Even an endless quest has to start somewhere …
In the 1980s, TSR’s Endless Quest series was only one of a handful of competitors in the booming gamebook market to challenge the primacy of Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure books. Created in 1982 in TSR’s newly formed Education department, Endless Quest were always among my favourite gamebooks as a kid. Based on the campaign settings for various roleplaying games made by TSR including Dungeons & Dragons, Gamma World and Star Frontiers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Endless Quest made me want to write my own D&D adventures, which in turn paved the path for me to become a writer myself.
But the story of how TSR came to publish Choose Your Own Adventure-style books for the 9-14 age bracket is even more interesting. I’d always assumed the series was commissioned by TSR’s Education wing to raise pre-teen literacy, a not unreasonable assumption given that this was the original purpose behind the Choose Your Own Adventure books. The answer, however, is much stranger, and revolves around two unlikely events: the so-called “D&D moral panic” that gripped the world in the ‘80s, and the impulsive decision of a TSR employee called Rose Estes to run off and join the circus.
In 1982 TSR was on top of the world. Dungeons & Dragons was a bona fide household name, their other games were doing well, and the company had just broken the magical 20 million dollar mark in sales. No mere games company had ever come close to enjoying this kind of success. If the shadows of financial strife and internal dissension that within a few short years would see the permanent departure of founder Gary Gygax and the dismemberment of TSR into four successor companies were already looming, they were barely smudges on the golden horizon.
Nevertheless the company’s execs sensed they were at a crisis point. In August 1979 a 16-year old college student named James Dallas Egbert III went missing from his dorm room at Michigan State University. With the local police drawing a blank the Egbert family hired the services of private investigator William Dear, who found Egbert nearly three weeks later in Morgan City, Louisiana, where the severely depressed student had fled after a suicide attempt.
In the ensuing media circus the image of a deeply troubled youth would emerge. Tragically, Egbert’s story does not have a happy ending, with the teen taking his own life barely a year later. But at the time one aspect of the case stuck in everyone’s minds: Egbert had been an avid player of that strange new game that nobody could understand, not unless they were a genius or a bit unstable. That game was, of course, Dungeons & Dragons.
As the details of the Egbert case became public the elements of a full-blown urban legend emerged. Egbert had been sneaking into the maze of his college’s steam tunnels to play a twisted, live action version of D&D; strange rituals and drugs were involved; Egbert and other players of the game were psychotic fantasists who had lost touch with reality. It was only a short step of fear-addled logic to conclude that Egbert’s disappearance and death was somehow connected or even caused by the game.
Before long, moral crusaders around the world were condemning D&D for its perverting influences on youth. If the Beatles had brought censure on themselves for being “bigger than Jesus” in the 1960s, then you could safely say D&D was bigger than the Beatles and Jesus in the 1980s.
One perhaps surprising side effect of the ensuing D&D moral panic was the flowering of pop cultural responses inspired by the game’s sudden and unwanted notoriety. By 1981 two full-length novels fictionalizing the Egbert case had appeared, John Coyne’s Hobgoblin and Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, the latter being adapted into a 1982 made-for-television film starring a 26-year Tom Hanks (this film also most likely holds the distinction of being the first movie ever made about roleplaying games). The moral panic arguably reached its peak in 1984 with Jack T. Chick’s “Dark Dungeons” Christian fundamentalist comic, in which the association between D&D and Satanism was forever cemented. Even William Dear would write a book about his search for the missing Egbert, in which he attempted to set the record straight by downplaying the role of D&D in Egbert’s disappearance and death, but it did little to change public opinion about the game.
TSR watched this moral panic unfold with dismay – and probably with good reason. If kids in middle America, or rather their parents, stopped buying D&D then they could say goodbye to most of their profits. Viewing the problem as one of public relations, TSR founded an “Education” department in 1982 whose job was to repair the image of the game and its parent company.
It fell to Rose Estes, TSR’s 13th employee, to work in the new Education department. Trained as a journalist, Estes had joined the still new company in 1978 despite having never played D&D herself; as a single mother with three young children to care for, mainly she just needed a steady income. And besides, TSR’s headquarters in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, seemed like a better place to raise a family than Chicago or Milwaukee.
While researching this article I began wondering if Estes might be willing to cast some light on how Endless Quest came about. So, I did a bit of Internet searching. Though she didn’t maintain an author page, I found what I was certain must be her Facebook profile. I mean, it had “TSR Hobbies” listed as workplace, despite the fact that TSR had been bought by Wizards of the Coast in 1997 and ceased to exist as a brand name since 2000, but precious little else to say that this was the same Rose Estes who’d created the Endless Quest series and gone on to write 38 books over three decades.
The Facebook page did say, however, that Rose was the owner of the Hauser Gallery in Seal Rock, Oregon. So I sent her an email there, telling her how much I loved her books when I was growing up and that I was planning to write a review of Endless Quest all the way over here on the other side of the Pacific in Melbourne, Australia.
