CYOA Structure: CYO-RPG

Eternal Quest. See QUEST, ETERNAL.

Quest, Eternal. See ETERNAL QUEST.

— Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

CYOA had a quite separate origin from modern RPGs, predating them in terms of invention though not as a commercial form. But they were both *cough* asymmetric participatory storytelling in a rule-bounded ludic structure, and once they had become widespread enough to notice each other, some kind of cross-pollination was pretty much inevitable.

Today, I’m going to be looking at three swords-and-sorcery CYOAs that are straightforwardly descended from fantasy RPG. Two of them are solo quests involving heavy state-tracking via a character sheet; these are what I think of as ‘gamebooks’. The third lacks character sheets, following a standard CYOA approach while attempting to emulate a classic RPG party.

citadelcoverThe Citadel of Chaos, Fighting Fantasy, Steve Jackson, 1983

The Fighting Fantasy books, brainchild of Games Workshop founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, embraced a grimy, fevered-adolescent style of Tolkien/Moorcock-derived high fantasy similar to GW’s. Their feel was strongly influenced by Games Workshop illustrators with an eye for heavy blocks of disturbing detail — like Ian Miller, an artist whose solo work makes H.R. Giger look chaste and well-adjusted. The stories are saturated with a revolted fascination at the (apparently) adult themes of sex, violence, cruelty, power and betrayal: women are by default seductive enchantresses, monsters are twisted with deformity and withered by age, and the world is out to get you. We’re plainly thinking about a slightly older, more male audience than Choose Your Own Adventure.

A central goal of these series, I suspect, was to get kids interested in fantasy RPG and wargaming at a lower level of investment, in terms of money, social connections and rule-learning, than was offered by dense rulebooks or expensive miniatures. I encountered Fighting Fantasy well before I came into contact with any RPGs, and they did a pretty good job of condensing its basic elements into something accessible (but not trivially so): read some rules, roll up a character, navigate a dungeon, kill things by rolling dice, take their stuff. The hero in Fighting Fantasy is largely uncharacterised; in theory he’s a wizard’s apprentice, but he functions more as an all-purpose adventurer, good with a sword but capable of a few useful spells. Like contemporary D&D, character creation was brutally unfair: rolling a 1 for the wrong stat could kybosh your entire play session.

I should confess that Citadel is the only Fighting Fantasy I own, and really that should be Citadelle because it’s in French translation. (I’ve played it in English, but long ago.) At various points it looks suspiciously as if the localisation work has gone beyond mere translation:

Sur des étagères s’alignent une douzaine de fromages différents dont l’odeur vous arrache une grimace: de toute évidence, certains d’entre eux sont beaucoup trop faits.

My French is good enough to follow what’s going on (though I have to look up phrases like ‘streaming with blood’ that didn’t come up much in secondary school) but decidedly not good enough to comment on style. Reading it in a second language, and reading every node of such a big work, is inevitably going to shape the experience; treat with caution.

Choose Your Own Adventure was always recognisably American — the clothes and haircuts, the geography, the over-earnest suburban kids. Even when it verged into fantasy or future-SF it usually made an effort to start out from a comfortingly familiar place, the better to build player-PC identification; they often spent considerable space on easing the transition. Citadel starts off deep inside its world, right as the real action is about to start. While CYOA generally embraced a mix of post-hippy tropes — future utopias, freaky UFOs, dolphins and non-absolutist ethics, blended with the bland MOR gumption of mid-C20th boys’ adventure — Fighting Fantasy was a punk/metal-styled rejection of those values, transforming fairies into imps, planting your feet on the ground and then stomping on your toes. If it acknowledges the moral landscape, it’s only in service of screwing with your head.

The Citadel of Chaos is basically a story about storming a castle and killing the evil wizard, Balthus the Terrible. There’s some gumf about the Valley of Willows and King Salamon and the High Enchanter of Yore, but you can promptly forget all of this.

