Gamebook recommendations

There was a thread on the forum a few days ago that mentioned gamebooks and how awesome they can be. Anyone want to make some specific recommendations? Personally, I think I’m most interested in books that provide a bit more granularity for player action than the baseline, but this thread doesn’t have to be only about me. Also, I may be wrong about what I’m most interested in, so please feel free to suggest what you think I (and others) should be looking at.


I’m writing a series about CYOA/gamebooks over here, although it’s focused more on structure than on works that are excellent per se. (So I’m very interested in what other people have to say, too, because the genre’s pretty splintered; you could play Fighting Fantasy for years without ever becoming aware of Choose Your Own Adventure, and vice versa. There are certainly entire subgenres of CYOA that I don’t know about.)

Two above-average things (that I have yet to deal with) are Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (now available in a zarf-made iPhone/iPad app, as well as the traditional hard-copy) and the various efforts of Choice of Games.

The center of the gamebook universe online is Demian Katz’ excellent site:

It’s an amazing work; he reviews, he posts scans of pieces that might be missing (character-sheet bookmarks and other stuff that gets lost) and so on.

As for specific gamebooks, I’m contractually obligated to pimp Ring of Thieves, of course!

Thanks, guys. I’m familiar with everything mentioned so far. (Well, I downloaded Ring of Thieves a few weeks ago but haven’t had a chance to play through it yet. Maybe tonight!) I highly recommend maga’s blog series on branching narratives to anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

I’ve used to look up a number of things, including character sheets. Unfortunately, going there for gamebook recommendations is on a par with visiting the IF Archive for IF recommendations. There’s tons of stuff, but not much in the way of an entry point…


What genre do you most enjoy for game stuff? I’d be happy to offer more starter points.

Thanks for the offer! I don’t care much about the genre–horror, fantasy, western, whatever. (I guess I often find space opera to be a bit of a bore, but if a given piece is really good, then I won’t flinch from that either.) I don’t want to leave you without any guidance, though, so here is some more background: I’m mostly looking to explore game design ideas. What works–for me–in simple branching narrative? How does procedural stuff (stats, die rolls, free movement or magic a la the Middle Earth Quest books) interact with the branching narrative to make interaction more compelling? What worlds of stuff have I missed by having perused a fairly narrow range of things?

Here are some things that I’ve looked at, in addition to the stuff mentioned above:

Middle Earth/Tolkien Quest gamebooks (first book, enjoyed it)
Fabled Lands (interesting, may be a lot of potential in extending the approach)
Fighting Fantasy
Sorcery! (to a lesser extent than FF)
Choose Your Own Adventure (don’t need more of this!)
Master of Ravenloft and others in the AD&D series (though it’s been 20 years or so and I need to revisit)
Lone Wolf (played one of these electronically recently–wasn’t as fun as I remembered it being as a kid)

I hope that helps!


Aha. That’s important stuff. My recommendations for “start here for game design study” would be very different from my “play this 'cause it rocks” recommendations :slight_smile:

Honestly, Ring of Thieves is probably not worth your time, in that case; it’s traditional in terms of game design. I daresay it’s a good work (though I did it a few geologic eras ago, I think it holds up reasonably well; I still like the characters), but it’s good because it’s good … it breaks no game-design ground.

Re the Iron Crown free-movement books: I think the best examples are really in their Narnia books rather than in their Middle-Earth ones, in terms of really cracking open what can be done with free movement on a map. That said, I’m of the opinion that if you push that past a certain point, you’ve escaped the gravitational pull of what gamebooks do best, and have wandered into territory best handled by computers.

Re Fabled Lands: A very ambitious bit of work really elevated by the quality of the writing and artwork, IMO. Conceptually, again, I think it’s straining at the edges of the gamebook sweet-spot, but they pulled it off with such panache it’s impossible to fault them for it :slight_smile:

Re Fighting Fantasy: Wildly varying quality. Two (count 'em, two) Steve Jacksons. You pays your hours and you takes your chances. 100% traditional, though, with nothing new to show you in terms of game design.

Re Sorcery!: The one obvious bit of game-design gimmickry is both clever and effectively atmospheric, IMO. Worth knowing well, if you only know it in passing.

Master of Ravenloft and other AD&D books in that series: Some of those are pretty good, though many of them (including some of the good ones) suffer from long stretches of text without meaningful choice.

Lone Wolf: I think Lone Wolf peaked in quality with Caverns of Kalte (the finest by far, IMO) but Dever was experimenting the whole time, so the books often have dramatically different structures, often worth more for studying than enjoying. I think the World of Lone Wolf series (only four volumes, not by Dever) has better writing, better game design, and holds a much stronger atmosphere throughout. Ironically (or perhaps educationally) both series fall shortest when they try to take you to the Daziarn … I think the fantasy-astral-plane thing is just too abstract to hold together with any sense of travel.

Hm. A couple of recommendations then:

Faerie Mound of Dragonkind, published by TSR. Not in the same series as Master of Ravenloft, but in another series entirely: large-format, heavily-illustrated with discrete sections representing physical areas. Not free-movmeent of the kind ICE experimented with, but a different sort of hybrid thing. They only did a couple of these (including one espionage one), and they’re all kind of interesting, but I think Faerie Mound shows off the format best (even if it’s kind of a nonsensical adventure). Runner-up for TSR would be some of their “red plastic window” solitaire stuff, which are very free-movement indeed.

The Tunnels & Trolls solitaires: Technically, these are solitaires rather than Gamebooks (so is Ring of Thieves, come to that) and like any multi-author series, they’re all over the place. But they’re worth studying both for their energetic style and open-minded attitude toward (in many cases) bringing in whatever character you feel like, including those who’ve been through other books and those who haven’t. The way they handle this (or sometimes, not-quite-handle it) is worth watching both in the “ooh cool a wizardly touch” way and the “ooh cool a train wreck” way.

The Rebel’s Gamble: A Doctor Who gamebook published by FASA. One of the best examples I know of really hybridizing the sense of being a novel with being a gamebook (normally a terrible idea to make anything more novel-like, IMO, but this one pulls it off). This sometimes suffers from too-few-choices, but the choices it offers have real impact, and you really feel that. It’s a shame it’s about the meanest of the doctors, but ah well :slight_smile:

A few of the Crossroads series are worth examining. They’re all licensed works, set in worlds popularized in sci-fi/fantasy novels, and some of them take very novel approaches to capturing the feel of their source material (more military/tactical choices for the military-themed novels, for example).

I think it’s worth looking at the game design in the ‘Combat Command’ series (akin to the Crossroads books). Since that was a SF series in homage to popular SF authors of the time (compared to the generic fantasy of the same period) I think the writing, plot and pacing is a bit above average too.

Admittedly Lone Wolf remains a guilty pleasure from my youth (guilty in the sense that a few years ago I went to eBay to re-acquire a complete run of the first twelve books :smiley: ) but if that doesn’t do it for you I’d suggest the Way of the Tiger series, which did some really interesting stuff with player actions.

There also was a series of two-player gamebooks by TSR (though I don’t see a historical Japanese release in that list, so I may be thinking of more than one series) where two people would play head-to-head, basically reading their story at the same time, and occasionally interacting when the narratives/gameplay intersected. I’ve always thought that was a very interesting design with ideas to borrow for two-player IF (which to my knowledge has never been done?).

Finally for a modern take on it you should look at Tin Man Games Gamebook Adventures, an Aussie outfit who are doing iOS (and soon multi-platform) games in the FF tradition.

Agreed, yeah. If military stuff is of particular interest, Combat Command is where to start (I guess the “advanced course” for that sort of thing would be something like Antal’s “Armor Attacks” and his others).

Man, those play so so goofy :slight_smile: But yeah (and I do love 'em). Less gamebookish, but educational in that vein, would be the Lost Worlds booklets, and Joe Dever’s “Combat Heroes” books.

And I’d just like to add that this entire thread makes me want to shove my work aside and just go wallow in my gamebook collection, playing them 'til I fall alseep sometime around sunrise.

I, too, am contractually obligated to pimp Choice of Games, but in this particular case I think I want to pimp the game design category of our blog:

Our particular stance on branching narrative is that a linear series of chapters full of delayed branching is the best way to go. … esnt-suck/

I certainly know and like Fighting Fantasy best and I have a very large collection.

Ghalev said of them ‘100% traditional, though, with nothing new to show you in terms of game design’ - I don’t think I can agree with that, given the number of books there are. With every book able to make its own rules on top of the baseline combat, and not necessarily set in the same world or time (though a number are) there’s huge design variation.

Here are some examples.

Scorpion Swamp (only the 8th book) is almost like a solo boardgame in book form. The map is grid-like and you can revisit locations. The results of revisiting are not surprising - it’s like revisiting a previously searched location in an IF game.

43 books later, a similar idea was carried out with far greater elegance and transparency in Island of the Undead (#51). You can revisit locations and move freely around the island in non-linear fashion, until you move onto a second stage.

Phantoms of Fear (#28) gives you the ability to move into and out of a parallel dream world whenever you see certain marks against the paragraph numbers. For instance, if you see a symbol, there’ll be no explicit direction that you can start dreaming. You just add a fixed number (say 20) to your current paragraph and start reading there. Unfortunately, this is quite bitchily designed book, ultimately, but the atmosphere is fascinating and creepy.

