Living Healthy To Avoid Paragraph 14

It went uncommented at the time in these pages, but January 1 of this year saw the sad death of James Herbert Brennan, author of the Grailquest series of gamebooks (among many others). Even as voracious a reader of the entire paragraph-quest-book genre as I was, the Grailquest series was among my absolute favorites, combining earnestness, adventure, and whimsy in seemingly equal parts. (I'm fairly certain that book series is what taught me how to fold an origami boat . . . which I can still do to this day from memory.)

One element I was always amused by in the Grailquest series – which consisted of eight books – is that paragraph 14 was the "death" paragraph. That is, whenever and however you died in the adventure, you'd go to paragraph 14. The series itself started treating it as a metatextual element, along the lines of (to paraphrase), "You pay the two coppers to the skeletal cloaked figure in the boat, and he rows you across the abyssal river to 14 . . . no, wait. 41 (Whew!)"

I've always been curious about trying to adapt that strange aspect in my own games in some fashion. Not necessarily in a direct "death = paragraph 14" kind of way, but more in the sense of some random element that players are always looking out for. One idea I have for a tabletop RPG – especially one with a set dice system (such as the three six-siders of GURPS , or the standard d20 of one or two other games out there) – is to just declare that a certain random roll other than maximum or minimum is always something interesting.

Maybe in the game universe, the number 14 is associated with the forces of chaos, and any roll of a 14 – regardless of anything else – is treated as something particularly random: a plot complication, unexpected development, etc. It might be good for the heroes; it might be bad. But it'll be chaotic and memorable.

I envision players always being invested in every roll. Even if it's a near-certain "preordained" success being rolled or "no hope on Earth" super-low-odds attempt, the possibility of that 14 coming up can still shake up the play.

Of course, the number 14 doesn't need to be used, but it's the one that I most associate with "unexpected but anticipated," in honor of the Grailquest series. I'm not sure how well this idea would work, but it seems like a neat possibility . . . and if anyone tries it (or has done something similar), I'd love to hear about it.

-- Steven Marsh