Monday, 30 July 2012

Combat Mechanics Showcase: The Battle of Bamajeda

In my last post I talked about combat mechanics, and what criteria must be followed to make a good gamebook combat system. I also promised to post a micro gamebook showcasing my try at a "perfect" system. After a few quick (admittedly slightly rushed) editing rounds I am ready to present to you The Battle of Bamajeda! The Battle of Bamajeda is very short; it serves only the purpose of demonstrating my combat system, i.e. if you are looking for a shocking story line you'll have to wait for my Windhammer entry. TBOB is actually part of a larger gamebook I am writting; The Battle of Bamajeda is just one of the combats that I thought would interest you, so I set it apart for you to preview.
I would love to have as much feedback as possible, tell me how I did in following my own criteria, as well as how well it satisfied your combat system standards. What should I do to improve it? How close is my system to, and how can I make my system into, the perfect combat system? I want YOU to leave YOUR comments!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Combat Mechanics

Most gamebooks out there feature some form of combat system. The gamebook authors intended for you to do what most adventurers do best: fight monsters. These combat systems range drastically in complexity, from Fighting Fantasy’s roll 2 dice and compare, to DestinyQuest’s choose your combat ability, roll dice, compare, and apply passive damage and other effects. The challenges gamebook designers face is to design a combat system that is simple, fair to both player and monster, and most importantly: entertaining. Here I have a criteria for making a good combat system, and I am going to compare the combat systems of a few popular gamebooks in each of the following categories:

Simplicity and Quickness
Most players want to be able to resolve their combat fairly easily and quickly; it can become rather tedious to have to roll a series of dice for you and your opponent, add, subtract, multiply and divide (and don’t forget to round down!) different scores, compare to a chart and then find out you’re only dealt 2 damage to your opponent with 100 HP. Now do it all over again 50 times. This can be reconciled if the combat system is very entertaining to the player (see below), but even the best combat systems get redundant after the 50th die roll.
Good Examples: Lonewolf did a rather good job with this; subtract your opponent’s Combat Skill from your Combat Skill, then pick random numbers and compare on table to find out what happened; you didn’t need to sit there working out the numbers in your head, which for some younger readers could be especially tedious.
Bad Examples: Car Wars gamebooks tried to make their system way too complex and just ruined it with trivial calculations and rolls. I remember my experience when I played Badlands Run. I had to keep track of my weapons, where they were facing, how many weapons I had and how much damage they did to my enemy, add my combat bonus, which was made up of a multitude of other scores like “Gunnery” and a targeting computer, roll dice compare to opponent’s Defence Class, watch out for recoil, then see if I did Special Damage, roll on the Special damage chart and apply the effects of that, see how much damage that did to the vehicle, how much damage that did to the weapons, and to the driver, and don't forget to subtract armor scores and saving rolls. Then I had to go through the same process for my opponent. Did I mention I was facing 4 opponents at the same time, for whom I had to do the same stupid calculations for? Oh, and I wasn’t even using the “Advanced” rules.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like math and all, but a million stupid plus-minus calculations while I’m trying to play a game just gets boring. I also appreciate that the game designer was just trying to give you more freedom and make things more realistic by letting you and your enemy choose what part of the cars you attack. But come on, really?

Fairness and Predictability
Many of the early gamebooks had problems with making their combats either way too easy, or way too difficult for the player. Especially because combat was so unfair, it was also predictable, and made the player inclined to just skip the combat because they know they would inevitably win without taking damage, or get absolutely destroyed. A good gamebook has combats that will leave the player biting their nails hoping to come out alive, making both success and failure real possibilities. Authors must also take into account how much a player may be damaged from previous encounters. However writers must either allow you to heal after your fights, of make the combats sufficiently easy; you can’t have your reader just barely defeat his last enemy, hanging in the balance between life and death, then have another monster jump out straight afterwards with an opportunity to heal.
Good example: Most Tunnels and Trolls books made their monster’s MR be a function of the player’s level and/or combat adds. By doing this the authors have managed to make players of lower levels still able to vanquish their enemies, and players of higher levels still have difficulties. Thus a veteran player with a magic sword won't be yawning the whole way through, and a newbie won't get squashed before they get anywhere.
Bad example: For the bad example I’m actually not going to talk about everyone’s favorite unfair gamebook, Crypt of the Sorcerer, but rather everyone’s second favorite: The Crimson Tide. At the very beginning you are faced with a Giant Mudworm. Now in this FF title you start off as a kid and so are weaker than a full grown man; you roll one die for your skill, but don’t add anything. So your skill is 1-6. The Giant Mudworm is given 12 skill. Even with the highest skill possible, your enemy is still at least 6 above you. I don’t believe there has ever been such an unbalanced combat in the history of gamebooks, especially for the very beginning. Now of course people went up to Paul Mason and were like “What the hell man?” and so Mason confirmed it was a typo; the Mudworm was only supposed to have a skill of 6. But still if I roll a 1 for my skill I’m facing an enemy who’s got 5 more skill than I do. I might as well start rerolling my character already.

Balancing Choice and Randomness
Having a combat system that takes into account the reader’s choices is absolutely essential to me. Unfortunately very few systems do this well, most are just a series of die roll that I have no impact upon. For most gamebook combat systems you could easily write a computer program that you would put your character and your opponent’s character’s info into, and then have the computer instantly give you the winner. When I see a combat system like that, I often ask “Why even bother? I read this gamebook because I wanted to have an interactive experience, and this system is not doing it right.” Choices that a player could use to affect combat could include being able to use spells, abilities, techniques, and movement. On the flipside a combat must have a small degree of randomness. If there is no randomness, then the player could easily just win all their combats by knowing the right series of choices to make. For example the cyclops from Seas of Blood is a fantastic example of giving the player choice, however, once you play through the combat once, you’re going to know the exact series of moves you need to kick that cyclops’ ass the next time ‘round.
Good Example: Wizard Outcast, a gamebook that has not received the attention it deserves, did an excellent job with blending choice and randomness. The player got to choose what spell they cast, or what weapon to use when attacking an enemy, they would then roll a d20 to determine how effective their attack was. The player has to be strategic in choosing what attack to use. Some spells take up more mana than others. Some spells can hit multiple opponents at once, while others will give more concentrated damage against one opponent. Also the player must roll the d20 to see what the enemy did. The player might have to change their attack tactic to counteract their opponent’s move. A very good blend of Choice and Randomness.
Bad Example: I mentioned this book in my last post about liner gamebooks, well this book also has a liner combat system as well. Quest for the Dragon’s Eye, (which, as you can guess, is one of my least favorites) also features a combat system where you have to just roll the dice and see what happens. Even in Fighting Fantasy you were given the choice of using luck, albeit it only meant the difference of 1 stamina point, and who was really going to waste their precious few luck points on combat anyway? But in Quest for the Dragon’s Eye there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect combat.

Entertainment and Enjoyment
This is the most important category. All the flaws of a combat system can be forgiven if it is entertaining. The purpose of a game is to have fun, and so if a gamebook is providing you with entertainment, it is doing its job wonderfully. I find that combat systems that are less abstract and give the player a better mental image of what how their combat is going down tend to be more entertaining for me. I personally also really like systems that are really interactive and (secretly) prefer systems that are slightly more on the player’s side. What can I say? I like to win, and I like to earn it. To each his own of course.
Good Example: Of all the gamebooks I’ve played, I must say The Legion of Shadow had one of the most entertaining combat systems out there. I loved being able to use the abilities provided by my equipment to strategically take my enemies down, while having to work around my enemies abilities which were keeping me back. Combat was really exciting, I could imagine my character using the special abilities against my enemy and vice versa, and when I finally defeated my enemy victory felt earned. Sure there are a few flaws, but all in all one of, if not the best gamebook combat system out there.
Bad Example: I’m sorry Fighting Fantasy, but most of your combats are just too abstract and unentertaining for me. You can say that I have a poor imagination because I have difficulty imagining my enemy’s swipe miss me, while I manage to stab my opponent every time I roll higher than my opponent, but really I don’t find a simple die roll inspiring. Some FF titles included tables for some special monsters where you’d roll a die any time you got hit to see exactly how your enemy attacked you, which I enjoyed, but for the most part the combats were rather dull, unbalanced and uninteractive. This has lead me to skip a combat many a time in my days.

There a lot of Gamebooks I have not yet played, but supposedly have good combat systems, for example Eternal Champions. I am unable to comment on how well designed those are, but thus far I have not found a perfect combat system. Even Way of the Tiger got predictable after you used a move twice and The Legion of Shadow was way too easy for rogues who would just use their speed to kill their enemies without being touched. Many do come close to being perfect though, my top three would be DestinyQuest, Blackstaff Adventures, and Way of the Tiger.

Because I haven’t yet found perfection, I myself have tried to write a “perfect” combat system. I am hoping readers will find it satisfies all of the above criteria. I will be releasing a micro gamebook to showcase my new combat system soon. (All is written, just needs editing and play testing to make sure it is completely balanced.)

Last but not least, in my opinion a gamebook doesn’t actually need a combat system to be good; in fact almost all of the greatest gamebooks out there are known because of their plot, rather than their mechanics. Examples include Life’s Lottery and Pretty Little mistakes, which are essentially CYOAs for adults with great designs and plots. Also Heart of Ice and The Forgotten Spell, which had great mechanics and plots, but no actual combat with die-rolling.

I would love to hear what YOU have to say about this article. What would YOU add and/or change about this article? What do YOU find most important in a gamebook combat system? What are YOUR favorite combat systems in gamebooks? And are combat systems essential to a gamebook? So please leave comments!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Classifying and Rating Linearity

When most people are reviewing a gamebook, I find that they often comment on its linearity, and quite often gamebooks that are considered linear are given negative reviews. But so far I haven’t seen anyone really give an in depth analysis as to how linearity works and what the different levels are.
I myself enjoy a gamebook that is as non-linear as possible; I want my decisions to have impacts on the plot; if I wanted a linear plot, I would have read a regular book. So I have come up with a classification system to help define the different levels of linearity and non-linearity. Included are images of plot trees showing roughly how each classification of gamebook would look if it were mapped out. The circles with the numbers represent pages/sections, and the arrows show decisions and the direction of the arrow shows which direction they lead.

Linear gamebooks are essentially regular books that may have added in die rolls and combat, maybe giving you the option of one or two choices along the way that do not affect the plot whatsoever. One might also consider books that allow the reader the choice between two endings on the very last chapter to also be linear.
Examples: Of all the gamebooks I have played I have to say Quest for the Dragons Eye was by far the most linear. Honestly I think there were maybe three choices available to the player the whole way and each converged back to the main plot after only one page. At the beginning of the book there is a map of the dungeon. It’s essentially a straight line. Enough said.

Gamebooks that are Convergent are the kind that may give the player a variety of options and a small area to explore, before bottlenecking the different paths the player may have taken so as to force the player to follow a specific path in the end. This level of linearity isn’t really that bad seeing as it usually required to structure a gamebook with a good plot; it may not be a good thing to let the reader run too far away from their main mission.
Examples: Most gamebooks, such as Fighting Fantasy, Virtual Reality, Lonewolf and Spellcaster are structured this way. Take for example the beginning Citadel of Chaos; there are many routes you can take when crossing the courtyard, but no matter what you will always end up at the gate on the far side with the rhino man asking you for the password.

 A Divergent gamebook is one in which few, or none, of the plot strands you may choose to follow ever meet up with any of the other plot strands. If you are given the choices A and B, then few or none of the pages you can reach after reading A will be the same as any of the pages you can reach after reading B. This forces the book to contain many unique outcomes and ending all revolving roughly around the same plot. One thing about Divergent gamebooks is that internal consistency is never an issue; in one plot strand a character may be completely different than in another plot strand, this allows for a lot more replayability.
Examples: Choose Your Own Adventure, Give Yourself Goosebumps, Pretty Little Mistakes and most other gamebooks that only feature choices without other game mechanics are structured this way. A good example is the first gamebook I owned The Deadly Experiments of Dr. Eek, in which depending on the series of choices you make you might find that Dr. Eek is doing experiments on monkey, or on dogs, or that you’re in the wrong building and that it’s Dr. Ek you’ve encountered, not Dr. Eek.

Free Roaming
One of my favorite forms of gamebooks, but sadly one of the rarest is Free Roaming. In Free Roaming gamebooks the player is allowed to do what they please and is usually given a plethora option to choose from, as well as a number of locations they can explore at their leisure. This level of non-linearity really gives the reader the wonderful feeling of being able to explore the authors world and truly “living” in it. The only drawback is it can be difficult to add in plot to a book when the player is given such a large amount of freedom, however most of the great gamebook authors I know have managed to add good plot elements while keeping such a high degree non-linearity.
Examples: Fabled Lands, Tunnels and Trolls, Scorpion Swamp and À Vous De Jouer! Are examples Free Roaming adventures. Fabled Lands is one of the best known examples; in the six interconnected books you can go on quests that will take you across the lands, interfere with the politics of the regions, and fight monsters for treasure. Or you can simply buy yourself a nice home, stay as a guest at a castle and go sailing around the coast. Whatever you would want to do in a fantasy land, you can do in Fabled Lands.

This rating system is not perfect, especially because many books will be a somewhat blend of two of the levels. For example The Legion of Shadow can be considered Free Roaming because the player is given their choice of where to go on the map and what they do in the cities. However it can also be considered Linear or Convergent when the player goes on a quest because most of the choices quickly lead to the same plot of each quest. I would also say that Lonewolf is also slightly more on the Linear side of Convergent, while Virtual Reality is more on the Free Roaming side of Convergent.

Lastly the mathematician in me has a few comments to make and ideas to share: it might be possible to create a formula to give gamebooks a quantitative rating of non-linearity, as opposed to the qualitative rating system I have given above. This could be done my counting the number of paths it is possible to take through a gamebook from start to each of the endings (this would probably have to be done by a computer due to the number of ways some gamebooks allow you to mix and match different subquests) Then use this number to classify how linear the book is; it would give a index of how paths there are through the book. We could call it a Gamebook Path Index (GPI). A Free Roaming gamebook would be instantly recognizable because it would a GPI of infinity. A regular non-interactive book would have a GPI of 1. I may try to use this method to classify the short adventures I have written so far seeing as they are short enough that applying this method of classification should be manageable. Note that GPI would be affected greatly by the length of the gamebook, and for some gamebooks may not give an accurate idea of how linear the gamebook is: I am working on a formula based upon GPI to be more accurate.

I would love to hear what YOU have to say about this classification system, what YOU would do to change it and/or improve on it. Do YOU prefer gamebooks that are Linear, Convergent, Divergent, or Free Roaming? So please leave comments!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Initial Ideas

Hello all. In this post I just want to introduce some of the ideas I wanted to blog about in the future. The things I want to share with you most are:
-Reviews: especially of lesser known works that may not have been given the spot-light before.
-Attributes of gamebooks: story-driven vs. game-drive and how to balance there two.
-Style and presentation: Print vs. PDF, does size matter? Etc.
-Gameplay and mechanics: open-world adventures, combat design, items design etc.
-Ratings and Honorable Mentions: my favorite gamebooks in different categories, and why.
-Do not read and Didn’t Deserve. Gamebooks that I thought were terrible and not worth your time getting; especially gamebooks that I have heard others praise, while I found to be crap. (Not to offend any of the fans of those mediocre gamebooks)

I’ll be adding more to the list, but for now these are the main subjects I’d like to touch on with my blog. Cheers!

Introduction: Why Gamebooks Are Superior To Books

Gamebooks, interactive fiction, solo RPGs, choose-your-own-adventures, whatever you call them; I love them all. I was introduced to the concept a while back and was immediately hooked; I began collecting any form of the genre possible. Slowly my bookshelf grew as I added more and more titles to my collection. Eventually I started writing my own titles so that I could add to not only my own collection but those of others.
In fact with the rate that my collection has been expanding I have a large number of unread gamebooks on my shelf, which I have been slowly making my way through. In fact these days my personal reading material is almost completely comprised of either gamebooks are physics books.
The reason I find gamebooks so superior to normal books is that they are kind of like the evolution of the book: In the same way that we were once simple one celled creatures but now we have become complex multi-cellular creatures, stories were once linear with one plot but now we have complex multiple plots and endings within the same book. Gamebooks come in many forms with different writers using different styles and technique which is shown through writing, the choices you are given, as well as game design and mechanics. The new complexity and levels on which stories are now providing entertainment is to me an advancement like that of the introduction of the computer; it shows how we as humans are developing. In fact the gamebook boom was in the 80s, which was around the same time the personal computer was starting to become popular. You can tell me if you think that was a coincidence.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Beginning

Greetings everyone. My name is Jake Care, and I love gamebooks. I am a writer and mathematician, who is multilingual; fluent in English, French and Spanish. The purpose of this blog is to share my view on gamebooks, promote the interactive story medium, promote my own works and allow me to take a more active role in the gamebook niche.
During my spare time I write short gamebooks in a variety of genres with a variety of subject matter. I shall be putting up a few of my works on this blog for free download, and I plan to publish a book with a collection of my short interactive stories.