Tales From the Darkwood Part 1 – A Fighting Fantasy Primer

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“The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild”

Jack London.

Regular readers of this here website will have no doubt noticed that in recent weeks I have been talking A LOT about Fighting Fantasy books. If that has been boring for you, tough luck, because here comes a bunch more. In the anticipation building up to the first ever Fighting Fantasy Fest held in London earlier this month, I got a bit carried away and kind of assumed that EVERYONE reading this blog would at least have an awareness of them, if not share the same love that I have for them. How wrong I was!

I posted a few pictures on Instagram of FF artwork and one of our younger followers quizzed me on just what the hell they were. Similarly, whilst sat in the pub after our Wednesday night D&D session, one of the guys in our group confessed to not knowing what on earth I was talking about when I was filling them in about my little trip to Ealing.

I reluctantly had to acquiese that despite the best efforts of the likes of Jonathan Green and the BBC, there’s still a lot of people out there who have no comprehension of the simple joy of Fighting Fantasy. So guys, let’s talk shall we?

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Who needs mates when you have a barnet like this and your sister looks like the Devil.

Back in 1984 I was attending Salmestone Primary School in Margate. I was pretty happy there, the school was a 15 minute walk from our small terrace house located right behind the long since abandoned Dreamland Theme Park. Summers filled with the cloying fragrance of popcorn and candyfloss as the Thanet air rang with the endless screams of people getting battered by the Mary Rose and the thundering roar of the Looping Star. Even back then though something about the place troubled me. Beneath that  brightly painted surface and the sickeningly sweet sounds and smells of childhood innocence, I was aware of the fetid stench and cyclopean presence of the sea and the first squirming tendrils of social decay, but I digress.

I was a precocious reader with an insatiable appetite, a veritable literary locust.  Possibly the only cool thing I have accomplished in my life occurred when my Year 2 teacher informed my mother that I had the reading age of a 13 year old despite only being 7 years of age! She was very proud. Once that revelation soaked in, it was books or book tokens for birthdays & Christmas and I certainly did not complain. Sometime around my third year at Salmestone the Puffin Book Club was introduced to our school. This was basically a leaflet that appeared maybe once a term and was full of all sorts of books, published by Puffin (Penguin Books childrens department) that could be purchased from Puffin via the school. In hindsight it seems an odd setup, but maybe the books were discounted or something, presumably to inspire young readers. Whatever, I was always delighted when these things appeared and would scoot home waving the leaflet around like a mad thing and pestering my Mother into letting me have a new book. Even though we were far from flush, a new book from Puffin Book Club was something my parents always seemed to find the money for and I remain eternally grateful to them for that.
horrorofhighridge Anyhow one day whilst perusing the latest Puffin Club leaflet my eyes fell upon a forboding title called ‘The Forest Of Doom’ and suddenly life took a very different turn. “A Fighting Fantasy gamebook in which YOU are the hero” the caption read. I knew a little something about gamebooks as I had recieved a couple of Choose Your Own Adventure books from a relative the year before. Now these books were entertaining enough in a Scooby Doo/Famous Five mystery type way, but in retrospect nothing to really blow your hair back, although I will admit I still have a soft spot for The Horror Of High Ridge. They were typically a contemporary adventure that you had to unravel by following clues and turning to different numbered paragraphs in order to solve the riddle. These days they call it Interactive Fiction or some such nonsense.  I figured that Forest Of Doom would be along similar lines. It seemed cooler though, less clean cut. Sounded dark and foreboding and dangerous. FOREST OF DOOM. Yes, I should like one of those please.

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Bobby = The Worst.

It is important to note here that at 7 or 8 years of age I naturally had none of the grim countenance nor propensity toward darker subject matter that would manifest so fully in later life, though I fear I was already developing my peculiar sense of humour at that point. I was a fairly happy, if occasionally lonely little boy who was quite content playing on his own. I had a wild imagination that served me well and as a result was seldom bored. It is also relevant at this stage to acknowledge that the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon had started airing in the UK on BBC1 at the same time and I was already a devoted fan. I was aware of the game of D&D, through some article on Newsround I believe, but I accepted early on that not only was it a game for bigger boys, but that you needed friends to play it with. Since neither option was viable at that point I figured that doorway was closed to me so  I stuck with the cartoon. More on that later.

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Forest Of Doom arrived a few weeks later. It seemed the rest of my classmates had opted for the gentler pleasures of Roald Dahl’s The BFG or some Dick King Smith book, Forest Of Doom was noticaeble in the stack of books on my teachers desk because of it’s lurid green spine glowing malevolently. I remember turning it over and over in my hands. Theres something truly glorious about a new book with its crisp, uncreased spine and the smell of the fresh clean pages. That Iain Mccaig cover though. Holy shit, that was something else. I had no idea what the creature glaring out at me was but I knew it was AWESOME. The Shapeshifter (for that was what he turned out to be) looked like he wanted to rip my face off , the whole package exuded threat and though I was alarmed, I was also completely enthralled.  As I flicked through the pages looking at the frankly trippy Malcolm Bartlett illustrations and the curious Adventure Sheet at the front, I was starting to wise up to the reality that this was no soft Choose Your Adventure book. Nope, that goofy shit was mere bagatelle, better suited for wholesome kids that went to Youth Club and that. I had levelled up man. Forest Of Doom was something else. It required dice and a pencil and some understanding of game mechanics. But unbeknownst to me it at the time it was the doorway that I had been searching for and without a second thought I dived straight through it…..

(In Part 2 our hero actually gets to the point of this woodland ramble and explains Fighting Fantasy principles and mechanics to the layman)

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Tales From the Darkwood Part 1 – A Fighting Fantasy Primer

  1. Pingback: Tales From The Darkwood Part 2 – Fates Messenger | COREHAMMER

  2. Pingback: Tales From The Darkwood part 3: Until the light takes us | COREHAMMER

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