Ask Chris #297: You Are… Lone Wolf!
Q: You've talked about playing Pathfinder recently. How long have you been playing RPGs and how did you start? - @daveexmachina
A: I've been up front about my deep and abiding love of the Gelatinous Cube and the kind of gridded-out world of dungeons that have to be cleaned by semi-sentient Jell-O blocks that dissolve everything except magic swords that makes such a thing possible, but I actually came to tabletop games a lot later than most of the other stuff that I'm into. I was in my early 20s before I really got into RPGs in earnest, and I think a lot of that has to do with how much was available when I was a kid. Comics were pretty easy to find, but for RPGs? You need expensive books, dice, and, y'know, friends, and all of those things were in short supply when I was a kid.
But long before I actually got to dragons and dungeons --- not necessarily in that order --- there was one thing that sparked a fascination with pen-and-paper roleplaying. And his name... was Lone Wolf.
If you're not familiar with him, Lone Wolf was the hero of a series of books written by Joe Dever, whose previous claim to fame was winning the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons World Championship in 1982, a competition that Wikipedia describes as having rules that are "really vague and obscure." Two years later, Dever took the campaign setting and RPG system that he'd been working on for the previous decade and transformed it into the Lone Wolf series.
Structurally, they were basically Choose Your Own Adventure style stories, albeit extremely complicated ones. I read my share of those when I was a kid, too, and as an adult, I've gone back and picked up those weird Which Way knockoffs about Batman and a couple of the ones that tied into A View To A Kill. Those are especially weird, as they're clearly written for children and are operating on the assumption that what every ten year-old wants is a book that will allow them to pretend to be Roger Moore.
Point being, while I liked the idea of a book where the reader had some kind of control over the story, the execution of most CYOAs were actually pretty lackluster. The narratives always had these weird leaps to them --- I have a distinct memory of one about being a teen recruited into an international spy ring where a key plot point was based on how you fold your socks --- and the choices themselves always seemed to fall into a weirdly arbitrary binary. Go right, and continue the story. Go left, and be instantly eaten by sharks, complete with extremely evocative descriptions of your death. Which, admittedly, were part of the appeal.
The Lone Wolf books, on the other hand, were different. For one thing, they were huge compared to your standard CYOAs, clocking in at two or three times the page count. That alone meant that a reader was in for a much more complicated story, but the real difference came in how the choices were made. Rather than just making a simple choice, your path in a Lone Wolf book could be affected by a ton of other factors, including combat, special powers you'd learned in your travels, and even stuff you'd managed to pick up along the way.
Yeah: This thing had inventory management. It might've been structured like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but in many respects, Lone Wolf was a full on RPG, to the point where you even had a character sheet.
And believe me, I copied that thing down onto notebook paper a lot.
Mechanically, the game relied on a lot of familiar RPG mechanics that were rigged and rearranged so that you could play solo. There was inventory management, of course, but the bigger twist came at the start of the book, when you got to choose the "Kai Disciplines" that essentially gave you super-powers. The idea was that you'd get a new one for each book you completed in the series --- they were each self-contained but ideally were meant to tell a single over-arching story --- but at the start of things, you were asked to decide whether talking to animals would be more useful to you than, say, moving objects with the power of your mind.
As for the Combat, it was handled in a way that sounds complex but it actually pretty simple. You and the enemies you were fighting both had a Combat Skill stat, and from that, you got a ratio, generated a random number, and then applied it to a table to get the results for each round. The thing is, it was hilariously easy to cheat.
I mean, any sort of Choosable Path Adventure Book is asking a bare minimum of honesty from the reader, if only the kind where you actually stick with your choice and don't just leave your finger on the page while you peek ahead to see what's up. With the Lone Wolf books, you not only had to do that, but Dever put the trust in you to generate random numbers by closing your eyes and jabbing at a table in the back of the book with the eraser on your pencil:
And while I tried to stick with the skills I'd actually chosen and not trying to con myself into believing that I'd had 50 feet of rope with me all along that I'd just neglected to write down, I surely can't be the only kid who only sort of closed his eyes, or nudged that eraser from a 2 to an 8, hoping that Joe Dever would never see me and shake his head in disappointment at my deceptive ways.
In terms of story, the Lone Wolf saga was built from some pretty familiar basics. You! Are! Lone Wolf, which is a much more badass way to think of yourself than "unsupervised child who likes to read." As Lone Wolf, you're a one of the Kai Lords, an ancient line of mystical warriors who stood between the kingdom of Summerlund and utter destruction at the hands of the Darklords. and who are all massacred on page one of the first book. As the last survivor, you've got to be the one to save the world by questing for a magic sword and fighting all sorts of monsters. And aesthetically, thanks largely to the illustrations by Gary Chalk, everything about it had that lanky, frowning, old-school dungeon-crawler feel.
Like I said, it's pretty standard, but as a kid who hadn't really gotten into the sword-and-sorcery genre beyond seeing Legend of Zelda in Nintendo Power and thinking it was pretty cool, I was into it. I only had a couple of the books when I was a kid --- Fire on the Water and Shadows on the Sand --- but there was a time when I was pretty obsessed with them. They were books that gave you swords.
That is literally the best kind of book.
All told, there were 28 books in the Lone Wolf series published between 1984 and 1998, plus four set in the same world where you played as a wizard named Grey Star, and four more in a series called Freeway Warrior, which is essentially Lone Wolf in Mad Max times.
In those, You! Are! Cal Phoenix, the Freeway Warrior of Dallas Colony 1. In the far off future of 2020, you need to help your fellow colonists --- who speak with the kind of southern accents that you can only get from being written by a British D&D world champion --- navigate a future where a confederation of biker gangs named for football teams have somehow caused nuclear armageddon. I've only gotten around to reading those recently, but they are a delight, especially the parts where you are assured that Post-Apocalyptic Texas has vast caches of necessary supplies hidden behind doors locked with math puzzles.
Now here's the really cool part: Even though I very rarely hear anyone talking about them --- probably because I don't read a lot of gaming sites and game-books in general are a way more solitary pursuit than tabletop RPGs --- there's a pretty big and extremely dedicated fan community around the books. So dedicated, in fact, that in 1999, when most of the series had fallen out of print, they asked Dever for permission to print the books online.
In what might be the coolest thing a creator has ever done, Dever actually agreed, calling it as his "millennium gift" to the fans --- a very 1999 way of referring to something. The result was Project Aon, in which virtually every shred of Lone Wolf (and Freeway Warrior) material was not just collected, but rebuilt so that you could navigate using links. There's even character sheets that keep track of everything.
Just don't let 'em stop you from the time-honored tradition of cheating.