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Friday 26 August 2022

International Gamebook Day 2022

International Gamebook Day this year is on August 27. (Tomorrow, if you read this post on the day of release.) It's an online gathering so you don't even need to risk covid to attend. Details here and here.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Tetsubo monogatari

If you've been following the Tetsubo saga, you'll remember that I made an effort to update it for release during lockdown after the licence to Grim & Perilous Studios had lapsed. But other projects got in the way, not least of those being the Vulcanverse books, so I had to shelve Tetsubo for a while. And just as well, because several people pointed out that the new version of the game that I was writing was not the version that anybody was waiting for.

Luckily the solution was at hand. Jason Duff of Earl of Fife Games got in touch with a proposal to take on the Tetsubo licence and integrate it with his Heroes & Hardships rule system. Jason says:
"I am excited to see Tetsubō finally come to life in 2023. And equally excited that it is for Heroes & Hardships, which I have dedicated years to develop. My long term goal was to always support Heroes & Hardships with various settings, and Tetsubō is a perfect first major release for our system. I am eager for the challenge of making Tetsubō an authentic Sengoku Jidai setting with inspirations from Japanese mythology that will set it apart from any similar roleplaying game on the market today. For those interested in the core rulebook, please check out our Kickstarter page."
Jamie and I are delighted that Tetsubo finally seems to be on course to appear in a version that will satisfy everyone who has been waiting for it as well as (we hope) a whole new slew of players. Keep an eye on Earl of Fife Games' website for further updates.

Friday 19 August 2022

Cities in a jiffy

How long do you think it took me to draw that city? A split second, in fact, using the Medieval Fantasy City Generator. You can customize the look and it also gives you the population and the number of buildings. A handy little resource for the harassed referee.

Thursday 11 August 2022

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless

Jon Hodgson's artwork looks to me like Dragon Warriors was always waiting for it. I remember an evening back in the '80s. Oliver and I were working on the first DW book at his mother's place in Frensham. It was at the top of a meadow with the landscape of southern England spread out below us. A haze of rain was blowing in across the downs, trees swaying, grass rippling in the wind. Anything could have been out there in the twilight. Goblin magic was in the air. It was the kind of view we could imagine our characters having as they travelled the byways of Ellesland.

Thirty-some years later, I saw Jon's art for the new edition of Dragon Warriors, masterminded and produced by James Wallis, and I knew he'd seen into the same imaginary worlds as we had. Now Jon has a boxed set of DW art coming out in a limited edition of just fifty copies. You get eight signed prints, an art book, and some extras -- a real collector's edition and a window onto a magnificently evocative vision of fantastic places.

Friday 5 August 2022

Don't call them rappas

There’s new news about Tetsubo coming soon. That’s the Japanese-styled RPG that began as a Warhammer supplement and then began turning into a much more authentic game of its own during lockdown. I have been adapting it to work with Paul Mason’s Outlaws RPG. Also, he has lived in Japan for over thirty years so is ideally qualified to advise me on both the rules and the culture.

I began by asking Paul about kusa, a group of medieval Japanese saboteurs-cum-mischief-makers that I read about in a martial arts magazine. The kusa were a sort of precursor to ninja, but I also wanted Tetsubo to dispense with the notion of ninja as feudal-era special ops that was popularized after World War 2. And the best way to go back to the roots of the profession (if indeed it has any that we can isolate from all the modern myths) would be to ditch the name “ninja” in favour of something more historically accurate.

Paul responded: Wikipedia has kusa as another term for ninja, but unfortunately no context behind it, whether it's period-based or regional. My source for terms was the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum. It lists shinobi, ukami, kanja/rappa, onmitsu and ninja as the terms used by period (the last is listed for Taisho: ie the 20th century). Regional terms include some of those period based terms as well as suppa, ukami, dakko, kikimonoyaku, and kurohabaki. Interesting that it includes none of the Wiki ones apart from rappa and shinobi.

So in Tetsubo, kusa became the apprentice level of the kanja (not ninja) profession. I then asked Paul about how to represent defilement.

Paul: The term you need is kegare (穢). It would translate as impurity or uncleanness. When you go to a shrine and wash your hands at the little shack for that purpose, it's a ritual washing to rid you of kegare. This obsession with cleanliness (see also Japanese bath houses, and taking off your shoes when you enter a house) is somewhat relevant in the present pandemic. I've even heard it given as a reason why the Japanese never had an industrial revolution -- better hygiene meant longer lifespan than Brits meant there were not enough surplus agricultural workers, a necessity for industry.

Dave: Funnily enough, I’d previously thought of using kegare for bad joss [a rules concept in Outlaws] and immediately rejected it for the fairly daft reason that Tetsubo already has defilement defined as occurring in specific circumstances (proximity to a dead body, fluffing etiquette when addressing a kami, etc).

Paul: That's exactly what bad joss is supposed to deal with!

Dave: The mental process here is interesting because it illustrates why it’s taking me longer to edit Tetsubo now than it probably took to write it in the first place. I’ll think of a way to implement something (kuji-no-in, say) using Outlaws rules. But then I see there are a couple of other ways to do it, and whichever I choose has knock-on effects, so I enter a mental holding pattern where no decision is taken as I move on to another part of the rules. All of which is pretty stupid given that the people who want Tetsubo will mostly be Warhammer players and the people who want Outlaws really want Outlaws, not Tetsubo – so I’m agonizing over choices that might only matter to the handful of people who buy the book and play it as written.

Paul: I can't help thinking that trying to imagine the kind of people who want to play the game is a bad move. Surely you can only say to yourself: what is this game to me? And design it accordingly. In the case of Tetsubo, the answer is clearly: "not Kwaidan". So just go ahead and do interesting things that wouldn't work in Kwaidan.

Kwaidan was/is to be a roleplaying game set in Heian Japan, considerably more culturally authentic and closer to my heart than Tetsubo, which everybody seems to associate with Kurosawa's early "noodle Easterns".  

Dave: At least I’ve managed to break that holding pattern regarding kegare. You are of course quite right – that’s exactly what I needed to substitute for bad joss. And instead of getting hung up on how to square the abstract acquisition of kegare when acquiring motivation with specific in-game circumstances that cause or remove defilement, all I need to do is put numbers to the latter. +5 kegare for touching a dead body, -[degree of success] for a purification CEREMONY roll, etc.

I’m still undecided about how to handle magic. In a perfect world I wouldn’t bother having it as a separate discipline and simply have it bleed into everything else – but that’s Kwaidan, not Tetsubo. I was listening to the Appendix N Book Club podcast in which somebody said we’d had forty-five years of role-playing, and still nobody has figured out a way to make magic magical.

Paul: That's wrong. Plenty of people have figured out how to make magic magical. It's just that however you do it, once you write down rules someone will find a way to suck the magic out of it. My philosophy is that role-playing magic rules are there for people who don't want magic to be magical. For the rest of us, if you are going to allow players to use magic, it's all about trust.

Dave: I really like the Outlaws magic system and it does feel that sorcerers in Outlaws are very different from the usual RPG artilleryman types. But Outlaws magic has a very strong Chinese flavour (not that I know what a Japanese flavour of magic ought to be like) and it’s a mark of its strength that it doesn’t easily lend itself to conversion to a different setting. You could use the core Outlaws abilities system for anything from Tekumel to Ancient Greece – and Arabian Nights and Camelot, as we’ve said before – because people still have to haggle, fight, sneak, impress, treat wounds, sing, make works of art, etc. But the obstacle to any generic system is magic. That’s where GURPS falters: what would “generic magic” even look like?

Paul: Yet another reason why I don't believe in GURPS. But ironically, if you're doing a Japanese magic system, the closest you're going to find is in a Chinese one. Throw away all that stuff about “shugenja” from Bushido. The image of a sorcerer in Japan is the onmyoshi. And the onmyoshi is a hell of lot closer to an Outlaws sorcerer than he is to a sorcerer in any other game. 

Dave: Given that any magic rules must fit the setting, do I retain the leadenly dull spells inherited from Warhammer, rejigged to give them Outlaws stats? That feels like a lazy option, and when I went through a list of the Tetsubo spells crossing off all the boring ones I was left with barely a dozen – and thus glaring gaps in what sorcerers could do. Pretty much the only thing I like from the original Tetsubo rules is that ninja (now kanja) were a type of sorcerer, but then when I read their spells, hobbled as they are by inheriting the magic system of Warhammer, that concept soon dissolves into the mucky residue medieval alchemists were left with in their vain attempts to turn lead into gold. 

