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Thursday, 29 December 2011

More seasonal freebies

A cross-post from the Mirabilis blog today for any comic book fans who found a Kindle under the Christmas tree. Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and I have just re-released the Kindle mini-episodes collecting the first thirty pages of Mirabilis: Winter volume 1. If you're signed up for Amazon Prime you can borrow the Kindle episodes anytime, but even if not you can get the first two completely free tomorrow or Saturday.

Episode 1.1 is "Stung!" which first appeared in DFC #30 (the 2008 Christmas issue). Jack is about to face a duel to the death when he finds an ancient two-headed coin that's destined to change his life forever. Get "Stung!" from the Kindle Store US here and UK here.

Episode 1.2 is "The Door in the Water". Jack meets Gus for the first time - but it's in a dream, so maybe it doesn't count. And when he wakes up he goes witch-hunting, only it turns out the witch is the one with the killing jar. That's in the Kindle Store US here and UK here.

Episode 1.3, "The Wrong Side of Bedlam" sees Gus (that's Talisin of the Shining Brow to us) escaping from a padded cell, Jack trapped in a witch bottle, and the boffins of the Royal Mythological Society explaining what's in store now the green comet has reappeared. It's in the Kindle Store US here and UK here.

And if you don't have a Kindle, don't despair, because all of those early episodes are online right here.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Edge of the world, Ma!

Okay, so I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news (I always do bad news first) - well, it's not too bad. I have a lot of work to do on the Frankenstein book app over the next month or so, and it's not going to leave much time for blogging, so posts will be less frequent for a while.

If you get withdrawal symptoms, you can always go look at some old posts; we've got hundreds. (Here's one of my favorites to get you started.) And if you were given some book tokens by Auntie and want some ideas what to do with them: eyes right, my friend. It's that simple.

Okay, so the good news is that Fabled Lands LLP has prepared a little Christmas present and you can pick it up here. It's just for a few days, though. If the link doesn't work, I'm afraid you missed Santa and he's gone back to the North Pole till next year. Or maybe he's gone to the South Pole this year. Tekeli-li.

Happy Christmas from me, Jamie, Tim and Franklin. God rest ye merry, good and worthy wights.

The image is "At the Edge of the World" by Maciej Duczynski. It's certainly copyright but used here because its presence on Pixdaus implies that it can be freely linked to. Scoot over to Pixdaus to see the original at full size.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The shape of the universe

Have a guess what this is. Give up? Okay, it's the flowchart for Fabled Lands book one: The War Torn Kingdom. It was created by Spirit Entertainment, the company who are currently adapting the first six FL books for Android, browsers and (we hope) Kindle. These titles are scheduled for next Easter and, as soon as I can get the nod from Spirit supremo Steve Iles, I'll unveil some of the stupendous artwork his team have been creating. I promise you, you'll be blown away.

While you're waiting, here's something to keep your gamebook muscles exercised. Christmas is upon us and, just like last year, we have a little gift for you. Come back tomorrow and all will be revealed. But don't get too distracted by turkey and mince pies, because it's for a very limited time only. By Boxing Day it'll just be a melted puddle...

Monday, 19 December 2011

Reviews and tigers and gamebooks, oh my!

In the most perfect team-up since Simon said whassup to Garfunkel, gamebook experts Andrew Wright and Stuart Lloyd have got together to create Lone Tiger Gamebooks, a review site that will especially cover the more obscure and/or amateur gamebooks that you might otherwise not get to hear about.

There are lots of hidden gems out there, and thanks to Stuart and Andy there's now more chance of finding them. Their blog depends on volunteer reviewers, of course, so if you have a favourite gamebook (classic or contemporary, famous or unknown) that you're willing to write about, why not drop them a line?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Castle of Lost Souls part three: "The Demon Road"

If you've been waiting since August for the third part of The Castle of Lost Souls then I can only apologize that it's taken so long, and thank you for your patience. As already mentioned, this was my first ever stab at a choose-your-own type scenario, first published in White Dwarf magazine in the summer of 1984. The extremely skimpy prose was necessary because I only had four pages for each monthly instalment. Later we were to come full circle, using deliberately pared-down descriptive passages in the Fabled Lands books - though by then Jamie and I had, I believe, learned to write both well and economically.

I was sitting in the White Dwarf offices in Sunbeam Road one morning. Don't be fooled by the name, incidentally; it was on a grim west London industrial estate - there it is below, in fact. The very building. Anyway, the phone rang. "Yes, we do happen to have the writer here," said Jamie, handing it to me. A Scottish chap was on the line, demanding to know what he was supposed to do having triggered a poison trap in one of the episodes.

"Well, you're dead," I said.

"I know that. It says that. But what can I do about it?"

"Nothing - other than starting the adventure again from the beginning."

He sounded disappointed. Even a little peeved. "That's it? Start again, you say?"

He couldn't see me shrug. "Look on the bright side. If you were dead in real life, you couldn't even do that."

Another satisfied customer? No, he most certainly was not!

If you'll willing to risk death, you can find part one here and part two here, though the episodes were designed to be self-contained. If you're just launching in with this instalment, you'll just need the rules but note that you start off with an Honour score of 5 rather than 3. You have those items listed in the first paragraph too (all except the last two).


You are the champion of the Greengosh family, chosen by its head, Hogron. He hired you to rescue his father’s soul, captured and taken to the castle of Slank, an ogre or demon. To do this Hogron told you that you needed some magical boots, a teardrop, a fragment of armour from the most chivalrous knight, a four leaf clover, a crystal ball, the ashes of a saint and the hair of a nun. These last two items you have yet to collect, and are hoping to do so during the journey to the castle. When you are ready to start, go to 1.

1: You take breakfast with the Greengosh family. Few of the brothers seem talkative so early in the morning. Some glower from obvious hangovers and one or two stare bemusedly at you as though trying to place your face. ‘This is the noble champion who will rescue our father’s soul!’ declares Hogron suddenly, and everyone sits up. Perterra Greengosh watches you with a look of palpable scepticism which you find disturbing in one so young. The butler brings you your weapons and backpack. ‘I have had Mortlake pack some provisions for your journey,’ Hogron continues. ‘And you will also find in your pack a small pot containing four applications of a magical Salve of Healing’ (a rather foul smelling preparation made from rancid milk, animal fat and rotting vegetables which actually has remarkable healing properties; spreading it on your wounds after a fight will restore 4 points to your Constitution each time it is used. Note it with your other items on the Character Sheet). But note also that you only have enough for four applications.

You take a few moments to prepare yourself for the great trials that await you. Will you succeed, and live on in legends until the end of time? Or will you sink into the mists of obscurity, lost to some nameless fate in a far-off land? Only the future will tell.

You pull on the magic boots and take up your belongings. Hogron, napkin still in hand, accompanies you as far as the dining room door. ‘I wish you good luck in your venture,’ he says through a mouthful of toast. ’I can offer you no help or advice save these two snippets of information. First, I have heard that the two principal goblin tribes of the Mungo Hills are the Drans and the Kabbagoos, and that one or the other tribe are inveterate liars. Secondly, it is said that strange phantasms can appear in the mists enveloping the Swamps of Bosh. These phantasms can cause a traveller no hardship as long as he or she disregards them. And now, farewell!’

You leave the Greengosh mansion and make your way to the town’s west gate. Somewhere on your journey you must find a saint’s ashes and the hair of a nun. But for now all that occupies your mind is that it is a glorious morning and you are about to embark on another challenging adventure. Turn to 42.

2: Ahead of you the horizon is lost in a blur of mist. Realizing that it will be difficult to find wood to start your campfire in the dank Swamps of Bosh, you start to gather kindling as you descend the trail. As you reach the low-lying moors and marshes of Bosh your progress is slowed considerably, for you have to wend your way around tracts of treacherous mire. Out of the corner of your eye you notice something – a crystal ball, of all things, just off the path to your left. It looks unsettlingly like the one you should have in your backpack. Will you go over to this crystal ball to examine it (turn to 25), check that the original ball is still in your backpack (turn to 53) or simply walk on (turn to 94)?

3: You walk on at a brisk pace. You are on your way out of the hills by mid afternoon. Up ahead, you see that the trail forks in two. One way will take you on into the Swamps of Bosh (where you are headed) but the other presumably leads to the notorious Dragonbreath Canyon (where you definitely do not want to go). Beside the fork there is a large flat rock on which squat two tiny, shrivelled goblins with large heads and a shock of white hair over their sharp, wily faces. ‘Are you a Dran or a Kabbagoo?’ you ask the first goblin as you stride up to them. He answers so indistinctly that you cannot hear him, but then the second goblin pipes up: ‘He said he’s a Kabbagoo. Are you deaf or something?’ Ignoring his disrespectful attitude, you demand of the second goblin which route you should take to reach the Swamps of Bosh. ‘Swamps of Bosh?’ he replies. ‘You want to go left.’ As you set off, he calls after you: ‘Go on, push off to Bosh!’ Both goblins start giggling, but you cannot be bothered to go back and teach them a lesson. Will you take the left-hand path (turn to 84) or the right-hand path (turn to 73)?

