And of course Mirabilis: Year of Wonders. See you in 2023.
Saturday, 24 December 2022
Thursday, 22 December 2022
Maybe you’d start by saying: “Somebody has two cats. The older cat is male. What’s the probability that the other cat is also male?” Everybody can get that. It’s fifty-fifty.
But maybe first we should pause and think about what probability means. Clearly if I have two cats, I already know what sex they are. Probability isn’t about the specific case where the facts are already known (well, duh), it takes a very large number of cases that meet the first condition and then asks how many of them meet the second condition – sight unseen.
Instead of cats, let’s think of it as people tossing coins. You have a room full of people (a thousand, say) and they all toss two coins. I ask everyone who has at least one coin that came up heads to raise their hand. Three-quarters of the room do so. So now I’m just looking at those 750 people and I ask how many have two heads. All but 250 hands go down. So, OK, if the question was: “Somebody has flipped two coins. At least one of them came up heads. What’s the chance their other coin also came up heads?” It’s 1 in 3.
Notice that earlier I mentioned the older cat being male. Making it the older cat defines it as distinct. It’s like asking everybody after tossing the first coin to put their hand up if they get heads. Then you get them to toss again, and keep their hand up if they get heads again. Now half of the hands go down, because each coin toss is random.
Digression: I knew somebody at the French Chamber of Commerce & Industry who believed that you could work out the odds of a coin toss based on how that coin had come up before. So if he tossed three heads in a row, he was convinced tails became more likely on the next toss.
This is of course nonsense, for which Pascal would have berated him soundly. It's nowadays known as the Monte Carlo fallacy. It is true that the chance of getting heads four times in a row is only 1 in 16, but those are the odds in advance. If you toss four coins, cover them up, and then show me that the first two are heads, and ask, “What’s the chance that the next two are heads?” I’ll tell you 1 in 4. You might already know that they both also came up heads, but see above – probability doesn’t apply if you know the facts. What probability can tell us is that in these circumstances, out of every four people who show you the first two heads, only one will be able to reveal two more heads.
So now we’re back to the problem at the top there. Sticking with coins rather than cats: “I have handed out lots of coins marked randomly with the numbers 1-7. Everybody has flipped two coins. If somebody in the room has at least one coin that came up heads with the number 7 marked on it, what’s the chance their other coin also came up heads?”
Think it through. Everybody gets their coins, tosses them, and looks at the result. I ask anyone who has at least one coin showing heads to put their hand up. Obviously nobody who got two tails does, so we ask them to leave.
Next I ask everybody who doesn’t have at least one coin showing a head that’s marked with a 7 to leave too. Two thirds of the people have one head and one tail showing, and only one in seven of those has a head marked with a 7. One third of the original group have thrown two heads. How many of them have at least one marked with a 7? Well, the chance of neither having a 7 is (6/7)squared, ie 36/49. So 13/49 of the two-heads folks have at least one marked with a 7.
Now compare that with the heads-&-tails people. There are 14/49 of them with a head marked with a 7. (One in seven got a head marked 7; count 1/7 times two because half tossed heads then tails, half tossed tails then heads.) Let’s just assume we began with a total of 196 people when the coins were handed out, so the total sample group who can say, “At least one of my coins came up heads and is marked with a 7” is 14+13 = 27 people. Of those, 13 threw two heads.
It applies to cats too (but don’t trying throwing them) and so the answer to “Somebody has two cats. At least one of them is a male born on a Friday. What’s the probability that the other cat is also male?” is 13/27.
Now, notice that this only applies in the general case. If I’d said: “Somebody has two cats, one white and one black. The black one is a male born on a Friday. What’s the probability that the other cat is also male?” Now it’s fifty-fifty, because you collapsed the wave function (so to speak) first. By identifying one specific cat in the pair by a characteristic the other doesn’t share (it could also have been age) you make its birthday irrelevant – the probability of the other one being male is now independent of the other.
By this stage you should have the dining table to yourself, so tuck into more turkey and drink some wine before you start thinking about a cat born on December 25th.
Monday, 19 December 2022
We included resurrection deals in Fabled Lands because we wanted a diegetic way of saving your character. Because coming back to life is part of the fantasy world, not a meta-event, the idea is that it doesn't break immersion the way a videogame-style save point would.
The drawback is that in the early stages of the game, before you're rich enough to pay for resurrection deals, death is unforgiving. Players of Dungeon Crawl Classics will be familiar with the funnel, a baptism of fire for 0th level characters, but I can see how it's a pain in FL. In retrospect, we should have started you off with a free resurrection deal in each book.
Players of Prime Games' Fabled Lands CRPG mostly enjoy testing themselves against the brutal vagaries of fate, and somebody has now done a walkthrough that shows how you can get all the achievements in the game without dying once. I didn't even imagine that was possible. There's a tsunami of spoilers there, naturally, but if you're frustrated with your progress and don't mind benefiting from a helping hand then give it a try.
Friday, 16 December 2022
Russ Nicholson and I tried pitching a graphic novel gamebook to UK publishers in the late 1980s. Little did we know that Delacourt were doing exactly the same thing at about the same time. It probably helped that comics (bandes dessinées) are well-established in France whereas in Britain they are, as my agent says, "not even a cottage industry". La Sphère du Nécromant was by Thierry Cailleteau (writer) and Eric Larnoy (artist) and you can read more about it here. And A J Porfirio is continuing the tradition with the Graphic Novel Adventures series.
Another graphic novel gamebook that I really like is Ryan Lovelock's Kadath Express. This is something really unusual, an interactive sightseeing trip through a world of fantastical weirdness and charm. Full disclosure: Ryan sent me a free copy, but the book is such a thing of beauty that I'd have bought it anyway.
