Friday, April 15, 2016

April A to Z - M is for Dave Morris

Hello all! Today, we have an interview with Dave morris, co-creator of Fabled Lands, Blood Sword, Virtual Reality and writer of a whole load of other gamebooks. He's basically the gamebook version of Kevin Bacon.

For those of us who are new and don't know, who are you and how do you fit in with the gamebook world?
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, gamebooks were big business and every publisher was on the lookout for people who could write these things. There were a bunch of us and we were a close-knit group. I lived nearby to Mark Smith, Jamie Thomson, Oliver Johnson, Paul Mason, and Steve Williams. I’d known Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson since leaving college. Jamie worked with Joe Dever and Gary Chalk. A lot of us got together every week for role-playing in the world of Tekumel. And pretty often we’d team up to write gamebooks.
Since then I’ve done a whole bunch of things. Co-founded a couple of companies, designed videogames, worked in television, written novels and comic books… Yet people keep asking me about gamebooks. Well, if that’s my fame, I’ll take it.
Fabled Lands 7 had a great kickstarter and now it is being written by Paul Gresty. How did it feel to dig out your old notes after 20 years?
Fortunately we sketched out guidelines and story elements rather than fixed ideas. It wouldn’t have been much fun for Paul if we’d just handed him a stack of prescriptive notes and said, “Get on with it.”. As it was, I think we’ve been able to give him plenty of creative freedom – but maybe you should ask him about that.
Is there anything you can tell us about Fabled Lands 7?
It’s looking great. To me, the problem was always diminishing returns. How many more levels and fights and encounters do you need before any game wears out its welcome? So we were aware that we needed to move the series on somehow. On the other hand, it’s not a fixed timeline with set characters. The whole point of Fabled Lands is that each book covers a different geographical area, so successive books aren’t sequels and there is no plot to move on – or rather, there are hundreds of plots going on all the time, and you might drop in and out of them in any order.
Paul has found a great solution to all this in keeping the structure of the earlier FL books but moving them up a notch in terms of dialogue and characterization. The original books were marketed for kids, and The Serpent King’s Domain is going to be mostly read by people in their 30s or older. The more sophisticated style reflects that. It really reads like being in a good role-playing session – which was what we’d always aimed for.
Are there any hints in the book to future Fabled Lands books?
There’s no way to write any Fabled Lands book without doing that! There are quests that link in to the other books all the way through the series. Hopefully we’ll find ways to surprise people with where these quest seeds end up, though.
Of course the next question is when will Fabled Lands 8 be out?
It can’t be before all our Kickstarter backers have got their copy of The Serpent King’s Domain (the seventh book). We’re hoping that will be by late summer. Then we’ll see.
Fabled Lands is also coming out on Kindle. Are there plans for any other platforms for the Fabled Lands books?
The books would be a perfect fit for the same kind of treatment Inkle gave to Sorcery. Arguably a much better fit than Sorcery itself was, in fact, because those books are linear adventures whereas Fabled Lands is freeform. So a Fabled Lands app should present the player with the world map and you’d drop in wherever you want and start picking up quests and story threads. We did talk to Tin Man at one point, but their tech is slanted in a different direction, towards single-story gamebooks. We have some plans, though.
Any chance for more Fabled Lands Quests? Even cheeky little 25-50 section ones?

One of my earliest gamebooks, The Eye of the Dragon, would be perfect for turning into an FL adventure for a Mage. It’s all based around spells. You’d start out in Dweomer and travel maybe to Chrysoprais or the Feathered Lands. But maybe doing a book like that for just one adventuring profession might seem a bit limiting. The USP of Fabled Lands is freedom of choice. It was never meant to constrain the reader to one character type or style of play.

There is a novelisation of the Blood Sword books out - Chronicles of the Magi. Will there be any other novelisations out? Maybe ones based on Dragon Warriors scenarios or Fabled Lands?
I recently ran a post on the FL blog stitched together from my game write-ups of our current campaign. That’s not the same as writing a novel, of course. Most game write-ups would make lousy novels – fun for the players to read, but to anybody else a rather alienating series of picaresque episodes, fights and in-jokes. So when I wrote Chronicles of the Magi, I borrowed some of the PCs from our role-playing games but I put them into an entirely different storyline.
Recently Jamie and I have been at work planning a trilogy of novels set in the Fabled Lands. The first is The Mage of Dust & Bone and I’ve already written about fifteen thousand words of that but the FL agent deemed it to be too dark (which is how I like my fantasy) so I’ve handed it over to Jamie to lighten it up and generally make it more kid-friendly. Expect to see the first book in a year or so. Well, it’s Jamie, so better make that two years.
Dark wouldn’t be a problem in the case of Dragon Warriors, of course. That’s supposed to be grim and downbeat. A couple of months ago Gary Chalk gave me a call about working together on a comic book, and I began a script called Jewelspider set in Ellesland. But Gary didn’t like the amount of humour I was putting in – the opening pages weren’t dark enough, he thought, so it’s shelved for now. I did have a dead baby being stolen from a rural church by faeries on page two, so I’m not sure it was exactly knockabout comedy, but I was trying for a kind of Shakespearean thing (it was set in a later Ellesland than the DW books, more like Elizabethan England) where you could have broad humour and then spin on a dime, as Joss Whedon likes to do, into violence and horror. Anyway, I’m on the lookout for an artist to work with on that.
Wait… so am I too dark or am I too jokey? Hmm.
Blood Sword is set in the medieval world of Legend, the same place that the Dragon Warriors RPG is set. Are there any plans for more Dragon Warriors products?
It’s true that Blood Sword uses the same map as Dragon Warriors, but really it’s a lot more high-fantasy and generally gamebooky. “Real” Legend, ie the world of the DW game, is much grittier.
As for more DW products… Currently a company called Serpent King Games (nothing to do with FL book 7) has the licence and I heard they released a Players Book, though I haven’t seen it. I keep tinkering with my Jewelspider game, which could be summed up as the Dragon Warriors world five hundred years on. But wait, you may say; didn’t I have Doomsday happen? Ah, that was only in the Blood Sword books. They’re not canon.
80 Days and Frankenstein have pushed the boundaries of interactive fiction and started a rush of gamebooks based on public domain works. Do you have any plans for any other gamebooks like that?
Profile Books, who published Frankenstein, asked me if I’d follow up with Dracula, but I wasn’t interested in doing “the world’s favourite horror classics” and anyway, Frankenstein is literature while Dracula is just a good pulp thriller. I suggested doing interactive versions of The Trial (Kafka) or The Odyssey (Homer) but it didn’t grab them, possibly because I proposed writing the latter in verse. It would have been the first interactive epic poem – I think – but that might be something the world doesn’t need.
Your first gamebook, Crypt of the Vampire has also had a great Kickstarter and David Walters is adding sections to it. Any chance of seeing more in the series?
They’re all in print already – except for The Eye of the Dragon, mentioned previously. Just a quick search on Amazon away!
Ashton Saylor is working on the Good, the Bad and the Undead. How is that going? Will this be the beginning of a series?
You’d have to ask Ashton and Jamie Thomson about that. I chipped in with a few plot suggestions, but it’s their baby. A sort of skull-faced undead baby weaned on blood, perhaps, but still a baby.
How does it feel to have the second generation of gamebook writers clamouring to work with you? You seem to attract them like flies to honey. Any tips for attracting your own group of devoted followers (that does not involve starting a cult)?
First of all, Stuart, I’m glad you said honey. And it is hugely satisfying thing for a writer to know you’ve inspired people and given them enjoyment. Most of my current roleplaying group were in school playing Dragon Warriors back in the ‘80s, and I’m very glad to have them as friends instead of fans. I’m never comfortable anyway with the idea of “author” and “fan”, just as I don’t use the term “Gamesmaster” in role-playing – I prefer “umpire” or “referee”. It feels like it should be a level playing field, as we’re all enthusiasts together.
On to non-gamebook things, Mirabilis is a comic book series that you have written with Leo Hartas. What's the latest news on that?
I’ve written the next book in the series. The hold-up is finding time (or is that money?) for Leo to work on it. It’s not easy because he puts a truly massive amount of care and attention into the artwork. Just look at any panel of Mirabilis, it’s packed with gorgeous detail. But that eats up a lot of time. We did have one patron who’s willing to invest £15,000 – which would keep Leo in baked beans for a few months. I’d love us to get the series back on track because, of all my projects, it’s the dearest to my heart. I know those characters and I want to tell everybody all the adventures I have planned for them. If I can’t complete it as a comic, I’ll do it as a prose novel – but that’s really a last resort.
Are there any other words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to the next generation of writers and game designers?

I’d like to see the medium of gamebooks moving on, and in particular doing more to create a sense of immersion and a bond with the characters. It doesn’t have to be problem-solving in a dungeon-like fantasy setting – that’s just the pin that Ian and Steve happened to stick in the map thirty-odd years ago. Frankenstein was about having a relationship with the narrator character. That’s just one possible direction to go. I’m hoping the next generation of writers will feel free to experiment.


  1. That life you describe in the 80s, writing gamebooks that were selling like hotcakes, hanging out and roleplaying with your friends, who are also all writing gamebooks, and you're all gaming and writing in the various worlds you've made up... that sounds amazing. I wish I could go back in time and drop in on that crowd for a game or two.