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Sunday, 31 October 2010

One night in Bangkok

A short story for Halloween today, and it's one with an interesting inception. Back in the 1980s, my friend and Dragon Warriors co-author, Oliver Johnson, was working at Random House. They were sketching out plans for a "Clive Barker book of monsters" - this was to be a ghost-written project with Mr Barker's name on the cover. Oliver's idea is that we'd take a look at all the old traditional horror tropes with the USP that they'd all be given an urban twist. As a fan of Fritz Leiber's stories of urban horror I was up for that, so much so that I jumped the gun and started work on the vampire and werewolf chapters right away. Unfortunately, Random House couldn't reach a deal with Clive Barker so I was left with this story and nowhere to use it.

A mere decade or so later, another friend Dermot Bolton was producing a short horror movie. The only snag was, he didn't have a script - or indeed a story. I recalled "Death Sucks", presciently narrated by a scuzzy English adventurer who turned out to sound a lot like John Constantine. I didn't want anybody thinking I'd ripped off Hellblazer, so the main character became a woman and, as the budget didn't stretch to Bangkok, the script for A Dying Trade moved the action to Yorkshire. The illustration above is from when Russ and I thought of turning the script into a comic book, but it was never completed.

You can watch the movie here. But I recommend reading the story first. There's also an essay on the undead over on the Mirabilis blog today. In the book, that would have been a companion piece to the story. If it strikes you as a bit taxonomically reductive, remember that it's a mock-academic essay by an unreliable narrator, not gospel.

Death Sucks

As usual Bangkok had a smell midway between a stale fart and a pervert's breath. There'd been a fan in the taxi - real luxury - but when I stepped out onto the pavement it was straight into a hot wet haze. Like one of those steaming towels they give you in Thai restaurants. Only this wasn't wiping the filth out of my pores, it was rubbing it in.

A thousand glaring streetlights haloed in the shroud of fumes overhead - fumes left behind by the rush hour traffic a couple of hours earlier. Two slim-hipped girls swept by in front of a crowd of German sailors. All lipstick, high heels and tight silk, they moved with the grace of teenage boys. There was a good reason for that, but I don't think the sailors had twigged yet. I stubbed out my cigarette, only half smoked, and spat on the pavement. You don't have time to worry about lung cancer in my line of work.

Off Sukhumvit there are a dozen streets with no name. Off those a hundred more. I followed my instincts for a block or more, past a bar and a street corner temple and down an alley with a pink neon sign at the end. It blinked on and off with a sound like a moth's wing batting on a screen, illuminating a carved wooden doorway where more girls in cheap silk waited on the slick cobblestones.

"Good time, all ways," breathed one of the girls as I got close. In Bangkok you can buy anything except a decent pint of bitter. She slid beside me with a rustle of silk, and the stench of the city got washed out by her cloud of musky perfume. "You name it," she said.

A perfect setup for the old leech, you have to admit. Sex and death have always been two peas in a pod, and how better to entice your prey than with the Brides of Drac ploy? Where better to disguise a genuine threat than in a city where danger is just a game played out between pussy, gin and dollars? I cracked a smile and nodded to the door. "In there," I said.

She glanced back, hesitation showing for just a moment under her frozen-on smile, then looked me up and down. I hadn't dressed like a businessman or even a tourist, just a typical cosmopolitan barfly. Cherry ripe for leech, I figured.

"Sure," she said. Must've figured right. She slid a stone-cold hand under my arm and moved me that way. The door seemed to open of its own accord, and we were in a small foyer where everything seemed to have a gauze of shadow over it. It reeked of perfume and incense - beauty concealing decay, like the painted smile of the bought body beside me. She took me down the passage and around a corner, then fiddled with a door under a forty watt bulb. In its light I could just make out where the corridor turned back to the foyer, forming three sides of a square.

The door gave a click and opened into a musty cubicle - one of a dozen lining the corridor. I returned her smile coolly enough, but my breathing was getting shallow by now. I can always feel it when leech is near. I lit a cigarette to cover it and went in, blinking in the hot white stare of a halogen lamp. Now, why in here if not out there - ?

The door shut behind me with the girl still outside, but I didn't waste time on a backward glance while she locked it. The fact that she hadn't come in with me meant I'd been pegged for an extreme prejudice number. I could get it any number of ways, all right; she'd been telling it straight when she said that. I flicked away the cigarette and put a handkerchief over my mouth. I keep a patch of odour eater folded inside it, and that's worthwhile insurance I can tell you. Your Siamese leech is not above using his tarts to spread a bit of pox, but when he really wants to fuck you over he'll use a garrote or a whiff of the old Mama Cass.

I could see straight away what the spotlight was for. The back wall of the room was one big mirror. Must have been the same in the other dozen rooms - from this side, all erotic furnishings. But from the other...

I broke it with a chair and followed the chair through into a tiny courtyard all overgrown with weeds. Seven years bad luck was worth it for the gulp of almost-fresh air and the sight of leech standing there waiting for me. The building completely enclosed the courtyard - was probably built up around it bit by bit over the years - and three stories up I could see the night sky where the city lights shone fever-yellow on low cloud. The courtyard was no bigger than one of the cubicles in the whorehouse, and there was a kind of round tombstone in the middle that could've been a hundred years old. At least.

The leech was dressed in white brocade pajamas like Yul Brynner's in The King and I. You could have mistaken him for any thin old Thai geezer except for the way he seemed to flicker like a flame in the darkness. That, and the smile like a fistful of tiger's teeth that he gave me as I moved forward. He said something in French, but I was too high on adrenaline to take it in. His smile broadened as he saw the silver-plated stiletto I pulled from my boot.

"I'm glad one of us is enjoying this, old mate," I said to him. "Personally, I feel as sick as a poodle." I lunged at him with the knife but somehow it missed him, passing between his arm and his side. Of course. You never can land a hit on leech until you've got him reeling.

He made a sound somewhere between a snarl and a laugh and caught my wrist, turning it with a flick of his scrawny old fingers. I had to do a forward flip or he'd have broken it. That put me flat on my back on one side of the courtyard, and my knife somewhere in the weeds on the other. I glanced up at one of the one-way mirrors to see some poor fat sod getting his last bonk with one of the Brides. He didn't seem to be enjoying it much, but then he'd enjoy it less when she sank the fangs in.

"You're a bleeding voyeur, you know that?" I panted at leech as he glided over to finish me. "Well cop a look at this."

I pulled my shirt open, showing him the Sanskrit characters I'd had painted there that afternoon. He stopped as if a wrecking ball had hit him between the eyes, goggling while I staggered to my feet. The priest who'd painted the characters swore he was using indelible ink, but some of them had smudged a bit even so. Maybe that was how come leech was able to twitch his fingers and even whisper a few curses in French while I retrieved my knife and did the necessary.

I'll cut a long story short. The Brides bought it when leech did. I hadn't exactly counted on that, but it did make the job a whole lot easier. Two of three of them must have been with him since the beginning - 1860s or thereabouts - so when I pulled the plug on them it gave the punters they were humping a sight to carry to their graves. You've got to laugh.

You're wondering about the Sanskrit trick? It just goes to show what I always say, that you've got to treat each case on its own merits. This time round it was a fair bet leech would've been a Buddhist when he was alive, so I found someone to paint the Pragna-Paramita sutra on my chest. That's the one about how nothing is real. Airport bestseller stuff if you ask me, but it certainly gives your Oriental vamp pause for thought. Tracking down the priest to do it wasn't easy, mind you, but in the end it's like I said.

There isn't anything you can't buy in Bangkok.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The court of unhidden faces

I just received copies of the original Fabled Lands covers from the awesomely-talented Kevin Jenkins, who is now a leading light at movie magic worskshop Framestore, where he has worked on blockbusters like Clash of the Titans - but who, we're proud to say, got his first art commissions illustrating the FL gamebooks.

To capture these images, Kevin set up all three sections of the original paintings and photographed them. It was a joy to get these because it's the first time I've seen the artwork in all its glory, unspoiled by cover folds and text.

We have Kevin's permission to use his artwork on the covers of the new edition FL gamebooks, the first four titles of which will be available on Amazon in just a few weeks. And we've also discussed the possibility of issuing them as large, glossy high-quality posters. How about it? Got a wall long enough?

Monday, 25 October 2010

Paragon

You may have got the impression from his introductory Dragon Warriors scenario, "The Darkness Before Dawn", that Frazer Payne is one of those referees (I don't like the term "gamemaster") who force the players to jump through the hoops of a pre-planned story.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the games we've played in Frazer's worlds have given us all the freedom of action you could wish for. In his Paragon campaign (described aptly by Fraz himself as "Manga-meets-Kafka-in-a-Bavarian-forest") we were set loose in a city ruled by fear and allowed to find our own plotlines, to the extent that at one point we abandoned the city that Fraz had mapped out and detailed with such meticulous care and went cruising off to a far outpost of the empire where my character planned to muscle in early on his inheritance. A lesser man would have thrown his notes in the air and told us to stick to what he had planned. Not Fraz, who was happy to wing it, improvising an ever-wider web of characters and intrigues that allowed him to give us a little unexpected insight on the workings of the Paragonian state while pursuing our own goals.

Paragon is a fabulous game world and a really elegant set of rules. Even more to my tastes is Frazer's follow-up campaign The Ghosts of London. The game background notes alone are some of the best writing I have ever seen - yes, including Faulkner and Fitzgerald. To give you an idea how effective this campaign was, we had to abandon it because one of the players was suffering from nightmares after each session. (If it had been me, I would have wanted to play more often - but à chacun son goût.)

I would love to put up the Ghosts of London material here but what happens to it is up to Fraz. Both GoL and Paragon are absolutely crying out to be published - the world needs both of them a lot more than it needs another elves-n-dwarves fantasy RPG, for example. Frazer is in fact currently at work on a German version of Paragon, though the English language version is yet to be signed by a publisher and the real gem, Ghosts of London, remains on the back burner. To whet your appetite, take a look at this description Fraz wrote of our second-ever Paragon session:

Brother Asp disentangles himself from the straw-pile with as much dignity as he can muster and marches back into the inn. He passes the lawman, Stone, on the stairs, dragging unconscious bodies down feet first.

The common room is a tangle of overturned pallets and bedding, silent except for the night wind blowing through the jagged window frame. With a determined set to his jaw he hoists a couple of pallets free from the mess, stomps back down to the bar and slings them onto the embers in the hearth.

The hospitality of this town leaves much to be desired, he thinks, and in adversity one must look to one’s own abundant resources to ensure a good night’s sleep.

He makes two more trips until he has enough materials to make a tolerable bed before the fire, then settles in. He’ll be glad to be away from here, that’s for certain, and trusting that God will illuminate that intractable airman overnight, he falls asleep.

The tailor enters silently to find the holy man peaceful in the centre of a sumptuous nest of all the bedding in the building. He sits in a booth, tucking his legs neatly up in front of himself for warmth, and enjoys the fire until his eyelids sink down with the flames.

The sun creeps grudgingly over the treetops, giving a cheerless glow to the village rooftops and the airship in the field. The airman pops up from his cabin in a swathe of steam, wrapped head to toe in his altitude leathers, and squints at the sky. A tap on a gauge here and a tweak of a dial there confirms what his keen eye tells him about the weather conditions. It’s cold, misty, and it’s time for breakfast. He slides down the anchor-rope and marches briskly across the field, eyeing the broken glass on the ground beneath the inn window before ducking inside.

It’s no warmer in here, and empty of customers it smells of mould. The holy man is slumped dishevelled against the bar. He’s on his second mug of wine. Stone is on his first pint jug. Both straighten as the airman comes in. Smelling some stiff negotiation in the air, he strides straight past them, ducks under the bar hatch and disappears into the kitchen. The innkeep, doddering around in the pantry, hasn’t even turned to see who’s come in before the airman has plucked a pinch of spice from a forgotten pot on a high shelf, sprinkled it over the sausages sizzling on the hob, decanted them to a plate and swept out again. The innkeep looks forlornly at his empty pan and decides to go back to bed until the strangers have gone.

