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Wednesday, 9 June 2021

The acute, persistent, unquenchable craving to know

This might just be my favourite of the H P Lovecraft letters read on the Voluminous podcast. HPL shows how it's possible to hold very different opinions from someone else and still remain friends (we shouldn't need to be reminded of that) while having a robust argument with them (we all ought to be taught that).

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Everything must go

It's always a wrench having to chuck stuff out. Well, it is for me as I'm a bit of a hoarder. But lately I've had to take an "exterminate all the brutes" attitude to clearing out, so I've given a couple of boxes of gaming treasures to my wife to flog on Ebay. It's that or take them to the tip, and with classics like these that would be a crime. 

There's sets of Imagine, Adventurer, Red Giant (with Brymstone by Robert Dale), and Fantasy Chronicles - including the issue above with Steve Foster's superb Christmas adventure which I still remember us playing in his house on Western Lane.

There are some scenario books, Chaosium games such as Big Rubble, gems like Bushido and Champions, and some figurines. Take a look if you have space for them. I'd like to think they'll go to a good home.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Hard-as-nails heroes wanted

New news about Blood Sword 5e, the D&D-style RPG version of the Blood Sword gamebook saga. I've just been looking at the Quickstart and it's pretty impressive how this project is shaping up. The team is doing a stunning job, the chosen artists are top-notch and their styles mesh well with Russ' original illustrations. The 5e rules developed for the setting balance perfectly the Old School flavour of the series with a more fresh and modern RPG system, and as for the adventure -- well, I was expecting a simple adaptation or a sort of remake, and it would have been fine, but the authors have gone a lot further. “The Cursed Temple” isn't just a prequel of The Battlepits of Krarth, it rivisits the setting entirely with a brand-new plot and a truly grim, anti-heroic spirit that powerfully emerges from the story and from the characters' backgrounds. If you're into D&D-style roleplaying (90% of the gaming community these days) I think you're going to love it. 

The Quickstart is free with subscription to the project newsletter. You can also try it this weekend on Discord -- the one-shots are free to play (though with limited slots, so it's first-come, first-served) and you can also invite your friends. For once I'm leaving comments on to get your feedback. 

Friday, 4 June 2021

Try harder, Trekkers

Looking back from a quarter century on, it's hard to believe I cared that much. I'd just seen Star Trek Generations and I decided to tell Rick Berman what was wrong with it. Audacious, you might think. Pompous, even. But I stand by what I said then. If they didn't want constructive criticism, they could have written a better script. If any reader of Mirabilis has a bone to pick with me about mistakes in the story, I'll listen.

And I was aiming to help. They wanted to write a story of tragic sacrifice, but all they'd done was describe a high-stakes gamble that didn't pan out. The climax wasn't "a far, far better thing"; it was just "oops!" The letter went on:
"Mr Zimmerman is right. Heroic figures like Kirk and Spock have so often been seen to take extreme life-threatening risks that the only way to have them die in a way that works in narrative terms is when they are faced with certain death. When Spock died in The Wrath of Khan he knew in advance that his action would be fatal. But that wasn't the case with Kirk's death. Scrambling about on the collapsing bridge is the kind of thing he's done hundreds of times before. He knew he was taking a risk, but at no point did we actually get to see him make that crucial decision to sacrifice himself. In real life you could say that this turned out to be the one time his luck ran out, but the rules of real life aren't after all the rules of fiction.

"In this sense I believe Kirk's death was wasted. Obviously it is time to move on with the Trek movies now, but when a character like Kirk has been built up to such a genuinely mythic level the way he leaves life should be on a par with the way he's lived it -- full of sound and fury, and signifying a very great deal.

"This touches on a secondary problem I think you could have with subsequent Trek movies. You have a large cast there, and the awkward subplot with Data showed that it is not so easy to give time to every character and still maintain the narrative momentum demanded by a feature film. People aren't going to come into the theatres every two years to see the latest developments in an outer-space soap, and the more cerebral and complex character-based issues for which the TV series is justly famous are too subtle to carry an action movie. The best Trek films haven't just been TV episodes on a bigger screen, but stories with a big canvas and big ideas to fit.

"Mumon said, 'Do not shoot another's bow, do not ride another's horse, do not criticize another's work.' My suggestions are meant as constructive ones and I hope they don't give the impression that the movie as a whole wasn't good. It's just that I think it could have been great."
I even went so far as to enclose a five-page treatment for a follow-on Trek movie, in which the bad guys were the Yu, a neotic offshoot of humanity in the far future. Earth is now known as Terra, feared throughout the galaxy as the nerve centre of a ruthless empire. I described our time-travelling heroes' first glimpse of what was once their homeworld:
"Terra is not the blue jewel that it was in their own time, but a sinister shadow against the heavens, mustard yellow with pollution and crisscrossed by myriad lights marking out vast continent-spanning metropolises. A grim testament to the Yu's implacable totalitarian society."
A year and a half later, Star Trek First Contact came out. This time I realized the futility of firing off a letter about the flaws in the story. It would have had to be a much longer letter anyway. But there was one bit in the movie that got my seal of approval... No blue jewel, this.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

The Fabled Lands CRPG is now in early access

Do I need to say it twice? Get it on Steam, FL fans.

The early access edition features all character professions, the only limitation being that your adventures are restricted to two regions: the kingdom of Sokara and the the Great Steppes of the North. That's about twelve hours of content for a successful start-to-end playthrough that unlocks all forty game objectives.

