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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Interview with Mark Smith, creator of Orb

Of all the Fighting Fantasy inspired gamebook series of the 1980s, the most innovative was probably the Way of the Tiger. Mark Smith had created a vivid world steeped in intrigue and adventure, and he and co-author Jamie Thomson didn't rest on their laurels. Soon tiring of the traditional find-the-quest-item-in-the-dungeon structure, they began to introduce elements from the wargames and boardgames they loved so much. In one book you had to juggle competing political factions while managing a city. In another you had to muster an army and choose the tactics that woul carry it to victory. Here, to mark the reissue of Way of the Tiger book four in paperback, author David Walters describes what it was like to play through those classic books when they first appeared, and he asks Mark Smith to look back at what inspired him to create them:

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When I read the Way of the Tiger series back in the ‘90s, I started with book four, Overlord. I do not recall why I chose that particular one, maybe it was the Kraken on the cover, or maybe the other books were in short supply that week in the bookstore, but the book remains my favourite of the series to this day.

The opening was simply electrifying for me. For a start, I was the ruler of a city, which I had never experienced in a gamebook before. I was used to being a lone warrior on quests in gamebooks, and sometimes even winning a position of power at the end of such a book, but I had never been in a position of wielding that power from the start of a gamebook. In Overlord, the crown did not rest easy on my brow, for I had to get on with the difficult decisions of ruling a city split by competing interest groups on whom I had to rely for support, and a people divided by racial and religious schisms.

Then I got to pick my advisers from a choice of varied and interesting characters, including those who had once allied with my (tyrant) predecessor, yet who represented a large part of the city. Dangers were everywhere. It would be just as threatening to my rule to rely to much on new allies as it would be to trust potential enemies.

(Incidentally, if anyone has calculated all of the possible safe routes via the councillors you can select, please do comment below. The editor in chief of the series is very interested to confirm all the permutations!)

As well as political intrigue, I had to survive an assassination attempt, endure a siege and undertake a perilous quest that would lead me to the very den of the evil ninja of the Way of the Scorpion and beyond. Interestingly, I was not only powerful in my position as a ruler, but also as a deadly ninja. In this game book the reader was allowed to feel personally and politically powerful, yet still experience threatening situations and enemies.

It was only after this book that I went back to the beginning of the series and played through them all, enjoying the journey from a young unproven ninja setting out on an epic quest. For me, Overlord set a benchmark in innovation, in characterisation and sophistication that I had never seen before in a gamebook. I'd recommend you to give it a try, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did. But watch out – it may inspire you to become a writer as it did with me!

Questions about Overlord answered by Mark Smith, creator of the world of Orb and co-author of the Way of the Tiger series:

DW: Were you concerned about introducing rulership into an action series? Is that why the whole book was not about ruling the city and involved a quest element?

MS: We did worry that if there was no standard gamebook adventuring it would disappoint and yes that's why it's not all about governing.

DW: What were your inspirations for the characters who seek to become your advisers in Star Chamber?

MS: Some of the characters had been pre-developed while role-playing. The Demagogue was inspired by Athenian history.

DW: What possible game mechanics did you consider or reject regarding the city management element of the book?

MS: I gave little consideration to game mechanics beyond striving for simplicity.

DW: Apart from Avenger, which character in Overlord did you most enjoy writing about?

MS: I enjoyed all of the characters but especially Golspiel, Foxglove, Force Lady Gwyneth, Solstice and the Demagogue.

DW: Looking back at the book, is there anything you would do differently now about it?

MS: I would do more checking for game balance.

DW: Were you concerned about ending this book on something of a cliffhanger?

MS: The cliffhanger was deliberate. I was happy with all the books except that in Inferno you need to take Foxglove with you for it to be good.


  1. Thanks for posting this stuff, Dave, and for your work in adapting the paperback versions. I'm so glad people enjoy The Way of the Tiger!

    As an editor, this book was an interesting challenge. As a reader, well, it was a different sort of challenge. All those different ways to lose your city let alone your head. When I first played it in my childhood it left me with a lot of memories, like the intense battle with the Grandmaster of Shadows, but equally memorable was a single sentence: "The thought that you are amongst the most deadly and most evil assassins on Orb fills you with worry at times."

    That one stuck with me.

    1. Perhaps Avenger was being a tad hard on him/herself there. Most deadly, maybe - but most evil? I thought he/she was the peace-loving, do-gooding kind of assassin, lol.

  2. Isn't that line specifically because he is amongst the most evil and deadly assassins at that point: about to infiltrate the ninja of the way of the Scorpion (and thus 'amongst' them)?

  3. Yes, that line refers to the ninja of the Way of the Scorpion.

    So what stuck with me is "Well, here I am, staring down my imminent demise. Worrisome development, that."

    1. Oh, I get it. Yes, nice bit of dry humour there. Very typical of Mark and Jamie.

  4. Glad to see Book 4 out now, and hopefully Book 5 soon. WOTT always had a great, unique fight system and interesting takes on the "beat the bad guy/get the item" tropes. But running the city and then warring against another city's army was fantastic. I recently got a video game console (Xbox 360) for the first time in a while. I wonder if instead of Skyrim, which is fascinating until it gets boring, I should play a "build an empire through wise leadership plus war" game. Any suggestions for games that evoke WOTT books 4 & 5?

    **Spoilers for Book 0**

    I was worried about the prequel being written by someone other than Jamie or Mark. But Book 0 is fantastic. Lots of great questing, fighting, and strategy, like the originals. I especially like how the mage that tries to sabotage you and the other monks is almost certainly Manse the Deathmage. Even operating from a distance, he's terrifying. Plus, Book 1 can then end with you getting revenge against the two great enemies of your young life. You have no quarrel with Honoric, besides his evil and your survival. But then he comes back later as a thorn in your side. In fact, after almost poisoning him to death, you are Honoric's mortal enemy, like Yaemon was to you. Cool!

    1. When the Tin Man apps come out, I'm definitely going to try WOTT for myself.