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Podcast Episode 24 – Tales of Derring-do

Want to download this episode? Head to iTunes or download directly from this link right here!

Sometimes interviews happen that really feel like that they’ll pair well together and in this episode it certainly felt these two would work well together. Episode 24 is driven by our need to tell and hear stories – for many people one of the most important aspects of playing games. First of all Rory O’Connor, the man behind Rory’s Story Cubes, tells me about the importance of telling a tale and how his Story Cubes came to be. While it’s not the hardest game to play in the world it’s certainly speedy and entertaining, encouraging the use of your imagination no matter how old you may be. I’ve used them with everyone from schoolchildren to the most hardcore of gamers and near everyone has had a blast. I’m also joined by author Michael Ward – his book, Destiny Quest: The Legion of Shadow, is single handedly leading the charge of game books into the 21st Century. Forget your Fighting Fantasy, they’re mere novellas in comparison to this. Imagine World of Warcraft‘s level of customisation mixed with a more grown-up attitude and you’re on your way there.

Don’t forget, if you want to get in touch with the show you can email me – michael@littlemetaldog.com is the address to fire off your electronic missives. We’re also on Facebook (search for Little Metal Dog) and Twitter (and as I’m on the bleeding edge of technology, you can hunt me down on Google+ as well). Thanks for listening to the show – you don’t know how much it’s appeciated!

This show’s links:

Mirror Mirror on Kickstarter (check it out, they’re doing a cracking deal involving The Road To Canterbury too) – http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/167427101/mirror-mirror-a-game-of-deception-reflection-and-l?ref=live

This episode’s sponsors are the nice folks at Eagle and Gryphon Games - http://www.eaglegames.net/Default.asp

Rory’s Story Cubes official site - http://www.storycubes.com/

Michael Ward’s Destiny Quest site - http://www.destiny-quest.com/

Fighting Fantasy (which has recently relaunched) –  http://www.fightingfantasy.com/

Truly old school! Choose Your Own Adventure - http://www.cyoa.com/

 

 

 

 

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Tales from the Fireside – Role Playing Games and Other Strangeness

Campfire Burning returns to the Fireside, a selection of dice clasped in his hand and a single thought in his mind.

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I’ve always been intrigued by tabletop role-playing games. I put this down to overdosing on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon as a child. Long before I knew what a D20 was, every Saturday morning I sat in front of the TV entranced by the adventures of Hank the Ranger and his reality-displaced friends. At school my mates and I spun epic tales of high adventure, casting spells and battering the make-believe demons that plagued our primary school playground. Later on I gorged my young mind on Fighting Fantasy books. These stories – that were told and illustrated in vivid, often grizzly detail – thrilled me, and all too often I’d stay up past my bedtime with a copy of The Citadel of Chaos in my hands, my nightlight by my side, and all three of us huddled beneath my duvet.

But as much as I loved the books there was always something missing from them. They let me choose my destiny, yes – but the choices themselves had already been decided by the author – by Steve Jackson or Ian Livingstone. What if I wanted to make my own choices? What if I didn’t want to avoid the daggerwyrm on page 143 by tiptoeing through its lair? What if I didn’t want to fight the kobolds on page 289 with my trusty sword of courage? What if I came up with other, better schemes that weren’t detailed in the book in front of me? What then?
In my early teens, in a secluded corner of a Virgin Megastore I found my first true role-playing game book. It was Palladium Games’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness. At the time, Turtlemania was still in full swing, and though I’d grown a little too old for the cartoon series this book, with a cover that harked back to the Turtles’ violent, indie roots, beckoned to me. Without even knowing what it was I forked over my pocket money and took the game home.

My first thought upon peeling back the shrinkwrap and opening the book was: “This isn’t a comic.” My second thought was: “Don’t dice only have six sides?”

Then, as I started reading, little by little my jaw dropped. No, it wasn’t a comic – it was something new, something I’d previously known nothing about, but that I was determined to learn.

RPGs. Role-playing games.

Even among other table-top geekery RPGs have something of a bad reputation. If you’ve never encountered one before, they’re a kind of improvisational theatre that’s like the games of make-believe we all played as kids, only with rules in place to determine everyone’s actions, so things don’t devolve into a massive scrap ending with someone being pushed into the muddy puddle at the end of the playground. They’re what karaoke might be like if people pretended to be pirates, spies, barbarians or some other fantasy figure instead of pretending to be Robbie Williams. Instead of massacring the hit song Angels, players are taken on a guided adventure by a storyteller – the Game Master.

The Game Master oversees the world the players explore. He controls every aspect of the game world from its weather, to its locations, to all the other people and creatures living inside it that the players might encounter. He describes certain situations, the players react to them, and the Game Master then responds to their reactions.

For example:

“You’re standing on a grass verge by the side of a busy intersection on a warm spring day. There’s a small clump of snowdrops protruding from the grass at your feet, and every time a lorry roars past the flowers sway, momentarily drawn into its slipstream. Across the road you see a doddering old man with long white hair, his clothes faded and dusty. He wears a pair of fingerless gloves, and in his hands he clasps some banknotes – his pension, maybe. As you watch he raises a hand, licks his thumb and forefinger, and peels back a note. He’s so engrossed in counting the money as he steps off the kerb and onto the road he doesn’t see the lorry bearing down on him.

What do you do?”

So, if you were in that situation, what would you do? Would you run across the road risking your own life to save the old man? Would you shout at him and hope he hears your voice over the sound of the traffic? Would you do something else?

If you were placed in this situation in real life there’d be many other factors influencing your decision. Maybe you’re not particularly strong or fast, or you’ve recently injured your knee and walk with a limp – in this case, running across the road to help probably wouldn’t be your first choice. Maybe you have particularly good eyesight and spot a hearing aid in the man’s ear, and therefore know that shouting mightn’t do any good. Maybe you know all these things but you try to run or shout anyway, just in case.

In a role-playing game, you base your actions and abilities on the kind of character you’re playing. Your character sheet shows you what your character’s capable of – his speed, strength and skillset – but what he does with those talents is up to you. A role-playing game’s action takes place inside the players’ collective imagination. Usually that means no boards, no figurines – nothing else except for the players, their notepads, pencils and erasers, and dice.

Ah yes, RPG dice. Those funny little polyhedrons that look so alien next to the six-siders that come with every copy of Monopoly. The dice are used in conjunction with your characters abilities to resolve actions in RPGs. Think of it like playing darts. If you’re stood right next to a dartboard, there’s no challenge involved in getting a bullseye. If you’re stood ten, twenty or even fifty feet away, then the chance of you hitting that bullseye changes dramatically. If you’ve had a lot of practise playing darts that’ll affect your throw. If you’re throwing the dart in a pub so raucous you can barely concentrate, that’ll affect it, too.

All the same, in spite of the distance, your experience, your hand-eye coordination, and how much you’re distracted, there’s still a random chance you might or might not hit the bullseye with your dart. That’s where dice come in. They’re the random element that tells you when you hit your target, and when you hit the last packet of KP nuts pinned to the naked cardboard lady.

I learned all of this and so much more as I read Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One of the wonderful things about RPGs is, unlike in other games, the only limit to what can happen is your imagination. Let’s go back to the scenario with the intersection. What if you’re secretly a superhero? What if you can fly at the speed of sound to scoop the man from the truck’s path, or use telekinesis to lift the truck off the road? What if you’re a secret agent, and the old man is a disguised enemy mole carrying microfilm in his dentures – film you could take once he’s been hit by the truck? What if you’re a time traveller come back from the future, and one way or another, the accident will change the history of the world?

What if you’re all of these things? What if you’re none of them?

Despite buying the book so very long ago, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness has remained, for the most part, unused. I bought a few more games after that, but since my teenaged years I haven’t played much in the way of role-playing games. As a member of the LMDS team I hope to rectify that. I want to talk to gamers, writers and designers from this most-maligned hobby, and share their opinions with you. I have some of their stories – I want more. I’ll take babysteps back into the realm of role-playing, and run my own adventures, and we’ll share them together, right here by the fireside.

