A Still-Potent Drug

Steve Jackson (the UK one, not the US one responsible for GURPS) and Ian Livingstone have made no bones about the fact that the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were originally designed to act as gateway drugs into tabletop RPGs – the duo having been primarily responsible for introducing the hobby to the UK as co-founders of Games Workshop.

The franchise soon gained a life of its own, however, and it was inevitable that in the 1980s height of the craze that the feedback loop would complete itself, with Fighting Fantasy spawning an RPG of its own. In fact, mimicing the split between Basic and Advanced variants of D&D, it eventually spawned two RPGs – one an iconic introduction to the hobby, the other a massively flawed attempt to build a full-blown RPG out of it. The latter has enjoyed a 2nd edition release from Arion Games – but has Arion managed to sort the wheat from the chaff?

Fighting Fantasy

Penned by Steve Jackson, Fighting Fantasy the standalone RPG book has the same general trade dress and presentation as any one of the gamebooks, which is of course the intention – it’s meant to be a natural thing you pick up and read once the gamebooks have got you hooked. The RPG presented therein is pretty much as simple as the actual rules to the gamebooks – you roll your Skill, Stamina, and Luck, you don’t really have any magic (though magic rules would be provided in the adventure campaign The Riddling Reaver), you just have your skill at arms and your wits to survive.

On the one hand, this offers more or less nothing in terms of hooks to really distinguish characters, outside of them being tough or weak (depending on their Stamina score), lucky or unlucky (depending on, uh, Luck), or amazing at doing everything or regularly screwing up (depending on Skill). At the same time, though, it’s all you need for a party of characters much liked the assumed protagonists of most of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which is extremely useful for the book’s intended purpose of being an onramp to the hobby – it means that if participants have played any of the gamebooks they already have something of a handle on what sort of stuff their protagonist might get up to.

It’s also particularly useful for getting across Jackson’s central point, which he takes great care to communicate loudly, and clearly, and with examples up to the hilt – which is the unique selling point of having a human referee instead of a gamebook as your window on the gameworld. Jackson sets this up by discussing how a tabletop session based on The Warlock of Firetop Mountain might go, and pointing out how wherever Warlock only offers an extremely limited range of choices, a player could conceivably come up with all sorts of different ideas for what to do, and a human referee can parse them.

It’s this, plus Jackson’s gentle encouragement to be open to improvisation and unexpected turns of events, which makes me realise what a formative effect the book probably had on my attitude to refereeing going forwards. Jackson does an excellent job of indicating the particular, unique strengths of the traditional tabletop RPG format, enough so that you could probably hook people on them using this even to this day. Modern videogames offer somewhat more freedom than old choice-A-or-choice-B gamebooks do, but even then it’s generally understood that this freedom is an illusion, and I think Jackson’s analogies and examples would work just as well with an audience used to videogames as it would for one which had been primed with gamebooks.

As far as Fighting Fantasy as an actual RPG to play, it’s got a couple of reasonable sample dungeons and if you get the Riddling Reaver campaign you can get some OK magic rules, but at the same time it’s likely to be a bit sparse for most tastes. It would work just fine for a quick one-shot session, where fine balance isn’t really needed and there’s no particular expectation of extended play, but given that Jackson goes out of his way to recommend other, more detailed RPGs, it feels like the expectation was that people would quickly graduate to weightier games after footling around with this. Then, in 1989, came Advanced Fighting Fantasy

Advanced Fighting Fantasy and Its Supplements

Advanced Fighting Fantasy originally spread out its rules set across a bunch of paperback books – Dungeoneer, Blacksand!, and Allansia – which were thicker and taller than standard gamebooks but still of a size you’d expect to find in a school library next to the gamebooks. Designed by Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn in its original presentation, it is now available in a 2nd edition via Arion Games (along with a healthy supplement line), with the various rules rearranged and consolidated together by Graham Bottley.

