This is a story about Fighting Fantasy and Me. It’s probably going to take place mostly in the 80s and 90s but I know exactly where it’s going to begin…
A few years after Terry Pratchett gave me the encouragement to forge on with my writing career, I decided to contact another one of my literary heroes in order to actually get an opinion on something I was writing.
I should explain that my literary heroes, in order of encounter, were Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.
I would eventually make contact with all of the above and ended up represented by Douglas Adams’ agent, Ed Victor Ltd. However, at this time I was a troubled, truant teenager from a struggling, single-parent family without much hope of any positive GCSE results and no real idea that I had any talent beyond a strong indication from Terry Pratchett that I should never stop hammering on the doors of the publishing establishment
Enter Steve Jackson. At the time, Steve & Ian had sold over 13,000,000 books and were running Games Workshop, White Dwarf, Battlecards, you name it. I didn’t hold out any real belief that Steve would even have the time to reply to fan mail, let alone read a manuscript from a young amateur.
As it happened, writing to Steve turned out to be the best thing I ever did to cement the confidence Terry Pratchett had inspired in me. Here’s the letter he sent back:
It quickly became obvious that a sort of inexplicable doom had descended on the Fighting Fantasy series, but Steve had been kind enough to give me the words I desperately needed to hear at the time. He said:
‘I am most impressed with your work. Skullsong may well have been a strong candidate as an extension for the Fighting Fantasy series but for one Giant Fly in the ointment…’ (and then went on to explain about the series being cancelled).
Reading this letter from Steve while I was clearing out the study triggered an immediate flashback from school:
‘Ah…but they’re not proper books, David: not like this.’
I was eight years old, and the words had been spoken by a friend: he’d decided to underline the statement by holding up his copy of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring and giving an arrogant wink while the entire table sniggered around us.
I looked down at the book I was reading. It had a wizard on the cover, and was written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. I took a deep breath. ‘I’ve tried reading Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit,’ I admitted. ‘Unfortunately, I thought they were both a bit boring.’ ‘Boring? BORING! Lord of the Rings is the single greatest fantasy book ever written!’ I shrugged. ‘Yeah, but in Lord of the Rings you read about all these other people going off, having adventures and doing cool stuff in other worlds, but in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain you get to do all that stuff yourself. I’ve played this book loads of times in at least six different ways, and I still haven’t managed to find the warlock, yet.’
I remember that conversation, and I stand by it completely. If Terry Pratchett taught me how to write, then there’s absolutely no question that – several years before that happened – it was Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone who got me into reading. In fact, you could argue that I would never written my first novel if Penguin hadn’t inexplicably decided to raise the price of FF titles from £2.99 to £3.99. Doing so had left me with no FF titles I could afford to buy, leading to my purchase of the only book in WHSmith small enough to have a £2.99 price tag: Terry Pratchett’s Eric.
In 2007, I caught up with Steve and Ian in order to have a chat about the relaunch of the Fighting Fantasy series, and also to write an overview of the epic saga that surrounds the books. The resulting article was published in the 50th issue of Dark Horizons, the British Fantasy Society magazine. I’ve reproduced it here for those of you who are interested, but before diving in I’d just like to point out that some incredible things are still happening for fans of Fighting Fantasy and the world of Titan. Jonathan Green, who co-authored several of the books, has recently produced You Are The Hero, a glossy celebration of all things FF. It contains author and illustrator interviews, a far deeper history that you will get here and much more besides. Meanwhile, Neil Rennison over at Tin Man Games has been happily chipping away at the book-to-app conversions, meaning that – for the first time – you can relive your adventures and introduce them to your own children. My personal recommendations are Midnight Rogue by Graeme Davis, Trial of Champions by Ian Livingstone, Dead of Night by Jim Bambra and Stephen Hand, House of Hell by Steve Jackson and – of course – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain written jointly by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. These are all brilliant, brilliant adventures. Right, here we go:
THE PHOENIX OF FIGHTING FANTASY
Articles about best-selling fantasy authors of the 80s and 90s will undoubtedly feature lengthy coverage of the works of Terry Pratchett, David Gemmell, Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist. Two names they’re unlikely to include, however, are Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. This is because Fighting Fantasy, the chroniclers will argue, was a series of game-books, impossible to classify among the great ‘works’ of the genre. However, ignoring the series is equally impossible…for the story of the men who created it is almost as breathtaking as some of the stories that were contributed to the world itself. Livingstone was born in 1949, Jackson in 1951. Both men were fanatical gamers and both had an incredible interest in fantasy and the possibilities it afforded for those who were keen to try something new. The duo had already set the fantasy world alight with Games Workshop (founded in 1975), a company that was originally formed to distribute the immensely popular Dungeons & Dragons game in the UK. In order to help them sell this landmark product (created by Ernest Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974) and to generate more interest in the ideas behind it, they had also created the fanzine Owl & Weasel, which would eventually achieve incredible circulation figures and be transformed into White Dwarf magazine.
Games Workshop went from strength to strength, becoming the first and greatest British gaming company…yet it was with Fighting Fantasy that Jackson and Livingstone would make themselves household names. The series that would go on to sell 13,000,000 copies and spawn a variety of editions in 23 different languages actually began with a chance encounter. Among their most inventive creations, Games Day had been conceived by the pair as yet another way to support the hobby of gaming in the UK and to shout about the exciting new products at Games Workshop. It worked like a charm and was immensely popular, attracting gaming enthusiasts, journalists hungry to uncover the secret of the RPG craze that had swept America, and at least one editor. Her name was Geraldine Cooke.
Geraldine worked for Penguin. She had come to Games Day in order to research the possibility of a book exposing the hobby for newcomers, a sort of ‘idiot’s guide’ that would explain the RPG idea and list the most popular games, etc. Jackson and Livingstone were both thrilled at the opportunity to put out a book, but they had a much better idea. Called ‘The Magic Quest’ in its infancy, Jackson and Livingstone had conceived of a book that would throw young gamers headlong into the RPG universe by actually having them play through a typical role-playing game on their own, with just dice and a pencil to aid them. The idea was gold dust, so the pair were determined that they must get it right. Livingstone had written the first half of the book (a deadly journey through a mountain stronghold ending at an underground river) and Jackson had written the second half (completing the mountain journey and terminating the adventure by having the reader engage in a difficult battle with the eponymous warlock). The book was submitted to blank looks and a largely baffled response from the team at Penguin, who really didn’t know exactly what they were holding and, as with most original ideas, weren’t entirely sure what to do with it.
[Let’s cut away to a slightly different version of the above story. It has been claimed that Geraldine originally came to Games Day at the request of Steve Jackson, having turned down a proposal to do a Lord of the Rings-based game-book. Interestingly enough, although Penguin’s approach for Steve and Ian to do introductory RPG books ended up leading to FF, they did both cover this area with the books Dicing with Dragons (Livingstone, 1982) and FF: The Introductory Role-playing Game (Jackson, 1984).]
So…Penguin agreed to put the book out, but the title ‘Magic Quest’ really had to go. Although it was felt to be intriguing and exciting, it just sounded a bit too much like a D&D module and didn’t quite have the edge needed to attract the masses. Steve and Ian went away to consider an alternative – and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was born. Released under Penguin’s Puffin imprint, it sold out of its initial print run in a matter of weeks and – realising they had a potentially major success on their hands – Penguin commissioned more books to follow. At this point, both Jackson and Livingstone wanted to continue the series, allowing each other the freedom to write individual titles rather than waiting for a rare window of opportunity that would afford them the time to write together (as they also had Games Workshop to run and many other associated pots on the boil).
Jackson went off to write Citadel of Chaos (1983) and Livingstone wrote Forest of Doom (1983). However, as these two titles sold out at twice the rate of the first, the pressure on the pair to produce more doubled. Jackson wanted to try something different this time, and he came back with Starship Traveller (1984), an SF adventure and the first title not to be set in the Fighting Fantasy home world of Allansia. Steve regularly tried to break new grounds, bringing in elements of SF and horror to interrupt the steady flow of fantasy-based material: Steve wrote House of Hell (1985). Although it could be argued that these books were basically individual genre conversions of RPG games such as Dungeons & Dragons (1975), Traveller (1977) and Call of Cthulhu (1981), the FF solo game-books were so immediately accessible to an audience of young minds keen for adventure that they absolutely exploded in the collective imaginations of their target audience. During this time, Ian Livingstone produced the most Allansia-based titles, including City of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon and Island of the Lizard King (all during 1984).
