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


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. *deleted and reposted to edit typos*

    Hi Ashton! Many thanks for the effort to post your thoughts on this and all the other Windhammer entries this year: it's quite an undertaking!

    The gist of your thoughts above was already known to me as you know, and you're still the only person I'm aware of that actually tested the multiplayer aspect! -And having the benefit of the valuable feedback above on that, I was able to apply some changes (mostly rules clarifications) to the final version.

    But this certainly didn't address any of the gamebook's "fundamental issues" that you cite, and I agree that they're all quite valid points. This work was very much to me a "proof of concept" to see whether it could be done... And having established that it can, I'd certainly like to do more with it (a more fleshed-out experience as you say, where a greater level of "real" choice and strategy can be incorporated, and depending on the setting and story, stronger characterisation and depth of story as well). But as a "fantasy dungeon death-match" I didn't see the need to go far beyond "flavour text to support the design", providing the design itself held up, which is what this entry was always about ;)

    I also look forward to what you come up with using this kind of mechanic: numerous possibilities come to mind for me (both single and multiplayer), and it becomes a lot easier to handle if you assume a single starting point (rather than six different starting locations as I had)!


  3. Actually, I plan on using a mechanic inspired by Trial of the Battle God for the climactic scene of Shadow over Rema ;)

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