Many computer games and Adventure Gamebooks have their roots in the same soil, and recently they have been moving towards each other. SEAN MASTERSON takes a look at some of the tales behind this publishing success story and investigates the interface between book and computer game.
n their time at the keyboard, most computer gamers have spent some of it trying to escape from the deepest of dungeons or attempting to defeat the deadliest of dragons. Many of these are also likely to play Role Playing Games (RPGs for short) which adorn the market nowadays. These games, typified by such success stories as Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller involve highly complex group sessions, organised in the most abstract way. Participants often spend days or even weeks developing character backgrounds to play, which are formed from a mixture of the player’s imaginations and mathematical notations (as an expression of the relevant rules system). An arbitrarily appointed referee designs the actual plot for the upcoming adventure. When all is ready, the group meets and a free-form game commences in the form of group discussions and dice rolls cross-referenced with the rules.
The games themselves can last for months or years if intelligently played and refereed, and once finished, the same rules and players may start the whole process again. The objectives are as abstract as the games themselves with monetary rewards or power and personal fulfilment available to the successful character. Players participate for the fun of the affair.
In the UK, two names come to mind more than any others: Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (see CRASH 13 February — Here there be Monsters). Whilst they have yet to achieve massive appeal in the US where role playing began, they dominate the UK and European gaming world for two main reasons. Firstly, they had the foresight to see that Dungeons & Dragons was destined to be a runaway success, and as a consequence of this flash of inspiration, formed Games Workshop, the most successful specialist games company this side of the Atlantic. The second reason is that between them, they invented the Fighting Fantasy phenomenon.
ighting Fantasy is, in effect, a solo role playing game in the form of a paperback book. The first of these was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Now, there are seventeen books in this series alone (though more of them are being written by guest authors) and there have been a variety of new, independent series by other authors and publishers.
Many hard core RPGers have laughed at the relative simplicity and limitations of such game books but they have, if nothing else, been responsible for a whole new breed of role players, as they serve as a perfect introduction to youngsters barely in their teens (at one point, the average age for a role player was about 19). It may be of interest to note that many of the authors now writing these Adventure Gamebooks, (as they are more generally known) are ex-Games Workshop employees. This is not unusual as being an ex-Games Workshop employee myself, I’m fully aware that being an absolute games nut was one of the qualifications for the job!
In fact, these games are more similar to computer adventure games than true role playing games, as both are aimed at the single player, and both have option restrictions (due to the nature of the media) that would not be present in a conventional RPG. This has led to computer spin-offs of the books. Messrs Livingstone and Jackson have had a computer version of their first book released (Warlock of Firetop Mountain, programmed by Crystal) and The Way of the Tiger series about a ninja warrior, written by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson, who is ex-features editor of White Dwarf magazine, is about to be converted for the popular home micros by Gremlin Graphics.
The Way of the Tiger series is based around Avenger, a ninja warrior of unparalleled skills and deadly powers. His adventures all centre on scenarios calling for him to defend the weak and downtrodden. The Gremlin Graphics team are working in close co-operation with the two authors, and Gremlin’s Ian Stewart says the series will offer the best in gameplay and graphics.
With the type of stories most popular In adventure gamebooks, it isn’t surprising to see an adventure-based software house like Adventure International also involving themselves, and as we have reported before in CRASH, Steve Jackson’s The Swordmaster series is still under development with AI.
dventure Gamebooks have now reached massive proportions and they frequently dominate the children’s best-sellers lists. The Fighting Fantasy series proved hugely successful from the start, and having encouraged many other series, it was inevitable that the genre would begin to move away from its origins in D&D in search of a wider range of storylines — and a wider audience. From the traditional swords and sorcery approach, some adventure gamebooks have moved as far as a ‘Mills & Boon’ romance type, employing the same basic techniques as their hack and slay predecessors! Puffin’s Ice Dancer by Elizabeth Buchan and Tessa Strickland puts YOU into the whirlwind action of the ice skating champ — The Olympics are on the way and YOU, an exceptionally talented young skater, have a chance to compete for your country. But beware! The path to fame and success is not easy. There are unexpected dangers to face, enemies to outwit and, above all, a gold medal to win...
