A bounty hunter takes his captive across a western-fantasy frontier where they tumble into a murder mystery.
Players begin by choosing the bounty hunter's race. They can also play a criminal and redeem themselves through kind deeds. The sense of moral alignment throughout the story will appeal to fans of the fantasy genre. Naturally, good bounty hunters would want to clean up the outlaws, whereas evil ones would kill for thrills and money. Thus, we can easily picture the protagonist going down either path without hurting the story.
The rules section feels well-organized, explaining the single Test method followed by a stack of Tests that constitute a Challenge. Though not a grab-and-go system—it will take some careful rereading—the examples show how easily it works once memorized. The three stats involve randomness. But the rules allow for extra dice rolls, a similar system to what Lloyd uses as does Shadowrun.
Though abstract, the stats have a western theme and do make sense in a chancy world of bullets and brawls. The rules let players get by on just one die or go wild and have coins, cards, and a pile of dice. It all sets the mood for the high-stakes journey to come.
A player can expend many extra rolls on a task and still fail, losing the whole investment and suffering a bad outcome. And with the difficulty of Challenges increasing with each failure, players can get some disasters where more effort leads to more punishment. This can frustrate players and encourage cheating—something to consider when designing systems.
The stat differences among races seem too subtle for envisioning any real difference. The Elf codeword came up too often from all the dexterous stunts in the story, and the Dwarf and Halfkin codewords appeared too seldom. Apart from those concerns, the system works splendidly in this type of daredevil story. Penwarden even thought to have codewords deleted so the list remains reasonably light for quick scanning.
I think this line, though, supports my notion that item systems should often replace codewords:
“Codewords may represent vital clues discovered . . . or even a specific piece of equipment that is ideally suited for your current action.”
Items pull readers into the gameworld better than abstract terms. Can't the “clues discovered” or “equipment” take the form of in-game objects? Everyone likes items. And with all the imaginative power coursing through gamebook authors, contriving or plugging in items for the hero to take should come easily. On 70, for instance, instead of Kat providing the codeword Mayoress, she can insist the hero takes Geraldine's business card.
In any case, the sprawling story begins with a cat-and-mouse chase on a train through some dwarven tunnels. The prose has colorful descriptions of the outlaws, clever names for places, and hilarious banter between the characters on 37. Even on the first duel with Gator, the buildup and characterization worked so well I felt obliged to burn some stats on capturing him.
The gameworld also has plenty going on beyond the bounty hunting. Competing businesses create an aura of tension and the promise of crime for the player to get entangled in. The text makes continual references to other parts of the region which boosts the worldbuilding. The various locales interconnect via river, railroad, and politics rather than becoming separate forgettable stops. Midway through, players will already have a big mental map of the key areas. The whole concept of mixing fantasy races with western action works great on the novelty front. The story also provides some criminal options along with the responsible ones. The choices look well-designed and center on excitement, strategy, or both.
With so much done right, only the grammar hurts this gamebook. Penwarden has the opposite problem as Wright. Wright has excellent grammar, vocabulary, and editing but no regard for subtlety or tone. Penwarden captures the feel of a scene without abusing the senses, but he hasn't looked up comma rules yet.
“The building has been placed on some decking to give it greater prominence but some parts are badly in need of repair and it is a simple matter for you to pry a couple of boards apart to create a suitable hiding place.”
Commas must go before conjunctions separating independent clauses here. Worse, Penwarden frequently uses commas as periods, and hyphens as commas. The most basic subject-verb agreement problems arise repeatedly, as with “there just isn’t [singular] the employment opportunities [plural]” on 98. Some lines have missing words (63), or a non-word like whinneys (74), and even the wrong word altogether like alarming instead of alarmingly (44). What a shame, because every other aspect of the gamebook works so well.
Sadly, most of the longer sentences become messy. They attempt to employ complexity and symbols, but do so erroneously. As with Evan's work, Penwarden's lacks the required research in hyphens, semicolons, commas, and even punctuation. Some of those should generally get used sparsely, even when understood. The shorter sentences look great, though.
“You nod permission for him to wipe his eyes.”
