Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game

Tabletop role-playing games can be very difficult to explain.  I must have explained Dungeons & Dragons to my dad a dozen times, but without fail he would ask the same question whenever I came home from a game: "Who won?"  I've read tons of RPG rulebooks that never even make the attempt, or bury it so far into the book that it becomes irrelevant.  Most of the gamers I know learned to play not by reading the books, but by playing.

I didn't.  I had to figure RPGs out by reading the manuals.  Luckily I had two of the very best to work from.  The first was the D&D Basic Set, written by Frank Mentzer, which may be the single greatest RPG tutorial ever created.  The other was Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game by Steve Jackson.

I was already well familiar with Fighting Fantasy by the time I read Fighting Fantasy (this could get confusing), so I had a bit of a leg-up.  But Jackson's intro to RPGs is really well done.  He doesn't get bogged down in minutiae, such as how much a Peruvian Hornswizzle can carry over its head.  Instead he constructs a very simple game system, and sets about using it to illustrate the basics of how RPGs work.

The book begins by explaining the differences between a gamebook and an RPG, describes the roles of the GamesMaster and the players, then gives an example of play.  Chapters 3 and 4 have rules for character creation and combat, and chapter 5 has tips for dealing with common situations that will arise during play.

Jackson's advice is usually on the money, I find.  He keeps things loose, stresses the importance of keeping the game moving, and never gets bogged down in trivia.  He points out a lot of common-sense things, like ensuring the players have a light source when underground.  It doesn't sound like something you would need pointed out, but it stuck with ten-year-old me.  Jackson keeps the focus on things that will come up in the game often, and that's exactly the right approach to take for teaching RPGs to kids.

If there's one problem with Fighting Fantasy, it's the system itself.  Every player character is a basic warrior, with Skill, Stamina and Luck scores rolled exactly as they are in the gamebooks.  The most important score is Skill: it determines how well you fight, how well you search, how well you sneak, and pretty much how well you do everything.  Now, take a two-person party where one character has a Skill of 12, and the other has a Skill of 7.  That first guy will be better at everything.  In theory this is a cooperative game, but there's always competition between players, even when they're working together.  Especially younger players of the sort that this book is aimed at.  I've seen fights break out over whose character is stronger, and I've seen those with stronger characters bully the weaker members of the party in-game.  Fighting Fantasy is fine as an introductory system, but the lack of balance (and any form of character advancement) really limits its longevity, and can lead to problems at the table.

The meat of the book, though, are the two adventures that comprise the latter half.  There's a short introductory adventure - "The Wishing Well" - followed by a longer, more involved affair - "Shaggradd's Hives of Peril".

"The Wishing Well" has little in the way of set-up.  It's set in a dungeon at the bottom of an ancient well, where nobles and princes of long ago would come to cast in gold coins and make wishes. The well has long since dried up, and now adventurers go there in search of treasure.

It's very much a "funhouse" dungeon, with little heed paid to ecology or any sort of logic.  It runs on what I like to call "dungeon logic", which is something I'm fine with.  Sometimes you don't need to explain what the orcs eat, you know?  They're just hanging around waiting for adventurers to fight. Nevertheless I'm going to make an attempt to explain this dungeon based on the clues contained within.

The first question that comes up is: who made this dungeon at the bottom of the well anyway?  For this, I refer to Room 4, which contains a portrait of a fellow named Marg the Slaymaster.  Marg is described as long dead, and I theorise that the dungeon was once his base of operations.  His place of Slaymastery, if you will.  Perhaps the mummy in the sarcophagus in Room 6 is actually Marg himself?

From there I would say that the dungeon was taken over by the evil Spider King, who is still the Big Bad in residence.  The Spider King may have been in league with Marg, or may have killed him, or may have just moved in after the Slaymaster's death.  He is, however, in an area accessible only through a locked door, which begs the question of who locked him in there?

The other two characters to be found in the dungeon are Thrushbeard the Dwarf, and the wizard Nandras.  Both of these guys are friendly (Thrushbeard moreso than Nandras), and Nandras has the key needed to open the door to the Spider King.  It seems to me that Nandras sealed the Spider King away, and took the Wishing Well as his HQ along with his associate Thrushbeard and his calacorm servant.

The last question remaining is just where to place this adventure.  At this point in FF history, we only have Allansia and Kakhabad to work with.  It doesn't feel like this fits with Kakhabad; the sense of grime and squalor present in the Sorcery! epic isn't in evidence here.  It could be placed in the regions surrounding Kakhabad, but we know very little of those. I'd be inclined to place "The Wishing Well" in Allansia.  There aren't any indications of what terrain it might be found in, so it really could go anywhere.  Any placement is conjecture, I'm afraid.

