R/tipofmytongue - Looking for gamebook with magic item that manipulates the page number

I read about this, pretty sure it was online, many years ago. Possibly in a blog post or interview with game designer Andrew Plotkin a.k.a. zarf. Whoever it was, they were talking about what makes an interactive fiction puzzle “fair” or “unfair,” and gave an example of a puzzle from a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style gamebook (presumably from the 1980s or 1990s).

I’m looking for the name of this book, and/or a link to the story about it that I’m remembering. SPOILERS for the gamebook follow.

In this gamebook, you can collect items on your way through the story (sort of Lone Wolf–style, I’m imagining?). One of these items is a magic wand or something like that. After you collect it, fairly soon, you run into a monster or something, and you’re given some choices. One of these choices is “If you have the magic wand, triple this page number and add 5 to it, then turn to that page,” or some numerical manipulation like that. Later, you run into some other hazard, and again you’re given the option to triple the page number and add 5. Even later, you come to a dead end; the tunnel has caved in and there is no way past the blockage. The only option presented is to go back the way you came.

However, if you take the page number of the cave-in, triple it and add 5, and turn to that page, it says “As you wave the magic wand, the rubble vanishes” (or words to that effect) and you can go on. This logical leap is the only way to reach that path.

Anyway, I’d like to find a copy of this gamebook to experience it for myself, so I’m looking for any clues that would help with that.

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It sounds like the sort of thing that I’d talk about in an interview. But it was a memory of someone’s blog post about a CYOA book, not a book I read myself.

Oh, I remember the blog post they’re talking about! I believe it’s from Emily Short, about emergent gameplay. Google is failing me now…but I’ll see what I can find.

I think this might be it:


That’s definitely it! Thank you!

The gamebooks.org entry for Creature of Havoc (1986):

To survive, you will actually have to use items you have picked up and subtract/add the number you noted to the reference you are on.

An interesting fact – it was adapted into an iOS game in 2010. So presumably the “compute a page number” mechanic had to either be removed or replaced with something like an inventory state check that would then display a normal option.

The Transverse reading project has been tracking what we call “computed choices” across the ~3000 gamebooks in our holdings, and Fighting Fantasy: Creature of Havoc isn’t the only or even the earliest example. Some other examples include Wizards Warriors & You: Who Kidnapped Princess Saralinda (Megan & William Stine, 1984), You Can Be: The Stainless Steel Rat (Harry Harrison, 1985), and Give Yourself Goosebumps: One Night In Payne House (R.L. Stine, 1998).

Makaka Editions also uses the “computed choices” mechanic heavily in their gamebook graphic novel / bandes dessinées series “BD et jeux dont vous êtes le héros.” They are translated into English as the series “Gamebook Adventures” by Van Ryder Games.

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Note that in this particular case, the game tricks the player, likely because of a printing error. It say that when you come across a paragraph beginning “You cannot see a thing…” you can use the pendant. But as it turns out, at one point you have to use the pendant even though there is no paragraph beginning with “You cannot see a thing…” The only way to find out is by deviating from the instructions given.

Is that trick also used in other books?

I don’t remember any other cases like that. Unless you count unlinked pages, like the famous one in UFO 54-40, where you just have to turn to a page for no reason.

Having to follow an absent instruction – not to my knowledge. Important to underscore that this case was likely a printing error. It is delightful in retrospect, but in most cases is probably a very bad design – if players believe that they need to intuit blind leaps then they are going to be amulet-ing around all over the codex in ways that don’t make sense, and the work becomes incoherent. The more usual strategy for writing gamebook lexias that exist outside the rules is to have hidden / orphan lexias, and there are a lot of works that do this – Andrew mentioned UFO 54-40, which is infamous, but another to check out is Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery which uses it to build frame-tales rather than provide a secret ending.

So, absent links, no, but secret / encoded / hidden links – yes! There are many examples of this. Some series have links which are encrypted, and you need the key to decrypt them. Some series use a decoder object, such as a piece of red plastic that you can use to inspect the illustrations for hidden page numbers (Crimson Crystal Adventures). The series “BD et jeux dont vous êtes le héros” which I mentioned earlier is a paper-based series that uses hidden-object mechanics, working secret or encrypted page numbers into the art so that you have to examine pictures carefully to find them (and then turn there).

Also, there are non-gamebook genres built around links so secret that they inevitably involve guess-the-link mechanics. See for example escape-room-in-a-box games, like the Exit: The Game series. Discovering and decrypting the number of the next object is the core of the game, and so there is a mechanism that makes it highly likely that bad guesses get failure-feedback and good guesses succeed. By contrast, guessing where to turn in the pages of a normal gamebook is the opposite design situation. Almost any guess will take the reader somewhere that they shouldn’t be (which is bad).

This idea goes back to Chris Manson’s Maze (http://www.intotheabyss.net/room-29/) but it’s only used once there. As you say, there were later gamebooks where this was the primary mechanic. See also the board game “7th Continent”.

That doesn’t sound right. I think that hidden / encoded / implied numbers are used many times all throughout Maze. For example, the number on the missing door sign in Room 3, which is implied (we see it hidden behind the reversed STOP sign, but cannot read it).

I hadn’t seen that fan site before. Very cool.

… or, did I misunderstand – did you meant just mean examples of hiding the numbers in the art, not encoded / implied numbers? If you look at the fan community reading of Room 3 again, they believe that the “IS” in the sign indicates that the closed door leads to page “15”.

I think that fan community is way over-reading their evidence. I only linked there because it was the most prominent online copy of the art.

I agree. That kind of performative over-reading / paranoid reading mode is a great example of what happens when hidden meanings are part of how reader understand the rules. Because EE=33, SI=15 may start to seem more plausible. Still, it can be aestheticaly productive if a big goal of the work is to reward the search for hidden linkages.