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Friday 28 August 2020

How long does an RPG scenario need to be?

In the comments last time, Nigel asked a question that must have vexed us all at one time or another. We all know you can run a perfectly good adventure from a page or two of notes, but what if you're writing the adventure so that somebody else can run it? Every little detail, obvious to you, soon starts to demand a page of its own. Look at the annual Christmas scenario for Legend. Tim, our secret Santa for those specials, cooks up the adventure on the train to London and runs it from crib notes scrawled in biro on the back of his hand. Yet by the time I'm serving the scenario up to you it has typically swollen like a Quatermass experiment to 5000 words or more.

I don't claim to have a magic formula, but a lot of published scenarios are written to be a fun read rather than a useful template for running the adventure. It's what sells. So an investigative scenario, for example, will lay out the clues and describe how the player-characters are expected to come across them, all wrapped up in a form that reads like a mini-mystery novel. But to run the game you don't need any of that. For maximum compression, you really just need a couple of documents and (maybe) maps of the key locations.

The first document describes what would happen in the adventure if the PCs weren't there. You might include some contingencies here if you think the referee isn't experienced enough to make them up on the fly. Eg: "The Terminator goes to the nightclub to kill Sarah Connor. If she escapes it seeks out her mother or friends, and remember that it can mimic their voice on the phone to get her to say where she is." Take a look on Wikipedia at the plot summary of a few stories you're very familiar with. That's a good guide to how compressed you can go. You should end up with something like this (from The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder on the Tekumel site):

The other doc is just the NPCs. What they want, how they are likely to try and get it, the resources they can call on, and their attitude to the PCs and each other. This is the place to mark how the PCs might get involved, eg: "Du Pont thinks Goldfinger is cheating at cards and asks the characters to find out how. (See: Jill Masterton.)" Whether the PCs take those cues, and how they use them, should emerge in play rather than being baked into the scenario -- and that's where you can save on word count.

The maps don't need to be more than rough sketches. They're just there so you can answer questions like, "To get to the bath-house, do I need to go out into the courtyard or can I get there from the dormitory?" I tend to do my maps on scraps of paper at the table, often improvised when a player first asks a question so as to be consistent thereafter. You know the kind of thing:

A scenario like I'm describing will be a very dry read, but after all it's not supposed to be a novel. The only reason we have these neatly act-structured published scenarios is because that's the way the publishers get a customer to part with their money. Recently I was looking at a scenario in a published RPG which took up twenty-five pages (around 10,000 words) and it could all have been fitted on one piece of paper. As a short story it was fine. As a reference doc for running a game from it was useless. There was too much detail, too many cross-connections, too many assumptions about which order the PCs would do things in -- not to mention assumptions about what they would do.

What about set pieces? It can be really hard to resist preparing those in advance. You think, aha, if the characters go up this hill, they'll see what looks like a henge of standing stones on the skyline, but as they get closer it rears up and they see it's the dorsal spines of an enormous dragon. Let me stop you right there. You're not writing a movie. Maybe they'll approach the dragon from another direction. Maybe they won't encounter it at all. Murder your darlings. If you try to plan a cinematic set piece, there's a risk you'll then railroad the players to make sure it happens. So what if they go someplace else and do something you didn't anticipate? Have faith that you'll think of something in the moment that's as good as any scene you might have scripted in advance.

No written adventure survives contact with the players. So why go to all the trouble of writing it out neatly like it's the Great American Novel? Everyone's mileage is going to be different here, but if you're producing a scenario for somebody else to run, try paring it to the bone. Think of it as an executive summary for a CEO with a very short attention span. A couple of pages at most. The way the game turns out might be nothing like you or the referee expected -- but as long as the players have fun, who's complaining?

Thursday 27 August 2020

Party like it's 1982

Thirty-eight years ago today, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson shook up the gamebook scene with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which combined the interactive stories of Choose Your Own Adventure with the dice-rolling of Dungeons & Dragons. To mark that publishing milestone, gamebook author Jonathan Green has organized International Gamebook Day, of which he says:
"We have interviews, read-throughs, giveaways and other things planned throughout the day, but please feel free to post on the event page on Thursday yourself. If you are an author, post links to your books. If you are artist, feel free to post images of your illustrations and links to your gallery. If you are an editor, post stories of your experiences commissioning gamebooks. And if you are a fan, post links to and images of your favourite series and photos of your collections."
You can find it on Facebook and and on Twitter at @GamebookDay. I expect most of it will be about Fighting Fantasy, but if you're interested in some of the series that I've worked on then here's one I made earlier:

That's me, Jamie Thomson and Paul Mason talking about a whole bunch of gamebooks including Fabled Lands, Robin of Sherwood, Way of the Tiger, Blood Sword, Golden Dragon, Falcon, Critical IF -- and, of course, the very best titles in the FF series too.

