Monday, March 10, 2014

Beyond the Pit: Old School Art and Hideous Monsters!

 Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared the landscape with humans... (Quammen, 2003)



Well, it took a bit over two years to get done, but Beyond the Pit is finally finished. When I originally agreed to write it for Graham Bottley's Arion Games and their second edition of Advanced Fighting Fantasy I knew it would be a big undertaking, but I probably underestimated just how big it would be! I should have considered the fact that if Marc Gascoigne never wrote a follow up to his own Out of the Pit then there must have been a good reason.

And there was. Basically, the simple fact is that trying to compile a bestiary of at least 250 monsters drawn from random paragraphs scattered throughout well over 60 gamebook canonical sources, while trying to keep each creature entry informative and interesting, is a big task! Not to mention all of the extras: treasure tables, encounter charts, Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules, and Fighting Fantasy canon consistency. Still, it's done, and I thought I'd share a few snippets about the product and the process.
  • The original brief was to use 250 creatures that already had prior artwork published in Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, to avoid commissioning new art and limiting the Kickstarter target to cover the licensing fees for the old artwork.
  • This did allow me some creativity in using different artwork for creatures that originally had none (e.g. see the entries for the Carnivorous Plant, the Killer Bee, and the Man-Octopus).
  • I started at the very first book (The Warlock of Firetop Mountain) and basically tried to cram in many old favorites that didn't make the original Out of the Pit. (e.g. the Iron Cyclops, the Night Horror, the Sand Snapper, and, of course, the She-Satyr).
  • Where possible I tried to clump creatures as opposed to split them (e.g. see the Death-Knight, the Kraken, and the Serpent).
  • Half way through writing, Stephen Hand requested via Steve Jackson that his monsters not be used, so out went any creatures from Dead of Night, Legend of Shadow Warriors and Moonrunner. This was disappointing...
  • Marc Gascoigne was too busy to write a brief foreword. More disappointment...
  • Ian Miller and Dave Carson had issues with their artwork being used, so Graham commissioned the talented Jason Lenox to provide illustrations for these creatures, and, especially given the short time frame, I think Jason's pictures are excellent!
Having said all that, I am very very happy with the final product. I think it stands up well as a companion to Out of the Pit, and provides definitive information on a horde of Fighting Fantasy beasties that were screaming out for their own official Advanced Fighting Fantasy treatment. I hope I've walked the fine line between a useable monster manual and a canonical sourcebook, while providing plenty of ideas for how the various creatures could make an appearance in a game or campaign. Despite the lengthy timeframe, and the workload (on top of family commitments, studies and my day job!), I thoroughly enjoyed myself writing this folio of fiends, and, well, who knows, there may certainly be a third volume to write yet! After all, there are plenty more monsters where these horrible creatures all came from...



The monster, of course, is a product of and a regular inhabitant of the imagination, but the imagination is a driving force behind our entire perception of the world. If we find monsters in our world, it is sometimes because they are really there and sometimes because we have brought them with us... (Asma, 2009)

References

Asma, S. T. (2009). On monsters. New York: Oxford University Press.
Quammen, D. (2003). Monster of God. New York: Norton. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

False Dawn?

Red Sea denizen (Andrew Wright, 2014)
I hadn't seen him in two years. He'd long since left L.A., teaching, any sort of steady job, steady income, steady life. He was in Aspen, Dakar, Bangkok. Once in a while I got a dirt-smeared postcard from out of the amazing pipeline, exotic stamps, a mad trembling hasty scrawl of which the only legible term was "dude." (Boyle, 1994)

It's been a while. When I first moved from Bangkok to Saudi Arabia, I thought that the lack of a two hour daily commute to work might free up some time for other endeavors, such as this blog. However, the flotsam of life has tossed up plenty of alternative distractions to prevent this. Still, there is hope. In the next post I hope to talk about Beyond the Pit, which has basically taken two years to finish, and how happy I am to finally see it in print!



References

Boyle, T. C. (1994). Without a Hero. London: Penguin.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Interviewed!



There's a whole host of reasons why nothing has happened on the blog for ages (and there's been a stillborn post sitting on my laptop explaining all of them that I still haven't posted), but for now, check out this interview I did with Stuart Lloyd. You can find the interview here.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A New Year and a New Plan

 

This past year has been a good one for Fantasy Gamebook! This blog got started for one thing, taking a detailed look at Dave Morris’ amazing Heart of Ice adventure. Tin Man Games then released my Catacombs of the Undercity gamebook as the fifth entry in their Gamebook Adventures series on iTunes to good reviews. Finally my entry, Sea of Madness, won first prize in Wayne Densley’s 2011 Windhammer competition for short gamebook fiction.

