(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in September 2022)
There’s an entire generation whose first introduction to roleplaying was with Puffin’s “Fighting Fantasy” series or Bantam’s “Choose your Own Adventure” books. Now it’s possible to get lost in a variety of hyper-realistic fantasy worlds from the safety of your PC or console, but videogames weren’t quite as developed (no pun intended) back then. Take “Adventure” on the Atari 2600 for instance, a game in which your adventurous coloured square was tasked with exploring a vast exotic kingdom of differently coloured squares, fighting a variety of antagonistic oblongs en-route. Text adventures were popular, sure, but often they came across as a battle against the games text parser (“Take the rod.” “I do not understand ‘Take the rod’”) as opposed to a clash against the villain of the game.
There’s an entire generation whose first introduction to roleplaying was with Puffin’s “Fighting Fantasy” series or Bantam’s “Choose your Own Adventure” books. Now it’s possible to get lost in a variety of hyper-realistic fantasy worlds from the safety of your PC or console, but videogames weren’t quite as developed (no pun intended) back then.
Take “Adventure” on the Atari 2600 for instance, a game in which your adventurous coloured square was tasked with exploring a vast exotic kingdom of differently coloured squares, fighting a variety of antagonistic oblongs en-route. Text adventures were popular, sure, but often they came across as a battle against the games text parser (“Take the rod.” “I do not understand ‘Take the rod’”) as opposed to a clash against the villain of the game.
No, in my day (he said, sitting back with his whippet, tapping his pipe on the arm of the armchair) we had to use our imagination. My first actual experience of roleplaying was as a young wide-eyed interloper delivering a note to our school’s sixth form common room, watching a group of Coventrian Eddie Munsons (school ties displayed at a ridiculously short length, as was the style of the day) playing Cowboys and Indians. Not by running from room to room pointing finger-guns and doing vaguely offensive impressions of Native Americans, but sitting around a table with pieces of paper and a shitload of weirdly shaped dice. This was “Boot Hill,” the third roleplaying game from Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax, released in 1975. I stood there transfixed for a while before realising I had lessons to get back to, so I never did find out whether The Flamenco Kid and his band of outlaws managed to spring their old friend from jail. As a child given to daydreaming too much (as is apparent from the vast majority of primary and secondary school report cards), the idea of roleplaying appealed – but it seemed a bit elaborate and complicated, and my pocket money would never stretch to cover the amount of graph paper you needed to do it. (In the same way that Boots C15 cassettes were solely used for Spectrum and Commodore 64 game piracy, I would bet money on the fact that nearly all the graph paper sold in the UK in the eighties wasn’t used for mathematical purposes at all, but for drawing maps of castles and dungeons in fantasy kingdoms).
The aforementioned “Fighting Fantasy” and “Choose your Own Adventure” books functioned as a gateway drug. “Choose your own Adventure” books were on the scene first - with “The Cave of Time” released three years before “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain” – but came across as the inferior product. For one, they were aimed at a younger age group – primarily seven- to fourteen-year-olds who were reluctant readers. Secondly, they were way tamer – they featured less peril and “Fighting Fantasy” often featured gruesome illustrations of monsters or barbarians impaled on spikes. One must never understate how important this is in the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. Also, if given a choice between roleplaying as an intrepid scuba diver, a doctor, a race car driver – or a magic-wielding knight with a bastard sword, I’m always choosing the latter. Finally – and critically - “Choose your own Adventure” books were smaller. Less pages meant less choices, and less choices meant less re-playability. And when your pocket money could only stretch so far for a new title, the ability to start your book again and still have an entertaining – and critically different - adventure was paramount. The other advantage of “Fighting Fantasy”? They felt like proper games. There were rules (simple rules in comparison to most roleplaying games, but like I said – gateway drug) and there were dice to roll, and most importantly – there was a character sheet. Occasional books in the series changed the rules ever so slightly, but on the whole your adventurer had values against Skill, Stamina and Luck. The higher each value, the better your chances of surviving to the end. Combat was a war of attrition, with each combatant rolling dice and chipping away at each other stamina store. If that fell to or below zero, your adventure was over.
Most of the books from the original run were fantasy themed – a Tolkien or Moorcock-esque world of tunnels, trolls, dungeons, and dragons. There were deviations, however – the first into a world of horror in “House of Hell,” set in the modern-day world and pitting the protagonist against vampires, zombies, and ghouls. “Appointment with F.E.A.R.” saw the player play a superhero fighting supervillains, and “Starship Traveller” cast the player as the captain of a spacecraft trying to find the way back to Earth after being pulled through a black hole. The books were a phenomenon. Writers Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson became household names with readers and gamers alike, and like any role-playing game worth its salt, became controversial with religious groups because of the books links with the occult. One mother claimed that after reading one of the books her daughter gained the ability to fly, which seems terribly unfair, because all those years of reading Fighting Fantasy books gave me was poor eyesight. To add to the confusion, there’s a famous game designer in the States called Steve Jackson as well – designer of games such as “Munchkin” and “Ogre.” The “Fighting Fantasy” series only added to the chaos when they let that Steve write for them, only reiterating the cold hard fact that if two Steves (Stevii?) get together and their names are spelt the same, one of them is duty bound to be referred to as Steven. And now, 40 years since a brave adventurer ventured into the depths of Firetop Mountain to wrest a treasure from the grasp of a powerful Warlock, two new Fighting Fantasy games are released. “Secrets of Salamonis” is by Steve Jackson (our Steve Jackson, now honorary professor at Brunel teaching Digital Games Theory Design) and is his first gamebook in 36 years, and “Shadow of the Giants” has been written by Ian Livingstone CBE.
