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My Complete and Utter Fighting Fantasy and Gamebook Bibliography

October 28, 2015 13 comments

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Fighting Fantasy gamebooks started in 1982 with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Over the next twelve years, a total of 59 gamebooks was published, along with a magazine, a multi-player RPG, and other spin-offs. I was by no means the most prolific contributor to the series, but here’s a list of my contributions to the gamebook craze.

Books
Fighting Fantasy 10th Anniversary Yearbook, Puffin Books 1992 – “Rogue Mage” adventure (reprint)
Fighting Fantasy # 29: Midnight Rogue, Puffin Books 1987
The Adventures of Oss the Quick, Oxford University Press 1987 – 6 vols
The Adventures of Kern the Strong, Oxford University Press, 1986 – 6 vols

Articles
“Field of Battle,” Warlock #12 October/November 1986
“Into the Unknown,” Warlock #11, August/September 1986
“More Monster Conversions,” Warlock #10, June/July 1986
“Rogue Mage,” Warlock #10 June/July 1986
“Monster Conversions,” Warlock #9 April/May 1986
“Magical Items,” Warlock #9 April/May 1986
“The Ring of Seven Terrors,” Warlock #9 April/May 1986
“The Seasoned Adventurer,” Warlock #4, 1985
“Solo Voyages,” Imagine #22, Jan 1985 Download free here

Interviews
Fighting Fantazine #7 – downloadable here

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Also on this Blog
All posts tagged “Fighting Fantasy”

Other Bibliography Posts

My Complete and Utter Warhammer Bibliography (Warhammer, WFRP, HeroQuest, AHQ)

My Complete and Utter Warhammer 40,000 Bibliography (WH40K, Adeptus Titanicus/Epic Scale)

My Complete and Utter Cthulhu Bibliography

My Complete and Utter D&D/AD&D/d20 Bibliography

My Complete and Utter GURPS Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Vampire: the Masquerade and World of Darkness Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Colonial Gothic Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Dark Future Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Video Gameography

My Complete and Utter Bibliography: The Rest of the RPGs

My Complete and Utter Bibliography: Odds and Ends

 

The Future of Gamebooks?

May 14, 2015 11 comments

Someone from a Fighting Fantasy Facebook group just asked me whether I thought there could ever be a gamebook resurgence. Is it possible to capture the same lightning in a bottle, 30 years on? Branching novels? Other applications for the numbered-paragraph format? It’s a question I come back to every so often myself.

Here’s what I told him, based on my own experience. What does anyone else think?

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The question you’re considering is one I wrestled with myself back in the 80s. The gamebook phenomenon was so huge that I was sure that there were endless applications for interactive-lit-based learning, fiction, and just about everything else. I tried a few things, from short Choose-Your-Owns for my university museum through training aids for various things, but nothing ever made it past the prototype stage.

At the time, I was mystified, and convinced that I’d missed something. Looking back, I think now that I was focusing on too small a part of the picture. Like the American rail barons who felt safe because there were no other railways but didn’t realize that railways were just one part of the transport industry, and ended up being destroyed by the growing interstates and airlines. We’re really talking about interactive storytelling.

As far as books go, I don’t think gamebooks will ever escape their origins in the young adult section. That mark will stay with them forever, and make it hard – if not impossible – for the format to be taken seriously as a form of adult literature. It’s possible to conceive of Choose-Your-Own-Adventures for adults, but I can’t escape the worry that adult readers would feel they were playing rather than reading, and that would ultimately thin the market for an interactive adult book, no matter its other qualities. But then, books are dying, or so we’re told once a year or more. With that said, though, the trusty Choose-Your-Own format is still used in some educational books for kids: for example, Capstone Press in the States has a line of “Interactive History Adventure” books. I’ve heard nothing about whether kids prefer them to standard format books, though.

Interactive storytelling is well established in the computer games world, of course, and that’s where it’s flourishing right now. Just the other day I was doing some stuff for a game developer using a program called Twine, which is basically a whiz-bang flowchart system that makes writing interactive stories a doddle. Hypertext-stack text games are an artisan-filled niche these days, but a lot of games still rely on story trees and such.

Back in the 90s, “interactive movie” was a buzzword. As well as theatrical releases, the term was also applied to computer games with a high story content, a branching narrative structure, and ambitions to artistic recognition. We never hear of them now. In games the term was tainted by overuse and frequent association with ambitious and costly failures. In movies, no one could quite get the interface right: I heard stories about cinemas fitted with voting buttons in the seat arms, but either people voted for the wierdest option just to see what would happen (or to try and break the movie), or kids rampaged up and down the aisles pressing every button they could find. Those bugs might have shaken out once the novelty wore off the format, but there was one other problem that I still can’t see a way around, and it applies to all media: in providing options, you have to create a lot more content than any one-time user will ever see. This isn’t too expensive when it’s words in a book or on a hypercard stack, but when you start talking about TV and movies it quickly becomes ruinous. You have to count on people coming back and back to try different options on a movie they’ve already seen rather than choosing to see a new movie, and it’s a very big, very expensive risk.

