The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – The first, and for me the most frustrating (more on that later), Fighting Fantasy book – was first published in 1982.
Created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston (co-founders of Games Workshop) the series of books are a type of choose your own adventure, where you roll dice to defeat enemies and to test your skills.
Other than the book, all you need is a couple of dice, a pencil and an eraser. In later editions you don’t even need the dice as the numbers are randomly printed on the bottom of the pages – you just flick through and stop, and that’s your roll!
The books all run along the same idea – You choose or create your character, get given your starting equipment and gold, and off you go. The Warlock starts with an introduction, ‘Rumours’, you then turn over and read paragraph 1 which gives you a narrative of what you see and do. At the end of the paragraph you’re left with a choice – Will you turn west (turn to 71) or east (turn to 278)? You make your decision and read the paragraph indicated.
When you encounter a monster a battle occurs – you sometimes get given the choice to flee, but rarely – you roll two dice and add the skill of the monster then do the same for yourself. Whichever is the higher wounds the other for two points of damage. That’s the gist of it, you can use luck and you can also fight more than one monster at a time.
This continues until you either complete, or fail the mission, or die (usually by being defeated in combat but not always). The books are linear (though there may be more than one solution) so, unless the book tells you, there’s no going back on yourself. For instance; you may enter a room with a monster, which you defeat, but then get told you leave by the the door at the rear of the room – there’s no going back the way you came to check out that passage you passed earlier!
So when you fail a mission, it’s usually because you missed investigating something when you had the chance, or just took the wrong direction at the crossroads. This is no bad thing though. It gives a thematic sense of being in a story that is progressing at a pace; unlike some games, where you are able to check out every possibility presented to you. So, you made the wrong choice at the time and failed, that’s life! But at least when you play it next the story will be different, you’ll open that door you walked past, you might even pull that lever to see what happens!
The common theme of the series was mostly fantasy, but Sci-fi and horror, as well as a few other genres, cropped up from time to time. There has also been have several publishers take on the rights: Puffin were first (1982-1995) then Wizard books picked them up, releasing two series runs (2002-2012) and adding a few new titles, and now since 2017, Scholastic have them.
In all there have been over 60 Fighting Fantasy books, many written individually by Jackson and Livingston, and new titles are still appearing – the latest being The Gates of Death by Charlie Higson.
So, what are my memories of choosing my own destiny?
I was twelve when I was introduced to The Warlock by a school friend. I then somehow managed to get myself a copy, I can’t remember if I talked my parents into buying it, or scraped up the money by taking bottles back to the shop for their return value (those were the days when you could get a few pence on returning a bottle to the shop!)
This form of choose your own adventure was totally new to me and, especially as there were no digital distractions in those days, I spent a fair bit of time playing them. I played eight of the first twelve books and then… stopped. I guess I outgrew them – I would say the target audience is around ten to fourteen – they’re easy to read and fast paced, but don’t have enough depth for an older audience. Some are more entertaining than others and for anyone thinking of starting their children off with these… don’t try the Warlock of Firetop Mountain first!
Unless lucky, you’ll probably end up wanting to throw the book at the wall in complete frustration! I don’t recall ever getting frustrated with any of the others in the range. It was that damn maze you come across mid-way through, I always ended up going round in circles; when my daughter tried it she drew a map – it made no sense at all and she gave up. Even if you do manage to get through the maze, you reach the final goal only to be told you don’t have all the resources necessary – be sure to keep an eye out for them on your next visit to the dungeon – and yes, you’ll have to negotiate that maze again!
Okay, if you play it again straight away you’ll probably remember what you did to get through the maze. But, as it was so frustrating the first time, you probably won’t try again for another month (year!) and the book will be meeting the wall again!
For a first time player I would suggest either The Citadel of Chaos, which sees you as a sorcerer able to cast spells, or City of Thieves, where you need to free the town of Silverton from the terror of Zanbar Bone. I remember playing both repeatedly until I’d succeeded, and are probably my two favourites of the ones that I’ve read (played!)
I also enjoyed Starship Traveller. If I remember rightly, you were the Captain of a ship and could choose which crew members would take part in visiting the planets you came to. It was also possible to complete the adventure without battling any monsters!
When I look at the few books I have left from when I was a lad, published by Puffin, and compare them to the collection of my daughter, published by Wizard, I think the artwork was better in my day – The covers were much more atmospheric back then, though all the internal illustrations appear to be the same. Though, when I asked my daughter, she preferred the artwork on most of the more modern releases – it must be an age thing!
That’s pretty much what happened to me – It was these books that set me on the path of greater games, although inadvertently! I was in my local library, looking for more in the series, when I came across a book – I’ve been racking my brains and searching the web trying to find out what it was called, all to no avail – It was some sort of overview to D&D. I took it home and read it, then I started on my mission to find out more about Dungeons and Dragons, but that I’m saving for another time…
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