March 27, 2008 8:00 AM |
[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]
This month’s tributes to the late Gary Gygax gave many of us a chance to look back at our own days of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Some of our greatest game designers first cut their teeth on fantasy thanks to tabletop RPG sessions, with a brilliant dungeon master leading his players through a brainblowing fantasy improv jam.
Of course, for most of the kids who invested in a few books and the starter set of dice, D & D meant making one kid sit there behind a screen - usually the cover of whichever module you were following, to the letter - while everyone else waited to kill stuff and find another Ring of Protection +1.
But even those kids, who plodded through the game until their 9 PM curfew, had a leg up on the lowest caste of D & D players - the people who played by themselves. And I was one of them. How do you play Dungeons & Dragons by yourself? Well, you roll a character, give it a name, and you follow the module room by room, fighting, looting, fighting, looting, slapping on new gear, and fighting again. You don’t need a DM; you just need a long, slow night that needs killing.
The industry was well aware that they had customers who even their other customers wouldn’t be seen with. TSR published modules for solo play, such as Blizzard Pass or Midnight on Dagger Alley. Invisible ink hid all the surprises, at least for the first guy who played through.
And then there were the gamebooks.Back in the ’80s, everykid who was anykid read the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These gimmicky books were such a hit that they spawned dozens of imitators - puzzle choose-your-adventures, horror choose-your-adventures, and so on. But probably the best came from Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, with their Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks system.
Jackson and Livingstone raised the genre to a real role-playing game: you rolled a character who kept an inventory and toughed it out in combat on top of the usual “If you take the left branch, turn to page 20″ action. Of course, Jackson and Livingstone have said they weren’t cashing in on Choose Your Own Adventure: they were cashing in on Dungeons & Dragons, and meeting the needs of kids like me who needed a solo adventure.
The magnum opus of the series was Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, a set of four books released by Puffin from 1983 - 1985. The other night, when I pulled the books out and flipped through them for the first time in decades, all the details came rushing back - like John Blanche’s wily, intricate ink drawings, which were slimy and gory, dusty and sinister. Or Jackson’s prose - not as compelling as the art, but give him credit: he constructed the greatest saga in gamebook history.
A few things put Sorcery! above the regular Fighting Fantasy books. The rules were more complex, thanks to the magic system. You memorized a few dozen spells, some that you could cast on the fly, and others that needed some kind of an object or totem, from a handful of pebbles to a green-haired wig.
Jackson was a stickler about making you memorize the spells: to play by the rules, you had to remember the three-letter codes and ingredients for each spell before you started, and stop yourself from checking again until the adventure was done. Jackson also demanded that you remember codes and page references from book to book, instead of writing them down. At a time when most computer games don’t even expect you to take notes, a game that uses your actual memory feels strangely immersive.
The four Sorcery! books formed one epic storyline – and it was a pretty standard one. In book one, you set out as a textbook hero who had to cross a strange land to recover a treasure called the Crown of Kings - or, as they would say in Hollywood, the MacGuffin. The journey took you across gentle plains in the first book, through a treacherous city in the second, across harsh badlands in the third, and finally, to the dungeon crawl of the Mampang Fortress, where you face the inevitable big boss.
Your character is a blank slate, with no name and no history. And that’s what makes the saga effective: The gamebook sticks you straight in the story, without making assumptions about why you’re here.
In a fascinating article from the official Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks site on how to write a Fighting Fantasy adventure (registration required), we read: “For the most part, don’t waste space describing what the reader’s character is thinking. Instead, write effectively about the five human senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch and let the reader’s own experience fire the imagination.”
Like most gamebooks, Sorcery! effectively plays like a maze, with one or more right paths and a lot of dead ends. In each book you’re searching for the best path - the one that’ll get you all four verses of the poem to get out of Khare, or that’ll lead you to all seven of the serpents in The Seven Serpents. And most of the time, you’re depending on trial and error.
Early in the second book, you have the chance to help a bum on the street - and if you roll him over, you face a walking corpse that’s ready to eat your face. Near the end of the book, you find another bum – but this time, if you’re smart and steer clear, you miss a vital clue. Sometimes you can fight way out of a tight situation, and other times the book doesn’t even give you that: you wander into a field of black flowers, sniff poison, and drop dead. Time to start over.
But it’s worth starting over, because that’s how you get more content. And that’s the appeal of these books: there’s so much content. Something else is always around the corner. It never drops into a routine or a grind; the adventure keeps drawing you in. And when you finally hit the end? There’s no big revelation, no character growth, no reunion with your true love or party thrown by all those strangers you saved. You just have the satisfaction of knowing you finished. And you did it all by yourself.
Categories: Column: Save The Robot