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.)

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Mini-Review: A Rising Tide of Solo Adventures?

In the past I’ve been clear that I think the management change at Chaosium was overall a good thing and that by and large the Moon Design gang have done a much better job of running the firm than the Charlie Krank-led regime. Whilst the work they have done to raise production standards, mend bridges, and pay debts have all been a breath of fresh air, especially considering the doldrums that Chaosium had languished in for so long, at the same time the new team haven’t just been knee-jerk innovating for the sake of innovating. They’ve stopped doing the stuff that didn’t work, sure, but they’ve kept going with things which made sense.

The Call of Cthulhu solo adventure line is a case in point, since to give credit where credit is due its modern revival began under Charlie Krank. After a brief dabbling in solo adventures back in 1985, Chaosium largely left the field for third party licensees to play with, but that all changed with the March 2015 release of Alone Against the Flames – which, coming three months before Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen hit the big shiny button which launched Charlie Krank’s ejector seat, was among the last products put out by the old regime.

Not only has the Moon Design crew kept Alone Against the Flames in the product line, but they have also recognised just how good it is as an introductory adventure, and in that capacity incorporated it into the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. They’ve also brought back into print updated versions of Alone Against the Dark and Alone Against the Wendigo (the latter retitled Alone Against the Frost), the old 1985 solo adventure releases. Now, with Alone Against the Tide, they’ve put out a brand new solo adventure, hopefully indicating that more solo fun will be coming from time to time in the future.

Credited to “Nicholas Johnson and Friends”, the adventure has you visiting the swanky Massachusetts lakeside town of Esbury. Local dignitary Professor Harris has died; his widow is presiding over a sale of some items from his estate. But why’s a Buddhist monk from India come all this way to the sale? For that matter, who are those toughs in the sharp suits who’ve turned up? Was the Professor’s death really suicide? And what’s with that curious idol he brought back from his expeditions?

Designed to be used in conjunction with either the full-fat Call of Cthulhu rulebook or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, Alone Against the Tide comes with a pregenerated investigator in the form of Dr. E. Woods. In fact, character sheets are provided for Ellery Woods or Eleanor Woods – the interior art seems to generally assume you’re Eleanor, and the stats are the same on both versions, but you get a different portrait on your character sheet and a slightly different description of your appearance and clothes depending on which you pick. Regardless of chosen character gender, the adventure pans out the same – Eleanor can choose to flirt with the same women Ellery gets to flirt with – so there’s that.

Alternatively, you can stat up your own investigator, and the adventure includes motivations for whichever of the professions available in the Starter Set you choose (if you’re working with the full rulebook you have to pick one of those professions, and indeed so far as I can tell there’s nothing you need to refer to in there which isn’t in the Starter Set rules anyway). This is kind of just a gesture – ultimately, regardless of who you are, you are interested in some capacity in Professor Harris and/or the work he left behind – but it’s a nice one to offer.

As far as the adventure itself goes, it follows similar principles to Alone Against the Flames: you are in this town, weird stuff is going down, there is a set order of events which are unfolding and thus a fairly linear timeline, but there’s lots of ways you can branch out around this timeline depending on what you choose to concentrate on.

Despite the title, incidentally, the scenario is not actually about Deep Ones! Instead, it’s riffing on the fact that a certain Buddhist holy site shares a name with a certain location in a Lovecraft story, though thankfully the Buddhist priest is an essentially friendly presence who’s filling in the same role as, say, your typical “Catholic priest who’s trying to contain a terrible evil” stock character in other contexts – his order has been containing the horror for generations, Professor Harris was being an arrogant colonialist and disrupted that, the monk’s trying to sort things out before it is too late. Though I ended up getting to a good ending without interacting with the monk that much, an alternate (and easier) route to victory hinges on you befriending him, and in general I think the character is well-handled.

