Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gamebooks for Dummies

This post was inspired by all of you who stumbled upon my blog during the A to Z challenge and said that you knew nothing about gamebooks.  In the interest of being inclusive, I have written a little primer of what gamebooks are.  I have split it into structure and style.

Prologue - fancy a snack?

What shall I have today?
We al know how vending machines work.  You go to one when you fancy some snack or a drink, we put our money into the machine punch in the code for what we want and out it comes.

In this situation, you have a choice of delights from a limited selection and to make your choice, you need to give the machine a number or a number-letter combination.

This means that you could have a mars bar one day and crisps (potato chips) the next day.  However, vending machines do not usually sell legs of roast lamb, so you can't have one of those (more's the pity.)

However, some may see this as a good thing.  Vending machines only offer a limited number of things which means that you won't be there forever, suffering from overchoice.

We've all been to a vending machine.  We may also have some hilarious tales of vending machine experiences such as pushing the wrong code which led to paying 60p to watch the holder twist around or having to reach up and grab a chocolate bar that had wedged itself between the glass and the products.

Oh, vending machine, we love thee.

I promise you, this has something to do with gamebooks.

Gamebook structure

So how are gamebooks structured?  First, I'll describe how novels are structured.  With a novel, you start at page 1, read the paragraphs from the top to the bottom of the page and read the pages in sequence.  The story should make sense from that sequence.  I know the writer may decide to put the middle or end of the story on page 1 or skip through time, but they intend for you to read the novel in the order of pages 1,2,3 etc  (unless you're like me who likes the read the ending first.)

Page from my gamebook,
Left for Dead (click here
for a larger image)

Gamebooks are different.  You do not read the pages in order and you do not read the paragraphs in order.  Instead, the paragraphs are numbered and you are told which paragraph to start from (it is usually paragraph 1 but it does not necessarily have to be.)

The paragraph will give you a description of your situation (gamebooks are one of the few books to write in the second person) and  then you are presented with a choice and a paragraph number to turn to depending on what your choice is.

You then turn to that paragraph, read what the consequences of your actions are and then you have to make another choice.  Each choice has a paragraph number to turn to.  You turn to that paragraph, read about the consequences of you actions and so on.

The vending machine
got owned.
You will be given an aim at the beginning of the book - a way to win the game element of the gamebook.  What you have to do is discover the correct sequence of choices that leads you to the winning paragraph.

And that's the premise of gamebooks.  They are the vending machines of literature.  Each paragraph gives you

a limited number of choices and you need to use a number to show your choice.  However, if you get the right sequence of choices, then you win a big prize.  However, some sequences of choices mean that you will lose the game part of the book.

It's like buying a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, a snickers bar and a coke in that order from the vending machine and it then gives you all of its snacks because you ordered the correct items in the correct order.  However, if you accidently press 60 when it is empty, then you get nothing and lose.  FAIL.

Here's an example 10 paragraph gamebook where the aim is to find the perfect blog.  Start at paragraph 1.


It's 3am in the morning and you have sifted through a ton of rubbish on the internet.  You've seen all the ninja cat videos and keyboard cat videos on Youtube, read all of the reviews on Den of Geek! and read all of the articles on Cracked.  It's all too much and you want to find some real quality on the web.  If you decide to go to Blogger, turn to 2.  If you decide to Facebook, go to 3.


Blogger is full of great blogs but there are too many to choose from!  You kept on adding blogs at a whim and now you are following over hundred blogs on a wide range of topics.  How will you find some good quality blogs like this?  If you decide to give up and go to Facebook, turn to 3  If you click on the first blog in the list, turn to 4.  .


There is not much new on facebook.  Most of your friends have gone to bed so there has only been one update from a friend in another time zone.  Desperate for something good, you click on the groups page of facebook to see what they have to offer.  If you click on a group called Fabled Lands, turn to 5.  If you click on a group called Keyboard Cat, turn to 6.


The first blog in the list is a blog called Adventures and Shopping.  Its last post is talking about how today is Free RPG Day and that there are many great free RPG products online.  If you decide to look at all of these great products, turn to 7.  If you decide to click on another blog, turn to 8.


This group describes a really intriguing series of gamebook where you explore a huge world and go off on many adventures to earn fame and fortune.  However, you have to pay for them and Amazon does not have an 'immediately teleport this item to you' option so you can't play them now.  If you explore this group further, turn to 9.  If you go to the Keyboard Cat group, turn to 6.  If you have not already done so, you could explore the blogosphere (turn to 2)


The familiar cat stares at you with its hypnotic gaze and its happy tune.  You cannot help but read all of the comments and discussions in the group until you pass out three hours later from sheer intellectual numbness.  Your adventure ends here.


There are plenty of great free RPGs to look at but since you have no one to play with, you lose interest in them pretty quickly.  However, you then come to a link to a blog called Lloyd of Gamebooks and click on the link.  Turn to 10.


This the next blog is an account of how many ants someone saw on the pavement outside their house when they left it to go to work.  There is a post for every day for the last six years with nothing but a number on it.  After an hour of looking at these numbers and trying to discern a pattern to them, your brain shuts down to prevent it exploding in protest.  In a few hours, you will wake up with a splitting headache.  Your adventure ends here.  


After going down the comments list, you come across a link to a blog called Lloyd of Gamebooks.  You click on the link.  Turn to 10.


Congratulations!  You have found an entertaining* blog with free gamebooks.  You enjoy reading it for the remainder of the evening and your consciousness expands so that you gain an understanding of the workings of the universe**.

However, a lot of gamebooks have more elements than simply taking a choice every paragraph (see below.)  For simple gamebooks that follow the above premise look at the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks.

Gamebook style

Modern setting
The settings and story of gamebooks could cover anything.  There are modern day settings, historic settings, horror settings futuristic settings, comic book settings, sci fi settings and fantasy settings.

Choose your Own Adventure books tend to go for modern day (at least at time of writing) or historical settings with some elements of scifi and fantasy thrown in.  However, almost all other gamebooks cover fantasy settings with only a few scifi, horror and modern day settings.

Fantasy setting
I think (although I have no proof) that this stems from the fact that most tabletop RPGs are fantasy settings and gamebooks were playing to that market.  Some RPGs have solo adventures using their rules.  Tunnels and Trolls has several of these.  

The Maelstrom RPG  sourcebook also has a short solo adventure presumably with the aim of showing the referee how the rules of the game play out.

Historical or fantasy
setting (depending on
the rules you use)
On a side note, the Maelstrom solo adventure has the shortest path to a successful ending.  It tells you at the beginning that you need to be an assassin to play the game.  If you choose another class, then on paragraph 1, it tells you that you are travelling on a path and that if you are not an assaiss to go to another paragraph.  You are then told that you get home safely without incident.  A one paragraph win!  What a result!

Other gamebooks have simplified RPG systems such as the Fighting Fantasy series (which uses three to six characteristics and two six sided dice) and the Virtual Reality series (which does not use dice but the character has life points and a choice of skills)

If you are already familiar with tabletop role playing games, then a gamebook is just like a tabletop RPG where the referee is the book.

If you want to play some gamebooks straight away, you can download my gamebooks from this blog.

There are now plenty of gamebooks that you can play electronically without flipping to numbered paragraphs in a book.  For a list of these, go to my post about technology in gamebooks.  

If you have any more questions, please ask in a comment.

*I hope.

**Reading this blog is unlikely to give you an understanding of the workings of the universe.  I'm not saying its impossible; just don't get annoyed if it doesn't happen.

Extra note:  In my last post, I criminally neglected the great Lone Wolf website,  I criminally neglected it because Joe Dever has very generously made almost all of the Lone Wolf books free from the site!  Please go over there to check it out.


  1. Hello!
    A nice explanation of how does a Gamebook works!
    Keep the good job!


  2. Thnks Ikaros. Keep up the commenting. I love comments :).

  3. Thanks for the clear explanation! Back when eBooks were on 5 1/4 floppy disks, I was sent a free one that was a romance spoof using hyperlinks to take you from your choice to the consequence. Loads of fun, and so silly I played through every possible permutation, laughing all the way.

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes