Kickstopper: Comics Where YOU Are the Hero!

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Illustrations have often been a feature of gamebooks – the artwork in Fighting Fantasy books constitutes some of the most aesthetically interesting fantasy art of the era, particularly given the number of pieces which depict a first person viewpoint. But just how much can you incorporate illustration into a gamebook? Graphic Novel Adventures seeks to find out…

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Comics Where YOU Are the Hero!”

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 5)

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Previously In Fighting Fantasy

Having kicked the series off, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone spent some times on separate projects, respectively experimenting with the wonder that is Sorcery! and writing a series of vanilla adventures for the core series. Then they began incorporating more gamebooks by other authors.

Ian Livingstone vs. Andrew Chapman: Who’s Better?

The incorporation of additional authors into the series was a simple factor of demand for new adventures far outstripping what Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone alone were able to produce, combined with a deliberate strategy to shove their competitors out of the market. The plan was to get at least one new gamebook into shops each month; the idea was that the readership’s pocket money wouldn’t stretch to buying many more gamebooks than that, and given the choice most readers would opt for the well-regarded Fighting Fantasy brand over the various imitators on the market.

By this point, said imitators were thick on the ground and included some stiff competition. In particular, they included the well-regarded Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever – who ironically had originally begun planning the book as a Fighting Fantasy adventure before jumping ship from Games Workshop and making his own deal with a publisher. In this context I can’t help but take a second look at the way the Fighting Fantasy books by third party authors were presented; though the genuine authorship of each book was acknowledged on the interior title page, the authors’ names would be kept off the front covers, which instead would read “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present” – with the “present”, in decidedly smaller text, the only oblique clue that this was not in fact Jackson and Livingstone’s own work. In this way, Jackson and Livingstone’s names garnered far more brand recognition than any of the third-party contributors to the series, and I have to wonder whether part of the reason for this was to make it less likely that any of the writers in question would be able to garner enough recognition to helm their own breakaway series – not that that didn’t happen anyway.

1985 was the first full year in which the one-a-month plan was in effect, and whilst the target wasn’t quite met, Puffin did manage to get a decent brace of books out, including the four I’m reviewing here. This set is particularly interesting because two of them are written by Ian Livingstone himself, and two of them are written by Andrew Chapman, whose own Space Assassin was the first release of 1985. Moreover, each author this time contributes one book set in the Fighting Fantasy world itself – which by this point was becoming the default setting for all fantasy-genre Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – and one SF book (post-apocalyptic stuff for Ian, space opera for Chapman). This is makes these the ideal set to pick for a comparison between the two. Could the upstart Chapman beat the series founder at his own game?

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 5)”

Kickstopper: The Archaeology of Firetop Mountain

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Last time, I talked about how Kickstarter seems to have been a particular boon to point and click adventures. Another genre of game that has thrived on there, as witnessed by To Be Or Not To Be, is the humble gamebook. I suspect it’s for similar reasons – firstly, you have an audience reared on the medium in question now old enough to put money down on a Kickstarter (conceivably a lot of money if you are looking at the higher tiers). Secondly, you have a product which is based on a sufficiently tried and tested model that you can set a budget with a bit more certainty than a game based on experimental or unfamiliar game mechanics or technology. Thirdly, the genre is niche enough that it’s extraordinarily beneficial to be able to demonstrate sufficient demand ahead of time.

Tabletop RPG products have also thrived on Kickstarter for similar reasons, and recently I covered Beyond the Pit for the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system. Based on this, you might suppose it’s only a matter of time before Kickstarter was used not just to produce gamebooks and Fighting Fantasy-related products, but to produce actual new Fighting Fantasy books. That… hasn’t happened yet. And the reason I know it hasn’t happened yet is because of You Are the Hero, an expansive history of the Fighting Fantasy franchise by Jonathan Green whose publication was funded through Kickstarter.

Usual Notes On Methodology

As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at and can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

At the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I wish I’d never backed the project in the first place.

