Gamebook store

Friday, 23 September 2011

The first ongoing gamebook series ever (nearly)

I can tell you the where, when and who. Mike Polling, author of the Dragon Warriors adventure “The Key of Tirandor” (recently collected in In From the Cold) had a flat in Edgeley Road, Clapham, where we all gathered for twice-weekly games of Empire of the Petal Throne, RuneQuest and Questworld – the last of which was later to mutate into the Ophis campaign world. Along with Mike there was Jamie, Oliver Johnson and Mark “Min” Smith.

One autumn afternoon in 1983 we sat around the kitchen table. Jamie was working at Games Workshop and must have mentioned that The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was selling better than anyone including its authors (Livingstone and Jackson) could have expected. “Other publishers will be looking for their own gamebook series,” realized Mike, always the most astute of our group. It dawned on us that maybe we should forego that day’s gaming in order to put together a proposal. Min will have been the one to insist on that; Jamie and I would surely have rather just played a game.

What we came up with that day was a proposal for The Sword of the Silver Dawn. The title was probably Mike’s, and I think I detect an underlying Campbellian framework that will have come from him too. I remember him insisting that the old mentor figure should depart at cockcrow – the first inkling that he might be a ghost. Doubtless more would have been made of that fact later in the series. (Heroes prefer their mentors to be ethereal as it means they’re conveniently available in a crisis, most fantasy worlds lacking mobile phone coverage.)

Galador, the Council of Paladins, Castle Blight – those are classic Oliver Johnson touches. The magic sword is almost certainly Jamie’s. The betrayal of Sussurian (ah, so that’s where I first used that name!) by the champion must have been my idea; I love reversals in unexpected places. The notion of a deeper evil lurking in the castle dungeons, prolonging the curse even when you think you should have triumphed, that again bears Mike’s fingerprints. The actual nature of the final foe as a pure manifestation of hatred and evil I’m sure was Min’s. Always a fan of Leiber’s stories, he particularly liked the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story “The Cloud of Hate” and later elaborated on the theme in his gamebook The Coils of Hate (soon to be re-released if negotiations work out).

The Sword of the Silver Dawn wouldn’t have been the first gamebook series. Inspired by programmed learning books, the Choose Your Own Adventure series was already going strong by 1983. The American Steve Jackson (of GURPS fame) had extended the concept into role-playing with his Fantasy Trip solo books in the late ‘70s, and of course the UK Steve Jackson and his partner Ian Livingstone had transplanted that variant to high street bookstores with Fighting Fantasy. Joe Dever and Gary Chalk both worked at Games Workshop back then, so Jamie may have got wind that they were planning a series of their own. Nonetheless, Silver Dawn would have been the first ongoing, narrative-driven gamebook with a specific lead character.

It didn’t happen because Jamie and Min got sidetracked by The Talisman of Death, their entry in the Fighting Fantasy series, and then by the Falcon and Way of the Tiger books. Oliver and I were wooed by Philippa Dickinson to write The Lord of Shadow Keep for Fighting Fantasy, but I went off instead to write the Golden Dragon Gamebooks (less money, more control) and Oliver soon joined me there, bringing Shadow Keep with him. And then Dragon Warriors, Blood Sword, and so on.

Perhaps The Sword of the Silver Dawn would have been a bit too generic and D&D-ish to hold our interest over any more than three books, but having found the original proposal just today – a couple of crumpled, typewritten sheets stuffed into one of the Ophis folders – I feel a twinge of regret that we didn’t try our hands at a five-way collaboration. Between us we had the talent to make something truly memorable. Well, that's something I hope we did anyway.


  1. Dave, are you not tempted to try a five-way collaboration once Mirabilis is done?

  2. We couldn't fit all those egos in one room these days, Gavin! (Actually, once Jamie's there we couldn't even fit any more stomachs.)

  3. It's great to hear more insights about the heyday of UK gamebooks. Particularly when you think about how amazingly successful they were globally - and are once again, thanks to devices like the iPad. Actually, that would make a really cool tv show; maybe call it "Gamebook Connections". Quick, get that commissioned on the Beeb!

  4. Hi Dave,

    I think that people who lived/experienced these exciting times back in the mid 80' will always be somehow attracted/interested in gamebooks.

    At 36 now, thanks to new technologies, I'm still collecting them or discovering new series (like Fabled Lands) that were never published in french. That's a great thing!

    However, one thing makes me a little nostalgic: at that time, there was so many gamebook projects launched that some never went until the end (or started, like the one you mention in this post). As far as I'm concerned, I had bought the first 2 episodes of a wonderful series called "Superpouvoirs". There was supposed to be a 3rd and last book in which the reader would finally discover the identity of his nemesis, but the book never came out...

    The 2 first episodes are still in my library - after 25 years, it's maybe time to write myself the final chapter :)

    Cheers, Steve / CH

  5. It's always devastating for an author when a publisher drops a series before it's complete. That happened to me with both Dragon Warriors (which was originally planned to run to 12 books) and Fabled Lands. In the former case it was my own fault - I should have made the rules entirely d6-based, and by not doing so we failed to open up roleplaying to the non-hardcore market. In the case of FL, Jamie and I still believe the publisher underpriced the books and that at another £1 a copy they could have survived.

  6. I think that "The Coils of Hate" was a fantastic novel (interactivity notwithstanding). I still quote the "Will they wring us till we are naught but dried husks lying in the dust?" anonymous bystander to this day, whenever I hear that taxes are going up. It is shameful that publishers would rather roll out book after book of David Eddings' over-sentimental formulaic dross (which shamefully, I am also a fan of). I am less a connoisseur and more of a glutton as far as fantasy fiction is concerned. My point being that Eddings' fumbled attempts at creating prosaic dialogue comes nowhere near the vibrant, original and authentic dialogue found in "The Coils of Hate". I must have read at least 10,000 pages worth of Eddings by now and he never got anywhere near what was accomplished in Morris' 300.

    1. Is it true our collective egoes are too monstrous to collaborate? Maybe Dave is right, as my initial reaction to this is to point out that I wrote Coils of Hate, alone. Dave wrote great stuff too, including in that series. He always was very accomplished and the best DM I have ever met- our Empire of the Petal Thrones role playing adventures were really memorable classics. The only thing holding me back right now is being too busy. But I hope one day to have time to revisit these rich fantasy worlds and tropes.

    2. That last comment form Mark Min Smith

    3. Good to have you drop by, Min, and thanks for those very kind words. The truth is that a roleplaying campaign is only as good as the whole group, and I was lucky enough to have the most imaginative and committed players ever in our EPT sessions. One day I must dig out the notes we made for our shared world, as I still think that would have been a fabulous project. There have been many calls for a novel based on Coils of Hate, not least from me, so you will have plenty to keep you busy if and when you decide to retire!