Thursday, 1 September 2011

Pete Tamlyn On Gamebooks, 1986

Looking at a gamebook in pure game terms, as a contest between you and the writer, the book is simply a succession of game turns in which you have to choose one of three options. This is not a very complex game: even in noughts and crosses you get an average of 4½ choices per turn. The sad fact is that if a gamebook writer plays fair and gives you the chance to make an intelligent decision each time, then the game will be much too easy to solve. Instead they rely on dirty tricks: withholding information from you, giving seemingly sensible choices that lead you into inescapable danger, and killing you off as often as possible. That way the game takes longer, and the player gets more value out of it.

Pete Tamlyn, Crash 31, August 1986

For me this encapsulates the difference between Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy.

In it's day, Lone Wolf appeared to blow the doors clean off FF with it's believable world and branching structure that relied upon intelligent decision-making rather than luck/brute force/whim of Livingstone and a refusal to get drawn into "got to Boss encounter - only two of three required geegaws" territory. It's also how I managed to complete some of the early LW books (sans dice admittedly) on their first run through and then had no real desire to return to them.

It's clear to me now that, despite the criticisms of the FF format on, the FF books have dated better than LW because they adopted the latter approach to gamebook design. A decent FF game is a great puzzlebox that requires multiple passes to completion and even then still has the "AAA" game to go after - the promised solution that minimizes the dice rolling and allows Mr. SKILL 7 STAMINA 14 LUCK 7 to get through.

Your correspondent here has the memory of a goldfish so gets a lot of replay value out of FF books that he hasn't touched for a decade or so. I don't really get much replay value out of LW books in the same way that I don't get much replay value out of RPG scenarios I've played in. It's odd, but back when I discovered LW I would never have believed that I would come around to thinking that this new approach to gamebooks, almost a real RPG campaign and everything, actually didn't have the legs of the approach that it appeared to be making obselete.

I still pick up FF books off eBay, I've only bought one LW book in the past 17/18 years or so and that was a second-hand Caverns of Kalte last week in order to fill an annoying gap in the run of the first 12 on my bookcase.

(The exception that proves the rule is of course Castle Death which has all the hallmarks of Joe Dever trying to write an FF book. It's one of my favourites and notably one of the LW fanbases least favourites).


  1. I never really managed to get all that ito Lone Wolf. Mostly because the local book store guy didn't seem to comprehend it was a series (unlike the FF books) and never bothered to buy in concurrant releases. I did ove my FF books though -and the multiplayer version they eventually released as well. The original Titan book still sits proudly on my shelf. It's never as good as I remember it having been whenever I revisit it. Sonow it lies there, unopened on the shelf, a little Pandora's box of fond memories rather than a source of gaming inspiration.

  2. Never really got into LW either. I think because I didn't like being a monk or something stupid like that.

  3. Tamlyn went on of course to help Marc Gascoigne write Advanced Fighting Fantasy. I'm with you though in that I'll explore FF all the time but rarely touch the LW.



  4. I couldn't disagree more :) The best thing about LW is that you can live different stories within the same adventure - AND win anyway. Admittedly, LW was at its best in its first books, and lost some of its charm through the years. But take Caverns of Kalte: that book offers you a choice of two completely different paths at section 1. Were it written by Ian Livingstone, one of the two paths would ultimately lead you to certain death; Joe Dever, instead, gave you a real choice.

    The true path formula of FF books ultimately means that so many paragraphs, maybe even some of the best parts of a book, are ultimately a waste of words. The Mirror Demon in Deathtrap Dungeon is an awesome encounter: why put it on a hopeless path? I bet people don't remember the MD any more fondly just because meeting it would mean certain doom later in the book.

    Gamebooks have always been about changing the story with your choices. I am not surprised that children those days tended to put the book on the shelf for good once they had conquered it: I used to do that myself. But when I grew up a bit, I went through the books again and tried different paths. The LW books gave me whole new adventures, while many of the FF books annoyed and frustrated me to no end. Many of the earlier ones are also very poorly written, which would no doubt encourage the reader to find the true path (not much wonder in the wrong paths), but would also leave the reader disappointed with their short, laconic endings.

  5. Now this is a great post. You like the very thing that most Fighting Fantasy books are criticised for (here is an alternative review of Castle Death -

    I agree that if a gamebook lets you win by making common sense decisions then it is too easy.

    The arbitrary deaths, the need for random items and having to make seemingly irrational decisions to win seem to act like a welcome challenge but one man's pleasure is another man's pain - it can cause a lot of frustration.

    The size of the consequences are a factor - opening a door to an instant death is more frustrating than opening a door and losing 1 stamina point. You can get away with randomness as long as the consequences are quite low.

    I think a happy medium is having the gamebook establish its own sense of laws and logic that the reader has to work out to exploit (e.g. if you can get a mirror in a Fighting Fantasy book then get one) and if there are arbitrary penalties or rewards, not making them too big.

    However, there is a thrill in imagining that one option could lead to death.

    It's a balance.

  6. To me, Fighting Fantasy is like Diablo, where Lone Wolf is like Dragon Age. I enjoy them for different reasons, but the story surrounding Lone Wolf really draws me in, even if the replayability is less.