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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.