The process for the new edition of Blood Sword involved Stanley-knifing my old copies apart, scanning each page by hand, cleaning up the inevitable OCR errors, remapping the flowchart to check it all worked, adding any new codewords and sections needed, then typesetting the definitive text file for printing.
It was meant to be a spare-time hobby. Instead it took a good chunk of the summer. As I started on The Walls of Spyte, I had an inkling it was going to take a bit more work. That’s why Fabled Lands Publishing got books 1-4 out first. “I’ll tidy up the problems with the fifth book over the next few weekends.” That's what I said. Famous last words.
What went wrong with book 5? I’ve been trying to figure it out. The whole Blood Sword saga builds to this huge climax on midwinter’s eve of the year 1000, when most people believe the world will end. The player-characters don’t just believe that, they know it for a fact. Their celestial foes the True Magi are going to reincarnate at midnight and then their plan is to get all Isil on humanity’s collective ass. “You have five hours to save the world…” This adventure should have been filled with terror, urgency, darkness, even (to use terms I never would in real life) good versus evil.
Instead it was an old skool dungeon. Well, you may say, The Battlepits of Krarth is a dungeon. True, but it’s not only that. The dungeon there is just the arena in which the real story of political machinations among the callous Magi plays out. More to the point, it’s full of traps and puzzles and whimsy because the Magi designed it that way. What’s Spyte’s excuse?
I can’t remember the exact circumstances of how the book got written – and, since I have a pretty good memory, that alone suggests that I was probably deep into writing other books like Knightmare and Heroquest. Most likely Hodder had been talking about when to schedule the last Blood Sword book for some time, and suddenly they needed it yesterday. That’s how publishers usually operate.
Oliver had been planning to take a holiday from his day job at Transworld to allow him to write the majority of this final book, so as to catch up on the fact that I’d written 90% of a series we originally planned to work on 50/50. But something messed up those plans. Oliver didn’t have as much time as he thought, and I was booked solid on other projects. At a rough guess, he did the first half, I did the last 50 sections or so. And to fill the gap, luckily Jamie was free and was able to jump in at very short notice, writing the remaining sections in about a week. Which, considering he didn’t even know the rules (and they do stretch to twenty pages, remember) was pretty impressive.
So to answer that question, what went wrong, I have a theory. I don’t think I told Oliver and Jamie what the story was. I probably said, “The PCs have to go through a ruined city fighting cultists and demonic guardians. They’re trying to stop a ceremony at the centre of the city, so get them to the top of the inner keep and I’ll take over.”
What I should have added: “It’s Doomsday. Make it about metaphysics, betrayal, and paranoia.”
Not knowing that, Oliver and Jamie created a dungeon full of weird experiences, dimensional gateways, riddling dragons, all that. Effectively, it was a second run at the Battlepits. The tone? All over the place. Instant and arbitrary deaths mix in with whimsical conversations with demons. At times the book verges on Comedy Hour of the Apocalypse. Other times it’s Grimtooth’s Traps. Then right at the end you get to my bit and we’re talking about Man judging God and whether self-sacrifice is the only way to beat the True Magi. It’s like three different gamebooks crashed into each other at high speed. The Walls of Spyte doesn’t really survive the collision.
Some things are never going to get a shine however much you polish them. The Walls of Spyte doesn’t need a few corrective touches, it needs ruthlessly aggressive surgery. To make the book fit for publication, I ought to cut at least the central 300 sections and completely rewrite them.
But I’m very aware that people are waiting for this book. A rewriting job on that scale isn’t something to dash out over a weekend. I already have an outline for what I'd like to do with the book, but I’d have to clear a month at least to do it properly. If I was retired and only had matchstick models of the Palace of Westminster to fill my time it’d be easy, but when you’re a working writer there are few idle moments. Fabled Lands Publishing can afford to pay for the editing work to reissue old gamebooks like Blood Sword, Falcon and The Keep of the Lich Lord, but creating all-new gamebook material is a lot more work for, sadly, not much of a return.
If you’re desperate for book 5 in its original version then you’ll find plenty of people flinging free PDFs of it around on the internet. Personally I’d recommend waiting till I can fix it, though at the moment I’m not sure how to find (or fund) the time. I'd be tempted to say it's a job for Kickstarter, but I've already comprehensively debunked that as a viable way to fund print gamebooks.
Alternatively, since all the above is just my own personal taste and some people say they like old skool dungeons, I could just release the book without my name on it. If in a couple of months I still haven't figured out a way to clear enough time to rewrite it, that's what I intend to do, so either way it ought to be back in print by the spring. Who knows, it might turn out to be the most popular in the series, and all this agonizing is just me.
In the meantime, so as to have something to mark the season, here's a link to some of my Knightmare books. And I'll leave you with W B Yeats, whose poem "The Magi" did not in fact inspire Blood Sword, but fits it rather splendidly all the same. Happy New Year!
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.