of their clergy.’

That was many years ago, but I was reminded of it recently in an interview that Simon Pegg gave about his work on the script for Star Trek Beyond. (Perhaps that’s the sublime to the ridiculous but, trust me, I’m on a lot firmer ground when it comes to Star Trek.) Paramount were exercised that Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy had raked in $1.5 billion, while the last Star Trek movie earned a paltry $0.5 billion.

‘Maybe if the next Star Trek could be more like Guardians..?’ spoke up a voice at the big walnut table. And so they turned to Mr Pegg, who plays Scotty, to do a rewrite. His brief was clear:
“Make a Western or a thriller or a heist movie, then populate that with Star Trek characters so it’s more inclusive to an audience that might be a little bit [reluctant].”
Just suppose that you could make a Star Trek movie exactly like Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe then you’d triple the box office. The only snag: you wouldn’t have your brand anymore. In fact, by chasing somebody else’s brand, you’re pretty much guaranteed not even to equal their success.

Brand integrity matters. But that’s not a message that’s coming across loud and clear these days when the brand in question is prose fiction and the people you’re talking to are publishers. An example: an author I know has had a lot of success with middle grade novels. Usually they run to around fifty-five thousand words, but lately he’s been asked to make them shorter. ‘Twenty, twenty-five thousand max. We’ll make up the page count with layout and lots of pictures.’

‘I can’t get so much of a story into twenty thousand words, though.’

Writers, eh? We’re suckers for giving ourselves work.

‘A lot of the kids find a full-length novel a bit of a struggle,’ said his editor. ‘Just keep it short and sweet.’

We’re seeing a parallel trend in the urge to festoon digital novels with sound effects and moving pictures. And I say this, who write for television and design videogames: anything that can be said as well in prose can be said better in prose. Publishers, if you want to make a movie, do that. Don’t mess up a promising novel because you don’t trust in the brand integrity of your own medium.

Oh, wait. The Luddite card? Really? No—as Seth Godin put it several years ago, we’ve seen all this before:
“Adding video, audio and other extras to books, as in the CD-Rom era, is worse than a distraction. It's a dangerous cul-de-sac that will end in tears.”
Still and all, it’s easy to criticize. A lot of publishers are like polar bears on those shrinking icebergs. You can’t expect them to worry about climate change when they’re not even sure if they can make the jump to the next floe before this one melts. And this is me checking my privilege: I grew up in a home with books; many don’t. I understand that to a lot of people, a doorstop-sized novel doesn’t look like the portal to another world, but a threatening immensity of barbed wire keeping them out. It can be helpful to those readers to give them an easy-in, introducing them via shorter forms to all the rewards of good fiction.

That’s fine. That’s stabilizers on a bike. But what is the future of publishing if editors feel that their goal is not to annoy readers with too much text? Those shorter, simpler books have real value if they are stepping stones to richer works. If they become the end purpose of publishing then we’re in a controlled descent towards the final extinction of the book.

Imagine Yoda had said, ‘Too difficult real Jedi training is. Enough you have done getting the ship out the swamp.’ I know, wrong franchise, but you get the point.

The only way for publishing to thrive, and for more readers to appreciate better books, is if we keep our faith in the brand.