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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Blood Sword redux: The Battlepits of Krarth

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When I first decided to revise the Blood Sword books for a new edition, what I had in mind was a hobby project that I would tinker away with in odd moments of spare time. Where do these follies come from, eh? It soon became obvious, as it should have been from the start, that with an interconnected series like this you can’t edit bits in isolation. Blood Sword is a single gamebook epic comprising over 2800 sections. Pulling it all together takes a lot more focus than a half hour a week.

All right, plans are made to be altered. Fifteen years in the videogames industry should have taught me that if nothing else. So I hauled out a pad of A3 paper and set to flowcharting the whole of Blood Sword, start to finish.

Did I mention 2800 sections? By the halfway point I felt like Dantès scratching marks on the wall in the Château d'If.

There’s no Monte Cristo treasure at the end of this one, but it’s been an interesting exercise. I wrote the Blood Sword books over a quarter century ago (gulp) and firing up those same neurons after all this time is really odd. It’s like reloading a ghost. Some ideas and scenes seem so familiar, still part of the imagination I share with that 25-year-old revenant. Others are the work of a stranger. Sometimes I’m reading a piece and I find a grin of admiration on my face – “Now that’s cool!” But always I’m aware that I’m a different person now. I wouldn’t write these books, and if I did I’d write them a very different way. Like I say, interesting.

I also see the truth here of Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory. (You can frame that sentence, by the way, as I’m not usually one to cite the wisdom-lite of a pop guru like Malcolm Gladwell.) You learn to be a writer by writing. I know, because I can see it happening here: the leaps-and-bounds improvement from The Battlepits of Krarth to Doomwalk.

And then there’s The Walls of Spyte. We’ll get back to that one.

As I’m gearing up to the republication of the books (sometime in October, maybe, probably, hopefully) I thought it might be worth sharing some of the things I’ve remembered or discovered while editing the new edition. I’ll start with The Battlepits of Krarth.

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It is, as you can guess from the title, a dungeon adventure. This last-man-standing type adventure was originated by Steve Jackson in his Death Test gamebook in 1978 and later picked up by others – most notably for British readers by Ian Livingstone in Deathtrap Dungeon in 1984.

But here’s the thing. I’m not interested in dungeons. You can keep your mules and your ten-foot poles. That’s not the kind of role-playing I do. So, first question: why the Battlepits?

I don’t know for sure, but I expect Oliver (Johnson, my co-writer) will have insisted on making the first book an easy-in. Oliver was always the one reminding me of the need to keep those early gamebooks commercial, and pointing out that the typical reader was not a twentysomething roleplayer but an eleven-year-old schoolboy. Re-reading them now, I don’t think I kept that in mind at all. There are drugs and prostitutes and gruesome deaths. But then, look at what eleven-year-old schoolboys (and girls) are into nowadays. There are videogames my godson played at that age that make the golden era gamebooks look as tame as Muffin the Mule.

So The Battlepits of Krarth was to be a tutorial level for the series. Despite agreeing to make it a dungeon, I notice that at least the first third of the book consists of finding a patron. The gates of the underworld only open for act two. I mentioned before that Oliver Johnson co-wrote the book with me. I wrote everything up to the entry into the Battlepits. From that point, I flowcharted the rest of the book and gave it to Oliver in the form of brief summaries of each section. Our thinking was that if he then worked up my summaries into full-length prose, we could call that a fifty-fifty job. It was better to do it that way because, well, let’s just say that Oliver is an absolutely brilliant fantasy writer and role-playing umpire, but his forte isn’t flowcharting.

What Oliver got from me were about three hundred entries that read something like:
213
You natter to ghostly Magus Zyn who wants you to assemble the old giant’s bones. Do it (33) or tell him to find another patsy (361).
The snag was, between getting the series commissioned and writing the first book, Oliver had taken a job. Suddenly the long days of creative leisure were behind us, the musing with story ideas as we smoked and listened to Lou Reed and Brian Eno, the impromptu role-playing sessions over a pint at the Devonshire Arms. Oliver scheduled the week before a family holiday to rewrite my summary sections. He dropped the manuscript off on the way to the airport. “I’ll do some clean-up editing before we hand it in,” I said.

He looked a little nervous. “It might need it.” The taxi was waiting.

