With Crystal of Storms, Rhianna Pratchett Helps Reboot Fighting Fantasy Roleplay Books
Writer Rhianna Pratchett, known for video games including the Tomb Raider reboot and the Overlord series, returns to an early staple of role-playing gaming with Fighting Fantasy.
Writer Rhianna Pratchett, known for video games including the Tomb Raider reboot and the Overlord series, returns to an early staple of role-playing gaming with Fighting Fantasy. Pratchett’s book, Crystal of Storms, takes players into a fantasy police procedural on a floating island.
She’s one of only two guest writers for the franchise, and the first woman to put her stamp on it. With a strong career of her own and the legacy of her father Terry’s Discworld series, her quirky take on the fantasy procedural is part of Scholastic’s revitalization of Fighting Fantasy.
Developed in the 80s, Fighting Fantasy works as an introduction for kids to fantasy roleplaying. Players can use dice or flip the pages to roll different outcomes for their characters. Items, stat trackers, and alternate origin stories make Fighting Fantasy more complicated than a choose-your-own-adventure book but still easy to play solo.
“We’re delighted to welcome Rhianna to the world of Fighting Fantasy,” Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, said. “Her charming writing style and clever, imaginative world-building in Crystal of Storms is a new take on the genre and a joy to read.”
Den of Geek called Pratchett to talk about humor, fantasy, narrative design for games, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Den of Geek: How does a Fighting Fantasy game work?
Pratchett: Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson created Fighting Fantasy back in the 80s. I read it as a kid. You choose where the adventure goes. You make choices as you encounter different scenarios, characters, and monsters. You pick up potions and weapons, various things that can help. Just like in an RPG game, except it’s all text. For the choices you make, you turn to different sections of the book and see what the results of those choices are.
You can use traditional dice, and there’s a section at the back where you can record your stats and rolls to see how a battle will turn out. You can record your gold, the provisions, any code words, things like that. But you could also use the pages themselves as dice rolls because every page has a pair of dice with numbers on it, so if you don’t have dice, randomly flick through the book and stop on a page, and on the corner it will tell you what the dice roll will be. Which is very handy. There’s something nice about using physical dice while you’re playing it, so it’s very interactive.
As an older adult you don’t have dice about as much as you do as a kid! I had to go out and get dice and pencil when I was doing research!
What was your process for world building for the archipelago of Pangaria?
I came up with the overarching idea based on an amalgamation of a few things. There was a bit in Gates of Death (a previous Fighting Fantasy book by guest author Charlie Higson) where you interact with goblins that have a flying machine. I thought that sounds pretty cool. I wonder if you could go bigger with that? I was also reading a news story about cloud formations that look like cities. No one knows why! Those things merged in my head, the city in the sky, the goblins, and their flying machine.
It had been a long time since I’d read classic Fighting Fantasy books. I wanted very specific areas I could develop in the same way you’d develop a level for a game. That’s why I had the archipelago and the different islands that all have different roles within the economy of Pangaria. So you’ve got the water island, the farming island, the technomancy island. Technomancy, which is halfway between magic and technology, is what underpins the whole of Pangaria. It’s what makes the islands fly, what powers the storm crystals you have in these portable wings you can wear to fly around different islands. There are these little goblin airbuses that go between islands as well. I wanted to create distinct areas I could personalize, make unique, and have fun with and create original monsters for as well as delving into the archives and coming up with some classic monsters that hadn’t been seen for a while. It was a good mixture of that.
A lot of it I did on the fly. Ian Livingstone told me how hard it was. I thought he was joking with me. “Oh, he’s just trying to scare me,” but it is very hard. If Ian Livingstone tells you that, it probably is hard given that he’s written so many of them. Ultimately your writing will not end up in a linear form. Each page has multiple sections, all of which are numbered. You need to make sure you have enough sections, about 400 sections, and that they’re covering enough words, and they’re not next to each other. All that can be quite difficult to manage. Fighting Fantasy authors have different ways of doing it. Ian writes it out freehand. I started doing that, then I did a flow chart. That was becoming too time consuming, so I started an Excel document with colors for different sections, and the pages, and the different islands. Which more or less worked. So I devised my own system for how it works.
I had the great Jonathan Green, who is a Fighting Fantasy author who’s written a lot, helping guide me through the world. Particularly with things like boss fights, how to structure fights in the Fighting Fantasy style, and how to do things like have little moments within the boss fights where you can roll the dice to do something specific.
The thing that underpins Pangaria is a combination of the goblins’ tech and creatures called stormborns, that are a bit like jinns as we know them, but not like jinns in the Fighting Fantasy world. They’re like elementals that live in and around the Ocean of Tempests, which is where Pangaria is situated. It’s floating in the eye of the storm, protected from the outside world by this giant tempest. The stormborns harvest storm crystals from the tempests, which are used to power the goblins’ tech.
You start off as a member of the Sky Watch, which are more or less like the police force, but Pangaria is largely peaceful. You don’t have much to do and you’re a little bit bored and wishing for adventures. You find yourself the only Sky Watch member left. All the other recruits are on the Nimbus island, which crashes into the ocean at the start of the story.
All the islands are named after clouds. There are five islands, around a sixth central island. The sixth crashes out of the sky and you have to visit the other islands and find out what happened to the island, how to get down there, who’s responsible for it. It’s a fantasy police procedural set on a floating archipelago, basically.
Did your history writing video games help in putting this book together?
Certainly the level design aspect. I wouldn’t call myself a game designer, although I would call myself a narrative designer, which is kind of a subset of game design. I have had to pick up a lot along the way, and I have had to work on games which were very level based. Each level has its own unique aesthetic and personality and characters and things like that. So I’m used to creating mini-worlds within worlds. So that really helped.
Usually, I don’t get the opportunity to write fights as part of my job when I work on games because that’s usually done with whoever’s dealing with the gameplay mechanics. That’s not usually me, unless there is a substantial bit of narrative embedded into the fight. For smaller, indie projects like Lost Words: Beyond The Page, my last game, I had quite a big role in coming up with some of the mechanics and level design aspects because they were so heavily tied to the narrative in that game. I’d been working on it for three or four years on and off. My brain had developed in a way that when I took on this project I understood things on an intrinsic level that maybe if I hadn’t been in video games for so long I wouldn’t have understood so easily. I understand the pace of games and I could bring that to the table.
Also brevity! In games you have to learn to be succinct. If you’re dealing with lots of little sections and you have to write 400 or so sections, you have to be economical about your words.
What is your history with Fighting Fantasy?
I played them when I was 8 or 9 years old. I used to get them out from my local library. In fact I think I got a threatening letter from my library when I was a child because I’d held on to the book so long. I thought they were threatening me with taking me to court!
As the first female author in the series, do you bring an element to it that girls and women would particularly appreciate?
Ian and Steve have been bringing the books back over the last couple years, and bringing in guest authors like Charlie and myself to work on. It’s fun that there are still areas in this world where women haven’t done anything before. It’s nice but nerve wracking to be the first woman to write one. Our illustrator [Eva Eskelinen] as well is the first woman to illustrate for a Fighting Fantasy book.
It’s hard to know because I don’t have any frame of reference other than being who I am. A lot of what I did in games narrative was quite new for women to get involved in. There were obviously women who were doing great work in fantasy games in the 80s, Roberta Williams, Jane Jensen, and Christie Marks who did the King’s Quest games, Conquests of Camelot, and the Gabriel Knight games. There are a lot of women who worked in design who were also doing narrative.
I think it’s more than I bring my own sensibilities to it. It’s very difficult to separate what’s me and what’s particularly female. I had to write in the Fighting Fantasy tone, which is quite standard fantasy tone. Not particularly jokey. I probably stretched jokiness and irreverent charm to about as much as I could…I don’t think it’s intrinsically female. It’s intrinsically me.
Your contribution is described as “narrative rich.” What do you focus on when it comes to giving a unique identity to your own writing style?
As a writer you have to be open to all kinds of information and stories. You need to read. You need to be interested in people and the world. You need content to generate content. You need to pay attention to the news and read around the genre you’re writing for. You need to go as broad as you can, to educate yourself, exercise your imagination and your creativity as a result of that. So I don’t have any particular tools except all the stuff that goes into my brain and comes out. I don’t really know what happens in the middle. Lots of stuff goes in and stories come out!
