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Friday, 30 October 2015

Dark matter

I've told you the story about how Dirk Lloyd came to be. Jamie Thomson and I sat in my back garden with some beers, contemplating the need to come up with a new project seeing as how the two game development companies where we worked (Black Cactus and Elixir) had shut down within a few months of each other. We roughed out a plot, Jamie wrote the book, and a mere four years later we finally sold it to a publisher. Overnight success takes time, you see.

So then, as we were gearing up for the release of the first Dirk book, we decided it might be a good idea to get another series on the creative conveyor belt. So it was back to the garden, Becks bottles in hand, and this time we went for something with a science fictional element. Proper, classic SF where you get to travel to strange new worlds and meet a bunch of exotic alien species. So that was the series we originally called Gazza Greene, Starship Captain and which was eventually published as The Wrong Side of the Galaxy.

Concepts change a lot in development. I began work on the first Starship Captain book while Jamie was writing Dark Lord: A Fiend in Need. We'd kicked off with the notion that Gazza would be a troublemaker, a problem kid who was almost a bully in the making, so that in becoming an unwilling starship commander and having to forge a crew out of a bunch of misfits, criminals and renegades he'd be following an arc of redemption.

That plan soon got photon torpedoed. The first Dark Lord book was selling well, mainly to 8-11 year olds, and the Fabled Lands literary agent made a strong case for middle-grade action-humour now being the demographic for the Jamie Thomson "brand". On top of that, the publishers decided that every one of Jamie's books should begin, as Dark Lord: The Early Years did, with the word "AAARGHHHH!" Seriously. Every book.

So out went my opening chapters, which were deemed (probably correctly) as too dark and not action-packed enough for the target readership. What can I say? Books that jump straight into the action bore me, but then I'm not 9 years old. The Starship Captain series I was envisaging would have been for young adults, and we had no market there. We ended up with a great series, largely thanks to Jamie, and about 20% of my work made it into the finished book, but I still feel a pang about the parallel universe where The Wrong Side of the Galaxy appeared as a very different novel - one with action, strangeness and humour, but with the core of characer-based grittiness from which I like to see my heroes grow.

So, here below are those two opening chapters that didn't make the cut. In case you find this version too heavy, let me assure you that the finished book is much lighter, with lots of humour, fast-paced plot twists and astounding alien cultures - as you can find out for yourself:

(The artwork here on the blog is by the mega-talented Iasmin Gloom; follow her on Twitter.)


“I wish I was a million miles away from this dump!”
Gazza slammed the front door so hard he could hear the impact twanging the wires in the piano that sat under a mound of muddy boots and old magazines in the hall. Mimbles, who had been lying like a dishrag on the path, gave him a startled look and darted under the hedge.
Gazza instantly thought about turning round. Not because he regretted losing his temper or shouting at his mum. She asked for that, letting everyone walk all over her. It was enough to drive anybody into a fury. But there was a bit of a chill in the air already, sure to get colder now the sun had gone down, and he hadn’t stopped to grab a sweater.
Oh well, there was nothing for it but to keep on going now. He stomped off down the street. Old Mrs Forbush was carrying something wrapped in a paper tissue to the skip in her driveway. She could always find an excuse to nose around when there was any sort of a row going on. She gave Gazza a look like she thought he needed throwing in a skip too.
Stupid old bat. A year ago – no, it was longer, he wasn’t even ten at the time – Gazza had been chasing Colin Barley. Never would stand still and fight, that one. In frustration, Gazza chucked a big lump of earth at him, but Colin had ducked and it sailed through the open window of Mrs Forbush’s car as she was pulling out of her gate. Oh, the look on her face. His sister said some women used mud packs for beauty treatment. Mrs Forbush could do with a couple of tons, in that case.
She saw him laughing at her, pursed her lips like a cat’s behind, flung the rubbish into the skip and stalked off. All because of one honest mistake a couple of years ago. A lot of the neighbours looked at him that way. You’d think he was a firework that had fallen over lit, and everybody was scared to run over and set it up. Bunch of cattle, the lot of them.
“Hmm, fireworks,” said Gazza to himself after he’d gone a few more paces. He stopped and looked back at the skip in Mrs Forbush’s driveway. Imagine a box of bangers going off in there. It’d sound like world war three starting right outside her window. That’d really give her something to scowl about! Gazza chuckled. He’d have to remember that plan.
A shiver wiped the grin off his face. What business had it got getting this cold in September? It was like the weather was doing it just to spite him. He stormed off up to the main road, still fired up on the adrenaline from yelling at his mum. As he got to the top, there was a line of cars all stuck at the lights, horns blaring. “Shut up, you’ll get there just as quick,” he muttered at the nearest vehicle, a Mini with a bloke as wide as a water barrel squeezed behind the wheel. The man’s face was as red as the lights but he kept on leaning on the horn. Gazza’s eye fell on a half brick lying at the side of the pavement and for a split second he pictured himself lobbing it through the windscreen of the Mini, the glass turning to a web of cracks and the fat man’s gormless face staring back at him.
He shook his head. Don’t be daft. He felt his heart thudding with the very idea of it. That was crazy thinking. How had he got himself into that kind of a state?
All along the road he fought the urge to turn and look back down the row of cars. Just in case his dad actually had made the effort for once. Just this once. Well, if he turned up now he’d have missed Gazza and then he’d be sorry, wouldn’t he?
Except he wasn’t going to turn up. Gazza knew that. In a few days he’d phone and have some excuse ready, some old line he’d come out with. Well, it’d be too late. Never again. He’d given him enough chances.
Harvey was on his front step fixing a puncture on his bike. Gazza leaned over the gate. “Chuck it in the canal, mate, that’s all it’s good for.”
“All right, Gazza. Come out without a coat, did you? Must be freezing.”
Gazza shrugged. “Thought I’d come over for a bit, play a game or something.”
“Can’t. Flossie stuck a rusk in the Playstation.”
“You what?”
“It’s all full of milk and crumbs and spit. The tray doesn’t go in properly anymore.”
“Babies…” said Gazza, in the same tone that somebody might have mentioned rats when the Black Death was in full swing.
Harvey put down the bicycle pump. “’I thought you had something else on tonight, anyway.”
“What you talking about?” Gazza snapped back. He felt his heart in his throat, but he didn’t want Harvey to know that.
“Your birthday, isn’t it? Your sister said your dad was coming over.”
“Talking to my sister?” Gazza glowered at him, covering his embarrassment with spiteful humour. “Going out with her now, are you? Holding hands?”
“Leave off. Look, I’ve got to go and have my tea. See you at school, all right?”
Gazza slouched off without another word. When he heard Harvey call, “And happy birthday, mate!” he didn’t even look back.
He just let his legs carry him, on past the row of shops with the shutters down. The shutters were covered with same old graffiti he’d seen on them for the last few years, now scuffed and fading. Such a dump, this place – even the spray can brigade couldn’t bother keeping their work fresh. He picked up a handful of gravel from the gutter and rattled it off the metal shutters.
There were flats above the shops and he felt a little stab of malice as he saw the curtains twitch. A girl’s face, a student probably, pale and dumb as a sheep. He mimed throwing a stone at the window and laughed out loud when she actually ducked back.
But his smile faded as fast as it had come. The joke was on him, sloping around aimlessly on an evening when anybody else would be hanging out with their friends and family.
Well, anybody else would have a proper family. Not a father who showed up when he had nothing else to do and thought that it was enough to bring an armful of videogames instead of spending time with his kids. And as for his mother… Right now she’d be chugging back a big glass of wine in front of some mindless TV show, and she’d be all sentimental and teary the moment he walked back in the door. Gazza felt bile slosh around hotly in his guts at the thought.
Beyond the shops, the houses thinned out. The lights were on in the sports ground even though there wasn’t a game on this evening. The flat grey light shining onto the stands looked fuzzy in the gathering dusk and Gazza realized there was a mist seeping up from the canal that ran along the back.
He shivered in his thin T-shirt, but he wasn’t going back home yet. Let her stew. Let them all just carry on with their boring, pointless lives – the reality TV shows and the microwaved baked beans and the bottle of red wine that wouldn’t last the night once his mum got into it. His sister texting her stupid friends and screaming at any old inane bits of gossip. He didn’t want anything to do with anyone.
He passed a patch of overgrown scrub and trees, not big enough to be called a common. It reeked of fungus and dog turds where owners had let them go and do their business under the damp bushes. Somebody on the school bus had said the patch of land was called the Optic because some guy had put a telescope on it years ago for looking at stars. Ridiculous. The only time any kid around here got to see stars was if he was in a punch up. Certainly the sky, which streetlamps painted the colour of mustard even in midwinter, wouldn’t give an astronomer much to study. Sometimes you’d see a dodgy looking bloke in a raincoat slinking out of the bushes, but Gazza didn’t figure they went in there to look at Uranus.
Mind you, wasn’t that a star? He squinted. A falling star, maybe. He couldn’t hear any aircraft engines. In fact, other than the usual low hum of traffic, the evening was startlingly quiet. There weren’t even any birds singing in the stubby trees.
The light crawled across the misty sky. It must be a falling star. Old Moleface at school had said something about the season for meteorites. He could make a wish.
“I wish it was a plane and I was on it going somewhere inter- ” And he stopped then because the light went out. Just like that. Typical. His birthday, and all he got was half a wish on a rubbish falling star.
Further on there was a sort of little estate of about a dozen derelict buildings. The chain-link fence had loads of gaps but nobody went in there because all the houses had bricked-up windows. Sometimes, walking past, you’d catch a faint sour reek like in an old bus shelter – the smell of wet concrete, mould, and tramps dossing down. Gazza often wondered if it had been used in the War or something. Maybe a place where they cracked codes or built atom bombs. Back when there were more exciting things to do than hang around the kebab shop on a Friday evening. Back when things actually happened around here.
They could brick up all the houses in his road. They could come in the night and do it, and most of the neighbours wouldn’t even notice.
A car went past and as Gazza looked up he saw a sight that quickened his pulse. There was a solitary figure walking along the pavement about thirty yards ahead. His feet, scraping along in big clunky brown shoes, along with the big duffel bag on his back, made him look even smaller and scrawnier than he was.
As the boy glanced back, Gazza recognized him – a kid a couple of years below him at school. He didn’t know the boy’s name, but he’d noticed how he would blink nervously and turn round if he came across Gazza in the corridor.
He grinned at the thought, but suddenly he was angry again. That was typical. People were always assuming he was out to key their cars or steal their lunch money or beat them up. Well, to be fair, sometimes he did demand a share of lunch money. But that didn’t make him a monster, did it.
“Oy, you!” He raised his arm. “Come here.”
The boy looked all around, trying to pretend that he hadn’t noticed Gazza. What a lousy actor he’d make. It was pathetic. Gazza speeded up – not breaking into a run, just lengthening his pace. The boy started to hurry off down the road, the overstuffed bag jogging on his back.
Gazza gave a gasp of irritation. He was only going to give the little worm a bit of a fright. But now he’d ignored him. Disobeyed him. He couldn’t have that. He started striding along a bit faster. Every so often the smaller boy looked back, each time breaking into a little half-run for a few paces to put a bit more distance between him and Gazza.
Oh well, at least the exercise was warming him up. Gazza decided he’d chase the kid to the next set of lights, then he’d probably have to head back. Maybe he could sneak in without anyone hearing. Anything to avoid the usual drunken theatrics from his mum. He didn’t want to hear her saying, “Oh my poor little darling, your father didn’t even phone.” No, course he didn’t, he’d want to say. I don’t blame him. He didn’t want to talk to a whining alky, that’s why he left.
Three bigger kids – teenagers – walked out of a side road. The boy with the backpack was caught between them, but then to Gazza’s amazement he went right up to one of them. The teenager listened, then stared along the pavement. Right at Gazza.
It was Scarsey. He was in the year above. Gazza had had a couple of near run-ins with Scarsey – not a scrap or anything. They recognized something in each other, a toughness. Scarsey usually gave him a look of wary respect, even if he was a year older.
Not now, though. Not backed up by his two mates. Now it was a whole other look he was giving.
Gazza swore under his breath. He’d been about to turn back anyway. How could he do that now, without looking like he’d bottled it?
And who’d ever have guessed that Scarsey had a little brother? Probably only noticed him to give him clips around the ear. But now it was an excuse. A pretext, that was the word. Scarsey with his two mates. And here’s me, way off my own turf.
Gazza bent down and pretended to tie his shoelace, just to buy some time. The three teenagers started towards him. The kid with the backpack stood there watching, expressionless behind his bottle-thick glasses as if he was watching a wildlife documentary. One of those programmes where a pack of hyenas gang up on a lion. Only, Gazza thought, this was more like a pack of lions on one hyena.
Stuff it. He turned and ran.
They were after him. He didn’t waste time looking back. Didn’t need to, he could hear their boots clumping on the pavement. Heavy great boots that would leave multicoloured bruises that would ripen and rust for weeks. They couldn’t have just come out wearing trainers, of course. Oh no. Today of all days, and he couldn’t get a stroke of luck.
What did surprise him was how thick the mist was getting. The streetlamps were just bright smears in the twilight. And the lamps of the sports ground. No wait, that was on the other side of the road. So what was that damned great rack of lights shining off to his right?
He saw a gap in the chain link fence. No time to think. Instinct had him squeezing through before he knew it. A good move if the three bigger boys hadn’t seen him. But if they did, that meant he was cornered now. A roll of the dice, that’s all it was. Too late for second thoughts now, anyway.
He darted across to the nearest of the bricked-up buildings and flung himself out of sight just as his pursuers drew level. Bracing himself against a pile of old rubble, every muscle locked frozen, he gritted his teeth so as to force himself to breathe as quietly as possible. He could hear those three gasping away. Scarsey smoked like a wet bonfire, that was why. Not that you needed a lot of puff to go three-to-one on a younger kid and pound the living daylights out of him.
“He’s legged it,” said one of the boys.
“Yeah, long gone,” said another.
Neither of the ones who’d spoken was Scarsey. Gazza knew his creaky, weed-thin tones, like something crawling venomously over your skin.
“Hold up…”
Yes, that was him. Gazza could hear the relish in Scarsey’s voice. Excitement and the promise of action, the thrill of violence – those things tasted good to Scarsey. Gazza knew because they tasted good to him too.
“Look there,” said Scarsey.
“What is it?”
“Tore his top, didn’t he?”
Gazza frantically tugged his T-shirt around. There was a rip in the back. He hadn’t noticed snagging it when he squeezed through the fence.
Scarsey raised his voice. “Ready or not,” he called out in a sinister sing-song, “here we come!”
And Gazza heard the soft clash of metal cables as the three pushed through the gap in the fence after him.


