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Friday, 2 February 2018

Dive into the Dune Sea

Fans of fantasy gamebooks will certainly have encountered Destiny Quest, Michael J Ward's epic adventure series. The latest instalment, The Raiders of Dune Sea, is currently on Kickstarter until February 11. See if this teaser whets your appetite:
"A lost race returns from the shrouds of time, armed with the powerful magics of Ragnarok to unleash their bitter vengeance on an unsuspecting world. The shifting sands of the southern desert will run red with blood as the robbers and pirate captains of the Dune Sea are dragged into a deadly war – one which could unravel time and change the destiny of all."
I don't normally get behind Kickstarters - well, not successful ones anyway. But I'm intrigued by the new character profession of aeronaut, having always liked the idea of piloting an airship of my own, as you'll have realized if you found the manta car in Heart of Ice. Blame Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mike Moorcock for that. And, all unbidden, Paul Gresty included some airship travel in The Serpent King's Domain, so don't miss that when it comes out in a week or so, will ya? Still, not to get sidetracked... the Fabled Lands team bearded Michael Ward in his lair and asked him about the new book (or maybe two books -- see below) in this exciting series.

"Michael, can you start by telling us a bit about what makes Destiny Quest unique?"

Like traditional gamebooks, you play the main protagonist and make decisions for that character throughout the story. However, in Destiny Quest, the choices you make also extend to the items and abilities that you choose for your hero. It has the familiarity of a typical gamebook but with the depth of a more involved role-playing adventure.

The Destiny Quest system takes its main inspiration from modern online RPGs (such as World of Warcraft) and hack-and-slash action games (like the Diablo series). In each book, you engage in multiple strategic battles, using your varied abilities to help counter those of your opponent. If you are successful in combat, then you get to choose from a selection of rewards (loot drop, yay!). These rewards will typically come in the shape of armour, weapons and trinkets, all of which can be ‘equipped’ onto your hero to boost their attributes and give them new abilities.

Each book has hundreds of unique items and abilities to discover, giving readers a huge amount of choice when it comes to outfitting and customizing their hero.

"How about other things that distinguish the series? Can you share your creative 'mission statement' for these books?"

As I’ve already touched on, I wanted this series to have a ‘videogame’ feel, with more strategic combat and a heavy emphasis on customization. In addition to that, there is also the quest map system, which again harkens back to open world CRPGs such as World of Warcraft.

Readers use the maps in each book to select their quests (which are colour-coded for difficulty). There are also other locations you can visit, such as towns and cities, and legendary monster encounters – which are tougher opponents you can take on for extra special rewards.

There is also a career system, based on the three paths that you can choose for your hero – warrior, mage or rogue. By discovering career trainers or unlocking careers through special achievements, players can further customize their hero by specializing them in certain professions. As a rogue for example, you could become an assassin or a witchfinder – and each career has its own inherent special abilities which may influence the way you play and the items you choose to equip.

"Players take a new character in each book. Does that mean their former characters are done with, or might he/she return in later books?"

Each book has its own unique hero and story to tell, so they are essentially standalone adventures - so there is nothing stopping anyone jumping into the series at any point. However, when read together in sequence, they do tell a grand over-arching story with returning themes and characters. And yes, you might even encounter your hero from a previous adventure in a later book, but as an NPC who you will be interacting with.

In Book Two, there are also team battles, where you can team up with a hero from another book (either your own or perhaps even a friend’s creation) to battle a super tough boss monster!

"We've often heard DQ likened to Warcraft or Diablo. To what extent have videogames influenced your design decisions, compared to say tabletop roleplaying?"

Destiny Quest was very much born out of my obsession with World of Warcraft (and games of a similar ilk). I became so addicted to the latter that I was playing nearly fifty hours a week and it was starting to consume my life. I don’t regret a minute of it, but sinking all those hours into that experience made me wonder why no-one had really tried to capture that in a book format (admittedly, I wasn’t aware of the Fabled Lands series at the time!). So that’s why I sat down and planned how I was going to approach that type of experience – and the gamebook format was the obvious choice.

Of course, I’m a huge gamer and enjoy all types of gaming experiences, from CCGs to tabletop dungeon crawls. I love exploring different game mechanics and am constantly soaking up ideas and systems that I can tweak and incorporate into gamebooks. Destiny Quest is very much a melting pot of all my game experiences.

Sadly, I don’t really do any roleplaying nowadays, basically due to time and the difficulty of getting people together for that kind of sustained play – but I do remember my AD&D days fondly, and have spent far too much time than is sensible watching Pathfinder sessions and other RPG games being played on YouTube. Again, all fuel for the creative fire.

"Are there any plans to convert Destiny Quest into a videogame?"

Because Destiny Quest is so hugely influenced by computer RPGs, I feel as though the system would offer the perfect blueprint for a multitude of gaming experiences, from card and board games to a fully-fledged open world Diablo ‘hack-a-thon’. Sadly, I’ve not had any offers yet (!) but it’s certainly something I would be immensely passionate in supporting and contributing to.

"How do you map out the books? Do you do a full flowchart first or plan in sections as you go?"

Everything starts with the story, which may sound obvious – but worth stressing I think. Knowing where you want your story to go and the various key stages/moments of that journey, will make everything else a lot easier. Then I usually focus on the maps and the type of environment that will feature in each act of the story. From there, I work on each quest one by one – then add the choices into my master document once each one is complete.

I do create a rough flowchart as I plan up each quest, which helps with keeping me on course – but I rarely stick to it, and often drift off into a multitude of decision trees. I think you have to work quite organically and adapt, as you can never second-guess where your narrative can take you. But having that original road map to come back to is always useful, otherwise you can go overboard and suddenly your 5000 word quest just became a 20,000 word behemoth.

“What sort of work goes into balancing the game system? How do you balance the dozens of special abilities a player might use? (As well as the various possible player builds that emphasise, say, durability rather than speed?)"

A huge amount of work goes into the playtesting – almost as much as writing the book. During the actual writing of each story, I add in items, abilities and monster stats but there is a lot of guess work involved. It isn’t until the writing is done and I am happy with the text, that I actually sit down with a bunch of dice and get stuck into the game.

Some people are surprised when they discover I have no elaborate algorithms or programs that test the combats or streamline the itemization. I literally play through the book as a reader would – and simply do that again and again and again. It can drive you slightly mad, I won’t deny it, and there are frequent times when you just want to throw the manuscript out of the window! But there is also a huge amount of satisfaction in getting it right, when things click into place and everything becomes polished.

I’ve always preferred not to give out my book to others to test (well, I did have a friend briefly test some sections of Legion back in the day) as it would just become too difficult to manage all the feedback and opinions. I feel, with three books under my belt now, that I have a pretty good handle on what works and what doesn’t, and a sense of the right level of difficulty to ensure the adventure is challenging but fun.

"A purely creative/writing type question. What are the main inspirations for your fantasy world?"

I’ve always been fascinated with history. I did two history A-levels (the equivalent of high school diplomas for those in the US) and a history Bachelor’s Degree, so I’ve had a varied experience of different time periods. Also my day job, when I’m not creating gamebooks, is writing educational materials for schools and I was quite heavily involved in designing creative lesson plans linked to the recent National Curriculum changes – most of which were history focused.

So, I think when designing worlds and telling stories, I always try and draw from the events, people and cultures that I have learned about. Perhaps less so with Legion of Shadow, which I’ll admit was quite a generic take on fantasy (owing to a lot of pressure to give the book as much mass/age appeal as possible), but later books have delved much deeper into themes such as religion, segregation, war, politics and so on. 

“On the theme of creative inspiration, what made you decide to base the new book in a desert environment – the Dune Sea?”

I’ve wanted to tell a story in a desert setting for some time. As previously mentioned, I have always loved history, and at one point in my life I was even considering becoming an Egyptologist – so I’ve always wanted to draw on my love of Egyptian culture and mythology at some point. Who wouldn’t want to imagine being Howard Carter or Indiana Jones, discovering a lost tomb or delving into a mysterious pyramid!

Interestingly, one of my biggest influences for the new book was the sci-fi film Hardware (1990, Palace Pictures). [Based on "Shok!" by Steve MacManus and Kevin O'Neill -DM.] For me, back in the day, it was a truly ground-breaking movie, which took a refreshing art-house style approach to the genre – and had a huge impact on me creatively (when I was considering a career in screenwriting and direction). I will never forget its evocative opening sequence of a Mad Max style scavenger trudging through an apocalyptic desert, a lone figure swept up in the crimson haze of a sandstorm. The character, known as the nomad, ends up discovering a piece of military hardware – the head of a robot, which he takes back to a ragtag settlement which passes for civilization in this post-war environment.

