Gamebook store

Friday 30 March 2018

Monster hunt - part 1

This seems a good pick for April 1st. Not that it’s a joke as such, but it is a slightly silly knockabout scenario with a whiff of poisson. The original version used Dragon Warriors stats, and must have been written right after The Lands of Legend when we still thought Book Seven was on the cards, but it’s certainly too light on story to ever have been considered for inclusion in a DW book.

I have a feeling that Oliver and I knocked it up for White Dwarf on the basis of a casual conversation with Ian Livingstone in which he hinted that Citadel Miniatures might benefit from a scenario designed to sell figurines – “you know, like a monster hunt.” But Games Workshop wouldn’t have seen any mileage in a scenario based on Dragon Warriors rules because DW was sold in bookshops, so made no money for them.

That was around the time of the famous “sod off” issue when White Dwarf had been wrenched away from editor Ian Marsh and was in the process of transforming into a figurines catalogue. Well, Oliver and I had no illusions on that score, so with a quick edit the scenario jumped across to the Warhammer universe. Even then, though, I don’t think it was ever published. Maybe GW suggested repurposing it again for Tetsubo and by then I’d had enough of the thing.

The scenario is really just an excuse for a string of tabletop fights, first a scrap in the Tin Inn – pardon me, the Whaler’s Wassail – and then opening into a rambunctious monster hunt on Spike Island. It’s typical of the way White Dwarf was trending under the new Nottingham regime, but a little more real roleplaying fun could be squeezed out of it by encouraging some factionalism among the PCs, perhaps, or if the metamorphosis abilities of the oni and rakshah are used to stir up a little Thing-style paranoia. Otherwise just crack out the beer and pretzels and start swinging.


A scenario for Dragon Warriors and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson.

Party composition (DW)
This adventure is best suited to assassins, though any adventuring profession can take part. As a guideline, the party strength should be as follows:
If there are only a few players, the party can either consist of high-ranking characters or player-controlled NPCs can be used to bring it up to strength.

You have come to the port of Burhaven on the north-west coast of Cornumbria. Much of the last part of your journey has taken place in the sort of torrential downpour that always accompanies the arrival of spring in this part of the world. Soon all the rivers have flooded their banks and the road along which you ride has become a slough of mud. It is with some relief that you stoop under the overhanging eaves of the only inn in this small port. You are pleased to note that a ship rides at anchor in the harbour, for you have come here expressly to get passage on a ship going south. Evening settles in as you take in the scene from the shelter of the dripping eaves. Far out beyond the harbour walls, through a grey mist of rain you can just make out the sombre silhouette of an island. A wan light glimmers from a hilltop tower there.

Last night, in a terrible storm, a barque was swept onto the rocks of Spike Island. The sailors were all drowned, but their living cargo escaped from the wreck. This was an oni, an exotic monster not found in Cornumbria - or anywhere in western Legend (WFRP: the Old World).

Master Altan, the wizard who lives on Spike Island, is a collector of strange beasts. Having heard tales about oni from sailors returning from the Orient, he sent his hunters to catch one for his menagerie. His sources told him something about the oni’s magic, so he had provided them with an enchanted cage that would suppress its powers. After many months, the hunters had discovered an oni in a cave in distant Opalor (WFRP: Cathay) and managed to catch it after a fierce struggle.

They began the long haul north, back to Spike Island, to claim the reward they had earned. The voyage was fraught with many dangers, all of which they survived only to die in the shipwreck with their destination in sight. The bars of the magical cage were smashed on the jagged rocks, and the oni was set free.

It set out towards Altan’s tower and there, taking the disguise of a shipwrecked sailor, sought sanctuary. Altan was suspicious, but before he had a chance to pierce the oni’s disguise with a spell it had breathed its poisonous, mind-destroying fumes upon him. Fleeing in terror, Altan stumbled out into the storm and made a desperate escape from the island using his Ring of Far Deliverance (see below).

