Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why it's difficult to do magic in gamebooks

When I was younger, I was annoyed that most of the gamebook characters I played were warriors.  They picked up the odd spell here and there but for the most part, they just had to fight their way out of situations.  I loved books such as Citadel of Chaos, Vault of the Vampire Scorpion Swamp and Stealer of Souls where you could get some spells.  I also enjoyed the Lone Wolf books where you could get psychich abilities or the Heroquest gamebooks where you could play a wizard or an elf (I liked the elf best because I had a thing for warrior-wizards at the time).

This is because most of my enemies (and a lot of my allies) in gamebooks were magic users who could produce cool spells that I had to endure, dodge or have an item to protect me from.  I got a bit of magic envy, wishing that I could fireball my way out of a combat once in a while.

Fast forward a few years and I realised that integrating magic into a gamebook is a difficult thing to do.  The main reason being that gamebooks can only offer a limited number of options and having lots of spells at your disposal gives a player more options.  This means that the gamebook author needs to look at each of their encounters and think about how each spell might affect that encounter.  This is a lot of work and might lead to a long series of options saying 'If you wish to cast x spell, turn to...'

What has emerged are several different ways of approaching magic in gamebooks, all with their own advantages and disadvantages. 

A spell is basically an item that is use once in a specific situation in a book

Think of the dragonfire spell in Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the North gate spell in Khare or the insect repellant spell in Crypt of the Sorcerer.  These spells have no rules associated with them - you just learn them and use them as the text demands.  It means that you get to learn spells but for me, I don't get the feeling that I am a proper wizard as these spells could just have easily been replaced by items and they do not give you more options - they are usually there as a victory requirement or to make a difficult combat easier.

The hero has a list of spells that they can use

This is the case for Heroquest, Citadel of Chaos or Scorpion Swamp.  Now we're getting closer to wizardhood as you have a list of spells.  the limit with this system involve not being able to use all spells in a given situation to avoid having huge numbers of paragraphs.  Also, for flavour reasons, would you expect a proper wizard to know about ten spells?  In Scorpion Swamp, you are not a proper wizard, I'll admit, but what about Heroquest and Citadel of Chaos.  I suppose you could say that it's Vancian magic and the book has only selected relevant spells, but it is a bit limiting (and for good reason.  No gamebook author is going to want to write the consequences for using 12 different spells in each situation).

The hero knows a lot of spells but only certain spells could be used at a particular point

I'm thinking the Sorcery! series which also throws in some dud spells along  the way (those of you who know Sorcery! know I've just done a pun).  Here you get a cool long list of spells but you just don't get the option to use all of them when given the option of using magic.  Doing so would be unworkable for the reasons mentioned above, but it is not realistic and I always used to get frustrated when I just wanted to fireball an opponent and couldn't.

The hero has the ability to cast spells but their actual list of spells is not known

I'm thinking the Virtual Reality series (most of the time - see below) where you can get the magic skill but your list of spells is unknown to you.  Basically, you sometimes have the option of using the magic skill and if you do, the spell you use is described.  This is more realistic for your character - they can produce a wide array of effects and you get to read about the cool spells you use, but this option reduces magic to yet another skill and only allows the player to use magic when the text demands it.

The hero has the ability to cast spells and is given a list of spells depending on the situation

This happens in some cases in the Virtual Reality series and also in the Warlock's way.  This method is slightly better than the two methods above.  It is better than just asking if you have the magic skill, because you feel like you have some control over the spell you could cast.  It also lets you weigh up the options and decide which spell is best from the information provided about the spell and the situation.

For example, in The Warlock's Way (bought from the superb Billiam Babble) you have to get across a lake.  You have the option of casting a jump spell (1 magic point), a fly spell (3 magic points), a walk on water spell (2 magic points) or make the good for nothing boatman tell the truth about the lake (1 magic point).  If you have more info, you will know that the lake is inhabited by invisible poisonous fish and so any spell that involves going into the water (jump, which does not go far enough) gets you killed.

This method only works if you can work out the consequences of using a particular spell.  If you have no way of knowing which spell is better then it really defeats the object of this method.

The hero has a list of spells that can be used in certain situations

In this method, some spells may never be mentioned in the text but their descriptions may tell you that you can use them in particular situations.  For example, a lot of the Heroquest spells can be used during combat.  Bloodbones has a list of three spells that you can use, two of which allow you to avoid encounters with certain creatures.  This system works well and can allow a wide range of spells but only if the language in the book makes it clear when the situations arise.  For example Bloodbones is clear that you can use the spells against zombies or insects and it is pretty obvious when you come across a zombie or an insect.  Legend of Zagor does this too and also has a non magic  example - Stubble gets a bonus to attack strength against any opponent with stone in its name.

