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Monday, 11 November 2013

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

What is it about magic and colour? At a role-playing convention years ago, Greg Stafford described to the breathless Glorantha groupies a scene in a RuneQuest movie that was pitched to the deaf ears of Hollywood. Something has happened to remove magic from the world, said Stafford, and the movie would show this by switching from colour to black-&-white.

It made me think first of A Matter of Life and Death (the difference between monochrome and colour is used more interestingly there) but the very next neuron to fire recalled SPI's 1975 boardgame Sorcerer, in which wizards attuned to different colour frequencies vied for power by enticing each other to battle in zones whose hue favoured their own magic. Sorcerer created quite a stir among us boardgamers because it was SPI's first foray into fantasy gaming - which, as they usually catered for the hardcore wargamer, was a crisis of confidence brought on, no doubt, by the growing success of grungy dungeon games. If you're interested, you can get a glimpse of the rulebook here.

A few years after that, in 1986, Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson came out with the Duel Master series - for me, their best gamebooks, and probably my favourite gamebooks ever. The first (and best) of these, Challenge of the Magi, involved two duelling sorcerers of the Rainbow Land (part of which unaccountably overlapped with Warwickshire and/or the poems of Thomas Lodge) whose magic obeyed a chromatic taxonomy:
  • Red for fire
  • Black for death
  • Blue for illusion
  • Green for nature
  • White for... um, "holy" stuff
There were two books. Each player took one and you chased each other around the map of the Rainbow Land, trying to fake out your opponent so he didn't guess the colours on which you were strongest. OK, in the era of videogames that probably doesn't sound too impressive, but we had to make our own fun* in those days. And anyway, books are like radio: the pictures are better.

To this day I never figured out how Mark and Jamie made those books work. There was some kind of crazed obsessive-compulsive genius at work in the amazingly detailed rules (which were, nonetheless, easy to use) and the complex intricacies of the flowchart (likewise). And they were meaty, these tomes: 800 sections each. And you got a solo option.

They should have been a massive success, but the tragedy of gamebooks was that the craze didn't last long enough to really support any of the interesting things they were evolving into. That's why it surprises me when some modern revivals of the medium seem to aspire only to setting the clock back to simple dungeon-bashing. By the late-'80s gamebooks were already way beyond that.

(For the sake of balance I should add that there are plenty of modern gamebooks that have continued to innovate in terms of rules, setting and, most interestingly, the depth and quality of the storytelling - just look at the quality of most Windhammer Prize entries, for example.)

Fabled Lands LLP has the rights to the Duel Master books and they are cherry-ripe for conversion to apps. A little bit of handheld tech is perhaps all they needed to get the success they deserved. Twenty-seven years on, we'll see what we can do.


* Although, as Mamet says, everybody makes their own fun; if you don't make it yourself it isn't fun, it's entertainment.

16 comments:

  1. When I see you mention Fabled Lands LLP, it makes me curious: is it possible for me to invest in your company? I plan to try buying individual stocks soon (it's been all mutual funds up to now). I've been advised to invest in what you know and ideally what you love, so this seems perfect. I don't know much about business, and researching what an LLP is confused me a bit. In any case, I will definitely invest in your future products, especially the FL books 7-12. Thanks.

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    1. We're always on the lookout for investment, Todd, though the entertainment sector is all about risk. My own investments are all in tech companies & Pacific Rim development. With that caveat, why not email Jamie (info@fabledlands.net) to discuss?

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    2. You've invested in giant robots?

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    3. I certainly would invest in robots. Big or small.

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  2. Duelling sorcerers chasing each other across magical locations... Red for fire, Black for death, Blue for illusion, Green for nature, White for holy stuff... Well, you know at least one person read the books back in the day: the guy who came up with Magic The Gathering.

    If you do make an app out of it (and it does sound interesting, though I've never read the book), brace yourself for countless people saying this is all an MTG knock-off, despite the book coming earlier. :/

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    1. I hadn't thought of that, Johann, but you're absolutely right. Oh dear.

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  3. DuelMaster does seem like "game book version of FPS deathmatch" but in a really good way. I had Challenge of the Magi and Blood Valley. The colours must have been ingrained in me because I saw someone dressed as the "Caverns of Perdition" once. Blood Valley was like a fantasy version of the Running Man... including henchmen, insults and starting off with nothing.

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    1. Was that the one where a barbarian was hunted by one of Jack Vance's archveults? I liked the concept but felt it wasn't balanced as well as book 1. Well, seeing as in book 1 the characters are on a completely level playing field to start with, nothing could be better balanced.

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    2. That's the one. The evil Archveult of the Valley of Gad and his three henchmen, Kritos Bloodheart, Kariim the Hashisishin and the Demiveult. Versus one of the Barbarian, the Priest and the Thief.Yes, it isn't balanced like Challenge of the Magi. But a lot of the fun comes in turning the tables on the hated tyrant, trying to avoid traps and powering up. Or running away, so two ways to win as well.

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  4. Challenge of the Magi is easily the gamebook I've played the most (at least thirty times I think) and quite possibly my outright favourite over the years (counting the two books as one). A friend and I played the hell out it "back in the day" and much preferred it over the Blood Valley one (and the White Warlord/Black Baron ones around the same time). Always wanted to get the third and fourth titles in the Duelmaster series but never did :( Incidentally it was the idea of the Duelmaster books that inspired my Windhammer entry from last year too...

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  5. I think Warhammer in one of it's mid-late iterations added colour magic (WD113 /114 1989). There's something quite annoying and mood breaking about the idea of Grim Dark Rainbow Magic. Also isn't the black-and-white / colour magic split done in the film of the Wizards of Oz?

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    1. I've actually never seen it. But I know somebody who watches it every year at Christmas, so I'll ask him.

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  6. I had all four of the DuelMaster pairs, and absolutely played the crap out of them with friends. My softest spot was probably for the 'Arena of Death' ones, with the wonderfully detailed Arena at Mortavalon.

    The Shattered Realm was also excellent.

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  7. At last I have the 'real' map of the Rainbow Lands! I believe it came with the book(s), but I've only ever managed to lay my hands on library or second-hand copies of the book(s), which invariably lacked the map. I'll have to print it out and substitute it for my hand-drawn map right away.

    An excellent, excellent book. A couple of requests, though, if you're revisiting Challenge of the Magi at any point: 1) take a good look at the 'Tanglevines' spell; as it blocks an enemy's ability to use counterspells, it's a bit of a game-breaker. 2) the solo-player rules are just a teensy bit ambiguous. Does Spellbinder need spell components to cast spells? Can you render him impotent by immediately running to pick up all the components for the really powerful spells?

    I know - picky, picky, picky...

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  8. It's not exactly magic, but a story that brilliantly used black and white to color was Pleasantville.

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    1. I'd forgotten about that movie. It's a good one.

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