The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 1)

by Arthur B

The Reading Canary takes up dice, paper, and pencil, and tackles the first four Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.
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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: Solitary Pursuits of the Young and Geeky


If you weren't a kid in the UK in the 1980s or early 1990s, and if you weren't an especially bookish sort, you might have been forgiven for not noticing the gamebook explosion that took place around that time. "Gamebooks" were stories which invariably promised to make YOU the hero (not lowercase-you, always the capitalised YOU) through the aid of numbered paragraphs representing the branching choices you face as you tackle the plot of the book. ("If you want to fight the crippling loneliness and actually go outside for once, turn to paragraph 138; if you want to give in and spend the evening idly jerking off to porn channel previews, turn to paragraph 212.") In the States, of course, you had the Choose Your Own Adventure craze, but it was in the UK where the mania really took hold, and it was all thanks to Fighting Fantasy.

Fighting Fantasy was the brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, who as the founders of Games Workshop have probably inspired more geekery than the British Isles has ever previously seen. Previously, Jackson and Livingstone had concentrated on importing American RPGs and wargames, introducing Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, and other classics to a European audience; in 1983, Games Workshop would produce the first version of Warhammer, a line which would rapidly end up consuming the entire business and reshaping it in its image. Whilst both efforts represent major achievements in gaming, it is the development of Fighting Fantasy and the release of the first gamebook in 1982 for which Jackson and Livingstone are primarily known, simply because Fighting Fantasy was a phenomenon which reached beyond the roleplaying and wargaming subcultures and entered the popular consciousness, as well as recruiting a new generation of awkward speccy spods into the gaming scene which spawned it. Just as American tabletop roleplayers of a certain age tend to have a soft spot in their hearts for the so-called "Red Box" edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, so too does an entire generation of British dice-tossers feel a certain admiration for the Fighting Fantasy series.

The question is, is it justified? Is there any enjoyment to be derived through playing through the gamebooks today, or have computer games completely supplanted whatever niche the humble gamebook once occupied? These are the sort of questions that the Reading Canary was hatched to deal with.

The unusual format gamebooks present demands an unusual format for the reviews, so I'm going to use a fun little formula to give these things some structure. I'll start off by describing the essential scenario presented by the book, the basic premise which sets up the action; then I'll talk about any interesting variants to the standard Fighting Fantasy system used by the book, and summarise the gear you start out with. Then I will go into my actual experiences playing the damn thing, because nothing can possibly be more interesting than someone enthusing at you about how they completely ruined some orc chef's day.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain


Scenario

This debut effort, released in 1982, was the first encounter many people had with the series, and as well as being fondly remembered to this day enjoys the distinction of being one of the few adventures which had a direct sequel published. At the same time, it stands apart from the rest of the series by having a gloriously simple and unpretentious plot: the warlock who lives in Firetop Mountain is a menace who is believed to have fat stacks of loot stashed away in there, you've decided to head off to see if you can't kill him and take his stuff. You're given a few hints at the beginning to steer you right - you're advised to make a map, it's mentioned that the warlock's treasure chest requires at least two special keys to open, and there is One True Path through the dungeon, which any character should be able to navigate with a minimum of risk - but this is basically one of the most simple and straightforward plots the series would present.

What especially impresses me about is that, coming as they did from the gaming scene, Jackson and Livingstone must have been aware of the growing tendency towards complex systems and detailed plots and stories in RPG circles (in 1982 Rolemaster, with its masses of tables, was the hot new entry on the scene, and TSR was starting development on Dragonlance, a series of products which would emphasise linear storytelling in Dungeons & Dragons like never before) , and yet they appear to have deliberately chosen to make a product that harks back to the simpler days of the mid-1970s. It seems to have struck a chord at the time.

System

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain debuted the Fighting Fantasy system, and the version presented therein is as close to the "default" as any; while a number of later books in the series would add further embellishments to the system and experiment it in various ways, a fair number also used it without modification.

Jackson and Livingstone were not, of course, working in a vacuum when they designed the Fighting Fantasy system, and they seem to have taken a certain amount of inspiration from the Tunnels & Trolls rules. Tunnels & Trolls was one of the first RPGs published; designed by Ken St. Andre as a response to what he considered a lack of clarity in the Dungeons & Dragons rules, T&T had, in 1982, already spawned a number of "solo adventures" - essentially gamebooks that you could play through using the T&T rules. (Corgi Books in fact republished a number of these, as well as a mass market edition of the Tunnels & Trolls rules, in response to the success of Fighting Fantasy.) The two elements of Tunnels & Trolls that Jackson and Livingstone took inspiration from happen to be the ones which make the system most suitable for solo gaming: a reliance solely on six-sided dice, necessary if you are going to market solo gamebooks to readers who might not have access to the more esoteric dice used in Dungeons & Dragons, and a highly abstract combat system, relying simply on rolling a number of dice, adding the various bonuses the player's character possesses based on their attributes and equipment, and comparing it to a similar roll on the part of the monster(s) the character is battling and seeing which side got the higher total.

Having taken these two ideas from the Tunnels & Trolls system, Jackson and Livingstone proceeded to craft a set of rules which were much more simple than the T&T rules; whereas the T&T game was designed first to be played in face-to-face tabletop roleplaying sessions in which rules questions can be adjudicated by a Games Master, and was later applied to solo adventuring, the Fighting Fantasy system was designed first to provide a basis for solo play, and was only later expanded in other publications to be used as a tabletop RPG system. This meant that Jackson and Livingstone could dispense with almost all of the considerations that would inform the design of a conventional RPG - coming up with statistics for the effectiveness of different types of weapons and armour, devising spot rules for dealing with unusual situations, and so on - since any out of the ordinary situation could be dealt with simply by specifying a particular penalty or bonus as it comes up in the course of the adventure.

The core Fighting Fantasy rules are therefore very simple: they involve generating the three basic attributes of your character, adjudicating fights with monsters and adversaries, and means by which your attributes can be restored (aside from the occasional bonuses you might gain in the course of the adventure). A Fighting Fantasy character, in the basic Firetop Mountain iteration of the rules, has three attributes. Skill (your starting value of which is determined by rolling one six-sided die and adding six) represents the general competence of your character at, well, quite a lot actually: fighting, kicking down doors, operating complex machinery, any pursuit where your personal skill and training has more impact than random chance. Luck (your score in which, again, ranges from 7 to 12 based on the roll of one die) represents how greatly fortune smiles on you, and how likely you are to succeed at efforts where random chance and external factors are more relevant than your personal abilities (it can also give you bonuses in fights, although since your Luck drops by 1 point every time you use it wasting it in fights is insane except in dire circumstances). Stamina, found by rolling two dice and adding 12 to the result, represents how much physical mistreatment your character can endure before expiring.

Combat is simply a matter of rolling two dice for each participant, adding the skill of each combatant to their roll, and seeing who got highest; the person who rolls highest inflicts a set amount of Stamina damage (usually 2 points, although Luck and other circumstances can vary this) to their opponent. Various means exist by which your attributes can be restored to their initial values if they have been depleted; you begin the adventure with 10 Provisions, parcels of food which restore 4 Stamina points when you eat them (although you can only eat them when the text tells you that you can, and you can only eat one at a time); you also get 2 doses of a Potion of either Strength, Stamina, or Luck (you pick which Potion you want at the start of the game). Each dose will completely restore the attribute in question; the Luck Potion will also boost your maximum Luck level by 1 point, perhaps in recognition of the fact that restoring your Luck isn't quite as useful as restoring your Skill or Stamina.

Gear

While we're on the subject, Firetop Mountain also provides the stalwart adventurer with an extremely archetypal (cruel people would say generic) assortment of equipment: aside from the aforementioned Provisions and Potions, you start out with a sword, some leather armour, a shield, a backpack, and a lantern. This is almost precisely the sort of thing a level 1 Fighter in a Dungeons & Dragons game would probably buy with their starting cash. It also provides an awesomely exploitable loophole in the system, which I'll get to later on.

First Run

Skill: 9
Stamina: 24
Luck: 12
Potion Choice: Potion of Stamina.

The first thing that struck me about The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is that, after impressing upon you the fact that there is only one true path to the ending, it opens with a choice between taking two entirely indistinguishable passages at a t-junction. This happens several times in the early portion of the adventure, and while in most cases if you take the wrong branch it'll go to a dead end and you'll end up going back to the t-junction and taking the other corridor, there is one particular junction like this where if you take the wrong path you will not be able to win the game in the run in question. This means that mapping the dungeon is pretty important, and you'll have to rely on your map in future runs to remember where the various keys are, and which portions of the dungeons you have not explored yet. On one hand, this does require you to rely on out-of-character knowledge to beat the game (unless you are ludicrously lucky on your first go), which massively violates Ron Gilbert's rules on writing adventure games that don't suck, but what sucks in the field of computer games turns out to be excellent fun when it comes to Fighting Fantasy; the dungeon of Firetop Mountain is varied enough that aside from a few incidents your second run-through could be completely different from the first, allowing you to explore a variety of different situations. (Also, the gamebook format doesn't really allow for saved games - I could make comparisions to roguelikes at this point but I'd be going off on a massive tangent).

Also, it has to be said that mapping Firetop Mountain is a hell of a lot of fun, not least because Jackson and Livingstone's descriptions are unfailingly precise and clear, and the whole thing does eventually join together to form a fairly coherent whole. Making a start on a decent map is probably the best thing you can do in a first stab at Firetop Mountain, not least because there's a particularly fiendish labyrinth towards the end where you're not likely to find the exit (except by chance) unless you map carefully; also, it vastly speeds up later run-throughs if you know precisely which parts you have yet to explore.

The other thing which makes exploring Firetop Mountain such a pleasure is the prose. Whilst this adventure does not have a detailed plot or any extended interactions with NPCs, as later Fighting Fantasy adventures did, what it does boast is some really nice location descriptions; short and simple enough that you have a clear idea of what's going on, but evocative enough to invest some real flavour into the Warlock's 'hood. Little details, like the dozing orc's pet rat that he keeps in a box with his life's savings, make the place feel like a real living and breathing location, not just a venue for monster-bashing.

That said, having discovered a magic sword and shield, I did a fair amount of bashing this time around, and even managed to kill the Warlock's pet dragon in single combat. I did, however, run into some difficulty at the end when it transpired that the Warlock's treasure chest requires three keys to open, not two as the introduction implies. But armed with a decent map, I was sure that I would be able to find enough keys in my next run.

Second Run

Skill: 11
Stamina: 20
Luck: 7
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.

On this run I realised that whilst the basic game rules provide guidelines for what you do when you are fighting multiple opponents, you never actually use them - every time you fight more than one monster, the paragraph text explicitly tells you to "fight them one at a time". Oh, well.

Another thing I noticed was that while there are some items in Firetop Mountain, like the magic sword and shield I found in the first run, they tend to require either a successful Skill test or a quite difficult combat (which you need a decent skill to survive) in order to obtain, so people with utterly crap Skill scores are going to have serious trouble compensating for them.

Speaking of collecting items, there's a number of objects you can collect during the course of play which are sufficiently bulky that you have to leave another item behind - except you're loaded down at the beginning with items like your lantern, armour, sword and shield which you can happily dispense with, since there are no penalties specified in the text for adventuring without armour, or without light; this would appear to be a case of the designers' desire to present a dungeoneering experience true to those offered by tabletop RPGs overriding their common sense.

Also, I note that you don't just have to collect three keys - you also need the correct three keys, otherwise pain comes your way. A third run beckons.

Third Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 23
Luck: 7
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.

I cheated a little, this time - I decided to have my character drink the entire Potion of Fortune straight away to insta-boost my Luck score to 9, since top-ups to your Luck score are ludicrously plentiful in Firetop Mountain compared to later Fighting Fantasy books.

Then I cheated like a raging fuck by using the time-honoured practice of marking paragraphs with a finger so you can go back to them, but for fuck's sake, I had only two or three rooms left to search for keys and they were on completely opposite sides of the dungeon. I find it extremely interesting that you have to fight a Skill 10 Iron Golem to get one of the crucial keys you need to beat the game, and this before you have a chance to get any items which boost your combat abilities - precisely how the fuck is a Skill 7 character supposed to win this?

The thing about Firetop Mountain is that whilst, yes, granted, it's a classic, it's also immensely repetitive to go through the same rigmarole over and over again until you find the correct keys, and while it can throw up enough variation to keep my interest in the first and second time through, by this third run I lost my patience. To a certain extent, Firetop Mountain's ultra-simple premise and execution makes it seem more like a proof-of-concept sketch than a fully fleshed-out adventure, and I suppose it's notable that this is the only time Jackson and Livingstone actually collaborate on an adventure; their future contributions to the series would be solo jaunts, allowing Steve to perfect the fine art of coming up with exotic ways to arbitrarily kill the player whilst Ian developed his skills at presenting intricate-yet-mappable environments for adventures.

The Citadel of Chaos


Scenario

Jackson is first up to bat in 1983, and proceeds to inject a fat dose of Michael Moorcock metaphysic into the Fighting Fantasy mileau. The backstory to Citadel of Chaos is littered with ideas lifted from Dungeons & Dragons from references to half-elves to a cosmological battle between the forces of Law and Chaos; the Elric-inspired take on Chaos presented here would not only inform the later development of the Fighting Fantasy setting (when it was decided later on to tie many of the gamebooks together into a single setting), but would also strongly influence the development of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. It also presents a sword & sorcery-inspired story, rather the somewhat bland D&D dungeon fantasy of the first book, in which the evil wizard Balthus Dire (what a name!) is plotting to launch an invasion of the good realm, and as a trainee wizard you have to infiltrate his citadel and assassinate him.

System

Since you're a wizard, this provides Jackson with an opportunity to experiment with modifications and additions to the standard Fighting Fantasy system, something he tended to do far more frequently than Livingstone. In this case, he dispenses with the Provisions and Potions of the previous book and provides the player with an arsenal of magic spells, providing a range of effects. The magic system is fairly simple: you have a Magic score, obtained by rolling 2 dice and adding 6 to the result; you get to pick that many spells from the list of 12, bearing in mind that whenever you cast a spell you lose it (so if you want to cast it twice during the game, you usually have to buy it twice at the beginning, although there are ways around this). Again, I think Steve was reading a lot of Dungeons & Dragons materials at the time, since this is highly reminiscent of the so-called "Vancian" magic system of D&D. The Skill, Stamina, and Luck spells take the place of the relevant Potions; the other spells are mainly useful for getting you out of tight spots during the adventure, and can only be used when the text offers you the opportunity to use them.

Gear

You don't get much special this time around - just your sword, your leather armour, your lantern and your backpack.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina: 21
Luck: 10
Magic: 12. I picked 1 of each spell.

What I found especially striking in my first run through of the adventure was that there are plenty of ways to avoid getting into fights; often an item or clue obtained earlier in the adventure can be used to bypass a fight, or failing that a spell can get you out of trouble. The other thing I noted was that this adventure has especially bizarre monsters - there's a gorilla with a dog's head and a dog with a gorilla head guarding the front gate, a rhino man guarding the inner gate, a squad of monsters that look like tiny wheels with legs respond to the burglar alarm and I was killed by the Ganjees, a squad of glowing floating heads with a bad attitude. Oh well...

Second Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 16
Luck: 12
Magic: 13. I picked 1 of each spell, plus an extra Levitation spell since the Ganjees caused me to fall to my death last time.

It becomes apparent on the second run that this is an extremely linear adventure - after getting into the Citadel you have to pass through the inner gate, you have to go through the dining hall, and you have to encounter the Ganjees. Firetop Mountain seemed much less constrained, even though it probably had just as many mandatory encounters, because it branched out more between them; the Citadel, on the other hand, is downright caustrophobic.

Oh, and one of the crucial element of the One True Path is finding a way to get past the damn Ganjees. They killed me again - apparently Levitation doesn't save you.

Third Run

Skill: 9
Stamina: 17
Luck: 19
Magic: 16. I picked 1 of each spell, plus extra Levitation, Shielding, Strength and Weakness spells.

It is confirmed: Citadel of Chaos is very, very, very linear. Not only do you have to encounter the Ganjees (who can be appeased with ointment, and precisely how the fuck I was meant to know that I have no idea), but there's also a mandatory face-off with a hydra before you get to the door of Balthus Dire's office, which has a combination lock on it. Which I don't have the combination to. Fuck.

Oh, it also seems that this is another Fighting Fantasy book where the rules for multiple combatants are completely ignored. Nice job, guys.

Fourth Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 18
Luck: 11
Magic: 13. I picked 1 of each spell, plus an extra Levitation spell.

It is becoming rapidly apparent that the Citadel is not mappable.

I should clarify that. By their nature, all Fighting Fantasy adventures are mappable to an extent, at least on the level of drawing up a flow chart showing how you get from paragraph to paragraph. But that's not the same as drawing a map of the physical layout of the location you are exploring, which is entirely possible with Firetop Mountain (although you do have to guess at the distances involved a little), but doesn't work with Citadel of Chaos. There's at least one instance where a particular puzzle necessitates Jackson being vague about the physical arrangement of some doors, the arrangement of the pantry doors seems to move about and contradict itself, and all roads lead to the Great Hall. Jackson covers his tracks to an extent by being slightly vague where necessary in the location descriptions, but this just makes the task of mapping more difficult.

To be fair, I can see why he took this approach. Firstly, having a shifting, slightly inconsistent geography emphasises that this Citadel is devoted to cosmic chaos. Secondly, making sure that you definitely get to the Great Hall (which sets you up for the final series of encounters) no matter how long you play allows Jackson to control how long each runthrough takes (assuming the player survives), which means that repeated runs are a bit less tedious than they might otherwise be. But it still feels somewhat dissatisfying to have an adventure which, like many of the early Fighting Fantasy stories, essentially revolves around a single location (in this case, the Citadel), but where the location in question clearly shifts about to suit the needs of the story without any care given to internal consistency.

The hydra killed me this time around; while there are multiple ways to get past it (unlike the Ganjees), unless you have been lucky in your choice of spells and/or your acquisition of magic-enhancing gear, or you have one of the two items which can help you get past the hydra, you're fucked. It is slightly irritating to have three "if you haven't gone the right way, you're boned" encounters back to back like this. Oh well, fifth time's the charm...

Fifth Run

Skill: 11
Stamina: 19
Luck: 10
Magic: 13. I picked 1 of each spell, plus an extra Levitation spell.

One thing I've noticed in playing this gamebook is that a lot of the time you don't ever need to use magic to survive a situation: it's often just a crutch you can fall back on if you haven't found the precise item or method for getting through the crisis unscathed. An exception is the final battle with Balthus Dire, whom I finally reached and defeated in this attempt, where you can use a combination of spells and smarts to defeat the guy without even getting into a fight.

In fact, there's also lots of situations in The Citadel of Chaos where you can just plain back down from a fight, although it's not always the smart thing to do so. In particular, the one true path involves you going up to a bunch of monsters around a campfire, antagonising them until they attack you, and then killing them and taking their stuff. This is monumentally retarded behaviour for someone infiltrating the fortress of an enemy sorcerer on an assassination mission, and yet it's what you need to do; this is in striking contrast to later entries in the Fighting Fantasy series, where you can usually muddle through so long as you are vaguely sensible, and whilst that does mean the books lose a bit of replay value it does make them a lot less frustrating. The only reason I persisted with the Citadel was that individual runs can actually be quite quick.

Forest of Doom


Scenario

Ian Livingstone also released his first solo Fighting Fantasy effort in 1983, and like Citadel of Chaos there's an effort to inject more plot into the proceedings; your adventurer has to collect the two missing parts of an ancient dwarven hammer, which have been lost in the titular forest. The introductory blurb is significantly longer than in either of the previous books - it goes on for about three pages, and on top of that there is a full-page map of the forest. Admittedly, you can't get much information about it beyond the fact that your start point is in the south, the dwarf village is in the north, and that there's a single river running in an east-west direction about halfway through your journey in the forest, but knowing this is useful when it comes to mapping the adventure.

This adventure's plot is notable partly for being the first to break out of the "get to the end of the dungeon and kill the evil sorcerer" mould, and partly for being the first appearance of Yaztromo, the default Fighting Fantasy setting's local equivalent of the grumpy old wizard who is secretly one of the most powerful magicians on the side of good in the world which pretty much every fantasy setting invented in the 1980s had to have. Like Fizban in Dragonlance and Elminster in Forgotten Realms, eventually he would get pretty damn annoying, but in this outing he's just some old codger you visit at the beginning to buy some magic items from and get some advice from.

One especially nice touch in the backstory is the mercenary attitude of the protagonist; you're not doing this quest for any reason more noble than lining your pockets, even though helping the dwarves of Stonebridge is undeniably a good thing to do. It's a nice nod to the sort of money-grabbing motivations that Dungeons & Dragons player characters of the time manifested frequently.

System

Not much to report here - the version of the Fighting Fantasy system used here is exactly the same as that in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

Actually, that's not entirely true. In the introduction you get 30 gold pieces that you can spend on one-use magic items from Yaztromo, which occupy the same niche as the various spells in Citadel of Chaos - they make otherwise-difficult encounters much easier. The major difference is that each item can only be used in one particular situation, whereas the various spells in Citadel of Chaos could each be used in a variety of situations. But aside from this, Forest of Doom doesn't exactly revolutionise the Fighting Fantasy system.

Gear

Aside from the aforementioned money and map, your starting possessions are pretty basic in this one - sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, and your choice of potion, and that's it.

First Run

Skill: 11
Stamina: 19
Luck: 10
Potion Choice: Potion of Fortune.

Amongst the first things I noticed as I set off into the depths of the forest is that the tone of Forest of Doom is very different from the sword and sorcery flavour of Citadel of Chaos: it's more of a blend of traditional Tolkien-imitating fantasy, featuring goblins and dwarves and so forth, with the occasional fairytale element, like talking crows and magic mushrooms that make your skill stat and your luck stat swap around. Certainly, most of the monsters are straight out of the basic Dungeons & Dragons canon, rather than the bizarre creations that Jackson throws at you in Citadel of Chaos and when Livingstone tries to be inventive with the monsters he tends to get in trouble. For example, there's an encounter with a treeman where you are told you have to defeat the treeman twice (once for each of its major branches - why complicate things like this when you can just double the creature's stamina and achieve the same effect? I was also disturbed to encounter a catwoman - not the Batman villain, but a sort of feline forest savage, complete with an illustration that verges on furry porn. "How'd they get away with that one?" I wondered, as I killed her and stole her gold earrings.

Midway through the adventure, I was low on Stamina and realised that I had not once been given permission by the paragraph text to eat any of my Provisions. A little googling revealed the problem - I was playing the Wizard Books reprint, which had erroneously included the original Provisions rules from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in which you can only eat Provisions when the text says you can. In Forest of Doom, and most later Fighting Fantasy adventures where Provisions are a feature, you can eat Provisions whenever you like so long as it's not in the middle of a fight, so I proceeded on this basis from that point on.

As I progressed through the forest I was struck by how incredibly easy to map it is; not only are Livingstone's descriptions very clear, but it also rapidly becomes apparent that he planned out the forest on squared graph paper, and that the woodland paths do in fact exist on a grid system. This did a number on my suspension of disbelief; even though Firetop Mountain was similarly easy to map, at the same time it wasn't quite so orderly, and that made it feel more like a real location. It also contributed to the feeling of safety and comfort I felt within the forest; without Jackson's demented deathtraps, the place feels downright cozy. It's hard to feel threatened when almost all of the monsters have a Skill of less than 9, after all, especially when the whole trip is infused with a spirit of fairytale whimsy which pops up now and again. The Forest of Doom isn't exactly a forest of rainbow bubbles and kitten farts, but it's getting there. On the plus side, there's a bit where the multiple attackers rules are actually used for once (for the first time in the series!), and there's a genuinely scary bit with gremlins down a well (which regenerate if you leave the room and come back again, but I'm willing to write that off as a limitation of the gamebook format), so it's not a complete cakewalk.

