Gamebook store

Friday 26 April 2019

Pitching a gamebook series

A real curiosity today. When Mark Smith and I were pitching the idea for the Virtual Reality gamebook series, we had between us already written about two dozen gamebooks. Even so, publishers wanted to see a sample; it's like a knee-jerk reflex to them. So we quickly cobbled together a jailbreak scenario to show how the diceless VR game system would work.

This little sequence was my part, and I have a feeling that Mark was going to develop Leshand and the undersea kingdom, at least to get the total up to fifty sections. Whether he did so or not I can't remember. We sold the books to a publisher called Mammoth and they did moderately well, but the gamebook craze was already tailing off. We should have done them a few years earlier. I remember the series with mixed feelings. On the one hand it inspired me to write two of my best books (Down Among the Dead Men and Heart of Ice). On the other hand, I had to help out with editing and rewriting Coils of Hate, and memory of that still has me waking up in cold sweats.

(original pitch)

The rules

All you need do in order to play these adventures is choose four skills from the list given below. These four skills will determine your options during the adventure.
In addition, at the back of the book we will provide sample characters for those who wish to begin play straight away. Here is an example:

The Soldier
Life Points: 10
Possessions: Bow & arrows, sword, and a money-pouch containing 20 gold pieces.
Profile: Your character is a roving mercenary. You put more trust in your own skills than in friends, of whom you have few. A self-sufficient and perhaps somewhat intimidating individual.

The skills


The guards strip you of your weapons and money but do not bother to take any other items you may have. Then they lead you through a maze of passageways whose walls of rough-hewn stone are blackened under centuries of grime. As you pass the heavy iron-barred doorways on your route, you hear the moans and pitiful shrieks of other inmates. “That’s how you’ll sound after a few years in this place,” remarks one of the guards. “Madness is the only escape from here.”
Shoving you roughly into a small cell, they slam the door. The scrape of the key in the lock makes a doleful sound in the gloomy cell. One of the guards slides open a panel in the door and sneers: “Don’t bother getting comfortable. You won’t be here that long.”
The panel bangs shut and you listen to their footfalls recede along the corridor outside. Apart from the rats snuffling about in the corners of the cell, you are alone.
Then the full horror of your predicament falls on you like ice water. They mean to execute you for a crime you did not commit! You must escape.
If you have ROGUERY, turn to 2
If you have SPELLS, turn to 8
Otherwise, turn to 14

The lock is child’s play for someone of your unique talents, You have the cell door open in no time.
Turn to 29

The old man who is the cell’s sole occupant thanks you for freeing him. He draws his tattered robe around him, managing to muster a shadow of the dignity he must have possessed before his long incarceration in this dreadful place.
“You go on without me,” he insists. “I’m too slow to keep up with a young blood like you, and in any case I travel best alone. But I won’t forget your kindness, and I want you to take this ring as a token of my gratitude.” He pulls a ruby signet out of the ragged folds of his robe and presses it into your hand.
“I can’t accept this,” you protest, perhaps not too adamantly.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “A trinket only. Someday I’ll repay you properly, though –
be sure of that.”
You nod, wasting no time on farewells. Make a note of the signet ring. If you have not previously done so, you can now try the door to the guardroom – turn to 25. If you do not want to go into the guardroom, or did so already, then turn to 29

You step through the door and immediately collide with a group of guards who have just finished breakfast. It takes them only a split-second to realise you are an escaped prisoner. One grapples you as the others pull their swords from their scabbards. Within moments you are embroiled in a deadly struggle.
Without martial training you have no hope of survival. If you have either SWORDPLAY or UNARMED COMBAT, turn to 23

Against a master of the sword, your strategy is simple suicide. He calmly parries your barrage of desperate attacks, finally disarming you with a deft twist of his blade. You feel his sword-point prick the skin of your throat. “Enough. I yield.”
Attracted by the commotion, a couple of guards rush into the practice halls “Careful, sarge,” says one. “That’s the escaped prisoner.”
The weapons instructor smiles at you. “Oh, not just a common thief, eh? In that case, let me escort your personally to the scaffold.”
It is a short walk across the courtyard, and an even shorter drop to the end of a rope. Your adventure ends here.

