Today's Meet the Publisher interview features two authors: David Donachie and Paul Partington. Readers of the OSR News Roundup will likely recognize their work, if not their names; they both write for Red Ruin Publishing, who release what seem to be weekly free products for the Dragon Warriors game. I asked them about Dragon Warriors, solo playing, and writing gamebooks.
Question: Dragon Warriors is a game I'm not really familiar with, but I see you're using it almost exclusively. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Dragon Warriors? What does it do really well? Are there any little quirks or oddments that you really appreciate?
Answer (David): I suspect my story is the same as that of many UK roleplayers of a “certain age”. Dragon Warriors was the first RPG I owned, due to the fact that it was sold in ordinary bookshops at child-friendly prices, rather than in a specialist store. I’d heard of RPGs before Dragon Warriors — I’d seen a French copy of Call of Cthulhu, and I’d played a session of D&D — but these were the first books that I owned, and they really drew me in. The very British folk-mythology of the books ( boggarts and hobgoblins and monsters from the crusades) matched the fantasy books I’d grown up with, and the charming interior comic-style illustrations made it easy to learn. I very definitely based all my early RPG designs on Dragon Warriors.
What Dragon Warriors does really well is create that aura of fantastic history — the past as the people living in it thought that it worked. Noble knights, evil barons, fay enchantresses, pious monks, a fairy behind every rock, a devil-worshipping sorcerer in every ruin. The rules ... well, I have a soft spot for them, obviously. I like them, but it’s the world building that really shines. Part of DW’s big success was that the 6 books are stuffed full of adventures that really set the feel of the kinds of games you ought to play. Old curses. Haunted ruins. Malicious fairies.
Answer (Paul): I started my rpg experience in the 80’s. At that time, I was lucky enough that there was a games shop in the town where I lived that sold D&D BECMI boxes and AD&D hardback books, plus a ton of modules. So it was actually that game system that I started out with. However, when Dragon Warriors came out, I was drawn to it straight away. First of all, the cost of the books was inexpensive enough that I could buy them with my paper round money. But the content of those books was what kept me hooked. The illustrations by Bob Harvey and Leo Hartas set the scene nicely. However, it is the world of Dragon Warriors that really drew me in.
The world of Dragon Warriors is firmly rooted in British folklore, with hobgoblins dragging children off into the night, ancient kings in their burial chambers and malicious boggarts. More than the actual system itself, this is what Dragon Warriors does really well. Inhabitants of the lands of Legend believe that malicious fairies turn milk sour, and that their bad fortune is down to wicked sorcerers – and they might well be right!
The rules are simple, which can be viewed as either a good or a bad thing. Coming from AD&D, which had rules for everything (if you could find them and understand them), I appreciated this.
Q: Many of your products are geared towards solo play. Can you talk about how this came about? What got you interested in solo gaming, and why do you think Dragon Warriors works well with this style of play (if it indeed does)?
A (David): The Tales of Red Ruin line had its birth during the pandemic, when solo gaming was all most of us could get. I’d been playing a lot of solo D&D, Four against Darkness, Ironsworn, and the like, so the idea of doing solo adventures for Dragon Warriors was an obvious one. Dragon Warriors doesn’t have the biggest fan base these days (though more than you might think), so DW players would find it even harder to get a game during lockdown than the D&D fans.
Also, for myself, I just really love gamebooks. I’ve got a large collection of them, and I’ve tinkered with them in various forms (without publishing them) for years. Red Ruin came along at just the right time for me to rekindle that love.
I don’t think Dragon Warriors is a particularly good fit for gamebooks rules-wise, but neither is D&D, which has spawned innumerable gamebooks over the decades, so that’s not a big stumbling block. But the sorts of stories it tells can really suit a single character, and Dragon Warriors lets any profession fight with any weapon, which makes it easy to give out treasure in the books.
A (Paul): My first gamebook was Warlock of Firetop mountain, as I’m sure it was for many people. On a rainy November evening, there was nothing better for a 12 year old than exploring dungeons and killing monsters. This scratched the itch between group sessions, and I think gamebooks still fill that gap.
I had a go at writing a couple of fighting fantasy books a few years ago, just for fun. Two years ago I wrote another one called Village of the Damned, which incorporated a few of the folklore aspects of Dragon Warriors. And then I saw that Red Ruin had released a solo adventure, so I thought I’d get in touch with them and see if they wanted to use mine, adapted for the Dragon Warriors rules. They did, and I am honoured that they keep accepting further adventures from me.
In terms of the rules, Dragon warriors is not a bad fit for gamebooks. You can tailor encounters so that some of the rules are ‘baked in’, such as encounter distance and surprise. Plus, the simplicity of the rules means that there isn’t much book keeping to take into account.
