Friday, December 21, 2012

Combat in Gamebooks

I've mentioned a couple times a combat-related post that I was working on. Well, without further ado, here you go:

This year in Windhammer, the authors as a whole presented some amazing innovations in combat systems, rules, and styles. It's given me a tremendous amount of food for thought, and I've tried to wrap up and present here some of the ideas all this experimentation has led me to.

The big question seems to be: How to make a gamebook combat system dynamic, within the limitations of the genre? You can't present a system that's too involved, or it simply won't be manageable. Most gamebook systems are incredibly straightforward (i.e. one or two stats, very few rolls, etc.) But those don't have enough moving parts to create any real dynamism. That said, one thing I've learned is how far you can push it. Several gamebooks, such as Brewin's Trial of the Battle God, had very full systems. It was a lot, but if you're spending a lot of time in the game, it might be worth it. 

To get down to the root of the issue, we need to think about what kind of decisions are possible within a combat situation, in a game. Let's do a quick brainstorm. In a fighting game, player speed and skill becomes very important, but you're still choosing which maneuver to do when. This has a lot to do with guessing what the other guy is going to do. You've got to try to fake the other guy out, make him think you're doing one thing, then do another. This is reminiscent of my (short-lived) fencing days. Our teacher's mantra was "make noise in the east, attack in the west."

For this to be meaningful, the different choices each participant makes have to interact with each other in interesting ways. If I block in the west, but you attack in the east, then I'm in trouble. But if I block in the east, I might be able to get a quick riposte in. This often comes down to a sort of rock paper scissors effect. If the first player does action A, and the second player does action B, then second player has the advantage. But if second player did action C, then first player has the advantage.

This sort of model also relies on a multiplicity of options. If you only have one option "attack" and you do that again and again until the battle is over, then there's not this kind of model in action. Arguably, the more options there are, and the more relationships there are between the options, the deeper the strategy in this case.

So what we're seeing come together here is a few requirements:

* The player has to have options in combat. Not just "Attack," or "Defend," but what kind of attack?
* The options each combatant makes have to interact with each other in interesting and meaningful ways.

So the question then becomes, can you include that in a gamebook?

Not only do I think you can, I think I have. I've written up a system (which isn't ready to expose to the public yet, but is in progress) which includes both of those elements, and while it is heavier than most gamebooks, the feedback I've gotten so far is that it is still manageable.

Over the next month or so, I'll be working on writing up a short, sample gamebook which demonstrates these rules. When it's ready, I would love to hear all of your feedback.

Until then, stay tuned for more blog posts on this general topic. Also a couple more reviews upcoming. Next week, I'll go over a lot of the specific mechanics which various authors introduced in Windhammer this year, with an analysis of each one.

Merry Christmas!

To those of you who celebrate it. To those of you who don't, have a cookie on me you heathens.


  1. I'm working on my own combat system as well although I haven't written a gamebook to try it out with. Very interested to see what you come up with.

  2. Had similar thoughts (simple choice driven combat, no dice)...

    Lately been starting to challenge whether game-like combat belongs in interactive fiction at all. If a player is on a narrative journey why stop them progressing because of bad dice rolls.

    Perhaps a battle should be about a single strategic choice, with the various outcomes serving to play out different dramatic consequences.

    a) Defend from the doorway
    b) Attack the leader
    c) Use the firewall

  3. I've come across a few simple combat systems with interesting choices in board games that would adapt well to. One is the system in Delve: The Dice Game.

    You can download the basic rules and adventure here but the main idea is like Yahtzee or Dice Poker -- roll six dice, then reroll two more times, "freezing" any dice you wish between rolls. Four-of-a-kind deals 1 damage to each opponent, five-of-a-kind deals 6 damage split however you like, a run of 5 heals all your party members, etc. It's actually clever and addictive (and I HATE Yahtzee). The main download page at has several variations on the mechanics, a PC version, and even a gamebook adventure!

    Another game that got me thinking was Dungeon Run

    In basic combat, you roll some dice for the monster and if any show the values listed on their card, those are potential hits. The hero rolls their dice, and any that are above the monster's defense rating can be used as hits or blocks against the monster, AND any that match the value of a potential hit can block. So, it's not a super exciting decision, but the choice each round whether to block more monster hits this turn and risk a bad roll next time, or take some hits to do as much damage as possible now is still more engaging than most gamebook combat.

    One more example that ties in with the system you described above: Quest for the Auburn Pelt

    The whole adventure fits on two sides of an 8.5 x 11. In combat you pick one of several moves (thrust, riposte, dodge, etc.) which can only be followed by certain others. The monster (controlled by the game) does the same. Here's the catch: the monster's moves are all written out, and so combat is puzzling out your series of moves where you will kill the monster while taking a minimum of damage. Each monster has its own sequence, and there's even a Mimic that just does whatever you did last turn!

    Anywhoo, I'm interested to see your prototype when it comes out.

  4. My input here is just my personal opinion. I sometimes find it boring to go into extensive dice rolling and calculations for each battle. Long time ago I came up with the idea that the player should roll a dice just once to find the outcome of the battle, which still keeps the excitement of randomness in the game. To do that, the enemy would only have one attribute: difficulty. The player needs to have two: skill and life (or blood) points. The battle would be: life points lost = enemy difficulty + dice - player skill. Written like a true programmer :-) Let me know if further explanation is needed, please!

    1. I'm ashamed to see how many comments here I never replied to... and that's the case in the prior post you commented on as well. I may need to go back through and look these over later. Not sure why they slipped through the cracks!

      Anyway, I certainly like the idea of removing excessive steps in the combat resolution process. You might want to check out Ian Livingstone's return to gamebooks: Blood of the Zombies. As I recall it has a similar sort of one-step approach to combat. I think you roll 2d6 and that's the number of zombies you kill. If any are left, that's how much damage you take.

      If I understand your system right, then battles could still last for several rounds, and while you're only rolling one die, that's still a calculation you'd have to work out repeatedly each round. Perhaps a system would more closely reach your goal if it's resolved with just one round/roll?

    2. It is just one roll. The Enemy has no life points and the only question is how much life points the character will lose in the battle. Of course, this system requires the character to have many life points, so death doesn't come easy after just a few battles.

      I've never read Blood of the Zombies, but a simple system like that would make the book easy flowing and more enjoyable to players, who don't want to be so heavily involved in rolling dice.

      I never read Blood of the Zombies, because I was early disappointed with Ian and Steve's Fighting Fantasy for the very reasons that you mention in your earlier article about what not to do in gamebooks. While I still give them credit for inventing the Gamebooks genre, I think that we've come a long way since the first Fighting Fantasy books.