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"

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Gamebook Practice Lesson 2: Establish the Battlefield (add combats to your adventure)

Before you start reading this blogpost, I urge you to download and test the PDF Short Gamebook Adventure that is a product of our lesson today. Everything written below explains in deep detail how it was created and therefore, this whole article is a spoiler of the new adventure that is based on the old map.

In the previous post, we built a beautiful world and now it is time to start a war there. Please note that in a gamebook adventure, any combat is ultimately a skillcheck, so when we talk about battles, keep in mind that the same principles apply to all skillchecks in the game.

Before we start exploring the actual combat mechanics, I am going to shuffle things around a little bit by changing the items and their locations in the adventure we created. However, we will keep the map and the diagram exactly the same as they were shown in the last blogpost. I had intentionally placed the sword in the wetlands, because most people would look for it in the forest or in the mountain. Now, I am going to give the sword to the protagonist at the very beginning of the adventure. However, the item needed to win the final battle of the scenario would be a Crusader's Shield (along with the sword). The shield could be found near a dead soldier in one of the caves up in the mountain.

So, instead of adding more paths to victory or implementing lucky rolls of dice at the end of the adventure (see previous post), we can create an alternative way of accomplishing the ultimate goal by adding battles to our gamebook.

Here are some of the benefits of including fights in our adventure:

1. A good combat is an excellent form of skillcheck that can add much needed randomization to the adventure as well as measure up the player's quality of performance until that moment

2. Battles extend the playtime of the adventure tremendously and involve the reader further in the game by letting him think that he's got more control over the protagonist's success

3. This is an excellent way of making the gamebook more interesting, because fights get the adrenaline going (rollercoaster effect) and, if balanced well, they also add the illusion of danger

4. Adding battles completely changes the feel of the game and it adds diversity to the process of flipping pages by including dice rolls, calculations, taking notes and comparing results.

5. By implementing combats in our adventure, we create an alternative path to victory and the game becomes way more engaging and balanced (this is the most important benefit of all four)

How do we actually go about adding fights to our adventure?

First, we have to decide which combat system we will be using in our gamebook. There are many of them available, but the most popular one definitely is the Fighting Fantasy system. I am not going to explain it in detail here as it is widely available on the Internet. In my personal opinion, this is an excellent battle mechanic, because it is both, time consuming without being too complicated and it also involves enough dice rolls to create the feeling of danger and to get the blood pressure up. The problem with Fighting Fantasy, as with most more complicated combat systems, is that it is very difficult to achieve good balance and that could change the adventure difficulty to way too easy or to nearly impossible in an instant. Of course, we can also use a system that doesn't involve dice at all, we can ask the reader to simply remove a fixed number of points from his stamina or health stat in each battle. This way, we can balance the fights and the final outcome a lot easier (due to the lack of randomness), but there isn't going to be much of playtime extension nor feeling of danger or increased adrenaline using this battle mechanic.

For the purpose of our short experimental adventure, I am going to propose a different kind of combat system here. Each battle would require our player to roll 1d6 and then remove the result from the Health stat of our protagonist. Lets just give our hero 15 initial points of Health and then implement a few battles in the adventure by following these steps:

1. Mark down the locations of strategic battles (on the map or in the game diagram), but don't worry about specifying the opponents or their difficulty just yet.
1a. Naturally, you may want to have creatures or skillchecks guarding some of the important items or passages in your adventure. I am going to create a skillcheck (same as a battle) in the mountain, because the Crusaders Shield is in the caves there.
1b. Whenever possible, you should use a battle to punish the player for making a bad decision instead of killing him instantly. I am going to leave this option open for now.
1c. Include battle encounters at places that would logically require fighting or where you think that would be appropriate, but be careful to not overdo it. Naturally, there would be a battle at the graveyard, as well as one at the end of the adventure (there is always one final fight in each game).

2. Deploy the forces of evil on the battlefield and sort them out by strength (using numbers, not names): write down the difficulty of each opponent or skillcheck next to the combat location on the map or in the diagram. Leave the opponent names out for now. Try to gradually increase the difficulty as the adventure progresses, but make sure that it is consistent with the geographic location and the reward. Naturally, a battle that takes place in a cave full of treasure (like a dragon's lair) would be more difficult than fighting a wild boar in the forest, even if the first precedes the later in the sequence of events in the book. I am applying this step to our short example adventure as follows: one easy battle (1d6 skillcheck) in the mountain, one easy battle (1d6) at the day graveyard, one difficult battle (2 dice roll) at the night graveyard and a 3 dice roll battle at the very end.

