Thursday, January 4, 2024

#16 - "Seas of Blood" by Andrew Chapman (1985)


Seas of Blood is Andrew Chapman's third and final contribution to the mainline Fighting Fantasy series. And that's a shame, because he really hits his stride here with a well-written piratical picaresque full of variety and fun twists on old-school D&D tropes. The plot is wholly amoral, concerned only with the acquisition of treasure by any means fair or foul, including but not limited to: banditry; fraud; gambling; piracy (expected); being disguised with unlawful intent; obtaining financial advantage through deception; collecting or making documents likely to facilitate terrorist acts; public nuisance; carrying out work without a building permit; giving false or misleading information to tax officers; injuring with intent to injure; and, oh yeah, actual human slave-trading (yikes!!!)

This blatant skullduggery removes the usual cognitive dissonance of playing a "hero" who commits the indiscriminate violent killings that are typically required to get through these books. Paragraph 400 comprises of you yelling "I am the greatest rascal, the best sacker of cities!" in the face of your rival "Abdul the Butcher", a pallet-swapped dirtbag. In this story, you are doing Just Pirate Tings and people should not expect anything better of you.  

This will be a short and hard-won post, despite and even because of my esteem for this book. How so?

(a) There's not much wrong with it (other than ethically), plus; 

(b) it's punishingly difficult and I didn't get very far at all.

Between those facts, there's a little material for me to mean-spiritedly riff upon, which has always been 90% of what powers these posts. Has this catty little bitch finally had his claws clipped? Let's see how we go. 



The intro is brief yet evocative. You're an infamous pirate captain based in the lawless city of Tak. You and Abdul the Butcher are recognised by lesser pirates as the "kings of daring and greed". Each of you habitually squanders the spoils of your raids on the pokies and it's during one such session out the back of the RSA that someone suggests you and Abdul should have a contest to settle once and for all which of you is the greater pirate i.e. which of these two human turds is REALLY the biggest scumbag of all time. There is no veneer over your murder and other villainous exploits, the evil wizard Bombo Trombo sn't gathering all the green-skinned people for a big protest march or whatever - you're an actual pirate whose usual depredations are being accelerated by a pointless dick-measuring contest. How refreshing!

The contest requires each captain to travel south from Tak to the Isle of Nippur in 50 days, gathering as much plunder as possible along the way. If you make it on time and have more gold to show than the other guy, you win! What a concept, could be an early 21st Century reality show!

The intro is followed by a map which, to my delight, is actually useful when you play through the book.

That is.... not a bad map actually.

Rolling Up My Dude

LUCK - 10

Not loving that SKILL 8. But, as the captain of the good ship Banshee, I don't need to be that tough because I have a crew to fight for me, right? Yep, Seas of Blood has additional stats and rules for the strength of your crew plus an abstract approximation of how many of them are still alive. Basically just SKILL & STAMINA.


Huh........ okay. My crew's a little sub-par too. Well no worries, I'm sure my pirate cunning will carry us through. There's a reason I'm known as the main king of daring and greed, not to be confused with other guy, the that weird meat-themed guy, right? Right????

Another innovation in this book is that you need to keep track of time, because if it takes you more than 50 days to reach Nippur, you lose. You add the count of days in your log whenever you travel, and the healing mechanic for your STAMINA is 1 point healed for every day you add to your log. Very elegant!

The Adventure

As you know, my modus operandi is to play through with TOTAL CHARACTER IMMERSION, to completely adopt the mindset of the protagonist and in doing so, reverse engineer a fully fledged human psyche and personality from the options and outcomes presented in the gamebook. Then, after a few short years of occasional rumination, I write up my findings for you. 

So excellent and rigorous is my method that usually the original text cannot bear its suffocating weight, and it collapses into absurdity. Then, I get to hypocritically point and make fun. Seas of Blood however, is frustratingly good. It... it holds up.

In my earlier drafts of this post, I had a series of (unfinished) "Captayne's Logge" entries written in cod-Shakespearean English that dramatised the rivalry of Abdul the Butcher and his foe, "Bennie the Baker" (me) - who unlike Abdul, didn't get his nick-name because he ground his enemies' bones into flour or burned them up in a big oven or whatever. He actually was a baker of bread, and his entanglement in piracy was a wacky comedy of errors, full of thrills and spills to delight the whole family! Or so I intended -  yet unfortunately, that whole exercise turned out over-wrought and under-funny. It now lives in its fabulous new home: the fucking rubbish bin. It's said writers must be ready to kill their babies - but before I finally capped him in the back of the head, this infant was already sitting in the last row of high school biology class, wiping boogers under the desk and practicing drawing naked ladies. Truly a sad day for literature! Live and learn I suppose... (very slowly, in my case).

Bennie the Baker lays in a hangi.

So anyway let me give just give you the bullet points of my grand career as a swashbuckler:

  • I decide to go the Scythera Desert to "plunder the rich western caravans" because I'm a contrarian and wanted to get some desert banditry in. Boarding merchant ships on the high seas is so played out! Leave that shit for "lame-stream" buccaneers like Abdul. Imma park my boat and go shoplifting.
  • My crew and I spend three highly unpleasant days camped out in the dunes, during which nothing happens, not even an attack by NEEDLE-FLIES. Bloody-minded and foolish to the end, "Bennie the Baker" decides to double-down and just keep waiting, even as our food and water dwindles. "This loaf is gonna rise for sure, fellers!" he assures his men. "You just gotta have the patience of a master baker - like me, 'Baker Bennie'. Mark my words lads, we'll be dining on fresh crumpets before you can say yo-ho-o!"
  • To which: "What," say the crew of degenerate sea dogs.
  • At last, a gang of LIZARD MEN mounted on weird 8-legged diplodocus thingies shamble into sight of our ambush.
  • We attack them, and they slaughter us to a man.
  • ...
  • That's it.
  • That's the end.
  • That was the whole adventure. 
  • RIP Bennie.
Yeah, I got pwned by a bunch of wrinkly web-footed dorks in little kilts :(

Failure and Death 


Notable Encounters

My personal list of fave encounters in this book is dauntingly long and impressively diverse. There's a highly satisfying variety of settings and types of challenge, from dungeons crawls, traps, social encounters, underwater adventure, naval combat, weird magic, et cetera.  It has the vibe of an old-school D&D hex-crawl combined with an Jack Vance rewrite of Homer's Odyssey, except Odysseus plunders everywhere he goes and everything bad that happens is his own fault.  
This bit from Golden Axe more or less happens too.

Since I procrastinated and avoided this post for so long, I even toyed with the idea of adapting it into a 5e D&D module and publishing that instead. As if that would be more achievable? I think there might be a flaw in my method - "I'm not going to finish, because I might start an even bigger piece of work instead".

Anyway in case I really do make that hex-crawl (I won't), let me just touch on a couple of episodes here. One of the things I consider innovative about Seas is the relatively high proportion of encounters that can be resolved with narrative choices rather than via combat dice rolls - the only earlier precedent I can recall is the boss fight with Balthus Dire in Citadel.
As an example, exploring one of the islands you may stumble across Dave Bautista in Barnie Rubble cosplay:


The GIANTS object to you crossing their territory. In a typical FF book, this would just be a straight combat encounter with maybe an alternative solution if you have a jar of protein powder or somesuch macguffin in your pack to buy them off with. And sure enough you can just send your crew to scrap with them and roll it out on the 2d6. However, you can instead propose a contest and "being simple souls with simple tastes, they agree wholeheartedly" - leading to further choices about the nature of the contest and what tactics to use. This can lead to insta-death or severe injury, but in the best possible outcome the GIANTS are so impressed by your gumption that they join your crew. Which we can agree is sick as hell.

The most extensive example is an unavoidable brawl with a CYCLOPS at the end of the book which is a whole branching series of moves and counter-moves that you must select from, keeping track of you and your foes' STAMINA scores as you go.
A working knowledge of contemporary 1980s self-defence techniques is invaluable at this point to determine your most effective move.

The pages of this self-defence manual have browned at the edges just the same way as my Fighting Fantasy collection, or indeed a genuine Pirate Treasure Map.

