The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 8)

Time for another entry in my occasional series of Fighting Fantasy gamebook reviews. This time we’re moving on to the first four gamebooks in the series put out in 1987 – that’s right, the 28 books we’ve covered so far (24 in the mainline series and the four which form the Sorcery! quartet) all hail from 1982-1986, a tight range of years which covers a good many of the most iconic releases of the series. Part of this is because we’ve now gone through most of Ian Livingstone’s contributions to the books’ original run on Puffin and all of Steve Jackson’s, and it’s been Jackson and Livingstone’s books which have been most widely reprinted – books by other hands have been reprinted much more infrequently, I suspect because of contract issues rooted in the contracts used for third party writers.

In these later stretches of the main series, we’re going to be more and more focused on those third party authors. Take this selection: Livingstone only writes one of them. The other three are written by other hands, one of whom we’ve seen in these reviews before, two of whom are fresh faces who’d go on to pen several other Fighting Fantasy books.

Beneath Nightmare Castle

Scenario

The first of three Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Peter Darvill-Evans (the other two are Portal of Evil and Spectral Stalkers) is set on the continent of Khul, which had been a bit of a dumping ground for fantasy gamebooks set in the Titan setting but which didn’t quite fit into the Allansia setting (where most of the fantasy books had taken place so far) or the Old World (which at this point in the series had only been used as the setting for Sorcery!). Allansia tended towards a fairly straight-ahead D&D-derived style of fantasy, whilst the Old World tended towards the sort of tone which the early Warhammer setting enjoyed; Khul, at this point, was a bit of a grab-bag. Books which had been set here so far included Scorpion Swamp, Seas of Blood, Sword of the Samurai, and Masks of Mayhem, all of which were by authors other than Steve Jackson (the UK one – the US one did Scorpion Swamp) or Ian Livingstone.

This time around, we don’t get much of a clue before we get into the adventure what it’s all about, beyond the fact that our character is a veteran warrior who once fought alongside brave Baron Tholdur, Margrave of the town of Neuburg. You and the Baron defeated the barbarians of the southern steppes, dissuading them from further incursions, and then went your separate ways – but bad luck on your most recent adventure has left you impoverished and hungry. Your one stroke of luck happened to be that you’re in hiking distance of Neuburg itself – so you’ve set out to visit the town and see how your old buddy is doing.

Just as you come in sight of the town, however, you are ambushed and captured by a band of southern barbarians – yes, part of the very same forces you and the Baron defeated previously. This doesn’t look good…


System

At least in terms of the initial explanation, the system here is vanilla Fighting Fantasy with one important addition: the Willpower stat, derived by rolling 1D6+6. Since this is a horror-themed game, your mental stability will be tested as much as your physical integrity.

In essence, this is an attempt to add stat to the game comparable to the Sanity stat in Call of Cthulhu (which by this point in time would have been a well-known hit in RPG circles), but taking a somewhat different mechanical approach from the Fear stat in House of Hell. In that book, you just added on Fear points whenever you were confronted with something awful, and you lost your grip on things when your Fear score hit your maximum. Here, you test your Willpower in the same way you test your Luck, right down to deducting a point from your Willpower whenever it is tested, which I suppose is a neat way of modelling your mental reserves being gradually worn down.

However, there is a slightly bullshitty addition here, which is that if you lose a Willpower test when your Willpower is below 6, you instantly lose your mind and lose the game. This feels cheap – if you’re already going to suffer the negative consequences of losing a Willpower role and have your Willpower reduced yet further, isn’t that punishment enough? In addition, the closeness of this mechanic to the Luck stat does make me wonder whether in the first draft Darvill-Evans just used a lot of Luck tests, and it was pointed out that he’d used way too many, so he parcelled some of them out as Willpower tests. We’ll see how that goes.

Gear

In keeping with the concept of the book, you start out with nothing more than your sword, your backpack, and your armour – you’re out of food and have no money (or potions).

First Run

Skill: 10
Stamina:
 20
Luck:
 12
Willpower: 8

I wake up imprisoned, am released by an unseen benefactor, and then rather than rushing to freedom I pause to search the cellar I was kept in. This leads to an instadeath situation, but frankly I deserved it – on reflection, it would clearly have been silly to expect my captors to leave anything important or useful in a place they were keeping prisoners.

Second Run

Skill: 9
Stamina:
 20
Luck:
 10
Willpower: 10

This time around I have better luck – I don’t dawdle about leaving, quickly locate my sword and pack, and bash my way out of the gatehouse I’d been kept in. As it transpires, my captors have taken me inside Neuburg – a weird turn of events given that they are, erm “southern barbarians”. (Well, OK: the illustrations depict them as evil Arabs. This aspect of the book has not aged well.)

Things seem strange in town – the streets are deserted, the people are hiding in their homes, and everyone seems afraid. When I find a nearby inn and decide to risk revealing my past connection to the Baron to the innkeeper (working on the basis that an innkeeper with a long-standing business in the town is probably on alright-ish terms with the Baron himself), I learn some disturbing rumours: apparently after an expedition south the Baron came back with some strange foreign swordsmen who proceeded to lord it over the townsfolk like they owned the place. What’s more, strange creatures have been seen in the streets after dark, there’ve been mysterious disappearances, and the Baron makes no move to help.

Choosing to take that risk was clearly the right move, because the innkeeper gives me some very handy information: there’s no point going out at night because of the creatures that prowl the streets, and the first thing I should do tomorrow is seek out the ruined temple of Oiden and speak to Old Huw, the most ancient man in town. Here’s a novelty: a Fighting Fantasy book where, if you make right choices, you get useful information which makes it more likely you will make the correct choices later on! What a breakthrough.

It goes on: once I find the temple, the fact that I knew I was looking for Old Huw and he was a likely ally meant I trusted him enough to get his information. Someone who had not been tipped off by the innkeeper might have still made the same choice – but it would have probably been through luck more than anything else. (They’d have needed to select the right district to go looking in, choose to look in the temple further rather than writing it off, choose to make themselves known to the old man instead of hiding, and choose to give him a ring given to you by the Baron which wasn’t listed in your initial gear but which the narration reveals you have hidden on your person – when he solicits a donation.)

It turns out that those horrid “southerners” are just the tip of the iceberg: when the northerners conquered this part of the world they overthrew the worshippers of a vile Lovecraftean pantheon, and the archmage of the cult remained dead but dreaming in lightless caverns beneath Neuburg. Now he is stirring – and his agents have taken over the will of the Baron in order to bring about his return. In other words, the racist bits in here largely arise from thoughtless regurgitation of Lovecraftian tropes without critically considering which make for good horror and which are just offensive.

What follows is a pretty good adventure – there is most definitely an optimal route you can take, and there’s a few “gotcha” deaths, but most of the gotchas are somewhat well-signposted and generally if you make a suboptimal choice you haven’t necessarily locked yourself out of a win – you’ve just taken on some unnecessary risks and might be making things a little more difficult for yourself, but making some wiser choices a bit later will often allow you to recover somewhat. Darvill-Evans generally writes interesting prose and on the whole it’s a good gamebook and a promising first entry in the series for him, but he goes back to the “devious, decadent Arabs” trope a little too often than I’m comfortable with.

Crypt of the Sorcerer

Scenario

Ian Livingstone resorts to fairly familiar territory for this one: we’re back to Allansia, a big bad is causing trouble, and it’s down to us to stop them with some assistance from the wizard Yaztromo, previously seen in Temple of Terror and Forest of Doom. The “wizard who gives you assistance in defeating the main enemy of the gamebook” angle is one that Ian would resort to a lot – he also gave us Nicodemus, who’s basically Yaztromo’s city slicker equivalent who lives in Port Blacksand, a city full of assholes who hate Nicodemus (featured in City of Thieves).

This time around, the big bad is Razaak, a fearsome necromancer. A hundred years ago, Razaak was defeated in part with the aid of a sword serendipitously found by a hero named Kull. This sword had formerly belonged to Razaak, but in order to attain the highest reaches of necromancy he had to renounce all weapons, and he couldn’t destroy it because he had made it too powerful, so he dumped it in a lake only for fate to guide it into Kull’s hands. Unfortunately, when Kull slew Razaak he was cursed and turned into a skeleton, retreating to the lake where he had found it to wait for a new bearer.

Now Razaak has returned to horrible unlife, his tomb having been opened somehow. (During his original defeat a big magical ritual was done which would have banished him forever had the tomb remained closed for a hundred and ten years – it looks like someone ruined that just short of the finish line.) As Yaztromo works on a method to allow you to slay Razaak with the sword without turning into a skeleton yourself, you must head out into the hills to seek the lake where Kull waits with this most ambiguous of gifts…

System

It’s the bog standard Fighting Fantasy system, ’nuff said.

Gear

Nothing specifically mentioned. You don’t start out with any Provisions this time, but in paragraph 1 Yaztromo gives you a healing potion with 5 doses, each dose allowing you to recover 4 Stamina points, which is pretty much mechanically identical to just giving you 5 Provisions.

First Run

Skill: 9
Stamina:
 20
Luck:
 9

This time around I think I did fairly well – most of the routes I took ended up being fairly information-rich, with significant clues which are presumably going to be useful later, which makes me think they are the correct paths to take. I potentially had a hairy moment when, after slaying a werewolf and being wounded in the fight, I needed to quickly find some way of preventing me coming down with lycanthropy, but luckily I had picked up a candle which gave me a chance to test my Luck and find some belladonna to counteract the disease. (I think I could have avoided the fight altogether had I found a Moon Ring, and I think I have a pretty good idea of who has the Moon Ring and how to get it, so I’ll see about that next run.)

Then I ran into a combat with a barbarian warrior woman riding a griffin. She had Skill 10, there didn’t seem to be any way of getting an edge on her, and because statistically speaking higher Skill usually beats lower Skill in Fighting Fantasy I got slaughtered. Ah well, better luck next time.

Second Run

Skill: 9
Stamina:
 16
Luck:
 7

This time around I found the knife I need to pay for the Moon Ring, and then died in an encounter with some chameleon-person ambushers – I’d got past them in my first run but that was because I beat the skill roll in order to not get thrown from my horse when they sprung their ambush. This time I failed that roll, and failed the follow-up Luck roll, and so flat-out died.

Third Run

Skill: 12
Stamina:
 15
Luck:
 10

Fuck yes, Skill 12. This should be easier.

I took out the barbarian girl on the griffin no problem. A brief bit of cheating to check the alternate route I could have taken – which seems to yield nothing useful and therefore was a route I was correct to avoid – establishes that her combat is, to the best of my knowledge, unavoidable. If that’s not bad enough, I am fairly sure there’s a combat with a Skill 10 later a bit later which is also unavoidable – it’s an encounter that happens immediately after you leave the lake, having gained the sword, so there’s no opportunity to divert away from it. Again, I am left thinking that Ian should have just told people to roll 1D3+9 for Skill if he was this keen to filter out Skill 9-and-below characters.

The journey back to Yaztromo’s place seems fairly linear, with only mild sidetracks here and there which quickly loop back to the main path, but that makes sense – on the way out you don’t know precisely where the lake is, but now you are headed to a known landmark whose direction you are roughly aware of. Along the way you recruit a ranger to your party, then after rescuing Yaztromo you end up recruiting a dwarf buddy and head out to seek the horn of the Gargantis, a magical item which will apparently be necessary. This prompts another dungeon crawl – fine – but when I find the Gargantis I get instakilled because I didn’t have a Crystal of Sanity, which I know must be available fairly early in the quest because it’s another way you can avoid being turned wolfy by the werewolf, so I guess I didn’t find the correct route through the hills after all.

Fourth Run

Skill: 12
Stamina:
 16
Luck:
 9

This is the run I gave up and cheated on because it became apparent – and I confirmed with a bit of cheating – that the only way to get the Crystal of Sanity is to take a path where you unavoidably get hit by 1D6 needles from nasty insects – and if you get hit by 5 or 6 that’s an instakill. (An instakill, I will note, that happens some 2 choices and a die roll into the adventure.)

Once again, Livingstone takes the “only one true solution” angle seriously; if you deviate from Livingstone’s intended path through the adventure by one iota, you get stiffed. More than that, you have to note down every number mentioned in the adventure, even bullshitty trivia like the price of warhammers in Port Blacksand, and the final encounter is an unavoidable fight with Razaak who has Skill 12.

Between this and an increasingly obnoxious number of instakills for bad choices later in the adventure, Crypt of the Sorcerer is yet another Fighting Fantasy book which simply isn’t fun to play honestly. Livingstone’s chops as a writer had clearly increased – like many of his Allansia stories, it has a more straight-ahead “pure” fantasy style with less of the horror trappings or weird, eldritch notes which Steve Jackson and others would slip into their work. His approach as a gamebook designer, however, was very much the same as he’d been purveying since Deathtrap Dungeon. Fundamentally, I must regard a Fighting Fantasy book which is more fun to flip through and skim and cheat through than it is to play honestly as a bad gamebook, and that means that no matter how developed the Allansia setting had become or how endearing some of the encounters here are, I just can’t rate Crypt of the Sorcerer that highly.

Star Strider

Scenario

In a somewhat run-down future, much of Earth’s population has decamped to Alpha Centauri. The main power on Earth – aside from the roving tribes of “Houlgans” such as the Juve, R’al, L’pool, and G’ners – are the Gromulans, masters of android technology and holographic illusions. The Gromulans have kidnapped the Galactic President, and are attempting to extract strategically vital secrets from his brain in order to sell to the nefarious Empire of the Purple Flag. His cognitive defences will only last for 48 hours: you are an elite Rogue Tracker, an interstellar bounty hunter, and have been dispatched to Earth to resolve the situation. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President?

Star Strider is the first of four Fighting Fantasy books by Luke Sharp, and as you can tell from the above the premise is steeped in the sort of humour which 2000 AD was pioneering at the time and which the early Warhammer 40,000 setting would include a heavy dose of. (Both this and 40K have “football hooligans = barbarian hordes” jokes, for instance.) The overall tone feels a little bit too frivolous and silly to be straightforward cyberpunk, but a little too grubby to be unabashed space opera, though Fighting Fantasy has done well in this area before – The Rings of Kether is one of my favourites, after all. Let’s see how it goes in practice.

System

Sharp doesn’t include in this gamebook the usual restriction that your stats can’t go above their initial scores unless you are explicitly told that is the case. This can throw you at first if you’re used to the usual system – there’s a bit very early on where in theory you can get a bit of extra Stamina before you’ve ever been in a situation where you can get injured – but I double checked and the “your initial score is your cap” rule isn’t there. This is frankly a good idea – I honestly think there’s several previous gamebooks where the authors ended up forgetting that the cap was there, and which play better if you ignore it.

Sharp also adds in a couple more stats to track. There’s a Fear score, like in Beneath Nightmare Castle, but unlike in that book it doesn’t go down like Luck when you roll against it. Though this is not a horror gamebook in general, the idea here is that the Gromulans tend to use their illusion technology to terrify people, and so the Fear stat represents your ability not to be rattled by this tactic. You also have a Time stat, which starts out at 48 and only ever goes down, representing how much time is left in your mission: if it hits 0, the President’s brain got successfully scanned by the Gromulans and your mission is a failure.

Lastly, in this setting androids all have weak spots, so there’s a rule where if you roll double sixes in combat with an android you automatically win.

Gear

You have a “Catchman” – a gun which fires an entangling net – which is apparently useful for nonlethal takedowns. That’s it.

First Run

Skill: 9
Stamina:
 22
Luck:
 11
Fear: 9

Yeah… I wasn’t feeling this one. Though the book has a fun concept, the implementation is fairly weak. Sharp’s prose in his paragraphs is often pretty flavourless, the adventure is a succession of incidents which go past in a blur without anything making much of an impression, and Sharp uses a lot of the more irritating Fighting Fantasy game design principles – trap options where some arbitrary choice will insta-kill you without any prior warning, lots of unavoidable test-your-Luck-or-die situations, the odd unavoidable fight against high-Skill opponents, and so on. There’s an maze towards the end in which a postapocalyptic version of the London Underground is used as the setting for a dungeon crawl, but whilst the concept is interesting the implementation is dull.

In addition, Sharp has a slight habit of throwing in situations where you can get caught out as a result of something which is a feature of his future setting which your character should know about, but which he hasn’t actually told you – for instance, I got in trouble for tracking an android I believed had been flipped by the Gromulans because the android had a special I’m-being-followed detector, which my character knew was a thing in the setting but I did not.

I got most of the way through the adventure before being arbitrarily killed and then cheated my way to the end just to see if it perked up. It didn’t. Highly mediocre. I can’t track down any biographical detail on Luke Sharp but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he was a precocious fan who submitted this and got it accepted on the strength of that, because certainly if a professional turned in work of this level of quality I would hope an editor would send it back for more polishing.

