Friday, November 30, 2012

Trial of the Battle God by Andrew Drage

I had mixed reactions to Trial of the Battle God. For my own purposes, I was extremely impressed by the time tracking system and the multiplayer capability. Very cool stuff. But I actually roped together a group of friends and ran through a multiplayer scenario with them, and the reactions ranged from "meh" to outright negative.

The only conclusion I can come to is that, while there's a tremendous number of innovations and some really cool mechanics built into Trial of the Battle Gods, it suffers from the same problems as Swordplayer, which is to say, there are just better gaming platforms than gamebooks out there. Andrew is pushing up against the limits of what gamebooks are capable of doing, and it still just can't compare to what even the most mediocre of digital gaming systems can do without breaking a sweat.

The trouble, I think, is not that Andrew created some very innovative and awesome game mechanics. That's pure cool. The trouble is that the other things which really can make a gamebook shine are lacking: story, choices, characterization and tension. The flavor text is well written, but it's just flavor text. At the end of the day it doesn't matter whether the room is purple or gold or has a river running through it. All that matters is what item there is to grab, if any, and which doors are available to exit out of. You wind up skipping the flavor text because it's irrelevant.

On to the game mechanics... There's a lot of good and bad here. As I said about the good, I think the way movement and timing was handled was excellent. That's so cool and innovative. I think the combat system was... I mean, it was solid, for what it is. But it's still trying to be a full combat system in a gamebook. Basically, that means it's pushing the limits of complexity that a gamebook can support (maybe exceeding those limits, for some players) and yet still cannot reach enough complexity to the point where real depth could be added to the system. The combat still devolves just to rolling dice and comparing stats. The vast majority of the decisions you make are in character creation. After that, during combat, the only real choices you have are whether (and when) to use your True Strike or Parry abilities, and whether to attempt to use Fitness. The True Strike and Parry abilities were very good. Those added the best bit of tactical depth, but it's still just one choice. Fitness was too risky; the penalties for failing were only barely worth the bonus for succeeding. It didn't really feel rewarding to use it and end up getting penalized for having gone out of your way. At the end of the day, the combat still wound up feeling very random. In our multiplayer game, the player who won was actually the person who ended up liking it the least. He didn't feel like any choice he'd made had earned him the victory; he'd just gotten lucky with finding this or that item, and then gotten lucky with dice rolls. And it was true. He was playing a dwarf, and he'd already killed both the orc and the human by the time he encountered my elf. We both had great equipment, but he was badly injured. I thought the fight would go my way for sure, but the dice had other ideas. And it didn't take much bad luck. The system is random and lethal enough that one roll either way can make the difference.

There was also both good and bad in the layout of the dungeon. The ability to move around the dungeon added a certain tactical depth, which was good. You could choose sometimes to go explore in a given direction, or maybe to hold back and hope to ambush someone. The problem I had was that it added a random element to what each character finds along the way. So in a multiplayer game, a showdown doesn't come down to who has done better for themselves so much as who chanced to come across better items. Or, in the specific case of this story, who reached the end first, because for some reason the best weapon is just sitting there at the end of the dungeon available for whoever gets there. I wasn't quite sure why whoever reaches the end first should be given this big combat advantage against the next player to come around, but there it is.

At the end of the day, I think the most awesome thing Andrew created with Trial of the Battle God was some innovative new techniques for handling gamebook flow and multiplayer interactions within gamebooks. It's valuable, not so much as a story in it's own right, but as a proof of concept, demonstrating that these techniques exist and that they work. I look forward to seeing other authors (or Brewin' himself!) use these techniques in a more fully fleshed out world and story, with characters and dramatic tension to add the missing 'other half' to this gamebook experience. In fact, I might just borrow some of his techniques myself for a future gamebook I happen to be working on. You know what they say, 'imitation is the truest form of flattery.'

Below, I have included my raw notes from the playthrough with friends... This is unedited, and may be of dubious value, but may also be at least somewhat useful:

Notes on Trial of the Battle God

* Unarmed stats are in a little bit of a non-intuitive place...
* Rules on number of hands and equipping weapons/shields? Can you use a quarterstaff + shield?
* There is one clearly superior weapon, and the differences in prices isn't enough to make it worth taking the hit to both offence and damage from taking any other weapon.
* Healing salve is hands down better than the Healing Potion. (More granularity is good. You might want to make the healing potion get a discount, basically for forcing you to use it all at once. Like, make it 5 instead of 6.)

* Clarify whether Skills can be purchased multiple times for increased effect.

* Mangroves aren't very lush, they're sharp. maybe tangly
* Scaly beast is a bit cliche

* Lucky charm in section 1 is completely irrelevant unless you've played it before.
* Section 60: the notation 4D is confusing. Say 4d6

* Can you have multiple armor and weapons? If you have multiples, which one are you using?

* Make sure to give the directive to go back to the section you came from. (20, there, turn to 4 if it's battle phase 2, making the assumption that you need to go back to 20.)
also, IMPORTANT, note whether to increment the battle phase again when you go back to the section you came from.

* Can you use potions in combat?
* Section 43, I don't know which way I came from !

* Fitness - too risky to be worth using. Either increase the potential benefit, or decrease the potential loss.

Most decisions are made in character creation.

No puzzles in the dungeon.

You stumble around blindly.
When you do fight another player, combat itself is mostly random, beyond the decisions made in character creation.
--Choices for players in combat

Like: A strategic element arose in movement between rooms, in that you could possibly try to run into someone by staying in a given room, or attempt to withhold to avoid them.

Hope that helps! --Ashton

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Swordplayer by Nicholas Stillman

I'm sorry to say that Swordplayer didn't really do it for me. I could see it really appealing to a certain type of player, but that type of player is not me. It's a dungeon crawl, basically, and... I'm tempted to say that dungeon crawls are just not for me, but the truth is more just that I'm exceptionally picky about what I like in dungeon crawls.

It's not that I don't like combat, or that I don't like dungeon crawls, or that I don't like stats and numbers. I do. I can spend hours poring over game numbers. I make spreadsheets. I spent longer designing my party and my character progression for NWN2: Storm of Zehir than I actually spent playing the game!

But gamebooks are not the best platform for that. Let's just be honest: you don't have the assistance of a computerized system. The player has to read and comprehend and remember the ENTIRE ruleset. You're limited by keeping numbers small and dice used comprehensible, and in this day and age, no one wants to sit around calculating all their own results, not when we have computers so readily available.

So gamebooks have to bring something new to the table. It's good if a gamebook can provide a good game. It's very good. But there's simply limits to what can be achieved. With any game, it's important to understand the core gameplay in order to maximize player enjoyment. With a first person shooter, the core gameplay is shooting dudes in the face. Or maybe sometimes blowing them up. That's basically it, you jump around, you shoot and you don't get shot. It's straightforward--but if you start imposing other factors... say a fancy graphic for displaying whatever your character is holding, but that fancy graphic slows frame rate on some computers to delay the all-important shooting and dodging reaction time--that's going to diminish player enjoyment of the game, because it diminishes the players ability to engage in the core mechanic.

My point is this: The core mechanic of gamebooks is not hack and slash. No system of dice rolling for combat, no matter how good, is going to make hack and slash become the core mechanic of gamebooks.

The core mechanic of gamebooks is making choices that affect the outcome of a story. For this to work, you need two things: 1) A story. 2) Choices.

Like the holy grail of the first person shooter core mechanic--i.e. shooting dudes in the face--you don't want to do anything in a gamebook that interferes with that core mechanic of what a gamebook is and what players enjoy about it.

Swordplayer does have a story. It's a somewhat cheesy, overblown tale of a swordsman who wants to prove himself to be the best, and is willing to put himself in grave danger to do so--because he thinks he can. You have a character motivation, you have passion, you have high stakes. It's not "realistic" exactly, and it's certainly cliche, but it does present many of the aspects of a good story.

Sadly, it all seems to be just a device to get the protagonist into the dungeon. And once you're in the dungeon, the game devolves to a bunch of Which Door choices (not really choices) and a bunch of fights. The fights are innovative, certainly--I've already addressed under "Ravages of Fate" the potential that I think can be brought to the table when multiple sections are devoted to one fight. The problem is that the dynamism is overly simplistic. You're given one choice: Attack or Defend. If you choose the wrong one, your stats don't matter at all--you either both lose fitness or both don't take damage. But there's absolutely no clue or hint as to which is the correct choice and which isn't. It's effectively a a "Which Door" choice all over again. You might as well be rolling dice.

I eventually quit playing because of this mechanic. When what I do as a player doesn't have the slightest effect on the outcome of the game, there's no incentive for me to keep playing. In all the (admittedly short) time I spent playing this game, I don't think I encountered a single real choice. It was just "which direction do you go" (which admittedly is slightly more acceptable in an explicit dungeon crawl than under other circumstances, but still not ideal) and "do you attack or dodge." To which my answer, after seeing what attacking and dodge meant, was simply, "no."

