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!

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