What in the heck are these things?
Books, my friend. Adventure books. More specifically, choose-your-own-adventure books. If you're still confused as to what I'm talking about, let me break it down for you.
Fighting Fantasy began in 1982, with the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Said story casts you as the hero, and you begin at chapter one, embarking on a quest to bring peace to a fantastical land oppressed by a wicked wizard who lives, yup, within a nearby mountain. Each chapter—well, most of them, as some can lead to dead(ly) ends—presents the reader, the player, with options: would you like to do this, this, or maybe this thing next?
Each option carries with it a corresponding chapter number: So, perhaps that'll be turn to 202 to attack the skeleton, 347 to run in the other direction, or 118 to attempt to reason with it. Some books have one ending, which can be reached by various paths. Others have multiple conclusions, some better than others. All have their means of undoing your quest, be that through death, traps, or something less immediately painful but equally final.
Warlock was written, collaboratively, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, British fantasy fans who'd, back in 1975, founded Games Workshop. They'd been approached by a publisher to produce a book on the fantasy (tabletop) gaming world, what with Dungeons & Dragons blowing up in popularity. Instead of that, though, the pair decided to take some of the mechanics of D&D and its peers and incorporate them into a book.
Long before I properly understood video game role-players, I was devouring Fighting Fantasy books by the dozen. When I was 10, 11, around that age, I adored these things.
And so, Fighting Fantasy was born: stories in which you not only make decisions as to your course through the fiction, but also engage in dice-rolling combat and trials of luck and skill. Of course, many readers—myself included—cheated their way through the books more often than we played them properly, but as Livingstone's OK with that, there's no need to feel guilty about it.
As of 2017, marking the series' 35 th anniversary, Fighting Fantasy is returning via publisher Scholastic UK, with a brand-new story penned by Livingstone incoming, titled The Port of Peril. The writers and designer spoke to us on the UK podcast last year (listen to it here), and teased the possibility of a new book, so it's great to see that actually happening. The Port of Peril will be, by my count, the 60th main series Fighting Fantasy book in total.
Books? I thought this was a video games site?
Waypoint loves all kinds of games! (We've covered tabletop stuff in the past, for example, and will certainly continue to.) And Fighting Fantasy books are games, most definitely. There are rules to follow, internal logic to adhere to. There are (a few) good and (several, often very) bad outcomes for the hero of each story. Many are set within the same world, Titan, which gives them this overarching coherency and relatability across seemingly standalone happenings, something we find in many video game RPGs.
Long before I properly understood video game role-players, I was devouring Fighting Fantasy books by the dozen. When I was 10, 11, around that age, I adored these things. I never collected them all, but I've got more than enough to convince anyone that They Were A Thing, back when. And it's more than likely that my affection for games like The Witcher 3, Final Fantasy IX, Breath of the Wild and more—including so many 16-bit adventures on the SNES and Mega Drive (look, the books are British, so there's no Genesis chat here)—comes from that anchor, if you will, of enjoying these interactive books so very much.
Now, the Fighting Fantasy books were, and remain, mostly aimed towards kids and, I guess, young adults—anyone who loves the dark fantasy world of The Hunger Games right now is probably of the ideal age to tackle one of them. But the challenge they can present, in their puzzles and combat, is possibly more geared towards older, more patient players. Warlock, for example, features a maze that absolutely ruined me as a kid—and when I played it again as an adult, a couple of years back, I again got completely, hopelessly lost, without tracking my steps with paper and pencil.
So if you regularly turn to a tough RPG when powering up your PlayStation, there's a good chance you'll also get a kick out of a Fighting Fantasy book. There's great variety, too, across the series—it's not like they're all about wizards and dragons, goblins and treasures. Some of my favorites are wildly different to that Tolkien-ish setup, but more on that in just a second.
So what does someone who knows what they're talking about have to say on starting out with Fighting Fantasy?
Scholastic, naturally, are rather keen for newcomers to delve into the history of Fighting Fantasy, what with the publisher having plans not only to put out The Port of Peril in August (2017), but also new versions of five original titles, including Warlock. Lauren Fortune, editorial director at the company and a fan of the books in the 1980s and '90s, rightly identifies them as having "empowering, compelling setups", which haven't aged at all.
Alongside her comments on the 35th anniversary, available at the FightingFantasy.com blog page, are ones from both Jackson and Livingstone. The books have "survived the test of time," says the latter, adding that he's thrilled to see the originals "reimagined for a new generation". Which is at least a little bit sales patter, as much as it's heartfelt appreciation, naturally. But nevertheless, I agree with Livingstone—I've been reading a few Fighting Fantasy books, cheating of course, with my oldest son, who's six, and he's getting into them effortlessly, glint in the eye and everything.
We, my son and I, began with Temple of Terror—he was taken with the snake-man on the cover of the 1985 adventure. But I'd not pick that as one to begin your own investigation of the series with—it's a tough one to get through, on account of a deathly figure laying traps for you throughout its temple setting, and the need to collect five key artifacts before reaching the "end boss". There's a lot going on in it, and its claustrophobic setting does nothing to ease the atmosphere of dread.
When I ask Livingstone himself for five recommendations for new Fighting Fantasy players, he goes for nothing published after 1984—strictly old-school scenes, over here. His suggested quintet is Warlock—which, we've already established, is ever so eager to trip its player up— The Forest of Doom, City of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon and Caverns of the Snow Witch.
Unlike later books in the series, all of the above are written either by Livingstone himself, or alongside Jackson—who, it should be said, also penned a few of these things solo, including 1983's sci-fi-flavored Starship Traveller and the next year's haunted mansion romp, House of Hell. (His related Sorcery! series, which runs parallel to the Fighting Fantasy canon, also comes recommended.) Livingstone's selections provide a great snapshot of the Titan-set stories, and they're each stuffed with monsters that conform to fantasy stereotypes—ugly trolls and slavering, sharp-toothed beasts, vampires and zombies, giant snakes and elemental demons.
But I don't know if they'd be my immediate picks for beginners. Scratch that: I know they wouldn't be. Which isn't to say I know better than The Guy Who Started These Things In The First Place, oh my, let's not go down that road, at all. But it's my name on the article, so I get to name five favorites that, honestly, you can't go far wrong with as a beginner—and that present a few sides of Fighting Fantasy that Livingstone's picks won't show you.
Go on then, fanboy of old, who cheated through most of them… Give us your five.
Just five, huh? I suppose that's what it says up the top. For starters, I've got to side with Livingstone on one choice, City of Thieves. Much as I can see Warlock, and The Forest of Doom, as quintessential foundations for everything that came sense, neither for me truly has a palpable feeling of place, of fear, quite like City of Thieves does.
How it plays, mechanically, is fairly elementary—it uses the series-conventional dice rolls to determine who hits who in combat, and while you can encounter more than a single enemy at a time, you're only ever fighting from the perspective of an individual, a system that later books experimented with. And those enemies are recognizable fantasy staples—ogres, skeletons, trolls, zombies, they're all present and correct.
But the setting, for the majority of the story, is wonderful. The "City of Thieves" of the title is Port Blacksand, a location that'd crop up again and again in FF fiction. It positively swarms with pirates, vagabonds and villains, and is ruled by the cruel Varek Azzur, who took the city by force. Not that he's the Big Bad here—that's a mysterious skeletal antagonist by the name of Zanbar Bone, who cannot be defeated by brawn and sword alone. You're going to have to use your wits with this one.
If Port Blacksand were to translate to a modern video game of a high budget, you'd likely be looking at another Witcher 3 Novigrad—only much murkier, and more likely to leave you dead in a gutter. And the place comes alive in the book not just through Livingstone's words, but also the meticulously detailed, spectacularly vibrant illustrations of Iain McCaig, who's since designed characters for Star Wars, including Darth Maul and Padmé Amidala, and worked on movies including Guardians of the Galaxy.
There's such life, ferocity, fear and sadness in McGaig's pictures—a small goblin-like creature playing a form of baseball, its face the very definition of concentration; a man in tattered rags staring into nothing, wearing a mask of a thousand regrets, now with nothing left to lose. It's really fantastic stuff, worthy of pausing on whenever such a page presents itself, putting off the action for a minute more.
I always liked the books that went further, wider, presenting vast lands to explore. Which is why Robot Commando and Freeway Fighter are so good.
City of Thieves is a great Book One for those who want to dip a toe in the "conventional" fare that Fighting Fantasy has to offer. So far as the original ten books go, it'd be the one I'd hold aloft. Which is not to take anything away from Deathtrap Dungeon, which I still think about—uh, that bloodbeast, chills—but it, likewise Warlock, lacks the breadth of environmental space that City of Thieves has. It offers little space to breathe in, as a dungeon-set adventure. I always liked the books that went further, wider, presenting vast lands to explore.
Which is why Robot Commando and Freeway Fighter are so good. Additionally, neither of them takes place in Titan. The former, first published in 1986, plays out in Thalos, a region of an unspecified alien world where humanoids and dinosaurs coexist, and where both the protagonist's people and the invading Karosseans use gigantic mechs to travel and fight each other with. These robots come in various shapes and sizes, and range from explicitly offensive models to industrial and agricultural units, with some having the ability to transform. Yep, it's basically the two things I loved as a kid, Transformers and the scaly side of prehistory, smashed into each other before an engrossing sci-fi setting. Brilliant.
Robot Commando is written by a different Steve Jackson, the American board game designer rather than the series founder. It is the third of his three contributions to Fighting Fantasy, and absolutely my favorite of them. The book offers the player the opportunity to fight using massive robots, which uses slightly different rules to on-foot encounters, while retaining the basic principles of dice scores representing attack values. Instead of falling over, all bleeding and moaning, they explode when their armor score's been reduced to zero. Makes sense.
1985's Livingstone-written Freeway Fighter, meanwhile, is basically Mad Max: The Fighting Fantasy Novel. And that is OK by me. "You" are a survivor in a desert-like wasteland of a world ravaged by a killer virus, one of a cluster of people doing whatever they can to get by in a town called New Hope. But New Hope is in trouble—fuel is a premium resource, and supplies are incredibly low. So, off you must go, at the wheel of your Dodge Interceptor, towards the oil refinery of San Angelo. Between here and there, though, are all manner of dangers: cowboy-attired outlaws, "doom dogs" and mad old dudes with a penchant for rats. You're just going to have to kill them all, pretty much.
Like Robot Commando, Freeway Fighter mixes up the usual gameplay, in this case adding car combat to the fray. Each vehicle has scores for firepower and armor, while you can also arm your Dodge with rockets, iron spikes and oil drums. On foot, it's not all fists of fury—there's gunplay here, too, and that requires another set of rules to determine what's a flesh wound and what's left a rather more meaningful hole in your jacket. And chest.
Sounds complicated, perhaps, but it's really not— Freeway Fighter is a pretty breezy read, 20 chapters short of the usual 400. It's much easier than City of Thieves, and has fewer destinations available than Robot Commando, in which you can fly swiftly to faraway destinations, thus feeling like a fairly streamlined experience. There's a side-quest, of sorts, along the way—but much like the Fury Road movie, this is mostly a case of there and back, with a few bumps in the road along the way.
One book that is a little more, I suppose, fiddly, is 1986's Sword of the Samurai, written by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson. But it's here regardless, because of the impression it left on me when I first read it, most likely in the early 1990s. As its title implies, this is another Fighting Fantasy offering that mostly ditches monsters and magic for something really rather different—Feudal Japan and a striking story of loyalty and honor.
You assume the role of the samurai Kensei, and embark on a quest to retrieve a legendary sword, which will restore peace to lands rocked by a "master of shadows", the evil Ikiru. As a samurai, you have no supernatural abilities to call upon, but at the beginning of each playthrough you must choose to acquire a number of skills, from an eye for archery to proficiency in wielding dual blades.
Alan Langford's illustrations do an amazing job of bringing an array of shoguns, beastly, ape-like "Shikome"s and fellow samurai to life. But for me, what makes Sword memorable is the potential to die by your own hand. Alongside the usual dice-decided skill, luck and stamina scores for your character, you begin your quest with three "honor" points. Some things you do in the course of your adventure will add to this sum, while other actions will take points from it.
Should your honor hit zero, chapter 99 is waiting: "Without honor you are nothing, your life is worthless. There is only one honorable action left to you. You must commit seppuku." Harsh.
Seas of Blood is pretty unique amongst Fighting Fantasy not because of its pirate theme, nor because it earned a video game adaptation, but because you're The Bad Guy.
While I'm tempted to plump for Armies of Death as my fifth selection—you get to order a whole army around, and send it into battle, which is rad—I think I'll go a little smaller, but a lot more evil. 1985's Seas of Blood, written by Andrew Chapman and illustrated, brilliantly, by Bob Harvey (who also worked on the Transformers adventure game books, which weirdly I never read even one of), is pretty unique amongst Fighting Fantasy not because of its pirate theme, nor because it earned a video game adaptation, although it was the first book to receive such a treatment (closely followed by Temple of Terror and Rebel Planet). It stands out because you're The Bad Guy.
Well, one of them, one of the main ones—one of two competing bad guys, each doing whatever wicked things they can to ultimately become King of the Pirates. The story asks you to reach the Isle of Nippur, south of Titan's vast Inland Sea (retconned though its placement was), within 50 days but, expectedly, it's not quite as simple as simply pointing your ship in the right direction and waiting it out.
As well as making sure days too many don't pass—the book instructs you to keep a log—you must face up to huge sea battles against both other ships and monsters from beneath the waves, and some land-based group skirmishes, too. These situations call upon your Crew Strike and Crew Strength scores, determined at the game's outset—and while escape is sometimes possible, it carries penalties.
There's little honor at stake, no village to save or treasure to recover— Seas of Blood is entirely about fame and fortune, with the winner of the race, and the wager staked on it, rewarded with amazing riches. And that selfishness is kind of refreshing, isn't it?
But where can I get these books, given all of your recommendations are from the 1980s?
The original Puffin-published Fighting Fantasy run, which includes every book mentioned here, ended in 1995. But Wizard Books has republished a number of titles, including City of Thieves (2002), Freeway Fighter (2005) and Sword of the Samurai (2006). They can still be found in bookstores, or online for wildly varying prices. Seas of Blood and Robot Commando, so far as I can tell, have never received reprints, so eBay is likely your best bet for those (but expect to pay decent money for mint-condition copies).
Now that Fighting Fantasy is with a new publisher, I can only guess at what old titles will get a fresh push. Warlock, obviously, and I expect all of Livingstone's picks for beginners to factor. I'd really like to see Scholastic go for broke on the series, filling in the gaps left by Wizard. With Freeway Fighter recently spawning a comic, it makes sense for them to give the original adventure book another shot. Nomad Games' announcement of a card-based Fighting Fantasy video game, Fighting Fantasy Legends, is another valuable slice of contemporary visibility for the franchise.
But much depends on the public's appetite for this kind of fiction, this breed of game. I know from experience, at home with my kids, that these books haven't dated—just having a bunch of them out now, while writing this, has had the oldest attracted like a moth to a flame. And I hope that people of all ages, of all fantasy fiction tastes, get a chance to appreciate that.