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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Pain is his wine, and death his meat

Down Among the Dead Men is one of my own favorites of all the gamebooks I wrote, ranking equal second (after Heart of Ice) with Doomwalk. Partly that's 'cause it's pirates - with magic, but in almost an historical setting, not high fantasy. Leo did his best work ever, really pulled out the stops for this one. And even though the gamebook craze was dying out (this was 1993) Mark Smith and I had both put in more than our 10,000 hours, so if we were ever to be masters of our craft it was then.

I've always felt there's something more to be done with Dead Men. It was one of the story ideas that Leo and I pitched to David Fickling for his comic The DFC. So in another universe, instead of Mirabilis, we're now busy creating an 800-page fantasy comics epic about pirates. Recently Fabled Lands LLP has been looking at doing some new with it - and I can't tell you any details yet, but those plans are pretty exciting. So watch this space for more on that. (No, it's nothing to do with the new gamebook I mentioned in the last post. That's a whole other top secret FL project.)

In case you never read Dead Men, here's the introduction that sets the scene:
'Pirates!' The roar of cannonfire thunders across the waves as the word leaves the captain's lips. Hurtling out of the billowing plumes of smoke comes a barrage of iron shells. Each is larger than a man's fist, and strikes with a force that splinters the oak beams of your ship and shatters men's skulls like eggs. The mainmast takes a direct hit and topples, crushing the sailors standing under it.

A grappling hook latches onto the rail. The pirates are getting ready to board. Rushing to the side, you see their sinister vessel drawing alongside. Black sails flapping in the breeze like a carrion-bird's wings, her prow has the face of a medieval gargoyle. You read the name painted on her bows: the Belle Dame. But there is no look of beauty about her, nor hint of mercy on the faces of the brigands lining her rail.

A crewman standing beside you utters a groan of fear. 'It's Skarvench's ship.'

'Who's he?' you ask, having to shout over the din of cannon shots and the pirates' battle-cries.

He stares at you as though you are a simpleton, and then remembers that this is your first voyage to the New World. 'The worst man that ever lived,' is his blunt reply. And then the ships come together and the pirates are upon you.

Rushing headlong into the terrified crew, the pirates cleave a swathe of gory death across the ship's deck, their cutlasses rising and falling like scythes. You see the ship's officers valiantly fighting to defend the helm, but they are hopelessly outnumbered and soon butchered at their post. The fierce grins on the pirates' faces tell you that they expect easy pickings. You narrow your eyes as anger wells up inside you. You know that you will die today, but you feel no fear - only a cold determination to sell your life dearly. Two pirates lunge towards you. You duck the swing of the first, catch his arm and throw him against his crony. The sword intended for you ends up embedded in a pirate's belly, and his knife comes up by reflex to slash at the man who has inadvertently impaled him.

'Two down...' You turn, and then for the first time you clap eyes on Skarvench himself. He stands on the rail, grasping a grappling-line in one hand and a pistol in the other, whipping his sea-dogs into a killing frenzy with his evil laughter. His broad back and gangling limbs make him look like a massive crow. His beard is as long and lank as seaweed, and a single eye blazes beneath his bald brow - the other is covered by a leather patch.

He is raising his pistol. You are rooted to the spot under his baleful stare. It can't be fear you're feeling, surely...

'Ah, matey,' he says with a brown-toothed grin. 'Got to kill you again, have I?'

Again? You have no time to ponder this enigma. In the next instant, he fires his pistol and your whole world goes black.

* * *

You sit up with a gasp, sweat soaking your clothes. 'You've 'ad that dream again, eh?' says a voice.

You look around, your memory trickling back as the dream recedes. The slow creaking of a ship's timbers, the unhurried heave of the waves... you are in the stuffy confines of the Belle Dame's bowels. Sailors snore fitfully around you, catching some sleep between chores. In the glimmer of an oil lamp sits Old Marshy, the ship's carpenter, whittling at a stick of wood. He glances across at you, shaking his head sadly. 'It was two years ago,' he says. 'Don't know why you can't stop 'aving the dreams.'

'Dreams? Nightmares!' you say, mopping the sweat away. As you do, you feel the scar across your forehead where Skarvench's bullet struck you. A finger's breadth to the right — one less tot of rum for Skarvench's breakfast that fateful morning! - and your brains would have been blown out. As it is the bullet grazed you, leaving only the visible mark on your head and the scar of hatred deep in your heart.

