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 In Arthur’s Fighting Fantasy Reviews
Having established the series, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone focused their energies on separate projects; Ian wrote a line of books for the core series which would begin to flesh out the gameworld, as well as setting the model for many gamebooks to come, whilst Steve Jackson wrote the epic Sorcery! series, pushing the boundaries of the format.
Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present… a Whole Bunch of Other Guys
This brings us up to around 1984-1985. Even though by this point Steve had completed Sorcery! (or finished the first draft, at least) and was able to return his attention to the core series, demand still outstripped supply. Having experimented with allowing outside parties to write Fighting Fantasy adventures with Scorpion Swamp, the duo felt able to open the floodgates. From here on in, the majority of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks would be written by outside authors.
Caverns of the Snow Witch
Ian Livingstone’s last effort of 1984 is in fact an expanded version of a short adventure originally written for Warlock, the official Fighting Fantasy magazine. (Yes, Fighting Fantasy had its own official magazine within two years of the publication of The Warlock of Firelock Mountain.) As such, the opening preamble is a bit shorter than the epics that Livingstone had composed for other recent gamebooks of his. You’re working the standard adventurer’s gig of guarding a trade caravan on a journey to the frozen north, led by a merchant with the fantastic name of Big Jim Sun. You come across an outpost that has been smashed to pieces by some giant beast. Big Jim wants you to track the thing down and kill it before it can attack the caravan or more trade outposts; you agree to take the commission for a fat bonus. Nice, simple, to the point, everything that Ian’s recent backstories haven’t been. Great.
Pretty much as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, with the usual change to the rules since then that Provisions can be eaten at any time so long as the player isn’t in battle.
This is a vanilla Fighting Fantasy adventure, so you get a vanilla set of gear: backpack, sword, leather armour, 10 provisions and a dose of Skill, Stamina, or Luck-restoring potion.
Potion Choice: Potion of Luck.
I almost died instantly when my (I feel sensible) decision to walk around a crevasse rather than strolling across an ice bridge to cross it led me directly into the path of a Skill 10 wooly mammoth, but I managed to beat the odds anyway. The fact that Ian sees fit to throw monsters that tough after the player within 2 paragraphs of the adventure starting is a very bad sign, as is the sparseness of the descriptions as one journeys across the frozen mountain; if this segment was in the magazine version of the adventure, Ian clearly hasn’t expanded the entries at all, if they’re filler then they don’t speak well to the quality of the rest of the filler in the book.
The choices offered are pretty lean as well, in fact – they’re mainly of the “do you want to do this, or do you just want to keep going” variety. The adventure is a set of binary choices, most of which are obvious, and most of the time they only offer brief diversions along the main, linear pathway through the adventure rather than a genuine alternate route through.
So, sooner or later the paragraphs of fate bring you face to face with a Yeti, and if you have taken your time to explore the one significant side path offered so far and avoided acting like an idiot you have a slim chance of actually killing it without a fight, which is nice seeing how it’s a Skill 10 monster. Unfortunately, 5 times out of 6, even if you’ve done everything right you’ll only injure the Yeti, forcing you to fight it. Injuring the thing helps, but doesn’t seem to lower its Skill anyway, so it’s still not a fight that any character with a Skill below 10 is likely to actually win. I managed to beat the odds again, breaking my usual rule and actually using some of my precious Luck in a fight for once.
It turns out that I interrupted the Yeti whilst it was mauling a fur trapper, who finally gives me the actual quest for the book: go to the Crystal Caves, where the evil Snow Witch has made her base, and assassinate her lest she continue to terrorise the north. Incidentially, the bit where you’re given the mission is the first paragraph of a decent length in the book so far, so I’m wondering whether this isn’t where the original adventure actually started.
In due course I get to the caves, and the first thing that I see is… a T-junction! Dungeon crawl ahoy! Actually, at this point the adventure becomes much more interesting, with side-passages and alternate routes through the dungeon galore. It’s a rather simple dungeon – in keeping with its roots as a 100-200 paragraph adventure from a magazine – but it’s at least atmospheric, and in a magazine context it would be perfectly acceptable. There’s also lots of little details, like the communal bowl of anti-frostbite potion near entrance, which make concessions towards thinking about how this place actually operates, which is nice to see.
So, I encounter some goblins, I have a bit of a fight with them, and then I find a frozen orc and guess a riddle right to earn me a magic sword that boosts my Skill. I am going to cheat a little and apply the bonus to my initial Skill (thus raising the maximum), otherwise it’s not much of a bonus (unless I’d actually hurt my Skill score earlier), and since Ian is insisting on throwing high-Skill monsters at me I think it’s only fair if I take every opportunity to buff up my Skill score to completely inhuman levels.
This attitude was proven correct in the final encounter of this run, where I ran into a Skill 11 crystal warrior who can only be hit with a warhammer. Luckily, I had a warhammer, but with my skill at the size it was it slaughtered me regardless. Oh well.
Potion Choice: Potion of Stamina.
Oh lord, this is going to hurt.
Right, I took the bridge at the start because I knew I couldn’t beat the mammoth, and I figured that I could get across OK with a successful Luck roll, which turned out to be correct. Then I encountered two Skill 7 wolves, but Ian was nice enough to let me fight them one at a time rather than simultaneously. With a bit of lucky rolling, I got away with barely a scratch.
Then I met a yeti, failed to get an insta-kill with the spear, and got ripped to shreds. Fuuuuuuuck.
Potion Choice: Potion of Luck.
Oh fuck you too, dice.
A bad Luck roll meant I nearly fell off the ice bridge at the start, but I managed to cling on for dear life. Then I went through and did every single bit of the pre-Yeti segment adventure in the absolute 100% optimal way, failed to get an insta-kill, and got slaughtered by the Yeti again. (Oh, for the love of God, Ian! I’m doing everything right here! Give me a fucking break!)
Potion Choice: Potion of Luck.
Oh fuck yeah IT’S ON NOW.
I met the Yeti. I smacked it about like a Himalayan pinata.
In the Crystal Caves a gang of cultists captured me and made me fight an ice demon. I smashed it like a half-melted ice lolly.
I picked a fight with a Frost Giant just ’cause I could, and got the chance to knock him out instantly with a sling. I did so. It felt good.
I met the crystal warrior again, and I smashed him like the fancy-pants glass bauble he is. RRRRRRAAAAAAARGH!
