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“Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide” – The First Review

February 3, 2015 5 comments

With a little over a month until release, the first review has appeared of my Dark Osprey book Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide. It’s short but sweet, and I’m looking forward to more.

It was a lot of fun to research and write this book. Here’s what I wrote about it a few months ago when it was first announced:

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Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide is for the Dark Osprey line which focuses on horror and conspiracy, and follows on from earlier volumes about Zombies and Vampires. I collected werewolf legends and trial reports from across Europe and researched shapechanger myths worldwide to paint a picture of lycanthropy that expands upon what you will find in most movies, games, and novels. It touches on the standard fare – silver, the moon, Viking berserkers, SS werewolves, and so on – but I also uncovered a few surprises. Like, for instance, the fact that there are at least four distinct types of werewolf, each with its own unique characteristics. And the Greek tradition that a dead werewolf rises from the grave as a vampire. And the ancient werewolf cult that centers on Mount Lykaion in Greece.

Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide
is scheduled for release in March 2015, and there are some interesting titles scheduled for both of Osprey’s non-historical ranges.

Like the other Dark Osprey books, this book mixes historical research with speculation to create a “what-if” reality which is firmly grounded in the real world. Anyone who is interested in the history and development of the werewolf myth will get something from it, and gamers will find a wealth of system-independent information and suggestions ready to use in their campaigns. Ripping the you-know-what out of effete sparkly vampires, for instance…

As I find new reviews, I’ll post links in the comments section below.

La Llorona: A Legend of New Spain

January 23, 2015 2 comments

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Download PDF version (Colonial Gothic)
Download PDF version (GURPS)

Known in English as the Weeping Woman, La Llorona (pronounced “yo-RO-nah”) is a legend of Mexico and the Spanish Southwest. The Weeping Woman is a type of ghost or demon that can be encountered anywhere in New Spain. According to the TV series Sleepy Hollow, a sub-type is also found occasionally in the Thirteen Colonies.

This article explores the legend of La Llorona, looks into a few variations, and suggests a range of ways to use this legend in Colonial Gothic adventures.

The Legend

Almost every Spanish-speaking population north of Mexico City has its own version of this tale. The details vary, but the ending is always the same.

Her name was Maria, she lived a long time ago, and she fell in love with a handsome ranchero. Because of him, she drowned her own children in a river.

Some say she killed them – and then herself – out of grief and rage when her ranchero abandoned her. Others say these children were from an earlier marriage, and she killed them so she could be free to marry again. According to a third version of the tale, her children drowned by accident when she left them alone to go to a dance with her new beau. All versions agree that her spirit cannot rest and she is cursed to spend eternity wandering and weeping, searching for her lost children along the banks of rivers and canals.

Ever since, people have seen a beautiful woman dressed in white walking beside rivers and canals at night, her hair disheveled and her eyes red from crying. Many have heard her weeping, and a brave few have gotten close enough to hear her sob “Ay, mis hijos!” – “Oh, my children!”

Some versions of the tale are darker still. It is said that bad luck will soon befall anyone who sees the Weeping Woman, or that she will steal, and even drown, any children she finds in the course of her wanderings.

Origins

It is not known whether the legend of La Llorona is based on an actual event. However, it is enticingly similar to both an Aztec legend and a story from the life of Hernan Cortez. It also evokes an even darker being from Mexican folklore.

La Malinche

La Malinche (also known as Malinali, Malintzin, and Doña Marina) was one of twenty women given to Cortez by the people of Tabasco in 1519. She served the Conquistador as a translator and advisor, eventually becoming his mistress and bearing his first son, whom he named Martín. She spoke Mayan as well as the Aztec language, Nahual, and helped Cortez form local alliances and head off potential rebellions. Cortez is reported to have said that after God, Doña Marina was the main reason for his success in Mexico. Contemporary Aztec records almost never depict Cortez without her by his side, and they sometimes show her alone, apparently acting on her own initiative and authority.

Unlike Disney’s Pocahontas, though, Doña Marina did not keep her European paramour. Cortez abandoned her to marry a good Spanish lady. While it is not recorded that she killed her children, and some sources claim she died in 1529, other sources hint that she did not suffer her abandonment meekly. In some later fiction she lives on as a vengeful resistance leader, and even as a vampire.

Cihuacoatl

Cihuacoatl was an Aztec goddess, the most prominent of several patron deities of childbirth and motherhood. It has been said that the Aztecs honored a woman who died in childbirth as highly as a warrior who died in battle.

