Saturday, February 19, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure Article

Reader Michael Fitzgerald pointed me toward this very fascinating article on the history and development of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series. Here's a particularly interesting quote from it:
Choose Your Own Adventure created a demand for interactivity among its readers, but the series itself was becoming less interactive as time went on. "In the early days of CYOA, we—when I say we, I mean myself and the other writers—had quite a few more endings than later on in the series," Montgomery says. "We had as many as 30 to 40 endings in the first 10 to 15 titles. We were burning up story lines like crazy with all of those different endings. And it was fun, but even if it only took six, seven pages to get to an ending, there wasn't a lot of room for character development, or plot development, or all the kinds of descriptive phrases that you need to build a scene."

It was a simple matter of page count, imposed by the physical restrictions of book publishing: A 118-page story can only let you deviate from the main narrative so far. "A Choose Your Own Adventure is almost the epitome of not giving you choices," says Lebling. "They're—what? One hundred fifty pages, max? So each page or every other page usually gives you two or three choices, and if you multiply that out that's not an enormous number of possible states." Christian Swinehart has charted how the number of endings declined as the series progressed, a sure sign that narrative was taking precedence over interactivity. But interactivity wasn't vanishing, it was evolving and books were no longer the optimal medium with which to deliver it.
I was never a huge reader of the CYOA books as a kid. In fact, I only ever recall reading three of them, Sugarcane Island, Deadwood City, and The Third Planet from Altair, none of which were, at that time (this would have been 1977 or 1978, I believe), marketed under the name "Choose Your Own Adventure," which happened only later, by which time I'd moved on and would soon by playing RPGs. Still, I'm certain these books played an unconscious role in preparing me and many others for later entrance into the hobby and the article is well worth a read, if you have the time.


  1. Damn. I was sure that at some point in this article I would turn to paragraph 34 and find that I had died.

  2. Seriously though, I used to have a big bunch of CYOA, Endless Quest, Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, and other gamebooks. I've now only got a handful of the FF books, but all of them contributed to playing RPGs.

    I did have one Endless Quest book which was about being an inter-planetary exchange student. Something like the first 10 pages were 'played' out without a single choice. And it was 10 pages for description of inter-planetary ex-pat school!

  3. Here's the story of how I got into D&D via CYOA. :)

    In short: D&D was first introduced to me as being like a CYOA, except I wasn't limited to making one or two different choices. I still think of the game like that (interactive fiction) more than any sort of collaborative storytelling.

  4. I too remember these books from when I was growing up in the 80s, before I had discovered roleplaying. Used to get them from the library. Very influential in my hobbies today, looking back on it.

  5. I read Third Planet from Altair when I found it at my elementary school library in first grade. It was a ton of fun, and one of those with a dozen or so endings. I enjoyed it lots more than the later CYOA fare, and never could find another CYOA book quite like it.

  6. I got a few Endless Quest books for my birthday last year from a friend. While defiantly child oriented I found them surprisingly enjoyable. Ever since I've been tempted to do a choose your own adventure in blog format, but I know I probably never will as MUDs exists.

  7. The exponential explosion of branching storyline is one of the major challenges facing computer RPGs. It is why the open world RPGs moved away from a central story to a more faction-based design (e.g storylines center around guilds or factions who are allied or opposed to other guilds or factions). Factions allow you to decouple the storylines so that you still get exponential variability without having to explicitly account for all the combinations.

  8. I had quite a few of the CYOA books as a kid, and really enjoyed them, although I was panicked at the prospect of dying in them...usually kept a finger on the previous page after making a know...just in case (honestly, some of the ways you could get offed were fairly gruesome for a children's book).

    I would certainly say they helped lead me into RPGs later in life. I've actually used the CYOA book "Prisoner of the Ant People" as a basis for a D&D quest in a giant ant lair.

    I also recall a CYOA-type book (I don't remember if it was from the same publisher or not) that involved you as a heroic knight and at the beginning of the book you had to pick which weapons you brought along (I remember the Rejuvenating Sword for some reason) and those choices affected the decisions you could make and their results. Certainly a step closer to RPGs.

  9. My folks used CYOA books to get me into reading (witch would have also helped with my reading disability), but I found them kinda boring. It was D&D that really got my into reading (translating that tomeish DMG was like a blunt sledgehammer against that damned dyslexia). Because I was too young to grasp the rules and I did not think things though, my early experience playing D&D played out like a CYOA book (with much fudging of the rules and rolls).

    Some of the Endless Quest books are good - if a little nerfed on the violence - but I really enjoy the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf books.

    Right now, I'm reading Villains of Volturnus. Its a neat Star Frontiers book (the "inter-planetary exchange student" book DrBargle was talking about), where the story goes all over the place, and I like that.

    I found the CYOA Wikipedia article (which has been reduced to a stub and is under lockdown do to some politics) relating the endings rather interesting, as it listed:

    "One book, Inside UFO 54-40, revolved around the search for a paradise that no one can actively reach; one of the pages in the book describes the player finding the paradise and living happily ever after, although none of the choices in the book led to that page. The ending can be found by disregarding the rules and going through the book at random, sequentially, or by accident. Upon finding the ending, the reader is congratulated for realizing how to find paradise."

    Its a bit of a headfuck, but that is awesome!

  10. At least in the 80s, I think Fighting Fantasy was bigger than D&D in Australia. Mainstream bookshops would have a shelf of the gamebooks in the children's fiction section (easy to find because of the light green spines), wheras they wouldn't have D&D products.

    Lone Wolf seems to have been bigger in Britain. In fact I never saw one in a shop.

  11. Another thing about Fighting Fantasy: they all had introductions which were too long and irrelevant. I wonder if that was a policy, or a way to get to a word count, or a bunch of frustrated fantasy authors.

  12. CYOA books also limited their own choices by not having anything such as stats, codewords or inventories so the only choices you made were the ones in the paragraphs. And as the article said, in a gamebook with only just over 100 paragraphs and so many endings, it did not leave much room for choice.

    Compared to computer games, books have less chance on the interactivity front (apart from Fabled Lands) but the narrative is a big advantage as computer games often end up being all about the stats and less about the story. A lot of gamebooks can offer a good medium between stats and narrative (most Virtual Reality books, some Fighting Fantasy books and a lot of Lone Wolf books do this).

  13. Fighting Fantasy was an incredible phenomenon in the UK during the eighties and through to the early nineties - everything else including RPGs were dwarfed by it's huge sales success.

    These days high street book store shelves in the UK are full of second-rate teen novels riding the Harry Potter wave, with gamebooks almost exclusively relegated to online stores.

    However, the good news is that there seems to be a recent upswing in the fortunes of gamebooks within the last year. Brand new books - some of them very good - are now appearing both in print and electronic form.

    The Blood Sword and Way Of The Tiger gamebooks have awesome narrative so I *hope* that they also get reprinted soon... they deserve it.

    BTW. Here's a link to an interesting 2008 university paper comparing Fighting Fantasy with Lone Wolf:

  14. "Right now, I'm reading Villains of Volturnus. Its a neat Star Frontiers book (the "inter-planetary exchange student" book DrBargle was talking about), where the story goes all over the place, and I like that."

    I just checked, mine was Trouble on Artule - which means that there were two 'inter-planetary exchange student' gamebooks! The one I read didn't seem to go anywhere much, as far as I remember. Those interested in gaming as an inter-planetary exchange student should definitely opt for the book that Malcadon named.

  15. Whenever I hear the words "interactive fiction" I immediately think of the computer game company Infocom and their line of software titles in the early to late 80s. Their games provided a segue into RPGs for me, the Zork trilogy for fantasy, Planetfall for space opera, and Deadline for mysteries. Fascinating narratives with complex puzzles, they provided fodder for the imagination, and some of their more intricate puzzles were translated into the first traps I would create and spring upon my group of players. Without following the links above and reading the sub-articles, I would bet "Lebling" referenced above is Dave Lebling, the President of the now long defunct Infocom company.

    While I was a bit too old to read, enjoy, or even buy any of the CYOA books when I first became aware of them, I certainly did enjoy their offsprings, Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf. Or were all three offsprings of the Tunnels and Trolls solo gamebooks, debuting in 1976? Hmm.

    Anyway, lots of good memories and fun play sessions with all of the above.

  16. The Fabled Lands series of gamebooks by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson (recently reprinted) was a development of the gamebook idea which allows for sandbox solo play; quite a feat and far removed from CYOA, and a step up from FF and Lone Wolf. Your character can wander the Fabled Lands (really a huge gamebook divided into 12 geographical sections, each described in one book) having adventures, healing at your own pace, trading, or buying ships and houses in various ports.

  17. I read CYOA books like a fiend as a kid. I had tons of the official ones, as well as the TSR books and others. I found my CYOA trove a few months back, including a bunch of TSR's Fantasy Forest children's series. They'd make a great intro for kids to D&D, plus they have some great art. I posted some of it here:

  18. I was in Australia, and gamebooks were HUGE. I had Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, Way of the Tiger, Bloodsword, Falcon, Freeway Warrior, Skyfall...

    Unfortunately I missed Fabled Lands, but I'm hanging out to get the iPhone app when available.

    Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any D & D circles in Melbourne, Australia - so its gamebooks all the way!

  19. @Aussiesmurf

    Why not a Dragon Warriors group? There is one in Melbourne run by a very highly experienced GM. More info at the link: