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-defence).

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-defence.)  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 gleece 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 mr 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.