I do have one minor quibble to level at the book, and without any angle on genuine absurdism in this review I will resort to "Cinema Sins" style pedantry and air it.
Fantasy, as a genre, is highly derivative of history. You can summarise most fantasy settings as something like "cod-medieval Europe", "cod-Roman Republic", "cod-Byzantine", "cod-Viking", "cod-Persian", etc. It gives a foundation and short-hand for the general society & technology level of your setting that authors can then focus on the points of divergence - often a magic system - and teasing out all the implications of this. You know, what if the French Revolution but there's telepathy and Louis XVI is a vampire. This is totally fine and as a history buff something I enjoy about the genre - in fact, when authors try to go their own way and consciously avoid parallels with real world history, I believe they frequently struggle, because all that short-hand context you lift for free from history is helping the audience as much as the author.
Anyway in Seas of Blood, Chapman is clearly going for a Bronze Age Mediterranean vibe, Jason and the Argonauts type steelo. Exhibit A - the cover,  in which a hydra molests what is I suppose a trireme, bireme or a monotreme or whatever with nothing less than a bloody amphora on the sail: symbolic of the material culture of the era, and anachronistic in that it's something exciting to future archaeologists but more or less disposable to people of the time. (Imagine if you will a modern yacht flying the symbol of a plastic 6-pack ring or a barrel of toxic waste).
Jason and the Argonauts has an excellent SKELETON Count and, come to think of it, is  the right vintage to have been a formative influence on writers in the Golden Age of Fighting Fantasy.
Consistent with this, biremes are depicted in an encounter where you accidentally drift into the midst of a naval battle between two rival city-states - another cool concept for an encounter BTW.

Best believe the guys pulling those oars aren't getting paid either.

Elsewhere, you may run afoul of these guardsmen in period appropriate sandals and little skirts.

A warm welcome from the staff at "Centurions" bath-house

All cool and good - Harryhausen style nautical adventure is a sick vibe to nail. But! I'm not sure if the same artist was used throughout and/or inconsistent art direction was given. Elsewhere ships are depicted as 15th Century carracks.

I almost called this a caravel but I thought if I'm gonna be pedantic I better do some research.

Elsewhere some cross-eyed bro shows up all high chivalry in chain mail and a tricked-out hoss like he's gonna joust you after sniffing a lady's handkerchief or something.

This dude really takes a raw dump on the Sinbad vibes.


So yeah, something was slightly off. DING! Murray's a hack. This is what I'm reduced to.

And get one final, unrelated jab in at the art - there's an encounter where you can re-enact the tragic opening scenes of Island of the Lizard King, I can only assume this was a reverential tribute on the part of Chapman. 

While the illustration is thrilling and evocative, the anatomy of a CRAB clearly remains a matter of speculation.

The guys sitting in the foreground is the audience surrogate, tear-streaked and paralysed by memories of sweet Mungo.



Chapman limits himself to but a single SKELETON squirreled away in the corner of a fun little mini-dungeon. It is a normal looking and unsuspicious dead SKELETON with golden rings on one hand, but if you attempt to pilfer them, it suddenly grabs your arm and won't let go! "The supernatural grip proves stronger than your mortal strength or human weapons. Your death comes slowly from hunger and thirst."

What a gyp! Pretty sure you could chop your own arm off and maybe take a 2 SKILL point penalty plus 3 pierogis' worth of STAMINA loss, but whatever.

That coy little smile along with the fact that all the bones are still stuck together into an articulated SKELETON is a bit of a giveaway now that I think about it.

Final Thoughts

My colleague - you might say successor? - over at Deathtraps and Dungeons did not rate this one highly, but I love it. Perhaps I am going soft in my autumn years. 

The world feels fleshed out, there are regional power struggles and a history only alluded to within the book. It gives a satisfying suggestion that the world existed prior, and will persist beyond the hapless career of my pitiful Cap'n Bennie. There are at least three occasions where you can encounter sketchy characters who have history with the protagonist, and they have some past debt or grievance that complicates the adventure.
These small flourishes do much to sell the fiction, and are not typical of FF where the protagonist, as a cipher for the player, often feels like an teenager dropped in from suburban 1980s Brighton.
Reviewing Chapman's previous books, I popped off a few shots about inconsistent effort in the prose. Here he hits his stride and both tonally and in terms of imagination, and the execution reads consistently throughout. I alluded to Jack Vance earlier, which is maybe a stretch, but something of the cynical humour and the unalloyed self-interest of the characters hits a Vancian tone. For instance when you attack one merchant ship, it turns out one of the passengers is a Warlock and he summons a SHADE which flies over the water to attack you. Should you prevail, the crew and other passengers tie the Warlock up and throw him overboard to mollify you. "Forgive us for harbouring such an unworthy fellow! We place ourselves at your bountiful mercy!" Something about this fusion of fantastical imagination and cynicism about human nature feels Vancian to me, and very amusing.

I say I love Seas of Blood for the tone and the content - in terms of gamebook design, yeah it's way too hard with a great many arbitrary random deaths. Mechanical difficulty aside, the feel of this hex-crawl is head and shoulders above comparable predecessors such as Forest and Swamp, and the crew battle, time tracking and travel mechanics - that actually reward looking at the map in the front of the book! - are small but welcome innovations.

At this point we must sadly bid farewell to Andrew Chapman in the series - he did work on an interesting two-player FF off-shoot Clash of Princes, which I played as a child but do not own copies of today. Not long after this he understandably spat the dummy at publisher Penguin over authorship credits, as he recounts on his blog, and never worked with them again. 

Clash of the Princes is the kind of thing I might hypothetically review as a victory lap after finishing the mainline series. But well... you all can see the pace I work at. I'm aging just as fast as my audience - one day every 24 hours. Blood's still pumping though! Keep an eye on the horizon, you scurvy dogs!

Belated congrats to Sir Ian Livingstone, who was knighted since my last post...?!? What the heck?!?



  1. Wonderful stuff, and glad to see you're still at it!

  2. Yes! Welcome back!

    I've always liked this one too. I don't think it quite works, but it's almost there, and the concept is great. I love that the challenge involves both a race and the acquisition of wealth; YOU really have to think about where you're going and weigh up which destinations are worthwhile.

    (I think this is one area of weakness, now I think of it; it never feels like YOU are that well-informed about the area, so there's more guesswork than I'd like.)

    I've also long thought it would make a good basis for a tabletop rpg campaign.

  3. Amazing! I'm so glad you've broken the "The Rings of Kether" barrier, which is where FF blogs often seem to come to a halt for some reason. It would be great to hear your take on "Appointment with F.E.A.R", as it's a bit out of the ordinary, here's hoping..:)

  4. Hurrah! You're back!

    Totally agree that this "could be an early 21st Century reality show". Indeed, in a playthrough I wrote many years ago, I came up with the title I'm a Pirate, Get Me Out of Yarrr!

    1. Damn, that's the line I needed! Rather than waving my arm in the general area a joke would go.

    2. I was going to say Brig Brother, but then I checked and a brig is an 18-century vessel, and I know that Murray wouldn't let that shit fly. So, I'll fall back on I'm a Pirate, Get Me Privateers.

  5. Look forward to reading the next post, in 2027.

  6. Always a lovely surprise to find a new post every couples of years!! I think you are right about the Vance influence as this review of Clash of the Princes highlights clear Vancian references in that.

  7. I somehow died to that skeleton trap twice in a row, with maybe a few months between plays. The skeletal awesomeness must have trumped my memory (or I am just daft).

    1. Would that mean on the third play through the SKELETON is unable to grab you, as it is still clutching hard to the mouldering remains of previous Mikes?

  8. Great to see you back Murray!

    I've fond memories of this one too, especially the Cyclops fight (It's particularly satisfying when the option opens up to sock him in the eye).The scene with the warlock was clearly also a fave of Chapman, as he reuses it in Clash of the Princes (except YOU get to be the Warlock casting shade across the waves at an enemy vessel).

    Speaking of which, I'm going to throw a suggestion out there: how about you and John (of Deathtraps and Dungeons) do a collab playthrough of CotP? The clunky co-op play mechanism should provide plenty of fuel for the LOLs, and advances in technology since 1986 ought to make sending the occasional intercontinental page reference pretty straight forward...

  9. Welcome back! It's a nice late Christmas present to see a new entry on this excellent blog! Please post again relatively soon!

  10. Some may say successor, but not me haha. Thank you Murray though, very kind of you. Glad you really enjoyed this one. Thats the great thing about these books, we all have different opinions on them. And to like it despite a disastrous playthrough as well!

    Making your character a baker to go up against a butcher is a stroke of genius. And if you ever published the Captayne's Logge I would be all in for that! I bet it was brilliant and find myself giggling just of the idea of it!

    So glad you are back sir and really looking forward to your take on Appointment with F.E.A.R!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I've done my playthrough of Appointment now and come up with an angle on how to write about it. So hopefully will build some momentum from here.

  11. Excellent review as always - and not only because your feelings towards this underrated book line up with mine. It is indeed great to see FF go full GTA, even with Chapman dithering over whether YOU are a fake-Sinbad, ersatz-Odysseus or pseudo-Eustace the Monk. And where else in the series do you get to punt a Cyclops in the plums? Here's hoping the catty bitch has enough claws left for a couple more books at least.