The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 1)

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.

The Reading Canary: A Reminder

Series of novels – especially in fantasy and SF, but distressingly frequently in other genres as well – have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

Fighting Fantasy: Solitary Pursuits of the Young and Geeky

If you weren’t a kid in the UK in the 1980s or early 1990s, and if you weren’t an especially bookish sort, you might have been forgiven for not noticing the gamebook explosion that took place around that time. “Gamebooks” were stories which invariably promised to make YOU the hero (not lowercase-you, always the capitalised YOU) through the aid of numbered paragraphs representing the branching choices you face as you tackle the plot of the book. (“If you want to fight the crippling loneliness and actually go outside for once, turn to paragraph 138; if you want to give in and spend the evening idly jerking off to porn channel previews, turn to paragraph 212.”) In the States, of course, you had the Choose Your Own Adventure craze, but it was in the UK where the mania really took hold, and it was all thanks to Fighting Fantasy.

Fighting Fantasy was the brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, who as the founders of Games Workshop have probably inspired more geekery than the British Isles has ever previously seen. Previously, Jackson and Livingstone had concentrated on importing American RPGs and wargames, introducing Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, and other classics to a European audience; in 1983, Games Workshop would produce the first version of Warhammer, a line which would rapidly end up consuming the entire business and reshaping it in its image. Whilst both efforts represent major achievements in gaming, it is the development of Fighting Fantasy and the release of the first gamebook in 1982 for which Jackson and Livingstone are primarily known, simply because Fighting Fantasy was a phenomenon which reached beyond the roleplaying and wargaming subcultures and entered the popular consciousness, as well as recruiting a new generation of awkward speccy spods into the gaming scene which spawned it. Just as American tabletop roleplayers of a certain age tend to have a soft spot in their hearts for the so-called “Red Box” edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, so too does an entire generation of British dice-tossers feel a certain admiration for the Fighting Fantasy series.

The question is, is it justified? Is there any enjoyment to be derived through playing through the gamebooks today, or have computer games completely supplanted whatever niche the humble gamebook once occupied? These are the sort of questions that the Reading Canary was hatched to deal with.

The unusual format gamebooks present demands an unusual format for the reviews, so I’m going to use a fun little formula to give these things some structure. I’ll start off by describing the essential scenario presented by the book, the basic premise which sets up the action; then I’ll talk about any interesting variants to the standard Fighting Fantasy system used by the book, and summarise the gear you start out with. Then I will go into my actual experiences playing the damn thing, because nothing can possibly be more interesting than someone enthusing at you about how they completely ruined some orc chef’s day.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Scenario

This debut effort, released in 1982, was the first encounter many people had with the series, and as well as being fondly remembered to this day enjoys the distinction of being one of the few adventures which had a direct sequel published. At the same time, it stands apart from the rest of the series by having a gloriously simple and unpretentious plot: the warlock who lives in Firetop Mountain is a menace who is believed to have fat stacks of loot stashed away in there, you’ve decided to head off to see if you can’t kill him and take his stuff. You’re given a few hints at the beginning to steer you right – you’re advised to make a map, it’s mentioned that the warlock’s treasure chest requires at least two special keys to open, and there is One True Path through the dungeon, which any character should be able to navigate with a minimum of risk – but this is basically one of the most simple and straightforward plots the series would present.

What especially impresses me about is that, coming as they did from the gaming scene, Jackson and Livingstone must have been aware of the growing tendency towards complex systems and detailed plots and stories in RPG circles (in 1982 Rolemaster, with its masses of tables, was the hot new entry on the scene, and TSR was starting development on Dragonlance, a series of products which would emphasise linear storytelling in Dungeons & Dragons like never before) , and yet they appear to have deliberately chosen to make a product that harks back to the simpler days of the mid-1970s. It seems to have struck a chord at the time.

System

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain debuted the Fighting Fantasy system, and the version presented therein is as close to the “default” as any; while a number of later books in the series would add further embellishments to the system and experiment it in various ways, a fair number also used it without modification.

Jackson and Livingstone were not, of course, working in a vacuum when they designed the Fighting Fantasy system, and they seem to have taken a certain amount of inspiration from the Tunnels & Trolls rules. Tunnels & Trolls was one of the first RPGs published; designed by Ken St. Andre as a response to what he considered a lack of clarity in the Dungeons & Dragons rules, T&T had, in 1982, already spawned a number of “solo adventures” – essentially gamebooks that you could play through using the T&T rules. (Corgi Books in fact republished a number of these, as well as a mass market edition of the Tunnels & Trolls rules, in response to the success of Fighting Fantasy.) The two elements of Tunnels & Trolls that Jackson and Livingstone took inspiration from happen to be the ones which make the system most suitable for solo gaming: a reliance solely on six-sided dice, necessary if you are going to market solo gamebooks to readers who might not have access to the more esoteric dice used in Dungeons & Dragons, and a highly abstract combat system, relying simply on rolling a number of dice, adding the various bonuses the player’s character possesses based on their attributes and equipment, and comparing it to a similar roll on the part of the monster(s) the character is battling and seeing which side got the higher total.

Having taken these two ideas from the Tunnels & Trolls system, Jackson and Livingstone proceeded to craft a set of rules which were much more simple than the T&T rules; whereas the T&T game was designed first to be played in face-to-face tabletop roleplaying sessions in which rules questions can be adjudicated by a Games Master, and was later applied to solo adventuring, the Fighting Fantasy system was designed first to provide a basis for solo play, and was only later expanded in other publications to be used as a tabletop RPG system. This meant that Jackson and Livingstone could dispense with almost all of the considerations that would inform the design of a conventional RPG – coming up with statistics for the effectiveness of different types of weapons and armour, devising spot rules for dealing with unusual situations, and so on – since any out of the ordinary situation could be dealt with simply by specifying a particular penalty or bonus as it comes up in the course of the adventure.

The core Fighting Fantasy rules are therefore very simple: they involve generating the three basic attributes of your character, adjudicating fights with monsters and adversaries, and means by which your attributes can be restored (aside from the occasional bonuses you might gain in the course of the adventure). A Fighting Fantasy character, in the basic Firetop Mountain iteration of the rules, has three attributes. Skill (your starting value of which is determined by rolling one six-sided die and adding six) represents the general competence of your character at, well, quite a lot actually: fighting, kicking down doors, operating complex machinery, any pursuit where your personal skill and training has more impact than random chance. Luck (your score in which, again, ranges from 7 to 12 based on the roll of one die) represents how greatly fortune smiles on you, and how likely you are to succeed at efforts where random chance and external factors are more relevant than your personal abilities (it can also give you bonuses in fights, although since your Luck drops by 1 point every time you use it wasting it in fights is insane except in dire circumstances). Stamina, found by rolling two dice and adding 12 to the result, represents how much physical mistreatment your character can endure before expiring.

Combat is simply a matter of rolling two dice for each participant, adding the skill of each combatant to their roll, and seeing who got highest; the person who rolls highest inflicts a set amount of Stamina damage (usually 2 points, although Luck and other circumstances can vary this) to their opponent. Various means exist by which your attributes can be restored to their initial values if they have been depleted; you begin the adventure with 10 Provisions, parcels of food which restore 4 Stamina points when you eat them (although you can only eat them when the text tells you that you can, and you can only eat one at a time); you also get 2 doses of a Potion of either Strength, Stamina, or Luck (you pick which Potion you want at the start of the game). Each dose will completely restore the attribute in question; the Luck Potion will also boost your maximum Luck level by 1 point, perhaps in recognition of the fact that restoring your Luck isn’t quite as useful as restoring your Skill or Stamina.

Gear

While we’re on the subject, Firetop Mountain also provides the stalwart adventurer with an extremely archetypal (cruel people would say generic) assortment of equipment: aside from the aforementioned Provisions and Potions, you start out with a sword, some leather armour, a shield, a backpack, and a lantern. This is almost precisely the sort of thing a level 1 Fighter in a Dungeons & Dragons game would probably buy with their starting cash. It also provides an awesomely exploitable loophole in the system, which I’ll get to later on.

First Run

Skill: 9
Stamina: 24
Luck: 12
Potion Choice: Potion of Stamina.

The first thing that struck me about The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is that, after impressing upon you the fact that there is only one true path to the ending, it opens with a choice between taking two entirely indistinguishable passages at a t-junction. This happens several times in the early portion of the adventure, and while in most cases if you take the wrong branch it’ll go to a dead end and you’ll end up going back to the t-junction and taking the other corridor, there is one particular junction like this where if you take the wrong path you will not be able to win the game in the run in question. This means that mapping the dungeon is pretty important, and you’ll have to rely on your map in future runs to remember where the various keys are, and which portions of the dungeons you have not explored yet. On one hand, this does require you to rely on out-of-character knowledge to beat the game (unless you are ludicrously lucky on your first go), which massively violates Ron Gilbert’s rules on writing adventure games that don’t suck, but what sucks in the field of computer games turns out to be excellent fun when it comes to Fighting Fantasy; the dungeon of Firetop Mountain is varied enough that aside from a few incidents your second run-through could be completely different from the first, allowing you to explore a variety of different situations. (Also, the gamebook format doesn’t really allow for saved games – I could make comparisions to roguelikes at this point but I’d be going off on a massive tangent).

