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Friday 29 October 2021

Commuting by catapult

Mirabilis, my fantasy graphic epic with Leo Hartas and the late Martin McKenna, originally appeared in The DFC, a short-lived forerunner of The Phoenix comic. A friend of mine read it on the sleeper train out of Moscow as he was travelling home just before Christmas -- pretty much the perfectly immersive experience.

You can read Mirabilis online here and dive into the background here and here and here. As you can probably tell, it was a labour of love and if I could finish it I would, only the world doesn't owe me a living. (Sadly.)

As part of the very extensive world-building for Mirabilis, I wrote the correspondence of the Royal Mythological Society in a little booklet called A Minotaur At The Savoy. So that's fifty whimsical vignettes of green comety weirdness that, if you're starting to think about gifts, would fit quite neatly into a stocking. But then, I would say that.

The stories range from a mysterious giant hand found in a wood in Yorkshire to the best way to deal with a dragon that's taken a shine to the gold reserves of Fort Knox, and although it's hard to pick one that can be described as typical, this will give you a taste of what to expect:
Dear human savants 
Following a motion of no confidence in the prime minister, I find that my Martian Party has enough seats in the House of Commons to form a new government in coalition with the Liberal Unionists. The only sticking point is that, as you may know, my prospective allies are committed to a very specific agenda. Their three-point plan entails establishing a minimum wage, giving women the vote, and maintaining the unity of the British Isles - whereas the Martian Party is pledged to subjugate the planet Earth, replace corn with red weed as the staple carbohydrate dietary supplement, and ship a million slaves to the helium mines of Phobos. 
As a compromise, I have agreed to defer mass enslavement for the term of the current Parliament, concentrating instead on domestic transport policy as an area of common ground on which our two parties can agree. For example, to alleviate the growing problem of “rush hour” congestion at the major London rail terminuses, we propose loading commuters onto massive catapults which will fling them across the city to land in collection nets near to their place of work. We estimate this would save at least seventy thousand man-months of labour per year. However, some of our advisors believe that it will not be a popular measure and could lose us votes at the next election. What do you counsel? 
Yours, the Right Honourable Xangovar the Merciless, OBE, c/o the Palace of Westminster
Prof Bromfield replies: It would be very popular with small boys. Unfortunately, they don’t have the vote. Might be a better world if they did, if you ask me. 
Dr Clattercut: Oh yes. Because resolving international disputes with conkers matches is obviously the way to go. Pulling girls’ pigtails when they demand enfranchisement. Declaring the whole of January a national tobogganing holiday. Making marbles the official currency of the Bank of England… 
Prof Bromfield: You think you’re being wittily scathing, Clattercut, but in fact you’re just proving my point. So that’s what I’d suggest, Mr – er, Xangovar: shake up the Cabinet a little. Bring in some schoolboys and artists and poets and whatnot. Be more radical with your reforms, if anything. This is the Year of Wonders, so what’s wrong with sprinkling a bit of magic on the tired old machinery of politics? Trust me, the electorate will thank you for it. 
Dr Clattercut: Those that land in the nets, anyway.

Have a great Samhain/Halloween! And if you're looking for strange stories in a very different vein from Mirabilis, don't forget to take a look at the Binscombe Tales.

Friday 22 October 2021

Travelling from Fabled Lands into the Vulcanverse

Just right out of the gate let me say this: I don’t recommend taking a character from Fabled Lands into the Vulcanverse books. They’re different worlds and you’ll enjoy the experience better if you stick to characters intended for each world. But after all, I would say that because I’m a purist and I always say less is more. I don’t think Professor Challenger inhabits the same London as Sherlock Holmes, nor that the Dollhouse exists in the Buffyverse. As for Doctor Who or Babylon 5 being compatible with Star Trek – ugh, that’s the worst kind of clodhopping fan indulgence. These fictional worlds are crafted to be their own thing, not a great swirling mass of tropes mixing like paint colours till all you’re left with is mucky brown.

Also, the Vulcanverse books start out with your character's childhood in that world and there are callbacks later to your family, even encounters with family members. None of that will make sense if you're playing somebody who has dropped through from a different universe, so transporting a character across is entirely unsupported.

Still, with that warning ringing in your ears, if you really want to throw a Fabled Lands character into the Vulcanverse, here’s how.

Start with abilities. Add up all the contributions from your Fabled Lands abilities (which range from 1-12) to find your scores in the Vulcanverse attributes (which range initially from −1 to +3).

For example, if you have Combat 8 and Scouting 9 in FL then your Vulcanverse Strength score is +1 +1 = +2.

Shards can be converted into “pyrs”, which are what coins are called in the cryptic world of the Vulcanverse. However, you can only take a maximum of 300 Shards as “pyrs” when you travel between the universes.

Rank in Fabled Lands translates to Glory:

Lastly, you can translate ability-boosting items into attribute-boosting items as follows:

Laurel wreath             any +1 or +2 Charisma-boosting item from FL

Golden lyre                 any +3 or better Charisma-boosting item from FL

Recurve bow               any +1 or +2 Scouting- or Thievery-boosting item from FL

Winged sandals          any +3 or better Scouting- or Thievery-boosting item from FL

Hornbook                   any +1 or +2 Magic- or Sanctity-boosting item from FL

Abacus                        any +3 or better Magic- or Sanctity-boosting item from FL

Hardwood club           any FL weapon with a Combat bonus of +1 to +3

Iron spear                   any FL weapon with a Combat bonus of +4 or more

You can convert one such item per attribute – so, for instance, even if you own a dozen +6 weapons in Fabled Lands you can only go across to the Vulcanverse with one iron spear.

God? The FL gods are unknown in the Vulcanverse. The Greek gods mean nothing to somebody who has travelled between the planes from Harkuna. So if you're doing this you will start out with no god to call on.

What about Stamina? One of our readers, James, pointed out there are no rules here for converting FL Stamina into some other form of hit points. That's true, and it's because the Vulcanverse rules do not have anything like a Stamina score. The player-character is either healthy, wounded or dead. 

And where would you start? Try 222 in any of the first four Vulcanverse books. And don't say I didn't warn you.

Over on Twitter, Teofilo Hurtado suggested an alternative approach, namely to translate from Vulcanverse attributes to D&D stat modifiers:

Wednesday 20 October 2021

A big thank you to Polish gamebook readers

I wrote Heart of Ice nearly thirty years ago, and it's still my own favourite of all my gamebooks. So it was really wonderful to hear that the Polish edition, currently crowdfunding, has already raised €13,000 and it still has three weeks to run.

"Where do you get your ideas from?" I'm sometimes asked. And in this case I can tell you. It was in Oxford in December of '76, as I beheld the majestic buildings of Christ Church softly lambent under an icy black star-filled sky. At the Mountains of Madness converged from one side of my imagination, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World from the other, and a week or so later I was running it as an Empire of the Petal Throne adventure for a score of friends from school and college.

For the gamebook version, fifteen or so years later, I had to switch the story to my own setting (Tekumel rights not being available) and the ice age world of the 23rd century leapt obligingly straight onto the page, no doubt with a little mental midwifery courtesy of Jack Vance, Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Little did I know as I wrote that book that it would still be bringing pleasure to readers all these years later. So once again: thank you, Polish gamers!

Friday 15 October 2021

Write your own gamebook

An big announcement today from Stuart Lloyd, one of the leading bannermen of British gamebooks. I'll just hand over to him. Take it away, Stuart!

Hello all! I'm really excited to announce the Lindenbaum award for short gamebook fiction.

The award is inspired by the Windhammer competition which ran from 2008-2015. I loved entering my books, seeing other books, voting and getting feedback. To be fair, I loved every aspect of it.

So, when it was discontinued, it left a hole. Between 2016 and now, I was very busy. However, I have a bit more time now and I was also shocked when I was on an online gamebook meetup to learn that almost no one there had heard of the Windhammer competition.

If you look at the list of Windhammer entrants, you will see a few familiar names. This is basically what kickstarted a lot of careers for the new gamebook writing crew.

I would love for that to continue with the new fans we have picked up along the way so that they can have a gateway into the gamebook community. I found the chance to meet new people and get lots of expert feedback invaluable.

So, without further ado, here are the details for the Lindenbaum competition:

Entry requirements for the 2021/2022 Lindenbaum competition

All entries must be in English.

All entries must be original works incorporating unique characters and world settings. This can include real world settings, people and events as long as they aren't the property of someone.

All entries must be previously unpublished works.