What I should do is spend a couple of weeks with Joly’s Legend in Japanese Art really soaking up the depiction of sorcerers in myth, then rebuild from there. It would be enjoyable, too, but at that point I’d really have to wonder why I was investing that effort into Tetsubo when it’d be better spent on Kwaidan. Just this morning I was flipping through the book and M. Joly chastised me with the information that shugendo is not “wizardry”, but a syncretic mystical sect -- in the real-world sense of mystical, that is. And Royall Tyler’s book Japanese Tales mentions that one folkloric power of wizards is “causing the penis to disappear” – again, that’s more one for Kwaidan, I think.

Paul: Spell-lists are one of those soul-sucking things that I don't miss in role-playing games. I switched to C&S because I liked the way it encouraged the idea that sorcerers were almost 'above' spells. One of my players got so into the mindset that his character spent all his time enchanting materials, and he infuriated (and intimidated, as his character became quite powerful) the other players by showing little interest in their schemes, but simply trying to manipulate them to obtain the rare materials he wanted. I think unless magic has that distance, that otherness, it is simply technology: blasters in Traveller.

Dave: That’s what I thought about most of the magical battles in the Harry Potter films. The wands were just phasers. In Chinese Ghost Story or Game of Thrones, on the rare occasions when you get to see magic it does feel magical.

And as for maboroshi – I don’t even know where that came from. Presumably a class of illusionist in Warhammer, and Jamie and I reached for “phantasm” as a plausible equivalent in Japanese? (Or did it come from Lafcadio Hearn? If so hardly authentic, but Hearn I’d accept as valid in the way that Pre-Raphaelite reimaginings of Arthurian myth are valid.) Do I rebuild the class using Outlaws magic, or abandon it and move the original Tetsubo spells for maboroshi (if any are worth keeping) across to whatever I end up calling sorcerers. (My pocket dictionary suggests maho-tsukai or kijutsu-shi, but I suspect they may be thinking of a stage conjurer.)

Paul: Maboroshi means illusion, not illusionist. Annoyingly, Illusionist would be Maboroshishi, which is too silly to use. And Maboroshiya, the alternative, sounds like a shop (remember Mr Benn?). Maho-tsukai is a literal translation of “magic-user”, which was a term I hated in D&D from the very earliest days. I mean, you could use it, and the Japanese term is probably marginally better, in that it is slightly possible that someone might say it, whereas one reason I shacked up with C&S so early was that I could never imagine any story in which someone said, “He is a mighty magic-user!”

Kijutsushi sounds more interesting. The scroll you asked me to research, after all, was from a series called kijutsu no kagami, ie “the mirror of kijutsu”. Strictly speaking, it means “magic tricks”, but it might have more to it, and the scroll suggests that it does.

So this is how the sorcerous professions of Tetsubo ended up:

The generic term for the spellcasters of Yamato is mahutsukai. There are four broad classes:
    • Onmyoshi specialize in astrology, divination, protection against spirits, and the study and manipulation of the five elements, with particular emphasis on geomancy and the correct directions and locations to avoid bad luck. By preference they channel magical energy from iyashirochi (ley lines or ‘dragon veins’, natural sources of ki in the landscape) or from the spirit world. 
    • Genka are a more select and secretive school of mages who practice spells connected with death, illusion and destructive energy. They have a reputation for drawing magical energy from servants, acolytes or even from unwilling captives. 
    • Taoist mages are mystic hermits who develop control over reality and natural forces by means of asceticism and meditation. They prefer to draw their magical force from within themselves, often while meditating under waterfalls, and store it in a focus (often a mirror or gourd) until needed. 
    • Kanja are the eerie ‘wizards of the night’ whose study of magic revolves around their activities as assassins, saboteurs and spies. They power their spells with whatever source of occult energy is most conveniently to hand.
But that’s not the whole story. A sorcerer might change his or her school, acquiring spells and practices from several classes. Bukyo priests have access to magic not studied by any of the mahutsukai and that uses spiritual power. Shinto priests obtain boons from kami that serve the same function as spells. And anyone might acquire knowledge of spells from a supernatural being like a tengu or from a book, whether or not they have any formal training in magic.

In any case, ordinary people are unversed in the types of magic and use the various terms for mahutsukai classes as if they were interchangeable. In a state of ignorance, personal prejudice will often serve to supply a definition. Thus a spellcaster who has associated with the speaker's own lord may be described as an onmyoshi, one suspected of working for an enemy lord may be called a genka or kanja, and one known to have come from Huaxia or who refuses employment may be labelled a Taoist. Sorcerers themselves do little to clear up this state of confusion, as each sorcerer knows that his or her power will be greater against a foe who is not quite sure what to expect.