However, it has been exceedingly tricky at times trying to balance fun stuff like gamebooks with real-world concerns like employment and studying, and the number of posts on this blog has suffered as a result. For 2012 there will be some changes, with posts being shorter, but hopefully more regular. In order to do this, I’m going to have to introduce a bit more structure to the proceedings, with posts organized into a cascading series of categories as follows:

News
Wherein I talk about a bunch of tangentially-related gamebook stuff that caught my eye over the past week or so.

Gamebooks
Where I explore some facet of gamebook lore in more detail.

Games
Whether it be boardgames, RPGs, or CRPGs, I briefly review or offer examples of play.

Books
Be they paper or PDF, I offer a few thoughts on whatever texts I’m currently wading through.

Influences
Ah nostalgia! Wherein I look at childhood influences that inspired a life-long lurch into the realm of fantastical endeavours.

Multimedia
Music, film, or (rarely) television; I post on what my eyes and ears are currently distracted by.

Science
A close favourite I’ve previously dallied with here.

That’s the plan anyway. Whether it actually happens is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish...

Monday, December 12, 2011

DestinyQuest: The Review

I've been meaning to do this for a while, but it's probably about time to get a review done of DestinyQuest Book 1: The Legion of Shadows by Michael J. Ward. For those not in the know, this is the first in a brand new series of fantasy gamebooks, notable especially for its size (790+ pages), non-linearity, and character advancement.

Rather than drag this out into a lengthy series of posts, I thought I'd try a quicker review process where I summarize all the bits I like; the bits I think could do with more work; and a concluding statement containing my final thoughts.

For the record, I purchased my copy direct from the author via eBay as a special deal including a rare weapon card, a DestinyQuest postcard, and a set of four DQ dice in a little red velvet bag.

Things I like about DestinyQuest
  • The size. There's more adventure here than you could wave your character's main weapon at. Just looking at the maps that accompany the three Acts in the book (Tithebury; Mistwood and Blackmarsh; and The Bone Fields), is an invitation to continue adventuring. "Just one more quest..."
  • The character sheet. It's a nice, simple, easy to understand two page spread. The location-based layout for equipment is intuitive and far more comprehendable than, say, Lone Wolf.
  • Non-linearity. Go where you want, do what you want, when you want. It's the Skyrim of gamebooks in this way...
  • Travel. No endless trekking from A to B, dealing with a host of random encounters along the way. If you want to go to visit the weather wizard, turn to 66. In this way the entire map essentially functions as a hub paragraph, with all encounters and their consequences radiating out from it like a web of choices... 
  • Equipment upgrades. Get better gear, all the time. But wait! What would you prefer? Ebon Boots or the Hood of Night? You can only pick one, so choose wisely...
  • Lack of hoarding. Unlike Fabled Lands where you tend to accumulate huge quantities of items and artefacts scattered across numerous bolt-holes throughout Harkuna, in DestinyQuest equipment upgrades mean losing whatever is being replaced. In other words, what you carry is all you have.
  • Character advancement & careers. You start DestinyQuest as a generic adventurer, but by the end of it you can pick not only a profession but also a career specialisation. Necromancer, anyone?
  • Character uniqueness. Again, unlike Fabled Lands where you characters tend to do the same quests, raise the same abilities and gain the same powerful items, the character specialisation and unique item upgrades means that your character is likely very different from someone else's.
Things I'm not too sure about
  • No pictures. Although I realise the logistics of commissioning and inserting pictures into a gamebook this size are daunting, I do miss the gamebook with pix format.
  • No dying. There is no character death which is a bit of a shock for someone brought up on a steady diet of books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. Instead you simply respawn and begin anew. I can see why it is like this, and I do enjoy it, but it just feels wrong somehow...
  • Grind. Towards the end of the book, when the opponents get tougher, the combats tend to grind a little, and all the various special abilities can be tricky to remember and implement correctly.
  • Bold type for choices. Sometimes choices are in bold font, and sometimes not. Consistency with this would be good.
  • More choices. It would be good to avoid single choice paragraphs, particularly if they lead to more single choice paragraphs. Always offer the reader some kind of choice.
  • No indication for legendary beasts. It would be nice o have some vague idea of how tough these critters are as the paragraph for them is an immediate combat experience. An intro paragraph highlighting some of their more gruesome achievements, followed by a choice ("Do you want to face the Jabberwocky or not?"), would be good.

Summary: Despite these minor flaws, DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadows is possibly the best and certainly the biggest solo fantasy gamebook I've played and enjoyed! This is the absolute closest you can get to a MMORPG in dead tree format if your internet connection goes down, and even if you are online, BUY IT ANYWAY! Guaranteed hours of entertainment as DestinyQuest puts you in charge of the action! 

If you haven't yet bought it, you can order it here or here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Five Things I've Learned From The Windhammer Prize (Part 2)

Cover of AEsheba: Greek Africa
(Blake, Mentzer & O'Hare, 1987),
by David Cherry. Nothing to do with
 Sea of Madness, except the same vibe.
Continuing on from where we left off, here are three more things I did differently this time when writing Sea of Madness.

3. Write Big
Describing his work for Fighting Fantasy, Stephen Hand once said:

One thing I myself had learned from the excellent Lone Wolf books was something I call, "writing big". Look at these two paragraphs:

1
"The Orc scowls menacingly then reaches for his club. You will have to defend yourself:
Orc        Skill: 7        Stamina: 7"


2
"The bodies of the slain lie strewn across the battlefield, your position is hopeless. Realising you have no choice but to pull back and rally your forces, you turn only to see... Something bars your way. You try to face it but it eludes your stare. Your assailant is an Forgotten Shade and you will need every ounce of courage to overcome it:
Shade    Skill: 7        Stamina: 7"


Paragraph 1 is very typical of your average gamebook. Events feel isolated, low key and a bit flat. Paragraph 2 is written big. It is over the top (some would say too long, verbose and melodramatic), but feels more exciting and satisfying. Structurally both paragraphs are exactly the same - there is a fight with a 7/7 creature - but contextually, they are worlds apart. We decided to write big, so every challenge (even when minor) had character. An event would be: the most evil, the most important, the most tricky, the most melodramatic, the most underhand. Every element would be part of an epic whole. I felt that there was no reason not to rise to this creative challenge, to try and create something dramatic and unique. (Hand, 1999)

So by borrowing Stephen Hand's idea of "writing big", I wanted to make every encounter in Sea of Madness feel epic in scope, as you are playing a powerful hero at large in an extensive game world. Everything that happens to you, even (or perhaps especially) your demise, should be over the top.

One problem with this approach is that it can get a bit tiring to read at times, so for a sandbox adventure like Sea of Madness it is doubly important to try and keep the paragraphs brief but evocative, so as not to bore the reader. Also, a good thesaurus is all but essential for using alternative words. Finally, although Stephen Hand alludes to it without actually mentioning it, this approach is a bit camp, with tongue planted in cheek through varying degrees of force. This is possibly the most difficult aspect to get right. I tend to try and write gamebooks on two levels: the straight, fantasy escapist theme, and the more hidden parody or satire level, where you are essentially affectionately spoofing the whole genre.

RAMPAGE! for example is an extremely obvious parody, riffing on a pseudo-Allansian theme. Sea of Madness was a bit more subtle, though the subtitle "Like the Odyssey but shorter" should be one clue, while other pointers include Star Wars quotes, Fighting Fantasy gamebook titles, and a whole bunch of related stuff crammed in with a crowbar. Feedback from Sea of Madness would suggest the spoof aspect sailed over some heads however, and in fact caused problems because there was an expectation that the adventure would be similar to the Odyssey but, aside from ripping off a few obvious tropes, the gamebook was more a mash-up of faux-Hellenic Bronze Age mayhem and classic pulp fantasy/swords & sorcery/swords & sandals. Basically though, I had a lot of fun writing it!

4. Rules, rules, rules
Given you are writing a gamebook, developing a clear and cohesive set of rules is an absolute must. The two main choices are to borrow an existing rules set, like Fighting Fantasy or Virtual Reality (which is what Per Jorner did with The Bone Dogs), or develop your own. For the former, it makes things easier to write for a familiar system, but opens your work up for comparison against the original material. For the latter, you get more creative control, but you have to ensure your system is balanced, playable, and fun, as well as logically and fully integrated into your gamebook.

