Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to write a gamebook part 3 - genre and setting

After the first two parts of this series (part 1 is here and part 2 is here), we now have a good grounding in the mechanics of writing a gamebook.  We may also have an idea for the subject of our gamebooks.  In the next two posts of the world, we will flesh out the world and its inhabitants.

We may have an idea, but where will we set it and how will we write it?  The idea may involve the player hunting down a criminal, but it could be a dark wizard in a fantasy world  or a mad scientist on a huge starship.  This post will give you some ideas on genre and setting of a gamebook.

The aim of this post is to give you a few ideas on what genre you can use and what setting you could use.


Accoding to Wikipedia, the definition of genre is:

literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary techniquetonecontent, or even (as in the case of fiction) length. Genre should not be confused with age category, by which literature may be classified as either adult, young-adult, orchildren's. They also must not be confused with format, such as graphic novel or picture book. The distinctions between genres and categories are flexible and loosely defined, often with subgroups.

Wikipedia also has a list of literary genres if you are in need of some examples.

Guess the genre
Most gamebook genres are subgroups of fantasy or science fiction.  You will find that a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books are of an adventure fiction genre set in the modern day and there is an occasional horror gamebook

Do not let the huge number of fantasy gamebooks put you off from writing a legal thriller  or even an educational gamebook (in fact, some of the first gamebooks were educational thanks to B.F. Skinner.)

A word of warning though - it is quite hard to make humour work in a gamebook in large doses.  I think this is because some humour works by going against peoples' expectations and in gamebooks, people make decisions based on expecting their actions to have logical consequences.  It may get frustrating to have completely different consequences to your expected actions, even if they are done for humorous reasons.  Humour is fine as long as it does not involve readers' decisions.


The Wikipedia definition of a setting is:

In fictionsetting includes the timelocation, and everything in which a story takes place, and initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story. Setting has been referred to as story world [1] or milieu to include a context (especially society) beyond the immediate surroundings of the story. Elements of setting may include culturehistorical periodgeography, and hour. Along with plotcharactertheme, and style, setting is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.[2]

So what kind of settings can we have?  It's not to hard to imagine the setting if your gamebook takes place in the modern day and historical settings have plenty of source material, so I will focus on fantasy and scifi settings.

Fantasy settings

If we are not too concerned about world building at the moment and we just want a site for a fantasy gamebook, the most common setting is a dungeon crawl.

First of all, a dungeon crawl gamebook does not necessarily mean that the game will take place in a dungeon.

Wikipedia's dungeon crawl entry begins with:

Typical dungeon crawl
dungeon crawl is a type of scenario in fantasy role-playing games in which heroes navigate a labyrinthine environment, battling various monsters, and looting any treasure they may find. Because of its simplicity, a dungeon crawl can be easier for a gamemaster to run than more complex adventures, and the "hack and slash" style of play is appreciated by players who focus on action and combat.

Dungeons aren't mentioned at all.  According to this definition, the following gamebooks (with their environments) are dungeon crawls:

Still a dungeon crawl.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (inside a mountain)
The Citadel of Chaos by Steve Jackson (in a citadel)
Forest of Doom (in a forest)
City of Thieves (in a city)
Deathtrap Dungeon (in a dungeon...with deathtraps)
Island of the Lizard King (mostly on a tropical island but also in a mine and a castle)
Scorpion Swamp (in a swamp)
Space Assasin (in a space ship)

As you can see, a lot of early Fighting Fantasy books were dungeon crawls.  

Why dungeon crawls?

As Wikipedia stated, dungeon crawls are simple to run.  This is also true from a gamebook perspective.  If you go around a dungeon where small discrete scenes take place in rooms then your flow diagrams do not have to be very big.  In the early gamebooks, a typical dungeon crawl would involve you coming across some kind of creature.  The options were to attack it or talk to it.  

An example from the Warlock of Firetop Mountain:


The door opens into a small room, comfirtably furnished with a table, several chairs and a large bookcase which covers one wall.  Seated at the table is an old man with a long grey beard, and squatting on the old man's shoulder is a large winged beast.  This creature is no more than six centimetres tall.  It has two arms and legs; its skin is a dusty grey colour.  It has tiny sharp white teeth and its wings are folded behind its back.  The old man says nothing as you walk through the door but he beckons you over to sit at the table.  He is tossing in his hand two small white objects.  Will you:

Sit down as he tells you?                           Turn to 204
Leave the room and return to the junction?  Turn to 280
Draw your sword and rush forward?             Turn to 377

The 'scene' will be resolved in one or two paragraphs time.