Amusingly, I actually misheard the line of dialogue in the ensuing scene when the desert nomad is asked where he found the parts. To me, he always sounded as though he was saying ‘Dune Sea’ but later, when I discovered a copy of the screenplay, he is apparently saying ‘Judas Sea’, which would tie in with the religious iconography and themes of the film. Nevertheless, in my ignorance, I was like ‘wow, Dune Sea… that’s cool’ – and always wanted to somehow incorporate that concept into a story.

"Previous DQ books have been notable for their dramatic, high-quality artwork. How closely do you get involved with that side of production?"

The stunning cover for Book Four [see above -DM] was created by a good friend of mine, Paul Cheshire, who did much of the artwork that you will see on the Destiny Quest website.

"When does the Kickstarter campaign run until?"

The Kickstarter is running until 11 February. I’ve been completely blown away by amazing support – a huge thank you to all those who have already pledged. We managed to reach our funding goal within just a few days – but now it’s all about the stretch goals and unlocking extra goodies, so if you are still on the fence, then now might be the time to take the plunge!

"There's always somebody who'll say they're interested a week after the campaign closes. For those who miss it, will the book be available on Amazon?"

First off, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a late pledge option, so that those who missed the Kickstarter can still pledge for a book. Going forward, the book will be primarily available from the Megara Entertainment website (in both softcover and hardcover format). I also plan to sell some copies myself – perhaps through Amazon UK and/or eBay. Certainly, the book will be in plentiful supply after the Kickstarter so no-one need worry.

“And do you already have plans for Book Five?”

Book Five will actually be the continuation of the story told in this one, so I do have it mapped out in some detail. I ended up splitting the story across two books because I was simply running out of space and wordage to do the story justice.

That being said, I’m not sure when I will get around to starting Book Five. These books take a huge amount of time to write – and it’s difficult to fit other work around them, so inevitably I take a bit of a financial hit during the months when I am focused on DQ. So with Book Four near to completion, it will be back to the day job to hopefully swell the coffers again, so I can afford to write the next one. If only I could win the lottery or discover a rich gamebook benefactor.

“And if you could pitch Destiny Quest in one sentence?”

An epic open world videogame in a book – explore, battle and loot your way to victory!

And that Kickstarter link again. But don't drag your feet -- there's just one more week to go.


  1. I backed it at the 50 E level with 36 E add-ons to get the loot cards I missed for the first three books. Destiny Quest is a pretty cool system and a way to pass the time until Fabled Lands 8 comes out.

  2. I will say that I wish Destiny Quest wasn't quite so "stuff-oriented." The overall implication seems to be that if a hero got knocked over the head and robbed, he'd be set back to being a o-ability pissant because his cool stuff is all gone. That's one reason I like Fabled Lands better. Stuff/Items can help, but the character still has intrinsic capabilities separate from those items.

    1. Especially the case, presumably, if you take an aeronaut and then lose your airship. But I assume the books don't actually have any way for characters to lose their most vital gear?

    2. I hate to burst your bubble, but I don't think aeronauts in DestinyQuest pilot airships, but are mages who specialize in wind and storm magic. But I could be wrong, because DQ Book 3 did introduce vehicle racing and combat. But those were special parts of the book, where heroes of any class could pilot a sled or ship.

      As for losing your equipment, yes, it makes sense that after losing combat, your non-monster opponents would steal your stuff. But unlike Fabled Lands, your opponents always got stronger as your hero advanced in the story and became more powerful.

    3. The word aeronaut doesn't mean a mage who uses air magic, though -- that would be an aeromancer (or something - I don't like mixing Latin & Greek but "necromancer" already does that anyway). An aeronaut by definition is somebody who travels by air. I'll be severely unimpressed if it's just a case of the word being used wrongly!

  3. They use their air/wind magic to power the sand schooners that travel across the dune sea. They can also use their magic to project themselves and others through the air.

    1. Certainly somebody flying through the air is an aeronaut -- assuming they have some control over where they're going :-) But I guess you're saying there are no airships after all?

    2. And apparently not in The Serpent King's Domain either. That is, you can be an aeronaut in SKD, but Paul Gresty informs me you can only actually acquire an airship in book 8, which isn't out yet. If and when it is, I don't know what stops you setting a course for the northern continent -- which would be tricky, of course, seeing as we already wrote those books without airships. Smart readers will have already spotted the workaround... ;-)