As to a gamebook resurgence, I think there is one currently under way, but I’m not sure that there’s a new market for gamebooks out there. What I’ve seen has been driven largely by nostalgia (including the heartwarming sight of kids enjoying the same books their parents grew up with) enabled by the community-building ability of social media and the ease of collecting offered by Ebay and other online marketplaces. Plus, of course, the ease of publishing interactive titles on ebook platforms. For a true resurgence to take place and for the medium to evolve into its next phase, gamebooks and interactive fiction/education/whatever will have to do something that makes them truly novel and interesting all over again so they can catch the imaginations of a new generation. That’s going to be a challenge, and in all honesty I haven’t a clue how that might be achieved. I’m intrigued by location-based interactives delivered via mobile devices (imagine a tour of Roman Bath, for example, with the screen showing your current location recreated in Steam or whatever, and NPCs to question about life back then), but that may just be the archaeology graduate in me. The same idea could be applied to all kinds of ARGs, and I think those may be the true successors to gamebooks, rather than a strictly literary or cinematic experience.

Imagine 22 cover

If you’re just talking about books, though, I can’t say I’m optimistic. Although gamebooks did exist (just about) before the 80s, the “perfect storm” of D&D/RPG frenzy, game system, and portability is what launched the phenomenon – and also made them a kid-teen product rather than an adult one. Imagine #22 featured an article by me and Colin Greenland analyzing the gamebook phenomenon as it stood in 1985 – it might have some pointers.) Today, there are better ways to do everything gamebooks can do, and none of them involves books. To create a true gamebook resurgence – in any market – you’d need that same combination of zeitgeist-driven content, ease of use, and novelty of presentation. Whatever that might look like, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be on paper.

Midnight Rogue

September 17, 2014 10 comments

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Twenty-seven years after the fact, the Sidekickcast blog has published a review of my Fighting Fantasy book, Midnight Rogue. Reviewer PJ Montgomery seems to like it, although he raises a point that concerned me at the time.

Inspired by tabletop RPG supplements like Chaosium’s Thieves’ World and TSR’s Lankhmar: City of Adventure, I set out to write a city adventure for a thief character. The best-known city in the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan was Port Blacksand from Ian Livingstone’s earlier book City of Thieves, so I set my book in the same city and called it Prince of Thieves. Ian worried that this was too similar to the title of his book, so mine was changed to Midnight Rogue.

The essence of a thiefly adventure, as I saw it, was that it should involve a lot of sneaking and very little fighting. After all, the most successful thief is one who is never seen, let alone challenged. In the first draft, fighting was always the worst possible option. That didn’t go down too well with the editors at Puffin.

Their response to my first draft was an order to add a lot more combat, accompanied by a tart reminder that “it is Fighting Fantasy after all.” I thought they had missed the point, but I set about rewriting to give them what they wanted. I shortened the city part of the adventure, adding a few combats here and there, and I used the recovered space to put in a dungeon at the end, which I hoped would satisfy them.

Midnight Rogue did fairly well – as did anything that carried the Fighting Fantasy logo in those days – but it has never been regarded as one of the better FF books. Mr. Montgomery really puts his finger on the problem in his review:

“Midnight Rogue is very much a book of two halves. It’s just a shame that one of them really isn’t anywhere near as fun as the other.”

What makes me feel vindicated, after all these years, is that the part he likes is the city adventure.

“…the first half in Port Blacksand is great. Tracking down the clues that will eventually lead you to the Eye of the Basilisk is great fun, with Davis’s writing drawing real tension out of your mission. It’s great to have a proper run around in Blacksand again, as it’s a place with a lot of character. Unfortunately, once you leave Blacksand, the book becomes just another dungeon crawl, and honestly, it’s a pretty generic one at that. ”

Could I have written a better dungeon for the end of the book? Probably. As good as an Ian Livingstone masterpiece like Deathtrap Dungeon? Probably not. But even if I had, it would still have felt odd after all the sneaking about and city exploration. Looking back, I don’t think the book could ever have worked well as this odd hybrid.

Maybe it’s sour grapes. When I wrote Midnight Rogue I was also working on the early part of the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and I wasn’t in a dungeon-friendly headspace at all. Subconsciously, I was probably trying to turn Fighting Fantasy into WFRP, ignoring the fact that it was quite happy being Fighting Fantasy, thank you very much.

Still, I’m sure every writer loves to read a review that bears out everything they thought about one of their own books, both good and bad. How intelligent and insightful this reviewer is, one thinks, and fights the sudden urge to track down the editors in their comfortable retirement and wave the review in their faces, shouting “See? SEE?”

Not that it makes any difference at all after 27 years. But still.

If you are interested in finding out more about my career as a Fighting Fantasy writer, I did an extensive interview for Fighting Fantazine a few years ago. I can’t link directly to it, but issue #7 (and all the others) are free PDF downloads. If you’re a gamebook fan from the ’80s you’ll find a lot to like about this magazine, and I’m sure you’ll be happy to learn that the hobby is still going strong in various electronic formats.

