Hello gamebookers and visitors! Today, we have Jeffrey Dean, author of the excellent Road Less Travelled series. So far, we have Westward Dystopia and Spire Ablaze, with book 3, Lords of Benaron, currently being written. The books are available in softover and ebook formats and also apps for book 1 and book 2 . The books take place in a post apocalyptic wasteland, but soon, you realise that there is more to the story...
Jeffrey successfully got his books funded on Kickstarter last year and now we are enjoying the benefits of them.
So here we have Jeffrey Dean.
For those of us who don't know, please tell us about yourself.
I grew up in the United States and earned a degree in Computer Science before moving up to the great white north of Canada to live with my wife and our two children in a cosy Canadian igloo. I dabble in games programming and app development and started writing gamebooks three years ago. Aside from writing and programming, my main passion is for music, primarily heavy metal and horrible hipster folk rock. It’s a great combination. Trust me.
What inspired the Road less travelled gamebooks?
I grew up playing Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid—they’re what I credit for getting me into reading at a young age. In the US, Fighting Fantasy books were hard to find, but I did manage to get my hands on the old Gary Gygax gamebooks 'Hero’s Challenge' about a young barbarian named Sagard and those always stuck with me. I didn't think about gamebooks for a long time after growing up until I stumbled on Tin Man Games and their awesome Gamebook Adventures series. I devoured every book they put out and was hungry for more so I decided to write my own. I’d been writing mostly short stores up until that point, so it was quite a transition getting into interactive fiction, but once I got into the groove of it and found the right tools the words came fast and furious.
In book 1, you became a wanderer in a post apocalyptic world, but there are several twists on the story as you go along. Did you know the twists would be present from the start or did they develop later on?
How to answer this without spoiling the twists, heh. Long story short, yes, the main twist was planned out from the very beginning. I wanted to make a commentary on the format of interactive fiction as a whole, and that was almost as important to me going in as the post-apocalyptic theme. The subplot that starts and ends the book was a later discovery, added in when the book was around halfway complete. I wanted a framing device where the person reading the book was actually roleplaying not as the main character itself, but as a volunteer probing the main character’s memories. I can say that at least without being too spoilery, since it’s explained in the first few pages of the book. My hope was to immerse the reader enough that they forgot the framing device by the time they finished and were surprised by the ending.
Book 2 is a prequel to book 1 and focuses on the technomancers and the shapers. Why did you decide to do this one second?
I actually started writing book 2, Spire Ablaze, first before really getting into Westward Dystopia. Something about the way the book started just didn't work for me so I put it aside to work on a story told much later in the protagonist’s life. I wanted to focus on the idea of a grizzled gunslinger archetype, drawing inspiration from Stephen King’s Dark Tower and the Fallout games, and that really worked for Westward Dystopia, while Spire Ablaze is more a coming of age story that is far more character driven. When I finished up book 1, I found that the story I had started still wanted to be told, and I now had enough ideas and understanding of my world that I could tell the protagonist’s background as well as shed some light on the mysterious mutant Shapers.
You are currently working on book 3, Lords of Benaeron. What is the story behind that?
Book 3 follows the events of one of the main endings of Westward Dystopia, although like all the books, it’s designed to be able to be read by itself with a quick recap page, not unlike Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series.
The Lords of Benaeron is a story of revolution. Benaeron is the largest city in the wasteland and it’s ruled over by a council of Lords with an iron fist. The protagonist joins up with a group of revolutionaries known as The Branded, both for personal and moral reasons that I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t read Westward Dystopia, and you spend the book forming alliances and recruiting soldiers to overthrow the Lords’ regime.
How will book 3 play out?
Lords will play a bit differently than the previous two books. It’s designed to be an open world experience, taking inspiration from the Fabled Lands gamebooks, but with a central narrative and day by day structure. The city of Benaeron is open for the player to explore at their leisure, picking up side quests and allies as you go. Your adventures are based out of a hub of operations, which is where you will pick up the main story missions and advance the main plot. Each day in-game presents the reader with important story missions that must be completed before you sleep again to advance the plot, but other than that it’s entirely open. The city of Benaeron is not black and white, good and evil. You’ll need to make some difficult choices and maybe even ally yourself with morally ambiguous people in order to achieve a greater good. Or not. It’s your call, and that’s half the fun!
From the start, you had come up with a very thorough background for your world. Do you have any tips on world building?
I certainly wouldn’t consider myself any kind of authority on world building, but if I had to give any advice, I’d say that your first order of business should be to consider the world to be your first character. What’s its background, where do you see it in the future? I’d suggest that before you even consider starting to write a book, you spend a few days brainstorming and outlining the world right from the beginning. Come up with a few population hubs. How are they related? How do their economies work? How do they organize their defences? Once you have at least an outline for how your world functions, it makes it so much easier to dive in and start writing the actual book.
How did you come up with the game system for the book?
First and foremost I wanted a system that was simple and easy to play. It had to use six-sided dice, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to explain. I made a conscious decision early on to try something that I believe is unique to gamebook fighting systems: simultaneous damage. I always found the thought of taking turns with the player attacking and then the monster attacking to be a bit silly. Combat is fast and frenetic and I wanted my combat system to reflect that so I have both sides of a combat roll their attacks at the same time, one on each die, both parties inflicting a certain amount of damage each round, not just the one that rolled higher. Health totals needed to be adjusted to accommodate this, but I think it worked out quite well. I added the explosives in Westward and the throwing knives in Spire to add a little more strategy to the combat and keep things fresh. You’d need to decide whether or not it’s worth it to throw your grenade for massive damage, or keep it in reserves. I found combat a lot more fun when I added those simple options.