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Friday, 12 September 2014

Blood Sword redux: Doomwalk (part 2)

fantasy gamebook
More designer's notes in "the making of Blood Sword" series, this time another look at Doomwalk. (Part one here.) The covers of this and the previous book in the series, The Demon’s Claw, now credit me as the sole author. Originally Oliver Johnson and I signed to do all five Blood Sword books, but Oliver’s job at Random House meant that he had very little time to spend on them from the start, having to bail out altogether shortly after we started work on The Kingdom of Wyrd. He did return – sort of – for the final book, but one at a time, eh?

Between The Battlepits of Krarth and The Kingdom of Wyrd, a week or so has passed. Between the latter and The Demon’s Claw, the characters are implied to have been adventuring for years. But Doomwalk begins with a Bourne-style cut, following on immediately after the events of the previous book. There’s no particular significance in this. I usually avoided cliffhangers because books couldn’t be ordered off the internet in those days, and I’d learned the hard way about the vagaries of distribution when all the copies of Dragon Warriors book 1 went to the south of England and all of book 2 went to the north. So I tried to make sure you could jump into a series like Blood Sword at any point and if you missed out a book entirely it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Except in book 5, when it really was the end of the world. But, as I said before, more on that in a later post.

I was glad to have the chance to fix the maps, which in the 1988 edition were printed the wrong way round. So you were presented with a map of Sheol at the start of the book, and if you managed to get to the lands of the dead and if you were lucky enough to find the ancient carving on a monolith there, you would uncover… a chart of western Legend showing the location of the island you needed to find in order to reach Sheol in the first place. I was aiming for a certain amount of dream logic, but not in Lewis Carroll quantities. So after twenty-six years it’s nice to be able to put the maps back where they belong.

Talking of maps, I noticed that the artist (not Russ Nicholson; he wasn't the original map artist) had written “burrow downs” instead of “barrow downs”. I’ve never had much luck with artists and barrows. In one early gamebook I described the character crossing a desolate moor at night when an old man steps out from behind a barrow. That became a picture of a geezer with a wheelbarrow. But I digress… All this talk of barrows at least gives me an excuse to run one of my top favourite of all of Russ's pictures, the wights who come out for a meet 'n greet when you arrive in Sheol.

It’s not obvious why we didn’t make more use of codewords as logic flags in early series like Blood Sword and Way of the Tiger. Instead the reader would just be asked, “Did you meet the scarred scholar and ask him about the carved pillar…” or whatever. If you’re playing the book for the umpteenth time, it can be tricky remembering which incarnation of you did what, and codewords help with that. I’ve written a few into Doomwalk including one to keep tabs on whether you’re accompanied by Cordelia’s ghost as you cross Sheol. (The codeword there, incidentally, is WANDER – a little tip of the hat to Team ICO.)

One more part of this reminiscence of Doomwalk to come. That's in a fortnight, and then we're on to The Walls of Spyte and the big Krarthian free-for-all on the final day of all Creation. But what about next Friday's post, you ask? Ah, or should I say Arrrrr!


Monday, 8 September 2014

Gritty adventure on the final frontier

If you've read Heart of Ice, you'll know I like my science fiction grim, dark and with no unequivocally happy endings. Actually, for the most part I like my fantasy that way too, but good SF demands an uncaring universe. In fantasy you can be saved by a mysterious prophecy and a saviour. In (too) many fantasy stories, if things look tough, having the right moral code deep down inside can count for just as much as knowing how to wield a sword or weave an intrigue.

But not in the best SF. That's the tale of mankind confronting a vast, awesome, bleak infinity that both terrifies and calls to us. For the brutal collision between guts and survival I'm talking about Apollo 13 or The Martian, for sheer wonder try Europa Report or Rendezvous With Rama, and for the great and terrible unknown take a look at Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three.

Now there's a new title to add to that list: Kyle B Stiff's Heavy Metal Thunder, released last week for iPad and iPhone by gamebook app developers Cubus Games. The art and sound effects are very stylish indeed, building extra layers of eeriness and menace into the story, which was originally published as a regular prose gamebook for Kindle. Humanity reached its golden age, only to have it all snatched away by alien invaders. The sola system is overrun. You have your wits and your courage. That may not sound like much, but it's what got us out of the caves and up into space in the first place. Now it's time to show those aliens the hard downside of picking a fight with the human race.

