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Friday, 19 September 2014

Splice the mainbrace!


Pirates are all the rage nowadays, thanks to Jack Sparrow, but back in the mid-90s it was a genre in the doldrums. The heyday of The Sea Hawk and The Crimson Pirate was a half century earlier, Polanski's Pirates in 1986 had failed to rekindle the buccaneering craze, and Renny Harlin with Cutthroat Island was just about to put a hole below the waterline.

I've always liked tall ships and I owned a copy of Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides - though I actually didn't get around to reading it till a couple of years ago. More to the point, Mark Smith and I needed to come up with a clutch of story ideas for the Virtual Reality gamebook series. The ink was barely dry on the deal, but the publisher's marketing department were already asking for a list of the first six or eight titles. We'd already decided not to set the books in one universe, and we'd both had enough of medieval(ish) adventures for a while. Mark went Cinquecento with Green Blood, Coils of Hate, and the never-published Masque of Death. I scattergunned off into apocalyptic SF (Heart of Ice), Mayan myth (Necklace of Skulls)... and Down Among the Dead Men.

It's not quite your traditional baroque frock-coated pirate thing I've got going on here. Dead Men is set in a more or less Elizabethan world, in which the kingdoms of Glorianne (England) and Sidonia (Spain) are getting into a shoving war on the high seas that grant them access to the New World. But your basic piratical ethic is intact, with room even for a few necessary anachronisms.

I always wanted to try my hand at fantasy in a Tudor setting, with conjurers like Prospero and Doctor Dee as character templates.In Dead Men, a slanderous reworking of Doctor Dee becomes William Wild (the real John Dee's granddad). And "El Draque" was a real Spanish nickname for Sir Francis Drake, though here it gets a bit of vampiric twist. And the inspiration for this Caribbean sky, and the scene that follows with its flying ships, comes from a late-night walk across Clapham Common, when the clouds opened up suddenly like an observatory dome to show me the blinding lamp of the full moon sliding across the sky, a galleon under dazzling canvas:
At last the storm blows over and the full moon appears – a blazing white beacon. The clouds go draining away like pools of quicksilver in the vast dark blue dish of the sky. ‘Ship ahoy!’ cries the lookout. ‘She’s the Rose!’ 
That sky whisked me right back to Nightmaster, the comic by Denny O'Neil and Bernie Wrightson, which was probably the first place I became aware of flying ships, or at any rate realized that one day I needed to put one in a book.

The book's title comes from an old song:
We are the red men,
Feathers-in-our-head men,
Down among the dead men.
Pow wow.
Apparently it's not heard much these days because of fears that it's a racial slur on American Indians. Nonsense; it was originally a drinking song. Red faced, feather-headed, you see. "Dead men" are the empty bottles under a tavern table. Hence this song, from John Dyer's toast to the King: "He who would this health deny, down among the dead men let him lie."

I liked the way Dead Men turned out. Its use of 16th century superstitions, of rapiers and flintlocks, felt fresh after years of gamebooks filled with clanking armour and broadswords. Like most of my worlds, there is no day-to-day contact with nonhumans like elves. The setting is so close to real history with sorcery spinkled on as a spice that Joe Humfrey and Jon Ingold at Inkle Studios suggested it could easily be relocated to a real-world historical setting. Queen Titania is obviously our own Virgin Queen (as played by Cate Blanchett anyway) so why not do the minor rewriting to make her so? In gamebooks twenty years ago I suspect that would have seemed strange, but it makes perfect sense today.

