Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll learn over the coming weeks that Campfire Burning is a man I have a lot of time for. He may be relatively new to the world of gaming, but his passion for it is boundless and his writing is beautiful. I don’t know if anyone outside of the UK is aware of the Fighting Fantasy series of books developed by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, but here’s Campfire’s reminiscence of a time when you could play a book…
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Now there’s a name. Imagine, if you will, a volcano shrouded in smoke the colour of clouds at sunset, tinted by fiery spewed embers and belched from the furnace at the heart of the world. Imagine a magician deep within – no, a warlock, ruling over the labyrinthine underworld from a throne of skulls, who was driven mad by the magic he once practised and now seeks to infect the peaceful lands in the shadow of lair with insanity beyond insanity.
All this and so much more came into my head the first time I encountered Fighting Fantasy. I didn’t even know what a warlock was but the image was there, as vivid as any I’d seen, scorched into my young brain along with a mission, a geas, a quest. Only I could navigate the tunnels to face the warlock. Only I could defeat him.
In this case, the Warlock of Firetop Mountain wasn’t the Fighting Fantasy book itself but the computer game translation of it, and even though I alone had been chosen to kill the warlock and set free the land I had a little trouble with the keyboard controls, so I invited my dad along as well.
As early evening gave way to early night and my little sister was sent to bed, Dad and I set up the Spectrum, loaded the game and took it in turns to try and beat it. Sometimes he played even later into the night, but neither of us ever completed or made it very far into the game. There was a series of keys we had to collect before we could break into the warlock’s inner sanctum, and beset by squiggly pink imps it was an achievement just to find one of them, let alone the whole set. We cheered when we found one, and mourned when we died and had to begin again at the very start.
And although we never beat the game that name burned brightly in my mind for years to come, until one day I saw it again, this time on a friend’s bookshelf.
“Is this a story?” I said.
My friend took the book from the shelf and looked at the cover before pressing it into my hands. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s an adventure.”
I never played Fighting Fantasy books properly. I never rolled for stats or filled in the character sheets at the front. Much of my collection was second-hand, and I’d often see the ghosts of previous adventurers written there in partially erased pencil. Knowing the book’s previous owner had been through and died somehow added extra atmosphere and gravitas. At the start of every new adventure I set my jaw and took a deep breath, determined I would succeed where so many before me had failed.
I cheated, as many readers did. I always had a thumb marking the previous page in case I messed up, and as the route through the book became more and more convoluted I had to use fingers and bookmarks to mark my place. When I ran out of both I searched for other placeholders. Here’s my lenticular animated dinosaur ruler – I’ll hold the page with that. There were so many places to die in these books; I’d die and die often, and it was only by holding open a page with this finger or that ruler that I could come back from the brink and live to fight another day.
The descriptions got to me. They were what kept me playing late into the night, hiding my reading lamp down by the side of my bed until my parents had gone to their room and I could get on with my adventure. The lurid, grisly details that should never have been allowed near a seven-year-old were nevertheless tuned to my frequency, and provoked chills when I read them and nightmares when I fell asleep.
In one book, after I’d taken too many wrong turns and run out of fingers and bookmarks and dinosaur rulers I ran blindly into a new cavern and fell into what the book described as ‘a pit filled with carrion’.
That’s where I learned the word. I’d never run into carrion in my other books – in the works of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. There were lots of words and phrases I picked up only by reading Fighting Fantasy books, because The Famous Five never found treasure in a charnel house, and they never impaled zombies with chaos daggers. For years my mates and I thought ‘chaos’ was pronounced ‘cha-OOSE’ because we’d never run into the word beyond the world of the Fighting Fantasy books.
In this carrion pit I saw a figure huddled to the floor, stripping the flesh from one of the corpses. It noticed me and stood and, in that inimitable Fighting Fantasy way, it was given a name. That name was everything I knew about it, everything I had to go on. It was a GHOUL.
