I’m a hack, and I like it that way

Writing a series is a lot of fun.

I have 3+ years of work to look back over at this point. That gives me a pretty solid idea what readers/players respond to the best, and by now I know what I like writing the most.

Those things don’t always align (I personally like short projects that allow me to quickly jump between a bunch of different stories, while most readers prefer long, drawn out narratives with dozens of endings).

So I tend to jump back and forth, occasionally writing a long game to appease the masses before going back and writing a shitload of short games for myself.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been working on ways to hone the Crypt Shyfter formula, and I’ve managed to come up with two solid story types, which it turns out most of my games already follow:

THE MINI QUEST

The “mini quest” is my favorite RPG formula. Since I run a lot of one-shot games, 99% of my real life RPG sessions follow this structure. It’s broken up into 5 chunks:

  1. The introduction – set up the stakes FAST. Who are the heroes, who is the villain, where is the dungeon, why do they have to stop the bad guys, and what will happen if they don’t stop them within a certain time frame. Always put time pressure on the adventure for heightened drama! (ex. You are a young farmer who’s girlfriend was kidnapped by an evil wizard. The wizard took her to a tower at the peak of the tallest mountain and he’s going to sacrifice her at the full moon. Not only do you have to save her because she’s your girlfriend, but if you don’t do it by tomorrow night the world will be invaded by demons. Nuff said.)
  2. The travel scene – players decide how they’re going to get to the dungeon, and inevitably they get ambushed or something bad happens along the way
  3. The arrival – players reach the dungeon, but – oh shit! – things are worse than they expected. Maybe there is a new complication caused by their arrival (a hero showed up and now the villains have sped up their plans, or the rebels who were already working on the mission have been compromised in some way)
  4. The dungeon – players make their way through the mazes, traps, and goon fights leading up to the final chamber. This is a classic dungeon crawl
  5. The boss fight – this is where the final twist happens. Maybe you’re betrayed by an ally, or you’re too late to stop the ritual and you have to fight another horrible monster, or the villain has a second, more powerful form, or the person you thought was captured was actually the villain all along. The big bad boss gives a cheesy speech, the heroes kick his ass, get their reward, and wander off into the sunset as legends.

I like the mini quest because of how simple, straightforward, and familiar it is. I’ve run dozens of dungeons using this formula with my friends, and it always leads to a satisfying night of gameplay that is cleanly wrapped up by the end. Examples of this include Frostfall, Moonbright, Pizza Quest, and Howling Flame.

When writing text adventures to this formula, they usually come out to being roughly 3,000 – 10,000 words. When I’m in writing mode, I usually write 1,500 – 3,000 words in a day and don’t fuck around too much, so I can crank two or three of these out in less than a week.

THE QUEST OF THREE PARTS

This is my “epic quest” formula, which I’ve used in bigger adventures like Dreadnaughts, Dragonfire, and Warriors of Cloud Mountain.

This is similar to the mini quest in terms of structure, but it gets elaborated on and expanded to add more side quests and gameplay:

  1. The opening scene – usually there is an opening scene of some kind to hook the players. Good opening scenes are murders, escape sequences, sex scenes, or fight scenes
  2. The set up – something happens that the hero must respond to: their village is destroyed, they receive a call for help, their best friend is kidnapped, etc
  3. The Quest of 3 parts – as the hero desperately searches for a way to defeat the villain, they discover that their only path to victory is by finding three things (unite three armies to defeat the evil overlord, find three sword shards to re-forge a legendary blade which is the only thing that can kill the bad guy, find three magic keys to open the secret vault, etc)
  4. The subquests – each “part” of the quest of 3 parts leads to a subquest. You can’t just walk into the dwarf stronghold and ask them for the missing gem; they’re under attack by goblins! Help them defend their borders and they’ll give you the gem as a reward. Repeat this for each of the 3 parts, making each subquest unique. This is also a great way to introduce new side characters or potential allies who can show up in the finale
  5. Regroup – you’ve united all the armies, re-forged the sword, or collected all the crystals. Now it’s time to devise your final battle strategy or have sex with the romantic interest before all hell breaks loose
  6. Travel to the dungeon – at this point, the structure follows the mini quest pretty closely
  7. Arrival – same as the mini quest
  8. The dungeon – same as the mini quest
  9. The boss fight – same as the mini quest
  10. Resolution – wrap up all the loose ends with side characters and either set up a sequel or have the hero ride off into the sunset

The Quest of 3 Parts adventures are a little more in-depth since they require coming up with side characters and character arcs, but luckily I’ve been stockpiling lists of story ideas/character tropes that I like over the years, so I can pick one off my list and jump into writing pretty quickly at this point.

These types of adventures normally fall between 15,000 and 30,000 words, so at my normal writing speed it’s possible to write one every week or two.

Hacking the system

Since I’ve been working on these games for 3+ years now, I’ve started getting really good at identifying the tricks I can use to speed up the writing process.

Templates

I have a pre-made “template” game with all the towns, shops, and fight scenes coded, so I don’t have to re-write those things over and over again (something I did when I was first starting out). Since players are going to visit shops and taverns in every adventures, there’s no point writing them all from scratch. This saves a few days of coding work for each game.

Notebooks and google docs

I keep notes of fun adventure or character ideas whenever they pop into my head. I add them to my list and later on to the story generators. This saves a butt-load of time when I sit down to write, since I can grab the ideas I like and throw them into my story rather than staring at my blank screen wondering what to write

Story generators

These things are the best. Time-saver level is over 9000!

I made one for each of the quest types. Whenever I’m ready to start a new adventure, I click “Generate” and POW! My adventure is pretty much written already. All I need to do is flesh it out.

The generator includes a breakdown like the lists above, but all the details are populated: what is the opening scene, who is the villain and what does he want, where is the final dungeon, what is the quest (save someone, find an item, etc), who are the bad guys that work for the boss, etc. This saves an enormous amount of time.

Generators aren’t perfect idea machines, but with a little tweaking I can have a complete outline written in about 5 minutes as opposed to 5 days.

Writing schedule

I used to write whenever I felt like it, but that was fucking stupid. I came to that realization as I was lying awake in bed one night, thinking about the future and what I want to do with my life.

I started asking myself: “Why do I never forget to do things at my day job? I’m not fucking motivated to run excel reports, but I’ve been at this job almost 4 years and haven’t missed a day of generating that excel spreadsheet. That’s, what, 1,000+ reports I’ve given to my boss over the years? Why the fuck have I created a thousand boring reports without missing a day when I can’t be bothered to write my favorite stuff every day?”

If I’d actually been writing every day I should have SIGNIFICANTLY more written by now. Even if I wrote one adventure every two weeks, I should have AT LEAST 72 games written.

As I was laying there, I realized I never forgot my work stuff because we have task lists and daily calendars sitting in front of us every day. So I stole that idea and used it for my writing.

Haven’t missed a writing day since.

Learning and improving

This last thing isn’t really a hack, it’s just something that comes with time. If a new person decided they wanted to write a text adventure game today, it would take them a long time. That’s expected. It took me a couple months to write my first game, and when I look back at it… yikes.

The coding is a mess. It’s all over the place, and I did a lot of things that took weeks to produce the same result I could do now in a day or two.

Plus, I had no idea how to code at the time. I was writing AND learning at the same time, which slowed down the process significantly.

At this point, after making adventures almost daily for more than 3 years, I know all the codes I need like the back of my hand. I used to spend hours testing and re-testing codes, but now I can write an entire page of code without cross referencing anything and be confident it will work when I hit “run.” But that’s something that will only come with time

Final thoughts

Some folks get weirded out by schedules and formulas and “writing fast.” That’s fine. We all have different creative processes. I’m just discussing mine.

One of the funniest things to me is when readers equate “writing speed” to “quality.”

A while back, I’d declared I was going to write a game a week. Right off the bat, people started saying “I bet these are going to suck.”

And sure enough, as soon as I began posting them, I started getting comments saying “Slow down, take your time, you’re losing quality” or “This feels rushed.”

But I knew that wasn’t true. All but one of those games won awards, just like all the previous games had. A handful got featured on the front page. The quality couldn’t have been impacted THAT dramatically.

Here’s why: Those weekly games didn’t take me any longer time-wise than most of my earlier games. The only thing that changed was the fact that I was sitting at my desk writing for 2-3 hours a day instead of a couple minutes here and there when I decided “I had time.”

And also the fact that I’d announced I was going to post a new game every week, thereby painting a target on myself for anyone insecure enough to be fearful of that level of commitment. Lesson learned 😉

Like I said above, from the very beginning I’ve tracked my games with word counts- and I know how long it takes me to write.

If I decide to write a “mini-quest” that is 5,000 words, I already know I can write it EASILY in 2-3 days. Hell, I can write one (and have written some) in a single day if I block off the time for it.

A funny thing happened when I stopped the weekly posting. Hilarious, actually. My wife still talks about it.

I stopped posting new games for a while because I was dealing with life stuff, and roughly 3 months later I posted a new adventure. I wrote it in 2 nights- FASTER than all the games I’d done before it.

The commenters raved about how much my writing had improved because I’d “taken my time” writing it. But I wrote it in less time than everything that came before it!

They THOUGHT it took me a long time to write it because of the huge gap between posting, and therefore they decided the quality was better. But that wasn’t the case at all. I just hadn’t posted it right after all the other ones.

So, I guess the point is this: people judge writing based on how long it takes (or how long they think it takes). A longer wait for the next piece of writing equals higher quality?

I think people want to hear about how writers stress and struggle and agonize over their writing. AGGHHH UGGHGH WRITER’S BLOCK IS KILLING ME!

We all took writing classes in school, and writing was hard! It should ALWAYS be hard, no matter how much practice you’ve had. Even though I haven’t written anything since senior year in high school and you write for 3 hours a day, our writing levels should ALWAYS remain equal and it should never EVER get easier to write. EVER. 10,000 words should take nearly a year for anyone to write, and if you write faster than me your writing sucks!

But that doesn’t make sense. The math simply doesn’t add up. Even if I dropped my writing count to 500 words a day, I’d still have a finished game in 20 days. It’s basic math.

Sure, I could drag it out over the course of a year, but what the fuck does that actually mean? That would mean I sit down for about 10 seconds and write a measly 27 words every day. I write more than that in a fucking text message.

But here’s the thing: I like writing! It’s my hobby, it’s not a “struggle.” It’s fun!

Why would I limit myself to writing such a small amount of words each day? I want to be in my chair writing for a few hours, not a few minutes! The same way a guitarist strums his guitar until his fingers bleed or an artist spends hours and hours drawing hands and eyes over and over and over again.

Yeah, I get that not everyone can devote a ton of time to writing, but if you’re a “fast” writer it doesn’t mean you write sloppy, it means you spend more time writing every day (just like any other discipline you can improve at)- duh!

This post is starting to get really long and rambly, so I’m going to wrap it up here. I hope the formulas above are useful for you, either in your adventure writing or RPG prep. They’ve won me like 25 trophies on Newgrounds and a dozen front page features so I know they’re not complete shit.

And if you’re someone who wants to write more, set up a writing schedule. After a couple years you’ll be able to crank out the same quality of drivel I write, and you’ll probably be able to do it faster than me because I’m sure you’re more talented than I am.

Just be prepared for commenters saying you’re a hack 😉

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