I can still remember that day in the school playground (that’s “recess yard” or something similar for my American readers…) back in 1985 when Greig McKinnon rushed over to me in an excited frenzy and thrust a book into my hands.
“You have GOT to read this. It’s like a story, but you’re the hero in it!”
The book looked amazing. It was called “The Temple of Terror” and had a cover featuring some kind of armed and armoured snake guy barring the entrance into a desert city.
The blurb began:
“The dark, twisted power of the young Malbordus is reaching its zenith. All he needs now is to retrieve the five dragon artefacts which have been hidden for centuries in the lost city of Vatos, somewhere in the Desert of Skulls…”
I had no idea what “zenith” meant, but this guy sounded like he needed stopped, and given that the blurb also said “Part story, part game, this is a book in which YOU become the hero!” it sounded like I was very much the person to stop him!
Needless to say I DEVOURED the book – actually, I still have my original copy (I think I swapped Greig some comics for it) and it does sort of look like it’s been physically consumed and regurgitated.
After reading this I knew I needed more; Temple of Terror was book 14 in a series so there were at least 13 other ones I hadn’t read… I badgered my mum to take me to the library, and I scoured the shelves for those tell-tale green spines. Any pocket money I had went on new game books.
I was hooked.
This started my love affair with a series of books that went on for over 50 titles, spawned numerous spin off media, and which drew me – like the tractor beam on the Death Star – towards the wider hobby of roleplaying and really grew my love of the fantasy genre.
The series I refer to is – of course – the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the co-founders of Games Workshop.
The books will open with an introduction that explains the background to the main tale. The story is then split across numerous numbered paragraphs – traditionally Fighting Fantasy books have 400 but there are exceptions – which will make zero sense if read in order. Instead, as the reader finishes a paragraph they will be given a series of choices which allows them to influence the direction the narrative is taking. These are represented by other numbered paragraphs the reader can turn to. This continues until the story concludes, either successfully – the words “Turn to 400” were the sweetest words a Fighting Fantasy fan could ever read – or…er…less successfully (usually in some hideous, gory fashion). Seriously, the number of times my eyes would widen in horror as I read some horrible description of my failure followed by the words “Your adventure ends here…”
Of course, this concept of branching narrative, you-are-the-hero type stories wasn’t new – Choose Your Own Adventure books had been around since the late 1970s. What made Fighting Fantasy new and exciting when it first hit the shelves in 1982 was the inclusion of the GAME element.
According to the blurb in each gamebook “Two dice, a pencil and an eraser are all you need to make your journey…” – yes, you’d be keeping score on a character sheet (or “Adventure Sheet” as FF called it)!
Of course, compared to most RPGs, FF was really simple. For starters, there were only three statistics to keep track of; SKILL – reflecting your swordsmanship and general knack for all things heroic, STAMINA – health or hitpoints; if this ever got to zero you were dead regardless of where you were in the story, and LUCK – which was…er…how lucky you were. Simple as these were, they combined beautifully as the engine that ran the crunchy bits of your adventure. When something was in doubt, you tested your LUCK. If you were lucky then something good (or something “not bad”) happened. If you were unlucky the consequences could vary from losing a couple of points of STAMINA, to missing out on an important item to death! When a battle occurred, SKILL and STAMINA scores were given for the creature you were fighting and this was resolved using a simple, but effective, combat system.
There was some interplay between the stats; you could use LUCK in combat to influence how much damage you did or took, and various potions and provisions were available to raise your STAMINA. Occasionally some magic objects or adventuring gear would be on hand to raise your SKILL or make you more effective in combat but, on the whole, the system remained elegant and simple.
Of course, I’m writing this with the hindsight of an adult. Nowadays, when I pull out a Fighting Fantasy book for a read through I’m scrupulously honest. I roll my stats and stick with them no matter how bad. Ever combat is fought fairly, and if I die to a monster I shrug, roll up a new hero and start again. Should my LUCK plummet to absurdly low levels and I end up succumbing to Murphy’s law, so be it – I can hope to be luckier on my next adventure.
Did I do this as a kid though?
Ian Livingstone – one of the original authors – has made reference before to the “five fingered bookmark”; an allusion to the fact that most discerning school children would keep their fingers wedged between the various paragraph choices that they came to, being able to quickly “rewind” if the room they had blundered into contained a hungry monster rather than the treasure they expected.
In addition to this, most schools didn’t really approve of clattering dice during reading time. Naturally, being the good boy I am I didn’t want to break these rules. No, far better to assume that my hero bossed his way through every combat and shrugged off all damage like a champ than risk behaving like some kind of anarchist…
Later series of the books actually came with dice printed at the bottom of the right hand pages so that players could flick through to simulate a dice roll. However, even this wasn’t a cure to rampant cheating – I’m pretty sure when I did this the amount of double sixes I rolled was uncanny (and the particular page that they sat at the bottom of looked suspiciously worn…).
Later entries in the series were much more clever in how they dealt with cheaters. Rather than let them get to the end and ask things like “Do you have item X?” (which of course I always did…) they would have entries like “If you have a key with a number on it, subtract that number from the paragraph you are on just now and turn to the new reference number…” There were even a couple that had mechanisms designed specifically to catch cheaters and punish them!
So, we’ve got a series of books where you are the hero with a basic roleplaying system bolted on. That’s all well and good (and potentially gimmicky) but how did they read?
Simply put, they were extremely immersive. This was especially true once the series built up a head of steam. Sure, the first few followed some fairly basic fantasy tropes (“Go and kill the big bad over there…”, “Go and collect the magic item over here…”) but once these had been established the authors started actually world building, and the results were wonderful. Every new book felt like a return to a setting that the reader was familiar with, and which was exciting for that familiarity. When new books explored as-of-yet-unseen corners of Titan (as the FF world was named) the excitement grew further. Over the years the series explored other settings – notably sci-fi but also including post apocalyptic, superhero and horror – but because none of these settings were anchored in the familiar and fascinating world of Titan, none of them really stuck, and this goes a long way to explain why the series remained “Fighting Fantasy” and not “Fighting Fantasy and Associated Trades”.
Aiding and abetting the world building, were a wonderful cast of artists. Fighting Fantasy books were lovingly illustrated by a whole host of talented people, and the paintings that adorn their covers put today’s computer generated images to shame. Every single piece of art – from the aforementioned covers, to the illustrations accompanying the main text, to the little incidental pieces that split up the paragraphs to the maps on the insides of the covers – helped drag you – the reader – deeper and deeper into the world that was being created. I had a particular soft spot for the maps. They just fostered a wonderful sense of “You are here”…
Fun fact, Iain McCaig who provided many of the illustrations for FF was also the chap who created Darth Maul. Take a look at the cover of City of Thieves – created way back in 1983 – and you can see the genesis there…
I mentioned the world-building earlier as the thing that had really captured my imagination and dragged me headlong into the FF phenomenon, but a special mention must be given to the Sorcery! spin off series written by Steve Jackson. Originally conceived as a product for Penguin books (Puffin’s “grown up” brother) Sorcery! was advertised as a more advanced variant of Fighting Fantasy, and an early advert boldly touted “…why should kids have all the fun…?“
I’m not sure how much success the “for adults” concept had – the editions I have are all from Puffin; but the Sorcery series was fantastic. Spread across four books and published between 1983 and 1985 the Sorcery series was truly epic. It covered a single story, and saw the main protagonist journeying from their home kingdom of Analand to the distant Mampang Fortress – home to the evil Archmage who had stolen the Crown of Kings from Analand’s ruler. The crown was an ancient magical artefact that bestowed powers of unnatural leadership upon the wearer. With it, the Archmage hoped to unite the various chaotic races that made their homes in the land of Khakabad (the corner of Titan where the series was set). Only you – Analand’s champion – could retrieve it…
I was obsessed with this series as a child, but I approached it in a weird manner. Sorcery! 2 – Kharé: Cityport of Traps – was actually the second Fighting Fantasy book I ever read and, boy, was it difficult! I eventually struggled my way through it but my first few reads were confusing. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing or where I was – my fault for starting in the middle of a series.
That being said, my nine year old self was enraptured with Sorcery’s flagship feature, its magic system. Each Sorcery title included a spell book with over forty spells. For the serious collector, you could even buy this separately – in a book beautifully illustrated by the legendary John Blanche. Each of these spells had a cost in STAMINA and was identified by a three letter code that gave you a clue as to the spell’s function. For example, the ZAP spell threw lighting bolts, whilst the WAL spell created an invisible wall. The more powerful spells cost more STAMINA, whereas the cheaper spells generally needed some kind of physical component to cast successfully. The text suggested you didn’t consult the spell book during play (after all, would a real mage have time to start flipping through their spell book when the baddies were bearing down on them?) and instead spend time to actually LEARN the spells.
I don’t know if it’s a testament to my Taurean stubbornness, but I did exactly that, and even today can tell you what each spell does, how much they cost and what artefacts (if any) they need to cast.
Of course, I still didn’t play properly with any of that dice rolling malarky but I was scrupulously honest where the spells were concerned!
There was the option to play a simpler game where you were a warrior with no spells (and instead got a SKILL bump) but, to be honest, where’s the fun in playing a series called Sorcery when there’s no actual sorcery involved…
As well as being part of one larger story (with your character progressing from each one as you went) each of the Sorcery books was longer than your average FF book. The first three books had 456, 511 and 498 references each, while the final one clocked in at a massive 800! All in all, this means the Sorcery series is about the length of five and a half “normal” FF books!
I’ve mentioned previously that John Blanche illustrated the spell book – he also provided ALL the artwork for the series; from the covers, to the internal illustrations, to the maps, to the little separator images between sections. This consistency combined with Jackson’s vivid descriptions (most paragraphs were longer than was usual for an FF book) helped conjure up a unique, interesting and – there’s that word again – immersive world. Sure, there were standard fantasy creatures like manticores, goblins and giants, but what about the Svinn, Red Eyes, Elvins and Mucalytics – each and every one a unique Jacksonian creation.
What is particularly fascinating about the Sorcery series is its internal consistency. Things you did in one book could go onto affect something in a later book. For example, in book 1 (spoilers obviously!) you meet an assassin who tries to rob and kill you. If you fight him you can kill him. Or, you can choose to spare him. If you do, there’s a chance you can meet him in a later book. Likewise, an artefact found in book 2 can give you powers over something you encounter in book 3. Most importantly, if you defeat the archmage’s spies in book 3 the archmage’s minions in book 4 will respond differently to you because they don’t actually know of your mission to steal back the Crown.
Oh, and then there’s the time travel, but I won’t spoil it…
In our modern day of video games with cloud saves and multi million dollar budgets this probably doesn’t seem significant, but back in the 80s this was HUGE. Bear in mind the most video games back then still came on tape and their level of sophistication was such that they could run on 64K of RAM….
When I first started playing Sorcery, only three of the books had been released. It’s a testament to how obsessed I was about this series that, when the fourth book was released, it went straight on my Christmas list, and I was more excited about getting it than the computer I got that same year…
As the series grew and expanded, and as the demand for the books surged, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone moved from being sole authors to overseeing the growth of the series and the worlds being created. Writing was taken over by other writers that they commissioned, and the books now bore the tag line of “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone present…”
Here the series really went into overdrive; while there were seven books in the main series published between 1982 and 1984, 1984 to 1986 saw a further 17 added to the catalogue! The series went on to see a total of 59 books being published between 1982 and 1995, alongside the four books making up the Sorcery epic.
In addition to this, FF spawned two lines of roleplaying games. The first “series” (and I’m using this term loosely based upon when they were released – I’m not aware they were an official series as such) was composed of “Fighting Fantasy: the Introductory Roleplaying Game”, “The Riddling Reaver” (a campaign dealing with the titular villain), “Out of the Pit” (Fighting Fantasy’s equivalent of a monster manual) and “Titan” (the guide to the FF world).
The idea for FF as a roleplaying game was the brainchild of Steve Jackson. He and Ian Livingstone were both D&D players (indeed, their early business had been based off importing and selling D&D to the British market) but Jackson wanted to create a really simple RPG – something as simple as multiplayer FF. The book was small and thin, but it contained enough goodness for a prospective GM to run a nice, simple campaign – provided they were willing to put the leg work into writing one…
…or providing they were willing to buy a copy of “The Riddling Reaver”.
This campaign saw the adventurers pursue said Reaver – an agent of the Trickster gods of Luck and Chance – and attempt to stop his unhinged schemes. I ran this for my friends as a kid and I remember being so determined to prepare it properly that I was caught reading it in class when I should have been paying attention to something else… My campaign went on hold for a month after the teacher confiscated it, and no amount of protestations to my parents about the injustice of it all would convince them to march down to the school and demand it back.
The Riddling Reaver is split into several chapters, and the story follows the characters as the pursue the Reaver for the murder of a local nobleman. It’s not exactly taxing on the brain, nor will you find enormously detailed dungeon floorplans, but the feeling of it is VERY Fighting Fantasy. I’ve yet to reread it, but I recall my players enjoying it enormously back in the day.
“Out of the Pit” and “Titan” are in effect the setting books for an FF campaign, but they’re also great reads in their own right. I remember buying Out of the Pit from McDougal’s bookshop in Paisley, and reading a large portion of it on the bus on the way home, my attention gripped by all the foul monsters that populated its pages as well as the fantastic artwork. Titan gives a great view of the history and setting of the FF world, and is full of great little nuggets of information that could be used for expanding into larger adventures or campaigns. In fact, I’d wager that the setting of Titan is more fully realised than some “grown up” roleplay settings.
Interestingly, both “Titan” and “Out of the Pit” were both originally published in a format larger than the usual A5. These books came with beautiful colour plates that I remember some philistines ripping out to use as posters.
The second “series” were the “Advanced Fighting Fantasy” books. These originally came in three volumes – Dungeoneer, Blacksand and Allansia – covering dungeon, city and wilderness adventures respectively. As well as containing rules for playing more complex FF RPGs, each volume also included sample adventures. Allansia was probably my favourite as it came packed with detail about the the world of Titan as well as additional rules (including those for massed combat!).
Years later, these books were rereleased by Arion games in one large volume as “Advanced Fighting Fantasy Deluxe”. Given that it came with all the AFF information as well as that from Titan and Out of the Pit this is probably as complete a Fighting Fantasy RPG as you could ever want!
Although the original FF series ended in 1995 with the publication of the 59th book, the series has been resurrected a couple of times since, and is currently published by Scholastic Books. There have been additions to the line up of books published since the first run and the most recent book – Assassins of Allansia – is a particular toughie. Even though the newer books don’t have the traditional green spine – these ones are all fancy and shiny! – the writing is still pure FF.
So, in a month where I’m taking part in an event to celebrate all things fantasy, I can’t think of something more fitting to write about than the series that got me absolutely hooked on the genre. A series that promised me that “YOU decide which route to follow, which dangers to risk and which monsters to fight.”
Which was always easier with a five-fingered bookmark.