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Friday 31 March 2023

Character sketch

On the rare occasions when I've played D&D I usually haven't taken it very seriously. In my defence, that was mostly back in the mid-'70s and the way the early books were written I don't think you were meant to take it seriously. I don't mean the rules; we used the latest iteration of those for the Blood Sword RPG and they work brilliantly. But the default fantasy setting of D&D is a bit sub-sub-sub-Tolkien by way of Monty Python, or so it usually seemed to me.

There were exceptions. I ran a Victorian-era investigative campaign (this was years before Call of Cthulhu, never mind Cthulhu by Gaslight) in which the only magic was 1st and 2nd level. That wasn't played for laughs. Also, when I joined in a game of Blood Sword 5e I not only thought it was brilliantly atmospheric, I actually liked the game system, which was several quantum leaps beyond the D&D of fifty years ago.

Anyway, back to 1976. Invited to join a D&D game by Steve Foster, creator of the Mortal Combat rules, I rolled up a Cugel-like knave called Necromageus Knoll, who soon had a reputation for greed, deceit and treachery. Come to think about it, he was three parts Cugel, two parts Zachary Smith, and one part Tricky Dicky.

The other players seemed to find Necromageus Knoll jolly enough that I put him in a comic strip (inexplicably relocated to the Tekumel underworld, hence the reference to 'Eyes') that lasted a week or two until we moved on to other campaigns. I did something similar but more serious a few years later with this authentic Tekumel write-up.

Having come across that Necromageus Knoll strip just recently, and intrigued to see how my visual storytelling had developed between 1976 and 2008 when I came to write Mirabilis: Year of Wonders (long story short: a lot!) I thought I'd share a bit of it here. Don't worry, I won't quit the day job.

Friday 24 March 2023

Did Stan Lee steal ideas?

It’s the time of year for me to weigh in on a claim that’s causing controversy – not to deny that the claim if true would be outrageous, but to say that I remain unconvinced that it is true. And, in line with recent tradition, the outrage again involves a professor.

This time round it’s the turn of The X-Men, first published by Marvel in July 1963, though with a cover date of September because comics. The Doom Patrol debuted in the June issue (that is, April) of My Greatest Adventure, published by Marvel’s rival DC. The bone of contention is whether Stan Lee was influenced by (ie swiped from) Arnold Drake, the writer of Doom Patrol, in putting Professor Charles Xavier in a wheelchair like the Doom Patrol’s leader.

Drake shrugged it off for years as a coincidence, but after brooding on it for forty years he became convinced it was dirty pool on Stan’s part:

"I didn’t believe so in the beginning because the lead time was so short. Over the years I learned that an awful lot of writers and artists were working surreptitiously between [Marvel and DC]. Therefore from when I first brought the idea into [the DC editor’s] office, it would’ve been easy for someone to walk over and hear that this guy Drake is working on a story about a bunch of reluctant superheroes who are led by a man in a wheelchair. So over the years I began to feel that Stan had more lead time than I realized. He may well have had four, five or even six months."

Now, I’ll put my hand up to being a fan of Marvel from way back. I grew up on those stories. So you might want to take what I have to say with that in mind, but – was Drake completely nuts? First of all, Stan Lee was having to get out more than ten books a month, and he was doing almost all the writing single-handed. Sure, he had “the Marvel method” to help (plot first, then art, then write the script) but even so it’s unlikely he had much time to look through DC’s output, at that time upwards of thirty books a month. And even if Stan had been told about Doom Patrol in January 1963, he wouldn’t have had long to single out that one idea and work it into the new book he was planning with Jack Kirby.

OK, it is just possible an artist came across from DC (it was a 13 minute walk) and mentioned that DC was doing a try-out book with a super-team whose mentor was in a wheelchair. But was that really the standout detail worth swiping? Far more likely that Stan got the inspiration for Professor X from any number of brainy invalid scientists in 1950s sci-fi movies. And in any case there’s a strong story reason for Professor X being in a wheelchair. Stan loved irony, and this character is all about the power of the mind. He’s Nero Wolfe turned up to 11.

In the same year as the quote above, Drake also said:

"Stan Lee and I were working in the same vineyards, and if you do enough of that stuff, sooner or later, you will kind of look like you are imitating each other."

Well, that change of heart is interesting. Maybe Drake had taken a step back to think about where his own ideas came from. If there was any creative borrowing going on, more likely it was in the other direction. Why was Drake creating the Doom Patrol in the first place? Because he understood the appeal of the Fantastic Four. The FF’s first issue was November 1961 – only, you know the score, that means September, so it had been running for thirteen issues by the time Drake sat down and scratched his head about what could be done to counter this new and coming force in comics.

Drake saw that the FF frequently squabbled. And they got their powers from an accident – not mutants like the X-Men, notice. And the coolest members of the team were sort of freaks, the Thing especially. So it’s not much of a stretch (I’m not planning these puns, honest) to think of Robotman as the Thing, Negative Man as the Torch, Elasti-Girl (wait, what?) as Susan Storm and the Chief as Reed.

By 2000, Drake had convinced himself he originated all this:

“That was the thing that made Doom Patrol different, these people hated being superheroes. And they were a little bit self-pitying, just a little bit, and the chief was constantly telling them, ‘Stop crying in your beer.’ That made them something that wasn't around at the time.”

It wasn't around at the time? Really? What about Peter Parker? Ben Grimm? Bruce Banner? Tony Stark? So it’s a little bit rich that a few years later Drake was saying of Stan Lee, ‘He’d take credit for the King James Bible.’

All that said, it’s interesting that these days it’s hard to make a convincing movie about the Fantastic Four, and yet there were four seasons of a Doom Patrol TV show. I didn’t stick with it even for four episodes myself, but it actually feels more modern than the FF -- who were, after all, Stan Lee’s first attempt at making superheroes real and relatable and flawed. As the prototype, perhaps it’s not surprising that the FF have dated – and they were my own least favourite Marvel comic back in the Silver Age, their adventures being too cosmic and out there to appeal alongside the convincing contemporary lives of Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, et al.

If you're interested in the full fascinating story of how Marvel overtook DC and revolutionized comic book storytelling, try Reed Tucker's book Slugfest and/or Adrian Mackinder's Stan Lee: How Marvel Changed The World.

Wednesday 22 March 2023

The neutron operation

As a coda to the previous post, I came across an idea for a Doctor Who special that I jotted in my notebook a couple of years ago. I must have still been thinking of the core concept of the Dalek City game, only now as a story:

A later incarnation of the Doctor goes back in time to the original Skaro encounter with the Daleks, figuring that now he’s forewarned as to how significant a threat they are he can destroy them for good. 

The action integrates with the footage from the 1960s version, The Mutants. Instead of achieving his objective, the new Doctor’s “total war” attitude to the Daleks (who incidentally seem unable to distinguish him from the First Doctor who appears in the 1960s scenes) causes them to become fearful and thus pushes them from being warily curious to genocidally paranoid. 

The Daleks prepare a contingency plan. It's solely because of this plan that the Doctor's destruction of their power source at the end of the story doesn’t kill them all – and the surviving Daleks, the really out-there extremists, now know to study the background radiation signal and pick up the Tardis’s dematerialization signature. That leads them from being bound to one planet to being galactic conquerors who eventually challenge the Time Lords.

So in the end the reason that the Daleks are so dangerous is entirely because of the Doctor's actions in trying to wipe them out.

Thursday 16 March 2023

Dalek City

So here's a blast from the distant past, one of the game design concepts I was spitballing with and/or pitching back in the mid-'90s at Eidos Interactive: Dalek City. It would of course have been a spinoff from the BBC's series Doctor Who. That show was pretty much dead and buried back then, so getting the rights wasn't a complete impossibility. And I was pretty sure Terry Nation, who created the Daleks and had joint control of the rights with the BBC, would be keen to hear any ideas for exploiting them.

"It's set on Skaro, the Dalek planet," I began. "The Daleks have been mutated by nuclear war and can only move about in mechanized travel machines. At the start of the game they pick up power by induction, so they can't leave the city."

"Yep, got it." said the Eidos executive I was explaining this to, who may or may not have been a famous gamebook pioneer. "So you have to get upgrades to let them travel outside the city."

"Well, it's certainly possible for the Daleks to get those upgrades. But you don't play the Daleks in this game."

"What, then?" 

"There are all kinds of threats to the Daleks. Various mutants live in the jungle around the city. Natural disasters like meteor showers can occur. There's another race, the Thals, who are their ancient enemies."

"You play the Thals, then?"

"Not really. You don't play anybody. You can step in and help the Thals if you want. Or you could spawn lots of mutant monsters to overrun the Dalek city."

This at least sounded like familiar territory. "That must cost you resources."

"No, your resources are unrestricted, up to whatever the game engine can handle. You could just send in so many monsters, raiders, and natural disasters that the Daleks would be wiped out right at the start. The point is, say you do that a few times. Then you try something different: sending in just one monster to begin with. The Daleks kill it and take it to their labs. They start researching it. Pretty soon they don't have any trouble dealing with that kind of monster—and what they've learned will help them in other ways, too."

"I see; it's one of these Artificial Life things," he said. (It was more of a growl, really.)

"Well... kind of. The Daleks are prime candidates for A-Life because their psychology is so simple. They're paranoid, inquisitive, power-hungry and they hate everything. And their society is like a type of insect hive. The aim of the game, you see, is whatever you want it to be. You can just observe the Daleks going about their duties, like your own little formicarium. Or you can trash their city and watch the little buggers get stomped. Or you can test them with various threats and see how they learn and develop. It's the cruel-to-be-kind method. Eventually you might find you've nurtured them to the point where they can take anything you throw at them. Played that way, the ultimate aim of the game is to make the Daleks into an opponent you can't beat."

For a long while he said nothing. I almost thought he might be considering it. Then he shook his head. "Players don't like games without a clearly defined objective."

New kinds of interactivity promise a world of possibilities that we have hardly begun to explore. To fully realize those possibilities, though, we have to be prepared to let go some of the control that we have come to expect, both as designers and as players. A quarter of a century on from that meeting, I'd like to think game publishers would be more willing to entertain left-field ideas, though I'm not sure how often that's true!

Wednesday 15 March 2023

A green thought in a green shade

The tour guide to the Vulcanverse has now reached Arcadia, land of sweeping meadows and enchanted woods. Part 1 looks at the Sacred Way and the outer forest, and part 2 takes the traveller deeper in to see what happened to blight this once-idyllic region and what can be done to restore it.

I'm still working away to finish the final Vulcanverse book, but if you want to start exploring then The Wild Woods is as good a place as any to dive in.

Very nearly an armful

Not many people these days remember Tony Hancock. That's the only explanation for why there hasn't been more backing for this (bio)graphic novel by the stellar-talented team of Stephen Walsh and Keith Page. But there's still one day to go, so if you have heard of Hancock, or even if you haven't, get your credit card out and support The Lad Himself on Kickstarter.

[Added 17 March] Oh but wait... The Kickstarter failed to reach its target, but all is not lost. B7 Comics have announced that they're going ahead with publication anyway and you can pre-order copies here. Even Hancock might muster a cheer at that.

Friday 10 March 2023

The absent present

Towards the end of the 1990s I read Robert van Gulik's novel The Haunted Monastery and realized it was an amazingly good fit to our Tekumel roleplaying campaign at the time. Jamie Thomson played the fiefholder Lord Jadhak hiVriddi, who neatly filled the Judge Dee role. All the other characters in the novel, such as Sergeant Hoong Liang, had direct one-to-one matches among the player-characters. (A lesson in archetypes there, I suspect.)

