How I Discovered Gamebooks for the First Time

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Fighting Fantasy gamebooks covers

Recently I stumbled upon (as usual) very interesting Kickstarter campaign: guys are raising funds for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain remake, a classic gamebook from 1982.

Frankly, it looks like a small revolution. Developers from Tin Man Games mixed together gamebook storytelling, video game graphics and miniatures and feel of a board game. What will come out of it? Well, we’ll see sometime soon. What I can tell you now is that at this stage, the project looks very interesting:

Inspired by Australian developers, I wanted to learn more about gamebooks. Of course, the first question came to me was if I would be able to create such a gamebook myself?

So the whole last weekend I was immersed in a new exciting world of gamebooks. I learned how the genre was born, its pioneers and super stars. I was surprised to learn that gamebooks were such a boom in 80-90s almost everywhere in the civilized world. Well, we children of the post-soviet era heard echoes of that boom only when communism finally fell. It’s such a pity.

What is a gamebook?

Well, you know, it’s kind of slightly different from your usual book and not entirely your usual game. A gamebook is usually written from a second person point of view so that you could slip into the story and become one with that nameless hero you are going to play as.

Here’s an example: “You open the massive door made of oak and enter the room with a low ceiling. The room is dim-lighted with the only candle on the table in the center. Under the table you notice a chest. In the far corner of the room where the light cannot reach something dark and big is stirring like a sack of shadows.”

However, there are gamebooks written from a third person point of view like in usual adventure stories. Sagas of the Demonspawn and Zork are examples of such gamebooks.

Gamebook example Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

A gamebook isn’t limited to only choosing which way to go. Oftentimes in the very beginning you create a character determining the basic parameters like skill, stamina, and luck. These parameters are used in various situations throughout the gamebook. Let’s say you’re walking a rickety bridge and one of the planks breaks and falls down into the abyss. Will you fall down after it?

The gamebook tells you to test your luck, or skill, or something else. Usually you just roll the dice(s), and if the number rolled is less or equal to your current parameter value, it means everything is fine, you manage to grab the railings and don’t fall down into the abyss.

Playing gamebooks, you’re going to fight enemies like monsters, warlocks, dragons, goblins, ogres and whatnot. Combat is usually pretty simple: roll the dice, add your current skill number, do the same for your opponent and find out who’s got the bigger number. Continue until you or your opponents have 0 stamina or less.

Brief history of the gamebooks

These amazing books are rooted in interactive textbooks of late 50s. It was B.F. Skinner who had the idea of using special books with branching storylines allowing students to choose one of the variants. These textbooks supposedly could substitute teachers altogether.

But of course, those weren’t the gamebooks we all know and love (well, the whole world knows and loves, but we here in Russia heard something about them and played a little bit). It was Edward Packard who made up the first fiction gamebook with branching storylines when he told bedtime stories to his children. Out of these stories Sugarcane Island was written in 1969, but saw publication later, in 1976.

Cave of Time gamebook cover

However, even this fact can’t be considered the beginning of our story. Later Packard with another author R.A. Montgomery brought their ideas to Bantam publisher. Thus famous Choose Your Own Adventure series were born, having paved the way to the whole new genre of the books. The first book in the series was classic The Cave of TimeChoose Your Own Adventure series became so popular that a few books were even translated into 25 languages.

At the time, many American publishers launched their own competitive series. TSR published Endless Quest. Another big competitor was Ballantine with their Find Your Fate series based on Indiana Jones, James Bond and Doctor Who universes.

In 80s, the books with branching storylines started to conquer other countries: Spain, France, UK, Mexico, Chile and Denmark. Other countries, including Russia, had to wait until 90s.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain cover

And that leads us to the beginning of this post. In 1982 in UK, two now legendary authors Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson published The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. That book was only the first in new Fighting Fantasy series, one of the most successful and popular gamebook series of all time. Fighting Fantasy distinguished itself from other choice books like CYOA by offering not only branching storyline but role-playing game elements as well, like main character’s basic parameters, spells to learn and items to collect, etc.

This classic book of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was my first acquaintance with magical, exciting, captivating world of gamebooks.

Lone Wolf The Caverns of Calte cover

Now, I could write plenty more about various series and authors I learned about. There were famous Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever, for example. Or Give Yourself Goosebumps by R.L. Stine where player could choose different paths to travel throughout the story and sometimes (well, very often actually) find ultimate trouble like being eaten alive, being turned into a dog or thousand more misadventures. 

Playing gamebooks on your smartphone, tablet or computer

Apparently, mobile devices suit well not only for gaming and not only for reading, but – surprise, surprise! – both for gaming and reading and at the same time.

If you’re one of the lucky owners of a modern smartphone or a tablet (and I bet you are), you can tap into dozen classic Livingstone and Jackson Fighting Fantasy gamebooks turned into beautiful apps. Jackson’s Sorcery!, which could be purchased even on Steam, is beyond praise.

Sorcery! Steam screenshot

Moreover, you can have a ready-to-play gamebook on your mobile device simply by putting some epub file with hyperlinks into your reader app (I personally recommend Marvin if you own an iOS device). Visit Project Aon site with Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf books available completely free and officially. Right, Joe Dever’s just that generous! You can download gamebooks there in multiple formats including epub. This format is very easy to read, a lot more comfortable than scrolling through a PDF in your reader.

But if PDF doesn’t confuse you, here’s a very precious link. Visit this awesome classic gamebooks archive on Abandonia. I think it’s the only place on the internet where these gamebooks are preserved. Zork series especially draws attention as it’s based on a famous text adventure by Infocom. And though Zork obviously loses in comparison with other gamebooks (considering its very linear story and pretty easy puzzles), old adventure game fans totally should touch these books.

Zork 1 Gamebook

I recommend to use Notability for reading PDFs on your iPad. It’s very handy and feature-rich app.

In addition, you can dig the Pirate Bay up to find some treasures like The Cave of Time, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and almost all other books from Fighting Fantasy series.

Venture forth, o fearless adventurer in quest of the truth, to the vast and wild expanses of the internet!

Finally, trying to make up leeway

As I said above, regretfully I completely missed gamebooks. And though their target audience is considered to be children and teenagers, I’d like to play them too.

What’s even more interesting is to try to create one myself, especially in this time of amazing computer technologies when a gamebook designer doesn’t have to torture themselves on a typewriter (I can’t even imagine how Livingstone and Jackson made their gamebooks using a typewriter).

I think you can expect more posts on gamebooks: my reviews, ideas and interesting articles on the topic I found somewhere.

Is there gamebooks fans? One or two maybe? Let me know that I’m not alone in comments.