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.

 


Comments

Richard Penwarden
11/26/2015 1:23pm

Dear Nicolas,
Thank you for your in-depth review of my adventure! I am very grateful for the extent with which you have gone to when suggesting alterations and improvements. I think it is only fair to state at this point that I do not agree with several of the points you make, you appear to have jumped to some conclusions without taking into account all the facts. I suspect that it is my fault in part; I don't tend to make a great song and dance about essential but subtle elements. I shall therefore attempt to state my case and hope my reasons improve your opinion of my work.
*Spoiler Warning* for any third parties reading this.
The comments about rules mechanics are probably where you and I disagree the most:
"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."
You may find this difficult to believe but, in fact, I DID actually take cheating into account when designing the system. You say how the stat differences seem too subtle - you are right, they are subtle! Extremely subtle, by design. They are far more subtle and, crucially, far more different than it initially "seems". There are a lot of things coming together here with the rules mechanics - tied up nicely with a bow as you may say. It is no secret that mechanics are my favourite aspect of Gamebook creation, perhaps I am guilty of focusing on them too much to the detriment of other factors (e.g. grammar!).
So, to take the cheating point on. Although this is 'just' a competition, I do not treat the entry as only that. I wanted game mechanics that thwarted cheats somewhat - sure, they might have little value in a competition but, thinking about developing my writing style and moving forward, I wanted to try out some ideas. I wasn't so much interested in winning the competition (as nice as that would be) as I was to see how the mechanics worked - how well they might get 'noticed'. If someone is going to cheat, they are going to find a way to cheat. Of course, you can use secret codes and number clues to indicate the right section to turn to at key points but this can thwart a genuine reader as much as a cheater if they forgot to make the right notes (or are just reading with no notes). Who am I to say they are playing it wrong? So, the alternative is to reward someone who doesn't cheat. How best to do that? Well hopefully the penny may have dropped (to use a cliché!): I designed the adventure in such a way that the BEST path isn't to succeed in every Test but, in fact, on some occasions it is better to FAIL. I put several very subtle Tests in that have ridiculously high target numbers, this was to trick cheaters - it was also a way of fooling some players into wasting their precious resources on an unlikely result. Some reviewers felt that my entry was somewhat easy - I would contend that this was because they played it 'properly'.
Like a Roleplaying Game it is extremely unlikely that a character will succeed at everything when you use a random method to determine an outcome. Combats generally work out nicely in Gamebooks because, with rounds, you can have a few bad rolls and still be able to complete the story. Now, like a Roleplaying Game I wanted the Classes to have their own individuality. Humans are classically very versatile (in Earthdawn they actually have a Versatility ability that lets them copy the skills from other races). Humans may not specialise in certain situations to the extent that other races do but neither do they suffer penalties either, they are good all-rounders. For this reason, Humans get the best resources in Gunsmoke but the flipside is that their Codeword never comes up. Elves, by contrast, tend to be good at virtually everything, particularly in earlier versions of D&D and Rolemaster RPGs. They are, by nature, assumed to be overpowered - something that recent fantasy films such as The Hobbit would seem to support. So, how then to create a mechanic that makes an Elf 'seem' all-powerful when, in fact, they are just as balanced as the others? The Codeword. You are correct - Elf is the most-used Codeword. This was very intentional; I wanted to give this impression of Elves being superior and overconfident. It seems to have worked too well! You have marked me down for something that you could be giving me extra credit for if anything. The Elf Codeword is essential to maintain game balance. Is the game completely balanced? It isn't far off I would say. Bear in mind the difficulties an Elf faces with such a poor reputation at the start. Additionally, if you partake in the "How did you do" Ace-challenge, the Race that it is hardest to complete the gamebook with all the Aces is.... no surprise, the Elf. Those 'anti-cheater' Tests I mentioned? They invariably

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Richard Penwarden
11/26/2015 1:27pm

