Gamebook store

Friday 28 June 2013

We'll never reach infinity

You can't keep a secret in the internet age. I'd barely heard the news myself when readers of this blog started asking why the Infinite IF gamebooks had disappeared from the Osprey Adventures site. Weren't we going to team up with Osprey to bring back the Virtual Reality and Way of the Tiger books in digital form? That was the plan last summer. So what happened?

Now it can be told. Fabled Lands LLP won't be partnering with Osprey after all. It was an amicable parting and we wish them huge success with the Osprey Adventures line. Think Nazi occult secrets, zombie hunting guides, Cthulhu investogators' handbooks, dossiers that lift the lid on Area 51 - all coupled with the awesome full-colour artwork you'd expect of any Osprey book.

It became clear that gamebooks didn't really fit in there. Personally I wish we'd realized that before I spent eight months writing tedious Javascript and pasting it tediously into Excel because that's the way the toolset for these books worked. Oh, and it was undocumented. And occasionally the syntax would change. So that was a lot of fun. But it wasn't anybody's fault. Sometimes you get into something - pointing a gun at an archduke, digging a trench in the Somme valley, and the next thing you know it's out of everyone's hands.

When we finally had breathing space to sit back and look at the almost-complete e-gamebooks, that was when we saw they didn't have a natural home alongside either myths and legends or dark Fortean stuff. Had I written all-new gamebooks it might have been different. I wish I had done that, in fact, because the Dark Osprey books in particular are a really cool genre to work in.

The silver lining is that this change of plan means there will be print editions of those books. The Infinite IF series was going to be epub3 only, but now that I have the edited and revised text of the books, it's not too arduous to set them up in paperback on Amazon. Those should be ready in time for Christmas. More news about that in a month.

If you actually prefer digital gamebooks, I have nothing to promise right now, but don't give up hope. Jamie is looking into various other ways to get those versions completed and published. Meanwhile, I'm just happy to swap Javascript for Serif PagePlus (my DTP software of choice) and to set up some covers featuring Jon Hodgson's glorious artwork.

Friday 21 June 2013

What happened to heroes?

Krypton blows up. If you didn't already know that, you won't care anyway. And this isn't going to be a review of Man of Steel, because Mark Waid has already nailed that - everything that I would say, only phrased better and with more than adequate spoiler warnings.

Still here? Okay, so I share Mark's reaction to the final showdown between Supes and Zod. I wouldn't actually jump up and shout my opinion to a crowded cinema, as I figure they paid £15 to watch the movie, not listen to me. But hey, it's the USA. They do things differently there. (Here in the UK we do our shouting on the inside.)

That final snap (listen, I did say spoilers ahead) is just the last in a whole chain of narrative dominos that start toppling with relentless inevitability from the point that Zod and his rebels turn up in their big spiky ship. Here's how I picture the writers' meeting:

"Zod's got like a dozen guys with him. How's Superman going to beat all of them? Kryptonite?"

"Nah, we're keeping kryptonite for the sequel with Luthor."

"Okay, so how about this? Jor-Ex-Machina figures out a way to suck 'em all back into the Phantom Zone."

"We're calling it a black hole, but OK so far."

"But we still need a big showdown with Zod. So he's gone off to get something, and he isn't on the ship when it gets black holed. All his soldiers have gone. His dream in ruins. He's alone, nothing to lose. Big punch-up."

"How's that going to end? Even if Superman beats him - and this is Farm Boy vs G.I. Joe, remember - what prison can hold him?"

"He's gotta die..?"

"Uh-huh. Gotta die."

[Both think furiously.]

"Got it. In the fight, Superman gets the upper hand. Arm round Zod's neck. But Zod, he's berserk now. 'I'm going to kill all these bitty humans!' So he's lasering his heat ray towards a few little people. 'Don't you do it!' says Kal. 'I will!' snarls Zod. So, tearfully, Superman snaps his neck."

Now, why am I (and Mark Waid) so profoundly pissed off by this outcome? First of all, it's Superman. He's not just a superhero, he's the superhero. Here's what the film-makers want us to think: boy, what an impossible situation. He has to take one life to save a half dozen others. At least they're innocents and Zod is a murdering arsehole, so the moral arithmetic works out fine.

No it doesn't. Captain Kirk was several times faced with that kind of a choice: sacrifice one to save many. And Spock may raise an eyebrow, but Kirk would say no, that's unacceptable - taking one life or taking many, I reject those choices. And he would find another way. Why? Because that's what heroes do.

For all that, it's not the disastrously misjudged morality of this Superman that bothers me most. It's that the writers just went with the laziest solution because coming up with a genuinely heroic conclusion would have called for much more ingenuity. Well, I shouldn't be casting stones at other writers, and Lord knows we've all been face to face with a deadline only to find the Muse hasn't got our back. Maybe they'd got tired by that point in the proceedings - two and a half hours of CGI devastation in 3D can do that. But if you're going to tell a story about a hero - about what it really means to be a hero - either know your play or pass the ball.

In Blade Runner, who saw it coming when Roy Batty lifts Deckard up onto the roof? That's a moment of heroic redemption, surprising but inevitable as all endings should be. Or, for a less familiar tale, watch André De Toth's 1959 western Day of the Outlaw. Robert Ryan is one of those guys out of time - a relic of a hero, now a danger to the settled community he made possible. Then a bunch of outlaws show up and hold the townsfolk hostage, and it's up to him to save the day. Today that part would be played by Bruce Willis with a quirky grin and two meaty fists, and he'd be quickly dispatching those baddies with a series of lethal Home Alone type manoeuvres, but in De Toth's movie it's not so easy. Ryan has no gun, he's one man with a mere mortal's strength. So, in the absence of any easier choices, he has to dig deep and be a hero. The ending of the story? I won't spoil it, but it's surprising and inevitable.

That's a lot harder work for the writer. Maybe some writers welcome the glut of comic book movies because they think it's all about biffing bad guys through skyscrapers. But I'm a comics fan from way back, avidly hanging on the escapades of Spider-Man and the X-Men while my schoolfriends were reading The Beano, and even as a little kid I always knew that being a superhero isn't about the cool powers. It isn't about ethical sums. It's a quality from within that shows the rest of us how to live. Without that, even the Man of Steel is just a muscle-bound jerk in a silly suit.

Monday 17 June 2013

Save the world, I want to get off

You know when you first started role-playing and every other campaign seemed to be about saving the world? Because that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? The stakes don't come any bigger than that, right?

Well, how about finding your little niece who's gone missing in Central Park at sunset? Compared to something like that, saving the world is a pretty unrelatable goal. Even the laziest author or GM recognizes that and, to solve the problem, they usually add, "The world's in danger and only you can save it."

What are they aiming for there? They're trying to make the threat personal. Because, when it's personal, the reader or viewer or player will care about it.

Look at Star Wars. Nobody tells Luke Skywalker that he's going to have to save the world. In fact, he's going to have to do that and a whole lot more, but what kicks it off is a plea for help from a beautiful princess. (Yeah, beautiful. Try to forget about the ear-muff hairdo, that’s all I’m asking.) Princess Leia personifies and clarifies the abstract goal of struggle against a galactic empire. Luke gets drawn in, and we go with him.

Save-the-world is so hard to care about, you see. It’s like: “Evil will triumph.” But what does that even mean? Show us. Evil is your former neighbor herding you into a gas oven. It’s a warlord who cuts your father’s hands off in front of you. It’s not a guy in a black robe spouting nihilistic philosophy and laughing sneerily.

Paul Mason and I, playing characters in a Tekumel game years ago, were told that we had to go off into another dimension to stop an ancient evil from destroying the planet. Simple Tsolyani soldiers that we were, that meant even less to our characters than it did to us. But the “ancient evil” had sucked up the spirit of our slain clan-cousin, and in our beliefs he couldn’t go on to the afterlife until that “evil” was destroyed. We managed to find a way to make ourselves care more deeply than the abstract victory condition of save-the-world could ever have done.

So personal threats are the way you can engage the players. Don't make the mistake of locating those personal threats within the game set-up. Players don't want to sit through a long spiel that tells them how their family has been kidnapped and then throws them into the game to sort it out. Their identification with their character begins only when the override is taken off the steering wheel and they’re in control. The classic adventure game Dark Earth involved a complex plot of betrayal, mystery, and danger, but it made sure that these plot elements were uncovered during the game. By the time you start to figure out the intrigue, you’ll have already been playing for an hour, and, then, just to make sure you take the threat to the world seriously, the game embodies it in a very personal way by having your character get infected with a slow-acting poison. Never mind "You have two hours to save the world"; how about "You have two hours to stop yourself from becoming a monster?"

Saturday 8 June 2013

Some like the perfume in Spain...

Listen carefully. I shall say this only once...

Who am I kidding? I'm sure to keep saying it. Jamie and I would love to continue the Fabled Lands series. We have some ideas of our own, and more importantly we have a team of trusted writers who we could work with so that it wouldn't take till the first peal of eternity to get it all finished.

Here's the but. Writers need paying. Even if Jamie and I don't pay ourselves, as we often don't, the writers and artists we work with have mortgages, kids, cats and goldfish to feed. I know what you're thinking. Feed the goldfish to the cats; it's a logic puzzle. Unfortunately, mortgage lenders don't accept repayment in the form of children, however much we all wish they would.

So, what about Kickstarter? The sonic screwdriver of funding, answer to every problem.

I did a post this week over on the Mirabilis blog about using Kickstarter to fund a publishing operation. (The t-shirt version: you can't. The longer version: unless you're famous.) This is not to say Kickstarter isn't a grand idea. You may remember that our good friends at Megara used it to launch their Arcana Agency gamebook, The Thief of Memories, and that was a very successful campaign. My buddy James Wallis used in to get the ball rolling on his Alas Vegas role-playing game. And just today - just today! - Sandy Petersen raised $231,000 for his Cthulhu Wars boardgame.

Let's not try to draw the graph that goes through that last one. It's Cthulhu, after all, and Mr Petersen has a track record adapting Mr Lovecraft's creations to a gaming context. It's an average of $195 per backer - significantly higher than usual for a game project. That doesn't necessarily mean Sandy will be on a Gulfstream to the Bahamas this weekend. The money "raised", you see, actually has to pay for stuff. Manufacture of playing pieces, a board, payment to the artists, postage.

In short, a business with a turnover of a quarter of a million is not making a profit of a quarter million. Or anything like.

Most gamebook Kickstarters begin with books that are already written, or (as in the case of Arcana Agency) that are being funded by enthusiam and willing work as much as by upfront cash. The snag about Fabled Lands is that we have six books to write, each around 750 sections. And then there's the art. Six lovely colour paintings - well, we can't get Kevin Jenkins back, much as I'd like to, as he's an art director at Framestore now and FL couldn't even pay for him to do a sketch on a napkin. And call it a hundred and twenty interior illustrations. Once those are all in, we can set somebody to do the typesetting.

And after all of that is done, we can launch a Kickstarter.

Jamie and I do plan to do something on Kickstarter. But to begin with it needs to be with books that are already written. If we raise some staggering sum and if, after parcelling up all those copies of Blood Sword or whatever, we are left with anything resembling a profit, you can be sure we'll plough it back into new projects.

What Kickstarter really is, and what it works brilliantly at, is a combined tool for pre-subscription sales and publicity. (Hmm, could that be why they gave it the name? Exactly what it says on the tin, right?) Moreover, this is publicity that generates money instead of costing money - though admittedly with a strong upfront risk component. So that's how Jamie and I are planning to use it. We want to build awareness of our many classic gamebook series. Yes, I know you know, but if we expect to get all the way across the Violet Ocean we're going to need a bigger boat. So expect to see some of our work appearing in Kickstarter campaigns over the next six months. And, if you like what you see, throw a few shards our way. You can have a free ride on our Gulfstream, honest.

