Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Heart of Ice (Part 2)

Figure 1. Cover of the reissue of Heart of Ice
 by Paul Mason (from Morris, 2000).

Returning to part 2 of our overview of Heart of Ice, it’s time to look at just what is it that makes this epic tale of adventure so well regarded among gamebook fans. Aside from Russ Nicholson’s consistently good artwork (and unusually this time for Russ, in being science-fiction in theme rather than that of fantasy), I’ve stated previously there are three main components for such acclaim (Wright, 2007). Expanded and reinterpreted, these elements are:

1. Rules. What are the rules like? What’s it like to create a character? How do the rules play out over the course of the book?

2. Gameplay. Are there multiple paths to victory, or just one true path? What methods are used to track your progress within the book? Does it have replay value?

3. Setting. What differentiates the setting from others? How effective is the writing? What are the other characters in the story like?

The first of these will be considered in further detail below:

1. Rules. The Virtual Reality Adventure series of which Heart of Ice is a part, advertises itself as having a “unique non-random game system” with no dice to roll and thus depending on “Not luck but judgement!” (Morris, 1994, back cover). Apparently, this return to simplicity in the form of a totally diceless approach to solo-gaming was because:

[Mark Smith] and I were thinking of people playing the books on a train or a bus, where it’s not convenient to throw dice. And we’re both very interested in the narrative more than the strict mechanics of the game – probably because of our background in role-playing. So we though we’d try something that you could read like a novel, only with choices. (FalcoDellaRuna, 2008)

This ease of play aspect to the book has certainly been noticed by gamebook fans. In his review of Heart of Ice, Per Jorner (2007) notes that:

An obvious advantage with the luckless system is that less bookkeeping and no dice means it can be read pretty much in any situation where you might read a normal book, like on a train, where (in the absence of champagne-drinkers to beset) people could be expected to stare at dice-rollers, prod them with umbrellas or otherwise behave menacingly.

Figure 2. Heart of Ice Adventure Sheet
 with art by Russ Nicholson (from Morris, 1994).
From a pre-completed second-hand copy
(check the inventive use of Life Points!).

In addition to the lack of randomness, and the brevity of the rules (only four pages of rules, and five if you count the Adventure Sheet (see Figure 2)), the other interesting aspect to the system is that of character design. Each character starts with a certain amount of Life Points, Money (the currency is ‘scads’), and possibly some Possessions (of which you are limited to eight in total), as well as a choice of four Skills drawn from the following list of twelve (Morris, 1994, p. 9):

Close Combat

Also, if you are too lazy to try and choose your Skills, you can just pick one of the seven sample characters that come with the book (Explorer, Bounty Hunter, Spy, Trader, Visionary, Scientist, and Mutant), each with their own pre-chosen Skills and equipment. The end result is plenty of flexibility and creativity even before you start the adventure. For instance, Per Jorner (2007) states:

This system is not only simple and elegant, but it makes an absolute joy out of character creation; you can pick your own archetypes out of 495 possible – and viable – character builds. This is in fact the only gamebook so far where I’ve felt I could actually design and play – even role-play – my very own character.

As an example of this process, my own favourite character is a nod to Mad Max:

Figure 3. The Road Warrior
(from Mad Max Rockatansky, 2001).
The Road Warrior (a.k.a. “Angry Andy” see Figure 3)
Skills: Cunning, Piloting, Shooting, Survival
Profile: For too long you have prowled the icy roads between Kastilan and Bezant on a bombed-out snow-mobile, protecting the weak and innocent from bandits, mutants, and worse…
Life Points: 11
Possessions: Barysal gun (6 charges)
Money: 30 scads

In practice the system runs very smoothly – if you have a Skill you can use it, if you don’t, you can’t – while your Life Points measure how long your character can stay alive before expiring (when your Life Points are reduced to zero!). Tubb (2010) notes that the combat system is sort of like:

After walking down the dark alley for about a minute, you are attacked by two thugs armed with knives. If you have Close Combat, turn to #. If you have Agility, turn to #. If you have Shooting and a barysal gun with at least one charge remaining, turn to #. If you have none of these, turn to #.

Figure 4. Combat in Heart of Ice
by Russ Nicholson (from Morris, 1994).
Happiness is a warm barysal gun! 

All or some of these options would then lead to some loss of Life Points depending on how effective your Skill choice would be for that given combat (see Figure 4). In addition, and in general, the use of Skills is a positive and proactive experience. Per Jorner (2007) says “Commendably, you can almost always choose a likely option and assume your character isn’t going to act dumb and attempt something that has a low chance of success. This lack of “gotcha” mentality is refreshing”. It’s also very different from what many of us may have experienced when playing other gamebook adventures.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the actual gameplay element to Heart of Ice. In the meantime, if you haven’t already (see Figure 1), why not download the free ebook version here!


FalcoDellaRuna. (2008). Dave Morris interview 2008. Accessed from

Jorner, P. (2007, May 31). Reviews part 18: The future’s so bright I

Mad Max Rockatansky. (2001, November 19). Accessed from

Morris, D. (1994). Heart of Ice. London: Mammoth.

Morris, D. (2000). Heart of Ice ebook. Panurgic Publishing. Accessed from

Tubb, A. (2010, September 28). Heart of Ice – A solo gamebook adventure in post-apocalyptic Europe and Africa. Review posted to

Wright, A. (2007, October 3). Top ten gamebooks (part ][): My top ten – Off [the top of] my head. Message posted to


  1. Keep up the good work! This is very interesting stuff to gamebooks fans!

  2. Thanks Miguel! Part 3 is now up. BTW While the blog is called 'fantasygamebook' I'm definitely going to talk about other stuff too, so be warned! :-)

  3. Not a problem to me, as I'm… blessed? with many interests ;)

  4. Blessed is definitely the right word! You can never have too many interests. I've got a couple more Heart of Ice-related posts to go (both are mash-ups), and then I'll kick off into something a bit different.