Despite having a wealth new games to play (or never play, but admire, and the same old suspects are wheeled out again and again), I often find my thoughts turning to the world of Titan, and Fighting Fantasy in general. A couple of days I read an old blog post, which I cannot now find. In that post, nostalgia for FF gamebooks was tempered by the assertion that you couldn't get kids these days to play these books when they could be smashing things to bits in [Insert Current Game Title Here]*. And I think that assertion is, sadly, more or less true. But a fantasy adventure gamebook does things in a different way to a viscerally thrilling fantasy adventure video game. And in that difference there is a virtue that we should remember when playing roleplaying games.
FF combat is boring. It is boring because there are no choices (most of the time). Roll dice until one side wins, with not even the possibility of retreat, is not uncommon. This means that the whole thing could be settled by a single dice roll, the probability of victory being fixed the moment the encounter begins. It'd lose some tension, sure, but the end result, mechanically speaking, would be the same.
So where is this virtue, eh? Well, mechanically boring combat is feature, not a bug.
I play mostly with people who have not and will not read the rules. And so I am acutely aware that combat with lots of choices equals victory to those with system mastery. I find nothing more disheartening when I read roleplaying forums that are 'epic' accounts of encounters that concentrate on the 'synergies' that the players managed to set up between their powers or other clever exploitation of the system. In the games that I run, once combat is started I want the encounter settled quickly. I want it settled quickly because I want the consequences of that combat to result in further interesting choices for the PCs. Choices about the game world, not the game system.
By having such boring combat and task resolution, FF gamebooks remind me of the things that roleplaying games can do better than video games. Roleplaying games can never match the complexity of micro-choices about the system that are the focus of many (not all) video games - ability to master the controller and the powers and abilities of the character. And if we use a system that wasn't put together by designers worrying about that, the actual play of a roleplaying game will by necessity focus on the choices being made in relation to the game world rather than the game system. And while a gamebook has the same 'dead' GM as a video game, in a tabletop RPG this perspective can be taken to the extremes, with truly open worlds existing in living imaginations rather than fixed on paper or in code.
So thank you Fighting Fantasy - I glad that you were my introduction to fantasy adventure gaming and not [Insert Video Game Title Here]*.
*I am out of touch, but not that much. I could have named a video game - probably one that I have enjoyed tremendously - but I don't want to make this about that particular video game. This isn't about denigrating video games. But simple systems force the play(choices) to be about the world, while a complex system allows the play(choices) to be about the system.