Contributing to the ease with which this gamebook may be completed is a nice mechanic where if you get to the end but don't have the component parts of the hammer you can make a Luck test, and if successful you get to go back to the start of the book to try again. I happened to bring with me a fat gold ingot worth 28 gold pieces out of the forest, which meant that on my second run I could trade it in for almost all of Yaztromo's magic items that I didn't already have, so this mechanic means that there is finally a point to collecting all of those treasures with precise values in gold pieces that Livingstone likes to scatter around the place; they also crop up a lot in Firetop Mountain, but aside from a very killable ferryman there's no use for them, and they are conspicuous by their absence in The Citadel of Chaos. You might think that being allowed to repeat the adventure would lead to some absurd situations - what happens if you've encountered a monster that you have killed already? - but of course, if you've done a decent job of mapping the place you'll be able to avoid the encounters you've already played through, and most of the time you will want to because, naturally, you want to explore the places you've not searched before in order to find the parts of the hammer.

Forest of Doom is a decent beginner's gamebook, but will probably be too easy for hardcore fans of the Fighting Fantasy series. That said, it's a pleasant enough jaunt if you want something fairly light and easy-going, even if it fails to present the atmosphere of doom the title promises.

Starship Traveller


Scenario

Steve Jackson's second effort of 1983 is another experiment, this time in taking Fighting Fantasy into the final frontier. The first SF effort in the series, whilst Starship Traveller's title might make gamers think of Traveller, the first really successful SF tabletop RPG, its main influence is very obviously Star Trek. As the Captain of the Traveller, you have to guide your ship back to your home universe after a chance encounter with a black hole plunges the ship and its crew into a parallel dimension. Along the way, there is a conspicuous absence of necking with alien hotties; in every other respect, this is a Trek tribute. I'm surprised Puffin didn't raise an eyebrow, but if they let the catgirl's nipple through in Forest of Doom I suppose that means they must have had complete editorial confidence in Jackson and Livingstone at this point in time.

System

Drunk with power, Jackson does a fairly major overhaul on the Fighting Fantasy system for this one, adapting it to the needs of telling the tale of a captain commanding a starship and its crew as opposed to a lone dungeoneer venturing into a damp hole. Your own characteristics are generated in the usual fashion (although Luck works a bit differently - it doesn't drop every time you use it), but you also get to generate the Weapons Strength and Shields characteristics for the Traveller, as well as Skill and Stamina scores for your crew - your Science Officer, your Medical Officer, your Security Chief, your Engineering Officer, and two redshirts! Anyone who isn't you, your Security Chief, or a redshirt is at -3 to their Skill in close combat, but the Medical Officer, Science Officer, and Engineering Officer can bring their special skills to bear in order to resolve the problems you face as you roam the strange galaxy you have found yourself in. The difficulty is that each time you beam down to a planet you have to pick a limited number of crew members to take with you - and if a crew member dies they get replaced by their assistant, who has a lower Skill score than them and can only cover the crew member's essential duties.

In addition to all this, there's the standard Fighting Fantasy combat system for hand-to-hand punch-ups, as well as extra combat systems for phaser shootouts and space combat. To enable you to jump into the adventure straight away (please God let us start the adventure straight away, rolling up crew members gets tedious), these rules aren't printed at the front of the book, but are placed in the last three paragraphs, which you are referred to whenever the relevant type of combat is initiated.

Gear

Does a starship, all of its contents, and the lives of its crew members count?

First Run

Ship: Weapons Strength 12, Shields 16.
Captain: Skill 9, Stamina 24, Luck 10.
Science Officer: Skill 7, Stamina 14.
Medical Officer: Skill 8, Stamina 16.
Security Officer: Skill 9, Stamina 20.
Engineering Officer: Skill 11, Stamina 20.
Redshirt 1: Skill 10, Stamina 20.
Redshirt 2: Skill 10, Stamina 16.

What the fuck, Spock? You're a bridge officer, you're meant to be better than the fucking redshirts! Damn it, your failure to not be crap in front of the enlisted men is an embarrassment to Starfleet; you, Bones, and Worf are all confined to the brig until your Skill score is better than a goddamn laser magnet's.

Ahem.

The structure of a Starship Traveller run is, naturally, heavily based on Star Trek - you fly from star system to star system, looking for the black hole that will take you home. Whilst this can be a bit tricky to map, it does at least make more sense than the map of Citadel of Chaos, since in this case you are just mapping the relationship between various points in space and there doesn't need to be "corridors" or anything like that connecting them.

Unfortunately, the space constraints of the format means that you can only explore each planet very briefly. Jackson does his best, making sure the various alien worlds you encounter are based around a strong central idea expressed fairly clearly and simply - there's a world where all the people are secretly androids, a world where a shipwrecked salesman of terraforming technology controls the weather and rules over the local savages like a god, a world where hallucinogens from an ancient bioweapon still contaminate the atmosphere, and so on - which is true to the original Star Trek series, but even then you never really get a chance to properly sink your teeth into any of the situations you encounter; as soon as you've interacted with something a little bit, it's already time to beam up and shoot off to the next planet. This problem is made even worse by the paltry number of paragraphs that make up this gamebook - 343 instead of the usual 400, and 3 of those are, as I said, devoted to explaining the various combat systems.

I didn't succeed in this runthrough - I didn't have the space and time co-ordinates of a suitable black hole to take us back to our home universe. (It would have been nice to know that that's what I needed to look for, but never mind). After you play for a while the crew's morale starts to deteriorate; this is your prompt to set the course for the black hole by subtracting the space co-ordinates from the time co-ordinates and turning to the relevant paragraph; if, like in this run, you don't have suitable co-ordinates then morale collapses, there's a few suicides, and the crew of the Traveller collectively decide to throw the ship into the nearest black hole on the off chance that it will work (it doesn't). This, frankly, is not very Kirk-like behaviour for a Starfleet captain; nor was my complete failure to actually get into any sort of combat situation during the entire course of this attempt. Somehow, the protagonist of Starship Traveller manages to channel Picard, even though The Next Generation wouldn't come on our screens for the better part of a decade.

Second Run

Ship: Weapons Strength 10, Shields 14.
Captain: Skill 11, Stamina 15, Luck 9.
Science Officer: Skill 11, Stamina 23.
Medical Officer: Skill 9, Stamina 20.
Security Officer: Skill 10, Stamina 22.
Engineering Officer: Skill 9, Stamina 18.
Redshirt 1: Skill 8, Stamina 14.
Redshirt 2: Skill 9, Stamina 18.

