Gamebook store

Thursday 17 February 2011

This Tin Man's got heart

Gamebooks are alive and thriving in 2011, as you can see from this dramatic trailer for Tin Man Games' upcoming iOS gamebook Catacombs of the Undercity, the fifth in their Gamebook Adventures series that began with An Assassin in Orlandes. The blurb ought to whet your appetite for some serious sword-n-sorcery action:

Captured by one of Orlandes City's most infamous brotherhoods, the Red Hand Guild, you are thrown to the mercy of the subterranean world deep beneath the streets of the great capital. Wading through the sewers and other dark menacing places, your goal is to reach Undercity, the City beneath the City. Only there can you find the help you need to escape this underground horror and bring down the dark brotherhood from within.

The author of Catacombs is none other than Andrew Wright, whose Fantasy Game Book blog keeps the interactive literature torch burning very bright. Want to know more? Of course you do - and the Tin Man Games blog will beam you up fast.


  1. Been reading these since the first one came out, and they are great. Not a huge fan of the combat system, but otherwise they are fantastic reads.

  2. I agree, Shane. Personally I have no interest in dice - a necessary evil in gamebooks and RPGs, but what are they doing in an electronic game? And as for adding together "VIT" and "OFF" and "DEF" - no, way too nerdy for my tastes. But the GA stories themselves are great.

  3. With your comment, I recall playing Knights of the old republic (KOTOR). This RPG have a lot of action, and there was a small screen, that you can easily turn off, with a log of all the rolls and explanation of the in-game mechanics. Maybe the Digital gamebooks could have an option for turn off the dice.

    For example, I prefer to know what happens in the game mechanics rather to read “this time you loose against the goblin” without any logic explanation.... even if i have to see some fake D6.


  4. I don't just want merely to hide the dice, Ikaros, but rather I want a gamebook that doesn't rely on dice. The problem with randomness is that let's say you get a string of low rolls and you get killed. So that was just bad luck and it's a drag - either you cheat and just say it never happened, or you go back and start again. But either way it was a failure that was caused by the dice, not by a bad decision.

    If there is going to be randomness in a gamebook, I want it to have a big effect - like in the movie Sliding Doors or Nicola Morgan's novel Wasted. In Tess of the d'Ubervilles, her letter gets lost under the rug or it doesn't - that has massive repercussions either way. If I read a novel where a character died because of some unlucky manouevres in a sword fight, that would make for a pretty lousy story.

  5. I see where you're coming from Dave. There have been countless times in my FL history when I have cursed the dice for killing me, when that aside, I'd played a perfect game!

    However I also enjoy the dice element and I think that stems from my preference towards the 'game' side of the gamebook rather than the 'book' side.

    Have to say I never actually read novels as I get bored without the interactive element! In fact pretty much the only thing I do read apart from gamebooks is the newspaper!

    The dice add extra edge and excitement because you know you can never quite be sure of a positive outcome. Also there is nothing more satisfying than completing an against the odds roll (for example passing a thievery test by rolling 11 and then smugly walking away with a few thousand shards)!

    Also the clever way FL has been made means that a lot of skill can be used around the dice rolling too. For example you could well find yourself with just enough shards left to buy a blessing from the Three Fortunes or that market stall item you've had your eye on for a while... you decide to buy the blessing and then it comes to your rescue in your next dice encounter - that's part luck but certainly part skill as well!

    One slight flaw I've found with the dice on FL is occasionally in battle when you get to the dizzy heights of fighting very strong enemies you can end up with a real stalemate where both defences are too strong to take damage! I've had fights before where I'm 'invincible' due to my high defence score but I've had to 'play' the fight out for about half an hour until I get enough 11's or 12's to inflict any sufficient damage myself! That's not very realistic and probably one of my only gripes with FL, but it's a minor one!

    All in all though I just wanted to defend the poor dice though from taking too much of a battering!

  6. By the way that combat stalemate issue would have to be resolved if (and hopefully when) Megara get to the latter books in the series. I know of at least one enemy in books 1-6 with a defence score of 23... if the FL player has Combat 11 and a defence score 24 or higher then you could well have a stalemate situation and then what happens... the application crashes?!

    Guess the answer is the above scenario is unlikely to be a problem for at least the first few books so no need to panic just yet about the rules system! Something to consider though if you haven't already Dave!

  7. Good point, Colin. I would have preferred the app to just assign a percentage chance of hitting, to be consistent with how all the other skills were handled. But that's not my decision, just an opinion like any other player's.

