Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Mechanics of GAMEbooks (input - test of performance - feedback)

Before we start talking about Gamebook Mechanics, we should first recognize the very basic elements of any game. In theory, a video game (or any other game) consists of two major events: input and feedback. In simple words, the player takes any action such as tilt the joystick, hit a button or move the pawn in a board game, etc and we have an input. For every input, there should be positive or negative feedback such as moving the character on the screen, hearing a sound or something else that provides the player with a clue if he or she is doing well or not.

Here is the basic structure of any game: INPUT - PERFORMANCE TEST (test of the input) - FEEDBACK

In my previous blogpost, I already mentioned that one of the most disturbing articles I've seen so far is the one named narrative is not a game mechanic by Raph Koster and based on his theory many people consider that games and story don't mix coming to the wrong conclusion that it is impossible to write a book which is also a good game.

Just take another look at the basic game elements! Narrative is a form of feedback, isn't it? I think that, not only narrative IS a game mechanic, it actually is the best form of feedback. Raph Koster argues that "games can and do exist without narrative". He is absolutely right, they do, but... Remember the old arcade games where the gameplay was always the same except the opponents speed increased in every consecutive level? Sure, that did make the game more challenging, but how much closer to the final goal did it make you feel and how much feeling of accomplishment did that design approach provide to the players? "Kill as many enemies as possible and move on to the next level" was the motto of all games back then and there was no ultimate goal for us to achieve. My personal opinion is that having some storyline and narrative such as "You just left the Old Village on your way to the Ancient Forest. You can see the mountains standing proud out there beyond the tall trees and you are now a step closer to finding and killing the Dark Wizard, who has been terrorizing your people for centuries... You won the battle against the Dark Wizard and you are successful in your mission to free your people from evil! Everybody in the Old Village will live happily ever after"? Sure, a good narrative limits the replayability of the game as nobody wants to read the same paragraphs multiple times, but how many times do you want to replay the same scenario in the countless levels of a jump and run or a shooting game that doesn't have any narrative? We, the human beings, like diversity and we love having a final goal to reach, and the answer to those challenges in the art of making games lies in providing the player with an interesting storyline that includes diversified encounters and a clearly defined ultimate goal. Those vitally important needs were hardwired in our brains by mother nature through the evolution process of our species (you can read more about my views on that subject in my earlier post about psychology of games).

If I have to summarize, I'd say that for the purpose of reaching the final goal of the adventure, the actual form of the feedback in games doesn't matter all that much as long as the player is given a clear idea if his performance is satisfactory or not. The feedback could be in the form of a sound, movement of an object on the screen or simple description in the form of text narrative. That being said, the real difference in mechanics between gamebooks and all other games is found mainly in the input methods, so next I'd like to compare for you how overcoming an obstacle in video games drastically differs from overcoming the same obstacle in the genre of gamebook adventures and to do so, I am going to use as an example the all-time-favorite Super Mario game and more specifically, how to test the player's performance when jumping over a deep chasm.

Jumping over a chasm in Video Games

Here is the way artificial intelligence would test the gamer performance by checking his speed and coordination:

1. IF the jump button is hit too soon THEN Super Mario will fall into the chasm;

2. IF the jump button was hit too late (after Super Mario walked off the edge) THEN he is going to fall into the chasm;

3. Ideally, IF the jump button is hit at the correct time (between too soon and too late) THEN Super Mario will make it safely to the other side.

Leaping a chasm in a Gamebook Adventure

Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of testing coordination and speed of the player in this genre. The only input method available to the author is the logic of the reader. Since it would be dumb to ask the gamer if and when he would like to jump, to make gamebook adventures dependent on the input, at this point, the designer must test the stats of the protagonist. The same stats that would have been built up earlier in the adventure through meaningful choices based on strong logic.

An example of such test looks like: If your strength stat is greater than 10, you successfully make the jump. Otherwise you fall down to your death.

A more complicated example would be: Add the number of your Stamina stat to your Strength skill. If the number is higher than 15, you make it to the other end and the adventure continues. If you fall short, your protagonist dies here.

It is also very common to integrate some randomness: Roll 2 dice and add your strength skill to the result. If the number is equal or greater than 20 then you succeed and your adventure continues. If the number is lower than 20, you fall down in the chasm and die.

Please note that skillchecks, dice rolls, flipping pages and so on, are not game mechanics. All of the above examples would be completely meaningless if the author failed to provide proper ways of increasing the protagonist stats earlier in the adventure. This is where the game part of a gamebook happens. For an example, there could have been an option to purchase a headband of strength earlier in the adventure or there could have been a paragraph where the reader had to choose between eating a good meal or picking up a fight at the tavern and the outcome turns out to be increased strength stat from eating the meal or loss of strength points due to the injuries suffered.

See, the input in Gamebooks happens in the form of choices and decisions. It is up to the author to make sure those choices and decisions are meaningful and that they are based on strong logic rather than random dice rolls and player's blind guessing due to lack of relevant information.

I believe that there are two forms of narrative feedback in gamebook adventures: instant and delayed. In the examples above, leaping over the chasm is a form of delayed feedback (the gamer performance up to this point would be considered satisfactory if the protagonist is successful in the jump). A form of instant feedback is the instructions to increase the character strength by 2 points after making the choice to eat the meal instead of picking a fight at the tavern.

As I already pointed out in my previous post, I am not claiming that Gamebooks represent the best of all game genres nor I am claiming that they are any better than video games. All I am saying is that due to the lack of other game mechanics, Gamebook Adventures provide the most diverse storyline and force the player to make the most meaningful choices, because they provoke critical thinking and force the gamer to assess different situations and then select the most rational action for the best possible outcome. I just wish that more of this kind of game mechanics, providing a lot of learning and personal improvement value to the player, would be implemented in video games. Just imagine how much more interesting and exciting an adventure like Diablo 2 would have been, if it was putting the gamer in situations that require certain meaningful and important choices altering the outcome of the story one way or another.

In the next post I will talk about the most important Gamebook Mechanic: Meaningful Choices.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Friday, May 1, 2020

The great potential of Gamebook Adventures and what is wrong with them

The following article is an excerpt from Peter's Gamebook Theory blog.

Let me make it clear, I am not claiming that Gamebook Adventures is the best genre of them all nor I am saying that it has the greatest potential. I am simply stating that I have found Gamebooks to be teaching the most meaningful lessons of all the games I've played so far. This genre, probably for the lack of other game mechanics, puts the character in many different situations and the player is given a limited amount of possible actions to choose from. Making such a choice must be based on critical thinking, educated guessing and calculating the risk of possible negative or positive consequences for the character on the way to achieving the final goal of the adventure.

Meaningful choices haven't always been part of the Gamebook Adventures. Just take the arcade approach of the first Fighting Fantasy books for example! They are filled with "Which Door", "Cake or Death" and "Shell Game" choices (more on this terminology can be found in the blog about Gamebook Theory by Ashton Saylor) and the only way to get to a good ending in those books was to explore the adventure land, filled with countless instant death chapters and way too many battles (too much of the adventure outcome was left to pure chance), through trial and error until the ultimate path was eventually discovered.
The very first Fighting Fantasy Gamebook: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Fighting Fantasy Book 1

Please, don't get me wrong! I have a lot of respect for the pioneers in the genre, the legendary writers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. They laid down the basic foundation of something that captured the hearts of millions around the globe and has been keeping the love for adventure alive in many generations now. All I am saying is that gamebooks have come a very long way since the dawn of the genre back in 1982 when "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" was released in Great Britain. I believe that the ultimate example of how much gamebooks have improved since then, is the great work of Stuart Lloyd presented at the Windhammer Competition for Short Gamebook Fiction that is ultimately leading to his mobile platform game Asuria Awakens developed by the computer and marketing geniuses Neil Rennison and Ben Britten at Tin Man Games, for (not to be confused with my current project Visual Gamebook Adventures).

So, what is wrong with Gamebooks? While I was doing my research on the genre, I ran across quite a few posts that discussed the problems with Gamebooks and how we could fix them. Some were even saying that they can't be fixed and we should leave them in the past. Especially disturbing is the theory that narrative is not a game mechanic and therefore it's impossible to create a book that is also a game. Not only narrative IS a game mechanic, it actually is the best possible form of feedback! (see my next post)

This is what I have to say about it: There is absolutely nothing wrong with Gamebooks and they don't need fixing. The problem lies in the countless amateurs, who want to write a game, without willing to put enough effort into research and without willing to invest time in learning the techniques of a good adventure. That is exactly what happened in Eastern Europe in the late 90s when the whole genre there was brought to a halt, simply because there was too much junk on the market. The situation is the same with the mobile platform games of all genres right now. There is way too many mobile games available and most of them are just plain horrible, so the consumers often get lost in the huge variety and they become disappointed with the questionable quality. The bottom line is that the market suffers, because people quickly lose interest after a few failed attempts to find something worth their time, but instead they discover nothing else besides pure frustration.

There is another aspect of video games which I dislike very much nowadays. The "free to play" games with in-app purchases are the worst thing that has ever happened to the gamer, because winning the game is now based on the amount of money you spend rather than on the skills and qualities you learn and apply. These games are despicable money generating machines that focus on the economic aspect instead of rewarding the gamer for good performance. Put in other words, they could be "free to play", but they are definitely not "free to win" and I am very glad that this system can't be implemented in the genre of Gamebook Adventures.

To summarize this post, I am going to say that narrative and gameplay mix just fine, given that we have the right author to mix them correctly. Just take a good look at the amazing adventures written by Ashton Saylor and Stuart Lloyd and you'll see exactly what I mean. Both of them have excellent blogs on Gamebook Theory that I would strongly encourage you to read if you are planning on writing a short adventure or even a long gamebook. Their thoughts about how to start writing an adventure, how to approach the design process and what NOT to do to the player (such as instant death and many other bad things) are priceless, but for some reason they don't talk in detail about the mechanics of a good Gamebook Adventure. That is the exact subject of my future posts as I will be trying to build on the foundation Ashton and Stuart have already laid down for us.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Augmented Reality Gamebook Adventures

The phrase "Augmented Reality" became very popular when Pokemon Go was released just a few months ago, but I've liked the word "Augmented", long before that game made it famous, because of another use apart from computer gaming. Being an average traditional male specimen and also very proud of it, I like women as well as cars quite a bit, but I enjoy both of them even more when they are shown topless. That explains why I have always liked the use of "augmented" associated with the word "breasts" in cosmetic surgery terminology. Don't blame me for being honest here! Have you not noticed that almost all women characters in computer games have undergone some excessive breast enlargement procedures? Lara Croft in Tomb Rider is the perfect, but definitely not the only example here. There is a good reason for that, but I will discuss it in another post later on.
Lara Croft in Tomb Rider is a great example of the average gamer preferences.
Actually, augmenting the world didn't start with the first breast implants back in 1962 either. It predates this miracle of the modern medicine by thousands of years. It has been documented that about two millenniums ago, every fall season, the ancient Celts celebrated the Samhian Festival. They believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and the ghosts of all recently deceased returned to earth. To ward off those roaming spirits, the Celts would make frightful lanterns for their homes and put on dead-like masks and disguises. It is widely believed that these are the very origins of our modern Halloween parties when we decorate our surroundings to look like a graveyard or some other scary scene of evil descent. This is exactly what Augmented Reality is all about: converting the real world into something else by using decorations or electronic devices.
Halloween is the perfect example of Augmented Reality
Come to think about it, Pokemon Go is not at all what it pretends to be. It fits the description of a location based game much better than Augmented Reality (for more info on this subject, see this article by Sunny Dhillon), but even if it was AR, it would still not be the first game of this kind. My first Augmented Reality gaming experience happened back in 2005 while I was visiting "the waterpark capital of the world": Wisconsin Dells. I remember walking through the main entrance of Wizard Quest and instantly leaving the 21 century. All of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a fantasy world that was beyond my belief and I fell in love with it from first sight. No, I didn't misspell the name. The Wizard Quest facility in Wisconsin Dells is one of a kind experience and it has nothing to do with the MagiQuest franchise. Although, they both represent the genre of Augmented Reality pretty well and they have very similar game mechanics, MagiQuest uses two-dimensional printed walls to change the environment while Wizard Quest is a much more believable non-computerized three-dimensional experience which makes you feel that you just found yourself right in the middle of the planet Pandora from the movie Avatar.
A real photo taken at the Wizard Quest facility in Wisconsin Dells, USA
But enough about history and theory of Augmented Reality. Lets talk games now! Yes, you can create an adventure for your family and friends fairly easy without having any programming skills. However, you would have to be creative or be willing to spend some money for decorations. The process will consist of three parts: creating the environment (decorating the play area), designing the game (coming up with adventures and tasks for the players) and, of course, playtime.
Medieval Castle Scene Setter

