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Thursday 28 April 2016

Gamebooks: the value of doing it with dialogue

Eighteen months back, Leo Hartas talked me into starting work on an interactive story app. Leo is a very persuasive fellow, and it sounded such a beautiful plan the way he told it. I’d write the thing, Leo would do the artwork, and his coder friend would put it together in his spare time.

I really should have known better. Spare time is pretty much a mythical concept anyway, and so the chance of such a project ever happening decreases exponentially with the size of the team. After six weeks and two Skype calls, the coder admitted he was too busy and Leo got a contract to illustrate six kids’ books. The project went quietly back to bed and set the alarm clock for never.

Still, all experience is useful. Some of the writing made its way into a novel called The Mage of Dust and Bone that Jamie and I may yet finish. And I had enough fresh insights about gamebook app design to fill this blog post. So not a total loss.

The app, which was going to be called Winter’s Rage, was a sandbox adventure based on the Christmas scenario here a while back. The map would serve as the top level of navigation through the story, as in Fabled Lands. Nothing new about that; it’s been a staple of CRPGs from Might and Magic right through to Sorcery.


‘When you have an encounter, you’ll drop down from the map to a location screen that will be mainly text.’

‘I could do illustrations for each location,’ said Leo.

‘No. Doesn’t work. See, we’re used to using a map in real life without thinking about it. Our brains have the subroutine that means we look at where we are on a map and that’s part of our seamless word-view. But as soon as you put a picture of a church, say, in front of somebody who up till then has been picturing the world as a map or via text, suddenly they’re thinking, hmm, that’s not a real church, that’s a drawing. So then you’ve broken suspension of disbelief.’

‘But I thought you said you'll be wanting little mugshots of the characters’ faces for when they’re saying something?’

‘That’s different. When the brain is used to interpreting images symbolically – a figure on a map, a face next to some dialogue – then artwork doesn’t pull you out of the story. Given that we have to have text, simply because it’s cheap, we need to let the text be the player’s main “world rendering medium” and any artwork has to conform to that design principle. That is unless you can find a million dollars down the back of the sofa, in which case we’ll do it all in a 3D environment with audio.’

‘Text it is.’

We came up with a screen template for locations like this:

OK, OK, gimme a break - I'm the designer, all right? Leo would've done the art. Anyway, at the top you’ve got the location name (The Bank Road in this example) and under that a brief description that sets the scene. Then you’ve got the faces of the characters who are here. In this case there’s a Blind Man who you just met at the start of the adventure and who is accompanying you along the road. Your answers to his questions are creating your character at this point – eg he begins by asking if you’re familiar with these parts, and you can answer either ‘I’m an outsider’ or ‘I grew up not far from here’.

But I digress. The point here is that you’ve just had an encounter, that’s why the view has dropped down from the map level. The encounter is with the Robber. So then we look at the pane below, which is the dialogue. This is where the action of the story gets presented. Why? Because the key to keeping the player’s attention is writing in the moment. That’s not new either; it was invented, or at least popularized as a novelistic technique, by Samuel Richardson in the mid-18th century. If you’ve read my Frankenstein app, you’ll see the same technique in action throughout. The entire text there is what Victor Frankenstein is saying to you, so his words must carry all the narrative, rather like in a radio play.

The advantage of placing the narrative emphasis on dialogue is that readers of an app will skip descriptive text. Description is less compelling to an untutored eye even in a regular novel, and when you’re leaning forward waiting for the next decision point, the temptation to scan for surface meaning may become irresistible.

Not so in the case of dialogue, because we’re attuned to care about other people and what they say. Arguably the main reason for these big, energy-hungry brains is to interpret the nuances of meaning in speech.

The way we planned to do it in the app, the dialogue would appear one speech bubble at a time, with a beat between them. You could read and re-read it at your own pace, obviously. The beats were there just to reinforce the sense of them speaking in real time, rather than everybody’s dialogue appearing at once like on the page of a book.

So the Robber says, ‘Hand it over. All your money.’ And it turns out your blind companion also has something to say: ‘Gar John’s-son, I know your voice. Have you turned to thievery now?’

(Later in the adventure, you will typically be travelling with a companion – more about them in a minute. For example, if your companion was Fosse the hunter, in this encounter he’d now chip in with: ‘Huh. Since when wasn’t he a thief? Five years old and I caught him taking rabbits from my traps.’)


Then at the bottom of the screen, under the dialogue for the encounter, you’ve got the DECIDE tab. When you tap on that, you’re presented with your options. Why not display them right away? Extra unnecessary taps/clicks are usually a bad idea on an interface, aren’t they? Yes, but here it’s to stop your eye just scanning straight down to the bottom of the screen for the options. It keeps you in the story.

If you tap DECIDE, in this case you’ll get two options to choose between:
  • ‘It’s not gold you’ll be getting from me, it’s cold steel.’
  • ‘I don’t need to fight you.’
As often as possible, like there, an option will be a line of dialogue. Say you choose not to fight. That dialogue gets added to the scroll underneath what’s been said already. Then, after a beat, the Robber will reply to you:
‘I don’t need to fight you.’
   {set #Spared_Robber = true}
   // #Spared_Robber is an inline conditional not visible to user
   // sets reminder that Gar Johnson may be encountered later
Robber: ‘I’m starving. I was sick. Couldn’t get no work.’
And your options now:
  • ‘Take this coin and buy yourself some bread.’ { if #Status_Noble == true }
  • ‘Winter’s hard on everyone. You’ll survive.’
  • ‘Come and see me at the manor house. Maybe I’ll find a job for you.’
Options can be conditional, as in the example above where the option to give the robber a coin is only available if the player is an aristocrat.


You pick up companions at the manor house, which is the player's base of operations for the game. You can only pick one companion to accompany you at any given time. You can change companion when you return to the manor house, though sometimes they may be absent on their own errands, depending on the adventure timeline.

Companions become more loyal to you over time, assuming they see you solving problems and showing good leadership. A companion who is more loyal to you will volunteer more personal information (possibly unlocking backstories) and also uses their skills more effectively. Therefore it makes sense not to switch companions too often. Balance that against the need to have the right companion with the right skills for specific tasks.

When you return to the manor house you can show any clues to the steward or the NPC companions you didn't pick up - so you can get the benefit of advice from any of those four listed with a delay, but only the one companion you pick to go with you will notice things, prompt you during investigation, help in fights, unlock subplots, etc.

A possible mechanism for giving the player hints is that when you’re at the manor house, companions will talk to each other (‘You won’t believe what I saw up on the heath, Sir Werian…’) based on their preset relationships, and if you listen in you will get the benefit of their theories.

NPC companions add an element of communitas and emotional grip to an adventure game - a discovery I made by happy accident when writing Down Among the Dead Men, though I guess the germ of it was there in the interactions with the faltyn in the Blood Sword series. As a rule, people are way more interested in character and the development of relationships than they are in facts and the development of plot. Given that Winter's Rage was to be a gamebook app constructed almost entirely through dialogue, and an investigative adventure at that, having a foil for the player to interact with was essential. Not only did the choice of companion on each mission mean a set of skills and insights that would customize the experience, the companion also gave me as writer another pair of eyes and another voice to interlocute the world for the player. And, as this is an adventure with a ticking clock, interjections from the companions can be used to ratchet up the tension.


Text is inexpensive, but there are some tasks it doesn't handle well. Artwork is useful for the top-level navigation of the adventure (ie the map) and to depict the faces of nonplayer characters. But don't be tempted to use more than that. Presented with a little judicious artwork, the brain interprets it symbolically; too much and your "gamebook app" becomes a broken CRPG.

Also, use dialogue as much as possible in place of descriptive text. Even in the example above, in the final version I'd probably have lost that descriptive line "a robber steps out" in favour of a companion saying, 'It's a robber!' or 'Now who's this?' or 'This guy looks a bit shifty' depending on which companion it was, the time of day, that kind of thing. After all, you know you've dropped down from the map level because an encounter was triggered, and you can see the guy's face has appeared in the mugshot pane. You don't really need a stage direction to tell you what's going on here.

In order to get maximum mileage out of dialogue, focus on writing to the moment. Listen to radio plays. Read how it's done in something like Pamela, Riddley Walker or the Frankenstein app I mentioned above. Anything you can let the dialogue carry, do so. Strip down descriptive text to the barest scene-setting. Don't tell when you can show. There's nothing new about any of this; it's just that it hasn't often been applied to interactive literature before.

*  *  *

Writing this, I’m thinking it’s a shame we never got to do the game. It was to be the first in a series of interactive adventures set in the world of Legend. If I’d only had a coder with no wife and kids and re-enactment hobby to eat into his leisure time, eh? Ah well, it’s water under the (half built) bridge.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Eight crimson arrows

John Jones recently pointed out that there's a pretty glaring omission in the reissued edition of Castle of Lost Souls. Most of the illustrations are not in the paperback, for reasons I can't remember now but it may simply have been that I couldn't get good scans of them at the time. Okay, fine, you can use your imagination. So no harm done? Ah, but one of those illustrations contained a vital clue. Here it is, along with the corresponding section:
You go only a short distance before arriving at a door. On the floor in front of you, eight crimson-fletched arrows have been placed in an intriguing pattern. You can pick up the arrows if you wish; remember to note them on your Adventure Sheet if so. There is no other way on from here, so you step forward and open the door. Turn to 153
And while I'm about it, I should also thank John for having helped out with some very useful advice on The Eye of the Dragon, another of those '80s gamebooks that recently resurfaced from the tidal flats of time. It's thanks to him that the Dagger of the Mind spell now does 3 points' damage instead of 2. Mind you, if you find yourself thinking of using it as a free strike in combat then you might have trouble completing the adventure. Just saying.

Friday 15 April 2016

Last of the Golden Dragons

The Eye of the Dragon didn’t start off as a gamebook. It was a scenario in my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. The ruined city that the players had to visit was not Thalios but Ngala, out on the Flats of Tsechelnu about a hundred and fifty miles from Jakalla.

I can’t find any notes for the scenario, and that's probably because there weren’t any. Our main weekly game was held at Keble, first in Mike Polling's room and later with Jack Bramah, Robert Dale or Colin Williams hosting, and those games were on Sunday afternoons as a legacy from when we spun off from the Dungeons and Dragons Society at Jesus. I’d usually arrive to run the session after a leisurely start to the day and a long brunch, so there was rarely any preparation and we preferred it that way. For this scenario, though, I had at least drawn up a fairly detailed map of the ruins.

At a guess the game took place in late 1981 or early 1982, because it was obviously inspired by the movie Escape From New York. The players will have included Oliver Johnson, Mark Smith and Robert Dale. I doubt if there was any super-powerful ancient artefact at stake – more likely it was a routine escort mission for their temple. The twist, such as it was, lay in the fact that the players must have been anticipating trouble from an amphibious enemy such as the Hlűss or Hlutrgu, but it turned out they were up against a party of Grey Ssu. Hence all the hypnotic jiggery-pokery, and with it the seeping paranoia of never knowing whether the comrade right behind you might have already been got at. (John Carpenter movies were clearly a big influence on my umpiring style.)

For the gamebook I kept the unity of place and time, starting the adventure as you arrive at the ruins at dusk and finishing at dawn. The Grey Ssu became the Kappa – not the water-dwelling creatures of Japanese folklore, but pearl-eyed and coral-boned nonhumans whose name derived from the Greek letter, which seemed to fit with the vaguely Graeco-Roman flavour of the city.

Some nods to the scenario’s origins at Oxford can be seen in the Amber Pantechnicon (a wonky Radcliffe Camera), the crossroads of Carfax, and the talking sphinxes, inspired by the Emperors’ busts in Zuleika Dobson. For some reason the Sydney Opera House got a look-in too; maybe that was Russ’s idea.

The USP of Eye of the Dragon is that you are a sorcerer. In retrospect I could have come up with a more interesting way of handling that than the Vancean system – which is delightful in the Dying Earth stories, but doesn’t make for very interesting gameplay. In our Tekumel games at that time, magic involved the sorcerer constructing a number of mental “spell matrices”. After a spell was cast, the spell matrix became “fatigued” and you needed to spend time in meditation in order to restore it. You could still cast a spell using a fatigued matrix, but it cost twice as much energy. That would have been a better mechanic than the all-or-nothing approach I went with for the book.

Other snippets… Master Giru is based on Professor M.A.R. Barker, creator of Tekumel, to whom the book is dedicated. His player-character Firu Ba-Yeker is well known in Tekumel gaming circles. Lord Mantiss was a nod to Ian Livingstone, who often urged me to include a character called Mantis in Adventure, the role-playing game I was designing for Games Workshop – or, as it turned out, for myself – in the early ‘80s. (Years later, Ian was to return the gesture of homage by releasing his own version of The Eye of the Dragon. That's a joke by the way.)

For a while I toyed with the notion of giving the book a thorough overhaul. It could do with a bit more grit. The pally way the scholars talk to you at the start never rang true. More suspicion would have helped - and would have resonated with the pervasive distrust once you arrive at the ruins and find that so many would-be allies have been nobbled by hypnosis. I even jotted down a few notes:
The idea is that you’re different somehow. People treat you with fear, suspicion and loathing. We never say if it’s skin colour, a deformity, or what, but something marks you out as Other.

Oh, and you are a miracle worker, sorcerer, whatever. Maybe instead of being “of the Elder Race” this is more like being born a mutant.

So you’re recruited for this job. They don’t like you, but they need you.

You go and get the Eye, then at the end they ask you for it. And we end with you wondering whether to let them have it...
Another option was to rejig the book as a Fabled Lands Quest, with the action starting in Dweomer and then zipping over by means of one of those convenient dimensional portals to the vaguely Hellenic land of Atticala.

But in the end I realized that most people are buying these reprints to fill gaps in their gamebook collection. There isn’t a lot of appetite for revised versions. The Keep of the Lich-Lord was different – we had to rework that because we didn’t have the rights to the Fighting Fantasy setting. But The Eye of the Dragon is in its own universe – and it’s not Legend, at least not quite the low-fantasy Legend familiar to Dragon Warriors players, despite the reference to a place called Achtan. So in the end I changed only a couple of monster names (“dungeon devil” and “blood fiend” – must’ve been in a rush that day) but otherwise left the text unmolested.

The Eye of the Dragon is now available in paperback on Amazon:

Wednesday 6 April 2016

The sanity clause

There have been a few recent posts (eg here and here) about Victoriana and the Cthulhu Mythos because those have been the setting and theme of our current campaign. Actually, when the campaign began I thought it was Victorian, period. (Or Victorian Period, take your pick.) All that Lovecraftian stuff came later – presumably because the opening scenario was borrowed from Cthulhu By Gaslight – but it’s in the nature of such things to set a course for the rest of the campaign, so now I’m resigned to facing mi-go and shoggoths every fortnight.

I’ve nothing against Lovecraft, let me say. Quite the reverse. His stories may not be the sort of thing I’d typically read for pleasure, eldritch or otherwise, but I greatly respect him as a creative innovator. Here's the snag: taking a body of literature and reworking it for role-playing inevitably steers the whole thing towards the reefs of parody. Imagine an RPG based on Crime and Punishment, with the consequent thumping emphasis on Ruthlessness and Guilt points. Or a Hemingway RPG which reduced Papa’s entire body of work to just booze, machismo and bull-fighting. So usually when I’ve played Call of Cthulhu (which isn’t often, I admit) it’s felt like nothing more than a lark, a one-off session of light relief for the players in between real role-playing.

But there’s always a silver lining. In that reductive approach involved in distilling a role-playing game out of an author's canon, there are going to be some interesting questions, at least a few nuggets gleaming in the mud. Take Call of Cthulhu’s SAN (sanity) rules. Is it actually the case that coming face-to-polyps with a Lovecraftian monster automatically drives you insane? And if so, why?

In the literature, you see, Lovecraft always starts off with a neurotically unstable lead character. That’s his shtick. He doesn’t pit a Steve Costigan type against the nameless spawn of the cosmic abyss, so we don’t know if they’d end up a gibbering wreck like a typical HPL protagonist or whether they’d wade in undaunted with fists flying and guns blazing. Actually, there is a famous round-robin story, “The Challenge From Beyond”, where Lovecraft brought the plot to a shuddering cliffhanger and Howard continued it, lustily and hilariously jettisoning Lovecraft’s psychic meltdown in favour of some raw, red-blooded action. (When you read it, just remember these guys were having fun with their public images, m’kay?)

But could a hero made of the sterner stuff that flowed from Bob Howard’s imagination face Elder Things with impunity? Or did Lovecraft intend that his monsters radiated some sort of frightful psionic effect that would drive even Conan mad? I found a debate about this online.
“A Lovecraftian monster is one in the style of H.P. Lovecraft's writing, which has a lot of vague depictions of unfathomable, indescribable, alien monsters. You would lose your sanity because that's what usually happens when you see one, like how looking at Medusa would turn you to stone.”

“I disagree. Medusa turns you to stone because of some kind of magic. Lovecraftian monsters do not inherently ‘cause insanity’, the loss of sanity is something that happens in our human minds because we can't comprehend them.”
Ah, now there we might be onto something. Except… can no one comprehend them? And the degree of unfathomability always drives a person mad? I can accept that a medieval crusader would find these critters freakishly scary, but what about a trained biologist? If you're accustomed to peering down a microscope at unearthly little boogers like dust mites and hydrothermal worms, would you still take one look at a fungus from Yuggoth and start screaming that such things cannot beeeee? Might there not be some scientists who would be more curious than scared? A commenter called ShakaUVM addresses this point:
“Lovecraft thought that people couldn't deal with the actual reality of the universe. As it turns out, though, people like Carl Sagan managed to [contemplate the reality of the universe and] keep their sanity intact. Ultimately, it's because Lovecraft believed in certain Victorian tropes, like people passing out when something became overwhelming – his heroes faint all the time – and that knowledge could drive people insane.”

“The kind of horror that Lovecraft writes about would come from the realization that there is no God, that the universe is vast, chaotic, undirected, and unthinking.”

“When we have pictures of our place on our world in an insignificant solar system in an insignificant galaxy, we don't go insane from the insignificance of it all. We can comprehend that and still want to wake up and go about our business every day.”

That chimes perfectly well with my own view of the universe. I don’t personally think there’s a God or that the universe has “meaning”, and that doesn’t bother me at all. Facing the realization that we are an insignificant speck in the universe – well, of course we are. Ten billion Earthlike planets in this galaxy, a couple of hundred billion galaxies at least, and the distinct possibility that our universe is a tiny local phenomenon in a possibly infinite metauniverse. “Yes, Z, you are insignificant.”

Anyway, I can’t quote the whole discussion here. Shoot over and take a look at it. I’ll wait…

OK, so the assertion of Call of Cthulhu is that there are some things so completely unthinkable that every single human being, if forced to confront them, would go insane. But maybe what we have here is an observer bias. As a writer, Lovecraft was especially interested in neurotic characters, and may have intended us to conclude that the people most readily drawn to Cthulhu cults and manifestations were psychically the most sensitive and fragile among us. His chosen genre was horror, his intent was to unsettle, his style – let’s be charitable and call it Poe turned up to eleven. His fiction is bound to portray a terrifying, unspeakable, mind-blasting universe the way Hallmark movies always present a saccharinely sentimental one.

Writers flavour the world they create in their stories. They don’t necessarily intend for us to take that as a template for how the universe works, because literature is never intended to be an undistorted reflection of reality. So in drawing inspiration from literature for our role-playing system, maybe we need to be wary of using the whole cloth of an author’s work. Making a universe that’s going to last a whole campaign requires a bigger box of tricks than a set of stories built around a single theme and authorial voice.

And yet... it's a fine line, isn't it? A Lovecraftian role-playing game in which none of the neuroses is baked into the rules mechanics would be effectively indistinguishable from any other 1930s RPG. Which in turn invites the question: does literary style have a place in role-playing? Is it right for the system to impose that kind of prescriptive story framework on the players, or should the themes of a campaign emerge in play from the interaction between the characters and the world? Over to you.