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Friday, 30 April 2010

Two decades old and all-new

Tomorrow we’ve got a blast from the past – a scenario that’s now more than twenty years old, written originally for the Invaders & Ancients book. This is going to be its first publication anywhere. Blimey, it’s like opening a time capsule and finding my old Action Man.

It’s curious for me reading the scenario now. There’s very little in the way of planned set-piece combat, for a start. Back in those days, our group played a minimum of once a week, not counting the messages and one-on-one sessions that took place between the main games. The role-playing was intense and very “method”. The characters had real relationships quite distinct from the players themselves, making for a game that ran off the interaction, rivalry and alliances between the leads – more Sopranos than CSI, say. So it would have been quite easy for the GM (or referee, as I prefer to say) to set up a scenario like this and expect a tense drama to unfold without ever having to say, “Suddenly a pack of jackals come bounding across the plains towards you.”

Now that I only get to play once a fortnight, I have a better idea what casual role-playing is like. If you run tomorrow's scenario with a group that meets only occcasionally, the players are going to sit around waiting to see what the external threat is. Since our group doesn't nowadays spend the whole session in-character, it would be almost impossible to generate the kind of immersion this kind of scenario expects; it's Elia Kazan, not James Cameron. And, with the exception of the uncompromisingly committed Oliver Johnson, I don’t think any of our group would be able to delve down into the Rod Steiger level of immersion needed to turn the finale into the pressure cooker of paranoia and greed that was intended.

So if I was running it today, I’d probably throw in some kind of a fight in the third act. Not necessarily anything real – it could be a shared hallucination intended to crystallize the scenario’s themes. Perhaps a desert ruin full of disturbing angles, where some dark tentacled beast (representing Greed itself) lurked to seize a party member and hold them to a difficult bargain over the last of their water, something like that. Not that I wanted the adventure to go that way, you understand, but otherwise I think the point would be lost. Of course, if your group are willing to throw themselves body and soul into the story you won’t need a monster to make it work.

I haven’t provided stats because those that were in the scenario, for Hodansyr and the Rinder brothers, were first based on RuneQuest and later on the one of the protypical DW2s. Neither of those is going to make much sense these days, and anyway you’ll want to adjust them to be in line with your player-characters.

A final note: on first reading I was surprised by the scenario’s moral slant. Then I remembered that Dragon Warriors is indeed a moral universe, unlike the disinterested fate that governs the Fabled Lands or Abraxas or Tekumel. So let it stand. This was the scenario as written; here you have it.

More Precious Than Gold – in three parts, starting tomorrow. You’ll need the map and you’ll find it here. Then in a couple of weeks we'll be bringing you the real DW2.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Invaders & Ancients - full contents

As a starting point for our survey of all the Invaders & Ancients work, this is how we broke down the material originally designed for QuestWorld to form the book or books that would have become Dragon Warriors #7 and after:

Invaders & Ancients

Introduction

Part I

Awakening (r)
Players prepare their characters by constructing an astrological chart that sets the traits they will develop in the course of play.

The Marches (b)
Background history and maps of the remote northern region where the game begins.

"Behind the Arras” (s)
The first scenario deals with skulduggery at the castle of one of the March warlords. The storyline allows for improvisation without undue emphasis on the game rules at this stage.

Part II

Combat (r)
Sword styles and special combat maneuvers.

Warlords of the North (b)
Descriptions of the most powerful lords of the Marches, along with details of their alliances, ambitions and infighting – a sticky situation that could easily embroil the player-characters.

"Thrill of the Chase" (s)
An adventure that appears on the surface to involve a simple boar hunt in the retinue of the Marquess of Ormolu (see Part I). In fact the party stumbles onto a Beowulf-like situation involving much more dangerous game.

Part III

Paths to Glory (r)
Travel by road and sea, including weather, tolls, bandits, and encounters along the way.

Deliverance (b)
A guide to the first and mightiest of the Sovereign cities, which will be the basis of the characters’ adventures from now on.

"The Festival of Light" (s)
The player-characters' first week in Deliverance coincides with the annual festival - on the surface, a week of ingenuous revelry, but behind the scenes there are guild politics, smuggling and nefarious roguery.

Part IV

Honed to Perfection (r)
How character’s professions affect the improvement costs of different skills, and the abilities that can be gained at high skill-levels.

Saints and Sinners (b)
The religion, superstitions and social system of the Sovereign (or Invader) Race, to which the player-characters belong.

"The Rain Dragon Mystery" (s)
A mysterious death and the theft of a valuable antique sword from a dueling academy - the link between these events embroils the players in a web of intrigue.

Part V

Magic (r)
How magic works, with the effects of astrology and the lists of spells available to sorcerers of the various academies.

Times of Old (b)
The history of the Old City across the straits from Deliverance. Also further details of the Ancient Race who were the original inhabitants of the continent, including the Ancients who still rule up the coast in the Courts of Oblivion.

"An Interest in Curios" (s)
Engaged by an elderly captain to find out what happened to three of his former shipmates, the players encounter sorcery and sinister dealings in the backstreets of Deliverance.

Part VI

River Trade & Travel (r)
Rules dealing with the transport of people and goods up and down the Ophis. Opportunities for adventure abound, as river merchants often need guards for their wares - and players may also wish to invest in river trade (or smuggling) themselves.

The Cities of the River (b)
The Ophis cuts east-west across the continent and is navigable by ocean-going vessels for several hundred miles. This section deals with the inland cities that prosper because of the constant river traffic.

"Buried in Air" (s)
The player-characters become associates of Sokaris Longshore, a scholar and treasure-hunter who has discovered some ancient cave-tombs in cliffs overlooking the river. The tombs do contain valuable artifacts, but the dead are reluctant to yield them without a fight...

Part VII

Nightmares Become Real (r)
Details of such uncanny beings as the ghastly Serug, the Cacerins, the life-stealing Mausogoths, and other ghosts and bugbears of folklore.

The Old City (b)
Accounts of the ruins of Serafax which face Deliverance across the Ophis - a place said to be haunted by things uncanny and terrifying.

"Shadow Selves" (s)
Thieves break into the house of Sokaris, whom the player-characters encountered in the last scenario. The artifacts stolen suggest a ritual of the Ancients, and this is backed up by an old acquaintance of Sokaris who claims that an enclave of assassins from the Courts of Oblivion have formed their base in the Old City. Like it or not, the players have to journey across to the ruins and investigate.

Part VIII

Working Miracles (r)
The thaumaturgy of the Ancient Race wizards.

Ancient Tales (b)
The mythology and religion of the Ancients.

"Bad Moon Rising" (s)
A sorcerer of the Ancient Race plans to resurrect an extinct god and make himself high priest - an elaborate plot in which the player-characters could easily become burnt offerings if they do not keep their wits about them.

Part IX

Wild Life (r)
The natural fauna and flora of the continent.

Over the Mountains (b)
The gazetteer ranges further afield to cover areas away from the well-travelled paths of the merchant caravans.

"A Tale of Treachery" (s)
Sheltering from a storm at an old fortified plantation, the player-characters uncover the still-burning embers of a decades old feud.

Part X

Myth Levels (r)
How game adventures move beyond the day-to-day "reality" of the fantasy world and into the realms of epic and myth.

Here be Monsters (b)
Source material for the virtually legendary regions of the continent: the Miasmos swampland, the Wastes of Gizen, the Tessellate Causeway and the Rime Vasts.

"Inheritance" (s)
The player-characters escort a friend who is heir to a vineyard on the edge of Miasmos. Before he can collect his inheritance, however, the ghosts of the past must be laid to rest.

Part XI

Devil Magic (r)
Summoning and negotiating with the aboriginal spirit-gods of Ophis – which, in the faith of the Sovereign states, are of course seen as demons and devils.

Sardonyx (b)
Far upriver lies the last and greatest city of the Ancient Race – a marvelous relic of a glorious past, where the surviving Ancients lie sunk in opium-sleep and dream of their former grandeur.

"More Precious Than Gold" (s)
The player characters get caught up in the theft of a set of priceless jewels from one of the great Houses of Sardonyx. Forced to flee across the desert, they must contend with the harsh heat, the demons sent to pursue them, and the threat of their own greed. Survivors, if any, will truly have tales to tell.

Appendices: Further details of the history, languages, calendar, architecture and peoples of the world of Ophis.


The letters (r), (b) and (s) denoted rules, background and scenarios respectively. I'm not sure now how this would have been divided across three (or more) books. And it is still possible in this outline TOC to see the project's beginnings as a RuneQuest book, whereas in our re-edited material the DW flavor comes across much more definitely.

More Dragon Warriors over the next week or two with an all-new scenario ("More Precious Than Gold", mentioned above) plus Tim Harford's and my notes for DW2. Truly, you don't want to go touching that dial.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

When we crossed the sea of stars

You Dragon Warriors enthusiasts have sat quietly while we worked our way through all that Abraxas stuff, so you must be wondering when we’d get back to the Ophis campaign material. Extensive as the concept art and background for Abraxas is, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to Ophis, which was fully-fleshed out and even playtested (using RuneQuest rules) by me and Oliver and would easily make a whopping great 300-page hardback. And maybe, one day…

In the meantime, here’s another amuse-bouche. A couple of years back, while preparing his eye-poppingly brilliant book Shadowline, original Ophis artist Iain McCaig got in touch about showcasing some of the work there. These are the notes I sent him:

First the name. The world is defined by the Ophis River, miles wide at its mouth, that snakes right back into the interior through marsh, jungle, mountains and finally the high desert where the Ancients live. The first and largest of the Invader city-states, Deliverance, is on the south side of the delta at the river mouth, facing the ruins of an Ancient city which has become the necropolis of the Invaders. The Ophis is the thread that both divides and connects the Invaders and Ancients. Hence that is the name of our project: Ophis. The title Invaders & Ancients refers to the first campaign book.

We already said a little bit about the habdigar slave-race on whose backs the civilization of the Ancient Race was built. Habdigar natural society is organized around alpha males. The Ancients partially castrate habdigars in infancy to prevent the emergence of alpha males, who would be hard to control. The disposition of habdigar beta males is to attach themselves to some authority. In the absence of the natural leaders of their own species, they associate that authority with the venerable houses of the Ancients. If we lived among habdigar, we might admire this trait and have expressions such as "loyal as a habdigar". But the Ancients are too decadent to venerate a quality like loyalty.

The habdigar are given names that describe their function. Third Cupbearer of the House of Vodallion. Lord Yeshtar's Cloak-Train Holder. etc. Think of the servants in Gosford Park, then turn that up to eleven.

Habdigar are not allowed writing, but they are allowed to sing. In song, they record their history. As they are long-lived, an old habdigar of Sardonyx might remember a song sung to him by his own grandfather of the coming of the Invaders - even though that was over four hundred years ago. A huge ship - an "ark" or “incunabula”, the songs call it - was swept up on the shore near the mouth of the Ophis. It was many stories high, and said to be crewed by children, though it is not clear whether that is literally true, or simply the way that a habdigar, long-lived and brought up to be part of the traditions of the Ancients, would view these brash newcomers.

What our elderly habdigar probably wouldn't know is that the Invaders have stories of their own that describe how they came to this land. On the journey there were adults. Some stories say the journey ("the Crossing") took many generations, and by the time it ended all the adults were dead. The oldest children, like Merendaum in this story, were the ones destined to become the new colony's leaders. Incidentally, in Sovereign myth ("Sovereign" being the Invaders' own name for themselves) the Crossing was over a sea of stars. Make of that what you will for now, as the secret is not to be unveiled in the first book. However, this excerpt from our novel The Land Below the Sunset may inspire some theories of your own:

"Each of the Founders had his sacred treasure. In all other cases these were artifacts they had possessed in the Aforetime, but not so Astralis... Ah, but you must have heard the priests at the Chapel speak of this many times."

"No, they told plenty of stories about the founding of Deliverance, Merendaum's battles against the Ancients. Nothing that took place before the Crossing."

"Before the Crossing?" Chendu chuckled. "It would be a rash man or the greatest of sages who would speculate on those times. No, this occurred during the Crossing. Astralis was only the apprentice to Merendaum's original navigator - did you not know that? His master died on the voyage and, with an infinity of sea and stars surrounding the fleet, it was left to Astralis to scry out the route to dry land."

Hearing the tale, Kethar felt once more like a child, huddled by the warm grate letting the fire paint imaginary pictures against the darkness. He could almost see Astralis, standing proud and tall on the deck of Merendaum's flagship. Previously when listening to the old myths he had always envisaged him with a face like Propriano's father. Now it was with Propriano's own youthfully earnest features.

"And then they made him one of the Nine Founders?"

"No. He was still an apprentice. Many argued that the responsibility of chief navigator was too much for one so young. They said that the fleet had lost its way, that another among them should be given the task. They said that Astralis did not enjoy the favor of the gods.

"For a long time it seemed they must be right. Supplies aboard the ships dwindled. Day by day it grew colder, and the stars wheeled overhead in unfamiliar patterns, and still they had no sight of land."

"Ah, but then the Celestial Beacon - "

"Patience, that was much later. There was no sign of any kind to guide them. They wandered on the grey swell, lost, frightened, abandoned by the gods. A storm sent rails of rain to pelt the decks. Others had advice to offer Merendaum, but only Astralis knew what must be done. You may have heard that, to this day, when storms carry a ship out of sight of land, the sailors will sacrifice an animal to propitiate the spirits of the sea. It's a practice that has its origins in older, wilder times. Then, more often than not, the sacrifice was human. From birth Astralis had been steeped in sea-lore; he understood his duty. And so he stood without sleep or shelter for three days and nights until his waking moments had become blurred with dream, then he cast himself into the sea and was borne away on the waves.

"The fleet fared on for three days more, and then they came to a great pinnacle of ice jutting from the sea. It was like an island of glass, so vast that in its bays there was safe harbor for all the fleet. While they waited there for the storm to blow itself out, Merendaum sent his men to explore the island. Skidding from ledge to ledge, they found a cliff inside which the sunlight marked a human figure. They hacked away the ice; the man dropped in their midst. He was clad in marvelous war-gear but his skin was lavender and chill. They bore him back to the flagship and warmed him by the stove, and the sheath of ice cracked and fell away from the features of their young comrade Astralis."

"I've never heard this tale," breathed Kethar in awe.

"It is part of the Church's clandestine lore, not usually revealed to outsiders. But I am widely read."

"The caparison of war he was wearing when they found him - ?"

"The priests declared them artifacts of the gods. Astralis resumed his post as navigator and none now questioned him. When he had steered the fleet to anchorage at the mouth of the Ophis, Merendaum acknowledged him as the ninth of his champions."
Our habdigar holds a bundle that he says he has stolen from his former masters in their grand house in Sardonyx. He may have seen a habdigar who stole food from the kitchens and was flayed alive for it. And he remembers an Invader who came to Sardonyx, pretending to trade, and stole a jeweled sword. For that outrage, the Ancients had his limbs removed, the wounds cauterized. They drove him mad with drugs and had him tied to a pole in the midst of the poppy fields, so that he could live out his days as a living scarecrow, screaming into the wind.

Our habdigar says, "They will not do that to me. They will not look for me when I am gone, nor send out agents to punish me. This treasure is one they do not value - the most precious thing in their household, and yet they care less for it than one grain of gold, or the tiniest ruby. For they are monsters, truly, these creatures called Man."

And then he shows us the bundle of "treasure": the glimpse of a baby's face in the folds of the blanket he's holding.

And that's where we cut.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Abraxas: the Cabiri Archipelago

More background material from Jamie's and my Abraxas project today. You may wonder whether all this detail is actually needed for a massively multiplayer game, and indeed the short answer to that is it's not. MMOGs should be and are defined by the players themselves as the actual inhabitants of the virual world. Any attempt by the game designers to impose a culture is only going to go as deep as costume and architectural styles.

However, we never intend any of our projects to only be one thing. Our philosophy is to design for cross-media right from the outset. So Abraxas might have started as a MMOG, but the concept bible also allowed for it to be used in solo CRPGs, paper and pencil role-playing games, gamebooks, novels, comics - in principle, even as a movie. It doesn't take a whole lot more effort to design something that way (what we call "root class development") and it's certainly a lot less effort than having to go back and retrofit it to other media later.

And with that, on to today's topic:

The Cabiri are a seafaring people inhabiting a number of small city-states spread throughout an archipelago of many islands and white coral atolls. The Cabiri trade with the ports of the mainland, but to them property is less important than custom. Property can be lost, but the right to fish in a certain bay, etc, can never be taken away. Such rights descend through the female line and form the basis of the Cabiri economy.

Cabiri society is shame-based. To insult a Cabiri obliquely or even simply not to take his word for something is to shame him. To avoid disgrace, a man will choose blood feud, exile or even suicide. Cabiri who have been deeply shamed without possibility of redress will say "Lady Moon has turned her face away" (the Moon being one of their gods) and become fatalistic and withdrawn until some happy stroke of luck encourages them to fight for their good name.

There are twenty-four clans, each of multiple lineages. All clans are represented in every township. Nine of the clans comprise the Pelagian Cabiri, and these have responsibility for matters concerned with the sea: fishing, coastal trade and the navy. The other fifteen clans are the Chersonese Cabiri, who are concerned with matters relating to the land: farming, crafts, markets and the army. The township's two rulers are the heads of the paramount clan in each faction, and they rule on alternate days.

Each clan is responsible for certain rituals, many of them relating to government. Eg, for a city-state to declare war requires twenty-four rituals to be performed. War therefore cannot happen without the consent of all the clans. But a lesser state of aggression can be declared by only nine Pelagian Cabiri rituals, giving those clans considerable sway when it comes to foreign policy.

The people of the archipelago are human-like but recognizably not like other men. Their flesh, bone-white with a yellow tint, is luminescent and their pale-gold hair glows like gold. Somerset Maugham puts it best:
She glowed, but palely like the moon rather than the sun, or if it was like the sun it was like the sun in the white mist of dawn.

Cabiri society is matrilineal, with inheritance passing through the female line. The clans are exogamous: men marry outside their lineage and clan, going to live with their wife's family. As in old Celtic society, a man is usually closer to his sister's children than his own, as they are the ones who will inherit his family's responsibilities, rights and property.

Okay, that's the last Abraxas post for a few weeks. Dragon Warriors fans have been very patient, so we'll shortly be unveiling some more Invaders & Ancients material from the Ophis campaign, including a complete scenario. Don't touch that dial.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The archetypal lost city

The original Chorazin was a splendid oasis in the heart of the Akali Desert, its people impregnable from attack by reason of the leagues of scalding black sand that surrounded them. Pipes deep beneath the desert brought water from the Delenda Mountains to fill the city's cisterns. But Chorazin was destroyed when a meteorite laid a pall of poisonous iridium across the mountains, polluting the water so that the inhabitants became mad and fled into the desert.

Now there are two Chorazins. One is the half-buried ruin where bands of eremen(desert folk) make their lair. The scholar Zaverchand has speculated that it may be in imitation of the crested helmets of the ancient murals that the male eremen's dorsal fins have grown so exuberently large. The other Chorazin is a twin of the original, cut off in its own pocket dimension at the time it was abandoned. This Chorazin is the destination of wizards seeking a place to meditate and expand their arcane knowledge.

The Akali Desert itself is an unwelcoming region whose jet black sand forms huge rolling dunes. Tors and crags of blinding white stone stand above the desert, blasted by the wind into baroque shapes. Who knows what ruins lies buried under the sand, or what creatures dwell in the interior of the desert? No explorer has ever gone there and returned to tell of it.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Shadow King

Having opened the Pandora's Box of material Jamie and Russ and I developed in our days at Eidos, I'm surprising myself with how much of it there is.

This is from Shadow King, which was originally conceived as a Max Payne-ish action-adventure game for the PC. A bullish Victorian adventurer travels in time and returns to a world completely devoid of people - or so it seems at first. In this timeline, Dracula has driven the few remaining humans into hiding. Our hero wanders through a deserted, half-overgrown London, defending himself from hunting vampires while trying to find a way to repair what has befallen his world. Russ pulled out quite a different style for this one.

After leaving Eidos, we pitched it to Flextech, who liked it except they wanted it completely changed, so out went the vampires and in came some sort of plot about the world suffering an apocalypse in the middle of a Big Brother eviction night, and all the survivors were the rejected TV contestants. Or something. (It was 2000 and every hip dude in television could think of nothing but Nasty Nick.) Needless to say, Jamie and I decided to forego the pleasure of working on their reinterpretation, figuring that one day we may do it properly as a comic or a novel.

This snippet of script gives you some idea of the flavor:

Through falling snowflakes, an aerial view of London. Not the city we know, but a sprawl of fantastic Gothic edifices that stand, dark and silent, over streets white with frost and a sprinkling of snow.

Down, to find a single figure in the whole vast empty city. He’s curled up in an alleyway under a few sacks. JOHN SANGRAIL is big man, well-fed and full featured. He wears the fine clothes of a Victorian gentleman, only now they’re shabby and torn.

We watch as he sleeps fitfully. Our point-of-view drifting like a detached retina as the snow swirls past. We might be God looking down on him, or a guardian angel. Or his tormentor.

He tosses and turns, talking in his sleep.

SANGRAIL (softly but urgently)
No, no. Something’s gone wrong.
CUT TO a ball in the early 19th century. A woman turns, looks across the ballroom at us, and reacts in horror –

SANGRAIL (V/O)
She could see me –
An overhead drifting view of Napoleonic soldiers slogging along through the mud. Desaturated colors. The way the soldiers are walking is strange, stiff. Late afternoon sunlight casts long shadows ahead of them.

SANGRAIL (V/O)
Something went wrong with the past.

Our POV tracks over the soldiers and down, turning so that we’re now facing the way they have come. An overcast sky and a long road stretching back to bleached-out sunset.

SANGAIL (V/O)
I know. I was there that day...
The column goes marching inexorably past us, away from the sunset. Their collars are turned up, faces downcast. We know there’s something sinister about them, but we can’t see enough to be sure...

SANGRAIL (V/O)
How could that be? I wasn’t born yet.

A figure appears in the middle distance, cresting the hill, striding confidently through the anonymous throng. His greatcoat flaps behind him in the wind. His peaked cap is like the one Napoleon wore. We can’t see his face yet, but he’s approaching at a swift relentless pace.

SANGRAIL (V/O)
It was the day he came back.
The figure looms towards us and into close-up. Closer, closer...

SANGRAIL (V/O)
The monster ... the loup-garou. The day he returned from hell.
And he lifts his head towards us and now we see the face under the peaked hat. A hollow-cheeked, sallow, dead white face with glistening fangs. SMASH CUT to

Sangrail sitting up, suddenly wide awake. For a instant, the vampire’s face lingers like an afterimage superimposed on Sangrail’s face.

In a panic, Sangrail slaps at his neck. He looks at his fingers - no blood. The vampires didn't find him in his sleep. Heart racing after the nightmare, he heaves a sigh and sits watching his breath steam in the cold air.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Abraxas: the Vadem Causeway

Now that I've started rooting around for Abraxas material, I'm amazed how much concept work we did. I've hardly even scratched the tip of the iceberg so far, what with the clothing and architecture for each city-state, the flora and fauna inspired by Dougal Dixon's book After Man, the adventure locations, history, NPCs, and on, and on.