Monday, 12 December 2022
Friday, 9 December 2022
During my time at the Lucca Comics & Games festival, quite a few people came up and said how much my work meant to them. That's always really lovely to hear. You write to make a connection, hoping that what you do will inspire others. But I always point out to fans that I'm a fan too. There are writers who inspired me (Terry Nation, Stan Lee, Michael Moorcock, Roy Thomas, Robert E Howard, Gene Roddenberry, and many others) and they had writers who inspired them. It's a torch we're passing along.
And because writers are fans as well, I was delighted to come full circle and appear in the December issue of Doctor Who Magazine not as Dave Morris, aspiring Dalek scriptwriter, but as David Morris, my six-year-old self, geeking out over a set visit to watch the rehearsal of "The Brink of Disaster". I won't spoil it with any details here, except to say that it followed a few weeks after my dad took me to meet a real-life Dalek.
This is issue #584 of Doctor Who Magazine. That's pretty impressive, especially for a monthly. It's a show that has inspired generations of sci-fi enthusiasts. Whether you write, read or only watch, those enthusiasms are what make life worth living, so let's celebrate such treasures of the imagination -- and keep passing on the torch.
Friday, 2 December 2022
It’s Mostly Been Forgot
by Oliver Johnson
A Dragon Warriors adventure for 3-5 characters of about 6th rank; page numbers refer to Dragon Warriors Basic Set, Magnum Opus Press
All is not as it seems in the village of Palgrave-under-Gaunt. A fanatical, unhinged paladin kills both the godly and ungodly in his desire to rid the world of evil, while an apostate sorcerer has taken over the village inn and awaits the arrival of a strong body of adventurers to co-opt to his heretical ends.
Long ago, the village of Palgrave-under-Gaunt was the site of a battle between St Salvage and a demon. Mundandir was an emissary of Plague Star, summoned to the underworld beneath Mt Gaunt by heretics. She was defeated, but with a great loss of life amongst St Salvage’s followers. Just before she was bound, Mundandir struck deaf and dumb all who are born in Palgrave ever after.
Mundandir could not be totally banished – her soul and body are divided: the first is in the summoning chamber where St Salvage defeated her, the latter is magically encased in a statue in the church crypt. Body and soul can be kept separate as long as four artefacts, Mundandir’s hair, eyes, lips and wings are kept away from the statue. If they are reunited, her souls will fly from the summoning chamber, inhabit the statue and she will rise.
It is deep into Yeol month, just after the birthday of the Saviour. There is a sinister conjunction in the stars. The sickly yellow light of Plague Star burns brighter than the other four, presaging evil.
Our characters are on the road that leads to the far north of Albion, to the Pagan Mountains and beyond to the lawless and heretical land of Ereworn.
The party are accompanied by the returning crusader knight, Sir Wolf Creel. His demesne, Creel Castle, is a lonely and decrepit outpost tower presiding over a barren stretch of moor near the border.
SIR WOLF CREEL
ATTACK 18 Sword Armour Factor 5
DEFENCE 12 EVASION 5
MAGICAL DEFENCE 8 Health Points 16
Sir Wolf has been away in Outremer for five years, in which time his wife Aria has passed away and his fourteen -year-old daughter, Flora, has grown to almost-adulthood. She is now the chatelaine, dressed in the rags bequeathed by her dead mother. Indeed, she is the lone occupant of Creel Tower. Her servants left at her mother’s death. The only livestock are thin chickens scratching away in the barren soil.
Flora is overjoyed to see her almost-forgotten father, but tells the party that two days ago, just as Plague Star became ascendant in the night sky, she saw a sinister-looking group on the road passing across the moors. A globe of sickly yellow fire lit their way. She is not exactly sure of the party’s number. Perhaps a dozen. They were heading towards Palgrave-under-Gaunt, the village to the north.
Both Flora and Sir Wolf may mention here that all who are born in Palgrave are born deaf and dumb, because of an ancient curse.
In this bitter, almost forgotten corner of Albion stands the cursed village of Palgrave, a small linear agglomeration of lathe and timber buildings on the banks of the fast-flowing River Teether. Over the village sits Mt Gaunt, its rugged Rushmore-like granite bluffs look like an ancient human face: a jutting buttress chin; an outcropping of rock for a nose; two caves that might be eyes; above, a bald crown summit. The lower slopes of the mountain are covered in dense coniferous forest.
To the north of the village sits a castle on an eminence dominating the last stretch of road to Ereworn. Five years before when Sir Wolf set out for Crescentium it was derelict, but now smoke can be seen rising from within its walls.
This is the castle now occupied by the fanatical and demented paladin, Sir Grigor Ironstone. Despite his insanity he is a devoted servant of the Saviour.
SIR GRIGOR IRONSTONE
ATTACK 24 Sword Armour Factor 6
DEFENCE 18 EVASION 6
MAGICAL DEFENCE 14 Health Points 22
Equipment: The Iron Cross of St Salvage (see below)
ATTACK 17 (Bite d8,3 or Kick d10, 6) Armour Factor 3 (barding)
DEFENCE 4 EVASION 4
MAGICAL DEFENCE 4 Health Points 22
ATTACK 14 (bite d8,3) Armour Factor 3 (skull)
DEFENCE 6 EVASION 3
MAGICAL DEFENCE 6 Health Points 9
There are as many flying skulls as 12 minus the number in the party (including NPCs). These are the skulls of apostates subjected to Ironstone’s will by the Iron Cross of St Salvage, a magical artefact that can give life and flight to the severed skulls of heretics. The minds of the damned who have left the true path must serve this purgatory in death until their heads have rotted and their brain cells turned to sludge. Only then will their consciousness sink to Hell. The skulls chatter and lament their lot but cannot escape the cross’s domination. In combat they will attempt to incapacitate arms and legs first so Sir Grigor can come and deal with the sinner and add their skull to his flying menagerie.
