This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
Previously on Kickstopper, I’ve given the thumbs up to both of the funded projects I’ve reviewed so far (namely Shadowrun Returns and To Be Or Not To Be). This time, I cross the streams of two ongoing article series by reviewing a Fighting Fantasy-themed Kickstarter – namely, the funding of Beyond the Pit, a new collection of monsters for the Advanced Fighting Fantasy tabletop RPG.
Reminder On Methodology
As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at and can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
This calls for a little background. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone produced the Fighting Fantasy series in part to be a gateway drug for tabletop RPGs, so it’s no surprise that the series itself ended up dipping its toe into producing tabletop content. First, in 1984 Steve Jackson produced an introductory RPG simply entitled Fighting Fantasy, a very basic game which really was intended to provide a taster of the hobby and then offer suggestions for more developed games for people to move onto. Later on, between 1989 and 1994 a series of Advanced Fighting Fantasy rulebooks by Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn were published – Dungeoneer, Blacksand and Allansia – which followed its’ predecessor’s approach of taking the basic gamebook rules and adapting them to a multiplayer, human-refereed format, but added enough new wrinkles to make it a viable RPG for more than just occasional one-off sessions.
Between the publications of the introductory and advanced systems, Marc Gascoigne had edited together a collection of Fighting Fantasy monster statistics and descriptions for release as 1985’s Out of the Pit. This followed the usual bestiary approach taken by tabletop RPG releases like the Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where the book was prepared with an eye to giving people enough details on each monster to let them use the creatures in their own Fighting Fantasy adventures, whether these were homebrewed gamebooks or tabletop sessions. Being published when it was raised two problems for those who wanted to utilise it later on in Advanced Fighting Fantasy: firstly, wrinkles like variable weapon damage and armour hadn’t been included in the introductory RPG and had only been given an ad hoc treatment in the gamebooks, and nor had the various features which gave player characters in the Advanced game an edge at things they were specialised in, so the baseline Out of the Pit monsters were both incomplete and a little weedy. (The present incarnation of Advanced Fighting Fantasy gives a table of all the Out of the Pit monsters providing details on weapons and armour and so forth, which alleviates this somewhat.)
The other problem, of course, was that 1985 was actually very early in the life of Fighting Fantasy – the original run under Puffin lasted from 1982 to 1995, with a whole 41 books published after 1985 in the main series – and that doesn’t include side-series like The Adventures of Goldhawk, or publications for the RPG (introductory or Advanced), or new gamebooks that have been issued in the reprint series, or Fighting Fantasy spin-off novels. This mean that a lot of monsters that appeared in subsequent books didn’t make the cut for Out of the Pit.
Puffin lost interest in Fighting Fantasy in the mid-1990s and quietly cancelled the series, but alongside the revival of the gamebook like under Wizard Books, the Advanced RPG has been revived by Graham Bottley’s Arion Games. Arion Games are a small press RPG publisher who specialise in paper miniatures (little figures you can cut out and fold to use in wargames, or tabletop RPG sessions if you’re the sort of person who uses miniatures for those) and in revivals of tabletop RPGs associated with the gamebook lines of the 1980s – after proving he could do the job with a reprint of Alexander Scott’s Maelstrom and the production of a series of supplements to it, Bottley took on the task of producing a second edition of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, modifying it to make it a bit less likely that players will become able to stomp all opposition trivially thanks to lucky rolls at character generation and to move most of the material of the three original rulebooks into a single book (with more niche rules like the mass combat system reserved for supplements like the Heroes’ Companion). Having republished Out of the Pit and much of the other original line, it was only natural that Arion Games’ attention would turn to the matter of the missing monsters.
With Andrew Wright having completed the text, Arion Games took to Kickstarter to obtain funding not for the layout process or printing, or even to determine whether the book would be released in the long run, but to cover one of the largest expenses: the artwork. Monster manuals in RPGs in general are art-hungry beasts, and good, evocative illustrations make a lot of the difference between a dry, dull monster list and a book which is a joy to browse through. In principle, of course, the vast majority of the monsters had excellent illustrations in the gamebooks they originally appeared in – but when you are looking at licensing 250 pieces of art from a broad range of different artists, all of whom need to be paid, you are looking at a significant expense and time commitment for a small press RPG publisher like Arion. The success of the Kickstarter meant that all of the gorgeous original artwork could be used – but does this amount to putting a pretty package on a lacklustre collection of beasts? Let’s see.
What Level I Backed At
Because this project was meant to simply cover a single expense, and because he was also handling a Kickstarter for the new edition of Maelstrom at the same time, Bottley decided not to go for a complex range of stretch goals or fancy-pants special rewards that would be fiddly and difficult to fulfil: instead, backers had the option of going for a softcover, hardcover, or leatherbound version of the book. Since I already had the other books in the line in softcover and it would bug me to have one book that didn’t match, I picked this tier:
A softcover edition of the book, shipped to you shortly after the campaign has ended.
This comes out at slightly more expensive than simply waiting and buying the book from a shop, but the advantage here is that I’d get the book as part of a special print run made prior to the book being submitted to Cubicle 7, through whom Arion Games get access to the wider hobby games distribuition network, and I considered the difference in cost a small price to pay for getting early access to the book.
The Delivery Process
The delivery estimate was December 2013 (with the funding period ceasing on the 5th December) and I got it late in January 2014. This is a mild delay but, by the standards of the Kickstarters I’ve reviewed so far, a miniscule delay, and considering the usual delays getting anything done around the Christmas season one which was easily foreseen. Updates were sparse, particularly over the Christmas break, but informative and Bottley always had something substantial to show to demonstrate that the book remained on course.
Reviewing the Swag
Beyond the Pit opens with a preamble explaining the roots of the project in a definitive attempt by the Rebuilding Titan group of fans to catalogue all the Fighting Fantasy monsters for the unofficial Fighting Fantasy wiki. This naturally raised thoughts of past unofficial attempts by fans to produce a sequel to Out of the Pit, and when the 2nd Edition Advanced Fighting Fantasy range emerged this naturally brought together Arion Games and the Rebuilding Titan group to finally bring out a definitive sequel.
Looking over the monster selection here, I can see three possible reasons why monsters did not make the cut first time. The first is that they may not have been recognised as monsters. Listed here are “Amazons”, “Nomads” and “Natives” and others who all seem intended to represent human cultures rather than fantastic monsters. On the one hand, including stats for humans in the monster listings is a convention dating back to Dungeons & Dragons – really, monster listings are more properly NPC listings, a proportion of which will be monsters and a proportion of which will be more conventional foes, strangers and allies. On the other hand, some of the cultural depictions in here are represent of casual, lazy stereotyping or using people’s racial and ethnic origins for cheap flavour. In some cases, the juxtaposition of artwork and description is what really makes it seem problematic – the book has several entries for groups who come down to black guys who live in forests and wear loincloths and animal skins. (To be fair, the “Tribesman” entry corresponds to a similarly low-tech animal-skins-ahoy culture which is clearly Caucasian, but then again white people haven’t really been injured or disadvantaged over the years by depictions of their ancestors as “primitive” sorts in the same way other races have.)
Of course, here we are seeing the characters in question shorn of their context, but at least some calls on this score seem highly dubious regardless of context. Take, for instance, the Mamliks: these are a “sect” of orc-like creatures which act as mercenaries for other regimes; this is a fairly clear case of taking a historical group of people (the Mamluks) with a history of being othered and caricatured by Western culture and presenting a parody of them as an actual monster; there’s just no good excuse for that. On the one hand, to a certain extent Beyond the Pit is specifically intended as a warts-and-all compilation of encyclopedic scope, and arguably to brush things like the Mamliks under the carpet and pretend they never happened would misrepresent what was actually published. On the other hand, turning around and regurgitating this material without comment seems to perpetuate the original insult, rather than simply acknowledging it. At the very least, I think some sort of statement along the lines of “These particular monsters are included as they were presented in the original gamebooks they were published in, but you should be aware that they’re caricatures of real-world cultures and think carefully as to whether and to use them in your own games” is called for when you have shit like the Mamliks thrown in.
These entries, fortunately, constitute a small proportion of the whole. Another minor component of Beyond the Pit consists of creatures which were around for Out of the Pit but didn’t make the cut that time, usually (so far as I can make out) because they were one-off monsters. The oldest monster here, in fact, is the iron cyclops which accounted for the untimely deaths of many players of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, so there’s some stragglers which date right back to the origins of the series. The inclusion of these one-off monsters is a good call in my book, because many of them are iconic. If you ever wanted to have your players run into the Dog-Ape and Ape-Dog from The Citadel of Chaos or the Seven Serpents from Sorcery!, Beyond the Pit has you covered.
By far the largest portion of the monsters, and the real draw of the book, are those who appeared after the original Out of the Pit was published – and these are the ones that really raise the bar. In the mid-1980s Fighting Fantasy was not immune to the parental fear-fuelled controversies surrounding gaming and its supposedly Satanic undertones. Whilst outfits like Patricia Pulling’s Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons accused D&D of being a key factor in teenage suicide in the USA, Christianity’s conspiracy theorist fringe was also active in the UK, with one activist memorably claiming that Fighting Fantasy gamebooks caused her son to levitate.
