Friday, April 16, 2010

Lone Wolf: Multiplayer Game Book: Does it Deliver?

In 1982, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone created a worldwide reading/roleplaying sensation with their Warlock of Firetop Mountain Fighting Fantasy Gamebook. Warlock combined the interactive qualities of the Choose-Your-Own adventure series of books with simple mechanics inspired by role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. The books were wildly successful with over 50 entries in the series published to date. The series is currently being published by Wizard books in England, we Americans have to have our new books in the series shipped from Canada or overseas, and also has had two of the books released as iPhone applications.

The Fighting Fantasy books are classics in the genre, but they were surpassed in gaming complexity in 1984 when Joe Dever's Lone Wolf gamebook series first title Flight from the Dark was released. The Fighting Fantasy series is primarily made up of episodic entries where the puzzles/adventures are contained in full in a single volume. The exception to this is Steve Jackson's Sorcery series of four books. In contrast to the episodic Fighting Fantasy series, Dever created an Epic Fantasy narrative in his Lone Wolf series. In Dever's series, your character improved from book to book and items you acquired in one book would help you solve puzzles in subsequent volumes. Dever added layers of gameplay and narrative that were lacking in the Fighting Fantasy counterparts, and his series demonstrated the gamebook as a mature medium.

In support of their Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, Jackson and Livingstone released an introductory roleplaying game -- a non-solo and more traditional game -- in 1984 entitled simply Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-playing Game. This game presented the rules system from the Fighting Fantasy books in a simplified form for use in pen and paper gameplay. The rules component of the books was relatively weak, as the rules were stripped down versions of the already simple rules of the gamebooks, but the two adventures included in the book were fun.

This initial offering was followed by the Riddling Reaver collection of adventures, which made for a fun campaign using a rudimentary system. By 1989, Livingston and Jackson realized that the introductory game was serviceable, but not a substantive offering in the gaming marketplace and they hired Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn to develop an advanced version of the product.

Gascoigne and Tamly's Advanced Fighting Fantasy presented a robust game system rooted in the system presented in the gamebooks and filled a niche that fans of the books needed filled. Gascoigne's system added layers of complexity to the gamebooks rules, while still presenting an introductory roleplaying game. The system is simple enough for beginners, but has a depth that allows for a great deal of game play.

Fans of the Lone Wolf series, who had purchased and read the Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules, eagerly waited to see what Dever would come up with in response to Fighting Fantasy's offering. That offering didn't come. In fact, while the Fighting Fantasy books seemed as unkillable as a zombie horde -- continually being resurrected from certain death just as a new generation of readers could be introduced to the books -- Lone Wolf began to fade into the background. Eventually, all the published books became available (with author permission) as free e-books on the internet. Then, from seemingly nowhere, wonderful news appeared. Mongoose Publishing released a tabletop RPG based on the characters of the Lone Wolf series and began republishing (in beautiful small format hardbacks) the original Lone Wolf books.

The republished volumes of the original gamebooks are a marvel. They include new stories as additional content in the back of each book; stories that expand the Lone Wolf world. The republished books are undeniably a godsend, but the first Mongoose Lone Wolf RPG was a gaming product that had rules based in Wizards of the Coast's d20 rules system. These rules are serviceable (they are actually quite good), but they lack the distinct feel of the Lone Wolf setting. After playing gamebooks that use a particular rules set, it feels a little unnatural to use an unrelated rules set when translating your experience into a multiplayer exercise. The d20 based Lone Wolf rpg sold decently, but with the release of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons -- and the end of the d20 license -- it was time for Mongoose to create a multiplayer game that returned Lone Wolf gaming to its systemic roots.

It has taken a couple of years for the new rules set to come out, but as of the the first week of April 2010 long time fans of Lone Wolf finally have a multiplayer roleplaying game based on the system used in the gamebooks, but how does it measure up to the standard set by the Fighting Fantasy series?

Even though the products are separated by almost 20 years, it seems appropriate to compare the new Lone Wolf Multiplayer Game to the earlier Fighting Fantasy offerings. The Fighting Fantasy Introductory Roleplaying Game was originally published in 1984 and in its 240 paperback format pages presented a multiplayer version of the rules system contained within the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks. Other than the two adventures included in the book, and a couple of sparse paragraphs describing the job of gamemastering and designing your own adventures, the booklet contained little that was not already in the published gamebooks. In fact, some of the solo gamebooks had already introduced some "advanced rules" that the introductory roleplaying game failed to include. The two adventures included in the book were formatted in a manner similar to that used in the gamebooks, but included some tips on how to run the encounters. By modern standards these adventures were simple "dungeon crawls," adventures where characters explore complexes and fight monsters. There was little or no context for the action in these adventures contained in the rulebook. This changed when the Riddling Reaver booklet expanded the adventures available for use by gamemasters, though it should be noted that it was 8 years before players of multiplayer Fighting Fantasy had rules for "skills" or "magic" published outside of the solo gamebooks for multiplayer use.

The Lone Wolf Multiplayer Game Book is similar in many respects to the earlier Fighting Fantasy offering. Coming it at 70 digest sized pages, it contains character creation rules for only one character type, the Kai Lord. It presents the basic system used in the gamebooks, including the "random number table," with very few options not offered in the solo versions. Unlike the Fighting Fantasy books, Lone Wolf contains a task resolution system for accomplishing things other than combat. It is a simple resolution system, to be sure, but it is one that is highly serviceable. Essentially, tasks are given a target number from 1 to 10 and that sets the number that the player must roll equal or higher than on d10 (or select from the random number table) in order to succeed. There are guidelines for bonuses and penalties, but it is essentially a quick and dirty task resolution system with a flat probability curve.

Lone Wolf contains a short Bestiary that includes some of the unique denizens of Magnamund like Giaks and Gourgazs, and some of the more generic character types a game master might need like Bears and Bandits. It also contains a brief discussion of the history of Magnamund, the world of the Lone Wolf tales. One really wishes that Mongoose had beefed up the chapters on the setting. At $19.99 for a 70 page book, one feels a little neglected when there is so little setting description. To be fair, the gamebooks are rich fields filled with descriptions of the world and its history, but this rulebook lacks that richness and the map in the middle of the book is made less useful or attractive by the fact that it is published in black and white.

Like the Fighting Fantasy RPG, Lone Wolf provides an introductory adventure for new game masters to use with their friends. The adventure is an entertaining narrative adventure entitled "The Merchant's Task." This adventure contains gaming opportunities for different kinds of players as it has roleplaying scenes, puzzle solving, and combat sequences. As such, it follows the modern trend of story based adventures as opposed to the classic dungeon crawl, but then again that is one of the things that separates the Lone Wolf solo book series from the Fighting Fantasy book series. The Lone Wolf books are more story driven and the Fighting Fantasy ones more puzzle/solution driven.

I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed with the first offering in the Lone Wolf Multiplayer line of books. It seemed in many ways more an overview of what gaming would be like that a complete game in itself, and with a $19.99 price tag the disappointment was exaggerated. I have to say though that there are a couple of things arguing in favor of the game. First is the fact that it isn't a bad introductory game, if only the price were $7.99 I would consider it an ideal introductory offer. The rules are clear and simple and the text provides numerous guidelines for the game master during the adventure, guidelines that can be used to create ones own adventures. Second is the fact that this is the first in a series of offerings.

This June we should see the publication of a book of linked adventures entitled Terror of the Darklords. This is slated to be a 160 page booklet containing an entire campaign's worth of game play in which the players will uncover conspiracies and battle against the evil Darklords.

Darklords will be followed in July by Heroes of Magnamund, a book containing a variety of character classes that players can use during campaign play. One can look at this as the second part of the player's guide in some ways. According to the Lone Wolf Multiplayer Game Book the Heroes book will also contain rules for higher level Kai Lords and additional rules for game masters. Mongoose is also planning to publish a gazetteer of Magnamund and a bestiary as well. All of these products will add to the cost of the game, but will add much needed depth as well.

As it stands, the current rule book places the Lone Wolf Multiplayer Game Book somewhere between the Fighting Fantasy Introductory Roleplaying Game and the Advanced Fighting Fantasy Roleplaying Game with regards to the complexity of the rules it offers. A good offering, but not quite what one would pray for after almost 20 years of waiting. If the later releases maintain the level of quality, the game looks like it might surpass Advanced Fighting Fantasy, but only time will tell.

I can say that I will be eagerly purchasing the books as they come out to see what Mongoose has to offer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this article, and offering your opinion. Im an old fan of the Lonewolf series, and long time, burnt out 3rd edition DnD Dungeon Master. Recently, my players 1year campaign came to a screeching halt, because of my waning interest in the DND 3.5 format. I asked for any ideas for new systems we might like.

I had the Mongoose d20 offering, but I just didnt feel it really delivered, and never used it. I could have easily have set my campaigns in Magnamund using 3rd edition rules.

I will check out these new books and see how it looks.