Friday 21 August 2020

To live forever (scenario)

Having recently described an encounter my Immortal Spartans characters had with She, I dug out the adventure where they first met her. This is not written to be a complete ready-to-run scenario. Some assembly is required. If you plan on running it you’ll need to decide how it's going to work as part of a meta-campaign. Probably it will be the pilot episode, so you're laying the hints of a much bigger mythos here, and as you'll be developing that mythos over adventures spanning centuries you need to give it some thought. Certainly you'll want to change the adventure considerably from the version written for my campaign, especially in the final part, and it’s worth reading H Rider Haggard’s novel before you start. Just don’t expect great literature.

I ran the game as one of our Sunday specials, starting at midday and playing through till the evening. So you could fit it into about eight hours, either in one epic session or two or three regular ones. The characters don't have to start as immortals, but if they play their cards right they could end up that way, thus kicking off a meta-campaign that could run right through from 800 AD onwards. The setting is historical SF. There are some psionics, often regarded by the player-characters as witches, but in fact this is not fantasy and there is no actual magic.

OK, so it was 80 years before the Constantinople campaign, and the characters were living in Baghdad in the reign of Harun al-Rashid. In an ill-starred foray to the ruins of Uruk, three of the Spartans had lost their regenerative ability. Now mortal and aging, they were willing to clutch at any straw when their agents brought them stories of an undying ruler in Africa. Hoping that she had the secret of immortality and (an even longer shot) that she’d be willing to share it, they set out…


At Sohar , which at this time (800 AD) is a small port, they are warned of bad weather in the southern seas for the next month or so. But time is of the essence. Having established the rumoured location of the kingdom of Kôr (roughly in modern Zambia) they decided the logical beachhead for their expedition would be the islands of Zanzibar, where they should at least find some people who speak Arabic as the local jumbees, or chiefs, occasionally sell slaves to Arab traders. They set sail.

The jumbe (chief) is Uwal. He greets them in a wicker domed hut (tunnel-like entrances low so you have to bow, smoky interior) and recognizes any characters who frequently sail these waters. He asks if the jumbe Haroun of Baghdad got his gifts – “When will he come? I will kill twenty goats and twenty pigs for him, and open forty jars of wine.”

Uwal knows about the Amahagger (“the people of the caves”) who live in the interior of the mainland but has no dealings with them, except for once long ago when his people bought a mummy from the Amahagger for medicinal purposes. “But it was never ground up for medicine. One of our ancestors fell in love with it, so now the mummy has her own hut and speaks to the wise woman Kitar.”

The mummy (known as Hiwah) is perfectly preserved. Around its neck is a crystal pendant in the shape of an eye.

Other townsfolk if names are needed: Bonash, Gurt, Kolo, Febil.

Three days out from Zanzibar, they catch sight of two vessels that the lookout thinks are suspicious. These are indeed pirate ships, crewed by Africans and escaped Arabian slaves. In my game there were about a score of them, but you'll tailor them to your own player-characters.

The pirates will try to board. However, in the midst of the battle huge black storm clouds sweep down from the north. The characters will need all their sailing skills to avoid a wreck: three ship-handling rolls at -3. Unless any are critical successes, the ship will still limp damaged to the mouth of a wide river where they see the following breathtaking feature.

A massive cliff carved with the face of a man or sphinx. The river leads to an islet that they may (Architecture or Engineer roll) recognize as man-made, albeit very ancient. Beyond stretches a marsh.

They can follow the river for a few miles until it is impossible to get the ship further. They can take a small boat upriver from here, every so often encountering shallow areas where they need to drag it over. The river here leaks out into miles of marshland.

As the temperature and humidity rise, to say nothing of the difficulty of the terrain, overheating becomes a problem:

  • 2-pt armour => Fatigue Points at 70% of normal
  • 3-pt armour => Fatigue at 60%
  • 4-pt amour => Fatigue at 50%
  • 5-pt armour => Fatigue at 40%
  • 6-pt armour => Fatigue at 30%
This is in addition to the encumbrance penalty of equipment, which is doubled.

The crocodiles and hippos are the biggest threats on the lower reaches of the river. If characters are out hunting, they have a 1 in 6 chance of being ambushed by a croc (Stealth 19) and there is really nothing to do but run.

Mosquitoes become an increasing problem as the river peters out into a network of reed-choked canals that eventually merge with the swamp. Characters have a 1 in 3 chance of contracting fever each day.

The swamps are impassable unless you either know the route or have the eye-shaped crystal pendant from Zanzibar, which will reveal a trail where Hiya has sent her far-visioning effect. The latter doesn’t tell you where firm ground is, of course, but at least it gives a bearing for the direction of Kôr. Also, if somebody is looking through the pendant when Hiya is actually watching them remotely it will give the user a glimpse of her.

A party of Amahagger come upon them, led by Bilali, a white-bearded elder. Speaking in Ancient Arabic, he says that “the Goddess” has sent him to escort them to her.

The Amahagger are tall, saffron-brown skinned people with handsome but sullen faces. The womenfolk seem to have considerable freedom and even authority compared to life in Muslim lands.

At the home of this “household” of Amahagger, who live in tombs left by the ancients (there are ten households in all), they encounter a woman called Ustane. (See She for how you might use her in the game.)

Bilali says he must travel to see the Goddess, Hiya, to ask her instructions with regard to the strangers. He will be back in five days.

The other Amahagger are far less friendly to them than Bilali. Their expressions suggest a sort of aloof contempt. Possibly somebody will suggest going hunting to prove themselves.

There are also rhinos, but no sense in even giving stats for those.

If they offend the household, there will be a hot-potting ritual. A firepit is prepared, and jars of corn liquor handed around. Each man has his spear beside him.

One guy: "Where is the flesh that we shall eat?"

All stretch out their right arms towards the fire and reply: "The flesh will come."

First guy: "Is it a goat?"

All: "It is a goat without horns, and more than a goat, and we shall slay it."
Turning half round they one and all grasp the handles of their spears with the right hand, and then simultaneously let them go.

First guy: "Is it an ox?"

All: "It is an ox without horns, and more than an ox, and we shall slay it.”
Again the spears are grasped, and again let go. Then they will start to caress and speak endearments to the one they mean to sacrifice.

First guy: "Is the meat ready to be cooked?"

All: "It is ready; it is ready."

First guy: "Is the pot hot to cook it?"

All: "It is hot; it is hot."

First they entangle the victim in a net (GURPS page 441). Then, taking iron pincers, they remove a heated pot from the fire and clamp it over the victim’s head. There are a couple of dozen Amahagger warriors here:

Hopefully Bilali will return before anybody is actually killed.

Bilali says he will take them to Hiya, but they must leave all their belongings and weapons here.

If they refuse, he says he will not take them. If they threaten him, he warns them that Hiya can see all and will slay them before they have gone half the distance. “And she would kill me, her servant, if I were to capitulate to thy demands. Thus I advise thee to accept the invitation of the Goddess and do as she commands, for thus far thou hast earned only her curiosity and not her wrath.”

They are made to strip and are reclothed in yellow linen robes, and given wooden staves, then put into litters and carried towards a region of miasmic swamp.

Crossing the swamp, a snake bites one of the bearers of Bilali’s litter and he goes into the water. If not rescued, he is sucked down into the mud and drowned.

Built inside a high-sided crater, which the characters might assume is volcanic. The walls of the crater were excavated long ago, making a tunnel right through the side.

Inside, the Amahagger of the main “house” live in the tombs left by the ancient civilization of Kôr.

Far off in the centre of the crater (about three miles away) lie the ruins of Kôr. This is where Hiya lives with her deaf-&-dumb servants, guarded by the Fanewatch (her elite Amahagger bodyguard, numbering about fifty).

The walls of Kôr itself are toppled now, but once must have been mightier than any city built since. At the gates (a collapsed arch) stands the Vaal.

Hiya will use her projection device to appear floating in the air surrounded by a white tesla-coil type aura.


Hiya (= “She”) is ruler of the lost civilization of Kôr in the heart of Africa. She was born Aisha bint Harb, 900 years ago in Arabia, a child prodigy who was raised with the best education possible, and on her parents’ death outfitted her own expedition to Kôr where she came across a crashed alien starship, was bathed in the radiation of its autodoc, and became immortal. Around the crater she found other artefacts of ancient alien technology and has been busy learning about them ever since. (Of course, her understanding of these artefacts is not that they are of extraterrestrial origin, but simply that they are left over from a very ancient civilization.)

Her goal is to sweep away religions and kingdoms to create a new world order in which women have equal status to men. This is not so much for moral reasons, though she certainly remembers and resents how neighbours in Arabia treated her as a young girl with an education. Her aim, having seen what technology is capable of achieving, is to build a society in which learning is paramount so that those ancient marvels can be replicated and surpassed.

She has a Chamber of the Far-Travelling Carpet with a pattern of tiles on the floor that create a dimensional “carpet” which allows her to travel across great distances. The effect is like teleportation, and the portal remains hanging in the air until she returns to it. Using this, she has been disrupting the Silk Road trade from a hidden mountain fortress above Samarkand.

Her own primary skills are Stealth, Acrobatics and Aikido-style martial arts. She only loses -2 per successive Dodge.

Her main ability is Altered Time Rate, allowing her to act two times faster than normal. Usually she’ll all-out defend (+2), use extra effort (+2), and retreat (+3) while looking to get away – which she can do fast.

If forced to attack, she’ll use a baton in each hand (ambidextrous, trained in off-hand use) allowing her four strikes per round (extra -2 to hit location when aiming to use Pressure Points).

Hiya's bodyguard
As well as the Fanewatch, Hiya has three automata* she has salvaged from the alien ship:

Hiya's special items**
Her ancient devices (weapons of a people she calls the Strangers) are:

  • A belt of shield
  • A ring of force
  • A blaster gun
  • A teleportation ring (to a preset location within 5 km)
Each has twenty charges and can be recharged in the “Eternal Flame”, ie the alien ship’s power source.

Blaster Gun
A heavy item that must be held along one arm. The beam will blast open any door, push down walls of  mortar or stone, or smash a 3m tunnel through solid rock. It is aimed, striking a single target at a range of up to 15m. Damage is 20d up to 3m, then 2d less per extra metre.
To activate this “on the fly” requires a critical IQ roll to “remember” its operation, otherwise practice with it and reroll every week.

This creates an invisible barrier at a distance of 1 metre from the user that reduces the momentum of any rapidly incoming (not outgoing) object or attack. Projectiles are automatically stopped, but slow-moving attacks such as lava or poison gas are not impeded. Enemies must spend six rounds pushing through this force field before they can attack the user. Lasts ten minutes per charge.

Ring of Force
It flings the target away (the intensity is optional, from a strong wind to a Ben Grimm sized clobber) but doesn’t necessarily damage them.

She also has:

  • Far-vision screen    Can send out an invisible “camera” – but has to be sent laboriously to a location at a maximum speed of 100 mph because the calibration doesn’t work.
  • “Magic carpet”    A device that creates a circular pattern of whirling coloured lights that she can step to anywhere in the world, but always must return to the device here in Kôr.***

This is a chamber that runs central to the warren of burial chambers and embalming rooms (now used by the Amahagger as apartments). It may once have been a kind of temple, as there is a dais at the far end where Hiya has her throne. She will only come here in person if people are to be tried for crimes.

On the dais is an inscription in a pictographic language that they may recognize as that of “the ancients”. Hiya will translate:

"In the year four thousand two hundred and fifty-nine from the founding of the City of imperial Kôr was this cave (or burial place) completed by Tisno, King of Kôr, the people thereof and their slaves having laboured thereat for three generations, to be a tomb for their citizens of rank who shall come after. May the blessings of the heaven above the heaven rest upon their work, and make the sleep of Tisno, the mighty monarch, the likeness of whose features is graven above, a sound and happy sleep till the day of awakening, and also the sleep of his servants, and of those of his race who, rising up after him, shall yet lay their heads as low."

