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Once Upon A Time:
Choosing My Own Adventure

By Jody MacGregor

In which the author discuss the early influences which slowly seduced him into a life of role-playing


I started my role-playing career in the time-honoured fashion: with Tolkien, at the age of eight. From there, I moved on to those solo gamebooks, and first and foremost with the Zork books, published by Infocom. They were standard pick-a-path fare, with the addition of a scoring system to rate your progress in the land of Frobozz. Each story ended in the same way - "Your score is 10 points out of a possible 10 points. Congratulations! You would make a fine adventurer."

The Zork computer games still exist. You can download some of them here

Sure, they were simplistic. The main characters, Bill and June, were two school children who find themselves magically transported to Zork and transformed into Bivotar and Juranda the adventurers. You can almost hear the villains muttering, "If it wasn't for those pesky children -" already, can't you? Many of the puzzles were ripped right out of the text-based computer games that inspired them. Still, without these books, I would never have progressed on to Fighting Fantasy.

The Fighting Fantasy books were published by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, responsible for White Dwarf, among other things. Not White Dwarf the glossy, over-priced Games Workshop commercial, but the original generic mag, with new monsters for AD&D alongside Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Getting back to Fighting Fantasy, I have been surprised at just how many other gamers have fond memories of those books - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Portal of Evil, Forest of Something Ominous Which I've Forgotten, and so on.

Fans of the old White Dwarf might like to sift through the embers of those glory days at this this site

The Fighting Fantasy books built on the pick-a-path model by adding dice rolls for combat and situations that required luck or agility. I assume that everyone else, like me, gave up on the combat rules after the first few battles and just skipped to the next bit. I always kept my fingers wedged in pages with important decisions on them, so that I could retrace my steps if taking the left-hand path through the Forest of Something Right On The Tip Of My Tongue resulted in my nameless hero's death. By the end, I often had so many fingers jammed in the pages that I lost my place, thus quickly invalidating the whole process.

I played various similar gamebooks throughout my misspent youth, until I got my grubby hands on HeroQuest. Moving that little elf around the board, it seemed as though I had almost found a substitute for trilogies with dragons on the covers.

Shortly afterwards, a local computer game store branched out into a Games Workshop franchise. I went in to pick up a copy of Advanced HeroQuest, and left a member of the local wargaming club. The group was mostly made up of middle-aged firemen and members of the Army Reserve who played Battletech and Warhammer Fantasy Battles. I attended the first meeting, with my stepfather hovering in the background to make sure nothing Satanic went on. I had an avid discussion about the Imperial Fist Space Marines with a biker who played 40K. I decided to try a High Elf army, because they seemed the most Tolkienesque.

But wargaming never gave me quite what I was after. Too much competitiveness, to many rule loopholes. Instead I bought a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Role-play. For my guinea pigs, I chose some fellow high school wargaming geeks.

There is more on WFRP in this issue.

I ran the Oldenhaller Contract adventure in the back of the book. It was a standard hunt the cultists/find the magic widget scenario. As a first-time GM, I had no idea what I was doing. I read out some box-text, rolled a lot of dice and role-played NPC's badly, but somehow we had fun anyway. The players killed the cultists, and pulled off some Indiana Jones style stunts in a mine cart. And by the end of it, we were all roleplayers.

One of the players tried to explain the critical hit system to his father. He left under the impression that we hacked up the miniatures whenever we got an appropriate result. He was only there to check that we weren't up to anything Satanic anyway.

Eventually I educated my players in the ways of GMing, and had a chance to watch them make similar mistakes. One of them let us play orcs and goblins, and was surprised when we didn't form a cohesive party or follow the plot. Another walled off a section of the setting we weren't supposed to explore with a wall of thorns. We then spent the rest of the evening fascinated by it:

"I set fire to it!"
"I try to dig underneath it!"
"I walk all the way around it!"

Despite a few years of roleplaying since, I still consider those old Zork adventures my first roleplaying experience. To this day, whenever I get handed a few bonus XP for something particularly clever or creative, I hark back to those days - "Your score is 10 points out of a possible 10 points. Congratulations! You would make a fine adventurer."

Jody MacGregor is neither female nor Scottish. He was a contributor to Australian Realms magazine, but they closed down the very issue his first feature article was due to be published, which led to his current bitter and twisted state of mind.

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