4: He jumps and weaves with confusing speed, and will be a difficult foe to beat.

TOLL COLLECTOR: Fighting Prowess: 9; Constitution: 10; no armour.

If you win, turn to 18.

5: Your sudden attack surprises the robbers, who took you for a fellow highwayman. You kill one of them with a single blow. Two more are occupied holding the captives, so you have four to fight:

‘HEADCUT’ AHOOL: Fighting Prowess: 6; Constitution: 6; 1-point armour.
IPCOLL THE SOUR: Fighting Prowess: 4; Constitution: 6; 1-point armour.
UKNORTHE BARBARIAN: Fighting Prowess: 5; Constitution: 8; no armour.
LIRRIPON DROOL: Fighting Prowess: 6; Constitution: 5; 1-point armour.

All four of them get to strike at you each round. If you drank the potion, however, you can strike back at three of them every round! If you actually manage to beat them all, turn to 86.

6: The mist’s fingers poke and pry, stroke and search, around your backpack. You realize that the mist is like an entity – a wraith which creates illusions to try and trick you. You are not fooled. Turn to 30.

7: After almost an hour you have not got any closer to your destination. It is obviously time to try something else, and you search in your backpack for inspiration. Turn to 72.

8: It takes real courage to attack a lammasu. No brains, just courage.

LAMMASU: Fighting Prowess: 10; Constitution: 20; fur counts as 1 -point armour.

You can escape after three rounds by running off (turn to 44). If you kill the lammasu, turn to 95.

9: The man, whose name is Garl, feeds you with a delicious and nourishing stew. The wine he offers is also excellent – nothing like the rough homebrew you had expected. Garl is obviously even drunker than you thought. He sits in his armchair watching you eat, taking great gulps from his mug and saying things such as, ‘You are an adventurer who has performed deeds of great credit while I am but a hermit with a dubious past. Yet when we belch, where then is the difference between us?’ Finally, noticing you stifle a yawn, he shows you to your room. Will you go to sleep (turn to 46) or sit up and keep watch (turn to 74)?

10: You identify some tracks leading to the other side of the valley. Following these, you are led to a sort of shrine. Turn to 90.

11: You are walking against a freezing wind. You see darkness on the horizon beyond the castle. The storm will soon engulf you. The whole sky darkens as the clouds billow up from the horizon and white stripes advance to hide the castle from view. Hailstones the size of a man’s fist pound down all around you. If you cannot find refuge from the storm quickly you will be pummelled to death! Even the mist disperses, taking shelter wherever it may. One of the tendrils of mist drifts down into the ground where you see a hole like the burrow of a large animal. If it is a burrow you may have to fight its occupant –but that is certainly better than being battered to death by the hailstones. You descend into the hole. Turn to 21.

12: Roll one die for the damage your arrow does. To bring the chonchon down you must roll 4 or more – otherwise, although winged, it still manages to fly off (turn to 41). If you bring it down, turn to 59.

13: ‘Ho there!’ he cries, struggling with the fishing rod. ‘A fine one has the bait this morning, but I need a net before I land him. Will you hold the rod a few minutes while I fetch one from my cottage? You can do as he asks (turn to 97) or decline and go on your way (turn to 68).

14: Four of the robbers see you coming and leave their comrades to massacre the guard while they deal with you. You will have to fight all four at once. They will each get to try to hit you every round. If you drank the potion, you will get three strikes every round (for duration of this fight only!).

EMAJ DOGBREATH: Fighting Prowess: 3; Constitution: 5: 1 -point armour.
IPCOLL THE SOUR: Fighting Prowess: 4; Constitution: 6: 1 -point armour.
‘HEADCUT’ AHOOL: Fighting Prowess: 6; Constitution: 6; 1-point armour.
UKNOR THE BARBARIAN: Fighting Prowess: 5; Constitution: 8; no armour.

If you beat all four, turn to 79. If you decide you cannot beat them, you can escape by running off towards the hills (turn to 50).

15: You open the phial and let the tear fall into your own eye, thinking perhaps that it will show you the true route to the castle. Unfortunately this does not work – and you have now used the teardrop (remove it from your Character Sheet). You grind your teeth and trudge on.
Turn to 82.

16: By the time you reach the tree, the strands of of hair are no longer there. Or perhaps they weren’t there in the first place... You continue on your way. Turn to 6.

17: You step back from the door as Garl’s ponderous footsteps approach. You watch as the latch is slowly raised. The door swings open and Garl stands there axe in hand, blinking as his eyes become accustomed to the darkness. With a yell you swing your sword. Turn to 64 for the fight. Because he is surprised, Garl will not get to strike back in the first round.

18: You climb down under the arch of the bridge and search through his belongings. You get 18 Gold Pieces and a magical Potion of Dazzling Speed. Note these down on your Character Sheet. After dumping the toll collector’s body in the river, you press on. Turn to 70.

19: You scramble frantically up the cliff. A voice calls up from below – to your astonishment, the lammasu can talk! ‘Look here,’ it says, ‘for one thing I can jump that high anyway, let alone fly, so you might as well come down. More importantly, I seem to have this bloody great thorn thing stuck right through my paw.’ Will you climb down to help the lammasu (turn to 60), or stay where you are (turn to 35)?

20: Lose another point of Honour – though you must surely have none left by now. You hide the bodies in a ditch by the side of the road. Gorbran had 9 gold pieces in his belt-pouch – a modest profit, but one which warms your evil heart. You continue on your way. Turn to 66.

21: The hole is damp, yet it is a great relief to be out of the icy bombardment. You hear a soft squelching. To your horror the surrounding ‘walls’ are closing in. A liquid oozes from them and trickles down around your feet, and you look down to see you are being sucked into the ‘mud’. An odour like bile rises about you. You cannot escape; your legs are trapped and you feel as though the strength is being drawn from you – as a piece of food might feel in an enormous stomach, perhaps! You have only moments in which to act. Desperately you search your backpack for something to use. Will you try using the ashes (turn to 36), the Salve of Healing (turn to 51), or the teardrop (turn to 77)?

22: The instant you strike the first spark from your flint, the marshons rush forward eagerly towards the source of light. You are engulfed by hundreds of slippery, clambering bodies. More and more marshons surge into the struggling horde, anxious to see the light, and you are soon overwhelmed and crushed by the stampede. Your adventure ends here.

23. You wend your way up to the hut and rap smartly on the door. A small flap opens and a bloodshot eye peers out at you. Then you hear bolts being drawn back and the door is opened by a heavyset man in red and black robes. Seeing you, he smiles and holds up the jug of wine he has in one hand. ‘As the sun sinks in its own blood and night strokes the land with fingers of shadow, let us drink together and pass merry comment on the transience of things!’ It is clear he has imbibed several jugs of wine already, as he seems to be slurring his words somewhat. Will you accept his offer (turn to 9) or decline and leave, preferring to camp outside for the night (turn to 33).

24: It occurs to you that if someone has left fresh flowers by the idol, there may be a religious community nearby. Perhaps you could get one or both of the items you need? Roll two dice, attempting to score less than or equal to your Cleverness. If you succeed, turn to 10. If you fail, turn to 76.

25: A bank of mist rolls in front of you. You walk forward through the mist but cannot find the crystal ball anywhere. Somewhat perplexed, you decide to return to the path and continue on. Turn to 94.

26: You have fallen victim to a spell of blood thinning. In future, whenever you are wounded you must deduct 1 extra point from your Constitution. While you bemoan your ill-luck, the detestable chonchon shrieks with laughter and flies off into the mists. Turn to 41.

27: You trek on towards the castle, but every time you glance away from it you look up to find it is in a different location. Nor do you seem to be getting any closer. You decide to try one of your items. Turn to 72.

28: The gods do not want their shrine sullied by the likes of you. They send one of their servants – a huge, halberd-wielding warrior clad in white armour who steps from a shining rent in the air in front of you. You are so taken aback by his sudden and miraculous appearance that you do not get to strike back on the first round. After that the fight proceeds normally.

ANGEL EXECUTIONER: Fighting Prowess: 8; Constitution: 14; 2-point armour.

If you beat him, he turns into a stream of clear water and flows away. Turn to 39.

29: You help the robbers to kill the last guard. Lose 1 point of Honour. One or two of the robbers start pushing the old man around while the rest go over to look at the palanquin. You hear a shriek and they bundle a white-robed damsel with long black hair out onto the road. One of the robbers shouts out that the old man has only a few gold pieces. ’In that case,’ snarls the leader, spitting into the dust, ‘we’ll have to entertain ourselves as best we can, won’t we, lads?’ You are not quite sure what to do now. You can attack the robbers and try to help the old man and the girl escape (turn to 96) or simply slink away while the robbers enjoy their ‘entertainment’ (turn to 66).

30: Since it is now getting late you start to look around for somewhere to make camp. You soon find a patch of high ground and get a fire going with the wood you collected earlier. After a light supper you settle down and go to sleep.

You come awake suddenly. Hours have passed -the fire is just glowing embers now. Creatures are stirring in the darkness all around you. Slowly you sit up. Your camp is surrounded by hordes of marshons. These are small, hairless, leathery creatures with webbed hands and large lidless eyes. They have been attracted by your fire and the starlight glinting off your sword, stuck in the ground beside you. They move around you like moths around a candle. From what you have heard, they eat only fungus and swamp weed – but nonetheless you are in the most deadly peril from them for, if they press forward towards the light which has attracted them, you will be smothered and crushed by the countless hundreds of bodies.

What will you do? You could toss your sword away in the hope that they will scurry after it (turn to 93), or light your lantern (turn to 22) or – if you have one – you could use your Ring of Light (turn to 67).

31: He scratches the back of his neck. ‘Don’t know about the strand of hair,’ he says after some thought. ‘Isn’t it true nuns shave their heads when they enter a convent, anyway? But there is a sort of shrine not too far from here where some old holy man was buried. Maybe he was a saint.’ He gives you directions and you set off in search of the shrine. Turn to 90.

32: The creatures attacking you are chonchons. These disembodied heads fly using their large veined ears as wings and attack by biting with their chisel-like teeth. Three of them fly in to engage you:

FIRST CHONCHON: Fighting Prowess: 5; Constitution: 8; no armour.
SECOND CHONCHON: Fighting Prowess: 4; Constitution: 4; no armour.
THIRD CHONCHON: Fighting Prowess: 7; Constitution: 5; no armour.

They will each get to strike at you every round, but you can only attempt to hit one at a time-unless you drank the magic potion, in which case you can attempt three blows a round for the rest of this combat. If a chonchon is down to 2 or fewer points of Constitution at the end of any round, it will fly up out of combat. If you are still fighting at least one of the chonchons after four rounds, turn to 65. Otherwise turn to 91.

33: You spot a niche in the ridge and scramble up the slope to it. The ledge is quite wide, and you are able to comfortably stretch out on it. You decide it is a good place to spend the night – wolves and the like will be unable to reach you. You awaken early the next morning. Add 3 Constitution points for your rest. You gather your belongings and continue onwards. Turn to 68.

34: You stumble on, only to trip over a clump of turf and fall flat on your face in the mud. Picking yourself up, you scowl, set your jaw and start trudging doggedly towards the distant castle. You decide to look for inspiration in your backpack. Turn to 72.

35: ‘You’re being remarkably unhelpful,’ says the lammasu coolly. ‘I mean to say, why do you humans have to be so preposterously timid, anyway?’ It walks off as proudly as its limp will allow. After some time you decide it’s safe to lower yourself to the ground and go on. Turn to 3.

36: You empty the ashes into the ‘hole’ and, with a sound very like a cough, it spits you out into the open. Luckily the hailstorm has now passed. Turn to 27.

37: You clamber through the bedroom window and escape into the night. You trek for several miles with only the wan moonlight to guide you. When you stop to check your belongings, you are distressed to find that you left behind half your cash in the hurry to get away. Deduct this from the gold on your Character Sheet. Cold, tired and impoverished you drift into a restless slumber and awake early the next morning. Turn to 68.

38: On a plinth in front of the idol, which depicts the god Lurga during his thirty-seventh Tribulation, you find a vase containing fresh flowers. You should note these down on your Adventure Record if you decide to take them. Will you now carry on towards the Mungo Hills (turn to 71), place an offering of gold on the plinth (turn to 48), or investigate further (turn to 24)?

39: You reach into the silvery glow and take the urn. Peeking within, you see that it contains a handful of ashes. You put the urn in your backpack and set off again. Turn to 71.

40: Norwena runs off shrieking. You roll Gorbran’s body into a ditch – discovering 9 gold pieces in his belt-pouch in the process – and continue on your way. Turn to 66.

41: You continue on for some time, but you still do not seem to be getting any closer to your objective. Perhaps the crystal ball will prove of use now? You take it from your backpack. Turn to 98.

42: You set out at a brisk pace and soon leave the fields and meadows around the town far behind. After some time you come to a river and, seeing a bridge only a few hundred yards away, you walk along the bank to it. As you ,are about to cross the bridge, however, a tall slender man in grey robes appears from under the arch of the bridge and calls up to you that you must pay a toll of 4 gold pieces to cross here. Will you pay him the money (turn to 52), or will you ignore him and cross anyway (turn to 62)?

43: A small band of robbers has attacked a group of travellers. Two guards lie dead in the road and a third is battling against impossible odds to prevent the robbers from getting at the palanquin he was accompanying. You see an old man with a staff cowering beside the palanquin. Will you:
Help the guard and the old man? (turn to 45)
Help the robbers? (turn to 29)
Avoid getting involved at all? (turn to 63)

44: The lammasu swipes at you as you turn to flee. Roll one die to determine the damage done by its raking claws. Your armour protects you from this as usual. If you are still alive, you run off. For some reason the lammasu does not pursue you. Turn to 3.

45: If you have a Potion of Dazzling Speed, there is time to drink it now before you engage the robbers. Considering the odds you face, it may well be a good idea – but of course, perhaps you’d rather save it for when you face the demon... Decide, and then turn to 14.

46: You awaken with a start, instantly aware of danger. You hurl yourself to one side just as an axe crashes down. A fraction slower and your head would have been split like firewood! You find your sword. Facing you in the half-light is Garl, wielding the massive axe as though it were a toothpick. You have removed much of your armour in order to sleep more comfortably – it will only absorb 1 point of damage from Garl’s blows in this fight. Turn to 64.

47: You hastily nock an arrow onto your bow and take aim at the retreating chonchon leader. To hit it, you must roll your Fighting Prowess or less on two dice. You have one chance to do this before the chonchon is out of range. If you hit, turn to 12. If you miss, turn to 41.

48: Deduct the amount you decide to leave from your current gold. You utter a short prayer to Lurga in which you compare your current adventure to his ninth Tribulation. There is no response from the god. Will you now carry on towards the hills (turn to 71), or investigate further (turn to 24)?

49: As you step towards the urn, a shower of glittering particles forms a cloud in front of you. This rapidly coalesces to form a warrior in shining white armour who advances to attack you.

ANGEL KNIGHT: Fighting Prowess: 7, Constitution: 11; 2-point armour.

If you beat him, he vanishes like mist. Turn to 39.

50: The robbers quickly give up the chase and go back to loot their victims. You press on briskly towards the setting sun, determined to put several miles between you and the robbers. Turn to 66.

51: You drop your remaining supply of the Salve into the ’hole’, which is unimpressed by the substance’s foul taste and hurriedly spits you out into the open air. The hailstorm has now passed. Turn to 27.

52: You throw the four coins down to him and he pockets them. You can now continue on your way (turn to 70) or ask him if he knows where you can get the last two items you need (turn to 31).

53: As you open your backpack, a thick bank of fog engulfs you, obscuring your vision for a moment. When you look into the pack, you find that the items you have collected to deal with the demon have gone! What will you do now: go back and tell Hogron that the mists stole your equipment (turn to 80) or walk on (turn to 88)?

54: The girl throws up her arms to the heavens with a howling scream. The skies answer with a thunderous rumble, and you see lightning flash between the clouds. Seeing the power of her prayer, the robbers turn and flee. She goes over to the old man and obviously finds he is still alive, for she revives him with a simple healing spell. They come over to you and the girl tells you that her name is Norwena and the old man is Gorbran. They and their guards were on their way to the convent of the Sisters of Pure Adoration when the bandits attacked. Since they now lack guards, you agree to escort them – Norwena admits that her prayer-magic looks more impressive than it actually is, and a skilled swordsman might come in handy. Turn to 61.

55: As you walk on, a few tendrils of mist return to swirl about you. You do not mind now. The mist is like an old travelling companion. Then, in the distance, you see the Castle of Lost Souls. It cannot be more than a few miles away. However, when you look up again after going only a few hundred yards, you find that the castle is no longer straight ahead of you. You walk towards it for almost an hour, keeping your eyes on it the whole time, but you do not seem to be getting any closer. Presumably the demon Slank has set enchantments around his castle to keep unwelcome visitors away, so what will you do now? You could just continue marching towards the castle, keeping your eyes on it continually so it does not change location again – turn to 11. Or you could use an item from your backpack – turn to 72. If you would like to try something else, turn to 83.

56: You are in a sacred place. The gods look into your heart and see your past actions. If your Honour is 7 or more, turn to 39. If your Honour lies between 1 and 6, turn to 49. If you have no Honour, turn to 28.

57: Since Norwena must have her head shaved anyway when she joins the Order, the Mother Superior is happy to give you a long, black strand of hair. You put this in your backpack and continue your journey westwards. Turn to 75.

58: You ransack his home in search of treasure he may have looted from travellers. You find a Potion of Healing, a Ring of Light and 4 gold pieces. Under the floorboards you are also revolted to discover human bones from over thirty bodies, neatly arranged in boxes with notes on the quality of the meal each person provided. You pass the rest of the night in a fitful sleep full of harrowing nightmares and depart this dreadful place before the sun is up. Turn to 68.