Escape is impossible. Guards pour down onto the beach and you are swiftly surrounded. Despite a valiant struggle, you  are recaptured and taken back to your cell, where a constant vigil is kept until it is time for your execution.
You are led out to the scaffold and the hangman slips the noose around your neck. You take a breath, see the grisly excitement on the faces of the guards, hear a panel drop away. There is a moment of weightlessness, followed by a blaze of light… and then silence, forever.

At last you succeed in, chipping away enough of the mortar to work one of the blocks free. By squeezing through the gap you have made in the wall, you could get into the corridor running behind your cell.
Glancing up at the narrow window-slit, you are alarmed to see that a pale silvery glow has replaced the velvet blackness of night. The guards will soon be coming for you.
If you want to leave the cell immediately via the exit you have made, turn to 13
If you have CUNNING and want to try fooling the guards, turn to 19
If you have UNARMED COMBAT and wait to fight them, turn to 24

You bide your time until, at last, you hear the footsteps of the gaoler bringing your supper. He slides open the panel in the door and raises a cup of gruel to the bars. Then you hear him give a gasp of surprise, for he has seen what your magic has wrought.
To your eyes the cell is as before – clammy, dingy, infested with vermin. But, by dint of your magic, the gaoler beholds a different sight: a vision of gold stacked to the ceiling, of glittering jewels and caskets full of rubies like giant drops of blood.
Excited fingers fumble with the key. The door is flung open and the gaoler rushes inside, laughing wildly, to hurl himself at the pile of filthy rushes that served as your bed. Presumably the spell causes him to see it as extravagant jewellery, for he holds each rush up in the torchlight and mutters, ‘Rich! I’m rich!” His rheumy eyes light up with greed, his tongue slavers across thin lips.
The weak-minded dolt. You put paid to him with a swift clout to the back of the neck, then hurry from the cell. You can take his keys if you wish. Turn to 29

Taking up the bow, one of the guards nocks on an arrow and shoots at your retreating back. You cry out as searing pain rips through your shoulder. Lose 2 Life Points unless you have CHARMS, in which case a rapidly-muttered protective rhyme saves you from injury.
Now turn to 26

You step into the steam, griddle-smoke and clamour of the prison kitchen. Almost at once, a burly man with arms as thick as beef joints stares. at you with an expression of fury. “Get out of my kitchen!” he bellows.
If you retreat as he demands, you can go either to the refectory (turn to 4) or down the passage beside the kitchen (turn to 17).
If you ignore him turn to 12

The weapons instructor’s skill is truly impressive. if he were a younger man, he would be one of the most dangerous swordsmen in the world. As it is, your best efforts at defence only just manage to hold him off. Taking advantage of a momentary lapse in your concentration, he breaks through your guard to inflict the loss of 1 Life Point. But by this time, his age and weight are beginning to tell. His breath comes in wheezing gasps and he is moving more slowly. “You wretch...” he puffs. “You’re good… but I’ll get you yet...”
“Sorry;” you reply, “but I’ve got to be off.”
You suddenly dodge away and race out into the courtyard. The weapons instructor is too out of breath to give chase, or even to shout for the guards to stop you. Turn to 22

As you press on towards the door leading to the kitchen-yard, you stumble into a pile of pans and bring them crashing to the floor. “I told you to get out,” roars the cook. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“Hey...” realises one of the servants, evidently more astute than his master. “That’s the prisoner they brought in last night!”
“Is it, by, all the gods?” snarls the cook, snatching up bloodied cleaver. He advances on you with several of the kitchen servants bringing up the rear.
You are forced to fight your way past them. Lose 6 Life Points. (Exception: if you have UNARMED COMBAT lose 4 Life Points; if you have SWORDPLAY lose only 2 Life Points.)
If you survive, the kitchen workers back off and allow you to escape past them to the open doorway. Turn to 18

You squirm through, emerging into a narrow passage from which two doors lead off. If you want to try either of the doors, will it be the first that you come to (turn to 20) or the one nearer the end of the passage (turn to 25)? If you carry straight on to the end of the passage without delay, turn to 29

