Saturday, 18 February 2012

Fighting Fantasy #1 - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Title: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Author: Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone

Illustrator: Russ Nicholson

Published: 1982

Level of previous knowledge: Although I remember the premise extremely well, specific encounters and locations elude me. All I remember are the warlock, a dragon, a maze (shudder), and some skeletons… I’m sure the rest will come back to me though.

Plot summary: Um. This isn’t really explained in the version of the book I own (the green zip-zag version) but apparently I’m supposed to enter a cave in a mountain, fight my way past a horde of monsters and traps, then kill a powerful wizard-type person for no reason other than to steal his treasure. Apparently this will make me a ‘hero’, although I suspect a nominal one at best.

Rules: The rules are fairly standard for this one as I recall, except perhaps the restriction on eating Provisions only when offered by the text. I’ll abide by this rule, at least to begin with, as I understand the attempt to prevent players from wolfing down a whole backpack full of food in the seconds leading up to combat (this is something I’ll try to avoid doing in future gamebooks anyway).

Adventure Log

Attempt #1
Stats rolled: SKILL 10, STAMINA 18, LUCK 12
I selected the Potion of Strength to take with me, noting that it contains enough for two uses. Surely I’ll be invincible!

While it was nice of the villagers to advise me that the ferryman would require a gold piece to take me across the river, I would have liked the opportunity to earn or borrow one before wandering off to the mountain. Oh well, maybe the ‘warty-faced goblins’ which they warned me guard the entrance to the cave will be carrying some coinage. If they exist. Which they don’t. Curse you, villagers!

Entering the mountain, I soon arrived at a T-junction where I picked a direction at random, and found myself in front of a locked door. In true adventurer style, and given my apparent motivation for being here (sheer greed), of course I attempted to smash it down. I succeeded heroically, and charged straight into the pit behind the door. Oho! This warlock is cunning, yes? He was obviously toying with me, as some poisoned spikes or some kind of hungry pit monster would have improved this trap (from his point of view) greatly.

Clambering back out, I headed back past the junction, and upon the lack of any option to return to the outside world and nurse my scuffed knee, went down the other passageway. I came across a sleeping goblin, which I was forced to attempt to sneak past, rather than the sensible option of impaling him in his sleep. Fortunately I was unable to fail this LUCK test and moved on, arriving at a door, behind which I could hear snoring. Nice to know the warlock had top-notch security in case some kleptomaniac adventurer came to visit! Opening the door I found another sleeping goblin which I was prevented from callously slaughtering, instead choosing to quietly steal his wooden box. It contained a gold piece and a mouse, which apparently made me so lucky I received 2 LUCK points.

The next door led to an empty room with another small box. Given my 100% track record with boxes so far, I opened this one, only to be viciously attacked by a snake! After crushing its skull under my boot I found a bronze key with a number on it, which I threw away as it was obviously useless (OK, I might be kidding).

Judging from the singing, the next room obviously contained someone who was actually awake. Confident in my abilities, I pushed open the door to meet two orcish-looking guards, and another small box. Unable to resist the lure of potentially great treasure (maybe this one would contain a hamster) I charged in and butchered the drunken creatures. Opening the box I found a book about Dragonfire, containing the words of a spell used to fight evil dragons, which I scribbled down, just in case. You never know!

Turning a corner and passing another junction, I arrived at another door with sounds of life behind it. This time there were five orcs, and after a quick calculation (2 orcs = 0 stamina lost, 0* 5/2 = 0) I rushed in eagerly. After polishing them off, taking a couple of unlucky wounds in the process, I was rewarded with 1 SKILL and 5 STAMINA points, because I was ‘proud of my victory’.   I found yet another box, this time long and thin, which contained a bow and silver arrow, and a cryptic inscription.

My next encounter was with another locked door, which I charged down more carefully than the last one. Inside was an old man who was imprisoned for trying to steal the warlock’s treasure. Sadly I wasn’t given the option to let justice take its course and let him rot (and I guess this may have been considered hypocritical) and instead let him go, receiving some useful information for my efforts. If not for the rule about LUCK not exceeding its Initial score, mine would have been somewhere around the 15 mark by now.