It became more and more obvious, as I played through this book, that having a decent Science Officer is of crucial importance, and that more options open up to you if you keep your problem-solving officers handy than if you take the redshirts down to the planet - which meant that in practice I never used my redshirts for anything. In practice, this also means that there's a greater risk that a crappy roll at game start will sabotage your game - because the number of rolls you make means that it is quite likely that at least one crucial officer will be an incompetent idiot.

In fact, there are a number of the problems with the system aspects of Starship Traveller. The Luck statistic is barely used, and indeed could probably have been dispensed with. Combat is sufficiently rare, and is sufficiently different each time thanks to the three different combat systems, that when a fight actually broke out I found that I simply couldn't be bothered to dice it out and just cheated and assumed that I won - it was too much of an intrusion on the fairly rapid and easy flow of the game.

There's problems with the plot, too. If you pick the wrong space and time co-ordinates at the end, you die instantly, so if you "play by the book" you don't get a chance to try any alternative co-ordinates you may have picked up. This seems mildly unfair.

Cheating

And so, midway through my third run, I gave up and decided to cheat, flipping through every paragraph n the gamebook to work out where the "correct" co-ordinates are. Doing so revealed that in order to get the co-ordinates you have to fight a really tough battle against a very powerful robot in an arena, and you have to navigate a frustrating extradimensional maze where you have a 50% chance of picking the wrong exit and suddenly dying. Being shanghaied into fighting in an arena or trying out someone's dodgy interdimensional experiment are clearly highly undesirable situations, and in fact in both instances if you play at all sensibly you can avoid them, so this is another one of Jackson's gamebooks where you have to play like a fucking moron in order to win. I am not fucking impressed.

The Canary Says


Gamebooks still, to my mind, have their place in this day and age, simply because the limitations of the format prompt the player to accept limited, and often highly linear gameplay, which in the world of computer games I find myself increasingly unwilling to accept. The one computer game genre that I would say is most similar to Fighting Fantasy books is the good old-fashioned text adventure, but at the same time a text adventure where I was limited to choosing my actions from a set list of options presented to me with the descriptions, and where there's no save game mechanic, would be frustrating and somewhat pointless - yet the gamebook format causes me to accept those very constraints without question. Furthermore, at least in a gamebook I am guaranteed of being able to progress the game state forward, even if it is towards an undesirable ending, whereas if you get stuck at a particular point in a text adventure all too often you can end up in a situation where you simply can't advance the game at all, because it's waiting for you to come up with a solution to the crucial puzzle which you need to complete in order to make the plot move forward.

That said, the earliest Fighting Fantasy books are a decidedly hit-and-miss bunch. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is fun, but if it had been book number 12 or 13 I probably would not have held it in such high regard; it gets a pass, to an extent, because it was the first. Forest of Doom is too easy, Citadel of Chaos is too arbitrary, and Starship Traveller is a poorly implemented experiment unbecoming of its author.

Both Jackson and Livingstone would have to improve their designs if the series were to thrive, and to their credit both of them did. After Starship Traveller, Jackson set about producing his magnum opus, Sorcery!, a mammoth adventure unfolding over four books, whilst the bulk of the next few entries in the core Fighting Fantasy series would be penned by Livingstone, and would include the adventure he is best known for (aside from Warlock) - the infamous Deathtrap Dungeon. Furthermore, with the publication of Scorpion Swamp the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook written by someone who wasn't one of the series founders would open the door to new talents expanding the series and taking it in a myriad different directions.

But Sorcery!, Deathtrap Dungeon, and Scorpion Swamp are subject for future Reading Canary adventures. In the meantime, if you want to read more account of random geeks playing through the Fighting Fantasy series, Fighting Dantasy is plunging his way through them right now. If you want to play some yourself, the original Puffin versions are often available in charity shops, and Wizard Books are currently putting out a reprint series, and have also started to produce new, all-original adventures!
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Comments (go to latest)
Guy at 08:43 on 2008-12-31
I *was* a kid in the UK in the 1980s, and this article gave me a real rush of nostalgia. I think the Citadel of Chaos was the first one I read, followed by the Forest of Doom. I loved them and the journey toward realising their limitations was a slow one for me... if I were going to play a gamebook series again, I'd probably pick the Cretan Chronicles - Bloodfeud of Altheus &c. For me, though, computer games have pretty much taken the place of gamebooks and it's hard to think of myself actually going back to them and playing them with enjoyment. I believe there are some software tools now that make it pretty easy to create "computer gamebooks", but I wonder if they would have the same appeal.
Arthur B at 12:07 on 2008-12-31
The majority of "computer gamebooks" I've seen seem to be pitched at people who remember playing flesh-and-blood gamebooks. I suppose the experience of playing them is a bit different - you don't have the option to cheat by jumping back a paragraph (unless they give you saved games), if there's a dice-rolling utility you lose the tactile pleasure of rolling your attacks, if there's a mapping utility you miss out on the joy of making your own map... but if the tactile elements of gamebooks and the ability to cheat aren't important to you, I can see them working. But I doubt they'd snag many people who don't remember gamebooks.
Wardog at 12:25 on 2008-12-31
Wow! The only Fighting Fantasy Book I remember with any sort of clarity is Creature of Havoc ... the only where you *don't have free-will* and thus an arbitrary chance of fucking up the game in the first few paragraphs. Joy.

On the other hand, I do tentatively recommend the "new" range of fighting fantasy. The one you bought Dan for Xmas - The Howl of the Werewolf - was both mappable and fairly sensible, in that you could muddle through assuming you didn't behave like a complete ninny. We managed to *miss the plot entirely* (d'oh) but on account of having done sensible things we still won, although kind of the manner of an idiot savant, having no clue what was going on.

The the prose was dire though, appealingly so, however. In the forests of the werewolf kingdom of LUPRAVIA no noun escapes without adjective.
Arthur B at 13:31 on 2008-12-31
Interestingly, Creature of Havoc is also a Jackson solo effort (I think it might even be his last contribution to the series). Clearly, being insanely arbitrary is part of Jackson's style.
Andy G at 15:31 on 2009-01-03
I also rediscovered gamebooks in a fit of nostalgia earlier this year, and I'm glad to see I'm not the only one. Though of the Fighting Fantasy, I tended to prefer the ones that were somehow a bit different - I liked The Crimson Tide (if only because the twist to the solution is so brilliant), Night Dragon, Master of Chaos, and one where you end up in some weird, creepy crystal dungeon. Oh and Creature of Havoc now that Kyra mentions it.

My favourite series though were the Lone Wolf and Virtual Reality series. The Lone Wolf ones (which you can get online at Project Aon) I liked because, although they are (in some cases) more linear and less varied than the Fighting Fantasy series, the solutions through the books are less arbitrary (because they're plot-driven, you tend not to die if you turn left rather than right) and you get to develop a single character with cool powers through the course of the series. There are some glitches with battles that are insanely easy/hard, but that applied to lots of the Fighting Fantasy ones too I think (I read somewhere that the sequel to Firetop Mountain is one of the few you can actually complete as a basic character).

The best series of all though is Virtual Reality series, which had six different books in different settings (a pirate one, Arabian nights, sci-fi, etc.) and had no random elements, just choices of skills. They somehow manage to weave countless different interesting ways through the story so that they were really replayable, without resorting to arbitrary "left or right" decisions, and were very entertaining and witty for gamebooks. My favourite of those is "Heart of Ice", which has numerous plausible endings and paths, and different ways of getting to all of them - so that, for instance, several different plot events could result in you getting a wasting disease, or in you acquiring a flying car, or discovering the secret of the Heart of Ice. Plus it had a very cool dystopian setting where the world had frozen over. It was written by Dave Morris, who has done lots of other random cool gamebooks (including for Knightmare and Hero Quest), though those were often a bit too short to really do anything interesting with the rules he came up with.

Looking forward to more Fighting Fantasy reviews!
Andy G at 17:18 on 2009-01-03
P.S. I do of course mean a fit of nostalgia last year.
Shim at 12:25 on 2009-01-04
As it happens, I found Warlock (TWOFM?) in the library a few weeks back and had a run through it. As you say, the little world is quite appealing, but it gets repetitive quite quickly. In some ways the simplicity itself is a problem as it doesn't allow many ways to deal with situations except Fight, Flee or (occasionally) Use a Specific Item. Marking your way through the maze, for example, would be a pretty obvious tactic. However, it was still reasonable fun.

There's also always a certain element of bemusement. Who are the two goblin guards, and what are they guarding? Why are they not, say, at the entrance to the mountain, where they could stop you getting in, as opposed to giving you a sporting chance to loot the place undisturbed? How does the boatman make a living from ferrying a handful of goblins across the river (if they ever do cross it), and what does he spend the gold on anyway?

Also I found it hard to take the Warlock as a credible threat, seeing as he just seemed to sulk in his mountain fortress and discourage people from coming in to mess around with his stuff. That's not a menace to the world as we know it, that's a teenager.
Arthur B at 14:12 on 2009-01-04
Also I found it hard to take the Warlock as a credible threat, seeing as he just seemed to sulk in his mountain fortress and discourage people from coming in to mess around with his stuff. That's not a menace to the world as we know it, that's a teenager.

I quite liked that aspect of the book actually - you weren't a do-gooder out to whack the guy on behalf of the forces of good, you were an avaricious treasure-hunter after the man's gold.

This, and I suspect a lot of the logical absurdities you mention, is (in my view) a relic of the original design goal of Warlock, which as far as I can tell was to provide a solo adventure meant to give people an idea of what a typical Dungeons & Dragons adventure of the era might pan out like, the better to sell Games Workshop's UK editions of the D&D books. I think it's significant that a sudden injection of plot and the odd attempt at verisimilitude entered the series almost immediately once Jackson and Livingstone were asked to write sequels; I kind of wonder whether they ever expected to write more than the one book.
Arthur B at 14:23 on 2009-01-04
In some ways the simplicity itself is a problem as it doesn't allow many ways to deal with situations except Fight, Flee or (occasionally) Use a Specific Item. Marking your way through the maze, for example, would be a pretty obvious tactic. However, it was still reasonable fun.

Thinking further about this, I suspect this part was, again, deliberate. In Jackson's Fighting Fantasy rulebook - the one which showed you how to use the Fighting Fantasy rules as a simple tabletop RPG system (and was the precursor to the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system, as set out in Dungeoneer, Blacksand, and Allansia) - he cites examples of instances in Warlock where there's an obvious thing you might want to try, but the limitations of the gamebook format mean that not every option can be covered, and points out that in a human-moderated tabletop RPG you can try anything you like.

In other words, I suspect the intent was to throw up situations where people say "man, I wish I could do X", at which point Jackson, Livingstone, Games Workshop staff or enthusiastic hobbyists within earshot can start the sales pitch for tabletop RPGs.

Basically, Fighting Fantasy is grooming material for nerds.
Shim at 18:40 on 2009-01-04
I quite liked that aspect of the book actually - you weren't a do-gooder out to whack the guy on behalf of the forces of good, you were an avaricious treasure-hunter after the man's gold.

Oh, I agree entirely. The motives of fantasy heroes are always highly suspect and that, at least, is one that doesn't make everything you do seem questionable. I suppose they had to throw a veil of "saving the world" over it to get it published. Did you ever play Icewind Dale II? There was an item called the "Adventurer's Handbook" with chapters like "Face it, you're actually Neutral Evil" which always struck a chord.

Basically, Fighting Fantasy is grooming material for nerds.

Shh! They'll be putting up awareness ads given half a chance.
Wardog at 09:51 on 2009-01-05
I remember How to Be an Adventurer - "Don't Put Your Hand in That Dark Hole" and so on and so forth. I wasn't ever madly into the Icewind Dale games, to be honest - although I did enjoy the "oldschool" feel of them.
Arthur B at 11:44 on 2009-01-05
I completely missed Icewind Dale.

Partly because I already had Baldur's Gate II and Planescape: Torment and Neverwinter Nights, and I never really had the impression that Icewind Dale would offer me anything beyond "Baldur's Gate, only with lots of snow and ice and stuff."

