Check it out: Books!

I know, I haven’t been posting. It’s a crying shame and all that. But what’s this? There’s news in gamebook land. Big news! Way of the Tiger is coming back with a shiny new seventh book promised, meaning the coolest cliffhanger ending in gamebooks will get resolved after almost thirty years (no pressure on them to come up with something good, right?). But on the other hand, a seventh Way of the Tiger book is a seventh Way of the Tiger book meaning ninja kicks to the head and shuriken akimbo and spitting poison darts at everyone in sight. It’s going to be great, and I’ll have an excuse to finally read them all. You can keep up with the latest news about that and some other gamebook fare over at the Fabled Lands blog (clearly I’ll have to try out Fabled Lands sometime).

But what of Fighting Fantasy? Well I went into the library, and behold:

Reading them one at a time wasn't an option.

Awwww yeah! I’m so going to… die in a really embarrassing way, come to think of it.

They were all there at the same time! I guess this is a sign,* so I’m off on a journey through Khakabad to find a crown which has magical leadership powers. Which you’ll have to wait hear about until I’m done. I’d put up a reader poll about which character to be, but the options are standard Fighting Fantasy hero, or a wizard. I think we all know what a book series called Sorcery demands from the reader.

*Whether this sign says “You’re going to miss one of the keys in Khare” or “You’re going to get killed by that one serpent you forgot how to fight” is anyone’s guess.

American Covers Part 1

American publishers liked the idea of these books a whole lot. Probably because they were making an absolute shitload of money. But unfortunately Americans cannot just accept things the way they are. No. In an act remarkably similar to every single time their television executives see a good show from the UK and think they have to make their own, the publishers felt compelled to change the cover art. This went on for the first thirteen books, before they starte reusing the same cover art. I’ve pillaged some scans from The Internet. So, let’s look at the first few examples of American publishing’s finest disasters…

You're not missing much.

You can tell it’s Zagor on the right because of that ridiculous thing floating by his head.

As you can see, the art for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is good enough. But the premise is not. That grinning Skywalker clone is presumably supposed to be the hero. This is a major failing: The main character is not supposed to be on the cover! They happen to have depicted the main character as white, blonde, male, and grinning like an idiot. Where does that leave everyone else? Also, why is Zagor just standing there like he’s okay with someone taking his chest of gold? The Zagor I know would be all “Hey what is this, why are you here?” and then be a melted puddle on the floor. Also I note that the more likely ending is the protagonist sitting on the still-locked chest, weeping at the thought of having to trek back through the mountain looking for the keys.

It's not bad but it's so silly

Assume I made some joke about The Power of Grayskull or Star Wars.

The Citadel of Chaos gets an epic sword and sorcery cover. There’s the pointless thrusting of the sword skyward while kneeling in some kind of heroic pose, but without the woman in a torn dress that barely covers anything. Okay so it’s a point in their favour that they didn’t reach that level of ridiculousness, but it’s just so silly. Also, that staircase goes nowhere. It’s sort of like the cover to early computer games, actually. Except they were excused, because it’s not like they can be accused of getting the overall feel of the product wrong with a stylised image depicting adventure on a tiny and unrealistic ledge. We were grateful for anything then. But these books were an interactive multimedia experience (yes, really, don’t make me frown at you) and as such we can expect more.

Ahem… But it is better than the original Citadel cover.

You're better off this way.

I probably wouldn’t be so outraged if the original weren’t so great.

It’s as if someone looked at the cover of Forest of Doom and said, “You know what? This cover is just not rubbish enough,” and then proceeded to make some poor artist cry by continually saying “Well it’s nearly right, but can you make it a bit more shit?”

I think that angry tree is in the book, and also the giant. Maybe the bobcat?

Space adventures IN SPACE!

Naturally the best thing for the cover of a book where combat is not required to win is a scene of shooting.

Ahahahahahahahahahaha. Oh dear.

It's just not as good.

On the upside, the Allansian Bird Hat Society is represented here.

So, aside from the problem that this look more like the cover to Small Stubby Tower of Thieves, there’s a very significant thing there that makes me very annoyed: This Zanbar Bone is nowhere near as cool as the real Zanbar Bone.

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!


Yeah, you tell them!

Superpower Poll

Okay so I have not posted anything in a few weeks due to stressing out about silly and irrelevant real life stuff like keeping a roof over my head. But this is not good enough: Those wizards won’t kill themselves! So today I venture into the bowels of Scorpion Swamp for an adventure in mapping. It’s a pretty cool book, because it lets the reader pick a quest for one of the three local wizards or merchant based wizard substitutes. Naturally one is good, one is neutral, and one is evil. Hot damn, a chance to work for a villain? I think I know what I’m doing in this adventure!

But that got me thinking: There’s other books with choices that drastically change the plot. None more so than the superhero book Appointment With F.E.A.R. So, given that the super power the reader picks determines what happens, I thought I’d put a poll up and let people decide what power I play through the book with. I’ve never read it before, so I’m going to die no matter which one wins.

