Gamebook store

Friday, 1 July 2022

Lovecraft country

If you are thinking of running a Cthulhu roleplaying campaign in authentic New England surroundings, this site by John Ott has to be your first port of call. He's developed the Miskatonic railway line and in particular the city of Arkham as an amazing set of scale models. Show these pictures to your players to create a suitably eldritch mood.

For other things nameless and redolent of the outer darkness, try:
Or even this write-up of our 1890s campaign, which (I am told) was loosely based on "The Night of the Jackals", a scenario in later editions of Cthulhu By Gaslight.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Games that gloomviles play

If that picture rings a bell, you may have an eye like an A.I. but you'll also appreciate that gloomviles from an early Golden Dragon gamebook have found their way into the latest issue of Dragon Warriors magazine Casket of Fays. This issue has a sandbox campaign (my kind of game, that) set on the moors, magic items, creatures, adventure seeds, and a feature on the games that characters (not players) enjoy in the lands of Legend.

And while you're on DriveThruRPG don't fail to pick up Paul Partington's latest Dragon Warriors gamebook Scourge of the Shadows. It's a 480-section adventure set in Ereworn and, like Casket, it's absolutely free.

Also, though it's not related to Dragon Warriors or Fabled Lands, don't forget to check out the Kickstarter for the third Legendary Kingdoms book, Over the Bloo-- no, I mean Pirates of the Splintered Isles. Open world gamebook adventure, except with a party of characters instead of a single PC. You can get a sense of what it's like from the playthrough here:

Friday, 17 June 2022

A supernova imagination

You can probably see why I was immediately drawn to the work of Dublin-based artist Rory Björkman. There's a bit of a Mirabilis vibe in some of his pictures. But he has more strings to his bow that that, and I was mesmerized by this article about his art. (Full disclosure: it's by my wife.)
"Rory sees a lot of potential in games. 'I think they’re an underused platform. They could be used to a much greater extent for telling stories instead of shoot-up adventures. Games could tell great stories but you don’t see much of that.’"
He's talking about videogames, of course, but I think that any one of Rory's images could inspire an entire roleplaying scenario. If you try one out, come back and let us know how it went.

Friday, 10 June 2022

No new thing under the sun

I knew gamebooks dated back much further than Choose Your Own Adventure and Steve Jackson's Melee and Wizard solo games. I used to play educational logic "gamebooks" back in the early 1960s. But it turns out that "Alan George"'s Treasure Hunt not only anticipated all that by a further two decades (it was published in 1940) but also sort of pioneered the graphic novel gamebook genre that I thought Russ Nicholson and I had invented in the early '80s.

Much more up to date is a new(ish) open-world gamebook called Traquelero: A Quest for Happiness, by Othniel Poole. It seems pretty hard to get hold of, which is a shame as the concept sounds fascinating. No dice, no stats, just a character journey to explore. Effectively a walking sim in gamebook form? I'd like to try it and find out.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Theme tune

John Whitbourn remarked to me not so long ago that it was a pity we had to drop the comments on this blog for a while, because without them a spark had gone. I know exactly what he means. One of the main reasons I was a Marvel rather than DC fan was the sense of community that Stan Lee brought to the former, and a big part of that came from the lively exchanges on the letters pages.

But even while comments here were shut down I was still getting some feedback -- some of it bubbling up out of the moronic inferno of social media, and other communications (much more civilized) in real life, in emails, and on my Patreon page. John Jones, gamebook expert, valued consigliere and frequent correspondent, made an interesting point about themes in books and roleplaying games. He was talking about how White Wolf's World of Darkness used settings to convey themes and moods, for example Detroit in the '90s, with its theme of decayed grandeur and loneliness. "Detroit," John went on to explain, "was a city built for two million that at that time had 400,000 people or so living in it."

We discussed the themes of the Vulcanverse books, and John made some interesting observations:

"The Houses of the Dead is a little rough because it was the first book, but even there I can see a theme/mood of indifference. Charon knows the living aren't supposed to be in Hades, but the gods are asleep, so what does it matter? The philosophers debate endlessly at their foodless dinner until your character provides the picnic hamper. One of the Fates will give your character a favour for... a honey cake, because why not? 
"The Hammer of the Sun's general theme/mood seems to be withering. Without the waters of the rivers, Iskandria is little more than a largish village. The Amazons are basically a largish bandit gang. Even the Sphinxes of the pyramids mostly just slumber in the heat, too weakened or indifferent to guard their homes, for the most part. Heck, Loutro, who knows the rituals of Tethys, will only accompany the character, not actually do the rituals himself.
"The Wild Woods' theme seems to be ruin, whether through specific actions (suppressing the rivers) or just general neglect. The bridge-nets for the catapult travel system are in disrepair. Fort Blackgate is a ruin, home to a vile giant. The Summer Palace, home of a powerless king, is in bad shape. Even the Great Green Ones are slowly dying, just like the child of the truffle hunter who is unwittingly killing them.

"The Pillars of the Sky's theme seems to be isolation. One of the few surviving minotaurs roams his labyrinth alone. The bosgyns live away from their men. Stuck in their Great Sinkhole city the Gargareans dwell on their own perceived superiority, which allows them to brutally mistreat their captives and attack others as lesser beings. Even Boreas, the north wind himself, is isolated and trapped in a frozen moment of time by the Uroboros Ring."

I like thinking about things like this, and John and I got to talking about the fifth book in the series, Workshop of the Gods. The theme there would be secrets – the hidden social traps, the societies and gangs, scheming individuals weaving plans, and the ultimate secret being: what’s behind the curtain?

Well, that's my notion of it, anyway. The actual answer might turn out to be be completely different from that. The mood/tone is yet another question. I’m not sure how well my and Jamie's styles mesh these days, and would readers find that jarring if we each wrote half a book? The join might show in both style and theme. Every memorable IP in books, comics, TV, games, you name it, has a unifying theme that is the soul of the story, whether planned or otherwise. Take a look at your own favourites. Even if you haven't consciously dug down into the themes before, you'll probably find they've influenced you profoundly all the same.

Thursday, 26 May 2022

Plunge right in

At last, the moment we've been waiting for: the full release of the Fabled Lands CRPG on Windows and MacOS. After years of amazing work by Prime Games, this beautiful and immersive game is available for players to plunge into. The launch content includes the whole of the northern continent (FL books 1, 2, 4 and 5) with the Violet Ocean and Akatsurai to follow as downloadable add-ons.

This is the ultimate incarnation of Fabled Lands that Jamie and I dreamed of twenty years ago, when we pitched the FL computer game concept to Eidos as "characters exploring and adventuring across a gloriously coloured map of the world". It's been a long road, but Prime Games have brought that vision to life more vividly than we could ever have hoped.

How do you follow something as fantastic as this? Well, Prime Games still have a way to go with Fabled Lands -- including, perhaps, the southern continent. But as soon as I saw those tactical maps and started hurling some spells around, my first thought was how brilliant it would be to give Blood Sword the same treatment. Who knows?

Friday, 20 May 2022

Two timing

'Do you remember a guy that's been in such an early song?' asked Bowie. Until reminded by a shout-out from Alexis Kennedy, I'd completely forgotten that in Dragon Warriors book 6 I included some advice on handling passage of time in a roleplaying session:

Very long journeys often mean that a game-time period of many months will be skimmed over in a matter of a few minutes of real-time. However, it is not in the best interests of the game to be too quick about this. A sense of the ludicrous may creep into a game where the GM says something such as, ‘You ride south through Algandy, spend a few days in Ferromaine where you charter a ship, then you sail across the Coradian Sea and down the Gulf of Marazid until you reach the mouth of the Mungoda River after about a month. You find a guide and bearers and make your way inland through thick jungle, finally arriving at the ruined temple Sengool told you about three months after you set out.’

Such an introduction is implausible and does little justice to the adventure that is to follow it. I recommend that you never spend less than half an hour gaming each campaign month. Something of interest must happen in that time. Devise a meeting with officials in Ferromaine – are the player-characters stung for duty tax, or wrongfully arrested by the city guard? Embroil them in a subplot which may take up the whole gaming session (though try not to lose the impetus of the main adventure in doing so). As a last resort, at least throw in a pre-planned but ostensibly random encounter.

One useful trick that allows you to move through game-time at an accelerated rate is by means of a film-like montage. Wait for the players to begin a discussion amongst themselves – a plan of action, an argument over spoils, or whatever – then run them fairly freely through their journey, interjecting briefly sketched events or remarks from NPCs, such as the ship's captain, at intervals to show that time is passing. As in a film, a few minutes’ action can thus be made to seem to cover days or weeks. 

It's that montage technique that Alexis and Lottie were talking about, and it's very generous of them to give me the credit for it. I just swiped it from cinema, after all. But which filmmaker came up with it in the first place? It's almost but not quite what Welles uses in the breakfast montage in Citizen Kane. One flash of light but no smoking pistol -- where did he get it from? And who was the first to use it fully? By which I mean carrying on a continuous dialogue through a succession of scenes in which time is passing.

As with most fictive tricks, we can go right back to Shakespeare. He has two clocks, so to speak, running throughout Othello. (No montage there, obviously.) Montage as a cinematic technique predates dialogue, so at some point while cutting an early talkie it must have occurred to the director and/or editor that it would be neat to hold together the montage sequence with one voiceover or dialogue sequence. It's really just an extension of overtonal montage (a sequence of cuts linked by theme) which was well-established in the silent era. When talkies came along, some bright spark must have made the intuitive leap to using the dialogue as the overtonal glue. But who? Lev Kuleshov? Alfred Hitchcock? Don Siegel? In the absence of any further info, I'm going to have to bashfully submit to Mr Kennedy's attribution and call it the Morris Effect.

If you want to experience it in a game, the obvious pick is The Lady Afterwards, now available on Steam. If the story and game design are as gorgeous as the visuals (and Fallen London suggests they will be) then it's a must-have.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Become a Destiny angel

I'm filled with envy and admiration for what gamebook author Michael J Ward is doing with the crowdfunding campaign for the DestinyQuest world sourcebook. I couldn't produce such a beautiful-looking book and I certainly couldn't whip up that sort of exciting marketing frenzy. 

The book is an illustrated hardback and the campaign goes live on Kickstarter on May 17. It includes:

  • A detailed history of the world, from its creation by the celestial Fates, to the current End Times of crumbling empires and war-weary kingdoms.
  • A comprehensive timeline that charts the key events that have shaped the world of Dormus, right up to the present-day narratives of the gamebook series.
  • An overview of the magic system, detailing the chaotic forces of the Shroud and the effects of its demonic taint, as well as the runic magic of the dwarves and the dangerous arts of elemental sorcery.
  • Character stories and biographies, exploring some of the key characters who have influenced the DestinyQuest world, including the legendary witchfinder, Eldias Falks, and the enigmatic archmage, Avian Dale.
  • Descriptions of the main factions that vie for power and influence within the kingdom of Valeron, from the secretive enclaves of the Arcane Hand to the scheming masters of shadow, the Nevarin.
The blurb promises: "Whether you are a fan of the DestinyQuest gamebooks or a referee looking for a new and immersive setting for your homebrew roleplaying campaign, the World Companion promises a wealth of exciting secrets and discoveries – everything you need for the epic adventures ahead."

This also seems a good opportunity for some of what Sam Harris calls housekeeping. First up, gamebook fans of a certain vintage may have already noticed that booking for Fighting Fantasy Fest 4 is now open. Jamie Thomson and Paul Gresty will both be there, along with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, Martin Noutch of Steam Highwayman fame, Rhianna Pratchett, Jonathan Green, and other FF stalwarts.

Even more exciting (in my book, anyway) is that you can now sign up for the Fabled Lands CRPG beta build. That includes the whole of the northern continent and coastal waters -- with more to come.

Lastly, I was at Surrey University this week and somebody mentioned they'd had complaints about the lack of story nudges in an open-world game they had written. It's not just me, then. In days of yore, adventures began with an old guy running into a tavern to hand you a quest, and some players of Vulcanverse were irked to be just left to explore the world and find their own adventures, others were happy to uncover those stories for themselves. So as to cater for the former players I'm making sure that the fifth Vulcanverse book, Workshop of the Gods, has plenty of those proverbial old guys (or equivalent of other age/gender) to guide you on your way. If you prefer to be assigned quests and given plenty of hints, then, just be sure to start your adventures in VV book 5.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

A kind of tribalism

The way you choose to roleplay is up to you and your gaming group. Of course it is. But if you’re asking me, I don’t see the point of doing anything if you’re not going to commit to it heart and soul. Roleplaying to me means trying to be somebody else, imagining the reality of their life, and acting as they would. It’s fiction in the moment. And fiction is a parallel reality evoked by imagination that, while the spell lasts, should be taken as seriously as the reality we live in the rest of the time.

The road to Damascus ran through Keble College. It was 1980. I was running a Tekumel campaign and Paul Deacon, playing a pe choi called Keq Yossu, balked after hearing the lead-in to the evening’s adventure. ‘I’m not coming along.’

The others were aghast. ‘But… what are you going to do all evening, in that case?’

‘The whole set-up sounds off to me. You do what you like, but count me out.’ Paul dropped out of character a moment: ‘I’ll help Dave roll for the NPCs.’

It was the first time I’d thought of really getting into the head of a character that way. I admired Paul for it, and I admired him even more when he was proved right a few hours later. The whole party got wiped out. Paul imagined Keq Yossu getting the news back in Jakalla: ‘I did warn them…’

Not long after, in my Medra campaign, Mike Polling’s character Dagronel Kabo-Drasden befriended an NPC who was the sworn enemy of several of the other player-characters. When it came to the crunch, Dagronel sided with the NPC. In the game post-mortem, the other players were indignant. ‘You can’t value friendship with a nonplayer character above your comrades,’ they argued.

Mike pointed out that a roleplaying campaign is a fiction populated by characters. Nobody wears a lanyard saying PLAYER; it isn’t a Westworld style theme park with hosts vs guests. To use Professor Barker’s adage, there are no NPCs. Just characters. It’s only in bad fiction that somebody behaves out of character to ensure the plot goes in a pre-planned direction.

Both Paul and Mike are arts graduates, and it was an eye-opener for this scientist to see them insist on roleplaying as an art form. It was about then I started to eschew underworlds and puzzles. I should’ve known from Columbo that the how and the who are never as interesting as the why. Motivation is what matters. Characters who look at their world and say, ‘This is how it affects me and this is what I must do.’

Without that revelation, heaven knows what Dragon Warriors would have been.

I still come across the old-school approach, but these days it baffles me. A few years back I was playing in an SF campaign set in the Mass Effect universe. One character was a law enforcement agent. Some of the other PCs were rebels or pirates or – look, I don’t know anything about Mass Effect; in Firefly terms most were Browncoats and one was an Alliance officer. When it all kicked off, the agent sided with the local planet’s police and tried to arrest the Johnny Rebs.

Afterwards, one of the players in particular seemed to take it very personally – in real life, that is, not as his character. He went away seething. I asked a friend of his what was the matter. ‘He believes strongly in the players sticking together,’ he said. ‘He’s annoyed that player took the side of the police against the rest of us.’

‘But… what did he expect? The guy was playing a federal agent.’

‘He doesn’t think character should trump party loyalty.’

I honestly don’t know why you’d roleplay if you feel that way. Without commitment to character you might as well be paintballing. If you want PCs to stick up for each other, you have to give them a reason beyond the fact that they're all controlled by people sitting around the same table.

On the other hand, I also care that movies, TV drama and novels maintain integrity to the fiction they’ve created, yet a lot of people seem quite happy to excuse out-of-character swerves that are there to keep the plot on the rails the writer planned. To me that’s just not doing the work. It could explain why when I was a little kid and my school took us all to a Christmas panto it was loathing at first sight.

Everyone’s got their own setting on this dial. An it harm none, do as ye will. But what I want is to plunge right in to the imaginary lives we evoke through roleplaying, convinced there’s something amazing to be found there if just for a few hours we can let go of being ourselves.

Asking not telling

Amazon sent me this link to stream The Wheel of Time on Prime Video. I've never even read the books, nor had any inclination to, but maybe that's an unfair prejudice -- although articles like this and moody TV promo shots like the one above only serve to confirm my suspicions. I just always assumed The Wheel of Time was another Tolkien wannabe and that the TV show was a lame attempt to turn a bunch of third-rate fantasy novels into a new Game of Thrones. Any fans of the series want to disabuse me of that notion? I'd settle for anyone who's looked at the books or the show and wants to warn others off.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Set out on a journey of fabulous adventure

The Fabled Lands CRPG has been on early access for a while now, but in just a few weeks you'll be able to buy the full release in all its glory. Initially the game will feature all the content from The War-Torn Kingdom, Cities of Gold & Glory, The Plains of Howling Darkness, and The Court of Hidden Faces. The plan is to add Over the Blood-Dark Sea and Lords of the Rising Sun as DLCs later in the year -- and after that, who knows? Possibly all-new FL adventures if the 23,000 people who have wishlisted the CRPG all buy it. Find it on Steam here.

If paper-&-pencil games are more your thing, this is a good opportunity to mention the Lyonesse RPG based on the fantasy novels by Jack Vance. I contributed to the book but it's the work of divers hands, all of them very talented and with the forceful gust of Vance's imagination to fill their creative sails. Video reviewer Pauli Kidd gives a good idea of what to expect:

Find out more on The Design Mechanism's website.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Jewels from mire and mud

It's odd what can convince you to read a book. I'd listened to Paul Mason explaining why I should try The Wasp Factory, and he'd made a good case, but it was only when he read the blisteringly hostile reviews in the front ("filth", "should be banned", "the literary equivalent of a video nasty") that I realized I had to grab it off him and read it right away.

Paul also introduced me to the work of James Branch Cabell, of one of whose novels (The Silver Stallion) a contemporary reviewer said this:

“The malignity and malevolence of this monstrous literary sacrilege cannot be pardoned. Its banality is no excuse for its brutality. Its stupidity is no extenuation for its blasphemy. The author has in this book committed the unpardonable sin of art,– hooliganism. He may not be capable of understanding the vision of good that raises man above the level of vermin. He may not be able to feel the mystery of faith. He may not possess the power of reverence or the grace of humility. But he ought to love fellow creatures, and to respect their ideals and their dreams. He may find it amusing to hurt and wound the lowly and the simple, but he should not trample on their highest and holiest imaginings, even if he cannot soar out of his literary mire and mud.”
That's got to whet your appetite, surely? Technically I think Cabell is still in copyright for a few more years, but most editions of his works are long out-of-print or else are modern amateur-press copies, so why not try these online works (The Silver Stallion and others on Gutenberg) and then buy the books if you find them to your taste.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Death's twin brother

If you're a Dragon Warriors player you might already be aware of my project to return to Legend with the Jewelspider RPG. I'm running a Patreon page to fund the artwork for that, but there are also scenarios and articles of general gaming interest. The latest, for example, deals with the matter of first and second sleep in medieval life, leading into a dream-magic adventure seed that's reminiscent of a monster from the original DW rulebooks:

