Choices! Hundreds of them and they all come with their own unique rules, settings and stories. Welcome to the world of gamebooks, where you not only choose your adventure but also what to play. So where to start? Well, I’m here to help explain, but you’ll you have to do the hardest part and choose.
Gamebooks are written in second person, where you control the character and participate in the adventures. You’ll come across moments where there will be branching points and you have to choose which one. Go East, turn to paragraph 65/Go West turn to paragraph 9. Keep reading this article, continue down the page/ Stop reading this article, close browser and go away. Get the idea?
Chose to continue then? Good.
There are several types of gamebooks: there are ones that provide nothing but branching points, essentially a player-led novel. Roleplaying adventure books also have branching points but incorporate a separate manual or handbook for the roleplaying rules and aspects, allowing the reader to roleplay without needing a gamemaster. Finally, there are adventure gamebooks, the most popular of the three, combining simplified role-playing rules with the branching point novel aspects, a two for one bargain.
Gamebooks have been on the go since the 1950’s when Jorge Luis Borges wrote a three-part story which contained two branching points, with whatever the reader chose resulting in one of nine possible endings. They didn’t become popular until the 1970’s and in many occasions there were parallel writings and published works from competitors that clashed, so high was the demand for this genre. Unfortunately the boom ended in the 1990’s with the inevitable rise and popularity of home videogame consoles. However, with the introduction of tablets, iPhones and Kindles many titles have been re-released in attempt to revive them specifically for this market.
I first discovered adventure gamebooks several years ago when I was desperately wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons or join a pen & paper/tabletop game group. I had no idea where to go, who to talk to and my lack of experience, contacts and confidence made it hard to set one up myself. So I asked the Google Elders and their wisdom led me to Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series. It was love at first sight.
With a whopping 60 books spread over two seasons, I wasn’t going to fall short of games and time to play them. The series exploded onto the shelves in 1982 with the first instalment, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and I heartily recommend starting with this one. It’s a great introduction to the basic game mechanics and the series itself.
They are standalone books with your character, stats and loot left behind as you move on down the list. This quickly became cumbersome for me, because my desire for a roleplaying experience left me growing tired of coming up with new characters every time and playing as some nameless hero wasn’t immersive enough for me.
The stats and combat system are basic, all you need is a couple of D6. You use three stats: Skill, Stamina and Luck. They each have their purposes: in combat, you roll your dice and add your Skill to the dice to gain your attack strength. If your strength is greater than your opponents, you wound them, diminishing their Stamina. Once that hits zero, you’ve defeated your opponent. Woot!
Luck is a game mechanic that I really appreciated; it can turn the tide of combat and be the winning factor for you. But every time it’s used it goes down one, and there are very little opportunities to regain Luck. For rolling your Luck, equal or lower is good luck and higher is bad. So if you keep using it, the number is going to be ridiculously low to roll beneath. I mean, give a girl a break!
Mapping out where you’re exploring is a big help and I mean big help, because you often find yourself backtracking. You’ll often come to a crossroads and pick the path that leads to a dead-end; after the sixth time, it’s a little infuriating and these dead-ends will soon be marked with tiny genitalia on your map just to make sure you know what they are. They slow the game, limiting the opportunity for more encounters and different paths, diminishing your experience.
Lone Wolf is the second popular series of the adventure gamebooks. It is vastly different from Fighting Fantasy and admittedly I haven’t played as much of this series as it deserves. Published by Beaver Books, the series contains a mere 28 books. In this continuous story, the first twelve books are played as the eponymous Lone Wolf trying to kick ass, the next eight take place when you are the Grandmaster and in the final eight, you are a new character in the revived New Order of Kai, the order of warrior monks Lone Wolf avenged in books one to twelve. Beautiful connections and cohesiveness long-awaited.
Doing this, you really get to enjoy the series as a continual story, it’s rewarding and you genuinely feel gutted when Lone Wolf dies. Screaming “NO!” in a busy coffee shop is not socially acceptable. Speaking of character, you get to pick special abilities that last throughout the books and with some completions you can add new skills. These can range from Hunting, Sixth Sense and Healing and each has their own uses and, sometimes, lasting effects. Hunting allows you to not to carry food because you are totally capable of finding it yourself. Go you, Miss Independent!
You get Combat Skill and Endurance as your two stats or attributes. For combat it’s a little tricky, as you use a provided table that shows the difference and ratio between you and your target’s Combat Skill score, with the highest given the advantage and being allowed to roll a D10 for damage. It’s a little muddled but a good old-fashioned ass-kicking leads to wholesale murder, which is the important part.
While the downside of Fighting Fantasy is the mapping, the items and looting in Lone Wolf are its main weaknesses. You only have eight backpack slots, two weapons and a gold limit with other items carried in your belt, for example. Once at maximum carrying capacity, you have to start dropping your loot and you can’t carry three weapons, not even in your backpack. It’s certainly more realistic but it’s infuriating. I’ve walked for hours in Bethesda games because I can’t fast travel and I refuse to drop stuff. I refuse!
For all the enjoyment that these books provide it’s a shame to see them die out, it’s only with a thin trickle that the interest is still watered and fed. So if you’re looking to kill a couple of hours and start something new, I suggest grabbing a notebook and an adventure gamebook and getting on in there. Let the book take you through its world. Tell it where you want to go. It’s a perfect match.