[Mr Creosote] This one is going to be unusual for our website, because normally it revolves around games in a digital form. Today we are going to talk about a ‘gamebook’. And, as might have been expected, we did not just pick one at random, but the gamebook itself:. Yet I have to tone down a bit: Actually it is already our second gamebook on the site. The other one has been hidden for about 14 years in the comics section.
[Herr M.] Seems about time to finally take them up again and expand the site’s repertoire. After all, nostalgia is not limited to all things digital, no, most people like to crave for more tangible stuff, too. And said book carries great weight (to the initiated readers): It founded its very own genre of rather unusual books.
[Mr Creosote] Yet the idea was not totally unheard of: There had been children books which let you choose how they should continue and at the time there where dozens of fantasy games with dice mechanics. Combining them was a real novelty, though…
[Herr M.] In fact, the original plan was to create a picture book that would link the illustrations with questions and references. Luckily, this was abandoned for cost concerns and instead we got the first piece of interactive fiction for a somewhat adult – or at least adolescent – reading public.
[Herr M.] It would be fair to say it is a clever combination: the book becomes more exciting, because it is more involving, and the role playing does not need a whole bunch of people, who are not always available. Spice this up with a bit of fantasy, which was rather popular at the time, and it comes at little surprise that this book was such a hit.
[Mr Creosote] To put it bluntly: The right crap at the right time.
[Herr M.] Yep, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone certainly hit the nail right on the head. The books sold like hot cake and a whole series followed in its wake. Not to mention the plethora of copycats from other authors and publishers.
[Mr Creosote] Those things even made it to the German-speaking world. The craze lost momentum a bit faster there, which meant that they ended after only about a dozen or so (instead of almost 60 in Great Britain). Still, they were successful enough to warrant a reprint in the 90s (about 10 years after the first edition) by a new publisher. In my case, the first encounter was with a couple of those books in our local library.
[Herr M.] A friend of mine recommended reading them to me. He was even kind enough to lend me all of his books. The ‘scary’ cover pictures, the adventurous plots and the novel gameplay, which held everything together, were totally amazing.
[Mr Creosote] Today it sounds almost unbelievable, but then I actually played the same three books over and over again, despite the fact that their lack of technical refinement leads to a very deterministic course of action. By the way, I did not play the original book, the Warlock, until I had reached adulthood. It was available in the library, too, but for reasons unknown to me, my parents believed they knew that this particular book used a sligthly more complex rule set and therefore would be less suitable. Unclear how they came to this kind of information.
[Herr M.] That is interesting, because I would have rated it as one of the simplest gamebooks. Eventually, the sequels offered a couple of extra rules, but they rarely raised the comparatively low level of complexity. Anyways, being able to do some simple mental maths is all you need.
[Mr Creosote] Maybe they were concerned about the last third of the book. More probably, it was just a mistake by the librarian.
[Herr M.] Well, I have to admit, though, that in my first couple of runs, I had not quite grasped how the fighting mechanics worked and made several mistakes during their execution. But it could have been worse, because the gameplay is mainly based on sheer luck anyway. Outside of battles, you have to do a lot of guesswork and as soon as you are off to a fight, the dice decide how things turn out.
[Mr Creosote] In any case, it is impossible to finish many of those books without having lots of luck while rolling the dice during character creation. But I guess we have reached the point, where we should – despite the huge reputation of the books – give a short explanation of the game mechanics.
How does it work?
[Herr M.] Unlike conventional books, in order to play/read this one, you have to create a character first whose abilities occasionally have an influence on the plot. According to the zeitgeist of the 80s you have to do this at random: You roll a dice (or two) for all three of them, add a fixed value each, choose some equipment (and if you are a creative fellow, a name, too) and off you go.
[Mr Creosote] The beauty of it is that it works with regular everyday dice. No need for exotic devices from shady cellar stores no one dares to enter.