Note, whoever holds the Cross controls the skulls.
It is growing dark and the night is drawing in. It is bitterly cold.
A mile outside the village either side of the muddy highway the party find a number of decapitated and crucified figures on X-shaped crosses. There are signs hung on their chests and written, presumably in the blood of the decapitated men, are words like: ‘Apostate’, ‘Heretic’, ‘Unbeliever’ ‘Demon Worshipper’ etc.
GM: there are the same number of executed men as 12 minus the number in the party (inc NPCs: ie if there are 8 in the party, there will be four executed men) (see above). Flora, if she’s with the party, will confirm that at least some of the blood-soaked robes look somewhat like those worn by the dozen or so figures who passed Creel two nights before.
A keen tracker (Perception roll) may notice signs of a skirmish that has taken place here and that some tracks head north towards the forest and mountain. Should the party follow the tracks and pass another Perception Roll -3 roll they will see most of those fleeing continue into the forest (see below) but one set of footsteps breaks off towards the village.
Irrespective of whether the party go to the village or into the forest, the sound of thundering hooves is now heard coming from the direction of Palgrave.
Out of the twilight comes a sinister sight. Flying human skulls: matted blood-soaked hair; staring eyes; chattering teeth in grimacing faces. They dart hither and thither, searching for their former friends in the twilight.
The party have the option of standing in plain view and waiting for the skulls and Ironstone or hiding in the forest. If they hide, Stealth rolls to avoid the scrutiny of the skulls.
Those who fail will be fallen upon by the skulls just as Sir Grigor rears out of the twilight on his hellish destrier.
In the half-light Sir Grigor assumes the party are the missing cultists and attack. The party can at any time attempt an end to the attack by parlaying with him (Wits roll). Perhaps they must show their innocence by reciting the scriptures, or displaying a religious object, etc?
If calmed, Ironstone gruffly explains that he took the characters for the survivors of the Plague Star apostates who have attempted to enter the village. And then, without another word, he summons his skulls and disappears into the forest.
Thereafter, Sir Grigor will only be found at the castle to the north of Palgrave (see brief description at end).
Dense and pathless, it Is protected by the forest guardians placed here by St Salvage centuries ago to prevent egress to the caves on Mt Gaunt. They are tall, grey and ethereal creatures, wraith-like in the way they blend with the grey and green of the trees. Perception Roll −3 to actually see one.
Magical Attack 20 Magical Defence 15
Health Points 1 (can only be harmed by enchanted weapons)
Spells (roll d6 1-2, Not One Step Further; 3-4, Confusion; 5-6, Hug a Tree)
1.Not One Step Further
A failure to resist will lead the player to fall swooning into a dreamless sleep for 1d6 hours. If the affected player when they awake elects to press on towards the mountain they must make another magic saving roll, with the same effect if failed. This roll will be repeated every time the affected player tries to advance. Nothing will happen if they retreat. Three successful rolls in a row are required to reach the Cave Mouth (4 on the underworld map).
A failure to resist will lead the player forging onwards only to find they have arrived back at the very same spot from which they set out some 30 minutes before. Should another attempt be made, make another Magical Defence roll and, if failed, they will once more descry a wide circle before arriving back at the original point. Reduce the character’s Health temporarily by one d6 each time they attempt to repeat the manoeuvre as they become progressively more exhausted.
3.Hug a Tree
A failed roll will lead a character to do just that. No amount of force or persuasion can persuade them to relinquish their death grip on the tree for 1d6 hours, only Dispel Magic will work. They will also lose 1-3 personal items (roll d6: 1-2, 1 item; 3-4, 2 items; 5-6, 3 items) which will vanish into thin air. Roll 1d6: 1 All items worn on head; helm or any headwear and, if applicable, hair; 2. All items worn on chest including chest armour, cloak, shirt, chest hair; 3. All items worn on lower body (as before with chest) including breech clouts etc; 4 All items worn or carried on arms including weapons to hand 5 All items worn on legs. 6 All items carried in scabbards, belts, bags, backpacks, saddle bags, pouches or any other carrying medium.
All items that thus vanish will reappear under the stone concealing the crypt key in the nave of St Salvage’s church (see below)
The guardians can only be harmed by magical weapons. One blow will dissipate them. Assume there are a limitless amount but there will be only one magical attack per person per episode cited below. Dispel Magic will dissipate the effect of an enchantment. If their ‘attacks’ can be resisted or dispelled six times, the successful party members will reach the ‘mouth’ of the cave complex. See 4 on the underworld map.
All the wattle and timber houses are barred and shuttered for the night, no lights show and no door will be opened to a stranger. Nor will anyone answer a knocking on the door, for all within are deaf and dumb. An atmosphere of palpable dread hangs over the village. The only place lit up is the inn. The church stands next to it.
Unknown to the characters, the dread hanging over the village is entirely down to the presence of the Plague Star acolytes who are still nearby, being hunted by Ironstone.
The Seraphim’s Wings
The only welcoming light shines from the village inn in the main street, The Seraphim’s Wings. A sign depicting a pair of yellow wings hangs over the door.
