Sunday, September 11, 2011

How to write a gamebook part 6 - advanced stuff with numbers

If you introduce a random element to your gamebook, you need to decide on how the random element is determined.  Most gamebooks with a random element require d6 as they are the most common dice.  Lone Wolf uses a random number table with values from 1-10 (a d10 will also suffice if you have one, but I assume that Joe Dever did not expect most readers to have a d10, so he put the table into his books).  Some books that use dice also put illustrations of dice on the page so that you can flick through the book and use that dice roll in case you don't have dice.

Random determination of stats can introduce more tension and variability to the gamebook, but it needs to be playtested to make sure that it is actually fair.  Gamebooks such as Crypt of the Sorcerer and Spellbreaker are almost impossible to win fairly.  You can playtest the book by playing through all of the situations.

If you are using d6, then there are a few probability tables that may be able to help you.

To see the probability in % of getting a particular score on the roll of 3d6, go here or here.

If you are using the Fighting Fantasy system, then this table of the probability of winning an attack round may help:

You can also find out the probability of winning a combat here courtesy of Jamus from the Unofficial Fighting Fantasy Forum.

There are good and bad points to having a random element in gamebooks.  I have highlighted them in my Dice in Gamebooks series.

Manipulating dice rolls

If your system does not give the player much of a chance, there are ways of getting around that rather than creating a whole new system.  In fact, it can add an extra dimension to the gamebook.  You can create items or abilities that manipulate dice rolls to the player's advantage.  For example, if you use a Fighting Fantasy system, you can have an ability that allows them to reroll their attack strength once per combat.  Fabled Lands has a blessing system where if you fail a roll in a particular stat, you can use the blessing to reroll it.  I could list some other ideas, but Michael J. Ward beat me to it when he wrote Destiny Quest.  He has come up with tons of abilities that can manipulate stats.  Look at them here.

Speaking of Michael J. Ward, the author of Destiny Quest I asked him about how he came up with his complicated yet balanced game system.  You can read his answers here:

* How did you decide the names for your stats and what they would do?

The game system was inspired by the Warhammer table top game, published by Games Workshop. In their system, units of warriors roll to hit (using weapon skill) and then roll to wound (using strength vs. opponents’ toughness).Troops suffering damage are then allowed a saving throw, depending on the armour they are wearing. It is a simple and effective system, yet is more involved and interesting than a simple ‘roll to win and then apply damage’ model.

So using that as a starting point, I knew my combat system would need three steps:
1) Rolling to hit
2) Rolling to damage
3) Avoiding damage (i.e. using armour)

I also added in a fourth step to each round known as the ‘passive step’ where any passive effects that are in play and do recurring damage are then applied to affected characters. This was influenced more by my experience of online and computer rpgs. 

So from there, I worked out the stats that I would need in order for that system to work – and also link to the character types that can be played (rogue, warrior and mage). So speed was an obvious choice for the ‘rolling to hit’ stat, and brawn and magic were used for the appropriate ‘strength’ and ‘magic’ types of attack.

* Did your stats work in different ways before you published?

No, they stayed the same. I wrote the entire rules section before I started penning the book and that section really didn’t change. The only thing that changed dramatically, after playing through the game a couple of times, was that ‘hybrid’ classes were not working (i.e. I had hoped some careers would allow players to benefit from both brawn and magic). It made itemisation too hard and really wasn’t satisfying to play. Also, when creating a game as complex as DestinyQuest, you want to try and create as level a playing field as possible, so having careers focus on one damage attribute made more sense.

* Why did you use 2d6 rather than 1d6, 1d10 or any other random system.

I was keen to avoid using any type of die other than a d6. I wanted DestinyQuest to be as accessible to as many people as possible – and that includes people who may not have played an rpg before and therefore not have a box of ‘odd-shaped die’ that they can use. Six-sided dice are common and easy to get hold of, so for that reason, the DQ system focuses on them.

Originally, for combat, you rolled 1d6 for each combatant for speed and then 1d6 (adding brawn and magic) for damage. After some playtesting it quickly became obvious that a 2d6 system for speed was better as it gave a higher probability of winning if there was a significant speed difference between the combatants. Basically, it made it less punishing and a little fairer. When it comes to the dealing damage, 1d6 seemed to work fine (adding brawn and magic) and, of course, with abilities, that can be increased.

How did you know if a battle was balanced?  Did you fight the battle or use a formula?  Did you take account of all the abilities a hero could have?

There was no formula as such to start with, other than making monsters scale from quest to quest in terms of stats and special abilities. Basically, I just played through the game again and again… and again, using different builds. I would then make changes based on each build and then play again. Each time I played, I also had to ask myself how different people would play. Of course, you will have your power gamers who just gobble up all the items that give them max stats etc. but you will also have more casual or younger players who may experiment more with items and therefore not be as powerful at a given stage.

Playtesting was incredibly time consuming. I probably spent over a year (off and on) testing the game and then about three months ‘hardcore’. It was necessary. I don’t think you can create something of this complexity and rely on a formula or rubric. There are just too many ‘human factors’ in terms of the character choices that can be made. It’s essentially like any rpg/computer rpg from that aspect – you really need a whole team of players taking your game and trying to break it in whatever way they can. I didn’t have the benefit of a room full of playtesters, so I really had to do a lot of it myself and trust my own judgement.

Coming to DQ2, which I am writing now, I don’t think it will be as taxing. Players will be more ‘level’ with each other at different stages (in terms of speed and damage attribute) and there will be less variances there. That will make it much easier to balance from my point of view.

Did you always want the no death rule?  Did you introduce it for rules reasons and then write a story about it or introduce it for story reasons first?

Ah yes, that old chestnut. The death rule was there from the start – simply because I couldn’t fathom how my game system could work any other way. Also, coming from an online rpg background (well, any computer rpg), being able to respawn is just something I take for granted.

I have discussed my reasons for the death system here:

Really, when I was developing the map system and I knew I wanted to have the tough legendary monsters (i.e. the equivalent of those mobs that typically, in an online game you would need to spend about an hour in general chat trying to get a group together for…), I accepted that you can’t have a system where players ‘reset’ to the beginning each time they make an unlucky choice or the dice just don’t land in their favour. I really resent death in other gamebooks (sorry, that’s just me) – it doesn’t add anything to the book in my opinion. It promotes cheating in a lot of players because when you are near the end, few people would want to start over again. DestinyQuest was always going to be a massive book, so that type of punishment would just have turned people away in their droves.

People have made suggestions on how this system could have been different (for example resurrection stones/save points). The reason I haven’t gone down this route yet is that it would need to make narrative sense for those things to ‘exist’. If you create a world and suddenly have resurrection devices here, there and everywhere – what does that mean for the views of that society? How do people act in a world where death wouldn’t concern anyone any more?

I was keen that the player feels special in the world that they inhabit – that their immortality is a gift, something special. I really play on that in The Legion of Shadow and I think, in the new quest I have written for the upcoming special edition, I hint at the other side of that power. When the idea of death, pain and recompense is removed, what is really left of your humanity? How do you deal with other people who still have those fears? I think the ‘immortality thing’ gives the player character a really interesting personal trait.

In book two, again I have provided a reason why your character can’t die (permanently). In fact, it’s pretty neat if I say so myself. The point is, I don’t think the death system will change – but each book is individual, with its own character and its own story, so don’t rule out the possibility that a future book may take a more serious line with character actions and deaths. I suppose rules are there to be broken, right? ;)  


  1. Have you read Master of Ravenloft, from the Advanced D&D ? I've heard that it has an ingenious system to randomize encounters and items locations. You can read a review in spanish at

  2. This is a decent translation of that article made by google translate :

  3. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this blog, Carlos. I will read the post and also the many other posts about gamebooks that are there.