Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Legacy of the Zendari by Ashton Saylor (myself)

Ah, my own Legacy of the Zendari. I was so proud of it when I had completed it, and it did serve me well. But I think it also has some weaknesses that I didn't completely realize when I had just finished it.

It may seem strange to review my own gamebook, but I think there is some merit. Objectivity? Throw that out the window--not happening. But as the author, I can also offer a unique insight into the thinking behind it, as well as share with you the conclusions I've drawn regarding the story in the time since I completed it, watching it go through the competition, win a Merit Award, and get ripped apart in feedback by several of the other talented authors in our little community.

The thing that stands out most starkly to me about this is that it has a bit of a "young adult" vibe, especially compared to some of my other works. This was actually to a certain extent intentional--my friend's 12 year old son read a bunch of my gamebooks, and The Grimlock's Cave was among his favorites. I took this as being a sign that that kind of clear, straightforward, and lighthearted adventure had a lot of merit, and so I attempted to go back to that style to a certain extent with Legacy of the Zendari. Without consider the fact that he was, in fact, a 12 year old boy, and so it is to some extent unsurprising that he would love the most "young adult" of my works.

What this means for me, now, is that I feel to a certain extent unsatisfied. I find myself, now, looking at post-apocalyptic settings in fiction or movies and thinking, "ooh! I should do a gamebook in a post-apocalyptic setting!" and then realizing, "wait... I just did that!"

But it doesn't feel like it. What I love about the post-apocalyptic setting is the gritty gravitas that it can have. The dark, heavy despair of everything being gone. And LotZ does not really do more than hint at that. Sure, it's mentioned a few times that there was all this damage, but at the end of the day it reads more like a kid's adventure story than like an adult's post-apocalypse story.

Now, theoretically, this could be good, if my desired audience is in fact 12 year old boys. (I haven't gotten the chance to show this yet to my friend's son--I'm looking forward to finding out what he thinks.) But if I want a piece with a little more depth, this may not be it.

That's not to say it doesn't have it's kind of depth. I did go out of my way to show life surviving, to show the little pieces of the world still moving, when and how they can. To show love and fighting and living still continuing. But it was all a little bit 2 dimensional. Even the big moral dilemma at the end; I'm happy with it for what it is, but it's just a little bit 2 dimensional.

(This is making me wonder, now, about the possibility of including a small short along with the gamebook in the TMG publication of it, something to capture a more "adult" or, hopefully, 3-dimensional view of this leftover world.)

Some of the feedback I got from others was that it had several cliche elements. Like the Colonel. And of course the mecha and aliens themselves are wholly unoriginal. I blatantly mimicked some of the "giant robot" anime of the 80's, Robotech in particular.

I also got feedback that the prose seemed occasionally "weak or rushed." This may go hand in hand with the writing containing a few too many cliche's. I'm not sure, but if anybody has any specific feedback on section numbers that seemed weak, cliched or rushed, I would love to get particulars to get more insight on where I can improve.

There are also questions I have for the group: Was the time mechanic successful? My intent was to use that to ratchet up tension to build intensity toward the end. Was it rewarding, or just frustrating? Or did it simply not matter, as you finished well within the limit anyway?

Did you enjoy the moral dilamma--such as it was--at the end? Some people (SJ I'm looking at you) did not enjoy it at all, describing it as a mass of cliches and melodrama. Other people I think did like it. What made the difference, and how could it be improved?

I was disappointed to find that no one found the "perfect" ending that allows you to end with all 12 medals of achievement. At least one reviewer declared it was impossible. I'm confused, because I would swear I did it myself without cheating! Of course, it's always easier for the creator of a game to do well at it because you know all the ins and outs... this is apparently a lesson for me to, if I want to include challenges like that, perhaps make them a little bit easier?

I also got mixed reviews on the combat system. Some people liked that it was very simple, others found it simplistic to the point of being ludicrous. At least one person said he really liked being able to choose which part of your mecha takes the damage. This made him vividly imagine moving the mecha to use some body part to protect other body parts. More than one person did not like (at least one of them vehemently) the snowballing effect of taking damage to your combat stats. If you're winning, it's easier to continue winning. If you're losing, it's easier to keep losing. I can definitely see the disadvantages of that.

