Monday, October 28, 2013

Windhammer Competition Almost Over

Hello all, the Windhammer competition this year is almost over! My feelings around this are very bittersweet this year, as on the one hand, it makes me sad to not have my name in the pool, but on the other, there's some incredible entries. I've really enjoyed reading all of them.

On the plus side, I'm really happy with how some of my projects are shaping up. I'm depressed at how long it's taking to cook, but I think it'll be worth it once I'm done. More on that in a future post :)

While reading through the Windhammer gamebooks, I've also been working on reviews. This year, I'll be rating each gamebook in five categories as described below. If you submitted an entry, keep an eye out for my reviews after the results are published on the 7th of November.

If not, (either way actually) make sure to get your entries in before the end of the month! As a reminder, to vote you must send your top 3 choices to on or before Oct 30. If you vote late, it will not count. If you only send your top 1 or 2 favorites, it will not count. Read them all and submit your top THREE favorites.

Here's the five criteria I'll be using this year for my rating system. Each criteria is worth 5 points, for a total of up to 25 points maximum. I think the highest anyone got last year was 24 (if I remember correctly) and that was for S.J. Bell's wonderful "The Evil Eye." [Edit: Upon checking the records, it looks like I didn't end up doing the numeric reviews last year, because I didn't have time to do it for all of them. But Evil Eye would have gotten 24!]

Ashton's Kickass Gamebook Review System

Opening: This is just a quick response to the initial 3 minutes with the book. Does the opening clearly convey the concept? Does it hook the reader? Does it accurately portray the rest of the book? Is it exciting, colorful or intriguing? In essence, does it make me want to read more?

Flow: All game mechanics fall under this category, most importantly the author's use of player choice to drive the narrative. I consider game mechanics beyond that to be of secondary importance, but they will be noted here if they are outstanding, either in being very additive or very disruptive.

Writing: I'd love to say that it's the story that really matters, but the truth is, half of the story is in the telling. This category covers authorial voice, the use of language to convey mood, the choice of what to include and what to leave out, other writing tricks and techniques, such as foreshadowing and the choice of perspective and tense, and last but not least, the fundamental mechanics of writing.

Story: What's it all about if not to tell a good yarn, eh? This category attempts to look past any flaws (or successes!) in the writing and game categories to the underlying ideas behind the entire thing. Do the characters feel realistic and interesting? Is the setting compelling? How's the plot? Do the events address the theme in a meaningful way? If there's an invigorating twist at the end, it will be acknowledged here.

Secret Sauce: A lot of times there's some special ingredient that just can't be categorized easily. Those things get acknowledged here. Beyond that, this criterion attempts to look past the specifics of the other four categories to look at the piece as a whole. Technique and rigor aside, how does it leave me feeling at the end?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Interview with David Walters about Way of the Tiger

This week, I am pleased to bring you an interview with the esteemed David Walters, author of the Samurai's Apprentice series, as well as several other novels, including the fantasy novel City of Masks, set in an intriguing fantasy universe. He is now working on the Way of the Tiger re-release, which, if you are as eager to see as I am, you can support by visiting the Kickstarter page to claim your copy now.

I think you'll enjoy this interview as much as I did. David had some great insights to share with us!

Thanks for joining us today, David. I've heard a lot about the upcoming Way of the Tiger gamebooks (and the accompanying Kickstarter--congratulations by the way!) There's a lot of excitement about these books, so I'm really glad to have the chance to ask you a few questions.

First, I understand that books 1-6 are being re-released. I understand that's all that were created in the first place, is that correct?

Yes, there were six books released back in the 1980s that formed the Way of the Tiger series. More books were released that were set on Orb, but not as part of that particular ninja series.

Was there a plan, originally, to release more of them? I know with the Fabled Lands series, it was originally supposed to be 12 books, but only six were ever created. Is the same true of Way of the Tiger?

Yes, there were originally supposed to be more Way of the Tiger books in the series, but it didn't happen in the end. That is really for Mark Smith to cover, i have been sworn to secrecy or the ninja will come for me. Mark and Jamie did have a longer term vision for the main character Avenger.

This may be covering old ground, but what would you say sets Way of the Tiger apart, compared to other fantasy gamebooks?

Firstly the setting of Orb is richly detailed. The gods and the cities are very intricate and interesting, and it all feels real.

Secondly, you get to play as a ninja. Not only is this a fun character type to play, but you get to feel like you are a powerful character right from the outset, which is unusual. Grunt level enemies can simply be felled, and even powerful ones can be garrotted when their back is turned...

Thirdly, there were some wonderful characters in the series, really fleshed out from years of Mark's role playing game sessions. Fans to this day still talk about Foxglove, and characters such as Tyutchev who goes all the way back to Talisman of Death and appears in Way of the Tiger.

Finally the gamebook rules are wonderfully slick: simple but with depth. For example the combat felt like a martial arts fight: you can choose which martial arts move to use, whether you add your 'chi' inner force for extra damage, and also you can try to block counterattacks on you.

I understand Way of the Tiger is set in the world of Orb, the same world that the old book Talisman of Death was set in. Full disclosure: I LOVED Talisman of Death as a kid; that's basically the book that ignited my passion for gamebooks. Will there be any tie in to Talisman of Death, or are they in completely different parts of the world?

Talisman of Death was my first ever gamebook (same for others I know too), and it was set in the same world as Way of the Tiger. The Way of the Tiger series did not go to the city of Greyguilds like Talisman of Death, but you could interact with the same gods, classes and characters in both. For example you fight a monk of the Scarlet Mantis in Talisman of Death, and the same sect of monks play a key role in Way of the Tiger. Tyutchev, Cassandra and Thaum are in both series as well.

You'll just have to wait and see if book 7 of Way of the Tiger goes to Greyguilds.

Are there any other books set in the world of Orb that we should know about?

The Duelmaster series was set there, plus Coils of Hate and Falcon book 4. Orb is a big, detailed world and has hosted many gamebooks by the original authors. By supporting the Way of the Tiger series you may be able to convince the original authors it is worth re-releasing those, if not expanding them.

How much have you, as a contributing author, had a chance to further develop the world of Orb? Are you creating new material within that world, or was it already pretty well fleshed out before you got there?

I have set the prequel on the Island of Plenty on Orb, which is an island with a strong Japanese theme. This was visited by Avenger in the series before, but only in passing, so I have been able to really flesh it out from what we already knew and Mark's notes. You will be able to journey across the whole island in quite some detail, and on repeated play through can visit every city on the island.

Like the other books in the series, there is a strong story at the heart of the book, and because this is a prequel you can get to know (and interact with) old and new characters a lot more.

What would you say you love most about the world of Orb? Why should we go there?

There are lots of reasons, but as a fan and a writer I'm going to say the characters. There are some fabulous personalities there, and they really drive the story and make the world a more interesting place. These characters came out of thousands if hours of role playing in that world.

The gods are wonderfully complex too, and how the beliefs of the characters affect them is interesting and believable to me.

I understand Way of the Tiger has a very Far Eastern flavor, which is your specialty, as the author of the Samurai's Apprentice series. How does this series differ from your own works in Samurai's Apprentice? How is it similar?

My samurai work is based on the real world Edo period Japan. For Way of the Tiger I was able to bring all of the mythological elements to bear on the work that I could not use in the real world setting. The Japanese psyche has created some truly horrific monsters in their legends, and I've been able to tap into that for the Way of the Tiger prequel book, to use all that mythology I have come across in my research.

