Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Gamebook Writing 101 - Page numbers (Part 3)

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 a few weeks ago - Page numbers (Part 3).  For those of you who have not read Part 1 or 2, I advise you to read those articles first before starting this one. The link for those articles are here:

http://jumpsterhopper.blogspot.com/2010/08/gamebook-writing-101-page-numbers-part.html (Part 1)

http://jumpsterhopper.blogspot.com/2010/08/gamebook-writing-101-page-numbers-part_17.html (Part 2)


When using any random page number allocation method, there are a number of ways to allocate (and record) your random page numbers.  I will list (and explain) some of these below.  Some are methods that I have used over the years, some are methods that have been suggested by others.


This is more to do with the recording of the random numbers used than the allocation of them.  This helps prevent you from re-using an already used page number.  It can also give you a quick visual representation of which pages you have used and not used, at a glance.

Each time a page number is used, you can use the Excel "Fill" tool, to fill a cell.  In this example, you can see that pages 1, 4-7, 9-10, 12, 15, 18, 21, 23 and 26-28 have been used, and filled as a result.

Each spreadsheet row represents a page number in the book.  As an excel spreadsheet can contain an extreme number of rows, you only need the one excel sheet to track an entire book.

Some other benefits of this visual tracking system are as follows:

1) Gamebooks can often contain pages where, in order for the reader to continue, they are required to add or deduct a particular number from the page number they are reading at the time and then turn to the page number resulting from the calculation.  For example -

Page 7

You place the gold key in your backpack. 

If at any stage during your adventure, you come across a situation where you wish to try the gold key in a lock, add 10 to the page number you are reading at the time and turn to the new page number.  You will be immediately told if the key fits in the lock.

As you continue to write your story, once you know you are about to write the page in the story where the reader will be able to try the gold key in the lock that it was intended for (i.e. It will work.) you can quickly look at your excel chart and determine what pages are available for you to chose from.

Again, using the above example (and the screenshot of the excel spreadsheet) -

Page ??

You try the solid oak door.  The handle turns, but the door does not open.  It is locked.  Dejected, you decide to turn around and head back the way you came.

Turn to page 28.

There is a hidden option here for the reader to try the gold key in the lock.  To do so, 10 must be added to the current page.  At the moment, a page number has not been allocated.  If you look at the excel spreadsheet, you can quickly determine, from the number of white cells available (unused pages) that you will be unable to allocate the following page numbers to the page just written:

2, 8, 11, 13, 16, 17, 22, 24, 25, 29 and 30.  (Note this adventure is a 30 page adventure).

Pages 22-30 cannot be used for obvious reasons, because the story only has 30 pages, adding 10 to any of these numbers will exceed the page limit of 30.

Pages 2, 8, 11, 13, 16 and 17 cannot be used as adding 10 to those numbers lead you to cells in the spreadsheet that are already filled in (used).  This is where this visual method of recording really helps.

As it turns out, the only page numbers available to use for the above page are:

3, 14, 19 or 20.

2) If you wish, you can colour code your filled boxes to represent other parts of the story you are writing:

In this updated example of the previous image, I have decided to record two other types of events which are standard fare in gamebooks:

a) Endings; and
b) Combat situations

Again, by a quick look at the chart, you can see it contains two scenes (pages) where the main character has to engage in combat with an enemy of some sort (page 5 and page 18).  If you wanted to include even more detail, you could type the name of the enemy in the cell itself, so you can keep track of the variety of enemies you have included in your story.

So far, you can also count that the story has three endings (pages 12, 23 and 27).

You can see that there is scope to include even more information in a chart like this, whatever you think will be of benefit to you.

I will continue with the explanation of other tools in part 4 of this article.  It is turning out to be a much longer series than I originally thought, which, I guess, is a good thing as it gives you all more information to read and digest.

Until next time,



Anonymous said...

Errrmmm, not quite what I expected. I started in a similar fashion as this but I can recommend the program advelh. You can then ignore these issues.
I was hoping for deeper strategies, e.g. for coping with situations with 3 or 4 choices which you get to do 1 then go do the others. You need to keep the memory of the choices within the gamebook without repeating to many paragraphs. Also without resorting to often to tag items, e.g. on character choice if you have this item got to this parafgraph if not go to another.

Good luck with this

J P Barnett said...

Hi Anonymous,

I'll have to have a look at advelh. The name rings a bell somewhere but I am quite sure I've never used it.

Regarding your other comments, if I read them correctly, you are meaning situations where:

1) You are confronted with three choices.
2) You choose choice 1.
3) You go back and are given the option to choose choice 2 or 3.
4) What happens next varies depends on whether you have already been through choice 1 or not.

Great topic. I would like to write something about this at some stage (when I can squeeze it in!)

Your other (sub)topic with respect to tag items is a great one as well. The "if you have this item" turn to page such-and-such, is quite standard gamebook fare, and is a pet topic of mine. (i.e. Very easy for readers to cheat.) So much so that I created another gamebook series (of which my first book will be released around next March approx.) where I have successfully dispensed with this method altogether for a much more exciting method. If you look through my blog history, I think I have written a topic about it called "Hidden choices" (or something like that). That was a few years ago, though, and I have expanded on this gamebook mechanic since.

Earlanator said...

Hi there,

I like your method of looking for unique approaches to gamebook writing. I wrote four books while at school (very much in the FF mold) but am now in the early stages of planning a gamebook with a Horror angle including systems for gunplay which I am still working out! I'm interested to know what you thought worked well or did not work when looking back at the FF / Lone Wolf series. I was never a fan of the use of Luck in FF, preferring instead to have random dice thows determining the outcomes. I also developed a success percentage system (so that no matter where you 'die' in the game - an optional glossary at the back of the book would give a score from 1 to 100 so that the reader could compare scores with friends). I have tended to use the passage method when writing - with an old method of filling in numbered blank sections as I go. To be honest I have never found it too much of a problem in completing the book as I just periodically monitor how many passages are left and then adjust accordingly. I do like the idea of the 'Hidden Choices' mechanic as we know how people love to cheat!

J P Barnett said...

Hi Earlanator,

Thanks for your feedback.

I, like you, learned the trade of gamebook writing while in school (secondary). The books I wrote during that time were all (bar one) FF style books.

I've always tended to stick to the fantasy genre with my gamebooks and have never moved into stories that Sci-Fi or had a modern setting. In fact, of the 15 or so books I wrote as a teen, only one was set in the present day and it was the only book I never completed.

As a mechanic, I've never minded the Luck attribute in FF. If anything, I would say that the Skill attribute is probably the weakest of the three FF standard attributes.

Concerning the skill attribute, there is a blog called "Lloyd of Gamebooks" that I follow. Inside it, the author gives a very well-thought through discussion about many gamebook issues. In one article, he discusses the skill attribute and how it breaks down in combat when you are faced with a situation where there is a high discrepancy in the Skill scores of the player and the book enemy character.

Perhaps the greater issue with respect to skill is how some books have been written to be so difficult that only a skill 12 character player will win. In some cases, even skill 12 characters are not enough.

I like your scoring system out of 100 idea. I am doing something similar to that for my next gamebook, "The Wounded Falcon" but am doing it in a slightly different way. I have created three successful paths to victory in the story and it is up to the user to find each of them. Each successful path increases in difficulty from the previous one.

Concerning what worked well with FF, my opinion is that the best FF books (from a gamebook mechanic point of view) are those that are frightfully difficult to win. i.e. They take many reads to complete.

However, this comes with one caveat: They must be very difficult for reasons OTHER than tough combat. i.e. If a book is tough because there are half a dozen enemies to defeat with a skill of 10 or above, that is not the best way to write a great gamebook.

I still rate Creature of Havoc as the most brilliantly written gamebook, using the above criteria. The story plot itself was quite unique at the time for FF, which probably helped too (not knowing who you are, not able to understand anybody etc.)

I will be making a little nod to that gamebook with my planned third release in my Woodland Forest Chronicles series, "The Re-Lighting of Mount Darkness". Before that, however, I need to release the second book in the series, "Journey to Mount Darkness."

I have thought up many traps, tricks etc. that will really have the reader wondering how they can achieve victory for that third book (but not due to "combat"). It is quite possible that this third book will be quite a long one too (possibly up to 600 references or more).

adam said...

I want to say thank you. Ive been an avid writer since i was 1 and now, nearly 20, i decided to stop writing novels and try a game book. i was over the moon to find all this its helped SO much you wouldn't believe.

thanks again from me, and from a couple of my mates who are just as over the moon

J P Barnett said...


Wow! I'm so pleased it was of help to you. Beware, though, once you start gamebook writing you'll find you don't want to stop. :-)

I'll have to get back to those articles at some stage, I'm just too busy to add to them right now, with my next gamebook release only a month away and my next gamebook after that being within 30 pages of final draft completion.

Earlanator said...

Hi J.P,

Thanks for your feedback.

I agree with your thoughts about the skill attribute.

I think that some of the FF books relied upon a very combat-heavy mechanic and as a result low skilled players were almost certain to fail.

It has a reduced role in my latest work alongside other introduced attributes: Dexterity, Strength, Speed, Agility and Fortune.

For my part it has certainly been more of a challenge to create an adventure in the real world - but I wanted to try something which could incorporate real-life moral dilemmas. I flirted with this idea in a kind of Indiana Jones style adventure a few years back (I didn't complete it so we'll see how this one works out!).

In response to your input I am approaching my latest work at a slightly different angle. The passage length will be around 250inserts (where it has always been previously 400-450). I wanted a 'tighter' story with a reduced number and feel it is more achievable especially considering the constraints of a real-world setting.

I have also spent a few months in developing a back story and characters as well as certain scenes. I want to extend the level of choices and different paths to make repeat efforts not so 'samey'. In addition I am also trying to develop quite a number of different endings which again is something new for me. I am using a flowchart style method here for the first time which I am finding is a useful reference tool.

Finally (Ref Adam), it's good to hear that people are still finding enjoyment in creating gamebooks in a world full of Games consoles. When I'm hooked into writing something I'm very pleased with then the ideas flow and I can write for hours. This is really something that I have re-discovered with my current work.

J.P, good luck with your upcoming releases and thanks for the feedback once again

J P Barnett said...


There are clever ways to allow a low SKILL character to win and still make the gamebook "combat heavy" if you wish.

If you have ever read Jon Green's Night of the Necromancer (Fighting Fantasy), that is an example where you can defeat high SKILL characters when you have a low SKILL yourself. I remember succeeding with a starting SKILL of 8 in that book.

I remember my first gamebook that I ever wrote (when I was 12-13) was 100 sections. My next was about 120 or so. I started small and then gradually increased as I became more experienced.

The first gamebook I published was 200 sections. The next one (in a different series of its own) will be only 91. In this case, the deliberate reduction of sections was to give me the ability to (potentially) release many gamebooks quickly, so I can get many books in the marketplace and go on from there. (i.e. Trying to get myself noticed.)

It's good to hear that you are focusing on story quality (especially for longer gamebooks). It is easy to get caught up in writing the 'gamebook' but forget to make the 'story' a good one. "Eye of the dragon" comes to mind as an FF example where the story itself could have been better.

All the best for your writing projects.

Earlanator said...

Almost a year on and I have finally completed my gamebook although a few more playtests and illustrations are required!
I just really wanted to add my findings to this thread.
I used a very low-tech approach, an exercise book with numbered blank passages of various sizes. I started with 185 blank sections. As I wrote the story I used up a suitable sized passage. Now, I know that the disadvantage to this method is not knowing if the section count is too high or too low when writing, so I also kept a count of how many blank sections remained. The finished section count has ended up being 215 passages, so by monitoring the count I was able to know when I was roughly halfway through or on the 'home straight'.
As it turned out I increased the section count when I was 3/4 of the way through - from 185 to 215 sections.
When writing the sections I also wrote (in brackets), the section number(s) that preceded it so that I could check or re-trace and make sure that they linked together well.
When it was complete I typed it up as a Word document and rewrote anything I was not happy with. This I did in story order - starting with 215 empty sections and filling in each section as required.
The only thing I have radically changed is the combat system which I am now very happy with. I felt it was a little easy and now puts much more onus on the player to use replenishing items much more wisely.
Anyway I am pleased to see that you are still very productive in your output. Your blog has been very inspirational and I do hope to progress with my work once I receive feedback from the test players...

Best Regards