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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wings of Lightning: A New Kind of Solo Gamebook

Old School

With the astounding rise of popularity in role-playing games in the late 70s and early 80s came a demand for role-playing adventures that could be played solitaire.  After all, not every gamer could round up several friends and devote 4+ hours to a gaming session on a regular basis.  But the craving for role-playing-style games was nigh insatiable. 

Several major titles rose to meet this demand, notably the Fighting Fantasy series by Ian Livingstone and at least two different Steve Jacksons, and Lone Wolf by Joe Dever.

These gamebooks were designed to provide a single player with an RPG experience mimicking the popular mechanics of the time.  There were stats to track, inventory lists, and most importantly, dice!  The games played a bit like Choose Your Own Adventure books with dice-rolling.  The player would make decisions, turn to paragraphs as instructed, and roll dice to see if they fail or succeed at various endeavors.  The gamebooks essentially acted as GMs for the player.

I have attempted to write gamebooks on multiple occasions.  They combine two of my favorite hobbies: game design and creative writing.  None of these projects ever came to much, though.  I would get really excited by the story of the game, but the mechanics always felt... flat.  I didn't feel I was adding anything new to the genre.

I had to do some research.  I played a wide variety of both professional and amateur gamebooks, trying to figure out what worked, what did not, what I enjoyed, and what I felt could be improved.  The Fighting Fantasy Project was a particularly useful site, as was Project Aon, the attempt to make all the Lone Wolf books available for free online.

New Project

When I began to work on my newest design, Wings of Lightning, I tried to write a gamebook that drew upon the lessons that I had learned.

One of the key differences between Wings of Lightning and traditional gamebooks is the lack of dice.  I had attempted to write WoL several times, always with various attempts at dice-based combat, and none of them worked.  The problem was the Wings of Lightning was originally conceived of as an action-adventure video game, in the style of Legends of Zelda, God of War, and Shadow of the Colossus.  Combat in such games revolves around patience, combos, and pushing one's luck to get in the last few hits.  Dice just couldn't seem to emulate this.

Combat Evolved

I cast about for a mechanic that would mimic the fast-paced, brutal combat of God of War and Dante's Inferno.  Dice were not working.  What else could I use?

Many of my ideas seem to come during that blissful half-awake period when I am lying in bed waiting for my alarm to go off.  During one such time, it occurred to me to use playing cards rather than dice.  Playing cards have "memory," which in game terms means that the chances of achieving a certain outcome change over time as cards are depleted from the deck.  Dice lack memory; previous rolls have no effect on future rolls.

I initially thought about having the player guess the color or suit of the top card of the deck, then revealing that card.  A correct guess would mean a hit; an incorrect guess would therefore be a miss.  Too many misses, and the player would receive a damage penalty.  More hits would lead to better combos, thus encouraging the player to push his or her luck.

I liked this idea, because it would allow astute players to improve their accuracy over time.  The more cards they revealed, the more information they would have about what cards remained, giving them a higher chance of guessing accurately.

It occurred to me, though, that a deck of cards has too many cards.  Drawing four or five cards does not significantly alter the chances of drawing one suit or another.  I had to limit the number of cards so that drawing even one card would significantly alter the chances of revealing one color or another.  "Face cards!" I thought.

I tested the idea, and it seemed to work.  Using only the 16 face cards (Jack, Queen, King, Ace), I could guess with a decent amount of accuracy the color of the top card.

What, then, to do with the remaining cards?  "Enemy AI!" I thought.

For enemy attacks, I decided to use the numbers of the cards, rather than the colors.  For each enemy, the player would simply reveal the top card of the deck.  If the number on the revealed card was equal to or less than that enemy's Aim stat, the player would take a hit.  It was fast, simple, and easy to understand.

After releasing an initial draft for viewing on boardgamegeek.com, some early testers helped me iron out some kinks on the system.  (Shout out to Tony, Jessey, and Michael!)

First, the player wasn't interacting with the enemies enough.  The enemies would either hit the player, or not, and the player could do nothing about it.  I decided, then to utilize the "miss" cards that the player was accumulating anyway.  The "miss" cards became "maneuver" cards.  They would work the same way, in that too many maneuver cards would lead to a damage penalty, but they could also be used to cancel enemy damage.  If an enemy hit the player, the player could cancel the damage by matching the revealed card with a maneuver card of the same suit.  This added a nice extra layer of strategy, as players could deliberately miss in order to gain the suits they wanted to use to dodge enemy attacks.

Second, the idea of using guessing either colors or suits was too much.  Colors were much easier; suits were just too difficult to guess consistently.  So I ditched suits and went with colors only.  The player only had to guess the correct color to get a hit.

Linear Story

Wings of Lightning was originally intended to be a video game.  I had a very detailed plot laid out in my head, with several key characters playing important roles.  The game was originally a sort of on-rails adventure, a la God of War or Dante's Inferno; there would be no wandering around looking for extra items or performing menial tasks for NPCs.

This meant that when I sat down to write WoL, I had to make a crucial decision.  Instead of giving the player a lot of free reign over the story, with many branching paths and decision points, I decided to tell the story that I had already plotted.  Wings of Lightning has a chapter structure traditionally found in novels, but not really seen in gamebooks.  The player reads through and completes each chapter consecutively.  He or she still makes choices, but ultimately the story will be the same each time.

There are pros and cons to this approach.  On the one hand, the story will always be cohesive, and the characters consistent.  I get to tell exactly the story I want to tell.  On the other hand, once the player has completed the game once or twice, there is little incentive to replay.  But WoL is intended as a free print-and-play game, and I don't think replay value is as important in a game that cost nothing.

Looking Ahead

Wings of Lightning is being designed for the 2012 Solitaire Print and Play Contest.  Submissions must be complete by the end of July, which gives me about two weeks to wrap up the gamebook.  I've been writing steadily, but some upheaval at work has been very draining, making it difficult to complete more than about a page a day.

Still, I am hopeful that I can complete a solid draft in time.  I have outlined 10 chapters.  The rules and chapters 1 and 2 are complete.  Chapter 3 should be done by tomorrow evening.  The biggest hurdle will be chapter 9 (assuming I stick to my outline), because it involves a very tricky plot twist.  I think I can do it, with encouragement and dedication.  Even if I don't manage to complete the game in time to submit to the contest, I definitely plan to finish the game before the end of the summer.

Then I'll get to work on the sequel: Horns of Thunder!