On entering the low-timbered tap room, the party find the place deserted save Hernan Creposoule, the landlord, who stands behind the bar, a serving woman who is bustling about wiping down tables and an old, gnarled, liver-spotted man sitting by a roaring fire in the hearth. The latter clutches a knobbly stick, is dressed in a patchwork of rags , and smiles vacantly at the flames, revealing two remaining yellow teeth. A pair of ancient, golden wings hangs on the wall above the fireplace.
8th rank sorcerer
ATTACK 13 (Wand of Mastery) Armour Factor 1 (cloak)
DEFENCE 7 EVASION 4
MAGICAL ATTACK 23 STEALTH 15
MAGICAL DEFENCE 13 Health Points 7
Wall of Magic
Leprosy (treat as Disease)
Equipment: Wand of Mastery
The man is the twelfth apostate pursued by Ironstone. He has disguised himself with an Illusion (p82) to appear to be this decrepit old man. Unless there is good reason to suspect him, the disguise is impenetrable. However, should anyone attempt to see through it, it will be their Magical Attack versus his Magical Defence. What’s more he has placed Creposoule and the serving woman under his Command spell (p82) to give credence to his assumed identity.
His plan to free Mundandir has gone sadly awry due to Ironstone’s attack. His followers are scattered or killed. On seeing this party of adventurers enter the village he immediately decides to fool them into supplying three of the four missing artefacts required to bring the demon back to life. Namely her hair, eyes and lips. These three items are in the underworld under Mt Gaunt.
The SERAPHIM/NEPHILIM’S WINGS
The fourth item is in plain view and thus already in his possession: they are the golden wings hanging over the fireplace. Over time someone saw fit to bring them here from the church to decorate the inn, forgetting their evil origins. The wings are besooted and tarnished. They appear to be metal of some kind, with a harness that would fit over human arms. Detect Aura or See Enchantment will reveal powerful magic. Those of a religious persuasion, should they touch the wings, will experience a moment of existential dread.
Anyone putting the wings over their shoulders and arms is subject to a Magical Attack of 30 (see p75). If the character succumbs then the wings activate for 1d6 hours. The wearer will be subject to the demon’s wishes and will do everything in their power to facilitate the return of the three other items to the statue in the crypt. Those possessed will attack their friends if they try to prevent the demon’s wishes.
Flight rules: see Flight Spell, p100. During the spell the person moves at twice normal movement rate. Should the effect wear off, the bearer of the wings falls to earth taking damage according to the Falling table on p64, or as the umpire sees fit.
A Dispel Magic spell cast with at least 10 Magic Points will deactivate the wings at once, but if cast successfully while the wearer is in flight it could have similar disastrous consequences.
An attempt to engage in conversation with either Creposoule or the serving woman will naturally prove futile; with gestures they indicate they are deaf and dumb. They point to the old man by the fire. He stirs slightly as he’s approached.
‘Ah, strangers. Welcome. I will speak for the landlord; since like all here in Palgrave he is rendered silent by the curse. For this service he grants me scraps from the table and a pallet of straw. I, weak and feeble in my old age, born in far-off Clyster and stranded here on my journey home by my great infirmity, have come to be their interpreter so I may live a few days more in this world. How long anyone lives here is a matter of debate since the madman Grigor Ironstone has come to terrorise all who dwell here. No one comes to Palgrave-under-Gaunt anymore. You see the dead men outside the village, cut down in their prime and called heretics when they were no more than innocent common people. That is the work of the fiend Ironstone. Once it was safe to venture out at night but now he terrorises all and his bloodlust cannot be appeased. His magic is dark and his strength superhuman. If only there were brave men and women who could rid Palgrave of this second curse.
‘It’s mostly been forgot, but once the village was under the protection of the Blessed Saint, Salvage, who saved this place from the heretics of the north. Her remains lie in the crypt underneath the church. It is said in Palgrave’s darkest hour she will be brought back by a band of heroes. All you must do is restore her hair, eyes and lips to her statue in the church crypt and her blessed form will reanimate and defeat Ironstone. The hour has come and maybe the saviours of Palgrave too, if these old eyes judge your mettle correctly. Come! Let me show you to the church.’
1. The CHURCH and CRYPT
A path leads from the inn to the lychgate at the entrance to the churchyard. Zumperkettle will show the party the church but will not go in since the holy place is inimical to him. Only when he senses the party returning with the three objects from the underworld will he dare to enter. His Illusion will then slough off and the party will see him for what he is: a bald, ascetic-looking man in his prime, wearing sickly coloured yellow robes.
The priest, murdered last night by Zumperkettle lies in a recently dug, unmarked grave in the churchyard. He is still wearing his vestments. His dead face shows a rictus of fear.
A beam of moonlight falls on the nave and the altar. Steps lead down to a crypt.
There is a rood carved into the floor stone immediately in front of the altar. Underneath can be found buried the key to the door to the crypt and any of the party’s personal effects lost in the forest, and moderate treasure from the Treasure Table (p131).
The crypt is mined from the rock and is utterly dark. At its centre stands a statue, some eight feet tall, once apparently of a winged robed humanoid, perhaps angelic figure, but now melted like wax from the top, though approximate features can still be discerned in the mess. On inspection it will be discovered the thing is made of stone. What’s more there are drag marks in the floor leading to a set of double doors on the opposite side of the chamber. The statue seems to have been brought from that direction.
The double doors open inwards. Beyond is a rock cut corridor leading to another set of double doors, also opening inwards. Roods are carved on the outside of the doors. The party may guess the way leads under Mt Gaunt.
Beyond is a rectangular chamber. Immediately to either side of the doors stand two stone statues of warriors carrying halberds. They stare fixedly ahead towards a stone basin on a plinth in the centre of the chamber. This is filled with an abundance of black, coarse, matted hair.
The statues are
ATTACK 30 Halberd (d10, 5) Armour Factor 6
DEFENCE 24 EVASION 8
MAGICAL DEFENCE 17 Health Points 24
They have been set here to protect the demon’s hair and the way to the crypt. They will only activate if and when someone gets in the way of their implacable stare. They will then stir with a grinding of rock and a shower of dust and follow the person or persons who have trespassed on the Hair Crypt until they or the golems are destroyed. Note their movement is slow so they can be outpaced but, on the other hand, they, unlike a human, never need to rest.
In a large rock cut basin on a pedestal in the centre of the room is a large armful of coarse, matted, frizzy hair. There is the faintest smell of sulphur coming off the hair. This is one of the artefacts required to activate the statue.
The drag marks from the crypt continue round the pedestal and up the corridor at the other end of the chamber.
The corridor rises quite steeply after this point. After 20 metres it divides.
To the left there is a faint hint of sunlight or moonlight (depending on the time of day). An eerie song in an ancient tongue echoes down it and anyone lingering here for longer than a couple of rounds or who goes up this corridor roll Intelligence or less on 1d20. Failure means they fall under the influence of the Sirens’ song. (see below). The corridor leads to 8.
4. CAVE ‘MOUTH’
A large cave opening accessed either from Neb Forest or the corridor in the underworld. This is the mouth of the monstrous cliff head seen from outside. Razor-sharp stalagmites/stalactites partly cover this opening; the forest can be glimpsed beyond. There is no geas in exiting the mouth, but entry from the forest is protected by the teeth that will snap down on anyone trying to pass through them. Reflexes −3 otherwise damage from the teeth of 3d6. The teeth will reset randomly every 1-3 rounds so passing through them is a literal roll of the dice.
5. FALLEN BRIDGE
Ahead, the corridor continues to rise steeply and a brisk breeze comes down it. After another 20 yards the party come to a chasm crossing their path. It is some thirty feet deep. A fast, rubble-filled river can be glimpsed flowing at the bottom. The remains of an arched stone bridge stand at each side of the chasm. The centre span, which measures some ten feet across, has been knocked down into the river. There are rusted tools (hammers, pickaxes, crowbars, ropes, lanterns etc) piled on the church side of the bridge (there are none on the other side). Note: these tools may prove useful weapons with which to fight off any pursuing stone golems. There is no obvious point to eg lasso a rope to on the other side of the bridge so, unless they can think of another method, one of the players must jump the span. See Climbing/Falling rules DW p63-4. Reflexes roll −6.
Across the bridge an ascending steep set of rock cut steps can be seen. Scorch marks can be discerned on the ceiling and the walls of the staircase (roll Perception or less on 1d20 to notice these). The breeze is becoming a bit of a gale by now. At the top of the stairs is a rock cut chamber, circular and larger than the previous two.
A faint yellow light emanates from ahead. There is the smell of old burning and, underneath it, curiously, rot. The chamber walls are scorched but there are nevertheless a few unburned spots where lingering spores of mould containing the plague virus thrive. Roll Perception or less on 1d20 to avoid touching/treading on these. Otherwise see Plague /Pestilent Touch Table at end.
At the centre of the chamber is a five-pointed star within a circle of old, yellow bones. Each segment is marked by a rune and the picture of figures, drawn in long-congealed blood, from the north anti-clockwise: a human figure in the process of apparently progressively falling apart/rotting. The circle in the centre of the pentagram swirls with imprisoned, malevolent yellow light.
Twelve skeletons clad in rusted armour and clutching equally rusted swords surround the circle. This is the scene of the last battle between Salvage’s paladins and Mundandir.
The twelve skeletons will rise up and fight any intruders regardless of their persuasion. Only the sight of the Rood or St Salvage’s Iron Cross will return them to their eternal slumber.
ZOMBIES (twelve of them)
ATTACK 10 (Sword ) Armour Factor 6
DEFENCE 4 EVASION 1
MAGICAL DEFENCE 1 Health Points 24
Should the four artefacts be returned to the statue in St Salvage’s crypt, the imprisoned soul will arise out of the pentagram and fly like a malevolent yellow comet to reanimate the statue.
Note, in this form a miraculous intervention may destroy the Nephilim. Add +6 to any sorcerous attack if caster has The Cross of St Salvage.
MAGICAL ATTACK 28 EVASION 13
MAGICAL DEFENCE 18 Health Points 10
Darkness Elementalist Spells (p104-106)
Movement 15 (flight)
(for reincorporated stats, see below)
There is one exit to the chamber leading upwards . A funnel-like chute leads up from the roof of the mouth at a degree of some 60 degrees. Climbing required here. Again roll Reflexes −3 or less on 1d20 to climb safely. At one stage the ground gives way sharply downwards (nostrils). Perception roll for first character to reach it to avoid falling down and being ejected onto the mountain’s upper ‘lip’, a scree slope, then unmodified Reflexes roll to arrest slide.
7. THE EYE CHAMBER
The chute emerges between two perfectly round chambers occupied by large, three-feet-in-circumference floating eyes. A slimy rope of ocular nerve trails out the back of the orbs. The eyes regard the party with an unblinking stare. Communication is actually possible with the eyes who can respond to yes or no questions by blinking. The answers will all be geared to returning them to the statue however and will not necessarily be truthful.
The eyes can be destroyed by a couple of blows from a magical weapon. Normal weapons will bounce. If assaulted the eyes unleash a spell similar to Lunacy (p111) with a Fright Attack intensity 21. 80% chance of staring into the eye. Reflected there is the hideous rotting face of the Nephilim whose glance confers insanity, then death.
8.THE EAR CHAMBER POOL
Can be reached either going left before the ruined bridge.
Or from the eye chamber: a level path leads off to one side of the cliff head face to where its right ear would be. Here, under a steep lichen-covered cliff sits a pool surrounded by a green lawn with two diaphanously clad maidens singing a Siren Song on the far bank. The pool is some twenty feet deep and so must be swum across to reach the Sirens. In the depths of the pool, two red sinuous water snakes flash and whirl. These are in, actuality, Mundandir’s lips.
A frozen waterfall debouches over the edge of the lobe and down towards Palgrave a couple of hundred feet below. The pool below is frozen and contains a half dozen rotted corpse of those who have been driven over the edge of the pool by the Siren’s Song.
Treasure: assume an average hoard (p131) plus some rusted weaponry and armour. Note the waterfall might be used as a way up or down, but it’s a hazardous climb. Reflexes −3 unless aided by ropes, crampons etc.
If commanded to leap from its heights, there’s just a chance that the affected character can manage to slide down the ice face and land safely in the middle of the pool where the ice is thinnest. Roll Reflexes −6 or less on 1d20.
ATTACK 8 Armour Factor 6*
DEFENCE 24 EVASION 8
MAGICAL DEFENCE 17 Health Points 8
MAGICAL ATTACK 23
Enslave spell** (p85)
*Magical diaphanous robes envelop one blow or one arrow: the robes enclose the weapon and the Siren will run off naked round the edge of the ear and disappear. Reflexes/Climbing Roll to follow. The robes can only be taken off the weapon with Dispel Magic or similar. Until this happens the weapon’s damage is 0.
**The sirens will first command the enslaved character to defend themselves from attack from other members of the party and when that threat is over, cast themselves over the lip of the waterfall.
ATTACK 24 Armour Factor 2
DEFENCE 10 EVASION 8
MAGICAL ATTACK 28 MAGICAL DEFENCE 17
Health Points 24 Reflexes 18
As with the eyes, the lips may cooperate with the party if they think there is a chance they will release them from their watery prison and convey them to the statue. Like the eyes, they can convey yes or no answers by smiling or pouting.
Otherwise they attack:
- Spit: only above water. Acidic spit (d8, 4: dissolves armour)
- Lip crush: the lips join and squeeze (d10, 5)
- Lip suck: lips join and suck the hapless victim into the Nephilim’s dimension in the stars. This counts as a spell with a Magical Attack of 20.
Once the four artefacts are brought to the statue and placed upon it,
will arise. She rises from the statue shedding black skin. A twenty-foot-high black reptilian creature with red glowing eyes, fangs of dripping steel and acid and a corrupting touch. Bit like the xenomorph in Alien.
ATTACK 30 Armour Factor 9
DEFENCE 24 EVASION 8
MAGICAL ATTACK 28 MAGICAL DEFENCE 17
Health Points 24 Reflexes 18
Stats will only be half for first five rounds. One piece of good news, if Zumperkettle has made it to the crypt, he will abase himself before the creature and she will devour him whole to give herself more energy. However, she will gear up to full stats immediately after consuming him.
Two actions per round. attack/parry with claw and one of either Eye of Madness or Basilisk Stare. To avoid these last two, players must fight as blind (p123).
Acid Claw (d12,6) (half armour + pestilent touch – see below)
Non-magical weapons immediately dissolve on contact with her body. Make a −5 Reflexes roll on 1d20 to get into combat without getting burned (d12, 4 armour effect halved).
Eye of Madness. Directed at one character. Will send insane. Roll Psychic Talent −6 or less on 1d20. Holy items will alleviate minus by one point, Cross of St Salvage by 6.
Basilisk stare. As above. One body part/limb will begin to atrophy -- roll randomly. Fatal if head or chest.IRONSTONE CASTLE
Hour 1: a numbness and tightening of the skin in the affected spots ST -1
Hour 2: partial loss of feeling in fingers and toes, ulcers appearing. REF– 2, ST -2
Hour 3:loss of body hair, numbness spreads through body, REF -2, ST -3
Hour 4: complete loss of sensation in hands and feet REF-5, ( then lose 1 REF per hour thereafter) ST -4
Hour 5: bleeding from palms and feet and ulcerated parts of the body ST -5
Hour 6: claw foot and claw hand set in, ST -6
Hour 7: putrefaction of fingers, toes ST -7
Hour 8: putrefaction of nose and penis ST -8
Hour 9:toes and fingers begin to fall off ST -9
Hour 10: nose and penis fall off. Choking from putrefaction in nose hollow ST -10
Hour 11: larynx too ulcerated to permit speech
Hour 12: death
Thursday, 1 December 2022
Thursday, 24 November 2022
Arthur: ‘Which is the greatest quality of knighthood? Courage? Compassion? Loyalty? Humility? What do you say, Merlin?’Court magician – on parchment it looks like such a cushy job. You get the protection of a great lord. Access to his network of connections. Resources for keeping your laboratory well stocked. Money and space to build up a decent library.
Merlin: ‘Hmm? Well, they blend, like the metals we mix to make a good sword.’
Arthur: ‘No poetry. Just a straight answer. Which is it?’
Merlin: ‘All right, then. Truth. That's it. It must be truth above all. When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. You should know that.’
It’s never that easy, of course. Even if your patron is the most sober-minded of barons, he’s going to be calling on your services at any hour of the day and night. What is a court sorcerer for, after all? There are always rivals to be spied on, messages to be sent, opposing armies to be scattered by foul weather, paramours to be seduced with love philtres, stars to be read, ailments to treat, enemies to be stricken with plague. Even Merlin is made to conjure great magic for no better reason than that his lord wants to sleep with another man’s wife.
