‘You are an adventurer in a world of monsters and magic, living by quickness of wit and skill of sword.’
Reading those words for the first time as a young child sent a tingle of excitement that you were entering a world where you decided what happened. It seemed something new and unique, that you didn’t follow the narrative but decided what action the hero took. Also who didn’t want to be in a world of cut throats, goblins, wizards, and monsters?
All that was needed were two dice (easy to get from your board games) a pencil, and a bit of paper to mark your skills, stamina, luck, and all the other notes that you needed. Sometimes you were given the opportunity of choosing say a potion or a particular skill.
It sounds a relatively simple game and after all it was meant to be an introduction to the fun of dungeon and dragons but the stories were gripping and enthralling. They were also a challenge that showed no sentiment or allowed the reader an easy ride to a happy ending. There were choices and sometimes picking the wrong path or item could result in a grisly end.
Like many others I did intend to play properly but after a few frustrated deaths that dice roll of one again for skill would mean that was a ‘test roll,’ mainly until it was a five or preferably a six. Then there was the opening of a door and ‘a wizard robs you of two skill points and all your money.’ A little cough would follow and ‘I wasn’t going to go into that room anyway,’ with you choosing the other option. That was part of the charm but even then a dice roll or wrong choice could see your adventure coming to an abrupt end.
The covers and the illustrations were pretty cool as well but it was that excitement that you decided the fate of the hero. It helped that the books were well written and painted a colourful picture. Instantly you were sent down a helter skelter of a slide to another world where the characters and even the smells seemed real.
More than anything it was the words and the language that was used. It was ‘you see an old tavern with the words The old Toad.’ It’s quite subtle in some respects but rather than saying ‘John goes to…’ it’s you… Already you are involved as every action is described as though it is you walking through the town or even paying an innkeeper.
Once you took on the mission and turned that page over you were instantly plunged into a dilemma as though it was real-time. Was it safe to go down that dodgy lane or play safe by going the long way across the field? Should you help that man lying on the floor or open the door with loud noises inside the room?
It wasn’t as straight forward as you think and that was the beauty of the books. Once you made that decision there was no going back, (unless you cheated of course but there was still that buzz of debating what you should do next). Even doing the perceived right thing of helping someone could see you get into a fight or have a skill, stamina, or a luck point deducted.
Incidentally testing your luck was literally a dicey thing. After being prompted I felt quite smug in the knowledge that I had ten points and felt that the odds were more than in my favour. Casually I threw the dices and to my horror threw a double six. There was an even sickening feeling as I turned to the relevant page as my character met a grisly death.
The books were also a puzzle were you had to follow a particular route to win. It could also be harsh in books such as ‘Warlock of Firetop mountain.’ After completing dangerous tasks and fearsome foes such as the final and hardest villain you are asked ‘did you take that key?’ a few chapters back. Feeling slightly puzzled as I didn’t take the key I turned as instructed to the no page only to find out that I had failed in my mission as I couldn’t open the chest. Instead I spent the rest of my days apparently sobbing over the elusive treasure.
‘Creature of havoc,’ was one of the toughest books that was virtually impossible to complete. With many others and after much perseverance you could complete the book. ‘Havoc,’ though relied on you not only following a particular path but as you were a creature you relied on instinct or smell your fate also relied on a particular dice roll.
In one instance I ran into a bunch of arrow wielding Elves which ended with me dying a painful death with me crying out in pathetically in pain. Re-starting through much gritted teeth I came to the same quandary of either going forward or taking another route. As I knew the outcome of the former I took as you would the latter only to find out that one of the Elves took me clean out.
It seemed that particular route meant that you were as good as dead. The only choice you had, was whether it was a clean or painful death.
Like with anything that was good there had to be a challenge and that feeling of satisfaction that you had accomplished something when you were successful. The fighting fantasy books were able to provide that and with the writing portraying a colourful world it seemed real. Your imagination was able to run wild and that tense feeling of having to make a decision that could backfire or be instrumental in completing your mission.
There were numerous books that you could buy and as with anything successful there were also rivals such as lone wolf. However like Adidas or puma football boots you either preferred one or the other. For me it was fighting fantasy and the labyrinth of different stories that could see you being a wood elf or off hunting vampires. Plus the stories were more varied and interesting.
As the genre was quite successful some television series such as Robin of Sherwood produced a couple of books were you played the ‘hooded man.’ These though were inferior in the sense that it was more harder to fail than it was to complete the adventure. It was akin to playing a team two levels below you as a kid. Once the second goal went in you knew there was only one outcome and no real joy could be taken from a routine victory.
For some unknown reason I do remember playing a football version of fighting fantasy. That was a pale imitation, a bit like drinking diet Irn Bru. Sometimes only the real McCoy will do and although you had choices it wasn’t a patch on Livingston and Jackson’s books. I can’t for the life of me remember what the plot although I think it was about a dodgy Chairman who wanted to turn the club’s ground into a supermarket.
Still on football, I suppose that you are the ref was probably a small snippet that was similar. The only difference was that if you got the decision wrong you didn’t get an outraged orc’s axe into the back of your head.
Like anything there were those that mocked fighting fantasy as a pale imitation of dungeons and dragons. Aside from the fact that they were meant to be an introduction there was if you were a big fan of books something exciting about deciding the fate of the hero.
Nostalgia can sometimes play funny tricks on the memory. Old classic computer games or old TV series such as the X files do not have that same allure that they did in their heyday. So it was with great trepidation that I bought second hand copies of the City of thieves, creature of havoc, and phantom of fear.
Turning that page still brought the familiar feeling of excitement as it did many years before. In many ways it was like feeling the weight of a football against your foot after a bad injury. There is that surge of joy coursing through your veins as you throw the dice as well as weighing up the options of your choices. It was still fun to play and the stories were well crafted to make me feel as though I was in a dodgy city attempting to take on Zanbar Bone.
The books were still as tough as ever with creature of chaos still impossible to complete. Luckily City of Thieves wasn’t as difficult although it took a few goes there was still that feeling of achievement when it was cracked.
Sometimes your imagination can provide the best entertainment and the fighting fantasy books did precisely that. All you needed was a pencil, a bit of paper, and dices to be plunged into another reality. Fighting fantasy brought all that with their charm and making you personally involved. We all need a bit of escapism which even now Livingston and Jackson’s books still bring.