In Star Bastards, the first of the Two-Fisted Fantasy books to see release, an elegant new gamebook system was combined with a classic 1980s gamebook aesthetic to deliver quite a good short space adventure. Star Bastards, however, was merely the test balloon. If Two-Fisted Fantasy has really made a mark on the field, it’s through the mighty tome which was the second release in the series: The Sword of the Bastard Elf.
When I say “mighty tome”, I am not kidding: the book is over 800 large-format pages long, and the adventure has some 1825 numbered entries, many of which are fairly long. The rules section runs some 60 pages, though the actual rules for playing the adventure cover just five of these; the rest include a full adaptation of the Two-Fisted Fantasy system for running as a conventional tabletop RPG, with a referee (“Dungeon Bastard”) and multiple players. You’re explicitly encouraged to not read the RPG until you’ve played the adventure at least once, since it’s tied to one of the major locales and therefore could contain spoilers.
As well as providing a massive adventure, plus a simple tabletop RPG system, plus lots of gorgeous art from S. Iacob (available in colour or black and white – though I personally prefer black and white since it really teases out how S. Iacob captures the aesthetic of 1980s gamebooks), The Sword of the Bastard Elf also elaborates on the mythos around Two-Fisted Fantasy.
The pretence is that this book, like the previous one, was written by the mysterious Herman S. Skull, but in the introduction this time around S. Iacob lets us in on more of what that actually means. As she explains it, Herman S. Skull was putting these books out in the 1980s and early 1990s (in other words, in the original gamebook wave) to try and ride the Fighting Fantasy bandwagon, but wasn’t very successful due to being excessively verbose, wildly inappropriate in his choice of subject matter, and tending to belabour the reader with off-topic rants.
As the introduction puts it, “his books were mostly bought by confused grandparents for soon-to-be-disappointed grandchildren”, and the line eventually folded. S. Iacob therefore positions herself much as William Goldman does in the novel of The Princess Bride – as the rediscoverer and editor of this lost text who has hauled it out of obscurity, edited it somewhat (in this case removing the “bizarre racism” and off-topic tangents), and put out a condensed version.
The original, pre-edit version of the book is described by S. Iacob as “a horrible, unpleasant mess about a grotesque of a protagonist doing unspeakable things”. The edited product you can actually obtain is, I’m glad to report, not a horrible, unpleasant mess, but the rest stands. During my first playthrough of the thing I ate a pixie, slept with a witch rather than saving Hansel & Gretel, also slept with a lich but then accidentally killed him by treading on his phylacteries as I was sneaking out, and was generally a horror to know.
The titular Bastard Elf is your character in this abominable epic. Your father was the mysterious Wandering Milkman, your mother an elven whimsyflicker. After the Milkman recommenced his wanderings, your mother reared you herself – but now you have come of age at 60 years old, and her new elven boyfriend Jeff (who you refuse to refer to as “Dad” no matter how much he wants) has persuaded her it’s time you left the nest.
Naturally, your reaction is to – let me find the quote, ah yes – “spend most of the afternoon in your room jerking off miserably” before you eventually run out of time to pack, grab some stuff, and exit sharpish, with the suggestion that maybe it’s worth undertaking the trek across the County of Nonce to Bilgeton, where you might kip on your absent father’s couch.
Between here and Bilgeton, the adventure is well and truly wide open. Things noticeably narrow down somewhat once you get to Bilgeton, since it’s the endgame, but even then there’s a range of activities to do – but the real charm of the book is in how it uses its absurdly inflated number of paragraphs to give you an unusual degree of freedom for a gamebook. Sure, there’s still constraints, but the number of options implemented – both obvious and less-than-normal (like “EAT THE PIXIE“) – is impressive.
Maybe you will refuse the call to adventure completely, return directly home, barricade yourself in your room and “spend the rest of your life being a worthless piece of shit and playing video games all day”. Maybe you’ll follow the Count’s Road, or end up blundering cross-country. Maybe you will make your way to the centre of the extremely not-copyright-infringing Mazyrinth and steal the Goblin King’s codpiece.
A truly wide range of possibilities is implemented, even leaving room for some joke paragraphs that don’t actually connect to anything. (Paragraph 420 has a “say no to drugs” message from Herman S. Skull. Paragraph 69 just reads “Nice“.) As well as a wide range of routes to Bilgeton being available, a decent range of responses to the situations you are faced with are also implemented.
The usual Two-Fisted Fantasy sense of humour is well in evidence; as well as the Ten-Foot Pole making another appearance, there’s another language gag, this time revolving around some lizard people who talk in a strong but perfectly legible Australian dialect. This time, the joke here is that whilst the dialect isn’t all that odd and most readers will find it perfectly intelligible, the Bastard Elf doesn’t understand what’s being said at all, giving the player the opportunity to either roleplay it and choose comically incorrect responses or cheese it and choose the correct ones as the player wishes.
The system also sees some refinement. Expertise is renamed Élan, to better fit a main character who doesn’t really know very much about anything due to spending 60 years of life as a useless lump who doesn’t engage with the world, and Energy is renamed Effort. All challenges – combat or otherwise – are designated as “Hassles”, with a simple Difficulty to beat – no division into different flavours of opposing Expertise. (This means that the game includes nothing that’s even remotely as complex as the somewhat fiddly starship combat in Star Bastards.)
One of the more interesting new mechanics is the concept of “Words of Power”. Sometimes, a thing will happen in the book which will have persistent effects in subsequent playthroughs, so you might be able to start with enhanced abilities or a bit of kit you otherwise wouldn’t have at the beginning. When this happens, you are encouraged to write it down on your character sheet in pen under the Words of Power section. (This is an instance where printing off your own character sheet and tucking it in the book might be worthwhile, if the prospect of actually writing in your book is off-putting.) This is a neat way to up the replay value (and to make it a little more likely you’ll thrive in the early stages of a replay, dialling back the odds of a deflatingly early death a tad).
Producing a gamebook of this length is an achievement in itself – producing a gamebook this long and having it be consistently funny even more so, and that’s what’s been done with Sword of the Bastard Elf. Highly recommended.