Saturday, May 7, 2016

Gamebook Practice Lesson 2: Establish the Battlefield (add combats to your adventure)

Before you start reading this blogpost, I urge you to download and test the PDF Short Gamebook Adventure that is a product of our lesson today. Everything written below explains in deep detail how it was created and therefore, this whole article is a spoiler of the new adventure that is based on the old map.

In the previous post, we built a beautiful world and now it is time to start a war there. Please note that in a gamebook adventure, any combat is ultimately a skillcheck, so when we talk about battles, keep in mind that the same principles apply to all skillchecks in the game.

Before we start exploring the actual combat mechanics, I am going to shuffle things around a little bit by changing the items and their locations in the adventure we created. However, we will keep the map and the diagram exactly the same as they were shown in the last blogpost. I had intentionally placed the sword in the wetlands, because most people would look for it in the forest or in the mountain. Now, I am going to give the sword to the protagonist at the very beginning of the adventure. However, the item needed to win the final battle of the scenario would be a Crusader's Shield (along with the sword). The shield could be found near a dead soldier in one of the caves up in the mountain.

So, instead of adding more paths to victory or implementing lucky rolls of dice at the end of the adventure (see previous post), we can create an alternative way of accomplishing the ultimate goal by adding battles to our gamebook.

Here are some of the benefits of including fights in our adventure:

1. A good combat is an excellent form of skillcheck that can add much needed randomization to the adventure as well as measure up the player's quality of performance until that moment

2. Battles extend the playtime of the adventure tremendously and involve the reader further in the game by letting him think that he's got more control over the protagonist's success

3. This is an excellent way of making the gamebook more interesting, because fights get the adrenaline going (rollercoaster effect) and, if balanced well, they also add the illusion of danger

4. Adding battles completely changes the feel of the game and it adds diversity to the process of flipping pages by including dice rolls, calculations, taking notes and comparing results.

5. By implementing combats in our adventure, we create an alternative path to victory and the game becomes way more engaging and balanced (this is the most important benefit of all four)

How do we actually go about adding fights to our adventure?

First, we have to decide which combat system we will be using in our gamebook. There are many of them available, but the most popular one definitely is the Fighting Fantasy system. I am not going to explain it in detail here as it is widely available on the Internet. In my personal opinion, this is an excellent battle mechanic, because it is both, time consuming without being too complicated and it also involves enough dice rolls to create the feeling of danger and to get the blood pressure up. The problem with Fighting Fantasy, as with most more complicated combat systems, is that it is very difficult to achieve good balance and that could change the adventure difficulty to way too easy or to nearly impossible in an instant. Of course, we can also use a system that doesn't involve dice at all, we can ask the reader to simply remove a fixed number of points from his stamina or health stat in each battle. This way, we can balance the fights and the final outcome a lot easier (due to the lack of randomness), but there isn't going to be much of playtime extension nor feeling of danger or increased adrenaline using this battle mechanic.

For the purpose of our short experimental adventure, I am going to propose a different kind of combat system here. Each battle would require our player to roll 1d6 and then remove the result from the Health stat of our protagonist. Lets just give our hero 15 initial points of Health and then implement a few battles in the adventure by following these steps:

1. Mark down the locations of strategic battles (on the map or in the game diagram), but don't worry about specifying the opponents or their difficulty just yet.
1a. Naturally, you may want to have creatures or skillchecks guarding some of the important items or passages in your adventure. I am going to create a skillcheck (same as a battle) in the mountain, because the Crusaders Shield is in the caves there.
1b. Whenever possible, you should use a battle to punish the player for making a bad decision instead of killing him instantly. I am going to leave this option open for now.
1c. Include battle encounters at places that would logically require fighting or where you think that would be appropriate, but be careful to not overdo it. Naturally, there would be a battle at the graveyard, as well as one at the end of the adventure (there is always one final fight in each game).

2. Deploy the forces of evil on the battlefield and sort them out by strength (using numbers, not names): write down the difficulty of each opponent or skillcheck next to the combat location on the map or in the diagram. Leave the opponent names out for now. Try to gradually increase the difficulty as the adventure progresses, but make sure that it is consistent with the geographic location and the reward. Naturally, a battle that takes place in a cave full of treasure (like a dragon's lair) would be more difficult than fighting a wild boar in the forest, even if the first precedes the later in the sequence of events in the book. I am applying this step to our short example adventure as follows: one easy battle (1d6 skillcheck) in the mountain, one easy battle (1d6) at the day graveyard, one difficult battle (2 dice roll) at the night graveyard and a 3 dice roll battle at the very end.

