Friday, November 21, 2014

Necklace of Skulls

Necklace of Skulls was first published as a part of the Virtual Reality Adventure series in 1993, and has lately been given new life as a smartphone/tablet application by Cubus Games. Dave Morris recently mentioned that he began writing Necklace of Skulls shortly after a visit to Central America. And, man alive, it shows. In this story, you take the part of Evening Star, whose journey across the world to save his twin brother is a trip through Mayan legend, and even through the fearful, dark parts of the Mesoamerican psyche that give birth to such legends.


In short, it's an extremely distinctive, evocative story. You won't find any battleaxe-wielding dwarves here. And what Cubus Games have done right is to precisely match the tone of the app to the atmosphere of that story. Visually, the artwork and overall feel here have their roots in the contemporary art of the period, and so the blend of story and artwork comes across as wholly natural. The app's sound effects are apt, as well. Sound is something I'll rarely pay much attention to in an IF app - incessant bleeping or sword-swishing noises usually just get on my nerves. But Cubus have done a great job here in terms of ambient sounds, and with the dull drum beats or tambourine rattles that greet you whenever you tap options or commands. It all adds to the story experience, and that's a tricky thing to pull off.

(Evoking a certain ambiance is really a strong point for Cubus, in fact. The same was true for their previous apps The Sinister Fairground and Heavy Metal Thunder.)


We have a strategic, diceless combat system, here. Each round, you get to choose three actions - attacking, defending or resting. If you attack when your opponent is defending, he'll take very little damage. If your opponent attacks while you're resting, he'll gut you pretty quickly. If you try to attack-attack-attack, you'll get tired out pretty quickly. Anticipating your opponents' strategies is a little tricky, but you get the hang of it soon enough. There isn't an excessive amount of combat, either. My first playthrough, I only fought two opponents.


Any real criticisms? Considering the app by itself, no. It's a solid contender against the other gamebooks-as-apps that are out there just now. Comparing this app version of Necklace of Skulls to the dead-tree gamebook of yesteryear, however, I see the app is a bit less flexible in allowing you to choose or create your character (maybe I want the AGILITY and SPELLS skills, dammit!). This is, I suspect, a choice on the part of Cubus to prune out any rules-lawyering, and to present this app as a streamlined, 'one-tap-does-all' experience. And that's no bad thing - frankly, if interactive fiction is to make any headway as a mainstream medium, I think that's the right way to go.


So, another strong entry from Cubus Games. Now I start counting the weeks and days until their next app, the sci-fi Sol Invictus...

(Post by Paul Gresty)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Island of the Undead playthrough

Written by Keith Martin, artwork by Russ Nicholson.

This is the fifty-first book in the series, and is something of an anomaly. I strongly suspect that the entire series was winding up to finish with the fiftieth, Return to Firetop Mountain. If my theory on that is correct, then this is the book that broke the plan. It stood up in defiance of... of... eh, stuff. Defiant little bugger. Anyway, never had this book when I was a kid, it just never looked all that interesting. Blame the cover. I really should do a top ten good Fighting Fantasy book covers.

Let's get right to this, shall we? You're the son of a local fisherman, and it seems that the weather has been playing up quite a bit lately. So you decide to go and ask the local island full of wizards, who had previously been keeping the local meteological disasters at bay.

Me and a few other fishermen all hop onto a boat to go and pay the local fireball-throwers a neighbourly visit, but promptly get caught in a storm. Following a rather intimate moment with a tidal wave, I wash up on the shore of the wizard's island as the sole survivor.

Right off the bat, the very first paragraph gives me a combat sequence, with the rotting corpse of one of the other fishermen turning into something called a 'sea zombie'. It's not a tough fight, but it's a heck of a way to start the adventure. Once I whomp it into the ground, I head south towards a small forest. The forest itself seems to be enchanted, I wander around it for several days, using up my provisions, until I eventually meet an old man in a tree.

I'm asked if I know his name, but I've had no chance yet to learn his name, unless I had gone north to visit a lighthouse first. As I've no idea who the old man is, I just strike up a casual conversation, being as friendly and helpful as I can, and ask him what information he might have. When he has the gall to ask for some items in exchange for the information, I try to bat him with my sword instead. Cheeky bugger. Instead of dying like most polite old men would, he jumps out of the way and throws a bag of horrible plague at me.