3. Calculate the difficulty of fighting your way to victory by using average numbers and actual combat testing
3a. Calculate the minimum and the maximum number of combats a player would have to fight depending on which path he chooses during the adventure. Between 4 and 6 in our example
3b. Try to calculate or simply guess how many Health points would be lost during battles while following the most difficult or the easiest path in the game. Between 12 and 18 points
3c. Test your calculations by fighting your way out of the easiest and the most difficult path. It is a good idea to test the most common and the most average paths available in the adventure as well.
3d. Keep in mind that the most difficult path to success should still be statistically possible (if enough luck is involved). Don't create a path that leads to certain death based entirely on battles. It is better to simply explain why the player is being punished for going this way instead of killing him in sequence of fights during an impossible to win scenario. Our hero could, theoretically, survive 6 battles with 15 initial points of health
3e. Under normal game conditions, the easiest adventure path should not kill the protagonist, even if he is completely out of luck. 4 battles of 1d6 could be a little bit too difficult to survive with 15 health points, so we'll have to make some adjustments

4. Adjust the difficulty of all the battles to achieve a balanced game
4a. You can easily do so by adding or removing single battles from the adventure. We could increase the difficulty by adding more battles or decrease it by removing some of them. We will not use this approach right at this very moment.
4b. If needed, simply change the initial stats of the protagonist. We could increase the starting Health points to 20 or give the protagonist a Strength stat (points to deduct from each dice roll), but I have a better idea for right now (see further down at point 6).
4c. You can also adjust the difficulty of the game through making an opponent easier or more difficult by altering their combat stats. We could make the final battle 2 dice roll instead of 3d6
4d. Re-test the game again, again and again!

5. Assign a specific name to each opponent or skillcheck: now that we know the difficulty of each encounter, we can safely name every one of them without worrying that a huge giant would be easier to defeat than a stupid zombie. Also, make sure that the opponent is consistent with the geographical terrain. Don't have a fight against a Giant Spider in the middle of the ocean! As a matter of fact, don't use Giant Spider battles at all. I am tired of fighting one of those in almost every adventure. Be creative and make the dangerous skillchecks and fierce opponents sound as interesting as possible! For our example adventure, the skillcheck in the mountain would be a 'Snowstorm', the day battle at the graveyard would be against a 'Hungry Wolf', the difficult night opponent at the graveyard would be a 'Skeleton Warrior' and, of course, the final battle is against the 'Evil Wizard'.

6. Change the difficulty further by creating additional encounters, items and stats
6a. You can replenish the Health of our hero by adding healing places or creatures. There will be a Healing Mystflower growing at the Wetlands and it will be protected by a skillcheck named 'swamp'. If our reader chooses that path and finds the herb, he will be able to use it at any time of the adventure (except during a battle) to heal his Health Points back to the initial amount.
6b. Create items and encounters that will improve the combat stats of the protagonist. If a sword is in his possession, one point of damage could be removed from every roll (only if he is fighting an opponent, so that wouldn't work for skillcheck when 'sinking in the swamp' or 'surviving a snowstorm up in the mountain')
6c. Implement an additional stat which will be of help to the gamer while fighting battles. A new stat called Blessings will be given in the beginning with an initial score of 1 point. When a roll of a die is not liked by the reader, he can re-roll that 1d6 at the expense of one blessing.
6d. Test and adjust again, again and again! The victory is too easy now, so we will adjust the initial health points of the protagonist down to 10.

Don't forget that implementing battles in the adventure requires some very fine tuning. As I already stated earlier in this post, this step alone could alter the adventure difficulty to extremely easy or to nearly impossible in an instant and therefore, you can never spend too much time testing and adjusting battles. On the contrary, it could never be enough!

Ideally, in a well balanced adventure, a good number of items found and fights won will be required to achieve success. A victory should take an average of three attempts (reading the adventure about three times by an average gamer).

Please note that I've used the Illusion of Achievement by applying a helpful item or stat point gain at each one of the three possible paths in the beginning of the adventure. It doesn't matter which way the reader is going to choose to follow. He is going to get a different experience at each one of the possible encounters, but ultimately, he will feel the satisfaction of a positive gain (and the illusion that he is performing well) either way.

