Love role-playing games like nothing else, but don’t have a game group or else don’t know how to game master…? Yeah, that was me for a long time. I’ve played scads of the things.
What makes for a good one? They have a unique set of constraints. On the one hand, the illusion of choice has to be convincing even though you’ve got something only marginally more sophisticated than a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. On the other, it has to succeed both as a story and as a game. And that’s a tough line to walk!
Here’s my take on the best of the genre:
The Rose Estes TSR Endless Quest Books — There is no game system with these, but the classic Larry Elmore covers certainly stand out. The interior illustrations give a look at a mass market approach to D&D from before Forgotten Realms. Also… these are actually kind of fun! (My kids wore these out.)
The TSR Super Endless Quest Books — These are bigger. They are explicitly based on AD&D. They have a stripped down rpg system. Everything about this looks good on paper… but for some reason it just doesn’t work. There’s a ponderousness to these, an excess of prose. I’ve had these for decades and never played them– and my kids wouldn’t either.
Tunnels & Trolls Solitaires — These are especially cool because they are the first solitaire line ever. The early ones are pretty wild and are a must-play for anyone that is into gaming history. They’re kind of all game and light on story. But the game is so lightweight, it doesn’t bog down. Compared to other game books, these have no qualms about arbitrarily killing you or making situations where mediocre stats will kill you outright. To my knowledge, this is the only game line that solved the problem of allowing magic wielding characters to use their games spell system at almost any significant decision point. (You cross reference the spell with the location to see what happens.)
GURPS Solitaires — The big ones here are the four Conan solitaires Steve Jackson Games came out with. Your mileage may vary, but for some reason I just bogged down with these. The combats are so elaborate and the system is so intrusive, I just never seem to circle back and do more with these.
Dark City Games Solitaires — These are based on the solitaire-oriented game system by Steve Jackson that came out between Tunnels & Trolls and GURPS– the legendary Fantasy Trip. These come with a map and counters for playing out the fights. And yes, it’s more about the combats than about the story much of the time, but these games are much easier to acquire than a lot of the vintage stuff.
I.C.E.’s Tolkien Quest / Middle Earth Quest — These are my favorites, true masterpieces of game design. The rudimentary rpg system is up to the task at hand. Total freedom of movement is achieved through a hex-crawl system. Plus… it’s Middle Earth!
Infocom Text Adventures — These classic games show what happens when you take both the rpg system and the finite number of choices out of a game book. You end up with sort of a pure logic problem where solving it is not unlike debugging a computer program. In some ways, this is still the state of the art in what’s come to be called “interactive fiction.” This is still the closest you can get to being inside a story. Historians of gaming will note that Zork and Enchanter present a window into the MIT D&D culture, however.
Classic Traveller — This is a role-playing game, not a game book. But more than any other game, people just tend to pick up Traveller and start rolling up characters, worlds, and subsectors and designing starships… and it’s so fun they don’t care if they never get a game session out of it.
The Hunters — This is a war game, not a game book. But it shows what you can do with a solitaire that is unencumbered by either prose or rpg mechanics. This game allows you to play out month by month entire careers of WWII German sub captains. It’s fairly simple choosing your range and selecting your targets… but there’s a lot more to this than just luck. A first rate piece of design work.