A good combat system in a gamebook is still something I'm searching for. It seems that being able to choose where you take damage was rewarding, but becoming less combat-effective as you lose battles was not loved at all. Choices in combat are ultimately what makes it interesting. The question is, how to give players those choices? We had a lot of experimentation with that in a lot of the Windhammer entries this year: Swordplayer, Trial of the Battle God, and Ravages of Fate all come to mind immediately. Some of that experimentation is more successful than others, but it's all worthwhile. This year's competition has definitely given me a lot of food for thought in designing my next gamebook combat system.

The other facet of Legacy of the Zendari that got very mixed reviews was the Random Encounters along the way. Most people hated them; a few people loved them. I'll *probably* skip it next time? Consensus seemed to be that it wasted valuable time that could have been spent on furthering the story line. I would be very interested in hearing more thoughts on this topic. If you haven't told me already, please feel free to comment to share what you think of the random encounters?

Of course, it's also never going to be possible to please everyone. Better to pick a style and try to do that style as well as you can. People who don't like that style won't like it, but if the people who do like that style love it, then you've done your job well.

I'm still trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Legacy of the Zendari feel a little bit... immature. Any individual piece I look at, I like, but something about the whole is bugging me. Earlier I described it as being "young adult" in nature, but even young adult books can deal with very heavy themes and issues successfully. Here, something just seems missing, and I can't put my finger on what exactly.

Regardless, I must have done a pretty good job, because it was voted up there with Zachary Carengo's vividly descriptive Final Payment, and Marty Runyon's excellent Academy of Magic, both of which I loved. I attribute this to Legacy of the Zendari being, despite flaws, a very polished piece of work, with a clear, evocative setting, passable characters and dialogue, a clear goal and hook to rope the player in, and tension that builds over the course of the story. It's not perfect, but it must be the best I've done yet to have won an award in this crowd.

Thank you guys!

For anyone who feels inspired to comment, here are some questions for you:

* What did you love most about Legacy of the Zendari?
* What would you like to see different in a revised version of it?
* Are there any mechanics you would cut, change or add?
* Did you find the random encounters rewarding?
* And last but not least, what would you like to see more of from me in future gamebooks and other written works?

Stay tuned to see Legacy of the Zendari (complete with Anthony's beautiful artwork) coming out through Tin Man Games along with the other Windhammer award winners for 2012!

And once again, despite my occasionally vitriolic responses, everyone here did a great job, and I'm proud to have competed against each and every one of you!


  1. Hi Ashton. You already received my feedback, but since you did so much work in reviewing all these, I can add plenty more.

    To answer your questions above:

    1-The consistent action movie feel. There's nothing wrong with targeting the kid in us all.

    2-Clarity is key, so I would change time documentation. You have some time pass after the bomb incident; we're told about it over the course of a few sections (IIRC) which refer back to what happened earlier. I had to dig back to ensure I was starting my time correctly.

    Also, we must record a separate, sort of sub-time during the flight that does not count toward travel time. Complicated.

    3-I'd just add a time score and/or somehow make time recording clearer by not having both travel time and countdown time intermingled.

    4-No, I thought the goal of the random encounters was to punish by eating up time, not that it's a bad thing. It was rewarding in the sense that there were ideas and challenges, though.

    5-Whatever you feel compelled to write.

    Going through your post...

    I wouldn't worry about the "2-dimensional" or "immature" aspects unless you're going for a certain dark or serious tone--all the way. I think the goal here was a vicarious action thrill ride. Provided you're consistent and achieve that goal, it's all good.

    I think your setting was to simply establish a "save humanity" scenario, so the grit and despair of a post-apocalyptic Earth isn't all that vital here. Maybe you're worrying too much. Giant robots and alien spacecraft probably don't jive well with a moody and descriptive tale of desolate Earth. It may be for the better that you didn't dwell on the latter.


