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Friday, 21 April 2017

Looking back to see the future

Another piece from the dim and distant today. Back in the mid-80s I used to edit the RuneRites column in White Dwarf. I didn't actually use the RuneQuest world of Glorantha for my own games, but Oliver Johnson and I were writing an RQ-based book called Questworld for Games Workshop, and running a lot of games in that setting, so we knew the RQ rules pretty well.  

Questworld was one of the many projects I wrote for GW that were never published, but Oliver and I reworked a lot of the material for the Invaders and Ancients book - also never published, come to think, but maybe one day we'll find the time to correct that.

This article by me and Oliver, derived from our Questworld setting and then retrofitted to Greg Stafford's Genertela (yikes), was originally published as "Forecasting the Runes" in White Dwarf 65 (May 1985).

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Prediction is a sub-category of Perception skills, open to any character with a POW score of at least 13. Rune Casting is a form of Prediction common to all RuneQuest universes; others exist (Pyromancy, Hieromancy, etc), and the referee can develop these along similar lines.

The Rune Casting skill starts at 0 (plus any modifiers due to INT or POW) and can be trained up to 15% if a teacher can be found. The sort of people who might be able to teach a character Rune Casting often travel in minstrel troupes or operate fairground booths. The problem with training is not really cost. It takes only an hour or so to instruct a character up to 15% level, and the teacher will probably ask only a few silvers for this. But it is not always clear when one has found a real master (or mistress) of the runic arts.

When a character wishes to use his Rune Casting skill, the appropriate roll is made by the referee. If the roll is successful, the referee selects the runes so as to give an accurate (but always vague) prefigurement of game events that he has planned. If the Rune Casting roll fails, the prediction is random.

Rune Casting takes the form of shak¬ing tiny pebbles marked with the runes, then casting one down. This is done three times for a full prediction. The first casting is of an Elemental rune, and this indicates the underlying forces which pertain to the character's situation. The second rune cast is of Form, and it indicates the principal way in which events will influence the character. The Power rune, last to be cast, indicates the outcome of the prediction.

The interpretation of a Rune Casting is up to the player. The referee merely tells him or her which runes come up:
Darkness: Secret or unclear forces are at work. There is a suggestion of evil or hostility.
Water: Events and forces are set in a state of flux.
Earth: A solid and definite change will occur.
Air: Events now in the offing will be without lasting significance.
Fire: Forces from above (earthly superiors or divine agents) may be at work. Violent emotions have been stirred up. A chance for great gain or great loss.
Moon: Past deeds continue to operate in the character's life. A man who has committed evil acts may soon have to pay. Sorcery and ancient spirits may play a part in things to come.
Plant: The future is tied up with the character's profession or finances. Investments may grow or wither.
Beast: Not just animals, but also natural forces in general, may play a part. Combined with the Water rune, for instance, it might suggest to a general that storms will hinder his troops - particularly if Stasis were next to come up.
Man: The character's fellow men will be the executors of his fate. Will it be for weal or woe? Consult the other runes.
Spirit: Ideas and knowledge have a significant effect on the future. The character should examine his beliefs. More mundanely, there could be spirit combat in the next few hours!
Chaos: The entire casting is ill-aspected. Unpredictable and sorrowful trends are at work. This is not a time to consider dangerous actions.
Harmony: There will be no drastic alteration.
Disorder: Things will change radically and it will be a long time before those affected resume their normal routine.
Fertility: There may be a birth, or the maturing of a worthwhile investment. At harvest time, the crop will be good.
Death: A single major event will cause permanent change. Fatality is not the sole instance of this; there may be a promotion.
Stasis: There will be a period of inertia.
Movement: There is likely to be a long journey, or news may arrive from afar.
Truth: Many secrets from the past will be unraveled.
Illusion: Things are not what they seem. Do not take events at face value.
Luck: Matters now under consideration will come to a head. There will be a time to gamble.
Fate: The prediction is sealed. Whatever is read is a Fate, possibly a Doom. No man can change what is decreed.
As a final note, we recommend setting an upper limit of POWx5% on Rune Casting. (Or make it POWx4%, or POWx3%. There is no reason for the players to know how accurate their predictions can be.) After using the skill twice in one day, a character drops 10% in accuracy for each subsequent casting.

The Four Parts of the Soul
A side-effect of active imperialism, of the sort practiced by the Lunar Empire, is the appearance of bizarre hybrid cults and beliefs. These sometimes gain favor among those who have travelled widely and been exposed to a variety of cultures - notably, soldiers, sailors and adventurers.

The belief that a man's soul has four parts began to gain traction in some distant Lunar outposts around the year 1617, probably as a result of the unusual teachings of some enslaved shamans. The idea appealed to well educated junior officers whose intellectually-based faith sought some functional alternative to pure Red Moon doctrine.

The four parts of the soul are:

The Crystal Knife, which is that aspect of the self which deals with positive, aggressive action and the outward channeling of energy.

The Morning Mist, which is the passive, yielding principle – the individual’s ability to be acted upon or moved by externals, to take what he experiences into himself and to learn.

The Obsidian Rock represents the individual's capacity to negate actions directed against him, to hold firm and not to submit or fall in the face of adversity. It is the concentration of self, the boundary separating the individual from the world around him.

The Fleeting Shadow recognizes the need to negate even the Obsidian Rock, the self, in some aspects of the individual's life. It leads to awareness and the willingness to understand and to grow. It represents the transcendent, mystic element in the individual's nature.

These aspects are commonly ordered into two sets of complementary functions: Active/Passive and Outward/Inward:

The four parts of the soul are treated as 'skills' which the character can master through meditation. At the end of every two weeks in which the character has spent at least two hours a day in meditation, he rolls for each soul-discipline to see if he can increase it. The initial skill in each soul-discipline is derived as below:

Perfecting the soul-disciplines enhances the character's relationship with the world. One effect of this is to enable him to learn more readily from experience. Any time that a character fails an increase roll, he has a chance equal to his skill in the relevant soul-discipline of making a reroll. This only applies if the character is at least 25% in the relevant soul-discipline, however. Each soul-discipline thus assists the character in developing certain skills:

The soul-disciplines are sometimes referred to as 'the Cornerstones of the Self'. When all four are in balance, the character may go on to great things. Developing one discipline to the exclusion of the others tends to make for an unstable and ill-balanced nature. When all four disciplines reach 90%, the character automatically achieves Illumination (see Cults of Terror).

Friday, 14 April 2017

Rumble in the jungle

A picture is worth a thousand words. More than a thousand when it's by a master artist like Kevin Jenkins. So I'll keep this short. Kev has been madly busy on visual design for the next Star Wars movie - or maybe the next but one - but he cleared some time recently to do a few sketches of the cover for the seventh Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King's Domain. And when I tell you this is one of the designs we rejected, you'll get a hint of how amazing the finished cover is going to look.

Kev says of this one: "Our hero is taking down an attacker while being surprised by a second assailant, below massive jungle waterfalls with temples carved with massive stone faces." Of course we apologized for dragging him away from a galaxy far, far away but he added, "Believe me, after four years on the same subject it was nice to sketch a dragon."

An awesome guy and an awesome talent. We're lucky to have him. And anyway, I'm a Trekker.

Thursday, 6 April 2017


A little while back, Erik observed in a comment that sometimes when I post a scenario I can seem to be holding it at arm’s length, as though it’s “old hack and slash stuff you're slightly embarrassed about”.

Well, it’s true that I’ve never really cared for dungeon bashes. I mean by that the kind of adventure that’s just one damned thing after another – a hydra in this room, three orcs in the next. Sometimes with a riddle, but never with any rhyme or reason.

The trouble with that kind of scenario is it fails the criterion that SF author Damien G Walter identifies as necessary to generate a powerful and satisfying experience:
“Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the huge problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.”
Now, not all dungeons happen underground. Sometimes you can be on a quest of hundreds of miles across forests and deserts and swamps, but if that’s just an excuse to thread together a bunch of unconnected encounters then – yeah, maybe interesting, as Damien says, but never compelling.

Likewise, going underground doesn’t always lead to a dungeon bash. Empire of the Petal Throne players who’ve visited the wizard Nyelmu’s Garden of Weeping Snows will know that sometimes you can descend into a mythic dreamtime where the journey through the underworld mirrors an inner psychic journey. By the way, that's also why (despite the picture above) I never use figurines. I want players to use their imaginations and be the character, not look down on them like counters on a board.

Most of the times dungeons are just a way to pre-plan a highly structured session so the GM can be lazy and not have to engage with the player-characters. Or have to think up anything interesting, come to that. I’ve perpetrated a few dungeons in my time - mostly for White Dwarf, for which I wrote to order. There are some dungeons too in Dragon Warriors, a concession because we knew the game would initially be played by 10-13 year-old novice GMs for whom a dungeon can be the refereeing equivalent of bike stabilizers. Though I hope (and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) there is something special in those scenarios that raises them above the level of goblins in ten-foot-square rooms.

In my own games, the nearest I might get to a dungeon is something like “The Honey Trap”. More usually the scenario is a set of loose notes that can be fitted around the player-characters’ current activities, as in “Friends in Foreign Parts”, “Just off the Boat”, or “In the Wrong Hands”.

Here are some other scenarios that I most definitely wouldn’t hold at arm’s length. You won’t find an ochre jelly or black pudding in any of ‘em.
  • "The King is Dead" - a scenario set in 5th century BC Greece. The version I ran took the sci-fi road into Highlander territory, but you could play it as straight whodunit or throw in a pinch of Cthulhu horror.
  • "The Hollow Men", set in the Dragon Warriors world of Legend. In our game the characters were members of a mercenary band out for revenge, but there are other ways in.
  • "Silent Night", a scenario and mini-campaign setting in Legend, which you can run with new or existing characters.
  • "A Ballad of Times Past", a one-off scenario set in a world where magic is rare and hard to come by. Originally published in White Dwarf 51.
  • "Wayland's Smithy", my version of what "finding a magic sword in treasure" ought to feel like.
  • "More Precious Than Gold", set in the Ophis universe that Oliver Johnson and I originally devised for Games Workshop's never-published Questworld book.
  • "Internecine!" - a Tekumel scenario involving the Hlüss with a few nods to the first season Star Trek episode "Arena".
  • "A Box of Old Bones", a very early Dragon Warriors scenario from White Dwarf 71. Are those bones a real holy relic or is it all just down to the power of belief, persuasion and propaganda? You decide.
And lastly there's the Champions scenario "The Enemy of My Enemy". Here's something to get you in the mood for that...

Friday, 24 March 2017

Where to buy a blessing

You’ll be pleased to hear, especially if you were one of the people who backed it, that The Serpent King’s Domain is nearing completion. Paul Gresty has delivered the manuscript to editor Richard S Hetley, Russ Nicholson is more than halfway through the interior illustrations, and Kevin Jenkins is clearing a space in his busy Hollywood schedule to paint the cover. 

I'm not in charge of the production (the Kickstarter was run by Megara Entertainment, not Fabled Lands LLP) but at a guess the backers might have their copies by the summer, and paperback editions could be on sale in the autumn. Fingers crossed, anyway.

In the course of editing, Richard is coming across some interesting points which force us to revisit some of our rules choices. I say “force”, but to be honest it’s fun having these intensive game conversations. The process is making us all quite eager to run a Kickstarter for The Lone and Level Sands – though maybe this time we should get the book nearly complete first.

* * *

Richard: I continue to proofread by playing, and… ack! It's not so easy to keep track of blessings anymore!

Paul, is the plan that all these new deities would be worshipped in book 8 as well? Or, Dave and Jamie, would it be culturally appropriate? If so, then good. That makes this change much simpler for the reader.

Likewise, you added more than one new type of blessing. Would these blessings (no more and no fewer) be available in book 8? Also good from a game design standpoint, because then they would be “special blessings you get from the southern continent” instead of “weird quirks this new author added for one book.”

And questions which might involve Dave and Jamie:

The price on these blessings keeps changing. I depended on stability in pricing in the northern continent to allow me to update my budget without flipping through too many pages: “Oh, Tyrnai in this port? Combat blessing restored for 25 Shards.” Should “inflation” be allowed in these blessings for the higher-level books? And whether yes or no, should there be such variation from one town to the next?

