Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the world’s first roleplaying game (RPG), was introduced in 1974. The original version of the game was, in essence, an expansion for Gary Gygax’s tabletop miniatures game Chainmail and, thus, did not have its own unique combat system. You had to have a copy of the miniatures game in order to play it. It was also, for some, difficult to understand. While these and other issues led some players to the conclusion that the rules needed clarifications and/or further development, there was no doubt that the fledgling company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) had a hit on its hands.
Within a short time, similar games were coming out of the woodwork. It seemed as though the gaming community had been waiting for the fantasy RPG to be created and just didn’t know it. The first of these was Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels & Trolls (T&T), which debuted about a year after D&D. While its predecessor was a fairly serious game, T&T was designed in a more lighthearted vein. It was also less complex and was the first game system to offer single-player options. One of the biggest challenges intrinsic to RPGs is getting a group together (and, having done so, preventing that group from imploding). By design, RPGs require at least two players, preferably more. Someone has to run the game in which the players take part (a Game Master (GM) in general terms or a Dungeon Master (DM) in D&D). But what do you do when you crave a fantasy adventure but don’t have anyone to play with?
To solve this problem, T&T introduced solo adventures. These took the form of short books in which players make choices at certain points and turn to the corresponding section. For example, the text might say something like, “You enter a dimly-lit room. There are doors to the north and west. A small chest stands in one corner. To go north, turn to 25. To go west, turn to 78. To open the chest, turn to 44.” If this sounds familiar, it was later used by the creators of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, although the T&T books differed in that players use a character sheet and roll dice to determine outcomes, just like in a traditional session. Basically, the book was the GM.
Games Workshop (the British company known these days for the miniatures game Warhammer) founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone introduced Fighting Fantasy in 1982. Unlike the T&T solo adventures, these books were self-contained; they did not require players to use the rules of the “parent” game, as there wasn’t one. With titles such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon, Temple of Terror, and House of Hell, this high-quality series proved very popular and remained in publication until 1995, totaling 59 books.
Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf, launched in 1984, was similarly well received. It was unique in that the same eponymous character appears in every book, making it a true series. Other excellent offerings from various publishers include Fabled Lands, Middle-Earth Quest, and Blood Sword. Dever also released a series called Combat Heroes that featured illustrations rather than text (a compass at the bottom of each scene had a page number at each point). These adventures could be played solo or against an opponent who had the corresponding book.
It is interesting that there were two game designers named Steve Jackson, a British one and an American one. The American, while working for Metagaming Concepts, gave the world the first “microgame,” Ogre, in 1977. Microgames were a brilliant innovation. They came in plastic Ziploc bags and contained only a rulebook, a map, and punch-out “counters,” i.e. game pieces. The publishers saved money and space by assuming that players would already have dice. Ogre, despite its name, was neither an RPG nor a fantasy game at all (it was, rather, a game of tank warfare). It could also not be played solo. However, games that followed, such as The Fantasy Trip, fulfilled both criteria. Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) followed with Deathmaze, which is only an RPG in the loosest sense but can be played by a single adventurer. In fact, many fans of the game insist that this is the best way to do it. Players build the dungeon as they go along by randomly placing room counters adjacent to one another. They then draw monster tiles, also at random, to introduce combat. In this way, the game is different every time.
There were a number of magazines that came with games included, as well. Both Flying Buffalo’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Games Workshop’s Warlock featured short solo adventures. Ares magazine was noted for its inclusion of a microgame, complete with counters, with every issue. Some of these games, such as Citadel of Blood, were rereleased as box sets. Ares was later absorbed into TSR’s Dragon, but it only lasted for a few issues before being discontinued.
Of course, computer games were also an option. In addition to text adventures such as Infocom’s Zork, players could delve into the dungeons of Rogue, a game created in 1980. It featured very basic graphics, with monsters and items and even the player himself represented by ASCII characters. The player was symbolized by the @; a B could represent a bat and a ! could denote a potion. Similar to Deathmaze, every game was different. Rogue proved so popular that its design was copied numerous times and even spawned a subset of computer games called Roguelikes, which continue to flourish today. Many of these, such as Moria, Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, NetHack, and Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), are available for free download.
For players who crave the “old school” experience, many of these options are still available. Gamebooks can easily be found on Amazon. In fact, some of the older ones, such as Fighting Fantasy, Blood Sword, and Golden Dragon, have been reprinted in recent years in nice trade editions. The more obscure titles can usually be found through independent sellers offering books in Amazon Marketplace. Of course, used bookstores are also a good bet. Microgames are no longer being produced, but if you’re willing to shell out the money they’re not impossible to obtain. Also, issues of Ares are available as PDFs on sites such as Archive.org. (You’ll have to cut out rather than punch out the counters, but that’s a relatively insignificant inconvenience.)
I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the British Steve Jackon’s F. I. S. T. (Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone). In 1988, the Fighting Fantasy co-author came up with the idea for a telephone-based RPG. Callers would descend into a dungeon through a radio-drama-like experience in which they battled monsters and made choices using their phone’s keypad. Having seen ads for it in comic books of the time, I was interested in giving it a try, but it was a pay-by-the-minute thing, and I could see how it had the potential to add up quickly, so I never did (thus evading my father’s wrath). Jackson reportedly made a boatload of money with it. Of course, this kind of thing simply wouldn’t fly in our modern, cellular world. It was purely an idea of its time, which is what makes it so interesting when we look back on it today.