Tuesday, December 1, 2015

L is for Lone Wolf

Cover of the editions of Caverns of Kalte that I had. 
a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

Sometime in late 1984 (long after I had been introduced to D&D via the Elmore red box and had played several Fighting Fantasy gamebooks numerous times) I was travelling with my family and at a Motorway rest stop paused to peruse a rack of books.

At the time, it was rare to find SFF novels on those racks - they were usually cheapo romances or horror novels, but there was occasionally a fun-looking title and they were also most definitely not the sort of books you came across in ordinary book stores or in the library.  The romances were too tame to engage teenaged me (come on, it was 1984) but I learned quickly that the pulp horror novels in Motorway shops or by the till when you stopped for fuel were a cheap and easy way to kill some hours on a long trip even if it wasn't my usual choice of reading material.

This is how (for example) I came to own copies of those classics The Rats, Lair[1] and Slugs [2], it was where I usually bought Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and on this occasion it was how I discovered Lone Wolf.

FF gamebooks will always be the "home cooking" of solo RPG play for me, if only because the world they painted was so vivid and wide open.  But I'll have to say that when I picked The Caverns of Kalte up on a whim during that trip it blew me away.

Oh, I died terribly and often - these books don't work very well as stand-alones, because there's a coherent narrative that spans the series - and that caused frustration that led to me putting the book down early on and forgetting about it for a while.

But when I came back a few weeks later on a rainy afternoon and tried to play it seriously at the kitchen table I was hooked.  The publication quality was high, I remember, and the mechanics were more sophisticated than FF, but the big thing was this world and this character.  The FF world was vivid, sure, but like a Heavy Metal cartoon.  Lone Wolf felt finer grained, silkier.  There was a richness there that I couldn't put my finger on.

Sadly, the Lone Wolf series was hard to find in the areas I found myself in after that, and I never did see books 1 and 2, but I did end up owning several of them (3 and 7 I remember, but I'm not sure about the others) and played them several times.

It was frustrating, not having a coherent series - you can really tell that the books are designed to "snap together" into a storyline - but they were very satisfying to play when an actual RPG session wasn't possible, in ways that the FF books couldn't achieve.

These books, more than any other "choose your own" series, made me think about how these sorts of games are designed and the effort that goes into them.  I'd played with text adventures before [3] but this sort of brought it to the next level.  This wasn't just an information space of you could explore at random to solve a kind of "locked room" puzzle - in the Lone Wolf books each book was a space for exploration, but in addition to letting you explore as you liked, there was a need to drive the story forwards, to tie in to the next book and maybe even the one after that.  

I never really got a clear view of how the books worked on the broader narrative level until long after I had given away my few Lone Wolf books and had passed on to other phases of life.  But I do wonder if this kind of gamebook has things to teach us about how to leverage modern interactive media for entertainment. [4]  It will never be much more than a particularly eccentric hobby for me, I imagine, but it's a fun thing to think about and neat to realise how being a bored teen on a road-trip with family decades ago is still influencing my behaviour today.

As it happens, if you're curious the author of the Lone Wolf series, Joe Dever, and several of his collaborators on art and later installments, have agreed to allow the books to be "reprinted" in various formats online.  See Project Aon to download and experience it for yourself! 

1. Both these were reprinted for the publication of Domain in 1984 - ironically I don't think I ever read Domain, but if not for that book I would never have discovered these two.  I'm not a big "horror" fan (not this kind) but James Herbert gets a bad rap for these, I think, as I actually enjoyed them quite a bit. Of course, this is teenaged me talking again.

2. Slugs is...not in the same class as The Rats, I fear, and the sequel Breeding Ground I recall being frankly atrocious.  However, it was still entertaining and there are the mandatory titillating scenes and gratuitously gory descriptions that keeps a teenage horror reader coming back.  Shaun Hutson deserves kudos for hitting that sweet spot so perfectly so early in his career - and as I recall, I also discovered that a lot of the biology he exaggerated for horrific purposes was actually basically correct (though I never admitted to my bio teacher that I wasn't really a terrific swot).

3. Inspired by things like old ASCII mags that had whole adventures you could type up in BASIC, or teaching myself to hack the databases in games like Dungeonmaster on my ZX Spectrum.

4.  To a large extent Lone Wolf is behind my thinking in experiments on Twitter and elsewhere as I fumble toward some kind of multiplex storytelling in those media.

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