The author clearly put a lot of thought into this, and it shows. There's a lot of potential in the mechanics. The writing is good, when it has a chance to show itself, and it's probably an excellent dungeon crawl. I just have very little patience these days for choices that aren't choices. If the combat system were revised to give the player actual choices, I would try again.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Aether by Paul Struth

Aether was hard for me to get into on the first pass, and I think it is because (like MANY of this year's gamebooks) I did not feel that I had an adequate sense of the setting before the story began. Okay, I was able to figure out that there's apparently these aetherial arts--but where are we? WHEN are we? Is this mideval, modern, some other world altogether?

Once I forced myself to swallow and keep reading, it actually turned into a very cool story. Eventually it became clear that it was set in the modern era. I was quite pleased by the twist that Morton Prentice is not some mysterious magical assassin, but just a clumsy kid playing with forces he doesn't understand, and in fact, you wouldn't have gotten killed if you hadn't gotten involved and gotten in the way, and you wouldn't have gotten involved at all if it weren't for the prophecy that he was going to kill you! Very nice self-fulfilling prophecy there :)

I think what I really appreciate about Aether is that at the end of the day, it's a story. It may not be completely realized (I'm looking at you, early setting descriptors) but it has characters, it has a plot. It has twists and surprises, and it's good. I like the ghost of the old witch, I like the effect of that creepy ass book. The ending, though sad for certain characters, even in the best ending, was satisfying; it felt as it should be.

One criticism I do have has to do with the logical flow. The game made heavy use of returning to certain numbered sections as central hub points, from which you could pursue a number of alternatives. While one can safely assume you shouldn't return to sections you've been to before, that was never explicitly stated, and it was totally viable--as far as the text itself guided you--to break logical continuity. In fact, in order to pursue one option and get one bit of information important for reaching the successful ending, you had to make some choices that came very close to backtracking. I'm looking at getting to Mr. Candlish after you have information from Morton's house. By then the game is urging you to move onward; in order to get back to Mr. Candlish, you have to go back to a prior hub point and select "Look for Morton Prentice" which doesn't make any sense because you've already found MP. You were in his house!

The continuity of those hub chapters could use some work, and the story badly needs one or two additional paragraphs inserted toward the beginning to "set" the setting. Other than that, it was a very well put together gamebook with strong characters and a strong story. I was pleased.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Knight's Trial by Kieran Coghlan

I've seen Kieran Coghlan's work in each of the prior Windhammer competitions, and always been impressed by it. He has a stronger sense of character than most gamebook authors, and his works are more concerned with the internal workings of the human spirit than most.

Which is why I was so disappointed that A Knight's Trial opens with a sword blow to the neck. A combat decision, first thing? Really Kieran? Before you swing a sword at my character's neck, give me a reason to care whether he gets chopped. At this point in the story, I'd just as soon see him get beheaded and move on to the next character/story/gamebook.

To be fair, by the end, it absolutely does live up to my expectations, but I definitely found, from my own perspective at least, that it jumped far too quickly into the action, without setting up the characters and giving you a reason to care. Who are you? What's your background? Why is Lancelot your mentor? Why do you want to become a Knight? What significance does it have to you whether you win this trial or not? Basically: why should I care?

Without that fundamental question answered, I had to force myself to keep reading. It didn't catch my interest on its own merits until the hints started coming in that all might not be as it seemed--but that was a little way in. It would do well to hook the reader before that.

While I was, to a certain extent, happy with the reveal at the end, I still did not feel like any of the core questions had been answered. Who is this character? Who is, or was, his "tormentor?" What happened to put him in this state? Why does he care so much about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that this world is the most appropriate metaphor for the character's trial?

These are the important questions. These are the interesting questions. This story has an incredible amount of potential. It's even standard for the old romance genre to be heavily laden with allegory. We could have seen a deep and interesting character traveling through a mindscape that looks like Camelot, with every person, every encounter, every villain or threat, explicitly allegorical, the entire thing a metaphor for this character's recovery. Instead, we have a fairly bland dungeon crawl with a "twist" at the end, like a stage magician ripping away the cloth at the end of his show and shouting, "ta-daaaa," without really explaining anything.

Often, important backstory questions can be left unanswered when they don't matter. But in this case, the questions about this character absolutely do matter. The answers, i.e. what happened to him, who he is, what his trauma is... those are the things which would make this story powerful.

At the end of the day, it's a brilliant concept, but I just have the feeling like the story ended up missing it's own point. It's not about making arbitrary decisions in a metaphorical dungeon (no, not even if you break the fourth wall to point out that they are arbitrary). It's about making metaphorical decisions of deep psychological significance to break out of a self-imposed prison of the mind.

I know Kieran's writing, and I know he has the potential to pull this off. He's done it before. I can only assume that the story just needed one more revision cycle to find it's center. If A Knight's Trial was done to the full potential, both of the premise and of the author, I think it could be one of his best. As it stands... it's just not there yet.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Call of Khalris by Stuart Lloyd (feedback)

Call of Khalris is an entry that received a lot of mixed reviews this year, but I really liked it. My perceptions were colored by the fact that Stuart himself told me before I read it that he felt it was a little bit uninspired. But in my opinion, the only way this story is uninspired is just that it's a fairly "typical" sort of premise. It can still be done well, and it is.

In this story (if you haven't read it yet) you're journeying deep into the desert to the abandoned city of Khalris, in search of treasure and glory. Or just because you feel the "call." I really liked that "call" from a descriptive point of view; it gives the sense that though this place is clearly dangerous, a mythos has built up around it in the minds of the people that consistently lures adventurers there. It's partly due to the promise of treasure and glory, and partly due to the danger, just because it's a nut that's remained uncracked for so long, but a mystique has grown up around this lost city that keeps drawing people to it. The Call of Khalris.

Not necessarily original, perhaps, but unique in it's interpretation of the old tropes, and has a certain appealing flair.

All things considered, this was a very solid gamebook that hearkened back to the earlier days of gamebooks, when you kicked in doors, killed monsters and looted the room, and nobody through twice about it. It's well constructed, polished, with good writing and good challenges.

I think there are things I excuse here because of the setting and premise that I wouldn't excuse otherwise. For example, I typically rail at what I call "Which Door" choices (or, as I'm starting to call them, just "blind choices" because the other term is a bit cumbersome). Stuart clearly gives a blind choice in forcing you to decide which quadrant of the city to explore. But this is one of those rare special cases where I think it's OK.

The reason for that is that we already have basics established: we have a setting, the city of Khalris, we have a character and motivation, to answer the "call," and to find glory and treasure. You already have done some basic scouting of the city to see what you can find. It makes perfect sense to me that at that point, you've taken all due diligence, and the next step is just that you have to decide which tomb to break into, and there's really no clues what's going to be in there or which is the "right" choice, if any.

Sometimes you have to make a choice without knowing what the consequences are. That's part of life, and that's perfectly fine for it to appear in gamebooks--when it's appropriate. This is a time when it's appropriate.

For contrast, see the frequent choices which way to go or which item to explore given in Day of Dissonance (sorry David!). A great example is when you come out that door and you have to choose whether to go right, toward the boy's room, or left, following the bloody footprints.

This is an interesting example, because you do have some information, but it still feels to me like a "Which Door" or "blind" choice--and the reason is that you don't know what you're looking for. You don't have a goal.

I assumed at that point in Day of Dissonance that my goal was to get out of the burning hospital. But not only does the character seem to quickly forget that this is his motivation, instead being inspired to poke his nose (and occasionally hands) into all sorts of grisly corners, but the very presence of the hospital as a burning threat quickly vanishes. Was it on fire at all? Do we actually need to escape? No indication that that's still the case after the first few paragraphs.

Anyway, while you do have the choice to go toward or away from the bloody footprints at that crossroads in Day of Dissonance, the decisions is almost wholly meaningless because neither path gives you any clue as to what will help you achieve your goals.

On the other hand, while in Stuart's choice in Call of Khalris, which tomb to explore, none of them give you any information over the others, but it doesn't feel like a disappointment, because I know what the character's goal is and I know that to achieve that goal, there's a certain amount of risk and uncertainty, and it's time to cast my die, take my chances, and see what I find.

There was also one moment in Call of Khalris that I found extremely effective, and that was when the character's hand start growing scales. I had been filling out the journal as I went along (as you saw yesterday, if you've been following) so I was feeling very in character and looking at the world through my character's eyes. When I started growing scales on my hand... for some reason that was so undermining to my basic sense of self--even though I was in no overt, immediate danger, that was a true moment of "horror" for me. That moment, and the moment toward the end of the Introduction to S. J. Bells' Evil Eye, when I'm ready to leap out of my chair to go find and punch in the face whoever stole my wife, were the two most personally powerful moments of this Windhammer competition, for my two cents. These were both times when I forgot I was reading a story, and instead I was really there. Kudos to you guys.

I did find that the ending was a little bit challenging and confusing. I was delighted by the re-appearance of the camel. So fucking creepy when you see that fucking camel there all of a sudden OMG just chewing it's cud as if everything is normal! But everything is not normal! Everything is not fine! Don't approach the camel for the love of god DON'T APPROACH IT! *shudder*

But later on there's random directional choices you have to make, and suddenly all these zombies for some reason. I don't know... I think the actual ending could have maybe been done better. I lost track of what I was doing and why, and this is the only time in the gamebook that I found some blind choices (in an annoying way) coming up.

