New on Desk #95 — Fightin’ Fantasy

Running late today due to giving in to a social call; I was lured by the promise of gaming, but it ended up just being a sitting at the pub. As it goes. In general I had this week pretty well in the bag until on Friday I got inspired to delve into a side quest in Fighting Fantasy.

Fighting Fantasy bibliography

“Fighting Fantasy” is the brand label for a series of British “Choose Your Own Adventure” style chapter books with a strong rpg slant: dicing mechanics, fantasy adventure subject matter. The series was started in 1982 by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop fame. I was big into these for a while in elementary school, and they were generally quite popular in their niche; about fifty were written through the ’80s, and the series has kept going in fits and starts since then.

The boardgame version of Warlock of Firetop Mountain was one of the formative adventure boardgame experiences for yours truly, of course. It’s a late-ish, fairly elegant take on the “D&D boardgame” genre. Top of show alongside Heroquest.

I got interested in reviewing the RPG version of Fighting Fantasy on Friday night after chit-chatting about D&D-like games at the saloon. The series got its own RPG line, charmingly published in the same chapter book format that the CYOA books had. Setting the solo gamebooks aside, here’s what the RPG line-up looks like:

The Introductory Roleplaying Game is what amounts to the core rulebook for the game line. Published in 1984, two years after the Warlock of Firetop Mountain, it’s firmly in the “beginner’s roleplaying game” genre, competing with the likes of LotR Adventure Game and Basic D&D. The book is clearly written, easily within reach for middle schoolers, and it provides its own take on D&D like dungeoneering gaming. All in all, I wish I had this when I was a kid; it’s one of the very best introductory rpgs I’ve ever seen.

Titan — The Fighting Fantasy World is a dense setting sourcebook for the largely implicit (or even post-constructed) fantasy setting the Fighting Fantasy books are set in. Published in 1986, it more or less carries itself as what it is; an elfdwarf fantasy sludge from the days when the genre was starting to cohere into definite irrelevance. There’s some merit to the fact that Titan is, perhaps due to its creative context, basically the Warhammer Old World without the European bits. Because I don’t like the faux-historical aspect of Warhammer, there might be some merit in combining Titan and Warhammer; sort of shoring up a shaky structure with another not in much better shape.

Advanced Fighting Fantasy was published as a series of books starting in 1989, as a sort of follow-up for the Introductory. Where the former is very simple and minimalistic, Advanced is like AD&D is to Basic D&D: full of fairly uninspired extra rules. The first book was called “Dungeoneer”, and each included not only more rules, but also more adventures for the GM (called “Director” in this supremely annoying movie-producing analogy that probably seemed like a good idea at the time) to railroad the players through. The frantic fairy tale action charm of the Introductory is largely gone here, and with the game’s topic being fairly humdrum vanilla fantasy, my interest flags.

I skimmed all of these on Friday night, so not a super careful delve or anything, but here’s nevertheless a first sketch summary on the field of Fighting Fantasy studies:

Canon: The Introductory is a compact set that captures the vision of the game books in a conventional rpg form. It has the fundamental ideas of this line. Insofar as you’re doing something with Fighting Fantasy, this is the starting point. The solo gamebook themselves could conceivably hold equal regard, but as they’re mostly adventure material more than rules, and they align with the Introductory anyway, it’s pretty safe to recommend focused study here.

Apocrypha: Both Titan and the Advanced books are uneven and questionable in quality, and meandering in direction. They may be something to pore over for ideas and perspectives, but I would not consider them authoritative over naturally proceeding study from the Introductory.

What it has to offer for us

Speaking as a latter-days gamer investigating Fighting Fantasy for present-day purposes, what does it offer? A quick summary should be possible, this isn’t the most complex game ever.

The game only uses 6-sided dice. Most rolls are 2d6 against target number, with possible modifiers. Fair enough, even if 2d6 as your core resolution is a bit high in handling time (gotta sum up those two dice again and again).

Player characters are entirely defined by the statistics trio of SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK, randomized respectively at 1d6+6, 2d6+12 and 1d6+6 at chargen. Here’s what these are used for:

SKILL: Basically character level; whenever a character tries to do something difficult, whatever it is, a SKILL check determines success. So the higher the SKILL, the more likely the character is to succeed. Very pure. The dice mechanics insist on roll-under (2d6 vs SKILL) for general tasks and 2d6+SKILL for opposed checks (like in combat) because humanity is insane and the authors follow suit.

STAMINA: Hit points equivalent. Whenever something goes wrong, you reduce from STAMINA. More interestingly, STAMINA can modify SKILL checks where extra effort or long-term exertion is relevant.

LUCK: General numinous quality, plot protection, favour of the gods, etc. The player may occasionally “test their Luck” by roll-under 2d6 vs LUCK. This expends one point of LUCK, and the situation either improves or degenerates accordingly. The most dynamic way to use LUCK is the option to modify combat stakes, making those combat SKILL checks more effective.

The foundational interesting thing here for the latter-days gamer is that the arrangement is a good idea of simple, non-universal design precepts: the statistics do not try to form an universal, comprehensive description of character the way D&D-inheritance design does. It does not try to make the stats function the same way between them; to the contrary, each stat has its own role and way of being used, asymmetrical. I was explicitly inspired by this when helping Sami with Fables of Camelot back in the late ’00s.

The interactions between the stats and the circumstances of play has potential for a fair bit of nuance. For example, while all task resolution is generally SKILL-based, a high STAMINA could gain bonuses on tasks that require perseverance, or high LUCK in chaotic tasks. Or you could expend these stats for retries. It’s not superbly systematized, and doesn’t need to be at this juncture in its development.

Combat is round-based, with opposed rolls: 2d6+SKILL against the opponent’s equivalent, with the loser taking 2 points of STAMINA damage. If you fight several opponents at once, your roll is compared with them all, but you can only harm the one you indicated as your primary target. Monsters have a stat called “Attacks” that may allow them to fight offensively against multipled enemies at once.

The style of play demonstrated by the Introductory is fairly distinct. It is dungeoneering, like D&D, but with its own specific style Three remarks:

Quick and loose: A bit like Tunnels & Trolls, the text encourages a cultural style of dungeoneering that’s more about vivacious fun than serious wargaming. I myself find T&T humour grating (but I love the rules!), while here the style is more compelling, like a whimsical fairy tale. Arguably the game as envisioned by the creators is more about the show and experience of exploring the fantastic dungeon than it is about good strategy and tactics. It’s somewhat unhygienic (or at least unconcerned with referee neutrality), biased towards showmanship on the part of the GM, but more importantly it encourages showy, unique encounters and adventurer actions over hack’n slash.

Real-time time-keeping: Suited to the energetic funhouse vision of dungeoneering, the single most radical dungeon rpg rule posited by the Introductory is that of real-time time-keeping. When events are timed to occur in the dungeon, they are timed in terms of real time. Random encounters occur every minute (while not in an encounter), a specific monster respawns every 20 minutes, a given puzzle requires a time-delay of one minute, and so on. It’s weird next to D&D’s fundamental exploration Turn, but I do not see any immediate weakness; the effect should be that of immediateness and personalized time sensitivity on the part of the players.

Fairy tale fantasy funhouse: This as well fits the overall vision. It’s different from D&D’s “let’s loot an indian camp!” dungeon feel, more like T&T, perhaps more like the whimsical dungeons that were in vogue early in D&D’s development as well. The dungeon is a magical place, high in fairy magic. It’s not the home of non-human humanoids so much as it is the court of the faerie and the eldritch. The adventurers are intruders into the fantastic, often hapless like children. Individual rooms can have very unexpected content.

Improving on Fighting Fantasy

I might as well give a few basic remarks about things I’d fix about the game before taking it for a drive.

Generally speaking I consider this a possible alternate mechanical chassis for D&D-like adventuring. Could even make it D&D-compatible in terms of character import and scoring, like Tunnels & Trolls, without too much trouble. The general flow of the game would be intriguingly different in e.g. combat maneuver due to different base mechanics.

The core dice mechanics could stand to be simplified a bit: the game uses roll-under and roll-against-TN for no particular reason (plenty of theory on that out there). The stats are calibrated to high numbers for fairly superficial reason; as far as I can see, the only reasons for SKILL and LUCK to have range of 7–12 are avoiding negative numbers (for weaker opponents, mainly) and allowing doing roll-under with the same numbers.

STAMINA is also too high, but there the reason is different: the rules were originally envisioned for a “via dolorosa” mode of dungeoneering in the original game books, where the conceit is mainly that you slowly lose points to monster fights, struggling to make it to the end. High STAMINA works for that, but for more general fantasy adventure gaming purposes you probably don’t want combat to be so attrition-based.

With those considerations, revised chargen:

First, roll 3d6. Distribute the dice between the three stats. A roll of ‘6’ is counted as zero here (for a neat 0–5 range), but you get a perk (e.g. be a wizard, whatever) to compensate.

The task checks are all 2d6+SKILL now. Unopposed check default target number is 8, and you can just modify that to account for difficulty instead of setting circumstance modifiers to the roll.

STAMINA is fairly low, making individual combat encounters actually dangerous, similar to low-level D&D. Having zero STAMINA (possible out of chargen) doesn’t take one out yet, but taking a hit when at zero does. LUCK is more important to combat when a hit deals 2 points of damage and you only have 0–5 STAMINA; a lucky hit can take out most opponents, and mitigating a hit from 2 to 1 is actually valuable in a way it’s not if you have e.g. 15 STAMINA total.

(This STAMINA business is very counterproductive if you’re envisioning using these rules for something similar to the FF gamebooks, which in rpg terms would be a grueling railroad of dissipation. For more old school D&D like high lethality risky gamble combat style the reduced numbers seem quite promising! You’d still have STAMINA recovery via camping, so overall you do have a fair bit of STAMINA resource available, it’s just that the character carries most of it as supplies instead of in their pool.)

The equivalent of the orthodox LUCK test is 2d6+LUCK vs TN 8, but I could see establishing some clever alternatives, too. Like when modifying task resolution with LUCK, maybe the test is against the SKILL result you rolled, so the worse that is the easier the LUCK test.

Also, I could see spending a STAMINA point to reroll a SKILL test, or testing STAMINA in the same way you test LUCK. Not doing that seems like a bit of a missed opportunity, and the Introductory does have some mysterious phrasing that supports actually accounting for STAMINA in task resolution. The important part is not to start splitting tasks away from SKILL, but rather using STAMINA as a secondary influence in how things play out.

I would also drop the concept of starting vs current stats. FF tends to make a big deal of losing and recovering stat points (SKILL doesn’t get regular reductions like the other two, but points tend to get lost to whatever on occasion), but it’d be neater if the recovery was more “roll it again” than “keep track of what it was to start with, and go back to that”. I guess I just don’t like the “3/4” notation style.

There’s the starting point. Perhaps I’ll get this into play at some point, explore the possibilities a bit.

Using FF in Coup

I also figured out an insightful way to do a cross-over between our Coup de Main in Greyhawk campaign and Fighting Fantasy, plus I accidentally produced a rules framework for Gloranthan heroquesting on the side.

The key conceit is a Bard spell that we’ll call “Heroquesting” in the laconic D&D style:

Heroquesting (Bard 4th)
The bard weaves their magical music around an ancestral lay, a story of might, magic and madness. The listener gets “transported into the story”, with all the usual nuances that the conceit implies: they gain an instinctive understanding of their role and motives in the tale, other appearing figures do not consider them unusual in their role, and while minor changes to the story are possible, mostly the experience runs on tracks. The spell functions by actually sending the audience to the astral mythic domain of the lay, so while the experience is mostly “not real”, it is possible to learn information, experience inspiration, gain magic and perhaps otherwise exploit the heroquest in the usual ways of the Near Astral.

The above spell description relies a fair bit on my bardic magic rules, so a few words: the default bardic spellcasting mode, “magical music”, assumes a 10 minute casting time as the bard weaves their art. Every spell can be turned into a “Mass” version of itself by adding +1 spell level. Hostile targeting is difficult, but there are tricks. Certain spell parameters can be modified by what amounts to ritual magic details in the execution of the spell (musical arrangement), which determines stuff like how aware the target is of the magic, whether they disappear bodily into the astral or merely mentally, how deadly the experience is, and so on.

The “ancestral lays” are the same thing as cleric magic “myth cycles”, except culturally different. Specifically, Oeridian bardic lays are mostly selected Fighting Fantasy books; e.g. the Warlock of the Firetop Mountain is an ever-green heroic epic. As you probably guess at this point, the conceit is that when this spell gets cast, the GM drops the appropriate book on the player and leaves them to survive (or probably not) through the book. Successful characters may come back from their astral jaunt with XP, treasure, potent magic; failures will, depending on the ritual context of the spell, either come back merely shocked, or die in the spell.

The actual execution of the Fighting Fantasy book in the D&D context is ritualistic and dream-like for the character experiencing it; it is as if they are on rails, having limited influence in specific decision-making point on what happens to them. The process runs by the FF rules, without organic alterations to the fiction, unless the character succeeds in a willpower check to “lucid dream” their way out of the static context of the book. (If that happens, you’re presumably lost in the astral domain of Titan until you make your way out, of course.)

I think pretty much the only conversion rules needed here are that D&D characters Heroquesting into a Fighting Fantasy book this way add their Level to their rolled SKILL score, use their HP total in lieu of STAMINA, the performing Bard sets the LUCK score to any legal value, and the quester gets to keep their own equipment. The general implication is, I suppose, that FF gamebooks are roughly mid-level adventures in terms of survivability; you’re probably going to die in there unless you’re around e.g. level 5 or so, at which point the fighting parts are fairly survivable, but you might still get done in by the instakills. Sending multiple heroes into one of these books will, of course, make things easier.

While the spell has some potential as a Bardic equivalent of the dread Maze spell (a combat spell that sends an opponent out of the battlefield for a period of time), the other way to use it is to send allies into imaginary realms of lay for fun and profit. The latter is a downtime activity that may be considered to take time as follows:
Shallow dive: low-stakes practice run, takes a night’s performance for the bard and one full day (in recovery) from the questers.
Deep dive: high-stakes in peril and profit, takes three full days of prep for the bard and a week (prep + recovery) from the questers.

This is all, of course, immediately applicable to Glorantha-based gaming: you could handle Gloranthan heroquesting with a similar spell, and actually, the canonical heroquesting rules are so CYOA-like that Stafford probably figured this out in the late ’80s already, long before I did. You could easily write up Gloranthan heroquests into Fighting Fantasy format, and actually get very close to the otherworldly, stilted feel that the material so very much strives for…

Monday: Coup de Main #65

I hear that this coming Monday will be a skip week again, Tuomas is off adulting. The campaign’s taking on a bit of a biweekly tenor, maybe? The content is super-tense, though, with high stakes and careful planning. I’ll let Tuomas tell:

Today in the adventures of Knights Temp, curses, curses and finally some more curses.

The Knights had successfully looted the vault of St. Clewd, but no one on expedition has been able to sleep after that. Rob immediately started to suspect a curse and they went to Father Rewalt to get checked. Father was bit perplexed about the whole thing and could only confirm that there was chaotic effect on the Knights, he offered to try ritual cleansing but said that it might be difficult since he didn’t know exactly what he was trying to do.

Rob didn’t like the uncertainty with Father and went to town to ask for other mystical specialist that could possibly help with curses. Even in his sleep deprived state he managed to find few hints all pointing to Narwel. The professor in Narwel’s wizard school was apparently doing shady things and might help for proper pay. Knights quickly bought new horses and headed to Narwel.

Knights made it to Narwel and spent another sleepless night. Next morning the very sleep deprived Knights went to check with the professor, but he was having a bad day and wasn’t interested unless something concrete was given him immediately. He just hinted that usually people go to church if they need mystical help.

The priest at the local cathedral couldn’t figure out anything more of the situation, but he was helpful, so he went to find help and to everyone’s surprise, the bishop himself came to check the situation. With bit of extra info, he figured mostly what was going on and after a promise of sizable donation and a favor owned, he started gathering helpers for the rather sizable ritual to cleanse the curse.

The ritual went well from the bishop’s side, he had other priest helping in with the ritual and the spell was successful. The problem started when the PCs’ Alignments conflicted with the Alignment of the bishop and his spell. Sven was too tainted to receive any benefit and Stone succeeded in his reflexive save against the spell. Rob and Thrumhal tried to resist the spell, but lucky for them failed.

In the end a couple souls were saved from the insomnia curse so they could enjoy the curse of vivid nightmares… And Sven and Stone are starting to be in really bad shape, sleep deprived and the bishop unconditionally refused any further help for them since he considered them sinners.

And the cured Knights own a favor to the church of St. Cuthbert as well, of course.

