Monday, September 22, 2014

The Deadliest RPG Experience of All Time

Knuckleduster's soloplay interactive gamebook Raining Hammers: The Ballad of Johnny MacDonald might be the most brutal thing I've played since I was young and attempted to play a gamebook adventure of Sagard the barbarian, which was written solely for masochists.

My introduction to RPG of any kind, not counting pinning a towel around my neck and claiming to be Superman regardless of whatever game was being played by the other kids, was via gamebooks. There was the Choose Your Own Adventure line, which was aimed at a younger crowd, and the older kid style where you actually needed dice and a pencil to play. Many of them were actually Dungeons and Dragons books as well. My particular favorites were the Lone Wolf series by Dever and the Grailquest series by Brennan, but I would sample any of them, really. I purchased this particular book in 2000, meaning I've had it for over ten years, and I've never finished it. Because it is hard. It is unforgiving. It is brutal.

Essentially any gamebook has two ways of resolving conflict. All gamebooks use the first method, which is to offer choices to the reader. "Will you have the fish or the chicken? If you choose fish turn to section 41. If you prefer the chicken turn to section 198". Some gamebooks also use a combat mechanic involving dice or some other randomizer and some form of resource tracking such as life or hit points or endurance (or whatever). In the classic fantasy and sci-fi gamebooks of yore the player's life total was enough that the reader had an advantage to deal with the many opportunities for combat throughout the books and some healing was often made available. I even read a modern mercenary book that had complex hit location charts and multiple life points.

Raining Hammers is not that book.
Johnny's signature gun, the LeMat.  The scattergun underbarrel did not keep me alive. 
In the book you, the reader, are Johnny MacDonald, a North Carolina boy who has moved out west to mine a gold claim with your two younger brothers. The story opens with Johnny coming into town for supplies and a drink, getting into a bar fight, then returning to find his brothers are dead and he's framed for the killings. The task for the reader is to clear your name in the best tradition of spaghetti westerns. I've yet to accomplish this task. I think it might have something to do with the combat in the book. See sphaghetti western though it may be, the author attempts to give it a gritty feeling of realism. Johnny is not Clint Eastwood and guns are dangerous weapons. In this particular case losing a fight means death EVERY TIME.  Because you, the reader, have no hit points.  You have one life to live, lose a single fight and you die.  These are not easy rolls. Roll 13 or better on 3d6. Would you like to know the odds? 7:27. 25.93%. Not bad, right?

Well it's not bad if you have 36 hit points and the enemy's pistol only does 3 points of damage. It is VERY BAD if losing means that you get to read a paragraph about how you've been gutshot and while you are coughing blood and begging for water some carpetbagging sumbitch comes up and shoots you in the face. You start to like better odds. This game has seriously brutal combat. Johnny doesn't just lose fights, he gets shot in the leg, then limps away to hide in a gully and dies from infection. I swear I once turned the wrong way in a mine and died of suffocation during a cave in.
This killed me.
Once I got bit by a rattlesnake. Once I failed a perception check and got shot in a bathtub.
This killed me.
Like I said, brutal.
These guys caught and killed me.
For all that it is a good book. The author includes all these great nuggets of history for the reader, footnotes and the like to tell you how such and such a place was a real town known for its silver strike or how this person or that person you meet was a real figure and what their life was like. The author also admits the adventure is hard. He included an escape clause where you can "cash out" at any time, turn in your collected loot and get points then use the points to buy bonus dice you can spend in the game to improve rolls. Then he limits you to bringing 5 bonus dice per adventure.
This killed me 28 times.
Did I say "brutal" before? I meant vicious.

But then it's a western, innit? It's supposed to be brutal and harsh and guns a-blazin'. There is plenty of that, let me tell you. The author even included rules for making your own character instead of the default Johnny Macdonald and notes for GMs that might want to use the game as an adventure. That's all well and good, value added and sichlike, but I have yet to finish it alive and successful. And on top of all that you are supposed to be collecting clues as you run from the law so you can clear your name. Whew. So essentially this game, as much as I have enjoyed not finishing it, is the deadliest, most savage gamebook I've ever played. It literally has choices that you can make that kill you instantly (wrong passage in the mine springs to mind) and the combat is a one chance to succeed situation. No hit points, just screaming lead death.

Makes you remember the cutthroat days of old school D&D fondly as being "to the player's advantage".
Three Beholders and seven Mind Flayers?  That all?  No problem.

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