Monday, September 22, 2014

Windhammer 2014- The Tomb of Aziris by Sam Beaven

Things aren't going well for you in Varra, a thriving city on the edge of a dry seabed. You're out of money, in debt, spent the night in the gutter, and now your creditor's goons have come calling. Luckily, a chance for fiscal freedom emerges. If you can recover a treasure from the recently uncovered Tomb of Aziris your debt will be wiped clean.

Tomb is a pleasant and very well designed book. You're given a small amount of funds to provision yourself and then it's off into the desert. Both Varra and the desert are well realized and feel bigger than they are.What could have been a throw-away detail, that the desert was once an ocean, instead informs a lot of the encounters and gives the book a unique flavor. Beaven paints a rich picture with lots of details that stimulate the imagination. This setting could easily support a larger game, or other stories, and leaves you wanting to know more.

Also appreciated is that all the characters, including minor ones like shopkeepers or random bruisers, are written with unique voices and perspectives. Tomb is fleshed out and feels populated in a way that both Problem? and Castle of Spirits failed to.

The book's map, that is to say how the sections lead to each other, is very well designed. The book is divided into three clear acts, with the first, the initial trek through the desert, offering three distinct paths. Success in any of the paths allows you to circumvent one of three challenges in the third act. You can also obtain items or information that will help you through the second act. It's all very neat. At the outset you're given a chance to purchase some provisions. However, you won't be able to buy everything you want, and no matter how you outfit yourself, you're always going to be wanting something. I'm reminded of Etrian Odyssey, and how the director said there was only five character spots so you always felt like you were missing a key part of a full team. It makes for engaging play both that game and here.

I do have one nit-pic. Depending on your choices at the beginning, you're tasked with bringing back one of two treasures from the tomb. If you bring back the wrong one, it's a game over. However, the choice that leads to which treasure you get isn't clear. It's not at all obvious when you're making this choice that you're actually deciding on the treasures. To It is clued, but very subtitle, and to me falls just on the far side of being unfair.

Aside from this misstep, Tomb was a simple (but by no means unchallenging), engaging, and fun adventure. I can see it contending for a prize. Beaven says it is his first gamebook. I hope he writes more. Tomb shows he has a real understanding for the genre, and I'd love to see what else he can can come up with.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Castle of Spirits by Tammy Badowski

I just wrote that the satire in Problem? doesn't feel as fresh as it should as the sort of gamebooks it mocks are old hat. Well here comes along Castle of Spirits to show that Problem? is fresher than I had assumed. Everything that Problem? ridicules is present in Castle: a narrow true path, arbitrary choices, T-intersections, a list of required items (including numbered keys of all things), and game-over passages out of the blue. A bit of fun that even Problem? didn't burden the player with are roll-or-die events. There's several points where if you don't succeed on a random roll you lose (or make the game unwinable), one of them necessary to see the end. An arbitrary choice often feels like you're making a random decision, but literally pinning success on a dice roll is a bit on the nose.

Castle plays like old-school game and has an old-school story to back it up. You're a random adventurer wandering about to find a quest. You stumble upon a dozy in the town of Everlasting where the local lord has turned all nasty, kidnapping townsfolk and turning them into zombies and such. “He is after the blood, the blood which covers our eyes, fills our cups and drizzles down our throats.” "“He took my daughter, I will never see her again, for her blood will no doubt seep into the river too like all the others before her. You don’t know how much her mother sobs…” say a pair of villagers while casually playing cards. Indeed, I have to wonder why the townsfolk stay when they're being menaced so. Sword in hand, you set off to the lord's castle to stop the bad vibes.

"The odour struck you at first when you entered the village. It was the stench of death, but there were no corpses to identify the smell. But as you approach the castle you soon discover what was causing all the fuss, you have thought too soon, for you see humans erected on poles, sticking out of the ground, unmoving, not breathing. The ground is littered with human heads, hands, feet and eyeballs. Ravens pick gruellingly at the rotting meats and flutter away as your step closer. Someone has made a banquet out of this terror before you, for you spy a clothed table adorned with silver chalices still full with blood and tears. A mean person has sat here dining upon torsos, singing lullabies and warning those who were forced to watch to be careful how and where they tread. You assume it was the lord of this wretched place and deem now to put a stop to his schemes. How dare he bully such people, he has no right."

Castle is a serious attempt at horror, but the imagery is so over the top and the sentences so poorly constructed that it undermines itself at every opportunity. Rooms are coated with blood or piled high with corpses to little effect. You're menaced by zombies, spooks, and even a lion (?), but there's no flair to the encounters. Rarely, there will be a spark of a neat idea, like the hollow skin that daces around in the castle's catacombs. But again, the prose is so purple that even the best encounters are rendered absurd, and the rest of the castle is a bland trek through a cheap amusement park ride.


Gameplay systems are serviceable. There's detailed rules for ranged combat and armor, but only one reference in the whole book provides access to such equipment. You are given a three Magick points to cast spells, but you can only cast spells when instructed and because there's only three such points the stat is superfluous. A Sanity score is occasionally reduced when you're exposed horrific sights, but it's only in service of a gate point. In one section you're asked to check how much you have left. If you don't, it's game over. Navigation down the OTP discourages exploration, as you can't lose more than three points. But then you do have to find a handful of required items, creating a tedious experience.

Combat is the one aspect of Castle is nicely handled. As you damage enemies they become easier to beat. Aside from an early encounter with a skeleton, battles aren't difficult. But in every playthrough that skeleton reduced my Health low enough that other enemies became threats. I liked the balance and this was the one part of the game that worked for me.

If you're in the mood for an 80's experience and can stomach the prose, Castle of Spirits gets the job done, but aside from that narrow achievement it's hard to recommend.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Windhammer: Problem? by Andy Moonowl

I'm not sure how to approach Problem? (A Troll Adventure). Does the book succeed at what it attempts? Absolutely. You might say it does it with aplomb. But its primary goal is to create an unfair player experience. Your tolerance for a kind of humor that delights at your misfortune will entirely direct how you respond to the game.

Problem? is a broad satire of role-playing conventions, with characters aware they're in a game and nothing is taken seriously. "Do be a good little player-character and go fetch it for me, won't you?" asks Queen Mary Sue of her magic orb. As a generic adventurer of the type that's always up and about in classic IF you're summoned by the Queen to recover her treasures from a troll of the obnoxious internety sort. This meta-humor is light but does lend itself to some fun moments such as the town of Start which you set out from. "The smell of untreated sewage and animal excrement is clear," we're told of Start. "This being a passable imitation of the high Middle Ages, you have never learnt to find such smells offensive."

The setting is likewise painted in broad strokes. Locations such as "Forest of Fear" and the "Crypt of Monsters" only exists to give the player places to putt about in, but here and there some flavor pops up. I particularity liked the Ovids of the Plain of Grass. The product of ancient farmyard loneliness, these sheeptaurs are a lot of fun and I wish there had been more like them.

 Such a fun concept I just had to sketch one.

The meta-humor and light tone make the book palatable, because this a cruel, cruel entry and a serious approach would have sunk it. The main thrust is to skewer the unfair gamebooks of the early to mid Fighting Fantasy sort. It's no accident that Ian Livingstone makes a cameo. The game takes the piss out of those classics through excessive unreasonableness. It uses tricks both subtle and overt to screw you over. While the true-path isn't extremely narrow, there is a list of items you must acquire and you won't know what they are until the very end. In what is perhaps the game's nastiest trick, unless you do exactly the right thing in section 1 you'll miss out on one of these items forever. It took me a dozen tries to reach the end of the game and then I had to start over from scratch because I hadn't brought that particular thing.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Arbitrary choices abound and there's a fair number of T-intersections that punish you for guessing wrong. Any action could be absolutely necessary or lead to an instant game over, with no way to know without previous experience. Aside from the aforementioned Section 1, its easy to get into an unwinable state, whether from going to the wrong location or for possessing the wrong item.At one point the game teaches you through a series of escalating consequences that a particular action is dangerous. But then, immediately after the point where doing so would result in death, you need to take that action in order to find a required item. Trial and error is the name of the game, and you'll need a lot of fortitude to get through. I rolled thirteen characters before I saw the end.

That said, there is a certain kind of delight at seeing how far the game goes in its mission to mess with the player. For example, the best weapon in the game can only be found on a 2.7% roll in a section of the game that can only be reached by putting it in an unwinable state. That's kind of brilliant. Other high points are a set of stats on a rock monster (and the reward for beating it), and a gauntlet of swinging blades which offers a clear risk/reward that I found engaging.

That said, because of the arbitrary nature so many of the choices meant I never felt in control of the game. Even when I knew the best path through I didn't feel empowered, just relieved. The ending makes a interesting point about the kind of player that would put themselves through all this, but the satire doesn't feel as sharp as it could be. The type of gamebook Problem? is mocking has long been out of vogue and the joke isn't quite funny enough to make up for the frustration.

