Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gamebooks that are dangerous vs gamebooks that feel dangerous

He didn't see that one coming.
This isn't Forest of Doom, you know.
Most gamebooks have sudden death paragraphs or another risk of you dying in some way such as through combat.  However, in some gamebooks, your death may come completely out of the blue after you have done something that you thought would have perfectly innocent consequences.  In other gamebooks, there is a constant sense of menace and danger which make you think that death lurks at every corner but you may be pleasantly surprised when some failed luck roll or springing a trap only results in minor damage.  There is a difference between gamebooks that give a sense of danger and gamebooks that are dangerous.

Since feeling dangerous and being dangerous are too separate things, there may be a discrepancy between
how much danger I think I'm in and how much danger I'm actually in.  One example is in Grailquest 2 when you are given a map and offered the choice to enter several nondescript cottages.  If you CHOOSE WRONG, you might get this little message.

At least you will now be able to avoid that paragraph when you're playing Grailquest as an app.

You can also go to the well.  I bet there's nothing
dangerous in the well.  That's why it's called a well.
Because it will all go well.
There was no warning there.  I was in a deserted village, so the worst I was expecting was some monster who had eaten all the villagers to attack me, but instead I got a cottage to collapse on top of me.  I can't even think of any logical reason to do this in the real world at least.  Grailquest is humorous, so it may have been an attempt at a joke but I did not enjoy it.  Now in Grailquest, death is strictly not the end, but it does mean you have to start over with new rolls and buy new stuff, so it might as well be and this will increase the tedium factor*.

This is an example of a situation that does not feel dangerous but it actually is dangerous, and it made me frustrated.  

The other situation with discrepancy, a situation that feels dangerous but actually isn't could be most of Daggers of Darkness or Fangs of Fury.

In both books, you have to brave a huge unstoppable army led by an all powerful sorcerer alone in order to reach victory.  You also have a time limit which results in your death if you go over it.  Most of the decisions you make have completely unexpected consequences and you end up in some pretty precarious positions.  In Daggers of Darkness, if you board a ship, it is attacked by dragons and sunk (as a sidenote, I could probably count on one hand how many sea going vessels that you board in gamebooks aren't sunk).  In Fangs of Fury, you are knocked out and wake up to see a goblin about to chop your head off.  Oh and you also have to go into a volcano, which, thankfully, is the only volcano that is not filled with magma.  However, in all of the above situations, you survive through a series of improbable events and the worst you face is a tough, but not impossible combat.  This is also the only reason I can think of why it is possible to ride two tigers across a river one handed**.

I find both of these books a lot of fun as they remind me of a Rincewind style romp where you constantly find yourself in way over your head yet just about escape by the skin of your teeth.  However, once I found out that actually, despite, appearances, I probably won't die, the books lost their sense of danger.

In the cases where the feeling of danger agrees with the actual danger, there is less of conflict of interest.  In non dangerous situations that aren't dangerous, I will have a predictable yet boring time, such as buying stuff from a shop.  Very few whole gamebooks  are like this, though I can play Fabled Lands this way if I spend all my time buying trade goods and ferrying them from one place to another.

In dangerous books that feel dangerous, I will probably make decisions that get me killed and take several attempts to win the book, but I can't feel annoyed about it because it's clear that the situation is deadly.  Take Deathtrap Dungeon.  It does exactly what it says on the tin.  It's a dungeon.  Full of deathtraps.  And no one has made it through before.  So I can never be surprised if picking up a goblet or prising a gem from an idol (I can never remember which one) is going to get me killed.   Nowadays, anything that says 'By Ian Livingstone' comes under this category.  It doesn't matter if his next gamebook is called 'Cuddles with Fluffy Bunnies', you'll probably still die before you've read your fourth paragraph.
He hopes you get the point.
To summarise this post, I have made a diagram:

Feels dangerous
Does not feel dangerous
Is dangerous
Dying is expected and met with acceptance.
Victory is sweet and a good reward for my hard work.
E.g Deathtrap Dungeon.
Dying is met with frustration as it is usually unexpected.
Victory is met with frustration as I did not expect to take so long.
E.g Chasms of Malice.
Is not dangerous
Dying is expected but won’t usually happen.  Instead, I get the feeling of tension with my decisions without the punishment of sudden deaths.
The excitement may wear off when I realise that most decisions have small consequences.
E.g Fangs of Fury.
I am probably not questing but playing some simulation of life in a fantasy world. 
E.g Fabled Lands if I spend all my time trading.

In summary, the most frustrating situation is one that does not feel dangerous but actually is dangerous.  However, situations that feel dangerous, but actually aren't, whilst being fun for a time, eventually lose their magic.  This can be remedied by having a few instant death or high consequence situations just to keep the players on their toes. 

Situations that feel non dangerous and actually aren't dangerous might result in boredom.  Of course, in these situations, there is probably some tension besides life or death struggle, such as how much money you make, how powerful you become or how high some score you have becomes, so it can still be intersting as long as you are not expecting life or death situations.
Situations that feel and are dangerous, whilst they may result in lots of character death, should not result in frustration as I should be able to see it coming.

So there we are.  I would like to make my books feel dangerous, but the clincher is not making them frustratingly dangerous or boring once the player realises that they can do anything and not die.  I'll need to get the balance right.  

*I am loving the fact that there is now enough material about gamebooks on the internet that I can link to it with examples to highlight my opinion.  You're great gamebook world!

**Is it even possible to write about Daggers of Darkness without mentioning the cover?


Once again, I intend to do the April A to Z challenge in the same format as last year I would like to interview people in the gamebook world.  It creates a lot of exposure as over 1700 bloggers signed up last year and as well as writing blog posts, we also surf the other blogs.  I will be emailing some people in the gamebook world soon for interviews as there is plenty of gamebook goodness to look forward to in 2013.  If you would like to be interviewed, please leave a comment or email me at  I'll interview you and then assign a letter to you so that I can cover all the letters.  I look forward to it!


  1. Tbh I never even thought authors wrote gamebooks in a style that WASN'T dangerous while feeling dangerous. To me it kind of goes without saying. Deathtrap Dungeon was one of the first proper gamebooks I read and that's probably why I love it so much. You've got to make the players feel on edge and make careful decisions but of course allow them to succeed from time to time so it's rewarding and not too much of a trial-and-error issue.

    1. That's a good point. I guess I meant to talk more about situations within gamebooks and how they feel. For example, looking at a map of a village in Grailquest does not convey much of a sense of danger so it might be a surprise to have a village collapse on your head. However, opening any door in Deathrapo Dungeon might spell your doom, so that always feels dangerous. However, some situations such as the alchemist's shop in Talisman of Death might not feel dangerous but it can result in you losing stamina unexpectedly.

    2. I guess what I'm trying to say is that if a gamebook is going to be very dangerous with lots of instant deaths then unless that sense of danger is conveyed in the text, it will be frustrating for the player.

  2. Half the fun in Fabled Lands is calculating the risks, preparing yourself for situations that are just about survivable, and just about profitable enough to be worth the risk. Yeah, you can wandering into deadly wildlands... but it's probably worth doing a little back and forth trading between point A and point B first, so that you can afford to invest in a resurrection deal, and a Luck blessing, and maybe a magic wand to shore up that poor Magic score...

    True, that's a little easier when you know the books well. But the books' introduction does specifically say 'cities are safer than wilderness areas... if you're not very strong, stick to the well-travelled areas'. Well, I'm paraphrasing, but it more or less says that.

    Speaking of Dave Morris, actually, I suddenly remember a similar instruction in the first of his Knightmare gamebooks, where the book's intro said something like 'Never go left, because left is the direction of EVIL... If you have no other clues to guide you, always go right...'

    I played Blood of the Zombies recently - app, not book - and that was frustratingly hard. As there's no longer a 'Skill' score in the book, my thinking goes, 'Okay, Stamina loss will be inevitable in combat... so the safest route is surely to avoid combat whenever possible' But no! Prepare yourself for a BIT OF A SPOILER...


    ... but you have to kill every single zombie in the castle if you want to win! So, presumably, you have to slog through every single stamina-sapping combat in the book. Kind of makes that scuffle with Razaak the Undying (in Crypt of the Sorcerer) suddenly look rather balanced and even-handed.

    1. Dave is very good at laying out the 'logic' of a gamebook for you to follow and in this case if you do die, it is probably you're own stupid fault for not listening to advice, which makes the gamebook very fair.

  3. This was a very timely post as I am currently revising some of my old gamebooks as ebooks, and the question of giving the player adequate warning of danger is even more important when there's no opportunity to cheat.

    The PC game Ecstatica was particularly good at that Rincewind effect you mention. I remember being butted off a cliff by a minotaur and being about to quit and load a save game when I saw that, far from being dead, I was now lying on a ledge that I hadn't noticed a little way down the cliff. So the designer used events like that (which certainly made the heart leap) to provide clues when you were stuck.

    Another thing I would say is that instant death without warning is bad, but so is the death of a thousand cuts where your hit points get worn away. My thinking about those small hit point penalties is that they are there to let you know you've done something dumb. Which is okay as far as giving you a sense of the adventure being harder - "Must be more careful, I'm down to 4 hits" kind of thing. But as the author of the gamebook, you don't want your player to die of attrition, because that just means he'll make one tiny mistake, lose his last hit point, and suddenly the adventure ends in a very undramatic way! So I'm thinking about changing it in the e-gamebooks so that you never lose your last hit point just for a minor mistake. But will that rob the adventure of a sense of tension? What does everybody think?

    1. In paper gamebooks, cheating was like a retroactive save where you went back to a point if you didn't like what you read. I suppose the best way to simulate that is to allow the player to go back to any previously read entry they like. Or you could warn people to save at certain points.

      The previously lost hit points thing might get complicated from a flavour and gameplay point. I suppose there will be minimum amount of damage that you set but then there is a flavour case of whether someone can die from a minor wound when on their last legs etc. and it will involve you going through all of your books and listing all the minor damage paragraphs. Personally, I accept that gamebook systems have to be highly abstract and so I would rather just know when to save rather than have the gamebook give me mercy. I think it would rob the gamebook of a sense of tension because when you are on your last hit point, all decisions could be deadly so you have to think very carefully.

    2. Save isn't going to be easy in the format we're using (EPUB3) which just remembers the point you've currently got to. You can reset the whole book but there are no save points as such. I'm not doing that to stop cheating, it's just a limitation of the system - honest :-)

      The tweak I was considering wouldn't be too hard to implement. I'd just add a line at all points where you lose 1 hit to say that only happens if [hits]>1. I have to go through all the books and put the logic code in anyway. But I take your point that this feature could rob players of that nail-biting sense of being on their last legs. Hmm...

  4. It looks like all four scenarios Lloyd mentioned have their drawbacks. I've been kicking around a few ideas. One is to think of a gamebook as a movie, like Gladiator. The hero can only die at the near-end. Otherwise, the player wouldn't get a full story. Imagine if Russell Crowe died in one of the first few battles; the audience wouldn't get a feature length film.

    A problem there is the Special Olympics ("let me win") setup when players know they're safe until the end. However, this can be helped by telling them ahead of time that story is priority, and the're shooting for a good ending. Just jam all the death paragraphs into the third act. Health is rigged so it can never reach zero, but near the end, too little health means the fatigued hero lowers his/her guard in a major end battle leading to a bad ending--like what happens to Russell Crowe.

    Another problem is the frustration of starting over after so much work. But having more paths for replayability helps there, and now the player knows how much health is needed for the end check.

    Another approach: death is everywhere, but upon dying, you make a new character who starts where the previous one died. This hero follows the "path of destruction", blood trail, opened doors, etc, encountering nothing along the way (b/c the previous hero cleared it). The player loses items though, b/c they've been looted off the first hero. Obviously, the environment must be well contrived for this to work.

  5. Fantastic post Stuart and very interesting to read the comments (especially Dave's comments that are always fascinating).

    In regards of Grailquest it's an interesting to ponder on your comments, and I can certainly see your points, however I've personally got a different take on it: To me, Grailquest is about seeing how little I can die. I know it's going to have ridiculous deaths, but those deaths are "part of the journey" (providing, and this is an important point, each restart is easy to manage and quickly gets me back to where I was). When playing through them I'd try to beat my "fewest deaths score" (or the "Deathometer" if you will that came in later). This is a similar scenario to Deathtrap Dungeon to me I guess: I know I'm going to die lots... Fabled Lands is a different experience altogether: each character tends to exist once for example and do different things. I think they're both good in their different ways / styles of play, but it certainly helps to have the right expectation of what sort of experience you're getting :)

  6. Gamebooks thar are not dangerous and don't feel dangerous are simply gameBOOKS.
    Nithing bad about them: they are simply a different kind of entertainment where youdon't need to threaten death to generate a good experience in the reader.
    They are not my type, but...

  7. I am currently playing that Grailquest book. Bit of a spolier, but all for the good, i s'pose. Hope Merlin doesn't find out :P

    But speaking seriously, that's frustrating. It would have been so easy to give the player a sporting chance, even based on a dice roll. Hell, even making the cotteage look decrepit on the map would have done. And it wouldn't bother me so much if the restart dynamic was like the one in the last book: you start anew, new life points, alright, but you had your given equipment and that was it. Now you have this shopping thing (which i didn't like much in the first place tbh) and you just have to hope to score as much for your money and thus being able to purchase roughly the same stuff.
    P.S. Regarding the first Grailquest book, of course, it would have bothered me considerably to lose the luckstone. But honestly, the luckstone makes dying achievable only if you are extremely unlucky, so not much harm done there.