Saturday Morning Gaming: Old School Single Player RPGs

Care Bears | 1983 Storybook Commercial

Back in the 1980’s, the closest we had to something that we’d recognize as an RPG in 2019 was the Atari game “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”. (You had to run around and collect things that would then have to be assembled to allow you to phone home and then you had to run and get there in time to be picked up. Seriously underrated game. People mock it and I guess I understand why… but I kinda see the game as years (decades?) ahead of its time and it did amazing things despite its technical limitations. But that’s another essay.) If not E.T., maybe “Adventure”.

As such, if you wanted an RPG, you needed a bunch of dorky kids sitting around a table yelling about dragons and/or dungeons and throwing dice.

Ah, but what if it were 7PM on a Tuesday and you wanted to do some light RPGing?

Well, they had single player RPG books. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! books were a huge hit. There were the books inspired by a mix of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and Steve Jackson like the Lone Wolf series or the Way of the Tiger books (ninjas were *HUGE* in the 80’s).

The absolute most amazing one, the *KING* of all of these books, was the Dragonlance book “Gnomes – 100; Dragons – 0“.

In this one, you went to the Dragonlance universe and were dumped into Mount Nevermind: a Gnomish society that was besieged by The Bad Guys. You had to work with the gnomes to defeat the evil dragon army fixing to attack them and you did that by exploring Mount Nevermind and leveraging everything you could find.

Now, the Gnomes in Dragonlance were somewhat Flanderized from the regular D&D Gnomes. In regular D&D, Gnomes were tinkers. In Dragonlance, they more took the attitude that a bicycle was good… imagine how good a bicycle with 12 wheels would be!!! A catapult that threw one boulder was nice… why not a tripult? And such with everything. Turn it up to 11.

So you wandered through Mount Nevermind turning the lovable over-engineered devices you found (“could these rocket-powered rocking chairs be weaponized? What devices have been made by the toymaker? Do the gemologists have anything that could focus a beam of light into a laser?) into war machines until you got to the end of the timer and added up all of the points you accumulated and measured against the power of the army.

And you probably lost, unless you cheated.

You needed a paper and pencil to keep track of everything and, much like the Gnomes themselves, the book was over-engineered something awful. But it was an awesome way to play an awesome RPG without a computer and without 3 other people.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I prefer the stuff we have now to the stuff we had then. But, at the time, that stuff was absolutely amazing.

So… what are you playing?

(Featured image is “dice” by Chris Yarzab. Used under a creative commons license.)


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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12 thoughts on “Saturday Morning Gaming: Old School Single Player RPGs

  1. I spent a whole lot of hours playing Pool of Radiance on our Apple IIe, swapping floppy disks on each move between zones. That came out in 88 so not much 80s left by that point.

    Don’t really have time for video games the last few weeks, other than playing Kingdom of Loathing in my phone before bed. I’m working on the dwarf factory puzzle now – once i finish it this time I’ll have the whole dwarfish war outfit.

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    • Oh, Kingdom of Loathing! My gosh. I sunk so many hours into that…

      Pool of Radiance was the first game that said “we could take these rules in this rulebook and make a game!” and, next thing you know, you’re carrying 20000 copper pieces and 30 sets of leather armor.

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  2. Been replaying the original Kingdom Hearts to build up to the new one.

    It’s got a super-slow start, floaty controls, bad AI, and a worse camera.

    But. But. BUT.

    It also has Donald Duck chucking fireballs.

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  3. Back in the 1980’s, the closest we had to something that we’d recognize as an RPG in 2019 was the Atari game “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”.

    Eh? Ultima II and Wizardry II were released in 1982, the same year as E.T.

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  4. I was hoping to be playing Cultist Simulator, but sadly, it was just about the only thing on my wish list that wasn’t part of Steam’s Lunar New Year sale. Sooooooo I’m not really playing anything right now! :-)

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  5. The Choose Your Own Adventure books were great. At first, it was pretty disheartening when you died in some horrible way, but then that became fun, too. There’s a board game based on the book, but I haven’t played it.

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