Windhammer Prize: ‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

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The Windhammer Prize is a yearly competition for gamebooks, specifically the on-paper, distributed-by-PDF variety. Last year I covered a few of the games, and this year the competition is about to open again, so I thought I would honor the occasion by looking at Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club, the winner of the top prize in 2013. (Past entrants are archived on the competitions site.)

The image I’ve used as the header illustration for this post is a map of the town you’re exploring, and it contains some information (besides the numbers themselves) that you may need to use to solve the adventure. Its cartoony but confident feel is a pretty good introduction to the experience as a whole: lighthearted, accessible, soundly constructed, with the game/puzzle side more prominent than the story side.

‘Normal Club here refers to paranormal research, which in this world is an after-school competitive activity like chess team or debate club. The protagonists are a Buffy-style Scooby gang, and you get to pick three of six prefab characters to include. This choice determines your gang stats and opens up a number of character-specific extra paragraphs throughout the story. For any given situation, one or two of the gang members might have a personal response.

As one might expect, the resulting narrative uses characterization mostly as a spice, and none of the protagonists can afford to have unique motivations that might cause a surprise swerve in the MacGuffin Quest. Likewise, most of the choices you encounter, up until the very end, are tactical rather than moral decisions.

Like many gamebooks, ‘Normal Club starts with some forms to fill out with these stats, and spaces for inventory. Initially I tried to play using the online PDF and just keeping my notes in a notebook, but that was a mistake, for reasons I’ll get into at the moment. If you want to play, you probably need to print this thing off. (It runs to 45 pages, so this isn’t insuperable, but I usually avoid printing longish documents for the sake of the planet.) You will also need a 6-sided die or a reasonable online facsimile.

The discussion below isn’t all that spoilery, but if you want an innocent first experience of this book, you may want to stop here.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 5.08.23 PMThe book’s design assumes that you’re going to be writing on many pages. Sometimes this means checking off sections you’ve read before to prevent repeats, but the gamebook includes a few stand-alone activities like this picross puzzle. The instructions for the node where this appears say

If the puzzle is solved, turn to 24.
If the team is unable to solve the puzzle or if they choose not to try, they can investigate the occult section (if they haven’t already) by turning to 18.
or they can leave and investigate another location by turning to 1.

These are unabashed soup-can puzzle sorts of things: there is no compelling reason why they should affect the outcome of the rest of the story, and you can of course cheat.

In a gamebook that felt more serious or offered more narrative urgency, features like this might have made me a bit impatient. But because of the low stakes and lightness of the story, I approached it more as an activity book, and had fun with it.

Meanwhile, the mechanics that are more part of a standard gamebook repertoire — the die-rolling, the stats for your gang, the inventory — were well-judged to make the game fun, and let you read lots of special character-specific moments, without being overwhelming. I’m sometimes daunted by how much replaying a serious gamebook can expect of its reader, how much I need to explore the narrative space before figuring out how to unlock a good ending.

‘Normal Club doesn’t require — or strongly reward — hardcore replay dedication. For one thing, a lot of the challenges are knowledge puzzles. Once you’ve gotten through a single time, it would not be that interesting to try to reach the same point over again, even if your different party stats meant you uncovered a different selection of clues and red herrings. Two, when I did fail, it was usually enough to back up one node from a losing ending and try something else or redo a stat roll, and there were quite a few second chances.

The form factor also comes into play. The consumable nature of my gamebook discouraged me from starting over. By the time I reached my first dead end, my booklet was covered with marks in pink Sharpie. I was hardly going to go print off another 45 pages and start over. (I suppose a more meticulous person might have marked up their gamebook with a lightweight pencil and been prepared to erase it again. I am not that person.) And by the time I’d gotten a good ending, I felt like I’d seen almost all of the nodes in the book. The only thing remaining was to go back and check out some of the character-specific content for characters I didn’t include in my party. And that was satisfying, and I was done after an enjoyable couple of hours that included some light puzzling but no serious stuckness.

If you don’t have a lot of gamebook experience, but you do have plenty of printer paper and a taste for light puzzles, this might be a great place to start.

5 thoughts on “Windhammer Prize: ‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)”

  1. Thank you so much for your kind write-up. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Looking back, I don’t think I would have included the picross puzzle. It was intended to be a fun division, something extra to give the book a little more meat (and solving it does provide a hint of sorts) but people tend to get hung up on it as something essential.

    I’m a little surprised and dismayed to hear you printed out the whole book! Writing it, I never intended for people to play it on actual paper. When I read gamebooks I always make notes on a piece of scrap paper. I guess I assumed people would do the same, or print out the character sheet and that’s it. The “mark this section if you’ve already been” mechanic was more of an established gamebook convention I adopted. I don’t think I’d use it again.

    Anyway, thanks again. I think it’s really cool you’re covering gamebooks. They’re pretty marginal, even for CYOA. Glad to see serious critiques of our little hobby.

    1. Ha! Well, accidental or not, I actually kind of liked playing that way, and it sent me off on a whole mental design tangent about gamebooks intended to be written on that way…

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