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Friday, 22 November 2019

Blood Sword redux: The Walls of Spyte

"A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations."
That was the author Paul Valéry. His quotation is usually attributed to da Vinci (well, it's always Leonardo, Churchill or Wilde, isn't it?) and given in the snappier paraphrased version that Auden came up with:
"A work of art is never finished; it is only abandoned."
More relevant to The Walls of Spyte is Valéry's other comment on this theme:
"In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished (a word that for them has no meaning) but abandoned. And this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public, and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver, is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reverie that fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless."
All right, enough from les éminences grises. Clearly some works of art are abandoned earlier than others, and The Walls of Spyte is the literary equivalent of a baby left on a church doorstep in midwinter. What went wrong?

If you'll allow me to be highfalutin here, I signed off as Blood Sword's showrunner with book four. Whatever came after that, I was but an onlooker, like RTD watching Moffat episodes of Who. When Oliver Johnson and I originally pitched the series to Hodder, we had intended to work on it equally, but Oliver's job started to take up more of his time, with the result that I wrote books two through four single-handed. Then Oliver thought he'd have time to do book five, and we realized that would mean he'd have ended up contributing a quarter of the total work so we could switch our royalty split from 50/50 to 75/25. Nice and simple.

How often do simple plans gang na agley? Oliver had got about a third of the way in when a family holiday pulled him away from ice-bound horror to sea and sunshine. I was busy on other projects, but I agreed to step in and write the finale -- just forty sections, starting from the point where you meet Karunaz and Zaraqeb. I'd already tied up the storylines I was interested in, so it was just the showdown with the Magi. Oliver enlisted Jamie Thomson to pitch in with a hundred sections or so in the middle. I have no idea what shape the manuscript was in when it went to the publisher, but they clearly didn't have time to fix it, or even to proofread it. You cannot, in fact, get through to the end of that original edition without cheating.

The title is an obvious homage to "In the Walls of Eryx" and the story should echo At the Mountains of Madness, but instead of a Lovecraft homage the book came out as really more of a Ross Rocklynne concept rewritten by Robert Lynn Asprin. (You see, I just can't help griping. But, after all, Taika Waititi had a smash hit by turning the end of the world into a silly comedy, so maybe I'd better just go with the flow here.)

I'd always had this idea of astral forces gathering above an Arctic wasteland, and a few years later I got to do it my way in Heart of Ice -- also destroying the universe at the end, you'll note. The idea of the Five having engineered the Blasting in order to Phoenix themselves up to a level of power where they could challenge God -- that bit will have been me. At the time I was probably thinking more of Odin on the tree than self-reincarnating Marvel characters, but that's a detail.

Talking of the Five Magi, W B Yeats's poem seems like it must be the inspiration for them, but in fact I only came across it years later, when I was writing The Chronicles of the Magi. The real seed for the Magi came from a campaign that Oliver ran at Oxford back in the early '80s after we'd all been enthusing about Riddley Walker and Mad Max 2. (Oh yes, about that...) In the campaign we were all feral mid-teen scavengers of a post-apocalyptic tribe, wandering across a landscape of bomb-wrecked highways and nature blighted with chemical weapons. In the sky at night we saw fleeting coloured satellites for which we all felt a degree of "fix". We didn't know what fix was, but any change in fix (as in, "gain +2 Fix with Plague Star") was to be dreaded. I remember an encounter with a local bogeyman we called Smiler, whose face was eaten away in a ghastly rictus and who dwelt in an old bomb shelter permanently shrouded in toxic gas. Oh, if only more of that grim tone had found its way into The Walls of Spyte.

I'm frequently asked about the connection between Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword. They share the same setting, certainly, but I'm not sure I'd class most of Blood Sword as "canonical" Legend. If DW is Robin of Sherwood, which is a pretty apposite comparison, then Blood Sword is the BBC's 2006 show Robin Hood. Or if DW is The Shield, maybe Blood Sword is The Rockford Files . (Both shows I like, incidentally.) On that axis, The Walls of Spyte was Police Squad! -- sorry, there I go again. Anyway, the new edition of the book dispenses with the more knockabout comedy elements (what we used to call "silly dungeon" tone) so maybe it's time to let that go.

What else? Unlike the other Blood Sword redux posts (which incidentally are reprinted at the back of the new edition of The Walls of Spyte) I don't have a lot to say about the writing because most of it wasn't me. Karunaz and Zaraqeb, mentioned above, were characters in my Tekumel campaign, played by Paul Mason and Gail Baker respectively. Gail had recently dumped Paul rather brutally, so I probably let his character behead hers as a salve for a wounded heart.

Oliver must have got the idea for the giant red bat that bedevils you at the start from the Crimson Bat in RuneQuest. I'm just grateful he forgot about the ducks. I also remember Jamie telling me how he was working the word "aoristic", which I think he'd picked up from Greek grammar at school, into one of the riddles. I'm still not quite sure what it actually means, so if anyone can drop a sentence illustrating the aoristic tense into the comments, please do.

I'm disappointed I never got the Blood Sword characters to Ellesland. Or Ferromaine, come to that. There's no sign of Cynewulf, Montombre, Jewelspider Wood, or those other staples of most Dragon Warriors campaigns. On the plus side, I did get to explore the Ta'ashim lands and faith in these books, and that part of Blood Sword -- that is, everything that happens in the muck and mire of the cities of Outremer and the Middle East -- is definitely canonical Legend.

Oh, about that... "Why do the characters refer to their world as Middle Earth?" I'm sometimes asked. "Why not Legend?" Well, Legend of course is a non-diegetic name for the setting, something I'm guilty of with Fabled Lands too. To most DW characters, their world is "the middle earth", ie between heaven and hell. I knew that Tolkien used it for his world, of course, but I also thought everyone knew that he just got it from Middle English literature. Nowadays people think it's his proprietary brand, so where possible I've switched it in this book to other terms like "the mortal world".

Overall, if I'd known the Blood Sword books would still be read today by thirty- and forty-somethings, I’d have been bolder about dispensing with the orcs, goblins and dungeon trappings and made it more like "real" Legend. Especially for the Judgement Day finale, which was much better served in my opinion by Tim Harford's Redemption campaign, of which I've offered snippets here from time to time.

That said, Oliver and Jamie delivered a top-class instance of a dungeon adventure in this book. If I'd played in a D&D game half that good back in the mid-'70s, I might never have spurned it for Tekumel and Traveller. And in the new edition, the more obtrusive Pythonesque bits are gone, Russ Nicholson's marvellous illustrations are reproduced via crisp high-quality scans, and as a bonus you actually can get all the way through to the end. It's still Doomsday, but at least you won't miss it.


  1. Oh, no, this isn't a "bad" book at all. That's just the same issue as with high-quality gamebook/Rpg series : By comparison, what would be an "excellent" book as a stand-alone, looks average when compared to the previous 3 books of the series.
    Lol, in the French version, Zaraqeb got shortened (or "beheaded" ?)to Zara....

    "Aorist" means "unbounded", because it refered to "unbounded" verbal actions in the oldest IE languages, but turned into a simple past in most of the daughter-languages.
    If you can cope with tens of pages written in French, you can read all about the history of PIE verbal aspects in the second part of my article :

    1. The -eb suffix is the feminine ending in Livyani, just as -az is the masculine ending. I forget if their names had any meaning in their native language, but Paul's character later became a Tsolyani citizen and modified his name to Karunai.

  2. Awesome post. If Wilde said everything attributed to him,bthen he must have spent about half his life on his death bed.

  3. I got a bit excited when I saw the post thinking you may be doing a Redux Redux! Never mind.

    The Road Warrior link was interesting. I may have to put that on after the wife's gone to bed tonight.

    Nothing wrong with Police Squad!

    1. I enjoy a bit of Police Squad myself, but I could probably take twenty viewings of Road Warrior for every one viewing of PS!

  4. Speaking of ducks, I'm going through some weird obsession with them. Well, with ducklings/baby ducks, anyway. I really, really want to get one (well, two. Getting a lone duck is psychological warfare on the duck). However, I am also aware that nothing about my schedule, work habits, living situation or temperament is suited to get a duck. Yes, for six-eight weeks a ducklings is an adorable fuzzy little tweetie-sweetie. After that you have a duck for the next 15+ years.

    On the other hand...

    1. When you say "duck", my mind goes straight to this:

  5. If I may, there was a burning question I always wondered about from Blood Sword:

    In the first book, the trickster gets the ability to act twice one time per combat, but that ability isn't listed in the later books.
    We always kept it as a reward for surviving the dungeons, but was it intended to be cut or was it an omission?

    Best wishes and thanks for all the happy gaming over the years.

    1. Good question -- I'm afraid I can't remember now. When I edited the books for re-release a few years ago, I took that ability out altogether. I suspect we decided it was overpowered, but anyway I prefer to avoid lots of special-case rules these days.

    2. Appreciate the response and perfectly understandable.

      If I may ask a follow up question: Was Blood Sword and Dragon Warriors always intended to be the same world or did it just kind of end up that way?

    3. We pitched Blood Sword as taking place in the same world, though the tone of the series is different because gamebooks were seen as "for kids" while DW (although most of its players must have been pretty much the same age group) was packaged and styled so that it could appeal to roleplayers of any age.

  6. Dear Dave, Blood Sword is the best Gamebook I've ever read! I used the setting for many adventures and I still using it! I've recently discovered and red all the DW material I could find...thank you for having created this amazing world! Greetings from Italy!

    1. Thanks! And greetings from London. I hope you'll like the Jewelspider RPG when I release it later this year.