Monday, 25 August 2008

The Gateway Drug

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings might have influenced me a lot as a kid, but it was the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that were my real introduction to the wonderful world of sci-fi/fantasy and role playing games in general - the marijauna to 2nd edition AD&D's heroin, as it were. I loved those books, and read them like a true addict - if my local library hadn't had the complete collection for me to borrow from religiously (at a rate of four books every Saturday) there's no doubt I would have been lead to theft and murder in pursuit of the habit. That led me onto the range of (surprisingly quite good) novels, then to the Advanced Fighting Fantasy role playing products, and then my fate was sealed.

The Fighting Fantasy ouevre was pulp at its finest - mad, honest-to-goodness theft and graverobbing of every known trope of fantasy, horror and science-fiction, hacked up and sewn together and then reanimated, Frankenstein-like, into horrible monsters. Their beauty is that you know exactly what you're going to get with them; if you've never read/played any, take a look over this short list of title examples and it'll tell you all you need to know:

  • Creature of Havoc
  • Deathtrap Dungeon
  • Crypt of the Sorcerer
  • House of Hell
  • Armies of Death
  • Island of the Lizard King
  • The Keep of the Lich Lord
  • Fangs of Fury
  • Appointment with F.E.A.R.

See what I mean? I bet you can not only imagine perfectly the tone and broad content of each of those volumes, but can take a pretty good stab at how the stories begin and end - all from the title. There was a real genius to those titles.

I think my favourite one of all was The Forest of Doom, in which...well, I don't need to explain the story, do I? Because you can already guess, I'm sure. It involved a forest full of monsters, mostly - and, needless to say, a healthy dose of DOOM. The best thing about it was the artwork, though. I've searched everywhere for some examples on the internet but couldn't get hold of any - the interior artist's name was apparently Malcolm Barter, but that's as far as I've got. He only did one of the FF books and seems lost to history - one can only hope that, El Greco-like, he will come to be appreciated centuries after he is gone, although somehow I doubt it. I did find the cover, though (done by somebody else):

All good things come to an end and most FF books are now out of print, although another company called Wizards Books has relaunched the series by publishing a few of the old books and some new ones, which needless to say I don't like the look of. (You have to wonder if there wasn't some kind of ethereal synergy going on between that company and Wizards of the Coast: can it really be the case that the wreckers of two of my favourite adolescent pastimes had such similar names purely out of coincidence?)

Anyway, pick up some of the old FF books if you can find them. I'm not sure how popular they were outside of the UK, but they're still worth a read.


  1. I loved Fighting Fantasy books; the other week whilst clearing out my wardrobe to take books to the charity shop I came across the three source books for the Advanced Fighting Fantasy books (I don't remember the title of the first one - maybe Dungeoneer? - but the others were Blacksand and Allansia) as well as the book "Titan" which was like an encylopedia for the world in which many of the Fighting Fantasy books were set.

    They're pretty battered around the edges now, but I remember getting hours of pleasure from reading them, so couldn't quite bring myself to send them to the charity shop (or the recycling bin, considering the condition they're in).

  2. Yeah, the first AFF book was Dungeoneer; woefully imbalanced, but our group had some fun with it. I think we were probably winding down from a campaign and just wanted something fun.

    Anyway, there are a couple of pieces of Forest of Doom art in Out of the Pit; the shapechanger (great monster that) definitely, and some others too, I think.

  3. Yeah, these books were my, and many, many AD&D friends' gateway drug too... And I'am speaking of the Hungarian translations... So that's what I can tell about the outside of the UK. It was in the end of the eighties, when they appeared around here.

  4. City. Of. Thieves.

    That is all.

  5. Forest of Doom was my favorite too, although City of Thieves was great as well.

  6. zero_zero_one: Yeah, I still have Titan and two of the AFF books - I think Blacksand and Allansia. I must have read Titan about ten times cover to cover.

    kelvingreen: AFF was awfully unbalanced, although I'm not sure I ever played it. I do remember using the mass battle rules in it though (although they may actually have been in Blacksand or Allansia, now that I think back.)

    bard: They came out in the early 80s in the UK I think, so obviously the Hungarian translations took a while to get finished. They ran right through to 1995 though, according to wikipedia. I think I stopped reading them around 93 or 94, when I was 13 and became too 'cool'.

    max and James: I get mixed up between City of Theives and Khare: Cityport of Traps. As far as I can tell they're near identical!

  7. As I've written about before, for me it was the Lone Wolf series. Happily, all those volumes have been digitized, complete with original interior art, over at They still hold up, I think.

    Hopefully something similar will happen with the FF books--I've known about them for a long time, but never had a chance to check one out.

  8. This, like so many of the things you discuss with relish, was a little before my time, but I recall that Scholastic put out Star Wars gamebooks that were very similar.

