Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Adventure Gamebooks as RPGs Part 1 -- Fighting Fantasy's Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls role playing games, as well as the Choose Your Own Adventure series of interactive novels, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone released the first of their trend setting series of Fighting Fantasy Adventure Gamebooks The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982. The first American edition of Warlock was published in 1983. The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were the first time that a publication featured both a fully usable set of rules for role playing game play along with a fully interactive solo narrative adventure.

Flying Buffalo was the first company to publish "solo adventures" for role playing games -- and there are quite a few excellent adventures in their Tunnels and Trolls line -- but their adventures required a copy of the Tunnels and Trolls role playing game in order to actually "play" them rather than just read them. Given that some of the early T&T solos were fairly straightforward dungeon crawl style adventures, they play significantly better than they read. They are filled with humor, but lacked an extensive story. This was the result of the adventures' format and not the skill of the writers. Later T&T adventures become more narrative as the marketplace developed and the format adapted to enable more in depth stories to be told. It should also be added that Flying Buffalo's adventures were primarily written for "existing" gamers who were familiar with D&D's genre conventions -- as they stood in the mid to late 70s.

The Choose Your Own Adventure series had entertaining interactive narratives aimed at younger readers. They featured exciting adventures where readers could travel through time, explore vast wildernesses, or investigate haunted houses. They could also be extraordinarily frustrating as certain narrative paths ended with annoying authorial fiat. When/if the reader encountered certain villains, they were doomed. The books satisfied the puzzle solving obsessions of young minds, but the lack of any game rules made the books feel less "alive" than they otherwise could have.

The Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks took the best elements of T&T's solos and combined them with the puzzle solving fun of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The books sparked a mini-craze that lasted until the early 90s.

The internet is full of fan sites dedicated to the memory and recent resurgence of the Fighting Fantasy series and the Gamebook genre in general. Let me just say that I am a big fan, but that the purpose of the "Adventure Gamebooks as RPGs" series of posts -- at least I hope it will be a series -- is to look at the rules in the gamebooks themselves to see how they work as a rules set.

I hope to answer the following question in each post, "How much fun would this particular rules set be as the foundation for a campaign?"

I am starting with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for a couple of reasons. It was the first book of its kind, and was thus an innovator in the field. It also eventually inspired two separate complete rules sets for group table top gaming -- Fighting Fantasy Introductory Roleplay and Advanced Fighting Fantasy which has a new version coming from Arion Games later this year. These stand alone rules sets will be reviewed as a part of the series at a later date.

How good are the rules in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for a regular table top role playing game?


The rules set in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is very simple to understand and implement, perfect for the new gamer. The game uses two mechanical systems to resolve the challenges facing characters. An opposed roll system is used to resolve combat, and a statistic test is used to determine the success of non-combat actions and one in combat action.


Each character is rated in three categories: Skill, Stamina, and Luck. These statistics form the "core three" for the entire Fighting Fantasy line. While future products add additional statistics or use a skill system to enhance the statistics, Warlock uses these exclusively.

SKILL represents a character's fighting skill and his/her physical capabilities. Heroes have a rating of 7 to 12 in this statistic, while creatures/non-heroic characters potentially range from 2 to 12. The rules section of the book describes SKILL as a character's ability in combat, but it becomes clear as one plays through the adventure that SKILL is a measurement of the character's competence at all physical tasks. It is a measurement of the characters combat ability, strength, and agility.

STAMINA represents how much damage a character can absorb before dying. If a character's STAMINA is reduced to zero, the adventure is over and the player has been defeated. Heroes have a rating of 14 to 24 in this area. Given that successful attacks in Warlock typically do 2 points of stamina damage, this means that heroes can typically be injured between 7 and 12 times during an adventure before they perish.

LUCK represents how lucky a character is. In many ways this is a catch all statistic used to determine if the hero can avoid some otherwise awful fate. It can be used outside of combat to determine of a character stepped on a trap, or during combat to do more/take less damage from an attack.


Combat in Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks is highly abstract, but easy to learn. The player rolls two six-sided dice and adds that result to their SKILL value. The player then rolls two six-sided dice and adds that result to the SKILL value of the player's opponent. The character with the higher result successfully attacks the other combatant and damages him/her. If the result is a tie, then no character lands a blow. As an opposed system that relies on rolls that create a bell shaped probability curve, even a difference of only one point in skill makes a significant difference whether one opponent can harm another. Kit has a nice introductory guest post at Giant Battling Robots discussing the impact of relative advantage that I'd love to see expanded.

