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Friday, 24 June 2016

Even gorillas gotta start small

Photo copyright Lalo Pangue; Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Developing a show for television can be a rabbit hole experience. Leo Hartas and I spent a year working on a show called Carnival Park. Why was it called that? Because the producers liked the name. Well, of course they did; they picked it. Three production companies were involved – in Britain, Spain and Norway – and they were pleased as punch that Carnival Park sounds similar to Carnaval Parque sounds similar to Karneval Park. In meetings, somebody would say the name and that was often the only time that all the producers could prick up their ears and smile at each other in mutual recognition

So Leo and I had to fit a story and characters around a title. In television parlance, at least among writers, the technical term for that is arse about face. Yet it keeps on happening. Producers acquire a property – or, very often, simply imagine they have acquired a property. Writers, being a biddable tribe of fellows devoted to developing TV shows on a non-profit basis, then go along with the producers in the hope that the whole process will end in a commission.

That commission seldom happens. And the reason it seldom happens is because the producers have led the creative process. If you end up hired (that should be “hired” in inverted commas, by the way) as a writer on a TV show, tear up whatever they give you and create your own vision. It may not get made, but it’ll have a lot better chance. And, crucially, you might stay sane.

One example of a show concept I worked on briefly. Some producers felt that they had some claim to the King Kong IP. Now that one, let me tell you, is a real tangled web. Between Universal, RKO and the estate of producer Merian C Cooper, there was a bit of a ding-dong over King Kong that went on for years, nay decades. The final legal ruling? It’s simply too tedious to go into. I’d rather be shot off the top of the Empire State Building. If you are interested then (a) may the ape god help you and (b) here are the full wearying details on Wiki.

Where was I? Oh yes, notwithstanding all of those earlier court battles over the rights, these producers believed they had found a loophole or something that would allow them to create a "King Kong Junior" television show and/or videogame for kids. Maybe they intended to change the character’s name, though the treatment I knocked up indicates that at the time they briefed me they had no fear of a court battle with either NBC Universal (who would have had a case) or the Cooper estate (who wouldn’t).

What is even more astonishing is that this is only one of three "junior King Kong" projects (one a movie, one a game) that I've been roped into by different groups of producers over the years. It's one of those concepts - others are any famous literary character as a vampire or vampire hunter, or any famous historical character plus zombies - that keep churning around in entertainment industries whose corporate crushing of real inspiration and open access to bullshit artists have left them repeatedly scraping the same place in the bottom of the same barrel.

For curiosity’s sake, then – as this is a TV show that has literally no hope of ever getting made, other than by NBC themselves – here is that treatment. The show's title? Yeah… Not my idea. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the keyboard monkey.


Doesn’t matter where you live in the world. Or when. Don’t let anybody tell you that being a 15-year-old kid is easy.

Take TABU. He’s keen, clever and wants to know about everything. Most of all, he longs to know what lies beyond the massive stockade doors and high rock walls that separate the coast of his Pacific home from the island’s mysterious interior.

“No one knows. Don’t ask!” his teacher, the village shaman HORANGI tells him.

“It’s dangerous. Keep out!” warns his mom, MAHINA.

“Get lost, freak!” say the other kids.

Tabu is the odd one out among the island’s kids. He has the problem of being short-sighted in a time and a culture that has never discovered glasses. He can’t join in the ball game because he's barely able to see his hand in front of his face. He blurts out secrets without realizing who he’s talking to. Squinting up at the white peak in the centre of the island, he reckons “it looks like a skull” - but everyone else just thinks that’s just Tabu with his head in the clouds as usual.

Tabu’s dad, LANI, used to be the local sports hero – he could dive deeper, row faster and throw a spear further than any other man on the island. That’s until a busted leg put him on the sidelines of life. He’s more disappointed at himself than at his son, but he has no idea how to bridge the gap between them. Tabu's mom was once the local beauty, the aloha version of prom queen, but in twenty years she’s gone from drop-dead gorgeous to a danger to shipping. Even Horangi is careful not to get on the wrong side of Mahina.

As for Tabu’s kid sisters, HIKA and HOKA – he thinks of them like a pair of chattering monkeys whose sole aim is to drive him up a palm tree. He sometimes almost wishes they’d get sacrificed to the god Kong who lives on the other side of that wall. (Not that anybody gets sacrificed anymore. That was all in the bad old days. But it’s a threat Horangi still uses to keep folks in line.)

Tabu has one thing going for him. He’s like a dolphin in the water, slicing through the waves, diving down to pick up pearls from the sea bed. Nobody is a better swimmer. And on his fifteenth birthday, at the annual flower festival, he reckons he’ll get a chance to prove it.

Except… OROTO the school bully gets all the trophies. And he doesn’t want to be shown up by a kid who can’t tell a stone crab from a coconut at twenty paces. So Oroto talks Horangi into holding a qualifying round. The swimmers have to identify various threats like jellyfish, shark fins, and so on. As the pictures are held up, it’s all a blur to poor Tabu. He’s sent packing without even having dipped a toe in the sea.

He’s furious. He never got a chance to show what he could do. The injustice almost makes him choke. Ashamed of his tears, he hides out in his hut far from the feast. As night falls after the contest and Oroto gets all the prizes and garlands, Tabu listens to the merriment and has never felt so low. He thinks he’s alone there till he notices his dad, sitting out on the veranda staring at the moon.

Tabu’s dad knows about unfairness. He went from hero to zero overnight when he injured his leg. Reminiscing over long-faded glories, he tells Tabu about the night he climbed over the stockade wall. Like Tabu, in those days Lani had a thirst to find out for himself about whatever was forbidden.

“You went to the interior? What did you find?” Tabu asks him.

“I don’t know. Coming back I fell from the wall. That was how I broke my leg. Never played the ball game again. Never been much of a hunter since then, or much of anything except a drunk I guess. I was in a fever three days and they say I was raving about all kinds of crazy stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Only Horangi knows. He sat up with me in the medicine hut and he’s not telling. But your mother – she was there when they found me, and she took my pack home. And these are the things I brought out of the interior with me, son. They’re yours now.”

Lani takes three things out of an old box under the bed. There’s a scrap of stiff paper, glossy on one side. Tabu has never seen a photo. “It’s such a lifelike picture!” he says, peering at it. The image shows a baby with a streak of white in her black hair.

There’s also a little metal frame with two circular bits of glass in it. Tabu notices how it concentrates the firelight into pinpoints on the wall behind him. He lifts it to his eyes – and everything snaps into focus. He hooks the frame over his ears and gasps as he sees the stars for the first time. A million tiny jewels like fireflies across the universe. “I can see you, pop. I can see everything. It’s so sharp!”

And then there’s the third item. It’s hard and white and it’s as big as a mango pit. “What’s this?”

Lani dips his hand in a pot and brings out something small. He puts it into Tabu’s hand. A milk tooth. “Remember when you were a little kid and you’d wiggle those loose?”

Tabu compares it with the big white object. It’s a tooth as well – but what a tooth! Tabu holds it up beside his jaw. “Whatever animal this came from, I could get my whole head in its mouth.”