The nodes don’t correspond to page numbers: there can be as many as four of them to a page. The effect is more like flipping between index cards than reading a book. This means that, while the page is often crowded with blocks of text, it never stops feeling like a CYOA; it also means that other threads are all but impossible to ignore. This may have something to do with the game’s paranoia and pedantry: the author always had to worry that the player had read this bit already, and so the stakes were raised to compensate.

citadelWhere the Cave of Time’s fragmentary randomness is benign or impersonal, Fighting Fantasy’s is an actively threatening Chaos, feeling precisely like the kind of nasty-minded GM who delights in laying cruel traps for his players. Some continuity is provided by an inventory and stats, but these are never really used to offset the fragmentary feel of things. You might find the Silver Key and then later find a good use for it — but you certainly won’t understand why you found the key there in the first place. It tends to feel like a series of random encounters in an old-school RPG; you go into a room, you confront whatever’s in there, you go to another room.

When you’re looking at the whole thing from above, though, it has a lot more by way of coherent structure.

The index-card approach allows for vastly more nodes: four hundred of the things in 190 pages. (Not all of these are part of the tree, strictly speaking: there’s an anti-cheating track, a set of nodes not connected to the main game that eventually kills you. I’m not mapping it.) Because of this, the game’s able to deal with individual situations in relatively complicated detail. Modular chunks, highly connected internally and bottlenecked at top and bottom, are the rule.

This is obviously not going to be easy to compare to smaller, stateless CYOAs. Other than sheer size, the most obvious distinction is that there’s only one winning ending, and no ambiguous ones (you’re on a Quest; no partial credit). The number of places you can lose the game, on the other hand, is much larger than it looks — there’s combat, and many other nodes deal automatic damage. Not all of the choices will actually be choices on every playthrough: if you don’t have a spell, the option to use it is not much of an option. It’s very clearly intended to be played many times before winning. Towards the endgame, you can only proceed if you have discovered the combination to a magic lock; the answer is found by reading a particular book in the library (node 238), which a random playthrough might find about one-tenth of the time.

The diagram isn’t organised by time so much as it is by geography; each encounter is tied to a physical location, and your adventure is very much a traversal of physical space. “Left or right?” is a common choice. You start out dealing with a gatehouse: once you’re past that, you enter a courtyard, which can be traversed in three different ways; these ways converge again when you reach the tower and have to get past another gatekeeper. (The attentive IF player will already have noted that this bottlenecks-and-open-spaces structure is a very traditional-IF-like way of controlling plot.) Once in the tower you’re again presented with three main tracks, plus a prison area that can take you from the centre and right-hand tracks and start you off again in the left-hand one. They merge again when you pass through the Great Hall and enter Balthus’ chambers; then there’s a three-split, then a two-split, and then the final battle. The danger level increases as you get further in — in terms of how many instant-death endings there are, and because your resources are more likely to be depleted. I should re-emphasize that it’s long: when you get to what you think is the endgame, you’ve still got three or four major encounters before you get to the boss-fight.

These tight little knots can make quite simple encounters seem like big involved challenges, which gives you more satisfaction when you overcome them but can make things kind of stressful. Often there’s only one route out of a cluster, and the important thing about one’s choices therein are not to do with plot, but rather whether you get damaged or have to waste inventory items. If you’re playing a FF game with scrupulous honesty, the most likely way to lose is to run out of resources (spells, hit points), so this is not a trivial difference in outcome; but it isn’t a hugely interesting one, story-wise. There are fewer total situations than the other CYOAs we’ve looked at, and less branching at that scale; this approach gives players more agency (in theory) about their handling of particular scenes, but considerably less when it comes to choosing the direction of the plot. (This is closer to the usual approach of IF and other computer-game narratives.)

