[Games Anatomy] Advanced Fighting Fantasy

Picture the scene…

Rolling, bleak moorland, sun-baked by day and rain-blasted by night – except when it’s the other way around. A thin and narrow road winds and wanders its way over the hilltops, a thin chain of tarmacadam linking one knot of grim, grimy buildings to another and, perhaps, having one end or the other moored in civilisation. There are few signs, and fewer signs of life, save the odd sheep chewing the odd patch of grass, and there – incongruous against the moody slate-grey sky, a red telephone box, of the customary British sort.

A tall figure, potbellied and bearded, wrapped in a shabby tweed overcoat, is cramped inside the crimson booth, muttering through his beard as he feeds low-denomination coins into the antiquated machinery.

“Come on, come on,” he grumbles, drumming his fingers on the handset. Outside, a pale girl with a blonde mohawk and an outsize wooly jumper glares through the cleanest of the glass panels.

“We’re supposed to be on holiday!” she calls.

“Ah! Finally.” A tinny voice chatters something out of the handset. “Look, it’s not my fault if the system doesn’t work – I’m in bloody Yorkshire, I’m amazed they have public telephones up here…”

“Wrong side of the Pennines,” agrees the girl outside.

“You would say that, you’re from Manchester.” The occupant of the phone-box takes his hand off the mouthpiece, and makes vague nodding motions, despite knowing full well that nobody on the other end can see him. “Right. I see. Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it, I’m on holi – What do you mean, it’s burned down? My fault for turning my back for five minutes? What? How dare you!”

A hand slams the handset back into its cradle, and Von – for ’tis he – shuffles out of the phone-box, slamming the door and rattling the panes.

“Well?” asks his companion.

“Bastard wants me to write my own Games Anatomy this week. Apparently Lo’s burned the office down.”

“Well, that settles it. No Internet up here. First thing, we leave for London.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I need at least an hour for lunch.”

Thanks to Lo for covering for me (again), thanks to Hark and the gang for a delightful week in the country, and thanks to withnail_eye on Flickr for the photos. Now, on with the motley for a trip down memory lane…

Advanced Fighting Fantasy will always hold a very special place in my heart; Fighting Fantasy of all stripes will, to be honest. As I may have hinted, it’s with these peculiarly British choose-your-own-adventure books that my path into nerdery began.

The original system was very simple. You had a character, who was defined in terms of three statistics; SKILL (how good you were at doing stuff), STAMINA (how much stuff you could stand having done to you) and LUCK (how often you could get away with saying ‘nuh-uh, no stuff happened there’). You had an adventure, which was often dropped on you by means of slightly dubious contrivance (‘it’s there and you were bored’ being about as sophisticated as some of them got, although I always quite liked ‘you woke up in the hold of a pirate ship’ as a starting point), and you had to steer the character through the adventure, picking up items where you found them and fighting monsters where you couldn’t run away from them or wave the right item under their nose to ward them off. You’d turn to this paragraph or that depending on your choice of action, and you’d either succeed at or avoid or fall foul of whatever the book’s author had implanted therein for you to deal with.

The gamebooks used six-sided dice for everything – no potentially-alienating polyhedra of unusual shape here – and were rooted in what I’ve come to recognise as a fairly sensible bell curve. To hit things you’d roll two dice and add your character’s SKILL, and roll another two dice and add their opponent’s SKILL. If your total was higher, you hit them for two STAMINA points of damage, if theirs was higher vice versa. You might also have to test your SKILL by rolling equal to or less than it on two dice in order to succeed at a challenge; you could do the same with LUCK to avoid fatal blows, doom spells and other ‘Your Adventure Ends Here’ moments, but you’d lose a point of LUCK every time you tested it – you can only push your luck so far. And that was basically it. Most gamebooks added Provisions – you could stop after a fight to scoff some food and restore some STAMINA – many also had potions that would restore lost SKILL, STAMINA or LUCK (for SKILL could be lost through grievous injury or magical curse) – and some had spells, which you might have six of to cast at any point during the adventure, or for which you might have to remember some assemblage of syllables and then choose between various options, some of which would cast the right spell and some of which would be gibberish.

It was also easy and common to cheat like buggery, leaving a finger in the previous page so you could flick back, arbitrarily awarding yourself SKILL 12 STAMINA 24 LUCK 12 (the highest possible randomly generated stats) and generally taking on the adventure without the slightest risk to your barely-defined fantasy persona. This might be why authors Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone turned them into proper RPGs after a few years.

Not the easiest adventure to run if your GM has an articulation disorder.
I couldn’t pronounce my Rs when I was younger…

The Riddling Reaver was a four-act follow-the-trail mystery for three to five players plus this – to me – new-fangled thing called a Games Master, whose job it was to make sure that stats were generated honestly, that dice were rolled fairly, and that nobody had to read their own paragraphs of descriptive text explaining encounters. This ‘GM’ figure even got to roll the dice for the monsters in fights, and the putting-on of funny voices was encouraged when actually portraying characters like in films or some such. “Any excuse to put on a funny voice,” quoth I (I probably did quoth that as well, I was surprisingly middle-aged as a ten-year-old) – and then I remembered that I only had two friends and they didn’t like each other that much.

