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Friday 30 August 2013

A great black bird, Apollyon's bosom-friend...

What makes Oliver Johnson's The Lord of Shadow Keep so memorable? It's a question I've been asking myself for nearly thirty years. After all that time, the only answer I have, while not  particularly satisfying, is that it's talent. It's artistry. It's a dash of what we call genius.That's what makes the difference between a simple solo dungeon and an imaginative journey you can believe in.

You see - being honest now - Oliver is not great on rules. Unlike me, he won't do a detailed map and intricate flowcharts. Having a background in English literature, he doesn't share my scientist's delight at probabilities, patterns and problem-solving. And he doesn't write as fast, while I can churn this stuff out by the yard.

I'm not saying my writing is bad, mind you. People have been complimentary about lines like this:
By day you sail on lavender waves under a vault of azure and gold. By night the sails gleam dazzlingly white in the rays of the moon, and each star finds its twin in the dark ocean depths.
So there's some poetry in my soul too. It's not all equations and graphs. But literary talent has never been about pretty writing - it's about that and much more. It's the ability to convey a palpable atmosphere, a resonance of theme, to vividly evoke character, and to give the sense of the author's personal presence through the voice of their writing.

So if I had written Shadow Keep - or co-written it, as originally intended - you would have got an adventure with some clever puzzles, a map that made sense, encounters that were balanced according to the statistics of 2d6 rolls. Even nice writing. But you wouldn't have got that strange, Gothic-drenched, opiated dream quality that Oliver does as naturally as breathing, because it's something he absorbed into his pores while studying Byron and Shelley and those other poetical fellows. The only recent example of such exquisite pre-Victorian Gothic Romanticism to match it is in Fumito Ueda's Ico and Shadow of the Colossus games. Watch for that same flavour in Oliver's forthcoming fantasy series The Knight of the Fields.

The Shadow Keep cover painting by Bruno Elletori (or Elettori, or Ellitori, depending on how long the cover designer spent at lunch that day) is not really ideal. The illustrations should have been by a Victorian artist thoroughly steeped in Gothic. For the interiors on this new edition, we've used Irish artist Harry Clarke, best known for his Edgar Allan Poe illustrations. I know purists will grumble. We'll get some withering reviews on Amazon for changing things around. But you can still get the original version for a penny, so no harm done.

If you want to see the Gothic design for the new edition, it's out now from Fabled Lands Publishing. At a cost of more than a penny, I'm afraid, but we'll be sure to spend the profits on laudanum, quills and parchment for the next great Johnson opus.

Monday 26 August 2013

Ferry familiar

If you identified where that cover of the new edition of Way of the Tiger book six came from, award yourself a virtual no-prize. It is, of course, taken from Russ Nicholson's illustration of the masked goldolier Stug the Careworn, vestigial spirit of the once-mythic Charon, who was encountered in The Battlepits of Krarth.

I can in fact reveal the real artwork for Way of the Tiger book six (the new hardback edition) and I think you'll agree that it is pretty freakin' awesome. I never found giant spiders scary before now...
There are more updates and interviews regarding Megara's Kickstarter campaign coming up in a few weeks, including a message from Richard S Hetley, Megara's US boss, who is running the campaign. But first, this Friday, there'll be news of another classic gamebook returning in print - a "lost" Fighting Fantasy book, no less.

Thursday 22 August 2013

High kicks and finger tricks

Hopefully you aren't ninja-ed out yet, as we've got a bunch more Way of the Tiger posts to come before the Kickstarter campaign launches in October. These little diagrams will be familiar to all WOTT fans. They featured at the start of each book and were accompanied by a stern disclaimer:
Do not attempt any of the techniques or methods described in this book. They could result in serious injury or death to an untrained user.
(More certainly than they would result in injury to the person you're fighting, anyway.)