The 2nd edition core book dispenses with much of the introductory material from Dungeoneer, Bottley (probably wisely) making the call that if you’re getting this, odds are you probably already have a handle on what RPGs are anyway. (A super-brief paraphrase of Fighting Fantasy, including its intro adventure, are provided instead.) This has the ironic effect of rendering slightly meaningless the bespoke term that Advanced Fighting Fantasy uses for the referee – “Director” – because the original introductory adventure used the analogy of the game being a movie with the players as actors and the GM as the, well, Director. (This analogy is terrible for all sorts of reasons, but it was 1989 and the time of the auteur GM was dawning.)

The major departure in 2nd edition Advanced Fighting Fantasy arises in character generation, in which stat determination works on a point-buy basis within set limits. This is a massive improvement over the original, which incredibly actually persisted with randomly-rolled stats, despite the fact that a party of one PC with Skill 12 and another with Skill 7 would more or less immediately run into the Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit problem where whenever anything is remotely important the smart thing to do is almost always to get the Skill 12 character to do it.

Here, Skill for starting characters ranges from 4 to 7, and to be honest if you are not interested in doing magic you would be a fool not to raise Skill to 7 – you’ll be rolling it far more than anything else and 7 is the magic point where for unopposed rolls (in which you roll and try to get equal to or under your Skill) you switch over from “failing more often than you succeed” to “succeeding more often than you fail”. The choice is less obvious for Luck and Stamina; on the one hand, Stamina is important for the purposes of not dying, on the other hand you get a reasonable buffer with just the baseline Stamina and if you are succeeding at most of your Skill and Luck rolls you won’t have to worry about losing too much Stamina anyway. Skill, though, is so overwhelmingly useful that you’ll almost always want to buy it up.

The one potential exception is if you are playing a magic user – there’s a Magic stat in this which starts at 0 and which you have to put points in if you want to use magic at all, and since rolls to cast spells are based off it you’ll want to put in as many points as possible, up to 7, which would leave you with only 1 character point left for further investment. Perhaps the only reason not to go straight to Magic 7 at character gen and then dump your spare point in Skill if you are playing a wizard is if you are using the Sorcery magic system, based on the one from the Sorcery! books, which uses Stamina points to power spells. (Other magic systems include the original Advanced Fighting Fantasy one, which uses a magic point system for somewhat less whizz-bang powers and requires you to learn spells bit by bit, rather than having all of them available at once like in Sorcery, and a priestly magic system where the effects granted by your patron deity are quite powerful but can each only be used once a day.)

The essential choice in character creation, then, comes down to whether you want to be a non-magic user who has better-than-even odds of succeeding at most of they want to do, or a magic user who is only really confident with their magic and very unreliable at everything else, and at worst is just bad at doing anything. (In 1st Edition, magic rolls were based on Skill too, making high Skill characters even more absurd.)

After this, you get your Special Skills – rated from 1 to 4 based on the amount of training, these add on to your Skill (or Magic) score when you need to make a roll to accomplish stuff – so whilst at Skill/Magic 7 you’re succeeding more than you’re failing, even then as a starting character you’re only really reliably succeeding at stuff you are skilled at. In 1st edition, the number of Special Skill picks you got was based on your Skill score, which for my money is where Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn’s system illiteracy really became brutally apparent – not only has the lucky player who rolled Skill 12 already going to be better at everything than the poor party member with Skill 7 (and, for that matter, most of the foes they meet), but they can also buy more Special Skills, or invest more heavily in a few Special Skills. Not only are they going to be better as rank beginners at tasks a Skill 7 character might have dedicated themselves absolutely to learning (Skill 7 plus Special Skill 4 comes to 11, one short of 12), but the Skill 12 character is going to be nigh-impossibly further ahead at all the stuff they have Special Skills in.

Again, Bottley’s revisions save the day; rather than your number of Special Skill picks being based off your Skill score, everyone gets a set number of picks at set levels at character creation. This tends to boil down to having a rank-4 skill in your birth language and a brace of rank-2 and rank-1 skills. The poor, system-incompetent fool who didn’t put any points in Skill thus will likely end up having a total score of 6 in areas they have chosen to specialise in at best, so they’re still failing most of the time – but if you’ve at least raised Skill to 5 then your specialisations can hit 7 and you can start being vaguely competent at some stuff. (I take back what I said earlier: if you are playing a magician, there is no reason to do a starting character build other than 7 points in Magic, 1 point in Skill.)

