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Friday 29 September 2023

The real deal

M A R Barker used to draw a distinction between “real” Tekumel, the world as it would function if it actually existed, and “game” Tekumel, the version that allows for player-characters changing the course of history in sometimes rather slapstick ways.

It has widely been asserted that real Tekumel (I’m dropping those quotes) is unplayable. Some of Barker’s own gaming group take that view. I’m not so sure. Consider these remarks by the director Satyajit Ray:

“Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali was serialised in a popular Bengali magazine in the early 1930s. The author had been brought up in a village and the book contained much that was autobiographical. The manuscript had been turned down by the publishers on the ground that it lacked a story. […] I chose Pather Panchali for the qualities that made it a great book: humanism, lyricism, and its ring of truth. I knew I would have to do a lot of pruning and reshaping – I certainly could not go beyond the first half, which ended with the family’s departure for Banaras – but at the same time I felt that to cast the thing into a mould of cut-and-dried narrative would be wrong. The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.”

Would it be possible to run a game like that? Ray went on to describe how the filming of Pather Panchali affected him:

“These explorations into the village opened up a new and fascinating world. To one born and bred in the city it had a new flavour, a new texture; and its values were different. It made you want to observe and probe, to catch the revealing details, the telling gestures, the particular turns of speech.”

If modern Bollywood movies typically present us with game India, what Ray was looking for was the real India. And I think that stretch away from genre tropes towards authenticity can be achieved in roleplaying. When I ran Sagas of the Icelanders (Gregor Vuga's RPG, praised so often on this blog that I don’t need to do so again) there was no magic in the game. It became mostly a tale of farmers having boundary disputes, romantic affairs, family arguments. Some raiding and killing, but not a lot, just like in the Icelandic sagas themselves. Grettir’s Saga does have spells and undead, sure, but that’s an outlier.

I like The Northman but it’s set in game Scandinavia, if it’s even truly Norse at all. Grímur Hákonarson's Rams feels more like one of the genuine sagas. I like the pettiness – which isn’t at all petty once your focus adjusts; then it could be the wrath of Achilles. The loose ends and the ambiguity too.

A lot of Depression-era games resemble The Shadow – another movie I love, incidentally – but you could just as well forgo game-1930s for the real-1930s of, say, Patrick Hamilton’s 20,000 Streets Under The Sky, which has way more meat to it than one of Walter Gibson’s Shadow novellas.

Responses to escapism, realism and non-genre gaming suggest that the quest for a real Tekumel, or Legend, or Iceland, or wherever is not something most roleplayers are on board for. But how do you know till you try it? And anyway...

Friday 22 September 2023

A hopeful monster

Want to see something genuinely original? There's a small catch: it's not a spectator sport, you have to join in to make it work.

Still interested? Then take a look at Gamete on the Flat Earths gaming blog. And if you want to take part, just leave your variant rules in the comments. Between you and me, it could go anywhere.

Friday 15 September 2023

Just a scratch

While talking to Paweł Dziemski at Other Worlds (publishers of the beautiful Polish edition of Heart of Ice) we realized -- well, Paweł did -- that the strict Endurance rules of the original Blood Sword books are not in step with the thinking of modern gamebooks. Back then, your hit points were whittled away and if you got to zero, too bad: bury that character and go back to the start.

It's never fun dying in a gamebook, but at least if it happens because of a bad decision then you can accept that you should have thought more about it or watched out for the clues and warnings. When you just conk out from hit point attrition, that's a death of a thousand paper cuts. These days it's likely to have you throwing the book across the room.

Of course, you could include a sage in the party and rely on their healing, but the rules shouldn't make it impossible for you to play without a sage. Paweł suggested restoring Endurance to full if characters survive a fight, but I didn't want to go quite that far as it would make the sage's healing power pretty useless.

So I've added these optional rules to the Blood Sword books. Use any that take your fancy:

  • After winning a fight, every surviving character in the party can recover half their lost Endurance points rounded up. For example, if you normally have 30 Endurance and you end a fight with 9 Endurance, you can restore your score to 20. This only applies if you are victorious, not if you flee from the combat. Endurance is not recovered until the battle is over and all opponents have been vanquished. A character who was reduced to 0 Endurance during the fight does not recover; they are dead and gone.
  • Instead of unlimited movement on the tactical maps, you move a number of squares equal to ½ your Awareness.
  • If killed in a combat that the rest of the party win, a character returns to life with 1-6 Endurance.
  • If the whole party is killed, use the flee option for that section (if there is one) and return to life with 1d6 Endurance each. (So the party only dies if there is no flee option.)

The Blood Sword series is on Amazon (UK and US and worldwide).

Tuesday 12 September 2023

When countries go bonkers

It's been seven years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union, of which it had been a leading member since 1973. This is usually nowadays referred to as Britain's Brexity McBrexitface moment.

What happened next? Those who subscribe to the idea that stories emerge as a series of dominoes falling in a cascade of events will have been interested and sometimes surprised - but not very surprised. It was obvious that Britain's ruling party would drift ever rightwards, colonizing the appeal-to-worst-natures territory staked out by the crackpot "UK Independence Party". Also obvious was that in trying to implement a bad idea with no plan, the Conservatives would suffer continual upheavals, internecine struggles, and desperate intrigues culminating in the blackly comical farce of a government led Boris Johnson followed by the utter madness of Liz Truss's ideological cloud-cuckoo land. As Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC puts it in an in-depth retrospective analysis:

"Her spectacular crash and burn was the logical end point, perhaps, of six years of chaos when the Conservatives so often turned in on themselves - and turned on each other."

Nobody likes a smart aleck, so I won't say told you so, but a lot of that crazed political backstabbing is right there in Can You Brexit (Without Breaking Britain)? There's also the opportunity to see if a better solution might have been found -- probably, indeed, the kind of solution Britain will now stagger towards over the next decade via a series of patches and ad hoc agreements that leave it only slightly worse off than if the whole sorry nonsense had never happened. 

Brexit didn't have to be bungled. It would have been perfectly legitimate to interpret the referendum result as an endorsement of the kind of "soft" Brexit that had been peddled to the electorate by Brexit advocates like Michael Gove, who during the referendum campaign proposed an EEA model such as Norway and Iceland enjoy that would have kept Britain in the Single Market. Instead the ERG cadre of self-proclaimed "Spartans" warped the ruling party, making dedication to their extreme version of Brexit a test of ideological purity. And that's why the party ended up in the hands of a succession of incompetents, malcontents, chancers, nutcases and idiots until finally lurching back towards its current attempt to look like grown-up government.

Given that other once-serious governments might shortly be jumping into the moronic inferno of populism, gamers from all around the world might want to take a look at this book to see if there are lessons to be learned. See if you can navigate the storms of political infighting to deliver a solution to Brexit that actually works in the interests of the people of Britain rather than the string of ex-Prime Ministers now collecting a few hundred grand each time they get up and give an after-dinner speech. It's possible, but it takes a more responsible hand on the rudder than any of the UK's leading politicians were willing to apply.

Friday 8 September 2023

An irresistible fate, a wyrd...

Good news today if you've been following the progress of the Blood Sword 5e roleplaying game published by Tambù. The Italian edition came out last year and it is a thing of exquisite beauty, incorporating Russ Nicholson's original illustrations into a design that includes new full-colour maps and paintings.

The book is an adaptation of the entire Blood Sword gamebook series as an RPG campaign compatible with specially designed 5e rules. If I could read Italian I'd have been tempted to run the campaign myself, and I haven't played D&D since the 1970s.

The rest of the world has been waiting for translations. The Tambù team report that they have just completed the English translation and expect to be shipping copies out to Kickstarter backers from October. I'm told that all backers should have their copies by Christmas, and next year hopefully the book will be on sale to anyone who missed the campaign first time round. I'm looking forward to seeing it myself.

There's some even bigger Blood Sword news on its way, but I have to keep that under wraps for the time being. Let's just say it'll be as if all the Magi rose into the sky at once. In a good way.

Friday 1 September 2023

The Hole in the World

A few months ago we were looking at some of Russ Nicholson's magnificent oeuvre and Jamie mentioned how one of the iconic features of the Fabled Lands came about:

"Russ was doing a map and blotted it by accident. Me and Dave immediately came up with 'The Hole in the World' so it looked like it was deliberate."

That came about because Russ drew the first ever tidied-up version of our world map. For some reason the publishers didn't want to hire him to draw the world map for the books, but they finally gave way and admitted his map was much better than the one they commissioned. Naturally.

Russ needed to draw the whole world first because he was doing all the regional maps and wanted to be consistent about how they looked. Jamie and I used Russ's sketch map for planning all the books. That's why the copy below is covered with our annotations.