Turn to 400! #2

In which I take on a self-imposed quest to write a (unofficial) Fighting Fantasy book.

In my last blog I wrote about my rediscovered desire to write a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, and to show Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone what they missed out on by not accepting any of the 50 paragraph crapfests that I never submitted in the first place.  I dug out one of those, by the way; Castle Master, an adventure that was more than a little inspired by the home computer game that shared its name.

Plagiarism.  That’s what Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone missed out on.

Anyway, a week of annual leave coinciding with a rainy day meant that I found myself with some extra hours to suss out what my adventure would be about—at the very least, what I wanted to include and what I wanted to keep from it with pointy sticks.

The first decision I needed to make wasn’t much of a decision at all really—the mechanics and structure needed to stay true to the series that inspired my goal.  So a tidy sum of 400 paragraphs and a triumvirate of core traits (Skill, Stamina and Luck) needed to be present at the very least, although even the original entries in the series played fast a loose with some of the other staples—provisions, equipment and potions—so I had some flexibility there.  Of course, the original run itself quickly revealed the mundane reality of playing adventure after adventure with the same limited setup. It wasn’t long that other traits and mechanics began to appear—included the dreaded time limit devices.

I was never fond of these.  Some of them were incorporated into the story quite well (the falling citadel walls of Fangs of Fury and the body-shaped poison tracker in Daggers of Darkness come to mind), but I was generally wary of any device that rushed me through the story and prevented me from exploring the world outside of forced reruns.  More palatable mechanics were the traits like Honour or Magic or Fear—and when they were derived from the core theme or plot of the book they really added some depth to the adventure.

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The nifty “Citadel Walls” time tracker in Fangs of Fury.

 

So basic traits and equipment were in, time constraining devices were out, and narrative-specific additional traits were a maybe, depending on the story I wanted to tell.

The additional mechanics that really appealed were the selectable skills and abilities that some of the books granted you.  These were sometimes generic (e.g. climbing or lockpicking) or sometimes created specifically with the narrative in mind (various types of holy magic for a demon slayer, for example) and when used right they could open up the adventure in differing ways.  My first exposure to this mechanism was playing Appointment with F.E.A.R. (in which you play a superhero with a selectable ability), although the titles that best utilised it in my opinion were those by Stephen Hand (Dead of Night and Moonrunner).

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Dead of Night’s adventure sheet, complete with list of selectable talents.

 

When implemented poorly, however, such a mechanic simply became a cruel barrier to progression in the story.  I always felt, and still do, that there should be multiple pathways to the end of the story rather than the player simply being lucky and choosing the ‘correct’ skill(s) during character creation.  If I went down the route of optional talents, I would be giving fair weight to each.

Ultimately, I decided that whatever I went with, it was unlikely to be a set of mechanics that filled the gamebook with numerous scenes that branched purely to indulge the talent routes.  I felt that some books in the series got a little too lost in the interactive elements, and forgot that the story itself needed to entertain and grip the reader. Occasionally, a book nailed this aspect—I’m thinking primarily of Creature of Havoc, Magehunter and The Black Vein Prophecy here.  These titles were always so much more appealing to me, it was just a shame that they coincided with a brutally unforgiving interface that made playing the books at best an exercise in extreme trial and error, and at worst in outright futility.

For me, the story would be front and foremost, with a balance of pathways that added some degree of variety without sapping the reservoir of paragraphs at my disposal.  Such a method might well reduce replay value, but it would also increase the narrative experience of that first successful playthrough

The theme and content of the adventure took a little more brainstorming.  Although it won’t be a novel, I wanted to the adventure to tackle the same type of themes you might find in a novel.  Again, I’m minded to consider the works of Stephen Hand in the series as a big influence in my desire to approach writing a gamebook in this manner.  Ultimately, I found myself swayed by a feature that wasn’t often executed well within the series: companionship. The supporting cast of allies were rarely treated kindly, often being utilised to provide some information or items before being cruelly dispatched.  Occasionally it worked to some effect, like in Deathtrap Dungeon, when you found yourself locked in a battle to the death with Throm the barbarian, who had until that moment had been an ally.  But even when I was younger I often found myself wanting more from these limited interactions.  The rare cases when the series delivered (Yay for Jesper the mongoose in Master of Chaos!) were an absolute treat.

So I settled on a general theme of friendship, wanting to focus in as much detail as a gamebook would allow on the relationship between the adventurer and another character.  I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t want that character serving as a combat sponge, which created some initial demands on the shape and substance of this character. Would it be an animal of some description? I liked the idea of some kind of magical creature, which was in no way influenced at all by a recent replay of Dust. But I also was drawn to the concept of a sentient weapon, which was in no way influenced at all by a recent replay of Tales of Destiny.

Concepts inspired by video games.  Perhaps not as much has changed since Castle Master as I had hoped.

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Fidget was a terrific supporting character though.

 

Regardless of the actual form of said companion, its presence suggested a further narrative conflict—if the characters were thrown together by the events of the story then would they necessarily trust each other?  Is this something that would need to grow over the course of the adventure?  A Trust stat would be a neat dynamic to build events around, where either character could turn against the ideas and actions of the other. And from this comes the question of why both characters are so untrusting at the start of the story.  Have they been betrayed? Are they uncaring? It’s definitely meaty enough to craft a gamebook around.

I also decided pretty early doors that I would want the antagonist to represent and mirror whatever theme underpinned the story.  This meant that they would need a little more page time than they usually got in the original series; in the majority of cases their presence were little more than bookends—the initial background and the climactic (in some cases the anticlimactic) confrontation.  I wanted the climax to have a little more heft than that.

So, after the initial brainstorming session, I was left with an adventure that:

  • Is thematically about friendship and/or redemption.
  • Utilises the conventional Skill, Stamina and Luck stats, with an additional stat, Trust.
  • Utilises conventional mechanisms concerning provisions and equipment.
  • Will avoid mechanisms concerning the tracking of time.
  • Will potentially utilise mechanisms concerning additional talents and knowledge.
  • Will be narrative focused.
  • Will involve an ally who undertakes the adventure with the player.
  • Will be 400 paragraphs in length.
  • Will definitely, absolutely avoid plagiarism.

Next time I check in with this project, it will be on the subject of world setting.  I hope this has been reasonably interesting, if not entertaining, so far.  Feel free to share your own home-brew gamebook experiences in the comments, and I’ll see you next time!

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