How I Wrote a Gamebook: The Basics
Updated: Apr 12
Last month, I wrote about why I created "The Citadel of Bureaucracy." Over the next few months I want to cover the how. Being a horrific nerd, I've played nearly every Fighting Fantasy (FF) gamebook (and, yes, collected them all 🙄). It's safe to say I'm fairly familiar with their structure. Let’s grab a book and break it down.
Like any book, a gamebook with its own ruleset has a certain structure:
Front Copy (Blurb)
Screw the old idiom: we all judge a book by its cover, though it does seem harder these days (where'd I put my cane?). Modern covers are a bit like literary camouflage; probably to get people to read the back copy for info, exposing them to the story hook. I'm sure it's a sound business decision, but I miss distinct covers that convey a book's genre, subject and character. Real pieces of art with depth and detail. Works of art all their own.
As a spoof and homage of old school gamebooks, a distinct cover is exactly what I want for The Citadel of Chaos. I have a cover mocked-up: one that's a fully rendered work of art that lets the reader know what to expect inside, from genre to tone. While a different tack to take in today's market, I'm hoping it'll mean my book stands out on the shelf.
Gamebooks tend to have a hook up front, and it must be sufficiently gripping to make someone want to read rules. Because who wants to read rules? Front Copy is The Story Lite, two or three paragraphs, tops. Trim it down and make it sexy.
You are a Policy Analyst in the Federal Public Service (F.P.S.), an up-and-comer with a good reputation, a promising career, and a fine pension at the end of it all. But it’s not all smiles und sunshine: the government’s Albatross Pay System has shorted you, money’s tight, and long hours have left you ragged and in desperate need of a vacation. Thank God it’s Friday. You’ve just got to make it through one more day, and with diligence and a generous helping of luck you might just see it through.
- The Citadel of Bureaucracy
Rules need to be clear and simple enough to keep your readers’ eyes from glazing over. Back in the 80’s, when nerds were nerds and rules were dense, I suspect gamebooks could get away with more than today. These days, things must be written plainly and concisely.
For The Citadel of Bureaucracy, I let satire be my guide, changing what I could but not so much that the rules failed to evoke nostalgia: that sweetest ambrosia for my generation. The comedic tone helped, allowing me to work in humour to break up the monotony.
Every gamebook must open with some background. This is the short fiction that sets the game’s tone and objective and invests the reader in the outcome. If they’re not intrigued enough to turn the page, they ain’t gonna. The goal must be clear, the resolution uncertain, and the stakes high. The book must be an adventure, no matter its setting.
As for writing the story, there are already a million articles written by a million monkeys—I mean writers—out there, so I'll use my book as an example. I had a bit of an edge in writing this gamebook in that it’s double satire: of FF and the Public Service. Interpreting the Public Service’s most incredible frustrations through a gamebook, not to mention the deliciousness of playing out a bureaucratic adventure within a rules system, made for instant satire. After that, it was just about having fun.
Structure was easy for this story since the workday has a structure all it’s own (Fridays, am-I-rite?). Drawing on the various institutions and bureaucracies in which I've worked, and the gaggle of... interesting characters I've known, the Citadel of Bureaucracy is written around composite real-world settings, characters, and events. Well, maybe a couple characters are real people under a different name. Who, you ask? I’ll never tell…
Writing is the door through which the reader passes but flow is the key. A gamebook's entries must be randomized and as a concise as possible. Part of a gamebook’s appeal is flying through each passage, flipping back and forth in a bid for success, the next illustration, and that elusive entry 400.
In these particular gamebooks, tests and combats play a big role. The player must feel like they’re up against it, yet still progressing. Right up until they succeed or fail. It keeps them hungry for more: more detail, more paths, and more decisions until they can taste the denouement.
One tenet of these books that you should always follow is that a player with the lowest scores should be able to win along the optimal path. This is where playtesting comes in. Play through with the lowest possible scores along the most ideal track. Too easy? Too hard? Too boring? Adjust the tests and opposition. Outside the optimal path, you can litter the book with fail tracks and sudden deaths to your heart’s content, but be judicious. Having to start over every few pages is no fun. Of course, gameplay depends largely on target audience.
FF gamebooks target, I assume, young adult, mostly male, latchkey kids with hours to kill in their spare time. The Citadel of Chaos targets adult public servants and fans of old school gamebooks looking for a bit of nostalgia, a laugh, and who very decidedly lack free time. Not wanting to turn off my target audience, I tried to make my gamebook less twisty and with different ways to win. Let’s face it, the original FF books are a slog. They were designed back when games were punishingly difficult. Hell, we didn’t see a save option, let alone rampant health pickups, until well into the 90's. Old nerds may wax poetic about good old games, but we sure don't want to replay them without a save feature. Who has time for that?
Half the fun of gamebooks is being teased by images not yet discovered. When you finally do get to an illustrated entry, you're hit with a sense of adventure and discovery.
Gamebook entries are short and concise to keep the experience light and active. That means they tend to be light on description. Without a good number of illustrations, the gamebook’s tone falls flat. Illustrations are windows into the game world. The artist’s style augments the writer’s and adds another experiential dimension.
A good illustrator uses a style that captures the essence of the story. They and the writer need to work collaboratively to ensure the proper tone. Responsiveness and professionalism are all-important to the relationship. And contracts. Always use a contract. More on that in a future article.
Physically last, this should be one of the first things you consider. I’ll go further: write your back copy first. The cover grabs a reader's attention, the back copy makes them look inside.
If you're having trouble distilling the story into a gripping paragraph, you're probably not yet aware of why you’re writing the story. Take some time to distil the heart and stakes of the story into a few lines. You'd think it would be easy, having so much to work with, but it's so not. Persist: it'll be worth it. The back copy blurb is your compass, north star, lodestone, or other tritely apt navigational reference: it’ll keep your writing focused and remind you what you're trying to achieve.
Part story, part game, this is a book in which YOU make all the decisions!
The Citadel of Bureaucracy holds dark and dangerous perils for Public Servants unprepared for its labyrinthine cubicle walls, but enter you must. The Albatross Pay System has shorted you, money’s tight, and long hours have left you ragged and in desperate need of a vacation. You’ve just got to make it through one more day. But it won’t be easy. Packed with asbestos, bad wiring, and with air quality equivalent to a dank, rat-infested dungeon, the Darby Complex, known as “The Citadel” to its hapless inmates, is riddled with appalling hazards and frantic Public Servants to test you beyond all reasonable limits.
Working against the clock, you must fight unreliable transit, dodgy I.T., the dreaded Canada goose, and a rising sense of nihilism in an effort to get paid and clear your desk before your vacation. YOU decide which paths to take, which dangers to risk and which colleagues to confront. May the blessings of the Janus-faced God of Finance and H.R. be with you, for you’ll find little succour in the Citadel’s unhallowed halls.
Those are the basic elements I discovered while writing The Citadel of Bureaucracy. I hope you found them enlightening, if not entertaining. There's more to come. Be sure to Subscribe and follow me on Twitter to find out when my next article drops: "How to Write a Gamebook: Let's Talk Apps."
Hope to see you then,
April 11, 2022