The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 10)

At the end of my previous Fighting Fantasy article, I’d covered the first couple of Fighting Fantasy books released in 1988. It was evident that some attempt was being made to find new writers to contribute to the sequence, as a result of Jackson, Livingstone, and other stalwarts of the early series dialling back their contributions. In other words, the Fighting Fantasy crew were trying to counter the succession problem I’d identified at the end of part 8; for this part of the article, we’ll see that process continue, with two of the four books I’m covering this time coming from people who hadn’t written a mainline entry in the series at all. One of them will be of crucial importance to the later phases of the series’ tenure at Puffin; the other one… well, we’ll get to that.

The other two gamebook authors making a return this time are Luke Sharp and Ian Livingstone. Luke Sharp had put out two previous Fighting Fantasy books, both bad; Ian Livingstone had co-founded the series, but his subsequent gamebooks had been a bit hit-and-miss. Who’ll come out on top here – the old hand whose creative well might have begun to run dry through overuse, or the apprentice whose previous efforts were at best mediocre, at worst a flagrant waste of paper?

Sky Lord

Scenario

You are a solar trooper and secret agent named Sky Lord Jang Mistral, member of a four-armed humanoid warrior of the sixteenth aeon. As a member of the Ensulvar race, you serve mighty King Vaax. Recently, Vaax fell out with his former major-domo L’Bastin, who had been embezzling from the royal household to fund his cloning hobby and replacing household staff with mind-controlled clones to cover for this. Now L’Bastin has apparently established a weaponised clone laboratory and is churning out Prefectas, dog-headed super-warriors. You must board your starship, the Starspray, and root out this menace!

There’s no two ways about it: Sky Lord is weird. This is the sole Fighting Fantasy book in the mainline series to have been penned by Martin Allen, who had previously co-authored the Clash of Princes two-player gamebook with Andrew Chapman. After this, at least according to the database at gamebooks.org, he never wrote another gamebook, and it’s entirely possible that the bizarre nature of Sky Lord contributed to this.

Remember my Chasms of Malice review? How I hated that book! If you recall, one of the first red flags was the bizarrely terse introductory blurb, which came across more like brief notes than a fully fleshed-out introduction. (“I swear I finished my homework, Mr. Livingstone! Here it is!”) Here, again, the introductory material provides its own red flag, but of a rather different nature. It’s certainly vividly detailed and imaginative, but it’s also a farrago of utter nonsense, a total fever-dream version of a setting writeup. Perhaps the intention is for the gamebook to be a very deadpan parody, but if it is the writing style doesn’t quite manage to pull this off; it just gives the impression of absurd, arbitrary things happening largely at random. (Spoiler: this continues into the main adventure.)


System

Science fiction Fighting Fantasy adventures often struggled a little, and it feels like part of that is that they kept trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of setting – all the space opera ones take place in different space opera settings, which inevitably makes them feel a bit less rich than the fantasy gamebooks which all took place in the same world and worked in little references to each other. Here, Allen takes that further and starts reinventing the wheel in terms of system – specifically, the system for handing space combat. An entirely serviceable system had been pioneered in Starship Traveller and further refined in The Rings of Kether, but Allen junks that to redesign starship combat from the ground up.

This system is a bit of a doozy. As well as your usual Skill, Stamina, and Luck scores, you also have a Rating score. You are meant to be a highly-trained operative, so it doesn’t vary much: you roll a D6 to generate it and if you get 1-3 it’s 3, if you get 4-6 it’s 4. Your Rating determines your initiative in combat, because starship combat is not simultaneous: if your Rating is greater than your opponent’s, you are the Attacker and get to go first, if it is less than or equal to the opposition’s you are the Defender and go second.

This has knock-on effects because Attackers and Defenders resolve combat slightly differently. All starships have Laser scores denoting how well-armed they are and Shields scores denoting how much punishment they can take. When the Attacker shoots, they must roll less than or equal to their Lasers score on a D6 to hit; the Defender only hits when they roll less than their Lasers score.

To take your own ship as an example, its Lasers score is 4. This means that if you have the Rating advantage and are the Attacker, you’ll be hitting two-thirds of the time on average – but that proportion drops precipitously to only half the time if you are the Defender.

Spoiler: almost all the opponents you fight in starship combat will have a Rating of above 3. (I flipped through the book and there’s literally only 2 opponents with a 3 Rating.)