Also, it has to be said that mapping Firetop Mountain is a hell of a lot of fun, not least because Jackson and Livingstone’s descriptions are unfailingly precise and clear, and the whole thing does eventually join together to form a fairly coherent whole. Making a start on a decent map is probably the best thing you can do in a first stab at Firetop Mountain, not least because there’s a particularly fiendish labyrinth towards the end where you’re not likely to find the exit (except by chance) unless you map carefully; also, it vastly speeds up later run-throughs if you know precisely which parts you have yet to explore.

The other thing which makes exploring Firetop Mountain such a pleasure is the prose. Whilst this adventure does not have a detailed plot or any extended interactions with NPCs, as later Fighting Fantasy adventures did, what it does boast is some really nice location descriptions; short and simple enough that you have a clear idea of what’s going on, but evocative enough to invest some real flavour into the Warlock’s ‘hood. Little details, like the dozing orc’s pet rat that he keeps in a box with his life’s savings, make the place feel like a real living and breathing location, not just a venue for monster-bashing.

That said, having discovered a magic sword and shield, I did a fair amount of bashing this time around, and even managed to kill the Warlock’s pet dragon in single combat. I did, however, run into some difficulty at the end when it transpired that the Warlock’s treasure chest requires three keys to open, not two as the introduction implies. But armed with a decent map, I was sure that I would be able to find enough keys in my next run.

Second Run

Skill: 11
Stamina: 20
Luck: 7
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.

On this run I realised that whilst the basic game rules provide guidelines for what you do when you are fighting multiple opponents, you never actually use them – every time you fight more than one monster, the paragraph text explicitly tells you to “fight them one at a time”. Oh, well.

Another thing I noticed was that while there are some items in Firetop Mountain, like the magic sword and shield I found in the first run, they tend to require either a successful Skill test or a quite difficult combat (which you need a decent skill to survive) in order to obtain, so people with utterly crap Skill scores are going to have serious trouble compensating for them.

Speaking of collecting items, there’s a number of objects you can collect during the course of play which are sufficiently bulky that you have to leave another item behind – except you’re loaded down at the beginning with items like your lantern, armour, sword and shield which you can happily dispense with, since there are no penalties specified in the text for adventuring without armour, or without light; this would appear to be a case of the designers’ desire to present a dungeoneering experience true to those offered by tabletop RPGs overriding their common sense.

Also, I note that you don’t just have to collect three keys – you also need the correct three keys, otherwise pain comes your way. A third run beckons.

Third Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 23
Luck: 7
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.

I cheated a little, this time – I decided to have my character drink the entire Potion of Fortune straight away to insta-boost my Luck score to 9, since top-ups to your Luck score are ludicrously plentiful in Firetop Mountain compared to later Fighting Fantasy books.

Then I cheated like a raging fuck by using the time-honoured practice of marking paragraphs with a finger so you can go back to them, but for fuck’s sake, I had only two or three rooms left to search for keys and they were on completely opposite sides of the dungeon. I find it extremely interesting that you have to fight a Skill 10 Iron Golem to get one of the crucial keys you need to beat the game, and this before you have a chance to get any items which boost your combat abilities – precisely how the fuck is a Skill 7 character supposed to win this?

The thing about Firetop Mountain is that whilst, yes, granted, it’s a classic, it’s also immensely repetitive to go through the same rigmarole over and over again until you find the correct keys, and while it can throw up enough variation to keep my interest in the first and second time through, by this third run I lost my patience. To a certain extent, Firetop Mountain‘s ultra-simple premise and execution makes it seem more like a proof-of-concept sketch than a fully fleshed-out adventure, and I suppose it’s notable that this is the only time Jackson and Livingstone actually collaborate on an adventure; their future contributions to the series would be solo jaunts, allowing Steve to perfect the fine art of coming up with exotic ways to arbitrarily kill the player whilst Ian developed his skills at presenting intricate-yet-mappable environments for adventures.

