The Fighting Fantasy phenomenon sprouted from verdant, creative soil during the early-1980s. It grew in response to the need to satisfy the hunger of lonesome role-players and also to provide a means to attract new interest in role-playing in individuals who had never tried it before and couldn't be reached any other way. Role-playing, by its very nature, requires the interaction of at least two individuals – someone to play and someone to run the game. The Fighting Fantasy series of books provided the equivalent of Solitaire or Patience, the chance to play without needing anyone else to create the story and run it. It made novels interactive, to some degree, for the first time, allowing the reader to guide the direction of the story and to remain entertained at the same time.
What A Solo Adventure Game Book Is
In common role-playing the objective is to navigate the fate of a fictional character from the beginning of a story to the end of one, ideally with treasure, rewards and positive reputations making a strong appearance at the end. The basis of an adventure is normally a written guide, purchased or homemade, that outlines the location of the story, the characters involved and the events that will occur should certain choices be made as the game progresses. The players concentrate on guiding their characters through tricks, traps and combat, while the individual controlling the game acts the part of any other characters or monsters, keeping track of all the events and providing descriptions of everything from start to finish.
The Solo Adventure Game Book seeks to complete the task of the storyteller, taking a situation from start to finish and describing everything along the way. The average game book is divided into 400 chunks of text, numbered consecutively, from a few lines to several paragraphs long, which describe situations, people and events. At the end of most of the chunks, when a choice is presented, several options are offered with a reference to which chunk should be read next if chosen. Choices can range from something simple like – 'If you defeat the goblin, turn to 24. Otherwise, go to 300.' – to half a dozen options or more such as which items you decide to purchase from a Magic Shop.
There are events along the way that lead to terminal conclusions, like failing to beat the Goblin Guard or falling foul of a Spiked Trap, that offer some final words and a gloom-laden 'The End'. However, the gimmick of the Game Book is that you can always go back to the beginning and start again – or, more likely, return to the last option and choose a less terminal route. Seasoned readers tend to keep a lot of bookmarks, and casually assess combats as victories without recourse to troublesome dice-rolling.
A Brief History Of Fighting Fantasy Game Books
The creators of the Fighting Fantasy concept were Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, founders of Games Workshop in the UK. Published by Puffin, the series was released at an increasingly impressive rate over a period of 13 years, with about six books a year being the average.
The quality of the series varied from engaging fiction to utter rubbish, with illustrations on the same sliding scale to support it. All you needed was a pen or pencil, two six-sided dice and some scratch paper for notes – then you could expect hours to days of entertainment depending on your enthusiasm and your reading speed.
The concept gathered support, merchandise and numerous competitors over its 13 year run, representing something of a craze in the first few years of its existence. However, in the end, after 59 volumes, the publishers called it a day and withdrew the series from the shelves.
The Basic Fighting Fantasy System
Every book in the original series used the same system, with occasional variations. Each character was defined using three statistics – Skill, Stamina and Luck. The first represented prowess, combat ability, dexterity and guile. The second represented a gauge of health and the ability to keep going when wounded or stricken by poison or disease. The final statistic represented the hand of fate, a dwindling stock of good fortune that could be used to enhance the success of attacks. For instance, it might enable you to deliver greater damage with a single blow, or help you determine whether an action went right or wrong. If something bad happens to you, your Luck quotient may determine just how bad 'bad' is - there's a big difference between a grazed arm and one that's dismembered.
Skills and Luck normally rated a value between one to 12, adventurers starting with a number from seven upwards (a single dice roll plus six). Stamina rated from one upwards, with adventurers starting with anything from 14 to 24 (the roll of two die plus twelve). Particularly formidable opponents – usually the final villain of the piece, like a dragon or a mighty warlord – could have Skill values beyond 12 and Stamina above 24, but no one except adventurers normally had a Luck score.
