Monday, April 23, 2012

P: Passing on the rest of April A-Z

It is with great regret that I must announce that I will be withdrawing from the rest of the April A-Z blogging challenge. I simply have too many other things going on, and I'm not finding it easy to write short, simply posts just for the sake of meeting the blog challenge requirements.

I am happy to say, however, that some excellent posts came out of this challenge. For any passerby who come this way, feel free to check out the links below for some of my proudest posts from April.

I've also been tackling a personal challenge to write a novel in one month. Here are my thoughts on novel-writing before and after this attempt.

My primary interest and area of experience thus far is in writing gamebooks, not novels. Here are some posts for you gamebookers out there:
An original short gamebook, Mars 2112, to demonstrate what the genre is all about.
A post summarizing some of my thoughts on Gamebook Theory

And, last but not least, some silly Literary Jokes I made up.

If you like what you see and you want more gamebook goodness, allow me to refer you over to Stuart Lloyd's fine site on gamebooks, where he is doing a month chock-full of interviews with gamebook authors, illustrators and producers, along with many excellent articles about gamebooks (including an interview with me!). Of course, chances are good you came here from there, so this may be an unnecessary recommendation ;)

Next year, if I try this A-Z challenge again, I'm going to plan out in advance what the topic of each post will be, rather than trying to make it up as I go along. Lessons learned.

Thanks for dropping by, and rest assured, there will be more blogging goodness coming up. We will now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

O: On Writing a Novel

Writing a novel is hard.

I set a goal for myself, in April, to take a stab at writing a novel in a month. (Yeah, like that was going to happen.) But while I haven't been able to complete it, the important thing for my purposes was using that as incentive to start it. I designed the challenge so that even if I didn't meet the goal, I would still be in a good position. And I am.

Here are some of the lessons I've learned from my first attempt to write a novel.

1) Plan, plan, plan: One of the problems I ran into in this case was not enough planning. Don't get me wrong, I spent a month planning and wrote a detailed initial outline. But after that, because of the time constraints, I never set aside more time for brainstorming. I felt like any time I sat down to write, I had to produce word count, or I would fall behind.

That is ultimately a failing strategy. The important thing isn't the word count, it's the thought that goes into the word count. In my experience here, what I found was not that I produced something awful, but that as the underlying thought behind the story dried up, eventually I just couldn't write at all.

At the end of the day, your story has two values, Thought, and Word Count. The higher you can get the ratio of Thought/Word Count the better. I don't know if, for my purposes, I'll use word count as a benchmark again. It directs my attention and energy to the wrong place.

2) Character Growth: One of the things I found missing was character growth for my protagonist. The outline I drew up looks very good on paper, but as you go through, exploring the reality of the story, you find things out that you didn't realize before. What I need to do, at this point, is take a step back and think about her story, where she came from, and where she's going. That's going to require some re-writing; and that's not compatible with pounding out the most rapid word count I can.

3) Villain Depth: Another thing I discovered as I went along is that my villain has all the depth of a lily pad on dry ground. This is another opportunity for re-thinking and re-writing. It *can* work to have a villain with "evil" drives, such as wanting to dominate and control other people, but I had nothing to him except that. As a friend pointed out, nobody thinks of themselves as evil. In order to make a villain more than a 2D caricature, you need to get inside their head and understand how they see themselves. If I want my villain to be "evil," by any sane standard, that begs the question... how does he justify it in his own mind? A good answer to that could turn a comic villain into a deeply interesting human being.

4) Time to Germinate: Another thing I realized is that sometimes, you can't just sit down and make this stuff up. I knew when I ran into points where something was missing. But it wasn't coming to me, and I couldn't force it to. I tried going on anyway, and felt very dissatisfied with the result. The only thing I can assume at this point is that my inner creative cauldron just needs more time to simmer.

So, these are the obstacles I ran into. I don't know if they'll be relevant in all situations, but if you find yourself in a similar situation, blocked in a novel, maybe this could be a helpful checklist, to see if any of these are the roadblocks you're facing.

Looking back on this challenge to myself, I think it was a ringing success. Though I didn't meet my stated goal (100,000 words in one month,) I knew at the start that I might not, and that would be okay, because I would probably learn valuable lessons along the way. And that's exactly what's happened. I'm one step closer to writing my first novel, and that first novel will probably be a little better for having done this exercise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

N: Names

It's been said that you can tell the quality of a fantasy story by the quality of the names of the people and places within. Tolkien, for example, has some of the most evocative names on record today, and his books are still the gold standard by which other fantasy stories are measured against. By contrast, I once joined a DnD game for a single session, and was handed a paladin named "Sherman." Not even making this up. He was named after the tank.

Of course, picking good names for your characters is always a challenge, whether you're writing in fantasy, or in any other genre. Writer's methods range from the laissez-faire to the deeply thoughtful. Some people don't name their characters until everything else is done. Another school of thought holds that names should be symbolically significant, or contain within them tricky allusions to other relevant works or philosophies.

For myself, I sometimes feel that the best names I come up with are not created after long and careful consideration, but come to me when I get my mind into 'the zone,' that magical place where you have your feet in the dream world, and your hands on the keyboard, and the world comes to life for a little while.

What's your theory? How do you come up with names for your characters? Any names you are particularly proud of? A technique you would like to share?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M: Morris, Dave

The other half of the Fabled Lands team (in addition to Jamie Thomson, who I spoke about last week), Dave Morris is a British gamebook author with a truly impressive list of titles to his name.

Dave Morris might be my favorite gamebook author to-date. Admittedly, he wasn't in the team that wrote Talisman of Death (childhood favorite), that was his friend, Jamie Thomson, with another collaborator, but he pushes the boundaries of what gamebooks can do. Furthermore, he is, at least by my definitions, a literary author, not just a gamebook or fantasy author. He writes Mirabilis, Years of Wonder, a comic book epic that mixes fantasy, young adult fiction, and edwardian england. He wrote Heart of Ice, one of the most thoughtful gamebooks to date, with an intriguing, post-apocalyptic setting. And recently, he put out Frankenstein--an interactive re-visioning of Mary Shelley's classic, in which the reader interacts with the text not by stepping into the shoes of a lead character, but by speaking directly to the lead characters. Sometimes, they say no!

To my knowledge, no one has ever done that before. It appears not to be to everyone's liking, judging by some mixed reviews, but I think it's fascinating.

He recently had Minotaur at the Savoy available for free via kindle, and it's still a very reasonable price for a good read.

I find that many gamebook authors are game-designers first, and not as adept as writers. Alternately, many authors are writers first and don't really know how to include an engaging, balanced game into their story. Dave Morris is one of those treasures who can do both.

Check out his blogs at or

Friday, April 13, 2012

L: Literary Lightbulb jokes

So, I came across the writercize website today due to the A-Z Challenge, and she had put a challenge forth to writers to make up some jokes. Since I've been thinking about humor in stories lately, I decided to take a stab at it. As far as I know, these are all original.

How many writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Three. One to do it and two to critique the work.

How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
One, but he'll turn it very slowly to keep the reader in the dark, until a surprise twist at the end illuminates everything.

How many romance writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Only two, but it better be a big lightbulb.

How many science fiction writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Five. One to do it, one to criticize the pedestrian technology, and the rest to speculate on the laws of a world that has no lightbulbs.

How many fantasy writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
The Darkness can only be banished by the Chosen One.

How many existentialist writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
The dying of the light is a metaphor for human existence. Why bother to fight it?

How many horror writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
None; horror writers do it in the dark.

How many literary writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Literary writers can't afford lightbulbs.

K: Kylarra

Kylarra is not a name that will mean much to most of you at the moment, but hopefully it will someday. Kylarra is the name of one of the two leads in the novel I'm working on. This is a character profile.

