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Friday, 5 March 2021

The GM's favourite

Have you ever guested in somebody else's long-running campaign? If so you might have come across a referee who indulges one player over the rest of the table. It doesn't occur in every gaming group, and if it happens in your own regular sessions you probably haven't noticed it. But here are some warning signs...

When you were setting up your campaign, did a player come to you with a shopping list of special off-the-book character buffs? "Can I have immunity to everything? 5 points would be a reasonable cost, wouldn't it?" If you granted those, then face it: that player is your teacher's pet.

It isn't always that overt. If the referee and one of the players are particularly close friends, their imaginations are likely to be in sync. Jamie and I spent our teen years steeped in the same science fantasy classics, so if I'm working up a trope in a Tekumel campaign (Tekumel drawing freely on the likes of Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance) then he's likely to be ahead of the pack in catching on.

There's also the case of the player who is aware of the kind of thing his or her referee likes and so plays up to it. "I swing on the chandelier, soar nimbly across the shoulders of the guards and somersault to land in a crouch before the princess." If the referee applauds ("Oh, beautifully done!") when they'd ask anyone else for a dice roll then the player is probably a favourite who knows the referee's fondness for swashbucklers. A newcomer to the group, unaware of the codes that unlock referee approval, would have to work that much harder.

Some games explicitly say the referee should be a fan of the player-characters, but the snag is that any partiality will come to be abused. It's like working for a company where the boss's sons and daughters have all the key positions. You know they weren't appointed on merit, even if the good of the business was what the boss had in mind at the start. That's why I believe in comprehensive rules, not loose interpretations at the whim of the referee. The point is not to gum up the flow of the game. You hope all those rules will rarely, if ever, be needed. But if it comes to it, the final court of appeal is not to an individual but to the rulebook.

Of all the causes of one player hogging the spotlight, the hardest to avoid is when that player is simply giving better value than the rest. Every group has its star players and its supporting characters. Often the players themselves prefer it that way. Some people are shy or naturally cautious; others are in like Flynn. As the referee you're always alert to moments when the pace of a session might be flagging, and a player who peps it up by improvising brilliantly in character is going to grab more of your attention. Writers describe the same phenomenon: "The character took over the book!"

I don't think the solution is to bake everyone's fifteen minutes into the rules. That just forces the game to follow the patterns of a bad TV show: "So I can't shoot this guy, despite being MI6's top assassin, because I already had a couple of highlight moments earlier in the session..?" But you do need to monitor who is demanding the lion's share of your attention, and whether the quieter players are happy about that. If they're not, make sure there are opportunities for them to shine too. Otherwise the first sign of that gathering resentment might be when they stop turning up to the game.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

True bluish light

Another YouTube outing for Heart of Ice? It's getting to be like buses. If you don't have time to sit and watch the whole playthrough, grab the podcast here. Or you could cut out the middle man, as Stan Laurel advises, and just read the book.

The only downside to all this flattering attention for my own favourite of my gamebooks is that it piles on the pressure for the forthcoming Vulcanverse series. Can Jamie and I make them even better, or must we resign ourselves to resting on our laurels? You'll be able to judge in a few months.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

How stories emerge

Good stories arise out of what the characters do. Bad stories result when you decide on a plot outcome first and then manipulate the characters’ behaviour to reach that goal.

Showrunner Peter Gould explains how it works on Better Call Saul. And that’s the writers’ room on a TV show, where you might think they can just make the characters do whatever the plot demands. Not on a good TV show, they don't. So if you’re running a roleplaying game and you’re defining a story goal and only then going through the motions to get there, you’re not roleplaying, you’re writing – and you’re not even getting writing right.

I’ve talked before about stories as a cascade of events, the same way a series of gravitational tweaks to a ball’s velocity leads to a parabola. This was what I was trying to do with Dreams at Elixir Studios. Designing from the top down is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

(Incidentally, designing a game like that using grown-up characters in a modern town was also the wrong way to do it. The player's expectations of how human-like characters ought to behave are too high. If you want a story-creating game, start with simple animal characters and stories like you’d find in Farthing Wood. That’s my Figments concept, but let’s talk about that some other time.)

How do you encourage that cascade of events? I think the best stories arise when the rules themselves don’t address story as a goal. Take care of the details and the story will take care of itself. A good simulation system is the best narrative game.

The proof? Look around you. It’s all just physics. Real life has no story-creator processes going on at the level of the engine. Yet here’s the universe doing drama very well indeed – sometimes a little too well, as when a preening bully whips up a riot because he can’t accept he lost a fair election – and all of that is just because everyone’s acting in the moment.

