Andrew Drage

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Thoughts on the 2012 Windhammer Prize entries - Part 2

So I’m back again with my top 11 Windhammer Prize entries. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, I’d suggest reading that first as otherwise some of this may be out of context (in particular that this is just a single opinion which can be given more weight than is fair: especially considering not many have shared their thoughts on each entry yet) :)

Sigil-Beasts (Karalynn Lee)

STORY - 7.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 74% (11th place)

I thought Karalynn’s Sigil-Beasts entry had some of the best writing in the competition, with good characterisation and development of the setting details, and only the occasional grammatical error. It was a good and interesting story, but seemed a little short to me. Basically as a story I thought this was excellent… But excellent gamebooks also need to be well designed, which is where I think Sigil-Beasts has weaknesses. Whilst the design is good, I felt it suffered for frequent “railroading” of choices/outcomes. There’s a lot of story to cover I guess that made this necessary to some extent, but at times I felt like a passive observer of events, rather than actively involved in them. And sometimes when choices were given, I thought that they failed to adequately suggest the consequences of each decision. As far as the rules go, they were very economical but didn’t specify what happens when you Test a stat and roll equal (only higher and lower were mentioned). Overall, a good well-written story coupled with a reasonable design make this quite playable without being one of my favourites :)

It took me two attempts to get the “ultimate ending” for Sigil-Beasts, and I would have even completed it on my first attempt if the choices I was making were clearer. My starting stats were Skill 10 Perception 8 Health 22.

The Evil Eye (S.J. Bell)

DESIGN - 6.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 75% (10th place)

I felt that this entry was another that was well written but suffered in the design aspects. It too has some of the best writing in the competition, with an interesting story and characterisation and an awesome final twist (before which point I had wondered at the lack of a certain descriptive element but it all made sense in the end). However I must admit I also found the main character and what struck me as a "presumptuous" delivery jarring at times, which hindered my immersion into the story (but this is quite a subjective judgement).

There was a good use of clue totals, but I found The Evil Eye to have a rather “railroaded” design that was very easy if you followed the plot and made “informed” or “sensible” choices. It uses the FF system but at least improves upon it by using points allocation to determine your initial stats (such a mechanic doesn’t fix the FF system issue of initial Skill level though, you’re just able to prevent getting screwed by it by ensuring you have at least 10 Skill to start). Also the presentation of rules seemed to assume prior knowledge of the FF system (too bad if you don't have the rules) without clarifying which of the FF rules, such as use of Luck in battle, were to be applied. Overall though, it’s a solid entry that is well written but its linear design and strong main character that I didn’t warm to, hurt playability for me somewhat.

I got the ultimate ending on my first attempt (which as noted above I found quite easy). My starting stats were Skill 12 Stamina 16 Luck 10 (basically I put all I could into Skill, with the remainder put into Luck).

Call of Khalris (Stuart Lloyd)

DESIGN - 7.5
STORY - 7.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 76% (9th place)

Being much enamoured of the “gamebook guru”, Lloyd of Gamebooks myself, I was really looking forward to reading this, but sadly came away disappointed and felt that it could have been so much better, whilst doing many things quite well. The design itself is quite innovative: you get to determine your character background and choose what to equip them with, and it uses a journal and cheat score. I liked the idea of the journal (the player is asked to record their thoughts as answers to questions in a journal at intervals in the story) but felt that they had little actual bearing on the story itself, so seemed a bit pointless. I was amused by the cheat score mechanics, but would question their usefulness considering a cheat isn’t likely to then go and honestly account for their cheating by working out a cheat score. (And for the record, I got a cheat score of 2 which I consider the only honest score possible since I admitted that yes, I did think about other gamebooks whilst playing this!) However there are numerous points in the story where you can take only one of a selection items, without any narrative justification why this should be the case (e.g. you can take a sword or an amulet, but not both, and not two amulets etc). Yes this is a convention I’ve noticed others have done, such as Destiny Quest (which as amazingly awesome as it is, was also without narrative justification I thought), and it does create for some interesting choices, but without some sort of plausible explanation of why this be so, it just seems illogical to me…

* EDIT: Stuart commented below on this limitation of only being able to take a single item at various points by saying "I tried to justify that with the idea that in each situation, if you hung around to get any more, you would be in danger", however I'd still argue it seemed counter-intuitive (to me). -I reckon I could scoop up two amulets in almost the same time as I could scoop up one, and quite possibly quicker than a single weapon. *

As for the story itself, there are some nice Call of Cthulhu parody elements going on, and the adventure is intriguing, but it ends abruptly (with either your death or just “calling it a day” and heading home) and lacked atmosphere for me for the most part. You sortof just go into the Unnamed City “cos it’s there”, wander around, find treasure and then hopefully wander back home. I did like the talkative writing style that was quite free of errors, but felt it was at times repetitive, bland or inefficient.

The rules are clearly presented and there is a lot to explore in the city, however the lack of significant plot, impressive scenes or any significant reward (story or items-wise), made for a somewhat underwhelming experience… It is hard to create something with a Lovecraftian flavour, which I found Call of Khalris on the whole fails to do, and there are numerous design features here that I thought under-utilised, but nevertheless the design is quite solid and this entry is quite playable in spite of what (I perceived as) its weaknesses.

…And since by the time I’ve gotten to posting this, Stuart Lloyd has posted three audio clips of his own thoughts (here and here), it’s caused me to muse further on what (I thought) one of the main? problems with his design was. To summarise his justifications for the design elements, he says that the journal was in there to encourage “role-playing” the character: i.e. to help immerse the player more into who their character is. Which I think is fine. Then he explains that he has the cheat score in there so that players can assess how much they cheated. Which is also fine. But I think it’s a big problem trying to include both design features into the same gamebook, unless you’ve got multiple personality disorder and readily flip between different states of mind haha. Please correct if I’m wrong Stuart, but basically you’ve designed something where you are constantly changing from reading the gamebook as a reader, roleplaying the character by virtue of a journal, and judging yourself as a player by virtue of the cheat score. The journal and cheat score in particular seem to me to have contradictory objectives (one wants you to consider yourself as the character, the other as the player), which ultimately contribute to disrupting immersion in the gamebook, and ignoring these elements altogether (as Stuart Lloyd reports some players did). -But Stuart also concedes that he experimented with things a lot in his entry (as I certainly did with mine), so there’s a higher “risk” factor in whether something will work or not when you’re being innovative :)

I played an educated scholar, and ended up with 7 Hero Points, a cheat score of 2 (as mentioned above), a bunch of treasure that I guess would be worth something at a market and 5 inconclusive journal entries (see below). Without cheating, I actually got into and out of the Nameless City with mind and body intact on my first go (it seems I probably just lucked out in choosing the right towers though).

My journal entries were as follows:

Entry 1
* In this adventure I expect to find treasures and secrets of ancient sorcerer kings
* My greatest fear in crossing the desert is running out of water
* I hope to bring back treasures and knowledge

Entry 2
* I should have taken the papyrus scroll, especially since I got the warhammer anyway
* Didn’t really find the encounter challenging (providing I have control over the situation)
* Expect to find undead, that are more powerful, but more treasure too

Entry 3
* I felt I dealt with the challenge as well as could be expected
* Hopefully what I found will be useful: certainly it’s valuable to sell at a market
* I think I can handle this place a bit longer providing I'm not overwhelmed

Entry 4
* I felt I dealt with the challenge as well as could be expected
* Hopefully what I found will be useful: certainly it’s valuable to sell at a market
* I think I can handle this place a bit longer providing I'm not overwhelmed

Entry 5
* My only regret for the expedition is that I didn’t take the papyrus scroll
* It was a worthy (if inconclusive) expedition though
* I still hold the same beliefs as I did before

Swordplayer (Nicholas Stillman)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 77% (8th place)

I found that Swordplayer really had some quite exceptional design innovations that I’ve not seen before. I suspect that this won’t be to the taste of many, but nevertheless I loved it. In gamebooks and role-playing games I love playing with differing systems and creating my own, and I see this same passion in Nicholas Stillman’s Swordplayer. It is bursting with innovations, such as a combat system with strategic choices, an encounter system that ensures an incremental increase in the difficulty of opponents, and numerous items with code numbers that you can add to a section number to attempt to use.  Not all of the design ideas work, for instance the overuse of anagrams and requiring a high Ego score to attempt them anyway I thought were weak points, but I certainly appreciated and commend such adventurous experimentation! Swordplayer is brutally difficult (after five failed attempts I know it’ll probably take a lot more attempts to beat what Stillman tells us is “the most challenging short gamebook ever conceived”) but it is difficult in a good way in that you get better at it with repeat play.

