Gamebook store

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Nerve-racking news

So you can't have missed that Megara Entertainment are working on deluxe hardcovers of The Way of the Tiger for release in 2014, nor that Fabled Lands LLP will be bringing out paperbacks (black-and-white, so a little less deluxe) later in the year.

Megara also have the Orb RPG in development, for those who are more interested in role-playing than in gamebooks and who aren't that bothered about sneaky, leapy geezers in black PJs. Come on, I can't be the only one. Any questions, just ask the chaps at Megara.

Even more amazing news: Jamie just told me that he was digging around in the attic and he came across a complete Duelmaster book, previously unpublished. This one was to be titled either Masters of the Martial Arts or Tournament of Champions, and Jamie finished it just a few days before he heard that the publisher had cancelled the series. We're going to be playing it next week to see if it stands the test of time. If so - well, can you stand another Kickstarter?

Friday, 22 November 2013

A noose of light

I probably don’t have to declare at this stage that I’m kind of an admirer of Russ Nicholson’s artwork. I’ve wanted his illustrations in my books since way back in 1984, when I had to track him down to Papua New Guinea to get him to supply the drawings for Eye of the Dragon.

And everybody knows that as far as the Fabled Lands series is concerned, Russ is “the third author” (it’s like being the Fifth Beatle, only with less hair). His imagination made it real, gave it substance, and that’s not just my and Jamie’s opinion – just look at how the apps drew on his original art.

Likewise Leo Hartas, not just an artist who is brilliant at conveying charm in his quirkily imaginative scenes, but one of my closest friends and, of course, my creative partner on projects like Mirabilis.

As I was lucky enough to get these guys as the illustrators of my Virtual Reality books in the mid-90s, you can bet that I wanted to retain their illustrations in the new incarnation of those books under the Critical IF imprint. And yet, Once Upon A Time In Arabia (the book formerly known as Twist of Fate) does not feature Russ’s great pictures, instead relying for visual embellishment on the more obscure (these days) William Harvey. No, not the blood guy.

I am very conscious that gamebooks are all about the nostalgia. Switching things around is as welcome to most gamebook aficionados as a bacon sarnie to a Salafi. So why the change?

To explain that, first I must ask you to cast your mind back – or, indeed, just click the link – to the announcement that Fabled Lands LLP would be partnering with Osprey Books to bring back Virtual Reality in digital format. Because the original plan to do them in HTML5 was deemed too expensive, we decided to go with EPUB3 format, which we thought would be cheaper. (It wasn’t, but that’s a detail.)

It soon turned out that we wouldn’t be able to have much interior artwork in any EPUB3 versions. As in, no art at all once you were past the prologue. So each book was to have two or three black and white illustrations. These were not by Russ or Leo and I wasn’t involved in commissioning them. No big deal, I thought, as I could still use the original artwork in the print editions. Then it turned out there were to be no print editions after all, only the ebooks.

Dry your tears. For various reasons, the planned partnership was abandoned and the ebooks canned. Still, we had the books all edited and ready to go – and Createspace makes it very easy to publish paperbacks and distribute them via Amazon. So, after quickly striking agreements with Russ and Leo, we were back in business.

Except… These are pictures you don’t want to mess up. Only sharp high-resolution images would do. I finally got the best quality my scanner is capable of by razor-blading copies of the VR books to pieces and scanning at 600 dpi. It worked out fine for Heart of Ice, Necklace of Skulls and Down Among the Dead Men. The snag is that I had no spare copy of Twist of Fate (I hope you’ll forgive me not wanting to mutilate the only one I had left) and it would cost $150 to buy a spare on Amazon. Hence the decision was taken to resort to the illustrations of Mr Harvey, which had the benefit of being (a) specifically drawn for the Arabian Nights and (b) out of copyright for seventy-seven years. Oh, and pretty good. Not Russ or Leo quality, but evocative enough.

As Scheherazade’s beleaguered heroes are fond of saying, God alone is all-powerful. OK then. But I managed three out of four, and I can live with that.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

What is it about magic and colour? At a role-playing convention years ago, Greg Stafford described to the breathless Glorantha groupies a scene in a RuneQuest movie that was pitched to the deaf ears of Hollywood. Something has happened to remove magic from the world, said Stafford, and the movie would show this by switching from colour to black-&-white.

It made me think first of A Matter of Life and Death (the difference between monochrome and colour is used more interestingly there) but the very next neuron to fire recalled SPI's 1975 boardgame Sorcerer, in which wizards attuned to different colour frequencies vied for power by enticing each other to battle in zones whose hue favoured their own magic. Sorcerer created quite a stir among us boardgamers because it was SPI's first foray into fantasy gaming - which, as they usually catered for the hardcore wargamer, was a crisis of confidence brought on, no doubt, by the growing success of grungy dungeon games. If you're interested, you can get a glimpse of the rulebook here.

