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We need a ruling on rules

Garry contacted me out of the blue, requesting copies of the ‘Game Master’ notes that I could give him. (Yes: he’s thinking about running some games!) This is almost reason enough to sell up and move south, quite frankly…

But.

We’re looking at game mechanics that were designed a quarter of a century ago. We’ve changed, and we think we can do things better, now. The rest of the world has changed, too. FaceTube; Tweets; immediate gratification in all things. Are people really going to plough through a hefty rulebook, in order to join a game? Are those special people that we call Game Masters still willing to go to all that trouble?

We’re not sure.

Garry has in mind some changes. In fact, his deliberations cover a whole spectrum, from “leave it unchanged” to a card-based approach. Options include a system with no miniatures and no maps… and some approaches that fundamentally change the role of the Game Master, or even eliminate it. We’ve discussed solo gamebooks, web-based services, ready-made ‘encounters’… all kinds of things.

And we’re no closer to a decision.

So I thought, let’s see what some other people think – and here’s my little opinion poll.

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If you go down to the woods tonight…

If you like reading old blog entries, you might recall that I described our sales trip to Exeter to promote Faerie Wood, when I ran into an old git who claimed that our faerie-themed roleplaying game was immoral because it involved magic, and would lure people into devil worship.

Just keep that in mind while I tell you about another game project that Garry and I worked upon.

The Call of Cthulhu.
In the woods.
At night.
Gulp.

This wasn’t a live roleplay: nobody would be required to wield foam weapons or throw tennis balls as “spells”. None of that frantic activity… we were simply going to use the existing landscape of Petts Wood at a scale of 1:1. Dice would be “rolled” courtesy of a box with a clear plastic lid, to be shaken up and then inspected. Garry would be the Game Master/narrator, and I would keep track of the stats on the various character sheets. Garry had also procured a sound effects tape and portable speakers, to add atmosphere.

There were to be no counters or figures; each player would represent their location simply by being there, while the two of us would stand in for whatever NPCs might be encountered.

The players would be given one paraffin lantern and one torch between them, and they would find ‘clues’ or suffer mishaps as the adventure led them along the forest paths. They would be asked to wear drab clothing, preferably resembling the inter-war period, but above all: wellington boots!

I knew the woods well, and took Garry to see various locations that I thought were exciting, proposing some ideas and listening to others. We planned a series of encounters, and clues… Garry said he had a book on demonology that looked suitably horrific, and would make a good piece of ‘evidence’ to plant in a half-ruined shed. If I remember rightly, we were thinking in terms of a cult that had kidnapped the sister of one of the players, and were intending to sacrifice her as part of a summoning ritual.

Scary stuff.

Mark wanted no part of it. If you’ve ever seen ‘Mr. T’ refusing to board an aeroplane, that’s pretty much the level of approval we got from him.

No way, sucka.

And of course, Mark was right. It’s one thing to explore the woods by day, and imagine what they’ll be like by night… quite another to actually experience them.

The grand finale that I had in mind for our Cthulhu game involved the players discovering that the cultists have taken their drugged victim into a partially flooded tunnel, and set up a mass of candles and so on, preparatory to killing her. Surprisingly, the otherwise wholesome Petts Wood provides the perfect venue for such a thing, in the form of a broad, shallow stream that runs through a brick-built culvert, right underneath a major railway line.

Hence the requirement that all players who took part in the game brought wellies: not merely to cope with any mud, but so that they could participate in the final chase, right into the belly of the Beast.

Call a “time freeze” where players must stay still and close their eyes, while we go on ahead to set up the scene, perhaps lighting the candles and playing the spooky soundtrack, then tell the players that the person they’ve gone to rescue has almost bled out and a demon is taking shape inside the tunnel. Take up positions as crazed cultists determined not to allow their ceremony to be interrupted… and hope for an express train to thunder by overhead at the right moment to shake everything up. Enjoy the bowel-loosening terror of the moment together: not so much “hatchling dragon” as Hatching Dagon.

Right?

Well, we never did it. As games go, this was to be one of our unfinished symphonies. A general reluctance among players was one reason; another was our own experience in those woods. We stayed too long at the tunnel, and it was completely dark by the time we began to retrace our steps. The tiny flashlight I had brought along did very little to light our way. It showed trees and roots and the like, but did nothing to give any sense of direction. I had reasoned that an electric torch from the 1920s shouldn’t be all that great, and I didn’t want the players equipped with a powerful searchlight. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but we could have wandered in circles until the moon came up, if it hadn’t been for an obliging owl that kept hooting, providing a point of reference.

Eventually we found our way back to civilisation, and I’m not sure that either of us entirely regret that we didn’t try it again, with the scary soundtrack. Thus, the good folk of Chiselhurst were saved from the demon, who cancelled his “one night only” appearance, and we turned our attention to more wholesome forms of role-playing. Within a year or two, Faerie Wood was born.

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Good out of bad

Unless you have been hiding behind a particularly substantial sofa, you’ll know that the BBC recently put out ‘The Day of the Doctor’, 799th episode of the franchise and a celebration of fifty years of those naughty Daleks and whatnot… complete with a reunion of former Doctors.

Strangely enough, we of the Faerie Wood community just experienced a similar convergence. The complex and far-flung orbits of our grown-up lives achieved a brief perihelion, and just like Doctor Who, it was kind of awesome. I believe it may have been almost twenty years since we were all gathered in one place. (Mostly my fault; the others gather more often.)

The occasion that caused us to reassemble was a sad one, as we were there to mark the passing of Garry’s dad: the bloke I remember principally as gatekeeper and tea-provider. He’d welcome us inside when we went round, and no matter what strange games we were developing or playtesting, he always took an interest, and always encouraged. Some parents would probably have been unimpressed with guys in their early 20’s constructing and painting scenery for games involving faeries… Roy was different, and without his patience and encouragement during those lean times while Garry worked to build up his art portfolio, I can’t be certain that we’d have Faerie Wood in completed form today.

Seeing Alistair and Mark for what might have been the first time this century could have been awkward, but it wasn’t. Not in the least: if we overlook a little bit of hair loss and some greyness, it was as if we’d been apart for just a week or two. I think that shows just how compatible we must be.

This wasn’t just a gathering of four role-playing enthusiasts; I found myself with the only three people on the planet who had been Game Master for Faerie Wood games I’d played in. (Sue wrote a game – I found the notes for it a few months back – but I don’t believe she ever ran it. Other people have run games of course… but not games that I witnessed. So gathered at that wake, yesterday, was the nucleus of the game that once defined me, far more than my job, or my studies.

Nowadays Alistair runs a chain of used Zeppelin dealerships throughout south London, and you probably already know that Mark was instrumental in setting up the Pus Marketing Council. It was good to see that the gang was still on form; Alistair making puns so bad that they should come with hazmat labels, and Mark positing the sandwich monkey – a creature who should always blink into existence at your elbow, with exactly the sandwich you fancy. (We considered whether one would be able to request a Lost Car Keys Sandwich, and have yet to decide if this is not so much a sandwich as an underhanded form of more general wishing, more properly handled by a genie than a sandwich monkey. Demarkation is everything in the supernatural world.)

Garry’s eulogy for his dad was perfect (you can tell why he’s got his own radio show…) and expressed some wonderful memories. I don’t know if laughter is the best medicine, but what could have been a terribly unhappy time turned out to be a bittersweet day that I will remember fondly. It was the day when I learned just how cool Garry’s dad (the drummer, and Star Trek fan) really was… and when I learned that real friendships don’t need the constant information drizzle of Facebook, and don’t need to be wound up regularly like a clock in the hallway: they just are.

Even so, I’m not going to leave it so long, next time.

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The Garden Snatchers

 

Born the son of a wholesale grocer in 1851, Lord Leverhulme made a fortune from the manufacture of soap. At the end of the 19th century he bought an estate not far from his native Bolton, where he could indulge a passion for landscape design and architecture. One result was the Rivington Terraced Gardens, a place that Garry, Sue and I visited in 1991. We were at a loose end; Garry had come up to go to a rock concert that was cancelled, and we ended up exploring the countryside instead.

Like thousands of visitors every year, we were delighted by the leafy pathways, stone steps, bridges, follies and secluded gardens. It clearly made quite an impression on Garry, who promptly set a Faerie Wood adventure in a similar landscape. A couple of months later we all went back to Rivington, also accompanied by Mark and equipped to play the game in situ. We found a quiet spot, and picnicked and played among the trees, just as faeries are wont to do.

The spot where we played

We loved The Rivington Adventure. I don’t think it had a name, at the time, although it later acquired the best title of any in the Faerie Wood series. In fact, did any game ever get a better name than ‘The Garden Snatchers’?

The Garden Snatchers, cover

I have to be careful in case I publish spoilers for somebody who has yet to enjoy the game as a player, and this means it isn’t easy to explain why I loved this adventure. Just be assured: it’s classic Faerie Wood.

In that first ever run-through of the game, I played Benjamin Smith, young gnomish inventor and adventurer. Sue was Amber the nymph, and Mark played that bloody leprechaun again. We hitched a ride on a flying teapot, in hot pursuit of our stolen shrubbery… and did battle with the hag who was behind the whole caper. (That’s not giving anything away; she appears on the cover.)

Of all that transpired, my clearest recollection is of the witch calling Amber a slut.

My chance at glory was spoiled when I was thrown out of an upstairs window and ended up with a broken arm, but eventually we prevailed, and faeries’ gardens throughout the Wood were safe once more.

The Garden Snatchers was a prime choice when we decided to include a free supplement with the rulebook, allowing the buyer to run a game straight away. Like the “Players’ Book”, which is what we always called ‘Faerie Wood: the Role-playing Game’, for short, The Garden Snatchers was typeset in Quark Xpress. It was later converted to the much humbler ClarisWorks, for reproduction in an A5 format that would match our supplementary booklets such as ‘Goblins!’ and ‘Bowls / The Starwood Tree’, but the A5 version was never completed: mostly because there weren’t enough illustrations, compared to our other game supplements. The adventure itself, though, is top-notch.

 

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Introducing Faerie Wood

Among a number of games that we played (and often created) back in the 1990s, one in particular stands out, and that’s Garry Robson’s creation, Faerie Wood. It’s not the only thing he wrote; there was also the godly ‘The Big I Am’ and the unnamed modern-day game that blended Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality universe with the symbolic magic system from Dungeon Master… but Faerie Wood was a home grown marvel. A skunkworks project. A journey back to simpler times when real roleplaying involved being unsure of yourself and picking your way with care, not referring to a heap of monster manuals and always knowing the best way to dispatch everything from from Aardvark to Zuglon.

I think it was a damn fine game. As you will discover, in this blog, getting it out of Garry’s head and into the real world was a difficult, but very rewarding process. It’s a story that a few people have asked about, so here it is. (Or at least, here it will be… beginning with the next installment.)

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