Review: D&D Endless Quest

Way back in 1979, the Choose Your Own adventure book series began, being published for almost twenty years. Just three years later, TSR launched their own modular path adventure book series, the Endless Quest books. There were a couple runs of Endless Quest branded books, with the second series ending in the late ’90s.

In 2018, Wizards of the Coast has partnered with Candlewick Press to relaunch the Endless Quest imprint. Currently, there are four books in the line, all written by noted author Matt Forbeck, previously known in D&D circles as the author of the excellent Dungeonology book for children.

Disclaimer: I was provided complimentary review copies from Candlewick Press.

What They Are

There are currently four Dungeons & Dragons Endless Quests books, each based on a previous storyline adventure and “starring” a character based on an archetypal character class. There is Escape the Underdark staring the fighter, (inspired by Rage of Demons), Into the Jungle with the cleric (inspired Tomb of Annihilation), To Catch a Thief with the rogue (based on Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and potentially a dash of Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and

Big Trouble with the wizard (inspired by Storm King’s Thunder).

The Endless Quest books are for kids, being marketed to children aged 8-12. The books are somewhat larger than a mass market paperback, and 122 pages. They’re full colour with art pulled from the various D&D products, including concept art and I believe a few unused pieces. The pages have a “rendered cloud” background colour coded to the cover of the book. Despite the large page number, the text is a large font and there aren’t many words to a page.

Choose Your Own Quest??

For anyone reading this who may be unfamiliar with the Endless Quest or Choose Your Own adventure books, a brief explanation.

The books are not read from start to finish like a novel. Instead, you start at the beginning and after a couple pages are presented with a choice, associated with a page number. You reach fork in the road and can either go left or right. You make your choice and flip to the relevant page then continue reading with the narrative responding. Sometimes there’s a “right choice” and sometimes not. Heck, a few times there was only wrong choices, and I had to flip back three or four decision points to get back to a path that *might* lead to a positive ending.

There might even be more than one ending, with the plot unfolding to a successful end very differently if you head north versus south or follow your mother rather than your father.

The books are also written in the unusual second-person point of view. This means the book is told from the point of view of the reader, using “you” and “your” to describe the character’s thoughts, rather than the “I” of first-person or the “he/ she/ they” of third-person.

The Good

Because there are different narrative paths and the story can unfold two or three entirely different ways, you can reread the book several times. In fact, to get the full “story” of the event, you need to reread to “see it all”. For this reason, early on in most of the books there is a clear “branching narrative” choice designed to send you in very different directions. (Often literally, with the character going north or south.)

A reader can work through a single narrative path potentially fairly quickly, allowing an entire arc to be read in a single sitting. This can be useful if reading these books aloud at bedtime, as you stop at an “ending”. It also makes these books easier for kids to pick-up and read for daily reading. This almost means young reads can read them to completion—seeing all the various endings—or read them in short bursts serving as breaks between other books.

For better or worse, the books don’t sugar coat failure. If you make a poor choice (or at just unlucky) you can die. The book doesn’t just fade to black or cut away right before bad stuff happens. The books themselves quickly “teach” you this: in each of the books, one of the first choices is a non-choice that quickly brings things to an unceremonious end. From the start you’re told to think carefully (or cautiously) as the book won’t necessarily save you from a poor decision, and that just because your the hero you don’t have plot armour.. Which does feel like D&D, as poor choices in the game can lead to PC death.

In general these books are very much Dungeons & Dragons books. They feature D&D monsters, locations, and even characters. All four are set in the D&D world of the Forgotten Realms—like the adventures that inspired the narratives. You can meet and interact with characters important to the adventures, from Laeral Silverhand to the Demogorgon. The branching narratives and consequences for your actions reinforce this: you are a character in the world whose decisions have an impact.

The second-person narration works nicely complements this: reading the book (either aloud to someone or to yourself) feels akin to the narration of a Dungeon Master. The entire book becomes read aloud/ grey boxed text.

From a technical standpoint there’s decent binding. Very often kids’ books are poorly bound and barely glued to the spine. These books seem to hold up decently, which is important given the amount of random flipping and back-and-forth that will likely happen with these books.

The writing of the book moves quickly, with few lengthy descriptions. There’s not a lot of lengthy stretches of exposition and description that will tire young readers. But neither does it stick to simple words and phrases. Readers should encounter some new words, which is desirable. They’re unlikely to hold the interest of adults for long, but they’re not supposed to.

The Bad

Several of the books have extremely limited descriptions of fantasy peoples. Often there’s just the name (drow, deep gnome) and no physical characteristics. The associated pictures can fill in the gaps for readers (and words are at a premium in books this short) but knowing what the various characters remotely look like is important, especially for young readers who may be less familiar with fantasy tropes or mythological creatures. (The drow were especially problematic, being described as “black-skinned elves”, which *really* needed an extra adjective or two for racial sensitivity reasons. I.e. “pitch black”, “coal-black”, or even “black-purple”.) This lack of descriptions is echoed for several of the fantasy locations and places, which are very sparsely described. It’s tricky to find a balance between keeping the plot moving and painting a mental picture, but too often I found myself relying on established metal pictures rather than the words in the book.

The book replies on canonical Realmsian names. Which is nice… most of the time. In Escape the Underdark you’re confronted with a wealth of subterranean critter names, many of which will difficulty for smaller children to pronounce. Or grown adults reading to their kids. Those Kuo-Toa names darn near killed me.

There’s quite a few non-choice choices: options where you choose between certain death and the chance for survival. It’s neat to sometimes take the obvious death choice and die. And I suppose the option to refuse out of principal is fine. (And it can be fun to sneak a peek at a “wrong choice” and feel satisfied seeing the bolded “The End” and know you chose wisely.) But sometimes, it might have been nice to be “saved”. And this isn’t to say there weren’t always surprises.

As noted, many options do end in death. Which is a feature/ bug. It’s neat, but given the books are written in a second-person perspective, this has the potential to be disturbing. The character doesn’t get squished by a giant, YOU get squished by a giant. My son had no issue, but it is important to know the sensitivity of the reader.

The Ugly

It should be noted that the books do contain violence. This is generally not particularly graphic (in once instance you “impale” an enemy but there are no descriptions of the weapon entering flesh, the wound, or blood) and the recipients of the violence are almost universally inhuman monsters. However, it feels worse given the second-person perspective. I read a couple books without much issue, but one extended scene in Big Trouble where a giant slid into a fire was a little more graphic than necessary. It shouldn’t phase most 10 or 11 year-olds but it might be a bit much for sensitive children on the younger end of the spectrum.

As the early choices of the book can lead to an abrupt and unpleasant end, some young reads might become upset or frustrated. It’s almost as if the books are telling you your choice is wrong. Children not used to losing might have issues with these books. I don’t think losing in these books is a bad thing per se—and a lot of kids might enjoy the failure and novel experience of the death of a protagonist and the challenge of having to try again—but it’s something to be aware of when reading these books.

For younger children, a strategy I’d recommend is demonstrating how the book and choices work by choosing a bad one and laughing at your death, then challenging them to do better.

The Awesome

This is a fun and excellent introduction to D&D and its worlds and concepts, but aimed at kids who may be a hair too young to play. It can get them excited and familiar with D&D—and the inherent dangers and potential for death—before they’re old enough to join a group at the table. These might also be fun books to find in a library (or donate to said library), hooking children on the idea of Dungeons & Dragons and inspiring them to look further into the hobby.

For young readers, the Endless Quest books might serve as a nice and fairly accessible entry to the fantasy genre. They can be read in shorter stints but serve as a gateway to other D&D and genre fiction, which can otherwise be exceptionally long. There’s often a big gulf between short fantasy chapter books aimed at grade 2s and 3s and the much larger young adult fantasy aimed at grade 5s and up. Being aimed at children aged 8+ makes these excellent books for reluctant readers who can handle chapter books but can’t quite handle content like Percy Jackson or Fablehaven. These books might also prompt kids to eventually try the Drizzt novels, as they’re set in the same world (and Mr. Do’Urden is name-dropped in To Catch a Thief).

The protagonists of each book are not described beyond their class and “race”, which matches the character on the cover (e.g. elf wizard, halfling rogue), if they’re even given that much description. I don’t recall the fighter being described as that, let alone as a human. Gender and ethnicity is not described, and the pronoun used is “you”, so the protagonist can be anyone. This is lovely and allows the books to engage with people regardless of identity. It’s rare to find fantasy books with female protagonists, let alone ones for youths and children.

Final Thoughts

The Endless Quests books are not high literature by any means, but about what you’d expect from licensed books aimed at elementary aged children. And while the descriptions are light and the prose is simple, it’s still significantly more complex than, say, Diary of a Wimpy Kid without being overwhelming. And while slightly more dense, the format of the books makes them relatively quick and easy to read. And they’re fun, which means they might be enjoyed even by a kid who is at the older end of the reading spectrum.

I’d say the books would appeal most to medium to strong readers in grade 3 as well as most readers in grade 4. They might be a little too simple for many grade 5 children, but weaker readers might find them engaging: this is important as so often finding high interest books for struggling older readers is challenging, as the material is too juvenile to hold their interest. And while potentially too simple for many grade 5s to 7s, the novelty of the choices and action might make these books appealing for reluctant readers who otherwise might not be interested in reading.

Of the four, I personally found To Catch a Thief to be the best. The city environment was more accessible to start with, and there was more explanation of the creatures involved. It had classic mythological creatures (a griffon) but also had the iconic D&D beholder.

Into the Jungle was also decent, and touched on a lot of the Chultan exploration that might be skipped by parties playing Tomb of Annihilation in favour of rushing towards the eponymous tomb.

Big Trouble was comparable, but the couple descriptions of the smell of burning giant flesh toed the line for me as a parent. Not a deal breaker, but enough to knock it down a few spots in the ranking.

At the bottom is Escape the Underdark, almost entirely for the naming. This shouldn’t be as troublesome for an older child who can read the book for themselves and skip trying to pronounced the more ridiculous names. (And even then, an argument could be made that the gibberish names encourage the reader to practice sounding out the word.)