Making its way into the vaults below the tower, the oni was amazed to discover Altan’s menagerie: a shrieking, blood maddened collection of some of the strangest creatures in all Creation. One, a hag calling herself Annis the Spit, convinced the oni to open the cages. The creatures of Altan’s menagerie poured out wildly into the night. Annis and the oni remained in the tower, which they have quickly befouled to become a suitable lair. Annis is spiteful with petty evil and is content to let the monsters roam the island for now, though she intends to transport them all to the mainland to spread mayhem as soon as she can get hold of a ship. Although the oni is evil, it has its own intelligent goals (returning home, for one) and is not interested in such chaotic malevolence. However, being a stranger in a strange land it has decided to follow Annis’s lead for the time being.

Meanwhile, Altan has found his way to the Whaler’s Wassail tavern on the mainland. The oni’s breath has destroyed his intellect, but his personality is unchanged. Always a good man, he feels responsible for the evil that has happened and has a driving need to set things straight. Unfortunately, he is now quite befuddled and cannot remember precisely what did happen. He remembers that the monsters are free on the island, and realises that they must be rounded up or killed before they harm anyone. He cannot remember precisely what monsters there are, and has forgotten all about the oni.

As the player-characters enter the inn (see map below) Altan has just asked some whalers whether they will accompany him back to the island. They are reluctant because they are naturally a little leery of him. The wizard has always been a recluse, viewed with awe and fear by the locals. The strange cries that sometimes echo from his island have given the place a baleful reputation. He has, however, just offered them 50 Crowns a head to do the job. This represents several months’ earning to the whalers, so they are sorely tempted. They want to think carefully about the idea, and will certainly become irate if the PCs pre-empt them by offering to go with Altan in their place.

When the PCs enter, there are eleven people in the taproom. The six whalers (table B on the map) are dressed from head to toe in rank-smelling oilskins. Their greasy faces are concealed in the shadows of their oilskin hoods. They reek of the bloody charnel of their trade, and their evilly sharp harpoon-spears lean against the table where they sit.

2nd rank fighters; ATT 14; DEF 8; attack with harpoon (2d4, 4) or knife (d6, 3); special attack: can throw harpoon (d8, 4), armour bypass means it lodges in the target’s flesh causing 1 HP damage per round until pulled free, which causes 1d3 damage; AF1; HP 9, 9, 8, 10, 9, 11; MAG DEF 3; EV4; move 10m (20m); STEALTH 11; PERCEPTION 5

Skills: Sailing, Row, Fish, Orientation, Strike to Injure, Consume Alcohol, Swim.
Possessions: Harpoon (counts as javelin, but barbed: increase the value of any critical hit by +1); flensing knife; oilskin cape; 12 shillings.

In another corner (table A) sit three officers of the Temptress, the ship lying at anchor in the harbour. They wear the stiff epaulettes, voluminous capes, oak-carved gorgets and double peaked hats favoured by the sailors of Ereworn (WFRP: Kislev). The tallest of the three is Captain Flint of Salamur Port (WFRP: Erengrad). His helmsman and first mate have accompanied him so that the rough whalers don’t try any tricks. Flint intends to pay them for the whale oil he is shipping across the Glaive to Algandy (WFRP: south across the Channel).

4th rank fighters; ATT 16; DEF 10; attack with sword (d8, 4) or dagger (d4, 3); AF2; HP 16, 15, 15; MAG DEF 6; EV4; move 10m (20m); STEALTH 14; PERCEPTION 8; special item: Captain Flint has “Davy Jones’s Sparkler” (a ring of obedient parts) and a hipflask containing healing potion.

Skills: Sailing, Orientation, Fencing Sword, Left-hand Dagger, Storytelling, Dodge Blow, Astronomy, Cartography, Read/Write, Swim.
Possessions: Sword; dagger; leather jerkin; 5 Crowns; Captain Flint has two special items, Davy Jones’s Sparkler (a Protection Ring vs sea monsters) and a hipflask of enchanted rum that acts like a Potion of Healing.

