Well I’m back again with part two of my reviews of the annual worldwide Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction. This part covers the entries that (I considered) had aspects of greatness but also significant weaknesses (10th to 6th place on my list). Part one is here and covers (my rating system and) the entries I judged the weakest entries and part three (those I considered this year’s best) is coming in the next few days…
-I’ll also note that considering I scored 69% for Kieren Coghlan’s entry and today’s list starts at 70%, that entry should probably be grouped with these. But I liked the breakdown of 14th-11th, 10th-6th and 5th-1st… So there ;) Oh and if you suspect that I had difficulty in splitting this batch into a given ranking, you’d be right!
DESIGN – 7.5
STORY – 4.5
WRITING – 6.5
CLARITY - 9
PLAYABILITY – 7.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 70% (10th place)
What I liked: Educational aspect. Potential for the Memory Palace idea to be incorporated into a future work or "sub-genre of gamebooks".
What I didn’t like: Wasn't particularly fun or interesting (except if I was setting out to learn the basics of photosynthesis, as opposed to playing a gamebook).
Okay this is blatant speculation and quite possibly I’m way off the mark here, but here’s my theory on how this entry came about:
Stuart Lloyd had a problem. He loved writing an entry for the Windhammer competition each year (and seeing what others thought about his ideas etc), but he simply didn’t have the time to do a proper entry this year… He also had to write an exam on photosynthesis for his Science class at Abbot’s High School. Then he had a brainwave: why not combine the two tasks and “kill two birds with one stone”? Brilliant!
Well, in the mind of this reader at least, not quite. It certainly would have made the photosynthesis exam more entertaining for those who had to sit it, but for the “gamebook audience” it struck me as having little value unless you happen to have wanted to learn the basics (the very basics) of photosynthesis, or wanted a quick primer as to what a “Memory Palace” was…
There is a good idea for something here, I’m just not convinced (yet) that that something is a gamebook. But maybe there’s scope to expand on the Memory Palace concept into a “sub-genre of gamebooks”. Even so, a paper-based version has its limitations (which a hyperlinked PDF would get around), but putting the links at the end of the document simply meant that they were unlikely to be referenced (and I suspect they were unlikely to be referenced anyway, unless you really wanted to learn more about the topic as opposed to enjoying a gamebook). But given that the Windhammer rules prevent hyperlinked documents, this isn’t something I can score Stuart down for (it’s a shame entries can’t be hyperlinked, as that would make reading them a lot easier!)
There’s no real story here beyond "you have an exam, and a dream about the exam, now here's some questions for you to answer and characters/situations to help you remember them by." You start in a room that’s just a hub by which you access a list of other rooms in any order you choose until you decide you’ve had your fill of the experience (and presumably move onto another gamebook). Your main guide throughout this is a dwarf, for no apparent reason other than the author likes dwarfs (okay “dwarves” according to the spelling Tolkein invented that seems to have become the norm now). And you collect coloured gems for each question successfully answered, again for no apparent reason other than the author liked gems (and is reminiscent about the gem collecting in Deathtrap Dungeon as he mentions in his Youtube explanation of his entry here, which at least was part of the story in that gamebook). The writing is adequate for its educational aspect, but seemed to lack imagination for the most part and could have benefited from a more thorough edit with numerous minor typos like missing or wrong words and punctuation.
The minimal amount of rules to contend with here is clearly presented, as are the scientific explanations given and the way in which the questions were posed, with one exception: the question “Where will this sapling get the materials to one day become this mighty tree?” I thought could have been more clearly put as “Where will this sapling get most of its mass to one day become this mighty tree?” –The sapling of course gets “materials” from all three sources given as options, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me that I was being asked about where most of the mass came from, as opposed to which source provided the highest number of different materials say. (I failed that question and would have complained that the question wasn’t clear if I’d lost marks because of it haha).
Also, the super-nerd in me just has to point out that the process of photosynthesis (or what is a form of photosynthesis otherwise known as the “Calvin cycle”) as described here is a dramatic simplification. Some eighteen years ago, I studied biochemistry at university, and although I don’t recall most of the specific details now, photosynthesis is a much much more complicated process than the impression conveyed here. Have a look here and you’ll see what I mean (where it even mentions that “Hexose (six-carbon) sugars are not a product of the Calvin cycle. Although many texts list a product of photosynthesis as C6H12O6, this is mainly a convenience to counter the equation of respiration, where six-carbon sugars are oxidized in mitochondria.”). -I get that for the purposes of a “gamebook”, readers needed to be spared all that detail, but still, I do think that the interests of educating people about science are not best served by pretending that things are simpler than what they are (it’s part of the problem I think with the disconnect between people and climate scientists for instance, where people can be mistakenly led to believe that it can be understood in simple “lay man’s terms”; shit we still don’t even understand gravity properly, but I digress).
