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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:


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.