After clinging to the top spot on the Authonomy charts for three weeks, MALEFICIVM goes to the Editor's Desk today.
Some explanation is in order. Authonomy is a web forum for independent writers to post up their works-in-progress. It was created by book publishers Harper Collins "to unearth new talent". Users maintain a 'Bookshelf' of up to five books they rate highly and the site algorithm computers a popularity chart from this. The algorithm gives more credit to books that have been 'backed' for long periods of time, so a book with a small devoted following can climb the charts over the months while a book with transient appeal may not climb high because no one backs it for long.
MALEFICIVM is my horror/fantasy/historical fiction novel that I posted up on the site last summer. I then dropped out of things for 8 months and returned to find the book bothering the top 10. This month is rose to the top 5. Then the No 1 slot.
At the start of each month, Harper Collins removes the top five books from the polls. These are "delivered to the desk of a relevant HarperCollins editor" for review. It doesn't say the editor does the reviewing; it's probably an intern. The reviewer undertakes to read at least 10,000 words and sends back a review based on what they've read. The reviews tend to accentuate the positive but focus on what needs to be done to make the book commercially viable. Sometimes that's a lot (Authonomy-users call this "a bad review") and sometimes not much.
Harper Collins are quick to point out that a review from the Editor's Desk is in no way an undertaking to publish. Nonetheless, they claim to have "successfully published a number of books, across a range of genres, that were found on Authonomy". This is a controversial claim.
Despite these reservations, a Harper Collins review is a valuable endorsement. This summer I'll be sending Tinderspark and MALEFICIVM, redrafted, back to the Agencies that expressed interest last year. Since they've probably forgotten all about me, my submission will need to remind them about the book and also suggest to them why it's worth getting interested again. Quoting from a positive HC review is a great calling card. That's my thinking.
So, what's the HC review likely to tell me. I hope it will be positive about the setting, style, characters and dialogue. I think it will endorse the book creatively, as something with potential. I expect to be advised to abandon the recursive plot structure in favour of something more linear (ditch the flashbacks) and to scale back the erotica to something more commercially acceptable. I suspect I'll be told to develop the character of Capria earlier so as not to alienate female readers (and Editors). I might be told that a genre-mash-up like this is just not something publishers want to take chances on, which would be depressing.
But it's EXCITING and it's a step forward. The review will be posted up on Authonomy when it appears and I'm not sure how long that takes - maybe a month? I'll deconstruct it on this blog when it happens. Then I'll start redrafting MALEFICIVM.
REVIEWS FROM AUTHONOMY USERS
Every now and again I read a book where I know from the very beginning I'm delving into something that will hold me, consume me and leave me feeling as if the writer has carried me along on a wave of emotions. This book does it all -- Lin Churchill
Maleficivm very well crafted and completely immersive, full of historical detail to keep the reader grounded in time and place while maintaining momentum and excitement -- Eric Dorfman
Jonathan Rowe set out to write a genre piece, a sex and horror fantasy novel. But he is much too literate for that. Instead he has created a gripping historical fiction - Jim Heter
This is a polished, stunning piece of writing. Not the epic/high fantasy I'm looking for, but it's calling me to read on regardless. I feel like I will get a history lesson and be thoroughly entertained at the same time - Soulfire
Poor Lucius Ennius Fausto ... what a main character I think I'm in love :) -- Lindsay55
I HATE Lucius, I LOVE Lucius! What a great character! -- aurorawatcher
Very engaging and Capria's character is brilliant -- Adam Richardson
You write woman well - you give them dimensions, a purpose and spirit. I like that. But your pace is what makes this so publishable -- Singers
I think you should forget horror, fantasy, roman, celtic, pagan, philosophy, religion, and historical fiction. Write erotica. This is the very best I've seen on this site -- digsblues
I like to get along to the Student Nationals every March and usually I run some Classic World of Darkness. These year the competition is in nearby Leicester De Montfort over the weekend of the 27th of March. I'm making a change by signing up to GM Cthulhu!