Lani sees Tabu look up towards the huge wooden gates that seal off the interior of the island. “Don’t go there, son,” he says, rubbing his aching leg. “You don’t want to end up like me.”

Well, that’s it right there. That's the choice in life, isn't it. Do you stay where it’s boring and safe, or do you go looking for everything that’s good and bad and in-between? Every generation, every one of us has to make that choice for themselves. To Tabu, it’s no dilemma at all. Life in the village holds nothing for him. And thanks to the spectacles, he can see clearly now.

That night, Tabu packs up a kit bag and climbs over the stockade wall. His adventure is about to begin.

On the far side of the island lives a teenage girl with a white streak through her jet black hair. Poppea (POPPY, to you) is like a fairytale princess living in a tall half-timbered cottage that stands on a rock a few hundred yards out from the shore. It’s the sort of home you’d expect to find in a quaint European village with cobbled streets rather than on a tropical Pacific island. How did it get there? In fact it was built from the wreckage of the Prospero, a ship that was wrecked here over a decade ago.

Poppy’s mother is ALTAIRA ADAMS, the Prospero’s captain, who came to the island years ago in search of a mysterious flower said to hold the secret of eternal youth. Yep, Altaira is a bit of a mad scientist if you want the truth. She’s been so obsessed with her quest that she’s hardly noticed her daughter growing up.

Left to run wild, Poppy soon took to going off for days at a time. And she has made a friend. A big, hulking, loyal friend called KONG, who at this tender age is still “only” about twelve feet tall.

But Poppy has never seen another human being of her own age. So you can just imagine the mixture of fascination, wariness, excitement and jealousy that arises when these three come together: Tabu, Poppy and Kong.

As the series progresses, our heroes discover more about the island and the fabulous wildlife that inhabits the interior. Studying the native myths, Poppy’s mother believes the island was originally a huge meteor that fell thousands of years ago, capping an erupting volcano. The heat of the lava reacted with the strange extraterrestrial rock. The remarkable soil of the island possesses strange properties that has caused life to thrive and mutate, leading to the incredible flora and fauna that lives there now. She scoffs at Tabu’s belief that the island spirit watches over them – yet she can’t deny that in her expeditions to the interior in search of the immortality flower, she has had some pretty uncanny experiences.

And now the scene is set for a series of fast-paced fantasy-pulp adventures. Many seek the source of eternal youth – can our heroes protect their island paradise? Horangi suspects Tabu of breaking the sacred rules – can he avoid being branded a heretic? In the dark heart of the island, prehistoric monsters reign supreme – can Kong look after his human friends as their thirst for exploration takes them into danger? And when armed hunters come from the outside world to trap Kong – what can Tabu and Poppy do to save him?

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Fantasy and SF books

The book reviews in the last post proved more popular than the role-playing stuff that preceded it. I admit I'm surprised, but we live in an age when politicians and bloggers alike are buffeted by the forces of populism -- interesting times, as the Chinese say. So here are a few more reviews, this time all of genre books so you can see how picky I am. I'll save the best till last.

American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until NowAmerican Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until Now by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quite a curate's egg. Some of the stories are what I would expect of "the fantastic" - elusive, oblique, unsettling, breathtakingly fanciful, or all of the above. Joe Hill's "Pop Art", for example, in which the narrator remembers his inflatable childhood friend. That's a world in which people just are sometimes inflatable and Hill runs with the idea. But contrast that with Poppy Z Brite's "Pansu", which relentlessly expounds a feeble idea about exorcism; it might as well be one of Ross Rocklynne's problem-solving SF stories, only with made-up stuff in place of clever physics. Or Caitlin Kiernan's "The Long Hall on the Top Floor", which is hardly a story at all but more like a treatment for a formulaic TV series about a drunken, hip-but-bitter psychic investigator; Constantine lite. Or look at the way Jane Rice in "The Refugee" feels obliged to painstakingly lay out the crumbs of plot and evidence to coax us towards the denoument of a rather undistinguished werewolf story.

But then there are gems too. John Collier's "Evening Primose", about the shadow community living in a department store; Tennessee Williams's poignant, spectral "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio"; Truman Capote's inexplicably threatening "Miriam"; John Cheever's "Torch Song"; Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover" (there's the twisty nightmarishness I wanted); Mary Rickert's disturbing and ambiguous examination of grief and guilt in "The Chambered Fruit"; Benjamin Percy's dislocated existential horror "Dial Tone" - these and others make the collection worthwhile.

A Maze of DeathA Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It shouldn't work, this. It gives every indication of being slapped together with no planning, the characters are opaquely written, the set-up is both contrived and confusing. Yet somehow Dick pulls a workable yarn out of the hat. Maybe that's because the experience of reading it throws you into the same state of fretful bafflement that the characters are experiencing. Or maybe it's simply because, when it comes to paranoid delusions, Dick knows whereof he writes. It's not great but worth reading to see what the brush of genius can do to transform a mess.

Second Foundation (Foundation, #3)Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is more fantasy than SF. A mutant with mind-controlling powers disrupts Asimov's rise-of-empire story. That's fun for a while, but Asimov can't think of a way out so he gives the entire Second Foundation the same powers, and they wave a mental wand and that's it. All sorted. As for what those powers are - we all had them once, apparently, but lost them with the development of language. Oh, Isaac, that's lazy.

Still, it's a good story with at least one compelling character in 14-year-old aspiring novelist Arcadia Darell, a prototype for feisty teen investigators.

There's one slip-up where Asimov puts us inside the head of a character who could not possibly be thinking what he tells us she is because it later turns out she's been on top of the whole situation all along. Isaac, that's careless; you were pantsing it, I suspect.

At the end, having enjoyed the ride, I still had to wonder why Hari Seldon didn't just put the psychologists (who are really kind of psycho-economists) and the physical scientists on the same planet. It would have saved a lot of confusion. That'll be why, then.

Quite a lot of typos in these editions, by the way. You can work out what was meant but it's irritating.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another real curate's egg. I liked the concept, and it takes some getting your head around. To summarize: because in consecutive lifetimes people you met in the previous lifetime remember that as their last lifetime too, it seems that the entire world must reset when every single ouroboran from the dawn of time to the end of the human race has completed one life. Which was kind of fun to think about.

This means that you can send messages forward as far as you like in one instantiation of the world, but you can only send a message back by one generation at a time. Nonetheless, our narrator gets a message that the end of the world is happening sooner than it used to. He soon twigs that it's because of a rogue ouroboran in his own lifetime (1919 to the early 21st century) who is meddling in the old Things That Man Was Not Meant etc.

Now here's the biggest flaw in the book. We are asked to accept that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, just as long as ouroborans do nothing to try and improve the human lot. Create antibiotics 50 years early? Why, you fool, there'll be a dotcom crisis in the 1960s and nuclear war before 2020.

[Spoilers here on in...]