I also quite like the artwork. Since this is a short product (under 100 pages) rather than a hardback – and since it’s aimed in part at people who’ve sprung for the modestly-priced Starter Set and haven’t necessarily got the appetite to the game which would make them pay out more for a more lavish product – there’s no need to give this the lush full-colour hardback presentation of other recent products, and the interior is all black and white. The interior art by Doruk Golcu and Andrey Fetisov are incredibly flavourful, eschewing excessively ornate detail in favour of a more atmospherically murky approach – I’d love to see their work gracing more Chaosium products.

Alone Against the Tide was previously released by Johnson as a homebrewed product by himself alone, as part of Chaosium’s Miskatonic Repository storefront on DriveThruRPG, which is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of similar publisher-supported “monetise your homebrew” schemes like DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons and Storyteller’s Vault for World of Darkness. Whilst there’s a conversation to be had as to the merits of these schemes, I think it speaks well for Chaosium that they are actually willing to pick out the cream of the crop from the Repository, give it a spruce-up, and release it as a canonised part of the game line – I’m not, off the top of my head, aware of Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf doing the same.

An Epic Destiny In Gamebook Form

DestinyQuest is a line of gamebooks authored by Matthew J. Ward, the first of which is The Legion of Shadow. The first three books were put out by Gollancz, who would then turn down the fourth book, which would emerge some years later following a successful Kickstarter. (This was not without some drama – the original publishers, Megara, went bust, and based on Ward’s news posts on the official site it’s suggested that there was some pretty disreputable actions from their side of the equation which has left Ward somewhat grumpy.)

The books are a lavish proposition; The Legion of Shadow is well over 600 pages long, the adventure comprising some 939 paragraphs, with a colour section in the middle including some maps (of which more later). In some respects it’s somewhat surprising that Gollancz pushed the boat out on the series to the extent of putting out three of these things. That said, the first book emerged in 2012, so with brick-sized fantasy still a healthy seller and Game of Thrones mania kicking off I suppose it made sense at the time. Selling for a chunky £16.99, I suppose the idea was to market it to people who remembered Fighting Fantasy from their childhood and now had the disposable income to spend on a deluxe version of that.

In its chunky page count, the book’s approaching Sword of the Bastard Elf proportions, but DestinyQuest takes a very different approach to the challenge of making a gamebook of these proportions. The key to this is those maps. Each of the three acts of The Legion of Shadow has a different map associated with it, with locations keyed to paragraphs and associated symbols giving you an idea of what’s there. Towns and encampments give you a chance to gather information and buy stuff, quests are offered on the map in four colour-coded grades of difficulty, legendary monsters to battle are indicated, and the final “boss encounter” that wraps up the act is there.

The structure of the adventure then, consists of these non-linear acts in which you can explore the map and have these various mini-quests and encounters in whichever order you wish to have them in, with more linear sections of the story occurring as the intros and outros to the various acts. It’s rather innovative and is great for giving the player a sense of freedom – you can skip the entire act and go direct to the boss fight if you wish, but you’ll miss a lot of information you could have gathered during the act and will probably get slaughtered.

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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.

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Hounded By the Law In Deep Space!

Two-Fisted Fantasy is a new series of gamebooks, established via a couple of successful Kickstarter campaigns, which combine old-school gamebook aesthetics with a somewhat novel system approach and a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Purportedly a reprint of a classic 1980s gamebook series by one “Herman S. Skull”; the illustrations are credited to S. Iacob (and I suspect S. Iacob is actually Herman Skull too).

The first book in the series is Star Bastards, which is actually two separate-but-related gamebook adventures between one cover. In one, you take on the role of Miroslaw Hermaszewski, the only Polish national to have ever gone into space – or rather, a weird alt-universe variant on him. See, in the timeline of Star Bastards, Miroslaw’s Soyuz 30 fell into a Farscape-esque wormhole, stranding him on the far side of the galaxy, where he took up a life of roguish adventure and scoundrelry.

Oh, and during his trip through the wormhole the bizarre cosmic forces stretched out his body, so he’s now nearly twice as tall as he used to be.

