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Friday, 26 March 2021

Hold that thought

You might have noticed that we're not running comments any more. I enjoy the conversations that take the week's post as a starting point (the more discursive the better) but there are better places on the internet nowadays for most of the rest of it.

If you've got gaming experiences you want to share, or general chit-chat, here are some Facebook groups that are ideally suited to that kind of conversation. 

Dragon Warriors group

Advanced Dragon Warriors group

Fabled Lands group

Tekumel group

Role-Playing Games group

Tabletop Role-Playing Games group

Gamebooks group

Stuart Lloyd has kindly provided the link to a Facebook group for The Way of the Tiger, and I'm sure there are forums for it. There's even a blog. Likewise Bloodsword. There are probably more up-to-date sites too, but I'm going in the other direction from social media myself, as most of what you find posted there wouldn't even pass the Turing Test.

If you're up for stimulating discussions about roleplaying, the best place for that these days is the Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice forum. Or why not come over to the Jewelspider page on Patreon? Maybe I'll see you there. No cat pictures, I promise.



Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Heart warming


What was I saying recently about Heart of Ice? Here it is again, trumpeted as "what many call the pinnacle of adult CYOA fiction". I'll just leave the link to the MyBest review there and bask in the warm glow of appreciation, then.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Legendary Kingdoms

When no less an authority than Guy Sclanders says he's "blown away" by a new open-world gamebook series, it's worth taking notice. And even as I write this several thousand Kickstarter backers have done exactly that, propelling the second Legendary Kingdoms book to more than fifty times its funding goal within two days.

The campaign runs until April 15, so if you're into multi-part solo gamebooks set in a modifiable sandbox world with all the traditional fantasy trappings (and if you're not then what brought you to this blog?) then you might want to give this one a spin.

Still need convincing? Take a look at Marco Arnaudo's review on YouTube. I'll just cover a couple of points Mr Arnaudo raises there. First the use of "you" to refer to a party of characters in a gamebook. I did that in Blood Sword, where up to four people can play together, and in English it presents no problems. It's how you address a group of characters in a roleplaying game, after all: "You advance along the chamber towards the sound of chiming and the smell of musty cinnamon" or whatever. Of course, in a gamebook it calls for judicious phrasing. "You take a sip of wine and lean forward to address the king" sounds ridiculous if applied to several characters at once -- that's synchronized sipping, an Olympic event! But most of the time it's fine. Indeed, how else could you address the players as a group?

Mr Arnaudo also raises an old bugbear for Fabled Lands players, namely the way that fights in later books are impossibly tough for those coming from Book One, and fights in earlier books childishly easy if you start in, say, Book Six. Well, we thought about it. If I was writing the books now I'd probably not have characters get so powerful, D&D-style, as they go up in rank. The challenge would be flatter across all the books. You don't get to superhuman skill-levels in Dragon Warriors or Tirikelu, where any fight could always be deadly.


What I wouldn't do is the combat matrix Mr Arnaudo suggests, where the monsters scale up in proportion to the player-characters' power level. All that achieves is breaking the suspension of disbelief. If you're going to do that, far better just to make combat ability fixed or nearly flat, as I said. It achieves the same effect without rubbing the reader's nose in it.

That said, the Fabled Lands books are numbered; the difficulty level is right there on the spine. If you want to play without cheating you can just take a character in Book One and work your way out from the safer and more civilized lands to the more dangerous ones covered by later books. I'd rather have had a series where you can start anywhere and play through in any order, and that would have meant rules that added more versatility as you levelled up rather than increasing your raw power. But I don't think the way the FL books did it is a fundamental flaw.

In other news, Jamie and I are hard at work on the Vulcanverse gamebooks. These have a Graeco-Roman fantasy vibe that at first didn't excite me; I usually prefer either original worlds like Tekumel, Abraxas or the Dying Earth, or else historical settings like Sparta. But Jamie reminded me that Greek myth isn't the defanged heroes-and-monsters playground of kids' picture books. The real myths are dark, bloody, nightmarish tales full of vengeance and atrocity. I should have remembered that from the haunting Wrath of the Gods comic strip (falsely attributed to Michael Moorcock) that was filled with stuff that would give you cold sweats in the still hours of the night. That's the flavour we're aiming for, not the literal myths but a new and twisted version of them that evokes the flavour of God of War and Assassin's Creed Odyssey.

