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Friday, 18 May 2018

Positively the last RuneRites

If you were a fan of the RuneRites column in White Dwarf thirty-five years ago - indeed, if you were even born then - here's a very late addition to the files. I had this lined up to run alongside Oliver's "Wrecker Island" scenario for Questworld. But then Questworld fell through, Games Workshop stopped pushing Runequest, and RuneRites got shifted back to bimonthly. Since the scenario was never used in WD, neither was this column, although the former later appeared in Dragon Warriors book 3: The Elven Crystals. It had changed quite a bit - the original scenario was set in tropical seas, the DW version was rainswept and wintry - and the RQ monster stats here were never needed. So, for the RQ completists out there...


RuneRites: RICH AND STRANGE
A selection of sea creatures
By Oliver Johnson

When adventuring in a marine setting, be sure you are familiar with the drowning rules (Runequest Appendix E). Also, Borderlands explains how difficult it is for humans and other air-breathers to fight underwater: Air-breathers don’t get their damage bonus underwater. Except for metal-strung crossbows, missile weapons cannot be used. Armour reduces combat skills by 5% per ENC point unless specially designed for use underwater. Attack chances (except for thrusting weapons) are halved after making the ENC reduction. So if the drowning don’t get you the monsters sure will! Talk about being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. -- DM

Barnacle men
These undead creatures come up from the ocean depths during storms and cling to the hulls of ships and coral reefs. Their bodies are completely covered with barnacles, and anyone succeeding in hacking one apart will find only a calcified white skeleton beneath this near impervious layer. Using their massive strength, barnacle men break through the bottom of ships to search the holds for jewels. If there is no plunder to be had, they will then stalk the ship terrorizing its crew. Barnacle men are frequently found with stolen precious stones embedded in their shell covering; assume a 20% chance of 1-8 gems.

Folklore: If you wander round the bars and taverns of Deliverance, you will find many an old salt with tales to tell of barnacle men, but few who can claim to have actually seen one. The popular belief among sailors is that these creatures are the liches of pirates so rapacious and malign that they cannot rest in death, but rise up from their sunken ships to torment the living. Most sailors know that disruption is a good way to deal with barnacle men.

Giant electric eel
Any character who hits an eel suffers an electric shock. This is resolved as a 2d8 attack to CON, like a systemic poison attack except that the lost CON recovers at the rate of 1 point per full turn. Additionally, a character receiving an electric shock is reduced 1d6 points in STR for two minutes.

Dead men’s sighs
Said to be the dying breath of sailors killed on rocks and reefs, these blue, wraith-like spirits appear at dusk and dawn, drifting out of the waves to attack the unwary. Normal weapons (even Runic metals) will not harm them, but any magical damage immediately disperses them like mist. They attack by closing with their opponent and matching POW vs POW. If the sigh wins, the victim takes 2d3 damage (a chilling numbness) directly to a random location, and the sigh then dissipates.

Stingray
Rays will always attempt to avoid melee, and will only fight if cornered or attacked in the lair. Rays should be treated as though they have shimmer 2 at all times. This is not a spell-effect, but instead derives from the ray’s camouflage ability to fan up an obscuring cloud of fine sand from the sea bed when threatened.

Giant clam
You encounter a clam by stepping onto it, so any encounter must be checked against the character’s Spot Hidden. A character trapped by a clam takes 2d6 on the first round, then 3d6 on the next, and so on. The damage does not go on increasing after the sixth round. Armour will protect until it is crushed. Clams can be forced open by combined STR equal to the clam’s own STR (4d6+8) – if a character can improvise a lever of some kind he gets a 50% STR bonus.
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Sharks
Sharks vary quite a bit in size and ferocity. The sort described here average about 2.3m in length, and are well known to the sailors who ply the southern seas to trade in Gradisti. Sharks will attack anyone who is bleeding or thrashing about, and such is the terror that these creatures instil that I suggest an MDFx5 roll is required for any character who spots them while in the water. If the character fails this roll, he or she panics and cannot help shouting and struggling. If a shark’s tail is reduced to 0 hit points it will start to “drown” as sharks must move forward to breathe. Reducing its head to 0 hit points will halve its Attack chance but the shark will fight on for 2-6 rounds before dying.

