Talking Paper Interview Series: Steve Jackson

Steve Jackson is a London, England-based author and game designer. Along with friend Ian Livingstone, he co-created the Fighting Fantasy series of interactive gamebooks, which were first published by Puffin Books in 1982. Prior to that, the two helped co-found Games Workshop (G. W.) in 1975 from their Shepherd’s Bush flat, dedicated to distributing and manufacturing board games within the UK. Their company newsletter, Owl and Weasel, caught the attention of Gary Gygax, American co-creator of paper and pencil role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Livingstone and Jackson soon negotiated a three-year deal with Gygax’s company, TSR, to be exclusive European distributors of D&D book manuals. The resulting income led to G. W. opening a popular London retail shop in 1978. At the end of their exclusive contract, Livingstone and Jackson turned down a merger offer from TSR, remaining D&D wholesalers, but prompting a search for new income streams. One of those would be Fighting Fantasy, a series whose origins trace to the 1980 incarnation of G. W.’s annual game convention known as Games Day—and a deal cut by Livingstone and Jackson with attending Penguin Books editor, Geraldine Cooke, to create a synopsis for a book about fantasy role-playing games. The project morphed into a pitch for a book-based solo role-playing adventure, incorporating multiple outcomes based on a reader’s choices, and a dice-based fighting system to resolve combat with creatures the readers encountered during their quest. The resulting gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, was published by Penguin’s youth imprint, Puffin, in 1982, and incorporated cover art by Peter Andrew Jones and illustrations by Russ Nicholson. The book’s cover subtitle reads, “An original fantasy adventure in which YOU are the hero!”, immediately setting it apart from traditional literature of the fantasy genre. The Fighting Fantasy series would produce 59 titles over its original run, concluding with 1995’s Curse of the Mummy. Jackson penned Fighting Fantasy gamebooks in a variety of genres, including superhero, science fiction and horror (featuring titles like House of Hell). Jackson also circled back with Geraldine Cooke to pen Sorcery!, a four-part series of fantasy gamebooks aimed at older-age readers, and published by Penguin from 1983-85. The series involved an adventure playing out over four interconnected locales: The Shamutanti Hills, Kharé: Cityport of Traps, The Seven Serpents, and The Crown of Kings. Jackson added a spell-casting system to the existing one for melee combat, allowing a reader to wield magic against foes (and other less-violent uses). The series was later licensed to UK-based digital game company, Inkle, which released updated Apple, Android, and Kindle incarnations of the first two Sorcery! gamebooks in 2013 and 2014. These proved to be faithful adaptations, incorporating richly detailed 3D maps and black and white character illustrations within a text-driven game that featured an accompanying soundtrack and atmospheric sound effects. Forty-eight spells were at player fingertips, but sword-and-claw duels were no longer resolved with a physical roll of the dice – and the outcomes of player attack and defense decisions were accompanied by blow-by-blow text descriptions of hits and misses. However, Kharé does give adventurers ample opportunity to play the city’s favorite dice game of lies and deceit, “Swindlestones.” In advance of Inkle’s release of The Seven Serpents, I interviewed Jackson by phone from his London home about Fighting Fantasy, Sorcery!, its digital adaptations, and what influenced Jackson’s literary approach.

On the Roots of Fighting Fantasy Books

Games Workshop ran an event called Games Day, which was an exhibition of all sorts of games: abstract games, war games, table-top games, role-playing games, board games—you name it, we covered it. 1980, Penguin Books took a stall at Games Day to sell a book that they’d just published called, Playing Politics. This was quite a dry book of after-dinner games, which involved people standing up and everybody else having to vote for them. Not exactly fun as an after-dinner game, but some interesting ideas. So we happened to be wandering around, and Geraldine Cooke was the editor for Penguin of the book. We were asking how the exhibition was going, and she said, “Well, it’s probably not the right place for this particular book.” I said, “Well, you should be doing a book on role-playing games. You can see the whole place is full of people playing role-playing games.” She said, “Well, I don’t know anything about them. How about doing a manual on how to do it? ‘These are the games, these are the miniatures, these are the scenarios for the games ...’” Anyway, we were quite interested in doing a book for Penguin, because they were a huge publisher. So what happened was, we took it home and started to work on it. After about three weeks, we’d decided against the idea of a manual, because it seemed to be pretty dry and a bit dull to do. When we were thinking about how in the manual we could explain how a role-playing game works, we thought we’d do it by playing a little solo role-playing game across the pages of the book. And the more we thought about this, the more it seemed a lot more interesting than just a manual. So we took all the interactive bits, and put it together in a package, and took it in to see Geraldine. Of course, she didn’t know what to make of it. She was expecting to see this “how to play Dungeons & Dragons” book. What she got back was an adventure which was interactive, and you had to have dice, and a pencil and paper to play the game. But she did know somebody who had just been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons. They read through it and said, “Oh, you gotta get this. This is Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a big craze.”

So she came back and said, “I really like the idea. I just need to sell it to the people upstairs.” And she couldn’t do that. When she took it upstairs to the people, Peter Mayer, who was the CEO of Penguin Books at the time, apparently burst out laughing when he read the manuscript to it. He didn’t take it seriously at all. It was only Geraldine’s persistence, really, over the months talking to different people, and trying to get them interested in the whole idea of interactive gaming. Eventually, she found somebody who would do it, in the form of Puffin Books, which was the junior imprint for Penguin. Philippa Dickinson was one of the assistant editors there, and she had a brother who’d just got into Dungeons & Dragons, so she thought it was wonderful. It was really between the two of them pushing it through. It was at the time The Magic Quest—Not a particularly inspired title, but it was a working title.

It started to take form, and the more we thought about it, we got quite excited. Because although people had done similar things before, the gaming side had never been expanded upon so much as in this. Normally in choose-your-own-adventure games, for example, they just gave you a couple of pages, and then a choice of alternatives to progress from there. Ours was a lot more intricate, because we’d been brought up on Dungeons & Dragons, and that was just what we were used to.

When we finally got the okay from Penguin to go ahead and do it, we were all very excited. But how was it best to approach the design of the game book? So what we decided we’d do is that Ian would do the first half of the game, which was from the entrance to Firetop Mountain to a river that ran through it. Then I’d take on the last part of the game, which was over the river, a few more encounters, getting through to the warlock himself, and solving the final puzzle that meant success or failure. So that’s what we did for a bit. Actually, if I’m honest, we didn’t do a lot of collaboration. He was writing his bits at home, and I was writing my bits at home, and then we’d put them together. We had our doubts about it, and this was brought up by Philippa Dickinson, who was going to be the editor for the book. She said, “It’s a really nice idea, and I like the whole concept. But you do get the feeling that when you get to the river, suddenly the whole style of writing is completely different. For example, the first part is more economical with words, and the paragraphs were shorter than the second half. There were lots of encounters, rather than a few.” And this was quite right. Ian had gone for quantity. That when you came across a creature, you fought it and won, and then you got the treasure or some secret that the creature was holding. But there were lots of different encounter rooms. Whereas mine, the second half, there were a lot more things to do within one encounter. The idea was to fox the reader, you see, so it wasn’t sort of obvious what you had to do. Yes, there were less encounters, but more that you could choose from within those encounters. The other thing that we had is that we knew that there was going to be a combat system, and we’d agreed that we’ve got to use a couple of six-sided dice for this. But we never settled on how the combat system worked. For example, Ian had written in the combat system with strength and health, or something like that, as being the skill and stamina that I’d used. So this was another thing for Philippa Dickinson to sort out with us. But the terms of combat were different in the two halves. A bit of a disaster, really, and we had to do something about it. We’d just spent six months writing this thing, and we put a lot of effort into it, and it was a bit of a downer. But she was quite right. We looked at each other, and eventually I volunteered, “Okay, look, I’ll go through your bits and expand them. If I go through your bits in my style, that will solve one problem. And if I do that, then we’ll just stick with my system.” There was nothing between the combat systems, really. I think Ian had simultaneous combat, and mine was turn-based.

On the Art of Russ Nicholson and Peter Andrew Jones

Russ Nicholson’s fine-detailed illustrations were just perfect. He was a contract. Some of the odd contracts that we had came from White Dwarf, because we were publishing White Dwarf magazine. Some of them came from Penguin Books. I remember the Peter Jones cover, he was a contract through Penguin Books who’d done some science fiction covers for them before. Russ Nicholson came from White Dwarf, and we tried a few different artists to see who could do this. It was quite a big job, because it was a lot of black & white illustrations to do, and it had to be done quite quickly as well. Russ Nicholson was available, and really liked the idea of the whole thing. So we let him go with it, and he did a fantastic job.

We were not writing these books for eight-year-old kids or anything like that. We were writing them in the style of Dungeons & Dragons for the Dungeons & Dragons audience. So we were not that bothered about crossing barriers, and that sort of thing. Let’s say with the art, the only one where that did come in was in House of Hell, which is a sort of 1950s Hammer horror film-type adventure. In the cellar of this mansion, there was a black magic ritual going on with everybody wearing goat heads, evil stuff. There was a woman on an altar about to be sacrificed. There’s a tiny bit of nipple showing. So Penguin spotted that and they go, “Oh, we’re selling these to school kids at school bookshops and things. We have to edit that out.” It wasn’t a big job to edit it out, but it was kind of disappointing.

Peter Jones did the first cover, and he did quite a few covers for us, actually. He did Starship Traveller, which was the fourth one in the series. That was a science fiction one. Talisman of Death was one of his. Quite a few he did. It’s because his style was interesting. What he’d done with Warlock of Firetop Mountain is that it had to be done really quickly, because another artist had been nominated for it and then they weren’t up to scratch on it. So it was a bit of a panic about getting somebody who could work quickly and get it done. Peter Jones delivered this piece of art for Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and Penguin all sort of gasped about this. Because the tradition is that you have the title, and you have the author’s name along the top of the front cover. That’s because when they’re stacked in bookshops face out, that’s the first thing that you can see, especially if they’re on tiered shelving. You can see the writer’s name and the title. And what he’d done is he’d left room for the title and the author’s name right in the middle. So that blew all the marketing rules that Penguin had sort of set up, but there was no time to change it now. It’s funny, because that’s how it came about, and probably with more time they might have persuaded him to do it a different way or sent it back. There was no time, so we had to take it, and I think it looks absolutely fine. But I do appreciate that the marketing department might not like it. How much difference it would make, I don’t know. But the thing was that when other publishers started copying the gamebook format, they thought there must have been something magical about the way that the cover’s laid out, and they all started laying them out with the titles across the middle.

On the Creation of Sorcery!

Poor old Geraldine, we felt a bit sorry for her. Because she discovered us, and she’d really mounted this campaign to get Fighting Fantasy published, and it got through in the end. But it was decided that Puffin, the children’s imprint, would publish and not Penguin. That was mainly because Puffin had the school book clubs. You know, these things where get a pamphlet with different books, and the kids all check the box of the ones that they want to buy in school. Then they all arrive a month later, or something. So because of that, and because that was quite successful, they thought they could sell at least 10,000 copies going through the school book clubs. But it left poor Geraldine with nothing for all her efforts. I said to her, “Don’t worry Geraldine, I’ll write something for you that’s a bit more adult, and you could publish it under Penguin, instead of Puffin.” That’s what happened. Probably not a great idea from a commercial point of view. It was good, because Geraldine got her series out of it. But the thing about Sorcery! is that it was kind of separated from the [Fighting Fantasy] series because it was a larger format book, and it was published by Penguin rather than Puffin. So there was a bit of confusion about it. Didn’t really do any harm, actually. I think it all worked out fine in the end. But Sorcery! was a bit more involved. There was a magic spell system. You were a wizard or an adventurer. You could be either of the two. You could either do traditional combat to get through the adventure, or you had a spell book, which at one time was published separately. It was a really nice piece. It was a leather-bound cover—well, mock leather-bound cover—and all the spells listed. You had to memorize spells before you started the adventure. There were three-letter codes, which kind of gave you a hint as to what the spell did. So it was making it a little bit easier to remember them. Things like “DOZ” sends your enemy to sleep. There was another one that was “RAZ,” and that was with some particular beeswax-type stuff. You rubbed it on your blade, and it made it extra efficient. But you did have to learn these to play the adventure. So it was more complicated than the original Fighting Fantasy or The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Actually, we found that the readers preferred them to be more difficult. Because there was a certain kudos, particularly in school playgrounds, between the kids who had got the book as soon as they saw it and worked their way through it, and they’d written down the one true way that they’d found of how you achieved the goal of the quest. If you were the first to do it in a classroom, apparently, you had a kind of legendary status.

