A Pirate’s Life for Me

Over at Black Gate, I’ve scrawled a couple of reviews of the most recent Fighting Fantasy reprints coming out of England.

For the uninitiated: Fighting Fantasy was a 1980s series of choose-your-own-adventure novels with a simple dice mechanic to simulate combat and other physical challenges. Most were written and illustrated by British authors and artists, with all of the off-kilter and macabre sensibility expected from the sons of Albion. I loved Fighting Fantasy as a kid and nowadays read them to my boys, allowing them to make the decisions as they explore ruins, loot tombs, and slay man and monster alike.

In 2009, publisher Wizard Books began reprinting Fighting Fantasy. Several of the best from my childhood, like City of Thieves and Deathtrap Dungeon, are included in this latest series. Other memorable entries, like Scorpion Swamp — the first FF with a non-linear narrative, allowing you to solve it any which way — haven’t appeared yet. But if I had to pick a favorite, all-time best Fighting Fantasy, it would be the one I know will never be reprinted: Seas of Blood.

Seas of Blood revels in villainy and sheer callousness. The scenario is established in less than two pages: you, a pirate captain, wager with another cutthroat named Abdul the Butcher to see who can accumulate the most swag in fifty days. The winner will be declared king of pirates. And just like that, you’re off, tearing through an imaginary Mediterranean Sea on a binge of rapine and terror.

Did I mention this is a book aimed at children?

Clearly inspired by the Harryhausen/Schneer films of the ’60s and ’70s, Seas of Blood is a mish-mash of Greek triremes and Arabic dhows, of cyclops-haunted isles and giant rocs swooping from the skies, of The Odyssey and A Thousand and One Nights — minus any sense of morality. Like all Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, you have personal statistics, but here you also have group scores to indicate the strength of your crew and soundness of your vessel. Booty is acquired through ship-to-ship combat, yes, but you can also venture ashore alone to explore abandoned temples or with your men to ransack towns or fortresses. A particular sequence has your band of scalawags climb a mountain to attack a Tibetan-like monastery and seize their golden idols.

But wealth in Seas of Blood is not measured in lucre alone. Remember those peaceful monks you despoiled a few pages back? You didn’t actually think you’d just leave them to rebuild their lives, did you? Survivors are thrown into the ship’s hold, to be sold at auction the next time you reach port. But even then it’s not so simple. You soon learn the slave markets in various cities pay different amounts, making prices dependent on the available supply. One city, for example, has been victorious in a war with its neighbor, flooding the market with prisoners and depressing prices. Thus you have to carefully choose where to sell so that you receive the highest bids for your human chattel. Hooray market economics!

Having retained my 1985 edition, I recently played it again with my sons, chortling to myself the whole time. We ended just shy of the amount needed to beat Abdul the Butcher and win the title. A shame. All those people murdered and sold into bondage for mere sport.

Oh well. I wonder what’s for dinner?

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