Saturday, May 3, 2014

What never to do in a gamebook and when you could get away with it.

Hello all!  I'll be doing an April A to Z reflections post next week, but for the moment, I want to do some analysis from all my lovely interviewees from this year's April A to Z.  I asked all of them what spoils a gamebook for them.  the reason I did this is to make sure that future gamebooks do not get spoiled by something despite being very good otherwise.  In some cases, it could just be one small thing that could ruin a gamebook.  My post is bought on by this post on Facebook where Richard Penwarden listed a lot of things that could be in gamebooks and asked us what we would like the most.  This also opened up discussion for what people did not like in gamebooks.  So, here is a chance for people to say what we should never do in a gamebook.  However, there are some caveats:

1)  There will always be an exception to every rule.  there will always be someone who likes something that 99.9% of the audience hate.  In these cases, it will be interesting to see why, just in case we are writing a gamebook where the rare situation for doing something that everyone normally hates should be done.

2)  Avoiding doing all the main mistakes that you can make in gamebooks will not necessarily lead to a great gamebook, merely a functional one that doesn't annoy anyone.  It will need something that makes it stand out as well.

Put your pet peeves in the comments below.  There are some responses here to get you going:

Instant death paragraphs with no warning.

Poor spelling, punctuation and links.

Boring sequences/poor plot/2d characters

Unfairness/difficulty/improbable dice rolls needed to win

Inconsistencies in the world (sometimes referred to as a Schrodinger's gamebook where your choice changes the situation)

Lots of equipment lists/writing

Having to replay large sections of the book (digital)

Choices that don't matter

Being told what to think or feel


Rules that aren't explained

Gamebooks that should be novels

Bad/no artwork


  1. Stuart's month of richly insightful interviews is like hundreds of reviews condensed. I would only add that for some of these gamebook flaws, we should identify the root problems leading to reader disgruntlement.

    Instant death paragraphs with no warning-- I believe the real issue is making the player do the repetitious work of replaying. Instant deaths could be satisfying if, say, the player could quickly make a new character on the spot and continue the story.

    Schrodinger’s gamebooks-- Some hate this, but I don't see much of a problem. First, the butterfly effect may sometimes explain the less severe world inconsistencies. Second, the player isn't meant to combine knowledge of multiple outcomes. So what does it matter if the universe changed when making a different choice? You're not supposed to peek into that universe nor cling to metaknowledge from previous playthroughs. The movie Labyrinth wasn't made for the audience to pause scenes and scan all the puppets' wires and strings with an electron microscope. If you cheat, you can't blame the writer for ruining the experience. So maybe the root problem is punishing players and pressuring them into cheating. Dissecting a gamebook is fun, but it doesn't count as the playing experience.

    Too many items-- Again, the bigger problem may be fruitless work. If each item has a guaranteed use in every playthrough, then no time or bookkeeping is wasted.

    Choices that don't matter-- I strongly disagree with this one. It's like saying each scene in a movie must only push the plot further (leading to a 10 minute flailing movie). What if the choices are used to develop character, establish atmosphere, pause for reflection, advance a theme or social message, or set up hidden mechanics that have a huge payoff later? Also, a few inconsequential choices help the psychological journey through the story. Readers need rest periods and breathing room to absorb what happened. Perhaps the real problem with inconsequential choice is the lack of anything else interesting. Often, number tweaks are used to substitute interesting writing. I'm happy to read a section without consequences, provided it gives me something to think about.

    1. What if the choices are used to develop character, establish atmosphere, pause for reflection, advance a theme or social message, or set up hidden mechanics that have a huge payoff later?

      Then they aren't 'choices that don't matter'. Some gamebooks include decisions that are totally irrelevant. The outcome is exactly the same no matter what you pick, you learn nothing from one option that you wouldn't have learned from any other, the effect (or lack thereof) on your stats and inventory is identical regardless, there's no significant psychological insight to be gained... It's just linearity dressed up as interactivity to con the reader into believing that they can influence the course of events.

  2. I'm hoping for a combat system that offers interesting choices. FF and FF-alikes are all stat+roll+modifiers, with maybe LUCK you can use (but not much of a decision).

    Newer ones have tried more deterministic combat, but still without particularly engaging decisions (spend rogue points to pass).

    I'd like to see something more like Euro board games, where you have a game "engine" and build that engine over the game using output from the engine itself. That leads to interesting tradeoffs, like whether to spend these points to improve now, or save them for emergencies. For combat, it might include pieces of equipment combining with each other to give bonus to certain types of output (damage, mana, etc.). Such a thing is probably beyond the scope of a Windhammer entry, though.

  3. @ Horace Have you checked out DestinyQuest at all? ( It has a more tactical combat system, a little similar to what you are describing - with the equipment that your hero is wearing boosting stats and giving you different abilities. It doesn't use 'points' as such, instead the abilities allow you to change/modify dice rolls, roll extra dice etc - allowing you to respond to the tactics and abilities of your opponents.

    Anyway, just thought I would mention!