The similarity is you need to have a strong, interesting story, with complex characters and fast paced action. Although in the case of a gamebook you need to have multiple stories, and I've been able to see interesting facts and references in all kinds of areas, even the dead ends...

I've heard murmurings of a Way of the Tiger roleplaying game to be released as well, in addition to the gamebooks. Is that still in the works? Any updates?

The RPG is very much alive and progressing, hopefully out next year. I've written two adventures for it, and others in the team have been expanding the gods section and other areas from Mark's notes. For the RPG we have a whole history and geography for the Island of Plenty, which I was able to use for the prequel book. As well as the prequel being part of the gamebook series, it also links to the separate RPG adventures I wrote, so it forms a seamless whole. It all builds to the civil war we see in book 2 of the Way of the Tiger, and I give signs and portents all the way, and can show through different stories how it all builds to culminate at that point.

Anyone wanting more background on the setting of the prequel should consider the RPG as it will have all the source material in it.

If the Way of the Tiger RPG is happening, what would you say sets apart the Way of the Tiger RPG from other popular fantasy RPGs on the market today?

It has had Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson role playing in that world for 35+ years, building and refining the history and characters of the place. It also has a dozen or so quality gamebooks out there as source material, which are adored by fans to this day.

Finally, can you clarify exactly what your role is as a contributing author with the Way of the Tiger books? I understand you're involved with both the prequel and book 7, but I've heard different things about how much you'll be writing of each of these.

The prequel is written solely by me, under the strict supervision of Mark and Jamie. Book 7 is being co authored by all three of us. I'm equally excited about both!

Any word of whether there will be additional books beyond 7, and whether you may be involved in those?

The Kickstarter is clear in the stretch goals that the higher we reach the more able we are to look at producing more books. Jamie is an award winning author with his Dark Lord series, and Mark is the director of his own company, so they have to be sure that the demand is there first before they commit to more books in the series as their time really is at a premium.

As for me, I'd love to do at least one more Way of the Tiger gamebook. I do have an interesting idea for book 8... I have a lot of projects on though, and am in the fortunate position of turning work away, so we'll see how it goes.

I'm delighted to see that the Kickstarter has met it's core funding goal and is working on stretch goals. What's your favorite stretch goal of the ones still upcoming? What do you really hope we'll get to?

As a minimum I'd like to see us hit $35,000 so we can get the stretch goal of a map of Irsmuncast by famous fantasy author Leo Hartas. Irsmuncast is a highly political city full of intrigue and religious schism, so I'd love to see it get the beautiful map it deserves. In book 4 of Way of the Tiger you get to run the city, something of a first for a gamebook, really groundbreaking stuff for its day.

At higher pledge levels, there are even greater things to unlock.

For readers who haven't come across your works before, but would like to check out what else you've done, where would you suggest they start?

I'd recommend they give Samurai's Apprentice a go and see if you like it. It is a relatively quick read and it is available on Amazon for little over a dollar. There are plenty more books in that series if you do want more.

My other books cater to different settings, but all with a far eastern theme. City of Masks is set on a fantasy world, whereas Dragonwarrior: Tao of Shadow is set in the modern world and ancient China.

What do you have coming up next, after Way of the Tiger? Anything exciting we should be looking forward to?

I've completed the prequel, so there is Way of the Tiger book 7 and the role playing game.

I'm producing an exclusive print run of Samurai's Apprentice which will be illustrated, with a foreword and a new chapter. Look for this pre-Christmas.

I'm also writing Samurai's Apprentice 5 at the moment, likely due next year now.

Anything else you want to share with our readers?

It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Gamebooks World in Six Months

I've been mostly offline for a while now, so today I'm doing a quick look at what I've missed over the last six months or so. Edit: After compiling this list, I'm almost a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of awesome new stuff available for gamebook fans today. I'm pretty sure three years ago, we had no where near this selection! Enjoy :)

Fabled Lands LLP

The guys over at Fabled Lands did some great gamebooks back in the day, and many of those are being re-released. Here's some descriptions, often using the author's own words as portrayed in this blog post.

Heart of Ice is an apocalyptic road tale with "operatic sweep and pragmatically amoral heroes."
Down among the Dead Men "is an adventure with pirates, magic and the undead."
Necklace of Skulls takes readers through a Pre-Columbian underworld of dream-logic, set against a historical backdrop of the fall of Teotihuacan.
Once Upon a Time in Arabia is "a whirlwind of encounters with a 1001 Nights flavor."

Fabled Lands along with Megara Entertainment

The Way of the Tiger Kickstarter is a current project! The guys at Fabled Lands are collaborating with the elegant Megara Entertainment team and renowned ninjophile author David Walters to re-release all six of the original Way of the Tiger gamebooks, set in the oriental-flavored world of Orb, along with a brand new prequel and an original book 7 written by David Walters. The kickstarter is taking off, so make sure to get over there to grab yourself some stretch goals before the time's up!

Megara Entertainment

Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories was in progress last I checked in. According to their website, it is now available for 35 Euros, including shipping worldwide. This is supposed to be a beautiful gamebook... I may go grab a copy myself.

Tin Man Games

Tin Man Games has been remarkably prolific, with new releases coming out regularly in a variety of series' and genres. Here's just a few:

Fighting Fantasy: These three titles re-invigorate the old Fighting Fantasy series, bringing some old favorites and one brand new adventure (Blood of the Zombies) to a digital platform at last.
Blood of the Zombies
House of Hell
The Forest of Doom

Gamebook Adventures
GA 8: Curse of the Assassin: Gamebook Adventures 8 takes us back to Orlandes to continue Tin Man Games' acclaimed fantasy series.

Hex Boyfriends: A sequel in the same style as "Vampire Boyfriends," with humor and strange loves.
Trial of the Clone: The wildly successful first gamebook by SMBC author Zach Wienersmith, this comes with OPTIONAL VOICE NARRATION BY WIL WHEATON.
Forgotten Spell: An interactive fantasy set in the original world of Suidemor, with puzzles and magic. Looks very cool.
Judge Dredd: Countdown Sector 106
Les fils d'Uruzime: Apparently a lovecraftian horror in french. Who knew? Damn, I wish I spoke French.
La Bataille de la Drang: A gamebook about the Vietnam War, I think? It's in French. If you read French, please elaborate to me what this is about.

And those are only the ones available for Android! Like I said, Tin Man Games is making it happen.

Choice of Games

Choice of Games is another PROLIFIC producer of gamebook fiction. I won't list them all here because A) there's a lot, and B) I've had mixed satisfaction with the quality level of their works. But they're definitely worth checking out, and if you find some gems, please point me toward which ones I should read!

Among their roster you'll find works about superheros, vampires, ninjas, Renaissance Italy, Kung Fu, spaceships, aliens, ghosts, and lost mythology. Damn.

Other Goodies

There's so much else, I'll just name a few things here. If you want more, check out the very comprehensive news section of Fighting Fantazine (referenced below.)

To Be or Not To Be is apparently an interactive take on Shakespeare's Hamlet, by Ryan North. After a smashing success in the Kickstarter, it's now available on Amazon.

There's apparently a new movement of erotic gamebooks, which startles the innocent 12 year old inside of me who's still reading Fighting Fantasy books under the covers with a flashlight. But if you're interested, check out the author Amanda Clover on Amazon for a good start.