There's a story behind those drawings. The publishers asked Jamie to sketch them, so he did a few scribbled stick-figures on the back of an envelope, assuming that an artist would redraw them properly for publication. But the art department at Knight Books had no budget for more illustrations - either that or they had already sent the artwork briefs off the Bob Harvey and didn't want to bother him with an extra assignment. So in the end a staff designer traced Jamie's drawings and those were what appeared in print. I remember at the time Jamie waving a copy of the first book, Avenger, and saying, "I can't believe they just printed those crappy drawings I did!"

As you can see here, Megara Entertainment have given the torado kata a full artistic makeover, imbuing the moves with the power they should have had from the beginning. The Leaping Tiger kick now looks like it might knock a few teeth loose. And we finally have a depiction of the Kwon's Flail kick. (A sort of variant on Forked Lightning?)

I'm still hoping the new books will feature diagrams of the kuji-no-in, without which no ninja's mystical powers are effective. As Tetsubo makes clear, I am more interested in the traditional trickster-image of the ninja represented by characters like Nikki Danjo (below, left) than the post-WW2 mythology of a commando in black pyjamas. As Fabled Lands players will know, there are plenty of the former to be found in Lords of the Rising Sun.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Rearranging the Spark furniture

Spark Furnace is Fabled Lands Publishing's online storefront/catalogue site. With all the new stuff we've got coming along in the months ahead, it was time to give it an overhaul. Now you can find all kinds of stuff:
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. No rush, but drop by when you get a minute. And if you're thinking this is pretty lean for an FL blog post: don't worry, it's just a commercial break. There'll be the regular full-lengther on Friday.

Thursday 15 August 2013

Guest post: David Walters on The Way of the Tiger

Starting a series about contributors to the upcoming Way of the Tiger Kickstarter campaign from Megara Entertainment, today we have a guest post by fantasy author David Walters, who is writing the prequel book Ninja and has come up with a corker of a plotline for the eagerly awaited seventh book, Redeemer:

*  *  *

Back in the mid-eighties, when I was just a boy, I got to read an epic quest about a ninja out to avenge the death of his foster father, and it has influenced my writing ever since.

The series was The Way of the Tiger, set on the world of Orb, and it was in my opinion the best gamebook series of its time, combining a strong narrative and interesting characterisation in a genre that was typically weak at both. From these books I learned about distilling key information into short paragraphs, about creating interesting and varied characters, about building a seemingly straight forward situation into an epic quest, and about building a deep and varied world.

In the main character called Avenger, the reader gets to play as a powerful ninja, the master of his art. Such a character would typically be too powerful to evoke much empathy, but Avenger lived in a world that contained monstrous evil, and had such a difficult task ahead of him that even with his all his power he was still vulnerable. His quest was also deeply personal, and it was easy to get caught up in his story and want him to succeed, quite regardless of the game element of the book. Crucially though you still got to feel (and more importantly enjoy) the sense of power in the character, who could dispatch minor henchmen easily or slip past guards like a shadow.

Without a doubt the many eastern influences of ninja and samurai in the series influenced me in writing my Samurai’s Apprentice series. The Way of the Tiger also introduced a spiritual aspect to the books, where Avenger would receive dream visions from the gods, or have a spiritual battle with a demon in a meditative trance. Simply put, it was deeper than other gamebooks of the time. This influenced me in my book Dragonwarrior: Tao of Shadow, where warrior monks fought a spiritual battle against corruption in their use of chi powers.

It was only in writing my own fantasy novel City of Masks that I came to realise how difficult it is to create a detailed and believable fantasy world. This led me to be even more impressed that Mark Smith created the detailed Way of the Tiger world of Orb whilst still at school, and it was used as a compelling backdrop to a dozen or so gamebooks. Orb was a fun place to explore and a good place to spend time in.

Lastly, as a reader, it is hard to ignore the quality of the writing in the Way of the Tiger series. It had a use of language that did not appear in many other commercially successful gamebooks of the time that I read.

