I was interviewed by Olly McNeil of the Storymaster's Tales for International Gamebook Day 2021. Lots of good questions meant that I didn't have to repeat my limited store of Games Workshop anecdotes too much. You can get the video here and buy Olly's Weirding Woods game here.
And the very same day, Martin Noutch joined Olly to talk about the Steam Highwayman books, my own favourite of all the successors to Fabled Lands -- not least because the action starts out in a corner of Buckinghamshire that happens to be where I was born and where a lot of my family live. And Martin shares my preference for low fantasy, the English landscape, and personal-scale stories, as he expatiates on here:
And our friends at Cubus Games will shortly be releasing a Steam Highwayman mobile game that looks absolutely amazing. Great music too. (And is that Boris Johnson I spotted in the NPC rogues' gallery there..? Worth stoking up your steam motorbike just to hold him to account, I'd say.)
The first two Vulcanverse open-world solo RPG gamebooks are now available to pre-order in advance of publication on September 3. These are the full-colour hardcovers; the black-&-white paperbacks will follow in a few weeks. Jamie and I are pretty pleased with (and exhausted by) our work on these. We've each written about 250,000 words of Vulcanverse adventures this year, with books 3 and 4 to follow in time for Christmas. That's going to be around 4500 gamebook sections -- roughly six average Fabled Lands books. Better polish those dice!
Oh, and somebody mentioned on Twitter they were pre-ordering copies for their kids. Well, forty years ago Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy were children's books. Since then gaming has moved on and the Vulcanverse books are not necessarily child-friendly. They have serious adult themes and language, so if you're going to unleash them on impressionable young minds you ought to blaze a trail yourself first.
And another cool solo RPG adventure that you can pick up absolutely free is the latest Dragon Warriors gamebook from Red Ruin Publishing. This one is Desolation of the God-King by Paul Partington, and it's 300 sections long in a hyperlinked PDF that does the page-riffling for you. And did I mention that it's free?
Richard Hetley, who is a long-established and valued member of the Fabled Lands ground crew, has news of a game he's been working on that I'm sure will be of interest to FL players. I'll hand over to Richard for the details:
"In To Carry a Sword you are the the guard of a medieval caravan on a journey where the social connections you make are just as important as the money. You can help the people who hire you in ways far beyond swinging a sword and scaring bandits for them, including tending to their animals and telling stories to their kids. Strategically plan your route across a procedurally-generated world, taking advantage of the text events you encounter to pursue your own goal, whether that is to become skilled and famous enough to join the escort of Her Majesty the Queen, or to see a religious pilgrimage to its destination. In the end, it's about the people who need you.
FTL meets The Oregon Trail in medieval Europe.
Rely on your social skills as much as your battle prowess to see caravans safely to their destination.
Serve the needs of the land's factions, aiding the Noble, Criminal, Religious, and Heathen.
Select routes and explore the procedurally-generated map, seeking the clues to advance each questline.
Relax in a self-paced narrative experience of over 85,000 words.
Mod the narrative and add your own text events (release version only).
Join us in the final stages of development as our team brings the game to life!
"This is a student project now being made into a full videogame experience. We are playtesting a browser-only version of the game as we finish development. You can play it here. During development, that page will also link you to a feedback survey and a Twitch page where we stream about development. For longer feedback or to follow along with the fun, please feel free to join us on Discord.
"To Carry A Sword is developed by We Three Nouns, a group of graduate students in Game Design & Development at Rochester Institute of Technology. I've edited gamebooks for years before coming to RIT, and I edited The Serpent King's Domain(book 7 in the series) for Fabled Lands LLP. Paul Gresty, the writer of that book, graciously agreed to edit To Carry a Sword. And yes, I've kept everyone's book 7 feedback in mind while writing the game!"
Right at the end Grim asks about the difference between British and American fantasy gaming styles, so here and here are some earlier thoughts on that. When writing Dragon Warriors I never thought of it as particularly British or European -- well, the setting obviously is European to the core, but is the tone of the game distinctly non-American too? People say it is, but as I grew up reading Stan Lee and a host of mostly US-based science fiction authors, it's not something I'm aware of myself.
People have been asking about the Vulcanverse gamebooks (in a few cases even with a slight whiff of dudgeon) so I thought now would be a good time to answer a few FAQs.
Why are you writing these instead of getting on with more Fabled Lands?
The short answer is that the funds are simply not there to pay for everything required to do a Fabled Lands book. Even if we found a few spare months and wrote one, there’s also all the checking (oh, those flowcharts!), editing, and typesetting. And then we have to drum up cash to pay for artwork, a map and a cover.
The difference with Vulcanverse is that it’s funded by a multimillion-dollar company with blockchain transactions constantly pumping cash up its arm. The gamebooks are barely even small change to them, the equivalent of handing out bags with your brand logo on. They can afford to knock out five books – or rather, to finance Fabled Lands Publishing to do the books.
I get why people are disappointed. Obviously I’d rather work on my own thing than on somebody else’s IP, and you usually get a better book when the writer is free to let their imagination fly. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Paul Gresty is already working on Fabled Lands book 8. If I don’t find any paid work after finishing my stint on the Vulcanverse books, my first priority is the Jewelspider RPG, but right after that I figure I may as well start writing a new gamebook. That could be the long-planned Shadow King or it could be something else.
I’d need to run a Kickstarter to finance the art and production, and believe me the very thought makes my heart sink. Marketing and all that businessy stuff appeals to me about as much as drain-cleaning. But there’s no other way to raise the funds, so I’m just going to have to bite the bullet. Or do I mean plunger?
There's another lifeline for future Fabled Lands books, which is the CRPG from Prime Games. If that rekindles interest in the books and wins over new fans, completing the series could become a commercially viable proposition. We're hoping...
Still, aren’t you doing a George R. R. Martin on us?
GRRM is certainly rich enough to just plough on and write all the Song of Ice & Fire books. I assume he takes time out to work on other things because he wants to stay creatively fresh. If he just tore through to the end it wouldn’t be very good. (You’ve seen the TV show? Like that.)
I hate abandoning a project. Backers on Patreon of my Jewelspider RPG have been patiently waiting a whole year for that. Jewelspider is emphatically not abandoned, but it has had to take a back seat to paying gigs. Still, the Patreon is financing artwork and at least when Jewelspider appears it will look all the better for the delay.
More heart-wrenchingly, I was unable to go on with my Mirabilis comic. Art is the killer cost there, and the publishers who were willing to take it on wanted indentured servitude and ownership of the IP forever. Other projects that are patiently waiting for my time: Abraxas and Tetsubo. They sit there half-completed but don't even enjoy the small but dedicated fanbase of Fabled Lands. Like my Brexit gamebook they are things that I'd be devoting my energy to if I could pick and choose my projects, but like Leonardo I have to work on what patrons demand, not on what pleases me.
If you are miffed about Vulcanverse gamebooks coming out when Fabled Lands is still unfinished, let me offer two arguments in consolation. First, FL is not unfinished in the way A Song of Ice & Fire is. There is no single storyline in FL, so it’s not like you can’t complete it. There are a very few quests from future books that tie back into books 1-7, and those aside the effect of having more books is simply to extend the borders of the explorable world. It’s like expansions on a videogame.
Also, unlike poor Mirabilis, FL is dormant rather than extinct. The last open-world gamebook I wrote was back in the ‘90s. Since then the only gamebooks I’ve done are Frankenstein and Can You Brexit? So you could see the work on Vulcanverse as me getting back into training. And by the way I needed it – my first Vulcanverse book overran by 900 sections and those sections are far wordier than FL. I’m learning again the brevity needed to pack a lot of quests into a 750-section open-world gamebook. So when I come off The Pillars of the Sky in theory I'd be fighting fit to tackle The Isle of a Thousand Spires. GRRM uses the same defence; the only difference between us is talent, wealth and looks.
How similar are the Vulcanverse books to Fabled Lands?
The rules are like a stripped-down FL system. You have four attributes: Charm, Grace, Ingenuity and Strength. Your scores in those typically range from -1 to +3, and you may have an item that gives a +1 or +2 bonus. Faced with a task like rolling a heavy stone (Strength) or sweet-talking a sentry (Charm) you roll two dice, add modifiers for your attribute score and any attribute-boosting item, and you need to equal or beat the difficulty.
Yep, you spotted it. Success is equalling or beating the difficulty. A slight difference from FL there. Also, a double 1 is always a fail and a double 6 is always a success.
What about Stamina? It doesn’t exist. In Vulcanverse you are either wounded or unwounded. When wounded you deduct 1 from attribute rolls. Told you it was FL-lite.
Another difference is how blessings work. You can have up to three blessings at once, and they are good for a single reroll on any failed attribute check.
How easy is it to die in the books?
Very hard. Hey, we know it’s not the ‘90s anymore. If you do get killed, resurrection is automatic except on a very few heroic quests, and you always get fair warning if you’re on a mission that you might not come back from.
What about the Vulcanverse world?
It’s not like Fabled Lands. Well, it’s probably quite a bit like FL book 10, in that the Vulcanverse is based on Greek and Roman mythology; you can read about that in earlier posts. It’s definitely FL-adjacent because the myths have been filtered through the brain of Jamie Thomson. (On the other hand, did Paul McCartney’s work with Wings feel like it was 50% Beatles, or was it something altogether different? The debate could go on for years.)
Jamie and I have worked separately on these books, as we did on Fabled Lands too; I wrote FL books 2, 3 and 6, he did the others. In the case of FL the end result was relatively seamless, but my and Jamie's Vulcanverse books are entirely different in tone, content, gameplay, writing style, structure and flavour. That's partly because we didn’t develop the groundwork together, but mainly because we’ve worked on our own distinct projects over the years. If you’re familiar with the Dirk Lloyd and Wrong Side of the Galaxy books, you’ll find Jamie’s trademark comedy genius running through The Houses of the Dead and The Wild Woods. Those also feature the D&D-ish high fantasy action-adventure momentum that made the Way of the Tiger books so memorable. (By the way, did I mention there's a Dirk Lloyd TV show on the way? It'll be the smash hit of 2022 and you heard it here first.)
It’s harder for me to identify my own style; Robbie Burns talked about that. I tend to go in for low fantasy, character relationships, dreamlike weirdness, surreal encounters, dry humour, horror and tragedy. Possibly you’ll notice those on display in The Hammer of the Sun and The Pillars of the Sky, my own contributions to the VV series, though less so in the latter because I’ve been asked to include more tie-ins from the Vulcanverse collectible card game. Still, you’ll be able to get a sense from these books, and particularly from The Hammer of the Sun, how any new FL gamebooks by me might play out.
Is there actually any purpose to your adventures?
Some people have grumbled that Fabled Lands doesn’t give you an objective to aim at. There, the whole point was that you’re living a life in a fantasy world and defining your own goals. What was I saying about it not being the ‘90s now? These days, the trend is to have a defined task like in a computer game.
With Vulcanverse, we’ve tried for a Witcher-like happy medium. There are lots of quests set in an open world like in Fabled Lands, and you can usually pick a side in any conflict. For example, in The Hammer of the Sun it’s possible to join the nomadic Amazons, and you can become their champion, and even take the throne the way Conan would (if he identified as female). But you can also get banished from the tribe, and if you reach a position of authority there are decisions you’ll make that will have a lasting effect on the world and the people in it.
Alongside all of those side-quests there’s a main storyline that connects across all the books and culminates in Vulcan City in book 5: Workshop of the Gods.
When are they out?
Hopefully very soon. The first two should be on sale a month from now (early September) and the next two before Christmas. And for once I'm leaving comments on, so if you have any other things you want to know about the Vulcanverse books, now's your chance.
Wightchester is a low-fantasy horror campaign that sounds perfect for gamers who play to discover the story. As the Indiegogo description explains, this is "a setting where blades and gunpowder are more important than magic, and where the magic that does exist demands a price. Not a hex crawl, or a conventional adventure, but a free-roaming setting where you can decide what you want to do.
Do you want to try and escape?
Do you want to create a fortified place to live within the prison?
Do you want to clear the entire city of the undead and earn your release?
Good luck with any of those."
You've got till the end of September to back it. And after the last eighteen months of real life, what could be more cathartic?