Even if SF isn't your thing, there's still a point to all this. Fabled Lands LLP have been talking to the guys at Cubus Games about some pretty exciting projects. (Yes, we have apps in the works with Tin Man Games and Inkle, but we have so many gamebooks that one or even two developers could never handle the workload. And on top of that, we like making new friends.) The plans with Cubus are very hush-hush for now, but you know me. Give it a few weeks and I'll be spilling the beans.

Before all that, though, come back Friday when I'll have the second part of the "DVD extras" for Doomwalk. See ya then.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Living on the Edge

In amongst all the news about the Way of the Tiger last year, you won't have failed to notice that my own favourite Kickstarter goal was the one to have Leo Hartas draw an original fantasy map for the world of Orb. Well, my real favourite Kickstarter goal would have been for my and Leo's Mirabilis project, but you know what I mean.

The stretch goal having been reached, Leo has been hard at work on a map of Irsmuncast-nigh-Edge, a city of the Manmarch. If you're going to Fighting Fantasy Fest you might even get the chance to buy the original artwork. I asked Leo and Orb's creator, Mark Smith, about the creative process.

DM: Mark, when designing a city, do you start out by drawing a rough map or do you prefer that to come later?

Mark Smith: I would do things slightly differently now- but this is how it worked back then. When designing a city I first took into account its geography – and proximity to other significant places – and the reasons why people would either immigrate or emigrate. Then I introduced the random factor of assigning temples from the Pantheon of Orb, and I will only modify that roster of temples if it is absolutely necessary – meaning I can't find a plausible rationale and back story for how and why the temples were founded there in that mix of temples.

DM: Can you tell us a bit about how the city got its name?

MS: Irsmuncast Nigh Edge is a shortening of what was originally 'The first camp of men near to the Rift’ (aka the Edge) and, understandably, it is not that close to the Edge. It’s the first settlement that you would come to in the Manmarch if you were journeying away from the Rift.

Since the Rift is like the edge of the world and spews forth evil and danger we can guess a few things about the nature of the Irmuncast inhabitants These tend to be either hardy or hopeless folk who can/must live under the shadow or threat of an incursion of evil. Some couldn't find success in safer places so had to make a go of it in Irsmuncast. Over time Irsmuncast became stronger- more able to defend itself and was able to sustain or attract wealthy and privileged people like Golspiel and others. The farmlands that supply the city are all to the west of the city as any to the east would be t0o easily despoiled by Orcs and so on.

I noted in the books that it was a city of 20,000 souls. I now think it is more likely it has around 35-40,000 inhabitants. but has reached the maximum sustainable by the farmlands to the west and so food is not overly plentiful.

DM: Leo, your maps have got a real feel for the place - what techniques are you using that give them that edge over other fantasy maps?

Leo Hartas: Illustrated maps, whether of real or imagined locations, must fulfill the necessity of practical use and readability while also be entertaining, adding atmosphere and style to the world.

With the Irsmuncast map, I was provided with a detailed sketch and copious notes to work from. Often the maps I did for Fighting Fantasy had to be based on barely more than a scribble on the back of an envelope. I am happy to work with either so long as there's enough information to do a pencil rough to submit to the publishers and authors. At that point it is easy to see what needs adding or changing and which spelling mistakes I've made (and I always seem to make them!).

To get to that point I lay out the components of the map in pencil on the paper I'm going to paint on (Bockinford 180 lb hot pressed watercolour) to have a pleasing composition and be clear and easy to read. I always have a dilemma at the beginning of any project about going traditional or digital, as I can work in either or a combination. For the Irsmuncast map, I decided on entirely traditional because I felt it should exist as a physical object, giving a little tactile authenticity to a fantasy world.

DM: What sources do you find inspire you when making a fantasy map?

LH: The Way of the Tiger world is loosely oriental, so I started looking online for old Japanese and Chinese maps for ideas of the look. The ones I found were rather short on decorative motifs so I widened my search to include all kinds of Eastern art. In the end I'd not found anything specific so just started doodling possible ideas, building a mash up of all kinds of influences into something that hopefully is new but contains the right cultural "feel". My whole thinking process is pretty fluid in that I don't have much of a plan and change stuff all the time. Even when the colour goes on, although I'll have a rough idea of what I am aiming at, half of it will be experimenting on the paper and trying to rescue it from cock-ups. This gung-ho way of working is probably why I went grey early! During all of this I listen to audiobooks. Somehow the half concentration unlocks an intuitive streak, while at the same time I get to plow through hundreds of novels.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Blood Sword redux: Doomwalk (part 1)