A lot of these tightly-knotted choices are intentionally challenging (or nasty, if you’d prefer). You’re often given a choice of using three spells, one of which will help; the other two are useless or counterproductive and waste the spell. Several encounters are fake-outs, posing no real threat but potentially making you waste resources protecting yourself. Some of this might be intended to replicate the wide scope of choices available to an RPG player, but mostly it just comes across as hostile: “You want to cast Lightning Bolt? Okay, cross it off your sheet. It doesn’t work. Lose three hit points.” It builds paranoia and then punishes it: trust nobody, it says, but know that your mistrust will make you vulnerable or a monster. If Fighting Fantasy introduced a generation of GMs to fantasy roleplay, it has a lot to answer for.

It also means that a high proportion of the choices within a cluster are uninteresting ones: they amount to “that doesn’t work. Go back and try again,” or else “do you drink the red potion, the green potion or the blue potion?” One of their functions is to work as a sort of gamesmaster’s screen, concealing the world’s details until the player commits. At times, nodes are duplicated to prevent you figuring out that they’re the same as an earlier option. To me as an adult, having played a lot of relaxed-mechanics RPGs, this seems pedantic and obstructionist; as an adolescent, though, a substantial amount of my RPG energies were devoted to players trying to competitively metagame and GMs desperately trying to keep out-of-character information (that would inevitably be abused) away from them. It really does look to me, though, as if Citadel is straining against the limitations of paper CYOA: something that would be trivial in IF, CRPG, tabletop RPG or modern browser CYOA requires a big pedantic effort for pretty minimal reward in a gamebook. In IF, trying to do something that isn’t right can provide depth and amusement with a little non-costly setup. This is also true of computer CYOA; in paper CYOA the player has to waste time flicking through pages, and the author has to waste valuable space.

And IF authors tend to think in terms of writing as reward: wrong-but-entertaining is a really important category of action. FF doesn’t think of writing as reward: rewards are tangible in-game resources, to be handed out sparingly, and wrong-but-entertaining is only entertaining for theauthor. From a modern IF perspective, CYOA is where you go when you want to prioritise free-flowing, bigger-scale narrative over deep or difficult interaction; but this is not where Fighting Fantasy is coming from at all.

A lot of the reason for these repetitive or meaningless choices is coherence: with this many nodes, you need to be disciplined about pruning twigs to keep the action from sprawling out into an insane mare’s nest. And part of the reason why they’re boring is because the combat and spell mechanics, together with the geographic organisation, dictate a particular granularity of action which remains even when you’re not using them. Very likely some of it is just bloat to get the nodes up to a nice round number. Much of it, though, is about generating the illusion of broad-ranging possibility — something all narrative games struggle with, which is particularly hard for CYOA to accomplish, paper CYOA doubly so. This was a really new kind of problem, and it remains an imperfectly solved one, so it’s not surprising that FF flubs it so often: but in doing so, and making a lot of the dead-end or loop nodes boring and unrewarding, it ends up blaming its own failings on the player. In fact, a lot of the time the game seems to be making a joke out of the pointlessness of your choices. (Indeed, although the metaphor is Chaos, there’s a strong feel of Faerie here: the mean-spirited mischief, the treachery of appearances, cursed food. I suspect Chaos is just a word for Fairyland that’s acceptable to teenage boys.) But it’s not a particularly funny joke, and it’s a joke very much at the player’s expense.

There are a number of scenes which seem like a direct commentary on the game’s style, and on RPG in general: the russian-roulette gamblers, the massacre of the goblin children (they don’t pose a threat, but the player’s paranoid), the obnoxious leprechaun illusionist O’Seamus.

Nonetheless, in the same way that really wretchedly bad IF was still IF, Fighting Fantasy was still RPG-like: there was the sense that this could lead to something awesome, even if what you were actually playing right now was pretty crap. FF is easily the series I’ve been asked about most since I started doing this. And, far more than the following games, it has a style all its own.


flightcoverFlight from the Dark, Lone Wolf #1, Joe Dever, 1984

All the major CYOA lines of the 80s were dominated by a few prolific authors, but only one series was effectively carried by a single writer: Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. Many of Dever’s gamebooks are now available, for free and with Dever’s blessing, at Project Aon. You can play Flight from the Dark here. Lone Wolf wasn’t intended to promote anything except itself, and perhaps RPGs in general.

Dever spent some time working at Games Workshop shortly before writing Lone Wolf, so he was certainly aware of Fighting Fantasy; Lone Wolf can be thought of as a development of that system. As well as stats and inventory (with fiddly inventory limits), you can choose and develop skills like Animal Kinship and Mindblast (which, unlike the godawful FF spell system, don’t get expended when you use them). The combat system relies on a d10 — but if you weren’t already well-established in RPGs you’d be rather unlikely to own one, and you certainly wouldn’t have one handy if you happened upon this in, say, a school library. So Lone Wolf included the lamest RNG ever: close your eyes, stick a pencil in a table of numbers. Where FF combat was relatively simple, and not necessarily very well-balanced — both sides roll dice and add their skill, winner lands a blow — combat in Lone Wolf required you to roll and then check the results on a two-page table. (Get used to it, kids.)

Based around a recurring character, the books were conceived of as much more of a coherent sequence than FF. You could carry stats over from one book to the next in either system, but in Lone Wolf it mattered: there was more plot, items found in one book might do special things in another, and the character system was designed for long-term play. The titular hero rides a pyrotechnic power curve: he’s effectively a Shaolin monk, a Tolkienian ranger and a Jedi, and by the end of the series he’s the most tricked-out at everything that the world has ever known. Things are just slightly Mary-Sue, and there’s a definite fanfic quality about the whole thing, something of the enthusiastic craftlessness of make-believe games. This early on, though, he’s relatively vulnerable: he can take on the occasional big monster, but a gaggle of orcs Giaks can still represent a lethal threat.

The plot of Flight from the Dark starts out just after the Kai monastery has been burned to the ground by the Evil Guys as the first strike in a surprise invasion. (The Kai were the super-elite of the nation’s warriors, but for some reason every single one of them was in the same unprepared-for-defence building.) The acolyte initiate Lone Wolf, sole survivor of the attack, must make his way through the woods and countryside to tell the king that his finest troops are now charred wyvern food. So we’re both in very classic Tolkien mode and in a kung-fu revenge flick. While Citadel of Chaos and Pillars of Pentegarn have stories that in theory pertain to their wider setting, they’re basically uninterested in it; at heart they’re self-contained dungeons. Flight from the Dark is about a retreat through a forested war-zone to a capital city. There’s an Obligatory Fantasy Map. The pseudo-orcs have a conlang. There are big fat helpings of backstory:

In olden times, during the Age of the Black Moon, the Darklords waged war on Sommerlund. The conflict was a long and bitter trial of strength that ended in victory for the Sommlending at the great battle of Maakengorge. King Ulnar and the allies of Durenor broke the Darklord armies at the pass of Moytura and forced them back into the bottomless abyss of Maakengorge. Vashna, mightiest of the Darklords, was slain upon the sword of King Ulnar, called ‘Sommerswerd’, the sword of the sun. Since that age, the Darklords have vowed vengeance upon Sommerlund and the House of Ulnar.

If you fell asleep during the middle of that paragraph and would now summarise it as, “blah blah ringwraiths blah blah”, you’re in good company. Because of the ongoing Tolkienian worldbuilding, and because of the accumulation of powers over many books, Lone Wolf wasn’t easy to pick up mid-series. In theory you could play it from any point, but you’d be at a mechanical disadvantage and likely to feel rather lost. In other words, the series was set up to reward its more dedicated fans at the expense of casual players: a legitimate approach, but one that put me off the series as an adolescent.

There’s an obvious commonality with the art style, though LW is somewhat less grotesque and a bit more flattened and medieval-styled. The world, however, is notably lighter; there’s Cute Fuzzy Forest People, and a lot more good-guy characters in general. In FF the primary interest lies in traps and monsters; in LW it’s the hero’s awesome powers and the noble warriorness of his supporting cast. There are glimpses of an ethics beyond paranoid individualism, even if they’re not very consistently applied; if you fail to protect some refugee kids then, enh, whatever, but if you fail to protect Prince Pelathar then you die — as much for flubbing an obvious cue for a grand heroic moment as anything, I think. C’mon, kid, you can metagame better than that.