Q: I'm curious about the actual process of writing a solo adventure. On one hand, I suppose it makes playtesting easy! Can you explain your process? What should people new to writing solo adventures look out for? Can you recommend some resources for people looking to get into solo adventures (either writing or playing)?
A (David): Back in the day (decades ago) I used to plot out adventures on paper, or create a booklet of blank numbered paragraphs of various lengths and then just cram my game into them. When I decided to write a new gamebook for Red Ruin (that was Green Water, Crimson Stag), I was sure that a better way must have been invented in the intervening years. I went hunting, and discovered that there’s a handful of programs written for gamebook creation, but to be honest I didn’t like any of them. They were either clunky, out of date, windows only (I use a Mac), or expensive.
Then I hit upon Twine, which is a piece of generic software for writing all sorts of interactive fiction. Twine has many different “story formats” for different sorts of output, and I just assumed there was one that could do gamebooks, but there wasn’t, so I wrote my own, Gordian Book. Gordian takes care of all the technical gubbins of writing a gamebook: numbering sections, randomising, formatting links, tracking keywords and items, that sort of thing. So I can use the Twine software to write the games (it produces a nice interactive map as it goes) and then use Gordian to spit out the finished PDFs.
Which is not to say it makes it easy, just easier. It won’t stop you forgetting to give out a keyword you use later — I’ve done that a bunch of times — or creating a loop of passages, or not giving out the right items — I’ve done that too. Playtesting is definitely still important, because it’s hard to spot those errors without playing through all the options. Playtesters often point out branches or choices that I didn’t think to include.
For someone thinking of getting into gamebook writing, there’s a few standard guides to branching story structures that are very useful. There’s also a lot of deep thinking about Interactive Fiction in general (which includes text-parser games, visual novels, gamebooks, and all sorts of text adventure games) which is directly relevant. Almost anything written by Emily Short (https://emshort.blog/) for example, will be relevant to how you build a gamebook. There’s also the obvious trick of reading through some of the most innovative gamebooks of the past: Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, and definitely Fabled Lands.
A (Paul): I actually start out with paper and pencil. After an initial idea, I tend to jot down scenes first. So scene one might be a village – what might happen there? What might our brave adventurer encounter? And then scene two might be travelling on the road to the abbey, and scene three might be an alternative route to the abbey through the forest, and so on. The scenes help me to work out where information or helpful items might be. Once I’ve done that, I produce a flowchart for each scene, again on paper. At this point, I’m not writing much, just a few notes (e.g. broken bridge – jump over or go around?). I then start typing it up. I find twine to be useful for this, and David mentions his website, https://gordianbook.art/, which exports twine into a formatted, numbered gamebook. David goes into more detail about this in his answer, so I’ll not go on about it again!
Playtesting is essential. You might have thought that you’d written in a vital piece of information the adventurer needs to get to the next part, but left it out by mistake. The combat might be too hard, and characters keep dying, and so on.
For people new to gamebooks, I would suggest immersing yourself in the genre first. Obviously there are the classics – Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf and so on – but there are also a load of new gamebooks out there. If I name names I’m sure I’ll miss someone out, but if you type ‘adventure gamebooks’ into amazon, you’ll see a huge variety. And download all the Red Ruin gamebooks as well.
There’s a lot of advice out there – this blog post has links to much of it: http://www.lloydofgamebooks.com/2017/05/want-to-write-gamebook-then-heres.html
Q: Finally, talk about any projects you have coming up. Is there anything in particular you'd like to promote, either that you're writing or you think it is worth folks knowing about?
A (David): Well, I mentioned Gordian Book above. That’s free for anyone to use at https://gordianbook.art.
I’ve also begun work on my own gamebook line. The rules for these, GNAT, are open source, and I’d really love to see other people use them. They are designed to be as light as possible, for quick play. You can find those rules at bit.ly/gnat_gamebooks, and I welcome any feedback on them.
Should anyone happen to like my writing, I have a novel and a short fiction anthology that you can buy — which will definitely help support me in making more free gamebooks :) Visit bit.ly/ddonachiewriter if you’d like to know more.
A (Paul): I’m currently working on another open world adventure for Red Ruin, set in the northern Albion. I’ve taken inspiration from this from a line in the blurb of the first Dragon Warriors book: A land of cobwebbed forests and haunted castles. So, it does indeed feature a cobwebbed forest and a haunted castle!
At some point I’ll also take another look at those fighting fantasy adventures I wrote years ago and see how they stand up now. I’ll have to change the system and the names if I release them, but it might be a nice exercise.