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You’d go through different terrains. So the first one is cross some hills, then you go through this bustling city, then there’s a swamplands, and then there was the citadel at the end that you had to scale. There were just four different settings, equivalent to the settings you got in role-playing games. There were slightly different things happening in each one, and the creatures that you came across and the people that you spoke to. But I got kind of carried away with it, really. When you’re doing a series of books—well, this is the way I interpret it anyway—the first one comes out, and everybody tries it, and hopefully they like it and they’ll buy the second one. Well, the second one, I think, has got to be more impressive than the first one, because you’re asking people to buy into a series. The same with the third. The fourth has got to be a real killer, so that people keep up with the whole series. The reference count on each of the four Sorcery! books kept on going up and up and up. And the final one, I just kind of went mad on that, really. I did 800 references, which is about twice the length of a normal Fighting Fantasy book. It took forever to write, and it was also very complicated because of the spells that you’d picked up along the way, the artifacts that made the spells work, what they would do, and what would happen with some things that you would have found in Book 2 that you can use in Book 3, but not in Book 2. Just keeping count on the whole thing, I had a huge piece of paper on my study wall with all the different spells and artifacts and things up, and highlighted pens about where they’re being used. But I think it works. I’ve had no complaints.

I’m supposed to say I much prefer paper and pencils and the old media and that kind of thing, because it’s where I was grounded. But, in fact, I couldn’t do without computers now. I mean, although people think that we used a special program that linked all the different bits together, it doesn’t exist. It was all done just by trial and error, really. When I was writing the books originally, it was that old image of an author, looking at the typewriter, typing a few things, pulling the paper out, screwing it up, and throwing it in the bin. That was me. And now you don’t have to do that anymore. Now you’ve got word processors that will cut out all that. You only have one draft of the book, and it makes life so much easier.

On Inkle’s Version of Sorcery!

They got in touch with me because they wanted to produce interactive fiction-based adventures, but as apps. There’s a company that already have the rights to the main series, Warlock of Firetop Mountain and all those, but Sorcery! was still available. It’s always been considered a sort of side-branch of Fighting Fantasy, so it’s sort of licensed to people differently. They said they were really keen on doing Sorcery!, and I said to them, “Well, how do you think you would do it, because we’ve got these people who are doing Fighting Fantasy. We’d have to be a bit different from that, wouldn’t we?” They said, “Well, we’re going to ask you about that. What do you think is the most important part about it? Do you think that we should keep true to the book, so that you read a paragraph and you have the same choices, use the accelerometer as a dice-rolling system? Or do you think it should be something different?” My take on this was always, “Well, these books were written in the ‘80s. A lot has moved on from then. There were hardly any personal computers in the ‘80s, and now everybody’s got them. We’ve got to keep up with the times.” So they said, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “Well, the combat system, rolling dice and keeping records with a pencil & paper is just not the way to do it.” I don’t think it’s particularly interesting rolling the dice. The trouble with rolling dice is that when you’re playing games face-to-face with opponents, you’re touching the dice, you’re rolling them through your fingers, you feel psychologically that you’ve got some kind of influence on them. When you shake an iPhone up and you see the images of dice rattling around, it's not quite the same. I mean, you don’t feel the same emotional attachment to them.

They came up with the map. They got an artist in to draw a map. One of the things that we’d been discussing about Sorcery! is that way back in the day, people didn’t like to admit it, but they always cheated to get through the adventures. When you come across an encounter and you lose, you turn to the page that says, “Your Adventure Is Over.” Well, you take it back a couple of references, and try a different direction. Because after investing all that time, you don’t want to have completely gone to pot. So what do we do about that? Do we allow people to go back? Do we produce little fingers or something that stick in? It was their system that they came out with. It was a rewind system, basically, on the map. If you got to a place that you didn’t want to go to, you could flip out to the map and then rewind your adventure, and set off in a different direction. I think that was a really good way of doing it, because you would waste some time in doing it. But it still avoided that frustration that I’m sure you must have got in the books, when you spend an hour-and-a-half going through this adventure, turn over to 370, and your adventure ends here, and oh my god. So that was a good one—the combat system and the spell system they did. The spell system, it’s a combination of three letters that go together to make the magic spell, which you have to memorize. With the combat system—it was an interesting one—you’d have to set what sort of force of blow that you were intending in that attack round to deal out to your opponents. They’d pick a setting as well. Then you watch a slide mechanism as you watch the battle unfold. And when [The Shamutanti Hills] first came out, which was May 2013, the people who were reviewing the game picked out those features as worthy of special mention. “We all remember Sorcery! way back in the day. But look, it’s been brought up into the 21st century, and look at this combat system. It looks really nice. A beautiful map.” So all of these features were picked out by reviewers, and it ended up getting quite a long review, because there was such a lot to write about. So I think we made the right decision.

The minor criticism that came from the first adventure was that it was quite short. This had never really occurred to us, because it was following the book. But actually, yes, you do have to arrange adventures according to the medium, and digital medium is calling out for longer adventures. So with the second volume, Kharé, there was an awful lot of extra commentary that was put into that—a lot of it by Jon Ingold, who is one of the founders of Inkle. When Book 2 came out, it was quite a bit longer than the original Book 2, and I think it was a really successful feature. People liked to see the new areas and the new characters.

On Fighting Fantasy’s Influences

The two major influences were [J. R. R.] Tolkien’s world, for a more sort of dark fantasy—a more adult fantasy, really—and Dungeons & Dragons. I guess the thing about those two were that they took fantasy, the world of goblins and dwarfs and things, and took it seriously. It was written for older teenagers and adults: Dungeons & Dragons the game, Lord of the Rings the book. That was our background, really. I think three years before, I’d just read Lord of the Rings for the first time, and it was the best book I’d ever read. Then we’d met the guys who produced Dungeons & Dragons, and we were promoting it in the UK. So that’s where the background all comes from.

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Gary [Gygax] was quite a charismatic character. At one time, TSR, the [Dungeons & Dragons] publishers, were interested in a sort of a merger between us as Games Workshop and them as TSR Hobbies. And it never happened in the end, for one reason or another. But life would have been so different then. I think one of the things is that we liked to spread it about. We had a publishing side, we did White Dwarf, we published games, we manufactured the miniatures, we did the events and a Games Day, and we had retail shops. We wanted to be jack-of-all-trades. And they of course, having Dungeons & Dragons, that’s all they were interested in. We wanted to go on to publish our own games as well. That’s one of the things that came from it. In the very early days, this was just being in the right place at the right time, really. In 1975, when Games Workshop started, the reason it got its name is because our business was mainly in wooden games. There was a third member of the company, John Peake, who was a craftsman. He’d been to Greece, and come back with a backgammon board, and he copied it exactly with all of the inlays and things like that—fantastic job. We thought this would be something that we could sell to shops. Ian was on the marketing side at the time, so he went off and sold them to Harrods, and sold them to Just Games and a few other places. Most of our income came from those wooden games. But then Dungeons & Dragons arrived, and the universe changed and would never be the same again. John, well, he was never interested in Dungeons & Dragons, and adults playing fairytales as far as he was concerned. He could see the way that the business was going, because this was a hobby that was about to break it big, and he just had no interest in it. So he left.

On Adapting Gamebooks to Cinema

The thing about taking it to films is that it’s very difficult to do. And I know at the time, if you look back in the ‘80s, we have a number of film producers and TV producers that got in touch and said, “Well, you know, you can see that this is really popular. Can we do something with it?” The problem always was that, “How do you do the interactive side in a linear format?” TV and movies are a linear format. It tells a story. It doesn’t give you options. That’s what computers can do. That was always the stumbling block, but nobody managed to find a way around it. I mean, people have done adaptations, but not so much as films. There was a guy a couple years ago who was convinced he was going to be able to raise a substantial amount of cash to do a House of Hell movie. Nothing came of it in the end. It was quite exciting. But I still couldn’t see—and he couldn’t explain to me clearly—how the interactive side of things was going to work. I think he was considering that what you could do is have your audience with selection buttons, like remote controls that they could pick whether to turn left, turn right. It never would have worked. 

Interview by Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.