Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks Thrive at 35!

The phenomenal success of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks began in 1982 with the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Puffin Books. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s tale of the fell warlock Zagor and his denizens holding dominion over the legendary caverns beneath Firetop Mountain became a genuine ‘playground craze’, being reprinted three times within the first three months – and twenty times within the first year – of its publication.

Over time the Fighting Fantasy series moved beyond its early ‘dungeon bash’ origins to include gamebooks with themes of science fiction, horror and post-apocalypse, even superheroes, pirates and zombies. Selling in excess of 17 million copies and published in more than 30 languages, Fighting Fantasy influenced a generation of children growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, including many who would draw inspiration from their beloved gamebooks to themselves emerge as respected authors and illustrators, and leading figures of the creative industries.

Jamie Wallis, Managing Director and Lead Designer of Greywood Publishing (publishers of the Quick Easy Role Play or QUERP system), cites Ian Livingstone’s 1983 adventure The Forest of Doom as foremost among the original series. “I was twelve years old when The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was released and I already owned Warlock and The Citadel of Chaos when The Forest of Doom came out. The shape changer cover artwork by Iain McCaig really sticks in my memory from when I first saw it. The plot is to find the two missing pieces of a magic warhammer and then take the hammer to the dwarves at Stonebridge, to unite them in the war against the evil trolls. This was the first book that I mapped, and I used that same map 25 years later when I wrote the Forest of Doom d20 adventure for Myriador.”

When asked to nominate his favourite Fighting Fantasy gamebook, fantasy illustrator Mike Wolmarans of Tenebrae Studios (whose clients include Fantasy Flight Games, Avalon Games and Pinnacle Entertainment, among others) balked at first, before highlighting two of the most popular titles from the original series. “It is quite honestly a hard decision for me. The two books I could never do without are The Forest of Doom – with Malcolm Barter’s eerie and beautiful inks depicting the weird Darkwood Forest – and City of Thieves with its colourful and crazy inhabitants. They take me to a world devoid of boring logic and over-explanation; to a dream world full of possibilities and the thrill of danger.”

Jamie Fry, who occupied the role of Fighting Fantasy ‘Warlock’ or honorary custodian-historian from August 2011 to June 2016, also emphasises the power of Jackson and Livingstone’s gamebook series to help the reader to transcend the confines of the everyday and instead wander the realms of the imagination. “Illustrations and encounters from The Forest of Doom come to mind when I’m strolling through woodland, wondering what’s around the next bend and treating every fork in the path as a gamebook paragraph choice.”

With our trusty map of Allansia (the original Fighting Fantasy world) in hand we venture north from Darkwood Forest to the city of Fang to discover that, in addition to The Forest of Doom, Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon of 1984 has also proven enduringly popular and massively influential. Andi Ewington, comic writer for Titan Comics and one of the main writers for American producer and director Michael Bay’s 451 Media Group, nominates “the phenomenal Deathtrap Dungeon” as Fighting Fantasy’s best. “In a nutshell, Deathtrap Dungeon pitted the player against Baron Sukumvit’s deadliest trap-and-monster-filled dungeon. To survive meant that 10,000 pieces of gold were yours for the taking. There were so many things here that elevated this title way above the rest: the iconic Iain McCaig bloodbeast cover and luscious interiors; the fact you were up against six other rival dungeon competitors; the dangers lurking on every page; the fiendish traps through which you had to negotiate; those pesky jewels you had to find; the Trial Masters which tormented you; the dread you felt when you had to face up against Throm, and the blessed relief as you turned to page 400. Yeah, to me, Deathtrap Dungeon delivered THE perfect gaming experience.”

Jonathan Green, himself an author of seven Fighting Fantasy gamebooks along with 2014’s monumental YOU ARE THE HERO: A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, shares Ewington’s sentiment: Deathtrap Dungeon represents the pinnacle of the best-selling gamebook series. “I have fond memories of reading Deathtrap Dungeon whilst on a family holiday to Wales, and marvelling at McCaig’s esoteric illustrations. Deathtrap Dungeon was the sixth in the series to be published and Ian Livingstone’s third solo title. It really felt like he was getting into his stride with this particular adventure, referencing other books and locations from the Fighting Fantasy series. It also had the most logical reason for an adventurer entering a dungeon full of apex predators alone!”

“The plot of the adventure – which was inspired by a holiday Livingstone had taken to Thailand – saw the hero competing in the Trial of Champions (devised by the devilish mind of Baron Sukumvit), entering the eponymous dungeon, braving the labyrinth’s fiendish traps and monstrous denizens, in the pursuit of fame and fortune. The names of several places Livingstone visited on his Thailand trip made it into the book, including Chiang Mai, Fang and the River Kok, while Baron Sukumvit himself was named after Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. The marriage of both Eastern and Western influences in the adventure created something entirely new, helping to give the Fighting Fantasy world a unique flavour.”

“I obviously wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the book – Deathtrap Dungeon sold over 350,000 copies in its first year alone! It was the best-selling children’s book in April 1984 and was ranked eighth out of all books sold that month, coming just behind Dick Francis but ahead of Stephen King’s Christine. Deathtrap Dungeon was so successful, in fact, that Livingstone’s eighth gamebook was a sequel, Trial of Champions (published in 1986), and it even spawned a video game.”

Indicative of the gamebook series’ ability to surpass the confines of traditional fantasy tropes, Neil Rennison, Creative Director of Tin Man Games (publishers of digital versions and innovative re-imaginings of Fighting Fantasy and other gamebooks) nominates Fighting Fantasy’s earliest horror foray as his standout. “My favourite Fighting Fantasy book was probably House of Hell, written by Steve Jackson. Not the best designed gamebook by any means, but it struck a chord with a young me at a time when I was the only one in our house that could use our newly purchased VHS recorder. I used to set up the timer to record all the late night horror films, unbeknownst to my mum. I became quiet obsessed with Hammer Horror films in particular. The tone and set-up of House of Hell is pure Hammer, having you stranded in the middle of the night in a spooky, stately home. Many of the encounters are very reminiscent of 1960/70s British horror films with vampires, sacrificial altars and a strange host with unusual wine. I remember owning the edition with the illustration of a half-naked woman in it, which was removed in later editions for obvious reasons. Fans will be happy to know that we [Tin Man Games] included it again in the app version, some years later.”

Far from being relegated to cobweb-filled boxes of musty books stashed in the attic and the now-blurry-Kodachrome realms of 1980s nostalgia, Fighting Fantasy continues to thrive. As part of Fighting Fantasy’s 35th anniversary celebrations, 2017 will see the publication of a four-part comic adaptation of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter (written by Andi Ewington and illustrated by Simon Coleby), a vibrant new digital tabletop roleplaying game version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, plus the manifestation of an all-new Fighting Fantasy gamebook written by Ian Livingstone.

GS Blogger: Paul Hardacre

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