Gamebook store

Friday, 19 December 2014

Why I write

Back in 1992 I got a letter from an English lad living in France. Let’s call him Jay. He was a fan of the Blood Sword series but he couldn’t get hold of the last book. It was four years after publication and there was no print-on-demand in those days, so I figured there was no chance of getting a copy from Hodder. Luckily I had a spare, which I posted off to him.

Jay wrote back, a detailed letter of the sort I used to write to Donald Wollheim and Arthur C Clarke when I was his age. He discussed his plans to go to GenCon 92 and to find players for a Dragon Warriors campaign. He also recommended Lord of the Rings, which I still haven’t read, and The Hobbit, which I have.

Jay’s letter was accompanied by a very nice note from his father which I have kept and reproduce here, not to congratulate myself on an act of mild generosity, but because every time I come across it, it reminds me of my own relationship with my dad. And “the joy in his eyes”, more than anything, is why I’m proud of the books I’ve written.

I know how something you love as an eleven-year-old (in my case: Marvel comics, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Thunderbirds) ignites a flame of imagination and enthusiasm that can last a lifetime and carry you on beyond that original kindling spark. Jay will be thirty-three now. Maybe he has children of his own. Possibly he kept on role-playing, possibly not. I like to think he cherishes his memories of the gamebooks he loved back then, but even more I hope he cherishes the father whose love for him shines from these few simple words.

Friday, 12 December 2014

An open world built of words

The Fabled Lands were created over whiskies, like a lot of the things Jamie and I worked on back in the mists of the late twentieth century. (Less whisky, maybe less misty – who knows.)

It wasn’t done with the books in mind, not to start with. Jamie had a fantasy radio serial that he needed to write for the BBC, and the first step was designing a world. Tolkien had years to noodle around with Middle-earth, of course, but the BBC operate on less leisurely principles. Hence the whisky bottle and the midnight oil.

‘What’s a good name for the unknown lands across the sea?’ said Jamie. ‘Inconnu,’ I said, and so we got the continent of Ankon-Konu. There might have even been a circumflex accent on it in those days. You know, the exotic touch. Akatsurai was named after a bottle of saki I had sitting on a shelf. And the Violet Ocean because they can’t all be “wine dark”, and honestly, would you drink that plonk anyway?

That was months before we went in to see Mary Tapissier at Pan Macmillan. We pitched the idea of a big, open-ended gamebook series, something that reflected our own role-playing tastes where the players’ goals drive the story. Mary ran the show at Macmillan Children’s and she loved it. Having the land of Harkuna (it was probably Hârku’una in the radio play) to pull off the shelf meant we could get cracking straight away.

Eric Goldberg’s boardgame Tales of the Arabian Nights (reviewed here on Stargazer's World, whence comes the accompanying pic) was probably the biggest influence on the writing style. We couldn’t afford to be decompressed, wasting hundreds of words on long conversations or scene-setting. So our first pass on the books was to tear through the world giving just one or two sentences to each location. “The rolling fields of the west stretch off to the sun, and by night the only sound is of the crickets in the long grass.” That sort of thing.

And we’d lay out the random encounters without any thought yet as to what they’d be: “A cantankerous merchant. A trio of lost maidens. A piercing sound in the darkness.” I’d get Jamie’s and he’d get mine – challenges to each other to get creative. As I refereed a largely improvised role-playing game once or twice a week in those days, the Muse was always nearby ready to lend a hand.

They were a success, those six gamebooks, even though the craze was dying out. We caught the readers who had started out on the dungeon-bashing gamebooks of the 1980s and were now ready to move on. The trouble was the production costs. For not much more than the price of a regular paperback, we had these large-format books with fold-out map covers and lots of artwork. Strong sales didn’t save us. Halfway through, the series was cancelled.

It wasn’t a guillotine blow, more a wasting illness. Marion Lloyd, the editor at Macmillan, came up with a plan to repackage Fabled Lands in smaller format. Bigger margins, with those sales figures, would have let us continue. But publishing by then was all politics, and not enough support could be drummed up at the courts of Uttaku – in other words, the publisher’s Fulham offices. And I can’t blame them. Adventure games and CRPGs were stealing the gamebook thunder. After Lords of the Rising Sun, darkness fell.

Still, Fabled Lands is not unfinished in the way that a TV series like Cupid or Awake or Deadwood is unfinished, canned before its story could be told. In Fabled Lands there is no story – or rather, a hundred story threads from which the player gets to weave the narrative they choose. You bring the motivation, we’ll give you the plot seeds. If we had gone on to twelve books, readers would have got twice as many adventures. But as it is there are almost 4400 sections. That’s equivalent to eleven ordinary gamebooks. Plenty to get on with.

Videogames did sweep away the demand for gamebooks, but twenty years is long enough for an industry to turn right around. The resurgence of vinyl shows that music buyers value a physical artefact considerably more than they do the content itself. And gamebook collectors are rushing to invest in deluxe print editions offered on Kickstarter. So maybe, just maybe, crowdfunding of print books will be the key to resurrecting the Fabled Lands. However, as I've argued before, the only way to make that work is if it goes hand in hand with a digital version.

In the meantime, text-based open worlds are enjoying a resurgence - and why not? It's the only medium that at reasonable cost allows the polymorphously rich and diverse variety of storylines that interactive fiction needs. So if you've been hankering for more Fabled Lands all these years, why not dip into Meg Jayanath's marvellous Indian dream-tapestry Samsara, Gordon Levine's wild western Zero Summer, Yoon Ha Lee's icy apocalyptic SF saga Winterstrike, Alex Livingston's cyberfaerie science fantasy The Annwn Simulation 1985, or the source from which those all flow, Failbetter's massive and brilliant Fallen London? Or, if none of those tickle your fancy, how about Meg Jayanth's project with the fellows at Inkle: the steampunk reworking of Jules Verne's 80 Days. With over 4000 sections and nearly 500,000 words, 80 Days is as big as the existing Fabled Lands series with the evolutionary adventage that, being an app, it can adapt the pace and the quests to fit what you're doing. That's real interactivity, that is.

comic book

Friday, 5 December 2014

Little touches, big effects

I’m not the kind of person who googles themselves. I just wanted to get that clear at the start. No nude selfies in the cloud either, come to that. How it happened, I was looking up Destiny Quest Infinite for a future post and, wham, out of the blue, here’s this reference by Yuliya Geikhman of Adventure Cow about one of my old gamebooks:
Heart of Ice made it clearer for me what I expect from a gamebook: the knowledge that my past actions influenced my current situation.”
That happened to dovetail nicely with a review, equally serendipitous, by Paul Gresty of another Critical IF gamebook (or Virtual Reality, if you must) Down Among the Dead Men.
“…Nuances crop up throughout. When I played as a changeling sorcerer, who knew nothing about my origins, I passed mysterious buildings that seemed oddly familiar, and I wondered whether I might once have lived there, once. When I played as a pirate queen, disguised as a man, I struggled with the difficulty of hiding my sex during my travels with my fellow pirate escapees.”
Those customizing touches are all the way through my interactive reboot of Frankenstein. The things Victor says about the monster, whether he refers to him by name, whether he’s a “he” or an “it”. Of course, Victor’s attitudes (attitudes that the reader has shaped and influenced, by the way) show not just in his language, they inform his every choice too. But we’re talking here about just those small cosmetic tweaks of phrasing. They are every bit as important as the real decisions and points of logic, in the same way that character and theme are no less the lifeblood of a novel than its plot.

Inkle’s engine made designing and writing Frankenstein so easy. I just had to preface a line of text with a tag and Victor might address his fiancée as “my love”, “my dear”, “dear cousin”, or just “Elizabeth”. I made full use of it, I can tell you. When you consider there are over 1200 sections in Frankenstein and pretty much every single one is made up of multiple strands of text that are displayed or hidden according to variables like trust, ambition, and empathy, that’s getting on for a Borges-level order of textual infinity.

But here’s the thing. You don’t need to use a trick like that a thousand times to evoke the sense of a world that adapts to and is reflected by your choices. Tiny flourishes serve just as well. Take the backstory hints that Paul Gresty liked in Dead Men. There might only have been two or three of those in the whole book, but once you plant little seeds like that in the fertile soil of a reader’s imagination, you can grow a whole jungle of implied possibility.

The novelist J L Carr wrote A Month in the Country, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. When he’d first submitted the manuscript, his editor sent it back complaining that, although it was supposed to be set during a sweltering July in Yorkshire, the author hadn’t conveyed the sense of oppressive heat. Carr added three sentences, waited a few weeks, and then sent it back saying he’d rewritten it with the editor’s notes in mind. “That’s much better,” came the reply. “Now you can really taste the sweat.”

With no conditional text, an interactive story doesn’t feel like a reactive environment at all, but only a sterile maze the reader is wandering around inside. But if you’re working in print, put in too many conditional clauses and the book-keeping required by the reader destroys any sense of immersion that the adaptive text is trying to create. Just an occasional callback to the character’s past, or to the actions he or she took already, is enough to create a story where choices feel like they really matter. A pinch now and again, that’s all you need to wake the world up.

Monday, 1 December 2014

I'm dreaming of a dark Christmas...

The first Dirk Lloyd book has finally (YES!) been released in a French edition. Now our friends over la Manche can read Un Démon au Collège and tell us how well the humour translates from Anglo-Saxon into Gallic.

I was interested to read the first review on, which signed off as follows:
"Seul regret: j'aurais préféré un récit à la 1ère personne"
Why that's interesting is that, after having hatched the idea for the Dark Lord series, Jamie and I spent quite a while trying to decide on the best way to tell it.

The first thing we'd written was that catchphrase, "I will tell you all my secrets. But then I'll have to kill you." And that wasn't even necessarily intended to go into the book; it was just a mnemonic for us to remember this one among the many ideas we were coming up with that day.

Having begun with a first person viewpoint, we began feeling around for a voice. I tried two versions of the opening. First narrated by Dirk:

I have found this device and will use it to record what the mortals of this world call my blog.

Blog. I like the word. It has a brutal sound. When I return to my realm, I will have a thousand slaves flayed and on their skins, in the violet blood of the last of the ice dragons, I shall inscribe my Great Blog. My Blog of Final Conquest.

When I get home.

I have been trying to remember what happened. I was falling, falling. But before that. This brain – like the warm, pink, pudgy fingers I must write with – is unequal to the task of containing my dark soul. I must struggle with it and subjugate it. If I am ever to find my way back, I must rise above the petty limitations that have been set upon me. I must make myself remember.

Gargon had unleashed the catapults. Their taut cords made the ground shake as the skies darkened with roiling, smoke-trailing, spark-splashing balls of blue fire. I watched the faces of the White Riders, too close-packed to turn their horses before the barrage rained upon them. Under the steel visors, those grim-set mouths went slack. They knew that death was flying to consume them.

Ah, such a glorious day.

It was all going so well. I see the battlefield as in a mist, a blood-red mist. We were beating them back. Those impudent fools who had marched to the very heart of my kingdom, there in the shadow of Mount Dread, in the wan light cast by the dark moon of sorrows, they saw the powers at my command and their hearts were icy with fear.

But then I caught sight of that meddling wizard, Hasdraban the Pure. Across a sea of battling troops our eyes locked. I began the incantation of the ninth demise. He held something – a crystal. It shone with power. I had spoken the sixth of the nine syllables that would crack his old veins and spill his blood like dust upon the wind.

Hasdraban said one word. The crystal blazed with light. And I was falling… 

This sequence actually did make it in modified form into the finished work, but it wasn't right. In a way, telling the story from Dirk's point of view was over-egging the pudding. Also, it made it very hard to get the distance required for comedy. A technique that works brilliantly in The Diary of a Nobody is less effective when the reader doesn't have any way of knowing if the narrator is unreliable, crazy, or a genuine dark lord.

So then I had another stab at it, this time using Dirk's foster brother Christopher as the narrator. I think the idea now was probably to have several different first-person narrators giving us their take on Dirk's story:

"I will tell you all my secrets. But then of course I'm going to have to kill you...”

Those were the first words that Dirk had said to me personally in the whole time he’d been under our roof. It’s not like I hadn’t wanted to make friends, but after being ignored all day I think he could’ve opened with something more chatty, like, “Do you know the cheat codes for Halo 3?” or “What’s with that dork who’s lead singer in Travis?” Threatening to kill someone, even in fun, is a bit weird when you’ve never even spoken to them before.

I stared at the bar of street-light on the ceiling. Dirk was a black silhouette in the spare bed on the other side of the room. I decided it’d only make me look soft if I asked him what secrets he was talking about. Looking soft is a bit of a specialty of mine, to be honest. But I’m working on it.

“Whatever,” I said.

The alarm clock beside the bed ticked out a minute in the darkness. I couldn’t even hear Dirk breathing. There, I thought, that’s told you.

“I am trying to decide,” he said at last, “whether you have passed out, overwhelmed by mind-numbing terror of what I might tell you, or whether mere subservience has struck you dumb.”


“I am waiting.”

“You what?”

I saw him rise on his elbow, eyes boring through the darkness of the bedroom at me. Outlined by his shadow, he looked bigger, although I knew that if anything he was shorter than me and kind of on the skinny side. No reason for me to feel intimidated, especially not in my own home, in my own bedroom. But there you go. It’s like I said. Soft.

“You were about to say something,” Dirk went on. “You got as far as the first word and then you stopped.”

“I said whatever. As in: whatever. Now why don’t we get some sleep. It’s all right for you, but I’ve got school tomorrow.”

“Whatever what?” I caught just a flash of a smile in the darkness. It was a trick of the light, of course, but his teeth looked sharp as needles.

“Whatever. That’s all. Nothing else. Just – whatever.”

Dirk lay back with a chuckle. He seemed to be talking to himself. “Just whatever. No more than that. Whatever! I like it.” He turned to me again. “I thought you only had the makings of a lickspittle – “

“Now steady on!” I didn’t know what a lickspittle was, but it certainly didn’t sound like a compliment. In fact it sounded like you might have to lick spit, which was verging on an outright insult. I would have got up and thumped him right then, if I hadn’t been a little bit afraid of him.

Now, don’t think that’s me being soft again. I may be easy for other people to push around, but I don’t flinch from getting into a scrap, even if the other bloke is bigger. I’m not a coward. The thing is, small as he was, almost everybody was a little bit afraid of Dirk.

You’ll see. Later, you’ll see.

“I thought you had the makings of a lickspittle,” he repeated, “but now I see you have spirit. Stripped of the stultifying blanket of civilization – “ and here he kicked back his duvet for emphasis – “I think you could be rude, opinionated and badly behaved. I like that.”

“Er, thank you. I think.”

“You will be my henchman in this benighted world, Christopher.”

“Call me Chris, mate, everybody d- “

“I shall call you Christopher,” he announced, turning over to go to sleep. “And you shall call me – “



If you've read the Dark Lord books, you'll know we didn't  go with either of these styles. And you probably don't need to have read the books to see that neither approach above was bringing out the comedy inherent in the concept. Well, that's okay. When you're developing an idea you try things on for size. Different viewpoints, different voices, past or present tense.

Luckily Jamie then took the plunge (that's a pun if you've read the first line) and wrote the opening chapter, dropping us in medias res and using the close third person viewpoint often described as free indirect. After that there was no debate. It was obviously the best and funniest way to handle the series, and Jamie got the writing gig - which incidentally skewed the book younger than I was envisaging, and just as well too. It wouldn't have won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize (yeah, sorry, but that is what they call it) as a darkly dry-humoured novel for teenagers - although, ironically, a little of the early-stage concept of it as a book for older middle-graders survived in the series's UK title, Dark Lord: The Teenage Years.

By jumping right out of the YA bracket, Jamie found a simple, fun style that appeals to kids and adults, and thus a series that can be read by mums and dads to their children. Which makes the Dark Lord books - and all of Jamie's fiction, come to that - pretty handy if you're stuck for a Christmas present. Mwo ho ho.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

You wait years for a Lone Wolf crowdfunding campaign...

No, not that Lone Wolf project, this one. This one has Gary Chalk art. Oh, but so did the other one. I'll tell you the first thing that sprang to mind:

"Nigel gave me a drawing that said eighteen inches. Now, whether or not he knows the difference between feet and inches is not my problem. I do what I'm told."

"But you're not as confused as him, are you. I mean, it's not your job to be as confused as Nigel."

Actually it's really simple. The other crowdfunder was for a new series of gamebooks set in Magnamund but not starring Lone Wolf. This, on the other hand, is a boardgame and it does star Lone Wolf, along with other famous characters from the books such as Giak Kootak and Rotzon the Cener. (I think that's him below with the big old book and the curtain rod.)

Confused? Maybe you should read Richard S Hetley's guest post about the Lone Wolf Boardgame on Lloyd of Gamebooks. That will explain everything. Go ahead, I'll wait.

What makes this special enough to be worth your hard-earned shards? Well, even if you're not a fan of the Lone Wolf gamebooks, any boardgame designed and illustrated by Gary Chalk is a must. Here's the guy who created the look and feel of Magnamund, who shaped the imagination of a generation of tabeletop gamers with his Games Workshop artwork & game design, and who has illustrated scores of beautiful books. On top of that he's a genuine gaming enthusiast himself with that rare combination: passion and talent, both turned up to 11.

For this Kickstarter campaign, Gary has teamed up with Megara Entertainment, who we might have mentioned before, and Greywood Publishing, the publishers of the very short-lived Fabled Lands RPG. The campaign has just one week left to run, and with your help it can still reach its target. Find out all the details here.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Just my cup of tea

Still on the theme of Necklace of Skulls, what do you reckon to this far-from-ugly mug? It's one of a set of sixteen created by Cubus Games from the beautiful Mayan-themed artwork of Xavier Mula.

Click here to see them all. Which is your favorite?

Monday, 24 November 2014

A talk with Jaume Carballo

Still (sort of) on the Necklace of Skulls theme this month, I had a long chat with Jaume Carballo, creative director at Cubus Games. You can read the first part here. Jaume is an interesting guy - the first time we got talking by email he was quoting Hobbes, which is not something you often find in the games industry following straight on from a discussion of logic markup. He's a big Hitchcock fan too, so it didn't take us long to bond.

In our latest chat, we surprisingly don't get onto cinema or philosophy, though we do cover all kinds of topics involving games and stories, and the combination of both. Also quantum physics, Game of Thrones, comics, and what to do if we had a time-travelling DeLorean. (And we got into a very long digression about the Catalan question, but I suspect that the other fellows at Cubus will censor that bit.)

The picture? I didn't have one of Jaume, so that's me in a very cold, squelchy and un-Barcelona-like part of south-west England.