Monday, November 30, 2015

An Historical Perspective on Multi-Path Fiction




by Michael K. Eidson

You come to a fork in the road. To go right, turn to paragraph 12. To go left, turn to paragraph 38. If you don’t know where to go, keep reading below.

As a teen in the 70s, I loved reading speculative fiction: fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels, and superhero comic books. I loved being transported to imaginary worlds and exploring them. But I didn’t realize the extent to which fictional settings could be explored until I discovered multi-path fiction.

Before I found any true multi-path fiction, I read a book entitled Five Fates. Written by Keith Laumer, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Harlan Ellison, and Frank Herbert, the book contains a single premise from which each author weaves his own tale. No interaction was expected from me as the reader. My only choices were which story to read first and then what story to read next. But each story offered a vastly different experience, though all of them sprouted from the same root. After reading that book, I hungered for more like it. I wasn’t succeeding at my search, and had no internet then to help me, but eventually I stumbled onto something that satisfied my craving in an unexpected fashion.

Published by Flying Buffalo Incorporated, the Tunnels and Trolls game rules appealed to the reader, the gamer, and the storyteller in me. I’d been writing short stories since fourth grade, and I thought I understood the story format: beginning, middle, and end. Even Five Fates veered only slightly from that formula. But Buffalo Castle, the first T&T solitaire adventure, showed me that another story format was possible: beginning, middles, and ends. The story started in the same place every time, but where it went from there depended not only on the author, but also on the reader. The next section of the book you read depended on what option you chose from those presented by the author. The sections were labeled, and when you’d read through one section, you didn’t necessarily read the next section following it physically in the book. Rather, you’d choose your preferred action from a list of actions the main character might take next, and turn to the labeled section associated with your choice. The story would proceed from there, until you reached another decision point, at which time you’d be directed to some other place in the book. When you made a choice, you weren’t only deciding what you’d read next, but you were also deciding what you’d not be reading. After one read-through, you’d have read a complete story, but only a small fraction of the book.

These T&T solitaire adventure books, referred to as solos, were based on the rules for the T&T role playing game. Readers who read the solos were expected to know the T&T rules, and sometimes apply those rules to the situations described in the story. The main character was “you,” and “you” were represented by a character sheet loaded with game statistics, such as how strong or intelligent you were, numerically speaking. These statistics could be referred to in-story, with the author making demands on the reader based on the values of “your” statistics, sometimes adding a randomizing component. For example, the reader might be directed to “make a L1SR on STR,” meaning to roll two dice, add the result to your Strength score, and see whether the result exceeded the value required for a “level 1 saving roll.” If it did, the reader was directed to one section. If it didn’t, the reader was directed to another. Progress through the book thus varied from one reading of the book to the next, with different paths through the book forged by dice roll results, character statistics, author mandates and reader-selected options.

These early T&T solos were intended more as games than fiction. Buffalo Castle is primarily about finding your way through a castle, starting at point A and attempting to make it in one piece to point B, with a smattering of unrelated encounters on the way. You could “die” at almost any point, which would prevent you from proceeding any further in the story with that character. The only sanctioned way to continue after a character died was to create another character, with its own character sheet, and start over at the beginning.

Later T&T solos grew more and more sophisticated, incorporating more and more story elements, and establishing internal relationships and connections to earlier solos. For example, in Michael Stackpole’s City of Terrors, the ninth solo in the Flying Buffalo series, the reader may encounter Mingor Diamondfist, a man with a diamond hand who’d made the “Lion trip” through the “Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon.” Readers who’d previously read the second solo, Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon, knew about the dungeon and what the Lion trip entailed. The reader might even have a character that had acquired a diamond hand in the same way it was presumed Mingor had acquired his.

Other references across volumes in the series created a sort of patchwork world, an organic setting that grew as more authors penned more solos and added their touch to the milieu. There was no predetermined official setting for the T&T solos that authors had to abide by. If an author submitted a solo, Flying Buffalo would consider it, and if they liked it, they published it, at which time it became part of the official setting. A goodly number of authors fancied joining this effort, as evidenced by the twenty-plus solos published by Flying Buffalo before they ended the series.

It was unlikely any two readers would have the exact same view of the T&T universe. None of the solos depended on the reader’s having access to any of the other solos. As a reader, you could start anywhere in the series and read as many or as few of the solos as desired. Even if you read the exact same solos as another reader, the paths you took through the individual books would be different.

To get a broad picture of a solo, the reader had to continually start over at the beginning and make different choices each time through. To get the whole picture, you had to read all the possible paths, which typically meant ignoring character statistics and dice rolls and simply choosing the path you wished to take at any given juncture. This approach wasn’t officially approved by Flying Buffalo, but they could do little to stop it either, if they’d wanted to. They definitely recognized that the practice occurred. One or two solos contained unreachable sections, which you’d only find if you broke the rules and read sections you weren’t directed to. They were the Easter eggs of multi-path fiction.

In a lot of the official T&T solos, death was an all too common end to the story if one adhered strictly to the rules. You were supposed to start over every time your character died, but I’d often ignore the death result and continue on with the story as though my character had prevailed. I’m sure other readers did so as well. But there was certainly no expectation from Flying Buffalo that readers would maintain one character all the way through the whole series of adventures. Such a feat was practically impossible. Even if a character made it through one solo alive, the rules governing what type of character could be used in another solo might prevent you from using the same character.

The 80s brought a slew of solo adventure game books from other sources. Joe Dever introduced the public to his Lone Wolf series of game books. In this series, it was possible and preferred to keep the same character all the way through, starting with book one and proceeding in order through the series to the end. This had a great appeal to many, as evidenced by the popularity of the series.

Whereas the T&T solos required the reader to purchase the rules book separately, each volume in the LW series included the full set of rules needed for that particular volume. The same was the case with the Fighting Fantasy series.

The Sorcery! series offered a hybrid experience, making an optional “spell book” available separately. You could play the game as a warrior and not need the spell book. But you weren’t allowed to choose any spell-casting options as a warrior. If you played as a wizard, you could exercise those options. The spells were not explained in the adventure books with the basic rules, but in the optional spell book. An adventurous person could play a wizard without the spell book, and in fact, the rules stated that you weren’t to refer to the spell book while actively playing the game. The intent here was to have you memorize your spells just as a real wizard might.

The game books mentioned above all required some means for generating random numbers, primarily by rolling dice, to simulate elements of chance in story situations. Started in 1979, the Choose Your Own Adventure series did not require readers to use dice or track statistics. The CYOA books were targeted at a young audience, which meant the “rules” for the books had to be transparently simple. There were often multiple endings you could attain, beyond the survive-or-die arrangement. Reaching a certain ending might be considered the best result, while other endings were considered to be not so good, but not failures either. It was still mostly a go-from-point-A-to-point-B type of exercise, but you could also end up at terminating points C, D, or E without dying, and that was generally okay too.

While all these multi-path books were being written, computerized multi-path stories were also being created. The advantage of reading a multi-path story on the computer was that the computer could keep track of where you were in the story, generate pseudo-random numbers behind the scenes, and take care of any necessary bookkeeping. There was no need to have a separate character sheet or to have dice on hand. The reader also could never really know if she had read every possible ending, because some options might be hidden from the reader on any particular pass through the story.

This type of computerized multi-path story, relying primarily on words to convey the scenes, was known as a text adventure. Later such stories were referred to as interactive fiction.

The evolution of multi-path stories on the computer went from text adventures to animated adventures, giving rise to the huge video gaming industry. Reading was still a part of some video games, but the emphasis on reading was greatly diminished. While there were still those people who enjoyed text-based multi-path stories, multitudes of young men preferred their image-intensive video games. The market for text-only entertainment took a sharp dive downward at the onset of the age of video games.

Despite the decline in the market, text-only multi-path fiction subcultures still thrive in the world enough to keep some authors producing gaming solos, interactive fiction, and CYOA-style books.

Indeed, the genre may be experiencing a comeback. More T&T solos are being published, some by Flying Buffalo and others by fans of the genre, and a new “deluxe” version of the T&T rules has just been published.

The Interactive Fiction Competition has been running for over 20 years, and while some years have had more entrants than others, the number of entries for the 2015 competition exceeds 50, more than most other years the competition has been running.

A company called Choice of Games, founded in 2009, specializes in publishing interactive fiction, making some stories available on the web for free, while selling others for reading on a variety of mobile devices. The number of stories CoG publishes is continually increasing, evidenced by the mailings they send out announcing each new one.

The Choose Your Own Adventure brand was relaunched in 2006, and since then the publisher has sold over 10 million copies of CYOA books.

On the web a careful and determined search can uncover additional forms of multi-path fiction. There are sites that allow writers to add to an ongoing story, creating reader options without necessarily writing what happens when the reader selects one of them. The first person to select an open option is allowed to write what happens there. On yet other sites, individual authors may present complete text adventures they have created. Some of these web-based stories are illustrated, some are not. Some make use of a scripting language, some instruct you to create a character sheet and roll dice, and some have no rules other than to click your hyperlink of choice to proceed through the story.

Author James Schannep produces the Click Your Poison line of multi-path e-books. These books include no game rules, as they are much like the CYOA books, in that they don’t require character sheets or the generation of random numbers. The CYP books are available for the Kindle, and are not sold as apps but as e-books with embedded links. Anyone who can write a Word document and create links internal to the document is capable of creating a multi-path book like the CYP books.

You don’t have to be a programmer to create interactive fiction, either. A web search for “interactive fiction editor” or “text adventure maker” turns up links to several tools that can help you create your own multi-path story-game. Some of these tools will expect you to do some programming, while others advertise themselves as not requiring programming skills. If you are a programmer, you have more options, certainly, including rolling your own multi-path system using HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

One big problem that faces the professional multi-path story author is that of distributing the story for sale. There are several outlets for multi-path stories, each placing its own requirements on the format in which the author must craft the story. Multi-path stories by independent authors today can be found primarily on Amazon, Lulu, and the DriveThru sites, such as DriveThruRPG and DriveThruFiction. The DriveThru sites will allow you to sell your products in pretty much any electronic format, so if you wanted to do a strictly HTML/CSS/JavaScript story-game, they’d sell it for you. Otherwise, if you’re not in the mood to create an app, you’re looking at selling a product that doesn’t do any bookkeeping for the reader. It would pay to check out current T&T and CYP products to see the formats they use.

If you don’t want to go it alone in marketing your multi-path story, check out Choose Your Own Adventure and Choice of Games. You’ll naturally need to follow their guidelines if you want to submit stories to them. Choice of Games will require programming chops.

If you like the idea of multi-path storytelling but aren’t happy with any of the formats or distribution schemes you find, keep looking. Or innovate. The genre beckons to pioneers. New ventures in multi-path story endeavors appear every so often on Kickstarter. Some get more funding than others. Some come to fruition and some don’t. The deluxe version of T&T, including some new solo material, was funded through Kickstarter. The goal was set at $26,000. It ended up with contributions pledged in excess of $125,000. The product is finished and now shipping. Granted, T&T is for more than multi-path stories, but that’s a big aspect of the game, so this can be looked at as a win for the multi-path story industry. Also, Flying Buffalo is a well-established company and T&T a well-established game system, which helped to tempt people into parting with hard-earned funds to invest in an upgrade. Someone with no reputation and an untested new idea may have a harder sell. But if you keep your expectations low and have a sound idea, you might be able to fund it through KS or a similar site.

Whatever approach you take with multi-path fiction, make sure you get beta readers to test for you. A simple typo can be devastating. Sending the reader to “paragraph 12” when you should have sent them to “paragraph 21” could completely wreck the reader experience. Even using hyperlinks to avoid the use of labels won’t prevent navigation mistakes. Beta readers familiar with multi-path fiction will tell you if they come across such mistakes. If you make any corrections, you’ll need beta readers to test the modified story. While grammar or spelling issues might make their way into your final product, these types of problems can be overlooked by readers. A navigation mistake in a multi-path story is not so easily forgiven.

Crafting a good multi-path story can be many times more difficult and time-consuming over writing a linear story. This serves to keep the genre from being flooded with products, which in turn opens the door wider for anyone willing to devote the extra effort in creating a multi-path masterpiece.

Text is not going away. Inspired authors are coming up with new ways to let readers experience their stories that go beyond sitting in an armchair reading a novel straight through from beginning to end. The next time you decide to write a story, give some thought to how you might use a multi-path technique to enhance how the reader interacts with your words. Even a relatively short companion multi-path product might help boost sales of a linear fiction work. Your imagination is the limit.


Thank you for the insight and new perspective, Mike! It's been a great ride, and I look forward to reading more from you.

Michael is a software engineer, author, and music lover. He owns the Eposic web site, The Troll Mystic. His current creative project is his debut fantasy novel, currently untitled and slowly turning into a trilogy. He has a soft spot for female vocalists.

Please like Michael's Facebook page, and remember that more of his thoughts can be found at his blog, The Troll Mystic.  

And as always, any writers out there of whatever genre who would like to appear on Coyote's Adventures Underground, please feel free to contact me in the messages below, or by sending me a Facebook message here.

Sometime Again,
--Coyote.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for hosting me, Coyote! It was a pleasure to write this guest post.

    Since sending you the above post, I've come across another form of fiction similar to multi-path. The BookAppisodes site, at http://www.bookappisodes.com/, presents weekly chapters of ongoing stories. At the end of each chapter, the reader is presented with two choices. The reader then casts a vote for which option they want the author to use in continuing the story the following week. It's not multi-path fiction, because the end result is a linear story, but it has the flavor of a multi-path work if you are an active participant when each chapter goes live. The site currently has two stories running with a third starting December 9. They are looking for more authors.

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    1. No problem, Coyote. BTW, I'm now reading O4S Book 3 and enjoying it immensely. Looking forward to seeing how this saga concludes in Book 4.

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    2. Glad you're enjoying it! The tale won't truly conclude until Book VI, so there's still adventure yet to be had. :D

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    3. Stupid Roman numerals. Even when I first read your last comment here, I transposed the V and the I. Okay, I've adjusted my thinking, and am now looking forward to the other three books in the series! :)

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    4. Yeah, letters and numbers wiggle around sometimes. There's little to be done, especially with the similarities betwixt them in modern type. *shakes head* We should never have moved away from calligraphy.

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