Cardboard Children – Return to Port Blacksand

Hello youse.

My ma died on Friday night just past, but instead of curling up into a ball and rolling into a hole at the bottom of my garden I’m going to talk to you all a little bit about games, because I love to do that. The death of a parent is a difficult thing to process, but I find that it helps to keep talking and reminiscing. And we’ve done a lot of reminiscing in this column over the years, so I’d like to do a little bit more of that today, while I’m among friends. I appreciate your patience.

My ma was always very supportive of my interests, and it’s doubtful that I would have ever become a writer without that support. As a child, I was always reading. Always. My ma had taught me to read at a very early age, and it was a thing she was very proud of. I’m told that as a toddler she’d ask me to read things out from the newspaper to impress the aunts and uncles. But as I moved through childhood the things I wanted to read were things that weren’t exactly appropriate. I read my first Stephen King novel at 7 years old (The Dead Zone, so beautiful) and I tried to keep it hidden from my ma – sneaking away into my sister’s room to leaf through it. I’d check for words I didn’t understand in a big blue dictionary. In truth, my ma knew what I was doing, and more Stephen King books would show up in the house. I loved those books, loved horror, loved frightening myself – and my ma was happy to see me explore all that.

My ma bought me my first ever Fighting Fantasy gamebook in 1984, right in that period when I was reading adult horror. It was House of Hell, by Steve Jackson, and I think it was an attempt by my ma to move me towards something more appropriate but still in keeping with my interests. It was a book, it was scary, but it was also a game. It also allowed me to make maps, which is something else my ma knew I enjoyed doing. Some of my younger readers might be surprised to learn that computer gamers from three decades ago used to make pencil and paper maps of their favourite games, to help them to navigate. Yes, back then, game worlds weren’t always structured in a straight line. Back then you could get lost.

House of Hell was a revelation. I had no idea that a story could be a game, or that a game could tell that kind of story. I was fascinated by the fact that I kept dying at the end. I’d read and re-read, fight the same monsters over and over, take different routes – always, I’d die. I’d rolled dice during games of Snakes & Ladders before, during games of Ludo, but here I was rolling dice to see if I lived or died in the House of Hell. Never had I felt dice carry so much weight.

My pocket money didn’t quite cover the amount of Fighting Fantasy books I wanted. I was hammering through those things. My ma removed them from the pocket money equation entirely. She’d buy me them. If I read them, beat them (I’d occasionally have to lie about beating them), she’d get me another.

I’ve said this before, but City of Thieves changed my life. It’s a Fighting Fantasy gamebook set in the streets of Port Blacksand, written by Ian Livingstone and illustrated by the great Iain McCaig. Stephen King novels sparked my love of dialogue, but it was City of Thieves that made me fall in love with the world-building aspect of writing. I mapped Port Blacksand and wrote little backstories for the characters who lived there. I would go to sleep at night and dream about the place. I’d bore my ma with my adventures there. She’d listen. She’d always listen.

I distinctly remember reading City of Thieves on a beautiful summer’s day in Glasgow. In the morning, in my childhood home, the sunshine would hit the back of the house. So a day in the sunshine would have you start out back. I’d arrive in Port Blacksand in the early morning, in my back garden. Lying on the grass. My ma would be at the kitchen window, keeping an eye on me. I can see her standing there right now.

By the afternoon I’m on a seat in our big side garden, my back to the sun, fighting off living plants as I try to pick a lotus flower from Port Blacksand’s public gardens. I need them to kill Zanbar Bone, the necromancer. My da is weeding the garden behind me, fighting plants of his own.

By evening, I’m in my front garden, the sun low. There’s music playing. It’s Heartbreaker by Dionne Warwick. I’ve just met a beautiful vampire woman in Zanbar Bone’s tower. These books are formative. I’ll have a thing for beautiful vampire women for the rest of my life. My sisters are lying on the grass, and my ma is having her first wee whiskey of the night. Ah, she was a cracking wee wummin.

And I’m reading. Reading, but playing. And learning to write as I play. Thanks, ma. A neat trick.

So what is this? It’s a recommendation for you to go and pick up some Fighting Fantasy books. Yes, let’s call it that. Play them yourself, give them to your kids, go on some adventures together. Defeat the Snow Witch. Find your way through the Forest of Doom. Battle for fuel on the Freeway. There is nothing else like those beautiful books, those lifesavers.

When I hit a difficult point in my life, I tend to pick those books back up and play through them all over again. It’s always feels like going back home, back then.

Let’s all go, back to Port Blacksand. We can all make a map.

I feel like I need a map right now.

70 Comments

  1. davorable says:

    Sorry for your loss, she sounds like a wonderful woman. May she R.I.P.

  2. wyrm4701 says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your ma. Thanks for taking the time to remind me how much I loved these FF books, and good luck.

