Launched back in 2011, Michael J. Ward’s first DestinyQuest book, The Legion of Shadow, presented gamebook fans with something distinctively new and different to experience: a fantasy adventure built on a structure directly influenced by computer RPGs focused on character customisation and combat. As the series developed further with the subsequent releases of The Heart of Fire (2012) and The Eye of Winter’s Fury (2014) the format continuously evolved to incorporate more dynamic game choices, new mechanics, greater story elements and deeper characterisation.
Receiving both enthusiastic compliments and considerable criticism, DestinyQuest has always been engrossing interactive entertainment and was acknowledged as a substantial achievement in innovative game design, released during a period when gamebooks were unloved by established publishers. Now, after several years of inactivity, the series will triumphantly return in early 2018 with The Raiders of Dune Sea from new publisher Megara Entertainment, delivering additional adjustments to the original format that address known issues and build on the many strengths of this unique series. (read Book Four’s synopsis here)
DestinyQuest fans are already eager to know more about The Raiders of Dune Sea, so GBN spoke with creator Michael J. Ward to uncover some of the exciting features to be found within Book Four.
The most recent DestinyQuest gamebook, The Eye of Winter’s Fury, was published back in 2014. Can you summarise all that has happened since then, up to the agreement with Megara Entertainment to publish Book Four, The Raiders of Dune Sea?
Well, when The Eye of Winter’s Fury came out, I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed that it didn’t get more attention. It’s always difficult working on such a mammoth-sized project and pouring your heart and soul into it to finally have it emerge kicking and screaming into the world with barely more than a squeak on a trumpet. But hey, you pick yourself up and move on. Since then I have largely focused on freelance work and some other writing projects (which are still ongoing). Yet my mind has always drifted back to DestinyQuest and all the unfinished plot strands that had been left hanging. I was finding it hard to move on. And the DQ fan base seemed to be ever growing, with new readers discovering the books for the first time and then emailing me for news on Book Four. I knew in my heart that I would have to carry on the series but I wasn’t sure how.
Then last year I had a fortuitous encounter with Dave Poppel, while I was attending Manticon (organized by my German publisher, Mantikore). Dave is involved with Megara Entertainment, a small but growing publishing house that focuses on gamebooks. Turns out that he was a big fan of the series and was keen to see it continue. I was equally pleased to have a home for the fourth book and could finally put ‘pen to paper’ once again. I felt ready and reinvigorated – and keen to write the best gamebook I could.
You’ve previously stated that you’ve ‘tried to raise my game’ with each new book, improving aspects of storytelling and gameplay based on feedback. Can you take us through your thinking on the changes made, and the new features added, from one book to the next?
When I wrote The Legion of Shadow, the first book in the series, I was setting out to create a very specific gaming experience – one that was less about choices and traditional gamebook tropes, and more focused on capturing the feel of a hack-and-slash computer RPG. I’ve made no secret that my key influences at the time were World of Warcraft and Diablo, as well as many other computer games that focus on character development and itemization.
I think it is fair to say that the book got a mixed reception, partly due to the expectations that the traditional gamebook community had of what a ‘gamebook should be’. They were looking for deep and meaningful choices, and multiple pathways through the content that would expand on replayability. I had a lot of pressure on me when I wrote the first book to find an audience (as when I was writing it, the gamebook resurgence hadn’t happened at all, so the whole project was a huge gamble). My agent was keen for it to appeal to a younger audience and that the length was not too off putting. Hence I had to strip a lot of content out of the book and the tone was a little uneven. But in the end it sold well and I think it achieved what it set out to do – but I completely understand why some would be disappointed with it.
So, I took all the comments and feedback on board when I planned and wrote Book Two, The Heart of Fire. Essentially I took the gamer aspects that defined the series and married those to a deeper and more involved storyline, filled with choice and adventure, hidden secrets, factions… it really felt a bit of a smorgasbord of gamebook goodness. Thankfully, Book Two received a better reception from those who stuck around to give it a try.
For Book Three and Four, I have essentially just been refining the process, learning and improving my craft as I go. Gamebook writing is incredibly difficult, although I imagine it could look very easy to readers. Trying to tell a deep and expansive story (which I am hopefully trying to do!) within the structure of a multi-choice gamebook is immensely challenging. But with each release I am trying to give more control to the reader – to give them the feel that they are not being led on rails and that they can influence and tell their own story. It is a tricky balance and one I will always be wrestling with to get perfect.
What exactly is the Dune Sea that features in the title?