Map of Firetop mountain.
The walkthrough is here.
The good things about dungeon crawls (from a writer's point of view) is that they are simple and that they do not have to logically fit together.  Two rooms can have completely different furnishings and inhabitants.  For example, in Firetop Mountain, there is a nice old man who will sell you stuff, a room with hands and stars on the floor, a room with a dragon and a room that has two helmets.  You can throw in any old idea.

These good points can also be bad points for the reader if they are looking for more depth or a logical settlement with a food and water source.  There is also very little chance for character or plot development.

However, they are good books to practice on.  You can write a dungeon crawl by drawing a map of your dungeon, writing a short note as to what is in each room and then writing it.  My first gamebook, War of Deities part 1 was a dungeon crawl and although it was 400 paragraphs long, I finished it in a small amount of time.

You can include mazes in gamebooks, however I do not like mazes where the only decisions you make are 'Which way do you turn?'  I do not find them very interesting.  I do not find the maze in Warlock of Firetop Mountain interesting at all.  The maze in Spectral Stalkers is done a little better since you have a map, so it is more like a puzzle to solve and your decisions are less arbitrary.  What do other people think about mazes?

You can set non dungeon crawl gamebooks in all of the above settings.  Instead of dungeon crawls, you can have options based on interaction with NPCs, moral decisions, decisions you make at the beginning of the book having consequences later on or puzzles.

Gamebook worlds 

For those of us who like to work from the top down, we can create our own gamebook worlds.  You do not have to create a whole world at the beginning.  You could create an area.  If you do this first, then you can work out the area that your gamebook is set in including who lives there, what the landmarks are like and what kind of encounters the player could have.  This would make the world more believeable as it will have more internal consistency and it will be put together more logically.  Here are some things to think about.

The geography of the world

How big is it?  What terrain does it have?  What climate does it have?

If you need guidance on a physical or climate map of your world, first look at the physical and climate maps of our world.  There are plenty of sites that also do fantasy maps:

Fantastic maps
Fantasy World Maps
World Builder Projects

There is also a very comprehensive world building site here.

Technology level

A centurion on a space ship?
It makes sense in context.
When I mention technology, I usually think about what weapons you would have.  Anyone who's played Civilisation knows that gunpowder drastically changes battle tactics.

What other things have been discovered?  Fire? Bronze?  Iron?  Steel? Lasers? A good guideline is to look at the Civilisation Wiki   and have a look at what your society has discovered with all the implications for your gamebook.

Of course, you could also have a weird mix of technology in your gamebook.  Maybe the philosophers of the time have discovered steam power, but just didn't get around to creating building impressive ships.

Hard Scifi
You might also have a post apocalyptic world where primitive technology might mix with advanced technology from a lost age.

In a science fiction book, you need to consider things such as faster than life travel, communication with other races, phasers, teleportation and colonisation of other planets.  The level of technology will have a big impact on what kind of problems your character will have to face.  For example with Starship Traveller, your ship has weapons and teleportation, so the probles are ship to ship problems and the problems that various planets produce.  In Star Strider, with no faster than light travel or teleportation the problems are unreliable technology and navigating a largely abandoned Earth.


Society will be influenced by geography and technology of the world you are in.  If you want your technology to be similar to the level in Ancient Greece, then it would be reasonable to have a society similar to Ancient Greece.  Things to think about include:

How civilised is your world?  Are there lots of cities or just a few villages surrounded by wild primal countryside.  In a science fiction setting, the people may have enough technology to be able to survive even the most hostile of climates and planets.

What is the government system of your world?  Democracy?  Tyranny?  Is the government powerful or weak?

How do different countries get on?  Is the world full of peaceful trade or is everyone at constant war?

What does your society value?  Money?  Strength?  Power?  Piety?

If you want some examples of fantasy worlds, this is a list with reviews of how good they are.

Here is a blog where someone has created a world for a Tunnels and Trolls Campaign.

You can also use historical periods as a source of inspiration.  For scifi ideas, there is a TVTropes page about scifi settings.

A race description from this artist.
He has many more.
How can we turn a historical setting into a fantasy setting:

Sentient races

Do you want other races in your fantasy world other than humans?  If so, what role do they play in the world?
You can find a list of standard RPG races along with more races in the D and D wiki along with their characteristics.

