Saturday, October 27, 2018

Gamebook Theory: Grave Mistake #2 (Level of Difficulty)

I am furious! I recently read some great ideas that turned into very poor gamebooks. Then I read one very bad idea that turned into a great gamebook. Do you know what made the difference? The good book was actually playable and it was possible to achieve success without any cheating.

That being said, the greatest mistake a gamebook author could make is to create a game that is impossible to finish through honest play.


The main downside of a gamebook being too difficult is that reading the same text multiple times is very different than overcoming the same obstacles multiple times in a videogame. Beautiful graphics, moving objects and pleasant sound effects are easily assimilated by our brains. Text is not! In reality, re-reading familiar text is very boring, so when a player has to start over, all the way from the beginning of a gamebook, he is naturally very frustrated. Make him do it more than once and he will either start cheating (forcing the reader to cheat is very undesirable) or he will put the book aside (or even throw it away) to never come back to it again. On top of those two bad outcomes, when the reader finds your name on a book next time, they will simply ignore it.

Unfortunately, besides being the greatest mistake, this is also the most common one. Most the time, authors fall into this trap unconsciously due to their fear of making a game with very low challenge level. Naturally, if you are designing a game, you are most likely creating a new world for it, a new universe with its own distinctive and diverse rules and specifics. Being the mastermind of this new world, you would technically be its Great and Powerful God, who knows it all from the inside out. Therefore, the game is not going to present any real challenge to you when playtesting it. That is the very moment, an author falls into the fear of his game being too easy. That is the very moment, an author starts developing more difficult challenges for his gamebook. That is the very moment, an author loses his readers, because the game was difficult enough to begin with. It was difficult enough, because the reader doesn't know all the rules and insights of the world. As Ashton Saylor pointed out: "a game essentially teaches a skill, then tests that skill". I will add that, if you are an author, it is your sole responsibility to lead your readers hand-in-hand through the learning curve of the game and HELP them achieve success in the adventure. Do not, do not, DO NOT compete with your readers! It would be an unfair competition, because you know your world very well while, at the same time, they are completely clueless about the rules and principles in it.


Beta testers are very important for fine tuning your game. Ideally, we would all have a horde of beta testers by our side, but in reality, we have just one or two of them and they can experience the adventure through fresh eyes only once. On every next attempt, they will be more and more familiar with the rules and challenges of this new world and they would no longer be objective in their evaluations. To prevent this problem, use your testers at a much later stage and do it very, very, VERY wisely!

Testing your own game multiple times is a must, but you have to force yourself to "forget" the rules of your new creation first. You need to choose and know your targeted audience very well in order to be able to get under their skin, so you could test your own game objectively through their point of view. Then and only then, you would be able to adjust the difficulty level to optimal parameters. So, it is very important to first decide if you are going to write for children, teenagers or adults; if you want to write a game for those, who are unfamiliar, somewhat familiar or experts on the subject of the gamebook.

Tin Man Gamebook Adventures are great!
Here are a few rules you could apply to make sure that your gamebook is playable:

1. When in doubt about the difficulty level of your game, always make it a little bit easier, not harder! It is much better to have your readers complain that your book was too easy, while they still feel some satisfaction of successfully reaching the end, than to have your readers complain that it was too difficult. In the latter situation, they probably attempted playing by the rules at least twice and after getting bored by reading the same text over and over again, they started cheating to get all the way through the adventure or never even finished the book. Do I even need to point out that the average person wants to feel good about themselves and forcing them to cheat has the exact opposite effect?

2. Always assume that your readers will fail 60-80% of the challenges. No, I am not sure about the exact percentages, but all of us make mistakes sometimes and not every one of them should be punished severely (read my previous post on instant death in gamebooks!). Use depleting stats (health, mana, energy) or the "God's Forgiveness" rule (roll the dice to save them from a bad choice) to achieve better balance. Once again, it is better for you to create a gamebook that is easier rather than harder. You'll gain more fans that way, because people prefer to hear how great they are doing instead of how much they suck.

3. A satisfying ending of a gamebook must be reachable within maximum of 3 attempts. You know how boring it is to be reading the same text over and over again. Don't ask your readers to do something you wouldn't like doing yourself!

If you follow the advice in this post, you will inevitably receive criticism from hardcore gamebook fans. Keep in mind that most of those fans are okay with the concept of cheating. They justify it by excusing themselves with being experts on the subject, which is supposed to allow them to playtest every single possible choice in the game. Don't worry about them! Nobody can satisfy them. They will never give your game an honest try. Instead, write for your friends and family, who have never opened a gamebook! Write for the new fans of the genre and those of the old fans, who enjoy a good, but honest challenge! Most importantly, write for yourself and for your own satisfaction!

Before I finish, let me clarify that I am not pushing for books that are too easy. I am simply saying that a gamebook should lean toward the easy level of difficulty, while maintaining a good illusion of danger.

Replayability? I'll write on that subject soon.

Until then, may the dice be with you!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer
AugmentedRealityAdventure.com

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Gamebook Theory: The Grave Mistakes #1 (Instant Death)

The fatal trap we all fall into and How to Cheat Death (in a gamebook adventure)

I never wanted to write a series of posts on what not to do in a gamebook, because there is so much already published on the subject. As you can see from my earlier articles, I am trying to focus on how to do things right. So, to keep true to myself, in the following few posts, I am going to lay down the problems and come up with possible solutions.


Not the worst, but definitely the most common mistake a gamebook author could make is the use of instant death in his/her adventures. Think about it logically for a moment! In a videogame, an instant death is a PUNISHMENT that FORCES the player to start over from the beginning. A gamebook can't force the reader to do that. What it does instead is, it encourages the readers to cheat. Let's be honest for a moment! How many times have you started over after your protagonist was killed? Most of the time (read this as all the time), the reader would simply go back to the previous paragraph and would make a different choice.

See, the great paradox, in the genre of gamebook adventures, is that the punishment of taking away an item or lowering a stat is more significant than the capitol punishment of instant death as the latter brings no consequences at all. Killing the protagonist accomplishes absolutely nothing except killing the enthusiasm of the reader by FORCING him to cheat.

Don't get me wrong! All of us, gamebook authors, feel the urge to kill the protagonist once in a while. I blame that on our need to provide the readers with some meaningful feedback when they make a significant mistake.

However, please note that there are some better ways of forcing negative consequences. The following punishments are not only more meaningful form of feedback, but they also make cheating a little bit more difficult than going back to the previous paragraph.

1. Killing me softly: take stat points away - this is the most commonly used mechanic in gamebooks. It is also the most effective one. Psychologically, it is less painful when health, life or blood points are taken away gradually. Also, going back to the previous paragraph doesn't solve the mistakes made earlier in the adventure. Taking away stat points makes it more likely for your readers to be willing to go all the way back to the beginning, and having already learned from their previous mistakes, they can make better choices at the next attempt. This is also the most consistent mechanic with the brothers of the videogame genre, where multiple lives are given to the players, so they don't have to start over after every single mistake.

2. Emotional Loss: losing an item or a companion - losing something always hurts, especially if you have an emotional attachment to it. Make an item very difficult to get and watch how readers would hate losing it or make a friend character very likable and see how painful it would be to see him/her die or walk away! Sometimes, parting with an item could have more than just emotional consequences. That could make success in the adventure impossible, if the reader doesn't find a way to get it back. A great example of losing a friend is "The Last Fortress" by Ashton Saylor, where your personal guard saves your life at the expense of his own (only once during the adventure).

3. God's Forgiveness: give the reader a way out of his hopeless situation - sometimes, just sometimes, if the mistake is too great, we can't simply take away some item or a few stat points. It would be silly to tell the reader that they have to subtract 5 points from their stamina skill, because they took cover under a tree, which gets hit by a lightning. Similarly, we can't tell the reader that they slipped on ice in the mountain and fell down a few thousand feet, just to lose their weapon during the fall. In situations like those, apply the God's Forgiveness rule and ask your reader to roll the dice. If they get 2-4, the protagonist dies, but if they roll 5-12, the lightning strikes somewhere else or instead of falling to their death, they slip and drop a very important item. The stress invoked by the possibility of instant death communicates a very strong message about unsatisfactory performance, it increases the tension, but it also gives a "get out of jail" card at the same time. You could even allow your readers to re-roll the dice under certain conditions. For an example, give them a blessing stat. It could be increased based on good performance during the adventure (a monk could bless the reader for helping with something) and when a bad dice roll happens, re-rolling could be allowed at the expense of one blessing point. All of a sudden, the chance of instant death decreases tremendously, but the illusion of danger is still there. 

Remember! The paradox is that an instant death is no punishment. The reader simply goes back to the previous paragraph and makes another choice. In result, the protagonist suffers absolutely no consequences and the reader is pretty much forced to cheat.

At the same time, adjusting stat points is a great form of feedback in the genre of gamebook adventures. And most gamebooks suffer from absence of feedback altogether. Adjust the stats during the adventure as much as possible!

Conclusion: It is the author's job to cheat death, so the readers can fully immerse in the story enjoy the adventure.

And finally, don't worry about cheaters! They will always cheat. Our mission as gamebook authors is to save the honest readers from the urge for cheating. The other ones are a lost cause anyway.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer
AugmentedRealityAdventure.com

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Gamebook Theory: Jump and run simulation in Gamebooks

So, I've been debating with myself (great conversations, by the way) about the topic of my next post for a while now. "Jump and run simulation" seems to be the one that would naturally follow the forms of input I shared with you last time.

I recently published a Gamebook in Bulgarian called "Wimbledon", which puts the reader in the shoes of the Bulgarian tennis star Grigor Dimitrov. The success in the tournament depends entirely on the quality of the reader's decisions on and off the tennis court in a span of 10 years. There are a lot of difficult choices such as going back home for the parent's silver wedding, joining a training camp or flying out on vacation with the girlfriend (that happens to be Maria Sharapova). There are no wrong decisions in the beginning or the middle of the book, just different gains for the one of the protagonist's stats: Sport skills (speed and technique), Energy and Charm.

However, if I wanted to achieve success in giving the reader control over the outcome, there had to be some good vs bad choices at the end of the book. Some of them I created on the grounds of previous shell choice decisions through tactical (strategic) choices. Example: a choice was presented to the reader to decide between using more power or more technique during a match, where the success depends on the points accumulated for that specific skill. Others ones, I tried to implement in the form of multiple choice test, which was based on tennis theory. Unfortunately, something was till missing.

It is nearly impossible to convert a sport match into a written gamebook where we can't test the player's coordination and speed, skills so common for almost all videogames. I brainstormed for a while. I tried to recreate a tennis match situation through the writing rule "show, don't tell" and ask the reader which course of action he'd take. For an example: It is your lucky day and every shot you take lands exactly where you want it to go. Do you shoot for the back line behind your opponent (if you believe that a ball on the line still counts as a point for you) or do you prefer to send the ball safely into the opponent's half (if you believe that a ball on the line is considered out of the field)? And while that this is a valid approach and decision, it is boring as hell and I decided to leave it out.

The answer to that dilemma came to me out of nowhere, while driving my car on the highway two days later: The use of geometry through visual graphs and images. I kept the above question, but I gave it to the reader in the visual form to the right. The text in the book was formulated something like this: "You are just one point away from winning this game. The ball is coming your way and you have to decide quickly where you'd like to send it. If you want to direct to ball to position 1, go to...; If you opt out for 2, go to... and if you'd like to send it to 3, go to..."

I don't think that I have to tell anybody who's ever watched tennis, which one is the correct answer here. Just for the record, making the wrong decision didn't lead to losing the game. Instead, points of Energy were used to win this match. So, the people guessed right, simply saved the Energy for use in later situations.

Similarly to that, there was another choice, much later in the game and therefore a little bit more difficult. I used the graph to the left with the following question: "You are just a point away from winning your game against Rafa Nadal. The ball is coming your way and you know that if you hit it with the exact power required, the win is yours. If we assume that it takes power = 1 for the ball to travel the distance shown as x1 in the graph to the left, how much harder do you think you have to swing the racket to score this point? If you hit the ball twice as hard, go to...; If you swing 3 times as hard, go to...; If you put 4 times more power, go to... If you believe that 5 is the right answer, go to..."

For those of you, who'd like to see the right answer, use the following link: http://augmentedrealityadventure.com/bg/wimbledon2.htm or scan the qr code on the right (yes, I had the QR code option printed in the gamebook).


See how I simulated a very dynamic sport in the form of text and I put it in a gamebook? I think that this was an ingenious decision (I always take pride in being this humble) and I thought that it was worth sharing with the international gamebook community. I hope that this idea would seem progressive and easy to use for the rest of the game designers in the interactive storytelling genre.

As always, there is a downside of using this approach and it is that it requires some basic knowledge in Photoshop. However, I believe that this minor problem is very easy to overcome through some dedication and time spent on the Internet.

I am now in the process of planning a gamebook on the subject of soccer. Something like a gamebook clone of New Star Soccer and I have a very good feeling that it is going to turn out great.

Before I finish, here is another graph I used in the gamebook Wimbledon.

If we assume that the power and therefore the distance traveled would be the same as in shot "X", do you want to chose direction 1, 2 or 3? The answer is here: http://augmentedrealityadventure.com/bg/wimbledon1.htm 

And another one from my gamebook "Area 51":
If we assume that the horizontal laser trajectory equals 0 degrees and the vertical one equals 90 degrees, under what angle do you want to shoot in order to take down the alien spaceship? Write down your best guess on a piece of paper and click here to find out if you succeeded: http://augmentedrealityadventure.com/bg/Area51.htm

Peter Agapov
Game Designer
AugmentedRealityAdventure.com 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Testing input and performance: Attention, Memory, Knowledge and Logic


Some time ago, I published a post on mechanics of games (input - test of performance - feedback), which proved that the only valid form of player input, in the genre of Gamebook Adventures, happens in the form of choices and decisions. Later on, I shared with you my ideas about Meaningful Choices and the Logical Conclusion Choice Theory. At that point of my research project, I had nothing else to say about mechanics of gamebooks, but at the same time, I felt as if something very important was still missing.

Recently, it downed on me that I could zoom in further, just like the scientists did when they discovered the smaller particles of the atom. The result of this experiment was absolutely astonishing. The conclusion it led me to, and the information it uncovered for me, were unexpected to such extent that I was forced to entirely change my core beliefs of the whole gamebook genre.

Before I share with you exactly what I meant in the statement above, I'd like to tell you that dissecting the structure of the Meaningful Choice, helped me realize that, if applied properly, it gives the author many necessary tools to test the following four reader skills: attention, memory, knowledge and logic.

Attention Challenges: in a world of Short Attention Span, in an age of growing Attention Deficit Disorder and also looking into a future of extremely impatient people, this is a very good choice of skill to undergo testing in any game. After all, even the great Stuart Lloyd openly admitted that he is used to "quick scan the text for the outcome and for the next choice".

Mechanics: the author could create a choice, which is related to information presented earlier in the book or earlier in the same paragraph.

Example: from "Mars 2112" by Ashton Saylor, where Commander Blint warns the protagonist about the terrorists: "They refuse to negotiate. They already killed Bernie when he went in unarmed". Shortly after the above information, the reader is faced with the choice to (1) go in and negotiate with the terrorists or (2) examine the area and come up with another plan. The danger in (1) seems obvious, but it is so, only if the reader actually paid attention to the information that the terrorists are refusing to negotiate and they already killed the previous negotiator.
do you prefer to (1) negotiate with the artificial terrorists or (2) examine the area?


Short-Term Memory: checking if the reader has memorized important information, mentioned earlier in the book, creates a challenge, which is closely associated with the Attention Skill test. After all, the information must be noticed first, before it could be memorized. In times when people are literally bombarded with information and given the fact that our brains can't store it all, so they are forced to discard most of it, this kind of choices are a great way to test the player's performance.

Mechanics: the author designs a choice, the answer to which requires taking in consideration important information, presented in the text, sometime earlier in the book.

Example: imagine that the protagonist, while having a meal one night at the local tavern, overhears a legend being told about the only weak spot in the body of a fire dragon. The only way to kill the creature is to strike it in the head, right between the eyes. This all happens in the beginning of the gamebook. However, when facing the dragon in the final battle of the adventure, the author gives a choice between striking the fearsome creature (1) in the heart, (2) in the back of the scull or (3) between the eyes.
you strike the dragon (1) in the heart, (2) in the back of the skull or (3) between the eyes?