Here you did not just get a god of Time, but a ‘Snowfather; Eldest Father, Youngest Son; He From Whose Ravages None is Immune’. Avenger’s god Kwon wasn’t just the god of monks, but the ‘Ineffable Master of Unarmed Combat’. You got to travel to cities such as ‘the Spires of Foreshadowing’, and you got to fight an Elder God whose ‘smell of putrefaction suggests that its thick hide is sloughing off in great dead patches’. You got to experience first-hand the heart-pounding tension of being a ninja on a secret mission. ‘As the wind whistles around the turrets of the Great Keep there is a sudden keening howl. For an instant the hairs on the back of your neck prickle with fear, until you realise that it is only the wind howling through an arrow-slit in one of the turrets’.

I came to the realisation quite young that however much I wanted to be like Avenger, I could not become a ninja in real life. Instead though I became the next best thing – a writer who writes about ninja.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure returns - with a difference

The latest blast-from-the-past interactive story brand to appear on Kickstarter is the granddaddy of them all, Choose Your Own Adventure. But this one's a little different...

First of all, the purpose of the campaign isn't to reissue the books in a new edition, it's to create an all-new app, Your Very Own Robot. And that app isn't going to be text-based. It's an interactive cartoon.

Your first reaction may be, "Isn't that just a simplified point-and-click adventure game?" And so it is. But I would argue that, just like the sabre tooth recurred in evolution many times, adventure games don't have to lie buried in an unmarked grave just because PC and console gaming left them behind. The combination of kids and iPads means a new market.

Kids. That's another interesting point. Gamebook revivals over the last few years have all been targeted at pushing the nostalgia button for thirty- and forty-something readers who remember them first time round. And no doubt those are the customers for Choose 'Toons, as the new series is called, but they'll be buying them to play with their own kids. That gives it a fresh feel and probably a much better chance of surviving, whereas the nostalgia trip soon wears thin.
Interactive story apps are already moving towards more art, less text, in order to broaden appeal. Text is cheap, as this slide from Inkle Studios illustrates. Trouble is, interacting with text is not very engaging once you've got used to playing something like The Witcher. And it's not just kids who feel that way.

All that artwork, though. That's got to be expensive. Well, CYOA are delivering an app, not printed books, so there aren't all the manufacturing and shipping costs. And having built the first app, they could do further titles for (total guess here) around $60,000 each. 17,000 units at $4.99 and they'd break even. That's achievable. And, given that it's a new, fun series with animation and audio, and even the text interaction is done through dialogue with your guide character (that admittedly very unappealing dog), why not 170,000 units?

I'm a little baffled by the way they depict the main character as a sort of blued-out generic "you". What, after a hundred and twenty years of cinema and nearly eighty years of television we can't just accept that audiences are able to identify with a specific character? And the dog - why "Homer"? That's kind of a well-known name in cartoons, and anyway wouldn't "Virgil" make more sense? Still, if there's going to be a new gamebook craze, this could well be what it starts off looking like.

Friday 9 August 2013

Free Way of the Tiger demo

To go with the upcoming Way of the Tiger Kickstarter campaign, here's a message from Megara's US CEO, Richard S Hetley:
"We at Megara Entertainment are giving away a free download of nearly half of the first Way of the Tiger book. Get the Avenger demo here. (That's the small version; there's also a much larger full-quality PDF here.) It's fully-playable and is a great way for today's gamers to see why this series was a classic. There is also lovely colour art and plenty of edits and clarifications that old fans should appreciate. Among other things, there was a section missing from the 1985 publication which has now been restored, and so fans can look forward to getting killed when they fail to punch out the young magician. See? Something for everyone."
Some folks on the Kickstarter page have been querying what may seem like a high price for the Megara WOTT books, but you have to remember that the campaign is to produce a deluxe collector's edition set of hardbacks with full colour throughout, printed on high-quality art stock with lots of really striking new illustrations. (I don't have shares in Megara, honest - I just think they are offering an outstanding product which, though expensive, is good value for money.)