A Blast from the Past

June 29, 2012 7 comments

Well, not a blast, exactly. Probably more of a slightly damp phut.

I was casting about for a subject for a new blog entry this morning. I remembered that sometimes, online booksellers advertise books I have written or co-written at prices that just make me laugh. For example, someone on Abe Books wants over $500 for a copy of the third Doomstones adventure, Death Rock. Other people on the same site are offering it for $7.00 to $22.00, which is altogether more reasonable.

I was going to muse a little about perceived value, and maybe throw in a wry comment about how much I wish I could claim royalties on these kinds of prices, but then I saw this. This particular sighting took me back 26 years, to the point where I first thought I might be able to make a career as a writer.

It was 1985, and I was an archaeology postgrad at the University of Durham. I was compiling 150-odd years of excavation reports on Neolithic and Bronze Age burials, systematizing the data, and building a database on NUMAC, the mainframe that Durham shared with Newcastle University. In FORTRAN 77. I was starting to become dispirited: this was my first experience with computers, and it usually took me two weeks to get a 15-minute meeting with my Ph. D. supervisor, who only wanted to know what books I’d read since last time and took no interest in the project itself. But that’s a story for another time.

Gamebooks were everywhere in the mid 80s. Following the success of Fighting Fantasy, all kinds of imitators – of all levels of quality – had sprung up like dandelions. Imagine magazine had just published an article on the gamebook phenomenon that I had co-written with their book critic Colin Greenland, and I was doing an occasional gamebook spot on BBC Radio Newcastle’s children’s book programme. Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call.

Now, “getting a phone call” wasn’t easy for a college student back in the 80s. Collingwood College had maybe half a dozen payphones throughout its corridors, for the use of 300-odd students. Mobile phones – which did exist, just about – fell into two categories: large consoles that Captains of Industry had bolted into the back of their Bentleys, and portable units that came in a satchel and weighed only a little more than their cost in gold. What I got was a scrawled message that someone from a company called Scribos had rung, and wanted to talk to me about a freelance writing project.

There was no Internet to look up this Scribos, and I had no idea who they were. So I collected a fistful of 10p pieces, wandered the corridors until I found a free phone, and called them back.

It turned out that they were an educational publisher, and they wanted someone to write two 6-volume fantasy series in the Choose Your Own Adventure format. The twist was, the language had to be kept simple: the books were aimed at teens with reading ages of 6-7. The concept relied on the read-comprehend-decide activity loop of the gamebook format, along with the popularity of the gamebook phenomenon as a whole. I was equipped with a Fry Reading Age Chart, and told that each book should come in at 50 entries.

I’d been sending articles to White Dwarf and Imagine for a few years by this point, but I never seriously considered the possibility that I might be able to make a living as a writer. But two things sealed the deal for me. First, the books were to be published by Oxford University Press. And second, I was offered 600 pounds for the project.

It just shows how touchingly naive I was back then. Certainly, 600 pounds was a tidy sum to a college student, but this was a one-time project and I never did the math about how many such projects I’d need each year in order to make a living. Between this and my modest but semi-regular checks from White Dwarf and Imagine, I thought it was a sign. I was on my way. Over the next few months, my archaeological research tapered off until I withdrew from the project entirely.

I never received publisher’s comps of the Quest Books series (The Adventures of Kern the Strong and The Adventures of Oss the Quick) so I still don’t know how they turned out. One was turned into a CD-ROM a few years ago, but no more seem to have followed so I’m guessing that wasn’t a great success. I’m sure they weren’t masterpieces; I was just starting out as a writer, and finding my way.

Kern covers

Ken Gober kindly furnished me with these scans of the covers for Kern 1-6.

The winter of 1985-6 was a tough one financially. I finished the Quest Books project and was paid (which isn’t always the case, as any freelancer can tell you), but the 600 pounds didn’t last all that long. TSR Inc. shut down Imagine magazine – my most lucrative market – and eventually the whole of TSR UK as well. Editor Paul Cockburn started the short-lived GameMaster Publications and I became a regular contributor, but I just wasn’t bringing in enough money.

Then, out of the blue, I got a letter. Paul and a bunch of others from TSR UK had fetched up at Games Workshop’s new headquarters in Nottingham. There was a plan to make a roleplaying game based on Warhammer, which had come into GW’s portfolio in the recent merger with Citadel Miniatures. And would I like to come down to Nottingham and talk? Everyone knows what happened next.

I come across isolated titles from the Quest Books series online now and again, but this is the first cover shot I’ve ever seen. I think about collecting them sometimes, but I’m not really a collector by nature. And what if I should look at these books for the first time in 26 years and discover they really weren’t all that good? Silly, I know, but there it is.

When I remember my confused, conflicted and wildly over-optimistic mid-twenties self in that winter of 1985-6, I can’t suppress a rueful smile. I really had no idea what I was doing, and in a reasonable universe I would never have got away with it. The Games Workshop job, coming when it did, was an unbelievable and completely undeserved stroke of luck. But that one decision, swung by the name of Oxford University Press and the promise of six hundred pounds, set the course of my life from that point on.