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Friday, 20 April 2018

The price of magic

What’s it like to have to do a deal with a mafia boss? Most of us will luckily never find out, but from stories we know that the cost of doing business is going to be steep. If you go to the Godfather for a favour it’s because circumstances have left you with no alternative. You’re in a bind. He’ll do something for you that nobody else will, but eventually a time will come when he wants something from you in return – and you’re not going to like it.

Magic ought to be like that. I’m not thinking so much of things like scrying spells, which give the players a few supernatural hints to help move the game along, but the kind of magic that gives a quick ‘n' easy fix to a serious problem. When you use magic like that it should be a last resort, and the players should know there’ll be a price to pay later.

Consider healing magic. Too often it patches you up in moments and it’s like one of those herbal remedies that say on the packet “no side effects”. You know what a medicine with no side effects is? Useless. Anything really miraculous should come at a cost, and that cost should be interesting. Not just a matter of paying over a hundred thousand gold pieces, but the sort of quest or payment that embroils the characters in all sorts of fresh trouble.

In my Krarth campaign (which drew on Russian folklore in the same way that our Ellesland campaigns draw on British folklore) the player-characters were grievously hurt in a skirmish at their prince’s Winter Palace. Things had gone so badly, in fact, that over a decade later we still refer to an evening of catastrophic dice rolls as “nearly as bad as the Winter Palace”. They escaped from their foes into the dark and limitless pine woods. One of the characters, Niyej (played by Oliver Johnson), was less seriously hurt than the others and went in search of magical aid. Following a peasant rumour, he sought out a wise woman called the Mistress of Warts. The notes for that evening’s session ran as follows:

The Mistress of Warts
Somebody must go looking for the wise woman who can cure wounds.
Through light woods, slowly the sun disappears in clouds. Cold.
He emerges on a blustery ploughed meadow, climbs to the crest of the hill where he sees a long, long meadow stretching ahead. Gloomy, windswept, dispiriting landscape. He has to keep trudging up this seemingly unending slope. [I particularly like that it was the existential horror of this gradual but monotonous slope that most unsettled the player.]
He’s been told that he needs to keep on until he sees a line of trees and a pile of rocks marking a path.
Keeps on. It’s just after noon. At last he sees it. The path leads to heavy dark woods that reek of sweet fungi. Finds an old woman in the shadows. Under her cowl, a face all knotted around like a canker on a tree-trunk, just a single eye visible within the erupted skin.
She says he must stay – “with her sister.”
He goes past, to a cave where the sister waits. A girl of great beauty.
If he stays with her, winter sets in but it is warm and steamy in the cave. He occasionally ventures outside to piss in the snowdrifts, then rushes back to the fire and the furs and the girl’s embrace.
In spring, as the ice thaws and the daffodils appear, she says she is pregnant.
Summer – blossom drifts in, rabbits hop around, bees buzz in the trees outside. Thick scent of flowers, warmth of sunlight dancing in the green as her lump grows.
Autumn. Low light slanting through auburn and yellow leaves, mists, fruit rotting on the ground. He returns to find midwives around his woman, steam fills the cave from boiling pots. He hangs around nervously by the entrance, going forward as the baby is born. He sees it lifted by the midwives, catches just one glimpse: a shapeless, cankerous blob with a single eye –
He awakens on the hillside with a wooden mannequin in his hand. It now seems to be around 4 pm on the same day he set out.
He knows how to use the mannequin – dip a pin in someone’s wounds, then prick the corresponding part of the mannequin and the person’s wound will vanish.
Each time this is done, the mannequin grows in size. At first the character might notice when he puts it in his pocket – there was plenty of room before, but now it’s a tight fit. When it has absorbed a total of 100 Hit Points of injury, it comes to life – now a little dwarf – and gives a macabre baby’s cry of “Daddy!” before pursuing the character:

So far so good. But that’s just how I planned it for that first session. Niyej returned with he mannequin, the other characters were restored to health, and the campaign continued. From time to time they took wounds, of course, and each time they used the mannequin it grew bigger.

But now I began to think that having all this culminate in a big fight with the birth mannequin would be pretty dull. That’s just a way of handing the players back all the wounds that had been healed. More importantly, a fight closes that thread of the story off, it doesn’t keep the ball in the air. Instead I needed something that would move the story in a new direction by providing the possibility of conflict. Inspiration struck several sessions later, and this brief write-up should give you some idea of where it led:

Strange magic befell the characters in the Drakken Woods on their way to Port Quag. The sun failed to rise for three days and all except Count Fane became children. Somebody guessed that this was because the rest of them had all used the healing mannequin. A great white bear attacked and they managed to slay it, though most were injured.

Then the witch who gave birth to the mannequin appeared and asked everybody to bestow some gift (from their own stats) so that her mannequin could have a proper life. Balarog gave looks (his hair promptly fell out) and Makan gave psychic strength, but the others refused. So the witch named those two the mannequin's ‘godfathers’ and gave them gifts, then showed the party the way out of the woods. She kept the mannequin, by now as big as a large marrow. As the characters looked back, she stood holding it and it seemed that it stirred in her arms.

The party boarded a mysterious ship in Port Quag that immediately set sail northwards of its own accord. They would all have frozen to death except that Balarog used his gift from the witch – a paper pavilion that became a house big enough to provide shelter. Makan had the means to create food, but not enough to feed everyone. There were squabbles. Zharl took the wheel and by incredible application of strength he steered the ship towards the coast. Balarog nearly came to blows with Gyse over a cheese. Makan told the Count, who was resting from his injuries sustained fighting the bear. The Count broke up the squabble and pointed out to everyone that sorcery seemed to be affecting their minds.

Zharl remained at the wheel for two days and nights, finally bringing the ship to the coast at Mount Brink. Going ashore, they found a group of tribal savages who worshipped a glacier.

Balarog went exploring and returned with Niyejj and the Regent of Gog. The Regent decided to take everybody into his confidence, telling them that the sceptres of the Magi are used to bless each new prince. However, the sceptre used at the court of Gog is not the original sceptre of the True Magus Gog. Hence it could be argued that the royal line of Gog are imposters. Kaurballagen discovered this twenty-five years ago and rebelled, launching his own quest to find the genuine sceptre so that a ‘true’ royal line could be initiated. The Regent wants to find Kaurballagen's body in the glacier to see if there is any clue as to where the sceptre is. Once he has the sceptre, he can ‘legitimize’ the current Prince of Gog (the ritual of blessing must be done before adulthood). He asked everyone to consider the situation and examine their conscience. Did they truly serve the prince? If so, they should swear allegiance. If not – if they were bothered by the news he had just given them – they should renounce Gog and leave.

Everyone agreed to stay. But then the Regent said they would need supplies for the ascent of Mount Brink and so he instructed them to take food from the tribal savages. ‘The tribe will not have enough to last out the winter,’ he said, ‘therefore kill the elderly now so that they have the mercy of a swift death.’

Makan and Balarog would have done so, but Niyej flew into a rage and said he would not serve so ruthless a cause. Just as it was all getting a bit fraught, a beautiful youth with pale skin and golden hair showed up and pointed out an old lady of the tribe who was trying to hide some food. Niyej became even more irate when this youth, called Manikin, addressed him as ‘Father’.

