Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dark, Moody, and Surreal

I was out at the bookstore yesterday with my 11 year-old daughter, looking for interesting new book series for her to take up. As I scanned the shelves, looking at series after series of Tolkien and Rowling wannabes (and quite a few vampire-themed books as well), my eyes nearly popped out of my head. What I saw was the cover to the right, whose image was completely unknown to me, but whose authors and, more importantly, whose title were not. Needless to say, I picked up the book immediately and flipped through its pages, worried that I might find completely new -- and completely inappropriate -- art. No need to worry: Russ Nicholson's moody, occasionally surreal art was still there, just as it had been back in 1983 when I first encountered The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and fell in mad love with it.

I doubt I need to explain what the Fighting Fantasy books are, but, on the off-chance that someone out there doesn't remember these books, I'll briefly explain. Fighting Fantasy was a series of choose-your-own-adventure books conceived by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the founders of the British game company Games Workshop. Back in ancient times, before computers were on every desktop in the Western world, choose-your-own-adventure books were a big deal and there were lots of knock-offs of Edward Packard's original concept. But what made the Fighting Fantasy books so remarkable -- besides that they directly tapped into RPG-style fantasy -- was that, in addition to providing the reader with a narrative based on his choices, there were also elements reminiscent of tabletop gaming. Your character had stats, for example, and you had to use dice to adjudicate combat and certain other actions. Thus, it was perfectly possible to die not just to bad decisions as in other choose-your-own-adventure books but also due to bad dice rolls in combat or in trying to avoid some nasty surprise. This addition made the books perfect for RPG-enthralled kids like me who were in the car or on vacation away from his usual gaming buddies.

It's also hard to stress the importance of the Fighting Fantasy books were in introducing me to what nowadays we simply call "British fantasy." Back then, especially to someone living on the other side of the Atlantic, there was no such blanket term for the dark, moody, sometimes grubby, often surreal lovechild of Moorcock and Tolkien by way of 2000 A.D. comics that I first encountered through the pages of Fighting Fantasy. My encounter with it came at just the right time too, providing a much-needed antidote to the antiseptic, mass market-friendly art of Larry Elmore and his imitators that was increasingly coming to be the face of American fantasy gaming. I fell both in love and in fear with artists like Nicholson, Ian Miller, John Blanche, and others who presented me with a totally different take on fantasy than the bland, family-friendly stuff that TSR was serving up. Theirs was a decidedly dangerous world; it was gloomy and monster-filled and venturing too far off any road was a sure way to get yourself killed. There was a creepy, "dark fairy tale" quality to the art -- perhaps "dreamlike" or "nightmarish" might be better terms. You were quite clearly in a world of fantasy, not just the Real World-with-Elves, and that had a powerful effect on me as a teenager.

I was an avid reader of Fighting Fantasy books for the next few years, culminating in my time as an exchange student in England in 1987, when I spent a significant portion of my meager funds on picking up not only volumes of the series that never made it to the US but also UK editions of some of those I already owned. The covers of the American editions, though quite good in many cases -- how could they not be, since Richard Corben did some of them? -- lacked that surreal, hallucinogenic quality that so enthralled me and so I sought out the British originals. I still have them somewhere, along with all my other Fighting Fantasy books. One day, maybe I'll bring them out of storage and venture back into the world they describe. I had a great deal of fun with them throughout the 80s and they've been a huge, if often subconscious influence, on the way I imagine fantasy worlds and their inhabitants. I'm not an uncritical devotee of British Fantasy like many North Americans I've known, but there's no question in my mind that my imagination is the better for having had an alternative to the clean, blandified artwork TSR gave us throughout too much of the 1980s and I have Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone to thank for having introduced me to it.

45 comments:

  1. There's a sizeable fan community for these awesome books on the web. The following are a grab-bag of links:

    Rebuilding the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan!

    http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/titan_rebuilding/

    Titannica - the Fighting Fantasy wiki!

    http://fightingfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page

    Fighting Fantazine - the free Fighting Fantasy fan magazine:

    http://fightingfantazine.bravehost.com/Fighting%20Fantazine.html

    Visit the unofficial Fighting Fantasy forums:

    http://fightingfantasy.eamped.com/

    You can also apparently now get FF for the iPad and the Kindle. And, Arion Games will be re-releasing a new version of the classic Advanced Fighting Fantasy RPG system in April or May.

    cheers

    Andy

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  2. I started my kids on Warlock of Firetop Mountain recently. I picked up a copy in a second-hand bookshop, and then later found my own original copy.

