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Book Review

Book Cover

Fighting Fantasy
Book 1 - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain


Authors: Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone
Wizard Books
RRP: £5.99, US $9.99, Cdn $12.00
ISBN: 978 184831075 9
Available 03 September 2009

Deep in the caverns beneath Firetop Mountain lies an untold wealth of treasure, guarded by a powerful Warlock - or so the rumour goes. Many adventures, expert swordsmen like yourself, have set off for Firetop Mountain in search of the Warlock's hoard. None has ever returned. Do you dare follow them...?

It’s been a long, long time since I picked up a Fighting Fantasy book. The mere mention of the name takes me right back to the early 1980’s when every day was summer, somebody much taller than me sorted out bills and grocery shopping, and the biggest thing I had to worry about was if I was ever going to get past level 17 of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum. (I never did, but let’s not worry about that right now.)

Back then, it was all making dens, fixing punctures on my rubbish bike, scrapping in the playground, running away from girls, and of course, the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. In pretty much that order.

When The Warlock of Firetop Mountain first hit the shelves with very little fanfare, back in 1982, I hadn’t really seen anything like it before.

That’s not to say it was the very first ‘gamebook’ as many still believe today (The US had already seen the likes of Tunnels and Trolls and the truly dreadful Choose Your Own Adventure ranges), but this book certainly has the coveted distinction of being the first one that nailed it, the one that everybody talked about, the one that really put gamebooks on the map and completely changed the landscape of fantasy books forever.

Written by Games Workshop co-founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain launched a series of books that would span a pretty incredible thirteen years and 59 official titles (plus various spin-offs, guidebooks, novels, and even a superb dedicated magazine Warlock, each issue of which would contain its own mini-adventure. I used to love that magazine, it sadly disappeared way before it’s time.)

The premise of the range was fiendishly simple. Each book would usually be split into 400 numbered paragraphs, and follow the exploits of a foolhardy adventurer on some tremendously important quest involving dragons and treasure and orcs and imposing well-dressed villains who usually live at the top of towers.

The twist is that the hero is none other than yourself, and you must guide your character through the one true path to the ultimate goal - by making the right decisions from the choices offered to you at the end of each paragraph, and then flicking furiously backwards and forwards through the pages of the book, the ongoing narrative being completely driven by the choices you make.

Oh, and if you want to play it properly, you’ll need a pencil, an eraser and two dice as well. Each book comes complete with an Adventure Sheet at the front which you can use to record your ongoing inventory of items, and your constantly fluctuating levels of Skill, Stamina and Luck.

More importantly, you can use the sheet to engage in battle with other characters and creatures in the book. Within each adventure, you will encounter various assorted villains, nasties and wee beasties from the pit of hell, most of which will need to be slain before you can venture onwards in your quest.

It’s here that Fighting Fantasy’s innovative Combat System comes into play. Whilst it could be argued that essentially this is just endless rolling of dice to simulate supposed rounds of battle with your opponent (whilst constantly rubbing out pencil scores on your Adventure Sheet, resulting in the front of your precious book becoming a horrid, tatty mess) it has to be said that Fighting Fantasy’s definitive system went unrivalled by any of its gamebook competitors, striking a perfect balance - involving and rewarding gameplay without ever getting too unwieldy and over-complicated.

And if you’re finding all this talk of dice-rolling to be a bit off-putting, then you can always feel free to completely ignore the combat rules, and simply plunge straight into the adventure - there is often enough reward in the quest itself, in making the right choices, taking the right turns, and collecting the right items, without having to roll fifteen rounds of dice to see if you defeated a Giant Earthworm.

And perhaps this is the key to the unparalleled success of the Fighting Fantasy range. Not so much the rules of gameplay, but simply the rich quality of the adventures themselves, the life that Jackson and Livingstone breathed into the entire series, ensuring that Fighting Fantasy became the number one name for gamebooks, and would dominate the market for years to come.

It could be argued that certain rival books achieved a higher level of consistent excellence in their shorter and more focused runs (and Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series would certainly give Fighting Fantasy a run for it’s money, as would Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's Way of The Tiger and Falcon books), but there’s no denying that Fighting Fantasy wins out in terms if its sheer scope, innovation, diversity, and longevity.

Between them, Jackson and Livingstone penned the majority of the very early books, and it is these titles which are widely recognized as classics of the genre. As the popularity of the series grew in the mid-'80s, and publication of new titles was stepped up, the writing stable was expanded to include new writers (one of whom was, very confusingly, also called Steve Jackson!)

There were occasional lapses in quality over the course of the next thirteen years, and indeed perhaps even a handful of quite appalling books, but on the whole, the series managed to sustain a pretty high level of consistency over the 59 titles that were released during the original run of Puffin Books.

Whilst the series would always be dominated by Sword and Sorcery-styled adventures, it would often branch out into other genres, notably science fiction, modern-day horror, and even a surprisingly brilliant stab at Superheroes.

However, these never seemed to match the popularity of the fantasy-themed books, although it took a while for Puffin to cotton onto this.