I grumble about GURPS. It’s even a tag on these posts. But it’s like finding fault with an old friend. Many of our best games have sprung spontaneously out of those mechanics, which might look dry on the page but are fertile soil for stories. Like nuclear fission, GURPS if used responsibly will do whatever you need.

Maybe you’ve been put off trying GURPS because it has the reputation of being complicated? (It’s easier than physics, believe me.) The books cover everything, but you’re meant to pick the parts you need for your campaign. Admittedly I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said to players, “We are using just the basic books, no mental disadvantages, no quirks or perks,” only to have them come back with some skill they found in a supplement. Be firm and it’ll work. Start off with GURPS Lite (which is free) and take advice from The Path of Cunning, a fine fanzine (also free) published by Roger Bell-West and John Dallman.

That and imagination are all you need, and the stories will take care of themselves.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Gamebooks are growing up

Some gamebook news today, and here's one that ought to be of interest to Fabled Lands readers. Apart from the Steam Highwayman series (excellent and highly recommended btw) there haven't been a lot of open world gamebooks, in the sense of giving complete freedom to travel where you want, go back and forth without limit, and pick up whichever quests appeal to your character. But here's a new one called Alba with a post-apocalyptic setting, and it must be doing something right because in fund-raising terms it has far surpassed other print gamebooks (open world or linear) of recent times.

I haven't seen the book myself, but from the Kickstarter page it looks like it has a lot of legacy game elements such as stickers that mark items or locations on the map. (And to think players used to grumble about having to tick boxes in Fabled Lands books back in the day.)

The writing style is of  higher quality than the purple prose of yore, and it looks as if the blocks of prose between choices are longer, making this more of a weighty novelistic experience than a CRPG in book form. Think Telltale Games' The Walking Dead rather than The Witcher. Here's the author, Harley L Truslove, talking about the books.

One obvious difference from old-style gamebooks is that in Alba your character can't die. That's a gripe about FL that we still hear. Somebody on Facebook recently was disgruntled because the skeleton pirates in Over the Blood-Dark Sea had carted them off to a life of undeadtured (sic) servitude with no hope of resurrection:

It used to be that whatever happened to you was part of the story, even when that story ended in tragedy and/or horror. But those were times when PCs in roleplaying games might get killed at the drop of a bascinet, and when we could reasonably expect Bucky to stay dead. We're in different times now, and Jamie and I have taken that on board with our new Vulcanverse gamebooks, which should eventually consist of around a 4000-section adventure in which you cannot die permanently, not even if the Furies and Nemesis team up against you. The worst you'll suffer is being sent to the naughty corner (aka Tartarus) for a brief spell.

I'm being facetious, but the Don't Kill Me players are right. A single-story game (Heart of Ice, say) shouldn't require trying-&-dying till you find an optimum path through. Every time the PC snuffs it in a book like that it's a failure on the writer's part. And even in an open-world gamebook, where death might be the appropriate ending for a given character's story, it can't just be random and unavoidable. Good god, that would be too much like real life.

But it's not just the legacy features and the immunity from death that have propelled Alba to unprecedented success for a print gamebook. The main difference is that it's not the usual hokey old '80s-era D&D kind of fantasy, but instead a vivid, gritty and character-driven narrative in a setting that feels contemporary. (The excerpt is quite well-hidden on the Kickstarter page, but you can download it here.) If Alba was a TV show it'd be a talked-about cable drama, whereas most gamebooks would be a cheaply-animated Saturday morning cartoon that you dimly remembered from your childhood.

In the '80s heyday of CYOA and Fighting Fantasy, gamebooks were hugely successful. Pretty much every series was guaranteed to sell in the tens of thousands per territory. Gamebooks could still matter to a sizeable readership if they moved on from their origin as kids’ books. Interactive stories like The Walking Dead can deal with whether you’ll commit murder to save a friend. Firewatch can tackle loneliness and hope. In games from Assassin's Creed to Bioshock the player is confronted with real feelings and choices more intense than any movie.

And meanwhile gamebooks* are mostly still about which key opens which chest or which item will defeat the Big Bad. Who cares? Crosswords and sudoku already have the puzzle market covered**. It's time for gamebooks to grow up the way that computer games have. That's what makes Alba exceptional. It's about an emotional journey, as all the best stories are. Only connect, that's the way forward.

* Print gamebooks, that is. For some time now Choice of Games have been producing interactive stories with more depth in digital book format, not the least of their titles being The ORPHEUS Ruse, a superbly gripping adventure by our own Paul Gresty.