Now that the nightmare has washed away, you recall the two years that have passed since that day. When you were first brought aboard the Belle Dame, Skarvench deemed you too insignificant to ransom and too close to death to be worth pressing into service. He would have cast you into the deep and never had a qualm - that was the fate of most who survived the battle - but Old Marshy undertook to nurse you back to health. You can well remember the weeks it took to get your strength back – weeks experienced like glimpses through broken glass, because of fever. You remember Old Marshy holding the wooden spoon of gruel to your lips until his thin arms trembled with tiredness, urging you to eat. You remember the shouts of the pirates as they toiled in the rigging, and their drunken laughter under the stars at night. And most of all you remember Skarvench, looming through your thoughts like the embodiment of cruelty, striding the deck and waiting for you to die.

You did not die; thanks to Old Marshy you regained your strength. But death might have been better than the living hell you have had to endure these two years as an ordinary seaman aboard the cruelest ship to sail the Carab Sea. Skarvench metes out discipline as the whim takes him, reveling in the suffering of others; pain is his wine, and death his meat. Often you have had to stand by and watch a man whipped for the slightest mistake. Sometimes you have felt that whip yourself- all to the raucous laughter of Skarvench and his vicious pirate band.

'All hands on deck!' Hearing the command, you shake the other sailors awake and hurry up out of the dingy confines of the orlop deck into the blaze of daylight.

Skarvench stands on the poop deck. The ox-like first mate, Porbuck, gives you a shove and growls, 'You, get up in the rigging.' As you climb, you glance out to sea. A small ship lies off the port bow and the Belle Dame is rapidly closing on her. You see a tall wooden crucifix standing amidships; she has no cannon. That is foolhardy: 'Go to sea on a prayer,' as the adage goes, 'but take a keg of powder too.'

You understand the reason for the other ship's lack of weaponry when you get a better view of the men lining her rail. They are all monks!

Skarvench's voice goes snarling across the water. 'Heave to or be blown out o' the water!' he calls. 'We'll be takin' your treasure, holy or not!'

'We have no treasure,' calls back one of the monks. 'We are poor brothers of the Savior, travelling to the New World to spread His message to the heathen.'

Skarvench smiles — always a sign of his bad temper – and says, 'Is that so? Well, I know of no place more heathen than the ocean bed.' He leans on the poop deck rail and calls to the master gunner: 'Mister Borograve, prepare to give 'em a broadside. I want their shaved heads sent forty fathoms deep, where heaven can't hear their mealy-mouthed prayers!'

The monks know they cannot outrun the Belle Dame. As Borograve orders the cannons primed, they begin to sing a hymn. It is a glorious and peaceful sound that reminds you of the meadows and villages of your homeland. Most of the sailors pause in their duties, overcome by the melancholy beauty of the song. Even one or two of the pirates look uneasy at what they are about to do.

'Prepare to fire,' says Skarvench, keen as a hound at the scent of a kill.

'No!' A carpenter's hammer goes flying through the air and strikes Skarvench's head with a crack loud enough to carry up to where you sit in the rigging. Skarvench remains as steady as a rock, his hand flashing out with startling speed to snatch the hammer out of the air as it falls. Then he turns. His face is a mask of white fury. The fact that there is a stream of blood flowing from his temple only makes him look all the more terrible. His gaze bores along the deck and finds:

'Mister Marsh! This your hammer, is it?'

Old Marshy quails, his one jot of boldness used up. 'B-but, Cap'n... they're holy men! I don't think...'

Skarvench tastes his own blood on his lip and savors it with his tongue. He gestures to a couple of the pirates, and Old Marshy is seized and dragged up to the poop deck. 'Lay his head on the rail there, lads,' says Skarvench in a voice like honeyed venom. He raises the hammer. 'You're right, Mister Marsh; you don't think. That's the trouble with having nothin' in your brain-pan, see?'

Far too late, you realize what Skarvench is going to do. You give a gasp and start down through the rigging. But even as you act, you know there is nothing you can do...

The hammer smashes down. It sounds like a wineflask breaking. The ordinary seamen look away in horror. The pirates grin gleefully like their captain, excited by the grisly sight. The corpse slumps to the deck.

'God curse you, Skarvench,' you mutter under your breath as you reach the foot of the mast. 'I'll see you dead for that.'

'You're not alone in wishing that,' whispers a voice, 'but I'd stow such talk unless you want your own skull under the hammer next.' You look around to see three of the crew - Grimes, Oakley and Blutz - men who, like you, were taken off plundered ships and forced to work for the pirates. 'We've a plan,' continues Grimes in a low voice. 'If we stay aboard this devil ship our days are surely numbered, so tonight we plan to jump ship. We're scheduled to take the evening watch. We'll lower the jollyboat with a few supplies, then strike out towards Port Leshand.'

'Five hundred leagues of open ocean in a tiny boat like that!' you gasp. 'It's near certain death.'

'Better than certain death, which is what we can expect here,' mutters Oakley. 'Look, you've got a reputation of being a handy customer to have along in a tight spot. To be honest, we haven't got much of a chance without you. Now, are you with us?'

You glare back up at the tall stooped figure on the poop deck. He stamps to and fro, the brain-smeared hammer still in his hand, annoyed that the monks made their getaway while he was distracted by Old Marshy. You'll make him pay for his crimes one day, but you know the moment is not yet right. You turn to Grimes and the others and give a swift nod. 'I'm with you,' you say.

Now turn to 1.
Some trivia: (1) This introduction was the last part of the book that I wrote. (2) I put on Danny Elfman's soundtrack to Batman Returns, walked around the room dreaming this bit into existence, then went to the keyboard and wrote it all down about as fast as I could have spoken it aloud. (3) Old Marshy is a nod to my friend Ian Marsh, former editor of White Dwarf magazine and our editor on the Virtual Reality series to which Dead Men belonged. (4) Ian also got kind of a namecheck as Captain Numachino in Fabled Lands book 6 - which he edited and typeset. (5) The name of the protagonist of Dead Men, though never mentioned in the text, is Angel Bones.

And if that prologue has given you a taste for piratical adventure on the high seas, I notice there are some copies of the book still available on Amazon. They may be worth snapping up. I mean, you'd be happy to own a first edition Harry Potter, now, wouldn't you?


  1. Bought! I was able to find it on no less. Perfect timing, we're just about to start a pirates campaign with my gaming group.

  2. Let me know how that goes. Sounds fun!

  3. Down Among The Dead Men was amazing. Actually I recall perusing through it in a second handbookstore as a precocious 12-year-old, which would have been around 2000, and I was split on whether to buy it when I noticed your name on the cover. That's an instant sale.

    Anyway, aside from being an awesomely creative pirate adventure, it was one of the most balanced gamebooks I ever played, in terms of both gameplay and story. Like every player I went for the islands first, but the southern seas and northern seas contained just as many fascinating adventures and game-winning loot. Definitely some of the best replay value of any non-sandbox gamebook.

  4. Kind words indeed, sir! (I'm gratified that my name swung the deal, but are you sure the undead pirate on the cover didn't have anything to do with it?)

  5. That does it, I'm getting one.

  6. Me too! Already brought it on


  7. Hope you like it, guys. I mean - Arrr!

  8. Hopefully we'll see it republished soon - it deserves it!

  9. The VR adventures was a great series. Very, very replayable, as noted above - not only because of the varying routes to reach your objective, but also because you had so much variety in what kind of character you wanted to play. Just by choosing four skills, you could build, say, a grizzled sea-dog, a gloomy ranger, or a weedy, scholarly type (and, more incredibly, you could actually survive the book with such a character).

    'Down Among the Dead Men' and 'Heart of Ice' really grabbed my attention. So did 'Coils of Hate' by Mark Smith. In part because it was the first (and only) gamebook I read that featured an overtly black protagonist - and yet this was rather understated in the book, and artfully done ("Look at that devil Tyutchev, and how pale and smooth his skin is. Doesn't it make you sick?"). I don't know that it made great strides in promoting racial harmony among gamebook readers; certainly, it gave me a broader vision of the type of characters I like to play, and identify with, in RPGs.

    An excellent choice of books by my local librarian, all in all - which has since prompted me to go and find copies of my own. Looking up the VR adventures, I see there's a book in there I never got my hands on, 'Twist of Fate'. And away I go, to hunt it down...

