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Friday, 4 December 2020

Our next gamebook (part one)

After I mentioned his Vulcanverse project a while ago, Jamie shared some of the background material he's been developing for it. As he puts it:
"I quite like what I've written  as it's in classic gamebook prose, which I haven't really done for a long time, so it was fun. It's all Graeco-Roman which I have unashamedly mixed up together (which once would have outraged me, but nobody cares anymore). It's kind of interesting in the sense that this kind of mythology was ten a penny in our day, so much popular fiction revolved around those myths (Hercules, Clash of the Titans, Jason, etc etc). But since the rise of Lord of the Rings and Warhammer and their ilk, goblins, green-skinned orcs, Alien rip-offs, elves, dwarves, chaos demons and so on have taken over the majority of fantasy. So now this Graeco-Roman stuff comes across to the gamer of today as new and original -- or at least a nice change. The wheel forever turns."
I read all the mythology books when I was a kid. The ones I really liked were the Norse myths. Greek and Roman never really did it for me. And in creating a world I'd always go for Tolkien's goal of a full subcreation. Abraxas, for example. But see what you think. Fans of the Dirk Lloyd books will appreciate Jamie's distinctive authorial voice at work here:

Vulcan, god of fire and the forge, speaks:

“List, O ye mortals. The old myths are dying. We Gods fade from the world, as mankind turns to their machines, their magic-killing science, their virtual worlds, filled with new gods and monsters. They do not need us any more and we are forgotten. The old myths are dying...

“We sleep. We dream. We fade into eternity.

“But I, Vulcan, the god they once entreated to gift them their machines, their science, their god-forged weapons, will not go quietly. No, I will embrace their new myths, their invisible worlds, their gods who speak in code of webs and nets and chains. I will forge a world that will be greater than the mundane ambitions of you mere mortals! I will use your science to create a virtual world born of a God, a world beyond the fickle, ephemeral dreams of mankind.

“I, Vulcan, will create a new Olympus!”

The god Vulcan has chosen to bestow his blessings upon mankind. That means you, a mere mortal, can acquire plots of land in his New Olympus. The Vulcanverse is divided into four quarters around the Palace of Vulcan in the centre of Vulcan City. Each quarter has its own terrain. Players can build upon their land, recruiting creatures (vulcanites) improving their land, eventually adding buildings that give new functionality, produce goods, trade with other players and with Vulcan City, create their own games, palaces, objects, art and so on.

The Four Quarters
The Vulcanverse is divided into five areas, the central Vulcan City and around it four areas that have been opened up to humans.
  • The Underworld of Hades: the land of the dead, filled with shades, swamps, tombs etc
  • The Gardens of Arcadia: a bucolic paradise of farmlands, groves, orchards, centaurs, druids and dryads.
  • The Desert of Sphinxes: desiccating winds blow across these dried up lands. Dunes, lost cities, salt-flats, sphinxes and scorpions.
  • The Mountains of Boreas: ice-bound mountains, eyries, crag castles, hilltop towns, and mines inhabited by cyclopes, harpies and minotaurs.

Arcadia, the garden of the Olympians. Once they walked its sylvan paths, sipping ambrosia, plucking the golden apples of immortality, drinking the wines of Bacchus, and filling the elysian groves with their laughter. Hera plotted vengeance against her husband, Zeus in dusky glades, Aphrodite seduced many a mortal, even a god or two, in its sweet smelling bowers, lovers embraced in candle-lit forested walkways. Ares, lord of war, rested here after bloody battle, and Ceres sowed her seeds of plenty in its lush farmland. Satyrs and centaurs gambolled in the sunlit groves, druids and sprites tended to the trees and flowers. Even mortals, those chosen of the gods, attended the revels. Everywhere life blossomed with joyous abandon.

But Pan plays his pipes no more, Diana hunts not in the deep forests-green, dryads and nymphs dance no longer in dappled moonlit glades to the music of the spheres. Silence reigns over the weed infested garden walkways. Ancient trees, long untended, clog the forest trails, roots rise up from the ground to topple the statues, fountains and sundials, cracking open the conservatories and summer houses. The babbling brooks and streams have long since dried up, nothing sleeps in their beds now but desiccated earth and bleached bones. Its bathing pools and lily gilded ponds are filled with rot and decay. The bowers and arbours are overgrown with the thick, fibrous vines that once yielded up the grapes that Bacchus used to make his celestial wines, drunk with joyous abandon in every nook and corner. Now they twist and turn, choking the life out of the land.

In its wilder regions, the Sons of Lycaon wander the deep forests, wolves by night and men by day. These werewolves feed on the unwary and the lost. It is said that King Lycaon himself, father of wolves, still lives somewhere, in the deepest, darkest dens of the forest.

Elsewhere, Arcadia is not entirely abandoned. Faerie folk can still be found in the weed choked gardens, sprites too, though their magic is fading. A druid or two can still be seen tending to half-forgotten woodland shrines, perhaps a wanderer may catch a glimpse of a centaurs’ hind quarters as it flees into the safety of the forest or catch the mournful sigh of a dryad wandering alone through the glades, but mostly, Arcadia sleeps.

Chiron, greatest of the centaurs, tutor of Hercules and Achilles, and the god of medicine himself, Asklepios, once walked Arcadia’s leafy trails, and galloped across its verdant fields. But where is Chiron now? Does he slumber somewhere in an abandoned stable, lost and forgotten? Can mortal men free him from his long sleep of oblivion and restore him to greatness? Only time will tell.

The gods may sleep but Vulcan will not. For what is to be done? It is now the Age of Man, so it must be the mortals, feeble though they may be, pitiful even, to whom the task must fall. Though it breaks immortal hearts, Arcadia must be given to those who would restore it to its glorious, arboreal splendour.

Landmarks and places of interest

Rivers of Arcadia
The river god Ladon once lived in the gushing waters, but now the rivers of Arcadia run dry as Ladon slumbers. Perhaps they can be restored to their former glory.

The Verdant Farmlands
Once tended by centaurs these farmlands have fallen into disarray. Bucolic farmhouses and sacred stables, home to centaurs, still litter the land, waiting to be put to use once more.

Wineries of the Nectar of the Gods
Here were grown Olympian vines, tended by satyrs, whose hooves juiced the grapes from which the heady wines of Bacchus were made, called the sweet nectar of Olympus.

Woodlands of Ambrosia
Much of Arcadia is covered in sculpted woodland, given a veneer of wildness but in fact crisscrossed with trails and paths, dotted with arbours and bowers, statues, fountains, flowered gardens, gazebos and gardener's huts. It was a bucolic paradise, now overgrown and semi wild. Ambrosia, the food of the gods that imparts immortality on those who eat of it, was also harvested here from the mushroomed shadows of glen and glade. Yet a few dryads still live in leaf-thatched tree houses, some nymphs still dance in sunlit glades and swim with wild abandon in the streams and pools.

The Deep Forest
These are the truly wild parts of Arcadia, found at its remoter edges. The deeper you go, the darker it gets until you reach Lycaon’s Den. Do not assume you will ever leave that place alive though. Safer places along the way are the dryads’ groves, so long as you treat them with respect and honour. Dryads still tend a grove or two. Do not anger them for they have mastery over root and branch, leaf and stream, and can ensnare the unwary or those that desecrate their sacred charges.

Dales of Leaf and Stream
Here dwell faeries and sprites, playing in the waters and tree lined glens, or banqueting on elderberry wine and mushrooms, roots and nuts. Beware, mortals, for to disturb the fae at play is to risk much, perhaps even your very soul!

The Summer Palace
This lies at the centre of Arcadia, so called because there is only one season in Arcadia – eternal summer. The Palace is where the gods once stayed but long has it stood empty, its murals chipped and flaking, its rooms empty and dust-bound, its windows shuttered and its kitchens closed, the banqueting halls and bedchambers silent and empty, begrimed with the filth of ages. The Palace is surrounded by ornamental gardens long since fallen into ruin and decay. Weeds and creepers fill the flower beds, hedge thorn and nettles block and bind the garden paths.

The underworld was once ruled over by Vulcan’s uncle, Hades, but he sleeps in his immortal tomb, ignored, weakened by centuries of neglect. What is to be done with his realm now? Who will refurbish its sepulchral halls, sweep away the corpse dust that coat its tenebrous terraces, and reawaken the dead that once walked its cheerless cloisters? Who else but the mortals of earth? Those same souls who have turned their backs on Olympus, who have found new gods to worship, virtual gods of silicon science. But what choice does Vulcan have? He must sell all to mankind, for only they can rebuild hell itself.

And what is to be found in Hades? Bone chilling winds sweep across desolate plains, carrying the despairing moans of lost souls to every corner of the realm of the dead. Swamps fester in the pale nacreous glow that rises up from the decaying earth, tombs litter the landscape like broken teeth, shadows walk the land, muttering in the darkness. It is home to the Spirits of the Dead and… other things.

There are bloated swamps, full of mangrave (sic) trees and the drowned dead. Some swamps, left untended for so long, are choked with slime. Swamp spiders spin their webs out of the glutinous putrefying mire making their webs particularly sticky and difficult to get out of.

The two rivers of Hades, the Acheron and the Styx, flow like arteries of black blood across the land. Where the rivers widen bayous have formed. Some say hydras live in the bayous, their many heads arguing among themselves over the spoils of harvested souls and the fruits of putrefaction and decay.

Away from the rivers of hell lie the Plains of Howling Darkness, home to lost souls, wandering in the miasmic shadows, who wail and groan, shambling aimlessly, lamenting their fate in the pale, decaying light. Ashes fall like rain. Mysterious sink holes, ash-filled wells and rune-written trapdoors in the ground lead to subterranean crypts and caverns where vampiric lamias lurk, ready to burst forth and drain the souls of the unwary.

Elsewhere, crumbling towers rise up out of the plains like long dead skeletal fingers groping their way out of the stifling grave-dirt upwards to the long-forgotten light of life. Lost souls are drawn to the high ramparts, their cries of wailing despair spreading across the land, filling all who come there with a fearful melancholy. Other towers have been turned into the nests of the strixes, blood-drinking bat-like birds with razor sharp beaks of bronze.

In the middle of hell lies a sprawling necropolis, the City of the Dead, the capital of Hades.

In its glory, the river Acheron flowed through the city, as if it were some kind of sepulchral Venice of the dead. Funereal barges of silver and ebony floated along the canals of dark water, manned by shades and souls. Now a handful of begrimed, rusted barges ply its dark, greasy waters.

Cerberus, the three headed hell-hound of Hades, who kept watch at the eternal portals of Hades, sleeps in his everlasting kennel too. Can mortal men wake him? Restore him to his old post as guardian of the gates of hell? Can the royal necropolis be restored to its former grandeur? Can the plains and swamps of this ancient hell be renewed? Can Hades be rebuilt? It is up to mortal men and women to decide, to rebuild Hades in their own image, should they so choose.

Landmarks and places of interest

Rivers of Hades
The Acheron and the Styx run across the land. They come from sources in the mountainous southern edge of Hades where it abuts the mountains quarter (The Mountains of Boreas). The Acheron runs through the central city. Both join up after the city to merge in the Delta of Darkness at the northern (or western) edge of the map.

A bloated swamp, full of mangrave trees and the drowned dead. Flies feast on sunken corpses, twisted beasts feed on the fetid fruits of that land, and gigantic snakes feed upon them in turn, dominating the interiors.

Giant snakes and hydras wander the swamps. Mangrave trees – trees that are half bark, half twisted dead body, grow across all the swamps and bayous of Hades, nourished by the souls of the dead.