  2. Regarding the cliche elements (and the challenge at the end to identify pop culture influences), this all depends on the type of reader. I write some sci fi myself. While it's important to research the classics, I do so to avoid an accidental convergent evolution of ideas, not to slip those ideas into my work on purpose. OTOH, using some older ideas helps people embrace the familiar for fast-paced fiction such as this, instead of making them stop to process new ideas. It certainly adds to the fun movie feel of LotZ.

    This is really subjective. I recall noticing the Zendari resemblance to the the tripods from War of the Worlds and a few other connections, but not much else. The hints of well-established images from sci fi movies and novels didn't seem too intrusive or bombarding, if that's a concern.

    Maybe the problem you mentioned of no one tackling the achievements challenge has to do with repetition and time/effort required. People just don't have much time these days, especially with so many enticements online. One thing I've learned from my own entry is that repetition is bad. Your challenges require many replays and therefore time. I went with the easiest one, as you may recall. But, it's merely an option, so no real problem there!

    As for "weak or rushed" content, this simply comes with brevity (and brevity is a force of pure good).

    I found the time mechanic worked perfectly and did what it was meant to do, especially with time increments shrinking near the end.

    The moral dilemmas at the end increased the conflict and tension for the protagonist. Since this build-up of strife should typically happen in a short story before the climax, it's all good and quite well-placed. Maybe it felt a bit predictable, though, like you were trying to provide every possible good ending a spoiled reader could want. But this is only noticeable metagame, not on a single playthrough.

    Overall, you met the goal of making it entertaining and tense. Even though we were told to focus on mechanics, it's players who vote, not a panel of judges. So you did well by focusing on the entertaining aspects, story, characters, feelings, and most importantly, elimination of problems--the parts we don't actually see thanks to self-editing efforts. The writing itself is 90% of the battle, imo, and there simply aren't any problems with it in LotZ that would turn readers away. This is pretty hard to do. I look forward to your next year's entry.

    1. Thanks for the detailed feedback, Nicholas! You make a great point (which some of the others re-iterate later) that it's not bad to do a young adult genre story. It's just a different creative choice. If you nail what you set out to do then you've done a great job, and if people like what that goal is or not, that's up to them.

      I'm glad the time mechanic worked for you. It sounded like you had about the best possible experience of it :D And thanks for the advice on how that could be improved--i.e. by removing the use of time both for total time passing and for travel time. I tried to make that as clear as I could, but still sounds like I didn't quite get there.

      The only thing I don't think you commented on explicitly was the combat. What was your experience with the combat system? This is something I'm especially interested in getting your opinion on because of your experimentations with combat systems in Swordplayer. This is clearly an area you've thought about ;)

      You've given me a lot already, but I do have another question about Legacy of the Zendari coming out on Friday. If you get a chance, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that as well :)

    2. I covered the fighting system in the feedback sent to Wayne. I mentioned the bit about turning your robot to absorb incoming attacks with different areas.

      Not sure, but I think we're bottlenecked into an inescapable fight at the Zor which may be a balance issue. It felt like at least one of the mechas stood almost no chance.

      While I'm not a fan of dice, many people are. It's hard to remove randomness because it makes sense there, especially in ranged battles (at a cost of supplanting player skill--that's the big problem). You can create a sort of artificial randomness based on the player's woven path of choices, but I think most may prefer something quickly resolved. I'm also not sure if today's players enjoy whittling foes down through procedure like in the old days. So even a few dice rolls might feel tedious to some, no matter how simplified. Then again, a score check alone is probably too simple and not very thrilling.

      Your system gives players options of how to take damage, which is a great idea. But dice are like a cousin of those dreaded "which door" choices. People are still accepting of dice, but for how long? I'm still on the brainstorming hunt for a system that has the *feel* of randomness without dice that is also quick, makes sense, requires little documenting or rules, and involves a bit of player strategy so it's not like setting up paralyzed ducks that fall over on their own. I don't know if such a method is even possible!

    3. That's a great vision, Nicholas. I've got my own responses to a lot of the experimentation done with combat systems this year in Windhammer, including (maybe even especially) yours.