A fan solution

A while back, someone known as Larni on the official Fighting Fantasy forum (now closed) posted a list of spells that you could use in Fighting Fantasy books.  Many of them were combat spells but there were others such as spells that restored your stats, created a non magical item or let you reroll die rolls.  There were about 20 spells and all of them could be used independantly of the book you were playing.  It inspired me to make my own list for an article in Fighting Fantazine.  I'd like to thank Larni for the inspiration. 

If a little effort is made with being clear with my language in a gamebook, I could come up with a similar system which could incorporate about two dozen spells that don't require a single paragraph in the book and that leaves more room for juicy storylines and wierd monsters and we can all say that's a good thing.


  1. I haven't given this much thought at all but the way I might do it would be to use a system like that in Creature of Havoc, so you'd bump into some GOBLINS or something and you could fight them, but if you have the Fireball spell you'd add 20 to the paragraph number to see the effect.

    It would mean that the author would have to write extra paragraphs for each spell or special action but that's not a huge problem -- for formatting at least -- in the digital age.

  2. I'm pretty fond of the approach, 'The hero can cast spells... but YOU don't really know what spells'. Works well in Fabled Lands, particularly in 'The War-Torn Kingdom' (spellcasting drops away a bit after book 1).

    I like the way the Heroquest books - also, like Fabled Lands, by Dave Morris - handle the 'Sleep' and 'Pass Through Rock' spells. If you think you're in a place where the spell might be useful, note down where you're at, then check the spell description at the beginning of the book to see if the paragraph number you're on is mentioned. If it is, turn to XX. If not, the spell does nothing.

  3. I think the Sorcery! system assumes you're trying to remember the spells and coming up with some ideas that might work. Which conflicts with the actual system of memorizing the spells a bit.

    The problem of wanting to fireball monsters and being unable o could be solved in some cases by simply saying "it's too dangerous to use in close quarters" in the spell description. It's more work planning encounter but some combination of slightly more restrictive spells in terms of effect and the poor memory of the protagonist would make it seem more reasonable.

    Analand has weird magic anyway. Creating goblins out of thin air is easier than I would have thought - not to mention goblin's teeth are a pretty easy thing to find on Titan.

  4. Playing a warrior was okay but I agree the character needed that extra something to make gameplay more interesting. In this respect, if not magic then certainly skills or talents were welcome; 'Midnight Rogue', 'Dead of Night' and 'Moonrunner' feature a talent element. Success also depended on the player's choice of talents combined with a certain route. I'm also a big fan of collecting items during an adventure - sometimes themselves being magical in nature.

    'Prison of Pestilence' also featured a selection of magic spells...but only if the player successfully discovered the shaman's tomb! However, it was still possible to succeed without magic; it was more an aid rather than an essential requirement. 'Snakeland Scorpion' had some magic items but focussed more on combat and Lores. Hero in 'The Curse of Drumer' was really of a criminal background which helped to explain his expertise with guns and fighting - oh, and there's a few magic weapons fitted in somewhere (this time critical to success)!

  5. The solution that you mention at the end works very well with fight spells, butnot for other spells, such as fly, pass-wall, invisibility, clairvoyance, silence, commune with deity, polumorph self, etc.
    Difficult to find a common guideline, but a mixed approach (free fight/heal spell with no need to go to specific paragraphs, that are required for non-fight spells) may help.

    Similar problems are encountered by other "specialized" characters such as priests, rogues, etc. that require every time dedicated rulesets and possibly a extra ability beyond SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK.

  6. It would also be possible to include supplementary tables at the back of the book for effects of using particular spells. It would have a list of sections which either says "nothing happens", "go to section X" or "this hits the enemy for 4 Stamina" or "ignore damage received in this section" or whatever. It would be possible to include tables for a number of different spells (or skills), without taking up much text space (especially if sections where the spell could not be used are simply omitted). It would be possible to include large-ish lists of this type, without cluttering up the main gamebook and requiring lists of 20 choices in each section.

    Example: suppose there's an "open lock" spell. Instead of including a spell option for each locked door, it would just provide a list at the back of the sections where there's locked doors, with instructions of either "proceed as if you have key" or "this door is magically protected - spell fails". Combat spells might refer exclusively to combat sections and have different effects on different opponents, ranging from instant death to immunity.

    Attack spells could also be used with a ranged combat system. Some adversaries will prefer melee and will try to get into melee range - in which case you'd have a certain number of rounds before they do so (unless you have freeze spells or something). Others might exchange spells or arrows with you - and you'd only know which course (melee or range) is more dangerous by trying it - a bit like the combat system in Way of the Tiger.

  7. What about Fire*Wolf? You have a bunch of spells that sometimes mentioned in the paragraphs, but you can use them freely in combat .

    1. Fire*Wolf is horrible, truly difficult to game-play. I'd rather perform curling naked in the Olympics.