I’ve written before about playing new and original Fighting Fantasy books, and given my extreme boredom of late in these miserable times, I recently ordered four of the original titles in their Scholastic reprints in order to while away some time. A lot of my friends are into role-playing of some sort, and I fancied escaping into a fictional world and slaying some orcs and dwarves. It seems infinitely preferable to all the crap in the real world right now.
Anyway, having dug out a list of previously and currently available titles, I picked Citadel of Chaos, City of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon and Island of the Lizard King. My dodgy memory can recall playing Citadel of Chaos back in the day, but the others were completely new to me. I’ll get onto a review of each book in a moment, but I’ll mention some geeky preparation I did first.
As you may know, these books combine selecting options for what to do next with dice-based combat and luck systems that often determine the direction of your quest (in particular, whether you die at the hands of a monster). The combat system is simple but effective – your ability to fight is determined by your skill level, and this contributes towards your Attack Strength. If you skill is higher than the creature you’re fighting, you’re likely to kill it, unless your dice rolls are very unlucky. Each time you’re hit, your stamina will drop. Stamina of zero equals death, so you fight until either you or the creature reach this point. Obviously, if your stamina gets to zero, that’s the end of your adventure this time around.
Given that Fighting Fantasy books were released at the height of the home computing boom, I decided to dig out some contemporary technology as a companion to the books, and wrote a little program to automate the fighting of battles. 🙂 This takes the basic battle rules for a single creature, allowing you to input the relevant scores, and it will then simulate each attack round, taking care of the dice rolls, and presenting you with details of the winner. It worked pretty well, and should you wish to bash said program into the nearest 8-bit computer of your choice, here it is!
10 INPUT “Your Skill “;ysk
20 INPUT “Your Stamina “;yst
30 INPUT “Creature Name “;c$
40 INPUT “Creature Skill “;csk
50 INPUT “Creature Stamina “;cst
60 LET round=1
70 LET cas=csk+(INT (RND*6)+1)+(INT (RND*6)+1)
80 LET yas=ysk+(INT (RND*6)+1)+(INT (RND*6)+1)
90 IF cas>yas THEN LET yst=yst-2
100 IF yas>cas THEN LET cst=cst-2
110 IF yas=cas THEN GO TO 70
120 PRINT round;”. You: “;yst,c$;”: “;cst
130 IF yst>0 AND cst>0 THEN LET round=round+1: GO TO 70
150 IF cst<=0 THEN PRINT “You killed “;c$;” in “;round;” rounds.”
160 IF yst<=0 THEN PRINT “You were killed in “;round;” rounds.”
This will work with minimal modification on most 80s machines, and here’s a shot of it in action!
Encouraged by my modest success here, I’ve got a crazy idea in my head to write a full Adventure Sheet program, to keep track of all your scores and treasures. That said, I’m sure somebody already did that in the 80s, so I need to try and find out if such a program already exists. Anyway, armed with my advanced electronic brain to fight my battles for me, let’s get into the books!
1. Citadel of Chaos
This was originally the second Fighting Fantasy release in the early eighties, coming between The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and The Forest of Doom, both of which I’ve played and completed recently. This is one I attempted playing when I was a kid, but never finished – I never finished any of them! Anyway, I got stuck into trying to play this one properly, and it took the best part of a day to get through, with success finally coming on my sixth attempt. I’d say that’s pretty good play value!
The plot here is that warlord Balthus Dire plans an attack on the peaceful folk of the Vale of Willow, and they live in fear of his powerful sorcery. As the apprentice of a powerful wizard, you have been asked by the king to enter Dire’s citadel, and locate and assassinate him.
An interesting addition to this game is magic, an extra element to the standard Fighting Fantasy ruleset. You roll dice to determine how many spells you get, and you then choose from a range of twelve. On my various attempts, I found some more useful than others, and by the time I got through this (on my sixth go) I was able to pick the ones that were most effective. Sometimes using spells proves useless or gets you into more trouble, though, so they need to be used with some care.
There’s an interesting range of locations to explore, but gradually you’ll move towards the endgame, fighting Dire. The biggest problem I had was getting past the Ganjees, magical creatures that you can’t fight or use spells against. You need specific objects to get past them, and if you don’t find them, your adventure will end at that point. When you get to face Dire himself, you’ve got several choices of how to handle him, some of which are doomed to failure, one of which involves battling him at his full strength (tricky!) and another which defeats him without fighting, but you won’t necessarily know what they are.
After a few attempts, I was starting to get clear about where to go and what to find, and it was just a process of elimination making sure I explored all locations to find what I needed. It was pretty satisfying to finish. This is widely considered a strong entry in the series, especially because it’s an early title and is very well known.
2. City of Thieves
In this one, originally the fifth book in the series, Zanbar Bone holds the town of Silverton to ransom with his bloodthirsty Moon Dogs. Bone has supernatural powers which make him almost invincible – killing him requires specific weapons and potions. You have to enter the city to find these items, and attempt to kill Bone.
