Wednesday 27 July 2011

[IF] For A Change / Twisty Little Passages

Reading Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, a book on interactive fiction, or Text Adventure games as they were known back in the 80's. Alongside classics such as Zork and A Mind Forever Voyaging, Montford throws in some reasonably obscure titles. Perhaps not obscure to the IF community, but obscure to me.

Playing through For A Change, (Winner in multiple Xyzzy Awards categories) by Dan Scmidt, one example text that the author brings up, I was struck by some similarity to the work of illustrator Dave McKean.

Tree | Dave Mckean | Via 7 impossible things
"The toolman is inscribed upon the grass". FaC uses odd language, it sets up animate objects as inanimate, the toolman is a person, a quiet friendly one at that. There is an item called a songlantern, which lights up using words, and is a major clue to the classic "light lamp" of dungeon exploration IF. It's that sense of play that gives FaC it's peculiar literary quality, it riffs in a surreal way on tropes that should be familiar to anyone with a passing remembrance of the genre, and creates a symbolism which is graspable.

Dave McKean | Charm | The Particle Tarot: Major Arcana
Whilst not actually breaking the formal codes of interaction (north is still north, east is still east, you still 'get items') - it's world is mediated in a way that makes simple things like daylight, fish, truth and lies look new. It's a kind of surrealism, where ideas have become tangible,  it's something like a half-dream in the morning, the works own internal logic isn't tightly closed, not everything fits neatly, but there are clues to how things work as well as open ended mysteries (just what is the Spinster anyway?).

Dave McKean  | The Particle Tarot: Minor Arcana
For A Change evokes a Macro/microcosm, there's a surreal puzzle involving a model of the world, and an awesome endgame that echoes biblical flood, making the whole thing seem like a mythic, dreamlike and Jungian text-automata.

You can download For A Change from Dan Schmidt's site , but you'll need something called a  "zcode interpreter" to play it. I used , but there is a long long list at inform-fiction for all sorts of computers. but I used Zoom for Mac.

I'm up to Chapter 4 in Twisty Little Passages, it's reasonably easy going academic text. After eloquently setting up the initial groundwork of the medium - defining the parser, the world, the interactor Montford goes on to draw parallels to the Riddle as a 'text-to-be-solved' - a framework that could, perhaps, be usefully applied to gamebooks and RPG texts. However the literary-riddle and I expect the high points of IF literature are those that help us look at the world afresh - which reminds me of the Neil Gaiman / DaveMcKean Hellraiser story Wordsworth , where the solution to a crossword puzzle that asks intimate questions opens the gateway to Hell.

Dave Mckean Wordsworth

Speaking of RPGS - Montford also rather succinctly shows that whilst  D&D was an influence on early IF writers, it is generally overstated by commentators (Colossal Cave was already done by the time D&D was published) - the only real visible influence being the puzzle solving and rather than action resolution, combat and experience mechanics that RPGs excel at.

There are exits, North, East and Up.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Animal Armour

Persian Cat Armour by Jeff de Boer | via Grace Elliot
Owl Armour | Legend of the Guardians

Normal Familiars in AD&D (and no, that doesn't include the Panzerbjorne, unless you're Polish) have 1-4 hit points, and an Armour Class of 7. Should an animal familiar be killed their magic user loses twice the familiars HP - a dramatic, potentially death dealing loss to a low-to-mid level magic-user. In a world where Familiars are an every-day part of magic using cultures, and magic users are often found in perilous situations, animal armour just makes sense.

So, for example, a familiar wearing plate mail gets AC2.

Thursday 14 July 2011

the illustrated wilderness

Another quick post - this time looking at the wilderness (which for various cultural reasons always means "forest" to me) illustrations my Pauline Baynes, Arthur Rackham and Ian Miller.

Pauline Baynes | Bilbo's Last Song (poster)

Pauline Baynes | Bilbos Last Poem (book)

Pauline Baynes, is one of my favourite illustrators. Best known for several of Tolkiens books, notably Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major and of course C.S. Lewis Narnia sequence. However, my favourite work of hers is The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes. where she goes full spectrum from graphic pseudo medieval to delicate folksy. But here we see her trees... The Last Song (poster) is an amazing piece of work, evoking the 'long straight road' between earth and faery - the journey to Neverland, a landscape and something far more allegorical. Each leaf it's own unique colour, and each tree alive with small woodland creatures. Baynes evokes an orderly, idealised nature, dancing on the edge of formalisation, but full of life and mystery.

Rip Van Winkle | Arthur Rackham | via The Untended Garden
It's impossible to think of trees without thinking of Arthur Rackham, superb sense of antiquity in his drawings, the sepia mottled and textures coalescing into finely drawn stones, branches sinue-y dry cracked stretching and growing trunks, imp-haunted with their weird grinning faces.

Ian Miller | THD via Scott MCD
Ian Miller is somewhat like Arthur Rackham, with knives in his blood. The raging madness and cruelty of nature seem to twist and break into many tentacled faces, clawed branches. I've always loved Ian Millers work, probably being first exposed to it by Games Workshop (White Dwarf covers and the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series Phantoms of Fear). Millers landscapes seems to evoke the medieval fear of the wood-land, the threat of wild animals, bandits and the terror of the wilderness, a sense of horror and disgust at the disorderly chaos (compared to the rational, orderly civilisation and enlightenment ideal) the landscape as Chaotic Evil.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

the illustrated dungeon

A quick look at 2 great illustrators of dungeon environments, Ian Mcraig and Steve Levine.

Iain Mcraig Deathrtap Dungeon | Skeleton | via Turn to 400
Iain Mcraig Deathrtap Dungeon | Entrance | via Turn to 400
One of the things I love about Ian Mcraigs illustrations for Ian Livingstones Deathtrap Dungeon is how used everything is. It's all old, slightly knackered looking, probably repaired, perhaps with a bit of moss or mould growing on it. The other thing is that there's a wealth of incidental detail - like the manticore on the skeletons chair, and the gawp-mouthed demon idol standing by the entrance. They look like clues for something, a secret guide to surviving the Walk - ah the manticore is on the left - so don't turn left here! There is also a sense that the rooms have been used for something else before, with strange little windows, odd cavities and grilles, weird faces carved into the walls bearing ominous expressions, beckoning you to reach into their gaping mouths to find a gem, or more likely a deadly flesh eating grub!

Ian Mcraig has gone on to be a conceptual designer for the movie business, designing the iconic Darth Maul for Star Wars, amongst many other things.

Stephen Lavis | Sir Dunstan| The Tasks of Tantalon

Stephen Lavis illustrations for Steve Jacksons Tasks of Tantalon are uniformly superb, mixing Froudian goblins, Arthurian grandeur and fairy-tale whimsy, and skulls with eyeballs and rats on. Unlike Mcraigs Deathtrap Dungeon illustrations, these really do contain the clues to solving the game. The lever-pulley puzzle above particually satisfying to my 10 year old mind tracing the rope around. working out the turns and spins and counter-weights, then dropping the poor knight into the fondue anyway, but at least knowing know it was the other number that was needed.

Stephen Lavis created covers for the Narnia series of books in the 80's and is a childrens book illustrator.

Monday 4 July 2011

The Dark Usurper vs McGuigan Bin No. 156 Chardonnay 2009

The Dark Usurper by Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill faces off against a bottle of McGuigan Bin No. 156 Chardonnay 2009.

Part I and YOU are Corwin  and thrown into a dungeon and forced to drink cheap wine. The parallels are astounding. It's like the whole rancid healing potion and Alcoholic Root Beer from the Castle of Lost Souls (review here, being serialised my Mr. Morris here) thing all over again, I generally select the booze and the book independantly of each other, so the references to wine in the text are pure coincidence. Someone, somewhere, needs to do some statistical analysis on the frequency of booze in gamebooks... 

But yes, I'm, Corwin Cailbraith, Duke of Skeln gone off on a crusade to retrieve some holy Chalice and returned home to find Orcs and Goblins have taken over, led by Barnak the titular "Dark Usurper".  Barnak and his "men" have none of it and throw me in prison on a diet of slightly off wine and some stale cheese and onion crisp sandwiches.

Having had enough of their cheap booze and pitiful excuse for cuisine, I plan to make my escape. After jumping out of a window with barely enough bedsheet to get me to the next floor, dodging some Orcs playing cards, poker I think.  I escape to search for my sword, horse, some allies, and a half-decent bottle of grog.

Heading for the armoury, a strange man offers me a sword. We crack open the Bin  No. 156  to celebrate. The initial hit is quite "dryady" - rather tart with hints of oak. Meanwhile having secured my ancestral blade, it's time to get busy and rescue my trusty horse. Horse not only trust but also bashes in head of noisy dog with hooves. Nice one Mr. Ed.

We escape the castle and camp down for the night. Queue another few sips of wine to celebrate. The wine is quite refreshing, my pallet is more beery, so I'm probably missing something here, tastes like wine the tart-ness is a bit vinegary. It's the colour of really watered down lager (James May)  and /  or perhaps elderflower cordial (Oz Clarke*)

What's in your Backpack?
Two six sided dice and a bottle
of cheap plonk and three
  Corrach Gwyn

For some reason while taking that photo
I was reminded of George Braques
or maybe it was the white wine
reminding me of GCSE
art lessons

Part II. It's time to fulfil my destiny, My horse runs of or gets eaten by goblins or something, then running around the woods a bit I find a wizard who lones me two Pumas, a shield with a skull on it (always a good sign) and some other equipment that I don't get to use, but makes Corwin look cool. The wizard takes a jewel from the sword for some mysterious motive, but he's on our side, so it's cool. Then it's off to the city...

Part III. This episode works really well, it's a kind of mass battle where each turn you decide on the strategy with each paragraph - mostly - forward and attack or retreat to te town. Taking a sip, I decide to throw caution to the wind and just kept ploughing forward, rolling dice to discover casualties (goblins die quicker than men, so even if there are a lot of them, I think the odds are on my side). So charging into the enemy lines and wiping them out as they deserted seemed to work.  There was a nice ebb and flow, rhythmical quality to the battle sequence.

However, on approach to the castle, stealth and a stiff drink were called for.  Taking one final glug of Bin  No. 156 I decided it would have been much wiser have added it to some white fish, cream and parsley than drink it from a glass. Once through the main gate, the drink kicks in and I get all over-bold, announcing my return and the overthrow of the wicked Barnak, which surprisingly works - the people are rallied, and it's only a short hop skip and jump into the Castle, beat Barnack (magic powered jewel-sword reunited), then tell all his troops they're leaderless, which sends them running into the hills. Unfortunately it's not a completely happy ending, as an old family friend bought the dust in the conflict, but with his Dukedom restored, Corwin sits down with a fresh bottle to plan his next move...

Special magic Gamebook dice.
On the left, a Destiny Quest limited edition dice...
and on the right a Fighting Fantasy Questpack Dice

Overall, The Dark Usurper is pretty neat. I'm not convinced about FF where YOU play a specific persona, rather than a random adventurer, I do find it a little dis-engaging. The supporting characters and the world are suitably barmy, with the vaguely celtic names, back-story reference to King John and Robin Hood myth (the dispossesed landowner returing to find his estate taken over, etc.) mixed up with a pair of pumas and some glowing crystal-enhanced sword - seems like a classic mid-range FF, although it doesn't quite fit into the world of Titan. Notably they didn't reprint the game system,  so you'll need a FF book to play it properly.

Of the wine, I can only utter this: fish sauce.

Booze: 0
Gamebook: 1

Bonus feature: White Dwarf 61 also includes a scenario for D&D and Fighting Fantasy RPG by  Ian "Dragonlords" Marsh entitled Beyond the Shadow of a Dream. And even more of a bonus, it's set in a tavern! With maps! There's a couple of sticking points - getting the PCs to stay in the same tavern for 5 nights before the adventure kicks off either means rail-roading or preparing something else for them to do in the city (the adventure could work well in Blacksand - it's focus is on the thieves guild). Spoiler alert, it'd be a nice hook to get a Twilight Mom into an FF game.

 L@@K WOW! OOP RARE! I'm currently listing  3 issues (61,62,63) of White Dwarf that contain the Dark Usurper on eBay.  along with some other magz and bitz and whatnot.

*Oz Clarke, that is, the wine expert who did the singing in Brian Sibleys 1981 BBC adaptation of the Lord of the Rings as a lad. No, Really! I have it on vinyl, it's awesome.