Of course, it's not going to be Call of Cthulhu but my own Cthulhu Abides. To sweeten the pill, I've invested in a dozen copies to give away to the competitors (5-6 on a team, 2 teams over the weekend). This means that, rather than hand out pre-genned characters, I'll let the players use CA's elegant little character generation system to create their own Edwardian cannonfod- err- "investigators".
Actually, CA is a Cthulhu RPG where your characters are marginally less likely to die but, when they do (notice, not "if", "when") then it's pretty quick to create a new one distinctively different from the last.
I haven't written the scenario yet because I'm lazy and because I'm more creative with a looming deadline. I want to use the Dreamlands pretty extensively and the East Anglian setting, which means Deep Ones a-plenty. I'll write the scenario up in full afterwards and publish it on this site.
The Nationals weekend is always a blast - so if anyone who sees this blog is there, seek me out! I'll haunt the bar on Saturday night and if my game is undersubscribed I'll have spare copies of Cthulhu Abides to give away.
May the team most devotes to madness and blasphemy win!
The stars will be right in 2015.
Getting Cthulhu Abides onto Amazon proves to be fraught. On the plus side, I now know about indexing and dynamic contents pages, all sorts of advanced page layout stuff that's taken my mastery of Word to a new level. Then there's the business of PDF conversion, embedded fonts, transparent panes and gnnnnnnarrrrgggggnergle.
Things are still not quite right. The lovely elder sign watermark is misbehaving and looks a mess on many pages. Thought I'd fixed that but, no. First thing to fix once I get home.
Looking ahead, two groups have contacted me offering to beta test the product. This is very exciting but, of course, challenging as well. Since I created the game its mechanics strike me as clear and obvious. People with fresh eyes may see them as convoluted and cumbersome. Then there's the question of tone and style. I like the roll-d6s-on-lots-of-tables quirkiness which strikes me as old skool and retro. It may strike others as dated and primitive. I've mucked about with the canonical reading of the Mythos. Is this fresh and innovative - or presumptuous and arbitrary?
If the beta testing is broadly positive, the next step in 2015 is to put together a Kickstarter package. This involves some legal searches into issues of copyright - Lovecraft's material is public domain in Europe, but contributions to the Mythos from later authors aren't. That's why there are no Chthonians or Fire Vampires, for example. I can see that the list of grimoires may need editting, for example. I've no idea whether a project like this would attract a challenge from Arkham House in America.
There's also the issue of art - original cover art and interior illustrations as well as original designs for various symbols, logos, etc. Professional layout and design, too.So, that's all in the future: enough hurdles that could stymie the project at several points. Nonetheless, the signs are promising at this juncture. I should be hearing from the Student Nationals about GMing categories and if I get my first choice (Cthulhu), I'll take Cthulhu Abides to the Nationals and hand out some free copies to the players to generate word of mouth. I'll need a scenario for that, something that can occupy half a dozen people for half a dozen hours.
Such is the perversity of life that I have to juggle my commitment to old Cthulhu with other projects - school teaching, obviously, and all the fan stuff I'm putting together for Myth. On top of that, there's Tinderspark and MALEFICIVM. These two books have been on hold for three or four months after the last feedback from Agencies in London, but I'm feeling inspired now to go back to them so of course novel-writing trumps gaming, or at least it has done in the past.
Plenty of resolutions there. I hope 2015 proves to be a game changer.
An earlier post on this Blog seems to have fallen into the void, so I'm rewriting it.
My old post was prompted by wrestling with my new lover, the board game Enter The World of Myth by Megacon Games. It's a massive box, weighed down with quality plastic miniatures. It's a novel idea for a dungeon crawl game but it has provoked a vitriolic backlash. Why? Well, the game won a lot of fans as a Kickstarter but when the product came out it looked lovely but the rules… well.