      My full thoughts on that topic will have to wait; I'm working on a blog post about it now. But basically, yeah, it would be nice if there were a better way. The standard, "hack and slash by rolling dice for 20 years until someone dies, then either cry because you lost or kick down the next door and do it again" approach is less successful now than it was back in the heyday. People expect more now. They expect decisions.

      Destiny Quest is an interesting example. The actual combats themselves are almost wholly uninteresting. You just take turns rolling dice until someone falls over. But they are important as a test of your earlier decisions. If you skipped every combat, it would be irrelevant what items you chose or what character building decisions you made. When I started getting sick of rolling dice (especially with some of the long combats... enemies with 60 health? Really? Is that necessary?) I started seriously considering trying to come up with some system of my own whereby I could just figure out if I was statistically likely to win, and then skip to the end, either victory if so, or go back and try another quest if not.

      But people expect dice rolls. And beyond that, there is a certain appeal. It's the same appeal of a slot machine. "Maybe this time I'll roll a nat 20!"

      But the problem is (in my opinion) that appeal wears thin with repetition. Hell, anything wears thin with enough repetition. How many people would actually want to eat their most favorite meal every single day of the year?

      But if you reduce it to just one die roll determining the outcome of an entire combat, that feels a little too arbitrary. I feel like the ideal range is somewhere from 3-7. 3-4 for simple fights. 5-7 for longer fights. And I mean, the entire thing is resolved after, say 4 dice rolls. Not many, but if the numbers are balanced right, it's enough to build tension, but not so many that you lose it all again immediately.

      Another trick is creating the illusion of danger, while balancing the numbers so that the player will actually reliably succeed at any predictable combat.

      Hmm... I'll be interested in hearing your thoughts whenever I actually get that blog post up. Maybe this friday, hopefully.

    4. Couldn't figure out how to edit this into the prior response... I'm glad you liked getting to choose where you take the damage.

      I like giving the player a choice there, and it's a meaningful, difficult choice, but a lot of people hated the fact that you lose combat potential while you take damage. And to be fair, it's not an ideal mechanic--it does tend to lead to either sailing away with it, without ever having a challenge, or to getting so damaged that there's literally no way you can win even the simplest of fights.

  3. The problem with the ending is that it carries no emotional weight. You sacrifice the girl to save the planet, but you've only known the girl for, what, two minutes real-world time? There's no connection there. Plus, if you don't, the girl dies anyway when the planet goes ker-plooey, so from a logical perspective, the choice is obvious and you're a stupid moron for drawing a gun on your commanding officer over it. And if you get the Samaritan medal, it's worse, as it turns into a series of fake-outs. WAIT! Here comes the alien Deus Ex Machina... oh no, he doesn't have enough juice, but you can save the girl by sacrificing yourself instead. WAIT! Here comes the love interest to save the day! OH no, you can't bear to sacrifice her. WAIT! Now the girl makes the choice of her own free will. So... um... victory, I guess?

    It just seems really, really, contrived and a cheap play for pathos. And it didn't really tie in to the presented themes of the story, so it also seemed out of place.

    Incidentally, what is the 12-medal path? Because I'm pretty sure it's not possible.

    1. I'm not sure what to say about all the drama at the end. I guess it just didn't work for you. I don't think sheer amount of time you've known the character is that relevant. A lot of short stories pack a tremendous amount of punch into very small word counts. Probably has more to do with how it was handled, but I'm not sure what.

      I can see what you mean about the themes of the story. It would have been better to foreshadow that choice. Of course, like you said, for most people, I think the obvious answer is to surrender her without a question, so it shouldn't even be that big a part of the story unless you choose for it to be.

      As to the 12 medal path, it involves using the Olympian to go through all three of the Ruins first, then over to the Zor. There are medals you can find in other routes, but that route will get you all 12, if it works. The only risk is, there are 2 or 3 of the random encounters which have a chance of delaying you even if you don't choose to slow down. You have to race through all of them for it to work, which means relying on the dice to not give you one of those few that delay you regardless. Also, of course, you have to win any fights, but there aren't too many. Mostly, the fight right before the Zor is the hardest. But the Olympian should be able to win that fight handily on normal mode, I think.

