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Monday 3 September 2012

How Russ got his briefs

Right from when I started writing gamebooks, I wanted Russ Nicholson as one of my artists. That wasn't because he illustrated Warlock of Firetop Mountain, oh no. I'd been a fan long before that, on the basis of his work in White Dwarf and, years before I started reading that, in the brilliant British magazine Fantasy Tales, edited by Stephen Jones. Here's his illustration in issue one (Summer 1977) accompanying Michael Moorcock's self-parody "The Stone Thing":
Thanks to Mr Jones, I tracked Russ down to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where he was helping a super villain build his lair, and persuaded him to do the illustrations for Eye of the Dragon - not the Fighting Fantasy gamebook; I'm talking about the original one. Since then we've worked on a lot of projects together, but few more ambitious or creatively successful than Fabled Lands. Let's face it, without Russ's images, the world of Harkuna would feel like it was just made up or something. Illustrations like the one here of the canals of Metriciens (below: colourized version from Megara's art team) reach out and drag you into another world. It's not only Coleridge's definition of poetic faith we experience when Russ is on top form; it's the willing commitment to belief.

Enough preamble. This is all by way of saying that, while engaged in the 21st century version of clearing out the attic - to wit, sorting through old folders on my computer - I came across the original art brief I sent to Russ for Fabled Lands book 2. And for the sake of historical interest, here it is - sent by snail mail, of course. We didn't have no fancy international network in those days:

Hi Russ - the maps look great. I love all the detail on the forests - it takes me back to reading The Hobbit and LotR, wondering over the maps. Just what we wanted. The city of Metriciens is missing off the colour map, but that may be because I forgot to put it on the original. (Not all cities from the detailed colour maps will necessarily fit on to the large global map, of course.) 

Also, herewith are the first batch of Fabled Lands illustrations. Phone me to discuss once you've looked through them. I've established generic formats for the pictures: 

Widescreen: 186mm wide by 73mm high
Quarter Page: 88mm by 110mm 
Sixth Page: 88mm by 73mm 
Vignette: 88mm by 55mm or less 

The illustrations for Book Two are:

2 The city of Ringhorn (widescreen) 
A vista of the city, which is a typical medieval city located on a river. This could be done like a medieval map, or as a picture of the city with an inset map and city coat-of-arms, or whatever you like.

25 Castle Ravayne (widescreen)
"The white turrets rise above the treetops. White puffs of cloud float in the sky. From the topmost tower flutters the black lion banner of the Ravayne Clan."

48 The city of Metriciens (widescreen)
The main mercantile port, probably much like Venice at its height. How about a picture showing a palace built along a plaza like those old Canaletto pictures or whoever it was? (Like Ringhorn, you could have inset flag, coat-of-arms or little map if you want.)

71 The town of Wheatfields (quarter page)
"A market town of some size, in the very heart of the fertile farmlands of central Golnir." This can be a view as you approach, street scene, whatever...

94 The Monastery of Molhern (quarter page)
A monastery devoted to the god of learning and crafts. The monks combine hard physical labour with academic study - just like monks in the middle ages were meant to, I suppose. This is set at some remote spot in the countryside.

125 The Temple of Nagil (quarter page)
"Nagil, god of death, is often shown as a cowled figure. Paradoxically, his temple is no stately mausoleum, but a wide high-towered building from whose minaret the priests sing a haunting melody at dusk." This is in a city.

145 The shops of Conflass (widescreen)
"Conflass market consists of tiers of shops surrounding a pleasant square in the middle of the town. You reach the higher shops by means of stepped walkways." I was thinking of the shops in Chester, by the way.

185 Hermit's cottage (quarter page)
A sprawling single-storey cottage in the heart of dense black forest. In front is a man in a homespun tunic who is drawing water from a well.

208 Caught in a spider's web (sixth page)
Typical giant spider descending to gobble you up.

217 Wishport (widescreen)
"Wishport is a picturesque town set at the back of a bay rimmed by white cliffs." To make this a bit different from the other town/city pictures, it could be seen from out at sea. 

255 Ships in Ringhorn harbour (widescreen)
Ships moored, perhaps with bridge to show how wide the river is. I'm thinking of something like the Pool of London in olden times, in that this is a wide sheltered estuary so there is no need for a harbour wall or whatever.

282 In the mountains (sixth page)
"High jagged peaks... As you climb a steep trail, you see a small waterfall gushing from high above."

303 Enchanted waterfall (quarter page)
A wide pool below a large waterfall. Fine spray hangs in the air like mist (goodness knows how you'll show that!) and very faintly it seems that figures are outlined in the mist, but it's impossible to be certain.

330 Waterfront tavern (quarter page)
Typical tavern (whatever a "typical tavern" looks like in the world of Harkuna) where sailors drink and wait to be employed or press-ganged.

360 Smugglers on the beach (quarter page) 
At night, from a vantage point on the cliffs, you see smugglers coming ashore with barrels in a small boat.

386 Pirates at sea (quarter page)
Pirates sail towards you. These pirates are actually privateers of the Kingdom of the Reavers, identifiable by the jagged pennant they fly.

400 Sprites at the roadside (quarter page)
"You are on a lonely stretch of road. Suddenly a bunch of misshapen sprites with grotesque faces emerge from a hedge. They amble over and prod you with gnarled fingers."

428 Tricked by the devil (quarter page)
You are on a country lane. The devil (in the guise of a young bard) has challenged you to deliver a sermon good enough to convert all the local cats. Naturally the cats are milling about taking no notice, at which the young bard seems quite amused.

455 Castle dungeons (quarter page)
A jailer is looking in on you in the gloomy castle dungeons, straight out of Prince Valiant I guess!