A few years after that, in 1986, Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson came out with the Duel Master series - for me, their best gamebooks, and probably my favourite gamebooks ever. The first (and best) of these, Challenge of the Magi, involved two duelling sorcerers of the Rainbow Land (part of which unaccountably overlapped with Warwickshire and/or the poems of Thomas Lodge) whose magic obeyed a chromatic taxonomy:
  • Red for fire
  • Black for death
  • Blue for illusion
  • Green for nature
  • White for... um, "holy" stuff
There were two books. Each player took one and you chased each other around the map of the Rainbow Land, trying to fake out your opponent so he didn't guess the colours on which you were strongest. OK, in the era of videogames that probably doesn't sound too impressive, but we had to make our own fun* in those days. And anyway, books are like radio: the pictures are better.

To this day I never figured out how Mark and Jamie made those books work. There was some kind of crazed obsessive-compulsive genius at work in the amazingly detailed rules (which were, nonetheless, easy to use) and the complex intricacies of the flowchart (likewise). And they were meaty, these tomes: 800 sections each. And you got a solo option.

They should have been a massive success, but the tragedy of gamebooks was that the craze didn't last long enough to really support any of the interesting things they were evolving into. That's why it surprises me when some modern revivals of the medium seem to aspire only to setting the clock back to simple dungeon-bashing. By the late-'80s gamebooks were already way beyond that.

(For the sake of balance I should add that there are plenty of modern gamebooks that have continued to innovate in terms of rules, setting and, most interestingly, the depth and quality of the storytelling - just look at the quality of most Windhammer Prize entries, for example.)

Fabled Lands LLP has the rights to the Duel Master books and they are cherry-ripe for conversion to apps. A little bit of handheld tech is perhaps all they needed to get the success they deserved. Twenty-seven years on, we'll see what we can do.

* Although, as Mamet says, everybody makes their own fun; if you don't make it yourself it isn't fun, it's entertainment.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Kickstarter - the results are in

No need to look glum. I don't know what's going on with quiff boy and those other fellows in Bob Harvey's picture above, but the Way of the Tiger campaign on Kickstarter has now concluded and it was an outstanding success.  If you didn't have enough money to buy one of the full-cover hardbacks, don't despair. There will be a paperback edition from Fabled Lands Publishing sometime next year.

Fabled Lands book seven? It's the inevitable question. We're certainly considering it. But if you're thinking it would be a shoo-in on Kickstarter, I do just have to point out a couple of caveats.

Nobody actually gets to take home forty thousand dollars for The Way of the Tiger. Kickstarter takes a fee off the top. Artists must be paid. The text must be scanned, cleaned up and edited. Printing, packaging and postage eats up most of what remains.

And Way of the Tiger was already written - six books of it, at any rate - and the new artwork was able to build on what Bob Harvey and the cover artist had aleady done.

In contrast, FL book 7 needs to be written. It must have all-new illustrations by Russ. (Everyone agree? Thought so.) An awesome cover image too that must hold its own beside Kevin Jenkins's classic paintings. And then there's editing and typesetting. That all has to be paid for by the profit margin, not the whole amount raised.

Profit is not the right word anyway, as the hundreds of man-hours that Richard S Hetley, Mikaël Louys, David Walters and others put into running the WOTT Kickstarter campaign were purely a labour of love You could say, in effect, that Kickstarter took all their unpaid efforts at one end and turned those into a couple of thousand bucks to pay editors and artists with.

Of course, that's not all a Kickstarter campaign does. Its main value is as a publicity campaign to make people aware that Way of the Tiger is back. If new readers flock to join the nostalgia buffs willing to spend $50 a book, then it becomes a viable business.

About a decade ago, there was a show on British television called Restoration.The idea was to get the viewers to vote which of several worthy but crumbling old buildings would get lottery funding. Each project had to explain how the restored building would save itself from sliding off into penury again. In most cases you had well-intentioned twits pitching the repurposing of (say) an 18th century Shropshire manor house into an arts commune. "Artists will live here and paint and the public can come and buy their work, and that will pay for maintenance of the property." They might just as well have dynamited the bloody building right there and then.

Faced with the exact same problem, the Landmark Trust came up with an ingenious solution. Charitable donations pay to restore old buildings, which are then rented out to the public as holiday homes via a second, non-charitable organization whose profits go to sustaining the buildings. This works because it is a real business. A successful Kickstarter needs to be less like Nigel Means-Well, more like the Landmark Trust.

What that boils down to is whether Way of the Tiger or Fabled Lands can make the next step. Can they go from having a hundred or so fans who remember them with open-walleted affection to several thousand fans who will buy the paperbacks and apps at a moderate price? We'll test the water with WOTT paperbacks next year, and that may indeed point the way to Fabled Lands books 7, and 8, and 9, and...

Whoops, mustn't get carried away!