Thursday 27 January 2022

Sister Angela's Veil



Mark Lain

Explained by Mark Lain

Let’s start with the really obvious thing here – I wrote this mini-FF that appeared in Fighting Fantazine Issue 16. So I will try to be as objective as possible and offer some trivia about this piece as we all my opinions on it. The original idea for Sister Angela’s Veil came from one single cameo, the chestnut orgy, itself actually a red herring that serves no purpose to the true path and, more to the point, can lead to you missing an essential piece of information later on, assuming you choose to use an item that can only be found in the orgy room. The concept of this episode is based on a true historical event that I stumbled across whilst watching an episode of The Borgias. Basically a group of corrupt Priests were duped at a feast that developed into an orgy and chestnuts were served in amongst all the frivolity. As it happens, the women involved in this event also wore veils (and little else) so this is where the overall veil idea also came from. So, essentially, I constructed an entire adventure around this one event then I subverted it by making it totally unconnected to the optimum way through. Indeed, the observant will notice a few steals from true history and/or popular culture, but that is a feature of my adventures that I do not try to conceal. The most obvious examples in SAV are: the (Borgia) chestnut orgy; Father Grandier is named after a real 16th Century Priest who was at the centre of the “Devils Of Loudon” case that was documented in Aldous Huxley’s book of the same name, itself the source material for Ken Russell’s 1971 movie The Devils; Grandier’s (potential) suicide by slashing his wrists in the bath is based on a moment in Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose as is the idea of a forbidden book having its page edges laced with poison to prevent prying eyes; the Chapterhouse is based on that found in Wells Cathedral, a room that fascinated me when I frequently visited it when I was growing up in Somerset; the automaton powered by a section of the ground is an amalgam of the daleks’ power source in the first ever Doctor Who dalek story from 1963 and Tick-Tock from Return To Oz

Next came the real point of the piece – the investigation into the missing holy relic of Sister Angela De Culpa (a bit of an Enigma Mea Culpa reference in that name). The veil idea’s inspiration has already been covered but, when I realised that if you write it in the possessive (ie with a s at the end of the character’s name) you get an anagram of what would be the big reveal of the adventure:

Sister Angela’s Veil = Sister Angela Lives

Not the toughest verbal puzzle ever as the name is still evident, but the point is there. As an aside here is the question of why I called her Angela and I honestly have no idea. Maybe a subconscious angel image for religious iconography or perhaps it’s just a pretty name that came to mind and seemed to flow nicely, who knows, but The Name Of The Rose comes into play again in how YOU get involved in the mystery as there is a definite parallel with the sending of William Of Baskerville in Eco’s story and, again, I make no apologies for this.

The location was always going to be a convent in the Moonstone Hills just because I wanted it to be remote to add a sense of your being vulnerable and a long way from home. The convent layout is based on a genuine convent medieval floor plan (I forget which one or where it is), albeit simplified and heavily re-arranged. My original idea was that the convent had turned to vice since the veil vanished and that its residents were now under the influence of a malign trance from beyond the grave as, without the veil’s positive presence, the literal corruption of death had turned the convent into a brothel which would explain why there could be things like orgies going on in there (although I never fully nailed quite how this had come about in logical terms). But this idea got vetoed when I submitted the first treatment to Fighting Fantazine (they said, correctly, that it didn’t quite make sense) so, as I wanted to curry favour and my endgame was to see my work in print to get it some audience exposure, I acquiesced and changed it to an “untainted” convent but that still housed some nasties and a few people of dubious virtue.

At this juncture, let us look at the submission process that eventually led to SAV seeing the light of day in the pages of the ‘zine. After changing the treatment the concept was accepted by the Editor and I set about with gusto writing the adventure. I tend to work quite quickly once I get going so this took a month or thereabouts from first draft to submission-worthy version. I then waited 12 months to get the first set of proof-reading and play-testing notes back from the ‘zine. Various edits, questions, and corrections were suggested and I addressed these as needed (I believe there is still a section mis-link that we all missed, but it wouldn’t be FF without mistakes lol). One issue though that arose from the outset was one that I would not back down on and, subsequently, this does seem to have become something of a point of controversy with this adventure and I have seen it mentioned in pretty much everything I have read about SAV, this being the killing of the changeling in its initial baby form. The standard objection is the morality of killing a baby. I will address this as it is important and, in at least one case, I received a pretty vitriolic comment concerning this episode on an online gamebook forum. I have defended the relevance of the baby kill since the ‘zine first raised it and my justification is twofold: 1) when was FF ever conceptually moral in any way? 2) if you read on from that choice, you quickly realise that the baby is more than it seems when you engage it in a sequence of increasingly tough combats (in other words, by the next playthrough the player will know the truth of this section). So, I submitted my revised text and I waited. And I waited. A further full 12 months later (to the month), I received another set of proofing/playing notes querying more (mostly minor) points and requesting more corrections. By this point, quite frankly, I had long-since lost interest in this adventure and moved onto other projects so I no longer cared and just agreed to whatever they suggested, minus the baby kill which I absolutely refused to excise from the adventure as it is a neat trap for the unwary player (replays should show how to correctly deal with it) and it also links back to an earlier cameo so it adds some coherence too. I acknowledge that, in isolation, what you are expected to do to tackle the changeling may seem unsavoury but context is everything and I think it is a key part of the experience of this adventure.