According to Mexican folklore, the goddess was seen shortly after Cortez appeared, weeping for the loss of her children – an omen of the fall of the Aztec empire at his hands.

Cihuacoatl had a son named Mixcoatl, who became a god of the hunt and the stars. She abandoned him at a crossroads, but regretted her decision and returned weeping, only to find a sacrificial knife where her son had been.

The spirits of women who died in childbirth serve Cihuacoatl. Known as civitateo (“divine women”) they haunt crossroads at night, steal children, and cause seizures and other illnesses.

Although these Aztec legends do not correspond exactly with the commonly-told story of La Llorona, it is easy to see how they may have influenced its development.

Game Statistics

La Llorona can be many things, ranging from a tragic ghost to a vengeful goddess. Providing full Colonial Gothic statistics and rules for every conceivable variant would take an article far longer than this one. Instead, the following paragraphs suggest a range of possible approaches to creating a version of La Llorona that fits with the tone and magic level of the individual campaign.

The Colonial Gothic rulebook provides 2nd Edition rules for ghosts, and the Bestiary covers banshees. Either one would make a good basis for La Llorona, though the banshee’s Moan trait should be cut. For a more corporeal version, the GM might use the vampire from the rulebook (without any traits except for Night Vision and Undead) or the revenant from the Bestiary. Having selected the basic stats, the GM can then add traits as desired, to create his or her own vision of La Llorona.

The Weeping Ghost

When creating La Llorona as a ghost, the main decision to be made is how (or indeed, whether) the living can interact with her. At her most harmless she may be a spectral vision as insubstantial as smoke, to be laid to rest when the Heroes learn her sad tale, find her remains and those of her children, and give them a Catholic burial.

A more dangerous version may use mind-affecting magic of some kind to hypnotize children and send them walking glassy-eyed into the river – or to possess single mothers, especially those driven to the brink of despair by their circumstances, and force them to re-enact her crime. The lives of those she kills may be an offering to the angry spirits of her dead children, or she may simply be locked into an obsessive pattern of behavior, condemned to repeat it endlessly until she is stopped.

The Revenant

A solid, physically manifested version of La Llorona presents a different kind of threat. She has the inhuman strength of a lunatic and high grappling skills, which she uses to drown interfering mortals or simply break their necks. In a simple adventure, destroying her physical form stops her for good; for a longer and more challenging campaign thread, she simply comes back the following night, or month, until her tormented spirit is laid to rest by a Catholic priest or by Aztec-derived magic.

The Goddess

In a higher-powered campaign, La Llorona can be a vengeful manifestation of the goddess Cihuacoatl, imbued with all the terrible power that implies and determined to take the life of one Spanish or Anglo child for every Aztec who died at the hands of the Conquistadores. Alternatively she could be another Aztec deity, taking her own sacrifices since Catholicism replaced the bloody Aztec rites by which she was formerly appeased. In a Robert E. Howard-style horror story, she could be one of the last priestesses of such a terrible deity.

The GM has free rein in designing such a powerful entity. The legends of the civitateo give these creatures a shifting array of attributes including clawed hands and feet and the ability to wither limbs and cause fits and wasting diseases. One interpretation of these creatures may be found in my own Atlas of the Walking Dead, published by Eden Studios for their zombie survival RPG All Flesh Must Be Eaten.

The Mortal

In a low-magic or no-magic campaign, La Llorona may be entirely mortal – an 18th-century serial killer driven to madness by a life of abuse, or by the horror of having killed her own children to save them from an abusive father, or starvation, or some other threat. She may even believe that she has become La Llorona of the stories.

Adventures

An encounter with La Llorona can enhance even a non-fantastic Colonial Gothic campaign. Rarity gives supernatural incidents – or incidents that merely seem to be supernatural – a greater impact in a non-magical setting.

Of course, the GM can always decide, in the best Scooby-Doo tradition, that the apparent haunting has a perfectly mundane cause: the “ghost” turns out to be a madwoman escaped from a local asylum, a kidnap victim leading into a mundane plot, or an attempt to play on a local legend to keep prying eyes away from a hidden gold strike or a planned robbery.

In a more fantastic campaign, La Llorona might be one of several types of restless dead, given an added authenticity by her ready-made backstory and her long history in the real world.

Bibliography
De Aragon, Ray John. The Legend of La Llorona. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2006.
Beatty, Judith S. La Llorona: Encounters with the Weeping Woman. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2004.
Davis, Graeme. Atlas of the Walking Dead. Loudonville: Eden Studios 2003.
Perez, Domino Renee. There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

Online Resources
“La Llorona,” Handbook of Texas http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lxl01
“La Llorona – Weeping Woman of the Southwest” (3 pages), Legends of America http://www.legendsofamerica.com/gh-lallorona.html
PDF version of this article (Colonial Gothic)
PDF version of this article (GURPS)

TV and Video
The Crying Woman (Spanish La Llorona), dir. Ramón Peón , 1933.
Supernatural, Season 1 Episode 1, The CW (Warner Bros.), 2006.
Grimm, Season 2 Episode 9, Universal, 2012.
Sleepy Hollow, Season 2 Episode 5, Fox, 2014.

Colonial Gothic: Player Companion

November 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterday was Halloween, and Rogue Games took advantage of the occasion to open preorders for Colonial Gothic: Player Companion.

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If you don’t know Colonial Gothic, it’s Rogue Games’ tabletop RPG of intrigue and supernatural horror at the dawn of American history. If you’re a fan of Sleepy Hollow – the TV series, the original story, or any of the movies – and you enjoy tabletop RPGs like Call of Cthulhu, you’ll find a lot to like about Colonial Gothic.

I call it “the American Revolution as imagined by H. P. Lovecraft and Dan Brown,” but that’s just a starting point. It can be played like a tabletop version of Assassin’s Creed III, or as “Cthulhu 1776,” or even as “WFRP 1776.” We’ve heard from teachers who use it as a classroom tool, discarding all the supernatural elements to give students a first-person perspective on the birth of the nation.

Rogue Games’ website offers more information about the game, and there are active fan communities on Facebook and Google+.

As you’d expect, The Player Companion includes a lot of new player options, including skills, weapons, spells, and combat. There are also completely new systems for character advantages and disadvantages, social level (very important in those times), plus an updated version of the character templates from the old ebook release to make character (and NPC) creation quicker and easier. It comes in both print and PDF versons.

Following on from the Bestiary, this book is part of an effort that has been close to my heart for a while: to build out from the 2nd Edition Rulebook and provide Colonial Gothic with a strong suite of core books that give players and GMs the ability to tailor the game to their own preferences. Richard and I are already talking about a GM’s book to complete the set.

Richard is also working hard on the third installment of the Flames of Freedom campaign, to follow on from the critically acclaimed Boston Besieged and The Philadelphia Affair.

As for me, I’m working on a super-secret project that will see me working with an old friend from my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay days. All I can say about it for now is that it’s going to look amazing, and I expect it will cause quite a stir when I can finally talk about it.

So if you like the idea of facing down scheming Freemasons, monsters from folklore, and Things Man Was Not Meant To Know as you uncover the secret history of the 18th century, give Colonial Gothic a try. We think you’ll like it.

Theseus and the Werewolves

September 7, 2014 6 comments

Wait, what?

It’s all right. I haven’t created a new contemporary urban fantasy franchise with sparkly Greek heroes battling emo lycanthropes in high school. But hold on while I just make a note of that….

No, this post is going to be about my next two books for Osprey Adventures. If you haven’t heard of Osprey Adventures before, the legendary military history publisher has been branching out with two new lines aimed – at least partly – at gamers and fantasy fans.

Osprey Myths and Legends does exactly what it says on the tin. This series presents the world’s greatest heroes (and monsters) in the classic Osprey format, combining well-researched text with lavish illustration and high production values. My first book in this series, Thor: Viking God of Thunder, was well received (click here for some links to reviews), so I was asked to write another – on Theseus and the Minotaur this time. It’s scheduled for release on November 18th and features some stunning color plates by Jose Pena.

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I guess I was seven or eight years old when I first discovered this tale. I had become obsessed with Greek mythology after discovering a children’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in my school library and seeing a Saturday-morning rescreening of Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 classic Jason and the Argonauts on TV. Over a decade later, my first game of Dungeons & Dragons featured a fatal encounter with a minotaur. Along the way, I also read about Theseus’ early adventures on the road to Athens. But when I got stuck into the research for this book, I discovered something intriguing. Well, two things, actually.

The first is that Greek myths used the comic-book technique of “retconning.” After he became the Official Hero of Athens, Theseus began to pop up in the adventures of Hercules and various other heroes, usually in a minor role. He was one of the super-team that took part in the Hunt for the Calydonian Boar, along with his faithful sidekick Pirithous. He appears as a wise and compassionate King of Athens in the tragic tale of Oedipus. A few writers even tried to add him to Jason’s companions aboard the Argo, but some serious timeline problems prevented their attempts from sticking. He was too old for the Trojan War, but a couple of his sons were among the Greek troops in the legendary wooden horse.

The other intriguing thing is that the core of the Theseus myth looks like it could be an allegory. Theseus lived – if he lived – at a time when Athens was growing in power and throwing off Minoan and Mycenaean cultural and economic domination of the Greek mainland. It was developing its own distinctly Greek identity, which would become the template for Classical Greek culture. There is evidence for a war – or at least a raid – led by Athens in which the famous Minoan palace of Knossos was burned. And some ancient sources refer to a Cretan general with the name, or nickname, of Taurus, the Bull. Likewise, the six enemies Theseus defeated on his journey to Athens could be seen as symbols of the various independent city-states that Athens assimilated as its influence spread across Attica. There’s little if any definitive proof that the myth of Theseus is based on actual historical events, but the coincidences do seem to be telling a consistent story, and it made my dormant archaeological reflex twitch.

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The second book, Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide, is for the Dark Osprey line which focuses on horror and conspiracy, and follows on from earlier volumes about Zombies and Vampires. I collected werewolf legends and trial reports from across Europe and researched shapechanger myths worldwide to paint a picture of lycanthropy that expands upon what you will find in most movies, games, and novels. It touches on the standard fare – silver, the moon, Viking berserkers, SS werewolves, and so on – but I also uncovered a few surprises. Like, for instance, the fact that there are at least four distinct types of werewolf, each with its own unique characteristics. And the Greek tradition that a dead werewolf rises from the grave as a vampire. And the ancient werewolf cult that centers on Mount Lykaion in Greece.

Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide
is scheduled for release in March 2015, and there are some interesting titles scheduled for both of Osprey’s non-historical ranges.

Osprey has also expanded into wargames with an interesting and growing range of rule sets presented in slim, affordable books. There are historical rules, of course, but they also cover mythology, steampunk, and Hong Kong action movies. My personal favorite is Of Gods and Mortals, a compact and tidy little skirmish game in which the gods of various mythologies can take to the battlefield as super-units, accompanied by mortal and monstrous followers. It has a very neat mechanic which makes gods and mortals heavily interdependent.

Osprey Publishing has a long-standing reputation for quality that is very well deserved. I’m very happy to see them expanding into these new areas, and even happier to play a modest part myself. Check out the links below. I’ll be very surprised if you don’t find at least one title that surprises and intrigues you.

Osprey Myths and Legends
Dark Osprey
Osprey Wargames

2013 and Beyond

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

2014 is shaping up to be a busy year. Right now I’ve got four mobile games, two tabletop RPG books, and two nonfiction books at various stages of development, and I’m also trying to keep my promise to myself that I will write more fiction.

With all this going on, I haven’t had time to put together an elegant and well-reasoned thought piece or a vivid and fascinating memory of The Old Days for this update. However, there are a few bits and pieces that might be of interest:

Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North is now in its third year, and still going strong. I’m currently helping develop a great new feature that I can’t really talk about, which will be released later in the year. You’ll see some familiar faces, and I think that fans of deeper Arthurian lore will be pleasantly surprised. That’s the intention, anyway.

In other KBN news, the game is ranked #10 by worldwide revenue in App Annie’s 2013 retrospective. A year ago, it was the iTunes Store’s #1 top-grossing app of 2012. And, of course, it’s also available for Android. I’ve been involved with KBN since the very start, and I’m delighted with its continuing success.

Another Kabam title I’ve worked on also did well in 2013, according to App Annie. The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth ranked #8 by revenue in the U.S., #5 in the UK, and #6 in both France and Germany. Over the last year I worked on a narrative campaign feature that allows players to fight the Goblins of the Misty Mountains alongside heroes from the movies – and, in the most recent instalment, lets them take on the dread Necromancer from Mirkwood to Amon Lanc and beyond. Like all of Kabam’s mobile games, this is also available on Android.

Dragons of Atlantis: Heirs of the Dragon has just acquired a great little feature that allows your dragon to go exploring when you’re not using it in battle, and find you all kinds of interesting treasures. I wasn’t involved with that particular feature, but throughout the last year I’ve been working on new dragons, new troops, and various other expansions. More on those when I’m allowed to talk about them. Also on Android.

Beside these three, I’ve been working on localization editing for a whole bunch of games from China that are hoping to build on their success in that booming market and move into the West. Three projects down so far, and two more in progress: more when I can talk about them. There is some good stuff coming out of China, for sure, and many commentators have tagged it as a market to watch. Russia, India, and Brazil are also poised to become significant mobile-games markets in 2014, according to many analysts.

And finally in mobile gaming, I’ve been working on a new fantasy RPG for iOS. I can’t give any details at this stage, but I will say that the setting is interesting and I’ve been having a very good time developing the backstory and advising on some quite intriguing features, both in narrative and gameplay.

The two books I wrote for Osprey Adventures in 2013 have been well received, and I’ve signed up to write two more. Thor: Viking God of Thunder in the Myths and Legends line has been getting good reviews, and the new Templar conspiracy I laid out in Knights Templar: A Secret History has been well reviewed and has inspired both fiction writers and tabletop RPG designers. I’ve been contracted to write two more titles: Theseus and the Minotaur is due to be released in November this year, and I’m just starting work on a yet-to-be-announced Dark Osprey title.

I’ve also been indulging my love for historical fantasy in a few tabletop RPG projects.

Colonial Gothic, the game of horror and conspiracy at the dawn of American history, received a great boost from the release of the Second Edition Rulebook, and that was followed up with the release of the Bestiary in October.

Just open for preorders is Lost Colony, a unique two-period adventure that explores the mystery of Massachusetts’ ill-fated Popham colony in both 1607 and 1776. It is written by award-winning author Jennifer Brozek, whose previous credits for Colonial Gothic include the acclaimed Locations mini-campaigns and the groundbreaking e-book The Ross-Allen Letters, which blurs the lines between adventure and fiction.

I’m working on another Colonial Gothic supplement at the moment. I can’t talk about it yet, but it’s one that has been very long in the planning and it reunites me with a favorite collaborator from my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay days. We haven’t worked together for more than twenty years, and this project promises to be a lot of fun.

As much as I love Colonial Gothic, I am occasionally tempted by other tabletop RPG projects. When author and roleplaying luminary Robin D. Laws was recruiting talent for his Hillfolk Kickstarter campaign, I was honored to be one of the people he asked to submit an original setting for this fascinating game. I pitched Pyrates as “Firefly of the Caribbean,” and it was a lot of fun to write.

British publisher Chronicle City ran a Kickstarter campaign for their version of the Steampunk classic Space: 1889 – a favorite of mine from the 80s – and I offered an adventure for a stretch goal that, sadly, was not reached. I still hope to write it someday. Their Kickstarter campaign for Cthulhu Britannica saw me contribute to their intriguing postcard-based adventure generator. I was especially happy to be involved with this project because my first commissioned work for Games Workshop, way back in 1985, came when they were developing A Green and Pleasant Land, the first ever British sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu.

Last year I wrote a couple of articles for Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid magazine, both about obscure guns. The Puckle Gun, a repeating heavy musket, was covered in issue 3/52 (February), while the fearsome Nock volley gun appeared in issue 3/57. I’m planning to adapt both these weapons for Colonial Gothic in the near future, possibly in an unannounced supplement that I have on the back burner. Meanwhile, I have another article – not gun-related this time – being considered for a future issue of Pyramid.

Finally, 2013 was the year I discovered the Oldhammer movement. It seems that there are a lot of folks out there who remember the Games Workshop products of the 80s with great affection, and several of them asked me to give them interviews or to share my memories of working at GW during what some regard as that golden age. I have a couple more interviews lined up, but here are links to some that have appeared so far.

So that’s what 2013 looked like for me, and what 2014 is looking like so far. As always, I’ll be covering ongoing projects in more detail just as soon as I’m allowed to talk about them. But now I’d better get back to work – there’s plenty to do.

Here Be Monsters

October 21, 2013 4 comments

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The Colonial Gothic Bestiary was released today. You can read the first review here – it’s a very welcome 5 stars from RPGnow.com.

I’ve been pushing for this book ever since I first got involved with Colonial Gothic three years ago. This year, following the release of the second edition Rulebook, the time is finally right. Colonial Gothic’s range of adventures and sourcebooks has always been well received – almost none has averaged lower than a 4-star rating from the industry’s most influential review sites – and now we can release core books to support and grow the system itself. Richard and I decided that the first new core book should be a bestiary, and we plan to follow that up with a Players’ Guide and a GM’s Guide over the next couple of years. Watch this space. In addition, we will continue to support the acclaimed Flames of Freedom campaign and we will keep on producing ground-breaking adventures and supplements like Jennifer Brozek’s time-bending adventure The Lost Colony.