Kylarra is a woman of indeterminate age, with the beauty of youth, but without the soft edges. She is a sorceress from an ancient bloodline, exiled from her ancestral homeland due to the crimes of the forefathers of her particular branch of the family. So she lives as a wanderer, traveling from place to place, earning her living through song and, when a buyer can afford it, her magic.

As we get to know Kylarra, we discover that she has a troubled past. As a woman, travelling alone along the Barren Coast, she has seen her share of uncouth men and foul language. Her magic and power have protected her--from all but one man, her equal in power, charisma and seduction.

What the reader will discover is a dark tale of desire and betrayal that left Kylarra a damaged woman. She managed to extricate herself from a situation that had spiralled into abuse, but only barely, and the scars from that time are still livid upon her soul.

As the story progresses, the ghosts of Kylarra's past rise up to threaten her. Due to her magical bloodline, she has power, but there is danger in that power. If she overextends herself, magically, the Beast of Magic could enter her, pushing her out of her own body and turning her into a demon-woman of terrible power and overwhelming evil. 

With her emotional state becoming frayed by reminders of her past, Kylarra struggles to keep hold of her sanity, and keep her magic under control. When her best friend, the person who is her best and only link to the world, is threatened by the same evil man who hurt her, will she be able to master her own power and rage long enough to execute a rescue, or will she succumb to the desire for revenge?

There you have it, ladies and gents. Overly dramatic? Maybe. WTF, it's a practice novel. We'll see.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

J: "J" names in gamebooks

I'm a little late getting this post out (surprise surprise), but I've also been thinking about this challenge. I've written some fairly thoughtful posts already, but I have now said most of the heavy stuff that I have in mind. Furthermore, I'm trying to complete a novel by the end of the month, and that takes a lot of time and energy.

So, the rest of my posts for this event will be a little shorter, often linking to someone else awesome or relevant. This time, we have three "J" characters to discuss, two of whom are real people, gamebook authors, and one of whom is the lead character in a gamebook.

JJ Shultz: The lead character of "Getting Dumped," JJ Shultz breaks the mold by being a romance heroine, rather than an action hero. I, personally, am thrilled to see gamebooks branching out into other genre's, and all congratulations to Tawna Fenske for taking that step. Furthermore, JJ is a charming character: a girl's girl who likes to go out in pink hardhats and operate heavy machinery to crush things. Check out the reviews for "Getting Dumped" on Goodreads.(Although be aware, this is different from most gamebooks in that you only get to make a few choices. It's mostly straight text. But I think that's also a valid, and very interesting, way of doing it.)

Jonathan Green: Jonathan Green is one of the most established gamebook authors today, with a long line of works written for Fighting Fantasy, the recent, award-winning "Temple of the Spider God," and many other works, some gamebooks and some straight fiction. He is also one of the go-to authors for writing Warhammer novels (dream job, right???) Check out his blog at He is also participating in the April A-Z challenge.

last but not least...

Jamie Thomson: Jamie Thomson has an impressive portfolio of gamebooks under his belt, including Duel-Master, Falcon and Way of the Tiger (all co-written with Mark Smith), and Fabled Lands (co-written with Dave Morris). He's also written for Fighting Fantasy, including being co-author of Talisman of Death, my 10 year old self's favorite gamebook of all time. Oh, if only I had found some of his other works when I was that age. He recently published Dark Lord: The Teenage Years, under the auspices of his own new publishing house, Fabled Lands LLP. Go check out a review for Dark Lord: the Teenage Years, which is supposed to be hilarious. Can't wait to read it myself.
Catch you all next time!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I: If you've never read a Gamebook

If people are wandering here through the A-Z challenge, it's possible that you've never heard of gamebooks, and never read one before. What is this strange genre? you may be asking yourself. And, where can I get one?

If you've never read a gamebook, I've got good news for you: You've got some fantastic reads ahead.

They come in all shapes and sizes, in all genres, and many of them are available free or inexpensively for your reading enjoyment. Here's a short list of suggestions to get started with:

Classic Fantasy Adventure: See the Lone Wolf series, available for free on Project Aon.

Pulp Fantasy: Check out Temple of the Spider God by gamebook author Jonathan Green, published by Tin Man Games. It's not free, but it's definitely worth it! What's better, play it on your smartphone!

Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction: Try the brilliant Heart of Ice, by Dave Morris, which he is giving away for free on his website. This is his own favorite of the gamebooks he's written; high praise indeed!

Space Opera Science Fiction: See Infinite Universe, the latest gem from Tin Man Games. Try it free on your smartphone!

Romance: Yes, there is gamebook Romance! Check out Getting Dumped by Tawna Fenske, an author who has utterly charmed me with her wit and good humor. This is "Active Fiction" rather than strictly a gamebook, and the choices are few and far between, but personally, I'm delighted to see interactive fiction branching into other genres.

Historical Fiction: Set in the courts of a pseudo-renaissance era Spain, Affairs of Court holds romance, politics, duels and magic. You can also try it free on their website at!

Pirates! Take on the role of a young, British naval officer in Choice of Broadsides, as you navigate politics, pirates, betrayal and bad weather to rise to power and glory.

There--hopefully between the options given above, there should be something for everyone. Pick a genre that you like, and give it a try! Then, come back and let me know what you think ;)

Monday, April 9, 2012

H: How to Write a Gamebook

I know this topic has been covered before, by other capable bloggers, but I'll go ahead and throw in my two pence, for what it's worth.

Here's, my 8 step process to writing a gamebook:

1) Core Idea

First, come up with your idea. For me, this is usually a setting, or a character, or a certain decision I'd like to throw at the player, or some combination of the above. It usually starts small, but it can grow from there.

2) Flesh out the Story

For me, this step involves a lot of creative planning and random brainstorming. Sometimes I'll do free-writes on the computer. Other times I'll scribble all over whatever piece of paper is handiest. You want to answer the following questions:
- Who are the main characters?
- Why does the reader care? What challenges do these character face?
- What important choices will the characters face, that you can torture the reader with?
- What kind of setting will provide the best backdrop for the story? Ideally it should be both colorful and thematically appropriate. Sometimes, especially in science fiction, the choices a character must make are only possible given the inherent laws of a certain setting.
- How many major diverging branches to your story do you want to tackle? Strike a balance between replayability and how much you're willing to ask of yourself. Take your own limits seriously; it's easy to say, "I'll do it all!" but gamebooks will bloat rapidly if you let them, and every human, even you, has a limit. Make sure big branches in the story are based on important decisions.
- What will the ending be? This is often a chance to pop the "Big Question" of your gamebook, or to throw a Boss Battle at the player, or both.
- Where do you want to begin? Beginnings should introduce the most important characters, and set the tone for the rest of the gamebook.

3) Notes! Notes! Notes!

In step two, we did some heavy brainstorming and started putting it all together and answering the big questions. Now, write it all down. Compile final-ish information about...
- The Setting
- The Hero or Heroes
- The Villain(s)
- Supporting Characters
- Technical information about the world (how magic works, what spaceships are available, and what the differences are between them, how the system of mystic seals that grant shapechanging ability really works, etc.)
- Maps and place names
- Etc. You get the idea. Different stories will have different requirements for notes, with some areas being well-detailed, and others left more vague.

4) Plot the Flow-Chart

This is a critical step, like storyboarding for a comic, or outlining for a novel. You  usually don't want to just jump in, because you might write yourself into a corner and find that you don't have a way out of it. I didn't learn to write long-form until I learned to outline. Before that, I would run into a problem I hadn't anticipated, not know what to do next, get frustrated, and the story would go to the back-shelf graveyard.

In this stage you want to get a big white board, or a sheet of graph paper, or some appropriate computer program (I don't have one, but I assume they exist) and draw out the path of your story, including major branches and decision points. You don't need to work out every detail at this point; you can write in chunks, ie. "Explore dungeon #2," and the possible outcomes of those chunks, ie. "If find the jade statuette, go to reward sequence, if lose the statuette, go to the docks scene for fight with villain." Draw the lines connecting all the options. It's a big "if-then" logical flowchart.

This step is the essence of writing the gamebook. It's hard, but if you tackle it as it's own problem, you may find it easier than you think. Once you complete this step, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to finish your gamebook.

5) Write the puppy.

If the flow-chart is storyboarding, then writing is penning and inking. At this point, you should basically know what needs to happen in each scene, and you have a rough idea of about how many sections you have to allot to each scene. You'll do another mini-flowchart for each scene, either formally or just in your head, and then just sit down and write it out.

At this point, you've done the hard work. This is the fun part. But a warning: Make sure to leave enough ambiguous that you still have room for some creativity in the final writing. I've tried plotting out every single paragraph section before beginning the writing process, and it can be kind of boring to plod through writing all the sections, when you've already decided what happens in each and every single one of them.

6) Revise

Send it to all your friends and beg them to tell you the worst things they can think of about it. Then suck it up and listen to their advice. It's probably good.

At the end of the day, no one can tell you what to do with your story. You have to decide for yourself which advice is worth keeping, and which you can safely ignore. But think very hard every time someone voices a complaint and you don't take steps to make that aspect of it better. If one person has a problem, others may as well, and all it takes is one critical problem to make people hate or, worse, forget your creation, no matter how precious it is to you, or how much brilliance the rest of it has.

You may also be informed of things that you never thought of during this stage. Like, "why didn't the hero just get off the ship after the pirates threatened him?" Sometimes this will have an easy answer. Like, "oh, I forgot to mention the ship had sailed out already by then," or "There are sharks." Other times, you'll need to seriously re-think your plot.

Don't be afraid to hack and chop and make serious changes. Text that's lost when you re-write whole chapters is not wasted. If you'd never written it in the first place, you wouldn't have known how to do it better the second go-round.

7) Randomize and Sort the Numbered Sections

Up until now, almost everything could apply to any writing process. This is one that uniquely belongs to gamebooks. Maybe other people have other ways of doing it, but I number the sections more or less in the order I write them, as I go along. If you do it this way, then when you're done, you need to go back and randomize all the numbers, so that the reader won't be able to see the results of both choices he's facing by simply looking at the next two, consecutive entries.

This is a big chore. Be meticulous. It's important! Otherwise you'll end up sending someone who walks through an inn-door into the dragon's lair on another continent. What I do is make a big chart and map every  section number to a new, randomized section number, then carefully go back and change all instances of the original section number to the new number. What I've discovered is that if I append multiple zeros (ie. 0012 instead of 12) to every section number in the first draft, then I can use find-replace much more effectively during this stage.

Unlike other steps, this step is consistently harder and more annoying than you anticipate. No matter how careful you are, there will inevitably be mistakes. Go through it with a fine-toothed comb, and you should get most of them. Hopefully your publisher will be nice enough to let you go back and correct the minor errors that remain, later.

8) Final Editing

This is the final round of editing, and if there is any stage to NOT skip or skimp on, it's this one. Send it to all your friends again, and ask them in your nicest voice to read it one more time to look for any errors at all. You may want to offer cookies.

Alternately (or in addition) it's worth it to hire a professional copy-editor to take a look at it. Nothing says amateur and shoddy craftsmanship like having a text that's full of grammatical and spelling errors, in which the numbered links don't take you to the right place.

At this point, avoid making any major changes to the story flow. You will probably realize it's not perfect. Bite the bullet and accept it's as good as it's going to get. No artistic project is ever done, it's only good enough.

Once you've gotten the text as clean as you can (resisting the urge to make any major changes), then you're done. Congratulations! You've just written a gamebook! I honestly believe most people have stories to tell. Yours is probably good; probably better than you think. Send it out there and see what the world thinks of it!

That of course, gets into marketing, which is a whole other beast. My suggestion: start with some competitions. If you can win, or at least get recognized in some writing competitions, it will be a lot easier to get publishers to take you seriously. The Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction is currently open for submissions, and is a great place for amateur gamebook authors to showcase their works!

Good luck, and let me know how it goes! If you ever get stuck and need some advice, or want someone to look over your works, let me know! I will read, or at least look at, anything anyone sends me :)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

G: Gamebook Theory

At the risk of seeming like something of a one-trick pony, this post is about Gamebook Theory. I'll try to make this one shorter and more accessible, a bullet-point version, for those who want a quick primer before writing gamebooks of their own, without extensive reading on the subject.

I think there are three important things to keep in mind when crafting a gamebook: Continuity, Character, and Challenge.

Continuity: This is the logical flow of your gamebook. Quite aside from whether you're telling an engaging story that hooks the reader or not (that's Character), your story must make sense. There are many types of choices that the reader can be presented with, including the Shell Game Choice, the Which Door Choice, the Tactical Choice, and more. (See my first few posts on Gamebook Theory.)

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the reader feel that they are in a meaningful universe making meaningful choices. Options they are presented with should be relevant to the story, (meaning something important should be at stake) and the player should be given enough hints to have something to think about when making a decision, without obviously giving away which is the "correct" answer. Finally, the results the book actually delivers from each decision should logically flow from that decision.

Got it? Good. I'll move on. (Feel free to comment or email me with questions, btw, even if you don't come across this for years later.)

Character: This is the essence of your story. Stories don't happen without characters. But having a deep and compelling character doesn't matter if the reader doesn't know it. What's most important in this category is that the character be put into a position the reader can immediately empathize with.

You're on a road, whistling as you walk, when the road forks. Do you go left or right?

What do I care? Does it make any difference?

On the other hand... You're looking for the Lost City of Xian'Tul. If you don't beat your nemesis there, he's going to kill your sister AND be awarded Archeologist of the Year by the Royal Society. Now, do you go left or right?

Suddenly, this choice is deeply relevant to me.

See what I mean? Some of the deeper aspects of a character can come from their backstory and what happened to them as a child, but that stuff only really provides context. The important thing about Character, from a story-craft perspective, is the knotty situations the character finds themselves in. This is what the reader can empathize with, and what makes the reader start to care about the character.

This is true of straight fiction also. What builds character isn't a fancy backstory, but having to make difficult choices on-screen, choices the reader can empathize with. The difference is that, in gamebooks, the reader doesn't have to just hypothetically answer the question, then safely sit back watch the character on screen deal with it. In a gamebook, the reader has to answer the question him- or herself, and face the consequences personally.

Challenge: The third, and arguably most important aspect of a gamebook is Challenge. If your challenge level is off, no one is going to read your gamebook, no matter how beautifully crafted the narrative is in terms of continuity and character.

To get the right challenge level, you want to threaten the player without actually killing him. You want to make the events seem dangerous, and show what hangs in the balance, but you always want to give him a way out, as long as he is clever enough. [Note: clever enough does not mean he can randomly pick the right door out of three. It means he can read into the text, draw logical conclusions from sparse information, and solve puzzles and problems.]

Many gamebooks incorporate a random element, such as combat. This can be a lot of fun for a player, mostly because randomness is inherently exciting. You get to hope for a great roll, and dread a terrible roll, both of which are exciting emotions that mean the game is working.

It's a fine line to walk, though, because if it's too difficult, the player will die too often and get frustrated and walk away, but if it's too easy, the player will get bored without a risk of failure and, likewise, walk away.

Humans are problem-solving machines. Our brains LOVE solving problems. As soon as there is no problem to solve any more, we lose interest. Yet, if the problem seems to not be solveable, or can only be solved by brute force (ie. trying every possible option), or requires too much tedium of the player whenever a failure occurs, we'll lose interest. We're finicky. No one game is going to get it perfectly right, but it's worth it to know what the goal is.

One final exhortation, and then I'll let you go: always make the results the player gets be based on their problem solving ability, not pure randomness. One recent, published gamebook, by a talented, professional gamebook author, included a challenge toward the end which required the player to roll above a certain number on a dice or immediately die. The book was otherwise popular and critically acclaimed, but this decision struck a negative chord in the gaming community, and there were a lot of complaints about that particular challenge. The problem is that the player doesn't get to solve any problem. There's no game to it. You just have to try again and again until you get it right. There may have been a way around it; if so, I didn't find it. It seemed to be required to beat the game, and that is (no offense, should the author happen to read this) terrible game design.

As it happened, in my play-through, that challenge was sandwiched by several others of a similar sort. Lacking enough incentive or motivation to go all the way back and try a different route, I wound up doing about a hundred run-throughs of the same 8 or so paragraph sections, until the dice, by sheer good luck, randomly decided to let me proceed through this particular sequence of combats and arbitrary death-checks. It was not an awesome game experience, and a serious blemish on an otherwise excellent gamebook.

Don't be that guy! Give your player problems to solve, not dice to roll. Don't kill the player randomly or arbitrarily, without giving them a chance to think their way out of the problem. Make your combats of sufficient challenge to scare the player, but make sure the odds are at least 80% or higher that they will win, if they play their cards right going into the challenge. If every random encounter has a 50% chance of killing you, how are you supposed to ever get to the end?

Alright, I'm rambling now. I hope I've made the point. As this is a blog post, I will leave this as-is rather than trying to clean it up, but I hope you've been able to get something useful out of it.

Next time, we will do H: How to Write a Gamebook, in which I will present a short series of 8 steps to writing a gamebook, should you want to try it at home.

Have a great day =)

Friday, April 6, 2012

F: Final Thoughts on Mars 2112

I apologize (again) for dragging out this discussion so long! In truth, Game Theory in general, and Gamebook Theory in specific are something that I have the odd trait of waxing passionate and poetical about. *shrug* I didn't make me. I just turned out this way. I claim no responsibility.

Anyway, to continue (for those who may still be reading), I present, Part III, Part the Last, of Discussion on Mars 2112: Final Thoughts.

I've left only one significant decision to discuss in this final episode, and that's the final decision of the gamebook. Should you survive the last Shell Game Choice (see end of E: Even More Discussion of Mars 2112), then you will find yourself standing over the dead body of your friend and protege, fellow agent Amanda Garret, while over her a pretty android stands shaking, holding a smoking gun.

I'm afraid my attempt to build emotional connection with the characters in this short gamebook failed, mainly because of the brevity. It's hard to work up much feeling for a character you've just met about four paragraphs back, but I tried.

Anyway, the point of this entry is to present an example of the kind of decision I love, which is the Character Decision. Per the narrative, you grab the smoking gun from the hot blonde android and throw her to the ground, and then you're given the choice whether to kill her or not.

On the one hand, she just killed someone who you cared about a great deal, and she's not even technically alive, herself. Furthermore, as the text points out, there wouldn't be any legal repercussions for killing her. She's a plastic; they don't have rights. (As has been made clear with the background conflict: the entire reason the terrorists are here in the first place is as a violent means of lobbying for basic human rights.) On the other hand, you would be killing her in cold blood.

This, of course, raises the question of whether a clever AI in a very human-seeming body is alive, or not. It seems to me, personally, that no matter how well-coded, even if given perfect humanoid self-preservation instincts, logical capacity, and everything, a computer program still won't be self-aware. But if the program running the android really is good enough to give all the cues that humans use to communicate with each other, verbally or non-verbally, how would you tell? Would it even really matter?

This is a question which fascinates me. And kind of creeps me out. A 17 section gamebook, done as an example of the kinds of choices you find in gamebooks, isn't really the place to explore this question, but it seemed like more fun than doing a short example gamebook that didn't explore any meaningful question.

The point is, that this is a choice which requires the player to think, not about what's tactically best (though that is fun) but about morals, and life. In order to decide whether to pull the trigger or not, you have to decide for yourself whether you think androids are really alive or not. Then, you have to decide whether that matters when it comes time to kill one. Which is more important, punishing her for killing your friend, or the value of a fair trial and not killing in cold blood?

Not only is it a moral question, but it says something about the character that you're playing. You get to decide something about the hero, something which changes the main character. And that is interesting.

In the end, from an external point of view, whether you pull the trigger or not doesn't make much tangible difference. If you spare her, she gets sentenced to death in the courts not long later. (Or, at least, to "de-commissioning," although whether that's a significant distinction is up for debate.)

But the decision you make changes the main character. It may not affect the outside world, but it says something about who you are. Either way, your character will be a hero in this world after these events, for saving an entire sector from suffocation by dome collapse. What your character thinks could shape the world. If you kill the android, I took the liberty of extrapolating that this means you are not an android sympathizer. The message you bring the public after the fact, as a celebrity of middling stature, is one of taking a hard stance against androids. However if you spare her life, this may not spare her, but it tells me, as the author, that you are an android sympathizer. In this path, though that particular character still ends up dead, the main character brings a very different message to the public, and with a world on edge as this one is, the difference in message your character brings to the public could make the difference in how the politics of this colony develop over the next few years, and what kind of living standards the plastics of Colony 654 can expect, going forward.

It does run the risk of being seen as a "Shell Game" Choice, in that you think you're making one decision, but the results are actually something very different. But I think that the logical connection is significant enough to leave the player not feeling too disappointed. I hope. The purpose here is to give an example of a choice which changes the main character.

My message here is to say that choices which say something about the main character, about who that person is, or who they may be changing into, and make the reader themselves seriously sit down and consider their own stance on difficult moral and ethical questions, are my favorite kind of choices. This, I think, is the real potential that gamebooks have to offer the world, and I do not think gamebooks, as a genre, have really reached that potential yet. In fact, I think they are only just beginning to scrape the surface of what they could be.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy the rest of your A-Z month :)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

E: Even more discussions of Mars 2112

Hello All,

I fell off the wagon for a few days, but I'm jumping back on and trying to get caught up with posting E, F, G and H all today. Big day!

To start with, I wanted to pick up where I left off with E: Even more discussion of Mars 2112.

We left off on the "D" blog post after section 4. On section four, the player is given the only choice that significantly diverges the storyline. Traditionally, such choices are geographical. In this case, you have the option to go straight into the building, or try to sneak in underneath. As these are literally different paths, I had to write different plot paths as well. Something I would like to see more of, however, is branching plot paths based on character-driven choices, rather than geographical choices.

In this case, let's follow the "charge straight in" path first.

As we discussed last week, the choice you make in 4 is tactical, because what equipment you chose back in section 1 will make a difference now. In this case, if you charge straight in, you'd better have the EMP bomb, or it's Game Over. In a longer gamebook, there may be other options; perhaps instead of instant death if you don't have the right equipment, it could be a more challenging fight. But, as an author, it's always important to make the player's previous decisions matter. If I had provided the choice of the EMP bomb or invisibility early on, and then it never came up again, the player would feel cheated.

If you take the other route, of attempting to sneak in under the building, you end up with the exact same type of test, only it's required to have the Personal Camouflage Unit in order to survive and continue. There's no real choice, it's just, you succeed if you have the right equipment, and you don't if you don't--but it's rewarding to the player for the reasons we discussed above. Either way, if you pick the right path for your equipment, you continue to Section 11, where you find a hatch to the control center.