As if I didn't already have enough to do (I was finishing up Blood Sword and probably working on some TV tie-ins such as Knightmare) I took it upon myself to rewrite the novel, setting it in Taikava fief in western Tsolyanu instead of Tang Dynasty China. I had an excuse for wasting my time: Jamie's birthday was coming up, so I decided to print one copy and give it to him as a present. His then-wife Debbie typed up the text of the book (no OCR in them days) and I then rewrote it, adding some scenes and details of my own to make it tally with events in our campaign and to introduce the fantasy element that's not present, of course, in Dr van Gulik's books.

The monastery went from Taoist to one of the aspects of  Thumis. I typeset the text with the help of Paul Mason (who played Karunaz, Jadhak's Livyani Luca Brasi) and got it to the printer just in time to present Jamie with a hardcover copy on his birthday. Alas, his divorce followed soon after and in the ensuing chaos all his belongings were scattered more comprehensively than the shell of the Egg of Time. The book was lost, never to be read, and must have been burned or pulped decades ago. And I didn't even keep the text, because it was on one of the big floppies we used then.

Ah well, we must be Dra about these things. Yesterday I came across these notes I used when rewriting the book, naming the Tsolyani equivalents of van Gulik's "NPCs". It's all that remains.

Thursday 9 March 2023

Polished scales

Following on from last time, some of the Golden Dragon Gamebooks now have a new look. And to commemorate the 39 years since the first two came out, there's a full-colour hardback edition of The Temple of Flame for the wealthy collectors out there.

Impressed? Wait till you see our plans for the 40th anniversary.

Friday 3 March 2023

Got it covered

Whatever I work on, people ask me about more Fabled Lands books. The sticking point isn't the writing. Paul Gresty, who wrote The Serpent King's Domain, has completed work on a new Fabled Lands Quest based on my Golden Dragon gamebook Castle of Lost Souls. He's also made a start on The Lone & Level Sands, and all that industry has stung me into talk of turning The Eye of the Dragon into another FL Quest to tie in with book 8.

The snag is that artwork is expensive. That bedevilled the Vulcanverse books, which I thought looked amazing with Mattia Simone's atmospheric filler artwork. Myself, I prefer fillers, like the little vignettes Russ Nicholson does for the Fabled Lands books, but most readers demand drawings that illustrate specific scenes in the book. (It's less bother than reading prose.) Also they'd like a lot more illustrations than the Vulcan Forged company were willing to commission for the gamebooks. So how to pay for all that art?

Perruno suggested turning to AI. I'd been thinking about that, though I'm not sure if it saves a lot of money. You can see from the examples here what Wombo Dream came up with off the top of its artificial head. It could be a lot better if I spent a few months practising. But even if that gave us cover art we could use, there's no way any Fabled Lands book could come out without interior illustrations by Russ; he's an integral part of our creative team. And what about maps? The AI is still a few years off (I'm just guessing) being able to handle those.

Then there's the cost of editing and typesetting. And I haven't even talked about paying the writers. After forty years in this business I'm used to the idea that nobody wants to pay the writer, but I'd love to bring in today's top gamebook talent to work on future Fabled Lands books. Paul Gresty of course, but also people like Jonathan Green or Martin Noutch of Steam Highwayman fame or H L Truslove, author of Alba. I have no idea if they'd even be interested, but I wouldn't insult them by asking until I knew I could write a cheque.

Kickstarter doesn't cut it, as I've explained before. I guess we could wait till AI can do the whole job including the writing, but by then the AIs will be the ones reading the books too.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Unboxing the end of the world

It was a splendid surprise to get a parcel containing the Other Worlds edition of Heart of Ice. It's a gorgeous book, really a work of art. There are links to the black-&-white paperbacks below, but they're not a patch on this deluxe hardcover. Get hold of a copy if you can.

As well as the book itself, the slipcase contains a Compass Society ID card, bookmarks that also work as character sheets, stat block cards for all the pregen characters, and a set of scratch maps. When you come across a symbol in the book, you take the Compass Society card (or a coin from the pre-scad era) and scratch off the corresponding area, revealing part of the map. So as you explore the world, the map is uncovered.