FABLED LANDS - collect the set

Friday, 25 April 2014

The Keeper of the Seven Keys

Well, this is odd. In all the posts about "lost" Fighting Fantasy books, I've never actually featured the write-up for The Keeper of the Seven Keys. Correspondence at the time seems to indicate that Jamie and I submitted this to Puffin Books twice, first in April 1988 and then again the following year alongside the Fabled Lands prototype concept Knights of Renown.

Why two submissions? I think there may have been a change of editor at Puffin. At any rate, neither of them bit, and of all the proposals we came up with, the one that they plumped for was possibly the least interesting (Keep of the Lich Lord). I was recently asked in an interview by Jonathan Green why I didn't write more Fighting Fantasy books, and I think that answers the question.

We must have done quite a bit of work on this one, when you consider that the written proposal that gets sent to the publisher is just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly it was a concept that Jamie and I were pretty keen to do. Around the same time, I had the idea of doing a computer game called Dungeon Builder where one player would design a dungeon with a set number of points - 5 per orc, 10 for a pit trap, or whatever - and then a friend could try taking on the dungeon with a character based on the same points score. You could put allies into the dungeon for the contending player to find (those cost negative points) and even get tricksy by dropping an illusion spell (2 points) of an imprisoned knight onto an orc (5 points) so that it could tag around with the contender and backstab him when he least expected it. A gamble, of course, as he might have spent 15 points on the Detect Illusions skill. I mention that because Keeper of the Seven Keys would work pretty well as a boardgame or videogame, so maybe we'll resurrect it one day in another form.

Enough chat. You came here for the gamebooks, right? Thus, without further ado, the original pitch to Puffin from April 1988:

THE KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS

This gamebook is intended as something original, markedly different from all previous gamebooks, and with a vein of humour running through it. The pattern of all gamebooks to date has been hero setting out to destroy the evil lord/demigod/demon, battling against great odds. The Keeper of the Seven Keys sets out to reverse that role. The reader plays the so-called Evil power beset by the fanatic forces of good. The book presents things from the viewpoint of the poor persecuted Lord of Darkness! So as to avoid any moral dilemma for younger readers, the so-called "Lord of Darkness" is actually no villain but a much maligned hero.

Introduction
You are Karabane, Master of the Seals and Runes, Knower of the Way and Member of the Honoured Society of Sages, an ancient and venerable society now all but extinct. Many years ago you set out on a quest to defeat a powerful demon lord who threatened the continent of Khul. Unable to completely destroy this entity, you were forced to bind it with powerful spells into a dimensional cage. Since then, you have dedicated your life to maintaining its imprisonment and have been forced to take up residence in the ancient castle of the demon lord. Through the intercession of divine forces of Good you have extended your life to carry out this mission. Each year for the last two centuries you have performed the rituals of binding.

Unfortunately the people of the land have come to view you as a force of Evil, the fearful inhabitant of the Tower of Doom, for your home is a fell forbidding place. They know you as Bane, or the Banelord, the Evil One, He who Sits in Malice, the Purveyor of Terrors, and so on. They call the old castle the Tower of Doom, The Place from which None Return, the Citadel of Illimitable Agonies, and the like. They call your servants the Creatures of Hell, Banebeasts, Servants of the Dark One, Fanged Horrors of the Tower of Doom, etc. Well, most of your servants are the original inhabitants and are indeed evil beings - but you have bound them to your will and thus the service of Good. After all, they are more reliable then mere humans.

For a time you played along with popular belief. You caused illusions of evil magics to light up the night sky around your home. You sent demons, flapping and cawing, to circle your tall towers and baroque battlements. This suited your purpose, for you wished to remain undisturbed by prying eyes, to execute your mission alone. Better for the safety of others that they continue to regard you as evil, and thus keep their distance. But now it seems that policy has backfired.