There's nothing wrong with SF taking a reactionary view. What would paperback sales be like in Boko Haram territories if it couldn't do that? But the dramtic flaw here is that we are presented with this intriguing, unexplained phenomenon of reincarnation, and one of the characters is trying to build a magic mirror - sorry, quantum mirror - which might well tell him and us what lies behind it all. But he's the bad guy. We're supposed to root instead for the plodding narrator who is doggedly trying to stop him so that dotcom crises and humanitarian disasters can happen when they're supposed to as ordained by - whatever, whoever. Personally I think the story would have worked better if the narrator was trying to cause change and reveal truths rather than putting all the genies back in their bottles.

The author does well at evoking the sense of many different lives lived. Less so at the emotional journey. The narrator's relationship with his real and adoptive fathers interested me far more, but was much more sketchily covered, than his struggle to stop anything different or interesting from ever happening. At one point his nemesis marries the woman he himself loved a dozen lives earlier. The reaction s both too little and too much - "I crawled into the bushes and wept." Dude, it was like 800 years ago. I can pass old flames in the street without going nutso, and that's just a matter of decades.

But then, our hero is an eidetic. Or rather, to use their own terminology, a mnemonic. He remembers everything. Often these eidetics are troublemakers, because they take vaccines and gunpowder back to earlier times. But wait a mo', every message passed back down from the future must do that... Moving on.

The style is rather uncomfortably prosaic and stilted. An attempt to render how somebody born in 1919 would write? Perhaps, but some poetic licence would have made it more tolerable. The ending is a little rushed, the bad guy all but throwing himself onto the pyre. It had the smack of author fatigue to me; time to wrap up and work on something else.

Still, an interesting concept - even if it is never actually explored either emotionally or scientifically. Maybe that will be in the sequel, but 400 pages was quite enough for me.

(Editing anomalies: a "temporarily" that should have been "temporally" and a strange lapse into Chaucerian idiom with "nor in no life". Blame the publisher for those; authors have enough to do thinking this shit up.)

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story of a 13-year-old boy whose mother has cancer. As with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, who would drown this kitten? It's the sort of book publishers absolutely love doing, because they can't always judge literary quality but worthiness is obvious to all. "Brave, compassionate, beautiful..." say the cover quotes; they write themselves. It's the kind of thing that almost has me rooting for the tumour.

It's in the past tense, which makes it almost a collector's item among kids' books these days. The style is...

Well, the style. It is.

That is the style.

A bit like Dr Seuss? That's what I thought too. Okay, it is for kids, but I grew out of Dr Seuss by age 6 or so. After a hundred pages the shallowness of that screenplay-like prose really grates. But it is in the past tense, I give it points for that.

Some light spoilerishness now. The most interesting part to me was the main character's relationship with his tormentor at school. The denouement of that was thoroughly unsatisfying (the author's inspiration simply took an afternoon off) and the aftermath completely unrealistic. I don't think criminal cases involving bodily harm are left for school authorities to adjudicate, for example, nor is prosecution solely dependent on pressing charges.

The monster is okay, but it doesn't have much to do except tell a series of stories that feel like padding - probably because they are. The ending is all tell not show, but it's relentlessly worthy so librarians will love it.

A part of the proceeds from the book do go to charity. But you could always cut out the middleman.

Dark Satanic MillsDark Satanic Mills by Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only graphic novel in my reviews of 2013 (though not, of course, by any means the only comics work I've read this year) this is a quite unsettling approaching-apocalypse story with some of the DNA of Survivors, Quatermass IV and 1984 - along with much that is original and brilliant in its own right.

The White DarknessThe White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is beautifully written, has an intriguing premise (Captain Oates lives on as the imaginary friend of a 14-year-old girl) and convincingly rounded characters.

You can see there's a but coming, can't you? I found for the first quarter of the book that the story didn't really bite. That bit is like a long set-up that is all put across in wonderful prose, but it lacks the intrigue factor needed to make you keep on reading. It was only when the narrator gets to Antarctica (I'm not giving anything away here) and things start to go wrong that the novel becomes really compelling.

One problem, I decided, was that there is plenty in the set-up that the reader can see but the narrator cannot. This creates a disconnect between us and our protagonist. That's all very well when the narrator is somebody like Charles Pooter. We may not connect with Pooter or even respect him that much, but we do find him endearing. That's comedy. But in a dramatic tale like this, where the narrator is our sole point of contact with a story that is hopefully going to move us (and it does) it is potentially fatal to find that you're distanced from that narrator for a good chunk of the book.

So, overall I recommend this (and my wife btw would give it 5 stars) but you do need to be patient with the slow build-up.

The Battle Of The SunThe Battle Of The Sun by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The caveat first: it's a kids' book, so I'm not the intended audience. I'm trying to think back to what books I'd have read at that age. Robert Heinlein's juvenile novels (Red Planet, etc). Dracula. Mike Moorcock's Mars books. Very different.

It's full of inventive ideas and Ms Winterson is obviously enjoying herself, to such an extent that it often feels as if she's making it up as she goes along. That's okay, by the way, as long as you don't drop any plates. And she doesn't.

The style is lush and lyrical, but feels a little repetitive after a while. No doubt that's deliberate (it creates an incantatory feel) so is only a complaint from an adult reader's perspective.

Likewise the perfunctory characterization. It's like a fairytale, so there's no depth or complexity there. A character is brave, or devious, or ruthless, or honest, and motivations are: greed, love, fear. Lacking that, it reads like a role-playing game write-up in which characters are seen doing things but we never really go inside them. I'd have preferred fewer characters with more time given to them, but children now have different expectations from when I was reading Heinlein and Stoker.

Btw I only discovered halfway through that it's sort of a sequel to Ms Winterson's other kids' book, Tanglewreck. I'm not sure that matters - you can read this one on its own - but it was odd.

Riddley WalkerRiddley Walker by Russell Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now that everybody is in such a flappy fuss about Station Eleven (give it three years and you'll have to Google it) this seems like a good time to re-read possibly the greatest work combining narratology, theatrical performance, and post-apocalyptic future history. Hoban said he could never spell properly again after confabulating the narrator's language, but it was worth it.

Titus Groan (Gormenghast, #1)Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me more than 30 years to read this book. After originally abandoning it a few chapters in, I nearly gave up at the same point. There's a whole world and a lot of characters to introduce, and Peake wasn't writing for an audience of TV-weaned YA goldfish. He takes his time but suddenly it pays off. You really know these characters because he has put care into making them individuals. His prose is beautiful and he has the most vivid visual imagination of any author I've come across.

It is, in short, a masterpiece. Normally I reserve 5 stars for books that I feel affect me profoundly and permanently - that "change my life", as all great art should on some level. I regret not coming to Gormenghast a lot sooner. If I'd read it 32 years ago it would have stretched me to create more interesting fantasy worlds in my own books.

(Thanks incidentally to Marcus Sedgwick: it was his superb comparative review of Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings that sent me back to the book after so long. I feel I need to acknowledge that, having just trashed his latest book in another review. And one day maybe I'll read Lord of the Rings.)