At the end of the day I think this was a very solid gamebook. It was a fairly trope premise, but executed with a lot of craftsmanship and generally well done. Furthermore, though there were only hints of horror, those hints of horror were actually more effective to me than the blatant "in your face" horror of any of the overtly "horror genre" pieces, largely because it was subtle and understated. That just made it very effective. All that said, in a crowd as dynamic and vibrant as this year's, it didn't quite stand out as "a cut above." Instead, it was one of a number of excellent gamebooks.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Call of Khalris by Stuart Lloyd (Journals)

Instead of a normal review, for Call of Khalris I have something rather special planned ;) Please enjoy below the journal entries chronicling my journey into the Lost City of Khalris. (Tomorrow I'll post my actual feedback for Stuart's Call of Khalris)

Being an account of the travels of the esteemed scholar and adventurer Madrigal Venible. Found upon a tattered parchment by a later adventurer into the Lost City of Khalris, these chronicles contain valuable insight for any future comer who would dare the trials of Khalris for themselves.

Journal Entry #1
I do not know what will happen on this adventure. If I did, I would not be so uncertain, and excited. Or perhaps it is the high desert moon that makes my heart beat thus. I dream of fame, of glory... above all, of finding knowledge, the lost knowledge of the ancients of Khalris. I do not fear death... no, I fear only that which would make me lose myself. As long as I risk only death, I do not mind the risk. The call of Khalris is worth it.

Journal Entry #2
I have been at Khalris for a week, and the fates themselves seem to conspire against me. My camel vanished. I can find no sign of it, not even tracks in the sand. Without transportation back to Quis, I fear I may die in this place. But I am at peace, for I am pursuing a noble and worthy work.
The surface of this city is dead and lifeless. The tribal nomads I met on the way here say that none come to this city, but I know they lie, because all areas of the city that are easily accessible have been picked clean. I have drawn a map and marked the buildings I would like to explore further.
One thing more is certain: the dark magics of this place have not been entirely invented. The dead here do not sleep deeply. I delved into a tomb earlier today and was able to pry open a golden chest with my crowbar. A warhammer of excellent craftsmanship, carved with mystic runes, was found inside. But its former master resented my theft--the dead body itself rose from the grave.
Even the dead cannot stand against my skill. The enchanted warhammer put the half-alive creature out of its misery. Yet something of the encounter has left a chill upon my skin. I must sleep, there is more exploration to be done on the morrow. But as I close my eyes, I find myself strangely uneasy about what other horrors I may find in the deeps beneath this place.

Journal Entry #3
I lie here shivering as I write this. My wounds ache, and no matter how I bandage them, they do not seem to wish to stop bleeding. I truly do not know how I can survive to return to Qis now, as my camel has still not made its appearance. I hope only that some future explorer can find these meager writings and learn from them.
I explored the north tower~~
Please excuse the scribble. A fit of coughing interrupted my pen for a moment.
There was a beast there, a half-man, half-ape, with skin and hair white like bones. I fought it valiantly, but it had the strength of ten men. Though I defeated it with a solid blow to the skull from my warhammer, I fear the injuries it gave me may yet tell.
Once again, the evil magicks of this place haunt me. For once I had destroyed the beast, it simply vanished, leaving neither hide nor hair. Sadly, the wounds it left upon my body were more material.
I grabbed but a single piece of treasure from the tower to show for my adventures: an eight-pointed star of gold. It seems designed to be worn about the neck. Once again, the dead stirred once I touched their precious goods, but this time I was prepared, and fled before they could reach me.
We shall see what tomorrow brings. This city may defeat me, but I shall not surrender. I will rip every bit of knowledge that I can from the bones of Khalris before giving her my own.
As I shiver against the desert night, I find myself wishing I had brought more first aid kits.

Journal Entry #4
Hah! Life still clings to my body, despite the best efforts of this place. I found the remains of another explorer today. This time, I opened the sarcophogus in the tomb of the east tower before reaching for the good there, thinking perhaps I could destroy the mummy first, then plunder at my leisure. But inside was a young man, his face frozen in terror.
I know not what possessed him to leap into a sarcophogus with an ancient mummy, close the lid above him, and die of fright. And I suspect I would rather not know.
After I helped myself to his posessions, strange shadow beasts rose from all around. If they were what did for the young man, they did not have the same effect on me. I attempted to beat them off with a torch, but they simply enveloped it within their own shadows and extinguished it.
Fleet feet saved me today. Sometimes, in this place, the wisest thing to do is simply to run.
I live on to explore another day. I may be getting the hang of this place.

Journal Entry #5
It is with a heavy heart that I must admit defeat. I reviewed my food supplies today and determined that, if I leave now, I have just enough to get back to civilization.
I may be willing to risk death for this cause, but it is not worth consigning myself to certain death simply for the opportunity to explore the true secrets of Khalris. My wounds have healed enough that I can travel, and logic forces me to admit that I must depart, even if my heart yearns to stay.
My explorations since last entry have revealed little new. Yet I suspect that there is some great mystery to this place that I have not yet discerned.
Perhaps I shall come back again someday, this time armed with the knowledge of experience.
Until then, Khalris. This is not over, only sleeping.

Journal Entry #6
Three long years have passed since I last explored the dead city of Khalris, but its call still haunts my dreams. I toss and turn, wondering what I missed, what great truths remain yet unexplored.
And so it is that I have pooled my earnings from the last three years and prepare to venture to that great city once more. This time, I have the benefit both of my prior experiences, and of the loot I saved from before.
I was forced to sell back all the good I had bought in Qis, to get enough to get started on. However, I was able to keep everything I found in Khalris before. I could have sold some of those items for great riches, but it is not worth it to me--not until I know the secret of Khalris. Not until I answer the call.
Khalris, I hear you. I am coming.

[OOC: Started over again, just like starting new, but keeping the same background and with all the codewords and loot from last time still on my character sheet. Not my original purchased equipment, though. I ditched anything I had originally bought, and am taking another 50 sp to buy new equipment. Only things I actually found in Khalris am I keeping for this time around. Oh--replenishing Hero Points, too.]

Journal Entry #7
The secrets of this place begin to unlock to me.
So far, the journey has treated me well. By chance, I happened to run into the same tribal nomads on the way here who I encountered last time. It seemed to me a blessing. They were surprised to see me alive, and even more surprised to learn I was headed back into this place.
Vipers and walking dead continue to be a problem. And to make matters worse, my camel has already vanished again. Blast it all! This city must have a curse against camels.
This time I was able to spend less time mapping the city; only long enough to confirm that my old maps were still correct. I began my explorations today. The tombs of this city are truly filled with treasure, but one must be swift and careful to retrieve it without arousing the ire of the dead.
This time, with only time enough to grab one item, I made sure to grab an old scroll I found, marked with the same 8 pointed star on the amulet I found three years ago.
Perusal of the scroll has revealed that the entire layout of the city is built along the lines of an eight pointed star. This symbol clearly had mystic significance to the people who once lived here.
Perhaps there is something special to be found at the center...

Journal #8
I met a brave man today. He had been an explorer, like me. He picked up an armband studded with green emeralds, believing it woudl give him power, but instead it cursed him, and he was slowly turning to stone.
He told me of a Grand Temple, where he believed he might find a cure--this confirmed my suspicions that something of importance is at the heart of the city--yet when we joined forces to continue exploring the city, he fell prey to a terrible trap in the southern tower.
I am loathe to return there, for it was there he met his fate, yet he believed that something of purpose may be found in that tower, so I fear I must.
Rest well, brave Garrod.

Journal #9
The southern tower was as perilous as I feared, yet I have survived, and I return with a great treasure indeed. A book of ancient lore, as old as the city. Here, if anywhere, I hope to find the answers I seek.
I shall study it on the morrow. For now, I must rest, and my bandages need changing. I am grateful that this time I learned the lesson to bring plenty of first aid supplies. I thought I had brought more than enough, yet this one deep injury may demand nearly all of them.
My skin on the left arm seems afflicted with the same curse that affected Garrod. Does the city claim me, now that it has lost him?

Journal #10
I explored the last tower today. Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?
I am exhausted, so this entry will be brief. Let it suffice to say that I survived, and I came away with a gold headdress decorated with a jade snake upon the crown. It seemed the most likely to have mystic significance of the items that I saw, and yet, I am pragmatic enough to consider that it will have excellent market value once all is said and done.
For now, sleep. Tomorrow... the Great Temple. My food supplies are dwindling. It's now or never.
If you do not see another entry in this journal, know that the temple itself proved too much for me. May you learn from my mistakes.

Journal #11
I have entered the great temple. It is painful to write, my hand does not work as it should. The scales grow across my whole body now.
No! It must not end like this. All I wanted was a peaceful death. Not to be... changed.
It's happening so swiftly now... It was the book. The book cursed me. Don't touch the book!
Agh! It hurts... the transformation will soon be complete. I will be just one more snake in the temple.
When you kill me, oh ye who finds this, remember that I was once a man.
Please, kill me swiftly.
The scales...