‘And also another matter moved him so,that he had nobly named he would never eaton such dear days, before he had been advised,of some adventurous thing, an unknown tale,of some mighty marvel, that he might believe,of ancestors, arms, or other adventures.’
You might think it’s beneath the dignity of wizards like Merlin or Cynewulf to sing for their supper like this, but after all it’s not so different from after-dinner entertainment in the modern world. If you can get Henry Kissinger to turn up and regale your dinner guests with a few Nixon anecdotes and some takeaway wisdom, the real pleasure is in letting them know you can call on a man who has had the fate of the world in his hands. On a less exalted level, think of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull teaming up to mount a Wild West show in front of European royalty and even the Pope. Near-mythic figures have never been averse to cashing in on their reputations.
What would a court magician do to entertain his or her lord’s guests? We have plenty of examples from medieval literature. D B Easter in A Study of the Magic Elements in the Romans d'Aventure and the Romans Bretons cites turning stones into cheese, causing oxen to fly, having asses play musical instruments, bringing folded paper birds to life, giving inanimate objects the power of speech, transforming animals into knights, animating a suit of armour, increasing the size of a room, making water flow uphill, telling fortunes, prophesying the future, and calling up a band of phantom warriors to fight each other.
Monday, 21 November 2022
Is this just a ploy to get you to try the series? You bet it is. Jamie and I think we've done some of our best work here and it's a shame that it might get overlooked just because it's an all-new series without a glow of nostalgia to attract gamebook fans' attention.
As Vulcanverse is an open-world series you can start in any book. The Houses of the Dead and The Wild Woods provide a bit more of a directed CRPG-style experience, with simple quests you can finish in half an hour or less, while The Pillars of the Sky and The Hammer of the Sun give a much wider canvass where there are epic payoffs that significantly change the world, but to earn the major rewards you'll need to actively seek out those quests and be persistent.
The fifth book, Workshop of the Gods, is where all these quests come together. (The image here, while generated by AI, just happens to illustrate one of the key scenes you might reach if you are able to cross the Ocean of Night.) I'm writing that final book now and it should be out early next year. While you're waiting, why not see how many of these bad boys you can cram in a Christmas socking?
Thursday, 17 November 2022
A few years ago, I got a strong recommendation from John Whitbourn to read Arsen Darnay's planet story The Siege of Faltara. I really ought to have got the message by now. John was the one who originally urged me to read The Dying Earth, and he's also nudged me to try some other books which have never disappointed.
Nonetheless, The Siege of Faltara sat on my bookshelf for four years until John mentioned it again. This time I took the hint, and I'm very glad I did. As an example of SF worldbuilding it's in the same league as Vance and MAR Barker, and luckily Mr Darnay's storytelling skill is much nearer to the former.
Netflix or Amazon or whoever really ought to be looking at works like this to adapt for TV -- or game developers should get in on the act. At the very least it'd be nice to see a GURPS sourcebook for the world of Fillippi - though of course there's no chance of that happening for an unknown work. This novel shows what a truly imaginative author can do when they're free to create an original world. Even more importantly, Mr Darnay shows how to reveal just as much lore as is needed for the story. If you can find a copy at a reasonable price, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Friday, 11 November 2022
Likewise in war movies. Everything today's scriptwriters know of war, they picked up from watching Vietnam movies. That was an unpopular, hopeless conflict fought by draftees who often didn’t want to be there, so naturally the movies written by veterans often feature disenchanted, unruly, squabbling soldiers. But it makes no sense to apply the same dynamic to the troops at Dunkirk or advancing after D-Day – except that's the only way the writers have learned to imagine war.
Star Trek's famous "lack of conflict" is often mocked as naïve, not least by its current writers, but in fact it's the same dynamic as professional astronauts describe. They don't muck about the way George Clooney's character is shown doing in Gravity, nor snit at each other like rivals in a high school movie. When I worked in game development I used to encourage a team attitude where everyone is pulling together to face the common challenges. I called it "bridge of the Enterprise" culture, the very paradigm of grown-up, ego-free cooperation. It’s getting hard to remember now, but that’s what Star Trek once stood for.
Star Trek: TOS didn't lack for character conflict, of course. Not an episode passed without McCoy and Spock having a grumble about something. But I suspect what the producers of Star Trek: Discovery mean by conflict is to have characters constantly at loggerheads like the crew of the Prometheus. Presumably they’d interpret “bridge of the Enterprise” culture nowadays as all about recriminations, secret passions, grudges and shouting matches. But if the show is to make any kind of sense that could never happen; those characters wouldn't get into Starfleet in the first place.
More to the point (because credibility in SF and fantasy is so often taken to be a foolish goal) writing high school moodiness into all the scenes is the story equivalent of putting lens flare on everything. There are other ways to inject tension into a plot, other varieties of conflict than person to person, and other tones of conflict than the shout-n-sulk.
I don't want to get sidetracked into talking about The Rings of Power (which I haven't seen, nor the Peter Jackson movies either) but from the criticism it seems it's making exactly the same mistakes as those other shows and movies. Writers who only have a very limited range of character- and story-tropes not only know nothing but how to write "piss and vinegar" characters, they even think that's somehow innovative.