And if the characters are interested in that, she crosses to the left-hand side of the cave (looking towards the entrance) and signs to the mutes to hold up the lamps. On the wall is something painted with a red pigment in similar characters to those hewn beneath the sculpture of Tisno, King of Kôr. She translates it thus:

"I, Junis, a priest of the Great Temple of Kôr, write this upon the rock of the burying-place in the year four thousand eight hundred and three from the founding of Kôr. Kôr is fallen! No more shall the mighty feast in her halls, no more shall she rule the world, and her navies go out to commerce with the world. Kôr is fallen! and her mighty works and all the cities of Kôr, and all the harbours that she built and the canals that she made, are for the wolf and the owl and the wild swan, and the barbarian who comes after. Twenty and five moons ago did a cloud settle upon Kôr, and the hundred cities of Kôr, and out of the cloud came a pestilence that slew her people, old and young, one with another, and spared not. One with another they turned black and died--the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the man and the woman, the prince and the slave. The pestilence slew and slew, and ceased not by day or by night, and those who escaped from the pestilence were slain of the famine. No longer could the bodies of the children of Kôr be preserved according to the ancient rites, because of the number of the dead, therefore were they hurled into the great pit beneath the cave, through the hole in the floor of the cave. Then, at last, a remnant of this the great people, the light of the whole world, went down to the coast and took ship and sailed northwards; and now am I, the Priest Junis, who write this, the last man left alive of this great city of men, but whether there be any yet left in the other cities I know not. This do I write in misery of heart before I die, because Kôr the Imperial is no more, and because there are none to worship in her temple, and all her palaces are empty, and her princes and her captains and her traders and her fair women have passed off the face of the earth."

This is performed one evening by the Amahagger in the space outside the caves. The characters are led to chairs, facing out into the twilight. They watch groups of dancers waiting far off as the sky grows dark.

Then there are eruptions of sparks. Men dance nearer, waving their spears, and as they come they set fire to corpses that were staked out for the purpose (the embalmed bodies burning easily). Behind them, the fires mark out the stars of the constellation Mulgirtab (as it was known to the Babylonians) or Scorpio or al-‘Aqrab as they know it today. (This is the direction of the galactic core.)

Coming near to a dais where women pour water and pick fruit, the warriors are seen to be covered with scale-like symbols painted in white. They circle the dais and leave three of their number, apparently to guard the women. Then another group (painted in whorls and wave-symbols) rush in from all directions to attack the first, and the fighting is carried off into the darkness. The three left guarding the dais stare off into the dark, spears raised defensively at each cry in the distance, and sparks fly up but no fire catches.

Then they hear others approaching – but it is their enemies. They fight them off, but are mortally wounded. One of the women comes to tend to the last of the scale warriors, who presents her with his torch.

However the characters interpret the dance, they can find out from Hiya about the starship (she calls it “the metal egg”) lodged in caverns in the far wall of the crater. This is where she acquired immortality.

The starship was the cause of the crater. Millennia ago it impacted the ground inside its collapsing energy shield, which liquified the rock but left the ship itself relatively unharmed. It then skidded into the wall of congealing lava at the crater rim and, as the shields finally went down, the ship’s reactor core vented through the lava forming a dendritic network of tunnels – which was how the intrepid Aisha (as she was then) was able to reach it.

The immortality treatment that she received inadvertently was inspired, not to say stolen, from Larry Niven’s novel A World Out Of Time. The journey through the caverns I swiped wholesale from HRider Haggard, adding only a protean creature called the Nammu for the sake of giving them a thrilling battle before they could enter the ship. Tekumel players will recognize that the Nammu is based on the nshe. The rationale for it being here is that it was an artificial sentinel created to protect the ship, dormant at the time of the crash, and something Hiya did on her previous visit here reactivated it.

The Nammu
Tentacles   ATTACK 16    damage: 3d+3  [and acid slime]
Armour 5 (maximum of 1 HP from any missile)

It will extrude 1-4 tentacles each round, generally using these to strike at different targets (but see below). 

