The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 5)

by Arthur B

After a five-and-a-half-year hiatus, the gamebook reviews start flowing again.
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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 isSorcery! 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?

Freeway Fighter


Scenario

Ian Livingstone's first SF Fighting Fantasy book has a premise vaguely reminiscent of Mad Max (although not so reminiscent as to get chucked out of Puffin's publishing schedule altogether), but also reminiscent of another postapocalyptic gaming franchise. That is the similarly Mad Max-inspired Car Wars, a skirmish wargame by Steve Jackson (the American one who wrote Scorpion Swamp, not the British one more commonly associated with Fighting Fantasy) which would eventually inspire its own line of gamebooks published by Steve Jackson Games. Considering American-Steve's contact with the Fighting Fantasy pioneers I have to wonder which came first. Did American-Steve and Ian Livingstone consider doing a Car Wars-themed Fighting Fantasy book only to have negotiations break down, or did Ian Livingstone write Freeway Fighter and inspire American-Steve to write gamebooks for Car Wars?

Perhaps to dodge the issue of nuclear fallout and radiation sickness (and perhaps because nuclear war seemed a little too likely for comfort in 1985), Freeway Fighter is set not in the wake of World War III, but a devastating plague that in four days in 2022 killed off 85% of the world's population. As is typical in your average postapocalyptic SF setting, there remain two kinds of people - folk such as yourself who live in isolated, fortified communities and try to rebuild civilisation, and bandits and psychopaths who wander about revelling in the chaos outside.

The pockets of civilisation aren't completely cut off from each other, however. The leaders of New Hope, your character's home, have negotiated via radio a delivery of seed and grain to the community of San Anglo, who are willing to offer 10,000 litres of precious petrol in return for it. Having negotiated the deal via radio, they leave it down to you, and your souped-up combat vehicle, to make the delivery and bring back the goods.

System

Character generation in Freeway Fighter is, aside from rolling up the stats of your car, more or less the same as in any other Fighting Fantasy book, although weirdly, in this adventure Stamina is determined by rolling 2D6+24, rather than 2D6+12. Clearly I'm going to get beat up a lot.

To adapt to the differing tropes and needs of the postapocalyptic car genre, Ian tweaked the combat system somewhat - mainly to incorporate variable weapon damage. Rather than doing a flat 2 Stamina points of damage per hit, in Freeway Fighter you do 1 point of damage with your bare hands, whereas differing ranged or melee weapons will each do a different amount of damage (missile weapons all do 1D6 damage, whereas with melee weapons it depends on what weapon you are using). Interestingly, whereas ranged combat (which, it's assumed, will nearly always involve a firefight) proceeds until one side or the other is dead, hand-to-hand combat only lasts until one side or the other has lost 6 Stamina points, at which point whoever lost that many points has been knocked out - raising the intriguing possibility that this may be the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook in which losing a fight doesn't spell instant death. Irritatingly, Ian has chosen to use the standard Fighting Fantasy combat system for gunfights rather than going for Andrew Chapman's somewhat different system from Space Assassin, which I thought was pretty good - it made gunfights feel different from hand-to-hand combat, and in particular it meant that even a poorly-skilled character could potentially wound or kill an opponent, which just plain feels right to me. (If anything, it's a better fit for a postapocalyptic game than it is for space opera.)

Vehicle combat is exactly like normal combat, except your car's "Firepower" is used instead of Skill and "Armour" is used instead of "Stamina". Your machine guns do 1D6 Armour damage per hit.

One final major change is that there's no mention that Luck can be used in combat - I'll assume this means Luck can't be used in combat for its traditional damage-boosting purposes, and that this is deliberate to prevent Luck undermining the whole variable-damage thing.

Gear

The most important bit of kit, of course, is your car (the "Dodge Interceptor"), which has a "Firepower" of 1D6+6 and an "Armour" value of 2D6+24. As well as having car-mounted machine guns and an ungodly number of bullets, you also start with 4 rockets, 3 canisters of iron spikes, and 2 oil sprays (the latter two presumably being your "get out of a chase free" cards). Rockets, incidentally, are incredibly powerful - you can choose to use them at the start of a combat round, before rolling any dice, they automatically hit, and they destroy your target instantly.

Of course, you don't just have your car, you also have some useful bits and pieces of general utility. Because this is the future you don't have "provisions" as healing items. Instead you have a "Med-Kit", good for 10 applications, each of which restore 4 Stamina points. (In other words, it's exactly like provisions.) As in most Fighting Fantasy adventures you can use a Med-Kit whenever you are not in combat. On top of this, you have 200 Credits, a map, a flashlight, a compass, food, water, a full fuel canister, two spare wheels, tools, and a puncture repair kit.

First Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 12
Stamina: 36
Luck: 7

Car Stats:
Firepower: 7
Armour: 29

I first enter the wasteland as a ridiculously a tough dude in kind of a crappy car; I like to imagine this guy as Arnold Schwarzenegger riding an edgy post-apocalyptic clown car. What becomes evident fairly early on is that Livingstone has given due consideration to the way driving around in a car differs from plodding along onfoot as you do in most of his fantasy-genre adventures. In particular, it's trivially easy to ignore most of the encounters you run into early on unless they involve either a blockage to the road or someone with a vehicle that can keep up with your car.

The first few encounters seem pretty linear until you get a message about an important NPC being kidnapped by bikers, and the highway becomes impassable which forces you to head down side roads. I died reasonably early on because of a booby-trapped bridge; granted, there was a "keep out" warning on the bridge, but even so this strikes me as yet another example in Livingstone's gamebooks of the character being arbitrarily killed simply for exploring, which seems harsh as hell.

Second Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 9
Stamina: 28
Luck: 8

Car Stats:
Firepower: 12
Armour: 28

I made good progress this time (thanks in part to my amazingly elite car), until I got to a bit where I needed to have picked up more petrol along the way to progress. Irritatingly, I was left here without much clue as to where to go to find petrol, which means that subsequent runs will require me to explore at random to find it - and as we've established, Livingstone has no problem killing you just because you decided to explore in the wrong direction. I did go past a petrol station in this run, but there were specific warnings that it didn't actually have any petrol and warnings that it was a bad place to go, so if I had to ignore those warnings to get the petrol (in a gamebook where ignoring other, less prominent warnings gets you insta-killed) I'll be particularly annoyed.

Third Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 8
Stamina: 34
Luck: 9

Car Stats:
Firepower: 12
Armour: 27

Dang it, why isn't New Hope any good at making armour?

To give it its due, when this gamebook works, it really works. On this run I had an amazing encounter where I blasted my way through a roadblock with a rocket, chased down the bandits behind the roadblock and killed them, found out where they lived, raided their base, rescued the mayor they'd kidnapped and blew up their home, killing all their comrades inside. It felt like a properly bloody-handed, ultraviolent Fallout encounter and it was great.

Then my run came to an abrupt stop when I passed the first fuel crisis only to be stopped by the second.

Fourth Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 10
Stamina: 30
Luck: 10

Car Stats:
Firepower: 12
Armour: 29

OK, so here's the problem with the fuel crises as a means of encouraging replaying the book: whilst they do arguably do that, they don't actually encourage interesting replays. Once you have found the way to get a particular fuel can, there's little motivation to deviate from the route which led you to it, so whilst on the one hand you can find the one true path through the gamebook iteratively in this fashion at the same time playing the gamebook honestly requires a bunch of going over old ground. Livingstone has admitted that there's an extent to which he assumed that people would cheat when he wrote his gamebooks, but frankly there's a good reason why that should be the case: when playing the gamebook honestly is less exciting and interesting than cheating, who has any reason to be honest?

To get the second petrol can there's a seriously awesome death race sequence. Ramming opponents' cars, dirty tricks, playing chicken, the works. I barely won it and it wrecked my Luck and Armour, which might make it a bit of an annoying gatekeeper encounter in future runs, but at least I got through it this time.

Then I was attacked by a helicopter and blown up.

Fifth Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 9
Stamina: 29
Luck: 12

Car Stats:
Firepower: 12
Armour: 30

It occurs to me that I've been in maybe one man-to-man fight since I started this book - almost all the combat so far has been between vehicles. Maybe it's just the way I've chosen to play this gamebook, or maybe Ian elected to focus a lot on vehicle combat to emphasise the themes of the book. What's kind of irritating is that you have medical kits to heal your Stamina as you go through, but no car repair kits to allow you to repair Armour.

This time I didn't get enough petrol to complete the mission because I'm missing some plastic tubing.

Sixth Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 7
Stamina: 27
Luck: 8

Car Stats:
Firepower: 7
Armour: 31

Oh God, I'm doomed aren't I? I note that this gamebook doesn't include the usual blurb about how you can get through the One True Path even if you have horrible scores, probably because people realised at this point that statistically speaking this is a forlorn hope if you crap out on Skill and/or Firepower. Sure enough, on this run died in the first (unavoidable) fight against the shitty car. Granted, I could have auto-killed him with a rocket, but I'd rather get the pain over quickly.

Query: what on Earth is the point of having randomised starting stats for player character in these gamebooks? Granted, they are meant to be tabletop RPG gateway drugs and character creation is a feature of tabletop RPGs, but at the same time the only reason to include randomised features in character creation systems in tabletop RPGs is to differentiate player characters in games where there are limited (if any) ways to differentiate them through player-chosen features. There's no reason for this differentiation in a gamebook designed to be played by yourself! (Notably, Steve Jackson seems to have understood this; the Sorcery! series, for example, plays out very differently if you choose to play a magic-using character, so there in character generation there's an actual choice to make with material consequences for gameplay beyond making success statistically easier if you roll high or almost impossible if you roll low.)

Seventh Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 7
Stamina: 27
Luck: 8

Car Stats:
Firepower: 12
Armour: 30

Gah! At least the car's good this time.

I failed this time because I screwed a Skill roll necessary to get some of the petrol. Because I made a terrible Skill roll and Ian Livingstone is racist against Skill 7 characters.

Eighth Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 11
Stamina: 31
Luck: 8

Car Stats:
Firepower: 11
Armour: 29

That's more like it!

This time around I got all the way to San Anglo, and along the way noted that there do seem to be very occasional opportunities to fix the Interceptor, though I still think the balance of opportunities to fix Armour to opportunities to heal Stamina are way out of whack considering the balance of vehicular combat to personal combat to this point.

Anyway, once you hit San Anglo it seems that Ian decided that originality is overrated, because at this point onwards the adventure is a huge riff on Mad Max 2 - you have the post-apocalyptic setting that shows little evidence of arising from the typical nuclear war scenario, you have lots of leather and spikes, you have a community besieged by bandits because it's oil-rich, and as the cream on the cake you have the main character running the gauntlet on the highway at the wheel of a massive fuel tanker. Heck, the gamebook's name - Freeway Fighter - is literally a synonym for The Road Warrior.

One breakneck ride on the tanker later, and I'm home free! The ending paragraph is terse but fairly rewarding, suggests an extra goal (the rescue of Mayor Sinclair) for people who didn't save him this time around to aid replayability... and is also paragraph 380, rather than the traditional 400. Supposedly, Livingstone always regarded the 400 paragraph total as a guideline, not a rule, though given how consistently his gamebooks and the rest of the line went to 400 I do wonder about that.

Temple of Terror


Scenario

Temple of Terror marks a new twist in Ian Livingstone's determination to tie all of his fantasy-genre contributions to the series to the same gameworld (which would eventually be dubbed Titan and have entire supplements devoted to detailing it). Whereas in previous books, such as Caverns of the Really Fussy Snow Witch Who Was Actually A Snow Vampire Who Turned Her Nose Up At All But the Finest of Stakes Through the Heart, Ian contented himself with making occasional references to locales and personages from earlier gamebooks, in Temple of Terror he actually wrote a direct sequel to Forest of Doom. Not only is it strongly hinted that the protagonist of the book is the protagonist of Forest of Doom, but the hero is literally called to action immediately after the end of that gamebook! (I'd be tempted to dig out my character sheet from my victorious Forest of Doom run to get the use of all the loot from that adventure, but I can't quite be arsed and I don't remember there being much stat-boosting stuff anyway.)

The backstory, as told in an exceptionally bland plot-dump, is that the sinister Malbordus, a human born under evil omens and abandoned by his mother to be brought up by the Dark Elves (or "Darkside Elves") of Darkwood Forest. They've taught him the fundamentals of being a Dark Lord (presumably in a really gothic and edgy version of Hogwarts), and for his finals project he has to go and retrieve five Dragon artefacts in the lost city of Vatos, somewhere in the Desert of Skulls, and return in the company of the five dragons summoned by them. Not only will this hand enormous reptilian weapons of mass destruction to the Dark Elves, but it will mean they give to Malbordus the secret magical knowledge of the Elf Lords and swear loyalty to him, making him nigh-unstoppable.

Luckily Yaztromo, the local Gandalf and one of Livingstone's favourite NPCs to use whenever he wants to lecture players, has learned of this sinister plot. Knowing that Malbordus must be heading south from Darkwood Forest in order to get to the desert, and considering that his wizard's tower is on the southern border of the forest, and fully aware of the fact that time is of the essence, Yaztromo decides the best thing to do is spend a couple of days walking all the way through Darkwood Forest to the dwarven Stonebridge, on the north side of the forest, collect YOU (YOU having been enjoying the dwarves' hospitality following YOUR triumph in Forest of Doom), and spend the next couple of days dragging YOU all the way back down through Darkwood Forest to give you an extensive mission briefing at his tower, thus guaranteeing that Malbordus would have a head start of several days.

Great job, Yaztromo. You fucking galoot.

What gets to me about this particular plot hole is that it is so spectacularly meaningless. Livingstone could just have had you play Yaztromo, or one of his apprentices, heading after Malbordus to do him a mischief. Or he could have had you play a random adventurer who's stumbled across the plan and is heading directly to sort it out, and could even have had said adventurer popping in to get advice from Yaztromo along the way. He did none of these things, however - instead, he shoehorned in both Yaztromo and an utterly pointless reference to Forest of Doom for no reason other than his desperation to cram in as many reference to previous gamebooks as he possibly could. I am not impressed.

System

The system is pretty much the usual for Livingstone's fantasy-based books - exactly the same as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, only you can eat provisions whenever you're not in a fight. This is the setup I pretentiously called the "Livingstone Model" in the last review, on the basis that Ian never varies the system in his gamebooks, so his alterations in Freeway Fighter have left me looking a bit silly. On the other hand, whilst he has proved that he's willing to change up the system for postapocalyptic road stories, he's stuck to the tried and true formula for fantasy this time around.

Gear

You get more or less the usual loadout for the Livingstone Model in this one, at least at the very start - sword, leather armour, backpack, and 10 provisions, though instead of a potion you get a lantern.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina: 23
Luck: 8

Before he sends you out after Malbordus, Yaztromo offers you a chance to learn four out of a selection of ten spells he thinks will be especially useful on the quest - you can choose from Open Door, Creature Sleep, Magic Arrow, Language, Read Symbols, Light, Fire, Jump, Detect Trap and Create Water. For this run I chose Language, Read Symbols, Light and Create Water. The magic system in this gamebook seems a lot like a simplified version of the one in Sorcery! - there's no memorisation of three-letter codes, but you are basically waiting until you're explicitly given an option to use a spell and then using it if you happen to have it available rather than being free to use the spells whenever you like, and spell casting costs Stamina.

Incidentally, this gives Livingstone a chance to sink 12 paragraphs of the book into the process of Yaztromo offering the spells to you and you picking them from a list. There was no good reason for this information not to be included with the game system section and the backstory, but I guess Ian wanted a gamebook which came to 400 paragraphs exactly (claims that this was a mere guideline me damned) and decided that this was a good way to bump up the count a little.

The first really significant choice I have concerns what route to take in pursuit of my quarry: overland or downriver? Hmmm, which choice isn't obviously ridiculously slow? Then again, the river route does go through Port Blacksand, and last time I was there I was mistreated by a strange elf with a magic candle, so perhaps the choice isn't as obvious as it first looks.

Beyond that, however, the early phases of the adventure are quite linear, taking you through a sparsely-described desert trek which includes an encounter with an honest-to-goodness sandworm. A Skill 10, Stamina 20 monster which (so far as I can make out) is unavoidable? God damnit, Ian...

One of the more standout monsters from this gamebook - as well as the harbinger of the point where it finally stops being extremely linear - is the Messenger of Death. Encountered fairly early on once you get to the city itself, the Messenger's initial appearance is a dire warning: if you find the letters hidden in the temple that spell out "DEATH", you die. This is the sort of encounter which is dramatic when you first read the gamebook, but loses its tension after the first run - for once you've worked out where a few of the letters are, avoiding finding all five of them becomes nigh-trivial.

Confession time: I cheated during this runthrough. There's an apparently-unavoidable encounter with an eye stinger where you have to test your Luck or get insta-killed, and frankly fuck that. Frankly, I'm generally inclined to skip any of Ian's test-Luck-or-die situations, because at this point I am kind of convinced that Ian doesn't really understand the "Luck goes down every time you test it" aspect of the system. Firstly, forcing players to reserve their Luck for save-or-die situations - which you effectively do when you make them unavoidable - means they can't use it to enhance damage in combat, which robs low-Skill high-Luck characters of more or less they only tool they have to perhaps not get utterly slaughtered the first time they fight a creature with superior Skill. Secondly, there's the simple fact that if you throw in enough test-your-Luck-or-die situations at people, sooner or later they will fail, which is a cheap and lazy way to force replays.

Still, I kept going because I kind of dig the city of Vatos. Although the city is irritatingly linear at points, the setting details (involving a High Priestess ruling over an anarchic dog-eat-dog society within the lost city) are quite fun. On top of that, the dragon-collecting aspect of the game means that you at least get some pointers on when you are on the right track, which makes future runs less unappealing than they might have been - you need all 5 to win and I found 3 of the 5 on this run, which is a good start.

Second Run

Skill: 8
Stamina: 18
Luck: 12
Spell Choice: Open Door, Light, Jump, Create Water

The sandworm will probably kill me on this run - you have to fight it to get its tooth because that's the only weapon which will hurt Leesha, so it's another Ian Livingstone trademark mandatory high-Skill fight. I decided to try going by land rather than the sea route this time, but this railroads you into a fight between an eagle (which you are riding) and a pterodactyl: the Eagle has slightly more Stamina, but an inferior Skill of 6 compared to the pterodactyl's 7, so most of the time the pterodactyl will win (you aren't allowed to contribute to the fight yourself). So, that's the last time I try the land route.

Third Run

Skill: 12
Stamina: 23
Luck: 10
Spell Choice: Open Door, Light, Jump, Create Water

So, I realised on this run that to get one of the dragons you must acquire a telescope to trade with a gnome you meet later on. You get the telescope by getting mugged in Port Blacksand and killing your attackers in an avoidable encounter. This means that the one true path through the adventure involves fucking up and getting into what for all the world looks like a completely unnecessary fight. How does this make any internal logical sense?

So, on this run I gathered all five dragon statues, and entered the inner sanctum of the temple by walking through a curtain of golden rain (hurr). Then I have to smash the dragon statues with the legendary warhammer of Stonebridge, provided by dwarves. (Super geeky fact: Sigmar, the first Emperor in the Warhammer Fantasy world, rose to greatness in part because of a warhammer lent to him by dwarves. The first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battles came out two years before this gamebook, so this will have emerged at a time when a lot of the Warhammer Fantasy setting details were being thrashed out. Parallel evolution, or remnant of some plan to have Fighting Fantasy be the backstory to the Warhammer Fantasy world? No idea, but it's an interesting question.)

The final fight with Mabordus is - yawn - yet another mandatory fight with a Skill 10 monster, so basically if you roll 7 or 8 for your Skill at the start of this adventure you may as well reroll until you have a Skill score that could conceivably succeed.

On the balance, this is a very linear adventure, with the titular dungeon not nearly as extensively branching as, say, Deathtrap Dungeon or the Forest of Doom, or even Freeway Fighter. Ian's adventures have always had the odd bottleneck here and there - it's genuinely hard to write a Fighting Fantasy adventure without them - but Temple of Terror feels like it's all neck at some points. The action is fun and the paragraph prose is far superior to Deathtrap Dungeon or Caverns of the Snow Witch, but even then this isn't Ian's best fantasy-genre effort.

The Rings of Kether


Scenario

Andrew Chapman's second gamebook, like his debut Space Assassin, is a SF-themed adventure in which you have to tackle a threat to interstellar security - in this case, the sinister drug syndicates of the Aleph Cygni star system, which smuggle the Satophil-d drug out of the spaceports of the planet Kether. (So the title refers both to the drug rings and planetary rings! Get it?) Rather than being cast as an assassin this time, however, you're a detective - specifically, an undercover "Grade 1 Investigator" for the federal police service of the Galactic Federation.

Incidentally, you know what's nice about the mission briefing here? It's short. Chapman recognises that the ideas and tropes he is dealing with, whilst fairly unexplored in Fighting Fantasy books to date, are sufficiently powerful as to require no further explanation. We've all seen Star Trek and can infer what a Galactic Federation is like, we all know about undercover cops, and most of us have some idea of what a drug cartel is. A curt summary of the scenario and a warning that the authorities in the Alpha Cygni star system might not be trustworthy is all that's required, and then it's on with the show. Excellent.

System

Making a welcome return in this volume is Chapman's system for firearms battles, which as I've already explained in this article I feel is a far better fit for gunplay (and far fairer to low-skill characters) than the one Ian cooked up for Freeway Fighter - I'm glad they didn't make Chapman use Ian's system instead. In addition, here we have space combat, which works much like gun combat except that instead of Skill one uses the Weapons Strength of the ship (determined by 1D6+6), and instead of Stamina hits deplete Shields - you have 1D6 shields and lose one shield each time you're hit, and if you're hit when your shields are down entirely it's all over.

Gear

Aside from my starship, I am apparently issued with Pep Pills - which are like Provisions, only they restore 6 Stamina whenever I take them. Also I only have four - I guess they must be prescription.

On top of that, my starship has 2 Smart Missiles - like the Missiles in Freeway Fighter, they're insta-kill weapons to get out of tough space battles. Plus I have 5000 kopecks (kopecks being the galactic currency) to pay my way. That and my blaster are all I feel I'll need.

First Run

Personal Stats:
Skill: 7
Stamina: 18
Luck: 9

Ship Stats:
Weapons Strength: 12
Shields: 6

Hmm, my Skill is lousy but under Chapman's system that isn't necessarily a death sentence if I stick to gunplay, and at least I have a top-of-the-line ship - let's see how this goes.

The first paragraph of the game proper establishes the atmosphere nicely as it narrates the last stages of your hyperspace jump into the Kether system. I decided to forego exploring Kether's moon or the asteroid belt just yet; I figured that if the planetary spaceport was where the drugs were coming from, planetside was where I wanted to be. Besides, if the drug cartels are expansive enough to corrupt the local authorities, they'd have to have some kind of presence on-planet; I could track down any off-world bases later.

Going through customs, you get your "spy ray" taken away from you and are instructed to cross it off your equipment list. This is odd, because you were never informed you had it in the first place. Meanwhile, apparently guns are just fine as far as customs are concerned - go figure.

I figured I'd keep my enquiries on the down low at first - no point declaring myself to the cops if they were in on the deal. Bribing a barmaid to let me know which local characters might have a job for an off-world chemist who didn't ask too many questions, I noticed how Chapman's prose was, whilst tight and economical, also packed with flavour, evoking both classic tropes of the hard-boiled detective genre and the neon-rimmed gaudiness of 80s SF.

The first likely contact I talked to sussed that I was a narc before we got very far, but he seemed to want to talk. He gave me a room number at a sleazy hotel and I decided to go along to meet him, slightly concerned that this would be another "candle shop elf" scenario. As a shifty-looking character stepped out of the room I was supposed to meet my contact at I noticed two things. The first was that I wasn't bothering to map, because Chapman was sending me through a network of social interactions rather than having me explore a location at this particular point in the adventure, which is actually a pretty good experiment which neither Jackson nor Livingstone had really indulged in at this point. The second was that this stank of a set-up, and rather than walk in on a crime scene designed to implicate me I followed the shifty character I saw leaving the site.

I had to grab a helicab to follow the guy, and the driver wasn't too co-operative. I was impressed that Chapman thought nothing of narrating my character pulling a blaster on the guy to get him to play ball; clearly, this is an author who knows damn well that I want to be a badass detective and doesn't mess around asking me whether or not I want to be badass. I didn't fancy strolling brazenly through the front door of the warehouse that I'd tailed my mark to, so I went in the back. Now the mapping paper came out for the warehouse search, and fair enough; Chapman had a good handle on when to switch to the standard exploration-of-location mode, and now was just one of those times.

After some quick recon in the warehouse - where, I was pleased to discover, sneaking is an option - I established that this was a base for the smugglers, and overheard one of them, Clive, arrange a meeting with a mysterious "Arthur" in a local cafe. I decided to head to the cafe, thinking I could either eavesdrop on the meeting, corner this Clive character, or confront my doppelganger. I was accosted in the street by a gunman and a blaster duel ensued; easily dispatching the goon, I thought to myself how good it was that Chapman was keeping the action flowing thick and fast, unlike the more uneven pacing of Spacer Assassin. It wasn't too long after that that I'd find myself kidnapped by the smugglers and brought face to face with their boss, Zera, who asked me to visit Clive's widow and collect some documents from her or else. I told her I'd do the job, not wanting to find out what "or else" was and wondering why she'd send a Federal Investigator to do the work.

As it turns out, it was to put her at her ease - as I approached her, one of Zera's snipers shot both her and me and made off with the documents. Choking down a pep pill I figured that the sniper was most likely shooting to kill Mrs Taurus, and so I went after the sniper, not stopping to check whether Mrs Taurus was still alive. (I went back and had a look after beating the book, and it turns out that if you try to aid Mrs Taurus the sniper gets away and you're left having to find a new lead - so unlike other Fighting Fantasy books, the heroic goody-two-shoes option isn't always the right one this time around.) A frantic car chase ensued - more exciting, by the way, than any of the chases in Freeway Fighter - and I managed to obtain the documents, a real treasure trove of evidence that included the co-ordinates of Zera's planetside receiving facility.

With the transition from city-based investigations to an island fortress, the genre sidestepped from SF detective work to SF James Bond adventure, and that was fine by me. Opting for a dramatic entrance, I drove their own antigrav dray through the freight doors, taking out the guards. I noted at this point that I hadn't rolled the dice very often at all during this runthrough, Chapman apparently saving Skill rolls and Luck rolls either for the most extreme stunts or for when you screw up - the roll serving as a saving throw to avoid the consequences of making a bad decision. This is certainly a change of pace from Livingstone's adventures, which feature Skill and Luck checks aplenty, often of the "make this roll or you can't win the game" variety.

Shooting Zera down in a gun battle which, admittedly, I only survived because I read the statement that pep pills can be taken "at any time" to include "during combat", I found the control room which contained the co-ordinates of the asteroid belt factory producing the drug - finally, a chance to use my top-of-the-line battlecruiser!

During the space combat process I noticed that you fail if you roll equal to or above your Weapon Strength, which means that even having WS 12 means you won't automatically hit. Likewise, for those Skill checks Chapman does throw at you he tends to specify that you need to get under your Skill to succeed, whereas in most other Fighting Fantasy books you pass a skill check if you get equal to or under your skill - so unlike in most adventures in the series having Skill 12 doesn't mean you automatically win. Chapman clearly understands the implications of the system better than its own designers...

Amazingly, I actually fought through to the very end and beat this one in a single run, though there are a few flaws with the ending; aside from the two puzzle-rooms you have to go through to get to the final boss being completely arbitrary and apparently existing solely to sap your Stamina and Skill before the final fight, the last paragraph once again is just kind of an anticlimax - Chapman still hasn't learned that you really want paragraph 400 to be a big celebration of how awesome the player is, or at least a proper ending to the story rather than saying "Well done, you won". Still, to give credit where it is deserved Chapman has at least come up with a good adventure with plenty of atmosphere, and which (for 90% of it) actually rewards smart thinking on the part of the player. (It doesn't help that the aesthetic and atmosphere at points is reminiscent of high-tech low-life starfaring RPG Traveller.) The Rings of Kether is probably the best SF Fighting Fantasy adventure I've reviewed so far.

Seas of Blood


Scenario

Always one to experiment a little, Andrew Chapman casts you this time not as a lone adventurer but as the captain of the Banshee, a pirate ship at whose helm you have carved out a name for yourself as one of the greatest pirates in the world. Only Abdul the Butcher can compete with you for infamy.

The both of you happen to make your headquarters in Tak, a wretched hive of scum and villainy at the northern end of the Inner Sea, and one day whilst the two of you are out drinking and gambling (for yours is a strictly professional rivalry) it's proposed that you should finally kiss have a proper contest to see which of you truly deserves to be called King of the Pirates. The agreed terms are simple: each of you must pick your best ship and set sail from Tak, making for the isle of Nippur that lies south of the Inner Sea's mouth. Whoever is able to complete the journey in fifty days whilst gathering the most loot wins the bet.

Cleverly, this premise adds a new wrinkle to mapping the adventure this time around. The book actually provides you at the start with a reasonably detailed map of the Inner Sea - the issue is not mapping out what locations out there, but firstly working out the journey distances between them and then how much treasure is available at each location; essentially, like the travelling purchaser problem, this is a matter of network optimisation, working out how to maximise the loot gathered within the 50 day time limit.

System

For the most part, the personal-scale system here is the one we are familiar with. Skill, Stamina and Luck are all rolled for in the usual fashion, and personal combat works using the well-worn system that's been in place since Warlock of Firetop Mountain (though interestingly the rules writeup doesn't mention the usual gambit in combat of being allowed to roll Luck to modify damage done in combat).

Cleverly, the system accounts for the fact that the adventure unfolds over nearly two months by allowing for long-term healing: there's a space for your log on the character sheet, where you are meant to mark off each day of your journey as it passes, and every time you mark a day on your sheet you get to restore 1 point of lost Stamina.

The major distinction this time, though, is that the book offers Fighting Fantasy's first stab at a mass combat system. As well as rolling stats for yourself, you need to roll for your crew - a six-sided die roll plus six gives your crew's Crew Strike score, and two dice plus six gives the Crew Strength score. In practice, these work just like Skill and Stamina for when the crew are fighting en mass against a similarly numerous foe, which in principle opens up some interesting strategic wrinkles. (For instance, a super-tough captain with a weak crew might have to adopt very different strategies compared with a poorly captain backed up by a big, tough crew.)

Gear

Matters such as provisions have been abstracted out of the system, presumably because you are assumed to be sailing with enough food for yourself and your crew; indeed, no potions or methods of on-the-spot healing are provided. Likewise, clothing, weapons, and other staples seem to be taken for granted. The only significant possession the book draws your attention to are your starting funds (a scant 20 gold pieces).