1. Create a parallel world (decorate the play area): You can set the game up in your backyard or at your home. To make it more interesting, challenging and time consuming, I recommend using as much room as you have. First, you would have to decide the setting and the theme of your game. Second, you would have to create (buy cardboard and start drawing) or purchase (find and buy online) enough decorations to be able to augment your game area. You could order scene setters, backdrops, playtents and cardboard cutouts that fit your theme from a party store or on the Internet. Here is just an example of how you can set up one of your rooms as a castle using scene setters: Medieval Scene Setter.
Knight Miniatures Scene
Chances are that you may not be willing to spend that much money, so as an alternative, you could use your kids miniatures to create the game scenes on shelves or tables in different rooms. For an example, one of your rooms could be the fairytale castle, while another one could represent the enchanted forest and a third one can be set up as the evil forces stronghold and so on. Just put your imagination to work! As another alternative to scene setters and miniatures, you could use your computer to print some paper castles, knights, evil creatures, wizards, dragons and everything else you can possibly think of, then cut them out and use glue or tape to create the desired scenes for your game. Whatever you do, make sure that you have enough pieces to design a good storyline and challenges for your game.
The Evil Forces Stronghold
2. Design the game and the game tasks
2.1. Storyline: Your scenario could be as simple as "the dark forces have invaded the earth and you must collect specific artifacts and put an army of creatures together to defeat the evil hordes and free your land of darkness", but the more complex and engaging of a story you have, the more interesting game your friends and family would experience.
2.2. Game Mechanics: Create multiple tasks that have to be completed to win the game. Naturally, to keep the players interested for a long time, you should make them as diverse as possible. Example: Have the kids collect (discover) a fishtail, wing of bat and a mistflower, so they can boil a potion of strength to be able to remove the rock blocking the entrance to the cavern dungeon.
2.2.1. Implement Treasure Hunt Mechanics: find the following items (they would be spread out in multiple scenes and rooms): a magic sword, cloak of invisibility and so on.
2.2.2. Include Collecting Resources: find 100 gold, 5 wood and 10 knights (they should also be spread throughout all rooms and scenes)
2.2.3. Integrate Economics: your players should be able to spend the gold on purchasing magic spells, equipment, healing potions, army units or other things.
2.2.4. If you have multiple players, you could include some boardgame techniques and have them race against each other in completing the tasks.
2.2.5. To make the game even more interesting, design it as a gamebook adventure: collecting information (example: tell the players what clues and items the wicked witch gives them when they find her or when they help her by completing a certain task for her) making difficult meaningful decisions (example: would they spend resources on helping the old farmer defend his home, would they side with the honest king or with his sneaky brother) logic puzzles and riddles (players would gain information or items when solving them) dice battles (the outcome would depend on the items collected and skills gained during the adventure).
You can save a lot of money by getting creative :-)
3. Playtime (Test of Performance): the gameplay process in any game (computer or otherwise) is constructed of three very basic core mechanics: input - test of performance - feedback.
3.1. Gamer input: It is obvious that you can't have your players wave magic wands at the items like in the MagiQuest games, so I would suggest two other ways for you to receive their input:
3.1.1. Have your players find codewords printed on the objects they are looking for (example: name the goldfish 'Jewels', print the name on it and you would know that the player discovered the goldfish if they know its name)
3.1.2. Having cellphone cameras at almost anybody's disposal nowdays, you can have the players take a photo of the object and show it to you to prove that they have located it.
3.1.3. Combine input methods and use codewords for some items and taking photos for other encounters.
3.2. Test of performance: It would be the dungeon master's job (yes, that is you) to figure out if the player has collected the necessary items or hired enough units to complete the quest you assigned them to (example: if they give you the codewords or show you the photos of the fishtail, wing of bat and mistflower, you can tell them that they can find the wicked witch and she will cook the potion of strength for them)
Cardboard Cavern Structure
3.3. Storyteller Feedback: Give them feedback through narrative by explaining what else they need to do in order to succeed (negative feedback) or get them excited that they've done well and they are advancing through the storyline (positive feedback example: Once the player has found the wicked witch and collected all the ingredients, you can tell them that they have enough strength to remove the huge rock blocking the entrance to the cavern dungeon and let them explore that area as well)

Game Design Hint: It is obvious that the core mechanic of this kind of game is the Treasure Hunt, so have as many items scattered throughout the play area as possible and don't make it clear right in the beginning when and how some things would be needed. That way, you will not only provoke the explorer instinct in your players, but you will also have implemented a memory game mechanic, because they'll have to remember where they saw a specific item earlier in the adventure and go back to that location to obtain it when needed. It is a good idea to have most of the play areas (different rooms) "sealed off" in the beginning of the game and have your players complete certain quests in order to "open them" for exploration. That represents the "find a key to unlock this door" mechanic which has proven to be very successful and addicting in all kinds of adventure games.
use Baby Gate to close off certain areas of the adventure until the players gain access to them
The bottom line is that you must decorate well, create a compelling story and set interesting and challenging tasks for your players. To successfully do all of that, you don't need any programming skills, although they could be useful if you already have them, but rather learn how to design a good game by reading some Gamebook Theory here:, or my own blog at Visual Gamebook Adventures.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Sunday, March 29, 2020

You want to make games? Just do it! No programming skills required.

Today I'd like to share my theory that to be a game designer is something completely different than being a programmer. Many kids make the mistake of assuming that in order to make games, they have to learn computer languages. I know that because I was one of them. Almost 30 years later, I can tell you that most of the computer code I have written in my life was a waste of time and I regret that I didn't use more of that time to research and learn how to design games rather trying to code them. I thought that if I learned how to write programs, I would most certainly be able to create games. Well, I was completely wrong! Let's face it, even if you become the best programmer in the world, you will most certainly not succeed in developing the next Doom, Diablo, Heroes of Might and Magic or World of Warcraft all by yourself. If you don't believe me, just read the credits of each one of those games! Sure, there are a few programmers listed there, but there are many more people involved in the process, who never wrote a single line of sourcecode: graphic designers, special effects, music composers and so on. The bottom line is that to produce a game of such great scale, you need a big team of people where each one of them is a specialist in a different area.
Now, I am not trying to tell you that you can't create good games all by yourself, nor I am telling you that learning some programming would be a complete waste of time. I am just pointing out that if you want to make a good game, you should first and foremost focus on how to write a compelling storyline and learn the principles and mechanics that make it interesting for the players. As a matter of fact, to create a game, you don't need to have any computer programming skills at all. If that is your case, the game mechanics of the gamebook adventures genre come to the rescue.

Many of you will argue that gamebook mechanics are very limited, if existing at all. Actually, gamebook mechanics do exist and in some ways, they could be better than video game mechanics. I wrote a whole article on the subject and I will re-post it here on in the near future. I would go even further and I will add that, even though the advanced visual and sound stimulation of the brain makes for a more enjoyable experience, they are not game mechanics at all. As a matter of fact, I believe that a lot of modern video games implement pretty 3d graphics to make up for the lack of quality gameplay most of them suffer from.

Diablo2: a gamebook adventure with graphics and sound
Let's take a look at one of my all-time favorite games: Diablo. If we dissect the engine this game runs on, we will find some gorgeous graphics combined with good sound effects and not much of game mechanics. If you really think about your input as a gamer, it is pretty much limited to clicking the mouse button over endless hordes of enemies, keeping your fingers over the potion keys to make sure you stay alive and absolutely no test of performance (it doesn't matter where or when you hit the enemy). The damage dealt is based entirely on a formula similar or exactly the same as the calculations in the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop RPG (using random dice rolls). Therefore, if we removed the graphics and the sound effects, the gameplay of the Diablo franchise is the exact same as the gameplay in any gamebook adventure. Why do we enjoy playing that game so much? Well, because it implements other very appealing game mechanics: Exploring a Map, Treasure Hunt and Economics (collecting coins and buying stuff). The best thing about those three is that they are forming the very core of any good gamebook adventure. Actually, think how much better Diablo would have been if it implemented more of the gamebook approach and the player was required to solve some logic puzzles or to make some meaningful choices (I'll talk more about those gamebook mechanics in a later post). What I am trying to say is that Diablo is a poorly designed gamebook adventure with some pretty graphics and pleasant sound effects garnished with horrible narrative.

NSS mobile: the simplest and most successful

My point here is that anybody, who can write on a piece of paper can create a game similar to, if not better (at least from a gameplay and storyline perspective) than most games available on the market today. Sure, the lack of graphics and sound are going to seriously affect the enjoyment of your players, but gamebook adventures are a great place to start for anybody who wants to become a game designer. Once you learn how to write a compelling story and how to correctly implement test of performance that is based on the gamer input rather than random dice rolls, you can take a look at some programing languages. Even then, don't make the mistake to start learning C++ just because it is one of the most powerful computer languages out there. Start simple! A good example that the complexity of the source code is not relevant to the quality of the game is the New Star Soccer series developed by one of my idols: Simon Reed. All of his games were almost exclusively developed in Blitz Basic (a very simple to learn computer language) starting from 2d and moving to much more advanced 3d game engines. After 5 relatively successful versions of New Star Soccer for PC (he admits that he had a very hard time supporting his family with the profits from the series), Simon decided to go mobile and experimented for the fun of it. Due to the lack of computing power of the phone processors, he developed a game that had the simplest engine of them all (there are no 3d graphics and the sound effects are very limited). Surprisingly, New Star Soccer mobile is the game that made him a millionaire. I was not at all surprised when he later released New Star Soccer Story, a game that is ultimately a gamebook adventure. In his own words, during all those years of developing new versions of his game, he perfected not the code for the engine, but the principles that made the game addictive for millions of fans worldwide.

To summarize this post, I'd like to say to you: Stop wasting time on learning programming languages, start writing gamebook adventures and read about gamebook mechanics! You can find a lot of useful information on Gamebook Theory here at, and my own blog at Visual Gamebook Adventures.

In my next post, I am going to talk about Augmented Reality and how you can make a game like that for your friends or kids by using just your imagination and no computer at all. Actually, augmented reality didn't start with Pokemon. It has been around for more years than most of you can even guess, but more on that subject in my next article here on

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Monday, May 8, 2017

Gamebook Practice Lesson 5: Logic Puzzles (or another way to keep the reader in the driver seat)

Attention: since I published this post, I have discovered that what I call here a Logic Puzzle actually fits better the description of a Logic Riddle. Keep that in mind when reading this blogpost.