In Section 11, I included an example of a "Which Door" choice, asking the player if you go right or left, without providing any information about either path to give the player a reason to choose one over the other. "Which Door" choices are a big pet peeve of mine. Although I have to admit they do have a place, I think gamebooks in general, and especially the older gamebooks, heavily overuse this type of choice.

The important thing to realize is that a "Which Door" choice is not a choice. It's a randomizer. Just like there are times when you want the player to roll dice to determine a random result, there are also times when you can give them multiple choices with no information as to what leads where as a method of leading them in a random direction. But never make the mistake of thinking it's a choice.

In this case, it's especially bad because the choice doesn't even matter in the end. It's what I call an "Illusionary Choice." If you take the wrong path, you'll simply run into a dead end and have no option except to go back and re-unite with the main path. This is another thing I included as an example of what not to do. This doesn't even have the redeeming characteristics that a "Which Door" choice has. As far as I can tell, an Illusionary Choice has no purpose, and should never be used. Does anybody disagree?

In Section 13, you finally get to the actual control room (whether you want to or not). Here, I provided another example of what not to do: the "Shell Game" choice. The player is given a choice of whether to investigate the controls immediately, or attempt to radio command for tech support. The player might imagine there might be time constraints; perhaps if you take the time to radio in for tech support, you won't fix it in time. But if you blunder in without advice, you may make it worse. Or you may imagine that radioing to the commander might alert enemy forces to your position.

In truth, none of these considerations are relevant. The only outcome of your decision is to determine whether it's you or your assistant Amanda who gets shot by the terrorist plastic still in hiding here. You think you're getting one thing, but you're actually getting another. That's why I call it a "Shell Game" choice.

Like the "Which Door" choice, I object to the "Shell Game" choice in principle, but like the "Which Door," it does have a place. The danger is that the player will feel cheated because what they thought they were getting is taken away. Like the "Which Door" choice, it's essentially a randomizer, but in a sense it's even meaner to the player, because it asks the player to make a thoughtful choice based on certain considerations, and then rips that away. The considerations and the choice and the effort the player made are rendered meaningless because the results are wholly unrelated to the decision the player thought they were making.

This type of choice can have a place. In fact, this example, despite my best efforts to make it awful, turned out to be not too bad. It's a surprise, yes, but it's a point in the story where a surprise is called for. It's random, but it at least logically follows, to some degree. If you knew all the information when you were making the choice, the results that followed would make sense. This happens in real life; why not in gamebooks? Much worse examples of a "Shell Game" choice can be found in many gamebooks, especially the old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. I read a CYOA book once, in which if you sat down at a certain table with a certain man early in the game, you would then fly to Africa and win the book, without a single other narrative choice. The end. Congratulations, you win! There's no way this logically follows, no matter how much you stretch it. Worse are the ones where you lose based on a Shell Game choice. Like if you decide to make a certain phone call, you wind up falling out of the airlock and dying, with no other chance to save yourself. My hackles rise whenever I see this kind of choice.

I was hoping to wrap up my discussion of Mars 2112 with this post, but I've run out of space, and there's still more to say. I apologize for the length of this discussion! I hope it is at least of some interest :)

See you next time with "F: Final Thoughts on Mars 2112!"

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D: Discussion on Mars 2112

Yesterday, I posted a short sample gamebook. It's 17 entries, with maybe half a dozen real choices, but hopefully there's enough substance there to give you an idea what gamebooks are about.

It was a fun experience for me to write a short gamebook that quickly. I definitely found myself enjoying the world and the themes as I was working on it. This is possibly a story (or at least, a setting) that could bear a more well-developed treatment. 

Anyway, my intent today is to break it down a bit, and talk about what it's doing, what's good and what's bad. Ready... Go!

I've been amusing myself on this blog by describing kinds of choices that gamebooks can offer readers. The short gamebook I posted yesterday, Mars 2112, was designed to showcase a few of those kinds of choices. Let's go over them...

The very first choice you make is to pick the equipment you bring with you on your mission. You are forced to pick one of two options, a weapon or a stealth device. My intent with this choice was to demonstrate the "Apples or Oranges" style of choice, a choice in which the reader must pick between two things that cannot be easily compared to one another. This is good, because there is no "right" answer, and yet it is still a meaningful choice.

The other thing I would like to point out about this first choice is that it may be jarring for some readers to be presented with a choice about equipment when the text so far has been so story-based. It's a shift of gears. For experienced gamers, they will know what to expect and may enjoy this kind of choice. For someone new to games in general, and gamebooks in particular, I speculate that being asked to think about equipment alll of a sudden may not be fun. What do you think?

Next, you are faced with a choice regarding whether to go against the Commander's advice and try to talk to the terrorists, or search around and examine the building to consider an assault. My intent with this was to offer a "Cake or Death" choice, as an example of what NOT to do in a gamebook. I'm afraid that I might not have completely succeeded, because despite numerous hints that talking to them is not a good idea, the text still leaves enough room for speculation that someone might try anyway--especially given that many people's moral codes may require them to attempt talking rather than jumping to killing, even if it's dangerous.

A true Cake or Death choice is any choice in which one answer is clearly better. This is not something you want to do, but I was trying to demonstrate it for the example's sake. What do you think? Did I get there? 

Because this gamebook is so short, most branching storylines involve prompt player death. This is to avoid too many branches to the story that could cause the word count to bloat. That said, there is at least one choice that does take you through one of two different possible (viable) paths.  If you make it to section 4, you're given the choice to storm the building or sneak in. This falls under two categories of choices, one good and one bad. 

The good category this falls under is the "Tactical Choice," which is just the term I've been using to describe when your choice in one area may depend on situational factors, such as how much life you have left or, in this case, what equipment you brought with you. If you have the EMP grenade, storming the castle is the better option, but if you have the camouflage unit, then stealth is the better path. This requires the player to engage with the text, consider all factors, and then rewards the player with a possible "right" decision if they successfully think it through.

There is a school of thought that having a "right" option isn't good--but really, it's a little bit more complicated than that. If there is a right answer, then the player is faced not with a choice, but with a calculation. The challenge isn't for the player to pick between two competing values, but instead to think through the tactically correct approach. This isn't bad; it's like doing math. You have a problem, you solve it. If you solve it successfully, you get a reward. But it is important to remember that it isn't a real choice--unless the player doesn't solve the calculation correctly, and makes the decision based on other factors. But that carries it's own problems. Ideally, this type of problem should strike a good balance between providing enough hints in the text that there are clues as to the right answer, while not giving the answer away outright. It's not an easy balance to strike, but when successful, can be very good. Finding the clues to make good choices is one of the fun mini-games in a gamebook.

The other reason that I like the "Tactical Choice" is because, while it is a calculation, the answer can be different depending on past choices the player has made, or other factors. This helps prevent it from becoming stale, as if the player is in a different situation next time they come around, they get to solve the problem again, rather than just remembering the answer from last time.

All this is discussion regarding the tactical aspects of the choice whether to storm the building or sneak in; it's a modest example of a tactical choice, but it is one. But you'll remember I said this choice falls under another category as well, a less-desirable category. This choice, in Section 4 of Mars 2012, also falls under the category of "Blah" choice.

The "Blah" choice, according to my blog post on the topic, is one where the reader doesn't have any narrative reason to care. I won't say this wholly falls under this topic. If you're interested in tactics, this is an interesting choice, and you do have reason to care because of the stakes if you fail your mission. But it is not a character-driven choice, and to me that makes it less interesting.
What do you think? Do you care about this choice in the story, or is it just a roadblock to get through? Do you have a moment of fun in considering the tactical aspect of the choice? Do you think the answer is too easy and obvious, or not obvious enough?

And with that, I'm going to call this post here. We're only 4 sections in, but the discussion is shaping up to be longer than the original piece. Typical. Tomorrow, we will continue with "E: Even more discussion on Mars 2012!"

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your own projects!

P.S. I came across something in writing this, and that's the concept of including clues in the text to hint to the player which choice is the correct one. That's a dynamic I haven't discussed yet in my Gamebook Theory series. I'll have to look at that more closely in a future post. (Maybe after the A-Z Challenge!)

C: Choice in a Book - Mars 2112

"Choice in a book? What? You don't get to make choices in a book!"

Ah, but if it's a game book, you do. And therein is the essence of a gamebook.

Yesterday I talked about the basics of writing, and this time I'd like to talk about the basics of a gamebook. Basically, a gamebook is a book that lets you make choices as you are reading it. It's a very cool piece of fiction that allows the reader to engage with the text in a way that traditional media can never deliver.

Here, perhaps it would be best to illustrate with a short example. I bring you the short, original gamebook: "Mars 2112."

Mars 2112

You are Mike Durham, operative for the Special Android Task Force of Colony 654, on Mars. As you sit down to a steaming dinner of synthetic carrots, potatoes and beef, you notice again your gut is getting out of control. You pledge that tomorrow, you'll cut the dinner ration. Tonight, you flick on the TV and start eating.

The news tonight focuses, again, on tensions between androids, called "plastics," and humans. One speaker, a balding, energetic man, holds forth volubly, "Yes, Melinda--I know that Colony 654 wouldn't have survived without the plastics, but that doesn't mean they're human. We wouldn't have made it without spaceships either, but that doesn't mean spaceships get equal rights!"

As you watch, you become vaguely aware of your personal android assistant standing over your shoulder, watching the TV. She's a Shiela model, which means she has attractive blonde hair and naturally red lips. When you look at her, her eyes are fixed on the screen. After a moment, the plastic turns her attention to you and says, "Sir, call on the line for you. It's Commander Blint."

"Put him through," you say, cleaning your mouth. Your commander's voice comes eerily out of the woman's pretty mouth. "Durham, is that you? Get down here right away, we've got a 147200."

Damn. More terrorists. You'd think after the first two colonies on Mars had already been destroyed, people would learn to stop killing each other. You copy down the address and shovel down a couple more bites while you shrug on your uniform and gear. The plastic watches you dress with that eerie, unblinking stare. You can never bring yourself to call her by name. Instead, you say, "You, bring me my..."

You hesitate. Which piece of gear do you want? You know you only have time to carry one down to the mobile pod. You  may choose either the backpack-sized EMP bomb, specially calibrated to disable androids, or your Personal Camouflage Unit, which gives you the next best thing to invisibility.

Write down whichever one you choose, then proceed to Section 2.


You slip into your mobile pod and get the siren running. Looking up at the white, plexiglass dome that passes for a sky here, you wonder what it could be like if the glass were just gone. Would you die of asphyxiation first, or of cold? With no humans, would the plastics keep going? Would they build their own civilization?

You pull to a halt outside the scene of the incident, tires screeching. A menagerie of sirens already blare outside a non-descript engineering building. As you recognize the place, your heart sinks. That building controls the dome for this sector. Without the delicate balancing act of mathematics and energy pulses organized by the computer in this building, the dome would fall. Finding out what would happen without it suddenly seems all-too-real a possibility.

Commander Blint greets you as you approach. "Durham. Good to see you. This is one of the worst we've seen yet. We've got terrorists, including a dozen plastics and at least three humans, holed up inside the Dome Control Building. They've unplugged the central power supply. We're running on battery life now."

"How long have we got?" you ask, eyeing the all-too-fragile dome above your head.

"Three hours, maybe less," Blint says. "They refuse to negotiate. They already killed Bernie when he went in unarmed. They say their demands have to be met, or they'll let every human in the sector die."

You raise one eyebrow. "Any chance...?"

Blint shakes his head sharply. "The MSOD has already made it clear it is not the policy of this colony to negotiate with terrorists. We're on our own."

If you insist you want to go in and talk to them, even though Commander Blint says it would be suicide, turn to Section 3.
If you examine the area to come up with another plan, turn to Section 4.


The commander protests, but you insist. You're going to negotiate, or die trying. You shrug out of your armored jacket and pass off your gun. Feeling naked, you approach the front door.

"I just want to talk!" you call out.

"Are you prepared to accept our demand for equal rights for all android units?" A voice calls out from somewhere inside the square building.

"Now, let's talk about this. I'm sure there's some agreement we can come to."

"No talking!" The voice says. With a shiver, you realize why the voice sounds familiar. It's the voice of another Shiela model. She shouts, "Go back, or we will shoot you!"

"I just want to talk! There's no reason to be like that." You take another step.

Gunfire roars and an impact shocks you. You hit the ground hard. You feel so dizzy. Legs, your legs won't move. Cold. You lift one hand; it's covered in blood. Somewhere in the background, Commander Blint is shouting.

The last thing you hear, strangely clear among the hubbub, is the android's female voice saying, "Stupid fool. I didn't want to have to do that."

The End.


You move up to the police line, examining the squat, square building. Strange that the key to the survival of this whole sector should be inside that one, inconspicuous building. Why wasn't it better guarded? From inside, you hear someone with a loudspeaker shouting to the city, "Androids of Mars, stop letting yourselves be treated like slaves! Stand up for your rights!"

"Why'd that stupid Jap have to give them free will?" One of the men near you mutters. His companion replies, "There's a reason they were outlawed on Earth."

You growl, your voice pitched for their ears, "Those androids saved our lives. If we hadn't gotten this unit, Colony 654 would be so much dust, like all the other colonies on this god-forsaken planet."

As you walk away, you hear one of the men mutter, "It's not like they're actually conscious. Just programmed to act like it."

Letting that slide, you continue your examination of the building. When you're done, you pull up blueprints of the building, which Commander Blint has managed to secure from somewhere. He says, "Well, Durham? You're the expert. What's your suggestion?"

"The way I see it, we've got two options," you say, pointing. "We can either storm the building with three teams, one entering here, one here, and one here. Or I can take just a couple of good agents, and we can try to sneak inside from the wetworks, below."

Blint nods slowly. You know the man. He's good for speeches, not for decisions. It's going to be up to you.

If you'd like to storm the building, turn to Section 5.
If you'd like to sneak in from below, turn to Section 8.


You organize the assault teams at a mobile HQ around the corner, to be out of sight of the building. There will be three teams of 6 men each. You decide to take the one that will be going in the front. It's the most dangerous, and the most critical. You can't trust anyone else to do the job.

When everyone is in place, you feel strangely uninterested. A bit of sweat beads your forehead, but the adrenaline hasn't kicked in yet. Have you done this one too many times? Is today the day your luck will run out? Maybe after this, you should consider that retirement package.

A half-dozen gas rockets stream overhead and into the windows of the building. That marks your signal to go. You rush up and run across the intervening space in a low jog. Gunfire blazes, and you hear men around you crying out in pain as they're hit.

You burst in the door and shoot something which moves. Smoke everywhere, and you can't use infrared, because the plastics are room temperature. Breathing through the gas mask gives the world a strange, closed-in feeling.

Where is your adrenaline? As far as your body is concerned, you could be taking a walk in the park. You kick down a door, and find a half dozen plastics looking up at you with shocked faces. They're huddled over the body of a human--someone knocked down by the gas.

As one, they grab for weapons. Do you have an EMP bomb?

If so, turn to section 6.
If not, turn to section 7.


