The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 11)

In the previous episode of my Fighting Fantasy review series, I finished off the Fighting Fantasy releases of 1988 – an era when it seems like quantity was prioritised over quality, with some absolute clunkers slipping out (including Sky Lord, far and away the worst gamebook I have covered yet). There were some signs of hope – the best of the four books I covered in that article, Stealer of Souls, was really very good, perhaps the best Fighting Fantasy book I’d yet tackled in the series not written by Steve Jackson. On the other hand, a tepid contribution by Ian Livingstone – Armies of Death, most charitably described as an experiment which doesn’t quite work – highlighted how the scaled-back involvement of the series’ creators was causing issues.

Remember, Steve Jackson wrote his last gamebook for the Puffin series way back with Creature of Chaos, and Ian Livingstone’s contributions have become more and more sparse; in fact, we’ll only see one more gamebook by him in the remainder of the Puffin series. (He’d be credited with two solo works, but one of them was ghostwritten by Carl Sargent.) This time around, we have another clutch of gamebooks written by other parties, under the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone presents” banner. This has historically had mixed results; some of these gamebooks have been very good, some of them have been outright terrible, and of course you have the recurring issue where whenever you have a new person beginning to contribute to the series, they always seem to have a period of growing pains as they feel out best practice.

The four books in this review cover all the main Puffin-series releases for 1989 – that’s right, after this we’re out of the 1980s and coming into an era when increasingly sophisticated videogames become serious competitors with gamebooks when it comes to solo fun. That means Fighting Fantasy really needs to pull up its socks now if it’s going to keep up. Does the series manage this? Let’s see…

Portal of Evil

Scenario

For ages the dense forests at the foot of the Cloudhigh Mountains of Khul have been considered totally inhospitable to humans, occupied as they are by dangerous monsters and hordes of goblins. However, a while back an expedition from the frontier town of Kleinkastel went exploring the forest. The survivors came back with important news – there’s gold in them thar woods! The region has now become the hub of a gold rush, with Kleinkastel becoming a boom town and the centre of mining activities for the region.

Now, however, miners have been disappearing from their camps and villages within the forest. The mining leaders suspect that something is up; you’d previously passed on an offer to come to Kleinkastel and work as a caravan guard, but this sounds like a more serious matter, so as the adventure begins you are travelling into the outskirts of the forest, intent on reaching Kleinkastel and discovering what the problem is…

Portal of Evil is the second Fighting Fantasy book by Peter Darvill-Evans. His first one was Beneath Nightmare Castle, which I generally enjoyed, but knocked down a few marks for a slightly thoughtless recycling of racist tropes. Here Darvill-Evans looks like he is potentially getting into dodgy territory again. Having a gold rush naturally nudges the reader to think of the US one, so the gold being found in lands previously held by inhuman goblins is a little troubling. That said, the introduction does suggest that Darvill-Evans is entirely aware of the colonialist impulses associated with gold rushes, so maybe this will be handled better than expected.

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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.)

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 9)

Once again I’ve gone back to the coalface to dig out another episode in my ongoing series reviewing the Fighting Fantasy line of gamebooks. This time around, we have the last two books to be released in 1987 and the first couple from 1988. As we’ve seen previously, we’ve entered a phase in the series where, despite their names being on most of the covers, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone had rather stepped back their day-to-day involvement with the franchise; Jackson had produced his final contribution to the series way back in 1986 with Creature of Havoc, and whilst Ian Livingstone would write a few more, he’d do so very infrequently.

As I outlined at the end of the previous article, this also coincided with a lot of the other writers of the better Fighting Fantasy books also bowing out of the series, creating a bit of a succession problem. We’re now well into the part of the series when third-party authors would contribute the bulk of the work (all of the books in this article were by writers other than Jackson and Livingstone), and when the pool of writers was being expanded (three of the four books I cover here are by writers who hadn’t previously written a Fighting Fantasy gamebook).

Midnight Rogue

Scenario

You are an apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild in Port Blacksand – the City of Thieves from the gamebook of the same name – and tonight is the night of your big test. To prove you’re worthy of graduating from your apprenticeship and becoming an accepted guild member, you must undertake the perilous mission of stealing the Eye of the Basilisk, a priceless gem known to be in the possession of the merchant Brass.

