Steve Jackson is one of the biggest names in British fantasy fiction. Along with Ian Livingstone, he was one of the founders of Games Workshop, one of the first major stores selling role-playing games in the UK. In 1982, Jackson and Livingstone brought fantasy to the doorsteps of British schoolkids with the publication of their first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
Although many of us like to think that our first contact with orcs and trolls came through the works of Tolkein, for 1980s kids, their quest in search of fabulous realms started out in the world of Fighting Fantasy. Now the series is being revamped with new versions for e-readers and tablet devices, so it was a good chance to catch up with Steve Jackson and ask him about his work.
Steve, Thanks for speaking to Amazing Stories!
AS: You’ve been developing the Sorcery! series, your epic four-book adventure for the iPlayer and iPad. It sounds like you haven’t just cut and pasted book to screen, but have added lots of new functionality. Can you tell us about that?
SJ: There were some long discussions between Jon and Joe (Inkle) and myself about how to approach Sorcery! The debate was whether readers would prefer a retro/nostalgic approach, emulating the original – like the dice-based combat – or whether it was time to do something new. I favoured a new approach and thankfully so did Jon & Joe. I think it has proved to be the right call. The map, sliding combat and spells have been the features which have most impressed the reviewers.
AS: Sorcery! featured some pretty adult material, such as implied drug use as well as plague and disease. Was this a conscious effort to appeal to an older audience? Did the publishers get nervous about this?
SJ: The advantage of writing Sorcery for a more adult audience was that I didn’t have to be constantly checking whether this was suitable for Puffin (younger) readers. As an example, one of the illustrations in House of Hell portrayed a black magic ritual. A naked woman (though covered by a sheet) was about to be sacrificed. Tim Sell had drawn the scene with the sheet revealing – in a tasteful way – a nipple! Puffin would not publish this illustration.
AS: John Blanche’s artwork on Sorcery! was so distinctive that it made the books look different to everything else out there. Now artist Eddie Sharam is working on animating some of John’s original images. Have the two artists been working together on the new edition? Are you still in contact with John?
SJ: Yes I am still in touch with John, through Games Workshop, though it’s been a couple of years. When GW was no more than a couple of guys (Ian Livingstone and myself) working out of a small office behind an estate agent’s in Shepherd’s Bush, John arrived one day with his portfolio. We were blown away by his original style, and he provided the very first issue of White Dwarf with a colour cover – number 7 I think.
AS: Sorcery! was a huge, huge achievement, and I loved it. I’ve played the whole series of books many times. Do you think you would ever write a new storyline set in the same world?
SJ: I did locate a couple of adventures in The Old World, of which The Tasks of Tantalon (a puzzle book illustrated by Steven Lavis) was the most prominent.
AS: Going back to Fighting Fantasy, you wrote gamebooks in a range of genres such as SF (Starship Traveller), horror (House of Hell) and the world of superheroes (Appointment with F.E.A.R ). Which was your favourite? Was there a genre that you wished you had written in?
SJ: Yes I was keen to try the gamebook system in different areas of ‘fandom’ (SF, Horror, Superheroes etc) to see what could be done. As for my favourite, well I guess I’d have to say Warlock of Firetop Mountain, as that was the one that started it all off and I’ll never forget how excited Ian and I were whilst Warlock was becoming a best seller. In March 1983, Warlock, Citadel of Chaos and Forest of Doom topped the Sunday Times bestseller charts. But after that Sorcery is by far my favourite as I put more work into that than any of the other books. The spell system was particularly challenging. As was how the adventures linked together. Information and artefacts you found in Book 1 could be useful in Books 2+. Yet each book had to be a stand-alone adventure.
AS: Your namesake, Steve Jackson, is a US designer of role-playing games. He also became the first person apart from you and Ian to write a Fighting Fantasy gamebook: Scorpion Swamp, the eighth book in the series. However, at the time, the cover never mentioned that it was a different Steve Jackson. Was this a bit of a joke between you two? How did this come about?
SJ: Ah yes. How did this come about…? Steve had flown over to London from Texas to talk to Ian and I about Games Workshop distributing his games in Europe. We’d mentioned Fighting Fantasy and how well it was doing. We also mentioned that competing publishers were beginning to publish their own gamebooks and, in response to this, Puffin wanted to publish a new gamebook every month. There was no way Ian and I could write an adventure a month, so we’d decided to sign up other authors to create new FF books. Anyway, the business side of things was sorted quite quickly. So we then asked Steve if he’d like us to take him to Stonehenge, or the Tower of London – all the places Americans want to see in the UK. But no. He didn’t want to go anywhere. He just asked for a desk and a typewriter. And he spent the next 3 days writing a Fighting Fantasy book! We’d already discussed with Puffin how we’d treat these non-Jackson & Livingstone submissions. Puffin insisted on keeping our names on the covers. But we didn’t want to pretend we’d written them when we hadn’t. So we’d decided the new books would be described as ‘Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone Present…” on the cover, with the actual author’s name inside on the title page. And so it was that the very first “Jackson & Livingstone Presents” title was ‘Scorpion Swamp’ by Steve Jackson! Very confusing…
AS: What were your own influences when you were growing up?
SJ: When I was four the family moved to Canada. Then came back when I was eleven. But during my formative years, I had adopted much of North American culture. I loved baseball, ice hockey and collecting trading cards, which was a huge hobby at my school. I also was a big fan of DC comics (pre-Marvel era) and a magazine called ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’. I was fascinated by horror stories but couldn’t get in to cinemas to watch the films. So Famous Monsters was my favourite magazine.
AS: Did you ever base any of your characters on your artists, editors or Ian Livingstone?
SJ: If you look at the Starship Traveller dedication, there is a long list of names. It was the entire staff of Games Workshop at the time. And some of the characters in the book were nods to some of the senior staff. The Darvillians lived on one planet. Peter Darvill-Evans was our Sales Manager. One of the characters was Bran Sell, named after Bryan Ansell, who ran Citadel Minatures.
AS: Finally, the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were always legendary for their sudden twists that sent the unfortunate reader off to a grisly end. Did you have a favourite from one of your books?
SJ: We were well aware of the fact that you could take a wrong turn and suddenly die – perhaps unfairly. But to tell the truth, we were kind of expecting that most readers were cheating, by keeping their fingers in the pages at previous locations. We used to say that’s why God gave us 10 fingers – so we could cheat our way through FF adventures! A couple of particularly tough situations I wrote were the Maze of Zagor in Firetop Mountain. The transporter area made it difficult to navigate the maze map – which was actually quite simple. And having to learn to translate a language in Creature of Havoc was another favourite peril.
Thanks for talking to Amazing Stories!