Acidic coating
  • Each tentacle is coated in an acidic jelly and will continue to burn through a character's armour after he is touched.  The jelly does 2d in the first round, then 1d. If it has not burned its way through the armour by then, the character will take no damage. Each time armour is burnt through, it permanently loses 1 Armour Point. 
  • Nammu can apply this power in any round in which it extrudes three or more tentacles. The chance it will choose to do so is 45%. The chance of the target evading the tentacles is as a -5 Dodge for three tentacles, -10 for four tentacles. Nammu does not need to make any roll to hit. 
  • The target is lifted aloft if he has not dodged, and Nammu attempts to sunder him limb from limb. Each round, the seized character can attempt to resist by making a -5 HT check. If he fails he takes 4d damage, but if he succeeds he only takes 2d. Armour doesn't count, of course. 
  • While disjecting a character, Nammu cannot extrude further appendages to strike at his companions. Nammu will not normally drop a character it is disjecting until it has reduced the character to zero HP.  However, a single hit for more than 10 HP will cause it to do so; also, the character can try to break free by making a -10 ST check each round.
  • Rather than attacking with its tentacles, Nammu may choose to apply its power to Engulf a character.  This is checked for at the start of each round (unless it is already in the process of disjecting someone); the chance is 30%.
  • Engulfment affects a 3m area (roughly 1-6 people). A target who fails to dodge is caught in a cohesive blob of water in which he may drown.  He makes a HT check each round: first with no modifier, then at -3, then -6, etc.  A failed roll means 2d damage (no armour) and the victim is also drowning (see below).
  • Drowning: roll Swimming every 5 seconds or inhale water, losing 1 FP. When FP = 0 you black out and will soon drown.
  • To break free of Engulfment, critical Swimming. You can also fight back to injure Nammu from within, but this counts as Close Combat and half damage.
* Tekumel players may recognize the assassin android as the Alluring Maiden of Nga, but in fact Prof Barker was inspired by the Silver Maid in Alexander Korda's 1940 movie The Thief of Bagdad. The Vaal was originally inspired by ru'un.
** Most of these will be familiar to Tekumel players as equivalent to some of the "Eyes".
*** My conceit here was to have a device that could be described as a magic carpet, as a nod to the Arabian Nights, without actually having it be a piece of flying cloth.

Friday 14 August 2020

Summoned by She

How do you get your players into an adventure? The standard fallback used to be “a man rushes into the pub…” I confess I’ve used it myself, with variations. In gamebooks, you want to get through the set-up fast because the player isn’t getting to make any choices. That’s not so important in a roleplaying game, where just talking in character is as much fun as agency. So over time I’ve allowed the lead-in to an adventure to become a session in itself – the equivalent in comics of decompressed storytelling.

Here’s an example from our Immortal Spartans game. The meta-campaign was Tim Harford’s brainchild to allow multiple referees to run a series of linked campaigns – think Highlander, only Spartan not Scots. In the campaign I ran the characters were based in Constantinople in 877 AD, so at this point they’d been alive for well over a thousand years. In all that time they had encountered only three other immortals like themselves: Enkidu, a deranged being called the Etruscan, and Hiya (= She), originally from Arabia but now ruler of a remote civilization in central Africa.

And then…

20 Ἡραῖος (October), 6386 Anno Mundi.  The evening of the races. The Spartans are having dinner at their waterfront mansion (see cutaway above) when their major-domo comes to say that a vessel is approaching the dock. At this time of night their harbour gate should be shut, so it is surprising news.

The boat is a small single-masted schooner under oars, with a crew of a couple of dozen tall, well-proportioned, handsome men and women. All seem to be Africans. The captain gives his name as Yoruba, and he greets them respectfully with his eyes downcast.  He is a servant of “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and he presents them with a document from her. The document at first appears to consist only of a hieroglyphic eye-symbol, but Ganymedes’s eyes* reveal writing:

“Just a little experiment in optics. Yoruba will bring you to me. Please come at once. – Hiya”

Hiya’s island
Hiya’s palace is on Spoon Island, which is located between the islands of Fortress Island and Saddlebag Island about 12 miles south-east of Constantinople. It is the second-smallest of the Princes' Islands, with an area of 0.006 km2 (0.0023 sq mi).

They are met at the quay by an old African major-domo (whose name is Gotali) and some torchbearers. All keep their eyes on the ground as they address the Spartans, saying they will conduct them to their audience with the Goddess.

They are led by woodland paths strung with lanterns towards a palace through whose open colonnaded windows they see many artworks of antiquity. It seems more a museum than a home, and they are led right along the terrace (an Egyptian mosaic) and across a wide lawn towards a grotto encircled by trees with a fountain in the middle.

The servants silently draw back into the shadows. A light appears in the fountain and there is a suppressed intake of breath from some of the servants. The light grows brighter, then suddenly seems eclipsed so that the centre of the fountain is a block of shadow surrounded by a bright nimbus.

Then they see Hiya’s face appear in a blaze of light across the trees, a flickering image that is sometimes huge and distant, then flickers to lie across the paving stones or the bushes nearer at hand. Her voice comes from all around, as if the night itself was speaking.

Hiya says she is allying with the Tulunid government in Egypt to attack the Abbasid Caliphate. She is providing ten thousand men whom she is currently teleporting to Sinai. She has forty ships with arms and armour here in “Byzantium” (as she refers to it) ready to sail.

The plan is that at the same time the Kingdom of Galicia and the County of Barcelona (under Guifré the Hairy) will attack the Emirate of Cordoba and incite an insurrection to drive the Muslim rulers out of Spain. Hiya expects that after the initial attack, the Pope’s alliance in Italy will send troops to support the Spanish Christians. The Caliph meanwhile will be replaced by Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi **, an elderly philosopher of the House ofWisdom with radical ideas.

She doesn’t expect the Caliphate to fall immediately. This could be the start of a campaign spanning years or decades. But she is confident that with the Spartans in command they can change the course of history. Hiya’s (very) long term goal is to unify Christianity, Islam and Judaism in a largely ceremonial religion allowing freedom of science and art and without the innate sexism of the Abrahamic faiths. She recognizes that her final goal is still at least a century off, but the first phase is the overthrow the Abbasids.

She wants the Spartans to take the fleet, supply her troops in Syria, then accompany them as commanders in the advance on Baghdad. The fleet will sail in ten days, on 30 October.

This gave some interesting scope for roleplaying in several different ways. First you have to realize that the player-characters had known Hiya for almost a century, and acknowledged her as another immortal like themselves. They saw her as a potential ally. The way she chose to communicate with them, in a display almost stage-managed to portray her as the goddess her subjects believed her to be, therefore raised eyebrows and even hackles. She presented it as merely experimenting with a new and unreliable technology, but the way it came across to some of the characters was as if she was pulling rank, especially after the mysterious way she’d summoned them to the island.

Some of the group excused her, knowing that she (sorry, She) had probably been too absorbed in her various political plans and scientific experiments to consider a little matter like hurt feelings – in modern terms we might put her “on the spectrum”. But that was enough to plant a little seed of disagreement among them. This is how Eidolon, one of the player-characters, described the encounter in his write-up:
“Our servant arrives to tell us of a boat in our private harbour, having passed what should be the closed gates of the harbour walls. We descend prepared for battle, but with relief it is evident that Hiya has sent emissaries to invite us to her counsel. Heading out on their small ship, we pause briefly to discipline the indolent sentries who allowed the ship ingress while they gamed at dice. I make an example of one, that the others may know that discipline is life.

“The ship takes us to a tiny island, where Hiya greets us in shadowy form, her face hanging as upon the wind, flickering at times in a breeze, her words carried to us across the airs of continents. She tells us of her plan. She would enlist our help as generals to lead her army, assembled and ready, against the Abassid Caliphate. Allied with the Tulunid rebels, her forty thousand Africans would smash the centres of the Abassids and, on the back of this display of divine displeasure at their rule, allow her to install a Tulamid reformist at the heart of the Islamic empire.

“Thus far, her plan seems bold. As she develops her intentions fully, she reveals the goal of fracturing all of Western civilization, bringing down the extant Abrahamic faith authorities and liberating all from shackles of class and gender. Moments after this revelation, her far-speaking magics*** fail and we are left darkling, to discuss our reply. Our concerns are several, our views divergent. Firstly, that this plan is revealed at such a late stage to us. Secondly, that learning may be lost in times of war. Thirdly, that the centres of civilization which will be swept up into this maelstrom of conflict already shelter some of the more enlightened views on the protections and entitlements for women and slaves, when compared with the Northern barbarians and the Bulgars. Fourthly, the danger that centuries of war will disrupt trade and set much that is valuable ablaze.”
Then, when they returned home, they received an urgent message that required them to travel to Northern Europe without delay. They were already undecided whether to help Hiya with her hundred-year-plan, and now they had the dilemma of having to choose whether to participate in a military plan many of them felt had been foisted on them, or to deal with the threat to their mortal agents in Britain and in doing so risk making an enemy of She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Hard choices, eh. That’s what a good adventure is all about.

