Sunday, June 6, 2010

So What Is The Deal Here Exactly

Thanks to the bounty of true friendship, I have recently come into possession of two wine-boxes full of old-school Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (big thanks to my boys Dave Hall and Michael Zanzibar Currie!). As a low-stakes exercise in writing I intend to work my way through these books actually playing them properly, and write up my impressions of the experience. This will continue until all books are exhausted, or more likely, until I lose interest.

Before going any further I should also acknowledge my conceptual debt to the Fighting Dantasy blog, which basically did this whole thing already (though to avoid spoilers I haven't read it). What I can say is that I will be bringing something fresh in the form of a far more obsessive approach to estimating how many SKELETONS there are in each book (my working hypothesis is - yes, there are a lot of skeletons in these books). Possibly I will be more of a dick about the plot and the artwork also.

Here is some background on Fighting Fantasy for the uninitiated:

The basic idea of a FF book is that YOU are the hero. Every book in the series trumpets this fact on the blurb (and there are more than 50). So what does this mean. Apart from being written in the second person, these books have a branching storyline, structured as a series of passages numbered 1 to 400. At the end of most passages you are given two or more choices of what to do, and after making your choice you turn to the next passage as instructed.

For example, suppose you have found your way to passage #34 in my (non-existent) Fighting Fantasy fan-fic, "THE SECRETS OF SKELLYTOWN". It might look like this:

You are wandering around in some tunnels. The walls are made of dirt and they are pretty much just some ordinary tunnels in the ground. Suddenly you encounter a SKELETON who appears to be picking up trash with a long-handled pincer and putting it into a sack, while muttering to himself.
What will you do;
Draw your sword and murderously deprive a SKELETON family of their loving father and primary source of income (turn to 198)
Drop an apple core on the ground and stare at the SKELETON expectedly (turn to 373)
Loudly exclaim "O Lawdy, a SPIRIT!" before flinging your arms up in fear and comically waddling back in the other direction (turn to 4)

This continues until you lose (generally by dying) or, through the correct set of choices, make it to passage 400, where you are told that you did a good job.

Some readers may be more familiar with this concept from the inferior "Choose Your Own Adventure" series, which was targeted at a slightly younger audience and generally contained only about four actual choices per story. Primary school libraries were teeming with these.

An example of the inferior "Choose Your Own Adventure" series:
Edward Packard's "You Are A Shark"

On the other hand, Fighting Fantasy books were generally not available from school libraries, perhaps because of their supernatural themes, high levels of sword violence, and tendency to be ruined by kids writing "MAGIC SORD" under "Inventory" in the Character Sheet, pressing so hard that the words ghost through fifty pages of the book.

A comparison: The "Choose Your Adventure" logo vs. the "Fighting Fantasy" logo.
One, a tranquil hot air balloon, adrift without occupants, soothing to tiny babies and school librarians alike. 
The other, a dagger with some kind of evil monster face on the handle, which at the age of 9 was the most pants-wettingly badass thing I had never conceived. 

Rolling the Bones
Fighting Fantasy also added some simple dice-roll mechanics and the titular "fighting" to the branching storyline concept. In most of the books, you roll up some initial stats for your character which influence your ability to survive combat and some other outcomes. These are:

SKILL - basically how good you are at beating things up. Determined by rolling one die and adding 6, so you get a number between 7 and 12. Combat works by rolling one dice two dice each for yourself and your opponent, and adding your respective SKILLS to the score. I would give an example to illustrate this but I very much doubt anyone who doesn't already know how this works would care.

STAMINA - how much of a beating you can take before dying. Determined by rolling two dice and adding 12, giving a result between 14 and 24. You lose STAMINA from food poisoning, barking your shin, getting rolled on by monsters, etc. You restore STAMINA by eating provisions, continuing a grand tradition in gaming whereby the effects of getting stabbed twice in the guts can be immediate allayed by eating a salad.

