Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fighting without dice

Post by Paltogue.

I'm currently in the planning stages of writing a gamebook (or even a series of gamebooks) and, as a long-time fan of Fighting Fantasy, my first inclination is to go with the familiar and use FF rules, including plenty of fighting (it is FIGHTING Fantasy after all). But there's a problem, currently being discussed in blogs and on Twitter by people like Dave Morris and Matt Hill, which I want to explore in this post on Lloyd of Gamebooks.

OK, picture the situation. You're lying asleep just before dawn in a first floor bedroom in an inn, on your way to deliver an important secret message to ... well, I'm not going to give the whole game away right now, just assume it's someone important! Test your Skill. If you are successful, you wake up, having heard noise from the floor below, which sounds like someone breaking into the inn. If you fail, you remain asleep. Let's say for now you were successful (which of course depends on what your SKILL score was in the first place, in large part determined by another random roll of the dice before you started your adventure). You bolt awake, realising your enemies are coming to get you before you can deliver your message. So what do you do now? Do you grab your stuff and stand by your door, preparing to attack anyone who tries to come in (this would be the only option if you didn't pass the SKILL test just before by the way), or do you grab the first thing at hand and get the hell out of there, jumping out the window to the back street below? Now, that's a proper choice that you as the reader get to decide, and I like it, as I have no idea who or how many people are coming up the stairs to get me, and as it's near dark outside I fancy my chances with the jump (the inn isn't very tall after all). So you chose which of your possessions to grab and out the window you go. Test your Luck. If you are lucky, you land well and get to your feet. If you are unlucky, you land awkwardly and twist your knee. Lose 2 STAMINA points (and maybe even a SKILL point if I'm being mean). You stand up and see a gaunt REIVER wearing a wide-brimmed hat standing in front of you. He is holding a flaming brand in one hand, and a jagged-edged knife in the other. You must fight him!

REIVER        8            9

After two attack rounds, another REIVER, this one short and waving a sword over his head comes running towards you and joins the fight. You must fight them both at the same time.

2nd REIVER         7           7

If you survive this fight to the death, you head off into the night in the hope of escaping your pursuers.

I don't know about you, but I thought this was quite fun up till the point when I had to fight the Reivers. But suddenly I've got to stop the enjoyment for a bit, while I roll some dice a couple of dozen times (allowing for a re-roll or two, let's be honest!). That was completely BORING (and would have been even more so if you'd chosen or been unlucky enough to have to fight the four Reivers coming up the stairs to your room, each in turn)... And what is it about those bloody dice anyway, especially the one I once filled in the dimples of with a blue pen? Why does it always seem to roll a low number?! I mean, I almost had to stop reading this book I've spent a fiver on and start it all over again just because of some annoying little red cubes that don't want to roll the way I want them to. And don't get me started on the fact that I only had an initial SKILL of 8 in the first place - again the fault of the pesky dice!

Don't get me wrong, I like dice as much as the next person. They are tactile, loaded with history and (a little bit of) mystery, and they make a nice noise and movement when you roll them on the right surface. But I don't want to depend on them for enjoyment of a story. Imagine reading your favourite novel, and not allowing yourself to start each new chapter until you'd rolled equal to or over a random number between 7 and 12 with two dice. Seriously?! As a long-time fan of Fighting Fantasy, you can imagine that this has presented me with a bit of a quandary. Actually, it hasn't really. I decided, pretty much after my first combat in Island of the Lizard King in 1985 that there was no real fun to be had rolling dice to see how good at adventuring you were and then rolling some more (again and again and again and again) to see if you could continue reading the book. Nope, not for me. I loved these books, but from now on I won every fight and succeeded in every roll (and had enough gold too, at least if the amount I started with was arbitrarily decided by the author). I didn't claim to have things I didn't or have done things I hadn't, but I did keep a spare finger or three in previous paragraphs just in case the author was going to kill me off without warning (another problem with the FF approach). And that's still how I play Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and I don't suppose I'll ever do it differently (I have tried playing by the rules many times, but I just get annoyed; oh, and curse you, Paul Mason, for your subversive ways!). Now maybe some of you are aghast at this, but seriously, how many of you really enjoy playing a book 100 times just to find out what happens if the dice go the right way for you? The internet is littered with gamebook playthroughs which (being generous) 9 times out of 10 don't get very far, even when the person doing them knows the book pretty well.