Forcing the next door earned me a shiny shield, and the opportunity to leave any item behind in order to accommodate it. The idea of leaving behind a tiny key in exchange for the shield did appeal to me, but in the end I went for the sensible option of leaving behind my existing shield instead, while making a note to make sure I carry as much junk as possible around in future so I’m never forced to leave anything useful behind.

The next room saw me take on two goblins who were busy torturing a dwarf. I was under the impression that goblins were generally weaker than orcs, but these ones had evidently been training hard and put up more of a fight. No boxes this time, but I took some smelly cheese from one of the goblins (see previous paragraph) and moved on.

Following the old man’s advice, I pulled the correct lever at the portcullis and it lifted. Passing by a wooden bench with a sign offering me the chance to rest (surely any adventurer would consider this an obvious trap?)  I wandered down a few more passages and started to get rather lost. Eventually I opened a door to find a statue of a cyclops, with a sparkling jewel for an eye. Surely the consequences of stealing this should be fairly obvious, but… sparkly jewel!   Attempting to prise it out provoked the expected fight, and the cyclops battered me to within an inch of my life. Spending 5 LUCK points to scrape through on 1 STAMINA, I immediately drank the first draught of the Potion of Strength I had brought with me. Phew! As well as the jewel, I found another numbered key inside the statue. There’s nothing like being rewarded for a bit of greed…

Shortly afterwards a random barbarian threw himself on to my sword, and I found a mallet and wooden stakes. Pondering this item, I came to the conclusion that I probably didn’t want to find out where it could be used. Rushing straight through the room containing eerie-looking portraits (stopping for an art critique seemed like a bad idea), I found some Y-shaped bits of wood (leaving the cheese behind in order to pick them up, ha!) and was throttled slightly by a sentient rope.

I then arrived at the river, and immediately cursed my luck – the villagers had told me to save ‘a gold piece’ for the ferryman (and I had one), but the sign here indicated that the price was double that. Muttering something about inflation, I thought it best not to waste the ferryman’s time and headed for the rickety old bridge instead. Remarkably this wasn’t a disaster and I made it across.  

Opening another door, I saw a sleeping man and a dog, which I assumed to be the pairing the old man referred to as guarding a key to the boat house. I was unsure as to whether I need access to the boat house, but having keys generally seemed like a better situation than not having them, so I thought I’d wake him up (he isn’t a goblin so I decided against attacking, even though I was given the option to slaughter his dog) and try the friendly approach. Sadly I was too honest about the nature of my avaricious quest and he became rather upset, sprouted hair all over his body, yelled something like ‘Arooo!’ and attempted to eat me, although he allowed his dog the first bite. Upon slaying them both I took the bunch of keys and wandered back towards the river looking for the boat house.

I found the correct door almost immediately, unlocked it and went inside to meet the hard-working skeletons inside. Foolishly I made up a tall tale about being their new boss, which they didn’t buy at all (and who could blame them?), so ended up having to smash them all to bits. So much for Firetop Boats Ltd! Finding a silver-bladed chisel and leaving a Y-shaped piece of wood behind, I dodged some more skeletons and entered the next room. This one contained a wooden box (it’s been a while) and a possibly dead/undead-looking person, whom I was not given the option of gutting like a fish, instead being given the choice of which way to tiptoe. I went for the box, naturally, and ended up having to fight the thing, which turned out to be a wight. After it raked me a couple of times I switched to the silver chisel as a weapon, then noticed the ‘If it hits you 3 times’ text and went for the silver arrow option. Fortunately it hit its mark and I looted the box of its gold pieces.

Feeling a bit weary of all the undead I seem to be upsetting, I groaned as I entered the next room. Three ‘dead’ bodies, huh? Maybe I should attempt a friendly chat before they spring up and tear me limb from limb? Nope, once again I was given the option to tiptoe through, but decided instead to search one of the bodies, hoping that my adventurer self would at least have the sense to check that they were genuinely dead before rifling through their pockets. Finding some gold pieces, I then pushed my luck by searching the next one, and clumsily tripped over the other one, which turned out to be a ghoul. Happily I defeated it without a scratch, and found an unhelpful ‘map of the maze of Zagor and a vial of liquid, which I threw away on the basis that I was fairly healthy and didn’t want to jeopardise that.

