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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.