So what's the alternative for those of us wanting to write gamebooks which include some fighting? And who doesn't want fighting, really? I mean, I'm sure I can't be the only one who gets a shiver down my spine when I turn to a new paragraph and see something like BLOODBEAST plastered across the page! But I don't want that to mean "spend the next five minutes rolling dice in a monotonous fashion, after which you may have to start all over again anyway" or even "flick on to the next page, nothing of interest here YOU BIG CHEAT". Nor do I want to dodge the issue entirely and ask the reader if they want to run away or stay and get eaten/defeat the enemy automatically. That's equally boring and pointless; why include the 'fight' in the first place?

Obviously I'm not the first person to wrestle with this gamebook conundrum, so let's look at some possible solutions. First of all, we could go all Way of the Tiger ninja on the Reiver's ass, and present a range of different fighting moves, some of which will be more effective than others. But WotT still relies upon rolling dice and a lot of guesswork as to the best moves to make. I can imagine though that this is definitely an avenue we could pursue, though we would want to get rid of the dice from it completely (and perhaps simplify the kinds of moves you can make, as we're not all going to be ninjas). The recent Inkle adaptations of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! books go for a trade off between attack strength and energy levels, with textual clues as to the best approach to adopt in each attack round for each opponent. Again, this is an improvement, but it would be hard to do in a paper gamebook without dice, and in any case boils down to a set number of moves which are the same for every combat (and it sometimes feels like the combats are a rather easy formality that are only in there because this is a Fighting Fantasy adaptation). A kind of a half way house between WotT and the run away/get eaten approach is the one used in the Virtual Reality/Critical IF books, where you are presented with a list of possible actions to take, some of which you can only do if you have certain Skills. This works well, as in the example from Heart of Ice where you encounter a huge Fijian bodyguard. You can either run away, try and blag your way out of the situation, brandish your gun at him to make him back off, or fight him. This is a nice variety of options, certainly better than almost anything you'll encounter in Fighting Fantasy, but only one of them really involves you fighting, and the result is a single outcome (you lose some Life Points, then knock him out and make yourself scarce). So not really a fight as such, but let's be honest this is much better than rolling dice till you're sick and being told to turn to paragraph 236 if you win (and it's helped by the evocatively descriptive text of course). A more complex example is furnished by the Hydra in Necklace of Skulls. Here you can try to dodge, parry or attack. Each of these options leads to other similar options, and some may lead to loss of Life Points, but, depending on your Skills and what you chose before, the choices may be subtly different (you can dodge further away; you can now use a spear if you have one), or you may be returned to the original set of choices in a nice take on the repeated attack round. Depending upon your choices in this dangerous fight, you may be killed outright, suffer repeated loss of Life Points, or work out the right combination of choices to survive the fight with minimal or no injury. I think this works really well as a fight against a dangerous opponent - there's certainly a danger of injury and death, but thinking about your choices in light of your equipment and Skills should get you through. Most importantly, it's not boring or arbitrary. There is a danger of death here, but it's not one of those unavoidable Instant Deaths or the result of the author trying to kill off the reader, so I slightly disagree with Dave Morris here, who recently said on Twitter that "If you can fight you'd expect you can die, but that's always a fail for author & reader". After all, there has to be some risk in a gamebook, otherwise it's JUST a story with different ways of reading it (no harm in that of course, but that's a rather different kind of thing I think).

So I think this gives us a decent kind of fighting interaction which doesn't involve dice but which also doesn't constitute a removal of fighting from gamebooks entirely. But it does mean abandoning my nostalgic attachment to the Fighting Fantasy system which, after all, I've personally abandoned using in my own adventures years ago, so why should I inflict it on others?!

With all that in mind, how does the following version of the scenario I started the post sound? Does it capture that essence of fighting and fantasy without recourse to dice and arbitrary decisions?