Makan and Balarog accepted they were the youth's godparents and pleaded with Niyej to take on his responsibilities and give Manikin moral guidance. Niyej refused – ‘He is a creature of darkness, nothing to do with me!’ – and Makan feared that, without a father, Manikin cannot hope to learn right from wrong.

As an interesting footnote, the gist of that plot development was written up in note form as briefly as this:

On the road to Port Quag, they go through a wood where night lasts 72 hours. They all revert to childhood except for Count Fane. They face a terrible threat – a great bear that they will have to fight hard to overcome.

The Loathly Lady then appears and says that all gave blood to the Birth Mannequin but it is now after Niyej because it has no soul. And so they must decide whether to be its godparents and give it a soul.

If all decide (independently) to do so, they relinquish one skill or a stat point which becomes a specialty of the Birth Mannequin.

Which implies that the Mistress of Warts and the beautiful maiden in the cave were one and the same, as some of the players guessed. At any rate, what could have been a “zap and you’re healed” moment in the game turned into an eerie, labyrinthine subplot that went on to generate all kinds of interesting dilemmas and choices for the players. And they knew from then on that magical healing in my campaign was never going to be as easy as knocking back an aspirin.

Friday, 13 April 2018

What now?

What Now? was a gamebook series that Leo Hartas and I took to Walker Books. The pitch document has a reference to gamebooks having been around for ten years, so I was either thinking of Death Test, which would date the What Now? pitch to 1988, or of Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which sets an upper limit of 1992. Hazarding a guess I’d put the date of this concept around 1990.

It wasn’t the first time I’d thought of doing a gamebook in the form of a comic. This one was different because it was for younger readers.Each book would have 28 or 29 content pages, with 4-5 full-page illustrations and the remaining 24 pages consisting of up to nine comics panels per page. We estimated a total of about 130 sections ("paragraphs" in traditional gamebook parlance) given that some sections would require more than one panel before the reader was presented with another choice.

Knowing more about publishing than we had when we started out, Leo and I appreciated that a full-colour art-heavy book of the sort we were envisaging would have to be a co-edition. That is, Walker Books would need to partner with other European publishers so that the books came out in multiple translations. That’s why we decided to use icons instead of text for the choices.

Because the lead character would appear in the illustrations, these books would have been third person, with the reader guiding the character and maybe having a conversation with them, rather than the first-person style of most gamebooks.

The people at Walker were enthusiastic. Not so enthusiastic as to offer an advance right off, but I remember a bottle of white wine was brought out at the meeting. That was rare by the 1990s, when those boozy publishing habits seemed long gone.

“We want to see thrills and spills, fun and laughter,” the editor told us. My heart sank. That meant they wanted us to do a sample before they’d commit – and a sample of something like this, to be at all representative, required us to plan out the whole system and produce a substantial chunk of one of the books. Even so, we went away keen.

But… no, you didn’t blink and miss them; these books never happened. I can’t remember exactly why. It could be that Leo’s contact at Walker Books went freelance. Or maybe we just couldn’t clear enough time in our schedules for such a daunting chunk of work, seeing as I was busy on Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Leo had cutaway books to do for Dorling Kindersley.

The idea of an interactive comic book was interesting, but I would much rather have done a version for older readers. I never got on with “kiddie humour” even when I was a kid, and while the fairytale feel of What Now? would have been interesting to work with, I'm quite sure the editors were expecting Beano-style comedy, and that style of British slapstick did not appeal to me.

From the interface and the kinds of puzzles we sketched out I think I was already leaning towards the career in videogames that I moved to five or six years later. Even so, it’s a pity we never got to do these. I enjoy working with Leo and I think the pleasure of that collaboration comes across in what we do. As it is, all that remains of the proposal now are a folder stuffed with roughly sketched pages and the pitch document below.

WHAT NOW? gamebooks

Gamebooks for older readers have been around for at least ten years now. Each year a new series comes out, but usually they’re in the same old "Fighting Fantasy" mould. WHAT NOW? books are something new.

These are gamebooks with a difference. Intended for younger readers (7-9 years), the plots are straightforward and uncomplicated. These are fantasy stories, but not the kind of fantasy that’s filled with dreary dungeons and dismal ores. WHAT NOW? will have fresh, funny, vibrant plots with a hint of fairytale magic about them.

The idea is that the reader guides the hero or heroine through a series of adventures and puzzles, selecting the next picture panel to turn to by deciding between visual icons in the picture. These give the option to talk to characters, run off, look around, solve mazes and puzzles, open doors, etc.

The books combine the best in interactive fiction with the flavour of a good cartoon: vivid characters, enthralling situations, and a comic-style format geared to the world of the younger reader.

The Ingenious Genie
The clever King of the Genies has turned the tables on mankind. Instead of a genie appearing whenever a magic lamp is rubbed, the person rubbing the lamp vanishes off to serve the genies. Since the city of Baghdad relies on genie magic, you must help Abdul enter Genieworld and set things right – by arranging a more equitable deal between mankind and the genies.

[The story had Abdul having to run errands for the genie who’d summoned him while also trying to resolve the dispute between humankind and genies. If he failed in any of his tasks he got expelled back to the mortal world, which gave us a neat way to have the possibility of failure that just took you back to the start. These weren’t books you could die in.]

The Dinosaurs Next Door
The world has gone crazy. Dinosaurs are digging up the roads, delivering the post, and having tea in the local café. Guide Colin as he goes back in time with Professor Swetybenk and teaches cavemen the secret of fire so as to prevent all this. But how is he going to manage that. when the only caveman he can find is terrified of flame?

The Sun King’s Crown
The Sun King has had his crown stolen by robbers from the far side of the moon, and now no one knows when to get up to do their day’s work. The cocks aren’t crowing and the sun isn’t shining. Princess Aurora decides to go into Moonbeam Wood to find the crown, and she wants you to help her.

Running Like Clockwork
When the Earth stops revolving one morning, it causes a lot of problems. People have to anchor themselves to the ground to keep from flying off into space, for one thing. Chang, exploring a tunnel in search of his pen-pal in America, falls through to the centre of the world and finds the source of the trouble. Maybe you can advise him what to do?

The Bad Ship Nightmare
Pirates on the Sea of Zees have been waylaying sleepers and stealing their dreams. They fight, not with cutlasses, but with pillows, teddies, lullabies and cups of cocoa. Silver, a nine-tailed cat, might just be able to find the pirates’ treasure casket and unlock the hoard of dreams. The snag is that Silver is so lazy that all he wants is to lie down and have a kip, so you’re going to have to coax him into doing it.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Monster hunt, part 2

Here’s the second half of this distinctly mid-80s scenario. Originally Oliver and I had titled it “Cat and Mouse” but that’s before we realized quite how much of a tool for selling figurines it was intended to be. “Big Game” was much more honest about what it was -- and "Monster Hunt" not only more honest still, but in keeping with Games Workshop's tastes at the time.