He’s just snuggled down in his cold sheets when the door to his bedroom bursts open and the lawman strides in, deals him a stiff fine for harbouring thieves in his establishment, and strides out again. It is at that moment that the holy man plants a crate under his window, climbs on top of it and begins to sermonise roundly to the village square at a volume that greatly belies his diminutive stature. There seem to be four bleary-eyed, bedraggled men in the stocks that weren’t there last night, and one of them looks to be unconscious or worse. As the holy man’s voice rises to the heavens, they all look as if they wish they were, too. The innkeeper nearly falls over himself in his hurry back to bed, where he plants his pillow firmly over his head.

As the sun melts the frost from the field so it creeps as mist, sinuously through the grass, back to the brambled eaves of the forest, the airship rises, swings low over the gatehouse and thunders over the crests of the trees.

Below, the holy man can be seen tottering through the archway, and a little behind him, the tailor. The engines’ thud sets the tree tops shivering. Then it climbs, climbs into the low, morning cloud and is gone

into an opaque limbo. For an interminable time the airship creaks and rattles as it churns against the stiff wind, clouds pouring around the gasbag and over the bow like sea spume. The ship becomes at once ghostly in the mist and more solid, every sound close and thick in the wet air. The dark wood, Rope and brass grows a pale fur as beads of moisture cling to every surface. The steeply angled deck is soon streaked with rivulets. Then it breaks into dazzling winter sunlight. The cloudscape is like a frozen ocean, wreathed in gold, and the wooded hilltops like islands. The sky is a vast azure dome, it's distant ceiling glimmering with the last stars.

The air is so crisp it snatches the breath away. Stone stays near the aft mast, holding it tight with one hand. The vibration of the engine through the dense wood has made his fingers numb.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Home of the Magi

More Blood Sword stuff, and this one's really for the diehards. It's Oliver's map of the chasm known as 'the Cauldron' that surrounds the ruined city of Spyte. For the purposes of the gamebook, the Cauldron was only a few hundred yards across - a bit of licence, that, as in Legend it's actually several miles across, and that's one of the reasons I don't consider the Blood Sword books quite canonical.

What happened with the Blood Sword books was they were originally meant to be written by me and Oliver together. But while I was a full-time author, Oliver had a job at Transworld Publishing (publishers of Dragon Warriors) and his workload began to mushroom, with the result that he had to back out after doing only about 25% of the first book, The Battlepits of Krarth. I then wrote the next three, but we always intended that Oliver would clear enough time that we could partner up on the finale of the series, The Walls of Spyte. Unfortunately, after drawing that first map he had to drop out because of a combination of career and personal pressures. That's why Jamie Thomson jumped in at short notice to help out with the last hundred paragraphs.

The Blood Sword books are probably quite hard to find these days (legally, anyway) but the first three were turned into my Chronicles of the Magi novels, available as PDFs for $4.95 each on DriveThru. Again, not strictly canonical Legend, but useful for roleplaying in Krarth, Wyrd, Outremer or the Ta'ashim lands. This taster should help you decide:

The heat of the day had long since fled from the desert, and under a sky of a million stars a man stood on the white sands beside a corpse.

In the man’s hand was a long knife, gently curved, whose blade shone dark and wet in the cold moonlight. Stooping, he dipped the knife in the corpse’s gaping chest and used its own blood to draw a circle around where it lay.

The task done, he raised his eyes to the heavens and spoke seventeen syllables in a guttural tongue.

A wind rose, pulling ripples of fine sand across the moon-bleached dunes.

The man directed the knife in turn to each point of the compass, his movements as graceful and precise as those of a dancer or a beast of prey. And as he turned he seemed to sing a spell under his breath in the same exotic language.

At his feet, the corpse’s eyelids rolled open and it stared in blind horror at the stars.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Enchanter, warrior, trickster, sage

A couple of Blood Sword curios here: the character designs and first cover sketch by the original artist. I can't tell you his name or anything about the design process because Oliver and I were not in the loop as far as the covers of these books were concerned. This was in contrast to the Dragon Warriors books, where we were involved not only in choosing and briefing the artists but even in selecting the font and which of the publisher's logos would appear on the covers.

I don't know why this artist's approach was rejected, but I think it may have been the overabundance of upper lip hair - rather off-putting for a YA book, surely.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Abenteuerspiel

Jamie has spent the last couple of weeks working with my Mirabilis co-creator, Leo Hartas, on an Escape From Colditz game intended to publicize re-runs of the old BBC/NBC show. You can play the beta (slightly buggy but still fun) on Leo's own site. The spot-on WW2 movie pastiche soundtrack is by the uber-talented Frazer Payne, and one of his tracks is in the beta, so it's worth a look just for that.

Bizarrely, the marketing folk at the TV company wanted Jamie and Leo to squeeze the game below 1.5 Meg so that people could email it to each other - y'know, like you do with Flash games. Well, that's marketing for you, bless 'em.

Anyway, while Leo has been playing around with Flash we started looking at mini-adventure games like Death in Sakkara and visual novels such as The Flower Shop. There I was resisting - I'd rather be writing more episodes of the Mirabilis comic than designing a game - but inspiration struck anyway. As it so often does when you're trying to work on something else. So now we have an intriguing hook for a Mirabilis adventure game and I just know it's going to lie there gnawing at my subconscious until we get on and do it.

The working title is Timber! and the only question now is whether to do it in Flash and give it away for free or to put a bit more care and attention into making an app version.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Fever dream

Just when I think I've run out of utterly obscure curiosities to dust off and show you, I go and open a box in the attic and find a dozen more. This time it's a top-level design concept for a browser-based 3D realtime strategy game. This would have been written back around 2000. Having just left Eidos along with Plague lead coder and Warzone 2100 engine creator Sam Kerbeck, the two of us we were looking for a project to work on together.

I got the 'flu and had this weird dream about a guy searching in the dust of Mars a million years ago for the last drops of water. When I woke up, I wrote it down exactly as I saw it and then started sketching out the combined arms principles of the game.