* Ganymedes (one of the player-characters) was blinded under torture as a captive in Persepolis in 479 BC, but by this time had replaced his eyes with prosthetic devices of unknown origin.
**Al-Kindi is still alive in this timeline, thanks to Hiya’s intervention.
*** The campaign is actually science fictional, but to the player-characters (if not to the much more logical Hiya) that ancient and probably alien technology was indistinguishable from magic.

Friday 7 August 2020

The art of the possible

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be invited by Ralph Lovegrove onto his Fictoplasm podcast recently. Normally the structure of an episode involves Ralph reviewing a novel and then considering how it might inspire roleplaying games. Particularly recommended: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mythago Wood, The Tremor of Forgery, The Chronicles of Prydain, Kill the Dead, The Eclipse of the Century, Lyonesse, and Elric of Melnibone. Talking of that last one, Ralph is currently embarking on a marathon read-though of Moorcock classics, so stay tuned.

A previous guest on the Fictoplasm podcast was my wife Roz Morris so to balance things out I guess Ralph just had to ask me. Tune in here for our long discussion which takes in Brexit (鎖国), Tetsubo (鉄棒), my planned Sparta RPG (Λ), Mirabilis (), Frankenstein (🧠), Tirikelu (₸), and of course Jewelspider (💎🕷 or 宝石クモ, take your pick). We also talk about politics, gamebook design, the Congo, Nazis, Sagas of the Icelanders, and roleplaying in soon-to-be-sunken lands from Abraxas to Lyonesse but I've got no kanji or other symbols for those.

Jamie mentioned after listening to the podcast that I came across a bit like Tony Blair at times. Apparently he meant because of my vocal inflection rather than my politics. I suggested we might do a regular Fabled Lands podcast. (Jamie would be the Gordon Brown of the partnership, presumably.) So far I haven't been able to convince him, but maybe if there's enough demand...

Tuesday 4 August 2020

The Conclave on Kindle

If you followed last week's installments of the Conclave campaign and want the full novella, it's now available on Kindle. This brings the story to a conclusion, fixes some of the plot holes, fleshes out some scenes, and also includes background details of the narrator, Surma. To quote from the blurb:
Creation is losing the flavour of things, becoming colourless and uniform under the skin of reality. This is why the old songs lose their melody, why the fisherman’s catch is mostly minnows, why the young cast their elders out into the cold, why the storms are violent and unseasonal, and dragons hide in distant clouds.

The world is an archipelago of a hundred islands, beyond whose furthest shores lies illimitable ocean. Magic is real, though rarely tamed, and the College of Wizards maintains a careful balance so that use of magic does not damage the fabric of reality.

But now a new force is at work, twisting and blurring the true names of things that are the root of all that exists. If it goes on unchecked, magic and wonder will drain away. Even life and death will cease to have meaning.

Seven of the greatest sorcerers of the age are invited by the Master Summoner of the College of Wizards to travel to the island of Dain at the archipelago’s heart. The Summoner’s hope is that this conclave, untainted by the politics and intrigues of the College and unrestrained by nature, will be able to hold back the force that is picking reality apart.

Yet to be effective in their fight, the conclave must first work the hardest spell of all -- trust.
If anyone who read the first seven installments on the blog feels like giving the book a review on Amazon -- well, consider yourself rich in undying gratitude! Surprisingly (but also quite pleasingly) some readers have praised it as homage to Ursula K Le Guin -- and as I still haven't read the Earthsea books that's surely a first. An anticipatory homage!

By one of those strokes of serendipity I discovered this week that the filmmaker Michael Powell wanted to make a movie of the Earthsea trilogy. It was designed as a project for his film school students and it was only five minutes long, but what a treasure that would be if it still exists anywhere. Powell incidentally was just as baffled as I am that the trilogy was published in the UK by Puffin (Penguin Books' children's imprint). That's the reason I didn't notice it back in my teens when I was devouring a lot of fantasy and SF. When Powell asked Le Guin why it went to Puffin and not Penguin's adult line, she said, 'Because Kaye Webb is a smart cookie.' I suspect it was because it was assumed back then that a fantasy novel written by a woman must be for ten year olds, so it's surprising that Le Guin thought it was a good decision. I guess it didn't hurt her in the long run.