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"