Then I met the Snow Witch, who turned out to be a vampire. I didn’t have a carved rune stick, and apparently Miss La-de-Da Snow Witch can’t be staked through the heart with any normal bit of wood, oh no, it has to be the special rune stick, just like she has to have her special pillow in her coffin fluffed up just as she likes it and doesn’t go to bed until she’s had her cocoa at precisely the right temperature with just the right amount of blood, and it can’t be any blood either, ooooh nooooo, it has to be special blood from the alabaster neck of a swan prince from the Moon, nothing’s too good for little Miss Ice-Wouldn’t-Melt-In-Her-Mouth Snow Witch, the stuck-up, snooty, fussy, spoilt little cow.
But yeah, I didn’t have a carved rune stick to stake her with, so I just died. Even though I’d earned a favour from a genie by this point; surely “fetch me a sharp, pointy piece of wood” is not an unreasonable wish?
Potion Choice: Potion of Luck.
Oh thank god, oh thank god, I got decent stats again, thank god, if I’d rolled Skill 7 again I would have ripped the book in two.
So, I successfully killed the witch this time through the simple expedient of slaughtering everything I encountered until I found the stake. Apparently, killing her is where the original adventure ended.
Suddenly, companions appear! Redswift and Stubb, freed Elven and Dwarven slaves of the Snow Witch, burst in to help me escape. Apparently she kept control of her minions using obedience collars, which have no stopped working with her death – so there’s pitched battles in the Crystal Caves between those who joined her willingly and those press-ganged into her service, which I suppose is a reasonable enough explanation for not being able to simply walk out the way I came in. Oh, and Stubb apparently comes from Stonebridge, which is the village under threat in Forest of Doom. This starts a trend which eventually gets quite irritating.
At this stage, though, it’s fun to have companions; they give advice, they enliven the journey, there’s a nice bit where you draw lots to see who opens the trapped treasure chest, and who gets the loot in it. This stage of the dungeon is still quite fun, still quite mappable, with various alternate routes through, including one where you run into a Brain Slayer, a poorly disguised D&D Mind Flayer. There’s an exciting part at the end where it turns out that the Snow Witch’s spirit is still alive inside a crystal ball (it’s a snow globe!), and that she can exert power over the control collars – so I have to defeat her in whatever fiendish game she devises, because the life of both me and my friends hangs in the balance!
That game turns out to be rock-paper-scissors.
Not only that, but it’s a really stupid version of rock-paper-scissors you have to play with little tokens collected throughout the second half of the dungeon. If someone had just told me about the Snow Witch’s weakness for collectable trading card games I would have just busted out my Yu-Gi-Oh! deck when I first encountered her, but never mind. Luckily, I happened to have collected the token that crushed her choice, and I was lucky enough to choose that one, so I was able to hop, skip and jump out of the horrible arbitrary trap that Ian had set for me and me and my pals ran off into the glorious sunshine of freedom.
Unfortunately, the gamebook does not stop there.
On leaving the Crystal Caves, Redswift, Stubb and I all head off on the road to Stonebridge, the village you save in Forest of Doom. (Apparently, Big Jim and his 50 shiny gold pieces can go fuck themselves.) It is idly mentioned that we are in the general proximity of Fang, locale of Deathtrap Dungeon – everywhere seems to be close to Fang in Ian Livingstone’s books – but since the Trial of Champions isn’t running this time of year there’s no reason to go there. We wander past Firetop Mountain and Stubb wonders if the famous Warlock still rules there.
You get the impression. A completely linear series of quite long descriptions of a quite uneventful journey, sprinkled liberally with references to Livingstone’s other gamebooks, might have seemed like a good idea at the time; the intent seems to have been to place the adventure within the wider context of the developing Fighting Fantasy gameworld, which is fair enough but is really a task that should have been handled in the backstory. The thing is, this really needs to have been achieved before the ultimate conflict against the book’s antagonist, rather than immediately afterwards. As it is, about a quarter of the book consists of solid, unyielding anticlimax. Those who have played Forest of Doom might be vaguely interested in the extra backstory details revealed in the course of the long hard miles of filler, but probably not interested enough not to be pissed off at Ian for doing such a lousy, lazy job of expanding the book.
We finally get to something resembling a plot after we pass through Stonebridge and Stubb toddles off with his pal Bigleg to die in the backstory of Forest of Doom. After we strolled off Redswift drew me aside and mentioned that both he and me are suffering from a death curse because we both looked at a piece of rotting parchment in the dungeon. (You don’t get a choice as to whether or not you look at the parchment, by the way).
And then I immediately died of the curse because I didn’t drink a Potion of Health belonging to a Dark Elf I never encountered. At this point, I snapped, assumed that I just used the favour that genie still owed me to teleport myself to the healer and get cured, read paragraph 400 and threw the book at the wall. The death spell is a cheap shot after the cheap shot of having the Snow Witch not really be dead, and at this point I had had enough of stupid cheap shots thrown out in a desperate attempt to spool out the adventure a little bit longer. The very central portion of this adventure – the Crystal Caves itself – are OK, but everything else is just unbearable filler and I simply can’t be arsed with it, especially since thanks to the Skill 10 Yeti and the Skill 11 crystal warrior most runs are going to be terminated abruptly before I even get to the Snow Witch, regardless of how optimally I play. If Ian had been smart he could have expanded the adventure by developing and embellishing the actually interesting part of it, the Crystal Caves, but instead he just tacked paragraph after paragraph onto the end of it until he got to around 400, and then stopped. If this is the sort of laziness Ian was resorting to in order to meet demand, I’m fucking glad they brought in some outside writers to help out at this point. On the strengths of the Crystal Caves I was tempted to put this book in the “recommended” bracket, but the awful, awful, awful conclusion to the story drags it down horribly. Jesus, what a disappointment.
House of Hell
Steve Jackson’s return to the main series, House of Hell (known as House of Hades in the States because think of the children) is Fighting Fantasy‘s only foray into modern-day horror, although many later books (especially those set in the “Old World”, a setting highly reminiscent of the Old World of the Warhammer Fantasy setting) would take detours into an interesting blend of horror and fantasy. The premise is simple: driving through a rainstorm in the middle of the night in the countryside, your car breaks down, but luckily there’s a light on in a nearby house, which you approach to see if you can ask to use their phone.
What ensues does not involve Tim Curry, transvestism, Meat Loaf, or any future presenters of The Crystal Maze. Sorry to disappoint.
By and large, House of Hell follows the standard Fighting Fantasy system, but it just wouldn’t be a Steve Jackson book if there wasn’t a spanner in the works. This comes in the form of the Maximum Fear attribute, which you determine in character generation by rolling one six-sided die and adding 6 to the result. As the game progresses, you accumulate Fear points when you encounter spooky shit; if you hit your maximum, you die of fright. This mechanic is clearly inspired by the sanity mechanic in the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which is unsurprising since Games Workshop printed and distributed a version of it to the UK market.
