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Choose your own adventure

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

In the discussion of 7th Continent (…/17/7th-Continent) I mentioned the 'choose your own adventure' books which were especially popular in the 1980s and 1990s. These were paperbacks with a 'playable' story: in effect, solitaire role-playing games. A player would create a character and then follow a quest where they would be faced with branched choices. Each choice would take them to a different numbered paragraph and their subsequent choices would branch out as the adventure unfolded.

Many people will remember the Fighting Fantasy game books, originally published by Puffin (Penguin Books) and created by Games Workshop founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. The Fighting Fantasy books were not, however, the first to trod this path.

The first Fighting Fantasy book was "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" which was published in 1982. By all accounts, this began life as "The Magic Quest", first pitched to Penguin Books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in 1980.

Dungeons & Dragons first appeared in 1974, published then by TSR. Just a year later, Flying Buffalo published a simplified role-playing game entitled Tunnels & Trolls. The title was unfortunate because it created the instant impression that the game was a D&D knock-off. Obviously, it owed its genesis to D&D but T&T had merits of its own. Its big USP was that it was more accessible and could be played without any special equipment: you didn't need exotic multi-sided dice - just a simple standard six-sided die would do.

Over the years, both D&D and T&T developed. Both are still in print in their currently revised form. The early editions of both games suffered from rules that were sometimes cumbersome or unclear. In 1977, a deal was done with the publishers of Games & Puzzles magazine to publish a UK edition of Tunnels & Trolls. I was reviewing games for Games & Puzzles at the time and I was commissioned to edit the rules and tidy up some of the perceived shortcomings. Somewhere, I must still have a couple of copies but until I find them, this link takes you to a listing:…/Fantasy/TTrevw.html

One of the advantages of T&T's simplified combat system was that it made it feasible to play the game solitaire. T&T's designer, Ken St Andre realised early on that this meant it would be possible to create 'choose your own adventure' books. The first of these was written by Rick Loomis in 1976. It was called Buffalo Castle. It already utilised many of the elements later identified with the Fighting Fantasy books but it predates their publication by six years.

Again, I had some involvement with these early ‘choose your own adventure’ books. I edited the UK edition of Buffalo Castle in 1977. In the same year, I also edited UK editions of the next two books in the series: Deathtrap Equaliser and Labyrinth. What is most memorable about all these inexpensively produced books are the superb illustrations by Polly Wilson. These too show their influence on the later incarnations of similar solitaire adventure books.

I'm not knocking the Fighting Fantasy series and I'm delighted to learn that it is being given a renewed lease of life this year with publishers Scholastic Books. I just thought it would be interesting to set the record straight on the history of this genre of role-playing game.

(Selwyn Ward)

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