  8. Hey, thanks for the plug! I could be wrong, but I think these are aimed at the game segment more than the book segment of the market, hence the stats and dice-rolling. Having said that, I managed to type up around 45,000 words for Catacombs of the Undercity, so there's plenty of "book" happening too. :-)

    I was sourcing iPad prices yesterday around Bangkok, and the 16GB model is temptingly affordable...



  9. Go for it, Andy. You won't be sorry!

    I think making these things too gamey is a mistake. Even in any role-playing group (surely the Ultima Thule of hardcore gaming) there are usually only one or two players who actually enjoy all that "VIT + ATT + 2d6 minus his DEF" stuff. And that isn't actually gaming, in the sense that gameplay involves interesting choices; it's just dice-rolling. Drop that stuff, allow players to focus on the story and the meaningful choices therein, and I think gamebooks might be able to find quite a big market.

  10. Dave, Destiny Quest has a nice approach to the dice. If you have bad luck (or attempted something with a character not equipped well enough) you die. However, this means that you go back to the map with all your stats restored and all your stuff still in your posession! Then you can re-evaluate your strategy in the particular quest, maybe stock up on new items, or do other quests first to get a stronger character. And then, if you want, you can go back to the quest that you failed at and retry the failed fight.

    Somehow Destiny Quest is very compelling, I find it hard to put the book down. Parhaps (partly) because of this mechanism.

  11. For the love of all that is holy! How it’s a good GAME if you instant get killed because you don’t have a certainly skill? And re-spawn a good game feature?. Sure, it’s good for a PC game but not for a gamebook (and definitely wrong for a roleplaying!). IMHO, that’s not a good approach for the dice in a gamebook. It’s simple the old resource in the wrong type of game.

    Dave, I believe in what you're saying. But I think it applys better in roleplaying (the original roleplaying, were you sit with some friends). In gamebooks I think you need a “game” element, as Colin said. The need for chaos or randomness is necessary to transform a multiple option story in a complex and infinite story. The feeling that the story is not carved in stone, gives you the sense of adventure!


    PS: a “game” element, maybe not dice as you shown us in Heart of Ice

  12. Not sure if I understand the mechanism you're describing there, Bert. So it's basically that when you get killed you go back to the last save point? I'd hope there's a rationale for that (like resurrection) otherwise it'd just break my suspension of disbelief.

    Ikaros, you're right, I'm not against the game element. That's what Min and I wanted to show with the Virtual Reality books, that good games don't have to mean dice-rolling.

    I actually don't object to dice (ie randomness) either, I just think that where randomness means that bad luck can kill you in a fight, it doesn't lead to complex and interesting stories; it just leads to occasional dead ends. If the random element were to make a really big difference - what if Macbeth didn't kill Duncan? what if Jimmy Stewart had never been born? - then it could be fun. But that's not how it's used in gamebooks.

  13. I'm playing Destiny Quest now, and the death mechanism (or lack of one) is my least favourite thing about it. It seems like it acknowledges that people can just play with a finger in the last page, and so makes that the assumption.

    There's no cost to death, but no change in character-state either. It's just a do-over, unrationalised in the fiction. The big downside is it makes the play that led to the death irrelevant. It's like it didn't happen.

    It's a compelling book, but a big part of that is the reinforcement effect of the deep loot system. So much bling!

    Playing assassin in Orlandes at the moment too. It's great - the story presents you with meaningful decision after meaningful decision. Very engrossing.

  14. Ah, the lure of bling :) That's what got me hooked originally - it was the "Eyes" in Empire of the Petal Throne. I saw the list of all 36 and I figured I had to play until I collected a set. Precisely thirty-six years later... still trying.

    I have Assassin in Orlandes on my iPod and I guess I ought to get back to it - just need to tune out those rattling old dice. Now if AiO only had a nice clean system that let me focus on the writing like, say, Echo Bazaar. (I can see you're going to be the one to blame for eating up a good chunk of my time from now on, Chris!)

  15. I think the key thing to remember with dice in any gamebook is that there is a wide spread of possible outcomes from 2-12 (or 4-24 if you have 4 dice). This not only creates more options for the consequences of a roll, but it adds excitement too. What's the fun or justice in being killed just because you went left rather than right? I think there has to be something else to fall back on and that's where the dice come into play!

    As I said before as long as there is a skill element to each dice roll in terms of the decisions you make during the game then I think dice are a big plus! The blessings feature in FL means that you can take a view on when you think it is 'safe' to fail an ability roll vs when you think it is critical that you have another go in order to try and pass the ability roll. This way there is the potential for a lot of strategic dice rolling.

    More often than not if you are 'unlucky' with the dice rolls it is because you have not played to your strengths. Learn from your mistakes and learn to 'bet' on the dice when the odds are stacked in your favour and you'll soon realise that the dice are your friend rather than your enemy.

  16. Dave: When you get killed in Destiny Quest you abort the quest, go back to the map and try other quests or the market first to make your character stronger. Then you can go back to the place where you got killed and try again. An implicit resurrection deal so to speak, but better because you don't lose your stuff.

    The net result is very compelling, or dare I say addictive, for it's very hard to put the book down and call it a night.

  17. My gripe about dice, Colin, is that as used in most gamebooks (ie for fights) they don't lead to a wide spread of possible outcomes. They lead either to you be able to continue the book or being killed. That's why even as far back as Blood Sword 3 I was advising the reader to just decide what dice roll they wanted.

    I agree there are ways the random outcomes can be made interesting. In M A R Barker's Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks, losing a fight rarely gets you killed. Often it leads to a different outcome (surrender, capture, stalemate) from which new options spring.

    And the random skill rolls in Echo Bazaar are good - there you rarely *have* to use a skill, and failure doesn't just kill you off. Also, you are warned in advance how likely you are to make the roll.

    Btw I urged Mikael to put that last idea into the FL app, but in the end it didn't make the cut. I draw a distinction between gameplay ("a series of interesting choices" as Sid Meier says) and gambling (= luck). Being told what your chances are at least allows you to make a considered decision, which I think is the point you are making.

    But having said all that, my objection to dice in egamebooks is that it's simply jarring to watch two dice clattering around the screen. What are they supposed to represent? I'm there in the moment, a tense confrontation in a foggy backstreet in Orlandes. And suddenly two big red dice are bouncing around, the result is added to a confusing string of numbers, I'm told "you miss!" and I tap to make the d--ned (little nod to EB there) dice roll again. Every moment I'm doing that is taking me further out of the story. Seems like the dice are only there because the originators of gamebooks in the early '80s happened to own a game store and they liked dice. Fine in a book (well, a necessary evil, I would say!) but kind of dotty on a phone.

  18. (Ended up cross-posting with Dave, who says most of what I was going to)

    Hi Dave: glad you're enjoying Echo Bazaar! I'm only responsible for tiny slivers of it, but we'd love to hear your thoughts sometime.

    Colin: thing is, dice in game books - despite their range - generally only give two outcomes: success or failure. And in combats, too often failure means "stop playing" - rarely a good thing to be telling your players, I think.I think your 2nd paragraph is absolutely key: the ability of the player to make decisions to modify the outcomes and odds of rolls. Destiny Quest gets to this after a few hours of play, but I felt too many of the early battles are just sequences of random rolls with no option to intervene.

    One advantage dice have from a UI perspective is that everyone knows how they work. When a player sees dice they know chance is involved and they can easily asses whether the luck component of the roll went their way. In Echo Bazaar we use a system of descriptive phrases to assess difficulty and then roll the dice behind the scenes. But people can still get confused over whether, say, a "straightforward" task is easier or harder than a "low risk" one. And if they try a "straightforward" task and fail there's always a bit of a "WTF?" response. If they could see the dice came up a two it would help explain what happened.

  19. Bert, sounds like you could get just the same effect in any gamebook by turning back to a paragraph before you got killed. But in DQ this is a metarule, ie there is no in-story justification for it, any more than there is if you did it in a Fighting Fantasy book, say. The author is just telling you that it's okay to ignore a bad result and pretend it never happened. Fairly obviously Jamie and I don't hold with that. It's the very reason we built resurrection deals into FL, in fact - so that there would be a rationale for it.

    True, in FL resurrection you lose your gear - but a death outcome that has no cost at all is kind of pointless, wouldn't you agree? In that case, why have fights with the possibility of death at all? As I mentioned to Colin, M A R Barker Tekumel gamebooks substitute interesting outcomes in place of death in a fight. That's a better way to dispense with death and still keep the story flowing.

  20. Lots of cross-posting happening this morning :) Chris, I happened to finally start playing Echo Bazaar just a couple of days before you emailed Jamie. Synchronicity at work again. I love it - in fact, will have to be careful not to get addicted. There's almost too much to say in one post, but I plan on doing a review of it before long. Just trying to decide whether the review should be on the Mirabilis blog or here - or both.

  21. "True, in FL resurrection you lose your gear - but a death outcome that has no cost at all is kind of pointless"

    And you can insure against the loss to an extent by buying townhouses and storing spare equipment in them. A very satisfying part of FL gameplay is the risk-management.

