Thursday, 26 November 2020
Back to the future
David Bailey is a man who gives the lie to the notion that accountants are boring. An inventive and artful referee of Tekumel games, he’s also an imaginative author, creative problem-solver, passionate fan of comics and science fiction, gifted photographer (less well-known in that field than his namesake, admittedly) and one of the founders of game developer Black Cactus. During his career as an accountant, he wasn’t working out how to get tax allowance for business expenses, either; he was a forensic accountant, more Inspector Morse than Spreadsheet Phil.
So when David comes up with an idea for a roleplaying scenario, I listen. His latest was a doozy – to send his Tekumel characters back thousands of years from the relative stability of the Second Imperium to the high adventure of the Time of No Kings.
“What about getting back?” I said. “Reverse the spell, and risk ending up lost in time? Or get frozen by Excellent Ruby with the chance that posterity misplaces the docket saying when to unfreeze you?”
David: “Well, I think they have to hope to get back, but throw in some wives and children, and affiliations and a decade of work…?”
“OK, so they’d potentially be there for a long while? There’s even the implication they’ve been brought through time, Corum-like, for a specific purpose.”
“Perhaps they do finally find a way to get back,” agreed David, “but at huge cost to the new friends and family they’ve made in the past? Maybe returning to their time will potentially trigger a devastating A-bomb level event? Can we create a mature enough scenario that the players are genuinely conflicted about returning?”
That’s a fine goal to aim for, and typical of David that he would be considering the tone and nuance of the scenario right up front. It got me thinking: what might deter somebody from wanting to get “back to the future” and how would we achieve that kind of dilemma in a movie or novel?
The most obvious way would be to make our time traveller a nebbish, passed over for promotion, frustrated in his ambitions, or just an under-achiever who never got the breaks in life. Then he goes back to the past and suddenly he's feted as a hero. Naturally he'd be tempted to remain there rather than go back to a dead-end future.
A more challenging (and interesting) approach would be to start with unlikeable characters, maybe criminals or terrorists of the most unpleasant stamp. The authorities are closing in. Perhaps the characters are trapped and it looks like the only outcome will be death in a hail of police bullets, but then they stumble on a strange machine and are whisked back through the centuries, and there in the past they get a stab at redemption. Having saved the people of that time they also find they’ve saved themselves, so returning to the future is unattractive not only because they’d be jumping back into a deadly shoot-out, but because to do so would imply returning to an identity that no longer fits with who they are.
Or there's the hard SF approach. The time traveller realises she has changed the past, which of course means the billions of dice throws that lead to her original timeline are gone. She can't return to her future because it is not the same future as the one she set out from. All the people she knew there would never have been born. In a movie, you probably wouldn't have her realise that till after she got back ("show not tell") so the third act would be all about trying to return to the past where she at least still has friends and loved ones.
But those are all ways to pull it off through storytelling, and it's neither possible nor desirable to exert that level of authorial contrivance where player-characters are concerned. Instead all you can do is run the game with a mature tone in mind, and be ready to seize on the character arc moments that the players themselves provide.
For instance, in David’s campaign Jamie Thomson plays a jajgi (a form of well-preserved undead like a vampire, say, or Ardath Bey in The Mummy) so perhaps he could come face to face with his living self back in the past. Jamie is a good enough roleplayer to get something really interesting out of the conflict between an unending but unvarying existence and the full-blooded, breathing life in which the chusetl (dream-self) and pedhetl (passions) yet endure.
In his original premise, though, David wasn’t only looking for reasons why the player-characters might not want to go home to their own time. He’s hoping for a genuine conflict. They might want to return but now they have two lives, two sets of friends and families. Which do they choose? It’s hard (but not impossible) to make that bite just with attachments to NPCs, but I suggest that the best hard choice is an old storytelling classic: somebody has to sacrifice themselves, staying behind so that the others can escape, like Cavor among the Selenites.
Thursday, 19 November 2020
Dish of the day
Here's an example of a chapter from my version of the book. Skip right to it now if you don't want spoilers. Taking inspiration from the thought that being a food animal for humans is a winning evolutionary strategy (where would pigs, cows and chickens be today if we didn't rear them to eat?) I wondered how an alien politician might act to preserve his species in the face of an all-conquering genocidal civilization. The Leptira are that civilization, here described as "insectoid" -- another thing that would have annoyed 11-year-old me but that is standard practice in modern sci-fi. Don't judge Poltro too harshly, will you? What else can he do to save his people? It isn't so crazy that turkeys might vote for Christmas, after all, if the alternative is extinction.
A Hard Bargain
“Sir, are you feeling all right?” said the applicant, his young face scrubbed and shining with concern.
“I’m fine, thank you,” said Poltro.
It was a lie. Being aboard a Leptira flagship was enough to give anyone a terminal case of the jitters, but the main reason he was feeling peaky was the two litres of insect poison he’d forced himself to drink that morning. He pulled out a silk handkerchief and dabbed at his pudgy face. Was the room spinning? They were in orbit, of course, but this seemed worse. I mustn’t pass out, he told himself. That really would be the end of the world.
Poltro had an antitoxin to neutralize the poison, but that was back on his bedside table, about forty kilometres straight down. He could hardly bring the antitoxin to the meeting in case the Leptira searched him, but he didn’t think he’d need to. Everything would have been fine if they’d stayed on schedule – by now he’d be on the shuttle home. Except that the ambassador had already kept them waiting almost an hour. Poltro should have anticipated that. By now the stuff was really working its way into his bloodstream and, although it was meant to be fatal only to insects, he was getting to feel as if somebody had put all his internal organs in a smoothie blender.
“Ugh.” Poltro clapped his hand over his mouth. Between the effects of the poison and guilt at what he was about to do, it was a struggle not to throw up all over the ambassador’s waiting room.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” said the applicant, fidgeting on the seat next to him. “Only you’re sweating rather a lot – ”
“They keep it too hot in here,” Poltro shot back.
“ – and the sweat looks sort of… well, green.”
Poltro didn’t look at him. He didn’t want to see the look in the applicant’s eyes – eagerness, honesty, decency. That’s why he’d kept everything so coldly businesslike up till now. Getting to know the fellow would only make it harder.
“A new mineral supplement I’ve been taking,” he said. “It’s good for the liver.” He didn’t add that unless he got the antitoxin quite soon, he’d probably need to buy a new liver.
He could feel the applicant’s relief. “Oh, I haven’t heard of that one. I’ve got a whole range of vitamin and mineral – ”
The door to the ambassador’s office hissed open and a Leptira official in stiff grey-and-orange robes emerged holding a slate. It scanned the list of names and appointments with eyes as unreadable as lumps of polished coal.
There was no-one else in the waiting room. Finally the wretched creature looked up at them.
“Senator Poltro Gnaktagurr,” it declared in a scratchy voice that sounded like an off-key tune played on an instrument stringed with raw nerve endings.
Poltro winced. Typical Leptira disdain for local customs. As a member of a noble family, most of the letters in his name were silent. It was supposed to be pronounced just “Nak”, like somebody starting to say “no” but hiccupping instead. Still, what was the point of correcting it? Most of the young people of his own planet could hardly be bothered with the old customs, and when you had dealings with the Leptira, your name was whatever they chose to call you.
“I’m here.” He got slowly to his feet, shrugging off a helping hand from the young applicant.
The ambassador’s office wasn’t quite as big as a throne room, it only seemed that way because of being built across three levels of a converted docking bay. Poltro traced a fresh dampness in the air to a stream that gave off a soft relaxing murmur as it ran down from the carpeted upper area through a garden of heavily over-scented flowers from Leptira’s purple moon to a replica beach. The white sand of the beach area had been raked into the careful geometric patterns that the Leptira loved to create and then destroy. Beyond that, a view of Poltro’s home planet of Mondress filled three-quarters of the vibroglass window that looked out into space.
Despite himself, Poltro was impressed. He could easily imagine the Leptira sitting on that beach with cold drinks and a plate of bar snacks at the end of a long day, gazing out of the window and discussing the planet they intended to destroy.
It didn’t surprise him that a Mondressan ambassador like himself wasn’t considered important enough to merit a meeting on the garden or sand levels. The Leptira ambassador sat waiting directly in front of them at a transparent desk inside which luminous eels swam sluggishly. Behind him – or her, or it – stood half a dozen other officials, all wearing the distinctively hexagonal-patterned clothing, armour and weaponry of the Leptira diplomatic corps. There were no other chairs.
“Your Excellency,” Poltro bowed and then held out his hand, confident that the ambassador wouldn’t shake it.
To his surprise, however, the ambassador got up and came around the desk. A feeler reached out to stroke his fingers. Poltro felt the briefest touch of buzzsaw-sharp bristles, like a horse flicking at flies with its tail, then the ambassador drew his arm away. Perhaps he sensed the poison in Poltro’s blood, or perhaps it was just natural rudeness.
“So this is your applicant,” said the ambassador, fixing all his eyes on the young man.
“Pleased to meet you, Excellency.” The applicant extended his hand and the ambassador took it in both sets of feelers, stroking it with the careful attention of a gourmet judging the ripeness of a piece of fruit.
“Mmm,” buzzed the ambassador in satisfaction, and looked at Poltro as if to say, “Ah, so you didn’t put any nasty poison in this one.”
Poltro was feeling sick again. He just wanted to get the whole business over with. “Show His Excellency your résumé,” he told the applicant.
The ambassador stared at the folder that was offered to him, then waved over one of the officials, who snatched it from the applicant’s hand. Laboriously – because Leptira diplomats were given more training in warfare than in foreign languages – it read out the list of accomplishments.
The ambassador gave an impatient flick of his antennae. “So you can type, manage a database and you know how to file a report in octupilicate…”
“I also have a degree in Interstellar Relations,” said the applicant, looking hurt.
“I’m more interested in – what would you call it on your planet, Poltro?”
“The inner man?”
“Precisely. This position calls for a well-rounded individual.”
“Well,” said the applicant, his enthusiasm kicking up a gear, “my hobbies include painting miniature – ”
“I’m sure that’s marvellous,” interrupted the ambassador. “Those miniature whatevers don’t paint themselves. But a healthy mind requires a healthy body.”
The applicant looked to Poltro for reassurance. It was beginning to dawn on him that the interview wasn’t going the way anybody would expect for a secretarial position.
“His Excellency just wants to be sure that you are in proper physical condition for this job,” said Poltro hurriedly. “It’s not just pattering fingers on a keypad and lifting the phone, you know. There could be travel – to the galactic main, even to the Hub.”
He turned away to look at the aquarium desk so that he wouldn’t have to see the gleam of excitement in the young man’s eyes.
“That’s a coincidence, the senator and I were just talking about vitamin supplements,” the applicant told the ambassador. “I’m quite a health nut, I’m afraid. Exercise and a good diet are hobbies of mine too.”
“Don’t apologize,” said the ambassador. “That’s exactly what we like to hear.” He took the folder from the official and went so far as to glance at the cover. “You don’t smoke, drink, mash or steep, I take it?”
“Mash? Steep?” The applicant hesitated for a moment, puzzled at the bad habits of far-off worlds, but soldiered on through. “Er, no, I don’t do any of those things.”
“There’s only one more question,” said the ambassador. “You’re not, I trust, a vegetarian..?”
“I suppose I ought to be,” laughed the applicant, “but I just love meat too much.”
“Mmm.” The ambassador looked up. “Me too.”
Poltro couldn’t take any more of this. “If that’s settled, Excellency, I expect we should be getting out of your way.”
“Oh, you can go, Poltro,” said the ambassador. “I was thinking that Mr – ” he looked again at the résumé – “Mr Kolvubar here – ”
“It’s pronounced ‘Kolbar’, actually,” said the applicant. Everybody ignored him.
“I’m so impressed with Mr Kolvubar,” said the ambassador, “that I’d like to keep him for lunch.”
Poltro was boarding the shuttle back down to Mondress when his phone beeped.
“Ambassador!” He forced a smile into his voice. “Everything satisfactory, I hope?”
There was a sound that might have been a belch. “Oh yes. I’d go so far as to say your sample exceeded all our expectations, Poltro. I believe we have a deal.”
As the shuttle nosed out of spacedock, Mondress appeared in the porthole, a sun-blazing jewel of clean blue seas and greenly wooded continents. Yet already there were brown scars of deforestation visible. And there in the darker zone where night had fallen, Poltro could make out the dull fiery gleam of Leptira factories, huge disfiguring patches, spreading daily from coast to coast. “Where’s the harm in economic development?” people had been saying. “Let’s face it, Mondress is a backwater. We should be flattered that the Leptira wish to invest in our world.”
Poltro knew what “economic development” by the Leptira really meant. Was everybody else blind? Why did he alone have to save – ?
“Are you still there?” snapped the voice on the phone.
“Yes.” Poltro shook his head. “That’s… marvellous news, Your Excellency.”
“Of course it is. So we’re going to be putting in a larger order next time.”
In between the waves of nausea, Poltro felt both elation and despair. He knew what was coming, but he had to ask. “A larger order?”
“Yes. Shall we say: your entire species?”
Friday, 13 November 2020
"The Bloofer Ladies" (scenario)
A little late for Halloween, here's a short adventure seed for a Victorian horror campaign, possibly but not necessarily something like Tremulus, Call of Cthulhu or The Yellow King. This adventure assumes some background:
- The player-characters were previously involved, months or even years before the events of this scenario, in an adventure such as “The Night of the Jackals” in Cthulhu by Gaslight (see video playthrough below), or any scenario which ends with a mansion being gutted by fire.
- The villain of "The Night of the Jackals" adventure is now in a mental asylum in Hampstead.
An invitation to the theatre
It is Tuesday, 4 August 1891. Bram Stoker (44 years old) sends a message asking the characters to come to the Lyceum Theatre at lunchtime to talk about some eerie experiences. It is feasible that at least one of the characters has met Bram Stoker before (at a dinner party, perhaps, or at their club) but that’s not essential for the scenario, as long as he could know them by repute.
The Lyceum is in Wellington Street, off the Strand, with the Wellington pub on the corner. As the characters arrive, Henry Irving (53 years old) is rehearsing a scene in a play Stoker has written. Stoker is business manager of the Lyceum but is not yet established as a novelist, though he recently had some lukewarm reviews for The Snake's Pass.
Irving is not impressed, disparaging Stoker in front of Annie Oakley (31) and her husband Frank E Butler (44) who are both crack shots with a .22 rifle and are on a break from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which is currently touring Europe.
Irving finishes the scene, one where he comes up behind the actor playing Jonathan Harcourt (sic) who cuts himself while shaving. In character as the Count, Irving reaches for the blood on Harcourt’s cheek but recoils from a crucifix around his neck.
‘Take care,’ says Irving, putting little feeling into his delivery of the lines. ‘Take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country. And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!’
Stoker, watching from the stalls, jumps up brandishing a copy of the script. ‘Then you break the shaving-glass, Henry.’
‘Oh? Why don’t I do this while I’m at it?’ And Irving slowly tears up the script. ‘Absolute twaddle, Bram. “The children of the night, what music they make.” Pah.’
‘Well, maybe if you said it with an accent…’
‘I know how to read a damned line. And as for “Count Wampeer – ’
‘It’s been done to death in the penny dreadfuls, old chum. Warney the Wampeer. Forget it. I might as well stick a stake through my career and bury it as play this old hokum. Just stick to managing the accounts, will you? I say this as a friend – you have no more talent as a playwright than McGonagall has a poet.’
With Irving’s criticism stinging his ears, a flushed Stoker takes the player characters to his office. There, if distracted from his public embarrassment, he explains why he asked them to come and see him.
In 1885 (on October 24th to be exact) Stoker went to look at the wreck of a Russian ship called the Dmitry, which had been washed ashore at Whitby. There was a coffin broken open on the sand and he remembers the crest: a crude copper symbol, a rozeta solara with a serpent or dragon curled over it.
Stoker goes on: ‘A large black dog raced across the sand and started barking at me. I conceived the notion that it was warning me off the casket. Probably it was nothing of the kind. Perhaps the beast was merely made nervous by the smell of death. But it gave me an idea for a play I may one day write.’
That was six years ago, and Stoker had almost forgotten it until an incident near Hampstead Heath a couple of weeks ago:
‘It was evening. I’d emerged from the Heath after a long walk and was looking around for a pub. I was wandering deep in thought, so I don’t know the road I was on. A carriage pulled up and a man and woman got out. The woman was beautiful but very pale, and stared ahead of her as though in a dream. She wore a cloak, under which her dress was white. The man, whose face I scarcely noticed though I recall he was tall and gaunt, led her into the driveway of a large house. I had the impression the house was unoccupied, though I couldn’t see it for the high hedge that surrounded the property. As I crossed the road, I happened to glance at the open carriage and saw that it bore the same symbol inside the door that I saw on the coffin at Whitby: a serpent on a rozeta solara. At first it didn’t register, and I had gone a few yards before I realized where I’d seen it before – or thought I had, for I had barely glanced into the carriage. I hesitated, and had a mind to go back for another look. Then the man came back out of the drive.
‘It was like looking at a moving image in a zoopraxiscope. He was at the hedge bordering the property, or so I thought, but as I turned my head he was already passing me. And as I then looked back it was as though another blink had occurred, and he was already climbing back into the coach. It rolled off and was swallowed in darkness. It was most odd. It seemed to me as though he had either moved at unnerving speed, though he seemed merely to be walking at a normal pace, or else I experienced a series of momentary blackouts. For a moment I thought of looking in the driveway of the house to see what had become of the woman, but my nerve failed me. At any rate, I abandoned all thought of a pint and went straight home. Then yesterday he saw this piece in the paper.’
He hands them yesterday’s Westminster Gazette:
THE HAMPSTEAD HORROR. ANOTHER CHILD INJURED.
The “Bloofer Lady.”
Stoker himself cannot remember other details, such as where the house was, but hypnosis or even just careful questioning would help. For example, he was on the north side of the heath and he said the carriage was soon lost in the darkness, meaning the house must have been quite near to where the electric street-lights run out.
Things the characters can find out:
- The house turns out to be the burnt-out ruin of Kandahar House, which in this scenario is located on the Bishops Avenue in Hampstead, east of which the newly installed electric street-lighting peters out.
- The names of the two abducted children were Sally Vane and Jimmy Murdin. (Whether they can be rescued or are already dead depends on the bleakness of tone you're striving for.)
- The symbol Stoker saw (he sketches it) is Romanian and is the ancestral crest of the Counts Vârcolac, a noble house now thought extinct.
The players have been here before, and will remember the house when a family was living here (Colonel Hollingsworth’s, in the original scenario), so there is something melancholy in seeing the sooty brickwork, charred timbers, blistered paintwork and weeds growing through the weather-ravaged ruin. The smell is of dank ashes, brick dust and decaying wood.
The stairs are unsafe but can be used with caution to reach the upper stories. The characters find evidence that somebody has been searching the house: fallen rafters that have clearly been recently moved, cupboards that largely escaped the fire but that show signs of having been broken into, and so on.
The “Bloofer Ladies” will be encountered up in the vast cavernous space of the attic. They are to all intents and purposes vampires, though in our campaign that’s a science fictional effect (engineered retrovirus) rather than a mark of the undead.
Count Vârcolac is long gone. The characters may encounter him eventually, but not in this scenario. He left his “brides” here to search for an item in Col Hollingsworth’s collection of ancient artifacts. It doesn’t much matter what that item is; it can be a MacGuffin for a future adventure.
