“The Fighting Fantasy series popularised the use of a dice mechanic in gamebooks, a random element which contributed hugely to the suspense and the enjoyment of the play experience.”
First of all, when I talk about dice, I also mean any random elements in gamebooks. Lone Wolf books used a random number table rather than dice but the outcome of having it is the same as having dice.
Dice have had to roll with the punches but there are many sides to them and they can add a lot to a gamebook. They can bring more variety, more tension and can give a numerical value to how successful you are. However, to do this, they have to be used very carefully. One wrong use of dice can ruin a gamebook. Here is a list of good things that dice can bring to a gamebook and what, how it can go wrong and what happens if it goes wrong. I’ll post a conclusion later in the week.
Dice allow you to swing the odds in your favour.
“My skill is a bit low. I’m going to pay Cyrano a visit.” – Demons of the Deep.
“The Iron Cyclops may have a higher skill than I, but I can test my luck to inflict more damage when I do hit it.” – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
If you have a random element in gamebooks, it requires a whole new set of skills to succeed. You have to be able to put the odds in your favour. This means that your character could take different paths depending on their scores. If one score is high, then you can take a path that requires rolls against that score. If one score is low, then you can hunt for an item that makes it higher. The downside is that sometimes, you can still do this and get an unlucky die roll, something you will just have to expect as a player. Allowing the player to play the odds will only work if the situation where they do everything right and still lose is a rare occurrence caused by freak die rolls.
“Right, I’ve got a combat skill of 23. He has a combat skill of 16. I’ll only lose if I get seven 1s. My random numbers are 1,1,1,1,1,1,1. I’m dead. Oh well, how many times does that happen?” – Lone Wolf.
If done badly: There is a combat or other encounter that requires a good die roll that is improbable to achieve if you have certain scores. Or the die rolls make the gamebook just downright impossible to achieve. This is what spoils a lot of gamebooks.
‘So I have to kill this Razaak dude. What’s his skill? 12. Ok. What’s his stamina? 20. Ok. Oh and if he hits me twice in a row, I automatically die? Errr, I’ll give it a try. But first I have to get close to him and for that, I need a magic shield, an obscure Hameki spell, some smoke that protects me from fire, a horn from a rare almost unkillable beast and a magic sword that doesn’t even give me any bonuses but will turn me into a skeleton if I use it? That’s it, I’m outta here!’ – Crypt of the Sorcerer.
Using dice means that you can take risks.
“Is the spear going to hit? The fate of the Old World rests on this skill test. This is tense!”
– Knights of Doom.
With a non die gamebook, any decision you take will always have the same outcome. Eventually, once you have gone through every single path, you have done it. Paths in non die gamebooks are finite. However, introducing a random element means that you could do the same things and succeed or fail in different tasks which could take your adventure in different directions.
If done badly: Same as with playing the odds. There is an impossible set of rolls that you have to achieve, making the book unwinnable.
Dice allow more variation in gamebooks.
“Pirates this time? This will much more interesting than plain sailing.” – The Court of Hidden Faces (Fabled Lands book)
“Ooh, nice. 1000 shards and a silver flute. This means I can buy that house this time round.” – The Court of Hidden Faces, after defeating the pirates.
This is good as long as you make sure that a random encounter does not spoil the whole adventure. You also need to make sure that an item you can only obtain through a random die roll is not:
a) really needed for an adventure or
b) Completely derails the adventure and makes it easy.
The best way to do this is to offer common items such as food, money or basic equipment. This small change may also then open up other possibilities later in the book. For example, the player can buy an expensive item later on.
The same applies to negative things. You could roll a die to see how many stamina points a fireball does to you, rather than a fixed amount. This may affect your decision later.
If done badly: Rolling a certain number for an encounter could mean death, which makes it an unfair die roll. That makes the book less enjoyable.
If you need an item to succeed, but you can only get it randomly, that also makes the book more unfair and less enjoyable.
If there is a random item that makes the whole book easier, then you have destroyed the challenge in the book.
If the items you get or the encounters you face are of too little consequence, there is no point in having them in the book.
There is a lot of balancing needed for this to work.
If you have dice, you probably have character stats. Character stats can be improved.
“An increase in initial luck for killing the manticore? That’s better than a sack full of gold any day.” – The Shamutanti Hills.
This links in with playing the odds. If you are rolling a die against a characteristic then your character can obtain training or items which will increase their stats and make it more likely for them to succeed. Of course gamebooks without dice can have scores which can be improved and you can have a gamebook without scores where you have to roll dice (I can’t think of any examples of this) but if you have dice, you are probably rolling them against some character stat, so this is why I included it.
If done badly: Having so many point increases makes success automatic so die rolls become irrelevant. Having too many modifiers means increased bookkeeping which detracts from the entertainment of the game.
Dice have numbers. If you have numbers, you can give yourself a ‘score’ for the game.
“I killed Zagor with a few items last time, but this time I’m going to have 10 gold talismans, 4 silver daggers, acid, magical arrows, a magic slingshot, 50 gold pieces, 12 provisions in my backpack and without spending any one of my four luck points!” – Legend of Zagor.
If you have stats for stuff, then you can show how successful you are. If there is an item that you need to win the book and all the book does if ask if you have it, then it matters not if the item is a small wooden brick or a magical shield that protects you from lightning. The success ‘score’ for both is the same – you have it, you win. You don’t have it, you lose. However, if you have stats, then you can show how successful you are by how powerful your item is. This can happen in non die gamebooks with scores, but more gamebooks with dice have scores, so this occurs more in gamebooks with dice.
If done badly: Too many things to keep track of means lots of bookkeeping which detracts from the enjoyability of the book. Also, too many rewards make them all meaningless.
You can set yourself challenges
“I could offload five items I don’t even need onto the bandits so they will let me pass, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s fight!” – Forest of Doom.
“If I look for the Antherica berry, everybody helps me. If I try to kill all the masters and take their amulets, everyone wants to kill me. Where’s Grimslade’s tower?” – Scorpion Swamp.
“I could use the eye of the cyclops, but where’s the challenge in that? Come on warlock, let’s make this interesting!” – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
Finished the book? Ok, now finish it and fight the tough monster you avoided. See if you can do it without the magic sword. This links in with allowing you to play the odds in the sense that you can choose not to play the odds and see if you can succeed. This links into the taking risks, however, in this case, you a taking unnecessary risks just for kicks.
As an interesting side note, in Scorpian swamp, if you go into the swamp without magic gems, you get lost and harried and can’t succeed. However, there is nothing stopping you getting the spell gems and not using them. That can be another dimension to the challenge of the book.
If done badly: The challenges are all impossible, which makes the gamebook more linear, but still playable. However, this reduces the point in rolling dice, since if you cannot win without a sword that adds 2 to your attack strength, why bother having combat without it at all? Why not just have an instant death paragraph?
It prevents tedious tasks in your book
“Hang on. Which spells have I just cast?” – Green Blood (Virtual Reality)
“How many times have I read this freaking paragraph? Isn’t there a way out of this maze?”
– The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
You could spend 5 paragraphs playing through picking a complex lock or you could just roll a die to see if you succeed or not.
Some non random battles require you to make lots of decisions in order to achieve victory. This can get complicated and requires a lot of paragraphs. This might mean that my book would have fewer good encounters. A dice based combat system can just put the battle onto one paragraph and get it over with. It also does not mean that you do not make decisions any more. You could have special attacks or items which you can decide to use or not. Every combat round can be a decision in itself, so one paragraph could mean that you have to make ten decisions.
There are non combat situations which use a lot of paragraphs. To me, mazes are a good example of this, simply because they involve tedious page turning through paragraphs that all read the same.
‘You are at a junction. Do you go north or west?’ – It’s not entertaining and does not further any plot.
‘You are at a crossroads. Where do you go?’ – Towards the nearest cliff please.
The example that riles me the most is the Maze of Zagor. I go through the interesting, varied dungeon of Firetop Mountain, cross a river and then I’m traipsing around some non descript corridors. In Greek myth you had to cross a river to get to the land of the dead. That’s how I felt.
If I put a maze in my book, It will be something along the lines of ‘roll a die. If you roll these numbers you get out. If you roll these numbers you get tired. Lose 1 stamina point and roll again’.
If done badly: The book can become tedious because you have to roll dice all of the time. There is a balancing act between dice rolling for an outcome and making decisions for an outcome.
Random stuff happens. Get over it.
‘If I’m lucky, I listened in class the day they were talking about these runes. If I’m not, then I must have been poking the goblin with a dagger.’ – The Seven Serpents.
‘I rolled two sixes? But my stamina was 11. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.’
Things in life a random. Nothing has a definite outcome, even if you do exactly the same thing twice. You could argue that having to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. So you do everything right and things still go wrong. That’s life. You just have to deal with it.
If done badly: The book just becomes a succession of die rolls where your choices are irrelevant.
In summary, I write gamebooks to entertain, have in depth plots and give the characters interesting choices or a good mystery to solve. All this can be achieved perfectly well without any random elements in gamebooks and from my own experience, random elements should only be included if they can be done well. They should be done to add tension, variety and a measure of success to a gambook. However, it does not take much for random elements to completely ruin a gamebook. I must tread carefully!
I will post an in depth conclusion later in the week.
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