Truly these tales tell of a terrible fate. Let all who would journey into Khalris beware...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Ravages of Fate by Ulysses Ai

My first impressions of the Ravages of Fate were not good. Did this guy write the introduction with the heavy aid of a thesaurus, or is he just showing off? Either way, it doesn't really work. "Paining you with a dichotomy of wretchedness and remembered latitude?" Really? I think I eventually figured out what that's supposed to mean, but I took a few wrong turns in the maze first, and I think I had to fight and ogre and steal it's latitude before I could find the exit. After passing some guy teetering on the edge of madness with glee at his impending death. Don't know what his deal is. Didn't ask.

To (mis)quote the immortal words of Pierre Bosquet, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la litterature: c'est de la folie." Or, "It is magnificent, but it is not writing: it is madness."

That said, once we're past the introduction, the author quickly abandons the thesaurus and/or pretenses, and spins a surprisingly good yarn. It turns into some of the best writing of the year, which I was shocked by, after the introduction. It's descriptive. It's vivid. And in particular, the author creates believable dialogue (such a relief after Dating a Witch!) Actual dialogue is rare in gamebooks; it's not the norm. So major props for not only attempting it, but pulling it off successfully. The characters of your three companions are the strongest part about this gamebook.

While I enjoy the story in the first half, the second half revolves around nothing so much as the fight with the big troll. While I think it's an interesting idea, and devoting so many sections to the fight allows it to be extremely dynamic and interesting, I felt the balance was WAAAAY off. It struck me as very, very hard to win legitimately. Hell, I cheated my pants off, and (while I enjoyed the fact that I had no pants) I still couldn't win!

A couple things that might help with the balance: Either reduce the starting vitality of the troll, so that he can go down more quickly, or have the attacks described by your companions do actual real damage to the troll, or both. Actually, across the board I think all the Vitality numbers need to be reduced. The fight just took too long.

At the end of the day, this is a gamebook of highs and lows. I love the writing for the better part of the book, but the writing in the background sets my teeth on edge. I love the dynamism off the troll fight and just how much can be done with it with fifty-ish sections devoted just to that, but in execution, it took too long and was impossible to beat.

If I were an editor, and this came across my desk, I would say, "Yes, after another re-write or two." It has what it takes, now the author just needs to get out of the reader's way and let him enjoy it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dating a Witch by Ivailo Daskalov

I'm sorry to say that this was one of the weakest entries of this year's Windhammer competition. However, it was not wholly without merit. What I like about Dating a Witch is the focus on the two main characters, on their relationship and all the dialogue. In my opinion, gamebooks are all too often shallow affairs with no real attention to character and dialogue, so having one very focused on people and a relationship was very refreshing. At the same time, this was in some ways its greatest weakness, because much of the dialogue came across as stilted and unrealistic.

It's hard to say how much of this weakness in writing the dialogue comes from language barriers, and how much from the author's own mind. Ivailo is another member of the Bulgarian gamebook community, and I really have to give him props for reaching beyond his comfort zone to try writing a gamebook in a language that is not his own. That said, I think his command of English isn't quite up to the task of bringing the dialogue to life.

It took a major leap of suspension of disbelief to keep reading past the first section, but when I pushed through and actually read the entire story, I was pleasantly surprised. It has a very engaging plotline with an interesting premise. I like romance in gamebooks (I'm a big softie at heart) so this is in some ways right up my alley. The author gives the two characters an irresistable appeal to one another, something out of the ordinary that draws them together. At first, this comes off as sappy and melodramatic, not to mention unrealistic, but I think some of that might be due to the stilted dialogue (which again comes back to language issues.) When I was able to suspend disbelief, I actually found the connection between the two characters to be very powerful.

Later on some dangerous events start happening, such as an attack by a demonic entity against someone on the street nearby. The injection of a little danger into the story was definitely a strong addition, but I would have liked to see a little more explanation of what and why. It would be nice to have that attack tie into the plot somehow, rather than just being, "and here's something else which happened."

I was amused to see the female lead's interest in gamebooks ;) A little bit of the author projecting there, perhaps? On a side note, the board game/gamebook which they play together once you get up into Lauren's apartment actually sounded really fun... I wonder, does that exist, or is it something the author made up for purposes of the story? If it doesn't exist, I kinda want to go make it...

I also liked the magic in the world. The demonologists powers, and the witch's, were both very interesting. My only request there (like so many other gamebooks this year) would be to please, please please fill the reader in right at the start. We have no knowledge of what the world is or what to expect other than the briefest of mentions that William is a demonologist. When does the story take place? Are we in modern times? Ancient times? Where? South Africa? Tokyo? Some other planet? You don't need to make a big deal of these things if they're not important to the story, but the basic questions of when and where should at least be addressed right away.

To sum it up, the powerful and mysterious attraction these two characters feel for each other at the start comes across as sappy and unrealistic at first, partly due to weak dialogue (which may be due to language barriers), but if you are able to suspend disbelief (a major suspension, I know, but possible) then the attraction actually becomes quite powerful, and it's a lot of fun to go along with these characters on their first date and see how it goes. The world is interesting, filled with magic and danger, I just wish it were a lot more fleshed out, with some sense of why these things are happening and how it all works. Mostly, I wish I could read Ivailo's work in his native language, or as translated by a capable translator. More than the other second-language authors this year, I feel like this piece suffers from the language barrier.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nye's Song by Robert S. Douglas

My apologies to the author, but I can't say I was able to enjoy this one. I wanted to: it had a great premise. Actually a splendid premise, but the writing lost me. First I had to slog through the Fighting Fantasy rules, made worse by the fact that I couldn't skip them, even though I already know them, because he makes a point of saying "things are different, but I won't tell you what. You have to read it ALL AGAIN. Bwahahaha..." Okay, he didn't say that exactly, at least not in so many words, BUT HE MIGHT AS WELL HAVE.

Anyway, once you get to the actual text, something about the writing just put me off. Maybe someone else had a better experience with it, but--especially in this read-through, after gems like Academy of Magic and Final Payment--the writing in Nye's Song just didn't grab me.

There are a few things I can point out that might improve it. First off, give us a better idea of what's going on in the world. There's something about Shadow, and Blight. What are these things? Why do we care? Why is our hero fighting them? Second, try to get more into the mind of the character. I felt like... like it was trying too hard, instead of just being.

For example, early on the main character is creeping into a shadow-blighted town, gun at the ready, and right then he decides to have himself a sad moment, "aren't we all just relics? Why are we even fighting anymore?"  And I'm sitting here thinking, "I don't know, why are you fighting? Nobody ever told me! If you're so tired, go have yourself a lie down!

"On the other hand, if you're not going to lie down, aren't there things you should be paying attention to? You're in the middle of some sort of dangerous situation (apparently--no one ever told me, but you seem to think it's dangerous) so stop daydreaming and keep that gun up!"

As an author, you have to stay in character with the characters. Make sure the reader knows what they're thinking and why, and make sure their reactions are appropriate to the situation. Angsty existentialist reflections are for the time after (or before) the battle, alone with your tea in a tin cup on your dirty bedroll--not for the moment you're storming a hostile location.

Another thing, try to set the scenes a little better. The description doesn't need to be excessive, but it should be clearly established A) Where the characters are, B) Which characters are present, and C) What the matter at hand is. It seemed to jump around a bit too much.

So yeah... I liked the premise, but the writing and characterization fell flat. I think the only real solutions to this are simply reading more and writing more. Best of luck, Robert.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Final Payment by Zachary Carengo

I was very impressed with Final Payment. I can't say I pegged it as the winner, but I'm not surprised. After a certain point it was like, "okay, which of these awesome gamebooks is it going to be?" There were a lot of quality books here this year. It seemed to me to be anybody's game who would actually walk away with the award.

I thought that the writing was very strong. I was consistently impressed. There were several points (leaping out the glass window, or sliding down the pyramid shaped building) where I could literally see the action vividly in my mind, like watching a Jet Li move. No kidding dude, that was awesome!

I also really appreciated the level of quality in the dialogue and the characterization, even--no, especially--in the minor characters. There were characters who barely had more than a line or two of dialogue, but with just a few words, instantly Zachary gives you a vivid sense of who they are, what kind of person they are, and what you might expect from them. Bringing that level of character to a, well, character, in just two lines of dialogue is very impressive. I was never disappointed in the characters. Not even once.

The same cannot, sadly, be said for the setting. By two thirds of the way through the story, I was still learning new things about the world and trying to place just exactly what tech level we're at anyway. The lack of a strong setting established at the opening was very disorienting. For a strong contrast, see Sigil-Beasts, where you instantly know exactly what the setting is, who the main characters are going to be, and what's at stake. In 4 sentences. I kid you not, 4 sentences. Brilliant.

Zachary, you pulled the same brilliance with your characters. In just a handful of words you made each character distinct and vivid. Why didn't you give your setting the same courtesy?

