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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.