I sometimes think the imagination is a big old cooking pot that carries the tang of every ingredient that’s ever been put in it. A frinstance: long ago at primary school I came across a storybook with big, blocky, semi-abstract illustrations. You know the sort of book, covered in plastic that made a creaky, crinkling sound as you opened the spine. One of the stories was about a cursed ship. It had people’s hands being cut off, is about all I can remember. Now, I was a kid who relished a good fright. I read Dracula at a tender age and started writing my own sequel to it before I was ten. But that story about the ship scared the bejasus out of me. I shoved it back into the book cupboard, did a good job of forgetting it, and then spent years trying to remember exactly what it was that I’d found so terrifying.

If you’re a writer, that’s where the cooking pot comes in. Because I was striving to recapture that special frisson in the haunted ship sequence in Blood Sword 5: Doomwalk.
Black clouds clot along the horizon. Only minutes ago the sky was as blue as a sapphire, now the furled sails mutter fretfully in the easterly gusts. You shiver and follow the mate below. The entire ship’s company is crowded into the forecastle, and oil lamps are lit and the hatches are battened down against the coming storm.
I won’t give away what happens next in the book, but that’s where it was dredged up from – getting spooked out by a story in childhood. And that’s appropriate for this book because, as much as it’s a descent into the lands of the dead, it’s also a journey into dream. This is not the afterlife of fiery torments that Dante described, but a chilly protean clime where you might trip over ghosts creeping about looking for bowls of blood to lap up, or bump into a half-cadaverous goddess in the myths. I mean mists.

The first part of Doomwalk involves finding a way to reach the afterlife so you can go and retrieve the Sword of Life stolen by your enemy, Icon, at the moment you killed him. If you first put in some library time like a good Scooby, here’s how a dusty book you find describes the land of the dead:
Your search through Emeritus’ books drags on into the evening, when the muezzins’ call and the sound of church bells mingle in the dusk outside. A servant comes into the library to light the lamps. You are on the verge of giving up when you find some more references to Sheol. Theodoric of Osterlin Abbey writes that Sheol is a dream landscape comprising fragments of various mythologies. He confirms the claim that you found earlier that mortals can reach Sheol – but adds that the longer one spends there, the more difficult it is to return.
I thought, as was editing this book, ‘Dream landscape? I must have been ripping off Gaiman.’ But in fact I completed the manuscript for Doomwalk a full year before Sandman #1 went on sale. I expect we both had in our blood the same cocktail of Ron Embleton’s Wrath of the Gods and the cosmically bleak stories of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown, we both devoured Norse myths and the gloriously far-out fantasy strips in Valiant, were both reared through adolescence on the same heady stew of Moorcock, Dunsany, Lovecraft, Calvino and others. Or, I dunno, maybe it was just that kickin’ early-80s Afghan Black.

More about the influences on Doomwalk next week, but drop back Friday for another announcement.


Thursday, 21 August 2014

Blood Sword is back!


And here it is at last - the new, remastered, large format paperback edition of Blood Sword. The first four books are on sale now and the whole saga ties up in book five, The Walls of Spyte, which will be out in time for Christmas. (Given that the series runs to over 2800 sections and about three hundred and fifty thousand words, I don't think you're going to get through the first four before then.)

Blood Sword, in case you're a newcomer to this plane of existence, is one of the gamebook series of the late '80s. It's set in the land of Legend, which Oliver Johnson and I also used for our Dragon Warriors RPG and in a sense Blood Sword is a halfway point between gamebooks and role-playing, as you can play through the books solo or in a team of up to four. Those four character classes each get to star in the new cover paintings by Sébastien Brunet (warrior, trickster, sage and enchanter respectively in the picture above) and to do the artwork justice we've opted for a 22 x 14 centimetre format.


The interior illustrations are by who else but Russ Nicholson and at long last the tactical maps get the room they need - a far cry, as you can see in the photo above, from the cramped layout of the '80s books. The new logo (no dripping gore, hooray!) and cover layouts are by Matt Hill.

I'm calling this the "classic edition" of Blood Sword to differentiate it from the streamlined rules-lite version I'm still intending to get around to eventually. The content in the classic edition is 99% unchanged from the '80s books, although I couldn't resist a few tweaks. There are some extra sections in each book to make the flowchart work better. I've added some codewords like Jamie and I used in Fabled Lands to clarify points of logic. More significantly, the Enchanter gets a new spell and there's a restriction on the Sage's healing ability to make using it a non-trivial choice.

