Nostalgia Trippe: Gamebooks

Lone wolf 6 coverHello 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.

AWESOME!

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:

LW 6 Guard

‘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!

Some lizard thingThe 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/

Makers

Cory DoctorowFor those that don’t know, I love the fiction that Cory Doctorow writes and he has a brand new book out today! Woo!

I wasn’t able to make the signing, but I did the next best thing; downloaded a copy of the book.

Before you gasp in shock, be assured that I have done this legally with the author’s consent. You see Mr. Doctorow is an awesome guy and a copyfighter, he releases books under a Creative Commons US Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license so I can read this book, remix it and do awesome things like tell you to go read it here now!

Now this might not make a lot of sense, but hear me out. I’m about a third of the way though this book, but I’ve only downloaded a txt file of it. Instead of buying a physical copy for myself, I’ve donated a copy to the Institute of Technology Carlow. Now you see, Mr. Doctorow’s book will be read by at least two people. If you read it now like you should then that’s three. If the hard copy gets passed around the Institute of Technology, that’s a shed load more. If just a few of those people buy a book for themselves or a friend then the system has worked. That’s marketing and sales all in one.

I’ll leave you with my favourite passage from the book so far:

“They need the tools to make any other tools,” is what Perry said when he returned from the hospital, the side of his head still swaddled in bandages that draped over his injured eye. They’d shaved his head at his insistence, saying that he wasn’t going to try to keep his hair clean with all the bandages. It made him look younger, and his fine skull-bones stood out through his thin scalp when he finally came home. Before he’d looked like a outdoorsman engineer: now he looked like a radical, a pirate.

“They need the tools that will let them build anything else, for free, and use it or sell it.” He gestured at the rapid prototyping machines they had, the three-dee printer and scanner setups. “I mean something like that, but I want it to be capable of printing out the parts necessary to assemble another one. Machines that can reproduce themselves.”

Francis shifted in his seat. “What are they supposed to do with those?”

“Everything,” Perry said, his eye glinting. “Make your kitchen fixtures. Make your shoes and hat. Make your kids’ toys — if it’s in the stores, it should be a downloadable too. Make toolchests and tools. Make it and build it and sell it. Make other printers and sell them. Make machines that make the goop we feed into the printers. Teach a man to fish, Francis, teach a man to fucking *fish*. No top-down ‘solutions’ driven by ‘market research'” — his finger-quotes oozed sarcasm — “the thing that we need to do is make these people the authors of their own destiny.”

Photo by eschipul

The old year is dead long live the New Year… 2008 in lists

Well one of us had to…

2008 was the year that:

  • I got back on the horse only to get kicked straight back off
  • I gained independance only for it to bite me in the ass
  • I had my first holiday in a decade when I really should have scratched the idea

So yeah, kicked scratched and bitten throughout the year, but I’m strangely optimistic about 2009. Maybe its a mix of a crappy end to the year and the sights of good things to come. I guess in fairness 2008 did have it’s up sides:

  • Finally understanding the relevance of ‘Swallow Tattoo’
  • Picking up a pen again
  • Renewing old friendships and making some new ones.

My most listened albums:

  • Los Campesinos – Hold on now youngster
  • Kings of Leon – Only by the night
  • Placebo – Black Market Music

Favourite Gigs:

  • Futureheads
  • Long Blondes
  • BOTY Final

Fabourite Books:

  • Duma Key – Stephen King
  • The Threat to Reason – Dan Hind
  • The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss