When Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson invented the Fabled Lands codeword system, they created something that massively increased the interactivity of gamebook adventures. Until then, gamebooks tracked a player’s activity through a combination of several techniques: simple branching, unique possessions and player memory. Simple branching is straightforward: if the player was reading a passage that was only reachable after a choice, then the text could ‘know’ that this choice had been taken and could describe what had happened as a result. However, this is a one-time and one-directional choice: no reader can go back and ‘undo’ their choice in the same read-through, and other branches of the narrative are closed to them until they die and restart.
Unique possessions, usually noted in an adventure sheet, can also identify whether a player has made certain previous choices. If a particular horned helmet is only available within the loot of a dragon, then by asking the reader whether they possess it, the book is also practically tracking whether the reader defeated or avoided the dragon earlier in the story. However, this can be complicated if a reader has to manage a limited inventory and decides to jettison an item that seems, at the time, unimportant.
Player memory was the least sophisticated and least reliable of these methods. It was used when a passage simply asked the reader something like ‘Have you visited this place before?’ Problems here are the ease of cheating and the need to ask this question quite soon after the original event, meaning a short consequence delay, because readers can genuinely be quite forgetful.
Whereas codewords are something else. An alphabetical list of neutral, arbitrary(ish) words that can be ticked – and unticked – are unlose-able, repeatable and undoable trackers that can be used by the writer of a gamebook to note any variable they choose. Your reader defeats the dragon? Get them to tick the codeword Basket. Your reader returns to the dragon’s cave. If they possess Basket, all they will find is an empty cave and a faint smell of sulphur… but if they don’t possess it, turn to passage 701 where the dragon is alive and well. Until the reader visits these passages, the appearance of the word Basket in a list in the back of the book doesn’t even hint at the mortality of a dragon. What do these all do, we wonder. If Basket tags a dead dragon, could Burnish imply that the protagonist is pursued by a vengeful ghost? (That one is very Dave Morris).
In short, codewords allowed Morris and Thomson to invent the open-world, responsive gamebook. It’s an elegant and a powerful system, and one which Fabled Lands doesn’t abuse by leaning on too heavily. Unlike what I think I’ve done in Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis.
In the current draft, SH3 has 98 codewords… Some of those track choices in other books and offer you the consequences of actions you took in other books – or that you will only be able to take when I write future books. Some track non-player-character’s attitudes or destinies, locations, others track quest solutions, faction loyalties, the profitability of certain businesses and a whole lot of other stuff. In fact, one of the powerful results of this system is the ability to cause side-effects: the reader kills a soldier and gains a certain codeword, meaning that when they return to that location, the soldier will be dead. But what about when the player visits a nearby terrace and, possessing the same codeword, is directed to a cottage where a wife weeps over her lost husband and cries, knowing that she and her hungry children will soon be evicted for unpaid rent? Now that’s interactivity.
But 98 is a few too many, so I’ll be trimming the fat in the next few weeks. But until then, peer at a blurry section of the entire list and enjoy your own puzzle: what do these arbitrary words actually track? What is possible in The Reeking Metropolis?