The Citadel of Chaos

Scenario

Jackson is first up to bat in 1983, and proceeds to inject a fat dose of Michael Moorcock metaphysic into the Fighting Fantasy mileau. The backstory to Citadel of Chaos is littered with ideas lifted from Dungeons & Dragons from references to half-elves to a cosmological battle between the forces of Law and Chaos; the Elric-inspired take on Chaos presented here would not only inform the later development of the Fighting Fantasy setting (when it was decided later on to tie many of the gamebooks together into a single setting), but would also strongly influence the development of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. It also presents a sword & sorcery-inspired story, rather the somewhat bland D&D dungeon fantasy of the first book, in which the evil wizard Balthus Dire (what a name!) is plotting to launch an invasion of the good realm, and as a trainee wizard you have to infiltrate his citadel and assassinate him.

System

Since you’re a wizard, this provides Jackson with an opportunity to experiment with modifications and additions to the standard Fighting Fantasy system, something he tended to do far more frequently than Livingstone. In this case, he dispenses with the Provisions and Potions of the previous book and provides the player with an arsenal of magic spells, providing a range of effects. The magic system is fairly simple: you have a Magic score, obtained by rolling 2 dice and adding 6 to the result; you get to pick that many spells from the list of 12, bearing in mind that whenever you cast a spell you lose it (so if you want to cast it twice during the game, you usually have to buy it twice at the beginning, although there are ways around this). Again, I think Steve was reading a lot of Dungeons & Dragons materials at the time, since this is highly reminiscent of the so-called “Vancian” magic system of D&D. The Skill, Stamina, and Luck spells take the place of the relevant Potions; the other spells are mainly useful for getting you out of tight spots during the adventure, and can only be used when the text offers you the opportunity to use them.

Gear

You don’t get much special this time around – just your sword, your leather armour, your lantern and your backpack.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina: 21
Luck: 10
Magic: 12. I picked 1 of each spell.

What I found especially striking in my first run through of the adventure was that there are plenty of ways to avoid getting into fights; often an item or clue obtained earlier in the adventure can be used to bypass a fight, or failing that a spell can get you out of trouble. The other thing I noted was that this adventure has especially bizarre monsters – there’s a gorilla with a dog’s head and a dog with a gorilla head guarding the front gate, a rhino man guarding the inner gate, a squad of monsters that look like tiny wheels with legs respond to the burglar alarm and I was killed by the Ganjees, a squad of glowing floating heads with a bad attitude. Oh well…

Second Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 16
Luck: 12
Magic: 13. I picked 1 of each spell, plus an extra Levitation spell since the Ganjees caused me to fall to my death last time.

It becomes apparent on the second run that this is an extremely linear adventure – after getting into the Citadel you have to pass through the inner gate, you have to go through the dining hall, and you have to encounter the Ganjees. Firetop Mountain seemed much less constrained, even though it probably had just as many mandatory encounters, because it branched out more between them; the Citadel, on the other hand, is downright caustrophobic.

Oh, and one of the crucial element of the One True Path is finding a way to get past the damn Ganjees. They killed me again – apparently Levitation doesn’t save you.

Third Run

Skill: 9
Stamina: 17
Luck: 19
Magic: 16. I picked 1 of each spell, plus extra Levitation, Shielding, Strength and Weakness spells.

It is confirmed: Citadel of Chaos is very, very, very linear. Not only do you have to encounter the Ganjees (who can be appeased with ointment, and precisely how the fuck I was meant to know that I have no idea), but there’s also a mandatory face-off with a hydra before you get to the door of Balthus Dire’s office, which has a combination lock on it. Which I don’t have the combination to. Fuck.

Oh, it also seems that this is another Fighting Fantasy book where the rules for multiple combatants are completely ignored. Nice job, guys.

Fourth Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 18
Luck: 11
Magic: 13. I picked 1 of each spell, plus an extra Levitation spell.

It is becoming rapidly apparent that the Citadel is not mappable.

I should clarify that. By their nature, all Fighting Fantasy adventures are mappable to an extent, at least on the level of drawing up a flow chart showing how you get from paragraph to paragraph. But that’s not the same as drawing a map of the physical layout of the location you are exploring, which is entirely possible with Firetop Mountain (although you do have to guess at the distances involved a little), but doesn’t work with Citadel of Chaos. There’s at least one instance where a particular puzzle necessitates Jackson being vague about the physical arrangement of some doors, the arrangement of the pantry doors seems to move about and contradict itself, and all roads lead to the Great Hall. Jackson covers his tracks to an extent by being slightly vague where necessary in the location descriptions, but this just makes the task of mapping more difficult.

To be fair, I can see why he took this approach. Firstly, having a shifting, slightly inconsistent geography emphasises that this Citadel is devoted to cosmic chaos. Secondly, making sure that you definitely get to the Great Hall (which sets you up for the final series of encounters) no matter how long you play allows Jackson to control how long each runthrough takes (assuming the player survives), which means that repeated runs are a bit less tedious than they might otherwise be. But it still feels somewhat dissatisfying to have an adventure which, like many of the early Fighting Fantasy stories, essentially revolves around a single location (in this case, the Citadel), but where the location in question clearly shifts about to suit the needs of the story without any care given to internal consistency.

The hydra killed me this time around; while there are multiple ways to get past it (unlike the Ganjees), unless you have been lucky in your choice of spells and/or your acquisition of magic-enhancing gear, or you have one of the two items which can help you get past the hydra, you’re fucked. It is slightly irritating to have three “if you haven’t gone the right way, you’re boned” encounters back to back like this. Oh well, fifth time’s the charm…

Fifth Run

Skill: 11
Stamina: 19
Luck: 10
Magic: 13. I picked 1 of each spell, plus an extra Levitation spell.

One thing I’ve noticed in playing this gamebook is that a lot of the time you don’t ever need to use magic to survive a situation: it’s often just a crutch you can fall back on if you haven’t found the precise item or method for getting through the crisis unscathed. An exception is the final battle with Balthus Dire, whom I finally reached and defeated in this attempt, where you can use a combination of spells and smarts to defeat the guy without even getting into a fight.

In fact, there’s also lots of situations in The Citadel of Chaos where you can just plain back down from a fight, although it’s not always the smart thing to do so. In particular, the one true path involves you going up to a bunch of monsters around a campfire, antagonising them until they attack you, and then killing them and taking their stuff. This is monumentally retarded behaviour for someone infiltrating the fortress of an enemy sorcerer on an assassination mission, and yet it’s what you need to do; this is in striking contrast to later entries in the Fighting Fantasy series, where you can usually muddle through so long as you are vaguely sensible, and whilst that does mean the books lose a bit of replay value it does make them a lot less frustrating. The only reason I persisted with the Citadel was that individual runs can actually be quite quick.

Forest of Doom

Scenario

Ian Livingstone also released his first solo Fighting Fantasy effort in 1983, and like Citadel of Chaos there’s an effort to inject more plot into the proceedings; your adventurer has to collect the two missing parts of an ancient dwarven hammer, which have been lost in the titular forest. The introductory blurb is significantly longer than in either of the previous books – it goes on for about three pages, and on top of that there is a full-page map of the forest. Admittedly, you can’t get much information about it beyond the fact that your start point is in the south, the dwarf village is in the north, and that there’s a single river running in an east-west direction about halfway through your journey in the forest, but knowing this is useful when it comes to mapping the adventure.

This adventure’s plot is notable partly for being the first to break out of the “get to the end of the dungeon and kill the evil sorcerer” mould, and partly for being the first appearance of Yaztromo, the default Fighting Fantasy setting’s local equivalent of the grumpy old wizard who is secretly one of the most powerful magicians on the side of good in the world which pretty much every fantasy setting invented in the 1980s had to have. Like Fizban in Dragonlance and Elminster in Forgotten Realms, eventually he would get pretty damn annoying, but in this outing he’s just some old codger you visit at the beginning to buy some magic items from and get some advice from.

One especially nice touch in the backstory is the mercenary attitude of the protagonist; you’re not doing this quest for any reason more noble than lining your pockets, even though helping the dwarves of Stonebridge is undeniably a good thing to do. It’s a nice nod to the sort of money-grabbing motivations that Dungeons & Dragons player characters of the time manifested frequently.

System

Not much to report here – the version of the Fighting Fantasy system used here is exactly the same as that in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. In the introduction you get 30 gold pieces that you can spend on one-use magic items from Yaztromo, which occupy the same niche as the various spells in Citadel of Chaos – they make otherwise-difficult encounters much easier. The major difference is that each item can only be used in one particular situation, whereas the various spells in Citadel of Chaos could each be used in a variety of situations. But aside from this, Forest of Doom doesn’t exactly revolutionise the Fighting Fantasy system.

Gear

Aside from the aforementioned money and map, your starting possessions are pretty basic in this one – sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, and your choice of potion, and that’s it.

First Run

Skill: 11
Stamina: 19
Luck: 10
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.

Amongst the first things I noticed as I set off into the depths of the forest is that the tone of Forest of Doom is very different from the sword and sorcery flavour of Citadel of Chaos: it’s more of a blend of traditional Tolkien-imitating fantasy, featuring goblins and dwarves and so forth, with the occasional fairytale element, like talking crows and magic mushrooms that make your skill stat and your luck stat swap around. Certainly, most of the monsters are straight out of the basic Dungeons & Dragons canon, rather than the bizarre creations that Jackson throws at you in Citadel of Chaos and when Livingstone tries to be inventive with the monsters he tends to get in trouble. For example, there’s an encounter with a treeman where you are told you have to defeat the treeman twice (once for each of its major branches – why complicate things like this when you can just double the creature’s stamina and achieve the same effect? I was also disturbed to encounter a catwoman – not the Batman villain, but a sort of feline forest savage, complete with an illustration that verges on furry porn. “How’d they get away with that one?” I wondered, as I killed her and stole her gold earrings.

Midway through the adventure, I was low on Stamina and realised that I had not once been given permission by the paragraph text to eat any of my Provisions. A little googling revealed the problem – I was playing the Wizard Books reprint, which had erroneously included the original Provisions rules from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in which you can only eat Provisions when the text says you can. In Forest of Doom, and most later Fighting Fantasy adventures where Provisions are a feature, you can eat Provisions whenever you like so long as it’s not in the middle of a fight, so I proceeded on this basis from that point on.

As I progressed through the forest I was struck by how incredibly easy to map it is; not only are Livingstone’s descriptions very clear, but it also rapidly becomes apparent that he planned out the forest on squared graph paper, and that the woodland paths do in fact exist on a grid system. This did a number on my suspension of disbelief; even though Firetop Mountain was similarly easy to map, at the same time it wasn’t quite so orderly, and that made it feel more like a real location. It also contributed to the feeling of safety and comfort I felt within the forest; without Jackson’s demented deathtraps, the place feels downright cozy. It’s hard to feel threatened when almost all of the monsters have a Skill of less than 9, after all, especially when the whole trip is infused with a spirit of fairytale whimsy which pops up now and again. The Forest of Doom isn’t exactly a forest of rainbow bubbles and kitten farts, but it’s getting there. On the plus side, there’s a bit where the multiple attackers rules are actually used for once (for the first time in the series!), and there’s a genuinely scary bit with gremlins down a well (which regenerate if you leave the room and come back again, but I’m willing to write that off as a limitation of the gamebook format), so it’s not a complete cakewalk.

Contributing to the ease with which this gamebook may be completed is a nice mechanic where if you get to the end but don’t have the component parts of the hammer you can make a Luck test, and if successful you get to go back to the start of the book to try again. I happened to bring with me a fat gold ingot worth 28 gold pieces out of the forest, which meant that on my second run I could trade it in for almost all of Yaztromo’s magic items that I didn’t already have, so this mechanic means that there is finally a point to collecting all of those treasures with precise values in gold pieces that Livingstone likes to scatter around the place; they also crop up a lot in Firetop Mountain, but aside from a very killable ferryman there’s no use for them, and they are conspicuous by their absence in The Citadel of Chaos. You might think that being allowed to repeat the adventure would lead to some absurd situations – what happens if you’ve encountered a monster that you have killed already? – but of course, if you’ve done a decent job of mapping the place you’ll be able to avoid the encounters you’ve already played through, and most of the time you will want to because, naturally, you want to explore the places you’ve not searched before in order to find the parts of the hammer.

Forest of Doom is a decent beginner’s gamebook, but will probably be too easy for hardcore fans of the Fighting Fantasy series. That said, it’s a pleasant enough jaunt if you want something fairly light and easy-going, even if it fails to present the atmosphere of doom the title promises.

Starship Traveller

Scenario

Steve Jackson’s second effort of 1983 is another experiment, this time in taking Fighting Fantasy into the final frontier. The first SF effort in the series, whilst Starship Traveller‘s title might make gamers think of Traveller, the first really successful SF tabletop RPG, its main influence is very obviously Star Trek. As the Captain of the Traveller, you have to guide your ship back to your home universe after a chance encounter with a black hole plunges the ship and its crew into a parallel dimension. Along the way, there is a conspicuous absence of necking with alien hotties; in every other respect, this is a Trek tribute. I’m surprised Puffin didn’t raise an eyebrow, but if they let the catgirl’s nipple through in Forest of Doom I suppose that means they must have had complete editorial confidence in Jackson and Livingstone at this point in time.