General Knowledge: testing the reader's general knowledge and competence on the subject of the gamebook. This one is similar to the short-term memory challenge explained above with the important difference that the information needed to succeed is not present in the book, but is expected to be known to the reader from another source, outside of the gamebook he is currently reading.

Mechanics: it requires of the player to make a decision based on his general knowledge. This type of challenge is similar to the multiple-choice tests in school.

Example: from "Dark Side of the Earth" by Michael Mindcrime, where the protagonist is trying to kill a sleeping Vampire Lord, by stabbing him in the heart. The test given by the author is about the protagonist's weapon of choice for this specific task: (1) golden arrow, (2) iron sword or (3) wooden stake. Do you know the right answer? It is expected that the reader would be able to make the correct decision based on the horror movies he has seen, scary old legends he's been told or even simple Halloween mythology he's been exposed to.
stab the Vampire Queen in the heart using (1) golden arrow, (2) iron sword or (3) wooden stake?


Logical Thinking: a performance test which requires critical thinking and logic. In this kind of choice, any of the aforementioned methods - attention, memory or knowledge - could become a logic challenge, provided that "fog of war" was applied accurately to make some of the circumstances, presented to the reader, less obvious. This kind of test requires of the player to unveil the actual question through logic, before being able to properly answer it. This challenge comes in the form of Logical Conclusion Choice, Logic Riddle, Tactical Choice and others. I have a soft spot for this kind of challenges in gamebooks, because in recent times, when emotional decision making TRUMPs rational thinking and logic, it is of extreme importance to force the reader to use vitally important skills such as risk management, damage control, resource management, educated guessing and critical thinking.

Mechanics: the author must take a simple test of attention, memory or knowledge choice, replace words and circumstances with hints, riddles and clues, scattered throughout the book.

Example 1 - Logical Conclusion Choice: our protagonist, an artifact hunter just like Indiana Jones, has already obtained a strangely shaped object, which fits very well in a mummy sarcophagus that is located by the east wall of a hidden pyramid room. The script on the wall behind it reads "the key, when put in place, must be illuminated by sunlight". However, there is only one way for outside light to get into the confined space: through a small hole, positioned right in the middle of the ceiling. What time of day does the protagonist have to be there for the sarcophagus to open up: (1) morning, (2) early afternoon or (3) evening? I got you thinking here, didn't I?! Hint: take in consideration the position of the sun throughout the day! This question distills down to: what time of day does the sun shine from the west (the side of sunshine in a room reverses angles). I sure hope that I don't have to explain any further.

Example 2 - Logic Riddle Choice: three people met at a corner of a street. They all are dressed like cops, so they don't know who the thief is. The real police officers will always tell the truth and the thief will tell the truth too, to make himself appear like a good cop. Given that Alex says: "Calvin is not the thief."; Bruce adds: "One of you both is the thief"; and Calvin states: "I am not the thief". Which one of the three would you accuse of the crime?

Example 3 - Tactical Choice: the protagonist is a superhero, who is in pursuit of the villain. The choice given to the reader is between (1) shooting the evil antagonist from a distance or to (2) chase him down on foot. There is no ultimately better decision. The outcome depends on a choice the reader had to make earlier in the gamebook. It could have been a choice between visiting the shooting range or spending more time jogging.

Before I finish talking about categories of choices in the genre of gamebooks (attention, memory, knowledge and logic), I would like to point out that I presented them to you in the order of difficulty, building it up, starting from an easy and simple attention challenge, and then ending with the more complicated and sophisticated logic challenges. Use all of them at your own discretion, but keep in mind that the difficulty of the adventure must grow with the progress of the story, so create easy challenges in the beginning and keep the tougher ones for the end.

Every gamebook reader wants to be a superhero. Make them feel like one!

In conclusion, I have to be honest and admit that I have been wrong about gamebooks, which implement flawed choices. Even a bunch of consecutive random "which door" choices, the ones that have no value on their own, could potentially create an enjoyable game experience, which measures the reader performance through testing his attention skill and short-term memory. That happens by making him to keep track of the path he's walked and forcing him to create a map of the adventure either on paper or in his mind, so he can avoid all the dangers and dead ends in the next attempt to achieve success. Don't get me wrong! I still urge the authors to avoid such mechanics at all cost and to use as many logic test choices in their games as possible, but the conclusion of this blogpost is that flawed adventures still test reader's performance. This came to me as a tremendous surprise.

Here is a final word of wisdom: Force your readers to use their brains, not their pens!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer
AugmentedRealityAdventure.com

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Destiny Quest IV: The Raiders of Dune Sea Kickstarter is now live!



Good news everybody! Remember the Destiny Quest series, that awesome epic series where you could become a warrior, mage or rogue and equip yourself with loads of cool gear and get loads of abilities and face massive monsters in great quests? 

Well, there is a fourth book in the works! Wooo! And it's currently live on Kickstarter! Just 25 Euros will bag you one of these doorstoppers which will give you hours upon hours of fun.


And if you need more information, here is an interview with the author himself, Michael J. Ward.

What can you tell us about the Dune Sea? 

It’s big and full of sand.

Sorry, joking aside, it’s a vast region to the south of Valeron (the kingdom where previous books have taken place), which has its own capital, religion and culture. The main hero is a sell-sword who ends up travelling into these desert lands to seek out adventure… and to settle a debt.

With each book in the DestinyQuest series I try and set the story in a different type of environment. Since I began the first book I’ve always wanted to do an adventure that has an Arabian/Egyptian feel – I even allude to the ‘Dune Sea’ of the title in The Legion of Shadow, when you meet the ghostly crusader in Act 1. Having already explored jungles and polar regions, it felt it was high time to take our adventures to sunnier climes – and it fits in well with the story that I wanted to tell. A very big story as it turns out!

Each book in the DestinyQuest series feels as though it has its own tone and feel. The Eye of Winter’s Fury, for example, was quite dark and adult compared to previous ones. How have you approached the latest volume in the series? Does it get darker?

I don’t necessarily set out with the goal of making a book ‘darker’, those decisions sort of arise from the main character and their journey, and also the type of environment that they are in. I think Legion and Heart of Fire were very ‘high fantasy’ and probably had quite a ‘gung-ho’ attitude to the storytelling, whereas Winter’s Fury I felt that the character was on a much more dramatic and introspective journey – obviously his circumstances and condition (which I can’t go into cos, spoilers…) feeds into that. I also had a lot of things going on with my personal life at the time, which I daresay influenced the more sombre tone of the writing. I still think Winter’s Fury is my best writing to date.

I think Book Four certainly has a very adult tone, but I would not necessarily call it ‘dark’. I think this one is set in more violent world – so the attitudes of characters are more blunt and pragmatic. Some might label that as ‘Grim Dark’ and I’m fine with that. But I think the book has not lost its high fantasy elements, although I do think – out of all the books so far – this may be the most grounded in terms of characters and their (often broken) hopes and dreams. I’m very proud of this work, but certainly it’s a gamebook for adults not children.  

As fans of the series will know, no-one is safe in the DestinyQuest world. Can we expect a high death count?

Oh yes, the environments and scenarios in Book Four are pretty brutal. Act One is set around the Badlands, which is kind of a lawless frontier between Valeron and Khitesh. It’s a place where pretty much anything goes, and morality is just a word – not a code to live by. Similarly, the Dune Sea is full of scheming factions that will give no quarter to obtain what they want. You represent someone who must navigate these dangerous tides and decide for yourself who you should side with. It’s quite a massive jump from the early books where choices were relatively simple (and in Legion, some might say lacking entirely!). This is a book about people. And how you interact with those people. You create your own moral code.

Will we meet any returning characters – and what can you tell us about them and their involvement in the hero’s adventure?

This book has many returning characters, mostly from Legion if I’m being honest – and these are characters that will already be well-known to existing fans. But your hero (by in large) will not know them or have any previous interactions with them, so that creates an interesting dynamic. It also throws plenty of surprises into the mix. Obviously I can’t elaborate without spoiling the story.  

Is it helpful/essential to have played previous books?

Not at all. I have to accept that this could be people’s entry book into the series, and I am fine with that and almost encourage it – as I feel the books have improved tenfold with each successive edition. As I mentioned previously, yes there are returning characters – and there will be many things referenced from previous books – but they will not disadvantage a new player in any way, they merely provide depth for those who have read previous books and are committed to the lore.

For the first time in the series, you are splitting a single story/adventure into two books. Was this a difficult decision and what challenges has this presented?

It wasn’t difficult because I really had no choice. I guess this story has been gestating for many years, so I have had time to develop it and think about all the twists and turns, the characters, the nuances. Once I started writing, I did find it tricky to pick a starting point, but once I began developing the Badlands and Act One, I perhaps got a little carried away – and once I hit Act Two I realised that I really did not have the remaining word count and pages to tell the full story, or at least do it justice.

So rather than hack it apart and create something that would be unsatisfactory, both for myself and readers, I decided to just split it across two books, so that I could write the story that I want to tell and not compromise too much. I daresay I will get criticized from some quarters for the decision, but I feel Raiders of Dune Sea still has a beginning, middle and end – and segues quite nicely into the next book.

So, readers will be carrying their hero from the end of this book into the next one? Will they get to keep all of their abilities and items?

Of course. I won’t be pulling any tricks to suddenly rob you of all your hard work. Your character begins the next book with everything that they have gained and achieved. That also means, for the first time, we will be taking heroes to new heights of power – as this will be a four act adventure once the two books are combined.

When writing The Eye of Winter’s Fury, you commented that you found it challenging to work to a two act structure (as opposed to three in the other books). What influenced your decision to have a two act structure in this book?

When I made the decision to split the book, I no longer needed a third map – so the book became focused around the two environments (the Badlands and the Dune Sea). I’ve not found this one such a struggle (as I did with Winter’s Fury), maybe because I have more confidence in knowing exactly where the story and characters are going, so I can sort of fashion the story better to give the right beats and structure.

What is your favourite new feature of Book Four?

Hmm, good question. That depends. From a narrative perspective I would say the choices. I’ve tried to offer much more choice in the quests and adventures, to hopefully throw up interesting dilemmas and challenge readers. Out of all the books, this one probably has the most complex decision trees.

From a gaming point-of-view, I would probably say the new abilities and careers. They are much more focused around distinct styles of play. Everything should feel fresh and new, even when playing around with old abilities and combos. This book kind of brings everything together then multiples it by 100.

When writing previous books you have often mentioned the heartache of having to cut out sections and edit down your work. So far, have there been any parts of this book that you’ve found difficult to let go?

Because of splitting up this story into two books, there has been less stress when it comes to fitting everything in, but even so I have had to constantly pare back on some scenes and decision elements, because otherwise you would just end up with a 1000 page paper weight. Part of my decision to divide up the story was to ensure that I could develop the quests and encounters much more than previous books. I think the average quest in Book Four is probably at least twice the size of those in earlier books. Sure, I always wish I could do more, but you have to be realistic. 

Is this the biggest DestinyQuest book?

I haven’t quite finished the writing yet , but I would put my neck out and say yes – it will be the biggest book in the series. Perhaps not by much (I hope), but it will certainly be pushing it for biggest gamebook ever.