Hungry Morguss
Hungry Morguss is a legend among sailors, a monster of folklore spoken of by those who have somehow survived when their ships went down in maelstroms or violent storms. Such mariners will sometimes whisper of having looked down into the ocean’s depths at the moment of disaster and seeing in the waters below a huge, mad, staring face with a gaping mouth, bigger than three large ships, sucking the doomed vessel down in a whirlpool. This evil visage is believed by sailors to be Hungry Morguss, a marine aspect of the devil. We may speculate at leisure as to other explanations. The face of Death himself? A monster, demon or forgotten god from Questworld’s antiquity? A mere phantasm created in the mind of sailors when disaster is imminent? How shall the truth be known?

Friday, 11 May 2018

The supersize option


All of the Fabled Lands books are now back in print in large format editions. These are 8" by 10", matching the original 1990s books -- though not, unfortunately, with those old fold-out covers that marked FL out as a hybrid of RPG, gamebook and boardgame.

But here's a heads-up. If you're ordering from Amazon, you're very likely to see a message telling you the books are "temporarily out of stock". The reason for that is they're set up for print on demand, which means that when you order a copy, Amazon sends a request to the printer (Ingram Spark) and your copy is added to the print queue. So naturally it isn't in stock at the time you order; that's the point of print on demand.

That message doesn't appear if you order the smaller format books because we set those up on Createspace, another POD company that Amazon bought a few years ago. It does seem as if Amazon's policy is to list books printed by rival POD companies as out of stock, but not to do that if the book is printed by Createspace.

Point is, you should get your book delivered in the same time either way. Amazon might tell you it'll take 1-2 months, or even that they are unable to say when the book will be delivered, but the fact is it'll probably arrive within a fortnight. Some Amazon customers have told me they even received an email from Amazon saying that they couldn't give a delivery date, only for the book to turn up that very same day.

There are other options, though. You can ask your local physical bookstore to order a copy for you. If they say they don't know how to do that, give them the ISBN and tell them to look on Gardners.

Or you can buy from Barnes & Noble who, not having their own print division, are happy just to supply what the customer wants without all the hassle.

Over the Blood-Dark Sea
The Plains of Howling Darkness
The Court of Hidden Faces
Lords of the Rising Sun

The snag there is that the first two books are printed by Createspace, who won't supply to B&N, so you have to get those from Amazon. It's a war, and book buyers are in the middle of it. Don't let the Soulwatch grind you down.


Friday, 4 May 2018

"Elf-struck" (scenario)

This is an adventure seed rather than a scenario. I threw it into my campaign as a monster-of-the-week episode while the player-characters were making their way across Dark Ages France en route to Wessex. I make no claims for the scenario except that it could work in pretty much any setting right up to modern times. The presence of the ulembi, incidentally, connects it canonically to the lost continent of Abraxas that Jamie and I created for an MMO.


THE THING IN THE FOREST

On the way to Rouen, the characters pass through the forest villages of Ury, Fons Bliaudi (later Fontainebleau) and Barbizon. In each village they encounter a local idiot. The behaviour is the same: the man stares at them, points, and mouths inarticulate sounds.

Locals will say: “Don’t mind ‘e, ‘im be Hugo/Peter/Will, been like that fer years. The duende took ‘is wits, left ‘im cabbage-brained.”

The story is that these three were woodsmen, but each ventured too close to Oldtooth Dell where the fairies (duende) live and came home half-witted.

At Fons Bliaudi
The inn is run by a young woman, Tarqua (23) who is pensive and distracted. It turns out that her husband, Uril, went to Barbizon to sell a bay mare three days ago and has not come back – though the journey there and back could be done in a day.

Tarqua may try to bribe or seduce the characters into helping find out what has happened to her husband.