Now look, it's easy to complain. Very few games hit the shelves entirely free of bugs and glitches. True, but Myth seems more bug-prone and glitch-ridden than most. There's a real sense that, focusing on the physical product, the designers neglected the text. It might be argued that they neglected to beta-test the game - get someone who wasn't a friend or a family pet to try to run it from their rules and acting on the feedback from that. In effect, the Kickstarter Pledges turned into the beta-testers and mooks like me who bought the game retail end up with a product that feels like it's still "in development".
Heigh-ho. I've decided I very much like Myth, warts and all, and I'll stick with it a bit longer, but the experience of deciphering its baffling (but beautiful) rulebook and weighing up the claims of the lovers and the haters on forums puts me in mind of my little RPG, still very much a work in progress.
Of course, there are differences. Cthulhu Abides is just a little hobbyist thing, a not-for-profit B&W rulebook sold print-on-demand for about the price of a beer. Anyone buying it and disliking it won't have invested too much time or treasure in it, I hope. Nevertheless, the experience of putting it together has been illuminating. For one thing, writing clear rules is not easy. For another, the author is the worst judge of what's clear. I find I post up the text through Create Space thinking, "There! Done!" Then the next time I glance at the MS out leap typos and ugly, verbose constructions I'd been blind to before. The moment I set the game out to play it again, rules that used to seem fine to me are now revealed in their idiocy: too complex, too challenging, too vague, sheerly contradictory. So I edit in the changes and re-post the book and feel sorry for anyone who paid for the previous edition.
Did anyone pay for the previous edition? Why, yes, they did. Last time I checked Create Space it told me that a dozen copies had been sold (net profit: $0.00) and I can only account for two of those among my gaming group. So, as a gesture of goodwill to anyone who buys the rules, I'm putting the latest version into my Dropbox as a PDF and anyone is free to download that and check for corrections.
What sort of corrections have been made? Well, one of the biggest niggles with Myth is how lazy the designers are with nomenclature. You take a game like Magic: The Gathering and every sentence, every verb, every comma is carefully selected for rules implications. If it says "may" that's not the same as "must". Myth is inconsistent on this and the result is confusion. I started trawling through Cthulhu Abides to try to impose some sort of similar discipline on my own writing. I immediately discovered myself using "Resist" in at least three different contexts:
Another of Myth's glitchy traits is its tendency to preserve terminology from what were clearly earlier and discarded drafts of the rules, even though the sense behind them has gone. For example, Myth has cards called Actions and cards called Reactions. Originally, it seems you played an Action first and then you added a bunch of Reactions to go after it. In the rules as they stand you play cards in any order, but only one Action per turn. So calling the other cards "Reactions" has become unhelpful and misleading, since you may play them before an Action or instead of an Action.
Looking at my rules, I see the same thing. Originally, I had intended the Attributes of Goal and Philosophy to indicate how a character acted. That idea got dropped but the names stuck, which becomes confusing because Goal and Philosophy now exis in a different rules context. Renaming them Philosophy (Nerve) and Goal (Focus) got clumsy and wasn't done consistently. So I've replaced them with Certainty and Hope, which are shorter, descriptive and don't confuse.
The experience has made me a little less critical of the Myth designers and I'm sure that any buyers of Cthulhu Abides will track down dozens of contradictions and infelicities before they're a dozen pages in. I hope they tell me about them. Rule-writing is always a work in progress, it seems.
The long hot summer is coming to an end. Britain has basked under the sun, safe and supreme in the world. Her Empire covers a quarter of the planet, as every schoolboy learns. Her industries are unrivaled and her armed forces undefeated. For the gilded rich, the world is their playing field. For the working poor, the omnibuses have taken them to the pleasure beaches at Skegness and Mabelthorpe and the steam trains, packed with merrymakers, have spilled holidaymakers into the parks of London. The summer has been long indeed.
