Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Gamebook Writing 101 - Page numbers (Part 2)


Have any of you ever thought about writing an adventure gamebook but don't know where to begin? Writing a gamebook certainly requires some skills not needed when writing an ordinary book.

Today I am continuing my series called "Gamebook Writing 101". My plan is to share some of my experiences and ideas concerning gamebook writing with the hope that these articles are of benefit to you. I also invite discussion (via the commenting section) about each article I write, so we can hear thoughts from other writers as well.

Today, I will continue with the topic I started last week - Page numbers (Part 2) for those of you who have not read Part 1, I advise you to read that article first before starting this one.  The link for that article is here:


OPTION 2 - Random numbers

Repeating my example of last week:

Page 1
You continue walking north along the path until you arrive at a crossroads. The north path continues across the open plain. The path to the east appears to head towards a small forest nearby. The path to the west heads towards a large lake, some distance away.
 If you wish to continue north across the plain, turn to page 25.
If you wish to turn to the east, towards the forest, turn to page 17.
If you wish to go west, in the direction of the lake, turn to page 115.

Here, the story begins at page 1.  The first choice to turn to is at page 25, the second is page 17 and the third is page 115.  The two weaknesses I mentioned with option 1 in my previous article:

- 1) Reader seeing alternative decisions on the same two page spread
- 2) Endings piled at the end of the book

are eliminated.  All the page numbers to turn to are far enough away from each other (and from the page the reader is currently on) for weakness 1) to be dealt with.  Also, the random allocation of page numbers means that the endings to the story will, naturally, be randomly scattered throughout the book.

Random numbers - How many pages is my book?
Obviously, if you are going to allocate numbers randomly, you need tools to help with the "randomness" aspect.  Before you start, however, because you not using the "allocate the next available page number" system, you are going to lose one of its advantages - easy tracking of how many pages long your book is.  This forces you to make an early decision: You must decide how many pages (or sections) your gamebook is going to have.  This is because when you go through the process of allocating random numbers, you must have an upper and lower range from which to select your next random page number. 
As will be illustrated below, you are also going to have to be very accurate with your estimate.
If you decide that your book is going to be 200 pages long, and it turns out that you use your compliment, but the story is still going, you are going to have to readjust your estimate and start allocating a new set of numbers for the remaining pages.  Let us say you reach 200 and estimate that it will probably take you another 50 pages to finish.  You will now have to randomly allocate the final pages between 201 and 250.  This is a reasonable compromise,  however, one of the weaknesses of last week's system rears its head again.  Quoting from my part 1 article:
As a natural course of events, this option results in the vast majority of the endings being piled together at the end of the book. As a result, the reader will get a reasonable idea when the story is more likely to end, the higher the page numbers become. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you don't want the reader to feel like the story is necessarily about to conclude as they read, this method of page numbering doesn't help the situation.
Even worse, in my opinion, is the other possibility: That you finish your story before you have used up your quota of pages.  Let us say, you decide that you are going to have a 200 page story, but you finish it with only 150 pages used.  Because you have been allocating random numbers between 1 and 200, but have only used 150 of them, there are going to be "missing page numbers" all over the place, which, on the face of it, appears to be a disaster.  Imaging flipping through the pages of the book to find there is a page 1, 2, 3, 4 then a skip to page 6, then 7, then another skip to page 10 etc.  It doesn't look good.
So, the above scenarios seem to suggest is it better to underestimate than overestimate the number of pages for your book.  Neither, however, are ideal.  Something else that could be done to "fix" the problem, however, is available to you.  Whether or not you will be able to achieve this, however, depends greatly on your writing ability.
At some stage, when you are getting close to finishing your story, you should be able to get an idea when you are going to run out of pages or are not going to use them all.  Another possibility is to deliberately overestimate how long your book will be and then make a conscious decision to include some "filler scenes" at various stages of the story so that you get closer to your originally overestimated number of pages. 
Now, there is a danger that these filler scenes will detract from the quality of the story, if it is obvious that they are filler scenes.  Padding out a book for the sake of page numbers is a dangerous business, and if you are wanting to publish it, a would-be publisher may not like what appear to be uneccessary story scenes.  For gamebooks, however, you do have an option available to you that normal authors do not have:
For those familiar with gamebooks, the "game" element is an important part of a good gamebook so that the reader gets an opportunity to test out the characters game attributes.  This should be done on a regular basis, to break up the story into purely "literary" moments to "gameplay" moments.  Without going into to much detail about the random encounters themselves (as it is worthy of an article of its own), some examples that you could use are:
1) Random confrontation - Be it a wild animal that crosses the reader's path or an enemy of another sort, you can extend a story by a few pages by including a couple of random confrontations.
2) Random traps - Traps that test the character's attributes or simply cause an outright penalty without testing them are another option.  Be imaginative!  Recall your days of watching the Indiana Jones movies and think of how many times Indy was confronted with an unexpected trap that he had to overcome.
3) Random treasures/tests - Have the character potentially discover a special item that will help in the story later on.  Better still, have the character need to overcome a series of tests to be able to acquire that special item.
4) Be really bold and use a combination of some or all the above to come up with a nice little extended scene that can benefit or harm the character in preparation for the final confrontation at the end of the story.
Just a final point on this, as far as myself is concerned, one of the series that I am writing (Woodland Forest Chronicles) is one that runs along a specific timeline.  Each book that I write (indirectly) follows the previous book.  I like to include extra scenes in one book that give a small clue as to future events in the land of Woodland Forest in future books, without being necessarily integral to the story being currently read.  That is another way I like to extend my stories, if they need extending (although I tend to struggle to keep stories within my limit, rather than fall short, from expereience.)
Anyway, that will probably do for today.  In Part 3, I will discuss the tools to use to help with the allocation of random page numbers as well as the third (and final) method on how to allocate page numbers.


umdshaman said...

You seem to be investing a lot of effort into 'page numbers'. I can see where this would be an important issue in the final form but while writing, it seems considerably less so. Certainly, going back and hunting to see where each result ends up would be problematic but I think there are a number of modern solutions to this problem you are overlooking; including hyperlinking. I think saying that the reader has 2 options (work in order or pick random page numbers and hope for the best) is a disservice to the reader. Just my thoughts.

J P Barnett said...

Hi umdshaman,

Thanks for your feedback. You've actually re-reminded me of the hyperlinking issue as it was an option that I wanted to discuss in a future part of the article. So that means I have two more options to discuss, rather than just the one.

Thanks for your prompt.

I am interpreting that where you say "I think saying that the reader has 2 options" and "disservice to the reader", you are actually meaning "writer" (please correct me if I am wrong).

Anyway, if I left this article where it was, I would actually agree with you about it being a disservice as (you are right in saying that) there are other ways to deal with the issue other than what I have mentioned so far.

In writing these articles, I was hopeful that I would get feedback from others such as yourself, to alert me to other points of discussion as I certainly do not know every aspect of gamebook writing, and have my own biases based on what I am familiar with doing. E.g. I have never written a hyperlinked gamebook before. My background has always been with the paper variety.

Also, because my articles are being written with the goal of completing a written gamebook in printed form, that is why I have focused this much effort into page numbers.

Anyway, I am thinking while I write here. I may even write a separate series of articles that focus on the more 'electronic' methods available, after finishing my current series on the more manual methods.

I've probably rambled on enough now. Thanks for taking the time to comment. It has actually given me a whole new area to focus on for future articles, which I will take the time to discuss as well (as soon as I have concluded my 'manual' methods :-))

Thanks again,

Jonathan Bagelman said...

When I started out writing gamebooks, I typically used the first method. I still use it sometimes, but I will often renumber the story after it's complete. There are free computer programs available online that will scramble the page numbers randomly. I also use "section numbers" like in Lone Wolf or Fighting Fantasy rather than page numbers. A section can be just a few lines, or it can be longer than a page.

When I write longer, more complex gamebooks, I tend to draw a flowchart first before actually writing the story. This way you can get an exact number of sections. I saw an article over ten years ago that had a technique where you would divide the story into portions and then assign a letter (or two, if there are more than 26) to each section within the portion. The introductory part of the story would have section numbers like 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. Then the next would have 2A, 2B, and so on. By using letters in the initial draft, you prevent confusion when renumbering the sections randomly later, after the story is complete. Otherwise, it might be possible to get mixed up as to which sections have already had the new numbers applied and which have not. I've used this technique successfully before.

J P Barnett said...

Hi Jonathan,

Welcome back. If I remember rightly, you wrote the "You, Robot" story a few years ago for a competition I had on this blog.

I also used the first method (the next available page number method, I assume) during my teen years, exclusively, when I was writing for my high school friends (and family).

I've moved from using it in part (seen in my first book - Invitation to a Feast) to abandoning it completely (as will be seen in my next two releases - The Wounded Falcon & Journey to Mount Darkness).

As a sneak preview, my next article (hopefully) will cover renumbering (once I deal with the randomising tools first).

I also was into Section numbers during my teen years (i.e. Multiple sections can fit on a page) but I have actually abandoned that with my first book, and will probably stick to that with my future books. In that sense, I am probably showing a preference to how the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series laid out their pages rather than sections. Personal preference, I guess, but the "neatness" of one page per page appeals to me more. (Sounds like a good idea for a poll - Page numbers or section numbers). In saying that, though, I haven't yet released a book longer than 200 pages, so perhaps I can get away with using pages for the time being. If I start dealing with the FF number of 400, I may be forced to use section numbers instead, to save paper.

With flowcharts, I'll be talking about that as well in a future article. My flowchart style seems almost the same as yours, but with some slight variations. (I won't give them away just yet!)

J P Barnett said...

Actually, I need to correct myself slightly. When I said I have abandoned the "use the next available page number" tactic completely, I have in one sense, but not in another.

I'll elaborate in a future article.

Jonathan Bagelman said...

Thanks, Jasan. Yes, I'm the author of "You, Robot." I really enjoyed Invitation to a Feast, by the way. I've also written a longer (though still short) interactive story for a Cthulhu Mythos fiction contest nearly two years ago called The End of It All, where it was a finalist. You can find it at the above link if you're interested.

J P Barnett said...

I had a quick read of your gamebook. The game mechanic (and storyline reminded me a little of the old Choose Your Own Adventure book, Who Killed Harlowe Thromby, which I would nearly rank as the best Choose Your Own Adventure book ever written (of that specific series, I mean).

BTW, I found the best ending on the second try.

I must admit, detective books are not my forte. My mind can't construct the complexities involved behind crime and how to make clues reveal the story for the reader, so kudos to you for giving it a try.

I actually started writing a small critique of your story (just a few thoughts) on this reply just now but I changed my mind and thought I would ask you first if you wanted some feedback.

J P Barnett said...

To Anonymous,

Your original comment about flowcharts is a good one. I'll be covered that in part 3 or part 4 of an upcoming article.

P.S. For some reason, I can't get your comment to appear on my blog, even though I permitted it. Sorry about that.

Jonathan Bagelman said...

Yes, I would like some feedback, thank you. I vaguely remember reading "Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?" nearly thirty years ago back when it was new (it's also one of the ones I own, and I know I've reread it since, but it's been years), but I don't remember the details. At least if I read it again, it'll be like reading it for the first time. I did write a mystery CYOA gamebook in the early 1980s in a similar vein involving a "murder mystery weekend" that turns into a real murder mystery.

The actual game mechanic I was aiming for was Fallout 1 and 2, in the way that dialogue was presented, character interaction, and the use of multiple solutions. For instance, in the final confrontation there are two ways to win: a "talking" way and a "fighting" way - and even then, you have to be clever about how you do it. There were some limits due to the rules of the contest, such as a 5,000 word maximum and a deadline for entry, but I managed to get everything done under the wire and came as close to what I wanted as I could get under the circumstances.

Good job on getting to the best ending on the second try. Which ending did you get the first time?

J P Barnett said...

I lost at page 23 the first time. Actually, your last reply has shed some light on the feedback I was going to give, in particular the word limit.

When I write, I tend to make a story longer or shorter depending on the scope of "what is at stake" in the story. My first gamebook, "Invitation to a Feast" was a personal quest, with no significant consequences for anybody else apart from the main character. Hence, I could write the story as a 200 pager quite comfortably. My next story, "The Wounded Falcon" focuses around the retrieval of a lost pet, in essence. I managed to squeeze that one into a short adventure of 91 pages (after it was originally a 28 pager). My third story, however, has ramifications to all the inhabitants of Woodland Forest. Originally I was writing the story as another 200 pager, however, about 100 pages in, I realised that I couldn't do the story justice in such a short page range; I started the story again. It has since become a two-part duology. Part one will be about 250 pages and part two, (the climax) I am suspecting could be as many as 400 pages.

With your story, because the topic focuses on the end of the world, I think it needs to be longer to do it justice.

However, I am now aware that you had a word limit (due to the competition) which makes it a bit hard to work around.

Because of the word limit, I felt that the final confrontation was too quick and needed a slower build-up. Perhaps you could have had a series of confrontations leading up to the final confrontation with the sacrifice. Maybe the story could have had more clues to find to "track" Smalls as he performed different preparatory tasks leading up to the sacrifice at the end. That would have built up the suspense quite nicely.

But again, the word limit has probably prevented you from doing that. You could, I guess, re-write it and extend it. That is what I did with the Wounded Falcon. It was originally a 28 page mini-gamebook.

Anyway, this is just my two cents worth. I think, with, some more work, your story can turn out to be quite a good one. You have some good ideas in there already.

Thanks for showing me your gamebook, I like to look at other gamebook works that people are doing.