Free roaming: Gamebooks exploring worlds

I have read an interesting article from 2012 in “Jake Care’s gamebook” blog, about the different kinds of gamebook according to their linearity. Basically he divided gamebooks in four categories:

  • Linear: Those gamebooks that offer just one way, allowing few decisions to their readers, and even those of little importance to the story.
  • Convergent: When the diferent paths a reader can travel through will allow to see different aspects and places in the story, but at some point these all converge at the same point at the end of the plot. This is the most common structure for gamebooks.
  • Divergent: Each of the paths is independent from one another, and they almost never converge at the same section. This is the case for most CYOA adventures.
  • Free Roaming: Where the reader can explore freely through the game world, and even come back to places already visited.

Free_roaming:_Gamebooks_exploring_worldsFrom these four categories, the first three have something in common: A section cannot be reached twice. Most of the times, the first time we read a passage will also be the last; the gamebook is designed to make us advance relentlessly through the plot until the end.

Not in the free roaming category; here the characters may move wherever they want and take any action. It’s a kind of design that offers much more freedom to the player, but necessarily force the writer to “lose control of the story”. They force to think in terms of “game world” instead of plot. And that’s perhaps why they are much more uncommon than the other three, since they are much more difficult for a writer. It is, in any case, a kind of design I find very interesting. It allows the reader to get “immersed” in the world of the story, and appeal to the fascination of discovering new locations and secret places, the joy of exploration, instead of focusing on a final task.

There are a few examples of this kind of structure, and I would like to make a brief review of some of them:

1.- Tunnels & Trolls Solitaire Adventures:

Free_roaming:_Gamebooks_exploring_worldsDue to their nature as modules of a role playing game, the solitaire adventures of “Tunnels & Trolls” need this kind of structure; they are thought to be played both in solitaire and with a group of players, and so they must allow more freedom of choice.

The only one I’ve been able to read of this collection is “Buffalo Castle“, the very first one designed for this role playing game. It is a very simple dungeon, quite plain in the narrative aspect and with very little story – it basically is a group of interconnected rooms, each one with a different encounter and very little relation between them. The plot is as simple as they can be; to get inside a dungeon, obtain as much treasure as possible and get out of it alive. Anyway, it is historically important because it was one of the first gamebooks – if not the first – to allow real freedom of movement to the player.

2.- Fighting Fantasy #8: Scorpion Swamp:

Free_roaming:_Gamebooks_exploring_worldsThis Fighting Fantasy title is unusual for several reasons. It was one of the first to experiment with the typical structure of the gamebooks in this series, trying to increase replayability. It allowed the reader to choose between three different missions, in the form of three wizards to which the adventurer could offer his services.

Regarding the adventure, it was – just like in Buffalo Castle – a dungeon crawl, where the “rooms” were clearings inside the titular swamp. The gamebook encourages us to draw a map of our adventure, very similar to those maps that players drew for computer text adventures at the time.

When I read this book as a child, it blew my mind with the sensation of freedom, of exploring a “virtual world”, changing while I explored it. Now, after reading it again, I think it’s an interesting design, innovative in many ways, but a minor adventure in the Fighting Fantasy series, far from the quality level of later titles.

3.- The Fantasy Trip and Legends of the Ancient World:

Free_roaming:_Gamebooks_exploring_worldsThe Fantasy Trip was an old role playing game published by Metagaming, derived from two earlier board games, Melee and Wizard. It was designed by Steve Jackson – the author of the role playing game Gurps, not the same as the equally-named Fighting Fantasy author. This was a role playing game typified by solving the physical conflicts with chips on a board, due to its origins as a board game. It dissappeared in 1983, but still has some followers today.

If we mention it, is because they published some modules for this rpg, designed to be played either with a group of players or in solitaire, similar to those mentioned of “Tunnels & Trolls“. The best of them was probably “Grail Quest“, the third of the series, where we play the part of knights of the arthurian myth, looking for the Holy Grail.

Free_roaming:_Gamebooks_exploring_worldsMany years later, a company called “Dark City Games” decided to release new modules for “The Fantasy Trip“, and for their own system – compatible with “The Fantasy Trip” – called “Legends of the Ancient World“. These modules have the same freedom of movement; the player can explore the game world in any direction, and solve the problems in any order.

I’m surprised I haven’t seen more reviews of these titles. The board game critic Marco Arnaudo has made some videos about them, but apart from him, I’ve found very few references to Dark City Game’s titles. And I think it’s a pity, since many of those stories are very enjoyable, even better than those of “The Fantasy Trip” that inspired them. I will probably make a new article in the future about them, but for those who are curious, I suggest to buy “Ebon Rebirth“, the last in their collection, and the one who has the more open structure of the titles I’ve played.

4.- “Sandboxer Books”:

I found this almost unknown series of gamebooks when randomly looking for new titles in Amazon. I have only read the first of the series, “Red Dog“, but there is a second one waiting on my shelf called “Stronghold“, set in the same world.

Free_roaming:_Gamebooks_exploring_worldsThe case of “Red dog” is a peculiar one. The kind of design is the one we are mentioning here, an open world where the players can go wherever they want and come back to the places they have already visited. However, the sequence of actions we have to take in order to finish the mission is pretty linear. For example, we can go to the airport at any time, but we cannot take a flight unless we have the credit card they give us when we accept a mission. Or we can’t get inside a building unless we have a certain chip implanted to allow us to stay undetected. And every task follows the same linear model; in order to reach “C” we have to go necessarily through “A” and “B”. So, even if this structure would allow a non-linear progress, the story we experiment is the same in any case.

This proves that the “free roaming” structure doesn’t itself guarantee a non-linear progress. The author of this book had a story in his mind, and wanted us to experiment that story and not other, getting rid of one of the main advantages of this kind of design.

Red Dog” has many additional problems – the locations remain unchanging each time we visit them, giving the world a very static feel, there are countless uncorrected gramatical errors… – but in spite of this it may interest those who want to see new ways of structuring gamebooks.

5.- Fabled Lands:

Free_roaming:_Gamebooks_exploring_worldsThis is probably the best known work in this kind of gamebooks, and for a good reason; what Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson archieved here is little short of impressive. This series of books allow to take any kind of action, explore a fantastic world, solve missions, adquire ships to navigate the inner sea, increase the capabilities of our character, transform the world we go through… and keep on playing indefinitely, with the same character, without reaching any “end”. These books simulate a “virtual” life, in the same way that other multiplayer computer games try to do – but in a much more interesting way in my opinion. The fact that they have been able to do this with a paper gamebook is a proof of an amazing capability to handle narrative interactions.

If you have not had the opportunity to read them, you owe yourself to do it. And yes, they are that good.


This article doesn’t try to be an exhaustive review of all the “free roaming” gamebooks there are, but only a quick glance to a kind of design I personally find very enjoyable, and one that could be explored more. Recent mobile games inspired by gamebooks, like “80 days” and the “Sorcery!” saga by Inkle, go in this direction, and I think that gamebooks – either the paper or the electronic kind – should experiment more with new structures, and try more open designs, that will allow us readers to explore new worlds and live other lives.

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