May 24th, 2009
You are nine years old, and have a small amount of pocket money to spend. You are standing in a generic branch of WH Smiths in the South east of England. It is the summer holidays, and you have been dragged around the shops on a Saturday afternoon by your Mum. Finally it is your time to shine. Do you:
Buy some kind of worthy children’s book about wartime orphans or brave hamsters ? (Go to p46)
Save the money so you can buy something big and cool in a few weeks, like a Transformer? (Go to p71)
Buy yourself a Fighting Fantasy game book? (Go to the rest of this article…)
Roll the dice, fight the orc. It features in a lot of young, mostly male, lives. Unlike a lot of people I never really ventured into RPG’s. It all seemed like a bit too much effort and concentration. I did however, obsessively buy the Fighting Fantasy books series for a good few years. I absolutely adored those books, and spent many a long afternoon immersed in the worlds conjoured by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. Forget the candy-assed world of Choose Your Own Adventures ( a series that were so vanilla that they were deemed acceptable by my school library), FF books were the real deal. You always played some hardcore goblin-slayer or mercenary, and the frequent fights were bloody, brutal skirmishes which could be won or lost at the flick of a wrist. Death lurked around every corner, your fate could change in an instant. They seemed dangerous, complex and more importantly they were chock full of beasts, monsters and supernatural creatures of infinite variety. The alluring and alliterative titles invoked a dark and twisty world, waiting to be traversed by the intrepid gamer: Rebel Planet, Scorpion Swamp, Slaves of the Abyss; in their own sweet way they had the same pull for me that the splatter and exploitation videos would have for me later on.
There were two ways you could play these books. The honest way was to obey the rules, and to take your destiny like a man. If you chose to go to a page that resulted in you falling into a pit of spikes, so be it. Pull up your boot straps and head back to the beginning of the book. Likewise if a battle with a Marsh Wraith went unexpectedly against you, tough shit. That’s the way of the warrior. The other way was of course to hedge your bets and sneak ‘accidental’ glances at some of the other options that you might have chosen. Or if a dice roll resulted in some jumped up little forest sprite besting you, then fuck it, roll again. The first roll was an accident. Initially I practiced the first method, and would make my way through the book in a puritanical fashion, dying and being reborn like a Buddhist cockroach. But as time (and patience) wore on I began to favour the latter approach in my rampant desire to get to the end of my quest. Guilt would occcasionally consume me and I remember a couple of times actually exclaiming out loud “Ooops my hand slipped, better roll again”, as though some Divine presence might conceivably be watching my indiscretions and duly earmark me for a fast train to Hell. For the most part I settled on a happy medium of the both, entirely dependent on my mood.
Before beginning your adventure you had to determine exactly how much mettle you possessed, establishing the holy trinity of SKILL, STAMINA & LUCK through the roll of the dice. Now this was a nerve-wracking moment – bad rolling here and you were in an extremely weak position for the duration of the quest. Naturally enough it was a time for some judicious cheating. There was absolutely no way you were going to spend your adventure with STAMINA 14 when you might end up facing off against a two-headed lizard warrior. (Pop fact – my friend was in a band called SKILL 7, STAMINA 12 which made me very happy). Unless I’m much mistaken a few books also had MAGIC as an option, but generally the core three were enough to get by. Any disruptions to the general system of game play often resulted in imaginative but overly convoluted books like Phantoms Of Fear, or in the baffling combat system of Robot Commando (a somewhat uninspired riff on Transformers). There wasn’t a better feeling than setting out with a full 24 STAMINA, and it often encouraged ludicrous displays of bravado. Any excuse to hack something into tiny pieces was embraced with glee, although early foolhardiness would often lead you to come a cropper if you made it the end of the book and had to face the Big Bad all un-STAMINA’d.
These books could only have existed in a time before computer games had taken hold of the gaming market so thoroughly. Trying to get a kid to play one of these when they could be blowing the shit out of fully rendered 3D bastards on HALO 3 would be a pretty thankless task. Nonetheless they were pretty popular and well loved for a while, and will probably always retain a special corner of the heart of males of a certain age. The best part of FF novels though, for me, was the cover artwork. These wonderfully evocative images, painted by some of the cream of British fantasy artists (including Les Edwards, Ian Miller, Chris Achilleos and Iain McCaig) enthralled me as a kid. I’d stare for hours at them, and they inspired my own endless drawn re-imaginings of Bloodbeasts and Skeleton warriors. Alongside Asterix books and 2000ad, they were probably the strongest cultural influence I had as a pre-teen. As a tribute I’m going to run through a selection of my favourites…
Deathtrap Dungeon was the first FF book I ever bought. My older brother already had The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, but as this one was mine it was clearly way better. That cover pretty much cemented my addiction to these books in one fell swoop. I mean fucking look at it! That is one horrible, glorious, disgusting beast. Obviously the myriad eyes and slavering, jagged mouth register pretty strongly, but it’s that vile swollen, glistening belly that really sticks in the mind. Imagine ending up trapped in a room with that horrible bastard! It’s painted by Ian McCaig, I think, and is one of the strongest covers in the series. After the slightly trad Tolkien-esque style of Warlock.. and the curious simplistic pop art mis-step of Citadel of Chaos, it’s much more representative of the style and flavour of the early FF book covers. Forest of Doom (at the top of the page) and City of Thieves (another humdinger, featuring one of the best evil skeletons ever) were all by McCaig, and he was my early favourite artist. His classical, highly detailed style, with a real penchant for drawing nasties really struck a chord.
