Just like the first time I saw the red Basic D&D rulebook, I can remember the first time I saw a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (the first entry in the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks series) in 1982 or ’83. I was heading to the game session at the Radcliff Bookstore (the only place to find D&D material where I grew up) when it caught my eye on a shelf adjacent to the RPG racks. That moment is burned into my memory as vividly as the first time I saw the red box Basic D&D rulebook. I was immediately drawn to the image of the warrior standing victorious among all the treasures. Reading YOU are the Hero on the cover pushed me over the edge. Seriously, has there ever been a better tagline in gaming?
I thumbed through it a few times catching bits and pieces of the adventure and the amazing line art just popped like nothing I had ever seen before. I spent the last of my allowance on it and rushed home to play it several times that night. I tested every corridor and choice over the next several weeks and eventually picked up some of the other titles whenever I could find them.
They were created by renowned game designers Steve Jackson (the UK one) and Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop fame. Kids in the 80s were already used to choose-your-own-adventure books. Jackson and Livingstone blended that basic idea with some simple RPG mechanics to produce an immersive world of adventure. They didn’t exactly invent this idea. Tunnels and Trolls probably has that claim to fame but Fighting Fantasy presented it in more of a trade or mass-market-friendly way with traditional books that expanded far beyond the game and hobby shops and into mainstream bookstores and a much larger fanbase. In 1996 Arcane Magazine listed the series as one of the top 50 games of all time. I’m very proud to have my own game Don’t Look Back in that same list.
Some might take offense at my title. They can’t really make a comeback if they never really left. Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks (FFG) have been around for more than four decades and include about 70 titles so far across a variety of publishers. It was such a phenomenon in Europe that at one point according to the official website, in 1983 three entries were listed simultaneously as bestsellers in the UK’s Sunday Times (if you’re in the US that’s basically the New York Times Bestseller list) having sold more than 17 million copies in over 30 different languages. How many games can say that? Dell originally brought them to the ‘States and we only received about a third of the titles Puffin released in the UK. I was excited to see that new titles are being released.
In 2017 Scholastic picked up the brand and released reprints of some of the more popular original titles plus six new ones to date – albeit without any of the original artwork that the fans (including me) loved so much. Jackson and Livingstone even returned to pen new titles in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the line.
A few titles have inspired video and computer game versions, mobile apps, board games, coloring books, a full-blown role-playing game, audio dramas, novels, a magazine, and even an annual convention. There are even books about the books. I was happy to see this classic series getting introduced to whole new audiences as well as some new material for us older fans.
The Game World
Most of the titles are set in the world of Titan – a medieval fantasy world that includes a number of familiar tropes. Most are set in a familiar feeling world with wizards, dungeons, and all manner of nasty creatures. A few entries extend into science fiction, post-apocalyptic, superheroes, and even horror so no matter what kind of games you prefer, you can probably find something you like in the series. The books typically include a map and between them, you can see how the locations connect to the larger world.
Rules or Mechanics
FFG uses a system that clearly follows the less is more idea. Characters have three basic statistics: Skill, Stamina, and Luck. Stamina is very similar to hit points in other games. Skill is typically used as a metric of how good the character is at most of the things they are trained to do – primarily combat. To make a roll like an attack against some foe, the player rolls 2d6. If the total is equal to or below their character’s Skill score then they were successful. Luck is used in some situations and can be used to improve the result of a Skill check. Wounds and injuries decrease the character’s Stamina score. Potions and healing and sometimes just rest and a meal can bring points back; however, like hit points in D&D and many other games, if Stamina ever drops to zero the character is dead.
I think the basic idea was to keep it fluid, fast, and easy and in that respect it works very well. If you are looking for an experience where everything grinds to a slow, meticulous exercise in rounds of die rolling and math in order to determine the outcome of every single skirmish, this is not the game for you. However, I suspect most players are more than happy to not do that. There are no tome of rules needed to play but it has just enough mechanics to let players know that this is not just a bunch of arbitrary choices like in Choose Your Own Adventure. You must manage your odds and understand the character’s resources and capabilities to be successful. Of course, you can always cheat. I’ll admit I often keep a finger in the book to mark the previous passage in case I don’t like the outcome so I can backtrack and make a better choice.
Where to Start
If you have fond memories and want to hop back in or if you’re new to this and want to start, here are a few of my favorite titles that are all available from Scholastic:
If you’re looking for something a little different and prefer the superhero genre, Scholastic has also released a new edition of the FFG classic Appointment with F.E.A.R. If wizards and magic users are more your thing, you can find their updated editions of Jackson’s Sorcery! titles that add spell-casting to the FF world.
1. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
2. Deathtrap Dungeon
3. City of Thieves
4. The Citadel of Chaos
5. Forest of Doom
These titles are just the tip of the iceberg. Although Scholastic hasn’t picked up all the titles yet, they are releasing new ones and you can typically find some of the previous editions on Amazon. I bought two sets of 10 from the Wizards Books series a couple of years ago to restart my collection. EBay has several titles too but watch out for sticker shock. There’s a very healthy collectors community willing to pay sometimes hundreds of dollars for the original first editions in pristine condition. Check your app store if you’d like to play some on your phone or tablet, STEAM also has all the Tin Man Games versions if you wish to play on the computer. They typically have the text and often original graphics from the original printed editions but with interactive maps, automated dice rollers, etc.
For more information, click on any of the following links for news and additional information and as they say in the world of Titan “May your Stamina never fail!”.
Check out the official website: https://www.fightingfantasy.com/
Check out the fandom wiki: https://fightingfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Fighting_Fantasy_Wiki_-_Titannica