Sunday, November 30, 2014

Stupid decisions in gamebooks

There are a few times in gamebooks when you can really see that a decision is going to have really bad
consequences.But then they surprise us with having really good unexpected consequences.

One of the main problems with writing a gamebook is in making sure that the consequences of what people choose to do will be logical.  This requires a bit of forethought.  In RPGs, the referee has the luxury of thinking through every action players decide to take, listening to the rationale behind them, and, possibly altering the scenario to fit those choices.

Gamebook writers cannot do that.  We must think of all the likely actions that someone would want to take in the situation described and then think of the likely consequences from that action.  For some reason or another, we might want to include 'stupid' decisions.  Decisions that look obviously bad.  Or maybe they don't look obviously bad.  In that case, how can we make sure that those decisions will not be seen as unfair?  That will really kill someone's enjoyment.

Why are obviously bad options included?  Sometimes, if it looks obviously bad, it is (Ashton Saylor has one in his gamebook Castle of Bones where the character can choose to jump off a cliff.  With the consequences you would expect).  Other times, you don't know where the consequence will lead, and it looks stupid, but it actually produces good results (the fortune teller scene in the Castle of Lost Souls by Dave Morris and Yve Newnham is an example of this.  The best way to get the ball is to ask her for a drink.  That way, you distract her, get her drunk and manage to get back to her tent to get the crystal ball (there are other, non-castle examples).
How does taking a dump affect my initiative?

So why have obviously bad decisions?  A lot of gamebooks seem to have one early on (Demons of the Deep, Fellowship of Four), maybe to demonstrate what is expected of the hero(es) in those books.  In Demons of the Deep, the stupid decision is swimming to the surface where the pirates are (you can tell from the title where you are supposed to go) and in the Fellowship of Four, if you mind your own business when you hear about trouble, you don't even leave the inn.  The book is saying 'You need to understand what this book is about'

That is one reason why there are stupid decisions.  A lot of gamebooks have a 'philosophy'.  Sometimes it is spelled out (take the right path in Knightmare) and sometimes, you ahve to work it out by looking for consistencies in the consequences (in the Way of the Tiger series, direct confrontation is rarely the best option.  You are a ninja after all, not a valiant knight).  So the method to finding out if a decision is stupid is looking for clues in the book.  You might not see them at first, but the more you play the book, the more you might realise that actually, you should die at point x.

It should be noted that outside knowledge of the world may be of little use here.  In a gamebook world, the
author is a god and so relying on common sense, or even the laws of physics may still yield bad results.  However, it is fine if a gamebook is not realistic, as long as it is consistent.

And then there are gamebooks full of 'which door?' choices where one leads to success and one leads to death.  If there is no information to help you with this choice, then you cannot make a stupid decision, even if it is the death door as there was no thinking or logic or information involved in the process, so, in this case, success is based on luck (or prior playthroughs) rather than clues.

One reason why an obviously bad decision is included is that maybe the author does not see it as obviously bad.  Or maybe there is an option that you think has good consequences that turns out to be bad that the author would think is obvious.  I can't really give examples here as I don't know what the authors are thinking when they write their books, although it is for this reason I am always keen to hear how difficult people found my books and why to see if their opinion is similar to mine.  I have been guilty of making my options either too easy or completely arbitrary and I need to find a medium where there is challenge.  The author's idea of what is difficult might also be a metagame clue as to whether a decision is stupid or not.

The key to winning Creature of Havoc?
I guess that no reader will be able to guess an author's intentions completely, unless the 'philosophy' of the book was the first thing decided (so that the author can write to it consistently) and that the author also spells out the philosophy or drops some clues about it.  In other cases, a 'failsafe' might be prudent, such as ways to heal damage from stupid decisions, or fate points to avoid death etc.  That way, the one time someone doesn't get my intentions, at least they will still live.

So what am I trying to say?

  • You can't make stupid decisions in gamebooks where the decision is completely uninformed and the consequences are arbitrarily decided.  Stop beating yourself up because you went through the nondescript door that just happened to have an insta kill monster disguised as treasure.
  • A decision might be obviously stupid (for various reasons).
  • The author and the player might have different opinions over what is stupid or not.  The author needs to make apparent to some degree the 'philosphy' of the book - telling the player what is stupid and what is not (Knightmare books do this best - right hand path and don't get into any fights!)
  • No matter how obvious you make your philosphy, you might want a mechanic that gives the player 'lives' or 'chances' in case they make a 'stupid' decision.
So it seems all down to the author.  I'm sure some people don't care about/love arbitrary deaths, whether its reading or writing them, but I want to avoid giving them to my readers.

