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Sunday, 4 April 2010

The origins of Abraxas

Having completed our survey of the five great city-states of Abraxas, this seems like a good point to pause and explain how it came about.

A little over ten years ago, Jamie and I were freelance game designers at Eidos, publishers of Tomb Raider, and one of the projects we pitched for development was a massively multiplayer online game. We had a free rein, and at first we intended to use the Fabled Lands as the setting for our game. But we soon realized that the requirements of gamebooks and videogames were very different.

We needed a world with a very distinctive (we took to calling it "jewel-like") look and feel. A world you would find enchanting to visit, that would be accessible to more than just diehard role-players, with enough of a whiff of the familiar enough to be relatable - and at the same time brandably different from other fantasy settings. And it needed to be a world where Jamie and I weren't imposing all the history, culture, etc. We would just dress the set. It was up to the players to inhabit the world and run with the cues we gave them to make the place breathe.

To begin with we met with the truly legendary SF-&-fantasy guru John Jarrold - then a publisher, now Britain's top science fiction agent - who had had the idea of using book publishing talent to create game worlds a good ten years before Random House's IP Creation Group . John hooked us up with possible writers, and at the same time Jamie and I started sketching out some thoughts of our own. The project was in its very early stages and we were still focussing on the game rules and structure, so we had plenty of time to develop a world background. In the course of those months, we came up with a completely new "fabled land" and so Abraxas was born.

In the end, the cost of developing a MMOG was deemed too risky by the Eidos board. Bear in mind this was 1999, and nobody had any inkling of the heady heights that World of Warcraft would blaze a trail to. Our MMOG project was shut down along with the rest of the internal development teams at Eidos's Wimbledon HQ. So we never got to plug Abraxas in and see how it would have worked.

Abraxas is a lost continent from before the dawn of history. A place of high adventure, flashing swordplay, wild jungles, deserts of black sand, floating cities, classical temples, primordial animals, exotic wizardry and evil psionic aliens. When Abraxas finally sinks below the ocean, survivors will reach the mainland and seed the great civilizations of antiquity.

Abraxas is very far from the usual quasi-medieval style of fantasy. There are no orcs, goblins and dragons. Every animal and nonhuman creature is unique to the Abraxas world. Many of the fauna of Abraxas are mutated versions of mid-Tertiary animals that have survived on Abraxas itself until the time of the game, around 38,000 B.C. The cities of Abraxas are wondrous metropolises, mighty proto-civilizations of the great cultures of history such as Egypt, Babylon and Carthage. This provides a core of familiarity within the fantastic setting.

Who are the heroes?

Mighty swordsmen, gladiators, statesmen, scientists, explorers, barbarians. And wizards who watch the stars to predict threats to their homeland and their ideals. Some – the noble champions of the five city states – are born to greatness. Others achieve it despite humble beginnings, and even Neanderthal heroes are possible.

What do they do?

On the mainland, new young races of men (both Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal) are populating the world. Our heroes are destined to be remembered in legend as tutelary deities who guard and guide new cultures in the difficult struggle to survive. At the same time, they strive to confound the prophecies that say Abraxas itself is doomed.


Alien beings whose own worlds are dying have designs on the young Earth. Projecting their psyches across the gulf of space, they can influence the minds of weak mortals who worship these beings as if they were gods. The most powerful aliens such as the Churuk – and the Ulembi, whose home lies beyond the Coal Sack – are capable of physically manifesting themselves in our world.


Magic is part of daily life (like technology for us today) and comes in two types. The first is Thaumaturgy. In this period of the distant past, glittering rings like those of Saturn still encircle the Earth – remnants of a second moon that exploded. Adepts trained in the use of Thaumaturgy can draw down cosmic energy, called vril, that is focused by these rings. It is a form of magic that is powerful but unpredictable, based as it is on the solar-magnetic “weather” within the rings.

The other main form of magic is Wizardry. It is derived from the combination of the Four Substances (Earth, Air, Fire and Water – the “elements” as they were handed down to the ancient world) with the Four Essences (Aether, Life, Ur and Death). Wizardry is typically less epic in scale than Thaumaturgy, but more reliable and controllable.
Xanthus is a foating city on the back of a giant crustacean-like creature half a mile across. The people of Xanthus are at the mercy of this creature's whims as it drifts feeding on plankton. Fearing that it may one day dive under the waves, they worship it as the god Ix and make sacrifice of the old and deformed by hurling them into a crevice called the Barathron (actually the creature's dorsal gill-vent). Food comes from fishing, weeds and barnacles cultivated at the rim of the shell, and nets hoisted aloft to trap birds. On festival days holes are drilled by the priests and part of the god's flesh is then tapped, a morsel that Ix in his vastness never notices.

The buildings of Xanthus are in fact growths on Ix's shell: a hard, orange-mottled yellow carapace rising like a low island in the sea. The aristocrats of Xanthus occupy buildings at the top of the shell, where they are safe from the destructive effect of a heavy swell, but all would die if Ix sank entirely, and so Xanthic society is more egalitarian than most. The key feature of Xanthus's inhabitants is their harshness; they have had to be ruthless to survive. Thus they are a people who despise weakness, which they cannot afford, and it is considered the duty of the old and sick to make way for the young.


  1. Fascinating! I really, really like the concept of Xanthus (a logical extension, I guess, of the story of St Brendan the Navigator and the giant turtle) and I love the gonzo, Weird Tales feel of Abraxas in general.

  2. The more I unearth of Abraxas, the more I'm thinking we ought to do something with it. (Apart from just posting it up here, I mean.) I actually did start writing an Abraxas comic book years ago. The story was framed by Socrates's death, where we see that he drinks the hemlock in order to kill the last ulembi, which has clung onto existence for 38,000 years by broadcasting itself into human minds, and in doing so it has unintentionally preserved memories from the now-lost Abraxas - and those memories, when released, inspire Plato to write his account of Atlantis in Criteas.

  3. Kudos to you for sharing so much interesting info on this blog, Dave & Jamie. The free downloads are greatly appreciated - especially the tantalising Ophis tidbits. Abraxas also looks very cool and it's a shame it didn't get published as an MMO.

  4. Thanks, Jiminy - it's our pleasure. You have to wait just under a month for more Ophis material, but it should be worth the wait as it will include an all-new 3-part role-playing scenario.