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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Apple's Halloween picks

I don't particularly regard Frankenstein as a horror story myself, or even science fiction, distrusting as I do the facile taxonomy of genre labels. At the same time, I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and still less a gift kelpie, so the fact that Apple have chosen my interactive Frankenstein novel as one of their Halloween picks on iTunes is surely cause to rattle dem bones in celebration. And as an extra fillip, I just heard that FutureBook has shortlisted it for their 2012 Innovation Awards. Oh, the dizzying brew of critical acclaim, even here in the humble vestibule of fame that is British digital publishing.

Frankenstein was launched as an iOS-only app in April - much to the ire of many who chose a digital path other than the one marked out by Apple. If your e-reader of choice is Android-based, or a Kindle, you won't have long to wait for the ebook versions. They'll be released too late for Halloween, but after all Christmas Eve is also a time for spooky stories.

And in any case, Frankenstein is more a tragedy or even a thriller than it is a horror tale - if we have to pigeon-hole it - and it's a story that is powerfully compelling whatever the season. Here's a little taste:

* * *

It isn’t hard to track the official. He leaves heading north and you find his horse at the first inn on that road. Hidden in the hedge, you wait until the last drinker staggers out and the lights are put out. Creeping up to the window, you see his two guards stretched out on wooden pallets in the common room. With the aid of an apple tree you climb up to the next floor and look in. The first room has two figures – the innkeeper and his wife, probably. In the next window, you see the official's floppy red cap.

The catch yields to the pressure of your hand. You ease yourself into the room. In the bed lies the man you seek. You hear his breathing change, sense the stiffening of his body.

‘You’re awake,’ you say to him. ‘Don’t try to cry out.’

‘Who are you?’ He is trying to speak loudly, you think, both to assert himself and to rouse his guards. But fear has made his voice a dry whisper.

‘Today you threatened friends of mine.’

‘The De Lacys?’ He sits up, reaches for a taper beside him.

* * *

Where's this scene going, do you think? Towards a calm discussion à la Voltaire's salon, or into the gory excesses of the Grand Guignol? The monster's moral development is entirely in your hands.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Agreeably scary

It's almost Halloween, and if you're stoking up the fire (or even just upping the brightness on your PC's fireplace screensaver) you may be casting around for delicious fictive chills to run a teasing finger of fright along your spine.

Fans of John Whitbourn's classic Binscombe Tales stories will know that few experiences can be quite so disturbing and at the same time strangely comforting as dropping in at the Duke of Argyll in the company of Mr Oakley, our hapless narrator, and the mysterious Mr Disvan. It's what autumn, imagination, log fires and real ale were created for.

The Binscombe Tales are hard to describe. Possessed of great human warmth and yet often coldly heartless. Sometimes scary but just as often more in the way of startling and thought-provoking. Science fictional except where they're fabulous, fantastic, whimsical, spooky or simply bizarre. Thrilling yet often delightfully leisurely. Terrifying or mind-bending - but always funny with it.

In short, they're the very best of English weird fiction, and if you haven't encountered them yet then you're missing a treat. Fortunately, Jamie and I think ahead so that stuff like the equinox, tax demands and the release of Witcher sequels don't take us by surprise, and this year we had the foresight to prepare an omnibus paperback edition of the complete Binscombe Tales from our Spark Furnace imprint.

Herein you will learn about: the man who spent a lifetime waiting for a bus; the suburban kitchen cupboard that is a gateway to another world; the whispering voices that force a nightclub owner to keep the music turned up loud; the incredible reminiscences of an antique writing desk; and all about the mythic threat lurking under Binscombe's electricity substation. I have previously blogged about the first of those stories, which gave me an authentic shudder as John read it out at a ghost story evening chez Morris, and if you want to try "Waiting for a Bus" then it's available as a free PDF - but only until Halloween.

