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Thursday 29 June 2023

Ravages of Hate

It started with a throwaway remark that both of Mark Smith's Virtual Reality gamebooks are set in the same universe. Stuart Lloyd had got Mark's permission to revise the books and he mentioned that he was taking the opportunity to develop the part of Green Blood that takes place in the city of Godorno: "I'm going to let the character be able to explore Godorno and everywhere on the map before heading to the forest."

To which I replied: "If you’re bulking up the Godorno sections, and Godorno is also the setting for Coils of Hate, maybe there’s the opportunity to combine the two?"

"To make one mega book where the character can both save Godorno from Hate and the forest from the Westermen?" said Stuart. "It isn't beyond the realms of possibility. In Coils of Hate, the character has to flee the city due to the anti-Judain rhetoric. They then wander the surrounding area for a bit then go back. Maybe wandering the surrounding area could turn into a quest to save the forest as well? Then the character comes back? There are similar themes in the sense that human greed and hate are ruining things for everyone."

From that little acorn was to grow the magnificent blockbuster that is Ravages of Hate. You can get the first draft of the book here, and Stuart and Mark plan to run a Kickstarter to fund a print edition with new illustrations -- by real human artists, you'll be glad to hear, not Bing.

There was a third book, which I have mentioned before. I offered to help Mark flowchart that one before he plunged into the writing. I'll admit I had a little bit of an agenda when I made that offer. The publisher had made me fix the flowchart for Coils of Hate, or try to fix it, and I'd had to work on that while a deadline was looming on another book. So I was pretty frazzled after that, and given only two weeks before it went to press I hadn't really been able to make the flowchart work properly anyway. I dreaded having to do the same thing all over again, so thought the best thing would be to help Mark with the flowchart of the next one. At least that way I'd know how the story was meant to fit together, just in case the publisher expected me to clean up that one too.

But Mark couldn't work that way because it didn't fit with his creative process. He always took a novelistic approach to the writing, and having the plot constrained in gameplay terms from the outset would have hampered him too much. I didn't want to spoil that -- I've already said that I think the maturity of Coils of Hate's storyline and the richness of its characters are way ahead of anything I've seen in any other gamebook.

So when the publisher asked me, as I feared they would, to evaluate and edit Mark's third Virtual Reality book (titled The Mask of Death) I had to turn it down. I was still a nervous wreck from trying to knock Coils of Hate into shape. The manuscript went to VR series editor Ian Marsh. Had it come to me I would have kept a copy, being an inveterate hoarder, but sadly neither Ian nor Mark did, and now it's lost forever. (Unless, like one of those missing episodes of Doctor Who, it turns out that the publisher still has it in a desk drawer somewhere.)

It's a shame because Stuart could have included all three books in his magnum opus. Still, he's created a 1330-section gamebook as it is, so he deserves a break. Please let him have any playtesting comments (contact details on his blog) and be sure to back the Kickstarter. Maybe if the funding goes well, reconstructing that third book could be a stretch goal.

Completely unrelated to all the above, but as we're on the subject of old gamebooks, some readers of the blog have been asking about the HeroQuest series. The third of those is quite possibly the book I was meant to be writing when I was suddenly given the task of fixing the Coils of Hate flowchart. You can get them here: The Fellowship of Fear (book 1), The Screaming Spectre (book 2), and The Tyrant's Tomb (book 3).

Friday 23 June 2023

Why do roleplaying games need a genre?

“What I really aim at is an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent. The field, as I understand it, is a new one; I don’t know any writer who has treated ordinary vulgar life with fidelity and seriousness. Zola writes deliberate tragedies; his vilest figures become heroic from the place they fill in a strongly imagined drama. I want to deal with the essentially unheroic, with the day-to-day life of that vast majority of people who are at the mercy of paltry circumstance. Dickens understood the possibility of such work, but his tendency to melodrama on the one hand, and his humour on the other, prevented him from thinking of it. An instance, now. As I came along by Regent’s Park half an hour ago a man and a girl were walking close in front of me, love-making; I passed them slowly and heard a good deal of their talk—it was part of the situation that they should pay no heed to a stranger’s proximity. Now, such a love-scene as that has absolutely never been written down; it was entirely decent, yet vulgar to the nth power. Dickens would have made it ludicrous—a gross injustice. Other men who deal with low-class life would perhaps have preferred idealising it—an absurdity. For my own part, I am going to reproduce it verbatim, without one single impertinent suggestion of any point of view save that of honest reporting.”

That’s Harold Biffen, one of the characters in George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street, expressing his ideal of a style of fiction that asymptotically approaches reality. This seems to echo the thoughts of a rather more successful real-life writer, namely William Wordsworth, who argued (almost a century before Gissing's book) that "the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants" and went on to deplore readers' "craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies." And that was before Twitter.

H P Lovecraft, who endured a hardly easier existence than Harold Biffen’s, expressed a similar idea when he set out a manifesto defying the dominance of genre in science fiction:

“We must select only such characters […] as would naturally be involved in the events to be depicted, and they must behave exactly as real persons would behave if confronted with the given marvels. The tone of the whole thing must be realism, not romance.”

That right there is pretty much what I want my upcoming Jewelspider RPG to be: fantasy, but not of the fantasy genre. Nowadays roleplaying frequently embraces genre, and it’s fashionable for referees to talk about the game in terms of act breaks and inciting incidents. But I’m with Biffen and Lovecraft. Genre means incorporating familiar elements in familiar patterns, which is fine if you prefer fictional narratives to the kind that real life throws out. What I want my roleplaying games to do on the other hand is to evoke “real” settings. What happens there, even if the setting is fantasy, happens as it does in life, not fitting itself to tropes and story formulae, but simply as the result of colliding goals, characters’ actions and reactions, and a bit of pure chance.

This goal came into focus for me the other day while watching Chloé Zhao’s movie Nomadland. Most of the participants really are nomads. You can hear the difference from actors reading lines. When these people talk about their life experiences, their loves, and those they’ve lost, it rings true. As the review on put it:

"Filmmakers and artists in general have a tendency to judge their characters. Here’s the good guy, here’s the bad guy. Here’s the problem that needs to be solved for the leading man or lady to be happy by the end of the movie or damned because of their bad behaviour. There’s a much lesser version of the true story of Nomadland […] that does all of this, melodramatizing Fern’s story into one of redemption."

That was the point of a lot of classic early-‘70s movies, to throw away the nursery book of arcs and tropes to find a more truthful way of depicting human drama. For example, listen to this podcast in which Rebecca O’Brien explains what appeals to her about Coppola’s The Conversation and how the movie “sets itself up almost as if it is reality; the story is told without any adornment.”

This might just be one of those ideas whose time has come, because as I was writing this post the SF author and critic Damien Walter published a piece about the need for science fiction to escape genre.

I'm not going to tell you how to run your games. If you want to use Jewelspider for comedy or high fantasy or grimdark takes on Legend, or if you dig good vs evil romps and the panto ethics of alignment, go right ahead. But I have to settle on a tone for how I describe the world of Legend in the rulebook, and an ethic that will inform the scenarios I’m writing for it, and my Dogme 95 is to not to assume any genre or even a sense of a storyteller. The setting is the medieval world as people at the time imagined it to be. There is no agency that will intervene to ensure you have a satisfying arc. Stuff will happen, fair and unfair. In my gaming philosophy that’s how to get a really immersive experience. By stepping away from conscious storytelling and throwing off the shackles of genre, we'll have games that give us "the freedom and space to hear things".

Monday 19 June 2023

Remembering Russ

The latest issue of Casket of Fays is now out, and among the many reasons to pick up your free copy is the tribute I've written to Russ Nicholson.

Inside the Rookery did a special episode last week about Russ's artwork, featuring James Wallis, Marc Gascoigne, and Ian Livingstone. Among the revelations is the fact that he taught art to Sean Phillips, nowadays best known as Ed Brubaker's main collaborator. (Here's some of Mr Phillips's artwork. Is there any influence by Russ? You decide.)

The talk there is about Russ’s art but there's not much about the man himself. I like this recent interview because it not only fills in a lot of his biographical info but lets all of us who were privileged to know him hear again the voice of a much-loved friend and thoroughly decent human being.

Friday 16 June 2023

Writ large

Would-be Fabled Lands reader Saif Azam wrote recently to ask if we have a large-print edition of the books. Saif had been under the impression that the large-format edition would have a larger font size.

We don't have large-print editions, but there are a couple of options if you find the font in the books too small. First there's the Kindle edition, which allows you to set your own preferred font size. That's only book 1, The War-Torn Kingdom, as far as Fabled Lands is concerned, though there are Kindle editions of all the Critical IF gamebooks.

There's also Jonathan Mann's Java Fabled Lands (formerly the FLApp). Use Accessibility settings or zoom in on your screen for easier-to-read text.

Friday 9 June 2023

His dark dominions

Modern astronomy has put paid to the notion that heaven and hell are anywhere out there, relegating the abodes of the immortals and the dead to another plane of reality that's inaccessible from our universe by natural means, if not entirely imaginary. In older and simpler times it was still conceivable that you might climb a mountain and find the gods, and that on the far bank of a dark and sluggish river lay the dwelling place of those who no longer belonged among the living.

Thus it is in the Vulcanverse, where Hades's realm is a physical location. There are things there that do not sleep. Companions may desert you at the gates. Food in your backpack will rot and flowers wither. Even so one can simply walk into the land of death, a region that Homer tells us is "so dim, so dark, so loathsome; abhorr’d by men and dreadful even to the gods."

But where there is danger there are great prizes to be won, and glory awaits those courageous enough to venture among those "mouldy mansions so ghastly grim that even the gods shudder to think of them." So be sure to have the Hades gazetteer to hand (to be found here and here). And another resource that will be useful to explorers of the Vulcanverse is this list of tickboxes for books 1-4 so you don't have to mar your copies. (Thanks to John Jones for that.)

Friday 2 June 2023

Verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways

John Whitbourn, like his Binscombe Tales character Mr Disvan, seems somehow to know just about everything that's going on. Out of the blue he sent me a clipping from the 2023 Salute show guide. 

It was gratifying to see a nod to Dragon Warriors from esteemed author Sarwat Chadda, and all the more so because it sounds as if DW helped to teach him the right lesson about both writing novels and running roleplaying campaigns, namely that "character is king" and it's the player-characters and not the plot that should drive the flow of the narrative.

We've talked long and often about the importance of going with the flow, how games best create stories, narrative emergence from character, and embracing chaos as the way to drive the story forward. It's the key to how Stan Lee swept Marvel to success in the 1960s, as Reed Tucker explains in his book Slugfest:

I was always concerned that the scenarios in the original Dragon Warriors books mustn't give first-time GMs the impression that adventures should be planned out like that. To me the prepared adventure is the safety net, the characters are the trapeze artists, and ideally the net doesn't need to be used -- or at most is the MacGuffin that gives the characters an ostensible reason to interact.

That's even more the underlying ethic of Jewelspider, my second look at the lands of Legend through a more folkloric lens. The Jewelspider book is being illustrated by Inigo Hartas (Leo's son) and you can see from his blog that it's in safe hands. The Patreon page pays for the art and maps, and as well as the prototype versions of Jewelspider you get regular articles and adventure seeds, access to various things I've worked on over the years, and rough cuts of upcoming work such as the endlessly-deferred Tetsubo. Tempted to quit the well-travelled path and strike out into faerie woods? Then join us.