Many tabletop role-players in the United States have likely heard of Gary Gygax. They might also know who Richard Garriott, Brian Fargo, Jon van Caneghem, and other CRPG luminaries are. But audiences in America might not have heard of Steve Jackson in the same way.
But for many that have, Steve Jackson is an iconic figure in British role-playing for a great number of accomplishments ranging from his Fighting Fantasy book series to co-founding Games Workshop which, today, is the home of the Warhammer series of tabletop titles. He was a fountain of ideas which formed many a fantasy foundation when it came to tabletop gaming and even card games pre-empting the wild success of Wizard of the Coast’s Magic by a number of years.
F.I.S.T., from 1988, is the kind of pioneering idea that Jackson was known for, touted as the “first interactive telephone role-playing game” sending players into a dungeon adventure in a huge castle with the help of their phone and their imagination. In 2014, The Guardian’s Stuart Dredge wrote up an interview with Steve Jackson recounting his work with the game and the remarkable story of how it came to be.
A company called Computerdial approached Jackson on whether he would be interested in making a game for them. The company was already involved with dial-in attractions like Russell Grant’s Hotline to the Stars for horoscopes and were doing well. Jackson also notes that this was also around the time when touch-dial phones were coming into greater use (replacing the rotary dial phones).
F.I.S.T. was the result, short for Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone which, in The Guardian’s article, Jackson admits that it was “A rather unfortunate title in this day and age, but at the time it seemed to be quite punchy”.
Special effects were recorded for the game (a head of lettuce slashed with a sword simulated someone’s head getting chopped off), Jackson wrote up the adventure, and an “adventurer’s pack” was even provided for free if you mailed out for one.
Titannica, a fan wiki focused on the Fighting Fantasy books, has an entry on F.I.S.T. which also dives into a few other details such as the mechanics behind the game. Actors and sound effects followed Jackson’s script for the game and were stored on 154 MB hard drives. Control programs were written and an interface card developed in France allowing the system to discern between push-button and rotary dial phone tones.
The game was surprisingly sophisticated for just being a “phone game”. As the ad noted, players could ‘save’ their characters (the system would hold them for up to four weeks) allowing them to return to playing the game later on. It tracked stamina (their health) the game, combat was handled with number combos, a place called “The Black Claw Tavern” served as a group discussion line where you could trade notes with other players. There was even a soundtrack and your score was recorded…if you managed to leave the dungeon alive, that is.
The ad tempted players to join in on this “PlunderQuest” into Kaddis-Ra’s underworld where “REAL GOLD PIECES” (thanks to a monthly competition) could be found as long as they survived the Demon Prince’s traps, undead servants, and were able to make it out alive with whatever treasure they could carry. The GOLD PIECES can also be used at the General Store where players could stock up on “magical weapons, armour, potions and charms”. Chunks of dialogue would sound out before letting the player key in their actions through their phone turning the game into a surrogate dungeon master.
A free “Adventurer’s Pack” contained things like a background to Castle Mammon (the first adventure), game rules, and a membership form for “The Adventurer’s Guild” along with news on the game. Players could dial in and listen to some of this, but paying per minute could get pretty costly. According to The Guardian’s interview, calls could cost 25p a minute (betwen 6pm – 9am, 38p all other times…yikes) with the average time for playing hovering around 7 minutes.
With thousands calling in, it was hugely lucrative for both Computerdial and Steve Jackson. Though calls would drop off after the initial rush (which Jackson assumed was because everyone already knew how to play through the adventure), F.I.S.T. was still a huge success. In an interview in 1998 with IGN, Jackson recounts being able to buy a Spanish villa from F.I.S.T.’s proceeds alone.
F.I.S.T. would get a sequel, F.I.S.T. 2: The Rings of Allion, in 1989 with the added enhancement of macro commands and randomly generated dungeon layouts. With the wild success of the first adventure, Castle Mammon, Computerdial wanted more and Jackson was happy to oblige, though there wouldn’t be a F.I.S.T. 3. Instead, there were a few spinoffs that made use of the same tech such as Gladiators of the Roman Empire in which players targeted body parts using their phones. After a few years, though, Steve Jackson moved on to other endeavors and as technology continued to ramp up, dial-up games like F.I.S.T. eventually gave way to even better games on PC and even consoles.
But for a time, F.I.S.T. was an amazingly creative way to turn a phone into a dungeon crawl. If you didn’t have access to a BBS, couldn’t do play-by-mail, or didn’t have a decent PC with any CRPGs, F.I.S.T. was a clever alternative featuring many of the basics that other RPGs did. It had a store, it had combat, treasure, monsters, and a great presentation. It was like a radio drama players could dive into and let their imaginations loose in. And for a time, and many players, it was a great way to escape into a land of adventure.