March 01, 2012

Fighting Fantasy Books

I saw James' post on his blog and it brought back so many memories of this chose-your-own-adventure style series of books. I used to read and play these when I was a kid, it's what eventually got me into Dragonlance and Lord of the Rings novels.
Fighting Fantasy was a series of single-player role-playing gamebooks created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Originally published by Puffin Books, they are now published by Wizard Books who took over the license in 2002 after Puffin discontinued the series at the end of 1995. Although not the first books to use this format, Fighting Fantasy popularized the format and spawned dozens of imitators.

I was 10 years old when I read through my first book. I was hooked, for the next three years I started collecting them. It definitely got my imagination going and inspired many of the stories and campaigns that I would eventually dream up for the D&D games I would direct for my friends years later. Yes... I am a geek!

The first book I had was Island of the Lizard King. Just as all other books of its kind, the cover art blew my mind, and like most great fantasy novels it fuels your imagination and creates the visual catalyst for the stories within.

My two favourite artists for the interior illustrations were Russ Nicholson and Ian McCaig.
McCaig is still a well established fantasy/sci-fi concept artist for film, including a character/creature designer for the newer Star Wars films.

The Creation of Fighting Fantasy Books

British writers Steve Jackson (not to be confused with the US-based game designer of the same name) and Ian Livingstone, co-founders of Games Workshop, authored the first seven books in the series, after which point the writing stable was expanded.

The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were similar to other interactive gamebooks that were being published at the time — most notably the Choose Your Own Adventure series – in that the reader takes control of the story's protagonist, making many choices over the course of the story and turning to different pages in order to learn the outcome of their decisions. The Fighting Fantasy series distinguished itself by the use of a dice system to resolve combat and other situations, not unlike that used in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, though far simpler.

The action in a Fighting Fantasy gamebook is split into small sections, ranging from a paragraph to a page, at the end of each of which the character usually must make a choice or roll a die. Each page features several of these sections, each headed with its number in bold. Where the page number would appear in an ordinary book, a Fighting Fantasy book gives the range of sections appearing on that page, much as some dictionaries do for the words listed on a page.

With the notable exception of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! miniseries, all entries in the series are stand-alone and do not assume any prior knowledge on the part of the player. That said, many of them take place in a single world known as Titan, and the three books which deal with the wizard Zagor, (namely The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Return to Firetop Mountain and Legend of Zagor), are undoubtedly more rewarding if played in sequence, as are the books Deathtrap Dungeon, Trial of Champions and Armies of Death.

The first book of this series was conceived in 1980, when Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone met Geraldine Cooke, a Penguin Books editor, at the Games Workshop's annual Games Day exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London. Initially Cooke was interested in publishing a "how-to-do-it" book on fantasy role-playing games but when creating the synopsis, Jackson and Livingstone became less inclined to write a technical manual. Instead they fused basic role-playing rules and fantasy adventure plots so that the reader would be able to take part in the book as a single-player role-playing game; the gamebook concept. The pair began work on the project in 1980, initially titled The Magic Quest, and spent much of the time formulating the mechanics of how it would work.

Cooke was sent the manuscript and asked whether it was to be aimed at adults or children. Although the two authors believed it should be both, Tony Lacey, head of Puffin Books (Penguin's imprint for children, suggested that a targeted demographic of nine-to-twelve-year-olds would result in the highest sales. Also, the original synopsis was mainly pictures with text at the bottom such as "Do you want to fight this ogre? Turn to page ..." Although Penguin said they would like to go with it, it would have to be without all the pictures because it would cost a fortune.

After over six months of frustrating waiting, Jackson and Livingstone were commissioned to write the book and it was not until over a year later that the decision to publish was finally made. In August 1981 they began work. Although both authors disliked this title, after "endless debates" they could not come up with an alternative. Eventually the two came up with a compromise. Livingstone, who wrote the first part, had mentioned in the opening paragraph that the whole adventure took place in Firetop Mountain. Jackson, who wrote the final part, had created a climatic battle with a powerful warlock. On the day the book was handed in it was agreed that the two elements would be combined to create the final title: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Ian Livingstone also came up with the brand name "Fighting Fantasy" when prompted by Puffin to do so.

The books editor, Philippa Dickinson, was thorough. She highlighted inconsistencies, made suggestions over formatting, and had much to do with the final combat system that was used. She also pointed out the difference in writing styles for the first and second halves was clear and this ended up requiring a second draft. Each author had written half of the adventure each (Livingstone wrote the first half, up to the river crossing, which made a convenient hand-over point, and Jackson wrote the climax of the adventure), and the writing style noticeably changed part way through the book - so Jackson re-wrote Livingstone's part of the book in his own style. The finished book was made up of a clean 400 numbered references, which set the standard for the books that followed. This was, however a coincidence.

When Jackson and Livingstone combined the two halves of the adventure it transpired that the numbered references, when added together, made a sum of 399. A fake key reference was added to bring to total up to 400. In August 1982 the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, titled The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, finally appeared and went on to sell out its first print run in a matter of weeks, helped in no small part to the Puffin Book Club and articles in the White Dwarf magazine. It eventually sold over a million copies in fifteen languages.

Sources of my research and images:


G. said...

Oh, the memories! I got my start with Starship Traveller and was also thoroughly hooked. Great post!

Jonathan Green said...

The books are still being produced too. There's a new one out this summer by Ian Livingstone called BLOOD OF THE ZOMBIES.

You can find out more at my blog here: