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2013 Windhammer Prize reviews - Part 3: The Cream

Windhammer Prize

 

So here at last we come to what I judged to be “the cream” of this year’s Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction. This part covers the entries that I ranked from 5th to 1st on my list. For my reviews of those I ranked 14th to 11th, see Part one and for my reviews of those I ranked 10th to 6th, see Part two.

These five entries below I considered all brilliant in their own way, eminently readable and more than compare favourably with published titles, some of which are considered classics in their own right. That there are so many amazing works coming out of the Windhammer competition I think is testament to how good writers in this scene are getting at delivering quality stories, compelling gameplay and pushing the boundaries of what gamebooks can be. I heartily congratulate you all (and just maybe, might be a little jealous haha).

But of course, as I’ve stressed before, these reviews represent just my (humble?) opinion. And I think it is certainly true that for any work, any work, they’ll always be someone that loves it and someone that hates it. So just because I didn’t rate your work so highly, doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t, so take heart! Just by being willing to enter and share your work with the world (and expose it to the judgement of others), puts you ahead of all the others who wanted to do such things, said they were going to do such things… and didn’t. (And that includes me!) So gamebook writers be proud of what you have achieved! J

 

Moreau (Zachary Carango)

DESIGN – 7

STORY – 8

WRITING – 9

CLARITY – 7.5

PLAYABILITY – 8

MY OVERALL SCORE: 79% (5th place)

 

What I liked: Excellent writing with interesting, distinctive characters and situations refreshingly without a moralistic overtone. A fun adventure using a diceless system.

What I didn’t like: System itself is unclear in its implementation and has a weapon table that makes no narrative sense. Railroading of choices make adventure arbitrarily difficult.

 

As many (most?) of you probably know, Zachary’s Final Payment entry won last year’s Windhammer competition, and I quite agree it was astoundingly good (I gave it 88% overall with 9.5 for Story and Writing, and placed it third overall – only because I voted for my own entry and Paul Gresty’s Ookle of the Broken Finger got my other vote).

So I was expecting great things from Zachary this year, and he did deliver… Well mostly. The writing is as excellent as ever (as I’ve come to expect from Zac) and virtually faultless (not sure why I *only* gave it 9 for Writing now, but it mustn’t have blown my mind to quite the same extent as the masterpiece he produced last year I guess), and there was only a single typo I noticed. The story is well introduced (Zac sets the scene before introducing the rules which is also a very effective way to draw the reader in), and has an excellent mood/tone with interesting and distinctive characters. There is also a great sense of fun/abandon in some of the situations (e.g. the drinking game on Section 12) which is a refreshing change from what I would call “overtly moralistic” themes where you are penalised for not following the “righteous path” (for instance a particular gamebook I may have happened to edit comes to mind where you are heavily penalised for having a drink or two).

I really like the idea of a diceless combat system too, and whilst it does “work” and seemed sufficiently balanced for the most part, it’s not without (what I perceived) to be significant issues. One of these issues, namely the weapons table, I found to be so ridiculous that it made no sense to me at all and actually broke the immersion of the gamebook for me somewhat. To discuss why I had such an issue with this weapons table, let me paste it here:

 

Weapon Listing:

Machete ($0 Damage 5)

Magnum ($500 Damage 10)

Assault Rifle ($1000 Damage 15)

Rocket Strike ($2000 Damage 20)

Mortar Barrage ($4000 Damage 25)

Napalm Inferno ($8000 Damage 30)

 

Now for some reason never really explained you spend money for each attack (and it’s never explained when you are supposed to spend this money nor whether a spend is only for one attack, one battle, or permanent). -The only explanation given for why you spend money for each attack isIn addition to the machete and guns you carry on your person, the Vulture is equipped with a variety of powerful support weaponry. The stronger the weapon, the more expensive each use will be.” (The Vulture mentioned is your salvage ship). How this money is spent, nor why it should be on such a ridiculous scale in the first place is never explained, and I’m talking ridiculous in terms of both comparable costs and damage (as I believe will be quite obvious to anyone looking at the above table).

Now consider that each round you choose what attack to employ (e.g. I may have chosen to spend $1000 to do 15 damage with an Assault Rifle in the first round, to then choose to spend $8000 to do 30 damage with a Napalm Inferno in the second round), and then consider that this system is supposed to somehow be applicable in such situations ranging from stamping out a nest of fire-ants, to fighting a lobster man inside a restaurant, and you can hopefully appreciate why I had such a problem making sense of this table in any fashion. I understand that it was probably meant as a parody but even then it still made no sense, even to how the money was spent and affected ammo. I should add that Zachary had similar mechanics (consuming limited resources to influence damage inflicted) in his entry last year, but that made narrative sense there which here I found to be absent… So I found myself reimagining what the rules meant to something like this:

You have a supergun, but it has limited charge (measured in units equivalent to whatever your money is at the time). When attacking with your weapon, determine how much charge you wish to use at the start of each round by consulting the following table:

 

Weapon Charge:

Rifle-butt (0 Charge, Damage 5)

Single Shot (500 Charge, Damage 10)

Burst Shot (1000 Charge, Damage 15)

Spray Shot (2000 Charge, Damage 20)

Super Shot (4000 Charge, Damage 25)

Super Mega Shot (8000 Charge, Damage 30)

 

…At least then I could imagine that it was somehow meant to be a “possible sci-fi” world, as opposed to I dunno, a dream or something where I alternate between firing gun shots and launching explosive onslaughts of mass destruction (that only do slightly more damage) against opponents including ants of all things. Anyway I think I’ve harped on about that point enough (but it really bothered me Zac! What were you thinking mate!?) so I best move on…

Whilst it really was the weapon table that disrupted the experience for me, I did have another issue that comes up as a common gripe for me in gamebooks: The “you can only check one place at a given location before the narrative forces you onward” convention. For me, unless there’s a very good narrative reason (there usually isn’t), this convention only serves to make a gamebook unrealistically and arbitrarily harder, not to mention more frustrating when you know you’re probably going to get screwed over later because you weren’t allowed to check the other places at a given location. (My point of reference is always to imagine it like I’d GM a role-playing session: if I tell my players something that they would complain is unfair – such as being told they can look in the chest or under the bed but not both – then I don’t do it without good reason. Anyway I digress…) So anyway, this gamebook does a bit of that too, and all of these things resulted in me only giving this 7 for Design (despite liking the innovations for diceless combat).

Somehow though, through sheer luck in choosing the right locations in the right order, I did manage to complete this gamebook successfully on my first go. And despite my rants about the design (and in particular the weapon table) I did have a ball playing this because the story and in particular the writing and characterisation were so good…

I never could figure out the safe solution though, even after doing a search for the phrase “The safe clicks open” to see if I could decipher the solution after knowing the answer… Fortunately I didn’t need to open the safe to complete the gamebook (so long as failing to open the safe didn’t kill me, which it nearly did but not quite!)

 

 

 

 

‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

DESIGN – 8.5

STORY - 8

WRITING - 8

CLARITY – 8.5

PLAYABILITY – 8

MY OVERALL SCORE: 82% (4th place)

·         Winner of the 2013 Windhammer Prize

 

What I liked: Well delivered humourous story with great innovations including team selection and integration of various character interactions using “filters”.

What I didn’t like: Quite difficult to obtain some clues, requiring luck and/or guesswork.

 

I actually wavered with this entry a bit. To begin with I thought “this is awesome!” but then settled with “this is very good but has some aspects I don’t like so much.” I mean I can certainly see why it won (having a pretty map and some eye-grabbing diagrams I think helps!) but in the end I decided I preferred the three entries I rated above this. Anyway it is a well delivered story that reminded me of something like Scobby-Doo crossed with Maniac Mansion with a very endearing funny tone throughout (even the rules, with comments like “If you don’t know what a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure is, it looks like you’ve got a cave to spend some time in and also a shark to be.” and in explaining clues: “They are mysterious and wonderful.”) The writing was solid, and well edited, but did strike me at times as repetitive or rushed and not particularly evocative. (For instance the phrase “hang out or whatever” comes up four times at differing points). I also thought that the clarity (rules and writing-wise) was fine, all things considered.

