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Thursday 21 August 2014

Blood Sword is back!

And here it is at last - the new, remastered, large format paperback edition of Blood Sword. The first four books are on sale now and the whole saga ties up in book five, The Walls of Spyte, which will be out in time for Christmas. (Given that the series runs to over 2800 sections and about three hundred and fifty thousand words, I don't think you're going to get through the first four before then.)

Blood Sword, in case you're a newcomer to this plane of existence, is one of the gamebook series of the late '80s. It's set in the land of Legend, which Oliver Johnson and I also used for our Dragon Warriors RPG and in a sense Blood Sword is a halfway point between gamebooks and role-playing, as you can play through the books solo or in a team of up to four. Those four character classes each get to star in the new cover paintings by Sébastien Brunet (warrior, trickster, sage and enchanter respectively in the picture above) and to do the artwork justice we've opted for a 22 x 14 centimetre format.

The interior illustrations are by who else but Russ Nicholson and at long last the tactical maps get the room they need - a far cry, as you can see in the photo above, from the cramped layout of the '80s books. The new logo (no dripping gore, hooray!) and cover layouts are by Matt Hill.

I'm calling this the "classic edition" of Blood Sword to differentiate it from the streamlined rules-lite version I'm still intending to get around to eventually. The content in the classic edition is 99% unchanged from the '80s books, although I couldn't resist a few tweaks. There are some extra sections in each book to make the flowchart work better. I've added some codewords like Jamie and I used in Fabled Lands to clarify points of logic. More significantly, the Enchanter gets a new spell and there's a restriction on the Sage's healing ability to make using it a non-trivial choice.

Quite a few old-time gamebook fans have told me how they've been playing Blood Sword with their kids as an intro to role-playing. Corrupting a whole new generation, ah, that's music to my ears. If you have any Blood Sword stories, why not share them in the comments? I'm eager to see if they hold up a quarter century on.

You can buy Blood Sword from leading bookstores or direct from Amazon: in the USA here, in Britain here, or come to that in any Amazon store throughout the world.


Thursday 14 August 2014

Blood Sword redux: The Demon's Claw

Blood Sword
The point of the Blood Sword series is that you can play through all five books as a kind of epic role-playing campaign. It wasn’t the first time that had been done. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery books (currently enjoying a new lease of life via Inkle’s app version) paved the way, along with The Way of the Tiger by Mark Smith and Jamie. But I’ve never been a fan of Chosen One stories, and running a single-player campaign pretty much obliges you to make the hero a lost prince(ss) or a midichlorian messiah. Fantasy has more Enders than it has Frodos. The USP of Blood Sword is that it can be played solo or in a team of up to four, meaning that player-characters must rise on their own merits to become heroes, or fail in the attempt, rather than being born to a spoon-fed destiny.

Looking back, I wonder if the publishers were concerned that I wrote Blood Sword so that four players could make do with a single copy of the book. They’d probably rather have had special editions for Enchanter, Sage, Trickster and Warrior. A little more work, four times the profit. I’ve never thought of my writing in marketing terms, so there’s a lost opportunity – or a beacon of integrity, take your pick.

The Demon’s Claw, the midpoint of the Blood Sword series, is close to 600 sections and the thickest of all the books. This in a series where the shortest book is at least sixty thousand words. What can I say? I like to lose myself in my imagination and I hope you enjoy the ride. So, here are the influences, inspirations and reminiscences about The Demon's Claw in no particular order:

The title first. The Demon's Claw is the folkname of the Sword of Death, the mirror twin of the Blood Sword (the Sword of Life) which is of course the object of your whole quest. Unless both swords are the object..? That's a complication that starts to get hinted at here in book three and develops through to the finale in The Walls of Spyte.

Several of the non-player characters in the Blood Sword series are drawn from my own campaigns. Sir Tobias, the head of the Knights Capellar, was originally played by Steve Foster and if anything was more scary and fanatical in “real” life. (Tobias, that is, not Steve. He's a sweetie.) Anvil, the night watch commander in Crescentium, was one of Mark Smith’s characters in our original Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. (Mark later provided the template for Harold Shandor in Heart of Ice, where Steve also appears as Janus Gaunt – though those characters are much more loosely based on their Tekumel originals, Tlangten and Kanmiyel respectively.) The young knight Sir Balian was based on Jack Bramah’s EPT character Chaideshu.

Russ Nicholson

I had started thinking about casting choices by now. Prince Susurrien would be played by Omar Sharif, with his voice “soft and deep, suggesting the quietest beat of an enormous drum”. (Oh, you were thinking of Brian Blessed? Fair enough; once you open the cover it becomes your book.) And your arch-foe Icon makes his reappearance, now explicitly under his real Yamatese name, Aiken. I’d talk about his sister too, but that way lie spoilers.

The major literary influences here are Michael Moorcock (the ship that sails through time – though, yes, technically that is G C Edmondson; but I picked it from Elric stories), Robert Holdstock (Mythago Wood), and Robert Irwin (The Arabian Nightmare). If you’ve played Eric Goldberg’s Tales of the Arabian Nights boardgame then you’ll recognize the impudent hunchback and the garrulous ghoul. Goldberg was the primum movens of the open world gamebook (Fabled Lands, for instance, or Fallen London, or Meg Jayanth's 80 Days) so we all owe him a lot.

As befits a story about the poles of Life and Death, the theme of The Demon's Claw is ambiguity. For instance, the man whose lower body is made of stone. Is he a spurned lover half-fossilized by a witch, or an incomplete statue given life by a kind-hearted sorceress? As the book’s original introduction put it:
In the words of Hasan i-Sabbah, Grandmaster of the Marijah Assassins, ‘There is no single truth; everything is possible.’ Or, as the Saviour of the True Faith said, ‘From the Cup of Truth one can drink a thousand times.’
In short, the message in encounter after encounter is that the truth remains deliciously unknowable, the box is never opened for sure, and Schrödinger’s cat remains intriguingly both alive and dead.

I like the stop-motion monsters and magical entities in this book, such as the Seven-in-One and the Hatuli. A little bit of Ray Harryhausen there by way of Jan Švankmajer. I can imagine them all jerky and a little bit fever-nightmarish. The jinni too, a real hairy blot of a being, a dirty great ink-stain on the clean page of reality. I wanted that folkloric feel. This isn’t a book of smooth Hollywoodized CG effects, it’s a Singing Ringing Tree of a fantasy.

Fighting Fantasy
Readers have noticed that the Blood Sword books are set in the Dragon Warriors world of Legend. The people of that world refer to it themselves as middle-earth (ie Midgard) but, as Tolkien has made that term his own, I’ve edited most of those references to “the mortal earth” or “the mid-world”. They don’t tend to call it Legend – that was always a term more for the players than the characters. But the interesting question is whether this even is the Dragon Warriors world or just something that looks a bit like it. In my Legend games you could go ten years and not meet a dragon, much less the World Serpent or an immortal like Hunguk the Pirate King. And there’s only one time we’ve had anything like orcs in Dragon Warriors, and that in a not-what-you-expected scenario by Steve Foster. The best way I can describe it is that if the real Legend is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the Blood Sword version is Guy Richie’s movies or a show like Penny Dreadful. No excuses here for that, mind you. Blood Sword was for a younger audience and it delivers a big bang whereas DW is all about the down beat.

As for the rules-y stuff, people have asked if you can complete the adventure without a Trickster. Most certainly you can. I reckon you’ll have more fun if there’s a Trickster along – that’s why stories about Odysseus are more interesting than ones about Ajax – but every character class can succeed and they all have their strengths. Personally I think you’re crazy if you don’t do deals with the sandestins – oops, faltyns – but the beauty of a series like this is you get to configure the kind of team that suits you best.

There’s little else to say about The Demon’s Claw except that I think it features some of Russ’s very best artwork. Next up in the redux series of blog posts is Doomwalk (aka “the one where they all go to hell”) but I should have a big announcement before that. Stay tuned.

Friday 8 August 2014

The war against the future

Funny how things get dredged up. I recently got to thinking about a very old idea of mine. I’ll tell you a bit later what jogged my memory. A long while ago – must’ve been a couple of decades at least – I was watching an old Carol Reed movie called Odd Man Out, about an IRA man on the run in 1940s London. Thinking of spies having to lie low – soldiers, that is, but out of uniform – I got to imagining a society that waged war against its own future.

What kind of a war would that be? Well, one way to do it would be old Nazis plotting revenge against a modern, distinctly anti-fascist Germany, but that felt a bit tired. It hardly counts as a war when a bunch of OAPs set fire to a few shops or daub a swastika on a wall.

I was striving for something more jolting to the audience’s expectations, which probably meant more science fictional. A war against the future suggested society having reached an impasse that only time could break. So should it be sleeper agents in a literal sense, floating underground in suspended animation tanks until the moment came to rekindle the conflict?

Trouble with that, it’s a little like the core premise of Pyramids of Mars, only with a very different skin (or at any rate bitumen-soaked bandages) over the top. Nobody would notice, but I still felt like treating it that way would be wasting the idea. Obviously the best approach would be to have outright time travel, so that armies could pour out of the past to mow down their own descendents. Firing back could be a knotty problem. But then it’s not special. You wouldn’t notice that the interesting thing was a society at war with what it had become. The time travel business would overshadow all that.

Sometimes you just can’t see the way to make an idea work. Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant pursued by a tornado across Indiana. “But how can the heavies manufacture a tornado?” asked Ernest Lehman, who actually had to write the damned thing. Hitch settled for a crop-duster, but he wasn’t happy about it. I know how he feels. The war against the future got slung onto that subconscious junk heap of unworkable gems – or unpolishable you-know-whats. And then I came across a couple of brilliant tweets by Paul Cornell that bought it all back.
So there you are. No need for a Tardis or a cryonic pod. No need even for superannuated reactionaries blowing up their hippy grandchildren to teach them a lesson. The war against the future is interesting when it happens (as it always does) between neighbours, within families, both sides lining up to decide whether civilization should point forwards or backwards. And I knew that. I’ve read about enough revolutions, hot and cold, throughout history. That’s how to write my story. The answer was staring me in the face all along. Maybe it was just too close for comfort.

Friday 1 August 2014

Blood Sword redux: The Kingdom of Wyrd

Blood Sword
The Kingdom of Wyrd is where the Blood Sword saga really begins. Well, kind of. You've already met your Big Bad in the form of Icon the Ungodly, the scene has been set with scheming celestial Magi and a gritty medieval world, and if you don’t know the rules by the time you get out of the Battlepits then no crash course will ever help you. But this is the book where you’re given the quest that’s going to carry you through to Doomsday. Literally.

I wonder if I even knew what the Blood Sword was going to be when I got started on this series. Most likely Oliver sold it to the publisher on the strength of a lurid title. (That’s why the “dragon” in Dragon Warriors. “It says fantasy.” Me, I wanted to call it something like Dead Men and Heroes, but these were children’s publishers we were dealing with.) So, title first, and only then we will have figured out how to get a Blood Sword into it. Readers will notice that most of the time in the books I call it the Sword of Life, not least to try to distance myself from the gore-dripping logo the art director saddled us with.

An ancient magic weapon split into pieces that you must collect… Hmm. That will have been Oliver. And it sounds like I’m scornful, but he was right. Even back then, I’d have wanted to design the series like my role-playing games – and my campaigns are never about saving the world – but Oliver was forever reminding me that these books were for kids, and the top-sellers in the market were Fighting Fantasy, which back then never knowingly used an original plotline. Reviewers have observed that in among all the epic world-saving, what really interests me is the personal. People, not ideas. But I can see it helped to have that MacGuffiny treasure-hunt arc to hang it all on.

Each Blood Sword book has a theme, and in this one it’s the danger of idealism hardening into totalitarianism, revolution coagulating into stasis. Now, I tend to think that gamebooks are better the less dungeon they have in them. By that I’m not ruling out all scrambling through chthonic spaces, just those tidy-as-a-carpark catacombs where you get a logic puzzle in one room and orcs playing skittles with a baby goblin in the next. But I said to a role-playing colleague, Mike Polling: “I need to suggest the stultification of the imagination, a world where somebody gained the power to shape dreams but their dreams have all grown stale and a bit boring.” And he said: “You just described a dungeon.”


So in a way that’s what the Warlock King’s palace is. A classic dungeon (no orcs, though; no skittles) and it’s justified in story-terms because it’s all a construct in his mind. The Kingdom of Dreams is the role-playing game where you have to take on the Dungeon Master and slay him. Very apposite for my style of role-playing, that.

The palace isn’t a big part of the adventure, though. Much more of it is a free-wheeling wander around the world of Legend encountering a variety of mad, bad, dishonest, decent, driven, daft, wise or vengeful NPCs. The feminine principle is a big factor in this book. Look how often your bacon is pulled out of the fire by a woman. It’s not that I think the female mind is actually any wiser or more creative than the male, but in the world of mythological archetypes churning away under the skin of the story here, the Warlock King is the ultimate Bad Dad, all controlling and about what’s good for you, while characters like Uraba the seer and the old lady in the woods are aspects of the Mother, the Yin that bends and flows around all opposition. Who knows why I took it in that direction. Margaret Thatcher was in power at the time. She was Britain’s very own Warlock King, driven mad by being too long in power and too absolute in her convictions. So maybe I felt we needed a nice feminine example as an antidote.

Talking of which, my favourite thing about the book is Uraba. She was unexpected. I was learning that good writing is about surprising the reader. And I liked starting the story in medias res, something I took to Jason Bourne levels in book four.

The vampires out on the pack ice were swiped from August Derleth’s story “The Drifting Snow”. I read it once when I had a bad cold, and in that slightly feverish state it stayed lodged in my subconscious like a psychic cyst. And then, writing about those poor half-starved player-characters shivering under the gleam of Red Death, it came back to me. Merci, Monsieur le Comte.

Oliver Johnson had even less time to help out with this book than on The Battlepits of Krarth. I detect his hand in much of the last act of the book that takes place inside the Palace of Eternal Dusk, especially the doppelganger on the funeral bier and the various mythic trials – the Leaves of Remembrance, the Handmaidens of Oblivion, and so on. Giving a personal name (Gristun) to the Warlock King’s guardian beast, that will have been Oliver with his background in early Gothic literature. Always mainlining the Hippocrene, him. And I’ll bet he thought of the old knight who needs your help with the Lady in Grey – not least because she doesn’t fit the prevailing theme of this book that the women are the trustworthy ones.

The most purely Johnsonian bit in the book is Captain Lazarus and his obsession with the World Serpent – except I’m pretty sure I’m the one who came up with all that. We were like Lennon and McCartney, you see, amusing ourselves by pastiching each other’s style. (The walrus was Paul.) And here’s a funny thing. Editing this book, I was baffled to find that Lazarus doesn’t quietly slip off into the brine if his goal is thwarted. I could have sworn that scene was in there, but I searched the flowchart and couldn’t find it. Then I realized I’d put it into the novelization of this book, and it was so delicious and fitting a bit of character development that I was tempted to retrofit it into The Kingdom of Wyrd. But no, I did promise this would be the classic version. All those revisions can wait till the next edition.

I say that, but I felt the denouement was too unforgiving. I wouldn’t kill my players in an RPG just because they failed to find one item. So I tweaked the final duel with the Warlock King to give you more of a chance. Oh, and classic edition or not, the Enchanter has a whole new spell that can be very useful on those tactical maps. You’ll see.

This book has one of my favourite Russ Nicholson pictures, the one of Blue Moon’s meteorite stalker. And the original cover wasn’t nearly as awful as the image of Slimer (seriously, why?) on Battlepits. It's a meaty 570 sections, about 68,000 words not counting the glossary and the rules; I like having room to stretch. Kingdom is the book where the series really starts to hit its stride. Next up: The Demon’s Claw.