All of the game's core features are integrated: exploration, combat, items, sailing, active and passive skills, resurrection deals, blessings, potions, tutorials, everything you might want. And the full version will open out to include Golnir and Uttaku, ie all the regions of the northern continent. And later expansions should extend across the Violet Ocean to Akatsurai, Ankon-Konu, and even those regions yet to be covered by the books.

Victor Atanasov and his team at Prime Games have done an amazing job, and they're just getting warmed up. Still need convincing? There's a playthrough by the utterly compelling master of stories Guy Sclanders here. Beats a box set of Marvel TV shows in my book. Better acting, too.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Cut and thrust

Assuming your roleplaying campaign involves combat, how long should fights go on? In Sagas of the Icelanders, a fight is usually just one dice roll, which is just how quickly it would be resolved in the sagas:
"A great sheet of ice had been thrown up by the flood on the other side of the river as smooth and slippery as glass, and there Thrain and his men stood in the midst of the sheet. Skarphedinn took a spring into the air, and leapt over the stream between the ice banks, and did not check his course, but rushed onwards with a slide. The sheet of ice was very slippery, and so he went as fast as a bird flies. Thrain was just about to put his helm on his head. Skarphedinn bore down on him and hewed at Thrain with his axe Rimmugýgur, the 'battle-witch', and smote him on the head, and clove him down to the teeth, so that his jaw-teeth fell out on the ice. This feat was done with such a quick sleight that no one could get a blow at him; he glided away from them at once at full speed. Tjorvi, indeed, threw his shield before him on the ice, but he leapt over it, and still kept his feet, and slid quite to the end of the sheet of ice."
Contrast that with games of Runequest (I'm talking about v2 here; more recent editions may have fixed it) where battles between two reasonably skilled fighters became a case of slash, parry, slash, parry, and rinse and repeat until eventually somebody fumbled. And in GURPS a combat is like a slow game of county cricket. (Imagine replicating Skarpedinn's feat at the frozen river using GURPS 4e -- we'd still be here next Christmas.)

How long should fights go on? As long as suits the setting and the players. Sagas of the Icelanders is true to the literary reality of the original stories. For all I know, the presumably saga-length combats in RQ Vikings are nearer to how they played out in reality. If you're playing a game that's trying to recreate the feel of a kung fu movie, you'd feel cheated if every fight was over in a single strike. And even when it is, the manoeuvring beforehand tells a story in its own right:

A combat should be a little story, with a beginning, middle and end. But it's only worth playing out the beats of those mini-stories if they're going to be interestingly different each time. We'll tolerate combat mechanics that take longer to resolve if they generate dramatic outcomes. I've found Tirikelu hits the sweet spot, being both quick and cinematic, but after all it would be pretty surprising if I wasn't satisfied by a system I devised. You'll have to judge it for yourself.

Tekumel is a good place to look for the emergent story possibilities of combat. One-on-one fights are often formal duels held under the terms of the Manifesto of Nobel Deliverance. The beginning of the story is the quarrel or insult that instigates the duel. The middle is the negotiation between the seconds as to the form of the duel. And, as in any good story, the decisions made at that stage almost always set up the denouement which is the fight itself.

Duels make for interesting fights because the stakes are clear (honour, sometimes life too) and there are all kinds of ways it can turn out. Somebody might win by resorting to inelegant or even dirty tactics (use of Warrior skill rather than just Weapon skill, in Tirikelu). In pistol duels, one of the combatants might choose to fire in the air, or otherwise pull something unexpected; look at the duels in Scaramouche or The Duellists for inspiration.

If combat is frequent in your games and simply functions as an obstacle you throw in front of the players to prevent them from smoothly achieving their goals -- hordes of orcs in a dungeon, say -- then a single roll to decide the fight is probably enough. If the characters are samurai, Spartans, musketeers, or kuruthūniyal, then it's quite likely that the minutiae of each battle comprise a significant part of their story. Gun battles in a noir setting will be decisively shorter than in special ops adventure. The rules should put the focus on whatever matters in the campaign, and generate just enough blow-by-blow detail to fuel the kind of stories you want to emerge.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

"We think these are going to be the best gamebooks we've ever written."

Here's Jamie talking to Jamie (it's confusing, I know; we have to get used to this sort of thing in the era of cloning) about our upcoming Vulcanverse gamebooks, which will be released later in the year by Fabled Lands Publishing. My first one, The Hammer of the Sun, weighs in at over 1700 sections, which is two whole Fabled Lands books, and I'm now well under way on the second, currently titled The Pillars of the Sky.

Jamie (whose first two titles in the series are The Houses of the Dead and The Wild Woods) and I are aiming to put in some design innovations for the genre, just to prove we can still break new ground like we did all those years ago when we first came up with the concept of open-world gamebooks. Elder gods can learn new tricks, y'see.

Will these books, as Jamie claims, be our best yet? In just a few months the world of gamebook fandom will be able to judge. I can reveal that we have built in the ability to permanently change the world by your actions. You will encounter friends and foes, develop relationships throughout your adventure, and the choices you make will have a lasting effect on you and the people you meet. There is an ongoing story arc, which runs through all five books and builds towards an epic climax, but of course you'll be free to wander off the main thread to explore side quests or investigate whatever takes your fancy.