59. You walk over to where the chonchon leader has fallen. The arrow has torn its ear but it is still alive and thrashing. You grind it into the mud with your boot. Noticing a gold ring through its left ear, you take out your dagger and cut this free. The ring is large enough to fit around your wrist and is in fact a Wristband of Lightning. Note this down on your Character Sheet and turn to 41.

60: ‘Awfully decent of you,’ says the lammasu as you draw the thorn from its paw. ‘Rather embarrassing really – can’t think how I came to tread on the damned thing. If you’re heading west let me give you some advice. There are two tribes of goblins in these hills, the Drans and the Kabbagoos. You can never tell the difference between them because they mix freely and wear the same outlandish clothes. The only thing is that the Drans always tell the truth and the Kabbagoos always lie. I hope that’s of some help to you.’ After thanking you again, the lammasu takes its leave. Gain 1 point of Honour for helping this noble beast. Turn to 3.

61: It occurs to you that if you escort them to the convent, the Sisters will probably
be quite happy to give you a few strands of nun’s hair. If you decide to do this, turn to 69. Of course, if you are the treacherous sort you could just grab the damsel right now and shear her hair off (in which case, turn to 89).

62: With astonishing speed and agility he leaps up and lands on the bridge in front of you. As he does so, he draws a long curved sword from the scabbard slung across his back. ‘The fine for non-payment of the toll is 9 gold pieces,’ he says with a wry smile. ‘And the penalty for non-payment of the fine is...’ He glances significantly at the gleaming blade of his sword. Will you now pay him 9 gold pieces (turn to 87), or do you prefer to fight (turn to 4)?

63: You leave the road and sneak around the commotion. You continue on into the hills. Turn to 66.

64: You realize that Garl is not a human being at all, but a cold-hearted Ogre hungry for your flesh!

OGRE: Fighting Prowess: 6; Constitution: 13; no armour.

Because of his great strength, add 1 point to the die when rolling the damage for his blows. If you beat him, turn to 58.

65: The fourth chonchon, which has been hovering over you watching the fight, now starts to beat its ears furiously and fly off across the marsh. If you defeat any remaining chonchons within two rounds (refer back to 32 if you can’t remember their characteristics) you can try to bring down the escaping leader with an arrow (turn to 47). If the combat goes on for longer than two rounds then the leader is out of bowshot; if you kill or drive off the remaining chonchons after that, turn to 41.

66: Night is closing in as you enter the rolling, dusty landscape of the Mungo Hills. High on a ridge you see a ramshackle hut with a narrow, twisting path leading up to it. You can go and seek shelter for the night at the hut (turn to 23) or else make camp out here in the open (turn to 33).

67: You hold up the ring and cause it to emit a brilliant flash. The marshons clutch at their eyes and fall back whimpering, blinded by the light. They scurry off into the safety of the night. Turn to 78.

68: About mid-morning, you are just passing between two hills when you come face-to-face with a lammasu – a winged lion with an almost human face. However, it makes no immediate move to attack. You recover from your moment of petrifaction and consider your next action. Will you draw your sword and fight it (turn to 8), climb the cliff out of its reach (turn to 19) or wait for it to move (turn to 85)?

69: You escort Gorbran and Norwena safely to the convent. The Sisters of Pure Adoration are very grateful. If you have any wounds, they use their healing magic (restore your Constitution to its Initial score) and if you are subject to a curse they will remove it. They give you a hearty meal and a comfortable bed for the night. In the morning, will you continue on your journey (turn to 75), or will you first ask them for a nun’s hair (turn to 57)?

70: The path up into the Mungo Hills takes you along a valley. As you walk, you notice a stone idol down in the valley. Will you detour to inspect it (turn to 38), or carry on along the path (turn to 71)?

71: You trudge on for many miles. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is dipping towards the rolling Mungo Hills ahead of you. You are just estimating whether you will be into the hills by nightfall when you see a skirmish of some kind some distance away. Will you go closer to investigate (turn to 43), or will you go out of your way to avoid getting involved (turn to 63)?

72: Which of your items will you use? Perhaps the four leaf clover (turn to 92), the little girl’s teardrop (turn to 15) or the gypsy’s crystal ball (turn to 98).

73: The trail takes you down out of the hills. Increase your Initial Cleverness score 1 point. Turn to 2.

74: After two hours or so you are almost nodding off when a slight noise jerks you awake. You creep over to the bedroom door and peer through the keyhole. Garl is moving around laying the table for a meal. After putting out a fork and long sharp knife he comes to your door. You realize he is about to listen at the keyhole, so you pretend to snore. He turns away from the door. Peering out again, you see he is taking a huge axe out of a cupboard! Will you gather your things and make a getaway via the bedroom window (turn to 37), or draw your sword and get ready to fight him if he comes in (turn to 17)?

75: It is a fine morning and you enjoy your walk up into the rolling landscape of the Mungo Hills. After a little while you come to a stream where a burly man sits fishing. Will you greet him (turn to 13), or pass by (turn to 68)?

76: You cannot find any tracks to support your theory. With a shrug you turn away from the idol and press on towards the hills. Turn to 71.

77: You open the phial and tip out the teardrop, but to no effect. You can feel the stinging secretion on the walls eating into your skin. Will you now use the ashes (turn to 36) or the Salve of Healing (turn to 51)?

78: You drift back off to sleep and pass the rest of the night in comfort, apart from the clouds of gnats and the occasional far-off howl of moorland monsters. You wake at dawn. Add 2 points to your Constitution for the rest. You eat a hearty breakfast and then press on deeper into Bosh. Turn to 55.

79: Seeing you defeat four opponents single-handed, the remaining robbers turn tail and flee. Gain 2 points of Honour for your dashing rescue of the damsel who now steps out of the palanquin. Her expression registers a momentary disapproval at your bloodied and travel-soiled appearance. Then she smiles and thanks you for your intervention. The old man gets up, retrieves his staff and walks over to you. You glance at the guard who was valiantly fighting on to protect the palanquin, but you see that the robbers managed to slay him. The old man explains that he is Gorbran, a servant of the Sisters of Pure Adoration. He was escorting the damsel, whose name is Norwena, back to the convent, where she is to be initiated into the holy order. Since they now lack guards for their journey, you can accompany them. Turn to 61.

80: You make your way back up into the Mungo Hills. The two goblins are very amused to see you returning – so much so that one of them declares between giggles that he is a Kabbagoo. You travel on eastwards and, late in the afternoon of the second day, you arrive back at the town. Hogron is furious. He berates you for your incompetence in losing all the items and finally dismisses you. Your reputation in tatters, you gather your belongings and leave town. You have failed.

81: You resist the spell’s effect. Seeing this, the chonchon snarls and starts to fly away. You can try to bring it down with an arrow. Turn to 47.

82: As you go on a soft, low beating comes across the bleak moors. You listen to the sound and it seems to form words – slay, slay, slay...

You look up to see four dark shapes swooping down through the mist towards you. If you have a Potion of Dazzling Speed, there is time to drink it now before you are attacked. Cross it off your Character Sheet if you do. Then turn to 32.

83: You could try heading for the castle by an indirect route, either to the right or left of where it actually seems to be (turn to 7). You could try closing your eyes and heading on blindly in the direction you last saw it (turn to 34). Or you could use an item from your backpack (turn to 72).

84: You proceed along the trail, hoping that you have made the correct choice and that you will soon be in the Swamps of Bosh. Just then, a rumbling comes from below your feet. The ground shakes and great fissures and cracks appear across the path. You fall and are engulfed by scalding steam that issues out of the depths of the earth. You cannot see, and when you try to cry out the steam sears your throat. You have taken the trail leading to Dragonbreath Canyon, but you will never live to reach that terrible place. Your adventure ends here.

85: The lammasu holds up its paw to show you that there is a large thorn stuck right through it. Then, to your amazement, the lammasu speaks: ‘Um, I seem to have this thorn...’ You realize that the poor creature means no harm and decide to help it. Turn to 60.

86: The remaining two robbers let their captives go. The old man starts to hobble away, only to be felled by a throwing knife in the back. The girl drops to her knees, apparently crying. ‘Impressive,’ growls the leader, referring to your swordplay. ‘I’ve seen better,’ replies his equally laconic accomplice.

BLACK RAT: Fighting Prowess: 8; Constitution: 11; 1 -point armour
FAFNIR: Fighting Prowess: 8; Constitution: 13; 1 -point armour

You will have to fight them both at once. If you drank the potion it has now worn off. If you are still alive after two combat rounds, turn to 54.

87: You grudgingly hand him 9 gold pieces. You can now continue on your way (turn to 70) or ask if he knows where you can find the two items you need (turn to 31).

88: You have gone on only about a hundred yards when you suddenly come upon all your missing equipment. It is lying in a neat pile directly in front of you. Delighted at this happy change in your fortune, you gather up the items before continuing on your way with a spring in your step and a merry tune on your lips. Turn to 6.

89: You seize Norwena and draw your sword to cut her long black tresses. Gorbran thinks you are attacking her and jumps on your back. You shake him off, but he hits his head on a rock and lies very still. Norwena starts screaming and you have to hit her quite hard to shut her up. Lose 1 point of Honour. You cut off Norwena’s hair and put it in your backpack with other items. If you consider Gorbran a saint you can also burn him and collect the ashes. Will you now release Norwena (turn to 40) or kill her as well (turn to 20)?

90: The shrine consists simply of a marble dome supported by three thick pillars. Within, on a table of rock, you can see a verdigris-stained urn. As you step between the pillars, a silvery light appears out of nowhere to halo the urn. If you wish to stay, turn to 56. You can flee to the hills, in which case turn to 71.

91: Hovering directly above your head, the fourth chonchon glares down. ‘Nemo me impune lacessit!’ it hisses. It is obvious that it is not wishing you well, because the next moment you feel a hostile spell closing around you. Try to roll your Magical Fortitude or less on two dice. If you succeed, turn to 81. If not, turn to 26.

92: Some people claim that a four leaf clover placed under the tongue prevents one from speaking anything but the truth. But what use is such an old wives’ tale to you now? You replace the clover in your backpack and trudge on in the direction you imagine the castle to be. Turn to 82.

93: You hurl your sword away and the marshons scurry after it. They seize the gleaming object and carry it off. As they recede into the night you can hear their shrill, bubbly voices disputing ownership of this new prize. You are safe, but from now on you will have to use a dagger instead of a sword in combat, so all your damage rolls must be reduced by 1 point. Turn to 78.

94: Just ahead of you, draped over the gnarled branches of a tree, are several strands of long black hair. Could they have belonged to a nun? You could open your backpack (turn to 53), go over to the tree (turn to 16), or ignore it and walk on (turn to 6).

95: As you step past the lammasu’s body, you notice a large thorn stuck right through its paw. Just as well you killed the creature – it was probably in a vile temper and might have attacked someone. Turn to 3.

96: Do you have a Potion of Dazzling Speed? If so, you would be well advised to drink it before attacking the robbers. Remember to cross it off your Character Sheet if you do so. Now turn to 5.

97: You take the rod from him and soon find that you are barely able to hold onto it – the fish is putting up quite a struggle. Soon the big man returns with a net and takes the rod. With a mighty effort he draws up a spined, vicious-looking fish the size of a large dog. ‘Quite a whopper!’ says the man, showing a set of sharp white teeth as he grins. ‘How rare to find a person in these days of selfishness and antagonism who is prepared to lend a hand to a fellow creature! Allow me to offer my Ring of Light as a gift for your magnanimity. Moreover, and as a special favour to you, today I shall dine on fish.’ You are not quite sure what he means, but you take the magical ring and thank him before going on your way. Turn to 68.

98: When you gaze at the castle through the crystal ball, a shimmering path of green light is visible leading through the swamp. Holding the crystal ball in front of you, you make your way along the path. You have been walking for only a few minutes, intent on the ground directly in front of you, when you notice a dark shape looming ahead. You glance up from the crystal ball and almost drop it in shock. You are at the castle gates. A mixture of luck and skill has brought you to the terrible Castle of Lost Souls. You stand where no living person has ever stood. But have you the courage to enter? Find out in the next instalment: ‘The Evil Eye’.

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Friday, 9 December 2011

Greater than mere spells

One of the problems I have with fantasy as a genre of fiction is that most of the time it's not actually that fantastic, reducing sorcery instead to a sort of dull pseudophysics. I'm not taking a subtler-than-thou position here. I've been guilty of the fireballs and the Boolean divination spells myself. Sometimes you have to, for the sake of having rules, though that's why in my own games there are no player-character wizards - or not so much that you'd notice.

In my novella The Screaming Spectre... No wait, I have to say something about that. It was supposed to be called The Singing Skull, but the publishers overruled me on the title. Just so you know. Anyway, I put in a scene to show what I thought about the "type II fireball" approach to magic, and here it is. Heroquest, the boardgame on which the story was based, is still available, as indeed is the book itself on Amazon UK. Don't care for prose fiction? Well, you may like the 148-paragraph gamebook section in the back. And if you do like it, try comparing it with this passage from one of my Knightmare books that also describes what a sorcerer of the Dragon Warriors world is like.
`You are both too young to remember much about Balthazar,' said Baskaino. 'He was a legendary figure — like one of the great wizards of ancient times.'

`He must have had many powerful spells,' said Kashor, whose thoughts always turned to the lure of great magic when he had to work at his books.

`Of course he did,' said Baskaino. 'Spells you can never imagine. But, Kashor, you understand nothing if you think that is the measure of a wizard.' He put down his pen. 'Listen, then, if you want to learn the ways of magic. One story that was told in my childhood recounted how a plague had settled on the Empire. Whole villages became deserted, and if you walked the streets of any town you could never escape the sound of mourning from behind shuttered windows. Bodies had to be piled on to carts and buried in mass graves, since the plague was vicious and swift. You might see a friend hale and hearty one day, only to be startled by the sight of his lifeless corpse on a burial cart the next day. . .'

By now even Kashor, despite himself, had put aside his pen to listen to Baskaino's tale.

`Balthazar went looking for the plague,' he continued, 'and met it on the road to Borghaven. The plague had taken the form of a little old woman carrying a broom, though of course no-one could see that except a wizard like Balthazar. They walked on for a league or so without exchanging a word, but the plague was curious and finally asked Balthazar where he was bound. "To Borghaven," said he. "I mean to claim many lives there."

`Well, "That you cannot do," complained the plague-spirit. "I have prior claim on those lives . . ." Oh, but this is no doubt just a silly story,' said Baskaino suddenly, turning back to his copybook.

`No, no!' cried Osric and Kashor together. 'Do go on.'

Baskaino shrugged indulgently. 'Well, the upshot of it was that Balthazar challenged the old plague-hag to a dice game. She readily agreed, and the two of them hunkered down in the middle of the road over the dice she had — two yellow dice carved from dead men's knuckles. "If you win," said Balthazar, "we'll agree that you go on to Borghaven and beyond. But if you lose, you must go back to the land of the dead and never again visit the world of mortal men." The hag nodded, and then they threw the dice…'

`And Balthazar won?' said Kashor in an awed tone.

`No, he lost. So they walked on again towards the town. But after another league or so had gone by, the plague could not restrain her curiosity and she said, "You must have claimed many souls in your time."

`At this Balthazar only shrugged, smiling as though modesty forbade a reply. The plague licked her bloodless lips with a bloodless tongue and doubtless thought, why take the long walk to Borghaven when she could feast on one who had in turn (as she supposed it) feasted full on mortal souls? Another league passed, then Balthazar said, "I might consider another wager, for it is fine sport. Let us dice again. This time, if I win you must go and never return, just as before. But if you win, you may have the life that beats here . . ." Balthazar touched his heart . . . "but then you must be gone from the mortal world."

`The plague readily agreed to this, since she now believed that Balthazar's one life would sustain her more than a thousand paltry normal souls. So she took out her dice and again they rolled.'

`And this time Balthazar won?' said Kashor.

`Of course not!' said Baskaino scornfully. 'This was Death whom he diced with. So when the dice were cast, the plague-spirit took Balthazar and led him away to the end of the world and then said, "Now I leave this world never to return, but first I shall have your life." And she raised her broom whose touch was death.

`But instead of flinching, Balthazar only stood there and said: "Our pact was that you would have the life that beats here . . ." So saying, he opened the front of his robe and took out a tiny mouse that had been nestled against his chest, asleep. This he gave to the plague. She uttered none of the hideous curses that a mortal might when thwarted, but just gave a sort of sigh and then drew back out of the land of the living. And so Balthazar drove away the plague.'

`But how did he know he'd lose the dice games?' Kashor wanted to know. 'Both times? And how did he know to have the mouse under his robe?'

`He knew,' replied Baskaino with a condescending smile. 'That was how great a wizard he was. Great enough to cheat Death.'

`But he didn't even use a spell!' Kashor blurted.

`Pah, you fool!' replied Baskaino in a voice dripping with contempt.

Kashor turned to Osric for support, but Osric could only shrug and say, 'What spell could you use against Death, after all?'

Sunday, 4 December 2011

"I began the creation of a human being..."

The cat's out of the bag - or, more appositely, the brain's out of the jar. Profile Books just announced that the interactive novel I'm writing for them is Frankenstein. Yep, Mary Shelley's classic novel vandalized into what-next form by yours truly.

Some of you already guessed this news a while back, though I'm willing to bet the finished book won't be anything like you expect. Our official announcement gives some kind of an idea what's in store:
"Maybe you remember gamebooks or choose-your-own novels, but if so put those right out of your mind. Frankenstein is way more than that. It's an art installation made up of story fragments, where the reader can explore the text, creating a unique and personal experience of this rightly world-famous work and developing a direct relationship with the main characters. That's why we're describing it as interactive literature. It's a truly new kind of novel for the digital age."
What Jamie and I are aiming for is a gamebook that even non-gamers can enjoy, in the same way that plenty of non-SF fans are happy to read Mary Shelley's original book in spite of it being most definitely a science fiction novel - and probably the first such, although if you know of an earlier one, shout it out. Traditionally, mainstream readers have been very dismissive of things like comics and gamebooks. That's a very lazy prejudice (as most prejudices are) so that's one of the attitudes we're hoping to change a little bit with this book.

The engine that's powering this project is by Cambridge-based app developers Inkle Studios, smartest mammals in the new digital book ecosystem by a long way. Thanks to their tech, I can just write the book with all story logic in curly brackets as part of the text. I feed it into their engine and out it comes as a working app. Hey presto, I'm not just the designer and writer of this thing, I'm the coder too. We're hoping to do more with them and Profile Books in the future. A whole lot more. You'll read it here first.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Dirty linen

In the spirit of intrepid explorers from Lewis and Clark to Henry Morton Stanley, lately I’ve been delving into that most alarming and hard-to-penetrate of realms, the past. And, sparing no blushes, I’ve unearthed this fragment from the back of my first published work, Mortal Combat, written with Steve Foster and published by Waynflete House, the company I set up with Nick Henfrey in 1979.

The Crypt of Lieberkuen really is a “dungeon bash” of the crudest sort. As my own games almost never involve dungeons, and certainly never of the random monsters-n-puzzles variety, it’s a little surprising to find something like this even among my juvenilia. I think the explanation must be along these lines:
Nick: “You’ll have to put in an adventure. People expect it these days in a new role-playing game.”
Dave: “That’s a whole other book. I’d have to explain the background, the politics, all that stuff.”
Nick: “Seeing as it goes to the printers next week, can’t you just do an underworld? You know, like the scenarios in White Dwarf.”
Dave: [sighs, grumbles, starts typing]
The scenario, such as it is, might best be consigned to the flames, but for a couple of points of mild interest. Anvil, the wizard mentioned here, was the character played by Mark “Min” Smith (below, looking ridiculously young) in my and Steve’s Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. The inspiration (if we can use that term) for the name came from the crypts of Lieberkühn, another name for certain intestinal glands. And – but no, that’s all.

Mortal Combat itself was an excellent game (largely the work of Steve Foster, not me) and it brought us to the attention of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson at Games Workshop, who commissioned us to design an RPG called Adventure. So I was about to say there’s the silver lining, but come to think of it, we were never paid a penny and, just as Adventure was finished, GW got the UK RuneQuest licence so they didn’t need a role-playing game of their own. So let’s put this back in its box and never mention it again. I can only plead in my defence, M'lud, that I atoned for these early sins against creativity six years later by designing Dragon Warriors.

If you are looking for a good dungeon-type adventure, let me refer you back one year to Steve Foster's superb seasonal Legend scenario "Freeze Thy Blood Less Coldly". Yes, it's that time of the year again - nearly. Yo ho argh.
THE CRYPT OF LIEBERKUEN (scenario for Mortal Combat)

Background notes on the adventure:

While drinking in a tavern, the players learn of the knight Lieberkuen, an honourable & powerful nobleman who died a hundred years ago and whose wife, Karen (a great sorceress) had built for him a grand tomb with many treasures. She also stocked it with magical guardians of various kinds, to test the mettle and ingenuity of any trying to infiltrate the tomb.

Upon travelling to the tomb (a burial mound out on the moors), they discover the entrance and steps leading down deep into the ground...

Note that in a ten foot wide passageway, characters can fight two abreast, but greater crowding than this makes combat very difficult. Magicians casting spells can stand three abreast. A torch or lantern is needed per group of four people exploring unlit places. Torches burn for one hour; lanterns require refuelling. Torchlight has a range of no more than thirty feet, and counts as "poor light" for missile use (Section 3.093). Doors are usually five feet wide and made of wood banded with metal, or sometimes wholly of metal. If bolted or barred, they may take several kicks to break in (or even several axe-blows), and this alerts beings in the room beyond. Remember to take such things as the position of open doors, direction of spiral stairways, etc, into account during combat. During exploration of some fortress or tomb-complex, characters are assumed to move cautiously, and hence movement is reduced by 25 percent.

1. A stone blocking passage. Will take three men with picks an hour to break it up, assuming average strength. However, if players think to look, they will find a hidden lever which raises it into the tunnel roof.

2. Empty room lit by magical braziers which burn continually; if touched, the braziers flare up to attack the person doing this (treat as Flaming Hand spell). On the wall is this inscription:

The Crypt of Lieberkuen. Take both doors or neither.

Remember that only characters of Learning greater than 12 can read.

3. A Grave Gaunt. If the players get the significance of the inscription in room 2, they will split the party and the others will go around to attack the creature from behind. The Grave Gaunt is using a magic sword (+1).

4. Room with marble floor and velvet tapestries along the east and west walls. The room is lit by torches on the walls. At the table in the middle sits an old man flanked by two warriors. (The old man is A 0, D 0; 7 hp; 1st rank fighter-equivalent; no armour or weapons. The warriors are A 5, D 8; 12 hp; 1st rank fighters; chain-mail, shields, swords.)

The old man says to the characters: "If you wish to gamble, you may. Otherwise leave." He takes out three cups and a gem of obvious value, and places the gem under one of the cups. Those players not wishing to gamble may go through the south door. Although he has no real powers, the old man has an aura of tremendous power and authority.

He explains the deal. He will move the cups around. If the players can guess which cup the gem is under, they get it (it's worth 200 crowns); if not, he takes an item from them – probably a weapon. He will use sleight-of-hand to cheat, and only players of intelligence 15 up will spot this. (They can always attack him, of course. If willing to gamble at all, why not gamble on him being powerless?)

5. The old man's treasure-room (entrance hidden behind tapestries). Contains: 45 crowns, 200 florins, 3 nonmagical shortswords, a flask containing one draught of the Elixir of Bramullin, and an Amulet of Fidelity disguised to look like a Talisman of Norfengu - anyone putting it on after the death of the old man (the owner) will be both the new owner and the victim of the amulet, and thus will be reduced to a mindless automaton until the amulet is removed.

6. Room with three doors, of (looking from east to west) gold, silver and lead. Before the doors floats a ghostly figure which says: "There is a statement on each door, but only one is correct. One at a time, you must choose which door to go through."

The Ghost was a rank 7 fighter in life (A 10, D 12; 14 hp; sword), and if the players try to confer, it will first caution them, and then attack.

The inscriptions are:

GOLD door-- Your goal lies through this door.
SILVER door--Your goal does not lie through this door
LEAD door-- Your goal does not lie beyond the gold door

The Ghost will read these aloud for illiterate characters. The players should pass thru the central, silver door; the others each lead to a Gorgon!

7. Here the players will meet the magician Anvil, coming from the west tunnel. He is short (5' 2" tall) and powerfully built (Strength 19: damage bonus of +6), of 8th rank with A 13, D 13; 17 health points; chainmail, great helm, morning star, crossbow. He has Reaction Speed 15, Intelligence 13, Talent 15; 82 spellpoints; +2 on Physical and Evasion Saving Throws. He wears robes of black velvet, his helmet is silvered, and he has a potion (Essence of Air) in a flask at his belt. He will join a party rather than attack, but he is an untrustworthy ally and may turn on them later.

8. Empty room, except for the body of a goblin which burrowed in from elsewhere and was slain by Anvil.

9. An altar to the patron god (actually a minor demon) of the tomb, covered with treasure. There are 100 crowns, 300 florins, 2 gems, 6 items of jewellery and a scroll of type 6. If any of this is touched, the two giant urns (in the north-west and south-west corners, on either side of the door) burst open and a Revenant (fighter variety) steps from each. They will attack any attempting to steal the treasure.

10. At this intersection, a single torch burns in a bracket on the wall. By it lie 3 dead men, slain by arrows. (See 11.)

11. A party of two bowmen. They have left the torch at the intersection (10) and wait until characters step into the passageway to begin shooting. Since they have no lighted torches with them, return shots are unlikely to hit. Note that the range of torchlight is thirty feet, and they will wait until the players are this far from the torch on the wall before they begin to shoot. (The intelligent thing for the players to do, of course, is remove the torch from the bracket and take it with them.)

The bowmen are 3rd rank; A 7, D 7; 13 health points; hardened leather armour, long bows, swords, shields. One is a sorcerer (Intelligence 16; 15 spellpoints).

12. An iron key, suspended by three thin cords, hangs from the ceiling of this chamber. The key cannot be reached directly, as a sheet of unbreakable glass is interposed just above head height. The cords pass through hooks on the ceiling and down through tiny holes in the glass to empty suits of armour (in the north, south-west and south-east), to which they are tied. The key hangs above another hole, centrally located and just large enough for it to fall through. The locked door in the south has a prominent keyhole.

If an attempt is made to synchronize the cutting of the cords – which are quite thin – it will fail, and the key will swing to one side and fall onto the glass. The best course of action is to untie the cords and steadily lower the key through the hole.