Overall, I think that The Lindenbaum Memory Palace is a novel attempt at turning an exam on the basics of photosynthesis into a gamebook, and one that is quite playable for what it is. Stuart is to be applauded for trying something different here, and fortunately it is quite brief (to minimise boredom and repetition of concepts), but ultimately I think this is more suited as a class-exercise for high school biology students than it is suited as a gamebook to entertain readers.
As Stuart corrected me following my last post, he and Kieran are the only two who’ve entered the Windhammer Prize in all six years that it has run, so that alone is a commendable feat, and I look forward to what they’ll come up with next year.
DESIGN - 6
STORY - 6
WRITING - 8
CLARITY - 9
PLAYABILITY – 6.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 71% (9th place)
· Winner of one of the three Commendation Awards
What I liked: Writing is powerful and well-delivered and the rules are clearly presented.
What I didn’t like: System is marred by unbalanced combat and unnecessarily complicated by a lot of different dice rolls. Absence of substantial story and motivation for your character and some outcomes are railroaded.
So it looks like here is the start of my digression from what was collectively judged the best entries, considering this entry was judged in the top six (5th if the order given means anything) and yet I only ranked it 9th.
Andy Moonowl (who it seems is also known as Andy Robinson) provides us here with a simple but “rpg-like” character and rules system, that even provides rules for mass battles (which is cool though sadly I didn’t get far enough to try that aspect out). The story begins with a powerful and compelling intro that is very well articulated and delivered, and lets us explore a world in an almost open fashion…
That’s about where the wheels begin to fall off this gamebook cart, although as far as I could tell, the writing remains solid throughout. But I’ll elaborate now on its faults (and spend more time on this than its strengths, as the faults for me were sufficient to prevent me playing this more than once after fairly quickly finding my death)…
Firstly the system is unnecessarily complicated by A LOT of dice rolls, and not only that but different kinds of dice (D4s, D6s, D8s, D10s, D12s and D20s). For example, one of the two battles I had required me to roll four D4s, two D6s and one D8, and compare each of them separately against my armour each round – and that’s just the enemy rolls. Having to spend 10 minutes rolling 30-50 different dice and tally each one just to resolve a combat is not something that I think any rpg system should aspire to, let alone a gamebook system which should aim to be even simpler. Yes all those different shaped dice do look cool (especially when you have a whole stack of them in different colours), but aside from the usefulness of two ten-sded dice that can be used as percentile rolls and maybe D20s (the D20 system had its merits I think), I consider that most of these funny shaped dice are really just an unnecessary “gimmick” started by TSR (I think it was) when they called them “dragon dice”. You see for all those different dice, they don’t actually add anything significant that you couldn’t otherwise achieve with multiples of D6 and/or modifiers to D6s. For instance instead of a D4, you can just have D6-1, instead of D8, you can just have D6+1, etc, or for a larger spread of values you could have say 4D6-4 to get the same range as a D20 etc (though in such an event you’d probably just simplify 4D6-4 to 4D6, or even just 2D6 if possible and re-calibrate the scale). Even then, I think you still want to reduce the dice rolls further: for instance when fighting seven opponents, you don’t want to have to roll for each one of them, you just fight them as a collective opponent. All of these things that would have simplified combat have been disregarded here (is it really that important to have a bunch of identical opponents that you fight at the same time with different hit point values and damage dices? I doubt it).
Then there’s the issue of combat balance which I found to be lacking here. Having barely survived my first fight (which I note simply occurred because I decided to find a marketplace first before setting off for adventure), I was railroaded into a second fight without any chance to avoid it and promptly got slaughtered. This was enough to put me off trying again…
There may well be a substantial story here, but I didn’t see much evidence of it. My brave warrior arrived in the Caer Linnaroth with no real idea of what he was there for or even who he was. I agreed to become a tax collector as it seemed that was what I was supposed to do for the story, and then having helped myself to some of the King’s treasure (I needed it more than the King did, besides the King expected me to risk my mercenary life for free, so screw him!) I then figured I’d head straight for a marketplace to get some decent equipment before I got slaughtered. The guards at Lennua Market didn’t like the sight of the tax collector’s outfit the King insisted I wear, so I tried to go in as a normal traveller instead, at which point they attacked me. I barely survived but was forced to return the way I came anyway, whereupon I was promptly killed on the next section by an apparently “random” encounter.
So yeah, such railroading of outcomes and unbalanced combats put me off playing this one again… But apparently a lot of people enjoyed this so maybe I was just quite unlucky with these choices. However I think this experience does reinforce the idea that a “good gamebook” needs to be fair and balanced for all possible paths: it only takes one bad experience along a given path for a player to dismiss the whole thing and not bother trying again (regardless of how fair and balanced the other paths may in fact be).
DESIGN - 7
STORY – 8.5
WRITING – 6.5
CLARITY – 6.5
PLAYABILITY – 7.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 72% (8th place)
What I liked: Compelling epic story, with excellent characterisation and humanisation of the "baddies".
What I didn’t like: Numerous logic errors that can occur in the narrative. Writing suffers from frequent errors, including missing/added words, incorrect tense use and punctuation.
Were it not for the writing and logic errors, I think this entry could have been one of the best in the competition, and even without that, considering the awesome epic story here, I’m a little surprised that it didn’t get a Commendation Award anyway. Comparing this entry with the one Robert Douglas submitted for last year’s Windhammer, Nye’s Song, I only gave this one 3% more overall, but if anything I think it’s a more substantial improvement (owing largely to being more playable in my judgement). And as an aside I also recall that I did assure Robert that I’d provide more detailed feedback on what I perceived were the writing flaws with Nye’s Song but never did. My apologies Robert! But in consolation, I have made some fairly detailed edit notes this time around in anticipation that you might want them, so just let me know if so J
Design-wise, this was an interesting and effective entry, and I was quite surprised at just how long/epic the story is here (I got to the second last section on my first attempt, whereupon I cheated just to see the “ultimate ending”). Combat is nicely handled (with some issues around clarity mentioned below) using a “Lone Wolf style” matrix. The narrative did seem a bit “railroaded” at times, but within the constraints of the Windhammer competition this is probably forgivable as there’s a lot of story to get through here: there was a few occasions where I thought I’d almost reached the end, only to find it kept going!
There are some significant logic errors though that caused me to deduct points from design rather than story. In particular there is the plot device where you get five words (each from a different place) which you are required to assemble into a sentence to figure out where to turn to. This is fine except that you don’t need all five words to figure out the section you need to turn to (you only need a minimum of three of these words), which in turn is also fine except that the section you turn to then assumes you obtained all five words. This creates the potential for some strange story outcomes, for instance in my case I had four of the five words and yet on the section I’d turned to, I was having conversations with five different characters that I’d saved / were allies: only four of which I’d actually met previously (and stranger still, the narration described the fifth character I’d never met or saved, actually saving me: whoops). But there are a number of other logic errors too, for instance having the narration use a character’s full name when you’d only learnt their last name, sudden references to practices or the names of things that you hadn’t learnt yet, and a reference to having to find/save someone that you had (possibly) already found and conceded you couldn't save. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of design / story packed into this entry, so for the most part you can just choose to ignore the anomalies.
There’s also some issues with clarity of the rules and their application. The key for the combat matrix has “SD” rather than “ID” for instant death, and the example given is wrong. There’s a few places where the narrative asks whether you have a pistol or not, but there's only a mention of a "pistol" (other than a “flare pistol” which is an altogether different item) on Section 65, where it doesn't state that you pick it up – so I assumed I did. And there’s at least one case on Section 31 where the narration doesn’t clarify what happens if you neither roll over a given number nor under it. Lastly, the mention of Strength loss (and modifiers like this) in the text could be made to stand out more, e.g. by making them bold or something.
Story-wise, this entry was awesome. I really liked the way the story progressed (and continued on for so long), with some excellent characterisation, moments of graphic horror and sophisticated humanisation of the *cough* “baddies” *cough* (I originally used a more specific noun in place of “baddies”, but that’d be a bit too much of a spoiler I think). I did personally find the attempts at humour a bit “hit and miss” (particular in regards of the pointers to comments being in sarcasm), but that could just be my personal preferences more than anything else. There’s also a lot of different characters here, which in addition to the phonetic way their speech is presented, sometimes makes the story a little hard to follow. Also, from a certain point of view I guess some of the story borders on being a little ridiculous, but I take it that’s part of the point. It all comes to a satisfying conclusion anyway and is challenging without being impossibly hard.