  4. I liked Legacy of the Zandari because it gave me something new. Thanks to Fighting Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery is pretty much the default for gamebooks. For me, this gets to be a little tedious. I can only slay so many orcs or rogue mages before I start feeling like I'm going in circles. That's why I get really excited when something breaks the mold.

    I think Legacy of the Zandari took a new genre (Anime/Mecha) and ran with it. The mechanics were solid and I never felt bogged down by rules. The plot moved along fast, but I always had a pretty good idea of what was going on and why.

    The story may not have been dark, but I felt it captured that saturday morning cartoon vibe really well. Anime tends towards melodrama. The cliches and 2D characterization you talk about actually fit the genre. This is why the ending didn't bother me. A little narm adds to the fun.

    The time system confused me a bit. A little more clarity on where exactly the reader needs to add to the clock would fix this though.

    Another post-apocalyptic gamebook sounds like a great idea! Something along the lines of Fallout maybe?

    Can't believe you're already done with the reviews! I've had a great time reading them.

    1. Thank you! I had a great time writing the reviews as well :)

      I think you make some great points here, which are echoed by some of the other responders: it's not a problem that it wasn't a dark, serious story, because it wasn't trying to be. It's supposed to be a fun, action adventure. Things are over the top. You're saving the world, you're getting the girl, you're not looking back.

      It shot for a certain genre, and hit it, and there's nothing wrong with that, even if I do tend to prefer meatier stories. Thanks for explaining that :)

  5. To be honest, I thought of this as more like space opera than post-apocalyptic, but it worked for me. There was a zest that let me have fun even though this was the last of the entries I played. So I'd have to peg down my favorite element as that approachability. At the same time -- and I think I noted this earlier -- you did present some moral dilemmas, which gave a depth to the work I appreciated. (The sort that made me bookmark a page so I could backpedal and see what happened down the other path.)

    In terms of changes, I would definitely spice up the random encounters where nothing happened. Having to choose between an uneventful interval and a more exciting one is a poorly presented choice when it comes to providing story value, and making it random doesn't make it any better, I think. I realize it may seem unrealistic to have something happen every single time, but I don't think anyone ever plays a gamebook in hopes of a quiet journey. =)

    The relationship-building could be made a bit richer, but I don't think that's meant to be a primary part of the story, so I wouldn't consider it a must-change.

    I'd also love to see something in the grittier, more dystopian post-apocalyptic vein. I suspect one of the elements that made this feel less heavyweight to me was the fact that your goal was to save the world, rather than being something driven by a more personal motivation. It's the sort of optimistic heroic premise that I do see in a lot of young adult works.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! This echoes a lot of what Zachary said above: it's not really a post-apocalyptic story--it's a space opera. The goal is larger than life... an optimistic, heroic premise. If the goal had been for the main character to find his dying son, that would be a completely different genre. Maybe there's nothing wrong with writing this kind of story, if that's what you set out to do.

      I wouldn't mind adding more depth to the relationship building. Of course, space constraints restricted that a bit. Also, as has been noted, the characters are not the deepest characters in the world, so I'm not sure how much room there is to really flesh that out a lot.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the "zest" :) And I'm glad someone enjoyed the moral dilemmas. Haha, no, a few people have, but a good number of people also either hated that whole part outright, or thought the answer was logically obvious, and kind of resent the implication that that logically obvious answer might not be the morally correct one.

      I find it an interesting choice. And there's one friend of mine who has his own brand of independent, stubborn morality, who was a big influence on me in my younger years. I got him to give this a read through, and was pleased to see he got through to the "best" ending (such as there is one) in his first go. He did all the things I anticipated he would, when I had specifically designed the whole scene with someone like some of the characters he plays in mind. Very cool. But yeah, most people are like, "it's obvious. Why are you making me feel like a douche for pointing out the obvious."

      Anyway, thanks again for the feedback!