Gamebook release: Escape from Portsrood Forest

Escape from Portsrood Forest is a light-hearted, high fantasy gamebook by Samuel Isaacson in which YOU take on the role of a knight who wakes up in an enchanted forest with no memory of the previous night. Written in an open world style, and making use of codewords and tick-boxes to keep track of your progress, your tasks are to reconstruct the events of the previous evening and ultimately, to find a way out of the forest.

There is no dice rolling in Escape from Portsrood Forest. Instead, the decisions you make resolve the outcome of combat and skill checks by affecting the unfolding of a narrative which is intended to be extremely immersive and enchanting. Hidden sections can only be accessed by solving riddles or uncovering information about the forest’s secrets, and even though the story lacks a ‘one true path’ approach, there are plenty of decisions that may prove your undoing!

Being an open world adventure, navigating Portsrood Forest shouldn’t prove overly challenging once you have it all mapped out, and doing so will see you encounter all manner of fairy-tale beings such as a giant, a dwarf, a centaur, gnomes, a pixie, a black knight and many more. Pure escapism is the aim of this adventure, and for readers wanting to take a gentler stroll through the woods, the book includes a ‘Free Roam mode’ that uses codewords to allow you to focus on exploring the forest without fear of threat from any of its inhabitants.

At 400 sections long, Escape from Portsrood Forest features European artwork from the 19th century and an original map created by David Lowrie, the author of the Hellscape gamebook series. It has also received some very positive comments from other authors and members of the gamebook community.

Escape from Portsrood Forest is available now for purchase from Amazon in paperback or kindle.

GBN has talked to Samuel about his new book Escape from Portsrood Forest, and how it was created:

How did you come up with the concept of a gamebook that challenges readers to escape from a mystical and enchanted forest?

I love forests, and particularly given the current lockdown I’ve really appreciated the chance to get into nature. Over the past year or so I’ve also been trying to figure out how an escape room would work as a gamebook, and the two connected in my head to form a forest a reader could wander around, collecting clues to get them out.

The mystical elements came from a general interest I have in legends and folklore, particularly in Britain, and there are a lot of stories connected with enchanted forests. It felt like the perfect opportunity to combine several aspects into one!

Escape from Portsrood Forest uses public domain art from the 19th century and its cover is very nostalgic, even Victorian. Could you tell us more about how you came to decide on the particular aesthetic of this book?

The other day, my children were absolutely convinced they’d seen a fairy flying around in the garden. I think it was a fly with a bit of fluff stuck to it, but they still maintain they could see a tiny person with wings, wearing a white dress. I’m tempted to see historic peoples as having that same naivety, and wanted to capture a time and place in which the Cottingley Fairies were accepted as true, and venturing into a forest carried with it the risk of meeting odd characters.

I toyed with a more medieval style with classic woodcuts and found that it gave the book a more childish, cartoony feel that I wasn’t happy with. But the illustrations from many of these books – made freely available by the British Library among other places – are often truly delightful, and I’m glad to share them a little more widely through this book.

How does writing an ‘open world’ gamebook such as Escape from Portsrood Forest differ from writing more linear adventures?

A lot! And I had to learn that lesson the hard way. Writing something that remains true regardless of which direction you’ve approached it and remains fresh regardless of how many times you’ve read it before is an enormous challenge, and creating a convincing and consistent storyline that works within that is even more tricky.

I found that I was tempted to make things either too linear, in which case it became boring for the reader, or too open, in which case it became frustrating! My first plan and subsequent draft was around 150 sections, which quickly extended to closer to 300 along with some codewords. By the time I got playtesters involved it was at 365, and the final version sits at a satisfying 400.

All in all, I’m really pleased with how it turned out and have learned a huge amount throughout the process – I expect I’ll be doing another in the same style at some point.

How did you first encounter gamebooks, and do you have a favourite series?

I can’t ever remember a time without gamebooks to be honest – I expect I encountered interactive fiction through Choose Your Own Adventure first, but branched quickly into Fighting Fantasy and many others. I like many series for different reasons – Blood Sword for the multiplayer aspect, Lone Wolf for the epic narrative, and the A4-size Asterix gamebooks for their creativity and use of illustrations as part of the experience. But my favourite would probably have to be Fabled Lands – I was a real fan during the 90s, and the launch of the seventh book last year really served as my trigger to properly get back into gamebooks. Meeting Paul Gresty and Jamie Thomson was probably my highlight of FFF3!

You are known for writing the science fiction gamebooks The Altimer and New Gaia, yet Escape from Portsrood Forest is described as a light-hearted tale of high fantasy. How can you account for your interest in writing two very different genres of gamebook?

My previous gamebooks have had a dark, dystopian feel in the cover and artwork, and to be brutally honest I didn’t want to contribute more of that to the events we’re collectively experiencing at the moment.

In terms of the different genres, I think that’s a fantastic question. One of the first reviews I ever got for The Altimer said, “The writing is good, dynamic and detailed – Sam is obviously a bit of a sci-fi fan.” I thought that was funny, because I wouldn’t have described myself as a sci-fi fan – I’ve always loved high fantasy and have found myself getting frustrated at bookshops that lump everything within those broad brackets together.

But the truth is that I intentionally pursue an eclectic mix of genres in my reading. Each month I get the free ebook from Amazon Prime, and I always try to pick the one that I’m least familiar with. So I’ll certainly write more sci-fi (the trilogy needs completing, after all!), I’m sure I’ll revisit high fantasy, whether Portsrood or somewhere else, and there’s a decent chance I’ll experiment with other genres as well. There’s a distinct lack of gamebooks set as westerns, for example…

Did you adopt any particular approach to writing Escape from Portsrood Forest? Were there any particular books you read, places you visited or music you played whilst at work?

Yes, yes and yes – the foundational book for this was The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, and two other books that played a significant role are The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. There’s a golf course surrounded by a lovely park just near my house, and almost every walk I’ve taken there included me taking note of something I observed to then include in the book. And almost the whole time I wrote was accompanied by a soundscape from

You seem to have a supportive and knowledgeable network of friends and colleagues within the gamebook community, some of whom have written works of their own. How important are these connections to your gamebook writing, and do you think you might one day try to write a book jointly with another author?

Without the community, the book wouldn’t have happened. An important part of that is that I feel Escape From Portsrood Forest is already a collaboration to a certain extent – I included four playtesters this time and made changes because of each one of them.

And I’d love to connect with someone to write something jointly – I even have some ideas I think would work well!

If you had to describe Escape from Portsrood Forest as either a story waiting to be told, or a puzzle waiting to be cracked, which would you choose, and why?

Always nice to end on a trick question…so I’ll say both. It certainly is a puzzle, and the solution to the puzzle is a story, and it’s much more than that. It’s really an immersive experience of wandering around a forest, with the opportunity to tell a story on the way. The book even comes with a “Free Roam” mode, allowing the reader to simply explore the forest without threat of attack – probably the wise person’s approach to mapping out the forest, but far less exciting than being pounced on at every turn!

GBN would like to thank Samuel Isaacson for sharing his thoughts on his new gamebook Escape from Portsrood Forest.

Interview by KJ Shadmand

2 thoughts on “Gamebook release: Escape from Portsrood Forest”

  1. Coincidentally, I bought The Altimer and New Gaia the day before this was posted. Obviously, I then had to buy Escape from Portsrood Forest as well so thanks for posting this.

  2. Always nice to have the full collection, Eamonn! Glad the article brought Samuel’s latest gamebook to your attention.

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