Choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks have been a staple of childhood reading since their origins in the late ‘70s. Presenting readers with fantastical worlds to explore, arrays of colourful characters to meet (and fight), and charging them with demanding dilemmas to overcome in their quests for greatness, they’ve continued to earn a following for decades, with many claiming the books served as their gateway into Dungeons & Dragons and the wider, deeper, counter-strewn world of tabletop gaming.
Of the many second-person, branching-path book series to emerge over the last few decades, the Fighting Fantasy series has understandably claimed the title of the very finest. Combining the genre’s typical storytelling with dice-play and combat mechanics to form fully fledged gamebooks, they provide readers solo roleplaying adventures in paperback form, casting you into a plethora of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror worlds. Created by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson – the original founders of Warhammer design company Games Workshop – it’s perhaps little surprise that the Fighting Fantasy series has retained such popularity over the years, enjoying several reprints and republishings.
But with so many books available, and all of them covered with such gorgeous illustrations, it can be difficult to know where to begin. We’ve collected the very best Fighting Fantasy games into the list below to kickstart your paperback adventuring. But we’ve also thrown in a few curveballs. At the end of the list, you’ll find some choose-your-own-adventure books outside of the Fighting Fantasy range – for a little variety.
That’s enough preparation – ready your weapon, and grab your pen and paper, as we explore the best Fighting Fantasy books.
WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN
The beginning of it all. The original. The birthplace of so many people’s love of roleplay and fantasy narratives, which would lead on to deeper delves into wargaming, miniatures board gaming, and narrative adventure. A typical dungeon romp, players dive into a labyrinthine dungeon maze hidden deep within a volcano, slaying orcs, minotaurs, dragons, and all manner of other beasties, gradually making their way to the titular mage himself, overcoming his arcane sorcery, and making off with a big bag of loot.
Gradually is the operative word here. The dungeon is in dire need of proper architectural planning, and you’ll often find yourself looping back around on yourself, passing through the same corridors and booby traps multiple times as you build up a mental map of its dense interior. Not the most refined, creative, or narratively charged of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, Warlock of Firetop Mountain nevertheless manages to best capture the spirit of the series. You’ll be bumbling about a fantasy world, meeting a vast array of fantasy creatures – and, usually, killing them in your quest.
The book was even developed into a solo dungeon-crawler videogame for PC in 2016, receiving praise for capturing the theme and spirit of the original book. If you’re after a reasonably-priced new Nintendo Switch game, there’s also a very respectable Switch port of Firetop Mountain you can pick up for pocket change.
CITY OF THIEVES
Usually chosen as the apex of Fighting Fantasy narrative and world design, City of Thieves casts you into a den of murderers, vagabonds, and ruthless villains, eager to catch you off guard, steal your money, and leave you for dead. Enlisted by a terrorised village to save the townsfolk from the harrying raids of the Night Prince Zanbar Bone, you must travel to the wretched den of villainy known as Port Blacksand, and find the secretive wizard Nicodemus who can reveal Bone’s single weakness.
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City of Thieves excels in its relentless ferocity. Everything and everyone in Port Blacksand will try to kill you. Trust no one, for they will only betray you in time, and keep your weapon close to fend off the scurries of backstabbers and alley rats looking to do away with you on the quick. But the city is brought to life, not through vivid prose, but Iain McCaig’s gorgeous illustrations. Having penned artworks for The Avengers, a Jethro Tull album, and Star Wars (he designed Darth Maul), it’s little surprise that McCaig’s images are so vividly dense they warrant pausing over and admiring on each turn of the page.
APPOINTMENT WITH F.E.A.R
Not all books in the Fighting Fantasy series are actually fantastical, and some of the best embrace other genres for refreshing settings and additional mechanics. One of the best is Appointment with F.E.A.R, a superhero-themed gamebook that hands your character a variety of supernatural and scientifically bamboozling powers to defeat evil wherever it may rear its ugly head.
Fight through a series of hilariously-named villains – like The Scarlet Prankster, and Dr Macabre – before finally reaching the equally hilarious Vladimir Utoshki, and thwart his plans of world domination. Besides the refreshing theme that brilliantly leans into the campy exaggeration of the Golden Age of Comic Books, it leans into the setting mechanically. Collect clues of the supervillains’ locations and times of attack like any good detective, and disable – but never kill – your enemies or incur a penalty; after all, you are the good guy.
For each supervillain halted and nefarious scheme spoilt, you’ll be rewarded a point to mark your heroic endeavours. Keep them tallied and coin them by the game’s end for a final score and see how you fared against your past efforts.
