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Thursday 16 May 2024

O tempora! O mores!

It's been a long wait -- decades, he's been talking about it; since the last century -- but finally Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis is nearly here. I hadn't realized how much he's modelled the story on the Catiline conspiracy, which resonated with me because six or seven years ago, having had a TV project blow up because of circumstances beyond my (or anyone's) control, I was told by the network executive who commissioned it that she felt I owed her a show.

Unable to return to the original concept, the rights in which Jamie and I were in the process of recovering from a delinquent former business partner, I started developing a couple of alternatives, one of which was this:

ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE

Civilization is fragile, and finding that out can be a terrifying thing. When you discover that the laws that kept you and your loved ones safe are being burned down in a firestorm of hatred and hardline politics. When lawgivers are denounced as saboteurs, when fanatics seize power and whip up the mob with ranting and lies. When decency and compromise have fled and you can see the cracks spreading through society all around you…

Welcome to Rome in the 1st century BC.

The life of Cicero, from the Catiline conspiracy onwards, is an amazing, dramatic, twist-filled story of trust and betrayal, alliances and vendettas, triumphs and scandals, optimism and civilized values versus self-interest and the threat of political violence.

Look at that. The story should be fresh as today’s news, but those togas and laurel wreaths and mannered period speeches can make everything seem very far-off. Irrelevant. Safe.

So what we’re going to do is set the whole story in modern dress with modern dialogue. The events are the same. The people are the same – only they look and sound like modern politicians in present-day settings.

It’s a way to bring it all home, uncomfortably so, to make us really feel the gut-wrenching danger and turmoil of those times. It’s a technique we’ve seen applied to Shakespeare (think of Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus) but in this case we’re applying it to an original script based on real events.

We’ll stick to real Roman history whenever possible. This is supposed to be a modern I Claudius meets The West Wing, not a vaguely Roman-themed fantasy. That said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and (just like in I Claudius) we’re taking historical events as the basis for our drama, but we don’t have to be dictated to by them.

Cicero’s life gives us a story spine to connect all the major events in the collapse of the republic, but Mark Cicero is not the sole character. This is an ensemble drama (again, The West Wing springs to mind) that can pick up other characters and include flashbacks to earlier events. We also have the option to show earlier events (in the Social War that established the dictator Sulla, for example) in diegetic form, as newsreel footage for example. (Roughly: events of Luke Sulla’s early dictatorship will appear to take place in the mid-1970s, Serge Catiline’s execution in the 1990s, etc, with the main storyline appearing to happen right now.)

That was the basic idea. I played around with an opening scene just to get a feel. We might never have used the scene in the finished script; writing it was just part of my process. I liked the idea of a bunch of Romans talking in a sauna to start off with, so they’re wearing towels and for all the audience could tell it might be actual Ancient Rome, and it’s only at the end of the scene when the peppy business-suited assistant looks in that we see it’s all styled like modern-day.

The project never happened -- this time for reasons unconnected with deranged business associates, but simply because the show the network wanted was adventure sci-fi in a Doctor Who-meets-MCU mold, like the one we'd written before. Nowadays, after the triumph of Succession and with the possible last days of the US republic on the horizon, maybe it would be possible to go back in and repitch it. But I'm inclined to let Mr Coppola tell his version instead. He's done a few pretty good movies in his time, after all.

Monday 13 May 2024

Counting the days

Workshop of the Gods, the concluding instalment of the Vulcanverse saga, is available for pre-order now in full-color hardcover.

6115 sections. 750,000 words. Hundreds of quests, locations, characters, items. An open-world epic with a central storyline that builds across all five books to a world-shattering conclusion.

Both the hardcover and b&w paperback editions drop May 19. That's this Sunday. Just thought you'd want to know.

Pre-order links:

Thursday 9 May 2024

A baker's dozen

There's very little new material released for Dragon Warriors these days, but I prefer to take a goblet-half-full approach, consoling myself with the thought that what is released is of top quality and written and drawn by the best creative team an old-school RPG designer could possibly wish for. Yes, I'm talking about Red Ruin Publishing, whose latest offering is Casket of Fays #13.

If the cover alone isn't enough to tempt you, look at the contents: a couple of adventures (one of them solo, one of them with orcs), rules FAQs, some very useful campfire magic for travellers, a two-part article adding some details to the light-level rules and how they interact with spells, and creatures both new and really old. And you get bonus campaign material about the port of Gatina on the Azure Coast.

What do you have to pay for such riches? This is where the goblet magically runneth over, for Red Ruin are giving it all away for free. (The madness rules are in DW book 5, you'll recall.) Go and clear out the treasure hall now on DriveThruRPG.

Next year is Dragon Warriors' fortieth anniversary. I'd like us to mark it with lots of new stuff -- Robert Dale's brilliant Brymstone campaign for starters. Here's hoping the stars will align.

Friday 3 May 2024

Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors - part 5

The Walls of Spyte is the last installment in Oliver Whawell's series of rules conversions from Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors rules. The stat blocks are available in PDF form here.

