Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April A to Z - J is for Jasan Barnett

Jasan Barnett is a gamebook author who has written the Woodland Forest Chronicles  and the Choices gamebook series.  The first Woodland Forest Chronicles, Invitation to a Feast  is a pleasant gamebook where you take the role of a rabbit who needs to get to the Noble Ranger's feast without being caught by the dangerous woodland creatures.  Jasan has shared some great insights into gamebook writing and measuring gamebook difficulty on his blog.  Be sure to check that one out.  

To the interview!

1)  What was the first gamebook you read (that wasn't your own)? 

I probably need to give two answers to this question to do it justice. 

When I was about 7-8 years old (or thereabouts), my primary school teacher introduced our school to the first few books in the Choose your Own Adventure series. (The first five, from memory). To begin with, she read one of them out loud to the class and had us decide what to do next when the time came to make a decision.

The book she read was "The Mystery of Chimney Rock". I was entralled by the concept; being a type I had never seen before. I could read a book and actually decide what happened in the story. Furthermore, being at that age where I enjoyed listening to scary and dangerous adventure stories, actually being "part of such a story" added that extra excitement.

From that day on, gamebooks were part of my makeup. I remember, growing up with my cousins, we would make up "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories and tell them to each other verbally (usually at night, so as to scare each other). For those first few years, however, I never really wrote any gamebook stories as such...which leads to part 2 of my answer.

At around 12-13 years of age I stumbled, unexpectedly, across my first fighting fantasy gamebook, "Khare - Cityport of Traps", inside my school library. For the second time, just like the first time, I was blown away by the concept of the adventure sheet and the recording of notes, equipment and character statistics. The use of dice, however, was the clincher. I had always enjoyed board games up to them but to add such a system to an adventure story, I thought, was the most awesome thing for a young tween/teen.

Within days of borrowing that book, I decided that I wanted to write these kinds of books as well...and I did, completing about 15 of them over a five year period, written in simple exercise books......Pity I never ended up keeping any of them.

2)  What is your favourite gamebook? 

For me, it has to be Creature of Havoc


a) The back story of not knowing who you are adds a great element of mystery to the story, plot-wise.

b) Beginning the story with your character not being able to speak in the common tongue is a nifty story plot, but extending this limitation to the reader as well (via the use of the coded language) really turns the story on its head. Magnificent idea. Probably the best part of the gamebook.

c) The book is REALLY DIFFICULT, but this is not due to having the reader needing to defeat difficult enemies with over-the-top attributes, but due to the correct path to victory being so well hidden that it takes a very long time to find it. I would very much one day like to write a gamebook that is similarly difficult, in the same manner as COH.

d) Never ending loops that act as endings. I had never seen this done before, but to send the user into a repetitive loop that he could never escape from is quite a different way of ending the story. It was very clever.

3)  What gamebooks/interactive fiction would you recommend to a newcomer to the genre? 

Generally speaking, for a newcomer, I would recommend a book, based on the following considerations:

a) A reasonable story plot/adventure to partake in, to ensure the reader is not bored.

b) A gamebook that is not too difficult to successfully complete. Giving a newcomer a book like Creature of Havoc, for example, might turn them off because of its difficulty.

c) A gamebook with simpler, rather than more complex, gamebook mechanics, in order to ease them into the genre (i.e. Avoid any steep learning curve). For example, the DestinyQuest gamebook, "The Legion of Shadow", gets very heavy with dice rolls and calculations, the further into the adventure the reader advances.

Now, if the reader in mind, however, actually enjoys a steep learning curve/complex gamebook mechanic and/or a difficult challenge, I would actually recommend COH and LOS as a pair of books to begin with.

However, since these are not the parameters I am using, I have three books I would recommend. One of them is actually my first gamebook, "Invitation to a Feast", for the reasons mentioned above, but since it is my own book, I won't go any further here (since I am biased on this one :-)).

i) Island of the Lizard King (Fighting Fantasy - Book 7 in the original series) - It has been many years since I read this, but, apart from the opening encounter on the beach with the giant crab? being a tad difficult for an opening battle (actually, I am now second guessing, was the crab's SKILL score 8 or 9) the story was reasonably easy to complete, was an interesting tale, and contained no special gamebook mechanics that varied from FFs standard fare.

ii) Return to Deathwater (Narnia Solo Adventures - Book 1) - Again, I am biased here as my favourite literary author is C.S.Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and this story is a sequel to my favourite story in the Narnia series, "Voyage of the Dawn Treader". This story is also, quite simple to complete (it is even possible to succeed on your quest totally or partially, which is different from what you usually see in a gamebook nowadays) and the gamebook mechanics are simpler than the standard FF gamebook style. 

4)  Summarise what a gamebook is to a newcomer in 100 characters or fewer. 

Read the story...Roll the dice...Make decisions.
These factors will decide how the adventure ends - in success or failure

5) Why are gamebooks great (compared to games or books)?

I love reading and I love playing board games. With a gamebook, I get the best of both worlds with one activity. For those people out there that really enjoy both of these common hobbies (reading and board games) you can't go wrong with a decent gamebook.

6) Where did you come up for your ideas for gamebook stories?

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (or something like that). In my teen years, when I wrote gamebooks for my friends, the stories (plot-wise) were basically copycats of gamebooks from the Fighting Fantasy series that had already been written, for the most part, (there was one notable book, however, where I went into a purely creative zone and wrote the story out of my head, I feel it was probably the best book that I wrote in my teen years. It certainly didn't resemble any FF book written at the time (or since), it was set in modern day, on earth, and was titled "Trapped". The only problem was, I didn't finish it. In fact, I didn't even get close to finishing it. I think I wrote around 100-150 sections, from memory. It was the only gamebook I wrote in my teen years that I never finished.)

My first five books were a Pentalogy. Basically, my own version of the Crown of Kings storyline. The series was called "The Helmet of Sandrome". I then wrote my own version of Deathtrap Dungeon, called "Victory Maze". I did a story based on Temple of Terror, called "The Seven Dragons of Siptare". Near the end of my first writing period, I wrote my own version of "Creature of Havoc". There were some others that I wrote as well.

After that, for about a fifteen year period, I put my pen down and basically, didn't write again. In that time, three things happened that would influence my writing when I came back to it again. Firstly, I became a Christian. Secondly and thirdly, I would discover the writings of J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis, which, interestingly, had almost no part of my childhood whatsoever. When the time came to writing gamebooks again, it was these three factors that would distinguish my future works from my earlier works, especially when it came to my Woodland Forest Chronicles series. Other influences would include Beatrix Potter's works and Kenneth Graeme's "The Wind in the Willows", and finally, most recently, Brian Jaques' "Redwall" series. 

With respect to Lewis, I knew that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe existed and have a vague recollection of it being read to me in primary school by my teacher, but I also remember that I was not really interested in it very much. I also knew a book titled, "The Magician's Nephew" existed, but didn't know it was part of the Narnia series. As far as the other five books were concerned, I didn't know they existed.

For Tolkien, I had heard of The Hobbit and also The Lord of the Rings, but didn't know what they were about.

By the time I started writing my first published gamebook, "Invitation to a Feast", I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings more than once, seen all of Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy and had read some of the Narnia series. (I'm pretty sure the first Narnia movie came out while I was in the middle of writing the first book).

With respect to my other series, "Choices", the idea for the first story in the series "The Wounded Falcon" came from looking at the front cover of another book, that had the word 'hawk' in the title. I then decided to write a story about a bird of prey, in this case, a falcon, where the reader has as a trained pet, and the story went on from there. 

7) Where did you come up for your ideas for gamebook game systems?

For the first book in the Woodland Forest Chronicles series, where the main character is a young defenseless rabbit, with the majority of the foes being wolves and foxes, it was obvious to me that combat was not to be the way of the story (or the series for that matter). As a result, I decided to construct a system based on fleeing rather than fighting. As it was also my intent for my series to be read by children as young as 8-9, I did not want a complex system. 

Originally I considered constructing a system based on two attributes: Speed and Energy, but decided to settle for using just an Energy score, to keep things simple. The whole idea behind the system is that you run until you are tired out. Whoever tires out first loses the confrontation.

For the first book in the Choices series, "The Wounded Falcon", its two-part system, centering around the reader searching for hidden choices in the text, was one I worked on for quite some time, and found very difficult to perfect. 

My motivation for the system came about from studying an old, but well-used genre in computer gaming - The adventure genre, that produced such games as "The Secret of Monkey Island", various Indiana Jones games and the famous Kings Quest series. In the adventure genre, the player collects items and items of equipment and must work out when to use it correctly in order to solve a puzzle, in order to progress to the next part of the game. Gamebooks use this quite often, but the major difference is that the text will (usually) prompt the user when to use the item; the reader does not have to work this out for himself/herself. I wanted to create a system where the text NEVER prompted the reader, and, as a result, turn the gamebook into something much more similar to a computer adventure game, in a book format, where the reader would have to think when he should, for example, use his rope and grappling hook to progress further in the adventure.

It didn't take me too long to master the part of the system where each item of equipment in the adventure would be assigned a unique number (positive or negative) to add/subtract to the page number the reader was reading. This aspect, together with the idea of the text giving an immediate alert to the reader when he/she was successful in using an item of equipment, resulted in an ideal system that always worked.

However, there was a serious flaw - Nothing stopped the reader from adding or subracting a number from every single page the reader read. Following this logic, eventually, the reader would have to find the correct moment when the item was meant to be used and would do so without cost.

The solution to this problem was to create a penalty for each incorrect attempt in using an item of equipment. Eventually, I succeeded by combining the system with a TIME attribute, in that each attempt to use items at the wrong time would waste time by increasing the number of time units - Do this too many times and the reader's quest would result in ultimate failure or create a further handicap in another area.

 The most important thing I do when writing a gamebook is...

My scene flowcharts are the most critical things I use when writing a gamebook. Without them, my story would become a mess and be full of errors.

I split each story into scenes and write a flowchart for each scene. When I exit a scene, it flows to the beginning of another scene, and so on.

Here is an example of such a flowchart from my first gamebook, "Invitation to a Feast".

The green arrows (3 of them) highlight that there are three choices from page 10.
The orange arrows (in pairs of two) highlight that there are two choices from pages 12 and 16
The red arrows (singles) highlight that there are no choices (i.e. You turn from one page to another).
The yellow is to represent that the flowchart jumps from one part to another (from a path on page 21 to a new path on page 17)

9) What is coming up in my gamebook projects?

My next gamebook project is my most major project to date. I have decided to write a trilogy in the same manner as the Crown of Kings series, in that the first story will flow to the second which will flow through to the third. The stories will able to be read in order or individually, if the reader so wishes.

The stories will be the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books in the Woodland Forest Chronicles series and will be titled:

- Journey to Mount Darkness
- The Secret of Mount Darkness
- The Re-Lighting of Mount Darkness

Journey to Mount Darkness is complete. One illustration remains to be drawn, together with a map, a cover and a border design and it will be ready to be given a final layout and sent to the printers. My goal is to release it before July this year. It is just over 300 sections long (my longest gamebook so far). I will start with a printed release and will look into an electronic release after that (not an app. but a hyperlinked PDF). If I can find somebody to release it as an app, similar to the Gamebook Adventures series, I will look into that as well.

The first draft of The Secret of Mount Darkness is almost complete. It appears that it will come to an end at around 400 sections.

The Re-Lighting of Mount Darkness has not been started but I would not be surprised if the section count ended beyond 600 (knowing in my mind what needs to happen in the final story).

Apart from the titles, I haven't really mentioned anything much about the story itself on my website, blogsite or facebook page but now is probably a good time to start mentioning a little about what the trilogy will be about.

In my first gamebook, "Invitation to a Feast" the reader controlled the actions of the young rabbit, Jumpster Hopper. In the next gamebook, "Journey to Mount Darkness" the reader will be following the progress of Jumpster's father, Theodore Hopper, who is the envoy of Woodland Forest. The story is more of an epic tale this time around and is somewhat darker than "Feast". There are some new characters in this story, both good and evil, the most notable being an owl, called Wise Owl Saludo, a good friend of Theodore's, who helps Theodore at various times on his quest.

Gamebook mechanics-wise, this story will include codewords for the first time in the series, which I call "events" in the text. I also have a new attribute, called dodging, which is pretty self-explanitory.

The following extracts are from the prologue to this story, which is titled, "The Noble Ranger's Archives"


Location: Centre of Woodland Forest.
Composition & Surface: Made almost entirely of a dark, black rock and is very cragged. It is too difficult to climb.
Length: Not measured, but stretches almost the entire span of Woodland Forest from north to south.
Width: Not measured, but is very narrow from east to west. (about a mile)
Summit: Jagged, with very few flat areas. The surface also contains sparse amounts of vegetation.
History: Many small, natural tunnels exist within the mountain, exiting it at various places. Furthermore, the centre of the mountain embraces a much larger tunnel (The Mount Road) that journeys through from east to west.


Home: Within the tunnels of Mount Darkness
Coats: Jet-black
Eyes: Bright red, that glow in the dark. They provide the wolves with superb night vision. This ability is unmatched in Woodland Forest. It does come at a cost, however, as they cannot bear the brightness of any light - even the light of the
moon troubles the darkness wolves enough to shy away from
outdoor activity.
Outdoor movement patterns: Only at night, when the moon is absent, dim or shrouded.
Leader: Karssend. He is the largest and strongest of the darkness wolves, well-known for his cruelty and lack of mercy. He submits to no authority apart from the Dark Panther, but will rebelliously follow his own path for a time if he believes it to be in the best interests of the darkness wolves.


Description: This tunnel is the only thoroughfare through Mount Darkness for any animal folk who wish to travel from one side of Woodland Forest to the other. There are also a couple of minor side tunnels that branch off the main tunnel, leading to storerooms and the like.
The torches: The tunnel is very dark, so it holds five special torches to light the way. Carved from the tunnel wall, they are made of dark, black rock and contain flammable oil, called mount oil. The oil flows into each torch from an unknown source deep within the mountain.

10) Do I have any other sites besides my blog?

I have three sites:

- One is dedicated to my Woodland Forest Chronicles series

- One is dedicated to my Choices series

- The final site is my facebook page

11) The future of gamebooks

I believe electronic media and apps. will cause a resurgence in the gamebook. I also feel that there will be more gamebooks released via independant individuals/publishers, compared to releasing books under the banner of a well-known publisher. Furthermore, the gamebook mechanics are becoming more advanced and imaginative as time goes on. The DestinyQuest book, "The Legion of Shadow" is an example of superb gamebook mechanics in action.

2012 may well be the year of the gamebook, but not just 2012!


  1. I have seen those. I thought they were fun. I'm trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs this month.

  2. Last year's Challenge was the first I'd ever heard of gamebooks. Still haven't looked into them. Maybe someday if I ever have more free time on my hands.

    Good to see you back in the A to Z.

    A Few Words
    An A to Z Co-host blog