This week's guest is Jonathan Green, master of the gamebook. As well as writing several of the notoriously awesome Fighting Fantasy series, he's the author of YOU ARE THE HERO - A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, and as if that weren't enough, he's founded the first Fighting Fantasy Fest. The Fest - the first ever Fighting Fantasy focused convention is on 7 September, and features Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, amongst many, many others (more information in the Facebook group, too).
Turn the page to begin.
I remember the day my love affair with Fighting Fantasy began quite clearly. It was bright and sunny, and I had been dragged into town to go shopping with my mother. The torment was lessened by the promise of a visit to a bookshop. As I walked through the doors, I was hit by the smell of dusty carpets and freshly-printed books – a smell I still savour today. And there, on a small display in the middle of the shop, was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. At the time I had no idea who the two authors were, but the image of the mysterious wizard summoning a dragon from his crystal ball had me gripped. Then I opened the book… I was ten years old.
No one book has had a greater impact on my life than The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. If it had not been for that book, I would not have had my first Fighting Fantasy gamebook published, which would have meant I would not have become a freelance writer, and I would not have written YOU ARE THE HERO – A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks.
To single out just five gamebooks from a list of over sixty titles is hard, but here are five which have all had an impact on my life, if only because they helped guide the choices I made in life that have lead me to where I am now.
1) The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
The plot of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is straightforward enough – hunt down the Warlock, despatching his minions along the way, with the intention of stealing his treasure. But the plot is secondary to the whole concept of the adventure itself, the game part of the gamebook experience.
This was not a book you simply read from cover to cover; you made decisions and turned to different pages throughout, directly influencing the course of the narrative. Then there were the monsters, dark denizens of a terrible fantasy world given life by the exquisite penmanship of artist Russ Nicholson – and you got to fight them too, by rolling dice!
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was aspirational. Through the reading experience I was transformed into a superhuman, sword-wielding warrior who thought nothing of going toe-to-toe with a fire-breathing dragon. The gamebook experience taught me that I was ultimately in charge of my own destiny, the decisions I made would influence the course of my life; potentially for the better, if I made the right choices.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain might not be the best gamebook ever written (although there is a certain clarity to the writing that many would do well to emulate), it might not be the most original (considering all that’s come since), but it was the book that paved the way for everything that came after. Its legacy can be found not only in other gamebook series but also in today’s mega-bucks video game franchises, which are also being reinvented for the big screen.
Atop his sinister Black Tower, the dread sorcerer Balthus Dire is making plans of conquest. The hero of the adventure is a student of the Grand Wizard of Yore, charged by King Salamon with penetrating the stronghold of the fell magic-user, and stopping the fiend before he can unleash his army upon the peaceful Vale of Willow.
Long before Steve Jackson penned his four-book Sorcery! epic, this was the adventure that introduced player character magic-users to the Fighting Fantasy world. It also proved that there was a world beyond Firetop Mountain. And despite its now highly-dated and strangely lurid original front cover, the procession of monsters emerging from the gates of the eponymous citadel gave it an epic quality all of its own.
3) City of Thieves
City of Thieves sends the hero to Port Blacksand for the first time, searching for the means to save the prosperous town of Silverton from the evil Night Prince Zanbar Bone and his bloodthirsty Moon Dogs. This book continued the world-building that had begun in earlier titles, introducing an insane cityscape to be explored, and it was illustrated by Iain McCaig – a heady mix indeed!
The villain of the book is secondary to the setting in this case and the other characters you meet along the way, such as the Serpent Queen and Nicodemus the Sorcerer. And who can forget the game of Bays’ Ball? It took me a good few years to work out the pun in that one. And that’s another element of the book that made it so memorable for me. It was fun, plain and simple.
4) Deathtrap Dungeon
Inspired by a holiday Livingstone had taken to Thailand the year before, the plot of Deathtrap Dungeon had the hero taking up the challenge of the Trial of Champions, devised by the devilish mind of Baron Sukumvit, entering the eponymous labyrinth and braving both its fiendish traps and its monstrous denizens, all in the pursuit of fame and fortune.
Deathtrap Dungeon works in part because the premise gave the best reason anyone would ever willingly enter a nightmare-filled underground maze filled to bursting with apex predators. That and the Bloodbeast. The monster only appears briefly in the adventure itself, but its presence on the cover, painted by Iain McCaig, has made it one of the most iconic creatures of Fighting Fantasy, and helped make the book so memorable to the hundreds of thousands of people – men, women and children – who have picked it up over the years to challenge the fiendish mind of Ian Living- ahem! – Baron Sukumvit.
Written by Steve Jackson, Creature of Havoc has quite rightly gone on to achieve legendary status and remains a firm favourite with many FF fans today, despite the fact that it is so complex and challenging. Utilizing a device that has been imitated in numerous gamebooks many times since (and not just Fighting Fantasy ones), the story begins with the hero waking up with no memory of where he is, how he came to be there, who he is or even what he is. The hero is the havoc-creating Creature of the title.
The book even goes so far as to initially give the beast no concept of language or reason. The hero attempts to make choices but is often thwarted, in the early stages of the adventure, when the beast all too often resorts to acting on instinct alone. Slowly, however, the greater plot unfolds as the hero begins to discover what exactly has happened to him and who is responsible.
Featuring a flying ship, an undead Half-Elf and Zharradan Marr, an evil witch-born sorcerer, it is a truly memorable adventure with some wonderful set pieces. It also demonstrated that a gamebook aimed at children could be as complex as a novel, and that was empowering stuff for a young novelist in the making.
And so that brings me to now. YOU ARE THE HERO – A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks – launches in a few months’ time at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2014, the first ever convention dedicated to Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, and you can join us. Find out more and snap up your chance to become a part of FF history.
Well, you heard the man! What was your first Fighting Fantasy book? And did you win? (Or did you cheat?) Will we be seeing you at the Fest?