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Friday 24 December 2021

Thursday 23 December 2021

Strange things in old speech

The Dark is Rising is one (well, five) of those kids' fantasy classics that I haven't read. In my defence, the books came out when I was already in my teens, but they have been recommended by younger friends whose judgement I trust, so if you have children you might want to get hold of them.

The general tone of dark rural British folk fantasies with a psychogeographic tinge includes much of Alan Garner, John Masefield, and others. They tend to be set in the depths of winter, steeped in tales of the landscape, with lengthening shadows of mythic figures like Herne or Merlin bringing a chill of delicious danger to the sometimes stiflingly cosy world of childhood.

You feel as if all of these books should exist in 1970s BBC television adaptations, even if most of them don't. Which is why Handspan has produced this album of tracks from the non-existent adaptation of The Dark is Rising and this theme from "In From The Fields", an imaginary kids' series in the manner of Garner or Masefield.

And for grown-ups who want to revisit the comforting nightmares of younger days, there's always Becky Annison's powerful one-shot game When the Dark is Gone.

Tuesday 21 December 2021

Seasonal scientific silliness

It hasn't been easy coming up with a seasonal present for the blog this year. My gaming group had no Christmas adventure run by the polymathic Tim Harford, and I've been pretty busy for most of 2021 writing and editing the Vulcanverse books. So here's one I made about thirty years earlier -- a lighthearted little boardgame called Genius. You can get the rules here and the board here. Just don't expect Settlers of Catan.

Should you be thinking of running a Yule special, there are some sound tips on how to do that on the How Heavy This Axe blog. Amongst other suggestions, I agree that ideally it should be part of an ongoing campaign (I can never get into characters designed to throw away) even if, as in our case, that campaign only occurs once or twice a year.

If you've enjoyed anything on the blog and you'd like to get me and Jamie a Yule gift, reviewing one of our books online is always a welcome surprise. (Obviously, more welcome if you actually liked the book, but don't let me influence you.)

Have a happy solstice, Yule, Christmas, or whatever other winter festival you choose to celebrate. And after the uncanned nuttiness of the last few years, may 2022 bring a season of reason.

Monday 20 December 2021

Kiss kiss bang bang

This year's Christmas scenario (which is not set in Legend; the clue is in the picture) is over on my Patreon page. But if you don't want to shell out for that and all the other stuff to be found there, you can select from the specials of previous years. Tomorrow there's a free boardgame here, and that's followed by a surprise extra on Christmas Eve. Ho ho ho.

Thursday 16 December 2021

A cartographic conundrum

Here's a mystery that maybe you can solve. While clearing out (aka moving files of old papers from one shelf to another) I came across these two maps. Both rather nice, I think you'll agree. But what are they?

My best theory is that they were samples sent to us by the editors at Pan Macmillan when the Fabled Lands books were originally in the planning stage. For some reason the editors didn't want Russ to do the world maps, perhaps because they were concerned at his workload as he was doing all the interior illustrations and the colour maps of the regions.

Jamie and I looked at various map artists, all the while arguing that we really wanted Russ for the job. These two must have been our favourites. I can't remember who the editors hired in the end -- neither of these guys, by the looks of it. And then they printed the west and east sides of the world the wrong way round in Over the Blood-Dark Sea. Stab me vitals.

By the time The Court of Hidden Faces came out we finally had Russ drawing the world map as we'd intended all along. But, as Frost said about ice, these other contenders were also great and would have sufficed.

And yet -- what's niggling at me is the stadium at bottom left in the second map. Tékumel gamers like me are bound to look at that and think: Hirilákte. Surely it couldn't be...

Does anybody recognize these or the artists who drew them?

Friday 10 December 2021

Well-kept secrets

I’ve never seen the point of fashion. If a work of art is good it will stay good, regardless of whether or not it’s regarded as the in thing and everybody is talking about it.

Literature, for example. You’ll find a book that reviewers praise to the skies, and publishers adore. But give it ten years and they’re gawping at the next shiny bauble. You know the movie stars’ saying:
“First it’s: get me So-&-So. Then it’s: get me somebody like So-&-So. Finally it’s: who’s So-&-So?”
It even happened to Fitzgerald:
“In Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard he asked for anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clerk said they had none in stock. Fitzgerald asked whether there was any call for them. ‘Oh, once in a while, but not for some time now,’ he replied. He tried another store – with the same result. The proprietor of a third bookshop asked which titles he was interested in and, promising to track them down, requested a name and address. ‘I’m Mr Fitzgerald,’ he replied. The man was shocked; he had believed that F. Scott Fitzgerald must surely have died years ago along with his era.”
That was in 1940. Fifteen years earlier Fitzgerald was a literary celebrity, and Tender Is The Night had come out only six years previously. You want to know what was top of the bestseller charts that same month Fitzgerald couldn’t find a copy of his own masterpieces? Mrs bloody Miniver.

You get the point. Great writers fall into obscurity. It's not just an injustice, it's a tragedy because it means that readers may never get to hear about them, and therefore miss out on the pleasure they would get from their works. To name a few writers that I admire who nowadays are not as well known as they should be: George Gissing, Tanith Lee, Russell Hoban, Elizabeth Taylor, Michel Tournier.

Our own Oliver Johnson got a taste of this hemlock cup. Despite the success of his Lightbringers trilogy in the 1990s, when he returned to fiction recently with The Knight of the Fields – which I regard as one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read – he was told that it’s not in the current trend for the genre. So what are publishers releasing instead? Ten-volume fantasy potboilers that are all tricked up as wannabe Game of Thrones.

Luckily fashions change, and quality will out. Gissing had a bit of a comeback in the ‘60s and I’m confident he’ll be discovered again. Forsooth, even Shakespeare was out of style for a while. And, thanks to print-on-demand and ebooks, future generations ought to be able to find any work they want. Even a century from now somebody might come across Riddley Walker and recognize it for the classic it is.

The greatest living writer of English weird tales is John Whitbourn. It may be over two decades since he garnered rave reviews in the Sunday Times and won prizes from the BBC and Gollancz, but he remains a towering talent whose position in the field is right alongside M R James, Saki, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and (another overlooked genius, this) A J Alan. I am quite sure that in the future his name will be mentioned in the same breath as those other masters of the genre.

But the good news is you don't have to wait for fickle fortune to spin her wheel. Almost all of John Whitbourn’s books are available right now, and the Binscombe Tales in particular are a perfect Christmas present for any lover of weirdness and wonder. Fie upon fashion – talent is all that counts.

Thursday 9 December 2021

Casket of Fays #5

The arrival of a new issue of Casket of Fays is always cause for rejoicing, and here's one in good time to inspire some great Yuletide games. The covers get better and better (the inking on this one reminded me of John Buscema's work) and the casket itself is overflowing with treasures. There are the distinctive folk horror elements of Legend adventures: an immortal tallow man, elf-ridden goats, redcaps, and six corpses around a campfire who could have come straight out of a Mike Mignola story. And many other excellent scenarios and ideas, including a complete town in Chaubrette with map, local characters, and adventure seeds. And all of these wonders are yours for free because Red Ruin Publishing knows you've been good this year.

Friday 3 December 2021

Wouldn't have to work hard

What happens when the PCs get rich? Mike and Roger raised the question on Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice not so long ago. (I get so many springboard topics of discussion from those fellows I should pay them a royalty.)

Of course, it depends if the character’s main motivation was always cash. A rock star or boxer or actor hitting the big time might suffer an existential crisis until they realize it was the art or the sport that they really loved, not the fame and fortune. They may even find they’ve lost by winning. Adventurers in fantasy fiction often undertake the quest for other reasons: glory, friendship, duty. Achilles and the others were no doubt looking forward to the payday when Troy fell – what ancient hero didn’t enjoy a bit of city-sacking? – but their reasons for being there in the first place were many and complex.

Conan becomes a king, and in The Way of the Tiger gamebooks the character goes from being a lowly sewer rat to the headaches of running a kingdom. I had a Tekumel character who was one of the lowest of the low. He struck it rich but that wasn’t nearly the end of the story, because in Tsolyani society there’s no real provision nor room for upstart commoners. The campaign only came to an end a long time later when he led his clan to the far corners of the world and conquered a kingdom.

Joining the 1%, even when that was genuinely what you wanted all along, could be the start of your problems. You don’t even have to be nouveau riche to attract the jealousy of the ruling class. Nicolas Fouquet made the mistake of outspending the King of France. He was arrested by d'Artagnan (no, really) and spent the rest of his life in jail.

Even if you keep your freedom, most societies have things that money can’t buy – especially the feudal societies of many fantasy campaigns. Sumptuary laws will prohibit you from aping your betters. Most interactions in the world will depend on custom, land, rank – all things you might obtain if you are artful and lucky, but never simply by throwing money at the problem.

It all goes to underline that you can’t say how vast riches will affect characters in the campaign until you know the society. The rich industrialist in Bleak House is treated very differently by the ruling classes than his equivalent number in Tono-Bungay, which is set just half a century later.

Retiring the character when their objective is reached is a perfectly respectable option. It’s not just over-stuffed coffers that deprive a character of their motivation. Any specific objective, finally fulfilled, may leave you wondering what to do with the character next. In both Eureka and There Will Be Blood the lead character achieves the high point of his life near the start and then must deal with the long wait for death. Those stories might be a tad contrived in order to serve the purposes of drama. While some people might be left rudderless by success, most of us on achieving one objective would set our sights on fresh goals. After Elon Musk has the perfect self-driving car, there’s always Mars.

Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Some find that a paradox, but consider it the other way round -- if Sisyphus didn't have the boulder, he wouldn't be content until he found something else to strive at. If you construct your characters around one movie-style objective then they will get there and have to hang up their spurs. Make them more complex, with multiple shifting goals, and they'll have more life.

Thursday 2 December 2021

While stocks last

If you're in the US, you might have had some trouble ordering the full-color hardcover editions of the new Vulcanverse books. Supply chain issues mean that Amazon have been slow to get them in stock, a situation to which their automated system has responded by sending the cover prices through the roof.

If you can wait till the New Year it should all settle down, but if you want to read the books over the holidays you've got a choice. You can either opt for the paperback editions (Amazon has plenty of those because their KDP subsidiary prints them) or you can order the hardcovers from Barnes & Noble:
B&N had the sense to stock up before the Christmas rush, but their supply will be limited too so it's first come, first served.

This only applies to the US, by the way. In theory Amazon should be listing the books at their recommended retail price in Europe and Britain.

Thursday 25 November 2021

Confounding expectations

This is my favourite Vulcanverse gamebook cover and the book doesn’t even exist yet. This is just a mock-up made using a thumbnail sketch by our artist, Mattia Simone.

Why do I like it? Partly because anyone who thinks the Vulcanverse is just a retread of Greek myth (yeah, I’d be yawning too) is going to do a double take when they see this. It doesn’t look like a classical Greek city? No, it looks a million times more exciting than that. Marble colonnades and hypostyle halls evoke the slap of sandals on a sound stage, the unconvincing clash of prop swords wielded by bad actors. Whereas Mattia's cover looks like the set of an MCU blockbuster. That could be Ronan the Accuser in front of the core of the Supreme Intelligence. It’s an image that promises nonstop excitement.

And it’s absolutely right that the fifth book should upend expectations. The Vulcanverse isn’t the world of Greek myth. It’s a Matrix-style virtual universe created by the god Vulcan (well, Hephaistos) using his hyper-accelerated development of today’s information technology. Go behind the curtain and you won’t find oxen turning wheels and steam-powered colossi from the old legends – you will find something startling and amazing and all-new. Something that coruscates with Kirby krackle, that whips the rug out from under you, that takes your breath away and blows your mind for good measure. This is not some lame old 1980s stop-motion movie with a bleeping owl. It’s the American Gods or Anansi Boys of Greek myth, the reboot that brings it up to date at warp speed. And that’s why Mattia’s cover is so perfect. It says: this is not your father's Greek mythology.

While we’re talking about the Vulcanverse books, eagle-eyed gamer Teófilo Hurtardo has pointed out some sloppy syntax in the second one, The Hammer of the Sun. If you get yourself killed, your god arranges to resurrect you and the text says:
‘If you were wounded, untick that box on your Adventure Sheet, but add 1 to your total scars because none returns from the land of death without being marked.’
What I meant there was that everybody coming back to life gets a scar, regardless of whether or not you were wounded when you died. But Teófilo rightly pointed out that’s not what I said. It might just about pass in everyday conversation, but not in a book where the precise logical syntax matters.