That’s right, in classic old-school RPG style, he’s a Ten Foot Pole.

Anyway, Miroslaw’s annoyed the authorities of the Conglomerate (“the Glom” for short), one of the major local space empires, so he’s decided to make a break for it to Kitalpha, a renegade world in neutral space where he’ll be safe. To get there, he’ll have to travel along Route 663 – formerly a bustling trade route, now a derelict string of run-down star systems rife with scum and villainy. Controlling Miroslaw, you must safely get him to Kitalpha before the Glom catch up to him.

In the other scenario in the book, you are Inspector Leo Canid, a cute doggy who is also a cop for the Glom. Your task: catch up to Miroslaw and arrest him! If you can bust a few extra crooks along the way, so much the better. The second scenario is, in other words, a process of playing along in the wake of someone else’s playthrough of the first book, to see the consequences left behind in Miroslaw’s wake.

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Mini-Review: Choose Your Own Pounding In the Frozen Lake

After two expeditions to more far-flung locations, Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of gamebooks has returned to the familiar territory of Billings, Montana – the core locale of the Tingleverse RPG and a major landmark of Chuck’s wider body of work – for Expedition to the Frozen Lake. This casts you as a retired archaeology professor from Montana State University who is called on by Noro Bibble (an activist Bigfoot) to help oppose the devilish Cobbler Industries, who are drilling for chocolate milk reserves they believe are found underneath the Frozen Lake just outside of town.

To prevent the environmental devastation the drilling will cause, Noro wants you to see if any interesting artifacts can be found in the Frozen Lake, since if there archaeological finds in the lake there will be a legal basis to block the drilling. It won’t be easy, though; whilst there is indeed a temple of the legendary true buckaroos down there, there’s also the force of the Void itself – and cultists eager to serve its whims. And that’s not taking into account professional saboteurs from Cobbler Industries, or the mysterious, murderous Apple Trapper…

If you’ve followed Chuck Tingle for a while – particularly his social media presence – the Frozen Lake will be familiar to you as a signature locale in his personal mythology. From time to time he will Tweet about Sweet Barbara, lost to the mortal world in some disaster and now residing in the lake as a curious entity, her nature partaking of both the conventional Tingleverse and the Void but belonging wholly to neither, speaking with a voice like grinding marbles. She gets to be the cover star this time, and naturally, you get to meet her in this book – as well as facing down the forces of the Void, well-established as being a baleful force. (Those who’ve read The Void Campaign Setting will find its themes make a return here.)

Four books into the Select Your Own Timeline series, Dr. Tingle now seems to have enough of a grasp of gamebook design to try out some really neat experiments. For instance, there’s one point in the book where if you also have Escape From the Billings Mall, you can be dispatched to endure that adventure before continuing this one – because, of course, that timeline includes a Void incursion, so it makes sense that Void cultists from this particular timeline would be able to propel you there. Since the Void’s followers are a bit more aware of the fourth wall than others, their interest in you is in part due to the fact that they have identified you not just as a person intending to meddle with a site important to the Void, but also a gamebook reader – and thus someone capable of steering the timeline of the gamebook. (Chuck reminds us that we have a similar ability to steer our own lives.)

In addition, replay value is added by having some plot elements which can be pieced together to tell a larger story, but which you can only wholly put together if you play the book multiple times. See, there’s two ways you can end up going down into the Lake itself in your adventure: either using Noro’s submarine, or with a more haphazard diving setup provided by the Apple Trapper, who if you make certain choices can end up capturing you for her own purposes. There’s a backstory to the Apple Trapper which makes sense of her motives, but it only becomes evident if you took Noro’s route and discovered a disturbing photograph carried by one of Cobbler Industries’ sadistic agents.