    Did you ever play the Sorcery books? Later FF gamebooks with a simple magic system added in, starting with The Shamutanti Hills. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorcery!

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  3. I know you've commented on this already, but for anyone who'd like to hear more:

    http://www.yog-sothoth.com/content/959-An-Illustrated-History-of-Games-Workshop-and-Fighting-Fantasy-Jackson-and-Livingstone

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  4. I did play the Sorcery! books. In fact, I first discovered them while I was in England and snatched them right up. I hope I still have my originals, because I loved the way they looked, especially the magic book.

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  5. Yeah, I still have the German-language edition of some of these. Picked them up in Germany while on vacation with my family in 1987, and while missing my RPG fix. I think they were in the Lone Wolf series ("Einsamer Wolf").

    Fun stuff...

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  6. Fighting Fantasy had a huge influence on how I approached D&D. I'm much more interesting in exploring the pre-constructed Interactive Fiction / Gameworld than I am about telling dungeon adventure stories through improvisation.

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  7. Growing up in a small town in Scotland, my brother and I had our introduction to D&D (Moldvay Basic) around Easter 1983. I recall my best friend Colin, on having D&D described to him in enthusiastic terms, retorting somewhat sniffily, "Hmm. Sounds like a rip-off of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain!"

    I also remember laboriously planning, mapping out, and writing (longhand, in biro) my own Fighting Fantasy game, entitled "Quest for the Mystic Blade" or something similarly original. My fingers are tensing with cramp right now, just at the thought.

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  8. I loved the FF series. And, here in the USA, was disappointed when they disappeared from bookshelves after book 21, "Trial of Champions." But some years later, and through the wonders of ebay and online bookstores, I've been able to get my greedy little mitts on many more titles.

    FF wasn't afraid to tackle dark fantasy and portray horrific creatures through frightening, realistic artwork. The artwork of Martin McKenna, in particular, is brilliant in the later editions, and makes these terifying monsters bound off the page, in titles like "Dead of Night", "Return to Firetop Mountain", and "Legend of Zagor." Also, the options given in the books were plausible and they took themselves seriously, not falling prey to silliness or whimsy like some of the other solo adventures of the time did.

    If you enjoy solo gamebooks with a RPG element, or if you were ever a fan of Tunnels and Trolls solo adventures, do yourself a favor and investigate these books. You won't be disappointed.

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  9. I've never actually seen a Fighting Fantasy book in the flesh. I'm quite a bit younger than I'd imagine most of your readers are, and my start with choose your own adventures were Goosebumps books.

    In the late '90s (I think) I started playing a series of Star Wars books where you played characters from the films and rolled dice and use items you got through the fanclub thing. I think it was sort of similar, but more gimmicky.

    I've been a fan of Russ Nicholson's art since I first picked up the Fiend Folio. Interestingly, it's only been recently (since my discovery of the OSR) that I found out he was British and connected him to my beloved WFRP.

    I'd be interested to hear what your problems with "British Fantasy" are, since you say you aren't as totally enamored with it as some others are.

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  10. I too love Nicholson's work in the FF. There's similar artwork of his in the early White Dwarf issues. He has a blog nowadays:
    http://russnicholson.blogspot.com/

    There was a 25th anniversary release (UK only) of Warlock of Firetop Mountain a few years ago, with the original artwork and some bonus material:
    http://www.amazon.com/Warlock-Firetop-Mountain-25th-Anniversary/dp/1840468378/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1297621864&sr=8-2

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  11. Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, Sorcery!... yes, yes, great memories in all of those. But I always found in near impossible to get through them without a bit of cheating.

