Friday, May 17, 2024

The Path to Adventure

I've commented in several previous posts that the period between 1982 and 1984 is a fascinating one for both TSR and its most famous product, Dungeons & Dragons. This period, I believe, represents the peak of game's faddish popularity, when the company was so flush with cash – and keen to ensure its continued flow – that it slapped the D&D logo on almost everything, from woodburning and needlepoint sets to toys and beach towels, to name just a few. Of course, this same period also saw the publication of the Frank Mentzer edited D&D Basic Set, the best-selling version of that venerable product that TSR ever released, whose sales no doubt contributed greatly to the company's bottom line.

Right smack in the middle of this same period is the premier of the CBS animated television series for which Gary Gygax is credited as a co-producer. The series, which ran for three seasons between 1983 and 1985 and a total of 27 episodes, was part of an effort to increase the pop cultural footprint of D&D beyond the realm of RPGs. So far as I know, the cartoon was the only fruit of that effort, despite Gygax's frequent reports that a Dungeons & Dragons movie of some sort was in the works. Readers more knowledgeable than I can correct me if I am mistaken in this judgment.

Because I was too old for its intended target audience, I never paid close attention to the D&D cartoon during its initial run. Consequently, I took even less note of the various cartoon-branded products released in conjunction with it. I could probably write several posts about this topic and perhaps I eventually will, but, for the moment, what most interests me are the six "Pick a Path to Adventure" books published in 1985 by TSR. As you might expect, these books are all very similar to the Endless Quest series (themselves modeled on the earlier and more well known "Choose Your Own Adventure" books), but drawing on characters and elements of the cartoon. 

As I said, I was completely unaware of the existence of these books until comparatively recently. I certainly never saw them at the time of their original publication. Even if I had, there's zero chance I'd have read them, given my superior attitude toward the series and its perceived kiddification of my beloved D&D. Now, I find myself somewhat curious about them, if only because some of them apparently introduce new characters (like Eric the Cavalier's younger brother) and concepts unseen in the series. In addition, each of the six books uses a different member of the ensemble cast as its viewpoint character, which is actually not a bad idea. (Take note as well that first book in the series was written by Margaret Weis of Dragonlance fame).

Looking into these books online revealed that, contemporaneous with the Endless Quest books (and a few years before the cartoon-branded books), TSR produced another series of "Pick a Path to Adventure" books under the Fantasy Forest brand. From what I can tell, they appear to have been geared towards a younger audience than the Endless Quest books. Likewise, these books don't carry the D&D logo anywhere, though some of them, like The Ring, the Sword, and the Unicorn, proclaim "From TSR, Inc., the producers of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS cartoon show." 

Once again, these are books of which I was completely unaware at the time and that I've not seen, let alone read, in the years since. If anyone among my readers has read them, I'd like to know a bit more about them, specifically whether they contain anything that connects them to Dungeons & Dragons. I would assume that they do, because what other purpose would TSR have had in publishing them beyond creating a potential new audience for its games? However, judging solely on the basis of the books' covers, they all look fairly generic. Their connection to D&D, if any, would seem to be limited.

TSR produced another series of "Pick a Path to Adventure" books – or should I say "Pick a Path to Romance and Adventure?" – the (in)famous HeartQuest series of fantasy romance novels. Unlike the other two series, I did know about these. I have a vague recollection of first seeing mention of them in the pages of Dragon, but, despite all my best efforts, I can find no evidence of this. In any case, I saw these in either Waldenbooks or B. Dalton sometimes in 1983 or '84 and had a strongly negative reaction to their existence. Their covers, reminiscent of the Harlequin romance books from the same time, certainly did nothing to endear them to me.

Like the Fantasy Forest series, HeartQuest does not seem to have been explicitly connected to Dungeons & Dragons, at least as far as branding goes. From what I've gathered, they're not actually bad books for what they are, though nothing special. I would imagine that they were another prong in TSR's attempts to expand the audience of their products (and thus their sales). Given that, unlike the Endless Quest books, which had several dozen titles, HeartQuest only had six, suggesting that, whatever its quality, they failed to achieve the goals TSR had set for them.  

I've sometimes jokingly called 1982–1984 the period when TSR was throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall in the vain hope that some of it might stick. The company certainly tried many different approaches to expanding its customer base to what appears to have been limited success. On the other hand, these book series may well have played a role in helping to build up the company's publishing division. That division would eventually prove very successful – so successful, in fact, that, by the 1990s, it would become the cart pulling the horse of TSR's fortunes. That's a story for a different day (and probably a different writer, since I don't know enough about its fine details). Still, it's always fascinating to look into the forgotten corners of the hobby's history like the "Pick a Path to Adventure" books.


  1. "Take note as well that first book in the series was written by Margaret Weis of Dragonlance fame"

    There are, of course, a number of us for whom that is far from a recommendation.

  2. At least in my locale back in the 80s, pretty much all of these adventure books (particularly the D&D related ones) were known and derided as "Friendless Quest" books, and carrying one to school was a fine way to be even more of a pariah than just playing D&D already qualified you for. It wasn't until Lone Wolf started showing up that any of them got much respect.

    The only stuff in this format that's ever impressed me were the Crossroads and Combat Command series and Nick Pollotta's Gamma World-based TSR books (supposedly a trilogy, but I've only ever seen the first two), which were aimed at kids but managed to entertain on the strength of his writing - he's the guy behind Illegal Aliens and the Bureau 13 novels among other things.

    The Crossroads series was a whole other kettle of fish, written for YA and adults and derived from existing literary scifi and fantasy sources. They were all novel tie-ins, some from rather big names, and notably include a book by Tom Wham set in de Camp & Fletcher's Compleat Enchanter universe. Plenty of info here:

    Combat Command was a shorter set of books, again based on literary sources, but with a more "wargame" feel to them, both in terms of subject matter and their mechanics, where you were usually tracking units of troops under your command as they went through a battle or campaign rather than the single character protags normally seen in these things. Again, more info here:

    As that site shows this is a deep rabbit hole to crawl into, and there may well be many other gems out there I've just never encountered.

    1. I have to admit, "Friendless Quest" is clever.

    2. Kids are often good at combining cruelty with cleverness, yes. :)

  3. I owned the "The Ring The Sword and The Unicorn" got it as a kid on a spring break trip based on it saying TSR and having Dragons in the title/on the cover and it being the closest thing to a D&D book in the bookstore.

    I don't remember a lot of specific other than even at the time I felt it was too juvenile for me and not really D&D, just generic fantasy. Realistically it was probably D&D influenced, but I was so young I wouldn't recognize tropes from D&D because I had grown up with fantasy being D&D. For example if the unicorn teleports I wouldn't see that as a D&D ism but just accept that's how unicorns work.

    I never bought another book in the series though because I was disappointed.

  4. I note that Fantasy Forest was also the name of their age-5-and-up board game from 1980. The Fantasy Forest book imprint was probably aimed at pre-teens.

  5. I assume that Heartquest cover is by Elmore, but it has a very strong Wendy Pini Elfquest vibe.

    I can only imagine the frenzy there must have been at TSR, circa 1980 or 81, when they realized they had a potentially real money maker on their hands. There must have been a real push to make hay while the sun was shining. That sort of urgency can also lead to overstretch, of course, as they soon found out.

    Does anyone remember the endless quest adaptations for the apple ii ( there might have been other platforms as well, but my school's computer lab used apples)?

  6. I think what drove me away from D&D (and TSR as a whole), and into the arms of a multitude of other games and companies, was the “Age of Cheese”. The cartoon, with the “Dungeon Master” and Bobby the 8-year old barbarian with a club, Frank Mentzer’s “Road to Godhood” companion set, Dragonlance, the Forgotten Realms, and for whatever reason, any of Larry Elmore’s artwork (with the Farah Fawcet warrior women and David Hasselhoff clerics….
    Ugh! What a horrible time. Of course, then WotC stepped-in and finished destroying the game.
    Thank God for the OSR….

  7. I have accumulated two of the three books pictured here.

  8. I had two "Fantasy Forest" books as a kid, "Keep of the Ancient King" (#2) and "Star Rangers and The Spy" (#6). Within the last few years I got "Ruins of Rangar " (#2) but haven't read it.

    They might have the TSR logo on them, but they don't have much to do with D&D, to my recollection ("Star Rangers" in particular is sci-fi). If anything, they're capitalizing on the popularity of "Choose Your Own Adventure" at the time and were, in my recollection, just another set of "imitation" CYOA books that I saw (and bought) as Scholastic book fairs. The art isn't as good and the story & choices aren't as compelling or memorable as the books Edward Packard wrote.

    These days such things aren't books - they're video games or "interactive novels". A bit of a shame, but that's why I have a nearly-complete set of CYOA novels sitting on the shelf that I occasionally pick up and read.