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What Are Gamebooks?

by: Anurag Ghosh ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 5/25/2012 • Leave a comment

In the 70s and the 80s, adventure gamebooks were known to be the worthy successors of table-top role playing games, thanks to their engaging narrative and excellent combat system. While this genre is not that popular nowadays, there is some heartening news about its revival.

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    What is a Gamebook?

    Screenshot of an Adventure Gamebook Endless Quest by TSR Adventure Gamebooks were quite popular in the 70s and 80s. Those were the days when just a piece of paper and dice would be enough to play the role of a character lost in woods, fighting a lone battle against monsters. A mere roll of the dice would resolve intense battles with scary monsters, restore the player’s expertise, vitality and help the player determine whether his actions favor his luck. While an adventure gamebook relied more on the outcomes of the dice, its story relied on the decisions of the player.

    Basically, an adventure gamebook, also known as choose your own adventure book, is a genre of fiction novels that allows a reader to interact with the story. The story is branched into paragraphs, or text sections, with several options to choose. Any choice a reader makes affects the course of the story. There are also random encounters with monsters and enemies which can be sorted out by using a die or two dice.

    A typical gamebook has multiple endings, some good, others not favorable to the choices made by the reader. But, the main aim is to fulfill the objective laid down by the gamebook. The goal can be anything, from defending a kingdom to seeking a lost treasure. The goal, along with combat and decision-making elements in adventure gamebooks, shares some similarity with today’s single-player role-playing video games.

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    Origin of the Gamebook Format

    The gamebook genre was quite popular during the late-80s. However, the gamebook format’s origin can be traced as far back as 1940. It was the Argentinean Author Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths and Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain that had branch points and multiple endings, and required readers to use deduction to reach the correct ending.

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    Choose Your Own Adventure Series

    Choose Your Own Adventure Series - The Cave of Time The seventies saw the rise of choose your own adventure books for kids and grownups. The Tracker series was quite popular between 1972 and 1980. In the late 70s and the early 80s, the Choose Your Own Adventure Series gained huge popularity worldwide. Published by Bantam Books, the series spawned several titles translated into 25 languages and mainly covered different genres, including sci-fi, mystery, horror etc. The books were plain and simple branching-path interactive fiction with multiple choices, but no combat elements.

    While the Choose Your Adventure series of interactive fiction books gained immense popularity, there was something missing in them. Most game book designers wanted to have more interactive elements and so combat was involved. The late 70s and early 80s saw a major transition from plain branching-paths to complex combat and character creation systems. Inspired by role-playing board games, gamebooks began using dice and required players to follow certain rules to play them. Better known as solitaire adventures, these books followed strict pen-and-paper RPG rules, but did not require any referee or a game master and were generally called solo RPGs.

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    The Rise of Solitaire Adventures and Dice-Based Gamebooks

    Fighting Fantasy - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain iPhone Version The first gamebook to introduce dice was Buffalo Castle. It was a solitaire adventure and followed the rules of the standard Tunnels and Trolls role playing system. Although the gameplay was quite crude (The book was described as dungeon crawler), it was the first adventure gamebook that used dice.

    The Fighting Fantasy series was the next big thing in the gamebook universe. Designed by well-known game designer and reviewer Steve Jackson, the series produced some of the best single-player fantasy choose your own adventure books that involved dice for combat and branching-path text sections. The most famous gamebook of the series was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which was published in 1982. TSR, the publishers of Dungeons and Dragons role playing games, also came up with their own gamebook series in 1984. Based on the Dungeons and Dragons settings, the interactive novels were categorized into two types: one that was more like the Choose Your Own Adventure Series (Endless Quest) and the other involved advanced gameplay settings with D&D rules, combat style (dice-based) and character creation (Super Endless Quest). TSR also published a few comics based on their D&D role playing setting.

    The 1980s saw many game designers and publishers cashing in on the explosive popularity of gamebooks. Some of the best ones include the Lone Wolf Series (1984, Joe Dever), Legends of Skyfall (David Tant) and Find Your Fate Series. Legends of Skyfall tried something different by introducing a coin-tossing system for combat and character creation instead of the usual dice-based gameplay. There was also a comic series called The Diceman, which combined the gameplay elements of an adventure gamebook with graphic novel. Sadly, the series lasted five issues. However, the rules and combat elements were quite unique when compared to other choose your own adventure books.

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    The Important Features of a Dice-Based Adventure Gamebook

    An Adventure gamebook has the following features:

    Map: Maps usually accompany a gamebook having several branching-paths in a maze-like plot or storyline and are very useful for bookmarking the explorations of the player.

    Character Sheet: The character sheet describes the gamebook’s character and is required to record the expertise, luck, vitality and other important characteristics that determine the strengths and weakness of the character. It is also used to record any treasures found during exploration, equipment and other items of importance.

    Combat: Combat is usually dice-based and is used to determine the outcome of a battle with a monster/ ogre and other enemies. The die usually used is a six-sided one, although some books require 4-sided dice, especially the ones that use the D&D setting.

    Puzzles: Most choose your own adventure books have intricate puzzles that engage readers. Some are pictorial, which others are in the form of word puzzle/riddle.

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    Are Gamebooks Still Played Today?

    The popularity of visually-appealing single-player RPGs and MMORPGS may certainly have an edge over table-top role playing games and gamebooks, but the latter still holds an old-wChoose Your Own Adventure Gamebooks - Return to Atlantis iPhone Version orld charm to it. You may find many people searching for such unique choose your own adventure books at the Strand Bookstore or other stores that sell old books.

    However, game designers like Steve Jackson have revived the long-dead genre by launching adventure gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain on the Apple iPod Touch and the iPhone. There are more games to be released. The recent game, Fantasy Citadel, is exclusively released for the iPhone and is available on the iTunes store. The iPhone versions do not require any dice or character creation sheets, all special features and built-in. Players will have to use the iPhone’s accelerometer to roll a three-dimensional dice. This really makes the gamebook quite interesting to play.

    The Return to Atlantis gamebook of the Choose Your Own Adventure Series is available at the iTunes website. Released by Magnetism Studios exclusively for the iPhone, the gamebook app has nice hand-drawn illustrations that give the same look and feel as

    There are also online versions of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. There’s a site called ffproject.com, which hosts fan-written Fighting Fantasy books. The online version has everything, including a virtual dice, a character creation sheet and other features.

    While choose your own adventure books aren’t popular, they do have a sizeable fan following, which certainly has encouraged game designers to revive the gamebook genre to play on modern gadgets.