I mentioned during my impressions of the game that Moonowl included hints to help frustrated players and that was a brilliant move. I stand by that, but I didn't look at the hints until after I had finished the game and I wonder if they're expansive enough. I'm interested to hear from players who turned to them for help and learn how useful they are.

In my impressions I also voiced concern that the battle system would be too complex. I'm happy to say that it is simple and very well designed. The player compares their attack value to the enemy's. The resulting attack value gives a bonus to the stronger character that not only increases the damage they do but also reduces the damage received. It's quite elegant in practice and getting an increase in your attack value is satisfying. The most enjoyment I got from the game was strengthening my characters rather than navigating the maze of insta-deaths.

It's hard to recommend Problem? Yes is succeeds, but it succeeds at elements of gamebookery that belong in the past. The question is does purposefulness justify an arbitrary experience? Problem? is well-crafted in its deviousness and the light-humor is worth a chuckle or two, but I wonder how much enjoyment is to be had.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Windhammer Prize 2014 First Impressions

 Hooray for Windhammer! This competition gets me all giddy. The quality and innovation that come from it every year, heck, that people even write gamebooks anymore fill me with glee. It's a small small small niche, but I love it. I knew from when I first discovered the competition that I would have to be part of it. I was overjoyed just to participate last year. And to win? GOSH. I can't even express what a surprise and delight it was. There were some truly excellent books entered and to be counted among their equals is an honor.

Of course I had to enter again this year.

My habit is to first look over all the entries, their rules and introductions, and get a feel for what the competition looks like as a whole. This year there's mostly returning authors (including some of the best from last year) with a handful newcomers. All of the books look interesting and worth exploring, I think we've got a bumper crop. I figure I'd post my impressions of them before diving in.

Archipelago of Omens by Richard Penwarden

Penwarden last entered in 2012 with A Familiar Story, a pleasant adventure where you play a wizard's summoning. Its main stumbling point was a somewhat complicated system for the story that was told. Well it appears Penwarden has gone full hog, because the system for Archipelago is a doozy. There's seven pages of rules and two appendixes as well. Just look at this character sheet!

Weapons, items, wealth, health, time, omens, lungs, it's got it all. I'm not against complicated rules, in fact I'm fascinated by the methods people use to create expansive books within Windhammer's imitations. The 2011 winner, Andrew Wright's Sea of Madness, was an non-linear simulation that felt much larger than its 100 sections.

That said, I'm not really sure what Archipelago is even about. Aside from a vague introduction it's all rules, and there's so many of them the eye slides off. This isn't a book you can just jump in, but one you're going to have to commit to.

But a nice meaty experience can be a delight. If Penwarden can pull it off, I'm on board.

Castle of Spirits by Tammy Badowski

Badowski has written some amateur Fighting Fantasy adventures, but this is her first time entering Windhammer. Castle of Spirits appears to be an adventure in the classical vein. You're a wandering adventurer, there's a nasty lord menacing a village from his spook castle who needs a good swording, and off you go! The rules seem simple and straightforward. I like how combat becomes easier the more you damage an opponent; elegant and in the player's advantage. One bit that did stand out: "to use a ranged weapon, roll 2 dice. Keep track of the amount rolled. Now roll again and compare to what you rolled earlier. If the amount was lower than the result, the weapon misses..." I've never encountered this mechanic before and I'm not sure what the intent is. Makes things nice and random, I guess.

The Empire's Edge by Chan Sing Goh

I quite enjoyed Goh's entry last year, Merchants of the Spice Islands. It was unique in it's historical setting and aim, and it was clear that Goh has a real passion for the subject. Empire deals with the same setting and themes: commerce politics and the melding of cultures about the China-India trade route in the 19th century. It's heartening to see gamebooks tackle a subject so far removed from the typical role-playing adventures. The rules are interesting as dice rolls plus skill modifiers determine to which references you turn. That will have required some careful management during writing. And the character building aspect is very intriguing, what with selections for race (none of them Caucasian), language, and motivation. Very cool. Merchants suffered from simulation rules that were a bit too complex. Things look nicely spared down here and I'm eager to jump in.

Path of Heresy by Ivalio Daskalov

I haven't played Daskalov's previous game, Dating a Witch, but I've read there's some language problems. I'm of two minds about this. Yes, non-native language entries do tend to have unpolished prose and come across as lacking. But writing a book in another language is a hell of an achievement, one which I feel should be recognized. And in last year's Redundant!, the errors in construction added to the book's atmosphere. So on my end, I try to look past the clunky sentences and focus on the intent.