We don’t generally use figurines in our own games. Sometimes we’ll break them out for a rare full-on tactical combat, but in that case we’re just as likely to use card counters. I prefer the players to imagine themselves in a real setting rather than as tin figures on a hex map. That probably accounts for why I wrote nothing more for White Dwarf after it had been uprooted and moved to Nottingham.

Well, that’s history. But now – the game’s afoot!

(download larger map here)
The characters’ job if they were employed by Altan is to capture or kill the various monsters on the island. If they have been wrecked here, their problem will probably be to find the jetty where Altan’s own boat is moored.

If they have confidence in their stealth skills, the characters may decide to split up. Less powerful characters will presumably opt instead for safety in numbers. If the characters split up it is probably best to treat their hunting like a board game (let everyone see everyone else’s moves) rather than the usual line of “you lot wait in the other room.” There is particular fun to be had here if the player characters make wagers among themselves as to who’ll get the most kills.

For convenience, movement on the overview map of the island is taken in five-minute turns. Each hex represents 60 metres. Characters get a number of movement points (WFRP: based on M score) which they expend for movement each turn:
For example, a character with M= 4, advancing at normal speed, would get 8 movement points each turn. Clear terrain costs 1 movement point to traverse, so this character could cross 8 clear terrain hexes in a turn.

Other terrain affects movement differently, as shown below:
The contours denote an increase of 20 metres, and a character who wishes to cross a contour going uphill expends +1 movement point to do so. When a contour line cuts through a hex (rather than along the hex side) a character ending their move in that hex must specify which side of the contour line they are on. Characters attacking down a slope get the advantage of higher ground. (Dragon Warriors: -1 from ATTACK of those fighting up the slope; WFRP: +10% to WS of those fighting down the slope.)

Spell duration
In Dragon Warriors this is determined by rolling d100 for each spell at the end of every five-minute turn:
A random encounter is checked for at the end of each turn. This is done by rolling d100 for the terrain the character is in and consulting the Encounter Table. For characters on a path, reduce the roll by d10. If an encounter is indicated, roll again on d100 to see if a second creature is also there.
DW: Check for surprise on both sides by regular STEALTH v PERCEPTION rolls. Make a separate STEALTH roll for each member of the party against the highest PERCEPTION of the monsters they have encountered, and vice versa. These conditions obviously favour the monsters, who are generally going to be encountered solitarily or in groups of two or three, rather than the characters, who are likely to be a larger party. Some characters (notably assassins) may prefer to shorten the odds by splitting off from the main party and scouting alone.

A character moving cautiously (see above) moves more slowly but gets +2 to both STEALTH and PERCEPTION. If running, he or she deducts -2 from STEALTH and PERCEPTION.

WFRP: When there is an encounter, check to see if either the PCs or the monsters heard each other. Each monster has been given a Noise rating (representing the chance of the PCs hearing it) and a Listen rating (which modifies its chance of hearing them). Remember that characters don’t get any chance to hear sounds which are softer than the noise they’re making themselves. Hearing someone as they approach allows the PC or monster to attack forewarned, which gives a bonus of +20 to Initiative for one round only. Alternatively they could try to Hide, which is more difficult (test against Initiative + Cool – enemy’s Initiative) but allows them either to avoid combat or to attack with surprise from ambush.

Optimum tactics vary. There is safety in numbers, and the additional bonus that every character in the group gets a Listen roll. However, characters with Silent Move lose their advantage if they’re accompanied by people who don’t have this skill, so they might prefer to hunt alone.


There is a small stone building here, and in any encounter except with the chimera there is a 50% chance that the creature in question will be lurking in this building. Altan’s ship, the Wave Rider, is moored here. She sits calmly despite the swell on the water, being stabilized and propelled by magic. Altan can still activate the ship’s propulsive magic despite his scrambled wits. A player-character can also try, requiring a test against the average of Intelligence and Will Power. Each character only gets one attempt. The oni and the hag have already tried and failed, so they won’t be getting off the island that way.

The swathe of woodland across the middle of the island has quickly become the favourite haunt of the fungus man (WFRP: black cap). There is a hollow log clumped with mould in which it sometimes hides, first leaving a small jewel (taken from the tower) on a twig nearby to tempt any travellers. If encountered in the log (25% chance), the first the PC(s) involved will know is when a hideous, fungus-spattered skeletal hand whips out from inside the dank log.

An unremarkable brook, except that the barghest will not cross it even though it is only a few feet deep. The water is pure, crystal clear and very refreshing.

This is where the rakshah has chosen to hang out. Its peculiar way of getting about (rolling sideways on its five radial legs) is ideal for the sand and shingle, which will slow its possible prey but allow the creature to move normally.

Formerly Altan’s home, now the residence of Annis the Spit and her accomplice, the oni. The building consists of a long hall with kitchen and living-quarters off one end. At the other end, steps wind up to the tower itself (where Altan’s books and magical paraphernalia litter the desks and floors and several chambers) and the subterranean menagerie, where the various cages now stand empty. All of the cages are enchanted so that anyone inside is powerless to either escape or harm someone beyond the bars of the cage until it is opened from outside.

If encountered here, Annis will get the oni to adopt her form so that the party will be confronted by two hags rather than one. The oni flatly refuses to douse itself in the noxious brews Annis uses as “perfume”, however, so a successful test against Intelligence allows a character to tell them apart. Characters who melee the oni will realize immediately, of course, because it is a considerably more skilful fighter than Annis.

Altan used to have two gorilla-skeletons as servants, but the oni smashed them when it cleared the tower. Characters may find fragments of the two (Altan called them Bones and Napier) still crawling around the place trying to carry out their domestic tasks.

The following creatures are at large on the island. Unfortunately many of them are unfamiliar, with special strengths and weaknesses unknown to the PCs – and Altan is in no state to compile a list. Obviously some of these creatures are much tougher than others, so if the PCs split into groups you will need to assess experience points according to the dangers faced. A character who gains exceptional glory (bagging the chimera single-handed, for instance) will have quite a reputation once word gets around, and he should get a reward that reflects this (WFRP: and perhaps even a Fate Point).

ATT 24; DEF 11; strikes with 1-3 hoofs (d8+1,5) and victim is subject to enervation spell which may reduce him/her to 0 HP; AF 6 (3 v magic weapons); 30 HP; 6th rank sorcerer with 9 Magic Points; MAG ATT 20; MAG DEF 10; EV 8; move 15m (30m); STEALTH 8; PERCEPTION 12 (darksight); special abilities (usable only at night) – regenerates 1 Magic Point each round, can disguise itself as any animal or person, 20% chance of catching lightning- or fire-based attacks and sending them back at the caster, never affected by the same spell twice if cast by the same magic-user.

Appearance: A fierce, leonine face from which five legs grow radially, like the spokes of a wheel. This odd creature is usually a dark bronze colour, but tends to change in hue to blend in with its surroundings.
Special rules: A Rakshah attacks by rolling towards its victim and kicking him with three of its hoofs simultaneously. If it scores a critical hit, increase the value by +1. It also has a 20% chance of reflecting any fire- or lightning-spell back at the caster, and is never affected by the same spell twice.