Altan himself sits in deep shadows beside the hearth (table C), still in his dripping wet cloak waiting impatiently for the whalers to make up their mind about his proposition. He mutters to himself, wringing his hands and taking slurps of wine from the jug beside him. He will explain his plight to anyone who asks, and will accept their help in preference to the whalers whom he does not trust.

Altan should not be characterized as stupid. The oni’s breath which effectively reduced his intelligence has done this by destroying his power to concentrate. He now keeps forgetting things and can only carry a thought through by tremendous effort of will. Listening to him ramble away takes a lot of patience, and often it is quicker to complete his train of thought for him, but he does not give the impression of being stupid.

Altan is accompanied by his ape, Jemai, the only loyal creature from his menagerie. It too is soaked to the skin and chatters with the cold. It has a limited power of speech (instilled in it by magic) but it will only speak when spoken to. This is because Altan objected to unnecessary interruptions when he was working. If asked, Jemai will tell the player-characters about the oni ( “Strange thingy with grinning face came out of storm, ‘n’ blowed smoke in master’s face...”).

13th rank sorcerer; ATT 12; DEF 6; strikes with staff (d6,3); AF0; HP 13; MAG ATT 28; MAG DEF 18; EV5; move 9m (15m); STEALTH 16; PERCEPTION 12; special items: Ring of Far Deliverance (a ring of teleportation with 7 charges) and Cap’n Sabre’s Galoshes (boots of water walking); notes: Altan can still attempt to cast spells, but he must first roll to see if he remembers the spell (a d20 equal to or under his current Intelligence score of 5) and then has a 70% chance of miscasting it.

Skills: Arcane Language (Magick); Cast Spells; Read/Write; Scroll Lore; Secret Language (Classical); Identify Plants; Rune Lore; Magic Sense; Herb Lore; Magical Awareness; Meditation; Demon Lore; Identify Magical Artifact; Identify Undead; Mythical Beast Lore.
Possessions: Staff; robes; Ring of Far Deliverance (casts Teleport, usable once per month); Cap’n Sabre’s Galoshes (permit wearer to walk on water); pet ape
Magic Points: 33 (But Altan must test against Intelligence in order to cast a spell successfully or use any other knowledge skill.)
Spells: Petty Magic - Gift of Tongues, Glowing Light, Magic Alarm, Magic Lock, Protection from Rain; Battle Magic Level One - Cure Light Injury, Wind Blast; Battle Magic Level Two Mystic Mist, Zone of Sanctuary; Battle Magic Level Three - Cause Fear, Magic Bridge; Battle Magic Level Four - Aura of Invulnerability, Strength of Mind. (Altan didn’t manage to take any spell ingredients with him when he fled from the island.)

Jemai the ape
ATT 10; DEF 6; attacks by biting (d4,1) or throwing small objects (d3,2); AF0; HP 3; MAG DEF 3; EV6; move 12m (25m); STEALTH 17; PERCEPTION 13

Skills: Acrobatics, Concealment, Dodge Blow, Flee!, Pick Pocket, Scale Sheer Surface
Possessions: Toothpick, bag of pistachio nuts, brocade waistcoat, purse containing 12 Crowns and 3 shillings.

Jemai attacks by biting or throwing small objects. If there’s a brawl, he will climb up to the rafters out of harm’s way.

The innkeeper, Humbrol Greytooth, is behind the bar. He tolerates brawls as a way of life in Burhaven, but if his inn looks like getting seriously damaged he will use the crossbow he keeps under the counter. Otherwise, Humbrol’s only interests are serving ale and selling titbits of information to his customers.

