Sunday, June 20, 2021

"Trial and error" gamebooks

I recently played Warrior: A Legend begins as part of the Facebook Interactive Fiction and Gamebooks discussion group. I died a lot. I died for various reasons - attacking creatures instead of fleeing from them, using the wrong item, taking the wrong turning. 

It made me realise that there is a gamebook type that is out there, which I call the trial and error gamebook.

I'm still working on this problem.

What do I mean by a trial and error gamebook?

There are many "which door" choices - choices where you have no idea which choice is the best choice.

The "wrong" choices end in sudden death, or, at least, punishment.

There may or may not be random elements.

Winning the book is done by making the choices and seeing if they are the correct ones

A simple trial and error gamebook would have the consequences to a player's choice happen immediately after the choice. It could be a literal which door choice where one door leads to death and the other door moves on to the next stage. Or it could be a case where you have to take an item from a list of items and then if you picked the wrong item, you will die.

Hang on - isn't this bad game design?

I guess it depends on your frame of mind. So, years ago, I would have said that it was, hands down. I did not like arbitrary decisions. However, this was from the frame of mind that I did not want my character to die. However, if you don't mind character death, then it is no problem at all. There's still plenty of entertainment in the flavour of the game - what items you get, what spells you get, what characters you meet and what the most entertaining way to die is.

So, it is not necessarily a bad idea, and I don't think I'm the first one to know this. After all, some of the most popular gamebooks are trial and error gamebooks. Deathtrap Dungeon is a trial and error gamebook, as is any Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook.

Also, trial and error gamebooks are good ways to practise gamebook writing. The most simple trial and error gamebook would have 2 choices per section where 1 choice leads to death and the other leads to the next choice. This is a simple way to learn gamebook writing and it is in fact one of the exercises in Write Your Own Adventure by Martin Noutch, writer of the Steam Highwayman series and teacher who has done these exercises in classes.

Why play a trial and error gamebook?

The joy in a trial and error gamebook lies in cracking the correct sequence. Once you have done that, you can have the satisfaction of getting to the end. I think they appeal to people who want to win and who want to have bragging rights for cracking a system. I wouldn't say that they appeal to puzzle solvers as I define puzzles as problems where you are given enough information to solve them and when you do, you know the answer. Since the choices are arbitrary and you can't know if you are correct or not, then they are not puzzles.

How long should it be?

The length of the book is important here. The longer the book, the more time it will take to complete. This might sound super obvious, but people only have so much time and can stand so much. Personally, I quite enjoy a trial and error gamebook of 200 sections or less for a casual playthrough. I find anything more than that more involved.

Ways of making trial and error gamebooks more elaborate

Hit points

Hit points provide options other than success or death. Maybe you have 3 hit points and you lose 1 with every wrong choice which means that you could have 2 chances at getting things wrong.

More than 2 options in some choices.

The more options there are, the more variance there is. You could make it simple and have x options with 1 success and x-1 sudden deaths or you could make it more elaborate where option 1 is success, option 2 is sudden death, option 3 is success but you lose hit points, option 4 is success with a bonus idea etc.

Delayed consequences

Instead of having a choice where death or success is immediate, maybe have the consequences appear later. Warning, though! If there's a sudden death for something you did about 100 sections before, then that could get frustrating. That would just lead to wasted time.

Have a "philosophy of success" for the gamebook

At first glance, the correct choices may seem arbitrary, but as you experience more of the book, you might notice some themes come up. Maybe all the monsters you come across are too strong to fight and so you have to use your wits to defeat them. Maybe you have to be polite to goblins. Maybe left turns lead to death. It could literally be anything. These themes act as clues which make the gamebook less arbitrary as the player plays the gamebook more. The gamebook could drop cryptic or even obvious clues about the themes or it could not mention them at all and make the player work them out.

Have "save points" 

Instead of dying and starting from the beginning each time the "wrong" choice is made, if you make the "wrong" choice, you go back to the beginning of a section.

Make what looks like a bad choice actually be a winning choice

Some choices are never completely arbitrary. Entering a room full of snakes sound more dangerous than entering the empty room, but hang on. What if the snakes are an illusion and they disappear when you enter to reveal the key to the treasure chest? Then actually, what appears to be the worst choice is actually the best choice. Personally, I have a blindspot for this tactic - I just discount what looks like a bad option which leads me to not explore failure dice rolls or what looks like suicide, which would mean I would take longer to win the book.

Random elements in trial and error gamebooks

Random elements in trial and error gamebooks make them more difficult to complete, because in addition to making the correct arbitrary choices, you just have to be lucky as well. This might be frustrating if it's the one thing that prevents success, but it can also be exhilarating to succeed at a tricky roll. If there are random elements as well, then you just need to accept that it will be harder to succeed at the gamebook, because even if you have the optimum choices, it is still possible to lose (or you could just cheat and ignore the rolls).

Things to think about with trial and error gamebooks

Since death comes easily in a trial and error gamebook, they would not be good for a gamebook series where you want your character to grow and advance over a series of several books. They are better for one shot adventures.

Examples of trial and error gamebooks

Choose your Own Adventure books

There is no game system in these books. They simply involve a series of choices and most of them have arbitrary results.


Ian Livingstone Fighting Fantasy gamebooks

These books usually involve you taking the correct arbitrary route through a dungeon or overland to find the correct arbitrary items in order to defeat the correct arbitrary creatures.


Knightmare gamebooks

These books involve you taking the correct items from a selection of items and going through the correct portals and approaching the characters in the correct way. These books had the philosophy that violence was usually not the answer and they also have clues in them.


Warrior: A Legend begins

This is a new book by Lukas Latham and Adam Mitchell which involves you exploring a dungeon to reach the end. It is a great gamebook worth checking out. Another book is in the works.


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