To give a bit more background to all this: Fabled Lands Publishing has the rights in the Way of the Tiger. We are licensing those rights to Megara just for the limited edition set of hardbacks being offered in the Kickstarter campaign. After the campaign closes, Fabled Lands Publishing plans to follow up with a paperback edition of books 1-6, but those will only have black and white illustrations and there is no definite publishing schedule for them yet. "Sometime next year," is all I know at the moment, and that most likely won't be all six books at once. The paperbacks will be cheaper (probably around $9.99 each) but if you are a real WOTT aficionado you need to take advantage of the Kickstarter because it is a once-in-a-lifetime deal to get a truly beautiful set of books.

We've also been asked about digital versions. All I can say at this stage is that Fabled Lands LLP is in talks regarding a series of WOTT apps, and I'll reveal more as soon as I know it myself.

So, as Richard said, there really is something for everyone.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Drac the Dane

More Way of the Tiger news on Friday, but here's a curiosity I wanted to share. Following on from the Danish edition of The Temple of Flame, it's Peder Bundgaard's cover for Crypt of the Vampire. Look for this one in October, along with four other revised, revamped and utterly awesome gamebooks. (Crypt would have been ready sooner, but I couldn't resist saving it up for Halloween.)

The vampire in the English version was named Lord Tenebron, incidentally, not Count Dracula. That was a deliberate choice that may baffle marketing experts, but seemed to me to be a question of creative integrity. Nowadays fanfic will happily appropriate even copyrighted characters, of course, but in the new edition he's still going to be Tenebron. He's not my most original gamebook vampire (that was the far more earthy Grim Dugald in "In the Night Season", the interactive section of my first Heroquest book) but hey, I was just starting out. I don't doubt there'll be more bloodsuckers to come.

Sunday 4 August 2013

All fired up

If you're a real gamebookwyrm (see what I did there?) you may be familiar with the cover below, but probably not the one on the left. It's the Danish cover for The Temple of Flame, my second-ever gamebook, published all the way back in 1984.

Oliver Johnson is co-credited but actually he had nothing to do with writing the book. I think the original plan was that he and I were to work together on both The Temple of Flame (for Golden Dragon) and The Lord of Shadow Keep (for the Fighting Fantasy series). Then, following a drunken evening in a Soho bar between Oliver and Angela Sheehan of Grafton Books, the Golden Dragon contract was extended from two to six titles. So I volunteered to write Golden Dragon 1 and 2 while Oliver delivered The Lord of Shadow Keep, then he and I would split writing duties on the other four.

Yeah, plans... What actually happened was that Shadow Keep got moved to being Golden Dragon book 3. I didn't know, and more importantly neither did Philippa Dickinson, the editor at Puffin in charge of Fighting Fantasy. The first I heard about it was an irate phone call. Luckily Philippa and I smoothed it over and went on, of course, to work together on Dragon Warriors, Heroquest, Knightmare, Captain Scarlet and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I prefer the Danish logo. The dragon actually looks dangerous and reptilian, in contrast to the cute li'l puppy look on the British version. But Bruno Elletori's cover painting captures the spirit of the text better than Peder Bundgaard's more comic-booky depiction of Damontir the wizard.

People say Temple is a tough adventure. I have tweaked a couple of the combats to make them less punishing, but the biggest bone of contention has always been the fight with the hero's mirror-self. Surely a fifty-fifty duel? Not if you're smart - and that's all I'm saying.

The Temple of Flame is being re-released by Fabled Lands Publishing as part of our big republishing program. This time we've kept all of Leo Hartas's original illustrations, which means extra pages and so a slightly higher cover price than The Castle of Lost Souls and Curse of the Pharaoh. But well worth it if you want a classic example of a "dungeon adventure" gamebook from the heyday of the genre. Of course, I would say that.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Can he get out of that web? Shuriken!

Apart from those covers and a bad pun, I think I'll leave it there for now. Yeah, sorry. My lips are sealed. Maybe if you scoot over to Megara Entertainment's site you'll find out more. Or watch this space for more news later in the month. I see you shiver with anticip...