Party of One (RPG Gamebook Review)

Party of OneKobold Press has a series of single-player RPG adventures released as Party of One. They’re simple gamebooks based on the Pathfinder system (a D&D spin-off), with all the stats, battles, and die rolls that that implies. However, they explain all the needed rules in the text and keep them streamlined (with no initiative, critical hits, or similar items). Presumably they’re aimed to bring new people into the Pathfinder world, though I don’t know how many people out there are interested in a Choose Your Own Adventure dice-fest but don’t already know the basics of D&D.

I’m reviewing all three as a single item, since each costs $3 and can be completed (with some time peeking at other paths) in about a half hour. They’re sold as downloadable PDFs, and average only fifteen pages each. That page count includes a title page, a page of legal details, and two different character sheets – even though the game explains all the stats needed without referring to those character sheets, and even contradicts them sometimes. Obviously, that doesn’t leave much space for the game.

Each one casts you as a low-level (pre-made) adventurer, faced with a crisis that can basically be resolved in one scene. Your chances of surviving all the battles seem to be about 50-50, and the choices seem fair without arbitrary death or sudden plot twists. However, your decisions do matter: Two of the scenarios have multiple endings, depending on what you did while playing. (The choices it offers frequently depend on past events, so the paths can keep merging together and then branching back off when appropriate.) The real challenge, though not a difficult one, is to figure out how to get the different endings.

These are simple fun, and I never felt like I was being jerked around by unexpected consequences of my decisions. They really are like playing through a story, and are more successful than I expected. They’re still very slight, though. I wonder whether these worked because they were so short that they didn’t need to offer many branches or hard decisions. I’d definitely be interested in longer-form work by author Matthew J. Hanson, but as far as I can tell he’s written no other solo gamebooks. Though these are decent, each one is like an introductory chapter that ends quickly. I’d expect more from a $9 book, let alone a PDF-only product.

The one I’ll highlight is Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach, which features the best and worst of the series. It has the least linear storyline. Once your Dwarven hero discovers his city is threatened, the choices are based around a central hub with options that the player can do in any order. It does matter which ones are chosen first, and that lets the story proceed in a natural way. Of course, I’d prefer a longer story with a few more choices, but it’s still a good structure. On the other hand, it could have used some editing. A supporting character’s stats change without reason (another story has the main character’s damage change as well), and if you choose not to do an important task and later return to that location, the book assumes that you had previously tried and failed. Even stranger, all of the endings give the impression of being “bad” ones, but there really isn’t one where the hero is satisfied with the outcome. Normal linear stories can get away with unhappy endings, but when the reader is an active participant in a challenge, there needs to be a chance to win.

Party of One is very different from the last gamebook I tried based on an existing RPG system. Unlike Tunnels & Trolls, this doesn’t expect the player to be an expert in the rules and it keeps the player on a fair path through a coherent story. It provides a template for RPG gamebooks that feel like a satisfying story experience. Being very short and a little rushed, it is only a template, though. I’m still looking for a completely successful one.

Grade: C+

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