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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.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Latest news on Fabled Lands book 7

The internet is buzzing (quietly) with gossip about the forthcoming Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King's Domain. But why make do with hearsay when you can get it straight from the horse's mouth? So here's the author, Paul Gresty, with another update...

Working on a series like Fabled Lands, a moment occasionally comes along that makes you squeal in fanboy (or fangirl) delight. One of those 'squeal' moments came early on for me, in the planning stages of The Serpent King's Domain, when Dave and Jamie opened up their treasure trove of notes of what they'd originally had in mind for the second half of the series. Being able to freely quiz Dave and Jamie regarding their thoughts on, say, the inhabitants of The Desert of Bones, or the theology of Chrysoprais – that's pretty squeal-inducing too. Working with Dave and Jamie to explore and develop these unknown quarters of their great big sandpit has been enormously fascinating, and a huge amount of fun.

But then there's also the flip side to that. There's the gruntwork that's involved in writing a book. Checking punctuation. Checking that every paragraph number that should be in bold text actually is in bold text. Verifying there are no broken 'turn to X' links in the book – for the second time, because you're afraid that a software gremlin has made a change you didn't intend it to. As fun as this work is overall, these are the tasks that make you want to repeatedly bang your head against the wall just to hold the tedium at bay. And, because that's the stage we're currently at, they've been pretty frequent of late.

The good news: the text of The Serpent King's Domain is finished, done, finalised. So too are Russ Nicholson's interior images, and Dave is now diligently slaving away on the final page layout for the book. We're reserving the right for any last-minute minor changes – alterations to the difficulty numbers of tests; things that won't hugely impact the number or length of lines of text in the book. But for all intents and purposes, yes, we're done. As I write this update, I'm also writing the book's back-cover blurb in another window on my computer. That's the point we're at, now.

The only thing we don't yet have is the final cover for the book. But that's moving along too. Kev Jenkins recently sent us an updated image for the cover, now in full colour. It's not absolutely finished yet – but it looks really, really great. I'm looking forward to the moment when we can finally unveil it.

So what comes next? On the creative side of things, Russ still has to do a few direct commissions for high-level backers; we've been talking with the people concerned about that. But that aside, the creative element is pretty much done. Once Dave has finished the page layout, and once we have the final cover, everything is passed across to Megara Entertainment, whose Kickstarter campaign it was and who will handle printing and shipping. There are a handful of smaller miscellaneous project rewards to deal with as well – the artbook PDF, the high-resolution map file, the cross-promotion with The Good, The Bad and The Undead. Megara will shortly be handling those too.

And that's it. Printing and shipping will surely take a while, but after that, we'll be done. With this seventh book in the Fabled Lands series, at least.

As always, thank you, our supportive backers, for helping and allowing us to reach this point.

- Paul Gresty

Friday, 15 September 2017

Not where it's at, but how it feels

Roger Bell-West: [A lot of rules recently are] “replicating the sort of story that you’ll find in another medium. A book or a film or whatever.”

Michael Cule: “I’m not convinced that we’re doing the same sort of storytelling. I’m not sure that story is actually the product we’re trying to produce in roleplaying games. It’s the experience. Not what we say happens afterwards, but what we feel at the time.”
I couldn't agree more. But you already know that if you’ve read earlier posts like this one and this. In that same podcast, Roger and Michael talk about a sniper character. You don’t just want the sniper to hit the target when it suits the story. The story is whatever happens.

That Hollywood baby formula of turning points and themes and act breaks – that’s the little learning that’s a dangerous thing in game designers' hands. It’s a join-the-dots narrative construction model designed to help Hollywood churn out the product they want to make. It bears as much relation to good (= interesting, unusual, surprising) stories as fast food does to a good meal. Like in life, it's how you react to the random events that's often the most memorable stuff.

Funnily enough, Roger and Michael talk about Save the Cat in that particular episode of Improvised Radio Theatre – With Dice. Download their fascinating salmagundis of roleplaying gaming and genre criticism here. And talking of Save the Cat...

The point here, though, is not that all that Blake Snyder BS will only render up repetitive story structures. Nor is it even that codifying rules for creating stories is less effective than just winging it. (Though that's true too; the only rule you need is to keep throwing surprises at the players and be ready to run with the ones they throw back.) Stories might be a by-product when the dust settles -- we're human beings, everything looks like a story after we've done it. But going in with the intention of shaping a story requires distance. The very opposite of emotional engagement.

Players will often recount their in-game stories; you've seen our write-ups. But what's really fun is that those are utterly unreliable accounts. Ask another player, you'll hear a very different tale. And, as with life, we impose the form of a story after the event. At the time it happens we're right in the thick of things, living an imaginary life not authoring a yarn, and if what you're aiming for is how it feels then stepping back for a bit of chin-stroking analysis is not only going to etoliate the experience, it's likely to bend what might have been a surprising and unique sequence of events into something more like a prosaic formula.

And after all it wouldn’t matter a jot if nobody ever did a game write-up or recounted the adventure later. The write-up is like photographing a sand mandala. The point of a mandala isn’t to end up with a work of art, it’s to be there for the creation of it. That goal of how it feels is a point expressed very well in this video (9:00 minutes in) so I'll wait while you have a look at that.

Why are games written nowadays to reproduce, as Mr Bell-West says, the stories that you'll find in other media? Partly it may be that for a published game to make money it has to have a gimmick, and there's quicker surface appeal in a system that promises you it has rules for ensuring a great story. Or is it that many games lack a deeper cultural underpinning, which means that abstract story forms are easier to impose? If players in a Tekumel campaign are at loggerheads, they have law courts and clan-councils and shamtla and the duelling code to fall back on -- and all of those have their own in-game rules that yield rich stories. In the absence of those social structures, meta-rules for fictionalization may seem more necessary to keep the game going.

And there's the rub. Keeping the game going. That's easy when you're in your twenties with no spouse or kids. Your game persona can take over and initiate events in your parallel life. But not every gaming group has that luxury. Some reviewers of Fabled Lands have complained that without a quest assigned to them they don't know what to do. Jamie joined in our Victorian Investigators game recently and noticed that the players don't tend to drive the story in-character; they discuss and analyze, but then they wait to be told what the story is, and react. Under those circumstances, I can appreciate why people would reach for rules that encourage you to step away from the persona and think instead as an author.

Finding a way to work in your character’s catchphrase, or analyzing the character’s story arc to decide what ought to happen to them next, are signs that the actual playing of the character, the participation in the moment, are no longer fun. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the dramatically ironic style of game for other reasons. I'm eager to play James Wallis's Alas Vegas (admittedly light-years ahead of the usual "storytelling" systems) even though I'd chafe at so self-consciously narrative-shaping a game on a weekly basis. So, you know, none of this is the One True Way. We're just talking.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A game of perilous longing

I don't always play card games, but if I did I'd reach for a Dos Equis* and settle down to an evening of something like Cultist Simulator, the dazzlingly gorgeous new story-weaving game currently being run on Kickstarter by Alexis Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy, as you may already know, is one of the originators of Fallen London, and it looks like his new project will match that for eerie beauty, stylish design, and prose that is both numinous and luminous.

In the designer's own words:
"Cultist Simulator is a narrative game that lets you play a seeker after unholy mysteries, in a 1920s-themed setting of hidden gods and secret histories. Perhaps you're looking for knowledge, or power, or beauty, or revenge. Perhaps you just want the colours beneath the skin of the world.

"There's some Cthulhu Mythos in here. But there's less cosmic nihilism than Lovecraft, and more perilous longing. The setting also looks to the novels of Roger Zelazny, Mary Renault and Umberto Eco; to Anglo-Saxon poetry like 'The Wanderer' and 'The Dream of the Rood', and mediaeval Welsh texts like 'The Battle of the Trees'." 
You can back Cultist Simulator here. And come back on Friday if you fancy a debate about role-playing styles. Looking ahead, next week we'll be going back to Victorian times with a tale of witchcraft and curios, and with more goodies coming thick and fast through the autumn, including Powered By The Apocalypse, an Arthurian sci-fi romance, the high-risk profession of the demonologist, more Questworld, and even a free gamebook before the year is out. All your gaming longings gratified here, folks.

(* Actually a Singha, but it doesn't fit the meme. )

Friday, 8 September 2017

Stand and deliver

"Your adventure is only limited by your success in pursuing your own goals. You have no single quest to complete and there is no fixed 'story', but you will encounter many quests, missions, puzzles and mysteries throughout the book. Your journey through these becomes your 'story' and when it comes to an end, you can begin once more and explore what might have been."
That's new gamebook author Martin Noutch describing his upcoming project Steam Highwayman. It sounds like it will appeal to fans of open-world gamebooks, as well as to steampunk aficionados, and if either or both of those ticks your boxes, you want to head over to Kickstarter and back the first volume in the series, Smog and Ambuscade, right now.

I've seen parallels being drawn with Fabled Lands, and certainly Steam Highwayman is an open world -- more of a solo RPG than a gamebook of the Fighting Fantasy single-quest model. But Martin has made a significant innovation. Where Fabled Lands leaves you to define your own character and goals (a degree of absolute freeform that many find too daunting), Steam Highwayman is more like a structured roleplaying campaign in which you are given a pre-defined role. You're not just presented with a world and told, "Go." You're a figure in that world and your choices fill in the character background. Kind of like being given Robin Hood to play, but whether he's a peasant or a dispossessed Saxon nobleman is left up to you. And that difference will, I think, make Steam Highwayman accessible to a lot of people who wouldn't know where to start with Fabled Lands.

Still need convincing? Then try this taste of what Martin has in store:
"Steam Highwayman is an adventure gamebook in which the reader explores an alternate 19th century England on a steam motorbike. You can choose to rob the rich, give to the poor, or to pursue and punish evil-doers. Will you side with the Compact for Workers' Equality and work to bring about revolution in England? Will you find a place in high society and become famed for your gallantry and style? Will you find your own path through the smog of the cities and beneath the branches of the quiet woods?"
I detect notes of H G Wells, Keith Roberts, maybe even a dash of William Morris. It sounds like a glorious immersive adventure which Martin has enriched with a depth of characterization you just didn't get in those old '80s gamebooks. And from his proficiency with accents in that YouTube trailer, I bet his roleplaying sessions are a blast too.

Friday, 1 September 2017


When Oliver Johnson and I were working on Questworld in the early 1980s, we inherited the geography of the continent from Chaosium but had freedom to add our own towns and other features. The project felt a little too control-freaky to work as a shared world, so we weren't too sorry when it fell through -- apart from the fact that we'd written an entire campaign pack and never got paid, but that was par for the course in my dealings with Games Workshop in those days. Let me tell you about the Adventure RPG sometime, or the series of gamebooks that GW supposedly planned to publish after the success of Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

One of our own additions that we liked was the Miasmos swamp. On the map there you can see "Fuju'se" on the western edge; that was the original name of Cinderbrake Castle which featured in the recent "Sweet is Revenge" scenario.

Here is a taste of the Miasmos region with some of the special encounters we planned for it. It's nice to think that thirty-five years after writing all that stuff, we finally have somewhere to use it. Maybe I'll wheel out some more of the Questworld scenarios if there's enough interest.


In addition to the obvious danger of running into a group of mausogoths or other monsters, Miasmos holds many insidious threats to an adventurer's life. Leeches, trunju fungi and swarms of kissgiss (a species of mosquito) all harbour disease. Every 1-6 days, each character must make a luck roll to avoid exposure to disease. There is a 75% chance of a minor infection (see Cults of Prax, the Mallia cult) and a 25% chance of a more serious disease such as soul waste. A character exposed to disease makes the usual hit point rolls to determine whether or not he contracts it.

Special Miasmos encounters
A roll of 61-00 on the Special Encounters subtable provides the referee with the opportunity to introduce a special event or mini-scenario. Such events help to convey the eerie, fantastical nature of this haunted swampland. They need not directly threaten the characters' lives (though they frequently will) as the major purpose of these encounters is to provide atmosphere and drama. Some examples follow.


These are said to be the souls of mutinous sailors cast overboard during the Long Voyage frcm. Glorantha, but if this is true it is not clear why they are only encountered in Miasmos. The plummeting soul will first be sighted as a pale green glow up in the night sky, plunging out of the heavens towards a party. Characters who spot this (by rolling their Perception bonus or less on d100, if awake) will have 1-6 rounds to activate spirit block or spirit shield. The light will then strike like a shooting star, engulfing one character (roll randomly for which) in a coruscating aura. The character is subject to the soul's attempt to entrance him. This is like normal spirit- combat possession, but the soul's attack is at +20%.

The moment he is entranced, a character is subject to the effects of vigour, fanaticism and ironhands 4. He will turn on the other members of his party indiscriminately, his form superimposed with the greenish image of the soul – a wild-eyed, cackling parody of a human. If the character is slain or incapacitated, the soul engages his in spirit combat in an attempt to destroy it, and then dissipates. (The plummeting soul will also dissipate immediately if its target had already made himself impregnable to its takeover attack with spirit block.)

Plummeting souls can be bound, but are useless for memorizing spells because of their animal-like intellect.


These are undead manifestations encountered in the Miasmos swamps, typically in shoals of 6-24 hands. Where they come from is not known, and the popular folktale among adventurers, that the hands are those of travellers lost over the centuries in the rivers and bogs of the region, is as good a theory as any.

They are pallid, ragged-nailed, dark-bristled hands, bloated and slimy as though having been in the water only a few days. Under cover of mist or darkness, they crawl up the sides of a boat like white crabs and then swarm over its occupants, draining them of vitality.
A party of adventurers might be traversing Miasmos in a small barge as dusk closes over the drear landscape. One of the party lies sleeping in the stern, perhaps feverish from kissgiss bites. No one notices the pale shapes scuttling aboard out of the dark water until a scream rings out. The awakened adventurer half rises, grappled by disembodied hands, unsure if he is yet dreaming. More clamber onto him as he stumbles about in the semi-darkness, fumbling for his knife. He can fight these creatures only with fist (including grappling to hurl a hand away), cestus or dagger. His comrades, rushing aft now with lanterns, can strike at the hands with any weapon, but excess damage will wound the grappled character as well as the hand struck. If another character strikes at a hand and misses, he must roll DEXx2 or less on d100 to avoid hitting his comrade instead.

Each round after grappling its victim, a hand matches its POW against his in an attempt to drain him of 1 point of STR or POW (random as to which). This does not cost the hand POW. Drained STR recovers at one point every six hours. Drained POW recovers at the normal rate. The hands’ touch reaches through armour but is unlike a vampire’s in that POW drained does not go to the hand.

A hand regenerates damage at 1 point/round unless disrupted or burned. Each hand adds ½ point of ENC to its victim as it tugs at his limbs and entangles itself in his clothing. Once grappled by more than four hands, the terrified victim must roll MDF x 4 (see Appendix) or less on d100 or collapse from fear.


Overheard in The Fortune of the Rabbit eating-house in Lamentation. The speaker is a burly fellow dribbling ale into his beard:

“I was on point, just a dozen yards ahead of Wishbone and the Ancient. They had me in sight, following me through the fog by the red light of the lantern I was carrying. The mud was sucking around our ankles and I was looking for a stretch of the old road, or at least firmer ground. Just as I ducked my head under a branch I glanced up and saw something up there. Not in the tree, you understand. In the air above it.

“It must have been huge. A hundred yards or more across, and floating maybe twenty yards above our heads. At first all I could make out was a shadow in the fog, but then I could see it was a large pyramid with the top cut off. Truncated, they call it. The sort of pyramid the Ancients used to build as tombs, only they built theirs on the ground of course.

“All sort of silvery it looked, picking out the light and reflecting it like metal would. No, not my lantern. I couldn’t have seen it by just that. It was a column of bright blue light that shone from the base of the thing down to the ground. A broad pillar of light, so as you could almost imagine the thing resting on it. Anyway, we watched it drift slowly overhead, completely silent. The column of light passed by about twenty yards off. I could have gone over and stepped into it, but you know what they say about bold adventurers and old adventurers.

“Later the Ancient said it was the tomb of a heretic king or high priest of his race, condemned by the edict of their gods to drift in the mists of Miasmos. Believe that if you want. I heard another story in Tekoa that it was the palace of Nebr, and that anyone stepping into the column of light is taken up into the pyramid. You think you could help yourself to a sackful of loot and then drop back down? More likely you’d shiver up there with the spirits of the dead fondling at you and mewling nasty things in your ear till you flung yourself out. Nobody knows, do they? Stumbler Goodhaven told me he once met an old hermit who’d been taken up into the pyramid and when he was noticed by the servants of Nebr and cast back out, he found that sixty years had gone by and his wife and all his sons were in their graves.

“Anyway, we got back to Deliverance and I went and gave thanks at the temple, like you should, and I mentioned it to a priest there. He said I’d had river fever and had just been seeing things. There’s no truth to be had anywhere in this world, is there?”


Waylayers (sometimes known as Road Folk or, with typically bleak adventurers' humour, Toll Collectors) are gaunt warriors with pale, almost grey, skin and sunken eyes, equipped with rusting arms and armour of antique design. They are variously believed to be the living-dead revenants of soldiers lost in the swamps of Miasmos or else some kind of semi-demonic creatures, but the truth is uncertain. They are infrequently encountered. Sometimes groups of travellers on the Via Arcana roadway which criss-crosses Miasmos will spy hunched figures ahead in the dusk. As they approach, more of the Waylayers will appear as if from nowhere, hauling themselves up onto the road around the travellers, skulking forward and circling, occasionally gesturing or pawing at items which the party carry. These items must be handed over or the Waylayers will become violent. They presumably store their plunder in hidden lairs, for they are never found with any equipment except their swords and armour. These are iron, but if taken from a fallen Waylayer the spell that preserves them is broken and they will inevitably corrode into uselessness within days. Waylayers use no spells and never speak. They are usually encountered in groups of 4-14.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Have your say on the next Fabled Lands book

A guest post today from Paul Gresty, author of The Serpent King's Domain, the seventh Fabled Lands book, which has been funded by the generosity of Kickstarter backers. As the book is nearly ready for release, Paul recently posted a KS update in which he canvassed the opinions of the backers on several rules points. Then we realized that there are a lot of other experienced Fabled Lands players out there who for all sorts of reasons may not have backed the KS campaign, but who might still have useful answers to those rules questions. So take it away, Paul..

* * *

Excellent news. I heard from Kevin Jenkins recently that he's expecting to send us the finished cover for The Serpent King's Domain in the very near future. Once that's done, we're pretty much ready to move on to printing and shipping to Kickstarter backers. That's the Megara hardcover edition. A paperback edition from Fabled Lands Publishing will follow soon after.

We're fortunate in that the crowdfunded development of this book, in which backers are aware of each stage of the process of creation, allows the opportunity for a dialogue with the book's ultimate readers. Your viewpoints are, frankly, a valuable resource, one that we'd be crazy not to tap into. And so, before we move on to printing, I'd be very curious to get feedback from you on a couple of points of game mechanics.


We've already talked about this on the Fabled Lands blog and the FL Facebook page, but I think the point remains somewhat ambiguous. For a long time there's been debate concerning whether any bonuses to COMBAT conferred by a character's weapons are added to the character's Defence score. I think even Dave and Jamie have found the point somewhat contentious – take a look at the wording of the front matter of the different editions of the various FL books, and try to spot the differences.

Dave, Jamie, Richard S. Hetley (editor of The Serpent King's Domain -- demo here) and I have discussed this point at some length lately – and the ultimate ruling is that any COMBAT bonus from weapons does not count towards Defence. The logic of the matter is as follows, as explained by Richard:
"Nothing else in the game gets two categories of items to boost it. I always presumed that armour existed to raise Defence since weapons have their own use. The numbers bear this out. Thanks to the documentation efforts of others, I see that the highest enemy Combat in the first six books of the Fabled Lands is only 15, so enemies roll 27 at their best; the highest player Defence item is already +10; plus your personal Combat of (probably) 12; plus Rank of a mere 5 and you're at 27 with plenty of slack and no need for a weapon. The absurdity was only visible after multiple books, where the enemies are unable to match a player using all these statistics together. Given that players get this strong after adventuring for long enough, enemies should have been made stronger in the first place to match them."
So, let me throw this open to all Fabled Lands players. What are your thoughts and opinions on the subject?


A couple of people have pointed out that the description of the Jade Defender, a weapon obtainable in The Court of Hidden Faces, specifically states that a weapon's COMBAT bonus does count towards Defence. That is, it's a COMBAT +3 weapon, that possesses an additional quality of adding an extra +3 to a player's Defence – making it a COMBAT +3, Defence +6 weapon in all.

We've talked about that too. And the overall view is that, in light of the most recent analysis of the rules, that description was incorrect. Should the Jade Defender itself therefore be considered a COMBAT +3, Defence +3 weapon, in that case, to account for that extra Defence bonus – or can it still be viewed as a COMBAT +3, Defence +6 weapon? Me, I'd probably opt for the latter view, even considering that this greatly increases the weapon's value. Retconning the rules is one thing, downgrading that hard-won weapon you've come to rely on is something else.


The mechanic of spirit combat is a new addition for The Serpent King's Domain. This was partly conceived as a way of presenting enemies that would be a threat to even very experienced characters. A player's spirit combat values are calculated quite differently from physical combat. Rank has no bearing on spirit combat; a player's base Defence score is equal to either the base MAGIC or SANCTITY score (whichever is higher). The player's Nahual value is used in place of the COMBAT stat – and opportunities to increase Nahual are rare (and the player may not want to increase Nahual to its highest level). The choice of weapons and armour that the player may use in spirit combat is limited.

A little background on the evolution of these combats: Richard was the first person to playtest the book, and he found that these spirit combats, while challenging, were also fairly tedious – in some cases, players and enemies would miss each other round after round, only occasionally getting in slight, scratching blows that took a long, long time to whittle down Stamina. And so he rewrote the stats for every spirit combat in the book, increasing each enemy's offensive punch, while also reducing their Defence. In essence, he made it so that enemies hit harder, but die faster.

Some of the combats are difficult. They're meant to be. But this is where, again, I ask your opinions. Can a fight be too difficult? When you, as a player, run up against a really hard fight, is it a welcome challenge – or is it just flat-out frustrating?

I'm going to quote some points from a recent email discussion we had on this subject because I feel that, without giving away stats or spoilers, it demonstrates the sort of threat levels the player may run into. Dave asked if a player could always back away from a spirit combat if they didn't feel ready. Richard's reply:
“You can retreat from one introductory-level fight and one significantly harder fight. The introductory-level one, hopefully, teaches you just how much you need to strengthen yourself before doing the rest. The harder one is escapable. Two other fights are ones that you initiate when you are ready. They are another introductory-level one and, well, a certain other one that's really tough. And the remaining two fights are each unique. One is introductory-level and you can't escape. Another is really tough, but you can only get it after completing major plotlines in other books.”
What do you think, as players of the FL books? Your views would be much appreciated and could make a big difference to this next book and the direction the series takes from this point. You can post comments as replies to this post or on Facebook page (link above). Or, of course, feel free to contact me directly at paulgresty {at} gmail . com (no spaces).

And in particular I'd like to thank the Kickstarter backers for their ongoing support and patience throughout the development of The Serpent King's Domain. They're the ones who have made this book possible.

Paul Gresty

Thursday, 17 August 2017

"Murder Your Darlings" (1890s scenario)

Here’s a Victorian-era roleplaying scenario - and before I say another word, I’d better point out there are spoilers throughout. If you’re going to play it, you'd better stop reading now.
Professor Barker, creator of Tekumel, ran two campaigns. One had the players gallivanting off on interdimensional forays fighting aliens with cosmically evil plans for humanity. The other dealt with the politics and social life of Tsolyanu. If you’re familiar with Dragon Warriors at all, you’ll guess that it’s the low-fantasy option that appeals to me.

It’s particularly a problem with Cthulhu campaigns. If every scenario involves the characters facing an impossibly over-powered monster that drives them mad just by popping its face round a corner, the fun is soon going to pall. What works in Lovecraft’s stories doesn’t work so well in an ongoing campaign, not least because few of his protagonists survive a single encounter with the creatures of the Cthulhu mythos.

In our 1890s campaign, I most enjoyed the early sessions when the characters knew nothing about insanity-inducing aliens. We were investigating a tough serial killer with the ability to vanish in the London fog, and the case revolved around an ancient mummy that various people seemed to believe had magical powers. If that had been a movie, I’d have been content with just a touch of the supernatural, but when it all turns into over-the-top CGI I find I’m less engaged.

Of course, in a Cthulhu campaign there’s no putting the shoggoth back in the bottle, but it struck me that not every adventure needs to present yet another sanity-wrenching encounter from which the characters can only run screaming. So I tried out this scenario in which there’s no supernatural (I should say science fictional, rather, since we're talking about Cthulhu) element whatsoever. A caveat, though: my players, conditioned to expect the Great Old Ones behind every unexplained death, kept veering off into the realms of the fantastic. Instead of thinking Miss Wellbeck was Diana Purdey’s daughter, they suspected a vampire or reptilian shapechanger on the loose. Once you’ve taken the campaign into eldritch territory, it seems, there’s no bringing it back to earth.

In our campaign, the characters were approached by Sgt Torssen after a memorial service in Abney Park cemetery for a player-character who had died the previous session. Alternatively they could receive a telegram, be met at their club, or otherwise be recruited to the case. The important point is that one of the characters studied Jurisprudence (ie theory of law) at University College, Oxford, under Professor Arthur Goodhart.

The character is approached by Sergeant William Torssen, Oxford CID. He has been sent by his “governor”, Inspector Mordray, to request the character’s assistance in a murder case.

The police were to be helped out by Professor Arthur Goodhart, the character’s former college tutor, who was taken ill recently while compiling his notes on the case. Prof Goodhart collapsed and is now in a coma, but before losing consciousness told Dr Bright (the Master of Univ) that the player-character must be shown the case. Other characters will presumably tag along.



Sir Matthew Ross (45), deceased, master of Deergrafe estate; served as a major in the 4th Hussars in Rawalpindi until 1877
Lady Julia Ross (42), his wife (née Walpole)
Cuthbert Ross (16), their son (at school at Stowe)
Elizabeth Ross (12), their daughter

Frederick Rolson (32) working as head groom at Deergrafe under the alias “Albert Duggan”

Catherine Wellbeck (19) lady’s maid at Deergrafe; note she is called “Wellbeck” by Lady Ross, and “Miss Welbeck” by the other servants.

Wellbeck is Sir Matthew’s illegitimate daughter. She killed Sir Matthew when, during the interview when she meant to tell him the truth, he tried to pull her to his lap and molest her – she grabbed the knife from his desk and stabbed him. Later, in Rolson’s room, she took the rook rifle and was about to shoot herself; Rolson tried to wrest the gun away and it went off.

Wellbeck is thus responsible for both deaths but neither was intentional. She is now in a state of grief and shock so extreme that any serious upset could unbalance her mind completely. A further level of stress has been provided by Jock Thouless trying to blackmail her into helping him steal the Amritsar Emeralds.

At the culmination of the scenario it is probable that Wellbeck will attempt to do away with herself, possibly by drowning in the pond where she threw the knife.

Gilbert Godwurst (50), butler at Deergrafe; he is a manager rather than a personal servant
Leonard Haynes (40), first footman
Mrs Glaze (48), cook
Mrs Darlington (52), housekeeper
Mahendra Singh (42), Sir Matthew’s valet
Timothy O’Duggan (26), coachman
Jim Wicking (15) stablehand

Albert Duggan (34), a sailor of Walter’s Ash, Buckinghamshire
Lily Duggan (29), his wife

Professor Arthur Goodhart (70), Univ, Jurisprudence; the investigating character’s tutor, currently in a coma having suffered a heart attack.

Prof Goodhart is not expected to recover, but had mentioned to Inspector Mordray that the investigating player-character was the only one of his students who could crack the case. Mordray is not keen to have interference from another academic, but his superiors insist that he needs a capable man to brief Prof Goodhart if he recovers. “But don’t interfere,” he tells the characters.

An interesting character twist: the player-character never got on with Prof Goodhart. His work was always severely criticized, so he is surprised to discover that the professor had a high opinion of him.

Dr James Franck Bright (59), Master of University College; historian
Basil Fence (50), head porter at Univ
Sam Rumbucket (40), scout at Univ (on Dr Goodhart’s staircase in Radcliffe Quad)

Dr James Edwards Sewell (81), Warden of New College

Sir (Thomas) Herbert Warren (38), President of Magdalen College; literature & poetry

Detective Inspector Reginald Mordray (34), Oxford CID. He is a grammar school man, educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and distrusts dilettante investigators.

Detective Sergeant William “Thunderbolt” Torssen (33), Oxford CID. A real hard nut, ex-Army (“The Light Bobs”, 52nd Oxfordshire Regiment of Foot, disbanded 1881), not fond of undergraduates but respectful of dons.

Captain James Winter (42) of HMS Devastation was Duggan’s commanding officer during his time in the Royal Navy. He is currently in Portsmouth, where the Devastation is being undergoing a refit.

Sir Matthew Ross was the owner of Deergrafe, an estate near the village of Deerfield, ten miles north-west of Oxford.

On the night of Monday June 15, Sir Matthew was murdered in his study. He was found by his valet around 10 pm. The coroner estimates he was killed around 8 pm with a knife. His letter-opener, an Indian kirpan, was missing but the scabbard was on his desk along with an unsealed envelope containing ten pound notes.

When the police arrived (about midnight) it was discovered that the head groom Albert Duggan had committed suicide in his room behind the stable block. He was found clutching a Holland & Holland rook rifle he was supposed to be cleaning, having shot himself under the chin and up through the brain. His body was found around 1 am after the police arrived from Oxford. In retrospect, the stableboy and the cook both think they heard a gunshot at some time in the evening, possibly around 9 pm.

An interesting feature of the case is that Mrs Duggan was summoned from her home in Buckinghamshire to identify the body and swears that it is not her husband. However, she was given a letter written by the deceased, found in his room, and conceded that it was her husband’s handwriting. Also, it appears that Albert Duggan had packed his bags ready for a quick departure, though he had not handed in notice.

Also in Albert’s room: a note on unfolded paper, in a different hand, on his bedside table, and a calendar with a double question mark ?? written beside Monday, July 6. (In fact that’s when Jock Thouless wanted “Albert” to leave a window unlocked so he could get into the house. It’s a new moon that night.)

Albert’s body is in a refrigerated morgue at the Radcliffe. Sir Matthew was buried on June 26.

Lady Ross’s prized jewels are the Amritsar Emeralds, kept in the safe in Sir Matthew’s study.

The characters are called in on Wednesday, July 1.

June 15: the moon was in first quarter that night; weather fine; sunrise 04:45, sunset 21:20.

Earlier, on Saturday, June 6, there was an annular eclipse of the sun at just after four o’clock in the afternoon. That’s an irrelevant detail.

Weather for July is cooler than usual, with frequent thunderstorms.

Frederick Rolson and Albert Duggan were both in service at Windrush Hall in Lincolnshire in their younger days. Later they moved on to other jobs. Frederick continued to work as a groundskeeper and groom in various stately homes. After a stint in the Royal Navy, Albert became a farmer and settled down in Walter’s Ash in Buckinghamshire.

A few years ago at a county fair, Albert ran into Frederick, who had fallen on hard times having been dismissed from his job for theft, despite protesting his innocence. Albert agreed to let Frederick assume his identity to apply for a job at Deergrafe, Sir Matthew Ross’s house in Oxfordshire. Albert was finding it hard to make ends meet and had decided he could do better in the merchant navy, having learned his way around a ship in the Navy in his mid-20s.

So Albert let Frederick borrow his identity. He told his wife Lily he was working at a big house in Oxfordshire and couldn’t say for sure when he’d be home, but would write to her with money. Then he went off to sea. He didn’t want to admit that to Lily because she worried about him going to sea and had made him leave the Navy when they married.

Frederick has a few letters written by Albert to post off to Lily with money every couple of weeks. One of these letters was found in his room at Deergrafe, but the detectives didn’t compare it to anything written by Frederick himself. They also don’t seem to question why it gets details wrong – “Sir Martin told me he likes my way with the dogs,” “Marion, that’s the cook, is baking an apple pie and said she will put aside a slice since I will get back late from the hunt.” Etc.

Catherine Wellbeck had been engaged as lady’s maid a few months ago. She is secretly Sir Matthew’s illegitimate daughter from a liaison with his wife’s maid in their early years in India two decades ago. Catherine only learned the truth when her mother made a deathbed confession last year.

One summer evening Catherine made an appointment to see Sir Matthew in his study after dinner. She thought from the occasional looks he had given her that he recognized her as his daughter, but instead of listening to what she had to say he tried to force himself on her. She stabbed him with his letter-opener, threw it in the pond behind the house, tore the page from the day-planner that indicated she had an appointment with Sir Matthew, then went along the passage to the library, pausing to wipe her blood-stained hand on a drape.

She had intended to go to her room, but then had second thoughts and turned back to call on Frederick (whom she knew as Albert, and with whom she had begun a surreptitious early-stage relationship) but he said she would have to turn herself in. There was an argument, she seized the rifle he was cleaning threatening to do away with herself, he tried to wrest it back the gun went off, and “Albert” fell dead.

The next day, remembering the blood stain on the drape, Catherine went back and cut out the stained lining. It’s obvious that a small pair of sewing scissors was used.

It’s also obvious that if “Albert” had stabbed Sir Matthew, his obvious route back to the stables would have been out of the French windows and across the lawn and yard. In fact, as a groom, “Albert” would not normally go through the house at any time. He would certainly have had no reason to be in the passage where the drape is.

Nobody has noticed that Catherine is grieving intensely, or if they have they assume it is out of devotion to her master rather than for “Albert”.

The coachman thinks Sir Matthew was angry with “Albert” because he heard his master say, “Damn you, sir, you will beggar me.” Actually that was a jocular remark; “Albert” used to carry money for Sir Matthew’s bets on his afternoons off.

Other servants saw Sir Matthew surreptitiously hand an envelope to “Albert” from time to time. That was money for betting; see above.

Lily Duggan has told the police, “that’s not my husband,” but nobody is paying her much attention. After all, he was shot in the face.

The gun was found clutched tightly in “Albert’s” hands, recorded by the coroner as a case of instantaneous rigor, yet Prof Goodhart notes that neither hand was clamped on the trigger.

Was the gunshot heard? Yes, in retrospect, but at this time of year you sometimes hear a shot in the distance. It could have been a hunter or a farmer shooting a fox.

Other plot threads

Jock Thouless happened to see “Albert” at a hunt meet and recognized him as Frederick Rolson. Jock is a house burglar who, years before, got Frederick to be his inside man at Greycotes House, where Frederick worked. The theft was discovered, suspicion pointed at Frederick, but to avoid a scandal the family (Brisbane) dismissed him without references rather than call in the police. That was in 1886. Now Jock wanted “Albert” to let him into Deergrafe on the night of the new moon, ie July 6, but “Albert” was doubly reluctant – older and wiser, but also not wanting to blacken his friend’s good name. So he was thinking of running off before that night.

In fact Jock has decided to go ahead with the burglary anyway, and if the characters spot the note on the calendar they may lie in wait for him. (Night Vision VII, Stealth 13, Brawling 13, carries a cosh.)

Master: Dr James Bright
Head porter: Basil Fence
Scout: Sam Rumbucket

The character is put up at college in rooms below Dr Goodhart’s on staircase IX of Radcliffe Quad:

Radcliffe Quad is remarkable in one aspect: the quadrangle proper is set out on the same axis as that in the Main Quad, but both High Street and Logic Lane curve round at this point. There are therefore barely any square or rectangular rooms in the whole quad, but they are all slightly irregularly shaped.

Admitted to Prof Goodhart’s study, the character may have flashbacks to the striking (and awful) black and red carpet that he remembers from many grueling tutorials. That’s just a character touch, it has no plot significance.

Throughout the investigation, the character finds references in Prof Goodhart’s notes to “B.H. would have an answer” [Ben Herzog was the PC in our campaign; obviously the initials will be different in yours] and realizes that Goodhart admired his unconventional intelligence but deplored what he saw as a diffusion of talent.

Dr Goodhart’s notes mention the possibility of fingerprint identification “as proposed by Sir William Herschel and Francis Galton of the South Kensington Museum”. That’s just a historical touch, it has no bearing on the case.

At the end of the scenario, while replacing Goodhart’s notes in his file, the character finds a box labeled: “The Ripper Case”. He finds this by noticing that the walls in Prof Goodhart’s rooms, unlike the set below, are squared off in one corner. This conceals a cubby-hole where he left the Ripper case. (This is what Prof Goodhart actually meant when he aid the character must be “shown the case” – he didn’t consider Sir Matthew Ross’s murder that important.)


(Kemp Hall Passage, just off the High Street.)

In 1870 Kemp Hall was altered by Honour & Castle for use as a police station. Jackson’s Oxford Journal in October 1870 reported:

The headquarters of the Oxford City Police are now transferred to Kemp Hall, High Street…. The premises, though rather out of the way, being down a passage, are central, and in the rear of the Town Hall having communication with the Superintendent’s residence, and with the City Court. On the ground floor is a spacious office and library (the books for which remain to be contributed) and above are dormitories for 14 constables. Inspector Barratt and P. S. Barrows will live on the premises. There are three good lock-up cells, in one of which are the remains of old carvings; also cellars and necessary appurtenances.

Detective Inspector Reginald Mordray (34), Oxford CID. He is a grammar school man, educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester, and distrusts dilettante investigators.

          “It should be open and shut, this case, but some details are proving elusive.”

Detective Sergeant William “Thunderbolt” Torssen (33), Oxford CID. A real hard nut, ex-Army (“The Light Bobs”, 52nd Oxfordshire Regiment of Foot, disbanded 1881), not fond of undergraduates but respectful of dons. He offers some facts from the crime scene:

          “No signs of forced entry. The only odd features regarding the room are the missing letter-opener, the open envelope of £10 notes, and the page torn out of the desk diary.”

          “No footprints in the garden, although it had been dry for several days anyway. The French windows to the lawn were open – Sir Matthew's usual habit in summer – and it would have been logical for Duggan, if he was the killer, to exit that way, turn right across the yard, and thence go direct to his room behind the stable block.”

P.C. Wilbur Brodie (22) was one of those first on the scene. He knows:

          “Duggan had the rifle clutched by barrel and stock. His hands were already stiff. I couldn’t move the fingers.”

A hotel on the High Street. The other characters could stay here.

Dr Roger Baynton is treating Professor Goodhart.

Dr Peter Garrett pronounced death on both Sir Matthew and Duggan, and performed the autopsy on Duggan’s body.

Duggan’s body is in the refrigeration unit here.


“The knife wound was from in front, striking almost directly sideways (ie not upwards or downwards) into the left side of Sir Matthew's throat. But he was found slumped obliquely across his desk, suggesting that he was seated side-on to the desk (with his left side towards the desk) at the time of the attack. That's also consistent with the pool of blood across the desk.
“Duggan was found with his left hand on the barrel and right hand on the stock. His hands were clutched tightly on the rook rifle, one on the barrel and one on the stock, in a manner consistent with cadaveric spasm, commonly called ‘instantaneous rigor’, which occurs sometimes when the point of death is accompanied by violent emotion or a struggle. Incidentally Mrs Duggan says her husband was left handed. But then, she says that's not him.”