Coughing slightly from my new case of Lung Rot (what a lovely name for a disease. I suppose other Allansian illnesses include the likes of Foot Muck and Willie Stink), I stumble through the forest until I find a rather curious clearing with an old brick archway stuck in the middle of it. At this point, my character promptly changes his name to Mr Falldown McTripsandfallsalot, because whilst exploring the clearing he manages to fall and twist his ankle on a rabbit hole. Annoyed, I decide to wait until the middle of the night before doing anything else, and when I awake during the night I find that the surrounding area has three barrows. Yay, I think, resting places for me to corrupt, and immediately fall into the nearest one by accident.

There's a gold coin and a sword amongst the dead bodies, which I don't feel is a fair trade for falling onto someone's dead grandad. The next barrow is guarded by a fire monster which I can't defeat with non-magical weapons, causing me to run away as it spits fire at me. The third and biggest barrow, naturally enough, is guarded by a big tough undead monster, similar to one of the druagh of Skyrim, but I'm able to kill it without too much hastle, at which point I fall down a stairway into the deeper part of the barrow.

My stamina isn't looking too good at this point. Neither are my provisions, because the book instructs me to stuff my face with them every third paragraph or so. In the bowels of the barrow, I meet a ghostly spirit who tells me not to approach him. I don't, instead I decide to talk, but he calls me a fool and spits ice at me. I get fed up with this entire silly barrow, so I leave and go to sleep in a tree.

The next day, I leave the forest and finally arrive at the hill, which provides a fairly good view of the entire island. It's a pretty good view, and I'm planning my next move, until a bunch of skeletons rise up out of the ground and try to kill me. No idea what the skeletons are doing on the hill, maybe they went out for a jog and got so bored that they died from it.

I decide to head towards the local monastery, described as a brick building. I have high hopes of finding something vaguely useful here, and inside it there is a rather unusual thing - a kung-fu monk zombie. Questioning the plausability of a rotting corpse that can jump-kick its enemies, I kill it and explore the entire monastery. I find a few useful things, mainly a bunch of spare provisions and potions, a map of the island that indicates a small bay occupied by friendly mermen, and a scrap of paper that documents the falling-out of two of the local wizards, which some of the monks attempted to resolve via hiding their magic crystals. Oh, those wacky monks!

Anyway, before too long the monastery seems to get bored of having me around, because a rock elemental stumbles along and throws stones at me until I leave the area. Honestly, you'd think that these damn elementals would have something better to do with their time...

I decide to opt for a change of scenery, so I go for a walk in the swamps to the south. It's very humid, and my skill and stamina start to plummet again. I wind up getting chewed on by a giant alligator, but manage to survive that whole ordeal. Eventually I reach a cliff leading down into the mermen's bay. They seem to be having a bit of trouble with the local shark-men, so I kill one of those and earn their trust, and they kindly inform me of a secret entrance into the wizard's tower.

I'm suspecting that the wizard's tower is the final stage of this adventure, so I opt to head to another area first before I go that far, namely to a nearby small hut. The path to it is guarded by a hydra type of a monster, which is a bloody nightmare to kill, and has a rather overly complicated system involving cutting off its spare head. But once it's dead, I get to the hut and find that it is also guarded by giant skeletons, purely to work as a pointless additional threat. The hut itself guards a small shrine, which has been utterly broken and ruined, and I'm unable to repair it without a pot of glue.

Finally, and utterly unequipped for it, I approach the wizard's tower. The path branches off into a chasm, which I thoroughly explore and find nothing of any use, something of a recurring theme in this adventure. By this point, I've come to the firm conclusion that this entire adventure is based around finding just the right items, in the right order. Missing any, as I'm sure that I did at the lighthouse at the start, seems to automatically doom you to failure. But that's just my conclusion. I may yet be wrong, let's reserve judgement until we get to the tower.

I travel down the cliffside and find the hidden entrance to the tower that the mermen advised about, and immediately stumble into an empty storeage room. I head downstairs, stumbling through the tower until I can find a room containing a large tank of sewage water for no apparant reason. I try to break this open, hoping that petty vandalism to the plumbing will deal some kind of victory blow to the evil that has settled here. Instead, I merely feel ill.

The very next door I arrive at informs me that the final boss is probably on the other side (no doubt due to the scorch marks and general burning heat of fire in the air), and tells me that I can always return to that room later if I really want to. So I chicken out, and instead head into a room that appears to have flooded some time ago. Hopefully not with sewer water. I wade my way through the water, killing an unfriendly moray eel on the way, and get to the door on the other side of the chamber. Said door leads into the chamber of someone or something called the Master of Waters, and lacking any magical weapon, I am straightforwardly informed that I cannot win and that the Master of Waters kills me. Somehow. Whoever he is. Death by ????? I suppose.

Make no mistake, this isn't a bad book. The writing is decent and quite evocative, the island itself is interesting, and although it doesn't quite make you feel as part of the journey as Island of the Lizard King does, you do get quite a few nice areas that you can explore, often in a non-linear manner. Well, a sandbox kind of a manner. Having said that, the actual puzzles in this adventure are linear, very much so. But it does give you the illusion of choice, which is interesting. I'm undecided on this one.

I rather imagine that this one will play out better if you go through it several times and map out where to get all the items, but that's just too much work for me. What did you guys think of it?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Lone Wolf Board Game - Halfway to Success!

A quick mention that the Kickstarter for the Lone Wolf Board Game has just passed the halfway mark on its funding target. It's also nearing the halfway mark on its deadline, so I call that pretty positive progress so far. Still, if you're a fan of Lone Wolf, or board games, or Gary Chalk's artwork, get over there and get pledging, if you haven't already.

For more information, visit the Kickstarter project page, or see Richard Hetley's post on this very blog.


Also, I found it interesting to see that documents from the vermin control company in charge of my apartment building are in the same distinctive font as the Lone Wolf gamebooks.

Yeah! Wipe out those damn Noodnics!



(Post by Paul Gresty)

Monday, November 17, 2014

What probability of success makes it worth rolling dice (and how many dice should I use for Cymerian?)

Hello gamebookers!  This is a post about skill tests and dice rolling.  Having a random element is adds some tension to books and allows the thrill of not knowing exactly what is happening.  After asking whether Cymerian should be diceless or not, the overwhelming answer was to have dice, and I agree with it.  I will be using dice.

However, I can't just shove in dice rolls and coin flips all over the place and let people get on with it.  I need to make sure that when I make a dice roll, there is a reasonable chance of success that makes rolling the dice worth it (isn't it tedious when you have to fight a skill 5 opponent with a skill of 12 or depressing when you have to fight a skill 12 opponent with a skill of 1?).  rolling a dice is not a free action - too much of it for no good reason will be tedious and break from the immersion of the book.  So for that reason, I need to make sure that every dice roll has a degree of tension - a feeling that both success or failure might happen no matter how high or low the difficulty is.

So the first question I have is - what is the lowest probability of success or failure that still keeps the tension?  Is it worth rolling a dice if there is a 95% chance of success?  Do you still get a thrill if there is a 10% chance of success?

This leads on to Cymerian.  The ability tests in Cymerian involve involve rolling 4 dice to get equal to or above a number.  If you have points in the relevant ability, you can reroll a number of dice equal to that ability score.  The reason I did rerolls instead of increasing skills is that I intend to release a lot of Cymerian books that I want to be a challenge for characters of all levels of experience.  Having rerolls means that all tests would fall in the range of 4-24, meaning that no matter how good or bad you are, you still have a chance for success.

I did not want a situation like Fabled Lands where a level 1 character could not explore the lands of
the Rising Sun because all of the tests and opponents were way above anything they could do.  Similarly, a level 6 character would just steamroll straight over any challenge set them in the War torn Kingdom.  This is because of the system.  In Fabled Lands, when a test is performed, you roll 2d6 and add it to the relevant skill to get over the difficulty of the test.

As characters get better, their scores increase.  Having a roguery of 6 might be good in book 1 where you have to beat tests with a difficulty of 9-12, but it might be rubbish in book 6, where the difficulties are usually from 14-16.  Also, in some cases, some tests will become impossible.  Also, charactesr who start in book 6 have their highest ability score at 8.  If they head over to book 1, success is certain, taking away the tension.

Tunnels and Trolls solos have the same problem.  They are only appropriate for delvers of a particular level and sometimes they cannot use the magic spells that they may have.

Which is why I went for rerolls instead of getting a higher number.  A difficulty of 17 with 4d6 might be hard, but it is possible for everyone whether they have 0 rerolls or 3.

So rerolls it is then.  However, I was fiddling around on Anydice, and I realised that 4d6 might not be perfect for this system.  So, I was wondering how many dice would be best with this system.  I have an idea, but I want to ask you, my wonderful readers.  So, I will show you the probability distributions for 1d6-6d6 with the good and bad points of each one.


Just to tell you - output 1 is the chance of getting a score with 0 rerolls.  Output 2 has 1 reroll, output 3 is 2 rerolls etc.

1d6


Click to enlarge.
1d6 does have a good distribution, but I would be worried at lack of 'wiggle room' for difficulties.  My minimum difficulty would be 3, but I might not be able to find enough difficulties from 3-6.

2d6

click to enlarge
The more dice you have, the more 'wiggle room' you have to make some rolls slightly harder.  However, the more dice you have the smaller the effect of one of the rerolls.  I think that 2d6 is in danger of not having enough 'wiggle room', but it is still relatively simple so its simplicity might win out.

3d6

Click to enlarge

More wiggle room, but maybe 3d6 is too many to roll with one roll?

4d6

Click to enlarge
4d6 allows for more wiggle room and also makes it possible to have items give rerolls.

5d6 and 6d6

5d6 - click to enlarge

6d6 - click to enlarge


Using these distributions, I could introduce rules so that items could give rerolls on top of abilites (which I would have to do as abilities will have a lot less effect, the more dice they have).  So this would introduce more complexity to the game, and maybe it would reduce tension as 1 dice reroll has less of an effect.  

so basically, the more dice the less effect increasing difficulty has and the less effect 1 reroll has.  Where do you think is the sweet spot?  I have an idea, but I'm not going to say.

Happy gamebooking!


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Crimson Tide playthrough

Written by Paul Mason, artwork by Terry Oakes

I may have rented 'The Crimson Tide' from the local library once, as a kid, and don't remember it making much of an impression upon me. But if there's one thing I've learned in the year-and-a-half I've been doing these blog posts (bloody hell, that's far longer than I thought I'd be doing them!), it's that the books may surprise me.

'The Crimson Tide' is a book I fully intend to get through without making a single menstruation joke. It has a very similar setting to Sword of the Samurai, so it's likely to be quite a challenge. It has two new stat gimmicks, first being Ferocity. Ferocity apparantly helps to fuel me in combat, in theory at least.

But after reading the rules, I can't find any way in which it impacts on combat directly, which makes it feel a little pointless. Age, however, is a nice stat. As you age, it has a knock-on effect on Ferocity. I'd like to see this implimented in a more grand manner, with your skill points and stamina rising and falling as you grow into a full adult, and then slip into old age. That's not quite how it works in this particular book, but think of the potential that it could have.

So let's get stuck in. We start with out hero, a young peasant child in a rice field, witnessing his family being killed by evil samurai. This fills me with rage, so with a gang of other kids who've survived the attack (each of who, I am sure, will die off very shortly thereafter) we head off on a rip-roading rampage of revenge. Or something.

The gang head out on their journey, and quickly make reference to the enemies being from the nearby nation of Hatchiman, which I remember from 'Sword of the Samurai'. That's a nice touch. We promptly wander off into a field, and get attacked by a giant mudworm, which is an odd creature because it's stamina is about half it's skill score, resulting in it being hard to hit but squishy once I manage to do so. Surprisingly, none of the companions are horribly killed yet, which I feel is a bit unusual. This is a Fighting Fantasy game, after all, so any companions I have should be very dead in the next segment or two!

I'm told that I remember that I have an uncle who lives around the area, who I decide to seek out. I'm told to record the word 'art' on my sheet, which seems rather random as it has no context. Is my uncle an artist? Who knows. Our entire entourage find a boarding house to sleep for the night, and I sneak out to go and visit my uncle. When I find his house, his wife gives me a bag of money and he tells me that I should go and train in the fighting arts. Nice that I have a family member who is suggesting I become a brutal vigilante.

I decide to sneak back to the boarding house to meet up with my friends again, and go to talk to the local magistrate, hoping that he'll be a little more disposed towards sending out men with swords and axes whilst I relax a while and let him deal with it. The magistrate instead decides to laugh at me, whilst his guard thumps on my head with a stick for his amusement. Eventually I tell him that maybe he shouldn't be such a corrupt git, and his guards thump me a bit harder. The magistrate laughs as his friends beat up the homeless poor person, which shows us all where David Cameron learned his hobbies.

I trudge back to the boarding house once again, and together we plan to head to the monastery in the north, where we will learn the secret arts of the kung-fu monks. I hope. To my surprise, none of my companions are dead yet, either. I'd expected that at least one of them would have exploded from spontanious human combustion by this point, at least.

On the journey, we set up camp beneath a rather nice tree, and as I stand guard that night we are attacked by another giant worm. This worm is different from the previous one, because once I've killed it, it transforms into an old man. My entire party gather around and stare at it in confusion. "Who's that guy?" they ask. I shrug. Y'know, I can't help but imagine that I simply told all my companions that the old man was really a giant worm monster, to cover up the fact that I'd beaten an old man to death in the middle of the night by mistake.

We continue our travels. One year later...

Yeah, really. I'm instructed to add 1 year. You know what that reminds me of? The PC game 'Grim Fandango'. It was one of Lucasarts' later point-and-click adventure games, except it was keyboard-driven so not quite 'point and click'. But a lovely game, and it was spread over a period of four years. I suddenly want to play it again. The way it handled the transitions between the times was amazing, and gave the entire game a sense of being a true epic.

A year later, we arrive in a city. Our group are exploring the marketplace, when suddenly a large fight breaks out and a guard starts to attack me. Having no chance to surrender or run away, I fight him to the death. As I drop him, twenty of his best friends jump on me and drag me off to jail. A few days later they chop my head off because, apparantly, I'm a public nuisance.

Now I'll give the book this, it does give us an option where if my stamina point lands at exactly 1 during that fight, I may perhaps survive, I'm not sure, I killed the guard outright so didn't have the chance to take that path. But this is rather anticlimactic, and as it's an instant death segment that you're given because you WON a combat, that always rather leaves me feeling a bit unhappy with how the adventure turns out...

Having said that, this is a pretty good book. The atmosphere is lovely, it's nicely laid out, the encounters are solid, it has a good pace and feels like a sweeping epic. Overall I rather like this one. I'd like to give it another shot sometime.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why bad things happen to good adventurers

Hello gamebookers,

So back in September, I posted a post about food an water in gamebooks, where I decided that mechanics involving food  that punish you for not eating it were quite irritating, which lead to this tweet from Jamie Thomson:


Which lead me to think about applying my statement to wider situations.  I asked myself if there should never be mechanics in gamebooks that do nothing good, but might do something bad, and then extended it to 'scenes' in gamebooks - should every encounter in a gamebook have the potential of a reward.  I decided, that actually, no.  There should be situations where no good thing could happen, and, in some cases, you to choose between a lesser of two evils.

Tension
This is an interesting concept, and one that has been mentioned by a few people in the comments sections of this blog and also in Alexis Smolensk's book on DMing.  It is the idea that the player should not feel comfortable in the game.  One way of doing this is by making sure that their stats are never at full strength (in Fighting Fantasy, lowering someone's skill is a good way to stress someone out) or by throwing little obstacles at them that constantly chip away their resources.  It is for this reason that Fighting Fantasy heroes might start with stats way above their opponents.  It creates more tension to have high stats that are always depleted rather than low stats that are not.  Having an initial skill of 10 and a current skill of 8 has a different psychological effect than having an initial skill of 8.  So it might be worthwhile giving characters high scores just to lower them to create tension.  Having tension in the game will make victory all the sweater and may bring on some interesting decisions.

Decision making

There are different types of bad things that can happen.  If you couple a no win situation with options for character creation, then you could create a situation that is only bad for certain characters.  Need to get across a river?  Swimming is no problem for the hero who picked swim or the hero who bought an axe so that they can fell a tree to make a bridge, but it might be for other people.  This can also lead to situations where you might have to decide to use your potion of invisibility or fight the tought guard.  Which leads to...

Resource management
So you are going to lose out on a resource whatever you decide, but maybe the winning situation is
losing out on the resource that matters least.  Sure, Lone Wolf is going to lose 3 endurance if he doesn't eat a meal, but he needs to save the gold to buy a coach ticket, rather than buy food and he has the healing skill anyway, so he can take the hit.
Risk assessment

Say the bad thing's severity is determined by a random element.  This helps you with your skill of mitigating that random element somehow (sure I will get into combat with the troll, but I can test my luck to reduce the damage) or maybe you might get offered the choice between losing 3 stamina or losing 1-6 stamina and you have to decide whether you want to certainly lose a medium amount of stamina or whether you should risk the chance of losing 6 stamina for the chance of losing 1 stamina.
Links to the story

The bad guy you face might be the servant of the sorcerer you are after.  The plant that almost poisoned you produces the same poison you need to kill the bad guy.  If some bad encounter fits in with the background and logic of the story, then it's fine by me that it is happening.  Virtually every encounter in the excellent Way of the Tiger series was linked into the world, which is part of the reason why it is so awesome (have you got books 0 or 7 yet)?

Entertainment

Sure something bad happened, but it was so entertaining, you enjoyed it all the same.  The orc funeral in Battleblade warrior is one example.  Dreamtime in Grailquest is another.  The severity of the damage/bad thing might detract from the enjoyment of the situation (sudden death paragraphs have to be very good to make me forget my frustration. Beneath Nightmare Castle got it right for me.  Sky Lord did not).
Teaching
Going through a combat or a situation might teach you several things that could be helpful.  On one
level, it could teach you about the mechanics of the game, so an early combat might be there just to show you how combat plays out.  It also might be helpful later on, in the sense that a vaccine is helpful by exposing you to a small amount of a disease.  Sure you might take a minor punishment now, but you might learn something that will prevent a bigger punishment later (for example, in Caverns of the Snow Witch, you have to take 4 stamina points of damage to get an amulet of courage, but that is preferable to becoming food for a brainslayer).
Self awareness

This might have no bearing on the story, but how you deal with a bad situation in the books might tell me something about my character or my way of thinking.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, there are plenty of good reasons to have bad things happen in gamebooks, but I
always need to decide whether they are worthwhile to add.  Sure, I could be adding to the experience in some way, but there is a risk that it might go wrong, for a couple of reasons that I can think of.

The first is bookkeeping.  If I have a mechanic or a situation where something bad could happen, I will probably be asking a player to keep track of something.  I find that too much bookkeeping detracts from the experience and turns the enjoyment of the game into an accountancy exercise.  Keeping track of provisions in Legend of Zagor or Night Dragon is such an example.

The second is frustration - if I can't see the flavour or the entertainment value of a mechanic or a situation, then I might get annoyed with it existing, especially if it comes at a point in the story that really derails my plans.  Or maybe the mechanic is out of my control and I have no way of mitigating it, so I just have to watch helplessly whilst bad things happen.  The phobia mechanic in Temple of the Spider God was a bit like that.  You had a phobia score of 7.  Every time you fought a spider, if you rolled equal to your phobia score or higher, your fear kicked in and your offence score was reduced by 1.  There was no way of increasing your phobia score or avoiding spiders, so it got a bit annoying.


And I suppose lastly, if there were no rewards (to take it to an extreme) and it was simply a case of you don't need too many rewards to keep people playing.
lurching from crisis to disaster with each encounter slowly depleting my resources, I might find that draining.  So as usual, there is a balancing act involved, but as Skinner has shown us,

So having bad things happen can really add to an adventure, but only if it is done in a way to not annoy the player.  And that is always a good rule 1 to go by.



Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Great Online Tip Jar

Crowdfunding is going to the next level.  Whilst Kickstarter is still a massive behemoth with some Lone Wolf board game (also read Richard S. Hetley's blog post here about it) and Maelorum volume 2.
excellent gamebook related projects such as the

However, there is a new crowdfunding site in town.  Patreon works differently to Kickstarter in the sense that the product is already being produced, usually for free and it allows fans to give money to the creator to show their appreciation.  It is essentially a tip jar.

At the moment, I am supporting Scott Malthouse for his USR materials and Thom Rosell for his excellent Pod Your Own Adventure podcast.  Patreon is one to watch.

Patreon has inspired me to give myTunnels and Trolls solos the cost of pay what you want (including £0)