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Tuesday 31 October 2023

A very witching time

My first published book was Crypt of the Vampire. That was before the Soviet Union fell. A couple of years ago I reworked it as an Alexa app (Amazon call them skills, but apps is what they are) but it never saw the light of day because the coder lost interest. Eventually -- by which I mean after I've finished Vulcanverse book 5, Jewelspider, Tetsubo, Abraxas and Λ -- I'll release that revised version as a book.

But you don't have to wait that long for some sinister vampiric thrills, because Red Ruin Publishing have unleashed another of their top-notch free Dragon Warriors solo adventures, Lair of the Vampire, set in Hudristania, where:

"...tiny villages squat miserably in the isolated mountain passes, like birds’ nests huddled into a crag for shelter. Frightened peasants quake under the rule of a hundred local despots. Terror soars aloft on membraneous wings by night and sifts the carrion in lonely churchyards—for this is the traditional home of vampires, ghouls and werewolves. Black-clad priests trek from valley to valley, but the peasants are always torn between faith and fear. Spend a few days in any of the mountain villages and you will see a funeral procession wending a path down through the narrow streets—old men whose lined faces show the scars of many losses, grim youths with jaws set in sullen defiance, veiled women sending up a shrieking lament, and wailing children who have yet to learn the injustice into which they have been born. The mourners are led by a priest with a silver crucifix on his breast. Watch and wait. After the procession has gone past, once the wailing and the clanging of the priest's bell have faded into the distance, you may see another figure pass by. He follows the mourners at a respectful distance, his eyes showing only a weary determination. On his back he has a heavy knapsack. After the coffin has been lowered into the ground, the priest will linger to pay this man a few silvers before hurrying back with the other villagers to bolt his door. The stranger opens his knapsack and prepares the items he will need. He is a draktoter, a profession that combines gravedigging with another unpleasant duty. He takes the mallet and stake from his sack and turns towards the open grave. It is his job to see that the ranks of the nosferatu will not be joined by this unfortunate soul."

(Incidentally, have I recommended Marcus Sedgwick's My Swordhand is Singing to you? Terrible title for a really down and dirty old-style vampire story that captures that same grim flavour.)

Over on Patreon today there are three adventure seeds for Halloween, as well as plenty of other material relating to Jewelspider and the lands of Legend generally. Also downloadable free from Red Ruin, and packed with the usual high standard of rules, scenarios, discussion and source material, comes Casket of Fays issue 11. Aunty Crookback alone will give you reason to close the curtains as dusk gathers, and you'll hesitate to answer the door to what sounds like trick-or-treaters...

Thursday 26 October 2023

Honour the dead

To get us into the Samhain mood, here's another of my occasional reposts from my Jewelspider page on Patreon. You're welcome to join us over there and get all the goodies and ghosties.

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Wherever possible I aim for Legend to have an authentically medieval European flavour. Whenever possible, that's the thing; Emerson's always there to remind me not to get carried away with foolish consistency.

Halloween, for instance. In the real Middle Ages it wasn’t all turnip lanterns and ghostly tales. The main themes of the season instead seem to have been prognostication and love, those two elements combining in various superstitions about young maids spilling ashes on the doorstep or flour on the kitchen floor. If in the coming year they were destined to wed, in the morning they’d see the clear footprint of the man they were to marry. Shades of a gender-swapped Cinderella there, though they’d have a devil of a job finding out which man the footprint belonged to. (Unless of course it was a cloven hoof-print.)

There seems to have been a notion that you could call back souls from purgatory, and speed them on their way by helping to finish things they had left undone. Quite a few real-life folktales, with the instinct for Monty Haul payoffs you often find in oral tradition, are meticulous in rewarding the person who helps the ghost by having them find a stash of buried gold coins or a jewelled cup up a chimney.

I like the (supposedly Welsh/Cornumbrian) tradition of lighting bonfires along the hills, especially if the rationale is that for this one night those fires mark out the boundary with the land of the dead. The fires must all be lit from one torch kindled at a crossroads. There’s an adventure seed right there, if one callow lad cheats because his taper goes out and so leaves a gap in the spiritual bulwark for something to sneak over.

Returning to the theme of prophecy, and because players will expect something spooky for this time of year, you could make something of the notion that anyone hiding in the church porch at midnight on Halloween will see all the people who are doomed to die in the coming year, their spirits walking around the churchyard and picking out the plot where they’ll be laid to rest.

Typically when a local yarn-spinner gets hold of something like that they feel the need to earn their pot of ale by turning it up to eleven, as in this version related by a Mrs Powell of Dorstone in Herefordshire in the 1890s:

'On All Hallows Eve at midnight, those who are bold enough to look through the church windows will see the interior ablaze with unearthly light, and the pulpit occupied by his Satanic Majesty clothed in a monk's habit. Dreadful anathemas are the burden of his preaching, and the names of those who in the coming year are to render up their souls may be heard by those who have courage to listen. A notorious evildoer, Jack of France, once by chance passed the church at this awful moment. Looking in he saw the lights and heard the voice, and his own name in the horrid list. According to some versions of the story he went home to die of fright. Others say that he repented and died in good repute, and so cheated the evil one of his prey.'

Jack of France might be a misremembered skewing of Jack o’ Kent, a local conjurer (ie local to Mrs Powell; he was said to live in Kentchurch, in legends dating back before the 16th century) who was said to own a black stick with a hollowed end that contained an imp in the form of a fly.

For an adventure seed, let's jettison the schlock and present the player-characters (or preferably just one of them) with something quietly eerie that has the potential to grow in menace. For whatever reason, the character is in the church porch at midnight. They see the doomful procession of those destined to die, but they can’t say a word about it. They can’t warn anyone, and it may very well be that there’s no way to prevent the deaths. So first one person dies, then another, and the other characters know that their colleague has had a vision (because they are able to say that much; they just can’t give the names) and start to wonder if one of them is on the roster.

You could let this build up over the course of the year alongside other events. It even fits in well alongside an adventure-of-the-week structure, since the foreknowledge of people’s deaths serves as an épine dorsale to hold the campaign narrative together. And maybe there is a way, albeit very difficult and dangerous, to save just one innocent young soul from the fate that seems to have been marked out for them.

(One of these days I'm going to do a proper version of that DW Players Guide cover, with the "Players Guide" text in the big space Jonny Hodgson left for it at the top, and the smaller "Dragon Warriors" text at the bottom so it doesn't obscure the artwork of the hydra heads.)

Friday 20 October 2023

A touch of class

Roleplaying began as an offshoot of tabletop wargaming, so it makes sense that early RPGs used character classes. Each character was a unit type reduced to the level of an individual. As more character classes got added, each kludging a new build, it eventually became obvious that we needed a full and consistent skill system, hence the emergence of games like The Fantasy Trip (a sort of halfway house) and then Runequest and GURPS.

Each approach has something to be said for it. Character classes are friendly to new players as they tell you the kind of role you'll be playing. Having a single number for experience level has some advantages too. In Dragon Warriors we used level (well, rank) when resolving fright attacks from entities such as ghosts, on the grounds that a character who has knocked around for a while would be more hard-bitten and resilient than a novice.

Completely freeform systems like GURPS let you spend your advancement points wherever you like. That can lead to some oddities. A highly skilled warrior might have put no points into Will, in which case he's just as easy to scare as the raw recruit. That would be less likely to happen in Runequest because you advance in skills by using them, meaning that a gunslinger, say, will logically pick up all the peripheral skills of the trade -- Ride, Dodge, Scan, Track, etc -- as well as shooting.

Forty years on, games like Apocalypse World use playbooks which are effectively character classes, again helping players to conceptualize their character. I'll admit I chafe at all that special-casing myself, as well as disliking the intrusion of rules constraints on the world. In a Forged in the Dark campaign set in Legend, my playbook says I'm a Dreamer. As far as I'm concerned I'm a knight -- that's the diegetic role I have in the campaign. But Knight is another playbook. It's mildly disorientating, not a big problem, but on balance I still prefer skill-based systems.

Coincidentally, character classes vs skills is one of the topics for discussion on the October episode of Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice. They also seem to prefer diegetic restrictions to rules-based ones, for example the taboos placed on a Storm Bull initiate or a priest of Belkhanu, which are integral to the campaign setting.

All of this preamble is to introduce an article I originally published in White Dwarf issue 49 (January 1984) in an effort to entice D&D players into giving Runequest a try by providing them with the easy-in of character templates. There were some grumbles from readers, as I recall, who thought I was trying to jettison RQ's skills-based mechanics. Quite the reverse.


One of the great strengths of RuneQuest is its system of skills, which players mix and match to create the kind of character they want. But many, particularly younger players, are put off by such complexity. They would rather have the available skills organized into distinct groups character classes, in other words. Here is a variant set of rules for RQ then. All you will need to play it is the standard RQ rulebook.

Rules Changes

Since not all characters can use magic, there is a special POW gain rule: a character gets a chance (10%) of a POW increase roll after any adventure in which he resisted a hostile spell. Magic-users also get the usual POW increase roll for a successful magical attack. Any character can increase his score in a skill by using the skill successfully in a scenario and later making an experience roll in the usual way. However, the character classes restrict the skills in which a character can buy training.


  1. Fighters roll STR and CON on 2d6+6. Only they can buy training in these characteristics.
  2. Fighters start with all combat skills at 25%, plus bonuses. They can take any two combat skills at 30% plus bonuses. They can buy combat training at the usual rates.
  3. They start with 2d100+350L* worth of arms and armour, plus 5d20L cash.


  1. Magic-users roll POW on 2d4+10. They start with 3 points of battle magic, and get another point each time they make a successful POW increase. They can also buy spells. They cannot use the spells available to thieves.
  2. Magic-users can wear any armour up to cuirboilli (hardened leather); metal armour would disrupt their spells. Their combat skills start at the usual base chance, plus bonuses. They can use any weapon. They cannot buy combat training except for Quarterstaff and Dagger, both at four times normal cost.
  3. They can buy training in Sage skills and all Alchemy skills except blade venom preparation. They do not need to pay for associate membership of the Alchemists Guild first.
  4. Only magic-users can use spell matrices and magical crystals.
  5. They start with armour of their choice (up to that permitted), a staff and a dagger. They get 4d20L cash.


  1. Witches (the term covers both sexes) are a sub-class of MU. A character must have POW and CHA both 16+ to qualify for this class.
  2. All the above rules relating to magic-users apply to witches also, except that they have access only to the following spells: detect spirit, spirit shield, healing, dispel magic, xenohealing, befuddle, detect magic and dullblade.
  3. Witches have the following powers of a standard RO shaman: possession of a fetch (all fetches have INT 3d6 and POW 2d6+6), store POW on the spirit plane, special POW increase roll, cure disease ability, return from the dead, and the chance to control spirits.


  1. Thieves roll DEX on 2d6+6, SIZ on 2d6+4 (the usual SIZ roll for RQ characters is now 2d6+6). Only they can buy DEX training.
  2. Only this class can buy training in the thievish skills. They start at a base chance of 25% plus bonuses in all of these.
  3. They can wear any armour they want, but anything heavier than cuirboilli imposes a Move Silently penalty. Their combat skills start at the usual base chance plus bonuses – except for Shortsword and Small Shield, with a base chance of 20% plus bonuses. They can use any weapon and can buy weapons training at twice the usual cost with the exception of Shortsword and Dagger training, which are bought at the usual rates.
  4. Thieves can buy certain spells (they call them cantrips) from their guild: silence, invisibility, speedart and detection blank. These spells are bought at 1½ times the cost listed in RQ and are not available to magic-users or witches. Thieves can buy Sage skills and (from their guild) the techniques of preparing blade venom and systemic poison.
  5. All thieves make their Defence increase rolls as though they had an INT of 18.
  6. They start with 1 d100+250L worth of arms and armour, plus 5d20L cash.

Rune Level Characters

When he has POW of at least 15 and three skills at 90% or more, a fighter becomes a Lord. A thief meeting these requirements becomes a Master Thief. Like a Rune Lord in standard RQ, these characters can increase their skills beyond 100%. They also have the advantage that even when their POW is depleted, they resist spells with their normal characteristic POW. They do not get any of the other advantages or responsibilities of a Rune Lord.

When a magic-user (or witch) has a POW of at least 18 and is at 90% or higher in Read & Write Own Language and Read & Write Manuscript (counts as "Other Language"), he qualifies as a Wizard. This is rather like a Rune Priest in standard RQ: the Wizard gets an allied spirit, access to Rune spells, and an easier POW gain roll of (25-POW)x5%, rather than the usual (21-POW)x5%. He has less time to practice his Combat, Stealth and Manipulation skills and cannot now increase these beyond DEXx5%. If they were already better than that, they fall to DEXx5%.

A Wizard can study the Rune spells. He acquires a Rune spell by permanently relinquishing points of POW above 18. Each time an increase roll takes him over 18 POW he can choose to take more Rune magic. if his characteristic POW (not current POW) ever drops below 18 he will need to build it up again before he can use his Rune spells. A Wizard recovers expended Rune spells at the rate of one point per day, at sunrise. Wizards select an element to align themselves with (Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Darkness). This determines the elemental that the Wizard can summon with the runepower spells.

Using the Variant

I envisage all this being used in a medieval-type campaign rather like the usual D&D universe (standard RQ has an ancient world setting.) The cults are much reduced in importance because Wizards, Lords and Master Thieves do not derive their abilities from a cult. Thus you are free to use in your campaign whichever deities and demi-gods (no plug intended) seem suitable. This is particularly useful for Games Workshop's Questworld pack which will be RuneQuest in a gothic/traditional fiction style of fantasy world. It is also useful for those who think the RQ game system is excellent but dislike the bronze age setting of Glorantha, or for those wishing a quick character generation in RQ.

* L stands for lunars, originally the currency of a specific civilization in Glorantha but which became used generically for any coinage in RuneQuest-based worlds such as Questworld.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Online Blood Sword campaign

I was sitting in the Old Tom pub in Oxford with Mark Smith having a pint before we headed off to a game. (It was a bit more spit and sawdust in those days, not like the picture above.) This would have been in early 1979; "Roxanne" was playing on the jukebox, if you want all the details. Mark said to me, "Have you ever thought of setting up a business running roleplaying games?"

"Wouldn't really be on," I reckoned. "It's just a thing you do as a bunch of friends. It's not a career."

Mark shook his head. As usual he was way ahead of me. "In the future, I'm telling you, being a professional GM could be an actual job."

Little did we know that in a few years' time we'd both be making a living from fantasy gaming via our gamebooks and RPGs.

I don't know if there's much of a living to be had from GMing even today, but Mark was right to predict the emergence of professional GMs, and the internet has made it massively easier to find and join the right game for you -- like this Blood Sword D&D campaign. I'm still holding out hope that the English edition of Blood Sword 5e will be published soon, but there's been no news for some time so online games like this may be the nearest we'll get for a while yet. Better make the most of them.

(More about the Blood Sword series here.)

Friday 13 October 2023

I'm with Moorcock

"There's a tone to [Tolkien's writing] that pretty much all English children's fiction has. It feels to me, as an English person who grew up with Children's Hour on the BBC, which always had that tone, that they were basically trying to ease me into [...] being a good kid. And I didn't like stuff that asked me to be a good kid. [...] And I don't like children, or indeed hobbits, as the protagonists. I've never been able to get on with kids as protagonists. I like grown-ups as protagonists even if they're not really grown-ups -- like Conan."

That's Michael Moorcock talking to Hoi and Jeff on the Appendix N Book Club podcast. I feel exactly the same way. Although I'm too young to have listened to Children's Hour, that was my reaction to The Lord of the Rings, which I tried reading in my mid-teens but to this day haven't finished, having got no further than the encounter with the wights. Tom Bombadil was such a deus ex machina that I just couldn't be bothered after that. (Here's the Breakfast in the Ruins podcast making that very point.)

Probably I should give it another go. I also abandoned Titus Groan in my early twenties, only to rediscover it a few years ago and now it's one of my all-time favourite fantasy books. On the other hand, I never got beyond the first LotR movie -- so it can't just be the prose style that put me off. Maybe I'm just too familiar with SPI's War of the Ring boardgame, which I played so often that I know the story anyway. (And I don't think Bombadil is in the boardgame, which must have helped.)

Is there any popular fantasy or SF classic that just doesn't click with you? The comments are open.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Do you really want to live forever?

Even back in the '80s, a career as a fantasy writer was half an excuse to read up on myths and folktales and get paid for it. In preparing my Jewelspider RPG I've enjoyed many a deep dive into folklore. Inevitably my copy of The Golden Bough gets a lot of use and here's a particularly choice snippet from Frazer that deserves to get used in Legend somewhere:

'In legends and folk-tales, which reflect the ideas of earlier ages, we find [the] suspension between heaven and earth attributed to beings who have been endowed with the coveted yet burdensome gift of immortality. The wizened remains of the deathless Sibyl are said to have been preserved in a jar or urn which hung in a temple of Apollo at Cumae; and when a group of merry children, tired, perhaps, of playing in the sunny streets, sought the shade of the temple and amused themselves by gathering underneath the familiar jar and calling out, “Sibyl, what do you wish?” a hollow voice, like an echo, used to answer from the urn, “I wish to die.” A story, taken down from the lips of a German peasant at Thomsdorf, relates that once upon a time there was a girl in London who wished to live for ever, so they say:

“London, London is a fine town. A maiden prayed to live for ever.”

'And still she lives and hangs in a basket in a church, and every St. John's Day, about the hour of noon, she eats a roll of bread. Another German story tells of a lady who resided at Danzig and was so rich and so blest with all that life can give that she wished to live always. So when she came to her latter end, she did not really die but only looked like dead, and very soon they found her in a hollow of a pillar in the church, half standing and half sitting, motionless. She stirred never a limb, but they saw quite plainly that she was alive, and she sits there down to this blessed day. Every New Year's Day the sacristan comes and puts a morsel of the holy bread in her mouth, and that is all she has to live on. Long, long has she rued her fatal wish who set this transient life above the eternal joys of heaven.

'A third German story tells of a noble damsel who cherished the same foolish wish for immortality. So they put her in a basket and hung her up in a church, and there she hangs and never dies, though many a year has come and gone since they put her there. But every year on a certain day they give her a roll, and she eats it and cries out, “For ever! for ever! for ever!” And when she has so cried she falls silent again till the same time next year, and so it will go on for ever and for ever.

'A fourth story, taken down near Oldenburg in Holstein, tells of a jolly dame that ate and drank and lived right merrily and had all that heart could desire, and she wished to live always. For the first hundred years all went well, but after that she began to shrink and shrivel up, till at last she could neither walk nor stand nor eat nor drink. But die she could not. At first they fed her as if she were a little child, but when she grew smaller and smaller they put her in a glass bottle and hung her up in the church. And there she still hangs, in the church of St. Mary, at Lübeck. She is as small as a mouse, but once a year she stirs.'

Here's another example, this time not from folklore but from fiction (Conrad's Nostromo):

'The sailors, the Indian, and the stolen burro were never seen again. As to the Indian, a Sulaco man—his wife paid for some masses, and the poor four-footed beast, being without sin, had been probably permitted to die; but the two gringos, spectral and alive, are believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty—a strange theory of tenacious gringo ghosts suffering in their starved and parched flesh of defiant heretics, where a Christian would have renounced and been released.'

And that in turn reminded me of the wizard Cob in Le Guin's The Farthest Shore, who makes himself unkillable but not in a good way. His body is covered in wounds, he gets stomped and burnt by a dragon, and crawls off helpless. And (gosh, this archetype is everywhere) there's also Kroenen in the Hellboy movie:

Even the scientific pathways to immortality don't sound very appealing. For player-characters, then, immortality is a case of be careful what you wish for.