As well as all twenty-six tales, many of which have garnered awards such as the Year's Best Fantasy, Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series includes a long essay by John Whitbourn in which he reveals that oft-asked authorial secret - to wit, where he gets his ideas from. The whole book is 660 pages so there's no danger of running out of gruesome entertainment before the days start getting longer. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's the perfect present for those long dark evenings ahead.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Headcases (5)

The first evidence I can find of my predilection for severed-head monsters was way back in 1984 when I wrote the first Dragon Warriors book. That was the death's-head, pictured here by definitive DW artist Jon Hodgson. The description runs:

These vile supernatural creatures have the appearance of a human head with a long horn sprouting from the forehead and black bat-like wings behind the ears. They flap swiftly about their opponents, presenting a very difficult target (hence the high DEFENCE) and attacking with stabs of their sharp horn.

However, during the hours of daylight, the wings and horn of a death's-head become invisible and intangible, rendering it unable to fly. The monster gets around this problem by acquiring a host body. It devours the head of a victim and binds itself magically to the severed neck, using its sorcery to animate the body as a zombie. The death's-head then uses the host body to move around by day, passing itself off as human. It will always be on the lookout for a new host, however, as the decomposition of the body becomes obvious after a few days. A death's-head's disguise is thus 90% perfect on the first day after taking a new host, then 80% on the next day, and so on.

If attacked before sunset, the death's-head is bound to its stolen body and is thus less dangerous. It will use its host body to fight, using any weapon to hand, but the host body will have only the fighting skill of a normal zombie instead of the death's-head's own abilities given below. The fight is resolved just as though it were a combat with a normal zombie, except that any successful blow struck against the monster has a 10% chance of hitting the head and inflicting a wound on the death's-head itself. Otherwise the blow strikes the zombie body and reduces its Health Points.

The moment the sun sinks below the horizon, the death's-head regains its wings and horn and takes to the air. It will then scour the forests and lonely hill roads seeking a new host. It has a special spell, Spellbind, to help it overcome a foe without damaging his/her body. This spell is usable once per night, and cast with a MAGICAL ATTACK of 13. It has a range of 10m and, if successful, will cause the victim to stand in place while the death's-head kills him. Although a Hold Off the Dead spell will keep the stolen body of a death's-head at bay, it will not affect the death's-head itself as these creatures are not undead.

ATTACK 16    with horn (d10, 4 points)
Armour Factor 3
zombie host – 6m 
flying  –  30m
Health Points 1d6 + 2
Rank-equivalent: 6th

I'm not sure that I've ever used death's-heads in a game, though the Dragon Warriors scenario "The Honey Trap", written many years later, features a village of eerie critters obviously inspired by the penanggalan or the nukekubi. The reasoning there was probably that the players would expect some kind of vampiric nastiness, given that the adventure was set in Emphidor, but I obviously didn't want it to be too obvious. Come to think of it, I should have thrown in a harmless albino peasant just to incite the PCs into doing something they'd be ashamed of later. The differences from the usual South-east Asian flying heads (the sleepwalking, the taste for honey, bouncing like balloons) would be so that the knowledgeable Orientalists among the players (such as Paul Mason, Tim Harford or Jamie) couldn't accuse me of anatopism.

Monday, 15 October 2012

We need to talk about Blood Sword

I'm in a bit of a quandary. Maybe you can help.

As part of the worldwide re-release of our old gamebooks starting next spring, Jamie and I have been busy piecing the manuscripts together. Computer memory was at such a premium in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when everyone wore top hats and smoking jackets, that we didn’t keep digital copies of most of the books. Worse than that, most of them never existed in digital form in the first place, having been hammered out on typewriters or, in the case of Coils of Hate, written in green felt-tip on scraps of paper. (Oh yeah, you think I’m joking…)

So, we’ve been busy with scanners and OCR software, a laborious enough process but almost fun compared to the ensuing stage, when we have to reconstruct the entire flowchart, check it for errors, and then add logic markup for creating ebook versions.

And that’s where the quandary arises. Because the first few books we’re releasing will be Virtual Reality titles, including the new one that Jamie is writing now set in a Wild West of tumbleweed-haunted ghost towns, hard-bitten outlaws, immortal Conquistadores and heart-stealing Mexican vampires. The Virtual Reality system, as gamebook aficionados will know, is based on the skills the player chooses. Dice don’t feature, which makes it perfect for e-gamebooks.

