A personal digression

Let me telling you something, it was not easy to be a pre-teen in a rural Irish village in the 80s, especially if you had working class parents and a burning desire to slay dragons. Computers, even tape-loading 8-bits, were way outside of my family’s humble means, so the wonderful world of Infocom and Level 9 was closed to me. I made a couple of primitive attempts at role-playing with my cousins, but they tended to go like this:

You enter a large stone hall. There is a locked door to the North.

I want to pick the lock.

You’re a paladin, you can’t pick locks.

What’s a paladin?

I don’t know, but they have big swords and THEY CAN’T PICK LOCKS!

This is stupid.

No, keep playing, there’s a dragon in the next room.

Wah! Dragons are scary!

And so on. When I picked up The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain from my local library, I had no idea that it would address any of my problems. I began reading it on a Sunday afternoon, curious as to why a book would require a pencil and dice.

A couple of hours later, I emerged from my room, shaking and confused. I had the early stages of RSI from rolling dice. I had no idea how to pronounce the word “initial”. I had been eaten by a minotaur while in my own bedroom. I tried to explain all of this to my parents, but they simply couldn’t understand that a deep seismic shift had just taken place in their young son’s world.

An adventure in which YOU are the hero!

The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were a series of multiple choice adventures fathered by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, and published by Puffin Books in the UK between 1982 and 1995. God, they were so much more than that. At their best, Fighting Fantasy were the pinnacle of the form – truly interactive fiction where the reader is giving the building blocks with which to construct their own story.
The books began with the game rules, which were largely unchanged from adventure to adventure, but which were always re-read each time, as a kind of purifying mantra (“Roll a dice to determine your SKILL. Add 6. This figure is your Initial Skill”). Occasionally a new gameplay feature, such as a new combat system or a set of selectable skills, was included. This had the same effect on a young reader/player as suddenly finding a new limb attached to your body.
Next up came the Character Sheet. This was the part of the book where you were supposed to write your stats, although pencil marks on the character sheet was the sure sign of a Fighting Fantasy novice (real FF freaks had a stack of copybooks with the character sheets lovingly reproduced multiple times).
After that followed 2-3 pages of plot exposition. Apart from a handful of noticeable classics, this could largely be ignored. The real action was on the next page in Reference 1. This was usually about a page and a half, at the end of which were a couple of simple options, such as:

You stand at a crossroads.

To go down towards the village, turn to 134
To head North into the mountains, turn to 68
To explore the forest, turn to 351
And after that…nothing. No more passive sitting back and letting the story be told to you. You had to decide what happened.

The stories were broken up into 400 references (always 400, unless Steve Jackson was behind the wheel) with an average length of about 50 words per reference. This length was perfect. It made the game playable in the length of the average school bus ride, unlike some of the epics attempted elsewhere in the genre. It also allowed a lot more story development than the limp-wristed Choose Your Own Adventure series.
(An aside about Choose Your Own Adventure

A local bookshop bought in some volumes from the Choose Your Own Adventure series, possibly for me. After two years they were reduced to 20p. I eventually bought them because they looked so sad. I would still like my 60p back.)
Skill, Stamina and Luck

A 250-page book is a pretty limited medium, and part of the genius of Jackson & Livingstone is stripping down a full-scale RPG so that it would fit comfortably. Again, this is something other people got wrong: many tried to include the full D&D stats set (doesn’t work), while the shandy-drinking CYOA series ignored stats altogether.

Jackson & Livingstone selected 3 important stats and ran with them. Skill & Luck were 1 dice +6 (i.e. 7-12), while Stamina was 2 dice +12. Your initial figures could never be surpassed during the game, although things could happen to affect your initial level. There was of course no levelling up or gaining of XP during the game.

Skill was your combat skill, and almost never change. You often picked up things that gave you +1 Skill, which were useless as you were stuck at your initial level, and writers seemed to have a strange aversion to ever lowering your skill. Stamina counted as hit points, and fluctuated wildly during a game, but could be replaced by provisions and potions (med packs and pep pills in the sci-fi books)

Luck was a really interesting one. “Test your luck” is a phrase that I use an awful lot to this day, and involved rolling two dice. Less than or equal was Lucky, more than your luck was Unlucky. Here’s what’s odd – every time you rolled, you lost one luck point, increasing your odds of being Unlucky next time. This, more than anything else I learned from Fighting Fantasy, is something that has proven to be largely true in the outside world.

You are attacked by a HOBGOBLIN!

The combat system was remarkably simple. When you encountered an enemy, you saw something like this:
HOBGOBLIN Skill 7 Stamina 6
You rolled two dice, added it to your skill, rolled another pair and added it to their skill. Lowest score loses 2 Stamina points. Repeat until someone is dead. If you fancied, you could Test Your Luck at any time, which would half damage to yourself or double damage to your opponent. Some enemies asked you to stop when their Stamina reached a certain point, and the early books usually allowed you to escape at the cost of 2 Stamina

Several other combat systems appeared, such as the ship-to-ship combat in Starship Traveller, but this basic system appeared in every single book. Fighting multiple enemies had a complex turns system, but in most occurrences this was negated by a line that said “Fight your enemies one at a time”. This may have been included due to a misguided belief that the readers had anything better to do.

Under the enemy stats was the line “If you win, turn to 83”. If you lost, there was nothing to stop you going there anyway, but as my old teacher said, “you’re only cheating yourself”.

THE BOOKS (A rough guide)

#1-#7 – Initial Books (1982-1984)
The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain still remains the quintessential example of the genre and set the template for the gamebooks to come. It took a surprisingly long time to spawn a sequel, The Citadel Of Chaos. This was largely Firetop Mountain redux, except it had some ace monsters and started the “X of Y” naming scheme to be used later in the series. About 90% of these first two books were written by Steve Jackson, who also wrote the first sci-fi book, Starship Traveller. The rest were Ian Livingstone solo works. The Forest Of Doom was a fairly pleasant stroll through the woods, City Of Thieves was neatly claustrophobic, and Deathtrap Dungeon was an instant hit with the fans. Island Of The Lizard King seemed to be written to meet some kind of Lizardman quota in genre fiction (see also: Soul Calibre)

#8 - #15 – Sharecroppers of Doom (1984-1985)
The first book not to be written by Steve Jackson or Ian Livingstone was written by another Steve Jackson, confusingly. Scorpion Swamp had a neat trick where you could choose an alignment and complete a corresponding quest, but that’s not enough to stop some fan sites dismissing it as “childish”. Because, of course, Island Of The Lizard King was like Anna Karenina with a combat system. Mark Smith & Jamie Thompson, who would later go on to write the excellent The Way Of The Tiger series with ninjas and stuff, wrote the compelling Talisman of Death, while Andrew Chapman gave us a really good sci-fi epic in Space Assassin. His The Rings Of Kether deserves mad props for being a noir-ish thriller and introducing children everywhere to the wonderful world of drug smuggling. Not everything was farmed out during this phase, with the two big boys showing what they were capable. Livingstone wrote Cavern Of The Snow Witch, which was detailed and linear, and Freeway Fighter, which showed that Ian Livingstone should not write sci-fi. Steve Jackson gave us House Of Hell, which was mind-bending, scary and genuinely tricky.

#16 - #23 – If you wish to explore further, turn to 179 (1985-1986)
There was a real attempt to branch off from the GET KEY, OPEN DOOR, SLAY TROLL linear game format of before during this era, and many of the books tried to tell real stories. Seas Of Blood had pirates way before they were cool. Trial Of Champions was Deathtrap Dungeon, only better (seriously – it was the same dungeon). Sword Of The Samurai was a truly outstanding Japanese epic and introduced the word “katana” to my vocabulary. Sci-fi was at it’s peak during this time, with Robot Commando and the mighty Rebel Planet. But the absolute stand-out is Steve Jackson’s Appointment With F.E.A.R. This was FF’s big nod to Marvel, based in a Metropolis-like city filled with fiendish supervillains. You could choose one of four superpowers at the start, from which you would get four completely individual stories. It was immensely fun and genuinely difficult – I honestly don’t think I ever completed it with Super Strength.