I already explained in an earlier post that we don't have the luxury of monitoring player's speed and coordination in the genre of gamebook adventures, so the only gamer input left available for us to measure is the player's logic. I wrote quite a bit about giving control over the outcome into the hands of our players through Logical Conclusion Choices and I'd like to see more gamebook adventures do some of that.

Now is the right time to mention another input mechanic for testing performance that I feel has been underused by game designers: Logic Puzzles. As far as I know, the first author to use it was Michael Mindcrime in his Bulgarian gamebooks back in the early 90's. He used very simple, but at the same time, very entertaining Logic Puzzles in his books and they made him quite famous among the fans in that country.

As you will read in the final version of our example Short Gamebook Adventure at paragraph 19 (right after finding the secret passage to the mausoleum), the reader is given the following dilemma:
Scanning the insides of this old Mausoleum, your eyes suddenly stop on three levers sticking out of the dark covering the far wall. A sign above them says “One of these shuts the HellGate closed”. Naturally, the other two would let all the hell creatures enter this world and turn it into an infinite doom. As you are getting closer, you see that there are words inscribed in each one of them. The inscription on the first lever reads: “Lever 3 is lying. I am the only one to close the HellGate”. The second one says: “Lever 1 shuts the HallGate and Lever 3 statement is false”. The words on the third lever state: “I am the only one to shut the HellGate closed”. You are not sure how, but you are certain that only one of those says the truth. Which lever would you pull? Go to 21 if you choose to pull the first one. Go to 22 if you prefer to pull lever number two or turn to 23 if you decide to trust lever number three!

The way to break this logic puzzle is to play out each one of the possible scenarios. According to the text, it is clear that only one of the levers states the truth.

1.  If the first lever statement is true, the second one would be true as well and therefore we have two of them saying the truth. This result is already in direct conflict with the main condition of the logic puzzle that only one of the lever statements can be true.

2. The same logic could be applied if we test the statement of Lever 2.

3. If Lever 3 says the truth, the other two are incorrect. That fits the logic puzzle condition of only one lever statement being true. Therefore Lever 3 is the one that shuts the HellGate closed.

That all makes sense and it looks great, right? However, before I started writing this post, I wondered for a very long time how to create a Logic Puzzle like this. It took me a long while, but it downed on me that the easiest way to write such thing is to start with all three levers having true statements such as: Lever 1: "Lever 3 shuts the gate"; Lever 2: Lever 3 shuts the gate;  Lever 3: I am the only one to shut the gate. The requirement I chose to fit in this puzzle was to have only one of them stating the truth, so I had to change the statements of the first two to be false.

When creating such Logic Puzzle, it would be very easy to miscalculate and make it very confusing by having more than one possible correct answers, so make sure you double and triple check each one of the options for inaccuracies. There is nothing more frustrating to the player than to be stuck with two true lever statements without a clear way to tell which one is the correct one.

Also, keep in mind that you can use many different kinds of logic puzzles in your games. Here is another great example taken from the Michael Mindcrime book "The Dark Side of Earth": Guess which picture is covered under the hand placed over the third cube! If you decide to test your logic, check out the correct answer to this puzzle at the end of the post

I hope that you get the main idea here. Test the reader from time to time and reward them for good performance or punish them if they choose unwisely. I promise that your readers will truly appreciate the good challenge and that will give them the satisfaction of having more control over successfully reaching the ultimate ending of the adventure.

Beware! While this game mechanic is great, because it keeps the control of the outcome entirely in the player's hands, be careful to not overuse it. I'd say there should be no more than one of these logic puzzles per 50 paragraphs in the adventure. If the player finds himself trying to break similar encounters way too often, he will become distracted from the main storyline plot and he will quickly get bored, because of losing perspective over the final goal of the adventure. Ideally, I'd use this kind of mechanic at the end of the game or at some extremely important encounters during the story.

The correct answer to the logic puzzle above is 'the shovel'.
I believe that this concludes your Gamebook Practice experience that focused on the challenge of keeping the player in control of the adventure through testing their logic. Next, I am going to keep working on Gamebook Theory and talk about the alternative to the Diverging Diamond diagram: The Disrupted Infinity Gamebook Adventure Approach.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Monday, November 7, 2016

Gamebook Practice Lesson 4: A journey to the world's end and back

It has been a few months since I posted on this Gamebook Adventure Blog, but meanwhile I wrote two articles for and I am very proud that Stuart invited me to be an author there. You can check out my articles at: You want to make games? Just do it! No programming skills required and Augmented Reality Gamebook Adventures.

Spoiler alert: Before reading this post any further, you should download and play the new version of the Short Gamebook Adventure Hidden Passage here as your gameplay experience would be ruined by all the spoilers below if you read the rest of this post beforehand.

Anyhow, today I am going to talk about one of the most significant problems in the genre of Gamebook Adventures that doesn't exist anywhere else and how a game designer can work on overcoming it (at least to a certain extent).

What I mean is that most of the computer games have a very linear storyline (if any at all) and the gamer gets to experience most of the adventure just like watching a movie from start to finish. The situation is the same in the traditional fiction literature where the reader goes through the story in a linear manner from the first, all the way to the last page of the book and he/she has to read every single word the writer has put down on paper. There is absolutely no waste of the author's work time, because the reader or the gamer gets to experience everything that the game designer/writer created. Unfortunately, the genre of Gamebook Adventures doesn't have such luxury at its disposal. Due to the very limited game mechanics (I discussed those in the earlier posts), most of the time, the reader advances through the game by making choices that lead to exploring different story paths without having the opportunity to experience every single adventure or outcome laid down in the book. And since the traditional gamebook question has on average 3 possible choices, it is natural that the player would get to explore only 1/3 of the book in a single game approach. I distinctively remember that a few years ago, I read an article by a very successful and famous gamebook writer, who claimed that he considered it a success, if the player gets to experience a third of all the encounters he had created.

It is an indisputable fact that the designers of Gamebook Adventures have to put many additional hours of work to write countless possible outcomes for all the choices their fans can make and most of those never even get read due to the fact that we can't explore everything in a single game approach. Unfortunately, that shortens the gameplay time significantly and makes all that additional hard work of the gamemaker go to waste. The founders of the genre didn't see this as a real problem as they had countless instant death encounters built into their adventures and the gamer was forced to replay the story multiple times and explore the available options one by one until they found the one and only correct path to victory. Well, as I have stated multiple times before, we now live in the 21st century and our beloved interactive fiction games have come a very long way since the 80s. There is an unanimous agreement between modern gamebook writers that an instant death paragraph is one of the worst things you can make your readers go through, especially when it is not called for by the bad performance of the player.

The problem of the gamer not being able to explore more than a third of the book can be fixed in just one very simple step. A good designer of Modern Gamebook Adventures can easily overcome the aforementioned problem by inserting at least one secret passage into their game. As far as I know, this mechanic was used for the first time in the gamebook "Creature of Havoc" where you have to find a Magic Pendant which has the ability discover and open secret doors and then, when you read the same sections of text as before, every time you see the phrase "You cannot see a thing...", you add or deduct a previously specified number to the paragraph you are currently on and then you turn to that new paragraph number. I've seen the same technique used over and over in the works of Stuart Lloyd and it makes his adventures some of the best ones I've ever read. In practice, a gamebook writer, who has finished his entire adventure, can create one more evil or villain and think up a reason to bring the player all the way back to the beginning of the adventure and have them start over with the same stats and items from the first read, but with the instructions to add or deduct a specific number to a paragraph number, if they get to discover specific text in the story and then turn to the corresponding paragraph.

As an example, in the new version of the Short Gamebook Adventure, I've done that by telling the reader that after defeating the Evil Wizard, he goes back to his home, where the Village Elder tells him that a new problem exists. Before the evil villain was killed, he had opened a portal to the world of the dead and now hell creatures are taking over the hero's lands. He has to go back on the road and once he discovers an ancient Mausoleum in the text (he could even remember where it is located from the first read, but had no instructions how to access it back then), he has to do the math with the current paragraph number and move to the new paragraph. That is where the hidden passage is located and it leads to the location of the Gate to Hell, guarded by the Vampire Lord.

This twist of the story will force the player to read the exact same adventure once again, while at the same time, it allows him to explore other parts of the branching storyline he didn't have the opportunity to visit during his first approach and therefore, more encounters and artifacts would be available for the gamer to find in a single gameplay.

Be aware, though! When applying this Gamebook Mechanic, you must be very careful to not ruin the story by making the following three mistakes:

Mistake 1 is allowing the player to get stuck in an infinite loop and restart the story multiple times while, at the same time, he is able to keep his stats from the previous read and therefore could create a protagonist way too powerful. The writer must absolutely stop the game at once and punish the reader with instant death if he goes through the Secret Passage without recognizing it. Such punishment is acceptable this one time as missing such important detail is a huge mistake. In the Short Gamebook Adventure, immediately after the Mausoleum, I've told the player to turn to a new section if he's already defeated the Evil Wizard and that is an instant death paragraph (if he got this far again, that means he didn't follow the instructions for the secret passage when he found the mausoleum). Ideally, that should be done a little bit later in the adventure, so the location of the secret passage is not too obvious.

Mistake 2 is present when the Secret Passage is not accessible from some of the paths in your adventure and therefore the reader doesn't even stand a chance to find it, except in situations when a specific path is clearly a bad choice (supported by Logical Conclusion Choice hints given to the reader earlier in the story). This mistake could easily be avoided by integrating the secret passage just a few paragraphs before the first boss encounter as every player will have to get there eventually before completing their first task or quest. In my Short Gamebook Adventure, I've done this by mentioning the Mausoleum right at the end of the Wicked Graveyard as all the branching paths of the adventure merge into one single story line immediately before going into the Evil Wizard's tower.

Mistake number 3 is creating the new boss (hidden passage encounter) way too easy or too difficult to defeat. This new evil creature must be exactly twice as hard as the first one, because the player would be presented a chance to explore the adventureland two times and possibly collecting twice as many artifacts or increasing his/her stats twice as much in the two consecutive reads. Please also note that it is always a good idea to provide more than one way to overcome an obstacle. In other words, it is considered bad game designing if you punish the player with instant death just because they didn't collect the one specific artifact you had in mind. Give them an alternative to win a battle using a different set of items or have them do a skillcheck instead (even pure test of luck by rolling a specified number on the dice is a good option here). Basically, the simple rule is that having in your possession an artifact should let you automatically win a battle without any dice battles, skillchecks or lucky rolls, but not having that specific item must never be the cause of an instant death punishment.

That's all for today, folks. I hope that this post will be helpful to you when creating your next great game and I am absolutely certain that the secret passage technique will improve the genre as a whole, if more writers implement this technique. Soon I will be posting an article on the last Gamebook Mechanic that "keeps the player in the driver seat": the Logic Puzzle.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gamebook Practice Lesson 3: Give the control back to the player (intergate Logical Conclusion Choices)

As mentioned earlier in an blogpost, measuring the performance in a video game has three aspects: speed, coordination and logic. Unfortunately, in the Gamebook Adventure genre, we don't have the tools to check the speed and coordination, which leaves us with the only other possible mechanic: testing the gamer logic.

So far, our example of a Gamebook Adventure is using only random mechanics (battles and treasure hunt) and the reader doesn't have any control over the final outcome just yet. The choices he had to make until now were based on random emotions (he had only the illusion of control), because he was not given enough information to be able to make any decisions based on strong logic. We can change all of that by creating a few Logical Conclusion Choices in our adventure.

I've already posted an article on the Theory of Logical Conclusion Choices earlier in this blog and I strongly recommend that you read it before proceeding any further with today's post. You should also give a try to the new adventure now, because the text below contains many spoilers of the game. You can download it here: PDF Short Gamebook Adventure + Logic

We will now create three small two-path diverging diamonds, one for each one of the following main terrains: the Mountain, the Wetlands and the Forest. The difficulty of the encounters will be changing from high to low as we proceed.

We may start with the Deadly Mountain! I propose that we make finding the Shield a little bit more difficult and a matter of good performance rather than just a lucky guess of choosing to hike the mountain passage. The following dilemma is very challenging, because it is about choosing between bad and worse outcome.

1. Naming the Challenge: The word "Deadly" in the name of the Mountain is a hint by itself, and it is not subtle at all, as it informs the reader what could possibly happen there.
2. Invent the Danger: following in our footsteps and the rules laid-out in the logical conclusion choice theory, we have to first invent the possible danger awaiting our protagonist there. I'd say that falling off the steep mountain is a great example here.
3. Create the Wrong Choice: our player will fall to his death if he chooses to walk by the edge of the mountain trail.
4. Apply the fog of war here by hiding the edge and use just the word mountain trail.
5. Give the reader a hint: add the word narrow to the mountain trail. This should evoke the logical conclusion that falling off is a real possibility.
6. Put the Wrong Choice in wording: Do you want to hike the mountain by following the narrow mountain trail or...
7. Create the Better Choice. Note that I didn't say "the good decision"! The most interesting challenges are the ones that force you to choose the lesser of two evils or the greater of two positive outcomes. That way the better decision is never too obvious. So, the alternative to the mountain trail is going to be taking the tunnels of the abandoned mines.
8. To make the choice even more difficult and interesting, confuse the reader a little bit by partially revealing the outcome of going in the tunnels: There are unknown creatures living in the abandoned mines.
9. Summarize to yourself, not to the reader: The choice now is practically between falling off the mountain trail or fighting creatures. First one would logically lead to certain death while the second one predicts only the possibility of death due to injuries suffered in a combat. Obviously, the second one is the lesser of the two evils.
10. Reward the reader for choosing the lesser evil: besides keeping him alive and despite of the fact that he just lost some health points in a battle, you will tell the player that he just found a Shield! Try to implement as many positive unexpected surprises as possible! We all love them. I call this "But Guess What Effect" after making a tough decision.
11. Apply the "God's Forgiveness" rule: always try to show mercy and give a way out of certain death to your readers: make him roll 1d6 and inform him that he falls down to his death if the result is 1 through 4. This allows 33% chance of survival or close to 50% if a Blessing point is used to re-roll.

Our focus is now moving onto the Wetlands. The challenge difficulty here will be easier, because the reward will be given regardless of the performance, but there will be other consequences for making a bad decision.

1. Naming the Challenge... or in this case, renaming it. I am going to change word "Forbidden" which carries a lot of danger (why would it be forbidden otherwise?) to "Forgotten" which hints that nobody has crossed it in a long time and it is unknown what could be found there, but in general, it sounds less dangerous than the first.
2. Invent the Danger: sinking deep in a Swamp (you could come up with a better one when you write your own adventure, I am sure)
3. Create the Wrong Choice: Walk through the Swamp
4. Apply "Fog of War" principle: telling the reader directly that he "could walk through a swamp" makes the wrong choice too obvious, so we will hide the swamp through giving a hint by listing plants that grow in swamp areas such as Cattail Plants, Duckweed, Milkweed and others (I use Google to do my research). Now, the wrong choice is not that obvious and it looks like this: "Do you want to walk through the Cattail Plants that are growing on top of duckweed..."
5. Give a false hint: reason why he would want to do that (note that this is not lying to the player as the reason is very valid): ".., so you are not easy to be seen". Well, technically, this is also a hint that the choice is wrong, because logically, you can't see anything either and you could easily step directly in a crocodile mouth without realizing it. That is not in our scenario, but the reader doesn't know that at the time of making the choice.
6. Invent the Good Choice: "... or you could just carefully walk down the path that is swerving through the wetlands". Let me remind you that the player hasn't been given a reason to think that something dangerous is awaiting him here, so this should, naturally be the right choice. You could reinforce that by using another hint such as telling the player that "birds are happily chirping" in the initial description of the Forgotten Wetlands (that would suggest that there is no dangerous creatures here). Also, note that I used the words "carefully walk", not "carelessly walk" as the later one would make this choice wrong, because not being careful in an unknown situation (Forgotten Wetlands) would be very wrong as well.
7. Punish the reader for making the wrong choice: "You may not have realized, but those plants grow in swamp areas, so as soon as you step in, you start sinking. Throw 1d6 to find how much energy it requires for you to get out of there and remove that number from your Health Points and then continue down the swerving path"
8. Give the player his reward for choosing the Forgotten Wetlands: "While following the path through the wetlands, you catch a glimpse of a very rare flower. They call it MystFlower and your mother was using it for healing wounds. You take the herb and put it in your inventory. You can use it at any time (except during battle) to heal your Health back to its initial 10 points"
! Note that the reward here is given regardless of making a good or a bad decision. The only consequence for bad performance is the punishment of losing Health Points.

As you can see, we are moving from difficult (the mountain provides choice between bad and worse) to normal (the wetlands provide clearly bad against good choice) and it is now time to create a dilemma that should be easy (neutral outcome against a good choice) in the Forest.

So, here is our last example: The Forest. Here, I would like to show how to present and teach a real life lesson in a gamebook adventure. The idea is that, if played well, during this encounter, our protagonist will meet an old monk, who is supposed to give him one Blessing point. As you can see, I am approaching it backwards now, starting with the reward and creating the encounter that protects it.

1. Naming the Challenge: We should rename the Cursed Forest (this name suggests too much trouble) to the Darkwood Forest (it sounds a little bit scary, but it doesn't hint towards a great danger)
2. Good outcome: As already decided, we will approach this encounter backwards and we will start with the gain, which in this case will be one point for the Blessing skill. Who could bless you better than a Monastery Monk?
3. Bad outcome: The negative consequence would be as simple as not receiving a blessing. Lets just say that the Monk could get scared and run away instead of giving you a blessing. That's the best I could come up with so far.
4. The good outcome is too obvious: It would be stupid to ask the player if he wants to meet with a monk in the forest. According to general knowledge, a Monastery Monk would definitely be on the friendly side and anybody in their right mind would prefer to meet with one. That is exactly why we should literally hide the monk in, lets say, the nearby bushes. Tell the reader that "there is something in the bushes" and don't give him any additional information, but create the bad decision: "Do you want to attack first and use the element of surprise?"
5. We might have gone too far now: Giving the option to attack first creates a lot of tension which is drawn from the illusion of danger, but that "false hint" could have tilted the scales too much in the wrong direction (almost cheating the reader into a trap) and we have to fix that in the next step

6. Give another reasonable option: While not using the advantage of attacking first could be wrong in many situations, giving the player the possibility of "drawing the sword out and waiting to see what comes out of the bushes" would make this encounter dilemma perfectly balanced due to the real world rule of "one shouldn't jump to conclusions" which translates here to "you shouldn't jump to the premature conclusion that the thing in the bushes is necessarily dangerous, before collecting enough information about it". The later is further backed up by the fact that the name of the forest is "Darkwood" instead of "The Cursed Forest", which should hint the reader that dangerous creatures could be living there.
7. Use a Historical Hint: We could make this encounter a little bit easier if we integrate another hint earlier in the adventure. Now, that is a little bit tricky, because if we just include the following line "there are monks living in the forest", that could be a little bit too obvious and it creates a memory challenge rather than a logical conclusion hint. To avoid that problem, we could make up a story about the childhood of our protagonist and write something like this: "When our hero was young he often suffered injuries and wounds while playing "warriors" outside with the other boys from the village and his mother used a healing recipe given to her by her brother, who was one of the monks living in a monastery beyond the forest". We could also include a hint about the MystFlower located at the Wetlands by saying that "The main ingredient of the healing recipe was a flower that only grows in swamp areas". Logically, the reader should conclude that he would encounter a monk if he goes to the forest or he would find a healing herb if he chooses to explore the wetlands. Naturally, we don't have to include any further hints about the mountain besides the name "Deadly Mountain" that suggests well enough what fate could be possibly awaiting there. Also, according to the general rules of games as well as in real life, the reward given for choosing the most difficult path should be the greatest one of them all.
8. Create the negative outcome: It would be cruel to kill the monk if our reader decides to attack him in surprise, so lets make up a different story where the monk gets scared shitless and runs away screaming. We will tell the reader that he should have not jumped to conclusions before collecting enough sufficient information (which was the other option of waiting patiently with the sword in hands) and we will leave it at that.
9. Create the positive outcome: We should reward the reader if he makes the right choice of waiting to see what or who comes out of the bushes. That, my friends, relates directly to the real life wisdom of being patient enough to collect the minimum required information for making an educated decision before jumping to premature conclusions. These are my personal favorite encounters, the ones where the reader is forced to recognize that the given situation is an actual simulation of a real life dilemma and, if not solved as expected, it would teach him a valuable lesson that can be applied in the physical world for his future success in life.

In conclusion, I have to share with you that while reading back this blogpost, I realized that the steps I listed in the Theory of Logical Conclusion Choices don't have to be used in the same sequence nor you have to use all of them to create a good choice. As a matter of fact, you can use some of them multiple times during the creation of one encounter and you can skip other steps, if you please. Neither, the Theory nor the Practice Lesson on Logical Conclusion Choices should be seen as a strict guideline. The steps listed in both are just a suggestion and an example of how a good choice is created by hiding information and presenting it to the reader in the form of clues and hints, so he can draw the logical conclusion for himself and provide the input necessary for the game to test the quality of his performance. It is entirely up to the author's discretion to decide how exactly to approach the design process of the encounters in such a way that they are neither too obvious nor too confusing, so the general feeling of the game is that the final outcome depends entirely on the quality of the choices made by our readers rather than some random guessing of which path to follow. The bottom line here is that a writer must be able to force his readers into paying close attention to the story while looking for specific helpful clues and memorizing them for later use when making logical decisions that are a product of critical thinking and educated guessing, so the eventual success or failure is based entirely on the performance of the player and not on some lucky guesses.

I must also stress out that it is of extreme importance for the correct choice to never be too obvious, while at the same time, the available clues and hints are not cheating the player into the wrong decision. Because of the fact that Logical Conclusion Choices are arguably the best mechanic that allows measuring the reader's performance in the genre of gamebook adventures, creating encounters that are perfectly balanced should be the most important goal for each self-respecting author.

Remember that the main rule for creating Logical Conclusion Choices is that a writer should never, ever cheat the player into making the wrong decision by hiding too much valuable information while, at the same time, presenting too many despicable false hints. It is also true that in order to keep the adventure interesting, gamebooks still need to surprise the reader every now and then, but every author should make it a priority for all those surprises to be positive, because the negative ones would make any game unfair to the gamer and therefore the final product will be unpleasant to play.

P.S. I can totally imagine Ashton Saylor arguing here that having the approach of Logical Conclusion Choices and Fog of War would make any adventure boring for future re-playing. My response is that reading any book or watching any movie more than once makes up for somewhat boring experience, because we already know what to expect or what will happen. Unlike that, in a gamebook, the player is given the chance to alter the outcome by making different choices especially at places where his previous performance was unsatisfactory. Either way, a gamebook adventure shouldn't be designed to be read more than three times, because in addition to being boring, it will also become frustrating and it will be put aside along with the unpleasant feeling of failure. The rule is that an average gamer should be able to achieve victory in about three consecutive attempts.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"