Robot Commando (#22) lets you hop in and out of different giant robots with their own stats and powers.

Different books have different skill and spell systems. Citadel of Chaos, for instance, has you picking a finite number when play begins, and crossing em off as you fire them.

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery Series (1-4) has a really fun spell system made of mnemonics. You’re expected to commit 3 letter code words to memory before playing, and told not to look in the spellbook again while playing. When you’re given a chance to cast, you’re just presented with choices of mnemonic codes. You’ll probably get a few legitimate options, some spells that are completely irrelevant to the situation, and some mnemonics that aren’t even real spells. The penalty for goofing is wasted stamina points.

I should also point out the Sorcery books are excellent and obviously form 1 story arc (carry things through the books), quite difficult, and have a slightly more adult tone in the behaviour of the other characters than the regular FF books. They’re great.

It remains that different authors had different FF styles, and these will effect how you play different books. For instance, Ian Livingstone’s are often ridiculously cruel. On them, it’s worth cheating your stats to have a chance, and also not to take clueing from the text. EG - In Crypt of the Sorcerer, you have to do something morally dubious and suffer hits to your stats in the process to obtain a critical item needed for later.

----- Away from FF, the 6 Way of the Tiger Books form 1 martial arts world arc, and have a lot of sophistication, and a really strong sense of that world. Incidentally, there is one FF set in the same world as these books written by the same guy, called Talisman of Death (#11)

I’ve only played one Lone Wolf book (Shadow on the Sands) but dear god it was fun. My friend and I were pretty obsessed with it in primary school.

For anyone who’s interested, the people behind Fabled Lands are actually writing a new gamebook now:

I meant the specific “you [which is to say, the OP],” not the general “you.” Since the OP had already expressed familiarity with the ICE free-movement books (for example) books like Scorpion Swamp and Island of the Undead would have nothing new to show the OP (and I think the ICE titles are better examples for design study). I think that’s true in some form of virtually anything from a Fighting Fantasy book compared to the other books and series discussed. I had forgotten Phantoms of Fear, though, so thank you for that.

That’s the gimmick I was referring to (and yes, it’s pretty awesome).

Sword of the Samurai (FF21) is also set in the world of Orb, the setting for Talisman of Death.

I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned the Bloodsword series of gamebooks, the only series (as far as I’m aware) that lets you play as a solo player, or in a group of two, three or four players.

Oh yeah I forgot SotS was set there too. Thanks for the reminder.

Wow, there’s a lot here already–thanks to everyone who’s contributed!

Ghalev, your recommendations align superbly with what I am interested in right now. My goal for this …research… is ultimately to apply it to computer games, not gamebooks, so your observations on that front are astute. There are major gaps in the possibility space for text games–both in terms of interface and mechanics–that we haven’t begun to fill yet, and one way to approach them may be to study these older attempts to push at the boundaries of the (game)book. So I’m very interested in the examples you laid out. But I do think that there’s a lot to be gained from looking at non-experimental or non-innovative examples in terms of identifying where the “art” lies, and your and other folks’ care in laying out both types is also quite helpful. (Speaking of which, I did play some of Ring of Thieves last night and am enjoying it!)

I had a few of these as a lad and had forgotten all about them. Thanks for the reminder!

You know, I have a couple of these, and it actually strikes me how not-modern they are! (As you say, more or less in the FF tradition.) I would have liked them to try something new with the interface, rather than pretend that they had converted an old gamebook into a new app (again, a la FF).

Thanks for the reminder. I’ll have to look back through those. Is the blog still syndicated on Planet-IF?

Thanks for those recommendations. It definitely sounds like some of those could be interesting.

Yeah, I remember enjoying Lone Wolf as a kid too. I should look at Shadow on the Sands and the one that Ghalev mentioned before I write it off. The one I replayed recently was the first one, and it stands to reason that things might have improved after that!

OK, now I have a bunch of 20- or 30-year-old books I need to try to get my hands on…! In the meantime, here’s a modern one that you all may be interested in. It’s not extremely polished, but it does have some neat sequences of Calvino’s brand of fabulism:


That’s pretty cool; thanks! Still feels a lot closer to Steve Jackson than to Calvino, but still tasty.

As I recall, the events I thought of as Calvinoesque didn’t show up until later on. (I feel like there is less combat as you go along too–at least that was the case in my playthroughs.)


But which Steve Jackson? Steve Jackson who co-founded Games Workshop and who wrote Fighting Fantasy books? Or Steve Jackson who founded SJGames and who also wrote Fighting Fantasy books? It’s all so confusing!!!