Tales From The Darkwood part 3: Until the light takes us

Out_of_the_Pit_LargeIn the two PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS of this very rudimentary primer I have discussed Fighting Fantasy books, the excitement, immersion and joy they inspired in a generation of readers and the creative doors they opened for many of us. Less frequently discussed amongst the casual fan however, is the expansion beyond the core gamebooks that followed. The fantasy world of Titan that was the shared location (though not always) for the majority of the books, was explored and expanded upon by a number of other artists, writers and developers like Marc Gascoigne, Pete Tamlyn and the other Steve Jackson alongside many many others.

Out Of The Pit may sound like the title of an early 25 Ta Life song, but the FF bestiary appeared in 1985. Out Of The Pit was an extension of the popular regular article of the same name that appeared in Warlock magazine, and was a veritable necronomicon of the grotesque and ghoulish, brimming over with every monster, villain and shitehawk ever to stalk the pages of the FF universe! Just look at that beautiful Chris Achilleos cover. I remember being particularly captivated by the depiction of the Dark Elves, a fascination that only grew when Titan was published shortly after and the cruel nocturnal culture of that ruthless race was explored in more visceral detail. Needless to say my first Warhammer army was always going to be Dark Elves.

TitanTitan was the FF encyclopedia. Like Out Of the Pit, It was originally published in a large A4 format which I’m sorry to say didn’t make it with me out of childhood. Once again Chris Achilleos provided the cover artwork, and once again it is fricking awesome. I quite literally read it so much it eventually fell apart. I managed to pick up a replacement copy about ten years ago which is in a far more convenient bookshelf format! But I digress.

Titan answered almost every question my fevered adolescent mind had conjured about the inhabitants and culture of Allansia and beyond. Every geographical and metaphysical corner of the globe was scrutinised. Customs, culture, history, religion and language were all expanded upon. The gamebooks were no longer just welcome escapes from reality, to be played whilst sat on the back step with a Kit-Kat and a glass of chocolate Nesquik. Titan made the whole adventure seem so much more real and immersive, it provided a sense of place, history, community and context.

We discovered that gods walked the planet toying with the affairs of mortals, we learned about the creation myths of Titan, that Balthus Dire, Zharradan Marr and Zagor were schooled in the dark arts together by Volgera Darkstorm,even how much a pint of rotgut cost in the Black Lobster and on and on! I distinctly recall being really impressed by the detailed map of Port Blacksand. It inspired me to try my own hand at mediocre fantasy cartography on sheets of that old computer paper with the holes in the side that my father had somehow obtained for my sister and I to draw on (my dad dug holes in the road for a living, and to this day does not believe in computers). My own crude city maps were loosely based upon my adolescent stomping grounds of Margate, a place that one crazy old hermit once described as ‘a wretched hive of scum and villainy and utter bastards ‘ Dad, you were not wrong.

blacksandmapOnce I got into playing Advanced Fighting Fantasy a few years later, Titan proved to be an indispensable world building source book that I used in crafting my own highly detailed adventures. That no one ever wanted to play.

WarlockMag04Warlock magazine appeared in 1984 and despite only lasting 13 issues, it could perhaps be considered  a step-brother to GW’s ongoing periodical White Dwarf. Originally published by Penguin and focused purely on the Fighting Fantasy books and their universe, GW took over publication mid way through the run and the coverage moved beyond FF to more general gaming and game books. I only ever had one issue of it at the time (which contained a scaled down version of Caverns Of the Snow Witch). My Gran, forever the unwitting herald of my descent into nerd-gurtory picked it up for me from WH Smith’s or John Menzies, and I read the hell out of that thing. I would stare at the cover artwork and marvel at the  adverts for complicated role playing games with scary names that I had zero comprehension of how to play. I just knew they sounded cool and weird! And just like the first time I picked up City Of Thieves, my brain was fried all over again.

Over the years I have managed to pick up a few of the other issues. Each copy had a brand new FF mini- adventure in it, as well as some multi player efforts using the Fighting Fantasy RPG rules that Jackson laid out. Artwork was provided by a veritable who’s who of fantasy greats. John Blanche, Tony Ackland, Leo Hartas, Russ Nicholson, Martin Mckenna (to name but a few) all had their inky fingers in the pie.

