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Friday, 19 January 2018

A rare personal appearance


If I was a little more au fait with audio tech then I'd probably do podcasts rather than a blog. After a day spent writing, a blog post is often the last thing I feel like buckling down to. And podcasts are a natural fit for me anyway; I much prefer talking to writing, as anyone who's sat at a table with me and some wine bottles can attest.

My appetite for podcasting whetted by the Fictoplasm special about Lyonesse, I welcomed an invitation from the good folks at the Tekumel Foundation to appear on the Hall of Blue Illumination. We talked about my early roleplaying experiences, about various game systems, a little bit about Fabled Lands, the design choices in Tirikelu, and of course extensively about MAR Barker's amazing creation, Tekumel.

You can download or listen to it here.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Lost in the wildwood

Last year Gary Chalk called me up to talk about collaborating on a graphic novel. How that came about was that Gary, who lives in France, had been at the supermarket a few days before and he ran into an elderly woman he knew who said, “Why aren’t you at Saint-Malo, Monsieur Chalk? I thought every artist went? Even my grandson took his portfolio.”

Saint-Malo is the venue for one of France’s biggest comics conventions – bande dessinée, I should say –and Gary’s immediate reaction was to rush home, dump his groceries on the kitchen table, grab a few art samples, and drive to Saint-Malo that afternoon.

“Quite a few publishers said they’d take a look at anything I have to show them,” he told me. “So how about it? Do you want to write something and I’ll draw it?”

Did I? You’d have to hold me back with an electric prod. Gary is a fun guy to bounce ideas around with, his artwork is uniquely captivating and gloriously inventive, and I enjoy writing for comics more than just about any other medium.

After some brainstorming over Skype, I went back to Gary with a proposal for Jewelspider – a series of bande dessinée books set in Legend, the Dragon Warriors universe, some five hundred years after DW. Think Down Among the Dead Men’s Tudor world of magic and faerie and you’re not far off. I figured that the combination of flintlocks, faerie woods, rude mechanicals, half-timbered cottages and horror would suit Gary’s style to a T. Here's the overview:


A country a little like Elizabethan England. OK, a lot like. Only there is real magic and there are faerie folk. The heartless sort of faerie folk whose whims make a cat seem compassionate.

Twenty-five years ago at the village of Crossgate, a peasant woman called Mary Barley finds a child lying in the snow near the edge of Jewelspider Forest.

At the same time, the stillborn baby of Sir Roger and Lady Olivia Keppel, whose body was lying in Crossgate Church, is found to have been taken. The locals suspect the “ladies and gentlemen” of the woods, but the priest doesn’t want to hear that. When Mary shows up carrying a baby, he claims that it’s the Keppels’ child, who was only mistaken for dead. “A fox must have dragged him off, and the shock brought him round,” he says. “A miracle! Praise be!”

So the baby is raised as Lady Olivia’s second son, Pelagius. But the rumours of faerie origin persist and the child is undeniably strange. Soon Lady Olivia wants him gone from the manor. He’s given to Mary, who discards the name Pelagius and raises him as plain John Barley.

The years pass. “Gentleman” John Barley is an up-and-coming playwright with the Publican’s Players. As New Year approaches, the Players set out to perform a special play for the Earl of Netherford which they hope will earn them patronage. “We’ll soon be the Earl’s Players,” reckons the company’s manager, Francis Barnsbury.

On the way to Netherford, Francis has seen the opportunity to put on a Christmas play in Crossgate, not realizing that it’s John’s home village. John is not keen to go back. They arrive to find the village troubled by the disappearance of John’s one-time stepbrother Peregrine Keppel.

Before long, and very much against his will, John is investigating what happened to Peregrine and uncovering a macabre tale involving “Mad Dan” Duluth, the squire of the manor a hundred years before. Mad Dan and his henchmen, known as his three knaves, so terrorized the county that they are used to this day as bugbears to scare children. But John begins to suspect that, though dead and buried, Mad Dan and his knaves don’t rest as quietly as they should.

