By Juliet E McKenna
I encountered Fighting Fantasy gamebooks not too long after they first appeared. I’d gone up to university in 1983 and that’s where I’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Aftermath, Toon, Heroes, Car Wars and other tabletop role-playing games which instantly appealed to my lifelong love of fantasy and science-fiction. Such gaming offered me a whole new interactive and participatory way of engaging with such stories. After all those books which I’d read, wanting to slap some sense into the hero who persisted in doing something so dumb that surely only an moron would go ahead. Now I could shout across the table to stop the idiot paladin about to open the grim portal or ominously rune-engraved box. I could be the one suspiciously interrogating the apparently helpful peasant giving directions to the dragon’s den. Now I could be the one rolling a critical fumble and getting skewered by a kobold. (As with just about everyone playing AD&D in that era, our group played a highly personalised and modified version of the rules).
I have wondered since why SF&F meshes so well with table top gaming. I think it’s because speculative fiction invites engagement with the narrative to a far greater extent than other fictions. SF&F isn’t reflecting the world as we know it, offering us insights into the reality we inhabit. It’s constantly asking us to imagine ourselves somewhere else, where the rules we think we know don’t necessarily apply, whether those are the laws of physics or society. The eternal question of SF&F is ‘what if...?’ That wish to step through the barrier of the pages and participate directly in the stories ourselves naturally follows. Indeed, portal fantasy has been a staple of the genre since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole and Lucy entered the wardrobe. Who would have imagined that a handful of weird-shaped dice could satisfy that longing?
Which was great as long as I was at university. But come the end of term time, I had to go home and in those long-ago pre-Internet days, there was no way of finding like-minded souls back in Dorset. How could I continue that direct participation in story-weaving that I’d got so used to enjoying?
Fan fiction? That was also something I’d encountered for the first time at university, through the dubious medium of a much-copied photo-copy of ‘Spock in Manacles’... Setting aside the literary merits of that particular work, I was familiar with the motivation behind fan-fiction. More than once, during a particularly tedious English lesson discussing the Romantic Poets, I would stare out of the window and indulge in a light reverie about Blake’s Seven, mentally writing myself into an episode never to be seen outside my own head. The thing is though, such episodes weren’t particularly satisfying and not only because I still had such vast amounts to learn about characterisation, pacing, exposition and all the other facets of writing craft. The main problem was, there were never any surprises. I knew what was hidden behind the curtain or in the talking box because I’d thought it up in the first place. All in all, I found such indulgent daydreams as unsatisfying as playing chess against myself.
Then someone lent me a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I forget who it was but I’m pretty sure they were in the same fix as me outside of term time. Now we had a solution! Solo gaming within a system that played fair in the sense of punishing stupidity as well as rewarding intelligent thinking and still with the added edge of unpredictable dice rolls landing you in no-win situations. Because game systems should be fair but as the Goblin King reminds us in Labyrinth, real life simply isn’t. Which was great, because the endless variations and possibilities meant you could play the book time and again. Even once you’d won, you could go back and see where the roads not taken might have led.
I love the way these books endured despite the arrival of computer games. I remember playing early attempts at those and being very unimpressed, both by the quality of the writing and plotting and by the inadequacies of the graphics. Fighting fantasy game books offered far superior game play for a good long while as well as the fabulous pictures inside my own head, spun off the wonderful cover art and the line drawings inside. It’s only in recent years that computer games have come anywhere near matching such visuals, never mind such intricate storytelling and replayability.
So of course I’m backing this project. I am intrigued to learn more about the history of these books. How the idea first originated, how they came to be published and who was involved in their creation and development and why. Quite apart from anything else, I bet I’m not the only one currently writing epic fantasy fiction with such fond memories of flipping through an increasingly creased paperback, pencil between teeth and dice ready to hand.
Huge thanks to Juliet for taking the time to write such an excellent post at what is such a busy time of year. If it has inspired you to pledge your support to YOU ARE THE HERO - A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks you can do so by following this link.