Island of the Lizard King was one of the strongest concepts of the early books, and really worked as an adventure. This was mainly due to the fact that the Lizard King and his Lizard warriors were totally bad-ass. They looked fucking cool, and were really hardcore. With their high SKILL & STAMINA they proved worthy and often deadly opponents. As I recall there was a particularly evil two headed one who was some kind of slave overseer. In a riff on Planet of The Apes, Island of The Lizard King featured humans as the victims, a terrified underclass ruled over by the sadistic reptilian overlords. It was particularly satisfying therefore smiting one of the fuckers in some heady dice rolling combat.
That is a great cover though; strong, dynamic and ever so slightly erotic. Seriously, there’s some definite glee to the way that the artist has delineated that Lizard man’s torso. Add a black panther and POW, instant 70′s porno chic.
I think more than any of the other early FF covers House of Hell had the most impact. Featuring the wonderfully twisted style of Ian Miller, it is alluring and repellent in equal measure. House of Hell was a raucous, lurid romp – it gleefully homaged both the cheese of Hammer horror movies and the splatter of the 1970′s Italian mondo-horror. It was also one of the few books set in a seemingly contemporary world. In it you played a lost traveller, who ends up seeking refuge in the proverbial bad place, and things went from bad to worse as the eponymous House began to reveal it’s terrible labyrinthine depths. It was, quite frankly, nuts not to mention a whole lot of fun.
That cover is amazing though. Ian Miller is a genuinely unique illustrator, and earns instant kudos for providing backgrounds to Ralph Bakshi’s trully bonkers animated film Wizards (a film featuring wizards, Nazi’s and Amon Duul – I think it might be Lord Nuneaton’s favourite movie…) His maddeningly intricate, grotesque line-work has adorned many fantasy and sci-fi novels since the 70′s and his work on the FF books is totally individual. As a kid he wasn’t my favourite but as time has passed I appreciate his stuff more and more. I always loved House of Hell – I particularly dig the way he’s taken the archetype of the mist swathed old house and adds his own demented twist. He totally nails it. That blue/green colour scheme is simply perfect.
Please also note the classic green band at the top of the book making an appearance. this would remain for a number of books to come, and enhanced the collectability of them for me no end. That sense of uniformity appeals to the inner OCD inside us all…
A real curio this one. Firstly because it’s the one and only appearance for Brian Bolland on cover duties – I’m sure the eagle-eyed will have clocked that instantly. Secondly Appointment with F.E.A.R is the one and only FF book that dealt with superheroes. To be honest it’s not one of the best – the superheroics come off as unwieldy and slightly cliched. The FF books occasionally tried deviating from the basic Fantasy/Sci-Fi formula but it rarely worked out. It’s a nice idea though , and the title of the book is absolutely killer, creating precisely the right pulpy melodramatic atmosphere. Bolland’s note-perfect illustration only reinforces this. Colour scheme, dramatic lighting and the look of the evil super-scientist are all spot-on. Love the future retro stylings too.
What the fuck, exactly, is he doing though?
There were a few attempts at seafaring adventures, most notably the Sinbad-esque Seas of Blood, and this one Demons of The Deep. To be honest I can’t remember too much about this one – pirates, giant squids and sharks I guess – but the cover is brilliant. That is just one deeply cool undersea weirdie. It’s got a quasi-Lovecraft vibe, and I love the idea that it’s made up of the bones of mariners lost to the depths. Fucking big axe too. The lighting of the bubbles in the water is lovely. You get a real sense of scale and motion. It always stayed with me this image.
Another Ian Miller job here. there’s something very John Dee about this image, with a real touch of the Bosch about it too (check out the little homunculus on the desk). It’s a relatively restrained image for Miller, but it’s nicely composed and infused with an appropriate air of mystery and menace.
I mainly included it though, because Creature of Havoc (again what an utterly excellent title) was one of my absolute favourite FF books. This was mainly because it had such a strong high concept. In it you played as a beast of some considerable strength and ferocity, who awakens at the start of the book imprisoned and with no idea who or even what you were. It was one of the most utterly original ideas in the series and it made a refreshing change to deviate from the usual stern warrior archetype. You could pretty much shape your own destiny – were you going to be a nice monster or a nasty one. At the heart of the book was an essential quest for identity that made it both thought provoking and genuinely engaging.
Crypt of the Sorcerer has been included mainly because the main bad guy (the eponymous Sorcerer, can’t remember his full name) was a particularly evil fucker. Also one of the most disturbingly designed with his malformed, distorted physiology and sadistic grin. He’s a step up up from that old Warlock from Firetop Mountain that’s for sure. I seem to remember his pervasive corrupting presence was areal blight on the land, so it was a good job I lopped his head off really. It was also one of the few books I remember completing honestly, so I wanted to mention it as a point of pride.
Also note the jazzy new logo surrounding Ian Livingstone’s name. A major design turning point.
One of the sci-fi additions to the series this. There were a number of science fiction FF books, from the classics Starship Traveller and Space Assassin, to the Mad Max rip-off Freeway Fighter. They were often not quite as successful as the fantasy books, but did provide a nice change of scene from all those Black Elves and Snow Witches. I chose Star Strider not because I remember it being an overly good book, but more because that is easily the most ludicrous cover thus seen in the series. It is also massively cool. I mean, seriously, look at that fucking….thing! Let’s just run through the checklist shall we? Horns? Check. Flying surfboard? Big gun? Check. Laser sword? Check. Cape? Check. Dog head? Check. Anything else? No that should do for now. It’s like the artist couldn’t decide which elements to include, so he threw them all in.
I’m not actually that enamoured by the cover of this one – the gem is too awkward and prominent, the composition is uninspired and I loathe the chunky lettering. I really wanted to include it because once again it had a really cool core concept. You played a master thief, who belonged to the Thieves Guild, and spent the duration of the book being basically very naughty. Lots of ducking in shadows and stealing from hapless drunkards and wenches. Excellent stuff. The books where you played characters of dubious morality were always way more interesting to play and Midnight Rogue was a nice strong concept, executed with some panache.
The Fighting Fantasy books were fond of the occasional sequel. There was a Return to Firetop Mountain, and I’m pretty sure that Trial of Champions was a follow on to Deathtrap Dungeon, but this was one of the best. Battleblade Warrior followed on from Island of The Lizard King, and was pretty much equally as ace as it’s predecessor. That is also one total killer of a cover. How much cooler can it get than a Lizard warrior riding a Pterodactyl? Really?
Nice dynamic image, with a good use of perspective. Big spear. A+
I think this is possibly my favourite cover in the series. It’s certainly top 3. It’s such a strong, striking image, with a nice use of negative space. I love the beasty as well, with his comically grotesque face and gun wielding tentacles. A highlight is the dandyish scarf billowing in the wind. The sky bike is wonderfully solid and well-rendered – you can almost hear it clanking away. Proper grimy sci-fi. The combination of realism and absurdity, and the technical panache of the artist ( I think it was Les Edwards) makes for a wonderful overall image.
The book itself? Um..pass. It was another sci-fi jobby, with a relatively novel sky-combat system, but it was all about the cover. I’m not sure that I ever really played it. As time progressed I would increasingly buy the books as a habit, finding the actual playing of them somewhat sidelined. The last book I bought was no. 38 – Vault of the Vampire, a curiously traditional volume with a cover that made a nod to the Classical Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. I didn’t much like it, and by that point my interest was turning more and more towards comics. It was a fairly natural progression from FF books to the gonzo sci-fi of 2000ad, but the spirit of gleeful anarchy of the latter appealed more to my bratty pubescent self.
The gamebooks were shelved where they remained for a few years before, in a fit of pique, I took them to a local bookshop and traded them all in* (admittedly I swapped them for some Titan 2000ad reprints, so I was hardly selling out and growing up). At the time I felt they were taking up precious shelf space and that these occasional geek cleansing sessions are a necessary evil. However this little trip down memory lane has really made me grieve for my rash binning of these books that made up such a substantial part of my childhood. Nostalgia’s a bitch for sure, but there’s a part of me now itching to grab some dice and a pencil, and partake in a thrilling fantasy adventure where I am the hero!
(Disclaimer – This was composed from memory, so please forgive any inaccuracies or cock ups. I don’t want to earn the wrath of any RPGer’s – they’re fucking mental.)
*Although I got rid of the books themselves, I hung on to two very important tomes: Titan, which was the sourcebook for the world that the majority of the books were set in, and more importantly Out of the Pit, an absolutlely essential book cataloguing each and every monster that featured in the books along with their stats. It’s one of the most read and re-read books in my entire collection and probably warrants a post all of it’s own…)