Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Doughnut of Doom

Ian Livingstone's first solo Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Forest of Doom, was an important landmark in the history of the series. It was the first time we had the opportunity to properly venture out of doors in this new fantasy world, it was our first encounter with the wizard Yaztromo, it had the first map, it contained a host of new creatures, many of them illustrated in Malcolm Barter's unique style (giving a very appropriate feeling of gnarled and knotted wood, unfortunately never repeated), and it had that iconic cover, with Iain McCaig's first Fighting Fantasy contribution still standing out as a highlight of the series. The creatures and encounters in the book were memorable, from the hideous Shape Changer to the oddly passive Clones, and the forest itself felt alive, the perfect place for an exciting adventure. And although it felt kind of artificial, the dungeon-like mappability of the paths through the forest was certainly one of the aspects of it that appealed to me.

One of the most curious things about this book though, and a thing which I remember my school-friends in the mid 1980s commenting on repeatedly, was that Darkwood Forest didn't actually seem all that big. Not long after you've entered the forest and had a few encounters, you notice the trees thinning out (paras. 27, 97, 300, 337), and soon after that you exit the forest entirely, onto a grassy plain (paras. 109, 118, 300, 329). Thereafter, a large chunk of the adventure doesn't take place in forest at all, but in plains, hills and scrubland, including the various places where you cross the (unnamed) Catfish River. (For many years I wondered whether Ian had originally intended the Catfish River to flow west-to-east, giving that having it flowing the other way would mean a river bifurcation, a very rare phenomenon, and that its east-to-west flow was a result of Darkwood Forest being forced into the later Allansian map. But the text of The Forest of Doom does in fact make clear on closer examination that the river flows east-to-west - para. 291 - so the bifurcation of the Red/Catfish Rivers is original.) It is only much later in the adventure, as you approach the Dwarven village of Stonebridge, that you re-enter the forest (paras. 144, 149, 150, 390), and after a few more forest adventures you exit the forest again just south across the (Red) River from Stonebridge (para. 311). Here's a quick map of the adventure that shows what I mean:

This map shows pretty clearly that in fact most of the adventure doesn't take place in forest at all, but in the grassy, hilly plain in the middle. The text of The Forest of Doom describes the geography of this plain as follows (paras. 119, 198, 314):
"All around in the distance you see the (dark/tight) green cicle of Darkwood Forest."
We know from Malcolm Barter's map and later maps that Darkwood Forest is roughly oval in shape, though with fairly flat east and west sides. That means that the forest, rather than being a dense tangle of trees throughout is in fact doughnut shaped, i.e. it has a hollow, unforested middle, something like the following:

Strange indeed! And curiously never referred to again in Fighting Fantasy canon. For example, none of the later maps show the deforested plain in its midst, and at the start of Temple of Terror, you spend the night in the middle of the forest with Yaztromo, on your way from Stonebridge to his tower. No mention of the plain is given in Titan - The Fighting Fantasy World, despite two important Elven settlements being located within the bounds of the forest (the underground city of the Dark Elves, Darkside/Tiranduil Kelthas, and the tree-top Wood Elven town of Caƫranos, destroyed by Malbordus).

So there you have it, one of those strange quirks that make Fighting Fantasy the thing we know and love. I'd be intrigued to hear your thoughts on how this strange plain in the middle of Darkwood Forest came into being and how long it has been there. At any rate, the name of the book, The Forest of Doom, is somewhat misleading (though I suppose many places we think of as forests, such as the New Forest, have large patches of heathland in them), and although The Doughnut of Doom may not be quite right, maybe it should have been called The Forest and Plain of Doom, though I think we'll all agree that it wouldn't have sold half as well and that a name like that might have doomed the series entirely!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The location of Zanbar Bone's Tower (and rambling in the Allansian countryside)

Ian Livingstone's City of Thieves, the 5th Fighting Fantasy gamebook, was the second one of the series I read, having found it and Island of the Lizard King in my local village library at the age of 12 in early 1986 (I later bought it, like much of my collection, from a friend for about 50p). As is often the way with the books that got people into the series, I retain a deep affection for this book, but if you think about the combination of brilliant cover and interior illustrations, atmospheric setting, mappability and devious difficulty (which appealed to my younger self a lot), there's a lot to like about this book. It's also got that old-fashioned charm characteristic of the early FF books - nothing too complicated, just a fun fantasy world of rollicking adventures, set in a land we didn't know much about, but one we knew was filled with all sorts of adventuring possibilities.

