Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Organizing the Chaos [Fires Across the Plains]

I am the Warden!!

This week is committed to the completion of Fires Across the Plains first complete draft. I have to admit that this project was not underestimated so much as my plot was underestimated. It's typical of me to overshoot my expectations and find myself adapting to the complexity (if anything, it's very inspirational and gives me a real swift kick in the butt to get going) and, in its own way, has made me more confident for another one. Down the road, after getting some other major projects out of the way (Reloaded and Optional Core).

As I've written about before, learning the best approach to handle the chaos that is a gamebook required some early research and has since been adjusted. There have been some hiccups along the way and corrections have been made, which is predominantly why this draft has taken a couple extra weeks to complete. As promised, I thought I'd take some time to go over that very process.

Stating the inevitable here, but writing a gamebook carries one major distinction to writing a regular game or short story: the chronology is out of whack. Keeping it organized is the key to not screwing it up and organization is still a significant aspect of this work I'm struggling with. (Just this past weekend, I lost my playtest character for Fraser Ronald's Centurion RPG and had to start over, despite the fact that I'm playing from home at the same desk using Skype and the character sheet shouldn't be anywhere else but my desk.) For many, the entire plot is laid out in great detail using post-it notes and flowcharts, leaving the bulk of the writing centring on filling in the details and descriptions. As previously discussed in the above link, it's a process I have difficulty with because it feels stifling. When I write, I love to experience the story unfolding as I write it. In a way, it's how I verify the errors in my plot before making a second pass to fill in any gaps, beef up the details, and flesh it into something real. I needed a way to accomplish both the organization and freedom without sacrificing either.

Section Notes

Looking at the fundamental requirement of a gamebook design's organization, you need to know where you're coming from and where you're going. For that, I have a notepad with a single line dedicated to every section of the book. When I need to assign a new section, it's added to the list with the preceeding section provided in a square. After the section's written, I write down a simple explanation of its events, and top it off with the following sections linked from there.

Below is a sample of the notes used during my writing of Fires Across the Plains.

First Circled Number: The current section.
Squared Number: The previous section linked to the current section. "V" indicates various connections, such as the resolution of fight scenes. 
Text: A rough description of the section's events. 
Second Circled Number(s): Where this section goes from here. 

Plot Points

That's all fine and good, but there's an overall story to keep in mind and it's coupled with the strongest evidence of how difficult and rewarding gamebook design can be: getting to plot points through different choices.

Fires Across the Plains is about a building war between the noble Emerald Knights charged with guarding the King's Roads and the refugee Hundaar, a collection of half-breeds ostracized by society who have taken refuge within the valley. The very first section brings about one of the greatest choices this gamebook requires and that's the choice between siding with the Knights or allying with the Hundaar. Throughout the book, there are various instances when you can dart back and forth and your choices determine how you are perceived by the opposite party. For example, after you help the Knights arrest a small band of fleeing Hundaar, you are welcomed to their city and home base, Vale, where you begin to look into the events and agree to help out these valiant protectors. Along the way, you may be captured by the Hundaar in an ambush and taken to their home of Wreath as prisoners. However, if you chose to help the Hundaar fugitives escape at the very beginning, you are taken to Wreath as a friend and eventually agree to assist their efforts to secure peace by travelling to Vale, where you are arrested as a traitor or you can trick them into believing you are an escaped prisoner of the half-breeds.

Each of these moments are plot points in the story and there needed to be an almost set number of them to make this work without getting drastically out of hand. (My aim was to create a gamebook running at 350 sections, though it seems more like 400 will do the trick.) Allowing these choices to make sense without diverting too far off course from the story are plot points. Each one is listed on different sheets of notepad using the format above and titled according to the specific plot point (i.e. Entering Vale as Knights' Prisoner).

At key moments in the gamebook, I need to provide an option for the hero to meet up with the Hundaar and look at things from their side (if the player wants to do so - that's another issue with writing this sucker, there has to be options for players to look at both sides of the disagreement without bumping heads or allow the player to be pig-headed and stick with one side only). Once the player has surpassed a certain event, there will be one of two standard ways the opposite side will react to the hero's arrival. So if the hero chose to aid the Hundaar and fight off the Knights, that means the next time the hero encounters the Knights, they will automatically treat him/her as hostile and that plot point starts at #29. So long as I have those plot points ready and interpretive enough for players to fill in the blanks with their own past experiences, it should all work out. Later on in the story, the hero may have jumped back and forth in loyalty and the Knights have finally had enough. They arrest the hero and everything jumps right back to #29.

Filling in the Blanks

This is the final step in Fires' design and while I can only assume it's a standard tactic in all gamebooks (I've only read so many in my lifetime), it's one I'm really counting on to pull this off. There are different ways the hero will encounter each plot point. For example, when meeting up with the Knights after helping the Hundaar escape, a certain number of Knights are involved and that section links back to the plot point (#29). Once that new plot point starts, the number of Knights remains vague so that no matter how large the party of Knights encountered (because there are times later on in the story where an entire platoon of Knights march along the King's Road), the player will have their own information from the previous section to fill in the blanks. When they read "all the Knights ride alongside you..." they'll complete the visual based on the previous information, thereby allowing me to simply ensure the plot point mentions Knights riding along the King's Road.

How Well Is It Working?

As far as the steps above, it's holding together quite well and requires only a few minor corrections at plot points or before them. Ironically, the biggest struggle I've noticed is keeping track of minor details that remain the same no matter what - character names, descriptions, places, and buildings. After making a pass over the first 300 sections this weekend, I was surprised at how many mismatches there were regarding the Emerald Knight's main keep, the Jade Fortress, and another character's family name.  That's just my stupid brain being, you know, stupid.

It's a valuable lesson learned and while this has been more daunting than previously expected, I'm truly glad I took on this project so early on in my career. Sure, the original deadline has come and gone, but it was not necessary for that deadline to exist and I was assured by the publisher there was no rush to get this sucker done ASAP. (Check out the number of Adventurer gamebooks scheduled for next year; it's nuts!) What I've learned from this experience will go a long way towards improving my output in future projects, including those with a more linear approach.