Happy gamebooking!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

My Patreon welcome video

Hello gamebookers!  I'm sorting out my Patreon page and I have put a video up. I am thinking about Patreon rewards at the moment. I have looked at Scott Malthouse's page and Thom Rossell's (Pod You Own Adventure) page and got a few ideas - early release for patrons, exclusive email updates, input in what I will write. What would you want?  Also, what should the rewards be?  I've seen people do $0.25 pledges (probably to get more patrons).  My base reward will be $0.25-$1 for the emails, then maybe a bit more ($1-$2) for early release and a bit more ($5-$10) for input. Bear in mind that my costs will be monthly rather than weekly, so pledging $1 a project will be $12 a year and $0.25 a project would be $3 a year. However, I think the number of patrons is more important than the money itself, so I would like as many people in the community as possible.

What do you think?

Originally posted here.

Hi all. Looking at the evil sorcerers in Titan, I was wondering who you thought was the most successful.  My case is for Zharradon Marr, and I'll explain why:

Zharradon Marr not only has a huge army etc., but he has the organisation and management thing down to a T.  He doesn't just have an army, he trains them (rather than let them sit around getting drunk on orc ale), he is excellent at recruitment (thanks to Vallaska Roue) and performance management (Hannicus was not a good addition to the organisation). He has an actual revenue stream (the gold mines) and is always involved in improving his skills (with his experiments). He is never too overconfident to engage you in combat and actually has excellent protection in the form of a flying ship a magic mirror and some unkillable servants (Quimmel Bone for example). He is so good, that even when you thwart him, he is not dead, but merely trapped in his other dimension.  

A close second would be Karam Gruul, who managed to keep a horde of fanatical followers of trained soldiers when everyone thought he was dead. He also developed his own magical style (self improvement is important, even when you are a powerful archmage) and also survives even when thwarted.

In terms of sheer power, Razaak would wipe the floor with everyone. His unmodified skill and stamina is 12 and 20 (Balthus Dire had a +2 ring and Zagor had a deck of cards to beef them up), he kills you with two consecutive hits and he has a series of lethal spells to throw at you (beats the 3 damage fire from Zagor - is there any evidence that Zagor is even that powerful?) and also, he can only be killed by one weapon that does not give any bonuses to attack strength (nice touch). I bet in a battle between Razaak and Marr, Marr would eventually win through his intelligence and adaptability, but Razaak would completely destroy his army before it happens.

Most other evil sorcerers just brood in lairs with hordes of ragtag monsters that aren't even that loyal to them (although Balthus Dire gets bonus points for being married) and if they have any plans at all (looking at you again, Zagor), they tend to just be - unleash my hordes upon this place or steal this magical item. Nothing a well organised army can't stop.

Anyway.  That's my two cents. Anyone got any other opinions?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Masks of Mayhem playthrough

Written by Robin Waterfield, artwork by Russ Nicholson

So far I've been rather down on Mr Waterfield's work. I was, as I'm sure you'll remember, fairly unimpressed with Rebel Planet and Deathmoor. But I do have stronger memories about this book, because this is the ones that I actually owned as a kid. Specifically, this is one that I got at Hamleys on a holiday to London. That, and a very nice comic version of The Hobbit, which I still own to this day, and which is far far far superior to the recent film version. Having said that, so was the Rankin Bass animated film version. But I digress.

I also remember that I'd specifically been keeping an eye open for this book, and that it was either meant to be very difficult or very important, I'm not sure. Either way, it was one that I had been looking for, and I was glad to have found a copy of it. Nowadays though, I'm not so sure. All I know is that it has a very basic system (which I like) and a quest involving preventing an evil sorceress creating an army of golems. Or something.

So, as the ruler of the local kingdom, I'm asked to set my armies to defend the... oh no, of course not. No, I need to go off alone on yet another dangerous quest. Why am I doing this? Actually, the book does explain this. I've been advised to go off on my own with just a pointy sword and shiny hat, on the suggestion of my court mage, Ifor Tynin. Remember that name, I'll be discussing it later.

Our first obstacle is Lake Necros, which has possibly the friendliest name of any lake ever, except perhaps Lake Painful Death. The first thing I do is put together a raft and sail out into the river, only to be immediately eaten by a giant monster. Re-rolling my character (who turns out slightly stronger this time), I instead opt to ride around the edge of the river. While camping on the shore overnight, the giant kraken drags itself to the shore and tries to eat me, which necessitates much chopping of tentacles in order to get rid of the damn thing.

Y'know, you'd think that if the lake had a kraken in it, people wouldn't only notice it, but would do something about it. Even if that something was to just set it up as a tourist attraction. Anyway, slaying the kraken is such an impressive feat that the spirits of all the stupid sods he's killed rise from the dead to thank me and offer me assistance later on in the adventure. I wonder if my first character is among the group. Anyway, as much as I want an army of the undead to command, they insist on waiting until just the right section in the book before they'll do anything.

I spent most of last week resting up, due to all the recent work-based upheaval in my life, so spent a good amount of time in Dartmoor. At one point, while out in the moors exploring the tors, a vast shroud of mist fell all around us. We could barely see a few feet in front of us. I loved it, because I'm a gothy bastard, and proceeded to stagger around the place shouting "Heathcliff!" for about ten minutes. Anyway, the same thing happens in the book at this point. Although in the book, when my character explores one of the tors, he encounters an angry wraith who attacks him. Upon killing it, he leaves behind a rather nice sword.

As the mist lifts, I find my way to an old abandoned house. At least, I think it's abandoned, but while I sniff around the place, search through all the boxes and eat their dinner and generally do my best three bears impression, the inhabitant of the house finds me. Rather than being upset, he explains that he knew that I was coming because the voices in his head warned him about me. He then gives me a royal scepter which he seems to have been keeping hidden in the house. It's all quite confusing, and I back away out of the house very discreetly before turning away and running like all hell.

Past the ruined hut, and we enter a small region known as Fallow Dell, which is a group of small settlements overseen by a lord. I'm on my way to visit the lord of the Dell, when I'm beset by a group of drunks from the local pub. The book tells me that I deal with them using the 'art of fisticuffs', a term which I've only ever seen used by people who get beaten up by any fight they ever pick.

By the time I get to the lord's keep, it's quite late in the evening and he invites me to join him in the banquet hall, where I have some dinner. Meanwhile, the guards inform me that the belongings that they were storing in my room have been stolen by orcs. Wow, what a safe and reputable keep this lord manages! I head off alone to follow the thieves, following their trail, only to soon be surrounded by them and chopped apart. In retrospect, I should probably have waited for the lord to give me a guard or two.

I'd normally be happy to do a quick replay of this book, and continue from where I was, but I'm a little bit rushed at the moment and just don't have the time. This book is much better than some of Waterfield's other works, and I rather enjoyed it. There's nothing really special about it, but it's a solid enough piece. Except for one thing...

Remember the character I mentioned earlier, Ifor Tynin? Well, it turns out that later in the book, you're supposed to identify the person who has betrayed you, or something. I dunno, I'm working from memory here. Anyway, you're told that if you know who has betrayed you, you should know what paragraph to turn to. Turning there means that you're able to slay the traitor before he can assassinate you. There's no clues given as to who the traitor is, and even if you're able to deduce that it's Ifor, the book doesn't tell you the paragraph to turn to.

Of course, it's fairly infamous in Fighting Fantasy knowledge that you need to turn to paragraph forty, because you run the first and surname together to create I-forty-nin. Which seems so simple and easy, except... that because, when I was a kid and actually did get to that part, the 'nin' part of the name completely threw me off, and left me turning to paragraph 49.

Yes, I was that stupid.

Monday, November 24, 2014

It begins...

I'm writing this having just finished my first gamebook for the series that I have been calling Cymerian, but I'll call something else, because there's also a band called Cymerian.

I've been planning the system for ages, and I'm glad that I just sat down and wrote a book as there are several things that I never would have been able to plan with planning.  I'm finally past trying to make the perfect price list or monster manual, because I've realised that the best way to do it is to just make these decisions as they come up.  They will give me a context with which to make these decisions in and then I can make them in about 30 seconds rather than agonising over them for ages in a contextless setting and changing them in a week's time anyway.

I'm a bit clearer on what this series will be like.  With lots of real life commitments, I intend to write these books in a short space of time and get them out at a rate of once a month, and to do that, I can't spend ages on checking.

I also enjoy being able to write something just for me that won't be presented to someone else to check and tell me to change.  I'm glad I do do these things because it means I raise my game, but I also have a desire to see things finished and the best way to do that is to do something for myself.

I was reading the E myth revisited and it gave a good analogy to what I'm trying to say.  In seminars, the author asks the audience to raise their hands if they can cook a burger that's better than one in McDonald's.  And everyone can, of course.  He then goes on to explain why McDonald's is so successful,  McDonald's is successful, not because of the quality of its food, but because of its excellent system of producing burgers of a consistent quality at a fast speed.  People don't always want to dine on fine food and so McDonald's works by giving a lot of people something that their happy with quickly.

This is what I want my gamebook series to be about.  I'm not aiming for quality literature, deep plots
or purple prose.  I want to get out a gamebook of at least 100 sections every month that gives your character a chance to grow, have some fun and keep you occupied for a short time.  I made the system to be robust enough that I can make the occasional mistake with the rolls (for example, having a difficulty that is too high) and still your character might have the resources necessary to survive, because I can't do lots of playtesting.  And to do that, I can't spend ages on making it perfect.  I will make sure it's of a certain quality - the links work, it's proffread, etc., but I'm not trying to win every awards.  I'm aiming for quantity over quality.

In short, my gamebook series is the McDonald's of gamebooks.

I'm putting this project on Patreon.  I you love it enough to give me money for it, then give away, and many thanks for your generosity :).

Happy gamebooking!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Necklace of Skulls

Necklace of Skulls was first published as a part of the Virtual Reality Adventure series in 1993, and has lately been given new life as a smartphone/tablet application by Cubus Games. Dave Morris recently mentioned that he began writing Necklace of Skulls shortly after a visit to Central America. And, man alive, it shows. In this story, you take the part of Evening Star, whose journey across the world to save his twin brother is a trip through Mayan legend, and even through the fearful, dark parts of the Mesoamerican psyche that give birth to such legends.

In short, it's an extremely distinctive, evocative story. You won't find any battleaxe-wielding dwarves here. And what Cubus Games have done right is to precisely match the tone of the app to the atmosphere of that story. Visually, the artwork and overall feel here have their roots in the contemporary art of the period, and so the blend of story and artwork comes across as wholly natural. The app's sound effects are apt, as well. Sound is something I'll rarely pay much attention to in an IF app - incessant bleeping or sword-swishing noises usually just get on my nerves. But Cubus have done a great job here in terms of ambient sounds, and with the dull drum beats or tambourine rattles that greet you whenever you tap options or commands. It all adds to the story experience, and that's a tricky thing to pull off.

(Evoking a certain ambiance is really a strong point for Cubus, in fact. The same was true for their previous apps The Sinister Fairground and Heavy Metal Thunder.)

We have a strategic, diceless combat system, here. Each round, you get to choose three actions - attacking, defending or resting. If you attack when your opponent is defending, he'll take very little damage. If your opponent attacks while you're resting, he'll gut you pretty quickly. If you try to attack-attack-attack, you'll get tired out pretty quickly. Anticipating your opponents' strategies is a little tricky, but you get the hang of it soon enough. There isn't an excessive amount of combat, either. My first playthrough, I only fought two opponents.

Any real criticisms? Considering the app by itself, no. It's a solid contender against the other gamebooks-as-apps that are out there just now. Comparing this app version of Necklace of Skulls to the dead-tree gamebook of yesteryear, however, I see the app is a bit less flexible in allowing you to choose or create your character (maybe I want the AGILITY and SPELLS skills, dammit!). This is, I suspect, a choice on the part of Cubus to prune out any rules-lawyering, and to present this app as a streamlined, 'one-tap-does-all' experience. And that's no bad thing - frankly, if interactive fiction is to make any headway as a mainstream medium, I think that's the right way to go.

So, another strong entry from Cubus Games. Now I start counting the weeks and days until their next app, the sci-fi Sol Invictus...

(Post by Paul Gresty)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Island of the Undead playthrough

Written by Keith Martin, artwork by Russ Nicholson.

This is the fifty-first book in the series, and is something of an anomaly. I strongly suspect that the entire series was winding up to finish with the fiftieth, Return to Firetop Mountain. If my theory on that is correct, then this is the book that broke the plan. It stood up in defiance of... of... eh, stuff. Defiant little bugger. Anyway, never had this book when I was a kid, it just never looked all that interesting. Blame the cover. I really should do a top ten good Fighting Fantasy book covers.

Let's get right to this, shall we? You're the son of a local fisherman, and it seems that the weather has been playing up quite a bit lately. So you decide to go and ask the local island full of wizards, who had previously been keeping the local meteological disasters at bay.

Me and a few other fishermen all hop onto a boat to go and pay the local fireball-throwers a neighbourly visit, but promptly get caught in a storm. Following a rather intimate moment with a tidal wave, I wash up on the shore of the wizard's island as the sole survivor.

Right off the bat, the very first paragraph gives me a combat sequence, with the rotting corpse of one of the other fishermen turning into something called a 'sea zombie'. It's not a tough fight, but it's a heck of a way to start the adventure. Once I whomp it into the ground, I head south towards a small forest. The forest itself seems to be enchanted, I wander around it for several days, using up my provisions, until I eventually meet an old man in a tree.

I'm asked if I know his name, but I've had no chance yet to learn his name, unless I had gone north to visit a lighthouse first. As I've no idea who the old man is, I just strike up a casual conversation, being as friendly and helpful as I can, and ask him what information he might have. When he has the gall to ask for some items in exchange for the information, I try to bat him with my sword instead. Cheeky bugger. Instead of dying like most polite old men would, he jumps out of the way and throws a bag of horrible plague at me.

Coughing slightly from my new case of Lung Rot (what a lovely name for a disease. I suppose other Allansian illnesses include the likes of Foot Muck and Willie Stink), I stumble through the forest until I find a rather curious clearing with an old brick archway stuck in the middle of it. At this point, my character promptly changes his name to Mr Falldown McTripsandfallsalot, because whilst exploring the clearing he manages to fall and twist his ankle on a rabbit hole. Annoyed, I decide to wait until the middle of the night before doing anything else, and when I awake during the night I find that the surrounding area has three barrows. Yay, I think, resting places for me to corrupt, and immediately fall into the nearest one by accident.

There's a gold coin and a sword amongst the dead bodies, which I don't feel is a fair trade for falling onto someone's dead grandad. The next barrow is guarded by a fire monster which I can't defeat with non-magical weapons, causing me to run away as it spits fire at me. The third and biggest barrow, naturally enough, is guarded by a big tough undead monster, similar to one of the druagh of Skyrim, but I'm able to kill it without too much hastle, at which point I fall down a stairway into the deeper part of the barrow.

My stamina isn't looking too good at this point. Neither are my provisions, because the book instructs me to stuff my face with them every third paragraph or so. In the bowels of the barrow, I meet a ghostly spirit who tells me not to approach him. I don't, instead I decide to talk, but he calls me a fool and spits ice at me. I get fed up with this entire silly barrow, so I leave and go to sleep in a tree.

The next day, I leave the forest and finally arrive at the hill, which provides a fairly good view of the entire island. It's a pretty good view, and I'm planning my next move, until a bunch of skeletons rise up out of the ground and try to kill me. No idea what the skeletons are doing on the hill, maybe they went out for a jog and got so bored that they died from it.

I decide to head towards the local monastery, described as a brick building. I have high hopes of finding something vaguely useful here, and inside it there is a rather unusual thing - a kung-fu monk zombie. Questioning the plausability of a rotting corpse that can jump-kick its enemies, I kill it and explore the entire monastery. I find a few useful things, mainly a bunch of spare provisions and potions, a map of the island that indicates a small bay occupied by friendly mermen, and a scrap of paper that documents the falling-out of two of the local wizards, which some of the monks attempted to resolve via hiding their magic crystals. Oh, those wacky monks!

Anyway, before too long the monastery seems to get bored of having me around, because a rock elemental stumbles along and throws stones at me until I leave the area. Honestly, you'd think that these damn elementals would have something better to do with their time...

I decide to opt for a change of scenery, so I go for a walk in the swamps to the south. It's very humid, and my skill and stamina start to plummet again. I wind up getting chewed on by a giant alligator, but manage to survive that whole ordeal. Eventually I reach a cliff leading down into the mermen's bay. They seem to be having a bit of trouble with the local shark-men, so I kill one of those and earn their trust, and they kindly inform me of a secret entrance into the wizard's tower.

I'm suspecting that the wizard's tower is the final stage of this adventure, so I opt to head to another area first before I go that far, namely to a nearby small hut. The path to it is guarded by a hydra type of a monster, which is a bloody nightmare to kill, and has a rather overly complicated system involving cutting off its spare head. But once it's dead, I get to the hut and find that it is also guarded by giant skeletons, purely to work as a pointless additional threat. The hut itself guards a small shrine, which has been utterly broken and ruined, and I'm unable to repair it without a pot of glue.

Finally, and utterly unequipped for it, I approach the wizard's tower. The path branches off into a chasm, which I thoroughly explore and find nothing of any use, something of a recurring theme in this adventure. By this point, I've come to the firm conclusion that this entire adventure is based around finding just the right items, in the right order. Missing any, as I'm sure that I did at the lighthouse at the start, seems to automatically doom you to failure. But that's just my conclusion. I may yet be wrong, let's reserve judgement until we get to the tower.

I travel down the cliffside and find the hidden entrance to the tower that the mermen advised about, and immediately stumble into an empty storeage room. I head downstairs, stumbling through the tower until I can find a room containing a large tank of sewage water for no apparant reason. I try to break this open, hoping that petty vandalism to the plumbing will deal some kind of victory blow to the evil that has settled here. Instead, I merely feel ill.

The very next door I arrive at informs me that the final boss is probably on the other side (no doubt due to the scorch marks and general burning heat of fire in the air), and tells me that I can always return to that room later if I really want to. So I chicken out, and instead head into a room that appears to have flooded some time ago. Hopefully not with sewer water. I wade my way through the water, killing an unfriendly moray eel on the way, and get to the door on the other side of the chamber. Said door leads into the chamber of someone or something called the Master of Waters, and lacking any magical weapon, I am straightforwardly informed that I cannot win and that the Master of Waters kills me. Somehow. Whoever he is. Death by ????? I suppose.

Make no mistake, this isn't a bad book. The writing is decent and quite evocative, the island itself is interesting, and although it doesn't quite make you feel as part of the journey as Island of the Lizard King does, you do get quite a few nice areas that you can explore, often in a non-linear manner. Well, a sandbox kind of a manner. Having said that, the actual puzzles in this adventure are linear, very much so. But it does give you the illusion of choice, which is interesting. I'm undecided on this one.

I rather imagine that this one will play out better if you go through it several times and map out where to get all the items, but that's just too much work for me. What did you guys think of it?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Lone Wolf Board Game - Halfway to Success!

A quick mention that the Kickstarter for the Lone Wolf Board Game has just passed the halfway mark on its funding target. It's also nearing the halfway mark on its deadline, so I call that pretty positive progress so far. Still, if you're a fan of Lone Wolf, or board games, or Gary Chalk's artwork, get over there and get pledging, if you haven't already.

For more information, visit the Kickstarter project page, or see Richard Hetley's post on this very blog.

Also, I found it interesting to see that documents from the vermin control company in charge of my apartment building are in the same distinctive font as the Lone Wolf gamebooks.

Yeah! Wipe out those damn Noodnics!

(Post by Paul Gresty)

Monday, November 17, 2014

What probability of success makes it worth rolling dice (and how many dice should I use for Cymerian?)

Hello gamebookers!  This is a post about skill tests and dice rolling.  Having a random element is adds some tension to books and allows the thrill of not knowing exactly what is happening.  After asking whether Cymerian should be diceless or not, the overwhelming answer was to have dice, and I agree with it.  I will be using dice.

However, I can't just shove in dice rolls and coin flips all over the place and let people get on with it.  I need to make sure that when I make a dice roll, there is a reasonable chance of success that makes rolling the dice worth it (isn't it tedious when you have to fight a skill 5 opponent with a skill of 12 or depressing when you have to fight a skill 12 opponent with a skill of 1?).  rolling a dice is not a free action - too much of it for no good reason will be tedious and break from the immersion of the book.  So for that reason, I need to make sure that every dice roll has a degree of tension - a feeling that both success or failure might happen no matter how high or low the difficulty is.

So the first question I have is - what is the lowest probability of success or failure that still keeps the tension?  Is it worth rolling a dice if there is a 95% chance of success?  Do you still get a thrill if there is a 10% chance of success?

This leads on to Cymerian.  The ability tests in Cymerian involve involve rolling 4 dice to get equal to or above a number.  If you have points in the relevant ability, you can reroll a number of dice equal to that ability score.  The reason I did rerolls instead of increasing skills is that I intend to release a lot of Cymerian books that I want to be a challenge for characters of all levels of experience.  Having rerolls means that all tests would fall in the range of 4-24, meaning that no matter how good or bad you are, you still have a chance for success.

I did not want a situation like Fabled Lands where a level 1 character could not explore the lands of
the Rising Sun because all of the tests and opponents were way above anything they could do.  Similarly, a level 6 character would just steamroll straight over any challenge set them in the War torn Kingdom.  This is because of the system.  In Fabled Lands, when a test is performed, you roll 2d6 and add it to the relevant skill to get over the difficulty of the test.

As characters get better, their scores increase.  Having a roguery of 6 might be good in book 1 where you have to beat tests with a difficulty of 9-12, but it might be rubbish in book 6, where the difficulties are usually from 14-16.  Also, in some cases, some tests will become impossible.  Also, charactesr who start in book 6 have their highest ability score at 8.  If they head over to book 1, success is certain, taking away the tension.

Tunnels and Trolls solos have the same problem.  They are only appropriate for delvers of a particular level and sometimes they cannot use the magic spells that they may have.

Which is why I went for rerolls instead of getting a higher number.  A difficulty of 17 with 4d6 might be hard, but it is possible for everyone whether they have 0 rerolls or 3.

So rerolls it is then.  However, I was fiddling around on Anydice, and I realised that 4d6 might not be perfect for this system.  So, I was wondering how many dice would be best with this system.  I have an idea, but I want to ask you, my wonderful readers.  So, I will show you the probability distributions for 1d6-6d6 with the good and bad points of each one.

Just to tell you - output 1 is the chance of getting a score with 0 rerolls.  Output 2 has 1 reroll, output 3 is 2 rerolls etc.


Click to enlarge.
1d6 does have a good distribution, but I would be worried at lack of 'wiggle room' for difficulties.  My minimum difficulty would be 3, but I might not be able to find enough difficulties from 3-6.


click to enlarge
The more dice you have, the more 'wiggle room' you have to make some rolls slightly harder.  However, the more dice you have the smaller the effect of one of the rerolls.  I think that 2d6 is in danger of not having enough 'wiggle room', but it is still relatively simple so its simplicity might win out.


Click to enlarge

More wiggle room, but maybe 3d6 is too many to roll with one roll?


Click to enlarge
4d6 allows for more wiggle room and also makes it possible to have items give rerolls.

5d6 and 6d6

5d6 - click to enlarge

6d6 - click to enlarge

Using these distributions, I could introduce rules so that items could give rerolls on top of abilites (which I would have to do as abilities will have a lot less effect, the more dice they have).  So this would introduce more complexity to the game, and maybe it would reduce tension as 1 dice reroll has less of an effect.  

so basically, the more dice the less effect increasing difficulty has and the less effect 1 reroll has.  Where do you think is the sweet spot?  I have an idea, but I'm not going to say.

Happy gamebooking!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Crimson Tide playthrough

Written by Paul Mason, artwork by Terry Oakes

I may have rented 'The Crimson Tide' from the local library once, as a kid, and don't remember it making much of an impression upon me. But if there's one thing I've learned in the year-and-a-half I've been doing these blog posts (bloody hell, that's far longer than I thought I'd be doing them!), it's that the books may surprise me.

'The Crimson Tide' is a book I fully intend to get through without making a single menstruation joke. It has a very similar setting to Sword of the Samurai, so it's likely to be quite a challenge. It has two new stat gimmicks, first being Ferocity. Ferocity apparantly helps to fuel me in combat, in theory at least.

But after reading the rules, I can't find any way in which it impacts on combat directly, which makes it feel a little pointless. Age, however, is a nice stat. As you age, it has a knock-on effect on Ferocity. I'd like to see this implimented in a more grand manner, with your skill points and stamina rising and falling as you grow into a full adult, and then slip into old age. That's not quite how it works in this particular book, but think of the potential that it could have.

So let's get stuck in. We start with out hero, a young peasant child in a rice field, witnessing his family being killed by evil samurai. This fills me with rage, so with a gang of other kids who've survived the attack (each of who, I am sure, will die off very shortly thereafter) we head off on a rip-roading rampage of revenge. Or something.

The gang head out on their journey, and quickly make reference to the enemies being from the nearby nation of Hatchiman, which I remember from 'Sword of the Samurai'. That's a nice touch. We promptly wander off into a field, and get attacked by a giant mudworm, which is an odd creature because it's stamina is about half it's skill score, resulting in it being hard to hit but squishy once I manage to do so. Surprisingly, none of the companions are horribly killed yet, which I feel is a bit unusual. This is a Fighting Fantasy game, after all, so any companions I have should be very dead in the next segment or two!

I'm told that I remember that I have an uncle who lives around the area, who I decide to seek out. I'm told to record the word 'art' on my sheet, which seems rather random as it has no context. Is my uncle an artist? Who knows. Our entire entourage find a boarding house to sleep for the night, and I sneak out to go and visit my uncle. When I find his house, his wife gives me a bag of money and he tells me that I should go and train in the fighting arts. Nice that I have a family member who is suggesting I become a brutal vigilante.

I decide to sneak back to the boarding house to meet up with my friends again, and go to talk to the local magistrate, hoping that he'll be a little more disposed towards sending out men with swords and axes whilst I relax a while and let him deal with it. The magistrate instead decides to laugh at me, whilst his guard thumps on my head with a stick for his amusement. Eventually I tell him that maybe he shouldn't be such a corrupt git, and his guards thump me a bit harder. The magistrate laughs as his friends beat up the homeless poor person, which shows us all where David Cameron learned his hobbies.

I trudge back to the boarding house once again, and together we plan to head to the monastery in the north, where we will learn the secret arts of the kung-fu monks. I hope. To my surprise, none of my companions are dead yet, either. I'd expected that at least one of them would have exploded from spontanious human combustion by this point, at least.

On the journey, we set up camp beneath a rather nice tree, and as I stand guard that night we are attacked by another giant worm. This worm is different from the previous one, because once I've killed it, it transforms into an old man. My entire party gather around and stare at it in confusion. "Who's that guy?" they ask. I shrug. Y'know, I can't help but imagine that I simply told all my companions that the old man was really a giant worm monster, to cover up the fact that I'd beaten an old man to death in the middle of the night by mistake.

We continue our travels. One year later...

Yeah, really. I'm instructed to add 1 year. You know what that reminds me of? The PC game 'Grim Fandango'. It was one of Lucasarts' later point-and-click adventure games, except it was keyboard-driven so not quite 'point and click'. But a lovely game, and it was spread over a period of four years. I suddenly want to play it again. The way it handled the transitions between the times was amazing, and gave the entire game a sense of being a true epic.

A year later, we arrive in a city. Our group are exploring the marketplace, when suddenly a large fight breaks out and a guard starts to attack me. Having no chance to surrender or run away, I fight him to the death. As I drop him, twenty of his best friends jump on me and drag me off to jail. A few days later they chop my head off because, apparantly, I'm a public nuisance.

Now I'll give the book this, it does give us an option where if my stamina point lands at exactly 1 during that fight, I may perhaps survive, I'm not sure, I killed the guard outright so didn't have the chance to take that path. But this is rather anticlimactic, and as it's an instant death segment that you're given because you WON a combat, that always rather leaves me feeling a bit unhappy with how the adventure turns out...

Having said that, this is a pretty good book. The atmosphere is lovely, it's nicely laid out, the encounters are solid, it has a good pace and feels like a sweeping epic. Overall I rather like this one. I'd like to give it another shot sometime.

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.