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Friday, 27 January 2017

The gods of the earth

I've been recording an episode of Fictoplasm with Tim Harford and host Ralph Lovegrove. If you've never caught one of these podcasts, Ralph and his guests take a story and consider both its literary qualities and how it could be used in a roleplaying game. I recommend them all (my own favourites are the Gene Wolfe and Mike Moorcock episodes) and if you want to hear ours, in which we talk about the Lyonesse novels by Jack Vance, it's right here.

One of the aspects of Lyonesse that we talked about was Vance's use of faerie creatures. They are, in a nutshell, droll, capricious and dangerous, just like fairies in Legend. And that in turn reminded me (there's an end point to this segue, believe me) of John Hagan's comment recently about W B Yeats's take on fairies as angels not good enough to be saved, nor yet bad enough to be damned. So I thought let's get a guest post from Yeats, him being dead and hence entirely biddable. So here it is:

 The Trooping Fairies

 The Irish word for fairy is sheehogue [sidheog], a diminuitive of "shee" in banshee. Fairies are deenee shee [daoine sidhe] (Fairy People).
     Who are they? "Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved nor bad enough to be lost," say the peasantry. "The gods of the earth," says The Book of Armagh. " The gods of pagan Ireland," say the antiquarians, "the Tuatha De Danan, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high."
     And they will tell you, in proof, that the names of the fairy chiefs are the names of the old Danan heroes, and the places where they especially gather together, Danan burying places, and that the Tuatha de Danan used also to be called the slooa-shee [sheagh sidhe] (the fairy host), or Marcra shee (the fairy cavalcade).
     On the other hand, there is much evidence to prove them fallen angels. Witness the nature of the creatures, their caprice, their way of being good to the good and evil to the evil, having every charm but conscience-consistency. Beings so quickly offended that you must not speak much about them at all, and never call them anything but the "gentry", or else daoine maithe, which in English means good people, yet so easily pleased that they will do their best to keep misfortune away from you, if you leave a little milk for them on the window-sill over night. On the whole, the popular belief tells us most about them, telling us how they fell, and yet were not lost, because their evil was wholly without malice.
     Are they "the gods of the earth?" Perhaps! Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hoards. The visible world is merely their skin. In dreams we go among them, and play with them, and combat with them. They are, perhaps, human souls in the crucible—these creatures of whim.
     Do not think the faeries are always little. Everything is capricious about them, even their size. They seem to take what size or shape pleases them. Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music. They have only one industrious person among them, the lepra-caun --the shoemaker. Perhaps they wear their shoes out with dancing. Near the village of Ballisodare is a little woman who lived among them seven years. When she came home she had no toes; she had danced them off.
     They have three great festivals in the year--May Eve, Midsummer Eve, November Eve. On May Eve, every seventh year, they fight all round, but mostly on the "Plain-A-Bawn" (wherever that is), for the  harvest, for the best ears of grain belong to them. An old man told me he saw them fight once; they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl as it passes, that is the fairies, and the peasantry take their hats off and say, "God bless them".
     On Midsummer Eve, when the bonfires are lighted on every hill in honour of St. John, the faeries are at their gayest, and sometimes steal away beautiful mortals to be their brides.
     On November Eve they are at their gloomiest, for according to the old Gaelic reckoning, this is the first night of winter. This night they dance with the ghosts, and the pooka is abroad, and witches make their spells, and girls set a table with food in the name of the devil, that the fetch of their future lover may come through the window and eat of the food. After November Eve the blackberries are no longer wholesome, for the pooka has spoiled them.
     When they are angry they paralyse men and cattle with their fairy darts.
     When they are gay they sing. Many a poor girl has heard them, and pined away and died, for love of that singing. Plenty of the old beautiful tunes of Ireland are only their music, caught up by eavesdroppers. No wise peasant would hum "The Pretty Girl milking the Cow" near a fairy rath, for they are jealous, and do not like to hear their songs on clumsy mortal lips. Carolan, the last of the Irish bards, slept on a rath, and ever after the fairy tunes ran in his head, and made him the great man he was.
     Do they die? Blake saw a fairy's funeral; but in Ireland we say they are immortal.

Last year (Dave here again now, not W.B.) I started writing a comic set in and around the faerie-haunted Jewelspider Wood. It was to be illustrated by Gary Chalk, but he didn't like the story so that collaboration never came off. Kind of a shame, as it had changelings, undead, faerie curses, forest monsters, and murder, all mixed up with the misadventures of a travelling theatre troupe. If I can find an artist maybe I should get back to it - though really I need to find a way to finish my Mirabilis epic first.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Lords of the spirit world

If I recall correctly (it was over thirty years ago, mind) this article was the first time I was published in White Dwarf. That was issue #38 (February 1983) and what made it even more special was that it was adorned with an illustration by Russ Nicholson, my favourite fantasy artist.

The article appeared in Oliver Dickinson's excellent Rune Rites column. Although it was intended for Runequest, it would be easy to adapt to any game system.

In order to develop real power in RuneQuest it is necessary to accept the restrictions and obligations of cult membership. Many Initiates and Rune levels chafe at being sent on this or that quest and look back wistfully to the hell-raising freedom of their adventuring youth. But there is another, easier, route to power...

Occupying a niche in the spiritual hierarchy somewhere between gods and man are the spirit lords. These are beings with a POW of 150 or so and a willingness to exchange a little no-strings Rune magic for permanently sacrificed POW. Some were once gods, torn and wounded and weakened by ancient battles; others are merely powerful spirits clawing their way up to godhood. A character who wants to get Rune magic from a spirit lord must first find one. It is easier to do this on the physical plane than in the spirit world, as spirit lords tend to linger around places of special significance -- a plain where an epic struggle occurred, perhaps or a ruined temple where they were once worshipped. The first step is thus to conduct some detailed research, unearthing rumours and then double and triple-checking these. This involves time, money, scholastic ability, and some common sense.

Having identified a location where a spirit lord might be found, the character has to get there. it could be just a matter of a few days' ride across pleasant country; most referees being what they are, however, it is much more likely to involve crossing mountains and marshes, travelling through deserts and jungles, to reach the spirit lord's lair.

If there are no special events (see below), it is possible to trade with the spirit lord for Rune magic. This is done in the usual way: the character sacrifices POW above 18, and receives re-usable Rune spells in return. Most spirit lords will only be able to offer a few 1- and 2-point spells. Usually these are from the standard list; they may be determined randomly by the referee or assigned on the basis of the spirit lord's Runic nature. The process is keyed to some arbitrary talisman or amulet — the character will not be able to use or regain the Rune spells except when carrying this.

Unlike gods, spirit lords do not care about devotional rituals; they do not want to have to use their powers too often, however, so that a character wishing to re-use such Rune magic must wait one full day and sacrifice 10 points of battle magic POW (temporarily) for each point regained. Also, the character must maintain his/her characteristic POW at 18+ or temporarily lose access to the Rune magic. This is similar to a Rune Priest, but none of the other benefits (better POW roll, etc) or disadvantages (reduced DEX-based skills, etc) of priesthood are received.

Whenever a spirit lord is contacted, there is 0-19% chance (roll 1d20-1d10; if the result is positive, it is the number or less that must be rolled on d100) to get a special event. This is some unlooked-for circumstance or reaction which should make things more interesting — if not necessarily safer — for the intrepid adventurer. The table shows a few possible special events; referees can devise tables for their own but keep these secret from your players.

Spirit lords can be introduced into Gloranthan-style campaigns, but can also be used as the sole justification of magic in other fantasy worlds. Spirit lords can be fitted into such a world as the djinns, demons, good spirits, spirit mentors, or whatever, from whom magicians receive their powers.

Special Events
1.      A local tribe worships the spirit lord. Their shaman doesn't want the god bothered by jumped-up adventurers.
2.      A special summoning ritual must be performed before the spirit lord will manifest. This may involve human (or elf, dwarf, etc) sacrifice.
3.      The spirit attacks with a view to possession. Assume a POW of 30+1-4d100.
4.      The deal goes normally, but after 1-6 uses the Rune spells fail to regenerate.
5.      The spirit lord is ready for godhood and wants a priest. If a character has at least three skills at 90% (and, of course, POW 18+), it will offer to make him/her a Rune Lord-Priest at once, on the condition that he/she devotes him/herself to organising the new cult. Many spirit lords cannot provide allied spirits, however; in this case, the character gets a free summon small elemental spell instead.
6.      The spirit lord refuses to grant any Rune spells until the character undertakes some quest for it. It may wait until after the character has sacrificed the POW before mentioning this.
7.      The spirit lord is Chaotic. Each time the character uses a spell obtained from it, there is a 10% chance of becoming tainted with Chaos and acquiring a Chaos or reverse chaos feature.
8.      The spirit lord has no Rune magic, but is prepared to provide rapid teaching of a skill in exchange for permanent POW, at the rate of 5% per point. This cannot take a character beyond 75% in the skill.
9.      The spirit lord has exotic Rune magic — that is, spells not included in the standard list.
10.  The spirit lord is the hated enemy of an established cult (perhaps it was a foe of their deity in Godtime). Anyone who associates with the spirit lord will be hunted down.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

He knows, you know

There’s a little time left, at least for UK residents, to listen to this interview with Brian Eno on the BBC World Service (downloadable here) about the process of creating music. Well, in theory that’s what it’s about, but when you’re talking to somebody as interesting as Eno the themes soon grow to encompass evolution, the cosmos, art, and pretty much everything.

When Eno says that his kind of musical composition requires him to think like a gardener rather than an architect, he could be talking about refereeing a roleplaying game or designing videogames. The experience happens in the moment, sand-mandala-like; it isn’t a work of art that you create and then the players come along to admire.

Some designers produce games that look as if they are planted as gardens for the player – fragments scattered around to discover, and so forth – but often that’s just a case of an architect-type designer hiding parts of the edifice and then deriving great amusement at the ergodic stumbling of the player in piecing it all together.

If you’re planting design seeds properly, that process should lead to the possibility that any given player might have an experience that no one else had before. Outcomes must be emergent. That's not at all the same as being obscure. Many a walking sim has only one story for you to find, and the fact that you can come across story elements in any order may make no real difference to the final experience. It’s usually not on the relentless chain of cut-scenes and trigger points of some massive story-driven game that you find emergent possibilities, but in the the crannies of unexpected gameplay devised by a designer, not by a writer.

Sitting somebody down to tell them a story is something that cinema already does very well. Making the person solve a puzzle or succeed at a dice roll before they’re fed the next piece of the story doesn’t make it a game. That’s still the architect’s approach – in fact, an approach that leaves even less in the participant’s control. To make a rewarding story-based game, you have to prepare only the environment and starting conditions, then let the players loose to bring the story out of that. That way it ends up being their story. You’re just the guy or gal who trims the hedges.

If you're interested in Brian Eno's creative process, and lots of other examples of atypical inventiveness creating order out of apparent chaos, check out Tim Harford's book Messy.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I'm mostly famous, insofar as I am famous, for writing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books back in the early '90s. Because of them I was the bestselling author in the UK. I had the fan mail to prove it - cartloads of letters every week from all over the world. If you wrote and didn't get a reply, apologies. I set aside a day a week for writing to readers back then, but it wasn't enough to clear the backlog of TMNT mail.

My editor was the marvellous Philippa Dickinson, who also published Dragon Warriors. When a new TMNT book was being commissioned (the publisher usually contracted for two or even four at a time) I first of all had to produce a treatment (they're not just for movie scripts, whatever Wiki says) outlining the story. This one, Get That Ghost!, never got used - but if you're interested in the process of creating a franchise book, this is step one. Oh, and happy New Year!


After an arduous night training exercise in Central Park, Splinter agrees that he needs to lighten up his ninja teaching and make it more fun. He sets the Turtles on a very unusual scavenger hunt to test their initiative.

The last item on the list to be scavenged is “a spook”, and the Turtles all independently wind up at a reputedly haunted house near the park around midnight. They get inside and are nervously exploring when an eerie sound makes them all jump—

“—And just a glimpse of a shadowy figure at the top of the stairs – particularly because the moonlight was visible right through it – sent us running like startled rats,” Leonardo breathlessly explains to his master when they reach home.

Splinter winces. “I believe you will find the proper expression is ‘startled cat’, Leonardo,” he says quietly. “Now, there are no such things as ghosts, my sons,” he tells them.

“Then what do you call those creepy, wispy things that glide around haunted houses scaring the pants off innocent turtles, master?” retorts Raphael.

“It was doubtless a trick of the moonlight, Raphael – perhaps reflected in a mirror. A good ninja does not hastily jump to extreme conclusions. Also, none of you wears pants.”

“I don’t get it,” says Michaelangelo. “Didn’t your list say for us to find a ‘spook’, Master Splinter?”

Splinter looks a touch embarrassed. “My handwriting is not always very readable, I know,” he admits. “I’d actually written ‘spoon’.”

Raphael instantly grabs a spoon from the sink. “I win the scavenger hunt!” he announces.

However, when the Turtles tell April about their weird experience the next day, she isn’t so skeptical as Splinter. “A reporter has to keep an open mind. My boss would say I’m crazy, but I say, if ghosts do exist then we ought to find out about it. Who’s for a return visit to that house tonight?”

The Turtles are none too keen at first, but they can’t let April down. They show her back to the house and take her to where they saw the apparition. Suddenly a ghostly figure walks right out of the wall beside April, and they all beat a hasty retreat. April keeps hold of her video camera, though, and when she later plays the tape back they get a closer look at the ‘ghost’. The face stirs a hazy memory with April, who checks the files at Channel 6 and comes up with a file on a Professor Crankel, who was a brilliant but eccentric scientist. The file says he died many years ago when a ray-gun that he’d developed backfired on him.

“So he must be a ghost!” cries Michaelangelo.

“Maybe, maybe not,” says April. “Would a ghost show up on video tape? I really think we’d better go for another visit.” She looks at their none-too-keen expressions and laughs. “Is this my intrepid band of heroes? You’re never afraid to face a hundred of Shredder’s soldiers. Surely one little bitty ghost doesn’t scare you?”

“Of course not,” snorts Leonardo. “A ninja is never afraid.”

“I’m a turtle, not a chicken,” says Raphael.

“Count me in,” adds Donatello.

“Uh, guys...” says Michaelangelo. “I’d love to come, but I don’t want to miss the midnight horror movie.”

“Relax,” April tells them. “We’re not going at midnight. There’s no time like the present.”

“Three o’clock in the afternoon?” says Donatello. “Aren’t ghosts usually asleep then?”

“Don’t argue with her, you dope,” whispers Raphael as they follow April out. “Do you want to be there when it’s awake?”

They return to house, but this time sneak in and manage to surprise the ‘ghost’. In fact Professor Crankel turns out not to be a ghost at all. He explains to them how the accident with his ray-projector years ago partly transferred him to another dimension, so that ever since he has been ghost-like and unable to touch anything solid.

“Like the ray-projector that Krang uses to teleport troops from Dimension X,” says Michaelangelo. “It must be a hard life.”

“That’s why I live as a recluse in this old house,” says the professor. “I can’t mix with normal people anymore. I can’t touch anything. I can’t even put on any clothes apart from what I was wearing when the ray struck me.”

The Turtles are sorry for him, but then they have a lucky accident. While Leonardo is making some tea, Michaelangelo starts playing with the ray-projector and inadvertently fires it at the teapot. That, too, turns intangible and none of them can pick it up – until the professor saunters in and absent-mindedly pours himself a cup.

“You can touch anything else that’s been treated with the ray!” Donatello realizes. “All you have to do is turn it on anything that you’re going to use, and then you’re okay.”

As the Turtles and April leave, the professor thanks them for their help. “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything the first couple of times you came round, but I was so startled and you ran off before I had a chance. I hope I didn’t scare you fellas too much.”

“No way,” replies Raphael. “There’s only one thing that scares us, and that’s missing our dinner. See you around, Prof!”