They were of their time perfectly; catching the post-OD&D era and giving a vibe which I'm going to bet ended up in pretty much all campaigns run by people of the period. (And anyone writing thieves in cities stories...I'm on to you. Port Blacksand, right?) They took all the traditional fantasy tropes – elves, orcs, dwarves, dragons, sorcerers and all, and put them into the 'you choose your fate' package. Those books got me into fantasy, and into roleplaying. Yes, its their fault. (Star Trek got me into science fiction a year or two earlier...so it's their fault as well!)
Now, these came back into print again not that long ago; I believe they are still just about in print, in fact. Periodically I pick up a few of them...but really, you can't go home again. (What I want is them in computer format – like the Lone Wolf books with Project Aon.) Still, at a very impressionable time they made a big difference, and I think they still strongly inform the sort of writing I do. It's something I always have at the back of my mind when I'm writing, because I very definitely believe that one has to know one's influences.
There were about sixty or so of them, as I recall, and I think at one point I had all of them up to about forty-something, when I began to peter out – and the books started to get a little hard to get, I think the publisher had lost interest, sales tailed off as computers reared their head – I got my first computer, an old 386/25, when I was eleven, and yes, computer games then became a big part of my life – but there are some I still remember very fondly...and mostly from the earlier period of the books, perhaps not surprisingly...
So...my top five...
5: Warlock of Firetop Mountain
The first in the series, and there are times it shows, but this is a dungeon crawl at its very best, and follows all the usual D&D tropes. I don't know this for a fact, but this smells very much to me as if it was actually run through by a group at some point. This is certainly not a bad thing, quite the reverse. I think this probably was one of the first ones I had, and I fear I don't remember ever actually completing it...
4: Forest of Doom
This one was wilderness – exploring the, well Forest of Doom, and I can remember this one seeming to have a really immense scope to it. Lots of replay value, and it seemed to mesh with later ones in the series as well. You could easily imagine that you were the same adventurer going from one quest to another at the time, something that was lost when the story element got heavier. This is really a sandbox – but again, a good one.
3: Citadel of Chaos
On the face of it, this really is just 'Firetop Mountain', take two, but...you had spells, and that really amazed me at the time. I'm pretty sure this was the first one I had, and I actually completed it, which is a bit of a milestone for me. Wandering through an immense mansion, and this one...it just worked really well for me, but I'm aware that I am really hit by nostalgia here rather than anything else. Another fun dungeon crawl.
2: City of Thieves
This one was a true classic. A city-based adventure, where you must venture into the peril-ridden streets of Port Blacksand to gather the ingredients for a weapon to kill an evil necromancer. The city just has so much character, so many interesting people and events, that it gets a life of its own; it still remains the city I want to emulate, all these years later. The author really did their homework here, there is just the right tone without it collapsing into farce. It became a key part of the setting, and it is very easy to understand why.
1: Caverns of the Snow Witch
This one might surprise...but it was the first one I played that was in two parts, and I was really surprised by that, the first time around. You fight and kill the Snow Witch, which is difficult enough, and then have to venture out in search of the secretive Healer to get a Death Spell lifted from you, by travelling to the top of Firetop Mountain and seeing the phoenix. This ties into Forest of Doom, as a sort of prequel...but having the adventure be in two parts was just amazing to me when I was a kid. I even finished it!
Any other candidates I'm not thinking of? Anyone want to share their favourites?