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Game Books: How complex is too much?

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Mr Doctor
Mr Doctor's picture
Joined: 02/11/2013


So I've been working on a game book system, anyone played one of those?
Fighting Fantasy? Lone Wolf?
Now, I'm the first one to admit that I can't write for s**t but this isn't about the writing, it's about the game system. I thoroughly enjoy the process of creating the system but it can be hard to know how far one can go when it comes to complexity.

The setting I was going for was some kind of low fantasy solo RPG book and I made a list of criteria:
Just a pen and a six sided die (although a random number table as well as images of dice on each page – like a stealth die – will be provided).
Simple math as well as resolutions that requires no more than two die rolls.
No random death paragraphs. Any death paragraphs should be the result of many consecutive – and traceable – wrong choices.
Multiple ways of solving or different ways around problems. Fighting vs Stealth vs Manipulate.
System complete
As much as I can I’d like the whole system to be done at the outset. No shoehorning in some new rules later that will require rule exceptions.

The player must be able to improve his skills by experience.
Every skill has 6 levels (well 7 if you count 0), 0 is untrained and level 1 is novice while level 6 being a master. All skills are divided into six different categories; Academia (3 skills), Combat (6 skills), Influence (2 skills), Mysticism (3 skills), Survivalism (2 skills) and Unlawful (4 skills).
Throughout an adventure the player will face obstacles/problems/conflicts that require the use of a certain skill. These obstacles all have a difficulty rating and should the player overcome such an obstacle he/she will gain experience points (EXP) according to a very simple formula. Aquired EXP are later spent to increase the skill levels and they must be spent in the same category of skills as the one used to gain said EXP. That is, if you gain 3 EXP for successfully using the Pick Pocket skill you add it to the Unlawful category. Later you may place your accumulated EXP from Unlawful to improve any skill in that category.

The combat resolutions must be simple yet provide some complexity.
In the best of worlds combat would offer a lot more tactical options. This would involve some sort of AI flowchart and would drag the game down to a slow crawl. Therefore the system will handle combat just like any other skill resolution; find out the combat differential, roll die, check critical, check damage.

Other features I intend to include:
Conditions – Cursed, blessed or poisoned.
Deities – Choose deity to worship
Reputation – Good or bad depending on affiliation

Skills: CHECK vs TEST
There are two way to determine if a player is successful when using a skill; a CHECK or a TEST.
The CHECK is just a comparison between the players skill level and a fixed difficulty value between one and six. If the players skill is equal or higher than the CHECK value the player passes.
A CHECK is binary, you either succeed or you fail, you either know how to read or you don’t. Of course you may not be able to comprehend the text (that’s the difficulty value) but you’re still able to read it.
A TEST however, is another thing entirely.
A TEST is when you have to struggle against something. Even though you know how to pick locks there are so many factors included. That is, unlike a CHECK it is not binary, there are degrees of failure/succcess.
A TEST works like this: First determine the TEST value by subtracting the difficulty value from the players skill. The player then rolls the die (d6) and first checks for Critical Fail/Success, if no Critical then add any bonus/malus (including the TEST value) to the roll. Look up result under the appropriate skill on the TEST table.
It might sound a little convoluted but I really think it’s not. When looking at a chart it is very straight forward.
Critical Fails/Successes are based upon players skill level. Fails will happen more often when at lower levels and successes will be more likely at higher levels.

I intend to include certain keywords in the text. Each keyword is attached to one or more skills. If the player has that particular skill when he encounters a keyword (keywords are always in capitals) he may benefit from that.
For instance, a player has the Alchemy skill and encounters a text saying there's a LABORATORY in the room, the player may then use that laboratory to prepare and make potions. Another example could be that the player walks into a field containing BERRIES. If the player has the Medicine or Herbalism skill he could pick up the berries and store them in his backpack. Alternatively he could eat them right away to restore vital health. However, if the player did not have any of those skills he could neither pick the up or eat them.

Should improved skill levels grant new possibilities or just provide a better higher success rate?
One tough decision I have to make is whether or not to let the player gain new options at a certain skill when improving it. Let’s say that the player levels up the Alchemy skill. Should the player just become better at alchemy by increasing the success percentage (like going from 66,7% to 83,3%) when performing a TEST or increasing the CHECK threshold? The other option is to have a list of what the player may be able to do at certain levels. At level 1 he may mix a Healing Potion, at level 2 poison antidote or at level 6 the player might be able to create gold.
The latter will certainly add more flavour (theme), and options (player decision making) but at the same time it might slow the game down (lookups in tables), require more rules overhead that takes more space and in the worst case it will drive players away. While I lean on the option of keeping the list in favour of flavour, I’d like to know if it feels bloated.

So, any thoughts? I’d appreciate any and all feedback, suggestions, questions and reasonable critique. If I'm unclear or you have other questions please let me know so I could elaborate.


X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
I always liked these kind of books.

It is rare to see someone put effort in a book like this. Or at least, make it public in how the book is going to be designed as a whole.

Not only that, but what you have described so far. Sounds very promising.

The random death is something that I have always hated. Happy that you are not going to implement this. Where did I experience these? There where some mario book games when I was a child.


When you mentioned having either a new skill or level up in success. I thought, why not both?
I have once seen a mechanic that might help here, to keep things simple.

It is only an example though. You can make it as big or small as you like.

As example, I am using 6 levels of success chances and 3 skills. You could use a table of 6 x 3 for this. Starting in the upper left corner. The player fills in the boxes one by one. But each new box needs one box directly filled above and one box directly on the left, to be allowed.

Now a player has the choice, either get a new skill or increase the success rate of the first from 1/6th to 2/6th.
If a player chooses the new skill. This new skill has to wait to go to the second level of success, until the first skill has reached that level.