The first, “Secrets of Salamonis,” is a hefty tome indeed – 368 pages thick and hefty enough to use as a makeshift melee weapon. In “Salamonis” (which my spellchecker keeps trying to correct to “Salamis” which would involve infinitely more processed meat) you play a plucky young adventurer, travelling to the fabled city to try and make your fortune. It’s been a while since I read a “Fighting Fantasy” book, but it was good to see the ‘roll your character’ element has been removed from the game – now your statistics are fixed, rather than determined by the roll of a dice. This may have the drawback of making your character horribly generic, but also means you’re not lumbered with a six-stone unlucky weakling with the fighting prowess of a pygmy marmoset from the outset of your adventure. I got lumbered with that in real life, for Crom’s sake. My first playthrough reminded me how harsh these games can be. I’ll try my hardest to avoid spoilers but the game opens with a troll encounter during which I lost a hefty chunk of my stamina in a fight. The annoying thing is that this battle isn’t what it appears, but you still (unfairly, in my eyes) don’t regain the stamina you lost from it. A combination of poor dice rolls saw my character fail miserably at everything, eventually thrown in jail for ever with just a single point of stamina left. This short playthrough also – frustratingly – revealed a “bug” in the narrative where I could return to the same location and repeat an earlier encounter ad-infinitum increasing my “Amanour” (reputation) stat indefinitely. Either the city of Salamonis is prone to breaches in space/time or something wasn’t quite right – Admittedly having a lofty Amanour stat didn’t help me out of my misery-fest of a short existence in the city, but the Groundhog Day shenanigans dragged me out of the narrative. (Fans of “Fighting Fantasy” games might have wondered why I didn’t engage the book’s handy ‘quick save’ mechanism (where you keep your fingers on the page you left so you can cheat fate, go back, and make a different decision than the one that just lost you the game). In the case of my first playthrough, there was no single moment that cost me the game – just a depressing sequence of increasingly bad decisions and rolls). The opening segment is unfairly tricky, and – unless you take a very precise path – success or failure will come down to, at best, a 50/50 chance. From then on, the game opens out to you, but the beginning seems unnecessarily unforgiving – and any newcomer not used to the occasional unfairness of the world of “Fighting Fantasy” might well put the book down out of frustration. Once you’ve got your belongings back though, the game/book relaxes a little. There are a couple of mechanisms that give this a bit more depth than the Fighting Fantasy games I remember; a rudimentary experience system, for one, where you can upgrade your statistics – as well as pieces of equipment that modify some of the standard combat rules. That said though, there’s a ‘wheel of the week’ part of the character sheet where you’re often asked to mark the passage of time, but in my playthrough I didn’t come across anything that actually needed the day of the week. It’s well written, and the descriptions are suitably evocative. It’s a little light on decision making and a bit too heavy on your progression through the book having already been decided by the equipment you own or the encounters you’ve already had, but the entertaining story chugs along nicely. Tazio Bettin’s cover and black and white illustrations dotted throughout the narrative are suitably excellent, and – all in all apart from a few quirks – this jaded adventurer enjoyed his time on the streets of Salamonis.
The original “Fighting Fantasy” books were like currency in the playgrounds of the eighties, well-thumbed copies being leant and borrowed like packets of cigarettes in a prison yard. Character sheets bore the faded veneer of pages laden with dozens of pencil marks, and reeked of liberally applied rubber eraser. These pencil scars told of a million conflicts; battles won, traps evaded, gold earned. Real life character was formed by those decision-laden grimoires; were you a stickler who stuck to the rules, or a chancer who treated it as a straight narrative, winning all challenges by default without a single dice roll?
Imitators would come and go. Hopping on the bandwagon in 1996, IPC released “Diceman”, a spin off from 2000ad. This short lived publication was half comic/half game book, allowing the reader to step into the (one size too small) boots of Judge Dredd, or other characters from the popular British comic – Rogue Trooper, Nemesis the Warlock, and Hammerstein. “Dungeons and Dragons” creators TSR joined in with their “Endless Quest” books, choose-your-own-adventures set in the D&D universe. The “Fighting Fantasy” books evolved into the “Sorcery!” series, walloping thick books with more complex rules and narratives but, by then, much of the (male) audience was moving to bigger and better things. For some, girls. For some, Roleplaying Games. And they were getting more advanced, too. “Dungeons and Dragons” would see the release of a more complex second edition, and hack and slash dungeon crawlers were evolving beyond their natural habitats of moss-encrusted stone walls into new and vast sprawling realms. Systems (“Call of Cthulhu” and modern day spin off “Delta Green”) were introducing monsters that only could you not fight, but the sight of them would drive you insane. The worlds of fantasy and science-fiction were colliding in “Shadowrun,” and the Neuromantic dystopias from the works of William Gibson were springing into bio-engineered life (or your dining room table, at any rate) in “Cyberpunk.” Dungeons were being eschewed in favour of gothic mansions in games which might not involve a single combat roll at all, but the political machinations of Vampire Clans squabbling for territory. Every possible setting could now be played in – every setting – and if the one you wanted didn’t exist? Somebody was adapting it, or you’d do it yourself. And now we find ourselves in a position where the geeks actually did inherit the Earth. Roleplaying has never been as successful, with a succession of celebrities speaking out in favour of the hobby (Henry Cavill is a massive Warhammer fan and Vin Diesel has never hidden his love for Dungeons and Dragons) so once wonders whether “Fighting Fantasy” has a niche to fill anymore?
