Fighting Fantasy – The Introductory
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Steve Jackson was always the innovator within the FF writing pool. He gave us the first Sci-Fi FF (Starship Traveller), the first modern-day FF (House Of Hell), the first (in fact, the only) full superhero FF (Appointment With FEAR), the first FF where you can use magic (Citadel Of Chaos), the first multi-part FF epic (Sorcery!), and the first FF where you start a) clueless about what’s going on and b) get to play a monster rather than a human (Creature Of Havoc). He also gave up writing FFs on number 24 after only penning 9.5 books (including the 4 parts of the Sorcery! epic) in favour of working on the expanded FF universe and trying to push the possibilities of the concept. To this end, in addition to executive producing masses of off-shoot material (including jigsaws, poster books, Advanced FF guides, ZX Spectrum/Commodore 64 games, etc etc) he created a boardgame version of Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, penned the first FF novel (The Trolltooth Wars) and wrote two primers/adventures in a bid to make FF into a true RPG system (this book and its follow-up, The Riddling Reaver.)
Whilst The Riddling Reaver was a full-blown multi-player scenario in the traditional sense of a FF book, Fighting Fantasy was rather more than that. It covers the rules for using FF as a RPG and includes two adventure scenarios for budding GMs (or people running out of ideas) to cut their teeth on and/or use to initiate the un-initiated.
The Wishing Well is a short adventure (SJ recommends a maximum of 90 minutes playtime, but I doubt it would take this long as my average play-through time for most full FF books is about 2 hours) in a disused well that presumably looks like it might be quite interesting which can be the only explanation why your adventurers choose to go down it given that we are offered no back story other than that the wealthy used to throw gold down it and make wishes so presumably all that gold must have built-up over time and still be in it somewhere. As for the scenario itself, it is best described as a fairly random selection of encounters and situations that are fairly generic, but still fun, FF fare. You start knowing nothing and you gradually build-up the very scant information that there is as to who now has the treasure and how you might get hold of it. In one sense, as this is only meant to be a short intro adventure, you wouldn’t expect masses of detail and situations as it would seem unrealistic and most who bought this book will have done so based on their liking other FF books so are probably familiar with the “everything including the kitchen sink” approach already used in Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. On the other hand, the encounters in this adventure seem very higgledy-piggledy and could be substituted for equally unlikely encounters at will. I really struggle to understand the presence of a mummy – this seems awkwardly forced in as the beauty of FF was the often location-appropriate creatures you meet. At least it’s linked into the “plot”, unlike the mermaid which, whilst pretty irrelevant to the overall adventure, does add a fun element where an adventurer can fall in love with her and either be led off into the sunset or end up fighting his friends in a bid to defend her honour. This also shows that there is often humour in FF. Some of the encounters are actually with quite tough opponents in terms of extra attacks (hellhound), special skills (mermaid), or the ability to keep coming back to life unless destroyed in a certain way (mummy). I would have preferred just one special creature as having a lot of them takes away the exclusiveness and mystique of being faced with one, especially as there are less than 20 sections to this adventure. Normally FF books do reserve the special creature for a key moment and tend to make the other creatures fairly standard. However, if the idea of this adventure is to turn people on to FF, then the more unusual the encounters the more likely a player is to come back for more, so this is forgivable. The inevitable FF dungeon-trawl trap is present (a pitfall trap in this case) and, whilst most traps tend to be an annoying hindrance to progress, this trap is actually quite fun to negotiate as it really makes the players think. In fact, most of the non-creature situations are designed to intrigue and make the players use brains as well as brawn, which is key to RPGs. Plus, I really like the infinity corridor which must be lots of fun for the GM and also needs ingenuity on the players’ parts. This adventure also deals with the common problem of getting to the end of a FF, winning it, and then not being expected to get back out of whatever thing you are in the depths of now. As this is a true RPG, you can go in any direction, revisit locations over and over (without illogical plot re-sets) and be expected to a) get back out alive and b) remember to have a contingency plan to get back up the well-shaft, so there is an element of realism here that rarely exists in FF books.