I had a lot less to do with the writing of the fifth book than the rest of the series. Oliver Johnson was supposed to write it, but ran out of time. Luckily Jamie Thomson was on hand to step in, but necessarily it was a rush job so he didn't have time to read the earlier Blood Sword books. I came in right at the end to tie up the last 40 sections or so.

Patreon backers can see how I'd have liked the series finale to pan out. Tambù's Blood Sword 5e campaign and rulebook drew on those notes, and I have a feeling so will Prime Games' forthcoming CRPG.

Various player-characters guest starred in the Blood Sword books, in a manner of speaking. This time it was the turn of Zaraqeb (Zara in the book) and Karunaz, who were played in my and Steve Foster's Empire of the Petal Throne campaign by Gail Baker and Paul Mason. The original PCs weren't a lot like their gamebook incarnations, incidentally. The real Zaraqeb wasn't a sorceress and wasn't that nasty; the real Karunaz was neither posh nor noble, though he was a much more interesting kind of hero because of that.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

You want fries with that?

In a very short time (I say that with fingers crossed) I'll be ready to put my Jewelspider RPG on DriveThruRPG. Urged by regular correspondent Stanley Barnes, and with the help of Simon Barns of Red Ruin Publishing, I thought I'd better learn the DriveThru ropes by uploading some books I did earlier.

So, if you're looking for digital gamebooks, you can now get the Critical IF series from DriveThruRPG:

As well as the grand finale of the Blood Sword series:

And a former Fighting Fantasy title that has been reworked as a standalone adventure in the Fabled Lands series:

And the first Fabled Lands book:

You get a watermarked PDF with all the sections hyperlinked and the original illustrations by Russ Nicholson and Leo Hartas. In the case of Once Upon a Time in Arabia that makes this quite a collector's item, incidentally, as the print version currently lacks Russ's pictures.

Monday 15 April 2024

Great men can work miracles

A trope I enjoy in folktales is the one that recounts the deeds of great heroes as achieved by wizardry, because of course there's no other way they could have done half of what they did. In one of the Knightmare novellas I had the protagonist thaw out a dwarf who'd spent the last fourteen centuries inside a block of ice in an Alpine cave. He'd eaten one of Hannibal's elephants, so Hannibal froze him solid.

The following tales of Drake, taken from Anna Bray's book The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, were an influence on Dragon Warriors and even more so on Jewelspider:

* * *

Tradition, in this part of the West Country, is still busied with the fame of Drake; and all the stories told of him are of a wild and extravagant nature. No doubt this originated from the terror of his name and the wonder of his exploits—exploits so extraordinary that they were here considered to owe their success to something supernatural in himself, and that he often performed them by the power of enchantment. Nor can we feel surprised at this credulity when we recollect that even in these days, with the peasantry of Devon, witchcraft is still believed to be practised in the county, and extraordinary circumstances or sufferings to be brought about by the active agency and co-operation of the devil.

Thus was our hero converted, by popular opinion, into a wizard; and as such the ‘old warrior’ (for so the lower classes here call Drake) is to the present time considered amongst them. The following traditionary tales will serve to show the sort of necromantic adventures which credulity has fastened on the memory of the great naval admiral of the reign of good Queen Bess.

One day whilst Sir Francis Drake was playing at the game of kales [ninepins] on the Hoe at Plymouth, it was announced to him that a foreign fleet (the Armada, I suppose) was sailing into the harbour close by. He showed no alarm at the intelligence, but persisted in playing out his game. When this was concluded, he ordered a large block of timber and a hatchet to be brought to him. He bared his arms, took the axe in hand, and manfully chopped up the wood into sundry smaller blocks. These he hurled into the sea, while at his command every block arose a fire-ship; and within a short space of time a general destruction of the enemy’s fleet took place, in consequence of the irresistible strength of those vessels he had called up to ‘flame amazement’ on the foes of Elizabeth and of England. Wild as this story is, there is something of grandeur in the idea of Drake standing on such a commanding elevation as the Hoe, with the sea, which spreads itself at its foot, before him, and that element together with the fire-ships obedient to the power of his genius, whose energies were thus mar­vellously exerted for the safety of his country.

The next tradition respecting Sir Francis was communicated to me by our esteemed friend, Mr. Davies Gilbert, who has shown the interest he takes in such fragments of the ‘olden time’ by the very curious collection he some years ago published of the Cornish ballads.

In the days of Drake the vulgar considered the world to be composed of two parallel planes, the one at a certain distance from the other. In reference to this space it was commonly said that Sir Francis hadshot the gulf,’ meaning that his ship had turned over the edge of the upper plane so as to pass on to the waters of the under. “There is,” said Mr. Davies Gilbert, “an old picture of Drake at Oxford, repre­senting him holding a pistol in one hand, which, in former years, the man who acted as showman to strangers was wont to say (still further improving upon the story) was the very pistol with which Sir Francis shot the gulf!”

Another story told of this hero is, that the people of Plymouth were so destitute of water in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, that they were obliged to send their clothes to Plympton to be washed in fresh water. Sir Francis Drake resolved to rid them of this inconvenience. So he called for his horse, mounted, rode to Dartmoor, and hunted about till he found a very fine spring. Having fixed on one that would suit his purpose, he gave a smart lash to his horse’s side, pronouncing as he did so some magical words, when off went the animal as fast as he could gallop, and the stream followed his heels all the way into the town. This assuredly was not only the most wonderful, but the most cheap and expeditious, mode of forming a canal ever known or recorded by tradition.