Ah, you noticed the reference to Inkle. That's the reason for this post, because today (which happens to be International Talk Like A Pirate Day - pure coincidence, I assure you) Inkle have launched Down Among the Dead Men as an app for iPhone and iPad. This was actually in development a couple of years back, but got caught up in Fabled Lands LLP's abortive partnership with Osprey Books. That was a big mistake that caused me to wrestle all summer long with an appallingly complicated interface (not Inkle's, I hasten to say) to create some epub3 books that never saw the light of day. It was one of those messy tangles of business and corporate politics that Jamie and I quit the mainstream games industry to escape from. And all along we would have much preferred to be working with Inkle anyway. So let me publically announce how glad I am that it all worked out in the end, Dead Men returned to its rightful harbour at Inkle, got refitted as an app rather than a mere ebook, and here it comes now with all guns blazing.

Click on old crossbones there, he'll see that you get aboard without undue keelhauling. Or go to iTunes here, and for a behind-the-scenes including the full flowchart, go to the Inkle blog here. Ah, and I see that a version of the "Down Among the Dead Men" tavern song features in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. Drink up, me hearties.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Four squared gamebooks

Not that anybody asked, but here are the gamebooks or interactive stories that I've personally written or co-written, displayed in order of how well they turned out, starting with Heart of Ice in #1 position and reading across.

The only one missing is the salmagundi that is The Walls of Spyte - which currently isn't even on the chart, but for the new edition I'm stripping out the engine and reconditioning the whole thing so as to try and get it up into the third row at least

No Keep of the Lich Lord? So you spotted that. It's tricky, because I'd put the original Fighting Fantasy edition at around #15 on the list, but the revised edition that's coming out next month might just edge up into the third row around #10 or #11. Maybe I'll revisit this list once I've got enough books to fill another row, then.

All the above my opinion only, of course. Everyone will have their own favourites, though I doubt if many would dispute Heart of Ice's primacy on this list. Take a look at reviews for the top row and see what you think:

Heart of Ice (review by Andy Wright)
Frankenstein (review by Laura Miller)
Down Among the Dead Men (review by Per Jorner - scroll down)
Necklace of Skulls (Per Jorner again)

(Incidentally, reviews are pretty much the only way books can get noticed these days, so let me thank all of the above-mentioned reviewers, as well as Stuart Lloyd, and Mrs Giggles, and Demian Katz, and Ed Jolley, and everybody else who takes the time to review not just my gamebooks but any in the genre. That flame won't go out as long as you keep blowing on it, guys.)

And the nice thing is, not only is the whole of the second row now back in print, but I'm currently involved with digital projects based on all four of the top row titles. The first of those is out tomorrow, so come back then.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Chalk giant

Any excuse for a classic Gary Chalk cover from the Golden Age of White Dwarf. But it's a good excuse. Gary has got together with the guys at Megara Entertainment to launch a crowdfunding campaign for Autumn Snow: The Pit of Darkness, a new gamebook set in the Lone Wolf universe.

For once it's not Kickstarter but Megara's own home-grown crowdfunding platform. In effect you're pre-subscribing to buy a copy of the book when it's ready, and for 29 euros you'll get a PDF and a black-and-white hardback with two dozen all-new Gary Chalk pics, plus fillers.

The new book is by Martin Charbonneau and features the adventures of a female Kai monk. I mean nun. She begins her adventures by picking a thoroughbred from the monastery stables, so a bit of a risk taker, then - which is just as well, as it looks like this mission will take her to the Darklands and beyond.

Money raised will go towards the purchase of dipthongs, digraphs and apostrophes... but more importantly, to pay for those lovely illustrations, meticulous editing by Richard S Hetley, and the deluxe printing we've come to associate with Megara. Oh, and the whole shebang is being overseen by Joe Dever, who will check every detail to ensure this fits in as an official part of the Lone Wolf canon.

