Sunday, November 4, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure!

If you grew up in the 80s or early 90s, chances are you are familiar with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. They were incredibly popular when I was a kid, much like the Goosbumps books were for a later generation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the CYOA books, I'll give you the basic idea:

Each book contains a story in which the reader is the main character.  You might be a detective, a spy, an astronaut, or just a plain kid, but the action is always related to you as if you were actually there. Throughout the narrative, you will be asked to make choices, and the choices you make actually change outcome of the story.

Lets say your character is a parapsychologist exploring a haunted house.  The book might give you an opportunity to explore the basement (which is filled with zombies), the parlor (haunted by the ghost of a kindly little old lady), or the attic (where an evil sorcerer lives).

Each choice you make leads to a different outcome, and there are usually about 20 possible endings for each book.  Some endings allow you to achieve one or more goals.  Some endings leave you disappointed, but lucky to be alive.  Some endings have you eaten to death by hungry, basment-dwelling zombies.

If this sounds an awful lot like a role playing game, that's because it IS an awful lot like a role playing game. In particular because the second person point of view resembles that of a traditional pencil and paper RPG, with the author acting as the DM.

TSR even made a series of official D&D-themed adventures in the same format.  In more recent years, the term gamebook has been coined to describe books of this type, reflecting a shift in the perception of the readers where they have gone from being viewed as literature to being thought of as a type of solo RPG.

The most successful line of these gamebooks was the Choose your Own Adventure series. And it was always my personal favorite as well.

I remember seeing Deadwood City around a friends house, and being kind of baffled by the concept.  The cover said that you could "choose from over 20 exciting endings" or somesuch, but the artwork was wonky and the idea seemed a little silly to me.  Plus, I didn't really like cowboys when I was a kid.  I was all about monsters, and aliens, and robots.

When I stumbled across The Cave of Time, however, I was much more intrigued. 

I was probably about 8 when I discovered this book sitting on my couch (where my brother had carelessly left it), and I instantly recognized the CYOA brand. But this time it wasn't cowboys... it was time travel.  And the cover was just awesome.  The illustration featured a creepy guy in armor, a kid riding a horse past a castle, a Chinese guy with a spear, a dinosaur, and a dragon.  I had to read this book!

And it changed my life forever.

This was the book that taught me how much fun reading could be.  Up to this point, the stories we read in school were pretty damned boring. I suppose they were dumbed down to make them easier to read, but it ended up making them boring, too.

But the CYOA books were different.  They were surprisingly adult.  Almost every book contains gratuitous violence, grisly deaths, and horror elements.  These books were so much cooler than the politically correct drivel that the schools were giving us, because they weren't afraid to be dark or scary or deal with more adult themes.

I soon began reading every CYOA book that I could get my grubby little paws on, and then the Narnia books.  When those ran out, I started on my mom's Stephen King books.  According to the tests at school, I was reading at a college level in elementary school. In fact, a lot of stuff I read in elementary school showed up again in my high school and college classes.

But during my elementary school years, the CYOA books were my favorite series.  I kept coming back, time and time again, because I could get a different story every time I read through the books.

I remember bringing a stack of 20 CYOA books to church and reading them throughout the long sermons, to keep myself entertained.  The adults were always a little surprised to see a little kid lugging a big stack of books around, so I'd always have to explain the concept (and a lot of them never quite got it).

By the time I got to Jr High school, I'd read my set of books hundreds of times. So when I was finally introduced to the D&D game, I recognised a lot of the same principles shared between the CYOA books and the concept of a role playing game.

As a DM, I frequently borrowed plot hooks, or interesting story elements from the CYOA books to use in my own campaigns.  And after awhile, I finally just sat down, plotted out flowcharts for each book, and started raiding my favorite books wholesale for anything of value.  I ended up with a an elaborate mess of notes that was eventually stored away and forgotten.

So when I discovered all my old gaming notes a few days ago, these notes were one of the things I was surprised to find.  They were filed alongside the rest of my insprational notes, but unfortunately, I couldn't make much sense of the notes because I didn't remember all of the little details those notes referred to.  Even worse, I didn't note down which notes corresponded to which books.

And just in case that wasn't enough, it was jumbled in with notes from movies, TV shows, modules, Dungeon magazine adventures, and all sorts of other ideas I'd accumulated over the years.  There are pages and pages of notes.  Tons of them.  It's a horrifying mess, and I'm trying to reconstruct my notes like an archaeologist by analyzing and sorting everything into a coherent whole.

So I've dug out my old Choose Your Own Adventure books, in hopes that I can separate and isolate those notes from the rest.  As part of that effort, I'll be doing the occasional CYOA book review.

As an old-school gamer, I think these are an under-appreciated part of the old-school gamer culture, and I'd love to introduce them to a new generation, or encourage the folks that have them to dig them out again and see what all the fuss was about.  It wouldn't hurt to share them with your kids, either...

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