Phantoms of Fear

Scenario

You are a Wood Elf and the guardian warrior-shaman of your village, skilled both at combat in the real world and at exploring the otherworld of dreams. One day, you have an ominous dream suggesting that the vile Ishtra, a potent Demon Prince, is assembling an army of evil somewhere beneath the forest in which you live. It’s down to you to head out and defeat Ishtra before his forces can amass to the point where they will sweep forth and devour all of Titan.

Phantoms of Fear is the third of four Fighting Fantasy gamebooks penned by Robin Waterfield – we’ve also seen Rebel Planet and Masks of Mayhem so far in this series. It certainly has a distinct look, thanks to the contributions of renowned Games Workshop artist Ian Miller; whilst Miller did iconic covers for several Fighting Fantasy books, this is the only one where he did both the cover and the interior art, and his ornate, bizarre style is suitable for a gamebook heavily themed around nightmares and demons. However, both Rebel Planet and Masks of Mayhem were only so-so as far as being enjoyable gamebooks went. Did Waterfield manage to crack it this time? We’ll have to see…

System

Phantoms of Fear adds a Power score, rolled on 2D6+6. This is used to determine how potent you are in the realm of dreams, as well as providing you with the opportunity to use spells – you know six spells, casting them requires you to spend 1 Power each time, you get opportunities to cast spells when the gamebook says you can, that much is fairly simple. As far as dream stuff goes, the gamebook doesn’t front-load that information, leaving you to discover in play, so I’ll get to that when I get to it.

Gear

You start out with your sword, leather armour, backpack, and a choice of Skill, Stamina, or Luck potion – so far, so vanilla. The distinction from the basic loadout of the early series is that you don’t begin with any Provisions – though rules explaining how Provisions work are provided, so presumably you get a chance to obtain them during the adventure.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina:
 18
Luck:
 8
Power: 16

I beat the book on this run. I didn’t find the optimal route, but I made it to Ishtra, and I had the option of fighting Ishtra in a conventional combat rather than using the dream combat system (essentially, the most powerful dream entities you fight like it’s an ordinary combat, except you use Power in place of Stamina), which is difficult because he is Skill 10 but because I had Skill 12 I could kick his ass. I cheated somewhat because this option is gated behind you having Power 22, and I had only upped my Power to 20 by that point, but I feel like not letting me choose the fight despite being slightly disadvantaged on Power takes away an interesting and valid choice. There’s pretty clearly an optimal route you can take where you don’t have to a) cheat a bit to get to the fight or b) do the fight at all, but I’m good – and I’m glad to see Waterfield not going with the one-true-wayism of some of Livingstone’s gamebooks.

Phantoms of Fear is certainly an atmospheric gamebook to playthrough, and that’s only half because of the lovely Ian Miller illustrations: Waterfield’s style as a gamebook author has tightened up since his first two books, engaging interestingly with the Fighting Fantasy setting (you can meet and recruit a former adventurer who lost his mind in the “Maze of Zagor”, for instance) and with the gamebook’s premise. He’s not afraid to slip in some fun classical allusions from his day job to add extra spice either – you get into the dream labyrinth at the end by going through some Gates of Ivory, for instance.

In addition, there’s some fun game design concepts in here. Shortly after you head out, you get an opportunity to do some foraging to obtain provisions, which is a fun way of providing opening provisions (though a little swingy – you end up with 2D6 Provisions, which means the range of hit points you can end up restoring with them goes from 8 to 48, which is a fair bit of variance even if on average it’ll be around 28). Perhaps the most impressive part of the book from a game design perspective is Ishtra’s labyrinth, in which dream and reality have mingled so much that on some paragraphs you can freely switch from the dream world to the real world or vice versa (basically, paragraphs where you can switch are denoted with appropriate symbols), which sometimes helps.

The game’s downfall is in a truly awful bit of game design, which is in the dream combat system used for most dream foes. This is essentially based on a 2D6 roll, with no way to modify it: if you roll 2-7, you lose two Power points, if you roll 8-12 your opponent loses 2 Power points. Due to the way the 2D6 bell curve works, this puts you at a significant disadvantage: your chances of winning any particular round are only 5/12, which means that in any fight against a foe of equal Power you will lose more often than not. Worse, the sort of Power scores on the dream entities you fight you have are such that even if you exceed their Power by a fair bit, it’s far from impossible for a run of shitty luck to take you out anyway.

