Become The Hero: why I loved the Fighting Fantasy 'choose your own adventure' books
Updated: Feb 12
Do you remember those interactive gamebooks, where each section would end with a choice, asking you to flip to a different part of the book depending upon what you decided to do?
If you're smiling nostalgically, proceed to section 4.
If you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, head to section 3.
And there you have it – you’ve reached the end of your quest. But don't worry, there are many more adventures still out there, waiting for you… with children’s publisher Scholastic acquiring the rights to the Fighting Fantasy books in 2017, there are a slew of re-releases and new additions to get your hands (or claws, or tentacles) on!
Until next time,
You don’t know what you’re missing!! Go and buy Warlock Of Firetop Mountain (the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone and first published in 1982) on Amazon, play it, and then come back – you won’t be disappointed!
If you need a little more convincing, here goes: these books invited you to become the main character in a dark fantasy story (although some entries in the series did venture into other genres, including cyberpunk and modern horror), featuring 400 ‘sections’ (each between a few sentences and a page in length) which you would navigate through by following the prompts at the end of each one. Did you want to talk to the sinister old hag, or attack her with your sword? Did you trust the shuffling beggar who had beckoned you to follow him down a dark alley, or leg it in the opposite direction? Good decisions would often lead to the discovery of gold or other items which you could record on a ‘character sheet’ (in pencil so you could rub them out and start again when you inevitably failed), along with various stats that were generated at the start of the quest with the help of a pair of dice.
The books differentiated themselves from other ‘choose your own adventure’ offerings by featuring a simple but satisfying combat mechanic, which in turn introduced other gameplay considerations; after barely surviving a tough duel with a murderous assassin, did you scoff your last remaining meals to restore your stamina, or save the precious provisions for a cold and starving night later in your quest? The books were always ruthless in their punishment of poor planning (more on that below) and generally felt like much more of a challenge than rival publications.
Now proceed to section 4.
Did you used to stick your fingers in between the pages so that, if your chosen course of action turned out to result in you losing hard-earned loot or your character being mercilessly slaughtered, you could pretend you chose the other option instead?
If you wouldn’t dream of such deviousness, turn to section 5.
If you’re a filthy cheat, turn to section 6.
Liar!! (Now proceed to section 6 where me and all the other cheats are waiting…)
Of course you did! We all did!! The finger-mangling dexterity required to keep your digits inserted into about four different sections at once, usually while trying to roll dice and scribble things on your character sheet, was all part of the fun.
I’m not sure I ever legitimately successfully completed one of the incredibly challenging adventures. Jackon and Livingstone seemed to delight in allowing you to make headway into their twisted tales, only to serve up a grisly fate for your hot-headed protagonist along with the dreaded words ‘your adventure ends here’. Infuriating as these moments were, these failures rarely felt unfair – you could almost always trace back your series of poor decisions to work out exactly what to try on your next attempt (or just flick back to where your thumb was jammed in place…)
One example that springs to mind is my experience playing Master Of Chaos, my most well-thumbed Fighting Fantasy epic. It was a particularly disturbing story about a chaos sorcerer who had begun to summon/create/stitch together sickening Lovecraftian horrors to plague the land, and for whatever reason only you could put a stop to his nefarious antics. A large portion of the book required you to explore the dangerous, thoroughly corrupt city of Ashkyos, where all manner of sordid activities offered themselves for the player’s indulgence (although if your notoriety score crept up too high you were forced to finally leave town and proceed on your quest).
I somehow found myself assisting a local necromancer with some highly questionable cadaver-acquiring practices, and ended up permanently branded for my crimes against the deceased. Ah well, anything for a few gold coins, right? Sadly for me, this dubious business decision reaped its deserved reward much later in the narrative, long after I had fled Ashkyos with the authorities on my tail, and battled my way to a small settlement in the distant hills. Marked as a heathen, I was denied room and board at the local inn, and found myself having to spend a night camping out in the forest. I remember being genuinely unsettled by the description of my gruesome demise in the dead of night, at the hands (and claws, and tentacles) of some unspeakable wandering horror… and to this day I never mix with necromancers if I can avoid it.