The next story of Sir Francis is a very singular one, nor can I in the least trace its origin to any real circumstance which might have been exaggerated in the relation, till it became, like the other tales about our hero, necromantic. It seems in every way a fiction. The good people here say that whilst the ‘old warrior’ was abroad, his lady, not hearing from him for seven years, considered he must be dead and that she was free to marry again. Her choice was made, the nuptial day was fixed, and the parties had assembled in the church. Now it so happened that at this very hour Sir Francis Drake was at the anti­podes of Devonshire, and one of his spirits, who let him know from time to time how things went on in England, whispered in his ear in what manner he was about to lose his wife. Sir Francis rose up in haste, charged one of his great guns, and sent off a cannon ball so truly aimed that it shot right through the globe, forced its way into the church, and fell with a loud explosion between the lady and her intended bridegroom. “It is the signal of Drake!” she ex­claimed, “He is alive, and I am still a wife. There must be neither troth nor ring between thee and me.”

Another legend of Sir Francis represents him as acting from motives of jealousy and cruelty, in a way he was very little likely to do. The story says that whilst he was once sailing in foreign seas he had on board the vessel a boy of uncommonly quick parts. In order to put them to the proof Sir Francis ques­tioned the youth, and bade him tell what might be their antipodes at that moment. The boy without hesitation told him Barton Place, (for so Buckland Abbey was then called) the Admiral’s own mansion in his native county. After the ship had made some further progress Sir Francis repeated his question, and the answer he received was, that they were then at the antipodes of London Bridge. Drake, surprised at the accuracy of the boy’s knowledge, exclaimed, “Hast thou, too, a devil ? If I let thee live, there will be one a greater man than I am in the world.” And so saying he threw the lad overboard into the sea, where he perished.

FURTHER READING

British Folk Tales & Legends by Katherine Briggs, on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

The Vulcanverse is almost complete

OK, that took a little longer than I thought. Finishing the Vulcanverse gamebook series, I mean. I expected to tie up the saga last summer, but I didn't reckon on how complex it would be to pull together the threads of hundreds of quests spanning almost three-quarters of a million words and over 6000 sections.

But the finish line is in sight at last. You see me there with the typeset proof copy of Workshop of the Gods. I have checked all the logic (with the help of John Jones, without whom this Gordian knot would never have been cut) and now I just have to sort out any typos and the book will be ready to go on sale.

I think this might be the first open world gamebook series ever to be completed. (Eagle-eyed readers will correct me if I'm wrong.) Now if anyone has $100 million spare, I'll make the movie.

Friday 5 April 2024

Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors - part 4

We've got another set of stat blocks from the Blood Sword gamebooks, as converted to Dragon Warriors rules by Oliver Whawell. This time it's the turn of Doomwalk (the one where they go to the land of the dead) and you can get the PDF here.

The original 1980s covers were always an oddity, as they were completely different in tone from the books themselves. Blood Sword was verging on grimdark (well, the nearest you could get in a book sold to 10-12 year-olds) before the term was even invented. The covers on the other hand were cute and funny. I'm not sure what the art director at a publishing house actually did in those days. Took long lunches, I suppose.

Thanks to Wombo I've been having a ball rejigging the cover art to suit the interiors. Use of AI art infuriates some people to the point of hysteria, but you can see that (a) it's not going to replace human artists just yet and (b) these aren't for commercial use, so it's not taking away a job that I'd have otherwise hired anyone to do. However, let me just assure General Ludd's followers that I'm doing my bit as the forlorn hope against the forces of AI art by engaging real-life illustrator Inigo Hartas for the Jewelspider project.


In the video below, Grim expresses pretty much how I feel regarding the use of AI art. But I'm open to debate on this, so let me know what you think.

Friday 29 March 2024

Maps of the mind

Martin Noutch, author of the wonderful Steam Highwayman books, is a true scholar of the craft of gamebook writing. One of the reasons his own books are so good might be because he has thoroughly analyzed the works of other writers in the field. The shoulders of giants and all that.

So that you can benefit from his studies too, Martin recently posted his story maps of the Fabled Lands books. Looking at those prompted me to dig out some of the maps I used to plan the books. Astonished that I still have this stuff after 30 years? I'm working on that hoarding obsession.


Trust me when I say that you haven't seen the full possibility of storytelling married to open world gamebooks until you've played the Steam Highwayman series.


And if you like the idea of steam-powered vehicles and picaresque adventures in an early 19th century setting (or style thereof), I recommend Keith Roberts' seminal SF novel Pavane. (It is SF, incidentally, and not steampunk, which is really a branch of fantasy because physics, but I don't want to give any spoilers. Read it and see.)

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Passion projects

Here are Laurent and Patrick of Alkonost Editions talking about the thriving world of gamebooks and roleplaying in France. My publishers back in the 1980s and 1990s were fine supportive folk, but series like Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword were just part of the conveyor belt of books they were producing at the time. I could never have dreamed back then of working with publishers who are fired up with such enthusiasm for the medium. Inspired by them, I came back from Cannes with renewed energy to complete the Vulcanverse saga.

