A promise of faerie gold… at the end of the rainbow

A while back, in this article I described how a late issue of ‘Ug!’ magazine included an article by Garry, in which he described a new kind of roleplaying game that he was experimenting with.

He called it Fairy Wood. (And yes; in those days, he had yet to adopt the olde worlde spelling, it seems.)

Well (channelling Professor Hubert Farnsworth…) “Good news everyone!” I had a quick root through the pile of old gamer ’zines that are gathering dust at home, and I struck faerie gold. I propose to reproduce that article here, little piece of faerie history that it is. Although it’s a short piece, it speaks volumes about Garry’s thought process at the time, in terms of his move away from the epic tales of derring-do (and herring poo) that TSR were still churning out, to a simpler and more intimate style of play.

I think you’ll like it.


I’m shipping out to Malawi tomorrow, complete with mosquito net, bug repellent and tablets to ward off malaria. The faerie folk will probably have to wait a couple of weeks until I return, therefore… although I’ve promised myself that I’ll make time to have a look at some game materials on the flight home.

Please watch this space – but not too creepily closely – and we’ll be back with more faerie silliness before you know it.



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Tricky Questions from Faerie Wood

Number one in, perhaps, a very long series…

Treelings as Herbalists

All treelings are herbalists to some degree, but how does a treeling go about harvesting herbs, given that she:

(a) is a form of plant herself,
(b) has an innate ability to talk to plants, and can therefore presumably hear their little screams as she plucks ’em from the soil, and
(c)  is supposedly of a neural alignment, not inclined towards killing sprees centred upon her vegetable brethren?

That question puzzled me quite a lot, back when I was playing Twiggle the treeling. For a start, there’s the percentile skill roll that’s made to see if she’s on the ball at that particular moment; able to spot any herbs that may be in the area. My fellow players always used to laugh at me, disappearing off to search the vicinity for herbs each time we made camp. Or “taking a trip to the herb garden,” as Mark called it.

You can imagine Twiggle calling out to the plants around her:

“’Scuse me! Are any of you lot precious ’erbs, by any chance?”

(Like virtually all of my female characters, Twiggle had a matronly manner and a Cornish accent. Lawks.)

Of course, all the plants reply that they are ordinary plants, since they don’t want to get ‘harvested’.

“Are you sure, moi dears? What about you? Yes you, with the berries…”

Fortunately, Murphy’s law prevailed and when the Game Master made his dice roll I never seemed to find any of the more exotic spell herbs; just a lot of mild digestive poisons. I decided that since poison is a nasty thing, the plants in question must also be nasty, and unpopular. Taking plants such as these out of the ground could be considered akin to weeding, perhaps. But that still leaves you in the unusual position of being a basically kindly faerie… with a satchel full of poison.

In fact, it leaves you in the unusual position of being a tree that wears a satchel. Folk kept coming up to me to see why somebody might have left a bag in a tree, and if there was anything good inside it…


The more useful herbs, though… they give rise to the question of eco-faeries. Happening upon a spell herb, should the player take every bit of it, in order to make as many potions as possible? Should they take just what they need and leave the rest growing, for other faeries to find later? Might they attempt to take a viable specimen with them, for replanting in their own garden? Or does this tactic circumvent the herbalism skill, since the player would ultimately not need to roll against their skill, but simply go and potter by the potting shed?

With the exception of the ‘satchel in a tree’ problem – which has no answer unless perhaps you allow treelings to grow pockets – here’s a proposed solution to these herb-related questions:

What the herbalist takes isn’t the whole plant. Each of the notable herbs has a magical part, and that’s the only bit that is of use. Pulling up the whole plant doesn’t get you any additional magic ingredients: it just wastes the plant. The material that the herbalist is after is some loose bark, some berries, some newly-grown shoots, some pollen, some buds… or whatever. (Although some key ingredients will invariably be roots, and those are pretty much essential to the continued existence of a plant.)


Next, on the social side, plants don’t feel pain the way we do. Perhaps they don’t mind giving up a bit of fruit (it’s how their seeds are dispersed, after all) and getting a bit of a tidy-up at the hands of a skilled herbalist could be quite pleasant – and every bit as necessary as trimming your toenails.