Neill Blomkamp's written-off concept work for the aborted Halo movie apparently cost several million dollars, and although we didn't get anywhere near that figure, the principle of concepting in games is the same as in movies. It makes more sense to get these details worked out before you set 100 coders, modellers and animators working away on the thing.

The idea behind the Vadem Causeway was so that players in the MMOG could rapidly move between the main "safe" locations (the five cities) but, if they wanted to travel to smaller towns or go exploring off the beaten track, they would need to strike out on foot or get hold of a sky car.

The Vadem Causeway is not a physical road but a network of teleportation routes extending between archways close to each city. The Vadem gates consist of raised platforms with steps leading to a circular arch of ancient star-metal. Each gate transports the user to the next on the circuit, allowing rapid travel from city to city. A rapid burst of light is seen streaming away from the arch after a person steps through.

As the Vadem Causeway is a potential problem in wartime, each city has its own safeguards against an influx of enemy soldiers appearing outside its walls. Utesh is protected by the straits that cut it off from the mainland. Vertis has constructed a grille that can be dropped across the archways. Argistillum has a dam that, if opened, floods the vicinity of one archway; the other is kept dead in the sights of the city's one plasma cannon. Tamo Anchan has surrounded its archways with high walls with only a narrow gate out; Eibon relies on its own city walls and the fact that any invading army would have to endure the scouring desert winds.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Scales that glisten in the bark of trees



Not many people know this, but Russ Nicholson had a perfectly respectable career drawing strips for girls' weekly comics like Jackie before he became one of Britain's leading imagineers of fantasy, SF and horror. I came across these sample pages he did based on a New Knights of Camelot television script - a script slightly adapted here for the page, incidentally, because you can't leave as much to the actors when they're just drawings on a page.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A rare vintage

For a long while over on the Mirabilis main website, Leo Hartas and I were busy putting up whimsical vignettes about life in a lost year when a green comet caused fantasy and reality to merge. And while Mirabilis belongs to a whole other lineage of fantasy than the dragons and heroes of Fabled Lands, some FL enthusiasts might enjoy the Royal Mythological Society correspondence, much of it in the style of discourse over sherry in a Dweomer college. For instance:
To the Fellows of the Royal Mythological Society

I have a curious incident to relate for your archives. I am a junior officer aboard a ship lately assigned to lay new telegraph cable between the British Isles and North America. Last month, as we were returning towards Ireland in the last stage of our work, the sky turned dark as night; and the sea, previously as flat as a sheet of glass, began to churn with thirty-foot waves. I looked down and saw great shoals of fish tossed helplessly up to the surface, like the catch you may see tipped from any fisherman’s nets, but multiplied as though caught in the nets of a titan. And along with the fish were pebbles dredged up from the sea bed, and shells, and other debris impossible to identify - mere leaves on a storm raging hundreds of fathoms below.

The cause was, as I understood at once, a submarine earthquake, an event I had never before witnessed but which is not uncommon in that part of the Atlantic. I recall that I turned to shout a warning to some men who were attempting to cross from the other rail as a large wave came awash of the deck. The next moment, I was freezing cold and soaked to the skin, and I realized that I had gone over the side.

There was almost no time for fear – but panic, of course, requires no thought. I fought the urge to draw breath, knowing that it would only fill my lungs with salt water. Having no idea of up or down, I struck out in any case with all my strength. Objects buffeted me and I caught glimpses of them in the murky water. They looked like fragments of bone, pieces of classical pottery and glass, the dull glint of green-rusted armour… Strange things, artifacts that you would more expect to see washed up on the beach at Pompeii than far out in mid-ocean. Then I found myself holding a life preserver and was being hauled up, as bedraggled as the proverbial drowned rat, to the safety of the deck.

When I came to my senses some time later, my shipmates pointed to an object I had been clutching when I was rescued. I must have caught hold of it under the water, and I am told that in those minutes when shock had bereaved me of my wits I would suffer no man to take it from me. Gentlemen, it was a stone amphora that must have lain preserved in the sand for centuries, for its glazed design was still clear enough to make out images of a city of concentric walls, and men and women clad in an ancient style walking in gardens beside a peaceful harbour. There was also an inscription (of which I append a copy) but no scholar of Greek or Latin has been able to make any sense of it.

Now, all of the above is what I can tell you for your own records, and I am glad to help out with your scientific researches, but I would appreciate your advice on a personal question. I kept the bottle sealed for several weeks, but today I gave in to curiosity and broke it open. A glass of wine that I poured from it stands beside me on the desk as I write this. In the firelight it is as rich as the rubies of India, and the scent is almost overpowering in its evocation of sunlit groves, soil, sweet rain, fresh wind and growing green abundance. I sit looking at it now and I ask you. Should I drink?

Faithfully, Lt George Sterling, SS
Star Treader, Milford Haven
Dr Clattercut replies: I have not yet been able to decipher the inscription you were kind enough to send, but it resembles an ur-form of Eteocretan, leading me to dare suggest – But no, it would be unprofessional to speculate at this stage…
Prof Bromfield: Oh, come out and say it, in Heaven’s name. A wine from Atlantis.
Dr Clattercut: Possibly, possibly. I cannot help but think of those lines of Mr Ambrose Bierce: “When mountains were stained as with wine by the dawning of Time, and as wine were the seas.” There is indeed a strong likelihood of it being a relic from the sunken continent.
Prof Bromfield: And the chap wants to know if he should knock it back. Well, Lieutenant Sterling, if you don’t want it –
Dr Clattercut: Wait, this is very rash advice. Lieutenant Sterling, think carefully before you taste so much as one drop. This is the rarest vintage from an island paradise that was the marvel of the ancient world. You might find no earthly thing has flavour afterwards. And where would you get more?
Prof Bromfield: But, Clattercut, you could say the same of life itself. There is no more, so savour every drop!
Incidentally, what is the word for a devotee of the Fabled Lands? A Fabler? A Fablander? Any suggestions..?

Monday, 12 April 2010

Days of glory

Jamie and were flattered last week to be invited to be part of bit-tech's Made in the UK Week. Editor Joe Martin has written a brilliant article about development of the Abraxas MMO and also conducted an in-depth interview that covers our early gamebooks, our Eidos days, and plans for future products from the Fabled Lands Studio. But go over and look at the other goodies Joe has on offer too. The survey of the UK's top games, for example, is a fabulous reminder of some of the great original content this country has produced - and still could, if the government would really get behind the games industry.

Btw, if you saw the Eurogamer review of Joe's article, I should probably just make it very clear that Jamie and I did not say that World of Warcraft swiped the Abraxas art style. How could they when they never saw it? And Joe didn't ever say we said that. The simple truth is that we were considering a bright, slightly cartoony look to the Abraxas characters - and that's where some fantasy games like WoW and Torchlight have gone since. Simple as. But not as sexy a story when put like that, is it?

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Some fauna of Abraxas

Today we look at a few of the most dangerous creatures of the continent.

Munigant

A carnivore with a long proboscis, triangular membranous wings and strong kangaroo-like hind legs. The munigant lopes across the plains dragging its wings, which are fringed with long bristles like primitive plumage. Spying prey, it leaps aloft and snaps its wings out to the side, gliding forward at great speed while bringing its legs forward and extending its claws. If the prey fails to dodge it is seized with the wing-hooks while the strong clawed legs inflict a lethal wound. The munigant then injects a chemical that softens the bones and proceeds to suck them out, leaving only the skin to dry in the sun. (Abraxaens have a superstition that a person slain by a munigant becomes a ghost-skin that will slither under the door at night to wrap itself around the living.)