You're lying asleep just before dawn in a first floor bedroom in an inn, on your way to deliver an important secret message to ... Suddenly you wake up, having heard noise from the floor below, which sounds like someone breaking into the inn. (Let's be honest, as an author we want to give the reader the chance to make decisions, not have them forced on them, so there's no value in randomly having it decided if they wake up or not.) You bolt upright, realising your enemies are coming to get you before you can deliver your message. So what do you do now? Do you grab your stuff and stand by your door, preparing to attack anyone who tries to come in, or do you grab what you can and get the hell out of there, jumping out the window to the back street below? As before, I like the idea of jumping out the window, as I have no idea who or how many people are coming up the stairs to get me, and as it's near dark outside I fancy my chances with the jump. So out the window you go. You land with an umph on the ground, but you aren't hurt. (Let's not make the reader's life a misery here by deducting Life Points - punishing them for doing the wise thing and escaping when the other option was fighting a bunch of Reivers in a bedroom is just mean.) You stand up and see a surprised, gaunt REIVER wearing a wide-brimmed hat standing in front of you. He is holding a flaming brand in one hand, and a jagged-edged knife in the other. Which of the following will you do?
  • Try to talk to him? (He will stick his fingers in his mouth and whistle loudly, and shout "He's ower here" at the top of his voice. Not good, but really, what did you think was going to happen? Another Reiver joins him for the fight.)
  • Charge right at him to try knocking him out of your way? (Good idea. He's as shocked as you are, and he's gaunt, i.e. not a big meaty bloke. You knock him off his feet and, with the stink of his beery breath oomphing out all over you, you leap over him and run off into the night.)
  • Attack him?
Of course, this last option is where it gets interesting. There's a couple of things to remember though. As an author, my job isn't (or at least shouldn't be) being the reader's enemy. I don't want my reader to die here, as I want them to enjoy the adventure and I've put them in this fix (and being down here on the street is a lot better than being upstairs with the Reivers). So I want the reader to work out what the best thing to do here is and to only get badly harmed if they do something stupid (this is a dangerous and important situation after all; you can be damned sure that this is a life-and-death situation for the person in the adventure, and I want the reader to feel a bit of that too). First things first. I neglected to tell you that you could play this adventure either as a soldier (fighting is good!) or as a friar (fighting not so good!). Also, following the lead of VR/CI, you have a list of Skills and some equipment. If you are going to get into a fight with an armed Reiver, you want to make sure you have a combat Skill, otherwise this isn't going to go so well for you. Why would you fight someone with a knife in their hand if you didn't?! (The friar may not have any combat skills.) You also want to make sure you have a weapon, otherwise it's fists against knives, and we all know how that can end (the friar has a staff and can use it for combat). So a number of variables that you already know about should dictate your actions and, if you decide to do something where the odds are very much stacked against you, don't expect it to go well. So the friar without any combat Skill who has left his staff sitting by the bed is only asking for trouble if they select the option to fight the Reiver. Better to run right at him, don't you think (especially if like me you imagine yourself as a portly and still-slightly-drunk-from-the-night-before kind of friar)? The soldier on the other hand might see combat as a reasonable option - they should have had the sense to pick up their sword from the bedside and will have a combat Skill. A quick lunge at the gaunt Reiver sends him reeling back with a cry as you thrust your sword into his shoulder. Now you can either stop to finish him off, or just run off and leave him (come on, the place is crawling with enemies, get the hell out of there unless you want another Reiver to come running at you from behind and slash at you with his sword!). If you end up having two Reivers to fight, you can't expect things to go quite as well, but unless you stand in the street shouting "Come on all of you if you think you're hard enough", it should be possible to get away from this situation with your life at least. The short Reiver comes running slashing his sword around. The gaunt one is just standing there surprised. Which do you attack first? If you go for the gaunt one, you'll certainly injure him, but the other one is already on the attack and will wound you before you can have a go back at him (if you are still alive of course). If you go for the short Reiver first, you can swipe his attack aside, perhaps even unbalancing him or disarming him, before turning to the gaunt Reiver who, by now has his defences up, but who shouldn't be too much of a problem (let's settle for a little bit of damage, not as much as if the short Reiver got a whack at you first). You knock him out off his feet and can run off into the night (again, if you are daft enough to hang around after that, you're going to have more Reivers to deal with and things aren't going to be pretty, but I should have given you enough hints by now that the name of the game is getting out of here as quickly as possible). Oh, and if you are still fighting Reivers in the bedroom, you have my sympathies. You should by now have stuck the first one to appear, shoved something against the door and dived out the window.

So I think it is possible, using a combination of textual hints, descriptions of your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, Skills, equipment, the possibility of returning to the same sets of choices, good judgement, as well as carefully graded Life Point penalties, to include an element of combat in gamebooks without belabouring it or relying on the vagaries of dice. The VR/CI system, maybe with some adaptations depending upon the kinds of Skills you offer and combats you want, seems like the best way forward. I think this can be entertaining and productive. What do you think?

17 comments:

  1. Great post. You make some really good points.

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  2. My advice to you is do more research on what newer Gamebook authors have done. If you are doing a new book, you should be comparing notes to what is being done recently as you are not the first to tackle this issue.

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    1. Yes, this is work in progress, so I'm still researching the best way to do this (and calling it a book is probably inaccurate right now; it's a hobby project, maybe for something like Fighting Fantazine). The article was as much about what I feel is wrong with traditional and dice-based approaches as suggesting a new one (in fact, I think the VR/CI approach is pretty damn good and would bear a lot of imitation).

      Do you have any particular titles or series in mind? The recent gamebooks I'm most familiar with are either dice heavy (Destiny Quest, Gamebook Adventures; also your Maelorum of course, which I haven't tried yet), or are in a different medium (Inkle Sorcery!). If a new title is dice dependent, it inevitably suffers from some of the issues I've raised in the post to a degree (which isn't to say that everyone need feel the same about it as I do).

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    2. I was directed her by Stuarts post on Facebook, and I read the article with interest. I've recently published a gamebook using something more akin to the VR/CI (even though I'm largely claiming ignorance of those series before commencement). I too felt like dice were an unnecessary piece of kit in this day and age - sure as kids in the 80's or 90's we had dice and time aplenty, but I would imagine now that gamebook readership is dominated by nostalgic middle aged men, probably reading on the 6.54 to Charing Cross, or if they're lucky, some quiet moments in the toilet. Dispensing with dice is, in my view, an intelligent choice that leads to more interesting options for the reader. In my book the reader has to navigate a lot of challenges and combats, and I handled this with attribute levels, relevant skills and action choices - or a combo of these. I don't feel anything is lacking in the game play...possibly the only downside is gazing in awe at the tremendous stats of the Big Boss at the end.

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  3. p.s - Hit me up when you have something at a preview stage.

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    1. Thanks Marc - Restless Heart of Evil had more-or-less gone under my radar (I was vaguely aware somewhere in the back of my mind of its existence). Must look into it, sounds interesting! When/if I get something written, I'll certainly be looking for testers.

      I know what you mean about missing Big Boss stats, there is that. But of course quite often that meant that you're screwed unless you have powered up to the Nth degree or have learned some secret or other suring the course of the adventure.

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  4. Well I also agree with everything said so far. The reason I advise looking into new books before you start, is there are some sub-catagories. For instance, when I started writing Maelorum, NO ONE, not even FF was doing anything. That's why I knew it was perfect to start. However, by the time I was halfway done, things began to stir again, and I had to do more research. The moment I opened my first FF book I was pleased it was nothing like my series. So for me, I started focusing on who is making full size novel gamebooks. At that time it was only Destiny Quest that could compare. Then I found that even DQ was nothing like what I was doing, so that was a huge blessing because he published before me and you don't want to look like the other guy. So basically, think of how the size of your book will influence your game mechanics. For Maelorum, it is mostly a story driven experience, with occasional gameplay, rules light, which is exactly the book I wanted to write because it is big. As for other books, Arcana Agency did some fresh things I was happy about, from character perspective to gameplay, and also I love how TMG handled F.E.A.R and got away from the dice. I agree that it has become a negative to stop reading and rolling dice, so you have to keep it fresh however you can.

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    1. Is "The Case of the Unghostly Ghost" still available for free online? I'm having trouble tracking it down.

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  5. I think a range of consequences assuming success in battle might allow dice - variable effect - working on the assumption that you are the hero. So, wait in the room = X Reivers storm in, you kill the first with element of surprise, then for X-1 you roll a D6 for each in turn (the result is the damage sustained before you dispatch one), or roll D6-5 for the damage from jumping through the window (at most 1 HP). If you dispatch all of the enemies in the room, you face X outside. If you jumped early, the Reiver outside gets knocked out if you ram him, or D6-2 damage to incapacitate him. This gives luck/randomness to your choices without risking a repeated rolling session, which could be the slippery slope to death.

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    1. That certainly cuts down the randomness a bit, but it still involves rolling a load of dice with random results. I suppose the question is, do I want the player to suffer because of bad dice rolls or because of choices, and do I want them having to stop reading and roll dice at all?

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    2. Certainly rolling all those dice and having to calculate how many foes you've got is sounding like you'd have to jump out of immersion in the story and become a book-keeper. I think what you're saying is that gamebooks have moved on from that and what peope want now is an interactive narrative, not homework!

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    3. I think we've all moved on - when I started reading gamebooks I was about 10 years old. Thirty years is a long time and brings many changes of taste with it (though as I said, I never was particularly interested in rolling dice from the start).

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  6. I've been brainstorming a few ideas about my upcoming gamebook, and I'm trying to work out a way in which combat would be done with a minimum of dice-rolling and more in-text descriptions.
    Not to go into much detail here, but it should, if it comes across correctly, mean that the only real stat that the player needs to worry about are the health levels.

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  7. This is a tricky problem, and I always enjoy seeing how different gamebook writers handle it. There was an entry into the Windhammer competition a couple years ago about hunting down a big troll that I thought was really interesting--basically the entire second half of the gamebook was a fight. Just a series of tense moment-to-moment decisions about how to handle fighting a creature immensely more powerful then you. I tried to track it down to provide a link, but couldn't seem to find it. Anyone else here know which gamebook I'm talking about?

    My own (admittedly kind of terrible) Wings of Lightning (http://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/82342/wings-lightning-gamebook-contest-version) took a different tactic. I threw out dice and instead had combat revolve a push-your-luck game using poker cards. The player has to balance getting "strikes" and "misses." Strikes allow the player to deal damage and generate unique combo abilities, while each miss gives the player a chance to dodge an enemy attack. Too many misses, though, and the enemy gets a free hit against the player.

    Wings of Lightning also used a checkpoint system. I imagine that's becoming more common among combat-oriented gamebooks, although I can't recall seeing too many examples of it. My version of checkpoints was to tell the player that they have reached a checkpoint and having them jot down the section number they are in on their character sheet. If they die, they can return to that section and try again. It was an attempt to take some of the sting out of dying--you don't have to restart the entire book, just backtrack a ways.

    If anyone knows any other interesting examples of combat and/or the death problem in gamebooks, please drop a link, I'd love to see them!

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    1. One problem with this approach is trying not to spend too long on combat. Not only can it get a bit tedious (even when there are no dice involved), but it uses up a lot of paragraphs which you might want to spend on other things (or save yourself writing a 2000 paragraph epic).

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  8. Another angle to come at this from: think of stories you like in any medium that are really effective. How often does that come down to "the hero beat the bad guy in a fight"? And how did he or she win? It's never satisfying if it's just by being tougher or luckier. Die Hard, Goldfinger, Galaxy Quest, etc - all those battles are won cleverly. And, okay, those are non-interactive forms of storytelling and we're talking about choices, but that only increases the need for interesting problems that allow for clever solutions. It's one thing that gamebooks can do better than CRPGs, whereas rolling lots of dice to kill X orcs is not.

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  9. This was not just great in fact this was really perfect your talent in writing was great.
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