Choosing the Right Path:
Didacticism in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books,
by Pat Pflieger

Presented at Popular Culture Association Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, 1986

Ten years ago, The Adventures of You on Sugarcane Island, by Edward Packard, was published by a small press in Vermont, and a publishing phenomenon was born. Since then, there have been at least 40 different series and innumerable individual volumes of choose-your-own-adventure books, each offering armchair adventurers a chance to choose their own paths through tales of magic, adventure, and romance.

The main premise of the books is simple. The books are not meant to be read straight through; instead, each work consists of a collection of episodes which are read in a certain order depending on the choices the reader makes. The reader, as protagonist, finds himself or herself in a situation and is faced with a choice of actions; having decided what action to take, he or she proceeds to the page of the book where the consequences of that decision are played out and a new decision must be made. Though the reader usually must decide between only two actions, sometimes three or more actions present themselves, with the maximum being five or six. Depending on the reader’s decisions, the protagonist succeeds or fails, lives or dies. A few choose-your-own-adventure have only one ending, and the reader’s job is to reach that solution as quickly and efficiently as possible; in a few other series, each book has only one ending in which the protagonist lives and the reader’s job is to reach that ending, period.

The choose-your-own-adventure books are essentially games played by one, and it is not surprising that a related type of book—the role-playing book—has developed. These works are essentially games of chance, with the reader, as protagonist, deciding the outcome of various decisions by a role of dice and sometimes keeping a score.

Though the role-playing books seem to be aimed at high-school-aged readers and older, most choose-your-own-adventure books seem to be aimed at children between the ages of 10 and 13, though there has been a series for adults and there is presently a series for preschoolers.

Some series have been linked with productions of other media, taking characters an situations from movies or television shows: thus, the Find your Fate Adventure series is based on the characters of Indiana Jones and James Bond, as developed in the movies about them, and the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Show series features characters from the Saturday morning cartoon, who are themselves drawn from characters in the Dungeons & Dragons game. Most, if not all, of the books published by TSR take their characters from that popular game, which, of course, is played in the same basic way as the choose-your-own-adventures.

Choose-your-own-adventures usually have some element of the fantastic: though there are many which concern themselves with more “realistic" events, such as studying mountain gorillas, most either take place in a fantasy setting or bring into our world elements of fantasy or science fiction such as magical jewels or UFOs. Many, especially those which take place in a fantasy setting, are essentially quest stories, in which the main character is in search of something which may be magical or mundane; often, the protagonist is concerned with ending a great evil or finding a great good, though, of course, all are just plain fun.

In the process of reading the books, the canny reader soon realizes that there is an inherent code operating here and that certain kinds of conduct are rewarded with success in the protagonist’s endeavor, while others are punished by failure or even death. Thus, the reader can learn to outguess the books, making choices based not on individual personality but on the books’ inherent mores. In the process, perhaps, the reader may unconsciously absorb a particular set of values: one which stresses a combination of confidence, prudence, gentleness, and courage, and a willingness to not take things or people at face value.

In this preliminary study, I have limited myself to 16 volumes representing 15 different series. Because of the role that chance plays in the role-playing books, I have chosen to discuss only the choose-your-own-adventures, especialy those written for children ages 6-13; of these, I have chosen only those works which appear as part of a series. The success of the protagonist—or the main, active character whose destiny the reader guides—has been determined by whether or not the character survives the adventure and by whether or not the character has done what he or she set out to do at the beginning of the work. The same value system does not operate equaly in all the works, and, in fact, parts of it may be negated in certain situations; but there are general tendencies in the works.

Not surprisingly, education in the works is not limited to moral education, though not all of the things the reader learns is practical in the daily world. Thus in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure #41, we learn not to run if challenged by a mountain gorilla, which appears to be consistent with what animal behaviorists have learned. In Blackstone’s Magic Adventures, during the course of the story, the reader—along with the two protagonists—learns magic tricks with which to amaze friends. But the didactic emphasis of the books is on a particular world view which the reader may unconsciously absorb.

For the most part, the works are non-sexist. Sometimes the character in the text or the illustrations is male or female, but not always. The main protagonist usually is the reader, and often the protagonist is either not pictured clearly in the illustrations, or the pictured individual appears to be fairly neuter. Some works have as the protagonists a brother and sister who act equally, as in the What-Do-I-Do-Now Zork series or Blackstone’s Magic Adventures; in the latter, the girl is the more knowledgeable of the two, and her hunches are more often correct. If this sample is any indication, even if the sex of the protagonist is established, it makes little difference, for girls are just as likely to have hair-raising adventures as boys.

The racial mix is not as balanced. Though black protagonists do appear in the books—occasionally making an appearance in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, especially—most of the pictured protagonists have caucasian features.

But whether the protagonist is male or female, black or white, he or she is encouraged to be self-confident enough to forge ahead and complete the adventure, but to apply common sense, prudence, and certain moral values in the decision-making process. The successful protagonist is usually courageous, confident, cautious, and caring, never giving in to temptation, and willing to trust and help others—no matter how odd-looking, for appearances can be deceiving.

Courage is of great importance in the books, for unless the protagonist forges ahead, there is no story. Sometimes the protagonist is given the option of quitting and going home, as in the Dungeons & Dragons Endless Quest books, but giving up means the end of the adventure. In What-Do-I-Do-Now Book #2, doing nothing is fatal, for if the reader decides that trying to rescue a friend from an evil wizard is too dangerous and that the protagonists should either stay in possible safety or turn around and go home, the protagonists die. Always remember Indiana Jones’s code in Find Your Fate Adventure #1—“It’s always better to act than to wait”—and be brave enough to forge ahead despite the odds.

One must also be brave enough to keep from panicking, for the result is almost always fatal. If, in Blackstone’s Magic Adventure #1, the protagonists—who have just seen what appears to be a ghost on an upper floor of a skyscraper under construction—are allowed to run to the elevator in panic, they discover too late that the elevator has been sabotaged. The protagonist in Which Way Book #18, confronted on a strange island by a wild boy and his pet dinosaur, must not run, for if he or she does, the boy attacks—with fatal results. Be courageous enough to stand your ground in spite of what is happening.

Be brave enough, also, to keep from giving in to those who you know are evil, despite the temptation, for it never works. The evil person, having gotten the better of you, will take advantage of you and/or destroy you. Giving in to the bandit chief in Dragontales #5 leaves the protagonist enslaved in one storyline and transformed into a spider in another; in the Crimson Crystal Adventure #1, if the protagonist gives in to the evil tyrant, he loses all, but if he fights the king, he defeats him and becomes king in his place. “Right never gives up!” cries the unicorn in Dragontales #5 and the reader would do well to remember.

Remember, also, to be confident in yourself and trust yourself to do the right thing. Diana, the protagonist in Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Show Book #6, having been given a magic ring with which to defeat the evil Shrieker, must trust in herself enough to go right out and use it; if she stops to practice on a grumpy talking boulder, the rock eats the ring in irritation, and Diana is left with nothing with which to rescue her friends. The protagonist also must trust his or her feelings: in What-Do-I-Do-Now #2, if Bivotar and Juranda ignore their apprehension when they follow a path through the mountains, they fall over a cliff in running from a snow monster. If, on the other hand, they follow their feelings, they succeed in their quest. Self-confidence also means not abasing yourself, in Which Way Book #18: when a blob you have offended asks for an apology, don’t be too obsequious, because if you are, you learn that the blob hates people who beg—before it gobbles you up. Trust in yourself and have enough pride to act with dignity.

But, courage and confidence should not rule out caution, and the successful protagonist is prudent—thinking ahead before acting, being patient enough to learn all that may be useful later, asking for expert help when he or she needs it, using common sense, and taking the advice of those who are wiser.

Using common sense may involve remembering what has occurred before and applying it to what may happen now. If Indiana Jones and his pistol have been soaked in the river before they and the protagonist reach their destination in Find Your Fate Adventure #1, the gun is too wet to fire; if the protagonist forgets this and insists that Jones fire to frighten a cave full of rats, the pistol misfires, and Jones throws it in disgust, hitting the wall, and bringing the cave down on the heroes. Once the protagonists have reached their goal in What-Do-I-Do-Now Book #2 and have released a powerful demon from captivity, they must remember that the evil wizard who captured the demon has already proved that his power is the greater, and that asking the demon to kill the wizard is not going to work. Use your common sense.

Plunging in blindly is nearly always fatal; the successful protagonist thinks ahead and tries to forsee the outcome of the action she or he is about to take, or exercises great caution in situations involving danger. Leaving a way out may be crucial to success: in Crimson Crystal Adventure #1, when the protagonist is entering a magic castle through the back entrance, he must decide to leave the entrance open—thus alerting hostile forces in the area that something is going on—but providing a needed exit when the protagonist is later chased by an unfriendly troll. In other situations, one must consider the options carefully. Being cautious in Find Your Fate #5 is the only way to survive: having discovered that there is a saboteur in the group, the protagonist must insist that a small plane he and his father are about to take off in be more closely inspected; if it is, the small bomb attached to one of the engines is discovered and disaster is averted.

Success also lies in not being too impatient to discover important information. In Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Show Book #6, being too impatient to solve a certain puzzle leads Diana to take the wrong path and have a fatal meeting with giant scorpions; being impatient in other situations in the book always leads to a face-to-face showdown with the evil Shrieker—with the possibility of losing. Having come to a set of double doors in Crimson Crystal Adventure #1, being too impatient to use magic to discover what lies beyond them is fatal, for the monster lurking there attacks.

One must also be sure to take the advice of those who are wiser. The most efficient way to reach the end of the Time Machine books is to take into account the information in the databank you are given before making your choices; once you have reached the evil castle in Fantasy Forest Book #2, you must heed the warnings you find, for to ignore them is fatal. Especially, heed the advice Indiana Jones gives in Find Your Fate Adventure #1, because he is always right.

When possible, go to the authorities rather than take things into your own hands. When your father is being framed in Find Your Fate #5, if he goes to the authorities immediately, all is cleared up quickly and easily. Going to Blackstone the Magician right away in Blackstone’s Magic Adventure #1 always leads to a happy ending; putting it off can also lead to a happy ending, but the possibility of failure is always there.

Among the virtues rewarded in these books are self-sacrifice, honesty, gentleness, and generosity. Opting for personal safety, especially over the safety of others, leads to disaster: in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book #10, if you offer yourself as the sole hostage on a hijacked plane, the final outcome is a happy one; if not, all the passengers are held, with doubt about whether or not they will be freed. In What-Do-I-Do-Now #2, asking the freed demon to send you to safety works only for a while, for the evil wizard captures you later, after he conquers the kingdom. Betraying friends or doing evil for any reason also are mistakes. The most satisfying adventures in Dragontales #5 occur if the protagonist does not lie to her friends and invites them along on the quest. In the Skylark Choose-Your-Own-Adventure #3, when the protagonist, who has been kidnapped by pirates, spots a schooner in the distance, warning the pirates of the ship leads to them accepting her as one of them, which ends in a fatal storm; only by keeping this knowledge to herself is she rescued. Greed is fatal, whether it is greed for money or for power. In Blackstone’s Magic Adventures #1, once the protagonists find the evil magician’s alchemy lab, if they give in to temptation and greedily change all they find to gold, they eventually die of exhaustion. In Dragontales #5, once you have found the magic crown of power, trying to use it yourself leads nowhere and you are taken prisoner; only if you give it to the unicorn who knows how to wield it are you successful.

Being gentle means not attacking without provocation, and trusting and helping others—within reason. Never attack someone just because they look strange, for you may need their help: coming upon a strange beast which looks like a man in Find your Fate Adventure #1, you must not allow Indiana Jones to shoot it, for it is a man who has information for you; if you do allow Jones to shoot, the wounded man falls on and crushes the priceless artifact you are seeking. In many of these works, fighting is not always the answer. If you can get out of danger by using your wits, try to do so: captured by a giant in the Dungeons & Dragons Endless Quest Book, by using your wits, you can not only talk the giant into letting you go but into showing you the way out of the castle as well. In What-Do-I-Do-Now #2, choosing to take weapons over magical objects is fatal, for only magic will get them past all the monsters they meet.

Trust is important, though it must be tempered with caution. Always trust those who have proved that they have earned it. In Crimson Crystal Adventure #1, the griffon whom you have trusted earlier in the adventure must be trusted when it asks for your magic crystal: if you give it to the griffon, it rescues you later when you are confronted by the evil king; if you keep the crystal for yourself, the griffon hands you over to the king and makes a deal with him. Once Kabindi, in Find Your Fate #5, has shown that he can be trusted, following his advice keeps you out of danger, though it is fatal for him. Also, trust others to do the right thing, according to their code. In Choose-Your-Own-Adventure #41, having met a deer poacher in your search for gorillas, if you deal with him on his own terms by paying him to guide you, things turn out well; once you have found the gorillas, when one of the babies reaches for your camera, you must trust the gorilla not to break it: if you do not, the baby becomes upset and the adult gorillas break contact with you; if you do, the gorillas accept you completely.

Helping those who are weaker or who need your help in some way is also important. This may be as simple as stopping to talk to a weeping prince in the endles caves in What-Do-I-Do-Now #2 or as rigorous as fighting for tribesmen who have made you one of them in Find Your Fate #5. The prince, who is a shoemaker, gives the protagonists the magic sneakers they need to escape a giant toad; having helped the tribesmen, you have a greater chance of clearing your father’s name and getting his job back. Not helping, in Which Way Book #18, can be fatal; not stepping in to help the gorillas in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Book #41 can lead to the rapport between you and the gorillas being broken.

One must trust and help others, even if they are not human, because appearances can be deceiving. As in fairy tales, power, especially magic power, is not always apparent. In Crimson Crystal Adventure #, the chest which radiates power does not contain the magic crystal you seek, but is a trap. Just because a beast frightens you does not mean that it is evil: in Which Way Book #18, the odd-looking Scrats on the mysterious island are really friendly, and you must not be too frightened to speak to them, or you will die. Just because a beast is ugly does not mean that it is evil, either: in Which Way Book #18, having found yourself in a canal, you must trust the hideous creatures who try to rescue you, for that is your only way out. Finally, just because a beast seems vicious, this does not mean that it is evil: the griffon in Crimson Crystal Adventure #1 is only greedy, not bad-hearted; what appears to be a bizarre weapon wielded by the bizarre extraterrestrials in Which Way Secret Door Book #1 is actually a translator being offered by a gentle and frightened species.

The path to success in life is not always as simple as the path to success in choose-your-own-adventure books, but the parallels are there. Reading the books makes one realize how much life is a series of choices. In any case, the choices are simple. Choose gentleness. Choose strength. Choose to trust in those who deserve it. Choose to be bold, but not foolhardy. Choose self-reliance, but choose to heed the advice of the wise. Choose not to be afraid of those who are different. Above all, choose honesty, choose peace, choose warmth; and your path will lead to happiness.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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