And finally... in a recent YouTube vid, Jamie + Jamie wondered how to pronounce Titanomachy. So you'll never have that problem: it's ty-ta-NOM-akee.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Going to the gods

If you believe in gods and in life after death, it's not inconceivable that you might consider it an honour to be sacrificed in order to carry a message to the world beyond. Some real-life cultures seem to have taken that view. Frazer gives several examples in The Golden Bough and talks about the sacred king whose reign might well end with a trip to the afterlife. Describing the 16th century customs of the Chichimecas, the friar Marcos de Niza said: "They cast lots to decide who will have the honour of being sacrificed, and with joy they crown him with flowers upon a bed on piles of wood which they set on fire, and so he dies. The victim takes great pleasure in this rite."

"Great pleasure"? Anthropologist Kathryn M Koziol isn't so sure about that. In this paper about another Pre-Columbian culture she says, "Among the Natchez, the mortuary rituals of the elite Suns [chiefs] included the killing of retainers. These retainers were members of the Natchez population and gained prestige for their kin by willingly dying, or at least by performing their willingness to die, to accompany their leaders." My emphasis there.

Professor Nicholas Humphrey gets outraged at the suggestion that the Inca "Ice Maiden" might have been an even enthusiastic participant in her own ritual killing (40 minutes in to this video)...

But Humphrey is a psychologist, not a historian or anthropologist, and the simple fact is we don't know. The sacrifice of the Ice Maiden might have been a crime inflicted on an unwilling victim; it might have been a signal honour jealously coveted among the Inca. Even framing it in those terms only makes sense in the context of our own culture.

Players of my gamebook Necklace of Skulls may have been on the receiving end of such an honour. On your visit to Chichen Itza ("Yashuna" in the book) the priests of Chaac invite you to jump into the sacred cenote with a message for the gods. Of course, in the gamebook the cenote undeniably is a gateway into the mythic world. In real life (see photo above; that's me on honeymoon) it's just a dirty great pond in which you'd soon go down for the third time. Pleading hydrophobia was no get-out, as there was always the option of getting sacrificed as an esteemed ball player, which is what the spouting snake-heads represent in this carving:

It's not just in Native American cultures that we encounter the willing (and even apparently eager) sacrifice. Ahmad ibn Fadlan, writing in the 10th century, gives a vivid account of a Viking ship burial in which a female thrall has sex with each of the mourners in turn and is then ritually killed. Wikipedia wonders at the attitude of the thrall herself (a volunteer, according to ibn Fadlan) and says, "While the scholarly consensus assumes that the slave girl would have felt happy and privileged about having sex with many people before being killed, recent work has suggested that we should instead see this as an account of rape and brutal strangulation."

What "recent work" could that possibly be? Time travel? A séance? Because otherwise they just mean "somebody's recent opinion", which is utterly useless. It only tells us about the attitudes of the West in 2021, not of the Rus in 921. We cannot know how people from those far-off cultures regarded a sacrificial victim without knowing what the world looked like through their eyes. Even the word victim implies a modern viewpoint. To them the afterlife was probably as real as sunlight and rain, whereas we know perfectly well they were not off to see Chaac or Odin with a message from the mortal world but were simply being snuffed out. Would they have been frightened or honoured? Both, probably. As Professor Koziol says at the start of that paper I cited, human societies are capable of acts that are simultaneously great and terrible. Our rituals aren't unambiguous, so why should our reactions to them be?

No matter how sure you are that you're about to enter the afterlife, there's got to be a natural fear of death too. A kamikaze pilot crashing into a warship no doubt had feelings of both fear and pride. The September 11 attackers presumably felt exalted, terrified, uncertain and excited all at once. They were told their martyrdom would earn them immediate entry into a heavenly paradise, but did they completely believe that? Would Wikipedia describe them as feeling "happy and privileged" or as having been manipulated and psychologically abused? If we can't even exactly pin down the mentality of modern jihadists, how are we going to judge the cultural mores of five or ten centuries past?

Yet thinking our way into other cultures and other mind-sets is part of roleplaying. On Tekumel, prisoners of war who aren't of glorious enough status to be worth ransoming back to their clans will usually get sacrificed to the gods. In Tetsubo, a character performing seppuku believes he is undertaking an act of courage and dignity. Spock in Wrath of Khan knowingly took a lethal dose of radiation as an act of logical altruism -- it wasn't his fault he was then doomed to an eternal afterlife of sequels, and we can only hope that any player-character attempting the same thing in an SF campaign would be granted the dignity of a true death.

We don't know what it's actually like to be a person raised in another era or culture, but we are all human and we have universal emotions and our imaginations. We can conceive of a credible mindset for a kamikaze pilot or a 10th century slave girl on a pyre or a Maya citizen jumping into a sinkhole. That's as good as it's going to get.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Blood Sword 5e

I've had to keep this under my hat for months, but now it can be told: a new roleplaying game based on the Blood Sword books is in the works -- and it uses Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition rules.

Confused? There is already an RPG of the world of Legend, of course: Dragon Warriors. And I'm even working on an unplugged variant or cousin of that system: Jewelspider. So why Blood Sword?

The fact is that the Blood Sword books, while nominally set in the world of Dragon Warriors, have a very different flavour. Dragon Warriors is low fantasy, or was always meant to be, and that goes double for Jewelspider. But Blood Sword is the very essence of epic fantasy, with its mythic adversaries, heroic challenges, and save-the-world storyline.

Blood Sword, in short, is perfect for the kind of high adventure that 5e delivers. And I have a feeling it'll be the system that many Legend players have been looking for all these years. I've noticed that a lot of Dragon Warriors games throw out the cultural and small-scale folkloric elements in favour of grand plots worthy of the MCU. So the 5e edition of Blood Sword is going to be the RPG those gamers have been waiting for, while those who prefer the lower key of decidedly unheroic "real" Legend will still have DW and Jewelspider.