So, vote away, and when I get around to the book, probably next week or the week after, I’ll be crushed by the Titanium Cyborg’s minions and it will all be YOUR fault. No pressure!

On Adventurers

There’s this fictional medieval profession called “adventurer” that comes up time and again in fantasy RPGs. It’s sort of a catch-all for the various classes in a role-playing game. But what it really means is, someone who goes out and does daring deeds to make a living.

It does sound a little odd though, when I read over the blog, to be talking about “adventurers” like they’re a normal fixture of the medieval landscape. That’s simply not true. It’s just a catch-all term because there is no word that sums up all the characters you’d find in a party. “Heroes” is firstly a gendered term,* and secondly not really descriptive of people who, oh… cast Sleep on the room full of kobolds and then cut their throats and throw them in the river. What do a warrior, wizard, cleric, and thief do when they get together? They have adventures. Thus, they’re adventurers. Good enough.

While the concept might suggest thrill-seeking or first-to-do-something journeys, the fact the that RPG adventurer is often adventuring for profit is not actually that bizarre: People used to be described as such when they were, for example, pillaging Africa’s natural resources (now we call them capitalists). The distinguishing factor in fantasy adventurers is that they’re heavily armed and fully expect to enter into combat at some point, usually under the pretence of doing good. I’m sure this is part of the whole role-playing game thing starting out as a war game.

Adventurers tend to be rather insane by normal people’s standards – players are acting out heroic fantasy plots and have no reasonable expectation of actually dying, and their characters might also be able to be brought back to life. There’s no reason not to fight a duel on a tightrope over a chasm filled with spikes. If you’re really lucky, the spikes are on fire and the rope is poisoned. It’s an opportunity to act out the most ridiculous action scenes, so why wouldn’t you?

The adventurer protagonists of Fighting Fantasy books have even crazier ideas. When confronted with a well, is your first thought to climb down it? In these books, it might well be. The limited options presented in the text sometimes don’t appear too logical, and this is because they’re often there to pose risk/reward conundrums for the readers. But as has been noted elsewhere, this is also the thought process of the main character. Sometimes this makes for silly scenarios, but I can live with it. After all, I’m the one who carried a chair around a hobgoblin lair to throw at someone because the rest of the party killed the hobgoblins in the mess hall before I could play out bar room brawl clichés.**

Some key points about adventurers in the books I’m focussing on are as follows:

Adventurers Kill Wizards – This is the stereotypical Fighting Fantasy plot, thanks to the first two books being about taking out wizards. A quick scan of the first thirty shows roughly half are about killing wizards. Two words: Growth. Industry.

Adventurers are Drawn to Dungeons – There must be some kind of natural force emanated by underground complexes filled with lethal traps and dangerous monsters that draws adventurers in. Caves, catacombs, cellars, and crypts all exhibit this same power. Why else would anyone willingly walk into the Deathtrap Dungeon?***

Adventurers are Poorly Prepared – Who in their right mind walks into some of these situations with a single weapon, a boiled leather cuirass, and some lunch? Adventurers, that’s who. If I think about this for too long I start to fret, since in other role-playing games I can’t imagine going on a quest without fifty feet of rope, a dozen iron spikes, and a cheese press.

Adventurers are Idiots – “Oh hey there’s a vase that is mysteriously black inside, I’ll stick my hand in it.” and “I’ll climb down this well, what’s the worst that can happen?” are indicative of a tendency towards reckless stupidity. Then there’s the eating random unidentified items, or drinking mysterious substances. I won’t even go into the bit where kicking in the doors of random cottages is considered a normal day at the office. Then there’s the start of Eye of the Dragon where the main character drinks poison as part of a deal.

So basically, adventurers in FF books are badly prepared professional wizard-killing fools who are magnetically drawn to underground complexes. All right then.

*Stereotypically, but that’s what people fall back to. Also, the feminine counterpart comes with certain cultural baggage.
**I might tell the tale of how that turned out at some point.
***Oh, don’t worry, I’ll get there eventually.

The Rules

The Fighting Fantasy rules are simple enough. You roll one die and add six for skill and luck, and two dice plus twelve for stamina. Skill is your general combat prowess, quick thinking, dexterity, and so on. Stamina is your life total, and also sometimes physical strength. Luck is, well… an ever dwindling sign you’re going to die due to non-monster related factors. They’re the core statistics, and feature in every book. Other stats are relative to the setting and the book, such as the ones for a player’s magical power, or their force of will, or their starship, or armies, or the crew of a pirate ship, or a heavily armed and armoured car for cruising through a post apocalyptic wasteland (no, really, there’s a book about that).

The general fantasy rules are that the player gets ten units of unidentified provisions. Some books tell the player when to eat, and penalise them for having no food. Others let players eat at any time, and restore stamina points. This is a bit silly, and yet also very convenient since combat can be brutally unfair. The other general fantasy rule is that the player gets a magic potion, which restores either skill, stamina, or luck. This is not guaranteed, since some books take this item away, and it always seems to me that a potion of fortune is the best bet, since skill doesn’t go down often (unless you’re an idiot, like me), and provisions are a magical cure-all. I sometimes wonder why potions of healing even exist on Titan, considering the philosopher’s stone could probably be derived from a cheese sandwich.