This entry features a simple design with a number of innovations I’d rate from “meh” to “amazing”. At the “meh” end for me is the inclusion of achievements that are only mentioned when you acquire them in the text that don’t seem to serve any purpose (while others are listed at the end), and a couple of puzzles that I thought were unnecessary – one is the “mindbending maze” (which is obviously a joke since the maze is so simple, leading me to question why it was even needed aside from “looking cool”), and the other is the block puzzle on Section 3 that I felt I’d wasted close to an hour of my life to solve for nothing other than a Delicious Chocolate achievement (that does nothing anyway). The use of the map (which is interesting, cartoonish and matching the “vibe” of the gamebook) and being able to select the characters for your team were good innovations, but the innovation I’d call “amazing” is the integration of various character interactions using what I call “filters”.

To elaborate on this point about “filters”, I’ve never seen a static (i.e. what is typically paper-based) gamebook do this, and I’m not sure if Philip realises just how significant this innovation is…  You see there’s a recent innovation that Tin Man Games have started to employ for their digital gamebooks called “filters” (I’m also aware that the excellent digital gamebook Star Breed did a similar thing back in 2010 but on a much smaller scale, and I think quite possibly Inkle’s recent eye-catching digital conversion of Sorcery! has been using a similar idea). In a nut-shell this idea is that you “filter” the text displayed at a given section depending on certain criteria. It’s a great idea for digital gamebooks, meaning that you can do a lot more with the same number of sections, but it always struck me that this was a step away from static / paper-based gamebooks as it couldn’t be done in such cases… Then comes Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club to dispel that concern, because that’s exactly what he’s done. (It just means, by necessity, that he’s listed the various “filters” at the bottom of each section, with icons to mark where they appear in the section text). Wow.

Mind you, Blood Sword (which I feel compelled to add is I think easily one of the greatest gamebook series of all time) written by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson between 1987 and 1988 kinda did a similar thing with its four different player characters – it just had to split the “filters” across different sections given these could be being played by different players, and so limits the cheating (at least in theory anyway haha).

Anyway the further I got into this, the less sold I was on its design. Initially for instance you are travelling to various locations to gain clues figure out where the rival paranormal Academy has made their discovery, but it turns out that many of the clues aren’t obtained through good detective work, so much as being lucky on the dice (which I wasn’t really) or making lucky guesses on where to look, all of which took some of the shine off this work for me. I wasn’t able to get many clues and those I did get were mostly red herrings, leaving me with a case of pretty much having to guess out of nine possible locations, since you aren’t allowed to visit a given clue location twice (on a sidenote, check-boxes are used to track locations already visited which probably isn’t necessary since it’s quite easy to remember where you’ve already been). So I failed my guess and that was the end of my adventure, but I cheated onwards a bit to see what happened then: and it seems to me that the trend of needing luck over good decisions continues…

Overall this work does have numerous innovations and highlights and is supported by an endearing story with humourous writing, but the weaknesses I perceived in its design and writing weren’t enough for me to put it in my top three this year. But perhaps I’m in a minority in this regard as it won this year’s competition… So hey, just ignore me J

 

Gunlaw (Nicholas Stillman)

DESIGN – 8.5

STORY – 8.5

WRITING – 9

CLARITY – 8

PLAYABILITY – 8.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 85% (3rd place)

·         Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards

 

What I liked: Good simple character generation and diceless system. Compelling, darkly hilarious, action-packed and deliciously gruesome story, with a hero who has all the attitude and survival instincts of some kinda badass movie (anti-)hero. Strong efficient writing that is imaginative, colourful and sets the mood excellently.

What I didn’t like: The jumpy nature of the story, from often one ridiculous situation to the next, and between differing character perspectives, can at times make things hard to follow. Story seemed to be over quite quickly considering there's a hundred Sections (but maybe that’s because I enjoyed it so much!)

 

Nicholas Stillman did an entry called Swordplayer for last year’s Windhammer competition, which I was really impressed by, not for its writing so much (although it still held up reasonably well on that front I thought), but for its design. It was complicated and amazingly innovative but I considered it lacked story, significant characters and often seemed bereft of detail. Anyway I’m here to talk about Nicholas Stillman’s entry this year of course, but I mention his previous entry because I did not see anything like this coming from him. Not only has he delivered a simple, elegantly designed gamebook that needs no dice, but one backed up by an incredible action-packed story, detailed world, distinctive characters and what I consider is perhaps the best writing of the competition: it couldn’t be more different from what he did last year… Is this even the same Nicholas Stillman!?

On a different day / mindset, it’s possible I could have even put this second on my list (maybe even first if I was drunk enough). This entry just oozes style and to me is a perfect demonstration of what you can achieve if you just “throw caution to the wind, trust your instincts and let your individual voice shine through”.

The design of this entry, while simple and incredibly effective (including being able to play as a male or female which is a plus), doesn’t even matter so much, because the writing and the story is so good (albeit at times difficult to follow but I’ll get to that). And in many ways this is a gamebook for the “non-gamebooker” who likes action movies and games, but gets bored with reading gamebooks, having to manage rules and trying to figure out a way to the end. It’s darkly hilarious, action-packed, features one of the coolest (anti-)heroes you’ll ever see and is deliciously violent. I listed that it was over so quickly as one of its “flaws” but that could just be because I was enjoying it so much that time just flew. In any case, I can always read it again can’t I? And again…

Certainly this won’t be to everyone’s taste (if games like Carmageddon and MadWorld didn’t appeal to you this may not be your thing) but so many passages in this I thought were just, well, awesome. Here’s just a tiny selection:

 

The mafia cops fire a shotgun through a senior citizen's rear windshield; his brains splatter on the front windshield like cherry pie.

 

Canfield enters a bar called The Hellhole. Nothing ever happens there except liver damage. Apart from the aging slobs embalming themselves, the place looks pleasant with its decor of houseplants. Lisa canes and cacti sit in a bath of techno music, wanting to die.

 

“Y'all look like turds,” Canfield says. The ranger puts a hole in five men at the table and kills the last one barehanded.

Reload. Travel. Like always.

 

Before Ray can flinch, a bullet hits his chin catapulting him over the table without his shoes. Maybe after surgery he'll have a cleft chin.

The city council would have goosebumps for a week, if Canfield let them live. Instead, they all get shot into a slump, spilling their brains on the tabletop. All goes quiet except for a moan from the floor and the patter of dripping blood.

 

Like I was saying, this won’t be to everyone’s taste (but what gamebook is really?) Oh and apparently he’s thinking of doing a graphic and disturbing horror next year (that presumably is a lot darker and more graphic than Gunlaw since he’d been reluctant to inflict it upon the competition yet).

Look out.

(But honestly, I hope he does! I won’t feel so bad being the only one then haha).

The only (minor) criticism that I can offer here is that sometimes the action is coming so thick and fast, and jumping around between different perspectives so much, that it can be difficult to follow just exactly what is happening. That and occasionally I thought the intentionally ridiculous descriptions went so far as to become a little contrived (but that’s a personal judgement more than anything I think), for instance:

 

Canfield's gut doesn't bother tightening up anymore. This posse amounts to short stature diabetics with gynecomasti.

 

Oh and maybe it is a little difficult to get the ultimate ending? To be honest I’m not really sure… I didn’t get the ultimate ending but was having an absolute blast with this anyway so it didn’t matter. Definitely a fun gamebook that’ll leave a lasting impression for a long time. Highly recommended.

 

The Independence Job (Marty Runyon)

DESIGN - 9

STORY – 9

WRITING - 8

CLARITY – 9

PLAYABILITY – 9

MY OVERALL SCORE: 88% (2nd place)

·         Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards

 

What I liked: Awesome Wager system that is simple, strategic, rewards risk and fits in with the world. Compelling story with interesting characters and interaction. Very clearly laid out and hugely replayable.

What I didn’t like: Action seemed a bit rushed on occasion (description too brief).

 

This was another entry that surprised me in that I wasn’t expecting the author, Marty Runyon, to produce something this good. You see I didn’t rate his entry for last year’s Windhammer, Academy of Magic - The First Term, that highly (I rated it only 70% overall – which equated to 14th of 22 entries on my scale). But this same entry was one of two entries that won a Merit award last year (meaning that it’ll also be produced as an app by Tin Man Games soon) and I’ve heard from a number of people about how much they loved this entry… Anyway after reading/playing The Independence Job and how much better the writing seemed, and in particular the overall design, I have to concede that I may have misjudged Marty… Either that or he’s gotten a lot better (it’s a shame that he didn’t win a Merit award this year, as to me, his entry this year was a lot more deserving than last year’s, but oh well…)

This entry features one of the coolest innovations I’ve ever seen in a gamebook, and that alone saw it shoot up my rankings. This together with a compelling story, interesting characters and solid writing delivers an awesome gamebook experience.

To address this innovation first that impressed me so much, Marty has used what can only be referred to as “the Wager system” where you as the player accumulate Fortune points depending on how much you “wager” on a particular skill check. Each check specifies the minimum number of Fortune points you must wager; where what you wager determines the difficulty of the roll you must make; as well as what you stand to gain in Fortune points should you make the roll. (E.g. a particular check against a particular skill may have a high ante –that is to say a high minimum Fortune points wager, but “pay 3-to-1” if you make the check, meaning you get three times your “bet” in Fortune points).

What is so awesome about this system is that in one fell swoop it ticks all the boxes of what (I think) a good system should do: It is simple, it is strategic, it rewards risk and it fits in completely with the “gamebook world” presented here. Not only this, but this amazing yet simple innovation (why has no one ever thought of this idea before?) promotes repeat plays of the gamebook: even if you make exactly the same choices in the gamebook, you can still “gamble” your way through these checks (maybe changing your strategy) to see if you can better your Fortune points score. Wow.

Many times these checks affect story outcomes, but many times they don’t (just your Fortune points). This is probably by design though and considering how this still reinforces replayability, it can hardly be considered a “flaw”.

Aside from this, the system is very clearly explained and implemented and offers a very simple character generation process. The story too is designed in such a way that your earlier choices have a significant effect on how the story plays out: affecting not just events but also your relationships with other characters. Oh and it was pleasing to see that Marty has allowed for the reader to play a male or female protagonist here.

I really like the way the story develops, with the introduction laid out in an interesting way, and the story being divided into chapters as events progress and the relationships between characters develop. The writing too is solid throughout and well edited (I only found two typos of note). About the only criticism I can make here is that occasionally the description of action scenes struck me as a bit “rushed” but again, this is a very minor (and somewhat subjective) thing.

Overall this is an immensely replayable, well designed and delivered story that is reminiscent of a lot of “bank robbery” movies in a good way. The system innovations here are quite stunning (and revolutionary I think) and it is only that I was sooo impressed by what I ranked the best entry this year, that Marty didn’t get my top ranking. But now I know better than to underestimate him, and he’ll certainly be one I’ll be keeping my eye on now!

 

Out of Time (Paul Struth)

DESIGN - 9

STORY – 9.5

WRITING – 9

CLARITY – 9

PLAYABILITY – 8.5

MY OVERALL SCORE: 90% (1st place)

·         Winner of one of the two runner-up Merit Awards

 

What I liked: An intriguing and innovative design that is deceptively simple and yet mind-bendingly intricate. Excellent efficient writing that conveys mood and tension, and has great attention to details of people, places and language. Rules and story very clear. Story has some great twists and ideas.

What I didn’t like: Can break the design by repeating a given "loop" to gain infinite Determination. Occasional but minor logic anomaly such as time of day.

 

It turns out I had a premonition about this entry, which is kinda appropriate given the topic(s) it deals with. You see after the entry Paul Struth did for last year’s Windhammer competition, AETHER, I wrote:

Oh well Paul, I really look forward to what you’ll come up with next year: providing you avoid such a pitfall next time, I’m sure it will not only be awesome but could quite possibly win :)

-The pitfall I referred to here was an erroneous plot device that unfortunately broke the experience for me, but aside from this, I could see what a thoughtful design it was and what an accomplished writer Paul was to boot. Turns out my prediction was right, as Paul has delivered a gamebook so good, so intricate and so compelling, that it’s damn near perfect… But alas, perfection is hard to achieve (and I doubt that I’ll ever rate something much above 90%), and so even in such a stunning masterpiece as I consider this to be, I could find “faults” (not that I have any ideas on how you could even fix these minor flaws in such a deceptively simple but incredibly intricate design, but I’ll get to those minor “flaws” shortly).

I would have liked to see this entry win, but it doesn’t matter so much as it won a Merit award anyway, which means that it’ll be available as an app before long and readers around the world will get to see just how good it is. It’s (IMHO) one of the most ambitious story designs I’ve ever seen and the amazing thing is that it actually works. Did you “die” because you made the wrong decision, failed a check or didn’t have a particular item? Don’t worry, you don’t have to “reset” the gamebook back to the beginning and start over: that’s actually just part of the story and yes, things will be different the next time around. Death is not the final destination here, no it’s just part of the journey… But even such a description doesn’t do justice to what Paul has achieved here, so take my word for it (if you wish!), you’ll just have to read it for yourself and see what I mean…

So to get a little more specific (I’ve hardly said anything about it yet have I?) this is an amazing story that starts off great and just gets better. There is great attention to detail here; including the setting, historical places, dress, terms and language; great setting of mood and tension, great interweaving of thought-provoking philosophy into the story, and great mind-bending twists that when they came, left me gob-smacked with just how impressive they were. It is obvious just how much work went into not just the execution of this story but the careful and intricate way in which it has been constructed… I was reminded of something like the novel Playing Beatie Bow crossed with The Time Machine crossed with By His Bootstraps (particularly the later which I highly recommend if you enjoyed this gamebook anywhere near as much as I did).

In terms of game system there is very little here (not that that matters at all in this case), but what there is, is very clear. You have a single Determination stat to track, and on the rare occasion that there is combat, you are given all the rules you need then. This is a cerebral experience not an action-orientated one.

But even in something as good as this, there are what I judge to be “flaws” (I know, I’m a harsh critic, but hey, nit-picking is my job here right?). On the design side, it is possible to “break the design” by repeating a given “loop” to gain theoretically infinite Determination (this will make sense if you’ve played it), and sometimes due to the way you can move between sections, references to the time of day aren’t always accurate or consistent. But really, it’d be nigh impossible to avoid such minor anomalies in the context of a hundred sections, so this is a very minor flaw all things considered. Oh and it doesn’t really invite repeat plays once completed successfully (apart from being so awesome in the first place), but that’s really only because it doesn’t “end” on the first play-through.

There’s the occasional instance (well two that I found) where things weren’t completely clear (where the narration states on Section 12 that you have Czech crowns that weren’t previously mentioned, and on Section 30 where the church attendant apparently says the same words as before –and yet that was in a different language, but maybe that was intentional). And the only other thing I can criticise is that occasionally I thought the writing did a bit of “telling” rather than “showing”, but that can be interpreted as a matter of style as much as anything else.

Overall this is an exceptional piece of work that ranks in my mind as one of the most ingeniously constructed gamebooks I’ve ever read. Like those classic movies with amazing twists, I almost wish I could erase my memory just so that I could read this for the “first time” once more and be amazed all over again J

 

So that concludes my (highly subjective) evaluation / reviews of this year’s Windhammer entries. It is interesting to note just how few of them dealt with the “standard fantasy tropes” that were so prevalent in the days when a good adventure often meant a dungeon/castle/cavern etc filled with treasure and monsters just sitting around for a brave adventurer to come along and slaughter. Honestly, I can only think of this as a good thing, and to see how far gamebooks have come; the great innovations and awesome story-telling; means I think, that gamebooks have a very bright future indeed.

 

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed my dribble, I mean thoughtful commentary!

 

P.s. For further reading, Crumbly Head Games have also done reviews of this year's Windhammer entries, which are broadly consistent with mine I guess (but as you'd expect, there's some differences in opinion) and I'm aware of at least a couple of others who have plans to do the same, but I'll provide links here if and when they do…

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Brewin
Thanks Paul! I think you're right that I definitely need to revisit The Scarlet Thief and give it another go! And yes I agree tha... Read More
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 01:15
Brewin
Cheers Marty... I guess some good came out of my review from last year then Well done on a fine achievement!... Read More
Tuesday, 26 November 2013 01:31
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Deconstructing Infinite Universe - Part Two

Infinite Universe Logo
Tau Ceti System
Terran (Sol Centric) Starmap
Platinum Academy - Level One
Space Gobdola
Infinite Universe Flowcharts
Behold the Platinum Medal!

 

A little later than expected, but I’m back again with Part Two of my deconstruction of my Infinite Universe gamebook, released just over a year ago now on iOS platforms through Tin Man Games, and coming soon to Android, PC and Mac platforms…

If you’ve missed Part One of this deconstruction (where I discuss things such as my objectives in writing it, my evaluation of those objectives and the feedback it has received), you can find it HERE.

This article is broken into three sections: Design, Additional Content and FAQ. So let’s talk about the design first:

 

DESIGN (Overview)

I’ve already discussed the “overall” aspects of the design (my objectives, evaluation of those objectives and how I’ll approach a sequel, etc) in my first article, but now I want to talk about specific elements.

