House of Danger: CYOA book to tabletop game

houseofd-coverHouse of Danger is an adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure book into a card-based format, sold in a box in board-game format.

Considered purely as game design, this might seem wrong-headed. Turning a choice-based book into a board game is cumbersome and doesn’t really add a lot of affordances compared to book plus character sheet; adapting it into a digital format would give the designer more tools and free the player from a lot of the busy-work of managing their stuff, but a tabletop game does none of that. There’s a certain pleasure in handling a physical artifact, sure, but you already get that from a physical book!

Market-wise, though, it’s a much more obvious choice. Videogames are a tough market; how tough varies over time and venue, but the breaks in the cloud often turn out to be sucker holes, particularly given development time. Board games have a softer reputation: the audience is less aggressively demanding and more willing to pay reasonable prices, you’re less beholden to monopoly platforms, and development costs for a given level of professional polish tend to be lower. And in the past few years board games have been experimenting with more narrative-focused design, often in ways that reflect established patterns of adventure games and CYOA, and being successful even when they’re not very good as narrative. Just this week I found out that Fiasco, perhaps the most popular storygame RPG, is getting a Kickstarter for a new edition as a boxed card game, which might make it appealing to a much larger board-game audience who might be reluctant to invest in a game composed of a book and some grimy index cards – and also, not coincidentally, opening up the option to sell playsets as card decks, rather than having them churned out as free .pdfs by third parties. Point is: the board game space is regarded with envy by a lot of narrative-gaming fields, and I can absolutely see why you’d go after this.

The adaptation was done by Forrest-Pruzan Creative – a studio that primarily makes games for existing IPs – under the pen name Prospero Hall. Where modern Chooseco efforts have mostly focused on the same audience demographic as they did in the 70s through the 90s – roughly, 8-12 year olds – House of Danger is more obviously a nostalgia piece built to trade on the brand’s existing cachet rather than trying to capture new readers. It has the familiar cover layout, font and inkpen illustration of the original series; and its subject, a psychic detective exploring a haunted mansion, is right in the Chooseco wheelhouse. One obvious divergence is that the books tended to make the protagonist more explicitly a child – typically supported by illustrations of a generic, slightly gender-ambiguous white tween – whereas House leaves this very ambiguous. The expectation here is probably that a larger chunk of the audience will be adults.

IMG_3105The other thing is that board games provide a familiar social context for adults in collaborative group play, in a way that books (and IF works) typically do not. I’m very used to playing choice-based books in a group, and I think it works wonderfully; but I have weird friends. In general, the practice of adults reading aloud to one another as a recreational activity died, as a truly popular form, shortly after the advent of radio; we do not have that frame of reference. But tabletop games often involve some amount of reading aloud, so pitching this as a tabletop game makes sense. There is absolutely zero mechanical reason to play House in a group, but you’ll probably have more fun that way.

Structurally, there are a lot of changes from a standard Choose Your Own Adventure format. There is light stat-tracking, an inventory, dice-rolling challenges; it’s all very close to the quantity and type of stat-tracking you’d see in Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf or other works in the Steve Jackson tradition.

There are two main decks in the game: a story deck and a clue deck, with the story deck (mostly) containing the main narrative structure and the clue deck containing clues and inventory items. It’s not always like that, though; sometimes the clue deck gives you connections to new nodes rather than stuff you keep. So perhaps it makes more sense to think of the story deck as the basic, paper-book-like structure and the clue deck as governing the state-tracking aspects of the game. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ve only marked clue deck cards where they’re an element of distinct paths.)

Individual story cards often have optional challenges as well as story choices, typically involving a dice roll, having enough Psychic score, or owning a particular item. On my node-map I’ve marked these with a triangle – speaking of which, on to the map!

houseofdangerThe story is organised into five chapters, each with its own individually-wrapped card decks – which is to say, it’s a very regular branch-and-bottleneck! This is mostly a player convenience: it means that they can play a relatively long game without having to shuffle through an awkwardly large deck. Each story deck is thirty cards (plus a title card) long, so things are not just regular but signaled as regular. They’re a good way to break up your session – you could finish this at a sitting, but it’d be a pretty long one.

These bottlenecks are used to facilitate a degree of exhaustive play: at the end of chapters, you’re given the option to return in order to replay branches that you’d missed, potentially collecting more items and clues at the cost of increasing the Danger track. (The last chapter doesn’t have this, and in the fourth chapter the choice is offered just before the end-of-chapter action sequence, rather than at the end).

This is, conceptually, a geographically-organised game – when you’re given the option to replay, it’s in terms of exploring different areas of the house, and each chapter goal is about accessing a new physical space, breaking into the house or reaching the basement and so on.  In fact, though, it’s not very cleanly geographically divided, mostly because its interconnections are very dense. Beneath the level of the individual chapters, there aren’t a lot of sections that are tightly bundled to themselves; and in general you rarely spend a lot of time in a particular situation before moving on to the next thing.

The goals here were, I think, to make each chapter feel bigger than it actually is, while allowing for exhaustive play. (This is a game that strongly assumes that you’re only going to play it once.) On the one hand, it wants each chapter to be like a hub-and-spoke arrangement, where you go through each area and clear out everything you need – but the thing about hub-and-spoke is that it can feel very deliberate and systematic, less of a headlong adventure. So what it does is offer the headlong adventure first, then allow for a more exhaustive hub-and-spoke approach if you want it.

Chapters 1 and 2 provide several ways to reach the end, but Chapters 3-5 bottleneck before the end, requiring you to go through challenging final sequences that are crucial to the plot. In 3, this introduces a character who’ll stick around in future chapters, and in 4 and 5, they’re climactic action sequences.

What we’ve got here is a piece that, visually, textually and thematically, feels similar to a classic Choose Your Own Adventure, but in terms of structure and gameplay feels like something very different. Some of the classic Steve Jackson moods creep in – the need to distrust choices which seem too tempting to be true is a very Fighting Fantasy kind of mood, but less prominent in Choose Your Own Adventure. Combat, too, is much more of a regular, normalised possibility than it generally is in Choose Your Own Adventure books; in the typical CYOA you can’t generally fight anyone because you’re a ten-year-old with adult antagonists. In this, you can meet Genghis Khan and kick his ass.

The psychic-detective format does a couple of things. One is that it allows you to collect clues – surreal images which give hints about future events (there are some shades of Mysterium here; we didn’t find clues enormously helpful on our playthrough, although there was one that predicted a thing that would kill us.) Another is as a justification for player death – if something kills you, you return to your previous position and lose points on the Psychic track, which implies (although this isn’t explicit) that the death was actually just a premonition that allowed you to avoid the fatal choice. A high Psychic score is also good because it often unlocks more content – but this tends to lead to a bit of a rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer design problem, with success leading to more success and failure leading to more failure. And that means that failure is boring, so the player has a lot of incentive to cheat. About halfway through the second chapter we bodged a few rolls in succession and reached the conclusion that not cheating wasn’t worth it.

This is a really big design problem for solo and co-op games, and particularly narrative-focused ones! (And a very old one in gamebooks.) In a tactically-focused co-op game, the main reward is overcoming tactical challenge, so cheating defies the point; but in games where the challenge is not itself the reward, challenge can easily become a pain in the ass.

(In Pandemic Legacy, which is more narrative than the norm but still very much a tactics-first game, there’s a balance: success gives you advantages; but it also progressively increases the difficulty level, and failure grants you some different bonuses. You want to succeed often, but there’s less pressure to succeed optimally; you can take a few losses without feeling screwed. Pandemic Legacy is not a great narrative game qua narrative, but it’s superb at motivating players to accept some narrative failure.)

There is some unifying plot to House, but unless you start playing exhaustively from the outset, it’s quite possible that you’ll miss some critical parts. But this doesn’t matter all that much, because experiencing random and goofy scenes is most of the point, and what continuity there is doesn’t matter a whole lot. There’s a sequence where you’re shrunk down to explore a doll-house, have psychic battles with the king and queen dolls, and then emerge again – why? Because it seems like a spooky thing to happen, and it provides an opportunity to boost your Psychic score. (There’s some justification, later on, for why there’s so much weird shit going on, but the ghost stuff has entirely different justifications than the weird science stuff.)

The conclusion mostly rests on whether you’ve accumulated the right stuff so far – either a high Psychic score, or the right kinds of inventory items. These generally go together, though – throughout the game, having a good Psychic score tends to unlock items, and having the right items tends to give Psychic bonuses. There are some trade-offs  – end-of-chapter replays raise Danger, and when the Danger track spills over then you lose Psychic points – but this isn’t really something the player can balance strategically. Again, this is not really a game designed for replay; I think the expected behaviour is that you’ll get your ‘real’ ending and then leaf through all the other ending cards, which are clustered together at the back of the story deck.

housedangerNow, compare to the book version of House of Danger. First published 1982, it’s #15 in the original series, and the sixth by Montgomery. I’ve got the revised edition, published 2006. Chooseco-era books, conveniently, display their own node-map on the back cover. (This one also contains a two-page summary of choice-based book history at the back of the book, mentioning some things that I wasn’t aware of – but also never mentioning Edward Packard and kind of implying that Montgomery created CYOA all by himself.)

This is a very familiar kind of structure for works of that era, especially those written by Montgomery. And it could absolutely not be more different from the boxed version! It’s a straightforward slow-branching time cave with no state and no merging at all; it has a lot of no-choice jumps, often four or five in a row. All of the choices are binary. Of course, it occupies a substantially smaller space than the box set, but it also packs that space a lot less densely.

Beyond the broad strokes of the premise and some elements that the boxed set has lifted and used differently, it’s a very different work. The book is substantially more given to waffling; it makes the protagonist more explicitly a child, and in one major branch has their friends Ricardo and Lisa tag along. Combat is a much more prominent feature in the boxed set than the book – the book occasionally mentions your karate skills or various small weapons, but they rarely help. You’re a child-sized person in an adult world and ass-kicking is not going to solve a lot of problems for you. There are generally fewer bad/death endings in the book, but its bad endings assume a fairly similar tone. Compare this, from the book:

“You refuse, do you?” shouts the creature. “Well, we have another use for humans. In fact, it is our main use for humans.”

With that, he takes out a small device from his pocket and aims it at the three of you. A beam of incredibly cold light – its temperature hundreds of degrees below zero – freezes you, Lisa and Ricardo into solid blocks of ice.

Then the man takes out a rubber stamp from his other pocket and stamps your forehead:

HUMAN MEAT – GALACTIC PRIME
SOURCE – PLANET EARTH
GRADE A

to this, from the boxed set:

You find your way into a big automotive garage, where dozens of unsavory characters are engaging in at least thirty-seven different felonies. If nothing else, you have to admire their sheer industriousness.

“Hey, you’re not the new lab assistant!” somebody shouts. “You’re a trespasser!”

“And you’ve seen too much!” shouts another criminal.

The criminals get into an argument about whether they should kill you with knives or drown you in a lake.

“The lake is too far,” one criminal reminds his colleagues. So they agree to go with the first choice.

As befits a time cave, the book has wildly varying and contradictory outcomes – the boxed set, because it bottlenecks so often, has to keep its fiction mostly consistent, although at the very end things can turn out differently depending on your Psychic score, and it’s not clear whether this is because of your causal influence or not.

But a lot of elements have been re-used by the box set. In fact, the box set feels the way it does in large part because it drew a lot of disparate elements from a time-cave narrative and tried to fold them all into a single branch-and-bottleneck. It looks as though almost all of the text was rewritten as part of the radical restructuring, and a lot of things have been added. For instance, the box set has a (short, trivial) maze that isn’t from the book – it’s even on the cover! Mazes were actually fairly rare in Choose Your Own Adventure books, but they were quite common in other gamebooks of the era, so they’ve likely been folded in as a nostalgic element.

About that random goofiness – so, OK, classic Choose Your Own Adventure was often very silly, with more weird science and ancient aliens than you could throw a Bovis life energy scale at. But it was, in general, delivered as earnest – painfully so, sometimes, but earnest throughout. House of Danger (1982, 2006) is Montgomery in his earnest mode; House of Danger (2018) is by turns ironic, consciously camp, and nostalgia-tinted over-the-top enthusiastic. This becomes more prominent in the later chapters; at times it feels more akin to the millennial snark school of CYOA. The main moments where the writing feels smart – and it does feel like smarter, tighter writing than the original – are the moments where it’s lampooning itself. Again, I feel like the core audience is adults who have an established fondness for the source material and are likely to enjoy it being sent up a bit.

This entry was posted in board games, cyoa, interactive fiction, review. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to House of Danger: CYOA book to tabletop game

  1. Pingback: Mid-August Link Assortment – Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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