The Two-Fisted Fantasy series from Sam Iacob (aka Herman S. Skull, Hermit Skull) simply isn’t your typical gamebook fare. Containing off-the-wall plots often full of puerile yet witty absurdity, populated by puzzling characters carrying plenty of personal baggage, and bursting with endless situations that entertain with their outlandish inventiveness and attitude, this series presents adventures that display great humour and interaction, all within a structure that challenges with intelligent gameplay.

With The Sword of the Bastard Elf finally nearing completion, GBN speaks with writer/illustrator Sam Iacob to understand the processes required to create such a massive, complex gamebook, revealing some of its many trials and tribulations, its plethora of peculiar content, and discovering a little about the man behind these unusual Bastards.

You’ve written 1825 paragraphs and 370,000 words for The Sword of the Bastard Elf. Are you completely unhinged?

After over a year of writing Elf as more or less a second job I think I have come a bit unglued, but I started out with good intentions. I’ve been assured that what I’ve written still makes sense to at least a couple of people other than myself, so I hope that means I still have at least one hinge still attached, even if it’s come a bit loose.

When I originally started I was aiming for 600-700 paragraphs for the whole book, which I thought would give people enough to go on. However, because of the nature of the combat system, which doesn’t actually require you to win fights (and sometimes won’t reward you for winning), a lot of scenes have branching options that needed writing based on whether you were coming out ahead in your various struggles. On top of that there were a lot of jokes and references that just demanded to be crammed in, so the book just exploded. Another reason it’s so long is because I’ve completely avoided using the hub and spoke system which saves space in CYOA-style books but has the tendency to make things a little more linear and can bog the story down sometimes. Even though this book is really long you don’t spend a lot of time just meandering around and the playthroughs will probably be shorter than a book a quarter the length.

Speaking of length, I read somewhere that the longest gamebook, Rider of the Black Sun, which recently had a Kickstarter for its English translation, is roughly 740 pages and 1350 paragraphs. Elf dwarfs that – in a bigger print format it’s looking at pushing 800-900 pages. I might have accidentally made the longest single English-language gamebook. Please don’t tell me if I haven’t.


You’ve noted that there are at least three completely distinct paths to take through the adventure, which then incorporate different ways for the player to progress. It sounds like this will be a book with enormous replayability – was that a feature you were keen to include?

Yes, there are at least three major routes through the book with a distinctly different feel to them, each with several ways of getting around based on your decisions. Each path is almost a book in its own right, except of course they all head to the same place (your father’s couch) and you can jump between them.

I really wanted to include a lot of variety after writing Star Bastards, which was a very short, fairly tightly-written adventure, which mainly relied on difficulty and having two distinct storylines to increase replayability. Star Bastards didn’t allow for much time to explore – it’s a chase story at heart and the short exploration sections mostly served to let you gather clues or items to solve the fairly nasty puzzles at the end of each of those sections. In contrast with Elf you’re not in such a rush and the territory you’re crossing is measured in miles instead of light years, so I really wanted to make it possible for players to explore the world I’ve put together and to give them an excuse to come back to it. There’s lots of little things in Elf that I hope give the world a sort of living feel to it despite it being more or less a parody, and the variety of ways across it might give people an excuse to come back to it at least a few times to see what they might have missed. There are also a few puzzles and several ends which are only reachable by crafting, plus an optional and very simple minigame that I expect most players will forget about completely.


You’ve outgrown the original rules/systems as the book’s been written. Was this expected or has the increased scope and subsequent complexity simply caused this issue?

Actually the rules are the only thing in this project that have become simpler since starting out. Unlike Star Bastards, Elf has only a very basic system which dispenses with injuries, travelling companions, vehicles – everything really except the core of allocating EFFORT (the game’s version of Stamina) to Hassles (which are Elf’s versions of fights and skill checks). There are a couple of rules which have changed – the one for fighting multiple opponents for instance, which has become more severe but less complex – but nothing’s become harder. Even the item effects have been adjusted to be a little simpler – there’s still a ton of stuff out there for packrats to pick up, but it should be easier to remember what it all does without looking at the cards or item list every few minutes. The rules, including an introduction, character creation, a gratuitous potions effect table and some general hints and tips comes out to less than five pages, of which you really only need to learn two to play most of the game.