Quite a few old-time gamebook fans have told me how they've been playing Blood Sword with their kids as an intro to role-playing. Corrupting a whole new generation, ah, that's music to my ears. If you have any Blood Sword stories, why not share them in the comments? I'm eager to see if they hold up a quarter century on.

You can buy Blood Sword from leading bookstores or direct from Amazon: in the USA here, in Britain here, or come to that in any Amazon store throughout the world.


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Thursday, 14 August 2014

Blood Sword redux: The Demon's Claw

Blood Sword
The point of the Blood Sword series is that you can play through all five books as a kind of epic role-playing campaign. It wasn’t the first time that had been done. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery books (currently enjoying a new lease of life via Inkle’s app version) paved the way, along with The Way of the Tiger by Mark Smith and Jamie. But I’ve never been a fan of Chosen One stories, and running a single-player campaign pretty much obliges you to make the hero a lost prince(ss) or a midichlorian messiah. Fantasy has more Enders than it has Frodos. The USP of Blood Sword is that it can be played solo or in a team of up to four, meaning that player-characters must rise on their own merits to become heroes, or fail in the attempt, rather than being born to a spoon-fed destiny.

Looking back, I wonder if the publishers were concerned that I wrote Blood Sword so that four players could make do with a single copy of the book. They’d probably rather have had special editions for Enchanter, Sage, Trickster and Warrior. A little more work, four times the profit. I’ve never thought of my writing in marketing terms, so there’s a lost opportunity – or a beacon of integrity, take your pick.

The Demon’s Claw, the midpoint of the Blood Sword series, is close to 600 sections and the thickest of all the books. This in a series where the shortest book is at least sixty thousand words. What can I say? I like to lose myself in my imagination and I hope you enjoy the ride. So, here are the influences, inspirations and reminiscences about The Demon's Claw in no particular order:

The title first. The Demon's Claw is the folkname of the Sword of Death, the mirror twin of the Blood Sword (the Sword of Life) which is of course the object of your whole quest. Unless both swords are the object..? That's a complication that starts to get hinted at here in book three and develops through to the finale in The Walls of Spyte.

Several of the non-player characters in the Blood Sword series are drawn from my own campaigns. Sir Tobias, the head of the Knights Capellar, was originally played by Steve Foster and if anything was more scary and fanatical in “real” life. (Tobias, that is, not Steve. He's a sweetie.) Anvil, the night watch commander in Crescentium, was one of Mark Smith’s characters in our original Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. (Mark later provided the template for Harold Shandor in Heart of Ice, where Steve also appears as Janus Gaunt – though those characters are much more loosely based on their Tekumel originals, Tlangten and Kanmiyel respectively.) The young knight Sir Balian was based on Jack Bramah’s EPT character Chaideshu.

Russ Nicholson

I had started thinking about casting choices by now. Prince Susurrien would be played by Omar Sharif, with his voice “soft and deep, suggesting the quietest beat of an enormous drum”. (Oh, you were thinking of Brian Blessed? Fair enough; once you open the cover it becomes your book.) And your arch-foe Icon makes his reappearance, now explicitly under his real Yamatese name, Aiken. I’d talk about his sister too, but that way lie spoilers.

The major literary influences here are Michael Moorcock (the ship that sails through time – though, yes, technically that is G C Edmondson; but I picked it from Elric stories), Robert Holdstock (Mythago Wood), and Robert Irwin (The Arabian Nightmare). If you’ve played Eric Goldberg’s Tales of the Arabian Nights boardgame then you’ll recognize the impudent hunchback and the garrulous ghoul. Goldberg was the primum movens of the open world gamebook (Fabled Lands, for instance, or Fallen London, or Meg Jayanth's 80 Days) so we all owe him a lot.

As befits a story about the poles of Life and Death, the theme of The Demon's Claw is ambiguity. For instance, the man whose lower body is made of stone. Is he a spurned lover half-fossilized by a witch, or an incomplete statue given life by a kind-hearted sorceress? As the book’s original introduction put it:
In the words of Hasan i-Sabbah, Grandmaster of the Marijah Assassins, ‘There is no single truth; everything is possible.’ Or, as the Saviour of the True Faith said, ‘From the Cup of Truth one can drink a thousand times.’
In short, the message in encounter after encounter is that the truth remains deliciously unknowable, the box is never opened for sure, and Schrödinger’s cat remains intriguingly both alive and dead.

