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Friday, 1 August 2014

Blood Sword redux: The Kingdom of Wyrd

Blood Sword
The Kingdom of Wyrd is where the Blood Sword saga really begins. Well, kind of. You've already met your Big Bad in the form of Icon the Ungodly, the scene has been set with scheming celestial Magi and a gritty medieval world, and if you don’t know the rules by the time you get out of the Battlepits then no crash course will ever help you. But this is the book where you’re given the quest that’s going to carry you through to Doomsday. Literally.

I wonder if I even knew what the Blood Sword was going to be when I got started on this series. Most likely Oliver sold it to the publisher on the strength of a lurid title. (That’s why the “dragon” in Dragon Warriors. “It says fantasy.” Me, I wanted to call it something like Dead Men and Heroes, but these were children’s publishers we were dealing with.) So, title first, and only then we will have figured out how to get a Blood Sword into it. Readers will notice that most of the time in the books I call it the Sword of Life, not least to try to distance myself from the gore-dripping logo the art director saddled us with.

An ancient magic weapon split into pieces that you must collect… Hmm. That will have been Oliver. And it sounds like I’m scornful, but he was right. Even back then, I’d have wanted to design the series like my role-playing games – and my campaigns are never about saving the world – but Oliver was forever reminding me that these books were for kids, and the top-sellers in the market were Fighting Fantasy, which back then never knowingly used an original plotline. Reviewers have observed that in among all the epic world-saving, what really interests me is the personal. People, not ideas. But I can see it helped to have that MacGuffiny treasure-hunt arc to hang it all on.

Each Blood Sword book has a theme, and in this one it’s the danger of idealism hardening into totalitarianism, revolution coagulating into stasis. Now, I tend to think that gamebooks are better the less dungeon they have in them. By that I’m not ruling out all scrambling through chthonic spaces, just those tidy-as-a-carpark catacombs where you get a logic puzzle in one room and orcs playing skittles with a baby goblin in the next. But I said to a role-playing colleague, Mike Polling: “I need to suggest the stultification of the imagination, a world where somebody gained the power to shape dreams but their dreams have all grown stale and a bit boring.” And he said: “You just described a dungeon.”

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So in a way that’s what the Warlock King’s palace is. A classic dungeon (no orcs, though; no skittles) and it’s justified in story-terms because it’s all a construct in his mind. The Kingdom of Dreams is the role-playing game where you have to take on the Dungeon Master and slay him. Very apposite for my style of role-playing, that.

The palace isn’t a big part of the adventure, though. Much more of it is a free-wheeling wander around the world of Legend encountering a variety of mad, bad, dishonest, decent, driven, daft, wise or vengeful NPCs. The feminine principle is a big factor in this book. Look how often your bacon is pulled out of the fire by a woman. It’s not that I think the female mind is actually any wiser or more creative than the male, but in the world of mythological archetypes churning away under the skin of the story here, the Warlock King is the ultimate Bad Dad, all controlling and about what’s good for you, while characters like Uraba the seer and the old lady in the woods are aspects of the Mother, the Yin that bends and flows around all opposition. Who knows why I took it in that direction. Margaret Thatcher was in power at the time. She was Britain’s very own Warlock King, driven mad by being too long in power and too absolute in her convictions. So maybe I felt we needed a nice feminine example as an antidote.

Talking of which, my favourite thing about the book is Uraba. She was unexpected. I was learning that good writing is about surprising the reader. And I liked starting the story in media res, something I took to Jason Bourne levels in book four.

The vampires out on the pack ice were swiped from August Derleth’s story “The Drifting Snow”. I read it once when I had a bad cold, and in that slightly feverish state it stayed lodged in my subconscious like a psychic cyst. And then, writing about those poor half-starved player-characters shivering under the gleam of Red Death, it came back to me. Merci, Monsieur le Comte.
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Oliver Johnson had even less time to help out with this book than on The Battlepits of Krarth. I detect his hand in much of the last act of the book that takes place inside the Palace of Eternal Dusk, especially the doppelganger on the funeral bier and the various mythic trials – the Leaves of Remembrance, the Handmaidens of Oblivion, and so on. Giving a personal name (Gristun) to the Warlock King’s guardian beast, that will have been Oliver with his background in early Gothic literature. Always mainlining the Hippocrene, him. And I’ll bet he thought of the old knight who needs your help with the Lady in Grey – not least because she doesn’t fit the prevailing theme of this book that the women are the trustworthy ones.