The classic situation is that elves live in forests, dwarves live in mountains, humans live pretty much anywhere and then other races live in little pockets elsewhere.  It is probably best not to have a huge plethora of races unless you need them as it can get confusing and those sticklers for logical consistency will not like it.

Just because a world is human centric with alomst no other sentient creatures does not meant that it is boring. There could be a war between countries or courtly plots or treasure hunting.  Fabled Lands, Iron Heroes and the Conan RPG do fine with only sparing use of creatures that you wouldn't find on Earth.

Science fiction can logically have more races due to faster than light travel between planets.  Here are some places to find inspiratin for scifi races:

15 Memorable Alien Races in Science Fiction
Science Fiction Biology blog
Star Trek races
Star Wars species

Magic level

In scifi, what I say about magic level here refers to tech level.  To quote A.C. Clarke:

"To the primitive mind, any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic"

Magic level is a biggie if you are world building.  If you just want a hero to go into a dungeon, kill the monsters and grab the treasure without thinking about the outside world then you can whatever magical items and spells you like.

What is it today, sir?  Bread and
ale or the seventh staff of daemon
However, if you start to think about magic in the wider world, it could affect the economy of a society (if you can buy stones that produce light for example), it's security (if people can just teleport into vaults to rob them) how easy peoples' lives could be made easier or harder (if you have levitating discs for people to travel on for example).

There are an infinite number of magic systems out there.  You could have a magic system like D20 where there are several spells that can produce many unnatural and powerful effects such as magic missile, scrying and teleportation.  In Dungeons and Dragons, these spells are relatively easy to get hold of yet being able to do these things would radically upset society.

Maelstrom RPG has quite a different magic system where the magic user would specify any effect they want but the more unlikely or unnatural the effect, the more difficult it is to make happen.  So most magic in Maelstrom is something that could be put down to luck or someone's choices.  In this system, even magic missile is almost impossible to cast.

Iron Heroes has a magic system where the effects are unnatural but few people wield magic as it has dangerous results.  The same applies in Conan RPG.  Magic users (even the good ones) are in grave danger of losing their souls or if a spell goes wrong, they could obliterate the surrounding area.

There may be different types of magic.  Dungeons and Dragons has arcane spells, divine spells and psionics.  Spells may be cast using different systems.  Casters can cast x spells a day or they may have a reserve of magic points or they may cast spells from their hit points.  Powerful effects may need special items or locations and may require several people or a long time.

When you are coming up with a magic system, you need to think about what kind of effects your magic users can produce, what they need to do to produce those effects and whether there will be any problems with producing those effects.  You then need to think about how magic affects your world.  Do ordinary people have access to it?  Do nobles each have a sorcerer?  Do kings have magical items to prevent scrying and teleportation?  Do the general populace mistrust magic users?

Like with races, you can have a world with no magic in it and it can still be entertaining and interesting to play.  Iron Heroes characters can pull off cool stunts despite the lack of magic in the world.  Do not think that you need magic to make a cool gamebook.

You could spend the rest of your life researching RPG magic, so don't do it too much.  Use a system and see where it goes.  For a summary of RPG magic, look at the TVTropes page.

For a brilliant study on magic in the real world, you can read The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazier for free.  You can also find the free audiobook here.


What kind of god(s) do the people worship?  Can their priesthood use magic?  How do different priesthoods view each other?  How does the general populace view the priests?  Do the gods actually exist?  If they do, do they play a role in the world or just step back and give the occasional message?

For a good article on religion in role playing games, go here.

For ideas on deities, there is a list of Dungeons and Dragons Deities here.

For an example, here is the Wikipedia page on Pelor, a popular deity.

I have a bit more to write on this, but this post is getting long enough, so I will post examples of gamebook worlds in part 3a.

Up until now, I had had to make the links by publishing the blog post, then copying the URL and then editing the links in later.  However, I found this helpful guide on how to determine your blog post titles in advance, so I've done that this time.  I hope I've written them out correctly.

Have fun!


  1. i'm enjoying your article, i am very nostalgic about the FF books. The Lonewolf series where my favourites, if I could get a copy of those, in particular the sorcery books.. what i would do :)

    1. Many thanks Liquidator Brunt (and I love the name). You could find the Lonewolf books for free at project aon. You could also buy the FF books and Sorcery! books from Amazon or even in App form-