And this isn't about gods necessarily, but is the entire world called Harkuna or just the northern continent? Book 1 is ambivalent on this.

Dave: I can see that it makes sense to have widely varying prices. On the northern continent cities are linked by trade, stabilising prices to a large extent. In the south, the jungle tends to isolate each community into its own pocket economy. Less trade means less standardisation -- and an opportunity, of course, for daring merchant-adventurers to make a profit.

Wrt the name of the world... I think Harkuna is just the northern continent. It certainly isn't a word that southerners would use. However, ambiguity exists in real scholarship and can do in FL too. When the Maya spoke of “the One World” did they mean just Central America, or all the Americas, or the entire planet? The fact is that usage changes to fit changing ideas of reality, so you might find one sage who'll tell you that Harkuna means all the lands, where others might say it's just the northern part. Jamie, any thoughts?

Blessings... well, I doubt if the regions of book 8 will have many deities in common with book 7. They're different geographies with little commerce between them, except perhaps along the coast. Blessings acquired in any book to date have worked in all books, regardless of whether the deity in question is locally worshipped, but it's possible we could have blessings that are more restricted. (In one of my Tekumel games, players came from a small island where they grew up worshipping a local god; once they travelled to the mainland he had no power to aid them.)

Jamie: “Originally there were three gods, those who created the world. These are hardly mentioned in the legends. They are dim, shadowy figures of a primordial age. Even their names bespeak dream-like obscurity: Harkun, He Who Is Like Harkun, and The Third God. These three having died, their place was taken by powerful demiurges, each with his or her own delineated jurisdiction. Thus there is Tyrnai, overseer of war; Elnir, lord of the sky; irascible Maka, who brings disease and famine if not appeased with sacrifices; Lacuna, lady of the hunt; Nagil, king of the dead; wise Molhern, deity of craftsmen; Sig, who guides the soft footsteps of thieves; the Three Fortunes, goddesses of destiny; and the twin gods Alvir and Valmir, who rule the land under the waves. Those, at least, are the gods of the northern continent...” (3:357 ).

But the idea about the original three, a kind of Trinity (actually something similar to Finnish old gods if I recall correctly) were the creators of the whole world of Harkuna through their deaths. Harkun falls from 'heaven' or 'the land of the Gods' and his spine becomes the mountain range that runs through northern Harkuna ie the Spine of Harkun. His blood is the ocean and so on. But as Dave says, it's the northern folks word for Earth or the 'One World'. I don't think the southern continent would actually call it Harkuna, though they could. They ought to have a similar kind of back story as it were. A different name, but still 3 elder gods. I say 'ought' and not 'must' or 'should' so it's not that important. Some southerners might also name a mountain range after the bones of Harkun and scholars would argue endlessly about who was right. Perhaps fight a war about it, that kind of thing.

The Uttakin take a different view of course... And we shall have to wait and see what the scientists and scholars of book 8 think about that too. Also Atticala and Chrysoprais would have their own versions as well.

As for Blessings, having different prices is fine. But bear in mind that you could start in book 8. That is of course a problem with our whole system - getting to very high levels. And starting with a level 8 character and then just sailing straight to book one makes things a lot easier. But still. Not sure what we can do about that.

I'd think about getting rid of the one god rule perhaps? You can have one God per 'culture' as it were? That means you could have multiple blessings, but hopefully that won't be too unbalancing because it would be very hard to get another blessing of Tyrnai for instance if you are inland. Except of course Ebron where you can never worship anyone else without renouncing him and becoming an Apostate.

Dave: We can't change any meta-rules (like having one god) because those are written into the start of each book. But you can build in special casing within any book, of course -- Ebron being an example of that.

As for the creation myths - well, we can say that's one story. Other cultures will have different stories. The people of Dangor think that the rest of the world outside their city state hasn't been fully created yet, but is just a dream their god is having. Q: “Is the whole world called Harkuna?” A: “No, it's called Dangor.”

Jamie: I meant just for books down south as it were. Part of the problem being that you'd be unable to renounce Enlil for instance whilst in Dunpala. You can have local gods on top of your legacy gods from books one to six. And of course, yes, each culture has their view on the world, like Ebron etc.

Paul: In some (most) cases in FL7, the blessings you get are the same as in the earlier books, so that only the source is different. You can get a THIEVERY blessing from Ko, a SCOUTING blessing from Kel Kin, etc. So it's rarely a problem that you'll need a blessing, but can't get hold of it without crossing the world.

The Sage of Peace in book 6 is a good example of how you can use a specific case to change the meta-rules - it specifically says that you can be an initiate of the Sage of Peace as well as an initiate of another faith, at the same time.

There is a loophole to getting out of the church of Ebron without becoming an apostate, for the record - you become an initiate of Ebron in book 5 as normal, but instead of renouncing the faith as normal you head over to book 2, and have the encounter with the 3 knights of Nagil. They give you the option of becoming an initiate of Nagil on the spot, which replaces the god you're currently an initiate of - that is, you can leave the faith of Ebron without picking up the necessary codeword to say that you're a heretic.

You want loopholes in FL1 - 6? I got 'em.

Jamie: Hah, though not in the eyes of the Expungers! But that’s typical of a lot of stuff – book 2 having been written before book 5 came along and buggered around with the rules. That could be fixed in a later edit though. However, it’s a mild problem in the grand scheme of things I think.

Dave: We really should have written all twelve books and fully standardized the rules before releasing the first one. Not that videogame developers work that way either, but patches for print gamebooks are harder to deliver.

Richard: Yes, well, if you want to change the history of the real world, I can think of more important things to perfect than the development of Fabled Lands. I wouldn't stop you from the latter, of course…

Before commenting on these blessings, I used the search button to look for familiar blessings (Combat and so on) in books beyond what I'd read in 1-3. I saw things like randomized blessings, which is fine. What I didn’t see was “Yes, you non-initiates need to pay thirty Shards on this page, but thirty-five Shards on this other page in the same book. Gotcha!” Remember that, unlike with checking a local market, the player needs to go through (to use a computer metaphor) sub-menu after sub-menu to find the price on just one local blessing, then repeat this from the top for the next one. So, inflation for the book as a whole might make sense, but I'd argue that the gameplay benefit of standardization between cities would benefit players greatly, despite the “sense” of local supply and demand.