Humbrol Greytooth
Unranked human; ATT 11; DEF 5; fights with cudgel (d3,3) or crossbow (d10,4); AF0; HP 8; MAG DEF 3; EV3; move 10m (20m); STEALTH 12; PERCEPTION 4

Skills: Blather, Brewing, Consume Alcohol, Disarm, Evaluate, Haggle, Storytelling, Strike to Stun.
Possessions: Crossbow, leather apron, cudgel
Special ability: Never surprised by anything that happens at the inn.

The taproom of the Whaler’s Wassail is mapped here in case of a brawl. (Download a larger version here.) Quite possibly such a brawl will start (like many in the past) because of the parrot. This annoying bird hears anything whispered within ten feet and will then immediately repeat it in a very loud squawk. Humbrol thinks his parrot is an exceptional bird – which it is – but does not realize that this is not a good thing. Many a muttered joke or remark about another patron has been relayed by the parrot with cawing bravado, sparking off a fight.

The standard DW or WFRP rules are adequate for any fight, but the following structured tactical rules may be preferred by those who like to brawl with precision. Attacks (including missiles and spells) must be aimed at someone in your 120° line-of-sight zone (see map). Each combat round is divided into three action phases, as below.

* Each hex represents about 1.5m, so a normal move is 6 hexes per round and a running move is 12 hexes. Alternatively you can backpedal – move backwards a total of 2 hexes. To run you must have taken a move action in the previous round and you must take a move action in the following round. When you take a move action you are not obliged to go the full distance but you must move at least 1 hex.

** In melee you can strike at an adjacent character in one of your front three hexes. You can only hit in melee if you moved no more than 2 hexes in the same round.

Within each phase, actions are first announced by all players in order of Reflexes (ie lowest first) and actions are then carried out in reverse order of Reflexes (highest first). When announcing, you only have to say which option you’ve chosen, not how you’re planning to implement it. For instance, you might say “move” but not how far or where, or you might say “hit in melee” without having to specify whom you’re going to hit.

Moving onto furniture costs a character 2 hexes from their move for the round and they must make a Reflexes test (difficulty factor 14) or fall prone. There’s no cost for moving off furniture, though. Fighting from on top of a table gives +1 ATTACK and DEFENCE. The tables and bar are immovable, but the chairs can be swung – or they can be thrown up to (Strength/4) hexes. Chairs count as (d8,3) weapons in DW rules, while the parrot's perch can be used as a staff once the parrot has been prised off it.

If an actual hand-to-hand slugfest is appealing, optional close combat rules can be used. Under he optional rules, any character can move into another's hex. It is possible to stand off a character closing with you if (i) you have a weapon and the other character doesn't and (ii) they are approaching from one of your three front hexes. Otherwise they collide with you and you both go down in the hex. Once in this situation, characters can only fight one another using unarmed combat, dagger or cudgel. They get to strike in both the first and third phases each round. DEFENCE of both characters is halved. Instead of fighting, a grappling character can spend the round trying to extricate himself and stand up; he has to roll under Reflexes on d20 to succeed (unless the other person is also trying to get up).

Getting to the island
There are a number of boats by the quayside. These belong to the whalers, and theft will result in a hot and bloody pursuit. Each boat takes up to sixteen people (minimum crew six) and the whalers are prepared to hire one of them out for 20 Florins (WFRP: shillings) a day.

Captain Flint’s ship is due to weigh anchor tomorrow morning, so if the characters intend to sail with him this will only give them the night to explore Spike Island. Flint is quite inflexible about his schedule unless bribed, and no other merchant vessel is expected in Burhaven for ten days or so. The Temptress has a crew of fifteen in addition to her three officers. These fellows have been given strict instructions not to allow anyone aboard. They have hung oiled nets over the sides to give would-be boarders a slippery climb.

Only a skilled mariner will be able to steer a ship or boat to the jetty on Spike Island. Characters with a nautical background (DW: see Book Six) might just have the appropriate expertise. If not, their craft will be seized by strong coastal currents and swept into the island in a random location: roll d12 to determine the shore zone on the island map (see next post).

Come back next week for the concluding instalment.

Friday 23 March 2018

Almost too good to be true

If I told you there was a definitive history of computer roleplaying games available as a large format 528-page full colour book, you'd have your chequebook out and be asking me for the Kickstarter link, right?

Well, spring is here and with it a flowering of sweet beneficence. Because The CRPG Book Project, authored by divers hands under the editorial aegis of Felipe Pepe, is here right now and it's completely free. Don't believe me? I wouldn't blame you, so go take a look.

If you want a print copy you could probably fix one up for yourself on Lulu. Or just read the book on a tablet and let those colours glow the way they were always meant to.

Friday 16 March 2018

So you want to write a gamebook

Back in the 1990s, Mark Smith and I co-created the Virtual Reality gamebook series. There were six books, four of which (the ones I wrote) are back in print as Critical IF.

Actually, that’s not quite the full story. There was a seventh, The Mask of Death, written by Mark, that remains unpublished to this day. I’d stepped away from the series by that point, and it wasn’t worth us following up because the gamebook craze was all but spent, but in the first flush of signing the series we still thought we could spearhead a revival. To that end, I sketched out guidelines for other authors to write for the series, in the same way as the Fighting Fantasy editors had done a few years earlier.

We thought the big innovation of VR, of not needing dice, would make the books more user-friendly. You could play them anywhere; that had been our pitch to the publishers. Also the US market at that time hadn’t embraced the kind of dice-n-stats gamebook beloved of British kids. Choose Your Own Adventure was still the defining series in America. We thought VR, with its more sophisticated storylines, could challenge CYOA, but we failed to net a US publisher.

Still, that was then. Today, thanks to print on demand, the Critical IF titles are available worldwide. I recommend starting with Heart of Ice – but then, I would. These writer guidelines were written long before that book, hence the emphasis on fantasy rather than science fiction or other settings. (Incidentally, if you really do want to write a gamebook and you're looking for some top tips, let me just point you to Stuart Lloyd's excellent blog.)

Guidelines for authors (from 1993)

Each book is 430 to 500 sections long (a total of about 65,000 words). Most of you reading this document have written gamebooks before, so I merely present the following as points for consideration.

By way of preamble, I think a good gamebook should be playable straight through if the reader thinks about what they’re doing. Don’t make the adventure so tough that the reader keeps having to go back to the start. In short, don’t become so obsessed with making the game a challenge that you lose sight of the fact that the story must be fun.

What I need from you are the following: an outline explaining the book (around 500 to 800 words), the prologue section of the book (at least 1000 words), and the first fifty sections. You don’t need to do fully written-up versions of those fifty sections (in fact a decently handwritten flowchart would do) as the purpose is to see how well you are utilizing the Virtual Reality system and the different possibilities of your plot.

1. Top notch storylines
Above all, the books must be a cut above other gamebook series. Think of the storyline. Would it make a good novel? Is it the kind of story you’d be interested in reading yourself? Aim to write something you’re personally invested in, not a piece of hack work.

VR books generally aim for a more intelligent level of fantasy than other gamebooks. For example, in Necklace of Skulls there is a sequence where the protagonist meets a stranger in the afterworld who presents him with a riddle. In many gamebooks, the purpose would simply be to solve the riddle and receive an arbitrary bonus. In this book, the whole point was to avoid answering at all, since the protagonist had to remember he was under a geis not to speak. The stories should thus have sensible internal logic, not simply be a series of arbitrary puzzles.

2. Interactive fiction
The central idea of the series is to create something that truly reads like a piece of interactive fiction. That means a continuous, well-written, exciting narrative over which the reader has true control. This is the reason why rules have been kept to a minimum. Your book should read like a good fantasy novel – or rather, like several parallel intertwining fantasy novels.

Try to avoid “save-the-world” plots. Stories driven by personal goals can be much more effective in any case, and saving the world in every book just gets tiresome. The prologue section can help explain the protagonist’s involvement, but try to avoid forcing the reader into a specific role. (“You are a noble hero who will die to save the world if you must” is not much good if the reader wants to play as a Han Solo type who only reluctantly ends up a hero.)