1987’s Midnight Rogue is notable for being the sole Fighting Fantasy book written by Graeme Davis, who WFRP fans will know as a co-designer of the original edition of that game; the same year would also see the release of his acclaimed WFRP scenarios Shadows Over Bögenhafen and Death On the Reik. As well as his WFRP duties, Davis was a fairly prolific writer for other Games Workshop lines at this time – he was a regular White Dwarf contributor, and another 1987 credit for him would be as one of a large team of contributors to the Green and Pleasant Land sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu.

It makes sense, then, that Jackson and Livingstone would get Davis to contribute to the Fighting Fantasy line, and it’s encouraging to see him present a scenario which breaks out of the “go defeat the latest Big Bad who wants to make trouble” rut that the series had become stuck in.

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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…

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 7)

It’s time for another entry in my infrequent series of Fighting Fantasy gamebook reviews. This time around, we’re going to wrap up the rest of the series’ gamebooks from 1986. We’re now four years after the series has released, but there’s a sense that the early boom is beginning to plateau – six gamebooks were released in 1986 (two of which I reviewed in my previous article in this series), but that’s less than the 1985 peak (7 mainline gamebooks plus the final volume of Sorcery!), and the quality is starting to get a bit hit and miss.

This time around, I’m going to get to cover four gamebooks from four different authors, each of whom applies a different approach to their gamebook-writing craft. The main common factor is, as always, that in whatever the scenario is YOU are the hero…

Trial of Champions

Scenario

Ian Livingstone’s first Fighting Fantasy book since Temple of Terror is a sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon. Baron Sukumvit has redesigned his infamous dungeon and is offering his challenge once again. You have no intention of participating – but Lord Carnuss, the Baron’s good-for-nothing brother, has his eye on the prize purse! He therefore has kidnapped a range of warriors – including you – and sets them against each other in a grand elimination tournament until only one is left. The sole survivor will be Carnuss’ champion in the Deathtrap Dungeon challenge; should you survive, it is only by mastering Baron Sukimvit’s maze that you’ll have a chance to take down Lord Carnuss. There, nice and simple.

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 6)

It’s time once again for another one of my (very) irregular reviews of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. In previous instalments I’ve covered the books up to late 1985 (including Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! spin-off series), and for this one I’m going to cover the last books released in 1985 and the first ones from 1986. The glut is well and truly underway, and a fairly wide range of authors have been recruited to serve it – in fact, each of the gamebooks I’m reviewing this time around were written by different authors.

All of them are men; in fact, not a single Fighting Fantasy book was written by a woman until Crystal of Storms by Rhianna Pratchett, released last year by Scholastic. Despite a certain homogeneity of author, otherwise the series seems to be zooming in a range of different directions, with science fiction, superheroics, pirate adventure and samurai missions encompassed in the concepts this time around. And we start out in the four-colour world of comics, as after quite some delay since my previous article in this series we finally make it to our…

Appointment With F.E.A.R.

Scenario

It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Jackson’s mind was on superheroes in 1985. In the previous year, Games Workshop had just come out of a failed bid to produce a Marvel-themed superhero RPG – the RPG licence eventually went to TSR instead – and had consoled themselves for their loss by releasing a spruced-up edition of Golden Heroes, a superhero game which had originally been self-published in 1981 and which they’d bought the rights to in the vague hope of using it for Marvel before deciding to release it as a generic supers game in order to recoup some of their losses.

It should be remembered that this is comfortably before stories like Watchmen, The Dark Knight ReturnsA Death In the Family and The Killing Joke injected a big fat dose of grimdark into the superhero genre, so the tone of Golden Heroes tended to be bright, colourful, and optimistic; this is also true of Appointment With F.E.A.R., which if Jackson didn’t write specifically to perhaps spark interest in superhero roleplaying at the very least came out at an opportune time to do so.

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 5)

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 Fighting Fantasy

Having kicked the series off, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone spent some times on separate projects, respectively experimenting with the wonder that is Sorcery! and writing a series of vanilla adventures for the core series. Then they began incorporating more gamebooks by other authors.

Ian Livingstone vs. Andrew Chapman: Who’s Better?

The incorporation of additional authors into the series was a simple factor of demand for new adventures far outstripping what Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone alone were able to produce, combined with a deliberate strategy to shove their competitors out of the market. The plan was to get at least one new gamebook into shops each month; the idea was that the readership’s pocket money wouldn’t stretch to buying many more gamebooks than that, and given the choice most readers would opt for the well-regarded Fighting Fantasy brand over the various imitators on the market.

By this point, said imitators were thick on the ground and included some stiff competition. In particular, they included the well-regarded Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever – who ironically had originally begun planning the book as a Fighting Fantasy adventure before jumping ship from Games Workshop and making his own deal with a publisher. In this context I can’t help but take a second look at the way the Fighting Fantasy books by third party authors were presented; though the genuine authorship of each book was acknowledged on the interior title page, the authors’ names would be kept off the front covers, which instead would read “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present” – with the “present”, in decidedly smaller text, the only oblique clue that this was not in fact Jackson and Livingstone’s own work. In this way, Jackson and Livingstone’s names garnered far more brand recognition than any of the third-party contributors to the series, and I have to wonder whether part of the reason for this was to make it less likely that any of the writers in question would be able to garner enough recognition to helm their own breakaway series – not that that didn’t happen anyway.

1985 was the first full year in which the one-a-month plan was in effect, and whilst the target wasn’t quite met, Puffin did manage to get a decent brace of books out, including the four I’m reviewing here. This set is particularly interesting because two of them are written by Ian Livingstone himself, and two of them are written by Andrew Chapman, whose own Space Assassin was the first release of 1985. Moreover, each author this time contributes one book set in the Fighting Fantasy world itself – which by this point was becoming the default setting for all fantasy-genre Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – and one SF book (post-apocalyptic stuff for Ian, space opera for Chapman). This is makes these the ideal set to pick for a comparison between the two. Could the upstart Chapman beat the series founder at his own game?

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 4)

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.

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 4)”

The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 3 – Sorcery Special!)

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

I tackled the beginning of the venerable series, and I covered Ian Livingstone’s inspirational run of solo-written gamebooks, as well as the first book written by a third party. Now, whilst the books in the second review were being written and published, Steve Jackson wasn’t standing idle – he was producing Sorcery!

Sorcery!: Taking Fighting Fantasy to the Limit

The first of the Sorcery! series came out in 1983, and with 456 numbered paragraphs was the largest Fighting Fantasy adventure published at the time – but, to give you an idea of the scope of Sorcery!, it’s actually the shortest gamebook in the sequence, with the final volume having a whopping 800 paragraphs; the full saga comprises over 2200 paragraphs. With a single story mapped out over four gamebooks, intricate connections between the books, a full spellcasting system, and the option to play as a warrior or a wizard.

Considering the unique nature of this series, I’ve changed the format of the reviews a little: I’ll cover the scenario and the system in this first little segment, and then the entries for each book will cover my attempts at solving them, as well as the possessions I had managed to accumulate so far.

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 3 – Sorcery Special!)”

The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 2)

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

The Reading Canary: a Reminder

Series of novels – especially in fantasy and SF, but distressingly frequently in other genres as well – have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

Fighting Fantasy: Sowing the Seeds of Gamebookmania

On receipt of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Puffin Books were ecstatic, and wrote back to Jackson and Livingstone demanding more books, as soon as possible. In 1983 and 1984 the Fighting Fantasy boom truly began; at first, Jackson and Livingstone were fairly prolific, but by the end of 1984 they would have made the fateful decision to share the burden with additional authors; Jackson and Livingstone’s names would remain on the front covers to help promote the books and to prevent them from being distributed wildly throughout the kids’ section in bookstores, but the actual content would be authored by a wide variety of individuals, and of course those authors would look to Jackson and Livingstone’s earlier efforts when designing their own entries for the series.

Thus, the four gamebooks presented here are of crucial importance to the development of the line. Three are by Livingstone and one, Scorpion Swamp, is the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook to be written by an outside contributor. Let’s see how they measure up.

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 2)”