You might notice when you pick up the tome that, despite everything I just said, the rules section is something like 60 or 70 pages long. It’s the same joke from Star Bastards, which I don’t think I’ve sufficiently run into the ground yet, but this time instead of being game systems you need to play the game, it’s a beer and pretzels RPG system which allows people to run campaigns in Bilgeton. It even comes with an introductory adventure and, in combination with the cards (which will have pre-made rooms and settings for the RPG scenarios printed on the back), should provide an adequate gaming experience for people who want to pretend to be scumbags in the world of the Bastard Elf. If you don’t want to play RPGs you can safely ignore the huge amount of work I put into making a completely throwaway joke which isn’t even part of the adventure itself.


Grave robbing, summoning demons, getting kicked in the nuts, being turned into a skeleton or impregnated by a moth – David Bowie – what hasn’t this book got in it?

Sadly I had to cut a lot of content I wanted to include because it wandered too far from the game area or I couldn’t figure out how to make it work without adding a huge number of paragraphs. It was originally going to be possible to encounter the Court of the Crimson King, there was an entire Roadhouse-based location on the road to Bilgeton, the Fear and Loathing Sequence was going to be a lot larger and there was originally plans to include a Skyrim “Throat of the World” style section where you learn how to make an irritating noise with the monks before going back to wreak havoc on civilization. There are quite a few things that didn’t make it in, really! But then the book would be 3,000 paragraphs long and wouldn’t be out until late 2019 or whenever, so I had to draw a line somewhere.

The thing I was saddest to remove was a more extensive role for companions – aside from one notable exception I had to remove a lot of their interactions to save space. They’re still in there doing their thing, the book just doesn’t pay all that much attention to them. Again, with one exception.

But yes, there’s still plenty to do: you can kill David Bowie (in his role as the Goblin King), join a skeleton union, get married (or divorced), become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, crash several parties, start town-destroying fires, and many other things I won’t ruin for you. Of course there’s also an old-school maze right in the middle of the map since no gamebook is complete without a frustrating exercise in mapping with a pen and pencil.


You attended Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 in September last year, where you sold some copies of Star Bastards, promoted The Sword of the Bastard Elf, and probably partied like a drunken elf till the early hours. What was that experience like overall, and did you receive any useful feedback about your work?

The best part was putting a face to some of the names from my Kickstarter campaigns, but it was great to meet some of the artists from the Fighting Fantasy books whose art is a major reason I grew up to become such a weirdo. I was particularly chuffed to meet Tony Hough, the artist of Spectral Stalkers, which had the strangest and most interesting art of the Fighting Fantasy series (and is obviously my favourite even now). It was also good to get to meet some of the people who actually buy these books, and some of them even bought mine.

I haven’t actually had a lot of detailed feedback about Star Bastards – a downside to just starting out I suppose. A lot of what I heard back was stuff I was aware of: the stories tried to pack too much in to too short a space; an over-reliance on the hub and spoke system to give an illusion of space where it didn’t exist; the rules were too complex (which was intentional but perhaps I could have gone a lot further in explaining that was part of the joke); the difficulty with the puzzles (people quite often were unaware they were facing a puzzle, let alone how to deal with it). I’ve taken this all on board with the Bastard Elf!

Overall the experience of attending FFF2 was good but I let myself down a bit by going alone – I didn’t get to see any of the talks because I was at the table the whole time, and being out of the way a little bit meant there were some quiet periods. Next time I’ll bring a friend along.


The artwork of the Fighting Fantasy series inspired a lot of people to create their own art. What was it about these images, particularly Tony Hough’s illustrations, that impressed you, both then and now?

Tony Hough’s artwork in Spectral Stalkers is absolutely wild. It’s a weird adventure even by Fighting Fantasy standards, allowing Tony to pretty much draw whatever he wanted. He’s a master of warped bio-mechanical weirdness and his work has this sort of chaotic energy that I’ve always envied but never really been able to capture myself. One picture of his which I still remember from reading Spectral Stalkers when I was younger is this great scene of huntsmen riding these enormous insectoid beasts which are somehow flying just above the ground while these little fairies or pixies or some other magical little folk flee in the foreground, coming out of the frame to get away from these terrifying things. So it’s a bit familiar – it’s a picture of the Wild Hunt, pretty much, but ominous, unsettling and funny all at the same time. There’s also a lot of incidental detail in just about everything Tony draws, as if the characters exist and aren’t just waiting around for you to buy something off them or slay them, you can imagine them going about their lives happily without ever encountering the player. This is the sort of thing I try to go for in my illustrations whenever I can.

