notes on Sigil-beasts

Note: This page is intended for — well, anyone interested, but I imagine the primary target audience will be people who have already read the book in question. If you're averse to being spoiled for a story's plot and you're planning to read this one someday, I recommend skipping this page for now.

I should admit straightaway that I imprinted on the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series as a kid, so I defaulted to the same basic combat system. I applaud innovative setups, truly, but decided to stick with the familiar for my first gamebook attempt.

Some other influences on the design: Shadow Over Nordmaar by Dezra Despain contains two different storylines that diverge from the beginning and never intersect. (In fact, they contradict.) Although I initially meant to follow a single main storyline with lots of subplots in my own gamebook, I liked the idea of having totally different approaches, and ended up with three ways to finagle a sigil-beast for the final battle.

The other thing that got me thinking was the reaction to Khare: Cityport of Traps, where Steve Jackson often encourages or even assumes conniving behavior like theft. I found the sense of outrage that players felt interesting, and tried to imply that morality should factor into decisions in my book. If you took the lion skin, shame on you. It has absolutely no use except making you a rat bastard.

Most other items are either genuinely functional or serve the purpose of codewords, which other gamebooks use as tracking variables. The only reason you get a tattoo, for example, is so I had a story-integrated method of checking whether you needed to free the karkadann or not.

So: the story. The image I started from was from a computer game with a brilliant narrative, Planescape: Torment. There's one scene where you go find Fhjull Forked-Tongue, and he lives in the skull of a giant skeleton in the desert. The character would start in a similar situation, I decided, living inside a giant skeleton. But a skeleton of what?

I like listening to dramatic soundtracks while I work, and How to Train a Dragon is a favorite. I suspect that had something to do with the working title for this one: "How to Build a Dragon."

The natural conflict comes about when you get evicted, which led to several juicy questions. Who evicts you? Why are you living in a dragon's skeleton in the first place? If you're building a dragon from a skeleton, what other parts do you need?

I started to develop a few ideas for parallel subquests — for the teeth, for the skin, for the eyes — that you could undertake in any order. But that felt too much like those neatly parceled adventures, where you have to find the different pieces of the magical doohickey. So I made all the pieces optional — but they would offer certain advantages (and disadvantages) for your resurrected dragon.

And what could take on a dragon? I thought about three-legged crows (they kick the butts of dragons and phoenixes in Korean mythology), but thought they would be too unfamiliar to a Western audience. So I settled on a basilisk of deadly gaze, where being skeletal (that is, eyeless) just might give you an advantage. And with the whole premise that your sigil-beast must fight another, figuring out the boss battle was done.

Of course, there had to be a bad ending that took you unawares. I knew another dragon-mage would have the chance to command you should you turn dragon yourself, but I didn't realize it might be your own brother until the niece had been introduced.

On the actual Windhammer Prize entry experience: I was intimidated as hell when I saw the playing field — many of the names I recognized from when I Googled "how to write a gamebook" and read their helpful articles on just that. Of course, it makes sense that the people who are in the weeds of the process are the ones writing about it. I'm grateful to those who shared their thoughts, among them Stuart Lloyd and Andrew Wright (whose analyses of their previous entries were fascinating), as well as Ashton Saylor and Brewin'.

Also, it's possible that I'm misjudging some of the names listed in the archive, but am I really the first female entrant ever? This reminds me of when I stumbled across a Fighting Fantasy fan site in high school with a visitor survey, and 100% of the respondents were male. I filled that sucker out. So in my gamebook I tried not to jar the player's perception of his or her gender, since that was a frequent struggle for me while I was younger — rescuing a princess to marry, for example, didn't make much sense to a heterosexual girl. (Nowadays I'm fine pretending to be whatever character the story calls for, considering that playing the role of a pirate or a space cadet doesn't make me blink.)

For anyone who reads my usual writing and is curious about this one — although if you squint, it's possible to imagine that one of the endings has romantic potential, there really isn't any actual romance here. (There will be in my next interactive fiction project, I promise.) This was a conscious choice; I was drawn to gamebooks for their sheer sense of adventure and opportunity to make interesting decisions about my own path, rather than any relationship build-up. I discovered gamebooks before boys, let's say, and for this first public attempt I thought I'd stick to my first love.