One of the (many) things I like about City of Thieves is actually the bits of the adventure which happen between the main places of interest. The journeys from Silverton to Port Blacksand, from Blacksand to Zanbar Bone's Tower, and from there back to Silverton. These are only tiny bits of the whole adventure, but they give us brief hints of the rural background to the adventure, adding to the atmosphere and our knowledge of the world of Fighting Fantasy, and they involve my favourite Fighting Fantasy activity of them all - travelling through the beautiful but treacherous wilds of Titan, camping under the stars, foraging for food, and living a life of adventurous freedom. These bits of the adventure, short as they are, bear repeating here, I think:
"The walk to Port Blacksand takes you west some fifty miles across plains and over hill; fortunately without any harmful encounters. Eventually you reach the coast and see the high city wall surrounding Port Blacksand and the cluster of buildings projecting into the sea like an ugly black mark." (para. 1)
"Following Nicodemus's map, you start your long walk north to the guarded tower of Zanbar Bone, the Night Prince. You walk through woods and fields. You are able to relax a little in the pleasant countryside and breathe the fresh air with its wonderful scents. As the light fades you decide to camp under a huge elm tree. You cook a meal of stewed rabbit and mushrooms before settling down to a long, deep sleep ... You set off again but it is not long before your surroundings become less welcoming, the trees are twisted or stunted and there are no birds to be heard" (para. 201)
"You leave Zanbar Bone's black tower ... You sleep the rest of the night and long into the next morning in a hayfield, before setting off for Silverton in the afternoon. Battle-weary and hungry, you arrive in Silverton the same evening." (para. 400)
Ah! That's the life, isn't it? Maybe there should have been a whole FF adventure devoted to just wandering about in the countryside (oh, hang on, there is, The Shamutanti Hills, another favourite of mine). These little bits of the adventure also give us a nice insight into everyday rural life in northwest Allansia, a place of quiet fields and woods, not just of scummy cities or dank dungeons.

But there's something else of interest in all of this too. Where exactly is Zanbar Bone's tower? It's not marked on any of the Fighting Fantasy maps, but there's quite a bit to go on in the text of City of Thieves, so let's see if we can work it out. Here are the key points:
  • Silverton is 50 miles west of Port Blacksand (CoT para. 1). We're not told how long the journey from Silverton to Blacksand takes you, but you leave Silverton at dawn (Background) and don't sleep in Port Blacksand (you sleep somewhere between Blacksand and Bone's tower, para. 201), so it's likely to be at least two day's travel.
  • Nicodemus's map shows you that Zanbar Bone's tower is north of Blacksand (paras. 201 and 283). It is quite some distance from the city: you travel north for some time after leaving Blacksand before camping for the night, then walk all day to Bone's tower, getting there at night (para. 217).
  • The journey back from Bone's tower to Silverton only takes you half a day (you set off in the afternoon and arrive the same evening, para. 400).
Hmm, there's something which doesn't quite add up here. If you travel 50 miles west from Silverton, at least two day's journey, then north from Blacksand for a day and a half to Bone's tower, then back to Silverton, you'd expect the journey back to Silverton to take about two and a half days. According to Pythagoras, the distance from Bone's tower to Silverton should equal the square root of the sum of the squares of the length of the journeys from Silverton to Blacksand, roughly two days, and from Blacksand to Bone's tower, roughly one and a half days, since these two journeys are at right angles to each other, west-east and south-north: √(2²+1.5²) = 2.5. But that's not what we get in CoT, so what's going on? I can only assume that although you set out in a vaguely northward direction from Blacksand, you must veer quite considerably east as you travel, so that Bone's tower lies much closer to Silverton, e.g. somewhere between Mirewater and Silverton, north of the Catfish River (and the Chalice-to-Blacksand road, see Dungeoneer p. 33). This would also explain the Night Prince's special interest in and knowledge of the inhabitants of Silverton - the town is close to his domain. What do you think?

It's nice to think that after all these years there's still plenty in the early FF gamebooks to intrigue us. Well, I think I'll turn in for now, set up camp, start a nice fire, and cook some of those mushrooms and squirrels I found earlier. I'll ponder the location of Bone's tower as I drift off to sleep and hope that I don't have to roll any dice through the night to see if I'm disturbed.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Crossing at the Crossing

Just a quick one, prompted by the map of the area around Firetop Mountain in Brett Schofield's excellent Advanced Fighting Fantasy adaptation of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (Arion Games 2014) which I received in the post the other day (by the way, hat-tip to Arion for sending it within two days of me ordering it!).

Ever since the publication of Forest of Doom in 1983, we've known that there is a road running up the east side of Darkwood Forest, crossing the Catfish River before reaching the bridge across the Red River to Stonebridge.

In the classic map of northwest Allansia in Out of the Pit, this area looks like this (no roads are marked on the map):

Stonebridge has been rather shunted to the left here, but this is probably explicable by the orientation of the map generally, which has got a slightly warped shape, with things shifted slightly to the left the further north you go (e.g. the coast isn't quite in a straight north-south line, which other maps suggest it should be). It should probably be just under the BR of 'Stonebridge' on the map.

Although less detailed, a similar layout is indicated in the important (largely because it shows the major roads) map of northwest Allansia in Dungeoneer. Stonebridge is where it should be, but unfortunately the Catfish River is obscured in the crucial stretch where it enters Darkwood, but it looks like it might be indicated branching south from the Red River just above the R of 'Darkwood' on the map, which doesn't seem right at all when we compare it with other maps of the area.

And here's the relevant bit of Brett's map for comparison, which is more or less compatable with the Forest of Doom map, though more detailed, and with a somewhat odd shape to the northern part of the forest:

What both Dungeoneer and the AFF The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (and other later Fighting Fantasy sources, such as the d20 conversions and Dave Holt's various maps of the area) ignore though, is that this area of northwest Allansia is described in the first FF novel, The Trolltooth Wars. On p. 177 of the novel, we read that Chadda Darkmane, Jamut Mantrapper and the Chervah spend some time looking through the telescope at the top of Yaztromo's Tower. Among the sights they view is the area of the road east of Darkwood as it approaches Stonebridge, which is described as follows:
Yaztromo advised them to follow the path between the edge of the forest and the lower reaches of the Moonstone Hills ... The viewing-scope picked out the busy Crossing at the Crossing, where a ferry service would take them across to the north bank. Yaztromo swung the scope westwards to pick out Stonebridge ...
This is interesting, containing as it does a name which doesn't appear elsewhere in Fighting Fantasy and which hasn't been picked up by later authors - the 'Crossing at the Crossing'. But it's not easy to interpret this description, or fit it with the maps we have of the area in the other books. The Forest of Doom map shows bridges over the Catfish and Red Rivers, and it's not immediately apparent that Stonebridge is west of this crossing, even if it was a ferry crossing. So where is the Crossing at the Crossing, and why is it called that?

One option is that there is more than one road in the area, and that one of them runs straight north along the edge of the Moonstone Hills to the point where the Catfish River and Red River diverge, crossing before the two rivers split so that only one river crossing is needed. We can assume, in this case, that a road then runs west to Stonebridge from the north shore of the Red River. And as for why it is called the 'Crossing at the Crossing', might this refer to the two rivers in the area, which appear to rise as two streams in the northern Moonstone Hills, before merging together for a while and then splitting again into the Red River and Catfish River? In a sense, this is almost a crossing of rivers (not very likely in real-world terms, but this is a fantasy world after all). Might this give rise to the notion that the two rivers are crossing each other, and that the Crossing at the Crossing is so named because it crosses the river in the stretch where they are combined (i.e. where they are crossing)? Anyway, that's one idea, I don't know what you think of it. 

