FABLED LANDS - collect the set

Friday, 11 April 2014

Are the FL books too tough?

Jamie forwarded me an email he got recently from Johnathan Finfinis, who makes a pretty important point about the Fabled Lands books:
"I have played books 1,2,3 and 4 and lose without a reasonable survival possibility. The monsters are too powerful, you start off with sixteen shards, and there is nothing available in the Fabled Lands for anything under twenty shards except maybe a ferry ride. It's disappointing because I like to play fair, but no matter how hard I try and how careful I am I get killed off.

"Also, how is a level one character going to get two hundred shards to buy a boat? I don't even see opportunities to steal or to earn money. The game is simply too hard! It's unfortunate because I really do like the game and want to play it. One player suggested using a level 6 character and playing book one with that character - which would work, but that seems to be cheating. I think you guys could have made weapons and armor and other stuff cheaper, and given characters more money and a better chance at fighting enemies. I don't like a cake walk but this is way too tough!

"What do you suggest? By the way I bought all six books at once. I want to enjoy playing the series but I want at least a measure of possibility that I will survive!"
Well, that gave me and Jamie pause for thought, I can tell you. We always knew the FL books would be trickier to balance than any ordinary gamebook because there are so many possible routes through. But if it's really the case that the books are so tough that a starting character can't even get going, that's a serious flaw indeed.

What's been your experience of the books? Did you start out in The War-Torn Kingdom with a 1st rank character? Did you need to cheat, or were you able to make your way in the world? We need to know!

And while I'm talking about FL... Megara Entertainment have just released the first collector's edition Fabled Lands book. This is a full-colour hardback and it's on sale on Megara's website for $50. Not cheap, but you do get a whole lot of lavish colour pictures and a foreword by yours truly. The text is mostly unchanged from the original edition, apart from a few places where the illustration deviated from the description - a priest becoming a priestess, things like that. The illustrations that are colorized versions of Russ Nicholson's work are the most successful, for my money, but there's plenty to suit all tastes. This is a limited edition, so if you want a copy then better grab one now.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Wrong Side of the Galaxy and Eternal Detention

Two new books by Jamie - the third Dirk Lloyd and the first in a sci-fi series. See last Thursday's post for more details. But if humour and adventure fiction don't float your boat, or pilot your starship, come back on Friday for some Fabled Lands news.

Thursday, 3 April 2014


Today is the official publication date (in the UK, anyway) for the third of Jamie Thomson's Dirk Lloyd books, Eternal Detention. If you haven't discovered this series yet, you're missing out on a genuine laugh-out-loud fantasy treat. An evil Sauron-like lord of darkness is banished to our world in the body of a thirteen-year-old kid. When he says "I'm the Dark Lord," the Brummie policeman who found him thinks he's saying his name is Dirk Lloyd. He gets stuck with a foster family, complete with saintly foster brother Christopher, and - well, try the books for yourself. This series really is the best thing Jamie has ever done.

Working for a publisher involves lots of compromises. They have their demographic in mind, and it's enough of a coup simply to get such a typically "boyish" novel accepted for 9-12 year olds in the first place. So Jamie has had to give ground on some things. The title of the third book, for example, was meant to be The Dirkest Hour, but there was some problem with that.

Occasionally, whole chunks of the text have to go. Jamie takes this much better than I would - but then, if I'd written the Dirk books they'd be targeted at the Young Adult market and would sell about a tenth as well as Jamie's do, if that. A case in point: when we were developing the series originally, I came up with an idea for a rather creepy, surreal episode that would show that, even though his mightiest powers had been stripped away in our universe, Dirk still had a little magic. Jamie wrote this chapter, but it was one of the bits that ended on the cutting room floor as the publishers excised our darker concepts. A shame, in a way. I liked it. But getting rid of stuff like this made the series massively more accessible to a wide readership, so I can see the publishers were right. Anyway, judge for yourself:

