Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why do we read gamebooks?

It sure is broken.  Missing all the es.
There is an excellent post at the Mysterious Path blog which is the first of a trilogy entitled The Problems with  Gamebooks.  The first heading to this post is 'Gamebooks are broken'.

It is a very thought provoking post and I look forward to the next two installments.  It got me thinking about why we all read gamebooks and what makes my favourite gamebooks.

My favourite gamebooks include such classics as Heart of Ice, Moonrunner, Necklace of Skulls, Beneath Nightmare Castle and Avenger!.

So, it's perfect if you use a
forty six sided die.
These books all have a very balanced game system whilst having some great story elements and I thought that it was the key to a successful gamebook and I have tried to emulate that.

When writing my Windhammer entries and during my random scribblings, I have been trying to come up with a gamebook system that is simple, versatile and does not involve lots of book keeping so that it will not interfere with the narrative.

After my first entry, where I used the Fighting Fantasy system (it was awful, not because of the system but because it was linear, had an error with the skill score and had very little story), I tried to come up with a GAMEbook where the system allowed me to balance the gameplay perfectly (which came at a huge cost to the narrative), then I noticed that most of the entrants that did well focused more on story, so I used a diceless system in Sharkbait's Revenge which won me the prize.

Encouraged by my success, I used a similar system in Rulers of the NOW (though I still managed to put too much book keeping into it) and then a simpler system in the gameBOOK Call of Khalris where there was only one stat which covered an array of things and I wanted the player to interact with the story by writing a journal and having a cheat score.  Turns out it was too much and it spoiled my entry).

Just keep writing and it will
be OK.
Now that I've done the extremes, I have been cooking up systems that allow a nice balance and I may use them in future gamebooks.

This is the process that I've been through and I have found it very useful, but after reading Grey Wiz's post I realised that I would never get the perfect balance.  No one could and that the balance of story and game in my favourite gamebooks wasn't really a perfect 50/50 balance.  It was more a case that there was something I liked about either the game system or the story or the setting and that the other aspects of the game did not interfere with it.

I've come to the conclusion that spending ages getting the perfect balance between the game aspect and the book aspect of a gamebook is in no way linked to how good  the gamebook will be.  There are people out there who just want the story,there are people who want to number crunch and strategise, ,there are people who want to play an RPG system they love solo and there are whole new audiences out there such as  people who want to explore different aspects of a story.  All of these people fall into the category of gamebook people, so, with such a diverse audience, no one gamebook is going to please everybody.  And so, with that in mind, I thought about the gamebooks I love and why I did so.

I think a good gamebook has to connect with the reader/player on some level.  For example, with a gripping story, or with some detailed and compelling world building or with some difficult choices or with an exciting game system.  As far as gamebooks are concerned, this is both a blessing and a curse.  There are so many aspects to a gamebook that there is probably one that everyone is good at and can use as their USP.

There's something for everyone.
On the flipside, you have to be good enough at all of the other aspects so that they do not spoil the good stuff.  Some Fighting Fantasy books with great settings and characters were let down by impossible odds or just poor editing.  Lone Wolf also suffered from this in later books (such as in book 11).

Destiny Quest - Legion of Shadow had a system full of excellent strategic choices and lots of depth but the narrative choices were a little lacking and most choices determined nothing more than what ability you get.

However, all of the above books are still popular because there are plenty of readers who are not bothered by the flaws.  I enjoy all of the above books.  I'm not a big fan of Deathtrap Dungeon due to the fact that it is just a dungeon crawl and the die rolls are impossible but it is a hugely popular gamebook (no.7 in the Fighting Fantazine survey) because of the crazy monsters and traps, and, in some cases, because it is so impossible.

So I guess the moral of the post is that I should try to find my niche and make sure that I'm good enough at the other aspects of the gamebook so that I do not spoil it.


  1. I think you're right. You can't please all the people all the time.

    Maybe your post should be called 'Why do we write gamebooks?'

    Are you creating your work as personal project, for the existing gamebook community or are you targeting a wider mainstream audience?

    This consideration will massively impact your design decisions.

  2. Y'know, this post has made me think a lot about the book I played for next weekend's post, Siege of Sardath. It has some flaws, but I found it utterly enjoyable nontheless. And now I'm thinking about how the general design of it helped that. Very cool!

  3. About Rulers of the NOW: you had plans of making it into full scale gamebook adventure. Are these plans dead now? That would be very unfortunate.

    I really loved it for interesting world, logical choices and consequences and non-linearity. Also I liked how the protoganist starts as a victim (with no clear path) and not a hero which is a nice change.

    1. Many thanks for your kind words. I do intend to publish it one day. It's just that after I published the first 100 paragraphs, people started asking me to write gamebooks for them and offered me money. Once I've done them, I'll be back and Rulers of the NOW will be better than I could have done it back then, too.