I'm not too concerned about difficulties in renouncing worship. The biggest ticket items are resurrections, right? I'd sail across the ocean for several hundred Shards; that's the amount you make from cargo anyway. And you also get a free teleport to the location of the temple when you die so you can change things without losing that cash. Otherwise, getting a discount on exactly one blessing out of the crowd has never seemed important enough to risk the opportunity cost of “Oops! I didn't realize I'd want to become the Chosen One of Nagil! Missed opportunity for this Alvir and Valmir initiate, here.”

In books 1 to 3, I felt little reason to the “God” box outside of resurrection. If this changed in 4 to 6, I wouldn't know. (And then there's Illuminate of Molhern, which doesn't go in that box at all and is just good to have.) Thus, in books 7 and onward, I still wouldn't see myself becoming an initiate of anybody without a higher reason: Huan-da and In-da giving Nahual is one such reason. Unless other gods give powers or Chosen One-style plot events, I don't see players choosing them, especially if there's another new crowd in the next book too.

I really like the idea of Obfuscation as a blessing type. I'd want it in there somewhere for the name alone! If it's too similar to other types, though, perhaps players would like to see an older blessing reappear: some overlap in “quirks” with another region in the world. The Clarity blessing, of course, being relevant to Nahual combat, surely would reappear in all subsequent books that use such combat.

I'm noting the conversation about Harkuna. Bumping against the southern edge of “the world of Harkuna” got my attention. For loopholes, well, I'm trying to catch any in this book as I read. Obsessive gamers will always find them…

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Never to be servants

Continuing the SF theme, a quick shout-out for the latest Kickstarter from Cubus Games. This one is a sequel to Heavy Metal Thunder by Kyle B Stiff:
"Heavy Metal Thunder is a gamebook hybrid that merges the strengths of two different mediums. You’ve got the immersive experience of a detailed story as well as the character customization, inventory management, and life-or-death struggle that only a really powerful game can deliver. It appeals to anyone who wants to lose themselves in a gritty space age war story. The protagonist is a soldier, a jetpack infantryman separated from his comrades. Alien invaders have taken over our solar system and things look bleak for the human resistance."
This new episode is called Slaughter at Masada and reimagines the famous Judean fortress on Olympus Mons*:
"Masada, a brutal warzone where three sides are vying for dominance, has been under siege for three years, and to overcome despair the people trapped in Mount Olympus have embraced a deadly philosophy of 'war for the sake of war'. They are surrounded by Invader berserkers - criminal psychopaths too dangerous to be trusted inside spaceships. And now the Black Lance Legion has arrived to break the siege and recruit the fighters of Masada - even against their will, if necessary."
The KS campaign runs until Saturday, so jump on quick if you don't want to miss it.
* Fun facts: Olympus Mons is three times the height of Everest but, being a shield volcano, has an average gradient of only 1 in 11. So if you stood on it you wouldn't actually realize it was a mountain!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Syfy ho hum

Too many science fiction series are just westerns. A colony of plucky miners is threatened by the hired thugs of evil businessmen. Outlaws ride into town (or land on the planet) bringing danger to the settlers. Somebody wants to drive the railroad/stargate through a peaceful backwater, riding roughshod over the rights of its lawful inhabitants. And then the magnificent six or seven show up to fix it all in a blaze of gunfire.

They were peddling these exact formulae eighty years ago and I've seen SF television shows and B-movies that add almost nothing to it. The weapons fire photons not bullets, but otherwise it's all been done many times before. Even the dialogue sounds like a Gunsmoke repeat.

Why this is a waste: the future offers so many fascinating new stories to tell - just look at Black Mirror, District 9, Blade Runner, Ex Machina. Technology, alien contact, and space travel throw up new opportunities, new perils, and new moral conflicts. If writers stretch their imaginations they can find those stories. Or they can indolently retread a western or a monster movie remembered fondly from their youth.

Have networks decided that SF geeks are content just as long as there's a spaceship in the frame? Don't those viewers care about startling concepts that stretch the imagination? Don't they want drama with compelling characters rather than leather-styled ciphers? Because TV networks are lazy when it comes to SF. They'll continue to fob us off with repurposed western and crime scripts unless we demand great science fiction every time.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Videogames killed the radio star?

Crossing Tom Quad, deserted and sparkling in the December night, gave me the visual inspiration for the roleplaying scenario that eventually became Heart of Ice. The germ of the idea had already come from the briefest of references in Empire of the Petal Throne to “hex 6029: the walled ruins of the Mad City of Du’un”. And the story itself, as I’ve described elsewhere, was an adaptation of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, in the sense that only one person could have the ultimate prize but to reach it meant cooperating with others along the way.

The original Du’un adventure was pretty old school, as you’d expect for something written in the mid-70s, and in fact the first time I ran it really was at my old school, in the Eastgate block at the RGS, where the Guildford War Studies group used to meet. But I digress…At the end of an embrangling underworld filled with interdimensional pathways, the characters had to fight past an avatar of the god Hrsh to win through to the Chamber of the Heart. Alliances died at the door. Beyond that point it became a cathartic free-for-all.

Primitive though the scenario was, it became the one players talked about. I was persuaded to run it two or three times more for different gaming groups. Probably it was the theme of the scenario that made it really memorable. That heart of ice isn’t really the magic crystal McGuffin buried down deep in the catacombs, it’s the cold ruthlessness needed by the winner.

