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: Sowing the Seeds of Gamebookmania
On receipt of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Puffin Books were ecstatic, and wrote back to Jackson and Livingstone demanding more books, as soon as possible. In 1983 and 1984 the Fighting Fantasy boom truly began; at first, Jackson and Livingstone were fairly prolific, but by the end of 1984 they would have made the fateful decision to share the burden with additional authors; Jackson and Livingstone’s names would remain on the front covers to help promote the books and to prevent them from being distributed wildly throughout the kids’ section in bookstores, but the actual content would be authored by a wide variety of individuals, and of course those authors would look to Jackson and Livingstone’s earlier efforts when designing their own entries for the series.
Thus, the four gamebooks presented here are of crucial importance to the development of the line. Three are by Livingstone and one, Scorpion Swamp, is the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook to be written by an outside contributor. Let’s see how they measure up.
City of Thieves
Ian Livingstone’s second solo effort of 1983 is, like Forest of Doom, an effort to transfer the gameplay of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain to a different type of locale, in this case a bustling metropolis. Your character, a successful mercenary hero and dragon-slayer, is hired by the Mayor of Silverton who has a mild problem: his daughter has attracted the unwanted attentions of Zanbar Bone, an undead necromancer, and Zanbar intends to terrorise the village with his evil dogs and his Spirit Stalkers (think Ringwraiths who must be shot with a silver arrow if you want to rid the world of their “eternal twilight existence”) until they hand the girl over to Bone for his mysterious and nefarious purposes (HE WANTS TO FUCK HER).
The complication, of curse, is that as a nightmarish abomination from beyond the grave, Zanbar Bone isn’t very easy to kill. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to seek out the wizard Nicodemus (think a grumpy version of Yaztromo from Forest of Doom), who is a drinking buddy of the Mayor’s, and get him to tell you the secret of slaying Mr Bone, before journeying to the necromancer’s tower and putting paid to him. The problem is that Nicodemus makes his home in Port Blacksand, the titular hive of scum and villainy, and a place as dangerous to life, limb, and wallet as any dungeon…
As with The Forest of Doom, the system is nigh-identical to that of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, to the point that in the Wizard Books reprint the original rules section from Warlock is copy-pasted verbatim (with the rarely-used multiple opponents rules removed this time). This means that it has the same bug as Forest of Doom, where the rules say you can only use your Provisions to restore your Stamina when the paragraph text allows you to, when in fact the paragraph text never lets you! So, I played the game with this in mind and used the actual rules, where you can eat your Provisions whenever so long as you aren’t in the middle of a fight.
You start play with the basic equipment from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. In addition, you get given a fancy sword in the background section (which has no system effect, unless you lose it – in which case you get penalised), and a purse containing 30 gold pieces. This is far more important, for in City of Thieves your economic status can mean the difference between life and death…
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
Within a few paragraphs of beginning the adventure, two things jumped out at me. Firstly, I noticed that Livingstone was using his talent for adding minor touches to a description to excellent effect, clearly distinguishing the city environment from the dungeon milieu through the use of street names in addition to compass directions (making mapping the city a sheer joy). Secondly, it dawned on me that people in this town, from the gate guards to the locksmiths, fucking hate Nicodemus. I soon resolved to stop telling people about my quest, since it only got me harassment and abuse and threats to life and limb.
As I strolled down Key Street I fell afoul of a particularly nasty ambush, where you are given the option to either hand over all your cash or get shot a lot, although to be fair almost immediately afterwards you can get healed in return for handing over the fancy sword you got at the start of the game (causing you to labour under a skill penalty ever after). Feeling sorry for myself, I bought a good luck charm from a dragony wizardy person, and a cheerful song from a minstrel, only to be disappointed to find that they only gave me temporary Luck boosts – if I’m paying good cash I expect a boost to my initial score, thank you very much! Then again, the people in this place don’t seem to understand the value of things very well – someone left some cool magic elven boots sitting on a rubbish heap, for crying out loud.
After a while exploring the branching streets of the southern districts the game funnels you into a linear section of the game, wherein you travel through a marketplace toward the bridge across the river Blacksand is built on. (Again with the rivers! There’s a river halfway through Firetop Mountain and the Forest of Doom as well.) The marketplace is quite fun, actually – it’s stuffed with interestng opportunities to gamble and spend your money. It leads directly to your encounter with Nicodemus, which is unavoidable if you survive long enough; the main point of the nonlinear elements of the city before this stage is the collection of various items which might make some aspects of the second half of the city easier.
So, you sit down and have a nice chat with Nicodemus, who explains that I need to get a tattoo so that Bone can’t hypnotise me, acquire a silver arrow so that I can shoot him through the heart with it to paralyse him, and collect three magical ingredients – black pearls, a special lotus, and hag hair – which I am meant to mush into his face to kill him outright. That’s great, Nicodemus, so let’s go and get these… wait, you’re not coming with me?
The northern area of the city is a pretty exciting and nonlinear place, like the southern part before you get to the market; then again, I’m a sucker for any game that lets you raid a pirate ship and terrorise the Captain while he’s having a bath. That said, I did fall afoul of various schemes and traps to part me from my money in both halves of the city, so when I got to the tattooist I couldn’t afford to get the necessary tattoo and had to pawn some of my stuff to do it. I sold that fucking worthless scorpion good luck charm.
Actually, the economic aspects of City of Thieves, such as they are, are probably its most innovative feature; this is the first Fighting Fantasy book where money is actually deeply relevant. Your ability to keep hold of your cash and acquire more has a direct impact both on your ability to collect the items you require to beat the game, and items which make completion of the game significantly easier; your gold pieces are sort of your financial hit points in this regard. There’s plenty of interesting means by which you can be duped into parting with your cash, ranging from the cruel to the absurd. For example, there was an elf who ran a candleshop who said he had a special magic candle in his back room, and asked if I would like to see it. I followed him into the back room, and behold, he showed me his special, magic candle, and I was enchanted. At this point the elf took advantage of my adoration of his candle and started to root around in my backpack; then when he’d taken what he pleased from that he got me to give him some money and sent me out of the door with a smile on my face, still bewitched by his beautiful candle. I felt violated.
It should also be noted that the City of Thieves seems to have less insta-kills than, say, many of Steve Jackson’s gamebooks; usually if you screw up you at least get to test your Luck to get out of it.
Sadly, this run was cut short when I was murdered by troll cops – fucking fascists! I had the option of bribing them with “all the gold in my pack” to get out of it, but I had no gold left so I thought that would be cheating.
Potion Choice: Potion of Stamina.
So, I got hassled by the guards in my previous run for not having a merchant’s pass, so I tried to pick the dialogue options with the chap on the front gate which seemed likely to yield such a thing, only to find that he himself didn’t offer any. Slightly annoyed, I decided to be a dick to people in the town itself, which turned out to work really well: you get more rewards for slaying a starving ogre than feeding it, and it’s far better to hand escaped prisoners over to the authorities to be executed than it is to help them escape.
I had to pursue profit as much as I could on this run, in fact, because I fell afoul of a particularly nasty ambush by some dwarves where if you escape the initial attack and chase them down an alley they drop a net on you and nick all your money. Luckily, the route the dwarves are on also gives you a chance to barter food for a magic flower that shits gold if you dip it in dog’s blood (it’s true!) so it’s not so bad. The thing which really screwed me over this time was, once again, those damn troll cops; I decided to climb the city wall to evade them this time, losing my shield in the process (and a skill point – finally, mechanics for what happens if you lose your starting equipment!), only to find that, lacking a climbing rope, I ended up breaking my neck. That’s pretty harsh, but the troll cops are the last encounter in the city so it sort of makes sense.
Potion Choice: Potion of Luck.
I cheated a little here and downed my Potion of Luck at the start, reasoning that the City has so many luck boosts available that there’s no point not maximising your luck at the start. At the beginning of this run, I took the one street I hadn’t previously taken after entering the gate, only to find that whichever way you take to the market there’s an ambush of some kind. But at least on the Market Street ambush I got to actually kill the fuckers, so there’s something.
Sadly, my greed got the better of me when I decided to randomly burgle what turned out to be the house of a magician, which turned out to be full of ludicrous traps. I wondered what sort of fucked up individual would hide scorpions under goblets in their own home, but then again the fact that I was rifling through this person’s stuff clearly justified the need for such things. By the time I left my Skill was at 2 and my Luck was at 1, and while I did have 83 gold pieces it wasn’t quite enough to save me; I died fighting a skill 7 pirate trying to steal his pearls. Nonetheless, I was still enjoying myself massively; exploring the City is a lot of fun, and once you start getting an idea of what the One True Route is the replays get quite fast.
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
Having even semi-decent stats makes a really big difference in most Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and City of Thieves is a good example of this. After killing a half-orc herbalist for the hell of it, I had another go at the magician’s house, and with just slightly better stats I was able to storm the place; when I got to the market I had over 100 gold pieces, which made it easier to buy all the cool gear I could ever want. This is another adventure where having a good Skill makes it easier to get an even better Skill; my effective Skill score was 12 by the end of this run.
After casually murdering those fucking troll cops, I left the city. The game is nice and gives you a chance to just quit and start again if you end up leaving Port Blacksand without the requisite items, which is nice, but then it chooses to fuck with you by revealing that you only need to use two out of the three ingredients in the Bone-killing balm at the end; if you pick the wrong two, it’s an insta-kill. This is precisely the sort of situation which prompts me to cheat like a motherfucker in gamebooks: stupid insta-kills where I know that my next runthrough is going to be nigh-identical to the current one except for one little choice (“Ok, this time I’ll do everything the same except I’ll pull the left lever…”).
Unfortunately, the extremely linear final phase of the book, in which you head to Bone’s tower to slay the blighter, is full of precisely this sort of nonsense, so I ended up cheating regularly. Also, there’s a mandatory fight with a Skill 11 Moon Dog, so if you started play at Skill 7 you’re screwed even if you’ve got some decent boosts. Granted, it’s mathematically possible for a Skill 9 fighter to kill a Skill 11 beast, but the odds are stacked against you when you consider that fights are not just resolved on a single Skill roll but on a series of them, so in the long run whoever has the superior Skill will almost always win; I don’t think I’ve been killed by a creature of inferior Skill on any of the 8 Fighting Fantasy gamebooks I’ve played so far, except in cases where my Skill was penalised by other factors.
Despite this lacklustre ending, City of Thieves is one of my favourite Fighting Fantasy books so far. The main bulk of the book (dealing with the city itself) manages to successfully provide a non-dungeon environment which is actually tangibly different from a dungeon (unlike the Forest of Doom, which was basically Firetop Mountain with leaves), and the clever use of gold pieces as a resource to be protected, increased, and wisely spent nicely conveys the cut-throat, opportunistic environment of Port Blacksand. In fact, I’d say the City of Thieves is clearly superior to any of the preceding books; we’ll have to see whether any of the later books are able to beat it.
Livingstone’s first offering of 1984 was Deathtrap Dungeon, infamous for being one of the most difficult Fighting Fantasy books to complete. For what is essentially a throwback to the dungeoneering exploits of Firetop Mountain, it has a surprisingly dense backstory: in a land with a vaguely Chinese-sounding name (Chang Mai), the town of Fang has made its fortune based on the mad scheme of Baron Sukumvit: the Trial of Champions, a competition open to adventurers from across the world that offers a 100,000 gold piece prize to whoever manages to survive Deathtrap Dungeon, the ultimate tourist trap. Nobody has ever won the prize before, but the protagonist is a suitably ambitious and cocky person and chooses to enter. The twist is that there are five other contenders – a knight, an elf, two barbarians, and a ninja are also going to head into the dungeon this year, and you might encounter them (or their gruesome remains) as you progress…
See City of Thieves: it’s exactly the same as Firetop Mountain, and the Wizard books edition has the Provisions bug.
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
On entering the dungeon, it soon became apparent to me that Livingstone had gone above and beyond the call of duty when it came to his descriptions in this gamebook; it’s wonderfully atmospheric, while at the same time retaining the precision that makes mapping Livingstone’s gamebooks such a joy. There’s one especially striking bit you can get to if you take a particular path where you find one of the barbarians’ corpses in a room, killed by one of the eponymous dungeon’s deathtraps. It really drives home the point that you are always in danger here.
And that’s the only impression I had the time to get. I found a big fat idol with emeralds for eyes and thought it would be a great idea to steal one of them; on attempting this, I was attacked by its Skill stuffed ostrich defenders, and since my skill was penalised to 6 due to hanging off a giant idol by one arm whilst Emu and Emu’s special friend pecked the shit out of me I got killed fairly quickly.
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
OK, second try. Exploring a different route this time, I noticed that Ian lets you know when you can and can’t see the footprints of the contenders who went into the dungeon shortly before you, which is a nice touch. I reached the idol (as far as I can tell you can’t avoid it) and decided to be smart and try to steal its other eye – maybe this won’t activate the birds.
It didn’t. It released nerve gas, which killed me instantly. Livingstone has clearly learned Jackson’s dark love of insta-kills (deployed to devastating effect in Jackson’s Citadel of Chaos).
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
It was during this run that it became perfectly clear how stupidly unfair Deathtrap Dungeon is. I incurred a -4 Skill penalty (fucking -4!) for the terrible crime of putting on a wristband I stole from a caveman, which is stupidly harsh. I decided to ignore the jewels on the idol this time (I didn’t fancy fighting them with an effective skill of 4. I seem to remember you need to collect gemstones to win this one, so this run was probably doomed by this point, but I pressed on regardless.
Finally getting beyond the marvel of sculpture that is the Buddha of Fuck You You’re Dead, I found nothing to change my impression that Deathtrap Dungeon is the most needlessly arbitrary Fighting Fantasy book in the series to this point. You’re essentially given a long series of binary choices, and only one choice is correct in each case, and there’s absolutely no way you can guess beforehand what the correct choice is, and even if you pick the supposedly correct choice the game might fuck you over with a stupidly harsh fight anyway, and if you pick the wrong choice the game will kill you stone dead 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time it will just cripple you so you’ll almost certainly die the next time you make a misstep.
Deathtrap Dungeon is designed in such a way that you really can’t beat it unless you are either extraordinarily lucky or attempt it over and over and over again, which rapidly becomes horrendously repetitive in even the best Fighting Fantasy books. Much of the time, there is simply no way an intelligent and attentive reader can deduce the correct course of action: you just have to either take a leap in the dark or remember what happened in previous runs. Sometimes you have to drink the random liquid you just found to avoid getting killed; sometimes it will kill you instantly. Are you meant to obey the instructions of Baron Sukumvit and his minions or defy them? It’s different each time! For your first run you may as well toss a coin or roll a dice whenever you get given a choice: you’re just as likely to win that way than if you actually think about the game.
After being killed by a fly, I attempted a fourth run, during which I got a ring which would give me a single wish. “I wish to win Deathtrap Dungeon without any further risk, threat, or damage to my mind, body, soul or property” I said, even though that wasn’t an option in the text, duly turned to paragraph 400 to read the winning text, and then gave the fuck up and declared myself the winner of this piece of shit. Deathtrap Dungeon‘s reputation as a super-difficult gamebook is justified, but the difficulties it presents are of a completely cheap and lazy nature. Avoid like the plague.
Island of the Lizard King
Having driven his instakillatron into overdrive and left it a crumpled, smouldering wreck, Livingstone’s second gamebook of 1984 is a far superior effort. It opens with your protagonist swinging by a fishing village that’s 60 miles away from the very European Port Blacksand and easy walking distance of the very Chinese-themed Chiang Mai (what the fuck is up with the geography here?), in a backstory which positively drips with references to earlier Livingstone gamebooks.
The protagonist is “journeying south from Fang” (is it the hero of Deathtrap Dungeon? But if that’s the case, where’s the 100,000 gold pieces they won? Did they spend it on unfeasible amounts of plastic surgery and a cloak woven from the golden hair of a hundred virgin princesses?) in order to meet up with Mungo, an “old adventuring friend”. When you arrive, Mungo tells you that the Lizard Men of Fire Island have taken to raiding the village and enslaving the young menfolk, in a plot dump replete with interesting litte details. For example, it turns out that Fire Island used to be a prison colony – the Lizard Men were paid guards – and when the local monarch decided to close the colony the Lizard King took over, enslaving those prisoners that remained. According to escaped prisoners, the Lizard King apparently does voodoo and black magic to maintain his hold on the island, with the result that the place is swarming with mutant beasts and plants. (But surprisingly less Doors references than I expected.) Mungo is going to head over there to take down the Lizard King, and guilt trips you into accompanying him. Adventure ahoy!
Is, once again, exactly the same as in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I was playing through a copy of the original Puffin version of the game, so it didn’t have the Provisions bug.
You get a basic ensemble of sword, shield, and leather armour. (What the hell did I spend my Deathtrap Dungeon winnings on? A gold-plated whore and a mile-long line of cocaine mixed with ground diamonds?)
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Mungo is a nice addition to the game; having an NPC ally to help out on the adventure is a worthwhile and interesting experiment with the potential of really expanding the gamebook format. But I do wish Livingstone wouldn’t spend so much time telling me how awesome the guy is – who is he, one of Livingstone’s retired Dungeons & Dragons characters?
You think about the good times you used to have with Mungo, his constant cheerful nature and willingness to help people in need. You find it difficult to believe that so much evil exists in the land when there live the likes of Mungo.
So, Mungo is basically an older man with whom I used to have the sort of student-mentor relationship that the ancient Greeks praised, and he’s going to die very, very soon. Gotcha.
Livingstone daringly overturns the conventions of previous Fighting Fantasy books by having you begin at the eastern edge of the map rather than the southern edge. Mungo and I had barely explored the beach we’d made landfall at when a giant crab burst out of the sand and seized my former mentor/lover, and I got myself killed trying to save him (the bloody thing is skill 10!) No great loss, I’ve not seen many Fighting Fantasy books so far where a Skill 7 character has anything but a remote chance of beating the thing.
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
More confident this time, thanks to my higher Skill (clearly Mungo and I had done some special training this time), I avoided the crab in favour of attacking some pirates instead. Sadly, Mungo was killed almost immediately by the pirate captain. It’s pretty clear he also dies even if you beat the crab; so much for bold experiments with the format.
Having already forgotten about the death of the man who taught me how to swing a sword (hurr), I checked the chests the pirates were carrying, only to find that they were stuffed with worthless iron bars. For some reason, my character took one anyway, presumably poor enough that even pig iron is worth swiping. (What in God’s name did I do with my Deathtrap Dungeon winnings? Did I spend it all on fine wines from the vineyard of Dionysus himself and a footrub from the Queen of the Moon?)
And then a little later I died trying to stop headhunters murdering a prisoner in cold blood. But I didn’t feel at all cheated or hard done by when this happened; I had come across indications that I was headng towards headhunter territory, I had the option of avoiding the village entirely, when I got to the village I had the option to leave the man to die, and when I chose to meddle I got killed due to failing two luck rolls in a row. This is probably the fairest gamebook to date in this regard; there’s always a warning that the shit is about to hit the fan if there’s any possibility of avoiding it, and a reasonably smart player will not usually stumble into insta-kill situations.
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.
Aw hell yeah, skill 12! Clearly Mungo and I had a really intense training session before we got to the island this time.
The joy of having Skill 12 in a Fighting Fantasy game is that suddenly all but the most difficult combats become trivial for you, so you can afford to take more risks, make more mistakes, and generally enjoy having a vastly improved chance of winning the game. It’s a beautiful contrast to the living nightmare which is Skill 7, and I was glad to get a decent score this time. I was able to save the sacrifice from the headhunters this time, only for him to go and get himself killed helping me escape! Apparently, friendly NPCs exist solely to die for my benefit in this gamebook.
Partway through this run I realised that I wasn’t taking many notes, and there’s a reason for that – this gamebook is really engrossing and exciting. There’s plenty of interesting challenges that extend beyond the old standby of “some dude attacks you. Fight!”, and there are frequent opportunities to get extra rewards through taking extra risks; even better, Livingstone does a superb job of suggesting (without completely giving away) the nature of the risk you are taking, so you can feel as though you were at least making a fairly informed decision. For example, there’s a bit where you get to a marsh and encounter a Marsh Hopper, a little creature which the text informs you is known for luring unwary travellers towards the lairs of dangerous monsters in swamps – but which is also one of the few creatures likely to know where the solid ground is in the marsh, so you have a choice of following it knowing you won’t sink into the mud and accepting a difficult fight, or not following it in the full knowledge that you might end up drowning. This is the first gamebook in the series where I think a player might have a reasonable chance of winning on their first run through, assuming they had decent stats and were fairly lucky, but this does not make the gamebook feel trivially easy; rather, the spurious toss-a-coin whoops-you-die instant deaths of the earlier books have been excised almost entirely. In short, this is the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook (in the main series, at least) which plays fair – tough, but fair. And that’s a great thing.
It also has quite a decent structure; this is the first Livingstone gamebook where he eschews the Firetop Mountain method of describing a general location in exhaustive detail, and expecting the player to map it rigorously. Instead, Livingstone has plotted out a series of locations which the player character must visit over the course of the quest – the starting beach, the wilderness areas of the island like the jungle and the marsh, the mines where the Lizard Men keep their slaves, a mountain where you must go to learn how to defeat the Gonchong (the terrifying symbiotic creature which has lent the Lizard King its power in return for delicious brain juice), and the Lizard King’s compound at the main prison colony building. You progress from area to area in a more or less linear fashion, but each individual area is diverse and nonlinear enough that it merits mapping.
The action and story are also both a lot of fun. After successfully making a couple of luck rolls to make stealth kills on Lizardman guards (proving that stealth kills are awesome even in the context of gamebooks) I was able to free a bunch of slaves, who for the rest of the mining complex bit overran any guard foolish enough to get in our way – finally, NPC allies who are willing to kill for me instead of just dying! There’s also a fun bit where you are tested by a shaman for your worthiness to receive his mystical aid, and you get to choose which three of his six tests you wish to attempt, which allows you to tailor the trials to your character’s particular strengths.
This isn’t a perfect gamebook – there are a couple of unavoidable fights against Skill 11 opponents thrown in to say “fuck you” to anyone who rolled a skill less than 10-12 – but it is easily the best I have played so far. It also has a cool ending, where after slaying the Lizard King and his Gonchong symbiote you are hailed by your conquering slave army as they stand amidst the rubble of your enemy’s fallen stronghold. “Mungo would have been proud of you” says the book, and while I never really spent enough time with Mungo to especially care what he would have thought, I feel pretty proud of myself too.
A common point of confusion in the gaming world is the existence of two fairly important figures called Steve Jackson; there’s the British Steve Jackson, who cofounded Games Workshop and coinvented Fighting Fantasy, and there’s the American Steve Jackson, who founded Steve Jackson Games and designed boardgames like Ogre and Car Wars and tabletop RPGs such as The Fantasy Trip and GURPS.
To make things even more confusing, the American Steve Jackson authored a number of books for the British Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy series, including Scorpion Swamp, which holds the distinction of being the first in the series to be written by someone other than Ian Livingstone or the real Steve Jackson. It’s also notable for a number of interesting experiments it attempts with the format.
The premise is simple: after helping out an old lady, she gives you a magical brass ring, which grows warm in the presence of evil and allows you to always know which direction is north. You decide to test the ring’s abilities by venturing into Scorpion Swamp, an infamous place which has so far defied exploration since conventional compasses do not work there, and the place is always shrouded in fog so you can’t navigate by the stars.
Within the first few paragraphs of the book, you are accosted by a mysterious stranger who suggests that you might want to have some kind of purpose for going into the swamp, and he happens to know three individuals nearby who have quests they need an adventurer to perform for them. Conveniently, there’s a Good Quest, an Evil Quest, and a Neutral Quest. (If you insist on accepting the Good Quest before the guy gives you the other two options he turns out to be a mystic spirit of chivalry who gives you a bonus to your initial Luck.) Thus, this book presents three adventures in one, all set in the same location, an interesting experiment in boosting the game’s replay value.
The system for this book is much like that of Citadel of Chaos: it’s almost identical to the Firetop Mountain system, except that you don’t get any Provisions and instead get the use of one-shot magic spells. Rather than memorising them yourself, you instead cast spells through the use of spell crystals; when you obtain them you either choose which spell they contain (sometimes from a limited list) or are told which spell they possess. Which spells you can access depends on your alignment – anyone can use the Neutral spells, but only people playing through the Good quest can cast Good spells, and only people on the Evil quest can use Evil crystals
Another departure from the norm is the mapping section; it gives you very specific instructions for exactly how to map the Swamp, which you have to follow. This is vital for the nonlinear nature of the book; each clearing in the swamp (wait, is this a forest or a swamp?) is numbered, and you have to keep track of which clearings you have already been to, because you always have the option of retracing your steps, and things might change in the clearings after the first time you pass through. This allows Scorpion Swamp to be come the first “open world” Fighting Fantasy adventure, allowing you to explore every nook and cranny of the swamp to your heart’s content, provided that you don’t die or something.
But does this experiment work?
A basic ensemble of sword, chainmail, backpack, and magic direction-finding evil-sensing ring are all you are provided with.
The quest for the forces of Good in this gamebook is actually kind of disappointing; you have to go and fetch an endangered berry from the swamp so it can be cultivated for medicinal use. This uninspiring quest is matched by uninspiring prose and encounters once you get into the swamp itself. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, the core GURPS rulebook reads like a maths textbook – but not even Jackson’s limp quips about your characters fate should you be slain in battle manages to enliven the proceedings. Possibly the most damning thing I could say about the descriptions is that I keep having to concentrate to remember that I’m meant to be in a swamp, not a forest; it’s almost as if Jackson was intending to set this in a forest and changed it when Forest of Doom came out.
It also doesn’t help that all of the encounters – and, indeed, the quests themselves – are pretty simplistic. The fact that you can return to all of the clearings means that a fair number of paragraphs are spent on describing what has and hasn’t changed since your last visit, and the fact that there’s three quests (and a whole heap of different magic spells) means that no individual quest has quite enough paragraphs dedicated to it to make it suitably meaty. And with this pressing need to conserve paragraphs, the individual encounters can’t be allowed to get too intricate.
The upshot of this is that halfway through the first run I just plain gave up. This is easily the worst and most tedious gamebook to date, and while the experiments attempt are interesting they fail horribly. I am baffled as to why this passed the editorial stage without being rejected outright or sent back for a thorough rewrite; I can only assume that Jackson, Livingstone, and Puffin wanted to crank out as much product as possible at this point, and as such were happy to put their names on any old crap. This is a shame.
The Canary Says
These four gamebooks all came out whilst the real Steve Jackson was taking a break from the main series, writing and publishing the Sorcery! series of linked Fighting Fantasy adventures. It was decided that these books would not be published in the main sequence, and in fact would be put out by Penguin rather than Puffin, due to their advanced nature. The upshot of this was that Livingstone was left to continue the main series almost of his own, at least until the recruitment of the fake American Steve Jackson for Scorpion Swamp. Although Livingstone’s preferred adventure model – focusin on an intricately-described and highly mappable location – would eventually give way to more varied styles of gamebook, there are two tendencies that came out in the run of three gamebooks from City of Thieves to Island of the Lizard King which would come to colour the rest of the series.
The first was the effort to set all of the adventures in the same fantasy world, the land of Titan; while this does lend a nice context to proceedings, and would eventually lead not only to the development of a decent game setting in its own right but would also influence the design and growth of the Warhammer fantasy setting, it would also have the same effect of making the series a little too samey in the later stages; experiments with different genres and settings would become more and more infrequent and eventually stop altogether, which is a bit of a shame.
The second element is Livingstone’s reluctance to experiment with the basic system presented in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which is very much in contrast with Jackson’s approach. This lent the series a welcome sense of consistency at the time, which was probably important given Jackson’s wilder deviations from the norm (such as Starship Traveller). It’s notable that, whilst experimentation never died out entirely, the boldest experiments with the system tended to be focused on adapting the system to different genres. I often wonder whether we would have seen more SF Fighting Fantasy adventures if a consistent SF-adapted version of the system could have been worked out.
It’s probably worth keeping track of where the various Fighting Fantasy gamebooks fall in my estimation of their value, so here is a handy diagram based on the Smiley Scale.
Island of the Lizard King :D (Sheer delight) | City of Thieves | | The Warlock of Firetop Mountain :) (Recommended) | Forest of Doom | | Citadel of Chaos :S (Collectors only) | Starship Traveller :( (Downright bad) | Deathtrap Dungeon >:( (Pissed me off) | Scorpion Swamp D: (OH GOD WHY)
In the next thrilling episode, I will be tackling Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series.