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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Blood Sword redux: The Battlepits of Krarth

When I first decided to revise the Blood Sword books for a new edition, what I had in mind was a hobby project that I would tinker away with in odd moments of spare time. Where do these follies come from, eh? It soon became obvious, as it should have been from the start, that with an interconnected series like this you can’t edit bits in isolation. Blood Sword is a single gamebook epic comprising over 2800 sections. Pulling it all together takes a lot more focus than a half hour a week.

All right, plans are made to be altered. Fifteen years in the videogames industry should have taught me that if nothing else. So I hauled out a pad of A3 paper and set to flowcharting the whole of Blood Sword, start to finish.

Did I mention 2800 sections? By the halfway point I felt like Dantès scratching marks on the wall in the Château d'If.

There’s no Monte Cristo treasure at the end of this one, but it’s been an interesting exercise. I wrote the Blood Sword books over a quarter century ago (gulp) and firing up those same neurons after all this time is really odd. It’s like reloading a ghost. Some ideas and scenes seem so familiar, still part of the imagination I share with that 25-year-old revenant. Others are the work of a stranger. Sometimes I’m reading a piece and I find a grin of admiration on my face – “Now that’s cool!” But always I’m aware that I’m a different person now. I wouldn’t write these books, and if I did I’d write them a very different way. Like I say, interesting.

I also see the truth here of Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory. (You can frame that sentence, by the way, as I’m not usually one to quote Malcolm Gladwell.) You learn to be a writer by writing. I know, because I can see it happening here: the leaps-and-bounds improvement from The Battlepits of Krarth to Doomwalk.

And then there’s The Walls of Spyte. We’ll get back to that one.

As I’m gearing up to the republication of the books (sometime in October, maybe, probably, hopefully) I thought it might be worth sharing some of the things I’ve remembered or discovered while editing the new edition. I’ll start with The Battlepits of Krarth.

It is, as you can guess from the title, a dungeon adventure. This last-man-standing type adventure was originated by Steve Jackson in his Death Test gamebook in 1978 and later picked up by others – most notably for British readers by Ian Livingstone in Deathtrap Dungeon in 1984.

But here’s the thing. I’m not interested in dungeons. You can keep your mules and your ten-foot poles. That’s not the kind of role-playing I do. So, first question: why the Battlepits?

I don’t know for sure, but I expect Oliver (Johnson, my co-writer) will have insisted on making the first book an easy-in. Oliver was always the one reminding me of the need to keep those early gamebooks commercial, and pointing out that the typical reader was not a twentysomething roleplayer but an eleven-year-old schoolboy. Re-reading them now, I don’t think I kept that in mind at all. There are drugs and prostitutes and gruesome deaths. But then, look at what eleven-year-old schoolboys (and girls) are into nowadays. There are videogames my godson played at that age that make the golden era gamebooks look as tame as Muffin the Mule.

So The Battlepits of Krarth was to be a tutorial level for the series. Despite agreeing to make it a dungeon, I notice that at least the first third of the book consists of finding a patron. The gates of the underworld only open for act two. I mentioned before that Oliver Johnson co-wrote the book with me. I wrote everything up to the entry into the Battlepits. From that point, I flowcharted the rest of the book and gave it to Oliver in the form of brief summaries of each section. Our thinking was that if he then worked up my summaries into full-length prose, we could call that a fifty-fifty job. It was better to do it that way because, well, let’s just say that Oliver is an absolutely brilliant fantasy writer and role-playing umpire, but his forte isn’t flowcharting.

What Oliver got from me were about three hundred entries that read something like:
You natter to ghostly Magus Zyn who wants you to assemble the old giant’s bones. Do it (33) or tell him to find another patsy (361).
The snag was, between getting the series commissioned and writing the first book, Oliver had taken a job. Suddenly the long days of creative leisure were behind us, the musing with story ideas as we smoked and listened to Lou Reed and Brian Eno, the impromptu role-playing sessions over a pint at the Devonshire Arms. Oliver scheduled the week before a family holiday to rewrite my summary sections. He dropped the manuscript off on the way to the airport. “I’ll do some clean-up editing before we hand it in,” I said.

He looked a little nervous. “It might need it.” The taxi was waiting.

I got a cuppa, sat down and I turned the page. Some mistake, surely..? It read:
You talk to ghostly Magus Zyn who asks you to assemble the old giant’s bones. You can do it (33) or you can tell him to find another patsy (361).
And what I’d expected Oliver to turn that into would be something like:
An insubstantial figure appears – not even a ghost, but the spell-projected image of a ghost. Magus Zyn, undying and eternal enemy of the magi. The last of the True Magi.
‘You have the means to resurrect Skrymir,’ says the ghost. You start to reply before realising that it cannot hear you. It is just like a recorded message, a spell cast here to instruct any who should arrive with all the fragments of Skrymir’s skeleton.
If you assemble Skrymir’s bones together, turn to 33. If you decide against doing that, turn to 361.
The deadline was a week away. That was a very busy week for me. I had forty thousand words to write, give or take. Walter Gibson could bang that out in a day, but the Shadow stories were continuous narratives. I wouldn’t like to try writing forty thousand words of good prose in a week, but if it was a single story it might be just about possible. When it’s cut into several hundred chunks it gets a lot harder. And I had all those tactical battle maps and stats to work out too.

Well, the book came out okay. It’s not the best of the series. Most reviewers agree that the story really gets going in book two, The Kingdom of Wyrd, and that most of book one is origin story and set-up. I’m surprised to see that we didn’t even mention the old Sword of Life itself in Battlepits. When I rewrote the series as novellas some years later, I rejigged the order of events to have the quest become the main inciting incident. If I were fully revising the gamebooks now, I’d do that, but I’ve decided to make this the classic edition. That means I’m only changing stuff that really needs changing. Later (maybe much later) I’ll get to work on an all-new, streamlined, rules-lite version, and then I’ll put the quest right up front where it belongs.

Things I like about Battlepits. The dungeon has quite a mythic feel. It’s not like a series of tunnels excavated under the citadel, with an orc band in this room and a riddling mage in the next; it’s more as if you’ve dropped into The Dreaming. The rivalry and intrigue among the magi is a little bit Vancean, and is definitely the sort of thing I’d put into one of my role-playing games. The dénouement has an authentic Dragon Warriors touch of “downbeat triumph” about it. Skrymir is surely Oliver’s idea – a brilliant, macabre, doomful encounter that’s how a giant ought to be.

Things I’d have dropped if this were the all-new edition. Grandmaster Klef’s coin game. Any abstract puzzles or random/unfair events. About half of the “dungeon”.

At the time I didn’t really want those tactical maps, but now I’m thinking they could work rather well if the books were converted into apps. One of my gaming buddies, Tim Savin, helped out with playtesting the new edition, for which I slightly modified the tactical rules and some of the character classes’ special abilities. He ran Battlepits as an RPG adventure for his kids and they enjoyed it. I think they wouldn’t read most gamebooks these days, but Blood Sword maybe needed twenty-six years to find its perfect readership. It’ll be interesting to see if this new edition can reach beyond the hardcore of the nostalgia market and achieve what I always wanted it to do: bring people into roleplaying.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Fighting Fantasy Fest

I did a lot more work on Fighting Fantasy projects that didn't get published than did. Some got repurposed as books in other series, others went into the Negative Zone where only blog posts can reach. For example:
Anyway, this isn't about me. Fighting Fantasy stalwart Jonathan Green is one of the organizers of the first Fighting Fantasy convention. (Yes, the first. That surprised me too.) It's being held in London on Sunday September 7 and there are just two weeks left for you to buy tickets. Lots of talented artists and writers such as Chris Achilleos and Russ Nicholson will be there. And Jonathan will be launching his Kickstartered book You Are The Hero about the history of gamebooks. Don't miss it.

New news (July 21) - I just heard from Leo Hartas that he will be there (because he'll be staying over at my place while in London) and that he might be auctioning his latest gamebook map.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Warbringer - and the rest

fantasy gamebookThe juggernaut that is the Way of the Tiger new paperback edition rumbles on, reaching book 5: Warbringer. (Or Warbringer! if you're a purist or just generally a bit shouty.) You can get it right now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon France, or - well, you get the picture.

That just leaves book 6: Inferno, you may be thinking. Not quite. Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith, the original authors of the series, have licensed David Walters to whisk Avenger out of that car as it went over the cliff (metaphorically, okay - I know it was a giant spider's web) and bring him/her back for further adventures starting with book 7: Redeemer.

