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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Just my cup of tea

Still on the theme of Necklace of Skulls, what do you reckon to this far-from-ugly mug? It's one of a set of sixteen created by Cubus Games from the beautiful Mayan-themed artwork of Xavier Mula.

Click here to see them all. Which is your favorite?

Monday, 24 November 2014

A talk with Jaume Carballo

Still (sort of) on the Necklace of Skulls theme this month, I had a long chat with Jaume Carballo, creative director at Cubus Games. You can read the first part here. Jaume is an interesting guy - the first time we got talking by email he was quoting Hobbes, which is not something you often find in the games industry following straight on from a discussion of logic markup. He's a big Hitchcock fan too, so it didn't take us long to bond.

In our latest chat, we surprisingly don't get onto cinema or philosophy, though we do cover all kinds of topics involving games and stories, and the combination of both. Also quantum physics, Game of Thrones, comics, and what to do if we had a time-travelling DeLorean. (And we got into a very long digression about the Catalan question, but I suspect that the other fellows at Cubus will censor that bit.)

The picture? I didn't have one of Jaume, so that's me in a very cold, squelchy and un-Barcelona-like part of south-west England.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hero twins of the One World

Mayan history – the part of it we still have that wasn’t burnt by Christian missionaries – is not like modern history. Since Herodotus, the First World has had the tradition of objectively establishing facts from multiple sources, reporting events in a dispassionate register that opens a window upon the past. But reading the history of the Maya is like reading one of those Ancient Egyptian historical accounts in which untrustworthy foreign diplomats become snakes and a severed tongue can still tell a tale. It’s as much a magic realist novel as an account of what really (Calvino or Borges would insist on inverted commas there) happened.

Take the story of the hero twins from the Popol Vuh. Is this a holy book, a work of fiction, an allegory, or a chronicle? All of the above. The Mayan scholar-priesthood drew no distinction. They’d had no Plato to say that poetry tells lies. They used drugs and blood-letting to reach a point where hallucinations revealed the deeper truth beneath the veneer of ordinary events.

The hero twins’ father has annoyed the lords of the underworld by making too much noise while playing in his ball court. They invite him to play a match against them, misleading him into taking the black road into Xibalba, the Place of Fear. That’s where it all goes south, or rather west, as the twins’ father is subjected to various ordeals and finally sacrificed and his head hung in a calabash tree.

At this point in the story, the twins’ father is dead but (bit of a snag) they haven’t been born yet. A maiden goes to pick calabash gourds. She might in fact be the moon, but that’s a detail. The father's skull spits into her hand, or maybe she eats it thinking it’s a fruit, and she's sent away to live in the upper world when her mother notices she’s pregnant.

The twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, grow up to be star ballgame players like their dad, annoy the lords of the underworld in just the same way, and get invited to Xibalba. But these hero twins, they’re clever. They send a mosquito to bite the underworld gods, who call out each others’ names, allowing the twins to greet them correctly. They foil the ordeals, using red macaw feathers to make it seem that their cigars have stayed lit all night. When one of the twins is decapitated (even the Popol Vuh must have an “all is lost” moment), the other temporarily reanimates his body with a squash for a head and, forced to play a match using the brother’s head, substitutes it and brings him back to life. The twins then trick one of the lords of the underworld into allowing himself to be killed. They subjugate the Place of Fear, at which point we discover it isn’t just the mythical land of the dead, it’s also a hostile nation whose power over the Mayan city-states has now been broken.

So that’s the flavour I wanted to capture when I started writing Necklace of Skulls. I’d just got back from honeymoon in Central America, and having gone to the top of every Mayan pyramid I could find, and into the tunnels inside them too, I felt exactly ready to do it. What I wanted to avoid was that kind of wasted cultural appropriation you get in so many roleplaying games, where a minor deity like Xiuhcoatl would get a Monster Manual write-up as “a” xuih dragon, with 8 dice hit points and a fiery breath attack, located in a Pre-Columbian themed corner of the game world like one of the zones in Disneyland. You know what I mean. When I roleplay, I want to go the fount of ideas, not have it brought to me in a plastic bottle.

In Necklace of Skulls you play a Maya called Evening Star whose twin has gone missing in the far western desert. As in all the Critical IF books, you get to customize your character by picking your skills, and you can choose to be either sex, as it is never stated whether you’re Morning Star’s twin brother or twin sister. Sneaky, huh? (There’s actually a precedent for that in the Popol Vuh, Xbalque’s name translating as either “Little Sun Jaguar” or “Lady Sun Jaguar”.)

While you’re trying to find out what happened to your brother, the big event happening in the background is the collapse of the Great City, which is sending out ripples of chaos and fear even as far as your own Yucatan home. History buffs may think that this ties the book to 540 AD and the fall of Teotihuacan, but I couldn’t possibly comment. My version of the One World of the Maya is not an archaeologist’s version, in any case. This is a setting the ancient Maya themselves would hopefully recognize, in which heads grow on trees, a sinkhole can be a shortcut into the land of death, and playing a game in the ball court is a ritual as potent as any spell.

That’s why I’m so delighted with the app version of Necklace of Skulls, published today by Cubus Games to (belatedly) mark the Mexican Day of the Dead. This is much more than just a gamebook ported over to mobile devices. The Cubus team, headed up by Jaume Carballo, have taken the original book as a foundation and built a fabulous, beautiful interactive story game on top of that. Combat, for example, uses a mini-game of brinkmanship and tactics instead of digital dice. You select one of several Mayan icons to create a persona for your hero-twin. And the text itself has been rewritten and sharpened to make it more immediate, better suited to reading on a phone or tablet rather than a printed page.

And the art… Everything I said above about wanting to evoke a setting that has the feel of both reality and dream, history and myth – you only have to look at any one of the images to see how brilliantly Xavier Mula has achieved that. I want to see gamebooks pull up their old gnarly roots, shed the ‘90s scales, and become something fresh and exciting. This app shows that Cubus are right at the forefront of that revolutionary movement, and I’m proud to have the book that was born out of my honeymoon emerging in a new glittering incarnation, its old bones suddenly sprouting new foliage and bright flowers – just like, in fact, one of the Mayan hero-twins.

You can get the Necklace of Skulls app on iTunes USA or iTunes UK. Or anywhere else in the world come to that. And for Android users, the Google Play link is here.


[Photo of Xiuhcoatl by Tony Roberts; Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.]

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Laugh? My head fell off

I was talking last time about Paranoia, "the role-playing game of a darkly humorous future", currently returning in a new edition thanks to Kickstarter. I've never played Paranoia and it has about as much appeal for me as a game of soccer (a bit below root canal work, in other words) but it has got me thinking about how to set a role-playing campaign in a dehumanizing world "designed by Kafka, Stalin, Orwell, Huxley, Sartre and the Marx Brothers", to quote the KS page.

Actually, let's leave the Marx Brothers out of it. For me their movies go straight into Room 101. And also forget about Kafka and Sartre, who after all didn't write about the kind of purposefully malevolent state ruled over by a guy like Stalin, for whom death quotas and torture were part of the apparatus of effective government. The torture of existence in a Kafkaesque society comes from running up against people like this.

Okay, so we're talking about truly unrelenting totalitarian regimes. Is there humour to be found there? Any unchallenged political ideology will soon make paranoia the default mental state of the entire populace. To drive home its beliefs against the flow of common sense, the regime is willing and able to twist logic into unrecognizable Escher-shapes. Law becomes corrupt, identity disintegrates, truth is raped and ruined. Living in such a warped society can eventually push anyone to the kind of hysteric laughter where you want to claw your own face off. Satire may thrive, but this article suggests that it's fuelled by an uncomfortable sense of humour with a distinct smack of sweaty fear.

In North Korea, high-ranking officials would dive into the shrubbery when they saw Kim Jong-il coming. Better to risk a grass-stain than to run into the Supreme Leader in a bad mood.. It was a riot as long as he didn’t spot you. Under the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge, men and women were beaten to death by screaming guards because they were spotted reading the labels on an orange crate, an act of subversion that showed them up to be dangerous intellectuals. See how easily that could become a gag on Mrs Brown's Boys? I don't even want to get on to the excesses of ISIS, wagging a finger in the air on YouTube as they mansplain why sawing people's heads off is a righteous act. The ghastly comedy there is that apparently one under-35 Briton in seven sympathizes with them. Hydra should be out in London recruiting right now.

And there’s an arsenical lacing of humour in novels like Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister – even humour of a Milliganesque sort – but that taut grin curdles into a rictus of horror when the characters rebel and the regime exercises its penchant for casual, heart-stopping brutality. It’s Brazil without the comforting zaniness.

So, how to use all this in role-playing? For starters I wouldn't even attempt a sustained campaign, because the players would either have to side with the regime, which will pall pretty quickly, or they oppose it, in which case they will be crushed. (You could allow them to lead a successful revolution, but that would be fake. We all know people like Stalin live to see the good guys buried and then go off to die in their beds.) James Wallis's Alas Vegas provides a good template. There the campaign is planned to run over a set period and to reach a definite conclusion, the way a cable TV drama (say The Shield) aims to tell a given story rather than extend off into infinity like network serials of old (Columbo, etc). The end is going to be bloody, but there are all sorts of ways to die. It's up to the players to find whatever scrap of triumph they can in this scenario.