This means that if you roll 1-3 for a Rating score of 3 at character generation, you will always be the Defender – you never get the Attacker advantage, not once. If you rolled a 4-6, you will get the advantage maybe twice. And the difference between hitting two-thirds of the time and hitting half the time is pretty major. Bottom line: I don’t like it.

In some respects this is even more unfair than Chasms of Malice‘s awful sudden-death combat rules. Sure, that gamebook has a paragraph where you effectively have to toss a coin 4 times and get Heads every time to survive, but at least in a one-on-one sudden death combat there you have a 50-50 chance. Here you are disadvantaged almost every time you get into a space battle. Is this satire? Was the game lying to you? Is the joke you are actually terrible at space combat? I have no clue.

Gear

You get 10 Provisions pills (all the Stamina restoring properties of normal provisions in handy pill form!) and 10 credits.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina:
 18
Luck:
8
Rating: 3

The first decision you have to make in the gamebook is whether to go by “time-space travel in the 4th dimension” or “light-space travel in the 6th dimension”, the latter of which is not explained at all. Helpfully, the paragraph notes that each has advantages but also dangers. Unhelpfully, it gives no explanation of what those potential advantages and dangers are.

Again, this is the sort of shit which makes me wonder whether this is a self-parody which was circulated in the Fighting Fantasy editorial offices and actually got published. Fighting Fantasy books had a terribly bad habit of asking you to make life-or-death decisions without giving you any useful information on which basis you could make an informed decision, which in effect made the decisions arbitrary, at least on your first run, but rarely do they lampshade this as well as this paragraph does, deliberately or inadvertently.

Anyway, I chose time travel, dipped into a planetary atmosphere to burn off some fungus which spontaneously grew on my ship, got into a space combat, and died because my opponent had Rating 5, Lasers 5, and Shields 8. At Ratings 3, Lasers 4, and Shields 12, I might have had an advantage in Shields, but it was more than outweighed by the fact that my foe got to shoot first and was hitting five times in six whilst I could only expect to hit half the time, with the result that I got blown out of the sky in short order.

(I’ve since done some checking. Regardless of the choice you make at the start of the adventure, you inevitably either end up in an instakill situation, or end up fighting a foe with Rating 4 or 5, Lasers 5, and Shields 8 – which means that you will inevitably be the Defender in a fight you are quite likely to lose.)

I am not thrilled by this. Let’s give it one more chance.

Second Run

Skill: 8
Stamina:
 18
Luck:
12
Rating: 4

No, fuck it, I can’t do it. I got past the fight this time, but I ended up giving up midway through the run because there’s no coherent adventure here – no concrete sense of place, no feeling that you are going through a distinct location, no indication that there’s been any thought given to what the scenario is and what this universe is like and so on. There’s just a sequence of bizarre incidents which don’t have any real impact because this universe is so strange that nothing really means anything or has any resonance with the reader.

Oh, and there’s a bit where a sort of dogfighting minigame is implemented, asking you to keep track of you and your opponent’s heading, pitch, and yaw, without the slightest explanation of what any of those things are. That would be annoying even if I trusted Allen to properly implement something of that complexity. I do not.

This was the last science fiction Fighting Fantasy book, and it’s tempting to think it was single-handedly responsible for killing off that whole side of the line, though given that dreck like Chasms of Malice was allowed to fly on the fantasy side of things that might be unfair. Either way, the mere fact that Sky Lord got past the editing process and was released to the reading public is proof positive that Fighting Fantasy had a serious quality control problem. I cannot imagine anyone playtesting this and thinking “yeah, that’s in a fit state for release”.

Sky Lord might be even worse than Chasms of Malice; at least that had a hint of a flavourful story and interesting setting, albeit buried under terrible game design system. Sky Lord combines horrible game design with disastrously bad writing, arriving at a combination which gives every impression of holding the player in open contempt.