Death Is a Lonely Business (Crumley Mysteries, #1)Death Is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A magic realist whodunit in which the young Bradbury is himself the protagonist. Only, being Bradbury, it's never as simple as that. The murderer seems to be more existential than physical, the familiar landscape of LA suddenly far more fantastical than Mordor. The one flaw is that Bradbury, as a writer who notoriously disdained plotting, allows an important character to slip out of the story while two others, introduced later and in whom we are consequently less invested, become more prominent than they really should. But imagine it as a sixtysomething author getting up and just improvising a prose-poem of dread, beauty, loneliness and the desire to connect with others and you can't help but applaud.

Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of TekumelEmpire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tekumel by M.A.R. Barker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read it more times than I could count and I've spent as much time in Professor Barker's imagination as on the planet Earth. EPT is the most perfect example of the proliferating story threads that Damien Walter describes as one of the chief joys of reading a roleplaying game ( I'm not religious, but if I was this would be my Bible.

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Friday, 17 June 2016

Something for the weekend

Roleplaying and Ancient Greece don't seem to be particularly popular with the readers of this blog, if the number of comments is anything to go by. So here are a few books I've read recently that I think are worth recommending. I hope you'll see something you like:

Collected Stories of Isaac BabelCollected Stories of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apologies to Dr Johnson, but it's been a very long time since any intelligent person could seriously assert that it's the job of writers to present the reader with a moral lesson. Even so, fiction lies. If you were an alien who only knew of human beings from reading their literature, you wouldn't recognize the species when you came across it. That's because even the best authors bake their own viewpoint into the story. Darkness At Noon or Bend Sinister or Dirty Snow -- in all of those books are people doing terrible things, but there's still the sense that the authors, while of course not commenting on the action, stand for civilization and the best of humanity. Even though (in fact, because) those books are full of the anger or disappointment of the civilized viewpoint, they perpetuate the idea that civilized man is a good creature who can sometimes be corrupted into "inhumanity".

But Babel presents a far less comfortable picture of mankind. He's writing many of these stories from the viewpoint of a Jewish intellectual serving as an officer in a Cossack regiment of the Red Army. That's not made up, either; extraordinary as it sounds, it was Babel's own military real-life experience. Unsentimentally he describes acts of generosity alongside shocking barbarity. And he doesn't pretend the latter is any less human or explicable than the former. If there is any act of Othering, it's Babel's own reflective view of himself and the civilized attitudes inculcated in him by his middle-class Jewish background. It's not that we can't see what Babel himself stands for - it comes as no surprise that Stalin had him murdered in the late '1930s - but his way of observing human behaviour holds up a horribly clear mirror. You'll come away from reading this feeling deeply disturbed.

The Red Cavalry tales take up most of the book, but there are also Runyonesque stories of Jewish gangsters in Odessa and semi-autobiographical accounts of Babel's early life, including some vivid up-close descriptions of antisemitic pogroms that make for very uneasy reading.

As a companion to reading Babel's work, I very highly recommend Professor David Thorburn's sublime lecture course entitled "Masterworks of Early 20th Century Literature", available in both audio and video versions. 

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The BookshopThe Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A middle-aged woman opens a bookshop in a small Suffolk town in the late 1950s, and in doing so inadvertently stirs up the battle lines of class conflict. It sounds like the basis for an Ealing comedy, and indeed there were several scenes that had me laughing out loud, but Ms Fitzgerald is a more thoughtful and subtle writer than that, and she does not invoke the comedic structure of the classic English novel for frivolous effect. There’s nothing cosy about what’s going on here. It may be a quiet English village, but even here privilege has the power to destroy lives. Ms Fitzgerald writes with such economy and beauty – often I had to pause and appreciate her prose – that you don’t immediately grasp the cold anger behind her urbanity, nor the consequences of an event till you are onto the next scene, like a stiletto sliding painlessly between the ribs to inflict a fatal wound that is not at first noticed. It all builds to a conclusion of tremendous ferocity and force. To say more would be to spoil the impact, but I will say that the final pages are among the most affecting in literature.

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The Tremor of ForgeryThe Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Graham Greene's favourite Highsmith novel, which he pointed out is about apprehension rather than fear. We follow Howard Ingham, an American writer visiting Tunisia as research for a film script. With exquisitely subtle but effective touches, the sense of dislocation grows. Ingham's alienation at being adrift in a foreign culture and a foreign language combine with a disquieting lack of communication from home.

The story explores guilt, in part, and in that sense reminded me of Woody Allen's "Crimes & Misdemeanors" as well as, obviously, Crime & Punishment. But the guilt here is a more disconnected, troubled, elusive emotion. Guilt at not feeling more guilty, even, as Ingham feels his moral bearings coming adrift. We eventually realize that the full story of what Ingham is blaming himself for is very probably quite different from what he imagines; but then, the blame is not the point. It cuts deeper into the whole question of fitting in, the existential dismay at whether right and wrong even mean anything, and the lies we tell not only others but ourselves.

If that all sounds rather too vague - it's not. This is a page-turner. Highsmith is a master of her craft, and she keeps turning the screw by tiny degrees towards an unbearable pitch of tension. It's not for me in the same class as Carol, but only just falls short.

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The Fade Out, Vol. 1: Act OneThe Fade Out, Vol. 1: Act One by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always clear the decks for a new Brubaker. This one has his usual Roeg-like imbricated timelines woven in an intriguing setting: Hollywood in the late '40s, glamourous and grubby at the same time, providing the classic Brubaker ingredients of lust, greed, secrets, lies - all heated to meltdown point by bad judgement on the part of the good guys and ruthlessness on the part of the baddies. That's insofar as anybody in an Ed Brubaker story is unequivocally "good" or "bad", of course.

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Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1)Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you only know Victorian humour from old Punch cartoons, you might be surprised at how modern this is. The prose is fresh, becomes quite lyrical in places, and JKJ is a natural raconteur. I laughed out loud throughout and was quite happy to spend a pleasant few hours in the company of three fellows and a dog who lived 126 years ago and yet feel as if they might be people you could meet tomorrow.

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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Ways into Sparta

I’m not one of those who are scornful of the struggles that actors face in getting into character. It’s not as hard as coal mining? Can’t argue there, but it does drive some needles very deep into the actor’s psyche and sense of self-worth. Don’t discount emotional hardships, is all I’m saying.

Take Charles Laughton, driven almost to despair by his inability to get a handle on his part in I, Claudius. He finally solved it by playing a gramophone recording of Edward VIII’s abdication speech right before he’d walk on set. Similarly, though with a lot less of the hand-wringing, Sir Kenneth Branagh reportedly sought advice from Prince Charles before embarking on the role of Henry V.

The point is: you need to find a way in. Paul Mason and I used to talk about finding “the Englishness of Heian Japan” or whatever abstruse setting we had picked for our latest roleplaying campaign. It’s not that we really believe there is any “English” component there, and in particular not that we wanted to anglicize the setting in any way, just that you’re looking for the stepping stones that will get you started. Once you have that first step, you can start to build a mental model of your character within the exotic setting – until eventually it doesn’t feel exotic any more. You have passed through the stage of liminality and, now that you inhabit the setting, you can jettison those familiar analogies that got you started.