However, despite the increased production of the books, the quality of each episode remained high, and so the demand for the series gathered pace anew. Jackson wanted to go off and write his Sorcery, his own sub-series that, while still set in Allansia, explored a newly devised magical system and an ongoing story arc that would spread over several books. Livingstone was happy to continue providing quality titles for the main series, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that the fans’ thirst for the series was inevitably going to lap the dynamic duo’s ability to produce more and more titles each year. Thus it was decided that, while Steve and Ian would continue to write in the series, more authors were needed to contribute to the growing cannon and flesh out the fantasy world that had teenagers leaping over cars in order to get to WHS every Saturday morning and grab the latest FF entry. Bizarrely, another ‘Steve Jackson’ was the first extra writer to make a contribution to the series. He was followed by (among others) Jamie Thomson & Mark Smith, Graeme Davis (co-designer of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay) and Marc Gascoigne (now editorial director of Angry Robot). These were, thankfully, not members of the Penguin editorial staff but established writers for the Games Workshop writing team already associated with White Dwarf magazine and the RPG world in general. Titan was certainly in good hands.
Marc Gascoigne, a freelance writer who was working for Puffin at the time, became an incredible asset to Fighting Fantasy. Though he only wrote one entry in the main series (Battleblade Warrior, 1988), he became the FF consultant editor and went on to contribute almost as much to the world of Titan as Jackson and Livingstone themselves. Gascoigne compiled and edited Out of the Pit (a monster compendium featuring every creature encountered in the series) and Titan (the encyclopaedia and source-book of the Fighting Fantasy world). Towards the end of the series, he also created and wrote (with Pete Tamlyn) the Advanced Fighting Fantasy role-playing system, comprising Dungeoneer (1989), Blacksand (1990) and Allansia (1994).
Jackson and Livingstone’s contributions to the series began, understandably, to wane. In 1989, Jackson decided he’d had enough of the game-books and wrote the first FF novel instead. The Trolltooth Wars, a strong fantasy narrative in its own right, filled in a lot of the blanks serious readers had been pondering for years. The novel was, like the game-books, a success (and probably inspired more boys to actually read complete novels than any other title produced during the late 80s. It was followed by two more FF novels, one written by Marc Gascoigne and one jointly by Livingstone with Gascoigne.
In the early 90s, however, disaster struck. After selling countless millions (Deathtrap Dungeon on its own was rumoured to have shifted over 300,000 copies), the Fighting Fantasy phenomenon appeared to be on the decline. Sales were falling and, despite incredibly bankable tie-ins like Return to Firetop Mountain (the 50th book), Penguin’s enthusiasm for their most successful line was – somewhat bafflingly – dissolving. In 1995, the series was cancelled. Including the various sub-series titles, there had been close to 80 books published in total. It was a sad time for the die-hard fans, many of whom couldn’t understand why the next generation hadn’t taken to a series so full of magic and excitement. In retrospect, it has always interested me that the fantasy TV series Knightmare was cancelled around the same time, pointing towards a general decline of the genre. Knightmare had itself spawned several adventure game-books, all written by FF contributor Dave Morris (co-author of Keep of the Lich-Lord with Jamie Thomson).
The cancellation of Fighting Fantasy was especially frustrating to collectors when Bloodbones, the long-awaited sixtieth title in the main collection (written by Jonathan Green) failed to appear. Fighting Fantasy, like most of the pen ‘n’ paper gaming industry, was dead, beaten into obscurity by home computers and gaming consoles that could conjure worlds right in front of the gamer on a TV screen: no imagination necessary.
However, this situations didn’t really affect the creators of Fighting Fantasy, as they were both intrinsically involved in the new industry. Steve had formed Lionhead Studios with Tim Rance and legendary game-designer Peter Molyneux. Ian, meanwhile, had become Chairman of Eidos, the gaming giant behind FF conversion Deathtrap Dungeon and Tom Raider, among others. Both men had proved themselves originators for some of the most fantastic gaming products in the book world: now they would do the same with the console and home computer markets. It really did look like Fighting Fantasy – in book form, at least – had breathed its last.
Then, in 2002, the series rose from the ashes like a phoenix and a new generation rejoiced. Steve Jackson had been striving for a long time to see Fighting Fantasy return, but all the major publishers were reluctant to invest in a product that they thought was very much ‘of its time’ and wouldn’t work in today’s market (I’d like to add at this point that I’d been faced with the same phobic attitude towards the idea of game-books when Hodder signed me for the Illmoor Chronicles and I suggested game-books as an additional line of products to the novel series, an attitude even echoed by a former sub-editor for the Lone Wolf series who look across the table at me and visibly shuddered at the prospect).
Icon Books felt differently. A small, independent publishing company formed by a non-fiction author, an editor and a former marketing director for Hutchinson, it was an unlikely home for a series of fantasy game-books. Nevertheless, a separate imprint was created for the series and Fighting Fantasy had a new home: Wizard Books. The company immediately set to work on the series, commissioning fresh, eye-catching covers and developing a funky new website to support the launch. Deciding to proceed with caution at first, the Wizard team republished only those titles originally written by Jackson and Livingstone themselves in order to test the water and see how much interest was still out there. Unsurprisingly, they were pleased with the response. They quickly redoubled their efforts, publishing at a rate of three books per year. To spice up the effort, Livingstone penned his first new FF title in more than a decade: Eye of the Dragon released in 2005. It was followed in 2006 by the publication – to rapturous applause – of Jonathan Green’s long awaited Bloodbones, the book that fell victim to the FF cull of 1995.
This incredible story firmly in mind, I decided to catch up with Steve and Ian in the spring of 2007. Here’s the conversation that followed:
DAVE: You guys have proved, with the return of Fighting Fantasy, that you’ve created something that may well have repeating generational appeal, and many children are now collecting books that their parents played. How does this feel? Do you think the series will age, or will its unique format see through to a third generation of fans?
JACKSON: When Icon first approached us to re-publish Fighting Fantasy, we weren’t sure how it would shape up, twenty years on. In the early 80s, there were no videogames. Dungeons & Dragons was still an underground cult. Lord of the Rings was still required reading by all trendy students. By 2002, the world had come on a long way…but helped, I think, by the success of the LotR movies and Harry Potter, the series was successfully re-launched and Icon are still working their way through the list of titles. Not quite the publishing sensation it was in the 80s, but still over a million books and growing. There was also the element of FF readers from the 80s introducing their own children to the series as well. Actually, the new technology proved to be a great opportunity for FF to appear in different guises, particularly phone games, PDA eBooks and computer games. Will FF last another generation? Who knows? But it’s a nice thought…
DAVE: Penguin must now regret their failure to take the ‘long view’ with FF. Do you think that if they’d continued to support the FF line through its ‘difficult’ period that the series would have flourished again, or am I right in thinking that FF really needed a fresh new marketing team to re-launch it?
JACKSON: I think you’re right. The series was looking a bit tired under the Puffin imprint. Whatever the editorial team tried to come up with to invigorate the series, the sales & marketing people – and the trade – inevitably thought ‘Ho hum, another Fighting Fantasy book’. Everyone still remembered FF’s heyday when a new book would sell 100,000 copies in the first week…and those days had passed. But with a new publisher there is a new momentum behind a re-launch. Icon weren’t expecting 100,000 sales – they were comparing sales with other titles in their lists, and FF did fantastically well for them. So, suddenly the whole vision is optimistic rather than pessimistic. And here we are at number 26 (Bloodbones) with three more titles signed up for next year…
DAVE: Understandably, as you took on more projects, you both began to contribute less and less to the series as it progressed. Are either of you planning to contribute to the series again? If so, in what form?
LIVINGSTONE: I manage the worldwide portfolio of games for Eidos and spend most of my time travelling the world in search of the ‘next big thing’ in video games. Hence I do not have much spare time for writing. I did, however, really enjoy writing Eye of the Dragon. I included a non-player character in the adventure quite early on through which the reader got hints, advice and some narrative. I really wanted the book to be more atmospheric than the old ones and I think I achieved that. You think when it’s done that that will be the last one. But a couple of months later, ideas pop into your head and a little voice whispers ‘just one more’. But it won’t be this year or next.
JACKSON: Originally, I thought there was no space for new titles in the series, since there were over 70 titles for Icon to work through. But last year Ian released Eye of the Dragon. And Bloodbones is just out. There’s a chance I might complete one of the unfinished FF adventures I have. It won’t be soon: I have a new position as Professor of Game Design at Brunel University and I’m immersed in putting together a Masters Course, but once that’s done, we’ll see.
For more on this utterly fascinating subject, check out You Are the Hero.