ATT 22; DEF 16; strikes with sword (d8+1,5) or claws (d8,4 and energy-drain); AF 4; 21 HP; 6th rank mystic; MAG ATT 20; MAG DEF 13; EV 6; move 15m (25m), flying 50m; STEALTH 15 (+3 by day); PERCEPTION 8 (panoptical); special abilities: invisible in daylight (still casts a shadow), can disguise itself as any bipedal creature, automatic shock attack on characters up to 7th rank, breathes strong poison every 5 rounds (reduces victim’s Int by half), claws sap five experience points per blow.

Appearance: Oni vary in appearance. This one has a demonic horse head with huge, blood-red antlers. Its body is manlike, but with three clawed fingers on each hand. It wears a soiled tiger-skin loincloth, more to parody human clothing than out of any sense of modesty.
Special Rules: Breathes noxious gas every five rounds so that characters meleeing the oni must make a Poison test or permanently lose 1d10 x 4 from Initiative and Intelligence. Has 15 Magic Points and can cast all Petty Magic spells. Invisible in daylight, but still casts a shadow. Can change form to resemble any living, bipedal creature. In natural form causes fear in living creatures under ten feet tall

Annis the Spit (hag)
ATT 16; DEF 10; attacks with staff (d6,3); AF 3; 19 HP; 4th rank sorceress with 21 Magic Points; MAG ATT 18; MAG DEF 8; EV 4; move 10m (20m), flying 50m; STEALTH 13; PERCEPTION 13 (darksight); special abilities: gaze exerts a d8 fright attack which may strike her victim dumb, all characters fight her at -1, anyone striking her is subject to a disfigurement spell, anyone struck by her is exposed to the Black Death; special vulnerabilities: first rays of dawn will turn her to stone, she takes +1 damage from iron or steel weapons, loses all spellcasting powers if she eats salt; magic items: flying cauldron, love philtre, vial of smoke, evaporating potion, sands of slumber

Appearance: A hideous and obviously inhuman crone.
Psychological Traits: Like all hags, Annis is immune to psychological effects. She is mad, but has no disorders because madness is the normal state for a hag.
Special Rules: Annis is a 4th level spellcaster with 23 Magic Points and the following spells - all Petty Magic, Assault of Stones, Bewilder Foe, Cloud of Smoke, Cause Rain, Foul Air, Hedge of Thorns, Summon Swarm. Anyone striking her in combat is subject to a Curse spell (causing warts). Anyone she wounds is exposed to the Black Plague. Being in her presence causes a character to acquire 1 Insanity Point each minute from various factors including her crazed babbling, foul stench and horrible cackle.
Vulnerabilities: The first rays of dawn will turn her to stone. She takes +1 damage from iron or steel weapons. Eating salt causes her to lose all her Magic Points for a year and a day. Annis counts as a flammable target (she takes an extra 1D4 damage from fire-attacks) and if she is burned to death, all that will be left is a charred lump of rotten wood like a dead tree in the shape of a woman.
Magic Item: A flying cauldron in which she can travel through the night sky.

ATT 26; DEF 20; strikes with sword (d8+2,6) or fist (d6+1,5); AF 5 (and shield); 36 HP; EV 6; move 10m (20m); STEALTH 15; PERCEPTION 19 (panoptical); special ability: unaffected by direct-attack spells; item: enchanted sword (factored into stats) with spells of Havoc, Nemesis, Turncoat and Sigil of Destiny – one of these can be used per day.

Appearance: A warrior of bronze fashioned a century ago by the famous artificer, Bruno Praetor of Marienburg. It looks quaintly manlike with a sculpted doublet, perpetual frown, and elegantly-styled tin moustache.
Psychological Traits: The Automaton of Marienburg does not have a human mind and so is immune to psychological effects. It displays intelligent behaviour, but many philosophers say that it only has the semblance of true thought.
Special Rules: It is possible to deactivate the Automaton by pressing the button in the centre of its chest. This requires a normal hit followed with a test against Dexterity at -25%.

ATT 25; DEF 7; primary attack with claws (d12+1,7); secondary attack with bite (d8,7) or butt (d12,5); special attack: can breathe flux of rays (MAG ATT 25) three times a day up to 5m which can reduce one target to 1st rank for 1-16 rounds; AF 4; 31 HP; MAG DEF 14; EV 6; move 12m, flying 70m; STEALTH 8; PERCEPTION 9 (panoptical); special abilities: automatic surprise, can constrict up to two characters for 1d6 damage per round.

Special Notes: A smaller-than-average chimera, but still capable of causing fear in creatures under ten feet tall. Altan clipped its wings, so it cannot fly at the moment. Its three bite attacks are venomous (death in 1-3 rounds if victim fails a Poison test). The claws and tail-lash are not venomous.

Water Leaper
ATT 19; DEF 4; attacks by biting (d6+1,6) and teeth are poisonous; special attacks: can spit venom up to 5m with SPEED 12, can swallow opponent whole; AF 1; 40 HP; MAG DEF 11; EV 4; move 8m (12m), flying 30m; STEALTH 7; PERCEPTION 9 (darksight); special notes: shriek is a one-off killing attack (MAG ATT 20, turns victim’s bones to water), carrier of leprosy bacillus.

Appearance: A giant, limbless toad with a long tapering tail, looking something like a huge pallid-white tadpole. It lives in lakes or ponds and uses its tail to leap out at opponents, hence the name.
Special Rules: The water leaper has a shrill shriek which causes terror in anyone who hear it. Its bite is venomous, causing drowsiness on the first failed Poison test, and death on the second. It can also swallow an opponent whole; the character needs to test against Initiative to avoid this. Anyone swallowed is immediately subject to terror (naturally) and will be digested at the rate of 1d6 damage each round if not cut free. A swallowed character who does not panic will be able to cut his way out from inside as long as he has a suitable edged weapon. Anyone rescued from a Water Leaper’s belly acquires 1d6 Insanity Points.

Fungus Man (DW – for WFRP use Black Cap)
ATT 13; DEF 6; attacks with greatsword (d10,5); special attack: 10% chance each round of infecting melee opponent with spores, no immediate effect; AF 1 (3 v stabbing weapons); 24 HP; MAG DEF 6 (immune to control spells); EV 3; move 8m (15m); STEALTH 3; PERCEPTION 9 (panoptical); special ability: demoralizing whispers, opponent must fight at -2 ATT, -1 DEF if they fail to roll Psychic Talent or higher (sic) on 1d20.

Black Cap (WFRP – for DW use Fungus Man)
Appearance: A mouldering skeleton caked with fungus, slightly phosphorescent in darkness.
Psychological Traits: Like most undead, black caps are immune to psychology rules and cannot be forced to leave combat.
Special Rules: Black caps exude a cloud of sweet-smelling spores which expose anyone nearby to Tomb Rot. They cause fear in living beings. Anyone who hears their horrible whispering voices, eerily describing the delights of the grave, immediately acquires the necrophobia disorder.

Kappa septurion (DW – for WFRP use Gillman)
4th rank mystic; ATT 12; DEF 6; attacks with spear (2d4,4); AF 3; 11 HP; MAG ATT 17; MAG DEF 7; EV 3; move 10m (15m); STEALTH 11; PERCEPTION 4 (darksight).

