Dungeons and Dice-Rolls

During the month of February the mezzanine display in our General Reading Room celebrates the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series. To mark this we are publishing a blog on the history of these books throughout the month.

Part 1: The adventure begins

On 27 August 1982 Puffin books released ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’. Essentially a choice-based adventure story with some dice-based role play for added depth, it was the first book in a series which would become an 80s phenomenon and sell more than 17 million titles in upwards of 30 languages.

The early seeds of the series were sown in the 60s when two schoolboys from Altrincham called Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson bonded over a mutual love of board games which continued into adulthood. Livingstone was particularly adept at Monopoly, narrowly missing out on the British Monopoly Championship of 1975 (who knew such a thing existed?) Jackson meanwhile founded the Games Society at Keele University.

Jackson and Livingstone, along with school-friend John Peake, founded Games Workshop in 1975. The company started out by manufacturing wooden boards for games but its popularity gained serious traction following its acquisition of UK distribution rights for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. They originally traded from home before moving to a small office until their popularity culminated in the opening of the first Games Workshop store in London in 1978. By this point they were also publishing ‘White Dwarf’, a fantasy gaming magazine which is still in publication today.

In 1980 a young editor at Penguin, Geraldine Cooke, met Jackson and Livingstone (Peake had at this point left the enterprise due to his lack of interest in role-playing games). Cooke had been tasked with re-energising the science fiction, fantasy and horror genre at the publishing giant, and was hoping the duo could tap into the Dungeons & Dragons craze by creating a gaming manual.

Instead Livingstone and Jackson created something more interactive in the shape a simple single-player role-playing synopsis, which involved making choices and encountering creatures. This was presented by an excited Cooke at a Penguin editorial meeting. However, in Jonathan Green’s comprehensive history of the series, ‘You Are The Hero’, Cooke recalls that ‘Senior Penguin management roared with laughter at the idea’, and despite fighting Jackson and Livingstone’s corner for months, she got no closer to having it published.

After nearly a year of frustration Cooke contacted Patrick Hardy, Penguin’s Head of Children’s Publishing, who showed an interest in the proposal and agreed to publish it in Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin.

Jackson and Livingstone collaborated on a first draft, with Livingstone writing the first half of the adventure and Jackson the concluding half. However, the authors had markedly different writing styles and both used a different combat system, meaning there was a jarring contrast between the book’s halves. Jackson rewrote the first section to achieve consistency and it was his combat system, which centred on skill, stamina and luck (more on that later) that was utilised.

The book was accompanied by illustrations, often depicting the creatures encountered on your journey. This was to be a popular feature throughout the series, providing young readers with at times gruesome images to complement the text, and it was one that the creators had to fight for, as the art style was a little more risqué than a children’s publisher like Puffin would normally endorse. Russ Nicholson illustrated ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ and was to become the most prolific internal illustrator throughout the series.

The book was released in August 1982 and its popularity really took off following a Saturday morning appearance on Radio One, in which Jackson and Livingstone allowed listeners who phoned in to play their way through the book. Sales of the book outstripped expectations to such a degree that it was reprinted 20 times in the year following its publication.

Next week we look at the mechanics of Fighting Fantasy.