In 1980, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston effectively invented the concept of the solo role-playing gamebook with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first (and some say, still the best) of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. After a slow start, the books became a phenomenal success, spawning over fifty books in the series and countless imitators (such as the Lone Wolf series).

In 1984, after writing four more books, Jackson decided to take what he'd learned and write the biggest, most detailed, and most innovative gamebook series ever. The result was Steve Jackson's Sorcery!

The overall storyline of Sorcery! was that there existed an ancient crown, the Crown of Kings, and whoever wore it possessed great power and knowledge. This power was supposed to be used by rulers to guide and serve their people (any resemblance to certain Rings of Power will go unmentioned here.) Rather than go to war over the Crown, each of the empires decided to share the Crown, allowing each emperor to wear it for a four-year period, after which it would be given to the next emperor.

Two years into Analand's tenure with the Crown, it was stolen away by minions of the Archmage of Mampang, who resides deep in Kakhabad, a lawless, unruled area that was dangerous, but until now no real threat to the established empires.

But with the Crown, the Archmage can turn Kakhabad into his own evil empire and forge an army with which to attack the now weakened surrounding empires.

Analand has now been completely disgraced. Their only hope is to send a lone Hero to attempt to retrieve the Crown. That Hero is the player.

The Sorcery! Books
Sorcery! was published as five books, all published by Penguin or Viking Press:

The Shamutanti Hills - The first, shortest, and easiest chapter of the story, it details the departure of the hero from his homeland of Analand, his crossing of the dangerous Shamutanti Hills and his arrival at the city of Kharé.

Kharé - Cityport of Traps - Second in the series, it picks up at the West Gate of Kharé and carries the player through the city, across the great Jajubi River it sits on, and to the North Gate, entrance to the Baklands. This book is significantly harder than the first, with tons of strange and interesting puzzles and situations for the player to unravel. It is also my personal favorite of the series.

The Seven Serpents - Third in the series, this book details the crossing of the Baklands as the player approaches Mampang. Seven Serpents were released from Kharé to warn the Archmage of the Hero's coming, and it would be best for the Hero if they never made it to their destinations.

The Crown of Kings - Fourth and last in the series, the largest gamebook of its type ever created (800 paragraphs) and quite possibly the most difficult, The Crown of Kings details the Hero's infiltration of Mampang Fortress and (hopefully) the death of the Archmage and the retrieval of the Crown of Kings.

The Sorcery! Spell Book - Not a gamebook, but a list of the forty-eight spells available to the character in Sorcery!, each with a bit of backstory and a beautiful illustration. Not completely necessary to play, as the game doesn't require you to use magic (it's just really, really helpful) and the spells are also listed in the back of The Crown of Kings and in all the books in later printings.

Though this technically isn't an innovation, I must mention the absolutely superb artwork. The books are loaded with both partial and full-page illustrations, all by John Blanche. His masterful blending of the beautiful and the evocative or terrifying suits Jackson's story of one against an evil empire perfectly and makes a great book even better.

While gamebooks like the Fighting Fantasy series are interesting, their critics level a deserved charge that once you've beaten one, there's no need to ever play it again - the correct path through the adventure is linear.

Sorcery! had a ton of innovations, all of which were designed to fight this aspect of gamebooks and allow the adventure to become less linear and more unique for each player. One player may enter an area another player missed, and gain an item or a contact that will aid them later on in the adventure. The other player may not have this item or contact, but it doesn't mean he can't succeed, just that it might be harder.

The Seven Serpents exemplifies this best. The player is trying to make his way across the Baklands while simultaneously searching for the Seven Serpents. It is entirely possible to make it to the end of the book having seen neither hide nor hair of any of the Serpents. Such a player will have to face a Mampang Fortress on full alert, ready for the player's attempt at infiltration.

But if the player can find and kill all seven serpents, then the player is given specific instructions - when he gets to Mampang, if he ever meets a character who recognizes him and uses the specific phrase "the Analander", he can turn a certain number of paragraphs back in the book and encounter a version of that situation where he isn't recognized, allowing him to avoid many fights and other sticky situations. The brilliance of this is not only that it works like a charm, but that players who didn't kill all the Serpents won't have any clue of what they are missing - it's effectively cheatproof.

Another example is that of Vik. In certain situations of the game you can cast a spell, and you'll be given the option of five spells you can cast. Each spell is designated by a three-letter identifier. In an effort to prevent players from guessing, Jackson often seeded the options with fake spellnames - trying to cast such a spell costs lots of fatigue and blows your chance to cast.

But Vik isn't a spell - it's the name of a contact you can make early on in your adventure. It will be presented as a spell you can cast, but if you choose it, you'll drop Vik's name and your captors or attackers will probably change their minds and let you go or live, since they are also friends of Vik.

Again, the beauty is that the players who never find out about Vik don't know what they are missing - they will simply assume that VIK is just another red herring spell.

Also, though each gamebook is a standalone adventure, the adventure as a whole becomes easier if the books are all purchased and played in order. For instance, if the player plays through The Shamutanti Hills and defeats the manticore at the end of that book, he will be rewarded with a key that will let him enter Kharé without having to deal with the guards at the gate.

And finally, there is Libra. Libra is the Hero's patron goddess, and he can call upon her to help when he really gets in a bind. Jackson uses this successfully to give players an out when they've hit a dead end through dumb decisions - the text will give you the option to call upon Libra (only once per gamebook!) and she'll set you back on track. You can also call upon her to heal all your wounds and restore your Luck score, even in the middle of combat, though again, only once per adventure.

Like many Fighting Fantasy-style gamebooks, the main drawback is that there are many ways to die during the course of the adventure, some completely arbitrary. One good example comes from Kharé: sleep in the inn and the Hero wakes up with his arm tied to a guillotine by the psychotic innkeeper. The inkeeper gives the player a simple choice - pull the rope, or let it go. One choice kills the Hero, the other sets him free. Unfortunately, there are no clues as to what the player should do - there's nothing in the text, and the accompanying illustration doesn't help. The option of calling on Libra here is not given. Instead, the player must simply guess, and losing a character this way can be very frustrating. There are many situations like this throughout the game, and Jackson expects players to simply lose their characters, make a note reminding themselves of the right answer for next time, and start over. What's much more likely, of course, is that players will cheat.

Even with its shortcomings, Sorcery! is solo fantasy's magnum opus, a masterwork. Playing through it was a joy, and more fun than a lot of group role-playing sessions I've had. While the books are not currently in print, they are not hard to find.