And then we come to Blood Sword.

No wait, first of all you’re going to say, “What about Way of the Tiger?” Well, the fly in the ointment there is that we have the app rights to WotT (iOS, Android, etc) but not the ebook or print rights. And we’d like to get hold of them so as to include Avenger! and the other books in our new venture, but that’s not up to us. We’re trying.

So, Blood Sword. I’m looking at the old copies of those books and I’m thinking who, in this day and age, is going to want to wade through twenty-eight pages of rules before the adventure actually starts? And then there are the tactical maps –

Yes. About those tactical maps. How that happened was that Oliver Johnson and I had been talking to Elizabeth Roy, the editor in charge of Knight Books. (Coincidentally, a decade or two later she became an agent and repped Fabled Lands LLP for a while, but let’s not get distracted.) Liz was looking around for a follow-up series to Way of the Tiger. “It’ll need a USP,” she told us. I thought I had a doozy (or a duesy, if you’re a pedant) in that up to four readers could play together in a team.

Then we got to the big meeting and suddenly it wasn’t that simple. This was the latter part of the 1980s, and the marketing people were starting to take over the asylum. “Where’s the USP?” they said.

“You can play solo or as a party of adventurers,” I said.

I thought that was the clincher, but they continued to stroke their chins and play with their designer glasses.

“Mmm. No, we need a USP. Other gamebooks already do that.”

“No they don’t. Name one gamebook that does that.”

“USP, USP. Not listening. USP.”

Desperation is the mother of invention, as Plato probably said, so I found my mouth opening and waited to hear the fateful words my muse had come up with: “We’ll have tactical maps, a bit like a boardgame.”

Well, there was a rod to beat my own back. I grew to hate writing fight scenes into Blood Sword books because it always meant stopping and drawing a stupid little tactical map. And then, when the books came out, it turned out the maps had been printed at the size of a postage stamp, so good luck actually making any counters to push around that. It frustrated me to think of the thousands of readers who would give up because of those fiddly maps and never get to see all the wonderful adventures I was dreaming up for them. In Book 3 I even resorted to telling them, as near as dammit, to ignore the tactical rules altogether:
“If rules and numbers are not to your taste then you are at perfect liberty to ignore them.”
Twenty-five years on, am I really going to bring the maps back? Today’s gamers prefer simpler rules, and it’s hard to imagine anyone having the patience to move their counters around and wade through all those rules figuring out combat options. Life’s too short. Also, the story ought to be so compelling that you don't want to waste time on dice-rolling.

At least, that’s how I see it. But who am I to tell people how they should find their enjoyment? “Everybody makes their own fun,” as Rebecca Pidgeon’s character says in State and Main. “If you don't make it yourself, it ain't fun, it's entertainment.” Gamebooks are all about the empowerment of the reader, and if that includes the option to spend an evening geeking out with the dice and the pencils and the little tactical grids, well…

And then there’s the digital versions. I hate seeing dice roll around in a videogame or an app. That’s just the legacy of another medium creeping in. And the dice were only ever a way to represent statistical chances and skill-use anyway. Physically rolling them is one thing. Watching virtual dice clatter around puts me in mind of what Byron had to say about Keats’s poetry. (Best draw a veil over that; it’s not for repetition in polite company.)

So I’d rather convert all the Blood Sword books to something like the VR system. It’d be a lot of work, but they already have the character archetypes – trickster, sage, etc – so they’re halfway there. Well, a quarter of the way, at least. And then putting them into ebook format wouldn’t be nearly such a headache.

But hang on now. This is the twenty-first century. Publishing has evolved into something new and polymorphously liberating. I can release a new version of the Blood Sword books for the casual reader, and I can also put out a special “classic edition” with all the baroque rules for the hardcore gamers. And then everyone’s happy. We could even see about getting Russ’s permission to use his original illustrations in the classic edition – like the scary undead thing (above) that came from the meteor in Book 2.

Okay then. Sorted. Thanks for the chat, it really helped.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Kick it

With all the talk about Kickstarter (launching soon in the UK, in case you didn't see the recent comments discussion) this seems like a good moment to mention a game venture by Howard Phillips, the original "Gamemaster Howard" at Nintendo US.

I had the privilege of working with Howard a few years back when I was at Elixir Studios developing the game Dreams for Microsoft. Howard was my sounding-board for design ideas - but, much more than that, he was the project's champion at MGS. We were trying to do a Sims-beater (or at least a Sims-challenger) and Sims 2 was just about to send the Microsoft execs scurrying for cover; so having a bold, passionate champion like Howard was essential. It didn't save our project (I knew from pretty much the day I joined the company that the release of Sims 2 would kill us) but I got to work with the best darned group of people I ever met in my life and we did work we could all be proud of. And that's not nothing.

I quickly came to appreciate that few people in the industry could equal Howard's instinctive grasp of gameplay. So when he says he has an innovative game idea and he's looking for backers on Kickstarter, this is in another universe from the twits who are jumping around saying, "Hey! I never did a comic/gamebook/whatever in my life but wouldn't it be cool?" Know-It-All sounds like it'll be fun, it's original, the guy behind it has a track record second to none, and on top of all that he's one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. If any project deserves your backing, it's this one.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Not so black and white

I've just done an interview for the Exeter University student newspaper, Exeposé, in which I talk about interactive fiction, games, comics and future projects.

The main focus is my recent reworking of Frankenstein as a (sort of) gamebook. That's still available in the App Store but, if iOS isn't the apple of your eye, it's not long now before we'll be releasing the epub3 and Kindle versions. These have been coded by Spirit Entertainment, the developers of the new FL apps.

Here is the moment when the monster, having spent a whole year hidden in an outhouse adjoining the home of the De Lacy family, tries out the clothing he has made himself in preparation for finally meeting them:
You hang around the border of the woods at daybreak until you see a man with a scythe walking on the far side of the field. He is a long way off. Stepping out from the trees, you raise your hand in greeting. 
And he waves back. He waves. A simple gesture that men make to each other every day. It means more to you than anything you can remember. Your heart is pounding in elation as you turn back into the enveloping comfort of the woods.
So where was I? Oh yes, the interview was conducted by Tom Bond and Emily Lunn, Exeposé's books editors, and you can read it here. Just below the interview, there's also a review of the app (or ebook as we must soon call it) which gives a thumbs up - though here's yet another reviewer with a knee-jerk dislike of Victor Frankenstein. Where are people ingesting this dogma? The story of Frankenstein and his monster is much more interesting than simple good guy/bad guy. Victor is irresponsible, yes, and that's tackled at several points in my version, particularly in the dinner conversation with Professor Waldman. But the monster does murder three innocent people in Mary Shelley's novel - and may or may not murder up to four people in my version, depending on the level of alienation you encourage. The tragedy is that Victor and the monster destroy each other, emotionally, morally and at last literally. You want a simple good versus evil story, read Dracula.

I'm yakking away on pages 23-24, but there's plenty of other good stuff in there worth a look, including an interview with Peter Molyneux about his new company 22Cans. Curious? You will be.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Land of the free

I can't for the life of me guess what triggered it, but Fabled Lands has been enjoying a bit of a sales surge in America this week. Jamie and I always felt FL had the potential to succeed over the Pond where other British gamebooks had failed, given - in our opinion - a slightly less derivative fantasy setting and a hopefully superior level of gameplay. But our only official release in the USA was as "Quest", and those books received worse distribution than the 1918 'flu vaccine.

The higher a book gets in the charts, the more chance it will get noticed by new readers. Books either get into a positive feedback loop where they climb up and up, or they bob briefly and then sink again. So my appeal today is that if you're in the US and you've been thinking of buying a Fabled Lands book, this is the time when it would do the most good.

I'm assuming that, having taken a look, a new reader would want the series to continue. A lot of people do say that, and believe me it warms the cockles of my and Jamie's hearts to hear it, but it could be that I just don't get to hear from the ones who hate the whole idea and are glad the series ended halfway through. I can see why FL may not appeal to some gamebook fans. Instead of a single quest, issued to you at the start as though you'd just tossed your hat onto a stand outside M's office, in Fabled Lands you are a completely free agent and you have to define your own objectives. That's how I like to roleplay. I hate hate hate when the "Games Master" (or umpire, as I prefer to say) tries to steamroller us with a predesignated plotline. So FL really just reflects that style of play. But if you prefer a dictatorship, as some gamers do, then you may find yourself wandering aimlessly hoping that somebody will tell you what to do - or at least give you your motivation.

Given all that, it does make me wonder why FL was reasonably successful in Britain (one of the least free of all Western democracies) but struggled to find readers in the USA. Maybe the new wave of interest will pick up and we can turn that around. If you're in the US, you can find the books right here.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Dark Lord arrives in America

To coincide with the release of Dark Lord: The Early Years in US hardcover this week, Jamie has an exclusive interview with the International Reading Association; "My name is Dirk, but you may call me Master."

The interview gives you a taste of the side-splitting humour that won Jamie a shortlist nomination for the 2012 Roald Dahl Prize. Not only that, it's full of brilliant creative insights like this one:
'[Dark Lord] is a classic fish out of water/odd couple plot, but it also parodies its genre, albeit in a loving way. It lampoons fantasy, but it is also a cracking fantasy tale in itself, though I do say it myself. It's also interesting that this book probably couldn't have been written thirty years ago. Its time is now because everyone knows what a Dark Lord is, the imagery, the “trope” is everywhere.'
...though the truth is you can't study to acquire authorial talent like Jamie's, you have to be born with it. Curse him.

You can buy Book One in hardcover from the link below, and UK readers can still get it in paperback, as well as the sequel A Fiend in Need. I know, I know, you want him to write more Fabled Lands books - but really, take a look at the Dirk Lloyd series as they are genuine modern children's classics that I believe will be read and enjoyed by kids and grown-ups for generations to come.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How to take over the world

We interrupt our programme of super-creepy bodiless head-creatures from nightmare, folktale and fantasy gaming to bring you the trailer for Dark Lord: The Early Years, which goes on release (I nearly wrote "on the rampage") in the USA this week. It's not a gamebook, but it is Jamie's masterwork, and the best recommendation I can give it is to say that I have not met a single person who, having read it, hasn't thought it's one of the most brilliant novels ever. And that includes the Roald Dahl prize judges, presumably.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Headcases (4)

As you go on, a soft low beating drifts across the barren moors. You listen to the sound and it seems to form words – slay, slay slay… 

You look up to see four dark shapes swooping down through the mist towards you. The creatures attacking you are chonchons. These disembodied heads fly using their large veined ears as wings and attack by biting with their chisel-like teeth. 

If the flying heads of the Orient belong to the province of Dream, being either nightmarish (penanggalan) or surreal (nukekubi), those of South America are the creatures of Delirium. What else are we of make of an entity that flies by flapping its ears, the only warning of its approach being the soft beat of “tue, tue, tue” on the hot evening breeze?

Chonchons made an appearance in The Castle of Lost Souls (illustrated by Leo Hartas) and I could have sworn I originally came across them in the West Indian horror stories of the Reverend Henry S Whitehead. I even had an explanation of their origins, in a story that an African slave might tell his children of seeing an elephant’s head peering over the treetops in the dusk. The snag is, I can’t find anything about chonchons in Whitehead’s work now, nor any evidence that they originated outside the New World. And it was such a beautiful theory, too.

By one account, chonchons are sorcerers who treat their neck with a magic ointment so as to be able to detach their heads. Alternatively, they could be a sort of Chilean vampire, arising from the graves of suicides and flitting off in search of blood. In classical myth, vampires frequently took the form of owls (striges) to screech out omens of death, and most versions of the chonchon have them feathered and/or taloned, so possibly there’s a connection there.

Anyway, as I’ve said before, the beauty of folklore is precisely that it is an incoherent jumble of sources. You want taxonomy, go to a zoo. Fantasy is far stranger than that.