The Campaign

Jonathan Green isn’t an unknown figure to the Fighting Fantasy fanbase by any stretch of the imagination. As well as being an established author in his own right, he’s also a gamebook veteran, being the author of several of the final mid-1990s entries in the original Puffin line as well as almost all of the new Fighting Fantasy books published since Wizard Books revived the series. (He’s also responsible for the Imperial Fists-themed Warhammer 40,000 gamebook I reviewed a while back.) Being a familiar face was doubtless helpful to the project – both in terms of convincing people to fund the project and in terms of getting access to Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, and the various editors, writers, artists, publishers, fans and other significant individuals he would interview in the process of producing the book.

The project grew out of a retrospective article that Green had written for SFX magazine on Fighting Fantasy; in the course of producing it, Green had realised that he’d only scratched the surface with his original article, and the full story of the series would benefit from a book-length treatment. The appetite for a certain level of Fighting Fantasy nostalgia had already been demonstrated by a different, failed Kickstarter – Turn to 400, an attempt to product a full-length documentary film on the history of the series. Although Turn to 400 brought in £15,000 worth of pledges, this fell short of the ambitious £40,000 target set for the budget, which left Turn to 400 in stasis and a bunch of backers with some £15,000 still in their pocket ready for the right Fighting Fantasy history project to come along.

I’m not saying that Green deliberately set the funding target for You Are the Hero on that basis – if you were going to do something like that you’d go for a slightly lower level to account for the backers you didn’t capture – but I’m sure the Turn to 400 Kickstarter helped prime the ground for You Are the Hero, which eventually wrapped up its campaign with over £21,000 of pledges.

What Level I Backed At

CYCLOPS – As Troll, but your name will appear in the acknowledgements section of the book, as a thank you for helping make this project happen.

For reference, Troll level was as follows:

TROLL – You will receive one limited edition copy of YOU ARE THE HERO. (You may order additional copies of the book at £25 per book. P&P will have to be paid separately on all books at a rate of £5 for the UK, £9 for Europe, and £16 for Rest of the World, per book.)

The Delivery Process

The estimated release date for You Are the Hero was December 2013, and the eventual release took place in early September 2014, so that’s a delay of some 8-9 months, which isn’t superb but at the same time isn’t unexceptional as far as Kickstarter projects go. I personally didn’t find the delay especially frustrating, since Green did a good job of keeping up a steady trickle of updates to keep everyone in the loop about delays – and, most importantly, providing credible-sounding updated deadlines, which is more reassuring than saying “Well, we’ll deliver the book at some point, but we have no idea when that will be”.

On top of that, Green went above and beyond in terms of providing extra value to the backers; whilst the £23,000 stretch goal which would have guaranteed that all copies of You Are the Hero put out through the Kickstarter campaign were hardcovers wasn’t reached, able budgeting meant that by the end of the process there was enough funds to provide this upgrade anyway, meaning that Kickstarter backers ended up with a sturdier and somewhat more handsome version of the book than those who waited to pick it up until after the campaign was done.

The offical release of the book took place at Fighting Fantasy Fest, the first convention dedicated solely to the franchise. A small but well-attended affair, it included a range of talks, guest appearances, an art gallery which included some fascinating pieces like original notes from the design process of classic gamebooks, and of course the launch of You Are the Hero itself. Backers were welcome to come to the convention and pick up their copies directly. Whilst I didn’t stay there for very long – it really was a lovely sunny day outside, and there were men wearing fedoras and t-shirts based on 4Chan memes unironically inside – it was a fun event to pop into for a dyed-in-the-wool fan like myself, plus it meant my copy of the book was saved from the stresses and strains of the postal system.

Apparently I made the right call; based on subsequent backer updates, it appears that some people (particularly overseas) had issues with their delivery of the book taking an irritatingly long time, and some were especially annoyed by the fact that they ended up getting their copies of the book after it was available for sale to the general public. Although Kickstarter is not just some pre-ordering service, and there’s often good reasons why Kickstarted products and conventionally pre-ordered products end up released to the general public before Backers and preorderers get their copies, I entirely understand why that might bug people. Particularly when the end product you get is no different from the product that ends up in shop shelves (which isn’t quite the case here), it feels utterly pointless to pre-order a book if it turns out you could have got it faster and cheaper just by buying it conventionally; on top of that, because Kickstarter backers provide the funds that make a product possible in the first place, there’s some justification to the idea that the project creators’ first loyalty should be to them instead of the broader audience.

