Sunday, May 1, 2022

The costs and benefits of rolling dice - introduction

 Hello gamebookers! I'm sorry I'm a bit late - spring is a busy time for me.

This post is an introduction into what is probably going to be a few posts and it is about whether or not you should be making people roll dice (or use some other random method) to determine things.

Random elements provide replayability value and they also provide excitement because you don't know what's happening. 

Of course, it's really annoying if the random element decides to screw you at the last minute (or maybe it isn't because it's the thrill of anticipation that's important?) or if the random element is lots of work, but the results are pretty consistent anyway.

In this series, I'm going to explore whether random elements are needed a particular gamebook, and, if you decide to put them in, how do you implement them.

These thoughts probably started whilst I was playing Fighting Fantasy, which involves rolling 2d6 for your opponent, 2d6 for yourself and adding your skill values. The highest one inflicted 2 stamina points of damage on the lowest one. If both results were the same, no one got hurt. You could choose to test your luck to either increase the damage you inflict or decrease the damage dealt to you, but since luck decreased with each use, this was almost never a viable option. 

I have crunched the numbers for the Fighting Fantasy system. If your skill is 3 points higher than your opponent's then you will almost certainly win. Which means that my skill 9 hero fighting a bunch or orcs in Firetop Mountain or a skill 6 stamina 16 statue in Demons of the Deep would be rolling a ton of dice just to see if they lost 2 stamina points or not, which, for a game where you carry 10 items of food that is so yummy, it can cure two blows from a sword, is negligible.

Add in the fact that when I rolled the dice, I had no options to manipulate the rolls by spending resources (not like Destiny Quest, where you have a ton of options!), I was basically just going through the motions to see how something turned out, but with no tension because I knew that it would ultimately have no effect on the game.

I found this a bit wearing some times. 

So this series of articles is about deciding how to maximise the fun in a gamebook using random elements.

The first question, though, is whether you think your gamebook will be enhanced with random elements.

Some gamebooks don't need a random element at all. Sometimes, they want to tell their story and the game elements don't add to anything. In fact, they might detract from the message of the book. I realised this when I was writing Rulers of the NOW. At first, I wanted it to be a huge open world gamebook with a complicated game system (similar to SCRAWL) which had lots of choices. Then I realised that the core of the book was not about that. The core of the book was the message of doing something now or (NOW) to avoid the dystopian future presented. That didn't need a random element, because if the player failed a test, they might lose the game and not get to the message. It would also take away from the message of having control over your future if you lost through chance. 

Trying to include all these elements in Rulers of the NOW also contributed to why it too 11 years between the Windhammer entry and me actually finishing the book. Once I had stripped away all of the superfluous elements from the central message, the book was actually really easy to write (on a side note, if you have a project you want to do, but can't finish, why don't you see if there are superfluous elements to strip away?). I had originally tried to release it for 21st December 2012 (Mayan calendar apocalypse day), which I could have done if I had just focused on the core.

So, if random elements are necessary, how can it enhance the gaming experience? How much rolling are people willing to put up with before the excitement wears off?

I remember playing the Trial of the Clone app. Whenever you had a test, you rolled three d6s and used the best result. The app presented this like a fruit machine with one number coming up at a time. I remember feeling the tension and excitement if the first number was not high enough - will the next number be high enough? and if that wasn't high enough, then the excitement would build at the anticipation of seeing the third number come up. That really milked the tension.

You know what would also milk the tension even more? Giving people options to manipulate those rolls, but not make them auto successes.

Michael J. Ward, writer of the Destiny Quest series, is a master at this. He gives your characters a whole load of options for rerolls, rolling extra dice, bonuses, negating effects, enhancing effects and more. It really is a gamer's dream.

So that's it. I'm not really sure what the post titles will be - but I'll make a lot of them.

Does anyone have any opinions on random elements? How much they like? Which gamebooks do it in a way that they like? Let me know!

Happy gamebooking!


  1. I prefer gamebooks with dice rolls because, as you mentioned above, it adds a layer of excitement and suspense to the game. “I need to roll a 10 or above on 2d6 to pass this skill test? There’s no way.” (Sound of dice clanking across the table), then **BOOM** I get a 10-12, doing the improbable and exult in triumph. Woo-hoo.

    Of course, the opposite can happen if you only need to roll a 4, and you spin a 2 or 3 on the table. But that's what makes gamebooks fun.

    I never cared for gamebooks that didn’t have dice rolls, even ones with rules but still no dice rolls--like the Virtual Reality series--it felt more like reading a book than playing a game and eventually the game fell into mundanity.

    Now here’s the thing about diceless gamebooks--they give the illusion of player choice determining everything but really there’s no difference in those books than ones where you roll dice.

    Example in Diceless Gamebook: you choose one of three paths through the woods, but you dissect the book after playing and find only one path will lead to victory. The other two will, eventually, lead you to failure. 1 in 3 chance of winning when you come to that point.

    How is that different than rolling dice? It isn’t. It’s a random selection, no different than rolling dice. With no hint or clue that two of the paths through the forest lead to failure you’re, essentially, rolling dice to find the correct path. I’d much rather roll dice, add in my Tracking skill, and take my chances with the dice.

    Diceless gamebooks have actually pulled the wool over people’s eyes, fooling them into thinking their decision making is what determines everything, but the ones I’ve read winning is a random selection at two or more critical moments. I’d much rather resolve through dice and skills.

    1. That is true - a which direction choice is random. The different is that it is the same choice on a repeat playthrough, whereas if there was a die roll for the directions, it would be different and unpredictable each time.

    2. I suspect that not including dice rolling in those gamebooks was only to allow players to quickly start using the books without having to buy a set of appropriate dice.
      I totally agree with your analysis: three paths to choose, only one legit, it's 1 or 2 on a d6 roll...

  2. I find the FF combat slow and as you say, uninvolved. The good thing about the system is its simplicity and the skill difference can make it easier to rig the outcome you want for the player. Although with +3 or -3 skill making such a difference the starting stat range of 7-12 is a bit erratic which is always tempting to fix with skill changes that bring the player toward a set skill.

    1. Simplicity is also great. I agree and I think that most problems with Fighting Fantasy books could be fixed if the starting skill was 1d3+9 (or some other number) or even a fixed number in a region where combat would be challenging but not impossible. For example, a Skill of 8-10 for WOFM would be good and Crypt of the Sorcerer would be possible to beat with a skill of 15.