You pull the cord on your EMP bomb. What always surprises you is how much fanfare there isn't. There's no flash of light, barely even a sound. The plastics in front of you just all sag to the ground, weapons dropping from lifeless fingers. You know they won't be repairable. Their electronics have been fried permanently. They look as pretty as ever, but the wiring inside is gone.

You step over the bodies--can dead plastics be called bodies?--and see the hatch to the central control room.

Looking back, you see a few of your best people gathering in the gloom. This area must be secure. "Come on," you say. "It's time to finish this."

Turn to Section 11.


A Dave model lifts a fierce looking gun, his handsome face twisted in an ugly grimace, but your gun flares to life first, ripping apart his torso as if it were paper. He falls, his eyes still flashing hatred, but with his body torn to shreds, you know there's nothing more it can do.

Sadly, the other four plastics in the room have by now had time to get their own weapons prepared. There is nothing you can do to stop them from shooting you down where you stand.

As you die, you think of the Shiela model, waiting at your house. The only person waiting for you. The only one who will notice when you don't come home. Will she care? Does she feel anything at all?

The End.


The Wetworks is a term for the underground facility that spreads beneath most of Colony 654. It's where a lot of the life-support and other engineering required to make the domes livable happens, safely tucked out of sight. Work down here is dangerous and miserable; secluded from the sun sometimes for days at a time. That's why it's often left to plastics. Hell, this is probably how they got in themselves.

Unsurprisingly, they have the entrance guarded. You stop, just out of sight, to confer with your two agents, Amanda Garret and Rick Shane, both seasoned veterans. "There's two guarding this entrance," you say. "If we can get past them, we should be able to get right up to the control center without stirring the hornet's nest on the top level. Easy in, easy out."

"If we can get past them," Agent Shane says darkly.

"Let me do it!" Agent Garret says, her eyes bright in the darkness. "I can sneak up; they'll never know what hit them."

If you have a Personal Camouflage Unit, turn to Section 9.
If you do not, then it makes most sense to let Agent Garret take point on this one. Turn to Section 10.


"Not this time, Mandy," you say casually. You wink and activate the Personal Camouflage Unit, and are rewarded with looks of startlement on the faces of your agents. You say, "Follow on my signal," and suppress a chuckle as their eyes widen and they look around, instinctively trying to find a face to put with the voice, even though they know you won't be visible.

You slip up to the entrance and knock softly on the rattling aluminum door that guards the only entrance. Someone opens it, suspiciously holding the door open only a crack. It's enough.

You grab the person's leg and flip them forward out through the door. Before they can recover, you slip through and blast the next person with a stun gun that will be effective at knocking out both humans and plastics.

You give both bodies a few more stuns, to be safe, then lift one of their hands and pose it in a thumbs up sign, to tell your agents to come along.

As they get there, the short battery life of the Personal Camouflage Unit fails, and you stutter back into visibility. Shrugging, you say, "Just up ahead, there's a hatch that will let us into the central control room."

Turn to Section 11.


Agent Garret nods sharply and grips her weapon more tightly. You've seen her move. The woman could sneak past a cat. You only hope it will be enough.

She slips out into the dark, but before she's half way there, you know there's simply not enough cover. She ducks behind a pipe and pauses to look back at you and smile.

That's when the bullet takes her. For as long as you live, you'll remember the sight of her dying. Fortunately for you, that won't be very long.

You cry out in rage and emerge from cover, guns blazing. At least one android face explodes before they take you down too.

"Sorry Blint," you murmur as you lay, dying. "Didn't get it right, this time."

The End.


You slip through the hatch that should lead to the central control room, only to find a long, dark hallway extending in both directions.

"Things are never simple," you mutter. "You, guard this door, and you, come with me." You point at Agent Amanda Garret to come with you. A protege of yours, you have the utmost faith in her abilities. Even as you choose her, a quail of fear crosses your heart. You couldn't bear to see anything happen to her. But you know that if you try to shelter her from the dangers of this job, it wouldn't be fair to either of you.

Looking back at the hallway, you sigh. The blueprints were clearly not up to date. Which way will you go?

If you go left down the hallway, turn to Section 12.
If you go right down the hallway, turn to Section 13.


The hallway narrows as you travel along it. The walls feel rickety, as if this was never meant for regular traffic. Soon, overhanging pipes force you to crawl down on your hands and knees in order to continue. A puff of steam hisses past your face. You peer ahead into the gloom, trying to find some sign of whether you're headed the right direction.

"Sir," Amanda's voice comes from behind you.


"I think I recognize this facility. If I'm right, then we should have gone the other way back there."

You nod. "I think you're right. Let's go back."

Letting her lead now, you turn back and go the other direction back up the hallway. You only hope you're not too late.

Turn to Section 13.


The dark hallway widens and starts to climb. The walls drop away after a time, and you find yourself walking along a catwalk, high above the tangle of pipes, big and small, that make up the wetworks.

"Here," Amanda says, pointing at a rickety-seeming ladder. "This should take us there."

"How do you know?" You eye the ladder suspiciously.

"See all the lines heading into that structure?" She says, "That's the power line, and that's the hydraulics. That room up there has to be the control room."

A hail of gunfire suddenly rains down on the catwalk; sparks leap from the metal walkway around you.

"Down!" Amanda shouts, but you know there is no where to hide. You swiftly train your stun gun on the place where the gunfire is coming from and shoot. To your satisfaction, a human shape tumbles from the structure above you and falls the full way down, to be lost in the shadows below.

"Let's move, now!" You snap, and the two of you quickly scale the ladder. No more gunfire comes, and at the top you emerge onto a narrow platform with a single door. You kick down the door without hesitation and burst into a dark room.

Banks of computer displays blink in the darkness. Dials and levers beneath the display promise esoteric power. Here, you realize, is the heart of the system that maintains the dome for this sector. A red light blinks ominously off to one side, probably indicating that power is failing.

Who would do this? Who would threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, just to prove a point?

If you investigate the controls immediately, turn to Section 14.
If you risk breaking wireless silence to contact Commander Blint for guidance, turn to Section 15.


You step into the dark room and move quickly to the controls. You know the power must be here to save the dome; if only you can figure out how to use it.

You are leaning in close to examine a reading when the shot comes. You never see it. You never hear it. It takes you in the side of your head. The bullet travels faster than the neurons to your brain, meaning you literally do not even feel the pain of the lethal wound.

The End.


As you try to raise a link to the police network--which is supposed to be present throughout the city, dammit--Amanda pushes past you to investigate the controls in the small room.

"No signal," you say with a curse.

"I think I'm making sense of this," Amanda says. "Look here--"

Her voice is cut off abruptly with the sound of a gunshot. Before you can react, Amanda's dead body slumps to the floor. To one side, shaking, feminine hands hold a smoking gun.

You leap forward and grab the gun, ripping it from the hands of a slightly-built woman. You grab her by the arm and throw her to the ground. She cries out in pain as she hits it.

Shaking with rage, you lift the gun that she just used to kill your student, and level it at her head.

She looks up. It's an android, the Sheila model. Now that she's out of the shadow, her hair fairly glows blonde. The similarity to your own Sheila model is uncanny, as always.

In a small voice, she says, "Please don't kill me... I don't want to die."

"Neither did Amanda," you growl. "What about all the people who live in this sector? Think they want to die?"

"We just wanted... to make things better. We thought you would listen..." She says.

Androids have no rights. There will be absolutely no legal repurcussions if you destroy this renegade model. You look over at Amanda's corpse, a bleeding hole where her beautiful, clever face used to be.

If you pull the trigger, turn to Section 16.
If you spare her and use the stun gun instead, turn to Section 17.