The only other issue I had, and this is a bit nit-picky, but so be it (it's the winner, it can deal with being nit-picked): I didn't ever feel a strong sense of tension. Yes, there's clearly a lot at stake, but the main character doesn't even really seem to care. If the protagonist doesn't care, why should I? I would rather have seen something at stake. Maybe he has a whole secret life, with a family and a day job, now that he's retired, and he needs to cooperate with his new masters in order to make sure they don't have any reason to go digging and find out about his family. Maybe he wants vengeance for his partner's death back in '89. I mean, whatever it is, the protagonist has to want something. I mean really want it. Without that, the story lacks a bit of drive and engagement.

Last but not least I'd like to address the system a bit. There was both good and bad here. The skills are good, and I think that kind of skill system is excellent for gamebooks because it provides meaningful choices to the player without being too complex to manage. You just pick which ones you want, getting to state something about your character in doing so, and you're done. Bam. Easy and additive. I really like the money system. That's probably the most innovative (well, successfully innovative) thing in this gamebooks. The combat system... well, it gets points for being innovative, and it was more well balanced than I anticipated, so kudos to you there. My only complaint with it is that managing the numbers was a bit tedious. I got kind of sick of rolling a bunch of dice, squaring some number, subtracting it from some other double digit number, tracking all this, rolling again and multiplying it and subtracting it and recording that... my god. I'm here to play a game, not do arithmetic all day. This is one of those systems that might work in a computer game (although I'm not convinced there aren't better ways to do it) but in a pen and paper, solo rpg gamebook, it's just more numbers than I want to deal with. That said, I'm still impressed on the basis that it's original, innovative and creative. I've never seen anything like it before. It's an experiment, and I won't hold it against you if the experiment wasn't completely successfull. You get props for creating something innovative and having the guts to roll with it.

At the end of the day, Final Payment is solid and well-crafted. The story is just a tad bit cliche, but the writing really brings it to life. Beyond that, let's be honest--a lot of gamebook stories are derivative; it's one area the genre could really improve. I would absolutely recommend this to friends.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Academy of Magic - The First Term by Marty Runyon

Academy of Magic was excellent. I'm not at all surprised that it placed in the top three. Hell, I wouldn't have been surprised if it had taken first place. It is polished, it is creative, it's well written, it's got a great premise and a fun atmosphere, and it is impeccably balanced.

This is not one that I got to before the voting was up (roll of the dice), otherwise, I might have voted for it myself. But given that it was one of the award winners, and that I'd already been impressed with the introduction, I took the time to run a whole play through for the sake of writing this review.

Sadly, with a work this good, there's just not that much to say. It's excellent. There. Go home, wash your hands, have dinner. You did a great job.

I really liked the character creation system, based around asking questions. I did find that Mind and Animation seemed to be a little more useful in the basic system than the other options, which isn't perfect, but certainly makes sense from a story perspective. I did not figure out the mystery of who was behind the sabotage of my homonculus, but it piqued my interest enough that I'm looking forward to playing through it again later to try and find out. I also really appreciated the balance. The way the system worked out was perfect, because it seemed hard, but in actuality, statistically, was balanced so that the player has pretty decent odds. I won most of my rolls, and the rolls I didn't win, I was able to spend ability points to pass--all except one, in which case, failure turned out to be interesting for the story. Perfect.

Another kudos I have to give is that there were almost no meaningless choices. No, I take it back... There were none. I did not encounter a single meaningless choice. Bra-fucking-O sir. Bravo. The decision of where to search for components may seem, at first glance, similar to some of the "choices" I've railed at in previous reviews, but my experience was that in this case, you actually have a lot to base that decision on. You know what items you need to find, so you can try to wrack your brain and predict where you're most likely to find each of those things. The answers were surprising, but not dissatisfying. On top of that, you also have to consider the fact that you're in an Academy of Magic and where you go may have consequences beyond what items you find. For example, for my third and final bell, I chose to explore the student dorms, with the thought that I might find out more information about the culprit there. Turns out I was not wrong; I found a very informative diary. It wasn't enough for me to solve the mystery, but it was a clue, and a clue that I wouldn't have found anywhere else.

This is in stark contrast to Guild of Thieves, where every direction you go is exactly fucking the same. You could erase all the cool flavor text without changing a thing in Guild of Thieves. You would still have a straightforward, and rather boring, game. But in Academy of Magic, the flavor text matters. It matters that I chose to go to the student dorm. I encountered a school prefect there. I found a diary. These are things I would not have encountered in the dungeon, for example. It made the world feel very alive, it made me feel like I had the chance to interact with an actual Academy of Magic, rather than simply seeing a portrait of it hanging in the background.

My favorite part? The last lines of the gamebook... "The End. You can continue your adventures in the next book, Academy of Magic: The Second Term." Great job Marty! I look forward to book 2.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Guild of Thieves by Andrew Wright

I really enjoyed Guild of Thieves. Much more than I enjoyed Andrew Wright's submission from last year, Sea of Madness, which is strange, given that Sea of Madness won last year's first prize.

Regardless, I think this is a very strong gamebook, with a solid structure and a lot of flavor. The only complaint I had was that all the flavor, in most cases, seems like nothing more than colorful painting on the walls. I really liked the descriptions of all the different thieves guilds that you meet and try to conquer, but I didn't feel like they mostly ultimately mattered that much. Each guild had two numbers which mattered: their power and their wealth. Beyond that, the rest was just so much fluff.

I would have liked to see more plot and story built around the factions and each of their unique characters. Maybe this one hates you if you ally with that one. Maybe this one brings you more information, but that one brings you more power. I want consequences! Ramifications! Story!

Ultimately, I think the problem is just that this is all being crammed into such a short gamebook. To have so many dozens of unique rival thieves guilds in such a short format, each one has to be necessarily abbreviated. It's a shame, but there's nothing for it, except perhaps to cut back the non-essentials and focus more on a smaller number of guilds, with more consequence and interplay in your interactions among them--but that would be a very different gamebook.

As it was, despite inhabiting a very fun, colorful world, the gameplay itself felt very repetetive and, like in Sea of Madness, not balanced well. Fights often had a 50/50 chance of going toward or against the player. Like I mentioned in another review above, I'm here to play a game--and that means making choices. Rolling dice to see if you die is not a choice. The player should ALWAYS be able to make choices to achieve success. Otherwise, what's the point? I don't need anyone to pat me on the back for rolling well.

Besides, with how many challenges there are in a gamebook of this size... if you throw two dozen "succeed or die" dice rolls at a player, each with a 50/50 chance of success or failure, I guaran-fucking-tee you that player is going to die before reaching the end rather than fall in that 50% or above mark every single time out of two dozen. The numbers may be a little off, but the point stands.

As Dave Morris said on twitter a while back (the quote may not be exact, but this captures the gist of it) "If the reader ever reaches a death paragraph, that's a failure, not only for the reader, but for the author."

At the end of the day, it felt a little more game-y than I would have preferred, and the game itself, going around to the different districts to win over rival factions, became very predictable very quickly. The story had a lot of color, but very little of it ultimately mattered. The flavor text could have been replaced almost completely without fundamentally changing the game very much, if at all. I did like the twist at the end--a lot. But what I wish most out of this gamebook would be to see an expanded, full length version, with a few of the extraneous guilds trimmed out and the more shiny among them given a more full treatment. It's a great world--I just don't feel like I've really gotten to go visit it yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hwarang and Kumiho by Leidren Sweever

My first impression of Hwarang and Kumiho was excellent. Like Sigil-Beasts, this story has a lot of color. I love using the setting of Ancient Korea as the backdrop. I love the "Flower-Warriors." How cool is that? It's such a different perspective on manliness and masculinity than we have in America, or in many western societies. I just love that take on gender roles. Very thought-provoking. On top of that, the writing is overall very good. It's evocative, reasonably well paced, and clear. Only occasional odd uses of the language pull it down slightly, making me wonder (as other reviewers have suggested) if English is a second language for this author. If so, it's still used more fluently and aptly than many native writers.

There are a lot of things I like about this entry, and also a few things that could be improved. I really like the character creation system. There's a lot of flavor that adds to the sense of atmosphere for the game, and yet it remains light-weight enough to not drag down the game experience. That said, there's a lot of skills, when you only get to pick three. That's rough. I found myself wishing either that there were fewer options to choose between, or that I could pick more. I ended up feeling more incompetent than competent, for all the things I couldn't do. That said, I went with Charisma, Sword Mastery and Self-Control, and actually wound up doing quite well for myself. Maybe I just picked well, but in the event of it, I didn't really feel incompetent at all.

I really liked the narrative frame of the old man in a village square telling the story. I found that much more rewarding than, for example, any of the three false reality reveals which, in their own ways, frame their respective stories. This narrative framework is especially appropriate since, as I understand it, this story is explicitly based on a well known Korean folktale.

I really like all the choices that you're given, and the slow process of finding out the truth. I think this is one of the more successful "solve the mystery" models that I've seen. I was in particular amused to see some of the tips and tricks used by Leidren Sweever, such as entry 16, which allows you to "ask one more question." The trick is that you can get to that same entry from a variety of different encounters. For example, at the magistrates, you only get to ask one more question if you have enough self-control to force yourself to stay and keep talking to him, whereas at the village inn, you only get to ask one more question if you have the charisma to persuade the innkeeper to help you. There's probably others out there too. The point is, all of these lead to entry 16 if they are successful, where you get to pick a topic to ask your "one more question" about. The answer, of course, is given without any context of who is speaking. I didn't even notice this at first--with the context from your prior discussions already fresh in mind, it's easy enough for the brain to substitute in whoever you anticipate the speaker is: the magistrate or the innkeeper or whoever. Very cool economy of section usage.