    In Sorcery! you weren't supposed to consult the magic book except in very specific situations. Rather the rules wanted you to memorize the names and functions of the spells and then would seek to fool you with fake names in the game text. Not having a terrible efficient memory, I usually had to sneak a peek once or twice.

    And I'm not sure I ever made it through the Seven Serpents having found all seven!

    Still though, the story was compelling and the art just SO evocative.

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  12. I don't feel the antipathy toward Elmore, et al, that you do, since as far as I was concerned as a kid there was room for all sorts of aesthetics. Fantasy was so out of the mainstream in that age before WoW and LOTR movies that any and every bit of it I came across was treasured.

    That said, yeah, the funky British aesthetic intrigued me deeply. Excitement versus comfort, I suppose. Dear God, I came to love those books. It's great to know they're [assuming it's not just book 1] in print again - I haven't played RPGs with a group in several years, and writing, teaching and raising infant twins leaves me little time to seek out a new group. But I've a gaming itch that I suspect will be better scratched by revisiting these books than by even the best-written of CRPGs.

    As a side note, these First Comics adaptations of Moorcock came along a little later and deepened by interest in British fantasy. Some of the art therein was quite good/creepy/dark.

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  14. Here's a recent pic by Nicholson where he revisited his Githyanki and Githzerai artwork from the Fiend Folio. The style is identical!

    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=45400

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  15. I'd be interested to hear what your problems with "British Fantasy" are, since you say you aren't as totally enamored with it as some others are.

    There's a certain interpretation of British Fantasy that takes the whole thing a little too far for me in the realm of, as someone once put it succinctly, "a world where everyone is covered in blood and shit." That's the kind of British Fantasy I don't much care for. I like dark, world-weary, and even cynical approaches to fantasy, but those qualities can be taken to extremes and I've often seen a lot of fans of British Fantasy, especially on this side of the Atlantic, revel in that stuff to the point of parody. People seem to forget that, for all its gloominess, the Warhammer world (to cite one example) isn't one totally devoid of either genuine beauty or heroism. Indeed, those qualities are thrown into sharper relief by the shadow cast over the whole setting.

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  16. @Praetorius

    FFs were designed to take the player several attempts to complete. So, it just wasn't you that found them difficult. There were sudden death paragraphs (if you go east at the junction you step into the waiting jaws of an illusory beast and are devoured, etc.) , and a number of puzzles to solve that if you didn't have the right item at the right time you were stuck. FFs were, essentially, one-offs where you, more often than not, played a generic sword-wielding, leather armor clad hero with stats in SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK.

    Lone Wolf, on the other hand, was more of a true solo gamebook campaign. You could keep the same character in book after book providing you survived the previous book. I found LW much more survivable than FF, but it was designed to be a little more forgiving that FFs.

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  17. There is a loose campaign running through four or five of the books, but yes, for the most part they were done-in-one single adventures.

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  18. The best thing that can be said about FF is that they turned young men across the world on to reading in a big way. Kudos to Jackson/Livingstone for that.

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  19. I still kind of want to run Shagrad's Hives Of Peril.

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  20. Sorcery! was my second foray into this genre. However my first was In the Service of Saena Sephar. Seems to be one that faded into obscurity. http://wiki.acaeum.com/wiki/In_the_Service_of_Saena_Sephar

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  21. I'm curious what kind of art you think would be innappropriate and why.

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  22. We used to run the occasional FF book as an AD&D scenario when we were lads. Ah, for those heady days before concepts like "railroading" and "sandboxing" made us feel guilty for the way we have our fun.

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  23. Lone Wolf strikes me as a lot more 'high fantasy' than Fighting Fantasy, in that you're the last survivor of an order of ranger/monks, on an epic quest against a 'big bad'. This difference doesn't effect my experience of playing them though.

    By the way, if people don't know about these websites of playable online gamebooks they should give them a look:

    www.ffproject.com - unofficial Fighting Fantasy adventures.

    www.projectaon.org - Lone Wolf and other Joe Dever books.

    www.ageoffable.net - my own online gamebook.

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  24. PS If you like Russ Nicholson, have a look at Harry Clarke. I wouldn't be surprised if he was an influence.

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  25. I'm curious what kind of art you think would be innappropriate and why.

    For the Fighting Fantasy books, I think art in the style of most of TSR's stable of mid to late 80s artists would be inappropriate, as would a more cartoony or comic book-ish style. The early FF books had a palpably gloomy tone to them, one at odds with with the brighter take on fantasy guys like Elmore, Easley, and Parkinson seemed to specialize in. The same goes for artists like Willingham and Dee, whose stuff feels too blatantly "heroic" for the FF world, where heroism is more subdued and ringed with darkness.

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  26. Wow this is really strange James, I've been on a fighting fantasy kick for about a week now, looking for them at my local bookstores, and looking for ways to buy them online (i.e. ebay). I'm not really sold on the new covers, but if the entire art is the same, I could go for it. Tell me, does anyone know if the stories are the same, or have they been modified?

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  27. @Regamer: The stories are the same, but the newest reissues include 3 sample characters you can use to play instead of rolling up your own. I'd recommend the new books: Howl of the Werewolf, Stormslayer, and Night of the Necromancer - all by Jonathan Green. They're not classics like Deathtrap Dungeon or Warlock of Firetop Mountain, but the gameplay and stories are a bit more interesting than the older books.

    cheers

    Andy

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  28. Fighting Fantasy!
    Hells to the Yeah!
    I picked up City of Thieves and loved the series from there. I couldn't believe how fun and cool the combination of CYA and D&D style adventuring was, and I especially liked the creepy pseudo-medieval atmosphere. A friend collected them, luckily. Oddly enough, I had no idea there was an RPG based on this until recently, I knew a fair number of people who borrowed my books woulda played. Missed opportunities..... I'll definitely pick up the RPG this time, whether we play or not.

    I'm glad to see they're back!

    @James:
    "a world where everyone is covered in blood and shit.":
    Why does everyone forget the boils? ;-) I dunno where this came from either. The Critical Hit system was a bit nasty, but therefore people(and monsters) could get killed quickly fairly often, rendering life a bit cheap, and there was a Ratcatcher class, a prominent god of disease[though Greyhawk had Incabulos, Lord of Afflictions, as a powerful deity as well], an unraveling society and a world slowly falling to chaos, but I didn't particularly see it as sordid and filth-ridden myself. I think it's kinda an exaggeration that's often mistaken for the truth. Sorta like misconceptions of, say: the silliness of Tunnels and Trolls(which I didn't know about until I talked to others; the solos were chock full of blood, guts, death, and some implied sex[in which the books assume you're a hetero male, of course... |This irked more than one female friend who played through, but the 80's, so....|])all rendered in British Fantasy style in my Corgi Editions(supposedly less lurid than the originals!), the complexity of Rolemaster,the inevitable demise of platoons of of Call of Cthulu PCs, and the unplayability of the Palladium System, and so on, ime.

    I wish I still had all my T&T books, I'm re-ordering them from Flying Buffalo now. As for my FFs, I'll definitely be filling out my collections wherever I can.

    Loved this post! And you never know, your kids might like the gamebooks, so pulling 'em out of storage may be an even better idea now. :-)

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  29. The early FF books had a palpably gloomy tone to them, one at odds with with the brighter take on fantasy guys like Elmore, Easley, and Parkinson seemed to specialize in. The same goes for artists like Willingham and Dee, whose stuff feels too blatantly "heroic" for the FF world, where heroism is more subdued and ringed with darkness.

    Oh. Yeah, I agree, I guess it just didn't occur to me that they'd go to any of those artists in the first place. Are they even still working?

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  30. Latest [fifth] issue of Fighting Fantazine, the Fighting Fantasy fan magazine, is now available for download here:

    http://www.unboundbook.org/FightingFantazine/FF5.pdf

    104 pages of FF goodness absolutely free!

    cheers

    Andy

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  31. After reading this post I went and purchased 3 of the books from Amazon.ca. Looking forward to playing through them with my son.

    I note also that four of the books are available for the Iphone. I may pick up one of those as well...seems like it'd be a good fit for the device.

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  32. Talk about timing - I was just in the mood for some dungeon crawling fun and so I pulled out Deathtrap Dungeon the other week and worked my way through it again. It's amazing how much you can forget over the course of a few decades.

    I pulled out the first Lone Wolf book as well and started in on it again, but there's something about the Fighting Fantasy books that I just never got from the Lone Wolf series. I love them both, but damn those Fighting Fantasy books were awesome.

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  33. In what section of the bookstore are the FF reprints to be found? I've never noticed them before.

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  34. Oh yeah, I too have very fond memories of Russ Nicholson's art. Amazing stuff! I'd probably rank him up with Erol Otus and Dave Trampie. I'm glad that he's still producing new works.

    And, like many others, I spent many wonderful afternoons with the FF books as an adolescent. I still have a half-dozen of those books on my shelf.

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  35. "I too love Nicholson's work in the FF. There's similar artwork of his in the early White Dwarf issues. He has a blog nowadays:
    http://russnicholson.blogspot.com/"

    It's worth mentioning that Russ does private commissions for reasonable prices. I'm not saying it's cheap, because it's not. But for anyone who grew up captivated by the strange and powerful illustrations of Warlock of Firetop Mountain, or Citadel of Chaos, it's an opportunity to own a piece of gaming history. And, for what it's worth, his artwork now is at least as good as it was in the early 80's.

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  36. The 25th anniversary edition that Zenopus is talking about is still available from Amazon in Canada.
    http://www.amazon.ca/Fighting-Fantasy-Gamebook-Warlock-Mountain/dp/1840468378/

    I have it and it is really nice.

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  37. Now, I'm a *big* FF fan, but in a thread discussing the best of British fantasy gamebooks I really can't quite believe that nobody has mentioned Dave Morris, Jamie Thomson and Oliver Johnson.

    It's actually a little-known fact that Dave wrote one of the Fighting Fantasy books: Keep of the Lich Lord. However, Dave and Jamie are best known for writing what are possibly the greatest gamebooks ever committed to paper; the awesome but sadly-as-yet-unfinished Fabled Lands series, which is lavishly illustrated with Russ Nicholson masterpieces. Seriously, the Fabled Lands books make the Warlock of Firetop Mountain look ordinary - they're a *must-buy*!

    Long before the Fabled Lands, Dave and Oliver wrote the epic Bloodsword gamebooks, which are set in the same highly atmospheric grim-fantasy world as their Dragon Warriors RPG and are again illustrated by Russ Nicholson. Meanwhile, Jamie Thomson wrote the Way of the Tiger gamebooks, which are a superbly gritty ninja experience. Bloodsword and Way of the Tiger are also *must-buy* gamebooks - although unfortunately they are currently out of print...

    Dave and Jamie now have their own blog, and it makes for very interesting reading:

    http://fabledlands.blogspot.com

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  38. @Akrasia

    I can't speak for over the Pond, but in the UK bookshop where I work, Fighting Fantasy books get shelved in the "Children 9-12" section. Unfortunately in this case, the official section running order is alphabetical by author throughout, so the books end up scattered on several different shelves. D'oh!

    For what it's worth, my own favourite FF book was (and is) The Citadel Of Chaos. Some reasons why:

    1. You get spells.
    2. The archvillain rejoices in the splendid name of Balthus Dire.
    3. Russ Nicholson's illustration of the Wheelies: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_0dOXQ_dv5kk/TBnpuWLlq6I/AAAAAAAAALc/fbJ4S7F7mz8/s1600/wheelies.jpg

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  39. I never saw these “back in the day”, though I did have a big collection of the CYOA books. Just a few weeks ago, however, I got The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for my iPad. Suprisingly, I think the minimal mechanics could work for a traditional RPG as well. I am kind of annoyed by the maze, though.

    There is something very appealing about this sort of British fantasy. I seems to fit what I would like to aim for well. That’s what keeps me toying with the idea of running Dragon Warriors. Wondering if it would actually help me get that tone more than trying do execute it with Labyrinth Lord.

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  40. Robert: I love Dragon Warriors - it really is one of the *great* old-school RPGs. The adventures are classic examples of grim British fantasy vibe and are chock full of Dave's wonderfully atmoshperic prose.

    To my mind, Dragon Warriors is well worth every single cent - even just for the "Lands of Legend" world setting alone - and if the DW system isn't to your taste, then the world setting and the adventures can all be very easily converted to LL. If you like Warlock of Firetop Mountain then I think you'll love Dragon Warriors.

    BTW. The first book in the Fabled Lands series has just been released for iPad, too.

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  41. I bought Dragon Warriors books 1-4 back in the day. Just last week I purchased the final two to round out the collection. I've got a tremendous fondness for the flavour of that system.

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  42. I just bought the newly released Kindle version of Warlock of Firetop Mountain at Amazon.com. What a perfect format for gamebooks! Hyperlinks replace flipping pages, and the Kindle automatically keeps track of character stats, maps, etc. Nevertheless it still feels like you're reading a game BOOK and not just playing a video game. I hope to see more gamebook titles released on e-readers in the near future. Also, I found a website that has the Lone Wolf series converted to Mobi format that can be read on the Kindle. See here.

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  43. Ahh, Fighting Fantasy! The reason because D&D failed at ruining my life was because those tiny books had done away with it already. FF made me ultimately unable to read a book from cover to cover (v. gr. I browsed through 'The Lord of the Rings' by randomly jumping forward and back).

    Let me disgress. I live in Spain, and D&D wasn't translated to Spanish language until 1985. (Think a minute about it, oh grognards from the USA, and tremble: in Spain OLD SCHOOL EQUALS TO MENTZER EDITION. Do you say Chainmail, LBB, Holmes? Moldvay perhaps? Ha! Unheard of.)

    So, my gateway to the wonderful world of RPG was:

    1st. FF and the Lone Wolf series.
    2nd. the D&D Cartoon Show (glups!).
    3rd. a glimpse of the D&D Basic boxed set on the shelves of a shopping mall in Barcelona. (I fell in love with those maps on graph paper.)

    Sadly, Spanish D&D turned out to be a mirage. Blinked for a moment and gone out of market without a trace (no follow ups, no modules, no Expert set...) So, let me rectify: in Spain, old school equals to Menzer edition FOR THE FEW LUCKY ONES WHO MANAGED TO BUY THE BOXED SET. For myself, Old School is 'The Warlock of the Firetop Mountain', since it became the shoehorn... I mean, the formal standart to which every other piece of Interactive Fiction Games was to be compared.

    Eventually titles like Runequest, Stormbringer, Chtulhu, MERP, Star Wars were translated to Spanish and I came to play RPG as often as twice a year - with people I didn't know. But those adventures made me feel sort of short changed: I didn't care about Role-Playing (i.e. talking in funny voices), all I was looking for was a good old dungeon crawl, Firetop Mountain style. And in spite of their overly elaborated rule systems (or because of them?), I didn't percieve those games to be more, but less interactive that FF books. Where they were the branching tunnels/paths/whatever, the coupon items to fetch, the whole die & retry thing?

    And there came the day in which a foolish publisher dared to translate D&D again. It was 1992. The history repeated itself and the whole edition crashed miserabily. But this time I wasn't flat-footed and purchased my boxed set at the first chance.

    Unfortunately, it happended to be the infamous BLACK BOX, a misguided attempt to fit the D&D rules into the narrow boundaries of board games. It was broken at every possible level - o so I though. Anyway, I tried the 'Zanzer Tem' dungeon with different groups of people, just in case. But with me as a DM, what could possibly go right? Remember that I was an entirely CLUELESS fool doing his best to follow the rules BY THE BOOK. My players hated the game, and so did I.

    I had assumed the FF books to be a pale reflection of a D&D game, but the D&D black box didn't stand to them. To be fair, no version of D&D would have lived up to my expectations. Fighting Fantasy had spoiled me.

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  44. I got Forest of Doom and then Warlock in the UK when I was 11. Both of them seemed really surreal and amazing to me, really atmospheric. The art is amazing and weird. FoD was really open and if you came out through the end you could go back to the start and walk through again. And things like the clone warriors an their underground mushroom farm ...

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  45. Citadel is so random and odd. It's marvelous.

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