Derophyrs

Arboreal creatures with very powerful hind legs and smaller forelimbs used for grasping branches. The derophyr's torso slopes downwards from the hips to its heavily plated head, the forequarters being counterbalanced by a short flattened tail. The overall height of the creature (when standing, measured from feet to pelvis) is about four feet. Its distinctive rattling call - braap, braap, braap - which echoes for miles through the forest, is created by rapidly vibrating the face plate while blowing through the mouth and nose.

A derophyr's legs propel it vigorously through the trees. On the ground it has an ungainly gait, hopping and strutting awkwardly. During the mating season it is not uncommon to encounter derophyrs out of the trees, disorientated by a midair collision of heads which is the ritual of male competition for females.

Derophyrs subsist on a diet of leaves, berries, insects and small game. They are dangerous to humans not because they would normally tackle prey as large as a man, but because when gazing down from the trees they can mistake humans for smaller animals. Additional danger occurs in the mating season, when dazed male derophyrs will leap at and headbutt anything on two legs.

Elytrums

Creatures of primordial but earthly origin, elytrums are solitary hunters whose intelligence is not definable in human terms. They display forward-planning and a high degree of vicious cunning, but appear to have no ability to develop language or speculative thought.

Elytrums consist of a central soft body sac covered with globular eyes. From this extend many thin multiple-jointed limbs of varying lengths, resulting in a creature something like a spider.

The elytrum can hang in cover (above a door, in trees, etc) waiting to drop on prey that passes below. More commonly it forms its limbs into a framework structure, pumping them with fluid to hold the shape, and then weaves a thin waxy integument around this framework. The wax can be different colors, allowing the elytrum to impersonate inanimate objects, other creatures - even humans. They can also mimic sounds or simple phrases, making the disguise complete.

Two tell-tale signs may give warning of an elytrum in disguise. The creature cannot increase its weight, and at only 30 kilograms or so it is far lighter than a real adult human. Also, the waxy integument does not perspire, and over time is liable to harden and crack.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Abraxas: curiosities and ancient artifacts

Having run through our lightning survey of the land of Abraxas in the last few weeks, this is a good point to give proper credit to Russ Nicholson, who drew stacks of fabulous concept art for the project. I've said before that working with Russ is not just a question of briefing him to do drawings. He's a true creative collaborator, feeding back ideas at least as fast as Jamie and I send them to him. Many of the nice cultural touches in these pictures were dreamed up entirely by Russ.

I only wish we could have turned it into the amazing MMOG it would have been, but unfortunately Eidos closed down their internal game development in early 2000 and that was the end of the Abraxas project. Luckily we recovered the rights, so we may yet find something to do with it all.

Anyway, today's feature is a look at some of the "magical" oddities of Earth circa 38,000 BC.

Daedalanths

Powerful automata, usually bipedal, that a medieval observer would describe as an iron golem and to the 20th century eye might resemble a robot. Although entirely mechanical, daedalanths have a microscopic symbiote integrated into their metal lattice. This symbiote metabolizes minerals and metal from the local environment to maintain the daedalanth. Daedalanths are therefore enormously resilient and even "heal" if damaged - albeit very slowly.

Individual daedalanths vary considerably in appearance, according to the whims of their creators. A daedalanth built as an ancient potentate's bodyguard might be fantastically decorated and gilded, with a face like a mythological mask, while one built to quarry rock might not be even vaguely humanoid.

Daedalanths can sometimes be brought under control by wizards who know the magic words to alter their programming; otherwise they remain steadfast to whatever order they were originally given.

Xoanons

Sometimes also known as "gnarls", these are wooden automata, the result of a mutation in the micro-organism designed to structure daedalanths. Hydraulic muscles provide xoanons with great strength but sluggish reflexes. They are not living creatures any more than daedalanths themselves are, the wood recycled to construct them being dead. However, sometimes flowers and fungi take root in the xoanon's "bark" giving it a bizarrely organic look.

Emulants

Human-like androids constructed right down to the cellular level from life-simulating nanomachines. Emulants are not truly alive in the sense that individual cells are just tiny machines containing no DNA blueprint for the whole. Nonetheless the creature's metabolism parallels that of a truly living organism burning food for energy which is circulated to all parts of the body by means of fluids, etc. Emulants are often beautiful and can pass for human, except for tell-tale signs like the too-regular tint to the iris, the lack of perspiration, the absence of any blemish or callus on the skin, and so forth.

Living armor

Using the same organometallic microbe that sustains daedalanths, the wizards of ancient times created armor that conformed to the wearer's body and could self-repair any damage it took. The usual form of such armor is of a breastplate with neck flanges and articulated arms, one of which (often the left) ends in a blade weapon or long claws. Despite being organometallic, living armor suits are very regular, almost machine-tooled, in appearance and do not display the asymmetry customary to living things. (This results from the very precise non-mutable makeup of the sustaining microorganism, which comprises very large but stable spherical nucleotides. Not that even the most accomplished modern wizard would have a clue about such things.)

Advantages of living armor are that the blade weapon never needs sharpening and the protection afforded by the suit is far greater than normal steel. The armor augments the wearer's strength and, in those cases where it includes a helmet and visor, also gives enhanced vision and hearing.

On the downside, any other metal the wearer carries will gradually be digested to sustain the living armor. Moreover, these suits always leave the back unprotected - perhaps because the genetically modified soldiers for whom they were designed were never intended to flee from their enemies.

Not everyone can use living armor. It seems necessary for the wearer to attune the suit for it to function properly. In some cases the attunement takes so well that the armor cannot be removed. This is random (presumably geared to some dormant gene in the wearer) and not associated with any attribute such as strength or psyche.

Energy weapons

Weapons of the distant past which, by reason of their technology having been kept secret, are regarded now as magic wands. Various types exist: neural batons, photonic staves with lasing crystals, actinic and plasma lances that can be hand-held or mounted, larger ion cannon, and huge orbiting neutron-beam weapons. In most cases the weapon's power cell is inert, but some still have enough charge remaining for a few precious shots, and a few are rechargable by wizards who know how to channel cosmic vril energy into them.

Fliers

Functioning fliers are very rare today but were previously in common use by nobles throughout Abraxas. The styles are as diverse as the natures of the men who used them. Some are sky-yachts, often of wood or light metal. Others take the form of flying arks or palanquins. Some are even more fanciful: a circular terrace complete with plants and banks of seats around the rail; a glass-like floating bubble; a canopied bed borne aloft by cherubic mechanicae; a giant cupped hand of ebonite.

Controls also differ, so that the man who is adept in piloting one flier may have no idea how to operate another. The most convenient control systems involve an interlocutor - essentially an inbuilt neural net that pilots the craft according to spoken commands. Others use an assembly of globes, rods or dials that the pilot must learn to operate. (Item of interest: the current fashion in Argistillum is for wizards to acquire an autistic idiot savant to operate their flier, the functioning of the controls apparently coming naturally to such unfortunates.)

Friday, 9 April 2010

Dragon Warriors of the Lost Continent

In case you want to try out some of the Abraxas aliens (see yesterday's post) in your role-playing campaign, I've had a go at converting them into Dragon Warriors. Of course, these creatures don't really belong anywhere near the magic-steeped, purposely illogical world of Legend, and where I have likened their abilities to magic that's purely for the sake of the rules. The people of Abraxas do believe in magic (for good reason: it exists) but the "magic" of their world is actually the psionic manipulation of cosmic forces, and therefore much more of a science than the undefinable faerie arts of Legend.

VLIS

ATTACK 15
Spear (2d4+1, 5) or kick (1d6+3)
DEFENCE 8
Armour Factor 3 (innate: 1)
MAGICAL DEFENCE 3
EVASION 6
Movement: 12m
Health Points 1d6+10
STEALTH 11
PERCEPTION 8 ("elfsight")

These are the stats for a 1st rank fighter. Vlis sorcerers are also encountered. To make its screech attack, the vlis makes no attack in melee and and at the end of the round must roll its rank or less on 1d6. If a vlis preparing a screech attack is injured during the round, the screech is aborted. If the screech is made, anyone within 3m must roll Strength or less on 2d10 or be stunned (0 ATTACK, DEFENCE and EVASION) the following round. Even if the Strength roll is made, the character is disconcerted, losing initiative for the next 1-6 rounds. Vlis are powerful climbers and can leap twice as far as a human. The strong legs (strictly speaking, the arms) can strike backwards or forwards with equal force, and anyone hit will be knocked back 1-6 metres and must roll Reflexes or less on 2d10 to avoid falliing over.