If they ask, locals tell them it’s unlikely he would have run off. Tarqua and Uril were sweethearts from the age of 5. They are even known as “Uril’s Tarqua” and “Tarqua’s Uril”.

Could he have fallen prey to bandits? The miller scoffs: “He had his cudgel with him. No dozen bandits could take on Uril with his cudgel.”

At the inn, they see one of the idiots hanging around under the eaves as if surreptitiously listening in on their conversation. (He’s actually making a recording.) Having already seen one in the previous village, they should now be wondering why there should be two such individuals in such a small area. If not, running into the third idiot in Barbizon will surely tip them off.

Their Perception vs the idiot’s Holdout of 13 to spot the box he’s carrying. He won’t want to show them what it does, but if forced it plays back sounds that may be recognizable (IQ-5) as the rhythms of their own words from a few minutes earlier, only with unfamiliar substituted sounds at a deeper frequency than speech.

The idiot follows them along the road to Barbizon.

Oldtooth Dell
A steep wooded valley. A stream runs down to a pool that you have to wade through to enter a cave. They could be guided here by Podraig and his truffle-sniffing pig “Trimmer”. Along the way, if very observant, they might spot birds and animals watching them more intently than usual. (The Ulembi is looking through the animals’ eyes, though Podraig would of course attribute it to faerie influence.)

Inside, the cave smells musty and lair-like, but with a faint ammoniac trace behind that. It narrows to a cleft in the rock about forty feet back from the entrance – a high, sharp-roofed tunnel that narrows to about six feet wide.

After about forty feet, the tunnel turns and there are paintings visible on the walls. Hand-prints on the right (made by blowing dye around the right hand) and on the left a procession of animals, then of men in hide clothing, and finally something that looks like a huge inverted tree (or perhaps roots of a tree) that dwarfs the human figures. This is a prehistoric depiction of the Ulembi.

By now the ammonia stench is sharper, and characters should roll IQ to notice a very faint headache (located in the forehead, if anyone asks).

Approach to the innermost cave
The tunnel narrows to what at first looks like a fire-blacked chimney. From here, a low passage stretches up. It requires characters to crouch, and they can only proceed by discarding armour. (Characters of Lifting ST 16 and up must discard under-armour too.)

As they move on, they start to experience a greater pressure in the head, accompanied by flashes of visions – or memories. They can fight this with Will-5. Anyone who succumbs or willingly allows the memories to flow will get the flashback.

The flashback
In our Immortal Spartans campaign the characters remembered themselves as 16-17 year-olds patrolling in the Krypteia, and learned something they had all been made to forget over a thousand years earlier. The idea is that the ulembi’s ESP set off something in their minds that allowed them to penetrate the mind-block that had been placed on them then. Substitute whatever important flashback or psychic insight will enhance your campaign – or disregard the flashback entirely if you prefer.

The cave
At first just see the device. Uril is here, with wires leading into his head. He rolls his eyes if spoken to, but seems not to understand them.

The ulembi is splayed low, and therefore at first unseen by the characters (assuming it makes its Stealth roll) then rises up amid the rocks – possibly getting surprise.

This creature has been here for thousands of years, periodically hibernating while trying to build a transmat device to return home. This device, only about three-quarters finished, is an array of wires, crystals and silica panels salvaged from its crashed ship.

The recordings it has the idiots make are played into the device in order to tune it to human brainwave frequencies. When complete, the device will draw on energy from everyone within fifty miles, mind-wiping them in the process.

Ulembi
Creatures from a star cluster beyond the Coal Sack, who came to Earth millennia ago by psychically broadcasting themselves through outer space to escape their own dying world.

Ulembi have large heads whose hard ridged integument resembles a walnut. This skull protects the creature's huge brain. A ring of dark globular eyes protected by deep recesses allow the ulembi to see in all directions at once. There is a short neck and then the ulembi's trunk bifurcates, the two stout limbs resembling large serpents. At the end, each limb divides into four tentacular fingers. The ulembi can balance on one limb or on its "elbows" while holding something in the fingers, but rarely needs to do so because all ulembi are able to manipulate small objects by telekinesis.