I applaud the complicated but innovative design , but found that the story lacks sufficient character motivation. An adventurer you are, simply seeking fame and fortune, your entire mission is detailed in only a single sentence: “Destroy the evil lounging beneath Castle Ironhold.” -Which being an adventurer, you happily set off to do, despite knowing nothing about the Castle or the danger inhabiting it, and despite “knowing you will probably die in here.” Which leads to me to conclude that you’re not a very bright adventurer, even if you are a skilled one.

I also found that the story was largely bereft of detail, and that its florid style tended towards somewhat superfluous "artist flourish" over substance, but despite all this, the mechanics of the gamebook are well handled and reasonably clear, making this quite a playable and challenging adventure indeed.

For my first play-through I began with the stats WAR 7, ACT 7, DON 5, EGO 6 and FIT 10), before finding that EGO was largely useless (since the anagrams were too difficult/time-consuming to figure out and EGO 6 generally wasn’t enough to attempt them anyway), whereupon I played with the minimum EGO 5 instead (and put the extra point into ACT to give me ACT 8), and fought dirty (which costs EGO) whenever I had the option.

A Familiar Story (Richard Penwarden)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 79% (7th place)

I loved the way this was designed. But here’s the thing: I like dice-based systems and I like random tables. I agree you can have too much randomness in gamebooks, but my preference is probably for more than most. I like randomness for the unpredictability it brings, and its potential to make repeat play-throughs so different. But randomness can be mishandled if success or failure is based too heavily on lucky dice rolls rather than good choices, which I think A Familiar Story does reasonably well (I died in the first combat on my first attempt but was a bit unlucky, before completing the whole gamebook on my second attempt with just 2 LIFE remaining).

To look at the rules for A Familiar Story and compare it to most of the other entries, there’s a lot and it all looks quite complicated: which it is, but most of it is managed for you by random tables. However it is an arguably unnecessarily complicated design (especially given the size of the gamebook/story) that nevertheless is a cool idea that allows for a huge variety in character design.

I thought it had a good story with good ideas and plot development, but was however brief and light on some details. The writing I thought was good but I found it contained occasional but consistent punctuation errors. The clarity of this gamebook I thought was as good as could be expected for a system requiring frequent checking and cross-referencing of numerous tables.

Overall, the huge variety in character outcomes lends to this being highly playable, even if the brevity (and to some degree randomness depending on your taste) does not so much.

Before I reached the end (where you lose all your powers and I deleted my stats) I *think* I had the following stats:

LIFE - Initially 12 but was down to only 2
BOND - 4
HERITAGE: Divine - Angelic
Blinding Glory
Eternal Life
Righteous Wrath
Halo of Sacrifice
…And I’m not sure what Items I had (sorry!) and I don’t think I had any Blessings or Penalties.

* The remaining six entries are what I considered to be the “cream of the crop”. All of these entries I thought were brilliant in their own way, especially what I deemed the top three *

Day of Dissonance (David Walters)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 81% (6th place)

I was really impressed by this and I’m told by David on twitter (whom I hope doesn’t mind me stating this here) that “As well as my first gamebook, that was my 1st horror. It is not the genre I write, I did it as a challenge and to take risks” -Which if anything, only makes his effort more impressive! (And to add to that, I too do things “as a challenge and to take risks” haha)

Day of Dissonance features a dramatic means of conveying reading and making choices that adds well to the atmospheric mood of this entry. -The “holding your breath” passage at the start comes to mind as an example, where you are instructed to read the section and make choices at the end whilst holding your breath, and deduct a Physique point for each breath you take. My head almost exploded doing this as I read fairly slowly (in the hope of making a more informed decision) and then my phone rang before I could make my decision!