To some, a bestiary may seem a strange choice for the first core supplement. Colonial Gothic is a horror game, after all, and the Rulebook includes a good selection of creatures for horror adventures. Even so, some important creatures were missing: local legends like the Jersey Devil, creatures from Native American tradition like the wampus cat, and local wildlife like the alligator. The book also includes summoned and enchanted creatures like the homunculus, two kinds of golem, and – of course – demons, devils, and undead aplenty.

There are more than 50 creatures in all, but Colonial Gothic fans need not fear that we are turning the game into Colonial D&D. We’re not. Each creature has been chosen with a careful eye to how, why, and where it fits into the Thirteen Colonies and what it can bring to Colonial Gothic adventures. Each creature description includes notes on what it offers the GM, and more extensive notes are given for each creature class. Finally, there are two indices – one alphabetical and one by class – listing the creatures in the Rulebook as well as in the Bestiary, to make it easy for the GM to find exactly the right creature for a particular adventure or encounter.

As I’ve said before, I have a long-standing love of historical fantasy and horror. I thought Colonial Gothic was a good idea the first time I heard of it, and it’s good to know that Richard and I are not alone. There are active groups on both Facebook and Google+ providing us with feedback and discussing everything from real-but-suspicious historical events to TV shows like Sleepy Hollow to the best miniatures and scenery for 18th-century games. You can also find Colonial Gothic news on Twitter (#ColonialGothic).

I think 2014 is going to be a good year for Colonial Gothic. Richard and I have a number of ideas in the works. If you know Cotton Mather isn’t a personal hygiene product and Salem isn’t just a brand of cigarettes, if you ever wanted to save Joseph Curwen and the Whateleys of Dunwich from their own folly, if you want to know how Washington used Masonic secrets to win American independence – and what the Templars thought about his doing so – we think you will enjoy Colonial Gothic.

You can find the Bestiary – and the rest of the Colonial Gothic range – on sale at the Rogue Games online store in PDF, ePub, Kindle, and dead-tree format. The various ebook versions are also available from your favorite download store. If you shop at, or run, a Friendly Local Game Store, please get in touch. Rogue Games is committed to supporting brick-and-mortar game retailers.

Knights Templar: A Secret History

October 9, 2013 17 comments

After I finished writing Thor: Viking God of Thunder, Osprey Publishing asked me to write a Templar conspiracy title for their Dark Osprey line. Knights Templar: A Secret History is due for release later this month, and pre-orders are open on your favorite online retailer. The first review I’ve seen tells me the finished product lived up to my intentions, which is always nice to know.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. As well as poking about in the dark corners of history, I was able to spend time reviewing the history of the Templar conspiracy phenomenon and add a brand new one of my own devising. I deliberately refrained from making up any historical facts – that would be too easy – but I really let myself go when drawing conclusions from them. It was something like kitbashing, a modeling term for the process of assembling parts from different kits in a way the designers never intended and producing an entirely new plane, tank, or whatever.

This isn’t my first book on the Templars. The Colonial Gothic Templars sourcebook was a similar exercise on a smaller scale, geared to the needs of the game and focusing on Templar activity in the North American colonies during the Revolutionary War era. This new book suffers no such restrictions, and I trace the Templars – and the Holy Grail – across the Atlantic and back again as they engage in a three-way secret war with the Vatican and the Freemasons. Are the Templars using the European Union to create a global state ruled by a heretical religion? Read the facts and judge for yourself.

In Praise of Historical Fantasy

July 5, 2013 4 comments

I’ve worked on a lot of historical fantasy projects over the years: the AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook, GURPS Vikings, GURPS Middle Ages 1, d20 Eternal Rome, Colonial Gothic, and a host of articles for various gaming magazines and web sites. Sometimes a project starts as historical fantasy and extends into contemporary fantasy and conspiracy theory, like my Dark Osprey book on the Knights Templar. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, of course, is set in a fictional Old World that had a lot in common with 15th-century Europe.

I could go on at length about how I came to prefer historical fantasy, starting with Enid Blyton retellings of the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, Saturday morning rescreenings of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, and summer holidays spent visiting Roman villas and medieval castles across the south of England. But I’ll try not to, because that’s not the point I want to make.

It could be argued that almost all fantasy is historical fantasy. The ratio of history to fantasy varies, of course. Some fantasy settings take only the trappings of medieval Europe: castles, walled towns, and styles of weapons and armor. Others, including a lot of my own work, try to recreate the historical setting more or less faithfully, and layer in the types of fantasy elements that the people of that time and place really believed in: in the case of a Viking setting this includes trolls, draugr, one-eyed wizards who talk in riddles, and ways into the realms of Asgard, Alfheim, Jotunheim, and the rest. This is the style of fantasy I personally prefer, but that’s just me.

My first experience of this kind of fantasy came in about 1980. By then, I had been playing D&D/AD&D for about three years: I had resisted starting a Traveller campaign because I was an archaeology student and a fantasy and folklore fan whereas most of my college gaming group were studying physics and consumed science fiction like termites in a sawmill. Their own AD&D campaigns featured things like gigawatt lasers, time and dimension travel, and one memorable guest appearance by Slippery Jim deGris. In a medieval fantasy setting, I felt I could keep things under control, but if I had run Traveller for that group, there’s no telling what they might have talked me into allowing. Pistols that fire point singularities? The mind reels. Sorry – reminiscing again. Back to the point.

Playing Bushido (shortly after watching the miniseries of James Clavell’s Shogun) gave me a window into another culture, another place and time, and I was enthralled. I started to write my own RPG set in the world of Irish myth and saga with the working title Fiana, but it never got beyond a couple of playtest sessions.

As I continued to study, and read, and play, I came to realize that medieval (or “generic”) fantasy had a far stronger basis in history than simply castles and knights. Tolkien’s Middle-earth was grounded in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age showed a grasp of inter-war archaeology that surprised me, and the worlds of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels were, if not historically-based in the same sense, still a window into the decadent London Scene of the late 60s and early 70s.

The point – and I promise, I do have one – is this: fantasy is most accessible when it gives the new reader, or player, something familiar to hang on to rather than plunging them into a world that is completely original. Original fantasy worlds can be disorienting at first, and while they may have many virtues from a literary standpoint, accessibility is not necessarily one of them. Professor M.A.R. Barker created a dazzlingly original fantasy setting for Empire of the Petal Throne and his world of Tekumel still has loyal fans, but AD&D settings like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms proved themselves much friendlier to neophytes and enjoyed much greater commercial success. A little later Skyrealms of Jorune presented players with very original and thought-provoking SF races and cultures, but its very originality made it harder to play in: a player would start out knowing far less about the world than his or her character did, and it took a lot of quite determined study to figure the setting out. Skyrealms is rightly regarded as a classic, but comparatively few people have ever played it.

While history makes fantasy more accessible, an injection of fantasy can make history a lot more fun. I came to appreciate history fairly late in life, after more than a decade harboring resentment against the teachers who had made it so deadly dull – for me, at least. Would the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been so successful if they had eschewed the supernatural and striven to recreate the real story of the Golden Age of Piracy? Would they have been as much fun? While I’ve read some very entertaining history books about Caribbean piracy, I have to say I doubt it.

Compare, for example, the Patrick Bergin Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves. They were in production at the same time but took very different approaches. The Bergin film paid scrupulous attention to historical detail: the producers employed a historian who was well versed in the contemporary theories about who and what the Hooded Man might really have been, if he truly did live in Norman England. The result: no Sheriff of Nottingham, few if any of the expected story vignettes (although it has to be said that only the Errol Flynn version really satisfies on that score), and the film comes across as earnest but rather dull. Costner embraced the big-budget historical romp, and for every offended scholar who stayed away many more regular folks came, watched, and enjoyed. Likewise, Clive Owen’s well-intentioned King Arthur movie got bogged down in historical (semi) reality – and as an archaeology grad I have to say it showed an impressive level of research in everything except its treatment of the Picts – but it took away a lot of what makes Arthur Arthur in most people’s minds.

More recently we have seen movies like National Treasure, the seemingly unstoppable Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course the Game of Thrones omni-media juggernaut which owes at least some kind of debt to England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses (I’m waiting for someone to make a Game of Thrones version of Kingmaker). And then there’s the rise of the contemporary urban fantasy genre in fiction, which uses the most familiar setting of all: not historical fantasy, I admit, but it does support my point about the importance of accessibility in a fantasy setting.

Although the exact proportion of history to fantasy is a matter of personal taste, it seems to me that they really do play well together. Fantasy without history can be confusing, and while I would never say that history is dull – except in school – pure, unadulterated history suffers from an image problem.

A New Colonial Gothic Campaign

June 18, 2013 2 comments

As you may know, for the last few years I’ve been working with Richard Iorio II of Rogue Games to help develop and promote their Colonial Gothic tabletop RPG. Historical games and horror games are two of my real passions, and Colonial Gothic combines the two beautifully.

Boiling it down to an elevator pitch, it’s the early history of America through the eyes of H. P. Lovecraft and Dan Brown. Your Heroes can encounter Salem witches, Native American spirits, scheming Freemasons, sorcerous Templars, voodoo, gris-gris, Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, and much more. I keep teasing Richard that one day I’ll have Ben Franklin construct a lightning-powered mech and go mano a mano with Cthulhu – but perhaps that may be going a little too far. But if you liked The Crucible, Sleepy Hollow, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Last of the Mohicans, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, and the National Treasure movies, chances are you’ll like Colonial Gothic.

I’m very happy at the reception the game has received so far. Most of the supplements have garnered 4- and 5-star reviews on Roleplayers’ Chronicle, DriveThruRPG, and the other major review sites. The release of the Second Edition Rulebook last December was an important step, and we have many plans for the future. Among these is a new campaign, to be created under license by Mystical Throne Entertainment, publishers of Roleplayers’ Chronicle.

Rogue Games’ house campaign, Flames of Freedom, focuses on the shadowy side of the American Revolution. The Mystical Throne campaign (working title New World) is set a generation earlier, in the middle of the 18th century. Rogue Games has touched upon this period in its French and Indian War sourcebook, and it’s very good to see others inspired by the game and the setting to create fresh adventures. The Flames of Freedom campaign will continue, co-written by Richard and me. We have plans for at least two more instalments, possibly more, and the next one, Shadows Upon the Hudson, is scheduled for release later this year.

I’m looking forward to the New World campaign very much. Aaron Huss is a talented writer with a number of impressive credits under his belt, and I can’t wait to see what adventures he has in store for us.

Weird Science

July 1, 2011 8 comments

I remember exactly when my fascination with weird science began. I was about eleven, and browsing in my local hobby shop for a new model kit to build. Naturally, it had to be a WWII aircraft (my previous post Airpulp covers my obsession with vintage aviation), but I was starting to wonder if I’d seen it all and built it all. Then there it was.

The Blohm & Voss 141 was arguably the wackiest aircraft of World War II – and that’s no small claim given the likes of the Focke-Wulf Triebflugel, the Lippisch p.13a, and the Bachem Natter. It’s all the more weird because it actually made it into service. It was basically a twin-engined Focke-Wulf 189 that had been sawn in half to make an asymmetric single-engined aircraft. It was quite simply the weirdest thing I’d ever seen.

In the decades since then, I’ve conceived a great love of weird science and wacky inventions, from the cartoons of W. Heath Robinson (whose torch is proudly carried by Wallace’s Cracking Contraptions) to the Revolutionary War-era Turtle submarine to the Reniassance tanks and helicopters of Leonardo da Vinci. Recently, I got to write about a couple of them.

I came across the Air Loom and the Puckle Gun while doing some writing and design work for Empire: Total War. The Air Loom is not a tomato, as several friends have suggested. It was an 18th-century Infernal Device, a precursor to today’s orbital mind control satellites, and used “pneumatic chemistry” to mount targeted attacks on the minds and bodies of its victims. Given that our sole source of information about it was an inmate at London’s infamous Bedlam hospital, it probably never existed. That didn’t stop me writing an article for Pyramid magazine speculating on what it might have meant for the world if it had worked. Your tinfoil hat won’t help you against attacks like “Bomb Bursting,” “Lobster Cracking,” and “Lengthening of the Brain,” that’s for sure. And as for “Apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater,” eesh – don’t get me started.

The Puckle Gun, on the other hand, is undeniably real. No, it didn’t fire puckles – that was the name of the inventor. It was a big musket (up to 2″ bore) with a revolving magazine of pre-loaded cartridges, and it could keep up a sustained fire rate of nine rounds per minute. That’s three times what a trained soldier could do with a 0.7″ Brown Bess musket, and that in ideal conditions: Puckle demonstrated the gun in the rain at least once. It was never adopted, though, because the design was too far ahead of the manufacturing technology of the day. Muzzle Blasts, the magazine of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, carries the article in its July 2011 issue.

The nice thing about writing for games – or writing any kind of speculative fiction for that matter – is that it doesn’t matter whether or not a device actually existed, or really worked. If the idea is intriguing enough, then you can have a mad scientist or evil overlord get one working, and it’s all yours. No science too weird, no weapon too wacky, no plan too evil.

Now, if I could just get the Air Loom in my basement working, and persuade my bank manager to inhale this bottle of magnetized gas. . . .