In Unhinged Praise of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!

Whoo! No blogging for a long time, thanks to a lot of craziness including a cross-country trip that ended with my cat down a well. But I am finally settled down, and with a little more time to do things like, say, pay tribute to my formative influences.

Today, that’s Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, four choose-your-own-adventure books first released as part of the Fighting Fantasy series. I recently picked up the very awesome Android re-releases. These games are fantastic in the present day, with some great mechanics and minigames.

But more importantly, they’ve reminded me of the huge fascination I used to have with the Sorcery! books. I think I only had two, maybe three of them, but they stuck with me – not because of their adventure format, but because of their tone. In the world of Sorcery!, everything is simultaneously bizarre, depressing, bleak, threatening, and just slightly goofy. In other words, the books were close to the first time I ever actually ran into Dark Fantasy, and by extension, The Weird.

The writing is of course important, and more on that in a second. But what really sets Sorcery! apart is the amazing illustration work by John Blanche. There’s criminally little of his early work online, but here are just a few tastes.

There’s a lot of good John Blanche in this free .PDF version of the Sorcery spellbook.

I don’t have some kind of patent on pointing out that Blanche is a genius. He ended up being art director for Games Workshop for a while, and, as this post puts it, epitomized the ‘dungeon punk’ aesthetic of fantasy in the ’80s. His work has had clear influence on the aesthetics of black metal, board games, and black metal board games.

But that would all come later. For a nine-ten-eleven year old kid, this was context-free mind-bending at its absolute finest. Everything about the world Sorcery! summoned was bizarre, psychedelic, threatening. Moving on from Blanche’s work, there was the narrative itself (I guess written by Steve Jackson? I’m not sure, and don’t care too much). This was a series of kid’s books in which BAD THINGS HAPPENED. People would rob and stab you. The monsters weren’t just powerful, they were devious and gross. Sometimes they acted nice, at first.

Sorcery!, I’m realizing, really wanted me to learn to not trust people (or things). I kind of wish I’d learned that lesson better.

The first three Sorcery! books are now available as Android apps, and I can’t recommend them enough. Even more than the already-impressive books, they really illustrate the huge potential of narrative games. They’re vastly more satisfying than any action-RPG dungeon crawl (fun as those are), and I wish more like them existed.