40 years of Fighting Fantasy


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25 September 2022
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Forty years on we look at a series that brought so many gamers, and designers, into the hobby

Words by Andrew Brassleay

Forty years, 26 different languages, and 20 million books sold. Fighting Fantasy’s stats paint an impressive picture; figures that are as impressive as rolling a fabled 12-24-12 score for skill, stamina and luck before setting off to give some orcs a damn good thrashing. There’s much more to the series’ legacy to gaming than sheer numbers though.

The role-playing gamebooks, set mainly in the medieval, magical realm of Titan, launched on August 27th 1982 with the release of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Almost sixty single-player books and a host of spin-off publications were released to a global readership, before original publisher Puffin dropped the title after 59 editions in the mid-1990s. After a few years off the high-street’s young-adult bookshelves, publishers Wizard, and then Scholastic, saw a chance to tap into a market of nostalgic parents and a new generation who had been raised on a diet of RPG video and board games.

Now, Fighting Fantasy celebrates its latest landmark anniversary with the release of two new books published by Scholastic this September. Warlock’s co-authors, and FF’s co-founders, have written a book each: Sir Ian Livingstone returns for his 17th main-series adventure, Shadow of the Giants, while Sorcery! author Steve Jackson returns for his first FF book in 36 years with Secrets of Salamonis, set in a walled, wealthy citadel on Titan’s continent of Allansia.

 

THE RETURN

The iconic green-spine and dragon emblem of the Puffin series might be long-gone, but the series’ trademark game mechanics of managing stamina, skill and luck, while negotiating cities, dungeons and forests through wits and dice-based combats remain as true to the spirit of the first titles in the books as ever.

“Shadow of the Giants takes place in Allansia so readers can expect to visit familiar places and use traditional game mechanics,” says Livingstone, “there is a new town to explore and new characters to meet and I think readers will really enjoy them. I am also delighted to have been able to secure the incredible talents of former Fable artist Mike McCarthy, who has illustrated both the cover and the internal art and has really brought the book to life in a way which harks back to the highly detailed line drawings of the first editions in the 1980s.”

Sure, as with most role-playing games of various stripes, Fighting Fantasy owes more than a Mordor-sized debt to the works of Tolkien in terms of inspiration for monsters and settings. But Livingstone and Jackson have arguably done more than anyone to establish the roleplaying game as a mainstream force. Bonding over a love of board games (Livingstone was such a Monopoly obsessive he narrowly missed out on a spot in the world championships in the mid-1970s), the pair, along with flatmate John Peake, co-founded science-fiction and fantasy specialist store Games Workshop in 1975. It was in that capacity they brought Dungeons & Dragons across from the US to Europe. The launch of White Dwarf followed before The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’s publication. The following year, the first wargame played with proprietary models was launched: Warhammer. All under Livingstone and Jackson’s watch.

So, where does FF’s importance lie in the inspiration for modern gaming? Perhaps it lays in its easily accessible platform. It launched at a time just before home video gaming really took off. With simplified rules, a cheap-and-cheerful price tag and its physical space only taking up a small slice on a shelf, it meant young bookworms didn’t just have traditional, linear narratives to explore, but interactive stories that put the reader front-and-centre of the action: As Fighting Fantasy’s tagline suggested: ‘You are the hero!’

Author Jonathan Green used that tagline as the title for his book on the history of Fighting Fantasy.

“There had been some prototype gamebooks as far back as the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that they were published in great enough quantities to become really popular,” he says. “However, what made Fighting Fantasy different from what had gone before was the addition of a simple set of role-playing game mechanics – the classic skill, stamina and luck.” For the first time, readers could weave board game mechanics such as dice rolls, item gathering, code-breaking and decision-making campaigning into their stories.

“Fighting Fantasy simplified the roleplaying experience whereas over time, tabletop games became more engaging through more sophisticated game mechanics and exciting themes,” says Livingstone, “I don’t think Fighting Fantasy helped shaped the landscape overall other than to take roleplaying mechanics to a much wider audience and perhaps inspire some board game designers to include interactive elements and storylines. 7th Continent springs to mind. Fighting Fantasy was a gateway to new gaming experiences.”

Green agrees on its role as a vital first step for gamers into fantasy realms.

“Fighting Fantasy has had a huge impact on gaming, and not just here in the UK,” says Green, who also contributed several titles to Fighting Fantasy – including the ‘lost’ ‘60th’ story Bloodbones, shelved just before its intended Puffin publication, but it finally saw the light of day during the Wizard run. “I think it has been a gateway to roleplaying games more than board games, but so many of today’s movers and shakers within the industry read Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when they were young, that it is bound to have impacted all aspects of the hobby, either directly or indirectly.”

Two such readers were Ludovic Roudy and Bruno Sautter, founders of game publishers Serious Poulp and the creators of the aforementioned 7th Continent. They’ve both stated their love of FF and how The Warlock of Firetop Mountain influenced their own game, in which players explore a cursed continent by revealing hundreds of numbered cards representing places, events, objects and dangers, much like the numbered paragraphs in a gamebook.

“The game books have rocked our childhood and adolescence,” the duo say, before adding that they, like millions of other fans, weren’t averse to backtracking in an adventure when faced with a sudden death – the ‘five-finger bookmark’ tactic, as Livingstone calls it. “They allowed us to live exciting adventures and to play solo when our loved ones were not available. Drawing dungeon plans, cheating by re-rolling an unlucky die or going backwards to avoid an early ending are all memories that will remain attached to the reading of these gamebooks.”

Thomas Pike is another game designer influenced by the series. The Themborne owner co-created Escape the Dark Castle, a fantasy game in which players take the roles of prisoners and must collaborate using custom dice and item cards to overcome the castle’s horrors, traps and challenges, each represented by a chapter card bearing illustrations that draw inspiration from FF’s eerie black-and-white images. Its follow-up, Escape the Dark Sector utilises the same narrative game engine as Castle, with a few new features. The setting this time features FF’s most regular setting outside Titan – space. Players, as the beleaguered crew of an impounded star ship, must find their way out of the detention block of a vast space station

“The most powerful memory of the Fighting Fantasy books isn’t a specific moment reading a particular book, it’s more just a memory of the overall excitement I felt at their very existence – the prospect of them,” says Pike, “when you first discover them as a kid, these masses of books where you can go on an adventure, choosing where to go and what to do… that’s huge. And then you’d get your hands on one, flick through and see these glimpses of freaky, amazing, sometimes shocking images and wonder what it was all about. It’s almost as if the idea of them, those brief encounters with them, and the anticipation of diving more deeply into them, was just as powerful as actually playing through any one book.”

“We’ve built an entire game series around the inspiration we took from the Fighting Fantasy series. Our original concept for ‘Escape the Dark’ was to take the experience those books offered and convert it into a group game. To do that, we knew we had to let go of some of the consequential story-telling mechanics to offer a higher degree of replay value, but the key thing we wanted to capture was the atmosphere – the impact of turning a page (or a card in our case) to be unexpectedly confronted by one of those amazing scenes.”

Livingstone – who has developed several board games himself, including Boom Town, Judge Dredd, Apocalypse and Talisman – is rightly proud of how the books have helped fans, such as Pike, Roudy and Sautter, shaped their careers through its influence. Additionally, there are signs of the series broadening its horizons in terms of its pool of authors – Tomb Raider and Overlord writer Rhianna Pratchett became FF’s first female author in 2020 with Crystal of Storms.

Livingstone is also pleased with how it’s stood the test of time and lasted into the digital age – indeed, it’s caught up with it, with App versions of several gamebooks released by Tin Man Games.

“I think it is brilliant that parents are introducing their children to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks,” he says, “Fighting Fantasy has survived the test of time in book format the same way as James Bond has survived the test of time on the silver screen. And in recent years there has been a boom in analogue tabletop gaming and RPGs, and a resurgence in the sale of physical books and vinyl records. There is something very special about entertainment by way of physical products. I take great pleasure from just being in my room of 1,500+ board games. I love the boxes, the boards and the bits.”

“It is good that digital and analogue entertainment can sit alongside each other with no need for one to wipe out the other.”

Indeed, the flame for FF’s analogue model is also being kept alive by Arion Games, which holds the rights of the Advanced series, with more complex rules, additional lore and monster catalogues that expands on original FF manuals Out of the Pit and Titan. The latest title, Encyclopedia Arcana: Volume I – Treasures – featuring a complete treasure generation system and Titan’s weird food and drink – was funded on Kickstarter in July.

 

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40 MORE?

So, now the first 40 years are out of the way, what does the future hold? Though some of the original series will likely never be republished (and as such, individual Puffin books go for anywhere up to £400 on eBay), fans will be pleased to know Livingstone, 72, has no plans to hang up his quill just yet. He doesn’t “ever see myself not writing another book,” adding: “we are very proud of the interactive worlds we have created and we want to keep writing new adventures for people to enjoy.” And, while the traditional, book, pencil and dice analogue format will remain, he also sees FF continuing to adapt to changing technology.

“I would like to see the Fighting Fantasy world of Allansia brought to life in an MMO or persistent world Metaverse,” he says, “people speak of blockbuster games like Skyrim and The Witcher being similar to Fighting Fantasy so it would be great to be able explore Port Blacksand, Darkwood Forest, Firetop Mountain and the other parts of Allansia with a 3D character in a glorious 3D world. I’d also like to see an extended TV series set in Allansia similar to Game of Thrones.”

So, ready for the new titles? In which case, your adventure starts here. And it’s time to see if Livingstone can give a final piece of advice: now that we’ve heroically entered his gloomy dungeon, should we be turning east or west down that dark corridor? The games master isn’t giving anything away though. “It doesn’t matter,” he laments, revelling in sending fans to their doom, “you are going to fall into a pit full of poison-tipped iron spikes or get roasted by a fire-breathing dragon anyway.” 

 

Titans of Fighting Fantasy 

What’s your favourite book in the series?

Sir Ian Livingstone: “That’s like asking me which is my favourite child. Therefore, my four favourite Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are The Warlock of Firetop Mountain because it was the first book Steve and I wrote together, Forest of Doom because it was the first book I wrote on my own, City of Thieves because of Port Blacksand, and Deathtrap Dungeon because I really enjoyed writing a dungeon crawler with a cruel twist. And of course, the latter three originally all had covers painted by my favourite fantasy artist, Iain McCaig.”

Jonathan Green: “Deathtrap Dungeon is a classic that is hard to beat and Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series is a masterpiece. I was also a big fan of Stephen Hand’s books, such as Dead of Night (which he co-wrote with Jim Bambra) and Legend of the Shadow Warriors. In terms of my own, Howl of the Werewolf and Night of the Necromancer via for the top spot, partly because I think those are the fairest FF gamebooks I have written but they both also tell a good story, taking what might have been one-off scene-stealers in another story and hanging an entire adventure around them.”

Thomas Pike: “It would be between Deathtrap Dungeon, Forest of Doom, and City of Thieves. If I had to take one with me to a desert island, it would be Thieves. That setting just had some extra allure, to be able to explore a fully fleshed out Port Blacksand with all its quirky locations and shops and characters you’d encounter. It had such a vibrant feel, and wasn’t ‘just dungeons’ – though of course that can be pretty cool too!”

Ludovic Roudy: “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Especially the adventure and narrative.”

Bruno Sautter: “Trial of Champions. I have always loved arenas and gladiators.”

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