It lacks the additional magic elements of Citadel of Chaos, so essentially follows the standard Fighting Fantasy rules. It consists of two parts – exploring the city in an effort to find out what you need to defeat Bone and then locate them, and then there’s an endgame, where you have to face Bone in his tower. If you don’t find all the items you need by the time you’re forced to leave the city, you can’t go on to fight him.
There’s a lot of locations to explore in the city, and eventually you need to find Nicodemus the wizard, who tells you what you need to find and do to kill Bone. On my first attempt, I was short of one item, but by mapping my way around, I visited a different location second time around, and managed to find everything. There’s a lot of places here where you can get into trouble, but as you play, you’ll get a feel for risks you should or shouldn’t take. This part was very enjoyable.
The endgame – when you leave the city and travel to Zanbar Bone’s tower – is less good, unfortunately. This part shows up a lot of the weaknesses of the Fighting Fantasy format – you’re often left with a list of options, and nothing to go on in choosing which one to take other than guesswork, and if you choose the wrong one…that’s it. Right at the very end, you have to choose to make a potion out of three combinations of ingredients, and you have nothing to go on other than just attempting to pick the right one. The correct one brings you victory, the other two bring you death. Right at the end of the book, that’s a really nasty situation to be in, and doesn’t feel very fair – I cheated here and looked up all three options before going ahead to win. After getting that far, I really didn’t fancy playing the whole thing again – potentially twice! – because I’d made a wrong choice with nothing to really go on. So yeah – if the endgame had been a bit fairer and had required a bit more skill/luck/battling/dicerolls over just pure guesswork, I’d have been happier.
3. Deathtrap Dungeon
Ahh, now this one was interesting. It doesn’t do the classic fantasy quest thing of the other books here – instead, it puts you in a classic fight-to-the-death gladiatorial-style contest. You’re a contestant in the annual Trial of Champions, in a monster and magic-infested labyrinth built by Baron Sukumvit. So far, no-one has ever emerged alive to claim the prize of 10,000 gold pieces. You’re going in to try and win the prize, and eternal glory.
It’s obviously a familiar plot, that has resurfaced in many guises, in particular modern sci-fi and dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Even the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter borrows a few elements from it. Anyway, it makes for an interesting twist in the Fighting Fantasy universe, because essentially you’re in it for yourself, and your sole aim is to get out alive. It’s quite a challenge to do so!
You need to find three gems to get out, and a couple of them are VERY well-hidden. There’s a few puzzles to solve too, which gives things an extra bit of brain-teasing. And…although you need to get out alive, alone, there’s an interesting twist in the plot where you have to work with another contestant to get through a key section of the book. Unfortunately, you then have to fight him, and like a lot of the battles in this book, it’s a tough one as his skill and stamina scores are high. So…it’s possible he’ll kill you.
It took me no less than EIGHT attempts to get through this, which made finishing it particularly satisfying. It was quite a challenge to find two of the gems, and I then had to solve a puzzle to get out, which involved putting them in the right sequence to open a door. The ending had an interesting little twist in it too. I really managed to lose myself in this one.
4. Island of the Lizard King
Final book in my recent binge, and an easier one, finished in three attempts. It’s a bit different to the others – somewhat less of a maze, it’s quite linear, with only minor diversions from the main path through the book.
The plot of this one is that you have to set prisoners free from their slave labour in gold mines, on a tropical island full of curses and mutants. The Lizard King again is an enemy that needs to be defeated in a specific way, and you need to find a Shaman to find out how, and then find the objects you need. Apparently it can be done without either or both of them, but it’s much easier if you get them.
First attempt ended quite early after a dumb decision resulted in my death. I got a lot further second time around, and then got killed in battle – a lot of the creatures you face are nasty, and there’s loads of them. There’s also a lot of ways to rip your skill and stamina scores to shreds, which makes carrying on very hard. You really need to keep those scores up to make it through to the end. However, that second attempt helped me avoid a lot of pitfalls on my third run, and I think I made a lot of lucky choices on that one, proceeding through to the end without any significant difficulty. I found both the items I needed to make my final defeat of the Lizard King a simple matter.
So…possibly a bit too easy, but still fun, in an interesting tropical/voodoo kind of setting. It’s the Live and Let Die of Fighting Fantasy. I felt like Roger Moore in a safari suit. 🙂
So, they’re an interesting collection. I’d say Citadel of Chaos and Deathtrap Dungeon are the best of the four, with the others just not being quite up to the same standard.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Scholastic reprints are the same as the originals text-wise, but don’t have any of the original artwork, which is a real shame, as the original Puffin illustrations were fantastic. Also, I’m not convinced they’re very well put together, as Deathtrap Dungeon has been pretty much trashed by my strenuous efforts to get through it. Remember these books were all brand-new when I got them. Look at how much damage the spines have sustained.
For my next attempt to tackle this universe, I’m going to play Starship Traveller, originally the fourth book in the series, and one not reprinted by Scholastic. I don’t think it was ever considered one of the good ones, but I have an original Puffin edition on the way from eBay. Watch out for a review here when I’ve played it. As you can tell from the title, it’s a different one as it’s set in space, and has some sci-fi elements to it. Apparently it can be completed without fighting a single battle, but I suspect I’ll probably start a millennia-long intergalactic war by my fifth move. We’ll see. 🙂