Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone
Interview by Andy Capper, Photo By Ben Rayner
The Fighting Fantasy series of role-playing game books were one of the best things about being alive in the 1980s. Especially if you were a slightly weird 12-year-old boy obsessed with horror, science fiction, superhero comics and stories and films about demons and zombies.
In 1982, childhood friends and über-nerds Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone started selling Brits the first ever Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game from a tiny flat in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. After spreading the game’s popularity in Britain and opening the Games Workshop chain of shops (aka nerd Mecca), the two were approached by Penguin Books to make a role-playing book similar to D&D.
Set in a mythical medieval kingdom called Titan, their first one was called Warlock of Firetop Mountain and within the first two months of it being published it had to be reprinted ELEVEN times. The following 59 books, whose artwork would go on to inspire a bazillion metal-band album covers, were so fun to read and play that they ended up becoming an international smash hit success, almost on a level with Harry Potter. I loved the books so much that talking to both authors on the phone recently made me feel like finally meeting two long-lost uncles.
Vice: It’s great to talk to you because I remember the first day I was given a copy of Forest of Doom at school. I looked at the evil lizard-dragon thing on the cover and thought, “Wow. This can’t fail to be amazing.” I read / played the first ten as fast as I could.
Ian Livingstone: Did you cheat?
Everybody cheated. I haven’t met one person who hasn’t cheated. We used to argue about using the combat system in the books at all because everybody would cheat.
I never rolled the dice or filled in the fighting charts at the back of the book. Anyway, how’d you two meet?
Steve Jackson: Ian and I went to the same school in Cheshire. We both enjoyed playing games. We were a little bit geeky. The difference between us is he liked the toy soldiers games and I liked board games.
After school we went our separate ways. I went to work in Dorset as a bird warden. We met up again when I moved to London and shared a flat in Olympia with Ian and a guy called John Peake. We thought: “Let’s move to the big city and see what happens.”
And did it turn out well?
We all got jobs that we didn’t really like. I was selling scientific equipment to the Middle East—Bunsen burners and the like. So we thought, “What are we going to do?”
In 1975, we did a fanzine called Owl and Weasel, which was so named because it represented the characteristics you need to be a good games player: wise like an owl and crafty like a weasel. We used to sell obscure games in it via mail order. Eventually, we met a guy called Brian Blue who contacted us to say he liked the fanzine and that he’d just published a new game called Dungeons & Dragons.
Not many people had heard of D&D at the time. In the fanzine circles, they were saying it was a bit incomprehensible because there wasn’t a winner and there was never an end to it.
What he sent me, the original D&D set, looked interesting but it also looked terrible. It had amateur illustration, it was badly typed and we couldn’t make anything out of it or work out how to play it.
Eventually we came across some people from City University who could play it and what they showed us blew us away. Here was a game where you could do anything you wanted. And so Owl and Weasel ordered six copies from him to sell from our flat and he gave us exclusive European distribution for three years.
Ian: It was bizarre. People were wandering out on the streets past the flat holding a copy of Owl and Weasel and trying to work out where our shop was.
We finally got kicked out of the flat and we had to sleep in Steve’s van for six months.
What kind of van was it?
It was a rotten one. We called it Van Morrison and parked it outside a squash club where every morning we could take a shave, a shower and a whatever. It was a small and miserable existence but when you’ve got a chance to turn your hobby into your business you’re driven by the passion and it seems like great fun. I would rather do that than working for somebody else.
Luckily, D&D was spreading by word of mouth and eventually we got a new place and went on to open a proper outlet, which we called Games Workshop.
And then D&D went on to be the biggest new hobby in the world.
Steve: One of the big things that happened there was a university student who was a D&D player who went into some caves and committed suicide and it was all blamed on his D&D character. And also at the beginning of E.T., the kids are playing D&D.
You could just see that anybody under 25 was fascinated, and anybody over 25 liked the authenticity of games with rules or proper military toy soldier games, and they saw D&D as fairy tales for adults. It worked well in our favour because other companies turned D&D down and we thrived on it.
We expanded and opened up shops, a miniatures company, and a magazine called White Dwarf.
How did the Fighting Fantasy series start?
It was a logical progression. We would run these “Games Days” conventions all around the country. At one of them, Penguin Books had a stand. When they saw all the kids hanging around us playing D&D, they asked, “Why don’t you have a think about making books about this thing?”
Originally we thought about a “How to Do It” guide to the games. One of the things we planned to put in it was a short interactive adventure where you made choices about where to go. That idea ended up becoming the whole of the book.
I never understood fully how D&D worked. I was the only kid I knew who was into this kind of stuff so I had nobody to play with. The FF books were great for me in that respect. They acted as my Gamesmaster.
Well, the Gamesmaster is meant to be an impartial god and the players are the minions who inhabit his world and so, yes, the book is the Gamesmaster here.
It’s good for lonely kids. Explain the first book.
Well, into the book we worked a mountain, a warlock and a river and so we called it Warlock of Firetop Mountain. We agreed we’d both write about the different sides of the river. So for the next six months we set about writing this thing. It came out in August 1982 with no blaze of publicity but soon the book was shooting off the shelves and Penguin saw that not only was it successful but there was potential for a series. They said, “We’d like you to do another one.” And we said, “When do you want it by?”, thinking they were going to say six months but they actually said, “Within the month, please!” And so we went to work on individual books. I did Citadel of Chaos and Ian did Forest of Doom.
Ian: Warlock…’s popularity began in the playgrounds. It demonstrated the power of the word of mouth. People got obsessed and so we reprinted it 11 times the first two months after it came out. Penguin realised there was something in this because it was out of print everywhere in the UK. By the time we got to the sixth book, Deathtrap Dungeon, every book was going to number one in the children’s charts and getting in the top ten of all the bestseller lists.
Steve: We wrote them as quickly as we could. And then other publishers were doing similar things. Actually, some of the guys who worked for us at Games Workshop started getting hired by other publishing companies. They’d come into work and say, “Sorry about this, guys, but we’re going to become authors.”
How’d you keep up producing one book a month on top of keeping Games Workshop going?
This was when the Jackson and Livingstone Presents series came into being where we oversaw other writers making the books.
How did the books do internationally?
Ian: We went on to sell 16 million in 23 languages. We did promo tours in Japan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. We got mobbed! We sold three million copies in Japan and when you did a book signing you’d have people bringing you little gifts.
Did you have groupies?
I can’t possibly comment on that. Our main fanbase was made up of 12-year-old boys, so... not really.
What was it that attracted you to the genre of fantasy?
Steve: It had to be Tolkien. If it hadn’t been for him and his ability to make fantasy acceptable to adults, there would have been none of this. Before him, there was science fiction, and fantasy was fairy stories and Disney. He gave it all a huge depth.
Ian: I used to read a lot of science fiction books. I was brought up on Lord of the Rings and I liked Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. I liked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Time Out of Joint the most.
What was it about Dick that you liked so much? Oh, whoops. I can’t believe I just said that.
Hahaha. I’m married with four kids! That reminds me of a funny story actually. With Games Workshop we once made a Judge Dredd game. But there also a singer out there called Judge Dread [not the reggae singer] who sang at the music halls across Britain. He phoned me up and said, “’Ey up lad, you’ve caused me a lot of trouble with your board game! My stuff’s a bit blue and I’ve got a lot of worried mothers asking me about this game their kids have got! My most famous song is called “My Name’s Dick. Do You Like It?”
Back in the 70s, the fantasy fan-scene was like an underground society.
Steve: It wasn’t mainstream at all. We would get a lot of stick from people for being “geeks”. There was a certain type of person who was attracted to our games and books. They were intelligent, quite quiet and physically not too charismatic. When you saw them all together on a games day, you realised what your true audience was.
What attracts non-physically charismatic, highly intelligent people to fantasy?
It’s because of the imagination aspect. Highly intelligent people enthused about the depths of these games. There was one game that came out called Chivalry and Sorcery and it had a 400-page rulebook. That was a bit far even for me. It would go into such minute detail about weapons and troop movements and so many different monsters that it was a work of art really. We sold lots of them and the attraction was that it was more complicated than the others. That was the same with FF books. The ones that were more popular were the most difficult ones. In Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the “Maze of Vagar” is difficult to get through. Creature of Havoc is quite difficult too.
What did you enjoy about the creative process of writing the books?
Ian: I enjoyed creating branching narrative and setting a plot and then luring people down what they thought was a nice path only to end up being crushed beneath a bunch of poison spiked bars.
After Warlock…, my two favourites were City of Thieves and Deathtrap Dungeon. The latter had a moral dilemma in it in that you befriend the barbarian because you need him to help you, but at the end only one of you can get out and it’s a fight to the death between the two of you. And with that device you make people feel a little bit bad. You make people feel like they’re going to die. I like the sensation of luring people into awful situations. That sort of stuff just tickles me. It makes me snigger. It’s giving people the unexpected.
I read somewhere recently that they gave these books to ADD kids because they helped them focus. And when I saw that I started thinking, “Hmm, they practically forced these books on me at school…”
I don’t know about that. I know they were given to reluctant readers because the books are arranged in little bite-sized chunks. The kid thinks, “OK, I’ll read one paragraph,” but that takes them to another page and then to another one and before long they’ve read the whole book. It’s all about choice and consequence. The reader is making the choices and so making demands on their mind.
Steve: Some teachers loved them but some teachers thought they were terrible because they weren’t “proper books”. The church didn’t like them because they had references to demons in them. There was a group called Evangelical Alliance who called us the work of the devil, which was fantastic publicity for us. They didn’t like demons and things like using the cross to kill vampires.
But you guys weren’t saying “demons are good”, right?
And surely using a cross to defend yourself against a vampire is what any Christian would do given the circumstances?
Correct! Well, all the Evangelical Alliance did was make us even bigger. And with Penguin behind us as well we were omnipresent. You could turn up at a corner newsagent at John O’Groats and see Final Fantasy.
So why stop at 59 books? Seems a weird number.
It was supposed to stop at 50 with Return to Firetop Mountain but that one sold so well, they said, “Let’s go to 60 and keep on going” but eventually the interest ran out.
In 2002, we were approached do a new book. Lord of the Rings was coming out every Christmas and Harry Potter was huge and so we re-launched in 2002 and did 25 new ones, using other writers and with us overseeing them.
Ian: I’m currently writing a new Fighting Fantasy gaming book. I can’t tell you much about it but there won’t be a dragon or an orc in it.
What keeps you interested in writing these books after so many years?
I still enjoy putting people into doom-laden traps. I’ve learned a lot about being devious and luring people into their death.
That must have helped you out in the world of business, right?
Haha, no. That’s never really been my forte. I’m more of a creative entrepreneur.
Is it true you’re also Lara Croft’s dad?
When I saw the rise of video games coming along, I wrote a game called Eureka! and was involved in four companies that merged to become Eidos Interactive. I became Executive Chairman and in 1996 we bought the studio that was making Tomb Raider and when I saw it I instantly fell in love. I acted as a father figure to her in her virtual life. As of now I’m actually making a version of Warlock of Firetop Mountain for Nintendo DS.
Steve: And a company in Canada is turning Warlock… into an iApp. There’s a utility that rolls dice—when it comes to rolling dice, you shake your iPhone and the dice rolls.
Ian: The thing I like about the iApps game is that there will be no cheating! I’m sorry, but this time if you’re dead, you’re dead.
What about the people who say that print is dead and that one day all books will be computers.
Steve: I think there’s a lot of magic about books. Reading a novel is like watching a movie, but inside your own head. Only books can do that. When you translate it into a movie, everybody sees the same thing. With a book you can get a lot more.
Ian: Well, they said TV was going to replace the radio, didn’t they? I think that books and computers can co-exist. There’s something nice about having a book. I like the physical nature of the thing itself.
There’s an historical eventuality, of course, that the whole world is moving towards renting intellectual property rather than owning. People will own something for a short while and dispose of it. That’s how future generations will work, but not me.
Because I’m from the steam age.