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Friday, 17 September 2021

A time capsule of ideas

I love a notebook. No, that's understating the case; it's a fetish really. There's something about starting a new project with a fresh notebook, feeling the glide of the pen, watching the ideas start to flow on pristine pages.

But when is the right time to start? I have cherished notebooks going back years, still uncracked, waiting for a project that's worthy of them. And then there's the project itself. Is it ready for the notebook stage or does it need to cook a while yet?

Worse than that, there's the problem of finding an idea again. Once I've jotted it down the brain seems to favour wiping that neuron to use for something else. And a full notebook is the Augean stables of inspiration. There might be gold nuggets in there, but boy do you have to work to dig them out. Makes me feel like that poor bugger in Memento

I came across a notebook just now while tidying out my desk drawer. Circumstantial evidence points to it being fairly old. The handwriting looks nothing like mine, for one thing. Also I don't think you'd find one for under a quid these days. Adjusting for inflation would date this relic to 1971. That can't be right… 

Aha, here's a clue: "Megatron wants chips to make robot brains." We're back in 1985, then, when I wrote the Transformers gamebooks, so the roleplaying notes here would have been intended for Dragon Warriors.

Here's one: "Spells. State what you want to do. Chance of success depends on how much you are having to thwart someone else's will, therefore on the strength of his will. Cf the door in LotR."

Or: "Have to set up a 'box of tricks' to do spells. Stops sorcerers moving about too much once they're casting."

I may have been thinking there of the cover art for War of Wizards, which showed a little shrine-cum-workstation beside the sorcerer. It's before I'd heard of Encounters of the Spooky Kind, in which magical shrines were an essential prerequisite and vied for height like the towers of San Gimignano.

Another: "Go into a trance to use magic. Deeper trance, stronger magic. But you have to be led around because you're 'out of reality'."

(It was the mid-'80s. Altered states were a big thing with me back then.)

Another tack here: "Magic as release of the content of the subconscious. The more power you call on, the deeper into yourself you're delving, the more likely to work in reverse against you."

This one is interesting because here we are thirty-five years later and look what I recently wrote in the Jewelspider notes:

"Consider inspiration in the literal sense. When you are singing, for example, and you begin to go beyond normal use of skill and start to channel a divine or pagan presence, with a song so marvellous that everybody stops to listen, the rafters ring out, goblets chime, and even time holds its breath. This is no longer controllable by the singer and the entity, god or goddess that imbues them is manifesting in the song and, being a god, is inhuman, beautiful and terrible – who knows what will happen?"

Now, if I can just make that work in rules terms!

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Hot off the anvil

The first two books in the Vulcanverse series are now out, with two more coming later this year. If you don't know what that means -- well hey, where have you been? (And check out previous posts here and here.)

There will be five books in the series, but they're open world solo roleplaying, which means you can start in any of the first four books and play them in any order. The numbers on the spines are just so you know where to put them on your bookshelf.

The art is by Mattia Simone, who also painted the cover for the Librarsi edition of Heart of Ice.

You'll be seeing more of Mattia's work on our future projects, I hope. Comments are open below if anyone has played Vulcanverse -- and there's a no-prize if you spot the itsy-bitsy deliberate mistake (I hope there's only one) in The Hammer of the Sun

If you want to order the full-colour hardcover editions, any bookstore should be able to do that for you and the details are:
  • The Houses of the Dead  ISBN 978-1-909905-37-5
  • The Hammer of the Sun  ISBN 978-1-909905-38-2
Or you can get the black-&-white paperback editions from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all the usual places.


Also at Blackwell's UK:
And at Barnes & Noble in the US:

And by the way you can get copies of the Adventure Sheets (including maps) for the books from the Spark Furnace website: The Houses of the Dead and The Hammer of the Sun.

Sunday, 29 August 2021

It's that man again

I was interviewed by Olly McNeil of the Storymaster's Tales for International Gamebook Day 2021. Lots of good questions meant that I didn't have to repeat my limited store of Games Workshop anecdotes too much. You can get the video here and buy Olly's Weirding Woods game here.

And the very same day, Martin Noutch joined Olly to talk about the Steam Highwayman books, my own favourite of all the successors to Fabled Lands -- not least because the action starts out in a corner of Buckinghamshire that happens to be where I was born and where a lot of my family live. And Martin shares my preference for low fantasy, the English landscape, and personal-scale stories, as he expatiates on here:

And our friends at Cubus Games will shortly be releasing a Steam Highwayman mobile game that looks absolutely amazing. Great music too. (And is that Boris Johnson I spotted in the NPC rogues' gallery there..? Worth stoking up your steam motorbike just to hold him to account, I'd say.)

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Something's coming

The first two Vulcanverse open-world solo RPG gamebooks are now available to pre-order in advance of publication on September 3. These are the full-colour hardcovers; the black-&-white paperbacks will follow in a few weeks. Jamie and I are pretty pleased with (and exhausted by) our work on these. We've each written about 250,000 words of Vulcanverse adventures this year, with books 3 and 4 to follow in time for Christmas. That's going to be around 4500 gamebook sections -- roughly six average Fabled Lands books. Better polish those dice!

In some territories you may have trouble pre-ordering from Amazon, but just try a different bookstore. For instance, US gamebook readers can order The Houses of the Dead and The Hammer of the Sun from Barnes & Noble. You can also get them from Target here and here.

Oh, and somebody mentioned on Twitter they were pre-ordering copies for their kids. Well, forty years ago Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy were children's books. Since then gaming has moved on and the Vulcanverse books are not necessarily child-friendly. They have serious adult themes and language, so if you're going to unleash them on impressionable young minds you ought to blaze a trail yourself first.

And another cool solo RPG adventure that you can pick up absolutely free is the latest Dragon Warriors gamebook from Red Ruin Publishing. This one is Desolation of the God-King by Paul Partington, and it's 300 sections long in a hyperlinked PDF that does the page-riffling for you. And did I mention that it's free?

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Sittin' on a board eyein' the weather

Richard Hetley, who is a long-established and valued member of the Fabled Lands ground crew, has news of a game he's been working on that I'm sure will be of interest to FL players. I'll hand over to Richard for the details:

"In To Carry a Sword you are the the guard of a medieval caravan on a journey where the social connections you make are just as important as the money. You can help the people who hire you in ways far beyond swinging a sword and scaring bandits for them, including tending to their animals and telling stories to their kids. Strategically plan your route across a procedurally-generated world, taking advantage of the text events you encounter to pursue your own goal, whether that is to become skilled and famous enough to join the escort of Her Majesty the Queen, or to see a religious pilgrimage to its destination. In the end, it's about the people who need you.
  • FTL meets The Oregon Trail in medieval Europe. 
  • Rely on your social skills as much as your battle prowess to see caravans safely to their destination. 
  • Serve the needs of the land's factions, aiding the Noble, Criminal, Religious, and Heathen. 
  • Select routes and explore the procedurally-generated map, seeking the clues to advance each questline. 
  • Relax in a self-paced narrative experience of over 85,000 words. 
  • Mod the narrative and add your own text events (release version only). 
  • Join us in the final stages of development as our team brings the game to life!
"This is a student project now being made into a full videogame experience. We are playtesting a browser-only version of the game as we finish development. You can play it here. During development, that page will also link you to a feedback survey and a Twitch page where we stream about development. For longer feedback or to follow along with the fun, please feel free to join us on Discord.

"To Carry A Sword is developed by We Three Nouns, a group of graduate students in Game Design & Development at Rochester Institute of Technology. I've edited gamebooks for years before coming to RIT, and I edited The Serpent King's Domain (book 7 in the series) for Fabled Lands LLP. Paul Gresty, the writer of that book, graciously agreed to edit To Carry a Sword. And yes, I've kept everyone's book 7 feedback in mind while writing the game!"

Thursday, 12 August 2021

Problematic pomegranates

In case you missed this in the sidebar, here are Jamie and I talking to Grim and the T-Shirted Historian on Dungeons & Discussions.

Right at the end Grim asks about the difference between British and American fantasy gaming styles, so here and here are some earlier thoughts on that. When writing Dragon Warriors I never thought of it as particularly British or European -- well, the setting obviously is European to the core, but is the tone of the game distinctly non-American too? People say it is, but as I grew up reading Stan Lee and a host of mostly US-based science fiction authors, it's not something I'm aware of myself.

And while we're about it, don't forget to back Grim's Wightchester: Prison City of the Damned campaign book, which still has a month to run on Indiegogo.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

A close look at the Vulcanverse books

People have been asking about the Vulcanverse gamebooks (in a few cases even with a slight whiff of dudgeon) so I thought now would be a good time to answer a few FAQs.

Why are you writing these instead of getting on with more Fabled Lands?

The short answer is that the funds are simply not there to pay for everything required to do a Fabled Lands book. Even if we found a few spare months and wrote one, there’s also all the checking (oh, those flowcharts!), editing, and typesetting. And then we have to drum up cash to pay for artwork, a map and a cover.

The difference with Vulcanverse is that it’s funded by a multimillion-dollar company with blockchain transactions constantly pumping cash up its arm. The gamebooks are barely even small change to them, the equivalent of handing out bags with your brand logo on. They can afford to knock out five books – or rather, to finance Fabled Lands Publishing to do the books.

I get why people are disappointed. Obviously I’d rather work on my own thing than on somebody else’s IP, and you usually get a better book when the writer is free to let their imagination fly. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Paul Gresty is already working on Fabled Lands book 8. If I don’t find any paid work after finishing my stint on the Vulcanverse books, my first priority is the Jewelspider RPG, but right after that I figure I may as well start writing a new gamebook. That could be the long-planned Shadow King or it could be something else.

I’d need to run a Kickstarter to finance the art and production, and believe me the very thought makes my heart sink. Marketing and all that businessy stuff appeals to me about as much as drain-cleaning. But there’s no other way to raise the funds, so I’m just going to have to bite the bullet. Or do I mean plunger?

There's another lifeline for future Fabled Lands books, which is the CRPG from Prime Games. If that rekindles interest in the books and wins over new fans, completing the series could become a commercially viable proposition. We're hoping...  

Still, aren’t you doing a George R. R. Martin on us?

GRRM is certainly rich enough to just plough on and write all the Song of Ice & Fire books. I assume he takes time out to work on other things because he wants to stay creatively fresh. If he just tore through to the end it wouldn’t be very good. (You’ve seen the TV show? Like that.)

I hate abandoning a project. Backers on Patreon of my Jewelspider RPG have been patiently waiting a whole year for that. Jewelspider is emphatically not abandoned, but it has had to take a back seat to paying gigs. Still, the Patreon is financing artwork and at least when Jewelspider appears it will look all the better for the delay.

More heart-wrenchingly, I was unable to go on with my Mirabilis comic. Art is the killer cost there, and the publishers who were willing to take it on wanted indentured servitude and ownership of the IP forever. Other projects that are patiently waiting for my time: Abraxas and Tetsubo. They sit there half-completed but don't even enjoy the small but dedicated fanbase of Fabled Lands. Like my Brexit gamebook they are things that I'd be devoting my energy to if I could pick and choose my projects, but like Leonardo I have to work on what patrons demand, not on what pleases me.

If you are miffed about Vulcanverse gamebooks coming out when Fabled Lands is still unfinished, let me offer two arguments in consolation. First, FL is not unfinished in the way A Song of Ice & Fire is. There is no single storyline in FL, so it’s not like you can’t complete it. There are a very few quests from future books that tie back into books 1-7, and those aside the effect of having more books is simply to extend the borders of the explorable world. It’s like expansions on a videogame.

Also, unlike poor Mirabilis, FL is dormant rather than extinct. The last open-world gamebook I wrote was back in the ‘90s. Since then the only gamebooks I’ve done are Frankenstein and Can You Brexit? So you could see the work on Vulcanverse as me getting back into training. And by the way I needed it – my first Vulcanverse book overran by 900 sections and those sections are far wordier than FL. I’m learning again the brevity needed to pack a lot of quests into a 750-section open-world gamebook. So when I come off The Pillars of the Sky in theory I'd be fighting fit to tackle The Isle of a Thousand Spires. GRRM uses the same defence; the only difference between us is talent, wealth and looks.

How similar are the Vulcanverse books to Fabled Lands?

The rules are like a stripped-down FL system. You have four attributes: Charm, Grace, Ingenuity and Strength. Your scores in those typically range from -1 to +3, and you may have an item that gives a +1 or +2 bonus. Faced with a task like rolling a heavy stone (Strength) or sweet-talking a sentry (Charm) you roll two dice, add modifiers for your attribute score and any attribute-boosting item, and you need to equal or beat the difficulty.

Yep, you spotted it. Success is equalling or beating the difficulty. A slight difference from FL there. Also, a double 1 is always a fail and a double 6 is always a success.

What about Stamina? It doesn’t exist. In Vulcanverse you are either wounded or unwounded. When wounded you deduct 1 from attribute rolls. Told you it was FL-lite.

Another difference is how blessings work. You can have up to three blessings at once, and they are good for a single reroll on any failed attribute check.

How easy is it to die in the books?

Very hard. Hey, we know it’s not the ‘90s anymore. If you do get killed, resurrection is automatic except on a very few heroic quests, and you always get fair warning if you’re on a mission that you might not come back from.

What about the Vulcanverse world?

It’s not like Fabled Lands. Well, it’s probably quite a bit like FL book 10, in that the Vulcanverse is based on Greek and Roman mythology; you can read about that in earlier posts. It’s definitely FL-adjacent because the myths have been filtered through the brain of Jamie Thomson. (On the other hand, did Paul McCartney’s work with Wings feel like it was 50% Beatles, or was it something altogether different? The debate could go on for years.)

Jamie and I have worked separately on these books, as we did on Fabled Lands too; I wrote FL books 2, 3 and 6, he did the others. In the case of FL the end result was relatively seamless, but my and Jamie's Vulcanverse books are entirely different in tone, content, gameplay, writing style, structure and flavour. That's partly because we didn’t develop the groundwork together, but mainly because we’ve worked on our own distinct projects over the years. If you’re familiar with the Dirk Lloyd and Wrong Side of the Galaxy books, you’ll find Jamie’s trademark comedy genius running through The Houses of the Dead and The Wild Woods. Those also feature the D&D-ish high fantasy action-adventure momentum that made the Way of the Tiger books so memorable. (By the way, did I mention there's a Dirk Lloyd TV show on the way? It'll be the smash hit of 2022 and you heard it here first.)

It’s harder for me to identify my own style; Robbie Burns talked about that. I tend to go in for low fantasy, character relationships, dreamlike weirdness, surreal encounters, dry humour, horror and tragedy. Possibly you’ll notice those on display in The Hammer of the Sun and The Pillars of the Sky, my own contributions to the VV series, though less so in the latter because I’ve been asked to include more tie-ins from the Vulcanverse collectible card game. Still, you’ll be able to get a sense from these books, and particularly from The Hammer of the Sun, how any new FL gamebooks by me might play out.

Is there actually any purpose to your adventures?

Some people have grumbled that Fabled Lands doesn’t give you an objective to aim at. There, the whole point was that you’re living a life in a fantasy world and defining your own goals. What was I saying about it not being the ‘90s now? These days, the trend is to have a defined task like in a computer game.

With Vulcanverse, we’ve tried for a Witcher-like happy medium. There are lots of quests set in an open world like in Fabled Lands, and you can usually pick a side in any conflict. For example, in The Hammer of the Sun it’s possible to join the nomadic Amazons, and you can become their champion, and even take the throne the way Conan would (if he identified as female). But you can also get banished from the tribe, and if you reach a position of authority there are decisions you’ll make that will have a lasting effect on the world and the people in it.

Alongside all of those side-quests there’s a main storyline that connects across all the books and culminates in Vulcan City in book 5: Workshop of the Gods.

When are they out?

Hopefully very soon. The first two should be on sale a month from now (early September) and the next two before Christmas. And for once I'm leaving comments on, so if you have any other things you want to know about the Vulcanverse books, now's your chance.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Dawn of the plague-ridden undead

I'm not usually a big fan of zombies (except in a Voodoo context) but I could revise that opinion for 17th century plague-ridden zombies. James Desborough's Wightchester: Prison City of the Damned starts with the closed-up streets of the Great Plague and runs with that to its sanity-rending beyond-all-logic conclusion. 

Wightchester is a low-fantasy horror campaign that sounds perfect for gamers who play to discover the story. As the Indiegogo description explains, this is "a setting where blades and gunpowder are more important than magic, and where the magic that does exist demands a price. Not a hex crawl, or a conventional adventure, but a free-roaming setting where you can decide what you want to do. Do you want to try and escape? Do you want to create a fortified place to live within the prison? Do you want to clear the entire city of the undead and earn your release? Good luck with any of those." 

You've got till the end of September to back it. And after the last eighteen months of real life, what could be more cathartic?

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Manners maketh man

“It was their pity Driss hated. They seemed not to be aware that he could destroy them at any moment he chose. Destroy them and loot the little safe in their office, where they kept all their earnings from the bed and breakfast. They were not even aware of the compassion he was showing them. They looked right past his manhood and ignored it, as if it didn't exist and he was just a child who needed a bowl of milk every day.”
In Lawrence Osborne’s novel The Forgiven, an impoverished Moroccan named Driss illegally makes his way to Spain and is given a job by Roger and Angela Bloodworth. The Bloodworths shelter Driss from the authorities but they don’t appreciate that their liberal culture is not universal. The openness and trust they show to Driss, he takes as an affront to his masculinity. Wary hospitality according to a strict code would be fine. It’s the casual assumption that he can be treated as a member of their household that he finds disrespectful.

You don’t get much culture in fantasy. Oh, occasionally somebody will say, “It’s our custom to wear only green velvet coats on holy days,” but that’s barely skin-deep, a merely satirical look at the arbitrary nature of human customs. From the inside customs don’t feel funny, they feel like a matter of life and death. A Bedouin is obliged to offer hospitality. A samurai must atone for shame with seppuku. A calling card with “somdomite” written on it can destroy a reputation.

When roleplaying is set in a world with its own social structures and mores, and players are trying to get inside that mindset rather than play 21st century characters parachuted into a superficially exotic environment, then what you are doing is culture gaming.

Here’s an example of culture gaming from a convention game run by Michael Cule. There were a bunch of players who were new to Tekumel, and they were barbarians who’d arrived fresh off the boat in Jakalla harbour. Vortumoi, a priest of Hrü’ü played by me, brought them to be interviewed by his clan uncle, Lord Vrimeshtu, who wanted to hire them for an expedition. Also present was my bodyguard, Karunaz, played by Paul Mason. We sat on cushions to discuss the expedition over a meal – a real feast of Thai snacks that Michael brought along! – and Karunaz remained standing off to one side. (He’s Livyani, so never ate with Tsolyani, and in any case it was not his position to sit with his employer.) The tricky moment arose when Lord Vrimeshtu pointed to the wine and said, "Get your Livyani to pour for us, Vortumoi." Well, Karunaz was low clan but he was nonetheless a warrior, and you don't expect a bodyguard to serve you at table like a menial. What to do? Then I had it: “Allow me, uncle,” and I got up and served the wine myself. I could do that without loss of face because I was doing my uncle’s bidding rather than doing a favour for the barbarians. Thus my honour and Karunaz's were preserved and the clan head's wishes were fulfilled.

Whether you think that kind of thing is the lifeblood of a roleplaying game or a distraction from the main business of the adventure will tell you if you’re a culture gamer or not. It’s really the old (and often slightly forced) dichotomy between character-based and plot-based fiction. I lean towards character-based myself, much preferring Anton Chekhov to Robert Harris – though my bookshelves have room for both. And you do need both. If you think of the characters as heading towards a light, which stands for the plot objective, and the medium they’re moving through is their society, it’s the turbulence in the medium that makes the journey unique. Without it you’ve just got a straight line. But if there’s no light then they go around in circles or do nothing. 

(Examples of stories that are powered by events but flavoured by social constructs: Julian Fellowes' Belgravia, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Francis Spufford's Golden Hill. Or any truly compelling narrative, really.)

So the plot isn’t just a MacGuffin. Still, I don’t actually remember the adventure from that session. I think it involved a ruined fortress in a swamp. Probably there were monsters to fight. The barbarians will have run about and hit things, but it’s the nail-biting nicety of that dining-room etiquette problem that has stayed with me.

So do we need rules for social interaction? Obviously there are rules – we live our real lives according to such rules, usually unspoken but very well understood. We are alert to nuances of manner in our own society, even if we couldn’t actually sit down and explain the rules of conduct to a foreigner. But do we need game mechanics - do we need that kind of rule?

I don’t think so. We use game mechanics for the “stage directions” of a game. “I climb the wall stealthily and the guards don’t hear me.” Do you? And do they? We’ve got dice for that.

But social behaviour happens in the dialogue. Players can handle it perfectly well in conversation and mechanics couldn’t cover all the permutations anyway. Often a dispute in social terms comes down to very fine distinctions, and it’s possible that neither party is wholly right or wrong. If you wanted game-mechanical rules for social interactions, in order to cover every outcome they’d need to be highly abstract. Something like this:
“I seek to impose my status on you, rolling 6.”
“I roll a 3 and resist the attempt, countering with a critical social roll.”
“Now let’s decide what our characters actually said.”
Some people like to play that way, but I prefer immersion. Fortunately all you need is a sense of what the society’s rules are in common situations and in general principle, and a willingness on the players’ part to throw themselves into that. For example, Tsolyani law treats injury or death as a civil crime which can be settled by means of shamtla (weregild). Once you know that and the form for demanding shamtla or for taking the case to a duel, you get a lot of emergent possibilities.

Then when you include the fact that in Tsolyanu insults are also regarded as an injury, your social outcomes explode into Mandelbrot-set level richness. Your players might even forget there’s a monster-stuffed ruin out in the marshlands, because the cut and thrust of society is much more real and involving. Instead of Dungeons & Dragons, you’re in the territory of Sense & Sensibility – and, speaking as a culture gamer, that makes for much more memorable games.

By the way, although Tekumel is an ideal setting for culture games, I don't want to give the impression that it can only be played that way. Professor Barker said that everyone should create their own Tekumel, and I'm sure most campaigns are very far from the "real" Tekumel. An example: in the Five Empires, belonging to a legion, especially in the heavy infantry, is a respected profession. In the most prestigious legions you'd need to be high-medium status even to sign up, and even "sergeants" (hereksa, commander of 100 legionaries) are mainly from aristocratic clans. Promotion is affected by your social class, manners, bravery and even looks as much as by your competence. That's the culture gaming version. Many Tekumel campaigns, however, treat soldiers as usually uneducated and poor, because that's what players in modern Western societies expect. Personally I can't see in that case why they wouldn't play D&D or something similar instead, but everyone should choose whichever style gives them the most fun.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Popes & Phantoms

If you're a regular visitor to this blog you'll know the high regard I have for the work of John Whitbourn, who is possibly the leading author in the field of the English New Weird. And, full disclosure: John also happens to be one of my oldest and dearest friends. Not that I'd allow that to sway my judgement; I have lots of author friends and I don't recommend all their books with the same unforced enthusiasm I have for works like the Binscombe Tales and Babylondon.

This one is a special treat. It's John Whitbourn's second ever novel, originally published in 1992, which has finally been released in its complete version. I read it in manuscript more than thirty years ago and there are still scenes that are so vivid in my memory that I have to remind myself it wasn't a movie. To quote from the publisher's website:

"Admiral Slovo was a man of his time, but of more than one dimension. In his sixteenth century, a pirate might be followed by the corpse of his victim, walking across the ocean, until putrescence claimed it. Or an interview with the Pope might be mirrored, exactly, by one with the Devil. Reality shifts could cause a king to see his capital city shimmer into another realm entirely. 

"Through such scenes of macabre hallucination, mayhem and murder, Slovo is a man alone, set apart by his stoic beliefs from the rigours of human fears and passions. As such, he was a valuable find for the Vehme, a clandestine, subversive society that ensnares its members from an early age, securing loyalties by the expedient methods of blackmail, bribery and barbarism.

"But Slovo is more than a Vehmist puppet, and whether as a brigand on the high seas, or emissary to the Borgias, or as the Pope’s Machiavellian Mr Fix-it, he plots a course that suits his own ends as much as those of his paymasters. He knows that, in the words of his mentor Marcus Aurelius, 'in a brief while you will be ashes of bare bones; a name, or perhaps not even a name'. And there are few things that cannot be solved by a stiletto in the eye."

Thursday, 8 July 2021

The problem with fate points

Fate points. In case this is your first visit here: I’m agin’ ‘em. They encourage players to think about their characters in the third person, and they break immersion by replaying an event that everyone just experienced. “That’s not the way it happened” belongs to videogames, not RPGs. Face-to-face roleplaying games benefit from character mindfulness – being in the moment as the character, rather than constantly analysing their arc and figuring out how to edit their scenes.

Tim Harford described to me how fate points had worked in a game he played. It struck us both as more like boardgaming than role-playing, in that you author your way around the character's foibles rather than playing those foibles:

“But what if characters end up dying in an unsatisfying way?” goes the argument. “It’s no good if the Man With No Name gets gunned down in a fight over a mule.” But how did we get conditioned to find certain outcomes, and certain story patterns, less satisfying?

What makes us favour the three-act plot paradigm of creative writing classes over glorious anarchic unpredictability? How did we get the notion that failure and tragedy can’t make for interesting outcomes too? Why do we seek the polish and security of a constructed story, even at the cost of ironic distance, rather than dive into the mess of surprise, shock, calamity and triumph that is more like real life?

The gems you find amid all the unscripted chaos, those perfect moments that arise spontaneously and trail loose ends, are worth more than the synthetic diamonds you’ll fabricate in an authorial narrative. If you have fate points that let you do over the bits you don’t like scene by scene, you risk missing the long-term payoffs that can emerge from what looks at the time like a setback.

Season 1 of Game of Thrones was good at confounding story expectations, with Ned Stark’s execution and the bathetic death of Khal Drogo. If you’d given the audience a stack of fate points and let them phone in their story demands, both of those events would have been overturned – yet they opened up the way for the story to go in more interesting directions, with characters who might have seemed peripheral in those early episodes moving to centre stage.

“But what if I die?” says the player raised on save points and retcons. “You can’t claim that’s fun.” That’s a matter of managing expectations. We’ve had memorable character deaths in our campaigns, a few heroic, some apt, and some devastatingly out of the blue. Sometimes it’s the fitting end to a series of bad decisions, like Butch and Sundance dying in a hail of bullets, and sometimes it’s just what happens to those who habitually put themselves in harm’s way. If no character ever took a risk and failed, where’s the frisson that gives the adventure its edge? And if every fumble can be rerolled for a fate point, what about those daring player-character gambles that pay off? They simply end up devalued.

Sudden death can work into a rewarding long narrative too, just as Tasha Yar’s departure from Star Trek: TNG, or Steven Seagal’s abrupt demise in Executive Decision, might dismay their player in an RPG but in the long run make for an interesting story.

And then of course there’s magical or divine resurrection, which is how most fantasy games ensure that it is hard to permanently lose a character who has built up a presence in the campaign. I don’t object to resurrections because they’re diegetic; it’s not a retcon, it’s fixing something using options available to the characters in-game. And, even better, sometimes it can go interestingly wrong.

Or in a non-fantasy setting, maybe consider making combat less fatal. Professor MAR Barker’s Adventures on Tekumel don’t have the death paragraphs that bedevil most gamebooks, used by the author whenever you stray off the plotlines he or she has in mind. How come? Because in Barker's gamebooks defeat in a fight results in you being imprisoned, or enslaved, or ransomed, or left for dead -- and the game continues from there. What would be TPK in a bad roleplaying campaign becomes a catapult taking the adventure on a completely new trajectory.

Instead of fate points, how about giving characters a pool of energy points? They can use those (in advance of the dice roll, naturally) to boost a result by one step: from fumble to fail, fail to success, success to critical. When they run out of points, they’re down to rolling their straight skill. I like it because if you’re thrifty with your energy you’ll have some in reserve for when you need it. And it’s so much better to give players a bonus for spending energy than to give them a penalty when fatigue sets in – which probably explains why most encumbrance and fatigue rules simply get ignored.

Or, if your players absolutely will not be weaned off fate points, at least make them part of the game reality:

"You stand in front of the angel of your god. She holds out her hand to lead you through the gates of paradise."

"'Hang on,' I tell her. 'I've got some credit on this cloud, I think. What about that holy relic I recovered last month? How about letting me go back and replay those last few seconds? Given a second chance, I'm pretty sure I can dodge that Doomkill.' "

That kind of divine intervention depends on the gods of your world being able to manipulate time, naturally. If they can't (and I'm not sure about the gods of Tekumel) then simple do-overs won't ever be possible. Characters will have to find ways to fix mistakes rather than undo them like they never happened. And, if you're after interesting stories, that's really the best place to start.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Countdown to the Apocalypse


Last chance to jump aboard the Blood Sword 5e Kickstarter, which ends tomorrow. It surpassed its target twice over in just the first twenty-four hours, so it's fair to say it is already a big success. I had the opportunity to play with the design team in the Quickstart game and it was amazing: packed with atmosphere, vivid NPCs, intriguing moral challenges, eerie experiences, and intriguing plot hooks. I hadn't played D&D in decades, and I'd never played 5e, but if other sessions are as good as that it won't be the last time. Authentic Legend flavour? You bet!

If you don't just want to cheer from the sidelines, and you're keen to grab all those goodies like the card deck and map pack and miniatures and not forgetting the dreaded blood dice -- don't delay, if for no other reason than that if the funding reaches 375% that will unlock a very special stretch goal: a complete reworking of The Walls of Spyte using my own notes for how I would write it today.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

"A Hole in the World" (scenario)

You’d think multiple successful careers as an inspiring writer, captivating speaker and entertaining & informative broadcaster would be enough for Tim Harford. On top of that he’s a devoted husband and father, a steadfast friend, and one of the very nicest people you could ever hope to meet. But we, his gaming chums, know that he was really put on this world to run great RPG sessions just for us. Readers of the blog look forward to his enchanting Christmas specials for Legend. He created the Immortal Spartans and Company of Bronze campaigns that I’ve written about here from time to time, and another of his casually executed acts of genius was to conceive the Conclave game, loosely based on Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories.

After Tim’s Conclave campaign wound up, I ran a two-part session to fill in for the fact that my planned Yellow King campaign had been aborted. This adventure is set in Tim’s archipelago world which I assume is a lot like Earthsea (I still haven’t read the books) but you could port it across to another game world, with or without lots of water. Central to the concept, though, is that the players are mostly great wizards, and this is a world where magic really is powerful. It doesn’t matter how skilled a swordsman or thief you are, any of the wizard characters can ningauble you without working up a sweat.

There are several magical disciplines. Most wizards specialize in three or four of these, but all learn the art of Naming because that is a prerequisite for many other enchantments. Knowing the true name of a thing means that your magic will automatically work on it. For example, if you use Change magic on a rabbit and you know its true name then your statement has the full force of reality; the rabbit becomes whatever you say it is. Most of the time, though, you won’t know the full name of something. The rabbit can’t tell you, so you’d need to infer as much of its true name as you can, using the root name class for animals and then mammals and then leporids – I’m guessing here. The point is that you roll your Name skill first, and your degree of success in that modifies your roll for Find or Mend or Change or whatever. If you fail the Name roll, forget it; you can’t derive the name you need so your magic won’t work.

Tim came up with a very elegant rule system. I won’t recount it here as he might one day want to expand it and publish it (when those multiple other careers don’t get in the way) but you can soon whip up your own. All you need to know in what follows is that Vigour stands for stamina and strength; Skill is imagination, dexterity and intelligence; Wisdom is knowledge, fortitude and judgement. If like me you’re too lazy to read the books, the Isolate Tower has a handy glossary of magical terms, of which the main categories seem to be as follows:
  • Change - turn a thing into something else (major) 
  • Find - locate a lost item or person 
  • Gate - opens and seals paths and portals
  • Healing 
  • Illusion
  • Mend - fix a broken object
  • Naming – the key to most of the other magical disciplines
  • Pattern - scrying and discerning hidden connections (major)
  • Send - project your image; the image can speak and sense, but not physically or magically act on its surroundings; cannot cross water, but otherwise has no limit on distance.
  • Summon - bring an object or person (living or dead) to you (major)
  • Weather – control wind, rain, fog, and so on
So, to summon a wind you would first try to intuit its name (Naming roll) then make a Weather roll. If somebody is trusting enough to tell you their true name, your magic will always work on them.

Wizards are not supposed to profligately make use of magic. In Le Guin’s stories, a "good" wizard would sail a boat from island to island and sit becalmed for days rather than conjure a wind. "Bad" wizards seem to be those who actually apply what they know. (So, pretty much the way Jedi and Sith operate in Star Wars.) In the game, lacking a specific mechanic or even a logical explanation for why we should restrict our use of magic, the player-characters were soon flinging spells about without a qualm. If you want your game to play out more like a Le Guin story, I suggest something like:
  • Use of magic depletes the local mana, making further magic progressively harder 
  • Every use of magic has a reaction – good winds one day will mean dead calm the next, etc.
  • Unrestricted use of magic affects the wizard’s health. 
  • The College of Hythe polices magic – use it too freely and they will discipline you.
Another point about this world: magic is dominated by the wizards’ college on the island of Hythe, which is said to lie at the heart of the archipelago. The college is all-male, making it difficult for women to study magic openly. Any female PCs will probably conceal their gender as Golpas does in this scenario.

At the Tip of the World
The player-characters are all wizards. One of them has his home on the island of Skryp, the easternmost of the known isles. He has noticed that several local lads (Flintoy, Ratch, and Witkin) who went off to sea last year have returned from their voyages with much greater wealth than anyone expected. Some might suspect them of having turned to piracy, explaining the silks and pearls they gave their wives, but the player-character knows they are honest men.

The truth, which the characters will have to ascertain (they only need to ask, but will probably complicate it), is that the three men came by this wealth when their captain, Haspool, claimed the contents of a drifting merchantman as salvage. His ship is the Hazard and it sails out of Port Pressen on the island of Vaygra.

(“Where was the abandoned ship found drifting?” “Couldn’t tell you. We’re not navigators. You’d have to ask Captain Haspool.”)

At Port Pressen
The characters must get Captain Haspool or his navigator (Tully) to tell them where the ships were found drifting. Yes, ships plural. He has salvaged two, both crewless. (“The Bunch of Grapes was not so rich pickings as that first one, the Woven Band, but both were claimed legally.”)

The complication is that pirates have got wind of the drifting hulks and are patrolling the area. If they see the characters' ship, they may just decide to raid it. The pirate ship is the Good Work.
  • Pirate captain: Korak
  • His wizard: Golpas
Golpas is a female sorcerer who passes herself off as a man. She is not powerful (stats 10) but has +1 in Name and +2 in Gate, Illusion, Healing, Send, Weather.

The Zone
A Sargasso-like area of mists and incessant rain; visibility is very poor. The periphery of the zone is a region of cold mist seething like smoke off the incessant rain. Sailing into it is like going into a waterfall.

Make a Vigour +Name roll on entering the Zone. If you fail, you’re starting to get rewritten. You might lose your sense of smell/taste, become increasingly drained of colour, find your shadow keeps slipping away, you cease to leave footprints, start to dissolve into vapour, etc. This is an ongoing effect to be used as a ticking clock to spur the characters later on.

Any attempt to make a Name roll in the Zone is at a penalty of -5 (at the periphery) up to -8 (centre of the zone) as names here fluctuate so fast.

They see a ship drifting without crew (the ironically named Fine Weather). It is listing to one side owing to the water that is filling its bilges. Aboard:
  • Gulls with blind human faces. Their shrieking sounds like men poorly imitating the cry of sea birds.
  • Outlines in the rain of people – the crew – but they are the absence of people.
  • Eyes that can be seen staring out of the timbers.
  • Scuttling shapes that seem to be a hybrid of rats and human hands.
  • The log book is sodden with rainwater – unreadable.
  • The hold is full of crates of spices and furs, mostly ruined.
In the zone, true names are being reconfigured. A name might be cut in half and recombined with another – for example, splitting shape from identity left the outlines in the rain (shape component) and the identity-component was then spliced to the identity of seagulls.

As they quit the Fine Weather, some of their own crew, in the process of having their true names rewritten, start to change. They become like cobweb shells that blow apart on the wind, leaving pale dancing sparks that flit about the rigging. (Have the bosun point out that men in the rigging haven’t moved for several minutes. Those are already husks, who will become dislodged and blow away when anyone is sent up to investigate.)

In the centre of the zone (they’ll need Pattern to locate it as the rain obscures everything) is a missing piece of reality: a rift in the air like a break in a pane of glass. They hear a keening sound of wind as they approach it. Anyone with Name skill (ie any wizard) can visibly see reality warping around the edges.

They cannot approach, but see the hole in reality at a distance. Intermittent pulses of light emit from it, accompanied by a shockwave that they can feel rather than hear. In each pounding shockwave it’s as if for a moment everything ceases to exist.

As they get within forty feet, the effect starts to strip away the substance of the ship. They must turn back, as it’s only possible to get closer once they have the missing piece.

To fix it they must recover the missing piece. It was taken by a wizard, who was transformed by the fragment and fled. But they must turn back now, for almost all the crew are already lost and the rest are panicking.

Possible episode to insert on the voyage if the players need a hint:
They spot an island with a wide bay. No wind is allowed here for it is the home of the sorcerer Jutle. The moment they enter the bay, the sails go slack and no weather can be induced to enter. Jutle is a middle-aged man hauling driftwood on the beach who asks if they are here to see the master. If they recognize him he’ll reveal that he is the master here and will help them, but he is a true ‘softly softly’ wizard and won’t have any truck with using magic flamboyantly.

The Missing Piece
Remember that characters who failed Vigour +Name are now at phase 2 (losing their shadow)

The fragment of reality was taken by a wizard named Agios. He held his name together with his magic but was transformed into a monster. Pattern will reveal his likely routes, Find will take them to him.

As they approach the missing piece it’s night; they sense they will come to it by dawn. It’s overcast, but they see they’re approaching a column some sixty feet across that stands directly up from the ocean. It seems to be of mottled pink and grey marble. Water steams off its side in the early heat of day (unless approaching by night).

This is no marmoreal column but the monster that Agios has become. Out of the haze above comes its giant distorted face. To protect the ship from this initial attack will require defences equalling 50 points – reduce damage from total wreck at 0 defence to protected at 50 defence. (More efficient if they find clever ways to fend it off, eg a mast spears its eye rather than a shield of force in the air. Note that direct attacks are very hard – see below.)

The monster resembles a huge sea-worm with a distorted face like something moulded from clay.

Direct-attack spells are hard to use against this creature:
  • Name attempt at -10 (due to continual fluctuations), then
  • Spell must succeed by 5 or more to be effective
It can smash masts & hulls, snap up several men at once (make a Skill roll to avoid unless you have a magical defence), etc.

The missing fragment is inside the monster’s stomach. Transforming Agios back to normal won’t last long even if the spell takes. The most effective thing is to get inside the monster somehow. They will need illumination, and must protect themselves against noxious fumes and acid.

The fragment of reality is shaped like two trapezoids and is about the size of a book. To transport it safely (the edges cut through literally anything) they will need to use Change to solidify the air around it or something like that.

Fixing a Hole
Remember that characters who failed Vigour +Name are now at phase 3 (dissolving)

It’s not just a case of slotting the missing fragment of reality back in place. You need to Name it (no modifier) and then cast Change -- but that must be done on the other side of the hole at the same time as in this reality.

To pass through the gap in reality to the alternate world requires Gate. The alternate world is a plain of sand with ripples surrounding the hole in reality, and a ring of greenery (savanna) in the distance. They immediately notice the dead calm. No weather at all works in the affected zone, though there are winds blowing across the steppes. This zone is analogous to how the archipelago world is being changed around the hole in reality there.

To cast spells here:
  1. Skill + Name (to read)
  2. Then Wisdom + Name (to transform into a usable form)
  3. Then cast the spell
The characters are greeted by primitive tribesmen who blame them for breaking the world. This is a world of open grassland in which the only wizards are female – the mirror image of the characters’ own world.

The natives’ shaman (Ma’ada) is reasonably powerful (stats 11) with Name +5 and Change +4. She must make her Name rolls at -5 here just as the PCs had to in their world.

Of course, the natives of this universe do not speak the same language. The characters must find a way to communicate – perhaps through use of Illusion magic, causing images to appear in a campfire.

Remember that somebody needs to fix the piece in place from this side: either one of the characters, or Ma’ada if they can explain to her what is needed, or Agios if he isn’t dead.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

A Dragon Warriors character

When James Wallis brought Dragon Warriors back from the ivied catafalque on which it lay sleeping through the '90s and '00s, one of the all-new books he released was Friends or Foes, a collection of interesting NPCs who can be used as adversaries or allies for the player-characters.

Why not throw it open to the whole DW community? Players could upload their characters for others to use or be inspired by. Characters in significant positions -- Baron Aldred's ostler, say -- could be even made semi-official.

Ah, you spotted the flaw. Somebody would actually have to do all the work. And there are always the Dragon Warriors Wiki, The Great Library of Hiabuor, The Cobwebbed Forest, and others, all with several campaigns' worth of resources free to use.

But just in case you are looking for a quick NPC, I came across a character I played briefly in Tim Harford's Legend game when Tim first came to London. (That was just before we began the still-running Iron Men campaign mentioned from time to time on this blog.) Valentine of Braying Cross was the loyal servant Sir Eustace, a vassal of Lord Montombre, so he could make a useful and dangerous foe. Incidentally, he's a 100-point character under GURPS 3e rules, which is what we played back then. I wonder what he'd look like in D&D 5th edition?

Brother Valentine

Valentine was born 964 AS, the younger son of Constantine, esquire of the parish of Braying Cross. He was entered at the Monastery of St Apollonius at the age of seven. At twelve he was abducted by slavers from Outer Thuland, where he spent the next four years until he was helped to escape by a wandering friar of the Frestonian Order. Valentine by now had an abiding dislike of heathens and wished to join the Knights Capellars, but was excluded by reason of birth and therefore entered the Frestonian Order instead.

After four years as a wandering friar he began to come to the notice of Montombre's men. At first they dismissed the over-earnest youth but gradually they came to respect his determination and iron-hard faith. Friars had by now come into fashion as confessors because the harsh rules they lived by gave them a greater air of piety than any rich priest could muster. Valentine became Sir Eustace's confessor and clerk, and gradually took on other duties as well. He relishes the insulting names his enemies know him by. Regarding himself as Sir Eustace's "sin eater", he takes all the old man's unsavoury tasks onto his own shoulders -- interrogating spies with icy efficiency, alert to heresy among his master's entourage, sniffing out malcontents in the town gutters and doing what is needful.

Valentine's learned skills fall into three categories: the academic studies of his youth, the physical abilities gained in service to Lord Egil of Thuland, and the talents he has taught himself in order to better serve Sir Eustace, Earl Montombre and the Church.

He is tall and somewhat lanky with honey-coloured hair and blue-grey eyes. He might appear handsome but for his zealous scowl and unrelenting stare. His humour is liable to be bleak. He smiles most readily when in a position to do harm to an unrepentant foe.

His vows, in common with all the Orders of friar, constrain him to poverty, chastity and obedience. He can personally own only his clothing, religious accoutrements and (if need be) a humble place of abode. His arms and armour he holds from his lord and has no private title to them. He uses only such money as is entrusted to him for specific purposes, since as a friar he can always secure a simple meal and a place to sleep in return for a blessing. His chastity was once sorely tested by a succubus that visited him in the wildwood. He repulsed it after a dire struggle and thereafter sealed himself in his cell for forty days and nights, fasting until he gained renewed strength to resist such evil. This is the source of his resistance to magic. The vow of obedience means that he must do whatever is required of him by the lawfully appointed officials of the Faith and (more importantly, perhaps, to Valentine) by his temporal lord, Montombre.

Valentine has one redeeming quality. He is fond of animals (especially cats) perhaps because they, unlike man, are a part of God's design untouched by sin. He has a quotation from the Scriptures that he likes to recite when he's about to mete out justice:

"For thus saith the Lord God: Because thou hast clapped thine hands, and stamped with thy feet, and rejoiced with all thy despite against the land of believers; behold, therefore I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and will deliver thee for a spoil to the heathen; and I will cut thee off from the people, and I will cause thee to perish out of the countries; I will destroy thee; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord."

And while we're talking about Legend, don't miss the latest fine offerings from Red Ruin Publishing, a couple of Dragon Warriors gamebooks: Green Water, Crimson Stag and Meryon Woods -- both free on DriveThruRPG. And if those whet your appetite for DW solo adventures, you'll want to grab Village of the Damned and The Village of Frogton too.