Stealer of Souls

Scenario

As is usually the case, a sinister sorcerer is trying to mess everything up for Titan – in this case, the dreaded Mordraneth. The good news is that for once the forces of good have been somewhat on the ball, with the good wizard Vanestin drawing together a network of allies to look into Mordraneth’s plans. The bad news is that one of the most crucial members of that alliance, the magician Alsander, has been kidnapped by Mordraneth! Vanestin has managed to establish that Alsander is being kept on the Isle of Despair in the magic-suppressing Iron Crypts, and has sent you on a mission to slip in and rescue Alsander whilst a distraction is sent against Mordraneth elsewhere. Alsander had apparently been onto a promising line of investigation before his capture; perhaps he knows how Mordraneth can be dealt with once and for all…

Stealer of Souls is notable for being the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook by Keith Martin… or, rather, by Carl Sargent, who used “Keith Martin” as his pseudonym for writing gamebooks. Sargent was another Games Workshop writer, who’d recently been making some major contributions to WFRP – his manuscript for the third part of the Enemy Within campaign was so massive it ended up being split into two, Warhammer City (later reprinted as Middenheim: City of Chaos) for the setting material and Power Behind the Throne for the scenario itself.

Sargent would end up being a pillar of Fighting Fantasy during its later days under Puffin; he would also write eight of the last 26 gamebooks of the Puffin line, seven as Keith Martin plus Legend of Zagor, which was credited to Ian Livingstone but was ghost-written by Sargent. (This may have something to do with Sargent ghost-writing the Zagor Chronicles series of tie-in novels, also credited to Livingstone.) In other words, he was exactly the sort of regular contributor the series badly needed to get onboard at this point in time. At least a few of his entries in the series seem to have been well-received; his Vault of the Vampire has the distinction of being the only entry in the series written by someone other than Jackson or Livingstone to get a direct sequel, Revenge of the Vampire.

But is his first entry in the series any good? Well, let’s see…

System

Rather than doing any experiments with the system, Sargent opted to just use the classic, vanilla rules this time around. This is sensible for two reasons: the first is that it’s kind of sensible to make your first effort in a medium fairly conventional before you start stretching the format, the second is that the series had been seeing a lot of gamebooks where alterations were made to the system here and there, and not always sensible ones at that.

In fact, you have to hop back to Ian Livingstone’s Crypt of the Sorcerer to find the last gamebook which didn’t throw in a little system twist here and there – which means that we’re coming off a run of seven gamebooks where the authors couldn’t resist meddling with the system in some respect. It was high time to get some stability back.

Gear

Again, this is pretty much straight-down-the-line: you have 10 Provisions, a sword, a shield, leather armour, a backpack, and a lantern. The only difference between this and what I call the Livingstone Standard loadout is that you don’t start out with a Potion of your choice.

First Run

Skill: 7
Stamina:
 16
Luck:
9

Well, with trash stats like that odds are this was always going to be an intelligence-gathering run rather than a run where I might actually win, and this was no exception. In fact, Sargent pits you in an unavoidable fight with a Skill 8 opponent right out of the gate, which would be fine for two-thirds of starting characters but is kind of a dicey prospect for anyone who rolled Skill 8 and a big fat “fuck you” to anyone who rolled Skill 7 and low Stamina.

Still, I managed to push through that and got some good adventuring in. There’s a nice mix of talky and fighty encounters here, a reasonable range of choices about how you tackle them (having the option to attack people simply because you mistrust them is quite common), and the writing is flavourful and clear. I ended up dying because I got into a fight with a Skill 9 Dark Priest, but I’ve managed to identify enough fruitful highways and byways that I think future runs are going to benefit from the knowledge I gained this time around. Something Sargent seems to be quite good at is giving good feedback – making it clear when something fortuitous has happened or when something suboptimal has occurred – so I have a fair idea now about how I should be tackling the early stages of the adventure.

Second Run

Skill: 11
Stamina:
 15
Luck:
8

I beat the game this time! As I was half-expecting, the scenario does take a turn which obliges you to go after Mordraneth himself directly, which leads into a fun jaunt into his “Empire of Illusions” (essentially a more psychedelic dungeon crawl where directions are based on colours, not cardinal points, which is quite cleverly handled) before the final confrontation. You do have to fight him, and he’s got Skill 10 – but I encountered at least one opportunity to raise a low initial Skill on my playthrough (chainmail, which unfortunately doesn’t give you the +1 benefit if you already have Skill 11 or 12) and was aware from references that there’s a Magical Sword somewhere in the scenario that I didn’t find, which might also help.

The fact that I didn’t find the Magical Sword meant that I probably wasn’t on the absolute optimal route through the gamebook, but Sargent does a good job of calibrating the difficulty in this respect: you’ll suffer setbacks which good stats can mitigate against, but you aren’t absolutely hosed. (Flipping through I find an impressive lack of arbitrary test-Luck-or-die situations.) It makes the whole thing seem challenging without being hopeless, which is more or less the level you want to pitch a Fighting Fantasy book at. Sargent even slips in a nice magic system – once you rescue Alsander you get an opportunity to pick three one-use spells from a list of seven, with the player directly encouraged to read the spell descriptions before picking rather than taking a pig-in-a-poke, and all of the spells being useful without necessarily being 100% vital to finish the gamebook.

In short, Stealer of Souls is a quality release which really shows how you can write a gamebook which is genuinely fun to play without cheating, especially if you have a good grasp of what does and doesn’t make for interesting gameplay to begin with (as Sargent clearly does). Despite it being Sargent’s first contribution to the series, it already sets a high bar for his later work to be measured against, and compares well to Midnight Rogue, the sole gamebook by his WFRP colleague Graeme Davis.

Daggers of Darkness

Scenario

The land of Kazan, just to the west of Gozar (setting of Chasms of Malice), is in crisis! Segrek, its ruler, died last year, and to usurp power the vizier Chingiz is attempting to sabotage the selection of a new leader by suppressing the news, and by sending his Mamlik Assassins out to eliminate the Select. The Select are folk who were born in Kazan and were sent out into the wider world as babies, adopted into other cultures to see something of the world, with the intention that they would be summoned back to Kazan in order to compete for the Throne of the realm once the previous ruler died. Having prevented the news of Segrek’s death from propagating, and thus preventing the summoning of the Select, Chingiz has been able to play the long game, picking the off one by one so that once they are all slain he may be secure in his hold on power.

As it turns out, YOU are one of the Select – but you are unaware of this until a Mamlik attempts to murder you in your sleep! You are saved from this by the wizard Astragal (also from Chasms of Malice), who fills you in on the situation. You must head into Kazan and attempt to acquire as many of the Clan Medallions of the realm as you can, before making your way to the capital to try for the Throne. Yet you cannot spend too long seeking the Medallions – for whilst Astragal stopped the assassin before the death-blow could be struck, you were scratched by their poisoned dagger. The poison will inexorably work its way through your body, and you will only be able to save yourself if you can take the accursed dagger and give it back to Chingiz…

Daggers of Darkness is the third Fighting Fantasy book by Luke Sharp, the author of the mediocre Star Strider and the execrable Chasms of Malice. I had my concerns going in, but the opening description at least gave me a little hope – it’s still fairly terse, but it’s significantly better-developed than that of Chasms of Malice, effectively communicates the basic concept of the book, and gives you an adequate sense of what you need to achieve. That’s a low bar, but it does get over it.

System

This is another one of those Fighting Fantasy books which includes some flavour of timekeeping mechanic – Sharp had previously used one in Star Strider. The presentation of this one is quite neat – there’s the outline of a body on the character sheet divided into sections, and every so often you are told to fill sections in, and when the entire body is filled in you have died. It amounts to 24 segments in total, so if you’re just jotting your character details down in a notebook rather than photocopying the book (or writing directly in it like a heathen), you can just keep track of it numerically, but I like the imagination involved in the presentation there.

One more little system tweak is offered up in the pre-game rules rundown, I suspect to save filling in the details multiple times during the book itself: it relates to a special power of the Medallions. If you are able to obtain one, the Medallion has the power of allowing you to survive fights that would have otherwise killed you – rather than being slain, you can keep playing as though you won the fight, with your Stamina back up at 4. However, each Medallion can only do this three times – and each time it happens your Skill and Luck both go down by 1 and you have to fill in 3 poison segments, so you really don’t want to do this lightly.

Gear

You begin with 6 gold pieces, a pouch of low-value iron coins, backpack, sword, leather armour, 10 Provisions, and a choice of a Skill, Strength (Stamina-restoring), or Fortune (Luck-restoring) Potion, nice and simple.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina:
 20
Luck:
7
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune

I actually beat the gamebook first time, even though I didn’t think I was going to. The Medallion challenges are tough – it’s very, very easy to just absolutely fail to get a single Medallion at all – but you can still win the Throne without any Medallions, it’s just somewhat harder and you’ll need to both be lucky in some points and make good use of information and contacts you acquire along the way.

