Gamebook store

Sunday, 20 June 2010

In days of old

I already posted about the various proposals Jamie and I made to Puffin for a late entry in the Fighting Fantasy series. The one they picked was Keep of the Lich-Lord, but we really liked some of the others. Here’s one with an Arthurian slant, something we had been interested in exploring in gamebook form for some time. And therein lies a tale – but first, take a look at the proposal we submitted to Puffin in 1989:

Knights of Renown

This is presented either as a Fighting Fantasy gamebook or as the basis for a separate series like the Robin of Sherwood gamebooks.

The story is set in Arthurian times with the reader taking the part of a young knight. His or her quest is to perform some great deed to win a place at the Round Table. Throughout the adventure the young knight will encounter other famous knights and characters from Arthurian myth like Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere and Mordred.

The tale begins with the reader making a declaration of intent to King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. In response, Arthur tells him of a strange Grey Knight, a giant, who has slain many a worthy knight. His tower is on a bleak moor in a remote corner of the kingdom of Logres. If the young knight can rid the land of the evil Grey Knight he will win himself a seat at the Round Table. The young knight sets out, but is not the only one undertaking the quest. Others also seek glory and fame, including one or two established knights of Arthur's court. Everyone hopes to be the first to encounter and best the Grey Knight, so speed is of the essence.

On the journey, the knight comes across an enchanted marquee in a lonely glade. This is the Pavilion of Dreams. If the knight successfully survives an attempt by evil forces to bewitch him, Merlin will appear and tell him about the Lance of Longinus. This sacred artifact would be of great help in defeating the evil Grey Knight. It is said to lie in the crypt of the ruined Abbey de l'Ombre which the knight must find somewhere in the Forest of Caerleon.

After a series of adventures the young knight will at last confront the Grey Knight of the Wastes – only to discover he was once a human knight who has been ensorcelled by Morgan Le Fay. If the hero has earlier obtained some oil taken from the Holy Sepulchre it will be possible to anoint the Grey Knight and alter him back to human size and disposition. Before this can be done, of course, the Grey Knight must somehow be subdued. The reader will certainly need the Holy Lance and to recall Merlin's advice in order to achieve this.

Returning to Camelot, the young knight can claim his reward, a seat at the Round Table. The fact that he also denounces Morgan will vex her, and allows her to become a recurring figure if there is a sequel.

Special Rules for Fighting Fantasy

The knight will have some extra abilities as well as the standard FF ones:

Starts at 2. Renown is a numerical rating of the knight's fame and can increase or decrease as the adventure unfolds. It will govern things like whether a knight would be willing to joust with you or how likely you are to be recognised from your coat-of-arms. For instance, during the game you may be lost and wounded in a remote forest. Finding a castle, you approach the gate. If your Renown is above a certain score the lord of the castle will let you in and aid you, pleased to have so famous a knight as a guest. If it is too low, he might decide you’re just a wanderer of dubious intent and turn you away.

A representation of how honourable and knightly the player is. Chivalry will decrease or increase as the adventure continues. In certain situations your Chivalry score might influence or even dictate your actions. For instance, you come across a princess imprisoned in a tower and guarded by a very powerful knight. If your Chivalry score is very high, you are obliged to attempt a rescue. If it is low you would have free choice in the matter, but failing to try and help her would cause your Chivalry to drop even further. Thus a Knight with high Renown and low Chivalry would be seen as a mighty fighter but not a man of honour – perhaps an evil knight. In Arthurian myth, characters like Sir Agravaine, Breunis Sans Pite and Tarquin would be of this sort.

An ability that functions just as Skill in combat, except that it would apply only in jousts. The techniques of the joust make it a way for knights to settle disputes with the maximum use of expertise and the minimum chance of fatality. Some evil knights refuse jousts, preferring to go straight to the business of melee and slaughter. Whether it is possible to ignore a challenge to joust depends on the result of a Chivalry roll.

A characteristic generated at the start in the same way as Luck. Piety reflects the knight's ability to perform acts of devotion such as an all-night vigils in a chapel. A high Piety score also allows the knight to drive back evil spirits and break enchantments. When required, the player would throw dice exactly as if making a Luck roll but using his Piety score. (Piety does not decrease with use, but may decrease or increase as a result of special events during the course of the adventure.)