So what it should say is:
‘Add 1 to your total scars and, if you were wounded, untick that box on your Adventure Sheet.’
I’ll correct it in future editions. And this is a good moment to thank John Jones, who generously cast his diligent eye over the Vulcanverse books and caught a number of critical errors in The Wild Woods, some of which spread back in time to book one, The Houses of the Dead. For example, there's the ubiquitous demon Wolfshadow, who was supposed to be killed (in book one) based on advice given to you in book three by King Lykaon -- except that advice and the associated codeword had been missed out. Eek. John suggested a good way to fit the advice into the long spiel that King Lykaon actually delivers in book three:
'Despite my title, there is one wolf I do not rule...' leading into telling you about Wolfshadow and, 'Hey, take one of these arrows of Artemis to King Midas's tomb in Hades to maybe get gold-plated so you can kill that nasty thing why don't you? Oh, and don't forget to fetch along an actual bow, either.'
Unfortunately I'd already done the page layout, so I couldn't make use of John's elegant suggestion and we have to make do with Lykaon just mentioning Wolfshadow in passing. But at least you get the codeword so the book isn't actually broken.

John also took us to task, and rightly so, over the random permadeath the player suffers if they stray into the Slimeswamp without any vinegar. The only possible way to find out that you need vinegar there is to lose a character and have to start all over again. Not a lot of fun if you've just spent hours questing around the other books. John proposes this fix, which we fully endorse. Paste it into your copy of book one if you wish:

I'm barely scratching the surface of all the help John has given us with these books. He's the true hero of the Vulcanverse, and you can bet that after the final book is out I'll resign the position of gamebook editor permanently -- and thankfully!


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



Thursday 18 November 2021

Caught in the coils

The Coils of Hate was one of the two books that Mark Smith wrote for our Virtual Reality gamebook series. Even thirty years on, my feelings about it are conflicted. By the time Mark handed it in, I’d moved on to another project for another publisher. Then the editor at Mammoth Books, who published VR, called me to say the book needed some work. Actually, a lot of work. Some links were missing. Others were doubled up. Some of it wasn’t typed, just handwritten on bits of paper. You could get a découpé sense of what was meant to be going on by just reading through the manuscript, but you couldn’t actually play it.

I spent the next two weeks trying to reverse engineer the flowchart and fill in the missing sections. I had my other deadline to worry about, so you can bet I was fuming, but it wasn’t all Mark's fault. The flowchart-planning side of gamebooks had never been his forte, and during the writing of this book he had the additional problem of two young kids who had been thought to be merely boisterous but had recently been diagnosed as autistic. Given the pressures, he produced a marvellous piece of writing. The characters came alive with their own hopes, fears and weaknesses. The setting was so vividly evoked you could taste the fog rolling in at night, smell the river-water lapping against lichen-spotted stone bridges, feel the fear lurking down narrow alleyways. And the theme was serious and meaningfully explored. It would have made a superb fantasy novel.

Mark is a big fan of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover (as I did quite recently) that The Coils of Hate was inspired by Fritz Leiber Jr’s short story “The Cloud of Hate”. But although Leiber may have had the original idea, Mark did it better. Leiber’s story is really just about anger and violence. Mark drew on his own family’s horrifying experiences in the ‘30s and ‘40s to show what hate is really like once it takes hold of people’s minds.

I said that Mark struggled with flowchart design. Jamie tended to take care of that in their Way of the Tiger and Falcon books, just as I took more of the weight of game mechanics and logic off Oliver Johnson's shoulders for our collaborations. But to be fair to Mark, the structure of The Coils of Hate was especially ambitious. You can undertake multiple activities: opportunistic thievery, investigation into what’s going on, organizing the victims of the pogrom, making sure your friends are safe, and so on. And all that while events are unfolding over time. It’s even more complex than Can You Brexit.