Now, to be fair, in most cases losing a dream fight doesn’t insta-kill you – it just makes you lose a bit of Power (your Power goes back up to its previous score once a fight is done, usually, plus or minus any bonus or penalty for success or failure). The problem is that to get to Ishtra you need to get past the dream-entity Morpheus, and to fight Morpheus you have to have three dream combats in a row. Even though you get a Power restore between each fight, that’s still three chances for a run of crappy luck to wipe you out, and if you lose those fights, you die instantaneously.

Actually, the paragraph in question is badly written: you get instakilled if you “lose all three battles”, so it could be interpreted as you die if that happens, or you get to progress if you beat just one of the dream creatures. But if you interpret it that way, because your Power gets restored after each fight win or lose, there’s no bloody point continuing the rather tedious combat if you’ve beaten one of the dream foes, because so long as you beat one of them you end up in exactly the same state at the end as if you beat none of them.

Still, the whole things seems swingy and arbitrary, even compared to the usual Fighting Fantasy combat system, which is swingy and arbitrary in its own way but somehow feels less. At least the primacy of Skill in Fighting Fantasy combat means that you can have some modicum of tactics – namely, steering towards low-Skill enemies and evading high-Skill enemies, at least where the books allow for that, and taking any opportunity to raise your initial Skill that presents itself should the book offer such a rare opportunity. Here, there’s no way to become better at dream combat except getting a better Power score, and the main way you get a better Power score is winning dream combats, so effectively unless you already started the adventure pretty good at dream stuff you had better forget about a dream-based approach for the game and hope you figure out the rather narrower One True Way to get the physical combat-based win.

Phantoms of Fear is an okay Fighting Fantasy book that lures you into thinking it’s better than okay with the gorgeous Ian Miller art – but when you get into the substance of the gamebook it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The dream stuff is interesting in principle, but it needs a rethink of the dream combat, and essentially providing two parallel versions of the last dungeon eats up a lot of space in the book. It might have been better to have the player character enter the dream-dungeon right at the beginning, so that the schtick could be spread over the entire book and you weren’t eating up paragraphs leading up to it with the getting-to-the-dungeon section. This would also allow for trimming of the in the end rather useless magic rules, since you lose access to your spells once you get in close enough proximity to Ishtra’s stronghold.

The Canary Says

This block has had an especially poor hit-miss ratio, at least as far as my tastes go, with three books I don’t particularly rate highly and only one “keeper”, and that one comes with a big “uncritical repetition of Lovecraftian racism” caveat. I think we’re entering into a bit of a turbulent phase for the series, and I think I can explain why.

Let’s do a survey of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks I’ve come to regard as “keepers” over the course of this series – that’ll be the ones in the “sheer delight” and “recommended” sections below – and consider who wrote them and how many more contributions from to the Puffin-era series we can expect from them. (Sorcery! I will count as 4 books for the purposes of this, and co-written books like Warlock of Firetop Mountain I will count as a whole book on the record of each contributor just to avoid the complication of half-marks; the post-revival series I will not count for this, because at the moment I am considering the potential decline of the Puffin sequence.)

  • Steve Jackson has clearly so far been my favourite, with no less than 8 books in the top categories (though Creature of Havoc slips in by a hair). I’m by no means an uncritical fan of his – I didn’t like Starship Traveller or Citadel of Chaos that much, for instance – but still, that’s good going. He’s done – there’s no more Fighting Fantasy gamebooks from him, he’s outta here.
  • Ian Livingstone was more prolific than Steve Jackson, but also patchier, and he keeps doing stuff which annoys me, but I’ve at least declared 4 of his books as worthy of recommendation – Island of the Lizard King, City of Thieves, Freeway Fighter, and of course The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. He’ll be slackening off his pace considerably going forwards – in fact, in the Puffin mainline series he’ll only be doing 2 more (and be billed as the author on a third one which, in fact, someone else will ghostwrite – but I’ll get to that when I get to it).
  • Andrew Chapman has done 3 books I’ve covered, and they’re all good: Space Assassin, Seas of Blood, The Rings of Kether, classic stuff. That’s it! Aside from the Clash of Princes two-player gamebook he co-authored with Martin Allen (an interesting experiment which I am not convinced works brilliantly – they didn’t repeat it after all), there’s nothing more from him, which means that he was over and done with the series (at least as an author) by 1986.
  • Steve Jackson (the US one from Steve Jackson Games) managed to badly annoy me with Scorpion Swamp, but made up for it with 2 keepers, Robot Commando and Demons of the Deep. He’s done, there’s no more from him.
  • Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith’s Talisman of Death was alright, and we’ve got a couple more books to come from that team (and one more that Jamie Thomson will pen with another gamebook legend, but I’ll get to that when I get to it).
  • Peter Darvill-Evans is the new boy who impressed me this time around, and we’ve got a couple more books to look forward to from him.
  • Both Robin Waterfield and Luke Sharp have yet to produce a book which impresses me, and we’ve got 1 more to come from Waterfield and 3 more to come from Sharp.

