The Brewin’ Guide to Writing Better Gamebooks
In case you hadn’t noticed (and you probably haven’t haha) I haven’t done nearly as many blog posts by now as I’d like to have done… So whilst I’ve have plenty more articles I mean to get around to doing, I’m prioritising the articles I do post at the moment based on where (I consider that) there is a specific need to communicate something to a given audience.
Today’s blog post is light on pictures (it doesn’t have any, just walls of text), as I just want to put this information out there and then move onto the next thing… It’s a post about my take on how to write “better gamebooks”.
Part of the reason that I am particularly motivated to write this post is that I feel I have something substantial to offer on this subject. At the time of writing this, I have edited, written for and worked on the design of four released gamebooks (the first four Gamebook Adventures titles), have released another (Infinite Universe, which is the eighth Gamebook Adventures title), am working on at least two more Gamebook Adventures titles with others, and have written probably another ten or so gamebooks over the years (that quite possibly will never be released as I consider I can do better now). I’m also the published author of two novels, have many drawers full of other unpublished material, have worked extensively with numerous professional editors and can claim best-selling and award-winning authors among my fans… So I hope that’s enough to demonstrate that I have some credibility in this area ;)
I’m not the first to write an analysis on this topic by any stretch, and there are a number of other great articles on this topic worth reading (some of these are listed at the end of this post for further reading). So without further ado, I present you a checklist of things to consider (a summary of the things I look for to fix when working with gamebooks) in the hope of it helping others with their work:
(1) Story Design. I gave a talk on this topic once, it can be seen here:
-It’s a topic covered in detail on a thousand blogs (okay that’s probably a massive under-exaggeration) so I’m not going to spend much time on this point, apart from stating that it’s what I would focus on first. My “typical” approach is pretty much covered by my talk anyway.
(2) The art of writing itself. Probably a million articles have been written on this topic, but it does seem to me that not enough attention is given to this aspect in articles on gamebook design (probably because it’s already been covered a million times haha). Nevertheless, in my opinion a good gamebook is both well-written and well-designed, which requires a larger “skill-set” if you will, than just writing a novel where you don’t have to consider game mechanics and non-linear plots. I think any gamebook writer owes to themselves to improve their writing skills in order to write better gamebooks (and stories in general). This is a topic I’ll perhaps cover in more detail on a later blog article, but for now here’s a quick primer:
- You don’t have to be a walking dictionary to be a good writer, in fact I think this approach weakens your writing. If your audience is literary professors who will be impressed by your command of obscure vocabulary then fine, but if you want the “general public” to understand, enjoy and be engaged with your work, you shouldn’t use language that excludes them from the experience because they have to look up the meaning of your words.
- Probably the single most effective thing (I think) a writer can do to improve their writing technique is to understand and embrace the “less is more” mantra with regards to their writing. I needed to have my own work butchered, I mean edited, by a professional to really understand how this fairly simple process improves your work so dramatically, but it is with good reason that any “expert” will tell you much the same thing and I get now how it is that an editor can look at the first page of an author’s work and judge their skill level. Humour me by trying this exercise to see if you can appreciate why this step is so valuable: Take a piece of writing that you have done and remove as many words as you can, whilst still conveying the same thing. You may be surprised at how many words you can cut simply because they are redundant and don’t actually offer any new information. What you are left with (hopefully!) is something that is a lot quicker and easier to read (and therefore more engaging and enjoyable); and you didn’t even have to do a writing course to learn this!
- Another well-cited mantra (for good reason too) is the “show don’t tell” mantra; in other words don’t tell the reader what a character is thinking, but show the reader by the character’s actions (unless you have to, or you’re employing a technique like stream-of-consciousness or shifting the narrative focus between differing characters heads). I found I had to get into the habit of this approach to really appreciate what a difference it makes. What works for me is to imagine that you’re describing events like a movie; i.e. you only have the visual and audio details to show how a character is thinking or feeling. When a character “walks angrily across a room” in a movie, you aren’t told that “the character is thinking of X that makes him/her so angry”, rather you are shown how angry they are by their body language and the words they speak. -I hope you get what I’m trying to explain here anyway…
- The last of my brief points I wanted to make on the “art of writing” itself, is to trust your own instincts and write the story that you are passionate about. Regardless of how good or bad your work is, some people will love it and others will hate it. The ratios will differ depending on the quality of your work and publicity, but you will never manage something that will please everyone. Save yourself the trouble and write what you think is best; your passion and unique voice will be a lot more impressive than if you are just trying to write “what will be popular / sell”.
Okay now onto the “meat” of this blog (yeah yeah it’s taken me a while to get to this point haha): Gamebook design. And by that I don’t mean the gamebook system used (that’s a topic for another post I’m supposed to have written by now that will incorporate statistics / probability). I’m talking about the way in which the gamebook is structured.
Now is a good time to explain the “prism” through which I view gamebook design as all of my subsequent points are through this prism or paradigm of perspective. My view can be summed up by what I have said in a recent interview, where I said that I consider the most important aspect of writing a gamebook is “keeping foremost in mind that you are creating an experience for the reader that is meant to be fun. Anything that is liable to frustrate, confuse or bore the reader should be avoided. After all, it is for their sake that you are writing a gamebook (or should be I think!) –To put it another way, I used to GM (Gamesmaster) RPGs (role playing games) in the same way that gamebooks used to be (often) written: Ruthlessly. Adventures were challenges for my players to see how few times they could die before getting through it. It took me a while to realise that this reduces it to a game where the players had little care for their character and by extension the story itself. It was all about not dying and getting the best stats/items. Over time, I found it was more entertaining for all involved if the world felt fair, if it wasn’t a competition to see who died the least number of times, if their characters had more depth and history, and that they could go one from epic story to the next, in control of their fate.”
I can further explain my approach by saying that when designing gamebooks, I imagine it like I am GMing the gamebook to a player (who happens to be quite outspoken when it comes to expressing frustration). If there’s anything in the adventure that is liable to make the player complain that something isn’t fair, then it needs to be changed… These points become particularly relevant with digital gamebooks where you can’t cheat (if a paperback version does these things, the player has the power to ignore and keep reading). So with this viewpoint in mind, these are the things that I seek to avoid when working with gamebooks:
(1) Sudden death from nondescript choices. If you know gamebooks, you’ll know what I mean already. Having a choice to take “the left path/door or the right path/door” where one choice gets you an instant death, doesn’t make the reader go wow! That’s cool! More likely they’ll just think it’s lame. (My “imaginary player” quits the adventure at this point because of such a crappy arbitrary death that they had no control over). –There are (rare) exceptions to this rule, depending on the style of gamebook, but generally I think this is a big no-no.
(2) Death from choices where the implications of the decision, or what was actually happening, are not made clear beforehand. These strike me as attempts to “trick” the reader into making a stupid mistake by deceptive narration; and afterwards the reader is less likely to “appreciate the author’s wit” than they are the “author’s unfairness”. (My “imaginary player” at this point protests that I didn’t explain the situation properly or what the risks of their choice were). For the player to accept the outcome, they need to have a sense that they understand the choice that they were making, and if reasonable (and it usually is) have an awareness of the risks involved with such a decision.
(3) Death from a failed dice roll. This to me, is a weak way to make a story (or adventure) harder. You’ve done everything right and made wise choices, and then suddenly you have to make a difficult roll or die; a roll you have no way of avoiding. Like the above issues, this kind of thing isn’t liable to make the reader appreciate your work. (My “imaginary player” either cheats with the roll at this point because it is a stupid unavoidable “roll or die” situation, or throws the dice in frustration afterward and refuses to play again). There’s a few easy ways to avoid this problem (and other more convoluted ways): One is to change the odds of failure; e.g. a required roll of 8 or better on two six-sided dice to succeed say, might be changed to a required roll of only 4 or even 3 or better on two six-sided dice. Another way is to make a failed roll require another roll to see if you actually die or not (again to reduce the odds of outright-death). The first of these options is make the reader feel “oh well I died, but I was extremely unlucky on the dice to do so”, and the second is to make them feel that they had least had a couple of chances to roll good and kept failing. A third option is to make the outcome of failure not death, but just injury.
(4) Death at the end of the adventure because you didn’t find obscure item X somewhere in the start or middle. Yeah yeah I know a lot of gamebooks do this. I GMed an adventure once that ran for numerous sessions over many weeks, where at the conclusion the party needed to have collected a certain item near the start to have any chance of success. They didn’t have this item, and refused to accept that this was a fair outcome; if they had no chance of completing the adventure once they’d missed this item, then why did I let them play on for a few more sessions to discover this only at the very end? I give three suggested solutions to this problem: One is to make it such that you’re almost certain to get the needed item (so that the reader will know where they went wrong if they don’t have it and accept the final outcome). Two is to not make it a “you must have X or die” scenario, instead making it such that it’s just harder if you don’t have the item. And the third is kill the player off quickly if they don’t have the item (i.e. kill them soon after when they were supposed to get the item, so that they don’t discover this much later in the story and feel like they’ve wasted their time).
(5) Ridiculously hard combats or rolls. If you don’t wish to spend some time to figure out roughly how hard a combat is (i.e. an estimate of the chance of the reader succeeding), then steer on the side of making things easier than harder. Having a near impossible combat or set of rolls, because you didn’t actually work out how hard it actually was, is just bad design and can turn your players away in droves. Without citing examples I’ve seen a number of cases where your odds of success are less than 1% which is just ridiculous. A rule of thumb I use is that a typical combat or roll/series of rolls should have about a 90% success rate. A “tough” combat, roll or series of rolls (e.g. the climatic ending of your gamebook) should have about a 70% success rate to be challenging. And for combat or rolls/series of rolls for “wrong choices” I’d still recommend a 50% success rate. Anything harder risks either making someone want to cheat or give up in frustration; they’re failing at your gamebook not because of your brilliant design, but because the random rolling of dice was just too unlikely for them to have a reasonable chance of success. Neglect playtesting your work for difficulty at your peril!
(6) Making gamebooks harder by “narrative railroads”. Some narrative railroads are necessary, but others I think are just poor ways of making your gamebook harder that don’t make sense. The classic case is where the player is at a given location where they have a choice of searching in a handful of different spots (one or more of which contain important items), but crucially, as soon as they’ve chosen one location, they are directed by the narration out of the location without having the chance to investigate the other spots. Players don’t tend to do this in a role-playing game given the choice, so don’t force this on them in a gamebook either (at least without good reason, such as being ambushed before you can look further etc).
(7) Currency in gamebooks. Probably most gamebooks use currency (gold pieces etc). This is fine as long as you ensure that the player has somewhere to spend it; otherwise what’s the point? Similarly, if there is somewhere to spend money early on say, and then a later point in which the player can accumulate a lot of money, ensure that there is another point after that where the extra money earned is of some benefit; otherwise what is the point of your player accumulating these additional funds if there’s no where to spend it?
(8) Ensure that your player can complete the gamebook (with a “reasonable” level of difficulty) with minimum stats. If your adventure is so hard, that you need max or near max stats to have a hope of success, then why have players roll their characters in the first place? Save them the frustration of repeated play-throughs to discover this and give them those stats in the first place, or make it such that it is possible to complete on minimum stats. -To me, a good gamebook relies more on the player’s strategic choices to succeed than how good their starting stats are (or how lucky their rolling is).
That’s the main points and I think that’s enough for now… Bear in mind though that any rule is made to be broken (but have a good reason!) and that all the above is just the perspective I take on things, which isn’t necessarily shared by others.
There’s also plenty of other good (and much more detailed!) articles on some of these topics, here’s a sample of some of the most useful ones I’ve found:
Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds.
- Chapter 1: In the Beginning God - Theology/Spirituality.
- Chapter 2: Day 1 – Physics.
- Chapter 3: Day 2 – Weather.
- Chapter 4: Day 3 – Geography.
- Chapter 5: Day 4 – Astronomy.
- Chapter 6: Day 5 & 6 – Zoology.
- Chapter 7: Day 6 - Anthropology (part 1).
- Chapter 7: Day 6 - Anthropology (part 2).
- Conclusion: Day 7 - the Rest of the story.
Jonathan Green, Author
- How to write an adventure gamebook. Part 1 – The Idea.
- How to write an adventure gamebook. Part 2 – The Proposal.
- How to write an adventure gamebook. Part 3 – Writing the Adventure.
- How to write an adventure gamebook. Part 4 – Re-Structuring the Adventure.
Lloyd of Gamebooks
- How to write a gamebook – introduction.
- How to write a gamebook part 1 - thinking of a plot (and then a few more plots).
- How to write a gamebook part 1a - the map method.
- How to write a gamebook part 1b - the flow diagram method.
- How to write a gamebook part 1c - the just write it! method.
- How to write a gamebook part 2 - splitting the plots into paragraph order.
- How to write a gamebook 2a - Turning the map into a gamebook.
- How to write a gamebook part 2b - turning the flow diagram into a gamebook.
- How to write a gamebook part 2c - improving on the just write it! method.
- How to write a gamebook part 2d - Using paragraphs.
- How to write a gamebook part 2e - A day in my life gamebook.
- How to write a gamebook part 2f - what to consider when you write a gamebook by yourself.
- How to write a gamebook part 3 - genre and setting.
- How to write a gamebook part 3a - Descriptions and Worlds.
- How to write a gamebook part 4 - characters and descriptions.
- How to write a gamebook part 4a - archetypes and stock characters. Why people don't like them and when they are useful.
- How to write a gamebook part 4b - some examples of gamebook characters.
- How to write a gamebook part 5 - using a game system.
- How to write a gamebook part 6 - advanced stuff with numbers.
- How to write a gamebook part 7 - what is wrong with this paragraph?
- How to write a gamebook part 8 - weird and wonderful stuff.
- How to write a gamebook part 9 - Notes from my own gamebook writing.
- How to write a gamebook part 10 - proofing and playtesting.
- How to write a gamebook part 11 Ulysses Ai on the gamebook writing process.
- How to write a gamebook part 12 – summary.
- Before paragraph 1: Choices you might have to make before your adventure.
Ashton Saylor, Author and Designer
- What makes a good gamebook - Part 1: Story.
- What makes a good gamebook - Part 2: The Game of Narrative Choices.
- Gamebook Theory 3: Putting the "Game" in Gamebook (or taking it out?)
- Discussion on Mars 2112.
- Gamebook Theory.
- How to Write a Gamebook.
Game Design Archive – Choice of Games
- Sailors Are Not Dragons.
- Make a “Choice of” Game Your Own: Authorial Intent in IF.
- How We Plan a ChoiceScript Game.
- Don’t Start at the Beginning!
- Four Ways to Write a Vignette.
- Five Tactics for Designing Games While Depressed.
- By the Numbers: How to Write a Long Interactive Novel That Doesn’t Suck.
- 7 Rules for Designing Great Stats.
- 4 Common Mistakes in Interactive Novels.
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First of all, I'd like to introduce myself. My name's Fernando Lafuente and I'm from Spain. I offer my excuses in advance if my english is not as good as it certainly could be. It's a pleasure to meet you (via internet, at least). Let me congratulate you on your work on gamebooks in general and especially on Infinite Universe (I'm really enjoying it; the foregoing GAs are good enough, but IU is awesome).
After reading your article (and agreeing with it almost completely), I feel quite good. Why?, you will ask. The answer is simple: I have co-written, coordinated and released two gamebooks so far in my country with a certain success (in spanish, but hopefully they'll be translated into english for app in a not distant future) and I just realised that my texts comply with the most part (if not all) of your recommendations. That's fine indeed 'cause, as you said, you have 'some credibility in this area'. An understatement, for sure.
I've witten some other books (SF and horror tales, mostly) but in the present I am focused on gamebooks. It's a genre I loved when I was 15 and I always wanted to be not only the reader, but the author, one day. I suppose that having a degree in physics and knowing some maths have come in handy too, for the game is as important as the literature in this. No doubt.
Aside from the clever story and the time-travel plot, Infinite Universe has something I particularly enjoy: a touch of humour. In fact, my second gamebook called Infección (Infection, in english), is also spiced up with some kidding despite being zombie-themed. Why not smile a little? Your character's life may be much too short...
Well, I don't mean to bore you any longer. Thank you for your commitment with gamebooks; I'll keep an eye on your next releases. As to my own work, I'll try to consolidate the genre's revival my country is living these days with more gamebooks.
Thank you for your kind words Fernando! It's pleasing to hear that my thoughts on gamebook design were helpful to you and reinforced that the way you too went about constructing these was shared by at least one other gamebook author (that being myself)...
Pleased to hear that you enjoyed Infinite Universe as well. (I wrote some more on the design of that in a couple of other posts on here, but the above design/writing principles certainly applied).
Having an interest in sci-fi and horror writing, plus a mathematical background (yours coming from physics in particular whereas mine is more from zoology and statistics) I think gives you a good skill set for gamebook writing. And your English seems fine to me! Best wishes with your future writing and design work, I can see you're already well on your way!