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Friday, 20 October 2017

The mirror crack’d

And moving thro' a mirror clear 
That hangs before her all the year, 
Shadows of the world appear…
Hang on, I’m about to completely lay waste to Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” in an act of shameless cultural vandalism. If you haven’t read the poem, I implore you to do so now before looking at the rest of this post. That way at least you’ll have encountered it first as Tennyson intended. There are two versions, but for my money the 1842 text is better.

All right, warnings duly issued, here we go. I was introduced to the poem in an English lesson in my second year at grammar school. My interpretation of what was going on portrayed the Lady as a visitor from another world whose ship had malfunctioned, stranding her on Earth. Seeing Sir Lancelot on her ship’s scanner, she identified his shield as containing some mineral or gem needed to repair the ship, but she could not tolerate exposure to Earth’s atmosphere and died before she could reach him.

I’d pity the English master I inflicted that science fictional analysis on (to the great amusement of the rest of the form) except that he later put me in detention for writing an essay that he deemed obscene. So, you know, screw him. Although come to think of it I suppose that does give me a kind of honorary membership of the oppressed artists’ club, a taste of the crushing fascist jackboot that wants to stamp on every freethinking writer’s face. Hmm. A useful lesson after all, then. Mind you, I’d still be tempted to do what De Milletail does to De Blayac in Ridicule.

Festering schoolroom resentments aside, it struck me that you could turn that interpretation of “The Lady of Shalott” into a fun little scenario for something like Pendragon. If you want to end it in a big fight, she could be a shapechanger or even a (lady) dragon, rather like Al Williamson’s classic EC Comics story “By George”.
Twists-in-the-tail like that are a bit passé, though – and hard anyway to get the twist across the the players. Having lopped off the dragon’s head, how are they to know it was a stranded space-traveller who only wanted to fix a broken fluid link? And if they do find that out, why wouldn’t they just hand it over to her?

Well, they could do that, and thus it's all wrapped up as an uplifting interlude, but my view is that the scenario needs conflict. How about if the item she needs to repair her vessel is Excalibur itself? That’s not getting handed over without a struggle. And to make it more interesting than a head-to-head fight, how about those “webs” she’s said to weave:
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights
Are those artificial constructs based on the people she sees in the scanner? “I am half-sick of shadows” – surely the lament of somebody who’s spent too much time playing on the holodeck. But she could use that web-weaving ability to create a simulacrum of one of the characters – or of Arthur, or Guinivere – to try to trick them into handing over the item she needs. Or she could be attended by a doppelganger of a knight known to the characters, either to establish her credentials or to trigger a feud with the real knight as a distraction.

The other question is: where is Shalott? Or at any rate, where is the lady/alien/visitor from? In my English class I was envisaging another planet. But maybe she's a time traveller? (That image above by William Holman Hunt strikes me as having quite a steampunk vibe.) Or might she be a Cthulhoid creature? An X-Men style mutant? A phantasmal shadow-version of Morgan le Fay? Over to you.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Therefore let us confuse and scatter them

I'm always surprised when other people are surprised that I can get quite exercised over politics. Aristotle aside, you don't have to read much of my stuff to pick up on that, surely? And anyone who's looked at the Mirabilis comic -- or my Twitter feed -- will be in no doubt where my political sympathies lie.

On the other hand, if you read the Knightmare novellas you'd probably conclude (wrongly) that I'm strongly religious. So maybe not much of the author's personal slant makes it into the finished work after all; it only feels that way from this side of the keyboard.

Anyway, I'm currently finishing up work on my latest book, and I feel I ought to mention it here because it's a gamebook. My first since Frankenstein in 2012 (also pretty political, come to think of it). In this gamebook, though, there are no dragons or magic spells, no epic quests, not a single death paragraph. It's set in the real world and the conflict is not fantastical but political.