The monsters in Fighting Fantasy tend to be one-of-a-kind freaks: a sentient whirlwind woman, the Dog-Monkey and the Monkey-Dog, the vengeful ghost of a cursed laundress. Flight‘s attitude is that you can’t go wrong with a steady diet of orcs, worgs and wyverns (even if it doesn’t call them that). There are a few unique monsters, but they’re not anything like as weird. This adds to the feeling that you’re in an actual world rather than a bad acid trip. There are a lot more trustworthy allies; there’s a definite hint of FF-style paranoia, but the issue’s generally “are these friends or enemies?”, not “are these enemies or really obnoxious neutrals?” There are a fair number of grotesque and evil humans (particularly in the city; S&S cities are obliged to be cesspools of iniquity) but there’s no shortage of unambiguous white-hats, bathed in the heroic elfin glow that Tolkien reserved for doomed warriors. (I don’t know whether there are any literal elves in Magnamund, but all the good guys seem suspiciously like half-elves with bobbed ears.) Lone Wolf is all about the big heroic crescendo, the bit where you march into the battle’s heart to save the Prince, or receive the applause of the royal court. (FF is about making it through hell alive; you might save the world in the process, but you won’t care much.)

Citadel has a number of female characters, portrayed as capricious, dangerous and unknowable (which is, to be fair, true of most of the FF world). Flight from the Dark has none at all; it’s more interested in idealised men. The military framing may be part of the reason for this: the chaos of the retreat feels very much like something from a modern war, a guerilla rearguard action against a broad-front invasion, with enemy aircraft buzzing overhead.

The game’s declaration about its difficulty level looks very much like a commentary on FF, where rolling a 1 for Combat Skill was pretty much a guarantee of an early grave.

There are many routes to the King, but only one involves a minimum of danger. With a wise choice of Kai Disciplines and a great deal of courage, any player should be able to complete the mission, no matter how weak their initial COMBAT SKILL or ENDURANCE points score.

lonewolfSlightly smaller than Citadel at 350 nodes, but it’s got some obvious similarities: a single winning node on the very last page, a branch-and-bottleneck structure. It’s a lot less keen on literal bottlenecks: apart from the first and last, no nodes are mandatory (though you do have to pass through either 142 or 153, which are functionally the same thing and share almost all their text).

The structure is geography-based again, but where Citadel is a series of discrete rooms, Flight starts as a tangled forest, divided roughly into two sprawling, bushy branches with a lot of internal connections. This changes to a more linear open-road sequence, with two parallel tracks, then to three somewhat more complicated routes, and finally to a small but tangled city section. (The city can be skipped entirely, counterintuitively, by getting knocked out in one of the branches of the penultimate section.) Its organisation is a lot more variable than Citadel of Chaos; it looks as if Dever’s experimenting as he goes along. Sometimes it’s obvious when you’re at a major fork (at the end of the two-roads section), and sometimes it’s not (on the very first node).

No-choice jumps are used at several points to suggest the feeling of travel and of passing time. Again, this is a much more directly Tolkien-reliant story than Citadel; a key component of Tolkien-style worldbuilding is the texture of journeys through the land. Many of the left-right choices are phrased in terms of cardinal directions, which means that, in combination with the map, they’re often not as arbitrary as they look. They’re still pretty bad a lot of the time, though:

If you have the Kai Discipline of Tracking, turn to 301.

If you wish to take the south path, turn to 27.

If you wish to take the west path, turn to 214.

The left-or-right choice is usually crap, but this raises the stakes on crapulence by having the third option be a dead-end (go back and try again), and the first option reveal that the third option is a dead-end (take the second option). Its only purpose is to show that Tracking is useful (except that here it’s not), as padding, as illusion-of-agency and to build the sense of travel… okay, I’m not sure I can justify ‘only’ there. Still, annoying.