And lastly, the area I think needing the most improvement in this entry, is the quality of the writing (and fortunately I think if anything this is the easiest area to address). To me it looks as if the only edit done was a straight spell-check, which isn’t going to detect missing / wrong words or incorrect punctuation that occurs quite frequently throughout this. There’s also a lot of “telling” rather than “showing”, which is generally a no-no in story-telling unless the protagonist has the ability to read others’ minds (which they certainly don’t in the case of this story). But despite all the flaws, I think that this entry is a ripping yarn that is well worth your time (and I enjoyed it more than any of the other entries I dubbed the “flawed gems”).
DESIGN - 6
STORY – 8
WRITING - 8
CLARITY – 7.5
PLAYABILITY – 7
MY OVERALL SCORE: 73% (7th place)
What I liked: Fleshed out, complex world. Solid, efficient writing.
What I didn’t like: Flawed combat system, random rolls determining crucial choices or outcomes, and loops where the player can be stuck in a series of identical fights. Supposed dark "adult" content also seemed quite tame.
This entry has the disclaimer: “Warning: This adventure includes explicit violence, coarse language, and adult situations which will not be suitable for all readers.” which filled me with (what turned out to be false) hope that this was going to be a dark gamebook with “adult” content. Unfortunately I was left quite disappointed and wish that there hadn’t been such a disclaimer to build up such expectations as it’s probably not necessary and in my judgement at least, an exaggeration of the content here. The violence in Robert Douglas’ Any Port in a Storm entry was more explicit, and especially so in Nicholas Stillman’s Gunlaw entry which also contains far more “adult” content than this does. The only genuine moment of “adult content” I found was one scene where you save a ten year old child from prostitution (which mercifully in this case isn’t anything explicit and could probably be read and understood by a teenage reader I think, without issue). The coarse language was also censored in Dirty Instruments – it was somewhat ridiculous to read “fuck” replaced everywhere by “fruck” (and I hope this wasn’t censorship on behalf of the competition organiser). Even Kieran used the word “mindfuck” in his Windhammer entry without batting an eyelid. I’ve read Young Adult fiction that’s got more “adult” content than this. Which of course is fine, assuming the author wasn’t trying to warn people about its content: it’s a bit like trying to tell someone who’s a fan of movies like The Exorcist and Hellraiser that they better not watch the latest Harry Potter movie or something, because it’s too scary. I should also add that I had in mind doing a Windhammer entry based on my horror novel “The Dark Horde”, which if you’ve read that you would know what I mean when I say that that would have definitely have been something with “adult content”, so now this just gives me more motivation to do that next year (and hope that it doesn’t get banned from the competition as a result haha).
Anyway, gripes about the lack of “adult content” aside, what we have here is a well-fleshed out world with solid, efficient writing that I personally thought occasionally lacked a little description and only contained two typos that I could find after reading through to the end and exploring all I could (and with A LOT of cheating to avoid broken loops as I’ll get to below). The rules are well introduced in the context of the story (i.e. you get story and make choices first and then the rules as they become relevant rather than the other way around, which is a great hook). But what lets this whole gamebook down though is the design, which was quite bad in some ways, but given the story and writing were so solid, I cheated to get past them anyway (rules, what rules!?)
For starters, the D6 combat system here is quite flawed. Combats quickly become almost pointless for being impossible to lose (and conversely, impossible to win if you start out with low combat stats). –Mind you, I think this same criticism applies to the Fighting Fantasy system (as I’ve stated before), but millions of readers have been able to overlook this (by taking SKILL 12 as the rule), so this is something that one can overlook…
The biggest sin in the design here though (IMHO) is numerous cases where random rolls determine your choices and outcomes: some of which you need to make in order to complete missions and without any actual player choice involved. The worst of these I think is the one that almost caused me to give up on this entry (I’m glad I didn’t as there is a great story and writing here). I reached a kinda “inevitable” situation early on in the gamebook where I was playing my assassin as, well, someone just doing their job, that consequently got me stuck in a ridiculous recurring loop of repeated combats I couldn’t avoid. Basically what happened (trying to avoid spoilers) is that I was being paid to go kill someone, so when I found him, I simply did what I was being paid to do (as any good professional assassin would right?). This and the character I’d chosen (the first one listed who seemed to have the best combat stats) meant that I was now a very Wanted man. A bit more happens and then you get onto your second mission (which takes up most of the gamebook) and this is where the design is unforgivably flawed. You get to a point on Section 54, where you have a choice of six sectors to travel to. Four of six of these sectors will guarantee that you get into a fight with the authorities that recognise you (due to your Wanted stat) unless you have a particular item that you cannot possibly have gotten yet. It gets worse: once you finish the fight, you are then directed to a random sector, even if it’s the same sector you were just in (why it is random makes no sense to me, especially given the damning effects this has). If you randomly rolled any 4 of the 6 sectors where this event triggers, you have to do the fight all over again and then roll for another sector and hope you roll lucky this time. The first time this happened, I had five consecutive (and identical) combats before finally escaping to one of the two safe sectors… I didn’t find the item I needed there and then had the fight with the authorities happen twelve consecutive times (I just cheated to skip these combats as it was becoming quite ridiculous by this point) and finally figured out how and where to get the item I needed to avoid this broken loop again. Hopefully you can appreciate why I call this an “unforgivable” flaw in the design (which is a shame as otherwise this was a mostly excellent entry).
My only other gripe was that there was also a lack of clarification about whether you can have item-modified scores above 10 (I assumed yes, otherwise these items do nothing if your stat is already 10 as some of mine were). All in all though, this was a solid entry with what would otherwise be very good playability that is hampered by over-reliance on random rolls and badly designed (and frustrating) loops. At times it reminded me of Zachary Carango’s Final Payment from last year’s Windhammer entries (which I considered amazingly good and gave an overall score of 88%), so if you liked that you ought to enjoy this one too. Just be sure to visit sector E first!
DESIGN - 7
STORY – 8
WRITING – 7.5
CLARITY – 7.5
PLAYABILITY – 7
MY OVERALL SCORE: 74% (6th place)
· Winner of one of the two runner-up Merit Awards
What I liked: Great story that is very detailed with a well thought out world.
What I didn’t like: Walls of text and information overload make for a dense and difficult read.
I have to admit, this review will be short as I only skimmed the surface of this one and didn’t get anywhere close to finishing it. It’s not that it isn’t good; it certainly is (of course I can say that now, since I know it won one of the Merit Awards!), it’s just that the way it was written made it difficult for me to get into it, and ultimately I gave up and moved on to something else (with apologies to the author for saying that).
It’s probably a matter of taste, but to me this entry is a fine demonstration of exactly how not to start a gamebook, or any story for that matter. The first paragraph is packed with information (descriptions and names of things) and it doesn’t get any easier from there. It’s followed by a newspaper article to cover stuff relating to the story (which does strike me as a “lazy” way to divulge story but anyway), and then another dense paragraph of mental musings to cover further events (again this struck me as a “lazy” way to divulge story), and then another radio announcement to cover further story. If you get this far then there’s quite a good punch as the story (and how it relates to you) actually kicks in…
I was reminded of DMing Dungeons and Dragons modules “back in the day” which apparently thought a bunch of players would be happy to sit through (and take in) pages of “boxed text” before they got to do anything. Sorry Ramsay, I think you lost me somewhere on the first page and it was only at the end of all fourteen entries that I came back to this to try and persevere and still couldn’t L
The rules are briefly (but clearly I think) explained at the end of the intro and the design seemed fine (from what little I evaluated) and then you’re hit with yet more long sections of exposition and “railroaded” action where you just read what happens and occasionally get to make a choice. It is an interesting story and detailed world, but ultimately this seemed to me to be more novel than gamebook. (There’s perhaps an irony, even hypocrisy, in such a statement since I am aware that some have said exactly the same thing of my gamebook “Infinite Universe", but I don’t believe I went to this extent, though of course you may disagree! Anyway it does reinforce in my mind that such an approach has its drawbacks).
Anyway, obviously a lot of people enjoyed and got into this more than I did… Maybe some day (when I have an abundance time: i.e. probably never) I’ll come back to this to give it another try as I can certainly see that it’s written to a high standard with a lot of effort put into the world. But sadly for now, I’ll just have to leave it there…
My next post will cover the five entries (four of which won awards) that I considered “The Cream” of the competition. Until then, hope you've enjoyed my reviews to date!