Ian Livingstone Talks Fighting Fantasy

Words: Gav Squires
Tuesday 12 September 2017
reading time: min, words

To celebrate 35 years of the Fighting Fantasy books, Ian Livingstone came to Central Library to talk about their history and run a workshop on how to write your own adventure.


In 1975, Ian along with Steve Jackson and John Peake stared Games Workshop by selling wooden backgammon boards that had been cut down from bread boards. In order to promote their products, they started printing Owl & Weasel magazine and somehow a copy found its way onto the desk of Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. He sent the fledgling UK company a copy of D&D, they loved it and this was the catalyst. From there, they ordered 6 copies and that led to GW becoming the exclusive European distributers of the game.


To help with expansion, they went to the bank but were turned down for a loan and so Ian and Steve spent six months sleeping in a van while they ran the business from an office at a squash court. The office was so small that one of them would have to leave if a customer came in but it did mean that their squash games got better. By 1978 they were opening their first Games Workshop store in Hammersmith, it is now the Bosnia & Herzegovina Community Advice Centre.


At Games Day in 1980, Penguin approached Ian and Steve to write a book about Dungeons & Dragons. Instead they wrote a synopsis that was actually like D&D but the managing director of Penguin thought the idea of interactive fiction was preposterous and it was passed to Puffin instead. That synopsis eventually became The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, which became the first Fighting Fantasy book in 1982. Puffin wanted friendly covers on the books but Ian and Steve wanted something more violent and used some of the Games Workshop artists instead as they thought that this artwork would be a better way of drawing the reader in. As the books were released in 35 countries in 20 languages, the original British covers were usually used.


Of course not everyone was happy with these new "game books" - the Evangelical Alliance produced an 8-page guide warning against people reading them and a vicar threatened to chain himself to the railings outside the Penguin offices if they didn't stop production. One housewife even claimed that her son had started to levitate after reading one of the books! In 1985 a petition went round trying to get Fighting Fantasy banned but all of this didn't have any impact as more than 20 million books were sold.


These days the books are better understood, children reading is seen as a good thing and it is now recognised that playing games helps develop problem solving skills. There are cognitive benefits and it encourages an evolving understanding. Hence, to celebrate the 35th anniversary a new publisher, Scholastic, have re-printed five of the original titles and a brand new book by Ian, The Port Of Peril. This will be followed up next year with another five reprints and a new book, The Gates Of Death, written by Charlie Higson. But are the books for 10 year olds or for 40 year olds who masquerading as 10 year olds?


Ian still designs all of the books on paper - The Port Of Peril had around 20 pages of mapping featuring a manual flow-chart that included 400 markers. There has to be back and forth between the multiple story strands and a number of pinch-points that each strand comes to in order to divulge important information. The game needs to be balanced but the story itself has to be entertaining, the book shouldn't just be a game to win.


As part of the workshop, Ian give his tips on writing your own Fighting Fantasy story


  1. Give it a good title - the "something" of "something" works pretty well
  2. Don't forget the three key attributes - Skill, Stamina and Luck
  3. Don't go from one paragraph to the next one sequentially
  4. Think about the objectives and consider adding in a twist
  5. Show don't tell
  6. Create creatures that are relevant to their context


Ian says that he writes around 10-20 paragraphs per day of book and he says that "sprinkling rose petals towards quicksand is such a joy". And don't forget, no matter how good a story your write, people will always cheat and there is nothing you can do about the "five finger bookmark"


Ian was speaking at an event organised by Storysmash, who run workshops in creating interactive games.


Storysmash website

Fighting Fantasy website

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