** Unless you go full-on puzzle book, that is. I'd probably quite enjoy something like Journal 29, but it has stripped out all the story. And Alex Bellos's column in The Guardian satisfies my brain-training needs.

What happened to gamebooks?

Back in the early 1980s, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson had a smart idea. They could get fantasy games into high street bookstores (and so bring them to a much wider readership) by grafting D&D-style rules onto the branching-path stories popularized by Choose Your Own Adventure.

In fact The Fantasy Trip's solo adventures got there years earlier (and Ayn Rand beat them to it by decades, kind of) but Fighting Fantasy was the breakout hit, selling a couple of hundred thousand copies per title in Britain alone. 

Unlike the Beatles and Hugh Grant they never quite cracked the US market, admittedly, but FF and similar gamebook series sold in the millions worldwide.

Nowadays a print gamebook would be very lucky to shift five or ten thousand copies, and most don't even get close. Why is that? And is there a way for gamebooks to recapture their former popularity? Join us tomorrow to discuss it.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Tony Stark's QAnon connection

If you had a Tardis and you went back two thousand years and showed the druids some examples of modern technology, I bet you they wouldn’t be impressed. They’d look at wi-fi and jet engines and antibiotics and electricity and then they’d tell you why their Mystic Meg explanation of the universe was the only true one.

You don’t even need a time machine. These people are all around us nowadays. The Earth is flat. Vaccines cause autism (and/or implant microchips). 5G causes cancer (and/or covid-19). The climate isn’t heating up. Democrats eat babies on their pizzas. The moon landings were faked. 9-11 was a government hoax. Used to be that this kind of thing was limited to a few crazies, but the internet seems to have woken up a strain of hyper-gullibility. A friend of mine was told by a publican who believes covid-19 doesn’t exist that “scepticism is good”. And so it is. But only if you can tell scepticism from cussed denialism.

Why do people snap up these myths? There are two parts to the answer. The first explains why they are looking for myths to believe. If you ask people who convert to a religion later in life (and who therefore haven’t been conditioned early on to accept it without question), the most common reason they give for converting is: “Modern life was getting me down. Everything seemed so complex. But then I discovered this faith and it makes everything simple.”

Now, your first response if you’re a real sceptic would be: “Why should a complex system have an easy answer?” People lap up an easy answer because it makes them feel safer, and their need to feel safe overrides the issue of whether the easy answer is likely to be right.

Then there’s the question of amour-propre. A lot of people who buy into conspiracy theories are not dumb, but they’re self-educated and therefore only half-educated. They’ve never been trained in logical thought, never learned to spot fallacies. They have a vested interest, in fact, in not even wanting to spot fallacies.

Here’s why: if you feel left behind, accepting a logic-defying belief puts you on a level playing field with better educated people because if logic and evidence count for nothing then experts have no advantage. When you accept the conspiracy you gain self-respect. You think you’re special. You can sneer at the “sheeple” who accept science and reason. Those idiots with their qualifications and their degrees -- you know better from "the university of life" and a few hours trawling the internet.

The internet fuels this nonsense because it’s a junk store of unfiltered claims and mislabelled data. Demented conspiracy theorists trawl through it, apply a sort of green-ink, back-bedroom, halfwit parody of expert analysis, and suddenly you have them “proving” that President Biden doesn’t have access to Air Force One or that the coronavirus genome contains a human DNA sequence.

OK, so that’s why these people are susceptible to conspiracies and where they’re getting their “information”. But why these particular myths?

I got the answer to that the other night while I was watching Iron Man 2. If you haven’t seen it – well, watch Iron Man 1 instead (and don’t for the love of reason watch Iron Man 3), but here’s the recap. Tony Stark is dying of palladium toxicity. “I’ve tried every element to power my arc reactor,” he says, “but none of them works. I need a new element.” The arc reactor keeps his heart beating, you see, so no getting rid of that.

The problem of the new element wouldn’t really be its structure, of course. There aren’t a lot of puzzles when all you’re putting together are protons and neutrons. It’s how you’d synthesize it that would be tricky. But that’s fine. Give that a pass. It’s sci-fi. The point is how Tony learns the structure of the new element, like so:

See, his dad, Howard Stark, figured it all out back in the ‘70s but didn’t have the technology to synthesize it. He left Tony a home movie in which he says, “You can do it.” He doesn’t say what the element is. He doesn’t draw a diagram or tell Tony about a file where he could look it up. It’s a gnomic hint at a deep secret. At this point the conspiracy theorist in all of us sits up.

Tony goes to his old office. There he sees the model of the Stark Expo park that his dad was standing in front of in that movie. He takes it home, randomly removes lots of buildings, and then realizes that the remaining buildings, if thought of as protons and neutrons, look like a superheavy but stable atomic nucleus. The new element!

But hang on. If his dad had figured out arc reactor tech fifty years ago, why didn’t he publish? He was a weirdly secretive guy? OK then, but this is really important and it could die with him. So why would he hide the info in a cardboard model of an expo park, and make a sly hint about it on a home movie – and just hope neither would get chucked away? He could have tattooed the nuclear structure on baby Tony’s bottom, for heaven’s sake. Or just left him a Read This file.

It’s storytelling, that’s why. Offered a trail of breadcrumbs, moviegoers don’t ask, “What’s this trail of crumbs doing here? Who put it there? Why did they?” Instead they go, “Ooh, a trail of crumbs. Better follow it.”

And that’s how conspiracies work. They weave a story. Their audience: the poor saps who feel left out by a world where you have to apply reason, keep thinking, and continually update your theories. Offer them a conspiracy with the shape of a story, however simplistic, and they’re Pavlov-conditioned to jump through the hoop you’ve held out for them and feel they’ve done something really smart.

Just as you can defend yourself from demagogues by learning to spot the tricks of rhetoric, you can defend yourself against conspiracy-peddlers by knowing the techniques used by storytellers. The same twists, reveals, and reversals that a writer uses to pull you into a story can also be employed to snare you in a dangerous delusion. The world is complicated; get over it. Simplistic answers are often wrong. But you have a brain that’s more complex than any other structure that we know of in the universe. Use it. Don’t be the druids they’re looking for.

Monday, 8 February 2021

You won't want to miss...

We've been seeing some glimpses of Prime Games' forthcoming Fabled Lands CRPG, and shared some of Guy Sclanders' wonderful FL playthroughs, so you won't want to miss Guy taking the alpha of the CRPG for a spin. Thanks to Victor Atanasov and the team for a truly marvellous-looking game.

Part two here:

I see in the chat window that Guy was reminded of the music accompanying Igrayne's dance in John Boorman's Excalibur. Judge for yourself below. (And, Guy, you're dead right; it is the best Arthurian movie ever.) 

Thursday, 4 February 2021

A madeleine cake moment


When I was a teenager discovering the works of H P Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, August Derleth and all those old boys, I became obsessed with the dream of collecting Weird Tales (it had to be a complete set, obviously; dreams cost nothing) which then seemed about as hoarily remote as an Akkadian epic on unearthed pottery fragments.

Weird Tales in fact folded only a few years before I was born. Those classic authors who now seemed so far off that they brushed shoulders with Homer? They died less than four decades before I read them. Derleth in fact was still batting.

Four decades. To a teen that's like the lifecycle of Asimov's Foundation, so it was with a slight shock that I realized it's been just as long since Jamie and I first got drawn into the orbit of White Dwarf and Games Workshop. For a while Jamie was writing The Dice Men, a book about that era, for Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. (I think he's off the project now, but you can still read an excerpt by him on the crowdfunding page till Unbound remember to delete it.)

I'm back on the Grognard Files this month talking about those far-off days. All the secrets, all the dreams. As Dirk remarks on the podcast, it's basically Games Workshop: the rock & roll years.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Time to decompress

There seems to be a buzz around the Critical IF gamebooks, and in particular Heart of Ice. Here's yet another rave review, this time on the Solo Adventures with Livi channel. You want spoilers? OK, it ends with, "Solidly a 10 out of 10."

You can't please everybody. One comment below Livi's video was "Let the buyer beware." Yikes! Well, actually that's always good advice when picking up any book. Another comment, this time about Fabled Lands, raises an interesting point. Kosteri X said: "I found the Fabled Lands demo devoid of any emotion and all the NPCs were lifeless words. [...] A few more adjectives can go a long way of painting a scene or motif. Most story writers for board games fail to put any effort into painting a picture."

The template Jamie and I used for writing Fabled Lands was Eric Goldberg's boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights. The descriptions therein are economical but effective, allowing Mr Goldberg to fit hundreds of quests into the space most gamebooks use for one little dungeon. Since each Fabled Lands book has to cover an entire country and allow freedom of choice and almost unlimited play, we knew we couldn't write it the same way we did books like Down Among The Dead Men or The Renegade Lord. It's like the compressed vs decompressed storytelling in comics.

I'm thinking a lot about this at the moment because I'm trying to recapture that compressed idiom for the Vulcanverse gamebooks. They're like Fabled Lands in having an open-world structure and each book being set in an extensive region. But, conscious that some readers miss the strong character relationships you get in books like Heart of Ice, I'm using much more dialogue than in Fabled Lands. So the Vulcanverse books (which I talk a bit about here) will weigh in about 50% heavier than FL even if we can keep them down to around 750 entries each. Hopefully that will strike the right balance for all tastes. You'll be able to judge for yourself in just a few months.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Lore and Data

Tim Harford's magical Christmas specials set in the world of Legend are a treat both for us, his gaming group, and readers of the FL blog. He's run more than half a dozen such games, of which the following have been published here:

"The Holly King"

"The Dean's Folly"

"The Feast of Misrule"

"The Gifts of the Magi"

If you enjoyed those, you might want to check out the fruits of Tim's day job, the latest example of which is his book The Data Detective (in the UK: How To Make The World Add Up). I'm sure we all know somebody who sneers at statistics and imagines that saying, "You can prove anything with numbers," makes them smart. Truth is, in a world awash with deliberate misinformation, that kind of thinking just shows you're a useful idiot for the people who have a vested interest in muddying the waters of evidence and reason.

There's a detailed review in The Wall Street Journal and you can listen to a free chapter of the audiobook version here.

Tim's book provides ten tools for thinking about the world that will help you to see past the background static and the deliberate lies and understand what the real patterns are. I'd put it right alongside Robert H Thouless's Straight & Crooked Thinking -- and that's high praise indeed.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

When black holes collide

I thought I'd give the people who show up from time to time to complain about my occasional political posts something new to grumble about, so today we're talking physics. (Not so strange given how I view roleplaying, which is that it's about everything.) And don't panic. I'm going to do all this in terms a child could understand, honest.

I had a question about black holes that used to puzzle me as a teenager:
Say you’ve got a black hole of 4 million solar masses, so roughly 50 AU across. (I’m taking a really big one so that its tidal forces don’t turn everything that falls in into spaghetti.) An astronaut wearing a wristwatch falls towards it. What do we see? My understanding is that we’d see the astronaut slow down as he or she approached the event horizon, finally appearing to come to rest on the event horizon, very red-shifted and the watch display apparently having stopped. (From the astronaut’s point of view he or she accelerates towards the event horizon, the entire universe around them is blue shifted, and their watch continues to tell the time accurately right up to the moment they go through the event horizon – and maybe after as well? But that’s a whole other question.)

OK, now what if instead of an astronaut we drop another supermassive black hole into the first one? As the event horizons touch, do they freeze in place there like two balls glued together?
  1. If not, then in watching the rate of merging of the horizons we’d be getting information out about how fast the two singularities are moving together. From our perspective we’d suppose them to move together infinitely slowly, but in any case no such information can escape the black hole.
  2. But if they do just stay frozen like two balls touching at a point, then the universe should be festooned with very oddly-shaped black holes, apparently made up of lots of aggregated black spheres stuck one onto another like a 3D Mandelbrot set.
I don’t think that’s what the maths says. All black holes are supposed to be featureless and (nearly) spherical. So do they go from the two-balls-touching state to the one-big-ball state in a quantum leap – to coin a phrase?
For half a century I kept asking that question but never got a satisfactory answer. One astrophysicist did tell me that I was making the mistake of using second-order geometry when I needed to consider fourth-order geometry, but I live in this universe not the maths one. I wanted an explanation I could chew.

And eventually (there might be a life lesson in this) I figured out the answer for myself. I could have done that decades ago, too, if I'd just stopped to think that I'd packed a huge assumption into the original question when I envisaged them as both remaining spherical up to the point of contact. So here's that answer -- and look, Ma, no maths!

Imagine two supermassive black holes of equal size in otherwise locally empty space. At a wide separation they are spherical (if they're not rotating). The size is defined by the Schwarzschild radius, the point at which a particle cannot escape the gravity well of the black hole.

As the holes get closer together, consider two particles, one on a line between the two black holes and just within hole #1’s Schwarzschild radius, the other on the same line but the far side of hole #1 and just outside its original Schwarzschild radius.

As the gravity of hole #2 begins to have a significant effect, the particle between the two gets a gravitational boost that would allow it to escape the original radius. Conversely, the particle on the far side now has to escape not only hole #1’s gravity but the additional pull of hole #2.

So the effect as the holes approach each other is that the event horizons bulge on the far side and flatten on the near side. The extent of the event horizon becomes less on the near side and greater on the far side so that they resemble two distorted lenticular blobs that will (as they get closer and closer) asymptotically adopt the shape of hemispheres that will then merge into one new larger sphere.