Each book in the DestinyQuest series takes place in multiple environments. In Book One we had marshlands and the blasted ruins of a battlefield, in Book Two there was a jungle and volcano, Book Three ventured into the frozen wastelands of the north… I guess it was probably inevitable that I would do a desert-themed book at some point.
Book Four consists of two Acts. The first is set on the frontier between Valeron (where the other books are set) and Khitesh. This area is known as the Badlands and is more ‘wild-west’ in tone, exploring a lot of themes related to that genre. The second Act is the Dune Sea, where sand schooners (ships that can sail across the sand) ply their trade. As the story develops, the main hero will become embroiled in a war between multiple factions, which will lead to something ‘very bad’ happening.
The return of a lost race, powerful magics and bitter vengeance – it sounds like someone’s coming to settle a score! What’s the deal with all this epic conflict?
It’s essentially the culmination of a lot of story threads from previous books coming together. I can’t really elaborate too much as I think the reader should discover the story for themselves – but it will certainly be epic and have quite considerable consequences for the DestinyQuest world.
In The Raiders of Dune Sea we will play as an orphan with ‘a strange gift for magic’. Will this be a specific named character, like Prince Arran in Book Three, or will this be a character that readers will be able to invent themselves?
The character in Book Four is a little bit of both. They are young and male, because that was important for the story, but other than that they are essentially a blank page – so you can imagine their appearance and create their name. The character will have a background story, which is probably more developed and interesting than any previous heroes, and this is slowly shared throughout the quests and storyline.
DestinyQuest Book One, The Legion of Shadow, was very combat heavy, with relatively few meaningful choices within each quest. What gameplay balance will we find in Book Four, and will there be genuine choice and consequence?
As previously mentioned, I was very aware of Book One’s shortcomings. Since then I have really tried to improve the experience in each book I write. With Book Four I’ve had quite a long hiatus to think about what makes a good gamebook experience – and I hope to put many of those ideas into practice.
The fourth book will have a lot more interactions with characters, and I think it is important that the reader is left to make up their own opinions as to the motivations and ideals of those characters. There are no obvious heroes or villains – as in real life, everyone has their own reasons for what they do. How you decide to react to these characters and where you choose to place your loyalty will be a recurrent theme.
Many of the quests also have multiple routes through them, often with very different endings. Coupled with this is the keyword system, which tracks the key decisions you have made. You could liken this to the butterfly effect – one small decision you might make while exploring a town for instance, could have a whole knock-on effect of providing you with extra encounters, storyline and even unlockable sub-quests later. I want the world to feel more dynamic. In both Acts there will be two factions that you can side with. Again, this can lead to exciting outcomes as you earn reputation with your chosen faction and unlock dungeons, missions and powerful loot.
What paths and careers can we follow in Book Four to personalise our hero. This new setting surely offers many new opportunities?
The three main paths return for Book Four – mage, warrior and rogue – and each path will have three careers that can be discovered. That is less than in previous books, but this story is being told over two volumes so it was necessary to divide up the planned careers.
Wait. Stop right there. This story is being told over two books? Why is that?
Trust me, nothing would have made me happier than to wrap everything up in one book, but once I started the detailed planning and writing, it quickly became apparent that I just couldn’t fit it all into one book. Because I am trying to push the amount of choice and interaction your character has, all that adds up to lots of entries and word count – and it would have just have been too unwieldly to try and shoehorn the whole story into one book. I believe the story will be better served over the course of two books, with your hero continuing from one book to the next – which is a first for the series.
Can you tell us more about the careers? You mentioned that there are fewer in this book than in the others.
Yes, in previous books I sometimes felt like players had very little time to experience a career before a new one was being offered. I hope that having fewer careers will give readers a better opportunity to get to grips with their chosen career and abilities, and get a feel for how they play. I think the careers this time around are more closely aligned to certain builds and styles of play, rather than just been random and flavorful.
As you can imagine from the setting, there will be some very exciting career choices: dual-wielding dervishes who can slice and dice their opponents with vicious whirlwind attacks, tomb robbers who can employ deadly poisons to strengthen their attacks, mystical diviners who have the ability to summon healing springs to bolster their powers – and of course, careers that are focused around one of the key new features of Book Four, pets and summoning!
How will pets and summoning work?
In Book Four readers will have the opportunity to train a pet or summon a magical minion to fight by their side. These allies will provide valuable bonuses in combat, often buffing existing powers or bringing new abilities into play. They essentially offer up an extra layer of strategy for those readers who enjoy the ‘game/combat’ side of the book and are looking for something new and fresh to explore.
What other exciting new abilities and tactics will we discover?
With the three paths – warrior, mage and rogue – I really went back to the drawing board and designed them from the ground up, to ensure that they each felt very different this time around. To that end I developed styles of play that I felt defined each path and then created a new set of abilities that will help play into that.
For example, warriors can now focus their abilities around what I call the ‘bleed’ build, where they use sweeping attacks to damage multiple opponents and inflict them with the bleed effect. Tied into this will be abilities that trigger and become more powerful the more opponents are injured – and there are even abilities that come into play once your own hero has ‘bled’ and are down to their last health. This contrasts with the tank hero, that uses armour and retaliation attacks to whittle down opponents and set up powerful combos. There’s lots of choice this time around for making very potent builds or picking and choosing to create your own style.
Interesting that you mention tank heroes. A criticism regarding earlier DestinyQuest books was the implementation of Armour. Some considered it a wasted attribute. Have the issues relating to the balance and execution of this specific attribute now been addressed?
In short. Yes. At least I hope so. The proof will come with the playtesting, but certainly armour is more effective in this book as your armour value can be used to boost certain abilities, as well as heal your hero, increase damage – and so on. Again, this will depend on your chosen path and build.
How tough are the opponents in The Raiders of Dune Sea? Does our hero have any new or enhanced options to take them down quickly?
I like to ensure that all battles are ‘fair’ and don’t become annoying grind-fests or offer up impossible difficulty spikes. However, with that said – heroes have a much greater pool of powerful abilities and combos this time around, so I guess your opponents are going to be equally ‘buffed’ to compensate – certainly some of the legendary monsters that are optional challenges.
I’m hoping the combat will remain very tense and exciting. I’ve already mentioned the pets and minions as one new facet of combat. There will also be the new ‘warp’ abilities that link in with the hero’s specific power. More about this new power will be revealed during the Kickstarter in January.
I have a strong feeling that magic is an important feature of this fourth adventure. Are there new tools and abilities for magic users to wield in combat?
There is a new mechanic for mages which is ‘spending magic’. This is to represent the casting of powerful spells and ongoing buffs, which can be draining to the mage’s power. Some special abilities will now require a hero to ‘spend magic’ in order for an ability to be activated. This means lowering your magic attribute during the combat. Mage players will now need to be more tactical in their choices, as they will need to weigh up the costs of the spells they are casting – overspending might mean they become too weak as the combat progresses, but there will be abilities that can restore magic too, so it should become an interesting balancing act.
The exceptional character customisation of the DestinyQuest series is a real highlight for players who love to build a distinctive hero. Will we still find plenty of unique loot to equip?
I think this book may end up having the most number of items. In the first Act alone I counted approximately 161 different items that you can acquire across the three paths. There will certainly be no shortage of options for making your hero unique that’s for sure!
Do you have any plans for the series beyond Book Four and its sequel?
These are such huge books and incredibly draining to write, from both a time and a financial perspective. After completing this book I will be returning to the everyday ‘normal’ work of freelancing for a while, then I’ll make a start on Book Five, which continues and ends the story that was started in Book Four.
I have always had plans to write more in the series – as there are other stories that need to be told, such as the fates of Prince Arran and the Wiccan King Conall. Whether they will get told is really up to fans and readers, and their support for Book Four. I’m really hoping that people show their support for the January Kickstarter and get behind the series. If the demand is there and I can scrape a living out of writing these books (!) then I’ll be happy to continue.
Some people may decide to choose Book Four as their entry point to the series. Will they be at a disadvantage for not having read the previous books?
No, not at all. I try and write every DestinyQuest book as a standalone adventure and try not to assume any prior background knowledge. Of course, someone coming into the fourth book having read the previous ones will have an instant familiarity with some of the characters and events, and that will provide a deeper experience for them – but I try and explain the story in such a way that anyone should be able to pick up the lore and enjoy the adventure.
Is there a type of setting or adventure you’d really like to explore in a future gamebook?
That’s a difficult one as I think a lot of genres have already been tackled to some degree, such as horror/zombies, sci-fi and steampunk. I still think there’s a lot left to explore within the traditional fantasy setting.
I must admit, I do prefer writing the more low-fantasy ‘grim-dark’ style of scenarios, of which there are quite a few in Book Four – so perhaps writing an entire book with that kind of feel would interest me. I have had thoughts for how I might tackle a Book Six if I ever get there… but hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet! I’ll be more than happy to see this book finished and in readers’ hands. There will be plenty of content there to keep adventurers happy for quite some time!
Thanks to Michael J. Ward for his detailed answers to our numerous queries. The DestinyQuest Book Four Kickstarter launches on Wednesday 10 January 2018 – GBN will continue to follow the campaign next year to inform all gamebook fans about the project.