Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Forest of Doom: Final Thoughts

If there is one word that I would use to describe The Forest of Doom, it might very well be "comforting".  That's probably not what Ian Livingstone had in mind when he wrote the thing, but there's just something about this book that puts me at ease.  Perhaps it's the rules; I do love a Fighting Fantasy gamebook that just goes with the basics.  It could be the multiple chances to succeed that it gives the reader; this book stands alone in that it allows you to go back to the start if you fail to find Gillibran's hammer.  It could even be the difficulty level, which is pitched in such a way that any character with any stats could complete it.  Most probably, it's a combination of all of the above.

This is Ian Livingstone's first solo effort as a gamebook writer, and it shows.  I hate to say it, but he's just not the designer that his partner Steve Jackson is, and whereas Jackson's initial outing provided a classic in The Citadel of Chaos, Livingstone's first gamebook is merely decent.

The setting is novel, at least in theory.  This is the first time that a Fighting Fantasy has ventured out of doors, but in practice what that amounts to is a dungeon with lots of trees and grass instead of tunnels.  It's probably more pleasant than Firetop Mountain, but it's not as intriguing.  That said, the forest setting does make more sense.  The Forest of Doom suffers from the same problem as Warlock of Firetop Mountain did: very few of the encounters are connected, and the whole journey through the forest feels like a string of wandering monsters.  In a forest, though, it's a bit more plausible that you'd encounter a wide variety of nasties.

The encounters in the forest are quite good, though.  Yes, there are the obligatory Livingstone moments of "a monster jumps out, now fight it!" but there are enough genuinely interesting scenarios to make up for it.  The fire demon and his mushroom garden, the gremlins and their strange obsession with clay hands; both are examples of Livingstone at his best.

I also want to praise Livingstone here for keeping his bloodthirstiness in check.  Anyone who has played his later books can attest to the fact that he's a sadistic bugger who delights in crafting frustratingly impossible gamebooks, but this is a younger, kinder, gentler Ian.  None of the fights are too difficult.  You can take any number of different paths to victory.  You only need a couple of items to succeed.  As I've already mentioned, you can even loop back to the start if you don't find the hammer.  Yes, it creates continuity problems when you encounter the same monsters again, but at least the thought was there.  It's nice sometimes, after a long hard day of Crypt of the Sorcerer, to come back to this book and remember the times when Ian Livingstone was a very nice man.

Malcolm Barter, on the other hand, I don't have such warm feelings towards.  Some of his illustrations are genuinely great - I love the Fire Demon, for instance - but there are a few that weird me out.  There are a lot of shirtless men in this book, and they all have the same odd, lumpy quality to their musculature.  His werewolf has a too-human look, and I've always been uncomfortable with that Catwoman illustration.

Still, for all that I've disparaged it, I really love The Forest of Doom.  A lot of that is nostalgia; it is the first gamebook I ever legitimately finished, after all. But more than that, it's a solid gamebook with just about the right difficulty level, a good variety of encounters, and no complications.  It's just a simple, straightforward adventure that's fun to play through despite its flaws, and I wish the series had more of those.

Addendum - S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating

Story & Setting: Darkwood Forest is iconic in Fighting Fantasy lore, but it never quite feels like the dark, deadly place that the book initially describes. It has a lot of fun encounters, but few of them feel connected. As for the story, it's oddly low-key: the Hammer of Gillibran is important to the dwarves, but the hero doesn't have a lot of stake in it.  At least it's not another evil wizard, I suppose. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Toughness: This book is pitched at just about the right difficulty level. You don't need high stats to finish it, and the ability to loop back to the start means that you won't be doomed by choosing the wrong path at an intersection. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The writing is evocative enough, even though Darkwood Forest isn't as fearsome as the introduction leads you to believe.  Malcolm Barter's art is strange, and his characters have an oddly lumpy quality to their musculature that grosses me out. I have to bump it back up for that Iain McCaig cover though. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Mechanics: This is as basic as it gets for FF, and that's fine by me.  There's nothing new or clever going on here, but the fundamentals of the system are done really well.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: As far as innovation goes, the only things that Forest of Doom provides over The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is the wilderness setting and the ability to loop back to the beginning. It's also the start of a story branch that runs through (at least) books 9, 14 and 26. Does it count if Livingstone influences himself?  Rating: 4 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: The monsters here are mostly D&D staples, and most of the NPCs are fairly unmemorable.  Yaztromo is a big one though, and even though he's your fairly stereotypical crotchety wizard he does stand out.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Amusement: It could be the nostalgia talking, but I do enjoy this book quite a bit. Not having to worry about finding the critical path makes it a pleasant, relaxing read, but that also means that it doesn't scratch the itch if I'm looking for a challenge. Rating: 4 out of 7.

I'm going to give Forest of Doom the bonus point, just because I love it so.  The above totals add up to 30, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 60.  It's in the enjoyable but unremarkable range.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Forest of Doom - Attempt 1, Part 2

My last installment ended with the discovery of the first half of the Hammer of Gillibran, a handle inscribed with the letter 'G'.  Now I was left standing in the cave of a dead ogre, pondering my next move, agonising over what direction my quest would take next.  Not too much agonising, though; I was an adventurer after all.  What else was there for an adventurer to do but loot the cave?

The cave was not exactly a treasure trove, but it did contain a silver box that I could not resist opening.  Having already found one useful item in the cave, I should have known better, because the box was filled with poison gas.  Luckily, I came prepared, and was able to avoid harm by slipping in my magical Nose Filters, purchased earlier from the wizard Yaztromo.  So far, that guy is earning his keep.  The box was empty, but I kept it anyway because, you know, silver.  I do wonder why that Ogre had poison gas in a box, though.  I'd like a reason other than "Ian Livingstone put it there to kill nosy adventurers".

I left the cave and walked further north, only to catch my foot in a noose and be left dangling from a tree.  A successful Luck test meant that my sword remained in its scabbard, and I was able to cut myself down.  It should be noted that at this point my character contemplates waiting around for the trapper to arrive, presumably planning to murder the fellow.  Chilling.

Further north, I found a knotted vine hanging from a tree, and climbed up.  Who wouldn't?  It led to a wooden platform that was home to an APE-MAN, who attacked me with a daintily-clutched femur.

Despite my increased Skill (from a potion I drank earlier), and the Ape-Man's questionable bone-gripping technique, he managed to hit me a couple of times before I killed him.  I had a penalty to my Attack Strength due to fighting in a tree, while the Ape-Man was right at home, funnily enough.  It didn't do him a great deal of good, though, because soon I was looting his corpse.   He was wearing a copper bracelet that I snapped on, and it turned out to be a Bracelet of Skill which gave me a +1 bonus to Attack Strength.  Man, there are a lot of combat bonuses in this gamebook.  There's bound to be a tough boss battle at the end, right?

Still further north I came to a four-way junction, and headed west, then north at a T-junction.  Then west at another junction.  (Gripping stuff.)  The sound of barking dogs could be heard ahead, but I decided not to hide as they drew nearer.  I was met by a masked rider and his hunting pack.

I'm pretty sure that his horse is not breathing fire.  Despite being an adventurer, and also despite the gold rings he was wearing on every finger, I refrained from attacking him and entered into peaceable conversation.  The rider was on the trail of a wild boar, but I couldn't help him.  Even so he gave me some belladonna before galloping away.  What a great guy.  I'm glad I didn't cut his hand off and steal his rings.

I turned west at the next crossroads, and found a mud hut that was home to some sort of mutated freak.

This was Quin, who was just sitting around flexing his abnormal musculature. Transfixed by his horrid beauty, I went inside the hut, whereupon he challenged me to an arm-wrestling match.  How could I refuse him?

I came to the conclusion that Quin's physique could only have been reached through some sort of vile magical experiment, so I decided to use my Armband of Strength to even the odds.  It did the trick, and the defeated Quin gifted me with some Dust of Levitation.  I left him slumped at the table with a suicidal expression on his face, and journeyed back into the forest.

Back at the last junction I turned north I came to a waterfall that tumbled noisily down into a river.  There was a boat tied to a post nearby, and also a set of stone steps leading down behind the falls.  I took the steps, and was soon in the lair of a hostile FISH MAN.

Alas, the Fish Man had no valuables, but he also wasn't able to hit me in combat, so it all evened out.  I climbed out to the north side of the river and made camp as the sun set.

Just as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain had Chekhov's Sharpened Stick, The Forest of Doom had provided me with Chekhov's Belladonna.  Spurred on by this narrative law, a WEREWOLF awakened me from my sleep and attacked.  I dispatched it without taking any damage, though, so Chekhov's Belladonna remained on the metaphorical mantelpiece.

The next morning I set off again, heading north at another junction.  Delusions of invincibility must have been distracting me, though, because I walked right into a pit trap.  A successful Luck test meant that I avoided being impaled on a pointy stick, but I was still trapped at the bottom.  Or I would have been, were it not for my Boots of Leaping.  With a single bound I was free of the pit, and on my way.

Further down the path I found a sword stuck into a large rock.  Unable to resist such temptations, I pulled on the hilt, and with a successful Skill test yanked it free.  (With my Skill score of 12, there was no way for me to fail.)  The sword was enchanted, granting me a +2 bonus to my Skill score.

(At this point I want to digress into a discussion of The Rules.  Sometimes when you find a magical weapon it grants a bonus to your Attack Strength.  This is all fine, and presents no problem with the rules as written.  Sometimes, however, such a weapon will grant a bonus to your Skill score.  By the rules, though, your Skill score can't be raised above its initial level unless the text specifically says so.  By the rules, the sword that I just picked up would grant me no advantage at all, which doesn't make much sense.  That said, I didn't apply the bonus.  I tend to stick with the rules by following the text as closely as possible.  Besides, I was quite powerful enough.)

At the next junction I turned east, then north.  Just off the path was a pool of bubbling mud, which I decided to apply to my wounds.  This is the sort of thing that counts as medicine in Ye Olden Days, and sure enough it healed me back to full health.  Just in time to be randomly attacked by a PTERODACTYL, all flapping around and breaking verisimilitude.  The standard fantasy potpourri of mythological beasts never really bothers me, but there's something about dinosaurs that just feels wrong.  It might be the names.  Anyway, I took my frustration out on the poor bugger, and while examining its corpse I spotted an arrow painted on the ground.  My curiosity piqued, I followed the arrow to an old tree trunk with a dark hole leading downwards.

Dark holes are always promising to an adventurer, because that's where all the good treasure is.  Despite my lack of a light source, I quickly used my magic Rope of Climbing to make my way down.

At the bottom was a cavern filled with multi-coloured mushrooms, being tended to by a bunch of small, pale-skinned humanoids: CLONES!  The clones weren't attacking me, and I didn't want to attack them.  I also didn't want to mess with the mushrooms; as a rule, I don't fool around with mushrooms.  Unfortunately, the only options I had involved doing one or the other.  I figured that, being a combat monster, I'd have more chance against the clones than the mushrooms, so I rushed to the attack.

The fellow I attacked put up no resistance as I struck his head from his shoulders.  I like that touch of character; my warrior didn't try to stab him through the chest, or go for the efficient kill.  He went right for a decapitation.  There's a certain flair to it.  Anyway, the headless clone dissolved and turned into a purple mushroom that turned to face me.  That was my cue to get out of there, because, as I've said, I don't fool around with mushrooms.  I fled towards a patch of green mushrooms, then left the cavern by a flight of steps.

Halfway up the steps was a chest and a barrel.  Without even bothering to check if the chest was open, I blew it apart with my sword, and claimed the 8 gold pieces inside.  In the barrel I found a shield, described as an emperor's shield forged long ago by a master armourer.  I decided to take it with me; now, whenever I was wounded I could roll a dice, and on a 4, 5 or 6 the shield would protect me from 1 point of damage.

Further up the steps was an alcove, with the sound of shuffling feet coming from within.  The only things with shuffling feet are zombies or song-and-dance men, and neither of those are good, so I kept on up the stairs.  What I found there wasn't exactly pleasant either.

A FIRE DEMON!  I had to fight it to escape from the cavern, and for most adventurers it would have been tough.  Not only did it have a Skill and Stamina of 10, but in every round it had a chance of hitting me with its fiery whip.  Unfortunately for the poor Fire Demon, my Bracelet of Skill gave me an effective Skill of 13, and I made short work of him.  His whip almost got me on one round, but I was able to deflect it with my shield, and finish the battle unscathed.

Behind the Fire Demon was a throne, and next to his corpse was a crown.  A couple of clones were bowing to me.  I had the option of sitting on the throne, or wearing the crown, but there was no way.  I know an instant death scenario when I see one.  I hightailed it out of the cavern, and back to the surface.

I followed a path north, turned west at a junction, then turned north again, and continued until I spotted a stone building covered with ivy.  The building had no windows, and the door was stone as well.  With no key I thought I'd have to leave the place unexplored, but luckily I was able to charge the door down.  (I needed to roll under both my Skill and Luck with two dice.  My Skill was 12, which was no problem, but my Luck of 7 was a worry, so I drank my Potion of Fortune to raise it to 8.  I rolled a 7, so I would have succeeded anyway, but it was best to be safe.)

Inside the building, stone steps led downwards.  I followed them down into a crypt.

Lighting a candle I found in an alcove, I investigated the room.  The skeleton of a goblin or an orc lay in the corner; I was all prepared for it to try to kill me, but it seemed that Ian was resisting the cliche for now.  There was also a sarcophagus, which I decided to open.  The slab on top was too heavy to budge, but with the Dust of Levitation that I had won from Quin I was able to look inside, and... SWERVE!  I'd been worried about the skeleton outside, but inside the sarcophagus was a GHOUL!

Luckily I had a vial of holy water, which I splashed all over it.  The ghoul retreated into a corner of the room, leaving me free to loot its coffin.  To my delight, I found 25 gold pieces, and a bronze hammer head inscribed with the letter G.  Gillibran's hammer was complete!  Now all I had to do was get out of the forest, and my quest would be over.

I followed the path north, then east, then north again.  I stopped when I saw the lair of some creature, and something glittering within.  My quest was complete, and no doubt the dwarves would reward me handsomely, but...  Shiny object!  I had to have it!  I bent down to pick it up...

A WYVERN popped out of its cave to shoot fire at me!  I was lucky, though, and it missed.  Then, some strange premonition came over me.  I felt oddly compelled to pull out the flute that I had looted from a hobgoblin earlier, and start playing it, even though there was no logical reason that I should have done so.  Despite the seeming madness of this act, it turned out that the flute was magical, and it put the wyvern to sleep.

It's lair proved to be something of a jackpot: a gauntlet, a throwing knife, 10 gold pieces and a gold ring.  I tried on the gauntlet, and was pleased to discover that it was a Gauntlet of Weaponskill, which would give me yet another +1 to my Attack Strength.  Not all that useful so close to the conclusion of my quest, but handy nonetheless.  Then I got cocky, and put on the ring.  It was cursed, a Ring of Slowness that would subtract two from my Attack Strength.  I was effectively back to my starting level, my meager Skill of 12.  However would I cope?  (At this stage of the series, I can afford to be glib about a loss like this.  It won't be long before this sort of thing will be a sure-fire death sentence.)

Cursed back to being awesome instead of super-awesome, I continued north, and was soon ambushed by five scruffy yet oddly polite bandits.  They demanded five objects to let me pass, and I was honestly too tired to be bothered fighting them.  I gifted them with a kingly treaasure: some garlic buds, two maggot-ridden biscuits, a necklace of mouse skulls, and a throwing knife.  Enjoy.

With that, I was out of Darkwood Forest, and in the village of Stonebridge.  The dwarves seemed quite suspicious of me when I asked to see Gillibran.  One of them even asked about my wounds, which was pretty weird, because I could have sworn I didn't have any.  Gillibran was looking miserable, but he perked up considerably when I gave him the hammer.  Now his people would be able to fight the Trolls, though why they couldn't do this without the hammer is never really explained.

As I'd hoped, Gillibran gave me a hefty reward: a rad winged helmet worth hundreds of gold pieces, and a box full of jewels.  I was now wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, and one gamebook closer to competing my goal.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Forest of Doom - Attempt 1, Part 1

 The Forest of Doom, written by Ian Livingstone and illustrated by Malcolm Barter, is the third book in the Fighting Fantasy series, and something of a return to the basics.  The magic system introduced in book two is no longer in evidence, and once more the protagonist is a roaming warrior with nothing more to his name than a sword, leather armour and a backpack.  This suits me; there's less effort involved in creating my character, and no new rules to trip me up.  I do like a good, bare-bones Fighting Fantasy.

My character began the game with a Skill score of 12, a Stamina of 19 and a Luck of 8. He's a down-on-his-luck killing machine, basically.  I was relieved to see that I would begin the game with ten provisions, each one worth 4 points of healing. I also could choose one potion that could restore one of my stats to its initial level; I chose the Potion of Fortune, partly because Luck is my lowest score, and partly for that sweet boost to my initial score that only this potion provides.

