Death Test by Steve Jackson (the US one) seems to have been to help newbies get the hang of TFT if they didn’t have a group of fellow players. So the whole idea there is to replicate the experience of a face-to-face role-playing game, and dice are just part of that.
Okay, but why are there dice in role-playing games? Because RPGs grew out of tabletop wargaming. And why use dice there? Because sometimes the unexpected happens. Because sometimes the Athenians force the Spartans uphill. Sometimes you hear a click and it’s: “Misfire! Kill the son of a bitch.” (Which, incidentally, I would never have credited if I hadn’t played Avalon Hill’s Gunslinger.) Sometimes a level 1 civilian throws a roof tile and it kills the level 12 general.
I like my RPGs to have dice. Yet I prefer those game sessions where dice are never rolled. Paradox? Schizophrenia? No, it’s the possibility of dice that I think is essential. Much more than a means of showing that the unexpected can occur, and thus ramping up tension, dice are democratic. The umpire (GM if you must) can’t just say, “You’re taken prisoner,” because I can resist arrest, hide, grab a chandelier chain and swing over the guards’ heads – or try, at least. And it won’t be the autocratic authorial whim of the umpire that decides if I succeed or fail, it’ll be the dice, referenced against the skills listed on my character sheet. That’s what stops role-playing games from getting as arbitrary and unfair as the points system at Hogwarts. In the shared storytelling experience that is role-playing, dice are the court of appeal that stops one person from taking over the whole narrative.
Yes, but… in the case of a gamebook, there’s no question about who wears the authorial pants. I can’t just stick a pin in the map and say I’m sailing off to explore the uncharted wastes. I have to take the quest I’m given and stay on the rails that the author has provided. The only function of randomness here, it would seem, is to increase the sense of threat. That single orc or militiaman might kill me, especially if I’m already wounded from an earlier fight. Just have to grit my teeth, roll the dice and see how it turns out.
The risk here is that I might get unlucky and die, and that’s in nobody’s interest. From the gamebook author’s point of view, that makes a very unsatisfying and anti-dramatic story – I climbed the wizard’s tower, snuck past the spider-god, swiped the jewel of power, evaded the poisoned traps, but then got killed in an unlucky fight with a mugger on the way back to my inn. And I’m not happy because I now have to go back and start again – or ignore the bad dice rolls, which is equally unsatisfying as it breaks the spell of immersion. In that case I won, but only by cheating. Suddenly, the jewel of power is starting to look like paste.
Incidentally, notice that the big climactic fights in gamebooks are almost never left to the dice. There’s an item or clever tactic that you have to use. That’s because the author is aware that the flipside of an unlucky death – achieving victory by a sheer fluke – is equally unsatisfying. Think of the final showdown in movies like Galaxy Quest, Kung Fu Panda, or Jack the Giant Slayer. It’s never about a lucky roll.
In M A R Barker’s Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks, unlucky dice rolls rarely spell death. Usually it’s a fate worse than that (for the character), but something much more satisfying (for the player). In non-interactive stories, the perception of coincidence is often the jumping-off point for adventure. Bran Stark’s life might not have been nearly so interesting if he’d taken the stairs. When seat-of-the-pants role-playing gets into this territory, it is better - more thoroughly credible - than any other form of narrative, bar life itself.
But, unlike RPG umpires, gamebook authors can’t allow interesting offshoots from the central story to spawn indefinitely. That’s why we get the ultimate fail: the death paragraph. Not death by attrition, mind you. Be so careless as to let yourself to get down to one hit point, and you deserve to die from the puniest of mantraps. By death para, I mean the choice that will kill you even if you were in perfect health. And that is only put into a gamebook to block off a route the author didn’t want to have to write – so he or she gives you the illusion of choice, only to inflict the ultimate punishment (an authorial raspberry) when you take it.
In the next post, we’ll take a look at what place, if any, randomness has in the modern world of digital gamebooks.