The science fiction titles in particular always proved to be deeply unpopular and yet no less than eight of them were released before Puffin finally got the message, eventually choosing to concentrate almost solely on the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan.

Sales inevitably began to decline during the '90s as the growing video gaming industry wiped the floor with silly old books about trolls and goblins. The final Puffin title was released in 1995, and it seemed that the age of Fighting Fantasy was well and truly over, something to be fondly remembered by nostalgic old men in horn-rimmed spectacles who missed the old days of rolling dice to defeat the terrifying Pool Beasts of Scorpion Swamp.

Then, from quite out of the blue, the series was picked up seven years later in 2002 by Wizard Books, who began re-releasing the classic titles with fancy new covers to entice the next generation of new readers.

These re-releases didn’t follow the order of the original run - it seems the intention was to forget about most of the lesser-known and less popular titles, and concentrate almost exclusively on the Jackson and Livingstone material.

This repackaging of the classic adventures continued for a few years and proved to be something of a hit, prompting Wizard to eventually consider commissioning new material - and eventually, in 2005, the 25th book in the Wizard run, Eye of the Dragon, had the distinction of being the first brand new Fighting Fantasy adventure in ten years, penned by none other than Ian Livingstone himself.

A couple more new adventures were to follow, but then just as things were getting interesting, the Wizard Books run seemed to come to a juddering halt after 29 books, and everything has fallen deathly quiet ever since.

However, this month (September 2009) finally sees Fighting Fantasy return from the grave once more, as Wizard have re-launched the series for a whole new repackaged run, with the classic adventures being re-released yet again, alongside brand new titles. The first book in the re-launched range is, of course, the one that started it all off back in 1982 - it could only be The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

It remains the only Fighting Fantasy book to be written by both Jackson and Livingstone, as they would pen all their subsequent titles separately.

In fact, even Warlock was not really a true collaboration - Livingstone wrote the first half of the book (leading up to the section where the hero comes across a river crossing) with Jackson taking over for the latter half.

When the publishers complained about the significant change in writing style halfway through the book, Jackson agreed to go back and re-write Livingstone’s half in his own style.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the opening half is by far the weakest - it seems surprising now how one of the most imaginative series of books ever to be published gets off to a fairly dreary start, with your character simply wandering up and down endless corridors and opening doors that lead into almost identical rooms, every one of which seems to contain a table with a box underneath it. It’s hardly gripping stuff.

Fortunately, the book soon opens out into a much more expansive adventure, and things really start to come alive once you get past that river crossing and into Jackson’s own half, where you will come across boat houses populated by Skeleton Men, as well as perhaps the most notorious maze ever to feature in a gamebook, the infamous Maze of Zagor.

As a youngster, I remember spending hours and hours trying in vain to get to the other end of this teeth-grindingly difficult maze, before throwing the book out of the window in frustration and declaring it impossible. 27 years later, I found it just a little bit easier, but it’s still an incredibly devilish part of the book.

In comparison to some of the later titles, Warlock may now seem a little basic and simplistic, perhaps even a little dated, and I’m not entirely sure what today’s kids brought up on the more sophisticated nature of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials are likely to make of it.

But there is still an undeniable glint of sheer magic in this pioneering adventure, and there’s a delicious gritty atmosphere that oozes from every paragraph, backed up by the gruesome and often quite disturbing artwork from Russ Nicholson.

And it has to be said that even an old-timer like me can still get a genuine sense of satisfaction from finally completing the quest, defeating the Warlock and nicking off with his treasure.

These repackaged volumes are slightly larger in format, and come wrapped in a stunning new embossed cover design, with elegant matching silver spines which put the original Puffin ‘rubbish light green’ spines to shame. I’m actually quite annoyed how this new uniform design makes my entire collection of the original books look rather lame in comparison.

The content is essentially the same with just minor tweaking to the rules, including a new opportunity to choose from a collection of ‘pre-rolled’ characters, so that newcomers can jump straight into the adventure without too much fuss and dice-rolling.

There is a part of me that wonders if it’s absolutely necessary to kick off the re-branded range with yet another re-release of Warlock.

Yes, it’s the obvious choice I suppose, but earlier releases of the book are still widely available, and it’s worth bearing in mind that for a few quid extra, you can still buy the 25th Anniversary deluxe hardback edition, complete with additional material and background notes that are absent here.

Also, I’m hoping that this time round, Wizard might consider re-printing some of the lesser-known titles instead of just the obvious classics - in particular, some of the later Puffin titles had a very low print run and are now fetching silly prices on eBay, so it would be nice to see some of these neglected gems repackaged and affordable.

In the meantime though, the future looks bright again for Fighting Fantasy, and the promise of more brand new material alongside the classic titles is encouraging.

Whether you’re a newcomer to the genre or an old fan keen to revisit the range, whilst it might not be the very best that the series had to offer, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain still serves as a very nice introduction to a publishing phenomenon.


Daniel Salter

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