The new books are being managed under the watchful eye of Richard S Hetley, series editor and the head honcho of Megara Entertainment US. These guys really know their stuff. I recently almost got sucked into one of their conversations about tweaking the WOTT books for reissue, and it was like steering too close to Sagittarius A*. Luckily I escaped without my mind being turned into spaghetti by the narrative tidal forces at work. Here's a taster:

Richard S Hetley: The first problem came in how book 6 adamantly refused to accept that I didn't bring Foxglove along. Did you know it's possible to call her from the grave by using Poison Needles?

Dave Morris: Hmm. Counter-intuitive…

David Walters: For all the Foxglove permutations, book 7 relies on the fact that she is either dead, exiled, or with Avenger into the Black Widow's web I did not come across any other option, if you do please let me know.

RSH: I'm not clear on Foxglove's status in book 6 yet. She can wander off across the land after failing to enchant you. She also can be sent into the Rift with Cassandra. I haven't followed these threads yet, but as far as I can tell the book forgets these two options exist. I'm open to any word on what does/should happen with them.

DW: I am sure I have it covered. Since she is under a geas to return to the Black Widow whether living or in spirit if dead, it doesn't matter what the outcome was in book 6. The one thing I can promise is that choices from book 6 are referenced, for example if she charmed you or if she died you will have different paragraph options.

DM: Guys, listen. I'm finding this all fascinating but utterly impenetrable, not being familiar with the problems of book 6 in its original form...

DW: Dave, I find my own thoughts impenetrable at times!

DM: All it needs is for some extra bits of explanation, along the lines of:

-"But Glaivas couldn't have known that Kwon was in the Inferno because the last time he saw Kwon was on the Island of Tranquil Dreams."

-"Right. So I suggest that we put in an extra sequence where Foxglove tells Avenger that she passed Glaivas on the road and he mentioned that he'd been told by Dore that Kwon had gone to Inferno looking for him."

Or something like that. You get the drift.

RSH: Well, aside from your "so a ranger, a monk, and a deity walk into a bar on the lake of boiling blood" example…

For Foxglove, my work so far suggests this is the full set of Foxglove Dispositions(TM) :
  1. Foxglove is with you
  2. Foxglove has enchanted you
  3. Foxglove is Cassandra's prisoner
  4. Foxglove is dead
  5. Foxglove is exiled
  6. Foxglove has become separated from you
I tried to merge the last two, since both of them mean she's off wandering on her own devices, but combining the terms sounded dumb. The only ones you can possibly have at the same time are "Foxglove is with you, and she has enchanted you." If status changes, the book says something like "Cross off any other notes about Foxglove and note that she has become separated from you." That is, enchantment breaks if she wanders off, because the original implied it that way in section 302.

One problem is the book doesn't care whether she's Cassandra's prisoner. I may have to allow her to appear during the final confrontation, wreaking havoc there just as she would otherwise. If I do, then it's likely the Character Sheet will still read she was "Cassandra's prisoner" after the end. So, David, if you use "with you" status to mean she falls into the web in book 7, you should probably use "prisoner" status as well.

Is this confusing yet?

fantasy map

Friday, 4 July 2014

We can make this easy, or we can make it hard

Some doubts having been raised in comments recently about the art standards of a prospective full-colour Blood Sword book, I thought this promo image from Megara Entertainment would dispel any doubts. If you still need convincing, take a look at artist Sébastien Brunet's gallery. (Not that I think he'd use that cartoony style from the gallery, nice as it is, for our gamebooks.)

Fabled Lands Publishing will be licensing out the Blood Sword colour hardback to Megara for release in 2015, and my understanding is that it will feature both original art by Sébastien and colourized pictures by Russ Nicholson. But as I explained in a recent post, we're turning the traditional publishing model on its head by leading with the paperback edition.

The first of those, The Battlepits of Krarth, should be out in a month or so. Don't worry, I'll give you plenty of warning. My first thought was to put these books in the same 5x8 format as Fabled Lands, Golden Dragon, Critical IF and Way of the Tiger - because, after all, tidy bookshelves matter. But those didn't do full justice to the tactical maps and Russ's classic illustrations. So I'm now switching to a larger size (5.5 by 8.5 inches, or 140mm by 216mm) and really pushing it to get all five books in the series out in time for Christmas. Yep, you're going to need a bigger stocking.

As for the picture above - does this ring any bells?
The only way to get across the gorge is via one of two bridges that span the distance to the temple terrace. A waterfall cascades over the middle of the platform, bisecting it and cutting you off from the further of the two bridges. Looking up, you see a huge gargoyle head carved into the cave wall near the roof. The water issues from its mouth, cascades down in a torrent across the middle of the platform, then pours down into the swirling river far beneath you.

As you consider the two bridges, a booming voice makes you look up once more. The mouth of the gargoyle is moving, and by listening hard you can make sense out of the deep rumbling words. Over and over, it intones: ‘Face that which you fear most, or confront a lesser foe.’

Presumably it is referring to the two bridges. You could cross the nearer bridge with no apparent trouble, but to get to the further one you must step through the waterfall. The gargoyle’s words are weighty with ambiguity. Which to choose?

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Talk of the Devil

Each season of my comic book epic Mirabilis: Year of Wonders sees hero Jack Ember facing a different adversary, but overarching all four seasons is the Big Bad who will present Jack with his most personal and fraught challenges. The Kind Gentleman is not overtly the Devil, but Jack's mentor Talisin at one point calls him "humanity's darkest dream" and - well, draw your own conclusions from that.

Some people have described Mirabilis as steampunk, but it isn't that at all. In the world of Mirabilis, everything is coming true. Whatever has been dreamt up by mortal minds over the millennia is given substance by the green comet that heralds this annus mirabilis.

Leo Hartas, Martin McKenna and I planned it as a vast storyline incorporating horror, faerie, whimsy, mythology and dream. There is Victorian and Edwardian science fiction, with murderous brains in tripods and stuff, but I wouldn't actually call that steampunk any more than I'd say the Green Knight sells sweetcorn.

Anyway, we were talking about Old Nick recently, so I thought you might enjoy this glimpse of what happens if you annoy the Kind Gentleman when he's trying to watch a slideshow. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy.

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Devil is a gentleman

Midsummer is a good time to talk about the Devil. I don't mean the Biblical fellow. (Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub... They're not even the same character, are they?) In English folk tales he has another persona, as Sybil Marshall reminds us:
"The medieval folk-concept of the Devil, as distinct from that preached by the Church, is of Rex Mundi - large, dark, and handsome, infinitely attractive, a jolly fellow full of pranks and merriment and still displaying some of the attributes of his counterparts in pagan times."
In older English legends, the Devil tends to be a ferocious adversary, often scaly or horned, whose main function is to make saints look cool. And making those early British saints look cool is quite a task.

When we meet the Devil in English folk tales, though, he usually comes clothed as a squire or, if he's feeling particularly wicked, maybe a monk or a parson. In this guise he has a little bit of faerie about him, and seems to borrow the aspect of Odin or Cernunnos rather than God's erstwhile favourite angel. He enjoys a challenge - building a bridge in a night, a riddling contest, or even a simple wrestling match. He is a trickster, sometimes so cunning that he outwits himself. If you are familiar with the TV show Once Upon A Time, this is pretty much the character of Rumpelstiltskin, only without the Hollywoodized origin story.

Saints are far too boring to appear in any decent folk tale, all preachy and chinbearded as they are, but many an English hero named Jack shows his mettle by outsmarting the Devil. Souls are sometimes wagered, and in the wager the Devil's greed will usually see him come off worse. I'm sure we're supposed to sympathize a little when, returning a farmer's wife, he gripes that...
“...I've been the Devil the whole of my life
But I never knew hell till I met your wife.”
I'm not just rambling, honest. There's a point to all this. If you cast your mind back to midwinter, at the end of the Legend scenario "Silent Night", I put in a throwaway line that had Mitch Edgeworth justifiably raising an eyebrow:
"At midnight on Christmas Day, the Devil comes to Crossgate Manor and offers to play a game of chess for a favour."
Clearly this was to be a story seed for the referee to extemporize a minor epilogue incident, perhaps with a single player, to contrast with the desperate danger and action of the preceding few hours and possibly to set up an ongoing relationship in the campaign. The Devil might enjoy having one mortal friend to play chess with just as much as Morpheus is fond of an occasional glass of wine with Hob Gadling.

Mitch did preface his comment by saying that he's not a role-player, which explains the confusion. Encountering the Devil over chess might very well develop into an interesting ongoing storyline, but setting up the idea in a scenario takes no more than one line. In real games, half a page of notes are ample for running a session of several hours, and scenarios like "Silent Night" are written up only to explain to somebody else how that adventure might be run. In our own game, the denouement came in the forest, not in Crossgate Manor, and the key to defeating Duruth and his knaves was completely unexpected and yet perfect. It arose out of nowhere, a story created from the participation of the group where the best parts have no individual origin. Which, in a nutshell, explains why I am a role-player.

The picture, by the way, is Pan, not the Devil. Image copyright Ian Greig and used here under Creative Commons Licence.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Interview with Mark Smith, creator of Orb

Of all the Fighting Fantasy inspired gamebook series of the 1980s, the most innovative was probably the Way of the Tiger. Mark Smith had created a vivid world steeped in intrigue and adventure, and he and co-author Jamie Thomson didn't rest on their laurels. Soon tiring of the traditional find-the-quest-item-in-the-dungeon structure, they began to introduce elements from the wargames and boardgames they loved so much. In one book you had to juggle competing political factions while managing a city. In another you had to muster an army and choose the tactics that woul carry it to victory. Here, to mark the reissue of Way of the Tiger book four in paperback, author David Walters describes what it was like to play through those classic books when they first appeared, and he asks Mark Smith to look back at what inspired him to create them:

*  *  *

When I read the Way of the Tiger series back in the ‘90s, I started with book four, Overlord. I do not recall why I chose that particular one, maybe it was the Kraken on the cover, or maybe the other books were in short supply that week in the bookstore, but the book remains my favourite of the series to this day.

The opening was simply electrifying for me. For a start, I was the ruler of a city, which I had never experienced in a gamebook before. I was used to being a lone warrior on quests in gamebooks, and sometimes even winning a position of power at the end of such a book, but I had never been in a position of wielding that power from the start of a gamebook. In Overlord, the crown did not rest easy on my brow, for I had to get on with the difficult decisions of ruling a city split by competing interest groups on whom I had to rely for support, and a people divided by racial and religious schisms.

Then I got to pick my advisers from a choice of varied and interesting characters, including those who had once allied with my (tyrant) predecessor, yet who represented a large part of the city. Dangers were everywhere. It would be just as threatening to my rule to rely to much on new allies as it would be to trust potential enemies.

(Incidentally, if anyone has calculated all of the possible safe routes via the councillors you can select, please do comment below. The editor in chief of the series is very interested to confirm all the permutations!)

As well as political intrigue, I had to survive an assassination attempt, endure a siege and undertake a perilous quest that would lead me to the very den of the evil ninja of the Way of the Scorpion and beyond. Interestingly, I was not only powerful in my position as a ruler, but also as a deadly ninja. In this game book the reader was allowed to feel personally and politically powerful, yet still experience threatening situations and enemies.

It was only after this book that I went back to the beginning of the series and played through them all, enjoying the journey from a young unproven ninja setting out on an epic quest. For me, Overlord set a benchmark in innovation, in characterisation and sophistication that I had never seen before in a gamebook. I'd recommend you to give it a try, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did. But watch out – it may inspire you to become a writer as it did with me!

Questions about Overlord answered by Mark Smith, creator of the world of Orb and co-author of the Way of the Tiger series:

DW: Were you concerned about introducing rulership into an action series? Is that why the whole book was not about ruling the city and involved a quest element?

MS: We did worry that if there was no standard gamebook adventuring it would disappoint and yes that's why it's not all about governing.

DW: What were your inspirations for the characters who seek to become your advisers in Star Chamber?

MS: Some of the characters had been pre-developed while role-playing. The Demagogue was inspired by Athenian history.

DW: What possible game mechanics did you consider or reject regarding the city management element of the book?

MS: I gave little consideration to game mechanics beyond striving for simplicity.

DW: Apart from Avenger, which character in Overlord did you most enjoy writing about?

MS: I enjoyed all of the characters but especially Golspiel, Foxglove, Force Lady Gwyneth, Solstice and the Demagogue.

DW: Looking back at the book, is there anything you would do differently now about it?

MS: I would do more checking for game balance.

DW: Were you concerned about ending this book on something of a cliffhanger?

MS: The cliffhanger was deliberate. I was happy with all the books except that in Inferno you need to take Foxglove with you for it to be good.