3. Getting through to the end
Most VR books allow the reader to design his/her character by taking four skills from a list of twelve, The standard twelve skills are listed at the back of this document, but some leeway is possible. For instance, Down Among the Dead Men substituted MARKSMANSHIP for ARCHERY.

Remember that it must be possible to complete the book using any combination of four skills. This means that if certain items are vital to success, there must be ways to obtain them using nine of the twelve skills, assuming that they can only be got by using skills. Note that options are rarely listed for more than three or four different skills in any situation, so you would not want to make your whole adventure hinge on a single item (the Ring of Winning the Adventure, let’s call it) and then just list nine ways of getting it. You could have alternative items that must be obtained with alternative skills, or allow different ways of winning.

4. Use of the skills
There are two basic ways that skills options are presented. The first is where the reader is given a list of possible skills that can be helpful in a situation, and chooses from any of those skills that he/she has. For example:
“The guards are coming this way. Do you want to use SWORDPLAY (221), UNARMED COMBAT (125), ROGUERY (78), CUNNING (377), or none of those (300?)”
The alternative is to give the actual range of activities the protagonist might attempt, and allow the reader to choose the one that corresponds best to his/her skills. For example:
“The guards are coming this way. Will you show yourself and fight them (33), hide in the shadows (71), or raise a hue and cry to distract attention (296)?”
5. Replayability
The reader should be able to start the book again with a different character and not simply encounter the same situations every time. As a rule of thumb, try to have at least three independent (but possibly interlinked) strands for the first hundred entries of the adventure, gradually bringing these together as you approach the climax.

The skills system lends itself readily to diverse story strands. For instance, to reach a distant objective the protagonist might travel by sea, by open country, or by roads which take him/her through various cities. Straightaway you can see how SEAFARING, WILDERNESS LORE and STREETWISE can be useful – perhaps in expected ways; WILDERNESS LORE might help you at sea, for example, or knowing a bit of nautical lore might make you a friend on the road.

6. Balance
This ought to be obvious. Try to make the skills of roughly equal value, and utilize them equally throughout the book, Don’t bother listing a skill which can only be used once or twice in the whole book.

One big potential pitfall is the SPELLS skill. It’s very versatile in any case, so avoid the obvious trap of making it overwhelmingly powerful as well. Magic may well vary according to the setting you have chosen for your book, but a good rule is not to allow magic to be cast in a hurry. If it takes time to work magic, characters with SPELLS will not automatically be better than those with other skills. Also avoid use of SPELLS which makes other skills redundant – eg, invisibility, which logically would work better than ROGUERY if the character is trying to hide. You can permit invisibility of course, just don’t let it be as effective as ROGUERY. Maybe there are pots and pans strewn about, so that invisibility alone isn’t enough to escape detection. That way, discovering the limitations of magic might turn out to be part of the reader’s fun.

Also remember that because you control the narrative in a way that no referee can ever control a roleplaying game, the way you present magic can be much more interesting than the usual RPG list of spells. Magic can do anything – some of the time...

7. Objective(s)
It used to be one of the Puffin Fighting Fantasy guidelines that every book should have a clearly defined objective which is explained to the reader at the start. This isn’t necessarily the case. In Paul Mason’s Black Vein Prophecy, for instance, the protagonist starts with no memory of the past and no clear idea of what to do at first. But, of course, there is an objective there – only it’s an implicit, not explicit, one.

You should have one or more objectives in mind, even if you don’t tell the reader what those are. The better gamebooks are often those where the reader starts with one objective, only to have it altered or superseded in the course of the adventure.

The fighting skills are ARCHERY, SWORDPLAY and UNARMED COMBAT. Two of these are skills that require an item (a bow for ARCHERY, a sword for SWORDPLAY) and so they ought to be a little better than most skills. I make SWORDPLAY about 50% better in a fight than UNARMED COMBAT (so if you lost 4 Life Points using UNARMED COMBAT you’d lose only 3 Life Points using SWORDPLAY). There should be at least one situation in any book where UNARMED COMBAT comes into its own – eg, you’ve been disarmed, or weapons are prohibited – so that it doesn’t just become the poor man’s SWORDPLAY.

Among the “thief” skills, ABILITY is the sort of climbing, balancing, leaping, acrobatic stuff for which Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks were famous. ROGUERY is the ability to pick pockets and creep around without being spotted in the style of any famous thief. CUNNING is the preferred problem-solving method of all tricksters: Loki, Odysseus, Cugel, Coyote, and the like.

WILDERNESS LORE, SEAFARING and STREETWISE are all travel/survival skills and are fairly self-explanatory. This is the area in which you are most likely to have to customize the system to fit your own book. You won’t bother to have SEAFARING if you set your adventure entirely in a forest, for instance. Necklace of Skulls replaced STREETWISE with ETIQUETTE.

Of the magical skills, CHARMS and SPELLS both require items and therefore can be a fraction better than other skills. This seems to be so inevitable in the case of SPELLS that I’ve devoted a whole section to it in the snagging list. What is the difference between SPELLS and CHARMS? In essence SPELLS brings about changes, while CHARMS protects from changes. SPELLS usually take a while to cast, CHARMS are quick and easy but less potent. SPELLS have many extraordinary and specific applications; CHARMS work as a more general level of good luck. You actively decide to use SPELLS, whereas frequently CHARMS provide passive defence. Some of the books so far have established CHARMS as giving a degree of danger sense.

The third magical skill, FOLKLORE, should not be overlooked. In a world where magic is real, knowledge of its limitations is power. FOLKLORE can give the character forewarning of perils that he or she can otherwise only learn about by befriending the right person, consulting the right book, etc, meaning that a character with FOLKLORE is more certain to know what they’re walking into. Also, FOLKLORE allows you to reveal some of the less well-known elements of your world background, so that a reader taking the skill gets insights into the setting that they otherwise wouldn’t know.

Friday 9 March 2018

Love and a sense of wonder

Unless you achieved full consciousness prior to 1977, it's hard to explain what science fiction was like back then. For one thing it was called SF not "sci-fi". And there was none of the Errol Flynn stuff we see today. Well, that's not quite true. There were throwbacks like E.C. Tubbs' Cap Kennedy series. Don Wollheim sent me a stack of those books back in the mid-70s when I'd made a slighting remark about space opera. Little did either of us know that the whole bloody field was about to be set back forty years by George Lucas.

SF was proper, you see. Interesting. Literate. Diverse. Unsettling. Brimming with wonder. I liked it because it stretched me more than the adventure stories I read as a kid. At its best it could boggle the mind and the imagination. The nearest we've got to that these days, outside of books, is Black Mirror.

That's why I like this Kickstarter, In Other Waters, a game by Gareth Martin in which a stranded xenobiologist explores an alien world. That sounds exactly like the kind of perfect science fictional setup that exists on the cusp between the awesome and terrifying infinitude of the cosmos and the all-conquering power of science and reason. Bleak and hopeful, if that makes sense.

The game is relationship-driven, which immediately ticks another box for me, and as well as the game itself backers can get a book detailing the strange lifeforms of this alien world.
I'm slightly wary of recommending In Other Waters because the Kickstarter campaigns I like tend to plummet like Icarus. But Cultist Simulator did okay, so maybe the jinx is broken. This one has a week to run, so if you grok grown-up SF you know where to find it.

And while we're talking crowdfunding, another project you might want to take a look at is Chernobyl, Mon Amour, "a roleplaying game of love and radioactivity set in the Zone of Alienation". I couldn't resist that and plonked my money down right away, so hopefully the Morris Effect won't scupper it. This one is by Finnish designer Juhana Pettersson, who was inspired by a Ukrainian urban myth about a criminal who fled into the Zone and became so radioactive that the authorities had to leave him there.
"You know that there is no return from the Zone. Your crimes are such that society will no longer accept you, and the only thing you have left is the possibility of a new life in the radioactive forest. As you settle into the Zone and meet its inhabitants, you start to yearn for something more. You want love."
Chernobyl, Mon Amour is on Indiegogo, but only for a couple more weeks.

Friday 2 March 2018

Are you trying to run a country?

People keep asking when Jamie and I are going to write another gamebook, and after twenty-two years we finally have. It’s called Can You Brexit (Without Breaking Britain)? and the story begins on the day in 2017 that the UK gave notice of its intention to quit the European Union.

You play the Prime Minister and you have two years (played out over four six-monthly “game turns”) to negotiate Britain’s future relationship with the union of which it has been a member since 1973. Imagine a divorce settlement after forty-five years of marriage, multiply by a half a billion people, add a poisonous cauldron of political ideology, raise to boiling point with a baying partisan press that's way off to the right of Attila the Hun, and you’ll have some idea of how smoothly those talks are going to go.

In Can You Brexit? there are ten main issues to be negotiated (residency rights for EU citizens living in Britain, security & defence arrangements post-Brexit, the National Health Service, etc) and you only have time to oversee a few of those issues in person; the rest are delegated to your ministers. So you have to manage your time while trying to prevent the four metrics (Authority, Economy, Popularity and Goodwill) from going into a tailspin.

Describing it like that makes it sound dry. It’s not. Think Veep or The Thick of It (or, for older readers, Yes Minister) rather than House of Cards or The West Wing. (Not that those last two are dry either, but you know what I mean.) At the same time, we aimed to make the game part of it informative and factually accurate. Perhaps the best comparison is Private Eye, with its blend of blistering satire, nose-tweaking mischief, and hard-nosed determination to speak truth to power. Jamie did win the 2012 Roald Dahl Funny Prize, after all, so trust me, you'll be entertained as well as informed.

Only hours after our agent sent the manuscript out to publishers he was getting replies that described it as brilliant. One editor phoned up the next day to say she’d read it and thought it was a work of genius. There’s a but. None of London’s top publishers took it – and to explain why an editor’s wild enthusiasm for a book could be shot down so easily by the acquisitions committees that make these decisions I’d have to give you a crash course in how modern publishing works. But here's a typical response that we got a month on:
I loved the idea and I promptly sent it round to all my colleagues. I was particularly taken by the level of effort Dave and Jamie have put into it. Added to which, they write really well (the Yes Minister comparison was a good one). I’m afraid where it foundered for us was the horrible greyness of Brexit itself. The book is very funny but the thought of imagining yourself into running the debacle is enough to make anyone want to hide in a cupboard – so I’m not convinced that the coverage I could definitely see this book getting would lead to proper sales… and I’m afraid they all agreed. So I’m afraid in the end we are going to pass, even though there is something essentially very brilliant about the book. It is a great project that definitely deserves success.
That's publishers these days. Always willing to back something they truly believe in, just so long as there's absolutely no risk attached. Pass me the spittoon. Luckily Jamie and I have our own small publishing imprint, so the fruit of a year’s labour doesn’t have to be cast into a desk drawer. I realize it’s not shotgunning zombies or looting dragon hoards, but if you want to see what a gamebook for grown-ups looks like, this one's for you.

And as an antidote to all those naysayers in publishing, who really just want a TV celeb to offer them a book about cats and Brexit, we got this cheering endorsement from my good friend Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist and presenter of BBC Radio's More or Less.
“A wholly original approach to the big question of our times, this book educates, entertains, and also achieves the seemingly impossible feat of making you empathise with Theresa May. It reminded me of Yes Minister: it made me laugh, but then it made me think.”

Also available in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Australia. Find more about it on Gamebook News.