Here's the official description from publishers Tambù:

Blood Sword, the legendary 1980s gamebook series by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, is back as a new setting for the 5th Edition of the most famous role-playing game of all time. 

You will play as rough and ragged mercenaries or bounty hunters, in service to the lords and monarchs of Legend. You will be part of a vile stew of assassins and soldiers of fortune hired to fight bloody wars, to banish the monstrous creatures that plague woods and villages. But it is woven into your destiny that you will retrieve ancient relics – relics of great and terrible power such as the lost fragments of the Blood Sword, the only weapon that can defeat the five undying Magi of Krarth who threaten to unleash the Apocalypse. 
Are you ready for adventure?
A Kickstarter is planned to launch the Blood Sword 5e game, and you can sign up for the pre-campaign and to be notified of early bird pledges here. And there's also a Facebook group.

Those who are waiting on Jewelspider, don't fret that this will distract me. I'm not directly involved in the design of the Blood Sword 5e game. I haven't played any edition of D&D in over thirty years so I'd be no help anyway, but in any case Tambù already has a very talented creative team lined up, with Ercole Belloni as editor and Valentino Sergi and Daniele Fusetto as designers. Read more about the team and the project here. I'll be on hand to advise them and I may even get to play in one of their games on Facebook. I'd better take a look at those 5e links, hadn't I?

Friday, 30 April 2021

The player who couldn't make it

'You killed my character and I wasn't even there!'

It was the early days of roleplaying and we were still feeling our way, but the player was right to be aggrieved. It's like borrowing a friend's Hellblazer collection and returning it covered in coffee stains. (A sore point; we won't go into that.) Still and all, what should I have done? We'd been in mid-battle the previous session, we'd had to press pause, and that player hadn't been able to turn up to the next game.

I can't remember what I decided. There might have been a retcon, but I was pretty hardline in those days so maybe the player just had to suck it up. At any rate, they didn't die in vain. From then on it was understood that PCs wouldn't get killed in the player's absence.

One simple solution is to avoid breaking the session in the middle of a fight. I've talked before about why cutting a session there doesn't work. There are more suspenseful ways to build in a cliffhanger. For instance, suppose it's the eve of Waterloo and the player-characters are sent to evacuate an important NPC from a chateau some miles from the main battle line. They get there only to learn that an enemy detachment is also heading that way. That's a good point to break. There's tension, there's uncertainty. Before the next session the players will be thinking about what to do. Run for it? Barricade the chateau and make a stand? Head towards the enemy for a surprise attack? Negotiate? Disguise one of the party as the NPC?

The icing on this cake is that if any player can't make the next session it's easy to explain away their absence. Maybe they've made a break for it with a message for high command, or they're out scouting the enemy's position. Contrast that with having the enemy characters burst into the chateau and then breaking till next time. Quite apart from the problem of having to cold-start with action rather than character interplay, you have no easy way to account for the absent PC. They were there last time making plans with the rest of the team -- but for some reason they sit out the fight? The other players can just shrug and accept it, the way you have to give a free pass to plot details in Doctor Who, but it's not great for immersion. In every way the former solution works better.

It's easier when you have plenty of prior warning that a player can't turn up. Their character can be off doing something else and there's no need to come up with an excuse for them not taking part in the action. Our long-running Tekumel campaign used to be run by me and Steve Foster (the designer of Mortal Combat and Eureka) taking turns as referee. We soon spotted the flaw in this arrangement: our own characters were only getting to be half as powerful as the rest of the party. Our fix was to award our own characters 80% of the average experience points earned by the other characters for sessions when we were refereeing not playing, the one-fifth deduction reflecting the fact that we weren't in danger of death. If a player couldn't turn up one week, they got the same deal.

Nowadays it's less of a problem because I don't tend to bother with awarding experience points, or else I play in games run by referees brought up in a culture of "every kid gets a prize" who scrupulously award each character the same experience regardless of what they did. In settings less vivid and immersive than Tekumel, suspension of disbelief may be less of an issue and players may just accept without comment that a character blinked out of existence for a week. Whatever works for your group, just so long as you don't hand a borrowed character back in a body bag.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

The Lovecraft Investigations

I've been listening to The Lovecraft Investigations, a BBC audio serial by Julian Simpson that takes interesting liberties with "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward", "The Whisperer In Darkness", and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". I've provided links to the original HPL stories there because I think you'll enjoy the audio serial more if you know what they're riffing off. I'm not sure if people outside the UK can download the episodes from the BBC website for free, but if not try here.

The conceit is that we're listening to a real-life mystery podcast presented by Matthew Heawood (Barnaby Kay) and Kennedy Fisher (Jana Carpenter). These are well executed dramas, with good scripts (bar the occasional exposition-dump episode) and top-notch acting. They even got the superb Nicola Walker on board. How on earth does she have any spare time? I suspect her husband, who plays Heawood, might have twisted her arm.

If I have any quibble (and of course I do) it's that the flavour of scariness is more Delta Green than authentic Lovecraft. And, yes, I know they're not trying to do authentic Lovecraft, but it's a big step down from cosmic horror to cults-&-conspiracies. Secret organizations saving the world from scheming bogeymen? Not again, thanks. Really, what we have here is The Derlethian Investigations, whereas Lovecraft's conception of horror was genuinely innovative and I'd love to see somebody turn his ideas into a modern horror movie, TV show or podcast. That sheer bleak dread was what I was aiming for with the scenario "The End of the Line" but even there the tension can only build for so long before it all breaks up into running and screaming. Maybe that's a problem with all drama: the takeoff is always more atmospheric and interesting than the landing. That could explain Lovecraft's own aversion to plot. Thrillers are just fairground rides, whereas what was at stake in his stories was something much more personal and disquieting.