The picture shows a couple of the very weighty docs I've been working from over the last few months. Europeans will need no more clue than this to twig what it's about, and will understand when I say that no fantasy world could possibly match the madness, deception, fanaticism, stupidity, chaos and outright Kool-Aid quaffing involved in this particular real-life bonfire of reason. Other nationalities -- don't worry, I know you've got your own problems. The gamebook also has input from Jamie, and it should be ready before the end of the year. The working title: Turn to Article 50.

But if politics is not your thing, never fear. The regular Friday post will whisk us off to a world of mazy webs and noble knights, time travel and star voyaging, longing and loss... in a place not far from Camelot.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Whatever the weather

As I write this the Met Office says that a hurricane is on its way to Britain and we can expect to bask in summery temperatures of 25° C. That the one might cause the other is quite strange enough, but it reminded me of the story of a computer left in charge of weather control satellites that gets infected with a virus and starts to do even more harm to the world's climate than a certain tiny-handed orange demagogue.

It's not what you're thinking. This is Geostorm, the directorial debut of the writer of -- oh, Independence Day and Godzilla. And starring Gerard "Spartahhhh" Butler. I guess you could stay home and play Heart of Ice instead...

Friday, 13 October 2017

The jackboot of stats

Another misguided attempt at writing up creature stats, this time for the Questworld pack I worked on for Games Workshop in the early 1980s. While playtesting one of the scenarios, Oliver Johnson had mentioned the Forest in the Serug - a typically evocative throwaway reference. I was intrigued and couldn't let it go. I kept coming up with abilities and spells for the Serug, dimly realizing each time that by doing so I was spoiling the mystery that made them so effective. (A point made very eloquently by JC in a comment to my recent post about Dunsany's gnoles.)

It's like all those Edwardian hunters who, confronted with the gob-smacking scale and profusion of wildlife in the tropics, let fly with both barrels. They had an emotion they needed to express, but they were going entirely the wrong way about it.

So my advice: use the stats for anything you like, but it will always be the undefined parts of your roleplaying world that most captivate the players.


The Serug are a very ancient and mysterious species, rarely encountered, living only in certain areas of the forest named after them. Local woodsmen will sell information about the Serug, but for the most part this consists of half-truths or outright fabrication.

The principal characteristic of the Serug is their murderous whimsy. If they decide to interfere with a party of travellers (roughly 20% chance of this each day that the party spends in a Serug area), they will avoid a direct assault. Instead, they may use crafty diversions to divide the party and then pick off stragglers, or extinguish campfires with magic and make a fleeting night raid. The party may catch a glimpse of sinuous draconic forms , long many-jointed limbs, a hooked beak or snout – but no clear description should be given.

Characters will almost certainly never learn, therefore, that the Serug dwell in a network of tunnels and chambers under the forest roots, built millennia ago when the species was still relatively sane. The tunnels are very low, and have sudden twists and slopes which make them difficult for any but the Serug to use. Entrances are usually within the hollow trunks of trees, and very well concealed.

The Serug can use all normal battle magic, and also have their own spells for raising a ground-mist, controlling forest creatures, and obfuscating or entangling a trail. They see well in darkness, and so prefer to fight at night if at all. In melee a Serug will strike twice a round, once with its weapon, once with beak or claw. The usual battle tactic is to concentrate most of their efforts against one or two individuals, then disengage when they have inflicted enough damage.

The following are some of the more commonly held beliefs concern­ing the Serug. Most are false:

  1. The Serug live on the moon and climb down to the ground using the tallest trees.
  2. A Serug is only visible when stationary.
  3. The Serug are actually a race of mad elves.
  4. Having draconic ancestry, the Serug never harm dragonnewts.
  5. There are no Serug, only men wearing costumes to frighten off interlopers.
  6. The Serug are giant spiders.
  7. The Serug are phantasms of the mind, and anyone seeing them will go mad.
  8. The Serug will not attack anyone carrying sprigs of dried heather.
  9. The Serug can only be hurt by fire.
  10. The Serug will always leave one member of any group alive to tell the tale.

Players may hear any of these as tavern rumours. Only the last is in correct, though the referee may choose to have others derive from a kernel of truth.