I got a cuppa, sat down and I turned the page. Some mistake, surely..? It read:
213
You talk to ghostly Magus Zyn who asks you to assemble the old giant’s bones. You can do it (33) or you can tell him to find another patsy (361).
And what I’d expected Oliver to turn that into would be something like:
213
An insubstantial figure appears – not even a ghost, but the spell-projected image of a ghost. Magus Zyn, undying and eternal enemy of the magi. The last of the True Magi.
‘You have the means to resurrect Skrymir,’ says the ghost. You start to reply before realising that it cannot hear you. It is just like a recorded message, a spell cast here to instruct any who should arrive with all the fragments of Skrymir’s skeleton.
If you assemble Skrymir’s bones together, turn to 33. If you decide against doing that, turn to 361.
The deadline was a week away. That was a very busy week for me. I had forty thousand words to write, give or take. Walter Gibson could bang that out in a day, but the Shadow stories were continuous narratives. I wouldn’t like to try writing forty thousand words of good prose in a week, but if it was a single story it might be just about possible. When it’s cut into several hundred chunks it gets a lot harder. And I had all those tactical battle maps and stats to work out too.

Well, the book came out okay. It’s not the best of the series. Most reviewers agree that the story really gets going in book two, The Kingdom of Wyrd, and that most of book one is origin story and set-up. I’m surprised to see that we didn’t even mention the old Sword of Life itself in Battlepits. When I rewrote the series as novellas some years later, I rejigged the order of events to have the quest become the main inciting incident. If I were fully revising the gamebooks now, I’d do that, but I’ve decided to make this the classic edition. That means I’m only changing stuff that really needs changing. Later (maybe much later) I’ll get to work on an all-new, streamlined, rules-lite version, and then I’ll put the quest right up front where it belongs.


Things I like about Battlepits. The dungeon has quite a mythic feel. It’s not like a series of tunnels excavated under the citadel, with an orc band in this room and a riddling mage in the next; it’s more as if you’ve dropped into The Dreaming. The rivalry and intrigue among the magi is a little bit Vancean, and is definitely the sort of thing I’d put into one of my role-playing games. The dénouement has an authentic Dragon Warriors touch of “downbeat triumph” about it. Skrymir is surely Oliver’s idea – a brilliant, macabre, doomful encounter that’s how a giant ought to be.

Things I’d have dropped if this were the all-new edition. Grandmaster Klef’s coin game. Any abstract puzzles or random/unfair events. About half of the “dungeon”.

At the time I didn’t really want those tactical maps, but now I’m thinking they could work rather well if the books were converted into apps. One of my gaming buddies, Tim Savin, helped out with playtesting the new edition, for which I slightly modified the tactical rules and some of the character classes’ special abilities. He ran Battlepits as an RPG adventure for his kids and they enjoyed it. I think they wouldn’t read most gamebooks these days, but Blood Sword maybe needed twenty-six years to find its perfect readership. It’ll be interesting to see if this new edition can reach beyond the hardcore of the nostalgia market and achieve what I always wanted it to do: bring people into roleplaying.

26 comments:

  1. So glad these might be out this year. And a tidy up classic version too :D

    I like my gamebooks old style still.

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  2. Battlepits always had a real sense of scale... these were massive sprawling catacombs, with all kinds of weirdness and wonder and terror. The first act was great fun too, with the masked ball being a particular favourite. There are some lovely set pieces in it, and the novelisation highlighted the best bits!

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    1. I did always feel that if you are going to send your players into the underworld, it needs to be a really mythic place, not an underground car park with neatly finished corridors, lol.

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  3. Although it is true that Battlepits is the weakest of a brilliant series, you can console yourself with the fact that it is the best "classical, subteranean dungeon-crawl" gamebook ever written: it has an engaging introduction, and a lot of very clever encounters. I also liked the fact that you can meet fellow competitors.

    Also, the Battlepits make more sense than most gamebook dungeons; no Ian Livingstone-style "old man running a shop in the middle of a monster-infested underground maze" nonsense, no random choice 1 in 6 chances of survival puzzles, etc.

    Paul in SA

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  4. Oh, and also, it is set in Legend, which ranks alongside Middle Earth, Westeros, and The Fabled Lands as one of the four most engrossing fantasy worlds ever.

    Paul in SA

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    1. I'll take that compliment, thanks, Paul. Though I'd have to say my list is Tekumel, the Dying Earth, Lyonesse, Oliver Johnson's Old Earth, Middle Earth, Westeros and the Hyborian Age. Yes, Vance gets in there twice.

