The Eye of the Dragon didn’t start off as a gamebook. It was a scenario in my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. The ruined city that the players had to visit was not Thalios but Ngala, out on the Flats of Tsechelnu about a hundred and fifty miles from Jakalla.
I can’t find any notes for the scenario, and that's probably because there weren’t any. Our main weekly game was held at Keble, first in Mike Polling's room and later with Jack Bramah, Robert Dale or Colin Williams hosting, and those games were on Sunday afternoons as a legacy from when we spun off from the Dungeons and Dragons Society at Jesus. I’d usually arrive to run the session after a leisurely start to the day and a long brunch, so there was rarely any preparation and we preferred it that way. For this scenario, though, I had at least drawn up a fairly detailed map of the ruins.
At a guess the game took place in late 1981 or early 1982, because it was obviously inspired by the movie Escape From New York. The players will have included Oliver Johnson, Mark Smith and Robert Dale. I doubt if there was any super-powerful ancient artefact at stake – more likely it was a routine escort mission for their temple. The twist, such as it was, lay in the fact that the players must have been anticipating trouble from an amphibious enemy such as the Hlűss or Hlutrgu, but it turned out they were up against a party of Grey Ssu. Hence all the hypnotic jiggery-pokery, and with it the seeping paranoia of never knowing whether the comrade right behind you might have already been got at. (John Carpenter movies were clearly a big influence on my umpiring style.)
For the gamebook I kept the unity of place and time, starting the adventure as you arrive at the ruins at dusk and finishing at dawn. The Grey Ssu became the Kappa – not the water-dwelling creatures of Japanese folklore, but pearl-eyed and coral-boned nonhumans whose name derived from the Greek letter, which seemed to fit with the vaguely Graeco-Roman flavour of the city.
Some nods to the scenario’s origins at Oxford can be seen in the Amber Pantechnicon (a wonky Radcliffe Camera), the crossroads of Carfax, and the talking sphinxes, inspired by the Emperors’ busts in Zuleika Dobson. For some reason the Sydney Opera House got a look-in too; maybe that was Russ’s idea.
The USP of Eye of the Dragon is that you are a sorcerer. In retrospect I could have come up with a more interesting way of handling that than the Vancean system – which is delightful in the Dying Earth stories, but doesn’t make for very interesting gameplay. In our Tekumel games at that time, magic involved the sorcerer constructing a number of mental “spell matrices”. After a spell was cast, the spell matrix became “fatigued” and you needed to spend time in meditation in order to restore it. You could still cast a spell using a fatigued matrix, but it cost twice as much energy. That would have been a better mechanic than the all-or-nothing approach I went with for the book.
Other snippets… Master Giru is based on Professor M.A.R. Barker, creator of Tekumel, to whom the book is dedicated. His player-character Firu Ba-Yeker is well known in Tekumel gaming circles. Lord Mantiss was a nod to Ian Livingstone, who often urged me to include a character called Mantis in Adventure, the role-playing game I was designing for Games Workshop – or, as it turned out, for myself – in the early ‘80s. (Years later, Ian was to return the gesture of homage by releasing his own version of The Eye of the Dragon. That's a joke by the way.)
For a while I toyed with the notion of giving the book a thorough overhaul. It could do with a bit more grit. The pally way the scholars talk to you at the start never rang true. More suspicion would have helped - and would have resonated with the pervasive distrust once you arrive at the ruins and find that so many would-be allies have been nobbled by hypnosis. I even jotted down a few notes:
The idea is that you’re different somehow. People treat you with fear, suspicion and loathing. We never say if it’s skin colour, a deformity, or what, but something marks you out as Other.Another option was to rejig the book as a Fabled Lands Quest, with the action starting in Dweomer and then zipping over by means of one of those convenient dimensional portals to the vaguely Hellenic land of Atticala.
Oh, and you are a miracle worker, sorcerer, whatever. Maybe instead of being “of the Elder Race” this is more like being born a mutant.
So you’re recruited for this job. They don’t like you, but they need you.
You go and get the Eye, then at the end they ask you for it. And we end with you wondering whether to let them have it...
But in the end I realized that most people are buying these reprints to fill gaps in their gamebook collection. There isn’t a lot of appetite for revised versions. The Keep of the Lich-Lord was different – we had to rework that because we didn’t have the rights to the Fighting Fantasy setting. But The Eye of the Dragon is in its own universe – and it’s not Legend, at least not quite the low-fantasy Legend familiar to Dragon Warriors players, despite the reference to a place called Achtan. So in the end I changed only a couple of monster names (“dungeon devil” and “blood fiend” – must’ve been in a rush that day) but otherwise left the text unmolested.
The Eye of the Dragon is now available in paperback on Amazon: