Thursday, 26 July 2012

Combat Mechanics

Most gamebooks out there feature some form of combat system. The gamebook authors intended for you to do what most adventurers do best: fight monsters. These combat systems range drastically in complexity, from Fighting Fantasy’s roll 2 dice and compare, to DestinyQuest’s choose your combat ability, roll dice, compare, and apply passive damage and other effects. The challenges gamebook designers face is to design a combat system that is simple, fair to both player and monster, and most importantly: entertaining. Here I have a criteria for making a good combat system, and I am going to compare the combat systems of a few popular gamebooks in each of the following categories:

Simplicity and Quickness
Most players want to be able to resolve their combat fairly easily and quickly; it can become rather tedious to have to roll a series of dice for you and your opponent, add, subtract, multiply and divide (and don’t forget to round down!) different scores, compare to a chart and then find out you’re only dealt 2 damage to your opponent with 100 HP. Now do it all over again 50 times. This can be reconciled if the combat system is very entertaining to the player (see below), but even the best combat systems get redundant after the 50th die roll.
Good Examples: Lonewolf did a rather good job with this; subtract your opponent’s Combat Skill from your Combat Skill, then pick random numbers and compare on table to find out what happened; you didn’t need to sit there working out the numbers in your head, which for some younger readers could be especially tedious.
Bad Examples: Car Wars gamebooks tried to make their system way too complex and just ruined it with trivial calculations and rolls. I remember my experience when I played Badlands Run. I had to keep track of my weapons, where they were facing, how many weapons I had and how much damage they did to my enemy, add my combat bonus, which was made up of a multitude of other scores like “Gunnery” and a targeting computer, roll dice compare to opponent’s Defence Class, watch out for recoil, then see if I did Special Damage, roll on the Special damage chart and apply the effects of that, see how much damage that did to the vehicle, how much damage that did to the weapons, and to the driver, and don't forget to subtract armor scores and saving rolls. Then I had to go through the same process for my opponent. Did I mention I was facing 4 opponents at the same time, for whom I had to do the same stupid calculations for? Oh, and I wasn’t even using the “Advanced” rules.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like math and all, but a million stupid plus-minus calculations while I’m trying to play a game just gets boring. I also appreciate that the game designer was just trying to give you more freedom and make things more realistic by letting you and your enemy choose what part of the cars you attack. But come on, really?

Fairness and Predictability
Many of the early gamebooks had problems with making their combats either way too easy, or way too difficult for the player. Especially because combat was so unfair, it was also predictable, and made the player inclined to just skip the combat because they know they would inevitably win without taking damage, or get absolutely destroyed. A good gamebook has combats that will leave the player biting their nails hoping to come out alive, making both success and failure real possibilities. Authors must also take into account how much a player may be damaged from previous encounters. However writers must either allow you to heal after your fights, of make the combats sufficiently easy; you can’t have your reader just barely defeat his last enemy, hanging in the balance between life and death, then have another monster jump out straight afterwards with an opportunity to heal.
Good example: Most Tunnels and Trolls books made their monster’s MR be a function of the player’s level and/or combat adds. By doing this the authors have managed to make players of lower levels still able to vanquish their enemies, and players of higher levels still have difficulties. Thus a veteran player with a magic sword won't be yawning the whole way through, and a newbie won't get squashed before they get anywhere.
Bad example: For the bad example I’m actually not going to talk about everyone’s favorite unfair gamebook, Crypt of the Sorcerer, but rather everyone’s second favorite: The Crimson Tide. At the very beginning you are faced with a Giant Mudworm. Now in this FF title you start off as a kid and so are weaker than a full grown man; you roll one die for your skill, but don’t add anything. So your skill is 1-6. The Giant Mudworm is given 12 skill. Even with the highest skill possible, your enemy is still at least 6 above you. I don’t believe there has ever been such an unbalanced combat in the history of gamebooks, especially for the very beginning. Now of course people went up to Paul Mason and were like “What the hell man?” and so Mason confirmed it was a typo; the Mudworm was only supposed to have a skill of 6. But still if I roll a 1 for my skill I’m facing an enemy who’s got 5 more skill than I do. I might as well start rerolling my character already.

Balancing Choice and Randomness
Having a combat system that takes into account the reader’s choices is absolutely essential to me. Unfortunately very few systems do this well, most are just a series of die roll that I have no impact upon. For most gamebook combat systems you could easily write a computer program that you would put your character and your opponent’s character’s info into, and then have the computer instantly give you the winner. When I see a combat system like that, I often ask “Why even bother? I read this gamebook because I wanted to have an interactive experience, and this system is not doing it right.” Choices that a player could use to affect combat could include being able to use spells, abilities, techniques, and movement. On the flipside a combat must have a small degree of randomness. If there is no randomness, then the player could easily just win all their combats by knowing the right series of choices to make. For example the cyclops from Seas of Blood is a fantastic example of giving the player choice, however, once you play through the combat once, you’re going to know the exact series of moves you need to kick that cyclops’ ass the next time ‘round.
Good Example: Wizard Outcast, a gamebook that has not received the attention it deserves, did an excellent job with blending choice and randomness. The player got to choose what spell they cast, or what weapon to use when attacking an enemy, they would then roll a d20 to determine how effective their attack was. The player has to be strategic in choosing what attack to use. Some spells take up more mana than others. Some spells can hit multiple opponents at once, while others will give more concentrated damage against one opponent. Also the player must roll the d20 to see what the enemy did. The player might have to change their attack tactic to counteract their opponent’s move. A very good blend of Choice and Randomness.
Bad Example: I mentioned this book in my last post about liner gamebooks, well this book also has a liner combat system as well. Quest for the Dragon’s Eye, (which, as you can guess, is one of my least favorites) also features a combat system where you have to just roll the dice and see what happens. Even in Fighting Fantasy you were given the choice of using luck, albeit it only meant the difference of 1 stamina point, and who was really going to waste their precious few luck points on combat anyway? But in Quest for the Dragon’s Eye there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect combat.

Entertainment and Enjoyment
This is the most important category. All the flaws of a combat system can be forgiven if it is entertaining. The purpose of a game is to have fun, and so if a gamebook is providing you with entertainment, it is doing its job wonderfully. I find that combat systems that are less abstract and give the player a better mental image of what how their combat is going down tend to be more entertaining for me. I personally also really like systems that are really interactive and (secretly) prefer systems that are slightly more on the player’s side. What can I say? I like to win, and I like to earn it. To each his own of course.
Good Example: Of all the gamebooks I’ve played, I must say The Legion of Shadow had one of the most entertaining combat systems out there. I loved being able to use the abilities provided by my equipment to strategically take my enemies down, while having to work around my enemies abilities which were keeping me back. Combat was really exciting, I could imagine my character using the special abilities against my enemy and vice versa, and when I finally defeated my enemy victory felt earned. Sure there are a few flaws, but all in all one of, if not the best gamebook combat system out there.
Bad Example: I’m sorry Fighting Fantasy, but most of your combats are just too abstract and unentertaining for me. You can say that I have a poor imagination because I have difficulty imagining my enemy’s swipe miss me, while I manage to stab my opponent every time I roll higher than my opponent, but really I don’t find a simple die roll inspiring. Some FF titles included tables for some special monsters where you’d roll a die any time you got hit to see exactly how your enemy attacked you, which I enjoyed, but for the most part the combats were rather dull, unbalanced and uninteractive. This has lead me to skip a combat many a time in my days.

There a lot of Gamebooks I have not yet played, but supposedly have good combat systems, for example Eternal Champions. I am unable to comment on how well designed those are, but thus far I have not found a perfect combat system. Even Way of the Tiger got predictable after you used a move twice and The Legion of Shadow was way too easy for rogues who would just use their speed to kill their enemies without being touched. Many do come close to being perfect though, my top three would be DestinyQuest, Blackstaff Adventures, and Way of the Tiger.

Because I haven’t yet found perfection, I myself have tried to write a “perfect” combat system. I am hoping readers will find it satisfies all of the above criteria. I will be releasing a micro gamebook to showcase my new combat system soon. (All is written, just needs editing and play testing to make sure it is completely balanced.)

Last but not least, in my opinion a gamebook doesn’t actually need a combat system to be good; in fact almost all of the greatest gamebooks out there are known because of their plot, rather than their mechanics. Examples include Life’s Lottery and Pretty Little mistakes, which are essentially CYOAs for adults with great designs and plots. Also Heart of Ice and The Forgotten Spell, which had great mechanics and plots, but no actual combat with die-rolling.

I would love to hear what YOU have to say about this article. What would YOU add and/or change about this article? What do YOU find most important in a gamebook combat system? What are YOUR favorite combat systems in gamebooks? And are combat systems essential to a gamebook? So please leave comments!


  1. Keith Bernstein27 July 2012 at 06:30

    Good blog post...

    I disagree with your comment about FF (Balancing Choice and Randomness): with a character having low stamina and high luck in the middle of a battle, it makes sense to expend luck points to cause the monster to lose additional stamina points in order to survive. This adds some tactical choice to battles.

    Although I enjoy the Lone Wolf series, the Combat Results Table is heavily unbalanced towards Lone Wolf. This enables the character to survive in a fight with a much stronger opponent but reduces the realism of battles. In addition, there are no tactical choices available to the player.

    Ideally, a combat system ought to be fairly simple, yet offer the player tactical choices to make combat more than dice-rolling.

    I look forward to reading your gamebook in the future. Although you have a link to your works on your web page, none seem to be available.

  2. Thanks! :)

    Yes I do agree that there is some tactical choice in Fighting Fantasy, though I myself found that it was always better to save my luck; in battle it meant the difference of a single stamina point, whereas if I was asked to test my luck outside of battle, it was usually the difference between life and instant death. I completely agree that if I were in a dire situation in combat then I would use luck to help lower damage done to me.

    You're also right about the Lonewolf tables being player favored. Hence why I didn't put Lonewolf for under the Fairness and Predictability. I believe the reason the Combat Results Table favored Lonewolf is because you could often find yourself fighting several enemies in a row without an opportunity to heal; and most often you enemy would do at least a little damage to you. After a few combats in a row it would start to add up. Though of course even taking that into account I still found myself sailing through Lonewolf souped-up on gear from previous books. So yes I agree; doesn't make in past the Fairness and Predictability criteria.

    As for your ideas of what make an ideal combat system, I couldn't have said it better myself :)

    Lastly I'm terribly sorry about the current emptiness of my "My Works" page. I'm going to post my micro gamebook with my ideal combat system there soon, and I'll also be posting my Windhammer entry there too. I just need to finish up my editing!

  3. Keith Bernstein27 July 2012 at 11:31

    According to my copy of Warlock of Firetop Mountain, after wounding a creature, a successful roll of Testing Your Luck inflicts a loss of an extra 2 stamina points. Thus, when fighting a powerful monster, a successful battle roll plus a successful luck roll can subtract 4 stamina points. This can really help if your own stamina score is low and luck score is high. I think this is worth the loss of a luck point.

  4. Quite Right. In the case where you have low stamina and high luck, I agree it is worth it to spend that luck point. In that situation luck works as an interesting tactical choice. However players won't often be in that situation. By the time a player reaches a combat that will be ready to actually kill them, they'll most likely have passed a few luck tests already. I heard of a rules mod where if you are lucky, then subtract 1 luck as per usual, if you are unlucky then add 1 luck. That way it keeps things balanced and will make the player more inclined to use luck in battle (I know it would for me!)

  5. I've thought about these same problems and have come to largely the same conclusions as you. I don't know how you chose to solve the problem, but I'm certainly looking forward to finding out!

    In my own amateur work, I've decided to do away with dice in favor of a system based on poker cards. Because cards have "memory"--the cards you have already drawn alter what kind of cards you can draw later--the system has randomization, yet allows players to make decisions each turn. It's pretty quick, and players can (theoretically) improve their personal ability as the game progresses, even if their character's abilities stay the same. The downside is that there is a fair amount of shuffling. Plus, the system has been tacked on to a story which is exceptionally linear, which I recognize that many players dislike. So the game's still very much a work-in-progress, but I've received some nice compliments on it so far.

    If you are at all curious, you can check out the rules and the first three chapters here:

    1. I'll be taking a look at that too. Many thanks for the link :)

    2. I'll go check that out as well, Kurth. Thanks for posting the link!

      Where should we leave comments for you if we have feedback? Do you have a site or blog of your own?