Other than the consumables, the player gets a sword, leather armour, and a backpack. Possibly some gold to spend on souvenirs, and I’d assume a good pair of boots. Non-fantasy settings have other generic gear. If this seems like a lightweight kit for a bold adventurer, remember that the goal here is to recklessly charge into danger and kill some monsters and take their stuff, not to be a well-equipped adventurer ready for anything like those show-offs in Dungeons and Dragons with their iron spikes, 50 feet of rope, and ten foot poles for poking at suspiciously chequered floors from a safe distance (which is why, incidentally, falling blocks of stone should be twelve feet square).

Generally, combat is a matter of rolling some dice for each combatant, adding skill scores, and seeing who won. The loser of the round loses 2 stamina points (optionally, double or half if lucky), and this continues until someone dies. Usually the player. Some of the monsters have a skill of ten or more. Some of the final villains have skill scores that are ridiculous, like Xakhaz’s 14 skill. With an average roll of 7, that means he’s getting a 21 or higher attack strength most of the time, so I’d need a skill of 12 and to roll 10 or higher more than half the time… What the hell? I’m reading Beneath Nightmare Castle last.

My personal rules are to play the book through for some kind of outcome that isn’t dying in the first couple of combats, and play properly. I have a fundamental problem though: I know the plots for many of them too well. I tried reading the first book in the Sorcery! series a year before starting this blog, and it was a cakewalk. Likewise, Forest of Doom posed no challenge at all. Once I got started, I found I can remember the way through too many of them. This sort of skews the play through when it’s an easy book, and will make the harder ones too short. So, I’ll give it two or three tries and take whatever gives the best tale of adventure. I will possibly rejig stats as well: If Citadel of Chaos is supposedly possible with the lowest scores, then I should probably try that out…

The Fighting Fantasy Series

Fighting Fantasy is a line of books that takes the numbered paragraphs and limited decision making options familiar to people who have heard of the Choose Your Own Adventure books and their clones, and throws in a roleplaying system. The advantage of these books is that you don’t need a group of people to enjoy the fun of goblin-slaughtering. Laugh if you will, but it was 1982 and people couldn’t just hit up a search engine to find other people who were into the same obscure hobbies.

The books came out of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (co-founders of Games Workshop) getting the idea that this Dungeons and Dragons business might work especially well in a single player gamebook – after all, a D&D module was basically a list of numbered entries anyway – and they came up with a simplified game system that used dice the average person would either have, or could acquire with ease. The typical role-playing enthusiast considers dice with sides totalling more or less than six to be child’s play, since they move in a world of Platonic solids and their bastard cousin the pentagonal trapezohedron, but back then anyone who picked a book up that said “You need a pencil, eraser, and one each of a four, six, eight, ten, twelve, and twenty-sided die” would stare it it in confusion and then put it back gingerly, wondering if crazy was catching.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published in 1982, and it did quite well. Now they had the hang of writing gamebooks, they worked on the later ones alone, producing the next six volumes, as well as starting Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series. Supply couldn’t keep up with demand, so in 1984 they started getting other writers in, the first being the other Steve Jackson*, just to confuse everyone. Despite being primarily fantasy themed, the range of books covers various kinds of science fiction, horror, and even superheroes. They’re all good, but the fantasy books are a deep and bountiful mine of fantasy roleplaying clichés, which is always fun.

The line of books died out in the 1990s, because computer games were becoming sophisticated enough to include graphics, gameplay, and plot all at the same time, along with with music and voice acting. This was an amazing time where computers were the future and everyone would be on computers and it would be so amazing and wonderful and… actually that sort of talk has been going on for about thirty-plus years now. But the rise of decent computer games was the death of these books, right? Well, not really. Wizard books picked up the line in 2002, and apparently these are doing well enough to warrant a reissue. There’s something about these books that appeals to people. The target market was always seen as children (despite Jackson and Livingstone wanting The Warlock of Firetop Mountain to be marketed to all ages) and yet there seems to be plenty of people reading them for a nostalgia trip and finding them rather exciting.

So, why am I writing all this? Because I decided it would be fun to play through the books (not in order, I’d need to be madly wealthy for that. Things may stall when I run out of books for a while) and regale readers with the tales of idiotic adventure. Oh yes, idiotic: Some of the options presented to the player are things like, “there’s a well, do you want to climb down it?” – this is the book prompting the reader to choose between two things, thus it’s the thought process of the protagonist. This makes a surprising amount of sense. When you think about the fact that the protagonist is almost always a sword wielding madwoman** who thinks it would be a good idea to go into a place filled with danger and likely death. Adventurers are idiots. It wouldn’t be nearly so fun if they weren’t.

*The founder of Steve Jackson Games, sometimes referred to as “Steve Jackson (2)” in discussion of Fighting Fantasy books.
**The protagonist is – usually, barring slip ups – genderless in the text, the whole point being to make it accessible for anyone. I’ll be vocally angry about failures.

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