Encounter with a Gamebook

Posted on October 9, 2014


For as long as I can remember I’ve loved books, and games, and things that are contained within themselves that, when opened, are much larger on the inside than the outside.

Small wonder, then, that I love roleplaying games, those instructions for playing in another world. Nor should it be a shock that I am irrationally partial to footnotes, and that House of Leaves, that completely circumscribed horror that is lousy with the things, happens to be one of my favorite novels.

It is curious to me that I’ve never really played one of those Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks. I read CYOA as a kid, and, growing out of it, never graduated to the ones with character sheets and combat rules and spellbooks. Oh, I think I flipped through one, once, but that was probably back when all I wanted to do was play a roleplaying game but had yet to, and so was trying to satisfy that desire with any number of substitutes.

At the used bookstore yesterday I pulled from the shelf a copy of Sorcery! Volume 4: Crown of Kings. Where countless times before, in countless dusty bookstores, I had put the gamebook back on the shelf, here something happened. I saw some hint of the possibilities in front of me, and not just the adventure to be had in this particular book. Frankly, the design sensibilities on display here are weird, unabashedly so, a mashup of technique bound in a particular historical moment. I am forever attracted to the idiosyncratic antique. The things that could be done with this format that haven’t been, I thought. The lines of design extrapolated into something fascinating and yet unknowable, but that kind of wanted to be born.

But I have to let the thing gestate. So: play.

I sat down with it last night and found out that this is the fourth out of four books, and this is the adventure where you finally get to infiltrate the evil castle and claim the Crown of Kings. Score. Might as well play out the climax first, and then if it’s good the history can be learned later.

I made up a Warrior, explored some caves, made friends with She-Satyrs (their naked torsos being definitely female, as the text emphasizes), then tried to swing across a chasm on a rope, knocked myself out, and died falling down the mountain. The rules say nothing about death or what happens after it for the character or the player. I assume the text assumes I know what to do, so I make another character and have another go.

There are some clear problems with the format. Constantly flipping to the front of the book to consult your character sheet is clunky. You can photocopy it and use that, and that’s fine. But if I were making something like this today, the character sheet would be on a standard-size bookmark, with rules reference on the other side (you have to flip back to double-check rules, too). You buy the book and it comes with 5 bookmark character sheets.
However, there’s also some impressive systems and information design on display here. I’ll talk more about that in the coming days.