Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t my first roleplaying game. My introduction to RPG actually came from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain first of the Fighting Fantasy books, a choose-your own-adventure-style series. This book, discovered lumped in with random titles on a year 5 classroom shelf, had many elements of old school D&D play. Underground exploration, funhouse-style assortment of monsters, mazes, magic items, sudden death, grim humour, etc. all featured. I was hooked and hunted around libraries and second hand shops for more titles and ended up with an impressive, but no means incomplete collection. The series are mostly fantasy-based, with you playing an adventuring fighter in the ‘campaign world’ of Titan, but there were plenty of titles with different kinds of protagonist (wizard, thief, spy, assassin, samurai, assassin, superhero) different settings, including sci-fi, post-apocalypse and alternative fantasy world. As much fun as I had with these, their potential exploded when I got my hands on two books gathering dust on a shelf in a used furniture shop. These were The Riddling Reaver, an RPG adventure module to be played with a GM running the scenarios for a group of players, and Out of the Pit, a ‘monster manual’ compendium of many of the creatures found in the books and quite a few more powerful ones clearly intended for group play. The latter included maps of two of Titan’s continents.
These two books together spring-boarded my first fantasy RPG campaign. Initially, it was very simple. FF uses a d6 based system with just three stats. Skill (used in combat and feats of strength or dexterity), Stamina (hit points) and Luck (effectively used in situations that would warrant a saving throw in D&D). This simplicity gave me an unparalleled ability to spin adventures on the fly that I miss sometimes when playing more complex games. At the same time the limitations of the system became clear in the lack of character variety and progression. Many of the monsters were woefully weak, the 2d6 range used for combat and skill tests meant that any adjustment of more than 2 was either crippling or overpowered.
Shortly after I started running this game I was inducted as a player into AD&D and began to introduce greater complexity into my FF campaign, both borrowed from D&D and from the various single player books that contained rules variants or special characters, monsters and equipment. My friends’ gang of leather-armoured sword swingers expanded to include wizards, samurai, rangers, paladins, clerics, thieves, assassins, elves, dwarves, lizardmen, death knights, barbarians, vampires, chaos warriors etc. I built a feat system, made spells, new rules from armour and weapon variants, all bolted on to the FF chassis. Once I managed to get my hands on some 1e AD&D books from ebay, I left this homebrew system behind but I still regard it as invaluable experience in DMing, and because of it I still see a lot of merit in rules-light, easily moddable game systems. And a lot of appreciation for the Brit-fantasy weirdness and atmosphere of the Titan game world. The early campaign also taught me that, even in a system with relatively little to distinguish characters mechanically, imaginative players will find a way to make them unique, to the point where I still remember them this day.
I’d still recommend the FF series for old school D&D players looking to mine some inspiration for their locales, monsters, and items. Here are some of my favourites from early in the series, plus some D&D-able content I converted from them for use in more grown-up elfgames.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: The daddy and probably the most generic of the lot. Classic dungeon crawl with an interesting amoral hero who invades the titular warlock’s lair with the intention of claiming his treasure, and can end with the hero claiming the magical power of the warlock as his own and ruling the dungeon as his successor. Combat is on the easy side (there’s an easy to find powerful magic sword and even the dragon can go down in 6 hits) but the location is good funhouse fare with varied monsters and traps.
D&D-able: Firetop Mountain is a good setting to adapt to a wizard lair a la White Plume Mountain. Here’s an encounter/item I like to use in my games.
The Eye of the Cyclops
A fist-size ruby that pulses with an eerie red light, this powerful gem is fixed in the face of the Iron Cyclops, a unique Iron Golem. The Iron Cyclops has no gas atteck, but instead projects a 30 foot range, 90 degree wide arc cone of anti-magic from its eye. This will prevent spellcasting and negate the properties of magic items in the area of effect, including weapons and armour. If the golem is defeated, the gem may be taken and used by other creatures. As a magic item, The Eye of the Cyclops may be used to detect magic 15′ at will. Its anti-magic cone may be activated at will for 5 rounds, once per day.
Citadel of Chaos: This and Riddling Reaver contain a complete magic system if you want to play group FF with a wizard class. Riddling Reaver balances the wizard with other classes by penalising the spellcaster’s SKILL and STAMINA.
D&D-able: Not much in the spell-list is useful for D&D, though some of the weirder monsters might appeal to some. My main take from this was the name of the villain, Balthus Dire, which I stole for use as my go-to moniker for my magic user characters. If you really want to freak out your players with silly/dangerous monsters, I recommend the Wheelies.
No Appearing: 2-5, AC: 6, MV: 16″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Special: spin and throw 2 daggers per round at +2 to hit, Average Intelligence, Medium Size, Chaotic Evil. Each carries a brace of 6 throwing daggers with a spare for melee. These can come from any bizarro plane, but something about their aspect suggests corrupted Modron to me.
