The first Fighting Fantasy book I ever attempted was Tower Of Destruction. The cover is printed indelibly in my long-term memory – a huge stone tower hovers in the air above a flaming village, bombarding it with fireballs while assorted peasants flee in (totally understandable) panic. As soon as I cracked open that delicious cover and saw the character sheet that spread across the opening pages I knew it was going to be my kind of adventure. At that age I was an ardent fan of Dungeons & Dragons, but also furiously antisocial. Within the pages of that classic Fighting Fantasy novel I would discover the perfect textual adventure: one that didn’t require you to tolerate any other kids.
Tower Of Destruction was just the first of many Fighting Fantasy books that I would enjoy during my youth. Here’s how most of them worked. The opening passage of each volume would instruct you to collect a pencil, some scrap paper and a pair of dice. You would then fill in your character sheet, giving your hero a name, and a dice-determined allowance of Skill, Stamina and Luck points. Then, with a deep breath, you’d turn to the first page of the adventure. Unlike an ordinary novel, Fighting Fantasy books were not designed to be read straight through from start to finish. Instead you would read until you arrived at a point in the narrative where you were required to make a choice. There you would pick from the options available and turn to the appropriate page.
So far, so Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (the CYOA books represented a rather tamer counterpart to the Fighting Fantasy series), but progress through Island Of The Lizard King or The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain wasn’t a simple case of making the right decisions. You’d also sometimes run up against monsters. When that happened you’d break out your dice and conduct a frantic series of rolls to work out whether you survived. Of course, you could usually throw a little luck in there to nudge things in your favour.
I’ll admit now that I’ve never honestly completed a Fighting Fantasy book. The battles were often ruggedly difficult, and the majority of the series was composed at a time when interactive fiction writers (of whom there were relatively few) often seemed to consider it their duty to severely punish players for any wrong choice, no matter how minor. Early interactive fiction was famously difficult, and the Fighting Fantasy books were no exception. Witness Deathtrap Dungeon – a book which you could spend hours all-but-completing, only to fail at the final hurdle because you didn’t collect the exact right set of magical maguffins en route.
Thusly the traditional method of enjoying a Fighting Fantasy adventure was to adhere to the rules only within certain margins. Whenever confronted with a particularly knife-edge choice, it was kosher to keep one finger on the page you came from so that you could simply flick back and choose an alternate path if it turned out the one you’d plumped for lead straight off a narrative cliff. Likewise nobody would blame you for awarding yourself some emergency Stamina if you happened to run low during a battle.
Obtusely difficult as the Fighting Fantasy books were, they remained enormous fun. They were written with a gripping kind of pulpy gusto and illustrated in an instantly-recognisable black-and-white fantasy style. And the stories – despite relying on some fairly standard tropes – often ended up being weirdly compelling. I mean, how can you resist this blurb from the back of Robot Commando?
What would you do if you were a rancher on a distant planet, using robots to herd vicious dinosaurs? What would you do if your deadly enemies, the Karosseans, invaded? What would you do if you knew that the protection of your homeland against the invaders and marauding dinosaurs was up to you alone? Now is your chance to find out, for all this is exactly what happens in this thrilling futuristic adventure!
Fighting Fantasy was very much a phenomenon of the eighties and nineties. Despite enduring popularity, however, they never quite made the jump into a digital format. Most books are, however, not difficult to find in printed form. Originals are rife on Amazon, and small publisher Snowbooks have reprinted some classic editions, with more to follow from Scholastic in 2018. Not only that, but there’s a brand new adventure on the horizon, penned by Charlie Higson. If we’re lucky, it’ll be every bit as good as the originals.