Christopher’s Journal: The Strange Case of Nicholas Van Reysen

Van Reysen is a right knob of a bully, a couple of years older than me. His dad was also a doctor, and apparently my dad and his dad had had some kind of spat over something, so Van Reysen decided he’d pick on me. I called him Nick the Thick – but not to his face, of course!
One day Mum dropped me off a hundred yards or so from school. She really wanted to drop me off at the gates, but I had to beg her not to time and time again, until she finally gave in. It was just too embarrassing to be seen with her. My mum, a vicar! She always had the vicar’s collar thing on as well, so it wasn’t as if you could pretend she wasn’t one. And she always gave me a sloppy kiss, telling me to be ‘a good little boy, for your mummy’. It was just really, really uncool, not to mention yucky - I had enough trouble with my rep already and Mum wasn’t going to do me any good. So I always made her drop me off away from the gates, so no-one at school would see her. Anyway, that day I happened to be carrying Dirk’s Lordi shoulder bag for him with his books and stuff, as he had an early morning dentist’s appointment and was going to be a bit late. Dirk loved that bag – the Bag of Dread Gargon, Hewer of Limbs, he called it. Lol!
As I was walking up to the gates, Nick the Thick came up behind me and clipped me around the back of my head, saying stuff like ‘Dirk’s little bitch, that’s what you are, Purejoie!’ and ‘Carrying his bag – are you his girlfriend then?’ or ‘Chris is gay for Dirk!’ and generally tormenting me like the mindless twat he was. There were some other kids of his year with him and they were all laughing at me as well. I guess Van Reysen thought he was showing off or something.
Then Van Reysen grabbed at Dirk’s bag. I wouldn’t let go, so he shoved me over. I fell over in a heap, and he dropped the bag on my head with another nasty comment. It really hurt and I scraped my hands on the pavement as well. What was worse was that one of his mates filmed the whole thing on his mobile. It got passed around the school, making me look like even more of an idiot. They walked off, leaving me on the ground, red-faced, and holding back tears. I felt hurt, and scared. Ashamed. And I really hated Nick the THICK. I hated him. Why did he have to treat me like that? What had I ever done to him, or his mates?
I looked around, kind of hoping Mum had seen what was going on, but she’d already driven off. Then he’d have been caught bullying, rather than having me dob him in for bullying. That was the problem. I could report him, but then I’d get the snitch moniker, and my life would be hell at school, worse than Van Reysen made it even. Chris the Sneak, Chris the Grass, Chris who had to tell on people because he couldn’t deal with them himself. Which I couldn’t, of course. Van Reysen was fourteen and big for his age.
Anyway, I picked myself up and walked on. Later, at lunch, I found Dirk, Sooz, Sal Malik, my mate Pete ‘Nutters’ Nutley, and a couple of other ‘courtiers’ as Dirk called them, sitting around talking about what it would be like if you could have an orcish football team, cricketing elvish bowlers or dwarven batsmen and such like. Sooz noticed I was looking a bit upset, so I told them what happened.
Nutters said he’d heard about it, and been waiting for me to turn up, as he had it on his mobile phone. Van Reysen and his twat mates had already uploaded it up on the net, and he’d been able to download it. He showed it to everyone. When Dirk saw it, he scowled angrily, his face looking like black thunder. It was amazing how he could actually look a bit like a real Dark Lord sometimes, even though he was only 11. I heard him mutter a few words under his breath – I think it was something like, ‘Nobody treats my friends like that.’ Then he looked at me as if he was embarrassed to admit I was a friend, and said loudly in his best Dark Lord voice, for the benefit of everyone else, ‘Disrespecting my staff is tantamount to disrespecting me and that cannot go unpunished. This Van Reysen shall suffer the wrath of Dirk!’ The Wrath of Dirk - that made everyone laugh, including me, which really helped lighten my mood. Dirk was great for that sort of thing.
Anyway, I didn’t think much of it, until I saw Dirk going up to Van Reysen that afternoon, during break. Van Reysen was sipping a can of some soft drink, with ear phones in; listening to whatever dumbass music a dumbass like him would listen to on his iPod. Dirk snatched the phones out – Van Reysen turned around, looking angry, as if he was about to lay one on him, but Dirk just leant forward and whispered something in his ear. Van Reysen looked shocked, and he actually went really, really pale. He even sort of weirdly cringed away from Dirk. Then he got really angry and stood up, glaring and swearing. Dirk just looked him full in the face, and slowly turned round and walked away, oozing contempt. Did Van Reysen go after him, cuff him over the head, kick him in the arse, or shove him to the ground, or whatever? No, he sort of hesitated, as if he was thinking about it, but then amazingly he just looked around sheepishly, sat down sort of embarrassed like, and stuck the ear phones back in, as if he was trying to block out the world. It was extraordinary! Dirk was just a chubby little 11yr old kid, and Nick the Thick was virtually fully grown.
The next day, at lunch, when we were all hanging around at the ‘Court in Exile’, Dirk announced that ‘His wrath would soon be visited upon that worthless cur, Nicholas Van Reysen, for I have laid my curse upon him!’
We all chuckled, and didn’t think much more of it, but a few days later, something happened at a cricket match that made me think twice. It was an older boy’s match, though Dirk was still doing the scoring, (he was better at scoring than anyone else in the whole school) as well as giving advice from the side lines.
Nicholas Van Reysen was playing, and today he was fielding out by the boundary. But his mind seemed elsewhere, and he wasn’t really paying attention. He was looking over in Dirk’s direction, lost in some kind of reverie when the batsman hit a real humdinger of a ball, up in the air, and straight at him. It was as if time had stopped - everyone froze, watching expectantly, assuming Van Reysen would try and catch it, and they all wanted to see whether he’d make it or not. But it rapidly became clear that the lights were on but no one was at home. Van Reysen hadn’t even noticed. Then everyone started shouting, as the ball was coming down straight at him! Van Reysen turned around then, but it was too late, and the ball smacked him slap bang in the chops.
There was a nasty cracking sound, and Van Reysen fell to his knees wailing in pain, with blood spilling out of his gob. Now, as you might have gathered, I really didn’t have much time for Nick the Thick. In fact, I hated the guy. But I had to wince – I even felt sorry for him. Sure, he was a dumbass bully, but man, that had to hurt!
The sports teacher ran over as fast as he could, yelling for the first aid box, and an ambulance was called. It looked bad, but in fact it turned out later that it wasn’t as bad as we thought. He’d had his two front teeth knocked out, but no bones were broken, and he wasn’t going to die or anything (more’s the pity). Sure, it must have hurt like hell, but he’d get his teeth replaced eventually. I have to admit I didn’t feel too sorry for him. After all, from my point of view, he’d just got what was coming to him.
Later on, the ‘Court in Exile’ were sitting around talking. Dirk claimed the whole thing was the result of his curse and that he’d made the whole thing happen, using his magical powers. And that he’d done it to protect me. Most of us laughed it off as another one of Dirk’s crazy jokes, but Sooz, and even Sal looked a bit uncomfortable – as if they actually believed it, or at least weren’t entirely certain. Of course it wasn’t true (surely not!?) but I also felt a little bit miffed about the whole thing. It made we look a bit useless in front of everybody, as if I needed protecting because I wasn’t strong enough to deal with things on my own.
‘I don’t need protecting Dirk. I can fight my own battles, you know,’ I’d said, rather aggressively, as I was feeling a bit defensive about it all.
‘Oh really,’ Dirk had replied, ‘I didn’t realize you knew that ancient spell, first drawn up by the Vampire Lords of Sunless Keep, known as the Curse of the Extracted Fangs!’
‘Well, Van Reysen certainly had his fangs extracted!’ Sooz had quipped, and that had set us all off laughing again, and I soon forgot what it was that had irritated me. I put it all down to general ‘Dirkness’ but then things took a strange turn.
As it turned out, Van Reysen was back at school a couple of days later, walking around the playground during break, trying to frighten people by glaring madly, and grinning hideously with his gap-toothed gob. He gave me a particular hideous grin, as if he wanted me to know he was back, and as mean as ever. But then Dirk showed up which made Van Reysen suddenly rather uncomfortable. Dirk had some tin box in his hand, painted black and covered in weird red symbols. He shook it in front of Van Reysen’s face, and it rattled noisily – as if, well, as if it had a couple of teeth inside.
‘Give me your lunch money, and promise to leave Christopher alone from now on and you can have your teeth back, as good as new,’ said Dirk.
Jeez, I thought – Dirk’s asking for it now! In fact, we’ll both probably get it in the neck. Van Reysen’ll go ballistic, surely. But no, he didn’t. He just sort of gulped nervously and went pale, just like the last time when Dirk had whispered in his ear. He looked back and forth at us, like a rat in a trap, and then, incredibly, he reached into his pocket, took out a tenner and handed it to Dirk, saying in a cracked, scared croak, ‘Here, take it all – and I promise I’ll never bother Christopher again.’
Dirk just looked at the ten pound note. He didn’t take it. ‘In the tin,’ he said.
Van Reysen gawped at him, then he twigged. He folded the note and slipped it into the slot on top of the tin. Then he looked at me apologetically, nodded and then hurried away, as if he couldn’t get away from us fast enough. The whole thing felt really, really weird, and actually, rather creepily scary. Dirk gave me a look of maniacal triumph, put his hands together in front of his chest, and then gave one of his best Evil Overlord laughs.
‘Mwah, hah, hah!’ rang out over the playground, and that familiar sound set me off as well, so we ended up sniggering our way back to class. But that wasn’t the end of it. The very next day, Van Reysen turned up at school – and his teeth were back! As if they’d never even been knocked out at all. I assumed he’d just had a lot of dentistry work done, but I still had some niggling doubts. So I plucked up my courage, and went over to him at break.
I simply asked him, straight up, ‘How did you get your teeth back, Nick?’
He just gave me a worried look and said, almost under his breath, as if he was afraid to be seen talking to me, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ With that, he walked off. I never spoke to him again. How weird is that? Could it all be real somehow?

