So I start this blog’s journey proper with what for alot of UK gamers was their entry point into the hobby.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
First published in 1980 by Puffin this was the first of Ian Livingstone’s and Steve Jackson’s (a Uk based chap, not the owner of the US games company that bears his name) “Fighting Fantasy” series. This pair play a big part in the 80s UK role-playing scene, and will be the subject of a future post for sure, but for now its worth mentioning that these two men had already set up Games Workshop, which at this point specialised in selling Dungeons and Dragons and other US RPGs of the time to the UK market. Fighting Fantasy was their successful attempt to put D&D in a ‘choose your own adventure’ format , where you go though a series of numbered entries each of which gives you the choice of what to do next which in turn leads to another bit of description. The genius of the FF series was that Ian and Steve married this successful format with a very simple RPG system; Three Stats Skill which was used for practically all skill tests (Fighting, detecting traps etc), Stamina – your hit points as you take damage this stat got marked down, and Luck which was used whenever the situation called for completely random resolution – but with some indication of how ‘Lucky’ the character is.
Warlock was not the first FF book I read. That honour goes to the second book in the series “The Citadel of Chaos”, which I found in my high school library in about ’84. I was hooked on the spot and I knew from a quick skim that this was for me and was going to be ‘my thing’. It was the beginning of my journey through Fantasy role-playing games, but it was an influence that has stayed with me always.
How FF has influenced my game design
This line from the Hints and Tips’ section at the start of the book has always stuck with me;
“The one true way involves a minimum of risk, and any player, no matter how weak on initial dice rolls, should be able to get through pretty easily.”
I interpret this in many ways, which would probably make a post of its own, but this phrase has influenced me more in my reffing and adventure writing over the years than any other piece of GM’s advice. However that’s not to say I’m a push over, because…..
Grit, I like my fantasy Gritty and dark. Warlock and subsequent FF books had this in bucket-loads, partially down to the wonderful art of Russ Nicholson. This is probably why I was never impressed by things such as Dragonlance and other fantasy that had shiny soft rock happy looking heroes on the front cover.
Its out of this world Fantasy. Almost as counterpoint to the gritty ‘realism’ evident in the books, there are moments of Fantastic almost whimsical fantasy. One of my favourite examples in Warlock is where you come to a dead end and there are a bunch of magically animated tools digging the tunnel to the tune of “Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho its off to work we go…”
There’s always a strong narrative both in the back story and in play. Even if its merely the search for a chest of treasure, as is the case with Warlock (although Ian Livingstone later gave the Warlock a name and a more detailed back ground in Return to Firetop Mountain FF Book 50 – but by then I had long given up on the series).
For me The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and the next six game books (up to The Island of the Lizard King), really do sum up all that is good about Fantasy UK roleplaying in the 80s. And the good news is that none of this is out of print – Wizard Books currently publish a range of FF books including the Warlock, as well as bringing it to the IPad/IPhone (see links below).
Finally here’s Russ Nicholson’s iconic illustration of the Warlock himself