Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Retrospective: Lone Wolf

Lately, I've had a great deal of interest in solo fantasy gaming. Though there were plenty of early examples, starting with Buffalo Castle in 1976, the trend toward solitaire adventures really started to pick up steam in the early 1980s, with the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. The success of that book – and the Fighting Fantasy series more generally – showed that there was definitely a large audience for solo gaming and it wasn't long before innumerable knock-offs and imitators appeared on the scene. 

While some of these imitators weren't very good, a few of them stand out in retrospect as having brought something genuinely original and imaginative to the table. Among these is the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk. Like Steve Jackson's Sorcery!, Lone Wolf was a series of connected gamebooks, in which the reader takes on the role of a single character whose adventures form a single narrative. In each of its five books (published over the course of 1984 and '85), the narrative advances toward its conclusion and the character along with it.

The character the reader plays is Silent Wolf, the last surviving member of the Kai, a monastic order of warriors known for their remarkable skills and disciplines. At the start of the first book in the series, Flight from the Dark, the Kai monastery is attacked by flying creatures sent by the Darklords, the eternal enemies of the lands of Sommerlund and Durenor. Silent Wolf only survives because, while his masters and fellow initiates are preparing for a great celebration, he is in a nearby forest collecting firewood, as punishment for his inattention in his lessons. When he returns, it is too late to stop the slaughter and Silent Wolf has no choice but to seek out the king of Sommerlund to warn him of the Darklords return.

In broad outline, the narrative of the Lone Wolf series is broadly similar to that of Sorcery! and indeed of many fantasy novels, with the reader playing a pivotal role in staving off an invasion by evil forces. That's no knock against it, since it makes it immediately accessible to anyone with an interest in fantasy, especially the younger readers for whom this series was likely written. What sets it apart, at least from the perspective of other solitaire gamebooks, is its approach to advancement, which substitutes for more complex experience systems in RPGs. 

The Kai possess knowledge of certain disciplines – quasi-magical abilities like healing, mindshield, and sixth sense, that aid him in his quest. To begin, Silent Wolf only possesses a few of these disciplines. However, as he progresses from one book to another in the series, his mastery of the disciplines increases and the reader may select more disciplines to learn. By the end of the series, then, Silent Wolf is much more powerful – and versatile – in his abilities. This is important, as the challenges he faces increase as well. This is another way in which the Lone Wolf series simply but enjoyable replicates the escalating nature of D&D-style fantasy roleplaying games.

Much like the Fighting Fantasy books, Lone Wolf's game mechanical elements are quite simple. There are only two ability scores, Combat Skill and Endurance, both of which are employed primarily when engaged in combat against enemies. Combat is not complicated, but it's more interesting than one might expect in a gamebook. Rather than relying on random rolls, there's a random number table that looks like a checkerboard whose squares all contain a number from 0 to 9. The reader is directed to close his eyes and point a pencil at the table, with the result being wherever the pencil's point lands. The result is then used in conjunction with the ratio of the Combat Skill ratings of both attacker and defender to generate a result. It's not a perfect system by any means, especially since, after a while, one becomes familiar with the layout of the random number table, even when one's eyes closed. However, as presented, the system isn't wholly predictable, which means combat can turn unexpectedly deadly if one is not careful.

All in all, the Lone Wolf series is fairly fun. Each book in the original series of five – there were many more published after its conclusion – has a large number of entries, which opens up a good range of choices to the reader. That's important in solitaire adventures, since they're necessarily more limited than adventures played with actual human beings. Lone Wolf is helped, too, by the evocative artwork of Gary Chalk. The illustrations nicely set the tone of the whole series and blew me away when I first saw them. Like the Russ Nicholson art of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain or John Blanche's illustrations in Sorcery!, Chalk's pieces in Lone Wolf gave these books a unique look unlike anything produced in the USA at the time. British fantasy of the early 1980s was truly remarkable and the Lone Wolf series is yet another example of why.

12 comments:

  1. I remeber the series but nothing about the books. There's also Dave Morris' Fabled Lands gamebooks from later in the 80s. They were more open-ended I believe.

    Gary Chalk has recently announced that he's selling a number of signed original pieces of art. See his website.

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  2. I always found the pencil point table to be clumsy to use in practice, so I just substituted a d10 roll. The odds are nominally the same.

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  3. Talking of classic gamebooks: as much as I love Lone Wolf, and I do, I played the first two series multiple times, I think its main merit is in the world-building, the story, and the art.
    As far as the gaming aspect is concerned however, I find the Fighting Fantasy, and especially Sorcery! to be better thought out: the adventures are less linear, the mechanics are more transparent, and the lack of a skill system makes FF more dependent on player's skill than on the character's, which I prefer.
    As for Sorcery and FF, you can find digital versions of the Lone Wolf gamebooks at project aon, and you can download an android app that allows you to play the series on any device.

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  4. When I played through the first five books of the Lone Wolf series sometime around 1986-87, they were not only the best solo adventure gamebooks I had played at that time (far better than the solo adventures for D&D, RuneQuest, CoC, and yes, I’m afraid even T&T, an RPG I have a warm spot for) but they also surpassed any roleplaying experience I’d ever had around a tabletop, at a computer, or anywhere else!

    The immersive quality of the writing, the evocative prose, the fully developed world, the original monsters--you’re not going to meet a goblin in these books--Joe Dever can just flat-out write. The series struck every chord with me.

    After book 5, yes, there is a small drop in quality; the series becomes more of a book-book-game instead of a gamebook. But there’s no doubting how outstanding the series is, especially the first five books.

    I put book #2, Fire on the Water, as the single best gamebook I’ve ever played (and I played over a hundred of them), with #5, Shadow on the Sand, being a close second.

    Yes, some of the Fighting Fantasies were outstanding (Dead of Night, Legend of the Shadow Warriors, Moonrunner, Deathtrap Dungeon), but FotW, and SotS were a tick better. With LW (and FF) I'd finally found what I thought gamebooks could deliver all along, but hadn't met yet in the solo gamebooks for the fully fleshed out RPGs mentioned above.

    I'd finally hit paydirt!

    Last, to clear up what *may* be some ambiguity, after Silent Wolf wakes up from being knocked out in the opener to book #1, his name becomes Lone Wolf. So the reader-player is the character, Lone Wolf (reference #350 in book 1, the king addresses the player as Lone Wolf, and at other times in the series NPCs address the player as Lone Wolf).

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  5. Are these in print anywhere? A cursory Amazon/DDG search comes up empty

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    1. Check Abebooks for used!

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    2. If you want new ones, they are in print. You can go to the website and order them (in hardcover! with all of the edited-out paragraphs restored!), and the last few that never saw print in the original run have finally been put into print as well.

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    3. Thank you! I might splurge for the 1st one and see how it goes... at least the Euro is struggling ;)

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  6. This series is extremely popular in Italy, where it was the first foray into fantasy gaming for many kids of the '80s. The Italian translation of the whole series (some 30 volumes) is still in print in an expanded deluxe edition with gorgeous maps. In his later years Joe Dever was a frequent guest of honour in Italian gaming conventions.

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  7. Gary Chalk obviously did a lot of artwork for GW back then, including Talisman and Warhammer, as well as a whole host of other projects. His art was replaced in later Lone Wolf books by Brian Williams (RIP), who also did a lot of work for Fighting Fantasy and TSR (UK), like the cover for Night's Dark Terror.

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  8. Ah, Lone Wolf... I remember I spent the whole summer night reading/playing the Caverns of Kalte (#3), borrowed from my friend, and having so much fun. Later I owned some of the books, as I remember they were all great.

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