The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Now let us forge the Sword of the Samurai!
In 1982, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, founders of Games Workshop, released the book ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’. Intended as an introduction to tabletop role-playing games of the era, the book’s choose-your-own-adventure format mixed with simple dice-based combat proved massively successful, giving rise to a full series of books – Fighting Fantasy. With over 65 books in the series by a legion of authors and illustrators, the series’ legacy continues to this day. Come along with us as Cybe and co play through each one – with no prior knowledge, no hints or walkthroughs and no cheating!
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The land of Hachian is under siege, beset by tyranny and treachery, and only YOU can save it. Or more accurately, only I can save it. So yeah, Hachiman is pretty much doomed.
Sword of the Samurai was the second Fighting Fantasy book I picked up. Coming off the gothic horror of Vault of the Vampire (my first FF book), it seems I went right into another heavily-atmospheric adventure set in an unusual location. This one is interesting because you play as a samurai. Now, when you’re 9 years old and choose an adventure involving samurai, you don’t really know much about them from a historical perspective. You don’t know that the samurai class were glorified militia in the keep of regional lords, whose job requirements were to perform their lords will, and typically didn’t even serve as warriors following the 17th century.
Despite moral laws such as Bushido, the samurai’s right allowing them to murder any commoner for ‘not showing due respect’ wasn’t repealed until the Meiji restoration, a movement which later culminated in the abolition of the samurai class altogether. In short, the real-world history of the samurai isn’t quite as adventurous as the mythology we have about it today. Nah, when you’re 9 years old, all you know is that samurai are cool guys with katanas. Sword of the Samurai was also one of the few Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that was to have been graced with the honour of becoming a video game, way back in the late 80s when video games still used text and people could be eaten by a grue if they weren’t careful. Sadly I don’t think this game ever actually materialised, although I am aware that Temple of Terror, Seas of Blood and Rebel Planet did make it. It seems that so far, only the two most iconic of the FF series (The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon) seem to have made the jump to video gaming with any large degree of success.
The adventure begins with you, the Shogun’s personal retainer, being tasked with recovering the legendary sword Singing Death from the clutches of the evil Ikiru. Exactly how the evil Ikiru managed to get his hands on the legendary sword Singing Death is never explained – maybe he stole it, maybe he won it in the Shogun’s annual singing sword contest.
Either way, you’d think that the Shogun could have picked a better personal retainer, as my skill is only a feeble 7 today. My stamina is no better at 16, although my luck comes out at 11. In an attempt to offset this weakness, I choose to be trained in the special skill of ni-to-kenjutsu, the wielding of two blades at once, which should be able to give me the occasional upper hand in combat if the dice are feeling particularly kind. The game also includes an Honour score, which starts at 3, and if it ever hits zero it’s seppuku-time.
I arm myself and choose to plot my course to recover Singing Death, choosing to ride through the aptly-named Forest of Shadows. I just couldn’t resist with a name like that. We never have such exciting names for things in real-life. There’s a forest here in Hampshire not far from where I live, called ‘The New Forest’ – why couldn’t we call it ‘Forest of Chaos’? Imagine how brilliant this would be for the travel industry too. “Come spend a week or two in sunny Hellforge Plains, before taking a leisurely cruise across the Sea of No Return, to then put your feet up in our lovely hotel in the Valley of Despair”… Sorry, I’m rambling.
As I ride, I notice a village which has been set alight, and so I choose to investigate. As I approach, I am attacked by a man on horseback, who manages to knock my health down to almost half its starting level. Thankfully my duel-wielding skill seems to do well enough, as I’m able to pull through. It seems that the local lord, Lord Tseitsen, has decided to rebel against the Shogun and ordered his samurai to burn a village or two. Oh nice.
Like a total moron, I decide to ride into the middle of the village and shout a challenge to honourable combat to any samurai fool who happens to be listening. Because this is the honourable thing to do. Immediately, three of the buggers line up in front of me, because that’s totally honourable. I manage to cut my way through the first one, but the second crushes me like a bug. The thing is, what these samurai that killed me are doing is actually entirely historically accurate. Listen, I’ll explain.
Bushido, the philosophy of a warrior lifestyle that samurai followed, was very strict and very structured around honour. Part of the requirement that you followed as a samurai was to obey your lord’s orders, even if they were immoral. To refuse an order would mean being stripped of your family name, a sentence that rendered not only yourself, but your descendants as traitors. The only way to make reparations for this crime was to take your own life, in the ritual of seppuku. Failure to do so would often be met by assassination from your lord, as well as death to your spouse, children, grandchildren, and your ancestor’s noble deeds being stricken from the history books. So even though the samurai here are butchering peasants, from the laws of the warrior code, they are doing so with a clear conscience.
But let’s have a look at the lord himself here, Lord Tseitsen. He has decided to declare war on the Shogun, which although it was a notorious and shocking act, was certainly not unknown to have happened. By attacking innocent peasants, he is immediately cast as a villain here. However, during much of Japan’s history, peasants were often put on the front lines of the battlefield by lords who required a quick and inexpensive militia in order to bolster their existing forces. But there’s more to it than that – peasants were always in the front line of warfare due to the simple fact that they farmed rice. Rice wasn’t just a foodstuff, it was one of the key goods of trade during the region. Damaging the Shogun’s ability to produce and trade rice was the historical version of levying trade sanctions, and enforcing those levies with shock and awe tactics.
So not only is Tsitsen ensuring that the Shogun’s armed forces will have less foodstuff to keep them through the long winter’s war, he is also diminishing the reserve combatants AND cutting down on the Shogun’s economic standing. If a Shogun cannot afford to trade with other regions, Tseitsen sends the message that the Shogun is weak, thereby raising more lords to stand against him. It’s certainly not at all nice – if anything, it shows the horrors of warfare. Sorry Shogun, but no single sword is going to help you out of this little predicament.
Nope, sorry, I’m going to replay from the start. Rerolling a character, preferably someone who actually knows how to use a sword (stick ’em with the pointy end). The dice gods hate me, because today they want to mock my attempts – they give me a skill of 8 this time a stamina of 14 and luck of 8. I decide that this time I’ll take the special skill of Karumijutdu, the art of jumping around. I decide that my character is a samurai version of Monkey. You remember Monkey, don’t you? No, of course you don’t – he’s Chinese mythology, not Japanese. Wow, look at me mix up my mythology! May the great Amaterasu forgive me.
This time I decide to travel through the ford to the plains before I get to the mountains, hoping that direction will be free of marauding samurai, or at very least will instead have some kind of monster that is easily impressed by my ability to jump really high. Instead, I came across a group of peasants. This is bound to go well, because peasants loved the samurai. I mean, who wouldn’t love a group of noble-born elite that could kill you for the slightest imaginary insult? Remember what I mentioned earlier, about samurai being given the right to cut down peasants who did not show due respect? Well, a peasant in this particular group didn’t show me due respect – in fact, he shouted out that I was an honourless dog, and insulted the Shogun himself. Erm, in the eyes of a samurai, that’s considered high treason. So I did what I was required by historical accuracy to do… I drew my sword in order to claim their disrespectful, treasonous heads!
The peasants, the honourless dogs that they all were, rose up and attacked. I cut one of them down, but he injured me in the meanwhile. Realising that I was vulnerable, an especially large peasant who was wielding a torch full of burning charcoal charged over and beat me into pulp. Really, I only have myself to blame for this horrible death, because I chose to stick to the requirements of what a real-life samurai would have done, instead of the heroic fantasy options that were also available. You can blame misspent hours playing ‘Legend of the Five Rings’ tabletop RPG for this, my friends.
Anyway, we begin over again, for a third time! I rolled up skill of 10, luck of 10 and stamina of 17. Not too bad, and in satisfaction of this, I have called my noble samurai by the name ‘Jack’. I decide to follow the path which resulted in a somewhat less of a horrible and gruesome death last time, by starting my journey across the fens, heading out on the great quest to recover the Shogun’s missing sword. Along the way, I encounter the merchants and charcoal-burners, one of whom shouts abuse and dishonours the (utterly inept) noble Shogun. As you’ll remember, last time I chose to lop the fool’s head off. This time, I decide to be a compassionate man, and instead only demand that they pledge their loyalty to the Shogun. In doing so, one of the men decides to offer to join me on my journeys, perhaps to help carry my bags. Like any heroic samurai, I pile a whole bunch of bags full of wooden logs on the old man’s creaking back, and ride off into the sunset.
As we arrive at the next village, I am shocked to see that the old man has somehow died. There’s no cause for this (cough), and this is surely an ill omen. Regardless, I head into the village and ask if I may join the elders. I am invited in, and hope that they will offer me aid on my journey. Instead, the elders of the village all proceed to try to kill me, due to them being undead monsters. I quite like this, because they’re Rokuro-Kubi, which sounds like it could be a legitimate Japanese monster. Their heads float in the air, they make weird rattling noises, and they have a skill of 11 and a stamina of 17 and OH GIVE ME A BREAK!!
The amazing thing is – the genuinely astonishing, amazing thing – is that I actually manage to survive this encounter! Yes, despite the fact that this insanely over-powered monster is stronger than I’ll ever be, I manage to barely scrape through with a mere five points of stamina remaining. It’s what happens after that which is… urgh… So I run fleeing from the village, having suceeded in my luck roll. The reward for my luck roll is that I tumble into the river, and because I do not have more than 12 points of stamina, I am pulled down by the water to a horrible watery grave. This is the LUCKY outcome.
I imagine that the unlucky outcome would include having my head spontaneously explode. I mean, after having had a monster with a skill of 11 and a stamina of 17 thrown at you, do you really think ANYONE would survive this encounter with more than 12 stamina points? Really?
Sword of the Samurai is far too hard in terms of combat. Not just because my stats were poor, but because the skill score of all the enemies I encountered even at the early stages of the adventure were high, with the lowest one at 7 and the highest a staggering 10. It’s fine to build up to that kind of difficulty over the course of the adventure, but to start out with that kind of enemy, you just feel far outclassed.
Sadly, I remember the rest of the book being a lot of fun. At later points, I remember you got to speak with dragons, and were able to take part in celestial gladiatorial combat with a variety of spirits and avatars and so forth, which was all very fun, but being unable to get far enough to enjoy it is a major flaw. A word of advice for anyone wanting to write game books – difficulty curves don’t just exist in video games!
That’s it, I am done with Sword of the Samurai. This book is BROKEN. Utterly, completely and urreperably broken. I will not play it again. I will not play it on a boat, in a hat or wearing a coat. I will not play it if I am on fire, sleeping on a log or playing a lyre.
I’m, sadly, forced to give this book my lowest score ever – ritual seppuku.