While I was writing a new gamebook for Jamie’s Vulcanverse, I got to thinking how I’d have structured The Coils of Hate. To start with, you’d need keywords that would “remember” how far you’d got through the overall story arc. Say the action is split into four acts. So Keyword_Act_Two tells the book you’re in the second act. (It wouldn’t be called that, obviously; it would be Libation, say. Something that didn’t draw attention to the fact that it’s a time-counting logic flag.)

After completing a subquest, you’d be directed back to a “time counter” paragraph that would then route you to the current act. Something like this:

What about those subquests? The book needs to remember how far you are through them, but that might not (often will not) be linked to what’s going on in the overall arc. For example, maybe you’re calling on your friend Lucie. The first time you meet her she is blithely dismissive of danger. The second time she’s had a bad fright and wants your help. The third time there’s a chance she might betray you to the Overlord’s secret police. So that could work something like this:

And within each option there could be a filter that checks which act you’re in. For example, Lucie might conceivably betray you in the third or fourth act, but not before that. So entry 180 in the example here would then ask, “Do you have the keyword Proteus or Kindly?” and if so you’d get routed to the betrayal storyline; if not there’d be a different encounter with Lucie.

Keywords are needed when something has changed globally that needs to be checked for in multiple places. For example, if the Judain (the persecuted community in the book) are all ordered to wear yellow patches on their clothes, that's something you might see or discuss in several different branches, so I'd use a keyword.

Tickboxes on the other hand track local changes. For instance, the first time I visit an informant some militia come in and smash up his shop. On subsequent visits the book needs to know that the shop is shuttered and there's broken glass on the floor, but a tickbox will do because that's not a condition that makes any difference anywhere else. (We try to minimize the number of keywords because the reader has to check through a whole list every time one is called.)

What triggers the next act? That could be accomplished by tickboxes like we saw in the last example. So the hub section for one of the acts would look something like this:

Taking the prison option, for instance, you’d get into a series of adventures, at the end of which you’d reach a section like this:

Thus, after undertaking four subquests in the current act you're routed through to the next act via section 499 where you'd be given the keyword for that act*. If you were already in act four (as you are in this example) that would lead into the endgame for this book, which involves a showdown with the embodiment of hate as depicted on the cover. Various items and keywords acquired during the adventure would steer the outcome of that battle.

I'm not planning to rewrite The Coils of Hate (Stuart Lloyd already did that) but I am occasionally tempted to revisit the Shadow King storyline that Jamie and I cooked up over twenty years ago. That has the main character trying to stay alive in a world devoid of life but infested with vampires -- sort of an H G Wells take on I Am Legend. I'd definitely need keywords to globally track the passage of time, and tickboxes to record how far you are through various subquests. But is there enough demand for gamebooks these days? Not like there used to be, certainly.

*Any subquest that can only be accessed in the current act would route you back to the hub section for that act (100200300 or 400) but subquests that can be accessed in more than one act would need to send you back to the master hub, ie 555.

Friday 12 November 2021

A devil's bargain

Image by Pulp-O-Mizer
Not many fantasy stories are more often cited as thought experiments in moral philosophy than as fiction. I’m thinking of “The Space Traders” by American lawyer Derrick Bell. In a nutshell: super-powerful beings arrive on Earth and offer the United States money, energy and technological advances if all the non-black people agree to hand over all the black people to the angels/devils/aliens.

The Trolley Problem it ain’t. We can’t know what other people will do when faced with an ethical question. It’s hard enough to predict what we’d do ourselves; look at all the people who are convinced they’d have stood up to the Nazis if they lived in 1930s Germany. Derrick Bell takes a misanthropic view -- in his story there’s a referendum and the black Americans are handed over. If Germany had held a referendum in 1940, would the majority have voted to exterminate the Jews? They certainly colluded with that policy, but it was framed in a way that allowed the average citizen to tell himself that he didn’t actually know what was going on. Being confronted with the stark truth and voting on it – morally pulling the trigger, so to speak – would be a different story. We hope.

And the Jews had been demonized in Nazi propaganda for years. Posters claimed they’d betrayed the country, hoarded gold, spread disease – all sorts of conspiracy nonsense, and (as now) there are always idiots who’ll believe it. But for citizens to turn against a group of fellow citizens out of a clear blue sky – whites against blacks, or blacks against whites, even given the dire racial history of the Confederacy -- would be a whole other matter, surely? We cling to the hope humanity is better than its worst moments.

And yet… Islamic State threw gay men off rooftops and then stoned them if they survived that. The people who flocked to join IS presumably condoned it. Even so, it’s not the same as voting within a normal society to murder a group of people. IS was a self-selected band of extremists; we’d expect them to behave like rabid fanatics.

It seems like it might be easier to turn on a subgroup if belonging to that subgroup is a matter of choice rather than an accident of birth. The English in Tudor times might have voted to round up Catholics, if voting had been a thing. The Khmer Rouge, in common with many populist movements, hated intellectuals and was happy to persecute them. Crusades and holy wars throughout history have been all about exterminating people who don’t believe in your big guy in the sky.

Derrick Bell’s story would be more interesting if, instead of making his fictional citizens outright monsters, he’d presented them with a choice that was more honestly and credibly tempting. “We want all your incarcerated criminals,” the aliens/angels could have said. “No harm will come to them but we’re taking them away from Earth.” Even without the offer of extraterrestrial super-tech, getting rid of those inmates immediately saves the US about a hundred billion dollars. Tempting yet?

It’s still an absolutely appalling scenario. With no idea of what fate those exiles are going to face, a vote to hand them over is heinous self-interest and nothing more. However, until very recently a referendum on capital punishment in the UK would have voted in favour of sending some criminals to their death. That’s a lot worse than being banished to space. As a society we don’t make serious efforts to address the root causes of crime, nor to rehabilitate the criminals we have. In a sense we’re already consigning them to exile from humanity, and we’re not even getting fusion power in return.

How might this sort of ethical Gordian Knot be presented in a roleplaying scenario? An example from our Last Fleet game: the war has been going badly for the fleet, and the Corax offer a deal. Humans can live in peace, but they will be settled on one world and they have to give up all their technology. Effectively it would be a return to a primitive Eden. The Corax undertake to watch over the human planet, ensuring no disease or asteroid impact would ever be an existential threat -- but also to make sure we never develop science that could get us off the planet. The deal in a sense is that the Corax are offering to become humanity's gods. Immediately it gets interesting because some will want to take the deal ("We get to live. Our descendants will know peace, not endless war.") but others will bitterly oppose it ("So the human race becomes the pets in a Corax zoo?") If it's presented as a genuine and tempting option, it could cue a lot of gutsy inter-party conflict. I should add that in our game the Corax were not interdimensional fungi (wtftm) but creations of humanity ourselves. A war against your own rebel children is obviously more interesting than one against a genuinely alien Other.

Or it could be a bargain like the one Clark Ashton Smith postulates in his story "Seedling of Mars". The alien's offer ends up dividing humanity into two warring camps -- which might well have been the intention all along.

Going back to "The Space Traders" idea, the choice needn't hinge on an entire racial or ideological subgroup. People in the millions are abstract. What if it's a single individual? You can have all these wonderful things: free energy, unlimited resources, miraculous medicine, nobody goes hungry… and in return you give us one person. One human being for the lives of billions yet to be born.

What would you do?

Thursday 11 November 2021

Return to Golnir

I'll just whet your appetite with this gorgeous Golnir map and then hand you over to Victor Atanasov, head of Prime Games, to explain about all the new adventures, new skills, new items and new gameplay features that are waiting for you right now.

Friday 5 November 2021

Icon of Death

I keep whingeing about how exhausting it is to write the Vulcanverse gamebooks, work on which has taken me most of the year, and meanwhile Red Ruin Publishing have been steadily releasing top-class Dragon Warriors gamebooks with no fuss whatsoever. I feel chastened.

The latest in the series is Icon of Death by David M Donachie, it's completely free, and it's set under the blistering sun of Outremer. Watch out for mirages and forsaken lazars.

"As he smoothly lowered me into the gloom, I held forth my lantern and gazed at the cold, wet stone..."

Also just out and also free: a new Cedric and Fulk adventure, "The Well of All Tears", in a chapbook that also includes pieces on zombie beasts and gallows wood (the material, not the place, though both are ominous).