473 Storyteller (sixth page)
A storyteller is sitting on a grassy hummock beside a leafy lane, regaling the local children with his tall tales.

514 Samurai in the fens (quarter page)
"On an island in the fens, you are startled to come across a swordsman in exotic armour sitting beside an empty chest. His curved sword is across his knees and he leaps up angrily as you approach."

540 Estragon the Wizard (quarter page)
A crazy old wizard in his laboratory, deep under Castle Ravayne. He's looking annoyed at the bad news you've just brought him. In fact, it looks like he's casting a spell at you!

573 Wraiths on the river (quarter page)
"Just after nightfall, a punt carrying ghostly figures drifts around the bend in the river. The wraiths beckon for you to come aboard and join them." This is out in the middle of nowhere.

599 Damsel in a high tower (sixth page) 
While travelling cross-country, you see a woman who calls down to you from a tower where she has been imprisoned by an evil knight.

621 An eerie inn (quarter page)
"At dusk you are forced to seek shelter from the rain. You go towards a light, finding an inn. An old peeling sign swings in the wind. As you approach, the door opens and the innkeeper invites you in." 

646 Three knights of the death-god (quarter page)
"Three mounted knights encounter you on the road. They wear white tabards and their shields bear the holy symbol of the death-god Nagil." 

677 Fools of Gotham village (quarter page)
Seven simpletons (not all need be shown in the picture!) are trying to convince a cow to climb up a ladder onto the roof of their thatched cottage.

704 A stranger at dusk (quarter page)
"A fellow in grey robes sits on the steps of a caravan by the side of the road. He is playing a flute with a bulb in its stem. As you draw near, he looks up and grins, teeth flashing like pearls in the light of the rising moon." I imagine the flute looking like a snake-charmer's pipe.

741 A charging bull (sixth page)
A bull charging angrily at you for having the temerity to take a short-cut through its field.

765 A country fair (quarter page)
Typical country fair with tents and stalls set out on the village green. Jugglers, pedlars, dancing bears, songbirds, acrobats, musicians, villagers and so forth.

You could also add a few vignettes that will be used as fillers, so can vary between 20mm and 55mm high and one column (88mm) wide. These can illustrate typical "travel" paragraphs in open country, stone road, woodland, riverside, fens, cliffs by sea, or whatever you like - or more usual fillers such as swords, wands, compass and sextant, etc, if you'd rather. We should only need four or five for each book. All for now.


  1. "We didn't have no fancy international network in those days"

    And so, all the greater the excitement when a large, cardboard backed envelope arrived by courier months later?

    Rather than a e-mail 'Subject: Pictures. Body: Hi D, pictures done. See attachments. Cheers, R.'

    p.s. I am in no way saying that e-mail has had such an effect on the real Dave Morris or Russ Nicholson's communication skills!

  2. Lol. Regrettably, that is a pretty accurate summation of what email has done to the art of correspondence, at least as practised by yours truly. But I would still get pretty excited if I received a new set of illustrations by Russ, even without the romance of a brown envelope covered in PNG stamps.

  3. But, Dave, I thought you had never read LotR !

    1. Well, I read the first book up to where they meet the barrow-wights, back when was 15. I did read all of The Hobbit, though.

  4. Let's see your reaction when you'll receive e-mail news about Russ Nicholson's wonderful FL 7 pictures... because there WILL be a when, won't it? :)

    1. If only we could get a few more reviews of FL6, that would become a lot more likely. I don't want to beg...

    2. As promised, done, on I hope it will be useful...

      I received the book this morning, I'm a bit surprised to see a change in the paper but anyways, the book is wonderful!

      I'll visit Akatsurai as soon as possible: i.e., when I'll decide whether my good old character is still able to take new adventures after some months spent sleeping in his apartments in Castle Ravayne, or I should put all my chances on another one and send him first to Harkuna and then in the far East... :)

  5. Yes, I saw the review - many thanks!

    As you'll have seen, the latest books include the pre-generated characters. If anyone uses any of those, drop us a line. It'd be interesting to know if there are any favourites. Maybe we should run a poll...

    1. Yes, I was indirectly referring to one of FL 5 characters, I had already read their brief presentation and I've focused my attention on Lord Jadhak and Shen Darkeye, probably a little more on the first one. But my old Fed Perrin had a huge equipment, it's so attractive to call him back in action... well, I have to think about it! :)

  6. Ah, Lord Jadhak... he was Jamie's first character in our long-running Tekumel roleplaying campaign.

  7. Despite the lively, catching, detailed descriptions of places, situations and all else in the FL books, you're quite right that Russ' works of art add a lot to experiencing the FL world. Somehow, a RPG gamebook that consists solely of text, however well-written, doesn't appeal enough. So I couldn't agree more with you that asking Russ to be one of your artists was a wise move.
    That said, I couldn't help noticing your desired more reviews, so I wrote a review on both and, in which I also mentioned the many "incredibly well-drawn illustrations".

    1. O yes, my favourite character is Charyss Willow, the troubadour from the first FL I owned. When RPG-ing with friends in the 90s, I usually played the troubadour, so charming Charyss seems a logical choice.

    2. Two reviews - double thank you :-)

      Jamie used Charyss as one of the lead characters in his FL-set Lost Prince novella. I suspect she was based on one of his old girlfriends...

  8. Do you have the instructions for any of the other FL books? Book 5 and the spider palace would be top of my list.

    1. I was amazed to find this set, to be honest. I do remember the meeting at Pan Macmillan when Russ came up with the idea of the Spider Palace - for it was his idea, not ours.