Gamebook store

Sunday 7 April 2013

Do gamebooks need dice?

You could start by asking why dice rolls were ever part of gamebooks in the first place. Actually, we need to go a step further back, because dice were not a feature of the first really popular gamebook series, Choose Your Own Adventure. So let’s rewind to the mid-1970s, and the Fantasy Trip solo series which is probably what rules-heavy gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy evolved from. The purpose of books like Death Test by Steve Jackson (the US one) seems to have been to help newbies get the hang of TFT if they didn’t have a group of fellow players. So the whole idea there is to replicate the experience of a face-to-face role-playing game, and dice are just part of that.

Okay, but why are there dice in role-playing games? Because RPGs grew out of tabletop wargaming. And why use dice there? Because sometimes the unexpected happens. Because sometimes the Athenians force the Spartans uphill. Sometimes you hear a click and it’s: “Misfire! Kill the son of a bitch.” (Which, incidentally, I would never have credited if I hadn’t played Avalon Hill’s Gunslinger.) Sometimes a level 1 civilian throws a roof tile and it kills the level 12 general.

I like my RPGs to have dice. Yet I prefer those game sessions where dice are never rolled. Paradox? Schizophrenia? No, it’s the possibility of dice that I think is essential. Much more than a means of showing that the unexpected can occur, and thus ramping up tension, dice are democratic. The umpire (GM if you must) can’t just say, “You’re taken prisoner,” because I can resist arrest, hide, grab a chandelier chain and swing over the guards’ heads – or try, at least. And it won’t be the autocratic authorial whim of the umpire that decides if I succeed or fail, it’ll be the dice, referenced against the skills listed on my character sheet. That’s what stops role-playing games from getting as arbitrary and unfair as the points system at Hogwarts. In the shared storytelling experience that is role-playing, dice are the court of appeal that stops one person from taking over the whole narrative.

Yes, but… in the case of a gamebook, there’s no question about who wears the authorial pants. I can’t just stick a pin in the map and say I’m sailing off to explore the uncharted wastes. I have to take the quest I’m given and stay on the rails that the author has provided. The only function of randomness here, it would seem, is to increase the sense of threat. That single orc or militiaman might kill me, especially if I’m already wounded from an earlier fight. Just have to grit my teeth, roll the dice and see how it turns out.

The risk here is that I might get unlucky and die, and that’s in nobody’s interest. From the gamebook author’s point of view, that makes a very unsatisfying and anti-dramatic story – I climbed the wizard’s tower, snuck past the spider-god, swiped the jewel of power, evaded the poisoned traps, but then got killed in an unlucky fight with a mugger on the way back to my inn. And I’m not happy because I now have to go back and start again – or ignore the bad dice rolls, which is equally unsatisfying as it breaks the spell of immersion. In that case I won, but only by cheating. Suddenly, the jewel of power is starting to look like paste.

Incidentally, notice that the big climactic fights in gamebooks are almost never left to the dice. There’s an item or clever tactic that you have to use. That’s because the author is aware that the flipside of an unlucky death – achieving victory by a sheer fluke – is equally unsatisfying. Think of the final showdown in movies like Galaxy Quest, Kung Fu Panda, or Jack the Giant Slayer. It’s never about a lucky roll.

In M A R Barker’s Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks, unlucky dice rolls rarely spell death. Usually it’s a fate worse than that (for the character), but something much more satisfying (for the player). In non-interactive stories, the perception of coincidence is often the jumping-off point for adventure. Bran Stark’s life might not have been nearly so interesting if he’d taken the stairs. When seat-of-the-pants role-playing gets into this territory, it is better - more thoroughly credible - than any other form of narrative, bar life itself.

But, unlike RPG umpires, gamebook authors can’t allow interesting offshoots from the central story to spawn indefinitely. That’s why we get the ultimate fail: the death paragraph. Not death by attrition, mind you. Be so careless as to let yourself to get down to one hit point, and you deserve to die from the puniest of mantraps. By death para, I mean the choice that will kill you even if you were in perfect health. And that is only put into a gamebook to block off a route the author didn’t want to have to write – so he or she gives you the illusion of choice, only to inflict the ultimate punishment (an authorial raspberry) when you take it.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at what place, if any, randomness has in the modern world of digital gamebooks.


  1. Excellent post. I pretty much lost interest in rolling dice years ago; there's not much enjoyment in reading a gamebook and having to start again just because you rolled an 8 rather than a 9, or such like. I'll be interested in your next post, as I don't really enjoy the "you have a 50% chance of success; wait till the iPod works it out; you have failed" approach either.

    1. The idea behind these posts is not to present a comprehensive argument (Grey Wiz is doing a great job of that already: ) but to get a discussion going, as this is clearly an area that gamebooks are struggling with as they make the transition to tablets and ereaders.

      As you say, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have the device just tell you if your roll succeeded or failed. Tin Man's GA books address that by allowing the player to nudge the dice, but is that the way forward? That's what we're here to talk about.

    2. The Tin Man approach is fun in my opinion, more fun than (blatantly) automated number crunching, but it doesn't solve the problem with random dice rolls potentially ruining the game.

  2. I think there's a difference between the "have a fight" dice rolling and the "are you lucky/what happens dice roll". The fight is a whole sub game which sometimes goes your way and sometimes against, a single entry as moderately interesting action scene.

    Meanwhile the roll to find out what happens is no different than being given a choice with no information, for example "Do you dodge left (turn to X) or dodge right (turn to Y)" versus "You try to dodge. Roll - even number turn to X, odd turn to Y". But the first feels as though you're taking your fate into your own hands, while the second feels as though you are under the control of chance.

    1. Very true, Neil, and hence some gamebooks will offer combat options ("Do you parry/lunge/jab?") but again, in the absence of any more information, that's just a lucky dip.

      I know that some people like what they call the game aspects of gamebboks, but I'm not convinced that just hit-damage-miss-hit decided by dice rolls counts as "a game". Certainly not a very interesting game. It makes the book take longer, of course, and maybe that's the point. The fights are just there to give the reader a repetitive, unskilled chore to do while the imagination is left to fly free through the world evoked by the book.

    2. Or it could be that some people like dice-rolling because they enjoy managing stats; or because it gives them a direct handle on the natural laws, or the “particles and fields”, of the gamebook world with which they are interacting. Even focusing on the “book” part of “gamebook”, though, I think that randomisation has a part to play. In the traditional, dungeon-crawl gamebook, the reader’s quest is to reach the big “400” paragraph at the end; he or she must either achieve that destiny or die (or suffer some other unsatisfactory outcome) in the attempt. Dice rolls, as you argue, serve in that context primarily to “increase the sense of threat”; their purpose is to make it more or less likely that the reader will succeed. The author will have laid down an “optimal path” that involves a minimum of dice-rolls, and that is what the reader is supposed to try to follow. If, however, you want to create a non-deterministic world in which the fates are capricious and the powers-that-be are indifferent to the fortunes of mortals, then that can be represented by dice-rolls at strategic points wiping out any optimal paths. I don’t mean the “instant death” type of bad luck, but only that if the reader takes the same course of action twice, he or she cannot be certain of faring quite so well (or badly) again: “If X, then Y” cannot necessarily be assumed.

    3. Good point, Graham, and in fact it needn't operate just at the abstract level where the dice are modelling the laws of the gamebook universe. There are also places where you might explicitly get involved in games of chance - that happens repeatedly in Battlepits of Krarth, where the theme is unpredictability and, without dice, the gamebook would not really work.

  3. I definitely feel that dice rolls are an unquestioned inheritance that often promotes lazy game design. But the question then becomes - what do we replace dice rolls with to create obstacles and risk for the player? Sometimes it's inductive logic, riddles, or being thorough enough to inhale the protective smoke from a smashed ruby BEFORE we confront the hunchback sorcerer. The problem here is that there is usually an element of trial and error, and once you've found the correct path (by chance or logic) - the replayability of the game(book) becomes nill.

    I think King of Dragon's Pass has quite a unique mechanic with regard to diceless challenges. At the start of the game, you are required to craft the mythology of your tribe - what values and gods they hold dear. Did your tribe capture slaves or adopt defeated peoples as its own? Worship the gloomy storm gods or the fertile plant mother? Did you trust and trade with the magical Dragonkin, or disdain their promises and walk your own path?

    The challenge in the game then becomes staying true to the principles of your clan - that's what the game rewards you for in tricky situations. So the 'correct' option for one clan in your first playthrough could have disastrous consequences if followed by a different clan with an opposing mythology. Refusing to enslave a captive band of warriors, at the risk of angering your existing clansmen when you give them weapons and lodgings at your stead, is a simple challenge. Remembering to not clear wildlands to allow your herds the room they need to pasture, because you promised a shamanic fox spirit you would not harm the trees it lives among many seasons ago? That's a little trickier.

    1. I like that approach a lot. The choice of role determining different best paths each time you play is also used in the Virtual Reality books. It's more game-y there than in KoDP, and I prefer the latter's emphasis on identity and story. But then, I would :-)

      I am not especially opposed to using dice in print gamebooks, though. I can see the logic of asking the player to make a choice where they can play the odds (fighting the goblins in the narrow doorway gives me a tactical edge, etc) but cannot be absolutely certain. I'd rather those elements came from role-playing as in KoDP, but with the need for the author to put in several hundred decisions per book, it's not always easy.

      That's print. Digital format is another matter entirely... But that's for the next post.

  4. There's nothing like the ecstasy of rolling a natural 20, or the agony of a failed saving throw. At the tabletop it's a dramatic event. Yet it feels wrong in the context of a gamebook.

    If I'm navigating a well-spun adventure the last thing I want is cruel chance to intervene and put an end my quest. I'd feel robbed. Worse angry. It evokes the same sense of injustice as Deus ex Machina does in literature.

    If all the interactions in a gamebook where choice driven the adventurer would feel more in control (as long as the consequences were fair/logical and could have been reasonably be predicted with a bit of effort). Then the reader can only blame themselves, not the designer.

    The other issue here is whether a 'bad' consequence should ever result in death, or other premature ending. Wouldn't a dramatic narrative outcome always be preferable? After all what hero's quest would be complete without a series of setbacks and misfortunes.

    Losing to a band of goblin marauders should not result in death but instead the hero should be robbed of valuables and left for dead. This outcome might even influence your next encounter. Are you armed to the teeth and in rude health or a pathetic limping victim of crime. Will you be seen as a threat? or someone to be pitied.

    Great post. Looking forward to that next one!

  5. I loved the TFT solos, but the Tunnels and Trolls ones predated them and were more " wordy" and funnier. TFT solos were pretty text-light, and more about the (excellent) tactical combat than a story: the T&T ones were more the ancestor of the gamebook ( anyone get the four-eyes in Sorceror Solitaire?)

    1. I nearly did mention Tunnels and Trolls, but having even less familiarity with it than with D&D, thought I'd better stick to discussion of The Fantasy Trip, which I did play. But you're right, the true inspiration for rules-based gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy must have been Tunnels and Trolls.

  6. I played most of the gamebooks that were published in the 80s. And the thing that always grated on me was the mechanics of gameplay, especially those involving dice. The mechanics seemed to really slow down the enjoyment of the books.

    As an adult I was able to look back on these experiences and understand that I was clearly a reader/explorer type and the actual game mechanics didn't really interest me. This makes sense: I came to gamebooks fresh, I had virtually no D&D experience, and for me it was always simply about losing yourself in the adventure. Mechanics generally get in the way of that, especially when dice are involved: easy to lose one off the table or under the bed, eventually to be hoovered up and never seen again.

    I'm currently sketching out ideas for a web based gamebook engine. I don't want any visible mechanics, but I do want combat, saving rolls against stats and other elements of chance as I appreciate that many people enjoy these things and they offer elements of danger that you don't really get with simple branching narrative.

    I can come up with any system I like for handling those interactions and easily hide all the mechanics from the player when it's done as an app.

    But what if I ever wanted to make a print version? I'd need to replicate the computer's efforts using dice, wouldn't I?

    If there are other ways of doing "chance" based interactivity without dice or random number tables, I'm all ears :-)

    1. Well, Matt, there's the system from the Apocalypse boardgame:
      which I've mentioned before and seems similar to what Inkle have done with Sorcery.

      Another system, devised for gamebooks by Steve Jackson UK but AFAIK never used, restricted which combat manoeuvre you could use according to the last one chosen. So from Rest you could go to Parry or Jab or Lunge, but from Lunge you could only go to Rest, whereas Parry or Jab also routed to each other.

      But then you still have to sort out the opponents' AI. And you'll need some randomness there or they'll be too easy to beat.

  7. @Matt Hill
    Q: How to do randomness without dice?
    A: Time. Clocks are ubiquitous. For example, if the time is less than 3pm then turn to page 53. If the time is between 3pm and 11pm then turn to page 246. If the time is more than 11pm then you die horribly in an 18-certificate death scene and your adventure ends here. Sorted.

  8. I suppose the need for dice can be removed if the game system can apply modifiers to certain situations based on character type, equipment carried, skills achieved, blessings gained etc. This would function similarly to the VR system but expanded to include a greater range of modifiers. Then in the case of combat or where any skill-based tasks are required the system checks against the character, applies modifiers, calculates the outcome and applies any changes to stats as a result. In electronic games like those developed by Tin Man, for example, it should be quite simple to do, and only slightly more difficult with print (likely involving cross-referencing on modifier tables).

    1. The reason that Telltale's Walking Dead game created such a stir is that it hinged on interesting choices. Your decisions all lead to an ongoing story, one that is shaped by those decisions.

      The problem with combat is that it usually leads to either win (and continue the story) or lose (in which case, cheat or start again). Only one of these is a desirable outcome. So even if, instead of dice, I just have to equip my best sword, shield, armour, etc, where is the interesting choice? Okay, I could have a one-use strength potion, and so I have to decide whether to use it in this fight or save it till later. But as author I still have that problem: if the reader makes the wrong choice then it's a bad outcome for both of us. Losing isn't interesting. (This btw is why people bang on about replayability in games - a tacit admission that the game is likely to offer many unsatisfying experiences along the way.)

      The question is what, if anything, does combat add to the gamebook experience? It's easy enough to implement diceless or random combat in both print and digital format, but interesting gameplay is going to require an AI opponent. We could incorporate that into digital gamebooks, true, but aren't those gamebooks just going to end up being broken videogames? Grey Wiz has been talking about this recently too:

    2. As a GM in an RPG, I always use failure to give alternative content.

      Success means the heroes get to be heroic their way and drive the narrative. Failure gives me license to put a dramatic speedbump in the way. And push them to be heroic in ways they might not have chosen for themselves, but are hopefully just as fun.

      I would like to think that done well, gamebook combat - where you reduce your characters ability to continue in future fights, rather than be killed - lets the author push a player to find alternative means to succeed later. Do poorly in the fight with a guard, and you now need to sneak around inside the villain's lair, not just charge in hacking and slashing.

      Well constructed combats and luck challenges can provide an acceptable way to contest which narrative option is tried in the following beats of the story.