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:

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

"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.


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: (Thanks to Andy Spruce) 


  1. Great pointers, Andy - I think writing big is very important and I did that with Sharkbait's Revenge after I had my feedback about City of the Dead. I also made the rules system to Sharkbait's Revenge more simple after the overcomplicated and extensive system of City of the Dead which had an 8 page rule system in a 31 page gamebook. For number 5, I just posted the competition in my blog and other gamebook groups. I told a few people from work, but that was about it.