Gillman (WFRP – for DW use Kappa)
Appearance: A powerfully muscled creature with glistening scales. Although humanoid in form, its gills, fin-lined limbs and bulbous eyes show that it actually evolved from fishes.
Psychological Traits: The gillman fears fire but otherwise has no identifiable emotions and exhibits no other psychological tendencies.

Bugbear (DW: aka Ire Goblin)
ATT 15; DEF 6; attacks with claws, ranging from (d6,3) to (d6+3,6), or thrown rocks (d3,2); AF 2 (but 0 v magical weapons); 9 HP initially; MAG DEF 4; EV 4; move 15m (30m); STEALTH 12; PERCEPTION 7 (darksight); special ability: swells in size, each round gaining +3 HP, +2 ATT, +1 Armour Bypass and +1 damage for three rounds, then shrinks back to normal size.

Appearance: A dwarfish figure with wrinkled pink skin, bullet shaped head and sharp fangs. Barely one metre tall, it is naked except for its oversized feet, which are entirely covered in thick curly fur.
Psychological Traits: Bugbears are subject to frenzy if wounded. Other than this they are immune to psychological effects.
Special Rules: If a bugbear becomes frenzied then it starts to swell in size. Each round it gains +5 WS, +1 S, and +1 T. This continues for four rounds (by which time it will be taller than a man) and then it suddenly “deflates” back to normal size.

ATT 20; DEF 6; attacks by biting (d8,6) and transmits faerie poison – character must roll Psychic Talent or less on 3d6 or die; special attack: bark weakens characters within 30m (like the spell) and counts as a 1d12 fright attack which may deplete Strength to 0 (Spell Expiry applies); AF 2; 18 HP; MAG DEF 15; EV 6; move 15m (30m); STEALTH 24; PERCEPTION 17 (panoptical); special abilities: always gets surprise, gaze can transfix (MAG ATT 22), takes half damage from nonmagical weapons unless made of solid silver.

Appearance: A large black dog with flaring green eyes.
Special Rules: Bite transmits a faerie venom which causes the victim’s hair to turn white if a Poison test is failed. Bark requires anyone hearing it to test against Will Power or lose a point of Strength (it only barks once in any encounter). Gaze is hypnotic: test against Will Power or become transfixed until wounded, shaken or otherwise brought round. Magical or solid silver weapons inflict an extra 1d6 damage on the barghest.

Even if the characters round up all the monsters, Altan will still be deprived of his former intellect. Sadly he returns to his tower, to fruitlessly spend his days trying to concentrate on his books in search of a cure. Players being what they are, they will probably shed few tears for him.

A berth on Captain Flint’s ship will take them south to Algandy – and beyond, into the Coradian Sea, if they wish. The fee is 250 Florins per character as far as Algandy, 500 Florins if they’re going all the way to the Ferromaine League. This allows the umpire to take up their adventure with the “Mungoda Gold” scenario in Dragon Warriors Book Six.

The adventure, while not featuring the more subtle elements of story and character, is an excellent opportunity for players to show their command of tactics. Hopefully they will come through it with the realization that a frontal assault is not always the best policy, and that it often pays to think before you fight.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Monster hunt - part 1

This seems a good pick for April 1st. Not that it’s a joke as such, but it is a slightly silly knockabout scenario with a whiff of poisson. The original version used Dragon Warriors stats, and must have been written right after The Lands of Legend when we still thought Book Seven was on the cards, but it’s certainly too light on story to ever have been considered for inclusion in a DW book.

I have a feeling that Oliver and I knocked it up for White Dwarf on the basis of a casual conversation with Ian Livingstone in which he hinted that Citadel Miniatures might benefit from a scenario designed to sell figurines – “you know, like a monster hunt.” But Games Workshop wouldn’t have seen any mileage in a scenario based on Dragon Warriors rules because DW was sold in bookshops, so made no money for them.

That was around the time of the famous “sod off” issue when White Dwarf had been wrenched away from editor Ian Marsh and was in the process of transforming into a figurines catalogue. Well, Oliver and I had no illusions on that score, so with a quick edit the scenario jumped across to the Warhammer universe. Even then, though, I don’t think it was ever published. Maybe GW suggested repurposing it again for Tetsubo and by then I’d had enough of the thing.

The scenario is really just an excuse for a string of tabletop fights, first a scrap in the Tin Inn – pardon me, the Whaler’s Wassail – and then opening into a rambunctious monster hunt on Spike Island. It’s typical of the way White Dwarf was trending under the new Nottingham regime, but a little more real roleplaying fun could be squeezed out of it by encouraging some factionalism among the PCs, perhaps, or if the metamorphosis abilities of the oni and rakshah are used to stir up a little Thing-style paranoia. Otherwise just crack out the beer and pretzels and start swinging.


A scenario for Dragon Warriors and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson.

Party composition (DW)
This adventure is best suited to assassins, though any adventuring profession can take part. As a guideline, the party strength should be as follows:
If there are only a few players, the party can either consist of high-ranking characters or player-controlled NPCs can be used to bring it up to strength.

You have come to the port of Burhaven on the north-west coast of Cornumbria. Much of the last part of your journey has taken place in the sort of torrential downpour that always accompanies the arrival of spring in this part of the world. Soon all the rivers have flooded their banks and the road along which you ride has become a slough of mud. It is with some relief that you stoop under the overhanging eaves of the only inn in this small port. You are pleased to note that a ship rides at anchor in the harbour, for you have come here expressly to get passage on a ship going south. Evening settles in as you take in the scene from the shelter of the dripping eaves. Far out beyond the harbour walls, through a grey mist of rain you can just make out the sombre silhouette of an island. A wan light glimmers from a hilltop tower there.

Last night, in a terrible storm, a barque was swept onto the rocks of Spike Island. The sailors were all drowned, but their living cargo escaped from the wreck. This was an oni, an exotic monster not found in Cornumbria - or anywhere in western Legend (WFRP: the Old World).

Master Altan, the wizard who lives on Spike Island, is a collector of strange beasts. Having heard tales about oni from sailors returning from the Orient, he sent his hunters to catch one for his menagerie. His sources told him something about the oni’s magic, so he had provided them with an enchanted cage that would suppress its powers. After many months, the hunters had discovered an oni in a cave in distant Opalor (WFRP: Cathay) and managed to catch it after a fierce struggle.

They began the long haul north, back to Spike Island, to claim the reward they had earned. The voyage was fraught with many dangers, all of which they survived only to die in the shipwreck with their destination in sight. The bars of the magical cage were smashed on the jagged rocks, and the oni was set free.

It set out towards Altan’s tower and there, taking the disguise of a shipwrecked sailor, sought sanctuary. Altan was suspicious, but before he had a chance to pierce the oni’s disguise with a spell it had breathed its poisonous, mind-destroying fumes upon him. Fleeing in terror, Altan stumbled out into the storm and made a desperate escape from the island using his Ring of Far Deliverance (see below).

