Top 10 best Fighting Fantasy game books

The unapologetically subjective top 10 best Fighting Fantasy game books, from The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, to City Of Thieves and Deathtrap Dungeon

top 10 fighting fantasy

In honour of this year’s 30th Anniversary Fighting Fantasy book by the almighty Ian Livingstone, here’s our not entirely serious and completely subjective run-down of the ten best in the landmark game book series.

Robot Commando best Fighting Fantasy book

10. Robot Commando

Author: Steve Jackson
Number: 22
Year: 1986

Robot Commando on Amazon.co.uk

Are you kidding me? There’s a flipping TRANSFORMER FIGHTING A T-REX!

Circa 1986 this was basically the equivalent of printing a book cover showing Harry Potter firing Pokéballs at Barack Obama – only perhaps even more exciting because we kids of the day didn’t have DeviantArt to act as a haven for imaginary (non-sexual) couplings.

While most Fighting Fantasy books are either archetypical Dungeons & Dragons/Tolkein-inspired dwarf tossing, or else dragged kicking and screaming from popular culture and made to wear a slightly different coloured dress and told your name is Krazy Ken (see Freeway Fighter), Robot Commando appears to be entirely the product of a 13-year-old’s fever dream where giant robots herd dinosaurs… IN SPACE.

Vault Of The Vampire best Fighting Fantasy book

 

9. Vault Of The Vampire

Author: Keith Martin
Number: 38
Year: 1989

Vault of the Vampire on Amazon.co.uk

It seems a bit mean-spirited to single out one particular Fighting Fantasy book for being contrived, but even at my tender age with an enthusiasm for vampires I recognised Vault Of The Vampire as a collection of generic vampire tropes, and ‘Mortvania’ as the pseudo-Germanic Uberwald that it was.

Needless to say Ravenloft was my favourite Dungeons & Dragons setting, and Vault Of The Vampire placed me like a stake through the heart of my own Dracula story, one I didn’t have to share with a reedy Jonathan Harker and one that wasn’t written as a collection of insipid letters and journal enteries.

Vault Of The Vampire is better than Dracula, basically.

Interestingly Carl Sargent, as Keith Martin is known among muggles, has a PHd in experimental parapsychology, and Vault Of The Vampire is the most vivid example in his Fighting Fantasy output of this bubbling to the surface, with chunks of the book featuring confrontations that can only be overcome with your Faith score.

The Forest Of Doom best Fighting Fantasy book

 

8. The Forest Of Doom

Author: Ian Livingstone
Number: 3
Year: 1983

Forest of Doom on Amazon.co.uk

The third book in the series, and by now the ‘Thing Of Bad Thing’ naming formula was pretty much established as a big part of the whole Fighting Fantasy experience, its use rivalled only by Seventies Doctor Who.

The Forest Of Doom was actually the first Fighting Fantasy book I read, I borrowed it from the local library (now probably a Tesco Express) thinking it was a book, y’know, the old fashioned sort of book where you turn pages sequentially like our parents used to, and instead was confronted with my very first game book, setting me on the path towards roleplaying, Warhammer, and eventually editing SciFiNow, so take that mum.

The Forest Of Doom marked the first real expansion of the gameworld, and the first glimpse of some part of it that didn’t include strangely labyrinthine tunnels containing monsters and non-sequiturs (You enter the room, it contains six orcs a single top hat filled with fire). Subsequently it felt like the first true Fighting Fantasy narrative, with a fuller range of characters and motivations, and a far more clearly defined goal. Mainly though, it was nice to meet a few characters that didn’t want to either eat your face, or pretend they didn’t want to eat your face but really they did.

In a strange way it was also the precursor for most videogames in the Nineties where forests were basically collections of green corridors linking green rooms.

House Of Hell best Fighting Fantasy book


7. House Of Hell

Author: Steve Jackson
Number: 10
Year: 1984

House of Hell on Amazon.co.uk

Apparently being adapted into a movie (?!), House Of Hell was a disconcerting departure from the traditional Fighting Fantasy setting in that while they were all varied, they were all clearly somewhere else  – forests where dwarves die in your arms, and planets where dinosaurs must be punched to death by Autobots.

House Of Hell starts with your car breaking down in the sticks, forcing you to see refuge from the storm in a clearly haunted house. Seriously bro, this house couldn’t be more haunted – why not just wait in the car for the AA van?

It’s the first and so far only Fighting Fantasy novel set in our world, and reading it as a child it struck me as a bizarrely voyeuristic experience, almost as if I thought there was a real danger of being pulled into the book and forced to make my own way out.

I was an only child, btw.

Starship Traveller best Fighting Fantasy book

6. Starship Traveller

Author: Steve Jackson
Number: 4
Year: 1983

Starship Traveller on Amazon.co.uk

Obviously inspired by Kirk-era Star Trek, Starship Traveller was a fantastic romp across alien worlds and the deeper recesses of the galaxy as the captain of the Traveller, facing gladiatorial combat, mutinous crew, alien civilisations, and an increasingly difficult and futile plot that makes it nigh on impossible to complete.

Not that the difficulty mattered in the slightest, Starship Traveller was the first Fighting Fantasy book to leave the comforting log fire of the sword and sorcery setting behind, earning it a fair amount of enmity from fans of the brand, but for me it was a great opportunity to live out my favourite episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek, and not only as a solo adventurer but the captain himself, a bold leader of men, and instead of one character sheet you manage a handful.

Starship Traveller is one of the few books where the shiny new art is a vast improvement on the original (pictured above), which I always assumed was depicting a game of American Football.

Creature Of Havoc Vault Of The Vampire best Fighting Fantasy book

5. Creature Of Havoc

Author: Steve Jackson
Number: 24
Year: 1986

Creature of Havoc on Amazon.co.uk

At age eight or nine, I wasn’t really ready for complex existential issues of humanity and victimhood masquerading as a way to kill car journeys.

Deeply unsettling from the (30-page intro) outset, Creature Of Havoc has you take on the role of a misunderstood and automatically reviled Frankenstein’s monster-like being, capable of smashing flimsy mortals with one blow and yet ultimately only wanting a cuddle.

But nobody want cuddle, why they try kill creature???

With so much of your early actions at the mercy of dice rolls – in Creature Of Havoc you start off continually wrestling with your animalistic urges and instincts – and unable to read or communicate, often forced into combat with characters you’d otherwise be playing yourself, this 24th book in the series turns the format completely on its head.

One of the longest books in the canon, and markedly more mature and taxing that those around it, if you didn’t appreciate Creature Of Havoc on the first read-through, maybe it’s worth another go with a few decades under your belt…luckily, then, it’s available for iPad/iPhone.

Deathtrap Dungeon best Fighting Fantasy book

4. Deathtrap Dungeon

Author: Ian Livingstone
Number: 6
Year: 1984

Deathtrap Dungeon on Amazon.co.uk

After The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon could well be the defining Fighting Fantasy volume. Ian Livingstone’s second solo book in the series  was almost a Greatest Hits collection of Fighting Fantasy dungeons, its collection of deliberately random encounters making the best out of the format, and its shocking plot twist an early example of the moral greys that would be increasingly important to the franchise.

Beyond that, Deathtrap Dungeon became an ambassador for Fighting Fantasy – inspiring a 1998 PC/PlayStation game that Kelly Brook implausibly helped promote (back before gamers were the sophisticated, worldly bunch they are now), and a more recent iPad/iPhone game – and was one of the many early gamebooks to feature illustration from Iain McCaig, who as a principle designer for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, helped design the incomparably iconic Darth Maul.

My beautifully tatty, first edition copy was given to me by an older cousin – so I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for it.

Appointment With FEAR best Fighting Fantasy book

3. Appointment With F.E.A.R.

Author: Steve Jackson
Number: 18
Year: 1985

Appointment with F.E.A.R. on Amazon.co.uk

Well before I was even remotely conscious of comic-book cliche and archetype, and probably well before I’d even read my first superhero comic, Appointment With F.E.A.R. gave me a crash course in the setting as you choose from four power sets and embody the Silver Crusader, taking on an array of brilliantly evocative villains with names like Dr Macabre and The Scarlet Prankster amid the spires and streets of the gleaming Titan City.

The different power options result in different endings and solutions to the core plot, ensure that the book was atypical in more than just its setting – you’re essentially a cross between Spider-Man and Superboy, a lab-grown superbeing with an elderly aunt (Aunt Florence) and a cantankerous employer (Jonah Whyte, yes, really), while kidnapped millionaires have like Drew Swain, and landmarks come named Parker, Summers and Xavier.

A brilliant romp, it’s love letter to the genre is all the more heart-felt thanks to a cover illustration from Brian Bolland, then a couple of years into the ‘British invasion’ of DC Comics and with his landmark book, Batman: The Killing Joke and covers on Swamp Thing and Animal Man, a few years round the corner – Appointment With F.E.A.R. was perfectly pitched to feed Britain’s burdgeoning love affair with superheroes.

Warlock Of Firetop Mountain Vault Of The Vampire best Fighting Fantasy book

2. The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain

Author: Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone
Number: 1
Year: 1982

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: 25th Anniversary Edition on Amazon.co.uk

Woah, how about that then? The sainted Warlock Of Firetop Mountain only at number 2, farting full in the face of consensus and received wisdom.

The birthplace for this entire, incredible range, and the beginning point for a lot of future dorks, who – like myself – would graduate to roleplaying, wargaming and fantasy literature, and a thrilling adventure in itself – none of that is up for debate, and all of that justifies The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain‘s place at number 2 in the list. The interior art by Russ Nicholson is similarly splendid, and that man largely defined the look of fantasy for a whole generation with illustrations for White Dwarf, Dungeons & Dragons, Lone Wolf (is there a Top 10 in that?) and Games Workshop – check out his blog for lots of old pictures, you’ll definitely recognise some.

Simply and subjectively though, it’s just not my favourite – it’s a dungeon bash, and an illogically laid out dungeon at that, with a labyrinthine second half that I don’t think I ever managed to get through without cheating and just skipping on ahead. I definitely had to draw a map, especially when I passed a minotaur for the eighth time and if proof were needed that it’s not just me and my misfiring brain, the internet’s full of helpful maps.

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain is available for iPad and iPhone, don’t be afraid to admit failure and google a map.

City Of Thieves best Fighting Fantasy book

1. City Of Thieves

Author: Ian Livingstone
Number: 5
Year: 1983

City of Thieves on Amazon.co.uk

Another spectacular Iain McCaig cover (with a rather Darth Maul-like horned Zanbar Bone, hmmm?), perhaps his most evocative. Whereas other gamebooks embellished a scene from within the yellowing pages, City Of Thieves trumpeted its unique selling point loudly – the chaotic city itself, Port Blacksand, my very first wretched hive of scum and villainy, long before I was exposed to Ankh-Morpork, Mos Eisely or New Crobuzon.

Anything could happen behind these walls, and absolutely anything did. Often criticised for being entirely inhabited by people trying to either rip you off or kill you (like London), City Of Thieves bags my number 1 spot simply for showing us a world beyond adventure and monsters, where people were dicks rather than evil, and the Fighting Fantasy universe began to actually function as one, rather than a collection of dungeons rammed clumsily together.

Revisit the grim and unforgiving City Of Thieves on iPad/iPhone.