Dicing With Death

The following is a copy of an interview with Joe Dever from the June/July 1986 issue of Warlock.

The Warlock takes his life in his hands, and goes and gibbers with Joe Dever about his early years, the Lone Wolf Saga, and his ghastly, revulsion -inspiring alter ego Judge Death.

Well, sitting around in an opulent throne-room at the top of a gravity defying tower doing nothing all day can be pretty boring sometimes, can't it? Occasionally even I feel the need for a bit of inhuman company and a chin-wag. One day recently I was moping around the dungeons, in a bit of a sulk because I hadn't turned anyone into anything recently (not even that execrable gout of sputum, Thompson - I must be losing my touch), when I suddenly thought of a way of entertaining myself for a few hours. Without a second thought I flapped over to old Judge Death's hovel on the back of my personal carrier-vulture for a chat. What a mistake!

How did you first become interested in fantasy gaming, and how did this interest develop, oh deathless one?

I think my interest began when I was about seven years old ....

You mean, you actually had a childhood? You weren't pulled fully-formed from the spawning vats?

Er .... yes. Anyway, I was a fan of a comic strip called 'The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire' which appeared in a magazine called Look & Learn. I remember building armies of Airfix Roman soldiers, and converting their spears into laser rifles, and my friends and I used to fight battles with them and pretend to be characters from the comic strip. This was long before the advent of fantasy games as we know them today.

One Christmas I was given a book called 'War Games' by Donald Featherstone, and our games began to get a bit more sophisticated. We started to use dice in our battles, instead of marbles and tennis balls which we used to throw at the figures.

So to you wargaming was really just an excuse to commit mindless violence upon an army of innocent soldiers? Perhaps I ought to take it up ....

In my early teens I used to play wargames most weekends, and I was also a keen fan of Michael Moorcock's Hawkmoon novels which were then being published for the first time, and of course Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which I was reading at school.

Which writer, do you think, best captures the sprit of the fantasy you create, and who would you recommend to new players just discovering the hobby?

My work has mostly been influenced by J.R.R. Tolkein, Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard. The detail and history of Middle-earth inspired me to create my own world of Magnamund, and the excitement and pace of the Moorcock and Howard novels have certainly influenced my approach to writing. I'd strongly recommend their books to anyone who has just discovered role-playing or solo fantasy adventuring.

You always seem to be spouting off about the quality of solo adventures these days. What do you consider to be the most important aspect of a good solo adventure?

It's got to be EXCITING! To my mind, any adventure that lacks excitement isn't really an adventure at all. Also, I think a good way of judging the merit of any solo gamebook is to see how long the author can maintain the excitement and pace of the adventure. Many are tempted into the trap of pitting the reader against an endless stream of monsters whenever inspiration starts to flag, and slip into what I call the "Open the door, kill the monster, close the door" syndrome. A couple of years ago this might have been acceptable, but personally I feel that gamebook fans now want and deserve better than that.

My post-bag is always crammed with letters from readers complaining about the subject matter of their favourite gamebooks. Of all the major themes - fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc. - which do you most enjoy?

Fantasy is by far and away my favourite .... *crunch!*squeal!* .... Having spent the better part of eight years developing .... *gnash!*slurp!* .... the world of Magnamund, I suppose it's only natural .... *mmm!*slobber!* .... that I should find fantasy the most comfortable of all the gamebook themes .... *aah!*grunt!*

(I feel it necessary to point out here that Joe was a little occupied sucking the innards out of a small furry animals via its ears at this point, so his attention wasn't really on his answers. However I persevered ....)

Do you consider solo adventuring a riskier and more skilful business than group role-playing? What advantages do the two methods of play have over each other?

I feel that in many ways the two are comparable. Both rely heavily on the creative skill of the author or Dungeon Master for the basic challenge of the adventure, yet in both cases the enjoyment derived from the adventure is dependent on how well the player interprets information he or she receives. The big advantages of group role-playing are the fun that can be had when players interact during a game, and the greater choice of options available in any given situation. Group games score over solos when players interact during a game, and the greater choice of options available in any given situation. Solos score over group games when it comes to practicality as few of us have the time or the opportunity to organise group games at a moment's notice.

Crikey! There were a few long words in that lot, Joe; that snack must have really woken you up! Let's get down to some really in-depth stuff now .... Many of our more experienced players complain that combat and magic are treated too simply. Do you agree?

I think it boils down to a question of realism versus playability.

What?

Realism versus playability. For example, in a hand-to-hand combat with weapons there are many factors that will determine the final outcome - the strength and dexterity of the combatants, their weapons, their armour, morale, wounds, positions, intelligence, wisdom, training, encumberment; even the size and time of their last meal could affect their performance ....

