Saturday, May 13, 2023

Fantastic Fights gamebook podcast awesomeness

Hello all! Here is a post from Hieronymous J Doom, host of the awesome gamebook podcast Fantastic Fights. His podcast involves playthroughs of the Fighting Fantasy books and other books along with his thoughts and some design lessons he has taken from them. 

Hieronymous releases two podcasts per month. One is about a Fighting Fantasy book (at the time of writing, he is on Daggers of Darkness) and a bonus playthrough with a gamebook from a different series. These gamebooks have included Destiny Quest, Grailquest, Transformers books and many more. The podcast is always entertaining and informative.

Hierronymous also releases his own gamebooks. However, these are only available to people who back him on Patreon. However, Hieronymous only requires as little as £1 per month, and since you get a lot of awesome gamebooks in return, it is a bargain!

You also get posts about Hieronymous's design process. Hieronymous has kindly let me copy one of his design posts to share here as a taster of the value you get for as little as £1 per month.

I do a lot of my design in my head before I even start sketching out basic ideas. I like to turn ideas over and over, looking at them from different angles and considering what potential ramifications different decisions might have for the design of a game or a book. It’s not something I’d recommend to everyone, I’ve always had a good memory for this kind of thing. When I was a teenager I would regularly run roleplaying games with zero preparation and took very few notes. Instead I’d spend the intervals between sessions turning the characters and situations over in my head and thinking about possible directions that I could take events. I do the same thing in the early stages of designing a gamebook. I audition a bunch of ideas in my head and then turn them round, mentally sketch out different possible iterations and then try something else to see if that feels better. There’s a lot of instinct at this stage of design, I tend to wind up settling on something that just feels right. The important thing for me at this point is to start with something concrete that I can use to orient my thoughts. I think of this part of the process as being like improvising a musical solo, a guitarist needs to know what the basic chords of the song are in order to be able to improvise successfully. Quite often I’ll decide that I can’t come up with enough to do the premise justice. That’s when I move onto another premise and start turning that around to see what I can do with it.

These aren’t failed ideas, I quite often find myself coming back to them months or even years later and I’m always careful to make a note of what I had when I let the idea go so that it can act as a memory aid for future development. They just didn’t feel right for me at the time and that’s fine. Thinking about those ideas helps me sharpen my critical faculties. There’s nothing worse than starting a large project like a gamebook and finding out halfway through it doesn’t actually work.

I thought I would share some of the ideas that I tossed around in my head before abandoning and the reasons why I abandoned them. Then in the next development diary I’ll talk about the idea that made it past the mental stage. I think the majority of these are things I’ve mentioned at least in passing on the podcast.

The first idea that I auditioned was an idea for a science fiction book. I’ve always wanted to do a sci-fi one and this one would have involved the player trying to regain control of a spaceship that had been captured by space pirates. You’d be trying to free crew mates, take control of key sections of the ship before a final showdown with the space pirate chief. There’s definitely the kernel of a good idea here, I’d be riffing on Star Trek, a show I love, and big spaceship would lend itself well to gamebook design being a nice constrained space. I abandoned it only after reluctantly concluding that I couldn’t think of quite enough memorable encounters to get a full book out of it. The premise was great but I couldn’t see a way to avoid a certain amount of repetition without watering it down.

The second idea was a werewolf book where the player would take the role of a human afflicted with lycanthropy. The key thing I wanted to explore was phases of the moon, I loved the idea of the character’s stats and options changing depending on where the moon was in its cycle. I also liked the idea of the character being hunted by professional werewolf hunters. It would have been a great opportunity to bring in some gothic horror in the vein of Hammer horror. I mentally sketched a simple system for tracking phases of the moon but in the end it was clear that it would add a great deal of complexity to the book-keeping and complicate every single encounter design to an outrageous degree. Tracking time is also not something easy to do in a gamebook format where paragraph descriptions are set in stone. The simple answer is to move the phases of the moon from a system approach to a narrative approach, so that early sections of the book take place during the new moon and the climax takes place at the full moon. This a pretty good premise and would allow the finale to be the moment where the hero finally goes full werewolf but it wasn’t the book I wanted to write so I let it go.

This second idea failed partly because it was a mechanics led idea rather than a narrative led idea. I’m a sucker for a simple clever mechanic but I find that whenever I start from the mechanics the final idea is never quite as strong because I’m looking for a reason to justify my mechanics not a narrative hook. In general I believe starting from a mechanical approach is putting the cart before the horse for gamebooks and RPGs. The systems should always be in service to the fantasy not the other way round because you end up designing a board game with some narrative features. Board games with narrative features are a fine thing but it’s not something I think works all that well in a gamebook.

In the next installment I’ll explain what idea has wound up winning the audition process, why it doesn’t resemble my initial idea all that closely, why I think it has legs and what my next steps are.



So, to listen to HJ Doom's awesome podcast, you can get it here - Fantastic Fights — Haunted Phonograph

To back HJ Doom on Patron, starting at a mere £1 a month (you can also give him more!) and get his gamebooks and access to his design posts, go here - HJDoom | creating podcasts and writing/journalism | Patreon

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