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Friday, 29 April 2011

The real-life game of thrones

I met a young Australian fellow on St Michael’s Mount. I don’t know how we got onto the subject of royalty, but he was telling me how some of his countrymen were keen to abolish the monarchy. “Not me,” he said, “I look at the buggers that want the job of president and I figure we’re better off staying as we are.”

Utilitarian arguments like that always appeal to me, especially when presented in a gloriously no-nonsense Aussie accent. Certainly I am not by inclination a royalist – rather, a Roundhead – and if starting a new society from scratch I’d go with the Founding Fathers and opt for a republic. But the code you write for a new project is not the same as the code you rewrite for a program that’s already running. And it’s surprising how many people get so steamed up by the emotional issues surrounding royalty that they can’t view the subject rationally. (And yes, I know a king cannot be a subject, ho ho; I’ve seen Ridicule too, though the joke was originally Disraeli's.)

Having a non-political, non-executive head of state whose only interest is in maintaining the status quo is actually quite a useful balance when you have politicians jumping about with their eyes on a four- to six-year horizon. It may seem much more fashionable to install a president instead – but like my Aussie pal said, that’s just another job for a bloody politician.

Royalty is incompatible with the modern age, some say, and I often think that myself, though it sounds like a circular argument. We could just as well argue that representative democracy is outmoded now that it is feasible to have direct democracy on every issue. Take a look at California and then tell me how attractive that prospect sounds.

In the United Kingdom, some 10% of the population favour abolishing the monarchy as a step towards (somehow) ridding the land of class and privilege. Because that worked out so well for Russia, for example. Look around the world first. Examine history. When dictatorships rise, when injustice and evil flourish, it isn’t because the state in question wasn’t “modern” enough – whatever that may mean, given that Britain and the Commonwealth are continually adapting, as every state must.

Britain benefits from the robustness and flexibility that comes from having a constitution that is not, for the most part, hardwired in the form of written rules. Instead it exists as the ghost in the machine of society. That society isn’t perfect but it is capable of gradual adaptation. It ain’t broke. Abolishing the monarchy would not obviously create a more or less fair society, though it would be a very drastic change with completely unpredictable consequences. Those who argue for it are, I believe, not doing so rationally. As Cromwell said: “I beseech you: in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

But all that is just the practical side of royalty. For the mythic slant, which is far more interesting, pop over to the Mirabilis blog today.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A fantasy hero called Ned

Not only have I not read Lord of the Rings, I haven't read A Song of Fire and Ice either - nor seen any of the HBO television adaptation, A Game of Thrones. (Maybe it's something to do with writers who have "R. R." in their name.) But whether you are a fan or not, if you have any interest in fantasy storytelling then you must check out this week's review of George R R Martin's epic on Guys Can Read. You don't have to listen to the streaming audio, you can just right-click on the link and download the podcast to listen later. And if you haven't downloaded their podcast chat with me from last week, you can still pick that up here.

Kevin and Luke on Guys Can Read are fantasy fans, of course, and that informs their take on Game of Thrones. For the view from the other side of the mirror, check out this New York Times article: "You will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary." I love that NYT writing!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Kicked while collecting trilobites

To mark the publication of two Mirabilis hardbacks in just a few weeks, here's an extract from the proceedings of the Royal Mythological Society that forms part of the backdrop to the Mirabilian universe. I've seen the first copy of the new books (FedExed to me from the printers in Bosnia) and traditionalists will be pleased to know that the quality is better than iPad. There, you never thought I'd say such a thing.
Dear Doctor Clattercut and Professor Bromfield

I would expect you to be familiar with our village, as it is famous in a small way for having a sunken twin a little way out to sea. When I was a girl, I could stand on the cliffs and, with the wind in the right direction, it was possible to hear the tolling of the submerged church bell coming up out of the waves.

Now that things are as they are, our submarine neighbours no longer content themselves with the occasional ringing of a bell. Walking my dog along the beach, as often as not I will encounter a group of mermaids riding there. Their manners are polite, but I think there is some teasing in their glance and their ponies are mean little beasts, all shaggy with kelp and very high and briny to the nose. You know the smell when the tide goes right out; it's like that.

My concern, however, is the mermaids’ effect on our village. Twice a week, or Wednesdays and Saturdays, they come and sit on the beach with trinkets to sell. And I know where they get those trinkets. One of them had an ivory pipe that I recognized. It belonged to my grandfather, who was drowned at sea on my first day at junior school.

Yours sincerely, Mabel Catchpole (Mrs), Dunwich

Dr Clattercut replies: An interesting case, Mrs Catchpole, and thank you for bringing it to our attention. I don’t know if I would consider what the mermaids are doing to be looting. Any knickknacks they find on the sea bed were, after all, irretrievably lost to us on dry land. One could argue they are performing a valuable service akin to marine salvage. Admittedly, however, there is a suggestion here of grave-robbing. What do you say, Bromfield?

Prof Bromfield: Hmm? Just thinking… Cabyll-ushteys, those sea ponies are called – that’s what they call them in the Isle of Man, anyway. They’re more than pesky. Get in trouble out swimming and they’ll drag you down and eat you up. All of you except the liver, funnily enough.

Dr Clattercut: I believe the Suffolk version is less outrightly murderous, though still a creature to be wary of. I was kicked by one while collecting trilobites at Aldeburgh two months ago and I still have a bruise. But just a moment – how do mermaids..?

Prof Bromfield: Side saddle, old chap.
You can get the complete Kindle book of Royal Mythological Society correspondence from Amazon or check out the Myebook preview here.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

"And we'd like to thank..."

Jamie and I, flattered to receive the Stylish Blog Award from Stuart Lloyd of the Lloyd of Gamebooks blog (and thank you again, Stuart) went to check out the rules and regulations and found them to be only slightly more complex than the recent UK census. (What did you do about the "more than 4 O-levels"... "more than 6 O-levels" questions? Oh, never mind.)

So first of all we have to list seven facts about ourselves:

1. I have a green belt in karate.
2. Jamie was born in Iran.
3. I have an M.A. in physics. Yes, a Master of Arts.
4. Jamie once broke a katana doing the gardening.
5. I've never read Lord of the Rings.
6. Jamie is a really good cook.
7. I was put in detention at school for a story I wrote.

Then we have to pick ten blogs we like. I'm not actually going to put these guys into the chain-letter system because it'd be like being given a writing assignment that I'm sure they haven't got time for. But check out their blogs anyway and imprint a "Stylish" logo in your mind's eye as you do.*
Nail Your Novel by Dirty White Candy
Top writing advice.

Carl Has The Funk by Freya Hartas
"This, my dears, is basically something that keeps my various half finished projects, drawings, sketches and doodles in some kind of vague order. Because in reality there're all scattered around my floor, in heaving great stacks on my desk or scrumpled up in some dark corner never to be seen again."

Cloud 109 by Peter Richardson and David Orme
Informative and inspiring articles about comics and related stuff.

The Intern
"The straight dope on publishing from publishing's most fearsome figure."

Golden Age Comic Book Stories by Mr Door Tree
A big ol' wonderful museum of comics.

The Art of Mike Henderson
Showcase of work by a very talented comic artist.

Neil Gaiman's Journal
You don't need me to tell you why.

Guys Can Read by Kevin McGill and Luke Navarro
Technically a podcast site, not a blog. So sue me.

We Do Write by Dorothy Dreyer
Insightful interviews with creative people.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
He's smarter than you are. Trust me on that.
*And if any of those listed want to go through the process, grab the logo above and be our guest!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The sleep of the sword

Joseph Lynch was brawny and big-boned. At wrestling he always won, and there was no door he couldn’t heave from its hinges, or failing that break it down with his head. His beard was as red as fox fur and broad as a shovel. Upon his nose he had a wart with a tuft of hairs red as the bristles in a sow’s ears. His nostrils were black and wide, his mouth as big as a furnace door, and by his side he wore a sword few men could lift even with both hands.

Joseph was one of the Iron Men, a small mercenary band out of Ellesland who lived in the latter time as the millennium wound down towards Judgment Day. I stood alongside him in a mountain hall facing goblins in the darkness, and once in a wood we fought a slithering thing that stuck to the misty hollows and might have been a dragon. At least, we called it that.

After our ship put in at a cove among the Stranded Isles, we had gone out to forage for supplies, and when our horses were stopped by robbers on the road our first thoughts might have been to pity them. My thoughts, anyway; Joseph was less given to pity. But by ill luck one of their swords found a space under his arm, and the blade slid in and punctured his lung, and Joseph fell like an oak.

With us traveled a man from Krarth called Kal ki-Lan Tor, who claimed to be a magus. I made him use his magic to call back blood into Joseph’s limbs and air into his lungs. But if any man has the art to defy Death, he will find that new life can only be borrowed for a short time. The flame had gone, and although Joseph continued on for a few days, he grew in pallor and we noticed that when he forgot to draw breath he sat as still as a figure of clay.

Finally he had to be put in the ground. I laid my sword of faerie steel beside him and covered the grave with rocks, for the soil of that shore was too hard and cold to dig. And that was the second and final death of Joe Lynch.

In the world of Legend there’s no way the story could follow what happened to Joseph’s soul after that – not least because Legend is based on medieval Christian belief, and for all I or anyone else knows there is no afterlife until the physical resurrection of all the faithful dead on the Day of Judgment. Beyond that, like Lovecraft, I prefer to keep the truth unutterable.

But there are games in which death is another dungeon level, and the old gods are as mysteriously solicitous of mortal morality as today’s monotheistic deities. And if you play in a campaign like that, James Wallis has come up with a brilliantly funny one-off roleplaying game called Afterlives that will provide you with a framework for legally weighing the soul of a deceased player character. Find out more about it – and where to get it – here on the Mirabilis blog.

Alternatively, instead of trying to plug Afterlives into your existing RPG campaign, you could run it with everybody playing themselves. That could be a lot of fun, though when you hold up the merciless mirror to your players’ real lives you might find them unfriending you pretty quick.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Interview on Guys Can Read

Brilliant podcasting blog Guys Can Read (does exactly what it says on the tin) has an interview with me today. We're talking about roleplaying, gamebooks, comics and other fun stuff right here.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

FL art book

More news from Megara Entertainment - and before you traditional print-loving readers look away in disgust, it's not apps this time! Megara are planning to release an Art of the Fabled Lands book which will be a full-color volume of plates from the app. I'm assured it will be fully compatible with the FL print books, in that each picture will be labeled with the appropriate paragraph number. And it'll be on sale in about a month. Full details of when, why, where and how much on the Megara website.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The intersection of the timeless moment

I'm constantly telling my old friend, role-playing comrade and esteemed fellow author, John Whitbourn, that he should publish the Binscombe Tales, his cycle of whimsical fantasy/horror stories, on the Kindle, Nook and iPhone.

The Binscombe books, originally issued as hardcovers a decade ago, are now out-of-print and fiercely sought by collectors. My first encounter with the Binscombe Tales was in the late 1980s when John came along to a ghost story evening at my house. We all had a nice dinner, a little fine wine, and settled down around the fire to entertain ourselves with some cosily spooky stories. An activity that Man has only been doing for - what? twenty thousand years and more.

Then John got up and read us "Waiting for a Bus" and a chill dark hand closed over the group. As he read the final words, you could hear the sigh of long-held breath and people looked from one another with that bright-eyed smile that says you know you have just had the bejasus scared out of you. My first reaction: "Get those stories on the radio, John. It'll be an M R James for our times - the Beeb'll bite your hand off." Now I say, "Short fiction is perfect for digital platforms, you need to get the Bincombe Tales on iPhone." But John is more of a traditionalist, like many of the readers of this blog, and likes a book you can hold and stroke and breathe in. On his blog, John describes the stories thus:
There is a real place called Binscombe, located in the south-east of England; but these tales are not about that Binscombe. Instead they concern another Binscombe, linked to the first by subtle but invisible bridges of 'what if?' This other Binscombe is a place rich in history, where strangers are welcome, but not always safe; a place where watching a video is not as harmless a pursuit as it might seem, where waiting for the bus may take much longer than expected, and where churchgoers are advised to pay very close attention during the midnight service on Christmas Eve. It is, in short, a place which takes its history very seriously - and with good reason, as the unwary are apt to find out to their cost. No one takes Binscombe and its history more seriously than Mr Disvan, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the village and its past seems to have been acquired through more than simply reading history books. We see Mr Disvan and Binscombe life through the eyes of Mr Oakley, a newcomer whose family has long had roots there, and who thus proves the truth of a local saying: 'They always come back'. This local connection gives Mr Oakley an opportunity to see some of the stranger side of life in Binscombe, with Mr Disvan as his guide; but it also shows him that once you come back, it isn't always possible to leave again.
"Waiting for a Bus", that story that gave such a shudder to the dinner party guests who were privileged to hear it first, was picked as one of the World's Best Fantasy stories of that year. Everyone who reads it recognizes that this is a new and authentic voice in English horror-fantasy. And yet, thus far, only a small cult readership has experienced the special delights, dreads and brilliant inventiveness of the Binscombe Tales series, so I'm going to keep on at John to authorize an ebook edition. In the meantime, Fabled Lands Publishing has his latest novel and I'll be telling you all about that in the very near future.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere. Never and always. - T.S. Eliot "Little Gidding"