How have you approached the different paths and careers in this book? Are there any unexpected surprises?

I went completely back to basics, stripped back all the paths (warrior, mage and rogue) and set about working out what makes each path unique and different. From there, I then worked out how I wanted the paths to play and developed two key builds for each path; builds that I wanted to fully support with a plethora of abilities. So that starting point completely influenced the development of the abilities.

As I near the end of the writing, I still have to fully playtest the game aspects – and yet I have already seen how there might be other builds and combos that can come out of the existing ability selection. This book, more than ever, will give readers the ‘sand box’ tools to make incredible heroes.

Combat has always been at the heart of each DestinyQuest book. Has it been difficult balancing all these new abilities?

I’ll tell you when I’ve playtested it all!

I always prefer to write a book first, and fill it with placeholder enemies (based on what I think would make a challenging encounter at that level) and stats for items. Once I am happy with the story, then I set aside a heap of time to get into the nitty gritty of playtesting. I’ve had experience of three previous books now, so I have a good sense of what is going to work and what might ‘break’ the game, but you can never tell until you truly get playing.

I’ve made this a difficult one for myself as there are probably more items and abilities in Book Four than any other DQ book, so the combos and possibilities are pretty mind blowing. But then, I think that’s a cool thing – to hand over this over to the fans and be like ‘okay, go for it – show me what you can come up with’. There will always be some crazy build or combo that you could never second guess. I don’t mind that. I just want people to have fun and enjoy the experience.  

Players have often commented that the combats in Book Two and Three are a lot easier than Book One. How do you decide on the difficulty for each book? How will Book Four compare?

Book One I made far too brutal, with long combats that I’d almost describe as a bit of a grind – with a lot of luck required. Since then, I prefer to write and develop combats that are challenging, but you also have the tools to win. They are about strategy and item management, rather than being lessons in patience and torture!

With quest combats, I like to strike the fine line between being fun and also challenging, but not making them roadblocks that could halt an entire reader’s progression through the content. However, with legendary monsters (and the new dungeon delves), you can push the boat out a little and make encounters that are a little more hardcore. They’re optional, so casual players can simply skip them if they find them above their patience or skill levels – but for the dedicated they offer a chance to test out your very best builds and powers, in an effort to gain that extra awesome piece of loot.
 
This is the first DestinyQuest book to have its own Kickstarter. What can you tell us about the Kickstarter?

The Kickstarter campaign is being run by Megara Entertainment so it is really their thing, although I will obviously be contributing with lots of exciting and informative updates to reveal more about the new book and its exciting features.

There will also be a selection of loot cards available as part of the Kickstarter, which are collectible cards that each feature a special item of loot that is not available in the book. I imagine that Megara will have other surprises in store too – so be sure to check out the project page once it is live.

The Kickstarter will be running from 10 January to 10 February. It would be amazing if gamebook fans could get behind the campaign and pledge their support. I would really love to keep writing these books and finish the story that I began all those years back with The Legion of Shadow. Here’s hoping!

And finally if you could sum up Book Four in just a few words what would they be?

Big. Daring. Choices.

Oh and loot! Lots and lots of loot!

 You can back Destiny Quest book 4 here:


 


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year! And Where have I been?



Happy new year, gamebookers! It's been a great year, both in the gamebook world and in the world of real life!

I haven't personally updated for a while. Peter Agapov has made some great posts recently that really explore gamebooks to their core, so I suggest you definitely give those posts a good read through.

What have I done recently?

Most of my projects this year have involved finishing things that I had started a while ago.


I decided to write the reboot of Coils of Hate because I read it when I was 10 and thought it was a great idea. I later realised that there were a few problems with it, so I decided to clean it up, using the best bits and adding a few bits to help. You can get it for free from RPGNow.


This is a Tunnels and Trolls solo using the new Deluxe rules which is for any class and any level (it also includes rules on how to do that). This book is all about a quest where you can make your own magic weapon with whatever powers you want. The weapon will also get more powerful as you go up in level, so it is designed to stick with you throughout your life. You can get it for PWYW from RPGNow.

Advanced Fighting Fantasy adventures

I finally finished off and cleaned up all of my adventures to fit all of the rules with the expansions. You can find all of them for free by clicking the link above.

Advanced Fighting Fantasy collection of stuff

This is a collection of all my house rules for Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd edition. You can get it for free by clicking the link above.

A secret project

I can't talk about it. It's a secret. I'll tell you when it's out.

What do I want to do in 2018?

I have two three gamebook ambitions for 2018 and I just achieve these, I'll be happy.

1) Complete a gamebook I am working on with Jeffrey Dean. It's gonna be a long one.
2) Actually write Rulers of the NOW - a book I wrote a sample for in 2012 for the Windhammer competition and over the years, I have made tons of notes and collected lovely pictures for it and now I need to write it. It's going to be a very long one.
3) Relearn how to use underlines on Blogger. I've managed to open a window showing the source for this page four times. This will be the hardest to achieve.

What happened to all of my posts?

Several things happened this year in RL. I left my day job and now I get my income from various random sources, which, while more liberating, means that I had to work harder to get the work done. This is combined with the fact that I finally run out of posts from my stockpile that I built up from 2010 (I had 20 years worth of thoughts on gamebooks and gaming before that). I have other thoughts, but I need to write them down. I also need to revisit old thoughts and refine them with my experience of writing gamebooks since then.

In the future...

There's a gamebook Kickstarter coming out in early January, so save your pennies. There will be a post about it in just over a week. Keep your eyes peeled...

