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.

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