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Friday, 16 March 2018

So you want to write a gamebook

Back in the 1990s, Mark Smith and I co-created the Virtual Reality gamebook series. There were six books, four of which (the ones I wrote) are back in print as Critical IF.

Actually, that’s not quite the full story. There was a seventh, The Mask of Death, written by Mark, that remains unpublished to this day. I’d stepped away from the series by that point, and it wasn’t worth us following up because the gamebook craze was all but spent, but in the first flush of signing the series we still thought we could spearhead a revival. To that end, I sketched out guidelines for other authors to write for the series, in the same way as the Fighting Fantasy editors had done a few years earlier.

We thought the big innovation of VR, of not needing dice, would make the books more user-friendly. You could play them anywhere; that had been our pitch to the publishers. Also the US market at that time hadn’t embraced the kind of dice-n-stats gamebook beloved of British kids. Choose Your Own Adventure was still the defining series in America. We thought VR, with its more sophisticated storylines, could challenge CYOA, but we failed to net a US publisher.

Still, that was then. Today, thanks to print on demand, the Critical IF titles are available worldwide. I recommend starting with Heart of Ice – but then, I would. These writer guidelines were written long before that book, hence the emphasis on fantasy rather than science fiction or other settings. (Incidentally, if you really do want to write a gamebook and you're looking for some top tips, let me just point you to Stuart Lloyd's excellent blog.)

Guidelines for authors (from 1993)

Each book is 430 to 500 sections long (a total of about 65,000 words). Most of you reading this document have written gamebooks before, so I merely present the following as points for consideration.

By way of preamble, I think a good gamebook should be playable straight through if the reader thinks about what they’re doing. Don’t make the adventure so tough that the reader keeps having to go back to the start. In short, don’t become so obsessed with making the game a challenge that you lose sight of the fact that the story must be fun.

What I need from you are the following: an outline explaining the book (around 500 to 800 words), the prologue section of the book (at least 1000 words), and the first fifty sections. You don’t need to do fully written-up versions of those fifty sections (in fact a decently handwritten flowchart would do) as the purpose is to see how well you are utilizing the Virtual Reality system and the different possibilities of your plot.

1. Top notch storylines
Above all, the books must be a cut above other gamebook series. Think of the storyline. Would it make a good novel? Is it the kind of story you’d be interested in reading yourself? Aim to write something you’re personally invested in, not a piece of hack work.

VR books generally aim for a more intelligent level of fantasy than other gamebooks. For example, in Necklace of Skulls there is a sequence where the protagonist meets a stranger in the afterworld who presents him with a riddle. In many gamebooks, the purpose would simply be to solve the riddle and receive an arbitrary bonus. In this book, the whole point was to avoid answering at all, since the protagonist had to remember he was under a geis not to speak. The stories should thus have sensible internal logic, not simply be a series of arbitrary puzzles.

2. Interactive fiction
The central idea of the series is to create something that truly reads like a piece of interactive fiction. That means a continuous, well-written, exciting narrative over which the reader has true control. This is the reason why rules have been kept to a minimum. Your book should read like a good fantasy novel – or rather, like several parallel intertwining fantasy novels.

Try to avoid “save-the-world” plots. Stories driven by personal goals can be much more effective in any case, and saving the world in every book just gets tiresome. The prologue section can help explain the protagonist’s involvement, but try to avoid forcing the reader into a specific role. (“You are a noble hero who will die to save the world if you must” is not much good if the reader wants to play as a Han Solo type who only reluctantly ends up a hero.)

3. Getting through to the end
Most VR books allow the reader to design his/her character by taking four skills from a list of twelve, The standard twelve skills are listed at the back of this document, but some leeway is possible. For instance, Down Among the Dead Men substituted MARKSMANSHIP for ARCHERY.

Remember that it must be possible to complete the book using any combination of four skills. This means that if certain items are vital to success, there must be ways to obtain them using nine of the twelve skills, assuming that they can only be got by using skills. Note that options are rarely listed for more than three or four different skills in any situation, so you would not want to make your whole adventure hinge on a single item (the Ring of Winning the Adventure, let’s call it) and then just list nine ways of getting it. You could have alternative items that must be obtained with alternative skills, or allow different ways of winning.

4. Use of the skills
There are two basic ways that skills options are presented. The first is where the reader is given a list of possible skills that can be helpful in a situation, and chooses from any of those skills that he/she has. For example:
“The guards are coming this way. Do you want to use SWORDPLAY (221), UNARMED COMBAT (125), ROGUERY (78), CUNNING (377), or none of those (300?)”
The alternative is to give the actual range of activities the protagonist might attempt, and allow the reader to choose the one that corresponds best to his/her skills. For example:
“The guards are coming this way. Will you show yourself and fight them (33), hide in the shadows (71), or raise a hue and cry to distract attention (296)?”
5. Replayability
The reader should be able to start the book again with a different character and not simply encounter the same situations every time. As a rule of thumb, try to have at least three independent (but possibly interlinked) strands for the first hundred entries of the adventure, gradually bringing these together as you approach the climax.

The skills system lends itself readily to diverse story strands. For instance, to reach a distant objective the protagonist might travel by sea, by open country, or by roads which take him/her through various cities. Straightaway you can see how SEAFARING, WILDERNESS LORE and STREETWISE can be useful – perhaps in expected ways; WILDERNESS LORE might help you at sea, for example, or knowing a bit of nautical lore might make you a friend on the road.

6. Balance
This ought to be obvious. Try to make the skills of roughly equal value, and utilize them equally throughout the book, Don’t bother listing a skill which can only be used once or twice in the whole book.

One big potential pitfall is the SPELLS skill. It’s very versatile in any case, so avoid the obvious trap of making it overwhelmingly powerful as well. Magic may well vary according to the setting you have chosen for your book, but a good rule is not to allow magic to be cast in a hurry. If it takes time to work magic, characters with SPELLS will not automatically be better than those with other skills. Also avoid use of SPELLS which makes other skills redundant – eg, invisibility, which logically would work better than ROGUERY if the character is trying to hide. You can permit invisibility of course, just don’t let it be as effective as ROGUERY. Maybe there are pots and pans strewn about, so that invisibility alone isn’t enough to escape detection. That way, discovering the limitations of magic might turn out to be part of the reader’s fun.

Also remember that because you control the narrative in a way that no referee can ever control a roleplaying game, the way you present magic can be much more interesting than the usual RPG list of spells. Magic can do anything – some of the time...

7. Objective(s)
It used to be one of the Puffin Fighting Fantasy guidelines that every book should have a clearly defined objective which is explained to the reader at the start. This isn’t necessarily the case. In Paul Mason’s Black Vein Prophecy, for instance, the protagonist starts with no memory of the past and no clear idea of what to do at first. But, of course, there is an objective there – only it’s an implicit, not explicit, one.

You should have one or more objectives in mind, even if you don’t tell the reader what those are. The better gamebooks are often those where the reader starts with one objective, only to have it altered or superseded in the course of the adventure.

The fighting skills are ARCHERY, SWORDPLAY and UNARMED COMBAT. Two of these are skills that require an item (a bow for ARCHERY, a sword for SWORDPLAY) and so they ought to be a little better than most skills. I make SWORDPLAY about 50% better in a fight than UNARMED COMBAT (so if you lost 4 Life Points using UNARMED COMBAT you’d lose only 3 Life Points using SWORDPLAY). There should be at least one situation in any book where UNARMED COMBAT comes into its own – eg, you’ve been disarmed, or weapons are prohibited – so that it doesn’t just become the poor man’s SWORDPLAY.

Among the “thief” skills, ABILITY is the sort of climbing, balancing, leaping, acrobatic stuff for which Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks were famous. ROGUERY is the ability to pick pockets and creep around without being spotted in the style of any famous thief. CUNNING is the preferred problem-solving method of all tricksters: Loki, Odysseus, Cugel, Coyote, and the like.

WILDERNESS LORE, SEAFARING and STREETWISE are all travel/survival skills and are fairly self-explanatory. This is the area in which you are most likely to have to customize the system to fit your own book. You won’t bother to have SEAFARING if you set your adventure entirely in a forest, for instance. Necklace of Skulls replaced STREETWISE with ETIQUETTE.

Of the magical skills, CHARMS and SPELLS both require items and therefore can be a fraction better than other skills. This seems to be so inevitable in the case of SPELLS that I’ve devoted a whole section to it in the snagging list. What is the difference between SPELLS and CHARMS? In essence SPELLS brings about changes, while CHARMS protects from changes. SPELLS usually take a while to cast, CHARMS are quick and easy but less potent. SPELLS have many extraordinary and specific applications; CHARMS work as a more general level of good luck. You actively decide to use SPELLS, whereas frequently CHARMS provide passive defence. Some of the books so far have established CHARMS as giving a degree of danger sense.

The third magical skill, FOLKLORE, should not be overlooked. In a world where magic is real, knowledge of its limitations is power. FOLKLORE can give the character forewarning of perils that he or she can otherwise only learn about by befriending the right person, consulting the right book, etc, meaning that a character with FOLKLORE is more certain to know what they’re walking into. Also, FOLKLORE allows you to reveal some of the less well-known elements of your world background, so that a reader taking the skill gets insights into the setting that they otherwise wouldn’t know.


  1. Hi Dave. You've mentioned The Mask of Death before. Any chance it will ever see the light of day? Or Mark's other books in the series being republished? Apologies in advance if you've answered either question multiple times in previous posts!

    1. I find the concept intriguing, Andy, but I've never seen it so I don't know how much work would be needed to turn it into a publishable book. Mark may not even still have a copy, though perhaps our editor Ian Marsh kept one as he's a bit more organized than either of us.

  2. I got lucky and managed to get Green Blood and The Coils of Hate pretty cheap, as I recall. Right now the latter sells for over $19 and the former is something like $60.

    1. I added a duel with the elves to Green Blood to make it possible to complete the book whatever skills you picked. (Previously unless you took WILDERNESS LORE and SPELLS you were plumb out of luck.) And if you manage to complete Coils of Hate, John, then let me know how you did it!

    2. Green Blood is a bit of a weird one in that you basically end up playing an ecoterrorist. In my head-canon, the protagonist in Green Blood ends up becoming the Overlord in The Coils of Hate - stirring up hate against the wealth Jewish analogues to stifle industry and logging.

      Meanwhile I found The Coils of Hate fairly easy, especially for the Rogue/Thief character. There's a couple of places you can buy items that mimic skills, so you can effectively have access to 6 skills instead of 4.

    3. I remember enjoying Per Jorner's reviews of the VR series. He did say more complimentary things about mine than about Mark's, though. The reviews are worth a look if you can find them online.

    4. I'd be interested in The Mask of Death as a pdf that I send to Lulu or something. Maybe you could talk to Mark about putting it in the store section of this site so people could buy it and download it for play. You know, let people enjoy and get a bit of money for you and Mark.

    5. From what Ian Marsh said at the time, it would need a lot of work to make it playable. Really, a LOT.

  3. There's a special place in my heart for these. I've spent more hours playing Fabled Lands, but Virtual Reality just might be my favorite series of all time. They just feel unique- there's something about that quasi historical setting that I love. The balance of gameplay is terrific, and the stories really are more "literary" and higher quality.

    You raise a good point about the Magic skill. One thing I found slightly irritating would be that there would be, in several instances an option to use the Magic Skill by listing what looked like spell titles, but with no obvious way of knowing what the spells actually did.

    Another is that Cunning was described as "useful in countless situations", yet actually was one the least used skills in the series.

    But these are minor quibbles. I can only wish there had been more titles published in this series.

    1. Really? I had the most fun writing the options for CUNNING, so maybe it felt like there were more of them than I actually put in.

  4. By mere coincidence, a talentful Italian author, Umberto Pignatelli, gave me - for my birthday ! - his latest gamebook "il Torneo della Regina Bella". Set in an alternative medieval Italy, it features picaresque adventures, and the system he uses, like Virtual Reality, has no dice, just numbered carachteristics, sometimes you can just choose to "fail a test" if you think it's a better strategy.
    Umberto just told me he's found an English translator for the first opus "il Cavaliere della Porta"... So stay tuned :
    (Umberto would have first wanted me to translate it, but my English skills are far too poor to render the literary and dialectal Italians he uses...)

  5. That sounds intriguing. Is Mr Pignatelli going to run a Kickstarter for the English edition?

    1. Ha he didn't tell me. Well, he could. He ran a very successful kickstarter of the new edition of "Beasts & Barbarians" recently (a Savage Worlds setting for which he's better known - IMO one of the best presently available).
      Indeed, the pay he could afford last time, for the English edition, was rather low (given the good literary quality of the gamebook, not a basic Fighting Fantasy) but he may have added a percentage on the profits :-)

      This series of gamebooks is based on Kata Kumbas. KK was a popular RPG in Italy in the 80s, which relies heavily on some Italian clichés of their medieval history, especially on the movie "L'Armata Brancaleone". Umberto adapted it into the Savage Worlds system and asked me my opinion for a wider audience. Though the RpG itself is of good quality, I had doubts whether it could interest non-Italian players if it were translated into English. Many aspects of the game seem to be very focused on Italian features (for example the distance between Standard Italian, its many dialects and Latin), and it may therefore be hard to be roleplayed abroad.
      On the contrary, the gamebooks bridge this cultural gap and may be worthy of an English translation.
      (on a different scale, I could compare this with the Tékumel gamebooks written by Pr. Barker, which introduce directly the reader into this universe which is notoriously hard to gamemaster for non-specialists).

    2. Hi, the translation of Il Cavaliere della Porta (The Knight of the Gate) is actully in progress. We don't know, at the moment, if we'll do a crowfunding or direct sales. My bests Umberto

    3. I'm looking forward to reading it, Umberto.

    4. Hi Dave, I don't want to make a sales pitch of this book (in case, I'll cancel this post), but I only want to point out that this gamebook is particular because it makes great use of what we call "riddle-images": in every pic of the game are hidden paragraphs numbers, which lead to alternative paths, not included in the main text. All the art is made from talented artist Francesca Baerald which is the coauthor of the book. You can find an example there:
      Are you able to find all the numbers :)?

    5. I do confirm; I'm presently lost in the meanders near Modena, oops, Demona....

  6. Balance is important. (Shameless plug alert!) When I wrote the Coils of Hate reboot, I kept an excel spreadsheet of all instances of a particular skill and all the quantifiable effects that they had (Life Points saved, money or items gained etc.). Of course some things weren't that easily quantifiable so I just made sure that each skill had a roughly even use of number of instances used and the size of the consequences. For example, I only used Seafaring twice, but both times, they got the character to areas they could only get to with seafaring. The first time, the skill got them a replacement skill + some nifty items and the second time, they got an item that saved a load of life points later on. The same applied to Wilderness Lore. Since that became useless upon returning to Godorno, I made sure that the character could get a really good item in the wilderness.

    Another balancing factor of spells, charms and swordplay, apart from needed an inventory slot, is that there is a chance that the character can lose the item and so not use the skill, so if you put that into the book, it balances out the power and makes the hero think twice about using these skills without reservation. I remember in Down Among the Dead Men, where at the beginning, you could summon a storm to give your boat a headstart at the cost of destroying your wand.

    1. I was a bit surprised Mark included Seafaring in Coils of Hate at all (we always intended there to be some leeway in the twelve skills) but it sounds like you found a good fix for it, Stuart.

      You're too modest to provide a link, so I will! Folks, you can get Stuart's reboot of Coils of Hate here:

  7. Hi,

    Ever since the source codes for Infocom's interactive fiction games have been recovered and released to the public, there has been a renewed interest in the Zork Implementation Language (ZIL).

    While learning the language, I adapted two of the Virtual Reality Adventures that you have authored or co-authored: Green Blood and Down Among the Dead Mean. I did so because I have loved the books as a teen in the 90's. I liked the system, that wasn't random and provided much replay value due to the variations in the characters that can be used.

    My intentions for adapting these works are:
    1) To provide a proof that the system can be adapted to the ZIL programming language
    2) To share the enjoyment of these books to the ZIL community and perhaps to the greater Interactive Fiction community as well.

    In line with this, I am asking you for permission to release my adaptations to the public. I meant no copyright infringement of any sort. I am more than willing to take them down if I don't get your permission or your blessing.

    Thank you and I wish you more success in your current and future endeavors

    These are the links to my adaptation:

    1. I'm flattered and I'm sure Mark Smith will be too. And sure, please do go ahead and release them to the public. I can't promise we won't ask for them to be withdrawn at a later date, of course -- a game developer might come along that wants to release a commercial version. But for now I'm happy to grant permission.

    2. Wow! Many many thanks! And, if you do ask for them to be withdrawn, I will do so promptly.