FF1-59: Series reviews

Robert Clay
Gabriel Seah
Todd Stigliano


[Robert Clay]

Fantasy peddling titans Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone pioneered this disparate series of gamebooks during the early 1980s. Their names soon became closely associated with the booming franchise, and when their individual efforts tapered off, publishers Puffin ushered in additional authors to participate in the gamebook authoring melee, but chose not to soil the front covers with their names. Thus Steve and Ian's altruistic cover presence remained throughout the series, with the supplemental authors acquiring little fame, unlike their Ganjees-like overlords.

Each imaginatively titled 'interactive adventure' attempted various methods to disguise the inevitable linear route that comprised each 400-paragraphed gamebook. Early plots invited readers to journey through mountain, tower, forest and dungeon locales with Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Citadel of Chaos, Forest of Doom, and the oft-quoted seminal dungeon crawl, Deathtrap Dungeon. Jackson also crafted some fiendishly tricky titles such as House of Hell and Creature of Havoc.

The public's demand for the series, and gamebooks in general, began to wane towards the late '80s, but falling sales did not necessarily equate to weaker output. Dead of Night, Black Vein Prophecy, Legend of the Shadow Warriors, Moonrunner and Ian Livingstone's final effort, Legend of Zagor, were some notable examples of solid work that appeared towards the tail end of the series.

By the mid '90s however, new plots that could adhere to the relatively simplistic "FF" format seemed practically exhausted, and Puffin's inevitable gamebook implosion occurred less than 15 years after the big Fighting Fantasy bang of '82. And history looks set to repeat itself with the commercially stale rebirth by Wizard Books, who simply opted to reprint existing stock, albeit in a slightly different order, with updated covers.

An aesthetically pleasing iconic symbol of '80s youth fiction, the original numbered lime green spine paperbacks can still be seen today, in amongst charity shop bric-a-brac, second hand book shops, and eBay. For many '80s teens, Fighting Fantasy represented a never seen before exciting fusion of solitaire game play, reading, and fantasy escapism, and perhaps made reading, for some anyway, truly engaging for the very first time.

Nostalgically remembered predominately by 30-somethings today, the actual game play itself could be considered less appealing than the fondness of an ever-distant childhood memory.

Now turn to 400...


[Gabriel Seah]

General Comments

One thing that I dislike about the Fighting Fantasy system is that with the exception of Sorcery, there is no character evolution! In other words, you can't carry a character over from one book to the next. Maybe I've been biased by the Lone Wolf tradition, but NONE of the books let you carry a character over to another, and only 2 of them, Trial of Champions and Armies of Death, have you playing the same character (and this character cannot be transferred from the former to the latter). Furthermore, there are no skills which you can select. I feel that having the player select the skills he has personalises the gaming experience, and makes the game more fun. Quality of writing varies from book to book, since (despite what the book cover leads you to think) there were many writers who wrote FF books.


There are 3 main attributes : Skill, Stamina and Luck. (a few books have additional attributes, but these are the exceptions and are not covered here) These attributes measure a wide range of characteristics. Skill is a measure of the character's general and fighting ability and is calculated by rolling a six sided die and adding 6. Stamina is his "life" or hit points and also measures his will to survive. It is derived by rolling 2 six sided dice and adding 12. It measures his stamina and toughness as well. Luck is hard to define, but briefly, it is how lucky the character is. It is determined the same way as Skill - rolling a six sided die and adding 6.

Rolls are often called for against Skill, Luck and rarely, Stamina. These rolls test whether your character succedds in doing a certain task, depending on what is rolled against. For example, a roll against Skill is needed to pick a lock.


Combat is rather simple, it is divided into rounds. 2 dice are rolled for each of the combatants. The result is added to the Skill and is the Attack Strength. The person with the higher Attack Strength wounds the other for 2 stamina points. The damage system is rather too simple for my liking, though a roll for luck can be used to do more damage to the other party or lessen damage done to you.


One very overpowered part of the system, in my opinion, is the use of provisions. Provisions are food and in almost all the books, they restore 4 Stamina - as much as 1/4 a character's hit point total. This is rather overpowered for a simple meal, and they are relatively easy to acquire.

