Monday, November 10, 2014

Why bad things happen to good adventurers

Hello gamebookers,

So back in September, I posted a post about food an water in gamebooks, where I decided that mechanics involving food  that punish you for not eating it were quite irritating, which lead to this tweet from Jamie Thomson:

Which lead me to think about applying my statement to wider situations.  I asked myself if there should never be mechanics in gamebooks that do nothing good, but might do something bad, and then extended it to 'scenes' in gamebooks - should every encounter in a gamebook have the potential of a reward.  I decided, that actually, no.  There should be situations where no good thing could happen, and, in some cases, you to choose between a lesser of two evils.

This is an interesting concept, and one that has been mentioned by a few people in the comments sections of this blog and also in Alexis Smolensk's book on DMing.  It is the idea that the player should not feel comfortable in the game.  One way of doing this is by making sure that their stats are never at full strength (in Fighting Fantasy, lowering someone's skill is a good way to stress someone out) or by throwing little obstacles at them that constantly chip away their resources.  It is for this reason that Fighting Fantasy heroes might start with stats way above their opponents.  It creates more tension to have high stats that are always depleted rather than low stats that are not.  Having an initial skill of 10 and a current skill of 8 has a different psychological effect than having an initial skill of 8.  So it might be worthwhile giving characters high scores just to lower them to create tension.  Having tension in the game will make victory all the sweater and may bring on some interesting decisions.

Decision making

There are different types of bad things that can happen.  If you couple a no win situation with options for character creation, then you could create a situation that is only bad for certain characters.  Need to get across a river?  Swimming is no problem for the hero who picked swim or the hero who bought an axe so that they can fell a tree to make a bridge, but it might be for other people.  This can also lead to situations where you might have to decide to use your potion of invisibility or fight the tought guard.  Which leads to...

Resource management
So you are going to lose out on a resource whatever you decide, but maybe the winning situation is
losing out on the resource that matters least.  Sure, Lone Wolf is going to lose 3 endurance if he doesn't eat a meal, but he needs to save the gold to buy a coach ticket, rather than buy food and he has the healing skill anyway, so he can take the hit.
Risk assessment

Say the bad thing's severity is determined by a random element.  This helps you with your skill of mitigating that random element somehow (sure I will get into combat with the troll, but I can test my luck to reduce the damage) or maybe you might get offered the choice between losing 3 stamina or losing 1-6 stamina and you have to decide whether you want to certainly lose a medium amount of stamina or whether you should risk the chance of losing 6 stamina for the chance of losing 1 stamina.
Links to the story

The bad guy you face might be the servant of the sorcerer you are after.  The plant that almost poisoned you produces the same poison you need to kill the bad guy.  If some bad encounter fits in with the background and logic of the story, then it's fine by me that it is happening.  Virtually every encounter in the excellent Way of the Tiger series was linked into the world, which is part of the reason why it is so awesome (have you got books 0 or 7 yet)?


Sure something bad happened, but it was so entertaining, you enjoyed it all the same.  The orc funeral in Battleblade warrior is one example.  Dreamtime in Grailquest is another.  The severity of the damage/bad thing might detract from the enjoyment of the situation (sudden death paragraphs have to be very good to make me forget my frustration. Beneath Nightmare Castle got it right for me.  Sky Lord did not).
Going through a combat or a situation might teach you several things that could be helpful.  On one
level, it could teach you about the mechanics of the game, so an early combat might be there just to show you how combat plays out.  It also might be helpful later on, in the sense that a vaccine is helpful by exposing you to a small amount of a disease.  Sure you might take a minor punishment now, but you might learn something that will prevent a bigger punishment later (for example, in Caverns of the Snow Witch, you have to take 4 stamina points of damage to get an amulet of courage, but that is preferable to becoming food for a brainslayer).
Self awareness

This might have no bearing on the story, but how you deal with a bad situation in the books might tell me something about my character or my way of thinking.


So in conclusion, there are plenty of good reasons to have bad things happen in gamebooks, but I
always need to decide whether they are worthwhile to add.  Sure, I could be adding to the experience in some way, but there is a risk that it might go wrong, for a couple of reasons that I can think of.

The first is bookkeeping.  If I have a mechanic or a situation where something bad could happen, I will probably be asking a player to keep track of something.  I find that too much bookkeeping detracts from the experience and turns the enjoyment of the game into an accountancy exercise.  Keeping track of provisions in Legend of Zagor or Night Dragon is such an example.

The second is frustration - if I can't see the flavour or the entertainment value of a mechanic or a situation, then I might get annoyed with it existing, especially if it comes at a point in the story that really derails my plans.  Or maybe the mechanic is out of my control and I have no way of mitigating it, so I just have to watch helplessly whilst bad things happen.  The phobia mechanic in Temple of the Spider God was a bit like that.  You had a phobia score of 7.  Every time you fought a spider, if you rolled equal to your phobia score or higher, your fear kicked in and your offence score was reduced by 1.  There was no way of increasing your phobia score or avoiding spiders, so it got a bit annoying.

And I suppose lastly, if there were no rewards (to take it to an extreme) and it was simply a case of you don't need too many rewards to keep people playing.
lurching from crisis to disaster with each encounter slowly depleting my resources, I might find that draining.  So as usual, there is a balancing act involved, but as Skinner has shown us,

So having bad things happen can really add to an adventure, but only if it is done in a way to not annoy the player.  And that is always a good rule 1 to go by.

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of the FF's are structured as puzzles. They're designed to be played through repeatedly, with the player learning from mistakes and successes which choices to make. To make a decent puzzle, you're going to need some hurdles and complications. It wouldn't work if every path led to the end and there were only rewards.

    I'm not averse to the puzzle approach, as long as it's immersive and fair. Unfortunately some FF's fall foul of this either by overall difficulty level (Crypt of the Sorcerer, Caverns of the Snow Witch), dependence on rolls you're likely to fail (Spellbreaker, Masks of Mayhem) or overreliance on random choices (Space Assassin, Black Vein Prophecy). I think this indicates the dangers - costs are fine, as long as they're compatible with completing the gamebook, and don't just mean throwing character after character at a brick wall.

    I personally find two kinds of negative effects very frustrating. Firstly, when handling aggregative game mechanics means having to quit because normal gameplay has taken your food under, time over, or stamina, willpower etc below a certain level. One of my gripes about the Puttbuster Challenge in this year's Windhammer is that it does this with golf balls: a couple of unlucky rolls and you're dead, however well you're playing. A bit like your stench death in Crown of Kings. I get the idea when it's about being careful in line with the game scenario, such as keeping Altheus' honour below his shame or not wasting time in a ticking bomb scenario. But it's used too often just to raise the difficulty and frustration level. Like, having to get all the zombies in Blood of the Zombies? Isn't it fiendishly difficult enough already? Or all the stuff you need to finish Seas of Blood (time, money), which turns a solid open-map exploration gamebook into find-the-true-path.

    The other thing I dislike is when all choices are not only bad (sacrifice a few stamina to get an item is fair enough), but insanely bad or very risky. It spoils the sense of a gamebook as a fair puzzle. For me it spoils the point of gamebook strategy if I need excessive amounts of luck to succeed (one of my gripes with Tomb of Aziris). I prefer figuring out a puzzle rather than gambling, and too much randomness has the same effect on me as too high a difficulty level: I start cheating, or ragequit. I mean, would you really want to do a jigsaw puzzle with only a 10% chance of having the right pieces in it? That's what it feels like to me, when it's too random or too hard.