  3. amateurviking says:

    My local library (not too far from you I imagine, Milton of Campsie) had a handful of Fighting Fantasy books, I used to scour the shelves in case the librarian had misfiled one I hadn’t read. Robot Commando is the one that stuck with me though. The cover art (A big mech punching a T-rex) was…yeah.

    Sorry for your loss Rab.

  4. Doc Revelator says:

    Thank you for this; a wonderful piece borne of intense loss. There are no words that can offer comfort for you at such a quietly desperate time, especially from a stranger, but you’re using what she gave you to produce some superb and incisive writing for the rest of us. Bless you.

  5. Arathain says:

    When I walk the hard road you’re on, I hope a good few years from now, may I keep such graceful memories to walk with me.

    So much heart went into the Fighting Fantasy books. They formed my idea of what an adventure really was, and nothing has ever lived up.

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Damn. That sucks. Our thoughts are with you.

    For what it’s worth, your ma raised one hell of a son and an amazing journalist. Obviously I didn’t know her, but I’m sure she’d be proud of this tribute.

  7. uranium8 says:

    Really nice bit of writing, Rab. Livingstone and Jackson were big part of my childhood. I’d almost forgotten. Thanks for the reminder. Love will win. x

  8. Easy says:

    :( sad for your loss, Rab.

  9. AriochRN says:

    Commiserations.

    The FF books are a happy early teens memory, Starship Traveller being my favourite. I’ve quite enjoyed some of the digital versions over the past few years, but nothing really compares to the physicality of page flipping. I recommend the DestinyQuest trilogy by Michael J Ward, they’re a modern take on the old FF books (and each as thick as a telephone directory) and the storytelling is quality.

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    teije says:

    She’s being well remembered in your writing. As a parent, just hope I can help my kids grow up having the freedom to engage in their passions like she did with you.

  11. X_kot says:

    Thank you for sharing that, Rab; please take care of yourself while you grieve. We’ll be here for you.

  12. Lodin says:

    Lovely article about lovely games and what seems like a lovely woman.
    It might be worth mentioning that Tin Man Games have ported a bunch of the FF series to mobiles and some have even showed up on Steam. While they are pricey they’re also very good “ports”. I never actually played any of them as a kid but got into them a few years ago.
    link to tinmangames.com.au

    The Lone Wolf series is also available for free on Android if anyone remembers them.

  13. Shazbut says:

    Very sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you.

    House of Hell is the most terrifying book I’ve ever read.

    I would buy these books so hard if I could ever find them for sale. I mean… where? I live in London too

    • Jorum says:

      EBay is the place. Over past year I’ve been slowly recreating my childhood collection and those I missed first time.

      • jingies says:

        There are quite a few available on amazon in the second hand bit. A lot of them the magic £0.01 (plus £2.80 postage).

  14. mgardner says:

    Hold on to those memories of your ma, they will be yours forever. Thanks for sharing, and very sorry for your loss.

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    municipalis says:

    I saw the title of this post and my eyes lit up. I too was a big FF fan as a kid, and City of Thieves was one of my favourites (others being Seas of Blood – you get to play a pirate!; and the enigmatic, impossible-to-beat Creature of Havoc).

    But the true jewel in my collection was Blacksand!, an “Advanced Fighting Fantasy Book” which tried to adapt the FF system to tabletop RPG format. I never actually played the scenario, so I have no idea if it’s any fun (probably not), but the book contains a detailed map of Port Blacksand, including smaller neighbourhood maps and an extensive list of stores, taverns, and other locales of interest, along with descriptions of taxes, the legal system, etc. There’s also a whole section on rolling your own village/town/city. And to top it off there’s tons of beautiful illustrations! My copy is all tattered to hell, as I still pick it off the shelf occasionally to wander its majestic streets.

    • Jorum says:

      I too lovd city of thieves and Blacksand remains one of my favourite things. Most beautifully detailed map of a city I’ve come across (maybe most detailed ever published?). It’s one of those formative things in my mental furniture.

  16. zeep says:

    My condolences for your loss.

  17. njursten says:

    Aaw! Lots of love!

  18. merbert says:

    To Mrs Florence : May you rest in peace.

    Thank you for the gift you gave your son and the influence it had on him, as it went on to inspire and influence me in so many ways…and I’ve never even met him. (I will gladly tell you how you have influenced me and changed my life as a result when we do finally get to meet one of these fine days Rab)

    To Rab Florence : Thank you for what you do…. and how you’ve opened up whole new worlds to me.

    I’d like to echo the sentiments of Arathain, teije and X-Kot. Very nicely worded Gents (or ladies, as the case may be).

    Your top 50 Board Games videos from last year showed you have an amazing understanding and connection with your daughter Hope. Clearly, this is your Mums legacy to you both.

    Thoughts are with you during the days, weeks and months ahead Rab, and thank you for being strong enough to come on here and share your difficult times (and wonderful memories) with us so soon after, that was very cool of you.

    Respect.

  19. Kefren says:

    I have and love all those books. FF5 was my favourite too. So much that when I fell in love with a girl who lived behind my house but was too shy to speak to I would sit in my wide bedroom window ledge and write my own FF book, set in Port Blacksand. 500 entries. Probably all crap but lovingly crafted. I should dig it out. I ended up going out with the girl. And becoming a writer. Mums are great. Those that encourage reading doubly so. Losing a parent punches a hole in your life.

  20. Henneth says:

    Sorry for your loss Rab; she sounds like a fantastic lady.

    What a great piece of writing. I bought a reprint set of the first 10 FF books a while back and this has made me decide to sit down with my daughter and read them together. Thank you.

    She’s about the same age I was when I first discovered ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’. Adventure awaits…

  21. Xantonze says:

    Sorry for your loss Rab.

    I played lots the Lone Wolf books when I was a child, but can’t seem to remember anything except cheating like crazy and STILL not managing to win. Life in a nutshell.

  22. Blackcompany says:

    Sorry for your loss, Robert. Truly.

    I hope writing this helped in some small way to diminish your pain or to celebrate your Mother’s life. She sounds like a fantastic woman, and I am certain this column is something she would have wanted you to do. You honor her and all she did for you.

    Keep doing what you love, and thanks for being here. Not just in this difficult time, but every time.

  23. RuySan says:

    Very sorry for your loss. That was a very touching story, that also resonated a lot with my youth.

    City of thieves was my first ff book, and it’s still my favourite. I also like to play those when I want to feel more connected to home.

  24. Universal Hamster says:

    Thank you so much for writing this Rab, it brought tears to my eyes and reminded me there are people in my life I really need to hug.

    Love.

  25. thekelvingreen says:

    That’s not too far from my own experience, Rab. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I bought a copy of City of Thieves last week for a friend recovering from surgery. She’s just become a British citizen and is of the right age to have grown up with Fighting Fantasy, but because she came here later in life she missed out, so I got her City of Thieves to play while she recovers and help her catch up.

  26. SuperTim says:

    My condolences.

    This is probably the first tim I read Cardboard Children, but I still like the FF books. It was hard to get hold of these; it was really expensive over here (not UK), but I’ve managed to get our locally translated versions when the warehouse was having a sale, and basically no one wanted them.

    They didn’t translate many of them, but they did have City of Thieves. And I agree, it’s a very good book. It’s still lying on my desk, waiting to be read again soon.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about these books, I feel like I’m young again.

  27. Stevostin says:

    Oh this one is hitting a special string. I did myself a whole graphic novel heavily inspired by City of Thieves (and some Jack Vance too). (it’s in french, sorry: link to amazon.fr)

    House of hell was a much better game. Truth be told, City of Thieves has pretty poor writing… but such vista. Indeed Ian Mc Caig work is amazing. I thought he’d be one of those forgotten great illustrator but if you google him you’ll see he made quite the career after that.

    • Stevostin says:

      Also, sorry for your loss. Your mum reminds me of my dad. I feel my luck to still have the great man around. I also have those memory of doing those books in the sun.

  28. therighttoarmbears says:

    Thanks for sharing, Rab, and may you and yours find comfort and solace, and may your mother find rest and peace.

    For me, games and books and other media are at their best when shared with others, and then forever after are a cherished bookmark for a period of life. So, I say, play on and remember away!

  29. Creeping Death says:

    I’ve had Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Citadel of Chaos, and Forest of Doom sitting on my bookshelf untouched for ages (I’m lucky enough to have a girlfriend that’s cool enough to already own such things!), I think it might be time I picked one up.

    My deepest Condolences, Rab.

  30. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Lovely memories, thanks for sharing them during a difficult time.

  31. PancakeWizard says:

    Forest of Doom, Starship Traveler, House of Horror and a couple of others are available as iOS/Android apps and are great for a nostalgia run with the dice rolls/combat being done by a computer taking out the boring bits of old!

    Incidentally Rob, FYI they made a return to Port Blacksand with Midnight Rogue – a proper theive-up ’em FF. Check it out!

    • caff says:

      Yes they are pretty good recreations of the books, and well made.

      I do prefer the original book form though. The sensations of trying to avoid looking at pages you hadn’t landed on yet, mixed with an overwhelming urge to cheat!

  32. Mr Coot says:

    Thank you for the piece, what an amazing and supportive Ma. Thinking of you at this time.

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    Skabooga says:

    My condolences, Rab. You are loved. And cheers to your parents and parents everywhere who encourage their children to develop their interests. The world is a better place for it.

  34. Lotofsnow says:

    I’ve never read any of these books, so I just ordered City of Thieves. You and your family will be in my thoughts especially when I’m exploring Port Blacksand.

  35. Brosecutor says:

    My condolences, Rab. Man, your story struck a nerve with me! Got “Warlock of Firetop Mountain” from my mom for Christmas when I was ten. I wasn’t too interested in another book, so I played with my other gifts first.

    But then, in my bed that night, I discovered what this book was all about! Got no sleep that night and fell madly in love with those books, which probably were my first step to become a role-playing gamer. I collected almost all of them (available at the time), so I’m very familiar with Port Blacksand.

    Later on, I sold them and regretted it, so I bought them back via vintage book stores. These books will always be cherished. My mom even more, obviously. She’s still there, but she’s turning 70 next year. Gotta go and tell her she’s awesome.

  36. unimural says:

    I’m very sorry for your loss.

    A great piece of writing, thank you.

  37. Olaf the Merchant says:

    My condolences to the OP on his loss.

    I actually do have the original paperback of City of Thieves. :) Laminated it last year in a vain attempt to preserve it. It has certainly fared better than it’s fellow books, Steve Jackson’s Lord of the Black Tower and the co-writ Jackson and Livingstone Warlock of Firetop Mountain, both bearing mottled pages, now worn down by age and wear and sadly a few tears, accumulated during a hundred adventures. I think I’ll most likely wait for the virtual versions of the books, in fear of causing any further damage to the treasured pages that provided me with so much fun.

  38. Olaf the Merchant says:

    Ah, shouldn’t have translated the title off the bat. Meant the Citadel of Chaos, obviously. Apparently localization took some freedoms in the title.

  39. zxcasdqwecat says:

    :( condolences!

  40. danielmueller80 says:

    sorry for your loss. i’m sure, though, that your (great!) mom took care you’ll never have problems finding a map for yourself and your way onwards.

  41. Pizzacheeks McFroogleburgher says:

    There’s something nice and reciprocative about an RPS comments section turning into a book of condolences for you dear Ma. I hope to find solace in reflection when my dear mater goes too.

  42. Apologised says:

    Look at article

    ctrl-f: “Scorpion Swamp”

    No results

    :(

  43. the_fanciest_of_pants says:

    Condolences Rab, a parent who recognizes and nurtures passions is an amazing and rare gift, one I myself appreciate hugely. Your Ma sounds like a hell of a lady.

    Wonderful writing, you’ll pull through mate.

  44. sketchseven says:

    So sorry for your loss Rab.

  45. damaki says:

    Sorry for your loss, mate. Remember all the little good things, because they are gonna be with you forever and ever.

    I love these Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. There used to have a whole lot of these at the library, and oh god, my best friend and me we borrowed every single one. Good times. The funniest part, is that I used to hate reading. I used to read exclusively CYOA books and (french or belgian) comic books.
    Weeks ago, I found an incredible lot of these on a website for a small sum (30 books for £30), and oh man, these are still pretty cool nowadays. Gotta read’em all one more, gotta read’em all.

  46. TomxJ says:

    I remember Blacksand well. Lived many adventures there, the sourcebook was brilliant.
    Condolences on your loss, but a brilliant and touching piece.

  47. ludicrous_pedagogy says:

    So sorry for you loss Rab, but this is beautiful eulogy of sorts.

    As a school librarian I use Fighting Fantasy books all the time to encourage reluctant readers to try something different. Give a kid a book, a photocopied character sheet, 2 dice and a pencil and their eyes just widen!
    It’s also my number one go-to when I talk to teachers and TA’s about using games to enhance literacy. And since the re-introduction of many of them on the iPads (which we have a load of at school) and things like 80 Days – the engagement we get with younger generation is outstanding.

    One of favorite parts of my week is lesson I just call Sorcery! My friends always think its funny when I say I’ve got Sorcery first lesson tomorrow :) Anyway, this is when I’ve got a small group of really low ability readers and we sit in circle with an iPad each with a copy of Sorcery on it, then we all read together and make decisions together and our way through the book. I’ve never seen anything like the engagement from these boys (it’s a state boys school in the welsh valleys – weird anomaly) in reading, just because their reading and decisions have consequences.

    Anyway, just to let you know that FF and co are still making a huge difference on young readers to this day.
    Great article – as always.

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    Sihoiba says:

    Condolences to you and your family.

    Reading the FF books was one of the thrills of my secondary school library, and when my wife was recently a secondary school librarian herself she took out the FF books it had for me. I was always sad to see how little they’d been checked out in recent years.

    I’ll never forget finally getting to the end of Deathtrap Dungeon after several failed attempts only to have the wrong gems and still die.

  49. CapnHowdy says:

    Sorry to hear about your loss. My condolences.

    Thank you for sharing and thank you for all the great articles you write.

  50. bonuswavepilot says:

    Sorry Rab, and thanks for this.