The notion that the herbalist might be after buds, or old bark, or pollen… that’s awkward, though, since it introduces a time dimension. Buds appear in spring. Pollen is available in summer; seed pods and fallen leaves in the autumn. Do we need four herb tables; one for each season? Perhaps. I’m quite intrigued by this idea… but I don’t like introducing additional complexity, in general. (Nor will Garry necessarily let me.) We have also to address the question of Crimson Wood, where plants are supposed to be more inherently magical. Does this involve some kind of bonus, or multiplier to the die roll?

Let’s ask Garry.


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Almost done

As you may have noticed, these recollections come in no particular order. Garry recently said he doesn’t think it matters, and I’d hate to have to leave something out because it couldn’t be squeezed into a temporal straightjacket… so let’s not worry about it.

Today’s episode comes from early ’93, with the book awaiting the last few bits and pieces.

‘The Book’ (in those days there was only one) was almost complete, but it’s surprising just how long it takes to attend to all the last, fiddly little bits. Garry came to stay, and we thrashed out the last few details. There were no page numbers, for example. The table of herbs that might be found growing in the Wood still existed only as a handwritten list; we hadn’t finalised the character sheet; the diagram showing how spells had to be learned in a ‘pyramid’ didn’t exist… all small jobs, but any one of them could have delayed things.

I still have a folder right here on this computer, having been transferred through some five intermediate machines, called “FWPB extras”. The main “Faerie Wood” folder contains all kinds of goodies that we might delve into in subsequent articles… but the content of the Player’s Book extras folder hasn’t been touched since the eve of ‘The Book’ going to the printers: Sunday, February 28th 1993. One of the files there is called “price tag”, so it would appear that this was the night when we took that decision, too… somewhat after midnight. The document with the price tag would then have been printed out, cut out and glued into place on the back cover image.

We worked hard on Faerie Wood.

One of the last things to do was to write some blurb for the space on back cover, and that wasn’t easy. “Faerie Wood is a magical kingdom where…” Er, no. It’s not a kingdom. There’s no king. How do you write a few paragraphs to sum up a project that you’ve devoted months of your life to, in words that somebody else could understand, and in such a way as to persuade them to part with their cash?

Well, turn to the back cover of your Faerie Wood book, and see what you think of my efforts.

For all these small jobs, my Mac was used. Bought in the autumn of 1992, an Apple Macintosh Classic II was not a bad little machine, for its time… unless for some reason you find a 9” screen with a resolution of just 512 x 342 black and white pixels inconvenient.

If the screen was pokey, at least the computer was small enough that you could put it in a bag and lug it around, if you were feeling strong. It was on this machine that the later supplements to Faerie Wood would be edited, and where the original files still reside: the plastic of the machine has now gone the colour of earwax, but it works just fine – despite being in a car crash in 1995.

Something like £1200 (which is to say, most of what I earned by working through the summer) had got me my entry-level Mac and ‘Stylewriter’ inkjet printer. Hardly the setup I had been using at my employer’s, but close enough to allow me to continue to work on Faerie Wood. One of the hardest things was getting my own copy of Quark Xpress. They didn’t do student discounts and the full list price was way out of my league, but salvation came via a computer auction, in the end.

Macintosh Classic II

One last read-through, one last check that everything was glued firmly in place – memories of too many Steve Jackson Games rulebooks that referred repeatedly to “page XX” where (they said) their glued-on references had fallen off before printing – and we were ready to go.

With all our photocopied productions (such as ‘Ug!’ magazine, and the various supplements we produced later) a key problem was the edge shadows that you get when you produce composite images by physically layering multiple different pieces together. Here, though, our printer assured us that when he mastered the printing plates, he could mask out any such unwanted lines, and he did a good job. That was nice, because it saved us an additional photocopying-and-masking stage that could have made our artwork a little bit blobby.

We were done. There was nothing to do except wait… and maybe reach for the dice…


Filed under Retrospective


Some of my earliest completely scratchbuilt figures were made in early 1994, using a technique of forming a wire ‘skeleton’ that’s anchored into a wooden base and stiffened by selective soldering, then clad with strategically placed blobs of the two-part epoxy putty, Milliput. Later, I learned that most figure sculptors use a different material called “green stuff”, which is far superior because it’s strong enough to survive the mould-making process, and because small pieces of it will stick together more reliably when it is made tacky by holding it near a heat source such as an electric lamp. (Want to have a go? The mysterious “green stuff” started out as a material found in plumbing supply shops in the USA, and was always in short supply over here. Help is now at hand as it’s available from Games Workshop… albeit with a price mark-up of about 500%.)

One of the non-player characters in Garry’s first Faerie Wood campaign was The Book of Wondrous and Amazing Magic, also known as ‘BB’. He was a book of spells, on legs… a friendly sort of fellow who only wanted to help, but who had next to no control over which spell he cast. This was my first attempt at a scratchbuilt figure.

The book

I was reasonably pleased with the result, so I decided to do a few more oddities on legs. My next efforts were a cheese, and a sack. (Of the two, the sack is more likely to be useful on a regular basis, since the 3rd level spell ‘Carry’ summons such a thing into being.)

Sack ans stairs

Cheese on legs

These are some of the beasties to which Lucya Szachnowski was referring in her review.

I also made a treeling, because ent figures tend to be far too large for use in Faerie Wood (unless perhaps you can find something from a 15mm wargame), and then I embarked upon the creation of a grig.

Treeling 2


The grig’s scale is a bit too large, the sword is a mere bit of wire and the face is awful. Since that time I’ve learned one of the sculptor’s tricks of the trade: mix up some Green Stuff, and press the face of a suitable commercial figure into it. Once hardened, this can be used as a die, used to stamp a pretty decent “starter face” onto a blob of material, which is then modified by nudging it gently to and fro, to give it an expression or racial characteristics. If that all sounds like too much work, consider making just the body, and grafting on the head from an existing fantasy figure. With the move to plastic figures it’s got very easy to customise things. Garry and I used to have to drill, saw and file lead figures, and the resulting dust probably explains a lot about the hallucinatory nature of some of our games of the period.

Much of the sculpting stuff I learned later, and I could probably do a better job nowadays, but as with all things Faerie Wood, the most important thing is to get on with it and have some fun.

Speaking of which… this.

Space dolphin

Not Faerie Wood, but a figure from my mid 1990’s sci-fi game, Terminus. Because there should be more cybernetically enhanced equal opportunities dolphinoids as player characters, quite frankly.


Filed under Retrospective

Faerie Wood: Reviewed

Alan over at Lost in Time was kind enough to review Faerie Wood, earlier this year (and in fact kicked off this whole “the making of…” shemozzle in the process) but he wasn’t the first to review the game. For that, we need to set our time machine for 1993, and a participation game of ‘Magic on Legs’. One of the players that day was Lucya Szachnowski, who told us that she wrote for The Round Table Magazine, and wanted to do a review. (I note, courtesy of Google, that she later worked for the independent gamers’ magazine Flagship.)

Without further ado, because there will be plenty of time for some more ado later, here’s her review as it appeared in The Round Table. Click to enlarge:

Of course, we were delighted with this write-up, and it did us a lot of good, although if we examine it with hindsight we can see that Lucya had spotted our Achilles’ heel: that the book we had produced wasn’t a complete work in its own right, needing the Game Master’s Book if we were to help people to create their own adventures instead of playing through the supplements that we wrote. Sad but true: there is no Faerie Fiend Folio. (Fee fie foe fum…)

I know that anybody with an imagination could come up with their own faerie beasties and challenges, and quite a few people did so, back in the day. Garry and I have played in Faerie Wood games run by other people, and they were good games… but I’ll always feel guilty about the fact that ‘Faerie Wood: the Game Master’s Book’ never reached print. More on that later, perhaps.

It’s also interesting to note that even in 1993 and without prompting on our part, this review is already describing Faerie Wood as being somewhat retro. It hails from the time when enthusiastic amateurs wrote rules on their home computers and games didn’t cost more than a tenner… bingo: that was us. Most of all, we were enthusiastic about the game, and getting it out there into the world.

In all the review there’s just one thing that I might gripe about: those “tiny, detailed figures he had made especially for the scenario”… were made by me. Ah well: Garry has never been anything but generous in sharing the credit for Faerie Wood, so perhaps it’s only fair that I should share in return.

Pictures of those miniatures to follow in a subsequent article, perhaps, if I can find my macro lens.


Filed under Retrospective

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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Road Trip!

The very first copies of Faerie Wood were sold at Baycon ’93, a board gaming convention held near Exeter. We were there by invitation, the convention’s organiser having read a review of our game.

The first books we got from the printer were the ‘pale green’ batch, with the wrong covers. (And when I say these were the very first copies, I have to clarify that we actually gave them higher numbers, reasoning that the valuable low-numbered ones shouldn’t be the flimsy ones.)  Still, paper covers or no, they would have to do. There were three of us on this mission; Sue, Garry and myself. We climbed into my first car (a 1984 Talbot Samba) and headed for the motorway. Quite a brave thing to do in that old car, but it didn’t let us down.

We were booked into a youth hostel that cost us the princely sum of £3 each per night. While not exactly comfortable, it fitted our requirement of not blowing the proceeds of book sales on accommodation. I think it added to the sense of adventure, too: rather like bedding down in the commons at an inn, as some of our fantasy characters might have done.

Baycon was a well-attended, bustling event, but virtually everybody who went was there for the board games. It was a get-together that allowed people to play anything they cared to bring, or borrow. Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Chess, Mousetrap… anything that two or more people wanted to try, they simply sat and played. The outcome of each game was recorded, and by some mysterious process, people earned points for taking part in (and for winning) a wide range of different games.

Very few of the attendees were interested in roleplaying games, or at least not when there were points to be won elsewhere, by playing quicker games with clear-cut winners and losers. Also, I had one old guy come up and harangue me with a monologue in which he opined (at some length) that roleplaying would lure young people into devil worship, because it involved casting spells.


I knew such people existed, but I’d never met one before, and in fact have never met another one since. Ah well; can’t win them all… and we had games to run.

Although most of the punters at Baycon were there for the board games, we had a loyal core of players that our host had drafted in from his regular roleplaying group. They were good players, too… and good customers. (Which is to say that after they played our games all day, they felt obliged to buy our books.)

There’s one problem with having a small core of repeat players, and that’s how quickly you use up your supply of gaming material. We’d been running Faerie Wood participation games for about a year by this point (although previously with nothing to sell) and we’d got into a comfortable routine with three short games used in rotation, namely ‘Bowls!’, ‘The Starwood Tree’ and ‘Magic on Legs’. At Baycon our group of players went through each of these games… and wanted more. While Garry ran the last of our prepared adventures, I frantically designed a new one, in which the centrepiece was a downhill dash in mining carts, to escape from a dwarf mine. It may not have been terribly original, but it was good fun. Much later, it was written up as ‘Raiders of the Frost Bark’… but we never published it. (And yes, the title should really have been some variant of ‘… and the Temple of Doom’… but it wasn’t. So there.)

The Starwood Tree, cover

With much frantic scribbling and occasional visits to the bar, a fine time was had by all. The episode is indicative of how it would always be with Faerie Wood: a labour of love. How many people would travel 200 miles (each way) and spend two days working hard to sell something like eight books at £6.95? We were never in it for the money.

Most of the attendees at Baycon were mystified by the strange group of people up at the far end of the hall, playing a seemingly interminable game with no cards, no box and no board, but we had the last laugh. In the run-up to the trip, we’d posted a press release to some of the local newspapers. “Leprechauns sighted in Exeter!”, it began. It was a good press release, briefly describing the game and introducing its young author.

“Why not come along, join the game’s creator, Garry Robson, and explore ‘Faerie Wood’? Your chance is on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th April at the BAYCON ’93 Gamers’ Convention at the Exeter Court Hotel, Kennford.”

Rob, our host, had been trying for years to get the press to show some interest in his convention, and I think he was more than a little envious when a reporter and photographer showed up… asking for us.

But then, you see, those of us who worked on Faerie Wood were capable of magic. In fact Faerie Wood, itself, was magic. Not the kind that manifests itself in fireballs or flying carpets, but the kind of magic that encourages young people with no budget and no connections to shoot for the moon… and if not quite score a bullseye, then at least achieve something they could be proud of.


Filed under Retrospective