We’re at #28 of the Puffin series, it eventually ran to some 59 books. We are just over halfway through in terms of total number of books, when you count Sorcery!; more to the point, we have 31 books yet to come, and in respect of those…

  • Three of the authors who’ve produced notable work in the series so far are done. They will not be contributing to the rest of the sequence at all.
  • We’ve got 7 books to come from authors who have managed to produce impressive work so far, though one of those books is actually ghostwritten by someone we’ve not met yet in this review series.
  • We have 4 to come from authors who have yet to produce a book I consider a keeper.

In other words, we have reliable authors disappearing from the series, a fairly limited number of books to come from authors who can deliver the goods (even if Ian Livingstone is a bit variable there), and some books yet to come from authors who I’m not yet sold on, and no less than 20 upcoming books from authors we’ve not met yet.

That being the case, Jackson and Livingstone have a succession problem here. With Jackson tiring of writing gamebooks and Livingstone scaling back his own involvement on the authorial side, Fighting Fantasy had hit a point by 1987 where it badly needed some steady third-party hands who could provide good quality work. Of the writers who have contributed so far, I think the best to step up to do this would have been Andrew Chapman – but he’s out of the picture. The US Steve Jackson has his own game company to run. Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith aren’t terrible, but at this point in the timeline they’re busy doing their own gamebook franchises like Way of the Tiger, Falcon, and the Duel Master series (the latter essentially applying the same basic idea as Clash of the Princes, only outside of the Fighting Fantasy umbrella). Of the other third parties who’d write Fighting Fantasy books, Robin Waterfield has turned out to be quite patchy, Luke Sharp can charitably said to be “yet to prove himself”, and Peter Darvill-Evans seems promising but that’s just on the basis of one book.

Nonetheless, the Puffin series would soldier on from here all the way to 1995, and most of the books along the way will be written by hands we haven’t met yet in this review series. That’s success of a sort – though in hindsight, it might perhaps have been healthier in the long run, and avoided the sort of bumpy patch we are going through, if Jackson and Livingstone had successfully recruited one or more designated successors to shoulder the bulk of the work before they pulled back from their early level of involvement with the series, rather than requiring this sort of messy period of adjustment.

As usual, here’s my rundown of the books covered so far and how I rate them quality-wise.

----------------------------------------
Appointment With F.E.A.R.              😀 (Sheer delight)
                                       |
House of Hell                          |
                                       |
Sorcery!*                              |
                                       |
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain        |
                                       |
Robot Commando                         |
                                       |
The Rings of Kether                    |
                                       |
Island of the Lizard King              |
----------------------------------------
Space Assassin                         🙂 (Recommended)
                                       |
Beneath Nightmare Castle               |
                                       |
City of Thieves                        |
                                       |
Seas of Blood                          |
                                       |
Talisman of Death                      |
                                       |
Freeway Fighter                        |
                                       |
Demons of the Deep                     |
                                       |
Creature of Havoc                      |
----------------------------------------
Forest of Doom                         :S (Collectors only)
                                       |
Phantoms of Fear                       |
                                       |
Temple of Terror                       |
                                       |
Citadel of Chaos                       |
                                       |
Crypt of the Sorcerer                  |
                                       |
Sword of the Samurai                   |
                                       |
Rebel Planet                           |
----------------------------------------
Caverns of the Snow Witch              😦 (Downright bad)
                                       |
Masks of Mayhem                        |
                                       |
Starship Traveller                     |
----------------------------------------
Deathtrap Dungeon                     😡 (Pissed me off)
                                       |
Trial of Champions                     |
                                       |
Star Strider                           |
----------------------------------------
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".

2 thoughts on “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 8)

  1. Pingback: The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 9) – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 10) – Refereeing and Reflection

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