Gaming legend Rick Priestly even provided tutorials for model making and painting techniques in a series of articles not too far removed from ‘Eavy Metal! I remember seeing pictures of actual miniatures for the first time and my brain exploding. I had a few Dungeons & Dragons action figures based upon the cartoon, and they were OK I guess, but the minis seemed much grittier and real. That was probably my first real glimpse into the larger world of gaming, although it would be a couple more years before I would happen across them in real life and get into Warhammer in 1988.

DungeoneerFoilAdvanced Fighting Fantasy was the logical expansion of the solo FF adventures, and presumably an effort to appeal to an audience that was slowly growing up and getting into tabletop gaming and more advanced role playing. Making use of the expanded world depicted in Titan and Out Of The Pit, AFF was a system that played pretty close to the original FF game mechanics, but offered a little more development of narrative and ones adventurer with the added bonus that you could also now play with friends (if you had any by this point). The primer, Dungeoneer, was first published in 1989 with its follow up Blacksand! appearing a year later in 1990. A third volume Allansia (that until recently I was completely unaware of) appeared in 1994, by which time I had discovered hardcore and punk rock and had become fully immersed in that world and had banished all my gaming stuff to my Grandma’s loft.

Blacksand!Whilst Advanced Fighting Fantasy holds very fond memories for me, as a gaming system it was certainly not without it’s flaws. Arion Games picked up the AFF licence a few years back, and have done their best to balance the books and iron out the flaws in the system whilst expanding beyond the three core books. Check out their wares HERE

ad7a2c9629ae9938ad3aa396bf6da81fAlthough the gamebooks introduced us to the dangerous world of Titan and the heinous devils that inhabited it, the brief paragraphs and background pages didn’t allow for much in the way of character development. Steve Jackson’s FF novel The Trolltooth Wars, published in 1989 went a long way to resolving this matter. Not a gamebook, but a traditional novel, TTW told the story of the fierce conflict between Creature Of Havoc’s Zharradan Marr and the dread sorcerer (and my second favourite baddie) Balthus Dire. I LOVED this book at the time, it was pretty violent and horrifying given its target audience, and Jackson is on record as saying he was a bit miffed with how it came out because Puffin edited all the really heavy violence and gore out of it!  I would love to see an authors cut of this book someday! Fantasy art legend Russ Nicholson provided the brilliant  interior illustrations that visually established the grim tone of the book and they remain some of my favourite examples of his work.

In the meantime a graphic novel adaptation of The Trolltooth Wars by Pj Montgomery has just been successfully funded via Kickstarter. I don’t know if it’s a straight adaptation, or if there’s going to be additional supplementary material included, but either way it’s a welcome addition to the library of Salamonis!

So there you have it, a very brief overview of the expanded Fighting Fantasy world. I should hasten to add that this short series is intended as a primer only. For a far more in depth and informed analysis of Fighting Fantasy, interested parties should immediately go pick up Jonathan Green’s official FF history, You Are The Hero. A veritable tome of knowledge, facts, anecdotes and testimony from the people directly involved. Jonathan has even written a few FF books himself as well as hosting the first ever FF convention, reviewed HERE  For those brave souls prepared to plummet even further down the rabbit hole there’s a thriving community of Fan Sites, Zines, Messageboards and solid blogs full of dedicated individuals who have kept the beacons burning and the Fighting Fantasy dream alive.

And with that I shall take my leave. If you are new to these books then I hope I have inspired you to dig a little deeper and explore Steve & Ian’s wondrous realm to the fullest. If you are already a seasoned fan of the books, I hope it wasn’t too elementary a read for you and maybe I stirred a few fond old memories along the way? Next time around I plan on visiting the world of Orb and dismantling Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith’s brilliant ninja gamebook series The Way Of The Tiger!

Farewell brave adventurer, until next time!


2 thoughts on “Tales From The Darkwood part 3: Until the light takes us

  1. Great write-up Nathan! Did you own Fighting Fantasy and The Riddling Reaver? Those were the pre-curser books to Advanced Fighting Fantasy. Great introductions to Roleplaying!

  2. Sick write up. I’m glad that FF was a portal for many to the world of fantasy and gaming. I still remember my first FF novel. I was 6 or 7 and a brought Robot Commando at a bring and buy sale at school. I’m pretty sure I only brought it because it had a dinosaur fighting a robot on the cover and I know for a while I had no idea what I was doing but can remember getting into it fingering the pages ready to flip back to avoid death, which came all too frequently, until the book was falling apart. That was the start of my nerdness and I abandoned FF novels after Master of Chaos and moved onto the true devil of miniatures bridged heavily with the ramblings of Tolkien. Happy days.

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