Saturday, September 1, 2012

When I decided to write gamebooks

Good morrow to you all, gamebookers!

Today, I'm going to blog about when I decided to write gamebooks, when I decided to write my blog and how I nearly didn't.  I'm doing this because my decision to write gamebooks was not before I wrote my first gamebook.

Back in 2007, before the Windhammer competition had been created, gamebooks had nowhere near the internet presence that they do today.  There were some gamebook Yahoo groups, ffproject , Demien's awesome site and a few other sites.  There was only one gamebook releated blog I could think of - Fighting Dantasy and I had pursued them all with some interest.  Then, in the summer of 2007, I decided that I would kill some time by writing my own Fighting Fantasy gamebook which turned into War of Deities part 1.

I went easy on myself with this one - it was to be a dungeon crawl with an evil wizard at the end of it.  I put the effort into making sure that a character with minimum scores could get through the dungeon and I also added one twist - you were racing against another character who was a constant hindrance to you.  I also wanted to add in a few cool things - being able to learn spells (well, a spell), pyromaniac dwarves, a powerful golem and some magical items. 

It went as well as expected and I am quite proud of it for a first attempt.  I was going to make it into a four part saga full of classic Fighting Fantasy characters leading to an epic climax.  I won't write about the plan now because I might write it in the future, but I later realised that the first book is not really needed so I'll do it as a trilogy. 

Chuffed with my beginner's luck, I went on to write another epic, this time adding to the Fighting Fantasy rules and storyline.  And so I wrote Shadowcaster  I wanted to create a trilogy that was a prequel to Beneath Nightmare Castle which fits in with the Rise of Skarlos by Ramsay Duff.

It had over 500 paragraphs and a magic system that worked on morality.  As a shadowcaster, you trod the narrow path between light and darkness and so could wield the magic of light and darkness (I did not want to call them good and evil as I wanted the side of light to also be bad guys even though they had an appearance of traditional good guys such as knights and priests). 

In the adventure, the southerners of Zagoula along with an army of undead threatened to take over Transoxalia, the area where Beneath Nightmare Castle and Portal of Evil is set.  In the trilogy, you would eventually find a way to turn back the army.  However, you were not able to stop a certain sorceress from stealing a tin box containing the immortal part of Xakhaz and so it sets the scene nicely for Beneath Nightmare Castle.

I consider Shadowcaster as a failure.  When I wrote it, I did not have a good idea of what Lovecraftian horror was all about, which is what Beneath Nightmare Castle is based on.  Shadowcaster is more like heroic fantasy.  I also got some of the paragraph references wrong and didn't really make the most of the morality mechanic. 

After writing Shadowcaster, I entered the first Windhammer competition  with Triad of Skulls which didn't go too well.  First, I stuffed up the skill calculation.  It was supposed to be 10-12 which you got by rolling a d6, dividing by 2 and adding 9 except that I forgot about the divide by 2 part and so peoples' skill was 10-15.  Fail.  It was also linear and with confusing rules.  Fail.  It got a lot of criticism.

So the next year, 2009, I decided that I would make my gamebook as well as I could and created City of the Dead.  I put a lot of effort into the system that I created and made sure that it was as balanced as it could be.  However, it still got a lot of criticism as the description was a bit minimalistic and the rules took up a huge part of the book.  Also, the city was not really a city of the dead as it contained animals and a barbarian tribe.  I had ideas for extra scenes such as a horde of zombies but they got cut to keep the book within 100 paragraphs. 

Its readers said that the book was better than Triad of Skulls but very light on description. 

This is where I realised that I had stopped looking at the story aspect of gamebooks and just looked at them as stats.

So after my initial non failure of War of Deities 1 (which is a functional, if dull, gamebook), I had three setbacks where my failures as a writer were given to me.

This is when I decided to be a gamebook writer. 

I could have given up then as I had put so much effort in and messed up so much.  But I didn't.  I started this blog to keep me going in order to complete the 2010 Windhammer competition which is what my first three posts are about.  I also wrote lots of short gamebooks in order to educate myself on what I can do in gamebooks to get more mileage out of a small number of paragraphs.  I almost stopped this blog at the end of 2010 as I thought that my pageviews were really low but then Andrew Wright wrote a post which included me and that kept me going as I knew that people were really taking notice. 

And that's when I decided to continue my blog.

I imagine that everyone goes through a process like this at some point.  They start up some enterprise that comes across initial setbacks.  It's almost like the Universe is trying to make sure that you love your enterprise enough to put up with the pain of the setbacks.  It's happened to me many a time with other activities such as cricket and playing the guitar where I did give up but I guess that if there wasn't some setback, I wouldn't know for sure if I loved my pursuit or not.  As far as gamebooks were concerned, I did.

So there we go.  My decision to write did not happen when I wrote War of Deities.  That was just a decision to kill time.  I decided to write when people pointed out my shortcomings as a writer and I said to myself that I would continue writing to overcome them.  I'm still writing gamebooks and blog posts about gamebooks today because of it. 

Also, you, my dear reader fuels my enthusiasm for gamebooks by reminding me that there are people that share it, so keep it up.

Happy gamebooking!


  1. I enjoyed this post greatly Stuart. It was great to read about your journey and how you handled setbacks with honesty and determination.

  2. We readers will keep it up if you also, er, keep it up!

    1. Also, I haven't written a gamebook since a couple of rough attempts in my teens, and I don't really have time to write one now, but this post has planted certain suggestions in my mind.

  3. Great post Stuart. One of the things I enjoy about your blog and vlog posts is the honesty with which you analyse your own writing and the writing of others. As Kelvin says, keep it up.

  4. It's been a long time since I saw a post that I connected with more than this. Thanks, Stuart, for providing such an eloquent reminder of what really matters.

  5. I enjoyed reading this post too - very interesting to hear how your journey has evolved. I for one am very glad you kept going as your blog is one of the main things that convinced me there was an online gamebook community and a potential revival of gamebooks in general.

  6. Stu, I see your blog as the heart of the community - your posts are both supportive and insightful, and when I've doubted myself or what I'm doing, often your posts have brought a much needed smile to my face (still love the v-blog from your car!)

    The first step to improving and becoming better at something is to realise your mistakes (Hell, I know that one!) - so sounds like you're destined for Gamebook Glory one day :-) I can't wait.

  7. It's really great to read such an honest reflection. I always marvel at people's perseverance, *despite* reviews by strangers. I think ultimately it's more fun to sell stuff than enter competitions. But then I'm terrified of getting negative approval from peers (so massive respectful to you, sir!). No matter what anyone says about their own work (no matter how dismissive they are) these are all labours of love - but at the same time there's the whole "published and be damned" bit where you have to let the thing be free. Immediately after hitting "send" or "upload" those hyper-critical voices in the head start. Which is why, in conclusion, I have decided that we should all be drunk most of the time (sleep-deprivation can also help) - it'll help us finish our mighty opuses and worry less about what happens next. ;)
    The only problem is that you need all of those organization and maths skills to double check everything in gamebook, which is better done sober, perhaps?

    Ace post, dude!

  8. BTW - it's awesome to see how many "established" authors you have commenting on here. :o