Before I finish today's post, I'd like to remind you of a few rookie mistakes and how to avoid them when implementing battles in your adventure:
1. Don't make the player face deadly strong opponents too early in the adventure: the idea is that he should be able to survive most of the battles with relative ease (he is a superhero, after all). A fatality during a combat should be the consequence of failing to find healing items or items that improve the skill of the protagonist instead of a series of unlucky dice rolls during a battle.
2. Do not create too many battles in your adventure (put the main focus on the story and the choices, not on fighting the way to victory): success should be the result of good balance between fighting and making good choices. Having to fight one opponent after another could prove pretty boring and the outcome would be a matter of luck rather than good input and performance.
3. Re-test and balance the adventure multiple times, because there is nothing more upsetting than making all the right choices and still failing to succeed due to bad luck during battles.

Keep in mind that adding combats to the adventure doesn't give full control to the reader just yet. Victory is still a matter of chance as winning depends on lucky rolls during fights rather than a specific input by the player. So, in the next post, we will make success a consequence of his performance by implementing a few Logical Conclusion Choices into our adventure.

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"

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Gamebook Practice Lesson 1: Build a wonderful Game World (using the Magic of a Divergind Diamond)

I am going to start by giving you one word: Dream!

"What is wrong with people today?" somebody asked the father of motivational recordings Earl Nightingale and he replied "People simply don't think". I would add that "People also don't dream or they just don't pursue their dreams". Those are two of the major problems in modern society. Don't be a "wondering generality" by waiting for things to happen to you! Become a "meaningful specific" by inventing new ways of making things happen!!! ("wondering generality" and "meaningful specific" are quotes of Zig Ziglar).

Lets build a game!

First and foremost, you must decide on the setting of your game. That usually depends on the sub-genre of the world your adventure is going to take place in. The two most popular are "fantasy" and "science fiction", but it could also be anything else you can dream of. The example game we are going to make is going to take place in a fantasy world setting.

Second, you have to set the final goal of the adventure, invent the protagonist and decide on the items needed to complete the final task of the game. Our ultimate goal, in the example game we are creating, would be defeating an evil wizard, who is terrorizing the village. Our protagonist is one of the residents of that village. The items needed to win the final battle against the wizard could be be a magic amulet (protects from the wizard's spells) and a magic sword (to be used against the wizard).

Third, you should dream of the natural landmarks in your world and place them on the diagram of the Diverging Diamond. It could be pretty much anything such as forests, swamps, mountains, hills, desserts, sea, ocean, etc. For our example, we are going to split the road into three separate paths and each one of them will be going through a different terrain: forest, mountain and wetlands. One of the items needed to defeat the evil wizard will be hidden in one of those landmarks.

Fourth, place some non-natural landmarks on your map or diagram. Example: we are going to put a graveyard on the way to our final destination, which itself will be another landmark on its own: the wizard's tower.

Fifth, use interesting adjectives for the landmarks to further intrigue the reader by waking up his imagination (this one has its roots in the science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming). Instead of having just a forest, a mountain and wetlands, we would add an adjective to each one of them and call them: the Cursed Forest, the Deadly Mountain and the Forbidden Wetlands. The graveyard is going to become the Wicked Graveyard and so on. This step not only makes everything sound better, it also creates certain images in the head of the reader that can further involve him in the adventure. This is a very powerful step in the process of creating a wonderful world and you should use it as often as possible.

Sixth, since the Diverging Diamond diagram is not just a map, we don't have to limit the encounters there just to physical locations, we can also include events there. For example: in the top Diverging Diamond, instead of having geographical landmarks, we are going to split the path into two separate ways and the reader will have the choice to travel during the daytime or to travel at night.

We have eight locations on the diagram now (not all of them geographical). To keep our first adventure as simple as possible, we are going to write one section for each one of them as follows: 1. Medieval Village; 2. Cursed Forest; 3. Deadly Mountain; 4. Forbidden Wetlands; 5 Wicked Graveyard; 6 Daytime Travel; 7 Nighttime Travel; 8 Wizard's Tower.

Note: Keep in mind that this adventure is based entirely on the Treasure Hunt game mechanic. Also, don't forget that I am keeping the writing as simple as possible (I will do another post on the writing of the story someday in the future)

1. You are a brave young hero. One of the finest in your village. An evil wizard is terrorizing your people. He lives up north, beyond the wicked graveyard that is located north of the Deadly Mountain. You want to end this terror once and for all, so you pack your bag with food and water and leave the village to find and defeat the evil wizard. Read section 2, if you want to go around the mountain through the Cursed Forest. Go to section 3, if you want to hike through the mountain; If you prefer to pass through the Forbidden Wetlands, turn to 4!