3. Calculate the difficulty of fighting your way to victory by using average numbers and actual combat testing
3a. Calculate the minimum and the maximum number of combats a player would have to fight depending on which path he chooses during the adventure. Between 4 and 6 in our example
3b. Try to calculate or simply guess how many Health points would be lost during battles while following the most difficult or the easiest path in the game. Between 12 and 18 points
3c. Test your calculations by fighting your way out of the easiest and the most difficult path. It is a good idea to test the most common and the most average paths available in the adventure as well.
3d. Keep in mind that the most difficult path to success should still be statistically possible (if enough luck is involved). Don't create a path that leads to certain death based entirely on battles. It is better to simply explain why the player is being punished for going this way instead of killing him in sequence of fights during an impossible to win scenario. Our hero could, theoretically, survive 6 battles with 15 initial points of health
3e. Under normal game conditions, the easiest adventure path should not kill the protagonist, even if he is completely out of luck. 4 battles of 1d6 could be a little bit too difficult to survive with 15 health points, so we'll have to make some adjustments

4. Adjust the difficulty of all the battles to achieve a balanced game
4a. You can easily do so by adding or removing single battles from the adventure. We could increase the difficulty by adding more battles or decrease it by removing some of them. We will not use this approach right at this very moment.
4b. If needed, simply change the initial stats of the protagonist. We could increase the starting Health points to 20 or give the protagonist a Strength stat (points to deduct from each dice roll), but I have a better idea for right now (see further down at point 6).
4c. You can also adjust the difficulty of the game through making an opponent easier or more difficult by altering their combat stats. We could make the final battle 2 dice roll instead of 3d6
4d. Re-test the game again, again and again!

5. Assign a specific name to each opponent or skillcheck: now that we know the difficulty of each encounter, we can safely name every one of them without worrying that a huge giant would be easier to defeat than a stupid zombie. Also, make sure that the opponent is consistent with the geographical terrain. Don't have a fight against a Giant Spider in the middle of the ocean! As a matter of fact, don't use Giant Spider battles at all. I am tired of fighting one of those in almost every adventure. Be creative and make the dangerous skillchecks and fierce opponents sound as interesting as possible! For our example adventure, the skillcheck in the mountain would be a 'Snowstorm', the day battle at the graveyard would be against a 'Hungry Wolf', the difficult night opponent at the graveyard would be a 'Skeleton Warrior' and, of course, the final battle is against the 'Evil Wizard'.

6. Change the difficulty further by creating additional encounters, items and stats
6a. You can replenish the Health of our hero by adding healing places or creatures. There will be a Healing Mystflower growing at the Wetlands and it will be protected by a skillcheck named 'swamp'. If our reader chooses that path and finds the herb, he will be able to use it at any time of the adventure (except during a battle) to heal his Health Points back to the initial amount.
6b. Create items and encounters that will improve the combat stats of the protagonist. If a sword is in his possession, one point of damage could be removed from every roll (only if he is fighting an opponent, so that wouldn't work for skillcheck when 'sinking in the swamp' or 'surviving a snowstorm up in the mountain')
6c. Implement an additional stat which will be of help to the gamer while fighting battles. A new stat called Blessings will be given in the beginning with an initial score of 1 point. When a roll of a die is not liked by the reader, he can re-roll that 1d6 at the expense of one blessing.
6d. Test and adjust again, again and again! The victory is too easy now, so we will adjust the initial health points of the protagonist down to 10.

Don't forget that implementing battles in the adventure requires some very fine tuning. As I already stated earlier in this post, this step alone could alter the adventure difficulty to extremely easy or to nearly impossible in an instant and therefore, you can never spend too much time testing and adjusting battles. On the contrary, it could never be enough!

Ideally, in a well balanced adventure, a good number of items found and fights won will be required to achieve success. A victory should take an average of three attempts (reading the adventure about three times by an average gamer).

Please note that I've used the Illusion of Achievement by applying a helpful item or stat point gain at each one of the three possible paths in the beginning of the adventure. It doesn't matter which way the reader is going to choose to follow. He is going to get a different experience at each one of the possible encounters, but ultimately, he will feel the satisfaction of a positive gain (and the illusion that he is performing well) either way.

Before I finish today's post, I'd like to remind you of a few rookie mistakes and how to avoid them when implementing battles in your adventure:
1. Don't make the player face deadly strong opponents too early in the adventure: the idea is that he should be able to survive most of the battles with relative ease (he is a superhero, after all). A fatality during a combat should be the consequence of failing to find healing items or items that improve the skill of the protagonist instead of a series of unlucky dice rolls during a battle.
2. Do not create too many battles in your adventure (put the main focus on the story and the choices, not on fighting the way to victory): success should be the result of good balance between fighting and making good choices. Having to fight one opponent after another could prove pretty boring and the outcome would be a matter of luck rather than good input and performance.
3. Re-test and balance the adventure multiple times, because there is nothing more upsetting than making all the right choices and still failing to succeed due to bad luck during battles.

Keep in mind that adding combats to the adventure doesn't give full control to the reader just yet. Victory is still a matter of chance as winning depends on lucky rolls during fights rather than a specific input by the player. So, in the next post, we will make success a consequence of his performance by implementing a few Logical Conclusion Choices into our adventure.

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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