[Herr M.] And even if you lack them, you can fall back to a nice gimmick: Instead of page numbers, you will find dice rolls scattered over the book. Simply flip through the pages and open the book at random and voila: you just rolled some dice.
[Mr Creosote] Which might turn out to follow a slightly non-uniform distribution. In any case, the book provides an opening scenario and right in the first scene, you can choose from a couple of options. They link to paragraphs that are not right on the same page, of course, but spread all over the book, in order to avoid cheating.
[Mr Creosote] So you are kind of restricted in your actions by what the author of the book has come up with. Then again, your choices can be very extensive, because they are only limited by the writer’s creativity.
[Herr M.] The most obvious limitation concerning your freedom is that you cannot move around freely between the rooms. More often than not, you get the choice to turn either left or right without being able to retrace your steps afterwards. But this seems only natural considering the amount of extra work it would take to cover all possible combinations.
[Mr Creosote] That is true, but all that left and right is rather unimaginative. If this would have been a computer game, you would have had the certainty that you only got those options all the time, because they are limited by the game’s engine. But in a book, it is possible that the next paragraph holds a totally unexpected, highly original choice.
So far this is not anything special. As mentioned above, it had been done before. What they did add to the mix are the character and dice mechanics. You have to manage a simple inventory, roll whether you are lucky or unlucky in certain situations and bash some monsters in a very similar way.
[Herr M.] The inventory opens up a couple of extra options (which appear rather mean if you have not found the corresponding items) or help you restore lost ability points. Luck functions as a kind of general skill check: Whenever it is not quite clear whether you can pull off an action or not, you have to roll for your luck. For example, when you try to sneak past a guard: If you are lucky, you can pass undetected, if you are unlucky you will have to get ready for a fight. As mentioned, the fights rely on dice too: Roll for you and your enemy, add a combat score and whoever comes up with the higher number hits his opponent. Adventuring life can be that easy.
[Mr Creosote] Some of the paths lead right into traditional dead ends or even instant deaths. I.e. you do not only (but also!) need some lucky dice. In order to reach the magical paragraph 400, you will also have to determine the right path through the story.
On to firetop mountain!
[Herr M.] So much for theory, let us take a look at this in practice, namely the said Warlock of Firetop Mountain. What do you get to see on your way to the final paragraph? Right after a short introduction, which includes a bunch of rumours and speculations, you are standing at the entrance of the eponymous mountain in order to kill the eponymous warlock. The story is woven as simple and effective as the rest of the book, and everyone should have got an idea what is going on.
[Mr Creosote] You find yourself in a typical D&D world, in which you have got to clean out a dungeon. Purely for wanton greed. So much for ethics, morals and motivation.
[Herr M.] Money also makes the fantasy world go round. Interestingly, the warlock’s portrayal does not make him appear especially wicked or evil. The book skips the traditional widows and orphans as a means of justification. You are simply lured by a challenge and its reward. In my opinion, this works quite well, because it seems to be slightly more honest.
[Mr Creosote] Indeed. This avoids a common question turning up in most fantasy tomes, namely that even on a superficial level, you are not able to tell in what way the ‘good guys’ have the moral high ground over the ‘bad boys’.
Left or right?
[Mr Creosote] Although the title of the book mentions a mountain, you immediately go inside and end up in a dungeon crawl – which starts with an appropriate question: ‘After some time you reach a crossing. Do you wish to go west or east?’
[Herr M.] And appropriately one of the two choices is not especially good for your health, without giving any hints and pointers. That is, if it is your first run, which is accordingly the most exciting one. That uncertainty, and the suspense that comes with it, makes up a big part of the book’s charm: What lies ahead of you?
[Mr Creosote] You have to explicitly keep in mind that back then, random choices between two unknown paths were not quite the stereotype which all of us have come to know from the genre nowadays. Things go on with several closed doors, each of which can either be opened or left untouched. I just wonder, what’s the point here? Come on, who does not open those doors? Surely those are just pseudo decisions.
[Mr Creosote] All of which is true, but was it really necessary to have six virtually identical door scenes in a row? The book’s beginning in particular seems to feature some very lazy writing.
[Herr M.] This section looks a lot like a tutorial to me: It is simply there to teach you how to use the game’s rules. Also you see far worse stuff in computer games, were sometimes rooms are indeed identical. Here the authors at least tried to make them come alive by providing some vivid descriptions.
[Mr Creosote] OK, that might be true as far as the rooms behind the doors are concerned. But advancing in such a one dimensional fashion between them is really unimaginative. They could have masked this far better: Make one of them a door, another one a staircase, yet another a secret passage etc. Would have felt a bit more adventurous.
[Herr M.] Well, luckily the book is not entirely set up this way. After the entrance area comes a section with lots of branches, which lead to still more branches. This makes a lot more fun, although you cannot shake the feeling you are always missing out on something important.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, the motivation increases a lot in this middle section. But here the problem you mentioned above ensues: You never can turn back (without a reason being given to the player), so whenever you decide to take the ‘wrong’ path, you are out of luck. Naturally you will not notice this until right at the very end.
[Herr M.] I think the basic idea here was to motivate the readers to replay the book, i.e. increase the longevity of it in doing so. It is almost impossible to reach the treasure on your first run, so you will have to play it several times to solve the whole thing. I think, as unfair as this might seem, that frustration is kept within reasonable bounds. It would not make that much of a difference after all if you would be able to go back, because you would just have to run through the whole dungeon all over again, except it would be almost empty and therefore boring.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, this feature is both boon and bane. Eventually, you will reach a path that leads to one of the river crossings and yet again the mode of adventuring changes – this time on an even more fundamental level.
Beyond the river
[Herr M.] The break is definitely glaring: Suddenly you can move freely in all directions. However, only through tunnels which look exactly the same and connect a handful of rooms which contain something interesting. A real maze, which can be quite infuriating at times.
[Mr Creosote] In other words: The very thing which might have been angering you right up until now – not being able to retrace your steps – becomes possible in this part of the dungeon after all.
On top of that you can now perform some other typical D&D activities, like searching the walls for secret doors and having random encounters.
[Herr M.] Overall this section will remind you a lot of a typical dungeon crawl. Although, to be honest: As much as I hated being lost here and as tedious as it might have been to reread always the same paragraphs, in my opinion it serves its purpose far better than the first half. At least you do get the feeling of being hopelessly lost, which certainly was the intention here.
[Mr Creosote] In this section the gameplay did not bother me as much as the less vivid language did. You get no descriptions from which you might be able to tell all those crossings and junctions apart. Colours, materials, tracks – there are no details at all. Just a ‘You are standing at a junction, exits are to the north, south, west and east.’ Aha. If you wish to map this maze (which you actually can with a pencil and some paper), the only way is using the paragraph numbers. So, from the protagonists point of view, you have to rely on extrinsic information.
[Herr M.] It is very likely the authors only limited the information so you can become lost. If they would have given more hints about your actual position, this section would have played almost the same as the first half. All of the maps I have done were without paragraph numbers and I have to say: It was quite a nice challenge to figure out where I was wandering about.
[Mr Creosote] Sooner or later you will not get fooled anymore and eventually you meet the stereotypical dragon, followed by the warlock himself. What do you think of those two encounters?
[Herr M.] Very nice! As stereotypical as the characters might be, fighting them offers a lot of possibilities, which exceed the simple dice rolls needed for the less important monsters by far. If you are clever (or lucky), you even might not have to roll at all. That is the way I like my boss fights!
[Mr Creosote] Agreed, in both cases you are offered some nice alternatives in order to beat them. The dragon is a tad more one-dimensional – you either have gained the knowledge you need to beat him or you have not. But the warlock actually shows some great variety. Although in reverse you have to admit: Without those alternatives, your chances in a direct confrontation, armed only with your sword, would be very slim.
[Herr M.] With an emphasis on slim: At least you can try to kill them this way, for which the book should be given credit for. Some games (and their masters) tend to throw invincible monsters at you, which are almost never necessary. As far as the dragon is concerned: I found his puzzle quite funny and atmospheric. It really felt a bit magical.
[Mr Creosote] OK, maybe in my case this encounter was ‘slightly’ anti-climatic, because I accidentally had found the anti-dragon-spell on my first run already. That is why the warlock seemed a lot more mysterious to me.
[Mr Creosote] But even after beating him you have not finished the book yet! Just as a reminder: Your goal is to loot his treasure.
[Herr M.] Oh yes! You are standing in front of his treasure chest, knowing about those three keys you need to open the lock; if you played your cards right, you will have some of them in your pockets; eagerly you are about to make a choice… and have to do some math.
[Mr Creosote] That is really a funny thing. Up to this point you could cheat at your hearts content, because each option was linked to an explicit paragraph number, but in this case it is just: sum up the numbers inscribed on the keys you want to use and turn to that number. Err… yes, you will have to play by the rules this time. Of course there are more keys than necessary, but only one combination is correct and will let you open the chest.
[Herr M.] The one thing about it that was rather well-conceived is that if you should pick the wrong ones, you will get a hint at how many of the keys fit. So it is not just a guessing game, but you can actually deduce the right combination. On a side note: Unlike in some of the sequels, the right number is not just the last paragraph… although that one is about finally opening the treasure chest.
[Mr Creosote] As much as I am willing to understand certain limitations concerning the player’s freedom of choice found in the previous portions of the game, I think that this gets outright frustrating at the end. If you do not have the right keys and fail to die while trying to open the chest, you simply lose… well, now what? If you want to leave the dungeon you will have to retread the passages anyway. This time you would know some of them at least. So, why are you not able to search for those keys? I am just trying to imagine the hapless adventurer, sitting on the chest, sulking until he eventually dies of hunger and thirst. Or what else was the idea behind this?
[Herr M.] Well, he is just really, really depressed. Granted, inside the game’s world this does not make much sense, but on the game’s meta level it is simply the typical bane of role playing: You can think of as many ways the plot might turn out, your players will always find (or at least search for) ways and means to jump the rails. In order to turn back, you would have to find a way to remember where the player has been. By now, there have been several (and seldomly convincing) attempts to do so in other game books, but this one was the first of its kind, so there had to be limitations.
[Mr Creosote] Like I said, I can understand all of the limitations as far as the game’s mechanics are concerned. What I am criticising is that they did not even try to conceal those faults. I even would have preferred if they had just said outright: ‘Finally, being totally frustrated that none of the other keys fit, you put your sword on the lock to force it open. You should not have done that, because its owner was a mighty magician. The safeguard mechanism makes mince meat of you.’
[Herr M.] Or the chest simply vanishes into thin air (so poor adventurers do not have to die each time they fail). Basically I agree with you, but this way, you would have prevented all further attempts to open the lock with a different combination. Which yet again would have been easily solvable by adding an extra paragraph to turn to if you run out of other options and wish to give up.
[Herr M.] I would put it this way: Extremely atmospheric fantasy pulp. Nicely archaic phrases which add up to highly effective descriptions and evoke an adequately grim-dangerous mood.
[Mr Creosote] I guess, this sums it up quite nicely. In the end, you should not expect a literary masterpiece, that much should be apparent just from knowing the base scenario. It is fantasy trash, but the effective kind.
[Herr M.] Yes, the paragraphs have just the right length: No babbling, but also no one-liners (with the exceptions of the labyrinth). And there are next to no paragraphs which offer you no choice of action. The humour, which runs through the whole book, is quite fine too, because it offers some welcome comic relief.
[Mr Creosote] However, I wish there would have been a somewhat more lively range of creature encounters. It is just yet again the D&D standard pool.
[Herr M.] Indeed, plain Tolkienesque monsters with some random additions from Greek mythology. Although those were not that overused back when the book was published for the first time. Come to think of it, is there any monster at all that we had not seen before?
[Mr Creosote] Sadly no, as far as I remember. All of them stuck as being rather arbitrary in my memory.
Collecting essential quest items and important information is a matter of luck, too, because the dungeon follows no apparent rules. There are (as mentioned above) zones with different kinds of gameplay, but you cannot tell any differences as far as their everyday use is concerned. So there are no quarters, in other places kitchens, pantries and whatnot. With them, you might have guessed where to find certain objects on your next run. But in the end, it is just a wild mess without any kind of inner logic.
[Herr M.] Well, it is the usual dungeon logic, by which the encounters themselves come first, not how they come to be. But I think it is not so bad after all, because only the three keys are really essential for your success, and those can be found directly with some browsing. I have to admit though, that there is certainly some room for improvements here.
[Mr Creosote] The question arises, and I guess I have hinted at my answer to it several times by now, whether this book is still recommendable. Its historical merits as the source of a whole new genre are beyond debate. But do you think you would recommend this book to someone who wants to get to know that genre?
[Herr M.] No, nowadays there are far better game books for newcomers. Still, sooner or later I would recommend to take a look at it, because even though time has left its mark on it, it has some qualities, which go beyond mere historical interest.
[Mr Creosote] If you want to dwell upon the genre, you probably should read it. But that is were I would draw the line. These days the book seems just like some proof of concept to me, something to demonstrate the system’s possibilities to potential publishers, to show how you could develop such a thing. There is almost no other way to explain the glaring differences in style for those three sections. On top of that, each one of the three main parts shows a strong focus on their respective main mechanics. All of them are rather sketchy. Nostalgia aside – in my opinion the books coming right after this one outclassed it by far even though they were assembled of exactly the same set pieces.
[Herr M.] Well, they were able to prove their concepts, the demonstration worked out. Except for some minor changes, the sequels played almost the same way. Mostly, they polished the plots and their scope. And it is just the experimental nature which can be quite fascinating after all, because it offers some variety. In some of the later titles, things become a bit too much routine.
[Mr Creosote] At least most of them were more consistent, one way or the other. Plus the Warlock has aged more badly than its successors, because all of his facets became extremely cliché after being copied for the thousandst time. Which is not the book’s fault, but it does affect the readers nevertheless.
[Herr M.] You have a point, the book shows signs of wear and tear, and debuts are more concerned with defining the basics. I think the book is a rather entertaining experience nonetheless, and as long as you (not knowing the one correct way) can keep up the illusion of freedom, it gets the job done, despite all those faults. Many of the things you mention were not as obvious to me while I was playing, as they are right now that we are reflecting on them.
[Mr Creosote] Sure, some of those things should not be given too much weight individually. There is not anything really horrible about the Warlock, but also nothing particularly great, either. Which makes the book rather redundant – or it did so itself.
[Herr M.] Yes, the book has become a slightly mediocre example of its genre, and it probably would not get as much attention if it were not for its fame as initiator. But there is one thing which I find quite outstanding: When you finally manage to open the treasure chest, you get treated to an epilogue, which is rather creative after all and was designed rather nicely. It made me look back on my adventure with a smile and a certain kind of satisfaction. How did you like the final page?
[Mr Creosote] OK, the final twist actually is not half bad. I do not want to give away too much, but as far as said 'widows and orphans’ are concerned, the story nicely comes full circle in the end. There is even a final decision (although it is up to the player’s imagination how that one turns out).
[Herr M.] Well, like I said: Sooner or later, every player is going to derail the game master’s plans and cut his own path. It is nice to see that the authors have come to accept this and offer you to take your fate into your own hands.