In my playthrough I had a fight with a Skill 11 foe, which was obviously pretty hair-raising but at the same time not as scary as fighting a Skill 12 character – however, a quick check reveals that this fight is eminently avoidable if you’ve managed to get two Medallions, and the vast majority of the rest of the fights in the adventure are against foes of much more reasonable stats (indeed, Skill 6 and 7 foes seem very common). This is a nice way of adding replay value: if you roll high Skill you can try brazening through without any Medallions, if your Skill isn’t up to much you’ll probably want to try getting the Medallions for a more optimal trip through the final trial.

There’s a few instances here where Sharp essentially leaves your fate down to the roll of the dice, but these are vastly less harsh than the “toss several coins and you die unless they all land heads” paragraphs in Chasms of Malice – clearly someone sat Sharp down and had a talk with him about probability subsequent to that. They’re by and large the sort of thing where if you roll badly it’ll be a bit bad, but not flat-out fatal unless you are already doing pretty poorly. Likewise, there’s a few bits with somewhat arbitrary “go left or go right?” choices, but none of them seemed to steer into a “haha, you chose wrong so you die/cannot possibly win” situation, which is much fairer. There are a few “wrong choice, you lose” situations, but the major ones I encountered were those where you at least had a chance of getting some intel about them ahead of time.

I will also note that I got through most of my poison segments before the end and was down to 1 Provision, so the game economy by and well seems to be well-calibrated. I may well have had more slack had I made more optimal choices, and indeed it felt like I got through the adventure by the skin of my teeth, so even though I beat it first time it didn’t feel easy or trivial.

As far as the story itself, I was slightly concerned with all of the “Mamlik”/vizier stuff and the Mongol influences in the artwork the book would be a big pile of dodgy Orientalism, and… well, there isn’t zero Orientalism in it, but at least unlike Beneath Nightmare Castle there’s people of all sorts in Kazan, rather than the place exclusively being dodgy types, and the implication of the opening story is that you’re of Kazan ancestry yourself so this isn’t even a White Saviour narrative unless you personally decide to impose that on the text.

On the whole, I’d say that Sharp seems to have finally cracked this whole gamebook-writing lark with this one. I wouldn’t call this a flat-out classic of the series, but it’s much better than I expected, and I feel less trepidation about reaching his final book, Fangs of Fury, which I’m due to hit in the next article in this series.

Armies of Death

Scenario

You are a victor of Baron Sukumvit’s infamous Trial of Champions. (Whether you are the protagonist of Deathtrap Dungeon or Trial of Champions is not clear.) The prize money has made you fabulously wealthy, so you make like a high-level D&D character from before 3E took away domain management as a part of gameplay and made yourself a little fortress and raised an army.

You aren’t putting together this military force for shits and giggles, however – you’ve heard disturbing word of forces of orcs and goblins making trouble in the Forest of Fiends, and rumour has it they are led by Agglax the Shadow Demon. If a Shadow Demon has manifested on Titan, that’s a major threat – but unlike the schmucks of the previous gamebooks in this series, you’re not planning on facing down any major threats alone! Instead, you’ve raised an army to accompany you on a military expedition to take down Agglax once and for all…

Armies of Death is the penultimate book that Ian Livingstone would write for the original Puffin run of Fighting Fantasy books. (Remember, although Legend of Zagor was credited to him it was actually ghost-written by Carl Sargent.) His previous one was Crypt of the Sorcerer; that was a while back in the series in terms of number of books released (Crypt was book 26 of the Puffin series, this is book 36), bear in mind that we’re right in the middle of the Fighting Fantasy glut here so that doesn’t necessarily mean Ian was being an absentee landlord; Crypt came out in 1987 and this is the last Fighting Fantasy gamebook of 1988, so he’s still putting in one book per year. It would be after this that Ian would begin the first really significant hiatus of his, only coming back to the main series to do Return To Firetop Mountain in 1992.

Back in the early series, I noted that whilst Steve Jackson tended to get a bit experimental with system and genre, Ian was much more inclined to stick to the same general parameters he and Steve set in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain when it came to such things. Here, though, Ian is making a bit of a major departure from the usual format by casting the player not as a lone adventurer, but as the leader of an army – a concept which calls for significant adjustments to the Fighting Fantasy system.

System

The tweak here is, of course, the mass combat system, which is fairly simple. (Fighting Fantasy was never going to go full tactical wargame, after all.) You have various troops of various types, in a skirmish combat you will be told how many troops you are facing, everything hinges on whether you have more troops, less troops, or equal troops to the opposing force. If you outnumber the enemy, you are in a Superior position, if you are outnumbered your position is Inferior, if the numbers are equal then it’s Even.

Then you roll a single D6 each round to determine how the battle flows; if you are in a Superior position, you have a 1 in 6 chance of losing 5 of your own troops, but all the other results involve enemy troops dying (1 in 2 chance of killing 5 enemies, 1 in 6 of killing 10, 1 in 6 of killing 15). If you are in an Inferior position the odds are flipped, though not quite – it is more likely your own troops will die than the enemy’s, but the actual odds are 1 in 6 chance of losing 15 troops, 1 in 6 chance of losing 10, 1 in 3 chance of losing 5, and 1 in 3 chance of rallying and killing 5 enemies. If the positions are Even then it’s a 50-50 chance of either you killing some enemy (ending up in a Superior position on the following round as a result), or the enemy killing some of your people (thus putting you in an Inferior position). Whoever gets to zero troops loses the skirmish – and if that happens to you, you die.

When it comes to troops, they are distinguished by type – Warriors, Dwarves, Elves, and Knights are among those you start out with. If you have multiple types fighting alongside you in a battle, you get to choose how wounds are allocated, so if you’re low on Dwarves and want to conserve them you can let your Elves take a bullet for them or something.

I have thoughts on how this combat system works, but I will get into those in a bit.

Gear

In terms of personal items, you don’t start out with anything, largely because this is a gamebook where you are travelling with an entire army so it makes no sense to keep track of minor logistics stuff. You do have 700 gold pieces – the remains of your Trial of Champions winnings – and an army amounting to some 100 Warriors, 50 Dwarves, 50 Elven Archers, and 20 Knights.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina:
 15
Luck:
7

So, it turns out this is one of those annoying Ian Livingstone designs where the adventure will keep progressing and give you no indication you’ve made any significant mistakes and then hose you at the end for not acquiring an item which you hadn’t actually been given an opportunity to obtain, and have no clue how to find. I got killed in the last moments of the adventure because I didn’t have a Crystal of Light, and on checking a walkthrough the only way to obtain one involves buying the correct pet at the pet shop and getting the right result in a 50/50 gamble. The former is something where you couldn’t possibly know which the correct pet is until you’ve played through the adventure at least once (and most likely several times) and found the bit where you need the services of the pet in question, and the latter is, as an effective coin flip, completely out of your hands.

This isn’t the only game design issue I have with the book. The mass combat system, in particular, is deeply uninspiring. The way it’s designed, once you’re in a Superior position, it’s likely your position will only get more Superior (5 in 6 chance of killing enemies each round), and once you’re in an Inferior position you will likely get further behind (2 in 3 chance of losing more of your troops each round). Since combat works on a round-by-round basis, whilst individual rounds might have unexpected results, in general the outcome of combat will average out in a fairly predictable way because repeated rolls will tend to trend towards the expected probabilities. As a result, the only point where a battle becomes truly exciting is when you’re Even, since you at least have a 1 in 2 chance of either falling behind (and thus ending up in the death spiral) or pushing ahead (and thus nudging your opponent into the death spiral) – once you’re either ahead or behind odds are you’ll stay there.

And there’s nothing you can to do even up the odds – once skirmish combat breaks out, the result is purely and wholly determined by the dice. (So far as I can tell you can’t even find any magic items or spells which let you tweak the results of skirmish rounds.) Moreover, in many battles I found I wasn’t given a choice on how many people to deploy – the book just told me I took a specific number of warriors on a mission and that was that. This means that in effect, once a skirmish begins there are no meaningful gameplay decisions to make. In theory, in fights in which my entire army is engaged I can at least choose which of my troops die when a round does not go my way. In practice, if I have that freedom of choice it’s no choice at all – it almost always makes sense to let Warriors die rather than the rarer types, because I start out with tons and get ample opportunities to recruit more besides.

Of course, there’s an extent to which many of these faults are also flaws of standard Fighting Fantasy combat – if you’re a Skill 7 character going up against a Skill 10-12 foe then you have high odds of losing any particular combat round, and even though fluke chances can happen in an individual round the outcome of combat is based on an aggregate of several rounds, which will again tend to mean that the outcome of most combats will be sure things.

