Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lone Wolf Reborn: Episode 5 - Another Murky Cave

Sorry it's been so long, folks. (Or, should I say, Stuart--thanks for being game and commenting on these ;) After my several week hiatus, I'm starting to find my writing feet again, getting this rolling again. Because my focus is on the major project I'm working on, I can't promise I'll update this as frequently as I did before, but it is still something I would like to continue.

Here goes...

In case you've missed past episodes, see these links...
Lone Wolf: Reborn - Episodes 123, 4

Deciding that crawling into dark places has worked well for you in the past, you hunker down, push aside the hanging vines, and edge your way into the dark cave. Within moments, the darkness swallows you whole. You feel around for a torch, but you are not carrying one, so there is nothing for it but to feel your way forward, one step at a time.

A rustling above gives you pause. A second later, you hear an insectile chittering sound. It is growing closer!

A terrible weight falls upon you, wriggling with carapace and thousands of tiny legs. You shriek and try to push it off, but sharp teeth burrow into your flesh! The darkness puts you at a disadvantage, but you must fight!

Even as the slimy tentacles try to get a purchase on your face, you manage the heave the thing off of you and throw it to the ground. With a lucky guess, you sink your blade through the thing in the darkness, impaling it and pinning it to the floor.

You touch the wound on your shoulder. You are bleeding, but it is not serious. Shivering with the creepy horror of being attacked by a big bug in the dark, you wrench your belt from its death grip and continue on your way.

Some time later, a light appears before you. Catching your breath--you are almost afraid it will vanish if you look too closely--you rush ahead.
You burst free of the cave into open air. At last! Clean, fresh air, blue skies! Coming into the light, you take a second look at what you presumed to be your own belt. As it happens, you are already wearing your belt! You must have grabbed the belt of some other poor soul, the Burrow Crawler's latest victim, perhaps.

Investigating the slimy, half-rotten belt, you find a Dagger in fine condition, and a belt pouch with 20 gold! His loss is your gain--you pocket the gold and the dagger and continue on your way, now feeling more confident that you are heading the right direction.

After some hours of travel...

The forest begins to thin out until finally you can make out a road through the trees ahead. The highway is full of people heading south. Many are wheeling their possessions along on handcarts.

If you wish to join the refugees and perhaps learn more of what has happened in the north, turn to 30.

If you would prefer to continue to move south but under cover of the trees, turn to 167.

[Save Point: 157. Turns out the cave had nice people who want to give us treasure, after all! In a manner of speaking. The Carrion Crawler Burrow Crawler just wanted to give us a hug! Regardless, at the end of the day we're up 20 gold and a dagger, and down 3 endurance points. Thanks to healing, however, we've already healed 2 of that. I call this a win.]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Challenges in Writing, and Keeping Score

Hello, everyone. It's been a long couple of weeks, and I apologize for my absence. My life took an upset (which in this case, is a good thing) but it disrupted my rhythm.

There are several common challenges which face writers, some of which I struggle with, and of those, two of them have hit me pretty hard over the last couple weeks. 1) Morale. 2) Time Management. Morale, to be perfectly honest, is something I'm usually pretty good at. Time management, to be perfectly honest, is not.

I'm not sure what happened morale-wise. I was going along fine and then--bam: I'm not good enough! To be fair, I don't exactly have a lot of accomplishments under my belt to be proud of--yet. But I have more conviction, motivation and momentum toward accomplishing my goals than I ever have before, and I'm looking forward to seeing where this train takes me. I think this was just a hiccup of old self-doubts. It happens. Don't worry about it, and it will pass.

More complicated is time management. This is like that clown that you punch and punch and he just keeps rolling back up. You can try and try and try, but old habits have a way of re-asserting themselves. You keep fucking up and being late, or slacking off, or whatever, no matter how many times you insist to yourself that next time, it really will be different.

Quite frustrating really. I don't have a solution, except that sometimes, if you try hard enough for long enough, it just seems to stop.

I won't say I've solved this problem. But I've gotten a hell of a lot better than I used to be. For example, I can actually write stuff now! Like, complete stories! Yay, me! That used to be just outside the scope of my attention span. Not sure what happened, but it seems to have changed, and I'm grateful for it. (This may be tied to morale... maybe more self-confidence helped? Not sure.)

Anyway, because time management is still something I struggle with, I've come to the following program to help me stay on track with my novel.

Oh yeah, I'm writing a novel. Angry Robot Open Door Submissions, Apr 16-Apr30. I found out about it at the end of February, decided I would go for it. Had a goal of an outline by March 16, got that. Now I have a new goal: 5000 words per day. At that rate, I should be able to write a 100,000 word novel in 20 days. That allows me up to 10 days for bad days, traveling days, gaming days, etc.

So, next question: how am I going to keep score? Well, I'm a game designer by hobby (of not by profession--yet) so I built a little game for myself.

Here it is:

each 1000 words = 1 point
each 1000 words written before 2:00 pm = 2 points, instead (Habit building, trying to write in the mornings.)
meeting my 5000 word goal in a day = 3 points

People tend to ask things like, "what are the point for?" They're for keeping score :) Beyond that, nothing really. If I come up with something more interesting later, I'll let you know.

So, if you see me posting on twitter, "13 points today!" that means it was a good day!

Okay, hell, for the sake of not ignoring the blog, I'll put in another measurement: 1 bonus point if I do a blog post :)

Last, but not least, for the sake of not ignoring the rest of my life, one last measurement: a gold star if I also take care of real-life shit that day.

So, the final score-keeping rules:

1000 words written after 2:00 pm = 1 point
1000 words written before 2:00 pm = 2 points
Meeting my 5000 word goal in a day = 3 points
If I happen to make it to 10,000 words = 5 points (instead of 3, so, another 2 points.)
If I also write a blog post = 1 point
And if I also take care of real life shit = Gold Star

Credit is only given for full thousand-word chunks. 999 words is worth 0 points. 1000 is worth 1 (or 2, if I finish it before 2:00 pm.) However, an exception for up to 300 words can be given, if I stopped at a natural stopping point, such as the end of a chapter. So 4,720 words could count for 5000 if I stopped at a natural break point.

Points are not given for text which I discard. If I write three drafts of a passage, only the final draft counts for  points.

I acknowledge mixed feelings about how to handle this. Writing and re-writing is an important part of the creative proces. The only reason I want to do it this way for now is because I want to encourage, at this stage, doing a brain-dump kind of writing. It's a hell of a lot easier to edit than it is to get that first draft down on paper (metaphorical paper--where are we, the dark ages?) so it's important to me to rush through my first draft as quickly as possible.

At that point, I'm sure, I will see many glaring errors and go back and re-write 99% of it. But that first draft, I just want to pump out as quickly as possible.

The goal, of course, being to have a draft between 95,000 and 140,000 words prepared by April 16. Then I can take one or two weeks for revisions and submit!

Wish me luck :)

P.S. My new Kinesis Contoured Ergonomic Keyboard came today. Awesome! Now I can (hopefully) manage keeping up this word count with less exhaustion of the hands and fingers!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Hi guys,

You may have noticed my formerly daily posting rate has been interrupted. My life is going through a shift right now. I think it'll be for the best, but it's scary, and I'm adjusting.

Basically, my contract ended in my day job and I'm thinking of taking the next few months just to spend writing. I'm incredibly excited about this, but it's also very, very... something.

I'm struggling with the transition. Expect a longer post once I've got my own thoughts worked out on the subject.


P.S. Stuart, I'll respond to those emails once I'm back! Thanks for your patience =)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gamebook Theory 3: Putting the "Game" in Gamebook (or taking it out?)

This is an article in my "Gamebook Theory" series. For prior articles, see Part 1: Story or Part 2: Narrative Choices.

Last week, we talked about the narrative choices as the "Game" in "Gamebooks." This was based on Raph Koster's model of a game being essentially a problem to solve, and a gamebook being essentially a problem of finding the "best" ending. This week, I'm curious: What if there is no "best" ending? What if there are a number of endings, each telling a different story? Would it still qualify as a game? Or at that point, is it simply an interactive story, and you're just getting a different story depending on the choices you make?

I don't have answers to that, but I do know this: I like--no--I love interactive stories. That's the whole point, to me. But at the same time, if you have the option, why not include elements of a game? People like challenges. People like overcoming challenges. It's fun.

Well, this raises a new question: "What kind of games can be included in a gamebook? What options do we have, as far as challenges to present the player with (without compromising the story)?"

As I'm in the planning stages of several gamebooks at the moment, this is a very relevant question for me. As such, I'd like to beg your patience as I consider a few of the types of challenges that a player can be presented with as a "game" element in a gamebook.

Narrative Choices: Last week, we discussed this exhaustively, so I won't go into it in detail here, except to say that you can make a challenge of the choices. As Stuart pointed out in that post, it's hard to find the balance between a "Which Door" Choice (no basis for making a decision) and the "Cake or Death" Choice (obvious correct answer.) Moving away from having a single "best" ending and toward having multiple different endings helps resolve this problem... but then is the narrative choice really a game-mechanic at all, or simply a way of interacting with the story?

Combat: Combat is one of the most obvious challenges that can be thrown into a gamebook, but I have mixed feelings about it's usefulness. Theoretically, moments of crisis and physical challenge should be the most exciting in a story. But I'm a little worried that because they are so intrinsically exciting, they have been overused to the point of making them dull.

The problem with combat is that, unless there is enough context to get the blood flowing and the adrenaline pulsing, it presents, from a purely mechanical, player-experience perspective, little except a chance that your character will die and your story will abruptly end.

What fun is that?

This is a general problem using dice-based challenges. It definitely presents a sense of challenge, sure. But if that challenge is just to suddenly and, almost randomly, force you to start over, is that really satisfying? Or is a victory by brute luck really satisfying? A good challenge should be skill based. But how?

For combat, I think one of the best ways to do that is to present the Illusion of Danger. (More thoughts on the Illusion of Danger, but I will save them for a future post.)

One way to make combat more interesting is the Challenge Staircase. By Challenge Staircase I mean the cycle of challenge, reward, bigger challenge, bigger reward, etc. Taking out a big monster feels more exciting if you couldn't take him before, but you've hiked up the challenge staircase far enough to take him now. The success of this model can be seen in games like World of Warcraft, Diablo II, and many, many more.

This is tricky to implement in a gamebook, because gamebooks (at least gamebooks now) for the most part don't have the range of system mechanics necessary. Tin Man Games does make this possible, at least, via the acquisition of weapons and armor.

What I would like to see, in order to take advantage of the Challenge Staircase as a game mechanic, is a more regulated growth of player power and monster power. If we evoke the risk/challenge/reward feedback loop and make the player feel like they've earned their progress, then when their progress allows them to do things they couldn't do before, they will feel a satisfying gaming experience.

What about a Puzzle? A puzzle could provide a satisfying intellectual challenge for the player. Solve the riddle, figure the answer, save the day. Sounds great! There's only two problems with a puzzle. First, they are hard to write. And if you write a bad puzzle, that's worse than no puzzle at all. Second, there is no replay value. Absolutely zero. Once you know the answer, you know it forever, and that particular challenge will never challenge you again. But for that first play-through, has potential for real awesomeness. (Mystery novel as a gamebook, anyone?)

That's a few ideas, but I hardly feel like the list is comprehensive. I'm going to go back to the drawing board to keep coming up with more ideas of kinds of challenges we can throw at players. Building the toolkit.

In the meantime, what do you guys think?

What kinds of challenges do you see in good gamebooks?
What are your favorite challenges to see in interactive fiction? (Your least-favorite)?

Do you really think challenges in gamebooks are necessary? Could you have just as good a time reading a piece that took out the challenges, so that your decisions simply lead you to a different story, not necessarily a better or worse one?