The Forest of Doom: Forest-crawl (duh) and one of the more non-linear of the books. Overall not one of the best but has a singularly inspiring way to fail the game by being transformed into the demon overlord of a fungus farm.
The Crown of the Taskmaster
A cave leads to an small network of underground caves where large mushrooms are cultivated by mute humanoid clones. The mushroom growers quickly fall in combat, but they are guarded by patrols of fighting clones (as zombies). In the last cave is a throne where dwells a fire demon (basically a Balor, down to flaming whip and sword etc) which wears a golden crown. Once the demon is defeated, should the crown be donned by any mortal, he or she will be transformed into a fire demon/Balor and gain telepathic command of the clone walkers and warriors. The crown wearer is effectively removed from play, as it will desire only to maintain it’s mushroom farm on the prime material, the produce of which is considered a delicacy by a notable Demon Lord. The new demon will fight its former comrades to drive them from the farm, but is bound to its duty and will not pursue them outside the cave complex.
City of Thieves: Easily one of the best. Port Blacksand as a location is one of the gems of the series, and this adventure is chock full of interesting urban encounters in this chaotic and corrupt wretched hive of scum and villainy.
D&D-able: Totally. This one really deserves to be read through and mined for city adventure ideas. Confidence tricks, corruption, danger and just plain strangeness lurk round every corner. Hassle your players with corrupt guards, some of which are sarcastic trolls. Practise home invasion and encounter depressed Ogres, a wrecked house with squabbling hags dressed as little girls. Get some embarrassingly tasteless but magically protective tattoos. Present your players with a glass ball filled with swirling gas. Gas in D&D is generally feared as poisonous, but smash this thing on the ground and find that it dissipates harmlessly to reveal a useful magic item.
The Serpent Queen
In a sumptuous house, concealed behind silk curtains, dwells the Serpent Queen, a beautiful young woman with the head of a snake. The overlord of the city keeps her maintained in luxury and often sends her lavish gifts. It is said that he will reward handsomely anyone who can find a way to restore her to fully human form. If disturbed, she will defend herself with a deadly poison bite. I would make her a rogue Yuan-Ti abomination who never held true human form, but nonetheless holds onto hope that she can achieve one.
Deathtrap Dungeon: Baron Sukumvit of Fang creates this megadungeon as a sadistic contest to promote his dinky town, where the winner who beats the dungeon by collecting a series of gems and stepping out alive wins a fantastic cash prize. Straight-up dungeon crawl with some interesting encounters, especially from the Baron’s agents, who can cripple or empower your character depending on choices you make. One of the more gruesome and brutal entries in the series.
D&D-able. The dungeon and encounters a ok but what I would take from this is the setting. Want a contrived funhouse megadungeon? Set up the Baron’s contest in your campaign world. You can make it for competing teams if player co-operation is a concern or keep it for one winner for a brutal one-off adventure that would see the players team up for survival while awaiting the best opportunity to dispose of their rivals. I would actually say that the silliest thing about the dungeon is how it is treated as some kind of gladistorial entertainment when the crowd in the arena at the end has no way to see what’s going on. Fix some kind of giant scrying device or spell for the poor punters so that they can have some fun watching the carnage and derring-do.
Island of the Lizard King: Combat-heavy jungle adventure with some really tough (but cool) antagonists and a compelling story. The island works well as a D&D setting, possibly fusing its elements with TSR module I2 for ultimate Royal Lizardy goodness.
D&D-able: The whole adventure would work well for a D&D party, but something more unique to be taken from the module is the Gonchong, a strange spider-like head parasite that both dominates and bestows great power on its host, in this case the titular Lizard King. I also take cues from this book when fleshing out Lizard Men tribes in D&D, boosting them with mutants, two-headed types, Styracosaurus riders.
AC: 5, MV: 6″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Small Size, Genius Intelligence, Lawful Evil, Special Defenses: +1 or better weapon to hit, 25% magic resistance, Special attacks: +2 to hit as it leaps onto a humanoid’s head. Upon a successful hit against an opponent, the Gonchong will implant itself onto the creatures head and make it its host. If the opponent wears a helm or protective headgear, the Gongchong must make another successful attack the next round to dislodge the headgear and implant itself. The host of a Gongchong loses his or her free will but gains the following benefits: strength 18.00, immunity to non-magical weapons, bonus hit points equal to the parasite’s hit points, 25% magic resistance, immunity to disease. Psionic or mind affecting attacks affect the parasite rather than the host. The Gongchong is cruel, domineering and paranoid, and will use its host to gather guards and slaves and establish a power base.
There are some other monsters/items/encounters that have made it from these books to my D&D campaigns, but that’s to be continued in a future post.