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!


  1. It could be as mundane an occurrence as a forest fire that, when it was finally put out, resulted in the remaining forest being doughnut-shaped and the people (for various reasons) didn't allow the remaining vegetation to grow back to forest proportions.

    As to the cause of such a forest fire... that could make an interesting adventure, couldn't it? ;)

    1. Seems not unreasonable (could it have been the result of Malbordus burning sown Caeranos?). Or maybe someone's cut it down. It's been there a while, as the hunter you meet says "the best game in all the northern borderlands can be found on this grassy plain within Darkwood Forest" (para. 194).

  2. Ian Livingstone seems to like to insert references to other sections within the Forest.
    For example, when you wake up in 298 you can hear wolves howling, but the wolves are actually to the west in 330 (and possibly the wolfman)
    When you meet up with the hunter who talks about hunting game in the plains within Darkwood, he mentions he was pursuing a boar but lost it when his hounds caught the scent of a fox. If you came from the other direction you might have fought that boar as it ran away.
    Right at the beginning of the adventure you might happen upon a Crow who will offer you advice for 1 gold piece. If you ask why he needs gold he reveals that he's been turned into a crow and Yaztromo wants 30 gold to turn it back into a human... which is exactly the sort of transformation that Yaztromo will do to the reader if they are foolish enough to attack at the beginning.

    Which brings up several questions that perhaps Ian was testing out for reference later on. Who is the Crow? Who are the unfortunate adventurers who died in 217? etc...

    Given the idea that Ian might have been referencing things, there is an idea within the book that makes me wonder if the theory of a forest fire might be correct.

    Dwarves live in this area and we know from Titan that they build large underground cities. We can venture underground in a very small section of Darkwood only to be confronted with a host of mind controlled clone warriors led by a Fire Demon. Given what happens to the reader if they try wearing the Fire Demon's crown...

    It's quite possible that the dwarves used to live in the hills under Darkwood, and that some fight with possible Firey Demonic forces happened. In this case the trees of Darkwood might even be viewed as an attempt to contain the evil within it.

    1. Yes, there are some nice intra-textual links in there for sure; it really helps to make Darkwood 'Forest' seem alove (and a slightly busy place!).

      Some good questions and ideas too. We know from Titan that there are large natural caverns under the forest which, colonised by the Darkside Elves, but doubtless known to Dwarves too.

  3. I'm not sure about the doughnut, I like to think of the forest as a solid kind of thing :-)

    Forest of Doom has a special place in my heart as it was my first FF book. I encountered it on the book rack in the general supplies store in a small Australian holiday town in 1984. Alongside it were WoFM and Citadel of Chaos. I chose FoD because of the cover. I love the forest setting, in this book as well as in others such as Shamutanti Hills. True the gameplay is not the greatest, but it's a fun and evocative gamebook.

  4. I dunno... after the comments by the book that the interior of the forest is a circle of trees, and the Hunter confirming that it's got plains in the interior I think there's really no doubt about the doughnut. Though I doubt it's uniform because of the rocky gorge on the west side where someone decided to stick a sword in a stone.

    Heh. Demons of the Deep was my first book. Picked it up on a complete whim from an airport bookstore just before flying to the other side of the world when I was really young. I still have the book but it's gotten really beaten up over the years.

  5. Yes, I just checked my copy and it seems you are right. There is definitely a great big area of open plains and hills within the forest. Perhaps it's like some of the "forests" in England like the New Forest which are designated forests for historical reasons but in actuality are made up of a patchwork of vegetation types.

    1. Aye, there's no getting away from it, FoD describes Darkwood as having a circular plain in the middle of it (though it's not uniform, having hills and gorges in it as you say). The New Forest case isn't quite the same though; these 'forests' in England are called forests for historical reasons, even though they now often have lots of open ground in them as a result of deforestation in recent centuries.

  6. So cool! I haven't notice this when I read.

    I even DM some adventures within, and was mostly all trees everywhere.