Making its way into the vaults below the tower, the oni was amazed to discover Altan’s menagerie: a shrieking, blood maddened collection of some of the strangest creatures in all Creation. One, a hag calling herself Annis the Spit, convinced the oni to open the cages. The creatures of Altan’s menagerie poured out wildly into the night. Annis and the oni remained in the tower, which they have quickly befouled to become a suitable lair. Annis is spiteful with petty evil and is content to let the monsters roam the island for now, though she intends to transport them all to the mainland to spread mayhem as soon as she can get hold of a ship. Although the oni is evil, it has its own intelligent goals (returning home, for one) and is not interested in such chaotic malevolence. However, being a stranger in a strange land it has decided to follow Annis’s lead for the time being.

Meanwhile, Altan has found his way to the Whaler’s Wassail tavern on the mainland. The oni’s breath has destroyed his intellect, but his personality is unchanged. Always a good man, he feels responsible for the evil that has happened and has a driving need to set things straight. Unfortunately, he is now quite befuddled and cannot remember precisely what did happen. He remembers that the monsters are free on the island, and realises that they must be rounded up or killed before they harm anyone. He cannot remember precisely what monsters there are, and has forgotten all about the oni.

As the player-characters enter the inn (see map below) Altan has just asked some whalers whether they will accompany him back to the island. They are reluctant because they are naturally a little leery of him. The wizard has always been a recluse, viewed with awe and fear by the locals. The strange cries that sometimes echo from his island have given the place a baleful reputation. He has, however, just offered them 50 Crowns a head to do the job. This represents several months’ earning to the whalers, so they are sorely tempted. They want to think carefully about the idea, and will certainly become irate if the PCs pre-empt them by offering to go with Altan in their place.

When the PCs enter, there are eleven people in the taproom. The six whalers (table B on the map) are dressed from head to toe in rank-smelling oilskins. Their greasy faces are concealed in the shadows of their oilskin hoods. They reek of the bloody charnel of their trade, and their evilly sharp harpoon-spears lean against the table where they sit.

2nd rank fighters; ATT 14; DEF 8; attack with harpoon (2d4, 4) or knife (d6, 3); special attack: can throw harpoon (d8, 4), armour bypass means it lodges in the target’s flesh causing 1 HP damage per round until pulled free, which causes 1d3 damage; AF1; HP 9, 9, 8, 10, 9, 11; MAG DEF 3; EV4; move 10m (20m); STEALTH 11; PERCEPTION 5

Skills: Sailing, Row, Fish, Orientation, Strike to Injure, Consume Alcohol, Swim.
Possessions: Harpoon (counts as javelin, but barbed: increase the value of any critical hit by +1); flensing knife; oilskin cape; 12 shillings.

In another corner (table A) sit three officers of the Temptress, the ship lying at anchor in the harbour. They wear the stiff epaulettes, voluminous capes, oak-carved gorgets and double peaked hats favoured by the sailors of Ereworn (WFRP: Kislev). The tallest of the three is Captain Flint of Salamur Port (WFRP: Erengrad). His helmsman and first mate have accompanied him so that the rough whalers don’t try any tricks. Flint intends to pay them for the whale oil he is shipping across the Glaive to Algandy (WFRP: south across the Channel).

4th rank fighters; ATT 16; DEF 10; attack with sword (d8, 4) or dagger (d4, 3); AF2; HP 16, 15, 15; MAG DEF 6; EV4; move 10m (20m); STEALTH 14; PERCEPTION 8; special item: Captain Flint has “Davy Jones’s Sparkler” (a ring of obedient parts) and a hipflask containing healing potion.

Skills: Sailing, Orientation, Fencing Sword, Left-hand Dagger, Storytelling, Dodge Blow, Astronomy, Cartography, Read/Write, Swim.
Possessions: Sword; dagger; leather jerkin; 5 Crowns; Captain Flint has two special items, Davy Jones’s Sparkler (a Protection Ring vs sea monsters) and a hipflask of enchanted rum that acts like a Potion of Healing.

Altan himself sits in deep shadows beside the hearth (table C), still in his dripping wet cloak waiting impatiently for the whalers to make up their mind about his proposition. He mutters to himself, wringing his hands and taking slurps of wine from the jug beside him. He will explain his plight to anyone who asks, and will accept their help in preference to the whalers whom he does not trust.

Altan should not be characterized as stupid. The oni’s breath which effectively reduced his intelligence has done this by destroying his power to concentrate. He now keeps forgetting things and can only carry a thought through by tremendous effort of will. Listening to him ramble away takes a lot of patience, and often it is quicker to complete his train of thought for him, but he does not give the impression of being stupid.

Altan is accompanied by his ape, Jemai, the only loyal creature from his menagerie. It too is soaked to the skin and chatters with the cold. It has a limited power of speech (instilled in it by magic) but it will only speak when spoken to. This is because Altan objected to unnecessary interruptions when he was working. If asked, Jemai will tell the player-characters about the oni ( “Strange thingy with grinning face came out of storm, ‘n’ blowed smoke in master’s face...”).

13th rank sorcerer; ATT 12; DEF 6; strikes with staff (d6,3); AF0; HP 13; MAG ATT 28; MAG DEF 18; EV5; move 9m (15m); STEALTH 16; PERCEPTION 12; special items: Ring of Far Deliverance (a ring of teleportation with 7 charges) and Cap’n Sabre’s Galoshes (boots of water walking); notes: Altan can still attempt to cast spells, but he must first roll to see if he remembers the spell (a d20 equal to or under his current Intelligence score of 5) and then has a 70% chance of miscasting it.

Skills: Arcane Language (Magick); Cast Spells; Read/Write; Scroll Lore; Secret Language (Classical); Identify Plants; Rune Lore; Magic Sense; Herb Lore; Magical Awareness; Meditation; Demon Lore; Identify Magical Artifact; Identify Undead; Mythical Beast Lore.
Possessions: Staff; robes; Ring of Far Deliverance (casts Teleport, usable once per month); Cap’n Sabre’s Galoshes (permit wearer to walk on water); pet ape
Magic Points: 33 (But Altan must test against Intelligence in order to cast a spell successfully or use any other knowledge skill.)
Spells: Petty Magic - Gift of Tongues, Glowing Light, Magic Alarm, Magic Lock, Protection from Rain; Battle Magic Level One - Cure Light Injury, Wind Blast; Battle Magic Level Two Mystic Mist, Zone of Sanctuary; Battle Magic Level Three - Cause Fear, Magic Bridge; Battle Magic Level Four - Aura of Invulnerability, Strength of Mind. (Altan didn’t manage to take any spell ingredients with him when he fled from the island.)

Jemai the ape
ATT 10; DEF 6; attacks by biting (d4,1) or throwing small objects (d3,2); AF0; HP 3; MAG DEF 3; EV6; move 12m (25m); STEALTH 17; PERCEPTION 13

Skills: Acrobatics, Concealment, Dodge Blow, Flee!, Pick Pocket, Scale Sheer Surface
Possessions: Toothpick, bag of pistachio nuts, brocade waistcoat, purse containing 12 Crowns and 3 shillings.

Jemai attacks by biting or throwing small objects. If there’s a brawl, he will climb up to the rafters out of harm’s way.