For Hills of Phoros I created a 2d6 system that was simply far too complicated for the gamebook, and when I had to strip bits out to fit for length, it started to look rather patchy in other areas. For RAMPAGE! I simplified it to a 1d6 system which worked much better, and I re-skinned this system for Sea of Madness with some additional rules. One common piece of feedback is that rules are still a bit long, though clear. However, I do say in the rules section that you can pick a starting character and begin straight away, referring only to the rules when needed. I think it's also important to add some optional rules at the end, to allow the player to customise the adventure if they so wish.

5. Art of Schmooze
You want lots of people to read your adventure, and you also want lots of people to vote for your adventure as being one of the best. That's not going to happen if you simply let your adventure's PDF file hang off the Windhammer website and expect its natural brilliance to shine through. You need to get people interested in your gamebook, so they will read it, enjoy it, and vote for it!

For my previous entries I just sort of threw them out there, put a few posts on some gamebook groups and hoped it would be enough. As an approach it becomes too poorly focused and too generalistic. For Sea of Madness I tried to get specific groups of like-minded people interested. For example, I messaged all my old gaming buddies on Facebook, passed on links to my Bangkok snooker comrade, and shared details with a shadowy cabal of writers for whom I had done some editing work. This sort of tightly focussed approach to soliciting feedback and votes possibly works better than the more open-ended appeal to interested readers.

In fact, by deliberately targetting non-gamebook fans, not only are you potentially generating votes for your Windhammer Prize competition entry, but you are also stimulating an interest in the other entries and in gamebook fiction in general. If we want to revive gamebook fiction in the future (and there's certainly plenty of evidence we are currently surfing the wave of a mini-revival at present), this sort of approach is going to become more and more important, especiallly as we look at paradigm-changing formats such as tablet devices, online content, and smart phones.

References

Blake, R. J., Mentzer, F., & O'Hare, J. (1987). AEsheba: Greek Africa. Lake Geneva, WI: New Infinities Productions, Inc.

Hand, S. (3/10/1999). Personal communciation with Mark J. Popp, available here: http://www.ffproject.com/download/MJPOPP.ZIP (Thanks to Andy Spruce) 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Five Things I've Learned From The Windhammer Prize (Part 1)


One of the interesting things about the Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction is that Wayne Densley keeps the voting tallies secret. This is understandable for what is essentially a niche competition, as if the winning tally was known, competitors may think "Ah, I only need X votes!" and aim to amass the required number of votes rather than devote themselves to their gamebook entry.

While this hidden tally introduces a degree of mystery to the proceedings, it also makes analysing the results, in the form of a voting spread, virtually impossible. However, given that I won this year after several previous years of failure, I thought I'd share a few things I did differently this year that may have contributed to a much improved final placing. I have no way of knowing how much, if any, these changes affected my winning tally, but taken as a whole there surely must be some sort of cumulative effect.

1. Feedback
If you're lucky, you should get a decent amount of feedback on your adventure, post-competition. While recognizing that each person's feedback represents just one person's opinion (which you may or may not agree with), study it carefully. Considering the feedback as a whole, sift it for general trends, as these will identify what worked and what you need to improve.

Plenty of feedback from my first competition entry, Hills of Phorosindicated that aimless wandering as per Fabled Lands, was tedious in a small adventure, as was excessive grind-time. Also, if you're using a certain style of character generation system, such as points-buying, implement it across the board. Based on this feedback, I added a bit more story to the still sandbox-influenced RAMPAGE! and Sea of Madness, as well as a complete points-buy system for creating characters if you did not wish to use the provided starting characters. 

2. Maximum Performance
The Windhammer Prize has stated limits of 100 sections or 40 pages of A4. You should try and aim for both limits as one hundred sections is not a large amount with which to tell a multiple choice story, while 40 pages allows you around 20,000 words, or 200 words a section on average. That's a decent chunk of text, nearly half a NaNoMo entry, and will require an effective time budget to ensure your typed word count per day is ticking over nicely. While sacrificing the art of story-telling at the cold altar of mathematics may seem harsh, the reality of writing a gamebook is that you are creating a complex puzzle that requires a degree of rigourousness unknown to most short stories or novellas. Break out the calculator!

Hills of Phoros sprawled so badly I had to cut huge chunks of rules and sections to cram it into the competition limits, and this had a big effect on the final product. Conversely, RAMPAGE! was a featherlight affair set at half the competition requirements (50 sections) and probably suffered from brevity compared to the excellence and expansivenes of other entries, such as The Bone Dogs. Sea of Madness was planned exceedingly tightly, though parts still got cut. Still, it was a much more cohesive gamebook than its predecessors.

I'll present the final three things tomorrow.