Friday, April 22, 2016

The fatal trap we all fall into and How to Cheat Death (in a gamebook)

Attention! A newer revised and better version of this post is available on

The previous post was about creating meaningful logical choices that put the input control mechanism in the hands of the reader and we explained how to create such choices step by step. However, the provided example included an instant death outcome and that is something that should never happen in a modern gamebook adventure. Today we will discuss the tools that can solve that problem.

A lot of authors feel that they are in a competition with the reader and try to cheat him into making the wrong decision on a regular basis. Even worse, some of the authors often kill the protagonist in instant death chapters not realizing that they kill the enthusiasm of the player instead. The only thing those writers accomplish is forcing their readers to cheat by going back to the section where they made the wrong choice (killing the satisfaction of eventual success) or if they decide to play fair by starting over from the beginning, the adventure becomes extremely boring, because they would be quick scanning the text of each section for the instructions on how to proceed, simply getting to the section of the wrong choice again (like this ever happens). In the worst case scenario, the player is going to put the book away as a result of unfair and unsatisfactory mechanics of the adventure.

Of course, in order for your choice to be meaningful, the consequences should also be in correlation with your decisions. The player should be rewarded for good performance and he should be punished for bad performance.

Lets take a look of three different bad consequence mechanics in the gamebook adventure genre:

1. Take stat points away from the player. This is the most common of the techniques and is probably the best one of them all. Example: "You fall down and hurt yourself. Lose 5 points of stamina". When you apply this mechanic, the reader wouldn't be able to successfully finish the adventure only if he's made too many mistakes. However, there are certain situations when such approach wouldn't make any sense. For an example: "The tree you are sitting under gets hit by a lightning. Your stamina goes down by 5 points". See, in the major event of being hit by a lightning, the only possible outcome is instant death and that brings us to the second approach.

2. Give the reader a way out of his certain death. Create tension by telling the player to roll a die and inform him that, if he rolls 1-3 a lightning hits the tree he is sitting under, but if he rolls 4-6 the lightning hits somewhere else (or you can ask him to test his luck in a fighting fantasy game). The stress of the possibility of killing instantly the protagonist communicates a strong message about being wrong and is a punishment enough by itself. You can even allow the player to re-roll the dice under certain conditions. For an example, you can have a stat, lets call it "blessings"! You can increase your blessings based on good performance during the adventure (if you help a monk find something he is looking for, he will most likely bless you for your good deed). If you get a bad dice roll later in the book, you can re-roll the dice at the expense of you "blessings" stat. All of a sudden, the chance of being killed instantly goes from 50% down to 25%, but it is at the expense of stat points that could be extremely important at the end of the adventure.

3. Losing an item or a good friend. A great example of losing a friend is "The Last Fortress" by Ashton Saylor where your personal guard saves your life at the expense of his own (only once in the adventure). A good example of losing an item is the "Sharkbait's Revenge" by Stuart Lloyd where you lose the "letter from the queen" if you jump in the water, because the ink just washes away.

That's all for today, folks! And remember: Don't ever kill your players instantly without giving them at least a small chance to redeem themselves from bad performance!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

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