An Epic Destiny In Gamebook Form

DestinyQuest is a line of gamebooks authored by Matthew J. Ward, the first of which is The Legion of Shadow. The first three books were put out by Gollancz, who would then turn down the fourth book, which would emerge some years later following a successful Kickstarter. (This was not without some drama – the original publishers, Megara, went bust, and based on Ward’s news posts on the official site it’s suggested that there was some pretty disreputable actions from their side of the equation which has left Ward somewhat grumpy.)

The books are a lavish proposition; The Legion of Shadow is well over 600 pages long, the adventure comprising some 939 paragraphs, with a colour section in the middle including some maps (of which more later). In some respects it’s somewhat surprising that Gollancz pushed the boat out on the series to the extent of putting out three of these things. That said, the first book emerged in 2012, so with brick-sized fantasy still a healthy seller and Game of Thrones mania kicking off I suppose it made sense at the time. Selling for a chunky £16.99, I suppose the idea was to market it to people who remembered Fighting Fantasy from their childhood and now had the disposable income to spend on a deluxe version of that.

In its chunky page count, the book’s approaching Sword of the Bastard Elf proportions, but DestinyQuest takes a very different approach to the challenge of making a gamebook of these proportions. The key to this is those maps. Each of the three acts of The Legion of Shadow has a different map associated with it, with locations keyed to paragraphs and associated symbols giving you an idea of what’s there. Towns and encampments give you a chance to gather information and buy stuff, quests are offered on the map in four colour-coded grades of difficulty, legendary monsters to battle are indicated, and the final “boss encounter” that wraps up the act is there.

The structure of the adventure then, consists of these non-linear acts in which you can explore the map and have these various mini-quests and encounters in whichever order you wish to have them in, with more linear sections of the story occurring as the intros and outros to the various acts. It’s rather innovative and is great for giving the player a sense of freedom – you can skip the entire act and go direct to the boss fight if you wish, but you’ll miss a lot of information you could have gathered during the act and will probably get slaughtered.

This is particularly the case because you begin the adventure very much as a blank slate – you’ve woken up with amnesia, there’s a weird mark on your arm which seems to exert an influence on you (it’s very Azure Bonds), you need to figure out who you are and what the deal with the mark is. This ends up working well with the baseline assumptions of the system – for there’s no character-building with point buy or random rolls prior to play, all of your stats start off at zero. Every single bonus and power you gain during the game must be derived from the equipment you obtain or, from act 2 onwards, the specific paths and careers you pick. (You can be a rogue, warrior, or mage, and each of those paths has various careers with various powers associated with it.)

This is tied in with a fairly tightly-controlled inventory system. Each piece of equipment goes in one inventory slot (or one of your five backpack slots), and you can’t chop and change them to suit the challenge in front of you: when an item is obtained you need to either choose to take it (discarding whatever was previously in the relevant slot) or ignore it right then and there.

This lends itself to a very CRPG-ish take to things: do the quests, min-max your kit, fight the boss, move on. To my mind, it also means that a lot of the apparent choices in the game are not quite as significant as the game wants them to be.

Take, for instance, the matter of your stats: some stats are simply more important than others. Speed is the most important stat because it’s what you roll against to see who wins a combat round; if your Speed is above your foe’s, you will have an advantage (especially since it’s a 2D6 plus Speed roll – unless some power modifies that, so the bell curve will tend to nudge things towards averaged-out results), if your Speed is significantly above your foe’s the fight will most likely be a cakewalk, 1 point of Speed is fairly clearly worth more than 1 point of any of the other stats.

Then there’s Magic and Brawn – these stats add to damage, so when you succeed at hitting a foe you will typically roll 1D6 and add either Magic or Brawn. Very occasionally there are little challenges based on these, but they tend to be fairly rare and not crucial to success, so generally speaking one of these will be an utter dump stat whilst you raise the other as high as you can. Whichever of Magic/Brawn you pick won’t be more important than Speed – your massive damage is no good if you can’t hit your foe to begin with – but it’s still important because it will allow you to defeat opponents all the faster, and the faster you put them down the more you minimise the odds of them getting a lucky streak and wrecking you.

Finally, there’s Armour, which reduces damage received. This is a bit of a trap stat – it’s not something you’ll feel comfortable totally ignoring, but on the other hand if your opponent only rarely hits you, your Armour isn’t that important, so in general a point of Speed is clearly worth more than a point of Armour, and I found myself prioritising Armour below Magic/Brawn as well because the best way to avoid damage is to kill your opponent quickly so they never get the chance to inflict it in the first place. This was especially the case once enemies with abilities that bypass Armour entirely become common later in the game.

Herein lies the other part where the book’s apparent freedom is undermined. You see, to make sure the game stays challenging across all three Acts, Ward has to crank up the stats of your foes as the Acts continue. To achieve this, he seems to have calibrated each Act with an eye on what sort of stats someone who’d completed all the content in the previous Act and had a reasonably well-optimised statline would have – otherwise, such players would find the subsequent Acts too easy.

This means that you pretty much have to do all the content in each act in order to have a reasonable chance of progressing, which takes away a certain amount of the choice – you aren’t really choosing which of the quests on the map you undertake, you are just choosing which order you do them in.

In addition, the choice of which order isn’t really much of a choice either. Obviously, you do the easiest quests first, then the less easy, then the harder quest, then the hardest quests, followed by mopping up the legendary enemy encounters before taking on the boss quest. (This is likely interspersed with trips to town to buy stuff.) Basically, you’re playing the gamebook like you are playing a fairly completist run of a CRPG. The maps are a neat way of presenting the information, but you’re going to visit every dot on them sooner or later.

When it comes to the quests themselves, they’re all perfectly charming little mini-adventures, though some can tend to be a little linear. (There’s an annoying bit at the end of Act 3 where you are given the choice to join the Legion of Shadow after all – and actually have potentially compelling reasons to do so – but it actually makes no difference to the climax of the plot beyond which snacky power you get.) I particularly appreciate the fact that you get healed back to full health at the end of every fight except in rare circumstances where you are instructed otherwise, since this means you can give it your all each fight and means that healing items, for use in the middle of fights themselves, have a real impact (since you presumably only use them in the middle of a dangerous fight you are at risk of losing, rather than topping yourself up between fights “just in case”).

I am in two minds about another aspect of the game, however – which is that when you get killed you don’t actually die, you just get bumped out of the current quest (unless there are special consequences for losing a particular fight, though these are rare). In some ways this is nice because it means that losing a fight doesn’t mean you must start over (or cheat), which by itself would help to foster honest play.

However, the trick here is that on being kicked back to the main map, there’s nothing stopping you from just starting that quest again. (In fact, you are encouraged to note down the paragraph you died on so you can jump right back to it!) This feels extremely videogame-like – like you have a “save point” and can just keep trying a particular quest until you get it right.

Once you notice this aspect, the gamebook feels significantly less fun, particularly when this is combined with the “you go back to full Health at the end of a fight” point, since it means that once it feels like you have a clear statistical edge on an opponent – or even a mere chance of defeating them – then in combats where there’s no consequences for losing there’s little point actually playing through the fight, since if you get defeated you can just have another go again and again until the dice are with you. It no longer feels like cheating so much as it feels like simplifying the process: since you’ll inevitably get a run where the dice are with you if you repeat the quest enough, why bother with the intermediate steps?

This was exacerbated greatly in the later acts, where to keep up with the player character’s capabilities Ward is reduced to throwing increasingly elaborate (and thus fiddly to play through) encounters at you with enemies who are immune to a wide range of powers, simply to give you a challenge. It feels like a burden to get through, and when you realise you inevitably will get through it enough tries, the temptation to just push past it and keep going without actually playing it through becomes overwhelming.

In fact, between this and stuff like the “good or evil” choice at the end panning out the same way anyway, it really feels like The Legion of Shadow has a big dose of inevitability hanging over it. Unless you deliberately play in a very sub-optimal way, so you end up with crap gear leaving it statistically impossible for you to beat the boss encounter, your victory is inevitable – it might just take a while. Despite giving you a lot of choice in the order in which you tackle quests, none of those choices mean very much in the long run because the ending (and the bonus quest that comes after it) always pan out more or less the same way with only minor changes.

This may be down to Ward’s ambitious planned story arc for the DestinyQuest series – digging around on the news pages on his site I note that there’s references to the protagonists of earlier books showing up in later ones and big overarching plots and whatnot. Part of the function of The Legion of Shadow seems to be to introduce the reader to this world and set these plots going. Under such circumstances, it’s understandable for the gamebook to inevitably railroad you to a particular ending – because having to deal with a diversity of different endings would be a headache for later books in the series – but it still feels like the “game” part of the equation is poorly served by such a structure (especially since nothing stops you saying “OK, this ending is the canonical ending, the other ones aren’t canon”).

Between this and the gamebook feeling overlong (playing through a single act already represents a more substantial investment of time than, say, a single Fighting Fantasy playthrough), I wonder if The Legion of Shadow isn’t hampered by trying to deliver too much. The map concept is genuinely interesting and a very useful contribution to the format, but I think I say ways in which it can be better implemented, and in which the whole thing can get a less videogamey feel.

First off, you can just base the gamebook on a single map, ditching the act structure and making an entire gamebook out of something around as extensive as a single one of the acts here. Playthroughs would still take a fair amount of time, but the power inflation would cut off much sooner, avoiding the need to get over-fiddly with the later fights.

Next, stop letting the player repeat quests. Aside from trips to town to buy stuff and remind yourself of the local rumours, your first run at a quest should be your only chance at it.

Next, since you freed up all that real estate by condensing the adventure into one act, make sure every single failure point in the quests has consequences. Keep the feature of just being punted out of the quest if you fail, that’s good, but weave this better into the story; don’t force the player to come up with some reason why they weren’t just killed, have some other fate befall them which has long-running consequences.

Every fight should have a “if you lose, turn to paragraph X” option on it, and if you can’t think of a good consequence for losing a particular fight then don’t throw it in there. This might require a fair number of paragraphs to implement it, but remember – you’ve scrapped the second two acts, you can probably still implement all this and still have something which, whilst not as chunky as The Legion of Shadow, is certainly still a very substantial gamebook indeed.

This “make failure have consequences” doesn’t mean that every time you fail something in a quest, you fail the whole quest – it might just mean it’s harder to reach a successful conclusion – but at the same time, every quest should have at least one potential “success” state and at least one potential “failure” state. You can track this either in fine detail by writing codewords on the player’s character sheet (so if they have “FISH” on their codeword section you know they succeeded at the riverbank quest and if they have “DRENCHED” that means they failed), or through the players getting different key items for different outcomes.

Depending on some plot concepts, you could even track it simply by getting the player to keep a running tally of succeeded or failed quests. Let’s say the adventure is about you raising an army to besiege a tyrant’s castle – each quest then entails an opportunity to recruit forces for your siege, so the total number of succeeded or failed quests can be used to assess how big your army is when the player decides to mount the siege. In other cases, you’ll want to have the exact outcome of a quest known. (If Little Bunny Foo-Foo got eaten by goblins, Little Bunny Foo-Foo shouldn’t show up at the boss encounter at the end.) Either way, the outcome of quests should be hugely important to the final boss encounter. After all, that’s your big payoff moment.

In The Legion of Shadow the outcome of some quests does have knock-on effects of others, but they ultimately can’t be allowed to have very much impact on the outcome of the boss encounters due to the need to still convey the player to the next act in more or less the same fashion. In effect, Ward’s structure guarantees the existence of these plot bottlenecks, at which point the relevance of what you did or did not do in previous acts rather fades away and stops being important.

Conversely, I think the above tweaks yield a model of designing a gamebook which includes a lot of the advantageous ideas that Ward presented in DestinyQuest but without the need for such bottlenecks, and where a greater diversity of outcome is possible. It might need a bunch of paragraphs to implement some of my suggestions – but since you’re ditching the second and third act, I think it is wholly possible to implement something like this and still not hit the page count of something like The Legion of Shadow, and which would feel much less like an attempt to implement a Bioware-style CRPG in gamebook form joined at the hip with the author’s fantasy novel. To be fair, Ward’s writing is highly evocative and is easily one of the biggest draws for the book – but I just see slightly too many issues with the gameplay as it stands to quite give The Legion of Shadow a full thumb’s up.

2 thoughts on “An Epic Destiny In Gamebook Form

  1. theoaxner

    I’m reminded by a couple of partially map-based gamebooks Iron Crown Enterprises put out in the 80s: A Spy in Isengard, the first Middle-Earth Quest book, and, IIRC, The Sorceress and the Book of Spells, the second Narnia Solo Games book.

    A Spy in Isengard, where you played an apprentice of Saruman’s who was suspecting his treachery and needed to gather evidence and escape Orthanc with it, had a map of Orthanc itself and a hex map of its immediate surroundings; each room in the tower and each hex outside had its own number/letter combination.

    Then there was two sets of paragraphs: first the location texts, keyed to the map, so when you went to a new place on the map you first read that. Then there was a larger section of encounter texts, with ordinary numbered paragraphs, that was used for whatever happened beyond moving from one space to another.

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