Friday, May 17, 2013

Why Include Randomness: Part 2

This is a thematic continuation of last week's post. To catch up, go read Part One.

Last week, I described one specific case in which using randomness adds some unpredictability to the outcome of your choices. This unpredictability can be a good thing; it forces the player to weigh their priorities against the possible outcomes before making a choice. This is interesting because it's what we do every day. We constantly, in real life, make choices, every hour of every day, and those choices affect the future. We make those choices by weighing probabilities, predictions, and priorities, and to do that in a game is fun.

That said, using randomness the way I specifically described it that time isn't necessarily that common. The most common types of randomness we see in gamebooks have to do with testing skills, if those skills are recorded numerically, or in combat--which is effectively another version of testing character skills. In this mechanic, the additive element comes in the preparation--picking which skills your character will excel in--instead of in the event of the challenge.  By the time you're testing to leap across a chasm, it's too late to make any choices that affect the outcome (other than perhaps finding another way to go...) But the existence of that chasm leap late in the game makes the choice meaningful which you made earlier about where to allocate your skills. Without the existence of the chasm leap scene, the number of points you put into Chasm Leaping becomes irrelevant.

Let's take a look at Destiny Quest, because it's a great example of this type of mechanic. In Destiny Quest, you run around, completing quests by testing (successfully) against your character's skills. As a reward, you acquire items which increase those skills, thus making you capable of completing the next quest.

In Destiny Quest, by the time you get to combat, you've already done all you can do. You've laid your bet, you've played your hand, and now all you can do is sit there and roll and hope.

Despite this, it is not a system without choice. It's simply a system where the choice is all front-loaded into the character development stage of the game. In Destiny Quest, the game remains fun because character development is an ongoing process. Every time you complete a quest, you get a reward. Often, this forces you to choose between two items which modify your character's abilities in different ways. Right there--that is the moment of player interaction. Which item do you keep, and which do you destroy?

The scenes of combat themselves are essentially very boring. For those of us who don't find rolling dice to be inherently exciting, there is nothing to do. You simply must carry through the busywork to find out whether the character build choices you made earlier will pay off or not.

But without that interaction-less moment later (combat) which tests your character build, then the choices you made during the build phase would be meaningless.

All that said, there still remains two possibilities, a skill test that involves randomness vs. a skill test that doesn't. Instead of having a Chasm Leaping skill rated 1-10 and a Killing Goblins skill rated 1-10, you could simply have each of those be a binary trait. You either have it or you don't.

In that model, when presenting the reader with a chasm, the game would ask, "Do you have the Chasm Leaping skill? y/n" and the player would either be able to jump it or not. None of this, "roll and add your skill and try to be difficuly number x, y or z."

This model has the advantage of being simpler, and in a gamebook, that often makes it worth it to go that route. But it doesn't allow for as much real choice. If you know for a fact you will be able to jump any chasm, there's no reason not to go for it every time. If you've got about a 20% chance of horrible painful death if you jump a chasm, there's now an interesting choice. Is it worth the risk? If you're running for your life, probably. But if you're out for your morning constitutional, then probably not.  Each time you run into a chasm, your mind will instantly start evaluating whether it's worth it or not. Sometimes it'll be easy, but there's still a real choice, and when it's not easy, it becomes a good game experience. And as with last week's example, this choice retains its replay value compared to a situation where there's no luck involved.


  1. I'm in favor of the “binary trait” system, or skills. You are presenting it as: “Here is a chasm; do you want to jump it?” Here's how it could work better:

    At a fork in the road, you see a mountainous area to the left and a town to the right. If you picked Jumping skill, then you should spot the hint in the text (mountains) and foresee an opportunity to use Jumping skill. If you picked Charming skill, then you would smartly head for the town where there are surely people to charm.

    Those hints were too easy, so you can make them more obscure: the left path goes uphill, the right path looks well-traveled. The choice and challenge is GETTING to a spot where you can use your chosen skills.

    I am completely opposed to random number generation because the problems add up...

    -Dice encourage cheating more than one's own choices.
    -In every dice roll, success does not feel earned, and failure is frustrating. It's lose-lose.
    -Control and power (the reasons people play) are replaced by randomness.
    -Everyone knows the law of averages--that “your luck will run out” causing predictable stress. Yet...
    -A string of bad rolls could occur, providing a bad playing experience despite player skill.
    -Randomness dislodges people from the established mood, putting them in the mood of math.
    -Everyone understands the odds too well because dice have been used for decades. There's no real thrill.
    -Some people may not have dice and/or don't like jumping to and from another tab with a dice-roller.
    -Are the replays providing new content or more tedious work?
    -Dice rolling adds work when you already expect people to do the work of reading. People are lazy, and reading is hard work compared to passive listening or watching.

    I've been thinking about eliminating numbers altogether and just going with skills instead of scores. Randomness and scores turn your character into a bag of numbers. Skills turn him or her into a bag of characteristics.

    1. Skills turn a character into a bag of keys. And you hope you chose the right keys and find the right locks.

      Both skills and numerical stats are "characteristics." They define a character. To what degree I believe lies in the skill of the writer. Considering player choice, distributing points into stats can be equally empowering as chosing a set of skills.

  2. I'm late to this whole party, having never written a gamebook, but after re-discovering them recently I've been fascinated to give it a go. I've been avidly following Dave Morris's blog, as well as Grey Wiz, Stuart Lloyd and this very site by Ashton and have found a great wealth of knowledge sharing that's really stoked my thinking about what makes an interesting gamebook.

    I love Nicholas' reply here:

    "Randomness and scores turn your character into a bag of numbers. Skills turn him or her into a bag of characteristics."

    This is the same conclusion that I had also come to. Dave (Morris) has been talking a lot about writing better interactive literature that has meaningful choices, and leaving much of the "game" part behind. I tend to agree that this could be a better route for more interesting gamebooks.

    However, I wouldn't want to see all the gameplay go entirely: I still think that item collecting and puzzles have a valid place in gamebooks, although I would be happy to find a way of losing comabt entirely or at least streamlining it to a point where it's easy to play and doesn't slow the book down. In most of the gamebooks of yesteryear I found combat a largely tiresome affair due to dice rolls and no interesting descriptions to go along with them.

    I still don't know *exactly* where I sit on the "gamebooks should include randomness" discussion. I'd likely need to think about it some more. But for now I'm erring on the side that gives as much control to the player as possible. It seems more honest and ultimately more compelling.

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  4. There are enough arguments in defense of both: skills or numerical stats. However, I see it beneficial for the player to have skills based on numerical + dice roll. What I am trying to say is that in Nicholas Stillman's example above, choosing one road leads to instant death. I believe that if a numerical stats + dice roll is used, the player will still stand a chance to continue the story if we ask him to: add your leaping number to a dice roll... if the number is higher than 5, then you succeed and continue. if the number is lower, you die. Therefore, we give the player a chance to continue even if he made the wrong choice. In this case the randomness brings a lot of excitement to the game as it gives you a thrill while trying to find out if you actually survive. The only way around that instant death due to wrong choice I see is, if you have the player deduct life or blood points from their stats which is also numerical, so they would only die if they have been making bad decisions prior to this one. Or you could also have them lose a skill or an item due to the fall, but that is nowhere near as exciting as adding a little bit of randomness in the game (only when bad or questionable choices are made by the player).