Gazza couldn’t stay where he was. They’d be sure to stumble across him in seconds. He edged along the wall, hoping that he might find a way into the derelict building, but every door and window was sealed with masonry blocks.
“We’ll never find him in this fog,” he heard one of the boys complaining.
“Shut up,” snapped Scarsey. “You go round that way. And keep your eyes peeled. I don’t want him getting away.”
They were splitting up. Gazza kept going along the side of the building. At least he could hear their boots on the rough pebble-strewn ground, while his trainers meant he could move silently.
Trouble was, they were between him and the hole in the fence, so sneaky like a ninja wasn’t going to cut it. He tried to remember what ran across the back of the abandoned research park. A two-storey brick wall. There were wooden gates, but fifteen feet high with a padlock and broken glass along the top. There’d be no getting over that.
He darted out across open ground to the next building, diving out of sight around the corner just as Scarsey loomed out of the mist right next to where he had been crouching.
Gazza peeked out. He hated having to hide like this. He hated running. If it was just Scarsey on his own, he’d take him on even though he was a year older and eight kilos heavier. With three of them, though, and Gazza way off his turf, scarpering was just common sense.
He knew how Scarsey would spin it at school tomorrow. Make Gazza sound yellow. He wouldn’t mention being backed up by his mates, he’d paint a picture of Gazza running away with his tail between his legs. Gazza’s blood boiled and it took all his willpower not to jump out and lay into them right then.
But given the odds that really wouldn’t go well.
He had one other chance. There were other places you could get through the fence from the road. He ought to know, he’d walked past it often enough. Where were the gaps, though? He wished he’d paid more attention in the past. Then he remembered. There was a tree whose roots had pushed the chain links apart, leaving a big enough space for cats and tatty old foxes to come poking through. If the ground was soft enough there, he could dig a wider hole and get through.
That tree was on the other side of the road from the sports ground, right opposite the sign where they advertised the next fixtures. He swung like a compass needle, getting a bearing on the lights that still blazed fuzzily in the dusk.
Funny, the other light he thought he’d seen – the one in here among the abandoned buildings – that seemed to have gone out. It must have just been a reflection in a window. Just as well. He could do with all the cover he could get right now, and having a damned great arc light overhead wouldn’t help.
With everything else that was going on, he had forgotten that it couldn’t be a reflection. There was no glass in the windows, only cement and bricks.
High above the abandoned buildings, a ripple stirred the fog as something huge and unseen pushed through the air.
Gazza didn’t see it. His attention was all focused on staying out of sight. He risked a look around the corner of the building. The three had joined up again, and one of them had his phone out so as to use the light. Good. Let them mess up their night vision. The beam wouldn’t reach more than ten yards in this mist now. Five yards, even. It was getting thicker by the minute.
“Thank you,” mouthed Gazza at the sky. Maybe he was due a spot of luck after all. He sneaked out across the wide concrete space between the buildings. It immediately felt as if he had eyes boring into his back, but he forced himself to ignore that. It was just being out in the open. They couldn’t have seen him.
He ran swiftly on tiptoe across towards the far corner of the grounds, where he remembered the tree being. Get there and he’d be home free. In fact, he could be home and having a hot mug of tea while those three idiots were still stumbling around here in the dark.
He still had the big smile on his face when he glanced out into the street and saw him standing on the other side of the big metal gates. The little kid with the rucksack. Scarsey’s little brother. The little perisher who was the cause of all this trouble.
Gazza froze and put one finger to his lips. “Ssh.”
The kid’s glasses were little round circles of yellow ice in the streetlight. “Here’s over here, Billy!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
So Scarsey’s name is Billy. Who’d have guessed it, Gazza found himself thinking stupidly as he ran back deeper into the grounds. No point making for the gap in the fence now. Little Scarsey would follow him on the outside and lead them right to him before he was halfway through. Stuck in a gap in a chain fence – not a good position for facing three pairs of big toecaps.
He knew they’d catch him now. That felt like a relief, actually. Hiding and running weren’t his thing. They’d give him a pasting, but he’d leave some marks on them too. Even though they all had a year on him, not to mention those heavy boots, whatever they did to him he’d see to it that they’d be carrying away a few bruises of their own.
At what he judged to be the middle of the grounds, he stopped and turned. All he could see now was a misty outline of trees and buildings in the twilight.
“Come on, then!” he yelled into the fog. “What you waiting for?”
Gazza heard the slow scrape of footfalls, slightly muffled by the fog. Scarsey dragging his feet, taking his time, savouring the moment.
“You in a hurry, are you?”
He saw them then. Just shadows in the fog. They were closing in. He saw a flash of a smile, like a rattlesnake turning its scales.
“Only I’m afraid we’ve got quite a bit to do, Greene,” said Scarsey. “Might be here a while.”
They started to circle him. He wasn’t going to get a chance to go down fighting. One of them would jump him from behind. He couldn’t watch them all. Then they’d pin him down and he’d be helpless. He felt the rage pounding in his throat, roaring like acid in his veins.
A snigger came from Scarsey’s throat. A nasty, cowardly sound. Gazza realized he’d been wrong. He sometimes thought he’d be Scarsey in a year’s time. How could he have ever thought that? He and Scarsey, they weren’t anything alike. He liked a fight, but a fair fight. A proper scrap. He wouldn’t lead a pack and titter to himself about it.
“You’re a creep, Scarsey. Step up and I’ll take you on.”
The answer: running feet behind him. Gazza started to turn, braced to push his shoulder into the boy’s face and follow up with a fist. But he didn’t because at that moment it was as if the sun turned back on and he was surrounded in a blaze of dazzling white light.
He clearly saw the boy who’d been running at him. Not Scarsey, one of the other two. But the weird thing is that he now seemed to be falling away, shrinking back into the haze of blinding light.
Then Gazza realized that it wasn’t the other boy who was falling, it was him. He was falling directly up into the sky.
He twisted around – which wasn’t easy. His arms and legs felt as if somebody had rolled him up in half a mile of clingfilm. Finally he managed to turn his neck so he could look up. The lights were right on top of him. They were arranged in a circle and they were so incredibly bright that he couldn’t look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling like chisels were being stuffed down his tear ducts into his brain.
Yet he didn’t feel hot, as you might expect if somebody hoisted you up within arms length of a huge array of stadium lights. If anything, the light actually made the air around him feel colder.
He could hear Scarsey and the others running away. Their big boots sounded a long way off, and as tiny as beetles scuttling over a windowpane.
There was a hiss and a hatch opened in the middle of the circle of lights. A shadow appeared in the haze. That’s when Gazza finally realized. Those weren’t stadium lights. They weren’t construction lights. They weren’t on top of any stand or tower. There was nothing supporting them. They were floating in mid-air.
Then the shadow raised an arm, Gazza saw what looked like a gun in its hand.
And everything went white.

