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Friday, 13 October 2017

The jackboot of stats

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'll leave the last word to Kirk Douglas:

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Ebon dragon gamebooks

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Start by forgetting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 29 September 2017

Arms and the man

“Where do you get your ideas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 September 2017

Latest news on Fabled Lands book 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Paul Gresty

Friday, 15 September 2017

Not where it's at, but how it feels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A game of perilous longing

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

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

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

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

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