The principle most of the time was simply to roll lower than one of the identified statistics with two die. In combat you rolled for your opponent(s) and yourself, victory coming to the side with the highest result. The loser deducted one or more points from their Stamina until nothing remained – the average loss being two points per strike. All statistics could be restored with Magic, Skill could be increased with quality weapons or armour, and Stamina could be restored with rest or food.
Games would occasionally include variations in the statistics recorded – including accumulating Honour, depleting Magic, running out of Time or acquiring new specialised skills which would enable you to move silently or to strike harder.
Below are details of all the original Fighting Fantasy Game Books, along with the year they were released, authors and illustrators (before and after the comma, respectively).
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982) - Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, Russ Nicholson
The Citadel of Chaos (1983) - Steve Jackson, Russ Nicholson
The Forest of Doom (1983) - Ian Livingstone, Malcolm Barter
Starship Traveller (1983) - Steve Jackson, Peter Andrew Jones
City of Thieves (1983) - Ian Livingstone, Iain McCaig
Deathtrap Dungeon (1984) - Ian Livingstone, Iain McCaig
Island of the Lizard King (1984) - Ian Livingstone, Alan Langford
Scorpion Swamp (1984) - Steve Jackson, Duncan Smith
Caverns of the Snow Witch (1984) - Ian Livingstone, Gary Ward and Edward Crosby
House of Hell (1984) - Steve Jackson, Tim Sell
Talisman of Death (1984) - Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith, Bob Harvey
Space Assassin (1985) - Andrew Chapman, Geoffrey Senior
Freeway Fighter (1985) - Ian Livingstone, Kevin Bulmer
Temple of Terror (1985) - Ian Livingstone, Bill Houston
The Rings of Kether (1985) - Andrew Chapman, Nik Spender
Seas of Blood (1985) - Andrew Chapman, Bob Harvey
Appointment With F.E.A.R. (1985) - Steve Jackson, Declan Considine
Rebel Planet (1985) - Robin Waterfield, Gary Mayes
Demons of the Deep (1986) - Steve Jackson, Bob Harvey
Sword of the Samurai (1986) - Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson, Alan Langford
Trial of Champions (1986) - Ian Livingstone, Brian Williams
Robot Commando (1986) - Steve Jackson, Gary Mayes
Masks of Mayhem (1986) - Robin Waterfield, Russ Nicholson
Creature of Havoc (1986) - Steve Jackson, Alan Langford
Beneath Nightmare Castle (1987) - Peter Darvill-Evans, Dave Carson
Crypt of the Sorcerer (1987) - Ian Livingstone, John Sibbick
Star Strider (1987) - Luke Sharp, Gary Mayes
Phantoms of Fear (1987) - Robin Waterfield, Ian Miller
Midnight Rogue (1987) - Graeme Davis, John Sibbick
Chasms of Malice (1987) - Luke Sharp, Russ Nicholson
Battleblade Warrior (1988) - Marc Gascoigne, David Gallagher
Slaves of the Abyss (1988) - Paul Mason and Steve Williams, Bob Harvey
Sky Lord (1988) - Martin Allen, Tim Sell
Stealer of Souls (1988) - Keith Martin, Russ Nicholson
Daggers of Darkness (1988) - Luke Sharp, Martin McKenna
Armies of Death (1988) - Ian Livingstone, Nik Williams
Portal of Evil (1989) - Peter Darvill-Evans, Alan Langford
Vault of the Vampire (1989) - Keith Martin, Martin McKenna
Fangs of Fury (1989) - Luke Sharp, David Gallagher
Dead of Night (1989) - Jim Bambra and Stephen Hand, Martin McKenna
Master of Chaos (1990) - Keith Martin, David Gallagher
Black Vein Prophecy (1990) - Paul Mason and Steve Williams, Terry Oakes
The Keep of the Lich-Lord (1990) - Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson, David Gallagher
Legend of the Shadow Warriors (1991) - Stephen Hand, Martin McKenna
Spectral Stalkers (1991) - Peter Darvill-Evans, Tony Hough
Tower of Destruction (1991) - Keith Martin, Pete Knifton
The Crimson Tide (1992) - Paul Mason, Terry Oakes
Moonrunner (1992) - Stephen Hand, Martin McKenna
Siege of Sardath (1992) - Keith P. Phillips, Pete Knifton
Return to Firetop Mountain (1992) - Ian Livingstone, Martin McKenna
Island of the Undead (1992) - Keith Martin, Russ Nicholson
Night Dragon (1993) - Keith Martin, Tony Hough
Spellbreaker (1993) - Jonathan Green, Alan Langford
Legend of Zagor (1993) - Ian Livingstone, Martin McKenna
Deathmoor (1994) - Robin Waterfield, Russ Nicholson
Knights of Doom (1994) - Jonathan Green, Tony Hough
Mage Hunter (1995) - Paul Mason, Russ Nicholson
Revenge of the Vampire (1995) - Keith Martin, Martin McKenna
Curse of the Mummy (1995) - Jonathan Green, Martin McKenna
There were rumours of a sixtieth book entitled 'Bloodstone' that never reached the shelves and Ian Livingstone believed that the talent existed to go on. However, the publishers thought otherwise.
Just as White Dwarf magazine served as a means to communicate news and ideas about the role-playing hobby in the UK, Warlock magazine came about in support of the expanding horizons of solo adventure game books. It was originally published by Puffin, like the books themselves, but later came under the auspices of Games Workshop.
Every few months (the magazine was originally quarterly and later moved to bi-monthly publication) Warlock provided a new 200-reference solo adventure, starting with draft versions of actual Game Books – like Caverns of the Snow Witch and the House of Hell – then presenting original works which never appeared in any other format. It also provided articles on developing characters, role-playing, new monsters and traps, and converting competitor’s Game Books (like Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series and JH Brennen's Demonspawn). There were reviews of books and news on upcoming products connected with the Fighting Fantasy label. There were also occasional board games, both for Fighting Fantasy and as crossovers with other games (like the Judge Dredd role-playing game).
Warlock ran for 13 issues before it finally vanished from the newsagent shelves. Some features - notably, the cartoon strip 'Derek the Troll' - were temporarily supported by White Dwarf, but these too rapidly dissolved into obscurity, most probably due to the different age group and market the magazines catered to.
The first independent series, taking the basics of the Fighting Fantasy system and adding an unusual spell-casting scheme, spanned four books that provided an extended adventuring campaign. The participant could play a warrior or a wizard (with weaker combat abilities and a range of spells to compensate) and was tasked with retrieving a magical crown from a malevolent Archmage. Without the Crown the adventurer's homeland would fall into chaos and the Archmage would be able to use the crown to rally the forces of evil to destroy anyone who might oppose him.
The spell-casting system was the most novel part of the series. Originally a separate, lavishly illustrated spell book was available, but later the information was integrated into the end of every book in the series. Each spell was identified by a three-letter code – like ZAP, POP or GOB – that was then followed by a spell description and details of any special focus or material component that was required to successfully cast the spell. The idea was that individuals playing the wizard character would spend time studying the spell book before playing and try to memorise the three-letter codes. Then, during the adventure, whenever the wizard needed to use a spell, a choice of codes would be offered. If the incorrect spell was chosen health would be depleted and nothing would happen. If the correct spell was chosen but the material component wasn't available, the spell would fizzle out and again health would be lost. Only if the correct code was chosen and the right focus was held would the spell be successful. The system was a welcome twist to the standard formula, but it did consume a lot of entries towards the back of the book with messages about failed casting attempts. It was also open to cheating, with frustrated players simply flicking over to the spell book to find out which codes were right and which were bogus.
Another cunning feature of the series was that you didn't need to have any dice handy to get going. Each page included a picture of two die in the corner, so after noting down which paragraph you were on you could flick through and stop at random – instant dice result.
The Sorcery! Spell Book (1983) – Steve Jackson, John Blanche
The Shamutanti Hills (1983) - Steve Jackson, John Blanche
Khare - Cityport of Traps (1984) - Steve Jackson, John Blanche
The Seven Serpents (1984) - Steve Jackson, John Blanche
The Crown of Kings (1985) - Steve Jackson, John Blanche
Clash Of The Princes
A further development of the Game Book phenomenon arrived in the form of a two-book boxed set, The Clash Of The Princes. This presented two intertwined storylines about a warrior and a wizard seeking to reach a conclusion before the other. Two friends could choose a book and set about having something of a shared adventure experience. The books included events that were unique to each book, but also presented points that linked the books and called for the participants to share information or wait for the other reader to catch up.
It was entirely possible to play the game solo, a very useful aspect as currently the books are most often found in second-hand and charity stores as single volumes.
The Warrior’s Way (1986) – Andrew Chapman and Martin Allen, John Blanche
The Warlock’s Way (1986) – Andrew Chapman and Martin Allen, John Blanche
Role-playing and the Riddling Reaver
While the Fighting Fantasy series provided a means to satisfy the interests of the single gamer it was not forgotten that role-playing was meant to be a group activity. As a result the series spawned a paperback rule book that outlined how the rules could be used to support normal role-playing sessions applied to a group of friends. The rules were simply little more than a slightly expanded version of those included in every copy of the game book series and were supported with a little advice on how to run games, and some story ideas to get the ball rolling. By and large, gamers were left to support their interests in this area themselves – though Warlock did, on occasion, publish adventures.
Some time after the rule book got some support in the form of another paperback detailing a campaign surrounding the antics of a scoundrel called the Riddling Reaver. The books provided a whole string of ideas and adventures that gamers could play as a campaign. However, this was the final entry in the simple Fighting Fantasy role-playing series.
Fighting Fantasy (1984) - Steve Jackson, Duncan Smith
The Riddling Reaver (1986) - Paul Mason and Steve Williams, Brian Williams and Leo Hartas
However, role-playing was not forgotten; it was simply taken to a higher level. The publication of the somewhat larger format paperback Dungeoneer expanded considerably on the basic rules of the series and previous Fighting Fantasy role-play books. It included information on specific character classes, a magic system for both wizards and clerics and rules for managing combat and the environment – all the trappings of an actual role-playing game. There were brief details of various monsters, along with an adventure carefully engineered to get the complete beginner started. The tone throughout was one of motherly support with an emphasis upon a cinematic viewpoint of how gaming should work.
Dungeoneer was supported by previous material that had been produced as companion volumes to the Fighting Fantasy series – Out of the Pit, a monster manual, and Titan, an overview of the world in which all the Game Books were set – and was followed by further books in the same format. The second book, Blacksand! concentrated on expanding all the previous rules and provided another adventure set in Blacksand, the city of villainy that first appeared in City of Thieves.
The final book, that followed four years later, provided more detailed background on the area of Titan called Allansia – setting of the majority of the Game Books – with specific sections on major settlements, famous and notorious individuals and various myths and facts about the history of the region.
Out of the Pit (1985) - Marc Gascoigne, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone
Titan (1986) - Marc Gascoigne, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone
Dungeoneer (1989) - Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn, John Sibbick
Blacksand! (1990) - Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn, Russ Nicholson
Allansia (1994) - Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn, Russ Nicholson
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Games Workshop's link with the Fighting Fantasy series was strengthened when ideas turned to board games. Warlock magazine had included some simple ideas for board games using Fighting Fantasy rules and settings, like bar room brawls or simple problem-solving ventures, but nothing more had been developed.
The game included a huge board representing the Warlock’s dungeon along with a pile of encounter cards. Players assumed the roles of various adventurers, scored using a statistic system that emulated the rules of the Game Books, who could roam the dungeon fighting its guardians and gathering treasure before facing off against the Warlock himself.