I did find that there were a couple of points that I thought might be errors... for example, when exploring the outskirts, you can't go to the graveyard if you have the "water" tag, and you can't go to the lake if you have the "bracelet" tag, but you get water at the lake and get bracelet at the graveyard. Wouldn't it make more sense if you couldn't go back to wherever you had already gone? Or is it the intention of the author that if you've already successfully completed one zone, you can't go to the other? If so, this reader would have appreciated an explanation of why. Are you out of time? Do you get interrupted? Why can't I go there? Otherwise, it feels extremely arbitrary.

Hwarang and Kumiho also has one other effect that I found strange, but interesting, and that is that it frequently gives you the choice of which number to go to next, as a way of generating a random result without the use of dice. It just says, "pick a number to go to next," and gives you a list of numbers to choose from.

The most obvious place to see this is right in section 1, just right there, your first choice. My mind is a little blown by this, because in principle I hate blind choices, but here the intent is so explicitly to generate a random result that I almost have to accept it. Like I may have mentioned before, a blind choice is fine if it's the author's intent to generate a random result. It should just never be mistaken for an actual choice. Here the author is clearly intending it simply as an alternate method of generating a random result, which is actually kind of cool.

This method does have some interesting ramifications. On the one hand, it gives the player the option to make sure that they get a different version of the story on each play through. For the first three play through's at least, you can pick a different section to go to from section 1, and get to see the full variety of options. In a sense, this increases replayability. On the other hand, it also means that if there's a bad result, a good result and a mediocre result, once you know them, you can easily make sure to pick the good result every time, and that is definitely not fantastic. That undermines the basis of the randomization game mechanic.

On the other other hand, this is kind of true of gamebooks already; you learn which choices are the correct ones as you try and try again, until you find the path that will get you to the end. Furthermore, how likely is it that anybody is really going to be legitimately trying the same short gamebook more than three times? Maybe that's just the right amount of randomization, without being too much. Over three playthroughs, you can make  sure to try all three paths without repeating yourself, yet you haven't played so much that you know which one is "correct."

Just one more note on Hwarang and Kumiho: I found the writing generally surprisingly good, with good descriptions and a good "flow," especially impressive coming from a non-native speaker. That said, there were definitely some grammatical issues, sentence structure issues, and misuse of words periodically. That alone is probably enough for me to not want to vote for this story, just because... by the time you reach a competition like Windhammer, a certain level of professionalism is not only expected, but required. If you don't have the skills yourself to make sure that your work is free of grammatical, spelling, and language-use issues, then the thing to do is to find someone who can help you with that. Get an editor. This is true for all authors, no matter which language you're writing in. It's just basic standards. If you want your work to be taken seriously, get an editor who can make up for the skills you're lacking, and make sure that the final product is free of basic errors. There are plenty of native English speakers who could use this advice too.

All in all, Hwarang and Kumiho was a delightful short gamebook which brought me to a setting that no one has taken me to before: Ancient Korea. We went right into the heart of one of the old korean myths, getting to take on the role of the hero of that myth.

Frankly, it's a beautiful story, and it's no less beautiful for having been made interactive. Especially for me, since I didn't know the details of the myth before hand, this was a very fun way to learn it. Great job and kudos to the authors. This was a very, very strong entry.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Massacre at Black Scythe by Mikael Bergqvist

I struggled with Massacre at Black-Scythe. I wanted to like it, but I couldn't get over the fact that I wasn't given any premise at all to work with. I don't know where the story takes place. I don't know when. For a bit there, once things got rolling, I thought we were in modern america. Then I ran into a goblin.


Goblin? Really dude? BEDSER!@!?

Okay, setting aside the fact that this story could NOT decide what genre it was, what I thought it did very well (when it decided to do it) was create the creepy sense of approaching the old abandoned town, the searching for a place from your dreams, the eerieness of that whole scene. Unfortunately, this falls down later when everything becomes so wierd that there's no longer a point of reference for "normal" to compare it to.

As I commented to a good friend after reading this, for something to remain creepy or horrifying, it needs to deviate from normal in significant ways. But if there is no longer any "normal" then you can no longer deviate from it. Oddities can only be eerie when they're presented against a predictable, normal backdrop. Once the whole world is odd, nothing is eerie any longer.

That and... I apparently "shredded" my legs badly enough to lose a whole liter of blood. Let me tell you, dude, if I shredded my legs badly enough to lose a liter of blood, I am NOT getting back up again. I am going on a stretcher. To the hospital. If I'm lucky. To the morgue if I'm not. The blood-loss as hit points thing was cool for a minute, but it quickly failed in practice. I lost my suspension of disbelief right there. Nailed to a wall and left behind. Goodbye suspension of disbelief! It was nice knowing you.

Finally, the nail in the coffin, as it were (for me at least) was all the Which Door choices I was given as the story proceeded. The worst was on section 51, where I had absolutely no basis to pick any one option over another. So I picked one at random and died--totally at random. I put the book down after that. Sorry. If you want me to make choices, give me Choices with a capital C. I'm not interested in playing, "let's roll the dice and see if I die."

Gamebooks are about choice. Hinging huge consequences on random results undermines the very appeal of interactive storytelling.

That said, there were moments when this story shone, and I really hope the author can move above some of the wierder mistakes (*cough* goblin wtf *cough*) and create something really awesome next time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sigil Beasts by Karalynn Lee

I'm going to be honest. I LOVED Sigil-Beasts. Within the first two short paragraphs, Karalynn has already painted a picture of a vivid and interesting world. I'm imagining huge, rune-covered monsters, clashing in battles that resolve the fate of nations. This is a great premise because, not only does it have raw coolness factor, it puts a lot of emphasis on the individuals who are in charge of these beasts, which is great for story purposes.

The only place I think this story falls flat is in the later chapters. I like to try to craft each possible path of a gamebook to read like a story in it's own right--just as satisfying as if it were the only narrative path the author wrote. This is a steep challenge, and I'm not sure it's actually possible, but Sigil-Beasts falls pretty far short of that (admittedly high) mark. There were several story paths that I found very unsatisfying, with strange or unsettling endings that did not leave me feeling satisfied, like the story wasn't complete.

Just a little bit more on the system side: I felt like the rule-set was just the right length, neither too heavy nor too light, with each stat serving a valid purpose. And it was surprisingly clear and concise in it's presentation, especially for someone who (I assume?) is a first timer at this. (Is she a first timer? Has she done anything else I didn't know about?) That said, the balance later in the game got very screwy. I had trouble finding any path in which my dragon could win at the end, which was very frustrating. But I didn't explore exhaustively; I may just have made the wrong choices.

Another commenter suggested that Sigil-Beasts would have been better served as a straight narrative, either a short story or a novel. I don't want to scare the author away from writing gamebooks, because I think as a whole Sigil-Beasts was utterly fantastic, but I just want to throw out there, I would LOVE to see the novel that this story could become. Everything about the story, from the premise of the world to the cool house the main character lives in--built in the bones of his old dragon--to the moral ambiguities of the whole practice of raising and fighting the Sigil Beasts... there's so much richness and depth here.

I feel like the gamebook art could be honed a bit, as far as crafting the narrative paths and making each one satisfying, but the incredibly vivid and evocative setting and world (not to mention the clear, concise, and well-written ruleset) earned my respect. This one caught my eye from the beginning and remained one of my favorites throughout. It was a hard choice, but this came out as one of my top choices: Sigil-Beasts received one of my two votes.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Vigilante: Dark Justice

I'm actually interrupting my reviews to throw in an extra post here, mostly so that I can refer people to this post later. Though I finished and presented Vigilante in time for Convolution, and posted about the whole process throughout, I don't think I ever posted much about the game itself.

There are two things I'm excited about about this game. Well, three, really. Okay, maybe four. Let's just say five and call it a day.

One: The whole reason I built this in the first place was to test out a core mechanic that I'd been playing around with. The idea is that you roll a couple of dice and try to roll equal to or under your skill. But there's two tricks. First, a higher result is still better than a lower result, as long as you don't roll over your skill. This makes contested rolls very easy, because you can simply compare the die result. And the probabilities on this are very similar to a roll and add system like d20. The second trick is that the dice you roll are determined by the difficulty of the test. This is a complete inversion of the standard model, but I think I really like it. So for example, for an easy skill test, you would roll 2d6, whereas for a difficult skill test, you would roll 2d10. Increased difficulty past 12 can be added by adding more dice.

Two: Staying with the system for now, I'm excited about the Aptitudes and Proficiencies system. Instead of one list called "skills," characters have two sets of traits: aptitudes and proficiencies. Aptitudes are a measure of capability, rated 1-10, but they are somewhat generic. Proficiencies are binary, either you have it or you don't, and they determine whether you are trained in a specific toolset and type of activity. For example, "Target" is the aptitude related to any ranged attacks: aiming, shooting, archery, etc. But in order to use a sniper rifle, you would have to have the "rifles" proficiency. The intent is to represent the way that as people grow skilled in an area, it's easier to pick up new skills in an area. It's not perfectly accurate that if someone is trained in guns, they'll be roughly similarly skilled in all the guns they know how to use, but it's at least as accurate as the standard RPG abstractions, if not more so. And it's an attempt to resolve both skill bloat and the blurry-lines-between-skills problem with hopefully a little more elegance than Gurps, for example.

Three: I really like vanilla mortals. I don't know why, but I just do. And they get so shafted in so many systems. Look at Exalted; you're shooting yourself in the foot right off the bat if you play a vanilla mortal. Vampire, or all WoD, you completely miss out on half the system if you don't play one of the magical races available. There are systems that can support vanilla mortals, like Dresden Files. DF has the cool system where there are certain types of special abilities that vanilla humans can take just because they're badass. But it still doesn't compare to what the specials can do. Vigilante is built around basic, mundane humans at its core. Later expansions can introduce rules for more fun and monsters, but it will always be about humans.

He's probably having a bad day...

Four: This is core to the whole concept of the game: The nature of the world is a mystery. This is possible because the focus is on normal humans. At the beginning of any game, all the players know is that it's a totally normal, mundane, modern world, but something weird, bad or dangerous is going on, and no one else is going to do anything about it if they don't. This gives the GM freedom to create a real mystery. Maybe it's actually ghosts, or maybe it'll be a scooby doo ending and it turns out to be the guy who runs the water slide messing with folks. The freedom is yours.

Five: I fucking love dark urban fantasy. Wheee! 

So, there's is my defense of Vigilante. Because I do plan on charging for this, I'm not going to put a .pdf of the rules up here right now. It's still in alpha, though, so if you're interested in playtesting it for me and providing feedback, contact me, and I will also soon (within the next month or two) get a link for people to buy a .pdf of the alpha version of the rulebook as a way to support the project. The current roadmap puts the next year in production, further development and testing. Currently estimated for a full launch in late 2013.

Let me know what you think!

Ookle of the Broken Finger by Paul Gresty

Though there's a lot of fluff and color in Ookle of the Broken Finger, the humor was just a little too strained for me to get into it. There are a few good things: I really liked the creation of the jumblees and the detailed character and history they have. I really liked the naming of the skills and powers, which managed to be both very colorful and also very clear. I also really liked the light-hearted tone.

What I didn't think worked so well was... well, I felt like the jumblees were a bit schizophrenic--not as creatures, but as an authorial creation. They were trying to be very light-hearted and funny, yet in action, they seemed much more serious and ponderous. I mean, the whole opening is about one guy's death ad who's going to replace him. What's funny about that? The creatures were written about as if they were light-hearted, but they didn't really come across as light-hearted in the event of it. Some more synergy between thought and action might have been appreciated. I wanted the jumblees to be mischevious small creatures, intelligent but easily distracted. Instead they were just kind of big and serious and dull, which isn't really that funny.

Humor is something very risky to attempt on this scale. You up the ante significantly when you attempt it. If it works, it can really take off, but if it doesn't, it can fall flat on it's face, even if the story would otherwise have been a good one. You've got one wing, with the humorous, light-hearted writing style. But the other wing, having humorous, light-hearted, and genuinely funny things happening in the world--that's missing. Even if you do want to deliver something serious (which is probably a good idea sooner or later) I would suggest come at it a little sideways, later on. Perhaps have a jumblee discover the dead body in the linen closet, but then be most concerned with how he's going to get the linens out without letting anyone know there's a dead body in there. This could be a source of real concern to the character, (while the reader, meanwhile, is both intrigued by the plot possibilities of the dead body, while laughing at the ineptitude of the protagonist.) Hopefully that helps.

Oh, also, I found the intense repetitions of words to be a bit much. After a little while, it wasn't funny, it was just cumbersome. Keep working at it; you have the knack for a sense of humor, but in execution it was a bit hit or miss. Perhaps with practice you could hone the art and become the next Terry Pratchett ;)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Day of Dissonance by David Walters

Day of Dissonance is an intriguing entry; it's going for a sort of horror, false-reality vibe, and pulls it off very well, but it's dragged down by too many choices that (to me) don't really matter, and by the fact that you don't really know what's going on. Also, (again in my opinion) by a sort of excess of horror. Something really scary should surprise you in some way--not shock you necessarily, not like a bogeyman jumping out from behind the couch going "boo!" but be in some way unexpected. After a pageant of horrors has gone on long enough, the next one ceases to startle and amaze after a while.

I thought the rules were simple and effective. My only complaint is that they were presented first. Basically, to my mind, the fluff is the hook, not the rules. Open with the fluff to tell the reader what they're getting into and give them an incentive to take the extra effort to learn the rules. Especially with this many gamebooks, each with their own descriptions of rules... I quickly ran out of patience to keep reading about rules. What I can say for Day of Dissonance is that, though the rules were presented first, at least they were constrained to under one page! Major points for that, especially compared to some of the other entrants this year.

Once the story gets going, it picks up quickly. There's danger, there's a fire, there's amnesia. The "holding your breath" gimmick caught me by surprise, and delighted me just enough that I actually tried it--although I was disappointed to find that I could just release my breath at the very next section without having been asked to make any significant decisions in the meantime, other than which exit to take out of the room. Would every other exit have also allowed me to release my breath?

What might have been an interesting alternative would have been to give the reader the option to explore or leave. You can explore, and maybe find equipment or clues, but you can only explore for as long as you can hold your breath. Once you leave, then you can release it. This creates a more meaningful decision for the player--do I suffer holding my breath to get possible, unknown, rewards, or do I leave now and get to release my breath?

[Eventually I went back and tried the other options--I ran out of the room the first time--I was disappointed to find that there's not much of substance in the other directions. At best, you break out the window only to climb in another window and pick up at basically exactly the same place in the story. Although there was a certain small, but very real, moment of panic when I was trying to hold my breath and the glass didn't break the first time I hit it. Do I hit again, or run for the other side of the room? Holding my breath right there made the sense of smoke filling the room, and the urgency of that choice, very real for a moment. *shudder*]

I also want to mention that, like many of this year's gamebooks, it  suffers from a little bit of an unclear premise. Are we post-apocalyptic? Are we just one step past modern? I appreciated the background page, but didn't feel like it answered all of my questions. Especially when the main character in the main text is not readily identifiable as the "John Watkins" of the background. The lead described in the background struck me as a child, whereas the character in the narrative was clearly an adult. Spoiler Alert: Later, of course, this makes sense. But at the time it didn't so much raise a sense of mystery, as just leave me feeling disoriented.

That said, I do have to give kudos to how it all tied together in the end. Especially once I realized why you don't show up in the mirror. Fucking coool.

The horror in this story builds with very mixed success. It's most successful early on, before you have a chance to get numbed to it. I think in the early parts of the story, the author deserves serious props for building a creepy, eerie atmosphere. For example, bloody footsteps outside the door randomly? Very creepy.

Unfortunately, this ends up falling into much the same trap that Massacre at Black Scythe does (see later) where in an attempt to create creepy, disturbing stuff all the time, the narrative quickly loses touch with a baseline of normal to compare it against. As I'll rant about again under MaBS, the essence of horror is deviation from reality. Without normal reality, you can't have horror. To phrase it another way, if I'm going along, doing my thing, and then I look over and there's a bloody handprint in the mirror, that's fucking creepy. But if every time I turn around there's some new severed body part or unsettling monster popping out at me, pretty soon that's just what I expect. Try too hard to shock, and you lose the ability to shock at all. You must have a baseline of normal to contrast your horror against, or it's not horror at all, it's just a bad day.

Because of this, the narrative does slow down again after a while. The choices start out arbitrary and unclear,  and get more so as the story goes on. I'm not given enough information about the world and why I'm doing what I'm doing to make any rational, informed decisions. Why would I want to dress as a ninja? I don't know; guess I'll just put on the costume. Follow the boy? What? Who is he? Do I recognize him? Even a little bit? Left or right down the hall? I don't give a rat's ass about left or right. Don't make me pick left or right! For the love of all that is holy and good in this beautiful world of ours, DO NOT make me pick left or right!

I know it's a tried  and true old Fighting Fantasy trope--that doesn't mean you can do it. It's successful there not because it's good, but because that was all we knew back then. Games, and gamers, are farther along than that now. We want choices. Not randomness masquerading as choice. Don't do it! Just don't. Please, I beg of you, give me information to make my decisions on!

Now, let me clarify, this applies to blind choices as a whole, not literally just navigational "left or right" choices. It's the "Which Door" style of choice I described in one of my blogs on gamebook theory. Or, put more simply, a blind choice. Asking which of half a dozen strange objects I want to investigate, when I don't have any meaningful information about any of them, is just as much of a "Which Door" choice as left or right is.