That’s the good way to do it. The bad way is to try to conform the setting to tropes you find familiar. Leaving aside the speedos, Frank Miller reduced Spartan culture to a bunch of violent libertarian nutters. That said, Miller reduces everything to violent libertarian nutters, so maybe we shouldn’t read much into it. As an approach to roleplaying in Sparta, it’s barren ground; it will lead you back into your own concerns and cultural views, not closer to the mind-set of a Spartan. The film adaptation of 300 likewise. The 1962 movie The Three Hundred Spartans was long mocked for being inauthentic, and lord knows I’m not recommending it, but arguably it’s still a lot more authentic than anything Zack Snyder has ever perpetrated.

You could look at Steven Pressfield’s book The Gates of Fire. Pressfield was a Marine, so he knows about soldiering. Trouble is, the type of soldiering he knows is likely very different from the experience of a hoplite in 480 BC. I’m not talking about drill or weaponry. Recruits into modern Western military forces tend to be rural or suburban and from a lower socioeconomic status than the general population. This leads to a specific style of training, a particular idiom of social interaction, which in British Army terms we might characterize as the “you ‘orrible little man” attitude. Or, going back to the US Marines, who can forget the Gunny’s welcoming speech from Full Metal Jacket?

If Pressfield were familiar with the Gurkhas, he’d know that if your soldiers come from a society that esteems military service you don’t need to treat them like dirtbags to get what you want. No sergeant or officer in the British Gurkha units ever needs to scream at a Gurkha soldier. Theirs is a martial culture. In such a culture, discipline flows from self-discipline. That is nearer (perhaps, for we can only surmise) to the Spartan way of thinking. All of these spartiate warriors are, after all, the aristocracy of their world. Martial values have been inculcated in them from childhood. They’re not unruly rednecks who you have to break down and rebuild into soldiers.

That suggests to me another analogy. You know the saying, apocryphally attributed to Wellington, about the battle of Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton. Those young Spartans, graduates of the agoge, are maybe not so different from the pupils of a tough Victorian or Edwardian public school. That system produced exactly the sort of chap who adhered to the values of his parents and grandparents, who would politely give up his seat to an elder, and who had the reckless courage to throw himself into battle at the head of his men armed with just a pistol and a stiff upper lip.

That’s one way into Sparta, anyway. I’ll reiterate that you’re not aiming to describe Sparta in terms of Rugby School or the Marine Corps or NRA anti-federalists or Baywatch extras. That would just be cultural chauvinism and it gets you nowhere in either acting or roleplaying. What you want is the key that opens a door in your own imagination so that you can construct a credible and internally consistent Sparta there.

And incidentally you might need several different keys. One of my players, seeing the map in the Sparta Sourcebook, said, “I never realized there were so many shrines and temples.” If you’re a Westerner who has travelled in the Orient, particularly somewhere like Taiwan, you won’t find that kind of society hard to comprehend. Even less so if you’re Taiwanese, of course.Another player was surprised that Ares wasn't much worshipped in Sparta, except as a cult among immature boys. The truth is that professional soldiers throughout history have rarely regarded war as anything admirable. A Spartan would tell you that it's not battle they worship, but victory.

Roleplaying in non-traditional settings doesn’t appeal to all tastes. It takes commitment, but when you carry it off it reaches a deeper place and yields more rewarding results than any campaign with Scottish dwarves and hippy elves ever can. So, if places like Tekumel or Sparta or Heian Japan are your bag, what tricks do you use for finding your way in?

Friday, 27 May 2016

"The King is Dead" (Sparta scenario)

This scenario is set in Sparta in the year 485 BC. To play it, you're going to need the Sparta sourcebook. And, pretty obviously, if you're not going to be running the game then you might want to look away now. Nothing but spoilers from here on in.

Still here? OK, the characters are young men investigating the death, apparently by suicide, of the Agiad King Cleomenes five years ago. That happened. I won't list all the history here because you can look it up. Our own campaign is fantasy (a trope I was stuck with - see previous post) so the characters' enquiries spun them off into an adventure involving the Antikythera mechanism, an interstellar wreck that caused the Thera eruption, and various other madly OTT elements. Frankly, if you ask me, you'd do better to keep the fantasy out of it. Maybe Cleomenes faked his death so that he could live in quiet retirement with his Athenian lover Naira. That's one possibility. It's your campaign; you decide...

The characters, having reached age 20, have been given their first staff (bakterion, a mark of adulthood), their first red tunic, and have just been inducted into their platoon (enomotia). Together they comprise a sub-unit of syskenoi, or “tent companions”, comprising a table in the fraternity (or mess-hall, syssition) to which they all belong. All have been picked to be members of the Royal Guard, the hippeis (“equestrians”) which means they are regarded as elite for their year.

Characters who attended the same school will know each other from an early age, but it’s likely they all got to know each other over the “gap years” as epheboi before they became young adults.

Each character will have a 50% chance of having an admirer (erastes). These are buddies/lovers in their 30s or 40s who, as full adult citizens of the Spartan state, can make introductions on a character’s behalf. The characters will need at least one admirer to get anywhere, because as youths they are not allowed into the lesche (club-houses) or the Agora. Having more than one admirer between them would be better because that is less suspicious (you’re not asking one person for a whole bunch of favours) and quicker (spreads the load). The chance of getting your admirer to do you a favour is based on charisma and/or appearance.

The festival

The Karneia is a week-long festival to Apollo (though also having secretive associations with Dionysos) involving dancing, sacrifices and athletic events in a sacred wood west of Sparta.

The chase
Five youths (ie 20-30 years) are picked as hunters. Starting from a stone carved with an image of Apollo Aphetaeus (“the starter”) they must pursue an agetor, an older priest who is garlanded in flowers. To win they must return with his garland, which is a good omen for the year ahead.

There is prestige in avoiding five younger trackers, so the agetor won’t just give it to them on a platter. But the hunter with the garland isn’t out of the woods yet – at least one other hunter has been sneaky enough to hang back, refreshed, planning to grab it off him as he returns and take the credit.

The kill
This is a wrestling contest, fought in three rounds. Anybody can take part. Just do those as competitive skill rolls. Only the final round (if a PC gets into it) needs to be played out.

While that’s going on, the helots have their own wrestling bouts in a field half a mile away. Some young Spartans go to watch, pretending nonchalance. But the helots are not prohibited from wrestling, so some of their fighters aren’t bad.

(What might strike the characters about the helot celebrations is that they are a much more drunken affair. On the rare occasions helots are given wine, they drink it stronger and in far greater quantities than the abstemious Spartans.)

Ankylos could speak to them here; see below.

The feast
Everyone dines in tents to mark the end of the festival. There is a rhapsody competition and anybody can join in. It’s while taking a piss away from the feast that Ankylos approaches them – assuming he didn’t speak to them already if they sneaked off to watch the helots wrestling.

Ankylos (40) is well known in Sparta. He is a veteran of the Battle of Marathon, having been in Athens at the time. (Sparta sent no army as the Karneia that year meant they had to wait for the full moon.) They would know that he is close to the Agiads.

He points out a helot called Talus from a village called Gythio. “I want you to keep an eye on that one. There’s a suspicion he’s gathering arms for a little band of helot trouble-makers. See if that’s true. If it is, deal with him. But only after you have proof – we’re soldiers at war, not crude butchers.”

If they watch, they will see Ankylos go back to consult with Cleombrotus (55), Leonidas’s brother.

At Gythio

The characters have to decide how to watch Talus. If they travel undercover, they would be best advised to do so in small groups. Together they look conspicuously tall to be helots. They would also need to hide their long hair – the mark of a Spartan, forbidden to lesser ranks (though in fact credible in any free Greek citizen, even though few outside Sparta retain that style today).

They could of course go openly as Spartans, under the pretext of official business (assessing the workers and crops, scouting locations for military manoeuvres, etc) or leisure (hunting, for example) or ritual (visiting remote shrines or relatives in the country) or indeed with no excuse at all. But any of those might make it hard to get a close look at what Talus is up to.

Or they could nominate a small group to be “the helots” who can go undercover, travelling with the rest as their servants.

Talus is a woodcutter and lives in a house next to his lumber yard, up a track about half a mile from the rest of the village. Observing the timber carts going up the track, perception roll to notice they are not empty.

If they look in the carts they find bows, arrows and hard cudgels.

At Talus’s house
Talus has very high perception skills so will not have any difficulty spotting them – not least because he knows they are coming. “Why don’t you come inside?” he says.

Inside they are met by Ankylos. He explains this was the only way to meet them well away from prying eyes. They can trust Talus, by the way; he’s a “step brother” who served as a scout for the army. It’s a sensitive issue and Ankylos says that the purest Spartans are the young. They are fresh with the ideals that too often become alloyed with convenience, politics and self-interest. That’s why this has to be completely confidential. They’ll understand when he tells them what they have to do.

(Another advantage, though Ankylos has the good manners not to labour this point, is that senior Spartans will not really take them seriously. The questions they will need to ask could raise suspicions if an older man asked them, but coming from them will seem like youthful enthusiasm, an eagerness to find out about the world. They can, in short, count on being both indulged and discounted.)

Ankylos tells them about the ex-king Cleomenes. Supposedly he killed himself five years ago after going mad. But there are enough suspicions and loose ends that Cleombrotus and his brother, the new king, Leonidas, want it looked into.

“You might do worse than to start by talking to Cleomenes’s old comrade Vabis – if he’ll talk to you, that is. Or maybe the undertaker who supplied the coffin; I forget his name. If you have any news, give it to Talus here or to my sergeant, Ktesios. If you come to any conclusions or uncover any evidence, be discreet.”

Conducting the investigation
Cleombrotus himself can’t do much for them because he mustn’t be seen to be involved, but he will send occasional information or instructions via his friend Ankylos or the perioikoi sergeant Ktesios, and he can also provide resources such as a ship if they need it.

Investigating Cleomenes’s death

Cleomenes apparently committed suicide in his cell and was buried at the Agiad vaults a few miles outside Sparta. That was five years ago.

Who had cause to want him dead? After reigning thirty years, during which he pursued a very active foreign policy, he had made many enemies:

◦ The Persians, whom he resolutely opposed his whole life
◦ Ex-king Demaratos, whom he effectively deposed six years ago
◦ The Argives, six thousand of whom he massacred ten years ago
◦ The island of Aegina, whose entire ruling council he arrested and took to Athens for trial six years ago

How to conduct the investigation
It’s not easy. As 20 year-olds, the characters aren’t able to enter the Agora or the market-places, and are generally looked on as “freshmen” by older Spartans. They have some options, though. They can get information and even introductions from their erastai (older male admirers). Also, they can try and approach people they want to talk to:

◦ At a temple
◦ In the Dromus while exercising
◦ At the Hippodrome
◦ By inviting them to a hunt (above-average wealth needed to host a hunt)
◦ By calling at their mess-hall (if they have a mutual contact to introduce them)

The arresting officer’s story
With the help of an erastes, or through their own contacts if any of them have been groomed for the Krypteia, the characters might get to talk to Akratos (42) who was one of the Krypteia men sent to arrest Cleomenes and is one of the few who have first-hand evidence of his madness:

“When we asked for his sword he handed it over without a fuss. Said how he didn’t want to spill Greek blood. Greeks, he called us. Well, obviously they had to lock him up.”

The order to arrest Cleomenes was issued by the Ephors immediately after a sub rosa meeting with him in the Senate. The meeting was at Cleomenes’s request and lasted several hours. The Ephors at the time are now private citizens (the term of office being one year) but of course they will not speak to the characters or to anyone else about what went on behind closed doors.

The old comrade’s story
They can also try talking to Vabis (55), the king’s long-time campaigning comrade who has fallen on hard times and is now an “inferior”, so can be approached (which is why Ankylos suggested it) – though he still has his pride and may bridle at being questioned by mere youths. A good time to approach him might be while he’s exercising on the Dromus. They will need to impress him somehow to get him talking.

Vabis knew of Cleomenes’s love for the Athenian Naira and spoke to him when he came back to Sparta just before his arrest. Cleomenes said he wanted to forge an alliance of all Greece against the Persians.

If they ask about Naira: “She was the wife of the archon of Athens, only the Athenians booted them out despite King Cleomenes’s support – or maybe because of it. The archon and his wife moved here, only he died about six months later. Ten years back, this was. Just after that fuss about burning those Argives alive in their grove.”

If pressed, Vabis admits to wondering if love of Naira drove Cleomenes to poison his friend Isagoras, her husband and the former Archon of Athens, and the guilt drove him mad. Certainly he can attest to Cleomenes being increasingly obsessed by the threat of another attack by Persia, and that he had come to believe that the only way to deal with that was to unify the whole of Greece – an idea that, to most Greeks, certainly seems insane.

The jailer’s story
In jail Cleomenes was guarded by a one-armed helot called Hogros (50). The characters will probably assume he’s a lot older than his fifty years, incidentally, because helots lead a hard life. Hogros admits to giving Cleomenes the knife he killed himself with:

“He said bring me a knife so I can cut this bread up. Well, I’m not going to argue with a king, am I? Or any Spartan come to that. Then he said bugger off and let me eat in peace. So I did. And he did himself in while I was gone, and I’ve not had a nice job like that since.”

Where was Cleomenes imprisoned? In a small lock-up just off the Street of Barriers. Hogros was assigned to stand guard outside the door.

Where was the fatal wound? Hogros can tell them as much as the undertaker Eumaeos can (see below).

Who came to visit Cleomenes? Hogros knows where “that fancy lady” (he doesn’t know Athandania’s name) lives and will try to get money for taking them there – he says she came to the cell but he was under orders not to let her in, “nor that Athenian bint neither” (ie Naira). Cleomenes did see “the king and his brother” (Leonidas and Cleombrotus) and a couple of the Ephors. “Other’n that, just me.”