Before the curse can be lifted and the ghosts laid to rest, John will have visited the court of Faerie where he finally learns who his real parents were.

No doubt you will have spotted that the plot borrows from the scenario “Silent Night” which I ran on this blog one Christmas and which I later intended to use as the basis for an interactive story app. Only, this being fiction rather than a game or gamebook, that wasn’t what the story was really about. What interested me most was the Shakespearean career of John Barley, and how being a changeling gave him a special relationship with the world of the imaginary. Some deconstruction of the storytelling process itself seemed likely to feature.

Just as Will Shakespeare liked to mix comedy and high drama – the Joss Whedon of his day – I set out to create a similar blend. Horror on its own bores me; it’s too one-note. Humour helps to add the human dimension that makes the horrific elements more disturbing. And in regard to storytelling I always use disturbing in a good sense, of course.

That’s where Gary and I didn’t see eye to eye. So don’t get excited, because (as I maybe should have said at the start) this collaboration is never going to come to pass. Gary hates that whole Joss Whedon vibe, you see, and he felt the comedy elements I’d included, particularly with my Will Kemp like character Pip Cabbage, destroyed the suspension of disbelief.

Well, not every project comes off and that’s a hard truth you just have to get used to as a writer. Because the writing happens before everything else, you end up with an awful lot of abandoned fragments of development work. Jamie and I have got whole TV scripts and samples of novels that fell on stony ground and now languish in the attic or the far unvisited corners of our hard drives. I briefly toyed with finding another artist to work with, but it’s already a struggle finding the funds to pay Leo and Nikos to work on Mirabilis. I don’t really need another comic book to finance!

So here is that unfinished script. Too jokey? Or a fine blend of the humorous and the macabre? I leave it to you to decide…
Jewelspider Wood book one



PAGE 1

PANEL 1a:
A big panel, this, maybe top two-thirds of the page. Nice establishing shot.

Caption:  Then.

A snow-covered landscape, late afternoon. In the left foreground we see thickly clustered trees – the edge of Jewelspider Wood. From there the land slopes down to a valley where the village of Crossgate stands in the middle distance beside a river: cottages, church and manor house. Smoke rising from the chimneys. Beyond, the hills sweep up again into the distance.

A peasant woman, MARY, is trudging up the hill in the foreground carrying a basket. Mary is in early middle age, which for the times and given her social class might mean her mid-30s. It’s bitterly cold – see her breath steam out on the wind.

Behind her, further down the slope, three peasant lads are chucking snowballs at each other.

PANEL 1b:
Reverse previous shot, so we’re looking up the slope with the three lads in the foreground. Mary is a tiny figure approaching the edge of the forest.

Lad #1: Bet a farthing you won’t go twenty paces into Jewelspider.

Lad #2: Nearly suppertime. I would else.

PANEL 1c:
Mary looking down sadly at her basket, which contains just a few twigs. She needs more firewood.

PANEL 1d:
View from behind Mary as she faces the immense, dark and forbidding wall of trees that marks the edge of the woods. We can sense that she feels daunted by it.

PAGE 2

PANEL 2a:
Mary has ventured a little way into the wood. Here under the trees there’s less snow – just what the wind has blown in, edging the dead leaves.
She’s stooping to pick up a bit of firewood, but looking all around nervously as she does so.

PANEL 2b:
CU on Mary, startled as she turns towards the sound.

Sound effect: SNAP!

PANEL 2c:
Mary looks down to see some broken twigs laid on the ground in the shape of a pointing arrow. It points back out of the woods.

PANEL 2d:
Mary reacting to the sound of a baby crying out-of-shot (sound effect cutting off at edge of frame?) in the direction the arrow points to. Her hand to her mouth. Fear forgotten now – she’s only concerned for that lost baby.

Sound effect: WAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Right behind her in the dark undergrowth – she’s not aware of them - are dozens of cat-like eyes and grinning fanged mouths. The faerie folk.

PANEL 2e:
A faerie POV shot – we’re looking out from between the trees as Mary runs down the slope away from Jewelspider Wood.

Sound effect: WAAAAAAA

PANEL 2f:
In a hollow in the snow, Mary comes across a baby (in right f.g.) lying on a blanket. She drops her basket in shock.

Mary: Oh, Heaven and all the saints!

Baby: Waaaaaaaa!

PAGE 3

PANEL 3a:
New scene -- Outside the small village church in Crossgate. FATHER GULES (Patrick Magee; about 30 yrs old in this flashback) is berating the SEXTON. By the way this is the equivalent of roughly 1565 AD.

The church door is open and there’s an infant’s coffin lying on the path between them, on its side, lid off.

A small group of less than a dozen peasants has gathered to see what all the fuss is about.

Father Gules (gesturing at the door): Obviously you left it open. A wild animal --

Sexton (deferential but aggrieved): Wild animal? In Crossgate, Father? And I double-bolted it, I swear to that.

PANEL 3b:
At the back of the crowd of onlookers, ROD arrives. He’s a 12-year-old with a shock of unruly red hair (which we will recognize immediately when we return here in 25 years’ time). He tugs the sleeve of a woman, who looks round.

Rod: What is it, Ma?

Rod’s Mum: The lady’s stillborn infant. Laid out in the church, poor mite, and something stole the body.

PANEL 3c:
Back to the argument by the church door. Now Father Gules and the sexton have both rounded on OLD ABE, the gravedigger.

Sexton: The child should’ve been buried by now, anyway.

Old Abe: You take a pickaxe to this ground if you want. Like iron it is.

PANEL 3d:
Father Gules turns to the small crowd of onlookers, one of whom is pointing up towards the woods.

Peasant: You know what’s took it. No wolf.

Father Gules: Enough of that talk! And none of you breathe a word of this up at the hall. If the lady –

Father Gules pauses in surprise at the sound of a baby crying from the back of the crowd.

Sound effect: Waaaa

PANEL 3e:
The crowd parts to reveal Mary standing at the back. In her basket she’s cradling the child she found.

Baby: Waaaaa!

Father Gules: Mary Barley. Where did you get that child?

Mary: Found him, Father. Up by Jewelspider Wood.

PANEL 3f:
Father Gules lifts the blanket to look at the baby.

Father Gules: It is a miracle. You have found Lady Olivia’s baby son – and he lives! Give thanks to God.

PANEL 3g:
On Mary’s horrified expression as the basket with the baby is taken from her.

Mary: No. He’s not hers. Hers was dead. I found him!
(new bubble): No! NO!

PAGE 4

PANEL 4a:
Close-up on the exasperated face of “GENTLEMAN” JOHN BARLEY, mid-20s.

John: No no no no NO!
(new bubble): Feeling! Give it some FEELING!

PANEL 4b:
A large function room over a pub, where the Publican’s Players are rehearsing. This is the equivalent of ~1590 AD. John and Francis have copies of the script.

It’s not a dress rehearsal – they’re in regular clothes, though DOUGAL GRATE (late-50s, old thesp, wild-haired Michael Gambon type), who is playing King Solomon, wears a crown and carries a sword. He ought to wear spectacles but he’s too vain, so he makes do with a squint.

FRANCIS BARNSBURY (late-30s, George Sanders type) is the company’s manager and pitches in playing bit parts as needed.

RICHIE BIGG (late-20s, Randy Quaid type) is a lumbering, easy-going hulk of a man who ought to be a bouncer rather than playing one of the women whose case has been brought to King Solomon. He’s the object of John’s ire.

PIP CABBAGE (mid-20s, a young Jeremy Piven) is playing the other woman. He’s the company’s clown, one of those guys who can’t go one minute without turning everything into a joke.

Caption: Now.

Richie: Sorry, John.

Francis (looking at the script): Can’t we simplify it a bit, love? All this “my son” and “thy son”... You’re going to lose the groundlings.

PANEL 4c:
Pip pours himself a flagon of ale.

Pip: “Whoreson”, now that’d get a laugh.

John is impatient – he wants to get on with rehearsal. It’s not a play he’s especially keen to do, either, so Pip’s insouciance is doubly annoying.

John: Not everything has to be about getting a frigging laugh, Pip!

PANEL 4d:
John grabs the tatty rag doll that they’re using as a prop and holds it up to Richie. He points to Pip, who is playing the other mother.

John: Look, Richie, the King – he’s going to cut the little perisher in half. Pip says it’s his kid. But it’s really YOURS.

Richie: I’m the father?

John: You’re the mother!

PANEL 4e:

Pip: Ha ha!

Richie (looking at Pip): I can do feminine, thank you! I’m very in touch with my lady side. I just need direction.

PAGE 5

PANEL 5a:
Richie leans close to John for a confidential chat, but Dougal is right behind them.

Richie: John, the thing is... I’ll fling myself in there, mate. Take one for the nipper, God love ‘im. But couldn’t we get Dougal a wooden sword?

Dougal: I heard that!

PANEL 5b:
Dougal draws his (real) sword and strikes a majestic pose. We see a glimpse of the sizzling brilliant actor he was ten or twenty years ago.

Dougal: What need have I of props? Gewgaws and fakery! Fifteen years I’ve trod these boards.

PANEL 5c:
Dougal swings his sword in a wild sweeping arc. He’s very short-sighted. John and Richie duck just in time to avoid having their heads cut off.

Sound fx: SWOOSH

Dougal: Precision! Focus! Control! And you propose I brandish a whittled stick? Have you no appreciation of the thespic arts?

John: What about a pair of glasses?

PANEL 5d:
Francis leads John aside, gesturing towards TIM and TAM, in the foreground, the company’s two midgets..

Francis: Glasses? John, love, next you’ll want a real gold crown.
(new bubble): If I showed you the accounts book it’d give you a bigger scare than the Welsh Play. We can’t even afford wires for the fairies to fly in on.

PANEL 5e:
Seeing themselves talked about Tim and Tam come over with their copies of the script.

Tim: It’s not like we don’t appreciate the lines, John, but we don’t always have to play elves and goblins and that. 

Tam: Yeah. We could be – you know, just little people.

PANEL 5f:
John is always considerate of everyone’s feelings:

John: Well, I –-

But Francis dives in with a frothy pep talk aimed at giving Tim and Tam the brush-off.

Francis: And you are. You are DEAR little people. But audiences today demand a faerie touch, a whiff of otherworldliness. It’s bums on benches, loves.

PAGE 6

PANEL 6a:
John looks back over his shoulder as he and Francis go out of the door.

John: Haven’t the heart to tell them they’re going to be playing cherubs.

Francis: Cherubs? In this weather? Brrr.
(new bubble): John, I’m sorry, I know the Old Testament isn’t really your thing. No scope in it for all your usual laughs and mayhem. But it’s what the Earl of Netherford expects.

PANEL 6b:
Outside. They’re going down the steps into the pub garden. It’s a cold day in early December. Not snowing. The pub is in a town but it’s morning, and whatever clientele there is hasn’t spilled out to the garden yet.

Francis is warming to his theme, arms waving. John catches the eye of a SERVING WENCH who’s putting out trestle tables.

Francis: And if we get the Earl’s patronage, the sky’s the limit.
(new bubble): Terribly nice touch getting a baby into the story, by the way. Should go down well. The Earl’s wife is broody, so I’m told.

PANEL 6c:
John helps the serving wench with a table. She smiles saucily at him. Francis doesn’t even notice as he goes to sit at another table.

John: Just as long as it wasn’t Moses being found among the rushes. That would’ve been too close to home for me.

Francis: Ah, yes. Your mysterious orphan past. I know better than to pry.
(new bubble): Not too scary with that Solomon scene, though, eh? Don’t want the ladies fainting, do we. Unless it’s for love.

PANEL 6e:
Francis, still not noticing the flirting going on, is pouring a beer from the pitcher on the table.

Winking, John leans over the table to steal a kiss. The serving wench looks like she’s going to respond. No doubt John is thinking of her as he says:

John: Wait till you see the Queen of Sheba’s dance. Should be a real show-stopper.
(new bubble): Mind you, it’ll be Richie in a dress, so that’ll take the edge off.

Francis: Oh, I meant to say, you will get a chance to stage one of your gutsier plays after all. I’ve booked us a performance on the way to Netherford. Just a manor house gig to earn a few crowns.

PANEL 6f:
John jerks his head round to look at Francis, who is holding out a flagon for him. The serving wench is left kissing empty air, lips still puckered but eyes wide in surprise.

John (pensive): Netherford..?

Wench: !

Francis: Yes. Rural folk, you know. They’ll appreciate the Gentleman John Barley touch. I thought “The Death of Pompey”. We’ll use the wax head from “King Herod”.

PANEL 6g:
Extreme close up on John’s expression of shock and dismay.

Francis (out of shot): Crossgate Manor, it’s called.
(new bubble): Ever heard of it?


Thursday, 11 January 2018

What lies beneath

If I can advertise what Mssrs Jackson and Livingstone are up to these days, I figure I'm entitled to mention my own work. It's a special month over on my Patreon page because I'm serializing all-new pages of my comic Mirabilis: Year of Wonders.

I've run out of inked pages (the equivalent of the power company switching off the electricity, only in this case the unpaid bills mean a lack of artist and colorist) so the rest of this issue (number 10, titled "A Truth That Wounds") will be just Leo's pencils, then next issue (sometime in February) I'll be scraping the barrel of my own illustrative (in)capability. But hey, at least I'm getting to tell the story.

More about comics tomorrow -- only this time set in the land of Legend.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The dice men cometh


I promised we’d get the skinny on what Jamie has been getting up to. He was reluctant to emerge from his lair and tell me, so I sent Dirk Lloyd round to prod him. Hard.


DIRK: So, you vile tentacled freak, what's this new book project you're working on with Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson?

JAMIE: I've been tapped by my old bosses, Ian Livingstone (or my 'Dark Master' as I call him) and Steve Jackson, to write up the history of one of our country's most iconic games companies, Games Workshop. Well, at any rate, its history up to 1985 or so, when Ian and Steve sold it for a lot of gold pieces. We've launched the book on Unbound.

DIRK: As usual, I'm not really getting what you're talking about. What's Unbound? Is it like Kickstarter?

JAMIE: It's pretty much a Kickstarter for books, but only books and nothing else. Unbound are more involved in the whole end-to-end process than Kickstarter, though. They're more like a crowdfunded publisher than just a commercial process for crowdfunding, if you see what I mean. So, if a given book project gets funded they will also do the printing and distributing of the book, and then sell it afterwards, usually in conjunction with a mainstream publisher. A bit like what we do with our Fabled Lands stuff, though we haven't got the reach or the contacts that Unbound has. Maybe one day!

DIRK: You're so old and decrepit now, like some kind of shambling, Alzheimery troll thing, I'd forgotten you ever actually held down a job. How did you first get involved with Games Workshop?

JAMIE: Hah, now that's a story. Way back when I left university, around 1980, I was flailing about pretty cluelessly trying to work out what to do with my life. I spent most of my time playing a game I'd got recently, in a little white box with three little ochre-coloured booklets inside...

Which I'd bought from GW, as it happens. Along with my White Dwarf mags. Instead of job hunting, I was painting figurines. My mum pointed out an ad for a job as a features editor on that selfsame magazine. I thought to myself I'd have no hope whatsoever of ever getting that job. It would be like a miracle, a dream job, working with people I admired from afar. So I gave up on the idea pretty quick. But my mum had other ideas. She had to get her nerdy, 21-year-old, paint-stained son out of the damn house, as soon as. So she rang Ian Livingstone.

And they chatted, and Ian said sure, send him up for an interview. And I went up there, had the interview, got the job! And that's how I ended up as assistant editor on White Dwarf in the early ‘80s. All thanks to my mum.

DIRK: Watching you dribble your food down the front of your shirt for the umpteenth time, I'm surprised you can remember any of that, let alone the rest of it. But anyway. What sort of stories will be in the book? Can you give us a teaser? And photos, presumably? Fresh young faces with flares and big afro 'dos?

JAMIE: Well, it won't just be how the company developed and grew and so on – the business narrative. There will be a lot of that obviously, but also there'll be stuff like the anecdote about how I got the job, for instance, but not just me. There'll be the experiences of the people that worked there. Sure, mostly Ian and Steve, but there were a whole bunch of other folk back in the day, people I'm still in contact with. Like Gary Chalk, Russ Nicholson, and Joe Dever too, though he's sadly left us now, but I've still got a story or two to put in about him. And a bunch of other folk working for or associated with GW. Including Dave Morris, White Dwarf contributor extra-ordinaire!

Here's a pic from the heyday, 1983. Gary Chalk, me, Steve and Ian front row, middle, with dear old Joe Dever standing behind Gary.


Mind you, most of the book will be the early days, about the start of it all. Like this photo of the first ever customer in the first ever Games Workshop. Apparently that bearded fellow had been queuing all night...

Not to mention all the ins and outs of the directors and the day to day running of the company...

Games Workshop Board Meeting

And we won't be shying away from those controversial moments too…


That's the Mail for you, mind. Hasn't really changed much, has it?

DIRK: Assuming you're actually still capable of writing a book, when will this be out?

JAMIE: That kind of depends on when the funding goals are reached, but probably summer/autumn of next year. To be part of this exciting new venture, and to help me pay my grocery bills for another few months, shoot over to the official Unbound site where you can pledge for a copy of The Dice Men.

DIRK: Never mind your pointless little hobbies. People should spend their money on my darkly glorious works. Or else.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Notes from small islands

Happy New Year! Normally I tend to focus on gamebooks and roleplaying around here, but maybe I can squeeze in some news of projects of personal interest now that we're at the tail end of the intercalary days.

I've been trying to continue my Mirabilis comic for some time now, and finally came to the conclusion that if I can't get it to the stage where it's a commercial enterprise that pays for the pencils, inks and colours, I can at least still tell the story. Having a few pages of artwork left before Leo gave up on it, some of which he was able to ink, I began serializing issue #10 ("A Truth That Wounds") on my Patreon page.

Those already-completed pages are running out fast. We'll soon get on to Leo's rough pencils, and after that I'll have to fall back on my own sketches. No joke, that, as you can see from the sample here, but at least the die-hard followers of the story (all dozen of them!) will eventually get to read it.

My main obsession for most of the year has been my new gamebook Can You Brexit? in which you play the prime minister of Britain through two years of negotiations, calamities, and backstabbing starting in March 2017. The book is about 870 sections long, it's now finished bar a final polish, and I'm hoping to get a proper publisher if my agent can find one who isn't too craven to handle it. Enemies of the people and all that. Maybe next year I'll tackle You Are Trump.

My wife Roz has published a book of travel memoirs called Not Quite Lost for which she has been doing loads of BBC interviews throughout December. Banish those mental images of climbing the Kilimanjaro slopes or drinking snakeblood cocktails in New Guinea. These are lyrical, whimsical accounts of our visits to various old follies around Britain, peppered with eccentric encounters à la Bill Bryson. I liked it, though you may not regard me as entirely impartial.

And if you want to hear what Jamie is currently up to, come back on Friday.




Meanwhile, if you're here looking for a gaming fix I got a doozy for ya: James Wallis's long-awaited story-game Alas Vegas is finally on sale. Buy it from DriveThruRPG or Indie Press Revolution. (Unfortunately it's not on Amazon, so if you want a print copy from IPR and you live outside the US, you'll end up paying about $50 in postage.) I'm not usually a big fan of "narrative" RPGs, but any and all original work by Mr Wallis is touched with genius, so I plan to give this a go at our next weekend special.