Choose Your Own Brick-Sized Mega-Adventure

In Star Bastards, the first of the Two-Fisted Fantasy books to see release, an elegant new gamebook system was combined with a classic 1980s gamebook aesthetic to deliver quite a good short space adventure. Star Bastards, however, was merely the test balloon. If Two-Fisted Fantasy has really made a mark on the field, it’s through the mighty tome which was the second release in the series: The Sword of the Bastard Elf.

When I say “mighty tome”, I am not kidding: the book is over 800 large-format pages long, and the adventure has some 1825 numbered entries, many of which are fairly long. The rules section runs some 60 pages, though the actual rules for playing the adventure cover just five of these; the rest include a full adaptation of the Two-Fisted Fantasy system for running as a conventional tabletop RPG, with a referee (“Dungeon Bastard”) and multiple players. You’re explicitly encouraged to not read the RPG until you’ve played the adventure at least once, since it’s tied to one of the major locales and therefore could contain spoilers.

As well as providing a massive adventure, plus a simple tabletop RPG system, plus lots of gorgeous art from S. Iacob (available in colour or black and white – though I personally prefer black and white since it really teases out how S. Iacob captures the aesthetic of 1980s gamebooks), The Sword of the Bastard Elf also elaborates on the mythos around Two-Fisted Fantasy.

The pretence is that this book, like the previous one, was written by the mysterious Herman S. Skull, but in the introduction this time around S. Iacob lets us in on more of what that actually means. As she explains it, Herman S. Skull was putting these books out in the 1980s and early 1990s (in other words, in the original gamebook wave) to try and ride the Fighting Fantasy bandwagon, but wasn’t very successful due to being excessively verbose, wildly inappropriate in his choice of subject matter, and tending to belabour the reader with off-topic rants.

As the introduction puts it, “his books were mostly bought by confused grandparents for soon-to-be-disappointed grandchildren”, and the line eventually folded. S. Iacob therefore positions herself much as William Goldman does in the novel of The Princess Bride – as the rediscoverer and editor of this lost text who has hauled it out of obscurity, edited it somewhat (in this case removing the “bizarre racism” and off-topic tangents), and put out a condensed version.

The original, pre-edit version of the book is described by S. Iacob as “a horrible, unpleasant mess about a grotesque of a protagonist doing unspeakable things”. The edited product you can actually obtain is, I’m glad to report, not a horrible, unpleasant mess, but the rest stands. During my first playthrough of the thing I ate a pixie, slept with a witch rather than saving Hansel & Gretel, also slept with a lich but then accidentally killed him by treading on his phylacteries as I was sneaking out, and was generally a horror to know.

The titular Bastard Elf is your character in this abominable epic. Your father was the mysterious Wandering Milkman, your mother an elven whimsyflicker. After the Milkman recommenced his wanderings, your mother reared you herself – but now you have come of age at 60 years old, and her new elven boyfriend Jeff (who you refuse to refer to as “Dad” no matter how much he wants) has persuaded her it’s time you left the nest.

Naturally, your reaction is to – let me find the quote, ah yes – “spend most of the afternoon in your room jerking off miserably” before you eventually run out of time to pack, grab some stuff, and exit sharpish, with the suggestion that maybe it’s worth undertaking the trek across the County of Nonce to Bilgeton, where you might kip on your absent father’s couch.

Between here and Bilgeton, the adventure is well and truly wide open. Things noticeably narrow down somewhat once you get to Bilgeton, since it’s the endgame, but even then there’s a range of activities to do – but the real charm of the book is in how it uses its absurdly inflated number of paragraphs to give you an unusual degree of freedom for a gamebook. Sure, there’s still constraints, but the number of options implemented – both obvious and less-than-normal (like “EAT THE PIXIE“) – is impressive.

Maybe you will refuse the call to adventure completely, return directly home, barricade yourself in your room and “spend the rest of your life being a worthless piece of shit and playing video games all day”. Maybe you’ll follow the Count’s Road, or end up blundering cross-country. Maybe you will make your way to the centre of the extremely not-copyright-infringing Mazyrinth and steal the Goblin King’s codpiece.

A truly wide range of possibilities is implemented, even leaving room for some joke paragraphs that don’t actually connect to anything. (Paragraph 420 has a “say no to drugs” message from Herman S. Skull. Paragraph 69 just reads “Nice“.) As well as a wide range of routes to Bilgeton being available, a decent range of responses to the situations you are faced with are also implemented.

The usual Two-Fisted Fantasy sense of humour is well in evidence; as well as the Ten-Foot Pole making another appearance, there’s another language gag, this time revolving around some lizard people who talk in a strong but perfectly legible Australian dialect. This time, the joke here is that whilst the dialect isn’t all that odd and most readers will find it perfectly intelligible, the Bastard Elf doesn’t understand what’s being said at all, giving the player the opportunity to either roleplay it and choose comically incorrect responses or cheese it and choose the correct ones as the player wishes.

The system also sees some refinement. Expertise is renamed Élan, to better fit a main character who doesn’t really know very much about anything due to spending 60 years of life as a useless lump who doesn’t engage with the world, and Energy is renamed Effort. All challenges – combat or otherwise – are designated as “Hassles”, with a simple Difficulty to beat – no division into different flavours of opposing Expertise. (This means that the game includes nothing that’s even remotely as complex as the somewhat fiddly starship combat in Star Bastards.)

One of the more interesting new mechanics is the concept of “Words of Power”. Sometimes, a thing will happen in the book which will have persistent effects in subsequent playthroughs, so you might be able to start with enhanced abilities or a bit of kit you otherwise wouldn’t have at the beginning. When this happens, you are encouraged to write it down on your character sheet in pen under the Words of Power section. (This is an instance where printing off your own character sheet and tucking it in the book might be worthwhile, if the prospect of actually writing in your book is off-putting.) This is a neat way to up the replay value (and to make it a little more likely you’ll thrive in the early stages of a replay, dialling back the odds of a deflatingly early death a tad).

Producing a gamebook of this length is an achievement in itself – producing a gamebook this long and having it be consistently funny even more so, and that’s what’s been done with Sword of the Bastard Elf. Highly recommended.

7 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Brick-Sized Mega-Adventure

  1. Fascinating stuff! It’s great to see people experimenting with the gamebook format. This bit in particular stuck out: “the real charm of the book is in how it uses its absurdly inflated number of paragraphs to give you an unusual degree of freedom for a gamebook.”

    1825 numbered paragraphs is equivalent to roughly four regular FF gamebooks, which is impressive. There is surely a point when you hit the “hardware limits” of a gamebook (just in terms of what is physically practical to read, though I guess it’s less of an issue in PDF). You call this a “brick-sized mega adventure”, and that suggests they must be bumping up against the limits. Though, I suppose that if you wanted to go bigger you could just do what Fabled Lands did and split things into multiple linked books that players can cross back and forth between.

    Anyway, really interesting review, thank you!

    1. The wild thing is that this isn’t the only chunky-sized gamebook I’m aware of – the Destiny Quest series has fairly chunky volumes and seems to form part of an ongoing saga, like the Lone Wolf approach applied to Brandon Sanderson-esque page counts. I might take a look at those at some point.

    2. As for technical limits, I think Sword of the Bastard Elf is about at the limit of what you can plausibly do if it is important to you to have a physical book.

      As you point out, PDFs can ignore this limit – and the Twine platform can offer gamebook-like experiences with some quite nice capacity to track stuff as you play. But at that point you are getting into an area where the best way to implement the gamebook is to make it a text-based videogame, which depending on your gut instincts might be a natural and sensible blending of mediums or the thing which destroys the nostalgia value.

  2. “But at that point you are getting into an area where the best way to implement the gamebook is to make it a text-based videogame…”

    I find this point in particular really interesting. It chimes with the idea of “negative ludological influence”, the idea that, after a certain point, it starts to appear difficult to justify (or even absurd) to endure the inefficiencies of playing a game with analogue technology when digital technology is so much “better” (i.e. faster / more accurate / more immersive, etc).

    As technology advances (particularly Machine Learning and AI, but also virtual reality, ultra-fast Internet, etc.), I suspect this negative ludological influence is going to grow in intensity. The space where we can justify continuing to do things the “old-fashioned way” (e.g. “tabletop RPGs are so much better at human interaction and generating collaborative stories than computer games”) may start shrink further.

    At some point, we (as gamers) going to have to draw a line and say: yes, videogames are much better at doing everything. But I don’t care. I’m going to embrace inefficiency for the sake of nostalgia (or we just take the plunge and start gaming with AI DMs in VR). We haven’t reached that point yet, but it’s surely getting closer.

    1. btw, I don’t mean we should all be lugging around 5000-page gamebooks. Clearly, some things are impractical to the point of absurdity. But it strikes me that the only reason to own a physical gamebook in 2021 is because you have a real love for the medium (probably born of nostalgia). And that’s cool. Nothing wrong with that at all (and there should be more of it!).

      1. If fully customisable-in-the-moment VR environments etc become cheap and easy for everyone to use, I can see the gap becoming very narrow indeed.

        Weirdly, I actually see games like D&D being more vulnerable to this than a lot of more niche games. Any game targeting a narrow playstyle whose playstyle can be perfectly replicated technologically is more vulnerable, of course, but the next most vulnerable category would be any game which relies on a “big tent” appeal to a broad range of playstyles, especially if a significant chunk of those playstyles will tend not to value stuff like the human referee or the theatre of the mind enough that they won’t resist the migration all that much (arguably D&D already experienced this with MMOs).

        On the other hand, games that lend themselves to a very specific playstyle, which happens to be an absolute pain/actually impossible to implement in a videogame are going to be more resilient.

  3. Pingback: An Epic Destiny In Gamebook Form – Refereeing and Reflection

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