The only downside is that each time I hear about the two forthcoming books that Alkonost will be publishing for Les Terres de Légende, the more I lament my abysmal grasp of French. They sound to be full of exciting new rules concepts and adventures. Will there ever be English editions? We anglophones can but hope.

Sunday 24 March 2024

Speak up

It's that time of year again, when I end up poking a stick into a hornets' nest of controversy. By tradition it should involve a professor, but as far as I know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not currently teaching at a university because those who can, do. Here's her Reith Lecture on the subject of "Freedom of Speech". I recommend listening to the podcast, but if you're pressed for time you could just skim-read the transcript.

For advocating free speech I've been called a fascist, and all I did was retweet Philip Pullman, so goodness knows how much flak Ms Adichie gets for her stance. But if I'm a free speech "fascist", I'm a lazy one, so I'll let her speak for me and just say (as David Baddiel does in the Q&A after the talk) that I agree with almost everything she says here. It was refreshing to hear a grown-up talking, not something we get much of now that we seem to have drifted into Bizarro World.

Friday 15 March 2024

Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors - part 3

The third of Oliver Whawell's meticulous conversions of stats from the Blood Sword gamebooks to the Dragon Warriors RPG covers The Demon's Claw. You can get a PDF of the stat blocks here.

This is the book where the series starts to kick up into really epic gear, seeing you face off against one of the series' best guest villains, have a return match with your arch-foe Icon (that is, Aiken, Lord of the Mountain of Songs), experience a close shave with Psyche (Saiki, his sister), and get a close encounter with the gods (allegedly) themselves.

If none of that makes any sense, and if you're interested in turning the Blood Sword gamebook saga into a roleplaying campaign - now's your chance. I'll just caution that the Legend of the gamebooks is considerably higher fantasy than the Legend of Dragon Warriors, never mind the "real" Legend of Jewelspider. But that's just my view anyway. All versions are equally valid.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

From Hercules to hermit

Talking of gods, and because I'm always partial to a bit of psychogeography, here's some news about the Cerne Abbas giant and his huge club. To save you reading the whole piece, the chalk outline version is that he began as an effigy of Hercules to rally the troops of Alfred the Great against those pesky Vikings. 

I realize it's fashionable these days to think of Vikings as peaceable multicultural traders, but that wasn't quite how the 9th century Anglo-Saxons thought of them. What's interesting is that Hercules was an ambiguous folk hero to the people of Wessex, who you'd think might have been sniffy about pagan demi-gods. But by the 11th century the local monks decided the big lad was actually their patron saint Eadwold. (Saints back then were obviously a bit more priapic and a bit less pudibund.)

The Giant shows another side of his nature in one of the Royal Mythological Society posts from Mirabilis: Year of Wonders. And if you're looking for a way to work chalk giants into a roleplaying game, take a look at my scenario "Wayland's Smithy" for Legend (the world of Dragon Warriors).

Friday 8 March 2024

A friend who never changes


This one's about religion, not gaming. Actually, it's not even about religion, really; it's about theism. I've been thinking about it lately because of all the deities in the Vulcanverse series that were once believed in and worshipped by half the civilized world, and now are universally regarded as fictional. If that's not a topic that interests you there'll be more ludology next time.

Years ago some friends asked me to be godfather to their daughter. 'But it will be in church,' they said, 'so you have to have been baptised.' Anything for friends. I spoke to the local vicar about getting baptised. 'Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour?' he wanted to know. Well, I conceded that I was totally onboard with the ethical side of Jesus's teaching, just not the supernatural bit. Perhaps this is what's called Jesusism. Anyway, it wasn't enough for the vicar. 'I think you and the Church of England must go their separate ways,' he said.

Sometimes I get characterized as an atheist, but that's incorrect. Belief in the existence of a deity, or accepting the possibility of such an entity, is an entirely different question from whether you believe in a specific deity. And the question of whether you should revere a deity is another thing again. So just to set the record straight...

Newton thought that something must have created the planets and set them in motion. He called it God, as did priests throughout history and probably prehistory. The only thing that changed over the ages was that the phenomena that God was used to explain became more closely observed and more complex.

Nowadays we know that it’s not just about explaining how the sun and planets formed. That was gravity, not God. We know we live in a vastly bigger universe than Newton ever suspected. It might even be infinite, but almost certainly consists of far more than the septillion stars in the observable region around us.

Nearly fourteen billion years ago there was an event sometimes called the Big Bang (though a lot of astrophysicists avoid the term these days, seeing as it's thought of more as a kind of state change and certainly not an explosion) which might have been the beginning of matter and could be said to be the starting point of our universe, though we can infer the existence of a reality before that which was of unknown extent and which for an undeterminable period had been (according to theory) undergoing something we call cosmic inflation.

We could start speculating how that earlier reality came about, but it’s (almost) pure conjecture. You could imagine the Big Bang as like a bubble forming in a pot of boiling water. Each bubble in this analogy is a universe. But we not only don’t know any of that, we almost certainly can never know. We can't even see the whole of the bubble we're in. So let’s just stick with the Big Bang and our own universe.

