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Item - The Solo Dungeon

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Series: The Solo Dungeon
Author: Bartle, Richard A.
Illustrator: Holmes, Chris
Date: 1978
glyderwolf's Thoughts:

The Solo Dungeon by Richard Bartle is the first full length solo module written for "the most widely used Fantasy, Character Roleplaying" system (a.k.a. original D&D). This adventure is a dungeon-crawl in the tradition of Loomis's Buffalo Castle, with a slightly more extensive (18 rooms plus features) map and the (encouragement of the) use of the more complex D&D system. Bartle solves the problem of monster specification by removing it entirely (all monsters are from the Monster Manual), and in its place provides an extremely satisfying and complete dungeon experience for the solo player including secret doors and a complex geography. The sense of time and turn is effectively maintained, making the experience seem real in the D&D sense (as opposed to taking flights of literary fancy "you awaken three years later" etc.), and the map is interesting and fun – including explicit floorplans such as were to later resurface in the Fatemaster series and others. The illustrations, by Chris Holmes (featuring mustachioed elves!) are clever and consistent, and go a long way toward making this experience seem real. In terms of style, The Solo Dungeon maintains a credible "personable" DM such as in Buffalo Castle, Deathtrap Equalizer etc., and includes paragraphs shaming cheaters and other clever stylistic characteristics subsequently removed in the subsequent, more homogenized, era of true gamebooks. The Solo Dungeon seems like a "fair" D&D experience in which the rewards acquired could be easily accepted by the DM of a character simultaneously engaged in an ongoing campaign, and it seems odd in retrospect that its model was not followed, despite the limitations on narrative trajectory projectable by the combination of generic monsters and a true dungeon crawl – both solvable problems (as shown by Flying Buffalo).

I loved this adventure. It actually made me feel like I was practically playing D&D again and the (monster) genericism actually added to the experience. In the light of subsequent gamebooks that seem "literary but unfair" I was refreshed to feel that an explorable physical environment was capturable in literary form (despite the characters I lost doing so). The encounters were varied in nature, and a lot of bases in terms of interactive possibility (random treasures, etc.) were covered in a highly satisfying way. The writing was clever and engaging. For a "whitebox D&D" fan, this classic solo adventure is probably the best you can get.

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Shadeheart's Thoughts:

[Rating: 2/10]
[Recommended? NO]

Of the most memorable (and expensive!) out-of-print gamebooks from the form's earlier days of experimentation, few stand out quite like the one-hit-wonder that was "The Solo Dungeon". Originally conceived as part of a grander series only to be cast aside and have the rights revert to the author upon the closure of the publisher two years after this title first appeared, this little dungeon-crawling cult classic has developed a small cult following in certain circles for its impassive and irreverent tone as well as its historic role in both the development of text-based tabletop and video game RPGs (not to mention its supposed impact on future gamebooks). This is a decidedly unusual adventure in that it is (almost painfully obviously) a sly, snarky spoof of the then-emerging genre (and perhaps the only book of its kind at the time that went as hard as it did), fully expecting its readers to be well aware of the conventions and background of its market-sharing roleplaying systems. I found the title to be a particularly mixed experience in that there weren't any clear strengths... the difficulty and trope-usage is extremely generic, the illustrations are outright dreadful, the writing is hit-and-miss if you like this kind of satirical edge yet highly off-putting if you aren't a fan, and the narrative itself is about as uninnovative as a cash-in can get away with. While the book was clearly executed with a concept in mind - and the successful playtesting of this book helps this effort shine through, such as the fully-functional mapping exercise - I can't say I was impressed with any aspect of this adventure (and found the self-contained narrative to be little more than an escapist excursion, which I can conclusively say from several plays that that is all this is).

There are those who will adore "The Solo Dungeon" because it is such an early spoof of the rising conventions in the early sword-and-sorcery interactive market it came out during. There are also those who will appreciate the quick-to-get-into story which requires little bracing or preparation (though those unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons, Sword World RPG or another tabletop roleplaying game will be left in the dark). There are, still, those who long for the detached-from-everything snarkiness of the self-satiring writing style. Since this gamebook seems to me to be exceedingly short-lived-in-value and unashamedly shallow, I unfortunately cannot find myself recommending this title as a whole to the majority of gamebook lovers. That being said, there's a very understandable reason many readers still try to track a copy of this down; it's an acquired taste for a selective demographic... one which I didn't ever quite catch on to in THIS way. ^^

(Mysteriously disappears into the shadows.)

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