If the physics of spacetime curvature allowed that process to be entirely seamless then there would be no release of energy, but of course the two merging holes don’t precisely resemble sections of a greater sphere even at the moment of contact – at that point, there’s an anomalous dimple in the curve around the great circle bisecting the new event horizon. Hence the associated burp of around 5% of the mass, and the new horizon of the combined hole will only extend as far as the inner part of that dimple.

I’m just guessing that you could compute the proportion of energy released purely from the geometry, mind you – I retain more faith in maths than I do mathematical ability, these days. And of course, an observer at infinity would say there was only one black hole there in the first place. But that's a detail.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The mutants

I don't often cross-post to my personal blog, but this month I'm talking about Daleks -- with some side detours into SF writing in general -- so that might be of interest even if you're not a comics fan.

More science here on Friday. Not fiction, this time, but fact. I'll be talking about big balls of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. Set your dematerialization circuit.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

IF critique

This made for a lovely start to my year: an in-depth, considered and very flattering review by D F Chang of my four Critical IF gamebooks. "Compelling characters, perfectly plotted, amazingly written..." I didn't bribe him to say that, honest. Mr Chang's comments on Once Upon A Time In Arabia are more than fair, and three out of four A-ratings is nothing to gripe about. I just came across the video by accident, but you can bet modesty won't stop me sharing it every place I can.

Mr Chang raises a few interesting points, some of which have been addressed in earlier blog posts but this is a good opportunity for a recap. There were six Virtual Reality gamebooks but I only wrote the four that were republished as Critical IF; Mark Smith wrote Green Blood and The Coils of Hate. I wrote Down Among The Dead Men first, then Necklace of Skulls, then Heart of Ice, and finally Twist of Fate -- which was retitled Once Upon A Time In Arabia for the new edition.

Mr Chang has some valid criticisms. He doesn't like 'Necklace of Skulls' as the wizard's name. My only defence is that the nobles and kings of the Maya tended to be called things like that, if we interpret their names literally: Bird Jaguar, Sky Witness, Centipede Claw, Shield of the Sun, Curl Snout. It was anyway fashionable to translate them like that in the '90s, rather than attempt to recreate the sound of the names (K'inich Kan B'alam, for instance) which are even more deeply lost in the mists of time.

I agree that my inspiration was flagging when it came to the Arabian book. Or maybe I was trying too hard to recreate the picaresque feel of the Tales of the Arabian Nights boardgame, where the goal is likewise to scoot all over the world in order to achieve riches and honour. Probably I lavished too much energy on Heart of Ice and had nothing left to spare for the final book, and the deadline didn't permit me to take a break and recharge. That's why, when editing the new edition of Twist of Fate, I took the opportunity to change the lame title and rewrite the introduction to the story.

But how marvellous it is to hear of readers still getting pleasure from books I wrote twenty-five years ago and more. I'm nearer the end than the start of my writing career, but that reward never gets old.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Pointing the finger

British literary critics of the 19th century had the notion of the "Young Lady Standard", which was a kind of family-friendly U-rating for novels that would not offend the sensibilities of a Victorian girl. Because of this, British literature often shied away from the sort of forthright depiction of life you find in French or Russian novels of the time. There was a feeling on the Continent that literature was an art form and had a right, indeed a responsibility, to mirror life warts and all. In Britain literature was the forerunner of early-evening television.

Even so, authors like Jane Austen were not the twee and cosy yarn-spinners that many suppose. Lady Susan Vernon is an amoral, manipulative adventuress who deserves a place in the ranks of dark antiheroes alongside Vic Mackey and Walter White; Catherine Morland runs afoul of predatory sexual vindictiveness; Lizzie Bennet takes on a real-life dragon for very high stakes; Becky Sharp is willing to betray even those who love her just to squirrel away some cash. Nonetheless, though depths of human depravity are certainly there to be inferred in 19th century British literature, those are all pre-watershed conflicts. None of them is described with the uncompromising raw honesty and occasional breathtaking brutality of authors like Balzac or Chekhov.

Dickens wrote stories to stir your emotions, but he and his readers knew they were parlour entertainment, to be read by the whole family -- a "safe space" in entertainment. A Victorian paterfamilias who opened a novel to be confronted with the likes of Madame Bovary might well have stormed back to the bookshop and thrown it through the window.

I think something similar is behind the uproar we sometimes see nowadays over "unsuitable" content in roleplaying games. There are some people who play games the way those Victorian families read novels; there are others who expect games with no holds barred. This has led to the concept of the "x-card" -- sadly nothing to do with homo superior, but a mechanism to interrupt games whose scenes or subject matter a player is unhappy with. To quote from the blog I linked to there:
"The x-card is used to signal that a boundary has been crossed or that a player is not OK with the content. The game stops immediately, and discussion shifts to the reason why the card was used."
For me that's as absurd as calling a halt to a disturbing play or movie. If you don't like what you're seeing, don't tell me about it; there's the exit. But there's a category disconnect here. I regard roleplaying games as art, no different from literature, theatre, cinema, poetry, and painting. The people who advocate x-cards want their games to be morally uplifting and to avoid upsetting anybody, just like those family novels for the Victorian fireside. We have different expectations.

