Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Curling Up with Solitaire Gamebooks

I recently ordered a copy of S John Ross’ Ring of Thieves solitaire gamebook adventure thanks to a 35%-off Lulu holiday sale (alas, ordered before they announced the 50%-off hardcovers sale...). When combined with memories of immersing myself in game books – solitaire or otherwise – over the holidays during my misspent youth, I can’t help having solo gamebooks on my mind.

Frequent readers know how much I love solitaire game adventures, especially those included in roleplaying game rulebooks to help teach both the system and setting. Solo gamebooks offer a complete, self-sufficient play experience without reliance on or eventual transition to a full set of game rules in a vast, tome-like rulebook. They can scratch some of the itch for traditional roleplaying activities – a lone hero trying to overcome numerous obstacles in an adventure – but might seem limited by their streamlined game mechanics and programmed format (though that still provides a good degree of replay value as players explore different choices and meet various ends...). I realize the programmed game experience isn’t as freeform or unexpected as some other solo roleplaying game options available today, particularly those pioneered by a small but dedicated core of solo gamers exploring new tools and techniques. Like roleplaying games, solo gamebooks balance rules and story, though they employ printed text to describe situations and streamlined game mechanics to resolve conflicts. I’m not saying one kind is bad and the other good – people (even designers) have their own tastes, projects have their own parameters – but the product and the experience it delivers (intentionally or otherwise) can vary between storytelling and game.

The pros and cons of solitaire gamebooks when compared with the group roleplaying experience remains open for future exploration and debate here at Hobby Games Recce; this particular article looks at my own experiences with and impressions of solo gamebooks. The programmed story format has its roots in the extremely popular Choose Your Own Adventure interactive children’s series creators R.A. Montgomery and Edward Packard made popular in the 1980s (although Flying Buffalo had already pioneered programmed solitaire game adventures as early as 1976 with Rick Loomis’ Buffalo Castle). The Choose Your Own Adventure books relied completely on reader choices, with no die rolls or stat comparisons to determine the outcome of uncertain situations (such as combat). Some stories provided clues on strategies, emphasizing the difficulty or danger of some routes; but the results of choices sometimes seemed arbitrary, with few clues to lead readers along the correct path that didn’t lead to a nasty end.

Games Workshop founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were among the first to merge these two solo formats – programmed story and programmed game adventure – into solitaire gamebook with their Fighting Fantasy series, starting with what might be the very first effort in this field, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in 1982. To resolve combat, readers rolled dice and added a skill value for their character and their opponent, the lower one taking damage until a stamina score reached zero...at which point they would proceed to the next programmed entry (victory over the foe) or perish in combat. The basic concepts survived in numerous variations for many subsequent gamebook systems, each with a different level of complexity. Most had some degree of bookkeeping, with players tracking health or other stats on a character sheet page, not a terrible prospect in itself, and necessary for some semblance of game elements to liven up an otherwise standard programmed pick-a-path story. Some added magic and skill systems, equipment lists, or even experience systems to port characters into other books in the series. Some books included maps as references as well as illustrations to bring to life scenes and characters described in the text. A few even incorporated systems for generating random number results like dice – odd numbers in the corner of the pages or dice results at the bottom of pages to randomly flip to, or a “Random Number Chart” to blindly poke at with a pencil to generate a result – and at least one actually packaged a set of six-sided dice with the books.

Despite all these trappings of traditional roleplaying games, gamebooks don’t usually require the table space of a full-on game adventure, with the rulebook nearby, the scenario spread open, a character sheet and pencil, and a handful of dice. Many solo gamebooks still require pencil and dice, but often combine rules, scenario, and character sheet into a single compact book (though some of us, myself included, might indulge in separate character sheets and even maps to enhance the game experience). The small-book format enables one to curl up on the couch, jotting down notes with a pencil and occasionally rolling dice.

Here’s an overview of the solitaire gamebooks I’ve personally enjoyed over the years, with my brief impressions and recollections:

CYOA/Endless Quest: I have over the years enjoyed the Choose Your Own Adventure books and TSR’s Endless Quest books (the company’s attempt to take advantage of the original series’ popularity using popular game settings from D&D and its other roleplaying games). My brother had several Choose Your Own Adventure books I borrowed, but the Endless Quest books really caught my interest given my immersion in D&D and the books’ foundation in the setting and game fundamentals. I fondly recall borrowing a friend’s copy of Return to Brookmere, a title I recently picked up for my own library at a used book store. My own collection of much-read Endless Quest books includes the D&D themed Dungeon of Dread, Dragon of Doom, Raid on Nightmare Castle, plus Villains of Voluturnus and Hero of Washington Square, which satisfied my teenage interest in the Star Frontiers and Top Secret game worlds. I’ve since bought a few new Choose Your Own Adventure titles (particularly the classic first one, The Abominable Snowman) and found several at used book stores. I still occasionally pick up a Choose Your Own Adventure or Endless Quest book for my nightly reading and try making my way through it at least once, if not several times given the numerous endings. In my earliest days of gaming I tried writing my own programmed interactive fiction, in a science fiction setting; I’ve not seen it for years (if the handwritten pages still exist at all), though I fear it’s a terrible piece of writing infested with errors common to my early high school writing style.

Fighting Fantasy: As a teenager I discovered the first book in the Sorcery! series, The Shamutanti Hills, on the science fiction/fantasy shelves of my supportive, local bookstore. It was one of those series the perceptive owner noticed I’d started, so he made sure he stocked subsequent titles so I could explore them without interruption. At first I wandered through the setting, keeping a map to track my movements and offer guidance for future forays (a practice ingrained by playing D&D); I also kept a separate character sheet so I wouldn’t mar the book. After playing several times as a warrior, I reversed-engineered the spells (as I didn’t have the separate Sorcery! Spellbook) by following the different programmed outcomes. I spent more time than I should have meeting grisly ends in the sequel, KharĂ© – Cityport of Traps; I became so frustrated I started writing (and never finished) a programmed adventure to actually go around the city. I stumbled through the final two books, though I quickly became frustrated at their high lethality. Several aspects of these gamebooks remain with me today; the evocative John Blanche artwork, the rich setting, and the innovative spell system, which gave spells three-letter names players had to memorize, and provided several choices – some of which were close but false names, and hence ineffective as spells – any time the sorcerer had an opportunity to use magic. I later picked up a few other odd Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which I enjoyed, though they didn’t have the spellcasting option for characters, nor did they have the same evocative artwork or setting continuity I’d enjoyed in Sorcery! (The Fighting Fantasy series recently expanded from print books to interactive aps people can play on their pad devices.)

Sagard the Barbarian #1, The Ice Dragon: I picked this up around the time I discovered Sorcery! mostly because D&D co-creator Gary Gygax was a co-author of this gamebook. It remains remarkable among solo gamebooks in that the rules sat at the back of the book instead of the more traditional and intuitive front. Curiously, although published by Pocket Books (instead of Gygax’s TSR) with no D&D trade dress on the cover, the map depicted in the book directly place the adventure in Gygax’s Greyhawk setting. I vaguely recall several attempts to complete the adventure – I’ve no idea if I actually did – and despite it’s famous author it made such a feeble impression on me that I didn’t bother following up with any of the sequels.

Tolkien Quest – Night of the Nazgul: One of the few Middle-earth solo gamebooks Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) published remains remarkable not only for its setting but for two interesting and rarely imitated innovations...using a map keyed to particular entries to track travel and initiate encounters and the indication of time spent for various actions (in the advanced rules). It’s also one of the few rulebooks that includes a section for using the original roleplaying game rules with the gamebook (“Using MERP With This Gamebook”). The adventure incorporated elements from Tolkien’s Middle-earth into the solitaire adventure to immerse readers in the setting. The series ran afoul of licensing disputes when Tolkien’s publisher deemed the gamebooks fell under its domain as “literature” instead of ICE’s approved license for games.

Fabled Lands – The War-Torn Kingdom: One of two such books I picked up when they released in the mid-1990s (the other being Cities of Gold and Glory), this gamebook came with an interesting pedigree. Authors Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson had done some work for the Fighting Fantasy series and other British game industry projects. Artist Russ Nicholson, a frequent contributor to the Fighting Fantasy series and overall prolific game industry and fantasy artist, provided evocative, crisp line art reminiscent of John Blanche’s work for Sorcery! It also came with two dice stuck to the cover in a molded plastic package; I carefully peeled mine off, but a perforation would have allowed me to punch through, remove the dice, and even store them there when finished. Unlike other solo gamebooks – typically produced as trade paperbacks – these gamebooks came in an almost-square eight-inch by nine-inch format. I played through both books, but they never seemed to capture the same sense of epic, original setting as Sorcery! (for me, anyway).

Ring of Thieves: S. John Ross’ solitaire adventure might not come with fancy maps or illustrations, but it tells an engaging story set in a medieval fantasy city complete with a kidnapping, a magical, meddling ring, and a formidable band of thieves. Ring of Thieves has thus far proved impossible for me to complete successfully, easy on the game-related bookkeeping, and entertaining in both content and tone. It remains perhaps the only solo gamebook to incorporate a complete game system, the author’s excellent Risus: The Anything RPG system. Although the full copy of Risus occupies eight pages at the back of the adventure, all the rules readers need to play the gamebook appear on one page describing the main character, the halfling thief Lucas Marks, right up front. For anyone interested in trying out Risus (available as a free PDF), Ring of Thieves serves as a great solitaire adventure demonstrating how the game works in a particular genre. I’ve had the PDF for Ring of Thieves for years – it’s available for free on the Cumberland Games website – and I even printed it out and played it a few times. The Lulu sale on paperbacks was just what I needed to order my own professionally printed copy.

Alas, many of these solo gamebook series have become out-of-print and unavailable over time; some sit on musty used bookstore shelves, others might live on in the shadowy realm of internet PDF files. Those still in print include the Choose Your Own Adventure line, the Fighting Fantasy books, and, of course, Ring of Thieves.

Want to share your own experiences with solitaire gamebooks? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.