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Friday, 2 December 2022

Cliff face


In previous years we've had some marvellous Yuletide specials by Tim Harford, but this year we're going back to the Golden Age of titans, specifically Oliver Johnson, co-creator of Dragon Warriors. This (which may actually the the official 100th DW adventure to be published) is the follow-up to a long campaign that Oliver ran for us a few winters back using the Jewelspider rules. We thought all the loose ends were tied up, but then we got together for a fiftieth birthday celebration for one of our gaming buddies and Oliver pulled this epilogue out of his pocket. 

It works fine as a standalone, but I hope one day to bring you the full adventure that preceded it. And as you'll see it is very, very different from the kind of scenarios I write. It's the ergot in the bread that gives his work that authentically hallucinatory medieval flavour -- a real treat, as connoisseurs of Oliver's classic DW adventures such as "Gallows Wood" and "The Prince of Darkness" will know.

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

Background

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.

Prologue

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.

Creel Castle

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.

Palgrave-under-Gaunt

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)

WAR HORSE

ATTACK 17 (Bite d8,3 or Kick d10, 6)          Armour Factor 3 (barding)
DEFENCE 4                                   EVASION 4
MAGICAL DEFENCE 4               Health Points 22
Movement 15m

FLYING SKULLS

ATTACK 14 (bite d8,3)                  Armour Factor 3 (skull)
DEFENCE 6                                  EVASION 3
MAGICAL DEFENCE 6              Health Points 9
Movement 8m

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.

Village Outskirts

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).

Neb Forest

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.

GUARDIANS

Evasion 15                     Stealth 15
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).

2.Confusion
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.

The Village

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.

ELIAS ZUMPERKETTLE
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

Spells

Command
Illusion
Wall of Magic
Banish
Leprosy (treat as Disease)
Enslave

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).

2.CRYPT

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.

3.HAIR CHAMBER

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

STONE GOLEMS

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.

6.SUMMONING CHAMBER

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
Movement 6

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.

MUNDANDIR’S SOUL

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.

SIRENS

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.

NEPHILIM’s LIPS

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.

Endgame

Once the four artefacts are brought to the statue and placed upon it,

MUNDANDIR

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 

As noted, this sits on the pass north of the town leading to Erewon. The gate is barred by a portcullis and the walls are some ten metres high. Sir Grigor, the skulls and the warhorse will be found here when not roaming the woods around Palgrave.




Appendix: Pestilent Touch/Leprosy Table (stats loss are TOTAL not cumulative unless noted)
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


Artwork created using Inkarnate, Dungeon Map Doodler, and Nightcafe. And many thanks to Victor Atanasov, creator of the Fabled Lands CRPG, for the maps, which are so much better than my own scrappy black-&-white efforts.

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Yuletide in Ellesland

It's safe to mention Christmas now, and it's coming early this year. Drop back tomorrow for an old school fantasy adventure for Dragon Warriors from the fiendish, febrile and fecund imagination of Oliver Johnson.

If you can't wait even one day, there's always the option of joining my Patreon, whose backers had Oliver's scenario and lots of other good things a month ago, and will get my own Yule scenario, "A Garland of Holly", next week. Just saying.

Thursday, 24 November 2022

Barons and wizards

Arthur: ‘Which is the greatest quality of knighthood? Courage? Compassion? Loyalty? Humility? What do you say, Merlin?’

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.’
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.

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.

The court wizard is not only there to cast spells. He's also read a lot of books and is supposed to be wise and well-versed in devious stratagems, making him the lord's valued consigliere


There can be far more frivolous demands that that on a wizard’s time. A lord needs something to fill the long winter evenings when it’s too cold and wet to go jousting other knights or stirring up petty wars. Hence King Arthur’s whimsical question about the qualities of knighthood mentioned above, or his bored yearning for strange experiences that brings the Green Knight into Camelot:
‘And also another matter moved him so,
that he had nobly named he would never eat
on 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.’
Feasts, holidays, and celebrations are times for a lord to show off his wealth. Minstrels, acrobats, jugglers, jesters, wrestlers – anyone can provide such commonplace entertainment, so to outdo his rivals a lord will need to strive for something more exotic. Dwarves jousting on the back of pigs, cavorting bears, or slaves from Outremer performing the dance of Salome all count as cracking entertainment to the medieval gentry, but the crème de la crème is to bring out a court sorcerer for that frisson of the mysterious, macabre and faintly forbidden.