The Vulcanverse gamebooks are open-world, like Fabled Kingdoms and Legendary Lands, but there's an overarching plot that builds over the whole series as you uncover an ancient mystery that threatens the stability of all the realms. Jamie's first book in the series is called The Houses of the Dead and is set in the mist-shrouded underworld of Hades. My own contribution is set in the Desert of the Sphinxes. We're yet to settle on a title for that but I can tell you it's going to be twice the size of a typical Fabled Lands book -- and as the series is backed by the Vulcanverse online project we're confident that it won't take us twenty years to finish it. In fact, the first two books will be out by this summer. And in the meantime don't forget the Fabled Lands CRPG, which should be released in just a couple of months from now.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

A visit to the real Legend


“It has become something of a dare for the children of Banlet to walk widdershins around the tomb thirteen times before inserting a finger into the keyhole of the wooden door. The challenge being to leave their finger in for the longest time at risk of the dead man gnawing at the tip.”

What’s the difference between Dungeons & Dragons and Dragon Warriors? No doubt whatever curve we draw around the two there will be outliers, but on the whole D&D seems to like world-shattering plots that, if you put them on screen, would involve a couple of hundred CGI experts. Dragon Warriors is much closer to ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush,’ as one of our greatest novelists put it.

In one of our recent campaigns designed for playtesting the Jewelspider rules, Oliver Johnson ran a scenario in which we were able to give a cow to a farmer who had had his livelihood destroyed by rustlers. There was also a plot about finding a bottle of ‘the perfume of Heaven’ to deal with a prophecy about the end of the world, but I can’t even remember that. Real emotion is saving a few people you’ve actually met, not the millions you haven't. That’s why The Seventh Seal is still one of the best Dragon Warriors films.

In a typical D&D campaign, that perfume of Heaven would be a magic item – in effect a bit of tech – to be used as part of a CRPG-style solution, ie matching the item to the problem. In Dragon Warriors it matters that it’s holy. The cultural and theological aspects far outweigh the practical. You won’t catch Legend players saying something like, ‘Give the perfume of Heaven to the warlock because he stands at the back, so he can throw it on the monster while we hold it off.’ You wouldn’t think of a relic as a tool to help you in a fight. You wouldn’t think of tactics as something that trumps the social order. For that matter you wouldn’t even voluntarily associate with a known warlock.

But, of course, he or she may not know they’re a warlock. That’s why I particularly like Nigel Ward’s adventure of two monks in the new Red Ruin chapbook. These two fellows are not the usual cosplayers who inhabit many fantasy campaigns. They are thoroughly part of their world and they perceive everything, including their own abilities, in that light. The adventure is also a perfect example of why Miss Austen was right about the two inches of ivory, and why Michael Fane in Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street has a far more magical, marvellous and heart-stoppingly menacing childhood than J K Rowling was able to dream up for Harry Potter. Less is more, and “The Wickedest Man in Banlet” delivers in shudders, thrills and authentic triumph in a way that no we’re-off-to-save-the-world-again epic ever could.

You can pick up The Adventures of Cedric & Fulk free here with several of the best Legend scenarios you'll get at that or any price this year.

Other news. Here’s an interview with Joël Mallet, who has been translating the Fabled Lands books into French for Alkonost. Segueing from that, Alkonost are in talks with Mark Smith to publish his Virtual Reality books Green Blood and Coils of Hate and maybe the never-seen-before Mask of Death.

On the subject of death and cemeteries, if you enjoy the creepy frisson of a visit to Sir Rickard’s graveside then take a look at Jack Cooke’s The End of the Road, in which he drives around Britain in an old hearse in search of storied tombs.

And I’d better not let a mention of books pass without adding that my wife’s new novel Ever Rest is now available for pre-order. I’ll tell you how it came about. It’s loosely based on a short story Roz wrote twenty years ago, which in turn was based on an anecdote my school’s assistant headmaster, Mr Bishop, told me fifty years ago. He was climbing in the Alps and a body was brought in that had been carried down the mountain in a glacier. The body was a little battered but still recognizably a young man. An old woman came and kissed the body, and somebody said that she had been engaged to the man fifty years earlier when he fell off the mountain. Given that Mr Bishop was in his late sixties when he told us that (he came out of retirement to help the school out) the incident probably happened in the 1930s, meaning that the man fell into the glacier in the early 1880s. So Ever Rest really has been a tale one hundred and forty years in the making. Give or take.

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.