Anyway this entry features a system that struck me as well-balanced, although seemed counter-intuitive in regards to inventory limits. Having said that, these inventory limits could be narratively justified by what is actually occurring that you only discover at the end (which I won’t spoil for you here as it really is what the whole story hinges on).

The story itself is very engaging with great twists and tie-ins, however light on details I thought. I thought it was well written and edited, with just the occasional over-repeated concept and lacking a little descriptively. The rules are very clear, and there’s just the occasional disconnect between the way a choice is presented and its actual execution/outcome. The varied paths within this gamebook and the interesting story, make this highly playable. An excellent first attempt for a gamebook and I look forward to what David Walters comes up with next!

I played with Physique 5 and Will 6, collecting a handful of items and becoming disassociated from reality along the way :) -I actually got the ultimate ending on my first attempt, only realising afterward that this was because I died at the end: which wouldn’t have happened had I not died.

Guild of Thieves (Andrew Wright)

STORY - 8.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 82% (5th place)

Guild of Thieves is built on an exceptional cool premise (and I actually thought it was probably going to win). You’re in charge of a guild of thieves (funnily enough) and rather than controlling a single character, you’re actually controlling the guild as a whole: making decisions and forming alliances to take control of the city and stop the “good guys” from having their goody way.

I found this to be a well-executed and balanced gamebook, that only suffers for its reliance on the luck of the dice, which in turn also hurts playability somewhat (even if you know exactly what to do, you’ll only succeed if you get lucky on the dice, meaning that you don’t really get better at this with subsequent plays).

There is some great attention to world detail and characterisation here, although at times I thought it was perhaps a little too brief. The writing itself is quite solid, although I found it contain the occasional typo, inefficient or vague clichéd expression at times. And although it is very non-linear and with quite different play-through paths (which are good things!), replayability suffers a little as noted above, as for all that variation in possible paths, it does rely on the randomness of dice rolls too heavily (even for me!) -I also thought this was better than Andrew Wright’s Sea of Madness that won last year’s Windhammer Prize as good as that was (and one of these days I’ll get to reading Ashton’s and Zachary’s entries at least too: I’ve got a bit of a backlog of reading at the moment, including about ten books I’ve won just this last week haha).

My guild (which I called “Deadly Snipers” after a Skaven Blood Bowl team I once coached) got the ultimate ending first attempt (but was quite lucky with the dice to achieve that!), finished with Guild Power 5 and a Strongbox of 1 and formed alliances with The Grifters, Tribesmen of Bone, an Angry Mob, the Order of Shadows and the Nin-Jaku-Za Brotherhood (and in that order).

Legacy of the Zendari (Ashton Saylor)

STORY - 8.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 84% (4th place)

Not that any of these reviews are objective (philosophically speaking such a thing is impossible anyway, unless perhaps you’re a being with powers of total omniscience, but I digress), but this is probably the hardest entry, aside from my own, to be “objective” about. This is because I was privy to an earlier version (when I gave some advice and suggestions, but really I didn’t do that much) and the final version was quite different in some respects. It’s also the case that by the time I came to read the final version, I’d already played the prior version quite a bit, and so in my familiarity with the work wasn’t so impressed as I otherwise would have been were I reading it for the first time…

Caveats aside, I think Legacy of the Zendari has an excellent simple design (that changed a bit between versions but anyway) that I think all hangs together nicely and covers many bases. I much preferred the revised difficulty levels (i.e. the ones that were in the final version) to the former version, as I think the three levels of difficulty Ashton has here are an accurate summary of how three different types of players would like to play: those who want to do “everything by book” (Challenge difficulty level), those who want to pretend that they do that, but roll again when it doesn’t suit them (so-called Normal difficulty level), and those who don’t wish to be held accountable by the roll of dice at all (Easy difficulty level).

I love the way Ashton sets up the story, the characterisation and the compelling events that unfold towards a very intriguing ending. I thought this entry generally exhibited strong well-written writing (some of the best in the competition as my score suggests), that nevertheless sometimes struck me as lacking in setting detail and contained the occasional typo. 

The rules and choices in the story are generally clearly explained, but just occasionally cumbersome in the case of rules (for instance tracking of time), and just occasionally non-explicit in the case of choices. This entry is strengthened further by the addition of differing achievements and rewards (and no doubt will be even better with the addition of illustrations that could not be included for the competition in order to meet the submission requirements), making this a highly playable gamebook… And evidently I’m not alone in this assessment, as Legacy of the Zendari was winner of one of the two Merit Awards in this year’s competition! Congratulations Ashton!! 

Due to the way in which I experienced this work, I can’t really say how many attempts it took or what achievements I acquired (it is quite hard though, but not in a bad way!) -Having said that I always took the Olympia Mecha after the first attempt (time being sooo important here), and after the first attempt I also stuck with the non-weapon licenses that let you do more “smart stuff” ;)

Final Payment (Zachary Carango)

DESIGN - 8.5
STORY - 9.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 88% (3rd place)

If you’ve read to this point, then you probably already know that this was the entry that won this year’s Windhammer Prize. And frankly, it’s easy to see why. In my humble opinion, this “masterpiece” by Zachary Carango had the best writing in the competition (it’s hard for me to give any piece of writing a score of 10 though, I thought perhaps that it was occasionally just slightly sparse on description? but maybe Zachary will do something that I’ll score a 10 for next year!) -I thought the writing was superlative, efficient and faultless (compare this with the “floral” writing of Ulysses Ai’s The Ravages of Fate to use an example and you may see where I’m coming from in arguing that overly “fancy” writing actually lessens the impact, and risks the reader getting lost in a series of metaphors and similes that don’t actually convey much in the way of information or add to the story: which certainly isn’t the case here). It also had the equal best story in my judgement, where again it’s hard for me to imagine what it’ll take for me to score a 10 for, with a fantastic narrative justification for the game mechanics, a vivid world, elements of humour, great dialogue and an abundance of awesome ideas.

I scored the design and clarity only slightly lower, but that’s not to say the the design aspects (and the clarity with which the rules and choices were presented) weren’t awesome too, because they were. The innovation of using a money payment to temporarily get a skill or combat effects was a truly awesome innovation. The overkill mechanic is a good innovation too. My only slight criticism in regard of the design (and clarity) is that I personally thought it was unnecessarily complicated with regards to resolving damage: which is by squaring the number of unique rolls. I mean I do like systems with exponential progression (and I’ve briefly written on this before), but really was such a complication necessary I wonder? In fact it probably came down to this one design choice that determined which entry got my vote: and given I placed this third, it wasn’t Final Payment (not that Zachary should care: he won anyway!)

* EDIT: As I said in response to Zachary below, I probably didn't stress enough that despite Final Payment having a (somewhat) complicated mechanic with regards to combat/damage resolution, it is (as Zachary explains below) very strategic. And in his own words: "I would have used a simpler system, but I didn't want to lose this element of strategy." - Which I think is a very fair conclusion to have reached :) *

But nit-picking aside, I was truly blown away by this entry (and inspired enough to go and download some of Zachary’s other gamebook entries to check out when I get the chance). The story for me is so memorable, that it is one of the two stories in particular of all the gamebook entries, that has really stayed with me. It says something about the strength about this competition that I can rave about this entry and yet I didn’t even vote for it! A well-deserved winner indeed!!

On the playability score, you may wonder then why I’ve only given 8. I guess it’s all relative… The best gamebooks get 8 on my scale, but it takes something “extra” to get more than this (8.5 in the case of Ashton’s entry as it includes achievements and had a competition too, higher still in the case of my own entry as each play-through starts different and it can also be played with up to six players).

(And as an aside, I’ve also just noticed that I’ve never given a score higher than 9 for Clarity: hmmm not sure I can fully justify that one)

I actually got the ultimate ending first go (but that’s not to say it was easy: I needed a little bit of luck and good choices to get there) with 100 Health but only 500K left in my account and had the following skills:
Hand to Hand Combat
Firearms Training

Ookle of the Broken Finger (Paul Gresty)

STORY - 9.5
MY OVERALL SCORE: 89% (2nd place)

If I wasn’t hugely excited about Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories before I read this entry, then I certainly am now! So go on and back it! (and while you’re there back Maelorum, the Fighting Fantasy Documentary Film and Cthulhu World Combat by the legendary Sandy Petersen too: I did!

* EDIT: And there's yet more awesome news on this front. Paul Gresty has just advised me (via the comments below) that Megara Entertainment (the one's producing the Kickstarter project Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories) have now made available a FREE pdf prequel - Arcana Agency: the Case of the Unghostly Ghost, also written by the AWESOME Paul Gresty! If you like gamebooks, you'd be mad not to check this out :)

But back to Ookle of the Broken Finger (of Big, Dark Mountain)… I love love loved this! (And yes I think the alcoholic enthusiasm is kicking in now that I’m onto my third beer of the evening). Firstly as an aside (yeah another one, sorry), I actually flirted with a similar idea for my Windhammer entry this year (in that you were to play the role of a sh*t-kicker goblin, just trying to make your way in the world and avoid being slain by those “self-righteous” humans with their fancy books, cities and empires). But gee, I’m glad I didn’t, as I doubt I would have been able to hold a candle to the tale of Ookle…

Ookle of the Broken Finger I found to have an excellent design that is well-balanced, contains a variety of interesting items and readily allows for advancement. Whilst I appreciate the writing style won’t be to everyone’s taste (it’s written in the mind-set of the Ookle the goblin, I mean jumblee, himself) I thought it was exceptionally clever, well-written and featured great ideas, awesome world details (I was much reminded of Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), clever puzzles, awesome characterisation and well-executed elements of humour. I personally I felt it could occasionally use a bit more description (in character), and that it had the occasional minor typo, but really it’s pretty damn awesome, and if you haven’t checked it out, you really should (I feel for the 19 entries that didn’t win: especially the ones I thought were exceptional like this one).

The story and rules I thought were very clear and well introduced, and overall that it was an excellent, compelling and well thought-out delivery that is highly playable. There really isn’t much I can criticise about this “masterpiece” (yes another one I’ve dubbed a “masterpiece”) even if I try, and it says something that about the impact this gamebook had on me that I was making notes on my character sheet in character (like “Big-Big Dragon calls itself Zieryl”) and this was my favourite story of all the gamebook entries… In fact I still wonder how Ookle is doing now :)

I actually got to the ending first go (but believe me, it takes a while to get there: this isn’t a gamebook you’ll breeze through by any stretch) whereupon here is a fascinating choice to make. I was torn over what Ookle should do here for some time (and there’s two “good” endings here that are both awesome in completely different ways), before deciding to do one and then reading what would have happened if I had chosen the other (for the record I drank the potion: actually I figured I’d just take a sip first to see what happened but anyway). I ended up with a whole bunch of useful items and the following stats:
Hitting Stuff - 2D+3
Dodging Stuff - 2D+6
Breaking Stuff - 2D+4
Thinking - 2D+3
Not Dead Yet - 20

Trial of the Battle God (Andrew Drage)

MY OVERALL SCORE: 90% (1st place)

This is my own entry of course, so I guess it isn’t that much of a revelation that I not only voted for it, but rated it highest according to my own criteria… But you know what? I’m going to devote a whole post to this and explain how I wrote it, why I designed it the way I did, why I rated it as highly as I did, and cover the feedback it received… Until then, it’s time I called it a night and got some sleep :)

But first, just to reiterate what I said at the end of Part 1 of these reviews, please let me know if I’ve said anything you consider erroneous/inaccurate and I’ll amend accordingly (being human, I’m quite fallible after all). And of course, I welcome any comments/thoughts on the above! (and yes I’m too lazy at the moment to bother checking this post for typos before posting)

Thanks for reading!

Deconstruction of Trial of the Battle God
(Brewin’s) Wrap-up of the Freeplay, Windhammer, Wr...

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