You languish in the dank cell for several hours. Although cannot think of a way to escape, still your mind is awhirl and sleep will not come. Late in the evening, the panel in the door slides open. You are on your feet in a trice. Is the end to come so soon? But it is only your gaoler. He grins at you, displaying rheumy gums and cracked teeth. “Here’s your supper,” he says, pushing a bowl of gruel at you between the bars.
“But it’s nearly midnight.”
“I’ve been busy” he grunts. “Lodge a complaint with the management if you don’t like the service.”
With a jeering laugh he departs, but you don’t bother to hurl insults after him. Your attention has been caught by the metal spoon in your bowl of gruel. You glance at the stone blocks of the wall. The mortar is old. Crumbling. It will be arduous work, but it is your only hope. You set to work with the spoon.
Turn to 7

Snatching a sword from the weapons rack you stand in the doorway and let them come to you. That way they can only fight you one at a time.
The battle is short but furious. You lose 2 Life Points – but they lose their lives. You can now take the bunch of keys and also the bow if you wish.
If you have not already done so, and now want to use the keys to unlock the cell adjacent to this, turn to 3
If you carry on to the end of the passage to look for a way out, turn to 29

The presence of the shields and tilting-posts tells you that the building is almost certainly a weapons practice hall. A good place to pick up a sword, if you need one. On the other hand, can you spare the time to take a look?
If you enter the practice hall, turn to 27
If you make straight for the main gate, turn to 22

Since breakfast is not yet over, the scullery is almost deserted. There is only one maid here, who favours you with a bored look and a yawn before going back to her chores. The door beyond her is open, and the cool tang of pre-dawn air wafts in.
As you step past the maid, you notice a large cleaver resting beside the sink. At a pinch it would serve as a sword (allowing you to use SWORDPLAY if you have that skill). Take it if you wish, then turn to 31

You emerge into the open air. Grey pre-dawn twilight suffuses the sky. Seeing the main gate is open, you race towards it ignoring the sounds of pursuit. The two guards at the gate stir themselves, but you have run past before they realise what is happening.
Your headlong flight brings you to a. narrow strand of shingle. There are some boats a few hundred metres further along the beach, but you could never reach them in time.
If you have SEAFARING, turn to 28
If you have CHARMS, turn to 33
If you have neither of these, turn to 36

You conceal yourself under a pile of rags and lice-ridden blankets in the far corner of the cell.
To a casual observer it is as though the cell is empty – and indeed, when the guards arrive that is exactly what they assume. They are so startled by the sight of the gap in the wall that they do not so much as glance at your hiding-place.
After a moment of slack-jawed astonishment, one of them yells, “Escaped prisoner! Sound the alarm!” They run off to fetch their comrades, leaving the cell door open. You follow at a circumspect distance, slinking back into the shadows of a side passage as they come racing back with reinforcements.
Now, with most of the prison’s available guards searching for you through an escape hole that you never used, you are able to saunter out into the open unobserved. Turn to 31

It is locked. Hearing a moan from inside, you slide open the barred aperture in the centre of the door. You peer into a cramped cell where an old man cowers miserably in chains. “Eh?” he says weakly, looking up. “You’re not the regular gaoler.”
“I’m escaping,” you reply, raising a finger to your lips.
He nods, understanding. “The guardroom is directly adjacent to this cell,” he tells you in a whisper. “Be careful – and godspeed.”
If you have a set of keys and wish to free him, turn to 3
If you risk entering the guardroom despite his warning, turn to 25
Otherwise, turn to 29

The first guard comes straight at you, holding his sword back for a thrust to the vitals. You wait until the last moment, then grab the edge of the door and swing it half-shut as he stabs with the sword. His blade impales the wood, stuck fast, and you have no trouble despatching him with a kick to the jaw.
The others are harder now that they have seen enough to be wary of you. Even though you keep to the doorway, the narrow space cancelling out their advantage of numbers, it is a gruelling melee in which you lose 4 Life Points.
If you survive, you manage to overcome them all in the end. You can now take any or all of these items: a bunch of keys, a sword, and a bow. Remember to make a note of anything you keep.
If you want to use the keys to unlock the cell adjacent to this room (assuming you did not do this previously), turn to 3
If you carry on to the end of the passage to look for a way out, turn to 29

Huddling into your jerkin, you affect the exhausted gait of a servant returning home after working all night. The few guards nearby take no notice of you. Ahead lies a narrow stretch of shingle. Beyond, looming in the morning mist like a faded tapestry, you can see the towers and domes of Port Leshand.
If you have SEAFARING, turn to 28
If you have CHARMS, turn to 33
If you have neither of these, you will have to go in search of a rowboat - turn to 36