The second scenario is Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril. As it is far longer it is, by definition, possible for it to be far more fleshed-out and vivid. This adventure is a sort of cross between Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon and, had it been used for a gamebook scenario, it could have been one of the best ever as it has masses of inventive situations and is very varied and fun to play. Even reading it through again (as a GM) for this review was fun. Some encounters are extremely original and it’s a shame they didn’t appear in any FF books - I particularly like the possibilities room and the fantasy room where whatever people say happens, although this would never suit a FF book as it involves an infinite number of possible events happening so needs human interaction to work. My gripes about too many special creatures in The Wishing Well do not extend to this second adventure as the specials are rare, well-hidden and VERY special and, to add to the fun and the need to explore as much as possible they all have ways of being overcome eg: the dragon can be held at bay, the vampire defeated, etc. There are also some interesting (if maybe a little frustrating) morphing creatures that start out soft but then turn into lethal “specials” when they are near-dead (the changeling and the weretiger bloke.) The inventiveness in places of this adventure is matched only by that of Deathtrap Dungeon – the four rooms that move around, the hot-floored room, and the mirrored water-floored room are all brilliantly-executed. In particular, the hot-floored room requires much invention by the players to beat it, whereas a FF book would presumably offer you the chance to talk to the salamander (how long would it take a player in a RPG to figure this out?) which would ruin the fun of this room. As with most dungeon-trawls the ever-present room inhabited by dwarves is here and this time it’s a small cafe-bar where all sorts of good and bad things can befall the players. Again, this is lots of fun and means each player can try something different with a different outcome. There are also THREE separate opportunities for players to add a NPC to their team, with mixed results. There is a lot of fun to be had in commanding your own small zombie army and it increases the chances of the players surviving as the zombies can fight for you or handle the tougher challenges on your behalf. Taking the lying beggar with you is probably more fun for the GM than the players, but the Man Of Many Years is the best-kept secret as he gives little away but handling him correctly definitely pays-off. Plus, unlike Ian Livingstone’s almost-universally useless NPC hangers-on, all three of these options can be useful to the players and won’t run off or drop dead within minutes of them joining the party. Interestingly enough as well, all the noise about treasure at the start of the adventure really is true and your players can amass a small fortune in gold and jewels if they make the right choices. Add to this the fact that, to beat certain rooms, you need to return to other areas, this makes for a great RPG where you can explore everything, failing certain areas initially, only to find what you need, retrace your steps, and then move further on. The soul-destroying, linear element that always mars FFs if you are missing an item you must have is remedied here, assuming the players are willing to explore everything. There is even an under construction section where the GM can add more rooms and encounters of their own making so this could really go on forever! Also, this adventure successfully handles the problem of illogically-located creatures - as the Hives are man-made any creature could have been put there (again, just like Deathtrap Dungeon.) I have one small issue, but it’s so minor as to be hardly relevant – the initial premise is very similar to that in the abysmal Eye Of The Dragon (which IL used part of as a sample adventure in his own RPG primer Dicing With Dragons) in which a secret set of chambers hidden under a tree contains untold wealth if you can deal with the pay-off with the person who tells you about it/lets you in, BUT, this is so minor and Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril has so much interest, variety and ingenuity on offer that this is hardly noticeable after a few chambers have been visited as even the most simple parts of SHOP are better than anything offered in EOTD.
Additionally, whilst it may be wasted as the players may or may not ever get to see it, Duncan Smith’s art is really good here and reminds me of Iain McCaig’s superb artwork in Deathtrap Dungeon (which has a similar feel about it in general, as I’ve said.) He gives a great sense of caverns and corridors and there is a claustrophobic feel to it that really suits these two adventures and their tones. Sadly the cover is fairly poor and gives away a secret from the second adventure. Incidentally, how many people have noticed that the cover art is reversed between the original orange-spined issue and the later green-spined black dragon-cover re-issue? (Look at the pictures and you’ll see it straight away!)
The actual raison d’etre of this booked can be easily overlooked due to the adventures it contains (one OK, one superb), which is to attempt to turn FF into a true RPG. Yes, we are offered rules for dealing with various situations in the intro that we wouldn’t get normally in FF (as the book would handle these as we went along), but is a rulebook really necessary? FF is so straight-forward once you are used to it that the consequences/rewards for success or failure should be easy enough to build into your own adventures without SJ’s input/blessing. Indeed, I was creating RPGs to play with friends using FF rules for years (mostly because it was much easier than Dungeons & Dragons and you didn’t die on your first battle due to only having 1d4 of Strength) before I finally read this book (in fact, I didn’t even own a copy until 2008 as it simply didn’t appeal to me due to the awful cover!) and there was nothing it added that I hadn’t already done. That said, it would be a shame not to have this book if only to discover the sheer brilliance of Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril and to get an idea of what FF writers were capable of creating but they couldn’t practicably include in standard FF books. For me, the second adventure in this book is the closest SJ ever came to the best of IL’s work (Deathtrap Dungeon, Trial Of Champions, City Of Thieves) and shows that he wasn’t just a creator of gimmick FFs.