Another quirk is that, because you begin the game without a proper weapon, you’re not going to be as handy in combat as you usually would – therefore, you begin the game with a starting Skill of 3 points less than the Skill score you rolled, and if you want to use your full Skill in battle you need to find a weapon.
Because you’re just some guy who got caught in a rainstorm you begin the game with nothing except (presumably) your clothes, your car keys, and maybe your wallet.
Skill: 8 (effectively 5 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 12
Now, I could have done a better job of roleplaying a perfectly normal person who just wants to get allowed in out of the rain and rung the doorbell, but fuck that, life’s too short. I assumed that my character had a level of caution suitable for the adventure at hand (in other words, the caution of a paranoid, sneaky fruitloop) and snuck around the back of the house to investigate a light coming from the kitchen. Lo and behold, two guys in honest-to-Satan cultist robes were hanging out talking about the bitchin’ awesome sacrifice that was going down that evening. I got their attention to let me in and said “Hi, I’m here for the sacrifice guys! Mind if I grab a spare robe?”
They didn’t buy it. I was coshed on my head and woke up in a dingy room. One quickly-executed escape plan later and I was out and exploring the house, a carefully-described locale which is fairly easy to visualise and map. I ran into a zombie, which inflicted chilling dreadful Fear points on me. And damage. Lots of damage. Because I had no weapon.
So I died at the hands of a Skill 7 monster.
This is going to take a while, I just know it.
Skill: 11 (effectively 8 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 10
I took the same approach this time, but instead tried to dupe the cultists by telling them the truth – my car’s broken down and I’m looking for help. As I thought, whilst they had no qualms about attacking someone who was clearly trying to infiltrate them, they were less sure about bumping off random passers-by, and they left me alone in the reception room. At which point I started poking around looking for clues.
A friendly painting gave me a hint about the master of this place, which spooked me a little but gave me valuable hints. Before I could do anything else the villain – Lord Kelnor, Earl of Drumer – shows up and gives me brandy. The painting warned about white wine, not brandy, so I glugged it down and had a chat with him. Then we had dinner – I made sure to have red wine to go with it – and it all started feeling less like a meeting with a Satanic cultist and more like a date. Maybe there would be Tim Curry and fishnets down the line.
Then the main course arrived. Shit! None of the paintings had told me about this! Which meat should I choose? Um, um, um, DUCK…! I think that was the right choice, since the Earl had some too. I didn’t want things to get awkward so I asked him about his family and he gave me some sob story about how his sister was strangled in the woods nearby and it totally wasn’t him that did it. I nodded and smiled and hoped he wouldn’t expect me to put out on the first date.
The butler showed up with dessert – fruit, cheese, coffee, and brandy, in any one of three different combinations. I reasoned that the “correct” choice would involve eliminating one of those foods; I could either pick just cheese and coffee, eliminating the brandy, or choose the fruit, coffee, and brandy, eliminating the cheese. Since the brandy wasn’t dodgy earlier, I assumed it would still be OK, and went for the fruit option, which didn’t poison me so, again, I think I picked the right one.
By now it was past midnight and the Earl offered me a room for the night – the Erasmus room, specifically. (All of his bedrooms are given goofy names like this – Erasmus, Mammon, Eblis, Apollyon, Shaitan…). It looked like I wouldn’t be getting lucky that evening, unless “Erasmus” turned out to be the Earl’s pet name he gave all his sexual conquests.
Incidentally, this gamebook is quite interesting to map – when you’re exploring on your own most of the twists and turns are described in detail, because you can take your time looking around, but less so when you are being guided about by someone else you have to keep pace with them, and so the descriptions are more sketchy – and then there may be incidents where you get knocked out and dumped somewhere else, or dropped down a trapdoor into a particular locale. As such, any map you produce during play is likely to be patchy, detailing a little bit here, a little bit there, until the pieces finally come together.
Now, nothing really bad has happened to me so far in this run, but as the text points out if I don’t get moving I’ll miss my appointment, so I immediately tried to sneak out of the Erasmus room and toddle off. The door was locked, so I decided to stay awake and ambush whoever came in. This turned out to be a hunchback with a glass of something probably poisonous, so I laid into the fucker, beat him senseless, and demanded answers, afterwards imprisoning him in the room.
Almost as soon as I wandered off a ghost appeared and more or less demanded that I accompany her into the Apollyon Room. My hopes were dashed when it turned out that she only wanted a shoulder to cry on as she whined about how mean Lord Kelnor is and how the Master serves the Demons of Hellfire and they intend to sacrifice a kidnapped nurse to night and I need to find the mysterious Kris knife if I am to defeat them. Then she got ripped to pieces by ghost dogs, so I decided to go and find the Kris knife and kill the Master to avoid feeling guilty later on.
A letter opener found in a lab gave me the full benefit of my Skill score, and as I left the lab I stumbled across a minor problem in the description – the book asked me if I’d approached the lab from the left or the right. Left facing the door, or left facing away from the door? I assumed facing the door – nope, wrong way, the room names do at least make it obvious when you’ve made a mistake here but it’s still irritating when this sort of thing happens.
Interestingly, a bit of experimentation before I went back to the right path led to the discovery that you can, in fact, go to rooms and find different stuff there, depending on what “time” of the evening it is and what has happened so far in the adventure, which is a very nice touch, and a good way to make a fairly small location fill 400 paragraphs.
I met the zombie again and slaughtered it, although it inflicted a surprising number of hits on me due to lucky dice rolls. As it turned out, there was no real benefit to fighting the thing, or even entering the room it was in, but at least now I’ll know to avoid that encounter in the future – which should speed up replays. I continued my explorations, an encounter with a headless ghost giving me 4 Fear points at once because the ghost chose to be a dick. Having reached 8 points, I began to worry…
Not that it was an issue, in the end. Having reached the kitchen I grabbed some keys on the cooker, which turned out to be hot. I screamed, which alerted the guards, which led to me being captured and killed. Still, I don’t feel the run was wasted, since I was able to make a decent amount of progress, and now at least I can dodge the worthless encounters and the ones which only give me intelligence in return for inflicting Fear points. This is slightly cheaty, but think it’s justified given how tight my Fear budget was getting, even with quite a high Maximum Fear score. At least I seem to be on more or less the right track.
