That was his name. The first fantasy arch villain I ever tried to depose. He was master of the titular castle in Steve Jackson’s “Citadel of Chaos”. My struggle with the denizens of his citadel was the beginning of my life long love of fantasy gaming. For some reason, I bought the second in the series before the first. Balthus Dire exploded in my consciousness long before the “Warlock of Firetop Mountain” ever did. Before Baron Sukumvit and his “Deathtrap Dungeon”.
Fighting Fantasy is getting a lot of coverage again in recent weeks, with this year being the 40th Anniversary of the creation of Games Workshop. Not the Games Workshop of nowadays – the bloated, Warhammer heavy, but highly successful incarnation that players know today.
No, for me Games Workshop will forever be associated with Dungeon Floor Plans, White Dwarf magazine (when it still published adventures and articles on D&D and not, as it does now, only Games Workshop products) and it’s founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone – the authors of the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks.
In an era before high production, realistic video games, and in a small town where D&D players were few and far between, Fighting Fantasy was the gateway to adventure. I consumed the books at a terrible rate. Firetop Mountain, the Citadel and the Deathtrap Dungeon fell at my feet as I ploughed on to the City of Thieves and Forest of Doom.
Even now, looking back at the books, the illustrations are so evocative of that time. They stir something in me and transport me back to that time when I was 12 years old, sitting in my room battling my way through deep dungeon complexes populated with strange characters to talk to and monsters to fight. Armed with a pencil and 2d6, I was ready to conquer this strange world.
Around about the same time, a family friend gave me a boxed set of Moldvay Basic D&D. If Fighting Fantasy had tee’d the RPG ball up for me then D&D Basic smashed straight down the middle of the fairway. I was hooked. However, far from leaving Fighting Fantasy behind, I got deeper into it. Suddenly I was devouring anything fantasy related and more FF books (Starship Traveller, Creature of Havoc) but also strayed into the Fighting Fantasy RPG with it’s adventures “The Wishing Well” and “Shaggradd’s Hives of Peril”.
Of course, in comparison to what I played afterwards, Fighting Fantasy seems limited in choice and mechanically flawed, but at the time it was a huge departure from the usual, flat “choose your own adventure” books with it’s introduction of combat, even if I occasionally fudged the dice in my favour. What it did though was introduce me to fantasy gaming concepts such as skill checks, combat and character sheets in an easily digestible way.
I recently picked up Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon again via Amazon and the magic is still there, even if Deathtrap Dungeon doesn’t contain the original artwork.
I’m sure I’m not alone in it being my first gaming love.