The background of this adventure is a departure from the two previous books; there's not an evil wizard to be killed.  Instead, I have to venture deep into Darkwood Forest and find the hammer of the Dwarf King Gillibran, so that he can lead his people to war against the trolls. All of this was told to me by a dying dwarf named Bigleg (and no, I seriously don't want to know where a Dwarf gets that name), who stumbled into my camp with a belly full of arrows.  Bigleg stayed alive just long enough to provide the requisite amount of exposition, and also to hand me a map and a bag of 30 gold pieces.  He also told me to visit the wizard Yaztromo before I enter Darkwood, and thus my quest began.

At this point, I've just got to reiterate something that a number of other gamebook bloggers have pointed out: the protagonist of this book is a blatant sociopath.  Read about it here, it's very funny, and completely accurate.

Bigleg's map kind of sucks, but nevertheless I followed it to Yaztromo's tower at the southern edge of Darkwood Forest. The grumpy wizard conformed to all of the usual beard-and-staff cliches, and seemed none-too-pleased at my visit.  But when I informed him that I wanted to buy some magical items he invited me upstairs. I had the option here to draw my sword and attack him, and being a proper sociopath I did so.  Yaztromo very calmly told me to back off, so I meekly sheathed my sword and followed him upstairs.  I just wanted to flex my muscles, you know, let him know who's in charge around here.  I think he got the message.

Once inside his Ever-So-Wizardy Tower, we got down to the proper business of buying magical items. Ancient relics of power and mystery? None of that here! Just good old capitalism at work. I forked over 27 gold pieces and walked away with an Armband of Strength, Gloves of Missile Dexterity, Boots of Leaping, a Rope of Climbing, Garlic Buds, Nose Filters, and Fire Capsules. All of these items are good for one use (a very specific and singular use, I am certain) and they pretty much do what it says on the tin. Yaztromo also gave me a little background on Gillibran's Hammer, which amounted to "Some goblins unscrewed the handle and each took half of the hammer." Good to know, but not actually helpful in any concrete sense.  And can you really unscrew the head of a warhammer?  I know zip about forging hammers, but it doesn't seem likely.  Especially so for a mythical hammer wielded by a dwarf king.

With all transactions sorted I left Yaztromo and ventured into Darkwood Forest. And lest I begin to think that the forest might present me with a new and different kind of adventure, I came upon that most ubiquitous of Fighting Fantasy features, a T-junction. With the entire fate of my quest possibly hinging on this decision, I went east.

I quickly came to another junction, where a crow was perched atop a signpost. A talking crow, naturally, the kind who offers advice for gold. I forked over a coin and  received the sage wisdom "go north". Then I found out that he was really a man who had been turned into a bird by Yaztromo, and he needed 30 gold pieces before the wizard would turn him back. Sorry pal, if you'd met me a few entries ago I could've helped you.

Following the man/crow's advice (because what else did I have to go on?) I went north, and soon heard footsteps and voices. I opted to stand fast, and encountered these fine fellows.

What a friendly smile! Unfortunately I must have been radiating sociopathic vibes, because the Hobgoblins attacked me. It was a short and bloody affair, leaving me unscathed and in top looting form. And what a haul! 3 gold pieces, a brass flute, two maggot-ridden biscuits and a necklace of skulls. Into my clutches they go!

Further down the trail I saw a slimy hole (oo-er!) and could not resist entering it. Inside the hole was a five-metre worm (I repeat, oo-er), that I proceeded to engage in deadly combat.

The stingworm actually hit me a couple of times before I killed it, but it was totally worth it for the 4 gold pieces I found, and the mysterious vial of liquid. I quaffed it (because adventurers never drink when they can quaff) and discovered that it was a Potion of Weapon Skill, effectively giving me a Skill of 13 for the next two battles. Bad. Ass.

What was this further down the path? A cave? Of course I entered, and was startled by this sordid scene.

It was an Ogre, with a goblin in a cage for reasons that are best left unexplored. Not wishing to waste my newfound Weapon Skill unnecessarily, I decided to bung a rock at the ogre with the aid of my Glove of Missile Dexterity. One concussed Ogre later I was standing in front of the cage and opening the door, arms outstretched to receive the goblin's grateful hugs, with absolutely no thoughts of murdering him for the shiny black rod hanging around his neck. (Honestly, if I really wanted to murder him I would have poked my sword through the bars of the cage.)

Of course the little bastard had a go at me, and I was forced to Weapon Skill him to death most adroitly. And lo and behold, the black rod turned out to be the handle of a warhammer, complete with screw-thread and inscribed with the letter 'G'. Did it stand for Goblin?  Gimp? Or possibly... Gillibran?

Yes, I had found the first part of Gillibran's hammer, and it was dead easy.  The rest of this mission was going to be a walk in the park

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Citadel of Chaos: Final Thoughts

While The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a seminal classic of the genre, it is undoubtedly a flawed one.  The Citadel of Chaos, written by Steve Jackson and illustrated by Russ Nicholson, takes everything that worked about its predecessor and fixes most of those flaws.  The result is one of my all-time favourite gamebooks.

The basic plot is the same as in Warlock: you have to invade a wizard's stronghold and kill him.  But where the first book's adventurer had no reason to do so beyond greed, the hero of The Citadel of Chaos is trying to save his homeland from invasion.  It's a cliched set-up, but it's also a stronger one.

Firetop Mountain often felt like a series of disjointed rooms and monsters, none of which seemed to interact with each other.  The setting of the Black Tower is a much better design than Firetop Mountain.  While it shares the same structure of discrete encounters that bear little connection, everything in the citadel feels like part of a whole.  The castle setting feels much more alive, and decidedly weird.  Many of the denizens go unexplained, and the mystery of them only heightens the tension of the book.  I don't think I've ever been more afraid of a gamebook enemy than I was of the Ganjees, because I had no real idea of what they were, what they were capable of or how they could be defeated.  The Citadel of Chaos lives up to its name.

The final battle with Balthus Dire is better than that with the Warlock, and the latter confrontation was by no means done poorly.  The duel with Dire, however, is masterful, with many paths to victory or defeat.  It may be my favourite gamebook battle of all time.  Dire has personality, and he's challenging without being impossible.  There are so many fun ways to try and end his life (and a lot of fun ways he can end yours).

If the book has one flaw it's that it can feel a little short.  It has the same number of entries as Warlock, and is similarly terse in writing style, but there are fewer encounters overall because of the increased flexibility offered by the spell system.  The book feels shorter because every encounter has options galore, and I find this much preferable to the books where you are faced with unavoidable fight after unavoidable fight.  It's also been criticised for being too easy, but I don't think that's true.  Yes, once you've discovered the correct path, you can win even with a character that has minimum stats.  I consider that a strength, and a mark of great gamebook design.  Finding the correct path isn't exactly trivial, either.

Russ Nicholson once again turns in some stellar work.  He's freed here from the limits of vanilla D&D-style fantasy, and gets to inject a healthy dose of off-beat weirdness.  The Wheelies are probably the pinnacle of this, one of the greatest and most nonsensical fantasy monsters ever.

I really do love this book.  Steve Jackson delivered a stone-cold classic on his first solo outing.


I'm slowly going through my old posts and adding a rating system.  For further explanation of how the system works, check my final post on Island of the Lizard King.

Story & Setting: Like Warlock of Firetop Mountain, this book has a simple kill-the-evil-wizard plot, but it has a deeper backstory.  It's full of details that flesh out the Black Tower and Balthus Dire's family.  Speaking of the Black Tower, it can be very nonsensical, but there is a certain logic to its layout, and it feels much more like a place that exists outside the confines of the adventure.  I probably rated Warlock a little high here, but I'm not going to go back and change it.  Citadel gets the same rating, even though it's technically stronger in all respects.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Toughness: The balance of this book is almost perfect.  You can run through it with a character who has minimum stats, but it's still a challenge for a character who is maxed out.  The real difficulty lies not in combat and dice rolls, but in finding the narrow path to victory.  I'm tempted to give this one a perfect score, but I can't quite bring myself to do it.  The correct path is perhaps a little too narrow and frustrating for its own good.  Rating: 6 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Steve Jackson provides the weird, almost surreal atmosphere, while Russ Nicholson delivers an iconic series of illustrations.  It's difficult for me to describe what it is I love about this phase of Nicholson's work, but it's like everything in the world is ornate yet frayed by use.  And the guy does horror so well; the Ganjees still give me the willies.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

Mechanics: This book takes the already functional Fighting Fantasy system, and adds to it with a magic system that has rarely been bettered in the series.  (Sorcery! is the only other contender here.)  Not only is the magic system well-designed, but it's the core of everything in the book.  Every encounter can be influenced by it, and it grants a range of options that most gamebooks can't.  And then there's the sublime final battle with Balthus Dire.  I keep talking myself into giving this book top marks.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: Again, this will score high, because the magic system is so well done.  It's the book's major innovation, but it's a great one.  Rating: 6 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: The standard array of stock fantasy monsters is present here, but Jackson has filled the book with a lot of his own creations as well.  Calacorms, Wheelies and Ganjees are as iconic to FF as Orcs and Dragons.  The thing that makes it truly great, though, is that every monster is a character in its own right.  There are very few monsters here that exist solely to fight the hero.  Top of the list, of course, is Balthus Dire.  He's not deep; who is in gamebooks?  But he's well-realised, and benefits from the best end-of-book boss battle that I can think of.  Rating: 6 out of 7.