Note the use of the word YOU. There has long been two schools of thought when it comes to involving the reader in a gamebook — should the hero/ine be nameless, so that the reader, YOU, can play yourself, or is it better for the author to provide a named hero/ine with which the reader/player identifies? In the main, the former school of thought seems to be the most popular, and in this respect adventure gamebooks are unusual because in almost every other medium you can think of, a named central character (the ‘I’ or ‘HE/SHE’ of a book, film, computer game etc) is considered essential to enjoyment.
However, one area where gamebooks and computer games tend to be alike is in dual authorship. Not every computer game is written by a team or a duo, but most are, and most popular gamebooks are by two authors as well. Although the individual’s labours may be split in any number of ways, there seems to be a tendency for one to be the gameplay expert (devising the combat systems etc) and the other to be the ‘novelist’; similarly with computer games, where the game design and programming expertise are becoming slightly separated elements. Dual authorship can often lead to personality clashes of course, and the role playing and adventure gamebook market has had plenty of those besides ones peculiar to itself.
he games industry itself, is full of problems. More people get sued in any given week than the software industry manages in a year. The English market, though proportionately smaller than its American cousin, is far more stable. This is due to the large ‘bible bashing’ contingent which, in the States, has declared RPGs as the work of the Devil! Indeed they have gone so far as to accuse Gary Gygax (of D&D fame) of being the Devil’s patsy. They are now taking TV and radio airtime to enforce their philosophies.
As an example of the scale of the problems these people create, consider the case of Proctor & Gamble, a massive international pharmaceuticals company. Their company logo is remarkably similar to TSR’s. It depicts a man in the Moon, looking at the stars. TSR’s shows a bearded wizard in a half moon, surrounded by stars. According to the bible-bashers, this is conclusive evidence that TSR are in league with the Devil. Unfortunately, their Divine Insight failed to stop them from confusing TSR with Proctor & Gamble. The result has been that the latter company has had up to 20,000 phone calls of an abusive or threatening nature — per day. As a result of this, Proctor & Gamble have dropped the logo that successfully headed their company for 150 years! They are now seeking legal action against ‘those they feel responsible’ for their troubles.
Companies are also highly protective of their game products and trademark just about anything that falls within their grasp. For instance, Americans spell the word ‘traveler’ with only one L. Consequently, when the Illinois based Game Designers’ Workshop (no relation to Games Workshop) brought out their best-selling SF game, Traveller, two L’s were used to distinguish the product and the name was trade-marked. One of Steve Jackson’s early Fighting Fantasy books was called Starship Traveller. Now, for the English market, this is not particularly unusual, as it employs our spelling of the word. This little detail failed to impress GDW who claimed that it was a breach of copyright and threatened action against Mr Jackson!
If it wasn’t enough to have games personalities and companies creating hassles for each other left right and centre, more problems are created by the obscure nature of the products themselves. Earlier this year, Games Workshop ordered a product from an American company called Steve Jackson Games (different Steve Jackson, I’m afraid — now that has led to some funny incidents). Steve Jackson Games manufactures the highly successful Car Wars (reminiscent of Games Workshop’s Battlecars computer game), winner of many of the industry’s top awards. It’s a game with RPG overtones where the players build and control futuristic vehicles, armed to the teeth with lasers and missiles and duel against each other. The supplement to this game, which Games Workshop ordered, was called The AADA Vehicle Guide. In effect, it is a manual of pre-designed vehicles for the players to use in their games. Unfortunately, a customs spot check at Dover resulted in the product being impounded for several months because they claimed it was a mail order catalogue of terrorist weaponry!
The fun doesn’t stop there. Many of the games employ the use of unusual dice called polyhedra dice, for the purposes of generating different probability curves. Because these dice aren’t generally available, they are often included with the game. However, when it can be avoided, are they left out and you have to purchase them separately. This may appear awkward but there is logic behind the move. Books and magazines are exempted from VAT. Since most RPGs come in form of collections of rules books, if dice are excluded from the packaging, the products may be marketed as ‘boxed books’ and therefore carry no VAT. Games packaged with dice must be sold as ‘games’ and do carry VAT and are, therefore, disproportionately more expensive. This has led to countless problems with customs and tax officials and on at least one occasion, a company has had to withdraw every copy of the game from the shelves and repack it with dice.
he games industry is still a great one however. It grows and becomes more commercial every day but it’s an industry of imaginations with room for fortunes to be made if you have a good idea and take the right route.
Chaosium are an American company who produce games of consistently amazing quality and ingenuity. One of their greatest success stories is the game Call of Cthulu based on the horror mythos invented by novelist HP Lovecraft. Apart from being a beautifully and carefully created game, true to the atmosphere the late author adored, it has some very interesting features. Most games award some kind of ‘experience points’ for well played characters. These allow a character to become more skilled within his chosen class or profession as the campaign progresses. This means that a Fighter gains better chances of hitting creatures with a sword for instance. A magician finds that his spells succeed more often and that he has access to more powerful magic. Such a system, Chaosium decided, wasn’t really in the spirit of a horror story. In fact, in most Lovecraft stories, the main character usually dies either because the horrors that he faces are so powerful, or he goes insane because they are so obscene. Consequently, in the game, each character has a number of sanity points which diminish as they uncover more of the erudite lore! Successful play requires the players to skirt around the edge of the problems they face whilst still trying to learn as much as possible and warn the rest of mankind. Major confrontations result in almost certain instant death for the characters.
Suspense becomes the name of the game and the characters know that their situation is desperate and their cause almost lost, right from the moment that they begin play. In a morbid way, it can be amusing to see total beginners getting wiped out after spending their first hour arming their characters to the teeth.
After all these tales of horror and woe, it’s reassuring to know that the industry has a sense of humour as well. There was once a game called Bunnies & Burrows — try and imagine what that was like to play. The funniest aspects of gaming, however, derive from the almighty cock-ups pervading almost every rules system ever devised, which resemble the ubiquitous ‘bugs’ to be found in almost any computer game program.
One of the prolific (American) Steve Jackson’s games magazines, The Space Gamer, has a column called Murphy’s Rules to bring some of these details to the hobbyists’ attention. Some of the items lucky enough to grace its pages are hilarious. In Blade’s Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes it is possible for an average car to be driven headlong into a tank (demolishing it in the process) and remain driveable, 50% of the time. In GDW’s Azhanti High Lightening (a game set aboard an enormous space ship), it is possible to have an infinite number of dead bodies covering an area of floor 1.5m x 1.5m and still have a fully laden character pass through without any problem whatsoever!
But these little ‘bugs’ only reflect relatively tiny errors in what are really incredibly complex rules systems and as the games are themselves designed to be altered to suit individual tastes, they cause no problem. Gamers take a far more participative approach to their games than computer gamers can ever hope to.
The hobby does not appear to be the fad which many hard-core wargamers once accused it of being. It offers more scope to the imaginative, than any group pastime yet devised. The hobby was born out of a love for things of a complex nature such as Tolkien’s books, Wargaming, and the era of progressive rock. It may sound like a strange mixture of inspirations but it’s true. There are a myriad of philosophies as to what makes a good game, or indeed what makes a good player but this is a healthy sign for the hobby and the more these arguments take place, the more their outcomes will add to adventure gamebooks. One day the areas of computer gaming and Role Playing are destined to overlap and that should provide us all with games more imaginative and fulfilling than any seen to date.
The ever increasing popularity of Fighting Fantasy and Role Playing looks set to bring more ideas, egos and costly arguments into the field of battle. I, for one, will be there to see it!