This is one of the areas where the cracks of the game system show when attempting to translate the game from a Gamebook environment to a table top environment. The Fighting Fantasy method of generating skill (roll 1d6 and add that to 6) results in some characters with widely different abilities. This can lead to player frustration.

For example, let's say that David has a character with a SKILL of 9 and Phil has one with a SKILL of 11. Let's imagine that their characters are attacked by two Orcs who each have a SKILL of 5. David would have an 84.1% chance of hitting his Orc, while Phil would have a 94.6% chance of hitting his. At first glance, this doesn't seem like such a huge disparity due to the fact that David and Phil are both significantly more SKILLED than their opponents. A 10% difference from a SKILL two points higher seems like it shouldn't bother the players too much, but let's change the parameters a bit. Let's give Phil and David an opponent with a SKILL of 11. In this case, David has a 23.92% chance of hitting the foe while Phil has a 44.37% chance of striking the opponent. The 10% advantage has shifted to a 20% advantage. This is because the differential in target number falls within the steep portion of the bell curve meaning that a +1 penalty can have a significant impact. If the two players were to fight one another, David would still have a 23.92% chance of striking Phil where Phil would have a 66.44% chance of hitting David.

If the system used a linear die -- like a d12 -- for combat resolution, the system would be more fair to the character with a lower SKILL. As it is, it takes a good deal of luck for a character with even two SKILL points less than his opponent to be victorious.


In Warlock, everything from bashing down doors to checking to see if a character can successfully balance on a beam is resolved by rolling two six-sided dice and comparing that result to the character's SKILL. LUCK checks are resolved using the same system with the addition that a character's LUCK is reduced by one each time it is checked (though the LUCK can return as the character performs certain tasks successfully).

This system suffers from some of the same downfalls as the combat mechanics when used for group play. A character with a 11 SKILL will succeed 91.67% of the time if the character must roll "less" than SKILL to succeed, where the character with a 9 SKILL will succeed 72.22% of the time, and a character with a 7 will succeed 41.67%.

One of the key pitfalls that game masters, and one imagines game designers, have to consider when running/designing a game is how the players will feel in comparison to other players. Aaron Allston's excellent Strike Force sourcebook lists rules for making sure your players don't have any fun and one of these rules is to make sure that your player's are never the best at anything. Inversely, one might imagine that one could increase the likelihood that their player's do have fun by making sure that each player is good at something that no one else is good at. Since SKILL is so central to the success or failure of a character in combat and in task resolution, players can quickly become frustrated with the discrepancies in character performance. Characters with higher stats are significantly better than their comrades. This is exacerbated by the fact that SKILL and LUCK have a linear distribution in generation, but a standard distribution in action. On a roll of one six-sided die, every number has an equal chance of coming up. This isn't true when rolling two.

The Fighting Fantasy system is easy to learn, quick to play, but can lead to certain players dominating the group storytelling. This is not typically a good thing in a role playing session/campaign. Every character wants some time in the spotlight.


My recommendations are to separate SKILL into three categories: COMBAT ABILITY, PHYSICAL STRENGTH, AGILITY. Once this is done, you can move to a "point buy" system for the statistics rather than random attribute determination. I would think that giving the players 9 points to spend, which are added to values of 6 in each category, would be sufficient. That way if a character wants to be excellent at combat, he/she suffers in other areas where other characters can shine. Note that this recommendation is based solely on the rules as presented in Warlock and ignores rules from later books and the role playing games.

I might also recommend using a d12 for resolving tasks and conflicts. This would make penalties easier to determine for the GM. A -1 penalty to a check has a uniform meaning in a linear resolutions system where it has a dynamic nature in one with a standard distribution. If you prefer the standard distribution, that is fine, just understand that a -1 penalty to a character with an 11 isn't as significant as for one with an 8 in a statistical area. You can see why in the chart above.

Warlock lacks a magic system which means that its use is limited to low magic settings, but that isn't a disadvantage mechanically.

Overall, I think that the game has enough systems to handle most role playing necessities, but that the statistics need to be expanded to make the underlying mechanics more useful. All you really need in an rpg is a combat resolution system and a task resolution system, but I think that the task resolution system needs to be slightly more granular to take into account different areas of expertise. The ability to lift a weight is very different from the ability to walk a tightrope after all. The game would need more "stats" if it were to be translated to table top. As it stands, it is excellent for the adventure for which it was written.


Pontifex said...

I remember these old books. They were awesome. You should definitely do this.

Stuart Lloyd said...

Great article Christian.

The 2d6 system did make the books unplayable for characters with low skills. If your skill was 3 lower than your opponent's then you had a 15.9% chance of winning an attack round and you might as well give up then.