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.


This post originally appeared on my Patreon page accompanied by a detailed adventure seed or a mini-scenario (take your pick). I'm afraid if you want the scenario too you're going to have to subscribe, sorry about that.

Monday, 21 November 2022

Save your obols for Charon

Our cut-rate special offer on The Hammer of the Sun was such a hit with readers that we've decided to extend it to all the Vulcanverse books in paperback. 

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?



You can also buy the paperbacks from Amazon in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and Japan.

Here is an online Adventure Sheet for all the books.

Thursday, 17 November 2022

The Siege of Faltara: worldbuilding done properly

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

A shopworn formula

Scriptwriting is increasingly about hitting a formula, perhaps because writers and studio/network execs attend the same courses that say X must happen on page Y, and so forth. And today's scriptwriters only have a very limited toolbox of tropes, it seems. Since Alien, every SF/horror movie must have a maladjusted group of squabbling malcontents. That made sense in Alien, where the ship had a commercial crew on a boring long-haul mission, a crew whose dysfunctional dynamic was exposed by the loss of the senior officers who held them together. It makes less sense if the crew is supposed to be a squad of elite marines, or a hand-picked team of top scientists.

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

Can it happen?

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."

Good intentions can only take you so far. I spent a year researching and writing Can You Brexit? and that was on just one issue in the politics of the country where I live. I was heartened by the thought that Armando Iannucci, a fellow Brit, created Veep. If he can get his head around the US political system, why not me? Iannucci did have an HBO development budget, admittedly, while I have only spare time and access to Google, but I still meant to have a go. But then I got offered some actual paid jobs. So much for the spare time. Also, I'm still smarting from UK publishers turning down Can You Brexit? and then later saying that, oh, they should have taken it after all. 


The best way to pitch it would not be as a full-on Choose Your Own Adventure style book with micro-decisions every page or so, I think, but something more like Professor John Buckley's The Armchair General: Can You Defeat The Nazis? There you get presented with complete scenarios and you only need to make choices at about a dozen key points in the book. That ensures it isn't lumped into the niche gamebook market but instead counts as counterfactual history, which appeals to a much bigger readership. But even so it would be a hard struggle to get publishers to accept it. An editor might wreck their career by championing an odd book that flops, so they stick to safe bets. It could be a waste of a year or more of work.

In short, I can't be bothered to go through that again, and it would be particularly painful to hear from some editor at Simon & Schuster in 2028 that maybe if they had run with Can It Happen Here? then voting wouldn't have been suspended by Donald the First.


On top of all that, MCU shows and movies of late have shown how preachiness can really louse up a good story, so maybe I should stick to entertainment and let Western Union handle the messages. Anyway, here's the pitch. You decide...

Can It Happen Here?

The Plot Against America. The Man in the High Castle. The Handmaid’s Tale…

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?’


How it works

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.


Bellissimo Blood Sword


I'm just back from Lucca Comics & Games, the biggest fair of its kind in Europe. Over a quarter of a million people cram into the streets of a medieval town which (within the walls) normally has a population of a tenth that number.

I was there as guest of Tambù, the publishers of the Blood Sword 5e roleplaying game. It is a beautiful 500+ page colour hardback -- bellissimo is the only word for it -- that integrates Russ Nicholson's original illustrations alongside all-new paintings and maps of Crescentium, Spyte, and so on. The book contains all the rules as well as scenarios that parallel the Blood Sword saga from the books, only with a new ending based on my notes for how I'd like it to have all tied up.

There are too many people for me to mention them all by name, but it was a particular delight to meet up with Claudio di Vincenzo, publisher of Fabled Lands and Blood Sword in Italy, and Davide Lo Presti and his top-rate team at Tambù. In the photos above I'm with Andrea Rossi (writer of the Old School rules for Blood Sword), Valentino Sergi (who directed the 5e book), and Mauro Longo.

The theme of the festival this year was "hope", and it gave me hope to see so many people all celebrating their enthusiasms, being free to express themselves with joy and friendliness. The heave and press of the crowd were the sort of thing you'd expect going into a football stadium, everybody dressed in the costumes of their own favourite comics or games characters, but there was no trouble of any kind. This is how the human race can and should live.