    Anyway, "Ruiner"? Seems like kind of a strong word. But that's just me. *shrug*

  9. I never had the last two volumes of AFF, so I'm not familiar with the mass battle rules. The system in Armies of Death were pretty solid for a basic system though.

    I'm quite fond of Caverns of the Snow Witch, and I've always wanted to convert that into a multiplayer scenario. I've heard that Myriador's d20 update is a bit naff, alas.

    Creature of Havoc is another favourite too.

  10. Yeah, City of Thieves was my favorite as well. They did come out in the US, but under different covers, and the printing of the swamp one was messed up, so that the last 25% of the book was a reprint of the middle pages, or some other such nonsense.

    And I was crazy for the Sorcery! series by (the English) Steve Jackson, especially book 2, Khare - Cityport of Traps. I guess I'm just a sucker for those city-based adventure books.

    - Brian

  11. Sir Larkins: Yeah, I loved Lone Wolf too, although I have to say I preferred the novels.

    Rachel: Maybe you're right. But eh, I like overreacting.

    Kelvin: One of my goals has always been to convert FF books to be played with D&D. Never done it though.

    Brian: Agreed. I have Sorcery! on pdf, actually. My friend sent me them. Not sure how legally correct that is, but hey. I did buy them first time round.

  12. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was what hooked me. Short & basic now but was wonderful to a 7 year old way back then, and my first encounters with any of those monsters. And they were scary...

    Up to the mid-teens was great. Past that it turned into a factory enterprise, with quests - find x to kill y and save z..

    I loved the other series at the time - Grailquest was hilarious, and the Way of the Tiger series, even with the funky martial arts, had such a wonderfully detailed and rich setting that I thought FF:11 (Talisman of Doom) was a rip-off, and only found out later that they had the same author.

    I sort of missed the AD&D progression, as the local bookstore only had Unearthed Arcana, and that made no sense. So I moved on to MERP...

    But these books hooked me.

  13. Pukako: I never read any of the other gamebooks, aside from the Lone Wolf ones. It was Fighting Fantasy or nothing for me, pretty much. But yeah, things did go downhill over time. There were a few innovative ones in the 90's - like The Crimson Tide (scary how I can still remember it) but not many. Possibly it's because Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were writing for the series less and less.

  14. To be fair, SJ and IL weren't the most innovative of FF authors. Their early books were classics, but then they got into a rut, and it was all random deaths and hidden codes for SJ and collect all the objects in the right order quests for IL. Some of my favourite entries in the series came towards the end, particularly Stephen Hand's horror "trilogy" of Dead of Night, Legend of the Shadow Warriors, and Moonrunner. Creepy, clever stuff.

  15. Kelvin: It does have to be said that Deathtrap Dungeon, one of the earlier books, is a veritable ball of unavoidable unfairness of almost Temple of Elemental Evil proportions.

    I loved the cover of Legend of the Shadow Warriors.

  16. I'm a huge fan of these books (which were big in Australia) and they take pride of place in my extensive gamebook collection. Forest of Doom is my sentimental favourite, being the first one I ever bought and read. These books sustained me through a lengthy period when I didn't have access to a D&D group.

    zero_zero_one - hang onto your copies of AFF. Allansia is a hard title to get hold of, it took me several years to afford a copy on ebay.

    noisms - City of Thieves is very different from Khare: City Port of Traps (which was one of the 4-part Sorcery! series), but both are great.

    trollsmyth - I'm pretty sure the Sorcery! series was written by the American Steve Jackson, not the English one.

    Thanks for reminiscing about these titles. They still give me much sentimental pleasure.

  17. David: I didn't realise that it was the American Steve Jackson who did the Sorcery! books, although I had heard he wrote some of the Fighting Fantasies.

  18. Sorry if you've all seen it before, but this is hilarious -

  19. No, it was definitely the UK SJ who did Sorcery!; the US SJ only did the one book, Scorpion Swamp.

  20. Kelvin: That's one of the very few I never read. They didn't have it in the local library when I was a kid.

    Gah! I wish I was back in the UK so I could dig my old FF books out of my parents' loft.

  21. Apparently, the US Steve Jackson also did the underrated Robot Commando, but that's it, and he definitely didn't do Sorcery!. :)

    I know this because I once read an interview with Steve Jackson UK in which he revealed that a lot of the places in the series were inspired by his backpacking experiences in Thailand.

  22. Just chiming in to agree: the Fighting fantasy books were awesome! I too loved _deathtrap Dungeon_ and _Forest of Doom_ best. I also though the _Sorcery!_ series was just great...and had a neat story to go along with the adventuring...the art in those books was creepy-great!

  23. Terry: Yeah, the art throughout the Sorcery! series was great. I'll have to track down the author's name.