But anything that retained the existentialist nightmarishness of unadulterated HPL would likely not be that popular. Audiences want the Doctor Who style of panto horror -- the same thinking that inflicted a queen on the Borg, so that they could get actors in to chew the scenery. After a century of tying plucky reporters to chairs and planning rituals that will summon the apocalypse, it's futile to hope that drama is going to change now. But The Lovecraftian Investigations is a great deal better written than Doctor Who is these days, so putting my purist nitpicking aside I'll happily recommend it as a gripping and genuinely creepy modern classic. I've been listening to it while strolling the sunlit woodland of Surrey and it has transported me to shabby London car parks, rain-swept patches of Orford Ness, posh Pall Mall clubs, and spooky old cottages at night. It's true what they say. On radio, the pictures are better.

Coming up tomorrow: what happens when your roleplaying adventure hinges on a key character -- and the player can't make it that week?

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Analyze this

Maybe you’re still in the halcyon days of roleplaying. I mean the Goldilocks time when you’re safely past the juggernaut of finals and have yet to be distracted by career or kids. The days of dossing around, some might call it. You get to see your friends all the time and together you can slip into the parallel life of your roleplaying world whenever it suits you. Nothing beats it for immersion. Arguably it’s the only true way to roleplay.

For me it was back in the ‘80s. We’d have at least one evening’s gaming a week with the whole group, and usually two or three side sessions featuring one or two players who could then flesh out their characters’ extracurricular activities. And after the big Thursday night game, often we’d sit into the small hours (or even dawn) talking about the world of Tekumel, or chatting in or out of character. It was at one such post-mortem gathering, after our characters had disrupted the summoning of the tempest demon Kirikyagga, that the wind started to pick up and somebody mentioned that Kirikyagga was annoyed. That was October 1987.

But I digress. The reason I mention all this is that there was an interesting difference of approach in those post-game chats. Some players (eg Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith) liked to talk about their characters’ goals and personality and what we’d nowadays call story arc. “As Jadhak I used to be very cruel,” Jamie might say. “But since that Llyani curse caused me to lose my sense of fear I'm much mellower. I was cruel out of fear, you see, as a defence mechanism, and now my need for that has gone.”

This was a foreign language to players like me and Paul Mason. We threw ourselves into the role while playing, but I didn’t ever think about my character in an authorial way. On reflection, that might just be because I don’t think about myself in an authorial way. I would never map out how my character was going to develop, or even have any interest in analysing his behaviour. “You must have planned it that Drichansa is always kind to children,” Jamie might protest.

Drichansa was my character. All I'd started with was a mannerism: tugging at my earlobe when really trying to get to grips with a problem. Everything else about Drichansa I discovered as I played him. Jamie found the kindness to children surprising because Drichansa was otherwise notably lacking in tenderness.

“Kind to kids? I suppose I am,” I said. “I never thought about it.”

“You told Jadhak you were adopted. Could that be why?”

“Maybe. Want another whisky?”

You might think it’s odd that an author wouldn’t go in for that kind of character analysis, but I don’t tend to do it with the characters I write about either. Sitting at a keyboard making stuff up can get boring if the characters don’t surprise you from time to time.

This could explain why I’m not much interested in narrative mechanics for roleplaying. I don’t want to control my character like an author; I want to be them. I recently saw the latter method derided as the Actor Approach, and the person went on to say, “That’s not even how real actors do it.” Quite right. An actor has a script (most of the time) and even if they’re in a Mike Leigh or Christopher Guest movie they’ll have sat through extensive character workshops and discussions of the storyline first. But the attraction of roleplaying for me is to be neither author nor actor. It’s more like life: fielding stuff as it comes at you, and finding the story (or rather, stories) that emerge from all that noise only when you look back at it – and even then only if looking for story patterns is your thing.

But that style of playing is not so easy once you’re out of the sweet spot between college and adult life. We get fewer opportunities for gaming (my sessions are down to once a fortnight) and less time (no more playing till after midnight). No wonder that today’s games look for ways to jump-start inter-PC relationships and squeeze your fantasy life into the familiar shapes and tropes that stories take in creative writing courses.

And it occurs to me that’s what dungeons were, back in the dim mists of roleplaying history: a story shape, admittedly crude and built out of rooms and ten-foot corridors, that led you to a Big Bad at the end and allowed for campfire moments back at the town in between expeditions. A three-act structure in architectural form.

Modern games do a lot better – although arguably a physical environment is just as effective a way to shape a story as using plot points and scene breaks. Still, I gave up dungeons pretty early in my roleplaying career and I enjoy the emergent unpredictability of just-dive-in roleplaying stories too much to want to wrangle them with plot paradigms. Also, one of my day jobs is sitting with other writers planning characters’ story arcs. I enjoy that exercise of craft very much, the problem-solving and the personality construction, but I can’t see an evening spent doing pretty much the same thing as relaxation.

An example: not long ago I came very close to running a campaign from a published book complete with pre-planned adventure. The book begins by saying that each player should pick one of the other PCs as their closest friend, and another who they most trust, and so on. For me that should all happen in-game. I don’t want written backstories, I want players to forge those relationships out of their experiences as they play. Then they’ll really feel it. If somebody at my table says, “Out of game for a moment, I think my character would…” then I feel like I’ve failed. They should be leaving their everyday life behind. If they’re stopping to view the characters from outside then they’re distanced from the fantasy, and that means the game isn’t working.