Friday, 16 October 2015

The first glimmer of the Fabled Lands MMO

I was talking recently about the RTS game Plague that I worked on with Sam Kerbeck and Richard Fletcher at Domark (later Eidos). Around the same time, Jamie Thomson and I were trying to convince the Domark/Eidos management to start development on a multiplayer CRPG based on our Fabled Lands gamebooks.

This was around May/June of 1996. The Fabled Lands Otherworld Game, as we called it, was destined to mutate considerably over the next couple of years as the technology advanced by leaps and bounds. We changed to an all-new setting, the continent of Abraxas, which you can read about here. We massively expanded the scale of the game into a true MMO and we abandoned the top-down isometric view for true 3D. We began to use Propprian theory to develop the idea of a "referee AI".

It was all too ambitious for the Eidos senior management, who by then may have spotted that they didn't need to develop games to make money. Many internal teams were hived off into private companies like Black Cactus, the FL team was laid off, and the Fabled Lands MMO never happened. But, for no better reason than historical curiosity, here is the original pitch document that Jamie and I showed to Ian Livingstone in mid-1996.

Fabled Lands "Otherworld" Gaming

We say "role-playing" when we're talking about solo explore-and-level-up games, and "adventure gaming" when we really mean boring old crate-stacking and puzzles, which means that when it comes to real role-playing for the PC games market we don't have a term left. So let's call this "otherworlding": realtime multi-player role-playing, given a new lease of life by the medium of software to create a new kind of gaming experience.

The Fabled Lands Otherworld Game anticipates the gaming styles that will have become current two years from now, while not abandoning traditional gaming forms. I'll start by describing how the game would play in its solo form and then go on to cover future innovations.

The Solo Game

On the surface FL won’t look much different from a traditional CRPG. You choose a character from a gallery of races, classes and clothing styles and assign starting skills. (These are mix-&-match to allow multiple options, eg in favourite weapon.) Then you set out on your adventures, your adventuring persona represented by an animated sprite on isometric city streets and landscapes. Dotted around the world are many lost ruins, wizard's towers, haunted castles and other areas where you can gamble risk against reward. In the cities you can spend your treasure on new equipment and magic, resurrection deals, buy a townhouse or castle – or even ships to go trading and privateering across the sea.

Where it differs from ordinary CRPGs is in having a number of special partially-scripted adventures that a campaign "referee" (in the form of the game's AI) can bring in to liven things up whenever your character is having too easy a ride. These adventures are templates with slots to accommodate friends and enemies you've picked up in the course of your travels.

For example: you take a bounty hunter's job and go hunting bandits. You round up most of the horde but the leader, Black Nat Varley, escapes. Later, while implementing a random attempt on your life, the AI fills in the assassin's identity as being Black Nat. If Nat survives your second encounter, he'll eventually show up in another encounter and so on. (Adversaries who survive more than three encounters are classed as "dear foes" and have their own level increases tied to yours so as to always give you a good battle.)

And the referee AI will also take account of your character class, deity, etc, when introducing new missions and encounters. It can also randomly generate adventure locations as needed. This means that every campaign will be unique.

The Home Campaign

A bunch of friends arrange to get together and play a Fabled Lands Otherworld campaign on a regular basis. Say I'm the campaign manager; this means the campaign data is kept on my machine. Players come round once a week with their laptops, or maybe they dial in – or the campaign might be run on an office network a couple of evenings a week.

Within the game, players can get together for adventures or split up and go their separate ways. Some magical objects allow you to spy on the progress of other players, possibly with a view to ambushing them and grabbing their treasure. The magic level is high, permitting frequent teleportation and communication at a distance. Alliances and rivalries are equally possible. The game moves more swiftly than old style pnp RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. This allows players to move around the world quickly and have plenty of adventures every session. (The best way to explain this is as a combination of an RPG and an adventure boardgame like Eric Goldberg's Tales of the Arabian Nights.)

The Open Campaign

Almost a Multi-User Dungeon, except with the AI referee throwing in plenty of plotlines to keep the adventure fizzing. The way this would work is with a company picking up the licence to run a commercial Fabled Lands campaign. Such companies might have a couple of hundred participants in one game, all paying-to-play with a percentage coming back to Domark. (Distributed processing through the network would prevent the game from being frustratingly slow.)

The character-to-character interface will mean that when two adventurers meet they cannot immediately start typing messages to each other. To start with they have to go through a menu of greetings and responses, which will be decided by factors such as class, race and deity. For example, an elf meets a human. They're given possible messages and responses that, if followed appropriately, allow both players to reach a point where direct messages can be typed in. However, a human meeting a goblin would not be able to do this (the two races being mutually hostile) unless one or both was accompanied by a dwarf or other "neutral" race. This effectively provides a kind of "Turing Test" interface when first meeting a character whereby you cannot know if you're talking to another human player or a computer-controlled character.

What happens if you can't turn up (on-line or in person) for a game? This is the bane of the old-style roleplayers life, because his character misses out on treasure and experience awards. The way Fabled Lands solves this is to get every player to choose a Downtime Mode for his character when logging off. If you opt for "Sanctuary" then your character is retired from the game world until the next time you play. He gets no awards but cannot be attacked while you're off-line. "Training" means your character is in the arena or library. He gets some experience for any campaign time that passes when you're absent, but there is a chance of other players stealing from or assassinating him. "Adventuring" makes your character available for dungeon expeditions or other endeavours, making him an AI-run NPC for the duration, but although this means you can get your share of treasure and experience you also run the risk of logging on next time to discover your character has been killed in action.

Game mechanics

By basing the game on our Fabled Lands world – which we have developed over several years for radio plays, gamebooks and role-playing adventures – we make sure to avoid the cobbled-together warmed-over fantasy typical of the usual CRPG output. Fabled Lands is as detailed and unique a setting as you will find in any fantasy novel.

Begin by choosing your race (human, trau, merfolk, mannikyn people or whatever), country of origin (the four continents and many islands of the Fabled Lands world all have their own character), deity (there are over a dozen with a complex interplay of antagonisms and associations), and a name for your adventuring alter-ego.

Next the player sets his expertise in the five abilities: Combat, Magic, Charisma, Wayfaring, and Agility. Each of these governs your potential scores in the skills which are sub-groups of that ability. (For example, Wayfaring devolves to Sailing, Riding, Scouting, Survival and Streetwise.) By focussing in one field you can make yourself a master, but at the expense of your other abilities.

Higher ability scores bring in hero-level skills and spells that the player had no idea were possible, maintaining the excitement of discovery that is at the heart of the real role-playing experience.

The display is isometric and characters move in real time. A whole gallery of animated figures can be custom-coloured in the way that tabletop gamers like to paint their own figurines. In combat you can preset your fighting mode (ie, how much is put into attack and defence) or key in manoeuvres on the fly. More experienced adventurers can perform more effective fighting manoeuvres with just one keystroke, or unleash more devastating spells.

Expansion disks would introduce new quests, encounter areas, and characters while extending the map and including additional storylines for the referee AI to use.

Whereas CRPGs up till now have copied the sillier and more tedious aspects of early DnD (one dungeon level full of orcs, another full of lizard men, and so on...and on), Fabled Lands will emulate and expand on the things that made role-playing popular to start with. This means building up a character history: exploring exotic worlds, encountering friends and deadly foes, discovering magical artefacts and the excitement of researching ever more powerful spells. At the highest levels players can occupy their own castles, hire armies, wage wars or create their own "pocket universes" using the mightiest magic.

It will be a journey to a whole other world.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Breaking the butterfly

Last week I was talking about Plague, the game I designed at Eidos in the mid-90s that morphed from sim-medieval London to "the game of war, Black Death and taxes" to the unabashed RTS that was Warrior Kings.

I wish I had more than snippets from old documents to show you. Sam Kerbeck's 3D engine was amazing. He and lead artist Richard Fletcher worked 24-7 for weeks to build a demo that would make the execs at Eidos take notice. Unveiled at E3, that demo reportedly rattled Peter Molyneux enough to put Populous: The Beginning back by six months. The engine was whisked over to Eidos subsidiaries like Pumpkin to use for Warzone 2100, but development on Plague itself was dogged by the politics that comes of being located at a games publisher's head office. One day I'll write the novel, only nobody will believe it.

So this (below) is the second attempt at an intro for Plague. The idea of writing these was more to give the team a creative focus than to necessarily be the actual game intro, as by this stage development had entered a kind of reverse Zeno's Paradox whereby the projected shipping date seemed to be receding into the far future. Within another year I had seen that the only way to fix the whole thing was to junk Plague and start afresh with Warrior Kings. It worked for a little while, but - Oh, maybe I'll save that story for the novel too.

Plague Intro Movie

A glimmer in darkness. Words briefly appear on the screen: Sunset, on the Day of Judgement. The words fade.

There's the sound of screams and moans, of many people. Flames licking up out of the darkness around ruined towers. We're pulling back gradually as the flames die down and the screams recede away...

The fires fade and we continue pulling back. What seems to be the walls of an immense dark cavern reveals itself to be the socket of a skull. We continue pulling out. It's not a whole skull, the lower jaw's missing, and it's charred and blood spattered. We see a black clawed hand is holding it.

The hand crushes the skull. There comes a hideous gasp of triumph. Continuing still to pull back, we see (from low angle shot - he looks immense) a figure. Under his cowl, you can't quite make out his face - it could be black bone, or hard black beak like a raven's. He has black raven-wings and a scythe.

We stop tracking out with Death in three-quarter shot and pan across as he turns to survey a wasteland, shrouded in smoke or fog. Music: the "Dies Irae" from Symphonie Fantastique. The sun hangs on the horizon, strangely close. Death lets the last fragments of the skull fall.

DEATH: It is over. Mankind's day is done. The last mortal soul speeds on its way to Hell, and Death holds illimitable dominion over all.

Hold on the scene a moment. The music fades away.

There's a flare of white light from behind Death. A wind roars across the plain, dispersing the fog. We pan round as Death turns to see...

A figure all in white, delicate features, with jagged fractal wings like a marvellous butterfly. The wings may have caused the wind, but now they're relaxing slowly back into position as we see the figure. White light shines from behind him.

DEATH: I thought I had slain everything.

ANGEL: I am the last of my kind.

DEATH: You come too late. This is the end of Time. Eternity is drawing to a close.

ANGEL: Perhaps.

DEATH: There's nothing you can do for Man. He has been judged for his sins and sentenced to extinction.

ANGEL: Perhaps not.

DEATH: Who are you? Tell me what name to carve in the stone that shall press your corpse into the earth!

ANGEL: I am hope. While I live, Mankind has a future.

DEATH: While you live - ? I'll putrefy your body with a thousand pestilences, rack you with a thousand agonies... break you down to atoms and less than atoms and scatter the debris across the cosmic void.

