Gamebook store

Friday 30 November 2018

Inevitability doesn't have to mean jumping through story hoops

Victor Mature. With a loincloth and an ass’s jawbone he was the Conan of his day, but Arnie or Sly could never match the performance he gave in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Mature played Doc Holliday, consumed by self-loathing and taking refuge in a bourbon bottle. When Holliday’s girlfriend is shot, Wyatt Earp sobers him up long enough to dust off his black bag and operate. It seems to go all right. The girl is getting better. Holliday glimpses a ray of hope. Maybe he could yet go back.

Then she dies. It’s a throwaway event off-screen – we only learn about it when Earp finds Holliday back in his dark place with the whiskey. And (defying the old movie rule to “make a scene of it”) Ford thereby expresses the whole theme of fatalism that runs right through the movie. Holliday can’t change, he can’t escape his destiny. This is the gunfight at the OK Corral as Shakespearean tragedy.

Then I got to thinking about story-based games, of which gamebooks are an obvious example. I'm sure you've encountered episodes like this one. You race through, bludgeoning enemies who are trying to stop you, only to arrive at the dock a minute too late. The ship has sailed, the bad guy has the girl (or the cute guy, if you prefer) and he’s taunting you. The chapter or game level ends there, and after a long slog through many equally stage-managed scenarios, you’ll finally get the chance to confront him and make up for failing there at the docks.

The trouble with that is it's too artificial. If I’m being invited to interact with a story, surely I shouldn’t be just jumping through the author’s hoops?

Now imagine this scenario. You’re sent to either kill or rescue a character – your choice. But the story requires this character to die. For narrative reasons, she has to be missing from later episodes. So the author says to himself, “If you decide to rescue her, I’ll have a scene at the end of that section where you’re almost home free and a stray bullet kills her anyway.”

I don’t like designing gamebook stories that way. It smacks of authorial arrogance: “You’re only the player, so sit there and watch.” But what would John Ford have done with it? Most likely he’d build the gamebook around the theme of inevitability. He wouldn’t kill the character right there at the end of the chapter, he’d leave it till later. Crucially, he’d let your choice make a short-term difference even if not a long-term one. In the interim, after all, she might have fallen in love. Or got pregnant. Or betrayed you. Dying then comes with a different emotional heft.

The players don’t always have to be able to make a difference – just so long as they aren’t ignored.

Friday 23 November 2018

White skin, black heart

Jamie based Lauria, the thief who can become your occasional frenemy in Fabled Lands, on my wife Roz. Actually, that's probably not quite true. Jamie likes to use the names of friends for characters in his gamebooks, and on learning that Roz is related to the Lauries of Dumfries he drew on that for inspiration. But I'm happy to report there's nothing in my wife's character to suggest a thief or Becky Sharp trickster type.

Lauria seems to have made an impression with Fabled Lands players, and I have no doubt she'll return in later books. The picture above is one of five private commissions that Russ Nicholson undertook as part of the Kickstarter for The Serpent King's Domain. I don't know for sure if it is Lauria, as the picture is simply titled "Girl Thief", but you can make up your own mind about that.

I got this copy of the picture from Russ's blog, where you can also see his spectacular image of the city of Carapace on the back of the Great Turtle. And if you're as big a fan of Russ's work as we are, you'll also want to take a look at The Writer's Map, a new book that features some of his fantastic cartography. It's the perfect Ebrontide gift for any budding wayfarers in your family.

Friday 16 November 2018

Tetsubo is coming

We've signed the contract. After thirty years, it's finally going to happen. It --

I should really start at the beginning, shouldn't I?

Tetsubo is a Japanese role-playing game that Jamie and I wrote back in the '80s to supplement Games Workshop's Warhammer RPG.

We had a blast researching it. We've always been big fans of directors like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, so we got to rewatch a bunch of classic movies. And we loved steeping ourselves in the folklore of medieval Japan, with whopping great books like Henri L Joly's Legend in Japanese Art.

One of the things we wanted to capture in Tetsubo is the rural folk tradition in Japanese myth. Monsters are fabulous and strange, like something out of a dream, out of the Land of Roots. For the medieval Japanese the invisible world was never far away and it was the subject of fascination as well as dread. Tetsubo tries to capture that sense of energy and danger and weirdness. It's very far from being D&D with Oriental names.

But the project was not to be. The very week we were going to send Tetsubo over to Games Workshop, our contact there, Paul Cockburn, quit the company. Nobody else was particularly keen to pursue the idea of a Japanese WFRP book, so eventually we returned the advance (that was three pints of beer apiece we had to pay for ourselves, then) and recovered our manuscript. I think I had some vague plan of converting it to Dragon Warriors. But other projects got in the way, Tetsubo went back in the attic, and there it stayed until a few months ago when we got a message from Daniel Fox, founder of Grim & Perilous Studios.

Daniel is the designer and publisher of Zweihänder, a gritty roleplaying game for settings like the Witcher, Game of Thrones, Solomon Kane, and the Black Company. In short, the entire genre of fantasy spawned by Michael Moorcock's Von Bek stories.

Daniel sent us a copy of the Zweihänder rulebook, a truly mighty tome that fully justifies the name. He'd seen the Tetsubo PDF that we used to offer for free -- not the full work, that, just the pages we had in digital form. (Well, it was the 1980s. A lot of it was written on typewriters or stored on floppy disks.)

Would we, Daniel asked, be willing to consider...?

There was no need to say more. A second lease of life for our labour of love? And as a companion book to a great modern RPG like Zweihänder? It was worth the thirty-year war -- er, I mean the thirty-year wait -- to get here. Watch for more info over the next few months, and take a look too at the official announcement on the Grim & Perilous site. There's also an interview here with Daniel Fox that answers some of the questions I hope you're eager to put to us. Obviously there's some work to be done. I've dug out the complete manuscript and have been scanning the chapters that we hadn't stored digitally. And the entire book needs to be edited and converted to the Zweihänder rules system. But within a year we hope to get this thing out into the world. All it took was a little patience.

Friday 9 November 2018

Summoned back from oblivion

A little while back I mentioned the Citadel Miniatures box of demonic critters based on the "Dealing With Demons" articles I wrote for White Dwarf, and the tactical battle game I wrote to go in that box. (Purely as a charitable gesture to help out Citadel's struggling finances, you understand; I certainly never saw anything as exotic as a royalty statement.) I assumed that scenario was lost in the mists of time.

But nothing's forgotten, as any Robin of Sherwood fan knows, and so I shouldn't have been surprised when Lee Barklam got in touch to tell me he'd found "The Best Laid Plans" scenario out there on the internet. Steve Casey, the author of the blog where it was posted, described it as "well-written, gripping, and smattered with dark humour." Which seems a far kinder comment that it deserved in my memory, but then I hadn't seen it in thirty years.

Lee has converted the scenario to Dragon Warriors rules (thanks, Lee!) and you can find it among other Legend scenarios on the Cobwebbed Forest site here, or follow the direct download link to get the PDF here.