A couple of years ago, I purchased a Gamebook at a convention that uses the Fate Engine. I had been meaning to play it on this blog for some time and now, I feel like this is the right time. This is Alice Black: Blood Tribute (it’s also on Lulu). It is a pretty thick book at around 250 pages with a small enough pocket book size. One cool feature to note is that the game doesn’t go by pages but rather by sections. So, if you make some sort of choice, you instead go to a different chapter rather than a page.
Now, normally I would be playing through this as though this was an adventure, but I’m iffy on posting spoilers. I originally had the actual play written up to the end of the prologue (where it introduces you to the story and the premise of the gamebook), but I decided to use my better judgement and give a spoiler-free review instead in the same manner that board game reviewers do their reviews of Legacy games.
This may sound a little hypocritical, since I have tackled these kinds of gamebooks before and have spoiled the lot of them to the point where I gutted a few of them and broke down all possible routes, but allow me to explain: most of those game books were not only free to play (or pay-what-you-want), but were roughly twenty five pages at most. Barbarian Prince was also free to play and was old enough that, chances are, unless you’re new to the hobby like I am, you might have played it at some point.
While I have played a few pre-written adventures, the key difference is that those adventures are often just scripts for how certain aspects of the game would work. It’s mostly up to the GM’s discretion to figure out how those pieces worked and each story can be radically different depending on the GM, the players, the party make up, the rolls, and dozens of other variables. A CYOA Gamebook, however, doesn’t have this luxury. It gives you the story, asks you what to do, and then you read the result. It’s why I haven’t done a session on Welcome to Sand Hands.
The premise of the game is pretty cool. It’s a space opera where the protagonist is Alice Black, a tabby who runs a rag-tag group of pirates that have been down on their luck recently, their ticket out of the rut being an invitation to a dinner by a noble space wolf. Now, you may notice that I’ve used animal terms. Well, that’s because the game has a furry ascetic, where it uses anthropomorphic creatures. I like the setting. It gives me a mixture of Bucky O’Hare and Firefly.
The setting is given to you in a prologue that is rather nicely written as a means to introduce Alice and her group to the reader and, most importantly, showcase her skills and lets the reader decide what Alice’s best traits are. The game gives you three skills: Captaining, Cunning, and Combat, and has you choose which one gets a +3, a +4, and a +5. And you can mix these up however you want. You want Alice to be a swashbuckling pirate? Give her a Superb rank in Combat. Do you want her to see through deception and successfully play a game of thrones? Cunning. Want her to be essentially a mother to her crew? Captaining. You also get to pick one Aspect where you have a favored officer from one of your crew mates, though you can only pick three out of the five presented in the prologue.
The game is presented in nice, easy to read text with paragraphs broken and, instead of flipping through pages when you make a choice, you instead find the large numbers at preface the sections. And the first roll you make is rather merciful, requiring that you roll at least all blanks to succeed if the skill needed for that roll had the lowest amount given.
The text is well spaced and is large enough to be easily read at an eye level when holding the book at an arm’s length away. How it’s spaced out by numbered sections rather than pages is a double-edged sword. On one hand, this allows a person to easily scan the book long enough to find the number they want. However, because your eyes will be glued to the top of the page, if you’re not good at rapidly skimming a book, you may end up reading something you’re not supposed to or find yourself lost, thinking the section will appear on the right-hand portion of the book and not the left-hand. Contrast with page numbers where you only need to focus on the lower corners of the page, something that clearly isn’t going to be occupied by text otherwise. However, I still enjoy the section system and I feel like this might be mitigated in the PDF version via bookmarks.
The gamebook offers a combination of sections that end in a choice to be made or a skill to be checked, serving up a bit of variety and my next rolls ramped up in difficulty to reflect how the choices I’ve made. Again, no spoilers, but if you end up making the same choices I made, you’ll understand what I mean. All I will say is that my choice in making Cunning and Captaining my top stats paid off. Even so, it ended up challenging me to my character’s limit, almost having maxed out her Personal Stress before finally rolling the amount needed. I even had to spend all my Fate Points on the second skill check section I got to. It’s very challenging, even if you pick the easiest option, which I like.
The way the skill checks work is your standard affair. Skill checks just give you the difficulty of the skill check you need to make and the sections to go if you succeed or fail. Combat checks, however, require you succeed at a skill a few times (reflected by your opponent’s stress) and if you fail, you take a stress to either yourself or your ship, depending on what it says. When you max out your stress, game over. If you win, you continue. Sometimes, you’ll succeed at your combat check then proceed to a choice section.
There are other cool features about this gamebook. One feature is that you can advance to different sections of the book if you have different aspects. Another is that, at certain points in the book, you can recover your stresses or Fate points, which, if you end up playing a rather long game, you’ll need. Lastly, and this is one that I haven’t seen implemented yet, is that, if you get to a good ending (i.e. one that isn’t a game over) you can take Alice Black, who has no doubt obtained an aspect or two and thus is further customized, to other gamebooks in the Alice Black series. However, there aren’t any further Alice Black books, so the extent of that feature is left to be determined.
What I can say though, is that this book is a rather good story detailing a day in the life of Alice Black as she takes on a job to get enough money to sustain her ship and crew, only for things to dovetail rather quickly as she goes through tons of space combat and confrontations with noble Wolf houses. It definitely has a lot of replay value as there’s tons of different routes to take.
And I personally think this gamebook is a must-play if you’re a fan of choose your own adventure books, sci-fi rogue traveler style, or even just FATE itself. It gets a seal of approval from Solo RPG Voyages. Very outstanding stuff right here.
Bon voyage, gamers.