I make no secret of my deep and abiding love for Ian Livingstone & Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy books. In the canon of things that make my brain cauldron bubble, FF 1-10 sit prominently alongside the first three Integrity records, Pushead artwork and every issue of 2000AD published between 1982-1993. Scholastic Publishing has recently resurrected the franchise, reissuing the first half a dozen books of the Puffin run and commissioning some new titles. Port of Peril authored by returning OG Ian Livingstone is the first of those new adventures.
To say that Scholastics stewardship of the series has been greeted with a mixed response from the FF fan community is a gross understatement. People tend to get very precious about the sacred cows of their youth, particularly those of us in our mid thirties- late forties who grew up with FF the first go round and I sit right in the middle of that particular demographic. Sure I can get as sensitive and defensive about FF as the next guy but I try not to act entitled and can accept that life moves on, capitalism is a thing and maybe other generations should have the opportunity to sample the things that stirred my own imagination as a child?
So it was with a mix of genuine excitement and a spoonful of cynicism that I tackled Port Of Peril. First impression? Cover art by Robert Ball depicting a gnarly looking Orc seemed a more restrained offering than we’ve seen in the past. This is not the diseased macabre of Ian Miller’s House Of Hell nor the violent dynamism of Les Edward’s Caverns Of The Snow Witch. Ball’s work here is more clean cut and comic book/video game inspired. And even though it’s not exactly my cup of tea, I certainly didn’t hate it. I have read a lot of grumbles about the inner and outer artwork online so I’ll add the caveat that despite my niche interest in the series ‘THIS BOOK IS MARKETED AT KIDS. NOT GROWN MEN WHO USED TO BE KIDS’. Dig it?
A quick read through of the ‘How to play’ blurb and it’s business as usual in terms of game mechanics. If it ain’t broke dont fix it I guess. I was reading this at work, when I really should have been doing something far more
tedious important, so I nicked off to photocopy the adventure sheet on the company dime. In these Scholastic Editions the adventure sheet is at the back of the book. Traditionally the inventory was always located at the front. Not a big deal but seemed like an odd change to make. Whatever.
Upon locating the sheet the first thing I did was go make a copy on the work printer. I ain’t trying to mess up my book by scrawling in it, this isn’t amateur hour. Sadly the designers have used some sort of weird half tone effect on the adventure scroll and it came out looking like a bag of dicks. I won’t pass any comment on the design of the adventure sheet but I’ve included a snapshot below alongside one of the originals. The comments section is open my guys.
Anyway with stats determined, some dice procured (nicked out of the Cluedo box in the staff room), adventure sheet printed, a cup of tea and a few malted Milk biccies, I made my triumphant return to Allansia.
The adventure starts with you bumming around the town of Chalice, a name familiar to any veteran FF head. The introductory text explains that you’re an adventurer that’s all washed up in this town. No loot, nowhere to kip, nothing to eat. Just a broke ass. Fortunately for you, two drunkards drop a treasure map into your hands outside a bar. Naturally you do what anyone who is about that #murderhobolife does; you strap on your sword, quit eating your belt and hit the bricks.
Port Of Peril is a sequel to City Of Thieves and the lore drops come thick and fast as the mission unfolds. Port Of Peril evolves very quickly from nostalgic wilderness adventure in somewhat familiar locations to a sprawling fantasy epic with enormous stakes. That story development was unexpected but didn’t feel forced. The narrative flows well for the most part and the tone is in keeping with the grim world I spent many hours exploring as a kid. There’s plenty of Easter Eggs too, probably to many as Livo seems intent upon shoe horning in just about every notable NPC from the original series. Vermithrax, Nicodemus, Zanbar Bone and many others all turn up and put in a shift. There’s references to missions and locations from the other books scattered liberally throughout. We live in an age where Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic have hammered home the marketable value of an extended universe and it seems Scholastic have picked up on that model of ‘in-game’ advertising. And who can blame them?
On the negative side, there’s a few very obvious flaws that I think should have been apparent at the play testing stage. Everyone knows you can’t max out over your initial statistics but in the first paragraph you are gifted a bonus stamina point that encourages you to do just that. Similarly there’s a narrative disconnect in asking for information about NPC’s that haven’t been previously mentioned in any of the fluff. Stuff like that takes the more aware player out of the moment somewhat and probably should have been caught at an editorial level.
That being said, there is clear development in the narrative craft and the gameplay. Port Of Peril is not an easy book to complete, and Livingstone remains a fiendish and merciless Dungeon Master. It’s chock full of red herrings, ruthless opposition and situations that have to be played to perfection in order to be successful. Over the course of the weekend I had three good cracks at it. Whilst I have gotten a little further each time, I have yet to beat Port Of Peril. And that’s with thirty three years of dungeoneering under my belt. Poor do.
The internal artwork is the real sticking point for many though and can’t escape without comment. Once again I appreciate that the target demographic for this series is not the likes of me but the computer generated artwork feels rushed and a bit soulless. There’s a couple of really great images tucked away in the pages, the undead horde and plague witch are both potentially very cool illustrations. I can’t help but wonder how they might have looked if Corehammer’s very own poison pen Rich Nerdgore had got his claws into them. I think the reason the artwork keeps coming up when discussing these books is because how much of an essential ingredient they were in influencing the original readerships aesthetic tastes. Those rotten zombies, iron cyclops and satanic sacrifices really got a hold of me as a kid and are basically the standard by which I deem things cool or not. Maybe it was easier to get away with stuff in the eighties because the artwork in those old FF books was SICK. We were spoiled by the gnarly pencils of Russ Nicholson and John Blanche’s chaotic genius. It’s a tough act to follow. That said, Scholastic get bonus points for bringing back map master Leo Hartas to contribute the obligatory map at the beginning of the book.
Aesthetics aside, I got pulled into Port Of Peril straight away. I thought maybe it was the novelty of sneakily playing at work (like I used to at school, hiding Deathtrap Dungeon inside a copy of the French language textbook Tricolore) or a heady dose of nostalgia. The truth of it is that, middle aged baggage aside, it’s a really fun book to play. Fun…remember that? The threat escalates in an almost cinematic fashion, there’s loads of pop culture references and movie tropes and it’s violent as hell. Port Of Peril succeeded in dragging me out of my boring 9-5 and back to a wonderful place where I spent many secluded hours as a child and I am very happy to return to as an adult. Big up Livo and Scholastic, Port Of peril may not be perfect but I’m down. A solid 8/10.
And because I will take literally ANY opportunity to post this picture, here’s a photo of me bothering my real dad Ian Livingstone, at a Games Day a few years ago. Look how happy we are together.
If you liked that post there’s plenty more Fighting Fantasy stuff to explore on the blog… check out this interview with You Are The Hero! author Jonathan Green.
Maybe you have no idea what I am waffling on about with all this FF stuff , in which case take a look at my three part basic bitches guide to Fighting Fantasy entitled tales From The Darkwood here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3