Ask Ryan

What was the inspiration for Castle Balderstone? Were the individual segments originally ideas for standalone games, or always conceived as part of an anthology? Did you already think there might be four games in the series from the outset? Will there be further tales in the future?

I don’t remember.

What should we know about Nautilisia that we probably don’t?

Maybe the primary inspiration for Castle Balderstone was a book I wrote called ‘MOTORCYCLUS’ and Other Extremely Scary Stories.

The main thing I wanted to do with Castle Balderstone was make an anthology game. Long before I wrote the first installment of the series, I programmed the system for switching between the vignettes, and then I abandoned the project for a while, because I hadn’t actually thought of any vignettes.

I think it was a whole year later that I was inspired to write “Don’t Dive Into Blood, Kids,” and then I tried to very quickly write enough other tiny games to round out the anthology. I designed and maybe wrote part of “Where We Can Hear the Whispering Dark” at that time, but I couldn’t finish it before the EctoComp deadline.

So I knew I had to do another installment where I could include that story! And that meant I had to come up with several other stories, and their authors, and more of the surrounding culture, and all of this tends toward the possibility of making a third game, and then…

The vignettes were originally supposed to be too small to work as standalone games. They’re supposed to be attempts at writing things that I-as-myself-Ryan would never write. The point of the frame story is to make sure you know that Elmir Divkovic wrote “The Inquisitor Vultrine” so you can consider what the story says about Divkovic. I’m not sure if all the stories and all the authors really stand up to this sort of analysis, though.

The stories in the latest installment are all big enough to work as standalone games, but the same principle applies, or is supposed to apply.

There are some more things I’d like to do in the Castle Balderstone series. I have a Balderstone 2022 folder here on my computer. That folder contains a single text file. That text file is 137 bytes long.

Thank you for your questions.

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Nautilisia is secretly “based on” a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in a way that might best be appreciated by people who played the game before hearing this. Anyone who is finding out about this now, but who hasn’t played the game, and who now sets out to play the game and find out what I’m talking about, will probably be underwhelmed.

I never intended to reveal this! But I have a lot more games now, with many more exciting secrets to discover, so this fairly innocuous secret can safely be laid bare.

Thank you very much for your question.

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Hi Ryan,

I’ve played several of your games and always enjoy them - I actually first played your games about a decade ago and have just just come back to IF after far too long! Great to see that you’re still writing and producing great games. The games I’ve played include Taco Fiction, You’ve Got A Stew Going, Nautilisia and Wrenlaw. If you’re happy to answer any of these questions, I’d love to hear…

  1. Was ‘You’ve…’ your first ever game? Or did you have a play around a few times before you hit your stride with that one?
  2. What’s your process like for creating a game? Do you tend to map out the locations and plot first or do you start with a particular kind of interaction you’re interested in? Is it different on different games?
  3. Does the implementation form a big part of that? So, are there things that you rule out as being a headache relative to the pay off for the player and so on?
  4. Wrenlaw is quite different in tone and experience from the other three - was that more autobiographical as a piece?
  5. What parts of your games have you been proudest of? Are there any parts of implementing them that really drove you nuts at the time? Which games of yours should I play next?
  6. What are a few games of other authors that you’ve really admired and why?
  7. My son (12) is quite into computer games so I’m keen to get him into IF - he’s asked me to make him a game featuring the SCP Foundation - any tips for a first time coder?!

Thanks so much for answering any of these in as much / little detail you like…

1. Was ‘You’ve…’ your first ever game? Or did you have a play around a few times before you hit your stride with that one?

I made one other game first, where I was just giggling with glee over the miracle of making a computer respond to stuff you typed into it. I don’t want to put the whole thing out there but here’s a little bit of code:

Using is an action applying to one thing. Understand "use [something]" as using.

Carry out using:
	say "To what use indeed? To what use indeed."

2. What’s your process like for creating a game? Do you tend to map out the locations and plot first or do you start with a particular kind of interaction you’re interested in? Is it different on different games?

It is different on different games. I think on Wrenlaw I started out with the location and sort of grafted a story onto it. Taco Fiction started out with the title. I’ll tell you about how I developed some of the vignettes from the latest Castle Balderstone game, since those are fresh in my mind:

Visit Skuga Lake

I just wanted to copy the DSS system from Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. I had wanted to make my own version of this for a long time. The story began to take shape when I had the idea of placing a magic gem in the eye-hole of an animal totem amulet. That was a really cool image, and it suggested a bunch of animal-themed magical abilities.

I came up with a good set of animal amulets and ability types (like “talk to that type of animal” or “conjure an element that kind of matches that type of animal”) and made a spreadsheet of the powers you’d amass in this game. I looked at other games for abilities that would be fun to steal—like the mind-reading power, which I took from Golden Sun.

As this set of abilities filled out, I started coming up with puzzles to which the abilities could function as solutions, and I started coming up with a map where these puzzles could take place. The magic system also inspired certain parts of the story and story structure.

When I had the whole map drawn up and the story figured out, I started actually writing the game—but I still hadn’t settled on abilities for some of the stone/amulet combinations. I had to figure those out as I went along.

Singing for Me

I was playing Stardew Valley and I noticed that, after I did all my chores in a day, there was very little time to do anything else. I was lucky if I could decide to do one other thing. And I thought, what if we automated all those chores, but instead of letting you do more stuff we codified this rule that you only get to make one decision each day?

So I made a list of things you do in that sort of game—similar to the Skuga Lake ability list, actually! You can decide to buy something, you can decide to explore an area, you can decide to hang around a certain person.

And then I came up with a world where you could do all those things, and a story that made sense for that world. Except it had to be scary, because it was a Castle Balderstone story.

Nyvo the Dolphin

I was having a very grumpy day. I probably had a bad headache. I tried to make myself feel better by coming up with a game that would be as angry as I was. I don’t think this turned out to be all that therapeutic, but it was a long time ago, so I don’t remember for sure.

I thought it would be appropriately frustrating to make the game’s map very three-dimensional and unpredictable. This implied that the PC would be, say, a dolphin, swimming up and down around a shipwreck. The dolphin would run into the skeleton of some sailor who died in some grisly manner, and the skeleton would wordlessly teach the dolphin how to scream.

I got over my grumps and probably would have set this idea aside permanently, except the idea “skeleton teaches dolphin how to scream” got stuck in my craw. So, again, I came up with a world and a story where that idea could happen.

Usually there’s one neat thing I want to do, and I construct the game around it. There are some games where the inspiring idea is the setting, though: Wrenlaw, Ascent of the Gothic Tower, Curse of the Garden Isle. And I guess you’d say the story came first in The Horrible Pyramid or An Evening at the Ransom Woodingdean Museum House. I think.

3. Does the implementation form a big part of that? So, are there things that you rule out as being a headache relative to the pay off for the player and so on?

When an exciting idea makes me want to start on a project, it doesn’t matter how much of a headache it will end up being. Like the whole one-turn-a-day concept in Singing for Me. That is a stupid idea. Way too much work. But I really wanted to do it!

When a headache of an idea presents itself in the middle of development, I’m more likely to give it a pass.

4. Wrenlaw is quite different in tone and experience from the other three - was that more autobiographical as a piece?

Yes.

The settings of Wrenlaw and Taco Fiction are both based on places in Iowa City that I wanted to recreate in text. But the Taco Fiction location inspired feelings of anxiety and sneakiness for me, whereas the setting of Wrenlaw was connected more with reflection and wistfulness.

5.1. What parts of your games have you been proudest of?

I think the structure and themes of Winter Storm Draco are extremely tight and good.

I’m incredibly proud of The Lurking Horror II: The Lurkening, just because I wrote an MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle all by myself. And it has a story and jokes, which most individual Mystery Hunt puzzles don’t get to have.

The structure and themes of A Rope of Chalk are also very tight and good.

5.2. Are there any parts of implementing them that really drove you nuts at the time?

There’s one puzzle in A Rope of Chalk that held up development for months. Possibly years. I just needed there to be one little complication to impede your progress in one particular location, and it needed to have a certain mood, and it needed to involve a certain character, and it needed to mesh with all the themes in the game, and it needed to be perfect. I wrote in my planner over and over again: THIS WILL BE THE WEEK WHEN I FIGURE OUT THIS PUZZLE.

If anyone is interested, the puzzle I’m talking about is the snake puzzle! I needed you to do something with the snake monster, something that kept you from passing through that location before you had seen the rest of that chapter. Something that was appropriately intense for a snake monster.

I think the breakthrough came not when I suddenly came up with a good puzzle, but when I had the idea to present the situation and character in a different way. Then a puzzle idea that had been insufficiently interesting before started to seem much cooler in this new context.

I don’t remember all of this super distinctly so maybe parts of that story are not true. But it’s the kind of thing that happens all the time.

5.3. Which games of yours should I play next?

Well, I strongly believe that everyone should play all of my games. But if you’re on a tight schedule…

  • From Wrenlaw, you should go to The Ascent of the Gothic Tower (if you like lonesome, navel-gazey stuff) or A Rope of Chalk.
  • From You’ve Got A Stew Going!, there’s Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder or The Roscovian Palladium.
  • From Taco Fiction, obviously there’s the sequel Dial C for Cupcakes. I think there’s a similar mood in Taleframe’s beloved “Crocodracula” games.
  • From Nautilisia, there’s a very direct line of influence to Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing.

Actually you should definitely play Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing next.

6. What are a few games of other authors that you’ve really admired and why?

Doug Egan’s Afflicted is always the first one to come to mind. The tone and material were very inspiring, but also the approach to implementation: The game really works to simulate a world in a way that extends past the story. In a way, the plot is just one thread that exists sort of incidentally within a broader setting. It keeps making me think about creating experiences outside of the traditional goal of delivering narrative.

And that makes me think about the Entries in Event Two of the Second Quadrennial Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction, which I continue to find inspiring even though I kind of demanded them into existence.

I also want to point out Closure by Sarah Willson, which gives me a lot of interesting ideas about parser interaction.

7. My son (12) is quite into computer games so I’m keen to get him into IF - he’s asked me to make him a game featuring the SCP Foundation - any tips for a first time coder?!

Well the stuff I said earlier about “just make the dang thing you want to make” applies. Assuming you’re excited about the SCP idea, I strongly encourage you to make exactly the type of SCP Foundation-oriented game that appeals to you and not worry about whether it’s any good.

This might be just as obvious, but you should know going in that programming is frustrating and impossible and stupid. Nothing ever works. If you approach the project with this attitude, then any time something does work, it’ll be a miracle, and you’ll get to giggle gleefully whenever anything compiles correctly. And when someting doesn’t work (which, again, is 100% of the time) it won’t be so discouraging.

BUT ONE OTHER THING: Make sure you have a plan. If you can, you want to design the whole game, hold it all in your head, before you start writing. This is the first habit of highly effective people, “Begin with the end in mind.”

I remember very distinctly that when I wrote You’ve Got A Stew Going!, I put together all the text and logic for all the stew ingredients in kind of a haphazard “golly this is fun” manner—and when it came time to write the ending I ran into a brick wall, because I had no idea how to check whether you’d found all the ingredients, or what to do if you ate something instead of putting it in the stew, etc.

A similar thing happened with Taco Fiction, where I included enough nonlinearity for the ending to go a few slightly different ways, but I didn’t plan for how I’d check those variables when they all suddenly became relevant. I started writing the ending and suddenly had to do all this research on my own code and draw flow charts.

In both cases, I would have saved myself a lot of grief if my initial outlines had included something along the lines of “In this game you do X, and you can do Y or Y’, and if you do Y then Z happens and if you do Y’ then Z’ happens.” Then when I actually wrote the Y/Y’ choice I’d know to code it in a way that’s easily referenced when the Z/Z’ branch happens.

Of course, when you’re just starting out, it’s hard to know whether you’re doing the thing you would otherwise wish you had done earlier. So, be prepared to be surprised by this, maybe.

Thank you for your questions.

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This is a great thread. I enjoyed, but have not finished Taco Fiction. Great questions and answers. There is little that delights me more than seeing how the minds of other IF authors work. Since I don’t want to be “more of a comment than a question” guy, I’ll end this sentence with a question mark?

Terrific answers - look forward to playing the recommendations in the coming weeks!

Thanks again…

Although my favorite thing you’ve ever done is Clash of the Type-Ins, my favorite game of yours is The Ascent of the Gothic Tower.
Are there any differences between the download version (serial number 140831) and the online version (serial number 201110), other than the updated Inform build and library version?

I think that was when I updated the online version with a new version of Quixe. So there shouldn’t be any difference.

Thank you for your question.

Unrelated to this thread, Mark Marino invited me to speak at USC’s Humanities and Critical Code Studies Electronic Literature Reading Group, or USCHaCCSE-LitRG, and he asked me several questions that I unrelatedly had recently answered in this thread. The talk is now on YouTube so you can hear me saying out loud many of the things I’ve said here, as well as a few other things.

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Hey, Ryan! Great thread, and may I just say: the socks you wore the other day were gorgeous. So, quick question: how does one become funnier?

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I guess I’m sort of starting from first principles here, so I apologize if any of this is obvious.

I have this theory that humor is the game we play to practice the very basic and very vague skill of “understanding situations.” “Getting a joke” is the satisfying experience of figuring out what’s going on, ideally fairly quickly, and with a minimum of outside assistance.

Humor is contextual and subjective because the audience has to bring a certain amount of expertise to bear in order to “apprehend” something in a satisfying way. When people enjoy lewd jokes, they’re revelling in the shared understanding of lewd information; if you don’t feel somehow proud of this knowledge then you don’t find the joke very funny. Bertie Wooster says a lot of straightforwardly witty things, but he’s an especially funny character because I know people like him, so I’m able to infer things about him that he doesn’t reveal directly.

A more involved example: When Professor Frink silences an auditorium of rowdy scientists by yelling “Pi is exactly three!”, it’s not enough for us to know that pi is not exactly three. We have to understand how a crowd of scientists would react to such an outburst, and why Frink wants to create that reaction. We have to realize all of this very quickly, and then we laugh.

If we weren’t able to figure all that out in half a second or so, then when we see the scientists’ reaction, we have new information. Maybe now we can put together the whole situation, and then we can laugh. And maybe when Frink says “I’m sorry it had to come to that,” we’ve already figured everything out, and the additional information (the implication of Frink’s reasoning) is no longer helpful/funny. Or maybe we did need the extra help, and only now do we laugh!

Put another way, a joke is an opportunity for your audience to feel clever. If they understand how clever you’re being, that means that they’re just as clever! Or, roughly as clever.

And so I think being funny involves exercising a type of empathy, or at least a type of trust. I try to assume that the reader and I are on the same page. I can leave something unsaid, and you can infer what I’m getting at, and you’ll find it funny, because you got to prove to yourself that you know what I’m talking about. Or I can straightfacedly say something that’s obviously false, and you’ll realize that I can’t possibly be serious, and you’ll find it funny. (Here’s a very good video about chess algorithms.)

There are risks associated with this strategy. Sometimes you’ll say something strange, withholding information that you expect your audience to possess, so that your audience can resolve the strangeness in a flash of satisfying realization, but the information will have slipped your audience’s mind or something, and your audience will wonder: What the heck does this guy mean, “the socks I wore the other day?” That sounds like something a serial killer would say.

As we see in the Simpsons example above, mass-market stuff has a certain level of obligation to explain its jokes, taking some of the figuring-stuff-out work off the audience’s hands, because you have to appeal to a broad audience that includes people who are not as clever as you. And I think some people have learned from this style of writing that the structure of a joke is:

  • An incongruous state of affairs arises
  • Someone points out the way in which the state of affairs is incongruous

(Some of the best gags on 30 Rock are undercut in this way, but I guess it’s just as well that no specific examples are springing to mind.) If you don’t have to appeal to everyone, though, you can write jokes that are more satisfying/funnier, because they rely on more specific shared knowledge. And in particular you can craft material out of your personal experience and worldview.

This often manifests as stand-up monologues that essentially describe a personal worldview in exhaustive detail, but I think you can use this approach in other contexts—like when an idle thought crosses your mind that you would usually dismiss as too stupid to pursue. Instead, you can pursue it, and write it down, and let someone else notice how stupid it is, or notice that there’s a grain of truth in it, or remember having the same sort of stupid thought.

So maybe it’s a kind of super-trust, or reverse empathy: You can exercise the (kind of ridiculous) confidence that people will find something relatable in something that’s very specific to you. You can give them the chance to realize that they understand you, with the audacity to assume this will be a pleasant experience. And of course this sort of approach isn’t a hit with everyone, but I think when it hits, it hits hard.

Thank you for your question.

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Hello, Mr. Veeder.

Long time fan. Much appreciation for the Infocom follow-up “The Lurking Horror II: The Lurkening.” I have a more speculative question for you, but I’m thinking more than a decade of authoring experience in IF might help you answer.

A parser is open to an infinite variety of input. This can conjure a feeling of infinite choice and player agency. In reality, the limited time and psychic powers of the author behind that parser, as well as various grammatical and guess-the-verb limitations quickly dissuade the player from this assumption. Yet… sometimes the magic is there. Sometimes the author so accurately anticipates the player’s intuition, that they find themselves once again in an infinite magical world, a blinking silent cursor beckoning them to try anything.

My question is how does the mainstream capture that same sense of player agency? How do you allow Mario to eat Yoshi or Master Chief to exchange his armor for Hawaiian shirts and khakis? How do we allow negotiation with Pyramid Head or feed Mr. Resetti his teeth the next time he pesters us to save our game?

Failing that, as the parser itself often does, how do we make the player feel like they just MIGHT be able to do these things?

Thank you.

This is such a neat question. But I think I have to reframe it a little. I don’t like doing this, but I don’t think I have another answer.

I don’t think this magical feeling is specifically a matter of player agency. I think it’s about discovery, and not being able to see the limitations of the world. In a parser situation, this manifests as the feeling that This thing will respond to anything I type into it! because responding to input is kind of the only thing a parser game can do.

But other formats have other tools. In Super Mario 64, you can put the controller down to get a snack, and come back to find that Mario is now lying on the floor, mumbling in his sleep. You can accidentally brush against a brick wall and notice it rippling like water. And you think They didn’t tell me that could happen. What other tricks are in here?

In Super Mario 3D World, you can notice what looks like a giant golden train off in the distance, and wonder What is that? How do I get there? Can I get there? You can reach the last part of the map, defeat Bowser, and then discover that actually that wasn’t the last part, and there are a bunch more levels to try. You get to think Good grief, how much game is there in this game? What else am I missing?

The magical sense of possibility arises from these moments of discovery, and, this is kind of tautological, but these moments of discovery arise from the game not telling the player everything. It’s very easy for a parser game to give a complete list of all the verbs it recognizes, dismantling the possibility for the player to try a new verb and get a surprising response. Similarly, Super Mario 3D World could give you a list of all its levels and draw out every detail of its structure on its map screen—but it doesn’t. It lies to you.

(I should also mention Red Dead Redemption 2, which produces this never-ending stream of neat details for people to find. I think the fanciful notion that “The world simulation is keeping track of literally everything” is kind of the same thing as “The parser will understand literally anything I type in.”)

And so the answer for creating this magical feeling, in any kind of game, is to add a bunch of cool stuff and let players find it on their own. The more neat things they discover, the more players are forced to wonder Where are the limits of this world? And now the world feels infinite.

I think the problem with creating this feeling in mainstream games might be more cultural than formal. There’s a very powerful impulse for people explain how to get all the endings, record the locations of all the collectibles, and post an exhaustive list of easter eggs. (You can listen to me repeat this one basic idea over and over again for about half an hour on Extrasode 3 of this podcast.) IF also has this problem to some degree, plus the fact that it’s so easy to decompile a game and snap the neck of any mystery it might have contained.

But you can try to preserve this sense of magic for yourself. You just have to be okay with not knowing everything and seeing everything.

Thank you for your question.

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Hi Ryan,

On your recommendation, I’ve cast my rod into Jewel Pond / Lake? and am having a great time… I’ve probably been fishing around for five hours+ now over a week or so! I’ve just posted a review on IFDB as this seems a bit of an undiscovered gem (haha)…

This game plays through your website and has some really funky auto-save features. I love this as it helps to offset the task focus that can take over in IF. What I mean is that the reminders about playing in chunks help the player to chill out a bit in terms of trying to solve everything as quickly as humanly possible.

My first question is:

  1. As an author, can you keep adding to the game? So, could you add extra episodes / areas etc and then just recompile the game?

That seemed like a cool possibility if 'twere so…

My second question is connected with the badges:

  1. I’ve now found seven badges - including the Mako badge – roughly how many badges are there? I realize that this question may run counter to the reply you’ve just given about possibility so feel free not to answer!

  2. If you can discuss this abstractly (or with light spoiler tags etc), how do the time sensitive features work? Is there an amount of time IRL that a player has to keep coming back before certain events trigger?

Thanks so much again!

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I’m not Ryan, but your question made me search around a little, so I’ll plop this here: Savegame backwards compatibility - #11 by zarf

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I am very very very very glad that you’ve been enjoying Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing and that you took the time to post such a nice review. Thank you.

1. As an author, can you keep adding to the game? So, could you add extra episodes / areas etc and then just recompile the game?

Yes. This is complicated.

Save files of the type generated by the built-in state-saving function of Inform 7 games are not compatible between versions, because the game’s underlying data structure isn’t necessarily the same between versions, because it all gets assembled from the ground up at compilation.

Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing doesn’t use that save game format. (The usual SAVE/RESTORE verbs are forbidden, because allowing players to use both save formats at once would be a huge mess.) Instead, the auto-save functionality uses a much less robust but much more “reliable” format, which is, I essentially laid out my own personal data structure that doesn’t change when I recompile.

This is accomplished with a bunch of external files containing tables. There’s a table for which items you possess; there’s a table for how things are arranged in your cabin; there’s a sort of “miscellaneous” table that keeps track of what color your jacket is etc. I think there are at least five different tables.

This means that the autosave function only saves what I bother to make it save, unlike the native save function that saves the entire game state. RVAFF doesn’t save something as basic as your current location, but that’s because I wanted you to always start out in your cabin.

This technique will be revolutionary, as soon as everyone else starts using it. I wrote a bunch of blog posts that explain it in more detail. Here is the first one.

ANYWAY, all this makes it “very simple” to add content to this game, while preserving every players’ progress, in a way that’s normally impossible. If you’ve found the baseball cap, that was added a few days after the game was released, because I think @DougOrleans noticed there wasn’t any headwear available for when it was raining. I’ve also been able to fix some bugs and make some quality of life changes.

It would be fun to add some more substantial content, but when I made an attempt at this I found myself overwhelmed. It’s not a technical issue, it’s just that the game is SO HUGE. I did do some design work for an additional area, though. Maybe someday I’ll get the brainpower together to implement it. What a fun treat that would be!

2. Roughly how many badges are there?

I will decline to answer this. There was a lot of discussion on this forum about collecting badges a few years ago, though. I would recommend that, after you’ve run out of stuff to explore and ideas to try on your own, you seek out one of those old threads. But maybe don’t read it all at once.

3. How do the time sensitive features work? Is there an amount of time IRL that a player has to keep coming back before certain events trigger?

The basic time mechanic simply confirms that today’s date is not the same as the previously saved date. I don’t think anything in the game actually notices how many days it’s been since you last visited.

A couple things will only progress if you return over multiple days, such as if you’re waiting for something wet to dry out. Even when it would make sense for such a thing to progress in your absence, you have to actually show up in order for time to pass.

Certain things that seem may seem random, like the weather and the appearance of wildlife, are determined by the real-world date. So if you manage to see a bald eagle at the gazebo on May 3rd, you can tell your friends, and they can check it out for themselves.

Then there are a couple things that depend on the day of the week.

Please don’t feel compelled to find everything, though. Fly fishing isn’t supposed to be a chore.

Thank you very much for your questions.

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Wasn’t me, haven’t played it (sorry!). But I endorse keeping your head dry.

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