Hello children. Are you comfortable on your Thomas the Tank Engine bean bags? Does anyone need a wee before I start? No? Good, let’s begin.
I want to take you back to a time from my youth. Games came in three formats, floppy disk, cartridge and tape, you could still buy betamax and Tandy was still in business. It is a time when kid’s movies are still scary, cartoons are all extended adverts for action figures. I am 10.
All of my non-school time was taken up by mapping out our local woods as a fictional realm with my best friend (this included us following about a mile of waist deep fast flowing water at one point. We were sticklers for detail), failing to learn to skateboard, reading fantasy and Sci-Fi, and poring over the new issue of White Dwarf.
White Dwarf was (miniature gaming overlords) Games Workshop’s monthly magazine, and my friends and I were big fans of the minis they made. We all had a few Orks, Space Marines and Eldar kicking around our bedrooms but hardly ever played the games. My best friend had a copy of Man O’ War which we occasionally tried, but none of us ever got into wargaming until the nigh incomprehensible mess of Rogue Trader was done away with and replaced with the brilliant second edition of Warhammer 40,000. Now, I could write pages about just the Wargear book of 40k2e but you’ll get that in another Nostalgia Trippe. Instead what I want to illustrate is that I had these great fantasy worlds stuck in my head (still do) but my love of gaming had not yet developed.
What led down the terrfiying road to turbo geekdom was coming across a second hand book. I can’t remember where I bought it, but I do remember why I decided I had to have it:
1) It was called Kingdoms of Terror, which to my young mind was possibly the greatest title ever
2) It had a kick ass (we would have said wicked at the time) monster on the front
3) It promised me that I could ‘choose my own adventure’
Not long after getting this book home I had my weapons in hand; an eraser topped pencil, a packet of crisps, the recollection of a bunch of He-Man cartoons. Ready for adventure I was.
It turned out the book was a revelation. The blurb claimed I was Lone Wolf, the last remaining knight of the Kai order. It was my job to use my skill with both sword and supernatural power to bring back the former glory of my order.
A few pages in, and Lone Wolf/10 year old me is trying to convince a guard to let me into a town without paying the extortionate toll. Lone Wolf’s silver tongue fails so I decide to try and jump a wagon to gain entry for free. The book tells me to pick a random number from the table at the back of the book then turn to entry 36. I do as I’m told, and I’m presented with this:
‘You are a few feet from the wagon when your horse refuses the jump. It rears up, its forelegs scrabbling at the air. The long day’s ride has taken its toll, and your horse has neither the strength nor will left to clear such a daunting obstacle.
You lurch backwards, falling over the horse’s rump and desperately cling to the tightening reins as it teeters on its hind hooves. Suddenly, the horse falls, pinning you beneath her as she crashes to the ground.
Agonizing pain gives way to numbness as you fight to hang on to life, but it is a battle that you can no longer win.
Your life and your quest end here.’
What the hell? I’m an elite Kai warrior and my horse has just fallen on me. For a couple of seconds I sat in stunned silence. I contemplated throwing the book in a drawer and fogetting it, but then realised that I’ve learned a lesson. I know where I might fail now. Armed with this new insider knowledge I rolled up a new Lone Wolf and started again, but this time taking different skills, get past the guard and always keep my finger stuck in the previous page.
With my new found prescience (finger) I made short work of the book, but it left me completely engrossed. Apparently this was the 6th book in the series, and better yet you could keep your character from previous books! Soon second hand book stalls and John Menzies (that’s an old newsagent/bookshop, folks) had yielded books one to four. I ended up with most of the first two series of books, although where they are now is anybody’s guess. Let’s hope some kid at a jumble sale has picked one up and is reliving my first experiences in the world of fantasy gaming. Do kids still read gamebooks? Not a clue, but they damn well should!
The Lone Wolf books were only a gateway drug, however. Whilst browsing the second hand books at a jumble sale I came across a series of six books which looked similar to the Lone Wolf ones I loved, but at the same time pretty different. These books were called Dragon Warriors, and it turned out they were a lightweight roleplaying game system released by Corgi books as a pocket-money friendly competitor to the expensive D&D Red Box. The intro told you that the books were a way to let you play out your favourite fantasy adventures, like the one in The Hobbit. Play The Hobbit like a game? Sold!
The rules were complicated for a young lad, and it took some convincing, but I eventally talked my friends into letting me murder them in different ways using inescapable traps and overpowered monsters, as is the way of the young inexperienced DM. While these rules were OK, I complained for and received a copy of the basic D&D box (the one with the dragon cards rules integrated into the DM screen, the cardboard standees and poster map of Zanzer Tem’s dungeon). This and GW’s output kept us busy for a few years. At A-level I ended up running a one-off AD&D game for about 10 players, but we really got into the White Wolf games Vampire The Masquerade and Werewolf The Apocolypse. Then 3e came out, which had a bit of play but not as much as it deserved.
Now I run a (semi?) regular D&D 4e game, have a massive stash of RPG books and PDFs as well as board games and a penchant for all things gamer-nerd, and it’s all thanks to gamebooks.
Yes I’m a total geek, but gamebooks were an essential piece of my childhood. I’ve not even mentioned the amazing free roaming Fabled Lands books, or the massive range of the Fighting Fantasy series and it’s RPG spin-off. If I’ve tickled your nostalgia sense however, or you just want to see what the fuss is about, it looks like lots of folks are feeling the same way. There’s reissues and RPG conversions abound. Below are some of my favourites if you want to take a look…
The old Lone Wolf books are due to be reissued sometime, but they’re also available for free online (with the blessings of Joe Dever, the author) at http://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/Home
There’s also a reissue of the Fabled Lands books coming out, and a free-app version here: http://sourceforge.net/projects/flapp/
Fighting Fantasy has already seen some re-releases along with an iPhone app and some other bits over at http://www.fightingfantasy.com/