Knights of Renown as non-Fighting Fantasy

Generated at the start by rolling one dice and adding 3. This is used in combats when the knight wields a sword, mace, morning star or other melee weapon. In combat, roll 2 dice and if the score is equal to or less than your Melee rating you have scored a hit. You then roll another dice. This is the number of points your opponent loses from his Endurance score. Your opponent then does the same. Combat continues in this manner until someone yields or is slain. Opponents will vary widely in their Melee ratings. Different weapons have different damage ratings. The knight may also find items that increase the damage he inflicts or that enhance his Melee score – for example, if Excalibur is lent to the knight it increases his Melee by 2 and allows him to add +2 to the dice score when rolling for damage.

The knight begins with 30 Endurance points. When these fall to zero he is dead. Lesser degrees of wounding will slow him up and affect his Melee score.

The knight begins with chainmail armour, a helmet and a shield. This deducts 2 from all damage rolls made against him (or 1 if the shield is lost). Better armour may be found during the course of the adventure.

The knight may be required to joust against other knights. This involves the use of the lance on horseback, and is a very different skill from Melee. The character’s Joust score is generated by rolling one dice and subtracting 1. A joust is conducted in 'runs'. Before each run, you must decide whether you are aiming for your opponent's head or his shield. The reader rolls 2 dice, and adds his Joust skill (which could begin at zero). He then does the same for his opponent. A total of 12 or more means your opponent has been unseated. (Thus it is possible for both contestants to be unseated simultanouesly.) A roll of 2 on the dice means your lance has shattered whether or not the final result unhorses your opponent.An unseated knight may take damage from falling to the ground. Someone whose opponent aimed at his shield takes 1 dice damage. A hit on the head inflicts 2 dice, and a roll of 12 when aiming at the head kills the knight outright! For this reason most decent knights go for a foe's shield rather than his head. Success in a joust allows a knight to improve his Renown and Joust scores.

This works as described for the Fighting Fantasy variant, except that the knight may be required to make a Chivalry roll. A roll of on or below the Chivalry score on two dice forces the reader to behave according to the strict rules of honourable conduct, while a roll above the Chivalry score permits him to try a more devious approach. High Chivalry is much admired and may help in gaining boons from the King, but it often forces the knight to take a straightforward and careless approach to danger.

This is the same as in the Fighting Fantasy variant except that a Renown roll may have to be made, as detailed for Chivalry above.

As the Fighting Fantasy variant, except a roll may be made as for Renown and Chivalry.

Further books in the series would involve the Knight, now fully fledged, undertaking adventures based on Arthurian myth such as the search for the Holy Grail, the hunting of Questing Beast, the encounter between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and so on.
Okay, so that was the pitch to Puffin. The book sounds like it would have been a fairly typical gamebook, probably influenced by the Pendragon campaign run by Ian Marsh that we were occasionally playing in back then. (And the Grey Knight..? I know, I know - but remember that when you're making a pitch that may end up getting hammered into a slot somewhere in the world of Puffin's FF books, you're not going to pull out all the creative stops.)

But now look at this earlier proposal, dating from 1987, that Jamie and I sent to several book publishers. See if it reminds you of anything:

A quantum leap in the evolution of gamebooks... and a new way of presenting the old favourites of folktale and myth

This proposal combines elements of gamebooks, role-playing and board games. Hero Quest is set in a mythic landscape (perhaps the worlds of the Norse legends, Arthurian myths or the Arabian Nights) and allows the reader to participate in the stories.

To give some idea of what is involved, consider what the book looks like. It consists of a number of large colour maps which might depict, say, Britain in Arthurian times. The reader begins by deciding whose eyes he or she wants to experience the story through; in this case, it might be Lancelot, Gawain, Morgan, Mordred or Balin. Areas on the map are marked with numbers, and after travelling to an area (moving a counter across the map) the reader gets to turn to the corresponding numbered paragraph. This then guides him or her on through other paragraphs, in the manner of a solo gamebook, until it is time to move on to a new location. The reader discovers missions and goals while playing. For instance, a reader playing Lancelot might disgrace himself at Camelot and be told by King Arthur that he must atone by finding one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and returning with it to the court before New Year's Day.

How does it differ from traditional gamebooks? First and foremost, since the reader is creating the overall narrative for himself, there is no need for the long linking passages and purple prose found in a conventional gamebook. Paragraphs would be quite short, as the emphasis is on exploring the episodic form of the story (why a knight behaves honourably, what it means to refuse a challenge, why one must be wary of elves, etc). Each possible character will have different skills and shortcomings, and the reader must be aware of these when deciding how best to act. Gawain will find it easy to behave honourably, for example, but almost impossible to tell a lie. En route from place to place, a matrix and dice roll would give the reader random encounters that might range from a disputing knight at a crossroads to a haunted priory by the roadside.

All episodes would be drawn from the original sources, so in a sense this is just a new way to tell the old stories. This way of discovering legends by "living" them, though, has a number of advantages over traditional narrative form. It clarifies the reasons why a protagonist makes the particular decisions and choices that he does. It shows the consequences of alternative courses of action. And for a modern reader accustomed to the lure of television and computer games, it makes the stories infinitely more vivid and exciting than in a traditional third-person narrative.

Leaving aside the need to couch our proposal in respectable literary terms (ie the emphasis on being true to existing legends, which was necessary to sell to editors who were even then quite hostile to what they regarded as “trash” fantasy) what’s interesting is that this was essentially a proposal to create a series like Fabled Lands – a full eight years before we actually got to do “The War-Torn Kingdom”. Had we got FL started in 1987, when gamebooks were at the height of their success in Britain and Europe, I am quite sure we would have been able to complete the twelve-book series and probably carry on and do more. That Tardis is going to be busy if I ever get the fluid link fixed.


  1. 'Knights of Renown' sounds great and should have been a gamebook! Definitely Fighting Fantasy didn't do enough with the knights and chilvalry theme. A couple of years ago I was reading Mallory and then put together an outline for an amateur FF gamebook heavily influenced by that - you'll not be surprised that it has some similarities with your 'Knights'. I might write it up some day, maybe for Fighting Fantazine.

  2. I'm surprised Arthurian myth seems to have sunk into the doldrums a bit in the last twenty years. I think that publishers dismiss it as old-fashioned, forgetting that Malory was updating older stories for a contemporary readership, as Tennyson did later, and that all it needs is the kind of reboot that Sherlock Holmes or Star Trek got recently to make it something that a modern audience can connect to.

  3. Not sure about written fiction, but on the big screen we've had 'King Arthur' (which I detested), and on the small screen 'Merlin' (which was disappointing IMO). Still hard to beat 'Excalibur' (which apparently they are doing a remake of).

  4. The Pendragon RPG just got a new publisher so maybe a mini renaissance in the gaming world. A remake of 'Excalibur', hard to imagine what the result would be like.

    I like the sound of 'Knights of Renown' I was back home a few weeks ago and went though my bookshelves to find my old DW book. I also came across a Robin of Sherwood game book, something I'd forgotten I had. I haven't reread it yet but the system looks a little different from the norm. It has also put me in the mood to re-watch some episodes of the show.

  5. Excalibur is one of my favourite movies. But a remake? Heaven help us. They'll be doing a remake of Blade Runner next.

    Robin of Sherwood - yes, that was a classic TV series and a huge influence on Dragon Warriors. You're so right, Rudd - I'm going to dig out the DVDs this weekend.

  6. Perhaps the 'Grailquest' series of gamebooks had the whole Arthurian theme tied up?

    And how can you compete with a system that gives you a magic sword called Excalibur Junior? :)

    There's been a couple of movies with Arthurian themes in the past decade or so - King Arthur (Clive Owen) and The Last Legion spring to mind, plus the Merlin mini series with Sam Neill in the title role. Nothing spectacularly epic however, though I've heard the Merlin series was quite watchable (the two movies, which I have seen, are so-so, with Clive Owen a particularly wooden Arthur.)

  7. Merlin was quite good - I mean the Sam Neill mini-series, not the BBC's current lame effort. I haven't seen the movies you mention, Wayne, though I can just imagine Clive Owen as Arthur. He's a really good actor when given a role he can connect with (The International, Gosford Park, Closer) but, like most British actors, he can't seem to make that leap of imagination to get comfortable with fantasy or SF. Look at the pantomime gurning we get in British television of the genre compared to the naturalistic performances in almost any US sf/fantasy show.