Flying Buffalo's Legacy - Part 3: Solo Gamebooks
  • Flying Buffalo's Legacy - Part 3: Solo Gamebooks


    Dungeons & Dragons has always been a group activity, likely due to its roots in wargaming community. Co-creator Gary Gygax's early games were so large that he cited groups of 20 or more players at a time. As a hobby, this is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to anyone who wants to play -- finding other people to play with. When Ken St. Andrew launched Tunnels & Trolls through Flying Buffalo Incorporated, he hit on a solution that has been widely mimicked since: the solitaire adventure.

    A Brief History of Gamebooks

    Gamebooks are essentially hypertext, interlinked text that references each other -- a technique that is the foundation for the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and the World Wide Web. The difference is that, due to the nature of the printed word, hypertext books must have all the content available at once. Thus gamebooks were born, in which the reader chooses a path and then the reader flips to a page as instructed by the book. This continues until the reader reaches a satisfactory conclusion ("winning" the gamebook, although there can be multiple win conditions) or fails and the gamebook ends. Because a gamebook is static, the player can of course go back to the beginning and try again, avoiding paths that led to failure the first time. Historically, reference books were the most frequent "self-navigation" books prior to the arrival of gamebooks:

    Dictionaries cut indentations into the pages to help you find the neighborhood of your entry then let you flip along glancing at guide words to finish your search. Likewise encyclopedias use their alphabetical organization (itself a fairly recent innovation) to allow for a kind of hyperlinking as one entry typically references several others. Outside of the realm of task-oriented books, this sort of hopscotch across the contents is a rarity. And the CYOA books are actually not exceptions in this respect, for they too are books that perform a task. But rather than being a definition retrieval system or associative datastore, their interactive function is to create a gameworld for the reader. This is part of the wonder of these books – they took a pre-existing set of interface conventions designed for utilitarian search tasks and mapped a new activity onto it. They were effectively a new kind of software application for the oldest information-display platform we have.

    The concept of gamebooks was around for some time before the role-playing solitaire gamebook arrived:

    ...Sugarcane Island, rather than being the sixty-somethingth such book written in the vicinity of its print date in 1986, actually had been sitting in a drawer awaiting republication since its earlier printing a decade earlier in The Adventures of You series, though it was written seven years still prior back in '69! Even Sweden had enjoyed its Den mystiska påsen in 1970, while Dennis Guerrier had published no fewer than four gamebooks in '69. The illustrated Lucky Les first had his adventures printed in 1967, the same year in which Oulipo author Raymond Queneau shared his Un conte à votre façon (A Story As You Like It), generally accepted to be The First Work Of Hyperfiction... but only to those unaware of Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch, written in Spanish in '63 and translated into English in '66.

    The thread of gamebook development picks up in 1941:

    ...when Jorge Luis Borges didn't only describe hyperfiction in his Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain (1941, translated by Anthony Kerrigan to English in 1962 as An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain) but demonstrated it in El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths).

    It wasn't until Rick Loomis, founder of Flying Buffalo, realized that players needed a way to play Tunnels & Trolls without a dungeon master that he hit upon the role-playing gamebook.

    The Buffalo Arrives

    Loomis lays claim to the first solo RPG adventure, which predated choose your own adventures:

    Buffalo Castle was the first solo adventure written for Tunnels & Trolls, and as far as we know, it was the first solo adventure written for any roleplaying game, and even came out before the "choose your own adventure" books. It was written by Rick Loomis in 1976 with art by Liz Danforth.

    It's telling about how Buffalo Castle works: running away from monsters is an option, as is taking the exit. The adventurer can essentially leave the dungeon at any time, collecting his experience points and gold as he leaves. Games vs. Play distinguishes this type of gamebook as British rather than the less-interactive American style:

    The British tradition of gamebooks is usually agreed to have started with the publication of Puffin Books’ The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, which kickstarted the immensely popular Fighting Fantasy series (59 titles between 1982-1995). Like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was the creation of two writers, Steve Jackson (b. 1951) and Ian Livingstone (b. 1949), although in this case the two men were co-authors of the book and already knew each other well (they shared a flat in Shepherd’s Bush in London and had founded Games Workshop in 1975). British style gamebooks were distinguished from the American tradition by marrying the game mechanics of roleplaying games, albeit in simplified form, to the gamebook format. As the back cover of Fighting Fantasy books says, “All you need is two dice, a pencil, and an eraser to start your journey.”

    The claim that role-playing elements for a gamebook are distinctly British is disputed by (American company) Flying Buffalo's claim of Buffalo Castle, which was published in 1976 and predated The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by several years.

    The Future

    Gamebooks largely ended around 1987 and their decline was no doubt due in part to the rise of computer games and interactive fiction, which allowed writers to recreate the experience faster:

    ...gamebooks and computer games evolved in parallel, and there was much cross-pollination between the two industries. Many gamebook writers were already or went on to become computer game designers – Ian Livingstone himself was made an OBE in 2006 and a CBE in 2013 for services to the British computer gaming industry. Early text adventure computer games like Zork (1980) and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984) were influenced by the second person branching narrative structure of gamebooks, while computer-programming protocols were adapted to cope with the game complexity of two-player gamebooks such as Duel Master (Armada, 1986-7) and Combat Heroes (Beaver, 1986).

    Gamebooks and computer games weren’t so much locked in a Darwinian struggle for survival as they were complementary and interconnected entertainment forms:

    The popularity of the books declined as other interactive entertainments became more accessible. New books are still being published, of course, including one by the Overmental team, but choice driven narratives have largely been taken over by video games. Initially of course the stories told by videogames were extremely simple and linear, but their methods of engagement have always been more direct and less conceptual...As videogame development tools become more accessible, simple systems like Twine reflect a logic born of old CYOA books with refinements born of the digital world. Twine is based around a similar set of branching decisions to the original batch of books. The experience can be enhanced with music and simple graphics, but the logic remains the same. Even large scale RPG games often resemble a number of nested or sequential branching path stories.

    Gamebooks largely went digital, befitting their hypertext roots:

    Gamebooks still exist, and many have gone digital. Steam has seen a recent boom in Choose Your Own Adventure-like titles such as the Choice of Games series or Sorcery, that rely solely on text while using more advanced algorithms to chart the course of the story. Other games, such as Telltale’s various works, may have more action oriented gameplay and cinematic production value, but still stay true to the gamebook mantra of letting the player choose how the story pans out. Japanese visual novels can also be seen as another successor to gamebooks. Although some of the visual novels offer a limited narrative choice or are outright pornographic, a number of these games read like gamebooks with anime-styled visual and audio flourishes thrown in. A few, such as the modern-fantasy Fate Stay Night, the time-traveling saga Steins;Gate, and the Lovecraftian tragic-romance Song of Saya, prove to be great stories in their own right as well. While they are not as direct a successor as say, Choice of Robots, these games highlight an alternative take on what gamebooks have become.

    There are some things that those of us who played gamebooks may not miss. "American" gamebooks were brutally unforgiving, regularly visiting fates worse than death on the protagonist. And of course, since the reader made the decisions that led to the protagonist's fate, he or she likely felt at least partially responsible. The end results can be seen at the You Chose Wrong Tumblr, which is filled with screenshots of the "wrong" choice in gamebooks.

    Surprisingly, an offshoot of gamebooks in the form of audio-based games have experienced a resurgence in popularity thanks to a new technology on the horizon: the Amazon Echo. We'll cover this new incarnation of the solo gamebook in the next article.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
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    Comments 13 Comments
    1. Redthistle's Avatar
      Redthistle -
      To Mike "Talien" Tresca,

      Thank you! I greatly appreciate the work you've put into this.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Mr. Treska - Nice... but I find your choice of modern interviews instead of at the time interviews and designer's notes seems to introduce a bias...

      On the other hand, some of those resources are a little scarce now.
    1. Grainger's Avatar
      Grainger -
      Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were standalone books/games, sold in mainstream book shops alongside children's novels. It looks to me as if this T&T adventure ("for Tunnels and Trolls") requires the purchaser to have the T&T system; and presumbaly it would be sold in games shops alongside other T&T modules. Or is this not the case? There was the book end of the gamebook spectrum, e.g. Choose Your Own Adventure, at the other end solo game modules (like this T&T one, TSR did them later for D&D, I had a third-party one for Car Wars) and in the middle FF, which had the marketability of a book, and sold to people who never picked up an RPG, but it had some RPG-like elements.
    1. Zarithar's Avatar
      Zarithar -
      Fighting Fantasy is experiencing something of a resurgence now thanks to the likes of Tin Man Games and others.

      https://www.kickstarter.com/projects...retop-mountain

      The first two or three of the Sorcery! series have also seen new life as PC/Mobile games.

      Anyhoo... I loves me some Fighting Fantasy and hope the trend continues. I'm kind of lukewarm on T&T however.
    1. Dahak's Avatar
      Dahak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Grainger View Post
      Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were standalone books/games, sold in mainstream book shops alongside children's novels. It looks to me as if this T&T adventure ("for Tunnels and Trolls") requires the purchaser to have the T&T system; and presumbaly it would be sold in games shops alongside other T&T modules. Or is this not the case?
      In the UK, Corgi Books released a number of novel-sized T&T books, that combined a module or two with basic rules. So it was thought of more like Fighting Fantasy in circles more familiar with those books.

      In hobby stores, T&T was sold in a more traditional boxed set, alongside D&D sized module booklets, mostly solo adventures.

      But it was the same system, and the same modules often appeared in both formats.
    1. Syunsuke's Avatar
      Syunsuke -
      Now I want new patron for warlock; the Firetop Mountain.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      There are definitely some blurred lines between the types of gamebooks. There was the pick-a-path gamebook which involved no game system; the solo gamebook like Warlock of Firetop Mountain; and the solo gamebook for other game systems like Buffalo Castle.

      Flying Buffalo lays claims to the solo RPG gamebook, Puffin Books lays claim to the solo gamebook -- the thing is, both involved a RPG system, but one was a supplement to an existing RPG while the other was created for the gamebook itself. Flying Buffalo disputes the claim that the invention of a "solo RPG gamebook" is distinctly British, but if you look at things from the lens of self-contained gamebooks, Warlock of Firetop Mountain was first.
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      Ken St. AndrE
    1. Grainger's Avatar
      Grainger -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
      In the UK, Corgi Books released a number of novel-sized T&T books, that combined a module or two with basic rules. So it was thought of more like Fighting Fantasy in circles more familiar with those books.

      In hobby stores, T&T was sold in a more traditional boxed set, alongside D&D sized module booklets, mostly solo adventures.

      But it was the same system, and the same modules often appeared in both formats.
      From what I can find online, the Corgi books came out a bit later - the mid 80s (after the success of FF, and also after D&D had taken off in the UK), rather than the mid 70s when the T&T solo modules originally came out.

      Or did they come out earlier than FF? I found an edition for sale dated from 1986, but they could have come out earlier than this.
    1. Grainger's Avatar
      Grainger -
      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      There are definitely some blurred lines between the types of gamebooks. There was the pick-a-path gamebook which involved no game system; the solo gamebook like Warlock of Firetop Mountain; and the solo gamebook for other game systems like Buffalo Castle.

      Flying Buffalo lays claims to the solo RPG gamebook, Puffin Books lays claim to the solo gamebook -- the thing is, both involved a RPG system, but one was a supplement to an existing RPG while the other was created for the gamebook itself. Flying Buffalo disputes the claim that the invention of a "solo RPG gamebook" is distinctly British, but if you look at things from the lens of self-contained gamebooks, Warlock of Firetop Mountain was first.
      I agree; to me, the FF books always felt like their own thing, not really comparable to the solo modules produced for other systems, although that is just my subjective view.

      When the FF became super successful, they came out with a simple RPG system based around it. However, I don't think there were any modules produced (there was a monster book, and a world book, but both of these could be enjoyed by fans of the books who had no interest in an RPG), and the game-books remained self-contained.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Grainger View Post
      Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were standalone books/games, sold in mainstream book shops alongside children's novels. It looks to me as if this T&T adventure ("for Tunnels and Trolls") requires the purchaser to have the T&T system; and presumbaly it would be sold in games shops alongside other T&T modules. Or is this not the case? There was the book end of the gamebook spectrum, e.g. Choose Your Own Adventure, at the other end solo game modules (like this T&T one, TSR did them later for D&D, I had a third-party one for Car Wars) and in the middle FF, which had the marketability of a book, and sold to people who never picked up an RPG, but it had some RPG-like elements.
      Some of the T&T solos have a light version of the rules - the ones released for Free RPG day, and the ones released by Corgi Press (UK) do.

      Most of the FB Inc released ones do not.

      Car Wars had about 5 solo modules: Convoy (SJG), Hell on Wheels, Ultraforce, The Gauntlet, and Street Fighter from TFG's AutoVentures line. (TurboFire is a GM module; The Road is just road sections.) AutoVentures had rules for CW, Highway 2000, and Battlecars; Both HoW and Ultraforce include standalone combat rules. I've not got The Gauntlet nor Street Fighter, can't check those.

      None of the Solos for the original The Fantasy Trip (Melee/Wizard/ITL) include the core rules. The Newer TFT (a knockoff system which appropriated the trademark) has core rules for free download, and so not included in the adventures.
    1. Dahak's Avatar
      Dahak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Grainger View Post
      From what I can find online, the Corgi books came out a bit later - the mid 80s (after the success of FF, and also after D&D had taken off in the UK), rather than the mid 70s when the T&T solo modules originally came out.

      Or did they come out earlier than FF? I found an edition for sale dated from 1986, but they could have come out earlier than this.

      You're right that the Corgi books were mid-80s, and I would imagine (as you guessed) that they were to cash in on Lone Wolf/FF, etc. Most of the modules were late 70s early 80s in their original thin 9x12 booklet forms, too. FBI sold both for a long time. I bought all but one such Corgi edition fairly recently, direct from them (while waiting on the dT&T kickstarter).
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
      You're right that the Corgi books were mid-80s, and I would imagine (as you guessed) that they were to cash in on Lone Wolf/FF, etc. Most of the modules were late 70s early 80s in their original thin 9x12 booklet forms, too. FBI sold both for a long time. I bought all but one such Corgi edition fairly recently, direct from them (while waiting on the dT&T kickstarter).
      8.5x11, not 9x12. (9x12 is oversized in the US, and none of the T&T books were that big. At least one printing of one was undersized by half an inch, but I'm not certain if that was a mad hobbit pirate reprint. Almost all of the modules were originally released in the US.)

      A4 is about 8.3x11.7... but has never been a common printing option in the US, and almost all the FB Inc materials were released in 8.5x11 formats.
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