I actually met Tony at FFF2 last year, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t recognise him when he came over to the Two-Fisted Fantasy stand. I only put two and two together later on. If I catch him next time, I’ll see if I can get him to take a copy of my books away with him.

In general with the Fighting Fantasy series, the impressive thing about the art was just how good it was. Most books for older children were pretty cheap on the artwork while Fighting Fantasy was getting some seriously talented and well-known artists to do 30 or more illustrations per book. As far as I remember there weren’t any other books that had the sort of pictures that Fighting Fantasy had in them either – these were pretty gruesome, scary images for a ten year old – in other words exactly the kind of thing a ten year old wants to see, and even the kind of thing a guy in his mid thirties still wants to get out and take a look at from time to time.


What can we expect from the computer game ‘DLC’, The TwELF Tasks of Bastardcules?

Perhaps not that DLC at all, in the end! There are some loose ends in a couple of sub-plots which are crying out for a DLC to tie everything up, so the action is going to be shifted back onto the main map. Having found a place to crash, the Elf decides it’s time to get revenge on his stepdad once and for all – and returning to Elfsdale Downs manages to get involved in a Skeleton War between the several different kinds of undead which are suddenly swarming in vast numbers along the roads of the province.

The DLC is going to be a visual novel and will ask a few questions about how you completed the game, though it will assume you achieved the canonical ending where you find your father in Bilgeton. Depending on what you did and how you did it, the story will unfold differently, though it’s not likely to be incredibly long. Like The Curse of the Cursed Mummy (available for FREE at it’s going to be chaotic, have a bunch of optional hot-seat sections and generally not make a heap of sense but should be a good time nonetheless.


Tell us a little about the purple body-suited character called ‘The Spectre’. Encountering him appears to be quite consequential!

He’s a completely original, non-copyright-infringing character of my own creation who bears only a passing, coincidental resemblance to “The Phantom”. It’s actually not a huge encounter, though if you cross him it’ll permanently ruin your Adventure Scroll (the Elf version of the adventure sheet) with an indelible skull imprint in a way which is only coincidentally very similar to what happens when “The Phantom” hits someone.

Despite the danger of disfigurement, if you do encounter The Spectre it can be worth getting him out of the way though because there is a very important item hidden away in his area that can make a later encounter far easier than it would otherwise be. But the chances of finding that and recognizing what it is would depend on your knowledge of The Ph…I mean, The Spectre.


Do you enjoy any one aspect of creating these adventures more than others – if so, why?

For me it’s the early planning and illustration – writing is fun too, though because of the nature of choose your own adventure books it can get a bit trying writing the same scene from multiple different angles. And unless the scene is completely throwaway or in a very isolated location, it has to fit in with the other scenes so synching up the time of day and location so that it can be approached from multiple different angles really sucks some of the fun out of it. Some of my favourite scenes are the completely throwaway ones – there’s a scene which is reference to an old Mac-only computer game prominently located in the mountain path, and the Rambo bit is some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing even if it’s just a short section. The Golden Axe part is fun too. There’s a lot of that just hidden away off the main paths.

The end game sequence in Bilgeton was good fun to plan and write as well because the game really switches gears, and because you sort of go through a chokepoint to get there I didn’t have to worry so much about things like “what time of day will the player get here if they come in through the mountains vs the main road” so it was a lot easier to get stuck into than a lot of other sections.

I haven’t done a lot of illustration for the book yet but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while. I think illustration adds a lot to the book because gamebooks make a lot of demands on the imagination of the players. In a normal story the protagonist gets into a fight and the author describes the scene, whereas in a gamebook you resolve the issue with some dice rolls. While that draws the player into the action it doesn’t do a great job of describing it, so you need some decent art to stand in for the descriptive bit that’s missing.