"Wild heaths and glades, moonlit meadows and secluded abbeys – these are the places where the demons called Nightmares are imagined to skulk. Malignant and hungry for souls, they wait and watch for wayfarers to stray upon their haunts. When the characters go to sleep for the night, the Nightmare invades their dreams. The Nightmare cannot be detected because it has no physical presence in the real world. An Eye of Foreboding may (60% chance) flicker as it approaches, but by this time the Eye’s wearer will be asleep and unable to heed the warning. If one of the characters has stayed awake on watch, the Nightmare will try to put them to sleep, matching its magical attack of 2d6 +14 against their magical defence. This is because the character could otherwise awaken their sleeping comrades as soon as they saw they were having an abnormally horrific dream. If the Nightmare’s sleep spell fails to work, the character can (if they have any sense) instantly arouse their comrades and thus drive off the demon.

"Having entered the sleeping minds of its victims, the Nightmare takes control of their dreams. It may or may not allow them to know they are dreaming, as it can make its dream-images completely realistic. One way for the referee to handle this is to start a gaming session in the normal way, gradually introducing a succession of increasingly bizarre elements until the players guess that their characters are actually caught in a Nightmare’s dreamworld. Only then do they remember how they happened to be camping out for the night, and the referee narrates in flashback what they did between the end of the previous adventure to the beginning of the dream sequence.

"The Nightmare will toy with its victims, subjecting them to a horde of weird and disturbing experiences. As it reigns supreme in the dreamworld, it may cancel out some of their powers—or alter various abilities so that weaker characters become strong while their former leaders become weak. Beings who appear to be characters in their dream-adventure may be friend or foe, the advice they offer may be for good or ill. Normal perceptions are perverted; an apparent pushover like a goblin may turn out to have the powers of a master sorcerer. The Nightmare always appears in the dream itself, usually as an archetypal figure such as an evil wizard-king in a high fortress, whom the characters must slay to obtain their safety. It may feature in other ways—as a legendary treasure the characters must find, a haunted place, a secret truth they must comprehend. In a spirit of malicious caprice, it may even enter the dream in a relatively weak persona, perhaps as a friend of the characters—if they can guess its real identity, they would easily be able to destroy it and awaken from the dream."

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

The expanding Vulcanverse

What was I saying recently about the Vulcanverse gamebooks? You'll either like 'em or you'll hate 'em. The reviewer above is in the former camp, and French gamers will be pleased to hear that Jamie and I are currently picking several dozen scenes from the books to be illustrated for the forthcoming Alkonost edition.

Or, if you can't wait, the English editions are still on sale -- and we are currently writing book 5, Workshop of the Gods, which should be out by the autumn.


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

Friday, 1 April 2022

Cry of the Woolf

Virginia Woolf had some smart things to say about roleplaying, in particular the tendency I often deplore to cram everything into a genre envelope and play self-consciously as if trying to replicate a TV show's contrived structure. Ms Woolf thinks there's too much of artifice in such narratives and not enough of life: 

‘So much of the enormous labour of proving the solidity, the likeness to life, of the game narrative is not merely labour thrown away but labour misplaced to the extent of obscuring and blotting out the light of the conception. The players seem constrained, not by their own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has them in thrall to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole. The tyrant is obeyed; the game is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we feel a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as events unfold in the customary way. Is life like this? Must roleplaying be like this?
‘Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old. The moment of importance came not here but there, so that, if the players could do whatever what they chose, not what their characters arcs say they must, if they could base their actions on their own in-character impulses and not on convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted story style. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged.’

Monday, 28 March 2022

Deities acute and obtuse

Here's a question that we really ought to settle once and for all. Richard Hetley, who is a veteran of Fabled Lands campaigns on Kickstarter and has been invaluable to us as an editor and design consultant, recently asked about Ebron, the god of Uttaku who crops up in The War-Torn Kingdom:

Richard Hetley: "I mention this delightfully angular deity because he came up in discussion about the Fabled Lands app. Replies there said 'Yes, it's been confirmed by the authors that Ebron has angles, not angels. Must be some sort of Lovecraftian non-Euclidean god.' I was fairly certain that this was not the case. I had even corrected the misconception where possible. But then I couldn't find a reference in our e-mails, so I didn't say anything. Care to clarify, for the ten thousandth time, whether Ebron was in possession of angles or angels?"

Jamie Thomson: "It most definitely is angles! And it first made an appearance in the Heart of Harkun radio play. And yes, he is a kind of non-Euclidean deity, that's a nice way of putting it, but not Lovecraftian. Imagine it more as a Zen koan, like you meditate on the mystery of how god can have fourteen angles in the same way the early Christian Greek churches used the Trinity as a mystery to meditate on, but not to be taken literally. Of course, the Western Christians decided to do just that, and so you get the Nicene creed, where they actually conceive of a threefold god."

Friday, 25 March 2022

Pollution by association

So today I thought I’d have a go at defending J K Rowling…

Only kidding. I’ve already got morons on forums yapping that I’m a Nazi. Next thing they’d be saying I’m a Muggle sympathizer.

(For the record, if you want to insult me, take your pick from: socialist, humanist, agnostic, internationalist. Old-style leftie, obviously, not one of these new ones that hate freedom of speech. I guess Remoaner is a bit out of date, but still available if you prefer old-school slurs. Theresa May called me "a citizen of nowhere", but that's more of a badge of honour than an effective insult. Still, facts don't matter to the sort of people who bandy these accusations around.)

Recently I read The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. I didn’t like it much (review here) but the opening couple of chapters, set at the height of the Cultural Revolution, should be required reading for everybody who is going to be allowed to wield a keyboard online. I know that some people hate having to, you know, actually pay for books, so here's that bit free courtesy of the publisher.

Only a few years ago, we might have imagined in the West that we’d abandoned blasphemy thinking for Enlightenment values. Well, that light’s flickering. You know how denunciation works – fail to condemn and, bang, you’re guilty too. And if you’re interested in that (you should be; we desperately need to vaccinate our minds against it) the book you should definitely read is Darkness At Noon. Or, failing that, at least watch that TNG episode with the lights.

Comments are back, but after yesterday got as shouty as Yale Law School let's try to revert to the more sedately ivied ambiance of St Aldred's common room. (I guess you can add "elitist" to that insult list.)

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Was Professor M A R Barker a Nazi?

No, of course he wasn't a Nazi. But if you were unlucky enough to get caught in the stampede of denunciation this week you might have got that impression. For example, there was this statement by the Tekumel Foundation:

“What Professor Barker did was wrong and forever tarnished his creative and academic legacy. As stewards of the world of Tekumel, we reject and repudiate Serpent’s Walk and everything it stands for and all other anti-Semitic activity Professor Barker was involved with.”

Or have a look at this. Suddenly he's as friendless as Kevin Spacey.

I’m a bit less ready to cast the first stone. Others must make up their own minds, and I respect the Tekumel Foundation people and others for  stating what they believe, but I am far from convinced by the closet Nazi theory. This novel wasn't a dark secret kept hidden from public view. Professor Barker openly mentioned Serpent’s Walk to me and others in his correspondence in the 1980s. He was touting it around publishers (legitimate ones at that time, not the toxic publishers who came later) and I have seen the following letter that he sent about it to a major British publisher at the time:

“I do have a novel that is unsold and unwanted by anybody. This is what I call my ‘Nazi novel’. I did not show it to the Wollheims both because they don't do this sort of book and also because they are Jewish and would be terribly offended -- and they are nice people. I started out to write a ‘near-future’ thriller: young mercenary is hired to steal cannisters of germ warfare from an American stockpile in the 2040 A.D. period. This is used by a fearful Israeli government and various cronies to destroy the Soviet Union; the Soviets get in a retaliatory strike with germ warfare of their own, however, and take out many US, British, etc. cities. Out in India, where the young mercenary is employed, the descendants of the Nazi SS and other ‘refugees’ are quietly biding their time, building up economic resources for a come-back. With the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States open after the deaths of their incumbents, the Secretary of State takes over -- an old, reconstructed racist. He invites the Nazi movement to help in running the US. The mercenary hero, who is not a Nazi, is an employee of the Indian chemical company ‘front’ for the Nazis and gets into the situation as a sort of military expert for them. The Nazis manage to gain access to a giant computer with independent ideas, and they use this machine to rewrite Mein Kampf using every sales pitch and advertising trick in the book. The hero initially loves and marries an Indian girl, but later falls for a Nazi girl who is helping with publicity. The plot thickens, and various major events occur. The book ends with the Nazis taking over much of Western civilisation, and with our hero being chosen ‘Second Führer’ and riding into the stadium to the ‘Sieg Heils!’ of the masses.

“The only people I can imagine enjoying this book would be skinheads and Sir Oswald Mosley. It would probably create as much fuss as Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and could not be published under my own name. Both the author and the publisher would become the target of many rude remarks, letter-bombs, hand grenades, and visits from Mossad. I mentioned this book just to show you that I am not completely dead -- yet. Still alive and working. I don't expect you to want to publish it. Nobody will. I cannot even sell it to the Neo-Nazi presses here; they would not accept the idea of an Indian girl marrying the hero.”

(Just to be clear, because a lot of people have not understood: that's a short extract from a longer letter that Barker sent to a British publisher with whom I put him in touch to talk about Tekumel novels. SS-GB had come out ten years earlier and Fatherland, another alt-history about Nazi victory, was only a few years away, so maybe he thought the British were obsessed with the War or something.)

So what is going on here? Some people have discovered that Barker’s father, Loris, was a fascist and they have gleefully concluded that means the Professor was as well. But Jeff Berry has pointed out that the Professor didn’t have a good relationship with his father and abhorred his views:

“It's my perception – aided by my reading through Phil's letter files, after he passed away – that Phil was playing one of his involved pranks on Loris Barker, his associates and their descendants.”