I'll leave the sign-off to Ursula K Le Guin. This is from her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", which is mostly about the jarring language used by bad writers, though that's part and parcel of the same problem:
"Tolkien writes a plain, clear English. Its outstanding virtue its flexibility, its variety. It ranges easily from the commonplace to the stately, and can slide into metrical poetry, as in the Tom Bombadil episode, without the careless reader's even noticing. Tolkien's vocabulary is not striking; he has no ichor; everything is direct, concrete, and simple. Now the kind of writing I am attacking [...] is also written in a plain and apparently direct prose. Does that make it equal to Tolkien's? Alas, no. It is a fake plainness. It is not really simple, but flat. It is not really clear, but inexact. Its directness is specious. Its sensory cues—extremely important in imaginative writing—are vague and generalized; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic. The tone as a whole is profoundly inappropriate to the subject."
Thursday, 3 November 2022
In 1935, Nobel-prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis dashed out his novel It Can't Happen Here in six weeks to warn Americans about the threat of populism to democracy. Right after seeing footage of the Capitol insurrection, and noticing that Lewis's work came out of copyright last year, I thought I should have a crack at an interactive reworking of his book: Can It Happen Here? Not that a gamebook will save US democracy in 2024, but as John Stuart Mill put it:
"Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."
Is it any coincidence that over the last few years there’s been a surge of popular interest in stories that show the fragility of modern democracy? That highlight the ever-present threat of dictatorship? That pitch freedom head-to-head against tyranny?
In 1935, concerned at the rise of intolerance and political extremism, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here as a warning to American voters. He described the meteoric rise to power of a political outsider, a demagogue called Buzz Windrip who stands for office on a populist platform of anti-immigration, hatemongering, nationalist fervor and a return to a mythical better past. As President, Windrip soon begins installing his own family and loyalists into key positions with a view to subverting the institutions of democracy and turning America into an autocratic state.
Nearly a century later the book is as chilling and relevant as ever, but it can be hard for today’s readers to look past the creaky ‘30s period detail and really grasp the instant urgency of Lewis’s message. How do we package that message in a way that will make it compelling and contemporary?
Can It Happen Here is an interactive novel. Readers are probably familiar with interactivity from Choose Your Own Adventure books, but since those came on the scene the boundary between games and linear fiction has blurred. Black Mirror and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt both featured interactive episodes, and interactive dramas such as Tell Me Why and Twin Mirror are now being released episodically like TV shows.
Can It Happen Here is a true interactive novel, an update/reboot of Lewis’s original with a sweeping story and a wide cast of characters. The reader will be in the Oval Office, an aghast observer as President Windrip tears up the rulebook of decent behavior. Will you take a stand? Try to curb the President’s excesses? Be the voice in his ear nudging him towards moderation and sanity?
Or will you be the angel of his worst nature? Advising him to spread lies, insult his rivals, fire the good officials and instal his own family and loyalists in key positions until America becomes his personal fiefdom? Resistance or complicity? Integrity or personal power? Clean conscience or guilt? You can go either way.
In alternating chapters we are thrust into situations that vividly depict the consequences of the President’s actions. You’ll be called on to advise a journalist who’s thinking of running an exposé of Windrip’s business dealings. You’ll follow a family that’s being pulled apart and herded into an internment camp. You’ll be the conscience of a TV reporter who’s been asked to spread what she knows to be misinformation. You’ll be a defense secretary asked to order US troops to break up protests. You’ll be there in the midst of the riots, fighting for either freedom or for fascism.
You get to decide. Your moral choices make the difference. Every decision has effects that will change people’s lives. Unlike a game, there’s no win or lose. Whether each reader’s outcome feels like a victory is up to them – and it’s something that readers will debate passionately with their friends.
When you close the book will you think, ‘I did my best to protect liberty’? Will you think, ‘Strong leadership is what we need right now’? Will you feel good or bad about your decisions and the part you played?
Will you think: ‘Anyway, it can’t happen here… Can it?’
We have a big story to tell, and the way we do that is a bit like World War Z, where we see the impact of events on the lives of a range of very different characters. Throughout the story we’ll keep returning to the President, and the reader gets to be one of his advisers – for good or ill. And those decisions you make in the White House unfold as real consequences. Deny the pandemic and you’ll see a family losing loved ones. Rail against immigrants and there will be bloody race violence. Spread conspiracy theories and you’ll be fueling a firestorm of hatred and ignorance that will consume lives.
Alternatively you can be the voice of reason, mitigating Windrip’s worst autocratic instincts. You can’t make him, like a miracle, just disappear – but you can be the bulwark of basic tenets of American democracy so that there is a hope of light after the long night of his presidency.
The book keeps track of your choices using keywords. There are a dozen of these, listed in the front of the book, and you tick them off when one of your decisions makes a seismic and long-lasting difference.
So, say that you encourage President Windrip to give a speech whipping up his supporters to a pitch of violence. You’d tick the keyword ANONYMOUS that means in a later scene a group of armed Windrip voters kidnap a state governor. But if you tone the speech down, or limit the President’s access to Twitter, you might get a different keyword, say DIALOGUE, that means an informant tells the FBI about the kidnap plot and they turn up in the nick of time.
A similar approach is used in The Walking Dead video games. Those comprise a connected sequence of episodes. The choices in each episode don’t always have immediate and obvious effects, but each episode acts as a spotlight on the wider theme and all those choices feed into the larger narrative and have their payoff there.
So whether you are a US senator being pressured to compromise your principles, a homeowner who has to decide whether to speak up about the internment of a neighbor, or whatever – each of these glimpses of Windrip’s America will play out in their own way, but the final chapters will depend on the choices you made in all the others. If you don't stand up for your neighbors it means a majority of Americans also looked the other way, and in those small decisions freedom is won or lost.
Throughout the book, the point is: when you make a choice you have to live with it. The people who suffer because of the President’s trammeling of the law are not a faceless and indefinable “other” – they are going to be characters who you meet and get to know, so that the effect of your choices really matters.