Graphing Fighting Fantasy favourite, House of Hell

Cover to Steve Jackson's House of Hell Fighting Fantasy gamebook
House of Hell by Steve Jackson

The Fighting Fantasy series of books, created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, were a staple of 1980s solo roleplaying. With simple rules and basic character creation (roll two dice for your stamina, etc) the meat of each book comprised 400 numbered paragraphs. Starting at paragraph 1 you, THE HERO, starred in your own adventure, following instructions to turn to different paragraphs. Success or swift death depended on your choices and the outcome of battles and luck rolls.

My old copies of a handful of the 50-something books has long since decayed in a damp attic. But I recently came across “Fighting Fantasy Classics“, an app version by Tin Man Games featuring a slowly growing library of favourites from the series. After some research into “best of…” lists, I decided to buy a copy of House of Hell, the 10th book in the series, and give it a whirl.

To save you scrolling to the end to get the full graph of all 400 pages of the book, here it is. You’ll need to use the free yEd Graph Editor or the browser version, yED Live, to view it.

I’ve also graphed all 400 pages, and the many magical items with their varied uses, of book number 3: The Forest of Doom. You can pick up that graph here.

I hadn’t read this particular entry in the series before, but the style was exactly as I remembered. Thrown into a dangerous scenario, you are presented with simple choices (open the door on the left or the door on the right?) with major consquences. The tension in the books arises from the fact that there is rarely any hint as to which choice is “correct” and death comes quickly with one false move.

This lack of guidance is also the downfall of the series: you almost never have any idea if you are on the right track towards victory. You really have to want to finish the book because it requires a dedication bordering on obsession to replay multiple times, exploring and documenting every path until you find the right one. And, for many of the books, there really is only one path towards victory. Deviate even slightly and you’ll hit a dead end or miss a vital key that opens a vital door.

This is one clever aspect of the books: keys (and similar objects or even just learned information) are inscribed with numbers. When you come across a suitable door, you add that number to your current paragraph to “unlock” it. This creates jumps in the correct path through the book, and prevents cheating by working backwards from the victory paragraph (usually paragraph 400).

I hadn’t realised as a kid that there was only one path to victory. Although I managed to finish one or two of the books, others left me completely stumped as I found myself reaching the same death over and over, and I quickly gave up. My experience with House of Hell quickly became the same grind, until I realised that, after a certain point, I was being funnelled into the same dead end.

Puzzle depedency chart for the start of House of Hell
Puzzle dependency chart for House of Hell

It turns out that the Fighting Fantasy books are full of such dead ends – some short, some filling half the book in threads that lead only to pointless death. A frustrating example in House of Hell is a highly memorable encounter with a vampire. It’s difficult to get out alive but, if you do, you are apparently rewarded by finding a secret passageway that takes you into a dungeon where you’re faced with many different exciting encounters and choices. But all of these choices lead, ultimately, to death. If you meet the vampire on your journey, you are already at the start of a very long dead end.

I decided to map out the whole book as a “puzzle dependency chart“. It revealed a labyrinth of choices where even the very first decision (knock on the front door or investigate the back of the house?) can divert you into a dead end that lasts many, many pages, with no indication that you’ve gone wrong.

Mapping the book was hard work. It would perhaps be easier with a physical copy of the book but, still, documenting multiple connections between 400 pages of text is not straightforward.

Was it worth it? In the end I found the route to victory. But by then I’d also explored almost every dead end, so the victory felt a little pyrrhic.

Here’s my PDC for The House of Hell. I create my PDCs using the free yEd Graph Editor. There’s also a browser version, yED Live, for creating and viewing the graphml files.

I’ve also picked up a copy of “The Forest of Doom”, which I managed to complete as a kid and is apparently one of the easiest books in the series. My next task will be to map it out to see what’s different about it.

UPDATE: I finished Forest of Doom on my second attempt. The first time through, I went East at the first junction, which immediately puts you on a path to failure. The second time, I went West. After that random choice, you’re given a fair hint at the next junction that you’re on the right track. Even if you don’t know the correct route through the book, having a high skill and luck, and investigating every nook and cranny gives you a fair chance of succeeding. But the journey can be very much simplified if you know which items to buy at the start. Hint: armband of strength and holy water, but not the rod of water-finding which is a complete red herring!

Happy puzzling!

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