You push the first guard aside and block desperately as the others close in. The force of their attack drives you back despite your skill, and you give a gasp of pain as one -of their-blades lays open a gash in your leg.
Against such overwhelming odds, you are hard pressed. With SWORDPLAY (and a sword.) you lose 5 Life Points. If you have UNARMED COMBAT you lose 9 Life Points.
Assuming you survive, you manage to break free and race across the vestibule to the passage. It takes you through the scullery into the courtyard.
Turn to 18

You stand in the middle of the cell with your back to the door. Your concentration is intense as you prepare yourself for battle. At last your patience is rewarded by the sound of footsteps and the key grating in the lock. “Come on, you”, snarls a voice. “Haven’t got all dayZ
You ignore him.
“Not in any hurry to check over the scaffold?” asks another guard nastily. “But we had it built just for you!”
Seeing that you still remain immobile, one of the guards enters the cell. The scuff of his boots on the flagstones tells you his stance, left foot advanced towards you. You picture him in your mind’s eye: sword arm held back, reaching for you with his left hand…
The moment you feel his grip on your shoulder, you reach up to seize the wrist and apply a nerve pinch, twisting the arm around as you turn so as to block any possibility of a sword thrust.
When the other guard hears his companion cry out, he rushes in to give aid. Both have swords, but they are hampered by the narrow confines of the cell. You overcome them both with the loss of only 2 Life Points.
You can take one of their swords if you wish. Then turn to 29

The door opens and you stride boldly into a room where four guards sit playing knucklebones by the light of an oil lamp. They look up in surprise. It takes them a moment to realise you are an escaped prisoner – but only a moment. In that brief time you take in your immediate surroundings: the bunch of keys hanging beside the door and the weapons rack off to your left. A number of swords have been left there, along with one bow.
If you decide to run for it, you have time to snatch one item – keys, sword, or bow. Note which you take and turn to 30
To fight them, you will need either SWORDPLAY (turn to 15) or UNARMED COMBAT (turn to 21).

You sprint to the end of the passageway, emerging into a vestibule with several doors leading off it. A servant is just coming out of the door directly ahead of you. You shoulder him aside, upsetting the tray he is carrying, and race into the prison kitchen. All around you, huge pots emit the steam and reek of boiled vegetables.
Hearing the commotion in your wake, the cook and two of his helpers take up cleavers and run to intercept you. You have no choice but to fight your way through them as You try to reach the exit. Lose 6 Life Points. (Exception: if you have UNARMED COMBAT lose 4 Life Points; if you have SWORDPLAY lose only 2 Life Points.)
Assuming you survive, you reach the bloodied but unbowed. The guards are pouring into the kitchen behind you, but the debris of your battle delays them for a few precious seconds. Turn to 18

The practice hall is little more than a barn where guards can practice and take exercise when the weather is too wet to use the courtyard. You search around, soon finding a weapons rack with a few old swords resting on it. You check them for balance and the quality of the blade, and have just chosen the best of a fairly poor selection when a voice rings cut from the doorway behind you.
“You varlet! Stealing weapons, are you?”
You turn. A portly middle-aged, man is standing there, wearing the chainmail tunic of a sergeant-at-arms. He has a fine sword in his hand, its tip resting lightly on the ground in front of him. His florid face, bald pate and bristling grey moustache give him a somewhat comical look.
“Back off, grandad,” you say, shaking your head as you heft the sword you’ve just found. “Why stick your neck out when you’re so close to retirement anyway?”
He glares, then suddenly raises his sword-point, twirling it in an elegant flourish. Despite his girth, he moves into a perfect fighting stance. A cold realization hits you as he says, ‘It is your neck that is at risk, you dog.” Of course – he must be the weapons instructor here. Almost certainly he is a master of the sword!
If you have AGILITY, you might be able to get past him to the doorway. Turn to 32 if you want to try that.
Otherwise, you have the option to either fight defensively, keeping your guard up (turn to 11) or to battle furiously in an attempt to break past him and run off (turn to 5).