At the start of many of the early books, a Potion of (Attribute) was given to the player. These had the effect of restoring the Attribute to the initial value, maybe a touch too powerful. However, the early books were quite tough, so this is probably fair.

Many puzzles in Fighting Fantasy are irritating - they require the reader to slowly and tediously work out an answer and then to convert it into numbers, often by the system (Let A=1, B=2, C=3 etc... sum up all the numbers and turn to the section). This is extremely tiring and it is easy to lose track of the numbers, making scribbling furiously on a piece of paper a necessity.

In all or almost all of the books, one can carry unlimited items. Ridiculous, isn't it?


This system is expanded in Fighting Fantasy - the Introductory Role Playing Game. It is further developed in Advanced Fighting Fantasy. These 2 systems are like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but simpler. They let you play a role playing game with friends.

In certain books, modifications are made. For example, in the Citadel of Chaos, you have a limited amount of spells which you can cast. In Dead of Night, Moonrunner and Midnight Rogue, among others, you can choose some skills for your character which will be useful later on. Some books have a fourth attribute, which varies according to the book. For example, House of Hell has a FEAR rating which determines id you're scared to death (neat huh?)


[Todd Stigliano]

Published by Puffin Books in the UK and Dell Laurel Leaf in America, these 59 titles defined the gamebook phenomenon. Sadly, the series ceased being published in the United States after book 21 - neglecting many of the more original texts: such as a monster who forgets how or why he was created (Creature of Havoc) or a small farm boy in the grip of a tyranny (The Crimson Tide).

High Skill, Stamina and Luck Scores
How in the world did a gamebook series like Fighting Fantasy reach fifty-nine published volumes?

Each book is completely singular with no provision for developing a character across storylines.

Each setting differs from fantasy to science fiction to horror; and the creators of the series don't even write as much after book 11 - instead endorsing newly written titles by different authors by "We _present_ this book."

Even the gaming system is simple and allows for little variation other than the occasional special attack or spell.

Plus this gaming system proclaims that, in the majority of cases, two opponents in combat have the ability to inflict the exact same amount in damage every turn (unless they're "lucky" in which case this damage varies by one) regardless of weaponry, and it is the only aspect of the series that remains the same.

Without a doubt, Fighting Fantasy is the standard that other gamebooks were and are judged by. And, unfortunately, most non-FF gamebooks, in what seems to be efforts in being creatively distinct, are drastically distinct and fall far short in their respective abilities to generate the same level of page-flipping suspense. An analogy of this distinction would be someone inventing the automobile and someone else saying, "Yes. All good. But the wheels must go. Use cheesecake instead. It tastes better."

Indeed, the creative guidelines invented by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone seem as apparent as automobile wheels; in fact, we're thinking about requiring an intonation of them every morning as a kind of chant.

*Pacing.* Remember the "game" in "gamebook". Keep text entries sharp and concise with decision points and encounters occurring ASAP. Save long exposition about a character's secret love of hay for linear novels.

*Sensory Description.* For the most part, don't waste space describing what the reader's character is thinking. Instead, write effectively into the five human senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch and let the reader's own experience fuel the imagination.

*Roll the Dice and Be Done With It.* If only role playing game companies came to grips with this realization, paper RPGs would not be on their way out. A "better system" is more elusive and less enjoyable than a better written adventure. Again (automobile analogy warning), if your old car is working fine, why buy a new one if all you're going to do is drive to work anyways. Sure, you'll play with all the new gadgets and maybe even drive to work a little faster but then... you should be aware of what you're doing... you're only driving to work... faster...

[stepping onto soapbox]

It is our belief that most role playing game companies, with their seemingly endless new editions of rules (in the name of some sort of "evolution"), are just driving to work every day.

[stepping down from soapbox]

Instead, the little econo-hatchback that is the Fighting Fantasy game system is a fuel-efficient vehicle (with no air and an AM radio) that allows the reader to explore and interact with an altogether different universe at almost every new volume. It allows for a little variation--including a clever magic system in Steve Jackson's Sorcery! series--but, more importantly, does not vary so much that a fan of the series would have to learn a new set of rules each book.

In the "gamebook boom" of the mid to late 1980's, purchasing from any other gamebook series would require you to Test Your Luck.