When fully reared up on its limbs, an adult ulembi's head can be as high as eight feet off the ground. But it can also splay its limbs out low, moving with ghastly stealth through undergrowth no more than a few feet high. In combat the ulembi is able to bristle its scales, giving the limbs a rough jagged surface like pineapple skin. This allows it to flay the skin off an unarmored opponent. Young adults sometimes wear bronze vambraces on the lower limbs, with which they can deliver powerful whip-like blows. Older ulembi disdain physical combat altogether, preferring to use their psionic power to instill a feeling of dread and despair in a foe.

Given a short time with a subdued victim, the most powerful adepts of the ulembi can psionically rewire his brain so that he will serve as their agent. This can even take the form of subliminal commands, so that the victim does not know he has been affected. Eventually tumors form in the brain of the victim, however, and madness and death soon follow.
The transmat device is sufficiently functional to create a levitation effect within the cave. It takes three rounds to power up, then suddenly gravity seems to cut out. Initially roll HT to avoid nausea; fail means -2 skills, -1 active defence. Every round while weightless, Free Fall (default DX-5) sets an upper level on your skills (except block/parry).

Afterwards
Uril can be freed if the wires are broken, but his mind is too far gone to be saved. He has become like one of the idiots they met earlier.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Two heads are better


Gilbert and Sullivan. Lennon and McCartney. Lee and Ditko… In many successful creative partnerships you can perceive two quite different impulses at work, impulses which might be expected to pull in opposite directions and tear the project apart but in fact the result ends up being something greater than either might have achieved on their own.

It's the underlying principle of the Hegelian dialectic. Start with thesis, move on to antithesis, and in the fusion of those you might make something original and meaningful. (Luck plays a part too, but I don't think Hegel covered that.)

Thesis and antithesis is pretty much how Can You Brexit? came about. While sketching out the planned structure of the book, I'd only dimly considered what the style and tone of the writing would be. I wrote an opening that was surreal rather than laugh-out-loud funny -- more Theatre of Cruelty than Spitting Image -- and I envisaged the pinch points in the narrative being increasingly disturbing episodes between sections that would be largely informative.

But then when Jamie Thomson came in as co-author, he reminded me of something I should never have forgotten: if you want to keep people's attention you need to entertain them. Jamie rewrote the opening with the sort of comedy flair that gets audiences laughing helplessly at the best political satires. Where I'd have gone New Statesman, he took it in the direction of Private Eye.

You might think these two different sensibilities could not coexist. On the one hand a serious analysis of political and economic reality, on the other a fast-paced and funny narrative with twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat. They mesh because we each share some of the other's approach Jamie can drill down into political detail with just as much rigour as me. And when we write a script, I come up with as many of the gags as he does. It's just that each of us takes the champion role for one of those two things That's what makes the difference between creative conflict and creative cohesion.

Comedy doesn't mean a work of art can't be serious; it just stops it being sombre. Something can be thought-provoking without becoming dry and boring. When you can get people laughing you're waking their minds up too. So a reader who you are entertaining with the writer's whole orchestra, everything from intellect through passion to humour, is a reader who'll give you their full attention. That's a lesson more politicians could do with learning.

Talking of which, if you live in the United Kingdom you'll know we have local elections coming up next week. Brexit remains the issue that will probably have the greatest impact on the country over the rest of my life, so I'll be voting on the basis of what the parties have to say about that. But whatever criteria you use, do go and vote. If nothing else, it's how we earn the right to have a grumble.


Also available from Amazon in Italy, Germany, France, Australia, Spain, Netherlands -- oh, and just about anywhere.

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!


SPIKE ISLAND  
(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.

Movement
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:
Encounters
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.

AREAS OF INTEREST

Jetty
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.

Woods
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.

Stream
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.

Beach
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.

Tower
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 MONSTERS
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).

Rakshah
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.

Oni
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.

Automaton
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%.

Chimera
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.

Barghest
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.

WRAPPING UP
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.