Your last meal has obviously affected your performance.

The question is where do you draw the line, which factors do you consider and which do you ignore in order to determine a result, bearing in mind that the more factors you decide to keep as essential will slow down the game and reduce its playability? Yet a system that is too simple can be just as dull. Say, for example, you have a system where the strengths and weaknesses are ignored and a result is merely obtained on the toss of a coin or the roll of a dice, you'll find that all sense of realism is soon lost and combat, which should be an exciting part of the game, becomes boring. A good system is one that achieves a balance between realism and playability.

Ahh! The old 'realism versus playability' ploy again, eh? You know, Joe - or may I call you revolting? - the thing I admire most about you gamebook writers is their ability to create all kinds of weird and wonderful monsters. Do you have any advice for our contributors to 'Out of the Pit'?

One method I use to create new creatures is to start with the premise that they are shaped by their environment, that their physical appearance has evolved and changed to enable them to survive in their natural habitat. As much as polar bears would be out of place in the Sahara Desert, so to would a warm-blooded, thick skinned, giant worm in a fantasy ice-land. Then I consider food chains - what does it prey on, and who or what preys upon it? Then comes special abilities and special weaknesses. By asking yourself question of this sort you'll find that you can start to build up a composite picture of a creature that hopefully is not only an original creation, but one that is also believable.

Gazing into your crystal ball for a moment, do you foresee any new developments in the world of gamebooks, or has the hobby reached the limit of its possibilities?

Not only in the UK, but all over the world, gamebooks have now reached a phenomenal level of popularity, and consequently I feel sure that two things will start to happen. Firstly, all the book publishers who have in the past dismissed gamebooks as a fad, akin to skateboards and deely-bobbers, will now be scrambling to climb aboard the gamebook bandwagon. Secondly, those publishers and writers who have established themselves at the top of the gamebook hobby will be the first to develop new types of gamebooks and book-format rolegames. This will benefit gamebook fans in two ways: increased competition will raise the standard of traditional format gamebooks giving readers more variety and better value for money, and the gamebook format itself will expand to encompass new developments such as multi-player adventures, books with a boardgame element, historically based solos, and more sophisticated puzzle books.

As a highly moral, responsible citizen, what do you think of the worries voiced by some parents about the effects of a number of gamebooks on younger readers?

I am a parent myself, and I feel its only natural that parents should be concerned that the moral and emotional well-being of their children is not placed at risk by what they watch on TV, see at the cinema, or read in books. Fortunately, though, it seems that common sense still rules for the vast majority of parents have recognised the positive aspects of fantasy games and books. They encourage literacy, decision-making, deduction and intelligent reasoning, but above all they are a harmless and very enjoyable creative pastime. I think its rather sad that some adults have chosen to attack a hobby which, in most cases, they know very little about.

Now, oh slimy one, be very careful how you answer this question! What do you think of Warlock magazine?

I think it has steadily improved since Games Workshop took over publication and began covering all aspects of the hobby. One thing I would really like to see is Warlock establishing a yearly award, similar to the White Dwarf/Games Day Awards, where readers can vote for their favourite books, writes, artists, etc, as I think it will help to foster higher standards within the gamebooks fraternity. There is always room for improvement and if Warlock strives to be impartial, informative and most of all a fun magazine, I feel it will continue to grow in popularity and achieve its aim as the forum for gamebook fans.

Last question, thank goodness. The highly sophisticated young people who read Warlock have come to know you as 'Judge Death'. Is this a gross exaggeration on the part of that insipid morass of quivering slime known as Jamie Thomson, or are the rumours about 'Castle Death' true?

It all began when Jamie learned from my publisher that I prefer to write at night, that I usually begin at around midnight and work through to dawn. I think I must have given him the wrong impression, for early one morning he arrived unexpectedly at 'Chez Mort' (my ancestral home), his porcine body festooned with cloves of garlic. I distinctly remember the wild look in his eyes as through foam-flecked lips he began to rant, "Go back to Transylvania, vile Prince of Darkness!"

I tried to reason with him, but my pleas fell on deaf ears (three of them to be precise, which hadn't been swept after dinner the night before) and in desperation I was forced to call down a flood of Crypt Spawn to chase him away from the estate. Occasionally he sends wraith-like minions too spy on me while I'm working in my laboratory, but ever since that fateful morning I have been spared further visits from 'The Vile-thang' himself.

For which you must be truly grateful, I would imagine, as are we for being given the opportunity to see just what goes on in that brain of yours. Thanks Joe, it was .... interesting.

Lone Wolf � TM Joe Dever 1984-2001