Moving on, I finally reached the fabled maze, and wandered aimlessly for a while before stumbling into a room containing the obligatory minotaur. Despite being slightly gored I won the ensuing fight and claimed another numbered key as my reward. Further wandering around the maze led me to a study of some kind, where an annoying old man waved his hands at me and teleported me to another part of the maze. After much frustrated meandering, I managed to find my way out of the maze purely by looking for section numbers which I hadn’t seen before (which I suppose is the equivalent of peering randomly down slightly different corridors and working out if you’ve been there before).

 The next room, uh, cavern (uh-oh), contained a hole in the roof, which instantly brought to mind the spell I had memorised earlier – and in true ‘evil dragon’ fashion, he introduced himself by shooting a jet of fire from the darkness. I cast the spell (fortunately my character had a good memory) and the dragon stomped off with a singed face.

Carrying on along a passageway, I eventually encounter yet another harmless-looking old man. Remembering where being polite got me last time (and frankly suspecting the worst – who would be guarded by a dragon?) , I drew my sword and burst through the door, trying to put him off his guard. He revealed himself as the Warlock, and didn’t seem upset in the least that I was here to rob him of his life savings, but I heroically rummaged through my pack (you’d think I would have done this before entering) for something to even the odds. Remembering how I’d almost died in the process of retrieving the sparkly red jewel I thought I’d give that a try first, waved it vaguely in his direction and watched as he shrivelled into a heap of dust. Oh.

Quite surprised at this fairly anti-climactic climax, I entered the treasure room while checking my backpack for keys. I had only three keys, so my only chance was the single combination they produced. Completely unexpectedly, the keys turned and the chest opened!

Conclusion:  Success! Well, I certainly didn’t expect to finish this one on the first attempt. Having looked at a map since this playthrough, there are two east-or-west decisions (one after the other) which have to be made correctly, to get one of the necessary keys (the cyclops one). It also seems I was fortunate to miss the key in the boat house (by searching the tools rather than the drawers) which would have confused the final decision somewhat.

Number of combats: 22


Writing: Very much a classic plot – adventurer enters dungeon for no particular reason other than to loot the place of all its treasure and become a hero. Forgiveable given this book’s status as the first Fighting Fantasy book, but perhaps having been spoiled by much less shallow plots in more recent gamebooks, it doesn’t grab me in the same way. For some this gamebook might represent a gateway to a much-loved hobby, but in my case it wasn’t the first gamebook I played and therefore doesn’t make me all dewy-eyed with nostalgia. The writing is concise, with no unnecessary detail -  The dungeon itself makes little sense, with magical items dotted around for no particular reason, and the keys to the Warlock’s chest scattered at random. However the advantage of the basic plot is its simplicity which makes it easy to play without having to remember all sorts of details.
Writing: 2/5

Artwork: The artwork doesn’t always get across the dank atmosphere you would expect to experience in a dungeon of this kind and it’s a bit rough around the edges, but is very detailed and the familiar style does appeal to me.
Artwork: 3/5

Design: Gameplay is fairly straightforward – the player generally moves from room to room and has a series of discrete encounters, which when overcome reward the player with items which may or may not be useful for overall success. There are no situations where I felt unfairly punished for exploring – even wandering into a trap wasn’t too crippling, and none of the fights I was forced into were overly difficult (although the Iron Cyclops would have been impossible for a low-skill character and I think the true path requires you to fight him).

 I found the fact that I was forced to drop items at certain points in order to pick up others a little annoying, and this would have been downright frustrating had I really wanted to keep hold of everything. This rule made little sense in that there was no distinction between small and large items, so I could happily have left a key behind in order to pick up a shield, for instance. By the same token if I was carrying nothing but a key I would have been forced to do this. I guess this is a simplified way of forcing players to make decisions about what they carry, but I felt like a limited inventory size of 10 items or so would have been a better way to achieve this.