First Run

Crew Strike: 10
Crew Strength: 10
Skill: 8
Stamina: 19
Luck: 9

So, for this first run a well-trained but not especially numerous crew set sail under the command of a somewhat lacklustre captain. Neatly, the game offers you a meaningful-seeming choice straight off the bat: either head for the western deserts to attack merchant caravans, or go east to the rival port of Lagash to attack its shipping, or head due south via the isle of Enraki. Since the caravan attacks would involve sending out a party inland, I inferred that it would probably involve more personal combat than attacking shipping, and so I gave the order to go after the bounty of Lagash.

Immediately, I noted that Crew Strength was going to be used for more than just a Stamina analogue when I was told to roll two dice and compare it to that score - a good roll (less than Crew Strength) would allow me to hit Lagash in 5 days, whereas a poor roll would mean I got there in 6. Suddenly, the network diagram begins to fill with uncertainty! Gritting my teeth, I rolled the dice - a success. Extra rum rations all round, men!

But wait - showing up at a different time means we get a different encounter. Further confusion! Hasty scribbling on my map! Quick rolling as my crew tries to react to the arrival of enemy warships! Too slow! The warships have caught up and I am swept into a desperate naval battle! A furious exchange of blows leaves my Crew Strength on a mere 2, though I do have some booty to add to the collection - 68 GP and 3 surviving marines, destined to be sold as slaves when I get into port. (It would be nice if I could recruit the slaves to my crew, Assassin's Creed IV style, but there you go.)

Journeying to Enraki from here feels like a bad move considering the time I have already wasted, so I decided to press south to the Rivers of the Dead - limping there in 6 days because, alas, my crew have been depleted that much. Alas, a goblin horde came across my crew and I just as we were exploring inland, and the first run was brought to an abrupt end. (The lack of any built-in way to heal lost Crew Strength in this gamebook may become a problem...)

Second Run

Crew Strike: 8
Crew Strength: 10
Skill: 7
Stamina: 22
Luck: 9

Well, shit. Well, at least I can take this one as an opportunity for reconnaissance or something. Game plan this time is to just sail due south, since the encounters here seem to be based on a three-pillar structure (west coast, east coast, and middle of the sea in between) and the middle-of-the-sea encounters seem to be the ones which are usually accessible from whichever encounter you have just finished. To Enraki, men!

So, Enraki is home to a martial arts temple, huh? Wish someone had warned me. Apparently the options are a direct assault (ha ha nope), seeking a route to assault from the rear (scarcely less dangerous), and blagging my way in to see what I can steal. I go for the last one for the sake of delicious comedy. Sadly, the monks are wise to this sort of nonsense, and oblige me to choose my fate by picking one of several doors with enigmatic symbols on to pass through on my way out of their basement dungeon. The abbot's pet water snakes make short work of me.

Third Run

Crew Strike: 11
Crew Strength: 9
Skill: 11
Stamina: 22
Luck: 9

That's a bit more like it - though that wimpy Crew Strength means that I'll struggle to go very fast. That being the case, I will ignore Lagash and the desert this time in favour of a return visit to Enraki. The abbot was very mean to me on my last visit and I'll only feel better once I've taken him hard in the rear for all he's got. Two days into our journey through the island's mountains, we encountered a shrine that from the description suggests that Enraki is taking more than a little aesthetic influence from Japan - either way, "shrine" suggests "sacrifices" suggests "unguarded goodies" to me, so I went to take a look, only to simply lose 2 points of Luck for feeling sad.

Pressing on, we arrived at the fortress, whereupon Chapman gave me the opportunity to twist the knife by setting fire to a wooden temple out back as a distraction before entering the fortress itself. Refusing to pass up a chance to humiliate my nemesis, I had my crew fire upon the edifice with fire arrows, but alas it only redoubled the priests' determination to defend themselves. Butchering them, we took 85 GP and 10 slaves, and returned to the ship feeling suitably avenged.

At this point, I could apparently try to recruit additional crew to make up for lost numbers at the city of Assur. Having been bled a bit by the fight, I decided to do just that, and on recruiting some likely lads learned about a supposedly wealthy shrine a little way inland. Heading off to see if I could lighten its coffers, I find that I have to solo it, for it's obviously a creepy dungeon and my crew are too genre-savvy to enter. Coming away with a fine idol of one of the Lords of Decay, I leave Assur having more than doubled my money, and decide to continue down the west coast to Kirkuk.

Kirkuk is a small, charming fishing village: naturally, I decided to go ashore immediately and try to bully the rubes into handing over all their money. Sadly, they were backed up by Kishian soldiers, so my men actually had a fight on their hands: happily, the soldiers were no match for my elite forces and died miserably. Then their elite troops showed up and we were butchered. Ah well.

Fourth Run

Crew Strike: 7
Crew Strength: 17
Skill: 12
Stamina: 19
Luck: 11

So, this time I am elite and my crew can get me around fast, but they aren't much good in a fight themselves. This being the case, I decided to take the desert route early on this time, which turned out to offer me either a frontal assault on an oasis village (not a smart idea given how weak my crew are) or a 3 day wait under the boiling sun hoping for a trade caravan to swing by so I can ambush it.

Deciding I really should try to pick up more funds, I made for Calah to see what gambling games were on offer. Realising I could earn up to 50GP by punching out an ogre with inferior skill to mine, I went for it, winning the prize and getting this run back on track. Running into an old creditor, I opened up all the whup-ass my Skill of 12 entitled me to in order to get out of paying my debts.

Revisiting the temple near Assur to retrieve the idol again (thank you, Skill 12), I happened to come away with even better loot, having met an Awkmute and taken its staff which has a 1 in 3 chance of reducing Skill instead of Stamina (sending opponents into a death spiral).

Bullying a merchantman vessel into handing over its loot after defeating a shade summoned by a passenger, I decided that I was doing well enough that I should be heading south to make up for lost time. Running into a south-blowing storm, I realised that here was a chance to pick up a bit of speed, so aimed the ship southward, and as luck would have it arrived safely at the isle of Trysta, whose king kindly gave me bags containing the north and south winds to speed me on my journey.

Aiming for the Channel of Goth to reach the southern reaches of the Inner Sea, and with a little luck dodging my way past a massive naval battle in the offing, I paused to reflect how ably Chapman was able to capture the essence of so many seafaring adventure stories in the gamebook in question, as well as leaving the player feeling that they are well and truly in control of their own destiny with the extent of the nonlinearity built into the adventure. Cashing in my slaves at Sharrupak (and wondering whether I wouldn't have gotten a better deal on the opposite coast), I made for Nippur, the finishing line, to see how I'd fared. (On the way, I had to dodge an iceberg, subtly establishing that the Inner Sea seems to be in the southern hemisphere of the Fighting Fantasy world).

