Stack Overflow: Pick Your Poison

Stack Overflow: Pick Your Poison

Books Columns Comic Books Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow: Pick Your Poison

Ready for an adventure? One where YOU get to be the hero?

  • Nah, I’m good. Click here.
  • Sounds great! Continue reading below.

When I was a kid, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. I liked trying to guess what the best move was, and then working my way toward the “good” ending (because often there were a lot of bad endings, but only one or two good endings). Sometimes I proceeded methodically, choosing a path and then backing up and choosing a different path. Other times I just picked on a whim, seeing where the story would carry me.

Nowadays, there are a lot of options, and some stories even include features that you’d expect to see in tabletop or video games—tracker sheets that include stats, inventories, and so on.

There are, of course, plenty of text-based pick-your-path books, some set a long time ago in a galaxy very close by, and some set a long(er) time ago in a galaxy far, far away. What’s your preference?

  • Close to home. Continue reading.
  • Far, far away. Click here.

The Oregon Trail series

The Oregon Trail series by Jesse Wiley

This recent “Choose Your Own Trail!” series (published last fall) with an extra dash of nostalgia is a four-book set inspired by the classic computer game. The books are available in a 4-volume set (which includes a poster map) or as individual volumes. Just like the game, you and your family are making your way from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City. In the books, though, you’re the oldest kid in the family, and your parents are starting to encourage you to help make family decisions. You don’t have any inventory, unlike the game—the story kind of keeps track of that for you.

Every couple of pages, there are choices to make: do you hit the trail in April so that you can avoid the crowds, or do you wait until May so that there’s more grass for the oxen to eat? Do you head on to Fort Laramie, or hunt for some furs for trading before you arrive? Do you die of dysentery? (Trick question: of course you die of dysentery. It wouldn’t be The Oregon Trail otherwise!)

Oregon Trail book: "You die of dysentery"
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I really like the book covers, which are done in a pixel art style befitting the old game, and there are other nods to the low-res graphics in the page numbers and other ornamentation in the book. The interior illustrations, however, are black-and-white drawings, which was a little disappointing.

Each of the four books has over 20 possible endings—but only one that gets you where you want to go, so be prepared to try multiple times! I suppose if you really wanted the full experience, you could draw a little tombstone and fill it out every time you hit a bad ending. Each book also has a “Guide to the Trail” section that gives you some advice: things to consider when making decisions, dangers to beware, and so on. The books are a mix of education and entertainment (just like the game!), and are a fun way to introduce a new generation to a classic experience.

  • Now let’s go far, far away! Continue reading below.
  • What was that about tracker sheets? Click here.

Star Wars Choose Your Destiny book covers

Star Wars: Choose Your Destiny series by Elsa Charretier and Cavan Scott

So you’re headed to a galaxy far, far away, then? Good choice! I mentioned A Han & Chewie Adventure in my Stack Overflow about Star Wars books, but there are two more in the series that I don’t have: A Luke & Leia Adventure, and An Obi-Wan & Anakin Adventure. Admittedly, the titles are a bit bland, but they’re intended to showcase the characters—and the fact that you get to make the decisions in the story. This set is intended for younger readers, and doesn’t tend to follow the storyline of the films, but introduces some new adventures… and I suppose they’re not canon (or at least the bad endings aren’t!).

  • So what happens closer to home? Dysentery.
  • Now that I think about it, I don’t want to choose any more. Skip to the end.
  • Do you have anything with more pictures? Do I! Step right up and keep reading!

Tracker sheets for Graphic Novel Adventures
Tracker sheets for Loup Garou, Sherlock Holmes: Four Investigations, and Your Town from Makaka/Van Ryder Games.

Track Those Stats!

I’ve had the opportunity to try out a few different books that involve tracker sheets lately. Although there are differences in the stories and styles, all of these do share a few things in common. First, they have those tracker sheets I mentioned earlier: each book has its own type of tracker sheet, and most are also available online so you can print them out instead of writing in the book itself, but these adventures require you to keep track of things like an inventory, or your health, or some other sort of scoring value.

Second, they’re all comics! Yep, instead of reading a section of text and then turning to a page, these are non-linear comic books where you jump from panel to panel. Sometimes a bit of dialogue will tell you to go to a particular number, but quite often the panel numbers themselves are incorporated into the drawings themselves. There are even numbers that are cleverly hidden—if you notice them, you can turn to that panel, where you’re usually rewarded for your sharp observation. Some numbers are a single panel before you jump off to another point, and some numbers head up a series of panels before there’s a choice to be made. Because of this, the bottom of each page also lists all of the numbers that are included on that page, so that you can skim for the right panel without potentially spoiling plot points because you’re looking at the panels themselves.

In today’s column, I’ll cover two lines of these pick-your-path comic books: Comic Quests from Quirk Books, and Graphic Novel Adventures from Van Ryder Games. It turns out that both lines were originally published in French by Makaka Editions, and these two publishers are translating and developing them for the US.

Comic Quests covers: Hocus & Pocus and Knights Club


Comic Quests

The Comic Quests series has 3 titles so far, but several more on the way, and are targeted at middle grade readers (at least, the ones I’ve seen so far). Hocus & Pocus features a brother-sister duo in a fairy-tale-inspired land, and Knights Club is about three brothers who want to become knights (in part because they hate doing chores on the farm).

Hocus and Pocus by Manuro, illustrated by Gorobei

In The Legend of Grimm’s Woods, you’re introduced to Hocus & Pocus, a brother and sister who attend an unusual school: here, kids are trained in special relationships with magical pets with special abilities. At the beginning of this book, you’re called in by the headmistress, because two kids have gone missing in Grimm’s Woods. You pick one of three pets (Trampturtle, who lets you jump high; Boxobullfrog, who stores useful equipment in its mouth; or Whirlybird, who can drill through hard objects) and then take off into the forest. As you’re looking for the missing kids, you’re also collecting stars that appear in the panels, as well as food for your pet (dandelions, flies, or worms)—because your pet falls asleep after it helps you, until you feed it the right foods.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book is that early on you get to choose whether to be Hocus or Pocus, and the book branches from there, with each sibling tracking down one of the kids and then meeting up at the conclusion. There are some riddles scattered throughout the book that may lead to shortcuts or rewards (they just use the honesty policy: did you get this answer? If so, you may continue, but otherwise you have to go back). At the end, you compare your star score against your sibling (roll a six-sided die and add 12) to see if you beat them! You can play multiple times as each sibling, trying to beat your score.

Hocus Pocus sample frames: Hocus & Pocus in mines
Hocus and Pocus, lost in the mines…

In The Search for the Missing Dwarves, Snow White’s seven cousins haven’t returned from work and she’s worried. (Yes, the world is Grimm-inspired, but with its own twists.) Hocus and Pocus are on the job, tracking down the dwarves and trying to figure out who’s behind their disappearance. This one doesn’t have Hocus and Pocus split up, which was somewhat disappointing, but it does mean that the adventure itself is substantially longer. I wasn’t fond of the sections where I was just wandering through twisty passages, all alike—whether it was a mine, a bramble forest, or a cave—but I did like the way that puzzles worked in this book. Instead of riddles where you just check your answer to see if you were right, you had various puzzles whose answers were numbers—if you turn to that panel and the puzzle icon matches, you have the right answer! The downside is that about half of the puzzles were just simple arithmetic rather than a clever riddle, but there were some fun visual riddles, too.

I will admit that I hit a dead-end in this one in my first play-through. Two consecutive panels asked if I had two of the pets, and I didn’t. But on the second one, instead of giving me the alternative panel number, it just said “Otherwise, is there anything else in your bag that could help you?” Presumably, I should have had something in my bag with a panel number… but I didn’t. I’ll have to give this one another shot, but hopefully it’s not just missing a panel number and impossible to solve without the right choice of pet.

Knights Club: The Bands of Bravery by Skuky, Waltch, and Novy

The other title in the Comic Quests line is Knights Club: three brothers decide to leave their farm and set off to become knights, dreaming of better days. You get to choose between the three: one is strong, one is agile, and one is smart, and they all have different stats that will come into play. Your goal is to find a certain number of “bravery bracelets” before five nights pass—and you’ll wander through forests, meet people in towns, and face some unpleasant characters along the way. Some panels include a “nighttime” icon, at which point you have to check off a night on your tracker sheet. Once five nights have passed, you head to the back of the book to see how you fared.

Knights Quest "Game Over" panel
Game over, man, game over!

This one’s a bit tougher than the Hocus & Pocus books: particularly because it includes a feature that was typical in old Choose Your Own Adventure books: death! (And other unpleasant endings.) There are many places here where a bad choice will send you back to start. Think of this one as a roguelike: you might spend a lot of time building up your stats, collecting bravery bracelets, and exploring, but if you make a wrong move, you lose it all.

I did feel like Knights Quest also had a lot more single panels where nothing specific happened, and you were just following a set path (with no branches). That part is less fun to me, just jumping back and forth for no reason other than to make it non-linear. Overall, I wasn’t quite as enamored with this title as I was with the Hocus & Pocus books, but if you’re looking for a bit of a challenge, you may enjoy it more. There’s a second book in the series, The Message of Destiny, due out this fall.

Graphic Novel Adventures book covers

Graphic Novel Adventures

The Graphic Novel Adventures are published by Van Ryder Games, which is actually a tabletop games company rather than a book publisher. They published a set of five books through a Kickstarter campaign in April 2018, and then launched another campaign for a multiplayer cooperative set in November. I backed both campaigns, and received the first five books already (though I’ve only player through a couple so far). Today, they’re launching a third campaign for “Season 2,” another set of five books.

Although these books were also originally published by Makaka Editions, they tend to skew a little older. All of them are marked “14+,” and are thematically a little darker than the Comic Quests books. The exception may be the Sherlock Holmes title, which has a cartoonier style—though the cases do range from a missing cat to murder, so you may want to preview before throwing these at your kids. Captive is about a father whose daughter has been kidnapped and ransomed. Loup Garou is about a young man who’s just been turned into a werewolf. Most of the Graphic Novel Adventures are in hardcover (the Crusoe Crew cooperative books are in softcover), which also sets them apart both stylistically and price-wise from the Comic Quests books.

The books each come with tracker sheets (sometimes more than one), which you can either fill out directly in the book, or download and print out from the Van Ryder Games website. There are also bookmarks you can download and print out that serve as miniature trackers, though in some cases you’ll still need some of the larger sheets.

I will note that Our Town, which is a western-themed book that involves building up your town (complete with a map), involves some stereotypical “cowboys-and-Indians” plot lines; American readers may find European sensibilities about Native Americans to be even more problematic than our own (which have some way to go). Tears of a Goddess is set in a fictional Asia, and you play a bounty hunter tracking down three thieves. This one, too, may be guilty of some exoticism and Asian stereotypes, just from a brief skimming of the introduction, but I haven’t played through either of these yet myself.

Sherlock Holmes: panel for questioning a witness
Question a witness in ‘Sherlock Holmes: Four Investigations.’

Of this first season, I’ve spent the most time so far with Sherlock Holmes: Four Investigations, which follows Holmes and Watson as they solve four cases that have been sent to them… by Moriarty! For three of the cases, you get to choose whether to be Holmes or Watson. Holmes has more powers of deduction, but can only question each witness three times. Watson can ask Holmes for advice, and can question each witness four times, and he has some medical knowledge that can be put to use. In some cases, though, asking a particular question will anger a witness, and then they’ll refuse to talk to you further, so the order in which you ask questions can be important.

The book uses a clever system for solving the crimes so that you can play multiple times in case you get the wrong answer. Each crime has multiple choice answers with numerical values, and you write down the number for each case. At the end, you total up the four numbers, and the panel tells you which page to turn to based on your answer. I, apparently, totally botched the cases, because I had to choose the panel corresponding to “other.” Oops! But I’ll catch Moriarty yet.

Graphic Novel Adventures Season 2
Season 2 of the Graphic Novel Adventures, now on Kickstarter.

Today, Van Ryder Games launched another Kickstarter campaign for the second season of Graphic Novel Adventures. This set includes two new Sherlock Holmes titles, two Pirates adventures, and a superhero book called Mystery. I received an advance proof of Mystery to try out ahead of the campaign, so I’ll tell you a little more about that one. (Despite the superhero theme and cartoony artwork, there are a couple references here and there that I’d say make this best for 14 and up.)

You’re a super-powered hopeful, eager to prove yourself so you can join the Legion of Champions, headed up by Mystery and a team of heroes who are definitely not at all based on characters owned by large, litigious companies. (For instance, Shadowdark may not have powers, but he’s rich and has a lot of gadgets, including a fancy car with huge tail fins—and he has nothing to do with flying mammals.) When you start off, you only have 2 power points, which you can spend on the four powers: flight, strength, super-senses, and super rich. (Yep, being super rich is a power.) You also have no Hero Points.

As you explore Chicago, you’ll have various encounters—some will check whether you’ve hit a particular threshold of a power; others will just give you choices on what you want to do. Your goal is to earn enough Hero Points to level up. Reach Level 3, and you’ll be welcomed into the Legion of Champions.

panel from Graphic Novel Adventures: Mystery, with QR code to identify Slap, the superhero
QR codes help you identify characters and locations in ‘Mystery.’

One of the features in Mystery is that when you encounter heroes, villains, and important locations, there are QR codes that you can scan to get a little bio page. It’s not totally necessary, but there are hints and tips included on the pages that may give you an edge when making a decision. Of course, sometimes you won’t have a choice—better figure out how to get some more power points to boost your powers! This book requires a combination of observational skills, visual puzzle-solving, and sometimes just good ol’ decision-making. There aren’t a ton of dead ends, but there are at least a few ways in which your adventure can end without success.

I enjoyed playing through Mystery, and I like the way that starting with different powers will force you to choose different actions, which will change how the book plays out. (I started with 1 Flight and 1 Super-Senses, by the way.) There’s also a clever “side mission” mechanism that shows up partway through the game that I enjoyed, though I don’t want to spoil how it works. I’m looking forward to playing my way through the rest of the Season 1 books, and I’m looking forward to the next season (particularly the Sherlock Holmes books). You can pledge for any number of the books (with prices decreasing if you get multiple copies), and if you buy the whole set, it includes a slip case that holds all five books.

Rocket to the Moon! by Don Brown

My Current Stack

Really? You’re not interested in any books that involve, ahem, choosing your own adventure? Fair enough! This week, aside from the books mentioned above, I’ve also been working my way through my space-related books stack. I read Rocket to the Moon! by Don Brown, a comic book about the Apollo 11 moon landing—it’s the 50th anniversary this year, and (fingers crossed) we’ll have several stories here on GeekDad and GeekMom surrounding the occasion. Maybe I’ll finally get another space-themed Stack Overflow for you. Rocket to the Moon! pairs well with Science Comics: Rockets, which covers a lot of ground in the development and uses of rockets. It is rocket science, but it’s done in a way that is easy to grasp.

  • I love space books! Blast off here.
  • What else have you been reading? Keep going…

I also started reading Creation Machine by Andrew Bannister. It’s the first book in the Spin trilogy, about an artificial galaxy created long ago by a civilization nobody knows much about, a vast Hegemony that’s rapidly swallowing up the Spin, and a daughter who decides to rebel against the Hegemony. That’s about all I know so far, but I expect a lot of far-fetched technologies and probably some space battles… stay tuned.

Finally, I picked up two comic books at the store this past week. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is up to its 9th volume now, Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes, and I’d forgotten that it came out in November or I would have picked it up sooner. It’s the first volume illustrated by Derek Charm, who took over from Erica Henderson, and he does a good job (though we’ll always miss Erica!). The first half deals with Squirrel Girl’s friendship with Kraven the Hunter, who’s a villain in the Spider-Man universe, but they teamed up to fight Ultron in a previous volume and she’s trying to reform him. They (along with several other friends) go to an escape room—with some interesting results. There’s also a silent issue involving a ghost librarian that’s very cleverly written. There is some text here and there, but they’re just little side jokes; the plotline of the comic itself can be understood even if you can’t read at all.

I also came across Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil by Jeff Smith: it’s a new edition of a comic originally published in 2007 (which I hadn’t realized until I started reading the foreword), timed with the upcoming movie. DC’s Captain Marvel is a big burly guy in a red suit who magically shares a body with Billy Batson, a kid. When Billy says the magic word—”Shazam!”—Captain Marvel takes his place. I’d known a little about Captain Marvel but not much, and I was really intrigued to see that Jeff Smith (of Bone fame) had written and illustrated a storyline for it. His version of Billy Batson is even younger than usually seen, but his retelling of the origin story is a lot of fun. As with the Bone series, Smith is able to mix some serious action and drama with goofy moments, and it was a blast to read.

  • This adventure ends here… but another one begins soon!

Disclosure: Except where otherwise noted, I received review copies or advance reader copies of the books reviewed in this column.

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