While action is generally directed at the same kind of scale as in FF, play tends to flow a lot more smoothly. Perhaps some of this is because the setting is mostly in open woods, rather than the bounded world of a fortress; “evade and keep going” works a lot more easily when you’re outdoors. But probably more important is that FF makes spells/items optional, expendable and fallible, whereas in LW you will only be prompted to use a skill when it’s going to work (and if it doesn’t work, you’ll be told so without a jump). This saves an awful lot of dickering around in the same situation and makes things run more easily — it’s going with the flow of CYOA, rather than wrestling with the medium in an attempt to replicate the kind of trial-and-error decision-making you’d do in an RPG (or IF, for that matter). On the other hand, this means that less of the player’s time is spent dealing with encounters, and more with decisions of the left-or-right kind.

In general, though, LW skills are a much kinder mechanism than FF spells. FF spells are generally useless, except when you need them to save your life (at which point you’ve probably already wasted them on something useless). LW skills are always available and typically give you more information or special opportunities. (Information gained in earlier threads is important in both series, but LW is considerably more open-handed with it.) This to some degree compensates for the higher demands that Lone Wolf makes in terms of story and setting, but it also ties in to the feeling of mastery that the series is centrally concerned with. Finishing a book in the series entitles you not just to extra skills, but to a shiny new title in the Kai rank system. (Since every other Kai is dead and you eventually exceed the level of any Kai in history, this feels rather like awarding yourself medals that you invented.)

Oddly enough, the endgame is basically the easiest part of the entire game; it’s quite possible to march through it without ever encountering a real challenge, and the threats you do face are either low-risk or allow you generous opportunity for evasion.


pillarscoverPillars of Pentegarn, Endless Quest #3, Rose Estes, 1982

So while random Brits were churning out CYOA in the D&D idiom, what was the mothership doing? Taking similar material in a direction that looks kind of misguided and embarrassing in retrospect, although at the time it probably seemed reasonable.

The first Endless Quest books, including this one, were published the same year as the first Fighting Fantasy, Warlock of Firetop Mountain, but they seem to be unrelated. FF was a British series and may not even have made it to the States by then, and their basic approach is totally different. TSR had the same basic aim as Games Workshop, however: introduce children to high-fantasy RPGs with a lower-investment gamebook. But they were aiming at distinctly younger children, probably ones who were already reading CYOA. It might seem that in the more moral-panic-prone United States TSR was being cautious; more likely, it was because Endless Quest was the product of their brand-new educational department, trying to break into the school market (and advertise D&D therein). It should surprise nobody that a series designed by a committee for schools turned out to be less distinctive than one written by the company founders or by an independent game designer; Pillars of Pentegarn manages to combine a total lack of educational content with a story that’s dull, formulaic and patronising. (This made it a perfect choice for schools, and by all accounts the series did quite well.)

While a great many of them were published, the Endless Quest books never earned as much enthusiasm as FF or Lone Wolf. Part of this is because they’re bland; that title is a paradigm of meaningless fantasy alliteration. (Why do we have these big pillars everywhere? So that the title works.) But a big part of it is has to be that they didn’t include character creation, combat mechanics or state-tracking: instead, they just tried to introduce the world/story concepts of fantasy RPG without the mechanics. With very few exceptions, fantasy RPG worlds tend to be kind of lame once you remove the RPG part. (A few years later TSR added more complex mechanics with Super Endless Quest, later changed to the catchy Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Gamebooks.)