For the moment, let this column be your introduction – and my re-introduction – to a world where anything can happen and the only thing standing between us and conquering the universe is a single roll of the dice.

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So there you have it. Email Campfire Burning at campfire@littlemetaldog.com with your reminiscences on the RPGs of your youth and thoughts on what’s out there now. He’ll appreciate whatever you have to say, oh yes.

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Fantastic Voyage – Campfire vs Fighting Fantasy

Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll learn over the coming weeks that Campfire Burning is a man I have a lot of time for. He may be relatively new to the world of gaming, but his passion for it is boundless and his writing is beautiful. I don’t know if anyone outside of the UK is aware of the Fighting Fantasy series of books developed by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, but here’s Campfire’s reminiscence of a time when you could play a book…

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The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Now there’s a name. Imagine, if you will, a volcano shrouded in smoke the colour of clouds at sunset, tinted by fiery spewed embers and belched from the furnace at the heart of the world. Imagine a magician deep within – no, a warlock, ruling over the labyrinthine underworld from a throne of skulls, who was driven mad by the magic he once practised and now seeks to infect the peaceful lands in the shadow of lair with insanity beyond insanity.

All this and so much more came into my head the first time I encountered Fighting Fantasy. I didn’t even know what a warlock was but the image was there, as vivid as any I’d seen, scorched into my young brain along with a mission, a geas, a quest. Only I could navigate the tunnels to face the warlock. Only I could defeat him.

In this case, the Warlock of Firetop Mountain wasn’t the Fighting Fantasy book itself but the computer game translation of it, and even though I alone had been chosen to kill the warlock and set free the land I had a little trouble with the keyboard controls, so I invited my dad along as well.

As early evening gave way to early night and my little sister was sent to bed, Dad and I set up the Spectrum, loaded the game and took it in turns to try and beat it. Sometimes he played even later into the night, but neither of us ever completed or made it very far into the game. There was a series of keys we had to collect before we could break into the warlock’s inner sanctum, and beset by squiggly pink imps it was an achievement just to find one of them, let alone the whole set. We cheered when we found one, and mourned when we died and had to begin again at the very start.

And although we never beat the game that name burned brightly in my mind for years to come, until one day I saw it again, this time on a friend’s bookshelf.

“Is this a story?” I said.

My friend took the book from the shelf and looked at the cover before pressing it into my hands. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s an adventure.”

I never played Fighting Fantasy books properly. I never rolled for stats or filled in the character sheets at the front. Much of my collection was second-hand, and I’d often see the ghosts of previous adventurers written there in partially erased pencil. Knowing the book’s previous owner had been through and died somehow added extra atmosphere and gravitas. At the start of every new adventure I set my jaw and took a deep breath, determined I would succeed where so many before me had failed.

I cheated, as many readers did. I always had a thumb marking the previous page in case I messed up, and as the route through the book became more and more convoluted I had to use fingers and bookmarks to mark my place. When I ran out of both I searched for other placeholders. Here’s my lenticular animated dinosaur ruler – I’ll hold the page with that. There were so many places to die in these books; I’d die and die often, and it was only by holding open a page with this finger or that ruler that I could come back from the brink and live to fight another day.

The descriptions got to me. They were what kept me playing late into the night, hiding my reading lamp down by the side of my bed until my parents had gone to their room and I could get on with my adventure. The lurid, grisly details that should never have been allowed near a seven-year-old were nevertheless tuned to my frequency, and provoked chills when I read them and nightmares when I fell asleep.

In one book, after I’d taken too many wrong turns and run out of fingers and bookmarks and dinosaur rulers I ran blindly into a new cavern and fell into what the book described as ‘a pit filled with carrion’.

That’s where I learned the word. I’d never run into carrion in my other books – in the works of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. There were lots of words and phrases I picked up only by reading Fighting Fantasy books, because The Famous Five never found treasure in a charnel house, and they never impaled zombies with chaos daggers. For years my mates and I thought ‘chaos’ was pronounced ‘cha-OOSE’ because we’d never run into the word beyond the world of the Fighting Fantasy books.

Anyway.

In this carrion pit I saw a figure huddled to the floor, stripping the flesh from one of the corpses. It noticed me and stood and, in that inimitable Fighting Fantasy way, it was given a name. That name was everything I knew about it, everything I had to go on. It was a GHOUL.

Because the Fighting Fantasy books catered to an audience raised on Dungeons & Dragons, I was expected to already know what a GHOUL was. Being seven, I didn’t – I’d previously thought ‘ghoul’ was just another word for ‘ghost’, but that night, shivering beneath my duvet in the stark glow of a bedside lamp I learned exactly what a GHOUL was, and what it could do to a scared little boy up way past his bedtime.

I don’t think there was a way to fight it directly, because if there had been I would have declared the ghoul dead and marched onto the next page reference. Maybe I needed the innocuous looking rusted rod I’d neglected to pick up on page 153. As it was, I had nothing, and so the ghoul grabbed me, sank its long, needle-like fingernails into my flesh, injected me with a paralytic poison, and that was it. Game over.

Only the writing didn’t end there. Oh, it made it clear there was no way I was getting out of this situation, but instead of saying “Go to page 1” it prolonged the nightmare.

The ghoul ate me. I was still paralysed, I was still awake and the ghoul ate me. It didn’t hurt, the book explained, because I’d lost all feeling in my body, but I could see quite well enough and I watched as it stripped the flesh from my bones the same way it had to the gnawed skeletons lying around me. The book made it quite clear that I wouldn’t be able to scream – neither my vocal cords, my tongue, nor my jaw would work. Instead I was forced to lay there, silenced, while the ghoul dissected and devoured me.

That’s when I learned what true horror was. Unable to look away, unable to cry; it was like I was a bluebottle and my bedtime story had come from The Mammoth Book of Spiders.

When daybreak came and brought another school day with it, my friends and I clustered in the playground and shared our adventures. At lunchtime we went to the dining hall and talked about this or that Fighting Fantasy book over sandwiches and squash. We loved the gore of it. We loved the horror. We loved it enough to write our own twisted fantasy adventures, where eyeballs were often gouged out and people routinely fell into lakes filled with skin-boiling acid. Every wood and cave in our stories hid myriad monsters, and all harboured the same intent: To make the hero’s death as painful and as prolonged as possible.

We wrote them in our spare time, but also during school hours, in creative writing classes. At the end of class we submitted them to our teacher and he took them home to read and mark. And where today we might have ended up seeing a school counsellor with concern for our mental well-being it was as if the more deaths we included, the better the marks we’d receive.

We struggled to out-do each other. Man-traps and carnivorous plants; piranhas and shape-shifters; walking cadavers and cannibal tribes – and beating at the heart of them, our multi-volumed bible. The books of the Fighting Fantasy series had distorted our childish imaginations into frightening places.

An entire generation of gamers were raised on Fighting Fantasy books. Years later some of us fondly remember the gruesome illustrations as being our favourite aspect of them. Others remember the gaming elements; how we’d roll dice and press our luck, and revel in victory when a good roll downed a beastly opponent. Some remember the intricate puzzles that were added to the later stories, that replaced the standard ‘if you do this than turn to page 98’ system with codes and riddles to foil page-holding cheats like myself.

Me, I remember the words. The bottom of a carrion pit is, perhaps, the least likely place to fall in love with the English language, but it was there I drew out my abridged Collins dictionary and learned that carrion was another word for dead and decaying flesh. It was there also that I fell in love with horror, when I realise that, with the sharp-toothed ghoul lumbering toward me, I too would soon be carrion.

The warlock still sits atop his throne of skulls, threatening the land and tempting hapless adventurers to enter his domain in search of honour, glory and adventure. And though I’m older now and cynical, and my vocabulary has grown a littler bluer in the interim, I can’t help but regard that title with the same simple wonder as a child up past his bedtime.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Now there’s a name.

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If you’ve never read one, I’d suggest you try and get your hands on a Fighting Fantasy book. None of the insipid alternative that is the Choose Your Own Adventure series – go for the jugular, start with Warlock (which was reissued recently) and go from there. And make sure you’ve got a d6 and a pencil with an eraser…

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