The nearby city of Arkand lives in fear of you. Poor harvests, blighted crops, disappearances, murders and so on - all are laid at your door. Crazed prophets, eager for congregations and donations, talk of your rise to power and the threat to civilization you are supposed to represent, and of how you must be destroyed, excised from the land like a canker. Kings and lords offer rewards for your death. Several times in the past you have had to fight off fanatic heroes and adventurers who sought to penetrate your citadel and slay you. Most failed to get past your wards and servants, but some have won through to your Inner Sanctum and you were then forced to use your sorcery to defeat them. This saddens you for they are great and good heroes, but you have been unable to reason with them. Many times you tried but they would clap hands over ears, yelling things like "Avaunt ye, spawn of Hell! I will not listen to your vile blandishments and devious words, O Lord of Lies!" You have never ceased to marvel at the determination and courage of these heroes. By your sorcery they are all kept safely in a millenial slumber, bound inside blocks of adamantine crystal. Regretfully you cannot free them, as they would merely attack you once more. All you have ever wished for is to be left alone. But it is not to be.

This time, things are bad. The beautiful Princess Araminta, fancying herself a scholar, scoured the Great Library of Arkand in her quest for knowledge. She discovered the history of the Society of Sages and the truth about you - who you really were and your real purpose. Curiosity aflame, she set out to visit you. Many tried to dissuade her but she crept out of the city at night, in secret. She came to you and you welcomed her, not only out of courtesy but because you were eager for the company of another human after so long. She loved your books and ancient artifacts and has spent days studying in the castle library where she is even now. But she is outstaying her welcome. The townsfolk say that you bewitched her and that foul demons spirited her away to your tower. The King of Arkand has promised her hand in marriage or a reward of fifty thousand crowns to the hero or heroine who will rescue her from your "evil clutches". Many heroes and adventurers flocked to Arkand and, in fear of your life, you went to Princess Araminta and begged her to return to her father's court. Absently she refused, patting you fondly on the head while she studied an ancient mirror that reflects the enhanced image of those who look in it so that they appear ten times more beautiful than they really are. She said she was enjoying herself too much and was not ready to leave. What could you do - short of throwing her out by force? And that, of course, would be quite wrong...

Some of the most powerful heroes and heroines of the age, mighty warriors and skilled sorcerors, have gathered at Arkand to pursue the quest. Their vow: "to slay the evil Banelord who has cast a dark shadow across the land for too long." Even now your outer defences have begun to sound the alarm. Winged Homunculi and Lesser Imps have come to you bearing messages. Groups of adventurers are heading towards the citadel and they look tough. And worse still, tonight is the very night you must perform the Rituals of Binding that must be performed each year to seal the demon lord Gagrash, Devourer of the Living, Bestower of Death, Giver of Unimaginable Sufferings, in his prison once more. If he escapes, the whole land could be destroyed! What are you going to do?

Special rules for The Keeper of the Seven Keys

The player will generate his or her character as normal for Fighting Fantasy (Skill, etc). Then some additional preparation is necessary. Essentially, the reader examines the map of the castle and places the defences and snares at his or her disposal so as to prevent the entry of three groups of heroes. Some of the heroes will inevitably win through to the Inner Sanctum for a climactic battle, but with skilful choice of defences the reader should be able to minimise the threat.

At the same time that this is going on, the reader must perform the rituals to bind the demon lord. Thus he or she also faces a race against time. There are also various other options and puzzles that must be solved - the reader will not just be sitting in the Inner Sanctum directing things. The demon lord must be bound by hourly rituals involving the use of the seven keys and thus the book will be divided into seven chronological stages. During these stages the rituals must be performed, the heroes will be penetrating further into the castle, and the reader will be taking defensive steps as needed. Passage of time is recorded by crossing off hours when directed to do so in the text:

Hour of the Wolf
Hour of the Dragon
Hour of the Bear
Hour of the Wyvern
Hour of the Tiger
Hour of the Unicorn
Hour of the Moon (midnight)

A map of the castle will be provided, as below:

The Tower of Doom, or The Place from which None Return, or The Citadel of Illimitable Agonies, or "Home Sweet Home".