2. You are now in the Cursed Forest. It is very dark and scary. You hear all kinds of strange sounds from probably even stranger creatures, but none of them are interested in you. Please proceed to the Wicked Graveyard at section 5!

3. The mountain is really unfriendly. It is not a coincidence that it was named Deadly. Your protagonist starts having doubts about going through here, so roll one die and go to the Cursed Forest if the result is 1-3 or go to the Forbidden Wetlands if the result is 4-6!

4. The wetlands are difficult to cross, after all it is full of swamps. No wonder that they are forbidden. You hardly make it out of the mud a couple of times during your travel. However, passing through, you find a magic sword. Write that down and proceed to section 5 to explore the Wicked Graveyard!

5. The Wicked Graveyard is not welcoming at all. You have to choose now, if you want to cross it in the middle of the day (turn to 6), exposing yourself to the wizard in the tower or do you want to travel under the cover of the night when you have to face whatever undead creatures live here (turn to 7) ?

6. The graveyard is not very dangerous when the sun is out as all skeletons, vampires and zombies sleep through the day. For some reason, the evil wizard doesn't notice you or doesn't care that you are closing in on his place of living. Continue directly to the Wizard's Tower at section 8!

7. No wonder that the graveyard is called wicked. All kinds of evil creatures get up from the graves and walk around at night. You notice something glowing on top of one of the tombstones. It is a magic amulet. Take a note of that in your adventure sheet right now! The zombies, vampires and skeletons are obviously scared of your amulet and don't bother you at all. You get to the Wizard's Tower right before sunrise. Now turn to 8!

8. You get right inside the tower and take the round stairs up to the wizard's quarters. He is furious that a normal human is disturbing his day uninvited. He casts a deadly spell against you. If you have the Magic Amulet, turn to 9. Otherwise, you become the next victim of the Evil Wizard and your adventure ends here.

9. The Evil Wizard is quite surprised that his magic doesn't work on you, so he casts a strength spell on himself and his body changes its shape into a bigger masculine warrior. He grabs his wooden staff and tries to beat you to death with it. If you have a sword in your list of items, turn to 10. Otherwise, you have no way of protecting yourself and your adventure ends here.

10. YOU ARE VICTORIOUS! You defeat the evil wizard and your village is now safe for generations to come. You are well celebrated by your fellow villagers. In a sign of appreciation, they even rename the deadly mountain after you. Congratulations!

Please note that in this extremely short gamebook adventure, I have implemented only random mechanics such as Treasure Hunt (the whole adventure contains two consecutive Diverging Diamonds), a Dice Roll (in the mountain) and two SkillChecks (check for an amulet and for a sword at the Wizard's Tower). Even though, the feel of the game came out not too bad, the outcome depends entirely on your luck, not on your decisions, performance or input.

I also created one difficult choice at the graveyard, confusing the reader with two possible negative outcomes, but neither one of them actually happens. However, it provides the reader an illusion of danger, which creates a lot of tension and is extremely important for the further involvement of the player (creating an emotional rollercoaster in our game)

This short story provides only 25% chance of completing it at the first try (50% chance to find the sword in the first diamond and 50% chance to find the amulet in the second diamond). Considering that, shorter games should be more difficult to provide more playing time through re-runs, 25% is success rate is actually a very acceptable value. When writing longer games, keep in mind that, it could be extremely time consuming for you and very frustrating for the reader, to create a very low success rate, because re-reading a longer adventure multiple times could be horribly boring.

To extend the chance for completing the adventure up to between 30% and 50%, we can create more paths to victory. Example: if in section 3, instead of a dice roll, we tell the reader that he finds an iron spear in one of the caves and then he makes it safely through the mountains, leading him to the graveyard at section 5. At the same time we add an option in section 9 by changing the text to "if you have a sword or a spear in your list of items, turn to 10". Now, the chance to find a needed item in the first diamond increases from 1/2 up to 2/3 (or 66%) and the possible completion of the adventure at the first read just went up from 25% to 33%.

Another good tool we can use to change the odds of success is adding the possibility of winning that is based entirely on luck. We can do that by implementing dice rolls at the end of the adventure. Lets say that section 8 reads "If you have the Magic Amulet, turn to 9. If you don't have the amulet, roll one die and turn to section 9 if the result is 5 or 6. If your result is lower than 5, you become the next victim of the Evil Wizard and your adventure ends here". Remember that dice rolls create "illusion of control", but that is just an illusion, because the reader has absolutely no way of influencing the final outcome at all.