So yeah, the introduction is a bit creaky but the content does look interesting. This is a spiritual fantasy adventure presumably with a focus on two character's relationship. The book doesn't waste time getting into the meat of things, so there's not a lot to comment on yet. We'll see how things shake out.

Problem? (A Troll Adventure) by Andy Moonowl

Moonowl's last game, Tipping Point, didn't grab me. It was too conventional of an adventure (though with some nice twists regarding the elemental foes), and I ran into some sticking points early on that turned me off. Problem? has several similarities to that book, an open world approach (with map!) and complicated combat (thankfully you don't need six different flavors of dice this time). Unlike Tipping Point's ponderous tone, Problem? is tongue-in-cheek parody. The intro had me chuckling and I'm already more invested than I ever was with Tipping Point.

I was worried when a note warned of the books difficulty (flashbacks to Swordplayer), but my concerns were immediately remedied by the inclusion of hints to help players find the correct path. This is a wonderful idea, especially for a competition entry. This is one of those concepts that make you wonder why no one's done it before. I'm all about giving the player the advantage, and this lets those who need it get past the trouble spots without explicitly cheating. Just great.

I'm still a little concerned over those combat roles but otherwise I'm really looking forward to this one. Gooooooood stuff.

The Puttbuster Initiative: Spacetime Golfcrush by Philip Armstrong

This looks like a stupid game full of stupid people doing stupid things. I wrote it.

The Sacrifice by Paul Struth

Out of Time was one of the best entries last year. It was sharply written, invocative, a pleasure to play, and the gamebook format tied directly into the scenario. Aside from what I felt was an unsatisfying ending, it was just about perfect. So The Sacrifice is much anticipated. You play as Peter Joyce, a young man in the early 20th century who wasn't able to fight in World War I due to a club foot. His friend Robert Cantlow has returned from the fighting a changed person and taken up with a mysterious woman. His family has entreated you to intervene and away we go.

As before, the prose is polished and invocative, the setting unique, and there's something more going on than meets the eye...

Tales of a Captain: The Recruit a Demon by Sefano Rochi

This one took me by surprise. It starts with a strong introduction featuring a defined voice and a bit of humor, but then immediately jumps into some confusing lists of powers without explaining the rules or defining concepts. It's a bit dizzying. Eventually things get straightened out during the first few references. I always like to see rules incorporated into the play, but here that might not have been the best approach. Still, humor and character go a long way with me, organizational issues be damned.

The Tomb of Aziris by Sam Beaven

Beaven is one of the few newcomers this year. His game is a fantasy adventure set in a city by a desert that used to be an ocean, which has potential to be an interesting setting. Rules seem fairly straightforward and there's some flavor to them which is always a plus. This could to go either way and might have trouble distinguishing itself.

Why Don't They Leave the House? by Nicholas Stillman

Stillman's Gunlaw was my favorite entry last year. It was weird and disgusting and funny and inventive and totally totally its own thing. A completely original creation. I have to say, I was more than a little disappointed it came in 6th. I expected it to do much better. So I can't wait to see what Stillman's got this year.

He only gives us a tiny bit to go on before commencing the story. One is a warning that this book has some disturbing themes. Normally I'd be rolling my eyes at the necessity of such a statement, but then I remember Gunlaw's commercial nightmare, particularly the school. The other is the instructions, written as a poem.

A game of clues, and like others
You play you, born of your mother.
Find section one hundred and one—
Not mentioned, but where you must run.
Reach this end, and try not to scream.
Take a pen, and hope that you dream.
Write down clues, the spoils of your hunts.
Just one only play once.
Neat! That bit about only playing once has stopped me from peaking any further. Of course you can't stop players from doing what they want, but that's never been a concern of mine, and I'm intrigued about the implications. And wouldn't 101 sections be against the rules? Mysteries abound! Suffice to say, Why Don't They is the entry I'm most anticipating.

A good selection! There's not one entry in here that I'm worried about. Really, the main issue I have with this year's selection is the absence of so many authors. I know that people have lives and that gamebooks are ultimately a small thing, but where's Zachary Carango, Andrew Wright, Kieran Coghlan, Ashton Saylor, Marty Runyon, and especially Stewart Lloyd? The competition feels empty without them. I'd also like to see more by Andrew Drage, Paul Gresty, and S.J. Bell, who all wrote innovative and great games in 2012 and haven't entered since. I hope next year we'll see a return of some of the best voices in gamebooks.

Ah well, I suppose I should be focused on the here and now. I'll be playing the entries randomly, starting with... [rolls die] Problem?! Excellent! Review forthcoming.