By the end of this run I had lost, but I had at least established two points: a) you probably don't need the bags from the King of Trysta and b) you need to have picked up 800 GP (including the 20 you start out with) along the adventure to beat it. We're getting there, folks!

Fifth Run

Crew Strike: 10
Crew Strength: 10
Skill: 7
Stamina: 18
Luck: 11

...but we probably won't make it with a statline like that.

Here's the thing, to beat this gamebook you need a crew who will get you from A to B comparatively quickly - which means a high Crew Strength - and you need to be able to pick up prizes both through mass combat and individual combat, often against quite tough foes. This means that high Crew Strike, high Skill, and decent Stamina and Luck are a mus too. With five randomised stats in each run, it's a rare jaunt on the Seas of Blood where you'll ever have a statline that's remotely capable of picking up enough treasure and limping across the finish line in time, let alone the luck you'd still need to pull it off. (If your crew get utterly pasted in an early fight you could be stuck on a slow boat to loserville.) Individual runs are quite fun; doing this over and over again in order to first construct the network map, then work out a potentially winning route, then implementing a winning route is an awful lot of hassle and I don't personally have the patience for it. (This comes back to my usual thing where if I've worked out the answer to a puzzle in a game, I should be able to implement the answer more or less easily otherwise I get frustrated.)

In short, as fun as Seas of Blood is as a Fighting Fantasy book to pick up and tinker with, if you want to try and win honestly it's likely to be intensely frustrating. I'm inclined to count my previous run as a win and go home at this point.

The Canary Says


Before I slot these books into my rating hierarchy, a little housekeeping first. I'd previously described Forest of Doom as "recommended", but on glancing over my review I think that might have been overgenerous, so I'll nudge it down into the "collectors only" category.

Of the four books I've covered here, easily my least favourite is Temple of Terror, simply because it has Ian Livingstone indulging far too many of his bad habits - a combination of slightly too many linear travelogue bits with a tendency towards dropping high-Skill enemies on the player that must be fought if you are going to succeed at the book. These motifs of Ian's work tend to be cheap gimmicks to boost replayability, but at the same time the book isn't quite interesting enough to make replaying it very interesting.

Freeway Fighter, on the other hand, I like quite a bit - as derivative as some of it is, it's a really successful application of the gamebook format to that weird niche of petroleum-fuelled post-apocalyptic fiction that The Road Warrior inspired and whilst it does have its linear portions, you kind of expect that in a story about driving from A to B and back to A along the titular freeway.

That said, I found Andrew Chapman's gamebooks this time around consistently more entertaining than Ian Livingstone's. Although Seas of Blood is fiendishly difficult to win outright, it crams a diverse enough range of adventures into its 400 paragraphs that it's a joy to replay even if you just set a lower bar for yourself like "I'll see if I can beat 6000 GP this time" or "I'll see if I can make it to the end within the time limit". (Compare to Deathtrap Dungeon, where there's structurally less scope to set yourself little challenges like that and the adventures are so arbitrary you might as well make a coin toss for all your decisions.)

Easily my favourite this time around is The Rings of Kether. It might be one of the less difficult gamebooks, but the fact that Chapman had a knack for varying the difficulty of his work is a plus in my eye, and on top of that between it and Space Assassin you have the seed of a decidedly interesting setting for sci-fi adventures, one which to my eye draws equally from Traveller and the Gaean Reach works of Jack Vance.

According to Jonathan Green's You Are the Hero, the reason that Chapman's SF gamebooks contain the slightly variant combat system they do is that originally Chapman wanted to pitch an original gamebook series with an original system. As Green records, the fantasy-genre Fighting Fantasy books always did better than the SF ones for two reasons - part of this might be because the mere title of the series puts you more in the mood for fantasy adventures than science fiction expeditions, but there's also a believable argument to be made that the shared setting of many of the fantasy adventures also gave them a crucial edge. Andrew Chapman's SF gamebooks are so good that I kind of wish he'd been given the series of his own he wanted; had Chapman been given the task of setting up a sci-fi sister series to Fighting Fantasy, with the adventures taking place in the setting hinted at in The Rings of Kether, that would have been a sight to see.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Despite being one of the most consistently entertaining of the early contributors to the "Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present…" series, Chapman's association with Fighting Fantasy would not last much longer after this, his only further contribution being co-authoring Clash of the Princes (an odd and not entirely successful experiment in presenting a 2-player gamebook). This is a real shame, because he was just getting up to speed here and already he was overtaking one of the men whose names stood where his own should have been on the covers of his books.


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House of Hell :D (Sheer delight)
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Sorcery!* |
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The Warlock of Firetop Mountain |
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The Rings of Kether |
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Island of the Lizard King |
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Space Assassin :) (Recommended)
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City of Thieves |
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Seas of Blood |
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Talisman of Death |
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Freeway Fighter |
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Forest of Doom :S (Collectors only)
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Temple of Terror |
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Citadel of Chaos |
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Caverns of the Snow Witch :( (Downright bad)
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Starship Traveller |
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Deathtrap Dungeon >:( (Pissed me off)
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Scorpion Swamp D: (OH GOD WHY)
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* Assuming that you:
- play it as a wizard
- play the books in sequence
- and take then end of each book as a "save point".
~

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~
Comments (go to latest)
Alice at 22:30 on 2015-01-23
Then I have to smash the dragon statues with the legendary warhammer of Stonebridge, provided by dwarves. (Super geeky fact: Sigmar, the first Emperor in the Warhammer Fantasy world, rose to greatness in part because of a warhammer lent to him by dwarves. The first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battles came out two years before this gamebook, so this will have emerged at a time when a lot of the Warhammer Fantasy setting details were being thrashed out. Parallel evolution, or remnant of some plan to have Fighting Fantasy be the backstory to the Warhammer Fantasy world? No idea, but it's an interesting question.)


This doesn't necessarily answer the parallel evolution vs. planned back story question, but the "rising to greatness due to the hero getting a dwarfish weapon" thing pings to me as coming from (variations on) the Sigurd/Siegfried mythos, though in that case it's a sword rather than a hammer.