As for humour, I don't see it as my role to build that into the tone of the game. In fact playing for laughs is the surest way to make the whole experience deeply unfunny. (See reference to Mrs Brown's Boys above.) No, I'd be inclined to run it pared-down and very bleak, like having dinner with Pol Pot when he has a migraine coming on. I'm confident that my players would find humour in the gaps between tragedy and horror - and, arising out of character, that comedy would have the ring of truth. Which is really the whole point of role-playing.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Unplug the jackboots

Back in the eighties I used to write a lot of White Dwarf under various pen-names. Scenarios, articles, reviews, columns, you name it. Occasionally there'd be pieces about a role-playing game of the time called Paranoia. I didn’t see anything that made me want to play it, but after all if you only glance at the ads you’re going to end up with a vague and probably unreliable sense of what a game is about. (That won’t stop me talking about it, of course.)

I am interested in both dystopian and paranoiac literature. I’m having a stab in the dark there, assuming that Paranoia is set in a future totalitarian state, but it seems a fair bet. On surer ground: I know the tone of the game is meant to be humorous because all the ads for it in White Dwarf were written with a big rhetorical wink, like an invitation to a frat party. It says it's humourous in the logline too - always a giveaway, that.

I suspect that Paranoia has less to do with the likes of Stalin, Big Brother and Pol Pot and more of the flavour of an author like Kafka or Gogol. The bureaucratic rat-maze depicted there can be just as crushing to the individual, but it’s madness without personal malice. The mere idiocy of the system. That can be funny, too, though probably to do it justice you need a Sam Beckett rather than an Adam Herz.

You know what they say about Marmite and oysters. I’m never likely to play Paranoia myself, but if you’re a fan then it’s probably the main thing in your gaming life. So why am I holding forth about it from this position of wilful ignorance? Because there is a Kickstarter campaign to bring Paranoia back in an all-new version written by James Wallis.

Full disclosure: James is a very old and dear friend of mine. But that’s not why I would recommend one of his projects. I don’t plug every project that a close friend works on, do I? What’s germane here is that James is an immensely talented writer and game designer. More than talented, in fact: a genius. (A genius and I don’t hate him? That shows you what a nice guy he is.)

Here’s just some of the proof. James co-created the first storytelling card game, Once Upon A Time. He wrote The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is both a completely original mash-up of role-playing and parlour games and a very funny read. He masterminded publication of the one-of-a-kind game setting Nobilis and a beautiful new edition of Dragon Warriors. He created Alas Vegas, a reinvention of the RPG within the sort of tight story arc structure we’re now familiar with from cable TV drama. He’s an entrepreneur with more ideas than he has time to develop. He’s a teacher and mentor. He’s at the forefront of creative talent working in that interesting space where narrative meets games. Oh, and he has a killer time-travel love story that, when he can clear the time to turn it into a novel or a script, will be the thing everyone you know is talking about. Yeah, remember that tip.

How I'd like Kickstarter to work is that you'd back the creator, not the concept. As long as it's the latter, there'll be a preponderance of mix-n-match X-meets-Y pitches involving any combination of: Sherlock Holmes, steampunk, zombies, Cthulhu, Dracula. Ho hum. There's only so long that can go on before the greatest hits of the past are completely shagged out. But if the funding went to James Wallis himself to create whatever he was most inspired to work on, we'd get something much more interesting than a rebooted '80s RPG. We might even get that time-travel love story. For that, I'd pledge.

Still, the world is as it is. So if you like the sound of Paranoia rebooted by James Wallis, which is the only sort of Paranoia I'd be likely to play, skip over to Kickstarter and get on board. The campaign is 400% funded already and it’s still got several weeks to run. And thinking about it for this post has got me preparing a scenario for my own players involving Benito Mussolini – there'll be paranoia for sure, but that's the least of their worries. Maybe I'll muse more on that tomorrow.

Friday, 7 November 2014

On the grapevine

So it's very nearly official, needing only inked signatures and a successful Kickstarter campaign to make it so. Fabled Lands book 7, The Serpent King's Domain, is slithering its way out of the limbo in which it has lain coiled and pulsing these last twenty years.

Kickstarter, you say?
Not run by Fabled Lands Publishing but by our friends at Megara Entertainment. The current plan there is to schedule the campaign for next autumn. So if that works out you could be holding a hardback of FL7 by early 2016.

A hardback?
Fabled Lands Publishing will follow up with a black-and-white paperback edition, but what Kickstarter backers will get is Megara's deluxe full-colour hardcover version. If you've seen the Way of the Tiger books or The Thief of Memories, you'll know that's going to be a really nice collector's item.

Who's writing it?
The lead writer will be Paul Gresty, but there's a possibility that Jamie and I will contribute fifty sections or so. You're in safe hands with Paul. The quality of his writing speaks for itself, and he knows more about the Fabled Lands universe than I do.

Will Russ Nicholson be doing the artwork?
You bet. Jamie and I are are making that a condition of the contract, and Mikael Louys at Megara was very happy to agree. Everyone knows that the Fabled Lands can't exist without Russ's vision. He's the Ditko to my and Jamie's Lee. The more the Kickstarter campaign raises, the more illustrations Megara will be able to pay for.

What about the cover?
I'd like to say we'll get Kevin Jenkins, but he's insanely busy at Framestore working on multi-million-dollar movies so it's unlikely he's going to have the time. But I'm sure Megara will find an artist very nearly as good.

But didn't you say Kickstarter wouldn't work for print books?
Not for the FL paperbacks. The money raised has to cover writing, editing, typesetting, and artwork. Luckily the margin on collector's edition hardbacks can be set a little higher, making those viable - although how much artwork there can be will depend on hitting stretch goals.

And will it have -- ?
Don't ask me. Paul Gresty is in charge of this thing. Megara will reveal all when the time is ripe.

But I was going to ask about Lauria.
Oh, okay. Even if she doesn't show up in book 7, you probably haven't seen the last of her.


Main picture by TyphonArt and reproduced here under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No-Derivative-Works Licence 3.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Unearthing the Lich Lord

Oliver Johnson’s Lord of Shadow Keep was supposed to appear as a Fighting Fantasy book, but it got switched to the Golden Dragon series at the thirteenth hour. I wonder if that was why, when I finally got around to co-writing a Fighting Fantasy book, I called it The Keep of the Lich Lord...?

Probably not. Jamie and I submitted a whole bunch of concepts to the editors at Puffin, and Keep was a long way from being our favourite. It was rather odd that they picked it, come to think, as a quick glance on Wiki suggests that, Black Vein Prophecy excepted, the surrounding books in the series were all horror-inflected fantasy built on the very similar premise of raiding a monstrous super-villain's secret base. I guess Jamie and I aren’t the only ones who spent our formative years steeped in 007 and Hammer movies.

The deal with those FF books was that the authors got 60% of the royalty and Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson got 40%. Or possibly it was the other way round. You can’t really copyright a concept, but they established the brand and the split struck us as more than fair. When Icon Books picked up the series from Puffin (which, incidentally, is a bit like the BBC throwing Doctor Who to Canal+ in the early ‘90s) authors were offered a deal to sell their rights. Jamie and Mark Smith gave up Talisman of Death and Sword of the Samurai, but I make a point of never parting with copyright unless I’m paid crazy money. So Jamie and I kept Keep.

When I was prepping The Castle of Lost Souls for re-release, I briefly entertained the notion of relocating it to Golnir. The tone of the book just felt too whimsical for Fabled Lands, so that plan got dropped, but Jamie and I continued tossing around some other ideas. And we kept coming back to The Keep of the Lich Lord.

Obviously Fighting Fantasy fans would rather see Keep re-released using the FF world and system. I appreciate that. We can’t because we don’t have the rights, and anyway we have a gentlemen’s agreement not to make a big deal about it having been an FF book when publicizing the new edition. Not that we ever do any publicity per se, but you get the picture.

All of which is why Lord Mortis is now rising from the dead on an obscure but strategically important archipelago close to the Unnumbered Isles. You can start the book with a new character, or you can get an existing FL character to Dweomer and pick up the story there. We’re calling these single-story specials Fabled Lands Quests – though I admit to being slightly at a loss as to which other books could be adapted in the same way. Maybe a new version of Castle of Lost Souls, or the long-awaited reworking of Eye of the Dragon? Suggestions welcome!

To fit the adventure into the Fabled Lands, I wrote a new introduction set in Dweomer. But what to do with the old intro..? Recently on the blog, MikeH was asking about extras in our books. Well, Mike, you’ll be pleased to know that we have shamelessly swiped your idea and stuck our own names on it. This new edition of Keep has a wealth of cool stuff including the original introduction as an appendix, a section describing all the other concepts that could have become Fighting Fantasy #43, and a foreword in which I talk about the process of adapting the book from Titan to the Fabled Lands.

Anything else you want to know? Oh, artwork, of course. We don’t have the rights to the original FF illustrations so we couldn’t use those. Obviously, this being a sort-of Fabled Lands book, some new pictures by Russ Nicholson would have been great, but all-new art is expensive. We have the next best thing: thanks to the generosity of our friends at Megara Entertainment, the new edition features artwork from their Keep of the Lich Lord app of a few years back. Leo Hartas kindly let us use his gorgeous map, which appears in its full-colour glory on the back cover. And the front cover painting is courtesy of Kevin Jenkins, being the inside flap detail (as if you didn’t know) from the triptych of Over the Blood-Dark Sea.