Fighting Fantazine has released its twelfth issue, including interviews with gamebook authors, news and updates, a couple articles on history and trivia of gamebooks, and one wholly original 206 page adventure, "Starhunt: Void Slavers" by Ian Brocklehurst, illustrated by Angela Salamaliki, all available absolutely free for just the trouble of clicking the link to download it.

Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction: As I've mentioned previously, the Windhammer competition is currently up and running, with 14 original gamebooks available for free. All you need to do to get involved is send an email to with your THREE favorites. Winners receive a cash prize, and publication with Tin Man Games!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Back from the dead?

Wow... sorry it's been so long without posting! Life has been pretty crazy. I've started grad school and, well, legends speak of those who go down that path. They are never heard from again...

Anyway, I'm writing because the Windhammer Prize is mid-stream, and if somehow you've been living under a rock and haven't noticed, you should absolutely head on over there to check it out. There's 14 brilliant works of short interactive fiction, and if you read them before Oct 30, you can vote on your favorites!

Go. Go now:

I've always enjoyed Windhammer because of the innovation it shows, and from what I've managed to glance at so far, this year is no exception. As my past blog posts show, I'm very interested in innovation in gamebooks, and I regret that I haven't taken the time to get more involved in some of the very cool discussions going on in the blogosphere this year about innovation in interactive fiction.

That said, I do hope that I'll be able to show some of my own ideas about innovation in interactive fiction in my own current works. More on that later.

Which leads me into a difficult explanation about a difficult decision...

As you have no doubt noticed, despite being a three-time Windhammer Merit Award winner, my name is not on the list of entrants. It wasn't easy for me to restrain myself from taking the time and energy to write up a new submission for this years contest, especially since I was bursting with ideas about what I could do. But at the end of the day, it just didn't make sense, for three reasons.

First, I feel like I've done my time. I've won a merit award the last three years running. If I were going to win first place, I would have done it by now. Winning another merit award would feel anticlimactic at this point. And if I didn't win at all, that would just be sad. At this point, it's time for me to step aside and make room for some of the other talented authors in this space.

Second, I've gotten what I needed to out of the contest. My successes in Windhammer have helped me get recognized by the community and landed me some truly incredible writing opportunities. What I needed from this contest was a leg up into the community, an opportunity to prove myself and gain some credibility. I've done that. Now, if I want to keep moving up, I have to follow through with the real-world writing opportunities that Windhammer has helped me get to.

Third, and possibly most important, now that I've been offered some incredible writing opportunities, I feel like I need to prioritize working on those. I'm working on two interactive novels and an android game, as well as some side projects of my own. All of these people are expecting me to produce, and though the time scales are flexible, I'm in grad school. I only have so much bandwidth to put toward this, and it's time for me to put my money where my mouth is and actually come out with some of this stuff. At this point, definitely more important to work toward completing professional projects rather than submitting yet another Windhammer entry, no matter how much I enjoy them.

On the plus side, I do feel very optimistic about the projects I'm working on. It's frustrating that they're moving more slowly than I would like, but now that the school year is in full swing, I'm definitely hitting my writing groove. Stay tuned.

I'm going to try and get this blog started regularly again, posting my thoughts about the Windhammer entries (once the voting is done!), more gamebook theory, and updates about interactive fiction products and authors, as well as information about my own works as they come along.

If you have anything you'd like me to post about, a project you're working on that you want to promote, or a recent release you'd like me to review, feel free to let me know!

Monday, September 9, 2013

On Altruism and Living a Good Life in a "First World" Country

A friend of mine asked on facebook recently if she should feel guilty about living well in a prosperous part of the world, when so many people around the globe (both local and distant) are suffering from hunger, poverty, and worse.

This isn't related to writing or Gamebooks (although there are exciting things going on on that front! I intend to follow the Windhammer prize, now that we've reached that time of the year again) but I feel that it's worth sharing.

For context, this friend is in training to be a flying trapeze artist. I know, right? XD

First, be aware that overall, violence, poverty and cruelty are on the decline worldwide. Yes, we hear about these horrible things happening every day all over the world, but compared to how things were 500 years ago, or 2000 years ago, or even 50 years ago, overall quality of life (by several measures) has increased dramatically, even if you only look at the poorest third of the population.

Second, self-sacrifice only goes so far. Specifically, I want to draw a distinction between altruism and martyrdom. Altruism is where you do something for others /because it makes you feel good to do it/. We all want, on some level, to be good for the world. It's not an unambiguously selfless act. It's rewarding. But that feel-good, arguably even selfish aspect to it is important because it keeps you going. If you sacrifice past what you can bear, then you can no longer help others. Be kind, and be good, but take care of yourself first. You have so much potential good for the world in you, whether it be creating something that didn't exist before, doing something beautiful to bring joy to others, or even just filling an important organizational role that helps keep our massive, complex society running. If you burn yourself out in the name of "good" you kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

Third, our system is actually pretty amazing in that (in general, and with exceptions--it's not perfect!) capitalism rewards people who provide something good that makes the world a better place. If your flying trapeze work brings something amazing into the hearts of people who watch you, they'll pay $15 bucks a pop or whatever to come watch it, and you get to survive and keep doing it. There's nothing to feel guilty about in this. You need training, a home, food, and some personal satisfaction in life in order to keep providing the service that you provide to the world.

Honestly, the best thing you can do for the world is specialize in what you love and excel at, and do that with all your heart. We're a community--no one person can do all the jobs. It's not your job to cure Aids, or solve the economy to raise daily-income rates around the world, or even provide some food and shelter to the local homeless dude (unless you make it your job, in which case do your best!) Someone else has dedicated their life to founding a nonprofit to support a homeless shelter that feeds and shelters people who need it. Trust that they will do their job. Your job is to become amazing at flying trapeze, so that when that manager at the homeless shelter is feeling depressed about the futility of it all, you can inspire them and remind them for a second what flying can feel like.

Find what you bring to the world, and do it well. That's a far greater gift that you can offer than selling all your possessions, giving the money to charity and dying in Alaska.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Writing Advice: R.A. Salvatore on Fight Scenes

I think I need to revisit what the purpose of this blog is. So far, I've been focusing on gamebooks, but there's only so much gamebook theory one can write. Besides which, as my own career branches into areas other than pure gamebooks, I'm finding that my areas of interest are broader than just that.

More on this later. I think I've got some ideas for where I can go with this blog. But in the meantime, I'd like to share something absolutely fascinating.

This post by Susan Morris of Shelfari is an interview with R.A. Salvatore on writing fight scenes. There's a lot of advice, theory, speculation and opinion floating around the internet on how to write a great fight scene, but this article takes it right out of the mouth of a master.

And what he says isn't always what you would expect.

I highly recommend this read, for anyone interested in writing great fight scenes in their own stories:

Here's a couple of choice quotes...

"Fighting is more about your feet than anything. Balance, balance, balance. Now, after so many battle scenes, I find myself spending my preparation thinking about the battlefield itself. If these guys were fighting in a ring, I'd be writing pretty much the same movements every time. Put them on a rocky hillside, or in a tight cave, or against a monster that is decidedly not humanoid, and I've got the variety that keeps it interesting for me."

"I wish I had a better answer about which point of view to choose, but honestly, I just go with my gut. I'm a product of growing up with television; I love point of view shifts as long as they're clearly done. If I have six people fighting, you might get six different viewpoints. It's controlled chaos, you bet."

"Few actual fighters would ever do a spin in a fight, of course, fearing that they'd catch a sword between the shoulder blades. Drizzt does that spin move all the time. He's just that fast, and it is, after all, fantasy."

"Believe it or not, despite scores of fight scenes in dozens of books, the top ones are easy for me to rate. In third place..." (read the article to see his full list!)

"My best writing days are battle scene days, because when I get into it, I can't stop. Then again, my worst writing days are battle scene days, because if I don't have the energy, I simply cannot do it."

As I said, I found it a great read. Both more simple, and more intuitive than a lot of the advice on the internet would have you believe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Why Include Randomness: Part 2

This is a thematic continuation of last week's post. To catch up, go read Part One.

Last week, I described one specific case in which using randomness adds some unpredictability to the outcome of your choices. This unpredictability can be a good thing; it forces the player to weigh their priorities against the possible outcomes before making a choice. This is interesting because it's what we do every day. We constantly, in real life, make choices, every hour of every day, and those choices affect the future. We make those choices by weighing probabilities, predictions, and priorities, and to do that in a game is fun.

That said, using randomness the way I specifically described it that time isn't necessarily that common. The most common types of randomness we see in gamebooks have to do with testing skills, if those skills are recorded numerically, or in combat--which is effectively another version of testing character skills. In this mechanic, the additive element comes in the preparation--picking which skills your character will excel in--instead of in the event of the challenge.  By the time you're testing to leap across a chasm, it's too late to make any choices that affect the outcome (other than perhaps finding another way to go...) But the existence of that chasm leap late in the game makes the choice meaningful which you made earlier about where to allocate your skills. Without the existence of the chasm leap scene, the number of points you put into Chasm Leaping becomes irrelevant.

Let's take a look at Destiny Quest, because it's a great example of this type of mechanic. In Destiny Quest, you run around, completing quests by testing (successfully) against your character's skills. As a reward, you acquire items which increase those skills, thus making you capable of completing the next quest.

In Destiny Quest, by the time you get to combat, you've already done all you can do. You've laid your bet, you've played your hand, and now all you can do is sit there and roll and hope.

Despite this, it is not a system without choice. It's simply a system where the choice is all front-loaded into the character development stage of the game. In Destiny Quest, the game remains fun because character development is an ongoing process. Every time you complete a quest, you get a reward. Often, this forces you to choose between two items which modify your character's abilities in different ways. Right there--that is the moment of player interaction. Which item do you keep, and which do you destroy?

The scenes of combat themselves are essentially very boring. For those of us who don't find rolling dice to be inherently exciting, there is nothing to do. You simply must carry through the busywork to find out whether the character build choices you made earlier will pay off or not.

But without that interaction-less moment later (combat) which tests your character build, then the choices you made during the build phase would be meaningless.

All that said, there still remains two possibilities, a skill test that involves randomness vs. a skill test that doesn't. Instead of having a Chasm Leaping skill rated 1-10 and a Killing Goblins skill rated 1-10, you could simply have each of those be a binary trait. You either have it or you don't.

In that model, when presenting the reader with a chasm, the game would ask, "Do you have the Chasm Leaping skill? y/n" and the player would either be able to jump it or not. None of this, "roll and add your skill and try to be difficuly number x, y or z."

This model has the advantage of being simpler, and in a gamebook, that often makes it worth it to go that route. But it doesn't allow for as much real choice. If you know for a fact you will be able to jump any chasm, there's no reason not to go for it every time. If you've got about a 20% chance of horrible painful death if you jump a chasm, there's now an interesting choice. Is it worth the risk? If you're running for your life, probably. But if you're out for your morning constitutional, then probably not.  Each time you run into a chasm, your mind will instantly start evaluating whether it's worth it or not. Sometimes it'll be easy, but there's still a real choice, and when it's not easy, it becomes a good game experience. And as with last week's example, this choice retains its replay value compared to a situation where there's no luck involved.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why include Randomness?

A few weeks ago, Dave Morris raised an interesting question on his blog, "Does interactive fiction need randomness?"

One of the things I like about Dave is that he's always at the forefront of gamebooks (a term I'm using generically for our type of interactive fiction, as the term "interactive fiction" has been claimed by a slightly different genre). Dave pushes the limits of the field, questioning assumptions and imagining the genre not as it is, but as it could be. I admire this a lot, but it doesn't mean I always agree with him on each of the particulars ;)

In this case, I would like to make a defense of randomness in interactive fiction. I won't argue that every gamebook should have a random element. Like ice cream, sometimes you want one flavor and sometimes another. Sometimes one person has the flavor they prefer, and they aren't interested in any other. What I do want to argue is that randomness can be additive, and here's why:  unpredictable results create interesting choices.

A while back, I wrote about the types of choices that one finds in gamebooks. To sum up the main points... A) The core game mechanic in a gamebook (regardless of the presence or absence of other rules) is the sequence of narrative choices the player makes. B) It is very important that those choices be interesting in order for a gamebook to be fun. C) For a choice to be interesting, the player has to have enough information to make an educated guess, but not so much information that the best option is obvious.

In short, to give the reader an interesting choice, the author must reveal some information, but also conceal some information.

Think of the classic "Which Door" choice: the reader is presented with something along the lines of, "at the end of the tunnel are two identical doors. Do you open the one on the left, or the one on the right?" What the reader doesn't know is that one of these doors leads to instant death, while the other leads to tasty cake! This sort of crap may have been what dudes were into in the 70's and 80's, but by today's standards, no part of that is a good game experience. If you lose, it feels arbitrary and abrupt. But even if you make the right choice, it's not like you can take any credit for it. Success isn't satisfying if you didn't earn it.

On the other extreme, what if you knew right off the bat what was behind each door? This is, literally, the classic, "Cake or Death" choice. This is also a complete flop as a game experience, because the answer is obvious (unless you're some sort of death-seeking masochist, in which case I think you have better things to worry about than the quality of a gamebook.)

The point is, any situation in which the player has complete knowledge of the results of their choice will eliminate the existence of the choice. A choice has to do with predicting results. If you know the results with 100% certainty, the preferable choice will always be apparent. Even if all options lead equally to success or failure, then there is still no choice to be made, because the direction you choose is irrelevant to the results.

This is where randomness comes in. Randomness introduces a fog of war to the scene. Even if the player could read ahead and see all the future paragraph sections, if there is an element of randomness, the outcome is no longer certain.

Of course, information can also be concealed narratively. This is an excellent way of solving the problem, which gamebooks should always use. The only caveat is that it has no replay value.

If you take those two doors and draw a symbol of cake on one and a symbol of death on the other, then the player has an interesting choice. Is the dungeon being honest, or lying to him? Perhaps something has come up earlier to lead him to trust, or mistrust, the signs in this dungeon. The player has to think about it, predict a result, and make a choice. But once the player has read through that scene once, the next time he comes down that hallway with Character McHammenheimer the Second, the player immediately knows what's behind the door--there's no choice any longer.

Contrast this to taking the cake and death, and putting them both behind one door, but there's only a 10% chance of death, and a 90% chance of cake. Or you can go through the other door and continue on your day without taking the risk.

Whoa... now you have a choice. Just how tasty does that cake look? Is it worth a 10% chance of immediate death? Mmm... it looks pretty tasty, but immediate death?

Best of all, this remains an interesting choice, no matter how many times the player reads through the game.

Afterword: I do not think that cake is a very good reward, nor death a very good punishment. Obviously these should both be replaced with positive results that do not rely on virtual taste buds, and negative results that do not instantly kick the player out of your game. You do want people to be playing your game, right? So why did you just boot them out again? How to design positive consequences that are meaningful without being gamebreaking, and negative consequences that are meaningful without being crippling is a different topic entirely.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

New Fighting Fantazine is out!

I just want to make a quick post to point out that the 11th edition of the gamebook e-magazine "Fighting Fantazine" has recently come out.

What's especially cool about this one is that it includes an all-new, original 219 section gamebook by Stuart Lloyd called Ascent to Darkness.

Go check it out! I know I will :)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Legend - a playthrough

Hi folks, I know what you're thinking. Two blog posts in one day? Madness!

Well, the last wasn't really on-topic, so you get a freebie. Here's a journal of not one, but two play-throughs of Legend, by Endmaster. Endmaster's story-oriented work on the Storygames website is some of my favorite gamebook material out there, but Legend is more game-oriented. I'm curious to see how it plays out.

Without further ado...

Part I

I started out rolling incredibly well for my stats, with spectacular double 6s for stamina, and an excellent 5 for mind. Then, in an ironic twist, I rolled a 1 for my luck.

Sadly, so far the game part is uninspiring... before even getting to the end of the first page I'm already zoning out. The deeper I get into gamebooks, the less patience I have for long-winded rules.

Nevertheless, after a few false starts I manage to push through them to the point where I get to pick a class. Being masochistic, I decided to start with the mage. This makes Skill, i.e. my fighting stat, which was already not great, now even worse in exciting new ways. I am so going to die...

While poking around the small town where I start, I run into Brenda, who I've apparently had a crush on since I was a kid. Naturally, now seems like the right time to confess to her, at which point she promptly informs me she recently started dating some musclehead named Klint. Uh-oh... here he comes now.

Well then! I guess I get to try out these combat rules earlier than I anticipated. The way it works is, whenever I start a combat I can cast a spell to do damage before going into regular combat. It does 4 by default, but by making my spell test harder (a Mind check--roll under on 2 dice) I can do more damage.

In this case, the fight isn't to the death; all I need to do is knock him below 10 stamina to win, which is pretty easy to do with one powerful blast from my magic finger. Maybe the mage wasn't a bad choice after all!

With Klint flat on his ass, Brenda falls into my arms, and we kiss passionately enough that my alignment goes up by three. After some undisclosed amount of time, however, like the gentleman I am, I dump her to return to my adventuring.

I think I'm a callow jackass... nonetheless, the story didn't give me any other choice, and this way I get to take a lock of Brenda's hair on my journeys!

On the road to the next big city, I naturally get ambushed by orcs. My Flame Finger makes short work of one of them (that good roll on my initial Mind stat is paying off here) and while the other runs away, I loot the body to find a map to the orc cave.

What are we waiting for? I can't just leave orc caves lying around the countryside where they might hurt someone!

At the grim-totem bedecked entrance, I stroll on in and pick a path at random. Lo! It takes me directly to the throne room, where one ugly badass and his two guards await.

This is my first time bringing the wizard to a real fight, and some crunching numbers quickly informs me the odds are not in my favor. Heavily.

I decide to take a risk on casting the most powerful spell I think is feasible, because unless I do my butt is toast anyway. Alas, I fail the spellcasting check by 1 point (8 when I needed a 7) and the spell misfires injuring me, whereupon the three uglies proceed to teach me the meaning of pain.

Well, that was quick. Howsabout we try again with a warrior, then, shall we?

Part II

Alright, I've rolled up a new character. We'll call him Bregg Brawnbones. He's named after his muscles. I had the good fortune to roll max on Skill, and even though my Stamina roll wasn't great, with the warrior bonus it's still higher than would even have been possible for my mage. My mind... well, let's just say Bregg isn't known for his "thinking." I rolled low and it went down from there.

On the plus side, I got my father's sword, which gives me a bonus in battle. And I feel this strange urge to start repeating these words, almost as if they were a holy phrase, "I like swords."

As before, I see Brenda in the market, but she's still grieving over the disappearance of my brother, and it would be crass to impose upon her now, so I move on to see what sort of things they have for sale. I also hear there are some promising ruins outside of town which fade dramatically from the forefront of your mind as soon as you talk to a certain young lady.

I pick up some rope and a lantern, and head out to those ruins, before a certain blonde charmer gets anywhere near me.

The ruins are satisfyingly creepy, especially when a secret door lets me descend to the lower levels, where there are probably monsters. I am not disappoint. A skeleton quickly looms at me from the shadows, which I make short work of with my great brawn and fancy sword. And hey, since I have a lantern, I'm not even at a penalty due to darkness!

Pushing on into darkness and waving my sword threateningly, the darkness obligingly yields up to me two doors and swears that's all it had in its pockets. One leads to some sort of wierd blue crystal which I decide to investigate later. The other yields up some gold (aww, good dungeon! You get a pat on the head) and then kicks me out. (Fuck you, dungeon!)

Apparently no blue crystal for me.

Whelp, onward toward the big city! My business in the starter town is complete. Looks like orcs are still troubling the road. This time, there is very little subtletly to my response, and I make short, bloody work of the weaklings.

It is time to avenge my fallen brother, the mage-who-remained-unnamed. This time, though, I'm exploring the rest of the goddam cavern first.

In the first room I find an ogre, who I have an epic battle with. Just before I kill him, he manages to wing me once, giving me my first injury. "It's just a flesh wound!"

After that I brutally murder him and take his gold and jewels. Ah, the life of an adventurer is grand. After that I find some sort of wierd intelligent goblin. Mutant. I kill him before he can look up from his books and take his gold too. My purse is starting to get heavy!

His desk is littered with vials of liquid in strange colors and other mysterious things. Knowing that I'm not smart, I almost decide to leave well enough alone, but being not smart, I instead drink the nearest vial of the strange-colored stuff.

Lucky! Turns out it's a healing potion, and there's three more where that came from. I'll take that stamina back, thank you very much :)

Okay, now I'm really going to... dammit, what's this red stuff? Curiousity gets the better of me, but when I drink a bit I can discern no effect. I stuff them into my bag anyway and glare at the purple vials. Oh well, in for a penny in for a pound, down it goes...

Ack! See, I KNEW drinking strange liquids in mysterious dungeons wasn't a good idea! My corpse is gloating.

Yep, that last one was a fatal poison. Should have gotten out while I had the chance.

Ah well, we shall leave Bregg choking on his own idiocy in the dirt, and returrn to more civilized worlds where we suffer nothing for our failures except a prematurely aborted game.

Someday I shall most likely return to this world. I'd like to get past the first adventure. But that day will not be today, and those adventures may or may not be chronicled here.

If you would like to try your hand at Legend, check it out for free, here:

Just don't drink the purple vial!

Guys, I found something which offends me!

This is a little out of line with my normal content, but I think it's important. There are people out there claiming that the Boston bombings were staged.

Need I say... WTF?

First of all, this is a major public event with hundreds if not thousands of witnesses, that directly impacted the lives of everyone in one of the major cities of the US. Staging something like that would be nigh-impossible. Not to mention that the internet is full of people claiming to know, or know someone who knows, one of the victims. The sheer budget required to hire that many liars to spread the word on the internet would be prohibitive. It's ridiculous to assert that this event was staged.

So where the hell does this guy get off claiming so? There's no reason we should let him get away with that.

I mean, I'm all for a dose of healthy skepticism. That's not what this is. This is blind idiocy. Furthermore, it's blind idiocy that downplays the suffering of real people.

*Sigh* Everyone deserves the right to speak their opinion, even those of us who are blatantly wrong. That's part of what keeps the system healthy. But I've got the right to post my opinion too. Without further ado, here's why this article is blatantly wrong:

1) As a commenter points out, bleeding out from limb loss is mostly a myth. When an entire limb goes, major arteries tighten up to prevent immediately bleeding out.

2) In the scene of mass chaos and fear, describing those hand gestures as signals looks, to me, absolutely ridiculous. The woman is dazed and confused, and just left her hand where it was. The man with no legs is just trying to stand up.

3) The African woman and the man in the hood and sunglasses are not "fine" in the earlier pictures. They're half-buried under a man with no legs. Clearly they were in the blast radius. Just because they're not missing limbs doesn't mean they aren't stunned, possibly deafened, possibly injured. I am not at all shocked to see both of them laying down a moment later. Anything else would be much more odd.

4) Descriptions of those two pouring fake blood on the cement, attaching prosthetics, or making hand gestures are inconsistent with the images, and also with the timeline. These images are frames in a film reel. There's probably less than a second between each snapshot. Is that really enough time to attach a fake prosthetic (a VERY convincing one) and then pour fake blood on the cement? I call BS.

5) I don't see any evidence of false staging in the fact that everybody in the immediate vicinity is looking to the one guy who seems to know what he's doing. That's absolutely consistent with any disaster scenario.

6) The author criticizes the "relaxed posture" of several of the less-injured victims. Well, they may be less injured, but they were just in an explosion, do you really expect them to be doing a song and dance? No--they're dazed. Of course they're not doing anything! Honestly, a staging would probably have much more obvious and overblown expressions of terror and horror.

7) "Notice the rips on his jeans have no sign of blood or injury on the skin" Actually, the jeans are quite bloody where they've been ripped. He's not obviously cut underneath, but there are a few reasonable explanations for that, not least is simply that the clothes have shifted since being torn, and the cut part of the leg is no longer showing through the cut in the jeans. It's also totally feasible that a piece of shrapnel caught a loose flap of clothing without getting the skin underneath.

8) "The double-amputee actor is clearly being ignored." Again, this is happening in a matter of seconds, and it's a real disaster scenario. People aren't organized. It'll only be a few more seconds before people arrive to help him, but in these first images, it's just the initial chaos. If everybody were behaving in the most obvious and appropriate ways, that would be far more suspicious.

9) "A small amount of fake blood around him" Seriously? The ground there is carpeted in blood. There may be no arterial spray--as there shouldn't be, given the human body's survival mechanisms--but there's still buckets of bood and gore on the ground.

10) The blood on the african woman in the earlier scenes wasn't obvious because she's wearing a red shirt and has no major injuries, but as discussed above, that doesn't mean she's feeling peachy. She's probably in shock, which is consistent with her facial expressions and dazed attitude in the earlier images as well as with being in a stretcher later on.

11) And our author is back to how the guy with his legs blown off should have bled out from arterial spray, which only re-iterates how little this person knows about medicine.

12) The author closes with his/her credentials, i.e. having "firsthand experience with trauma in the field of EMS work." I'd like to draw your attention back up to the top, where the author specificies that s/he has been "on calls with heavy arterial bleeds, internal bleeding, fatalities, doa’s." Note those two little words "on calls." This person has not been at the scene of these injuries. The author is a phone support nurse. S/he has no idea what these situations look like when you're actually there on the ground. The author's "credentials" are crap, especially compared to some of the ACTUAL COMBAT MEDICS who post in the comments.

13) The site this is posted on is Seriously. I could have started and stopped with that.

I understand that everyone wants to feel like a special snowflake, but there is no excusing this level of sheer idiocy, not to mention the blatant disregard for the suffering of the very real people who were injured or maimed. Last word was approximately 20 people lost at least one leg. 

I, for one, will not tolerate assholes claiming that's a hoax. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Review of City of Masks

Okay, guys... this week I'm going to deliver up a review that I promised a friend months and months ago. Thank you David Walters for being so patient with me!

City of Masks is a adventurous romp through an imaginative fantasy world created by author David Walters. A young assassin steals a powerful sword and flees the oppressive school where he has been trained, hot with dreams of vengeance against his former masters for the slaying of his parents. Out in the world, he meets up with a beautiful foreign ambassador and quickly becomes involved in hefty political matters, which he tackles with all the subtlety of an angry puppy. His tremendous personal skill and dedication lead to him playing a shaping role in events to come, but never does he forget his parents, or his need to avenge their deaths.

The Good

There are two things City of Masks does very well: the setting and the pacing. Pacing and building tension is a challenge as an author, and City of Masks is a page-turner. I consistently found myself on the edge of my seat at the beginning of any new chapter, wondering what was going to happen next, wondering how he was going to get out of it this time. It's an exciting yarn, no doubt about it!

But even more impressive, I think, is the vision of this world. The City of Restal is a world ruled by a strict social order. There are 12 castes, based on 12 animals, and each member of the city or surrounds must wear a mask at all times, showing a depiction of the animal that represents their caste. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from the Manuscript of Creatures, many of which describe one of the animal castes--typically one which will play a significant role in the coming chapter. Women wear masks of cloth, while men wear masks of wood or metal, and showing your naked face is considered improprietous, much like we would consider showing nudity. It's a fascinating society, and I still find myself thinking about it from time to time.

I also should mention that many of the descriptions are done quite well, especially the fight scenes. The fight scenes are vividly drawn, and the author has a good sense for when to describe in detail, and when excessive detail would be tedious. As I mentioned above, the pacing is excellent.

Now lets move on to...

Edit: Also got to give a nod to some of the excellent surprised the book delivers up, especially a couple of big reveals that come later on. Well done, sir!

The Bad

While there is much that is noteworth in City of Masks, it has some weaknesses as well. The characterizations are weak, the audacity of the hero sometimes breaks my suspension of disbelief--I really feel he would have gotten himself killed after two days in the open world--and the plot flirts dangerously with the cliche.

I shouldn't say the plot, per se, is cliche. Actually, I would have to mark up "plot" under the positives in this case. There are some excellent and unpredictable twists, which bring a lot of life to the world, and everything mostly seems to make sense as you go along. It's more just the premise that is a little cliche. An assassin goes rogue, then seeks vengeance for the slaying of his parents. Hardly unfamiliar.

Actually, the real problem, I think, lies in the characterization of Rayne himself, or, as he is so melodramatically dubbed, "Darkspirit." *sigh* Reading some of Darkspirit's dialogue, I feel like I'm watching a twelve year old masturbate. Seriously, man, have you never heard of impulse control? Also, what's with the random morality at inappropriate moments? He's not otherwise notable for being what you might call a 'good person.' I swear, this guy chooses the strangest moments to grow a moral compass.

It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't consistently get away with it! Darkspirit's character consists, basically, of being a pissy little bitch, and for some reason no one ever calls him on it. The world itself is warped by the power of Darkspirit's raw supposed-awesomeness, such that no one can stand in the path of his blazing, adolescent indignation, regardless of social class, combat training, or weight of numbers.

This is definitely the weakest part of the book. There's something about the entire story that feels like a young boy's immature power fantasy--even more than most fantasy stories. But hey, if that's your appetite, then bon appetit.