ULEMBI

ATTACK 13
Vambrace strike (d6+1, 5) +1 vs unarmoured foe
DEFENCE 8
Armour Factor 2 (innate: 1)
MAGICAL DEFENCE 6
EVASION 7
Movement: 15m
Health Points 1d6+11
STEALTH 16
PERCEPTION 8 (darksight)

These stats apply to a typical 1st rank ulembi, though most encountered will also be mystics. The ulembi's psionic ability to instil fear is resolved as a fright attack equal to the creature's rank (+1d6 if it gets surprise) effective on all enemies within 5 metres. If the fright attack succeeds, the opponent drops his weapons and tries to flee - or surrender, if escape is impossible. Even if the fright attack fails, the opponent takes -2 from ATTACK and -1 from damage for 2-12 rounds. The ulembi is able to strike in melee while making the fright attack, but must treat it as a first level mystic spell for purposes of psychic fatigue. Humans captured by the ulembi can be slowly brought under complete mental control, rather like the mystic Enthrall spell but with unlimited duration.

CHURUK

ATTACK 15
Sword, etc (d8+1, 5)
DEFENCE 6
Armour Factor 5 (innate: 2)
MAGICAL DEFENCE 3
EVASION 4
Movement: 9m
Health Points 3d6+7
STEALTH 10
PERCEPTION 10 (panoptical)

These stats would be appropriate for a full complement of the three churuk morphotypes (Strider, Brain and Worker) fighting together, assuming the gestalt's skill was equivalent to 1st rank. Churuk are rarely encountered singly in any case, and are the most tractable of the intelligent nonhuman races inhabiting Earth in 38,000 B.C., though raiding parties are sometimes sent into human territory.

NEANDERTHAL

ATTACK 14
DEFENCE 6
Armour Factor 1 (innate: 0)
MAGICAL DEFENCE 1
EVASION 5
Movement: 10m
Health Points 14
STEALTH 13
PERCEPTION 4 (normal)

Neanderthals are a valid player-character choice. Although not native to Abraxas, they are found on other land masses and could have been brought to the continent as slaves or "barbarian" bodyguards, possibly leading to a Kull-style campaign. Neanderthals get +1 on Strength and Health Points, but roll only 2d6 for Looks (as perceived by other human races) and 1d6 for Psychic Talent. Play a neanderthal character as intelligent but lacking the capacity for abstract thought; your school gym teacher would be a good model. The major difference from other humans is that neanderthals do not think symbolically and therefore have not developed a high degree of art, science, politics or religion. They are superstitious and usually fearful of magic (which to a neanderthal means anything he doesn't know about). They live in small family groups and may be wary and/or contemptuous of the large, well-organized cities of Abraxas. The stats given are for a typical 1st rank fighter. Neanderthals usually fight with spears and wear leather armour.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Abraxas: the rivals of Man

Humans are not the only intelligent species in Abraxas. There are others, some of them well organized and genocidally hostile. The eventual ascendency of Man is not a foregone conclusion.

Vlis

An intelligent pre-human Terran race descended from pterodactyline ocean gliders. When the vlis's distant ancestor adapted to life on the ground, the powerful forelimbs evolved into its legs and the smaller hind limbs became its arms. Several hundred million years on, the hind limbs moved around through a widening of the pelvic girdle and the legs moved back. The creature thus has a low hunched stance with the thorax and head supported like a table-lamp on strong backward-jointed legs; the overall height is about five feet.

Possessions are typically carried in a pan or bag strapped under the thorax; the vlis's long slender-digited arms can easily undo the flaps, remove a needed item, and reseal it with horridly unhuman dexterity. Sometimes this pan will be found to contain a freshly-severed human head; the vlis are believed to collect such heads in order to restore them to sentience in their laboratories, where the head can be maintained in a vat indefinitely while the vlis subject it to interrogation and experiment.

The vlis are man's deadly rivals on Earth, regarding humanity as usurpers of their rightful supremacy. In addition to being skilled fighters, usually with a spear held in both hands, the vlis can use magic and have a sonic screech attack which can distract or stun an opponent.

Ulembi

Creatures from a star cluster beyond the Coal Sack, who came to Earth 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.

Eremen

The offshoot of humans altered by an ancient wizard's genetic sorcery. Eremen are recognizably human in origin but have the features required for survival in the desert: large membranous ears, heavy brows, a limber frame, folds of fat around the belly, and elongated webbed digits. A dorsal fin that usually lies flat along the spine can be erected for temperature control as well as conflict and mating displays.

The genetic changes have caused some reduction in these creatures' intelligence: you might be attacked by one wielding a metal club it had found, the club actually turning out to be an ion pistol that it lacked the wits to operate.

Churuk

Hive-dwellers, the descendents of an alien race stranded on Earth in the far past. The churuk thrive best in the sulfurous atmosphere of volcanic rifts, but are hardy enough to tolerate normal air for days or weeks at a time.

The basic body form of a churuk is of a lozenge-shaped torso armored in chitin and with three limbs arranged around the rim. This form can develop in quite different ways, however, according to chemical jellies administered to the eggs during development. Some churuk hatch as Brains, others as Workers, others as Striders. The Striders have powerful legs. The Workers have one of their limbs developed massively for heavy labor or combat; for travel they can move slowly with their other limbs or latch onto the back of a Walker. The Brains are the most intelligent; they have only limited mobility but can latch into the back of a Strider or Worker and directly take charge of its cerebral ganglion (its eyes then close in sleep).

Mottling on the chitinous shell allows a churuk to identify the members of its hive and egg-clutch.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Tamorian spellcasters

A Dragon Warriors post today for those role-players who have been patiently awaiting some rules and numbers to counterbalance all the fantasy background material.

For our long-running Tekumel campaign, Jamie and I devised a list of alternative spells intended to give each country’s sorcerers their own distinctive flavor of magic. The spells below fall under a category of magic we call Phenomenation, “the acquisition of goods and services by magical means”. We found in our Legend campaigns that these spells can also be used for sorcerers from the New Selentine Empire.

Level One: WAYFARER’S LANTERN (replaces Moonglow)

A beam of bright amber light shines from an aperture in the ether above the caster's head, turning to follow his line of sight and moving along with him. This is accompanied by a strong odor of sulfur. The light turns on and off on command, but only at fixed intensity. It lasts for one hour.

Level Two: THE GOBLETS OF THE UNKNOWN ONE

Goblets of white onyx, bearing a glyph of unknown meaning, appear in the hands of up to four people. These contain a full day's water requirement, vanishing when drained or set down. Before drinking, characters must toast their supernatural benefactor with the formula: “May he never be known!” Failure to do this is said to bring bad luck (-1 on all rolls) for a year and a day.

The quality of the water in the goblets varies cyclically according to unidentified causes. It was once believed to correspond to the position of the planet Artemis in the night sky, but this theory of the mage Alexu Nacphoros has now been disproved. The contemporary taste of the water, and speculation as to how it will change in the future, remain subjects of discussion among wizards.

Level Three: THE REPAST OF MASTER TZIMISCA (replaces Banquet)

Food is created. This is of very fine quality by aristocratic tastes, though may seem overly dainty to a commoner. The banquet appears on dishes laid out on a low silk draped table, complete with wine. There is sufficient for up to three people (depending on how hungry they are) but it is obviously intended for a solitary diner. The board is always identical, and all may be consumed with the exception of the uppermost apple in the fruit-bowl, which appears with a single bite taken from it. This is rumored to be the last morsel of food tasted by the wizard Artax Tzimisca and to eat it is taboo. Some believe that breaking the taboo would result in the diner exchanging places with the long-lost wizard, presumed to be on one of the circles of hell - hence the expression, “To share Tzimisca's banquet.”

Level Four: ACCOUTREMENT

This spell creates a single item of any commonplace (nonmagical) type. It can be a melee weapon of any type required by the caster (sword, dagger, spear, etc), or light armor, or some other simple implement such as a dish, shield or digging tool. The item remains for three hours.

Level Five: THE LABORS OF THE UNSEEN

This spell exercises miraculous invisible agencies to rapidly repair a simple damaged object such as a suit of armor or a cart-wheel. The work happens in a blur, taking only seconds. Not only is the object repaired, but it is also re-lacquered in the specific colors of the ancient Selentine house of Andronicus and supplied with archaic ostentation. Some opinions hold that the object is not in fact repaired at all, but simply replaced by a duplicate of appropriate size from the obviously capacious Andronican armory. For reference, the primary color is a thick dark bronze gold, the secondary color is white, and the trim is in light purple.

Level Seven: THE INDEFATIGABLE ONES

A team of ten laborers arrive to serve the caster for one day. These are short, lightly-built, hairless people with golden-tanned skin and green eyes. Upon appearing, one of them will come forward and ask “Do you wish us to serve you?” The caster must not reply until he has examined each worker thoroughly to ensure that none bears a vestigial rat-like tail. Only if no tail is found is it safe to give the workers a task. They will perform tirelessly and require no supervision, working with the skill of a team of journeymen directed by a master in masonry, carpentry, shipbuilding, fortifications, painting or any other nonmagical skill that the GM deems appropriate.

There is a 5% chance that one of the workers will have the vestigial tail. If so, a roll of Intelligence -3 or less on 2d10 is needed to detect it. Should you fail to notice the tail, the workers will fulfill their day's tasks but whatever work they produce will be cursed to bring you bad luck. Any rolls made secretly by the GM on a cursed character’s behalf (eg stealth rolls, the chance of finding special items in treasure, etc) are adjusted by 10% in the player’s disfavor until the construction is completely dismantled or destroyed (where applicable) and the character undertakes a pilgrimage to pray before a saintly relic or icon.

Level Eight: THE VESSEL OF THE INVISIBLE SEEKERS (replaces Destrier)

A boat or palanquin appears as though from nowhere and lasts for four hours. The boat will carry up to eight passengers; the palanquin has room for three. The rowers or bearers are invisible (so that the palanquin seems to float in the air) but they do leave footprints. The vessel's crew always know a route to your destination even if you do not know it yourself. For example, you could tell them to take you to the House of the Red Dome in Ferromaine even if you had never previously visited the city. They cannot be commanded to take you to a person or item, however, but only to a specific address that you can name. Additionally, you must always command them to convey you to such-&-such a place and no further; omitting this stipulation could prove disastrous.

A different boat or palanquin is summoned each time the spell is cast, varying in historical design and ornamentation. Seemingly the Invisible Seekers pluck any available craft from out of the time-stream - sometimes still with the original occupant.

Level Nine: THE PALE JADE PAVILION

A large tent providing shelter from the elements is caused to manifest, with room for up to ten people. This lasts nine hours. The interior is furnished with cushions, and silken drapes partition the space according to the number of occupants. The Pavilion always gives most restful sleep, regardless of the climate outside, such that any wounded character will recover twice his rank in Health Points overnight. Indeed, the Pavilion is believed to be the gift of the god Hypnos, for it can only be entered by bowing and saying, “I thank the Master of Dream for his hospitality.” Entering without saying this will move the god to umbrage, resulting in the character's immediate and permanent expulsion from all manifestations of the Pavilion. (Sensible of pious feeling, Tamorian wizards typically excuse this as a prayer to St Petrus Damiani, patron of insomniacs.)

Apparently it is also bad form to use violence against anyone else in the tent, from which comes the Tamorian saying, “It seems we must share the Pavilion,” used between two rival sorcerers obliged to a temporary truce.
Where a Phenomenation spell is not stated to replace one of the regular Dragon Warriors sorcerer spells, it is simply added to the list for that level.

It is clear from the descriptions that these spells are of pagan origin but have been given some superficial trappings of the True Faith to satisfy the Church - note the many instances of an apparent prayer to some ancient deity or other. The curse that may be incurred by use of The Indefatigable Ones can be lifted by appeal to a saint, but that does not appear to be part of the spell itself but rather a holy remedy to a pagan affliction. Tamorian priests must be well aware of the suspect origins of sorcery, but turn a blind eye to that in order to keep it under state control.

We've had an abundance of Abraxas posts recently, but if Dragon Warriors is your fancy then hang on a few weeks for more from the Invaders & Ancients books, including an all-new scenario or two, plus more Tamorian spells, creature stats, and some of the work that I did with Tim Harford on the rules for DW2.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The origins of Abraxas

Having completed our survey of the five great city-states of Abraxas, this seems like a good point to pause and explain how it came about.

A little over ten years ago, Jamie and I were freelance game designers at Eidos, publishers of Tomb Raider, and one of the projects we pitched for development was a massively multiplayer online game. We had a free rein, and at first we intended to use the Fabled Lands as the setting for our game. But we soon realized that the requirements of gamebooks and videogames were very different.

We needed a world with a very distinctive (we took to calling it "jewel-like") look and feel. A world you would find enchanting to visit, that would be accessible to more than just diehard role-players, with enough of a whiff of the familiar enough to be relatable - and at the same time brandably different from other fantasy settings. And it needed to be a world where Jamie and I weren't imposing all the history, culture, etc. We would just dress the set. It was up to the players to inhabit the world and run with the cues we gave them to make the place breathe.

To begin with we met with the truly legendary SF-&-fantasy guru John Jarrold - then a publisher, now Britain's top science fiction agent - who had had the idea of using book publishing talent to create game worlds a good ten years before Random House's IP Creation Group . John hooked us up with possible writers, and at the same time Jamie and I started sketching out some thoughts of our own. The project was in its very early stages and we were still focussing on the game rules and structure, so we had plenty of time to develop a world background. In the course of those months, we came up with a completely new "fabled land" and so Abraxas was born.

In the end, the cost of developing a MMOG was deemed too risky by the Eidos board. Bear in mind this was 1999, and nobody had any inkling of the heady heights that World of Warcraft would blaze a trail to. Our MMOG project was shut down along with the rest of the internal development teams at Eidos's Wimbledon HQ. So we never got to plug Abraxas in and see how it would have worked.

Abraxas is a lost continent from before the dawn of history. A place of high adventure, flashing swordplay, wild jungles, deserts of black sand, floating cities, classical temples, primordial animals, exotic wizardry and evil psionic aliens. When Abraxas finally sinks below the ocean, survivors will reach the mainland and seed the great civilizations of antiquity.

Abraxas is very far from the usual quasi-medieval style of fantasy. There are no orcs, goblins and dragons. Every animal and nonhuman creature is unique to the Abraxas world. Many of the fauna of Abraxas are mutated versions of mid-Tertiary animals that have survived on Abraxas itself until the time of the game, around 38,000 B.C. The cities of Abraxas are wondrous metropolises, mighty proto-civilizations of the great cultures of history such as Egypt, Babylon and Carthage. This provides a core of familiarity within the fantastic setting.

Who are the heroes?

Mighty swordsmen, gladiators, statesmen, scientists, explorers, barbarians. And wizards who watch the stars to predict threats to their homeland and their ideals. Some – the noble champions of the five city states – are born to greatness. Others achieve it despite humble beginnings, and even Neanderthal heroes are possible.

What do they do?

On the mainland, new young races of men (both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal) are populating the world. Our heroes are destined to be remembered in legend as tutelary deities who guard and guide new cultures in the difficult struggle to survive. At the same time, they strive to confound the prophecies that say Abraxas itself is doomed.

Threats

Alien beings whose own worlds are dying have designs on the young Earth. Projecting their psyches across the gulf of space, they can influence the minds of weak mortals who worship these beings as if they were gods. The most powerful aliens such as the Churuk – and the Ulembi, whose home lies beyond the Coal Sack – are capable of physically manifesting themselves in our world.

Magic

Magic is part of daily life (like technology for us today) and comes in two types. The first is Thaumaturgy. In this period of the distant past, glittering rings like those of Saturn still encircle the Earth – remnants of a second moon that exploded. Adepts trained in the use of Thaumaturgy can draw down cosmic energy, called vril, that is focused by these rings. It is a form of magic that is powerful but unpredictable, based as it is on the solar-magnetic “weather” within the rings.

The other main form of magic is Wizardry. It is derived from the combination of the Four Substances (Earth, Air, Fire and Water – the “elements” as they were handed down to the ancient world) with the Four Essences (Aether, Life, Ur and Death). Wizardry is typically less epic in scale than Thaumaturgy, but more reliable and controllable.
Xanthus is a foating city on the back of a giant crustacean-like creature half a mile across. The people of Xanthus are at the mercy of this creature's whims as it drifts feeding on plankton. Fearing that it may one day dive under the waves, they worship it as the god Ix and make sacrifice of the old and deformed by hurling them into a crevice called the Barathron (actually the creature's dorsal gill-vent). Food comes from fishing, weeds and barnacles cultivated at the rim of the shell, and nets hoisted aloft to trap birds. On festival days holes are drilled by the priests and part of the god's flesh is then tapped, a morsel that Ix in his vastness never notices.

The buildings of Xanthus are in fact growths on Ix's shell: a hard, orange-mottled yellow carapace rising like a low island in the sea. The aristocrats of Xanthus occupy buildings at the top of the shell, where they are safe from the destructive effect of a heavy swell, but all would die if Ix sank entirely, and so Xanthic society is more egalitarian than most. The key feature of Xanthus's inhabitants is their harshness; they have had to be ruthless to survive. Thus they are a people who despise weakness, which they cannot afford, and it is considered the duty of the old and sick to make way for the young.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Cities of Abraxas: Argistillum

Standing at the confluence of two rivers, the original walls and oldest buildings of Argistillum seem the newest structures in the city, being built of an almost indestructible resin-colored stony substance comprising ceramic bonded into a microscopic metal lattice. The Argistes no longer know the secret of making this, so their more recent buildings are of somber black granite clad with bronze and yellow tiles. Every archway is flanked by statues of the winged sphinxes that are the legendary guardians of the city.

Argistillum is most famous for its hanging gardens: terraces above the level of the streets that overhang them, dangling creepers and vines to give color and life to the place. Underfoot, the refuse of the streets is hidden by a carpet of reeds brought fresh from the river each day by slaves. Also renowned throughout Abraxas is the menagerie of Argistillum, where the visitor can (for a fee) view creatures both known and unknown.

Although great scholars and lawgivers, the Argistes have a streak of callousness, if not outright cruelty. The Arena is a place where all classes of Argistillum come to watch gladiators contend against fierce monsters and each other, in battles usually ending in death.
Government: The city is ruled by a triumvirate, each with different responsibilities. The King Above is charged with maintaining Argistillum's standing with the gods. The King of the World is the city's temporal leader, responsible for warfare, diplomacy and trade. Third and most sinister is the King Below, never seen by "his" subjects - a creature from another star, kept in a glass globe deep underground from where "he" issues cryptic advice about events yet to come.

People: Argistes are average height and build, very pale-skinned (almost milk white) with a faint yellowish cast to their features. Hair is curly; brown, black or blond; often with a single silvery streak (called by other nations a "cruel streak"). Men and women alike wear their hair in long ringlets, though men often shave their brow to create a receding hairline.
Dress: Clothing for men usually consists of sandals, loose trousers and an open gown that leaves the chest bare. A wide silk belt is patterned to show the man's clan and temple connections, and not infrequently a long curved dagger is tucked into this to show the clan may not be trifled with. Women wear a sheath skirt, slit to permit freedom of movement, and a short vest covering the breasts. The vest is held loosely closed by a colored cord in the case of unmarried girls.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

A new legend

No, it's not an April Fool. Jamie has written a novel and it's published today by Boxer Books. If you don't believe it, order your copy right here (UK) or here (America). In fact, even if you do believe it you should still buy one; Jamie is counting on you for his beer money.

Corvus Gunnarson is a hero in the Conan mold. He returns home after a period of exile to find his parents murdered and his two sisters captured by the ruthless warlord Wulfric Coldblood. Corvus swears an oath of vengeance and sets out to find Wulfric and rescue his sisters. His quest takes him on a journey from the fjords of Norway to the shores of Saxon England and beyond. On his journey he encounters giant sea serpents, pillaging armies, devious tricksters and shape-shifting berserker werewolves.

It's the first of a planned epic series. And, as this excerpt shows, there's a definite flavor of the Fabled Lands in the action sequences:

There were two more loud cracks in quick succession. Lightning bolts flashed down to strike the sea and the water steamed and boiled. It began to bubble, though there was no more lightning. It seemed like the storm was easing off now, fading away as fast as it had come. Certainly the rain was beginning to ease. But the bolt-struck waters nearby continued to roil and boil. Great bubbles rose up and burst into the air, releasing a foul stench of rot, like the breath of a hundred drowned sailors. The clouds parted a little and in the growing light Corvus could see something dark and indistinct rising up out of the depths.

Suddenly a great serpentine head broke the surface of the sea. Great gouts of water cascaded down its scaly ridged skull and the sides of its sinuous and heavily muscled neck. A hulking body - scaled, greenish, pitted with barnacles, finned and tailed like a demon-whale - came up behind it. It raised its head and uttered a rumbling roar that shook Corvus and Orm to their very bones. Its eyes, black and soulless like those of the squid, were wet and cruel and they glittered evilly. The sea-rot stink as of men long drowned filled the air with foulness.

‘Aieee!’ shrieked Orm at the top of his voice, ‘Jormungand, it is Jormungand!’

‘Jormungand!’ thought Corvus. Jormungand was the world serpent, the worm that eats its own tail, the gigantic sea serpent that would kill Thor himself at Ragnorak, the last battle of the Gods at the end of time. This was bad. Especially if Orm believed it – he didn’t believe in stuff like this normally. They were doomed!

Corvus looked up at the great beast, as its head reared up over the small boat. Well, if he was going to die, he would go to Valhalla fighting with the last drop of his blood. Quickly Corvus plucked the long knife from his belt and began to saw at the rope that held him to the mast. If only they’d realized the true nature of the threat. Instead of lashing themselves down, they should have been…. what? What could they do against this thing? He glanced over at Orm. The old man was desperately working at his bonds, his eyes staring in unbelieving terror at the sea-serpent.

As Corvus broke free, the diamond-shaped head of the sea dragon flashed down, great maw gaping, rows of sword-sharp shark-teeth glistening in the sun. Its jaws closed around Orm and the mast, snapping it like driftwood. Orm shrieked in agony. The serpent took him up into the air, and bit deep. His chest burst asunder, spraying blood and entrails, soaking Corvus in gore. Orm’s head fell one way, his legs another. Greedily the vile beast gulped down the rest of him as Corvus scrabbled for his axes, wiping bits of the dead man off his face and arms.


Read on in the first Corvus novel, Oath of Vengeance. "A thrilling epic of bravery, honour and revenge," say the skalds. "By Odin's lost eye, if thou purchasest but a single book this year, let it be this one!"

Verily, that was a word from our sponsor; Abraxas resumes tomorrow. And you Dragon Warriors players get ready, as we'll have some Tamorian magic for you in a week or two.