Combat Heroes: the 1980s RPG gamebook craze got so wild they were implementing multiplayer grid-based dungeon crawlers in print

Gamebook writer Joe Dever is most famous for his Lone Wolf series, highly ranked among "choose-your-own adventure"-like branching novels with role-playing elements. But he also created a series I remembered only dimly from my 1980s British childhood: gamebooks that were fully-fledged multiplayer grid-based dungeon crawlers. Combat Heroes contained not only a page for facing each cardinal direction for every square in the dungeon, but variants of each showing every possible orientation and position of your adversary for each player-vs-player pair of books, including them hiding behind objects. There's an elegant if intimidating system for determining which page to jump to. On top of that, somehow stuffed into the ~400 pages, each book includes a single-player quest replete with items to pick up and use.

The books were and are amazing examples of clever, carefully optimized design, though their complexity was a barrier to my 9-year-old brain and, notwithstanding the ingenuity, the dungeons were very small. It amounted to a gamebook simulation of a fight in a basement. There were two pairs of books (i.e. two battles and four single-player adventures): White Warlord and Black Baron, then Scarlet Sorcerer and Emerald Enchanter. These appear to sell for hundreds of dollars each on eBay.

In the video below, Questing Beast rediscovers the set and offers a tour of the experience. Though he doesn't seem to be aware of the specific genre of computer game these late-1980s books are trying to emulate in print (he compares them to Doom and other first-person shooters of the 90s) that's fine because it means he can't use them as an ultimately-confusing explanatory crutch the way everyone else does when trying to explain these deranged books.

If I'd love to see that pen-and-ink aesthetic on screen, the truth is that implementing these faithfully as actual computer games would expose their limitations. All the same, it amazes me with how close to the Dungeon Master/Eye of The Beholder experience it comes. It could have been made a thousand years ago.

A project to contemplate: implementing Combat Heroes as an electro-mechanical cabinet game. Each player sits in the dark, selects their moves, pulls their levers, the mechanisms within crank and flutter, the new slides flex into place, and the scenes glow in their ghost mirrors.

Previously: StoryShift is a new storytelling medium. Why hasn`t it caught on?