Friday, 8 April 2011

Golnir in July, Violet Ocean next after that

News from Mikael Louys, CEO of Megara Entertainment:

We can confirm release dates for Fabled Lands 2 as July 2011 for HD iPad and September for iPhone/iPod touch. Players of the first app will be able to save their character and continue adventuring in Golnir.

Artwork is already under way on FL 3. However, because we are constantly now working on the FL 2 beta, and because of its interrelation with the first Fabled Lands app, Fabled Lands 1.2 and Fabled Lands HD 1.5 are postponed. These updates for FL1 will only become available after the FL2 release.

The Mac version for Fabled Lands is postponed until after the release of FL2. The porting tools for the Mac store are not good enoughalso being at the moment to port such a complex engine of ours. We'll try again in some months, hoping that those tools have evolved.

The good news is that this will give us more time to throw in more content and polishing for the updates to FL 1.2 and FL HD 1.5.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Serpents and mongooses

If you're interested in Dragon Warriors, you may have noticed that the former printer of the books, Mongoose, have been putting their stock up for auction on eBay, one copy of each title at a time, at a starting price of 99p. Far be it from me to keep eager fans from a bargain, but it is important to realize that buying the books that way not only deprives the creators of the game (me and Oliver) of our royalties, it also takes revenue from Fabled Lands LLP and, much more importantly, from Serpent King Games, who are the guys trying to make a go of the series. So if you want to see more DW books in future, enlightened self-interest suggests you probably should buy direct from the authorized publishers.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Worlds too alien to care?

Regular readers will know that my favorite role-playing setting is Professor M.A.R. Barker's world of Tekumel. Yet in spite of a lavish release by TSR in the mid-1970s, Empire of the Petal Throne never achieved a hundredth of the success of Dungeons and Dragons.

That used to baffle me. But when I raised my head out of the fantasy gamebook market and started working in other media, I began to see the view from outside the geek box I'd been living in all my life.

It's a simple enough proposition: most people want to connect to characters that are like them. I guess that's why 75 million Americans queued up for Avatar and only a few hundred thousand went to see Atanarjuat the Fast Runner. Soulful blue fellas with the regulation fantasy apostrophe in their name seem less alien to multiplex audiences than Inuit hunters of their own species.

I shudder at that, yet I know I'd never get my group to show up for an Atanarjuat RPG campaign. Even introducing new players to the wonders of Tekumel calls for careful coaxing, like getting a wild mustang to take the bit. The Game Whisperer, that's me.

Typically, fantasy role-playing games use the same technique to create relatability as you see in Hollywood movies. Most Arabian Nights movies, for example, have obviously Westernized and very modern main characters. The world of D&D is successful (ish) because it's a theme park version of the Middle Ages. Miss Marple becomes a sexy thirtysomething because audiences can't connect to a seventy-five-year-old. No use fighting it, that's the way the world is.

When you're designing a role-playing campaign, do you ask your players to make an imaginative leap and enter a different culture? Or do you let them play themselves in funny clothes? More thoughts on the vexed question of relatability here.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Game on

A few years ago, Leo Hartas and I pitched the idea of a series of books called Game Gurus, each of which took an in-depth look at the creative, artistic and gameplay aspects of a specific genre. When the publisher told us that they, not we, owned the series we kind of lost interest in writing any more, but not before we completed the titles on Strategy and Role-Playing games, still available on Amazon US (preceding links) and at bargain prices on Amazon UK here and here.