Monday 3 June 2013

Grimm... it ain't no fairy tale

No, not Grimm the TV show (which I still haven't seen; opinions, anyone?). This is another of those might-have-been game concepts that I worked up in outline form while working at Eidos in the late '90s. Here it is exactly as I wrote it back then. I referenced it in the first edition of my book Game Architecture and Design (co-authored by Andrew Rollings) but other than that it hasn't seen the light of day in fifteen years...

Grimm is set in a fantasy world derived from the most ancient folktales. Players are clans and will sometimes struggle as rivals, but often must ally to counter threats to the whole realm.

How Grimm differs from standard CRPGs is that quests and interactions are oriented to the community rather than single individuals. In that sense the game is like a cross between Might & Magic and SimCity or Warcraft. You can use your most powerful characters, the Heroes, as a standard adventuring team if you like, but that leaves your clan vulnerable while they're away. Offense and defense must be balanced, and as your clan gains wealth and power your Heroes will become stronger and more skillful.

Each clan comprises:

  • Four Heroes: The Lord, the Lady, the Priest and the Wizard
  • Up to twelve Elders: initially with undefined powers
  • Up to twenty-four Clansmen: the generic "citizens" of the clan

The Heroes are the most powerful characters, each representing an archetypal power:

   HERO         POWER                 RESPONISIBILITY IN CLAN

    Lord            battle                        military fortifications

    Lady            wisdom                    agriculture, trade

    Priest           spirituality                 health, protection from evil

    Wizard         secret knowledge     magical research

The Elders start out with no special responsibility. By assigning an Elder as lieutenant to one of the four Heroes, you cause him to "borrow" some of his master's power. An Elder assigned to the Lord becomes a Knight; if assigned to the Priest he becomes an Acolyte; if the Lady, a Minister. Once an Elder has one of these titles, he becomes a lower level equivalent of the Hero he serves with about one-third of their power.

The Wizard's lieutenants are special. Each gets a special title. Instead of being one-third as powerful as the Hero as in other cases, the Wizard's lieutenants are as powerful as their master but only in one area of magic. The Illusionist can conjure mirages, the Summoner can create temporary servants, the Elementalist can hurl bolts of fire, wind and rain.

Building up the clan

The ordinary Clansmen are not directly controlled by the player. Rather, their AI just responds to the power structure of the ruling council (Heroes plus Elders). The Clansmens' activities will reflect the priorities you've set in the council. For instance, if you assign six Elders to the Lady then half the Clansmen will concern themselves with trade and harvesting.

The clanhouse is a walled enclosure (like a motte-and-bailey castle) which constitutes the player's "city". Clansmen do not leave the vicinity of the clanhouse under any circumstances.

Maintaining the clan

Each Hero's area of responsibility is magically tied to him/her, the way the land was supposedly tied to the High King in Celtic times. This means that when the Lord is absent from the clan, the walls will no longer be maintained and will gradually crumble, the Clansmen assigned to sentry duty will become less alert and capable, etc.


Quests must be undertaken by a group of no more than three characters. These could be three Heroes, but note the drawback mentioned above (your clan will decline in their absence). More often you'll send one Hero with the power most suited to the quest and a couple of Elders with different powers to back him up. Therefore the first phase of any quest is usually to find out what's in store, so you can pick your adventuring team to meet the likely challenges.

Examples of quests:

The gods demand that a player clears and blesses a path through the Forest of Thorns. The player knows that the Priest will be needed for the blessing. The Lady would be useful for scouting a path, but he cannot spare her so he sends a Minister in her place. The third member of the team is a Knight to deal with bandits rumoured to live in the forest.

Following on from the previous quest, when the path is blessed a mysterious stranger comes through the forest and bestows a broken sword on the clan. He departs without saying anything, but the Priest learns from prayer that the stranger was the Herald of the Sea Goddess. Presumably if the clan can locate the other half of the sword they can forge it into a useful magic weapon - but what if that other part resides with another clan who won't readily give it up?

A marauding band of skeletal warriors appear at the edge of the map, attacking any who pass nearby. Trade suffers, and Clansmen are reluctant to go out to the fields. If nothing is done, the skeletons start to build a tower. Players must act to stop them before a necromancer moves in and starts calling new soldiers from out of the graveyards.

The Trickster God steals the sun, causing continual darkness to descend on the world. The crops and cattle are dying as eternal winter sets in. Someone must find where the sun has been hidden and restore it to its rightful place in the sky.


Wealth (in the form of gold) is gained by prospecting and trade. Gold is used for a one-off payment to build and repair structures, as in most strategy games. It can also be gained in the form of ransoms, as gifts from the King, or by selling magic items to passing NPC merchants.


Each Hero has his or her principal domain: the Lord has the Barracks, the Lady the Hall, the Priest the Church, and the Wizard the Tower. These structures broadcast a continual supply of power to the Hero. Upgrading the structure (with gold) increases its "power supply".

There are also other structures that provide special functions - eg, the Watchtower from which balloons can be sent aloft to spy out the land. Some of these peripheral structures are specials that you can only build once you've got a certain item; for instance an ancient codex allowing a clan to build a Naphtha Turret.

Birth and death

New clansmen are born some time after one is killed or promoted, the time depending on the power of the Lady. If an Elder is killed, a clansman can be promoted by the Heroes.

If a Hero is killed, he awakens the Afterlife and must journey back to the temporal plane. In his absence, the clanhouse declines in the area he's responsible for, so the death of a Hero is a serious business and you must try to get him back from the Afterlife as quickly as possible.

A journey through the Afterlife is always fraught with peril but it is an opportunity for the character to gain experience. Also you may meet up with slain Heroes from other clans, and forming an alliance may be the best policy.

A typical game
A campaign starts with just the four Heroes, four Elders and four Clansmen. The way you assign the Elders will decide the activities of the Clansmen. One Elder to each Hero leads to a well-balanced development of the clanhouse, but some levels may require you to specialize. (For instance, a clanhouse set on haunted plains might make early concentration on religious affairs a priority.)

According to your policy decisions and any gold or items found, the clanhouse will grow and upgrade. Typically, upgrading of a building requires only time and manpower. Upgrades at a building (eg, the Plough to increase farm productivity) then become available but cost gold to carry out. And special quest items are needed to construct special buildings.

New Elders are usually encountered on quests, or may arrive as rewards between levels. (“The High King is pleased and sends you his cousin to serve as Elder.”) More Clansman gather to serve you as your Clanhouse’s renown and experience spread.

It’s envisaged that the view would be 3D or isometric, as in Diablo. Control during a level is via the usual interface for realtime strategy games. Between levels, you would have a strategic interface allowing you to reassign Elders, send campaign messages, etc.

Network gaming

Played on a local network, the game can be run as a regular multi-player RPG or one player can use the built-in editor to become Games Master and design the Quest Challenge. Using a set number of points he must "buy" adversaries, hide clues, ward quest objectives, etc. The players then attempt to complete the quest, the winner earning points to spend on designing his own Quest Challenge.

The One King

The land is ruled by an NPC King who is sufficiently powerful that he would be a tough adversary for all the players' clans combined. The King will set tasks for clans (usually a contest like "Bring me the antlers of the questing beast") and success earns royal favour that the player can use later. Favour can also be gained just by Heroes spending time at court, but as noted above this entails a penalty in the form of clanhouse deterioration.

Online gaming

The problem with MUDs (“Multi-User Dungeons”) is that they usually turn into an ego trip for power-gamers. Players who have been in the game a while get so powerful that newcomers are put off - they just have no way of matching the old hands in power.

Grimm gets around this by making a clan's power mainly a matter of versatility rather than brute strength. You might collect a hundred magic items, all with different powers, but each character can only take say two items on an adventure. So the long-term player will usually have more items to choose from, but he's not impossibly more powerful than the newcomer.

In addition, the One King imposes laws that all must obey. For example:

  • No-one may attack allies without giving one minutes' notice of breaking off the alliance.
  • A group that includes a Priest may not kill an enemy who's surrendered.
  • No hostilities are allowed within the Royal Parks.
  • A Lady on her own must never be attacked.

These laws provide a regulatory structure that ensures the game never degenerates into a free-for-all. Players can still plot, scheme and cheat one another, but the need to observe certain rules of engagement enhances the fun.