A few words about Adventure Game Books
I learned something new this last week. (Okay, I learned several things, but for the purposes here…) Apparently, one of my game designer friends was first introduced to role-playing through an Adventure Game Book his mother bought for him at the age of seven. This caught me off guard simply because, over all the years I’ve known this particular designer, I’d never heard anything about this. It’s an interesting coincidence, as I have collected several of the same series and used them to introduce non-gamers to the hobby.
Adventure Game Books were an interesting facet of the mid-80’s, starting off with the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of the period, which were then adapted by TSR with the Endless Quest books, using elements of their own properties, but keeping to the formula of the CYOA series. There were also the Fighting Fantasy books, by Steve Jackson (the UK guy) and Ian Livingstone (both of whom are better known for founding Games Workshop) and the Hero’s Challenge series, written by Gary Gygax and Flint Dille. The latter two were more clearly influenced by the RPG hobby industry, requiring more of a formalized character sheet and occasional dice rolls. For most people, the Fighting Fantasy and Hero’s Challenge books are strange ephemera of the early days of the industry, probably best left forgotten. (Until looking it up, I had only the barest recollection of Hero’s Challenge, and I couldn’t have come up with the protagonist’s name for the life of me. This is despite having read through at least half of the series. It’s Sagard, by the way. Not that anyone was particularly interested.)
As far as I can tell, many of the properties faded out by the end of the 90’s, likely replaced by computer games of similar ilk. If nothing else, this obviated the ability to skip ahead to see which choice in the forked path would get you instantly killed. (Looking back, these books were intriguingly deadly, with roughly half of the choices in the book seeming to end in immediate murder due to faulty logic or particularly well-informed antagonists.)
For their part, many of these novel/RPG hybrids were passable, but I can’t say that they were fantastic. I always felt that Endless Quest books were much better than Choose Your Own Adventure, but for the most part, there was nothing terribly inspiring in the more RPG-driven entries in the field.
Well, with one exception.
The series in question is the Lone Wolf series, by the British author, Joe Dever. I found a copy of the third book in the series in a bookshop when I was in middle school, and I was fascinated. There was something particularly weird in its sensibilities, a sort of … Britishness … that filtered through the text and the baroque artwork. It wouldn’t be until years later that I found odd echoes in Games Workshop products. And I’ll be damned if I can adequately describe how it was different. It just felt foreign, for whatever reason.
The idea behind the Lone Wolf series was that the novels’ protagonist was the last of the Kai Monks, an order of mystic warriors whose order was devoted to protecting the vaguely idyllic land of Sommerlund. (I find it interesting, as I’m composing this, how much of the series I still remember all these years later. Like I say, I couldn’t have pulled out the name of Sagard the Barbarian had my life depended on it. I do remember that he fought a hydra in one of the books, though.) Naturally, there was an unreasoning and vile empire in the Darklands that sought to destroy Sommerlund, its armies of Giaks and Helghasts providing the main foes through the early part of the series.
What I still love about the series is that, as the books progress, you continue to advance your character. Granted, if you started the series partway through (as I did before I found the other, earlier books), you can artificially level up the character as needed, but there was a sense of real accomplishment and history to Lone Wolf as the series went along. You would start with a couple of low level skills and powers, but as you made your way through the books, more and greater abilities began to manifest, adding to the experience as things progressed. You actually had a character sheet in the back of the book, and it reflected the choices that were made along the way.
A few years back, Mongoose took a stab at building a full RPG out of the novels, converting it to D20 along the way. (The game books were essentially D10-based. It had a weird system where a page at the end of the book was gridded out, and you closed your eyes to stab randomly at the grid. This was the default way of generating numbers for combat and the like.) Only about five books had been produced for it, and eventually Mongoose lost the license.
Which brings us to the present time. The Kickstarter for the new version of the game just concluded, raising a little over four times its original goal. (At some point, I may think about writing about a game that’s still in its funding period, but this isn’t where I’m going to start with such ambitions.) From what I’m to read, Joe Dever has a much greater role in the development of this version, and the rules are being developed out by some members of Cubicle 7, the same people that have brought us the latest iteration of the Doctor Who RPG.
Digression: As well as a score of truly amazing games that I honestly don’t have the money to get into. This would also include Qin – The Warring States, The One Ring, The Laundry, Rocket Age and World War Cthulhu. There isn’t a one of these games I wouldn’t love to add to my Library, but it’s a matter of money. (And the fact that they seem intent on trying to break my budget with the constant stream of Doctor Who RPG books on each separate Doctor.)
I picked up another one of their games, Kuro, a while back, and my desire to run that game borders on the obsessive. Japan and Horror and Cyberpunk? Why, only if you ask nicely. It’s so delicately tailored to my interests as to be a bit creepy at times. It was bad enough that Shadows of Esteren was keyed so closely into my particular tastes, but this makes me wonder who exactly is sitting outside my window at night, taking notes on the sorts of games I need made.
Finishing out over $100K, the Kickstarter built in some fantastic stretch goals and assorted goodies for the backers to throw money at. There were dice and coins, naturally, as these seem to have become standard fare in most current RPG Kickstarters (Q Workshop and Campaign Coins are making out like thieves these days, given that I’ve seen this on other campaigns), but they also offered up enameled tokens for a random number system (likely similar to the original game books) and cloaks for cos-playing purposes. I’m honestly fascinated by the idea of Official Kai Master Cloaks, but not enough to throw nigh on $200 at the concept. I have to think that there were several cloak orders, nonetheless.
There were also maps, running something like $20 for a set of four, but I had the feeling that they were going to be fairly small (seeing as they were printed on cardstock) and passed accordingly. And like Esteren, they also made a point of putting together a soundtrack for the game as well.
The most interesting bit was the Kickstarter exclusive setting book, which built out an as-yet unseen town designed by Cubicle 7 for the new edition. This ended up being bound into a book that was available as another add-on, bumped up to 128 pages and hardcover by the level of pledges. Had they raised another $10K, it would have ended up in color, as would the canned campaign that’s being shipped with the boxed set.
I look forward to seeing what the end result is. Cube 7’s done well by me thus far, in terms of Doctor Who and Kuro, and it’s honestly only financial considerations that have kept me from investing more heavily in their stock. As well, my experiences with The One Ring have been overwhelmingly positive (although, I think I’m more inclined to run a game of Ryuutama, if I were inclined to delve as deeply into journey mechanics), so it’s only a matter of time before I avail myself of games like Qin.