Good company, wonderful people, a welcoming crowd, a magnificent city, and the unsurpassed beauty and cuisine of Tuscany -- what's not to like? And, as the icing on the cake, my Critical IF book I Misteri di Baghdad (in English that's Once Upon A Time in Arabia) won the Best Foreign Gamebook award.

Even better than any award, I came back bearing a bottle of Puglia wine presented to me by the very kind, generous and entirely lovely Suemia Biafore. It's my wedding anniversary this weekend so my wife and I will be uncorking that and releasing the genie of Italy. The first wish will be to return one day to Lucca, next time hopefully for a longer stay.

Thursday, 27 October 2022

New worlds in the making

It’s often said that Tolkien is the originator of modern fantasy, and I suppose that’s true if you only consider the dominant strain of fantasy with its vaguely European and vaguely medieval flavour. I can’t knock that, it’s where Legend springs from too, but I have just as much affection for the older variety of fantasy from which sword & sorcery evolved. Barsoom, through the Hyborian Age and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique, Poseidonis and Xiccarph, then Planet Stories and Vance through to Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms.

The keynotes of that genus of fantasy are exoticism, the ancient world, priesthoods and demons, typically (not always) lower or less widespread use of magic yet at the same time an admixture of science, or at least scientifically-coloured fantasy. Most importantly, the universe in such science fantasy tends to be realistic, governed by laws of nature (even if they include magic) that are indifferent to humankind. It’s the opposite pole to Jewelspider, where dream logic and prophecies and a real divine presence are woven into the setting.

As a teenager I loved the fantasy worlds of Robert E Howard, Edward P Bradbury (Moorcock again), Jack Vance and Tanith Lee – so naturally when Empire of the Petal Throne appeared in the mid-‘70s I took to it like a tletlakha to water. I owe a creative debt to Professor Barker and his world of Tekumel only partially repaid with the four issues I edited of The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder.

A lot of studios, game developers and book publishers these days are eyeing the success of things like Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, and Dune. With networks in the streaming wars all chasing the last big thing, a fully-realized original fantasy/SF world is a lottery ticket with a big jackpot on offer. Suddenly worldbuilding is in.

A little while back I was lamenting the difficulty David Velasco and Riq Sol were having raising funds for their game Expeditionary Company. Probably the answer is to forget about launching it as a boardgame/gamebook, just take it to a developer who wants a great concept for a new MMO. Judging by the rapid rise of Vulcanverse online, if they could find a way to include NFTs in the design they'd have to chase the investors off their front lawn. Or they could see if Jeff Bezos has another half billion and doesn't want to throw it away this time. (It would need a far sexier name than "Expeditionary Company", though.)

There aren't that many fantasy world-builders with expertise in both games and storytelling, so I thought I'd try my hand at creating a "hard fantasy" setting. This was Before the Storm, a novel I was writing while doing jury service in the mid-'90s. I’ll quote from the T-shirt version:

An isolated star system out beyond the galactic rim. For a quarter of the year the night sky is utterly dark with only a few smudges of light marking distant galaxies. Then gradually the galactic rim makes its appearance at night: a vast wheel of stars, not of one galaxy but of two in spectacular collision.

The people of this world are descendants of a crashed colony ship but have no record of their heritage. As far as they know they are alone in the universe. The fauna of their world are not the familiar animals of earth. Instead of horses they ride “destriers”, two-legged animals that because of their cold blood must be warmed beside ovens before they can be used in cold weather. Technology is barely beyond the level of the late middle ages - though there are some features that have not paralleled the development pattern of Earth's history, such as primitive gunpowder weapons and even a type of photography.

Some biotechnology survives from the colony ship that brought the original settlers, often in the form of various algae. There is a hydrogen-producing strain that permit balloons for use in reconnaissance and a cobweb-silk producing strain that is used for weaving immensely strong fabrics. Various other scattered fragments of technology are sometimes found, but to the superstitious inhabitants of this world they are thought of as magic.

There are also civilized nonhumans and semi-humans sharing this world with humanity. At the point when the first novel begins they have only been infrequently contacted and are thought of as mythical.

Medra is a tropical island nation that, by virtue of the industrious and warlike nature of its people, has consolidated an overseas empire much larger than the original archipelago. Medran society is more developed than those of the countries it has conquered, but the rigid caste system that has vitalized it in the past has now reached the point of breakdown. A new society is in the process of emerging.