Still, the one-on-one combat system at least gives you a chance to at least make some decisions. For instance, when fighting multiple foes at once (rather than one at a time) you have to choose who to direct your damage against, and there’s always the option to test Luck to reduce damage you take or increase damage done to your foe (even though, because of the way Luck depletes whenever you use it, you really don’t ever want to use this option unless it’s life or death), and of course many Fighting Fantasy books have worked in stuff like a combat system or special items which have an effect in combat or provide you healing – there doesn’t seem to be anything like that here beyond recruiting extra troops here and there.

Mass combat, however, doesn’t even have this thin slice of interactivity. Far from recognising and improving on the shortcomings of Fighting Fantasy combat, Livingstone designed a system which leaned into its weakest elements. It gets worse: more or less none of the combats I faced felt particularly difficult, in part because the system means the only way Livingstone can really challenge you in a skirmish is to face you with fairly close numbers, which is a bit of a dick move if it means you start out Even because of the way the death spiral works.

As far as the writing goes, the gamebook is perfectly readable, but it feels out of step with where the series is now: whilst the plots and writing of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks have become more polished over time, here Ian seems to be writing in a style more reminiscent of the early series. Perhaps this is part of why he stepped back from writing gamebooks at this point – the grind of churning out at least one a year since the series’ inception as well as attending to all his other projects didn’t provide him with much scope to further hone his craft.

On the whole, I would put Armies of Death on the same sort of level as Phantoms of Fear – like that gamebook, it represents an interesting experiment, but the execution doesn’t quite stick the landing.

The Canary Says

This was a fairly solid batch! We had two keepers, one of which heralds the debut of a really crucial writer for the latter phase of the series, one of which saw someone who’d been struggling with his material finally producing something a bit more polished. The two rejects consist of an Ian Livingstone book which I really wanted to like, but just didn’t quite make the grade, and a bizarre little disaster of a book from someone who we at least can be reassured isn’t allowed to write any more gamebooks in the series after this.

We’ve now come to the end of 1988, and we are well and truly past the peak of Fighting Fantasy when it comes to the pace of releases; there would never again after this be a year when six new mainline entries in the series were released, and we’ve covered about the first half or so of the Puffin series when it comes to timespan. Whereas the first 36 mainline books (plus 4 Sorcery! volumes) would come out from 1982-1988, averaging 5-6 per year, the remaining 23 books in the mainline Puffin series would come out from a span from 1989-1995, an average of a shade over 3 per year. That isn’t to say that this era is a total disaster for the series’ popularity – it’s when I discovered it, after all – but there may have been a sense that the market was becoming a bit swamped and Puffin could afford to dial back a little.

Indeed, when you take into account the great masses of other gamebook series which had sprung up at the time, and then combine that with the decidedly variable standards we’ve seen in the recent articles, it feels like it was high time for Fighting Fantasy to pivot to focus on quality over quantity, especially since once a numbered series of books hits the 30s there’s clearly going to be significant concerns about approachability to consider.

All’s that left is to update the big chart:

----------------------------------------
Appointment With F.E.A.R.              😀 (Sheer delight)
                                       |
House of Hell                          |
                                       |
Sorcery!*                              |
                                       |
Stealer of Souls                       |
                                       |
Midnight Rogue                         |
                                       |
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain        |
                                       |
Robot Commando                         |
                                       |
The Rings of Kether                    |
                                       |
Island of the Lizard King              |
----------------------------------------
Space Assassin                         🙂 (Recommended)
                                       |
Battleblade Warrior                    |
                                       |
Beneath Nightmare Castle               |
                                       |
City of Thieves                        |
                                       |
Seas of Blood                          |
                                       |
Daggers of Darkness                    |
                                       |
Talisman of Death                      |
                                       |
Freeway Fighter                        |
                                       |
Demons of the Deep                     |
                                       |
Creature of Havoc                      |
----------------------------------------
Forest of Doom                         :S (Collectors only)
                                       |
Phantoms of Fear                       |
                                       |
Armies of Death                        |
                                       |
Temple of Terror                       |
                                       |
Citadel of Chaos                       |
                                       |
Slaves of the Abyss                    |
                                       |
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)
                                       |
Chasms of Malice                       |
                                       |
Sky Lord                               |
----------------------------------------

* Assuming that you:
- play it as a wizard
- play the books in sequence
- and take then end of each book as a "save point".

One thought on “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 10)

  1. Sharp is, apparently, a pen name for a Greek guy who got a degree in the History of the Near and Middle East in the early 70s. This does suggest that his references come from some genuine familiarity with the subject matter.

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