Sunday, September 8, 2013
Why it's difficult to do magic in gamebooks
This is because most of my enemies (and a lot of my allies) in gamebooks were magic users who could produce cool spells that I had to endure, dodge or have an item to protect me from. I got a bit of magic envy, wishing that I could fireball my way out of a combat once in a while.
Fast forward a few years and I realised that integrating magic into a gamebook is a difficult thing to do. The main reason being that gamebooks can only offer a limited number of options and having lots of spells at your disposal gives a player more options. This means that the gamebook author needs to look at each of their encounters and think about how each spell might affect that encounter. This is a lot of work and might lead to a long series of options saying 'If you wish to cast x spell, turn to...'
What has emerged are several different ways of approaching magic in gamebooks, all with their own advantages and disadvantages.
A spell is basically an item that is use once in a specific situation in a book
Think of the dragonfire spell in Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the North gate spell in Khare or the insect repellant spell in Crypt of the Sorcerer. These spells have no rules associated with them - you just learn them and use them as the text demands. It means that you get to learn spells but for me, I don't get the feeling that I am a proper wizard as these spells could just have easily been replaced by items and they do not give you more options - they are usually there as a victory requirement or to make a difficult combat easier.
The hero has a list of spells that they can use
This is the case for Heroquest, Citadel of Chaos or Scorpion Swamp. Now we're getting closer to wizardhood as you have a list of spells. the limit with this system involve not being able to use all spells in a given situation to avoid having huge numbers of paragraphs. Also, for flavour reasons, would you expect a proper wizard to know about ten spells? In Scorpion Swamp, you are not a proper wizard, I'll admit, but what about Heroquest and Citadel of Chaos. I suppose you could say that it's Vancian magic and the book has only selected relevant spells, but it is a bit limiting (and for good reason. No gamebook author is going to want to write the consequences for using 12 different spells in each situation).
I'm thinking the Sorcery! series which also throws in some dud spells along the way (those of you who know Sorcery! know I've just done a pun). Here you get a cool long list of spells but you just don't get the option to use all of them when given the option of using magic. Doing so would be unworkable for the reasons mentioned above, but it is not realistic and I always used to get frustrated when I just wanted to fireball an opponent and couldn't.
I'm thinking the Virtual Reality series (most of the time - see below) where you can get the magic skill but your list of spells is unknown to you. Basically, you sometimes have the option of using the magic skill and if you do, the spell you use is described. This is more realistic for your character - they can produce a wide array of effects and you get to read about the cool spells you use, but this option reduces magic to yet another skill and only allows the player to use magic when the text demands it.
This happens in some cases in the Virtual Reality series and also in the Warlock's way. This method is slightly better than the two methods above. It is better than just asking if you have the magic skill, because you feel like you have some control over the spell you could cast. It also lets you weigh up the options and decide which spell is best from the information provided about the spell and the situation.
For example, in The Warlock's Way (bought from the superb Billiam Babble) you have to get across a lake. You have the option of casting a jump spell (1 magic point), a fly spell (3 magic points), a walk on water spell (2 magic points) or make the good for nothing boatman tell the truth about the lake (1 magic point). If you have more info, you will know that the lake is inhabited by invisible poisonous fish and so any spell that involves going into the water (jump, which does not go far enough) gets you killed.
This method only works if you can work out the consequences of using a particular spell. If you have no way of knowing which spell is better then it really defeats the object of this method.
The hero has a list of spells that can be used in certain situations
In this method, some spells may never be mentioned in the text but their descriptions may tell you that you can use them in particular situations. For example, a lot of the Heroquest spells can be used during combat. Bloodbones has a list of three spells that you can use, two of which allow you to avoid encounters with certain creatures. This system works well and can allow a wide range of spells but only if the language in the book makes it clear when the situations arise. For example Bloodbones is clear that you can use the spells against zombies or insects and it is pretty obvious when you come across a zombie or an insect. Legend of Zagor does this too and also has a non magic example - Stubble gets a bonus to attack strength against any opponent with stone in its name.
A fan solution
A while back, someone known as Larni on the official Fighting Fantasy forum (now closed) posted a list of spells that you could use in Fighting Fantasy books. Many of them were combat spells but there were others such as spells that restored your stats, created a non magical item or let you reroll die rolls. There were about 20 spells and all of them could be used independantly of the book you were playing. It inspired me to make my own list for an article in Fighting Fantazine. I'd like to thank Larni for the inspiration.
If a little effort is made with being clear with my language in a gamebook, I could come up with a similar system which could incorporate about two dozen spells that don't require a single paragraph in the book and that leaves more room for juicy storylines and wierd monsters and we can all say that's a good thing.