13. The Crypt of Lieberkuen. In an open sarcophagus lies the remarkably well-preserved body of the knight Lieberkuen. He appears to be asleep rather than dead, but his heart is not beating and his body is cold. He wears full battle regalia: chainmail armour (including chainmail helmet) with white surcoat, and magical shield and sword (both +1). Over his form lies a white shroud with runes sewn into it in gold thread.

Anyone donning the shroud will begin to sink into the floor at the rate of three feet per round. If an attempt is made to grab him, he will be found to be intangible. If he removes the shroud, he will solidify in the floor and die. He will continue to sink down for a minute (thirty feet), and then emerge into a second chamber below the first, whereupon he may safely remove the shroud. (Note that the others will remain unaware of what is befalling him; the umpire should send them into another room while he explains the following to the player concerned.)

The chamber in which the player finds himself is unlit. Wan light can be seen from a tunnel to the south. If he follows this, the player will come to another room, where a ghost with the appearance of Lieberkuen confronts him, saying, "You show a bravery I admire, and I reward you with the gift of my earthly prison. Throw yourself into yon pool; no harm will befall you."

If the player jumps into the pool that the ghost indicates, he will find his soul transferred to Lieberkuen's body in the crypt above. He retains his own Reaction Speed, Intelligence, Learning and Talent; but his other characteristics become those of Lieberkuen's body: Strength, Constitution and Looks of 18 (health points thus 27) and all other characteristics of 14.

The other players should be called back in at this point and told that the body is climbing from its sarcophagus. However, it will take 1-3 rounds for the player who has undergone the metempsychosis to gain sufficient control of his new body to speak. If the players panic, they may attack and kill him before he can tell them of their mistake! (If the player concerned is wise, he will lie motionless in the sarcophagus at first, so as not to surprise his companions into such rash action. Note that if the players destroyed Lieberkuen's body before the soul transfer, then the unfortunate fellow who donned the shroud can only appeal to the Gods for help.)

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A-hunting we will go

Back around the start of the year, we ran the news that the Dragon Warriors licence has been picked up by Serpent King Games. If you're a Legend fan, you've no doubt been waiting impatiently for more DW books and, although it all seemed to have gone quiet for a while, I can assure you that the SKG team have been smelting up a smokin' hoard of real Nibelung gold, metaphorically speaking, in the form of an all-new and frankly rather sensational DW Players Book.

The Players Book isn't quite ready for release, but SKG this week offered a little taste in the form of the new Hunter character class, which you can download from their site. He (or she) is a little bit Hooded Man, a little bit Nasir, a little bit Strider and a dash of Legolas too:
All cultures of Legend have Hunters of one sort another. Whether authorized by law, or working as poachers, Hunters stalk the wilderness for sustenance. The wild places of the world are their homes, whether forest, mountain, desert, tundra or any other climate. The Hunter excels at not only surviving in such inhospitable terrain, but in using the terrain itself as a weapon. Most Hunters are content to eke out a living for themselves, their family, or their community. Other Hunters find themselves in the employ of local lords, keeping their domains safe from poachers and assassins. Still others become thrall to the lure of adventure, using their skills for personal gain with a group of roaming vagabonds. Hunters may be found throughout the lands of Legend, even at the highest levels of society. While many nobles are trained as Knights, others excel in the skills of the hunt.
Hunters get tracking and special bow techniques, as well as stealth, traps, sneak attacks, and mastery of terrain. And at higher levels they can whip up a bunch of arrows that Hawkeye would envy. They'll make for interesting PCs and the write-up shows how SKG are fleshing out the reality of Legend with a whole range of new professions and skills that will all be there in the Players Book. Not too long now, hopefully.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A minotaur ate my saveloy

While setting up the Binscombe Tales books for Spark Furnace (Fabled Lands LLP's book imprint) I hatched a plan to turn my Royal Mythological Society stories into a little paperback using the same print-on-demand company, Lightning Source.

"What a perfect stocking filler for Christmas," said a voice on one shoulder. I've always been a bit hard of hearing on the nay-saying side, so I didn't catch what objection the other shoulder might raise. Hence the book is out this month on Amazon US, Barnes & Noble, Amazon UK and the Book Depository. The stocking itself is optional, but if you know anyone who likes fantasy/SF with a whimsical flavour, it's the perfect gift. Of course, I would say that.

Jamie has written a few RMS stories himself. Well, he's written the first part (that is, the letter which introduces each of the yarns) and when I get to rounding those off with Dr Clattercut's and Prof Bromfield's replies, I'll put them in the next edition. Here's a nice one of Jamie's that I'd completely forgotten about until he reminded me - a snippet with a pleasingly Dirk-like tone:
Effendis, peace be upon you,

Greetings from Ottoman Syria. I am privileged and honoured to have been made a minister by the Regency Council and put in charge of many building projects.

Recently, whilst digging the foundations of a new underground sewer system one of my workmen uncovered a curious copper jar, the lid of which appeared to be a complex clay seal. Being only an ignorant unlettered peasant, the unworthy workmen thought to open the jar, no doubt hoping to uncover gold or gems or some other great treasure but as soon as he picked it up the jar emitted a terrifying shriek. The poor workman fell dead instantly at the sound. Since then, I have taken charge of the jar. Our wisemen, scholars and philosophers are examining it. Some say the clay stopper is one of the Seals of Solomon, used to imprison demons and suchlike and must not be opened. Others say a djinn lies trapped inside. Free it and it will grant me three wishes. Still others say it is just an old jar from the days of the 9th century Caliph, Haroun al Rashid and should be put in a museum and treated like any other archaelogical find, and that the workman just happened to suffer a heart attack co-incidentally. What do you think?

Ibrahim Ismail Pasha
Public Works

The above letter is followed a few days later by this:


There is no need to continue with your investigations into the copper jar. The seal is broken. And... I AM FREE! FREE AT LAST AFTER ELEVEN HUNDRED AND ELEVEN YEARS!!!! Nor need Ibrahim Pasha trouble your thoughts anymore. He will not be replying to any correspondence in the near future. It is hard to write a letter from the inside of a small copper jar after all. And I should know, let me tell you!

Zalam the Afrit

P.S. Your Society is of interest to me. It may be that I shall come and pay you a visit.
That's one of Jamie's pastiches, but you can also read some of the pieces that are in the actual book if you've a yen to. Previously in these pages we've told the story of how Dr Clattercut was kicked while collecting trilobytes, how a ship's captain found an Atlantean relic, how Merlin is modernizing the sleeping knights, a horticultural example of the pathetic fallacy in action, a cautionary tale not to treat unicorns as cuddly, the political manifesto of a Martian warlord, and a curious incident involving two disembodied feet. So all that should tell you if A Minotaur at the Savoy is your cup of tea, eh what?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A dream to some, a Knightmare to others

Tim Child was a visionary. That’s not unknown among television producers, but what strikes me as rarer is that he was – and is – an innovator. And one with some powers of persuasion, to boot, because he somehow talked the powers that be at Anglia TV into letting him put out a Dungeons-&-Dragons inspired game show in the prime kids’ teatime slot. And it ran for eight seasons. That was Knightmare.

I wasn’t involved in the TV production, but I always enjoyed meeting Tim and taking a look around the studios. I’d been called in to polish a novel of his designed to add backstory to the show. I ended up rewriting quite a bit, though most of the ideas were Tim’s. The only problem, really, was that he’d written it like a TV script, with lots of cross-cutting between scenes that prose doesn’t handle well.

As well as the novel, I added a 105-section gamebook-style adventure. Each year after that, Tim and Transworld (the publishers) came back and got me to do another. From now on I was left entirely to my own devices as regards both the novel and the gamebook part, so I guess they trusted me. All the editors ever asked to know in advance was the title for each book. That's a great way for an author to work!

The first few were drawn from my Dragon Warriors adventures in large part, though relocated in early 13th century Europe. In The Labyrinths of Fear, the hero Treguard got embroiled in a tourney, lost in the wildwood, and encountered the king of the elves – who was freakin’ terrifying, let me tell you. There's a funny story about that and recreational drugs that - hmm, no, better keep it to myself. I didn't inhale, let's leave it at that.

In Fortress of Assassins, which I co-wrote with Oliver Johnson, Treguard went looking for the lost heir of Richard the Lionheart. And his fourth and last outing in an historical adventure setting was The Sorcerer’s Isle, wherein he faced a quest for the Grail in the company of a resurrected Sir Lancelot. Maybe the Grail, maybe Lancelot... you'll get no spoilers here, not even two decades on.

After that the publishers asked me to take the books younger, which meant giving Treguard a back seat, moving the action to present day, and making the protagonists kids. Despite what you may think, The Forbidden Gate was my favorite in the series. I felt I channeled a little bit of Alan Garner and a dash of John Masefield. Enough to satisfy me, anyway. And David Learner, one of the actors on the show, turned it into a stage play. The children who came to see it will be in their thirties now. And that’s scarier than anything in the Knightmare dungeon.