While they've been talking we've tracked across towards the angel (the whole thing is one continuous shot all the way through with no cuts), who turns briefly to look into the sky. With the fog gone, a long swathe of dim stars is visible in the darkness. The angel reaches up and takes them from the sky - a sword made up of a million stars that flare with renewed light at his touch. As he turns back to face Death, his eyes and mouth glow with inner white light.

ANGEL (smiling): Want a bet..?

As they move together, the scene blurs and starts to fade, becoming a swirl of black and white that spirals around and around...

The game options are superimposed, set out on bars that mirror the Light vs Darkness theme (ie, hardship level, difficulty level, etc). The player selects his options...

The swirl, like a whirlpool, opens up to reveal the start of the game.

Plague outro 1: Dark Lord victory

The same desolate plain seen the start, now completely shrouded in a thick blanket of mist. Slowly a hump rises, like a black mushroom. Tracking in, we see it's a hunched figure in black robes: Death. Slowly he rises to his feet, the mist swirling around him in slow eddies as he moves, and the camera POV moves around likewise, ending close in and to one side of him.

DEATH: So that was Hope...

He swings his scythe round. A single tatter of white robe hangs from the tip of the blade.

Death plucks off the tattered fabric, gazes at it a moment. In his hand it blackens and shrivels.

DEATH: ...but now he too is gone. In all the universe, there is no living thing left...

Death suddenly looks straight at the camera. It's a bit of a jolt, seeing into his eyes for the first time. More of a jolt is the implication that we're actually present in the scene.

DEATH: ...except for you.

But does he mean it as an acknowledgement of victory, or something more ominous?

As he starts towards us, suddenly, cut to black.

Plague outro 2: Bright Angel victory

Death and the Angel are locked in combat, but Hope has the upper hand. Death falls back, and behind him a swirl of nascent stars forms in the dark void. The mist is sucked away into them - and the plain too, leaving Death and Hope suspended in a cosmos which is starting to glow with new nebulae.

Death's scythe is pulled out of his grasp, sucked back into the swirl of stars, which now begins to resemble a galaxy - setting the scale as cosmically huge.

Death braces himself against the cosmic wind. His robes flutter and snap, but the Angel is unmoved. Remorselessly he reaches out to place his hand around Death's black mask-like face.

DEATH: You can't destroy me! I am Death...

We cut to the Angel's face. With the brilliant light behind his eyes and mouth, he hardly looks human at all.

ANGEL: Not any more.

Cut back and pull away fast as he closes his grip. Death's head seems to shatter, and as it does there is a blinding burst of light as the Universe begins again.

Cut to a man's face, waking startled from a dream. He's a BEGGAR, wearing rags and sleeping in the gutter of a medieval town. From the angle and colour of the sunlight we guess it's dawn.

The beggar gasps and mops his brow, relieved that it was all a dream. Then a shadow falls across him and he looks up, momentarily alarmed. We see him shield his eyes, squinting into the sun.

BEGGAR: Who are you..?

Cut to the beggar's POV, looking up at a STRANGER who is silhouetted against the rising sun so that we can hardly see his face because of the halo of light.

STRANGER: Do not be alarmed. I'm not here to hurt you.

BEGGAR: Stay away for your own sake. Do you not see I have the plague?

The stranger bends to help him up, and as he does we cut back to the beggar's face. Before he may indeed have been pockmarked, but now there are no sores on him.

STRANGER: The plague has gone. You do not have it.

The stranger steps back out of shot. The beggar gets up, feeling his face in growing amazement as he realises it's true, he's been cured.

He looks up for the stranger, then we see him look puzzled because the stranger has gone. He looks around.

Cut to see the stranger walking off down the narrow medieval street, trailing his fingers past beggars who are waking up to a new day. There's astonishment and delight as each realises that he too is free of the plague.

As the sun rises higher, there comes the sound of birdsong and the growing bustle of the town. The beggar watches till the stranger is out of sight, then notices something in front of him. He bends down and plucks it: a beautiful flower coloured like a butterfly's wing.

I do remember showing it to Ian Livingstone and he thought the intro script would be better if, after the Angel says, "Want a bet?" Death curls his (unseen) lip and purrs, "Oh really...?" I tend to think one punchline is enough, but that's the problem with being a writer. Everybody thinks they can do your job. There was also an Eidos game called Gangsters. The copy for the poster read: "Real power is never given..." with an image of a wild-eyed wiseguy with a tommy gun spitting lead. The Eidos brass added a line at the bottom of the poster: "...It's taken " - just in case you hadn't got the point. Two punchlines again, you see. May Death and the Angel of Life both save us from execs with too much time on their hands.