Saturday, December 3, 2016

Eclipse of the Kai

This week, we received the news that Joe Dever, a prolific gamebook author most notably known for his Lone Wolf books, had died. Having grown up reading Joe's books, and continuing to read and enjoy them to this day, I'm going to presume to speak for the community of Lone Wolf fans in saying that this is a death that strikes a personal chord. The world has lost a number of great artists this year, but we're going to miss Joe Dever in particular. He was our guy

And maybe that's because fantasy gamebooks are a pretty niche area, and the superstars stand out. Or because Joe was extremely active on social media in recent years, personally interacting with fans and adding a huge amount of background information on the books and world he'd created. Maybe it's because he toured extensively to promote the books, allowing him to meet a broad section of his readers in person. Maybe it's thanks to his phenomenally generous gesture of essentially giving away all his work, granting Project Aon a licence to make online versions of his books available for free. Whatever the reason, he was a huge part of the gamebook community, and a familiar face to many of his readers. I think I'm not alone in feeling great sadness at his death.

I didn't know Joe well. I met him on two occasions, when I was interpreting for him at gaming trade shows in France. He struck me as extremely professional, and knowledgeable about every aspect of writing and publishing. He'd give us pointers on where we should display our signs for our stand, how to be more conscious of the direction of movement of visitors, things like that. He spent a great deal of time with visitors to the stand, and visibly enjoyed talking about his books, and the process of creating the world of Magnamund. For me personally, he was an inspiring example of the work ethic, and the level of focus, necessary to be a successful fantasy author. In quieter moments, he patiently answered my questions as well – he mentioned, for instance, how he developed the Giak language by placing toothpicks in his mouth, to see what sounds he could articulate if he had long, sharp teeth. He also told me a story about how, after his work on the multi-million selling Playstation game Killzone, Sony sent him an angry letter, accusing him of stealing the 'Helghast' in the game, 'from some fantasy series that some guy wrote in the 80s...'. 

My own experience with Lone Wolf began when I was ten or eleven years old. I received 'Flight from the Dark' and 'The Jungle of Horrors' as Christmas presents one year. I'd never heard of the series before, and yet the level of detail in the books grabbed my attention at once. Magnamund was not a patchwork, generic fantasy world; it was a unique creation, with thousands of years of backstory to take into consideration. There were no Tolkienesque orcs or elves here; rather, it was home to Shianti, and Gourgaz, and Nadziranim. Lone Wolf himself, the psychic warrior monk on a personal mission to restore the glory of his slaughtered order, was a fascinating protagonist. The books were unlike any gamebooks, or for that matter any fantasy, I'd come across before.

Throughout my teen years I searched out the rest of the books – to the extent that, when I did my slightly cliché 'backpacker year abroad', I soon began carrying a satchel of Lone Wolf Grand Master books all over Australia, which I'd been unable to find in Britain. And this was because adding books to the collection, and so expanding the adventures of Lone Wolf, carried a special thrill. Not least in gameplay terms; each book developed Lone Wolf's abilities, making him more knowledgeable, more skilful, more powerful. Yet more important than this was the keen sense of continuity that pervaded the twenty-book arc. A supporting cast of recurring friends and villains surrounded Lone Wolf – enemies such as Vonotar the Traitor, and Darklord Gnaag; pals such as Banedon the magician, and poor, ill-fated Paido the Vakeros. A gamebook is rarely a lengthy medium, and yet staying with Lone Wolf over the course of twenty-plus books (a good arm's length on a bookshelf) gave these characters the opportunity to breathe, and grow. It gave the reader a chance to really settle into the world of Magnamund. Simply put, it was easy to become deeply invested in Lone Wolf's world, and in his friends and foes that peopled it. 

I can only speak with any authority about my own experience with Lone Wolf. For my part, that initial sense of astonishment has never completely disappeared, even as I approach the tail end of my thirties. The extended republication of Flight from the Dark evoked it again a few years back; so did the release of the newest (and twenty-ninth) Lone Wolf book, The Storms of Chai, just a few months ago. These days, I store my character sheets on my hard drive, and I use a random number generator rather than cheatily hitting zero after zero on the Random Number Table. But holding a new Lone Wolf book in my hands still has the power to turn me into an over-excited teenager once more.

Joe Dever made a colossal contribution to the realm of fantasy gamebooks and interactive fiction, and his absence from here on in will be keenly felt. I mentioned above that Joe was 'our guy'; in truth, it's more accurate to say that, in sharing the books and the world of Magnamund with us – in showing us Lone Wolf's heroic vision of right and wrong – he added a little wonder and nobility to all our lives.

And that made us his guys, his people.

(Post by Paul Gresty)


  1. Thank you Paul for sharing such a wonderful story! I first read Lone Wolf (Flight from the Dark) back in 1985. I was sent to the west of Ireland that summer to an Irish speaking school where speaking or reading anything in English was strictly forbidden. One night one of my schoolmates handed me Flight From the Dark & Fire on the Water. I read them under my bed covers holding a flashlight and did not put them down until I finished them. Needless to say that 14 year old me was wrecked the whole next day from lack of sleep. What an adventure :)

  2. I'd already started playing D&D (and initially Tunnels & Trolls) and also played the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks before Lone Wolf came out but I clearly remember the impact it had on me:

    Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water were released at the same time in the UK and when I saw them on the shelf in WH Smith my curiosity was immiediately piqued by the cool artwork on the front and the introductory teaser text on the back cover of the book. Seeing the colour maps on the inside cover and the Lone Wolf Action Chart with the entries for Disciplines and the like made it already seem far superior to Fighting Fantasy. I hurriedly bought them and devoured them within the afternoon. They were an amazing self-contained story but in a world that really felt well-realised and real and teased you with references to earth shattering historical events, ancient enemies, and future adventures.

    This experience had a huge impact on my RPing. It made me realise there was more to the games than mere dungeon bashing and hack and slash, that characters should progress in significant ways and impact on (and be part of) the ongoing story. Lone Wolf and Joe Dever weren't responsible for getting me into RPGs but they were responsible for elevating my enjoyment to a much greater level and I'd likely have dropped the hobby a couple of years afterwards if it wasn't for Joe and his gamebooks.

    So much of my happiness and fulfillment from this hobby I owe directly to Joe and I am thankful I had the chance to tell him that just a couple of years ago. Although I'm deeply saddened he is lost to us I am grateful that we have his books, that his son Ben has stated he wishes to complete the three he was working on, and that he teamed up with Dom, Jon and August et al with regards to the RPG. It will never be a substitute for losing such a lovely man but he will be with us whenever we open the pages of Chasm of Doom (my personal fave), or any of his other books, or get round the table with our friends to adventure in Magnamund as fledgling Kai Lords or their allies.

    For Sommerlund and the Kai and, now even more than ever, for Joe.

  3. Ruffnut,
    Merry Christmas Stuart!

  4. Thanks for this. I had published a gripe on social media about how unprofessional the Gary Chalk driven Kickstarter "Lone Wolf: THe Board Game" turned out after myself and many backers recieved neither a refund nor the product. Joe went out of his way to contact me, express his concern that I had not soured on his legacy (I knew he wasn't involved past licensing), and was kind enough to send me, free of charge an autographed copy of "Chai". All to atone for a mess he had absolutely nothing to do with. They don't make 'em like that anymore. RIP Grandmaster.