So the conclusion that Prof Barker was a Nazi sympathiser is a bit dubious. He wrote an alt-history novel with a US Nazi main character, and got the notion of doing it as a literary hoax under a pseudonym. Sort of L Ron Hubbard style only with politics rather than religion. We don’t assume Philip K Dick was a Nazi because he wrote The Man in the High Castle (actually, some people probably do). We don’t imagine that Thomas Harris is a serial killer, that Nabokov was a paedophile, or that Timur Vermes thinks Hitler was a good guy. Authors create characters – even the voice of the author is a character specific to the story they are telling. When they use a pseudonym, they’re signalling that even more strongly. Barker went further. I think he was creating a spoof writer who he could sell as a real person, enjoying the notion that if actual neo-Nazis bought into it he could shock them by revealing his own personal circumstances (an American convert to Islam married to a non-white woman).

Some have discovered that Professor Barker may have been listed on the editorial advisory board of The Journal of Historical Review, a Holocaust-denying magazine. Denial of the Holocaust is a monstrous lie, and to promote Holocaust denial is clearly anti-Semitic. But we still need evidence that Barker denied the Holocaust. A screenshot of the contents page of one issue in the early '90s (when he was actively trying to sell the novel) lists a “Phillip Barker, Ph.D”. Was that the Professor? It might well have been, but let’s not conclude that he’s more evil than Sauron just yet. I was a consulting editor on White Dwarf in the ‘80s – that doesn’t mean I agreed with their editorial or commercial policies. More to the point, if “Phillip Barker” submitted a letter or article to back up the credentials of “Randolph D Calverhall” (the author of Serpent’s Walk) that’s very likely just part of the cover story supporting his literary hoax.

And why do that as “Phillip Barker”? The Professor was Phil to his friends, but used his Islamic name professionally. Given its politics and readership, The Journal of Historical Review would presumably not have had anything to do with “Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, Ph.D”. To infiltrate them he went in undercover.

I accept I could be wrong, and if shown definitive evidence I'll change my opinion. In particular, if I see any statement from Barker that he denied the existence of the Holocaust then that destroys any possibility of a defence. Then guilt is clear. But to tar Barker as a Nazi, it's not enough to cite multiple pieces of "evidence" that all tie back to the novel, because if Serpent's Walk was indeed designed as a literary hoax then all of those collapse at the same time. To conclude that Prof Barker was anti-Semitic, we need separate and incontrovertible facts. For example, he ran roleplaying games twice a week for several decades. In all that time did he ever express anti-Semitic views to his players? Obviously not; they had no inkling of it. Other than Dave Arneson and a few others, Jeff Berry probably knew him better than any of his other gamers and is thus a reliable character witness. Mr Berry doesn't think it likely that Barker secretly harboured such views. Our only "evidence" is a novel, for which Mr Berry gives a credible explanation. As Barker deplored his father's political views, and his father was a fascist and anti-Semite, isn't the balance of probability that Barker was opposed to racism and fascism rather than the reverse?

None of this has anything to do with Tekumel, incidentally. Only an infantile mind mixes up the art and the artist. Even if Barker had been pro-Nazi, it would not have the slightest bearing on games played in the world of Tekumel. But I really don’t think he was pro-Nazi. It’s just one of those firestorms of public outrage that the internet loves. My own impression from over a decade of correspondence was that his politics were, if anything, progressive rather than right-wing. For example, does this sound like the statement of a white supremacist?

"The lack of interest in South Asia and the Middle East here [in the US] is astounding. We [ie his university department] cover a third of the human race, yet the Regents voted to close us down."

That’s just one of dozens of comments in letters over the years that expressed his delight in human diversity. If the Professor was a Nazi, he certainly hid it well. And remember:

Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

The mystery at the desert's heart

Why do people roleplay? For as many diverse reasons as they indulge any other activity. Somebody on Twitter was discussing the best way to include traps in RPGs, citing the example of a curse of fire and ice inscribed on a tomb. That’ll be interesting, I thought; how would a curse of fire and ice manifest? How would it take its toll on the violators of the tomb, whittling them away, pushing each to abandon his comrades and selfishly try to save his own hide? It wasn’t like that. It was just a fireball followed by a treasure sealed in ice and protected by extreme cold. So the players had to figure out a way to chip the treasure out before they froze to death.

Well, I enjoy lateral thinking problems, just not usually as part of my roleplaying games. Not that I have anything against the dungeoneers who like traps and secret doors and wandering monsters and rooms with puzzles. Whatever floats your boat. If you adventure in Legend, though, it’s likely to be because you prefer your fantasy to feel more real, peopled by adversaries with nuanced motives and allies who could in extreme circumstances abandon or even betray you. You want credible storylines, complexity of relationships, and richness of character interaction. If there are puzzles they shouldn’t feel like something in a game show but will arise organically out of the dynamics of the world and the society. 