A list of the reader's servitors will also be given, as below.

20 Demonkin
Winged gargoyles from another plane. You travelled there and bound them to your service a century ago.

50 Orcs
You must dress as a hideous demon and constantly display your powerful magics whenever an orc is about. They believe you to be a demon and worship you. You must bind them to your will with fear, for fear is all these filthy orcs understand.

2 Hellgaunts 
Demons of the Abyss. You have bound them to you - in your Sanctum you have two vials containg their smoking black hearts. Whoever possesses the hearts controls the hellgaunts.

4 Winged Homunculi
Little creatures like tiny winged old men. You created them in your laboratory using secrets of alchemy you found in an old parchment. The homunculi are useful as spies and messengers.

4 Lesser Imps
Slightly larger than the homunculi. Hideous little winged beasts that you won to your service using sorcery when you first defeated the demon lord Gagrash. Again useful as spies and messengers, although some also know rudimentary attack spells.

2 Automata of the Wizards of Qor
Two mechanical warriors that you created following ancient texts from the legendary land of Qor. Soulless creatures of ivory and iron with visors that spit lightning-bolts.

Beasts
In the Beastpits you keep various hideous beasts you have created or captured and enslaved. They can be released in certain areas but are equally likely to attack anyone (including you and your servants) who enters their assigned area.

The Enchanted Gate
The gate of the keep. Anyone who passes with evil intent against your person triggers the gate. It screams a warning that can be heard throughout your Citadel.

The Castle Defences
At the start the reader is provided with a chart to fill in, placing his defences as he wishes.

AREA
Wall A:
Wall B:
Wall C:
Wall D:
Tower of Night:
Tower of Stars:
Tower of the Moon:
Tower of the Sun:
Maingate:
Postern Gate:
The Well:
The Rivergate:
The Orc Barracks:
The Demonkin Barracks:
The Hall of Ancient Artifacts:
The Beastpits:
1st floor of Keep:
2nd Floor of Keep:
Inner Sanctum:
Cellar:

To place:
• 2 Hellgaunts (separately, one in each area)
• 2 Automata (separately, one in each area)
• 2 units of 25 orcs each
• 2 units of 10 demonkin each
• 2 groups of 2 homunculi
• 2 groups of 2 imps
• The beasts

Also the following, set to patrol area, will attack all comers:
• The Manticore
• The Gorgon
• The Wyvern

The reader will also have the following creatures in his Sanctum at the beginning of the adventure: 1 orc messenger, 1 demonkin messenger, 1 homunculus and 1 imp.

Artifacts
In addition to three Potions of Strength and one Potion of Fortune, the reader will also have several wonderous items at his disposal:

The Orb of All Seeing
This enables you to examine any area of the citadel at will, though it takes some time to examine an area.

The Staff of Might
Adds 1 to skill and 1 to damage done in combat.

The Ring of Excellent Defence
Subtracts 1 from any Stamina loss that results from a wound taken in combat.

Book of Spells
Enables Karabane to cast various spells:
• Lightning Bolt - an attack spell that inflicts the loss of 1-6 Stamina points.
• Battleskill - adds 1 to Skill for the duration of a single encounter.
• Healing - restores one die's worth of lost Stamina.
• Confusion - reduces the target's Skill by 1.
• Teleport - enables Karabane to teleport back to his Sanctum.

These spells will generally be usable when indicated in the text.

Other items are held either in the cellar or in the Hall of the Ancient Artifacts. Karabane will have to take time fetching these if he thinks they might be needed. Such items are those whose name and general function is known, but whose precise powers must be tested (possibly with unexpected results) during the course of play. They include the Mirror of Reflecting Thunderbolts, the Iron Bell of Meragren, the Shield of Ice (said to absorb flame), and so on. These things may become useful depending on how the plot develops.