The theistic argument is that an entity or entities existed in the proto-reality and they caused the Big Bang. Let’s assume that’s true and we’ll call them God. That still doesn’t tell us if God intended to cause the Big Bang. Also it doesn’t tell us if God designed the nature of the resulting universe or even was able to foresee it. It doesn’t tell us if God was generating a whole lot of universes or just the one. We can’t say what further interest God had in the universe once it formed. We can’t say where God came from either, unless we evoke an earlier God; turtles all the way down.

In any case, this is an unimaginably alien intelligence we’re talking about. Would we even be able to recognize God as intelligent? That requires us to observe an entity that has a mental model of reality, uses that model to predict the consequences of an action, and can update their model based on the consequences actually observed. Can we apply diagnostic principles like that to God? If not, the concept of ‘intelligence’ may simply have no meaning.

Incidentally, theologians have a concept called the cosmological argument that runs something like this: everything we observe has a cause, therefore everything in the universe has a cause, therefore everything can be traced back to the cause of the universe, and we’ll call that God. It’s not a lot of use because it is based on everything working the same way our everyday observations suggest, which is almost certainly a fallacy. Also, it uses the word ‘God’ but doesn’t tell us whether that first cause is intelligent or even if it still exists. And it has the problem of only going back to the start of this universe (no philosophy or science can take us further, other than speculating on the most general principles, though we can provisionally include non-observables if they are corollaries of an otherwise complete and working theory) but that’s only where our reality began. You could call what came before that ‘God’ but you don’t thereby learn anything about it, you simply gave it a name.

Typically whenever humans discover that the universe is bigger or older than previously known, the concept of God gets adjusted to be the supposed first cause. Other Gods are possible. We could conceive of a God that created just the solar system or just our galaxy rather than the whole universe. Or a God specifically responsible for creating life on Earth, or even just for creating hominids. There could be other Gods responsible for other planets. Gods of that sort can't be the first ever cause postulated by the cosmological argument, but that argument is probably based on a fallacy anyway. And the cosmological argument requires a God who was in existence eternally but who waited until 13.8 billion years ago to create our universe in its current form. What was that God doing for the preceding (maybe infinite) period of time? Each question unpacks a dozen more.

Let’s make another set of assumptions anyway. Let’s assume a God who existed before this universe, who planned and initiated the Big Bang, and who continues to take an interest in the universe, particularly in the 5% of everything that comprises what we are used to thinking of as ‘normal’ matter. A few billion years after the Big Bang it was theoretically possible for life to form, and given all that time and all those stars maybe life did form many, many times. We can’t estimate a probability for that as we only have the one example. However, we have some basis for thinking that life probably formed multiple times on our planet, in which case we might expect it to form elsewhere under similar conditions.

We also have no way of setting a probability for the evolution of general intelligence, language, and culture among tool-using social animals. We have the one example, and for all we know it’s the only case of it happening in the entirety of our universe. If we really are the one and only philosophizing species in all this universe, perhaps the God we’re hypothesizing took a special interest in us. What then? Would God want to contact us? We wouldn’t immediately think of making contact with a colony of new microbes, but perhaps intelligence makes all the difference and is recognizably a shared trait even between God (conjectured lifespan 13.8 billion years up to eternity) and we mere mayflies.

Did God contact humans? We only know about historical religions, each of which had its set of divine revelations. All we can infer from those is that God restricted revelation to matters that were of immediate interest to the people of the time: what to eat, who to have sex with, which fabrics to wear, contemporary codes of law. God revealed nothing involving science or technology, and in fact vouchsafed completely erroneous versions of the size, nature and origin of the stars and planets.

Also, in most cases God’s pronouncements were supposedly revealed only to a select few, either by choice or perhaps because God is not omnipotent and cannot use any method to communicate other than speaking telepathically to a specially receptive mind. Certainly if God did choose to communicate with humans, it was in a manner that left any genuine messages exactly as uncertain as the thousands of delusional messages experienced by the mentally ill. If some guy told you he’d spoken to God, and that God had revealed exclusively to him a whole bunch of precepts, you’d be dubious. There are many explanations more convincing than that the guy really had been singled out by God. If I told you that I believed the guy’s story, and if I gave my reason for believing him as ‘just faith’, you’d think I’d lost my marbles. It makes no difference if the guy is in a trailer park in Texas today or in a desert a thousand years ago. Whenever we accept something on the grounds of faith, we should reflect on the origin of that faith. If it’s just what we were raised to believe, or if it’s just something we’d like to believe, that tells us nothing about reality on a cosmic scale; it only tells us about our own nature.

But let’s assume that God did communicate with some people, as most religions claim. God could not have any experience of what its like to live as a human being, but several religions solved that with the concept of the avatar – creating a human possessing some of God’s mind. That must be a bit like trying to do quantum computing on a Sinclair Spectrum, but let’s say it’s enough to let God include human experience in God’s mental model of everything.

What about other animals, incidentally? Does God care about the existence of bees? Has God contacted any individual bees? We can’t know that any more than we can know anything about the nature of such a being. Assuming that God only cares about humans, does that just mean Homo sapiens or did it extend to Denisovans and/or Neanderthals? If God is only concerned with modern humans, does that apply equally to all ethnicities? Or how about sex? Does God favour men or women?

These might seem like frivolous questions, but they're all things you’d have to think about once you’re going with the hypothesis that God exists at all. If we can look at a person's behaviour and detect favouritism, or at whole organizations and declare them institutionally racist or sexist, then it should be possible to look at how the universe operates (assuming it is controlled by a God who is not disinterested) and infer any built-in preferences.

Suppose we believe that God, having evaluated human existence, has come up with a set of precepts for how we should live. We don’t know which religion’s version of morality corresponds to this. Even if we did, should we follow God’s rules if they don’t accord with our personal morality?

Some would argue that their morality is directly based on God’s rules. The trouble is that everybody thinks that, and they can’t all be right. It’s entirely possible that none of them is right. Just assuming that God exists, and designed and initiated the universe, and takes a personal interest in the doings of humans, doesn’t give us a steer as to whether any of the world’s religions say anything accurate about the nature of God. You can say, ‘I am convinced that Baptist Christianity tells us exactly what God wants.’ Or Zoroastrianism. Or Wahhabism. Or those Greek gods who show up in the Vulcanverse books. Or the faith of the Aztecs. But all that’s guiding you there is a feeling, almost certainly based on how you happen to have been brought up. It’s not reasoned speculation from first principles.

Can we tell anything about the nature of God (if there is one) just by looking at the universe? That would be a good place to start. OK, well, it seems that God either does not have direct control of events or else prefers to stand aloof. Having set up the laws of physics ('laws' is a misleading way to look at it, but let it stand) God is a dispassionate observer allowing each event to have the consequences that emerge naturally. (This makes perfect sense to me. It’s how I’d do it if I were God – not that that’s a proof of anything.)

I call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist because I don’t have any idea what caused the Big Bang – or, indeed, what caused whatever conditions that applied before the Big Bang. Maybe it was some kind of intelligent entity or entities, with the caveat that I don’t even know what intelligence would mean in that context. I can’t even say that’s unlikely, as there’s no basis for assessing probabilities. I can say I don’t feel it’s likely, but that’s no more rigorous than somebody saying they feel sure Jesus is God. A groundless sense of improbability is not enough to go on to call myself an atheist.

As for earthly religions, that’s another matter. They all look like human inventions to me, and pretty nonsensical ones. If there were a God who insisted on the blind faith and footling rules demanded by most organized religions, I’d repudiate that God. Being the creator of the universe doesn’t give God any more authority than me on what it’s like to be me or how I believe other people should be treated. So I’m an atheist – or an irreligionist – as regards all historical religions. But that’s nothing remarkable. Everybody who espouses one religion is an atheist towards all the other thousands of gods believed in, worshipped, and died for throughout history.

As well as an irreligionist I’m definitely a non-worshipper – because even if a God exists, worshipping that God strikes me as pointless. I don’t worship light or heat or matter. I don’t worship the universe. I don't even worship beauty or truth or justice, much as I appreciate them. Any intelligent being that requires worship isn’t worthy of it. (And, as a personal note, rituals and ceremonies leave me cold anyway. But that's irrelevant to the theism question.)

Nor do I believe in life after death, because I don’t see any viable mechanism for it nor a sensible reason why God should arrange it. But I’m agnostic about that too. Just because it makes no sense to me, I can’t know whether it makes sense to an alien mind that thinks on cosmic scales. Maybe some or all of us get to live on (but as what?) after we die. If so, and if I eventually get first-hand experience of it, it still won’t necessarily prove the existence or nonexistence of God. It could be just another random process, albeit a really baffling one. We all just have to wait to see if we get an answer.

All of this, though, is perhaps beside the point. It arises because most people are literal-minded and insist on religion being true in the way that it’s true that water is wet. Think instead that religion is true in the way that a Mozart symphony is beautiful and you’d be on firmer ground. That of course requires you to accept that it is subjective and can be true for you while not true for somebody else. That God is real in the way that Lizzie Bennet and Winston Smith are real – very real, subjectively, that is. If more religious people understood it that way we’d have a lot less trouble in the world. You can object to other people's ethical rules, because those govern how they behave towards others, but there's no point in disputing matters of personal belief. Why take issue with anyone else’s idea of the nature and wishes of God, given that there is no objectively true version of those concepts?


Still, I remain open-minded; I could yet be convinced of atheism, perhaps, though probably not of theism. Dr Richard Bartle, who knows more than I do about the nature of world design and its implications, says: "I can see what would have to follow if reality were a conscious creation. These consequences have not arisen. [...] Even if reality were an accidental creation ruled over by an uncaring or capricious god, it would be different from how it is now." His book How to Be a God: A Guide for Would-Be Deities seems like the best place to start; on sale on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Coming attractions

Just a glimpse here of upcoming titles from Alkonost, our French publisher. Finally the complete Légende series will be returning to France -- that's both Blood Sword ("L'Épée de Légende") and Dragon Warriors ("Les Terres de Légende"). More details on my Patreon page -- and it's an open post, so don't be put off if you're not a backer.