If that sounds like your thing, take a look at David Donachie’s superb Outremer gamebook Icon of Death, which plays out like a real Dragon Warriors adventure with mysteries and uncertainty, fully rounded NPCs, and action that’s all the more exciting and involving for arising out of a completely convincing background. You get a 320+ section gamebook with superb artwork that brings the characters to life, and it’s entirely free.

David Donachie also has a strong contender for the Lindenbaum Prize with his gamebook The Garden of Earthly Regrets. For me it felt like Max Payne crossed with The Romance of the Rose and directed by Jan Švankmajer. You can try it along with all the other entries and vote for your favourites. And those too are all free.

I began by talking about fire and ice. If Icon of Death provides the desert fire L'Hiver des Hommes, Akonost's new release in the Destins series, brings the ice. It is of course the French version of Heart of Ice, now out in a beautifully produced edition with a couple of all-new illustrations by Russ.

Friday, 11 March 2022

The Marmite of gamebooks?

Last year Jamie and I published the first four Vulcanverse gamebooks – a revisiting of the open-world concept of Fabled Lands – to mixed reactions, at least as far as my contributions to the series were concerned. In gamebooks I like to leave the player to their own devices as much as possible, because that’s how I prefer my roleplaying games. If the referee starts to feed me the hook to a story, I’ll sigh and go along with it because he or she has put the work in, but I’d rather pick my own goals and discover stories for myself.

The idea of a pure open world gamebook is that you will explore and come across various elements of a story in no particular order. You might find a silver key and wonder which door it unlocks. Or you might be faced with a door that needs you to go in search of a silver key. Or a wizard might tell you that if you go to such and such a tower and locate a locked door and open it with a silver key then you can bring him the item you’ll find there and get a reward.

It's sometimes said that open world gamebooks lack quests, but’s that’s not true. Spoilers here for The Hammer of the Sun, in which you can team up with the last devotee of the river goddess Tethys, and he will teach you the mysteries of the cult, and if you find certain sacred objects and perform the rituals you have learnt you can bring back the river that once flowed through the desert. In doing that, you restore the fortunes of a city that fell into ruin when the river dried up. In that city you can build yourself a reputation, help to increase the city’s prestige, and make friends who will steer you on other quests. And then further events bring the city back to the edge of oblivion, and only you can save it and raise it to greater heights than it reached even in its heyday. And that in turn embroils you in a gathering mystery and potentially a major war.

So there’s a lot of story there, but few breadcrumb trails to get you started. You might gad about exploring tombs and pyramids or fighting dragons or getting involved in a bunch of unconnected mini-adventures. And sometimes you’ll hear a hint about what you need to do to make the river flow again. What I was aiming for was a hidden kernel that the player would stumble upon, and it would then suddenly unfold before your eyes into the Yellow Brick Road of a long and inviting narrative.

That maybe worked back in the ‘90s (and not for everyone even then) but we all have less time now. No filmmaker now would spend two minutes having Sherif Ali ride up to an oasis, or several minutes of Bowman jogging around Discovery One. Some readers of The Hammer of the Sun came across the city storyline before their patience ran out, and their reaction was enthusiastic; here’s James Spearing:

“While open world books have a reputation for not having major story arcs, this gamebook combines the sense of freedom of exploring this large desert area, with moments where your previous actions spark major world-changing events. Even the map gives clues about where you might need to visit, and it soon becomes apparent that there are at least two major quests that give further meaning to exploring, as you visit various similar sites to unlock new secrets.”

But if you are unlucky enough not to unearth the start of an important narrative early on, it can mean quite a negative experience, as Andreas Brueckner describes:

“It felt like I was walking through the desert for an hour without anything really happening. I was asked now and again whether one or another person was with me; the answer was always no, giving the feeling every time that I was missing something. Then I died. […] At the beginning of a game there should be some simple quests that bring you closer to the game world, whereas here you start with boredom and wasteland.”

The clincher for me was the video review at the top of this post. Here’s a discerning gamebook critic who has been very positive about my earlier work but who has been disappointed by not having had enough guidance towards the major quests in the Vulcanverse books. He explains his reasoning very clearly -- which is something every writer should be grateful for, even when they are being told some painful truths. Also, I have to acknowledge that sales of the Vulcanverse books have been very poor and almost nobody has bothered to review them. Clearly there is a lesson I must learn.

Luckily we still have one more book to come in the Vulcanverse series. That gives me the opportunity to cater for the players who don’t like to be left to explore without any guidance. Jamie is busy with the NFTs and so forth for the online Vulcanverse, so it was already on the cards that I’d do most of the writing for Workshop of the Gods. Now, properly chastised by my critics, I’m putting my mind to ways that I can steer readers who start in that book towards the major plot threads that are waiting for them in all the others. Expect something different that will, I think, appeal to both the fans of truly sandbox play and those who want some gentle nudges in the direction of the story.