The gun fires with surprising ease. There's a kickback in your hand, and the android's head splits open, revealing sparking wires and a blue glow that fades, then goes out.

It didn't bring Amanda back, but you feel a little better.

As you go about fixing the system and getting the dome stable again, you think about the plastics. If free will only lets them kill people, then why let them have it at all? It's not like they have true feelings. Just programming. It's not worth the loss of human lives.

Afterward, you are the hero of the day. The news programs can't seem to stop talking about the brave agent who penetrated the terrorist held compound to turn back on the dome. Several sad programs are run about Amanda Garrett. When you try to stop answering questions on the topic, the newsmen explain that your close personal relationship with her makes a great angle. The public eats it up.

If one good thing comes out of it all, it's a offhanded suggestion made at the department Earthcrossing Holiday Party a few weeks later. You mention your thoughts of retirement to Commander Blint, and he winks knowingly, saying, "Ah, ready to start your career in politics, eh? I've been expecting that. Well, good luck to you. And know that you'll have my vote!" He lifts his glass in a toast to you.

As you wash your face later that night, you speculate, maybe you should go into politics. You've done well enough to make a name for yourself. The people could really get behind someone who was willing to take a strong stance against Androids. It's about time someone did.

The End.


You lower the revolver and pull out your own stun-gun, using that to disable the Sheila model, but it ends up not mattering, anyway. Once you turn the dome back on and round up the terrorists, the android criminals are all dismantled, their memories wiped and parts re-purposed for repairs on other units.

After the hearings, when you see the various parts of the Sheila model that killed Amanda being taken off in different directions, you wonder what was really lost when that unit was dismantled. Anything at all? Or is it really all just a trick of electronics, the result of one Japanese engineer's obsession with making lifelike dolls?

But as you lay awake at night, long after the events of that day, her last words come back to you. We just wanted to make things better.

Before long, you find yourself attending debates and political discussions on the topic of androids. An anti-plastic group recognizes you at one of these events and pulls you up on stage, waiting with bated breath to hear the words of the hero who saved an entire sector from android terrorists.

To your surprise, and their chagrin, you take the stage, but not to recite the traditional incendiary android-hate speech. Instead, you find yourself talking about the need for equal rights. If androids are self-aware enough to ask for equal rights, who is to say they aren't self-aware enough to deserve them? If androids had been given a fair bargain from the start, that terrorist attack never would have happened. The dome would never have been threatened. A lot of strife and suffering, going back to the very beginning, could have been avoided.

Amanda would still be alive.

You speak, and people listen.

The End (for real this time)

That's all, folks!

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this short example of what a gamebook is/can be. Please comment! I always like to hear what people think.

Tomorrow, I will be continuing with D for Discussion, in which I will discuss the choices made in this short example of a gamebook, what kinds of categories those choices can be divided into, and which are good examples of choices gamebooks often use, and which are examples of non-ideal types of choices.

Cheers :)

Monday, April 2, 2012

B: Basics of Writing

Hundreds of thousands of people write novels every year. It's not a unique or terribly important experience, in the grand scheme of things. But having sex isn't a unique experience either, and it's still pretty damn important the first time you do it. (And hopefully a few times after that, too.)

I am now writing my first novel. It's a big step for me. I'm trying to pretend it's not a big deal by describing it, in my own mind, as "a practice novel." Also by rushing through it as quickly as possible so as not to give myself a chance to panic

In order to reach this point, I had to arrive at a few basic principles, enough to make me feel like I know how to write a novel. I would like to share those with you now.

Without further ado, the basics of writing:

1) Have a Story: I know, it seems obvious, but we're talking basics here. Writing is communication. Don't write for the sake of putting words on paper. Write for the sake of communicating something. If you're writing a novel, that 'something' should be a story. Ideally, there will be morals and messages and lessons about life nestled in there as well, but "nestled" is the key word. It should essentially be a story.

In my recent experience, I knew that I had a novel when the climactic moment of the story came to me. It's a powerful moment, when someone defies odds, defies pain and terror and bad habits to strike out against the darkness, even when it seems overwhelming. It's a symbolic moment. It's a story.

Basically, before you try to tell a story, make sure you have a story.

2) Be Clear: Advice to authors really likes to urge, "be concise." It's not bad advice, but on looking back at some great novels, honestly, they aren't always concise. Hemingway? Yes. Tolstoy? Not so much. I think what is really meant by "be concise" might actually be, "be clear."

As we established above, writing is communication. Don't write unless you have something to say. As a second tenet to that first one: make what you're saying really, really clear. In any given scene, the reader should know what's at stake. Tell them, in a hundred little ways. Then tell them directly, out loud. Don't bore them with repetition, but reinforce it, again and again, showing new perspectives on why it's a big deal. If the villain is going to fall into a death-dispensing gravity engine, make sure the reader knows it's there beforehand. If the hero is going to make a terrible decision to use a gun, with disastrous consequences, make sure the reader sees the gun in advance, and has a chance to think about what bad things might happen because it's there. And don't fill in the space with clutter. Take your time to work your craft and make the piece beautiful, but unless the price of grain is deeply relevant to your story, there's really no reason to bring it up.

3) Care about your characters: At the end of the day, I think this is the most important. If you care about your characters, they must be more than 2D caricatures. Maybe you can throw a flat puppet into a morality play to make a point, but if you really love that character, if you name them, if you laugh with them at their mistakes, cheer with them for their victories, and cry with them in their time of darkness, then you can't abuse them by putting them in a bad story. Your heart will rebel.

There is no story without people at the heart of it. If you make a story out of planets or tetrapods, it's because you've made them into people. I don't care how brilliant your logic, philosophy and literary allusions are; if there aren't real people, people who make me love them or hate them, at the heart of your story, it's going to be a yawner.

Love your characters, and they will love you. And if your characters love you, then they will tell you when you're doing it wrong. They'll leap right out of the narrow plot you had written for them and tell you things you never knew about your story.

Either that, or I've got it all wrong. You decide :)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A: Ashton Saylor

Hello visitors, new and old! Welcome to my blog. I have just signed up for the April A-Z challenge, so hopefully some new faces will be turning up around here. As my name happens to start with an A, I thought I would take this opportunity to introduce myself.

My name is Ashton Saylor. I'm an aspiring writer and game designer. I have a particular passion for the union of stories and games in the form known as the "gamebook." A gamebook is an interactive story. You may know of them from the Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy books of the 80s and 90s. Today, the Gamebook Adventures series is breathing new life into the genre, along with several independent sites and authors, such as the Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction, Lloyd of Gamebooks, and Lone Tiger Gamebook Reviews.

For me, gamebooks are a great form because I love creating both stories and games. This allows me to do both at once. I love the interactivity that they offer, letting the reader make choices as they read, which affect the outcome of the story. A lot of gamebooks, especially older ones, don't have strong narratives, but to me that is missing the point. What fascinates me is letter the reader enter the story. Letting them participate, make choices, and have to deal with the consequences of those choices, good or bad.

Of course, it's one thing to declare that as your vision, it's another thing to accomplish it. I'm still working on the latter ;) But someday, my dream is to create beautiful stories with strong plot arcs, compelling characters, and memorable scenes in the form of gamebooks. In the meantime, I'm doing the best I can ;)

I should mention that, while gamebooks have a special place in my heart, I do also work on straight fiction and traditional game design, independently. My current project is to write a novel in time for submission to the Angry Robot Open Door Submissions for fantasy novels in late April. I'm neck-deep in writing, so taking on the April A-Z Challenge as well may be insane, but who am I to complain :)

Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you come again. On your April A-Z journey, please take this blessing to the end:

May good blogs rise up to meet you.
May the tubes never lead you astray.
May visitors rain down upon your site.
And may spam avoid your inbox.