This is all for today, my friends. In the next post, we will work on adding some battles in this adventure to make the game a little bit more time consuming. Then, in the post after that, we will make some improvements by implementing the game-changing mechanic of Logical Conclusion Choices, which allows us to measure the actual performance of the player and therefore, he would have at least a partial control over the outcome for the protagonist.

And don't forget, DREAM YOUR WORLD! Think of a magic world you want to live in and go wild with it. Make it so wonderful, beautiful and appealing that it would be impossible for your readers to put the gamebook away! Suck them into your adventure and have them crave more, once the ultimate goal is achieved and the game is over. Remember the amazing planet in the movie avatar? I've heard that some people have fallen into clinical depression once the movie ended, just because they want to live there, but such place doesn't actually exit.

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"

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Gamebook Theory: Treasure Hunt gamebook mechanic


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Make your game even more interesting: Emotional and Moral Choices

Two posts ago, we discussed the mechanism of creating a Logical Conclusion Choice step by step. Today I'd like tell you how to add another layer of involvement for the reader through attacking his emotions or his moral.

Before I give you the details of step 8 of the Logical Conclusion Choice process, I would like to remind you once again that in order to create truly interesting choices, all of the options given to the reader should have mixed positive and negative consequences just like it is in real life: gain one thing at the expense of another. Example: To avoid being hit by a lightning in the fast approaching thunderstorm, you decide to run for the caves in the distant giant cliff structure. You lose 10 points of health due to exhaustion and the fact that you get soaking wet before you are able to take cover. However, you find an artifact. A magic sword with special abilities, for an example.

Step 8: Involve the player even further through adding a layer of emotional or moral reasons or consequences.

Example of Emotional Layer: in my Visual Gamebook Adventure that takes place in the Star Wars universe, you are told at the beginning of the story that as a little kid you witnessed the death of your parents by the hands of the imperial stormtroopers. Later in the adventure, you are given the choice to kill as many of them as possible to get revenge for your family's suffering. Of course, you want to kill them! After all, they murdered your family. However, given the circumstances at the moment, that is not the best choice, because you kill 10 of them and your blaster runs out of battery, so you have no choice but to retreat. That choice provides you the satisfaction of revenge at the expense of your laser gun, but it also gives you an advantage if you follow a certain path in the middle of the adventure.

Example of Moral Layer: I am going to quote Aston Saylor again here: "Consider this: The orcs have taken your friend hostage, and will kill him if you attack. But taking this step constitutes an act of war, and they must be punished. Will you attack (utilizing your combat skills) knowing they will kill your friend, but determined to crush the orcs once and for all and claim their valuable treasure? Or will you negotiate (using your diplomacy skills), suffering the humiliation in order to hopefully save the life of your friend".

Let me stress this out once again: Make your choices difficult with complicated consequences where you gain one thing at the expense of another! Only partially reveal the outcome before the choice is made and let the reader guess what the other consequences of his decision could be, but don't you ever cheat him into making the wrong choice! Just let the player be in the driver seat!

I personally love how sometimes in gamebooks the choice seems bad at the moment, because you lose something, but then later on in the adventure, that turns out for the better. Example: in the Star Wars Adventure, if you kill some of the stormtroopers, you have a bleeding fleshwound and a drop of your blood falls onto the scanner of the R2D2 robot, letting it recognize the fact that you carry the jedi gene. Another example: in the "Last Fortress" by Ashton, you lose the treasure of your people and your master blacksmith in an attempt to save as many of your people as possible in the snowstorm that comes through the mountains, but later on you are awarded much more as a result of that difficult choice. This technique creates great tension in the adventure, because you know that you made the right choice, but you still lost items and people and you are not sure if you are ever going to be rewarded for making the emotionally difficult, but morally right decision. I'll do another post on the very needed illusions of danger and achievement for every game, not only in the genre of gamebooks.

In this line of thinking, I must mention another very important idea here: the moral responsibility of the game writers and creators. One of my favorite slogans is "with great power comes great responsibility". Believe it or not, the media, the television and especially games install certain patterns of behavior in the kids and young adults through the process of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Check out the Power of Suggestion theory! We, the authors, have the great responsibility to make sure that we encourage the good and we punish the bad behavior. We are literally programming the mentality of our next generation, so don't encourage bad moral choices through rewarding immoral decisions in your games! If you decide to expose the reader to the emotional garbage of real life, at least make sure to clearly define the difference between good and evil in the adventure and properly reward only the morally good choices, so the message you send to the reader's mind is making him a better person. That way you are reinforcing his future success in real life and creating a better human society for generations to come.

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, April 22, 2016

The fatal trap we all fall into and How to Cheat Death (in a gamebook)

Attention! A newer revised and better version of this post is available on

The previous post was about creating meaningful logical choices that put the input control mechanism in the hands of the reader and we explained how to create such choices step by step. However, the provided example included an instant death outcome and that is something that should never happen in a modern gamebook adventure. Today we will discuss the tools that can solve that problem.

A lot of authors feel that they are in a competition with the reader and try to cheat him into making the wrong decision on a regular basis. Even worse, some of the authors often kill the protagonist in instant death chapters not realizing that they kill the enthusiasm of the player instead. The only thing those writers accomplish is forcing their readers to cheat by going back to the section where they made the wrong choice (killing the satisfaction of eventual success) or if they decide to play fair by starting over from the beginning, the adventure becomes extremely boring, because they would be quick scanning the text of each section for the instructions on how to proceed, simply getting to the section of the wrong choice again (like this ever happens). In the worst case scenario, the player is going to put the book away as a result of unfair and unsatisfactory mechanics of the adventure.

Of course, in order for your choice to be meaningful, the consequences should also be in correlation with your decisions. The player should be rewarded for good performance and he should be punished for bad performance.

Lets take a look of three different bad consequence mechanics in the gamebook adventure genre:

1. Take stat points away from the player. This is the most common of the techniques and is probably the best one of them all. Example: "You fall down and hurt yourself. Lose 5 points of stamina". When you apply this mechanic, the reader wouldn't be able to successfully finish the adventure only if he's made too many mistakes. However, there are certain situations when such approach wouldn't make any sense. For an example: "The tree you are sitting under gets hit by a lightning. Your stamina goes down by 5 points". See, in the major event of being hit by a lightning, the only possible outcome is instant death and that brings us to the second approach.

2. Give the reader a way out of his certain death. Create tension by telling the player to roll a die and inform him that, if he rolls 1-3 a lightning hits the tree he is sitting under, but if he rolls 4-6 the lightning hits somewhere else (or you can ask him to test his luck in a fighting fantasy game). The stress of the possibility of killing instantly the protagonist communicates a strong message about being wrong and is a punishment enough by itself. You can even allow the player to re-roll the dice under certain conditions. For an example, you can have a stat, lets call it "blessings"! You can increase your blessings based on good performance during the adventure (if you help a monk find something he is looking for, he will most likely bless you for your good deed). If you get a bad dice roll later in the book, you can re-roll the dice at the expense of you "blessings" stat. All of a sudden, the chance of being killed instantly goes from 50% down to 25%, but it is at the expense of stat points that could be extremely important at the end of the adventure.

3. Losing an item or a good friend. A great example of losing a friend is "The Last Fortress" by Ashton Saylor where your personal guard saves your life at the expense of his own (only once in the adventure). A good example of losing an item is the "Sharkbait's Revenge" by Stuart Lloyd where you lose the "letter from the queen" if you jump in the water, because the ink just washes away.

That's all for today, folks! And remember: Don't ever kill your players instantly without giving them at least a small chance to redeem themselves from bad performance!

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, April 15, 2016

Gamebook Theory: Logical Conclusion Choices and applying the "Fog of War"

We already explained the basics of a Logical Conclusion Choice. For the purpose of learning how to efficiently apply the 'fog of war' principle, we should use the same example from the previous post to demonstrate how to hide the possible consequences of a choice, so it is not obvious what the outcome would be. After all, if there is no way to find hints in the text to help you correctly guess what could possibly happen, the choice will be random (trial and error choice) rather than logical.

The following example is a courtesy of the fantasy style epic hero gamebook "The Master of Darkness" published in Bulgaria by George M George (a nickname of George Mindizov). Here it is: So, our medieval hero is in the middle of a wide open field. To the east, he can see a big cliff with visible caves carved in it. He takes a quick look to the west and he can see a thunderstorm front coming in. A few feet away from our hero, a lonely tree stands tall with it's big branches forming a nice solid crown of green leaves. Do you want to hide under the tree to keep dry until the storm has passed? Alternatively, you could run for the cliff and take cover in one of the caves there, but you can't reach them before the storm hits.

What all that text distills down to is the sentence "there is a thunderstorm coming through and a tree is going to be hit by a lightning", but you can't write that, because it is going to be obvious that hiding under the tree is the wrong choice. Instead, the author took the real danger (the lightning) out of the text and he provided the reader the exact conditions under which a lightning occurs. Lets look at this process of applying hints step by step here:

1. Decide what the danger is going to be: a lightning

2. Take the exact wording of the danger out of the text: don't mention a lightning in the text

3. Provide a few clues that are well known to be associated with this specific danger: wide open field, thunderstorm, the tree is the only tall object around

Again, this is the most simple form of the Logical Conclusion Choice and the principle of 'fog of war' as the clues are presented in the same section as the choice and the outcome is simply either good or bad. I do not recommend using such simplified kind of choices in your adventure, so lets make it a little bit more complicated applying some historical clues to the already existing instant hints.

We can make the choice more difficult if we move the hints to one of the previous sections. May be you will notice dark thunder clouds moving very quickly from the west shortly after you left the village. In this case, there will be no mentioning of a storm front moving in at the very section when you feel pretty tired and have to choose between resting under the nearby tree or continuing to the tall rocky cliff in the distance. To make the right choice even more difficult for the reader, we can warn him that due to his exhaustion, it will actually cost him 10 points of health if he doesn't rest under the tree. Of course, it is better to partially lose health than to suffer an instant death. However, the choice now is even more interesting, because it is not a simple good or bad outcome, but is rather about choosing the lesser of two evils. Please note that we are now at the very fine line of almost tricking the reader into making the wrong decision, so if we make the choice any more difficult by applying even more 'fog of war', we will be crossing that line, which an author should never, ever, ever do. All that being said, step number four, five and six in the above process are: 

4. Move some of the clues to previous sections of the gamebook adventure: inform the reader of the conditions in a conversation with another character or while he is at a different location

5. Partially reveal what would happen if a certain choice is selected, but present only half of the outcome: tell the player that he is going to lose 10 points health if he doesn't rest (tricking him to make the wrong choice, so be careful with this one!)

6. Make the choice even more difficult by forcing the reader to choose between two bad outcomes: losing 10 points of health or getting hit by a lightning (the choice is obvious if he deciphered all the clues)

This is now a difficult enough choice for any gamebook. It is actually a little bit too complicated to be put in the very beginning of the adventure as the difficulty should grow from low to high as the reader makes his progress through the game.

We can once again adjust the difficulty level of this choice to make it a little bit easier by providing another clue in an earlier section. Lets just say that an elderly villager told you earlier about a legend of a hidden artifact in a cave somewhere in this land. If the reader remembers that, he should have another reason to choose going to the caves instead of resting under the tree, making the correct choice a little bit more obvious than before.

7. Apply a clue related to the choice with the positive outcome if you wish to make the decision easier for the reader: an artifact is hidden somewhere in the caves

 Mix and match positive and negative clues as much as needed to adjust the difficulty of this particular decision, but make sure that there are enough clues to support the better choice, so the outcome is the result of a logical conclusion instead of pure luck.

Of course, you can apply the 'fog of war' not only to dangers, but also to positive consequences. As a matter of fact, try to provide more of choose the greater good and choose the lesser evil encounters in your adventure, so the better choice is never too obvious!

At the end of this post, lets take a look at the different kinds of hints available to the authors:

Each hint is either instant or historical: An instant hint is a clue that is present at the very section of the choice it is related to, while a historical hint we call a clue that was given to the reader earlier in the adventure, but is related to a later choice he will eventually have to make.

Also, each hint is either a storyline hint or a general knowledge hint: A storyline hint is a fact that is revealed to the reader in the course of the adventure such as the information that there is a hidden artifact in the mountains while a general knowledge hint is constructed by conditions that suggest the occurrence of a well known event from the general knowledge of the average person such as the fact that during a thunderstorm, a lightning occurs and it hits the tallest object in the nearby vicinity.

There is also the separation of clues to real and false hints: Revealing possible consequences doesn't necessarily mean that they will happen for sure. Sometimes the application of a false clue is required to make the choice more difficult or to guide the decision of the reader in the opposite direction. However, it is unacceptable to cheat the player in the wrong direction by applying too many false clues. They should only be used to make the choice more difficult or simply not as obvious.

The more you mix and match hints of different kind along with clues about positive or negative consequences, the more interesting and involving the choice becomes. Don't forget that the forcing the player to choose the greater good or alternatively the lesser evil outcome, always makes the dilemma more difficult. It would be even better idea to include some moral or emotional consequences along with all the hints provided to the reader (see the post on Difficult Choice by Ashton Saylor). But whatever you do, don't ever make the reader feel that a negative outcome is the unjustified result of pure chance rather than good performance based on strong logical conclusions!

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"

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gamebook Theory: The importance of Meaningful Choices and how to create them

In the last post, we covered the basic structure of a game: input - test of performance - feedback.

Choices are the only possible active gamebook mechanic. The other ones, such as flipping pages to find the next section, throwing dice to add some randomization, or adding numbers for a skillcheck, are technically a passive form of input, because they don't allow the gamer to actively influence the outcome of the adventure.

The choices, being the only active input mechanic, become the most important thing in a gamebook adventure. You can have a great story to tell, but without the proper choices presented to the player in a meaningful form that influences the outcome one way or another, your adventure is not a game, it is just a story. Of course, the exact opposite, bunch of choices without any story, is just as bad as narrative is a great way to provide feedback for rewarding or punishing the reader (we already covered that topic in the previous post).

It is easy to provide many choices to the reader. I remember reading an article that was mentioning the urge to give the player too many choices as one of the major problems of new writers. I've always had the opposite problem: It's always been difficult to me to put enough choices in each section of the game, because I want every single one of them to have a meaning and consequences that affect the adventure in some way.

See, having a choice that is changing the immediate narrative path for the reader without having any consequences down the road, is not necessarily a gamebook mechanic. What I am trying to say is that a gamebook that has no good or bad choices is no longer a game, because it simply becomes an interactive novel. In order to have a game, we must have a final goal that the player is trying to achieve through overcoming bunch of other obstacles. If there is no way to fail, there is no game in the story.

Speaking of good and bad choices, we must stress out that the outcome, positive or negative, should be the result of strong logic, calculated risk, educated decisions and the reader has to be given enough information to draw that logical conclusion on his own. This is the tricky part. Providing too much information to the gamer makes the choice too obvious (cake or death choice), but not presenting enough information forces the outcome to be a matter of luck, not a logical consequence of good or bad performance (which door choice) and therefore making this piece a story with multiple alternative endings, not a game.

This is where the "fog of war" (terminology by Ashton Saylor) comes in place. The writer must hide the possible consequences, but should also leave enough clues in the narrative, so the reader can guess the outcome if he was paying close attention and was drawing the correct conclusions.

My favorite example of a Logical Conclusion Choice is one, which I found more than 20 years ago in the fantasy style epic hero gamebook "The Master of Darkness" published in Bulgaria by George M George (a nickname of George Mindizov). I was playing a fantasy style hero and while on the correct path to accomplish my quest, I was put in the middle of a wide open field during a thunderstorm. I believe that there were two options available: 1. Hide from the rain under a tree or 2. Run for the tall cliff with visible caves in the distance. My thinking was that I didn't want to get soaking wet while fleeing to the caves and I decided to go under the tree. Needless to say, I learned a very valuable lesson: lightnings hit the tallest object around and unfortunate for my protagonist, that was the tree I was hiding under at that moment. I was upset about that instant death, but I also felt that it was fair and justified. The "fog of war" hint was in the word "thunder" before the word "storm". The immediate danger of a lightning was not even mentioned, but it was completely logical under the circumstances of the situation.

Now, keep in mind that this is a very simple example of a "logical conclusion choice" and I believe that presented just like that, it no longer has a place in the modern gamebook adventures because the outcome is one of two extremes: life or death. Please remember that an instant death is the worst thing you can do to the reader and should almost never happen. Instead, you can punish him in a different way such as losing health points, losing an item and so on. Death in a gamebook must be the result of multiple gravely mistakes (when your health runs down to zero) or the outcome of the last battle skillcheck in the adventure. If you ever decide to break this rule, please have the instant death in the very beginning of the story before the reader has invested much time and effort, so starting over wouldn't hurt as much.

However, regardless of being a bad example of a choice in a gamebook adventure, this is the perfect example for the purpose of explaining the basic principles of the "fog of war" technique, but more on that I will discuss in my next post.

Before I close for today, I have to mention that while the "Logical Conclusion Choice" is arguably the best one of all narrative choices, it is not the only one and it should be used in combination with the rest. Also, when implementing this kind of choice in an adventure, it is a good idea to inform the player if he's made the right choice or not. That could be done by writing a short explanation of the author's reasoning for the punishment or the reward in the beginning of the next section.

If you remember anything from this post, that is the rule that a writer should never take away from the player the satisfaction of the feeling that his achievements are a direct result of his good performance!

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"