System

Drunk with power, Jackson does a fairly major overhaul on the Fighting Fantasy system for this one, adapting it to the needs of telling the tale of a captain commanding a starship and its crew as opposed to a lone dungeoneer venturing into a damp hole. Your own characteristics are generated in the usual fashion (although Luck works a bit differently – it doesn’t drop every time you use it), but you also get to generate the Weapons Strength and Shields characteristics for the Traveller, as well as Skill and Stamina scores for your crew – your Science Officer, your Medical Officer, your Security Chief, your Engineering Officer, and two redshirts! Anyone who isn’t you, your Security Chief, or a redshirt is at -3 to their Skill in close combat, but the Medical Officer, Science Officer, and Engineering Officer can bring their special skills to bear in order to resolve the problems you face as you roam the strange galaxy you have found yourself in. The difficulty is that each time you beam down to a planet you have to pick a limited number of crew members to take with you – and if a crew member dies they get replaced by their assistant, who has a lower Skill score than them and can only cover the crew member’s essential duties.

In addition to all this, there’s the standard Fighting Fantasy combat system for hand-to-hand punch-ups, as well as extra combat systems for phaser shootouts and space combat. To enable you to jump into the adventure straight away (please God let us start the adventure straight away, rolling up crew members gets tedious), these rules aren’t printed at the front of the book, but are placed in the last three paragraphs, which you are referred to whenever the relevant type of combat is initiated.

Gear

Does a starship, all of its contents, and the lives of its crew members count?

First Run

Ship: Weapons Strength 12, Shields 16.
Captain: Skill 9, Stamina 24, Luck 10.
Science Officer: Skill 7, Stamina 14.
Medical Officer: Skill 8, Stamina 16.
Security Officer: Skill 9, Stamina 20.
Engineering Officer: Skill 11, Stamina 20.
Redshirt 1: Skill 10, Stamina 20.
Redshirt 2: Skill 10, Stamina 16.

What the fuck, Spock? You’re a bridge officer, you’re meant to be better than the fucking redshirts! Damn it, your failure to not be crap in front of the enlisted men is an embarrassment to Starfleet; you, Bones, and Worf are all confined to the brig until your Skill score is better than a goddamn laser magnet’s.

Ahem.

The structure of a Starship Traveller run is, naturally, heavily based on Star Trek – you fly from star system to star system, looking for the black hole that will take you home. Whilst this can be a bit tricky to map, it does at least make more sense than the map of Citadel of Chaos, since in this case you are just mapping the relationship between various points in space and there doesn’t need to be “corridors” or anything like that connecting them.

Unfortunately, the space constraints of the format means that you can only explore each planet very briefly. Jackson does his best, making sure the various alien worlds you encounter are based around a strong central idea expressed fairly clearly and simply – there’s a world where all the people are secretly androids, a world where a shipwrecked salesman of terraforming technology controls the weather and rules over the local savages like a god, a world where hallucinogens from an ancient bioweapon still contaminate the atmosphere, and so on – which is true to the original Star Trek series, but even then you never really get a chance to properly sink your teeth into any of the situations you encounter; as soon as you’ve interacted with something a little bit, it’s already time to beam up and shoot off to the next planet. This problem is made even worse by the paltry number of paragraphs that make up this gamebook – 343 instead of the usual 400, and 3 of those are, as I said, devoted to explaining the various combat systems.

I didn’t succeed in this runthrough – I didn’t have the space and time co-ordinates of a suitable black hole to take us back to our home universe. (It would have been nice to know that that’s what I needed to look for, but never mind). After you play for a while the crew’s morale starts to deteriorate; this is your prompt to set the course for the black hole by subtracting the space co-ordinates from the time co-ordinates and turning to the relevant paragraph; if, like in this run, you don’t have suitable co-ordinates then morale collapses, there’s a few suicides, and the crew of the Traveller collectively decide to throw the ship into the nearest black hole on the off chance that it will work (it doesn’t). This, frankly, is not very Kirk-like behaviour for a Starfleet captain; nor was my complete failure to actually get into any sort of combat situation during the entire course of this attempt. Somehow, the protagonist of Starship Traveller manages to channel Picard, even though The Next Generation wouldn’t come on our screens for the better part of a decade.

Second Run

Ship: Weapons Strength 10, Shields 14.
Captain: Skill 11, Stamina 15, Luck 9.
Science Officer: Skill 11, Stamina 23.
Medical Officer: Skill 9, Stamina 20.
Security Officer: Skill 10, Stamina 22.
Engineering Officer: Skill 9, Stamina 18.
Redshirt 1: Skill 8, Stamina 14.
Redshirt 2: Skill 9, Stamina 18.

It became more and more obvious, as I played through this book, that having a decent Science Officer is of crucial importance, and that more options open up to you if you keep your problem-solving officers handy than if you take the redshirts down to the planet – which meant that in practice I never used my redshirts for anything. In practice, this also means that there’s a greater risk that a crappy roll at game start will sabotage your game – because the number of rolls you make means that it is quite likely that at least one crucial officer will be an incompetent idiot.

In fact, there are a number of the problems with the system aspects of Starship Traveller. The Luck statistic is barely used, and indeed could probably have been dispensed with. Combat is sufficiently rare, and is sufficiently different each time thanks to the three different combat systems, that when a fight actually broke out I found that I simply couldn’t be bothered to dice it out and just cheated and assumed that I won – it was too much of an intrusion on the fairly rapid and easy flow of the game.

There’s problems with the plot, too. If you pick the wrong space and time co-ordinates at the end, you die instantly, so if you “play by the book” you don’t get a chance to try any alternative co-ordinates you may have picked up. This seems mildly unfair.

Cheating

And so, midway through my third run, I gave up and decided to cheat, flipping through every paragraph n the gamebook to work out where the “correct” co-ordinates are. Doing so revealed that in order to get the co-ordinates you have to fight a really tough battle against a very powerful robot in an arena, and you have to navigate a frustrating extradimensional maze where you have a 50% chance of picking the wrong exit and suddenly dying. Being shanghaied into fighting in an arena or trying out someone’s dodgy interdimensional experiment are clearly highly undesirable situations, and in fact in both instances if you play at all sensibly you can avoid them, so this is another one of Jackson’s gamebooks where you have to play like a fucking moron in order to win. I am not fucking impressed.

The Canary Says

Gamebooks still, to my mind, have their place in this day and age, simply because the limitations of the format prompt the player to accept limited, and often highly linear gameplay, which in the world of computer games I find myself increasingly unwilling to accept. The one computer game genre that I would say is most similar to Fighting Fantasy books is the good old-fashioned text adventure, but at the same time a text adventure where I was limited to choosing my actions from a set list of options presented to me with the descriptions, and where there’s no save game mechanic, would be frustrating and somewhat pointless – yet the gamebook format causes me to accept those very constraints without question. Furthermore, at least in a gamebook I am guaranteed of being able to progress the game state forward, even if it is towards an undesirable ending, whereas if you get stuck at a particular point in a text adventure all too often you can end up in a situation where you simply can’t advance the game at all, because it’s waiting for you to come up with a solution to the crucial puzzle which you need to complete in order to make the plot move forward.

That said, the earliest Fighting Fantasy books are a decidedly hit-and-miss bunch. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is fun, but if it had been book number 12 or 13 I probably would not have held it in such high regard; it gets a pass, to an extent, because it was the first. Forest of Doom is too easy, Citadel of Chaos is too arbitrary, and Starship Traveller is a poorly implemented experiment unbecoming of its author.

Both Jackson and Livingstone would have to improve their designs if the series were to thrive, and to their credit both of them did. After Starship Traveller, Jackson set about producing his magnum opus, Sorcery!, a mammoth adventure unfolding over four books, whilst the bulk of the next few entries in the core Fighting Fantasy series would be penned by Livingstone, and would include the adventure he is best known for (aside from Warlock) – the infamous Deathtrap Dungeon. Furthermore, with the publication of Scorpion Swamp the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook written by someone who wasn’t one of the series founders would open the door to new talents expanding the series and taking it in a myriad different directions.

But Sorcery!, Deathtrap Dungeon, and Scorpion Swamp are subject for future Reading Canary adventures. In the meantime, if you want to read more account of random geeks playing through the Fighting Fantasy series, Fighting Dantasy is plunging his way through them right now. If you want to play some yourself, the original Puffin versions are often available in charity shops, and Wizard Books are currently putting out a reprint series, and have also started to produce new, all-original adventures!

2 thoughts on “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 5) – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: The Sorceror’s CEO – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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