By the way, this applies to writing too. If you start a novel or script with two characters already in love, that won’t have anything like the impact of having them fall in love in the course of the story. Games likewise. A year or two back I consulted on the design of a computer game that began with a long cutscene explaining how the player had a pet dog called Jack who was your best pal, and together you got stranded on a desert island. I threw out the cutscene. “Have the player get shipwrecked and then find Jack trapped under an overturned lifeboat," was my advice. "You get to free him -- that's the first time you've met him, and so the bonding between you happens in-game rather than before the game starts." That way the player will actually care, because they experienced it rather than just being told about it. (Game storytelling 101, that, but you'd be surprised how many developers don't know it.)

Some people enjoy being the author of their character’s life, and/or bringing a five-page backstory to the first session, or calling time out to explain (often in third person) how their character arc dovetails with something that's happening in the game. They are more comfortable with the distance that brings. Well, fine -- you should play the game whatever way lets you get most out of it. But given all the RPGs these days that are designed to conform characters to types and tailor events to an archetypal narrative, maybe you should try it at least one time without preconception, script, or safety net. Just put on the persona and be that character. The worst that can happen is you'll lose yourself in the game.

The wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking

I think I picked up a love of literary sailing from Jack Vance. Or maybe it was earlier, as I've been on Captain Bligh's side since the first time I heard the story of the Bounty.

So it was inevitable that Fabled Lands would feature seafaring adventures like you get in Blood Sword and Down Among the Dead Men. Connective tissue though it is for the rest of the series, I think I enjoyed writing Over the Blood-Dark Sea best of all the FL books.

If you've got the brine in your system too, Prime Games have an update on the Fabled Lands CRPG and it's all about the high seas. Hoist the mainsail!

Coming up tomorrow: how dungeons are a simple container to shape stories, and whether it's better to author a character or just play them.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

"Death Is Only The Beginning" (scenario for Jewelspider/Dragon Warriors)

This short self-contained adventure could serve as a monster-of-the-week interlude if you need to insert a lull in a bigger campaign. The setting is rural Ellesland, part of the medieval world of Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider.

The restless dead

Two men, strangers to the district, recently died in the village of Drakelow. They were itinerant labourers who had hired on to help with the reaping, making their beds in an old cowshed across the fields. It appears they must have argued one evening and each stabbed the other in the heart.

The coroner, Sir Achard, duly arrived and assayed the scene. He confiscated the purses of the two dead men. Local enquiries revealed them to be Gerwin and Lampert. They had spent time on several local manors, usually getting driven on to their next location because of drunkenness or Gerwin’s tendency to flirt with milkmaids. The bodies were buried in a potter’s field attached to the churchyard.

To the annoyance of Sir Percy de Grainville, lord of Drakelow, the coroner levied a fine on him for taking on labourers of unknown provenance. He was even more annoyed a few days later when a farm worker returning from the fields with a cart full of wheat saw Gerwin and Lampert in the orchard. He ran off, abandoning the cart, and when a group of villagers returned to the spot they found the whole contents of the cart spoiled, the grain black and rancid as if it had been soaked in sewage water for weeks.

And so it begins

Now, at this point you may be asking how the player-characters come into this. They could be working in the fields themselves to earn a few coins (the pay is ninepence a week) but it’s likely your players don’t care to trudge around doing menial work. Higher status characters could be guests of Sir Percy, or perhaps they arrive in Sir Achard’s retinue. Another option: they’re sent by the bishop when the first hints of something diabolical start to get bruited about.

Or the player-characters could be wanderers themselves, just passing through, but with the locals already jittery that’s a dangerous position to be in.

Two days after the burial a little boy returns home without his sister, telling a story of how they met a man on the road sitting on a wooden box. He invited the little girl to lie in it, saying that it was a bed he’d been given by the charity of the villagers. ‘Then another man came and they put on the lid and carried her off.’

The sexton notices the soil in the potter’s field has been roughly churned up. ‘I patted those graves down myself.’ Digging at the spot, which is Gerwin’s grave, he finds the body of the missing girl. There is no sign of Gerwin’s corpse or his coffin.

Sir Percy decides there is no need to summon the coroner to investigate the death of a ten-year-old girl, even though the body has been drained of blood.

Further sightings ensue: two figures loping through the fields at sunset; a horrible clamouring and banging in the street at night; plague symbols daubed on the door of the mill house.

The facts in the case

Further investigation reveals some more facts, if the player-characters are interested. On the day Gerwin and Lampert died, they had taken part in a custom where the lord lets loose a sheep in a field and whoever catches it first gets to keep it. They won, but the sheep was not found with their bodies. ‘It must have got loose and wandered off,’ reckons the coroner if asked.

Their purses contained a total of twenty farthings, though they had earned at least two shillings each in the time they’d been working on the manor. ‘Spent the rest in the tavern,’ is the coroner’s opinion.

Apart from the fatal thrusts there were no other knife-wounds on the bodies, but some of the jurors (twelve locals summoned for the purpose) admit to seeing bruises on the arms and necks, as though the dead men had been restrained.

Gerwin had been seen hanging around Lucy, the 16-year-old daughter of Richard the miller. Some villagers think she was sweet on him, others that his attentions were unwelcome. A day or two before Gerwin’s death, he and Richard argued in the lane and each threatened the other. Richard has three strapping sons (Joseph, Barnaby and Abel) who all share their father’s fiery temper and most villagers wouldn’t care to get on the wrong side of the family.

