Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Retrospective: The Ice Dragon

The period between 1984 and 1985 was a strange time in the history of TSR, the Cent-Jours of Gary Gygax, who returned from his Californian "exile" to find the company he founded mismanaged and deep in debt. Gygax quickly maneuvered to retake control of TSR -- and, in so doing, unwittingly laid the groundwork for his own eventual ouster -- and attempted to get its financial house in order, in part through the publication of a large number of game products, many of which are today regarded with some ambivalence, such as Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. I share the mixed feelings some have about this era of TSR. Even as a teenager whose only "contact" with TSR was through the pages of Dragon and Polyhedron, you could sense that the times they were a-changin' and not necessarily for the better.

Late in this period (September 1985), Pocket Books published the first of four gamebooks written by Gary Gygax and Flint Dille about the adventures of Sagard the Barbarian. When we are introduced to him, Sagard is a youth of sixteen years preparing to undertake his Ordeal of Courage, which, if successful, will mark him as an adult amongst his people. As a gamebook, The Ice Dragon really isn't that interesting in my opinion. For one, it's quite short (there are only 121 entries) and has only three different conclusions. By way of comparison, most of the Choose Your Own Adventure books had 30 or 40 different conclusions, while the Fantasy Fantasy volumes typically had 400 individual sections. Likewise, the game elements of The Ice Dragon are limited, using only a four-sided die for resolution -- an odd choice! -- and most are heavily slanted in the player's favor. It is possible to die in The Ice Dragon, but the likelihood is small. For that reason, I didn't find the book particularly compelling and never picked up any of its sequels.

The main interest that The Ice Dragon holds is that it's written by Gary Gygax and that it takes place within his World of Greyhawk setting. I can't deny that these were the primary reasons I bought the book back in the day. In the end, the book didn't feel noticeably "Gygaxian," which led me at the time to think that Flint Dille had written most of it; I still have no idea if that's true. Likewise, the Greyhawk content was limited to a few place names here and there. As I understand it, later books had even less to do with Greyhawk as we know it, since Gygax was forbidden from using certain names as a result of his departure from TSR. So, in the final analysis, there's not much to recommend in The Ice Dragon and it remains in my mind emblematic of an era when I first recognized that the bloom was finally coming off the rose planted in 1974.

9 comments:

  1. Wow... I'd totally forgotten about this book... but seeing that cover takes me back. Like you, I'm sure seeing Gygax's name on the cover was the catalyst for buying it but I also don't remember reading any of the sequels.

    Still at that time I was all about game books. Lone Wolf, Steve Jackson's Sorcery!, Fighting Fantasy... etc.

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  2. I still have one or two Sagard books. Maybe I should go through them again. I forget almost all of it.

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  3. I had these too, thought they were pretty poor compared to Forest of doom and the other jackson and Livinstone put out.
    Just out of interest, I have a Gygax signed AD&D Players handbook and DMs guide, anyone know the worth of these items now that the great man is no longer with us?

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  4. I have this series on my bookshelves somewhere--or maybe in a box in the attic next to the Crypts of Chaos video game. Unlike the video game, I enjoyed the books. They had lots of combats, and perhaps because of that constant die rolling, the books took about as long to play through as a typical FF.

    To quibble about one thing, the number of endings these solo gamebooks have is insignificant. FF, which sold millions, had ONE successful ending in the great majority of them (if not all of them); the Lone Wolf series, the same--its original run sold approx. 8-9 million copies. The selling point in these books is the quest and the quality of writing. Are they evocative, immersive? Is the quest original? Sagard the Barbarian? Yes. Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf? Hell yes! Those strange solo D&D modules of the 80s that required an invisible ink pen or Magic View Finder(TM) to play? Not so much.

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  5. The d4 is my least favourite Euclidean numbered solid.

    It don't roll worth a damn and will stab you at any offered opportunity.

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    1. I just read your second sentence as "I don't give a damn and will stab you at any offered opportunity."

      So aggressive! :D

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  6. I had the UK printing which, as is often the way with these things, had a much better cover.

    http://gamebooks.org/gallery/sagard1b.jpg

    Didn't regard it too highly but it did have an excellent justification for it being a zoo-dungeon - it really was a zoo from a fallen civilization.

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    1. Ahh, that's why it didn't look familiar to me - that was the cover we had in Australia, too!

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  7. Choose your own Adventure books might have had a lot of endings, but most could be summarized simply as "You die a horrible death"... at least from my memory... or maybe I just sucked at choosing my own adventure...

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