The lack of a game-system is symptomatic: Pillars of Pentegarn is aiming at kids several years younger than would normally be playing D&D, and it seems generally confused about what it’s doing. It’s set in a friendly, rounded font similar to the one used by Choose Your Own Adventure, but it’s laid out like a normal paperback. Instead of an overpowered champion, you’re put in the shoes of gender-ambiguous-but-male-default Jaimie, and frequently reminded that you’re a child. Heroic RPGs are heavily reliant on the fact that they’re fantasies of being a cool, competent adult, and it’s sort of strange that TSR failed to realise this. You start out surrounded by friends Fox, Owl and Tree: these seem intended to smooth the path between childhood animal-fantasy and adolescent heroic-fantasy, but they sort of get in the way of the latter. (Even counting familiars, talking animal sidekicks do not generally form a major component of D&D; in fact, they’re notorious for not working very well.) The art is mediocre and bland, without much of a fantasy sensibility. (I’m not just talking about the absence of antigravity chainmail bikinis, either.)

To make the heroic-adventure thing work, you’re teamed up with Female Elf Thief Lydia, Human Warrior Baltek and Wizard/Lost Monarch Pentegarn. Lone Wolf and FF would occasionally pair you up with a recurring character or a sidekick, but in general their worlds were isolated and lonely, one guy and his backpack against the world. But a central part of the fun of RPGs lies in party dynamics — which is why two players and a GM is really the minimum requirement for a good session. Pillarstries to replicate some of the banter and conflict, but does a profoundly lame, trope-reliant job of it. (Flame-haired thief is greedy and duplicitous! Warrior is straightforward and not very bright! They squabble but actually fancy each other!) The focus throughout is on introducing basic character templates, not developing or elaborating upon them or even trying to do them particularly well. There are attempts to pep this up with swaggering comic-relief Fox and prim-scholarly Owl; this is pretty by-the-numbers, full of what adults imagine schoolyard lingo to be like, and none of it really fits in alongside the Tolkienian return-of-the-king, sacrifice-of-Boromir stuff.

I should stress that even attempting this party-dynamic thing is really unusual for CYOA: in Choose Your Own Adventure you’ll commonly acquire a sidekick or a temporary ally, and there’s often a supporting cast, but being alone is the default state and reversion to it is never surprising. Even the romance games I discussed previously, which are centrally about social relationships, mostly depict the protagonist as moving easily between different groups rather than having an established, unquestionable set of friends. Pillars has five friendly NPCs in frame for the overwhelming majority of the story. If you lose them then they’re either coming back very soon or the game’s about to end. It’s really kind of a shame that it’s not a stronger attempt.

Since you’re an untrained child in a group of skilled adults, there’s a great deal of the Parent Problem: if you have a child hero, you need a reason why they drive the action and the parents don’t. A child with present, attentive, supportive, capable parents will by definition not have adventures, because adventures are dangerous, their outcomes are important, and adults call the shots. The game seems aware of this, and there’s a steady trickle of contrived and vague reasons to make you feel useful, which generally follow hobbit patterns (innocent heart, little grabby hands) but never really feel convincing.

“What does my decision count?” you ask. “I’m just a kid who happened to come along.”
“Nothing just happens, Jaimie. Nothing is ever really an accident. There is a grand destiny to our world, and your arrival was no chance happening.”

Later it turns out that you’re Pentagarn’s great-grandson and the heir to the throne and thus Special, but this always comes right at the end and feels, like most Chosen One plots, like a total cop-out. (Again: Chosen Ones and hidden-monarch PCs are not part of the usual language of D&D. The entitlement in D&D’s all the aristo-meritocracy kind: I earned this artefact of godlike power, dammit.)

To be fair, in 1982 D&D was only eight years old: there simply weren’t very many people who had played it in their teens and then grown up enough to really understand what had been going on. As with many CYOA authors, this was Estes’ first published book, and she had to churn the stuff out.

pentegarnAw man, this begins with an example of the worst choice ever: the first-turn Do You Want To Go On This Adventure Y/N choice. Guys: never do this, okay? It’s only legit as a joke, and the joke has been done.

This is quite a small diagram even when compared to non-RPG CYOA, but structurally speaking it does quite a lot within a very limited space. 49 nodes, 10 endings (2 good, 4 bad, 4 mixed/ambiguous), 11 no-choice jumps, 28 choices. The most direct routes to the two winning endings are 8 and 10 nodes long, but actual playthroughs could be considerably longer. Apart from the big 4-way branch towards the top, all the choices are binary.

There are two main branches, forking at 24-31 when you decide whose plan to go with. Lydia’s and Pentegarn’s are both routes into the left-hand branch, which is heavily interconnected and doesn’t have any obvious clusters; Pentegarn’s route is somewhat easier, but it’s possible to move from one to the other. Baltek’s path, centre-right, guarantees a losing or win-at-great-cost ending; you can still defeat the Evil One, but Pentegarn will be killed in the process. You can get from Lydia’s path to Baltek’s (or Pentegarn->Lydia->Baltek), but once you’re in Baltek’s path there’s no way out. These transitions are not obvious from the text.

The path on the far right (in which you choose your own way, or rather ask Pentegarn for another idea) is considerably smaller and simpler; you have a couple of opportunities to go back to the fork and go down another branch, but there are no other connections between the them. Stay on the right branch, however, and you’ll wander around a ruined castle and never meet a monster or similar dramatic challenge until you reach the Evil One, where you’ll be guaranteed an optimal ending. There is clearly some sort of a Moral here, possibly about peer pressure or making your own way in the world or something, but the delivery’s off.

This isn’t really the sort of medium in which that that kind of message can be convincingly delivered. Rejecting artificial dilemmas or question-begging isn’t really possible in CYOA, because your questions are always framed for you, and because this is conspicuous. In an RPG, players can concoct genuine alternative solutions: in IF or CRPG, alternative solutions can be concealed such that players have to work in that general direction in order to find them, giving them more of a sense of ownership than if the choice had just been presented. Computer CYOA can do this a little bit, but on paper it just doesn’t work. The structure of a medium shapes the kinds of content it can effectively convey.

All of the final confrontations with the Evil One are choiceless: you win or lose within a single node depending on how you got there. (In the right-hand path, you’re actively involved in the victory and get to be king; the left-hand victory is mostly about Pentegarn, with you becoming his heir.) I probably don’t need to go into how awful this is as game design; see Emily on set-pieces if you want an in-depth approach.

One of the game’s basic problems is that there are a number of state-like things to track: which of your party members are still alive, which of the McGuffins you’ve captured. Mostly it deals with this by loading the big changes towards the end, but there are some problems: you can find the Ring of Spell Turning or the Cube of Mystic Forces in Pentegarn’s track, then switch over to Lydia’s or Baltek’s. The cube will immediately get stolen (not specifically; it’s assumed to be lost along with all of Pentegarn’s gear), but the ring just never gets mentioned again. On the other hand, if you find an artefact and stay in the Pentegarn track, you automatically find the other one and defeat the big bad. This is plainly not an approach that can scale very well, either in terms of longer plots or more fine-grained control.

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4 Responses to CYOA Structure: CYO-RPG

  1. Pingback: » Nine Princes in Amber The Digital Antiquarian

  2. Pingback: Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games | These Heterogenous Tasks

  3. Don Alsafi says:

    Coming to this post four years later, I see – but fascinating analysis all around!

    One thing though. Re Citadel of Chaos, you say:

    (Not all of these are part of the tree, strictly speaking: there’s an anti-cheating track, a set of nodes not connected to the main game that eventually kills you. I’m not mapping it.)

    I actually really wish you HAD mapped it so I could tell which section you were speaking about (as I have not expectation that you recall at this late date). Because I got this book as a child, along with many other FFs, and have read it many many times – and can tell you that there is in fact no anti-cheating track at all!

    So I wonder if this was a matter of there being an error in a cited section that you didn’t realize (for instance, the text telling you to turn to 243 when it actually meant 234), or something getting similarly botched up during the French translation. Having played through (and mapped!) the game many times as a kid, though, I can definitely tell you all the paths were real! 🙂

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