Those 'anti-cheater' Tests I mentioned? They invariably had the Elf Codeword meaning that they were roughly 16.5% more likely to result in the least desirable outcome.
Do you recall the part where you are asked who you think the murderer is? Well, aces & dice aside, an Elf player is more likely to have picked up the penalty Codeword "Boots" - that prevents you from making the 'best' choice. I wanted it to be possible for all three accused to appear to have an alibi. "Saddleless" was another penalty Codeword. "Elf" is both a Bonus and a Penalty as a Codeword. Conversely, "Round-up" (one of the 'best' Codewords) is hardest for an Elf to discover as it follows failing a Test where you became lost (for which Elf was a Codeword). Deleting Codewords that ceased to be relevant was a way of hiding which ones were Penalties that you could remove (e.g. "Boots"), as well as keeping things simple as you mention (thank you).
The Elf gets the most FIXED Bonuses but the Human gets more choice as to which Tests they would like to do well at. I think this works out rather neatly. Dwarfs are on a par with humans - plenty of dice to go with their codeword. Halfkin have an Ace to reflect their blind luck, perhaps little else but importantly no Bounty. The important stat is Bounty – a high bounty and poor reputation can result in an instant death at the paddle steamer, many of the reputation tests reward the player with an Ace for a good reaction.
The Codewords and resources of course do not change the fact that when the randomness of dice is included, all of these carefully prepared mechanics can get thrown out of the window. That was part of the design though too, a consideration to keep things subtle.
I am a little disappointed that you seem to have so readily accepted that I might make what we would both consider such a basic game mechanic error with the 'OP' Elf but I hope I have been able to show you where your assumption is wrong. It is a shame really because readers of your review will believe that I have made this mistake as you say, I can only hope "Those who Know" were able to notice what seems to have passed over your head. Indeed, as the entry did so well I guess at least some votes were a reward for these mechanics (well, I hardly earnt votes for my grammar...).
The difficulty level and your argument of how linear the adventure was. As I mentioned, some readers thought it was a little easy. This was again deliberate. I did not want to put potential voters off by making the story hard, nor did I want them to miss the 'best bits'. For instance, say you write an adventure where the reader can either have an epic battle with a dragon and pick up a magic sword in the treasure or a wonderful encounter with a wizard, solving riddles to gain some magic spells. Now if both these encounters are brilliantly done, the author will want the reader to encounter both to be in with a vote-winning chance: The adventure would need to either be linear or the more open-plan method. That's a rather cynical view but such is the nature of the competition.
Items vs Codewords. An interesting point. There is one benefit of Codewords over Items - the reader can decide to drop an Item at any point whereas a Codeword cannot be so easily discarded: If your adventure requires subtlety, telling a character they cannot delete an Item might alert them to its value or importance (or spoil the fact it is cursed/a penalty). Don't get me wrong, I love Inventories and Items but I was actually criticised for my last entry (Archipelago of Omens) for too many items. In a 100 section/25k word limit story, maybe they had a point.
"Everyone likes items", sad to say you are wrong again here - they don't! At least not judging from the feedback I got from last year. I like them though.
The best combination may be something of both. Joe Dever had to re-word a section in his Lone Wolf books because a magic pendant is given to you by a wizard. When you later re-encounter the wizard, if you do not have the pendant you do not know him - originally the thought that it could be discarded between books 1 and 5 was not an option. ("If you possess..." was re-worded to "If you have ever possessed…").
Clichés. I have such a short time to connect with my readers, sometimes I have to use these ideas to save on the word count. Fair enough, it does not suit you.
"Some lines have missing words (63)". This is going to sound silly but... What missing words? I couldn't spot an error when I checked. Was there something you felt I had to expand upon? I think this section is reached from a choice of two, so it had to be written so that either previous section made sense (or at least didn't not make sense).
"a non-word like whinneys (74)". Ah, this is something that has cropped up before and a little concerning. It is a grey area (or 'gray' as you will take my meaning) depending on where you come from. This is an international entry in an international competiti

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Richard Penwarden
11/26/2015 1:30pm

"a non-word like whinneys (74)". Ah, this is something that has cropped up before and a little concerning. It is a grey area (or 'gray' as you will take my meaning) depending on where you come from. This is an international entry in an international competition so, at what point do the reviewer’s national English rules take precedence over the author’s? It is a difficult question. I cannot answer it. If I had to guess, I would say you are American or American-English taught. A number of reasons why but mainly because you say "period" instead of full stop. I, on the other hand, am from the UK. Now, whilst many of our rules of grammar and punctuation are the same, are ALL the rules of our respective languages the same? I do not know. I can still see myself back in English class being taught that you never (ever) begin a sentence with "And", "But" or "Because". You on the other hand do but because you are American that is acceptable because that is permitted under US English, just not UK English. I am sure you would be horrified if I dared to criticise your criticism with "Stillman needs to learn 'But' cannot be used at the start of a sentence". However, there are many grammatical errors you correctly point out for which I have no defense. The entry was very rushed - I had been planning it for months but my father had life altering surgery in Spring and had to move house over the Summer. In short I wasn't able to start typing until halfway through August! That is my fault, I have had all year. As a result I did not give myself the time to tighten up the sentences with excessive words, after all that would have reduced the word count to below 20k and made the adventure 'feel' short. In hindsight that might have been better.
I am digressing. Whinneys is absolutely a word, maybe not a US English word I grant you. My parents dictionary was made in the 60s, I should have been more cautious when the spellchecker didn't like it but if you have physical proof… of course I am going to use a word from my native tongue. Unfortunately, all the online dictionaries I have recently scanned give the variant 'whinnies' spelling. You cannot call it a "non-word", though I will (begrudgingly) accept 'archaic colloquialism'. On the subject, "caboose" is not a better word than "end carriage", well not here in the UK. True, there are terms like "railroad" and "locomotive" in the story but I think caboose would be one Americanism too many. I don't want international readers stopping to look up too many words during the action sequences. I asked my wife and three children individually (ages 12+) if they knew what "whinneys" and "caboose" meant: none knew what a caboose was, one had heard of it but thought it was another word for posterior (!). Three of the four had heard of "whinneys" and two of them knew the meaning.
“everyone in the English-speaking world”, it is my turn to sigh and roll my eyes. There’s that “everyone” again, it sounds like the sort of thing my eldest would say. She doesn’t mean everyone, of course, just ‘most people’, as I suspect you do. After all, you cannot authoritatively claim to have the agreement of 100% of people in the English-speaking world (regardless of their age, education and mental capacity, to name but a few criteria,) that they have heard each of these bits before. Most people, fair point.
No revenge on the Dusters. Yes, that was deliberate – the bow tied ending would have been a bit too twee if the hero/heroine could fix every problem. Part of the implied world building, far more going on than just the protagonist’s story.
No gun. Yes, you are right. I thought I included one in the introduction but blowed if I can find it now so I must have deleted it or edited it out. Maybe I just forgot. I suppose the suggestion of the posse dice is that you have a particularly useful weapon for special occasions and, besides, it isn’t unreasonable to assume a bounty hunter in a western would have a gun but it should be clarified. Fair point.
“Section 56 mentions wounds that never came up earlier”, well yes. From the first line the action has already started, Gator has fired four bullets – what’s to say one didn’t scratch you? Also, clambering around on the train is likely to cause a few cuts and grazes (“we must assume the hero incurred GSWs”, no assumption necessary). Then there is the actual fight with Gator, even if you don’t lose a round, what’s to say you aren’t a little beat up from that? (That last point was my thought when writing – even if you win a round of combat it doesn’t mean you are unscathed but again, not clarified in the text.)
“Section 18 claims Gator tried to escape several times, though this never happened in the story.” It was never actually written when it happened true (it was something and nothing, he tried, he faile

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Richard Penwarden
11/26/2015 1:32pm

“Section 18 claims Gator tried to escape several times, though this never happened in the story.” It was never actually written when it happened true (it was something and nothing, he tried, he failed). I wanted to write this here to reflect Gator’s changing character. Had I put it in earlier and then added it here again it may have been a little repetitive. I don’t think this is wrong, it is like a downtime action – answering the call of nature or pitching a tent, etc. Something that doesn’t require mention in the text until it becomes an issue. It is funny that certain passive things are perfectly fine to infer, such as nearby locations, etc. However, to mention actual actions that took place by inference only is a no-no. Interesting, I shall bear that in mind, thank you.
“That’s all the rules”, my goodness – hanging my head in shame with that one. I cannot believe I missed that, it sounds terrible you are right. No excuse.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
I have just realised, you wrote Frogmen. I really liked that entry, it was well written and deserved a prize.
I hope you have taken my reply in the good natured spirit it is intended. If I have criticised you back, it is in a tongue-in-cheek manner – something that is far easier to say verbally than to show in text. If I have caused offense, please accept my sincerest apologies in advance as that is absolutely NOT my intention.
I really am grateful for your in-depth analysis and for the chance to perhaps explain the reasons for why I made the decisions I did. I am a little saddened that no-one before you has told me how poor my grammar is, I feel like such a fool but at least I have plenty of time to ‘unlearn what I have learned’ before next year’s competition.
Wishing you the best of luck and looking forward to your entry,
Regards & Best Wishes
Richard Penwarden
(Apologies for the duplication, don't know what happened)

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Stillman
11/28/2015 6:07am

Hi Richard. It turns out you've designed the racial bonuses much better than I realized. I should have considered a second or third playthrough to really spot the differences in-game rather than a glance from the rules. It makes perfect sense now that I remember those haughty D&D elves.

With today's shrinking attention spans, I wonder if people see all the effort put into our gamebooks. When researching book covers, I hear things like “You have five seconds [before people stop looking at a cover and move on].” I wonder if “You have one playthrough” applies to gamebooks. Although your character system has good balance after all, maybe some players will perceive it as poorly balanced (as I did). Perhaps these days we must strive to weed out not only problems, but perceived problems as well.

Since you find “caboose” would halt some of your readers, I must agree with your alternate choice there. When it comes to favoring UK terms, though, I must wonder if readers will expect UK words or American ones when America had the Wild West your story depicts.

Regarding cheating, I figure the player should, ideally, never want to cheat. For instance, I accused the wrong person of murder, but I had no desire to cheat because I knew afterwards the book had given me hints which I failed to apply. That felt like a perfectly fair loss. But with dice, we eventually fail because trillions of electrons suddenly say “No!” Your system does allow some choices along with the rolling, so I like it.

Regarding clichés, they more so don't suit editors, professors, many readers, George Orwell, etc. On 63 the bottom option reads “Or you may to chase after. . .” Something like “choose” or “wish” should appear after “may.” As for my “everyone in the English-speaking world,” remember that most of us use hyperbole, such as your “in no time at all.”

Surely, everyone has some innate fondness for items because we need items to live everyday. Abstractions we can live without. I doubt players would mind a rule saying they must not drop items. We intuitively want to keep things earned, and many gamebook players know of consequences for lacking the right item. Also, if an item has no importance to them, the writer should never place it in the story. Chekhov's gun and all that.

Anyway, best of luck with all your future writing endeavors.

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