LUCK - calculated as per SKILL, one dice roll + 6. LUCK is used at various points to determine a random outcome. You are asked to Test Your Luck, basically you roll two dice and if the result exceeds your LUCK score you are Unlucky (turn to 133), otherwise you're Lucky (turn to 77). Every time you're lucky your LUCK score reduces by one, which is probably offensive to statisticians, but that's the rules.

You can also use LUCK during combat to change the amount of STAMINA damage from a strike, but seriously, what nine-year-old could ever be bothered with that horse-shit.

A real-world example: At this point in his life, I estimate Arnie had SKILL 11, STAMINA 24 and a LUCK of 12.

If all of this sounds like a gateway to more intensely nerdy activities such as Dungeons & Dragons that's because it was.

 Dice abuse: Fledgling nerds are often introduced to the d6 through mainstream boardgames such as Monopoly -  "harmless fun" which all-too-often leads the unsuspecting user to more hardcore polyhedrons such at the d4 and the d20

Failure and Death
The instructions for FF state quite clearly that if you "die" or otherwise lose the game, either in combat, through bad decisions, or at Steve Jackson's whim, you have to go back, re-roll your stats and start again from the beginning. However, myself and I suspect most other kids playing Fighting Fantasy weren't trying to hear that shit. Nobody wants to re-read large sections of the book nine times in a row, advancing a little closer to the "one true path" by tiny increments. Nor indeed get to the final fight and fail due to unlucky dice rolls, then read through the exact same series of actions to reach the same point again (with another chance at dying in each fight along the way). So in practice, like many others I usually skipped the fights and just assumed that I  won them. On a Test Your Luck, I was always lucky. Worse yet, I also cheated on the choices, keeping a finger between pages after making a decision, so that if it turned out badly I could go back to a previous passage and do over. At times, in complicated stories, I may have had six or more fingers wedged into various sections of the book which made a normal page-turn a gamble against the whole thing eluding my control and flapping bird-like from my hand to vanish into nearby mounds of cat-puke, wasp nests, storm drains, etc (Test Your Luck).

I recall a few occasions in which I started playing properly, using the dice, but I do not believe I ever completed a game without cheating. The authors of FF books gave every impression of being totally aware of this kind of behaviour and utterly incensed by it. As the series wore on, various mechanisms were employed to confound cheaters, some of them quite elaborate (more on those as we encounter them).

In penance for my poor moral character as a nine-year-old, I re-iterate now that I will actually be playing by the rules. I will also attempt only one play-through of each book. This almost certainly means I will not be reaching passage 400 very often, indeed, some of my experiences with these books may be very brief and more than a little bitter.

The Creators
A quick brief now on the two creators of the FF series, who together are probably responsible for about 60% of the total contents of my imagination - Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone.

Roguish Steven "Steve" Jackson tended to focus on innovation in game mechanics in his gamebooks, introducing new rulesets and new settings such as sci-fi and horror. He also seemed to be the more sadistic of the pair, his books are typically difficult to win (even by cheating), and sometimes require the reader to make maps or even learn basic cryptography techniques to succeed.

For this reason he is known among some FF players as "Fucking" Steve Jackson, a crude nickname but nevertheless still an affectionate one.

According to Wikipedia, since the 1980s Ian Livingstone has been awarded both an OBE and "lifetime presidency" of a software company - presumably because he wrote "Deathtrap Dungeon". Unlike Steve, Ian tended to leave the core rules as they were, and seems to have focused on developing the history and flavour of the main gameworld of Fighting Fantasy. His books are more likely to feature recurring characters and locations. Evidence also suggests that Ian had a great fondness for pitting the reader against SKELETONS, and as the FF series continued readers often found themselves stumbling across SKELETONS embroiled in increasingly compromising situations.

OKAY. It is now my bedtime.  Tomorrow I will begin playing book 1, "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" - I will roll up my stats right now and here they are:

SKILL - 11  (oo, that is decent)
STAMINA - 16  (meh)
LUCK - 8 (meh)

That's what I'll be working with.



  1. Also worth noting that these two started the monster that would become Games Workshop (Of Space Marine fame)

  2. you are awesome. i am definately going to enjoy this.