If both the second skill and second level of the first skill are opened up. The player has 3 choices for the next level. First skill to level 3 in success, second skill to level 2 in success, or a third skill.

A skill tech tree, if you will.

If you like to have things a bit more organised, like needing 2 levels of success before another skill can level up once. Then you can stretch the boxes. And you can even do this the other way around. So, if a third skill shows up, it might be able to level up without having to wait for the other 2 skills to match up.

I could make something in Excel to make things clearer if you like. But then again, this might not be of use at all for your book.

How are players going to track it all? A sheet of paper? Perhaps a "copy this page" kind of page, might come in handy. And here, players track everything. Without harming the book itself.

pelle's picture
Joined: 08/11/2008
I'm a fan of gamebooks, even

I'm a fan of gamebooks, even though I do not read/play them as much now as I would like to. I guess OP is somewhat familiar with the gamebook revival that has been going on for the last ~5 years, thanks to kickstarter and (digital gamebooks on) appstores?

Anyone interested in gamebooks need to have a look at that is like the boardgamegeek database for gamebooks. There are many blogs and a few (sub-)forums online about reading or/and writing gamebooks. And of course the annual Windhammer Prize (the archive of past entries/winners there is a great gallery of modern gamebook styles and mechanics).

They blend very well with boardgames too, because of paragraph-driven solitaire games like Ambush! (if I had to name my favorite boardgame or all times, that would be it). A sadly forgotten genre. There have been a (very) few entries of such games in the bgg solitaire game contest over the years.

I have been working on a few paragraph-driven boardgames, resulting in my tool gamebookformat that has sadly not seen much use, could use some more development, and I might not want to recommend it other than for someone that is prepared to get their hands dirty and work around some possible bugs (even if none are known at the moment). It is a pain to try to get all the cross-references right, and also extremely useful while writing a book to be able to open it in a web browser and navigate it by just clicking things (even if you have no plans to publish it in that format), so definitely check out the available tools that can do that (there are a few other ones as well, but most focus on only digital gamebooks, not for print).

Anyway, OP's gamebook skill system reminds me of the skill trees in 1st edition Paranoia (1984; not used in any of the later editions). Nothing wrong with it, but it worries me a bit that in a gamebook you might end up with too many skills. Remember that every skill needs to have a use, and you do not want to end up with the player going into a part of the book where there are no ways out without happening to have the right skills.

CHECK and TEST sounds like the designer having fun more than the player. Is it possible to combine the actual effects you want to achieve into just one simple way of resolving skills? A benefit of a gamebook (or paragraph-driven boardgame) compared to regular boardgames is that you can put "extra rules" in the paragraphs. If you want some special skill check only a few times you can easily do a "if successful see X, if fail see Y, if fail by more than 5 see Z" and then the player/reader does not have to remember what a critical fail is because the only times something like that can ever happen it will be spelled out how it works. The same trick works for many other things as well. I think the best gamebooks (and most really) get away with very simple systems because they can always add special exceptions as they are needed. For something more complex you can of course split things up into multiple paragraphs to really guide the player through some complex ways of resolving a roll. Ambush! for instance often have a paragraph where you roll for some kind of skill check, and depending on the result you are forwarded to another paragraph with a new skill-check (or some other die-roll). It might add a few seconds extra time to look up the other paragraphs, but it is much easier to follow mechanically than to memorize some rules or to parse a single complex paragraph.

Not sure about the keywords. How will the player know what keyword relates to what skill? Will they need to look up special rules for each? I would avoid anything that is not spelled out explicitly every time something is encountered. Or at least give a paragraph reference for each ("There are some Berries here that you can pick if you have the Survival skill. If you pick them up see 123 for more information. If you have no Survival skill but attempts to eat them anyway, see 789".)

It is quite common in gamebooks to have rules like "if a word is in bold it is an item that can be picked up and added to player's inventory". That makes it very easy to also have parts of paragraphs that reads like "If you have the Survival skill you see some berries here".

Also consider if you need the die-rolls. One of the most respected series of gamebooks, Virtual Reality (from the mid 1990's) did away completely with randomness. You still track skills and various values and codewords, there are sudden deaths, but you never have to feel bad about back-tracking instead of starting over. To me and many others that really beats the constant temptation to cheat in gamebooks with dice.

Alternatively, like some modern gamebooks (Destiny Quest series and Holdfast come to mind) you can make death/failure just a part of the story and just keep going so even a failed die-roll will not set you back or (at least in Holdfast) even make your character stronger. The old (though recently reprinted and expanded) Fable Lands series (open world gamebooks) allow you to buy resurrection deals at temples to be able to respawn after death.

let-off studios
let-off studios's picture
Joined: 02/07/2011

I was going to recommend checking out the Windhammer prizes from the past several years, and you beat me to it! :)

Regarding increasing functionality of an Ability along with its rank: I don't recommend this. What I suggest instead is that you indicate in your paragraphs that if the player has sufficient rank in a relevant ability, then they are permitted a check/test. This prevents the phenomenon that pelle noted above: each new rank in an ability is considered - and perhaps confused with - a brand new skill.

This allows you to include more depth and options for the player, provided they invest in their Abilities sufficiently. It may also suggest the possibility of more play-throughs, since some options are available only when a player has certain levels of Ability: the same as if you were granting more "skills" along with higher ability ranks.

One question for OP: what's the "Unlawful" skill about? Could you take some of those skill checks and fold them into the other abilities? Or might this be connected in some way to the Deity you have a player select in the beginning of the game?

ALSO: I can't pass up the opportunity to share a link to one of my more favored Windhammer entries from a couple years ago: Frogmen. It served as my re-introduction to gamebooks back then:

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