#24 - #29 – Add +2 to all future rolls (1986-1987)
Truly these were the best of times. This run featured the best gamebook by a country mile in the form of Creature Of Havoc. Puzzling, violent, difficult, occasionally moving and deeply metaphysical, it took weeks to crack this one as you played a brute beast, sifting through codes and clues in an attempt to regain his humanity. Sadly, Steve Jackson went off and got a proper job after this and never wrote another.

The other stuff was good too. Beneath Nightmare Castle had my favourite monster ever, a weeping girl trapped in magical armour that forced her to fight. Livingstone wrote his definitive book in Crypt of The Sorcerer and Robin Waterfield introduced his readers to conciousness-altering drugs in Phantoms of Fear. Midnight Rogue appeared to be set in Ankh-Morpork, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Graeme Davis also contributed the unloved Star Strider, and was never asked back. Come on guys, it allowed you to navigate the London Underground on a hoverboard! It was great!

#30 - #37 You are filled with a strange feeling of doubt (1987-1989)
Did the books get worse, or did I just get older? All I know for sure is that Battleblade Warrior was desperately dull, as were Slaves Of The Abyss and the truly execrable Portal Of Evil, which appeared to be a moster-laden retelling of the Welsh miner’s strike. It wasn’t all bad though. Sky Lord seemed to be written while under the influence of something very, very illegal, and Livingstone’s attempt to gamebook-up Warhammer, Armies of Death, was jolly good fun.

#38-#42 Suddenly, you are attacked by a NINTENDO! (1989-1990)
At this point, pressure from computerised systems must have been unbearable on the poor guys. Steve Jackson appeared to have given up on the enterprise entirely and Ian Livingstone was only checking in when he had nothing better to do. So, Vault Of The Vampire trundled out, instantly winning the trophy for Silliest Cover Ever (narrowly beating out the fat transexual on The Rings of Kether). The book was equally silly, requiring you to sleepwalk your way into Dracula’s crypt. Dead Of Night was a surprise, being genuinely creepy and playable, and Black Vein Prophecy wasn’t too bad, but the energy seemed to be leaving the series.

#43-#59 For you, the adventure ends here. (1990-1995) I don’t know if these books were bought, dissected, replayed and loved in the same way by a new generation of gamers, or if they were ignored for electronic pleasures that you could slot into your Sega or Nintendo. For me, I was a bit too old to be seen hanging out in the kid’s section of the bookshop (and too young to be seen in bookshops in general, but that’s a story for another day) so I never got to find out for myself. There are two more Ian Livingstone books here though, both featuring Zagor again. Fansites swear to me that The Legend Of Zagor is the best gamebook ever, and not just an attempt to lure in dyslexic Zelda fans.

I’d have to read them to find out for sure. And I will. If I ever stumble across them in a second-hand store or a car boot sale, I’ll pick them up and give them a whirl, although I may not bother with the dice. Dodgy wrists these days. And who knows? A couple of years from now, I may pass them on to my daughter. She’ll probably hate them, and demand Final Fantasy 83 for the PS6. But maybe I’ll hear the clatter of dice from her bedroom, and the frantic turning of pages, and I’ll know that SHE is the hero.

As you prepare to set off on your quest, some of the villagers speak to you...

Hazelnut says Actually, I can recommend some of the FF books from #43 onwards, Legend of Zagor is class because you get to pick one of four characters with different abilities and objectives, and Moonrunner (48) was heavily inspired by Hammer Films...