Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review of "The Thing that Crawls," by Matthew R. Webber

Today I'll be reviewing (to the extent of my abilities) Matthew R. Webber's "The Thing that Crawls."

I hate to say it, but this was one of the few entries that I did not give a complete play-through to, for the simple reason that I quite literally could not. After wading through an intriguing, but long, cumbersome, and frequently confusing set of rules and character creation options, I dove into the text itself for a practice swim before tackling character creation in earnest.

Once I got in, I realized that the game is so riddled with typos that it is quite literally impossible to play. After my very first choice, at a T-intersection in some dungeon, (I pretended my Luck was 3), I was directed to a scene where I was suddenly and quite mysteriously drinking some strange milk and experiencing euphoria from it. And to boot, the paragraph had typos (or possibly simple grammatical errors) so extreme that some of the sentences were nigh-incomprehensible.

I made an earnest effort to recover. I did. Anyone can have a mislabeled link. It happens to the best of us. So I went back, pretended my luck was 2 instead of 3 in order to take a different path, skimmed over a fight with a feisty ficus, and then tried going East. There, at my next Luck option (less than 4 now) I found myself inexplicably going to a scene in which I found myself pushing over a statue. What statue? Where from? Huh?

Since I had poked around a bit from the milk, previously, I was able to recognize this as the same statue said euphoric milk was leaking from. I had been given an option, in section 100, to push over that statue--which, to my consternation, was lacking a link number :/ It just says, "Push on the statue? Go to" and then nothing.

While I was amused that I wound up, by an altogether unforeseen and circuitous route consisting of entirely unrelated errors in linkage, back at the statue pushing scene I'd tried to get to originally, that cemented my conviction that the gamebook is, in fact, unplayable as written. Sorry M. R. Webber.

Total Score: 8/25

The rules are intriguing--I could see being really interested in them if this were a longer game. But Windhammer is about "short gamebooks." The scope of this competition is such that rules need to be tight, compact, and streamlined, which this ruleset is anything but.

Also, he opens with the rules, which in my opinion, is always a bad idea. For the sake of the new-to-gamebooks friendly who we all hope will be reading these, I strongly encourage all gamebook authors to open with some story, some narrative or history, or something to draw the reader in. And if the rules are longer than a page, try and tuck them in an appendix or something. While there are those of us who enjoy character creation, as a rule of thumb you generally want to put as few barriers between the reader and the story as possible.

The actual opening of the narrative was probably the best part, and... that's not saying much. I admit to some curiousity about the mysterious cave, and I found myself amused by the hapless dwarven miners, but I'm afraid we'll never get to know how much potential this gamebook actually had.

I want to make it clear that this low score is not a reflection of what could have been, but of what is. As I said above, this system might be fun in a longer format--if it were clearly explained and attached to a functional gamebook.

As it is, it's too long and complex, punctured by the occasional grammatical inconsistency that throws uncertainty on the intended meaning, and I couldn't apply it even if I wanted to.

But the real reason this gets such a low score is because of all the link errors making the game literally unplayable. That's what in the driving test world they call a "Critical Error." (I failed my first attempt at the driving test due to one of those--totally unfairly, I might add!)

I have to admit that I see a certain potential in the writing; I found the introduction intriguing, and there's some real creativity that's gone into the system, even if it didn't quite completely manifest into a usable form. But the writing is mostly damaged by errors and inconsistencies. Even when it's not critical, technical errors, like missing links, the writing just often has a certain impreciseness that is highly detrimental.

For example, in section 98, with the erroneous (and euphoric!) milk, the text reads, "As you scoop handful after handful (of the milk) to your mouth, a feeling of euphoria overwhelms you. All wounds are healed, your virginity is restored and all diseases are cured. If not, the healing powers of the milk are so powerful that all Damage points are restored, you even gain an extra one!"

This showcases the best and worst of Webber's writing. The line about virginity being restored is hilarious. If absent of errors and consistently peppered with that kind of humor, this book could be amazing. But... what is that "if not" doing in the second sentence? In fact, what is that second sentence even trying to say?

Sadly, the writing is full of little errors like that. And the fact that they're severe enough to impact meaning is pretty bad. This is why God invented editors.

I'm giving this a one only because, with all the errors, I couldn't get to the story. If the gamebook did not give me a story, it gets a one. Maybe it could have been better! Maybe the story was actually brilliant! We'll never know. One.

Secret Sauce
I'm actually going to give this a very slight nod here. I think, absent errors, it would have potential. That brings it up to a two. But the fact that the gamebook is literally unplayable necessitates that overall, I give it one of the lowest scores I've ever given out.


  1. Have to agree with this review (it was the one I scored the lowest this year too), but mainly I wanted to share that I think Matthew Webber is aware of the issues with his work, and is learning from the experience (as we all do right?) as I just noticed on his blog here ( where he writes:

    I squeaked my entry in under the wire, but I am NOT happy with what I submitted: AT. ALL.

    Lessons I have learned from the 2013 Windhammer Competition.
    1) Never overhaul your rules-set halfway through (Just, don't).
    2) Plan a solid ending (I had it as far as, "destroy the Big Bad" .. but then what?)
    3) Game Book maps need to be simple
    4) In a book with limited sections, open ended is a bad idea.
    5) Playtest. Playtest. Playtest
    6) Always give yourself time to EDIT. That includes a day or two where the project goes away for a while.

    I adopted then abandoned so many ideas in 'The Thing that Crawls' that I'll be amazed if it's even properly playable. My only hope is that I can pull it together in time for next year...

    1. Thanks for the heads up, Andrew! Sounds like he's aware of the problems. I'm glad to hear he's planning to revamp it and re-submit it next year! Like I said, I think it has potential; it just wasn't ready yet.