ARMOUR: 4 point skin.
SPELLS: Any— typically about six spells per individual
SKILLS: Climbing 90%; Jumping 90%; Set Ambush 75%; Perception 80%; Stealth 80%

I'll leave the last word to Kirk Douglas:

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Ebon dragon gamebooks

On the subject of starting a story with amnesia, Mantikore Verlag, publishers of the German edition of Fabled Lands, are running a Kickstarter that may be of interest to those of you who like traditional fighting fantasy style gamebooks. Rider of the Black Sun is a 1350-section gamebook and the campaign runs till Guy Fawkes Night. Remember, remember...

Even if fantasy adventure gamebooks aren't your bag, don't forget to tune in tomorrow for the regular weekly blog post, in which we'll take another look at the Games Workshop RuneQuest world pack that never was.

And finally, in a completely spurious segue based only on the German connection, here's a video I found absolutely fascinating -- as will anyone who's role-played in a medieval or early modern setting, I bet. Cornelius Berthold at the History Park in Bärnau-Tachov explains how people in the past used to walk.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Start by forgetting

We're starting a new roleplaying campaign tonight. It's being run by Oliver Johnson, co-creator of Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword, and he always brings a unique blend of innovative story background and palpable atmosphere to his games, so excitement among the players is high.

The player-characters will begin with no memory of who they are. That in itself isn't going to win any prizes for originality. I think I'll be playing in at least one other amnesia-driven game this year alone, and that's even if I can't get my hands on a copy of Alas Vegas, but when added to the GURPS character generation system, amnesia should make for a particularly interesting cocktail.

GURPS encourages you to flesh out the details of your character's backstory -- too much, in my view. I've seen much better (more interesting, more subtle, more convincing) characterization from players developing their characters from the inside, once the game begins. The design-at-start approach is a little too much of an authorial straitjacket. But how about if you begin knowing nothing about your past?

With Oliver's upcoming campaign, which is set in New Mexico in 1862, I originally had it in mind to play a gambler. But then I thought, well, how would I know I was a gambler? I'm dressed like a gambler, maybe. Perhaps I found a deck of cards in my pocket. But what does that prove? What if another player-character is wearing a tin star. He might be a sheriff, but there are other explanations.

Here's how Oliver himself put it:
"The more I sit here reading through the rules, the more I'm convinced that GURPS is the enemy of roleplaying, and only when handled in the lightest way can it aid rather than overwhelm the game. That was why I decided to start everyone as amnesiacs. I want people to interact and make up their stories on the spot and have some good roleplaying, rather than prescribe their characters through these arbitrary skills and advantages and disadvantages and overthought back stories -- which, instead of expanding the character, merely justify the aforesaid self-award of skills, advantages, etc."
If GURPS allowed for a little more uncertainty, there might be some of those discoveries Oliver is talking about. As it is, I still have to know a little bit too much about my character -- those pesky GURPS disadvantages force you to join the authorial dots and end up with the usual cartoonish characterization. But in a different rules system with a little more leeway the amnesia could become a wellspring of creative improvisation.

One option would be to give each player say 80 points to spend on basic attributes, advantages, and disadvantages. Arguably you would know those pretty much right away, memory loss or not. But you don't buy any skills at the start of the game. When called on to use a skill, you roll 3d to set a brevet value X for that one roll only. You then roll in the usual way using X as your skill level for that one roll only. If you succeed, that sets a minimum value for your (still unknown) level in that skill. If you fail, that sets a maximum value.

For example, you attempt a Stealth roll. First you roll 3d to get your brevet value. Let's say you get a 12. So now you attempt the skill roll as if you had a Stealth of 12. Say you roll 9 - okay, that means you know your actual Stealth value cannot be lower than 9. Or say you roll a 14 - that's a failure, which means your Stealth cannot be higher than 13. Over time you'll nest in on values for all the skills you use.