Ian Livingstone’s “Shadow of the Giants” is a thinner work than “Secrets of Salamonis.” For the 40th anniversary, it’s only fitting that it involves Firetop Mountain (previous tenant: Zagor the Warlock) and a lost artefact found within. Dark magic has released Iron Giants into the world, and the player must find a way to conquer these fearsome ferric fiends. We’re back to rolling to create our character in this one (although even the worst of rolls will make you stronger than your Salamonis equivalent, interestingly) and given a magic potion for good measure, and then we’re in the town of Anvil trying to buy a new sword. With a striking cover and excellent illustrations by Mike McCarthy, it kicks off with a nostalgic return to Firetop Mountain which ends in disaster. It’s certainly more accessible than Salamonis and a lot more forgiving for the reader – even bad dice rolls/luck rarely cause the book to abruptly end. The pacing is a little odd – no sooner are you told about the urgency of defeating the Iron Giants when your character suddenly seems more concerned about wandering around the city and window shopping – but the plot moves nicely along, and Livingstone paints a convincing picture of a bustling living city. The adventure gets more dangerous the further along you get, and there are spots where occasionally there is no right choice – both will end the game. That said, it’s a lot more nuanced with its endings than I was expecting. There’s a perfect win condition (after a hugely exciting multi-paragraph boss fight), but some bitter-sweet ones too – where you’ve saved the day but at a huge cost. It's more forgiving nature might make it less re-playable than the other title, but it’s a hugely entertaining adventure for your eight pounds. The story will take you from forest to dungeon, with a variety of memorable – and well-written – encounters on the way. Despite the big bad threat of the Giants on the horizon there’s extraordinarily little sense of urgency, but – critically for a choose your own adventure style book – you’ll always feel in control of your characters destiny, and will never feel the game is penalising you for the sake of it. “Shadow of the Giants” provides an entertaining quest, and you won’t regret reading it.
It’s been fun revisiting the worlds of “Fighting Fantasy,” and I might have to drag some of my old books out. The rules may seem a little old-fashioned now in a world where we’ve been spoiled by increasingly complex gaming systems, but they’re a throwback to a more innocent time and are part of the books immense charm. Losing rolling dice for your character creation in “Salamonis” – as explained earlier – makes profound sense, as the books involve more than enough luck with a dice roll anyway. Whether they’re still as valid now as they were 40 years ago? As opposed to a great many solitaire games, they’re easy to set up and effortlessly portable, and nostalgia is a powerful drug. Both these books – even with their odd foibles – were entertaining and very reminiscent of the original works, and it’s good to see them back on the shelves again. “Secrets of Salamonis” and “Shadow of the Giants” are released on September 1st, 2022, and are published by Scholastic. For some reason only known to mountain-dwelling warlocks, the former is currently ranked as the #1 book about Snooker on the Amazon Charts. May your stamina never fail! Recommend Reading/Viewing “You are Maggie Thatcher: A Dole-playing game” by Hunt Emerson – the aforementioned Diceman ended with issue 5, with an adventure that filled the whole issue. That was “You are Ronald Reagan: Twilight’s Last Gleaming!” written by Pat Mills with art by the excellent Hunt Emerson. “You are Maggie Thatcher” is a pseudo-sequel to that; bigger, better, more topical (back then) and funnier. “Life’s Lottery,” the 1999 work by Kim Newman is a rare example of Fighting Fantasy all grown up; Life’s Lottery is an adventure set in contemporary Britain. You’ll guide the protagonist Keith Marion from birth, with wildly differing consequences and storylines all dependent on your actions – sometimes seemingly trivial, at times epochal. Who would have thought that a decision about your favourite character from Man from UNCLE would be so influential on the rest of your existence? It’s part-thriller, part-horror, part kitchen sink drama, Franz Kafka meets Martin Amis. It’s never anything less than fascinating. Robin Johnson is not just an excellent chap, but also an interesting voice in electronic Interactive Fiction, and has a hefty back catalogue to work your way through at http://versificator.itch.io
The frustratingly talented and lovely Duncan Bradshaw has written a horror novel, and it’s a choose your own adventure. It’s called “Congratulations! You’ve Accidentally Summoned a World-Ending Monster. What Now?” and it’s well worth spending your hard-earned gold pieces on.