Monday, February 21, 2011

What microadventures taught me - don't be a waste of space

Mark Rosewater (also known as MaRo).
First of all, I recommend you read this article and this article by Mark Rosewater, head designer of Magic the Gathering.  It is a useful guide on how to improve your creativity and is a great read, even if you know nothing about Magic the Gathering.  As I have said before, I will post a list of articles that Mark Rosewater has written on creativity and game design as many of his ideas are pertinent for gamebooks. 

Read those articles?  They're good, aren't they?  So why were they pertinent to gamebooks and microadventures?

It all goes back to Mark's view on restrictions.  Restrictions breed creativity.  And microadventures confirmed this.

I had just completed Shadowcaster part 1, a 533 paragraph abomination chock full of every idea I could fit in to the book and I couldn't carry on with the other two books.  I had made it too big and I could no longer be bothered to carry on with the Shadowcaster trilogy.

So I was sitting around, not too motivated to do anything gamebook related, when I downloaded the Fighting Fantasy official magazine (is it still going btw?).  In the magazine was a 25 paragraph adventure by Andrew Wright called 'In the Shade of the Pango Tree.'.  The paragraphs filled one page of A4 which they shared with a large illustration in the middle of the page.  I had a brainwave - writing one of these little pieces would be quick, simple and allow me to flex my creative muscles.  Andrew wrote two more of these adventures - Debacle at Dead Man's Inn and Into the Valley of Halos.  They can be found in this Yahoo Group

So I ended up writing ten microadventures.  However, the restriction of having only 25 or 50 paragraphs to use, made me call upon my creativity in order to squeeze more in to the adventure. 

The problem with having so few paragraphs is that the player will only have a few decisions before the adventure is over or they will havea very linear adventure.  It is a problem that the small Choose Your Own Adventure books had, as mentioned in this article.  The book would also not be very variable and its replayability factor would be very small.

However, there are several solutions to the problems which mean that you can pack a good storyline into a small 25 paragraph adventure.

Here they are:

1)  If there is an ability roll and the outcomes of success and/or failure are obvious then you do not need to turn to a new paragraph to read the outcome.

In most Fighting Fantasy books, when you test your luck, you usually have to turn to a new paragraph if you are lucky or another new paragraph if you are unlucky.  That's two new paragraphs for every test for luck, which is 8% of a 25 paragraph book.

However, if, for example, you have to test your luck to see if an arrow that someone firs hits you, then it will come as no surprise that if you are lucky, the arrow misses and if you are unlucky then the arrow hits you and you lose stamina.  This does not warrant two new paragraphs.  Just leave it one the current paragraph.

Also, if you have an ability roll and the result of one of the rolls is that nothing happens, then you only need to turn to a new paragraph for the result that involves something happening. 

For example, if you have to test your luck to see if you notice a secret door, then you can write 'Test your luck.  If you are lucky, turn to 11.  If you are unlucky, you carry on down to corridor until...'

This also applies to random die rolls to see if an event happens.  Fabled Lands is full of these and if you had to turn to a new paragraph for every random event that happens to you, then the books would have an extra 30 or so paragraphs.  These random events die rolls will also add variability to the book.  An example from The War Torn Kingdom:

Roll 1 or 2 A thief steals one item from you (your choice).
Roll 3 or 4 Nothing happens.
Roll 5 or 6 Find a manbeast's helmet.

The paragraph then  gives you a decision to make.  That is efficiency with paragraphs. 

2)  If you offer a decision with several options, then one of the options could involve staying on the paragraph.

For example, instead of writing 'To go north turn to 4.  To go south, turn to 8.', you could write 'If you wish to go north, turn to 4.  If you wish to go south, you follow the path...'.

This reduces the number of paragraphs you need to use by 1, which is 4% of a 25 paragraph gamebook.

3)  Have items that can be used independently of where the player is in the book

'Sure, the storm drake looks tough, but not after I've shot him with my blunderbuss and cut him a few times with my good old anti dragon magic sword.  And if it tries something, it has to get past my breastplate and my wyrmskin cloak.'

Stormslayer, Jonathan Green.

Since you have only 25 paragraphs, you can't write it like a Livingstone adventure where any old piece of junk gets a paragraph dedicated to how it manages to help you save the world (for example - a small wooden brick gets you access to a shop or certain villains are scared of a monkey or some powerful sorceress requires you to have small metal discs or certain shapes.). 

However, you can still have plenty of items which do not require a new paragraph every time you use them.

i)  Items that you can use to restore stamina at any paragraph except for one where you have a combat, such as provisions or potions of healing.

ii) Items that you can use when you are in combat such as a throwing dagger that you can use before the combat begins or a piece of armour that reduces damage on a die roll.

iii) Items that has an effect when certain events happen to you such as a fur cloak that allows you to ignore any damage from cold or a climbing kit that allows you to make climbing rolls easier.

These items can also offer more choices.  For example, the throwing dagger you use in combat may get lost when you use it so you have to decide whether you use it for the combat you are in or whether you should save it for later. 

3)  Have an encumbrance limit.

'Oooh, that's good.  I can get some spider silk.  Hang on.  I've got a dagger,
a talisman, the lucky bottle and a carpet.  What should I get rid of?!'

The Screaming Spectre, Dave Morris.

If you have a limit to the number of items you can carry, then every time you find a new item, you have a decision.  Is this going to be useful enough for me to use a slot on this?  I'm already full - is this item going to be more important than anything else I'm carrying?  Do I know how useful any of my current items are? 

4)  Go shopping

'I could by the boots of stealth and make use of the move
silently skill, but then I won't be able to afford a sword!'

Master of Chaos, Keith Martin

There's nothing that gives someone lots of decisions to make like a list of useful items with a price tag. 

The combinations become very large very quickly, expecially if you factor in an encumbrance limit and if you make sure that the player will not have enough money to buy everything. 

Having a list of things to buy may also affect other decisions a player makes.  If you give them an option of trying to get more money by doing something risky, then they need to decide if they can afford to buy what they need or if they need to take the risk to get more money and therefore more items. 

They're all very nice, but I really need
something that can take out a
mad sorcerer.

Or maybe they should save their money because it may come in handy later.  Or maybe they could sell something. 

You can put all of these decisions on one paragraph just by having a shop in your adventure.

5)  Give the player decisions in combat rather than just make it a die rolling exercise

'Should I thunderbolt this guy or cast fast hands?'

Legend of Zagor, Ian Livingstone.

Most combat systems use the idea of rounds.  If your character has different modes of attack, such as a choice of spells or the decision to attack in an aggressive manner or defensive manner, then each round becomes a decision. 

6)  Allow the character to be customised

'I'll definately need climbing, but should I go for disguise or combat?'

Moonrunner, Stephen Hand

You can give the player decisions to make before the game begins.  They can customise their character in several ways.

i)  Give them a choice of characters (Fabled Lands, The Fellowhip of Four, Duelmaster books or Legend of Zagor)

ii)  Give the player points to adjust their character's abilities (Night Dragon)

iii)  Give the player skills and/or spells to choose from (Lone Wolf, Citidel of Chaos, Moonrunner)

iv)  Give the player a choice of equipment and/or a shop to buy equipment from (Lone Wolf, Space Assassin)

7)  Give the player a choice of paragraphs in the background.

So instead of giving players the background and telling them to turn to 1, give them a choice.  This gives you one extra paragraph to play with. 
So there we are.  In my free download, Ten Short Fighting Fantasy Books and One Long One, you will be able to see me utilise all of these ideas in my micro adventures.  I would recommend anyone to do some - they are fun and quick.  If you do write one, I'd love to read them. 

Next time, I'll write about what micro adventures taught me in terms of narrative.

Until then...have fun!


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