The innkeeper, Humbrol Greytooth, is behind the bar. He tolerates brawls as a way of life in Burhaven, but if his inn looks like getting seriously damaged he will use the crossbow he keeps under the counter. Otherwise, Humbrol’s only interests are serving ale and selling titbits of information to his customers.

Humbrol Greytooth
Unranked human; ATT 11; DEF 5; fights with cudgel (d3,3) or crossbow (d10,4); AF0; HP 8; MAG DEF 3; EV3; move 10m (20m); STEALTH 12; PERCEPTION 4

Skills: Blather, Brewing, Consume Alcohol, Disarm, Evaluate, Haggle, Storytelling, Strike to Stun.
Possessions: Crossbow, leather apron, cudgel
Special ability: Never surprised by anything that happens at the inn.

The taproom of the Whaler’s Wassail is mapped here in case of a brawl. (Download a larger version here.) Quite possibly such a brawl will start (like many in the past) because of the parrot. This annoying bird hears anything whispered within ten feet and will then immediately repeat it in a very loud squawk. Humbrol thinks his parrot is an exceptional bird – which it is – but does not realize that this is not a good thing. Many a muttered joke or remark about another patron has been relayed by the parrot with cawing bravado, sparking off a fight.

The standard DW or WFRP rules are adequate for any fight, but the following structured tactical rules may be preferred by those who like to brawl with precision. Attacks (including missiles and spells) must be aimed at someone in your 120° line-of-sight zone (see map). Each combat round is divided into three action phases, as below.

* Each hex represents about 1.5m, so a normal move is 6 hexes per round and a running move is 12 hexes. Alternatively you can backpedal – move backwards a total of 2 hexes. To run you must have taken a move action in the previous round and you must take a move action in the following round. When you take a move action you are not obliged to go the full distance but you must move at least 1 hex.

** In melee you can strike at an adjacent character in one of your front three hexes. You can only hit in melee if you moved no more than 2 hexes in the same round.

Within each phase, actions are first announced by all players in order of Reflexes (ie lowest first) and actions are then carried out in reverse order of Reflexes (highest first). When announcing, you only have to say which option you’ve chosen, not how you’re planning to implement it. For instance, you might say “move” but not how far or where, or you might say “hit in melee” without having to specify whom you’re going to hit.

Moving onto furniture costs a character 2 hexes from their move for the round and they must make a Reflexes test (difficulty factor 14) or fall prone. There’s no cost for moving off furniture, though. Fighting from on top of a table gives +1 ATTACK and DEFENCE. The tables and bar are immovable, but the chairs can be swung – or they can be thrown up to (Strength/4) hexes. Chairs count as (d8,3) weapons in DW rules, while the parrot's perch can be used as a staff once the parrot has been prised off it.

If an actual hand-to-hand slugfest is appealing, optional close combat rules can be used. Under he optional rules, any character can move into another's hex. It is possible to stand off a character closing with you if (i) you have a weapon and the other character doesn't and (ii) they are approaching from one of your three front hexes. Otherwise they collide with you and you both go down in the hex. Once in this situation, characters can only fight one another using unarmed combat, dagger or cudgel. They get to strike in both the first and third phases each round. DEFENCE of both characters is halved. Instead of fighting, a grappling character can spend the round trying to extricate himself and stand up; he has to roll under Reflexes on d20 to succeed (unless the other person is also trying to get up).

Getting to the island
There are a number of boats by the quayside. These belong to the whalers, and theft will result in a hot and bloody pursuit. Each boat takes up to sixteen people (minimum crew six) and the whalers are prepared to hire one of them out for 20 Florins (WFRP: shillings) a day.

Captain Flint’s ship is due to weigh anchor tomorrow morning, so if the characters intend to sail with him this will only give them the night to explore Spike Island. Flint is quite inflexible about his schedule unless bribed, and no other merchant vessel is expected in Burhaven for ten days or so. The Temptress has a crew of fifteen in addition to her three officers. These fellows have been given strict instructions not to allow anyone aboard. They have hung oiled nets over the sides to give would-be boarders a slippery climb.

Only a skilled mariner will be able to steer a ship or boat to the jetty on Spike Island. Characters with a nautical background (DW: see Book Six) might just have the appropriate expertise. If not, their craft will be seized by strong coastal currents and swept into the island in a random location: roll d12 to determine the shore zone on the island map (see next post).

Come back next week for the concluding instalment.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Almost too good to be true

If I told you there was a definitive history of computer roleplaying games available as a large format 528-page full colour book, you'd have your chequebook out and be asking me for the Kickstarter link, right?

Well, spring is here and with it a flowering of sweet beneficence. Because The CRPG Book Project, authored by divers hands under the editorial aegis of Felipe Pepe, is here right now and it's completely free. Don't believe me? I wouldn't blame you, so go take a look.

If you want a print copy you could probably fix one up for yourself on Lulu. Or just read the book on a tablet and let those colours glow the way they were always meant to.

Friday, 16 March 2018

So you want to write a gamebook

Back in the 1990s, Mark Smith and I co-created the Virtual Reality gamebook series. There were six books, four of which (the ones I wrote) are back in print as Critical IF.

Actually, that’s not quite the full story. There was a seventh, The Mask of Death, written by Mark, that remains unpublished to this day. I’d stepped away from the series by that point, and it wasn’t worth us following up because the gamebook craze was all but spent, but in the first flush of signing the series we still thought we could spearhead a revival. To that end, I sketched out guidelines for other authors to write for the series, in the same way as the Fighting Fantasy editors had done a few years earlier.

We thought the big innovation of VR, of not needing dice, would make the books more user-friendly. You could play them anywhere; that had been our pitch to the publishers. Also the US market at that time hadn’t embraced the kind of dice-n-stats gamebook beloved of British kids. Choose Your Own Adventure was still the defining series in America. We thought VR, with its more sophisticated storylines, could challenge CYOA, but we failed to net a US publisher.

Still, that was then. Today, thanks to print on demand, the Critical IF titles are available worldwide. I recommend starting with Heart of Ice – but then, I would. These writer guidelines were written long before that book, hence the emphasis on fantasy rather than science fiction or other settings. (Incidentally, if you really do want to write a gamebook and you're looking for some top tips, let me just point you to Stuart Lloyd's excellent blog.)

Guidelines for authors (from 1993)

Each book is 430 to 500 sections long (a total of about 65,000 words). Most of you reading this document have written gamebooks before, so I merely present the following as points for consideration.

By way of preamble, I think a good gamebook should be playable straight through if the reader thinks about what they’re doing. Don’t make the adventure so tough that the reader keeps having to go back to the start. In short, don’t become so obsessed with making the game a challenge that you lose sight of the fact that the story must be fun.

What I need from you are the following: an outline explaining the book (around 500 to 800 words), the prologue section of the book (at least 1000 words), and the first fifty sections. You don’t need to do fully written-up versions of those fifty sections (in fact a decently handwritten flowchart would do) as the purpose is to see how well you are utilizing the Virtual Reality system and the different possibilities of your plot.