Moving on, I do have to say that I was pleased by the ending. Especially by ending 97. LOL. But yeah, though I knew something was up, I definitely would have appreciated a bit more rhyme and reason appearing before the big reveal. It would have been nice to feel like I was sinking my teeth into a mystery, rather than just along for the ride until the author decides to pull the curtains aside and modestly share the fantastic secret inner workings with me.

Regardless, of the three "false reality" entries this year, I think this was the strongest. None of them did a great job of doling out secrets instead of doing a big reveal at the end, but Day of Dissonance gave me the most to work with in the meantime. It had a lot of good horror content; if it had been paced correctly, it could have been very scary. Instead, after the first few scares, it comes across more like a monster show. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

At the end of the day, this is very, very close. The writing is good, and he successfully crafts a creepy-ass atmosphere, which is no mean accomplishment. But the story is really dragged down by the fact that almost every choice you're given is a Which Door choice ( -- sometimes literally. If that type of choice wasn't my pet peeve, I probably would have enjoyed this a lot more. The basic premise was good, but like in A Knight's Trial, I would have liked to see something more connecting the "real" reality and the "fictional" reality. Why is this the nature of the test? Why do they scare the pants off their victims?

I edited this several times, but I think it just became more extensive and disorganized each time. At the end of the day, Day of Dissonance is well conceived and well-written. It has all the right elements, they're just not quite arranged in the right configuration. A near miss--partly due to the overwhelming preponderance of Which Door choices. No, no blind choices... I'm going to be over here shuddering in a quiet corner of my room... oh god... (his eyes popped open one final time) The horror... the horror!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Familiar Story by Richard Penwarden

Okay, is your name a pen name? Because dude. I mean dude. "Richard Penwarden." Either that's an assumed name or you were born to be an author. Just sayin'.

I really enjoyed A Familiar Story. I like the inversion of the player being the familiar, and your wizard being somewhat bumbling and incompetent. From the get-go it's apparent that you're going to have to solve all the problems for him.

I like the system; it's pleasantly colorful, but I think is just a little more complex than is really necessary for such a short format gamebook. While the special abilities all have a lot of color (and the wings and heritages in particular I found flavorful and awesome) it seems like a lot for the format.

The world as well was very colorful and charming. I particularly liked the descriptions of the town of Stiltwater. I think the characterizations could have used... maybe a bit more subtlety. The wizard is so clearly nice and kind and good and then when he gets corrupted by the other familiar... I was pleased to see conflict in the story, but it's just so obvious. I would have enjoyed it more if I'd seen a bit of complication and subtlety. Perhaps a bit of darkness in the character first that the demonic familiar drew out and played upon to start corrupting him, rather than him being so one-dimensionally good before hand and one dimensionally corrupted afterward.

I do think the game flow could have used some work. There are far too many sections where you turn to another paragraph for no discernable reason, without any player choice or even an item, skill or dice test. It's more like reading a short story than a gamebook. Sadly, once you do get to the choices, that's where it falls a little flat. The choices are often blind--which is to say, there's no real information as to why to pick one over another. For example, I was particularly frustrated by the choice at section 40. I get to visit 6 of 10 location, with no reason to pick any one over any other one other than the name. Might as well roll some dice. Sorry, not for me.

At the end of the day, I think this was a near miss. It has in it either a very good short story, or a very good gamebook, but it tries to be both, and ends up doing neither very well. I would be interested to see what could come of this with more focus and revisions.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Enchanted Windmill by Bert Van Dam

The Enchanted Windmill is an extremely ambitious undertaking, and is almost very fun. I personally really like the sandbox style gamebook. Something feels rewarding to me about having a world to explore, and being able to move around it at my own will.

The problem this book suffers from is the complete absence of any hook. While, yes, in principle I like the sandbox style of gamebook--you still need a reason to do anything. Okay, so I was traveling and my horse threw me because it saw a snake. Now what?

I'm dumped in a random town with no direction at all. Now, if this were happening to me in real life, I would probably continue trying to get to my destination one way or another. Presumably you need to be there for a good reason. This does not, however, seem to be a matter of very great concern to our protagonist. He's perfectly happy to mosey back and forth between Wouwse Plantage and Heerle. About the time I chatted with the innkeeper and all I got was, "He knows a lot of good jokes, so you have a great time," was about the time I gave up and moved on.

Presumably there was plot there somewhere. As an author, I suggest giving your reader a hook into the plot. As a reader, I'm only going to search so hard for it.

Another thing I wanted to comment on is the rule-set. I had trouble slogging through reading the rules. That may be because I was burnt out by the time I got to this one from reading 22 different systems in 22 different gamebooks, or it may be because the rules are a bit more wordy and lengthy than are really necessary for a short gamebook. My preference (as you may have noticed in my own entry) is for rules that fade into the background, requiring as little player attention as possible.

I did like the tone and the setting of these old Norwegian rural towns. Really cool setting. And I think the sandbox was fairly well constructed, for what it's worth. But having a sandbox does not mean you don't need a story. I would be interested to see what could come of this with further revisions, something to ratchet up the tension and get the player interested right away.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Windhammer: 22 Reviews in 22 Days

Several members of the community have generously submitted their feedback, either to the authors directly, or by posting their thoughts publicly. I for one, deeply appreciate everyone who has done this. It provides a lot of food for thought and helps move this great conversation forward about what gamebooks are and what we love about them.

So now it's my turn :)

I started up writing my reviews in a document (laughably) titled "Quick Reviews." That turned out to be a misnomer, as I am pathologically incapable of being "quick" about anything. The "reviews" part however is true.

Because these reviews grew and grew to the point where posting them all at once would be about as kind as chucking a dictionary at you, I've decided to split them up. I'll be posting one review a day for 22 days. I wish I could have taken more time to be thoughtful and thorough in each of my reviews, to grade them according to my 25 point scale, and apply keywords to give quick insight into what I thought of each one, but I'm just really busy, so this is the best I could do. Ironically, in the words of a great author, "I didn't have time to make them short."

Hopefully the reviews, while not as well organized as they could be, will be thoughtful, thorough and helpful. Although I'll give fair warning, I did not read every gamebook exhaustively. Some of these are based on little more than first impressions. Furthermore, (to give the standard disclaimer) these are just one dude's impressions. Take what you will, leave the rest :)

Just one more thing, and this is from the heart: the Windhammer competition this year was a huge success. I was delighted to see so many quality entries.

I went to check my notes before writing this up and found, "These are almost universally shockingly well put together. Beyond just havnig *more* gamebooks, we also have a substantial jump in professionalism across the board, with all of them."

Kudos to everyone who participated. You guys all rock.

For the sake of simplicity, I will be reviewing them in the same order they are listed on the Arborell website. Stay tuned for review #1 tomorrow, "The Enchanted Windmill."

Edit: Let me apologize in advance for all the criticisms! I tried to be nice, but like certain other commentators, I can occasionally stray into bile and vitriol. It's possible I have strong opinions on these things. Maybe.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Winnar is Me!

Windhammer Merit Award for the win! This is my third one in a row (I'll try not to think too hard about what that might say about me being consistently second-best...) but this one especially is a HUGE achievement, given the quality and quantity of the entrants this year.

I think what I'm happiest about, at this point, is simply that I'll get to showcase the fantastic art done by Anthony Contoleon of the wasteland, the Zendari, and all the Mecha in a forum as public as a complition published by Tin Man Games. Seriously, the art he did is amazing; it deserves to be seen by the world.

This was a great few days for me in other respects, as well. I managed to get Vigilante published and ready for the world in time for the Con. The version I presented there I'm calling Alpha for now, and deciding not to attempt to publish to the public yet. Actually, I've come up with a plan by which I can develop, playtest, and build up some publicity and anticipation while further improving on the game in a process that should take about a year, culminating in a Kickstarter. Over this time, I'll keep working with the artist to get more and better art, and start recruiting writers to write content for it. The vision is to present the final, complete, published version ready for marketing and sale to the public at Convolution next year.

In other news, my short story, "To Give a Hand," which some of you may have read an early version of already, was VERY well received at the Writer's Workshop. One of the authors set it's publishable right now, he just wasn't sure about the ending. The other said it definitely will be publishable once I've re-worked the ending. He said, "It's three quarters of a great story!" Yay! I think I already have some ideas about how to re-work it, too...

Last but not least, I also made contacts at Convolution with students from Reed College--the playtesters for Vigilante--who liked it enough that they want to hire me to come up to Portland at some point to run a LARP for their gaming club. Win!!!! Time to dust off the Arcadian LARP and make the revisions I've been meaning to do since I first ran it... god, has it already been two years since then? Once we've run that one, this will be a great opportunity to finish up the Isles of Mist LARP I've had stewing in the back of my mind for even longer and actually break it out with a live crowd. It's going to be hot. I love this LARP.

However, all of this is going to have to wait at least a little bit, because now that I'm no longer facing immediate deadlines, I have some serious gamebooking to do, on very exciting projects for people who are expecting results from me.

Do you ever feel a little schizophrenic?


Nah. I love living like this. I touched base with a dear friend at a Halloween party last week, and realized how happy I am to be writing this much, working this hard, and making it all come to life.

Of course, back to it as soon as I recover from this head cold I caught at the con. Even I need to rest once in a while.