Skill: 9 (effectively 6 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 7
Sticking to my intent of exploiting knowledge of previous runs, I got some different intelligence before dinner by glancing at a different portrait, and then later got different intelligence from the hunchback by asking him different questions. As expected, replaying the game up to the point where I wanted to deviate from my previous route was pretty fast, especially since I could avoid nonproductive encounters – pretty crucial, when you have to ration your Fear. Unfortunately, I blundered into a poltergeist encounter which ended up giving 3 Fear, bringing me up to 6, and then almost immediately strolled along to a vampire encounter which I knew would cost me 1 Fear, like a moron, and died. Oh well. Bit by bit I’m making progress, and that’s what’s important – this doesn’t feel nearly as arbitrary as Deathtrap Dungeon.
Skill: 11 (effectively 8 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 8
I got a little further than the third run this time – I went into the pantry, fought a ghoul, and because it was a Dungeons & Dragons ghoul its blows paralysed me. So I died. Like a big cheating fucker, I checked, and if I’d killed it the beast would have just made a noise and alerted the guards again. I was clearly barking up the wrong tree by investigating the ground floor at this point in time – perhaps next run I would check out the basement.
Skill: 11 (effectively 8 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 8
The basement turned out to be a maze of prison cells (the occupants of most of which appear to be traitors to the cult, although I suspect only one of them actually is) and ceremonial chambers. Much evil shit befell hapless victims before my helpless eyes, and I got into a bunch of fights which ended up mauling me horribly, and I eventually won through to… an unavoidable dead end.
Maybe I shouldn’t check out the basement right now.
Skill: 11 (effectively 8 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 8
Rather than taking my usual detour through the vampire room this time, I ignored the passage that led to it entirely and kept exploring the first floor, which I now realised I hadn’t fully mapped out. Blundering into a long sequence of traps and scares, I ended up standing around exhausted in an abandoned bedroom. The book strongly hinted that I needed a nap, so I took one only to wake up with someone trying to suffocate me, causing me to die of fear. Still, now I know what not to do in that half of the first floor…
Skill: 12 (effectively 9 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 12
I swear I’m not taking the piss, I actually rolled that. Fuck you if you don’t believe me.
So, this time I remembered a clue I had previously received, mentioning that the real traitor to the cult was being kept in the Asmodeus room – which I found in the sixth run, but didn’t get around to checking. I went straight there, and lo and behold, another useful but not vital info-dump, though he did mention that I needed to get a password from someone in order to get through the secret door that leads to the Kris knife – luckily, I had a good idea of where to find them.
Leaving his cell, I noted that the description said there was a dead end where there used to be a way through to the vampire’s room! The house was moving about on me…
A couple of dozen paragraphs later found me in the Master’s dungeon being tortured by one of his minions. The torture sequence here is actually quite fun – you’re on a rack, and the torturer is shouting letters at you, and you have to respond with a word associated with the house beginning with said letter. The torture process is represented system-wise by the game making you write down the words you respond with, and you have to do it immediately – if you hesitate, you’re on your honour to note down that you’ve received damage from the rack. At the end of the process, you tot up a final score based on the words you responded with, and if you score high enough the torturer believes you’re with the cult and lets you go.
I found the secret door that leads to the Kris knife, but I hadn’t found the password; luckily, I had a chance to guess. The door opened, but the paragraph acknowledged the possibility of the door opening two different ways, so I might be heading into a decoy room. Did I guess the password right?
Skill: 12 (effectively 9 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 8
The dice are blessing me.
Didn’t find the guy with the password this time either, but I guessed it correctly! Awesome. I left and made my way to the dining room, summoned the Earl and the butler to fight them, whipped out the Kris knife and correctly guessed that the butler was the true Master because Jackson pulled the same trick in The Crown of Kings. Then I died of fright, because when the butler turned into a Hell Demon I went over my Maximum Fear. Possibly I missed some ways to reduce my Fear along the way, possibly you simply can’t beat the game without a Maximum Fear score of 10 or more – I don’t know. Luckily, I can repeat the run in question with only one fight before I get to the Master, and that’s against low-Skill dogs, so next time should be the key, assuming I have a decent Skill and Fear score.
Skill: 11 (effectively 8 at game start due to lack of weapon)
Maximum Fear: 10
Lo and behold, I had enough Skill and Fear to pull it off. Victory! (Though, in a really bleak touch, whilst you make it out alive none of the sacrificial victims seem to survive…)
Despite the fact that you don’t seem to be able to beat the game with a Maximum Fear score of 9 or less (though I think there’s a couple of ways you can shave off a point here and a point there so that you can solve the book no matter what your Maximum Fear score is – especially if you have no qualms about using even plot-critical intelligence that you have obtained on previous runs), I still think this is a fantastic entry in the series. Not only is it an atmospheric and effective expedition into a genre that Fighting Fantasy otherwise, but it’s also packed with genuine replay value, partially because you can replay the game very, very quickly once you’ve worked out an optimal route. I made more attempts on this book than I did on any previous Fighting Fantasy book, mainly because each time I played I was easily able to get back to where I failed previously and continue exploring. It’s this aspect which makes me think that the Maximum Fear issue isn’t really a problem – if you happen to have a low Maximum Fear score on a run, you can still use it to gather intelligence for later attempts, so it’s all for the good unless you’ve actually worked out the route to the final conflict and you just want to get the thing done with already.
Brilliant from beginning to end, House of Hell is a masterpiece, better even than Sorcery!
Talisman of Death
The first Fighting Fantasy gamebook of 1985 is also the first contribution to the series by Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith. It’s not set in the usual Fighting Fantasy setting but on the world of Orb, which seems to be a very standard fantasy setting with the addition of talking animals to the mix. Really, by far the greater departure from the usual premise is that you do not play a native of Orb, but an Earth person of utterly indeterminate background (you don’t even get a clue as to what time period you’re from – your only clue to your origins is that you didn’t previously know how to use a sword, but now you’ve supernaturally learned). Plucked from home by no less than the very Gods of Orb themselves, you are sent to counter the agents of Death and overthrow some sort of plot to disrupt the balance of nature or something, as is typical in these situations they’re not very clear about this.
Although the basic scenario isn’t very original, I have to give Thomson and Smith props for their visual imagination – the Gods are interestingly unhuman, and the depiction of your descent to Orb is especially fun. I am willing to bet that they were 17 when they came up with most of this, and Orb is their homebrewed Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, but everyone has to start somewhere. Wherever Orb came from, it’s clearly special to Smith and Thomson, because they also used it as the setting for The Way of the Tiger, a ninja-themed gamebook series.
Their plan for this book seems pretty ambitious – the female deity imparts a vision of future adventures, which it is implied will occur in due course during the player’s progress through the book, and there’s enough in there to fill a pretty epic novel. Clearly, they don’t intend to confine the action to a single location or small set of locations, as is the case in most previous Fighting Fantasy books, so they’re setting themselves a bit of a challenge in holding it all together. Then again, this seems to have come at the start of an explosion of gamebook-writing activity for them, for 1985 would not only see the debut of The Way of the Tiger series but would also see the release of the first Falcon book, another series of theirs centring around a time-travelling spy.
The system is the same old one from Warlock, with the usual “eat your Provisions whenever you like, so long as it’s not in the middle of a fight” modification. I think I’ll call this the “Livingstone Model”, since Ian Livingstone almost always uses it, whereas Steve Jackson almost always modifies it to a greater or lesser extent.
In addition to the standard gear from the Livingstone Model (sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions and a Potion of Skill, Stamina, or Luck), the authors start you off with five torches to use as light sources, and a flint and tinder to light them with.
Potion Choice: Luck
The gods decided the best possible place to put me was in the middle of a dungeon, with random unknowns rushing down a passageway towards me. Standing my ground, I was confronted with an honest to God adventuring party, comprising a fighter, a paladin, a cleric and a mage. The fighter, who is apparently a Shieldmaiden (how do I know that?) tells me that I’m in the Rift, which is apparently the spawning ground of all evil – well, at least the deities that sent me here were getting straight to the point – and demanded to know who I was. I thought that telling her I was from another world was foolhardy under the circumstances, since let’s face it, the most likely things to emerge from another world in the middle of the Rift of Evil are going to be demons and Lovecraftian horrors and I didn’t want them to get the wrong idea, but then I realised if I said “Erm, I’m on a quest against evil, like you guys! Let’s tag along together!” they’d ask me questions about where I came from anyway, and I didn’t have any answers. Playing for time and attacking them seemed bad, so I went with honesty and told them the truth anyway.
Luckily, it turned out that the cleric in the party knew the Detect Lie spell, when he cast it my story checked out. As a consequence, the party immediately trusted me and told me about their predicament – the exits to the dungeon had been sealed, and the magic-user only had one Teleport spell memorised for that day, so only one person could be sent out for help. The fact that the cleric had the Detect Lie spell meant that the world of Orb must operate under the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, since those were the only extant version of the D&D rules at the time which gave clerics access to the Detect Lie spell, although the Teleport spell must be house-ruled since under the strict AD&D rules at the time casters usually could only cast it on themselves. This being the case, I reasoned that the cleric must be at least 7th level, and the magic-user must be at least 9th level. Assuming that the adventuring party had adventured together throughout their entire careers and had about the same number of XP each, this meant that they must each have at least 135,001 experience, putting the minimum level of each party member at 9 for the magic-user, 7 for the paladin, and 8 for the fighter and cleric, so I decided to listen carefully to the adventurers’ story, since they clearly were experienced enough to know their shit.
Anyway, it turns out that the cult of the god Death has produced a talisman – the Talisman of Death, in fact – which when the Stars Are Right may be used to summon Death to Orb, killing all life on the planet and leaving only the worshippers of Death behind in a sort of awful undead half-life. The party were the last survivors of a team sent to recover the Talisman to prevent this, but since it couldn’t be destroyed they didn’t really have much of a plan for what to do after they snatched it. Without even waiting to ask if I wanted to help them, they handed me the Talisman and 10 gold pieces (stingy bastards!) and told me they were going to teleport me to the surface, whereupon I should seek out the city of learning, Greyguilds-on-the-Moor, to find a means by which I could return to Earth, since if the Talisman went to another world it would have no power and Death would be thwarted, really, honest guv, they’re not just setting me up to get all life on Earth wiped out, oooh no.
I would have remonstrated with them, but the game gave me no option to do so, and indeed most of my interactions with them seemed to be similarly limited in scope – really, couldn’t this have just been put in the backstory section? Anyway, there was no time to argue since monsters burst into the room and started hacking down the Crusaders, apparently in the company of a Balrog (aieeeee!). I decided to submit to the wizard’s spell and got zapped to the surface and at last I had a choice!
A choice between which of two routes to take to Greyguilds, sure, but still a choice.
I went through the forest, home to a series of ramrod-linear encounters. (I have an awful suspicion that the trip over open ground is equally linear). Running into a squad of patrolling Shieldmaidens, I made up some story about being ambushed and their leader let me accompany them back to Greyguilds, sharing the saddle with the youngest and hottest of them. Strolling into the city, I pondered the terseness and simplicity of many of the paragraphs I had just wandered through. Unlike many earlier gamebooks little time was wasted describing the aftermath of fights, or the sights and sounds and smells of the city, in stark contrast to the massive plot dumps I’d had to wade through at the beginning. It’s almost as though Smith and Thomson were trying to cram the plot of their epic fantasy novel into the book, were struggling to fit it all into 400 paragraphs, and only really cared about those paragraphs which delivered steaming dumps of exposition about their gameworld.
Typical of this was my entry into Greyguilds, which flatly presented me with a brief, almost contentless description and asked me whether I wanted to go down Store Street or Smith Street. Hmmm, how shall I decide? What could possibly be down those streets? It’s a shame they didn’t describe what I could see down those streets, otherwise I’d have NO IDEA what I might find there. I wanted to find some stores to spend my money, but, in the absence of any sort of clue, I just arbitrarily chose to go down Store Street and hope for the best.
Oh, good, there were shops down there! Before I could investigate them, though, a random woman turned up and said she noticed I was a stranger in town, and would I like to tell her about my business? I decided to chat with her on the off-chance that I was being propositioned and bragged about my holy quest. Unfortunately, it turned out that she was a priestess of the All-Mother, and when I namedropped a druid that I’d encountered along the way she invited me along to a meeting. I was slightly worried about being recruited into a cult, but then I reasoned that fertility cults have all the fun so I decided to go along with her. After prayers she took me by the hand into a side room, whereupon she… gave me a suit of magic chainmail, tips on when it was safe to try and leave the city, and sent me on my way.
I guess I just wasn’t rustic enough for her.
Anyway, off I went down the street, my little side-dalliance having failed to change my destination any, and I ran into an Envoy of Death who attacked me in the middle of the street – not subtle, these guys. (Even worse, it makes you lose 1 Skill point every time it hits you – fucking harsh!) It was only Skill 8, and I was Skill 9 at this point, but it still got a lucky hit in, initiating a horrendous death spiral which killed me off.
I think I’ll try avoiding that one the next time I have a low-Skill character…
Potion Choice: Luck
Skipping over the completely mandatory and unavoidable sequence with the adventurers, I decided to cut across open ground rather than nip through the forest, only to find myself between two approaching warbands of orcs and dark elves. Trying to hide abjectly failed as an approach and the orcs took all my cash, but at least I was still alive. A couple of linear encounters later (including one with some Dark Elves who, if the illustration is to be believed, are of the “pasty albino” variety rather than the “spooky black elves” variety) I ran into the exact same Shieldmaiden patrol I’d encountered earlier, and I was left with the impression that cutting across the open ground was a stupid idea.
On arriving at Greyguilds, for the sake of variety (please god, some variety would be good in this adventure) I went down Smith Street, only to encounter a Minion of Death, who does the same horrible Skill-sucking thing that the Envoy of Death does, but only has a Skill of 7. Still, my Skill was only 8 at this point, and it has a few more hit points than the Escort so it takes a bit longer to kill, and the same horrible death-spiral ensued. I died with my Skill reduced to -2.
Potion Choice: Skill
Arriving at Greyguilds without incident, I decided to go after the Minion rather than the Escort since it has a lower Skill. Luck was with me this time, and a quick glug of my Skill potion restored my depleted stats (although apparently if you beat the Minion at least you get back all but 1 of your lost Skill points so it’s not that bad).
Then I was killed trying to prevent a robbery at a jewellery store. Damn it!
Potion Choice: Skill
OK, this time I went after the Envoy, since I knew I could get a Skill boost from my priestess pal and thus get a 2-point edge over the fucker. Cutting him down, I strolled into a library, reasoning that since the authors love to talk about their campaign setting there’d be plenty of useful information in there. One unnecessary plot dump about the theology of the campaign setting later and it’s already dark, so strolling along the perfectly linear sequence Thomson and Smith had planned out for me I got mugged by some death cultists; the mugging was disrupted by some Shieldmaidens, but they made off with the Talisman without returning it to me, leaving me stuck in the beartrap the death cultists had caught me in.
A nice man came up and released me from the trap, and offered me the chance to sleep in his house. (What is it with people coming on to me in Fighting Fantasy books?) It turns out he was OK, though – he gave me a meal, some advice on getting the Talisman back (he suggested commissioning the Thieves’ Guild – of course there’s a Thieves’ Guild – to get it out of the temple of the Shieldmaidens), a jade rose to identify myself by when I returned, and a magic ring that increases combat prowess. Wondering whether I’d accidentally gotten engaged to a celibate historian, I went down to the bar he suggested. (By this point I had stopped mapping since it was pretty clear there was no point; this adventure is utterly linear, with only the occasional alternate route and dead end thrown in as a concession to the gamebook format.) A chat with the barman yielded only blathering and worldbuilding, and then the game forced me to go talk to a bunch of guys clearly intent on mugging me. They seemed interested in the job, but they wanted me to go meet me at their place, clearly hoping to bushwhack me there.
At that point, a man and a woman came in, accompanied by a really long description and an illustration. Gosh, could these NPCs be important? I realised that one of them had been mentioned in the barman’s story, so I had a quick chat with them, but little came of it. I went along to keep my date with the sage – which apparently wasn’t a mandatory encounter, so maybe this bit is slightly less linear than I expected – and after a brief participation in a vivisection experiment I made it to dinner.
To find that the sage had invited a friend of his.
Anyway, they gave me a lot of useful pointers for getting out of the city after stealing back the Talisman, and how to get back to my own world, and then I turned in (apparently wishing to leave the sage and his gentleman friend to it whilst yanking the Engagement Ring +1 off my ring finger and tossing it against the wall and weeping all night). The next morning, whilst watching a magic show, I got an invitation to have some sherry with a guy called Mortphilio.
I think not.
Meeting with the Guild, we head off on the mission to snatch the Talisman. Despite being pretty linear, it’s also really atmospheric, the quality of the prose increasing tenfold as Smith and Thomson really get into it; if only they’d actually kept this level of engagement throughout the book, and perhaps incorporated more choices into it. Soon enough the thieves have scattered and I’m left alone facing the high priestess, who casts a Flame Strike spell, putting her at level 9 at least – yikes! I pull out my Scroll of Agonising Doom, which seems to weaken her, but she’s still Skill 12, and although I’m Skill 11 by this point the fight is still going to be tricky. My luck wins out, though, thanks in part to her low Stamina, and after cutting her down I steal her Ring of Regeneration so she can’t come back to life and peg it. After a pretty damn exciting escape, I run into that dude I met before whose name I forget because actually this campaign setting isn’t very interesting, and with his henchwoman and their pet illusionist in tow they try to get me to hand over the Talisman. A fight against a Skill 10 opponent ensues – pretty harsh after the last one – but it’s over pretty quick at least, and after an airlift from an eagle and after waiting until the evening, when my priestess pal’s fellow acolytes are guarding the main gate (apparently the temples share the job of policing and governance between them on this world) I leave town and head for Mount Zapsyahome, where apparently I can get back to Earth.
Apparently, as I progress the Talisman starts feeling heavier and heavier, almost like a certain other famous evil object from fantasy literature. Menaced by ghosts in the night, I discover that the undead minions of Death know of my quest and are desperate to take the Talisman; I also find that I can use it to command the
Nazgul Faceless Ones, Death’s servants who are bound to obey the bearer of the amulet. This Object-Bearer job is easy; I wonder why Frodo didn’t just put the Ring on in Mordor and stroll along invisibly, it would have saved him all sorts of bother. One brief and fairly easy to figure out dungeon later, I make it to the top of the plateau where I am captured by the blue Hogmen that feature in the vision I had in the backstory. A minor faux pas involving waving salted pork at them caused me to be invited to their village. Telling the Headhog (seriously that’s what it’s called) of my quest he tells me that he’ll help me out, but only because to get to the portals I must kill an Ancient Red Dragon that is terrorising the area. (Incidentally, Ancient Red Dragon, the term they use, is also the term used for one type of dragon in AD&D. How surprising!) The dragon is a Skill 12 monster with 20 Stamina, but luckily by this point I have Skill 12, and the dragon-killing spear I found in the dungeon does an amazing 5 points of damage to the dragon each time I hit it. Having dispatched the beast, I stepped through the portal and returned to Earth. The Gods thanked me and mentioned that they might call on me again. I made a mental note to take my number ex-directory.
Although I have mocked Talisman of Death for being over-linear and too obviously based on someone’s D&D game world, at the same time I do find it rather charming. When Smith and Thomson get enthusiastic about the action, which happens more and more frequently as the book progresses, their prose drips with slightly generic but nonetheless sincere atmosphere, and I rather suspect that I’m selling them short on the linearity; flipping around I find that on some occasions when you die you get a chance to go back in time and retry a segment of the book, and I think there were more branches and choices in the city than I actually managed to experience. What’s more, there is some nice use of foreshadowing – for example, you can watch a magic act which hints at the connection between the important thief NPC and the illusionist, which later on becomes relevant when they try to mug you for the Talisman. I can more or less accept the book as a guided tour through someone’s campaign setting with a reasonably exciting adventure tacked onto it; really, the biggest flaw in the book is the fact that you can’t avoid fighting either the Envoy or the Minion of Death. With their Skill-sucking powers they make it extremely unlikely that anyone with a Skill of less than 9-10 will be able to make any progress in the book whatsoever, and even characters of higher Skills could end up much the worse for wear afterwards. Then again, it’s not as though Jackson or Livingstone were innocent when it came to designing books which make a mockery of the “any character, no matter how weak, can make it through” line. Take a potion of Skill, reroll low Skills if you can stomach cheating, and tour Orb if you don’t mind a lack of interactivity.
Andrew Chapman’s debut gamebook is the second attempt, following Starship Traveller, to present an SF adventure in the Fighting Fantasy series, but rather than taking Steve Jackson’s ambitious star-hopping approach, Chapman devises a way to use the standard Fighting Fantasy technique of setting the action within a limited, defined, mappable location. As you might expect, in this book you’re a space assassin, commissioned to assassinate the mad scientist Cyrus. Cyrus is described as the “ruling scientist” of your sector of interstellar space, and he meanders around the place conducting horrific experiments on planetary populations from the safety of his starship, the Vandervecken (a reference to Larry Niven’s Protector). Infiltrating the ship aboard a supply shuttle, your mission is to apprehend Cyrus before the ship reaches your homeworld, where his next scheduled experiment will have the unfortunate side-effect of scouring the surface of all life.
Wait, apprehend him? Doesn’t that make a bit of a mockery of the whole “assassin” thing? I mean, I’m meant to be a member of the Assassin’s Guild and everything, but they don’t want me to kill the guy?
Chapman adds very little to the actual resolution mechanics beyond incorporating a gunfight system based on that presented in Starship Traveller; the player and their opponents take turns to roll two six-sided dice, any participant who rolls less than their Skill score has hit their opponent and does damage as per their weapon (which is treated as an assault blaster if it is not otherwise specified). Where Chapman really expands on the system is in the way he handle’s the player’s equipment, which makes a lot of sense considering that a major difference between an SF character and a fantasy character is the level and variety of technology available to them. In addition to the various bits of equipment you begin the game with (detailed below), Chapman makes economising a priority by making a rule saying you can only carry five items at a time (not counting your weapons and, presumably, your armour and Pep Pills), which may prove fiddly but does make a lot of sense – you’re meant to be an elite assassin, weighing yourself down with big clunky sacks of loot just a bad idea.
Space Assassin brings a bold new innovation to the Fighting Fantasy series: armour which actually does something. Designed to withstand projectile weapons rather than hand-to-hand combat, your armour has an armour rating determined by rolling 1 six-sided dice and adding 6 during character generation; when you’re hit by gunfire, you can roll 2 six-sided dice, and if you roll equal to or under your armour rating you take no damage. (After each armour test you take your armour rating goes down by one, so if you roll 12 at game start you aren’t bulletproof forever.)
Another innovation is variable starting equipment: you have 1-6 points (randomised through a roll of 1 six-sided die) to spend on weaponry to take along with you, although you have to buy either an electric lash or an assault blaster before you buy anything else. The electric lash is a cheap but dependable handgun, which does 2 points of Stamina damage when you successfully hit an opponent, whilst the assault blaster is an expensive but powerful gun which does 1-6 points of Stamina damage with each successful hit. Additionally, you can buy grenades – which can only be used when the text allows it, but if they work they do 1-6 points of damage to all the enemies you’re facing at the start of the fight, and gravity bombs, which are like grenades but just kill all your foes outright. In addition, you can buy extra armour rating points fairly cheaply.
Aside from your armour and purchased weapons, you don’t start the game with much beyond 4 Pep Pills, which restore 5 Stamina at a pop and can be used whenever you like.
Armour Rating: 10 (with 2 points purchased).
Purchased Equipment: Assault blaster.
For this first run I thought I’d keep things simple as far as the equipment goes – tough armour, a powerful weapon, and a bad attitude is all I reckon a decent space assassin really needs. I was impressed that from the first paragraph in the adventure your equipment choices are relevant – in the first room you get to there’s a bulkhead that requires a gravity bomb to get past, and if you don’t have one you have to take your chances ducking through a maintenance hatch and crawling through the ventilation ducts (I just knew there was going to be duct-crawling in this adventure).
I had a chance to try out the gunfight rules against a robot when, like a sucker, I took time off from sneaking about to try and free some of Cyrus’s prisoners. At least, I assumed from the context that it was meant to be a gunfight – an earlier paragraph did specify that the guard robot was carrying an assault blaster – but the paragraph the fight happens in doesn’t specify whether it’s a gunfight or hand-to-hand combat. To be fair, the authors are usually a bit better at being clear about what sort of fight it is in later battles, but at the same time they’re also a bit sloppy about specifying what the enemy is armed with. It would seem to be just plain common sense to put all the information required for a fight in the paragraph the fight happens in, but oh well.
As far as the gunfight system goes, what I did notice is that it makes playing a low-Skill character a bit more viable, and it avoids the situation where enemies either stop being threatening or become impossible to beat if the difference between their Skill and yours is large enough. This is achieved by making whether or not you hit with a firearm dependent solely on a roll of the dice against your Skill score, and it doesn’t matter what the other guy rolls or what their own Skill is, avoiding the situation which can arise in melee combat where if one combatant has a sufficiently higher Skill than the other then the low-Skill chump simply never gets to hit their opponent. Although this system does mean that even the lowliest combatant can potentially be a threat, it is biased towards player characters somewhat; most PCs will have a Skill of 8 or above, and will therefore hit more often than they miss on average, whilst high-Skill combatants (at least in the combats I got into in this run) are a rarity. Furthermore, the game is generous enough to let you roll first, therefore giving you the “luck of the draw” – if you kill an enemy with a shot they don’t get to return fire that round – which does help a little.
After a couple of shootouts I stumbled across a floor safe, and because I stopped to examine it I have to attempt to open it – the game doesn’t give me the option of leaving well alone, which seems slightly unfair, especially considering that if you get the code wrong a bomb goes off and kills you instantly. Harsh!
Armour Rating: 9
Purchased Equipment: Electric lash.
Because I’d rolled especially badly, I realised that I might be in trouble against the robot who was guarding the floor safe, so I decided to use this run for intelligence-gathering purposes by trying to explore as many alternate routes from the one I followed in the first run as I could. (I still fought the prison guard, though, because I wanted to steal its assault blaster for myself).
As I strolled around blundering into traps I found it interesting that many of the random dangers that you encounter in Space Assassin penalise your Armour score, whereas in previous Fighting Fantasy adventures they would tend to reduce your Stamina or Luck or Skill. I thought this was quite nice – losing the effectiveness of your armour is a penalty, but not one which is likely to make the game completely unwinnable, so it’s fair enough to get armour penalties as a result of opening the wrong door.
In a cupboard I found a box with levers in it, which I fiddled about with. At which point, the PA system on the ship announced that the reactor shielding had been removed and a meltdown would take place within 6 minutes. Yikes! I sprang into an escape pod and made good my escape, and was able to watch as the ship exploded, but the downside was Cyrus hadn’t been captured (and presumably had his own escape pod), and the explosion spread his biological warfare experiments all over the place. Curse you panspermia!
Armour Rating: 11
Purchased Equipment: Electric lash, grenade.
This time I correctly guessed the combination to the safe; my prize was a free gravity bomb, which is pretty generous to be honest. Progressing further, I soon myself falling down a trapdoor onto a weird doughnut-shaped planet that seemed to be a simulation or artificial construct, apparently entirely contained within the Vandervecken due to some sort of weird sort of dimensional experiment on the part of Cyrus. Planet Krispy Kreme is a bit confusing to map and a bit sparse, but at the same time it wasn’t long before I found the way out via a submarine ride.
If that sounds really bizarre, it is, but in quite a cool way, and the Vandervecken is stuffed with interesting, off beat places and encounters – alien lab technicians hanging out in their break room, security guards goofing off and watching sports broadcasts (as depicted on the front cover), captured giant talking spiders stuck in cryogenic booths after being abducted by Cyrus as experimental specimens, all kinds of bizarre crap can be discovered on the ship.
The adventure also seems interestingly nonlinear, with plenty of alternate routes with their own unique dangers, some of which show a great deal of craft on the part of Chapman. For example, on the route I took I ended up taking part in a tank battle training exercise – with live ammo, and a clever time-based system for keeping track of where the enemy tank is and where you are. Unfortunately, one of the apparently-mandatory segments of the book is a really moronic puzzle where you have to pick which tiles you step on as you walk across the room. If you get it wrong it’s an insta-kill, and I don’t think you ever get a clue as to what the correct path is. At this juncture I cheated, because there’s no way I’m repeating this gamebook over and over just to be defeated by an arbitrary puzzle like that.
Although the puzzles and whatnot can get quite tricky, the actual fighting in this Fighting Fantasy adventure is quite lightweight – in my final battle against Cyrus he only had Skill 9 and Stamina 12. Granted, he was using an assault blaster, but so was I at this point, and whilst he was going to hit most rounds due to his high Skill I hadn’t used any of my pep pills and I was at full Stamina, so I was working with an effective Stamina of 38, making it near-inevitable that I would wear him down before I wore him down. Which is, eventually, what occurred.
According to the description in paragraph 400, I dragged Cyrus from his Waldo “unconscious” at this point. Sure, whatever. I just imagined that I broke his neck and basked in my victory – which felt rather hollow. Part of this was down to the comparative ease of the gamebook (assuming you ignore the tile puzzle), but part of it is that the final paragraph in this entry in the series is incredibly anticlimactic. It’s just three lines long, for crying out loud, and ends with a terse “Congratulations”. What the fuck? It’s meant to be the big prize, the climax, the reward, the payoff, the money shot! I do all this crap and you pack me off with a three-line paragraph 400? Jesus! I might not like some of Jackson and Livingstone’s gamebooks but at least they always give you a big send up which makes you feel like a God amongst men. Shame on you, Andrew Chapman.
That said, despite this issue Space Assassin is in all other respects an extremely worthy entry in the series, an undoing of the severe damage Starship Traveller did to Fighting Fantasy‘s prospects as a viable SF gamebook system.
The Canary Says
Between this brace of gamebooks and the simultaneous publication of Sorcery!, it could well be that this period marks the beginning of a golden age for Fighting Fantasy. With the basic principles behind the series nailed down, the authors feel the confidence to experiment, but do so carefully, with a fairly clear understanding of the implications of their alterations to the system. In terms of story and setting, greater heights of complexity and depth are attained in fantasy, and two entire new genres are explored very capably. Jamie Smith and Mark Thomson bring a strongly Dungeons & Dragons-inspired set of sensibilities to the drawing board and provide an evocative guided tour of a world that I’d like to game in more, despite its occasional cheesiness. (OK, because of its occasional cheesiness.) Andrew Chapman provides a system for gunfights that makes his entry one of the few gamebooks where a Skill 7 character can still have a decent shot at victory, whilst Steve Jackson was clearly firing on all cylinders during this period.
The odd man out is Ian Livingstone. I can see why he would take a short cut and put out an expanded Caverns of the Snow Witch at this point – until Steve Jackson returned from Sorcery! and the third party authors started getting really productive he was effectively manning the ship by himself – but the manner in which he actually handled the expansion is extremely shoddy; I’m still angry about it now. He absolutely shamed himself this time, and I have to wonder whether he’d jumped the shark.
Still, at least there aren’t many gamebooks authored by Ian after this – or by Steve, for that matter. Though their names would always take pride of place on the front cover, from here on in Fighting Fantasy was no longer solely Ian and Steve’s baby, but a group concern, with some amazing new talent being cultivated. Thank God they kept the third party author plan alive after the American Steve Jackson’s dire job with Scorpion Swamp.
For anyone who gives a shit about my nonsensical ordering of the series based on merit, here’s the Smiley Scale. Please note that City of Thieves has been demoted to “recommended”, because on reflection the ending really is rather weak, whilst The Warlock of Firetop Mountain has been promoted because there’s just an elusive something about it that none of the other gamebooks in the series quite recapture; I can’t, for example, put my hand on my heart and say that I would point people towards Island of the Lizard King in preference to Firetop Mountain.
---------------------------------------- House of Hell :D (Sheer delight) | Sorcery!* | | The Warlock of Firetop Mountain | | Island of the Lizard King | ---------------------------------------- Space Assassin :) (Recommended) | City of Thieves | | Talisman of Death | | Forest of Doom | ---------------------------------------- Citadel of Chaos :S (Collectors only) ---------------------------------------- Caverns of the Snow Witch :( (Downright bad) | Starship Traveller | ---------------------------------------- Deathtrap Dungeon >:( (Pissed me off) ---------------------------------------- Scorpion Swamp D: (OH GOD WHY) ---------------------------------------- * Assuming that - you play it as a wizard - play the books in sequence - and take then end of each book as a "save point".