  10. Dave, I can't find Down Among the Dead Men on the Amazon US website. Can you point me to the link?

    My favorite game book of all time is Demon's Claw. The ghoul on the rooftops, the djinni, Prince Susurrien, the umbracules ... fabulous. Hope the Blood Sword series is reprinted sometime soon. I am missing Walls of Spyte, but don't relish forking over $250 for a beat up copy on eBay.

  11. An interesting point, Paul. Two of the other VR books had specifically non-white heroes (Maya and Arab) though that wasn't a conscious decision. Mark and I played a lot of Tekumel in those days, and none of the characters in that world are white.

    The US publisher was concerned about some of the racial slurs used in Coils of Hate - but, of course, the book wouldn't make any sense if you didn't feel there was real hated being directed at you. Mark was motivated to write that book because his family just barely escaped from the Nazis in the 1930s.

    Wtan, you've got me thinking maybe I should put Demon's Claw just ahead of Doomwalk. I really enjoyed writing that, it was all coming straight out of our role-playing games at the time and the umbracules were inspired by Mythago Wood. We're actively looking into ways to get all our books reprinted - maybe Blood Sword could work as a single-volume omnibus edition, like we've been thinking about for FL.

    Those links:
    Amazon US
    Amazon UK
    Btw if anyone feels like countering the lone (3-star) review on - I'm not gonna stop ya :-)

  12. One thing's for sure; DATDM and BloodSword deserve to be republished!

  13. As soon as I have read it I will improve that rating. It just wouldn't be cricket do do so before I even had it. Also, when will Mirabilis winter volume 2 be out in hardback. I must have it.

  14. I'm waiting for a proof copy to arrive any day now, Wanderer. It was scheduled for publication in October, but there are hold-ups between the printer (in Bosnia) and the distributor (in Lancaster, UK). So probably it'll be on release towards the end of next month.

    As for that DATDM review - quite right, I certainly wouldn't expect a review unless you feel it deserves one.

  15. Oh, ok - I thought there was a 2000 Panurgic Press edition of Down Among the Dead Men (as there is for Heart of Ice on Amazon US). It seems only the original edition is available.

    Here's to hoping that the Fabled Lands books will be written/reprinted some day. I reviewed Fabled Lands and Heart of Ice at RPGGeek ... hopefully this will send more people to Amazon or this website.

  16. Thanks, wtan. And yes, there was supposed to be a Panurgic Press edition of DATDM but it never happened. I'm going to ask Paul Mason if he got as far as setting up the page files, as that would let us do a Spark Furnace edition fairly easily.

  17. Interesting that you talk about comics in this article, Dave...

    Way-back-when on this blog you mentioned the graphic novel Meanwhile by Jason Shiga. It's been turned into an iPad gamebook - and no, I'm not going to use the word "app" 8^) - by Andrew Plotkin of "interactive fiction" fame (see link).

  18. I loved Down Among Dead Men. From a game perspective, it was well balanced. There was also lots to explore and a multitude of ways of winning (I enjoy getting into the sea god's realm with the key and then getting an emerald from him because I made him laugh). There is also an excellent story and some great scenes, such as the scene where you face Skarvench in the tavern and the epic final battle. You also travel with companions which adds an extra dimension to the gameplay. There are plenty of loose ends which are ripe for a sequel such as the cursed ship and El Draque for example.

  19. I think it's the companions who make me remember this book with such fondness. Min and I wanted the VR series to be as much like interactive novels as possible, and it's the supporting cast and the beats of the story arc (such as the midpoint encounter in the tavern) that make that work. At least, I hope they do!

  20. :) Just got it and played it through the weekend. Really enjoyable to play through. Thanks for the mentioning the book.

  21. Do you have to play through the book several times to be able to do all the different quests in it? I finished it once quite quickly and I felt like I had left a lot unexplored.

    I like the book though, and I liked the wizard's name, what a coincidence that was.

  22. Yes :-) a little tribute there to the original Doctor Mirabilis, aka Roger Bacon - in English folklore a mighty wizard, in reality a 13th century Franciscan monk and scientific pioneer at Oxford and Paris.

    But to answer your question, Wanderer, there are at least two main routes (possibly three) in the early part of the book, so you could play it through again and get a substantially different experience.