Monday, December 18, 2017

"Fog of War" and Logical Conclusion Choice

Note: "Fog of War" is terminology established by Ashton Saylor in his blog on Gamebook Theory. Unfortunately, he never came up with a specific step by step formula on how to apply the fog of war in a gamebook, so I decided to try analyzing the whole process and arrived at the theory of the Logical Conclusion Choice. While this is, by my own account, the greatest of my achievements in the game design theory, please look at it as a suggestive process instead of an exact science.

Keep in mind that not all the steps listed below are my own invention. On the contrary, most of them have been discussed in depth by other authors and designers, but nobody (as far as I know) has presented them in a form that is clearly defined and easy to apply when writing a gamebook adventure.


I believe that the father of Logical Conclusion Choice is Michael Mindcrime (a nickname of Dimitar Slaveikov). According to his own words, he was disappointed by the arcade approach of blind decisions and random choices in the well established series "Fighting Fantasy" and "Choose Your Own Adventure" and started writing gamebooks back in the 1990s, implementing some innovative ideas, where the choices were based on strong logic and therefore positive outcome of the adventure was a direct result and in direct proportion to the reader's performance quality. He quickly became the best selling author in the genre of gamebooks in Bulgaria and some of his work reached the top of bestseller book charts in the country.

To better illustrate the process below, let me once again use the example of a Logical Conclusion Choice I presented in my last blogpost: The protagonist is crossing a wide open field. There are mountains in the distance to the west, with visible caves carved in them. A dark, almost black, thunderstorm front is approaching fast from the east. The choice is between running for the caves or seeking shelter under a nearby tree.

Lets dissect the above example!

Part 1. Hide the danger by applying the 'fog of war'

1. Danger. Design the danger your protagonist would be facing: being hit by a lightning. At the moment, this choice is between being hit by a lightning or taking shelter in the caves: this is a cake or death (too obvious) choice and no self-respecting author would write it in this very form.

2. Clues and Hints. Take the exact wording out of the text and replace it with clues and hints: don't mention a lightning in the text, but provide clues and hints by listing the conditions, under which the danger may exist or occur: thunderstorm, wide open field, the tree is the only tall object in the vicinity. Note: You don't have to start out from a loss point of view. Instead, write a paragraph with a specific gain in mind. Example: dead body with a bag of gold coins next to it. Hide it by writing that there are vultures circling high in the air, far away in the distance. Now, keep in mind that, this is also a warning of a possible grave danger awaiting there, so the outcome, positive or negative, is still a matter of chance, not the result of an informed decision. To avoid such randomness in your gamebooks, adjust the difficulty of the choice, using the steps listed below.

Part 2. Adjust the difficulty of the choice accordingly

3. Move clues and hints. Move some of the clues and hints to previous paragraphs: if you need to make the choice more difficult, move some of the conditions to a previous paragraph. Example: mention wide open field and the lonely tree in the same paragraph as the choice, but move the information of the approaching thunderstorm to a previous paragraph. This step increases the difficulty of the choice by measuring the attention and the memory of our readers.

4. Inform the Reader. Make the dilemma a little bit easier: inform the reader that the tree can't provide full protection against the forces of nature (this is a wide term that doesn't directly hint towards a lightning) and let him guess and decide what those forces could be and how much damage they could possibly cause. Note that without this step, the player could be tricked into making the wrong choice and that is something an experienced author would never do to his readers.

5. Partially Reveal. Make the choice harder: if we stop at the previous step, the choice could be a little bit too easy (which could be acceptable early in the adventure), so we may want to adjust it to more difficult (especially later in the adventure) by forcing the reader to choose the lesser evil from two bad outcomes. To do so, we could reveal that if he decides to run for the caves, he will suffer the loss of 10 points of health due to exhaustion. Alternatively, we can design paragraphs where the player chooses the greater good from two or more positive outcomes. The dilemma is now similar to a lot of everyday choices we face, where one of the outcomes is well defined and expected, while the other outcome could be better or worse due to unknown or unforeseen factors.

6. Adjust Further. Adjust the difficulty further by mixing and matching more of positive or negative clues in step 4 and step 5 as much as you think is necessary. Why not adding some positive to each negative like this: there could be provisions or gold left under the tree by other travelers, who took shelter under it or rested there, but at the same time, there are probably artifacts hidden in the mountain caves. See what we did back there? "A thunderstorm is approaching fast. There could be provisions or gold left under the tree by other travelers, but it can't provide full protection against nature's forces. However, if you run for the caves, you'd lose 10 points of health due to exhaustion, but you've heard that there are artifacts hidden in the mountain. Do you take shelter under the tree or do you run for the caves?". Now we have a choice between the lesser of two evils and the greater of two goods. How about mixing them in order to make the choice less obvious? The lesser evil provides the greater good and vice-versa. Actually, to make the above example more difficult, I would move the information about the artifacts to an earlier paragraph, where another person tells you a legend that there are artifacts in the mountains and I wouldn't even mention them in the paragraph where the choice is.

Part 3. Provide deserved feedback after the choice was made

7. Explain Yourself to the Reader. Very limited number of authors inform their readers how and why the consequences of each choice are in direct proportion to the performance and logic during gameplay. It wouldn't hurt to tell the player that while he is running for the caves, a lightning hits the tree under which he had a chance to seek shelter. While subtle enough, that information provides necessary feedback to the player that he chose wisely. In the opposite scenario, feel free to openly criticize the reader extensively for choosing to go under the tree. Inform him that he missed very important clues and tell him that he is running the risk of being hit by a lightning. Keep the feedback short when a good choice was made, but explain in detail why the player is being punished for a mistake he made. This is the only way to provide your readers the satisfaction that they are in control (the human creatures looooove to be in control) even when they are being punished and, and at the same time, teach them a lesson they may benefit from sometime in the future. Teach good and valuable lessons in your games! Being the adventure designer, you are the God of their game world. "With great power comes great responsibility". Use it wisely!

