Dave, in Italy, you’re known especially for the Blood sword series. Since those books were originally published a lot of time has passed. How do you think gamebooks have evolved? What was the market like in the ‘80s and how is it different today?
It was totally different. Gamebooks were a huge craze among what we now call “middle grade” kids (roughly 9-12 years old) and you pretty much only had to walk into a publisher with an idea to get offered a contract. Gamebooks would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. I think it was because kids were ready for videogames but those were still quite expensive and the graphics were quite primitive. So gamebooks filled a gap.Blood Sword was the first multiplayer gamebook. How did you transform a solitary experience like a gamebook into a shared game?
Oliver Johnson and I always start the planning process for one of our gamebooks by thinking about events we’ve used in our roleplaying games, so multiplayer comes naturally to us. I was also aware when we wrote Blood Sword that a lot of the readers would be people who already played Dragon Warriors (set in the same fantasy universe) which meant that they probably would have gaming friends who they wanted to share the adventure with. We made sure that every character type has a chance to shine, and if you are playing it as a team there are some sections that only one character gets to read. We find that a dash of secrecy and competitiveness adds an edge to any roleplaying game.Recently you ran a Kickstarter campaign for a new edition of Blood Sword 5 The Walls of Spyte. Why that book in particular?
I’d already edited the rest of the series for re-release in 2014, but when I got to the fifth book I found that the work needed to make it playable was more than the other four books put together. There were parts of the flowchart that simply didn’t link up. If I’d left it till I had time to revise The Walls of Spyte then none of the books would have got back in print, so I published the first four and put book five aside. I kept meaning to return to it but there was so much work involved that I couldn’t justify it as something to do in my spare time. The Kickstarter provided the funds needed to do it properly.What should a gamebook have today to be current? Do you think that classic forking-path stories are still enough, or should gamebooks dare to try something new?
I’m always interested in something new. In my Frankenstein digital gamebook, the focus is not on solving “the problem of the plot” but on your relationship with Victor Frankenstein, the narrator. The variables are things like Trust, Hubris and Alienation. If you give Victor bad advice, he loses trust in you and that affects whether he’ll listen to your suggestions in future.Some say we are living through a renaissance of gamebooks. What do you think about that? In a world dominated by videogames and mobile games, do you think is there any space for gamebooks? What kind of appeal can they have for new, especially young, players?
Recently I wrote Fright Tonight, which is billed as an interactive drama for the Amazon Echo, but it’s effectively still a branching-path gamebook in terms of structure. I’ll be releasing that as a Kindle book later this year, and one of the things that makes it different is there are no stats, no character sheet, no dice. You just answer yes or no to the characters’ questions. Trust me, it’s as gripping as any gamebook I wrote back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Fewer people are reading books these days, and on average those people read fewer books per year, so it looks as if gamebooks will have to come up with some new tricks. For one thing, there’s not really a lot of point doing more fantasy quest-style gamebooks. Computer games do the same thing and they do it better. Gamebooks have traditionally tackled stories from a problem-solving angle. That’s natural given the menu of choices structure, but again it’s not enough to entice somebody away from a computer game or a movie, or even playing Fortnite on their phone. So how do we write gamebooks that offer the reader something they can’t get elsewhere?You have written scores of books; gamebooks, novels, comics, and RPGs in your career. What have been the most difficult things to write? And of which are you particularly proud?
One clue to the answer comes from looking at how television drama competes with cinema. Even the most lavish TV show can’t match the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster, so it has to play to its strengths. A 13-hour TV drama has a lot more room to explore character complexity than a 2-hour movie, with the result that if you sit down to watch Mission Impossible after The Americans, or Warcraft after Game of Thrones, it’s like going from a novel to a newspaper cartoon. Gamebooks can do something similar, involving the reader in difficult moral choices and options that will change other characters’ opinion of them. Modern audiences in all media expect this emotional depth. As a medium, gamebooks have to grow up.
Most difficult was my recent gamebook Can You Brexit? as I had to research all of the details of immigration, free movement, defence, policing, trade, and a dozen other things – and then make them both amusing and comprehensible to the reader. Of all my gamebooks I’m most proud of Heart of Ice, just because it came out exactly how I wanted it. You can’t always count on that as there’s a tension between delivering the sense of real freedom of choice while (in old-style gamebooks) keeping it all down to about 500 sections or less. Heart of Ice was loosely based on an old roleplaying campaign of mine and many of my players’ characters were the inspiration for the player’s rivals in the adventure. To keep myself interested while writing, I changed the setting from the fantasy world of Tekumel, which it had been in my campaign, to 23rd century Earth. That gave me a story structure to work from while still having plenty of scope to improvise details as I worked.Is there a book you wish you had written?
The work I am most pleased with overall, though, is my comic book epic Mirabilis – Year of Wonders. I care passionately about the characters, it’s exactly the blend of funny, scary, mysterious and thrilling that I was aiming for, and I think the artwork (by Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and Nikos Koutsis) is beautiful. Unfortunately the project ground to a halt about a third of the way through for want of a publisher. In Britain, sadly, there’s not much of a market for comic books.
I’d like to have done more Dragon Warriors books. There were originally supposed to be twelve books in the series, but the publishers messed up the distribution and then cancelled the series after six books. Oliver and I still use the setting for some of our own roleplaying games, and we’re thinking of releasing the Jewelspider RPG, which is a much more modern, freewheeling set of rules. And instead of all those polyhedral dice it just uses two six-siders.How did you get involved in gaming? What do you like so much about games?
My biggest regret, though, is not having been able to continue Mirabilis. Leo and I planned it as four seasons, but when I was halfway through season two the money ran out. It costs a lot to pay for all that art! I have the whole story blocked out and I love the characters, so maybe I’ll return to it as a prose novel – but that will be a shame, as I think it really works best as a comic book.
That’s a very good question. I think it’s because I get to exercise my imagination and my analytic mind at the same time. It’s the same reason I design games and write fiction – you’re having to be creative and flexible while at the same time solving problems. And because they are all sorts of different problems I have to think on my feet, which I enjoy. It’s why I prefer real-time strategy games to turn-based, because of the adrenaline. In roleplaying games you’re constantly improvising, whether you’re playing in the game or running it, and I get fired up by that. Also there’s the social aspect of gaming. I like hanging out with my friends, and most of them are gamers. It’s just a shame that my wife isn’t into games, because if she did I’d happily play a boardgame most evenings.What are your favourite games?
In face-to-face roleplaying: Empire of the Petal Throne, and other rules and spin-offs set in MAR Barker’s world of Tekumel. I like it so much I designed a set of rules myself for it, called Tirikelu, that are available free online. Recently I’ve also enjoyed Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders, which is an Apocalypse World variant.
As for videogames, I like What Remains of Edith Finch, Return of the Obra Din, Inside, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, The Witcher, This War of Mine, The Talos Principle – oh, too many to mention. Lately I’ve been getting into VR games as I’m doing some design work on one. My favourite computer game of all time: Outcast. That’s twenty years old and I still go back to it.Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?
I host a roleplaying session every two weeks, and my group also try to fit in four weekend specials each year. It’s not like the old days when we could game several times a week, but everybody used to live nearby back then and none of us had families.Is there a game (or even a setting) you haven't written yet but you definitely want to try?
We’re currently playing an investigative campaign set in the 1890s. We use GURPS 4th edition for that, quite a crunchy set of rules but much better than 3rd edition. I recently wrote some chapters for the Lyonesse RPG, which uses a d100 system, but I probably won’t play it – even though Oliver and I are both devoted Jack Vance fans – because tonally the setting isn’t very different from our own world, Legend, and we really need to test out the Jewelspider system for that.
I’d like to have a crack at a complete reboot of the world of Tekumel. As originally conceived it belonged to a style of pulp sci-fi of the mid-20th century. That’s not something that today’s players can really get into, yet behind the game lies Professor Barker’s concept of a “real” Tekumel. I think there’s a better way to present it to the current generation of roleplayers that strips away the slightly cheesy pulp style and makes it feel more solid.Any advice for someone who would like a writing career?
I’d say, “Do you have a Plan B?” Harrison Ford trained as a carpenter, remember, so that he had something to fall back on if the acting didn’t pan out. These days, millions of books are being published every year – most of them self-published – so it’s very hard to get noticed.
If that doesn’t put you off, OK, write your book. Send it out to agents. While they’re looking at it, start writing the next book. If an agent or editor says that something in your story doesn’t work then you should listen to them. On the other hand, if they tell you how to change the book, be more sceptical – other people know if a story doesn’t grab them, but they can’t write the book your way.
Hopefully your agent will get more than one publisher interested. If they do, there may be a bidding war, which is the only way you’ll get a fair price for your work. Pay attention to contracts. What is the publisher agreeing to do, and what happens to your rights if the book isn’t successful?
Read. You already read? Read more. Read really good authors: Hemingway, Calvino, Austen, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Dickens, Eco. Don’t only read your favourite genres or authors. Think about what effect the author was striving for and how they achieved it. Always be learning.Last question: is there any secret project you’re currently working on and can share with us?
They say, “Never give up,” but I’ll say, “Don’t reinforce failure.” If you try one thing and it doesn’t work, try something else. Short stories, novels, flash fiction, poetry, theatre. Mix genres. Ignore genres. The point is that entertainment is a fashion-driven industry, and there’s no point in plugging away at one thing if the public aren’t buying it. I know a couple of great writers – we’re talking about award winners, best-sellers in their day – whose books are not getting publishing offers these days because fashions have changed and their style of fiction is out of favour. No writer should ever try to chase fashions – you have to give the readers or viewers or players something they didn’t even know they wanted. But, at the same time, be aware of whether you’ve set up your stall in right place to get noticed.
There’s the world of Abraxas that Jamie and I devised for a massively multiplayer game we were set to work on at Eidos Interactive in 1999. Eidos closed down internal development so we never got to do the game, but I like the setting, which is science fantasy in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. So I’m going to release that as an RPG using a variant of my Tirikelu rules. I’ve commissioned a great cover by Tancred Dyke-Wells, so now it’s just a case of me finding a spare couple of months to write it.
I also want to do a gamebook (probably digital; think 80 Days rather than Tin Man Games) based in the village of Crossgate from my Dragon Warriors campaign. This would be an open world gamebook where you can have various NPC companions and your experience of the adventure is different depending on which of them is with you. There would be multiple side-quests that you can pick up in more than one location using a sort of object-oriented approach to the story rather than the usual procedural gamebook design. (Apologies to my coder friends; I’m using these terms very loosely!) The working title for that is Winter’s Rage, but it’s another project that will have to wait for me to free up some leisure time to work on it.
The Jewelspider RPG is likely to happen much sooner, mainly because it’s very light on rules so most of it will be adventures and background for the world of Legend. And I have a science fiction setting called Earthwrecked that I ran as a roleplaying campaign and that I really should dust off and write up.