The most purely Johnsonian bit in the book is Captain Lazarus and his obsession with the World Serpent – except I’m pretty sure I’m the one who came up with all that. We were like Lennon and McCartney, you see, amusing ourselves by pastiching each other’s style. (The walrus was Paul.) And here’s a funny thing. Editing this book, I was baffled to find that Lazarus doesn’t quietly slip off into the brine if his goal is thwarted. I could have sworn that scene was in there, but I searched the flowchart and couldn’t find it. Then I realized I’d put it into the novelization of this book, and it was so delicious and fitting a bit of character development that I was tempted to retrofit it into The Kingdom of Wyrd. But no, I did promise this would be the classic version. All those revisions can wait till the next edition.

I say that, but I felt the denouement was too unforgiving. I wouldn’t kill my players in an RPG just because they failed to find one item. So I tweaked the final duel with the Warlock King to give you more of a chance. Oh, and classic edition or not, the Enchanter has a whole new spell that can be very useful on those tactical maps. You’ll see.

This book has one of my favourite Russ Nicholson pictures, the one of Blue Moon’s meteorite stalker. And the original cover wasn’t nearly as awful as the image of Slimer (seriously, why?) on Battlepits. It's a meaty 570 sections, about 68,000 words not counting the glossary and the rules; I like having room to stretch. Kingdom is the book where the series really starts to hit its stride. Next up: The Demon’s Claw.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Blood Sword redux: The Battlepits of Krarth

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When I first decided to revise the Blood Sword books for a new edition, what I had in mind was a hobby project that I would tinker away with in odd moments of spare time. Where do these follies come from, eh? It soon became obvious, as it should have been from the start, that with an interconnected series like this you can’t edit bits in isolation. Blood Sword is a single gamebook epic comprising over 2800 sections. Pulling it all together takes a lot more focus than a half hour a week.

All right, plans are made to be altered. Fifteen years in the videogames industry should have taught me that if nothing else. So I hauled out a pad of A3 paper and set to flowcharting the whole of Blood Sword, start to finish.

Did I mention 2800 sections? By the halfway point I felt like Dantès scratching marks on the wall in the Château d'If.

There’s no Monte Cristo treasure at the end of this one, but it’s been an interesting exercise. I wrote the Blood Sword books over a quarter century ago (gulp) and firing up those same neurons after all this time is really odd. It’s like reloading a ghost. Some ideas and scenes seem so familiar, still part of the imagination I share with that 25-year-old revenant. Others are the work of a stranger. Sometimes I’m reading a piece and I find a grin of admiration on my face – “Now that’s cool!” But always I’m aware that I’m a different person now. I wouldn’t write these books, and if I did I’d write them a very different way. Like I say, interesting.

I also see the truth here of Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory. (You can frame that sentence, by the way, as I’m not usually one to quote Malcolm Gladwell.) You learn to be a writer by writing. I know, because I can see it happening here: the leaps-and-bounds improvement from The Battlepits of Krarth to Doomwalk.

And then there’s The Walls of Spyte. We’ll get back to that one.

As I’m gearing up to the republication of the books (sometime in October, maybe, probably, hopefully) I thought it might be worth sharing some of the things I’ve remembered or discovered while editing the new edition. I’ll start with The Battlepits of Krarth.

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It is, as you can guess from the title, a dungeon adventure. This last-man-standing type adventure was originated by Steve Jackson in his Death Test gamebook in 1978 and later picked up by others – most notably for British readers by Ian Livingstone in Deathtrap Dungeon in 1984.

But here’s the thing. I’m not interested in dungeons. You can keep your mules and your ten-foot poles. That’s not the kind of role-playing I do. So, first question: why the Battlepits?

I don’t know for sure, but I expect Oliver (Johnson, my co-writer) will have insisted on making the first book an easy-in. Oliver was always the one reminding me of the need to keep those early gamebooks commercial, and pointing out that the typical reader was not a twentysomething roleplayer but an eleven-year-old schoolboy. Re-reading them now, I don’t think I kept that in mind at all. There are drugs and prostitutes and gruesome deaths. But then, look at what eleven-year-old schoolboys (and girls) are into nowadays. There are videogames my godson played at that age that make the golden era gamebooks look as tame as Muffin the Mule.

So The Battlepits of Krarth was to be a tutorial level for the series. Despite agreeing to make it a dungeon, I notice that at least the first third of the book consists of finding a patron. The gates of the underworld only open for act two. I mentioned before that Oliver Johnson co-wrote the book with me. I wrote everything up to the entry into the Battlepits. From that point, I flowcharted the rest of the book and gave it to Oliver in the form of brief summaries of each section. Our thinking was that if he then worked up my summaries into full-length prose, we could call that a fifty-fifty job. It was better to do it that way because, well, let’s just say that Oliver is an absolutely brilliant fantasy writer and role-playing umpire, but his forte isn’t flowcharting.

What Oliver got from me were about three hundred entries that read something like:
213
You natter to ghostly Magus Zyn who wants you to assemble the old giant’s bones. Do it (33) or tell him to find another patsy (361).
The snag was, between getting the series commissioned and writing the first book, Oliver had taken a job. Suddenly the long days of creative leisure were behind us, the musing with story ideas as we smoked and listened to Lou Reed and Brian Eno, the impromptu role-playing sessions over a pint at the Devonshire Arms. Oliver scheduled the week before a family holiday to rewrite my summary sections. He dropped the manuscript off on the way to the airport. “I’ll do some clean-up editing before we hand it in,” I said.

He looked a little nervous. “It might need it.” The taxi was waiting.

I got a cuppa, sat down and I turned the page. Some mistake, surely..? It read:
213
You talk to ghostly Magus Zyn who asks you to assemble the old giant’s bones. You can do it (33) or you can tell him to find another patsy (361).
And what I’d expected Oliver to turn that into would be something like:
213
An insubstantial figure appears – not even a ghost, but the spell-projected image of a ghost. Magus Zyn, undying and eternal enemy of the magi. The last of the True Magi.
‘You have the means to resurrect Skrymir,’ says the ghost. You start to reply before realising that it cannot hear you. It is just like a recorded message, a spell cast here to instruct any who should arrive with all the fragments of Skrymir’s skeleton.
If you assemble Skrymir’s bones together, turn to 33. If you decide against doing that, turn to 361.
The deadline was a week away. That was a very busy week for me. I had forty thousand words to write, give or take. Walter Gibson could bang that out in a day, but the Shadow stories were continuous narratives. I wouldn’t like to try writing forty thousand words of good prose in a week, but if it was a single story it might be just about possible. When it’s cut into several hundred chunks it gets a lot harder. And I had all those tactical battle maps and stats to work out too.

Well, the book came out okay. It’s not the best of the series. Most reviewers agree that the story really gets going in book two, The Kingdom of Wyrd, and that most of book one is origin story and set-up. I’m surprised to see that we didn’t even mention the old Sword of Life itself in Battlepits. When I rewrote the series as novellas some years later, I rejigged the order of events to have the quest become the main inciting incident. If I were fully revising the gamebooks now, I’d do that, but I’ve decided to make this the classic edition. That means I’m only changing stuff that really needs changing. Later (maybe much later) I’ll get to work on an all-new, streamlined, rules-lite version, and then I’ll put the quest right up front where it belongs.


Things I like about Battlepits. The dungeon has quite a mythic feel. It’s not like a series of tunnels excavated under the citadel, with an orc band in this room and a riddling mage in the next; it’s more as if you’ve dropped into The Dreaming. The rivalry and intrigue among the magi is a little bit Vancean, and is definitely the sort of thing I’d put into one of my role-playing games. The dénouement has an authentic Dragon Warriors touch of “downbeat triumph” about it. Skrymir is surely Oliver’s idea – a brilliant, macabre, doomful encounter that’s how a giant ought to be.

Things I’d have dropped if this were the all-new edition. Grandmaster Klef’s coin game. Any abstract puzzles or random/unfair events. About half of the “dungeon”.

At the time I didn’t really want those tactical maps, but now I’m thinking they could work rather well if the books were converted into apps. One of my gaming buddies, Tim Savin, helped out with playtesting the new edition, for which I slightly modified the tactical rules and some of the character classes’ special abilities. He ran Battlepits as an RPG adventure for his kids and they enjoyed it. I think they wouldn’t read most gamebooks these days, but Blood Sword maybe needed twenty-six years to find its perfect readership. It’ll be interesting to see if this new edition can reach beyond the hardcore of the nostalgia market and achieve what I always wanted it to do: bring people into roleplaying.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Fighting Fantasy Fest

I did a lot more work on Fighting Fantasy projects that didn't get published than did. Some got repurposed as books in other series, others went into the Negative Zone where only blog posts can reach. For example:
Anyway, this isn't about me. Fighting Fantasy stalwart Jonathan Green is one of the organizers of the first Fighting Fantasy convention. (Yes, the first. That surprised me too.) It's being held in London on Sunday September 7 and there are just two weeks left for you to buy tickets. Lots of talented artists and writers such as Chris Achilleos and Russ Nicholson will be there. And Jonathan will be launching his Kickstartered book You Are The Hero about the history of gamebooks. Don't miss it.

New news (July 21) - I just heard from Leo Hartas that he will be there (because he'll be staying over at my place while in London) and that he might be auctioning his latest gamebook map.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Warbringer - and the rest

fantasy gamebookThe juggernaut that is the Way of the Tiger new paperback edition rumbles on, reaching book 5: Warbringer. (Or Warbringer! if you're a purist or just generally a bit shouty.) You can get it right now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon France, or - well, you get the picture.

That just leaves book 6: Inferno, you may be thinking. Not quite. Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith, the original authors of the series, have licensed David Walters to whisk Avenger out of that car as it went over the cliff (metaphorically, okay - I know it was a giant spider's web) and bring him/her back for further adventures starting with book 7: Redeemer.

The new books are being managed under the watchful eye of Richard S Hetley, series editor and the head honcho of Megara Entertainment US. These guys really know their stuff. I recently almost got sucked into one of their conversations about tweaking the WOTT books for reissue, and it was like steering too close to Sagittarius A*. Luckily I escaped without my mind being turned into spaghetti by the narrative tidal forces at work. Here's a taster:

Richard S Hetley: The first problem came in how book 6 adamantly refused to accept that I didn't bring Foxglove along. Did you know it's possible to call her from the grave by using Poison Needles?

Dave Morris: Hmm. Counter-intuitive…

David Walters: For all the Foxglove permutations, book 7 relies on the fact that she is either dead, exiled, or with Avenger into the Black Widow's web I did not come across any other option, if you do please let me know.

RSH: I'm not clear on Foxglove's status in book 6 yet. She can wander off across the land after failing to enchant you. She also can be sent into the Rift with Cassandra. I haven't followed these threads yet, but as far as I can tell the book forgets these two options exist. I'm open to any word on what does/should happen with them.

DW: I am sure I have it covered. Since she is under a geas to return to the Black Widow whether living or in spirit if dead, it doesn't matter what the outcome was in book 6. The one thing I can promise is that choices from book 6 are referenced, for example if she charmed you or if she died you will have different paragraph options.

DM: Guys, listen. I'm finding this all fascinating but utterly impenetrable, not being familiar with the problems of book 6 in its original form...

DW: Dave, I find my own thoughts impenetrable at times!

DM: All it needs is for some extra bits of explanation, along the lines of:

-"But Glaivas couldn't have known that Kwon was in the Inferno because the last time he saw Kwon was on the Island of Tranquil Dreams."

-"Right. So I suggest that we put in an extra sequence where Foxglove tells Avenger that she passed Glaivas on the road and he mentioned that he'd been told by Dore that Kwon had gone to Inferno looking for him."

Or something like that. You get the drift.

RSH: Well, aside from your "so a ranger, a monk, and a deity walk into a bar on the lake of boiling blood" example…

For Foxglove, my work so far suggests this is the full set of Foxglove Dispositions(TM) :
  1. Foxglove is with you
  2. Foxglove has enchanted you
  3. Foxglove is Cassandra's prisoner
  4. Foxglove is dead
  5. Foxglove is exiled
  6. Foxglove has become separated from you
I tried to merge the last two, since both of them mean she's off wandering on her own devices, but combining the terms sounded dumb. The only ones you can possibly have at the same time are "Foxglove is with you, and she has enchanted you." If status changes, the book says something like "Cross off any other notes about Foxglove and note that she has become separated from you." That is, enchantment breaks if she wanders off, because the original implied it that way in section 302.

One problem is the book doesn't care whether she's Cassandra's prisoner. I may have to allow her to appear during the final confrontation, wreaking havoc there just as she would otherwise. If I do, then it's likely the Character Sheet will still read she was "Cassandra's prisoner" after the end. So, David, if you use "with you" status to mean she falls into the web in book 7, you should probably use "prisoner" status as well.

Is this confusing yet?

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Friday, 4 July 2014

We can make this easy, or we can make it hard

Some doubts having been raised in comments recently about the art standards of a prospective full-colour Blood Sword book, I thought this promo image from Megara Entertainment would dispel any doubts. If you still need convincing, take a look at artist Sébastien Brunet's gallery. (Not that I think he'd use that cartoony style from the gallery, nice as it is, for our gamebooks.)

Fabled Lands Publishing will be licensing out the Blood Sword colour hardback to Megara for release in 2015, and my understanding is that it will feature both original art by Sébastien and colourized pictures by Russ Nicholson. But as I explained in a recent post, we're turning the traditional publishing model on its head by leading with the paperback edition.

The first of those, The Battlepits of Krarth, should be out in a month or so. Don't worry, I'll give you plenty of warning. My first thought was to put these books in the same 5x8 format as Fabled Lands, Golden Dragon, Critical IF and Way of the Tiger - because, after all, tidy bookshelves matter. But those didn't do full justice to the tactical maps and Russ's classic illustrations. So I'm now switching to a larger size (5.5 by 8.5 inches, or 140mm by 216mm) and really pushing it to get all five books in the series out in time for Christmas. Yep, you're going to need a bigger stocking.

As for the picture above - does this ring any bells?
The only way to get across the gorge is via one of two bridges that span the distance to the temple terrace. A waterfall cascades over the middle of the platform, bisecting it and cutting you off from the further of the two bridges. Looking up, you see a huge gargoyle head carved into the cave wall near the roof. The water issues from its mouth, cascades down in a torrent across the middle of the platform, then pours down into the swirling river far beneath you.

As you consider the two bridges, a booming voice makes you look up once more. The mouth of the gargoyle is moving, and by listening hard you can make sense out of the deep rumbling words. Over and over, it intones: ‘Face that which you fear most, or confront a lesser foe.’

Presumably it is referring to the two bridges. You could cross the nearer bridge with no apparent trouble, but to get to the further one you must step through the waterfall. The gargoyle’s words are weighty with ambiguity. Which to choose?

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Talk of the Devil


Each season of my comic book epic Mirabilis: Year of Wonders sees hero Jack Ember facing a different adversary, but overarching all four seasons is the Big Bad who will present Jack with his most personal and fraught challenges. The Kind Gentleman is not overtly the Devil, but Jack's mentor Talisin at one point calls him "humanity's darkest dream" and - well, draw your own conclusions from that.

Some people have described Mirabilis as steampunk, but it isn't that at all. In the world of Mirabilis, everything is coming true. Whatever has been dreamt up by mortal minds over the millennia is given substance by the green comet that heralds this annus mirabilis.

Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and I planned it as a vast storyline incorporating horror, faerie, whimsy, mythology and dream. There is Victorian and Edwardian science fiction, with murderous brains in tripods and stuff, but I wouldn't actually call that steampunk any more than I'd say the Green Knight sells sweetcorn.

Anyway, we were talking about Old Nick recently, so I thought you might enjoy this glimpse of what happens if you annoy the Kind Gentleman when he's trying to watch a slideshow. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy.