Friday, September 16, 2011

Looking Back - Fighting Fantasy

‘Fighting’ and ‘fantasy’ are two distinctive words, and yet while put together form something as brilliant as a series of books. No, this isn’t some kind of obscure reference to Minecraft in any way. It’s my early morning attempt at being clever and at the same time start out this post, in which I will delve deep into some of the very early childhood memories of mine. And likely countless of other gamers out there who were lucky enough to grow up with these pieces of adventurous literature.

“Fighting Fantasy” (in case you couldn’t figure it out) is a prominent series of “live your own adventure!” books. Most of you have likely given them a shot some time in your life. You might even have tried it in comics, in which you are to guide the hero through a myriad of challenges by selecting the route you find optimal. Navigation is handled by the simple mechanic of reading the story in a certain order, depending on your choice. Such as, if you wish to talk to the bloodthirsty ogre, you turn to page 5 whereas you turn to page 11 if you want to beat the living snot out of him.

Just mentioned series did develop to be a bit more sophisticated though, and saw its first light back in 1982. Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson are the two great old men in this regard, who developed several books in which you got to be the hero and set out on a perilous journey. Compared to other of its kin, these books did indeed feature the possibility of dying, often in quite gruesome ways, be it through combat or sheep dumb luck. The books featured an element of randomness, meaning you were not entirely free to just form the story at your leisure. Instead you were restricted by the laws of probability as your three stats (Skill, Stamina and Luck) were initially generated through rolls, and as your adventure began several things could go wrong.
For example combat was to a large degree determined by your rolls and in some severe cases you’d be asked to roll under your Luck in order to escape certain death. Hell, in the first book of Sorcery! there is even an encounter in which you die if you’re lucky?
In a way this is a testimony to another cardinal trait of the series. They didn’t always make sense. And in that line of thought, neither did they play fair.

If you’ve played just a handful of these books, you’ll pretty much know what I mean. It can come down to something as insignificant as deciding whether to go left or right (the bad decision leading you to step into a pit trap and die horribly) or in other cases you’ll simply be horribly stuck. The latter will mostly happen if you failed to acquire a certain item earlier in the story. The devious cheater could easily get around the former by simply ‘time-jumping’ (also known as keeping your fingers between pages-syndrome). The alternative was simply starting over, and whereas some books could potentially reward you for this with great replayability, others were simply a drag doing all over all again.

Cheating your way past required keys and objects could be way more difficult and make some books hard as hell. I especially remember such books as ‘Trial of the champions’ being exceptionally notorious in this regard. The book would often provide you with cleverly hidden keys, carrying numbers. Later on you could be asked to go to the indicated reference in case you wished to open the door, otherwise you’d be stuck and forced to end your adventure. In some rare cases you’d have to traverse the dungeon seeking more than one number or clue and use them together (through either subtraction or addition) if you wanted to advance. Certainly some books didn’t want to hand you the victory in any way, and I do remember those as being the most fun.

According to all-knowing Wikipedia, 55 Fighting Fantasy books were published by Puffin Books, from 1982 to 1995. An additional four (and in my opinion, the very, very best) were published under the name ‘Sorcery!’ and were in fact a quadrilogy.
Although I certainly haven’t completed all of them I spent so much of my youth that I have a lot of memories from the various titles. It’s not like the basic premise changed much throughout the series. The scenery and story took a few twists eventually, meaning some books took place entirely in your pre-packaged dungeon whereas others brought you to more exotic places such as forests, battlefields or the frozen tundra. Some played out entirely within a city (I remember enjoying those few the most) and a few in modern time or in a futuristic universe.

Deep at heart, Fighting Fantasy was a game of classical fantasy, though. Perhaps this was why the deviants were so few in numbers.

Instead the series later experimented with twists in the rules, such as letting you lead your own army or utilize thief skills. Two books were specifically designed to include more than one player (Fighting Fantasy being purely solo adventures otherwise) and I think they did a great job. In fact, many of my very first encounters with PnP were in this system.
Those who’ve tried out these books will know that they do have a certain weird charm to them. A bit Alice-in-wonderlandian in nature. Of course some books were bigger culprits than others, but anyone playing ‘The Riddling Reaver’ will know that things just stop making sense at a certain point. It’s so extremely random but at the same time entertaining. I remember how much fun I used to have, GM’ing this book for my friends back then.
In fact, if you haven’t already, I will recommend any GM to at least browse through this book for inspiration. Some of the ideas are downright silly but others aren’t all bad. At least it has a certain amount of originality to it, which is something you often have to search long for in this business.

I must admit that my biggest love for these books lies with the mentioned quadrilogy “Sorcery!”. I recently played through the first chapter as I wanted to see whether I’d be just as engulfed now as I was 12 years ago.
Of course I wasn’t. But it was an interesting read nonetheless. Especially because I ended up completing it in just under an hour with only one encounter. I suppose my memory really does serve me when it comes to it.
The basic story of Sorcery is your song and dance about the missing Crown of Kings that has been stolen by a great evil. Being the champion you set out to retrieve it from the notorious archmage of Mampang, which will lead you through perilous mountains, reeking cities of death, desolate wasteland and towers of doom. One for each book.

The story, however, wasn’t what made these books special. What really made us excited about these instalments was the fact that you were finally able to play as the mighty wizard and utilize your wits and spells to bypass various challenges. Similar methods were seen to a limited degree in ‘Riddling Reaver’ but not to such great detail.
Being a wizard wasn’t just for everyone. In fact you were encouraged to memorize the abbreviations of your spells in the form of three letter words, and since there was a whopping pool of 48 unique spells you’d be wise to prepare. Once your adventure began you were not able to refresh your knowledge but had to rely on your keen memory.
Of course most people would learn five or six by heart, but the key to being a successful wizard consisted of knowing when to utilize what. Casting spells drained your stamina and thus brought you closer to Death’s door. The standardized spells were useful but expensive, whereas the more specialised magic was cheap and could work wonders if used cleverly. However, a lot of them required very specific material components that you had to find first. Utilizing magic without them resulted in fizzles and penalties to your stamina. Attempting to cast spells that didn’t exist (wanting to cast YAK but choosing YEK as an option) severely punished you for being a noob.

In this way, mastering your spells became a challenge all by itself. An entire aspect of its own. There is no doubt that this was the original intention of the books either (besides from the title, I mean) since the alternative was the stupid warrior. Warriors didn’t excel in anything besides two extra points in Skill. As the adventure progressed you’d eventually find so much magical loot that you were equally well equipped for combat, so being a fighter was ultimately an option for the beginner. Nothing less. I now look forward to play the next in line; The Cityport of Traps. As mentioned I always loved the adventures in cities the most, meaning ‘City of thieves’ is another one of my all time favourites.

There were some other very nice things related to Fighting Fantasy. ‘Ouf of the Pit’ is obviously the best monster manual ever published in any system. I’ll happily admit having more fun reading this than those of modern system. Simply because there is so much emphasis on the social and habitual aspects of the monsters. Besides featuring some great maps of Titan (in which the majority of the Fighting Fantasy takes place) there are great entries for every creature with their respective stats and habits. There is only so much variety you can do with Skill, Stamina and Luck, but reading a monster’s preferred diet or circadian rhythm can be great fun. That’s likely the reason why I keep it around for toilet reading (the only alternative being White Dwarf).
It’s not an easy book to come by, though. I believe it has been discontinued in print and you’d therefore have to be lucky somewhere. If you get the chance, though, it’s truly worth the investment.

All being said for now, I hope you enjoyed taking a walk down memory lane with me. I will make sure to return with some more thoughts once I do complete the Crown of Kings-Saga. As a closing story, I’ll point out that I was in fact never able to do so back in the days. My English wasn’t that great so I had to play the translated versions. Sadly this was back then the popularity of these books faded so the fourth and final one was never translated. Much to my disappointment. Now, years later, the time has finally come to bring the fight to the archmage.
Stay tuned to hear how it goes. I will of course post my sheet if I survive all the way through.

And perhaps finally get to learn what that ZEN spell actually does??

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