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sermons in stones

I had forgotten that Mark Smith's Virtual Reality books were both set in a world which may very well be part of the Rainbow Land of his and Jamie Thomson's Duelmaster series. The name of the Palayal River by the city of Godorno suggests Tekumel, but nothing else about the setting does. The Forest of Arden features in both, though whether it's Shakespeare's, the one by the Avon, or some third high-fantasy variant is not clear.

It does feel quite Shakespearean, these books being very strong on atmosphere. That's especially true of Godorno in Coils of Hate, a city that resembles a nightmarish version of Venice where the walls fairly drip with a dank ambience of distrust and fear. I could ask Mark about the intended setting (possibly it was an unmapped corner of Orb) but it was twenty years ago and he's not likely to remember now.

Mark's titles in the series were Green Blood (love that title) and Coils of Hate. They were the nearest to being interactive novels - rather stronger on the novel side than on the interactivity, to be honest. The characters and locations would make a superb role-playing sourcebook, which is one clue that Mark might have taken them from his notes for the Orb campaign. (Which was not, as I never tire of telling people, even remotely Oriental, despite the Way of the Tiger books.)

And these maps..! I challenge any role-player to look at Godorno and not want to spend a few evenings adventuring there. One of Mark's biggest literary influences is Fritz Leiber Jr, and there's more than a hint of Lankhmar to those streets and canals. It does no harm to have the maps beautifully rendered by Leo Hartas, too.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Spirit Slayer

Megara Entertainment's new app Spirit Slayer goes on sale today. I haven't had a chance to play it yet, but from the look of the screens I think it will appeal to both CRPG players and gamebook fans. Mikaël Louys had this to say:
"Spirit Slayer is a co-production by Megara Entertainment and game designer and author Paul Blanchot. Art is by Mary Nikol and music by Faiz Nabheebucus. It's a sort of reflexes game mixed with elements of RPG, and is available in both French and English (translated by Paul Gresty)." 
If anybody has tried it, why not tell us in the comments what you thought? I bet we all have spirits we'd love to slay.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Blank slates

A while back, I was on the phone to Leo Hartas and he was telling me of an idea he'd had to extend his Playrama cut-outs range. What he had in mind was a series of cardboard figurines for use in role-playing games. Each character would have a name and a made-up background: Sir Percival of Dragonne, that kind of thing.

I was just about to say it myself when I heard Leo's son Inigo in the background: "That's completely wrong, Dad. The whole point of role-playing is that you get to make up your own character. You don't want to be told who you're playing."