I’m often working with stories that exist in part. In games, I coined the term “narrative paramedic” many, many years ago to describe the job a game writer sometimes does where they’re basically handed a box of narrative body parts and you have to assemble them into a story. Or the story is dying very badly and you have to save it. Narrative paramedics often get called in very late in the day. They’re patching up the story, not writing it from the ground up.
When I was a games journalist I never met a game writer. I might have met some designers that did some writing. Writing was done literally by whoever had the time and inclination to do it. It could’ve been designers, or producers. It wasn’t done by a professional as a standard. That has changed very much. Game studios are building out their narrative teams. But we’re still working out how to fit writers into the process both in house and freelance. … You still get narrative paramedic jobs, but they’re thankfully less common because more studios have writing teams or relationships with writers.
It was Mary DeMarle, who’s narrative director now at Eidos Montreal, who coined the term narrative designer when she was working on the Myst games. Narrative designer is different to a writer, although those jobs are shared. Writers deal with what you might think of as traditional writing, the story, the dialogue, the cinematics, the VO, letters, documents, graffiti, that kind of thing. Whereas a narrative designer is concerned with how the story gets to the player. How the player will experience it. It could be the player experiences it through cinematics, or level design and art and there’s no traditional narrative. They’re usually a conduit between the writers and the rest of the design team and make sure the needs of the design team are communicated to the writers. Some do writing themselves, some don’t, but they’re really there to make sure the story gets into the game in the best way possible.
I really like putting humor in games and quirky weirdness that is intrinsically me I think. I worked on all the Overlord games with Triumph Studios and Codemasters years back, and they were fun to write for. There’s not always room to do that in games, but wherever I can. It’s a product of what I read, what I listen to, how I think, how I was raised, what I’ve experienced.
I’m always very suspicious if writers really have a handle on what is going on inside their heads to produce the stories. It feels a bit magical. Which I know is not helpful, because people would like “you need to do this and this.” There are some of those! But a lot of it is your mind as a writer, your mind you have developed through being open to the world, and letting that percolate. Eventually in the narrative gumbo things will float to the top.
I’m a very multitasking writer. I’m not good at setting hours. I work all hours, mostly during the evening, and its very antisocial but I have a very understanding partner. I wish I was a writer who could get up, start a day at a particular time and end at a particular time. But I’m not. But it works for me!
Were there any particularly fun ways you worked the mechanics into the story, or anything that would only work in Fighting Fantasy?
When you’re working in games, you have a fear that someone’s going to press x or spacebar and skip the cutscene or whatever that you’ve spent weeks or months of your life slaving over. It can just be skipped. That’s a risk and the nature of your job. With Crystal of Storms I know readers are engaged. They’re there for the words. Although every player of Fighting Fantasy knows basically that you go to the different sections and learn all the outcomes and choose which one you like best. You learn to have about four different fingers in different sections of the book so you can flick between things to see what the outcomes are.
What games are you playing nowadays?
I always like The Long Dark. I always joke with the ghost dad in my head, because my dad was a big gamer. Sometimes I play games because I can tell they’re the kind of game he would like. I have a particular fondness for wilderness survival games because when I was growing up my dad and I lived in the countryside on the edge of a valley, and my dad would take me out walking and teach me about what plants and berries and fungus were edible and which weren’t. Or, I guess, everything is edible once.
He would teach me a light smattering of wilderness survival, and I was always interested in books that touched on that as a kid. So I really like games like Don’t Starve. I play that a lot with my partner. My partner actually got me a beefalo plushie from Don’t Starve!
I’ve also been playing Among Trees, and I’ve started to do a lot of the harder challenges in The Long Dark. We have a bit of a heat wave here in the UK so it makes me feel slightly cooler to be playing a game set in the Canadian snowy wilderness. I am somewhat obsessed with that and my poor partner has to endure tales of how I escaped wolves, and how I shot a moose with one shot and then two wolves got me! The emergent narrative as well as the existing narrative Hinterland [Studio] has done with their story chapters are really, really good. I’ve turned to outdoor games where you’re trumping around in the wilderness in isolation.
Crystal of Storms is out on October 1st. Find out more about it here.