8. Punish or Reward Appropriately. Lets be fair, but also realistic: a lightning can't cause partial damage, it is a total annihilation event. Tell the reader to subtract 10 points of life due to exhaustion, if he chose to run for the caves (you promised him that in the previous paragraph), and also reward him with a magic sword, but don't tell him that the tree was hit by a lightning, if he decided to seek shelter under it, and then ask him to reduce his health points by 40 or so! That is simply not realistic. Instead, give the player some provisions, which he apparently found under the tree and then inform him that he made a mistake, so he will be facing the grave danger of being totally fried up. Then apply, what I call, the rule of God's Forgiveness.

9. God Forgives. Most authors agree that instant death in gamebooks should be reduced to a minimum. If the reader gets to a dead end, it must be the result of multiple bad mistakes and unsatisfactory performance (he dies only after he loses all points of health) or it should be a combination of extremely bad choice and unfortunate luck (the later approach is the God's Forgiveness approach). For the purpose of applying this rule, I suggest that the author tells his reader that, even though being hit by a lightning is a very likely outcome, the chance of it is only a 1/3 or 33% and then ask him to roll a die. If the roll is 1 or 2, the protagonist gets annihilated by a lightning in an instant death, but if the roll is greater than 2, God (the designer of this world) forgives the mistake and allows him to move on. I believe that most readers would see this as a very fair mechanic.

10. Add a layer of emotional and moral choices: Add more implications to make the choice more interesting: having two final goals in a gamebook instead of just one would be a great addition to the difficulty and will add another layer of game mechanics: balancing between two goals, which also provides a much greater replayability value. I love it when authors add a romance plot to another well defined ultimate goal. Let just say that the cop is not only asked to do good in the world and get to the mafia boss in town, but is also given a parallel plot of meeting a beautiful woman, whom he is supposed to attract. It should be nearly impossible to achieve both during the first read, but gaining more knowledge about the game world should allow the player to achieve complete success in both plotlines after a couple or three consecutive attempts. More on the subject of Emotional and Moral Choices could be found in the blog of Ashton Saylor here.


Classification of Hints and Clues:

General Knowledge or Storyline Specific. General Knowledge hint is a piece of information, which is assumed to be a well known fact in the real world. Example: lightnings strike during a thunderstorm. Storyline Specific clue is information received in the course of the adventure. Example: the village elder tells you that there are artifacts hidden in the caves up in the mountain.

A game could be a lot of fun and very sexy if well designed
Storyline Specific hints have two subcategories: Storyline Revelation and Immediate Paragraph hint. Storyline Revelation is information received sometime earlier in the adventure, which could be of help to the reader for the choice he is facing in a later paragraph. Example: while at the tavern, you hear a legend about a magic sword, which could be found in the cave to the left (use that information when you get to the mountains). Application: this kind of hint normally has a higher difficulty level and is used to measure the attention and memory of the player. Immediate Paragraph clue is information presented to the reader, directly related to the choice he is facing in the current paragraph. Example: there is an immediate danger of a thunderstorm front approaching very fast from the east. Application: this kind of hint usually has a lower difficulty level and doesn't require the use of memory, it measures only the reader's attention instead.

A very good alternative of Logical Conclusion Choices is the School Test Choice (Statistical Probability Choice), which is created by finding (in your memory or in a textbook) the correct answer to a question, modifying it to fit the gamebook storyline, coming up with the wrong answer(s) and then designing the outcome punishment and reward. Using this approach doesn't even require the application of hints and clues, the author could even openly warn his readers of the positive and negative outcomes. Example: "Our hero must hurry to the rescue of a beautiful princess, who is held captive in a cursed castle to the north. Should he go in the direction moss is growing on trees or the opposite way? Is moss growing on the north side or the south side of trees (given the adventure is taking place in medieval Europe)"? If the reader chooses South, we punish him by lowering his health 10 points due to being lost in the forest. If the reader goes North, we reward him with successfully finding the dame in distress.

The most difficult choice for every gamer: Save the World or Coin and Cleavage?
At the end of this post, I'd like to point out that Logical Conclusion Choice is one of many possible  mechanics in the genre of gamebook adventures. A book based entirely on Logical Conclusion Choices could feel like taking a test at school, bringing back some unpleasant memories. However, this kind of choice is one of the very limited amount of mechanics in the genre of gamebooks that keeps the player in full control over the outcome of the adventure. Al Toro pointed out that an author must never cheat the player into the wrong decision by applying false clues. He also criticized me that I didn't mention choices that are not absolute, where the same choice could be either good or bad depending on the current stats of the protagonist. That would be the Strategic Choice approach Ashton Saylor had already talked about and I strongly recommend reading his post on the subject. Before you go off wandering to his blog, let me point out that Strategic (also known as Tactical) Choices also require application of "fog of war", hints and clues, because it should never be too obvious which way the player should go, otherwise there is no choice, it is simple "if - then" statement.

The Adventure Map of Short Gamebook Adventure

Here is a very Short Gamebook Adventure designed entirely on Logical Conclusion Choice Theory. You can also follow the step by step process of creating it at my personal blog VisualGamebookAdventures.blogspot.com 

Please remember, whatever you do, don't ever make your readers feel that the final outcome is the unjustified result of pure chance and blind guessing rather than a product of good performance and informed decisions.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer
AugmentedRealityAdventure.com