But now the days lengthen. A mist rises from the fens and soaks into the fields and the hedgerows. Strange figures move across the furrows and loiter under the trees, strange voices are heard in the yard, foreign voices, whispering. Beyond the grey seas, strange news makes its way from Europe and the world beyond, rumours of war and revolution, assassination and threat. "Foreigners!" snort the labourers in the public houses, but their eyes move to the windows, to the fog in the lane, to the unfamiliar face that peers in and then is gone. They return to their beers but now they drink in silence.
The dusk comes on quickly. The men from the picket lines return to their mean homes, grumbling. The women put away their placards and banners and return to their husbands. The regiment marches through the echoing streets to the siding below the embankment where a train is waiting. In Whitehall, new orders are being issued. The newfangled Dreadnought, belching steam, cruises into the night.
It is 1913 and the long summer is coming to an end.
(Extract from the introduction to Season of Mists)
I picked up Megacon Games' new Enter the World of Myth at Peterborough's The Rift store. Here's an expanded version of my review for Amazon.
Myth is a fully cooperative fantasy miniatures game. Each player takes the role of a Hero and everyone works together to complete a series of quests against monster opponents. Because the game is cooperative, the monsters function automatically and the players must combine their powers so they all win (or lose) together. An arena style "Slaughterfield" option allows for semi-competitive play, with the Heroes battling wave after wave of monsters, to "last man standing".
OK, a history lesson. Ever since "Dungeons & Dragons" burst onto the scene in the 1970s, people have wanted to play fantasy adventures as a boardgame - going on quests, fighting monsters, capturing treasures, but without the creative input needed from a Dungeon Master to run the whole story. Terence Peter Donelly's "Sorcerers Cave" was quite explicit about this: "a game that could be taken out of the box and played instantly, yet be different every time," as Donelly declared. Nevertheless, "Sorcerer's Cave" was simplistic and it took Stephen Baker's Hero Quest in 1989 to match up shifting tiles, monster figurines and differentiated character types to a boardgame dungeon. The only problem was that Hero Quest required someone to be the Evil Wizard (Dungeon Master) and control the monsters. The successor to this is Kevin Wilson's Descent: Journeys in the Dark. "Descent" is much more sophisticated and challenging than "Hero Quest", but one player has to be the Overlord (Dungeon Master).
Now, you might feel that if someone has to take on the thankless task of being the Dungeon Master, why don't you just go the whole hog and play D&D? The beauty of "Sorcerer's Cave" was that it was a proper game that everyone took part in together. If "Descent" is the successor to "Hero Quest", then Myth is the successor to "Sorcerer's Cave". There is no Dungeon Master. You all get to be heroes.
The Heroes in Myth are the Soldier, the Archer, the Acolyte (the "cleric" who can fight and has faith-based spells) and the Apprentice (magic-user) as well as the Bandit (a rat-man with stealth powers). The plastic miniatures are beautiful as are the Realms, the thick card tiles representing ruins, swamps, crypts, castles, etc that the Heroes move across. The opponents are Crawlers (insectoid horrors of varying sizes) and Grubbers (goblinoid warriors) who "spawn" from Lairs or arrive as Hunting Bands. The setting is a sort of fairy tale world that reminds me of video games like Fable.
Everything the Heroes try to do comes from cards and each Hero has his or her own unique character deck. The Soldier's cards are mostly combat manoeuvres; the Apprentice mostly has Spells in his deck. Some cards like Sprint are in all the decks. Each Hero Cycle has the players laying out their cards and taking the actions they allow. There's no fixed order to this: it's a fluid game and in a Cycle some players (who draw good hands) might take a lot of actions, others very few. Many cards act as "buffs", helping other players with their actions, so a lot of gameplay focuses on strategizing - getting everyone into position, getting cards down in the right order, then unleashing a complex series of manoeuvres to devastating effect.
The monsters, meanwhile, stand around doing nothing. But not for long. Every significant action the Heroes take adds an Action Point (AP) to a Darkness Chart. The "Darkness" represents and abstract power of Evil and when its Darkness Meter hits 6 the game gets interrupted by a Darkness Cycle. Now the monsters move and attack, each monster having its own priorities in terms of who they go for. Instead, the Heroes now stand helplessly while the bad guys pound on them. Fortunately, there are cards called "Interrupts" that can be played during the Darkness Cycle, enabling Heroes to dodge, parry, flee or strike back.
The main tactic in the game is to watch the Darkness Meter and judge whether you should let it "max out" or not. Sometimes it's better not to play a powerful card if it would trigger a Darkness Cycle at a time when the Heroes are vulnerable, low in health or lacking Interrupts to save themselves.
The other tactical consideration is "Threat". Heroes increase their Threat rating every time they do damage to monsters. Having a high Threat makes intelligent monsters seek you out (which can be a good strategy, since they will ignore your friends) but if your Threat hits 10 you may be in line for a Threat Penalty when the next Darkness Cycle triggers. These can be very bad, such as the monsters gaining more attacks or the appearance of a dangerous Boss. Threat goes down if you play fewer cards than your maximum, again forcing players to choose between using their powers and being restrained.
The core mechanic is rolling a ten-sided die (D10) and trying to roll higher than a Target Number (TN). Equipment, buffs and Darkness Effects may let you roll extra dice in the attempt and may change the TN for the better or worse. You also roll six-sided Fortune Dice (FD) which have symbols corresponding to each of the 5 Heroes and a swirly Darkness symbol. Different combinations of symbols can unlock special effects - generally, it's a good thing to roll your own symbol.
That's the essence of the game. Killing groups of monsters makes them "pop" treasure tokens and clearing a board unlocks rewards. Treasures are drawn from a "Treasure Sack" but over time players get to replace the rather useless white treasures with more and more useful green and powerful blue treasures. Finishing quests adds new quest cards to the deck and gaining rewards adds potent new cards to a player's personal deck. Gaining Titles lets you keep more equipment between quests. All of these creates a pleasant sense of advancement - you start each quest quite weak and under-equipped, but the more successful you've been in the past the quicker you'll power up. The quest cards are arranged in "chains" and completing one adds a follow-on quest to the deck of quest cards. This is also pleasing because it means your achievements have consequences and two groups of players may develop their quest decks in different ways.
All of this is, of course, wonderful. The components are wonderful too. Megacon Games launched Myth as a Kickstarter and the intriguing premise raised them a lot of pledges. When you open the box you can see where the money went. The miniatures are gorgeous, the cards are sturdy, there's a lot under the lid and it all looks fantastic.
"So what am I waiting for?" you say: "Let's buy this game!"
Be warned first of all that Myth is a game that encourages you to be creative. There are lots of choices for players to make. Do you want to play a quick Chapter, an extended Act or an epic Story? Or roam about in Freeplay or slog through monsters in Slaughterfield? Choices, choices. When a Realm tile is laid, you get to decide all sorts of things - is there a Lair? one or two? Hunting Bands? how many and how big? where do they deploy? is there a Trap? It's up to you. Now some people love this, especially if they come from a RPG background. Regular boardgamers may find this frustrating - if you get to decide the challenge, how exactly is it a challenge? This creativity issue extends to many of the rules because all sorts of situations can arise where players have to make their own ruling. This is either liberating or maddening, depending on the type of gamer you are.
Then we have the rules...
Of course, the rule book looks great: sumptuous, full colour, moody, lush. It's also completely unfit-for-purpose. Not only is it incomplete, but the layout is arbitrary and the explanations obtuse. No one could figure out how this game is to be played merely from reading the rules, which are, in effect, a set of designers' notes hastily bound together in no particular order. What you need to do is go to Megacon's site where a lot of downloadable content and tutorial videos can be found. These are very good and clarify things immensely, but there's several hours of viewing here. You'll probably need to watch the tutorials, play the game and get confused, go back to the tutorials and play it again and get irritated, then go to the FAQs on BoardGameGeek and the other tutorials on Youtube and then it'll start to come together. Then you go back to the original rules and you understand what they're trying to say.
