Sunday, March 29, 2020

A road well traveled: basic structure of a linear Gamebook Adventure

There are many branching patterns in Gamebooks. Some of them are listed in the following blogpost: Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games. I happened to think of them as either Heavily Branched Trees or Linear Train Tracks.

Both "Fighting Fantasy" and "Choose Your Own Adventure" utilize Heavy Branching. They require of the reader to keep track of where he's been and what he's done by either drawing a map of the game world or creating a diagram of his previous choices. My main problem with this kind of branching is that the outcome depends on multiple trial and error attempts. The one ultimate path must be discovered at the expense of many failures. In other words, Heavily Branched games don't evaluate gamer's performance. They don't test his skills. Instead, they test reader's patience and masochistic tendencies (he will discover many different ways to kill the protagonist before finding the path to victory).

I happened to believe that a more linear approach, just like the Delayed Branching theory by Choice of Games, creates a better environment for testing the player's performance. I have already written extensive posts on the theory of Logical Conclusion Choice and on the subject of evaluating Attention, Memory, Knowledge and Logic. The time has come to show how those can be put together to create a great linear gamebook adventure.

The following is a very simplified formula for creating a linear GAMEbook by utilizing variable stats:

Create the Stats and Inventory
0. Before you start writing the adventure and designing the game, you must invent the final encounter and hide the skillcheck behind secret skills. You will find out how I did that at the end of the example game below.

Building up the Protagonist's Stats

1. Initialize the skills through (Blind) Shell Choices: by definition, these kind of choices are always blind. The outcome doesn't depend on the choice. It would be good if you still incorporate some kind of logic here. However, it is still highly unlikely that the reader would be able to guess the author's logic on the first read.

2. Increase the skills through (Blind or Educated Guess) Apples or Oranges Choices: increase the skills by giving a choice to the reader. The choise has transparent logic in it. Still, neither option is good or bad, they are just different.

3. Adjust the stats to the reader's liking through (Transparent) Apples or Oranges Choices: spell out the boost for the stats in the given choices. Naturally, all the options must be equally good.

4. Further adjust the stats through Logical Conclusion Choices: reward the reader with more skillpoints for good thinking and have him decide how to apply those points to the stats.

Final Outcome for the Protagonist

5. Tactical Choice: no ultimate good choice. The outcome depends on the superior category of skills.

6. Final Test: reveal the secret formula for skillchecks and test for win/lose conditions

Example Gamebook

0. Create the Stats and Inventory
0.1. Invent the main subject of the story: Let's make this story about revenge. The protagonist's family was killed and he is going to find and punish the bad guys.
0.2. Invent the Tactical Choice in the Final Encounter: Shoot the DrugLord from a distance or assault his compound, get to his bedroom and kill him there. Because this is a Tactical Choice, the outcome in each of those options is going to depend on a skillcheck of the previously accumulated stats during the course of the adventure.
0.3. Invent the necessary skills that will be checked at the Final Encounter: in order to not spoil your game, I am not going to reveal my final stat intentions just yet. I will explain the logic behind the following two stats at the end of the game below. For now, just write down the following skills and possible inventory:

Stats and Inventory
> Survival Skill = 0
> Meditation Skill = 0
[Automatic Weapon] or [Long Barrel Rifle]

The protagonist was a team leader in the Special Forces and some time ago, he was ordered to take his squad and put a stop to a drug cartel supply chain. Eventually, the head of the cartel found out the identities of the troops and sent assassins to make them pay for damaging his business. One day, your car was blown up to pieces. At that very moment, you weren't in the vehicle, but you lost your wife and daughter in the explosion. After losing the most important people, you are determined to revenge their deaths. It is time to start the game at paragraph 1.

1. Building up the Protagonist's Stats
Initialize the Skills through (Blind) Shell Choices
The following is a typical Shell Choice: the outcome of the choice is unrelated to the options presented. It would be very bad if you reward the reader for choosing one and punish him for the other. However, if you make the outcome of both to be positive, but different, this type of choice is a great way to initialize the stats of the main character. It would be nice if you still incorporate some kind of logic behind the effect of this choice. It is highly unlikely that the reader would be able to guess the author's logic on the first read, but once he finds out what happens, he would accept it as an expected outcome. The exact reasoning behind this approach is explained in great detail in my previous article: creating a traitor instead of a hero.

- 1 -
Naturally, you are devastated. You can mourn in one of the following two ways. If you prefer to stay home, not see anybody for weeks, and get drunk by yourself every night, go to 2 now. If you want to go out and get drunk at a bar every night, you can see what happens to you at paragraph 3. 

- 2 -
Staying home, you get very comfortable being all by yourself for long periods of time. Eventually, you find a way to overcome your grief on your own. Increase your meditation skill by +1 and go to paragraph 4.

- 3 -
Going to a bar every night and getting drunk, your nights end up in a physical confrontation quite often. You even get arrested a couple of times. Increase your survival skill points by +1 and go straight to 4 now!

2. Increase the Protagonist's Stats
(Educated Guess) Apples or Oranges Choices: giving a transparent strong logic choice to the reader. The reader should be able to guess, without having it spelled out in the text, what the possible outcome would be. Still, neither option is good or bad, it is just different. I will not share the exact logic behind this choice with you just yet. I simply don't want to spoil your game. However, you will find out how this choice affects the final outcome soon enough.

- 4 -
A few months later, you have overcome your grieving stage and it is now time for revenge. You go to one of your buddies from the armed forces, who is now in the arms dealing business. You can get either a small automatic weapon (go to 5) or a long barrel rifle (go to 6).

- 5 -
Make a note that you own an automatic weapon and go on to 7!

- 6 - 
Make a note that you own a long barrel rifle and go on to 7!

3. Adjust the stats to the reader's liking
(Transparent) Apples or Oranges Choices: spell out the possible gain of points in the text of the choices present. Naturally, all the options must be equally good. This step should allow the reader to relate to the protagonist quite a bit.

- 7 -
It is the last night before the mission. If you prefer to spend it meditating (+1 meditation skill) go to 8. If you want to go to the gym (+1 point survival skill), go to 9 now!

- 8 -
You meditate the whole night. Add +1 point to your meditation skill and go to 10.

- 9 -
You work out for a few hours. Add +1 to your survival skill and go to 10.

4. Give a boost for good performance
Logical Conclusion Choices: boost up the stats, if the reader makes the right choices, and let him decide exactly how to apply the gained points to the stats. This is the first time in the game when we would reward or punish the reader, depending on the choice he makes. Read more on how to create this kind of choices here: Theory of Logical Conclusion Choice

- 10 -
The next morning you leave on a long journey. You take a map with the exact location of the DrugLord's compound. His fortress was built deep into the woods. When you get to the middle of the forest, you must go south to find it. You are now headed to paragraph 11.

- 11 -
When you get close to the location, you take the main road that splits the forest in two halves. By early evening, you are already in the center of the woods. There are beautiful snowcap mountains standing proud in the far distance straight ahead. To make this beautiful nature's painting even more spectacular, the sun is setting down right behind the snowy peaks. It would be nice to have more time, so you could enjoy this gorgeous landscape, but you must get to your destination before dark. You take a look around. There is a dirt road crossing the main paved road. If you choose to keep walking straight ahead on the asphalt, go to 12 now. If you decide to go left on the dirt road, turn to 13 now. If you prefer to start walking to the right, turn to 14 now.

- 12 -
You keep walking for a long time, but you can't find the drug cartel's compound. It takes you the whole night to get there and your exhaustion is resulting in loss of energy. You should have realized that you were facing west, because the sun is setting there. If you remembered that the drug cartel fortress is to the south, you should have turned left to get there. You must remove -1 point from your Survival skill or Meditation Skill due to the exhaustion. It is your choice which one will be affected. After applying the required changes to your stats, go directly to 15.

