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!