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”).