Choose Your Own Fantasy Pounding

Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos is the latest in Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline gamebook series, which was inaugurated with Escape From the Billings Mall and continued with explorations of the glitzy film industry, the roving world of the long-distance trucker, and the chilly depths of the Frozen Lake. All the books in the series take place in the morass of interwoven timelines which is the Tingleverse, but so far have taken place in timelines which are fairly close to our own, bar for the statistically higher proportion of bigfeet, dinosaurs, intelligent objects and similar talkative handsome non-humans in the population.

Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos departs from this, set not in the familiar environs of Billings, Montana but a fantasy kingdom which also happens to be called Billings. Ruled over by King Rolo, a sentient talking D20, Billings finds itself under threat from incursions of the Void. A prophecy predicts that a great role-player will arise in the kingdom that will save it from the Void in its hour of need; plucked from your friend’s cottage (in which you were playing a tabletop RPG in which you play people who live in a futuristic world where you have to contend with grumpy bosses and onerous office tasks), you are offered the call to adventure.

Chuck’s billed this as being his longest gamebook yet, and part of that length arises from the way he offers four distinct quests through the gamebook (though these paths do cross ways and intertwine at points, so you can start on one and finish up on another). The overtly-offered choices are those of the warrior, the wizard, and the true buckaroo; there’s also a “sneak” path (think thieves, complete with guilds), which in keeping with the covert nature of the profession is a secret route you can pick up partway through a runthrough.

Naturally, given how in the Tingleverse the “fourth wall” is not so much a wall as it is a revolving door, there’s a certain amount of metatextual playing with the gamebook concept here, but Chuck finds a different angle to take with it this time. In previous entries in the series this sort of thing has largely taken the form of directly addressing the fact that the player is playing a gamebook. This time, the recursion takes a different course, focusing instead on the fact that the main character in the story is a great role-player of the kingdom of Billings and leveraging that to reveal that they are in fact a role-player in the modern day. (Indeed, perhaps a modern day timeline closer to ours than we’ve seen before in Tingle’s work, since I didn’t notice any Tingle-esque characters like dinosaurs or living objects in the modern-day sections of the gamebook.)

Following the true buckaroo route leads you to realise this, and that the incursions of the Void into Billings come from the tensions in your gaming group that threaten to tear it apart. To prevail on this route you must get the band back together – or, failing that, refuse to allow one bad experience ruin your future enjoyment of the hobby and pick up the torch your former Tingle Master laid down when they broke up your Bad Boys and Buckaroos group. (OK, it isn’t that close to our timeline.)

This is all fairly well-worn tabletop-RPGs-as-wellspring-of-imagination stuff which is fairly commonly seen in positive treatments of the hobby, though Tingle’s treatment stands out as being particularly true to life. The disagreement in your gaming group is in some respects a classic Law-vs.-Chaos confrontation, with one player wanting to take a much looser approach to the rules and established facts of the setting and another player greatly preferring to stick to the rules because they note that without structure the game can seem shallow and arbitrary.

Naturally, the only way to resolve their differences is to take a middle path, and Chuck actually does a good job of making sure that both character’s arguments are plausible, sympathetically-portrayed stances that people can take, but noting how such arguments can end up going too far and end up in a hateful, spiteful sort of place that wrecks friendships. For instance, it’s one thing to note that you don’t enjoy what somebody else finds fun, but it’s another to assert that you can’t imagine anyone actually finding that fun, and you can’t really blame Lorbo for turfing the gaming group out of his house if Jorlin ends up totally rubbishing his tastes and saying it’s ridiculous to think anyone could find enjoyment in structure. You can’t exactly expect people to take being insulted to their face and told their enjoyment is invalid easily.

A nice touch here is the way that you can do everything right to try and fix the rift between Lorbo and Jorlin, but still fail because of entirely arbitrary bad luck out of your control. Though Chuck would have been justified in incorporating a dice-roll mechanic into this book (there’s a D20 on the cover, after all!), equally I can see why he would want to stick to the no-rolling approach of the Select Your Own Timeline series, so he implements these moments of sheer luck by giving you a 50-50 choice with no real way to know which is the “right” answer unless you’ve played this route previously.

This sort of arbitrary moment doesn’t bug me the way a lot of the arbitrary “make a binary choice with no information and if you take the wrong choice you lose” choices in Deathtrap Dungeon annoy me, and I think there’s several reasons for that. Firstly, whilst Chuck could have justified incorporating dice rolls into the game mechanics for this gamebook – after all, there’s a D20 on the cover – I think on balance it makes more sense for him to be consistent with the precedent of the previous books in the series by not doing so. In the absence of an actual randomiser, such arbitrary 50-50 choices as provided are the only real way to get any quasi-randomness into the gamebook.

By contrast, such arbitrary choices in Fighting Fantasy books bug me more because Fighting Fantasy already has a source of randomness via its dice-rolling mechanic; to me, this sets up an unspoken assumption that randomness is handled by the dice, whilst the choices you make in the gamebook are meant to be less random and arbitrary and more an opportunity to express your personal judgement on the basis of the information you’ve been given. That’s why getting a paragraph which asks you to pick between turning left and turning right without any more context than that is so frustrating – without any basis to make that judgement, what’s the point?

This leads into the second reason that I’m happier to accept such moments in Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos, which is that Chuck very much frames these moments as being genuinely arbitrary choices, and does the work to make it clear that this moment really is down to luck and not your personal judgement. The third reason I am happier is that Deathtrap Dungeon is a gamebook with only one route to victory, so any one of those many arbitrary binary choices in it could lead you to be doomed to failure – sometimes a failure requiring extensive play to meet.

This somewhat makes sense is you treat the gamebook as a puzzle, so those failed runs can be used as a means of gathering intelligence to be used on later playthroughs. It is, however, fatal to the story logic – it means that chances are that when you do beat Deathtrap Dungeon without cheating, it was on a playthrough where you made extensive use of knowledge gained in previous playthroughs. In other word, the character who beats the game is using information they never personally learned, but was gleaned from characters who died. This is acceptable in a very game-y game, but is fatal to a game which is trying to tell a coherent story; Ron Gilbert pointed this out long ago in the context of point-and-click adventure videogames, but I think it’s also true of gamebooks.

Chuck’s gamebooks are very much about playing through a story rather than providing a very gamist puzzlebox, and as with other Select Your Own Timeline gamebooks (and the Choose Your Own Adventure books which inspired them), there is not one single good ending to the gamebook but several. This means that Chuck can throw in an arbitrary make-or-break decision point like this along one of the timelines and it’s much less unfair: it means you might fail to reach one specific ending point, but that just shunts you on to a different route where you can still get a good ending based on your decisions later on.

Another thing which stands out about the book is Chuck’s understanding of tabletop RPGs, evidence either of extensive research or a long history in the hobby or both. It’s not just that Chuck shows a general understanding of how RPGs work – of course he has that, he’s written his own after all – but some of the jokes he throws out seem to be rooted not just in RPG history in general, but TSR-era editions of D&D in particular.

This is particularly evident on the sneak route. The very fact that it’s a secret route not offered at the start might be a nod to the fact that the thief class was not present in the original D&D “little brown books” but was added in the original Greyhawk supplement, but most of the deep dive jokes on this route seem to be specifically centred in AD&D 2nd Edition. The head of the Sneak’s Guild is a sentient book which, by its description, seems to be the Bad Boys and Buckaroos equivalent of one of the 2E class splatbooks, and to complete the sneak mission you need to solve a riddle based around a THAC0 calculation.

Chuck Tingle’s recurring theme is about proving love is real, and Chuck’s well-established method of publicly proven love is by providing material which allows people to feel acknowledged and supported in their lives, identities, and interests. (See, for instance, Chuck’s Harriet Porber series, written to provide trans readers with some “wizards in the modern world” stories that supports them in the wake of J.K. Rowling’s enthusiastic embrace of transphobia.) For the most part, Chuck has focused on issues of sexuality, asexuality, and gender, but he’s also delved into other areas such as autism representation.

Expressing affection for people based on their choice of hobby to an extent feels less urgent than those issues, especially in a time period when the hobby has more visibility and acceptance than ever. That said, the idea that your hobby is not a mere frittering-away of time but a shared imaginative endeavour which has value both for the imaginative muscles it exercises and for the social interaction it gives rise to is a positive one to enunciate, and even if it doesn’t hit on a major social justice issue directly, it doesn’t need to – nobody can expend 100% of their energy solely on the most urgent issues facing them, their community, or the world, after all. And the idea that sharing and enjoying your hobby is a way of proving love is an idea which can be generalised beyond the world of tabletop RPGs.

As such, Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos continues Chuck’s well-established practice of producing something which validates the communities he addresses (in this case the tabletop RPG hobby community, rather than communities based around sexuality or gender identity or other metrics), whilst having little time for those who are determined to just spread negativity. (There’s a troll who lives in a basement and likes chicken tendies in here, for instance.) If you were wondering whether the Tingleverse RPG was a parody of the medium, this is just further evidence that it’s more of a homage. As always with Chuck, it’s best to take him entirely at face value (or, in his case, bag-over-head-value).

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