Three Solo RPG Books

After trying a few (generic equivalents of) Choose Your Own Adventures last year, with mixed results, I was interested in seeing what else is out there. This time, I tried some solo RPG books, where stats and dice rolls play a part along with the branching choices.

I was surprised by how different the role-playing elements make these books. I always approached traditional CYOAs as something between a puzzle and a quantum story, where of course I’d keep placeholders at previous branches and go back and forth as necessary. The end result was a non-linear meta-story, in which I knew of all possible plot-lines at once. Once I have dice and a number of hit points, though, the book doesn’t work like that. These books were more about the adventure itself, and became a legitimate game instead of a story. I couldn’t jump around without invalidating my character, and that completely changed the experience.

However, the sudden deaths that are common in these books were very frustrating. I don’t mind them at all if I’m flipping through every path of a CYOA, but when I’m actually trying to follow a storyline, and my focus is on keeping a health stat above zero, it feels very unfair to have success ripped away by a single unpredictable choice.

Below the fold are the reviews of the three books I tried over the past several months.

Flight From The Dark

Joe Dever – Flight From The Dark

Flight From the Dark is the first book in Joe Dever’s classic Lone Wolf saga, now being reprinted in deluxe editions. I’m glad I read this one first, because it most clearly embodied the elements I described above. Playing a young acolyte of a martial/mystical order, you find yourself on a desperate solo quest to warn the King after a surprise attack from an enemy army. I was amazed by how much the book drew me in. Long sections of it represented action-packed scenes, and I had to make choices while fleeing enemies and looking for help. I actually found these sequences to be tense, and there was no thought of peeking at the various branches. The story was meant to be rushed through, and survival hoped for.

The game system is simple and keeps you from getting bogged down in the details: You have some equipment and a few basic stats, including a choice of skills that will make the book somewhat different if replayed. In a fight, you just compare your battle skill to your opponent’s and roll a single D20. A chart in the back shows how much damage is done for that roll with the given stat difference. Notably, this single roll is a full combat round for both characters, and both of you will take some damage (unless the roll or the stat difference is especially one-sided). Most battles are over in two rolls of the die, and very few took more than three. This was a relief: While it may be fun to have epic D&D battles with friends, a solo adventure should stay streamlined and get back to the story quickly. The breathless pace was maintained through the fights.

The prose is workmanlike but effective, though the fantasy setting is annoyingly generic. What little world-building it offers is basically just new terms to replace names like “Orc” and “Sauron”, and the magical elements mixed into your character’s training didn’t fit the grounded, practical feel of the world you interact with. Fortunately, though, that’s not the focus of this story. The adventures you go through are involved and varied, with a huge amount of content crammed in the book. Your quest will take you through a number of locations, each one a self-contained mini-adventure, but only a few scenes are guaranteed to come up in every path. I played through a second time after deciding that my first character was indisputably dead, and was amazed at how different the plot was.

This was a great, immersive read overall, but a couple issues seriously disrupted it for me. One was the sudden death-traps that I already mentioned. The other was figuring out some strategies that took all the challenge out of it. (The rest of this paragraph has major strategic spoilers. You have been warned.) Healing is very difficult to come by, but the Healer ability you can choose during character creation makes it easy. It would be almost impossible to win without it, but on my second play-through, even after trying to weaken that ability significantly, I still found myself throwing out healing potions because I was carrying too many! Also, when given the opportunity to stop and search an area, it’s always worthwhile to do so. Even if you are supposedly fleeing for your life, I never found a time when that caused trouble.

I’m told that these issues are less of a problem in later books of the series. (The Lone Wolf saga lasts thirty-two books, and is designed to be played through with an ever-stronger character. Sometimes, the results of one book specifically influence the next.) I hope so. Flight From the Dark was flawed, but it also showed me that an adventure like this could be simply, unironically fun. I’ll probably try more of the series at some point.

Grade: B

Trial of the Clone cover

Zach Weinersmith – Trial of the Clone

While the other books I tried are old, Trial of the Clone is a recent Kickstarter success by humorist Zach Weinersmith. It’s main selling point, unsurprisingly, is its jokes. And yes, it is full of jokes. It’s rare to read two sentences in a row without one, and a surprising number of them are actually funny. (It helps, of course, if you like the style of humor Weinersmith uses on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: boundary-crossing obscenities mixed with geeky grad-school in-jokes.) As a cloned orphan growing up in a far-future space empire, the book takes every opportunity to remind you what a loser your character is. (It’s a tricky balancing act, given that all RPGs involve growing in power, and your character has to continually defeat people in order to stay alive.) Choosing honorable actions is a consistent way to die ironically, and the book gleefully subverts the “heroic” expectations of the genre by having you devour opponents to gain their skills, kill children and their mothers to steal ADHD medicine, and live in a shanty town made of porn.

There is a minor nostalgia-fueled resurgence in Choose Your Own Adventures, but it bothers me a little that they mostly seem to be jokes. It appears that people who used to love these books now feel that they can only enjoy them while laughing at the system. And sure, very few works in this genre are sophisticated works, but Meanwhile showed how much possibility they do have. I’d like to see more serious attempts to do something with this structure. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for comedy, though, and Weinersmith is probably one of the best people to do it.

In fact, Trial of the Clone does manage to tell a decent story. It does this, though, by deconstructing the expectations of the CYOA genre. It uses the mechanics of the system to tell a story, and bring you into the narrative in a way that a passive story could not do, but don’t expect an RPG experience out of this. Your stats change wildly, and battles feel arbitrary. The early sections of the book are laughably easy, but by the midpoint, I think it was literally impossible for my character to win without cheating. There’s no way to go into detail about this without spoiling the story, but it was more satisfying than I expected from a comedy book. The one thing I can say about the structure is that, while there are plenty of branching choices, it’s also designed to bring you to the same major story points no matter what. The book is divided into five chapters, each one offering no choice of the beginning or end, and there are generally a few key plot points within each chapter that you must hit as well.

Trial of the Clone is ridiculous, offensive, and laugh-out-loud funny. The role-playing system feels unnecessary, as its main purpose is the “grok the story” aspect of traditional CYOAs, not the game of survival that Lone Wolf offers. It was frustrating sometimes, repetitive a lot less often than I would have expected, and a lot of fun in the end. If you like science jokes and extremely juvenile adult humor, you’ll enjoy this.

Grade: B

City of Terrors cover

Michael A. Stackpole – City of Terrors

The City of Terrors is a Tunnels & Trolls gamebook. As the name might imply, Tunnels & Trolls was a heavily Dungeons & Dragons-inspired roleplaying system, allegedly with the intention of providing a slightly easier entry point to the hobby. But it didn’t show much innovation in cribbing from D&D, and no more imagination was put into the solo adventure books. They are designed the same as a scenario within a tabletop campaign, with an area to explore and encounters that mostly stand apart from each other.

The City of Terrors has none of the streamlining that Flight From the Dark and Trial of the Clone featured. While those focused on a few stats and quick die rolls, the Tunnels & Trolls books involve several secondary stats and comparatively drawn-out dice-fests. You’re expected to track the weight you’re carrying (down to the coins in your purse), record your experience points, and even keep statistics for multiple NPCs who can appear randomly throughout the adventure. Some combinations of factors will require the player to act as the Dungeon Master and make their own judgment calls, and indeed you are supposed to “decide what happens” when one of those NPCs show up.

There are abridged rules to introduce the reader to the T&T rules, but, annoyingly, the book frequently mentions features that you’ll need to buy other books to learn about, and sometimes assigns conditions to your character that are not explained. (In at least one place, you are suddenly taken to the realm of another book, which you should buy to continue the adventure.)

The intention is, in fact, that you can create a character to take from book to book on adventures. Despite my frustration over the complexity of the system, that does seem pretty cool. The compromise between reading a book and running your own campaign is weird – plenty of times, when I found out what my choice entailed, I would have told a real-life DM that I didn’t want to do that. By CYOA logic, though, it was too late. Also, it means that characters of different levels can all adventure through the book. I found enemies of widely varied strength, and I’m not sure how frustrating that would have been if I were playing it properly. I quickly learned that that was impossible for me to do anyway: This book is for “mid-level characters”, and even the enemies described as “monster fodder” were too strong for the above-average character I rolled up. Given that this book was recommended to me by Rick Loomis (head of publisher Flying Buffalo) when I asked for a good introduction, I find that pretty frustrating.

(A side note about the overpowering enemies: The T&T combat system is a series of competing rolls. Each side gets a number of dice, and then adds a number – their “personal adds” – to the result. As far as I could tell, my character’s respectable stats gave personal adds of six, but everyone he met had adds in the twenties or thirties. This made it impossible, no matter how well I rolled, to ever roll higher than them. At first I thought that the book had omitted rules that should give me more adds, but a search of the internet seems to imply that I should have been that weak. Either way, it was another frustration. Additionally, it seems to make it very unlikely that a weaker character will ever defeat, or even damage, a stronger one, which is strange for a system like this.)

The actual plot and events of the book are chaotic. Your choices jump you unpredictably from scenario to scenario, such that following rogues may result in a ride on a spaceship, or looking to see who is calling to you from behind a bush will lead you to discover 300 soldiers hiding there! You are directly rewarded or punished by the gods, mainly for how well you act like a gung-ho adventurer (if you decide not to join a battle just because you didn’t know which side was right, you’ll be punished for your cowardice!), but other times you can work for slavers and kill innocent bystanders without any penalty. And the dense plot has no room for explanations or flavor text. The “city” setting is a jumble of little more than creatures who want to kill you, or occasionally give you random choices with high rewards. I’m left with no idea how its average citizen can make it a single day without being killed.

The prose doesn’t have too many actual typos, but feels dashed together and unprofessional even by the low standards of a Choose Your Own Adventure. That’s surprising, since author Michael A. Stackpole went on to work on a lot of prestigious video games and licensed stories. This was one of his first published books, and I can only assume he learned a lot later in his career.

Ok, there are some fun ideas in the book, and part of me was intrigued despite my preference for simple, streamlined systems in a solo RPG. The Tunnels & Trolls system does promise a different sort of experience, and that always grabs my attention. Every time I start to think that it might be fun to look into, though, I come to my senses. Even if I had a character appropriate for the book’s difficulty, it’s broken on too many levels.

Grade: D-

  1. June 6th, 2013

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