Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingstone posted on Twitter recently to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publishing of his book The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first in a series of Fighting Fantasy game books first written by himself and co-founder Steve Jackson. These books carved out unique territory in fantasy literature and for me were a massive influence in the books I would read in the years that followed. By sheer coincidence I had just picked up an old copy of the book from eBay a few days earlier after wanting to get my hands on a couple of titles I missed, so it was nice to look back at more of the books in the series.
The Fighting Fantasy series would take aspects of the similar Choose Your Own Adventure books where readers are offered divergent story paths by turning to different pages. But Fighting Fantasy also included RPG-like elements, similar to Dungeons & Dragons, that added inventory management, puzzles and the inclusion of chance through dice rolls which could impact progression and encourage multiple attempts to successfully complete a story. For people who were curious about RPGs they were a great way to get a taste for them in an easy to play form.
I’ve collected a few of the books over the years and have a number of favourites, including:
- The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – it’s really impressive just how much is done right in this first book. Inventory management is in there which is needed for the ending and the mid story maze is a smart way to avoid players from trying the “finger undo” trick of keeping pages marked while checking if they are the right choice or not.
- Starship Traveller – the first science fiction book in the series showed how the writers were more than willing to tweak rules to fit the stories they were writing and the books were stronger for it.
- Deathtrap Dungeon – maybe the most famous book of the series that was also adapted into a PC and PlayStation game. Having the player tackle a dangerous dungeon for fortune and glory may sounds like a generic D&D adventure but like Warlock it played well to the strengths of the format and the book was backed up by some stunning art from Ian McCaig.
- Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (series) – the ultimate experiment in Fighting Fantasy books. Though each book could be read/played individually, players who began from the first volume could carry their stats and inventory to the next and even get a couple of perks that other readers may not be aware of.
Fighting Fantasy did try turning into a more social experience with later books that allowed the rules to be translated into a group setting but I’m not sure if the simplified RPG system ever caught on. It was an interesting idea though as you could get a group of players into an adventure quickly with a single book. This did produce a couple of impressive sourcebooks in Out of the Pit and Titan, which unified many of the settings from the game books into a single world. They were also a great way to have much of the art together in an easy to see form.
Reading Warlock again with a notebook and dice was like going back to the old days and I loved it. It had been so long since I had last read the book that it was great to be suprised again with the experience. The book did “beat me” as I’d taken the wrong path and missed a crucial item in the end but I’ll just have to try again and see if I can get it right the next time.
My collection is still small but I think I will keep an eye out to see if I can find more early copies as later reprints appear to have changed up the art and I have a strong connection to the original ones. Those were what I had first read from my school library a few years after Warlock was first released. The covers were so distinctive that I could spot a few of them even now and it’d be nice to have a more of them on a shelf. 🙂