A multi-player game in its released format, Warlock included rules to support solo play.
The Legend of Zagor Board game
The Warlock wouldn't stay dead and returned again to seek vengeance upon the land of Allansia. Released in 1993, backed by Game Book #54 and a novel series, and produced by Parker Bros./Hasbro, The Legend of Zagor was the brainchild of the Warlock of Firetop Mountains creator, Ian Livingstone, and featured some innovative features at the time.
It was basically a dungeon adventure game with a plethora of plastic monsters. There was also a special dice mechanism that spoke. The board was made of three pieces joined by bridges and the third was the residence of the Warlock, Zagor, who awaited anyone capable of surviving the rigours of his dungeon. It included a 40k memory chip that controlled the action and Zagor's voice called out commands, controlling combat between players.
Its popularity was restricted by a considerable price tag for the time – even though it was released in plenty of time for Christmas 1993.
During the mid-1980s the computer-based text adventure was going through a period of great popularity, so game books were a natural conversion to the medium. The format presented the perfect vehicle for reasonably simple conversion, blocks of pre-chopped text that could just be typed in and connected by whatever passed for text-command recognition at the time.
Several books were converted to Commodore 64, Amstrad, BBC, and Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K formats, but no original adventures appeared.
- The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
- The Citadel of Chaos
- The Forest of Doom
- Temple of Terror
- Seas of Blood
- Appointment with F.E.A.R. (unreleased)
- Rebel Planet
- Sword of the Samurai (unavailable)
Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone (FIST)
Another uniquely '80s phenomenon was the telephone adventure. Solo adventures were translated into sounds and voice-overs that could be heard over the phone. Choices were selected by hitting keys on the phone and combat was normally achieved through a random number system that, again, involved a lot of keypad poking.
FIST was a dungeon adventure with myriad characters and treasures, and the promise of winning actual gold coins at the game's conclusion. It was possible to find out who was doing well from hi-score tables and you could save your position, placing the character into Limbo, and return again later however many times you wanted. FIST spawned a sequel and a plethora of other companies tried variations across different genres, from horror to science-fiction.
A later development was a gladiatorial games adventure with focus on combat over adventure, phone-calls filled with grunting sounds and descriptions of terrible injuries.
The obvious downside of the phone-based adventure for the avid user was the cost. At launch the basic cost per minute was 25 pence off-peak (approximately 6pm to 8am) and 38 pence during peak hours. This could easily result in a considerable bill at the end of each month - and a considerable headache for parents.
In its time Fighting Fantasy also spawned two novel series, jigsaw puzzles, visual puzzle books (like The Tasks Of Tantalon), collected boxed sets, miniatures by Games Workshop's own Citadel, ornaments by Clarecraft Designs Ltd (best known for their models of Terry Pratchett's 'Discworld' characters), and an adventure kit which included dice and a pack of character sheets.
Ultimately, like any other fad, the Solo Game Book phenomenon came and went. It reached the height of its popularity during the late 80s before gradually trailing off into the 90s. While the final book in the Fighting Fantasy series was published in 1995, the books remained on the shelves for a few more years before being pulled out of circulation. Secondhand copies can still be found in many bookstores, the distinctive light green spine with the book title and number in the series makes them very easy to spot.
Whether there will be a renaissance in the genre is questionable. There have been attempts at different kinds of Game Book with different approaches and gimmicks, but nothing has lasted quite as long as the Fighting Fantasy craze. There is support on the Internet from a whole range of sites, bulletin boards and web rings, so enthusiasts can still find somewhere to voice their interest and keep the concept alive. Livingstone and Jackson have moved on to greater things (and significant sun tans), but who's to say how long the royalties will hold out!
Related BBC Links
Make a Witch or Wizards Hat with Face Mask for the ultimate role playing experience.