    "As I mentioned to Colin, M A R Barker Tekumel gamebooks substitute interesting outcomes in place of death in a fight."

    I have to seek these out. Death is often the least interesting consequence to apply to a player. There's so many more options to send the story in new directions: scandal, exile, madness, complication, capture, loss...

  22. And most of the time in real life when you lose a fight, it's the ego that takes damage more than the body. Which in story terms is way more interesting.

  23. If you get killed in any gamebook you can always go back. Doesn't need for the writer to give you permission :D

  24. Very much in agreement that other options in fights (and other scenarios too) are much better, not to mention more realistic than simple death. Chances are if a fight wasn't going your way you would want to either submit or run away rather than always fight to the death. Same goes for your opponents... there are endless possibilities for thread lines if you decide to spare an opponent who is about to lose to you in a fight.

    However if you do die there has to be consequences as Dave says, otherwise what's the point?

    Fin, of course you can cheat easily in gamebooks just as you can in real life, but personally I think what's the point as you completely void any of your 'achievements'.

    I always apply my own moral code of rules in FL when a situation arises that the book rules don't cover. For example where there is an opportunity to easily steal a gem and make easy cash I'll only ever steal it once (even if there is no tick box) because the reality is it's not going to be there to steal more than once. Also it's more of a challenge to try and pass all the various quests to be successful rather than just steal the same gem 20 times to become super rich!

  25. Hi there. Just wanted to pop by to say thanks for blog post, Dave! We're just putting the finishing touches to GA5 and will be submitting any day now. Andrew has written a great story and it's been great to have him as part of the team.

    Regarding the lengthy comments discussion, which has been a great read by the way, there are a lot of valid points.

    I guess the reason we did the whole dice system thing was for two reasons: a) re-create the feel of old FF style gamebooks b) try and attract some of the younger RPG crowd that may not know of gamebooks. With the first point, we just wanted to re-create the nostalgic feel of being 10 years old in the 80s, which is why we have page turning and even scribble out the monsters name when defeated. With the tech to hand we could of got away with having something more "digital", but then we think it wouldn't have felt like a gamebook. With the second point, we do believe that we have helped bring a lot of new faces to the gamebook genre through the app. Had quite a few responses along the line of "I've never played a gamebook before but I'm really enjoying this", which I think is great for all of us battling away in this niche area.

    I do understand that the dice rolling aspect does alienate many though, even in the gamebook space. We're actually looking at releasing a lot more books this year and next (all being well) that will devoid of the dice element - taking it back more to the Choose Your Own Adventure roots.

    Anyway, thanks again Dave! This is a great blog and one I visit regularly. Also looking forward to getting my teeth into the FL iPad app soon when I do some overseas travelling.

  26. Hi Neil - the dice discussion among the comments may rather have obscured the original point of the post, which was to say that the GA series is well-written and certainly does recapture the excitement of early roleplaying. That thing about dice appearing on screen has just been a peeve of mine since the ZX Spectrum days! So I'm interested to see what you guys do without dice (btw do check out Heart of Ice if you haven't already). And good luck with future releases - it's great to see gamebooks thriving again thanks to new digital platforms.

  27. This is a really interesting discussion, so much so I've made a few notes about it here:

    And I can certainly see the pros and cons of both sides. I like story immersion, but I also like some gameplay crunchiness (possibly a dice-rolling relic of my Warhammer wargaming days that has yet to be beaten out of me!).

    With Catacombs of the Undercity, I inadvertently structured it similar to the Virtual Reality series, where Vitality is like a time-keeping stat to be dribbled away bit by bit every time you fail a dice roll, instead of leading to instant death. That way you keep playing, but perhaps more cautiously if you character has been running afoul of traps and beasts. It's definitely a linear story, with the occasional non-linear segue, and plenty of multi-path approaches, so hopefully replay value is high.



  28. It's an interesting debate, Andy, and one I'm sure will go on and on - not least because there's no right answer :)

    For the record, though, I am not against the game element. Echo Bazaar has no dice rolls but it has a far stronger game element than most classic gamebooks. (It is kind of an evolved gamebook - more on that another time.) Story immersion and gameplay are both equal partners in EB, which is why I'm a fan.

    Chris Gardiner made the point that maybe players would like to see some representation on-screen that makes it clearer that they are attempting something that may succeed or fail, but I can think of much better ways to do that than by showing dice.

    As I mentioned to Neil, the whole business of putting dice in an electronic game has baffled and kind of annoyed me since Warlock of Firetop Mountain appeared on the Spectrum. It just seemed so dumb to say, "What do we need to preserve from the FF books to make the Spectrum game feel authentic? Oh, the dice, of course!" I can tune out dice when I'm playing a role-playing game in real life, but if I'm staring at a screen those dice rolls are just an intrusion on the adventure imo.

    My wife has another point, which may shed some light on why role-playing is a bit, well, niche. She asks, "Why do you all roll those 20-sided dice or three 6-sided or whatever?" And I explain it's to give a degree of statistical fine-tuning, blah blah. And she counters, "I can't translate the chance of doing something into numbers. If you just said it was easy, average or difficult, I could enjoy the adventure."

    Now, obviously this is a foreign language to me. Having trained as a physicist, I think in graphs and numbers all the time. I point out that having three gradations of skill would still involve a dice roll, a d3 in fact, but that cuts no ice with my wife, whose mind I suspect works more like that of the general public. Hence my interest in chucking the dice out - but not the gameplay, I hasten to add - in order to reach folks who wouldn't normally look at gamebooks.

  29. [More cross-posting chaos! :) ]

    Hi Andy,

    I look forward to trying Catacombs of the Undercity - I'm working my way through the Gamebook Adventures now, but am still on the first one (I die a lot. A *lot*.).

    "And I can certainly see the pros and cons of both sides. I like story immersion, but I also like some gameplay crunchiness"

    I don't think the debate here has been over having a game system versus a CYOA pure-choice system, but about how the system is presented to the player. Like you, the CYOA books do nothing for me - I like some game in my gamebooks!

    I very much like the GA combat system. It's got some nice crunch to it, and being able to call on your Fitness adds a nice resource-management element. However, it does very much look like a system designed for tabletop and then converted (at a lot of effort, judging by the beautiful interface) over to the mobile device.

    I can see that clattering dice and strings of numbers can put off people without a background in RPGs, wargaming, and gamebooks, but it also has an irresistible nostalgic allure to those of us who grew up with this stuff.

    I wonder if, as they colonise the mobile devices, gamebooks need to reconsider the need to appeal to nostalgia. Certainly, systems and UIs custom-built for the new medium could be more welcoming to a wider audience. And now us old grognards know where to look for our IF fix, maybe the "necessary evils" (as Dave puts it) of dice and overt tabletop-esque statistic-math won't be necessary to keep us there. Computers can handle that stuff invisibly, concealing it behind a veil of fiction; but in so doing it becomes more difficult to engage with as a game. I think everyone plays for a mix of game and story, but has preferences at different points on that spectrum.

    Echo Bazaar definitely leans towards the story end, and though we've dabbled with more game-y subsections (like a minigame where players engage in a perilous race across the giant mushrooms of Busby Marshes) our policy is to focus more on the narrative side than on the game side.

    To cannibalise Dave's post, I think there's a lot more brains out there that work like this: "If you just said it was easy, average or difficult, I could enjoy the adventure." than like this: "I point out that having three gradations of skill would still involve a dice roll, a d3 in fact"

    You need a brain like the latter for design, but do we really need to demand it for play?

  30. Interesting post Chris! I've obviously got to check out Echo Bazaar - it certainly sounds intriguing!

    The nostalgia aspect is I guess a draw for me, but it would be nice to have an option to turn it off from time to time, and just read with the flow of choices.



  31. Andy, you *must* try it. Echo Bazaar provides a lot of interesting choices, a real sense of gameplay, and features pretty much the very best writing you're ever going to see in any fantasy work, whether RPG, gamebook or novel. No, I'm not a shareholder :)

    Nostalgia means nothing to me (my new favorite Doctor is Matt Smith) so I guess that's why I don't get the whole old-school thing or want to see dice. EB has a random skill-roll mechanic but it makes more sense to me (and feels aesthetically cleaner) that you just get told the result.

  32. "and features pretty much the very best writing you're ever going to see in any fantasy work, whether RPG, gamebook or novel. No, I'm not a shareholder :)"

    I *am* an EBZ shareholder (in fact, the company founder) and this gives me the kind of warm glow usually associated with whisky or arson.

    Because, Dave, I happen to think the same thing about Fabled Lands, and *in fact* the specifics of what makes FL content so excellent (colour, incident, literacy, wit, concision, neatly tuned prosody, clear sense of place) are often at the front of my mind in writers' meetings.

    So, thank you, although I'm afraid you also have to consider the possibility that you like it because it's a third-generation pastiche of your own writing. :D