Monday, 25 February 2008

#3 - The Forest of Doom

Forest Of DoomIan Livingstone's first solo-written Fighting Fantasy gamebook veers from the template set down by Warlock and Citadel, inasmuch you aren't a bounty hunter in search of riches - at least not till half way through the ubiquitous 'Background'. Okay, so you pretty much are a pre-medieval Han Solo, but at least this time you're not raining on anyone's parade. The local dwarves of Stonybridge have lost their sacred hammer, and without it they're apparently unable to defend themselves against some nearby hill trolls and a neighbouring rival tribe of little people (a plot device similar to one used in the later Amiga/Sega game Faery Tale Adventure). You've agreed to find the hammer for them, not bothering to learn the politics behind the theft - perhaps the hammer belonged to the other tribe first? Maybe the hill trolls were driven from their homeland by the security-deficient dwarves of Stonybridge and have a rightful claim to the land? Slash and burn first, and ask questions later tends to be the way of Fighting Fantasy however, so off we go...

I arrived at Darkwood Forest (Faery has a 'Mirkwood Forest'... and here the similarities end, I promise) strong and skillful but low on luck - that's alright I thought, I'm entering an ominously monikered forest, I'm going to need to fight a lot. My first opportunity came quickly enough - before braving the dangers of the forest ('of doom', remember) I had to visit Yaztromo, a wizard, and immediately was offered the chance to fight him. Livingstone's no wouss. I passed, and instead decided to see what he could sell me. Yaztromo was a quick scribe - he scribbled no less than 80 words on a blackboard while I apparently waited (I hoped the dwarves of Stonybridge were patient and under no immediate threat). I grabbed a bunch of stuff that sounded useful ('Nose Filters' sounded wonderfully specific, so they were a no-brainer) and made my way into the forest.

The first person I came across was a thief. I didn't know this of course till after I'd freed him from the animal trap he was stuck in and said my goodbyes, the bastard. I resolved not to be so trusting in the future - these were probably the people who gave the forest its reputation, remember. Goodbye 'Net Of Entanglement', not that I needed you in the end...

For a forest 'of doom', Darkwood had a lot of well-trodden and distinct paths; I was often told I didn't feel like going a certain way, and had chosen another. The best I could do was go, "umm, okay." A turning point in my adventure happened soon after losing my net; I wished I'd been told I hadn't felt like eating mushrooms. Unfortunately, I had a choice, and at this early stage I was all for eating hallucinogenics; anything to break up the monotony of meeting untrustworthy types like thieves and goblins that weren't goblins but vicious, powerful shape-changers. The mushrooms were 'mix-up mushrooms', and swapped my skill and luck stores. I began with a skill of 10 and luck of seven; bugger. Total bugger. As a result, I was almost killed by the next ingrate I freed from capture, a barbarian who would otherwise have been vulture-feed. Once again I resolved not to trust anyone in this stupid forest that seemed to be teeming in arseholes and lacking in sacred hammers.

My crap skill score wasn't improved by an enchanted sword I was (now) luckily enough to be able to withdraw from the stone it was stuck in; no mention was made the +2 skill it gave me could go over my initial skill score, which was now a measly seven. This is perhaps one of the main failings of the Fighting Fantasy series; the initial skill being the maximum is a good idea in theory, but things like ENCHANTED FUCKING SWORDS should be able to give you a bonus over and above the rusty blade you've been carrying for weeks. If I recall correctly, later gamebooks allowed bonuses over and above the usual maximum more often, if only while wielding a specific weapon, but not while doing other things like jumping pits and bashing down locked doors (which covers 95% of all tests-of-skill one encounters in Allansia). I mean, why would carrying Excalibur make you any better at leaping holes in the ground? Exactly.

Anyway... I fought off some vampire bats, had a crap sleep and no breakfast and was killed by a "dragon-like" creature called a wyvern. I found neither the head nor the handle of the sacred hammer. Not even having an enchanted sword was any use. All in all, a disastrous diversion, and why the hell do those dwarves 'need' a sacred hammer anyway? I thought dwarves largely spurned religious matters? (A quick Wikipedia fact-check only confuses the issue, so I'll leave it at that.)

The version of the book I have closely resembles the one above, but mine has the green Puffin branding - though the copy I had in the early 1990s was an original, resplendent with star and larger title. And as I recall, and Wikipedia confirms, if you make it through the forest (as I nearly did) without both parts of the hammer, you have the chance to go through it again... resetting many of the set-pieces somewhat comically. The later gamebook Scorpion Swamp I think resolves this issue, though I may be mistaken. It's been more than a decade since I read either...

And lastly, the embarrassing update of the score: Zero from three. With Steve Jackson's universally-recognised-as-difficult Starship Traveller beckoning, it's probably not about to get any better.