The book is structured such that, if you survive to get back to Billings, you will almost certainly have at least one item of a nature which prompts a halt to the drilling process; what this means for which ending you get depends on the item in question. Maybe you end up on a Delta Green-esque anti-Void task force, captured once again by the Apple Trapper, confronted with your self from a different timeline, or any number of alternatives. On my first playthrough, when I made the choices which seemed best to me before I went back and started experiment to see what else was in here, I ended up Mayor of Billings and was fairly content with that.

But the task force ending is interesting to me; it implies more continuity with Escape From the Billings MallExpedition To the Frozen Lake is not just a fun gamebook in its own right, but also has me intrigued to see just how far Chuck is going to take this gamebook line. By and large I trust Chuck to move on before they get stale, but he’s also got a good knack for keeping a good thing rolling and constantly reinventing it. (His basic Tingler schtick remains funny some six to seven years after its inception. for instance.) Let’s see just how deep this spaghetti-like entanglement of timelines goes…

The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 6)

It’s time once again for another one of my (very) irregular reviews of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. In previous instalments I’ve covered the books up to late 1985 (including Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! spin-off series), and for this one I’m going to cover the last books released in 1985 and the first ones from 1986. The glut is well and truly underway, and a fairly wide range of authors have been recruited to serve it – in fact, each of the gamebooks I’m reviewing this time around were written by different authors.

All of them are men; in fact, not a single Fighting Fantasy book was written by a woman until Crystal of Storms by Rhianna Pratchett, released last year by Scholastic. Despite a certain homogeneity of author, otherwise the series seems to be zooming in a range of different directions, with science fiction, superheroics, pirate adventure and samurai missions encompassed in the concepts this time around. And we start out in the four-colour world of comics, as after quite some delay since my previous article in this series we finally make it to our…

Appointment With F.E.A.R.

Scenario

It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Jackson’s mind was on superheroes in 1985. In the previous year, Games Workshop had just come out of a failed bid to produce a Marvel-themed superhero RPG – the RPG licence eventually went to TSR instead – and had consoled themselves for their loss by releasing a spruced-up edition of Golden Heroes, a superhero game which had originally been self-published in 1981 and which they’d bought the rights to in the vague hope of using it for Marvel before deciding to release it as a generic supers game in order to recoup some of their losses.

It should be remembered that this is comfortably before stories like Watchmen, The Dark Knight ReturnsA Death In the Family and The Killing Joke injected a big fat dose of grimdark into the superhero genre, so the tone of Golden Heroes tended to be bright, colourful, and optimistic; this is also true of Appointment With F.E.A.R., which if Jackson didn’t write specifically to perhaps spark interest in superhero roleplaying at the very least came out at an opportune time to do so.

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Choose Your Own Pounding – In Tinglewood and On the Highway

After kicking off Select Your Own Timeline, his own take on Choose Your Own Adventure, with Escape From the Billings Mall, two-time Hugo Award winner and greatest living thinker Dr. Chuck Tingle proves love is real again with two more gamebooks set in the Tingleverse – a realm littered with familiar places, sentient objects, dinosaurs, Bigfeet, and all the other things you find in his books or RPG material.

First off is Trouble In Tinglewood, in which you head down to the City of Devils – the Tingleverse equivalent of Los Angeles – to try and make it in showbiz so you can tell your story for the world. As you make it into town, it turns out that the place is in peril: a serial killer known as the Tinglewood Slashman is on the loose! Will you be able to find creative fulfillment and stop the murder spree, or will you just be one more victim of the Slashman and/or the unforgiving world of showbiz?

Compared to Escape From the Billings MallTrouble In Tinglewood has a much looser structure, where much of the plot of any particular runthrough will depend on who you choose to try and befriend and how those friendships go – or, conversely, whether you go it alone (though the more solitary you are, the more likely you are to be targeted by the Slashman). As a result of having to accommodate a very wide range of possibilities, any particular playthrough is likely to be quite short, but that’s handy in its own right since it means attempting other options is fairly easy.

The usual Chuck Tingle humour -in its safe-for-work form – is on show here; no poundings in the butt, just wholesome jokes in a surreal world. On any particular playthrough you might go to Chocolate Milk Anonymous with well-known triceratops Bob Downer Jr., confront a rampaging horde of cannibal Valley Girls, join a hippie crew’s recording session or help a punk biker unicorn with her artwork. It’s fun, but the lack of focus makes it feel a bit less substantial than Escape From the Billings Mall.

By contrast, Highway to Heck is more structured. This casts you as a trucker for Truckman Trucking, undertaking your final delivery before retirement. It should be a routine run – just pallets of chocolate milk, delivered from Billings, Montana down to San Diego. However, notorious devilman Ted Cobbler has taken a downright infernal interest in your payload. What is your real cargo? And can you keep it out of Ted’s evil clutches and deliver it safely?

Road trip-style plots have been used in gamebooks before – think of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter – and they’re a good concept if you want to cook up interactive fiction with a strong central plot. Players can better accept a more linear plot if it makes sense for the concept in question – there’s only so many ways you can go from Billings to San Diego, after all. You can weave in elements of interactivity and choice by doing a string-of-nodes structure: have various bottlenecks that the player must visit on the route (here it’s Billings, San Diego, and a few points in between like Las Vegas), and then give them their choices between each node. Chuck uses this to good effect here.

Though the book could do with a few more nods to trucker culture – not once did I get to use a CB radio! – I think Highway To Heck might be his best-designed gamebook yet, particularly for the way it offers a wealth of valid ways to make your way through the book without becoming completely diffused and unfocused.

RuneQuest Classic: the Solo Adventures

In 1982 Chaosium would publish a clutch of solo adventures for the 2nd Edition of RuneQuest – the SoloQuest collection of three mini-adventures, Scorpion Hall, and The Snow King’s Brides, all penned by Alan LaVergne, who along with his wife Debra had been a participant in Steve Perrin’s RuneQuest campaign. As Chaosium’s first foray into solo adventures, the SoloQuest series – now reprinted in one volume as the SoloQuest Classic Collection – is a rather interesting early pass at the concept, and also one which raises the question of what solo adventures are for and how they fit in with more traditional referee-implemented RPG gameplay.

One thing which is especially interesting about the SoloQuest adventures is that they are very much designed to be played using a player character that you have fully rolled up for yourself. This is in contrast to solo adventures produced for Call of Cthulhu like Alone Against the Dark or Alone Against the Frost, which both gave you control of pregenerated characters (with some level of customisation possible).

It’s also something of a burden, because RuneQuest 2nd Edition character generation could be a bit fiddly, as well as having various options (such as rolling up five years’ worth of pre-game experience, which was often a very sensible option if available) which could be a bit laborious to work through if it’s just for the sake of a short solo adventure. By comparison, the more streamlined Basic Roleplaying framework that Call of Cthulhu was built on made it easier to take Alone Against the Flames and incorporate a simplified stat-up-as-you-go method of developing your character attributes into the adventure itself, as was done for the version published in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

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Choose Your Own Pounding In the Butt

After branching out in to tabletop RPGs via the Tingleverse RPG, Chuck Tingle has once again expanded his range outside of his usual surrealist comedy erotica niche by producing a gamebook. Specifically, he’s written Escape From the Billings Mall, the first of hopefully several Select Your Own Timeline books.

Spoofing the Choose Your Own Adventure series in both trade dress and execution, it has essentially no pornographic content and instead presents a comparatively wholesome scenario with a horrific twist. It’s the day before your son’s birthday and you’re running a little late, but you just have time to swing by the shopping mall in your home town of Billings, Montana to buy him something. However, all is not well, for a timeline rift by the local lake has caused an outpouring of the dark forces of the Void. Besieged in the mall by Void Crabs, hunted within by a handsome unicorn security guard who has been warped into a hideous Void monster, can you navigate the mall, avoid perils like your Reverse Twin, and escape to safety?

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