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Cardboard Children: Blood Of The Zombies

30 Years Of Fighting Fantasy

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Hello youse.

During the week I hunted across Glasgow city centre to find a shop that was stocking the new Fighting Fantasy gamebook “Blood of The Zombies”. I think most places that sell books have cleared out all of their stock to make room for a thousand copies of 50 Shades of Grey. Which is fine. But I wanted to get fucked by dice, not by riding crops, and so was delighted to find a single copy of the book in the Sauchiehall Street Waterstones, in the kids department, where I looked like a paedophile.

DO YOU DARE READ ON?

BLOOD OF THE ZOMBIES

Christian Grey had never played a Fighting Fantasy book before, so he was quite taken with the whole thing when I showed him it over lunch.

“So it’s not a book?” he said.

“It is a book. It’s a game book.”

“That’s very interesting, Ana” he said, and then fixed me with a concerned look. My breath caught in my throat. I knew I was about to be reprimanded for something, and Christian can be very commanding. When he’s angry at me he calls me “Ana”, which is short for “Anal Sex”. I bit my lip and sipped at my water nervously.

“Ana,” he said. “I want you to sign a contract. It forbids you from playing these silly games, and gives me the rights to hit you with a variety of objects and also push some of them up your arse.”

I told him I had to think about it, because I was keen to get home and play Blood of the Zombies at least once. I settled the bill (Christian never pays for lunch, because he finds spending money “unerotic”) and hailed a taxi.

Blood of the Zombies has been released to celebrate 30 YEARS OF FIGHTING FANTASY and that’s a capitalised string of text that makes me feel really old. I’ve spoken about FF before on these pages. In fact, I even spoke about them in PLAYABLE ADVENTURE FORM.

Ian Livingstone’s back with this one, and as he’s the writer of my favourite FF book “City of Thieves”, I was excited just to hold this thing. I was also prepared for it being rock solid hard, because Livingstone is known for dashing the skulls of his readers against the walls for fun, like some deranged escaped gorilla. Livingstone is a powerful man, a major player in the games industry. I like to think that when he has those big power meetings at Eidos, he sends his employees keys with numbers on them. The employees think that the keys unlock a door into the meeting room, but actually it leads them to a room filled with MUTANT RATS. Only if they survive can they listen to Livingstone telling them about sales projections for 2013.

Blood of the Zombies has a modern day setting. And it’s about zombies. And neither of those things are really my cup of tea. I would have liked to have returned to Fighting Fantasy with a wander around a fantasy setting, just for nostalgia’s sake. And I understand why zombies are in there. It’s an attempt to pull in those modern gamers who love zombies. But, my goodness, zombies are all played out. Zombies are finished. The Walking Dead TV show? Awful. The World War Z movie? Well, from what I have heard (INSIDER INFO ALERT) it’s currently in horrible shape. Day Z? Okay, you got me there. Day Z is amazing. But the zombies in Day Z are barely zombies. They’re weird little hopping and crawling men of nightmares.

But then, there were always zombies in Fighting Fantasy books. House of Hell, that masterpiece, had plenty. And I’m sure you encountered a few in the environs of Port Blacksand and such. So I’m going to allow it. Someone tell Ian Livingstone that I’m allowing it. (I met him once. He won’t remember. He was a lovely man.)

MY SPOILER FREE PLAYTHROUGH OF BOTZ

That’s quite funny isn’t it? If we call Blood of the Zombies “BOTZ”. It sounds like the name of some terrible new toy. Plastic robots that dance to chart hits. And it also sounds like bums.

In BOTZ, you have been kidnapped and held prisoner in a castle. That’s the first big relief. While it’s a modern day setting, you don’t have to run around Asda or Tesco or anything. Can you imagine the horror?

“You search desperately for the Walkers Sensations and the salsa dip. You turn up the crisps aisle. There, in front of you, is an ATTRACTIVE ALMOST CERTAINLY LEGAL TEENAGER. She is wearing short shorts and kneehigh socks. She notices you and gives you a smile. You are 35 years old. If you want to pick up two packets of Walkers Sensations like a fat old greedy crisp-eating prick, turn to 176. If you want to smile back and walk straight through the crisp aisle to head off in the direction of the fresh fruit department like a 35 year old hunk MMA fighter looking for healthy smoothie ingredients, turn to 322.”

Yeah, so it’s a castle. That’s nice. I like castles.

The first thing I had to do was generate my character. That meant I had to roll a couple of dice to find out what my STAMINA would be. And then – No, wait. Actually, that was all I had to do. No LUCK or SKILL. Just STAMINA. Much like myself in reality. Then I read the combat rules…

This is a streamlined Fighting Fantasy book. Instead of fighting enemies on a one-on-one basis, you’re dealing with packs of zombies. Most of these zombies have 1 STAMINA and do 1 DAMAGE. In every combat round you roll for whatever weapon you’re using (A crowbar is 1D6) and you kill that many zombies. Then the remaining zombies damage you for 1 STAMINA each. It’s a very simple and fast-paced way of dealing with combat, and fits with the theme of the game. You will mow down a lot of zombies in BOTZ, particularly if you find some of the better weapons. It’s also a combat system that makes the game really deadly. A bad roll can have you overwhelmed by a massive group of zombies, and they will hit you hard. It’s exciting, but very luck heavy.

I missed the LUCK rolls. For me, “TEST YOUR LUCK” is one of the key components of Fighting Fantasy, and I was sad to see that it was gone.

I should also say that, in my first play, I died after about three paragraphs. Ouch. It was a stark reminder that Fighting Fantasy (and particularly Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy) is always happy to boot your arse early doors. To be fair, I had died for doing something STUPID, so the game’s lesson was that I was no superhero in BOTZ. I was a weak, starving man in a castle, with no luck and no skill.

The positives – I love Livingstone’s clean writing style. I always have. He writes perfectly for his young audience, and has a knack for describing horrible things without it seeming distasteful. It feels like a pair of warm, loving hands pushing you off a cliff. The adventure feels very Fighting Fantasy. It’s all hidden doors, and keys hanging from hooks, and crates that you dare not look inside. It also feels like one you could map, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m not saying I am. I’m not saying that I used to make maps of the Forest of Doom on graph paper, okay? So fuck off. Also, Kev Crossley’s art is great throughout. And the cover, by regular Magic: The Gathering stand-out Greg Staples, is a striking thing.

You want to know how I died in my most recent play, right? I died on a staircase, overwhelmed by a pack of 12 roaming zombies. I blasted them with a shotgun before I went down, lamenting the fact that I had used both of my grenades in the sewers under the castle. As they started eating me, I had this thought:

This only works as a book.

I’m convinced of it now. Over the past few years, I’ve downloaded many Fighting Fantasy adaptations in “app” form. I had them on my iPhone and now I have some on my iPad. And I’ve barely touched them. What’s the point? If you want an interactive adventure game, play a video game. Why strip away everything that makes a game book special? My five year old daughter saw me playing BOTZ, and she asked me why I was writing on my new book. I told her that it wasn’t just a book. It’s a game too. And I explained to her that you fight the baddies in the book using dice. And that when you decide what you want your character to do, you turn to a special page that tells you what happens. And she was amazed by this. That novelty still works. There is still a magic in the concept. In fact, the concept might be getting more magical, more special, now that the world is retreating from the printed page.

I think, with a proper push, Fighting Fantasy could still appeal to kids. I think a whole new generation could be won over by them. But you can’t do it digitally. That shit is covered. And kids love books. Kids still love something they can hold.

Fighting Fantasy needs a push. And I hated the fact that I had struggled to find a copy of the book in Glasgow city centre. That’s not going to help get it into new hands. What can we do? Is there anything we can do? Is there anything we can do to push it? Blood of the Zombies, and all those books that came before, deserve to be pushed. They’re still magical.

And, hey, I still dream of writing a FF book some day. I would drop everything tomorrow to do one if I was asked. I’m personally invested in all this. Is there anything we can do?

NEXT WEEK

I may talk to you about Libertalia, if I’m allowed. And we’ll add another game into our list of Some Games. Stay dicey! (It’s growing on me.)

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Robert Florence

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