The undertaker’s story
They can talk to the peroikoi undertaker Eumaeos (39) who lives in Therapne, a town south of Sparta. He collected the body for burial but instead of bringing it back to his mortuary, he was instructed to take it to Cleomenes’s house and bring the coffin there. He tells them that Cleomenes slashed at his arms several times, leaving multiple cuts, then finally drove the knife into his heart.

Who was the last person to see the body before it was placed in the coffin? “The Athenian woman, Naira. She drew out the knife with her own hand. Ice-cold, those Athenians.”

If they probe further, Eumaeos will mention that Naira was accompanied by a Spartan noblewoman, Athandania. He was specifically ordered not to treat the body in any way, just put it in the coffin.

The family friend’s story
They can talk to Lady Athandania (40), a cousin of Cleomenes. They’ll need to arrange a meeting, possibly inveigling an invitation to one of her afternoon salons at her decidedly non-regulation grand house in the outer suburbs of Limnai.

Have each player roll 3d6 for family wealth. Anyone with above-average family wealth is eligible (13+ on 3d6) then make a charisma, poetry, or appearance roll to get an invitation. Or a player might come up with a clever way to get themselves invited, of course.

Athandania thinks that the Ephors murdered Cleomenes and hushed it up. She’s not too discreet about keeping this view a secret, though she wouldn’t come out and say it to a bunch of youths. If a character eavesdrops on her, he may hear her mention it to an Athenian guest.

She is willing to tell them that her friend Naira (40) left Sparta right after the funeral, having lived here in exile from Athens for nearly twenty years.

Where did Naira go? “I had a letter from her a couple of years ago saying she was living in a remote place and missed other women to talk to, but she expected to be back in the swing of things in a few years. Oh, and she said something about how she ought to be able to see Aphrodite’s birthplace on a clear day.”

[Naira is actually now living on the island of Antikythera, about three days’ sailing to the south. A lore/mythology roll is needed to identify Aphrodite’s birthplace as Kythera.]

At the cemetery
They will need to sneak into the Agiad burial vaults as there are patrols of veteran Spartans. With timing to run in between patrols, an uncontested stealth roll will do it. Failure means the sentries come searching and you need a hide roll.

(An important question is how many of the characters will attempt this. Too few and they may not be able to open the vault where Cleomenes’s coffin is entombed – or may fail to find a clue. Too many and they will be spotted.)

To open the vault quietly requires a difficult strength roll Failure makes a noise and they’ll need another hide roll – or one of the characters could make a run for it to decoy the sentries away.

Inside the vault there is room for three characters. The coffin is open and the body is not here. Make a search roll to spot an obol (intended to go under the tongue of the corpse) in the broken remains of the coffin.

After making the report

They again arrange to meet at Talus’s house, only this time Cleombrotus, the king’s brother, comes with Ankylos. Naturally he only hears the bits that interest him.

“There’s going to be war with Persia. The old king Demaratos has gone over to their side. No doubt they’d love to turn up here and restore him as their puppet. We don’t want any legitimacy issues.”

Ankylos: “It might be worse. There could be two ex-kings drifting around out there. A madman and a traitor. To have a challenge to the Eurypontid line is bad enough, but suppose there’s an Agiad pretender too.”

“Even if Cleomenes is alive, which I don’t believe, he would never side with Persia. He’d sooner – ”

“Slit his throat? He did that already. It’s a risk, is all I’m saying. And this isn’t a good year to be taking risks.”

They turn to the player-characters:

“Go and look into that last expedition, when he went to arrest the council of Aegina. Whatever drove Cleomenes over the edge, it happened on that trip.”

Investigating Cleomenes’s final expedition

The year before his death, Cleomenes took a fleet of fifteen ships (ie his entire Royal Guard) to arrest the twelve councillors of Aegina who had paid tribute to the Persians. He had been thwarted in an earlier attempt to do so by his co-regent Demaratos, but since then he had managed to replace Demaratos with a new Eurypontid king, Leotychidas, who was his ally.

The councillors fled east towards Rodos, but Cleomenes intercepted and captured them in the Aegean on his flagship the Hydra’s Tooth. He then returned them to Athens.

Talking to marines
Some of the Royal Guard who accompanied Cleomenes’s expedition are willing to talk about it. (As the characters are royal guards themselves, it’s not hard to find a pretext for meeting.)

Xiphos and Stibades are a couple of guardsmen whom the characters might end up talking to. They’re not clear about details like navigation, but they can relate how there was a storm, the flagship got separated from the rest of the fleet, they found the Aeginetan ship in a lagoon and there was a boarding action.

“Twenty of us, thirty Aeginetan marines. Not much of a fight.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have been, only – ”

“Oh yeah. We hit a rock and the king went overboard. Full armour, you don’t come back from that.”

“Only he did.”

“He sure did.”

It comes out that Cleomenes was thought lost but later showed up on a nearby island. “Must’ve got his armour off and made it to the shore. Sixty years old, too. Fitter than a man half his age.”

The difficulty is getting details out of the Royal Guard without pressing the point too much. In addition, they aren’t giving a statement, they’re reminiscing – embellishing the bits that stuck in their minds, glossing over things (like precise navigation) that aren’t what they know or care about.

Talking to the sailors
To look for some of the sailors who were on the expedition, the characters need to travel to the port of Helos, about twenty miles south of Sparta.

It’s pretty easy to find sailors who can talk in general about the fleet – where it sailed from (Helos), when (early 491), where it returned (Zarax, though five ships went to Athens), when (late spring 491), and so forth.

Use streetwise or diplomacy skills to find a sailor in Helos who was actually with the fleet. Roll once a day. This is easier in ports along the east coast of the peninsula (Zarax, Kyphanta, Prasiai, Tyros) in which case allow a bonus to the roll. A special on the roll indicates a sailor who was actually aboard the Hydra’s Tooth.

Any sailor can relate the basic facts of the expedition: that the Aeginetans seemed to be heading for Rodos, a Greek colony that has been in Persian control since 490 BC but which was then (in 491) autonomous. The fleet was scattered by storms in the Cyclades. If the characters think to ask, the prevailing winds were driving the ships south of a true course from Aegina to Rodos.

A sailor called Sophilus who was a crewman aboard the Hydra’s Tooth can tell the full story:

“We caught up to them in the lagoon of Callista. We needed to intercept them before they got to the open sea because that was a trim fast ship – we’d never have overtaken it under sail. Hurrying to get across their bows, we ran her onto an oddly shaped rock in the lagoon and the whole ship nearly went over. I remember old Thrulon saying, ‘That’ll blunt the tooth.’ The general went over the side – ”

“The king.”

“King, was he? So he went over the side, gone like a stone, but the Spartans mopped up the Aeginetan forces – their chief told them to surrender, in point of fact. We were resupplying water on one of the islands there – not Callista itself, but an island on the north-west of the bay where the water’s less salty – and the rest of the fleet showed up. A few days later, the top men went to make an offering at an old shrine to Apollo. Well, they say it was to Apollo – I saw it and it wasn’t like any shrine to Apollo I ever saw. Anyway, who do you think they found there, naked as a babe and twice as lifelike? Only the old king that was thought drowned. So that was a lucky escape, only they do say he went mad and killed himself, which just goes to show a man can’t cheat Hades for long. If the gods want you dead, they’ll first take your wits away.”

Travel at sea

Ankylos can provide them with a letter from Cleombrotus to secure a twenty-oared galley in Helos, along with fifteen other rowers (five perioikoi, ten helots) which means that five men can be free as marines at all times. If that's where you want to go with the scenario, you could do worse than look at Tim Severin's Argo as an example of a twenty-oared Grecian galley. This article by Lionel Casson has everything you could possibly want to know about sailing speeds in ancient times.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Obedient to their laws

Maybe you noticed the Sparta roleplaying sourcebook that popped up in the sidebar recently. Here’s the story with that. One of my group’s longest running campaigns is the Immortal Spartans, devised by Tim Harford, in which a bunch of young Spartans discover they have Highlander-like regenerative powers. As a meta-campaign, it has proved a robust armature on which to hang individual mini-campaigns set in Alexander’s empire, Caligula’s Rome, 9th century Baghdad, and even 1930s New York.

The irony is, the campaign hasn’t till now had a whole lot to do with Sparta. We began the game already on the march to Thermopylae. (We could hardly slink back home afterwards. You know how the Spartans treated deserters?)

But as a long-time Tekumel enthusiast, I’m always more interested in the social and cultural side of roleplaying than all the scary monsters and super creeps. So I got to thinking it would be fun to run a prequel game before our little band became immortal, back in their salad days as junior soldiers of the Spartan state. That meant drawing a map – I always like to start with a map. And so I got to researching Spartan society from a gaming perspective.

I should insert a caveat here. Nobody knows a lot about daily life in Sparta in the early 5th century BC. Our best source is probably Herodotus, writing only a generation later. Pausanias’s descriptions come from the 2nd century. Plutarch was separated from the heyday of Sparta by half a millennium; by his time all that was left was a sort of theme park Sparta for Roman tourists. The upshot is that I had to create a Sparta, not necessarily the Sparta.

Another caveat: there are no women player-characters in this campaign. We do have one woman player, but her character is a man because the game required us all to be soldiers in Leonidas’s royal guard. Women in Sparta at this time actually have a pretty good life compared to, say, Athens, where they would be shut up behind closed doors or obliged to go about veiled. Spartan women owned property and conducted business, they were confident and outspoken, they mingled on the street with men and wore no veils. In fact, they were sneered at as “thigh showers” in the rest of Greece because of their revealing split skirts. Meeow. So you could have a game based around a group of Spartan women, but it would have a very different character from one involving Spartan men.

The best equivalent I can think of off the top of my head is the way men’s and women’s roles are portrayed in classic westerns. Out on the wild frontier, men are men and they let their fists and six-guns do their talking for them. But that society is at heart matriarchal. Women don’t take a back seat the way they would in the drawing rooms of cities back east at the time. Think of the Spartan mother pointing to her son’s shield as he set out for war: “With it, or on it.” They could be as laconic as their menfolk, those Spartan dames.

Anyway, if you pick up the Sparta sourcebook, bear in mind that it’s just designed for roleplaying male characters. Which is also something of an irony, as the game I chose to run didn't involve any of the fighting for which we nowadays think the Spartans famous. This scenario was 90% investigative. The players are tasked with uncovering the full story of King Cleomenes’s suicide -- if it was suicide. That scenario would have been equally suited to female characters, but as it was a prequel I was stuck with the characters we already had. If you play it (coming up next week) with women characters, drop a note in the comments about how it went.

Setting the scene for the PCs

The year is 485 BC – five years after the Battle of Marathon, but Persia remains an ominous storm cloud in the east. You are Spartans youths who, at 20, have just entered the lowest category of adulthood. Who knows what the future holds for you. Great things? But to you as individuals that is meaningless; a great future means a great future for the Spartan state which is your whole lives.

In creating your character, recall the advice given at Delphi. First: know thyself. You are Spartans, trained for the specific purpose of being hoplite infantry, the world’s most effective shock-troops. Never mind what you later became; maybe the seeds of that were in you even this early, but right now you are soldiers of the phalanx. Secondly: nothing in excess. There’s a temptation to max some stats and minimize others, but a well-rounded character may do better in the long run.

The virtues of a Spartan are: obedience, loyalty, courage, steadfastness, and piety. Reflect those how you will, but bear in mind that you are the aristocrats of your society – the knights, in effect – and civilized behaviour is important to you. Your principal training is in spear, shield, javelin and military manoeuvres. And yet you are very far from the brutal, half-savage warmongers of 300. It is said that it is easier to convince ten thousand Athenians to go to war than one Spartan. To draw an anachronistic parallel with today’s Marines, you are the sheepdogs. Your training is aimed at making sure that, while Spartans rarely start a fight, they can be sure of being able to end it.

While choosing your other skills, you may want to consider how you spent your late teens – that is, the “senior high” of the Agoge. This is where you pick up those extra-curricular skills.

Maybe one in ten of the 18+ group are considered as recruits for the Krypteia (think: Special Branch meets the Freemasons) and to test their mettle this “regeljugend” are sent out into the countryside to spy on helots and murder any who seem like they might be trouble-makers. So in that case you might pick up stealth skills and outdoor survival, for example.

Other late teens focus on subjects like diplomacy (learning languages, history and oratory) or on religious matters (lore and ritual) or on athletics and sports (especially the rugby-on-steroids ball game episkyros). Or maybe you’ve stepped out of one of the main school paths to do your own thing: travel, hunting, even medicine; those would count as eccentric choices but are tolerated in moderation.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Do I gotta draw you a map?

Actually, you'll be glad to hear that the map is by Russ Nicholson, not me. (As if you couldn't tell, right?) This is the one you've been waiting twenty years for: the map of Ankon-Konu, soon to be opened up to exploration by The Serpent King's Domain, seventh in the Fabled Lands series. Paul Gresty is hard at work on that now and it's shaping up to be the best FL book yet. Don't take my word for it, try the demo for yourself here.

The Kickstarter campaign was planned and run by Richard S Hetley, our editor, line producer, and invaluable consultant on the series. I asked for his thoughts on getting this dazzling new map from Russ:
"As always, it's been great to see new work from someone who helped build our favorite game worlds. It's also been interesting watching the notes from Paul, which quite literally were a printout of the old Ankon-Konu map covered with marker and pencil doodles, iterate into something that gives a sense of place. There was only one spot where I thought there was a bit of a hiccup: in Smogmaw of the first draft, there was a mysterious plain triangle sticking out of the top of the city. Was it supposed to be a rooftop? Perhaps a misplaced decoration like a flying bird? Or a gigantic pointy-cap mushroom? Russ took this feedback (I didn't mention the mushroom bit...) with all the rest and made the final version you see here. It communicates very well."
I'm not showing the whole map in all its multicoloured glory here because I think it's only fair that the Kickstarter backers get to see it first - as they will in the hardcover edition to be published by Megara Entertainment. A few months later Fabled Lands Publishing will release a paperback version, but for that one you'll have to make do with black and white.Still looks pretty spectacular, though, wouldn't you agree?