The aim was to make a very simple little game with not too many units, all of which would be low-poly models, so that we could get it done quickly and cheaply. (Yeah yeah, you should always laugh when somebody says that about an RTS.) Then we got more ambitious - as we always do - and decided to turn it into a much bigger game using the astonishing graphics engine Sam created to replace the one for Plague, later Warrior Kings, which was "based on a concept by Ian Livingstone", as the saying goes, insofar as the actual concept in question was for a turn-based 2D version of SimCity set in 14th century London. I kid you not.

Anyway, this game was based on a concept by my virus-cooked subconscious. In my dream it was called Liquid, and I envisaged the ad in Edge with three coloured dots beside an image of Mars, labelled as follows:

Water - the colour of Life
Poison - the colour of Death
Blood - the colour of War

Yes, I know - a bit rough-edged to say the least. But to come up with this stuff while you're asleep and running a temperature... Well, you try it. And I believe it is always worth taking the raw material that you get that way and seeing if you can make something good out of it, because it is the one and only time you're creating without the nagging whisper of your critical faculties.

First thing to go would have been the title. It was about the desperate struggle for resources. Thirst seemed to fit it better - and that's a name I've always liked.

What happened? The dotcom bubble happened. We should have stuck with the quick-n-dirty version, because after the shit hit the FTSE there wasn't nobody handing out a million or two for a start-up game developer. But here is the original fever-fuelled outline:

The red desert of Mars. A fissure in the ground. Our view descends into a crevice, down and down towards the sound of running water. A skin of water ripples down the walls, which are covered in astonishing patterns of phosphoric salts. Further down, far below the planet's surface now, the water runs into a gushing underground river. The river is bubbling, pounding, frothing... A living force in the heart of the dry rock.

The pressure builds, sending a jet of water up the crevice. Back on the surface, the dry edges of the fissure moisten with droplets of water bubbling up out of the interior of the planet. It seeps out into the dusty red sand –

A man wakes. His grey eyes stare in shock, fatigue, despair. His blond hair is plastered with sweat. He is wearing a white environment suit and a mask across his mouth and nose.

The image of bubbling water must have been only in his dreams, as all around him lies a desolate dry landscape: ochre-coloured dunes tinted with patches of olive lichen, red sandstone boulders like giant fossilized eggs. Huge flat-topped mesas stand out darkly against a cobalt blue sky. The sun is smaller, dimmer than it appears from Earth, and there are two swift moons.

The man stands and takes a flask from his belt. Removing his mask, he lifts the flask to drink. But there are only a few drops left. Barely enough to wet his cracked lips. He throws the flask down at his feet.

There is a rhythmic hum on the air. As the man looks around trying to work out where it's coming from, his eyes fall on the shadow at his feet. It is cast by the mesa behind him.

So why is the shadow moving?

The man stands with the mesa behind him outlined against the sky. As he turns his head, an airship prow emerges over the edge of the mesa. Slowly it drifts overhead, filling the sky. There is a hieroglyph on the side of the airship - not the same one that is on the man's suit. He grabs his harpoon rifle but it's obvious that it would be futile for one man to attack such a vast ship. As he watches, ports open in the sides of the cabin slung below the balloon. Green droplets are ejected and fall in slow motion towards him.

He's frozen for a moment watching the green droplets fall. Then he runs. Behind him, the poison bombs splash against the red dust - splattering heavily, they contain dozens of gallons each. There is an acidic hiss and clouds of green vapour start to spread. The man pulls goggles down to cover his eyes.

He rounds the mesa. Reflected in his goggles is a horde of giant crustacean – or insects, maybe. Their hard limbs make a thunderous chittering on the rocks as they march towards his location. Carried in their mandibles are the creatures' riders: soldiers in black environment suits. There are hundreds of them.

The man looks back. The airship has manoeuvred into position between two mesas and is continuing to bombard the ground with poison charges. As he stands undecided, an electrical blast from the vanguard of the insect riders catches him a glancing blow and spins him around, sending him sprawling in the dust.

He's lost his rifle. His arm is stiff where the electrical bolt hit. Maybe he blacked out for a few seconds. With desperate bone-weary strength, he pulls himself to the foot of the mesa. Sheer luck guides him to a cave, the entrance partly concealed behind a jagged rock. He crawls inside, his feet tumbling over the pebbles. He disappears just moments before the insect riders come into view.

He peers out. There is a haze of dust as the riders mill to and fro, the huge insects gleaming like oiled machinery. At close range the insects look like scorpions, their heads tiny in comparison to their massive chitinous bodies. The riders sit in massive jaws that protect them like a cage, while above them gleam the insect's inscrutable jewelled eyes.

The airship has dropped anchors. They are tethering it between the mesas, lowering a ladder so that the crew can descend to the camp.

The man retreats deeper into the cave. As the noise of the soldiers outside grows fainter, he hears a trickling sound. He looks at the wall of the cave. Something odd. The rock seems to quiver and swim...

He reaches out and touches the wall. Water flows around his fingers. Tentatively he touches it to his lips - then he is splashing it over his face and pressing his face against the rock to drink.

Half crazy with the discovery, he runs back up the passage towards the mouth of the cave. But a rider of the enemy army is there, his insect mount stooping to allow him to look into the cave. As he sees the man, he levels his gun. The man cries out in panic, pointing back into the cave. He's trying to tell them about the water.

Too late. A blast of electricity burns through the air, flinging the man back. The last sight we see is the liquid gleam of his eyes as they go dull and dead.

GAMEPLAY

Units

Ground units:

Infantryman - Carries a polearm with a white-hot welding-type arc at the end. Very tough in close combat. Medium armour.

Plasma Artillery - Carries a heavy bazooka that fires plasma blasts. When artilleryman is in position, bazooka takes a few moments to set up on its base before it can fire. Weak in close combat, because they cannot fire at point-blank range (the plasma blasts have a detonation radius). Medium armour.

Kelid Riders - Humans riding in the jaws of giant scorpion-like insects. They fight with magnetic guns that fire thin metal harpoons. Light armour.