I never finished the thing. One reason is that I got a job at Eidos that left no time for novel-writing. But that’s really just an excuse. The truth is that it was the kind of fantasy I wanted to write but not really what anyone was reading back then. Publishers wanted the Western style of fantasy I mentioned above set in a  version of the Middle Ages with more modern sensibilities -- effectively, "medieval America". 

By contrast my fantasy world was not the slightest bit medieval nor culturally or ethnically European. It bucked the '90s trend, being more of a modern evolution of those weird and wonderful Planet Stories of yore, but now that the selection pressure is for exotically different fantasy worlds (there is no point in creating a world that isn't uniquely and brandably distinct) it might finally be time to dust it off -- with the necessary changes to make it compatible with current trends in massively multiplayer online play, which is where the demand is coming from. So I am currently repackaging it like this:

A Rapa Nui of the cosmos

The idea of an isolated world is a powerful one, throwing all our human endeavours against the daunting backdrop of uncaring immensity. Here’s a way to do that:

This world orbits the star Edis , a solitary system out in intergalactic space. For several months of the year the night sky is empty of stars. Then only the other planets of the system and the moons of our world are to be seen.

As the season of stars approaches, the rim of a galaxy rises above the horizon – higher month by month until mid-summer, when most of the night sky is taken up by the spectacular sight of two galaxies in collision, intertwining vortices of light formed by great reefs of stars being torn into new configurations.

How do people come to be here? For most, it is a mystery no one even considers. This is where humanity has always been, surely? There are cities, farms, villages. Kings and councils of syndics, priests of the gods who explain portents – and deep forests in which dwell alien creatures that never arose on any world of men.

The truth: a one-in-a-trillion quantum fluctuation in the warp drive of a generation starship, so that instead of its intended destination in the Milky Way the ship was flung across gulfs measureless to the imagination. That it arrived anywhere in real space is a miracle. A return journey would have been impossible to plot or undertake even if the ship had not taken damage.

The crew made their decision. With no future possibility of contact with the rest of human space, no hope of ever returning to space, it would be kindest to raise the new generations with no knowledge of humanity’s past. This world Edis IV, known to the settlers as Anshar , would be the new Eden.

That was hundreds of years in the past. To most people, Anshar is the only world there is.

My initial plan for how to develop it was using The Expanse's serialized book model, though more like a TV writers’ room – ie five or six writers each taking main responsibility for a couple of “episodes” (around 20,000 words each) building over 6-10 months into a 12-episode “season arc” thrashed out from the start by the lead writer(s). Those novellas would be the proof of concept stage, and viable as products in their own right, but if funding could be found they should be repurposed into scripts and released as audio dramas. The plan, then, was to prototype in prose and see if that could lead on to videogames, TV shows, or whatever.

The snag is that really you need artists involved from the start. Words can only take you so far but people want a shared experience -- visuals showing the architecture and clothing and also sounds, the noise of wildlife, the rhythms of music in this fantasy culture.

Whether I’ll get to do more with Edis than I did with that Medra novel thirty years ago remains to be seen. The sword of Damocles over every writer’s head is that all creative work is entirely speculative. The seed capital is the writer’s own time and effort, but when it comes to selling it nobody respects sweat equity the way they respect cash. So taking six or nine months out to devise a complete fantasy world and write a novel set in it is like buying a lottery ticket in the knowledge that, if it looks like winning, some producers or publishers will do their best to claim the lion’s share of the payout.

In any case, after my day jobs (freelance work on a videogame and writing the final Vulcanverse book) my first priority is Jewelspider. I was chivvied about that by some gaming buddies I met up with recently. Oliver Johnson was running a new Legend adventure and resorted to using original Dragon Warriors rules because 'Dave still hasn’t written the Jewelspider magic system!' So I have to do that – and then Abraxas, which will be serialized first to Patreon backers and is a science fantasy setting (prehistoric rather than far-future) that will use a new edition of my Tirikelu rules. And after that, maybe, I’ll take another look at this thing.

* * *

This post originally appeared in longer form on my Patreon page, and included a link to the first 20,000 words of the Medra novel. I mention that not to try to get you to sign up to Patreon (though you would be very welcome) but just for full disclosure.