The Slimeswamp is a congealed morass of putrefaction with spiders littered about. Giant swamp spiders, so like a swamp but with webs.

Black Bayou
Those swamps that are on the course of the Styx and Acheron end up as Black Bayous. Riverside dens and watery graves line the dark, oleaginous lakes. Punts and flat bottomed boats ply the waters, manned by the souls of those drowned at sea.

The City of the Dead
The necropolis, the capital of the Underworld. At its centre a single, tomb smothered hill, rises up over the city like a gravestone. Upon its peak is the now empty Palace of the Dead, where Hades once ruled. Round and about its foothills, tomb complexes spread outward like the suburbs of a living city. Statues of the long dead seem to stalk its streets like thieves in the night, their deeds in life long forgotten.

Plains of Howling Darkness
The Plains are home to lost souls, wandering in the miasmic shadows, who wail and groan, shambling aimlessly, lamenting their fate in the pale, decaying light, hence the name. Mysterious sink holes, ash-filled wells and rune-written trapdoors in the ground lead to subterranean crypts and caverns. There are ancient broken towers scattered across the land. Strixes, bronze beaked blood-drinking birds, circle some of them. Elsewhere, lamias (half woman, half snake) lurk, waiting to pounce on the unwary.

Delta of Darkness
The two rivers finally join and run into the Delta of Darkness at the coast. On the delta can be seen the barge of Charon, who leads the souls of the dead upriver into Hades. Charon himself is long gone though, sleeping in his tomb somewhere. Also at the end of the Delta is the abode of Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the underworld, the Guardian at the Gates of Hell, now empty.

Houses of the Dead
Scattered about are small graveyards or cemeteries with small tombs and mausoleums. Here the lost souls have Hades dwell in kind of half life.

Corpse Copses
Little clusters of blasted trees, half tree, half dead body, litter the land.

*  *  *

We'll be back with the other half of Vulcan's new realm in a fortnight, when I'll explain what all this has to do with gamebooks. Next week, though, there's a real treat for roleplayers: the annual Legend winter special. The player-characters arrive in an isolated coastal town with dark secrets and its own solstice rituals. That's "The Gifts of the Magi". Don't you miss it!

* Vulcan uses the Olympian word for ‘given’ here which translates in human terms as ‘sold’. This can be a traditional sacrifice of a goat and suchlike, but these days, Vulcan prefers a bank transfer.


  1. A stupendously ambitious project is VulcanVerse. Can't wait to read more.

  2. Sounds good, Dave. Assume it will be Fabled Lands esq/sandbox not traditional gamebook? Or something different entirely? Have you any idea on timescales? Thanks.

    1. My contract has a deadline of the March, Andy. After that it's just a question of them setting it up for POD, so the first two books could be on sale by April. I'm hoping of course they'll want more books to follow on, but those presumably depend on sales figures.

  3. "Mangrave trees" I love it. That's an excellent bit of wordplay.

    1. Jamie was obviously firing on all cylinders that day.

  4. Without wanting to detract from the Vulcanverse (which looks like it would make a good iPhone App game) can I just say I’m very much looking forward to the annual Legend winter special gift from Dave Magi Morris! It’s one of the highlights of the season!

    1. And this year's is especially good, Nigel. I can't take the credit, though. I just write up Tim Harford's notes; the ideas are all his. One of Tim's favourite TV shows of yore is The Box of Delights, and I have to say he captures that same sense of midwinter magic in his specials.

  5. Thanks for the suggestion Dave. I’ve now googled and discovered John Masefield, The Box of Delights (1935) and The Midnight Folk (1927). If this article is accurate two more undiscovered books and perhaps a BBC series to enjoy

    1. I did hear that Frank Cottrell Boyce was working on the screenplay for a new version, but that was a few years back and nothing ever came of it. No spoilers, but he'd have to have changed the ending.