TSR took the lukewarm and craven option of toning their shit down (to the point of renaming demons and devils tanaari and baatezu and removing most of them from the core monster manual for 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) in response to the controversy, but then again their primary market was the States, where wildly improbable and theologically simplistic ideas about Satan have had an excessive impact on public policy from the Salem witch trials onwards and the Christian right was particularly potent in the 1980s. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, conversely, were operating out of decadent, increasingly secular
Melniboné Britain, and they saw how the controversy was actually boosting their profile (Ian Livingstone claims that Fighting Fantasy sales spiked after the levitation incident); thus, throughout the 1980s Fighting Fantasy (like Warhammer) doubled down and as the series progressed ever more darker and disturbing content worked its way into the series. I particularly remember being excited if I found out that my latest Fighting Fantasy borrowing from the library was set in the Old World – a portion of the Fighting Fantasy world whose flavour and tone is highly reminiscent of the Old World of Warhammer, which was being developed in parallel – because I knew that this would be a particularly scary book.
This, of course, meant that the quest to develop ever more gruesome monsters became increasingly intense. At the same time, the fact that the books were coming out on Puffin meant that a careful editorial tightrope had to be walked, which in practice meant that writers had to get creative rather than jumping for cheap gore. Thus, along with variations on a standard monster theme (“let’s take one animal and make it big/angry/stick parts of a different animal on it”) or groupings of monsters focused on a particular environment or adventure concept (there’s a bizarrely wide variety of fish in here), you get here some of the most bizarrely imaginative monsters ever unleashed in a gamebook. Jaded players and referees tired of the classics presented in Out of the Pit will find Beyond the Pit crammed with surprises, and the inclusion of the old art really shines here – the old gamebook artists, like the early Warhammer artists (with whom they had a wide overlap) were really great at crafting illustrations which crammed in an incredible mass of details, all of which went to making the end result deliciously grotesque.
Another advantage of the book is that all the monsters have full statistics presented, both the basic Fighting Fantasy stats and the additional details called for by Advanced Fighting Fantasy, so unlike Out of the Pit referees of Advanced games don’t need to cross reference monster entries with tables in the core Advanced rulebook in order to deploy creatures, which makes it much easier to run mostly-improvised games. To give the new monsters a test drive (and in particular to try out the random encounter tables provided in this book) I ran a quick one-off session for selected Ferretbrainers. and found it an absolute breeze to adjudicate. Dan, who was a big fan of the the original edition of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, has some concerns about 2nd edition’s tweaks which stop the game being utterly broken in favour of the player characters, but even then the players didn’t actually find the final battle especially troubling. Though I had turned them into Chaos Mutants to test out the random mutation tables at that point.
I can see why there was a reluctance to meddle with the original text of Out of the Pit, but I think Beyond the Pit finally gives Advanced Fighting Fantasy the monster book it needs. I noted a few typos here and there – inevitable in an early print run – but otherwise it’s a product of a quality more or less on a par with the rest of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd edition line and, thanks to how easy it makes refereeing, arguably an essential part of it. My only disappointment is the lack of any monsters from the series’ occasional SF releases, though possibly bringing in science fiction elements to Advanced Fighting Fantasy is a job for a future supplement.
Higher, Lower, Just Right Or Just Wrong?
Since Lower isn’t an option (slightly surprisingly, because I’d have thought a lower tier for people who just wanted a PDF would rake in some easy extra dough), this really comes down to Higher (if I feel I’d have preferred a hardcover or leatherbound copy), Just Wrong (if I wish I’d never Kickstarted this one at all) or Just Right (if I am happy with the tier I picked). In this case, I’m happy to go for Just Right. A hardcover or leatherbound wouldn’t have matched my other books in the Advanced Fighting Fantasy reissue line, which would have bugged me, and whilst I might have saved a little money by waiting I like having an early copy of the book and I especially like the fact that Arion Games were able to licence all that glorious old artwork, which is as much of a star attraction here as the monsters themselves.
Would Back Again?
Absolutely, Graham Bottley is clearly one of those rare people who actually understands how to manage expectations in a Kickstarter, what Kickstarter is and isn’t useful for, and when throwing in add-ons and stretch goals complicates things unduly, and as far as such straightforward one-product-and-done Kickstarters go I wouldn’t hesitate to back him if he had another product that interested me ready to go.