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Friday 30 August 2019

Yakety yak

A little while ago, I was asked by my Italian publishers to do an interview for Tom's Hardware. Then it occurred to me that some of the answers might be interesting to readers of this blog, so if you don't speak Italian here's the meat of it:

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.

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.
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?
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?

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.
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?
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.

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.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
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.

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.
How did you get involved in gaming? What do you like so much about games?
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.

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.
Is there a game (or even a setting) you haven't written yet but you definitely want to try?
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.

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.
Last question: is there any secret project you’re currently working on and can share with us?
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.

Friday 23 August 2019

It's in the trees

I've shown you this before, sort of. While working on a book I like to print up prototype versions rather than read the text on-screen. The upside is it provides a different perspective. The downside is that by the time the print company gets the book to me, often I've changed most of it.

I prepared these two copies of the Jewelspider RPG (2nd edition Dragon Warriors, if you prefer) so that my group could start playtesting the rules. I'm sorry to say the finished book probably won't have Jon Hodgson art -- I don't have the money to pay him, and if I did I'd spend it on Mirabilis -- but for private use around the gaming table I can indulge my wildest dreams. And I really wanted to have a proper look at that gorgeous Players Guide artwork without the book title inexplicably covering up half the image.

Some people have asked about the new rules. Details are still changing week by week, but the core of the system seems pretty solid now. There are eight abilities, ranging from 2 to 18, which determine your chance of succeeding in any action. There are also four qualities, ranging from -3 to +3,which don't affect your chance of success but rather your degree of success. So if you attempt an action using Agility (ride, dodge, climb, etc) or Dexterity (shoot, cut a purse, pick a lock, etc) then having a positive score in the Graceful quality would make any successful roll more effective.

There are also masteries, ranging from 0 to 6, which give the character more control over how they use their abilities for actions relevant to that mastery. Mastery in swordplay, for example, lets you finesse your Dexterity rolls when attacking or parrying with a sword. The way a mastery works is that you can trade off chance of success against degree of success, up to your level in that mastery.

The system is designed for ad hoc play. Any action you want to attempt will be governed by one of the eight abilities, and masteries can be extemporized too.

That's not quite all. There are two very rare qualities, Holy and Fey, that can be unlocked and give access to actions that ordinary people can't attempt. You can't have both at once, of course, and Fey doesn't necessarily indicate faerie blood, it's just the Jewelspider equivalent of DW's Psychic Talent.

When will all this be available to the public? I'm currently running a short campaign with junkable characters. Then Oliver Johnson is planning to run a Jewelspider campaign through through the autumn, and Tim Harford will hopefully give the rules a spin in one of his eagerly-awaited Christmas specials, and then I'll go back and revise the whole caboodle in light of my players' comments. So not till next spring, at the earliest. But, as you know, nothing's forgotten and it's coming.

Friday 16 August 2019

Get real

The realism versus playability debate has been going on for decades. Which is odd, because there aren’t really any games that err by being too playable. I can cite lots that are too realistic, though. There was the CRPG where you had to remember to restock on shoe leather. If you didn’t, your character would go “Ow!” every so often and lose a hit point. A long journey could kill you before you even got to the dungeon.

The same debate occurred long ago in movies and TV – although there it was “realism vs enjoyment”. Thankfully, the realists were beaten back into a tiny corner. Other than 12-hour Andy Warhol epics watching a flag flap on the side of the Empire State Building, visual narrative is free of realism. Arnie says, “Let’s go to Cairo,” and – alakazam! – there he is.

The guys at Pyro got it right when they talked about narrative games (like CRPGs) involving a contract with the player. It’s what happens all the time in movies when there’s a flashback. Sixty years ago, audiences needed a wash dissolve to believe it. Now you can play around with time using just an ordinary cut.

Why have realism at all? Well, take an example I used when designing my RTS Warrior Kings. Without any rules for supply in such a game, conquest works like infection. You can take a single worker behind enemy lines and build a massive base to attack from. That will lead to some pretty odd strategies if the game is set in the Trojan Wars.

But you don’t want real realism. Full-on true-to-life supply line rules can so easily lead to a player struggling against the game rather than against the other players. So you need to find a way that rewards the player if he does it right, but still allows him to ignore supply lines if he wants. One way to do that is to have injured characters automatically recover hit points if they’re in supply, for example, which is how I had it work in Warrior Kings. The player doesn't have to micromanage supplies, but they do get a bonus for not letting a force get cut off behind enemy lines.

Still, games aren’t movies. The whole point of a game is to give the player a hands-on experience. And sometimes that experience might be of inevitability. I played a wargame of the Cuban revolution. The government player couldn’t possibly win (Michael Corleone was right) but it was fun to see why they couldn't. Only games can do this. Which is why the debate will rage on. And there will always be a case to be made – even for shoe leather.

Friday 2 August 2019

Rune blades

This was an early piece that I wrote for White Dwarf (issue 39, March 1983). Evidently I'd already been asked to work on Questworld. Most of these magic swords later found a home in Dragon Warriors, but to do them full justice you really need to include the Rune associations. Looking at it again 35 years on, I was struck by the reference to "humanists". Does that mean the Renaissance kind, or modern humanism? Seems a little anachronistic given that Greg Stafford's Genertela (always cracks me up; at times my sense of humour is quite puerile) is a Bronze Age world filled with quite irrefutable spirits and deities, but obviously it made sense at the time.

The pillars of any RuneQuest universe, more fundamental than the gods who make use of them, are the Runes themselves. Many non-theistic cults on both Questworld and Glorantha strive to interact directly with the Runes and to use their power to shape the world around them. Even some of the more familiar religions can be interpreted this way. The Black Fang Brotherhood involves shamanistic worship of the Death Rune, while Kralori philosophers would be able to see the gods (especially those, such as Humakt, linked almost exclusively to one Rune) as mankind's anthropomorphised view of the powers and workings of the Runes in nature.

The consequence of this philosophy is a reversal of the individual cult member's approach to the world: he doesn't necessarily behave according to certain rules simply because 'the god wills it', but accepts responsibility for his own actions and ethics, and associated himself with the Rune or Runes which embody his own philosophy. For example, a humanist Knight of western Genertela might wear the Death Rune on his shield in the same way that a Humakti would, but with a quite different feeling and personal philosophy behind this.

By focussing on the Runes, the Wizards of such a cult acquire the ability to channel their power and so create magical artifacts. In a world where many cults have to fight for their existence, the creation of magic weaponry is of obvious importance; this is what will be covered here.

Rune weapons are usually swords, created by the priests of a Rune cult for use by the cult champion. The priests gather and together perform the rituals while permanently sacrificing some of their POW to enchant the sword. The Ritual of Enchantment is a skill (see below), and each priest must make his roll in this skill or the POW he contributes is wasted. If any one of the priests fumbles then the entire ritual is disrupted and all the POW is lost to no effect. (This can create really bad blood among the other cultists!) The ritual requires 30 points of POW to be successfully relinquished in order to enchant the sword.
The Ritual of Enchantment skill is learned at the rate 750/1000/ 2000/3500, though it would be common practice inmost cults for the priests/wizards who had mastered it to give free instruction to the others. Rune weapons can have any ability, limited only by the imagination of those who create them and the power of the Rune involved. The more common types are listed here.

Volcanic Sword
The sword is tied to the Fire Rune. Whenever needed, its blade will rise in temperature to red-heat within seconds. This effect does not damage the blade itself. Any damage that penetrates armour is doubled.
Example: Lord Balin of Dorgoth is fighting a cave troll. He hits the creature with his iron volcanic sword and rolls 5 on the damage dice, of which 2 points penetrate its skin. In addition to the 2 points, the troll takes an extra +2 from the heat of the blade. (In this case, being a troll, it also takes another +2 just because the sword is made of iron).
Fireblade cast on such a weapon will not add to the damage done but will merely convert it to doing 3d6 damage for the duration of the spell.

Blades of this type are commonly shortswords, created for use by Death Rune cult assassins. The weapon does normal damage, but is kept supernaturally sharp and cuts easily through armour. The amount of damage the armour would normally absorb is halved (round fractions up). Magical protections such as shield are not affected.

Severblades can be enhanced by bladesharp, but will temporarily be converted to normal 3d6 weapons by fireblade.

The most common of several Mobility Rune weapons, the blurblade moves with dazzling speed. The wielder of a blurblade always hits with it at Strike Rank 1 (even if he or she had it sheathed at the start of the round), and opponents subtract 05% from their chance of parrying. If the opponent is unaware of the sword's ability, he will be automatically surprised on the first attack and his parry chance will be halved.

Created by Air Rune cults, a sword of this type allows its user to summon storms once a day. The storm will muster within one minute and will then last for up to fifteen minutes. The main force of the storm is concentrated to a zone 160m around the sword; within this zone, visibility drops to 6m, all movement is halved, normal communication is impossible and flying creatures must roll DEXx5 each round or be buffeted helplessly by the winds. There is a clear zone (the eye of the storm) for 3m around the sword. While the storm rages, the user can cast lightning bolts from the tip of the sword at the rate of one every five melee rounds. These bolts leap for 1-8 beings within 16m, with a 60% chance of hitting. If the target has a Defence, this will count. A bolt that hits deals the target 1-4 blows for 1d8 damage each; armour gives half normal protection.

The Darkness Rune is another favourite with assassins. Night-blades give their user the ability to see in darkness, to Hide in Shadows at +30%, and to create a globe of darkness 3m across around himself at any time. Shades will not attack the wielder of a nightblade.

Deriving its power from the Magic Rune, this sword acts as a variable matrix for any battle magic spell up to 4 points. That is, the user can cast any such spell with the sword (and his own POW). It takes one full turn (five minutes) for the sword to switch from one spell to another.

Fortress Sword
Weapons of this type, tied to the Stasis Rune, protect their user by enhancing his chance to parry. 30% is added to the user's parry ability, but this concentration on defence reduces his attack chance by 10%.

Vigor Sword
This is another common Mobility cult weapon. Essentially it is the opposite of the Fortress Sword mentioned above. In this case the sword impairs its user's parries by the ferocity of its attacks, ie +30% to user's attack and -10% from his parry.

Vorpal Blade
Through its Fate Rune powers, the Vorpal Sword has a knack of finding openings in an opponent's guard. If the attack roll is half (or less) of what the sword's user needed then he can specify where he's hitting his opponent.
Example: Ericre Bloothaux has a shortsword with a Vorpal Blade. In combat with a dream dragon, Ericre rolls a 13 for his attack. With his shortsword skill of 70% this is not only an opportunity to hit the dragon wherever he wants, but also happens to be an impaling blow. 16 points in the head puts the creature down, and Ericre is forced to admit that the line dividing Fate from Luck is often a fine one.
For arcane symbolic reasons, Chillblades (created, of course, by Ice Rune cults) are always impaling weapons. Any damage an opponent takes from the icy blade of the weapon is matched against his CON on the Resistance Table. If the roll is successful, the victim takes damage to his CON (as with systemic poison) and suffers -2 from STR and DEX for ten melee rounds. An unsuccessful roll simply means that the victim takes an extra 50% damage in the area hit.
Example: Archos the Lame is hit for 4 points in the arm by an enemy's chillblade. Matching 04 against Archos' CON of 11 gives a 15% chance that he will also take 4 points of CON damage. Archos' foe rolls a 82, however, so the only effect of the chillblacle is an extra 2 points of damage in Archos' arm.
Chaos Knife
The name is euphemistic; Chaos 'knives' are often greatswords. The effect of the weapon is simply to bestow the user with a random Chaotic feature, different each time he draws it.

Vortex Sword
The Vortex Sword, or nullblade, is the rarest of all these rare weapons, being connected with the ancient Void Rune of Questworld. Its powers absorb and annihilate magic. Any spell cast at, by or on the user is reduced by 6 POW points: a countermagic 8 becomes a countermagic 2. Non-variable spells are rendered ineffective if reduced below their minimum POW by the sword's powers. Remember that Rune magic is twice the strength of battle magic, so that a shield 4 cast on the user would count as shield 1.

The secondary effect of the Vortex Sword is still more terrible: anyone slain by it is utterly annihilated by being drawn into the Void, and cannot be resurrected.

Final points
Once the Rune weapon is created, the cult champion (or whoever is going to use it) must sacrifice one point of characteristic POW in order to attune it. Having done this, he cannot attune a magic crystal until and unless he relinquishes use of the Rune weapon.

Rune weapons are very, very rarely found as treasure. Having cost the cult wizards at least 30 points of POW between them, the weapon is not going to be allowed to lie in some treasure hoard somewhere. The exception to this is when the cult champion was killed in the middle of the quest and the cult found it too difficult or dangerous to retrieve the weapon. In this case, whatever killed the champion may be hanging around where the weapon fell, ready to fight anyone else who'd like to own it.

Anyone who manages to get hold of a Rune cult weapon will be able to use it by attuning it as above, so long as they are members of a cult incorporating the appropriate Rune.

A couple of notes on the use of Rune weapons in campaigns. First, do not sprinkle them around too freely. Remember that it takes quite a powerful cult to make such a weapon – at least ten priests or wizards at say 95% in the Ritual of Enchantment and prepared to reduce their characteristics POW from 21 to 18. Such a cult would presumably have a highly skilled champion (perhaps one of the wizards?) who would be more than a match for a few player characters. Even if the cult lost the weapon, it would tend to end up in the hands of a powerful character who would do his best to hang onto it. Secondly, Rune weapons will almost be made of iron and will thus require the use of Divine Intervention to allow the casting of spells while holding them.

Rune weapons are intended as special items for full campaigns. Initiate-level player characters who found one could use it for the rest of the adventure and would then be well advised to hand it over to their own cult (in exchange for goodwill and a rich reward) rather than become a target for the most powerful treasure-seeking adventurers in the land!