I certainly am inclined to put a lot of effort into the design of my works, planning etc. For instance, my first novel Evermore: An Introduction becomes a “choose-your-own-adventure” for the final third and I structured the choices therein to “maximise the length of the reader’s journey” by making it such that each path has minimal potential for repetition (I could expand on this point but let’s not get side-tracked). My second novel The Dark Horde features a host of characters with distinct story-lines that I’d pre-planned and mapped out separately before blending together. In writing The Dark Horde I paid careful attention to things such as the pacing of events (including the number of deaths that increase throughout the book), the timing of events (even to having all chapter times add up to multiples of thirteen) and the detailed backstory that is to form a separate work: a “musical project” entitled The Calling, due to be completed sometime later this year or next. Most of these design aspects are hidden from the reader, but in my 2012 Windhammer submission, I designed and wrote Trial of the Battle God where the extent of my design efforts were more obvious, for there you have a gamebook that can accommodate up to six players moving independently through a dungeon, along with another seven “NPC” combatants that are also moving through the dungeon just as you are. All this culminates in a complex dungeon design where the dungeon and the state of your opponents are not static, and the paths of eight of more participants needs to be tracked and managed as the trial progresses.

Given this background, it’s probably no surprise then that there’s a hell of a lot of design that went into Infinite Universe: much of which is “under the hood” and hidden from the reader, and some of which wasn’t even included in the released version.

 

DESIGN (World)

As much as I am enamoured of the gamebooks by Herbie Brennan, Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone etc, my approach was more similar to that of Joe Dever in terms of creating a fleshed out and consistent “universe” before even starting to write. I compiled a lot of notes on places, histories, politics, personalities and technologies that I would use to underpin the story, much of which wouldn’t be directly relevant to the story being told but would add more depth to the world as a whole.

Underpinning this approach was a series of fantastic articles that steps the creator through each aspect of world design in order to create a detailed and consistent universe. These articles, by Michael James Liljenberg, I’d recommend to other authors creating fantasy or science fiction worlds and can be found HERE.

With this resource I was able to generate the following Tau Ceti system map, which of course was used to generate the much nicer looking system map in the App itself:

Having fleshed out the Tau Ceti system in this way, I also needed to locate this system in the context of other systems, particularly the Sol “home system”, and along the way, flesh out those systems too.

As part of this process, it was important to me to ensure that everything, from the makeup of systems to the layout of stars, was based on actual astronomical understanding. Hence you have the Tau Ceti system having less planets and heavy metals than our system, but considerably more dust and asteroids, and you also have the star map of our local neighbourhood, which is actually derived from 3D modelling of exactly what is around us and where (as generated and made available by Winchell Chung HERE):


-Again a much nicer-looking version of this map is available in the App itself, along with the Bloggopedia that provides details on numerous systems, planets, moons, organisations, personalities and technologies. (Note that the player only gains access to the Bloggopedia and the system and star maps after completing Part One of the gamebook).

 

DESIGN (Locations)

In addition to mapping and detailing the neighbouring region of our galaxy and the systems therein, I also mapped and compiled notes for some of the locations in the gamebook. You may recognise some of these layouts (and they may even help you orientate yourself in the book):

Platinum Academy – Level One.


 

Space Gondola.

 

 

DESIGN (Plot)

Aside perhaps from Trial of the Battle God, I’ve yet to write a story that is “self-contained” and Infinite Universe certainly falls into the category of a story which is but part of a “bigger picture”. You may have noticed therein that there are a number of references to events past and present, which are due to be fleshed out in more detail in forthcoming works. Here’s a short list of some of the things I’m referring to here that give some insight into what’s to come:

  • The post-apocalyptic near future of Earth and the future some thousand years later.
  • The main character’s future selves and their involvement in future events.
  • Krusher Kane, the Oracle and your former lover; and their relationship to you and the plot in general.
  • A few other locales and events hinted at in the first book which are the subject of future ones (that I won’t detail further here just yet).

 

ADDITIONAL CONTENT (Text)

As discussed in Part One of my deconstruction, Infinite Universe was written “backwards” in that Parts Four to Six were written before Parts One to Three. Parts Four to Six are set before the events of Parts One to Three and are how the story was initially intended to start. Initially, what you now read as “Part Six” was “Parts Three to Five”, before I restructured the order of Parts and cut out most of the material that was then used: some 250 odd sections worth and over 40,000 words.

The flowcharts for final design span sixteen A4 pages as can be seen in the (blurry) photo below. In addition, on the right are two A4 pages containing the flowcharts for the removed sections, and the Tau System chart that you’ve already seen.

 

I won’t go into detail here about just what was in the removed content, but let’s just say that it won’t be going to waste… It’ll probably be used as something of a “side adventure” in the sequel… Probably J

 

ADDITIONAL CONTENT (Music)

The “main” Infinite Universe track (that is the track you hear playing when reading the book) started out quite differently from what you hear now. It has electric guitar for a start, a lot more melody and originally went to three and a half minutes in length as an instrumental track. But following feedback from the play-testers, the track was considered too disruptive to reading, and so it was dramatically pared back to not be so intrusive… But I’m quite proud of the track in its original form(s), which my good friend Hanny Mohamed of Black Majesty put together (with my input / direction I guess). It’ll come as no surprise that I prefer the two versions I’ve linked below (especially the full-blown “power metal” version), but then I’m used to reading and writing with heavy metal playing non-stop… You’ll hear that influence in the tracks below, and even a bit of “Manowar-esque / Conan the Barbarian” kind of stuff J

 

Infinite Universe - Main Track (Unreleased Alternative Version) 

 

 

 

Infinite Universe - Main Track (Unreleased EXTENDED Alternative Version) 

 

 

 

FAQ (Includes Spoilers!)

So the last aspect of this “deconstruction” is to answer some of the questions that readers have asked… Some of these are game solutions or detail plot devices used or to be used, so I’d suggest you stop here if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to have any “secrets spoiled” J

 

Q: Does every skill have a medal?

A: Yes.

 

Q: Can I earn more than one gold medal?

A: No. Like all medals, you either have earned it or you haven't. It isn't possible to get medals multiple times.

 

Q: How can I learn new skills after the first time I choose at start of Part Two?

A: At the moment you can't... But yes you’ll learn new skills at the start of the next gamebook ;)

 

Q: What do I do with the medals I earned after the start of Part Two?

A: These medals, including the Platinum medal if you’re lucky enough to earn it, affect the sequel and you gain their benefits there.

 

Q: Can you list how each and every medal is gained?

A: Below is a semi-detailed (but full) list of where to get each medal:

 

FIRST AID

* Part 1: Heal Kane.

* Part 1: Lose to Kane in melee combat.

* Part 2: Successfully treat your snakebite.

 

BLUFF

* Part 1: Successfully bluff the cloaked alien (when it confronts you).

* Part 2: Successfully bluff Betty.

* Part 2: Successfully dispute the fare with the taxi-driver.

* Part 2: Present wrong identification to the guards and then successfully bluff them to accept your own identification instead.

 

SPRINT

* Part 1: Evade the cloaked alien by running into the grand chamber.

* Part 1: Evade the Greycloaks firing at you in the grand chamber.

* Part 1: Run past the Battle Bot to outside the Academy.

* Part 1: Evade the laser fire when escaping with Dan.

* Part 2: Outrun Judas when he goes to attack you.

* Part 3: Run out of the Sky Gondola Bay before the steel shutters close.

 

JUMP

* Part 1: Successfully dive through the closing exit door, after choosing to leave Kane as the Bluecloaks approach.

* Part 1: Successfully jump from the crawl space into the control room, after choosing to let Kane enter the crawl space second.

* Part 1: Successfully jump from the pillar to the balcony when escaping with Dan.

* Part 3: Leap clear of the explosion of the rocket fired into the Geostation by the rebel spacecraft.

 

CLIMB

* Part 1: Successfully haul yourself into the crawl space, after choosing to let Kane enter first.

* Part 1: Successfully climb the pillar in the grand chamber when escaping with Dan.

* Part 3: Successfully climb the wing of the Hungry Raven when entering the craft from out in space.

 

STEALTH

* Part 1: Successfully hide amongst the bodies when discovered in the second chamber by other (hostile) Greycloaks.

* Part 1: Hide from the Greycloaks firing at you in the grand chamber.

* Part 1: Sneak past the Battle Bot to outside the Academy.

* Part 2: Sneak out of Betty's house without her noticing.

 

UNARMED COMBAT

* Parts 1-3: Fight any enemy in melee combat where you have NO melee weapon.

* Part 2: Defeat Judas in melee combat (you must defeat him rather than just fight him, even though you have no melee weapon for this fight).

 

MELEE TECHNIQUE

* Parts 1-3: Defeat any enemy in melee combat where you have a melee weapon.

* Part 1: Defeat Bluecloaks in melee combat (even if you have NO melee weapon).

 

SHARP SHOOTER

* Parts 1-3: Defeat any enemy in ranged combat.

* Parts 1-3: Successfully shoot any enemy.

 

DODGE

* Parts 1-3: Defeat any enemy in ranged combat.

* Parts 1-3: Dodge laser fire from any attacker.

 

PILOT

* Part 3: Defeat the Mandellian Lancer in ship-to-ship combat.

* Part 3: Evade the Mandellian Lancer.

 

GUNNERY

* Part 3: Defeat the Mandellian Lancer in ship-to-ship combat.

 

GOLD

* Part 1: Stay alive with Kane until the conclusion of his plans in Part 1.

* Part 1: Escape the Academy.

 

PLATINUM

* Part 3: Get all of the above thirteen possible medals in a single play-through. There's a few different ways to do this, but it requires a lot of planning and a bit of luck to figure out how to do it ;)

It is possible though, look here’s proof:

 

 

Q: Is there a sequel?

A: A sequel is in the works… But it’s still a least a year away from being completed. (At the start of this sequel you’ll have the items, skills and medals you earned in Parts One to Three, and choices you made in Parts One to Six will affect what happens in “Part Seven” and beyond. It’ll also be possible to play the sequel without having read the original).

 

Q: There’s a lot of loose leads left unresolved at the end of the first book. Will those be addressed in the sequel and which ones?

A: By design, the story of the first book is but a fraction of the larger story. I won’t give too much away about some of the leads addressed in the sequel (and those beyond that) but I’ll give you three words as hints on what’s to come in Bloggs’ near future:

Nanobase. Clone. Oracle.

 

…So that concludes my deconstruction, which hopefully addresses anything you wanted to know about Infinite Universe but didn’t yet (let me know if not!)

And whilst I get the sequel and numerous other projects sorted, there’s plenty of other gamebook goodness out there as apps, including Zach Weinersmith’s sci-fi comedy gamebook Trial of the Clone that’s just come out on iOS and Android J

 

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Deconstructing Infinite Universe - Part One

Infinite Universe Logo
Illustration by Joshua Wright
The Platinum Academy - Illustration by Joshua Wright
Illustration by Joshua Wright
Gamebook Adventures 8: Infinite Universe on the App Store
Illustration by Joshua Wright

                                          

 

 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 AD.

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

Road trip to the red centre of Australia. From your home city of Melbourne in the south-east corner of the continent, west along the coast to the church city of Adelaide and then inland north to Uluru, otherwise known as Ayer's Rock. It is known as the dusty heart of Australia and just to make it there, you had to travel some two and a half thousand kilometres. Once you arrived, well you'd figure out where to next. The journey itself was to be as epic and exciting as the destination.

Trouble was, most of the journey was through the vast Australian desert, otherwise known as 'The Outback'. Perhaps the most desolate and uninhabited expanse of land outside of Antarctica on the planet, stretching across the belly of the continent for millions of square kilometres.

If it wasn't the oppressive heat that beat down on you relentlessly during the day when 45 degrees Celsius was normal, it was the constant presence of swarms of harassing flies. If it wasn't the boredom of the endless red and ochre sands, punctuated by clumps of spinifex grass and the occasional defiant saltbush, it was the sense of isolation that came from being on the road alone for days, uninhabited land stretching to the horizon in all directions. And to top it all off, you've lost your wallet somewhere along the road hundreds of kilometres back...

(Illustration by Joshua Wright)

 

Thus was how the story of my gamebook Infinite Universe began, that was released as part of the Gamebook Adventures series through Tin Man Games almost exactly a year ago. So to mark the anniversary, and to pay homage to the journey Captain Comet began around this time in a parallel universe, it’s probably about time that I did a blog post about it. (Been a hectic last three months for me with the demands of the “day job” mostly, but I’m back to more regular posts now). I have split this article into two parts: the first part (this post) is about my design objectives with regards to the work, my evaluation of those objectives following feedback and how I’ll be approaching a sequel. The second post will go into the design elements in more detail, FAQ and additional content that wasn't used.

 

SOME PRELIMINARY COMMENTS

If you’ve read any of the books or gamebooks I’ve written, you may notice that they tend to be quite different from not only each other, but also from the “established norms of the genre(s)” they’re in. This isn’t accidental. At risk of sounding like a complete wanker by saying this, I am driven to create works that “would not have been created had I not created them”. In other words, I go out of my way to do things differently and forge new paths. Such an approach carries significant “risks”. -By straying away from what readers would typically expect from the genre, there is a tendency to get a greater polarisation of views than would otherwise be the case if you stuck to the “established norms of the genre”. Some people love your work for how different it is from what they’ve read before… And others, well let’s just say that some can be quite vocal in their condemnation ;)

Not that I am easily deterred, in fact I’m quite renowned for being stubborn and having conviction in my own abilities and ideas, regardless of criticism. Sometimes that’s a good thing (certainly you need a lot of self-belief to follow projects through to their conclusion and release to the world), but yes it can also mean that you are prone to self-indulgence at times and can misjudge your audience… And I think I may be guilty of that.

But really, any creative work, regardless of how good or bad it is, will be loved by some, treated indifferently by others, and disliked by others. The degree to which this occurs depends on a lot of things, only some of which are to do with the work itself. Other factors include publicity, timing and preconceptions/expectations of the work.

But enough with the vague preamble, it’s time to talk about specifics!

   

(The Platinum Academy - Illustration by Joshua Wright)

 

MY OBJECTIVES

Having been “in the right place at the right time” to become involved with what you might now call the “Gamebook Adventures juggernaut” (a story I’ll skip for now for the sake of brevity), I pitched my idea for a gamebook (actually a series) which had the original working title Space Saga. The idea was approved, (for the first title anyway) but really it was another year or so before I had a chance to work much on it. The reason for this delay was that apart from anything else, I was editing, designing, re-balancing and writing for the first four Gamebook Adventures titles. But I’ll get to that point somewhere later on in this article, as it puts an “interesting spin” on some of the comments made about Infinite Universe

Basically, my objectives in designing and writing Infinite Universe were as follows:

·     It would be science fiction. Not “gritty” science fiction however, but “zany” science fiction. I.e. more like Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy type sci-fi, than 2001: A Space Odyssey type sci-fi. It’s a gamebook right? I didn’t want to be bogged down by the impracticality of interstellar travel (light speed is a bugger) and scientific things of that nature. Nope, just lasers, space ships and star gates that let you easily traverse the galaxy and time.

 

·         It would be epic in nature. “Epic” is a bit of a vague term really that could mean a lot of things, but what I mean by this is that I wanted it to have an epic story that took a lot longer than a single gamebook to tell (but is largely “set-up” in the first book). And epic in terms of the word count too; more novel-like in length and time to read than is typical for a gamebook.

 

·     It would be comical. Some of my favourite genre works (for instance the Grailquest gamebook series, the Red Dwarf television series, and movies like Shaun of the Dead) have a comical take on an established genre… And this includes parody and poking fun at it - and this is what I did too in writing Infinite Universe - sarcasm and self-depreciation were to be part of the approach taken.

  

·         It would be set in a fleshed-out and consistent “universe”. The setting details are based on actual astronomical data and many more places are detailed in the “Bloggopedia” that accompanies the gamebook, than in the gamebook itself. And then there are the significant figures and organisations that form part of the story, each with their own personalities and agendas. Not to mention world-specific technology as well.

 

·         I wanted the hero of the story to have a detailed history. This differs from most gamebooks, where the reader can easily “imagine themselves as the hero” as the hero’s background and personality is so vague. But no, I wanted the hero to have a strong sense of their own identity, background and personality (even if they have to discover what this is over the course of the story).

 

·        wanted the story to be underpinned by a system based on the Gamebook Adventures system, but with enhancements (namely skills and stat purchases, ranged and vehicular combat) that enabled the reader to customise their hero according to their own play style. And in addition to this, cater for both male and female readers, rather than simply assuming that the main character is male for example.

 

·    I wanted the difficulty to be calibrated towards the “easy” end of the spectrum, to minimise the frustration caused by death after reading many pages and having to start over again. And also to facilitate the reader reading to the end, and subsequently a sequel if there was one (the sequel or sequels even, would then progressively get harder).

 

·    And yet I wanted the work to have a high degree of replayability. For instance, whilst you may get successfully get through the gamebook to the ending, you may not have acquired many medals and therefore skills in the process. You may find yourself replaying through Part 1 in order to acquire more skills for later on. And because Part 1 is the Part most read (especially because it is free!), it is also the most open and has the highest number of distinct paths: spanning some 250 odd sections. Beyond this, there’s a number of items that you can accumulate in later Parts and events that occur, that will affect sequels, but I’ll talk about this more at a later point.

 

·      Giving reward to those that achieve more than just getting through the gamebook. For instance, it is quite difficult to get through the gamebook and have a jetpack at the end of it for the sequel. It is significantly harder to obtain the Platinum Medal. The reward for achieving these things however is more something you get in the sequel, rather than this one (I’ll talk about this point in more detail later). 

 

·     Making it such that with maximum stats it was still quite easy to “fail” and yet even with minimum stats it was possible to succeed without toooo much difficulty. It is my personal belief that not enough gamebooks achieve this: too often gamebooks are virtually impossible without maximum stats and I sought to avoid this.

 

·    And finally, to loosely base the work on a gamebook series called Space Fighter that I wrote over twenty-five years ago as a childhood fan of things such as Fighting Fantasy, He-Man and Star Wars.

 

(Illustration by Joshua Wright)

 

A PERSONAL EVALUATION OF WHETHER I ACHIEVED MY OBJECTIVES

·    It’s true that some readers were hoping for sci-fi that was “grittier” or more “serious” than Infinite Universe. For instance, some lamented that it wasn’t more like the excellent gamebook Star Breed – Episode 1, or more like Warhammer 40K or something, but this wasn’t the sort of work I set out to write. But really, you can’t please everyone can you? -Not that I can’t do “serious” if I want to, and in fact I already have (well sort of)… My novel The Dark Horde for instance is “supernatural horror”, complete with intense and shocking R-rated horror, violence and sex. -The few I’ve spoken to that have read both works, have commented on how widely different these two works are and that they would never have picked that they were written by the same person…

 

·   Infinite Universe certainly turned out to be “epic” in length. The overall word count is about 170,000 words, not including the encyclopaedia. And then consider that over 200 written sections were removed from the final version (maybe another 40,000 words worth or so). However, this length and the wordiness of some of the sections irked some, even whilst others said that they preferred that the sections were longer and more detailed, rather than just a paragraph or two per Section. If I were to rewrite the work though (a hypothetical that is unlikely to ever actually happen as I’d rather create new works than revisit old ones), I’d probably only cut the length slightly. In fact, it’s really only the section at the start of Part 4 that I would cut significantly. That particular section (really it’s two sections; one version for when the hero is male and the other for when they’re female) was actually how the gamebook initially began. -This partly explains its length, as it “sets the story” by detailing your character, their background and the current situation. If you’ve read the gamebook, you’ll know how I still managed to use this section halfway through the story, but still I think it wouldn’t have hurt much to cut it down a bit; even if it is all about defining who you are and what your motivations are so that the subsequent story has context beyond being a “generic hero”. –And yes, I’ve certainly set the story up for a sequel: perhaps if you finished Infinite Universe you have already suspected what that’s about ;)

 

·      On the comedy aspect, well it certainly did include elements of parody, sarcasm and self-depreciation, but this is difficult to do in a way that “satisfies all markets” (and Stuart Lloyd wrote an excellent article discussing some of the challenges of doing this in a gamebook here). Of particular interest to me is the observation that the North American markets (and I’m generalising here) have a different appreciation of comedy than the Australian and UK markets for instance: sarcasm and self-depreciation (at least as the Australian/UK markets understand them) are less prevalent in North American comedies, and thus this style of comedy doesn’t tend to translate so well. (Consider for example that most? Australian and UK comedies are re-written and re-cast for the US market, presumably to broaden their appeal there, whilst that rarely seems to happen the other way around, in Australia at least).

 

·      The setting of Infinite Universe was certainly detailed, and scientifically accurate: underpinning the story and those to follow… Not much to evaluate there really, but I’ll talk more about the design of the setting more in my follow-up post to this one.

 

·     The character’s history and personality are certainly quite detailed with much more depth than is typical for a gamebook, which is what I set out to achieve, but I recognise that this is a liability to some: especially if (as some have reported) they didn’t “like” the main character. By having a more “generic” hero (and typically one that is more sure of themselves and less cynical), the reader is more able to imagine themselves in the role. There’s a reason why the Fighting Fantasy mantra “YOU ARE THE HERO” has such resonance…

 

·     The ability to play as either a male or female character seemed to go down well though, and I know of a few female readers that appreciated being able to play a main character of their gender for a change, rather than having to accept that “male leads have more interesting stories” or something like that, as there’s no reason at all why female leads can’t be just as interesting. That there isn’t more gamebooks with female leads is more to do with the fact that most authors are male, and that the target market is viewed as being predominantly male than anything else I think, and I’m happy to have contributed to changing that (as I also did with Trial of the Battle God).

 

·         Having crunched the numbers, I already knew that the gamebook was quite “easy” in comparison to other gamebooks (and possible to complete with minimum stats). My emphasis here (and in stark contrast to Trial of the Battle God which is opposite in many ways) was on “story” over “game”, and this meant keeping the reader in the story. But I also wanted to provide incentive to replay via achievements such as the hard-to-get Platinum Medal and the different skills that can be acquired. But I actually think that there’s some things there that I could have done better: in particular to address the perception that “whatever you do in the first three Parts becomes irrelevant for the subsequent three Parts” but I’ll get to this point in more detail below.

 

             

 

MY THOUGHTS ON FEEDBACK

The reviews to-date on Infinite Universe have mostly been very good, but also they’ve been quite polarised in some quarters, and arguably more so than with any other of the Gamebook Adventures titles. Quite a few rated it the best of the series to-date, whilst quite a few also rated it the worst, and considered that it had poor writing among other issues. I have already made the point above that I set out to do something quite different with Infinite Universe, and that this in itself generates a greater polarisation of views, but there’s more to this story… I knew (as Tin Man Games knew in taking a gamble with me to let me do this) that taking a different approach would go down well with some and not with others, but you don’t capture the interest of new markets by doing things the same way do you?

 

I will admit that I was surprised by some of the negative comments though, in particular the ones that cast negative judgement on my own ability (as opposed to the delivery chosen for this work), and yet were fans of the other Gamebook Adventures titles… Sure there was plenty of praise too, don’t get me wrong, but I’m inclined to focus on negative feedback as that’s where I see the greatest potential to learn from is, and those passionate enough to write a bad review are often among the most passionate fans that you can potentially win over, so let’s see if I can:

 

·     The first point I want to make to put this into context, is that as “editor” for the first four Gamebook Adventures titles, you may be surprised to learn just how much of the content of those titles was actually written or designed by me.

  • For An Assassin in Orlandes I only did essential editing (it’d already been released for a start) and restructuring to ensure the reader was likely to get a specific needed item (at Neil’s direction based on feedback), some rebalancing of stats, and ensuring that readers had the option to explore all areas at a given location before being moved onwards by the narration (something I’m always seeking to address in gamebooks as I outlined in my take on gamebook design here).
  • For The Siege of the Necromancer I didn’t do much more than what I did for the first GA title… I wrote a handful of the deaths and rewrote some of the passages a little, like the Goblyn Trickster’s speech and his illusionary forest. To put a number on it, I maybe wrote 5-10% of the final text…
  • For Slaves of Rema, well I probably ended up writing about 50% of it. This includes the beginning (basically up to you entering the arena), the ending, the deaths, the political elements, some of the scenes, the rebalancing and bits like the “Big 60” dice game that was from a game I had in my D&D campaigns twenty years ago (Gaetano’s original design for the gambling game wasn’t feasible at the time). In saying this I don’t want to take any credit away from Gaetano Abbondanza, the author of the work who wrote and designed such a fantastic work in the first place. -I just built on it, introducing the political details after brainstorming them with Neil Rennison (where we decided on where to take the story). As part of this process, and with Neil’s input, I also drew up the political boundaries of the differing nations and city-states that make up the Reman continent, named them and wrote up their histories.
  • For Revenant Rising, I ended up expanding a lot of the descriptive or dialogue passages in that too, and Neil rewrote the beginning, such that I’d estimate I probably wrote a quarter to a third of that too. Again I’m not trying to take credit away from Kieran Coghlan’s great work here, just point out that my contribution to that too was substantial…

 

·     It’s taken me a long time to make the above points publically, as the trouble with defending yourself is that, well you come off as defensive. But I felt I had to point out my contribution to the previous Gamebook Adventures titles sooner or later, as I think it helps put criticism of Infinite Universe into context, given that many of those who were critical of the writing in Infinite Universe, loved the writing in Slaves of Rema or Revenant Rising, and they may actually be comparing “apples and apples” and not have known it J

 

·         The other point on that is that were it not for the writing accolades I received last year, for both The Dark Horde and Infinite Universe (see here), I would have had more cause to give weight to those negative reviews, as they may have been right. But having won international awards now, I’m encouraged that at least some think I’m doing things right…

 

·         But all this raises the question then, which I’ve asked myself many times, and have some answers for, but haven’t fully resolved: If it’s not the writing, then why the negative reviews? Whilst I do go out of my way to “do things differently” (Trial of the Battle God being another good example, as is the genre-bending Evermore: An Introduction), I am in the game of trying to write for the broadest market. So it’s important for me to understand the reasons for the negative reviews, and to consider what I can do next time to address those perceptions, whilst staying true to my own vision and recognising that “whatever you do, not everyone is going to like it anyway”. In short, I think the main reasons for the negative reactions are as follows:

  • Free to download. This was the one that was expected. You make a title free to download and you get a lot more downloads. But as a result you get a lot more negative reviews as a result by those who wouldn’t have liked it (or paid for a full version) anyway… Mind you I think the average rating for Infinite Universe is on par with the other Gamebook Adventures titles anyway, so if anything this effect was less than expected.
  • Humour. As discussed above, the sarcasm / self-depreciation thing is more akin to Aussie and UK markets (at least as they understand it), than the North American ones.
  • A main character with a strong personality. As discussed above, this was one of my objectives, but this approach can be off-putting to some readers if they don’t “like” the main character and/or cannot identify with them.
  • Linearity of the story at times, and word length. Consistent with my objectives, I wanted to emphasise the story elements over the game elements: something halfway between a novel and an interactive gamebook if you like. This appealed to some, but not so others. Yes I could have allowed more choice in certain parts, but this would have further increased the word count of a work that was already 170,000 words…
  • The way in which the story flowed. A slight spoiler (nothing too drastic if you haven’t read it though) is that Parts 4-6 of the gamebook are actually set before Parts 1-3, such that you do not have any of the items or skills that you gained in Parts 1-3, in Parts 4-6. In designing the gamebook I hadn’t initially meant for this to be the case (and actually I’d written almost all of Parts 4-6 before I started writing Parts 1-3), but since Part 4 is set in 2013, when it’s meant to be a “sci-fi gamebook”, the decision was made to start in the sci-fi future setting, and return to the past only once the reader had invested in the story. If the free download of Part 1 had been mostly set in our time, some would have questioned whether it was sci-fi or not and may not have bothered to read on… But the whole “lose everything you had in Parts 1-3” thing irked some. Sure they get it all back after Parts 4-6 (on the final section of Part 6 basically), but Parts 7 and beyond haven’t been released yet, so the point of all that is currently less appreciated than it will be later… But I’ll talk more about the details of these designs later in the follow-up blog post.

 

(Illustration by Joshua Wright)

 

MY THOUGHTS ON THE SEQUEL

·         So where does this leave me now? Well I can certainly cite a few things that will be tackled different in the sequel (which is at least a year off with nothing concrete confirmed, and I’ve got plenty of projects to complete in the meantime anyway). The summary of these things as they float around in my head, are as follows:

  • Less humour and a less “defined” character. Given how the first book ends (which I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t read it), it’s actually pretty easy to set up the character of the sequel being quite different. This character won’t have the same personality as the original in the sense that I won't include their often cynical/dismissive mental thoughts. Instead, their personality will tend to be only expressed through the character's actions, which are decided by the player. Basically this is accentuating what I do in the first book, the idea being that if the player wants to play the "brash bold hero who saves the universe" they can, but equally they can still play "the fool" like in the first book too. Everyone wins J
  • A faster more concise delivery. Rather than the long story-building narrative style of the first, there’ll be more emphasis on action and crazy events and places. This was always intended by the way (Parts 1-6 in many ways simply set the scene for the “actual story” to follow) and I think this will further broaden the appeal.
  • A more open design. Consistent with the emphasis being taken away from the “story” elements, there’ll be greater opportunities to explore the world than in the first, where the reader will be encouraged to find their own “side-missions” and their own way to ultimate victory. (This too was always intended).
  • Continuity. And of course all those items and skills earned in the first book will carry over into the sequel. The impact of various choices in the first will also have repercussions in the sequel: consider yourself warned!

 

Well I think over 4000 words is more than enough for one blog post, so I’ll finish here. The follow-up post (sometime soon!) will give a more detailed examination of the design aspects of Infinite Universe: including some maps not revealed before, additional content, music tracks that weren’t used, and some of the FAQs (such as how does one get the Platinum Medal)… Thanks for reading!

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Brewin
Hi David, Thank you for your comments and I'm glad that you appreciate the approach I took with Infinite Universe -As I was disc... Read More
Tuesday, 09 July 2013 04:35
Brewin
Thanks for letting me know about that bug you experienced on your Samsung Galaxy 2 David... I suspect I know what the cause of thi... Read More
Thursday, 11 July 2013 04:44
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Deconstruction of Trial of the Battle God

Final Layout (well almost final!)

Otherwise known as “Thoughts on the 2012 Windhammer Prize entries - Part 3”

So to wrap up my Windhammer analysis, I’ll talk a little about my own entry: Trial of the Battle God. -Its design, my thoughts on it and those of others (and not in that order).

If you’ve played Trial of the Battle God, then this may make some sense to you ;)

 

So I’m actually going to start with what others thought, and then work back from there (we’ll see how this pans out - I’m not actually sure myself):

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Brewin
Many thanks for your kind words Torallion! I certainly agree that the design demonstrates a whole range of multi-player possibilit... Read More
Tuesday, 13 November 2012 10:46
Brewin
Hi Ivailo! Thanks for your comments: this Bulgarian gamebook series sounds very interesting, and I'd be interested to have a look!... Read More
Saturday, 17 November 2012 10:00
Brewin
Thanks Ivailo, however I can't access the links you posted (think I need to create an account and login for that?) Anyway you can ... Read More
Sunday, 18 November 2012 11:04
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Trial of the Battle God Hall of Fame

Let us remember the fallen heroes that have fought for the glory of the Battle God. Let us honour their memory and praise their achievements. May their deeds never be forgotten and ever inspire us to follow their path to greatness...

92 POINTS:

  • Steve (Goblin)


85 POINTS:

  • Yvraith (Elf)


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Happy Fighting Fantasy Anniversary!

My much-loved copy of Warlock of Firetop Mountain

A little under thirty years ago an event happened that was to change my life forever afterwards... As a seven or eight-year old I walked into my local bookstore and there was this book (actually there were three of them in the series by this point if I recall correctly) called Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

It wasn't just any book though. It was a book in which I got to be the hero. I was the one making the choices and battling enemies. It was still a couple of years before I got my head around Dungeons and Dragons, but it was Fighting Fantasy that was my "gateway drug" to the world of role playing games... Over the next few years I collected over a hundred gamebooks, although stupidly I sold off most of them when I started high school, but I kept my favourites: Grailquest, Lone Wolf, Duelmaster, Falcon and the one that started them all really (even if Tunnels and Trolls came out first): Fighting Fantasy.

Before I was able to be a Dungeon Master for D&D, I was "Dungeon Master" for Fighting Fantasy: reading out Warlock of Firetop Mountain to my friends and having them make the choices... Here is a photo of my battered copy, a book which I must have read at least twenty times:

Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone became my idols and inspired me to write and want to be like them one day. And all these years later, it is a special and unbelievable privilege that I am able to be doing just that. :D

And yesterday was the 30 year anniversary of the day that the first Fighting Fantasy book, Warlock of Firetop Mountain, went on sale. Thank you Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson for enriching my childhood and life ever since with your magic.

To commemorate the anniversary, Ian Livingstone has blessed us with a new Fighting Fantasy book: Blood of the Zombies. You can read about it and lots more here.

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Conversion of the Gamebook Adventures system to a 2D6 system

Fitness checks can made during any particular round to add 1 to your roll or deduct 1 from your opponent’s roll (and having the reverse effect if you fail the roll).




