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Sunday, 23 June 2013

Fighting Fantasy Undead

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, especially if the things that you love can be brought back. When it comes to being a British gamer of a certain age, there is nothing to be more nostalgic about than the Fighting Fantasy series. Launched in 1982 with the release by Puffin Books of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, co-authored by the founders of Games Workshop, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, this series of “choose your own adventure” books holds a special place in the hearts of British gamers — The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in particular. It would run to some fifty-nine titles in the initial line-up, and in the process, sell millions of copies and popularise the concept of roleplaying, spearheading its presence in bookshops everywhere.

Since 2002, the Fighting Fantasy series has been published by Wizard Books under whose aegis two anniversaries have been celebrated. The first was series’ twenty-fifth anniversary, for which a special hardcover edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published; the second was the thirtieth anniversary, in 2012, for which Blood of the Zombies was released. This is the first Fighting Fantasy title by Ian Livingstone since 2005’s Eye of the Dragon. It brings the series up to date, not just in terms of mechanics, but also terms of subject matter. After all, no threat is as contemporary and in vogue as zombies were in 2012 – and still are in 2013.

In Blood of the Zombies, the hero – as controlled by the reader – can be best described as “field researcher” with an interest in myths and legends, or at least a student of beasts mythological. As this hero, travelling across Europe in search of one beast after another, you find yourself taken captive in Transylvania and imprisoned in Goraya Castle. Its owner, Gingrich Yurr, is an insane megalomaniac who has plans for both you and the others he holds prisoner – that is, to turn you and everyone held captive into a zombie and then unleash the undead horde on the world. Being the resourceful type you have managed to escape, so all that stands between you and the end of the world are four hundred paragraphs of exploring, gathering the weapons and resources necessary to defeat Gingrich Yurr, and holding off one wave of the corpse cortege after another…

To handle the action, Blood of the Zombies presents a stripped set of rules. In the original Fighting Fantasy titles each hero had three statistics – Skill, Stamina, and Luck. The first of these represented a hero’s fighting ability, the second his health, and the last, his good fortune or otherwise as he proceeded through each adventure. In Blood of the Zombies, the hero has a single statistic – Stamina, essentially the number of attacks the hero can withstand before being overcome and killed. Combat is kept simple with the hero always being able to attack first – zombies after all, are notoriously slow; the hero always hitting and inflicting damage, each hit putting down a zombie, so the better the weapon the more zombies it destroys; and when it is the zombies’ turn to attack, the hero loses a point of Stamina for each zombie he faces – so it is a good idea to find the biggest weapon possible as quickly as possible! The reader will also need to note exactly how many zombies he kills in his escape attempt, otherwise the undead are still a threat to both himself and the world.

Creating a character is simply a matter of rolling two six-sided dice – which is all that a player will need along with a pencil – or flicking through the page and randomly stopping on a page, each of which has dice symbols marked between one and six and adding the result to twelve. This is the hero’s beginning Stamina. Besides the dice and pencil, a player will also need scrap paper, although the book does come with a character sheet.

As much as the adventure has a contemporary setting, in true “Grand Guignol” style, Blood of the Zombies takes place in a castle. Well of course, it is set in Transylvania! As the hero, the reader will find himself working his up from the depths – or the dungeons – of the castle to its living areas to face his gaoler, Gingrich Yurr himself! Along the way, he will encounter members of Yurr’s staff, strangeness and oddities, death-traps, and of course, members of the cadaver cavalcade.

Playing Blood of the Zombies is tough! It is not just a matter of collecting the gear necessary to defeat the zombie threat, but one of collecting the right equipment – though of course, the reader never knows ahead of time what exactly he will need. Beyond the decisions as to what to pick up or leave behind, which door to open and which to ignore, and so on, Blood of the Zombies is all about making the right dice rolls. For combat these are primarily high rolls – the higher the roll, the more zombies are wiped out – but the adventure’s design mixes the rolls up so that the reader never knows the outcome ahead of time. The likelihood is that if the reader manages to survive the rigours of escaping from Goraya Castle and its undead hordes, then it will be by the skin of his teeth.

The downside is that if the reader fails on his first time, then having to play through again is more time consuming than challenging. It does not help that there are moments in the adventure where its linear nature becomes apparent – the preponderance of long corridors makes this unavoidable. Thankfully once the reader towards the end, the various scenes and locations seem to come crashing down onto the reader, one after the other, leading to cinematic ending. The character of the hero is something of an 'everyman', an ordinary fellow, who is driven to undertake extraordinary feats in saving the world and more. He is not necessarily a capable fighter as the human opponents he may well face during the course of Blood of the Zombies are more capable than he is. This should be seen as a reflection of his weakened state as much as it is the fact that he is an ordinary man and not the trained fighter that would instead be treading the caves and passageways of Warlock of Firetop Mountain. He can of course, blast zombies away with the best of them… that is, unless his dice rolls let him down.

Throughout, the design and writing in Blood of the Zombies is decent. It is not overly descriptive, but the tension is kept high at the right points, and the few personalities that the hero meets are more than mere bodies waiting for death at the hands of said hero. In addition there are numerous in-jokes scattered throughout the halls of Goraya Castle, though some of them might be a little obscure to younger readers.

Blood of the Zombies is an enjoyably nostalgic trip back both an older style of game and and older style of adventure. It updates the format to provide a contemporary cinematic blast of an adventure and a few tense hours alone...