I like the stop-motion monsters and magical entities in this book, such as the Seven-in-One and the Hatuli. A little bit of Ray Harryhausen there by way of Jan Švankmajer. I can imagine them all jerky and a little bit fever-nightmarish. The jinni too, a real hairy blot of a being, a dirty great ink-stain on the clean page of reality. I wanted that folkloric feel. This isn’t a book of smooth Hollywoodized CG effects, it’s a Singing Ringing Tree of a fantasy.

Fighting Fantasy
Readers have noticed that the Blood Sword books are set in the Dragon Warriors world of Legend. The people of that world refer to it themselves as middle-earth (ie Midgard) but, as Tolkien has made that term his own, I’ve edited most of those references to “the mortal earth” or “the mid-world”. They don’t tend to call it Legend – that was always a term more for the players than the characters. But the interesting question is whether this even is the Dragon Warriors world or just something that looks a bit like it. In my Legend games you could go ten years and not meet a dragon, much less the World Serpent or an immortal like Hunguk the Pirate King. And there’s only one time we’ve had anything like orcs in Dragon Warriors, and that in a not-what-you-expected scenario by Steve Foster. The best way I can describe it is that if the real Legend is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the Blood Sword version is Guy Richie’s movies or a show like Penny Dreadful. No excuses here for that, mind you. Blood Sword was for a younger audience and it delivers a big bang whereas DW is all about the down beat.

As for the rules-y stuff, people have asked if you can complete the adventure without a Trickster. Most certainly you can. I reckon you’ll have more fun if there’s a Trickster along – that’s why stories about Odysseus are more interesting than ones about Ajax – but every character class can succeed and they all have their strengths. Personally I think you’re crazy if you don’t do deals with the sandestins – oops, faltyns – but the beauty of a series like this is you get to configure the kind of team that suits you best.

There’s little else to say about The Demon’s Claw except that I think it features some of Russ’s very best artwork. Next up in the redux series of blog posts is Doomwalk (aka “the one where they all go to hell”) but I should have a big announcement before that. Stay tuned.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The war against the future


Funny how things get dredged up. I recently got to thinking about a very old idea of mine. I’ll tell you a bit later what jogged my memory. A long while ago – must’ve been a couple of decades at least – I was watching an old Carol Reed movie called Odd Man Out, about an IRA man on the run in 1940s London. Thinking of spies having to lie low – soldiers, that is, but out of uniform – I got to imagining a society that waged war against its own future.

What kind of a war would that be? Well, one way to do it would be old Nazis plotting revenge against a modern, distinctly anti-fascist Germany, but that felt a bit tired. It hardly counts as a war when a bunch of OAPs set fire to a few shops or daub a swastika on a wall.

I was striving for something more jolting to the audience’s expectations, which probably meant more science fictional. A war against the future suggested society having reached an impasse that only time could break. So should it be sleeper agents in a literal sense, floating underground in suspended animation tanks until the moment came to rekindle the conflict?

Trouble with that, it’s a little like the core premise of Pyramids of Mars, only with a very different skin (or at any rate bitumen-soaked bandages) over the top. Nobody would notice, but I still felt like treating it that way would be wasting the idea. Obviously the best approach would be to have outright time travel, so that armies could pour out of the past to mow down their own descendents. Firing back could be a knotty problem. But then it’s not special. You wouldn’t notice that the interesting thing was a society at war with what it had become. The time travel business would overshadow all that.

Sometimes you just can’t see the way to make an idea work. Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant pursued by a tornado across Indiana. “But how can the heavies manufacture a tornado?” asked Ernest Lehman, who actually had to write the damned thing. Hitch settled for a crop-duster, but he wasn’t happy about it. I know how he feels. The war against the future got slung onto that subconscious junk heap of unworkable gems – or unpolishable you-know-whats. And then I came across a couple of brilliant tweets by Paul Cornell that bought it all back.
So there you are. No need for a Tardis or a cryonic pod. No need even for superannuated reactionaries blowing up their hippy grandchildren to teach them a lesson. The war against the future is interesting when it happens (as it always does) between neighbours, within families, both sides lining up to decide whether civilization should point forwards or backwards. And I knew that. I’ve read about enough revolutions, hot and cold, throughout history. That’s how to write my story. The answer was staring me in the face all along. Maybe it was just too close for comfort.