All entrants must state clearly on the first page of their entries that they are the authors of the work submitted.

All entries must be provided in rich text format (rtf) and sent as an email attachment to

All character or status sheets provided with entries must be presented in a simple layout that does not include complex table formats.

All entries must be spell-checked and thoroughly tested prior to submission.

The total length of the entry does not exceed 100 sections and a word count of 25,000 words.

Illustrations will not be accepted as a part of an entry except in two specific circumstances. 

Exception 1: Maps that are integral to navigation within the gamebook.

Exception 2: Graphics necessary as a part of puzzles or clues integral to the entry's narrative.

Graphics provided for these purposes must be in either BMP or JPG format and be included as a part of the RTF entry forwarded. 

Graphics purely of an illustrative nature will not be accepted.

The entry may either be a complete stand-alone story or a self-contained excerpt from a larger gamebook adventure of your own creation.

The entry can be of any genre except erotica.

There is no entry fee.

All rights remain with the author and the author can withdraw their entry at any time during the course of the competition.

An entrant can submit one entry only.

All participants must have a valid PayPal account at the time of submission. For reasons given below you must have a valid PayPal account if you wish to receive a cash prize. Account information is not required by the organisers of this competition unless you are one of the winning entrants. Only at the time of winning a prize will you be asked for your PayPal details.

Competition deadlines for 2021/2022

3rd October 2021: Competition guidelines released

1st December 2021: Entry submissions begin

1st February 2022: Entry submissions close.

8th February 2022: Voting begins.*

22nd March 2022: Voting closes.*

31st March 2022: Winners announced.*

* If there are more than 14 entries, these dates will be extended.


The prize is awarded to the entrant who receives the greatest number of reader votes. This prize relies on votes provided by readers who have read enough of the entries to make a considered choice as to the relative merits of the gamebooks submitted. It is expected by the sponsor of this competition that votes will be provided on this basis. For 2021/2022 the voting system applies as follows:

A valid vote must be forwarded by email to A valid vote must nominate the three gamebooks most favoured by the voter from the competition entrants. A vote with less than three nominations cannot be accepted. A vote forwarded with more than three nominations will only have the first three accounted for in the voting tabulation.

Only one voter email is allowed per reader. All votes will be checked for duplication of email addresses.

Feedback to the authors may be forwarded to the competition sponsors at All feedback given will be provided to authors at the end of competition as a part of the email notification of results.


Winning entrant

A cash prize of £100 GBP (Great British Pounds) to be paid within 48 hours into a PayPal account of the winner's choosing. If you do not have access to a valid PayPal account the cash prize cannot be paid.

A First Prize certificate memorialising their success in the competition.

Merit awards

Two entries are chosen for Merit awards. These entrants receive:

A cash prize of £30 GBP (Great British Pounds) to be paid within 48 hours into a PayPal account of the Merit Award winner's choosing.

A Merit Award certificate memorialising their success in the competition.

Commendation awards

If there are 10 or more entries, there will be 3 commendation awards. The entrants receive:

A Commendation Certificate memorialising their success in the competition.

Gamebook writing help

If you haven't written a gamebook before, you might think that arranging and randomising the sections might be a problem. However, there are now good gaembook writing programs out there. One is The Gamebook Authoring Tool, which has a free version specifically designed to write a 100 section gamebook and export it to Rich Text Format. You can try it here: AboutThe GameBook Authoring Tool – Crumbly Head Games and Crumbly Head Games are offering a free licence to the top three winners.

Friday 8 October 2021

Vulcanverse extras

Two more Vulcanverse gamebooks are in the layout stage right now and should be available next month. John Jones has kindly prepared a checklist of codewords and tick boxes for the first two books so you don't have to write in your copies. You can get that here and a blank Excel adventure sheet by the equally generous Puck Jackson here.

And there are also the PDF copies of the adventure sheets:

Hades (for The Houses of the Dead)

Notus (for The Hammer of the Sun)

Wednesday 6 October 2021

Some say in ice

That's the trailer for a new Polish-language edition of Heart of Ice that's now crowdfunding -- and fast; it hit its initial target within hours of launch. Backers can get not only a fine edition of the book (one of the stretch goals is for full-colour illustrations) but extras including maps of the world in the frozen 23rd century, bookmarks that double as character sheets, and even a universally coveted Compass Society credit card. In the post-apocalyptic setting of the book, that's better than gold.

Saturday 2 October 2021

Thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls

Paul Gresty is perhaps best known around these parts as the writer of The Serpent King's Domain (Fabled Lands #7), but in the wider world he's the top-selling author of a couple of acclaimed Choice of Games gamebooks, The ORPHEUS Ruse and MetaHuman Inc.

Making it the hat trick, here's Wraiths of SENTINEL, an interactive adventure in which you play a Deadman-like spy:
"Dying made you the perfect spy. You are now a disembodied spirit working as a covert intelligence operative for SENTINEL, a secretive Federal agency. As a ghost, your unrivaled powers of surveillance can safeguard the freedom of the country -- or bring it to its knees. Will you use your phantom powers to defend the United States government, or to overthrow it?"
As instantly gripping and dramatic a concept as Paul's other gamebooks, then. I don't know why he isn't pitching these things to Amazon to be honest, but TV's loss is interactive literature's gain.

Dave: 'The ORPHEUS Ruse and MetaHuman Inc both have high concepts that immediately grab the reader. If they were movies you’d know just from the pitch if you wanted to see them. Wraiths of SENTINEL is like that too. What’s your process for coming up with those strong concepts? Do you start there, or do you begin at a more detailed character level and the world-building comes later?'

Paul: 'In the case of Wraiths of SENTINEL, the player is essentially a ghost, who's working as an intelligence agent for the US government. Certainly the ghostly, spectral side of that was something that had been bouncing around in my head for a long time, probably a few years. And, for interactive fiction, or for any kind of gamebook, that's how it works for me – the concept comes first. I pick at ideas, sometimes for years at a time, and then at some point things click into place. Or sometimes you have to force a few of those long-held ideas to click together, when you're pitching ideas to a publisher.
'I'll specify that concept and setting come first for interactive fiction – but then, the player is by definition the main character; everybody else is the supporting cast. For more conventional fiction, characters can be more prominent at the planning stage. I once listened to a Babylon 5 DVD commentary where JM Straczynski said something to the effect of, 'To write a good story, you just have to create a character that people will like, and then put him up a tree and throw rocks at him.' It's good advice.'

Dave: 'I must admit I had to look up the title each time. Was Wraiths of SENTINEL your first choice?'

Paul: 'It was not. The game went through a few different working titles during development; the game I originally pitched was The Darkling Watchers and then I later decided that I liked Wraiths of AEGIS. But that title was similar to another game that Choice of Games had already published, 180 Files: The Aegis Project. So I had to change mine. And that was entirely my own fault, of course, for being so wishy-washy about the title from the start.
'I had a fun time trying to think of names for a sinister government agency, that I could condense into a cool-sounding acronym. I see why so many Marvel writers do that, now. SENTINEL – that is, the Surveillance and Espionage Network, for Tactics and Initiatives in the Negation of Extra-normal Lifeforms – was the one that came out of the editing process.'

Dave: 'It’s 250,000 words, which is incredible value for money – it’s almost as long as A Game of Thrones, and those books take GRRM a decade each to write. How long did you spend on Wraiths of SENTINEL?'

Paul: 'Start to finish, it took me a crazy-long amount of time. Well over four years. In terms of fiction writing work, I've been working almost wholly on this since I finished The Serpent King's Domain. And that's not completely due to the length of the game – I had some fairly seismic life changes, good and bad, during the time I spent writing Wraiths, and that had an impact on the amount of time I could devote to it. At some point, our agreed deadlines became a bit of a distant memory, and I massively appreciate the patience the Choice of Games team showed me. (Note that I'm not encouraging other CoG writers to be so laissez-faire with their deadlines; I may have exhausted the team's patience for this kind of behaviour...)

'I'll add that 250,000 words is by no means the longest Choice of Games title. They've published a few titles over 500,000 words, and one or two that are over a million words. Those are some dedicated writers, right there.'

Dave: 'I’m curious about your process. Do you sketch out the entire storyline, do you write the scenes in order, or do you write the big set-pieces and then connect them with other scenes later?'

Paul: 'My information on how Choice of Games approaches its games might be a little out of date – I haven't pitched an idea to them for a few years, at this point – but they like to see a structured plan from their writers. They maintain an open call for writers on their website, even for writers with no prior experience with interactive fiction, so I feel that this is essentially their way of providing support at the planning stage, and ensuring that their writers aren't leaping out into the void unassisted.

'So, when it comes to creating that structure, yes, I tend to have an idea of the main points that the story needs to hit, but then offer as much flexibility as possible when navigating between those points. I find that it helps as well, in terms of both the story and the worldbuilding, to really drill down to the details of the main character's existence. What's a typical day for a government-employed wraith? Where does he live? Can he listen to music, or browse the internet? What websites might he like? When you reach that level of familiarity with your character – when you see not only the extraordinary obstacles they have to overcome, but the mundane challenges as well – the story kind of starts to write itself.

'A case in point: with Wraiths of SENTINEL, the obvious and most primordial question was why a ghost would be interested in working for anybody at all. Not for money, certainly. This consideration led to some of my favourite sections in the story, quite early on, when the player is exploring the practicalities of being a wraith – but he or she is also learning about how it feels to be truly invisible, and utterly disconnected from the world. Ultimately, and certainly in the earlier parts of the story, the player's work with SENTINEL simply offers a chance to be perceived, and to interact with others.

'For games or interactive fiction, there are also sometimes mechanical elements to consider, which can have an impact on the overall structure of the story. In MetaHuman Inc, the character can lean towards specializing in either magic or super-science – and so, in that case, I specifically wanted to include a scene about halfway through where the player can reverse those choices so far, and develop the opposing discipline without losing progress. It provides a bit more flexibility like that; the player isn't constrained by choices he made early on.'

Dave: 'Presumably there are trade-offs between making a compelling story and providing the player with freedom of choice. Do you feel those different requirements have to involve compromise, or is there a way to deliver both? In the cases when it’s either/or, which takes precedence?'

Paul: 'For the really big moments in the story, you need that element of choice. And that’s the raison d’être of the interactive fiction format; if you don’t want to offer choice, you should go write a novel instead. Moreover, you have to deal with the consequences of that choice, which might mean adding a big chunk of content to the story. You can’t short-change the player by offering a seemingly big choice that has no real impact on the overall story.

'An example in Wraiths of SENTINEL: at one point, about two-thirds of the way in, the player has a life-or-death choice over one of the major characters in the story. Most players are, I think, essentially "good", so I wrote this with the expectation that most people would allow that character to live. Even the story’s main antagonist is expecting the player to let that character live. But, for whatever reason, the player might choose differently, and I had to allow for and respect that. If the player chooses death for this character, then they’re no longer around – but it isn’t sufficient to simply send the player along a truncated version of the story. The player’s choice here isn’t inherently "wrong", and cutting their story in this way wouldn’t be fair. Rather, in writing for this possibility, I had to consider the new paths generated by this death. What actions occur because of this death? What does it set in motion? How does this unexpected move screw up the antagonist’s plans, and what are the consequences of that?

'But, yes, the medium of interactive fiction does impose some constraints. Purely in terms of the word count required, and the work that would be involved, you can’t realistically include such far-reaching consequences for every single choice. You have to hold them back for the really significant moments in the story. And you can fudge things to some degree; the example above, for instance, is a binary choice, life or death, so in this case you only have to accommodate two main outcomes – but even then you can add in extra considerations to broaden that choice somewhat. I personally like to add motivations in to big decisions like this: "This character should die for the greater good," say, or, "This character should die because I just don’t like them." That kind of thing can have an impact on your overall character build, in addition to the outcomes for the story as a whole.

'When it comes to tradeoffs between absolute freedom of choice and an interesting story… I think I’m going to prioritize the story. All art is subjective, of course, but my own feeling is that the only bad story is one that’s dull. That said, every single choice in the game should have an impact. That might only be a small impact – it might only be an adjustment to your character’s stats, which only affects the story in the aggregate – but it needs to be there. Inconsequential choices are pretty dull too.'

Dave: 'When Choice of Games realize that you’ve created the bases for three hugely successful TV shows or movies, do they get a cut of that or are the subsidiary rights in your hands? (Asking for a Hollywood producer friend.)'

Paul: 'Heh. I’ve retained intellectual property for the content of these games; that is, I think, standard for Choice of Games writers. I’ll make sure my phone is on the hook, just in case.'