A self-professed Mad Max pastiche with the expected complement of fast cars, vehicular combat, and a constantly depleting supply of fuel, Freeway Fighter transports you to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States. It’s a lawless place where villainous nomads rule the highways, and innocent survivors huddle for protection in isolated settlements. Your town just happens to be running a little low on supplies, so you’re sent off into the desert wasteland – with a Dodge Interceptor, mind – hoping to chance upon food and fuel to replenish the needy citizens back home.
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Freeway Fighter is most notable for its combat mechanics. Not only will your character be jumping into the fray, but your car will be joining you, with each vehicle given combat attributes to test their mettle in the thrill of a firefight and rampage of metal-on-metal action. An additional side-quest will also have you rescuing a kidnapped New Hope citizen, but the book’s emphasis is on the action. It wastes no time jumping into combat, and provides rules for both hand-to-hand fighting and gunplay.
ARMIES OF DEATH
For all their influence igniting every nerd’s passion for roleplay, the Fighting Fantasy series also played an important role in piquing their interest in wargames, and the shrewd strategising of fantastical battlers. None had quite such an impact as Armies of Death. A sequel to Trial of Champions, although bearing no narrative relation bar the main protagonist’s name, this gamebook doesn’t simply hand you a character to control and fight through swarms of enemy combatants, but rather gives you command of entire legions of soldiers.
An evil Shadow Demon has awoken, and threatens to cut short the life of everything he catches sight of with his monstrous army of the undead. There is one clear solution: purchase an army for yourself, and meet the skeletal troops on the fields of battle to put a stop to their advances. Choosing which skirmishes to fight, which troops to levy, and which commanders to trust, makes for a nice shake-up from the usual adventuring dilemmas, and helps entrench a sense of scale to the conflict.
The combat system operates much a reskin of previous Fighting Fantasy titles, but its simplicity is its appeal. It’s delightful to wage war in mass battles of nation-shattering proportions. Honestly.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
Our first pick of non-Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure books is equally as ostentatious as Livingstone and Jackson’s series. To Be or Not To Be is a branching narrative adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with all the vengeful murder, plotting, and insanity of the classic play, wrapped up in totally irreverent and silly jokes.
You can play as one of three characters, the titular Hamlet, his lover Ophelia, or his dad – although if you pick Hamlet Senior, you’ll be killed off in the first couple of pages, spending the rest of the book floating around as a ghost.
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With 110 potential endings, much of the story follows Shakespeare’s original narrative, but regularly branches off-script, with characters being killed and new ones introduced, or reaching truly bizarre scenarios, including Ophelia accidentally inventing underground heating during her scientific exploits.
It’s funny, charming, lovingly illustrated, and doesn’t take itself at all seriously. Since achieving a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, it’s gone on to earn praises in literary circles as an endearing pastiche of Shakespeare, with the choose-your-own-adventure format working remarkably well within the themes of the original play.
LONE WOLF SAGA
For those after more persistent storytelling and rigorous world-building across several choose-your-own-adventures books, the Lone Wolf Saga is likely to please. A series of over 30 gamebooks set in a single fictional world, it started as a passion project spun from a homebrew D&D campaign and traces a warrior monk’s quest across the world of Magnamund, fighting forces of evil in his many adventures.
It’s typical fantasy fare, with goblins, bandits, and other familiar creatures showing up to fight you, but the series is best known for its attention to detail. Characters and locations pop up throughout the series, and events are referenced between books. Its punishing decision-making and often deceptive dilemmas may frustrate some, but those looking to embrace a consistent, albeit unremarkable, fantasy narrative will have a whale of a time. The game is as close to a solitaire RPG in paperback form that you’re ever likely to find.
What’s more, the entire series was made available to download for free online, so there’s even less reason not to give it a spin. See if it tickles your solo adventuring fancy, and you might just end up reading the whole saga.
What if a choose-your-own-adventure book couldn’t be completed? What if readers were forced to forever wander the corridors of the dungeon, battling foes, discovering new rooms – but never made it to the final encounter, and remained forever trapped within the book’s pages? That’s the idea behind UFO 54-40. Mysteriously transported to an alien spaceship, you’ll venture through its gleaming white walls and murky lower decks, encountering other aliens – some nasty, some nice – and other humans who have found themselves abducted onto the ship.
UFO 54-40 plays on your confusion. Your goal is never laid out to you, nor is it fully explained why you were abducted from your quiet earth life in the first place.
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If you try to escape the ship, you’ll find yourself halted by the alien crew, consigned to some torturous space death, or swatted from existence and time. No matter how hard you try to reach a successful ending, you’ll never land upon the fortuitous page.
That’s because the real happy ending isn’t even accessible. Thumbing through the pages, you’ll find a single happy ending, which sees you reach the idyllic alien homeworld and live a life of peace and happiness. But you’ll never reach it. No choices in the book lead to that page, and it even mocks you having to cheat to access the ending. An uncompromising take on the banality of life and mortal achievements? Maybe not, but it makes for a good gimmick.