Saturday, July 7, 2012

Enjoyable and challenging vs unfair and frustrating 2: Unfair and frustrating

Here are some situations from gamebooks or complete gamebooks that I find unfair and frustrating. 

Crypt of the Sorcerer

I wasn't going to include this on the list as anyone who's played it will think that it goes with out saying that Crypt of the Sorcerer is unfair and frustrating (including the entertaining Galactrix) but I thought I'd say it anyway because it is a good clear cut example of things that make it unfair and frustrating.

Here's a list:

The fight with Razaak - he's a skill 12 stamina 20 opponent who kills you with two consecutive hits and his sword doesn't give you an attack strength bonus against him.  Basically, you're stuffed.

However, some of the early combats in Crypt of the Sorcerer aren't that bad.  It get's harder once you have to fight three doragor and possibly a skill 12 stamina 24 monster.

The item hunt or die:  You neen to collect tons of item.  If you don't have one of them, you die horribly.  There's one item that isn't essential and that's the rod of paralysis.  You don't die, you just have to fight a skill 12 stamina 24 opponent.  However, to get the rod, you need to kill an innocent bone ring maker (and there can't be many of them around), lose 3 luck points, take a cursed ring, fight a werewolf (if you had been friendly with the bone ring man he could have given you a werewolf repelling ring and told you how to use it) and then fight a bunch of skeletons.  Nice choice, Livingstone.

Die rolls or die:  If you roll a 5-6 on one die then you are killed at one point.  You have to make three skill tests or almost die and when you get further on into the book, your opponents get a lot harder to beat and none of the items help you.  Even Razaak's 'powerfully enchanted' sword gives you no bonus.  Razaak obviously thought ahead by making the only weapon that can harm him rubbish.

The Maze of Zagor in the Warlock of Firetop Mountain

I find this exercise pointless. Three encounters punctuate a meaningless excercise in getting the correct combination of arbitrarily decided directions. Apart from the directions that the people you envcounter suggest, there is no indication about which ones are better and unless you make a map, it is easy to go around in circles. So I suppose the idea was to get the player to make a map but since the maze has few features, it is quite a tedious experience.

Working out which components kill Zanbar Bone in City of Thieves

So here's the scenario - you are told that a powerful undead sorcerer can only be killed if you rub into his eyes a special powder ground up from black pearls, lotus flower and hag's hair. Later in the book, you are asked if you have all three of these items. If you do not, you have failed. If you do have these items, you are then told that you only need two and that you must choose which two to grind up. This is frustrating for several reasons.

1) If you have two out of the three items then you should not be told that you have failed.
2) If you have all three items, what is to stop you from grinding them all up anyway as you will definitely have the two you need in there (this can probably be answered with some magi babble about the third item cancelling the powers of the first two but this is not explicitly stated in the book, so I'm raising it as a problem)?
3) There is no clue as to which two are best.

I can see that the idea was to create an interesting decision but it was executed poorly for the practical reasons mentioned above.

Chasms of Malice by Luke Sharpe

Many of the decisions you make have completely unpredictable consequences that lead to your death. Even the paragraphs on the winning route are not very encouraging as you don't get rewards in the form of gold pieces, stat bonuses or interesting items. Most of the time, it is just you, a magic sword, a cat, some provisions and some fuel. I love cats, but even she can't save Chasms of Malice.  Luke Sharp's later books had the same randomness in them, but he had toned down the lethality, turning them into an enjoyable romp around Kazan, the area of Southern Khul his books were set in.  If Chasms of Malice was less lethal, it would have been in the same boat.

Creature of Havoc

Your first few actions are decided randomly, you have to play the losing paths for ages before you realise that you've lost making you feel like you've wasted your time, the correct path is extremely narrow, an error means that you do not know that you should use your pandant because the paragraph starts with the wrong phrase and the book makes you read a whole load of background that doesn't really help you in the game.

Deathtrap Dungeon

It is a random scavenger hunt filled with choices between non descript corridors and non descript doors. A lot of the time, you have to choose between death or some difficult combat (such as prising gemstones out of the statue's eyes) and you have no idea what the criteria for victory is.

Eye of the Dragon

It is a random scavenger hunt filled with choices between non descript corridors and non descript doors. A lot of the time, you have to choose between death or some difficult combat with some generic opponent. Very little about it is memorable.

So there we go.  The same authors and sometimes the same books have appeared on both lists.  As I expected, my feelings on this topic are confusing and sometimes contradictory.  This became apparent when some books appeared on both the enjoyable and challenging and also the unfair and frustrating lists.  I'm trying to work this out on an absolute basis, but I am finding it hard to disconnect my own feelings and opinions from this.  I'll be needing some more input to work out what works universally and what is my opinion.  I'll be posting a conclusion next week.


  1. Ah...the ever amusing bagging of Crypt. In truth, I agree at all that was being said, but there is still something that draws me to Crypt (maybe the unbelievable cover art of Razaak with his stunted arm in his majestic crimson robes). Through the years, it is (surprisingly) one of the few gamebooks I have kept, and Razaak was always used as a name for all my CRPG magic wielding characters. Perhaps it is proof that we are sometimes drawn to such notoriety...

  2. I think the one that bugs me the most is what you mentioned in passing on Deathtrap Dungeon, that there's no clear criteria for victory. That's a big problem on a lot of the FF games - the best ones seem to be the ones that make it clear at some points what you'll require in order to succeed, whilst the more frustrating ones just leave you stumbling around without any idea.

    I'm not too adverse to the 'make a map of it' requirement of Warlock. A lot of these dungeon-crawl games kinda expected it, because they stemmed so much from 80s D&D. It can be tedious, but it's still a fair challenge, especially when compared to the less-than-fair "You didn't pick up a magic sword that was hidden early in the book, so the army of ghosts stamp all over you now and you die" endings.

  3. Phew - I'm just glad none of my books got singled out for this post :)

  4. Coming at this from a game development point of view, I'd say that all of the above are pretty much poster examples of what you should not do:
    - Extreme difficulty boss characters. Check.
    - Puzzles Requiring Obscure Knowledge from Outside the Game (e.g., from other playthroughs). Check.
    - Many Combinations, No Clues. Check.
    - Failure to Provide Clear Short-Term Goals. Check.
    - Failure to Explain Victory and Loss Conditions. Check.

    To be fair, this was fairly common in many if not most games of this early period of this kind of gaming (in the same way many arcade games of this period were absolutely brutally unforgiving).

    There is no good reason to commit the same mistakes today, IMO, other than the kick of nostalgia. In a medium where it is so trivial to cheat, why force the user to do so?

  5. Also in Creature (I think it's Creature) if you don't find the amulet and hence the secret passageways you end up in a crazy loop fighting Chaos Warriors with skill 10...after it goes back to the original reference, the first Chaos encounter, you realise that something is badly wrong. However you have no inkling whether the mistake has come about due to your missing something or a mistake in gameplay. In my more callow attempts as a youth I was convinced it was the latter and so I started the dubious practice of keeping my finger in the page'll be pleased to know my cheating failed because I still couldn't translate the language until much later! Anyway, it's a gripe about a book which has plenty of memorable moments, and one of the best stories in the canon.

  6. As I said on the Fighting Dantasy blog, what must it have been like to have played in an Ian Livingstone DMed D&D game in the early 1980s?

  7. Every genre has its growing pains. The annoying part is, by the mid-90's we had pretty much worked most of the kinks out of the format... and then the gamebook market crashed hard. Now, we've got a new generation of readers and writers, and they've got to learn the same lessons all over again. Recently, I was on a brief Windhammer Prize kick and dove into Peledgathol. It was a great book... except for the crippling fact that the author forced you to play a character with 3 Skill. Consequently, there's no way to beat the book fairly. It's a pity, because aside from that, it's really well-written and designed. Probably would have won the competition if not for that screw-up.

    More common and annoying than impossible fights, though, is generic choices. Every author is allowed to occasionally phone it in and throw the player into a blank T-junction, but when overused it becomes tiring quick. Realistically, the only solutions to such a problem are to get lucky or find the right answer by exhaustive search. Wizard Outcast and Hellfire come to mind as examples, and both of them I lost patience and wound up mapping the sucker out. (Hellfire, to be fair, was intended to be insanely hard.) It shows up in Siege of the Necromancer, too, and is a major reason I didn't like that book.

  8. I always got the feeling that CotS was where Sir Ian started believing his own press and got the swelled head he carries with him to this day. He's quite the popinjay. Steve Jackson, on the other hand, is still the kind of bloke you can sit down over a tankard and he's a regular chap.

  9. The hint for the components that kill Zanbar Bone is that you are told everything you need is in Port Blacksand. Although you do find all 3 in Port Blacksand, one ingredient is only there by coincidence and therefore the most likely for the old man to be wrong about.

    1. True. I suppose TECHNICALLY, it's not in Port Blacksand when you find it.