Part 3: A series
Following the success of ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ Jackson and Livingstone were asked to turn their idea into a series, and Livingstone pitched ‘Fighting Fantasy’ as a title.
Having learned the pitfalls of co-authoring, the pair started work on separate books. Livingstone admits that the writing process was complicated, and would in his case involve the design of an elaborate flowchart so that he could keep track of all the various threads. Ensuring the book was of the correct length (400 numbered sections was the standard they aimed for) and a reasonable level of difficulty, and that it was packed full of fiendish ways of luring the reader to their death, were among the biggest challenges of the creative process.
For Jackson’s first solo writing credit he stuck with a dungeon crawl format for the second book in the series, ‘The Citadel of Chaos’. He did however innovate by adding an extra layer to the role-playing in the shape of a magic category, which allowed players to select various spells at the beginning of the adventure. The number of spells players could choose would depend on their roll of the dice, and players would have to both choose and use these spells carefully to have a chance of progressing to the end. This adventure starts with a confrontation with an ape-dog and a dog-ape and contains a greater threat of death throughout than ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’.
Livingstone meanwhile worked on ‘The Forest of Doom’, which was noteworthy for being the first book in the series to have a predominately outdoor setting (in the shape of the titular forest). This story begins with a visit to the ‘master mage’ Yaztromo in which the player selects various magical artefacts to help them on their journey. Yaztromo would go on to become the most prolific guest star throughout ‘Fighting Fantasy’, and was named by mashing up one of Livingstone’s favourite baseball players with the ship from the 1979 movie ‘Alien’.
The two books were published simultaneously, and along with ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ in March 1983 they sat proudly atop the ‘Sunday Times’ Children’s Bestseller charts ahead of perennial favourite Roald Dahl. Though they didn’t impress everyone, with children’s TV stalwart John Craven posing the question ‘When are you going to write a proper book?’ to Livingstone when the latter appeared on Saturday Superstore.
Two further books were released in 1983. Jackson’s ‘Starship Traveller’ entered the realms of science fiction with its tale of a space captain lost in another universe, and introduced gun and space combat. Containing a mere 343 sections it was the shortest book in the series. Livingstone’s ‘City of Thieves’ was the first in a trilogy of sorts, with 1984’s books ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’ and ‘The Island of the Lizard King’ featuring the same hero. ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’ was a particular series high point for many, selling 350,000 copies in its year of publication and spawning sequels and a video game.
There’s only two Steve Jacksons
With other publishers trying to copy the success of the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series, Puffin decided to increase their production schedule in order to stay ahead of their rivals. This meant that other authors were drafted in to write books, albeit under the mentorship of Jackson and Livingstone. The first book in the series not to be written by its founders was written by a familiar name – one Steve Jackson. American game designer Jackson was persuaded to write a book for the series when he visited his namesake and Livingstone in London and the end result, ‘Scorpion Swamp’, became the eighth book in the series. The American Jackson added his own touches, with perhaps the most noteworthy of these the eschewing of the tradition of using the 400th section as the ultimate end point.
The series invoked the ire of the religious right, in particular following the release of the tenth book, ‘House of Hell’. This was the series’ first flirtation with the horror genre, as well as the first time a contemporary, real-world setting was used (albeit its story of ghouls, zombies and vampires was somewhat stretching the bounds of reality for most people). However an illustration of a naked woman bleeding on an altar led to angry letters, often quoting scripture, and in subsequent reprints the offending illustration was removed.
The series had previously attracted some controversy when a concerned mother phoned her local radio station to complain that her son had levitated when he was reading one of the books. Meanwhile the Evangelical Alliance movement published a pamphlet which implied reading the books could lead to devil-worship, while a member of the clergy threatened to chain himself outside Puffin HQ as a protest against their publication of the series. It is unclear whether he intended to remain there until he rolled a six.
Due to the series’ popularity, numerous spin-off titles appeared during the 80s.
‘Fighting Fantasy’ had its own short-lived magazine titled ‘Warlock’ which ran from 1984 to 1986. This included a mini ‘Fighting Fantasy’ adventure, two of which were shortened versions of books from the series, as well as a comic strip called ‘Derek The Troll’ who appeared in his own ‘troll-playing adventure’ in the final issue. It also featured a section called ‘Out of the Pit’ where artists and readers contributed drawings of various monsters from the series.
This culminated in the 1985 publication of an ‘Out of the Pit’ book, which contained illustrations of almost every ‘Fighting Fantasy’ monster that had appeared in the series to date. The book was edited by a young Games Workshop employee, Marc Gascoigne, as was its companion piece, 1986’s ‘Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World’. This was an encyclopaedic tome containing information on the fictional world of Titan, the setting of the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series, and included detailed maps of the world.
Spin-off ‘Fighting Fantasy’ adventures were produced too, including Steve Jackson’s ‘Sorcery’ series, which was published between 1983 and 1985. Jackson wrote these books as a favour to Penguin’s Geraldine Cooke, the editor that provided a big assist in the initial publication of the series. Advertised as being more ‘adult’, these books involved spell-casting and were also longer than the regular ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books, with the final part of the series, 1985’s ‘The Crown of Kings’, weighing in at a whopping 800 sections.
Other projects included novels based on the series, beginning with Jackson’s 1989 release ‘The Trolltooth Wars’. This featured three of the earliest villains from the series, including the eponymous warlock from ‘Firetop Mountain’. Jackson also worked on an interactive telephone game called F.I.S.T. (Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone).
Next week we end our coverage of ‘Fighting Fantasy’ by looking at the conclusion and revival of the series.