In the original 1976 scenario that gem of ultimate power was the Heart of Durritlamish, the Black Angel, Opener of Catacombs. In the gamebook it became the Heart of Volent, a cult god of the 22nd century. And in the 1990s radio play “The Heart of Hark’un” it transmogrified into this:
“The god Hark'un once ruled the heavens, but the young gods were jealous of his power and plotted to overthrow him. Defeated in a celestial war, Hark'un fell from the heavens, down through the black sky, until he struck the barren lifeless lands. But as he died, Hark'un’s blood brought the world to life. His spine formed the mountains of the world. His veins became the roots of living things. The body of Hark'un became the world of Harkuna. Every part of the slain god became the seed for new life – except for the heart of Hark'un. That remained whole. Untouched by decay, it still beats on. To touch the heart of the god Hark'un would be to destroy the world. But also to take on the power of a god.”
The play, by Jamie and his brother Peter Thomson, featured some characters based on (or at least named after) player-characters in our Tekumel campaign. Kadar was an older, more embittered version of Jamie’s character Qadarnai, while my own character Shazir became the villain – of course! Arcos I’m not sure about, but he may have been one of the PCs in Mark Smith’s Orb campaign.

The point of all this is to say that you can now listen to all six episodes of “The Heart of Harkun” (let’s leave the grocer's apostrophes out of it, eh?) over on the Spark Furnace website. And if you don’t have the patience for podcasts, the comic book version is still available: issue #1 and issue #2. Or there’s the Heart of Ice gamebook, of course. At some point I might even run the original Du’un scenario that started it all, if I can lay my hands on the underworld maps.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Expressionist dancing zombies

Leo just sent me the colourized images he's been doing for Megara Entertainment's limited hardcover edition of my second-ever gamebook The Temple of Flame, originally published in the mid-eighties. This picture of undead warriors caught my eye because I'd recently found the original art brief I sent to Leo. I was inspired by Steve Ditko's story "The Spirit of the Thing" in Creepy #9. He showed a corpse coming to life and wresting itself up out of the soil with galvanic convulsions of muscle you could almost feel.

Ditko is of course the master of portraying physicality in a picture - look at those extreme poses Spidey adopts as his momentum flings his limbs in all directions. The horrifying idea of those athletic, almost dance-like, cadaveric spasms stuck with me, so I sketched them for Leo and let him do his thing.

Megara's edition of the book will be shipping soon to the hundred or so Kickstarter backers, and of course the paperback is still available to everyone else.

Another curio from the writing of the book is this map of the catacombs within the pyramid. I remember being horrified when I playtested Oliver Johnson's Lord of Shadow Keep and discovered that he didn't bother with mapping - you might turn right and come into the same room reached by turning left. I think I actually sat down and rejigged the text so that it was consistent, although whether that mattered is another question. I assumed gamebook readers would make a map as they went along, just like a role-player would. What about you? Were you a map-maker or a barnstormer?

Friday, 24 February 2017

Baby steps in the Weeping Jungle

If you've been waiting for news of the seventh Fabled Lands book - and I know you have - then stop chewing those nails and take a look at this. Paul Gresty has cleared time from his very busy schedule to write us a guest post updating everybody on the book's progress. The nutshell version: the manuscript is finished and it's on to the final furlong. For the juicy details I'll hand you over to Paul...

Dave has been kind enough to allow me to write a few words here on the Fabled Lands blog to talk about where we're up to with The Serpent King's Domain. And, this time around, it's big news: we have a finished draft of the book, and we're well into editing. Our editor, Richard S Hetley, is the first adventurer to leave Dunpala for the wilds of the Weeping Jungle. He's currently trekking through the Feathered Lands, and putting the seventh book in this series through its paces.

In editing terms, this brings about a lot of fine-tuning. There' a lot of back and forth discussion right now about the economic consequences of two ports, Dunpala and Begotombo, being so close to one another; about whether a score of ghouls should have a higher Stamina score than that big bull in Cities of Gold and Glory; about whether the new Obfuscation blessing is too similar to the Immunity to Injury blessing in The Court of Hidden Faces.

I've intentionally geared the book towards throwing up some challenges for very high-rank characters, and so it's fascinating to see how Richard tackles it with somebody newly created at 7th rank. The number of locations to visit in the Feathered Lands is considerably higher than in the first six books of the series; consequently, some quest-important items or codewords are proving really hard to track down. Some opponents are probably too tough for a character that's just starting out (hey, that's what resurrection deals are for) and, frankly, there are more than a few paragraph links that are flat-out broken, and need to be fixed. That's where we're at with the text of The Serpent King's Domain right now – we're addressing all of these points.

Dave and Jamie have also been giving valuable input on the setting of Harkuna as a whole – notably how the Feathered Lands relate to other regions in the world, and some details on how the different faiths fit together. This has, dare I say, even allowed for a little tentative planning of books 8 to 12.

As regards the interior artwork, Russ has completed about half the necessary pictures, including all of the high-level backer rewards. The latest news is that he's working on rough outlines of the remaining full-page pieces, and the smaller filler pieces that will intersperse the text.

Kev, our cover artist, is in a similar position. Before Christmas I wrote up a comprehensive brief for him about the setting, and the notable people and places within the Feathered Lands; he's now partway through his black-and-white roughs. He'll be back in touch with us shortly, with a more complete image.

I'll take the opportunity to address a point that Michael Hartland brought up on the Kickstarter page (and that was somewhat echoed by James Cartwright): "What's the chance of getting the book finished by June, do you think?" On the writing side of things, it'll be finished way before then. I'm hesitant to make grand promises on top of that, because there are still things like artwork and page layout to consider, and then hiccups can always occur with printing and shipping. But I'll provisionally say that the chances are really good.

And I'll conclude with a point of precision about how to most efficiently direct questions about The Serpent King's Domain. Asking questions here on the FL blog is fine; better yet is to contact Mikael Louys at Megara Entertainment, as Megara are responsible for running the Kickstarter and publishing the book. That can be done through Megara's website or the Kickstarter page. At this stage all questions are likely to be referred back to me anyway, so please feel free to go ahead and contact me directly. I welcome and encourage all inquiries, comments and criticisms, and I'll get back to you as soon as my frail mortal body will allow.

As always, huge thanks to all backers for your support in this process, and for your patience so far. The Serpent King's Domain would not exist without you.

- Paul.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Four of the best

I'm so used to queuing these blog posts up months in advance -- "we'll have a gamebook piece followed by a scenario followed by game design theory..." -- that it's easy to overlook actual news when it happens. Luckily I was reminded by Andy Fletcher recently that the long-awaited new edition of the Dirk Lloyd books has finally arrived. Not only do the books boast new covers by dapper Dan Boultwood, illustrator of the DL strip in The Phoenix, but the original trilogy has now been joined by a fourth title, The Headmaster of Doom.

There's a story behind it, you'll be glad to hear. Jamie and I originally came up with the idea for a new book series called Grimmer Grammar, in which an ordinary boy called Arthur Tooms ends up at a creepy school for the undead. He has to pretend to be a zombie to fit in. The school has houses such as Charnel House, Slaughter House, Mad House, and so on, the kids sleep in "doomitories", and there are characters like Zom Brown, Lucretia Bitely, and Stitches the caretaker.

As you can see, we were aiming for comedy squarely along the lines of Dark Lord because that's what the publishers all seemed to expect, and in the end they turned out to want it in spades (rusty, mould-spotted, gravedigger spades) because they decided not to launch it as a new series but squeeze and pummel it until it fitted into a Dirk Lloyd shaped hole. And that's how come The Headmaster of Doom. All the laughs you would have got with Grimmer Grammar, and with all your favourite characters from the Dark Lord series too. Happiest days of your life (or death), so they say...

Friday, 10 February 2017

Wyndham - or hot air?

John Wyndham was an English author of the 1950s and '60s who made a name for himself with a string of literarily respectable SF novels, most of which injected a seed of something very strange into an everyday life decribed in matter-of-fact, if not humdrum, terms. You should anticipate spoilers...

The Day of the Triffids
Why “cosy catastrophe” – Brian Aldiss’s description of the genre to which The Day of the Triffids belongs? To begin with there’s the narrative tone, sometimes described as middle-class, whatever that’s meant to imply. But the cosiness must mostly come from the triffids themselves. Not that they aren’t threatening, but it’s an otherworldly threat that locates this apocalypse in a safely fantastic framework. Imagine instead that mankind went blind and was then menaced by packs of wild dogs, or rats, rather than ambient vegetables. That might be too close to reality for many readers, and it certainly wouldn’t be cosy.

Wyndham is clearly making up the plot of Triffids as he goes along, especially at the start where every character the narrator meets has to top themselves in order to prune what would soon become a cluttered narrative. Take the doctor that Bill encounters soon after leaving his ward. He must have been blind for all of two hours, he’s a medical professional, he’s in a modern well-equipped hospital, and he has a sighted helper in the person of our narrator. Yet the moment he finds the phone network is kaput he’s gone head-first out the fifth floor window. Reeling across the road for a stiff drink after witnessing that, Bill finds the publican drowning his sorrows. His wife has already gassed herself and the kids, he just needs a few more G-and-Ts to work up the courage to join them.

Really? Would you not wait a few hours to see if help came? If you were a doctor, wouldn’t you at least have a go at finding a cure? Or give it a day or two in case it was a temporary effect? I wouldn’t be diving straight through the nearest window myself, but Wyndham needs to get rid of these inconvenient plot hangnails so that they don’t hold his narrator back.

After Bill runs across a sighted woman called Josella, Wyndham suddenly remembers the triffids – and having remembered them has a half dozen of the buggers packed into every lawn in St John’s Wood. One of them has even got into Josella’s house and done for her dear old dad – handily sparing him the need to find a shotgun or a pack of rat poison to get him out of the way of the plot. “She was not going to care for the idea of leaving her father as we had found him,” muses Bill. “She would wish that he should have a proper burial.” But you can almost hear Wyndham’s sigh as he contemplates a chapter spent de-triffiding the house and burying the old cove. So he has a convenient triffid leap from behind a bush to attack their car. “Drive on!” cries Josella. “Oh, let’s get away before it comes back.” And dead dad is never mentioned again.

I first read this when I was nine or ten years old. I loved the triffids, second only to Daleks in my esteem, but I couldn’t figure out how they were connected to the meteor shower. “They’re not,” said my dad. “The triffids were created, then the meteors blind everybody and that gives the triffids the whip hand.” I was wary of double mumbo jumbo even then, and late in the book Wyndham seems to decide that he ought to link this all up, at least thematically, so throws in the notion that the blinding lights in the sky were caused by orbiting man-made weaponry rather than simple meteors. But what then is the book’s theme? Mankind meddling in things we were not meant to know? Gimme a break. Antibiotics, central heating, water purification, surgery, electricity… It’s too lazy just to wheel out science as a bad guy because nothing else leaps to mind.

Another criticism: Bill and his sighted friends give up on the rest of humanity far too easily. Most of us would have many blind friends and relatives, and we wouldn’t just abandon them. I can think of ways to set up farms with a ratio of several hundred blind workers to maybe a dozen sighted people. The characters in Day of the Triffids barely even try, to the extent that you begin to wonder why Wyndham didn’t just kill the majority off with a plague rather than blinding them and then having to have them commit suicide or wander off. About halfway through, that occurs to him too, at which point he brings in a mysterious plague (also satellite-borne, amazingly) to trim the fat.

Still, Day of the Triffids is fantastic rip-roaring stuff if you’re ten years old and it’s quite fun for adults too. If we hadn’t had Terry Nation’s much better Survivors in between then and now, I might not have found so many faults with the book. And at least triffids are a lot more original and interesting than zombies.

The Midwich Cuckoos
After finding Triffids a bit of a disappointment, I thought I'd better give Wyndham another chance, but this one bears out the same impression, namely that he had fabulously original ideas but then proceeded to flatten the life out of them with a dry, distant, ironic, and indeed slightly comedic prose style.

"The essence of cosy catastrophe," says Brian Aldiss, "is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off." It's hard to describe the narrator of The Midwich Cuckoos as the book's hero. In fact, he hardly seems to exist at all, and after a few chapters tells us that he's basically going to have to make up a lot of stuff that he's pieced together later and has written up like a third-person novel.

What is the narrator even there for? We know he's going to survive the story, and his wife isn't one of the women who become pregnant with the Cuckoos, so he is certainly cosily looking on from outside. In a review in The Guardian, Dan Rebellato thinks that the narrator (I had to look up his name: Richard Gayford; he hardly features) is there to be unreliable, to make us look more warily at the gaps and unexamined aspects of the story. Well, that's charitable. I just think Wyndham launched in with a first-person viewpoint and never went back to change it.

It's hard going. The ideas are there, but Wyndham (or his narrator) is determined to undercut any drama in the telling. We're halfway through the book before the babies are even born. Much of the novel just tells us drily about how the whole thing is organized. The government take almost no interest, despite having an MI5 chap keeping an eye on the village. The way that the plot is explained to us is through a local author called Zellaby. He's the sort of opinionated crackpot whom one dreads getting stuck in a lift with. Every so often, when Wyndham needs us to understand what's going on, Zellaby will come out with some nugget of aboriginal wisdom like, "It can only be what Huxley calls xenogenesis," or, "Man cannot have evolved on Earth as there are too many gaps in the evolutionary tree." We're supposed to take all this as the pronouncements of Yoda, but I'd rather Wyndham had found a way to show us what he was thinking instead of bunging in this Basil Exposition geezer.

The story is wrapped up without any set-up; we don't know how the character concerned knows how to do what he does, it just happens. And by this time we've been fed so much narrative nitrazepam that what ought to be shocking comes across as a so-what moment. The way Wyndham tells it, the eeriness of the children hardly comes across at all. Deaths feel untroubling, almost comic. It doesn't build so much as swell until it's time for the author to let the air out. And any subtextual themes - for example, the concern of a mother at finding she has no emotional bond with her child - aren't handled with a tenth of the skill and tension of something like We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Yet there is a strong, creepy idea in there, and lots of imaginative touches like the villagers falling asleep. The 1960 movie makes it all nail-biting; Wyndham tells it as if he's relating a particularly uninvolving shaggy-dog story. A case where the book is not better. Because the ideas in Wyndham's classics are so strong and different, they would make excellent settings for a role-playing game - and because the execution of those ideas in the novels is so flat, I'd feel no compunction about ripping them apart to use in that way.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A near disaster

I don’t think this merits a featured post of its own, but it’s a curiosity that might interest dyed-in-the-wool gamebook otaku. Back when Oliver Johnson and I started writing the Golden Dragon gamebooks, we were learning the ropes about book production at the same time. Manuscripts had to be ready months ahead of publication, and cover copy and artwork were usually the first thing you had to think about.

Series editor Angela Sheehan asked me to come up with a cover idea for The Lord of Shadow Keep. I tend to prefer visual imagery to prose, in fact, hence the frequent references here to movies, television and of course comic books. But I had no clear idea of what was going in the book, and when inspiration fails it really tars and feathers you. Case in point, this absolutely epic fail of a cover concept. A back view of a dark lord gazing out at the countryside in contemplative mood? What in actual frell?

Luckily the cover artist Bruno Elletori had the sense to ignore my notes and instead fix us up with a full-tilt action scene which conveyed a sense of immediate danger. All I can say is that usually I did a lot better job of coming up with a cover concept – consider Lords of the Rising Sun, for instance, or all the new Critical IF gamebooks. But when you know what you’re doing, and you still drop the ball, that’s when it lands with the most resounding of thuds.Still, it could have been worse. Check out this cover of the Berkley edition that was released in the US.
Come back on Friday for the main post, in which we’ll be taking a look at the work of a classic science fiction author whose bravura world-building makes for great roleplaying campaigns.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The gods of the earth

I've been recording an episode of Fictoplasm with Tim Harford and host Ralph Lovegrove. If you've never caught one of these podcasts, Ralph and his guests take a story and consider both its literary qualities and how it could be used in a roleplaying game. I recommend them all (my own favourites are the Gene Wolfe and Mike Moorcock episodes) and if you want to hear ours, in which we talk about the Lyonesse novels by Jack Vance, it's right here.

One of the aspects of Lyonesse that we talked about was Vance's use of faerie creatures. They are, in a nutshell, droll, capricious and dangerous, just like fairies in Legend. And that in turn reminded me (there's an end point to this segue, believe me) of John Hagan's comment recently about W B Yeats's take on fairies as angels not good enough to be saved, nor yet bad enough to be damned. So I thought let's get a guest post from Yeats, him being dead and hence entirely biddable. So here it is:

 The Trooping Fairies

 The Irish word for fairy is sheehogue [sidheog], a diminuitive of "shee" in banshee. Fairies are deenee shee [daoine sidhe] (Fairy People).
     Who are they? "Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved nor bad enough to be lost," say the peasantry. "The gods of the earth," says The Book of Armagh. " The gods of pagan Ireland," say the antiquarians, "the Tuatha De Danan, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high."
     And they will tell you, in proof, that the names of the fairy chiefs are the names of the old Danan heroes, and the places where they especially gather together, Danan burying places, and that the Tuatha de Danan used also to be called the slooa-shee [sheagh sidhe] (the fairy host), or Marcra shee (the fairy cavalcade).
     On the other hand, there is much evidence to prove them fallen angels. Witness the nature of the creatures, their caprice, their way of being good to the good and evil to the evil, having every charm but conscience-consistency. Beings so quickly offended that you must not speak much about them at all, and never call them anything but the "gentry", or else daoine maithe, which in English means good people, yet so easily pleased that they will do their best to keep misfortune away from you, if you leave a little milk for them on the window-sill over night. On the whole, the popular belief tells us most about them, telling us how they fell, and yet were not lost, because their evil was wholly without malice.
     Are they "the gods of the earth?" Perhaps! Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hoards. The visible world is merely their skin. In dreams we go among them, and play with them, and combat with them. They are, perhaps, human souls in the crucible—these creatures of whim.
     Do not think the faeries are always little. Everything is capricious about them, even their size. They seem to take what size or shape pleases them. Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music. They have only one industrious person among them, the lepra-caun --the shoemaker. Perhaps they wear their shoes out with dancing. Near the village of Ballisodare is a little woman who lived among them seven years. When she came home she had no toes; she had danced them off.
     They have three great festivals in the year--May Eve, Midsummer Eve, November Eve. On May Eve, every seventh year, they fight all round, but mostly on the "Plain-A-Bawn" (wherever that is), for the  harvest, for the best ears of grain belong to them. An old man told me he saw them fight once; they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl as it passes, that is the fairies, and the peasantry take their hats off and say, "God bless them".
     On Midsummer Eve, when the bonfires are lighted on every hill in honour of St. John, the faeries are at their gayest, and sometimes steal away beautiful mortals to be their brides.
     On November Eve they are at their gloomiest, for according to the old Gaelic reckoning, this is the first night of winter. This night they dance with the ghosts, and the pooka is abroad, and witches make their spells, and girls set a table with food in the name of the devil, that the fetch of their future lover may come through the window and eat of the food. After November Eve the blackberries are no longer wholesome, for the pooka has spoiled them.
     When they are angry they paralyse men and cattle with their fairy darts.
     When they are gay they sing. Many a poor girl has heard them, and pined away and died, for love of that singing. Plenty of the old beautiful tunes of Ireland are only their music, caught up by eavesdroppers. No wise peasant would hum "The Pretty Girl milking the Cow" near a fairy rath, for they are jealous, and do not like to hear their songs on clumsy mortal lips. Carolan, the last of the Irish bards, slept on a rath, and ever after the fairy tunes ran in his head, and made him the great man he was.
     Do they die? Blake saw a fairy's funeral; but in Ireland we say they are immortal.

Last year (Dave here again now, not W.B.) I started writing a comic set in and around the faerie-haunted Jewelspider Wood. It was to be illustrated by Gary Chalk, but he didn't like the story so that collaboration never came off. Kind of a shame, as it had changelings, undead, faerie curses, forest monsters, and murder, all mixed up with the misadventures of a travelling theatre troupe. If I can find an artist maybe I should get back to it - though really I need to find a way to finish my Mirabilis epic first.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Lords of the spirit world

If I recall correctly (it was over thirty years ago, mind) this article was the first time I was published in White Dwarf. That was issue #38 (February 1983) and what made it even more special was that it was adorned with an illustration by Russ Nicholson, my favourite fantasy artist.

The article appeared in Oliver Dickinson's excellent Rune Rites column. Although it was intended for Runequest, it would be easy to adapt to any game system.

In order to develop real power in RuneQuest it is necessary to accept the restrictions and obligations of cult membership. Many Initiates and Rune levels chafe at being sent on this or that quest and look back wistfully to the hell-raising freedom of their adventuring youth. But there is another, easier, route to power...

Occupying a niche in the spiritual hierarchy somewhere between gods and man are the spirit lords. These are beings with a POW of 150 or so and a willingness to exchange a little no-strings Rune magic for permanently sacrificed POW. Some were once gods, torn and wounded and weakened by ancient battles; others are merely powerful spirits clawing their way up to godhood. A character who wants to get Rune magic from a spirit lord must first find one. It is easier to do this on the physical plane than in the spirit world, as spirit lords tend to linger around places of special significance -- a plain where an epic struggle occurred, perhaps or a ruined temple where they were once worshipped. The first step is thus to conduct some detailed research, unearthing rumours and then double and triple-checking these. This involves time, money, scholastic ability, and some common sense.

Having identified a location where a spirit lord might be found, the character has to get there. it could be just a matter of a few days' ride across pleasant country; most referees being what they are, however, it is much more likely to involve crossing mountains and marshes, travelling through deserts and jungles, to reach the spirit lord's lair.

If there are no special events (see below), it is possible to trade with the spirit lord for Rune magic. This is done in the usual way: the character sacrifices POW above 18, and receives re-usable Rune spells in return. Most spirit lords will only be able to offer a few 1- and 2-point spells. Usually these are from the standard list; they may be determined randomly by the referee or assigned on the basis of the spirit lord's Runic nature. The process is keyed to some arbitrary talisman or amulet — the character will not be able to use or regain the Rune spells except when carrying this.

Unlike gods, spirit lords do not care about devotional rituals; they do not want to have to use their powers too often, however, so that a character wishing to re-use such Rune magic must wait one full day and sacrifice 10 points of battle magic POW (temporarily) for each point regained. Also, the character must maintain his/her characteristic POW at 18+ or temporarily lose access to the Rune magic. This is similar to a Rune Priest, but none of the other benefits (better POW roll, etc) or disadvantages (reduced DEX-based skills, etc) of priesthood are received.

Whenever a spirit lord is contacted, there is 0-19% chance (roll 1d20-1d10; if the result is positive, it is the number or less that must be rolled on d100) to get a special event. This is some unlooked-for circumstance or reaction which should make things more interesting — if not necessarily safer — for the intrepid adventurer. The table shows a few possible special events; referees can devise tables for their own but keep these secret from your players.

Spirit lords can be introduced into Gloranthan-style campaigns, but can also be used as the sole justification of magic in other fantasy worlds. Spirit lords can be fitted into such a world as the djinns, demons, good spirits, spirit mentors, or whatever, from whom magicians receive their powers.

Special Events
1.      A local tribe worships the spirit lord. Their shaman doesn't want the god bothered by jumped-up adventurers.
2.      A special summoning ritual must be performed before the spirit lord will manifest. This may involve human (or elf, dwarf, etc) sacrifice.
3.      The spirit attacks with a view to possession. Assume a POW of 30+1-4d100.
4.      The deal goes normally, but after 1-6 uses the Rune spells fail to regenerate.
5.      The spirit lord is ready for godhood and wants a priest. If a character has at least three skills at 90% (and, of course, POW 18+), it will offer to make him/her a Rune Lord-Priest at once, on the condition that he/she devotes him/herself to organising the new cult. Many spirit lords cannot provide allied spirits, however; in this case, the character gets a free summon small elemental spell instead.
6.      The spirit lord refuses to grant any Rune spells until the character undertakes some quest for it. It may wait until after the character has sacrificed the POW before mentioning this.
7.      The spirit lord is Chaotic. Each time the character uses a spell obtained from it, there is a 10% chance of becoming tainted with Chaos and acquiring a Chaos or reverse chaos feature.
8.      The spirit lord has no Rune magic, but is prepared to provide rapid teaching of a skill in exchange for permanent POW, at the rate of 5% per point. This cannot take a character beyond 75% in the skill.
9.      The spirit lord has exotic Rune magic — that is, spells not included in the standard list.
10.  The spirit lord is the hated enemy of an established cult (perhaps it was a foe of their deity in Godtime). Anyone who associates with the spirit lord will be hunted down.