Reviewing the Swag

So, how is the book itself? Tall, fat, and beautiful would be the three adjectives I’d primarily use for it. I suspect that, as with Beyond the Pit, a generous portion of the budget was reserved for paying the various Fighting Fantasy artists for the use of their artwork, because like any good coffee table book this volume is absolutely crammed with pictures. One of the things which really made Fighting Fantasy stand out from the crowd for me was the amazing artwork, which over time developed this really nice aesthetic for the series – proving that you can do dark fantasy which doesn’t resort into the drab, sad realism of a lot of grimdark material whilst at the same time being more varied and surreal (but no less ornate and baroque) than the house style used for Warhammer these days. It turns out I’m not alone in my appreciation of the artwork of the series, because the various artists profiled in the book get just as much attention as the gamebook authors (indeed, particularly noteworthy artists get more attention than some of the more minor writers), and the full-page presentations of some of the illustrations are especially nice. (On top of that, Green was even able to commission some brand-new artwork for the book, such as the gorgeous cover you see to the right there.)

As far as the actual text goes, it’s a history of Fighting Fantasy written by a friendly insider (who at points has to write about himself in the thrid person) and pitched more as a celebration of the franchise than a formal study, so if you’re after dry, academic rigour or a muck-raking investigation into the hidden scandals of the 80s gaming scene in the UK you are well and truly in the wrong place here. On the other hand, if you want a really exhaustive look at the franchise, it does a pretty good job: every book in the core series is profiled, as is just about every spin-off product released in conjunction with the series, and the book additionally offers a look at Jackson and Livingstone’s post-Fighting Fantasy activities and a look at current developments and potential future directions for the franchise.

Green has interviewed a sufficiently wide variety of sources that a broad picture of the franchise’s history is built up, and he has dug deeply enough that he is able to provide a range of facts that even hardcore fans will be unfamiliar with. I was particularly struck by the revelation of Puffin’s mid-1990s plan to revamp the series by reducing each book from 400 paragraphs to 300 paragraphs on the assumption that this would make it appeal to a younger audience – a plan which would have included revising all the existing books to take out 100 paragraphs of material. When you hear that they were contemplating acts of vandalism like that, you start feeling glad that Puffin’s custodianship of the series ended when it did.

The overview of the current state of the series is particularly interesting, because it’s clear that there’s lots of people interested in doing something with the IP but not much in the way of cohesive and unified effort drawing these plans together. For instance, multiple different companies are working on smartphone adaptations of classic Fighting Fantasy books, with a completely different set of developers handling Sorcery!, and whilst multiple people seem interested in putting together a Fighting Fantasy movie, Jackson and Livingstone seem to have been happy to let individual projects percolate on their own. The impression I got from these final chapters is that, now that they own the rights to the series, Jackson and Livingstone seem to be giving adaptation rights to folk who happen to catch their eye without necessarily developing a cohesive plan for the ongoing development and promotion of the franchise. Whilst this “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach might have the advantage of insulating Jackson and Livingstone from the consequences of any one project going tits-up, at the same time I do wonder whether this diffusion of effort results in inconsistency within the market.

I also can’t help but feel that there must be some way to make producing new Fighting Fantasy adventures a profitable concern – whether this takes the form of new hardcopies or eBook adaptations of the format – rather than relying on constant rehashes and rereleases of old material. The two Wizard Books reprint series seemed to fade away over time due to sales petering out, and whilst part of me suspects the rather drab cover art they were lumbered with might be a culprit there, I do wonder whether this might be a problem of the wrong business model being adopted rather than the books being intrinsically unmarketable to modern kids, with too much reliance on rehashing old books that are amply available through second hand sources and not enough in the way of new releases coming out.

