Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Time Is Getting Colder, And I'm Getting Older

It's five years since I started this blog. Over the course of that half-decade I've achieved rather less than I'd hoped to (both here and in the world outside), but that time hasn't been entirely fruitless, and considering some of what I've been through, it's a bit of an achievement just to still be here. In those five years I've played 246 different adventures (and replayed 11 of them). I've won just 61 (and 7 of those wins were replays), and 12 of the times I won, I was playing that gamebook for the first time.

Still, I don't want to spend too long going over statistics. I invited readers to ask me about (almost) anything for this anniversary post, so I shall turn my attention to the questions that were submitted.

Based upon the 'storytelling' component, what is your favourite gamebook?

I don't suppose I can count a continuing narrative spread across several volumes as one gamebook, can I? If so, the answer has to be Blood Sword. Though nowhere near the longest saga, I'd say that it's the most epic. The gradual raising of the stakes as the story progresses makes the 'save the world' business feel earned, the characters are more nuanced than just 'good' and 'evil', and I can still remember the thrill of suddenly realising what was going on in book 4 (being very vague about it because I intend to play the series here, eventually, and don't want to spoil the twist just yet).

If it has to be a single volume, I'll say Howl of the Werewolf, the third of the new Fighting Fantasy gamebooks published alongside the Wizard Books reissues. It has a quest with a more personal element than most, plenty of backstory to uncover, lots of optional sub-plots, some of which relate to the main story, while others just fit in with the theme and mood, and also contains one of the best set pieces in all gamebooks: a fight against a lycanthrope on top of a carriage careering out of control down a cliffside path. Fun!

Based on the 'gameplay' component, what is your favourite gamebook?

Spectral Stalkers, the 45th Fighting Fantasy gamebook. The random element of the travel between the worlds adds an element of variety and uncertainty that most gamebooks lose after the first few plays, and as there are no absolutely essential items other than the one you automatically acquire at the start of the adventure, being unable to choose to visit the place where you can obtain some useful object is not such a big deal. It's also one of the few FF books that can genuinely be won even with minimum stats, but has enough optional trouble that a powerful character can still get into a few scrapes along the way if the reader wants a bit of a challenge.

And while it's not actually a gameplay element, the 'Extinguisher' gag in the book is great.

Who is your favourite gamebook illustrator?

Russ Nicholson. His illustrations are evocative, grotesque (in the right way), and full of character. Orlando the annoying sidekick in The Adventures of Goldhawk would be practically unbearable if not for Nicholson's artwork.

What is your favourite 'instant death' paragraph?

How do I narrow it down to just one? 

I pretty much got hooked on gamebooks in the first place thanks to the 'paralysed and eaten alive by a Ghoul' ending in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (Fighting Fantasy 1). The very fact that a book aimed at kids could have something that gruesome happen to the hero was just mindblowing, all the more so given the stronger-than-usual identification of the reader with the hero.

There's a section in Castle of Lost Souls (Golden Dragon 6) that, through the sheer quality of the writing, turns what could have been a generic 'petrified by Gorgon' ending into something greater. Many gamebooks contain rhymes and verses, but this, even if written as prose, is poetry.

Another example of outstanding writing in gamebooks is the 'entranced' ending in Trance (Starlight Adventures 6). Rereading it now, I'm startled at how short it is: the text only takes up about half a page, but it so effectively describes the drawn-out struggle and gradual failure to hang on to awareness and identity that, in my memory, it seems like a much more substantial passage.

Legion of the Dead (Grail Quest 8) has the comedic masterpiece that is the 'accidental self-decapitation while attempting to remove a cursed dog-collar' sequence. Technically this is more than just one paragraph, as a lot of the best material is in the build-up to the fatal roll, but even if the section describing the death were taken in isolation, talking sword EJ's awkward apology adds a nice touch of bathos to what must be the most joyously absurd bad ending ever. 

Talking of Instant Deaths that take up more than one paragraph, one of the few noteworthy aspects of the largely mediocre gamebook parody Night of a Thousand Boyfriends (Date with Destiny Adventure 1) comes to mind. Remember the endless loops in which you could get trapped in Creature of Havoc? (If not, this is the sort of thing I mean.) A similar dismal fate lies down one path in this book, only to make it far, far worse, you're stuck listening to your flatmate reading out her bad poetry. For ever.

Then there's The Plague Lords of Ruel (Lone Wolf 13), with its 10-40% chance of a climactic 'you save the world and a bridge falls on you'. No, wait, that one's rubbish. But I do like to rant about it.

If anyone has more questions, feel free to ask.


  1. Don't forget The Deathlord of Ixia (Lone Wolf 17) with its 30-50% chance of "you save the world and a city falls on you," made even more galling by the fact that the odds aren't improved by disciplines, but by Lone Wolf's current Endurance—and it happens immediately after a series of some of the hardest fights in the series.

  2. Are you coming to Fighting Fantasy Fest this year?

    1. It's unlikely but not impossible. Thanks to an increase in my hours at work a few months back, I'm now at the stage where income exceeds essential expenditure, so I might be able to afford it. Especially if I can get some overtime covering the days my colleague has booked off in August.

      You've got me thinking about it, where previously the idea hadn't even occurred to me.

  3. What do you think about app versions of the old books, such as Inkle's Sorcery! and Tin Man Games' Warlock?

    Have you written a gamebook?

    1. I've never tried any of the apps, so I can't comment on any specific ones. Still, having designed my own Gamebook Manager, I'd be a hypocrite to object to them on principle. And if they get new people interested in FF, that's a good thing. All the more so if they act as a gateway to the books.

      How are you defining 'gamebook' in your second question? Back in 1983, after I got my first gamebook (Tracker Books' Skyjacked), I wrote a similar adventure entitled Smugglers. While short by the standards of most series (40 sections and 3 endings), it was about as long as Skyjacked, so that might qualify.

      Skipping over the numerous unfinished gamebook projects on which I embarked in subsequent years, I also completed a 40-section parody in which the object was to survive a day at my school. And more recently I wrote the mini-adventure for issue 9 of Fighting Fantazine. At 275 sections and a word count of over 40,000, that's by far the most substantial gamebook-like work I've completed.

      Nothing full-length yet, though there are a couple of unfinished gamebooks on my computer, which I hope to complete at some point.

  4. I must confess I went back to see what I did with that Gorgon stare paragraph. Not too shabby, eh? Looking forward to your review of Blood Sword - though the fifth book still irks.