Due to its amount of content, you’re now increasing Elf’s size up to 7″x10″, which then requires a cover redesign and new internal illustrations. Does the production aspect of self-publishing become a chore when physical limitations force such a rejig?

It wasn’t such a big problem because I’d only attempted a small amount of layout and artwork for it. When I launched the Kickstarted I produced a copy of the rules which was supposed to be a sample of how the book would look, it even had a complete cover and a couple of full page illustrations. In the early months of the Kickstarter I also began work on a few images that were planned to appear in the book. All of these things were made pretty much useless by the resize.

Luckily it’s not all that much work in the scheme of things – I may have lost a few images but I need to do about a hundred now, and it’s given me a chance to do them all in a consistent style rather than going back and trying to copy my drawing style from a year ago. I’ve improved a little in that time and I hope people are going to like what they find in The Sword of the Bastard Elf. As for the cover, it was a good excuse to go back and bring it more in line with what Star Bastards looked like so there’s a unifying appearance in the series. So out with the soft watercolour and in with the horrifying bright colours and simple shapes of the Two-Fisted Fantasy line.

The main annoyance as I see it is for collectors who might be starting a Two-Fisted Fantasy shelf in their gamebook hoard: they might be irritated to find that the books are different sizes. I’ll make this up to them by releasing a third book a bit later on that is a completely different size yet again.


How difficult do you find it to create genuinely humorous content. Do you regularly struggle to write stuff that really works, or does it flow easily most of the time?

2017 was a tough year for anyone trying to write something funny, but generally I knew what I wanted to do with the scenes in the book. Flow is hard though, because of the sheer amount of setup involved – for instance, there are scenes where there are 50 paragraphs or more and it’s a matter of figuring out if the joke is coming across no matter which path you choose or even if it gets a bit played out before you reach the end of the section. Because it can take a week or more to write any one part of the book, the joke can feel like it’s been over-stretched by the time I’ve done writing it, but generally it’s turned out well. The book, despite its size, is really fast and from the player’s point of view most scenes are only a few paragraphs long where for me they’re much, much longer. There have been a few times in writing this book that I’ve finished or nearly finished a section and decided it just wasn’t good, then thrown out a week’s work and gone back to the drawing board. The elf battle after the Warlock’s Tower for instance, which readers might know from the old “Let’s Play” version of Elf, took two full re-writes before I was happy with it. Aside from that I haven’t been afraid to pull paragraphs out of sections that were getting too bloated for their own good.

A lot of what makes the Elf work (I hope) comes from the setting as well, and the constant subverting of expectations. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the background which the player might pick up on or get involved in depending on which way they go. The relationship between the different races, the behavior of the elfs in general, how money works in the game and lots of little things like that contribute to making a lot of the humour work. There’s a bunch of stupid slapstick, puns and movie, book and video game references, so something for everybody really.


When can readers get their grubby hands on a copy of this mighty tome?

Soon, hopefully! All that remains now to complete the book is layout and illustration. While these are big jobs, the writing was the vast majority of the work, if Star Bastards was anything to go on. As soon as I have my proofs back from DriveThruRPG the PDF and print versions will be available for Kickstarter and pre-order backers.

I suspect most people won’t want to wait for the Bestiary, and in any case it contains potential spoilers and will probably ruin a couple of the jokes if read before you’ve at least had a go at Elf. Depending on how we’re going for time I might try to release this and the art book at the same time as the main text, but since the project’s running late I’ll play that by ear. The “DLC” will be the next priority after that. Anyway, I’m guessing May/June for the release for Kickstarter backers and a month or two later for the general public. Anyhow, keep an eye on the Kickstarter page – all the updates there will be open to the public from now on.

Thanks to Sam Iacob for all of his time and effort to answer our numerous questions, and for allowing GBN the opportunity to reveal several pieces of newly created artwork.

The Sword of the Bastard Elf is still available to pre-order from, and you can purchase the print or digital edition of Star Bastards from the Two-Fisted Fantasy website.

2 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Sam Iacob”

  1. 1825 paragraphs and 370,000 words… I think that would make it as large as just over half of the Sorcery series? (in terms of paragraphs, I think in words the only other comparable interactive fiction would have to be some of the Choice of Games Apps…) Impressive!

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