The Ugly

I'm giving City of Masks a 3 out of 5. It held my interest through the whole novel, and that's not easy to do. But some of Rayne's dialogue is cringe-worthy, especially early on. The characters never completely sell it, but they're colorful enough to be interesting, and the plot, though not original in concept, has some blisteringly tense twists and turns that keep you hooked right up until the fantastic big reveal at the end. If the characterization had been stronger, this could have been a great book, especially with that big reveal, but... the soul of the story really seems to be a power fantasy about Rayne, and I just can't get too excited about that.

By high standards, it's good, but not great. Still definitely worth a read. If you can make it through Rayne's dialogue, you've got a great ride ahead of you. In closing, I also want to say I love the concept of the setting, and would love to see this world brought to life further.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Vigilante RPG

So, this is a crosspost from the Black Hat Writing blog, but since this blog gets a lot more traffic, I thought I'd mention it here as well. This is an attempt to do a more formal writeup of what the Vigilante RPG is all about than my last post on the subject. See the original post, or sign up as a playtest GM at Thanks :D

The Beta rules for Vigilante are complete! With this milestone, I am now actively recruiting playtest GMs to read, run, and make every effort to break my rules. I'm planning on releasing in November, and I want to make every reasonable effort possible to make sure that the ruleset is prepared for the wilds before I release it.

One of my prospective playtesters asked me, "What kind of game is it?" Well, let me explain...

Vigilante is a simple but firm system designed to tell stories in a modern, realistic setting. It uses an innovative, 'blackjack-style' core mechanic that is designed to minimize calculations in your head, relying on number comparisons rather than arithmetic. The core rules are designed around building vanilla mortals and playing in a totally mundane world. That said, there are optional rules for various supernatural elements which may be included, and the fact that the players don't know what's actually going on allows for real tension in a way that other games don't support. You could find that it's a ghost, or you could find that it's just the guy who runs the water slide. Only the GM knows for sure.

One of the things I love about Vigilante is that it supports making realistic human characters from any walk of life. A PC could be a gun-toting assassin, or a coffee shop barista who paints in her spare time. It's about bringing the world to life, not trying to fit all characters into some sort of mold. Character creation uses Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences for the statline, and there's a fairly deep skill system that can represent just about any possible skill set. When people look at the character sheet, a common first response is, "Well, Music is clearly the dump stat." To which my response is, "Sure, if your character is not musical." The game isn't about making a badass. It's about making a person.

In Vigilante, normal humans are at the heart of the entire story. Maybe there's something else going on... or maybe not. Most games open with the players in the dark. As far as they know, their characters live in a world just like ours. Because mundane reality is so strongly established as the standard, if something supernatural does come up, it's that much more powerful. In my own Vigilante game, the first time a fae lord appeared and started growing long teeth and claws, the look on my players' faces was priceless. Jaws dropped. My own girlfriend whispered, "I didn't even know that was possible..." If I'd called them together for a game of Changeling, I never would have gotten that response.

Before I leave you, let me address the system briefly. First, it's a firm system. By this I mean that if a PC wants to leap across a crocodile-infested river, the result is determined by considering the width of the river and his skill at jumping, not by considering the arc of the story and whether it's his turn for a success. Beyond that, every effort has been made to keep the system simple, realistic, and easy to use. The core mechanic relies on the easiest of mental functions: number comparison. It's a blackjack system, so higher numbers on the dice are always better, but if the result exceeds your skill number, then it's a failure. In contested rolls, there's simply two comparisons: compare your result to your skill; if you succeed and your opponent does as well, then compare your respective results. Whoever has the higher number wins. Done. No shenanigans. As for difficulty, difficulty is increased by using larger dice, rather than modifying the target number. The target number is always equal to your character's skill. It's a little different, but it works smoothly. And there's almost no math involved.

In a few words, Vigilante is a system designed to get out of your way and let you tell a story. It solves the problem of trying to figure out what happens when A wants to shoot B and B doesn't want to get shot, but it doesn't take up too much of your time while doing so. Combat moves quickly, guns are lethal as all hell, but characters don't have to be combat oriented to have a place in the story. It's focused on the mundane, normal world, because that's where we all live. Somewhere in our secret hearts, we all want to believe there might be monsters lurking in the shadows. When you play Vigilante, there might be.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Other Folks: Octo

It's easy, working hard plugging away on your own projects, to start feeling like you live and work and exist entirely in a bubble. But the thing is, first off, living in a bubble is boring, second, if you never leave your bubble, who's going to see the cool stuff you're doing there?

I've been noticing recently how much is going on in the world that is actually, genuinely really cool. I've been struggling with what to do with this blog, now that I have the Black Hat Writing blog up and running. One of the things I think I would like to do is just use this to occasionally highlight awesome stuff other people are doing in my area of RPGs, gamebooks, and the like.

(If you're reading this and you have something cool going on which you'd like me to take a look at and share, by all means, drop me a link!)

This week, I'd like to talk about...


Sometimes someone does something that's just awesome. Octo,, is a collection of eight original RPGs, each created on one page. It is purely analog; there's no .pdf and only 200 copies will ever be created. What's more: you can only acquire it by donating to a charity.

How cool is that?

The upcoming issue of Octo is "Games of Spring" and will be released in March. You can donate now to get an issue if you're interested. My ass is broke, otherwise I'd be doing it.

Check out the full description here:, with totally original, one-of-a-kind games by Filamena Young, Tracy Barnett, Niki Hammond, Jackson Tegu, Renee Knipe, Hannah Vietmeier, Robert Bruce and Ross Cowman.

At least one of these games is called Fish Story. You do the math.

Did I mention you can't buy this, you can only get it by donating to charity?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Productivity Past Adrenaline

This time last year, I had just gotten my first break, and was bouncing up and down with excitement. I couldn't wait to get started, and dreamed of getting my foot in the door to really be involved in a career around writing and game design.

Now, at this time this year, I've got some fantastic products in the oven, which I think are really going to be game-changing, both in their fields and for my own life. But I'm in that awkward stage where I have all of the work but--not yet--any of the rewards. Once some of these things come out... well, I probably won't be able to quit my day job, but it should at least provide a little flexibility, something to invest in the next go round.

Yet I find myself in the unexpected situation of working on the most exciting projects of my life so far, but struggling with motivation. What's the cause? I ask myself.

In short, the adrenaline has worn off.

I'm not actually any less excited about any of the projects I'm doing. But projects like these are big. They're time consuming. They require sustained effort over time, and basically, you can't sprint a 100 K run.

Over the last few months, I've had to find creative ways to tackle this issue. Sometimes I haven't tackled it effectively, and let days, or even weeks, pass without getting much done. But I'm starting to put together a little bag of tricks to help me deal with this problem. Writing these out is a way for me to clarify it in my own mind. But also, hopefully, to give something useful to you.

1) Consistency, not Sprints: I've always had a tendency to work in bursts of high-octane energy. Consistency is a challenge for me. But what I'm finding is that one day of work, no matter how enthusiastic, can never match what can be done in a week. And a week's sprint, no matter how determined, can never match what can be done in a month, not if you keep a moderate, but steady pace over that whole time. Furthermore, if you run on maximum burn, you're going to burn out your fuel sooner or later. I'm a person with a lot of enthusiasm and determination. I've never been burned out before. It took me months of sprinting to get there, but it happened, and when it did, it shocked me. I didn't know what to do. Only over the last few months have I been tackling this problem and learning that I need to pace myself to accomplish something as big as what I'm building. It's not worth burning my energy out in one high-productivity week, if it then takes me two weeks to recover from it.