Another option is that the Crossing at the Crossing is at the bridge across the Catfish River halfway up Darkwood Forest. It's possible that there's also a ferry service there (or the bridge has been destroyed and replaced by a ferry service). This might also explain the name - there was a crossing (the bridge), but it's now replaced by another crossing (the ferry service), which is known as the 'Crossing at the Crossing' as a result. This would avoid the complication of having two roads and would fit better with the maps, but it doesn't quite square with the description in The Trolltooth Wars. What do you think?

Anyway, once again the novels prove a fruitful source of information on the world of Fighting Fantasy, and I suspect there's plenty more in there that I'll explore at some point. I still think the definitive map of northwest Allansia, spiritual home of Fighting Fantasy, has yet to be drawn, and this is one area it would be nice to see sorted out taking the various sources into account.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The geography of the start of Demonstealer

As you might have worked out by now if you've been following my posts, I like a good geographical conundrum in the world of Fighting Fantasy. The Fighting Fantasy novels are an amazingly rich source of information on the world of Titan (and beyond) which, I think, is rather unexplored by FF fans (myself included), and they provide a number of intriguing geographical puzzles, especially since some of them came without a map. In this post, I want to explore one such conundrum - the geography of Arakel's initial movements in the second Fighting Fantasy novel, Demonstealer.

Let's summarise what we know:
  • The necromancer, Arakel, steals the scroll from Yaztromo's Tower and escapes on the back of a Giant Bat (pp. 20-24).
  • The remains of the Giant Bat are spotted "to the far western side" of Darkwood Forest, and Arakel is seen "limping away towards the Blacksand Road" (p. 33). The Blacksand Road must either be the road running through Mirewater or, more likely, the road running from Chalice to Blacksand, crossing the Catfish River some way west of Darkwood, on the map in Dungeoneer (p. 33).
  • Arakel narrowly escaped Chadda Darkmane at this stage; we are told on p. 147 that "the thief had fled further and further away from Darkwood Forest, narrowly slipping through his pursuer's fingers several times".
  • The next time we see Arakel, he is summoning the 'Skinless Ones' at the stone circle (pp. 34-43). The Skinless Ones take on the bodies of Wolves, but must change their bodies each day (p. 42).
  • The first time they do so is when they butcher the goatherd Ulrich and his grandson (pp. 44-48). I.e. this must have taken place relatively close to the stone circle, as it is within 24 hours of the release of the Skinless ones.
  • When Chadda Darkmane gets to the port of Rimon in Arantis, he had been chasing Arakel for weeks, trailing him to Port Blacksand, where Arakel boarded a fast boat to Rimon (p. 69). Arakel arrived in Rimon 3 days before Darkmane (p. 52).
  • Further information on this chase is given on p. 54; Chadda tells the Chervah that he has been pursuing Arakel for 5 weeks, the last two of which were in a coracle at sea (presumably from Blacksand, chasing Arakel aboard the fast ship (the Crown Runner).
So far, so good, but there is one piece of the puzzle we don't know from all of this: where was the stone circle where Arakel summoned the Skinless Ones? Did he do this before he got to Blacksand, in the three weeks or so before Darkmane pursued him by sea to Rimon? Or did he do it in the short space of time between him arriving in Rimon and Darkmane and Gan catching up with the Skinless Ones there? If he did it before getting to Rimon, we must assume that he parted company from the Skinless Ones (would they have been able to go by ship, needing a new body each day?), and then rejoined them in Rimon (it would be quite a journey for them from northwest Allansia by land). Alternatively, the summoning of the Skinless Ones and their feeding on Ulrich and his grandson must happen in the short period between Arakel arriving in Rimon and Darkmane catching up with the Skinless Ones' lair.