To my surprise, Rose wrote back that same day – which, given the time difference between our locations was around 2 A.M. for her. She would be happy to ponder my questions, she said, but would it be ok if I waited until the next morning (her time) so she could get some coffee into her first?
“The story of how the EQs came to exist is rather strange,” Rose wrote the next day. “Even I have to admit that.” Though it’s lazy of me as a writer, I’m going to let Rose tell her own story for a bit as she does a far better job of it than I would by attempting to paraphrase it.
“I lived in Houston for 20 years,” she continued. “Among my friends was a man named Manuel King, the son of a Russian Jew named Snake King, who was an importer of wild animals, many of whom were used in movies. Snake King married a Mexican woman, and Manuel was their son. When Manuel was a child he starred in a number of movies as ‘Bomba, the Jungle Boy’. An interesting life.
“Flash forward 20 years to Lake Geneva, WI, where I was a single mom with three children and a very small salary working for TSR. I was TSR’s 13th employee and I sort of floated around doing various tasks. There was no ‘education department’. What might have qualified for that title was me, trying to explain D&D to the public at large, primarily attempting to ally parents’ fears that their children were becoming involved with demonology. It was a difficult task. I did not play the game, so my explanations were coming from a regular person, a mom myself and not a gamer. But, it was an uphill battle, especially after a student at the University of Michigan went missing and was said to be in the steam tunnels beneath the school where supposedly D&D was being played. This proved to be false, but still, people, parents were very confused.
“About this time, a tent circus came to town and I brought my children to see the show. Much to my surprise, I saw Manuel King and met his wife and their children. During the conversation, Manuel, who knew me as a journalist, said, ‘Why don’t you come along? Travel with us for a while. It will be a great story.’ And after thinking about it, I agreed. So I took a leave of absence from TSR and joined the circus. I traveled with them for three weeks and one day we set up in Decorah, Iowa. I took the opportunity to do my laundry at a small laundromat in town. There was a small shelf of paperback books one could read while their laundry was being done. I picked up a book by R.A. Montgomery, a Choose Your Own Adventure book. As soon as I got a few pages in, it hit me hard, that this was the perfect vehicle for presenting D&D to children and their parents. So I called a friend and asked her to pick me up and I went back [to TSR] that same day.
“After reading the book in its entirety, I went to work and sat down with the Head of Sales and did my best to explain how important I thought the format was. He wasn’t interested. I continued to bring it up in the days/weeks that followed until he said, ‘If you think this is such a hot idea, go home and write it yourself!’ So I did just that, by long hand on a legal pad.
“Around the first of the year, 1982, I think, TSR joined Random House at a sales meeting in Puerto Rico. TSR had a number of new game modules to release and somewhere along the line the Sales Manager mentioned my book. Random House was all over that because they knew the success that the series was enjoying at Bantam.
“Long story short, [the Sales Manager] came back, dropped my story on my desk and said, ‘Write three more, I need them by April.’ I was dumbfounded as you might imagine. But I did it. Return to Brookmere was actually the first book, even though Dungeon of Dread is said to be the first. I wrote all four books long hand, also on legal pads and wrecked my right arm in doing so. Instant carpal tunnel! The rest is pretty much history as you know it. “
The first four books – Dungeon of Dread, Mountain of Mirrors, Pillars of Pentegarn and Return to Brookmere – were written by Rose and would remain on the national bestseller lists for more than six months. Eventually Rose wrote a further six books in the series, including some of my personal favourites, Revenge of the Rainbow Dragons and Circus of Fear (#6 and #10 respectively). No less than 36 Endless Quest books were released between 1982 and 1987, written by a number of authors in addition to Rose including TSR luminaries Margaret Weis, Jim Ward, Mary L. Kirchoff and Douglas Niles (a second series of 13 books was released by TSR under the Endless Quest imprint between 1994-96 in a different format and without Estes’ involvement). Ultimately the series would be translated into 28 languages and sell more than 16 million books worldwide. For young readers of fantasy and science fiction growing up in the ‘80s, Endless Quest was a cultural phenomenon.
At the time, the Endless Quest books stood out from other gamebooks. Typically, there’s a lot more text between choices in an Endless Quest book. Passages usually run for 2-4 pages before reaching a choice, but could occasionally go on for as many as 10 pages. Contrast this with Choose Your Own Adventure books, which rarely venture beyond two pages before reaching a branch in the story-tree, while Puffin’s Fighting Fantasy series adhered to a strict format of 400 numbered paragraphs per book, with each paragraph of around 100 words.
Deviating even further from the standard gamebook model, the 2nd-person protagonist of the Endless Quest books – i.e. “you”, the reader – was always given a fleshed out character with a name, gender and backstory. Return to Brookmere begins like this: “You will be an elven fighter named Brion. As Brion, you are five feet tall and weigh 100 pounds. You have shoulder length honey blonde hair, pointed ears, and brilliant grey-green eyes.”
Intrigued by this distinctive take on the gamebook formula, I asked Rose why she had decided to write Endless Quest so differently. After admitting that she never read another gamebook after discovering that first Choose Your Own Adventure, she explained that character development was always her starting point for any story.
“I’m a story teller, plain and simple,” she said. “My interest, no matter what I’m reading, fact or fiction, is what the people are about, why they do what they do. For example, I wrote a history of the Chow Chow [a dog breed] in America. I wasn’t interested in what dog begat which dog, which is what most breed books are about. I wanted to know who the people were who brought the breed here and what they were all about. So my characters, then, when I was just beginning my career in fiction, to now when I’m returning to it, are still about having a backstory for the characters. I want to know as their creator, as well as a reader, what motivates them, why they do what they do. Otherwise it’s one-dimensional and just an excuse to get from one action scene to the next.”
It makes sense to me now that the Endless Quest books felt so different. Standard gamebook design intentionally leaves a hole in the story so that readers can literally project themselves into the narrative and take the place of the protagonist. In contrast, Endless Quest books were built around the premise that the story still had to be about a somebody, rather than an abstract anybody.
Another feature of the series is the inclusion of talking animal companions. For example, in The Pillars of Pentegarn and Revenge of the Rainbow Dragons “you” play Jamie, a young wizard accompanied by a fox and an owl; in Dragon of Doom, the animal companion is Hinoki, a bright read pseudo-dragon.
“I had never had a pet until I was in my early teens and having a difficult home life and few friends, my cat became my everything,” Rose told me after I asked her about the animal companions. “I felt that he understood me when no one else did. I think putting animals in the stories gave the hero the opportunity to share their thoughts without the writer explaining it. It helped to give the animals the gift of speech so there was someone/something to act as a refection of their thoughts. Also, when they were lonely, scared, in danger, it helped them to not be alone. Comfort and unquestioning love, something we all need at any point in our lives.”
Rose Estes wrote 10 books in total for Endless Quest, all published between June 1982 and November 1983. She kept writing at a prodigious pace throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, adding to TSR’s Greyhawk Adventures and Ballantine’s Find Your Fate series. But in 1994 came the car accident, and everything changed. Rose suffered a blow to the head that killed the part of the brain that retrieves vocabulary. “I was writing the second book of a three book series for Berkeley, Troll-taken and Troll-Quest, when this happened,” she told me. “I virtually had to relearn my vocabulary. It took six months to finish the remainder of the book and the end was very disappointing. I never wrote the third book.”
It would be 10 years before she began writing again. In the intervening years Rose met Gary Hauser, an artist and former sociology professor whom she would marry and move to the windswept Oregon coast to be with. After Gary passed away in 2011, Rose ran the gallery on her own.
Beginning in 2006 she published three books on the history of dog breeds in the US, but aside from some local Oregon media that mentioned her earlier career as a fantasy writer, Rose’s time at TSR and the Endless Quest books seemed a lifetime away.
“Frankly, I thought that everyone had forgotten me until recently,” Rose wrote in her email. “I had never really been a part of the gamers and so when the accident sidelined me and then moving to Oregon, it never occurred to me that I had removed myself from that community and no one knew what had become of me.”
But the world had changed in other ways too. With the rise of social media, online communities of gamebook fans began forming and mobilizing. As people shared their love of these books, they began wondering where the writers were now.
“Recently, I replied to a comment on Facebook,” Rose said. “Suddenly I was deluged with private messages! It was very exciting. So now, I am writing an EQ-style gamebook for BJ Hensley, and Hal Greenberg has asked me to be a part of an anthology. I’m extremely happy to be ‘back.’”
My feeling is that the interest in Endless Quest and other gamebooks will only continue to grow. Partly this is due to the nostalgia of the original Gen X and Gen Y readers for these books, but I think there is also a growing recognition that interactive forms of entertainment – interactive fiction, roleplaying games, boardgames, computer games, LARPs and the like – are going to assume an increasingly prominent position in the popular culture of this still new century.
In this emerging tradition the Endless Quest books and their creator, Rose Estes, stand out as a pioneering effort to bring the depth of traditional literary fiction to the new medium. This path – or quest, if you will – has yet to run its course. I look forward to the day that a book is written inspired by Endless Quest and other classic gamebooks of the ‘80s that fully realises the potential this interactive medium promises.
You can read the full interview with Rose Estes here. A version of this article will also be appearing in Volume 32 of RPG Review.
Games vs Play would like to acknowledge TSR and Ballantine Books as the original owners of images used in this post. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, you can like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!