1. Top notch storylines
Above all, the books must be a cut above other gamebook series. Think of the storyline. Would it make a good novel? Is it the kind of story you’d be interested in reading yourself? Aim to write something you’re personally invested in, not a piece of hack work.

VR books generally aim for a more intelligent level of fantasy than other gamebooks. For example, in Necklace of Skulls there is a sequence where the protagonist meets a stranger in the afterworld who presents him with a riddle. In many gamebooks, the purpose would simply be to solve the riddle and receive an arbitrary bonus. In this book, the whole point was to avoid answering at all, since the protagonist had to remember he was under a geis not to speak. The stories should thus have sensible internal logic, not simply be a series of arbitrary puzzles.

2. Interactive fiction
The central idea of the series is to create something that truly reads like a piece of interactive fiction. That means a continuous, well-written, exciting narrative over which the reader has true control. This is the reason why rules have been kept to a minimum. Your book should read like a good fantasy novel – or rather, like several parallel intertwining fantasy novels.

Try to avoid “save-the-world” plots. Stories driven by personal goals can be much more effective in any case, and saving the world in every book just gets tiresome. The prologue section can help explain the protagonist’s involvement, but try to avoid forcing the reader into a specific role. (“You are a noble hero who will die to save the world if you must” is not much good if the reader wants to play as a Han Solo type who only reluctantly ends up a hero.)

3. Getting through to the end
Most VR books allow the reader to design his/her character by taking four skills from a list of twelve, The standard twelve skills are listed at the back of this document, but some leeway is possible. For instance, Down Among the Dead Men substituted MARKSMANSHIP for ARCHERY.

Remember that it must be possible to complete the book using any combination of four skills. This means that if certain items are vital to success, there must be ways to obtain them using nine of the twelve skills, assuming that they can only be got by using skills. Note that options are rarely listed for more than three or four different skills in any situation, so you would not want to make your whole adventure hinge on a single item (the Ring of Winning the Adventure, let’s call it) and then just list nine ways of getting it. You could have alternative items that must be obtained with alternative skills, or allow different ways of winning.

4. Use of the skills
There are two basic ways that skills options are presented. The first is where the reader is given a list of possible skills that can be helpful in a situation, and chooses from any of those skills that he/she has. For example:
“The guards are coming this way. Do you want to use SWORDPLAY (221), UNARMED COMBAT (125), ROGUERY (78), CUNNING (377), or none of those (300?)”
The alternative is to give the actual range of activities the protagonist might attempt, and allow the reader to choose the one that corresponds best to his/her skills. For example:
“The guards are coming this way. Will you show yourself and fight them (33), hide in the shadows (71), or raise a hue and cry to distract attention (296)?”
5. Replayability
The reader should be able to start the book again with a different character and not simply encounter the same situations every time. As a rule of thumb, try to have at least three independent (but possibly interlinked) strands for the first hundred entries of the adventure, gradually bringing these together as you approach the climax.

The skills system lends itself readily to diverse story strands. For instance, to reach a distant objective the protagonist might travel by sea, by open country, or by roads which take him/her through various cities. Straightaway you can see how SEAFARING, WILDERNESS LORE and STREETWISE can be useful – perhaps in expected ways; WILDERNESS LORE might help you at sea, for example, or knowing a bit of nautical lore might make you a friend on the road.

6. Balance
This ought to be obvious. Try to make the skills of roughly equal value, and utilize them equally throughout the book, Don’t bother listing a skill which can only be used once or twice in the whole book.

One big potential pitfall is the SPELLS skill. It’s very versatile in any case, so avoid the obvious trap of making it overwhelmingly powerful as well. Magic may well vary according to the setting you have chosen for your book, but a good rule is not to allow magic to be cast in a hurry. If it takes time to work magic, characters with SPELLS will not automatically be better than those with other skills. Also avoid use of SPELLS which makes other skills redundant – eg, invisibility, which logically would work better than ROGUERY if the character is trying to hide. You can permit invisibility of course, just don’t let it be as effective as ROGUERY. Maybe there are pots and pans strewn about, so that invisibility alone isn’t enough to escape detection. That way, discovering the limitations of magic might turn out to be part of the reader’s fun.

Also remember that because you control the narrative in a way that no referee can ever control a roleplaying game, the way you present magic can be much more interesting than the usual RPG list of spells. Magic can do anything – some of the time...

7. Objective(s)
It used to be one of the Puffin Fighting Fantasy guidelines that every book should have a clearly defined objective which is explained to the reader at the start. This isn’t necessarily the case. In Paul Mason’s Black Vein Prophecy, for instance, the protagonist starts with no memory of the past and no clear idea of what to do at first. But, of course, there is an objective there – only it’s an implicit, not explicit, one.

You should have one or more objectives in mind, even if you don’t tell the reader what those are. The better gamebooks are often those where the reader starts with one objective, only to have it altered or superseded in the course of the adventure.

The fighting skills are ARCHERY, SWORDPLAY and UNARMED COMBAT. Two of these are skills that require an item (a bow for ARCHERY, a sword for SWORDPLAY) and so they ought to be a little better than most skills. I make SWORDPLAY about 50% better in a fight than UNARMED COMBAT (so if you lost 4 Life Points using UNARMED COMBAT you’d lose only 3 Life Points using SWORDPLAY). There should be at least one situation in any book where UNARMED COMBAT comes into its own – eg, you’ve been disarmed, or weapons are prohibited – so that it doesn’t just become the poor man’s SWORDPLAY.

Among the “thief” skills, ABILITY is the sort of climbing, balancing, leaping, acrobatic stuff for which Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks were famous. ROGUERY is the ability to pick pockets and creep around without being spotted in the style of any famous thief. CUNNING is the preferred problem-solving method of all tricksters: Loki, Odysseus, Cugel, Coyote, and the like.

WILDERNESS LORE, SEAFARING and STREETWISE are all travel/survival skills and are fairly self-explanatory. This is the area in which you are most likely to have to customize the system to fit your own book. You won’t bother to have SEAFARING if you set your adventure entirely in a forest, for instance. Necklace of Skulls replaced STREETWISE with ETIQUETTE.

Of the magical skills, CHARMS and SPELLS both require items and therefore can be a fraction better than other skills. This seems to be so inevitable in the case of SPELLS that I’ve devoted a whole section to it in the snagging list. What is the difference between SPELLS and CHARMS? In essence SPELLS brings about changes, while CHARMS protects from changes. SPELLS usually take a while to cast, CHARMS are quick and easy but less potent. SPELLS have many extraordinary and specific applications; CHARMS work as a more general level of good luck. You actively decide to use SPELLS, whereas frequently CHARMS provide passive defence. Some of the books so far have established CHARMS as giving a degree of danger sense.

The third magical skill, FOLKLORE, should not be overlooked. In a world where magic is real, knowledge of its limitations is power. FOLKLORE can give the character forewarning of perils that he or she can otherwise only learn about by befriending the right person, consulting the right book, etc, meaning that a character with FOLKLORE is more certain to know what they’re walking into. Also, FOLKLORE allows you to reveal some of the less well-known elements of your world background, so that a reader taking the skill gets insights into the setting that they otherwise wouldn’t know.