Before finishing up with 'The Wishing Well" I'd like to point out the introduction of the Nandi Bear, a savage bear-human hybrid.  I don't think this monster has appeared previously, unless there's one in The Shamutanti Hills.

The second adventure, "Shaggradd's Hives of Peril" gives us a bit more to go on.  Ten years ago, a Black Elf named Shaggradd discovered a dungeon beneath an old oak tree, and she purchased the surrounding woods.  Rather than enter the dungeon herself, she began advertising for adventurers, and allowing them to enter for a fee of ten percent of their plunder.

I was able to make sense of "The Wishing Well", but there's no hope with the Hives of Peril.  The only way it makes sense is as something designed to challenge adventurers.  There are certainly a lot of cool ideas, and interesting set pieces.  Steve Jackson knows how to come up with cool stuff.  None of it fits together though.  Still, it might be fun to examine some of the things that are here and try to figure out some sort of logic.

The most incongruous of these is the trio of dwarves who have set up an eating house in a dungeon at the bottom of a hollow oak tree.  It's impossible to imagine how they maintain a business, though I do appreciate Jackson's wry closing sentence: "It has not been a good day for trade".  No shit.

Not far from the dwarves is Barnabas the Beggar, another encounter that makes me wonder just what the hell he's doing there.  A beggar needs people to beg at, you know?

There's a sequence of rooms that spins around every twenty seconds, so that the doors don't always lead to the same place.  Found in these rooms are an Aardwolf, a Changeling, and an Apprentice Witch.  Why are these creatures living in rooms that constantly spin around?  I don't know.  I don't even think Steve Jackson knows.

In the southern portion of the dungeon there's a Vampire, and an Evil Priest.  You could perhaps say that these guys are in charge, but there's nothing to indicate that this is the case.  To the east there's a wizard named Morphyr, who is relatively friendly, and his buddy known only as the Man of Many Years.  They might be in charge as well.  Who knows?

At this point I should probably throw my hands up and say "dungeon logic".  The only other explanation is that the dungeon was created by someone not described in the adventure, and that all of the creatures found within were imprisoned there by said mysterious entity.  I could even make it Shaggradd, if I really wanted to.  It's all fruitless conjecture, though.  This is a dungeon, and the things within it work because it's a dungeon.  What other explanation is needed?

A few monsters make their debuts here.  The first is the Chestrap Beast, a gremlin that lurks inside chests and leaps out to attack victims with its long arms and claws.  The Giant Aardwolf first appears here, though it's not very interesting, and is only hostile due to its long confinement.  I think this might be the fist time we see a Changeling as well; it starts in the form of a baby, then takes the following three forms in succession as it is wounded - a werewolf, a goblin, and a fire demon.  There's a Spectre, which is a sort of ghost that can't really harm the party, but tries to trick them into harming themselves.  It can also possess people, and make them take unexpected or dangerous actions.  A tree in one room has fruit that will hatch into hostile Geese, which makes me think that Steve has been playing a lot of Runequest.  The party may encounter a Salamander, a small heat-resistant lizard.  Or a Weretiger.  Or a Cockatrice, the mythological chicken with the paralysing breath.  There's a Yeti here, which I think might be the first in FF.  It gets hard to keep track.

As for placing this adventure, the only clue given is that it's in a wood somewhere.  The presence of Bomba Fruit in the dwarven eatery might indicate that this takes place in or near Kakhabad - said fruit has appeared before in The Shamutanti Hills - but much as with "The Wishing Well" the tone doesn't feel right.  I'd be more inclined to place it in Allansia, somewhere to the north given the presence of the Yeti.  That would also solve the problem of who Shaggradd bought the land from.  Most of southern Allansia seems to be wilderness, with no ruling body.  In northern Allansia we have Chiang Mai and its various provinces.  Barring any further evidence, that's where I would place it.

Next: It's time to continue with the Sorcery! epic, as I play through Khare - Cityport of Traps.


  1. Very nice write up Nathan! I have this book and I think it has a lot of charm, even if, as you say, it is difficult to make the dungeons work logically! Perhaps Shaggard has some connection with Baron Sukumvit's project in Fang, with her hives actually a clever testing ground for monsters and traps to stock Deathtrap Dungeon?

    Anyway I eagerly await your thoughts on Khare, maybe my favourite book/setting of the lot. I'm also interested in what you make of the Riddling Reaver once we reach there!

  2. You can balance the system if you decide that skill's level is at 7-8 for all (determined with d6 roll). In order to play in campaign, you can use experience system developped in warlock n°4. I'm sorry for my english but I'm french!

  3. You can balance the system if you decide that skill's level is at 7-8 for all (determined with d6 roll). In order to play in campaign, you can use experience system developped in warlock n°4. I'm sorry for my english but I'm french!