- 13 -
After a couple hours, you are close to the drug cartel's compound. You made the right choice and got here fast, so add +1 point to a stat by your choice (Survival Skill or Meditation Skill), because you managed to preserved energy and then go to 15.

- 14 -
You keep walking for a long time, but you can't find the drug cartel's compound. It takes you the whole night to get there and your exhaustion is resulting in loss of energy. You should have realized that you were facing west, because the sun is setting there. If you remembered that the drug cartel fortress is to the south, you should have turned left to get there. You must remove -1 point from your Survival skill or Meditation Skill due to the exhaustion. It is your choice which one will be affected. After applying the required changes to your stats, go directly to 15.

Final Encounter and Outcome 

5. Present a Tactical Choice
It is not a good idea to have a Final Encounter with Ultimate Good or Bad Choice. The success in the adventure should depend on the superior category of skills and the reader must be able to make an Educated Guess which choice relates to which specific protagonist's stat.

- 15 -
Finally, you make it to the compound. To your surprise, it is not heavily guarded. The DrugLord's personal security detail is either out on a different assignment or the criminal is just a little bit too careless. He probably feels safe here, because this location is nearly impossible to find in the thick dark woods. Either way, you don't want to take any unnecessary risks and decide to carry out your mission during the dark of the night. It is time to make your final choice. Do you want to shoot the DrugLord from a distance. You can do that when he gets to his bedroom. You wouldn't have to even get inside the compound - go to 16. The only alternative is to get in there under the cover of the night, make your way to his personal quarters and shoot him to his death. You may have to kill a few guards before you get to him, but as already mentioned, there aren't too many of them, so it shouldn't be impossible for you to execute this plan. If you want to do the latter, go to 17.

6. Final Skillcheck of the Stats
It is now time to reveal the secret formula for skillchecks and test for win/lose conditions

- 16 -
You chose to shoot the DrugLord from a distance. You are lucky to find a tree that is relatively close to the window of his personal quarters. It requires great self control to be sharpshooting from a distance. Convert your Meditation Skill points to Sniper Skill points now! If you have a long barrel rifle, add +2 points to your Sniper Skill. To find out if you are successful, roll 1d6 and add to it your score for Sniper Skill. If the result is greater than 6, you win the game. Otherwise, you lose.

- 17 -
You chose to assault the compound. You need serious brute force to be able to execute this mission. Convert your Survival Points to Brute Force now! There are only 5 guards on the premises, but it would still help you greatly if you have an automatic weapon instead of a single shot rifle. If you do, add +2 points to your Brute Force points! To find out if you are successful, roll 1d6 and add to it your score for Brute Force. If the result is greater than 6, you win the game. Otherwise, you lose.

This is where you find out how each different weapon relates to each Tactical Choice. Please note how I changed the name of the stats at the end of the adventure! Had we given [Sniper Skill] and [Brute Force Stat] to the reader in the very beginning of the adventure, he would have not guessed, but would have most certainly known which of the Tactical Options is more beneficial to him. Hide the Secret Formula of the Stats by applying some "fog of war" theory from the Logical Conclusion Choice post! Otherwise, the last choice in the game becomes a Cake or Death choice instead of Tactical (Strategic) Choice.

Before I finish, let me stress out that this was a very short example of how to build a good linear adventure. A good gamebook must have multiple choces of each kind and they should be well mixed. Don't follow the above formula to the letter! Also, keep in mind that a lengthy adventure will inevitably have a chain of multiple mini-gamebooks one after another. For an example, one of the mini-adventures could lead to a Tactical Choice for succeeding in the investigation of who killed your family. Another mini-game could be related to successfully obtaining enough weapons. A third mini-adventure could be ending with a check to find out if you were able to collect enough information to locate the compound at all. Of course, if the gamebook is of extended length and it incorporates so many mini-games, a larger number of more complicated stats would be required. The more stats you create, the more they will interject with each other and the more interesting your gamebook will be. However, be careful not too incorporate too many stats! If you do so, the reader will be too distracted by those variables and he wouldn't be able to immerse in the adventure experience.

One last example. A good, lengthy gamebook will have a skillcheck that looks like this: 1d6 + patience + meditation - stress. If the result is greater than X, then you succeed. Hell, add to it your health stat, if you want! Just make sure that all the stats and formulas make logical sense and that you have a lengthy enough adventure to develop and build up all those skills and points!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The true origins of SCRAWL

Hi all! This post concerns SCRAWL. You can get all SCRAWL products for PWYW at DriveThruRPG.

My dear friends,

I have a confession to make.

As you know, I have been releasing products for a solo game system known as SCRAWL over the past few months. I have released the rules and some gamebooks to play with the system. I feel that the time is right to tell you now.

SCRAWL is not of my making. I’m not sure that it is of the making of human hands.

How could I be saying this? I will tell you my story.

My tale of woe begins the same way that many other tales of woe begin – with an attempt to get on the M25. I was returning from a very enjoyable stag-do in Wales in April of 2014, and, as I am wont to do on long car journeys, I popped into a service station to stretch my legs, have a break and indulge in a cheeky Burger King. Little did I know what was about to happen. As I approached the Burger King server (is that what you call them?) and asked for my whopper and chips, he merely stared at me blankly. A member of staff at a burger joint staring blankly might not sound strange in itself – some might say that it is a prerequisite for the job – but his eyes went pure black and he hissed to me ‘Enter the tumbledown house! Enter it!’. His eyes then returned to normal and he got me my order, not mentioning this little episode. 

I was freaked out by this supernatural incident, but forgot about it as soon as I bit into that burger. I then got back in the car and headed home, but when I got into the car, the sat-nav told me that the junction I was planning to take onto the M25 was very congested. I took the alternative route the sat-nav suggested which took me along some narrow country lanes.

Then the car’s systems stopped working and the engine conked out. I slowly ground to a halt. Outside a tumbledown house. The memory of that burger had long since vanished from my mind, if not my bowels, and all I thought about was the message from the Burger King employee. It was hissed at me by a black eyed man who seemed to have been possessed. So it was obviously going to be safe.

I walked up to the house and pushed open the rotten wooden door. Using the torch on my phone, the light revealed a sight that human eyes can’t have seen for at least a decade. There was no furniture in this room. The floor was covered entirely with pieces of paper, on each one was drawn a hexmap with different symbols. In one corner of the room lay some cardboard boxes. And in another, there was a skeleton, clutching at a piece of A4 paper. I looked at it to see that it was a character sheet for some RPG. The pencil markings had been rubbed out so many times, it looked grey rather than white. I then looked through the boxes. There were reams and reams of paper on this RPG – zines, adventures, maps, rulebooks – there was tons of material. Along with the RPG material, there were drawings – drawings of flying saucers, grey aliens and shadows stalking a person. There was also a Ouija board and a glass. 

I called the police who took all of the objects in for evidence, except the RPG material. When they laid eyes on the box, they froze and turned away as if something had ordered them to ignore it. Completely of my own free will, I took the box and put it in the car.

I read the material and sat on it (sometimes literally) until 2019. 

SCRAWL seemed like a great system and a really popular one. Except I had never heard anyone mention it. How could this be? Well it appears that SCRAWL is much more than a game and the story of its followers is a strange and bizarre one. I’ve decided to write out the material I found in the box and reintroduce this lost lore to the world once again. Maybe, over time, others who have also found SCRAWL lore can share theirs too. The zines talk of the unification of humanity and the means to solve the climate crisis, war, poverty and belly button fluff. I will release material when I can, but there is an almost endless amount to go through. I wish you all the best on your SCRAWL journeys and hope you gain the same enlightenment that I did.

Stuart Lloyd, 8th February 2020.

You can see my SCRAWLzine files here.

You can get my SCRAWL stuff for PWYW here.