Aerial units:

Airship - Huge hydrogen-filled balloon driven by solar-powered propellers (the solar panels cover the balloon surface). At manoeuvring altitude, the Airship moves a little slower than an Infantryman. At cruising altitude (higher) the Airship enters the Martian jet streams and potentially can move faster than any other unit, but only in the direction of the jet stream - in order to switch to another jet stream in a different direction, it must first drop to manoeuvring altitude. (Note: the directions of the jet streams are very predictable, like rivers, but their speed changes slightly with the seasons.) Airship weaponry consists of bombs that explode into clouds of acidic gas when dropped - Infantry and Artillery will die before they can get out of a direct hit, but Riders are fast enough to escape the cloud with only about 50% damage.

Skimmer - A very fast, low-flying intelligent creature like a dragonfly. Skimmers live in hives in the caves inside a mesa and will collect ore, which they deposit at the nearest friendly Command Post. As aerial units, Skimmers can see further than troops on the ground and this means they also act as an early warning system of attacks on their city. However, they are not intelligent enough to distinguish troops' type or allegiance - to a Skimmer, they just appear as generic units.

Armour Weapon Range Move
Infantry 3 7 1 5
Artillery 3 6 9 4
Rider 1 3 8 7
Airship 2 9 - 4/6-8
Skimmer 0 0 0 9
(For comparison, mesas are about height 6-7 and Airships fly at heights 9-20.)


BUILDINGS

All buildings except Bridges must be placed on top of mesas. They are built by Infantry, using the arc-welding effect of their lances.

Bridge - A means of spanning the gap between mesas to extend a city. Energy can be carried along the Bridge's cables, allowing a network of mesas to draw off a shared set of Pylons. Troops can cross bridges, and Fulmin Turrets can be placed on them. Force bubbles do not protect bridges, however. Bridges can also be built across chasms.

Command Post - Generates a force bubble that covers the top of the mesa. The strength of the bubble depends on the energy available. Force bubbles can only be destroyed by Artillery. All types of ground troops can be spawned at a Command Post.

Fulmin Turret - Has a ranged electrical-blast attack that is effective against all units (weapon strength 8 if Turret fully powered, range 7).

Hydroponic Farm - Must be built on the edge of a mesa. Pipes lead down the side and into the ground at the base of the mesa, extracting water from the deep wells below the planet's surface.

Hangar - Used to spawn Airships.

Pylon - A high metal tower stretching up into the jet stream. This continually attracts an electrical halo, generating Energy.

RESOURCES

Energy - generated continually by pylons and fed to all buildings within that city. Energy is used to power Fulmin Turrets and a Command Post's force field - these continually draw energy, and if not enough Energy is available they are weakened. Spawning new units also drains energy. Since space on top of a mesa is limited, you have to balance Pylons for Energy production against other buildings.

Ore - available scattered across the surface of Mars. Some areas are particularly rich in Ore. Meteorites sometimes fall from space, creating a new source. Ore is usually collected by Skimmers, but can also be picked up by Infantrymen, who use their arclite lances to break down the ore. (Infantrymen given the order to gather Ore move at reduced speed until they can return to the Command Post or are ordered to drop the ore.)

Water - an "implied" resource, like food in Warcraft. You don't have to collect and store water, you just build Hydroponic Farms and that sets your population limit.

COMBAT PARADIGMS

It's possible to describe typical combat results, assuming equal numbers on both sides. These paradigms can be changed by other factors such as terrain.

Infantry vs Artillery
Infantry will take some damage but will catch up to Artillery (who move a bit slower because of their heavy guns). In close combat, the Infantry then win easily. (Note: the Infantry will take greater damage if advancing in close formation, because of the detonation radius of the plasma bolts.)

Infantry vs Riders
The Riders can back away (the insects go equally fast in all directions, and are swifter than men on foot) while firing. The guns don't do a lot of damage, but they will slowly whittle the Infantry away. So the Riders win with no damage to themselves.

Artillery vs Riders
The Artillery's plasma blasts do more damage than the Rider's guns. A further problem is that an insect taking a direct hit will scuttle burning through the ranks, causing confusion. Artillery wins, but will sustain about 50% damage.

Infantry vs Airship
The Infantry can do nothing.

Artillery vs Airship
Artillery's range is unaffected by the direction in which they shoot - even straight up. Assuming the Artillery start firing as soon as the Airship is in range, a sufficient number should be able to destroy it before it is in place to drop bombs. (Note: this is not a literal 1-on-1 paradigm, as one Airship costs as much as maybe six Artillery.)

Riders vs Airship
The Riders can do some damage to the Airship, but their guns are affected by the altitude they are firing at, so it's minimal. If the Riders stay in position, the Airship will bomb them before it has taken much damage.

TACTICAL & ENVIRONMENTAL PLOYS

Sandstorms reduce the effectiveness of ranged units (Riders especially).

Riders shooting downhill get a damage bonus that can turn the tables against Artillery (whose weapons do the same damage whether shooting up or down).

Riders who can get close enough to ambush Artillery (eg, by hiding in sand dunes or behind a mesa) will beat them because the Artillery cannot fire at point-blank range.

Infantry who can trap Riders (eg, in a narrow pass between two mesas) will be able to slaughter them easily, as the Riders cannot then retreat while shooting.

Riders who are on a mesa can do more damage to Airships (because there is less of a difference in altitude).

ORDERS

Rout - Units drop their weapons and flee back to nearest friendly base. You have to re-equip them, but at least you save the men.


It's rather strange to come across this after an interval of ten years, especially given the atypical inception of the concept. It's a never-was project, of course. You get through a lot of those in the videogames industry - which is the main reason why I returned to writing.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Six vistas of wonder

Last week I finally had the chance to meet up with Kevin Jenkins, who painted all six Fabled Lands covers. Jamie and I had supplied rough sketches for those covers to the publisher, but I don't recall that we ever got the opportunity to speak with Kevin directly. In the intervening years, he's moved over to working on movies, and was the digital environment supervisor on Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans and a bunch of other eye-popping SFX blockbusters.

I told Kevin our plans to reissue the series and it turns out he's quite a fantasy games fan, having played a lot of RuneQuest and other RPGs and boardgames. To our delight, he's agreed to let us use the original covers on the new edition - and, even better, he's willing to become Fabled Lands's art direction consultant. That means that, as long as his busy schedule allows, we'll have the advice of one of the movie industry's top visual talents to guide the look and feel of future Fabled Lands products.

In particular, of course, I'm thinking of the covers of Books 7 and on. Kevin isn't going to have time to paint those himself (well, not unless James Cameron gives him a month off!) but he'll help us find the right artists and make sure they are briefed properly. So between Kevin Jenkins and fantasy illustration king Russ Nicholson, I reckon we have all our artistic bases covered.

Kevin is currently making some changes to the cover of Book 1 (above) which apparently he's been wanting to revise for over 15 years. Can't wait to see what he does with it!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Play nice, my beautiful puppies

Role-players everywhere may enjoy this story, "The Dungeon Master", by Sam Lipsyte that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the week.

It's not really about the gaming, although in another way it is. (You'll get no spoilers here.) Anyway, it's a fantastic piece of writing that gained an extra frisson for me from the RPG connection.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Lloyd of Dirkness

A while back we told you about Dirk Lloyd, another of the many projects that Jamie and I dreamed up for the ever-growing stable of fantastic Fabled Lands properties. At least, as we sat in the back yard clutching our bottles of Becks a few years ago, we thought it was our idea. But now we realize that we were in the grip of a mind so powerful, so insidious and so diabolical that we are but his cringing slaves.

The first Dirk Lloyd novel (written by the lord of evilness himself, channeling his dark intellect through the trembling fingers of Mr Thomson) has now been signed to Usborne and Jamie is screaming to be let out of the dungeon where we've locked him up to write the sequel. In the mashup between Dirk's ruthless fanaticism and Jamie's teetering sanity has emerged the most brilliant fantasy-comedy since Terry Pratchett first donned his famous wide-brimmed hat.

Watch for the first Dirk Lloyd book from Usborne Publishing in October next year. We'll bring you more news throughout the year. And in the meantime, connect with the junior lord of illimitable evil on Facebook - if you dare!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Mortal Combat

Mortal Combat was a cheap, simple RPG published in 1979 by Waynflete House (my own company, with schoolmate Nick Henfrey). The core design was by Steve Foster. I remember when he unveiled it to our group. We were used to Empire of the Petal Throne (a D&D variant) and Traveller, and what Steve had was something new to us. It had a gritty sense of realistic danger. A trained fighter could despatch one novice easily, for example, but against two or three opponents of even moderate skill he’d be in trouble.

The combat mechanic was simple: attacker rolls 1d20 and adds his Attack score, and must beat his opponent’s Defence score +11. Yes, it could have been tidied up. But it was neat and quick and it worked. Magic was a little more involved, with ingredients and spellpoints, but nothing a bit of playtesting couldn’t fix. Crucially, sorcerers were powerful but not the artillery units they were in other games. They needed a bunch of grogs to protect them.

Over the years, I’ve decided that my three requirements in a set of RPG rules are that they need to be:

Simple
Everyone around the table should get the basics. They need to be able to work out their own character sheet, not require Excel and a mathematical expert to help them.

Quick
Getting sucked into simulation-game details kills the flow of the story. Rather than a system that models every possible combat manoeuvre, I’d rather it did the job on a semi-abstract level and left it to the player to interpret what happened.

Comprehensive
The rules need to be able to cover everything, however vaguely. Anything left undefined is subject to the whim of the umpire (or referee – don’t call them “game master”) and that’s too much power. Though the ideal game is a contract between umpire and players and shouldn’t need constant dice-rolling, players must always have the option of letting the rules decide an outcome.
Mortal Combat succeeded pretty well on the first two counts. It failed totally on the last, because it didn’t make any attempt to cover anything except combat and magic. But it must have had something going for it, because it got some very good reviews and it brought us to the attention of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson at Games Workshop. They were looking to do a rival to Dungeons & Dragons, which GW had been printing and distributing under license from TSR. They could see it was only a matter of time before TSR set up their own UK operation, and their magazine White Dwarf gave them the perfect platform to establish their own role-playing game. “Do us something like this,” said Livingstone, waving a copy of Mortal Combat. That's what they were after, that Barton Fink feeling.

They wanted to call it Adventure so that the ads in White Dwarf could read: "Are you ready for... Adventure?" Like a pun, you see? Yeah, well. I got cracking on faith and a handshake. No wait, I never did get even the handshake, come to think of it. But that was a good thing – my naivety saved me from contractual mire. You see, Games Workshop did lose the D&D license, as they’d anticipated, but before I had finished designing the new game (I could never bring myself to call it Adventure) they acquired the RuneQuest license. Adventure was never mentioned again.

I remember saying to Ian Livingstone: “It’s interesting working on a project like this. Just about the time you’re finishing, you see how you should have done it.” That turned out to be prophetic. A few years later, as the gamebook craze took light (largely thanks to Messrs Livingstone and Jackson) publishers were willing to commission anything with “fantasy” and “role-playing” in the description. I dusted off Adventure, reworked it, and Oliver Johnson and I pitched it to Transworld Publishing, nowadays a division of Random House. And that was how Dragon Warriors came to be.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Eye of Heroes - the special stuff

And as our final excerpt from the Eye of Heroes (spec by Steve Bristow, Will Doyle and Jamie Thomson, collectively the design team at sadly defunct PC game developer Black Cactus) here's the list of special character actions.

EoH was planned as a tactical small-squad game based around action points, similar to X-Com or Laser Squad. The spec is nice: simple, tight and comprehensive. I keeping thinking it would make a good smartphone (or slate) game.

CLASS-BASED ACTIONS

Poison Arrow (Wayfarer) This attack is more expensive than an aimed shot, but damages and Dazes any unit that it strikes (+20 Combat, 1-10 damage modified by level of success + daze). Dazed units miss their next turn and can’t perform opportunity attacks or combination attacks until they recover.

Noise Arrow (Wayfarer) This attack is slightly more expensive than an aimed shot, but causes a loud bang on impact (+20 Combat, no damage + bang).

Mighty Attack (Warrior) This attack is more expensive than a heavy attack, but causes more damage (+0 Combat, 10-30 damage modified by level of success).

Frenzy (Warrior) This action is cheap to perform, and lasts until the start of the warrior’s next turn. During the frenzy all attacks deliver extra damage, but the warrior’s defence is lowered dramatically (-30 Defence, 1-10 added to all damage delivered).

Search (Rogue) This action is used to detect for traps and secret switches. The rogue rolls his Scouting against the Concealment Value of every hidden object within LoS (modified by range: as per missile attacks). Objects that he detects fade up from transparency, accompanied by a tinkling chime.

Disarm (Rogue) This action is used to disable traps in adjacent squares. The rogue rolls his Thievery attribute against the Complexity Value of an adjacent, visible trap. The trap is disarmed if he succeeds. If he fails he risks accidentally triggering the trap, which may cause damage.

Fireblast (Mage) This action is resolved as an Aimed Shot, but causes flames to consume the affected square, and all surrounding squares (+20 Combat, 10-20 damage modified by level of success in Magic vs. Defence).

Firebolt (Mage) This action is similar to a Snap Shot. The affected square is consumed by flame (+0 Combat, 10-20 damage modified by level of success in Magic vs. Defence).

Summon (Mage) This action is expensive to perform and must be directed into an adjacent square. A cackling imp appears in the square when cast. This creature can be controlled as an additional party member, but disappears in a puff of smoke at the end of the enemy’s turn.

Curse (Priest) This action is expensive to perform, but can be targeted upon any enemy unit within line of sight. When cast, the priest rolls their Sanctity against their enemy’s Sanctity. If successful, the enemy is Dazed for his next turn and cannot move.

Heal (Priest) This action is moderately expensive to perform, but can be target upon any allied unit within LoS. The priest rolls their Sanctity versus the target’s current Stamina to determine how many Stamina points are healed.

Bless (Priest) The action is cheap to perform, and can be targeted upon any allied unit within LoS. The Sanctity of the Priest assists the attribute used for the target’s next action. Blessings are cancelled at the end of the enemy’s next turn.

Hypnotise (Troubadour) This action is expensive to perform, and can be targeted upon any enemy unit within LoS. The Charisma of the Troubadour is pitted against the Charisma of their victim. If the Troubadour wins, the AP of the enemy unit is restored to maximum, and it can be controlled as an allied unit until the start of the enemy’s next turn. Some creatures are immune to hypnosis.

Taunt (Troubadour) This action is moderately expensive to perform, and can be targeted upon any enemy unit within LoS. The Charisma of the Troubadour is pitted against the Charisma of their victim. If the Troubadour wins, the enemy unit will become enraged, and will concentrate solely upon the Troubadour until the end of his next turn. Some creatures are immune to taunts.

Distract (Troubadour) This action is cheap to perform, and can be targeted upon any square within LoS. The Charisma of the Troubadour is pitted against the Charisma of all units who have LoS to this square. Enemies who fail the test will turn to face the square until distracted elsewhere.

Steal Soulfire (Adventurer) This action is cheap to perform, but can only be used when your adventurer is standing on the same square as a corpse. The amount of Soulfire received is variable (see Soulfire, below).

Summon Hero (Adventurer) This action is cheap to perform. When activated you are prompted to select a hero from the Eye of Heroes. The hero appears in a random square adjacent to your adventurer.

Dismiss Hero (Adventurer) This action is cheap to perform. When activated you are prompted to select an allied unit on the battlemap. The hero is instantly dismissed back to the Eye of Heroes.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Eye of Heroes - levels and enemies

The storyline of the FL tactical computer game was to involve the young protagonist Tam recovering the souls of six heroes of legend. I'm copying the plot description here exactly as it was written in the design spec, although I'm not completely sure that the very Judaeo-Christian model of heaven and hell is exactly right for the Fabled Lands. However, I assume this part must have been written by Jamie - who else would know the setting that well? - and he's the ultimate authority on FL mythos.

GAME OUTLINE

Guided by the spirit of the Eye, Tam is told that he is on a quest to save the Fabled Lands but the precise nature of the threat is not disclosed until the very end of the game. Tam and his ghostly companions soon find themselves chased by cultists, and eventually the skies across the Fabled Lands darken and the souls of the dead start raining down.

Once his soul is freed, the wizard Targdaz is able to explain the threat. It is his old rival from centuries ago: a priest of Ebron called Qadarnai. Qadarnai earned so much favour with his deity whilst Targdaz was inside the ruby that he eventually ascended to Paradise as an angel. But Qadarnai grew jealous of Ebron’s power, and attempted to raise a celestial army against his master.

Ebron learned of this plot, and cast Qadarnai down to the Underworld. Qadarnai toiled in hell for generations, until slowly he earned the respect of his new masters. In time the fallen angel became a demon, capable of visiting earth to answer the summons of necromancers and mad priests.

Qadarnai had his own plans though. He seeded a cult on earth, and drew his plans against both Paradise and the Underworld. His aim: nothing more than the complete destruction of both. The cult of Qadarnai has made him strong, and now he gathers an army in the Underworld. Civil war rages throughout the Underworld, and the screaming spirits of the dead are spat from the flumes of Starspike Island to crash down upon the Fabled Lands.

Qadarnai aims to wrest control from the Gods of the Underworld, and open the Sinkhole of Worlds. This mighty plughole sits at the bottom of the deepest sea-gorge of the Violet Ocean. Opening it would flood the Underworld, extinguishing the fires of hell and draining the entire ocean. Robbed of all moisture, the people of the Fabled Lands would die of thirst. And without their worship, the Gods would soon follow.

Only the greatest heroes of the past can stop him. Only Tam can lead them. At the end of the game, Tam’s quest has but begun…

LEVEL 1: AMMUNAS
The first level of the game is set at night in Nerech, a peninsula on the North-eastern coast of Sokara. Nerech is home to the ravening Manbeasts. Passing through the gates of Fort Esgard, Tam is warned by the guards that his quest is sheer madness and will end in doom.

Ammunas’s bones are found within the roofless ruins of an ancient Shadar temple, exposed to the elements atop a craggy granite tor, and now home to a filthy settlement of Manbeasts. The level is staged in a thunderstorm, to the howling accompaniment of a thousand Manbeasts.

Manbeasts function as Warriors.

LEVEL 2: ROKU
The second level is set by day in Akatsurai, in the depths of the Kwaidan Forest.

Roku’s skeleton is still entwined with that of his lover, bound together by thorns at the heart of an ancient, ruined village. Cherry blossom falls from the trees beside a sparkling waterfall, which has flooded much of the village. Temple dogs peer from the bushes, choked by vines. Butterflies drift through the air. Everything here is quiet, mystical…but not for long.

A clan of Ratmen has set their sights on Tam’s golden sword, and has followed him across the seas from Sokara. They catch up with him at the ruined village, and attempt to make the kill.

Ratmen function as Wayfarers.

LEVEL 3: KERROL
The third level is set at night in the Mixen Sumps: a stretch of swampland on the southern coastline of Uttaku, the Land of Hidden Faces.

Kerrol’s bones are found on a rotted wooden altar at the heart of the swamps, surrounded by limp trees and lit by swirling marsh lights. A swathe of fog blankets the ground, and old Uttakin idols protrude from the murk.

Aware that Tam is assembling heroes to stop him, The enemy sends his cultists to intercept them. The cultists lead Manbeasts on chains, and have forged an alliance with the Ratmen.

Cultists function as Priests. Manbeasts (Warriors) and Ratmen (Wayfarers) support them.

LEVEL 4: RUSTY JACK
The fourth level is set by day in the Feathered Lands, and is staged in and around the ruins of a crashed Arkship.

The wreck of the Thunderbound is sprawled across a tropical cove. The jungle spreads right up to the sand, stretching outwards to swallow the wreck. The howls of tropical beasts fill the air, and feathered snakes wing from branch to branch.

The zombies of his crew, cursed to guard his bones as barnacle men, still haunt Rusty Jack’s ship. All manner of traps are still active to prevent intruders from penetrating into the treasury. After Jack’s soul is freed the undead assassins of Sig swear to pursue him and bring him to justice.

Barnacle Men function as Rogues.

LEVEL 5: NIAMH
The fifth level is set around a Mannekin Village, at the foot of Sky Mountain, high in the Spine of Harkun.

The Mannekin village clings to the cliff face at the bottom of a great gorge. The Wing Warriors worship the bones of Niamh of the Whispers, who flung herself from the top of Sky Mountain thousands of years ago. A Mannekin shrine is built above her final resting place, riddled with Mannekin traps to deter those who would disturb her peace.

The enemy’s plans are now coming to fruition. The skies across the Fabled Lands rain down Spectres of the dead as civil war sweeps through the Underworld. As Tam arrives in the Mannekin village the Spectres swoop down around him, scattering the Mannekin to the safety of their homes. To compound matters, the cultists arrive after a few turns, accompanied by the clan of ratmen.

Spectres function as Troubadours. Cultists (Priests), Manbeasts (Warriors) and Ratmen (Wayfarers) arrive after a few turns.

LEVEL 6: TARGDAZ
The sixth level is set in the Tomb of Targdaz, buried high in the hills in the country of Atticala.

The Tomb of Targdaz is a majestic vault filled with traps and riddles: your greatest test yet. Statues of Atticalan warriors loom from the walls, and burning sconces illuminate the corridors with flickering light. Targdaz’s remains were taken here by the Order of Fire: insane wizards who look upon his bones as religious relics.

As the Order fight to protect their master’s tomb, the enemy’s servants catch up with the party once more. A few turns later the undead assassins of Sig arrive to capture the soul of Rusty Jack.

Fire Wizards function as Mages. Every other enemy encountered so far is also present: Cultists (Priests), Manbeasts (Warriors), Ratmen (Wayfarers), and Barnacle Men (Rogues). The Cultists have found a way to bottle the Spectres (Troubadours) that are falling from the heavens all across the Fabled Lands: and throw them as grenades in combat.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Spells and tats

This last of the Eye of Heroes fellowship was, I'm pretty sure, written by Jamie himself, as Targdaz was one of his own characters in our Tekumel role-playing campaign. Nobody called him "the Magnificent" then, as that Targdaz, although a sorcerer, bore few similarities to the character in the FL books.

THE MAGE: TARGDAZ THE MAGNIFICENT
Appearance: Targdaz wears baroque red and orange robes of almost preposterous ornateness, and every inch of his skin is tattooed. His nose is hooked, and he sports a magnificent black beard. Targdaz carries a mysterious wand of green metal shaped somewhat like a television aerial.

History: One of the mightiest spell-casters in recorded history, Targdaz the Magnificent served as royal sorcerer to seven of the great kings of Harkuna. His studies into the inner mysteries of magic inspired generations of mages, and he is recognized as founder of the first college of magic in Dweomer.

Targdaz famously cajoled the god Molhern into teaching him the secrets of higher magic, the essence of which he trapped inside his Casket of Imponderables. So great was the power of higher magic that no mortal could wield it: the astral vibrations would simply tear their body apart. By siphoning the power through specially created valves in the casket, Targdaz was able to leech a little for himself. Even in such small measures, it was stronger magic than any mage before or since could muster.

Targdaz left the court of Harkun with his casket and retreated to his citadel in the northern steppes. But a shaman sent by the Horde of a Thousand Winds tricked Targdaz, and imprisoned him inside a block of solid ruby. With the wizard trapped, the shaman foolishly opened the casket. The magical storm that billowed forth killed him instantly, and scattered the tribes of the steppes forevermore. Targdaz remained trapped inside his ruby for hundreds of years, until one day a questing adventurer broke into the tower and released him.

Targdaz served as the adventurer’s personal sorcerer until he deemed his debt repaid, and then disappeared from history once more. Some say the wizard was slain by Badogor the Unspoken. Others reason that his spirit has left our earth to resume his studies in the court of Molhern. The truth is somewhat more mundane: Targdaz simply died of old age.

Character: Targdaz is proud and boastful, but shockingly intelligent. He is always happy to demonstrate his wisdom, and tends to look upon others as ill-informed children. He likes to think of himself as the father of the group.