The Windhammer Prize is an annual competition for gamebooks – which, in this context, means pen-and-paper state-tracking CYOA. I’m not going to review every entry – just a smattering of the more interesting ones.
The event’s rules require that entries include quite specific forms of state-tracking: either a character-creation system or an inventory system. Most of the entries feature heroic, combat-oriented protagonists and simple (and sometimes not-so-simple) combat systems – so this is very firmly in the tabletop-RPG-emulating tradition of Fighting Fantasy.
Unusually for this style of game, however, there’s a hard limit of 100 sections – that’s close to the size of a typical Choose Your Own Adventure, but about a quarter the size of a typical combat-and-character-sheets gamebook. This makes them relatively straightforward to map!
Sabrage (Philip Armstrong) features a PC who is a sentient magic sword. Qorc, the most recent adventurer to wield the protagonist, engages in the conventional combat, hunger, gold and hit-points, but you have to work to develop his Trust.
This is a less interesting premise than it might have been, because Qorc’s motives don’t really conflict with the sword’s: the sword doesn’t want to be alone, and Qorc wants to find all the treasures. There’s only one good ending and you’re both working towards it.
The sword, in fact, works mostly as a triangle of identities device, separating our agency from Qorc’s. Much of the time, this is not a very strong division, and things proceed exactly as they would if you were just playing Qorc. Neither Qorc nor the sword have a huge amount of personality, and the text doesn’t describe a whole lot of interaction between them. You can imagine this premise as a squabbling buddy movie, say, but that’s really not what’s going on here. (Part of it is that, what with backtracking, the game text can rarely reflect how much Trust you have at any given point.)
The world of Sabrage is not shockingly original – a little bit of Dimensional Adventure, plus some Kingdom of Loathing-ish light-hearted wackiness where monsters are mostly made of food – but it’s enough of a departure from orthodox Fantasyland to hold some interest. The giant frozen wave studded with wrecked ships was particularly striking.
Slightly unfortunate: the antagonist is an avaricious merchant spider called Rothschilde. I doubt that this was an intentional connection – Jewish influence depicted as a spider is a recurring theme in anti-Semitic propaganda, but not one so well-known that it couldn’t be overlooked; and I can imagine plenty of people not realising that ‘Rothschild’ is a Jewish name. Still: should have been caught and fixed.
Structurally speaking, it’s pretty clearly an Open Map game, with lots of backtracking and tightly-grouped knots of nodes. There’s an intro sequence, after which things become hub-and-spoke; there are four central nodes which can readily be returned to, but the outer extremities of the map are where most of the risks and rewards lie. In a fairly classic adventure-game format, you have to run back and forth from the map’s extremities, collecting items that will unlock other branches; and it’s best to do so efficiently, avoiding events which damage Health and Trust.
Red links form a simple way of recording state: you’re only meant to be able to enter such a node once. This is a bit awkwardly implemented, because really the forbidden thing is the node, not the link: in a couple of places there are unforbidden links to forbidden nodes.
The three boxed-off sections at the far end of each major area are combat encounters, each a tightly-interlinked bundle of nodes in which you make decisions about fighting a boss monster. At any point when the monster’s hit points are low enough, you can exit the whole cluster. These are, internally, less chaotic than they look; there are always three choices, at least one of which allows backtracking. A small number of moves cannot be executed without high enough Trust.
The final confrontation with the bad guy isn’t a fight in this sense; it’s entirely a question of how high you’ve built your Trust. If it’s under 6, you automatically lose. This is a straightforward resolution to the central theme: it’s a bit cheesy (at the end of the squabbly buddy-movie the two heroes must learn to rely on one another!) but sometimes cheesy makes the most sense. And it fits my strong preference against final boss battles. You’ll have been doing everything you can to build Trust up to this point. I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s great as a mechanic – honestly, if I lose at this point, I’m just going to cheat and say I won rather than replaying from the beginning.
After the Flag Fell (Felicity Banks) allows you to play a heavily fictionalised version of the life of Australian miner, rebel and politician Peter Lalor, beginning in the immediate aftermath of the Eureka Stockade miner’s revolt. That’s interesting in its own right, since I have pretty limited knowledge of Australian history. Among the differences: in this world metal objects are enchanted and confer special benefits.
It’s told in the first person, and its choice structure is a little bit unusual for the field. Here’s the first choice you’re offered:
I spotted a pile of slabs nearby – big enough and untidy enough to keep me hidden. If you choose to hide under the timber, add a mark to Caution and go to Page 4.
A hot air balloon drifted across the battlefield, and a wealthy-looking woman reached out her hand to invite me aboard. If you choose to trust her, add a mark to Trust and go to Page 5.
A Scottish acquaintance of my friend Duncan Gillies saw me and yelled, “Peter! Mr Lalor! I have a horse for you.” If you choose to trust him, add a mark to Trust and go to Page 6.
There were tunnels beneath the hill. I knew I could escape and hide in the bush and no-one would ever find me. If you choose to hide in the bush, add a mark to Caution and go to Page 7.
Realistically, it’s unlikely that all of these opportunities would present themselves to you all at once – even though that’s precisely the usual conceit of choice menus. This feels a bit more like a StoryNexus structure, a matter of choosing narratively rather than in-persona: note how the first-person narration gives way to ‘you’ when choices (bold in original) are offered.
There’s a Choicescripty feel of a plot based around big life choices; indeed, often these jumps were so abrupt that I felt as though far too much had been glossed over. While I don’t know much about C19th Australian politics, it doesn’t seem too plausible that winning the vote for Aborigines c. 1856 would have been a matter of holding fast to one’s principles and making some impassioned speeches, or that the issue would have rested there. In general, as alternate history, this does too much ‘and then this happened’ and not enough exploration of why, how and what-then. And for an alternate bio piece, it seems pretty hesitant to show Lalor as a person, rather than an avatar of history.
Structure! This seems like a pretty straightforward branch-and-bottleneck game, albeit a relatively small one (it clocks in at 57 nodes, well below the 100-node limit; the numbering is inflated somewhat by unconnected ‘easter egg’ commentary pages).
There’s a back-loop in name only: you can recapitulate the opening battle and return to the opening node, but when you do so you’re required to make a special choice that takes you entirely out of the original game again, so this is effectively an entirely different node.
There’s some obvious modular clusters: the early game, divided into two major chunks; then a middle section where the question is about whether you successfully romance Lalor’s (historical) wife Alice Dunne, and whether you sacrifice anything in the process; and then, finally, a broad but still interconnected ‘what you do for the rest of your life’ sequence. The structure fairly closely tracks Lalor’s actual life – there are some radical departures, such as when he goes off to live with Aborigines, but these generally end the game right quick, or else push you back into the central plot.