This article is even more esoteric than yesterday’s topic on probabilities in the Gamebook Adventures system, but it’s related and to those that are designing and writing gamebooks of their own, this may prove useful for their own designs…

Or at least give them ideas. There’s a few things happening in the “gamebook world” at the moment that could benefit from this, and so having done this conversion for a new project I’m working on, I thought I’d share my work, and to kinda follow on from my article yesterday.

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Probabilities in the Gamebook Adventures system

Probability Meme
Odds Meme
Chance of Success (not including FIT checks)
Average Damage when hit (not including FIT checks)
Average Damage per Round (not including FIT checks)
Chance of success for consecutive FIT checks
Chance of Success (including FIT checks)
Average Damage per Round (including FIT checks)
Impact of Fitness Checks on Chance to hit and Average Damage per Round
Adjusted Average Damage per Round (factoring in consecutive FIT checks)

Today’s article is all about probabilities in the Gamebook Adventures system (with some limited comparison to other systems, particularly Fighting Fantasy). Statistics can be a bit of a dry topic haha, so I’ll try to reduce it to the important elements for you… Well important that is if you’re writing for such a system or are interested to know what the game odds are… Beware though, there’s a lot of tables and charts incoming :)

                 

 

Calculating probabilities for a system such as Fighting Fantasy is reasonably straight forward: (In a typical battle) you roll two six-sided dice for each combatant and add a given Skill score to each combatant’s roll, with the highest score dealing 2 Stamina damage to the other combatant. Use of Luck rolls makes it a little more complicated but not by much. You can “Test your Luck”; by attempting to roll two dice equal to or under your current Luck; in order to do one more Stamina damage, but failing this roll means you do one less Stamina. Skill and Luck scores vary, resulting in an exponential scale where even a few points of Skill difference make it unlikely for one side to win, even with far more Stamina.

For example, if your Skill is 3 lower than your opponent’s, then your opponent is roughly five times more likely than you are, to be the one making a hit in a given combat round, not including the Luck factor. In other words, if your hero has Skill 9 Stamina 24 and your opponent Skill 12 Stamina 5, then you both have about the same chance of winning…

                               

 

The Gamebook Adventures system is considerably more complicated to calculate probabilities for (even though the rules themselves are of a similar level of complexity) and shares a similar but less extreme exponential scale, such that the outcome of a combat is not as much of a sure thing. Combatants roll between one and six six-sided dice to attack (as determined by their Offence rating) and between one and six six-sided dice to defend (as determined by their Defence rating). If the attacker’s highest roll is higher than the defender’s highest roll, then they do damage equal to the sum of all their dice. (And in the case of tied rolls, the two tied dice are removed and the next two highest rolls are compared, until no dice are left). In addition, the hero can make a “Fitness check” on any given combat round by rolling two dice under their current Fitness. This is similar to “Testing your Luck” in the Fighting Fantasy system, except that the advantage given is to add 1 to their highest roll, significantly increasing the chance of hitting or defending.

In the extreme case of 6 dice in Offence against an opponent with 6 dice in Defence, and including the two additional dice rolled for a Fitness check, there are 6^14 possible dice combinations for any given round (that’s 78,364,164,096 combinations). And to calculate the highest roll and damage inflicted for each of these combinations, is quite a task… But I’ve done this (well kind of; I had to take some short cuts, but the end conclusions are about the same) and this is what I present below.

This isn’t meant to be a rigorous statistics paper, so I’ll spare you comprehensive details of how I came up with these numbers… But basically I listed every dice combination out on a spreadsheet, so that I could be sure I was calculating correct averages etc, until the number of possible combinations became too unwieldy. I listed all combinations up to seven dice, which is 6^7 or 279,936 combinations. The numbers for the remaining eight to fourteen dice combinations I estimated using a “best fit” exponential regression equation. In other words, I took the half-finished set of values I had manually calculated and used them to apply a formula to estimate the rest…

First of all, we’ll ignore the impact of Fitness checks, and just focus on the chance of success (success being an attack that hits the defender) for each Offence / Defence combination:

                 

 

So to interpret what these numbers mean, it’s saying that if your Offence value was 6, and your opponent had a Defence value of 1, then (not including Fitness checks) your chance of success (i.e. hitting) is 76.00%, and if their Defence was 2, your chance is *about* 57.77% and so on…

The yellow cells in the above table are where I had to cut corners as the number of combinations was too large to individually analyse. These are the values I extrapolated based on the trend already shown. This trend (as you can see in the above graph) is an exponential decline, where the degree to which your chances drop lessens as Defence values increase.

Here are some interesting conclusions from these numbers:

  • Even at maximum Offence (6) versus minimum Defence (1), you have at best a 76% chance of hitting. This compares to a 100% chance for a similarly extreme matchup in the Fighting Fantasy system, and to many other dice-based game systems where the best odds tend to be 95% (anything but a roll of one on a twenty-sided dice), 97% (anything but double-one or double-six on two six-sided dice) or 99% in percentile-based systems.
  • Conversely though, even at minimum Offence (1) versus maximum Defence (6), you still have a 7.33% chance of hitting (more once you consider Fitness checks), which typically compares to between 0% and 5% in other systems.
  • Typically your chance of hitting; without including Fitness checks; is lower in the Gamebook Adventures system than that for other systems such as Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, Dungeons and Dragons and the Basic Role Playing system. (However when you do hit, your damage is typically higher than what occurs in these systems).
  • Increasing Offence or Defence has an increasingly smaller impact. For instance, you’ll see that Offence 6 is only slightly better than Offence 5, particularly against high Defence values. (Although I suspect it’s not quite a close as shown, since the values in the yellow cells were those obtained from extrapolation).


Now let’s look at the average damage inflicted when you hit:

              

It’s actually difficult to draw much from these numbers since you need to factor in the chance of hitting to say how much damage is done on average each round… The amount of damage done for any given Offence rating only increases slightly with increasing Defence (based on the fact that the higher the Defence value you’re trying to hit, the more likely that a successful hit was based on a high roll).

By multiplying the chance to hit, by the average damage done when hit, we come to this table (which is very useful from a design / game-balancing point of view):

                

 

So now we can start to see exactly how hard any given combat is. For instance, if you have an Offence of 4 and a Defence of 2, and are fighting an enemy with an Offence and Defence value of 3, then you inflict an average of 6.08 damage per attack, whilst your opponent inflicts an average of 5.44 damage per attack… Pretty useful huh?

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Post-mortem of a Book Launch

The latest covers for my three published works

On Saturday the 28th of April 2012, I held my “triple book launch” at the Royal Hotel in Clifton Hill. The video of my speech (which included me reading an extract of The Dark Horde that contains swearing and graphic content) can be seen here:


Attendance and sales for the day was broadly comparable to the “book launch gigs” I held (for the then-released versions of my Evermore novel) in 2001 and 2003. Well when I say broadly comparable, it was actually less. Here’s a reasonably accurate breakdown and comparison of my three book launches:

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Brewin
Thank you for your contribution Nevermore. I think I get what you are trying to say, but I have to correct you on your perception ... Read More
Wednesday, 02 May 2012 16:43
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AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF BREWIN’ – PART TWO











So where was I? Ah yes I was telling you about who I am, well at least in terms of my history. Why am I doing this? Well aside from it helping you to understand my works I’m promoting through this site (and hopefully being an entertaining read!) it also helps you understand who I am. Which is in short, a freak haha…

 

A “limited” edition version of the cover for one of my books; limited to one copy!

 

I can actually recall thinking at the age of eight that I wasn’t remotely like anyone else and that what’s more, I didn’t want to be. Being “normal” or “like others” seemed so boring, the internal universe I predominantly lived in creating stories and games in my head, was so much more interesting… And in many ways, I haven’t really changed; I’m still the kid wrapped up in his world creating stuff, it’s just that I’m starting to release some of it now.

But rather than attempting to qualify the above statements much for now (that can come later maybe if there’s sufficient interest), I’ll just tell you about some of the cool stuff I’ve created over the years and post some interesting pictures:

This is a review of one of the more popular games I made (in the style of the Zzap 64 magazine) from 1989… It featured robot ninjas!

 

My childhood, like my life, was anything but normal. By the time I was eight, I was devouring gamebooks and role playing games and had started to write my own. Before I turned eleven at the end of 1985, I was running RPG, gamebook and “creepy-crawly” clubs, had written many stories (some over a hundred pages long albeit smaller pages than a typical book), gamebooks, games, club magazines and was selling and distributing them.

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Brewin
Don't spoil Part 3 Nikos! You'll give the punch line away!
Wednesday, 21 March 2012 11:13
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