  6. Holy smokes, you must have read my mind with the card deck thing! My soon-to-come-out micro gamebook uses cards as well. I read the rules for Wings of Lightning, they look superb! Very different from how my gamebook is going to use the cards; I'll be using a die as well. I've been working on play-testing and editing my mico gamebook. Hopefully it'll be out by my next post! :)
    P.S. I look forwards to seeing Winds of Lightning complete :) Keep up the good work!

  7. Keith Bernstein29 July 2012 at 12:48

    I thought readers might be interested in a series of postings on the Project Aon forum. The topic is Favorite Gamebook Combat Systems. The link is

    BTW: I'm new to the Gamebooks hobby. I've only done two FFs and two LWs. I'm *no expert* so take all of my comments as such!

    The combat system for Wings of Lightning is imaginative and very different from either and does provide for decision making by the player. I look forward to working through the book after I complete FF5.

  8. "The combat system for Wings of Lightning is imaginative and very different from either and does provide for decision making by the player. I look forward to working through the book...." I may use this quote when advertising the game once it's done!

    Interesting discussion on Project Aon. I really need to keep up with that site more.

  9. I think a simple system which then allows the player some choices as to how to affect the die roll is best. I think the Destiny Quest system is all round the best as it scores highly for everything except sometimes quickness. Resolve who hits with two dice followed by damage being 1d6 + your offensive value - your opponent's defensive value. Then you have a nice range of choices to modify any die roll, deal more damage, reduce your opponent's damage etc.

  10. Yeah, I'd say that right now DestinyQuest has one of the best combat systems. The powers make it much more fun than most systems, and adds more choice. It's also fairly simple, though sometimes keeping track of your passive effects and modifiers can go wild. The only real short coming in the system is that characters with really high Speed score, such as Rogues, can win almost every combat round without taking any damage whatsoever. So it's quite unbalanced for Rogues, but that's easily forgivable because it does everything else so right.

  11. Oh noes--my attempt to add you to my google reader apparently failed! Now you have all these great posts up which I've missed until now ;)

    I really like this breakdown of what makes a good combat system. Lots of food for thought here.

    What I find particularly helpful is your call for combat systems to allow the player to make choices during fights. I've almost never seen any gamebook systems that allow you to make any meaningful choice during a combat, but that would make it much, much better.

    The question for me is how to do that without overwhelming the player. This is definitely going to be something I'll give some though to in the future. Maybe do a blog post of my own about it soon...

    I'll leave more detailed comments on both Emancipation and the Battle of Bamajeda over there. Thanks again for this post :)

  12. Thanks for your kind words Ashton :)
    I agree that it's important not to overwhelm the player; I'd say that might go under the criteria of Simplicity and Quickness. It can be hard to balance all of these criteria, which I believe is why we don't have a "perfect" combat system out there yet. Not that there aren't many great combat systems already that work well.

    I would love to see your own blog post about it as well. I look forward to it :)

  13. hello everyone,

    for someone who is familiar with gamebooks & RPG's for more then 20 years now, and working at the moment on my own project of an original game-book in Hebrew, i must say that this article is terrific. you hit all the right spots, and gave me a lot of material to think about and consider.

    also, as a D&D player - i think the main reason huge RPG games such as D&D managed to survive and even prosper up until today, with all the computer craziness around us, is it's depth and vastness of choices to make, both while building and developing your character and while actually playing the game.

    my goal now, in terms of combat system, is to create a system which might not be as complicated and deep as in major rpg's, but will still be a huge change from what FF/lone wolf fans knew, and will be generally directed for rpg veterans.

    i hope i'll post here some good news in the future regarding my conceiving book =).

  14. Thank you for your kind words shay. I look forward to seeing your book and how you will design your combat system. Sadly I do not speak Hebrew :( any chance there might be an English, French or Spanish translation?

  15. my friend! once i'll finish creating it and publish it in my native language, my first priority will be working on an English translation.
    at the moment it's at the very begining, basic stage of a whim and the first seeds of an idea combined together. I'm starting at the very roots: creating the world, magic system, combat system, character design etc, and writing notes as for the main story. it will take a lot of time - but I'm very excited working on it, and since I'm about to publish(print stage) my first book here(short horror stories collection) it feels great and truly to start writing again within the genre that was my first love :). my second future book will be a game-book.

    will keep you guys posted for sure <3.