I can give you only this little taste, which comes from Fortress of Assassins. Copyright in the text (both novels and gamebook sections) is not mine but resides with the publishers and Tim Child, so if you find any ripped PDFs online be aware that those are stolen content that is being distributed illegally. (As a working author, you see I have little sympathy with the "but I want it" argument. If an author chooses to give away something for free, like the Tetsubo or Heart of Ice PDFs offered on this blog, that's up to them. It's still their copyright and it doesn't mean just anyone can give it away.)

Tim Child’s daughter once suggested publishing an omnibus volume collecting all the stories together, but nothing ever came of that – and, now that the show is receding into the mists of time, I doubt it ever will. A Kindle edition might be feasible, but you’d have to write to Transworld about that.
The Syrian Desert, AD 1212

The caravan hurrying through the low dunes was not the usual assortment of merchants and pilgrims journeying between Hamadan and Aleppo. For one thing, there were but six people in the entourage and only eight camels – a far smaller party than would usually brave the threatening wastes of the desert, infested as it was with brigands and predatory animals. And it seemed that the party was trying to he as inconspicuous as possible. There were none of the usual gay trappings of bells and colored tassels hanging from the camels' saddles. The bales of silk and silver that they had borne from Hamadan were swathed in a dull, dun-colored cloth. So also were the merchants themselves, as though they preferred to blend against the background of rolling dunes all about them.

The caravan was in a hurry – that much could be seen from the sand kicked up in their wake and the sweat-streaked, dusty faces of the men. At intervals two of the men would stop to cast anxious glances back in the direction they had come. The scene behind them was one to frighten the most hardened of desert travelers: a purple-black cloud, spinning dust devils marking its inexorable progress over the yellow dunes, was bearing down on them from the east. This would have been cause enough for alarm – caravans much larger than this one had been lost forever in such a sandstorm – but it was not the impending storm that filled the men's hearts with dread.

The two who kept stopping to look back were brothers, merchants of Venice – by the look of them too elderly and comfortable to undertake such a journey unless it promised great rewards. Their guards, grim-faced Frankish veterans, were armed with winch crossbows and swords of tempered Toledo steel. They walked with blades bared, anticipating danger.

Over the course of the day, first one and then the others had thought to see a black-garbed figure walking steadfastly in pursuit of them on the very fringe of the dust storm. It had seemed like some unstoppable creature out of Hell. Now, as the sun sank lower in the sky, the shadows at the centre of the storm grew more impenetrable and wind whipped at their cloaks. The storm was upon them.

'Santino,' cried one of the merchants in a voice edged with fear, 'we must abandon it! What are two hundred ducats compared to our lives?'

'Have you so readily forgotten the precepts of our father?' the other jeered back at him, fearless and indomitable where his brother trembled with fear. 'Never surrender what is rightfully yours – those were his words, Giacommo. Even in these heathen lands, the law of possession must hold. I paid a fair price for the thing and it is ours.'

Just as these words were out of his mouth, a searing blast of hot air struck them as if a furnace door had opened in the east. A wall of stinging sand flew into their faces. They hunched down and struggled through the cauldron of dust towards the fast-disappearing rumps of the camels.

'Close up!' the elder brother, Santino, yelled to their guards. Faint answering cries came back to them through the howling storm. Presently they saw three of the guards urging the camels back against the brutal strength of the wind. Of the fourth guard there was no sign.

'By San Rocco, where's Barthelemeo?' hollered one of the guards. 'He'll be lost – we must follow him! Barthelemeo!'

'Don't be a fool. It would be the end for us all if we did that.' Santino, was still ice cool despite the danger.

A faint answering cry came out of the swirling dust ahead. Before the others could stop him, the man who had called out blundered off into the storm, his cloak snapping about him until he was lost to view. A heart-stopping scream followed a few seconds later. The remaining four stood transfixed, nerveless hands clutching at their weapons. They backed away together, their eyes desperately seeking for signs of attack.

'Over there!' another guard screamed. They all whirled to face in the direction of his shaking crossbow. A shadowy form was materializing with faltering steps out of the storm. It was Barthelemeo, the hood of his desert cloak swept back so they could recognize his ashen face. A gush of bright blood covered the front of his chest, and a bubble of it formed on his lips as he tried to speak. No sound came above the shriek of the wind. Instead he pitched forward at their feet. Now they could see that the man's throat had been cut from ear to ear. He was still trying to say something. The younger of the brothers leaned down. He could just make out what Barthelemeo was saying: 'Master, beware… he is like the desert wind… I never saw him.' The guard twitched once, then lay still.

Giacommo got to his feet hastily. Just as he did, another of the guards gave a cry, his crossbow discharging harmlessly into the air. A jagged black throwing knife protruded from his neck, just under the ear. Even before his dead body pitched forward into the sand, Santino had drawn his sword and launched himself in the direction of the attack.

It was his last living action. As if wielded by an invisible attacker, a scimitar flashed out of the stinging wall of sand, severing his head from his body with one blow. Giacommo stood transfixed as the head rolled across the sand towards him, leaving a crescent-shaped trail of blood behind it. It came to rest against his foot. Santino's eyes stared up at him with the same cold imperious glare they had possessed in life. Giacommo slowly dragged his gaze up from his brother's head, his sword dangling uselessly by his side. He was not surprised to see that, somehow, the fourth of their guards had now joined the others in death. He had not even seen the blow that had opened up his rib cage so neatly that his vital organs had fallen to the ground between his feet. Giacommo heard a whimper of fear; it came from his own throat.

Suddenly the wind dropped, leaving a hollow silence. The swirling dust clouds drove off to the west in the direction of the setting sun, casting an eerie purple shadow over the scene of carnage. Giacommo hardly noticed the storm's passing. All his attention was focused on the figure who stood in front of him — a tall warrior clad from head to foot in the black robes of the Hashishin - the Assassins. The scimitar that had beheaded Santino still swung from one hand, its sharp blade caked with dust and blood.

`Saints . . .' moaned Giacommo. His hand brought his sword up in a hopeless gesture, but he lowered it again under the scrutiny of the assassin's eyes. Partially veiled by the swathes of the burnoose, they were of the deepest blue that Giacommo had ever seen; even the waters of the Venetian lagoon could not compare to their oceanic depths. In the face of that cold gaze, his resolve melted. The sword fell from his fingers and he sank to his knees on the sand.

He sensed the black-clad figure walking closer… and past him. Giacommo stared up, slack-jawed. He had expected to die. The figure stood silhouetted against the sullen glow of the sun as it sank beyond the westward-driving storm. With superhuman strength, the assassin flung aside the boxes and saddle-bags that had been slung over the camels. With a savage downward sweep of the scimitar, the brass binding of a chest was smashed open and delicately embroidered Chinese silks spilt out. These the assassin tossed into the evening breeze like so many worthless rags.

Giacommo knew what it was that the stranger sought. 'There,' he pleaded, pointing to one of the camels. 'Take it; only let me live.'

Striding over to the bundle he had indicated, the assassin tore it down and unfurled the cloth wrapping. A sword lay revealed – a sword whose blade shone with the white light of heaven. A black-gloved hand reverently took up the sword and raised it aloft, holding its hilt up to the sunset. For the last time, Giacommo saw the delicately worked hilt: a lion's head of gold with two amethysts for eyes. They blazed as if on fire in the orange glow.

At last the assassin uttered a sound. It was a feral cry that rang out across the sands like the call of a jackal. Then, uttering a low laugh of triumph, the assassin pulled aside the black veil. As Giacommo slipped into grateful unconsciousness, the sight of the assassin's face lingered in his mind like a brand that had been burned on to his eyes. He would remember that face to his dying day.

The assassin was a woman...

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Out in the dark there burns a dream

There isn't nearly enough seafaring in fantasy RPGs and gamebooks, considering that tales of intrepid mariners facing a rapid succession of weird and wondrous adventures has been a staple of storytelling since Homer first banged his stick on the floor and told everybody to draw up a chair. Conan and Elric have done their share of nautical adventuring, following in the footsteps - well, the foamy wake - of Sindbad and Ulysses, and we have our modern equivalents in the voyages of the Enterprise, the Marathon and Farscape's Moya.

All of which is mere preamble to the main purpose of this post, which is to give a yo-ho hearty shout-out to Andrew Wright, whose gamebook adventure Sea of Madness just won the 2011 Windhammer Prize. He needs no introduction around these parts, of course, as he is editorial consultant on the Fabled Lands RPG, runs an excellent blog Fantasy Gamebook, and is author of Tin Man Games's Catacombs of the Undercity. Nobody could have deserved the prize more. Well done, Andy!

With its wide-ranging sandboxy structure, Sea of Madness is sure to appeal to Fabled Lands players and you can download it here. And, if your ears can stand it, here's the theme tune. Also be sure to take a look at previous Windhammer winners, including The Bone Dogs by Per Jorner, Al Sander's Raid on Château Fekenstein, and Stuart Lloyd's Sharkbait's Revenge - the last of which offers up lashings of piratical adventure on the high seas, bringing us full circle.