Dirty Instruments by Sahil Asthana

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Warning! Review may contain spoilers!

Dirty Instruments is a free-form cyberpunk post-apocalyptic adventure set in an urban dystopia, in the spirit of Blade Runner, ShadowRun and Dues Ex. It’s been entered for the Windhammer Prize 2013 and it is very nicely written, and initially well-paced.

I eagerly fired up the pdf, incredibly excited by the promise “Warning: This adventure includes explicit violence, coarse language, and adult situations which will not be suitable for all readers.” I’m also excited by the title. “Oh great!” I thought, “Dirty Instruments! Joy! Finally a gamebook about a struggling rockband!” It turns out the instruments in title are actually instruments of death, assassins. We are bounty hunters, cold-hearted killers!

There’s no messing about and no pre-amble and we’re pushed straight into the action:

“You quietly slip out of the ventilation shaft and step into a sleek, white corridor, your mind fixated
on the mission ahead. The reason behind the hit on Dr. Stephen is unknown to you and frankly something you could care less about.”

This is a great opening to a gamebook. We’re bad and off to kill someone, I get it. There’s no learning complicated rules of combat that may or may not be used, and character creation comes a little bit later within the story itself as we catch sight of our grizzled looks in a mirror. This is a really nice touch.

After careful consideration of the characters available, I go for Jax, the ruggedly goodloooking outlaw, which I feel is a character most resembling Your Humble Narrator (the other choices being a female hacker and an upgradeable robot).

What follows is a well-paced series of setpieces to gently lead us through the combat rules. We have fights with a few guards, both at range and hand to hand, both times describing the new rules to us. At this stage I was completely in love, it’s a brilliant way to introduce a reader to your gamebook. Throw me into the story and then give me rules! Not the other way around!

I dispatch the guards and end face to face with the my target, the scientist I was sent to here to kill, and also faced with my first serious choice. Do I kill him or allow him to live? Well, I figure I would be a pretty rubbish assassin if I let him live, so I choose to end his life. “Wait! I have a family!” he manages to exclaim before I decorate his body with bullet holes, saying this after the choice has already been made and the game robs me of most of all my piety. I can only think the guards I slaughtered to get inside this room had no families because the game was fine with that.

First mission complete, I pick up my pay and start to settle into the book. This is where I believe the book makes a misstep. The main character is put into a central hub, and we can do what we want, how we want and when we want. We’re given a few victory conditions, but none of them seem to make much sense as a win condition. It all goes a bit Fabled Lands with guns. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Fabled Lands, but the problems with those books dog this gamebook also. It’s the problem of balance. Encounters seem ridiculously easy or incredibly hard depending on when you choose to encounter them. Dirty Instruments suffers here, because dumped into this hub with no clue of where to go next other then a vague idea of our next target, it’s natural to head there first. I’m immediately plunged into a very difficult (and tedious) fight. The rules system is one I have not seen before but seems to be slightly flawed. And it’s flawed because of the agility rule. The character with the highest agility can only ever suffer maximum 1 damage per round, because they are judged to mostly avoid the hit. This is fine when you have the most agility, but when you don’t it’s a bit rubbish. In this fight, I was faced with two policemen with an agility or 9 and a strength of 9. So even if I win every round, this is still 9 rounds I have to sit through (18 dice rolls). Which might be okay for a boss fight but this was just a minor, throw-away encounter. In contrast I’m later in Fight Club where I defeat an unagile key character in an anti-climatic 3 rounds.

Not only is combat balance out of whack but so is this world’s economy. It costs $10,000 just to enter a nightclub, or put another way, 1/5th of a bounty for killing a prominent geneticist and stealing his life’s work. Sahil has created an intriguing metropolis with Alpha, a city where humans and robots live side-by-side with increased tension, and it is a good backdrop for a gamebook. There’s some really nice touches in this world, such as the evolution of swear words (these kids are all fruck this and fruck that) and the evolution of new terrifying viruses.

There’s a lot of potential and enjoyment here, but it suffers with balance. The author has promised 3 more titles with this mini-gamebook serving as a bit of a demo. With a bit of tweaking they could be really really good.

Windhammer 2013 Review – Dirty Instruments