I’ve got a wonderful little app on my phone called Fighting Fantasy Classics by Tin Man Games. At its core, FFC is a virtual bookshelf with a built in engine that allows the reader to play Classic Fighting Fantasy books. There are currently around a dozen to choose from, with each costing a few bucks, and they can be played in a variety of forms – from Hardcore Hero where every decision is final, to something approaching “old school cheater”, where you can jump back and forth between book marks (nicely mimicking the old “five fingered bookmark”) and decide the results of combat and other tests.
Much as I love the tactile feeling of books, and much as I have an enormous nostalgic love for the physical products – seriously, my bookshelf has all the originals bar two – this app is brilliant for things like long journeys on public transport or waiting around in a doctor’s surgery, needing as it does none of those new fangled internets. In terms of presentation, the app is lovely, with options for different fonts, new or classic versions of the illustrations and even a choice of atmospheric music.
Yesterday I found myself waiting around for my daughter whilst she was visiting the doctors’, and rather than spending my time doomscrolling on Twitter and trying to avoid the urge to get involved in discussions with people who were losing their minds over the “startling revelation” that Critical Role was making quite a lot of money over on Twitch, I decided to fire up Fighting Fantasy Classics. Upon doing so, I found that they had added a new book to the shelf…
Now, for those of you not aut fait with the wonderful world of Fighting Fantasy (shame on you!) you’re probably thinking “So what?” The title is fairly typical Fighting Fantasy “The something of something!” fare, with no hint as to what the story might be about, other than the fact that the guy on the cover is probably not going to be one of the good guys…
Eleven year old me probably thought something similar when I first bought this back in *cough cough*. I was in town with my mum, and I had some pocket money burning a hole in…well….my pocket. I had just bought the computer game Feud for my Amstrad for the princely sum of £1.99 and was on the look out for something else. Naturally, I gravitated towards a Fighting Fantasy book, and it was as I was browsing them that I found this new release – Creature of Havoc. The thing that REALLY stood out for me? The very first line on the blurb…
ARE YOU READY FOR THE MOST UNUSUAL FIGHTING FANTASY ADVENTURE YET?
Hmm. Tell me more…
Obviously, to learn more a purchase was required, so I quickly parted with the princely sum of £1.95 and the book was mine. In a display that would probably have my kids rolling their eyes in an “Ok dad, whatever…” sort of way if I told them, I rushed home, put my new computer game to one side, and dived into this book.
They weren’t kidding when they said it was unusual…
For starters, there was the little story on the first page.
Blah blah evil is festering in the land blah blah evil necromancer blah blah legions of chaos blah blah bestial creature, ruled by hunger blah blah taste for fighting and flesh of other creatures blah blah you’re playing the creature bla…wait. WHAT?
That’s right – in this adventure, you’re not brave adventurer set on vanquishing the evil from the land. Instead, you’re this near mindless brute who loves fighting and eating other creatures.
But, as the blurb promises, it may be possible for you to begin to control your bestial nature. It also goes on to say that it may be possible for you to learn more about yourself, and even to learn your true destiny.
Even back then, I loved stuff like this so at that point, I was pretty much considering my £1.95 well spent.
The whole “the most unusual Fighting Fantasy yet” claim was pretty much born out in the rest of the introduction. Normally, an FF book would have some character generation rules, a bit on the system, how to use your equipment and magical potions, some general hints and advice, a character sheet, and then your “story so far…” background, which was usually a fairly standard “…and here’s how you were summoned on this glorious quest” boiler plate piece.
Creature of Havoc takes a different tack – you start with a character sheet, which is essentially three boxes for your stats followed by a massive section for clues. Where were the boxes for me to record my equipment, weapons and gold? Clearly this was not going to be an Ian Livingstone “collect these items or perish!” tale. We then got rules on creating our character, some system stuff…and then Tales of Trolltooth Pass. Unlike the other FF background sections which were very much “the background story for your character”, the Tales section was exactly what it said – stories about the region in which the game is set. It’s good stuff too – about twenty pages of world building, followed by a page that basically says “…and most of this will probably be of no help to you…”
Once you get into the game it is very different from a “normal” FF story. For starters, most of your early decisions are governed by a throw of the dice, and what is more you can’t understand anything that is said to you, something that is represented in game by an ingenious cypher.
I’ll be honest though, tweeny-me didn’t really get on with this book. The randomness was frustrating, and the puzzles – like the language cypher – were pretty tricky. I quickly gave up on it – I cheated to find out what the big mystery was – and ended up putting way more time into Feud than I ever did with Creature of Havoc.
Ok, so if it was such a drag, why write a blog article about it? Well, Mr Smartie-Pants, I didn’t say it was a drag – I said it was something that eleven year old Iain couldn’t wrap his tiny little mind around. Coming back to it years later as an adult, I can honestly say it is one of the cleverest, most finely crafted, and most satisfying Fighting Fantasy stories to play through. From the dungeon at the beginning where you have to come to terms with your nature (and where a few fantasy tropes are turned on their heads) to the exploration of Trolltooth pass, to your final destiny – all of them are beautifully put together, excellent to read, and extremely good fun to puzzle your way through.
The overall story is fantastic – wedding elements of Frankenstein into a fantasy narrative where the role of the hero is turned on its head – and the endgame, in whatever form it takes (this book has multiple endings rather than a binary “You won!” / “You died!”) closes things off nicely. Yes, I’m being deliberately cautious with what I say, as there are a lot of potential spoilers for this book, and I really don’t want to spoil it for people who are lucky enough not to have played through it yet.
And that, I suppose, is the point of this article. Now that this book is available via the Fighting Fantasy Classics app, my recommendation is that if you’re looking for an entertaining, if slightly different, fantasy story, you really should pick up Creature of Havoc. It is difficult enough that it will keep you going for a while, but it is not impossible to overcome – I have managed to complete this without cheating! Plus, it costs less than a cup of coffee (unless you’re drinking really cheap, nasty coffee that is)!
Check it out – you won’t regret it – there’s a reason this book has been reprinted every time the Fighting Fantasy license moved to a new publisher…