These are just mock-ups and may not reflect the final covers or layout, but the important thing is that the books will at last get an accurate translation. I'll give you an example. In The Demon's Claw, the third Blood Sword book, you confront your longtime rival Icon the Ungodly (to give him his proper title, Aiken, Lord of the Singing Mountain) and he replies to your attempted brush-off thus:

"By my honour, this is a call to battle. Do you mean to suggest that I am unable to destroy you? I’ll crush you like the merest ant. Like a thing without bones, you’ll squirm and die under the heel of my boot. For five years I have pursued you, since the days of your callow youth when by stark chance you managed to get the better of me in Krarth. When I arrived in Crescentium at the house of my sister Saiki, I discovered you were also in Outremer. Since then I have remained on your spoor, prepared to hunt you for hate’s sake to the very boundaries of the earth. This petty concern of yours for that magic blade is as nothing. My feud with you is like thunder. My wrath is the spitting of lightning!"

But in the original 1980s translation that became:

"Je vous poursuis depuis cinq années, depuis que vous m'avez ravi la victoire. Ma sœur Saïki m'a averti de votre présence en Outremer. Peu m'importe votre épée magique, je ne veux que votre sang..."

Which is to say:

"I have been pursuing you for the past five years, ever since you robbed me of my victory. My sister Saiki warned me of your presence in Outremer. I don't care about your magic blade, I only want your blood..."

It was a busy time in the 1980s with a lot of gamebooks getting published. Gallimard's translator may have been rushing to meet a deadline, which accounts for why that version was so perfunctory. Alkonost's translation team have taken the extra time and care to make a version that's true to the original text, so for the first time French gamers will get to experience the Blood Sword books as they were written.


(By the way, I probably don't need to point this out, but if your French is as lousy as mine and you want to follow that discussion with Laurent and Patrick in the video above, you know that thanks to AI YouTube does auto-translate, right?)

Thursday 29 February 2024

Festival of joy

It's like going from colour to black & white. My wife and I are back under the chill grey skies of Britain after a weekend in glorious Cannes, where we were fêted like royalty (Louis XIV, that is, not Louis XVI) by my French publishers Alkonost and the good people of Scriptarium. In the South of France, ham slices and bread bought from a Spar corner shop are as delicious as anything you'd get in a top London restaurant. What a shock to the system, then, to return to a country where cheese is sold in tubes after we'd been contentedly munching freshly baked croissants on the Croisette. But we brought back something priceless to cast a golden gleam over Britain's drab streets: memories of a warm and heartfelt welcome from all the French gamebook community, and those memories I will cherish forever.

The occasion was the Festival International des Jeux, where I was signing books alongside Jonathan Green, Emmanuel Quaireau, Gauthier WendlingFrédéric Meurin (who took the photo below), and other talented folk. We enjoyed perhaps the best meal I'll have all year (for both the food and the company) at Le Caveau 30. I won one award (for the French edition of Down Among the Dead Men) and handed out several others, was interviewed, chatted to fans and fellow creatives alike, and generally had the most amazing time.

The Alkonost stand sold out of copies of Notos, the second book in the Forge Divine series (Vulcanverse to English gamers). I think that may have been a divine reward for my honesty when a mother with a 9-year-old daughter came over to look at the Forge Divine books. "She loves Greek mythology," said the mother; "should I get her this?" Remembering what it's like to be a 9-year-old otaku, and what purists the young are, I had to put my hand on my heart and say she would prefer Cyclades, Emmanuel Quaireau's gamebook, because that is set in mythological Greece whereas the Vulcanverse books are slightly Graeco-Roman flavoured fantasy, but mostly their own thing. The little girl went home happily clutching Cyclades, and the Fates took note and later ensured we sold the last copy of Notos fifteen minutes before it was time to pack up.

I just wish my French were better, as there's obviously a lot of really original work going on in the gamebook field nowadays. A couple of examples:

The Mini-Yaz silver medal went to Froides Lattitudes by Henry Pichat, set in the Arctic Ocean at the end of the 19th century. The blurb explains: "You are the leader of a polar expedition setting out in search of the Northwest Passage, but the boat you command is quickly caught in the ice. After two winters on a drifting ice floe, you have no choice but to abandon the ship and try to bring your crew back to inhabited lands. A thousand kilometers separate you from civilization. Will you be able to reach it? And at what cost?"

The Mini-Yaz gold medal was won by Adrien Saurat with his book Traité sur l'expérience divinatoire à propos du vampyre surnommé Le Valèque. The book is supposed to have been written in the 18th century and is formulated as a gamebook, except that the purpose is not (for the fictional author) playful but divinatory. He proposes possible paths that we will follow with our intuition and with the help of certain dice rolls (influenced by a superior force if we pray briefly at each new passage). This process is supposed to help us find the true thread of events relating to a troubled episode that a village experienced a long time ago, and whose testimonies, decades later, vary greatly.

Both sound superb and worthy winners, and hopefully somebody will get around to translating them into English soon. I'll be first in line to read them.