First they are taken to Mr Godwurst’s office.
(Observation roll: there are framed photos on the wall.)
          There is a photo of all the servants, taken recently (1891).
          There is a photo of Sir William, Lady Ross, Mr Godwurst, Diana Purdey, and Singh (the valet) in Rawalpindi (1870).
A character who studies the photographs and makes an IQ-5 roll will recognize the resemblance between Diana Purdey.

Mr Godwurst may be able to answer some of the characters’ questions:

Miss Wellbeck was hired recently. What were here credentials?
“Wellbeck was recommended to her ladyship by a former servant from her ladyship’s time in India, I believe. I was not involved in her selection. That’s quite usual for a personal servant such as a lady’s maid or valet, as they are not servants of the estate.”

How about Duggan’s credentials?
“Duggan came to me with letters of recommendation from Windrush Hall in Lincolnshire, where he served as stable hand, groundsman and later junior footman from 1872 to 1879. His lack of references after that time were explained by a term of service in the Royal Navy, and he had a letter from his commanding officer at Lowestoft, a Captain Winter of HMS Devastation if memory serves, verifying that Duggan was granted an honourable discharge after five years with the Mediterranean fleet.”

Can Miss Wellbeck read and write?
“A lady’s maid must provide her mistress with companionable conversation and write letters for her. I believe that Wellbeck sometimes reads in the library, but only novels, you understand.”

Could Duggan have been an imposter?
“Unlikely. He had a thorough knowledge of his job and of Windrush Hall in particular. Somebody who simply came across those letters of reference could not so readily have passed himself off as one with extensive experience in service. However, I confess I was a little surprised to see they had made him a junior footman, as I would not have said he was quite tall enough for that.”

Mahendra Singh (Sir Matthew’s valet) is utterly discreet and will reveal nothing unless convinced it is in the family’s interests.

Mrs Darlington, the housekeeper, noted Miss Wellbeck’s burgeoning friendship with “Duggan” but the most she will vouchsafe to the characters is, “It’s difficult keeping a young staff in order. Mr Godwurst and I have our work cut out.”

Mrs Glaze, the cook, tries to be discreet but if got tipsy she may reveal that, “That Catherine, she was bit sweet on Al if you want my opinion. Not that Mrs Darlington would have let it go anywhere.”

In Duggan’s room:
          A calendar with a double question mark ?? written beside Monday, July 6.
          Bags packed for a quick departure (though he had not handed in his notice).
          Three letters from Lily Duggan dated May 7, May 23, and June 10 were unopened and tied up with string.
          There was a letter to Lily, signed and in an envelope, among Duggan’s effects.
          There was another letter (unfolded, no envelope) on a table.

Timothy O’Duggan (coachman, no relation to the deceased) says: “I don’t reckon as the master were any too happy with Al. I hear him say, ‘Damn you, sir, you will beggar me.’” (Actually that was a jocular remark on Sir Matthew’s part; “Albert” used to carry money for Sir Matthew’s bets on his afternoons off.)

The coachman may mention seeing Al talking to “a man in tweeds” on the day he died. “A heated discussion, as you might say. Most like he were warnin’ the fellow off not to stray onto estate lands. A rambler or bird fancier, I’d have said he was.” (In fact that was Jock Thouless, currently lodging in the village of Deerfield under the alias Mervyn Campbell.)

Jim Wicking (stable hand, 15) mentions: “I seen the master give Al an envelope from time to time. On the Q.T. like, when they thought no one was about. Money, I’m sure of that.” (That was money for betting; see above.)

Lady Julia Ross is with (Catherine) Wellbeck : “It is the sort of beastliness that one could expect out in India, not here in England.”
          Empathy roll: Wellbeck seems even more distraught than her mistress.

Lady Ross is a firm believer in spirits, seances, etc.

Cuthbert Ross (the son) has gone back to Stowe, having come down for his father’s funeral on June 26.

          The French windows were open.
          The most direct route back to the stable block would be out of the windows and across the yard.
          A page was torn out of his day planner (for June 14 to 20)
That page would have shown he had arranged to meet Miss Wellbeck on the evening of June 15.
          The safe has not been tampered with. It contains the Amritsar Emeralds.
          The letter-opener (a kirpan, almost certainly the murder weapon) was missing.
          An envelope of four £10 notes was on the desk. (That was money he intended to give “Duggan” to place a bet for him.)
          There was one drink poured: a glass of brandy on Sir Matthew's desk, knocked over when he slumped sideways across it.

This passage leads along the back of the house from Sir Matthew’s study to the library. From the library there are servants’ stairs (nominally concealed behind a shelf of fake books, but obvious on an Observation roll).

          Observation roll in the passage: a piece of the lining of one of the curtains onto the back lawn has been cut out, apparently with small sewing scissors.
          [Second Observation roll: there is a trace of blood still on the lining that was not cut out.]
          There is a smear of blood under the frame of the sash window here.

After the murder, Miss Wellbeck went out of the french windows, threw the knife in the pond, dipped her hand in the water, and then went back through the study towards the library, and thence up to her own room. As she passed along the passage, she noticed blood still on her hand and wiped her hand on the back of the curtain, then later came back and cut out the bloody piece of fabric.

How will they find out the truth?

(1) The photo of the family in Rawalpindi. There is a young woman in the background. “That’s my maid Diana Purdey,” says Lady Ross. “She left my service shortly after that photograph was made. Married and stayed on in India, I believe.”

Enquiries reveal that Diana Purdey married a Captain Wellbeck. Nobody at Deergrafe is aware of that, but the characters could trace other retired members of the regiment in London who might know, or they could go to Somerset House and look up the birth records there. (Although Catherine Wellbeck was born in India, her birth is registered at Somerset House.) IQ-5 in any case to see the family resemblance between Diana Purdey as she was in the 1870 photograph and Catherine Wellbeck now.

(2) A book of water colours that Catherine Wellbeck left in the library is by Diana Purdey. There are some images of Sir Matthew aged around twenty. In the middle is a pressed flower and a very old note: “Tonight, the arbour. – M.”

(3) Jock saw Miss Welbeck dispose of the knife. He was watching the house through binoculars. He sent her a note telling her to meet him or he will reveal her secret. He wants her to help him steal the emeralds by convincing Lady Ross to transfer them to a locked box in her room. So they may see Wellbeck returning from that assignation.

There are two: the Keg of Porter (inn with a couple of rooms) and the smaller Prince Charles. The Keg of Porter has one guest, Mervyn Campbell (34), ostensibly an ornithologist on holiday. (It’s actually Jock Thouless.) He signed in on June 12 for four weeks.

Haynes (the first footman at Deergrafe) sometimes drinks here. He saw Duggan talking to “Campbell” in a lane a few weeks ago, but won’t think to mention it unless specifically asked. He’s never seen Campbell in the pub, so doesn’t know he’s staying in the district.

Jock saw Miss Welbeck dispose of the knife. He was watching the house through binoculars. He sent her a note telling her to meet him or he will reveal her secret. He wants her to help him steal the emeralds by convincing Lady Ross to transfer them to a locked box in her room.

Lily lives in Walter’s Ash, Buckinghamshire.

She is a simple soul and could be overwhelmed by too many grand gentlemen. But if the characters are diplomatic:

          “That’s not my husband they got there.”
          “They’re calling him a murderer.”
          “Served at Windrush Hall in his younger days.”
          “He was in the navy when I met him at Lowestoft. Well, actually I first saw him at the P of KL [port of King’s Lynn] but we only met socially in Lowestoft a few weeks later.” (7 years ago)
          “Typically goes off for three or four months, then he might get a few weeks at home. The last time was in April*. It was our anniversary.”

* Cross-checking with Mr Godwurst at Deergrafe reveals that “Al” had no time off in April.

As a model for Deergrafe I used Greys Court in Oxfordshire. There are useful notes about Oxford in Victorian times here, and your players might also find my edited version of the Dickens guide to Oxford useful.

Post mortem
As I said at the start, my players seemed so strongly to expect and favour a fantastical denouement that I whipped up the following epilogue so as not to disappoint. Your first priority as referee is to make sure they have fun, after all.

Before I go, some backstory. In our campaign, the players had gone up against some Dagon cultists on the isle of Jura. They encountered some “witches” sacrificing a man in a Wicker Man moment, and one of the PCs, Benjamin Herzog, murdered the head witch when she was already in custody. This didn’t sit well with the others, especially Royal Navy officer Daniel Reaver, but the deed was done. Life goes on.

And indeed unlife went on too, because the “witch” was a powerful psionic who managed to hold on to a semblance of existence by distributing her personality around the PCs’ subconscious minds. So they had been experiencing a few ghostly flickers, Benjamin especially.

At the culmination of the investigation, overcome by guilt and grief, and realizing her secret must soon come out, Miss Wellbeck drowned herself in the lake. The psionic witch’s psyche transferred into her body and visited this grisly little scene upon the characters as they sat in the bar of the Mitre hotel that evening.

Incidentally, you need to know that Benjamin Herzog suffers from claustrophobia and Ailean Gris from the delusion that he was abducted by aliens – mental weaknesses (it's GURPS, you see) that the witch was quick to exploit. These notes are very specific to my players’ characters, but hopefully the episode will inspire you to come up with something creepy, should you need it to finish off the adventure.
Return of the Witch
As the characters sit discussing their investigation over postprandial drinks in the Mitre lounge, the fire flattens like a frightened animal. There is a mournful groan from the chimney. The windows suddenly fog up. Nobody can escape. If they run upstairs or out of the door they will find themselves back in the lounge.

The window shatters and Miss Wellbeck floats in, deathly pale and clad in a white shroud. It is in fact the witch who has taken over and reanimated her body and brought it here from the morgue.

She controls a small zone – just the lounge. But here she slows time (or otherwise holds them, eg spellbound “you are going to get up, you’ve decided to, but not yet it seems”) to deal with each in turn.

How do they know who she is? Let them intuit it from her Scottish accent and what she says to Daniel Reaver. She deals first with Reaver, then the rest, and Benjamin Herzog last.

To Reaver she says: “You brought no ill to the women. Your hands are not stained with our blood. You may go.” (He is teleported outside into the High Street.)

Ailean Gris finds himself strapped to a table in an alien vessel. Drifting shapes like the fins of tropical fish, in which float sensory organs, surround him. Their arms are delicate as daddy-longlegs but are many and capable of exerting surprising force. They put up human-like masks as they bend to look at him: paper drawings of his friends’ faces. One says: “The sensory distortion field is out of alignment. The subject may be able to perceive that it lives no longer on its native planet but as a captive here in our dimension.”

Then Ailean sees the head of his dead servant on a long angle-poise strut. It watches as saws and probes are deployed to remove his organs and replace them with machinery. “Now you are no MacLean but a MacHine. Freewill is lost to you. The tick-tock of the gears is all that drives you. Now you have written on your innards, in the entrails of your brain, that you may not harm a witch.”

If, after the vision ends, Ailean attacks the witch in defiance of the servant’s admonition, he is free to do so and she is powerless to stop him, but he must buy off the alien abduction delusion as it means he has rejected it. However, buying it off is half-cost.

Lord Tennyson Thurgood sees Harry Dakkar Singh [my own character, killed by some Cthulhoid entity a few sessions earlier]. Harry turns, silently screaming, as darkness seems to fill him up from inside, making his mouth and eyes a void. He is eaten away as if by acid from within.

If Edwards [Harry’s former valet] is there… he is lying on the slab in the morgue after the incident in Islington [a particularly traumatic earlier adventure]. Medical students are discussing the impending autopsy with their professor. Edwards cannot speak or move.

Benjamin is trapped inside the chimney. Claustrophobia roll at -3 to begin with, ie needing to roll 9 or less. Once he makes that he’s -2 next round, etc, until he makes an unmodified roll and is then okay. The only effect of a fail is to lose him all actions for the round, but remember he is at -2 on all rolls even if he finally makes it. Getting up the chimney takes four Climbing rolls – or he can drop into the fire, but then he gets burnt and has only one round to act.

If Benjamin manages to climb up the chimney into the room above, he can run down the stairs and gets three rounds to act as he re-enters her zone of control.

However, Benjamin has a very limited time in which to act. If he is not out of the chimney within six rounds, the witch curses him so that the face of every woman he sees from then on is the bloody, terrified face of one of the women he killed on Jura.
Fire: Take 1d-1 on dropping into the hearth. If that inflicts 3 or more points, clothing catches alight and he takes 1d-4 and is a further -2 on DX skills until he takes a round to beat the flames out.
If Reaver bursts back into the Mitre he has one round to act before the witch immobilizes him. (Or slows time?) Or he could shoot straight through the fogged windows if he had a gun. The fog clings to the outside of the Mitre’s ground floor like a writhing skin.

Ailean likewise has one round if he chooses to act against her, though he could move next to her first (which he can do freely) to get full value of that.

Tennyson can strike her, but if he does he remembers the incident on Jura differently. There is the gunshot, but when he looks down he sees it was his own rifle that killed the witch before Benjy had time to do so. This rewrites both their memories of the incident (but not Ailean’s or Reaver’s).

The witch can be driven away by smashing the head of her host body (3 hp) or doing enough damage to the body itself (35 hp, or chuck it in the fire). Her spirit departs anyway if successful in cursing Benjamin - she has been able to sustain her existence this long only by the urge for revenge. Either way they’re left with Miss Wellbeck’s corpse on the hearth rug – something to explain to the police.