This brevet system for discovering your unknown skill levels is not greatly different from the way James Wallis's Fugue system generates characters' skills in the course of play, as astute readers will have spotted, but I'm looking for something that's compatible with GURPS -- and, because we want to keep playing an open-ended campaign that could last years, we'll need a bit more detail than just having a skill or not having it. Also I confess a slight allergy to RPG systems that co-opt the tarot, simply because so many of them these days do that.

Starting a GURPS game with no memory naturally rules out giving character design points for Allies, Enemies, Reputation, etc. Those are things you'll discover or acquire in play. But that's a much better way to handle them anyway, just as in stories it's better to show than to tell.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Arms and the man

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Always a toughie, that, but in the case of the combat system in my Tirikelu RPG, I can pin it down exactly to an article in the May 1986 issue of Inside Kung Fu Presents that Charles Daniel wrote about George Silver’s 16th century duelling treatise Paradoxes of Defence. This is the bit that grabbed my imagination:
“The key to [Silver’s] system is the concept of ‘safe fighting’. This is a subtle concept because it is not so much interested in striking down an opponent as it is in not being struck down by him. A direct result of this idea is that if two men who have perfected ‘safe fight’ were to face one another, neither one would be wounded. Because both men would have a perfect understanding of fighting, neither would present an opening through which his opponent could attack. Any attempt by an attacker to force such an opening would more often than not create an opening in the attacker's posture. This, of course, would lead to the attacker being cut down. A confrontation between two such skilled men would result in a standoff. Such standoffs were in fact reported in both England and Japan.

“To fight safe, Silver states several principles and general rules which should be applied to all weapons. Some of these principles are very general, such as: ‘When your enemy attacks you, he will open in one place or other, both at single and double weapons, at the least he will have to weaken his ward by such attacking. Strike or thrust at such open or weakest point that you find nearest to you.’ Others are very specific: ‘Know when your enemy can reach you and when he cannot.’ ”
At first I thought of giving Tirikelu characters a pool of points each combat round, and they’d allocate attack and defence out of that pool. But for once, thank goodness, I managed to remember my oft-quoted and rarely observed dictum of Keep It Simple, Stupid. Instead of the pool of points, I allowed each character either one full action or two half-actions every round. These are things like attack, parry, dodge, etc. If you do a full-action attack, for example, you get to use your full combat value, but then you have nothing left for defence.

Here’s an example. Suppose I’m fighting your character and we both have combat value 16. In Tirikelu you roll and add Dexterity to decide initiative, and then count down each round. So let’s say in the first round I’ve got initiative. It gets to my turn and I say, “I’m making a half-attack at you.” I could have deferred my action till later in the round, by the way, but in this case I’m hoping I can put you out of the fight quickly.

You declare your response, if any – “I’m making a half-parry,” say – and then we both roll 1d20, aiming to score equal to or under the combat value we’re putting into this. We’re both making half-actions, so that means we need 8 or less.

I roll first and I miss. But you still get to roll because if you make a successful parry against an unsuccessful attack there’s a chance to riposte. Let’s say you roll a 4. Okay, so you made your parry, and the riposte rule is that if you get to make an immediate free attack against me using the number you rolled as your skill – in other words, you need to roll 4 or less. The riposte doesn’t use up your regular action allowance for the round, and I don’t get to attempt a parry.

Let’s assume that riposte misses. Well, it was a pretty hard roll. So now we resume counting down initiative till we get to your turn. You used up a half-action already on the parry, and you know I have a half-action left. You could make a half-attack at me, in which case my options are either to ignore it and hope you miss, in which case I can use my remaining half-action to attack you at the end of the round, or to attempt a half-parry, in which case we’ve both used up all our action allowance and a new round begins.

This may sound simple, and it is nicely quick and dramatic, but there are subtle tactical tricks to be exploited by an experienced player. If you’re facing an opponent who is strong but not as skilled as you are, you’ll want to concentrate on the sort of safe fighting George Silver recommended, parrying while waiting for your foe to make a mistake that you can exploit in a riposte.

On the other hand, defensive fighting may not help you against a much more skilful opponent. The reason is that attacks made with a combat value above 20 are harder to parry. If an opponent strikes at me with a combat value of 25 and I parry with a combat value of 16, I actually need to roll 11 or less (16 minus 5) to make the parry. So in that fight my best chance would be to flail around with half-attacks, hoping to get him to split his combat value. The odds are still against me, but if I score a hit and his parry misses, maybe I can wound him enough to even up the fight.

Which brings us on to damage. This uses a d10 roll cross-referenced with skill. So at beginner level it’s just 1, 2, 3, 4… and so on up to 10. But at very high skill it translates to 6, 6, 7, 7, 8, 8, 9, 9, 10, 10 – meaning that you can never score less than 6 damage on a successful hit. The weapon you’re using is a modifier to the d10 roll, not to the damage itself, making an extremely practiced guy with a dagger much more deadly than a novice with a two-handed axe. Armour subtracts from damage in the traditional GURPS/Runequest manner.

What about injury? I wanted it to have an effect on your fighting skill – a serious injury reducing your ability to fight back more than a light scratch – but at the same time I wanted to avoid lots of book-keeping that destroys the dramatic pace of a fight. So I split wounds into categories. A light wound is at least 20% of the character’s hit points in one blow, a heavy wound is 35% or more of full hits, and a grievous wound is over half your normal hit point score in a single blow. Each of those has a progressively higher penalty to combat value and requires a harder Stamina check to stay conscious.

You don’t have to stop and work out those break points in the middle of a game, obviously. They’re calculated for each value of HP and you write them on your sheet at the start, like this:
15 [3/6/8]
-- meaning that with 15 hit points, you take a light wound if hit for 3-5 points, and so on.

One big difference in Tirikelu from, say, GURPS fights is that in GURPS and other heavily simulationist systems you tend to work out the minutiae of each round’s attack before you do it:

“I’m doing to step and lunge across the table to seize his arm before he can shoot.”

“OK, well he’s more than a yard away and the table slows you up so you can’t just step and attack, it’ll have to be an all-out.”

“Fine, I’ll do it with a +4 to attack.”

“That’s going to be -2 to grab his arm.”

“No, it’s a close combat grapple, so hit location penalties are halved. -1 to target the arm, +4 for all-out attack, so that’s +3 overall…”

Lawks, I could have gone and got a beer while all that was going on. And drunk it. Now, I appreciate that once you’ve memorized all 570 pages of GURPS 4e (assuming you disregard all the supplementary rules) then you can get a bit quicker at doing all that mental arithmetic on the fly. Or you can do what an experienced GURPS referee like Tim Harford does, and judiciously chuck out 90% of the rules in the interest of keeping the pace going. In our last Legend special, one of the player-characters pulled out a garrotte. My heart sank. Using GURPS garrotte rules as written, just his part of the battle could have eaten up half the afternoon. Luckily Tim just got him to roll Stealth and Garrotte skill, rolled for the sentries’ Perception, and ruled that he’d strangled them all before they had time to act.

Which is fine, but in that case why use GURPS? The solution I’d prefer: why isn’t there a cut-down version of GURPS with far fewer highly-specific skills and none of the special casing that delights only the most obsessive rules lawyers? When I have a spare couple of weeks I might write that myself.

Tirikelu, though simulationist in spirit, is nothing like that. Before rolling, all you have to declare is whether your action is full-value or half-value. The dice and the options they throw up tells you what happens next, and how that’s interpreted in the game is entirely up to the player. “His blade whirs over my head as I duck, spot an opening, drive my sword into his neck and turn in time to make a desperate parry as the other guy runs in…”

Maybe I could even seduce a narrativist player to the dark side with a system like that. Who knows?

If you want to try Tirikelu for yourself, you can get a free PDF that also has source material and scenarios. Or set it up to print yourself a physical copy on; instructions for that here. And if you should play a game, let us know how it goes in the comments. Jamie is the absolute master of squeezing every tactical advantage out of the Tirikelu combat system, so I’m hoping he’ll join in the discussion.