Inigo's right. In my view, the referee of a role-playing game ("games master" if you must) gets to control the world, all of the events and the NPCs, but the PCs are sacrosanct. The players are in charge there. If I'm going to start laying down the law to my players about their own characters, I might as well stop running the game and spend my time writing a novel instead.

That's the same philosophy I applied to my gamebooks. It's not easy. On the one hand, you want the reader to feel in charge - that's the whole promise of "YOU are the hero". But to deliver a satisfying story, characters have to be changed by the things they experience. In a second-person gamebook, then, there's the dilemma. Do you make character development explicit in the text (which requires you to tell the reader how they feel about things) or do you let the text just describe what happens and allow the emotional and/or moral journey to occur in the mind of the reader?

It ought to be the latter, but many readers do seem to want spoon-feeding rather than the unfettered freedom implied by interactivity. "The book was unsatisfying," they may say; "it didn't tell me how I was supposed to feel." And in videogames these days we're used to having very strongly defined characters (Lara Croft, the Witcher) and only rarely get the protean possibilities of an enigmatic personality like everyman Gordon Freeman.

In Frankenstein I got the best of both worlds. Most of the book is narrated in first person, allowing Victor Frankenstein to develop just as a character in a novel should - the difference being that your advice shapes how he develops.And in one part of the book, you are given the traditional second-person treatment but even there the inner life of that character - vengeance or love, hope or despair, anger or pity - is entirely up to you:
A thaw sets in as the days start to become noticeably longer. One morning, you are cupping your hands to drink from a pond when a shaft of sunlight hits your face, which appears with fiery clarity in the water.

Of course you’ve seen your reflection before. But this time it comes as a shock. You are so used to spending the day watching the family that you have come to fancy yourself as one of them. The red, gristly countenance with the round yellow eyes and skeletal grimace is like some creature of the depths staring up at you from the water. You feel a thrill of fear, as if it might reach up and drag you down into a mire of darkness from which there is no escape.

You scurry back thirsty to your lair, pulling the twigs and leaves behind you as if that might shut out the scrutiny of some immense, unseen, celestial eye that is somehow judging you. And if such an eye exists, what does it make of you?

* That you are hideously ugly?
* Or rather that you’re different?
Many of my old gamebooks describe events in the character's past - a foe, a murdered friend, a missing brother - and even define a role such as the Dragon Knight of Palados in The Temple of Flame. But the character's emotional and moral reactions to what he or she experiences (and even gender) are left to the reader. The process of reading a book does not, after all, happen on the page but in the mind. The book is a key to unlock creative experiences of your own. Never is that more true than in overtly interactive fiction. The journey is not in the hands of the writer, it's up to you. But for that to work, you have to be willing to bring your imagination.

Illustration by Quentin Hudspeth and used under Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Zero Dark Zombie

If you're any kind of a gamebook fan, you don't need me to tell you that this is another of Leo Hartas's fine fantasy maps. In fact, I see he even signed it, so that'd be the tip-off then.

Stayng Island (named after Jamie's shirt front when he's been eating spaghetti bolognese) was the setting for Fighting Fantasy book 43: The Keep of the Lich Lord - the only one that I wrote. Or co-wrote, rather. The adventure involved a commando raid on an undead warlord's fortress. Jamie did the first 200 paras up till the fortress gate, I wrote the rest. (More or less, though we no doubt did little extra bits in each other's section to make sure it all meshed together.)

When Icon Books started republishing the FF series, Jamie and I kept the rights to Lich Lord. You may even have seen the Megara app a few years back that was loosely based on it. Now we're thinking about republishing it, probably whisking it out of FF's world of Alan and dropping it down someplace in the Violet Ocean. Maybe right in the middle. That way, everybody who says there are no complete adventures (really?) in Over the Blood-Dark Sea will have to eat their words.

The only hold-up is artwork. Megara produced some nice full-colour illustrations for the app, but those were fairly low-res and I don't know how well they would reproduce in black and white. Also, we don't have a cover and, much as I'd like to get original FL artist Kevin Jenkins to do one, he's far too busy (and expensive) these days. But those hitches aside, I think you'll be seeing this back in print before too long.