Things get serious

Richard Miller comes down with a fever. He gets weaker and his son Joseph is sent to fetch a physician from the monastery. He takes some money to pay the monks but does not return that night. The next morning he’s found torn limb from limb. His purse is open on the ground beside the body but only some of the money has been taken – a little over two shillings, the sum the characters might expect Gerwin and Lampert to have saved if they make any effort to calculate it.

The coroner is no happier to be called back than Sir Percy is to see him, especially as the circumstances of Joseph Miller’s death don’t admit of any easy explanation.
‘Brigands, perhaps? They tortured him for his money, it seems.’

‘Why not just take it? The purse was in his belt.’

‘For sport, then. They must have tied him to horses. How else could he have been ripped apart like that?’

‘But there were no rope marks. Just hand prints on his limbs.’

‘Absurd. What hands could dismember a strong lad as though he were an over-roasted fowl?’
More calamities ensue. The geese are found with their necks wrung. Among the carcasses lies a severed finger, black and mould-spattered. ‘One of the birds must have bitten it off,’ says the sexton, picking up the finger. ‘I’ll bury it after I’ve got the rector to pour some holy water on it.’ But that night the sexton is taken ill.

Others get sick. The miller’s remaining sons are pursued on their way back from the pub and barely get home and bar the door before there is a terrible pounding and roaring outside which goes on all night. Next day they relate the tale: ‘On the roof it was, and we had to use all the firewood to stop it coming down the chimney. Suddenly the noise stopped, just as the cock crowed. Then at sunrise when we went to look in on Daisy – ’

‘Hush, you fool,’ says Barnaby, kicking his shin.

It soon seems clear that ‘Daisy’ is a sheep the Millers have been keeping tethered at the back of the mill. Nobody heard her bleating because of the sound of the river. The carcass been stripped to the bones.

‘Eaten raw,’ remarks the coroner. ‘Perhaps wolves..?’ But he sounds decidedly uncertain now.

Stake out

Lampert is easy to deal with. He can be dug up in broad daylight. The cloth around his face is soaked in blood and his flesh, though marked with pocks of decay, is ruddy and swollen. The rector sprinkles the body with holy water and directs the villagers to cut off the head and put it face down between the legs.

Gerwin’s grave is already known to be empty, so before he can be dealt with in the same way his new resting place must be found. As a red herring, he’s been seen lingering near Dipcap Wood, a copse on a rolling green hill half a mile from the village. The villagers occasionally gather fallen branches from the outskirts of the copse but never venture in because it is a place of ill repute. The characters could waste a day or two searching the copse for Gerwin’s grave site, which in fact is in the wheat fields much nearer to the village.

Gerwin is able to go about invisible after dark, so the characters need to track him. They can follow his path through the wheat field where he has trampled the stalks flat going to and fro from his new grave, or they must think of some other ploy.

But there is a risk if they leave it too long that Lucy Miller comes down with the sickness, and she is not expected to last the night, so perhaps they can’t afford to wait for the safety of daylight and must go to confront the vampire in darkness.

It’s a tough fight. Gerwin cannot be cut except by weapons that have been forged with magic or else blessed, so all other edged weapons do half damage against him. A mace will be useful only if it shatters a bone (signified by scoring at the upper range of damage), otherwise he shrugs it off.

Holy water? That’s useful only once the monster is down, to stop it rising again. There's no Hollywood acid-in-the-face effect here. Forget too the tigerish snarls and snapping of modern vampires faced with crosses. A holy character might succeed in driving Gerwin back to his grave, just as the sound of cockcrow does, but his departure will merely be accompanied a sough of wind and then he’s gone. If confronted at his graveside, he stands his ground and fights to the bitter end.

Gerwin’s own blows not only land with the force of stout cudgels, they inflict a stinging numbness so that the injured character is at a disadvantage to hit the following round. Meanwhile he is invisible, so characters who are fighting him must be guided by the movement of the wheat stalks, his heavy tread, and the stream of gibbering obscenities he’s uttering. That means a penalty to hit unless the character has a cantrip to see things masked by invisibility or is able to make a sorcery roll, in which case they will know to hold up a stone with a hole through it in order to see him.


The idea of the scenario is to highlight the difference between vampires of the world of Legend (such as Robert Dale's memorably grisly Pyron, here) and the traditional Victorian drawing-room variety. Even the word vampire is used interchangeably with revenant, prodigy, fiend or draugur. If you were to use the term undead it’s unlikely most people in Ellesland would know what you meant, and folk theories abound: the corpse is reanimated by an evil spirit; the man didn’t die but became possessed; the individuals were always hellions yet dormant, needing only death to transform them pupa-like into the demonic thing they are now. Remember that the idea of the resurrection of the flesh is accepted as fact by most people – this is just a hellish parody, perpetrated by the Devil, of the Saviour’s return to life that all God-fearing folk hope to share on the Day of Judgement.

As a guideline, here’s William of Newburgh’s 12th century account of a creature modern readers might be tempted to call one of the undead:
‘A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster.

‘Hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart.’
A thought about how to handle that invisibility. Putting invisible creatures into fantasy games can feel a bit sci-fi, not to say tricksily green-screen, so how about suggesting to your players that there's something so horrific about the vampire that they just can't bring themselves to look straight at him. They know where he is, but their eyes just won't stay in that direction and their minds refuse to take it in. It's like somebody in a dream whom you're aware of but can't quite see. Don't use the i-word. Make it strange.