I imagine that's not a unique motif in modern(ish) fantasy fiction, though -- for instance, in the Narnia books, Prince Caspian is given a dwarf-forged sword to replace his own sword, which in comparison looks "as feeble as a toy and as clumsy as a stick". (It also seems likely that C.S. Lewis -- consciously or not -- drew on Nordic/Germanic myths while writing Narnia, too.)
Daniel F at 02:26 on 2015-01-25
This doesn't necessarily answer the parallel evolution vs. planned back story question, but the "rising to greatness due to the hero getting a dwarfish weapon" thing pings to me as coming from (variations on) the Sigurd/Siegfried mythos, though in that case it's a sword rather than a hammer.


If you're going to go that route, surely you'd also mention Thor? He strikes me as one of the earliest examples of a mythic hero who receives a magic hammer from dwarfs and uses it to make his fortune.

The 'Temple of Terror' example strikes me as a bit too generic to posit a clear link to Sigmar and Warhammer Fantasy. As you say, it's not a unique motif at all. Legendary heroes have magical weapons; dwarf/ves are known to produce magical weapons; and dwarfs have been strongly associated with hammers and axes, presumably because hammers are reminiscent of the forge and because Gimli had an axe.

I'm not sure how much Sigurd I'd say there is in Sigmar. The names are similar, but Sigurd is archetypally a lone warrior, a dragonslayer, and ultimately a doomed lover. None of that applies to Sigmar, who seems cast in a different mould: general, emperor, law-maker, and so on. I always wondered if there was a bit of Arminius in him, actually.

Anyway, good to see the Fighting Fantasy reviews resume, Arthur! I enjoyed the previous ones quite a bit too; their pulp feel has become rather charming.
Arthur B at 11:02 on 2015-01-25
My suspicions are based less on the uniqueness of the motif - since, after all, it isn't very unique - so much as the fact that both settings were being developed by the same designers, writers and artists at the same time.

Glad people are enjoying the revival of the series - hopefully part 6 will come a little sooner. (Expected content: superheroes, space rebels, samurai, and seafood.)
Alice at 20:28 on 2015-01-25
If you're going to go that route, surely you'd also mention Thor? He strikes me as one of the earliest examples of a mythic hero who receives a magic hammer from dwarfs and uses it to make his fortune. [...] I'm not sure how much Sigurd I'd say there is in Sigmar. (Daniel F)

Oh, sure! It was really just the superficial similarity between the two in terms of both "heroic weapon acquisition" and "sound of name" that I noticed, not anything further.

My suspicions are based less on the uniqueness of the motif - since, after all, it isn't very unique - so much as the fact that both settings were being developed by the same designers, writers and artists at the same time. (Arthur B)

This does indeed seem far more likely. :)

Looking forward to the next installment in this series!
Ashimbabbar at 22:11 on 2015-01-26
. I never liked Seas of Blood, mostly because we're the bestest pirate captain in that sea and yet we have precious little notion of what is in a given place or where the loot is. There's a review by Per Jorner on the Demianbooks blog that says it all and way better than I could, it's pretty funny if you can get over his penguin fetish.

Incidentally, I read somewhere that "the location of the book was not intended by Andrew Chapman to be the world of Titan, but rather an original creation of his own, and he has written several novels set in the area, one of which features the captain of the Banshee."

. I had always dismissed Rings of Kether*, but now you make me want to try it again !

* perhaps because I only played the french translation, but I obtained a pdf of the original.
Ashimbabbar at 01:36 on 2015-03-02
"Query: what on Earth is the point of having randomised starting stats for player character in these gamebooks? "
As I understand it, the basic idea is that you need several readings to map the connections and figure out the wrong turns, traps, mandatory items etc. So a weak character, if he survives the early fights, can be used as a 'belgian mine-clearer' to try suspicious places and see what happens - no great loss.

re what I wrote earlier, Andrew Chapman's novel is Ashkar the Magnificent; here the Banshee's captain is called Starg, wears a cape of tanned human skin and slays a few of his men who raped maiden prisoners ( since virgins fetch a much higher price ). It would have improved Seas of Blood somewhat to include those details, I think.
Andy G at 17:57 on 2015-03-03
For anyone interested in the "well-regarded Lone Wolf series", the whole series is available online (free and legal) at http://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/Home. Joe Dever also, coincidentally (?), published a series called "Freeway Warrior", thus adding yet another synonym of "road warrior". I'm a big fan of the Lone Wolf series, though the appeal probably lies more in playing through a continuous story over so many books rather than the gamebook mechanics themselves being especially innovative or well-balanced (they are mostly quite easy, especially if you play the books through in order and get the game-breaking Sword + 8 in book 2, apart from the odd unavoidable and statistically almost impossible battles, though these have been tweaked in the online books).
Arthur B at 10:05 on 2015-03-06
As I understand it, the basic idea is that you need several readings to map the connections and figure out the wrong turns, traps, mandatory items etc. So a weak character, if he survives the early fights, can be used as a 'belgian mine-clearer' to try suspicious places and see what happens - no great loss.

This is very true, and in fact works quite well in gamebooks like Seas of Blood (or even, if you're patient enough, Deathtrap Dungeon). On the other hand, the two Ian Livingstone books I'd covered in this article tend to be more linear than either of those, and also include mandatory fights with high-Skill creatures quite early on, so not only is the mine-clearer character less useful, odds are that they won't survive to get to the bits you've not explored yet in the first place.
I was sooo into these books when I was in my teens! I still have several on my shelf and like to flip through them occasionally.

I'm enjoying your critiques too. I admit, I was always more into immersing myself in the narrative than into 'rigorous' gameplay (cheating? me?), so your take on the books as games is really interesting to me.
I agree that House of Hell is a masterpiece, though for some reason, I remember liking Scorpion Swamp, probably because it was so ridiculously easy ...

There was an unofficial (I think) fansite I used to visit way back in 1998, which once asked fans to nominate and vote on the most gruesome Fighting Fantasy death paragraph. I couldn't decide which one to pick. Reading the grisly details of my own death in many violent and horrible circumstances is one of the things I love best about the books :) Do you have a favourite death?
Arthur B at 10:44 on 2015-11-24
There's this book later in the series, when it got much deeper into dark horror-fantasy, where you're hunted throughout the book by this hideous undead nemesis who regularly pops up to fight you - dying to that guy was terrifying but never felt anticlimactic or weak.
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