2) Plan Rest: According to an internet anectode*, a woman giving a speech at a conference lifted up a glass before her audience that was filled exactly to the halfway point. Quirking a smile, she asked, "how heavy is this glass?" The audience, expecting a different question, was taken aback for only a moment before they starting throwing out weights. After a moment she said, "Sure, it's not that heavy, right now. I can lift it easily. But if I hold it here for five minute? For an hour? All day? My arm would start shaking. Eventually I would drop it." IT'S SO TRUE. You have to put the weight down from time to time. No matter how excited you are to be carrying whatever it is you're carrying, you've still got to stop and rest from time to time. This doesn't mean you have free license to slack off whenever you want. That's why you plan the rest. Make time for you to set the burden down. My schedule for the moment: First, 10 minutes before bed each night, I stop work, take a deep breath, and consciously set it down. The temptation to just stay up working is strong, but I take that energy and remind myself to use it to stay focused the next day, rather than burning it out on not sleeping and then being exhausted the next day. Second: I've scheduled Sunday nights, past six, as a time for no work. A time for me to rest, to sit down, to watch a movie or play a game, or whatever I want that doesn't involve writing. What I find is that if I don't stick to this, then I find those activities creeping into my writing time when I get exhausted, and my overall productivity drops. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: Plan Rest.

3) Hours, Hours, Hours: This doesn't necessarily bear repeating, but it's the flip side of the above. When you're not resting, stay focused. Usually, when I start to feel like a project is taking forever, if I look back over the way I've spent my time, not much of it is actually going in to that project. Make sure to schedule time to rest, but make sure to schedule time to work, also.

4) Write Down Your Goals: I find this especially useful right at the beginning of a chunk of time that I have available for work. For myself, and I'm probably not alone with this, I often find myself incredibly excited at times when I'm not free to work on the project, but when I do have time, my mind is on other things and it's an effort to even remember what I need to do. If I've got two hours available, I find that by taking five minutes at the start of that time to do a quick brainstorm/freewrite thing about what my goals are and what the next steps for me are, it helps me A) get focused, B) remember why I want to do whatever it is I'm sitting down to do, and C) Clarify exactly what my immediate tasks are. This way, I can get started after five minutes, instead of after 45 minutes on facebook.

5) Sleep: Seriously! It's important. See Steps 1 and 2, above. We each have our own limits, and you know yours best, but when you think about it, the extra hour that makes the difference between enough sleep and not enough sleep really isn't that much time. How much are you really going to get done in that hour? Is it worth being at half-power for all 16 hours of the following day? Beyond which, if you happen to be struggling emotionally at all, being rested really helps with morale.

6) Keep a few Projects Going: Keep a few pots on the fire. Keep your options open. This may be just me, but I find that if I have only one project that I'm focusing on, especially if I feel obligated to work on that to the exclusion of other things, it dramatically increases my sense of exhaustion and frustration. I *always* keep two to three projects spinning at once. It helps me a lot to be able to jump to something else when one thing starts getting old. When your creative muscles start getting tired, you can turn to something new to get a breath of fresh air and re-invigorate that excitement.

7) Exercise: This is one that I'm still struggling with in practice, but I've clearly identified it as a priority. Like it or not, we live in these bodies for the duration of our stay here on earth. All of the energy we have comes from our bodies. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, exercise actually increases your body's level of energy. Bodies are like the machines in that old sci-fi book The Practice Effect. They get better at whatever you use them for. If you don't use it for anything except staying awake late at night typing, it's going to start to break down, and that's no kind of platform to work from. Not to mention, not a pleasant way to live. I'm not surprised at all when I hear about famous authors who run every morning.

8) Harness your "Slack Off" Time: We're all going to slack off to some degree or another, despite the best laid plans of mice and men. It's just a fact of the internet. It sucks you in. But it doesn't have to be wasted time. If you get in the habit of zoning out by keeping up with social media and reading articles or blog posts related to your area of expertise, well, that's actually pretty important to keep up with to stay connected.

In conclusion, it's been my observation that you have two basic resources: time, and focus. And both of these need to be managed. I'm excited about all the things I'm doing, but doing so much runs a very real risk of exhaustion. Making time to work is important, but if you don't have the focus to use that time effectively, it doesn't do any good.

It's challenging, but the most fun and worthwhile things always are. Honestly, this is the most fun I've had in years, exhaustion and all. Happy creating!

*Sorry, I don't remember the source! If you recognize the story, let me know!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Next Big Thing Part 1: Dwarf King

I've been tagged by Stuart to participate in the "Next Big Thing" round robin, so I guess it's my turn to talk about what I'm up to. Since there are several projects, and I would rather give each one full attention, I'll do this as a series of posts, focusing on one project with each post.

To start with, I'd like to talk about a project that I've been working on for about six months already, but has actually only just been announced, as of yesterday: the android game Dwarf King.

Dwarf King happened when Michael of Micabyte Systems contacted me regarding my Windhammer Merit-Award-winning gamebook Peledgathol: The Last Fortress. He approached me about using his engine for Pirates and Traders to turn Peledgathol into a full RPG Strategy game. It took me about 0.37 seconds to reply with a resounding "Hell yes!"

Why will Dwarf King be awesome?

* Expanded RPG Story: Dwarf King is based on the award winning story of Peledgathol: The Last Fortress, and uses a gamebook-style interface to give the player an immersive, interactive fiction experience. The story is massively expanded, with the introductory storyline alone reaching the entire wordcount of the original.

* Over 30 Characters: The story will have over thirty characters, each of whom has character art, names and backstories. Many of these characters can be recruited into your party. Furthermore, in the Gold Edition (paid version) you as the player can also create your own characters.

* Party-Based Adventures: Gather a small party of dwarf adventurers, or recruit allies from neighboring factions and go on adventures into the dangerous wilderness around your fortress. Uses Micabyte System's original "Small Battles" combat system to handle party combat.

* Strategic Kingdom-Building Simulation: Manage your resources, explore the surrounding countryside, defeat threats and expand your influence in order to guide your fledgling Dwarf Hall to glory and renown--or watch it all come crumbling down around your ears with a wholly original civilization development gameplay system.

* Massive Battles: Bring your armies to bear against the forces of darkness, or against those pointy-eared elven fops across the river, or really against whoever you happen to not like today, using a modified version of Micabyte System's "Small Battles" combat system. Prepare to defend your fortress against an epic siege before the game is done.

* Faction Relationships: Negotiate, trade and war with your neighbors, or play them off against each other--but always keep an eye to the north, because sooner or later Goza the Goblin will find you and try to finish the job he started when he killed the rest of your family.

* Item Creation and Crafting: True to the roots of your good dwarven ancestors, take advantage of a rich crafting system to create arms and equipment for yourself and your loyal followers.

* Stunning Artwork: No expense has been, or will be, spared to bring you the most beautiful artwork that money can buy--and lots of it. Our team of talented artists will bring this world to life.

* Play it on your Android: An adventure in the palm of your hand, unlike anything else on the market for Android today.

Stay tuned by following Micabyte's blog, or the Dwarf King Facebook Page. We will regularly post teaser artwork and bits of world lore to feed your growing curiousity. Expect release sometime in 2013.