Friday 23 February 2024

Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors - part 2

We're on to the second installment of Oliver's Whawell's conversion of Blood Sword encounters to Dragon Warriors rules. You can download the stat blocks for The Kingdom of Wyrd here.

This one is interesting because I already had a crack at converting the Meteor Stalker, a weird creature brilliantly visualized by Russ Nicholson. Patreon backers can read all about that, but in a nutshell (or a meteoritic geode) it's as follows. The characters see a piece break off Blue Moon, one of five celestial bodies in the night sky over Krarth. The object plummets to earth:

"Concealed in the undergrowth around the clearing, you watch the blue flare crash through the trees at the edge of the clearing and explode in a shower of blue sparks at its centre. The high-pitched whistling noise has stopped, but now you hear a hissing sound from where steam rises from the place where it struck. In the centre of the steam you can see a black stone which even as you watch cracks apart like an egg. An area of darkness spreads like a pool of shadow. Then a hunched shape rises up from the shadow as though taking shape out of the very ground. It is a skeleton dressed in black tattered robes. Its eyes are glowing blue crystals. It seems to sniff the air as it looks around."

And the stats I gave for it are:


Oliver's calculations give a very similar result, possibly proving that great minds think alike? Obviously I couldn't possibly comment.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

A pretty butterfly

The British Library's Fantasy exhibition ends on Sunday, so if you're able to get to London it had better be now. It's a little disappointing as it focuses on quite a narrow patch (faerie-filled, English language, heroic) of the vast field that is fantasy literature. The curators should try dipping into Borges's Antología de la Literatura Fantástica, Alberto Manguel's Black Water collections, or The Irreal Reader. Just because fantasy gaming presents such a restricted view of the genre is no reason why the British Library should. Still, it's worth a trip.

As part of the exhibition's programme of events there was an interview with Alan Moore (pictured above) and Susanna Clarke (below), both giants of the fantasy field. You can watch that interview here.

Asked in another interview by Pádraig Ó Méalóid about belief in fairies and magic, Alan Moore said:

"I do not believe they are real outside the world of ideas and the mind, but then they have no need to be real beyond that realm, because in that realm they’re completely real, and they can affect us profoundly, as with any of the other denizens of the imaginary terrain, the angels and demons and monsters."

That's exactly how I feel about fantastic ideas, and if you follow the whole discussion you may notice it touches on a lot of the same territory as my Mirabilis comic. Hardly surprising, really, as Moore was one of my biggest inspirations in that medium.

Susanna Clarke spoke to Alan Moore about his Lost Girls comic back in 2007, but that's behind a Telegraph paywall and I'd sooner take a left-hand path in Jewelspider wood than go there.

Friday 16 February 2024

A world where you can make a difference


The Vulcanverse gamebooks don't get nearly enough reviews. I would say that, wouldn't I? But Jamie and I genuinely feel they're some of our best work. We're aware that the gamebook resurgence, such as it is, is mainly driven by adults buying the books they enjoyed as kids. Naturally that makes it hard for a new series to break through, but there are standout successes: Steam Highwayman, Legendary Kingdoms, Expeditionary Company, and others. 

Our hope is that with the completion of the saga (Workshop of the Gods is due to be published in a few months) readers will get to appreciate the full story arc that's been building across the series. The entire adventure is over 6000 sections long, that's more than 15 old-style Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and there are decisions you make right from the start that have repercussions in the apocalyptic showdown at the end.

Yes, I know, I could do with a better microphone. Still, if that all whets your appetite, you can get started by downloading Adventure Sheet PDFs for the Vulcanverse series here:

Friday 9 February 2024

Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors - part 1

Last time I mentioned Oliver Whawell's conversion of Blood Sword stat blocks to Dragon Warriors rules, which Oliver has kindly agreed to share with readers of this blog. There's a lot of great work there, so I'll be running it in installments. To get the ball rolling, here's The Battlepits of Krarth.

The original books might be useful if you're thinking of running Blood Sword as a DW roleplaying campaign. You can get those here:

In the US

DRAGON WARRIORS


BLOOD SWORD

The Battlepits of Krarth on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble
The Kingdom of Wyrd on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble
The Demon's Claw on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble
Doomwalk on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble
The Walls of Spyte on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble
Blood Sword Battle Boards on Amazon

In the UK

DRAGON WARRIORS

BLOOD SWORD

The Battlepits of Krarth on Blackwell's, Waterstones and Amazon
The Kingdom of Wyrd on Blackwell's, Waterstones and Amazon
The Demon's Claw on Blackwell's, Waterstones and Amazon
The Walls of Spyte on Blackwell's, Waterstones and Amazon
Blood Sword Battle Boards on Amazon

Italian gamers won't need to use Dragon Warriors as all the work has been done for you by Valentino Sergi and Daniele Fusetto in their magnificent Blood Sword 5e book, published by Tambù. It turns the whole gamebook saga into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and it truly is a thing of beauty.

And if you aren't familiar with the Blood Sword series and you're looking for a taster, Raphael Perry did a playthrough of book 1 on YouTube along with this very interesting strategy analysis: