Saturday, June 30, 2012

Enjoyable and challenging vs unfair and frustrating 1: enjoyable and Challenging

I start this series with talking about difficult books or stiuations in books that I still loved because I enjoyed their challenge.  And without further ado, here they are.

Siege of Sardath
Siege of Sardath is a very difficult book but once you've been through it a few times, you start to realise that all of the situations actually make sense in the context of the story and it all actually makes sense.  It is like the Fight Club of gamebooks.  Here are two situations in the book that appear to be difficult but you can actually work them out with a little thought.

If you find a tomb in the woods and kill a couple of winged dark elves trying to get inside it, you are presented with a stone door and several options to getting in.  One of them may give, as the book describes, a clue to a clue.  you hear a ghost telling his beloved to 'Perform the sing of summoning' to enter.  This is a clue to a clue as a character you may come across before hand may do such a thing - he taps on a magical mirror three times to summon a suma.  However, you then need to work out which action will work.  You are given the option of hitting the door which most players might discount as it is big and stone.  Sure enough, if you do hit the door, it does not make a mark.  You are given the option of hitting it again and if you do, you do not make a mark.  If you hit it a third time, you have performed the sign of summoning and the door opens.  I think that this is challenging as it rewards players for reading carefully or being persistent and being willing to try things.

You may also come across Sorrel, an elf friend of yours, in Siege of Sardath.  However, he does not recognise you and orders his elvish friends to attack you.  Once again, you have several options of approaching this, including shooting him with your bow and arrow.  Normally, you wouldn't do this but once again, the book rewards observant players.  You are told that Sorrel has a scar over one eye and the illustration shows him with a scar on the other eye.  If you hit him with the arrow, the illusionary disguise is destroyed to reveal that Sorrel is an imposter.  There are other clues that you can pick up.  For example, you could tell him something that only the two of you know.  He doesn't acknowledge this tacit information and instead orders the elves to attack you.  You risk your stamina, but you get another clue.  You may also come across a sword that looks very much like Sorrel's (it is illustrated) which is also a clue that the real Sorrel is dead.

Giving Lord Leiutenant Rhyger the magic spear in Fire on the Water

Giving Lord Leiutenant Rhyger the magic spear is a selfless act which gives him a chance against Helghast, powerful undead that can only be harmed by magic weapons.  Giving him your only magic weapon and risking your own life in the process is a wonderfully selfless act that deserves a reward.

Well tough.  If you do give him the magic spear, the only way to avoid a horrible death is to have a substandard skill and have all of your money stolen. 

This is a challenge because it goes against any ingrained habits we may have picked up and shows us a bit of the internal logic of the book.  Also, death is not certain if you do give him the spear as you are given an out.   

It is also a good roleplaying opportunity which can be its own reward.  as Dave Morris once said, rewarding certain actions in the game is not moraility - it is economics.

riding two tigers across a river 
with an eagle on your shoulder
whilst wearing an eyepatch
and holding a flail.
enjoyable and challenging or
unfair and frustrating?
Daggers of Darkness and Fangs of Fury by Luke Sharpe

Many of the decisions that you make have completely unpredictable consequences that lead to you being take on a completely random path but eventually you reach the end and your ultimate victory. 

The reason why unpredictable consequences do not bother me in these books is because the consequences are rarely fatal and sometimes entertaining.  They also do not stop you from winning.  In these books, I quite enjoy being taken on these random rides through  enemy infested territory, escaping each dangerous situation by the skin of my teeth, only being dropped into a more perilous one as I knew that I still had a fair chance at victory.

Creature of Havoc

Even with minimum stats, you still have a 1 in 6 chance per round of killing an opponent in combat, so there are no unfair combats, you have to be very observant to get and use the clues you get, you learn that you shouldn't squander your valuables (such as the crystal club - you don't need to use it when combat is so easy), you have interesting intellectual puzzles like figuring out language and working out exactly where you fit into a rich and detailed backstory.  Your enemies are intelligent and ruthless and don't suffer from Bond villain stupidity meaing that if you do beat them, then you know that you've achieved and that error about the pendant is actually an initiative test.  Apart from the first bit, none of the deaths are determined randomly (and if you do die due to a die roll at the beginning, you've only wasted 5 minutes rather than a couple of hours playing the whole gamebook only to realise that you missed the item you should have got on your first decision).  The book is a challenge of your wits and persistance and after the die rolling is over, your success or failure depends on your choices rather than die rolls.  Even the paths that lead to failure are interesting and fit in with the storyline so you have a detailed world to explore.

Deathtrap Dungeon

Look at the name.  If it was easy, it would be called Pushover Dungeon. Sure, it's hard but that makes it all the more satisfying to win.  And sure, you have to choose left or right a lot of the time, but maybe it's not about the decision, it's about the feeling of suspense you get every time you open a door, not knowing if it will be the last thing you do.  All the situations are memorable (how do you get the gems from the giant statue?  how do you deal with the bloodbeast?  how gutted were you when you had to kill Throm?).  You will probably die in the dungeon, but it will be a thrilling and emotional time and if you do win, you will be over the moon.

Killing Honoric, Manse and Yaemon in Avenger! (Way of the Tiger book 1)

Honoric in bed,
holding his big weapon.
These are three of the biggest villains on Orb and you have to kill them in a single night.  Each one of them can easily kill you - you have no chance against Honoric and his anti magic, fear inducing sword in a fight, Manse has several spells that can kill you and yaemon is an unparralled martial artist.  Trying to attack any of them offers up interesting choices and almost certain death.  first, you ahve to kill them in a particular order.  Going for Yaemon any time other than after you have killed the other two will get you killed.  This is kind of a metagame decision as Yaemon is set up as th ebig bad of the book and so you need to kill the lesser villains first.  But which one first? 

The correct order can be worked out by an observant reader who notices that Manse's magic does not work when Honoric's sword is around.  So wouldn't it be good to kill Honoric then use his sword against Manse?  Exactly.  You can kill Manse without the sword but it is a lot harder to do.

So how do you kill Honoric?  he is asleep and he is easy to wake, but there is another option.  You havea vial of the blood of Nil, an extremely rare yet extremely deadly poison.  The question is:  do you use it now and probably never have it again or save it for a more powerful foe?  This choice is far more interesting than any old 'Do you wish to use item X?' choice as it is played up just how rare and valuable the blood of Nil is and it leaves a question in my mind - is this the right time to use it?  Decisions like these are good in gamebooks as they made me think about whether I should use the poison or save it for later (or, in metagame terms - is this the correct time to use the poison or is the book just trying to get me to waste it and potentially make me lose the game - decisions like this are harder when the stakes are higher). 

So here are some enjoyable and challenging situations.  Next week, I will be blogging about unfair and frustrating situations.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A new perspective on 'Nintendo hard' gamebooks

So I was doing a little research into Old School Dungeons and Dragons scenarios and inevitably came across the Tomb of Horrors, a place filled with death traps and powerful monsters where even the fake versions of the demi lich Acererak could take down several adventurers.  I managed to find a version updated for DnD 3.5, which, while very severe, is actually a toned down version of the original, acording to the Tomb of Horrors TvTropes page.

Although the chances are that you'll lose half a dozen characters before they get into the tomb, this Nintendo hard scenario was voted the 3rd best ever in Dungeon Magazine 116.

Something clicked in my brain after reading this.  I've long been an advocate of having decisions in gamebooks having logical consequences and making sure that characters are not killed early and often for making a wrong turn or for not picking up item x three rooms back. 

However, I think this approach seems to be leaving out a certain group of readers. 

The evidence has been around me for a while; I just hadn't noticed it.  For example, there are several RPG systems such as Call of Cthulu or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay where death is not only inevitable, it is usually favourable to the alternatives (going insane from seeing an eldritch abomination or being mutated by the forces of Chaos for example) or it is just an accepted part of character creation such as in Dungeon Crawl Classics.  Despite the inevitable bloodbath, people are still entertained by these games and continue to play them. 

This Grognardia retrospective on the Tomb of Horrors provided a little insight into why it is still entertaining - it appeals to gamers as a challenge in order to win.  Being able to win the Tomb of Horrors would certainly be an achievement by showing off your initiative and problem solving abilities. 

As I have written in my Adventurer blog post, gamebooks cannot approach such challanges in the same way as the gamebook author cannot anticipate and plan for every option available to the players in advance.  However, there is this great post from Fighting Fantasist which quotes Pete Tamlyn in this article stating that if all of the decisions in a gamebook were fair and had logical consequences, then the gamebook would be far far too easy (on the other side of the coin, some Lone Wolf books are too easy because of the logical consequences to decisions but they still provide entertainment due to Magnamund being such a rich fantasy world to explore and the fact that Lone Wolf is an epic saga).

Which leads me to the reason why gamebooks  such as the Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon are considered classics despite the fact that they are full of decisions with arbitrary consequences and victory being decided on whether you just happened to have picked up the correct items for the end. 

They are challenging and some people like a challenge (such as the champion and puzzle solver gamebook player type).  Even an unfair challenge. 

Also, all things considered, the penalty for losing these games is the death of an imaginary character who you rolled up three hours ago.  Not big when you think about it.  It's not like it was a level 17 rogue/ranger who I had put months of effort into. 

I guess when I was younger, I got too precious about my characters dying and wanted to cheat to save them, but, by reading about the Tomb of Horrors, RPGs where characters always get killed off and blogs of gamebook playthroughs where most of them end in failure (here, here, here, here, here and here), I have come to the conclusion that, with certain provisios such as fair dice rolling and being part of a fun story, having your character die horribly or fail to get the treasure doesn't necessarily put a dampener on the entertainment value of a gamebook. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Speculation on The Heart of Fire

As a Magic the Gathering player of many years, I spent a lot of time reading Mark Rosewater's posts and try to crack his cryptic clues about what cards will be released in the next set. 

So when Michael J. Ward, author of Destiny Quest started releasing descriptions of careers for book 2, I put my rumour mill hat on and started trying to work out what it's all going to be about.

The careers have the flavour of being in contact with nature and also being ousted from civilisation.  There is also mention of the Church being the enemy.  It seems that you will be fighting the Church as some outcast from society. 

I'm also speculating on how you don't die in this one.  Will nature regeneratre you if you die?

I guess we'll find out in November.

In the mean time, you can buy the new Legion of Shadow here (softback) or here (hardback).

And keep updated with Destiny Quest here.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Blood of the Zombies cover revealed

I'd be remiss in not publishing this bit of news despite the fact that you've probably already seen it (Scott Malthouse has published it and so has Galactrix who has just started a Fighting Fantasy play through blog).

So the cover for Blood of the Zombies, due out early this August, has been released and also it will have a green spine and the FF logo. 

I'm glad that there are elements of the original there as they will fit in well with the rest of the Puffin collection, the books that most of us grew up with. 

Looking at it, however, I couldn't help but get a feeling that there was something missing from this cover until I realised that it was missing that classic dragon sitting atop a box or having the author's name inside a green jagged area.

However, this wasn't always the case:

Join me tomorrow when I blog about another upcoming gamebook (I'm starting to sound more and more like Mark Rosewater).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Adventurer: The Solo Role Playing Game - why gamebooks need something like this.

Those of you who have been keeping track of things on Facebook and Twitter already know that Shane Garvey (author of QUERP, Battlemage and the Fabled Lands RPG) and I are starting on a project called the Adventurer: The Solo Role Playing Game.  The aim of this project is to create a simple yet versatile RPG system that can be applied to gamebooks. 

I had been thinking about this for a while and had taken preliminary steps into making my own system wihch is what I told Shane over Facebook.  Then the ball started rolling. 

I think an RPG system for gamebooks is a great idea as most gamebook systems - either a simple game system just for that book or an existing RPG system - have their shortcomings.  I will explain the good and bad points of both followed by what our new system will achieve.

Using an existing RPG system in gamebooks

So what's the damage die for
wielding two ferrets?
The good thing about RPG systems is that they are extensive, very detailed and offer lots of scope for character development and enchancement.  They also have rules for almost every situation allowing people to write adventures for almost everything.  However, these systems only work well when there is a human referee there to think about players' ideas for actions and determine the consequence of them.  The referee needs a good knowledge of all the rules as well as the ability to use their knowledge of the scenario, their knowledge of the abilities of the characters and NPCs,  the temperaments of the players involved and the dynamic of the play group to come up with a reasonable consequence for that action.

So referees have to think about a lot and some of it will be on the spot.

Gamebook authors cannot do that.  They need to offer a limited set of options with predetermined consequences.  Even if we remove the ingenuity (or craziness) of the players (there's always one who comes up with some wacky of the wall scheme) who come up with an option not listed then we still have a large rules system and it will be nigh on impossible to take into account the consequences of the player using any spell or skill.  Each paragraph would have at least a dozen references for them to turn to.  The ability to cast the fly spell would render even the most dangerous fighting fantasy book harmless (thinka bout Crypt of the Sorcerer - dragon burnt my balloon?  I'll fly off with my buddies.  Need a gargantis horn?  I'll just fly up there and cut it off.  Razaak about to touch me?  I'll fly out of his reach).

Tunnels and Trolls has several solos with this problem.  Some of them get around it by not allowing magic users to play them but that's not using the whole rules system and from a flavour point of view, it does not make much sense to have all these dungeons lying around that magic can't function in.

The plus side of using an existing RPG system is that there is plenty of scope for advancement of your player and there is probably a rule to help resolve a situation.

So the problem with using an existing RPG system in a gamebook is that a gamebook is just not able to account for all of the options the player has that the system has to offer. 

Using a system designed specifically for gamebooks

The good thing about the Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf or Virtual Reality gamebook systems is that they are quick and simple.  You can create a character in under a minute and read the whole rules in under 10 minutes. 

However, the system's simplicity is also a disadvantage.  If a situation comes up in the book that is not covered by the rules then you have to stop the narrative to explain what the player has to do and what the consequences are.  for example, some situations in Lone Wolf and fighting Fantasy were resolved with the roll of a die (or picking a random number).  These rulings sometimes felt a bit arbitrary and, in the case of the Fighting Fantasy series which had multiple authors, inconsistent.  Of course, it is not their fault as they are not breaking the rules.  The problem is that there are no rules.

Advancement was also a problem.  When making a simple system, advancing the character was usually the first thing to go.  Lone Wolf and the Avenger! series let you get one skill per book but there is no rule for increasing your stats.  Fighting Fantasy had no scope for advancement as it assumes that each character only works for one book (of course, that doesn't stop people carrying characters over but they rarely increase their stats and never do so for completing a book) and so there is little continuity.  the Sorcery! series did very little to remedy this with just a few bonuses at the ends of books 1 and 3 (apparently Khare was not dangerous enough to warrant an increase to your initial scores) and no chance to learn new spells. 

What Adventurer: The Solo Role Playing Game hopes to achieve.

Shane and I want to create a system that has plenty of options for character customisation and advancement, gives them plenty of options for dealing with encounters and covers all situations so that we do not have arbitrary rules.  We also want to do this in a way that is simple and allows the narrative of the gamebook to flow unhindered with loads of instructions about dice rolling and getting over such and such a number.  I'm excited about this project as we will then have a system to create many great gamebooks from that people can play as all types of characters rather than having to create a character to fit the mechanics of the book (why can't wizards storm Firetop Mountain or how about a brother of the Crystal Star going to Helgedad?) have several ways of beating an opponent and develop their character in all kinds of ways over a series of books that don't necessarily have to fit a huge arc so they can play them in any order or just apply them to new books as they come out.

I'm looking forward to working with Shane and helping release this gem...

you can keep up with the latest news here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Warlock's Bounty (Android app) review

I'm having a bit of an Android app session.  I've already reviewed the excellent Pirates and Traders and now I'm going to review Warlock's Bounty. 

I like gamebooks (I hope you noticed).  I like Magic the Gathering (I consider Mark Rosewater to be my creativity guru and still read his articles despite not having played MTG for a few years) so when I heard that there would be an Android app which is a gamebook where the player fights combats using cards in a style similar to Magic the Gathering, I jumped for joy.  Throw in the fact that the gamebook part is written by Jonathon Green and we're onto a winner.
The app in question is Warlock's bounty and you can get a free demo of it or buy the full game for £1.69.  What a bargain.

I loved the game.  You fight combat with a set of cards that you have.  These cards have weapons, armour or spells.  You have five cards available to you in your 'hand' and you may play one a turn.  Your opponent does likewise. 

You have a large variety of cards from cards that summon creatures to cards that curse opponents, reducing their damage, cards that cause damage either through physical or magical means, cards that drain your opponent's mana, cards that protect you and many other cards with many other effects. 

The gamebook part of it is there largely to serve the combat with the choices you make determining what kind of spells or equipment you can pick up and you will need them as your opponents get stronger and have more powerful spells. 

The illustrations and sound effects add to the atmosphere of the book, immersing you in its world and making it an excellent gaming experience. 

So go and play Warlock's Bounty for Android.  You can download a free demo here  or buy the full game for a mere £1.69.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pirates and Traders (Android app) review

I really enjoyed writing Sharkbait's Revenge.  It really got me into the whole pirate thing which is why I love the Android app Pirates and Traders (there is a basic ad supported version for free or the Gold! version without ads and with game perks for a bargain £3.25)

This is a game set in the 17th century Caribbean with you as a swashbuckling captain of a ship.  As the title suggests, you will come across many other characters, mainly pirates and traders.  Being a pirate or a trader are also the main routes that you can take to making your fortune. 

Pirates and traders offers you tons of options.  First of all, there is an in depth character creation process where you choose your nationality, your traits and your ship.  Once you are on the  high seas, you can search them for other ships to plunder either solely for treasure or in the name of your country or you can sail from port to port looking for deals on the many commodities sold and keeping an ear out for any rumours of surpluses or shortages so that you can buy low and sell high.

The game does not stop there, however.  You can also take part in missions such as pirate hunting, delivering items or tryiong to smuggle contraband into certain ports.  There are also other story modules coming up.

There is always something to aim for.  You can upgrade your personal equipment and ship until you have a mighty floating fortress crewed by an elite army of sailors.

The gorgeous nautical graphics and stirring music really add to the adventerous feeling you get when you set out to explore the seas once more.

Pirates and Traders is an excellent game offering great strategy and RPG opportunities all in one.  How could you not resist its lure?

You can get the free, ad supported Pirates and Traders here.

Get Pirates and Traders Gold! for a mere £3.25 here.

You can get an older and simpler version of Pirates and Traders - Pirates and Traders Retro! here for free.

The paid retro version - Pirates and Traders - Old Gold! is here for £1.25.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Orphan paragraphs and why they are used.

Paragraph 1 is purple, meaning that it is an
orphan paragraph.
Orphan paragraph is a term I've borrowed from the gamebook program ADVELH.  It refers to a paragraph where there is no instruction in the text to turn to that paragraph.  However, there are many reasons why a gamebook would have an orphan paragraph and here they are.

You start at the paragraph

You are not told to turn to a paragraph because you start at that paragraph (OK, you might have been told in the background but you haven't been told to turn there from another paragraph).  However, you may have to choose to turn to a paragraph from a choice of more than one paragraph in the background and also, your starting paragraph may not be an orphan paragraph due to time travel shennanigans.  For examples of this, see Black Vein Prophecy, Necklace of Skulls and Crown of the Kings.

You go to them due to an instruction from a previous scene in the gamebook or an earlier gamebook in a series

If you complete book 1,
you can turn to
paragraph 12.
This strategy is used to make sure that players do not realise that they need an item to succeed.  For example, in Deathtrap Dungeon, you are asked if you have an emerald at the end.  Now you know that you need an emerald.  In Creature of Havoc, you may get a pendant that detects secret doors.  It tells you that when you see the phrase 'You cannot see a thing...' you should subtract 20 from the paragraph number and turn to the new paragraph.  This means that a player without the pendant is none the wiser that they need it.  Of course, this being Creature of Havoc, even having the pendant is the not the end of it, but that's another story.

Puzzle from Island of the Undead.

You go to them as they are the solution to a puzzle

You may be presented with a puzzle where the answer is a number or you may have to convert a word into numbers (usually using the formula A =1, B = 2, C = 3 etc).  The solution will be the paragraph that you turn to.

Seppuku is not
a good thing.
You go to them when a condition is met with your abilities

In some books, you may be given a statistic which may do something if it reaches a certain score.  For example, in the Crimson Tide, if your ferocity is reduced to 0, you turn to 200.  In Sword of the Samurai, if your honour is reduced to 0, you commit seppuku.  In Outsider!, if your psychic score goes to 13 or more, you turn to 103 to explore your new psychic powers.

It's a false unreachable paragraph

Paragraph 192 in the Warlock of Firetop Mountain (See errors) is an orphan paragraph, added to bring the number of paragraphs up to 400.

Paragraph 258 of the Citadel of Chaos (see errors) is also an orphan paragraph, possibly because of a missing option.

Where's my paragraph?!