The telling is fairly laconic, but there’s some pretty funny shit in there. Basically, characters do not automatically know their own Alignments, so it came as a surprise to most that Sven the Viking, a fairly nice guy, has somehow become Chaotic Evil. That can’t surely have anything to do with his habit of eating chaos-tainted things like Chaos Hydra hearts, or the way he keeps wearing the Evil iron crown he brought back from Hell as a souvenir. A funny case of Alignment occurring due to incidental lifestyle choices more than anything else.

(For those not in on the particulars, Alignment in Coup is like a spiritual taint, not like a personality test: it’s not properly speaking you that’s Evil, it’s just that your aura is Evil-aligned. Doing Evil things keeps doing that to your aura, but there are some fairly morally innocuous things that can cause it as well. Like Sven here, he’s generally not that evil as far as murderhoboes go, he’s just tainted by an artifact from Hell.)

Being Chaotic Evil, though, Sven finds that St. Cuthbert’s Remove Curse was ineffectual. Who’d have thought.

Can’t complain, though, as the non-sleeping curse is really deadly, and at least most of the party were saved from its ephemeral tentacles. The party was quite lucky to have the Bishop himself take an interest.

The best part is probably that the party was apparently dual-cursed: one curse caused them to be unable to sleep, and the other curse gives them incessant nightmares. So lifting the first curse now allows them to fully enjoy the second. At this point it starts looking fairly attractive to just travel to the astral plane and kill off these curses directly.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #40–41

I got a new report of what’s been going on with my mysterious Tuesday Sunndi crew! This one’s by Teemu (Anonymous, not Goblinrat), I understand, and as far as I know it describes two sessions worth of action. The log is again in Finnish.

Seurue palasi leiriin ja päätti lähteä tutkimaan mahd. salahuoneet perinpohjin; huone löyty ja lopulta mähistii vähä luurankojen kanssa.

Bardi kolisteli luurangot tyhjiksi ja päätti polttaa luut kun muita ei ollu näkemässä. Huoneet lootattiin ja palattiin leiriin, osinkojen jako ja nukkumaan. Öinen ylläkkö. 1 zombi jonka seurue sai handlattyä ilman isompia ongelmia.

Aamulla lähtöö viivästytti hajonneet kärryt, ja hiisivanki oli karannut. Seurue käytti ajan hyödyks ja puhisti viimeset hirviöpesät ekasta kerroksesta. Seurue jakaantui, iso osa lähti takasin myymään aarteita ja viemään haavottuneet pois. Barbaari(pc), Pena(npc), ja 4 muuta jäi Temppelille. Illalla temppeliin nukkumaan ja taas yöllinen hiisihyökkäys, 1 kuolema. Hiisi karkasi. Pena sekä Barbaari päättä kylpeä yöllä ennen uudelleen nukkumista, aamulla tämän kuullessaan taistelijakin(pc) halusi kylpeä.

Päivemmällä Rautajumalaa näkemään ja hänen ohjeilla rautapatsaiden avustamana cryptiin vähä tutkimaan. Barbaarin siskon jäänteet saatiin tuotua cryptista Rautajumalan jalkoihin lepäämään varmaan rauhaan. Muutama Ghouli löytyi cryptasta jotka osoitti olevansa erittäin tehokkaita patsaiden tuhoajia.

Tänä aikana tavernaan mennyt Bardi oli onnistunut myymään osan aarteesta ja recrytoimaan lisää väkeä. Molemmat seurueet tapaavat Temppelillä ja valmistautuvat nukkumaan ja uuteen hiisihyökkäykseen.

All proceeding according to plan, I dare say! I like how the goblins keep attriting the expedition; one casualty here, one there. The adventurers keep bringing more volunteers to the fray, though; seems like the people of Dalmond do really want to recover the Temple of the Iron God.

The next session was supposed to be today, and I actually went to visit the group for a lark (had to get some business done in Iisalmi anyway), but the hard-partying gamers were too exhausted from partying on Saturday, so no game for me. I managed to leave some new gaming aids to Sipi-the-GM, though, so at least there’s that.

State of the Productive Facilities

Finished CWP #31, Economic Modeling, and got half-way with #32, Retinues. I could probably have gotten even more done, it was a fairly energetic week, but playing Gloomhaven‘s computer port (I’ll discuss that in a later newsletter, I think) and the Fighting Fantasy investigation ate into my writing time.

With 2½ CWP issues remaining to author, there’s a fair chance that I’ll be finished with those in a week! If so, we can expect distribution early next month, it’s not like I want to sit on these a minute longer than necessary.

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