Because the Fighting Fantasy books catered to an audience raised on Dungeons & Dragons, I was expected to already know what a GHOUL was. Being seven, I didn’t – I’d previously thought ‘ghoul’ was just another word for ‘ghost’, but that night, shivering beneath my duvet in the stark glow of a bedside lamp I learned exactly what a GHOUL was, and what it could do to a scared little boy up way past his bedtime.
I don’t think there was a way to fight it directly, because if there had been I would have declared the ghoul dead and marched onto the next page reference. Maybe I needed the innocuous looking rusted rod I’d neglected to pick up on page 153. As it was, I had nothing, and so the ghoul grabbed me, sank its long, needle-like fingernails into my flesh, injected me with a paralytic poison, and that was it. Game over.
Only the writing didn’t end there. Oh, it made it clear there was no way I was getting out of this situation, but instead of saying “Go to page 1” it prolonged the nightmare.
The ghoul ate me. I was still paralysed, I was still awake and the ghoul ate me. It didn’t hurt, the book explained, because I’d lost all feeling in my body, but I could see quite well enough and I watched as it stripped the flesh from my bones the same way it had to the gnawed skeletons lying around me. The book made it quite clear that I wouldn’t be able to scream – neither my vocal cords, my tongue, nor my jaw would work. Instead I was forced to lay there, silenced, while the ghoul dissected and devoured me.
That’s when I learned what true horror was. Unable to look away, unable to cry; it was like I was a bluebottle and my bedtime story had come from The Mammoth Book of Spiders.
When daybreak came and brought another school day with it, my friends and I clustered in the playground and shared our adventures. At lunchtime we went to the dining hall and talked about this or that Fighting Fantasy book over sandwiches and squash. We loved the gore of it. We loved the horror. We loved it enough to write our own twisted fantasy adventures, where eyeballs were often gouged out and people routinely fell into lakes filled with skin-boiling acid. Every wood and cave in our stories hid myriad monsters, and all harboured the same intent: To make the hero’s death as painful and as prolonged as possible.
We wrote them in our spare time, but also during school hours, in creative writing classes. At the end of class we submitted them to our teacher and he took them home to read and mark. And where today we might have ended up seeing a school counsellor with concern for our mental well-being it was as if the more deaths we included, the better the marks we’d receive.
We struggled to out-do each other. Man-traps and carnivorous plants; piranhas and shape-shifters; walking cadavers and cannibal tribes – and beating at the heart of them, our multi-volumed bible. The books of the Fighting Fantasy series had distorted our childish imaginations into frightening places.
An entire generation of gamers were raised on Fighting Fantasy books. Years later some of us fondly remember the gruesome illustrations as being our favourite aspect of them. Others remember the gaming elements; how we’d roll dice and press our luck, and revel in victory when a good roll downed a beastly opponent. Some remember the intricate puzzles that were added to the later stories, that replaced the standard ‘if you do this than turn to page 98’ system with codes and riddles to foil page-holding cheats like myself.
Me, I remember the words. The bottom of a carrion pit is, perhaps, the least likely place to fall in love with the English language, but it was there I drew out my abridged Collins dictionary and learned that carrion was another word for dead and decaying flesh. It was there also that I fell in love with horror, when I realise that, with the sharp-toothed ghoul lumbering toward me, I too would soon be carrion.
The warlock still sits atop his throne of skulls, threatening the land and tempting hapless adventurers to enter his domain in search of honour, glory and adventure. And though I’m older now and cynical, and my vocabulary has grown a littler bluer in the interim, I can’t help but regard that title with the same simple wonder as a child up past his bedtime.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Now there’s a name.
If you’ve never read one, I’d suggest you try and get your hands on a Fighting Fantasy book. None of the insipid alternative that is the Choose Your Own Adventure series – go for the jugular, start with Warlock (which was reissued recently) and go from there. And make sure you’ve got a d6 and a pencil with an eraser…