#2 - The Citadel Of Chaos

The Citadel Of Chaos has a very similar premise to The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, in that you must venture into a place with loads of monsters, traps and groups of doors from which you can only choose one (it seems never in Fighting Fantasy gamebooks do you peek through a slightly open door - it's all or nothing, every time), ultimately facing off against an evil magician. There's no treasure at the end of Citadel though, at least as far as I know, cause I didn't complete it. Nope. Didn't even get as far as the villian, Balthus Dire, which is a pity as apparently Steve Jackson put many hours of planning into how the final battle would work.

I didn't start so well, rolling a skill level of seven, stamina 20 and luck eight. In this gamebook, you get a bunch of spells, of which the dice were kind and gave me fourteen. With such low skill, I chose several 'creature copy' spells, which create a clone of your opponent to fight on your side. What I needed in the end were levitation spells, but I'll get there in time.

So at the entrance to the, er, citadel, were an ape with a dog face, and a dog with the face of... yep, an ape. Interesting. So far, so it seemed Steve Jackson had run out of ideas after only one book. I told them I was there to stay the night, and walked right in, which apparently is what you do when confronted by a pair of Wuzzles.

The first person I came across once inside was a dying man, whom I ignored. He wanted my stamina spell, and with such a low skill level, I decided I was going to need it more than him! Besides, if I gave it to him, it'll encourage panhandling, and there are enough beggars in the Fighting Fantasy world already! I came across some later on, who weren't happy till I'd given them every gold piece I owned...

Anyway. Something you don't do in Citadel it turns out is hang around places for too long. Much like the crypt in Warlock, hanging around almost anywhere on this adventure results in flaming shit being thrown at you or your arrest. Even in the library (where I learned the 3-digit combination to Balthus Dire's room, which is laughably short - even in a world where most doors can be broken down with a decent shoulder barge - and suspiciously convenient for a 400 section book) too much loitering can get you locked up in a cell guarded by a two-headed bipedal snake. Not that it happened to me, not at all...

Another place I hung around in too long inadvisedly was the wine cellar. In Warlock, drinking rum gave me stamina. In Citadel, drinking wine gave me hallucinations, and made me tell people things I should have kept secret - whoever said Fighting Fantasy gamebooks weren't realistic?

So after some rose wine, I told the winemaker I was not a travelling herb salesman, as had been my cover story thus far. No, I was actually on my way to kill his master, Balthus Dire. D'oh. A fight inevitably ensued, something I would've expected after rum, but not a couple of glasses of red. Ah well.

Perhaps I should've taken some with me further on the adventure, as I soon ran into a crazy biatch in bed who wanted presents. I offered her a silver mirror, which she didn't care for - considering she was attempting to shoot me with beams of fire from her eyes, perhaps I shouldn't have bothered! The book asked if perhaps I wanted to offer her a spider-man in a jar... WTF? I love some of the items you get asked if you have, the ones you never do always sound way more interesting. Like the cheese, from Warlock. The closest I came to cheese this time around were some berries. But berries you can put in a pouch or something. Cheese you need to wrap, and the book didn't say anything about having a roll of gladwrap in my rucksack.

So how did it all end? I encountered the ganjees, who were basically like disembodied banshees, flying around screaming and whatnot. I ran towards the door on the other side of the room, not realising it was a door OUT of the citadel. D'oh. I'd used my only levitation spell earlier, when a staircase became a 'super fun happy slide'. My 'broken body' landed in a 'crumpled heap'. Ouch.

So, all in all, I'm guessing The Citadel Of Chaos would be easier to complete than The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, not that I managed either. I say this because I've attempted the latter so many times without ever succeeding, and am pretty sure once I knew what spells to choose at the beginning of the former, it wouldn't be that difficult. None of the monsters I encountered were that much of a threat, and it's not like there are keys you need to collect in the right combination in order to succeed.

This book isn't as well known as Warlock, which is perhaps to be expected. It's very similar, without being as ground breaking; and has a pretty lame cover. The one here doesn't exactly look like mine; the other one on the Wikipedia page is closer, but mine has the text of the one above. Weird. The newer cover is better, but that two-headed snake thing looks nothing like the illustration in my copy, which I think is closer to what Jackson probably intended. There's no way my unskilled fighter could have defeated the monster on the new edition's cover!

So that was Citadel of Chaos, and I'm 0/2.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

#1 - The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain

I must've attempted this particular book a million times without success when I was a kid. Who am I kidding - I was still trying to procure Zagor's damn treasure well into my teens. Seriously. Although it was the first in the series, I found no other Fighting Fantasy gamebook as difficult as The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain - except perhaps Starship Traveller (which I'll be most likely failing to complete in a few posts' time).

The copy of the book I've got now is an '80s original - the back cover only lists two other gamebooks in the series, there's no "Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone Present" banner across the top, and most tellingly, a few of the instructional pages are almost falling out. Surprisingly for a second hand copy, the page where you keep all your statistics, inventory and fight notes hasn't got layers and layers of rubbed out pencil. I always hated it when you'd spend your week's pocket money at the second hand book store on a new gamebook, only to find some dickwad has done his adventure in pen.

The aim of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain is to defeat Zagor, the Warlock of the book's title, and acquire his treasure, which is kept in a chest only accessible if you have the right combination of keys.

Anyway. I began by rolling a ten for my skill level, 17 for stamina and eight for luck. Not too bad, but not exactly the best stats. I used to just give myself 12/24/12 (the maximum), but in the interests of accurate journalism (this is a blog after all... come on!) I'm gonna do things properly this time.

So to the adventure - once inside the mountain, I went west, snuck past some sleeping guards (I love how most guards you meet in the Fighting Fantasy world are fucking slackers) but soon came across some drunken orcs (I also love how most orcs you come across are drunk - except when they're guards, in which case I assume they're sleeping off killer mead hangovers).

The intro to the book claims there is one "true" way through the book, which you can do with minimal danger and effort. I most certainly did not take that way. I was attacked by a giant sandworm while sitting down for a feed, attacked by a vampire while hanging out in a crypt (not sure what I expected to happen), and at one point, the book asked if I had any cheese on me.


On my way through the mountain I did come across a spell to neutralize dragon breath though, which was perhaps the only right thing I did. I also managed to spend half an hour stuck in a maze, which was seriously not fun. I assume Jackson & Livingstone had several pages to fill, and decided to be complete arseholes. Mission accomplished.

I reached Zagor's, um, we'll call it a lair shall we, without any special weapons bar a Y-shaped stick, which apparently broke in my rucksack. I have a sneaking suspicion if I attempted the book again, it would break again, so I think we can assume it's useless. Luckily the dice weren't broke, and I managed to defeat Zagor with four stamina points left.

So, onto the chest it was. I thought alright, I've got two numbered keys, I should be sweet... temporarily forgetting the number of times I'd made it this far way back when, with more than two keys, and still failed to open the damn chest.

Turns out you need at least three to begin with, so I was fucked, and as with every single other time I've made it this far and every single other person who's made it this far without finding the right keys, I sat on the chest and wept.

So, The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, you win again, even in your lead villian's death, again. I'm not sure how Jackson & Livingstone managed to get the formula right on their very first book, but it's one you'll always go back to - simply because it's so freakin' difficult, without seeming impossible. It doesn't use monsters with insane skill levels to defeat you, nor fifty/fifty "if you make the wrong turn you instantly die" copouts. It's simply well put together and intriguingly arranged...

Apart from that fucking maze, of course. Is there something in there you need to complete The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain? Or is it just a royal pain in the arse? I've got about 50 other books to get through before I go back to it, so I'll leave it at that.

Except to ask, is Zagor the real villian here? He's just hanging out in his mountain, minding his own business, and in comes some spotty-faced bounty hunter interested in only one thing, and isn't afraid to slaughter and lie his way to it. Think about it.

Lets begin this again.

Hi! Where to start... Well, my name is Dan, and not so long ago I acquired a massive box of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. They originally came out in the 1980s and '90s, and I used to read them as a kid. The box didn't have every single one, but most of them, so I'm going to play them in order, and write about them here. It's that simple, really!

If this sounds familiar, it's because I began the previous incarnation of this blog (nine months ago) with almost identical words. After a couple of entries, uni began taking up more and more of my time, so I let it be. This time though I intend to make it through as many as possible, time permitting! Apologies if the first couple of entries read familiar, as a result. Let me know if I'm getting tardy and I'll do my best to catch up.

If you like what you read here, please note the box wasn't comprehensive, and I'm missing a few books - if you know where I can get them (keeping in mind I'm not in North America, nor Europe, and not wealthy), definitely let me know. Even a borrow-kind-of-deal would be awesome.

Here's the list of the books I need, and their (I believe original) catalogue numbers.

23: Masks of Mayhem
29: Midnight Rogue
46: Tower of Desruction
48: Moonrunner
53: Spellbreaker
54: Legend of Zagor
55: Deathmoor
56: Knights of Doom
57: Magehunter
58: Revenge of the Vampire
59: Curse of the Mummy

It's a bit annoying, considering Midnight Rogue and Tower Of Destruction were two of my faves from 'back in the day'.

Well, enjoy! Feel free to comment or click on an ad or two (if they ever become relevant).