Let's have a look at some more evidence to see if we can come up with any more clues. We learn that Ulrich and his grandson live in an upland, mountainous area, where wolves are driven down from the uplands to prey on their goats during the winter months (pp. 34-35, 46-47). This perhaps suggests a northerly location, rather than the semi-tropical Arantis, but could conceivably be the result of the place being in an upland area further south (and the goats and upland meadows are maybe more suggestive of an Alpine/Mediterranean environment). The name 'Ulrich' (p. 44) also sounds northern rather than the sort of thing someone from Arantis might be called, but I don't suppose we can set too much store on that, as names in Fighting Fantasy can be rather random at times (this is a topic I'll no doubt return to in later posts). Then we have the following description on p. 34, as Arakel is preparing to summon the Skinless Ones from the stone circle: "Storm clouds were gathering in the north, sweeping inexorably down towards the coast". This suggests, though it's not concrete, that there is a coast to the north of the stone circle.

So what are we to make of all of this? If Arakel summoned the Skinless Ones before he left northwest Allansia, there are various places this could be, for example the eastern ends of the Icefinger Mountains (to allow for weather sweeping in from the sea), or the mountainous northern shores of the Desert of Skulls (which definitely does have a coast north of it). If, on the other hand, Arakel summons the Skinless Ones after he arrived in Rimon, the stone circle must lie in the hills and mountains north and east of the city. The first solution would explain why Arakel took three weeks to get from Darkwood to his ship in Blacksand and would also explain the slightly northern feel of the area of the stone circle, but leaves us with the conundrum of how the Skinless Ones also got to Rimon. The second solution leaves unexplained what Arakel was doing for the three weeks between Darkwood and leaving Blacksand, and doesn't fit quite as well with the northern feel of the stone circle area (the mountains north of Rimon are on the edge of the Desert of Skulls; could we expect essentially Alpine conditions there?), but it does avoid the complication of getting the Skinless Ones from northwest Allansia to Rimon, either over the vast Desert of Skulls, or on board a ship, where they would each need a new body per day.
Part of me likes the idea of the stone circle being in northwest Allansia, as I'm a big fan of that area and it's always good to learn more about that part of the world. But I'm not convinced it is. The evidence seems to point towards the area north of Rimon. I mean, when have wolves in northwest Allansia ever waited until the winter months to trouble folk in the lowlands?! The other option, that Ulrich lived on the northern mountainous fringe of the Desert of Skulls doesn't seem quite right either. Why would wolves keep to the uplands in such an uncivilised part of Allansia? And we'd surely expect that to be a desert area, and it would involve Arakel travelling south of Oyster Bay, then back again to Blacksand (though maybe that's what took him three weeks), and then the Skinless Ones travelling down the western fringes of the Desert to Rimon.
Anyway, as you can see, no definitive answer (unless Marc Gascoigne is reading and fancies giving us an insight!). Do any of you have any suggestions or opinions, or is there anything else I've missed?

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Review of The World of Fighting Fantasy's first year

Today it is one year since I started The World of Fighting Fantasy blog, and I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on how it's been. I'd never blogged before, so it's been a new experience for me. Let's have a look at some stats:
  • Number of posts published: 34
  • Total number of visits to the site as of noon today: 11,356
So that's something short of my initial target of a post per week (but see below), and that's a good number of visits to the site, over 200 per week on average. I'm pretty pleased with that, though I'd like to post more (again, see below), and I've got a long way to go before I match the number of visits at, for example, Lloyd of Gamebooks, which is currently getting nearly as many visits in a month as I've got all year!

Let's look at things a little more closely. Here's a graph showing the number of visits per month to the blog:

As you can see, after an initial burst, things fell off quite a bit, largely as a result of few posts from me on the blog, but things have climbed nicely through the year to over a 1000 views a month more recently. I'll have to make sure to produce more posts than I've been doing if I want to keep that going I suspect.

Here's a graph showing the number of visits per post (note that visitors can read posts without clicking on the links to them, which is why the figures are much lower in the following graph):

This graph shows a pretty steady number of visits per post, with some obviously creating more interest than others. A pretty obvious pattern stands out in the graph, one I'm all too aware of, and that's the fact that I produce bursts of posts with significant gaps between them. I could time post releases to get rid of this, but I prefer to let the blog reflect how I actually work and what I'm currently interested in, so I haven't done this. This also relates to the number of posts I've done this year - in 'real life', I have a pretty intense job which frequently spills over into evenings and weekends, so the time I have to post things on the blog is limited and varies according to how busy I am with work.

As for the popularity of posts, here's all of the published posts ranked by popularity:
  • Mike Schley’s Inkle Sorcery! maps (10/11/2013) - 433
  • Where did you say you’re from again? (31/03/2014) - 345
  • The end is near ... (25/01/2014) - 335
  • Another early Fighting Fantasy trilogy? (20/11/2013) - 314
  • Fighting Fantasy solutions (24/11/2013) - 309
  • Where on Titan is Arkand? (27/04/2014) - 301
  • What does YOUR bookshelf say about you? (06/04/2014) - 253
  • The Dungeoneers (23/10/2014) - 241
  • The geography of Scorpion Swamp (30/07/2014) - 235
  • More Fighting Fantasy LEGO (06/08/2014) - 233
  • Gundobad in Khul (24/05/2014) - 23
  • The geography of Ashkar the Magnificent (01/06/2014) - 227
  • Other Fighting Fantasy sub-series (22/11/2013) - 226
  • Fighting Fantasy LEGO! (05/01/2014) - 213
  • More Fighting Fantasy maps – Steve Luxton (11/11/2013) - 210
  • The ‘Stonebridge’ Trilogy? (18/11/2013) - 203
  • Fighting Fantasy SVGs (27/11/2013) - 191
  • Some Fighting Fantasy statistics (14/04/2014) - 185
  • The Allansian Adventurer (30/11/2013) - 170
  • Flaxenmane of Silverton (04/09/2014) - 164
  • The demise of Rebuilding Titan (29/03/2014) - 160
  • Ashkar the Magnificent (28/05/2014) - 147
  • The Ximoran Protectorate and the Council of Seven (03/08/2014) - 132
  • The geography of Hachiman (28/07/2014) - 132
  • Deathtrap Dungeon, the computer game – available to play again! (14/11/2013) - 119
  • Fighting Fantasy Characters in Focus: Beshbalik (12/11/2013) - 109
  • Welcome to The World of Fighting Fantasy (09/11/2013) - 100
  • Various bits of Fighting Fantasy-related news (15/05/2014) - 96
  • Once more unto Deathtrap Dungeon, dear friends, once more (29/03/2014) - 94
  • Transoxalia (16/08/2014) - 90
  • Fighting Fantasy soundtrack (15/11/2013) - 89
  • The Pit has been reopened! (25/11/2013) - 77
  • Out of the Pit II – Beyond the Pit! (13/11/2013) - 68
  • Central northern Khul (27/07/2014) - 51
Well, it's not that easy to work out from that what's popular and what's not, but posts involving adventurers seem to get a lot of interest, as do most of the posts on geographical analysis. Perhaps surprisingly, the two LEGO posts have done well too - I'm not sure how much interest FF fans have in this at all, but it's one of my interests and I'll no doubt return to FF and LEGO soon. Mike Schley has, understandably, proved popular, currently holding the lead by quite some way.

So what does the future hold for The World of Fighting Fantasy? Well, I'm hoping to have a bit more time over the next year to write more posts, but we'll see (and even if I do have time, FF isn't my only hobby). I'm going to aim to produce about one a week, but they may come in bursts as before, and I think I'll leave it like that, as it reflects how I work. I'd like to continue with geographical, historical and political analysis of places in Titan - I've still to finish the Khul series, and I'd like to do a series of posts considering other areas I find most interesting. I've been hoping to do some reviews too, but we'll see, and other ideas include blogging some posts from the perspective of a charcter within Titan (kind of like a travel diary maybe), more 'Characters in Focus' posts, and obviously any FF-related news I come by. Maps I've drawn from the books may also appear.

Anyway, just for now I want to thank everyone who has visited the blog and provided (the very welcome) comments on the posts - I hope the blog is doing what it's meant to do, and is providing some FF fun and interest. Let me know if you have any comments about posts, future ideas, or anything going on in the world of Fighting Fantasy that I should know about. It's a curious thing that, in 2014, Fighting Fantasy is still very much alive, even if new gamebooks appear to have dried up entirely. Let's hope the next year brings even more FF goodness!