That’s more or less it, beyond a pick of a Talent or two (like D&D Feats, new to this edition, though thankfully there’s a limited set, you don’t get to pick many, and they’re all genuinely useful) and a choice of player character species with associated little bonuses, though there’s nothing there that makes me change my mind about character building choices. (Being an elf gives you a bonus to Magic, for instance, but I’d say that for magician-type characters being able to start at Skill 5/Magic 8 is better than being able to start out at Skill 6/Magic 7 – whereas if you aren’t a magician there is absolutely no reason to play an elf because, since Magic rolls are rolled on 2D6, a Magic score of 1 is absolutely useless.)

I like what Bottley has done with the character generation system, but to be honest I’d simplify it even further – have players choose whether to be magic-users or not, and have non-magic users start at Skill 7 and spend 4 points between Stamina and Luck (note that each point put in Stamina raises your Stamina score by 2 so it isn’t a total waste compared to putting points in Luck, though I’d err towards Luck personally), whilst having magic-users start at Skill 5/Magic 7. Whilst I’m not usually a fiend for character optimisation, the fact is that not maxing out your Skill as a non-mage or not maxing out Magic and then putting the remainder in Skill as a magician is so intensely suboptimal that offering the choice to do otherwise feels like a pointless trap.

Much of the rest of the system boils down to reasonable applications of standard Fighting Fantasy principles. The major departure in the combat system is a neat solution to variable weapon damage which isn’t too swingy but still allows for game mechanical differentiation between weapons – each weapon has an associated D6 table you roll on to get the damage, with the result that the range of results is tighter than a D6 spread but doesn’t require nonstandard dice to figure out.

A major problem with Advanced Fighting Fantasy was that the main monster book available for the game, Out of the Pit, wasn’t actually statted out for the advanced game, just the basic version, leaving its monsters underpowered. A table in this book provides the missing details.

On the whole, the core Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd edition rules represents the best Fighting Fantasy-derived RPG to date, with crucial rules fixes that save it from being horribly, absurdly broken and generally improve the fun. Rules which didn’t make the core – including mass battle rules, wilderness exploration, domain management, niche magic system variations and a really neat subsystem for rolling up randomly-generated wilderness terrain – ended up in the Heroes Companion. In both cases, and over the line in general, Bottley has wisely decided not to commission new art and instead has licenced the original (and beautifully evocative) artwork from the old line.

This “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach extends to two entire supplements. Out of the Pit, a Fighting Fantasy monster manual compiled by Marc Gascoigne, is essentially a collection of all the different types of monster that had appeared in the gamebooks so far; as mentioned above, it’s not fully statted for Advanced Fighting Fantasy, but the bare bones statlines means it’s also immediately usable for the basic game.

Titan, meanwhile, contains no system information whatsoever. It’s simply a fluff description of the setting of the majority of the Fighting Fantasy books, and is notable mostly for revealing where Marc Gascoigne’s real chops lie – he might not be that good with system design, but he does a great job at taking all the established facts about Titan from different gamebooks and synthesising them into a single whole. It’s mostly a standard 80s-vintage fantasy world, but there’s some fascinating aesthetic and thematic overlap with the Warhammer setting, right down to the role of the Chaos gods and an “Old World” continent that’s the heart of much of the more horror-oriented and grimdark aspects of the setting.

The cornucopia of repackaged old material is rounded out by Blacksand, offering an in-depth overview of the titular port as well as some rules for naval action for good measure. Bottley has gone on to expand the Advanced Fighting Fantasy line with new material, such as the monster collection Beyond the Pit, and deserves every success in it for his respectful and insightful reclamation of Advanced Fighting Fantasy from the trap of its original design flaws.


One thought on “A Still-Potent Drug

  1. Pingback: Dragon Meh-iors – Refereeing and Reflection

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