Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dice in game books part 4 - The good things about dice.

“The Fighting Fantasy series popularised the use of a dice mechanic in gamebooks, a random element which contributed hugely to the suspense and the enjoyment of the play experience.”

– Wikipedia.

First of all, when I talk about dice, I also mean any random elements in gamebooks. Lone Wolf books used a random number table rather than dice but the outcome of having it is the same as having dice.

Dice have had to roll with the punches but there are many sides to them and they can add a lot to a gamebook. They can bring more variety, more tension and can give a numerical value to how successful you are. However, to do this, they have to be used very carefully. One wrong use of dice can ruin a gamebook. Here is a list of good things that dice can bring to a gamebook and what, how it can go wrong and what happens if it goes wrong. I’ll post a conclusion later in the week.

Dice allow you to swing the odds in your favour.

“My skill is a bit low. I’m going to pay Cyrano a visit.” – Demons of the Deep.

“The Iron Cyclops may have a higher skill than I, but I can test my luck to inflict more damage when I do hit it.” – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

If you have a random element in gamebooks, it requires a whole new set of skills to succeed. You have to be able to put the odds in your favour. This means that your character could take different paths depending on their scores. If one score is high, then you can take a path that requires rolls against that score. If one score is low, then you can hunt for an item that makes it higher. The downside is that sometimes, you can still do this and get an unlucky die roll, something you will just have to expect as a player. Allowing the player to play the odds will only work if the situation where they do everything right and still lose is a rare occurrence caused by freak die rolls.

“Right, I’ve got a combat skill of 23. He has a combat skill of 16. I’ll only lose if I get seven 1s. My random numbers are 1,1,1,1,1,1,1. I’m dead. Oh well, how many times does that happen?” - Lone Wolf.

If done badly: There is a combat or other encounter that requires a good die roll that is improbable to achieve if you have certain scores. Or the die rolls make the gamebook just downright impossible to achieve. This is what spoils a lot of gamebooks.

'So I have to kill this Razaak dude. What's his skill? 12. Ok. What's his stamina? 20. Ok. Oh and if he hits me twice in a row, I automatically die? Errr, I'll give it a try. But first I have to get close to him and for that, I need a magic shield, an obscure Hameki spell, some smoke that protects me from fire, a horn from a rare almost unkillable beast and a magic sword that doesn't even give me any bonuses but will turn me into a skeleton if I use it? That's it, I'm outta here!' - Crypt of the Sorcerer.

Using dice means that you can take risks.

“Is the spear going to hit? The fate of the Old World rests on this skill test. This is tense!”
– Knights of Doom.

With a non die gamebook, any decision you take will always have the same outcome. Eventually, once you have gone through every single path, you have done it. Paths in non die gamebooks are finite. However, introducing a random element means that you could do the same things and succeed or fail in different tasks which could take your adventure in different directions.

If done badly: Same as with playing the odds. There is an impossible set of rolls that you have to achieve, making the book unwinnable.

Dice allow more variation in gamebooks.

“Pirates this time? This will much more interesting than plain sailing.” – The Court of Hidden Faces (Fabled Lands book)

Ooh, nice. 1000 shards and a silver flute. This means I can buy that house this time round.” – The Court of Hidden Faces, after defeating the pirates.

This is good as long as you make sure that a random encounter does not spoil the whole adventure. You also need to make sure that an item you can only obtain through a random die roll is not:

a) really needed for an adventure or
b) Completely derails the adventure and makes it easy.

The best way to do this is to offer common items such as food, money or basic equipment. This small change may also then open up other possibilities later in the book. For example, the player can buy an expensive item later on.

The same applies to negative things. You could roll a die to see how many stamina points a fireball does to you, rather than a fixed amount. This may affect your decision later.

If done badly: Rolling a certain number for an encounter could mean death, which makes it an unfair die roll. That makes the book less enjoyable.

If you need an item to succeed, but you can only get it randomly, that also makes the book more unfair and less enjoyable.
If there is a random item that makes the whole book easier, then you have destroyed the challenge in the book.
If the items you get or the encounters you face are of too little consequence, there is no point in having them in the book.

There is a lot of balancing needed for this to work.

If you have dice, you probably have character stats. Character stats can be improved.

“An increase in initial luck for killing the manticore? That’s better than a sack full of gold any day.” – The Shamutanti Hills.

This links in with playing the odds. If you are rolling a die against a characteristic then your character can obtain training or items which will increase their stats and make it more likely for them to succeed. Of course gamebooks without dice can have scores which can be improved and you can have a gamebook without scores where you have to roll dice (I can’t think of any examples of this) but if you have dice, you are probably rolling them against some character stat, so this is why I included it.

If done badly: Having so many point increases makes success automatic so die rolls become irrelevant. Having too many modifiers means increased bookkeeping which detracts from the entertainment of the game.

Dice have numbers. If you have numbers, you can give yourself a ‘score’ for the game.

“I killed Zagor with a few items last time, but this time I’m going to have 10 gold talismans, 4 silver daggers, acid, magical arrows, a magic slingshot, 50 gold pieces, 12 provisions in my backpack and without spending any one of my four luck points!” – Legend of Zagor.

If you have stats for stuff, then you can show how successful you are. If there is an item that you need to win the book and all the book does if ask if you have it, then it matters not if the item is a small wooden brick or a magical shield that protects you from lightning. The success ‘score’ for both is the same – you have it, you win. You don’t have it, you lose. However, if you have stats, then you can show how successful you are by how powerful your item is. This can happen in non die gamebooks with scores, but more gamebooks with dice have scores, so this occurs more in gamebooks with dice.

If done badly: Too many things to keep track of means lots of bookkeeping which detracts from the enjoyability of the book. Also, too many rewards make them all meaningless.

You can set yourself challenges

“I could offload five items I don’t even need onto the bandits so they will let me pass, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s fight!” – Forest of Doom.

“If I look for the Antherica berry, everybody helps me. If I try to kill all the masters and take their amulets, everyone wants to kill me. Where’s Grimslade’s tower?” – Scorpion Swamp.

“I could use the eye of the cyclops, but where’s the challenge in that? Come on warlock, let’s make this interesting!” – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

Finished the book? Ok, now finish it and fight the tough monster you avoided. See if you can do it without the magic sword. This links in with allowing you to play the odds in the sense that you can choose not to play the odds and see if you can succeed. This links into the taking risks, however, in this case, you a taking unnecessary risks just for kicks.

As an interesting side note, in Scorpian swamp, if you go into the swamp without magic gems, you get lost and harried and can’t succeed. However, there is nothing stopping you getting the spell gems and not using them. That can be another dimension to the challenge of the book.

If done badly: The challenges are all impossible, which makes the gamebook more linear, but still playable. However, this reduces the point in rolling dice, since if you cannot win without a sword that adds 2 to your attack strength, why bother having combat without it at all? Why not just have an instant death paragraph?

It prevents tedious tasks in your book

“Hang on. Which spells have I just cast?” – Green Blood (Virtual Reality)

“How many times have I read this freaking paragraph? Isn’t there a way out of this maze?”
– The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

You could spend 5 paragraphs playing through picking a complex lock or you could just roll a die to see if you succeed or not.

Some non random battles require you to make lots of decisions in order to achieve victory. This can get complicated and requires a lot of paragraphs. This might mean that my book would have fewer good encounters. A dice based combat system can just put the battle onto one paragraph and get it over with. It also does not mean that you do not make decisions any more. You could have special attacks or items which you can decide to use or not. Every combat round can be a decision in itself, so one paragraph could mean that you have to make ten decisions.

There are non combat situations which use a lot of paragraphs. To me, mazes are a good example of this, simply because they involve tedious page turning through paragraphs that all read the same.

‘You are at a junction. Do you go north or west?’ – It’s not entertaining and does not further any plot.

‘You are at a crossroads. Where do you go?’ - Towards the nearest cliff please.

The example that riles me the most is the Maze of Zagor. I go through the interesting, varied dungeon of Firetop Mountain, cross a river and then I’m traipsing around some non descript corridors. In Greek myth you had to cross a river to get to the land of the dead. That’s how I felt.

If I put a maze in my book, It will be something along the lines of ‘roll a die. If you roll these numbers you get out. If you roll these numbers you get tired. Lose 1 stamina point and roll again’.

If done badly: The book can become tedious because you have to roll dice all of the time. There is a balancing act between dice rolling for an outcome and making decisions for an outcome.

Random stuff happens. Get over it.

If I’m lucky, I listened in class the day they were talking about these runes. If I’m not, then I must have been poking the goblin with a dagger.’ – The Seven Serpents.

I rolled two sixes? But my stamina was 11. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.’
- Moonrunner.

Things in life a random. Nothing has a definite outcome, even if you do exactly the same thing twice. You could argue that having to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. So you do everything right and things still go wrong. That’s life. You just have to deal with it.

If done badly: The book just becomes a succession of die rolls where your choices are irrelevant.

In summary, I write gamebooks to entertain, have in depth plots and give the characters interesting choices or a good mystery to solve. All this can be achieved perfectly well without any random elements in gamebooks and from my own experience, random elements should only be included if they can be done well. They should be done to add tension, variety and a measure of success to a gambook. However, it does not take much for random elements to completely ruin a gamebook. I must tread carefully!

I will post an in depth conclusion later in the week.

Only 2 weeks left to vote for your favourite Windhammer books!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A table of probabilities

Hi all!

Just a quick post to give the percentage probabilities of winning, drawing or losing an attack round depending on the difference between your skill and the skill of your opponents.

If you want more info on how I calculated this, look at the explanation under the table.

The headings mean:

Skill difference: If you subtracted your opponent's skill from your skill, this is the skill difference. I have done it from +6 to -6. any bigger than that and I wouldn't bother rolling dice.

% chance to win, draw or lose: Self explanatory.

If the probabilities do not add up to 100, it is because of rounding.

Of course, these values do not take into account special combat rules.

For example, in Slaves of the Abyss, you automatically kill an opponent if you roll a double 6 (you have a 1/36 chance of winning automatically).

In Creature of Havoc, you automatically kill your opponent if you roll a double (that equivalent of a 1/6 chance of killing your opponent. It is interesting that although Creature of Havoc is one of the hardest FF books, it has the easiest combats)

I also haven't calculated the probabilities of rolling 3 dice and taking the best 2 which occurs in Legend of Zagor.

It appears that if you face an opponent with a skill 3 or more higher than yours, then you are stuffed. You could just about survive an opponent with a skill 3 higher than yours if you are very lucky, but it seems that if my gamebook has an opponent whose skill is 3 higher than the possible initial skill of the hero and the hero has not had a chance to make a choice to avoid the combat or find a way to increase his or her attack strength, then my gamebook has ended there probably with a lot of frustration.

Hope this helps in some way. In the next few days, I'll post about the good points of having dice in gamebooks.

Have a look at Fighting Fantazine ( Issue 4 is coming out soon and I am writing an essay for issue 5 on a particular Fighting Fantasy book on why it is so great. However, I acn't say which one. You will have to wait until issue 5!

How did I work it out?

The way I calculated the % chance to win was to take the sum of the probabilites of rolling a number on 2 six sided dice that has a chance of winning you the attack round and multiplying by the probability of your opponent rolling a number on 2 six sided dice which would mean their attack strength would be lower than yours.

Quick maths lesson - to express something as a probabiliy, you put it in square brackets. For example, the probability of rolling a 2 can be written as [rolling 2]

For example, if your skill difference is 0, the sum is:

([rolling 3] x [rolling 2]) + ([rolling 4] x [rolling 2 or 3]) + ([rolling 5] x [rolling 2-4]) + ([rolling 6] x [rolling 2-5]) + ([rolling 7] x [rolling 2-6]) + ([rolling 8] x [rolling 2-7]) + ([rolling 9] x [rolling 2-8]) + ([rolling 10] x [rolling 2-9]) + ([rolling 11] x [rolling 2-10]) + ([rolling 12] x [rolling 2-11])

If your skill difference is -6, the sum is:

([rolling 9] x [rolling 2]) + ([rolling 10] x [rolling 2 or 3]) + ([rolling 11] x [rolling 2-4]) + ([rolling 12] x [rolling 2-5])

To get a draw I took the sum of the probabilities of rolling numbers where the attack strength was equal.

Once I had calculated the % probabilities of getting a win or a draw, I did the sum 100-[win or draw] to get the probability of losing in %.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Stuff I like

I would just like to point out a couple of blogs I enjoy reading.

One is by Dave Morris, who has written the Heroquest gamebooks, the Fabled lands series, the Knightmare series, the Bloodsword series and other gamebooks as part of other series. He also created the Dragon Warriors RPG.

His blog is found at

It has lots of good information on how to create and run an RPG.

Also, there is another gamebook blog out there which has linked to mine (thanks for that!) called Great Gamebooks. It is found at It is written by Jasan Barnett.

It has some good articles on gamebook writing. Jasan has written some gamebooks as part of his Woodland Forest Chronicles series.

I'm listening to HP Lovecraft on audiobook at the moment. He is an author who I liked before I even knew about him, if you see what I mean. I enjoyed works he influenced such as the film Alien and the Fighting Fantasy book Beneath Nightmare Castle. Discovering that these works were all tied to his style was a nice discovery for me. I've been enjoying his works for free (since he died in 1937, all his works are public domain in Europe at least) on the following websites. - audiobooks by HP Lovecraft. - HP Lovecraft's works online. - A podcraft about HP Lovecraft's works.

Dice in game books part 3 - Blocking Victory

Ok, this will be the last time I'll be down on the dice. They do have their good points too.

This post links in with part 1 about how dice could foil your last attempt for victory despite you doing everything right. It is the fact that using dice makes a gamebook completely unfair if you do not work out your probabilities.

Someone was telling me yesterday that he had to cheat at some gamebooks by not rolling dice and just assuming that he won all combats. I told him that with some books, it was the only way to win.

Some of the most unfair books in terms of unfairness were some Fighting Fantasy books.

The biggest source of unfair die rolls is probably your first one - your skill score.

Your skill represents your fighting prowess. Every round, you roll two dice and add the result to your opponent's skill, then roll two dice and add the result to your skill. The combatat with the highest score wins and inflicts damage the loser.

This is a fine method of combat, but the problem lies in the range of skill you can have. In most books, your skill is determined by rolling one six sided die and adding 6. This gives a skill score of 7-12. This is a massive range when you consider the statistics involved with rolling dice.

If maths doesn't thrill you, skip over the probability part.


For an introduction to probability, try this:

There are 36 possible permutations when you roll 2 dice:

So when you roll 2 dice, there is only a 1 in 36 chance of rolling a 12. There is a 6 in 36 chance of rolling a 7.

This means that a skill 7 hero fighting a skill 12 boss monster needs to roll 8 or more to even have the remotest chance to win an attack round. The odds of that is 15/36. That is not even taking into accound what your opponent needs to roll. To wound an opponent if you roll an 8, your opponent needs to roll a 2.

The probability of this is 5/36 x 1/36 = 5/1296.

Hmm. Not looking good is it?

Ok, so that's just if you roll an 8. You *might* win the round if you roll an 8-12, but your opponent needs to roll low scores so you can win. If you roll a 12, your opponent needs to roll a 6 or less.

After doing some calculations on excel, I calculated that the probability of winning an attack round if your skill is 5 less than your opponent's is 5.4%. And you have to do this several times to win a combat.

You're stuffed.

If you fight an opponent with the same skill, you have 44% chance of winning a round with 44% chance of losing and 12% chance of drawing.

If you fight an opponent with a skill 1 above yours, you chances of winning are now 34%. Fighting an opponent with a skill 2 higher than yours and your chance of winning a round has now dropped to 24%.

Even a small change in skill rapidly decreases your chances.


So fighting somone with the same skill gives you a 44% chance of winning a round.

If their skill is above yours by 1, your chance of winning becomes 34% and if it is above yours by 2, your chances fall to 24%.

What appears to be a difference in 1 gives a huge difference in probability. This means that it is very difficult to give any character who has a skill between 7 and 12 a challenging yet do-able game. A skill 7 character will probably find weak opponents quite deadly, whereas a skill 12 character would find all the combats tedious as they just win them.

There are a few ways around it such as:

  • Having other skills or spells (Citidel of Chaos and Sorcery! are good examples).
  • Not having mandatory combats or few mandatory combats (Spectral Stalkers and Space Assasin are good examples).
  • Being able to find items in the book which mean that you can avoid difficult combats (Warlock of Firetop Mountain has items which allow you to avoid combat with both the warlock and the dragon. It's a shame you have to still fight a skill 10 opponent. Beneath Nightmare Castle is a good example of not having to fight difficult opponents if you get the right items).

I quickly realised this so almost all Fighting Fantasy books I have written involve the character having a skill picked from 2 or 3 possible values. This makes combats fairer.

I'm sure when these books were first written was that there was a progression in strength of monsters, but you cannot have their skills increase too much as your character will soon be out of their depth. Soon, if you work out the probabilities, it would become apparent that you have more chance of winning the lottery than some FF books.

Some later ones got worse in terms of unfairness.


Black Vein Prophecy (which is one of my favourites despite its flaw) requires you to fail your first test for luck to win. So if your luck is 12, you're stuffed. Who said it is better to be lucky than to be good?

Knights of Doom, Magehunter and Spellbreaker just have a huge number of dice rolls and combats, Magehunter while you are in the body of a feeble old man. I love the stories in these books, they were just let down by their dice rolling.

I endeaver to make sure that there are no unavoidable unfair combats or rolls in my books as it is basically like having a gamebook you can't win. No gamebook should have victory decided by a die roll. You have to play the odds in order to win (but of course, as mentioned in post 1, there will be one time where you do everything right and the dice are against you which means you lose)

Oh yes, there's also stamina and luck too, but they are fair and you could get through most books with a minimum stamina and luck.

I guess it's all about the skill in Fighting Fantasy.

Other books ahve other stats and these seem quite fair, apart from fear in House of Hell. You can't win if it is below a certain value.

If I can't put fair dice rolls in a book, I won't use them at all.

Speaking of which, I did that with my Windhammer entry. It is a diceless gamebook, but when I started it, I decided to have dice. They just became less and less relevant. Read all of them and vote! Voting closes on October 31st!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dice in gamebooks part 2 - bookkeeping

I was going to say something positive about random elements in gamebooks, but I think I'll do all the negatives first.

Dice usually have numbers on them. Even if the dice have symbols, you can express them in terms of a probability, which is a number. This seems a bit of an obvious statement. However, this leads to all the possibilities of working with numbers and probabilities.

If you use numbers, then you can manipulate numbers. This leads to a lot of work.

I remember reading a few choose your own adventure books. I think the only time I had to keep track of something was whether I had picked up some item. The other times, all I had to do was make a choice and enjoy the story. I didn't like it at the time, though. I wanted stats, so that I could get lots of items that increase them. I used to play Fighting Fantasy books with the challenge of finishing with the most items and gold pieces. More about that in another post though.

Choose your own adventure books were not hard work. Make a choice, read a it of story. Make another choice etc. This , coupled with a very non linear format where there were sometimes several happy ends meant that you could immerse yourself in the fantasy world without having to swim to the surface of reality to check an adventure sheet to see if some stat was good enough for you to do anything. Nowhere was blocked off to you because of some dice roll at the begining.

Of course, I could never improve anything. The only reward I had was a happy ending. But it wasn't complicated.

On the other end of the scale were certain Fighting Fantasy books which were laden with items which improved your chances in some way, usually in combat. This was great as it meant progression, but it also meant that some combats involved rolling several dice and it was difficult to keep up. right, so I have a sword that adds 2 to my attack strength, but I can fire an arrow at my opponent first and test my skill to cause 2 stamina points of damage, then deduct an arrow from my adventure sheet. Then every time my opponent hits me, there is a table to see how much damage it causes, so I roll a die for that, but then I roll a die because I'm wearing armour and it will reduce my opponent's damage by 1 if I roll a certain number.

Then I'd forget how to adjust my stamina because the attack strength roll was about 5 minutes ago.
The Sorcery! series was the worst offender for this, especially since you would be walking around laden down with four books worth of stat changing equipment as well as a huge list of spell components which you had to check every time you were given the option of casting a spell.

I loved the Sorcery! series for many reasons, but simplicity was not one of them. Rolling dice, then adding and subtracting modifiers can detract from the setting, themes and characterisation of the book part of the gamebook. It just turns into a number crunching exercise where I wouldn't care if I owned some wonderful piece of magical treasure; all that mattered was the numbers associated with it.

Fortunately, the items with modifiers did not spoil the feeling of Sorcery! and all of its diverse and interesting wierdness.

Legend of Zagor, however, did not escape so easily.

My feeling about the gambook is best summed up in this thread from the official Fighting Fantasy website:

"Go into a room, fight something, pick up item, leave room. Go into another room, fight something, pick up item, leave room. Go into another room, fight something, pick up item, leave room. Go into another room, fight something, pick up item, leave room. Go into another room, fight something, pick up item, leave room. Go into another room, fight something, pick up item, leave room.

Some books you cheat with because otherwise they are impossible. This one you cheat with just to get it over."

If a gamebook does need stats, then there needs to be a limit of the number of things (items, spells etc.) that can modify them and by how much. For example, maybe everything that restores stamina in a Fighting Fantasy book should restore a certain number of stamina most of the time to avoid confusion. Talisman of Death was good at this. The vast majority of things restored 4 stamina points with a few things restoring 2 and a couple of things 6.

If you go further and use dice to determine something, then ways of manipulating the dice roll should be limited. For example, all magical weapons add 1 to your attack strength and that's it.

Otherwise you end up bookkeeping, which is something I don't want to do in my leisure time.