I have a player who doesn't like horror scenarios. If we're going to be playing a horror campaign, that's OK; she sits it out. Sometimes there's a grey area. A scenario may not be overtly intended as horror, in the sense of belonging to the horror genre, but horrific things happen. There have been a few times when my players have shocked me to the core with some of the things they're willing to do. And that's fine. It's why I play, in fact, to see those things that emerge unexpectedly from characterization -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes very nasty. It's the same when writing characters. You ask yourself how far they will go, what lines won't they cross, and the answer is often revelatory.

What do you do if you come up with something you know will be shocking, whether as a player or a referee? If I thought my players couldn't handle it then I'd keep it to use in a story, perhaps. But really, if my players were like that then we'd soon part company. They and I know we're not setting any limits.

Taking the blog post I cited again, one of that player's boundaries is "I don't want any romance involving my character." But it's really hard to plan that kind of thing in advance, especially in the improv style of play that gives the best games. When refereeing, I wouldn't have an NPC profess love for a PC if I didn't think the player was capable of running with it. (I'm talking about their acting ability and imagination, of course.) What if one player-character falls in love with another? I'd much rather they both played it. Unrequited love is one option there, and it could develop in interesting directions as we know from countless TV shows and novels. It would be pretty disappointing if a player just said, "I don't want to roleplay that." In that case play your blocking. Reject them, spurn their advances in-character. Don't tell everyone about it.

But what about games in a public forum? Twenty years ago I went along to a convention to sign Fabled Lands books but soon got roped into a series of fascinating mini-RPG scenarios run by the guys behind West Point Extra Planetary Academy. Each game had a different setting and was built as a moral quandary to be played out in twenty minutes. They could hardly have started by saying, "This scenario deals with issues X, Y and Z." It's the trigger warning problem. If you're trying to capture a genuine sense of surprise in the game, you can't give too much away upfront. (Not to mention that the evidence indicates that trigger warnings are of no use in any case to the genuinely traumatized.)

Why have these debates crept into games of late? I think partly because roleplaying is becoming -- well, not mass market entertainment, not by any stretch, but certainly it has opened up beyond the hardcore gaming demographic of the early days. Aficionados take a sophisticated approach to their hobby. The casual fan tends to have a less mature outlook.

Also, American culture has always had a much more censorious streak than European. The idea of shutting down a discussion because it offends somebody's moral code is perhaps natural if your country was founded by Puritans. And because of social media, the Overton window has shifted away from liberalism towards moralism. Hence gripes like this, that maybe do make sense over in the US (American friends, feel free to chip in) but strike most Europeans as potty.

And because most roleplaying derives from genre fiction, and genre sensibilities tend to be a little less grown-up than proper literature, there's a tendency to expect roleplaying games to stick to the soft-soap forms of conflict you get in traditional SF and fantasy. Witness the outcries over Game of Thrones when the writers stepped outside genre norms -- even though that was pretty much the entire thesis of the show from day one.

Anyway, enough theorizing. What do we do about it? Well, surely few gamers want to sit around listening while one player explains their reasons for halting the game. The next stop on that line is struggle sessions, which nobody will enjoy. But those people's sense of offence seems genuinely to overwhelm them, and there's no point in subjecting anybody to an experience they disapprove of. So we're going to need better ways to signal which kind of roleplayer you are. High literary with anything goes, or pulp with puritan boundaries? As long as everyone around the table knows what they're letting themselves in for, I'm sure we can all keep on gaming without needing to call the thought police.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Adventuring on a shoestring

I have a friend who keeps telling me I should do podcasts. It’s flattering because he does a fair few himself and he’s very good at it, but the field is so crowded already. Mike and Roger on Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice, Ralph on Fictoplasm, Jeff and Hoi on Appendix N Book Club – and not forgetting Dirk the Dice on the Grognard Files.

I’m on the latest of those, mostly chatting about Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider but with a bit about the early days of roleplaying. After the discussion, an interesting point was raised about whether DW would have worked better as a single rulebook, the way games like Runequest and Champions were released at the time, rather than as six standard-format paperbacks. (We’d hoped for twelve, but that’s a detail.)

What happened in the early ‘80s was Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson had a epiphany. They could see that fantasy games potentially had a huge market but had so far failed to escape the niche of sweaty hobby shops. How to get them out of the shadows and into the mass market bookstores? The lightbulb moment must have come while playing a Fantasy Trip solo adventure. ‘Know what, lad?’ I can imagine Steve saying – or maybe it was Ian. ‘Do something like this for kids and we could have a breakout hit.’

The red-braced MBAs among you will have noticed that Ian and Steve didn’t publish Fighting Fantasy themselves, despite owning White Dwarf magazine and a chain of game stores. They pitched it to Penguin Books and lions were shook into civil streets.

Me, I just rode their coat-tails. I figured that all those tweens and teens who’d now discovered gamebooks might also be waiting for roleplaying. So Oliver Johnson and I took ourselves out to Ealing, where Transworld had their offices, and the game that was to be known as Dragon Warriors was born.

What if we had done DW as a single rulebook? I’d been working on an RPG for Games Workshop that they planned to call Adventure (yeah, not my idea) and that would have sold about 2000-5000 copies. The value to GW was mostly that they could sell figurines on the back of it. Adventure never happened because GW picked up the UK Runequest licence, but it had penetrated even my business-blind consciousness that we could sell ten times as many copies if we got a paperback RPG into high street bookshops.

And where would a chain like W H Smith have put a single-volume rulebook anyway? Not alongside the FF books that all the 10-13 year-olds were snapping up. There might have been a corner of the shop where Jane’s Fighting Ships and Formula One books were stocked. You’d never have seen it. We wouldn’t be talking about it today.

And how much would it have cost? The DW books were £1.75 each – in the mid-80s, a little less than $5. If we’d lumped the content of the six paperbacks into one durable hobby-style RPG hardback, call it £15. About fifty quid in modern money. Not a pocket money purchase, for sure.

And would Transworld have been interested? Probably not. The adult division wouldn’t believe there was a market for fantasy role-playing, the kids’ editors wouldn’t commission a £15 hardback. And if they had, Oliver and I would have got an advance of about £2000 each (that's maybe £7000 in today’s money) to keep us going for a year or more while we wrote the whole game and all the scenarios. Passion project though DW was, just to pay the bills we'd have been tempted away by gamebook contracts instead.

Would I rather have released DW as one book? Well, that’s what I was working on in Adventure. It wouldn’t have been entry-level like DW. It would have been set in the world of Medra rather than Legend. The skill system would have been more complete because it was designed as an entire system rather than piecemeal and episodic the way DW came out. There'd have been no elves or goblins.

Would that game have been as good? Apples and oranges. Single-volume RPGs back then were for the hobby market. Paperbacks like DW and FF and Maelstrom were for the mass market. I'm heartily glad that James Wallis eventually reorganized DW into a single book, and it's far easier to find the rule you want that way, but we had to follow the winding road to get to that point twenty years on.

If I'd really understood the business side of gaming at the time, though, I’d have made the rules d6-based. How many schoolkids even knew where to buy icosahedral dice, still less have the pocket money to spare? It was Britain in the ‘80s, a tatty and corruption-riddled backwater off the coast of Europe. The streets were paved with stale chewing gum and flattened fag butts. Off licences had metal grilles to stop people pinching Watneys Party Sevens. The height of dining out was a gristly steak and chips at the Berni Inn. Kids didn’t have the cash to fling at mobile phones and X-Boxes like they do today. Or did, that is, pre-Brexit.

That dice bit I’ll be fixing with Jewelspider. All you’ll need are a couple of six-siders. It’ll be a small-format book, too, though maybe I should do a hardback as well as a paperback edition if only because that will be more resistant to spilled wine and red-hot fragments of dope. Tell you what, though. It’ll be a bit more than £1.75.

Friday, 1 January 2021

The better angels of our nature

I was recently reading an article that dismissed the idea that human beings might be perfectible and that history is generally moving in the direction of civilization away from barbarism, so I thought I'd share this short talk by the delightful Hans Rosling.

It's no proof that we'll end up with the Federation, or even the Culture, but it would be pretty stupid if, for the sake of cynicism, we didn't even bother to try. So my resolution is to do more in 2021 to combat injustice, superstition, prejudice, intolerance and ignorance. I hope you'll join me on the march to humanity's bright future. If we can't get there, don't let anyone say it was for want of effort.

In the meantime I want to wish all the blog's readers a very happy New Year. May your own personal trajectory be ever upward and onward. Let's leave the world a better place in January 2022 than we find it today: more civilized, more rational, more generous, and more compassionate. And if you're looking for a resolution for 2021, how about: get the jab?