Peering through the morning mist, you can just discern the ghostly outlines of the mainland. It would be an impossible swim for most people, but merely arduous for an experienced seaman like yourself.
You plunge out into the waves, ignoring the biting chill of the water, and drive with swift powerful strokes in the direction of Leshand’s harbour mouth.
Turn to 37

At the end of a winding corridor you come to a vestibule with two doors leading off it. There is also a narrow passage beside the door nearer to you. Just as you are deciding which route to take, one of the doors opens and the smells and sounds of cooking waft out.
You dodge back out of sight just in time. A servant emerges from the kitchen bearing several bowls of porridge on a tray. He crosses to the other door and goes through. As the door swings shut, you hear a voice saying, “About time! Don’t you know we’ve got to be on duty in a few minutes?”
Obviously the further door is the refectory, and the nearer door must be the kitchen. The passage probably leads to the scullery or the kitchen yard.
If you enter the refectory, turn to 4
If you take the door to the kitchen, turn to 10
If you head along the scullery passage, turn to 17

You spin round and sprint along the passage. Behind you, the guards pour through the open doorway with shouts of rage. If you did not take the bow from the weapons rack, turn to 9. If you did take the bow, turn to 26

You emerge into the prison courtyard. A scaffold stands here with a noose strung from its crossbeams, no doubt awaiting your neck. You have every intention of avoiding that fate, however.
The sun has yet to rise, but the sky is now aglow with a limpid azure gleam, making  it seem like a startlingly clear ocean. The stars are fading, Two guards are at the main gate directly ahead of you, but they are lounging against the gatehouse and yawning. You guess they must be close to the end of their watch, so you may be able to slip by unchallenged.
You are halfway to the gate when you notice a long low building off to your right. There are a couple of stout wooden posts outside it, heavily scarred as if by sword-blows, and some wicker shields rest beside the open entrance.
If you have SWORDPLAY (whether or not you currently possess a sword), turn to 16
If not you hurry on towards the gate: turn to 22

You charge at the weapons instructor, sword raised high as if you intend to chop down at his head. As he lifts his own sword to deflect the blow, you suddenly weave to one side and go into a forward roll which carries you right past him and through the open doorway. Coming to your feet, you sprint off across the courtyard towards the main gate. The weapons instructor bellows a variety of curses at you as you go, but this seems to excite little interest from the gate guards. Presumably, if he is anything like the weapons instructors you’ve known, they are used to seeing him yell at people.
Turn to 22

You recite an enchantment that protects the caster from drowning, then plunge out into the chilly water. Waves surge up over your head, but you continue until you are completely submerged. No doubt if anyone saw you they will assume you have chosen to drown yourself rather than die meekly by a hangman’s noose. The truth, however, is that you are able to stride along on the sea bed with no discomfort to speak of. Fish glide past you, gaping stupidly at the sight. The ocean currents take some getting used to, since it is like walking in the depths of a dream, but your progress is amusing rather than difficult.
As you get your bearings, intending to strike out towards the quays of Port Leshand, you spy a glitter of myriad lights through the blue-green murk. Straining your eyes, you think to see shapes like towers of coral, out to sea beyond banks of eerily swaying seaweed.
If you have FOLKLORE, perhaps you have heard legends of an undersea kingdom – turn to 35. Otherwise, you can either head in the direction of the mysterious lights (turn to 38) or else continue with your original intention of walking back to Leshand harbour (turn to 37).

Friday 12 April 2019

Game rules that lead to ridiculous results

One of the problems with game design is that the rules you come up with may have unlooked-for consequences. Well, I say it’s a problem; actually it can be rather satisfying. Early playtesters of Deus Ex realized they could get out of a maze by planting a limpet mine on a wall and rocket-jumping off it. The designers accepted that as a rather neat bit of lateral thinking. Not a bug, a feature.

Early Dungeons and Dragons was a whole other matter. The world it presented was ostensibly medieval, but if you really plugged those rules into the Middle Ages then you’d get something unrecognizable. I don’t mean because of elves and dwarves. It’s the rules themselves that skew everything. The different physics. One lone paladin confronting a regiment. Magic users firing off spells like 19th century artillery.

That’s why I made magic extremely rare in Dragon Warriors, so as to make it credible that the world looked and behaved like the real Middle Ages. Or you can go the other way, as Professor Barker did with Tekumel. He worked out how many powerful sorcerers a city or a nation could deploy and worked that into the fabric of Tsolyani society. You haven’t been in a real battle until you hear your own lines beginning the chant for a Doomkill.

The biggest source of counterintuitive behaviour in my own games comes from GURPS’s attempts to have a set of rules for all worlds and all times. I’ll give you a recent example. I was planning a commando scenario set in 1943 and the players wanted to equip with flak jackets. In the real world that’s utterly insane. Flak jackets of the period were bulky and restrictive, not to mention mostly useless against gunfire as they were designed to stop slow-moving shrapnel inside the body of an aircraft – and weren’t terribly good at even doing that.

But here’s the snag. GURPS lists flak jackets as weighing 20lbs and stopping 7 points of damage. That means a moderately strong character (ST 13, say) can have a flak jacket plus all their other weaponry and still count as completely unencumbered. Which is nuts. And that jacket won’t just stop shrapnel; in GURPS terms it will stop most handguns. In fact, if you just went by the GURPS rules, you may as well go on your commando raid wearing medium plate (DR6, weight 20lbs). Hey, you should be able to parachute jump wearing that, right?

In a 19th century campaign of ours, some of the player-characters actually walked around in plate armour. You can't blame the players; under the rules as written that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but that was the end of the road for me and GURPS. If a system that claims to be believable throws up results like that, it's really not worth the effort of memorizing all 570 pages. I went cold turkey with the much more enjoyable (and more realistic, even) Sagas of the Icelanders and haven't looked back.

As it turns out, the British did experiment in the early 1940s with infantry body armour weighing just 3lbs. The US Army took a look at this and, to nobody’s surprise, concluded that:
“…all reports indicated that any advantages of such armor would be very slight as compared to the overall loss of combat efficiency and to the increase in the soldier's carrying load.”
And, yeah yeah, you’ve seen videos of re-enactment fellows doing press-ups in full plate. But listen to the impressively scary Stan W Scott explaining why “travel light is travel right”. I wouldn’t argue with him, would you?

It’s annoying because I don’t want to have to say to players, “You can’t have that item.” The rules should rule; on that I’m with Hammurabi. If it's going to come down to arbitrary decisions by the umpire, why bother with game rules at all? Yet if the rules are supposed to be generic and universal, then they should not lead to wildly unrealistic tactics.

Yet… we don’t want more fiddly rules. It's bad enough that you need to fire up Excel just to create a GURPS character sheet. At least that's all in the prep, but nobody likes book-keeping in the middle of a nail-biting game session, which is why encumbrance and fatigue rules tend to be more honoured in the breach. Hence the rules for them are often quite abstract. But it would be very simple for GURPS to factor size into the weight of armour, as Runequest does. I say simple because the weight of armour for a given protective value (ie thickness) goes up with the square of linear dimension - and so too does strength, more or less, being a function of muscle cross-section. So twice as strong means almost twice the weight of armour to carry.

Another factor that many game systems ignore is that even modern body armour is hot. It may not matter in a ten-minute engagement, but it would certainly tell in the course of a ten-mile yomp over the Brecon Beacons. And that aspect is independent of strength. Indeed, greater muscle bulk heats up more, because the surface area goes up with the square but the mass goes up with the cube - meaning that the guy with bigger muscles already loses heat less efficiently, and thus gets fatigued regardless of how easy it is to lift that gear, with or without armour. How might we represent that without continually having to cross off fatigue points? One solution could be like the Psychic Fatigue Rolls in Dragon Warriors. When you fail the roll, you’re fatigued by one level. It’s a little arbitrary, but people do have some days when they’ve got more energy – and the virtue of that kind of rule is that there’s not much book-keeping.

And then there's the restrictive nature of armour. However well articulated, full covering is never going to allow the full fluidity of movement possible without armour. And armour cannot perfectly replicate the weight distribution of the human body, meaning that in effect there should be a separate skill (with defaults, of course) for fighting in armour. Again, that’s not too arduous to factor in – especially not in GURPS, with its veritable thicket of default skills.

What about your games? Have you ever had by-the-letter rules interpretations leading to bonkers results? Georgian adventurers with chainmail overcoats? Private eyes going around ‘30s New York armed with flame throwers? Medieval footmen using longbows like sniper rifles? Share the craziness below.