Proceed to section 7 if you’d like to hear about some more notable (and diabolical) entries in the Fighting Fantasy series.
Otherwise, turn to section 8 to find out more about the creators, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson.
There were 59 books in the original Fighting Fantasy series, published by Puffin between 1982 and 1995, as well as countless spin-offs, advanced role-playing games and guidebooks, and even two-player titles. When different publishers acquired the rights in later years, they commissioned new works to spice up their programme of re-releases, including titles like the pirate-themed Bloodbones and Howl Of The Werewolf in the early 2000s, all the way up to the most recent release, Assassins of Allansia in 2019. Even The Fast Show's Charlie Higson has had a crack at penning one, specifically The Gates Of Death, released in 2018.
The aforementioned Master Of Chaos was my all-time favourite, probably because it was the first one I ever played, although City Of Thieves also sticks in my memory with its unforgettable journey into a particularly deadly den of vicious cut-throats and ingenious traps. Another highly noteworthy entry in the Fighting Fantasy canon is Steve Jackson’s solo side project, Sorcery!
Comprising four extra-long gamebooks and a separate spell book, it was clear from the cover art that Jackson wasn’t messing about. The settings were darker, the monsters more disturbing, the books longer and the challenge greater than anything we’d faced before. Hidetaka Miyazaki, president of From Software and creator of the Dark Souls series of video games, has cited Sorcery! as one of his influences, and it’s easy to see Jackson’s plague-ridden, twisted bestiary reflected in the denizens of Miyazaki’s own brilliantly-crafted, rotting gameworld. The spell book was a particularly innovative feature, requiring the player to memorise dozens of three-letter spell names (such as ‘POP’, which, if memory serves, would fire tiny exploding rocks at your enemy). If you chose the wrong spell you were liable to end up trying to fight a scimitar-wielding zombie warrior by waving a bunch of flowers at him.
Happily, these fantastic books have now been converted into mobile phone app games, which if anything are an even better experience than the originals, adding animation and sound effects to the original text to enhance the experience. Just remember… if you see a dead body lying in a gutter and everyone in town is giving it a wide berth, there’s probably a good reason…
Now roll the dice. If you score 7 or higher, proceed to section 8.
If you score lower than 7, I’m afraid a slavering manticore has swooped down from above, sinking its talons into your kidneys. The last thing you feel is the agony of the barbed tip of its tail skewering your back, before the merciful numbness of its potent poison floods your veins. At least you were spared the horror of gazing into its face…
Your adventure ends here.
Jackson and Livingstone are nothing short of gaming legends. In 1975 they co-founded Games Workshop, the table-top gaming leviathan whose ability to endlessly churn out new Warhammer figures and games is matched only by their fans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for more orcs, elves, ogres and chaos warriors to hurl into dice-based battle. Their empire included the popular gaming magazine White Dwarf, which Livingstone originally edited when they launched it in 1977, and is still running to this day.
In 1980, the pair met Geraldine Cooke, an editor at Penguin Books, and their conversation led to a 13-year professional relationship and 59 Fighting Fantasy books, selling over 20 million copies worldwide. But what happened to them after three decades of monumental success?
After they sold off their stake in Games Workshop in 1991, Jackson spent several years as a games journalist with the London Daily Telegraph, before setting up a computer games development studio called Lionhead, which he subsequently sold to Microsoft. He is now an honorary professor at Brunel University in London, where he teaches Digital Games Theory and Design.
Ian Livingstone was awarded an OBE in 2006, and a CBE in 2013, both for services to the video gaming industry. His career in that sector seems a natural progression from board games and gamebooks; his first involvement was with the developer Domark, which he worked for as a designer in the mid-80s before returning as a board member and investor in 1993. After it was acquired by Eidos Interactive, Livingstone became a key member of the leadership team and was pivotal in securing many of their biggest franchises, including Tomb Raider and Hitman.
Now turn to section 2.