Amusement: This book is always fun.  There are so many options per encounter that I always feel like it has something new to offer, and it never feels like a chore to begin again.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

This book gets the bonus point, because of course it does.  I love it without reservation.  The scores above add up to a total of 45, which doubled gives a STAMINA Rating of 90.

Final Rating: 90 out of 100.

Next: The Forest of Doom!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Citadel of Chaos - Attempt 1, Part 2


When my last post ended, I had just reached a large dining hall that was lined with paintings and suits of armour.  This is a sort of choke point for the adventure: every path eventually leads here, and most of the really deadly encounters take place after this point, as a lead-up to the confrontation with Balthus Dire.  My adventurer was basically unscathed, and armed with an Enchanted Battlesword that made him pretty fearsome.  I was pretty sure that I could handle any battles that came my way.  Unfortunately, battles are the least of the obstacles to be encountered in the Black Tower.

I decided to ignore the suits of armour: Fighting Fantasy adventurers traditionally stick with leather armour, and besides that I was a wizard!   I studied the paintings instead, finding a portrait of Balthus Dire.  Continuing the grand tradition from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, looking at the painting cost me 1 Stamina point due to fear.  I'm imagining some kind of rad Vigo the Carpathian-style painting here.  It did add 1 to my Luck, though.  Not that I needed it.

Two staircases provided egress to a landing above, and I made my way up using the one on the right.  Nothing untoward happened to me, so I assume that the other one was trapped.  On the landing there were three doors, and I chose the left-most one.  It was locked, but I was able to open it with my copper key (which I had earlier murdered some fellows to obtain, if you recall; it was all in self-defense).

Inside was an opulent bedroom, wherein a lovely lady was lying in bed.  Immediately she shouted at me and fired beams of liquid fire from her eyes, which is standard procedure for women whose bedrooms have been invaded.  Especially so for Balthus Dire's wife, Lucretia.

Unfazed by the approaching eyebeams, I coolly told her that I had a gift, and proffered the Gark's hairbrush.  (Again, obtained through violent means; again, I plead self-defense.)  Immediately she dispelled her eyebeams and set about combing her hair in the mirror, not seeming to care that I could now see her in her pyjamas.  While she did so, I nicked a golden fleece from her bed with a successful Luck test and dashed out the other side of the room.  Never leave adventurers unattended around golden objects, people, no matter how large and unwieldy.

I found myself at the bottom of a staircase, and climbed until I reached two doors.  I opened the right-hand door into a sort of plush living room, the walls of which were lined with animal heads.  Balthus Dire's man-cave, perhaps?  I thought that this might be a good place to wait in ambush for him, until the head of a dog started barking at me, and a carpet flew from the floor and clipped my ear.  Then one of the chairs turned into a dude and asked what I was doing there.  There was far too much weirdness going on in there for it to end well, so I got the hell out of there and tried the other door.

It opened into a room with a deep pit.  There was a chest on a platform inside the pit, and a coil of rope near the entrance.

Now this was a lot easier to take in.  I had read about the Doompit Trap in a library book earlier, so I decided to leave this room and carry on.

More stairs led upwards to a door, which opened into a dark room.  Then suddenly: GANJEES!

Just seeing that dude made me lose 1 Skill, 2 Stamina and 1 Luck point.  Which is fair enough, because that's pretty much how I feel every time I look at the illustration, another of Russ Nicholson's nightmare-inducers.  I hunted around in my backpack for an item to use, and by chance my hand closed on the jar of ointment I had looted earlier in my adventure.  The Ganjees recognised it as "The Ointment of Healing", and agreed to let me pass if I gave it to them.  I'm not sure what these ghostly figures could do with this ointment, but that face could do with a bit of moisturising.  I flung the ointment at them and high-tailed it out of there.

More stairs up, another door.  Inside the next room was a terrible foe: a six-headed HYDRA!  And a metric ass-ton of dead adventurers!

Spurred by my previous success, and operating on a rudimentary knowledge of mythology, I reached into my backpack and pulled out the golden fleece.  The Hydra snatched it from my hands and slunk away, as I bolted from the room.  This sequence of events had "end-game" written all over it.

At the foot of the stairs this time there was a sign: "HALT. None may pass but by order of Balthus Dire."  He really should put that sign before the bloody Ganjees and the Hydra; anyone who has managed to get past them isn't going to be deterred at this point.  I climbed the stairs, and came to a stop at an impregnable door with a combination lock.  Remembering my spot of research in the library, I turned the numbers and opened the door, prepared to confront Balthus Dire.

No sooner did I enter than a bloody great trident came hurtling at my throat.  I stopped it with a Shielding spell, and came face to face with the demi-sorcerer himself.

I don't care what anyone says about Balthus Dire's haircut, he is totally rad.  Just check out his spiked wristbands, they are so metal.  The first thing he did was call me an "impudent peasant", then he sicced a CLAWBEAST on me, a hairy brute with four arms that ended in vicious hooks.

While it looked fearsome, I was able to defeat it by casting a Weakness spell and casually running it through.  I decided to press my advantage and cast an ESP spell on Dire.  A few images jumbled through my mind, the most interesting being a ring on his finger and a razor-edged sword.  The images didn't last long, as he blocked me from his mind, then caused an earthquake by slapping the ground.  I countered with a Levitation spell, and rose into the air.  There were a number of places I could float to, but I opted for the window.  Again remembering my library research, I grabbed a curtain and pulled it down.  Sunlight streamed into the room, and Balthus Dire slowly died beneath the sun's wholesome rays.  Huzzah, I was a successful assassinator!  I burned Dire's battle plans and prepared to return home in victory.

Except... I had no Levitation spell left.  If I had one, I could have floated out of the window and down to the ground with ease.  (So why couldn't I have floated up the same way?)  Without it, I would be forced to try and escape through the Citadel.  But never mind that, I still got to paragraph 400 and succeeded in my mission: that counts as a victory regardless of the unknown fate that awaits me.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Citadel of Chaos - Attempt 1, Part 1

It's time now for me to move on to the second book in the Fighting Fantasy series: The Citadel of Chaos, written by Steve Jackson and illustrated by Russ Nicholson.  Whereas the protagonist in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is motivated by nothing more than sheer greed, the one in The Citadel of Chaos is slightly more altruistic.  The evil demi-sorcerer Balthus Dire is planning to invade the Vale of Willow with his armies, and you must sneak into his stronghold and deal with him.  I did say slightly more altruistic; this is an assassination mission, after all.

The rules for determining Skill, Stamina and Luck remain unchanged from the first book.  I rolled a Skill of 10, a Stamina of 15 and a Luck of 11, a decent set of scores despite the low Stamina.  Where The Citadel of Chaos really differs is that the reader plays a wizard.  The star pupil of the Grand Wizard of Yore, in fact.  I had to determine my Magic score by rolling two dice and adding 6.  My result was 12; this is the number of spells I was allowed to take with me on my mission.

The following spells are available: Creature Copy, E.S.P., Fire, Fool's Gold, Illusion, Levitation, Luck, Shielding, Skill, Stamina, Strength and Weakness.  I took two Creature Copy spells, two Shielding spells, and one each of E.S.P., Fire, Illusion, Levitation, Luck, Stamina, Strength and Weakness.  Most of the spells are pretty self-explanatory.  Creature Copy is probably the only one that requires a bit of explanation: it creates an exact duplicate of a creature that can fight on your behalf.

For equipment I had the basics: a sword, leather armour, a backpack and a lantern. I had no provisions with which to restore Stamina, but that's what the Stamina spell listed above is for.  Similarly, I didn't get to choose a restorative potion, either; just as with Stamina, there are spells to restore Luck and Skill.

And so, armed and armoured, and brimming with eldritch power, I set forth to Craggen Rock to slay me a wizard.

The first encounter set the tone for Balthus Dire's citadel pretty early.  Meet the guardians of the gate: the DOG-APE and the APE-DOG.

There is something sublime about the pointlessness of these two animal mergers.  Is an ape any more deadly with a dog's head?  Is there any purpose to sticking an ape's head on a dog?  It's mystifying, like most of the encounters in this book.

Eschewing all basic assassination methods, I sauntered up to the front gate and opted to pose as a travelling herbalist, here to tend to a sick guardsman of the citadel.  My cover story was watertight; I even had some random weeds to wave under the Ape-Dog's nose, but the guards were skeptical and asked me who I was here to treat.  At this point I was given the option of three names, which must all be the orc equivalent of John or Tom or something: Kylltrog, Pincus or Blag.  I opted for the raddest-sounding name, which was Kylltrog, and the Ape-Dog let me inside the citadel.  Whatever benefit Balthus Dire thought he would get by merging dog with ape, it didn't extend to creating a better gate guard.

I entered a large courtyard, and again decided to bring as much attention to myself as possible.  Spying a motley group sitting around a campfire - the group was comprised of a Dwarf, an Orc and two canoodling Goblins - I sat down with them and demanded they tell me how to get inside the citadel proper.

My brash swagger must have impressed them, because the Orc gave me the password to get inside the citadel proper: 'Scimitar'.  But when I started pestering them about a potion they possessed they got very surly and attacked me.  Three-on-one odds would be pretty tough for a first encounter, but luckily for me they decided to fight me one at a time, and I slaughtered them with little difficulty.  When the fight ended I prepared to run, expecting the sounds of alarms or approaching guards or something.  Nada.  Random murders must be just another Wednesday morning around here.  Time then for looting!

These guys had 8 gold pieces, a copper key and a jar of ointment.  For reasons known only to Steve Jackson I was only able to take two of these, and I opted to leave the gold behind.  I was given no indication as to the usefulness of either item, but you have to take a key if you see one, and I have a feeling about that ointment...  There was also the potion that started this whole scuffle, which turned out to be a Potion of Magik.  It was good for two doses, and had the effect of letting me use a spell without crossing it off my list.  Sweet!

I could see two men talking nearby, so I approached them.  They were haggling quite vehemently about the price of a magic dagger.  The seller tried to rope me in by asking how much I thought it was worth.  Putting on my best "I know what I'm talking about" face, I high-balled the price at 10 gold pieces.  The buyer couldn't afford it, and neither could I, so everyone left unsatisfied.

Moving on, I was accosted by some weird lady air elemental.  I tried to ignore her, which just made her angry, so I told her heartily to piss off.  Apparently she likes seeing people get angry, because we then enjoyed a semi-romantic stroll before she buggered off to annoy someone else.

I reached the main door into the citadel, and knocked for the guard.  I was greeted by another fine specimen of Dire's eugenics program: a RHINO-MAN!  Luckily I knew the password, and the Rhino-Man let me inside.  Once again lax security rules the day here in the Citadel of Chaos.

Ignoring some steps downwards (on the spurious logic that Balthus Dire wouldn't be living underground) I went through a door and rang the bell to summon the butler.

This is not a man that I would put at my reception desk, but despite all appearances to the contrary he was rather polite when I confidently asked the way to the reception room.  I followed his directions without hesitation; surely he's a trustworthy guy, yeah?

At the end of the passage I followed there was a door, and inside a large Goblin-like creature was asleep.  I tried to sneak past, because dude was using his axe as a pillow.  I did not want to mess with a dude bad-ass enough to sleep on his axe, but unfortunately the GARK woke up.  Apparently Garks are goblin-giant crossbreeds, which hardly bears thinking about, especially as this one was advancing on me with his axe/pillow.

Thinking fast, I hit the Gark with a Weakness spell (quaffing a dose from my Potion of Magik in order to retain the spell for later).  The spell hit it hard, and I was able to slay the enfeebled Gark with ease.  On its person I found 6 gold pieces and an ornate hairbrush.  At first the brush seemed a little incongruous, but then I remembered that the Gark was sleeping on his axe.  That has to seriously mess up a dude's hair.

There were two doors leading out of the room, and I chose the one that lead to the library.  In the library I had the choice of three books to read: 'Biographies of Balthus Dire', 'Secrets of the Black Tower' or 'Creatures of the Kingdom of Craggen Rock'.  All of these sounded like essential reading, but I opted for a spot of research on the Black Tower.  I was rewarded with a whole bunch of information: apparently Balthus Dire's grandpa had built the citadel, and was later forced to  fill his tower with traps to protect himself from the evil monsters that moved in.  He also had a door with a combination lock, the code to which was 217.  Surely Balthus Dire would have changed that by now, though.

I decided to read a second book, choosing 'Biographies of Balthus Dire'.  I learned that Dire was third in a line of powerful sorcerers, and now ruled with his wife Lucretia.  (Lucretia Dire.  She really sounds like a character from a Harry Potter novel.)  Most importantly, the book contained the information that the Dire family's power only lasts at night-time, and sunlight is a poison to them.  Man, Balthus Dire really needs to keep tabs on the books in his library.  Dude is sloppy on security issues.

Feeling lucky, I decided to read a third book, but my fortune had run out.  A bunch of Orcs burst into the room, and one of them knocked me out with a blast of bad breath.

I awoke in a cell, where a two-headed lizard man was bringing me some dinner.

The creature was a CALACORM, but I ignored it while I scoffed my food.  When my hunger was sated I tried to talk to my jailer, only to be told that I would probably never be released unless it was as sport for the Ganjees.  Ganjees, eh?  They don't sound so tough.

I decided to cast a spell, going with an Illusion to make him think he was being attacked.  (I quaffed the final dose of my Potion of Magik to retain the spell.)  The illusion that appeared was that of a mouse, which at first seemed like a complete failure.  But the Calacorm climbed on his chair like that black woman in the Tom & Jerry cartoons.  I offered to get rid of the mouse if he released me, which he did, and I strolled nonchalantly out of the room.

Soon I came to a door, which I busted open with my bare hands.  Inside was a little sleeping man in green pantaloons, hovering over a table.

But before I could react, a small projectile was fired at me from a catapult.  With a surplus of Stamina points I decided not to use a spell, and the missile splattered on my forehead; it was a tomato!  After that bit of nonsense I was unsurprised to discover that the little fellow was a leprechaun name O'Seamus.  I shook his hand in greeting, only to get an electric shock and the loss of 1 Skill point.  Normally this would have been the last straw; you can mess with my Stamina all you like, but if you touch my Skill then it's WAR.  But the leprechaun obviously had powers beyond mine, so I just sighed and asked him the way onwards.  His answer was cryptic, and little help in figuring out which of the three doors ahead I ought to take.  I picked the bronze-handled door and left the little bastard far behind.

In the room beyond I was blinded by a sudden flash of light.  Some growling creature latched onto my leg with its jaws, and I lashed out with my sword.  For some reason I couldn't hit it, and it tore my leg open with its teeth.  I had the option to cast a spell, but... why was I not losing Stamina points from that wound?  I held my spell in reserve, but to my horror the creature lunged forward and tore out my throat.  My adventure ended here.

But wait, I'm alive!  It was all a practical joke perpetrated by O'Seamus, who was laughing his guts out.  I started laughing as well, but you can rest assured; I was only laughing on the outside.  O'Seamus was fooled into thinking of me as a good sport, and rewarded me with a mirror and an Enchanted Battlesword which would add 1 to my Attack Strength in battle.  Good on O'Seamus; he had made up for the electric shock he gave me earlier, and saved himself from my righteous vengeance.

I left once more, this time choosing the copper-handled door.  I emerged in a wine cellar, where I was met by a limping BLACK ELF.  No, not a Dark Elf, a BLACK ELF.

I pretended to be a guest here to sample some wine, and was offered a choice of three vintages.  I chose the red wine, and just as in real life it restored 2 Stamina points and 3 Luck.  Thanking the Elf, I left.

Further up the passage was a door, which I opened quietly.  Inside was a bit of Flintstones decor: a stone table, and three  chests resting on a pile of rocks stuck together with mud.  Guarding the whole mess was a man made of stone.

The siren song of the chests called to me, but as I neared them the stone man stirred to life.  A GOLEM!  I whipped my sword out to fight it, but it was far from the most effective weapon against a stone man, and I suffered a -1 Skill penalty for the fight.  This left me with a Skill of 8, equal to the Golem's own, and the resulting battle was a desperate one.  It battered me down to 5 Stamina before I destroyed it, but at least now the chests were mine!  What bounty lay inside?  Before finding out I cast a spell to restore my Stamina to 12.

I opened the first chest, and found a silver key.  Nice!  The second chest was locked, so I tried the key and it opened.  Inside was a green key.  I see where this is going, Jackson...  I unlocked the third chest with the green key, and found inside a glass jar containing a spider with the face of an old man.  Weird.  Someone obviously went to a lot of effort to lock this monstrosity away, so I put the jar in my pack instead of opening it.

The next door opened into a large, brightly lit dining hall, with lots of entrances.  This seems like a good point to stop for the moment.  My assassination mission will continue in the next post!

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: Final Thoughts

Given that The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was my introduction to fantasy gaming as a whole, you'll understand that this is by no means an unbiased review.  I have nothing but love for it.  I killed my first orc in Firetop Mountain!  That said, I'm not blind to its flaws, and it certainly does have some.

Probably the biggest is how disjointed the setting feels.  There is some sort of structure to Firetop Mountain: orcs near the entrance, tougher monsters further in, lycanthropes near the river, undead after that, then the maze, then the warlock.  Many of the encounters are interesting, but they don't connect much at all.  This has a benefit, in that you never really know what's coming next (unless of course you're re-playing the book), but it also makes Firetop Mountain feel a bit unreal.

Structurally it's pretty simple.  The dungeon design (at least before the river) is basically a straight line, with a few branches here and there.  It wouldn't hold up for a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but it works fine for the purpose of the book.  It's obviously designed for replay value.  You need three keys at the end to unlock the warlock's treasure chest, but there's no guarantee that you will find them.  You will probably even find some fakes.  It's unlikely that the reader will complete it on the first try, but that's fine.  This isn't a gamebook that rewards intelligent decision-making; you can simply fail by choosing to go left instead of right.  What it does reward is persistence, mapping, and exploration over the course of multiple read-throughs.

From a structure standpoint, the Maze of Zagor is probably the most impressive thing in the book.  It's not a particularly difficult maze when you look at a map of it, but the way it's written makes it disorienting unless you map it out carefully, and the teleport traps strewn about make that even more difficult.  Sadly it's also the most boring and frustrating part of the book, and I've already mentioned how I used to get stuck here a lot as a kid, going around in circles.

The confrontation with the warlock is also quite well done, with a number of fun options.  You can duke it out with swords, if you feel like a very tough battle.  You can drink a Potion of Invisibility and fight him that way, or you can lessen his power by burning his enchanted cards.  Or you can do what I did and go for the insta-kill by using the Eye of the Cyclops.  Gamebooks are always improved when there are multiple paths to victory.

In terms of game-design, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain hits a good balance.  There are some tough fights, but most can be avoided.  Most importantly, the book can be completed by a character regardless of Skill, Stamina and Luck scores.  The Iron Cyclops is the toughest unavoidable combat, but I have scraped through that fight with a Skill 7 character before.  At this point in the series, the claim that any adventurer can make it through is still a true one.

Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone apparently split the writing of the book, with Ian designing the first half and Steve designing everything after the river (and rewriting Ian's text to mesh their styles).  Generally, the encounters written by Steve are more interesting, as he provides the player with more options.  Ian's half of the dungeon has a greater variety of encounters, but many of them are simple combats; you will often find yourself ambushed by a foe, with no recourse but to do battle.  The way the first half was structured allowed for more monsters and encounters to be included, and on the whole I feel like it has more moments that stuck with me from my childhood.  Steve's half comes through on atmosphere; there is some creepy stuff going on.  But the maze, while well-designed, can be tedious.  I give the points to Ian, just barely.

I also need to give props to Russ Nicholson.  In later years his style gets a lot thicker and busier, but here I love the thin line-work.  It's brilliant, atmospheric stuff, loaded with detail.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is hardly the best of the Fighting Fantasy series; the authors are obviously still figuring out how the format works.  But it is very solid, well-designed and fun, with great illustrations.  It may be a little too much of a "funhouse dungeon" for some, but that happens to be something that I enjoy.  Hell, it's the book that turned me into a fantasy gamer for life.


It should be taken as no great achievement that I completed this book on my first attempt; I basically have the whole thing memorised.  The dice were the only things that could stop me, and those came up in my favour.  I can mark The Warlock of Firetop Mountain down as won on the first attempt, but foreknowledge was a great help.  The same can be said for most of the early books; it won't be until House of Hell that I start to have trouble when it comes to picking the correct path.  As for dice rolls, they're a different story...  I'll be fine until Deathtrap Dungeon, I think, though City of Thieves could pose a problem.  That's some way off, though.  I'll be back soon with my first attempt at book 2, The  Citadel of Chaos.


As outlined in my final post on Island of the Lizard King, I've started rating the gamebooks I play in seven different categories, which gives me a final score I can use to compare them.  So now I'm going back and rating the books I played earlier in the blog.   Here goes!

Story & Setting: The story is bare bones but effective: there's little more basic in a fantasy RPG than killing an evil wizard.  As for the setting, it's heavy on standard D&D fantasy tropes, and there are a number of things that don't make sense.  It's the first book in the series though, it probably should be heavy on the cliches.  It also gets extra points because Firetop Mountain is truly iconic.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Toughness: This is a really well-balanced adventure.  Any gamebook that can be finished regardless of your stats is going to get extra points from me, and Warlock manages to do that while still remaining a challenge.  It's a little easy once you know the correct path, but a big part of the challenge is finding that path over multiple games.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Firetop Mountain has a strong atmosphere, and enough weird, random elements that it maintains an air of mystery.  The Russ Nicholson artwork is definitive for the Fighting Fantasy series.  Rating: 6 out of 7.

Mechanics: This is the book that defined the mechanics of Fighting Fantasy, and it utilises the rules well.  On its own, I would probably give the Fighting Fantasy rules system a 4: it's functional, but a bit too reliant on the player rolling high stats.  I'm going to bump Warlock up a point, because it uses those rules well.  I like the restrictions on eating provisions, and I like that the magic swords affect Attack Strength and not Skill.  There's an attention to the rules paid here that doesn't always carry forward to the rest of the series.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: As the first in the Fighting Fantasy series, and the gamebook that started the craze, I have to give this one top marks.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: Most of the monsters here are the old D&D standards, but they're used memorably; there are a few throwaway encounters, particularly in the middle section from the portcullis to the river, but for the most part the encounters are well done.  The other characters aren't deep, but they are well-defined, and the book has a great villain in Zagor.  Admittedly he doesn't get much personality here, which knocks this down a bit.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Amusement: Given that this might well be my favourite book of all time, and that I still enjoy it after nearly twenty years, I have to give it top marks here.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

In addition to the above scores, I have an ill-defined bonus point which is really only there so I can get a round score out of 50.  Basically, if I love a book it gets the point, and Warlock definitely deserves it.  Adding the scores above, plus the bonus point I get a score of 41, which doubled gives the book a STAMINA Rating of 82.

STAMINA RATING: 82 out of 100.

Next: The Citadel of Chaos!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain - Attempt 1, Part 2

At the end of my last post I was standing at the edge of an underground river, deep in the stygian bowels of Firetop Mountain. I had a few options for crossing it: a bridge; a raft; or a bell I could ring to summon the boatman. I could also just try to swim across. As my good friend Mad Johnny Chairleg had told me to respect the boatman, I decided to ring the bell. The boatman rowed over from the far side, and offered to take me over for the price of 3 gold pieces. His sign had said 2 gold, but when I complained about the price hike he mumbled something about inflation. It's a weird thing for a subterranean boatman to be talking about (though perhaps not such a strange topic for a game-book writer in early-80s England). I could have remonstrated, but instead I just shrugged my shoulders and paid him, confident that my money worries will vanish once I've stabbed the warlock to death. On the far bank I had the option of going north-west, east, or through a door straight ahead. I went north-west, and found a guy sleeping in an old boat guarded by a seriously mean-looking dog.

I woke the guy up and tried to talk to him, but he had some bad attitude towards adventurers like me, so it was time for a bit of the old ultra-violence. I had to fight the dog first, and the revelation that it was a fire-breathing HELL-HOUND was not altogether surprising. That the guy was a WEREWOLF was a little more startling, I have to say. Should I be upset that Steve Jackson didn't describe him as extra-hairy, or should I applaud him for avoiding the cliche? That depends on the result of the battle, I suppose.

I was expecting to need a silver weapon to kill the werewolf, but my regular sword did the trick. I claimed a set of boat-house keys from him, as well as a jar of pickled eggs from his larder. Seriously, the werewolf boatman has stocked up on pickled eggs. This dungeon keeps getting weirder.

Back at the river I went east, and came to a heavy door with a barred window. Looking through I saw a bunch of SKELETONS building boats, and you know what? It's surprising that more fantasy settings don't feature the undead as a cheap labour force.

I decided not to take this route, instead returning to the river and going through the door to the north. This may have been a bad idea, because I was instantly clubbed unconscious. I awoke in a room with four ZOMBIES, and judging by their armaments they were probably zombie farmers.

Despite some 'Nam-style traumatic flashbacks from my youth (I used to be seriously unsettled by this encounter), I laid into these guys with my sword and emerged triumphantly without a scratch. A search of the room was in order, and the most interesting thing I could see was the corpse of another adventurer in the corner. On his person I found a shield, some armour, a sword and a crucifix. Already armed with some wooden stakes, I decided to complete my anti-Vampire arsenal, and claimed the crucifix. I also took the sword, and was delighted to discover that it was enchanted, granting me a +2 bonus to my rolls in combat.

At that point a noise startled me, and I was forced to move on. I don't know why, because that sword had just transformed me into Death Incarnate, but in gamebooks - as in life - your destiny is not entirely your own. The next room was piled with coffins, and it didn't take me long to do the math: stakes + crucifix + coffins = VAMPIRE.

Yes, a genuine Dracula came rising out of his coffin, and I considered it my duty to do some slaying. Holding it at bay with my crucifix, I advanced on the Dracula with my stake and mallet. But then, disaster! I tripped! And then a weird thing happened. It was a serious Inspector Clouseau moment, as a successful Luck test sent my stake flying straight into the vampire's heart, and it shriveled into a bat and flew away. I shrugged my shoulders and collected my loot: some gold, another y-shaped stick, and a book. The book was given no other description at all. It could have been a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, for all I knew. I took the gold and left the rest behind.

Past a junction I came to a scene of animated tools digging a tunnel and singing Disney tunes.

With nothing to do there but watch, I returned to the junction and headed north. Soon I found some stairs heading down, and came across three dead bodies. Time for looting! The first body I searched had some gold pieces, which I duly tucked away. The second lashed out at me with claws, providing yet another illustration that fueled my childhood nightmares for years.

It was a GHOUL! Apparently I would be paralysed if it hit me four times, but with my new enchanted sword it wasn't able to hit me even once before I cleft it in twain. I searched the remaining body and found a map and a vial of holy water. Normally I would keep holy water to splash on Draculas, but instead I drank it, and was rewarded with some major healing. It was apparently blessed by the Overpriest of Kaynlesh-Ma, which is meaningless to me, but I bet it gets referenced later when the Fighting Fantasy books are stitched together into one setting. The map was for something called the 'Maze of Zagor', but it was quite faded and not very helpful.

I went further north until a portcullis crashed down behind me, blocking my way back. I was now in the Maze of Zagor, and let me just say that this thing is a bastard. I've mapped it enough times now that I have it memorised, but as a youngster it used to drive me mad. It's very well written, though. You have to pay careful attention to the text, or you can very easily end up going around in circles. The traps that teleport you to another part of the dungeon aren't helpful, either. Nor is the option to search for secret doors, which more often than not activates a trap or attracts a wandering monster.

I had three encounters within the maze. The first was a group of friendly DWARFS. I talked to them and got some directions through the maze, then left them to their poker game.

The second was a MINOTAUR, an aggressive chap who turned out to be one of the toughest opponents in the dungeon, with a Skill of 9. I still ganked him with little effort, and claimed his gold pieces and a key numbered '111'.

My third encounter was with the Mazemaster, a bearded old man who I intimidated into giving me directions out of the maze. As it turns out, his directions are utter bollocks.

Eventually I emerged from the maze, right into the lair of a DRAGON. Take a look at his eyes. Either I just woke him up from a nap, or there is some serious drug use going on in Firetop Mountain.

Recalling the spell that I discovered earlier in my quest, I threw up my hands and shouted: 'Ekil Erif, Ekam Erif, Erif Erif, Di Maggio!' The Dragon tried to breathe fire, but the spell lodged his fireball in the poor bugger's mouth. I felt a bit sorry for it, to be honest.

I continued on, and in the next room I encountered... the dreaded WARLOCK!

Zagor seemed confident, but after my encounter with his painting I was pretty sure I knew what to do. I held up the Eye of the Cyclops, and watched in satisfaction as he shriveled up and disintegrated. My quest was over! I turned to section 400 to claim my prize, and... Wait, what? There's a locked door between me and the treasure? Never mind, I whipped out two of the keys I found earlier and opened it up. Wait, the treasure's in a chest with three locks? And I need to add up the numbers on three of my keys to see if I have the right ones? I had only found three keys: one under a snake, one inside an Iron Cyclops, and one guarded by a Minotaur. Luckily they were the right ones, and I claimed the Warlock's treasure for my very own.

The final page of this book is pretty cool. Not only did I find a whole load of treasure, but also the Warlock's book, which I was assured would give me unlimited power. It didn't seem to have helped the Warlock any, but never mind that. The possibility was even raised that I could remain as the master of Firetop Mountain, but no thanks. You never know when some adventuring bastard is going to break into your house and put a sword through you. No, I claimed the chest, loaded the treasure into my seemingly bottomless backpack, and headed back to the village, where many a weeping damsel awaited me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain - Attempt 1, Part 1

The first book in the Fighting Fantasy series has a suitably basic premise: there is a warlock who lives in a mountain, and he has a lot of treasure.  You want to kill him and take it for yourself.  It doesn't really get much simpler than that as far as adventuring motivations go, and we're certainly not mucking about with any moral quandaries.  So into Firetop Mountain I go, sword in hand, and woe betide anything that stands between me and that shiny pile of gold.

But first, there are rules to be dealt with.  A Fighting Fantasy character typically has three scores: Skill, Stamina and Luck.  Skill determines how good you are in a fight, and is sometimes used to resolve various feats of physical prowess.  Stamina is akin to health; when you are hurt it decreases, and if it reaches zero you're dead.  Luck does exactly what it says on the tin.  Often when something bad is about to happen to you, you can make a roll against your Luck score to avoid it.  Skill and Luck are determined by rolling a six-sided die and adding 6 to the roll, Stamina by rolling 2d6 and adding 12.  I rolled an 11 for Skill, 18 for Stamina and 12 for Luck, making for an extremely viable character.  In the early books there's a decent chance of success even with the lowest scores, but rolling high makes life a hell of a lot easier.

As for equipment, Fighting Fantasy adventurers travel light: I have a sword, leather armour, a shield, a lantern and a backpack.  I also have ten Provisions, a sort of super-food that restores 4 Stamina points when eaten.  In addition I get to choose one of the following potions: a Potion of Skill, a Potion of Strength, and a Potion of Fortune.  Each of these potions has two doses, and corresponds to one of the three stats.  When used they restore that score to its initial level.  The Potion of Fortune has the added benefit of adding 1 to your initial level as well, which is pretty nifty.  I opted for the Potion of Strength, which restores Stamina.  I don't really know why, because those Provisions are mighty curative all on their own.  I probably ought to have gone with the Potion of Fortune, but what man can explain a decision he made two weeks ago, back in the mists of antiquity?

After the rules there is a short introduction, in which my character stopped at a village near Firetop Mountain to gather rumours about the warlock.  There's a lot of useful, albeit vague, rumours to be had:
  • Apparently, the warlock gets his powers from an enchanted deck of cards, or possibly a black silk glove.
  • The warlock's treasure is in a chest with two locks, and that the keys are guarded by monsters throughout the dungeon.
  • The entrance to Firetop Mountain is guarded by warty-faced goblins, with more fearsome monsters lurking further in.
  • To reach the warlock I'll need to cross a subterranean river.  There's a ferryman who apparently enjoys a good barter.

Armed with this scant foreknowledge, I set forth for Firetop Mountain.

After entering a cave mouth at the base of Firetop Mountain, I was presented with that most ubiquitous of Fighting Fantasy dilemmas: a T-junction!  Should I turn east or west?  You may scoff, but whole adventures can hinge on this choice.  Fighting Fantasy adventurers do not retrace their steps unless there is no other path forward.  They just push relentlessly forward, never looking back or considering that maybe they might have missed something important.  Like, you know, those keys the nice villagers told me about?  Should I look for those, perhaps?  No, best to push onwards and hope for the best.

I turned east and came to a door at the end of the corridor, which I promptly tried to charged with my shoulder.  This required a Skill test, which is done by rolling two dice and trying to get a result equal to or lower than my Skill score.  Given my Skill score of 11 I did so with ease, smashing through the door and falling headlong into a shallow pit for my trouble.  The pit isn't described all that vividly, but I imagine it as a rubbish dump for the denizens of the mountain (not to mention a source of cheap amusement for author Ian Livingstone).  Picking myself up, and cursing the loss of 1 Stamina point, I walked back to the junction and headed west.

The tunnel turned north, but there was someone asleep at a guard post there: a warty-faced ORC!  (Yes, the book capitalises every monster or potential foe you meet.  It's terribly dramatic.)

This is the first Orc that I ever encountered in any form of gaming or fiction, so he holds an extra-special place in my heart.  The good vibrations must have extended to my character as well, because I tried to sneak past the Orc instead of just running him through.  This required me to Test My Luck, which is done by rolling two dice and trying to get equal or lower than my Luck score.  Every time you Test Your Luck, your Luck score drops by one point, which means that eventually your good fortune is going to run out.  Anyway, I succeeded, and managed to sneak past without waking him up.

Further up the passage there was a door on the west wall, and inside was a sleeping quarters where another Orc lay asleep.  I sneaked into his room and managed to steal a box containing a single gold piece and the Orc's pet mouse.  Or snack mouse, depending upon your view of Orcs.  I let the mouse go, which really does go to show that this is the first book of the series; if this were a later Ian Livingstone book this mouse would have gone straight into my inventory.  Rule #1 for survival in a Fighting Fantasy book: discard nothing!

I continued north and found another door on the west wall.  This one was unoccupied, and I assume belonged to the first Orc sentry I had encountered, but there was another box.  Which I opened, of course, only to reveal a SNAKE!

This was my first fight of the book, so here I'll explain how dead simple the combat rules are.  The enemy's Attack Strength is determined by rolling two dice and adding the result to its Skill score.  My Attack Strength is done the same way, using my own Skill score.  Whoever gets the highest Attack Strength wins that round, and the loser must subtract 2 Stamina points.  This is repeated until someone's Stamina reaches zero, at which point they are dead.  Luck can be used to make a hit deal more damage to your foe, or to reduce any damage done to you, but I don't need that here because this Snake only has 2 Stamina points.  I throw the box in the air and chop the Snake in half with a single blow before claiming the key that is hidden in the box.  This key has the number '99' stamped on it, which is a pretty common thing in the Fighting Fantasy world.  Keys, jewelry, dragon teeth, they all have numbers stamped on them for no readily apparent reason other than making it harder for cheating bastards to get to the end of the book.

Further north was yet another door on the west wall, from which I could hear drunken singing.  I burst in to find the following sordid display.

I killed them, because ORCS, and discovered that they had a book called 'The Making and Casting of Dragonfire' by a dude named Farrigo di Maggio.  It contained a spell for defeating dragons, which may or may not come in handy later on I'm sure.  I don't know why or how these orcs came to own a book like this, but I'm not about to complain about illogical adventure design when it works in my favour.

Further on I discovered... another T-junction!  I turned left, and entered a room where an Orc Chieftain with two left hands was whipping his servant.

Thinking that I might obtain an Orc sidekick who I could push into traps and the like, I attacked the Chieftain, only for the ungrateful bastard I was trying to save to leap to his defence.  Regardless of the odds I carved said Orcs to pieces, and set about opening their treasure chest.  It was trapped, of course, and the poisoned darts knocked off a whole 6 Stamina points.  I fixed this by bandaging my stomach and scoffing some Provisions, which leads me to believe that medical practice in the Fighting Fantasy world is less than ideal.  But it was worth it, because inside the chest were a whole load of gold pieces, a black glove, and a potion of invisibility.  Score!

I headed back to the junction and went east, then east again at the next junction, and came to a kitchen wherein five Orcs were cooking up a storm.  I was feeling pretty cocky by this point, so I calmly strode in and took them on.  Much to my delight they lined up like a conga-line and fought me one by one. I slaughtered them, which brought my Orc tally to a respectable nine so far, and in the kitchen I found a bow and silver arrow with a mysterious inscription.

A vital utensil for every kitchen.  I returned to the previous junction and went north.  A door in the east wall opened into a small cell, with the following dapper gentleman there to greet me:

I let Mad Johnny Chairleg know that I was there to free him, and he calmed down right quick.  It turned out that he was an adventurer who had been captured by the Orcs, and he even had some good info for me: I should pull the right lever when I get to the portcullis, and I should pay my respects to the boatman.  At that point my character had the temerity to ask Mad Johnny to come with me further into Firetop Mountain, which makes me question my own levels of compassion.  The dude is traumatised!  Not surprisingly he opted to leave, and I bade him farewell, not bothering to mention that there were still two Orcs loitering around near the entrance.

Further north there was another door in the east wall, this one leading to an armoury.  I took a shield, which makes it harder for foes to damage me, but it was so heavy I had to leave another item behind.  I chose my original, inferior shield; it was an agonising decision.

Further north there was yet another door in the east wall (this is not a dungeon design classic, let's just say that).  Inside was a torture chamber, wherein two GOBLINS were torturing a Dwarf.  At this point the book gave me the option to walk in, poke the Dwarf with my sword and laugh evilly.  I was sorely tempted, but instead I leaped in and killed the Goblins with gusto.  Sadly, the Dwarf was already dead, but I was rewarded with a lovely piece of delicious cheese.  Delicious, delicious goblin cheese.

I soon came to the portcullis that Mad Johnny Chairleg had told me about, and I pulled the right lever like he told me to.  The portcullis opened, and I went on my way unharmed.  I remember this trap well.  The other lever is a fake, a sword blade covered in wax that will cut your hand if you try to pull it.  Forewarned is fore-armed!

Past the portcullis was a T-junction.  I headed east, and soon came to an inviting chair.

This set-up screamed trap to me, but I sat down anyway and ate some Provisions.  Against all odds the chair was imbued with benevolent magic, and restored some of my Stamina.  I never would have guessed.

The passage turned north, then I headed east at a junction and east again at yet another junction.  This led to a lovely marble room containing an iron statue of a cyclops, with a bloody great gem set in its eye.

Even when I read this book for the first time as a nine-year-old boy, I knew the set-up here.  Yet what self-respecting adventurer could leave that gem behind?  I set to prying that baby out with my sword, and tried to stifle a yawn as the IRON CYCLOPS came predictably to life.

The Cyclops was actually pretty tough, with a Skill and Stamina of 10, but I still hacked him and his incredibly well-defined buttocks to death.  I was well rewarded: the gem was worth 50 gold pieces, and there was another key inside the Cyclops, this one numbered '111'.

I walked back to the junction and went north, only to be attacked by a random BARBARIAN.  No warning, no options, just a fight.  I could have run away, but he wasn't so tough.  For reasons unknown he was carrying a wooden mallet and some sharpened stakes.  This is what I refer to as Chekhov's Wooden Stake: there be Vampires in this mountain somewhere.

The next room had paintings on the wall, one of which was of the warlock.

I took a look and learned that his name was Zagor, but I also lost a Stamina point due to fear.  Somewhere in the world, there is a Fighting Fantasy reader who died by looking at that painting.  It's not so embarrassing, though, because there is obviously some magical shenanigans going on, and I was under mental attack.  I looked through my pack for an item to use, and opted for the Eye of the Cyclops over my moldy goblin cheese.  Lo and behold the gem thwarted the Warlock's power, and I was able to continue.

The next room was just full of some random junk, like a rope and some y-shaped sticks.  I checked out the rope, kind of mystified that I wasn't already carrying such a vital piece of gear, only for it to come to life and try to strangle me. I chopped it in half, understanding now why I didn't have any.  The y-shaped sticks were bulky, and I would have had to leave something behind to carry one, so I left them behind.  What could they possibly be for?  Finding water?  Making a slingshot?  Trapping a snake's head?   The possibilities are endless.

Further north I came to an underground river, which I remember as kind of the half-way point of the adventure.  As I understand it, Ian Livingstone wrote everything up to this point, and Steve Jackson wrote everything after the river.  This feels like a good place to take a break, so I'll tackle the rest of my quest in the next post.