The Butterworth Hospital
A private mental asylum in Hampstead run by Dr Algernon Mahler. Other useful NPCs are a burly male warder, Stackpoole, and a nervous young psychiatrist, Dr Hiram Carver.
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
The whole world (even the Murdoch media, surprisingly, although not this rogues' gallery of global bad guys) is breathing a sigh of relief now the US election is over. How inspiring it is to watch the machinery of one of the leading democracies in action.
Now that we no longer have to watch that nail-biting count, here's a reminder of a time when the contest really was close -- in electoral college terms, that is; the popular vote was another matter -- and how the rival candidates conducted themselves then. And here's how a more recent race for governor went down.And now a word from President-Elect Biden. Nice to think the word "presidential" can now revert to its original meaning, rather than being a synonym for toddlers' temper tantrums.
Friday, 6 November 2020
I've been x-carded!
What dat, you ask? Here's what the Yellow King RPG has to say:
"Each player receives an index card with an X on it. When someone introduces subject matter that a player finds truly, personally fun-ruining, the player holds up the card. The player can either suggest that the troubling element be dialed back, or dropped entirely. You and the other players, as the fine and considerate people you are, accede to the request without pushback, adjusting the narration as desired."In preparing for the first session I'd been assigning nicknames to the player-characters, who were all members of an infantry platoon in a sort of not-quite WW2 with bits of steampunky WW1. One of the players complained that one of the other characters' nickname was in poor taste. Don't worry, it wasn't some awful racist David Starkey offence; I'm not that insensitive to modern etiquette. It was pretty much in the same line as the name of the corporal pictured left, actually. But I don't do "no pushback" so I pointed out that squaddies in a brutal mid-20th century world war would not share the sensibilities of civilians in 21st century London. Taste would be very low on their agenda when inflicting a nickname on a new recruit.
The takeaway is to think about the kind of game the players want. If we must see roleplaying campaigns as TV shows, the referee/GM is the showrunner and the players are the cast, sure, but they're also the audience. Ask yourself if this is going to be a show they'll stick with over seven seasons, or one they'll want to switch off after half an episode. Don't wait until they start to fling x-cards at you. An x-card means "I don't trust you to run this game" and the signs should be there long before you reach that point. You'll save yourself a lot of work if you're alert to reading the room, not blinded (as I was) by my enthusiasm for the campaign inside my head.
But here's one of those opportunities that playing over the internet has opened up. I don't have to find a campaign that appeals to the whole gaming group. Before, when we all arranged to meet up every other Thursday, whatever we played had to appeal to all of us. That was the equivalent of the network TV drama. But over Zoom, Skype, Discord, whatever, my campaign can be a cable show. There's a good reason you don't get stuff like Breaking Bad or Succession on ad-supported networks -- smaller audiences equals more quirkiness and more daring. So maybe I should be pitching the campaign concept and players can decide if they're up for it -- and for those who aren't there's always the other channel.
Judging by this review of The Yellow King by Mike Cule and Roger Bell-West, I have that x-card to thank for dodging a bullet. Roger mentions "the frankly intimidating amount of work it would take to run it well" and Mike alludes to the near-impossibility of improvising anything that could inflict shock or injury, which are the two metrics of damage to characters. I had already put in a full week just prepping the first session of The Wars, only to realize that what I really needed was another game system, a different war setting, and to invite only those players who were intrigued by the pitch. If you're worried about missing all the unsettling Ligottian stuff I had planned, though, I'll hopefully still find a home for it somewhere. Maybe in a scenario on this blog for Armistice Day -- if that wouldn't seem in poor taste.
Monday, 2 November 2020
Martin McKenna has died at the age of 51, and it's a loss not only to his friends and colleagues but to everyone who appreciates the work of a master craftsman with a matchless imagination. There's too much to say here, just now when the shock is still raw, so I'll pass you over to my wife's newsletter in which she describes how we heard the sad news and an account by Martin himself from happier days.