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Thursday, 8 May 2014

From Fighting Fantasy to the Empty Quarter

There were supposed to be eight Virtual Reality books. Mark Smith had written most of the first draft of his third, called (if memory serves) The Masque of Death and inspired in part by a Fritz Leiber Jr short story, but it was proving complicated and Mark was getting a lot of feedback from the series editor, Ian Marsh. By the time I’d handed in Heart of Ice there was a yawning gap in the schedules and I had to write a book in a hurry to fill it.

Heart of Ice had been a lot of fun, but it wasn’t easy to write. By basing it on a Tekumel role-playing campaign I’d run with several groups of players over the years, I thought I’d save myself some work. Not a bit of it, as the world and the characters had to be created from scratch and that had knock-on effects on the story. So coming off that I really wanted a rest, and most definitely didn’t want to turn around another gamebook from scratch in eight weeks.

I had a vague outline hanging around from the late ‘80s, when Jamie Thomson and I had pitched a number of ideas to the Fighting Fantasy editors at Puffin Books. One, which had begun life as a storyline for a novel called, at various times, A Thief of Cairo or The Best Thief of Baghdad, and was then reworked as The Thief of Arantis, now got dusted off. I found it was a very scanty outline indeed. Oh well, I’ve always been a pantser. And in any case it was supposed to be loose and shapeless and picaresque. An Arabian Nights homage can’t look like Tolkien, you know.

So here’s what I had to start out with:

The Thief of Arantis

This gamebook takes as its setting the ports and coastal waters of Arantis, in Titan. Its flavour, however, is derived from the Thousand and One Nights. It deals with the protagonist's picaresque adventures as he or she rises from being a common sailor to the exalted rank of adviser to the Sultan.

Stopping off in one of the richer ports of Arantis, the protagonist hears talk of a marvellous egg bigger than a house. This egg, laid by the fabulous giant Roc, is prized for its qualities of good fortune and rejuvenation. A single piece chipped from the shell could be worth 10,000 gold pieces or more. Naturally, as with most tavern stories, the details are hard to pin down. Everyone knows of the Roc's egg, but no-one has much idea of where it might be found. Nonetheless, the protagonist is sure that it truly exists (he saw it on the cover of the book, after all) and sets out in search of the Roc's eyrie.

Along the way his ship is wrecked on an inaccessible stretch of shoreline. Luckily he alone survives and is brought before a wizard, who listens to his story with great sympathy. Moved by his plight, and taking his survival as sign of the favour of the gods, the wizard gives him some magic slippers that allow the wearer to levitate - once only. These should enable him to reach the Roc's eyrie.

Soon after arriving at the next city, however, the protagonist is mistaken for a notorious thief and is thrown into gaol, charged with having stolen a magnificent ruby from the Sultan's treasury. There he is befriended by a beggar who tells him a story about the legendary Roc. In return, the protagonist might choose to tell the beggar about his magic slippers. If he does, his trust is rewarded with treachery: he awakes the next day to find the beggar has escaped using the slippers, leaving behind only his mangy cat.

Unless he still has the slippers and uses them to levitate to freedom, the protagonist is still in the gaol a week later when the real thief is caught. This fellow, Azenomei, is thrown into the same cell, but the gaolers make no move to free the protagonist, assuming that even if he did not steal the ruby there must be some other crime he should pay for. That night the protagonist mentions his obsession with finding the Roc's nest. Much to his surprise, Azenomei agrees to help him on condition that they first go to the rescue of his sister, who has been carried off by a sinister Jinni to a citadel on the western edge of the Plain of Bronze.

Assuming the protagonist agrees, they escape from gaol that very night and within a week they have reached an oasis in the Desert of Skulls. The protagonist is summoned to the tent of a nomad princess who turns out to be a hideous ghoul. Although he should be able to survive this encounter relatively unscathed, it forces him and Azenomei to flee into the desert without filling their water-bags. A few days later, weakened by thirst, they stumble on another oasis at twilight. A stranger they meet here tells the protagonist he has found the Oasis Beyond The Mirage, and reveals a vision where the protagonist's reflection in a pool seems to be accompanied by an evil, gold-eyed man. When they awake the next morning there is no sign of the oasis or the stranger, though they now have full water-bags.

After a few further adventures they reach the Jinni's citadel. It seems deserted. With pounding heart the protagonist begins to search for Azenomei's sister, but somehow he loses Azenomei in the maze of corridors. At last he finds a scented chamber where the girl reclines on a divan to which she is bound by a golden chain. He is about to free her when the Jinni appears. It is his former companion, the one who called himself Azenomei! This is the meaning of the vision at the oasis. The Jinni reveals that he truly believes the protagonist to be the notorious jewel thief that the Sultan's guards mistook him for. The same thief once stole a great gem ("as big as the egg of the Roc that perches in its eyrie atop the Isle of Palms") from the Jinni's own hoard, and that is why he has lured the protagonist here. The protagonist's protestations of innocence are ignored and he is forced to fight for his life. Various items must have been gathered to stand any chance against the Jinni, but in fact the protagonist is helped by the girl, who reveals a knowledge of combat sorcery. After the battle she tells him she is actually the Sultan's daughter. Her magic was taught to her by her old nurse. However, she was not taught any spell to unlock the enchanted shackles binding her. For this, she says, the protagonist must get a jewelled key from the eyrie of the Roc.

Fortunately the Jinni has mentioned where the Roc can be found: on the highest peak of the Isle of Palms, which lies in the Gulf of Shamuz. The protagonist travels there and must use his magic slippers to levitate up to the nest. If he has already made use of the slippers, it is possible to succeed if he has bothered to keep the beggar's mangy cat. This miraculous animal has the property that its tail grows longer whenever an outrageous lie is spoken in its hearing. If the protagonist has treated the cat well and has learned of this power, he can cause the tail to reach right up to the Roc's nest and can climb up to get the jewelled key...

The protagonist might not have met the Sultan's daughter, of course, in which case he can just take part of the egg as he originally intended. This will make him rich beyond the dreams of avarice. If he takes the jewelled key instead, though, then his reward is even greater. After freeing the girl and returning her to her father, he is rewarded with a Robe of Honour and becomes the Sultan's vizier. Throughout the city he is lauded as the most daring thief in the world, for he stole the jewelled key from the Roc's nest and the princess from the Jinni's palace. Thus, one who began by being mistaken for another ends by becoming the one he was mistaken for.


I felt it needed more of a route in, but not the enforced quest of most single-story gamebooks. The story needed to be set in motion by the kind of arbitrary twist of fate (aha!) that characterizes the Arabian Nights. After that, the protagonist is cast around the world like a pinball by happenstance, coincidence and enemy action until it all ends happily ever after.

What I didn’t account for – or didn’t have time to correct – was that the original outline was predicated on you playing a thief. But in Virtual Reality books, the whole point is that you get to customize the kind of character you want. You might be a thief, but equally you might be a merchant or a nomad or a holy man. In a sandbox environment like Fabled Lands, it wouldn’t matter. You could bypass the thievish narrative, or come at it from another angle. In a single-story gamebook, the picaresque structure risked seeming unfocused.

When, last year, I came back to the book released as Twist of Fate (never liked that title - another area where time ran out on me) and got to rework it as Once Upon a Time in Arabia, the biggest change I made was to give it an entirely new prologue. The bad guy is now badder, his villainy toward you more egregious, and the stakes are higher right from the start. This goes somewhat against the fairytale dream-flow of the Arabian Nights – but it makes for a better gamebook, and on the question of foolish consistencies, I’m with Emerson.

13 comments:

  1. Do you think there are good points in baaubg a gamebook on an rpg campaign? WOTT did it. If so, what are the pitfalls.?

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  2. Brilliant question. I was about to ask the same. :)

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    1. Good question, twice :-) I often use campaigns for gamebooks, but the gamebook will never be an authentic role-playing experience because in a real RPG you can respond the the players' goals, so nobody can quite predict where the narrative will take you. You could, for example, reverse engineer a Legend campaign out of the Blood Sword books, but there'd be no guarantee it would end up at Spyte in the year 1000.

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  3. I love this, but with it being so full-on Arabian Nights I feel I'd want it to actually be set in the fantastical Islamic world of the tales. Oh, and isn't it such a pity that nowadays places like Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Homs and Cairo are synonymous with unrest and war? They sound so exotic and magical in the Arabian Nights.

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    1. I still think of Baghdad as a magical place, but it's hard to reconcile that with recent history. You'll be happy to know that the book as published is indeed set in the quasi-historical world of the Arabian Nights and not in Fighting Fantasy's DnD style version.

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    2. Oh, um, d'oh! I did know that, owning a copy of 'Twist of Fate' already. My excuse is that it is in a box in my parents-in-law's attic and I haven't seen it in years (and have never read it thoroughly even before that). Time to try and find it I think (or maybe I'll just buy a copy of 'Once Upon a Time in Arabia').

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    3. Strangely, one review took me to task, saying that it was peculiar to see magical elements like jinn added onto the historical world of the 9th-century Caliphate complete with Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. I guess that guy never actually heard of the Thousand and One Nights, then!

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  4. Where does the second picture come from?

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    1. It's by Russ Nicholson and it's from Once Upon a Time in Arabia.

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  5. So what was the eighth book supposed to be, or am I missing something obvious? Was that Paul Mason's book?

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    1. I would have liked to see one by Paul, but the original plan was just four by me and four by Mark Smith. So I guess it would have been another Orb one, but Mark had no specific plans for it that I'm aware of.

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  6. I'm not sure I'd have liked to read one by Paul; to me he's always been a writer who tells a great story (eg. The Crimson Tide), but not one that lends itself to the gamebook format. Of course, I'm solely basing that on his FF titles, so may be doing him a disservice.

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    1. I think it's fair to say that Paul's concepts for interactive fiction were a little more ambitious and original than the FF series was able to support. Those books were just aimed at middle graders, after all. I'd love to see him have a crack at something like my interactive Frankenstein app which, being published by Profile Books, was able to reach an adult literary readership.

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