As Livingstone himself notes in these pages, the French translations of the gamebooks by Gallimard sell so consistently well that they’ve never gone out of print, so there’s clearly an audience for this stuff out there that can support ongoing publication even if sales aren’t of the chart-smashing level they enjoyed in the 1980s. Whilst there’s doubtless a certain amount of money to be made in making the expansive back catalogue available (whether in hardcopy or adapted eBook format), I’m convinced there’s a place for more new adventures to add to the legacy and to appeal to new audiences – I simply can’t believe the market can’t sustain more than the occasional anniversary release by Jackson or Livingstone.

If only there were some sort of platform people could use to set up and promote financially risky propositions in order to simultaneously gauge public interest and raise funds to support the production process – some means to allow creators to reach out directly to their audience and ask them to help kickstart a project. Unfortunately, no such website exists, otherwise I would be loudly advocating using it to fund the release of new, original releases.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Although having your name credited on a product is a common Kickstarter reward, I haven’t yet done a Kickstopper review of a product where I backed at a level that would deliver that reward. At last I have, so I can inaugurate this new section (name derived from this Jerkcity strip), where I get to note a) whether my name was included correctly and b) whether I’m embarrassed in retrospect to have my name associated with the project.

In this case, my name was correctly provided at the backing level I provided. Do I think it was worth the extra £5 to upgrate to Cyclops from Troll, given that this is literally the only benefit I got from that? Frankly, yes. Fighting Fantasy books were a big part of my childhood, and it feels good to be a named and credited contributor to this new addendum to the franchise even though I didn’t really make any effort that Troll-level backers didn’t. £5 is cheap enough that I think it’s a small price to pay to avoid the buyer’s remorse of backing at Troll-level and then later on thinking “Man, but I could have had my name on this.”

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Based on the above, I would say my level of backing here was Just Right.

Would Back Again?

This Kickstarter does appear to have been a learning experience for Green, with the combination of shipping issues and project delays in particular being a classic Kickstarter pitfall. Still, he has dealt with all of these problems with good grace and was able to deliver a product that was even better than originally budgeted for to the backers. I’d certainly give due consideration to any subsequent Kickstarter campaign he ran. Would I back another crowdfunding hullaballoo that included Green’s fresh and tasty management and moderation if the subject of the project were the making of some other Fighting Fantasy product? Probably, depending on what specific concept the project revolved around, but I admit I can’t for the moment think what else Kickstarter might contribute to the franchise.

Kickstopper: Holy Crap Readers, This Book Is Already Awesome

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

In my debut Kickstopper article I reviewed the Shadowrun: Returns project and decided that, even though I would have probably been happy backing at a lower level, nonetheless I was very pleased with the final product and was glad to be involved in the process. Hot on the heels of that, Ryan North successfully completed his To Be Or Not To Be Kickstarter, heralding another first for Kickstopper – the first article with physical goods involved. Will my 100% “I’m glad I did this” success rate continue, or will buyer’s remorse creep into play? Let’s find out!

Reminder On Methodology

Just a quick reminder that, due to the nature of Kickstarters, I can only review the reward tier I happened to pick, and I can’t comment on whether or not I find rewards I haven’t actually received to be worth the money I didn’t spend on them.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Holy Crap Readers, This Book Is Already Awesome”

Fisting Myself Isn’t As Fun As I Thought It Would Be

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

I’ve previously paid attention to Games Workshop/Black Library’s line of Path to Victory gamebooks, which I felt did a generally good job of evoking the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings despite having some issues with errata. Well, the third book in the line – Herald of Oblivion – is out, and gives YOU, the reader, the chance to play a Space Marine. Specifically, a member of Ferretbrain’s favourite ever Space Marine chapter, the Imperial Fists.

The book is written by Jonathan Green, the self-described “King of Steampunk” and a veteran gamebook author (having churned out most of the more recently published Fighting Fantasy books). The former aspect of his work makes me worry that I’ll be expected to play a Space Marine wearing a top hat and a monocle in clockwork power armour; the latter, though, is more promising, especially since he wrote Howl of the Werewolf which Dan and Kyra liked and is apparently fairly popular as far as gamebooks go. How will Green evoke the distinctive character of this Chapter? Will there be options like “Turn to paragraph 28 to put on the Pain Glove” or “Roll against Strength to not cry when the Sergeant brands your buttocks”? When playing the Deathwatch tabletop RPG is a perfectly viable option, how does the solo Fist experience compare to Fisting with friends? Let’s see.

Continue reading “Fisting Myself Isn’t As Fun As I Thought It Would Be”

If You Wish To Worship Chaos, Turn To Paragraph 8

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Alright, fine, the next part of my Fighting Fantasy reviews has been a long time coming. I’m working on it, OK? As a matter of fact, I’ve been prodded into getting back into a gamebook mood over the past year by two things – the first being the Fighting Fantasy-themed podcast Kyra, Dan, Shim and I did a while back, and the second being Games Workshop getting back into the gamebook gig with their new Path to Victory line. Although Games Workshop strictly speaking weren’t the actual publishers of the Fighting Fantasy books, there’s little doubt in founding the series Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were at least partially hoping to provide a gateway drug to gaming in order to cultivate a new generation of customers; equally, since the Fighting Fantasy setting and Warhammer‘s fantasy world developed in parallel, both game lines ended up influencing each other a lot. And yet, at the same time, Games Workshop never seemed to realise that a Warhammer gamebook could be really popular with its customers – until now, that is.

Black Library have been running a print-on-demand sideline for some time now, but they’ve mainly been using it to make long out-of-print material from their back catalogue available when they don’t think there’s a sufficient market for it. (Or, in the case of Space Marine, where the naughty non-canonicity of it all makes them all flustered and swoony.) The first Path to Victory gamebook, C.Z. Dunn’s 40K-based Hive of the Dead was to my knowledge the first all-original print-on-demand title from them. Presumably, part of the reason for making the books print-on-demand was that they didn’t seem sure there’d be a market for them at all. In fact, when I bought the book at least the term Path to Victory didn’t appear on it (due to it being print-on-demand they may have updated that at some point) – evidently it was successful enough to convince Black Library it was worth doing a whole series of them, and so the Path to Victory logo proudly appears on book two in the series, the Warhammer fantasy-based Beneath the City of the White Wolf by M.F. Bradshaw.

In a way, gamebooks for Warhammer and Warhammer 40000 are a perfect fit for the POD side of the business – they might only appeal to a subsection of Black Library’s readership, but they’re an easy sell to those readers of an age to have lived through the Fighting Fantasy craze, as witnessed by the fact that when I got the e-flyer announcing Hive of the Dead I forwarded it to Dan yelling ZOMG 40K GAMEBOOKS!!!!! In a way, the books also represent Black Library sneakily getting back into the RPG business, if only in the form of solo adventures as opposed to fully-featured RPGs; their Black Industries subsidiary had successfully overseen the resurrection of WFRP (that’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying in case you didn’t know) and had produced the first 40K RPG Dark Heresy in house before Games Workshop shut them down and outsourced the RPGs’ development to Fantasy Flight Games (who have done a credible job with the 40K RPGs but made a complete hash of their new editon of WFRP). Evidently there’s still an appetite for crossing the book publishing and gaming streams at Black Library, and gamebooks seem to be the perfect way for them to scratch that itch.

Now that the second book, Beneath the City of the White Wolf, has come out and made it clear that Black Library are in this for the long haul, it’s about time I reviewed these things. I’ll be sticking with the format from the Fighting Fantasy reviews, with the odd tweak as I’ll explain as I go along.

Continue reading “If You Wish To Worship Chaos, Turn To Paragraph 8”

The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 4)

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Previously In Arthur’s Fighting Fantasy Reviews

Having established the series, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone focused their energies on separate projects; Ian wrote a line of books for the core series which would begin to flesh out the gameworld, as well as setting the model for many gamebooks to come, whilst Steve Jackson wrote the epic Sorcery! series, pushing the boundaries of the format.

Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present… a Whole Bunch of Other Guys

This brings us up to around 1984-1985. Even though by this point Steve had completed Sorcery! (or finished the first draft, at least) and was able to return his attention to the core series, demand still outstripped supply. Having experimented with allowing outside parties to write Fighting Fantasy adventures with Scorpion Swamp, the duo felt able to open the floodgates. From here on in, the majority of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks would be written by outside authors.

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 4)”