Conan RPG

I don’t remember where I first came across the Conan RPG, but it was the RPG that really opened up my
mind to the idea of a world where magic is not just a tool for flinging fireballs, there does not have to be a clear definition between good and evil and heroes do not have to be world saving noble warriors and wizards who all work together well.

I did not know anything about Conan or Lovecraft at the time, so it really opened up my eyes to a new world.

The game uses the D20 system, but most classes are combat oriented with the scholar being the only magic using class (though not all scholars have to become magic users) and magic being quite limited – there are few spells and most of them come with a heavy cost, such as human sacrifice, demonic pacts, allowing yourself to be brainwashed by a cult or corruption of the caster until they become possessed by a demon.  Magic is not the flash bang type either – there are offensive spells but they do things like draw the heart out of someone’s body.

While I think sticking the D20 system onto it wasn’t perfect (it seems more apparent to me that the mechanics of a game should fit the flavour and sticking a generic system onto it loses some of the flavour.  Engel is another example, where the German version used something that sounds way cooler than D20),
the Conan RPG really opened me up to other genres of writing and other ways to play an RPG.

It seems that the Conan RPG is not for sale any more, but you could probably find it second hand from somewhere.

Happy gamebooking!

Making challenging options

Gamebooks run on giving a player choices to take and then telling them what the consequences of

Unless its this which door choice,
where it’s best to change your mind.

those choices are and  there is a fine art to getting the choices and the consequences right.  If the consequences to your choices cannot be predicted (the which door choice), then it might get frustrating, especially if one or more of the choices leads to sudden death.  However, if all of the options have consequences that are logical and easy to predict, and one of the consequences is better than the other(s) then there is no real choice, as this essay states.  However, I get annoyed if something that should be done reasonably to me is not an option as it makes me think that the author has not thought the options through.

So there is a very fine line with making options that are not too obvious yet also provide enough information for you to make the best decision with some thought.  So how can we do that?

And you’ve just lost.  THE GAME!
There does not have to be a ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ paragraph in some gamebook choices – this would be more apparent in gameBOOKs where the main aim is to create an interesting story and if the story is interesting, even if your character dies, it might feel like a satisfying end.  This kind of gamebook would have a different feel to a lot of gamebooks, however, which would appeal to some people (people who want to create stories), but not people who want to win at something, or beat a challenge.
If you see this, you can’t learn magic.
Another way to make all choices equally valid is to have them mean different things to characters who have made different past choices.  For example, in a dungeon where you know you have to fight either a gang of orcs or a dragon, the character who picks up a sword of orc slaying is going to mind fighting the orcs less than the character who picks up the spear of dragon slaying.  This approach is done very well in Slaves of Rema where the first choice you make determines which path is best for you later on in the game.
Finally, there is an approach which I have found Dave Morris is very good at.  He sometimes presents you with options which seemingly make no sense, but when you choose them, you realise that the consequences fit into the logic of the world that Dave has set out.  Dave’s method involves 2 steps – the first one is to create and communicate the ‘rules’ of the world – for example, most of his books have a very medieval approach to fey, elves, etc., so you have to know that they are tricky to deal with.  He communicates this through how the world looks as well as how these creatures act.  Sometimes, he is just explicit about his rules (like in the Knightmare books).  The next stage involves having people do things that are consistent with those rules, but framing the options so that it is not entirely explicit as to what exactly the reasoning is.  The reasoning is left up to you as the reader.  This requires a deceptively large amount of work as the world has to be consistent.  If it is not, it will just devolve into a ‘which door’ choice or a ‘guess what the author was thinking’ choice.
For example, in Blood Sword book 1, you have the task of identifying a magi in a masked ball.  You can summon a fey like creature to do so.  It will ask you if you want it to find the magi.  The options you have are ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  The correct answer is ‘no’ because you have to be more explicit with your instructions to fey as they will exploit every loophole you give them.
Another good one is in Castle of Lost Souls, you have to get a crystal ball from a fortune teller.  The options are:  Ask her to read your fortune, ask her to read her fortune or take her to the fair.  The best choice is to take her to the fair as you will then dance with her, get her drunk and then sneak back to her tent to take the crystal ball easily.
A subset of this method is something I have seen in some gamebooks, which is when you have a list of actions that you could take to overcome a problem, one of them being to try ‘something else’.  You really don’t know what this something else could be so it is a bit of a gamble as to whether it will work or not, but it always intrigues me as to what this ‘something else’ could be.  It is not quite like what Dave Morris does because there is no insight afterwards as to how the action was logical (as you never knew what it was in the first place) but I find it good for a different reason as it provides me with a thrill of a gamble.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop all of these types of options being in a single gamebook.  Their effectiveness depends on the type of gamebook you want (and there’s nothing wrong with gamebooks that kill you off in a few paragraphs or arbitrary choices if they’re entertaining and that’s what the reader expects).

Engel RPG

Engel was a game that I found in Waterstones, but, unfortunately, I did not buy the book.  I do, however
have the pdf.  The illustrations are gorgeous although the font of the text sometimes makes it a bit hard to read.

The setting, however, is excellently detailed and very imaginative.

Engel is set in a post-apocalyptic real world where everything has gone wrong – lands have been flooded, pillars of fire stalk the Earth annihilating everything in their way and hostile insectoid creatures called the Dreamseed are constantly invading and threatening what remains of humanity.

The human race has sunk into some kind of neo-christian facist state where an ageless pope wages war on the Dreemseed and heretics.  The backbone of their defence are the Engel – angelic creatures with special powers.  However, it is disturbing to find out where these creatures come from (something I won’t say here).

You play an Engel, whose powers are determined based on which one of the five orders of archangels they are a member – Michael (leadership), Uriel (scouting), Gabriel (fighting), Ramiel (knowledge) and Raphael (healing)

The game was originally from Germay and it used a deck of cards to determine the outcomes of decisions.  The English version eschewed this for some reason and just chucked in the D20 rules where humans are warriors, experts, aristocrats, commoners, fighters or rogues.  To be honest, I think the D20 mechanics are a bit forced and I don’t understand why a straight translation of the original game wouldn’t work (maybe the publishers thought that a D20 system would appeal more than a deck of cards to Englist speakers).

However, it is the setting that makes Engel stand out – there is much for the players to explore, and there are
plenty of enemies to fight.  And eventually, they might realise that the pope is not all he’s cracked up to be.  That is another great thing about Engel – the twists in the story will make it hard for you to trust anyone as you realise what’s been going on behind the scenes.  would you stand against the pope, or would you follow his orders as he is the best hope humanity has against the hordes of Dreamseed?

You can buy Engel (both the Englist and German versions) from here.

You can read a review of it here.

Computer games and me

This is me.

I’m a computer game addict.  Which is why I don’t play them any more.  I used to play games for hours on end and despite the lack of enjoyment, the tiredness, the headaches and the feeling of emptiness I felt after finished them, I would still come back for more.

Eventually, I decided that there were far more good things in my life that I should focus on – my wife, my friends, learning things and creating things of value.  They all contributed to a lasting feeling of happiness.  

It all started when I was very young and I was visiting my aunty and uncle, who had a computer.  This was a big thing for me at the time because the only other computer I had seen was my primary school’s one RM nimbus which could play the game Snake.

Naturally, there was always a big rush to use this amazing machine.

However, this tape based computer that my aunty and uncle owned could play this great game called Tachyon Fighter.  I’m no neuroscientist, but I can imagine that the game probably gave the biggest input of information I had ever had – the lights, the colours, the sounds, the need to win.  It was hypnotic and it gave me a great rush.

Every time I visited, I would spend most of my time in front of this computer, waiting for several minutes in the hope that the tape would work and load the game properly this time.  As time went on, the tape based computer was replaced by an Atari ST with floppy discs and a wider range of games with better graphics and more addictive gameplay.

Then came the day that they upgraded to an Apple Mac.  And I got the Atari.

I remember that within ten minutes, I had put a lead in a socket incorrectly and almost broken it.  However, it was fixed and that’s when my gameplaying started in earnest.

My uncle had collected all of the ST format magazines which I had read cover to cover before, but then I also got to play every game from the cover discs.  I played them all, spending thousands of hours perfecting my game playing skills.  Many school holidays would fly by in front of the little green desktop.  Sometimes, I would have a platform game day and sometimes I would have an RPG day.  I have a bit of an obsessive nature where I want to explore everything to its fullest extent and this made me a sucker for most computer games like the roguelike game Moria. 

I had the ST for about three years before it ran down and it was replaced for a really old second hand Atari cartridge console which had games with terrible graphics and simplistic gameplay before that also broke down and I received the Mac in 1999 when my uncle upgraded again.

This computer only had a couple of games, but that’s when there were plenty of games on the internet.  I played a game called Archmage and a cute little RPG called Dragon Court.  I was definitely showing signs of addictive behaviour.  I never had the internet in my home, so I would spend half an hour walking into town, just to use a library or internet cafe computer to play Dragon Court.  Then I would have to walk back.  I wasted money on an internet cafe if I couldn’t book a free library computer just so I could get access to my game accounts.

