Player coram machina: Acknowledging weak character builds in IF

Tonight I took a trip down memory lane and began to replay the CYOA City of Thieves by Ian Livingstone.

The first thing that struck me (I know this must be obvious to many) was that the character setup relies on the honesty of the player to accept whatever dice rolls may occur in Stamina, Luck, Skill, etc.

In other words, it’s not like you have 28 points to allocate, and roll D6 to see how much goes to Skill, then Luck, etc. The book expects a player to proceed even with a uniformly weak character.

And in the instructions, there are two statements I found intriguing:

  • There is only one true way through the City of Thieves and it will probably take you several attempts to find it.
  • The one true way involves a minimum of risk and any player, no matter how weak on initial dice rolls, should be able to get through fairly easily.

What is the contract here between game and player? To what extent is the character build a part of the game?

And what are the conventions in parser IF? Are there any IF games which invite a player to accept weak build attributes at the beginning? And how do they offer mitigation for that?


What is the contract here between game and player? To what extent is the character build a part of the game?

I think the Fighting Fantasy games are actually divorced from the “mainline” tradition of CYOA books. Instead they take much closer inspiration from the “old school” tabletop role-playing scene, or OSR, a tradition which includes things like Basic D&D or Worlds Without Number.

The Fighting Fantasy games present the same contract as OSR games, which is a very different contract from traditional CYOA games or parser. OSR games are basically gauntlets of combat and puzzles, with the assumptions that:

  • the game is a test of player skill: “can the player overcome this static challenge?”
  • your character has a significant chance of dying
  • death can result from purely random dice rolls
  • ingenuity and system mastery can mitigate some or all of the unfairness

The randomized stats in Fighting Fantasy games are essentially a holdover from this era of role-playing games. The main goal of the gamebook is to act as a challenge, and working with a suboptimal stat pool is part of the challenge. (I don’t agree with this sort of stat generation nowadays, but it has its supporters.)

Are there any IF games which invite a player to accept weak build attributes at the beginning? And how do they offer mitigation for that?

Choice of Games games tend to encourage daring character builds, where choosing significant strengths also requires choosing significant weaknesses. This lets the player experience the fantasy of having extremely weighty choices by showing very obvious consequences for those choices.

Fate and Apocalypse World are role-playing games, not IF, but I think they’re relevant here since we’re talking about attributes. In these games, the contract is that “the players are telling an interesting and dynamic story together.” These games take the view that failure should not be a hard block, but still move the story forward in an interesting way.

In Fate, players are encouraged to give their characters flaws, which they can then “compel” to gain resources at the cost of adding narrative complications for themselves. If I create a character with the aspect Sucker for a Pretty Face, I’m telling the GM and the other players that I’m interested in stories where my character falls for pretty women and gets in trouble because of that.

In Apocalypse World, failing a dice roll can lead to a difficult choice (“you succeed, but only if you’re willing to make an additional sacrifice”; “you succeed, but there’s a complication”). Or it can change the situation entirely (“you botch the negotiation, and the social conflict escalates to a physical one”; “you lose the fight, so the raiders make off with all your supplies and the story is now about getting them back”).


That’s interesting, so in that case, there’s almost an inversion of values. The author has to pay more attention to the lesser prospects.
The poor end up more wealthy than the rich. :slightly_smiling_face:

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A lot of video games do this as well, including the older Elder Scrolls games like Daggerfall. What they’d do is roll all of the stats for your character at once and then you could save that set of rolls if you wished. Then you could choose to re-roll your character, go with your current rolls, or go with your saved rolls. So you either roll forever until you get max rolls for all stats, or you choose a “good enough” set of rolls.

I think this is a fair balance between outright choosing your stats (profitable cheating) or having a weak character due to poor rolling (detrimental honesty). I have a feeling that most gamebook designers expect this. I’ve also heard that some gamebooks are designed with the understanding that players will cheat.

To be perfectly honest, the bending of the rules between the player and the author is one of my favorite things about gamebooks that can’t be emulated by digital games. If I don’t agree with a rule or something the author says, I can just disregard it. It’s my game after all and I can play it how I like as long as I have fun.

Not all gamebooks require stat rolling. One of my favorites is Heart of Ice by Dave Morris (the creator of the Fabled Lands books). Instead of rolling stats, the game has you pick a character class and each class has different amounts of health and different skills. The skills are what’s important and they unlock different paths. There isn’t any dice rolling or skill checks; you just have the skill to do it or you don’t. This coupled with choosing which items to buy in the market or grab from item stashes (since you can only hold 8 items, and some items are red herrings) is how the game makes differing playthroughs beyond just picking choice A, B, or C at the end of each passage. It actually requires a bit planning to get specific endings.

I suggest checking this book out. You can buy it on Amazon here in both paperback and Kindle versions, or you can check out it’s official conversion to Twine here.


Speaking of contracts, yes, I remember this ‘one true way’ text at the front of more than one FF book, but I’m not sure all the ones that included it played fair by it.

The situation probably got more out of whack the more books came along. The series had to keep coming up with new gimmicks, new challenges, different styles, and I reckon there was an inevitable creep up (just a little) in the average value of monster stats, too, over time. And so the editors had to start tailoring the intro spiels of the books to accommodate all these developments, but some continued to reproduce standard bits of the intro text that might no longer have applied.

With some authors, you just knew that in their books there was no point tolerating a SKILL roll of 7. Once I’d clocked a book was like that, I’d only take rolls of 10-12 for SKILL, or just give myself 12. Because one thing you generally could depend on was… the authors knew that the upper limit of natural SKILL was 12, so this meant your character would be overpowered for average monsters, and at least equally powered in the books of savage-stat authors.

THEN I’d play by the rules all through the book… unless I got pissed off or was on the verge of winning, at which point I might just let myself survive any battle or whatever.

Overall I liked the challenge of trying to solve the puzzle elements of the books – because they could and would kill you for failure, no matter what your character stats were like – and I liked this no matter how unfair they were. And the combat added some frisson of live danger around that. But one that could be mitigated (ala CKY’s post) by experience, locating healing items, working out when to use what items, etc.