Oh, and who really killed Gerwin and Lampert? I don't really need to spell it out, do I?

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Wide open worlds

The Kickstarter for Legendary Kingdoms ends in a few hours. Better get over there right now if you want to back it.

In case the title isn't enough of a hint, LK is an open world gamebook series in the style of Fabled Lands. What that means is that you can start in lots of different places, take the kind of character you want, pick your own goals, and explore the world however you choose by going back and forth between the books, each of which covers a different region.

The grandfather of open world gamebooks is Eric Goldberg, who pioneered the idea (though he may not have realized it) in 1985 with his boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights. That seemed to me what gamebooks ought to be: a roleplaying campaign in solo Choose Your Own Adventure form.

Jamie and I pitched an open world gamebook series called Hero Quest to publishers in 1987, and later repackaged the concept as Knights of Renown in 1989, but with still no takers. It wasn't until six years later that we convinced Pan Macmillan to do the Fabled Lands series, and by then the gamebook craze was dying out. That's why we only managed the first six books of the planned twelve.

All went quiet for a couple of decades, and then like long-awaited buses came The Serpent King's DomainSteam Highwayman, Alba and Legendary Kingdoms. And, not to be left out, Jamie and I are writing an open world series of five books for his Vulcanverse fantasy setting, and we're hoping that Prime Games's CRPG version of the original Fabled Lands books might rekindle enough interest in those that we can finally finish off the series.

Meanwhile I'd be quite keen to write the Victorian survival horror gamebook Shadow King (think: H G Wells meets The Long Dark) but I'm too averse to social media and too deficient in marketing nous to run the Kickstarter campaign needed to fund it. Fans of open world gamebooks won't be short of alternatives. It may have taken three decades for the wider reading public to catch up with the concept, but I'm betting it has a bright future ahead.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Killing no murder?

It was a Victorian setting, and the player-characters had pursued a mad scientist to the top of the world. (There's something about mad scientists and the Arctic.) They trounced her hirelings, broke up her lab, put paid to her callous experiments, then one of the characters snapped. 'We'll never bring her to trial,' he said before giving her both barrels of his shotgun.

That summary execution might seem shocking, but I've been hardened by years of refereeing. We had one player-character whose thing was butchering 'witches' -- a term he seemingly applied to any woman with a scheme in the pre-industrial era. On Tekumel I've seen captives hurled in their hundreds into the fiery pits of sacrifice, and slaves slaughtered to pay a demon for a minor gift.

Most horrible of all (it still makes my flesh creep) was the time in Crossgate when the characters got hold of their longtime enemy Lord Belvoir, who had unwisely stopped at the manor house without his men. It was Twelfth Night, but what they did made Lavinia's fate in Titus Andronicus look tame. They truly got medieval on his ass -- but then, it's Legend, so 'medieval' is exactly right. Isaac Babel would have recognized it:
'I'll put it this way. With shooting you just get rid of the person. Shooting lets him off easy, and it lets you off easy too. With shooting you'll never get down to the soul -- where it is in somebody, how it shows itself. So I don't spare myself. More than once I've stamped on a foe for an hour or more. You see, I want to get to know what life is like, what it's really all about.'
As the referee, it's not my job to comment on the characters' deeds. Nothing should be out of bounds. Roleplaying, like art in general, should be free to go anywhere, and in refereeing I have to be like God, who never has anything to say when a child is raped or a man has his hands macheted off. After the game it's a different matter, and then I will sometimes confess that the PCs' moral attitudes give me a shudder. I regard capital punishment as barbaric and vigilantes as scum. Vigilantes who dress up their killings as justice are committing plain murder.

Naturally the players get prickly about that. They don't want to be thought of as murder hoboes. They see themselves as heroes -- and so they should. If you're in character, of course you think you're in the right. Hitler believed he was a good guy just as much as Gandhi did.

'I'm not the Red Skull,' one player retorted, 'I'm Judge Dredd.' If the judges of Mega-City One existed in real life, they'd be the goon squad of somebody like Ramzan Kadyrov, not stalwart defenders of civilized society. But let's face it, pretty much all cops in drama are rule-bending, violent, arbitrary, partial, unstable and dangerous. Stories have their own rules and (one of the big mistakes a beginning writer can make, this) likeability is overrated. Player-characters should be interesting, they don't have to be likeable -- at least, they don't have to be likeable to civilians in a comfortable 21st century democracy.

A murder hobo PC is boring. They'll shoot every NPC in the face and they do that because the player's imagination is too limited to see the NPCs as real people. But characters who wreak terrible violence because of their own sense of justice, however warped and self-righteous that may be, can be very interesting indeed. They're Bond, or Dredd, or the Punisher, or Philip Jennings. There's an inner contradiction that has to go somewhere, and the player is inhabiting the character thoroughly which means they're on an interesting journey too. Consider for example E M Forster's self-analysis of his time in Egypt:
'I came inclined to be pleased and quite free from racial prejudice, but in ten months I’ve acquired an instinctive dislike to the Arab voice, the Arab figure, the Arab way of looking or walking or pump-shitting [pissing] or eating or laughing or anythinging—exactly the emotion that I censured in the Anglo-Indian towards the native. It’s damnable and disgraceful, and it’s in me.'
Forster had found in himself a knee-jerk racism that horrified him. He didn't go so far as murdering anyone, of course, but it was nonetheless a darkness within that he came face to face with and, with his scrupulous honesty, confessed to. Roleplaying lets us do the same and come away knowing ourselves and being better people for it. Or so I hope of my more violently inclined players, anyway.