Heroes
The reader will also be provided with a list of the heroes gunning for him and some useful information about them. These are:

Barak Arakyn the Berserk
A berserker warrior in light armour who wields his two-handed battleaxe "Slayer". A peerless fighter of heroic strength and endurance.

Sir Gondris of the Order of Knights Errant
A paladin of an order dedicated to destroying evil everywhere. Wears full plate: the Armour of Purity, the Shield of Truth and the Sword of Wrath. A renowned knight of unswerving purpose and redoubtable might.

Kalara of Arkand
A noted adventurer and suspected thief. Has a reputation of being a rogue. She wields the Longbow of Qor and the Arrows of Flame.

Arcos Arcanus
Master of Magics and Doctor of Marvels. A powerful wizard of great power and repute.

Mogresh
Alchemist of Fernor and Priest of the Holy Ones. A famous 'smiter of evil'. A fanatic priest and creator of many herbal potions which can be used in combat.

Uldarik Hsao
Master of the Martial Arts and Supreme Sensei of Unarmed Combat. A martial artist from Hachiman, skilled in all forms of unarmed combat.

Fudoshin Raiko
A lordless samurai from Konichi in Hachiman. This famous master of the sword has sworn to destroy Karabane even at the cost of his own life.

Syrena, Amazon of Kelados
A mighty fighter, she is known to wield the Helm of Thunderbolts, and the Sword and Shield of Chrysos (an ancient legendary hero).

Prince Chemcho of Sariandor
A noted warrior-mage. Wields a slender sword of night-black steel. This dashing roguish adventurer is said to know some powerful spells.

During the book the reader will have the opportunity to consult his library about the heroes and their weapons and abilities.

The heroes are divided into three groups of three:

Group A - Sir Gondris, Mogresh and Fudoshin Raiko
Group B - Kalara, Prince Chemcho and Barak Arakyn
Group C - Syrena, Uldarik and Arcos

Events
The following would not be known to the player, but it demonstrates the general course which the book would take and is divided into stages, corresponding to the hours:


Of course, some heroes may not even get all the way through, depending on the reader's actions.

The optimum conclusion leads to the remaining heroes witnessing the start of Karabane's battle with the demon lord. If Karabane can convince them where the true evil lies, they will help destroy the demon lord forever and Karabane will have succeeded in clearing his name. This conclusion requires the reader to act with restraint, putting himself into danger at some points in order to achieve a non-violent resolution to his battle with the nine heroes

*  *  *

A few notes of mild interest: Gondris was the name of a player-character in my Tekumel campaign at Oxford. Serena was a very fit instructor at the gym Jamie and I used to work out at. Arcos was a character Jamie played in the RuneQuest campaign that I and Oliver Johnson ran for a while to playtest the Questworld scenario pack that Games Workshop had commissioned us to write. (I say commissioned, but no money ever changed hands nor did they go so far as to give us a contract.) Uldarik was the name of one of Jamie's NPC bodyguards in the Tekumel campaign that I and Steve Foster ran in London. Mogresh may have taken his name from Mogs, the nickname of one of the players in that campaign. You get all the trivia here, eh?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Uneasy lies the head

Here's hard evidence that the next Way of the Tiger paperback is in the works. Expect this third volume in the series to be on sale in the next month or so. Avenger learns that he/she is the rightful king/queen of a city state. (What is it about epic fantasy and benevolent absolute monarchies, anyway?) A non-rightful king, the usurper of the title, has been driving the people into poverty with a package of misguided austerity measures and propping up his popularity by demonizing minority groups. All very prophetic for a book written in the 1980s, I must say. He might have got away with it too if not for worshipping a god called Vile - bit of a giveaway, that.

Anyway, Avenger must take over the throne and do his/her best to rule. But if you want to catch up with the good old days when all he/she had to do was hide behind rubber plants and throw darts at people, the first two books in the series are available on Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Italy, and - well, you get the picture.

And don't forget that David Walters' authorized prequel to the series, Ninja, is available in both paperback and Kindle editions.

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

Toothless

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.