I never realised that I was addicted until my final year of university when I would stay up until two in the morning playing Command and Conquer, not realy enjoying it and going through the motions.  I had done this before with the game Civilization IV when I was a teenager but I could stay up all night once in a while and it didn’t affect me at school etc.  This was affecting my grades and social life at university.

It never got to the stage where I missed lectures or never came out of my room for days on end, but I could have done a lot better in all fields if I hadn’t been playing computer games.

NWN:  10% action,
90% trudging back and forth

After my degree, I started training as a teacher, which took up huge amounts of time.  However, I still played games.  I was now playing and creating maps for Battle for Wesnoth and trying to complete the adventure in Neverwinter Nights.

It was not until I moved in with my girlfriend (now my wife) and I was teaching as a job, that I realised that I had to prioritise my time.  I couldn’t do my job well if I was playing Neverwinter Nights for two hours a night, mostly involving level grinding and getting an item in one far corner of the city and transporting it to another far corner of the city in order to get to the next stage.

She didn’t mind the gaming but it
he went too far when he started
doing a poo at the console.

My girlfriend did not appreciate it either although she is too tolerant to go to extreme lengths.  I had to cut something out.  All I had to think about was how I felt after saving a game in Neverwinter Nights.  I would always think to myself ‘What have I got to show for this?  A file with some code in it, a headache and a feeling of tiredness.  This is no way to spend your free time.’

Computer games did nothing for me and I had other, more fulfilling things in my life.  After a few weeks without computer games, I felt much better and I’ve not wanted to go back.

I put hours of effort into
getting a picture on a screen.

I find computer games to be a waste of my life.  I sunk hours into controlling some graphics on a screen, desperate to see the consequences of my actions.

For the most part, I don’t remember feeling much satisfaction, I just felt a compulsion to ‘get through it’.

However, there was always another level (and if the game had a level editor then I would be on that for hours too), another way of winning, another challenge I could set myself and there were an infinite number of other games to play.

The only way that I would get out of this gaming habit was that if I just said no.

Originally, I intended this post to be an introduction to how certain computer games have given me material for gamebooks, but instead, it was an account of all the hours I wasted playing them when because I couldn’t get away from them.  However, I am glad that I wrote about it.

In future posts, I will write about specific computer games and what they have added to my gamebook writing and why gamebooks are better for me than computer games.

3 rules I had to be reminded of when writing Asuria

1)  Don’t annoy the player.

There’s a reason why this is number 1.  It doesn’t matter how clever you’re being, or how great you’re writing is.  It’s all for nothing if it annoys the player.  I had a section in Asuria where you get sucked into a maelstrom and pulled into a giant monster.  Now, throughout the book, I wanted to give an impression of hopelessness and that winning was impossible, so in this section, I offered two choices – row or swim.  however, both choices lead to you being sucked away.  There was no functional difference between them.  The reason I did this was to make the reader think that they had chosen the ‘wrong’ choice and make them feel like it was hopeless.  However, I then thought that if they went back, chose the other choice and realised that there was not difference, then they would have got annoyed.  So I got rid of that bit.

2)  If you need an item, make sure you have a chance to get it towards the point you need.

I’m referring to point 4 on the terrific article linked above.  I wanted Asuria to be a book where you did not have to complete a set path to win and it would be quite forgiving in terms of instant deaths.  So there is only 1 section where you need an item or die.  And when I wrote it, you had the chance to find 3 different items that would save you.  However, when I went back through it, I realised that these 3 items were all at the beginning of the book and that you could go through 2/3 of it with not chance of success only for you to die at the end.  It is for this reason that I included a new location towards the end with a new item to help (the bat amulet in case you’re wondering)

3)  If you give the player to leave, don’t just let it lead to an insta kill.

This is one thing Dave Morris, author of the Fantastic Heart of Ice, does not like about gamebooks, so when I realised that I had done it in Asuria, I immediately changed it.  I had two bits where you could leave Casporur and head back to Orlandes before you finish (one by land and one by sea) and they might be justifiable too (you might have found the simulacra you were looking for and you were charged with the safety of Orlandes, not Casporur after all).  However, since I din’t want this to happen, it was an instant death paragraph.  However, after the interview, I inserted a combat to both bits where the simulacra you fight warns you that you will be followed wherever you go as a not too subtle message to stick around.  After a warning like that, I feel absolved of guilt about anyone who ignores that warning and heads home anyway.

Armour rules in gamebooks

So if you play most Fighting Fantasy books, you usually get told htat you are wearing some leather armour when you start.  There you go, what more needs to be said about armour in gamebooks?

Ok, more I guess.  Armour seems to get an inconsistent approach in gamebooks, if it is not completely ignored.  I guess the writers are following the tenet that in a gamebook you do not want to create more rules or mechanics where necessary.  If a situation comes up rarely, then you should just assign a random die roll, give some common sense consequences and forget about it rather than trying to come up with a new rule.

Which is great until you realise that armour is not a situation that comes up rarely.

Now that I’m thinking (and writing) about it, it seems strange to me that a situation that comes up quite commonly does not actually get a clear rule for it.  In Fighting Fantasy, armour could add to your skill (leading to the question that since the rules say that you cannot go over your initial skill, does it do nothing if you are at your initial skill?), it could reduce damage in certain situations, it could increase your attack strength, it could reduce your opponent’s attack strength, it could reduce damage on a die roll, reduce damage for certain or reduce damage for certain, but wear out after x hits.

So armour does come up a lot, in any gamebook series that involves a system for determining combat at any rate.  So it does need a system.  Which one could we use?

Armour makes you harder to hit

Works quite well in Fabled Lands – you have to get over your opponent’s defence score with 2d6 + your combat score to hit them.  Defence is based on combat + rank + armour.  This is a good system as long as it is not too hard to hit people as it will lead to stalls.  Also makes logical sense that armour makes you harder to hit and damage.  Tin Man Games has an armour system which makes you harder to hit, but does not reduce damage.  Space Assassin has a system where armour makes you ahrder to hit, but every hit it absorbs makes it weaker.

Armour as damage reduction

it makes sense that armour reduces damage and that is find when you are dealing d12 damage a blow to an opponent and plate armour reduces it by 4, but when you do 2 damage with every hit, you have very little room to play with.  You can reduce 50% of the damage or 100% of the damage.  Not really an option.  It is possible in a system where you could lose a lot a hit points in one hit (Lone Wolf could have used this system, but decided to do something else).  Ways to get around this include a limited number of uses or damage reduction only occurs on a certain die roll.  Good ways around it with a bit more book keeping.

Armour as a skill or attack strength bonus

As long as the skill bonus applies, this makes sense.  If you are harder to damage, it will make combat easier and so you will be more likely to win.  A shield can be used offensively, which is another reason it can increase your attack strength.  Increasing skill is a little unrealistic – if you can’t go above your initial skill, then wearing armour has no effect (?).  If it can, then for some reason, armour makes you better at all the other things skill covers in Fighting Fantasy including jumping, sneaking and climbing.  Things that armour should hinder.

But a helmet is no use here :S

Armour that has a benefit in story

A more realistic approach, but one that requires more effort.  Your helmet prevents damage to the head, your shield blocks an arrow etc.  Adds a nice touch if you can be bothered to use it.

Armour as hit points

Used in Lone Wolf (combined with armour as Combat Skill increase).  A chain coat adds 4 to your endurance for example.  At first, I couldn’t see how that would make sense, but there is a reason to it.

If for example, you have 20 endurance points and you lose 10, you have lost 50% of your endurance.

If you wear armour that increases it by 5, and lose 10 endurance, you have lost 40% of your endurance.  The armour has not magically made you gain 5 points of endurance – it has reduced the damage you received by 10%.  Of course, there are flaws – it reduces damage from hunger and other things that it shouldn’t.  And also healing becomes less effective as it is restoring a smaller proportion of your endurance.  however, it is super simple and no more die rolling or maths is required beyond adding two numbers.

So there you are.  What’s your favourite armour system for gamebooks?

RPG – Sword Noir

I like Sword Noir – it is a combination of sword and sorcery and film noir (hence the name).  It is a system
where characters are good at what they do, but they cannot do everything and they do not become super human like high level DnD characters.  Characters have attributes and the game makes tests against them.  A character’s background, faculties and flaws gives bonuses and penalties to those tests.  All characters must have a background, some faculties and a flaw.  They can choose what these are and call them what they like, allowing some extra individuality to to characters.

Magic is present, but it carries a huge cost and will almost lead to madness and demonic possession (PCs might end up being NPCs).  This all fits in with the setting creed, which is broken down and explained in detail to show how Sword Noir adventures should work.  It shows that the system and setting of an adventure can be entwined to enhance the whole experience.  Magic is not just a set of tools, but something dangerous and corrupting, in keeping with the nihilistic nature of this world.  Characters are not ultra competent at everything, increasing the sense of danger.

  • Characters can be made up of more than just attributes 
  • It is better when the system and the setting are entwined.