Gamebooks review: Malice from the Middle Vale and The Demon Sorcerer

Yes, I know, this site is mainly to do with boardgame design. However, these two gamebooks are interesting because they are both from first-time designers (at least of gamebooks), they were both self-published and, like boardgames, they are physical products. Indeed, I think there is a lot in common between boardgames and gamebooks, not least in terms of their audiences. Although gamebooks can easily be published as digital books this is not a very attractive format for them. They work better as apps, but this necessitates a traditional publishing model. Examples of app publishers include Tin Man Games, who have adapted a number of Fighting Fantasy books as well as creating new digital gamebooks, Inkle with their versions of the Sorcery! series, and Choice of Games, whose text-based offerings are closer to Choose Your Own Adventure than Fighting Fantasy books. However, I have noticed that most gamebook fans prefer, and many insist on, a physical format for gamebooks.

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Interior illustration from Malice of the Middle Vale

Malice from the Middle Vale was self-published by David Sharrock in 2017. The first edition, which is the one I’m reviewing, was published and is sold by Lulu, the self-publishing and eBook company. Physically, the book is of similar dimensions to the Fighting Fantasy books from the 1980s, although it is as thick as the Crown of Kings, the last installment in the Sorcery! series. Unlike many gamebooks, it lacks full page black and white line illustrations, but it does have a large number of smaller illustrations, as well as black and white reproductions of some maps. The newer second edition is in A4 format and features colour maps.

The first thing you notice on beginning to read Malice is how much content there is before you even begin the adventure at paragraph 1 on page 56! The rules alone are almost 20 pages in length, and this is one of the areas where Malice differs from classic era gamebooks. It is clear that Malice is based more heavily on roleplaying games. You have six alliteratively-named Core Characteristics (e.g. Deft & Dexterity), each of which has a Set and an Adjusted value, with the latter representing item bonuses. Challenge Checks will be familiar to any roleplayer, as will your ability to carry a limited amount of equipment. I found combat rather strange thematically, in that each round you randomly determine which of the six characteristics is to be used. You might have a nice scythe that modifies your Mind & Memory (rather strange in itself) but it will only benefit you every sixth round, on average. The rules are rounded off with some notes about spells and spell stones, but it will be some way through the adventure before you can actually use any spells, and the specific rules are revealed at that point. Then comes a lengthy introduction about the myths of Yarn, the land where the story is set.

The second thing you notice…well, probably the first actually, is that there are 650 sections, far more than the typical 1980s gamebook, but even this doesn’t fully account for the whopping 537 pages: the sections are substantial, many over a page in length, and the text is quite small. This is far from being an easy-reading Ian Livingstone book, but is clearly aimed at the adult audience that forms the gamebook market these days. Two things struck me about the narrative aspect of this book: 1) the quality of writing is superb, far better than the majority of classic era gamebooks, and 2) the setting is extremely rich and well-developed – probably more so than the land of Titan that was developed over the entire series of Fighting Fantasy books. Possibly the reason for this is that the land of Yarn is based on an earlier RPG written by David Sharrock. Indeed, there is so much wealth here that the 12-page introduction barely skims the surface – you learn a lot more about the land, its peoples and their cultures during the adventure as you talk with various other characters.

The plot of Malice is rather conventional; you are a young farmer who is suddenly cast into a dark and dangerous adventure. The first half of the game reminds me of Lone Wolf, although you are the hunter rather than a person fleeing. The second half is, in essence, a dungeon crawl. However, it would really do the book a disservice to portray it as a combination of Lone Wolf and, say, Deathtrap Dungeon. That’s because not only is the writing of Malice superb and the setting very rich, but the plot is also well crafted. There is a battle scene which wouldn’t be out of place in a Michael Moorcroft novel, and the ‘dungeon’ is far more interesting and believable than most. As a game, too, this feels rather different to classic gamebooks. The complex rules necessitate quite a lot of book-keeping – I’d argue, too much – but they do provide something of the feel of an ongoing roleplaying campaign. The use of codewords will be familiar to anyone who has played the Fabled Lands or Virtual Reality/Critical IF series, but I feel that there are an excessive number in this game, many of which don’t seem to be used. However, my only significant disappointment with Malice is that the combat system does not, in the end, offer much more than the far simpler rules of Fighting Fantasy; there is limited player choice and so combats are largely drawn-out affairs determined by chance. Nevertheless, there is plenty here besides combats to keep you occupied – you also have to collect items, solve a riddle or two, and work your way out of a labyrinth.

Overall, I have a mixed – though still positive – opinion of Malice from the Middle Vale as a game because, while it has some very nice elements, I thought the rules could have been streamlined and the combat made more interesting. But as a book it is a triumph. And, as the author points out, you can ignore the game aspects and just read through it as if it were an interactive novel. This is not a gamebook that you’ll play through many times, but each play will be a lengthy and rewarding experience. And, it is just the first of three! Indeed, the second volume in the ‘Scythe-Bearer Trilogy’ is right now available to pledge in a Kickstarter campaign.

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Interior illustration from The Demon Sorcerer

The Demon Sorcerer was self-published by its author D.L.Lewis just a few weeks ago. It is also available from Lulu and, indeed, as a physical product it is similar to the first edition of Malice. The Demon Sorcerer came out of the blue, without any advance publicity – it seems to have been a surprise for many gamebook fans. This is amazing when you consider that, in the author’s own words, “the drawings alone took me several years to complete.” The text is copyright 1995, which suggests that this book has been almost a quarter of a century in the making! I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of hours have gone into creating the book, but it does show; this is a very professional product.

The Demon Sorcerer is, in many ways, much closer to a Fighting Fantasy than Malice from the Middle Vale is. It features full-page black and white illustrations, though they are not line drawings, as you can see above. The 450 sections makes it a little longer than most classic gamebooks and the page count is fairly substantial too, as the sections are lengthy (though not nearly as long as in Malice). The game system, too, is very close to that of Fighting Fantasy, with Striking replacing Skill and Lifeforce instead of Stamina, though thankfully there is no equivalent to Luck. A choice of two out of six Special Abilities, perhaps a nod to Lonewolf, is a nice addition.

The quality of the writing is very high in The Demon Sorcerer. It might not quite be at the level of Malice from the Middle Vale, but it compares very favourably with classic gamebooks. Again, the plot is conventional, though this time the barely sketched-out hero (typical of an FF, though less so of Lonewolf) is an accomplished adventurer. The depth of setting cannot compare with that of Malice’s Yarnia, but it is richer and more convincingly developed than what you find in the typical stand alone FF adventure. As a game, I’m once again minded to compare this book to FF, and it generally stands up well. There is a significant choice of paths along the way, the usual collecting of items, a refreshing lack of instant deaths, and plenty of clues to help you avoid these or to choose the best direction. However, it falls down where many of the FF books do – in the combat. After about three attempts at the game, getting to around two-thirds of the way through, I gave up playing the game faithfully, because I realised it was mainly the chance of the combats that was determining my lack of success. Probably, I could have eventually completed it after several attempts (unlike the last FF book I played), but I wouldn’t have enjoyed playing through just for the sake of plodding through the random outcomes of several fights. This was a shame, because otherwise the book was very enjoyable.

So, the Demon Sorcerer is a good, though not exactly groundbreaking, example of a gamebook – perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising for a work apparently started so long ago. More importantly, it is well-enough written and crafted to appeal to an adult audience. It’s a ‘Book One’, so there’ll be at least another and, possibly, a third in the series. I look forward to seeing how the author can build on this promising beginning – if we end up with a trilogy, then that is rare enough in the world of gamebooks to make a significant addition to the genre.

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