All right, plans are made to be altered. Fifteen years in the videogames industry should have taught me that if nothing else. So I hauled out a pad of A3 paper and set to flowcharting the whole of Blood Sword, start to finish.
Did I mention 2800 sections? By the halfway point I felt like Dantès scratching marks on the wall in the Château d'If.
There’s no Monte Cristo treasure at the end of this one, but it’s been an interesting exercise. I wrote the Blood Sword books over a quarter century ago (gulp) and firing up those same neurons after all this time is really odd. It’s like reloading a ghost. Some ideas and scenes seem so familiar, still part of the imagination I share with that 25-year-old revenant. Others are the work of a stranger. Sometimes I’m reading a piece and I find a grin of admiration on my face – “Now that’s cool!” But always I’m aware that I’m a different person now. I wouldn’t write these books, and if I did I’d write them a very different way. Like I say, interesting.
I also see the truth here of Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory. (You can frame that sentence, by the way, as I’m not usually one to cite the wisdom-lite of a pop guru like Malcolm Gladwell.) You learn to be a writer by writing. I know, because I can see it happening here: the leaps-and-bounds improvement from The Battlepits of Krarth to Doomwalk.
And then there’s The Walls of Spyte. We’ll get back to that one.
As I’m gearing up to the republication of the books (sometime in October, maybe, probably, hopefully) I thought it might be worth sharing some of the things I’ve remembered or discovered while editing the new edition. I’ll start with The Battlepits of Krarth.
Steve Jackson in his Death Test gamebook in 1978 and later picked up by others – most notably for British readers by Ian Livingstone in Deathtrap Dungeon in 1984.
But here’s the thing. I’m not interested in dungeons. You can keep your mules and your ten-foot poles. That’s not the kind of role-playing I do. So, first question: why the Battlepits?
I don’t know for sure, but I expect Oliver (Johnson, my co-writer) will have insisted on making the first book an easy-in. Oliver was always the one reminding me of the need to keep those early gamebooks commercial, and pointing out that the typical reader was not a twentysomething roleplayer but an eleven-year-old schoolboy. Re-reading them now, I don’t think I kept that in mind at all. There are drugs and prostitutes and gruesome deaths. But then, look at what eleven-year-old schoolboys (and girls) are into nowadays. There are videogames my godson played at that age that make the golden era gamebooks look as tame as Muffin the Mule.
So The Battlepits of Krarth was to be a tutorial level for the series. Despite agreeing to make it a dungeon, I notice that at least the first third of the book consists of finding a patron. The gates of the underworld only open for act two. I mentioned before that Oliver Johnson co-wrote the book with me. I wrote everything up to the entry into the Battlepits. From that point, I flowcharted the rest of the book and gave it to Oliver in the form of brief summaries of each section. Our thinking was that if he then worked up my summaries into full-length prose, we could call that a fifty-fifty job. It was better to do it that way because, well, let’s just say that Oliver is an absolutely brilliant fantasy writer and role-playing umpire, but his forte isn’t flowcharting.
What Oliver got from me were about three hundred entries that read something like:
The snag was, between getting the series commissioned and writing the first book, Oliver had taken a job. Suddenly the long days of creative leisure were behind us, the musing with story ideas as we smoked and listened to Lou Reed and Brian Eno, the impromptu role-playing sessions over a pint at the Devonshire Arms. Oliver scheduled the week before a family holiday to rewrite my summary sections. He dropped the manuscript off on the way to the airport. “I’ll do some clean-up editing before we hand it in,” I said.213You natter to ghostly Magus Zyn who wants you to assemble the old giant’s bones. Do it (33) or tell him to find another patsy (361).
He looked a little nervous. “It might need it.” The taxi was waiting.
I got a cuppa, sat down and I turned the page. Some mistake, surely..? It read:
213And what I’d expected Oliver to turn that into would be something like:
You talk to ghostly Magus Zyn who asks you to assemble the old giant’s bones. You can do it (33) or you can tell him to find another patsy (361).
213The deadline was a week away. That was a very busy week for me. I had forty thousand words to write, give or take. Walter Gibson could bang that out in a day, but the Shadow stories were continuous narratives. I wouldn’t like to try writing forty thousand words of good prose in a week, but if it was a single story it might be just about possible. When it’s cut into several hundred chunks it gets a lot harder. And I had all those tactical battle maps and stats to work out too.
An insubstantial figure appears – not even a ghost, but the spell-projected image of a ghost. Magus Zyn, undying and eternal enemy of the magi. The last of the True Magi.
‘You have the means to resurrect Skrymir,’ says the ghost. You start to reply before realising that it cannot hear you. It is just like a recorded message, a spell cast here to instruct any who should arrive with all the fragments of Skrymir’s skeleton.
If you assemble Skrymir’s bones together, turn to 33. If you decide against doing that, turn to 361.
Well, the book came out okay. It’s not the best of the series. Most reviewers agree that the story really gets going in book two, The Kingdom of Wyrd, and that most of book one is origin story and set-up. I’m surprised to see that we didn’t even mention the old Sword of Life itself in Battlepits. When I rewrote the series as novellas some years later, I rejigged the order of events to have the quest become the main inciting incident. If I were fully revising the gamebooks now, I’d do that, but I’ve decided to make this the classic edition. That means I’m only changing stuff that really needs changing. Later (maybe much later) I’ll get to work on an all-new, streamlined, rules-lite version, and then I’ll put the quest right up front where it belongs.
Things I like about Battlepits. The dungeon has quite a mythic feel. It’s not like a series of tunnels excavated under the citadel, with an orc band in this room and a riddling mage in the next; it’s more as if you’ve dropped into The Dreaming. The rivalry and intrigue among the magi is a little bit Vancean, and is definitely the sort of thing I’d put into one of my role-playing games. The dénouement has an authentic Dragon Warriors touch of “downbeat triumph” about it. Skrymir is surely Oliver’s idea – a brilliant, macabre, doomful encounter that’s how a giant ought to be.
Things I’d have dropped if this were the all-new edition. Grandmaster Klef’s coin game. Any abstract puzzles or random/unfair events. About half of the “dungeon”.
At the time I didn’t really want those tactical maps, but now I’m thinking they could work rather well if the books were converted into apps. One of my gaming buddies, Tim Savin, helped out with playtesting the new edition, for which I slightly modified the tactical rules and some of the character classes’ special abilities. He ran Battlepits as an RPG adventure for his kids and they enjoyed it. I think they wouldn’t read most gamebooks these days, but Blood Sword maybe needed twenty-six years to find its perfect readership. It’ll be interesting to see if this new edition can reach beyond the hardcore of the nostalgia market and achieve what I always wanted it to do: bring people into roleplaying.