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  5. "It’ll be interesting to see if this new edition can reach beyond the hardcore of the nostalgia market and achieve what I always wanted it to do: bring people into roleplaying."

    The first RPG I ever played was one that my brother and I invented ourselves, using the game mechanics of the Blood Sword books. This was back before I knew that RPGs already existed.

    So, you know... job done.

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    1. Ah, there can be no more perfect induction into roleplaying than inventing it for yourself like that.

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  6. I don't know Dave, I'm inclined to think that when Battlepits is reissued you should make a few small tweaks to bring the Sword of Life storyline into it, or at least somehow set the scene for the events of book 2. While I enjoy Battlepits, it always felt incongruous in the series to me, so much so that I rarely read it as part of the 'epic' when I read through the other 4. It always made me suspect (Presumably incorrectly) that yourself and Oliver hadn't quite worked out what you wanted the series to be at that point.

    I'm not so much of a purist that I'd need to see a virtually straight reprint of the classic book. I think you should take the opportunity, with a series you're rightly proud of, to make these refinements. From a purely sales perspective, that would be the difference between my buying all 5 books or only books 3-5 (which I've never been able to find short of taking a second mortgage on the house).

    Anyway, exciting prospects with the series either way.

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    1. Blimey, Mike, do you want it this year or not? :-) I do intend to do a full revision along those lines, but that will have to wait until I can devote time to working on each book in turn. As you know from earlier posts, I want to do that, but I decided that getting "classic Blood Sword" done would be the best springboard for that.

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  7. As someone who hasn't read the Bloodsword books yet, I'm really looking forward to their re-release. But I'm confused: you wrote earlier that paperbacks will be out this summer, but now write that republication of these books will hopefully be out by October. Are you delaying the release of paperbacks to later this year, or are these hardcovers you're talking about. Or, are you releasing the originals in paperback this summer, but doing some re-editing to improve the entire series, then releasing these improved books later this year. Because I may be willing to wait for those, if you really think the original books could use some new work.

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    1. It does get confusing, Todd, so this recap is as much for my benefit as yours. Right then: originally I was just aiming to get Blood Sword 1 out this summer. That's in paperback. Then I saw that, since events carry across from book to book, I really needed to edit them all at the same time. I didn't want to release book 1 and then discover I could have added something that would pay off in book 4.

      So now I've got flowcharts for all five books lying around in varying stages of completion. I have made changes to all the books. Not drastic revisions, mostly just tweaks that make them play a little better. For example, in book 2 there was a One True Path, so I added some options to let you win by other means. It's still a tough one, just not quite so unforgiving.

      That work is what's holding the books back. That and the huge task of proofing over 350,000 words! But books 1-4 will definitely be out by October, and book 5 (which is proving to be the Moby Dick in this particular kettle of fish) should hopefully follow in time for Christmas.

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    2. All right, sounds good to me! Thanks for all the work you're putting in.

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    3. I'm still holding Dave to the full-color, suped-up master version mentioned in his May 23rd, 2014 post. With printable PDF battle mats. I never read "Blood Sword" but am geared up for better-than-paperback copies like the still forthcoming "Way Of The Tiger" series (I'll get those in the mail someday, right?). If you're going to start from the beginning, go big so I'm waiting but keenly interested in "Blood Sword".

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    4. Now that sounds like a Kickstarter. The snag is that Mikael Louys of Megara Entertainment ( who were going to do the full-color edition of Blood Sword) has sworn off Kickstarter in future because of the high cost of printing and shipping those WOTT books. But we'll find another way. In the meantime, this new pb edition will be there if you want it. And we're still looking for the right developer to do the apps, which should really make those tactical maps come alive.

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  8. I'm really glad that Blood Sword is getting re-released. Those were, by far, my favourite gamebooks as a child, and 20 years later there are still many iconic (no pun intended) scenes from them that have stuck with me.

    I wouldn't be overly worried about restructuring Battlepits. The dungeon-crawly part in the middle is not the most memorable thing ever, but it's good as far as dungeon-crawly parts go, and the fun beginning in the city and memorable final part (Icon, and then Skrymir) are more than enough to make the book great.

    Since you're tweaking the series, I have one request/suggestion: Is there a chance you'll rebalance the classes a little bit? It really feels like they're not equally valuable. The Enchanter and (especially) the Warrior seem to have far fewer options than the other two. And even when they do, it still feels unbalanced. Take the series' very first puzzle, for instance (picking the right pennant): each character has his own way to do it (something that unfortunately tends to be pretty rare in the rest of the series), but the Warrior and Trickster have to pass a skill test (that's fair), the Enchanter has to make some ridiculous sacrifice to get the Faltyn's help (Has any player ever actually taken those horrible deals?), and then the Sage just looks at the pennants and knows which one to pick, because The Sage Always Knows Everything.

    What I guess I'm saying is, I wish the Warrior were more useful in non-combat situations, the Enchanter had a few more options with a less prohibitive cost, and the Sage weren't so ridiculously-overpowered. Maybe just finding an excuse to give some of the Sage's options to the Warrior or Enchanter would be a good, cheap solution. I don't know if that's part of the alterations you're planning for this re-release, but I wish it were.

    Oh, and I'm really looking forward to reading your thoughts on Book 5. Blood Sword (finally) getting a conclusion worthy of its greatness would be the best thing ever.

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    1. I did nerf the Sage very slightly for this edition, as his/her Healing ability was a bit too useful. I realize that's not what you're asking about, though, Johann, but the kind of overhaul you're suggesting is going to have to wait for the fully revamped edition next year. To do it now would mean extensive renumbering of every book. It's going to be needed in the revamp, anyway, as there will be a lot less emphasis on combat in that version, so character choices will play a much bigger part. (But the Trickster is always going to be more entertaining to play, I'm afraid - think of Odysseus and Ajax, Loki and Thor...)

      For that very first choice, to find the pennant, if you're playing an Enchanter I'd advise casting Prediction. You only want to summon a faltyn when the situation is really desperate - and of course, the faltyn can usually be relied on to make it more desperate. I have tweaked some of the deals to make them less permanently punitive, at least.

      Blood Sword 5 is looking like I'll need to do a lot of work even to get it fit for re-release in the classic edition. I'll be talking about that in a later post.

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    2. What's wrong with Blood Sword 5?! I may have some stern words to share when that post comes up. That's when the Warrior really shines, actually. Two attacks per round? Slicey-dicey. Possibility of wielding both the Swords of Life and Death - if you're the kind of scumbag who kills Karunaz? Slicey-dicey superhero.

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    3. I've got nothing against the Warrior, Paul - honest. And he/she certainly gets more of a boost for surviving Sheol than any of the other characters. It's just that book 5 is tad "console rpg" after the story-rich "PC" style of 1-4. But we can debate that in due course ;-)

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  9. Blood Sword!

    Great to see that a reprint *will* happen!

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  10. *minor spoiler*
    In terms of class balance, the enchanter is fantastic if you use the scroll room in book 1 and enhance his psychic ability up 4-5 points. Be careful of nerfing healing too much, because it was extremely useful. One rebalancing aspect that could be useful is to make the game scale a bit better with character numbers. As it stands, a four man team feels very difficult because a single lost character can cripple a party for all future books, while a single character might do well (especially a sage) but the limited inventory system makes for a bit of trouble (and I thought Skyrim had a rough inventory system!)

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    1. I'm sorry to have to tell you that the scroll room isn't *quite* so useful now as you can't take points off Endurance. It's still a good one for the character who wants to specialize, though.

      I should probably have made the lower ranks a little tougher. I started out thinking that, okay, the ideal team composition was probably two players, maybe three at most. But the fact is that players wouldn't usually plan the size of a party to minimax, they would start out with the number of friends who wanted to play the adventure together and *that* would decide the team size. And it's never much fun when one of the party gets killed mid-adventure, so I should really have tweaked the books to make them more forgiving to large teams of lower ranks. Too late to do that for the classic edition, but at least it will be less of an issue in the Blood Sword reboot, where combat will not be so significant.

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  11. Forgive my ignorance, but where are the two colour pictures in this post from? The first one in particular is superb. Thanks!

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    1. Sorry, I only just spotted this. They're from the Megara hardback edition.

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  13. The Enchanter needed a more powerful version of sheet lightning (aoe - blasting) , but as you pointed out, we were perfectly entitled to forget the rules, so I had my own level 6 spell, Rivers of Fire, (blasting) bouts of flame lick all enemies in the vicinity who take 3dice+3 damage. Loved those books and the world that was dreamt up put most other game books to shame (The Way of the Tiger excluded)

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