Being partly an Ian Livingstone creation, this book bears his trademark in that there are certain paths you must take, and certain encounters you must have, or you cannot complete the adventure successfully. Sadly this also means that there are certain paths and encounters you cannot experience on your way to successful completion, as there is no way to go back to a previous junction and go the other way. This is, in one way, a shame, but when you do eventually find that true path, it makes it all the more satisfying.
Design: 2/5

Fairness: Overall this isn’t a difficult gamebook although the odds are against completing it on a first attempt, due to the fact that one of the required keys is easily missable by taking a wrong turn.
Fairness: 4/5

Cheating index: Perfectly doable without cheating.
0 Razaaks


Average enemy stats
Successful path
22 encounters, SKILL 6.3, STAMINA 5.8  
Entire book
67 encounters, SKILL 6.5, STAMINA 6.0

Instant death paragraphs: 4

Any player can win no matter how weak initial dice rolls – I doubt a SKILL 7 character could succeed here, so I'm calling this a LIE.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed my romp through Firetop Mountain despite the anti-climax. Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since I played any gamebooks properly. My final scores for each gamebook will be a combination of the scores for plot, design, artwork and fairness, plus my own bias which I reserve the right to apply as liberally as I wish!

Final score: 5/10


Thursday, 16 February 2012


Hello and welcome to my gamebook reviews blog!

I’ve been a fan of gamebooks since the 1980s. I discovered House of Hell in my school library when I was 12 years old, and although it gave me nightmares, I was hooked. For the next 7-8 years I sought out every last Fighting Fantasy gamebook that I could get my hands on, and spent most of my spare time  in my room, rolling dice and scribbling numbers on paper. I was gutted after 1995 when I realised that no more FF books were to be published, and that combined with the downturn in Lone Wolf books (I never enjoyed them after #20) led to a complete lack of further purchases for many years. Although I revisited my collection from time to time, eventually adult life took over and the books were left to gather dust.

Years later, I discovered Project Aon, a volunteer group of Lone Wolf fans who obtained permission to republish the Lone Wolf books in an online format. Then I heard that Wizard books had not only republished some of the books, but had released some new ones, which I snapped up. Recently, in a bored moment I did some random Googling and discovered several websites and blogs dedicated to Fighting Fantasy. After reading about other people’s experiences with gamebooks, I was imbued with the desire to play through my entire collection again. Not only that, but I thought I’d blog about it as well. I’m aware that this has been done before, but one thing I’ve learned about most gamebook fans is that they can’t get enough of this kind of thing :) 

The general plan is to start with the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and work my way through the original series (1-59), the new Wizard books, the Sorcery! Series, and then move on to the Lone Wolf series (1-20 only, naturally) afterwards. Somewhat foolishly, I’ll be attempting each book over and over until I finally succeed. I’ll be playing honestly for the most part – certainly for any first attempt at a book, but may resort to minor cheating as the attempts go on! If I find that a Fighting Fantasy adventure requires a certain level of SKILL to have a hope of succeeding, for instance, I will be creative with rolling my stats – one alternative method I may use is to roll 2D6 for STAMINA as usual, but also roll 2 D6s and pick one for SKILL and one for LUCK. Certain books may require a greater degree of cheating than others, and I’ll be giving each book a rating for this, out of 5 Razaaks (yes, I remember him!) Also I obviously have previous knowledge of the books, although how much I remember of them will vary greatly, and I haven’t read the new Wizard books at all.

I’ll be posting a summary of each attempt, keeping an Excel adventure sheet and posting some stats about each attempt and the book overall. I’ll review each book in terms of its plot, writing, mechanics, design and artwork, and bore you to death with some analysis of how the book is put together. If I have any sanity left, I might also post a solution or a map or two. It goes without saying that these posts will be spoilerific in the extreme...

The first review will hopefully be up within a week or so, although I can make no promises about how regularly I post!