Saturday, November 12, 2011

Five Things I've Learned From The Windhammer Prize (Part 2)

Cover of AEsheba: Greek Africa
(Blake, Mentzer & O'Hare, 1987),
by David Cherry. Nothing to do with
 Sea of Madness, except the same vibe.
Continuing on from where we left off, here are three more things I did differently this time when writing Sea of Madness.

3. Write Big
Describing his work for Fighting Fantasy, Stephen Hand once said:

One thing I myself had learned from the excellent Lone Wolf books was something I call, "writing big". Look at these two paragraphs:

"The Orc scowls menacingly then reaches for his club. You will have to defend yourself:
Orc        Skill: 7        Stamina: 7"

"The bodies of the slain lie strewn across the battlefield, your position is hopeless. Realising you have no choice but to pull back and rally your forces, you turn only to see... Something bars your way. You try to face it but it eludes your stare. Your assailant is an Forgotten Shade and you will need every ounce of courage to overcome it:
Shade    Skill: 7        Stamina: 7"

Paragraph 1 is very typical of your average gamebook. Events feel isolated, low key and a bit flat. Paragraph 2 is written big. It is over the top (some would say too long, verbose and melodramatic), but feels more exciting and satisfying. Structurally both paragraphs are exactly the same - there is a fight with a 7/7 creature - but contextually, they are worlds apart. We decided to write big, so every challenge (even when minor) had character. An event would be: the most evil, the most important, the most tricky, the most melodramatic, the most underhand. Every element would be part of an epic whole. I felt that there was no reason not to rise to this creative challenge, to try and create something dramatic and unique. (Hand, 1999)

So by borrowing Stephen Hand's idea of "writing big", I wanted to make every encounter in Sea of Madness feel epic in scope, as you are playing a powerful hero at large in an extensive game world. Everything that happens to you, even (or perhaps especially) your demise, should be over the top.

One problem with this approach is that it can get a bit tiring to read at times, so for a sandbox adventure like Sea of Madness it is doubly important to try and keep the paragraphs brief but evocative, so as not to bore the reader. Also, a good thesaurus is all but essential for using alternative words. Finally, although Stephen Hand alludes to it without actually mentioning it, this approach is a bit camp, with tongue planted in cheek through varying degrees of force. This is possibly the most difficult aspect to get right. I tend to try and write gamebooks on two levels: the straight, fantasy escapist theme, and the more hidden parody or satire level, where you are essentially affectionately spoofing the whole genre.

RAMPAGE! for example is an extremely obvious parody, riffing on a pseudo-Allansian theme. Sea of Madness was a bit more subtle, though the subtitle "Like the Odyssey but shorter" should be one clue, while other pointers include Star Wars quotes, Fighting Fantasy gamebook titles, and a whole bunch of related stuff crammed in with a crowbar. Feedback from Sea of Madness would suggest the spoof aspect sailed over some heads however, and in fact caused problems because there was an expectation that the adventure would be similar to the Odyssey but, aside from ripping off a few obvious tropes, the gamebook was more a mash-up of faux-Hellenic Bronze Age mayhem and classic pulp fantasy/swords & sorcery/swords & sandals. Basically though, I had a lot of fun writing it!

4. Rules, rules, rules
Given you are writing a gamebook, developing a clear and cohesive set of rules is an absolute must. The two main choices are to borrow an existing rules set, like Fighting Fantasy or Virtual Reality (which is what Per Jorner did with The Bone Dogs), or develop your own. For the former, it makes things easier to write for a familiar system, but opens your work up for comparison against the original material. For the latter, you get more creative control, but you have to ensure your system is balanced, playable, and fun, as well as logically and fully integrated into your gamebook.

For Hills of Phoros I created a 2d6 system that was simply far too complicated for the gamebook, and when I had to strip bits out to fit for length, it started to look rather patchy in other areas. For RAMPAGE! I simplified it to a 1d6 system which worked much better, and I re-skinned this system for Sea of Madness with some additional rules. One common piece of feedback is that rules are still a bit long, though clear. However, I do say in the rules section that you can pick a starting character and begin straight away, referring only to the rules when needed. I think it's also important to add some optional rules at the end, to allow the player to customise the adventure if they so wish.

5. Art of Schmooze
You want lots of people to read your adventure, and you also want lots of people to vote for your adventure as being one of the best. That's not going to happen if you simply let your adventure's PDF file hang off the Windhammer website and expect its natural brilliance to shine through. You need to get people interested in your gamebook, so they will read it, enjoy it, and vote for it!

For my previous entries I just sort of threw them out there, put a few posts on some gamebook groups and hoped it would be enough. As an approach it becomes too poorly focused and too generalistic. For Sea of Madness I tried to get specific groups of like-minded people interested. For example, I messaged all my old gaming buddies on Facebook, passed on links to my Bangkok snooker comrade, and shared details with a shadowy cabal of writers for whom I had done some editing work. This sort of tightly focussed approach to soliciting feedback and votes possibly works better than the more open-ended appeal to interested readers.

In fact, by deliberately targetting non-gamebook fans, not only are you potentially generating votes for your Windhammer Prize competition entry, but you are also stimulating an interest in the other entries and in gamebook fiction in general. If we want to revive gamebook fiction in the future (and there's certainly plenty of evidence we are currently surfing the wave of a mini-revival at present), this sort of approach is going to become more and more important, especiallly as we look at paradigm-changing formats such as tablet devices, online content, and smart phones.


Blake, R. J., Mentzer, F., & O'Hare, J. (1987). AEsheba: Greek Africa. Lake Geneva, WI: New Infinities Productions, Inc.

Hand, S. (3/10/1999). Personal communciation with Mark J. Popp, available here: (Thanks to Andy Spruce) 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Five Things I've Learned From The Windhammer Prize (Part 1)

One of the interesting things about the Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction is that Wayne Densley keeps the voting tallies secret. This is understandable for what is essentially a niche competition, as if the winning tally was known, competitors may think "Ah, I only need X votes!" and aim to amass the required number of votes rather than devote themselves to their gamebook entry.

While this hidden tally introduces a degree of mystery to the proceedings, it also makes analysing the results, in the form of a voting spread, virtually impossible. However, given that I won this year after several previous years of failure, I thought I'd share a few things I did differently this year that may have contributed to a much improved final placing. I have no way of knowing how much, if any, these changes affected my winning tally, but taken as a whole there surely must be some sort of cumulative effect.

1. Feedback
If you're lucky, you should get a decent amount of feedback on your adventure, post-competition. While recognizing that each person's feedback represents just one person's opinion (which you may or may not agree with), study it carefully. Considering the feedback as a whole, sift it for general trends, as these will identify what worked and what you need to improve.

Plenty of feedback from my first competition entry, Hills of Phorosindicated that aimless wandering as per Fabled Lands, was tedious in a small adventure, as was excessive grind-time. Also, if you're using a certain style of character generation system, such as points-buying, implement it across the board. Based on this feedback, I added a bit more story to the still sandbox-influenced RAMPAGE! and Sea of Madness, as well as a complete points-buy system for creating characters if you did not wish to use the provided starting characters. 

2. Maximum Performance
The Windhammer Prize has stated limits of 100 sections or 40 pages of A4. You should try and aim for both limits as one hundred sections is not a large amount with which to tell a multiple choice story, while 40 pages allows you around 20,000 words, or 200 words a section on average. That's a decent chunk of text, nearly half a NaNoMo entry, and will require an effective time budget to ensure your typed word count per day is ticking over nicely. While sacrificing the art of story-telling at the cold altar of mathematics may seem harsh, the reality of writing a gamebook is that you are creating a complex puzzle that requires a degree of rigourousness unknown to most short stories or novellas. Break out the calculator!

Hills of Phoros sprawled so badly I had to cut huge chunks of rules and sections to cram it into the competition limits, and this had a big effect on the final product. Conversely, RAMPAGE! was a featherlight affair set at half the competition requirements (50 sections) and probably suffered from brevity compared to the excellence and expansivenes of other entries, such as The Bone Dogs. Sea of Madness was planned exceedingly tightly, though parts still got cut. Still, it was a much more cohesive gamebook than its predecessors.

I'll present the final three things tomorrow. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Adrift on the Sea of Madness...

Wow! When not battling word-heavy assignments or rising Bangkok floodwaters, I received the most welcome news that my Sea of Madness adventure has won Wayne Densley's 2011 Windhammer Prize for short gamebook fiction! Cue celebratory beers here at Fantasy Gamebook HQ where we are ever-increasingly surrounded by a deluge of stench-laden black klong-water.

As I talked about before, this year's Windhammer competition saw a lot of high quality entries and everyone who entered deserves a congratulatory pat on the back. There was also a record number of adventure downloads and votes, so thanks also to all you readers and voters who were able to enjoy a glut of interesting and adventurous gamebook fiction.

In a bid to resurrect this blog now that I've completed my studies for this semester, I plan on following this post with a series of similarly-themed entries:
  • Talking about all the entries in this year's Windhammer Prize, to give you an idea of the quality and variety that was present.
  • Looking at five things that helped Sea of Madness win this year, when previous attempts like Hills of Phoros or RAMPAGE! had failed.
  • Exploring the planning process behind Sea of Madness as a counter-point to the Adventure Game series I write for Fighting Fantazine on DIY gamebook adventures.
  • Finally, DestinyQuest the review is nearly done!
Onwards and upwards, away from the floods...