“You close your eyes and wait for death.”
“You wipe away the condensation on the grimy little window of the carriage.”
But even several short sentences have problems. “That’s all the rules” should read, “Those are all the rules.”
Some sentences escape grammar problems but read clunkily.
“The Dusters give chase but they are not prepared to push their horses in the way the two of you have little choice but to do.”
Consider “The Dusters give chase, but they won't push their horses in desperation as you and Gator do.” Note that Gator gets a mention because the two of you lacks that indication.
Many sentences also have confusing structure. “He shoots the couple of bullets he has wildly and jumps onto the end carriage” (76). Wildly should appear before shoots. As it stands, the sentence implies he owns the bullets in a wild manner. And maybe caboose should replace end carriage. To further see why we should keep related terms together, consider 37:
“Fully reloaded he points his revolver at you but the final words he shouts are drowned out by the train’s whistle.”
It sounds like Gator has fully reloaded himself. So fully reloaded should go before revolver. And don't forget the obligatory comma needed before the conjunction but. Furthermore, most readers prefer the active voice instead: “but the train's whistle drowns out the final words he shouts.”
On 14, the cowboy's delight sounds like a location, among other problems.
“You return to the ranch the conquering hero bringing all the remaining cows with you to the cowboy's delight.”
Many sentences have grown overburdened from the lack of editing. On 13, consider replacing “just starting to take place” with beginning. In the rules, “may be able to pick up some more” could reduce to can gain. Cling to will work just as well as “cling on to,” preventing a needless preposition combo. A paragraph on 56 has 15 you's.
Redundancy can also look bad. Section 18 reads, “wooded copses of trees dot the landscape here and there.” Copse means a small group of tress. So wooded and trees become superfluous. And dot already implies “here and there.” So “Copses dot the landscape” would do fine. Similarly, on 82 with “veer wildly out of control,” wildly and out of control mean the same thing. And looking up veer we find it already implies both. Restating sneaks in everywhere, as with “Eventually after a mile” (58) and “a sitting duck, an easy target” (82). Sometimes, Penwarden describes an action that “begins to” happen. Often, we can just describe that action in progress.
Clichés also creep into the third paragraph of section 1: for dear life, piece of work, law and order, and force of nature. In just one paragraph on 70, Penwarden uses the following: goes on at length, it turns out, a distant cousin, entire life story, is very fond of, from humble beginnings, tragedy struck, blames herself to this day, settled down in [town name], and introduce tough new anti-gun laws.
Now not all of those may count as clichés to some, but everyone in the English-speaking world has heard each of those bits before. Readers want the writer's ideas and phrases, not those already ingrained by culture. A few others I noticed in one playthrough include: in no time at all, you are in for a shock, humble home, a life of crime, it is no secret that, all hell breaks loose, no time to lose, cannot shake the feeling, killing two birds with one stone, fall upon deaf ears, breathe a sigh of relief.
I certainly breathed some sighs myself...sighs of no relief.
Honestly, I believe readers will forgive many of these issues because of the great storytelling. I only found a few mild concerns story-wise. Either the rules or section 1 should mention what weapons the hero carries. Only several sections in does the prose mention the hero shooting at Gator, but it doesn't specify with what. The story almost implies that the protagonist has no weapon and must rush in close for fisticuffs. Several bloody casualties help build the tension and revenge-seeking, but no opportunity arises to get revenge on the Dusters. Section 56 mentions wounds that never came up earlier; we must assume the hero incurred GSWs. Section 18 claims Gator tried to escape several times, though this never happened in the story. The protagonist even frees Gator's hands in a saloon for his good behavior.
The story may seem too linear for some, leaving few new paths to explore on the second playthrough. After an exhausting first game, some players may not want replays—especially knowing the denouement of the murder mystery. But that first read provides a truly grand story. Many previous events wrap themselves up, and the story places a bow on itself by the end. Memorable character arcs occur, both with Gator and the hero. The latter will blunder early on, but become more expert later. I think Penwarden had an arc too, as he finally uses standing on 100 instead of is stood everywhere else.