(To keep up the pretence of analysing a game here, I should add that the Reaver’s book added in rules for unconsciousness – if your character’s STAMINA was reduced to 0 they merely fell unconscious rather than dying, and could be saved by their friends within a randomised number of minutes – damage modifiers for different weapons, and a ‘Mighty Strike’ rule – roll a double six to hit someone and your character killed them outright. Oh, and there was the option for one player to play a Wizard. At the cost of reduced SKILL and arbitrary minimum STAMINA, this player’s character could gain 2d6+6 in a MAGIC stat which governed how many spells they knew and could cast. These ranged from the useful – SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK restoratives – to the mostly useless Levitate (straight up or down only) – to the downright busted Creature Copy.)

I was still enthralled by the idea of this game, though, and by the mention in the appendices of some other books enabling further play in this fashion. When I found these in the local W.H. Smith’s I bought them on sight and still have them to this very day!

These books are older than most of the people I teach.

I never did manage to lay my hands on a copy of the fifth book, Allansia!, but here we see the world guide (bottom), the monster manual (next), the core rules and starter adventures (next) and the urban adventures book, featuring further starter adventure material and rules for bloody priests (top).

The setting is the sort of stock fantasy you’d expect from a bunch of chaps turning out material more or less as they fancy without much in the way of a shared vision. Elements of it are strangely compelling, mind, but most of it is fairly bog-standard ultimately-forgettable sword-and-sorcery tosh.The game itself, meanwhile, is wobbly. It introduces a mechanic for Special Skills, which are equal to base SKILL plus a number of points allocated at character creation. These are substituted for SKILL as and when they come up, and their net effect is that a character with a high initial SKILL rapidly becomes almost impossible for conventional adversaries to defeat; wandering around adding 15 to all your attack rolls when an average orc is only adding 5 means the worst that can happen to that character is a tie. Admittedly, AFF doesn’t exactly encourage restraint, but when your character’s better at hitting things than a sodding dragon, something somewhere has gone a bit doo-lally. The game also includes a vast array of magic spells, which reward player initiative (good!) but tend toward the adventure-breaking when said initiative is employed (whoops).

Perhaps it’s not especially nuanced in its setting or robust in its mechanics because it grew out of a game for younger players. That’s hardly surprising given that its writers were also the founders of Games Workshop, and set the standard for random, unbalanced, has-to-be-played-in-a-gentlemanly-spirit games for twelve-year-old boys to enjoy and adults to indulge in: yet it holds a strange and compelling power over me that I can’t just put down to nostalgia.

Part of it, I think, is the absence of cruft – there are no classes, no levels, and only minimal rules for species. If you want to be a wizard who gets out of their tower now and then to learn to fence, you can do that. If you want to be a barbarian who knows a few useful spells for the road but still distrusts the whizzbangs and bright lights of “SORCERY!”, you can do that. If you want to play an urban goblin who’s existing on the fringes of civilisation, you can do that. Never, though, will you have to go through tedious multi-classing mechanics and take half a dozen feats before your character is the way you want them to be. Characters do gain experience and learn new things, but that’s not really what they’re for – AFF lends itself very well to picaresque ‘out on the road again after another day’s adventure’ narratives, and to ‘rag-tag bunch of misfits learn to get along’ development arcs – it’s about developing characters and stories rather than accumulating more and better numbers.

See, it doesn’t need the numbers to do its job. Full-bore Advanced Fighting Fantasy explicitly takes its shape and priorities from cinema – the GM is called a ‘Director’, the adventures are divided into ‘Scenes’ rather than encounters, and all the stock material suggests that you prepare a plot in advance and the players have their characters behave like characters in a low-budget fantasy film or long-running telly show would behave, i.e. do stupid things because the plot demands them rather than do intelligent things because they’re the intelligent thing to do. It can be played straight and come out as Sinbad, or it can be sent up and become pure Python, but whatever it is, it’s rooted in visual media, not in literature or in established conceits of the RPG that have lain unquestioned since Gygax was a boy.

That might explain why the characters are often so superior to the majority of their opponents, now that I come to think of it. Our heroes are in no real danger, and we watch, or in this case play, to see what implausible escapes and heroic deeds they’ll pull off this week, not because we think the outcome is in any way in doubt. The whole thing has a cheery, unpretentious optimism to it that’s rather refreshing to a palate tainted by the claggy murk of Vampire and the stale, crunchy texture of Pathfinder.

It’s also onto its second edition – the flames have been kept burning despite its long absence from the shelves, and in the last couple of years a revised version has been brought out by Arion Games. They tell me it’s been revised and ‘balanced’ to bring it more into line with how modern RPGs work. I’m not sure I like the sound of that. To me, AFF is fine the way it is. I spend a lot of time blathering about how I wish games and stories weren’t so bloody ‘grimdark’ all the time and longing for an optimistic, forward-looking fantasy, and AFF – at least the version of it I own and love – delivers. It’s not a zeroes-to-heroes game, it’s not a crunchy build-optimisation tactical-simulation game, it’s a game that cuts right to the chase. Larger-than-life heroes stand astride a mildly ludicrous world, shrugging aside perils that might be deadly to lesser mortals, but are all in a day’s work to them.

Just talking about it makes me want to run it. In my own setting, natch, but nevertheless.

Next week, I’ll be paying a debt to a fellow blogger, and taking a look – possibly a long, slow, over-several-weeks look – at the original D&D.

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