I'll finish with Gary's own words, as he knows this world better than almost anyone:
"It’s great to have the chance to go back to Magnamund again, although this time my drawings will be featuring a new character: Autumn Snow. The servants of the Darklords and the warriors of Sommerlund are some of my favourite subjects, so I’d better start sharpening my pencils." 
Read more about The Pit of Darkness here and you can place your order for a copy here.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Blood Sword redux: Doomwalk (part 2)

fantasy gamebook
More designer's notes in "the making of Blood Sword" series, this time another look at Doomwalk. (Part one here.) The covers of this and the previous book in the series, The Demon’s Claw, now credit me as the sole author. Originally Oliver Johnson and I signed to do all five Blood Sword books, but Oliver’s job at Random House meant that he had very little time to spend on them from the start, having to bail out altogether shortly after we started work on The Kingdom of Wyrd. He did return – sort of – for the final book, but one at a time, eh?

Between The Battlepits of Krarth and The Kingdom of Wyrd, a week or so has passed. Between the latter and The Demon’s Claw, the characters are implied to have been adventuring for years. But Doomwalk begins with a Bourne-style cut, following on immediately after the events of the previous book. There’s no particular significance in this. I usually avoided cliffhangers because books couldn’t be ordered off the internet in those days, and I’d learned the hard way about the vagaries of distribution when all the copies of Dragon Warriors book 1 went to the south of England and all of book 2 went to the north. So I tried to make sure you could jump into a series like Blood Sword at any point and if you missed out a book entirely it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Except in book 5, when it really was the end of the world. But, as I said before, more on that in a later post.

I was glad to have the chance to fix the maps, which in the 1988 edition were printed the wrong way round. So you were presented with a map of Sheol at the start of the book, and if you managed to get to the lands of the dead and if you were lucky enough to find the ancient carving on a monolith there, you would uncover… a chart of western Legend showing the location of the island you needed to find in order to reach Sheol in the first place. I was aiming for a certain amount of dream logic, but not in Lewis Carroll quantities. So after twenty-six years it’s nice to be able to put the maps back where they belong.

Talking of maps, I noticed that the artist (not Russ Nicholson; he wasn't the original map artist) had written “burrow downs” instead of “barrow downs”. I’ve never had much luck with artists and barrows. In one early gamebook I described the character crossing a desolate moor at night when an old man steps out from behind a barrow. That became a picture of a geezer with a wheelbarrow. But I digress… All this talk of barrows at least gives me an excuse to run one of my top favourite of all of Russ's pictures, the wights who come out for a meet 'n greet when you arrive in Sheol.

It’s not obvious why we didn’t make more use of codewords as logic flags in early series like Blood Sword and Way of the Tiger. Instead the reader would just be asked, “Did you meet the scarred scholar and ask him about the carved pillar…” or whatever. If you’re playing the book for the umpteenth time, it can be tricky remembering which incarnation of you did what, and codewords help with that. I’ve written a few into Doomwalk including one to keep tabs on whether you’re accompanied by Cordelia’s ghost as you cross Sheol. (The codeword there, incidentally, is WANDER – a little tip of the hat to Team ICO.)

One more part of this reminiscence of Doomwalk to come. That's in a fortnight, and then we're on to The Walls of Spyte and the big Krarthian free-for-all on the final day of all Creation. But what about next Friday's post, you ask? Ah, or should I say Arrrrr!


Monday, 8 September 2014

Gritty adventure on the final frontier

If you've read Heart of Ice, you'll know I like my science fiction grim, dark and with no unequivocally happy endings. Actually, for the most part I like my fantasy that way too, but good SF demands an uncaring universe. In fantasy you can be saved by a mysterious prophecy and a saviour. In (too) many fantasy stories, if things look tough, having the right moral code deep down inside can count for just as much as knowing how to wield a sword or weave an intrigue.

But not in the best SF. That's the tale of mankind confronting a vast, awesome, bleak infinity that both terrifies and calls to us. For the brutal collision between guts and survival I'm talking about Apollo 13 or The Martian, for sheer wonder try Europa Report or Rendezvous With Rama, and for the great and terrible unknown take a look at Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three.

Now there's a new title to add to that list: Kyle B Stiff's Heavy Metal Thunder, released last week for iPad and iPhone by gamebook app developers Cubus Games. The art and sound effects are very stylish indeed, building extra layers of eeriness and menace into the story, which was originally published as a regular prose gamebook for Kindle. Humanity reached its golden age, only to have it all snatched away by alien invaders. The sola system is overrun. You have your wits and your courage. That may not sound like much, but it's what got us out of the caves and up into space in the first place. Now it's time to show those aliens the hard downside of picking a fight with the human race.

Even if SF isn't your thing, there's still a point to all this. Fabled Lands LLP have been talking to the guys at Cubus Games about some pretty exciting projects. (Yes, we have apps in the works with Tin Man Games and Inkle, but we have so many gamebooks that one or even two developers could never handle the workload. And on top of that, we like making new friends.) The plans with Cubus are very hush-hush for now, but you know me. Give it a few weeks and I'll be spilling the beans.

Before all that, though, come back Friday when I'll have the second part of the "DVD extras" for Doomwalk. See ya then.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Living on the Edge

In amongst all the news about the Way of the Tiger last year, you won't have failed to notice that my own favourite Kickstarter goal was the one to have Leo Hartas draw an original fantasy map for the world of Orb. Well, my real favourite Kickstarter goal would have been for my and Leo's Mirabilis project, but you know what I mean.

The stretch goal having been reached, Leo has been hard at work on a map of Irsmuncast-nigh-Edge, a city of the Manmarch. If you're going to Fighting Fantasy Fest you might even get the chance to buy the original artwork. I asked Leo and Orb's creator, Mark Smith, about the creative process.

DM: Mark, when designing a city, do you start out by drawing a rough map or do you prefer that to come later?

Mark Smith: I would do things slightly differently now- but this is how it worked back then. When designing a city I first took into account its geography – and proximity to other significant places – and the reasons why people would either immigrate or emigrate. Then I introduced the random factor of assigning temples from the Pantheon of Orb, and I will only modify that roster of temples if it is absolutely necessary – meaning I can't find a plausible rationale and back story for how and why the temples were founded there in that mix of temples.

DM: Can you tell us a bit about how the city got its name?

MS: Irsmuncast Nigh Edge is a shortening of what was originally 'The first camp of men near to the Rift’ (aka the Edge) and, understandably, it is not that close to the Edge. It’s the first settlement that you would come to in the Manmarch if you were journeying away from the Rift.

Since the Rift is like the edge of the world and spews forth evil and danger we can guess a few things about the nature of the Irmuncast inhabitants These tend to be either hardy or hopeless folk who can/must live under the shadow or threat of an incursion of evil. Some couldn't find success in safer places so had to make a go of it in Irsmuncast. Over time Irsmuncast became stronger- more able to defend itself and was able to sustain or attract wealthy and privileged people like Golspiel and others. The farmlands that supply the city are all to the west of the city as any to the east would be t0o easily despoiled by Orcs and so on.

I noted in the books that it was a city of 20,000 souls. I now think it is more likely it has around 35-40,000 inhabitants. but has reached the maximum sustainable by the farmlands to the west and so food is not overly plentiful.

DM: Leo, your maps have got a real feel for the place - what techniques are you using that give them that edge over other fantasy maps?

Leo Hartas: Illustrated maps, whether of real or imagined locations, must fulfill the necessity of practical use and readability while also be entertaining, adding atmosphere and style to the world.

With the Irsmuncast map, I was provided with a detailed sketch and copious notes to work from. Often the maps I did for Fighting Fantasy had to be based on barely more than a scribble on the back of an envelope. I am happy to work with either so long as there's enough information to do a pencil rough to submit to the publishers and authors. At that point it is easy to see what needs adding or changing and which spelling mistakes I've made (and I always seem to make them!).

To get to that point I lay out the components of the map in pencil on the paper I'm going to paint on (Bockinford 180 lb hot pressed watercolour) to have a pleasing composition and be clear and easy to read. I always have a dilemma at the beginning of any project about going traditional or digital, as I can work in either or a combination. For the Irsmuncast map, I decided on entirely traditional because I felt it should exist as a physical object, giving a little tactile authenticity to a fantasy world.

DM: What sources do you find inspire you when making a fantasy map?

LH: The Way of the Tiger world is loosely oriental, so I started looking online for old Japanese and Chinese maps for ideas of the look. The ones I found were rather short on decorative motifs so I widened my search to include all kinds of Eastern art. In the end I'd not found anything specific so just started doodling possible ideas, building a mash up of all kinds of influences into something that hopefully is new but contains the right cultural "feel". My whole thinking process is pretty fluid in that I don't have much of a plan and change stuff all the time. Even when the colour goes on, although I'll have a rough idea of what I am aiming at, half of it will be experimenting on the paper and trying to rescue it from cock-ups. This gung-ho way of working is probably why I went grey early! During all of this I listen to audiobooks. Somehow the half concentration unlocks an intuitive streak, while at the same time I get to plow through hundreds of novels.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Blood Sword redux: Doomwalk (part 1)

I sometimes think the imagination is a big old cooking pot that carries the tang of every ingredient that’s ever been put in it. A frinstance: long ago at primary school I came across a storybook with big, blocky, semi-abstract illustrations. You know the sort of book, covered in plastic that made a creaky, crinkling sound as you opened the spine. One of the stories was about a cursed ship. It had people’s hands being cut off, is about all I can remember. Now, I was a kid who relished a good fright. I read Dracula at a tender age and started writing my own sequel to it before I was ten. But that story about the ship scared the bejasus out of me. I shoved it back into the book cupboard, did a good job of forgetting it, and then spent years trying to remember exactly what it was that I’d found so terrifying.

If you’re a writer, that’s where the cooking pot comes in. Because I was striving to recapture that special frisson in the haunted ship sequence in Blood Sword 5: Doomwalk.
Black clouds clot along the horizon. Only minutes ago the sky was as blue as a sapphire, now the furled sails mutter fretfully in the easterly gusts. You shiver and follow the mate below. The entire ship’s company is crowded into the forecastle, and oil lamps are lit and the hatches are battened down against the coming storm.
I won’t give away what happens next in the book, but that’s where it was dredged up from – getting spooked out by a story in childhood. And that’s appropriate for this book because, as much as it’s a descent into the lands of the dead, it’s also a journey into dream. This is not the afterlife of fiery torments that Dante described, but a chilly protean clime where you might trip over ghosts creeping about looking for bowls of blood to lap up, or bump into a half-cadaverous goddess in the myths. I mean mists.

The first part of Doomwalk involves finding a way to reach the afterlife so you can go and retrieve the Sword of Life stolen by your enemy, Icon, at the moment you killed him. If you first put in some library time like a good Scooby, here’s how a dusty book you find describes the land of the dead:
Your search through Emeritus’ books drags on into the evening, when the muezzins’ call and the sound of church bells mingle in the dusk outside. A servant comes into the library to light the lamps. You are on the verge of giving up when you find some more references to Sheol. Theodoric of Osterlin Abbey writes that Sheol is a dream landscape comprising fragments of various mythologies. He confirms the claim that you found earlier that mortals can reach Sheol – but adds that the longer one spends there, the more difficult it is to return.
I thought, as was editing this book, ‘Dream landscape? I must have been ripping off Gaiman.’ But in fact I completed the manuscript for Doomwalk a full year before Sandman #1 went on sale. I expect we both had in our blood the same cocktail of Ron Embleton’s Wrath of the Gods and the cosmically bleak stories of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown, we both devoured Norse myths and the gloriously far-out fantasy strips in Valiant, were both reared through adolescence on the same heady stew of Moorcock, Dunsany, Lovecraft, Calvino and others. Or, I dunno, maybe it was just that kickin’ early-80s Afghan Black.

More about the influences on Doomwalk next week, but drop back Friday for another announcement.