Annoying, right? Definitely, especially if you're unpacking the game surrounded by excited kids eager to get some fantasy romp underway. You need to explain that Daddy/Mummy is going to have to go online over the weekend, curse and fret and play it by themselves a couple of times before any family fun can begin. Of course, adult gamers may be used to breaking a new game in this way.
Did I say it was incomplete? It's woefully incomplete. The rules are full of inconsistencies - some are typos acknowledged in the FAQs online, some are translation issues, some are just a good old-fashioned lack of beta-testing. You will look in vain in for Undead monsters (despite them being referenced on the cover art), Darkness Decks for the goblins, several of the quest cards alluded to in the rules, explanations of how poison works, etc etc. Don't get me wrong, the game can be played as it stands, but it is self-evidently incomplete, unlike (say) "Descent", which has a ton of expansions but the starter game is utterly self-contained. This undermines the game's aesthetic value. It's like in video games where you keep coming across locked-off areas or need downloadable content to proceed. Moreover, the holes in the rules exacerbate the creativity issues, forcing players to make their own judgement calls on situations that really ought to be regulated and could, easily and simply, be regulated ... if only the designers had let the game cook in the oven a little longer before rushing it onto the shelves.
For example, the set includes a "mini-Boss" called Yardu, who's a sort of undead ogre - the only undead figure provided. His special power is that he summons undead "captains" called Soulless. No Soulless are provided, nor are there stats for them. Now, you could just use the figures for the troll-like Grubber captains and get the stats for Soulless off the Internet... this sort of fix is OK, but it rubs your nose in the inadequacy of what you've just bought. When you start using Souless you realise their special power is they resurrect undead Shamblers. Now, once again, you can use Grubbers to represent Shamblers and get the stats from the Internet... but if you want to buy the Soulless and Shambler expansion packs you're adding at least £30 to the box price. Now, I'm used to spending £100 on a game once I've bought a couple of expansions, but buying a couple of expansions normally extends the game in radical new ways: it doesn't just enable you to play the original game properly, without inconvenience or irritation.
I hope Megacon bring out "Myth 2" pretty soon - I hope it's a generous box with the Undead miniatures, the missing Darkness Decks and quests and a rewritten rule book. I hope they price it compassionately, given the goodwill they've squandered over the core rules. I fear, I really do fear, they'll dribble out the necessary material in a series of pricey booster kits and that would probably kill the game for me.
Which would be a shame, because Myth is a good game with the potential to be a brilliant game. I can't award it 5 stars because the rules are so shoddily put together. I ought to knock off another star because of the incomplete nature of the kit, but that would make Myth into a 3-star product and I like it much better than that. Here's my solution: a sliding scale!
IF YOU ARE... a casual gamer looking to open the box, read the rules and get an introductory adventure underway, perhaps to please children... ONE STAR, avoid this game, buy "Descent" instead. Heck, buy "Hero Quest".
OR IF YOU ARE... a keen board gamer who is prepared to invest time to learn a game but likes challenge and rigorous rules that can be exploited through tactical and intelligent gameplay... TWO STARS, this game is probably too "fuzzy" for you and the omissions will drive you crazy
IF YOU ARE... a gamer on a budget, worried about the price tag but interested in an innovative new departure in fantasy gaming... THREE STARS, this game is of interest to you but it's not ready yet; if you hang on for six months or so there'll probably be a Second Edition and you might want to wait for that
BUT IF YOU ARE... a roleplayer or miniatures gamer looking for a brand new experience and wildly imaginative mechanics, happy enough to "wing it" in the pursuit of a lively and surprising adventure... FOUR STARS, Myth is the next step in fantasy gaming, finally bringing a RPG experience to the game board