But mainly because Icewind Dale is the first-written of the Drizzt Dro'Urden fantasy bullshit trilogies by R.A. Salvatore, and No. Fucking. Way.
Shim at 18:42 on 2009-01-05
(caution, tangent) I've actually only played a few of the games. I got Baldur afterwards but the discs were dodgy, so I couldn't play most of the areas, and I found BGII frustrating. Mostly the long, irritating cutscenes, but also it seemed to ram home your inability to change the main storyline. The side bits were fun, though. In some ways IWDI seems the best. Okay, I preferred the updated rules in IWDII, but the travel aspects seemed much more random, just an excuse for varying the bad guys. IDWI felt a bit more coherent.
So far as I know, there's no actual link between the game and the cheesy novels, which I admit to reading. It's like easy listening music, only for my eyes. Sometimes I need that.
Shim at 18:43 on 2009-01-05
Incidentally, what did you think of Neverwinter Nights? I got it in a bargain bin last year, but I couldn't bring myself to finish even the first mission.
Wardog at 23:23 on 2009-01-05
Neverwinter Nights is basically a rather decent toolset with a crappy game attached - I've never made it through the original campaign because, well, it's as dull as hell and all the missions consist of "assemble the x pieces of y from these z locations." Urgh. However, the two expansion packs (the term expansion is rather misleading, they're almost entirely standalone adventures), Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark are fun, imaginative and genuinely worthwhile. Also the best thing about NWN is all the user-created content (check out Neverwinter Vault); I've played some damnably impressive and thoroughly enjoyable modules. Also I believe Dan used NWN for basically virtual D&D with a group of long-distance friends. In short: it's a wonderful tool but a terrible game.
Arthur B at 23:52 on 2009-01-05
As a participant in the same regular Neverwinter Nights game as Dan, I think this is a point that should be stressed: if you buy NWN and are playing the single player campaign, you're not seeing the game at its best. It shines at its brightest when you're running through one of the user-created multiplayer modules, especially if it's a DMed one; it's got all the fun of playing 3rd Edition D&D with all the heavy lifting taken care for you by the game engine.

In a way, I kind of wish they'd deliberately avoided adding a single player campaign to Neverwinter Nights. The one in the core game, in particular, does a fantastic job of giving people the wrong impression of what the product is all about.
Wardog at 09:14 on 2009-01-06
To be fair, some of the single player user-created modules are also excellent, if you don't like to play with others (like me).
Arthur B at 09:21 on 2009-01-06
True, but it's the multiplayer which transforms the game experience and turns it into something strikingly different from other Infinity Engine games. That there's actual decent single player modules out there is the icing on the cake.
Shim at 20:21 on 2009-01-06
Well, you've encouraged me to crack open NWN again and try it with one of the modules. Sadly my £2.50 version doesn't have the expansions. I've now remembered the other thing that put me off: maybe just a problem with my computer, but it plays rather jerkily, which makes things like walking over to start a conversation with someone (and not, say, accidentally breaking into the cupboard behind them) surprisingly difficult. "That was never a problem with the OLDER games", cries my inner curmudgeon. I'll try to adjust to the controls and see how it goes.
Shim at 20:23 on 2009-01-06
On topic for once, I found Deathtrap Dungeon in Oxfam and I'm having a play through that. I'll be interested to see your opinion.
Arthur B at 21:45 on 2009-01-06
Yeah, my old laptop theoretically had the specifications necessary to run NWN, but in practice it would overheat horribly unless I turned every graphic setting down to the minimum (and even then it would sometimes overheat anyway). If you don't have the expansions I think some of the user-created modules on NWNVault will work with just the basic game.

Deathtrap Dungeon will be in the next part of the review, along with City of Thieves, Island of the Lizard King, and Scorpion Swamp. I'll try to get it done in the next couple of months.
Shim at 23:42 on 2009-01-17
Okay, admission time. I've been playing about with NWN for a while, as suggested. Until yesterday, I fully intended to report back that the jerkiness and outrageous slowness of the game, even on "crudely rigged up by drunken work experience kid" graphics settings, were doing my head in and I couldn't take it any more, the Infinity Engine games were works of art and ran like lightning, why in my day...

On Friday, entirely unrelatedly, my computer ran an update and somehow (despite constantly telling me there isn't one) found and installed a new graphics driver for me. At this point I'd like to formally recant my comments on NWN's performance. It's running absolutely fine and I'm actually enjoying playing it (although a Ravenloft mod, not the real game, of course).
Arthur B at 15:00 on 2009-01-18
Hooray! Do make sure to let us know what the Ravenloft module is like; I always thought that RL was one of those campaign setting concepts which sound cool but never quite came across well in the official published material. It'd be nice if a user-created Ravenloft module ended up working better.

On-topic: Have completed City of Thieves. Was raped by an elf. Moving on to Deathtrap Dungeon. Part 2 is about 25% complete.
Wardog at 15:18 on 2009-01-18
Yay! I'm so glad it's working. I really enjoyed the two Ravenloft Modules, I thought you were genuinely atmospheric and had a lovely traditional feel.
Shim at 17:38 on 2009-01-18
I thought you were genuinely atmospheric and had a lovely traditional feel.

...I don't really know how to answer that one. Um, thanks?
Wardog at 19:54 on 2009-01-18
It's proof I should never even *try* to type on a Sunday.

But, yes, I'm sure you make all sorts of imaginative uses of the toolset...

Michal at 05:54 on 2011-10-01
I found a free copy of The Warlord of Firetop Mountain (don't ask where) a few weeks ago and was all excited to give it a play through, but after about half an hour I felt...um, rather silly and never finished. I think a lack of nostalgia goggles is a huge detriment here.

(Granted, I can't even get much enjoyment from computer games any more for some awful reason, so that might be a part of it. I mean, I used to play text adventures, so this should've been right up my alley!)
Michal at 05:02 on 2011-10-02
Er, Warlock, not Warlord. Now I feel even more silly.
Dan H at 12:25 on 2011-10-02
Warlord of Firetop Mountain sounds like an excellent sequel.
Arthur B at 13:16 on 2011-10-02
Well, if you play error-strewn bootleg editions like Warlord of course they won't be much fun. ;)
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