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 There was a seventh, The Mask of Death, written by Mark, that remains unpublished to this day.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.)
VIRTUAL REALITY gamebooks
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.
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...
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.