Once the final draft was settled on by both parties, the next stage was when I was asked for an art brief for the cover, x number of internals, and x number of incidentals. I always like to have the big set pieces and any moments of awe or horror illustrated in my gamebooks, so choosing what to have visualised is usually something that is in my mind’s eye as soon as I design that particular part of an adventure. So this was an easy task, even though the project was, as far as I was concerned, very old news by then. This was the only time that I have been required to write an art brief without knowing who would be producing the art, so I had to write the briefs without the benefit of being able to exploit and play up to an artist’s style. By a bizarre coincidence, the colour cover was by Michael Wolmarans (aka Mike Tenebrae) who I have since worked with several times on my own Destiny’s Role gamebook series and he is very good at interpreting my briefs how I see them. I liked the cover when I saw it – it was striking and captured the sense of mystery that I was looking for, but I have read a lot of negative comments saying that it is a bit too grotesque or unsettling (again, since when was FF meant to be cosy?) However, and this is another unique experience for me adventure writing-wise, I did not see any of the art until the ‘zine issue was published and I was rather less impressed with the internal art by Simon Walpole which is, let’s make no bones about this, pretty poor. I have seen worse in the ‘zine and I accept that this is a fan work, but the art did it no favours at all and is far too bright and cartoonish for what I was looking for. There is no way I would have accepted any of it for a DR book but I did not have any say in the art the ‘zine matched to my text so it is what it is.

This subject neatly brings me to my personal opinion of an adventure written by me. First the positives. There are some fun moments of black humour that I enjoyed: the Potenza curse that renders your weapon useless (ahem); the initial moment where if you refuse to co-operate the book basically says “Sod you, stay outside and die, then”, but phrased better obviously; and the part where you can end up having to blunder your way through the leading of a religious service if you have killed a particular character. For those who focus purely on the polemic baby kill, I say this: I do have a sense of humour after all. And I do like the way that, as a mood piece, it is pretty taut and it definitely has atmosphere. I have seen it described as “weird” which was the intention as I wanted to do something a bit mysterious and outré, whilst also creating a fairly traditional building exploration adventure. In fact, I do think that the overall mystery-solving concept worked well. Generally, I see this as an adventure of moments and I’m not sure how well it gels, but there are several cameos that I really like: the orgy, the scriptorium, the trippy garden and its hidden tomb, the calacorm (who doesn’t like calacorms?), the automaton (which doesn’t quite fit though), and the bathroom Grandier encounter that can go any number of ways and really does require the player to tread carefully and think. When I wrote it, I liked the whipped suspended “fallen” nun but in retrospect it is maybe a bit too sado-masochistic, but then this adventure does get pretty dark (as many reviewers have pointed out) and this was heavily influenced by the 1970s Italian nun-sploitation movies that Redemption re-released in the ‘90s that are utter shite yet oddly compelling at the same time. Plus, this cameo does link to the changeling and adds even more context to what unsavoury events may have taken place in the recent past in the convent. On a similar note (and in the next chamber to the changeling) is the immured nun-wight which is another true history concept (devotional walling in of oneself) that I’ve fused into a fantasy horror trope for shock effect. I think the adventure overall has quite an old school feel, but the added violence and nastier moments do serve to pull it into the 21st Century.

Re-reading it for this review is the first time I have read it since I submitted the final draft (I couldn’t face it until now because the whole overlong saga of getting it into print was too arduous and I hated this gamebook for so long because of this) and it does stand up pretty well, but if I had full creative control and speaking now with the benefit of hindsight, I would definitely do some things differently to address what I see as its negatives/failures. There are way too many Luck tests (often with fatal outcomes for failing) and I doubt a Luck score of less than 11 or 12 will get you very far. Likewise, there are some tough fights so a high Skill is essential, especially if you fall foul of the Potenza curse and/or lose your weapon at Square One (which is maybe a bit unfair, but you are entering what you are made to believe is a holy place so it does add up). The “Angela claiming to be Amandla” moment can just seem like a typo but it is meant to emphasise the lie that links what Grandier tells you so it’s actually a key text prompt for victory, but it did not come across very well and probably doesn’t really make sense so I should have made her lying more obvious (possibly just by choosing a better fake name for Sister Angela to utter). I would definitely make the meaning of the “veil of lies” concept more explicit generally as that is the point of the title (well, that and the anagram that exposes the lies) and the “veil” maguffin. I would also write it how I originally intended it ie with the fall to prostitution angle, but I would definitely give it a more logical base as I would have the time to develop this properly as it was discarded before it got the chance to become something that worked in context. I think overall that my now negative view of this adventure is born out of the prolonged creation of it (and my subsequent disappointment when I saw the internal art) and the fact that it was never quite what I planned it to be. Indeed, when I first started planning this adventure, the process of expanding the ideas and designing the overall map was a very exciting time (especially as I knew where it was going to be printed) but after 2+ years of development hell there came a point where I was just going through the motions, which is a shame really.

There are a couple of important points to note at this juncture. Firstly, the mirror episode (step into it or smash it?) is a trick I used to include in many adventures that I GM’d for friends when we played out scenarios in my early teens. For some reason this idea captured my young imagination and its being featured in SAV is a nod to its inclusion in basically every adventure I ever created when I was young. Secondly, this is the only time I have ever used a Bestiary to mine ideas for encounters to include (in this case, Out Of The Pit for pretty obvious reasons) and we have OOTP to thank for how the whole changeling part found its way into the proceedings. I think I probably chose to refer to OOTP to try and give SAV a more “FF authenticity” feel, but I cannot be certain anymore quite why I did this. I seem to recall that the calacorm was always going to be there so the prison cells were a given and the way you can get knocked out and come to in them is very much a homage to The Citadel Of Chaos.

My personal opinion is that SAV is an average mini-FF in the context of what has appeared in Fighting Fantazine as their output (just like Warlock before it) swung from brilliant adventures to utter dross. The ‘zine has at times definitely offered better mini-FFs than SAV, but there has certainly been some that are inferior to it in its pages too. For a long time it seemed like SAV might be the magazine’s mini-adventure swansong but it looks like there is a new Issue imminent after several years’ hiatus. To close I will ask myself the question “Am I proud of Sister Angela’s Veil?” For sure, I am proud that I got my work published in the ‘zine and I do not take this for granted in any way. That the adventure got a positive comment in You Are The Hero Part 2 from one of the ‘zine’s staff just before it was released was also a pleasing moment for me. Of all the adventures I have written (both amateur and professional) this is my least favourite, but this is as much because I like to complete a project and move on rather than endlessly going around in purgatorial circles revisiting it well after the fact as it is for any artistic or quality reasons. It is way too hard and the true path is very tight but it was designed as a challenge and a mystery to solve rather than a slash-and-collect-your-way-to-victory affair. That it was never quite how I imagined it is a problem that probably bothers me more than anyone else. The bottom line is that gamebooks are created for people to play and art of any kind is designed to both entertain and to provoke/inspire a reaction from those who experience it. The fact that some people have played it and felt compelled to comment online suggests both of its fundamental purposes were achieved but I myself would never rate it any higher than a decent but flawed effort.


  1. I found your blog very recently when I became interested in Fighting Fantasy. Sister Angela’s Veil was the second Fighting Fantasy adventure I ever played (after Legacy of the Vampire). I understand some of your criticisms of Sister Angela’s Veil and I enjoyed Legacy of the Vampire more, but Sister Angela’s Veil was great.

    I enjoyed the theme, atmosphere, and mystery all the way through. It was loads of fun and it made me want to try more Fighting Fantasy.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Ryan. It's great to hear that you have discovered Fighting Fantasy and that you have enjoyed my adventures. There is a huge world of gamebooking awaiting you out there

  2. That made for a fascinating insight into how you got this adventure published.

    The ' next ' issue of Fighting Fantazine seems to have been due forever but still no sign of it !