Gamebook store

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?