Artwork from 'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain'
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When I was a kid, in the 1980s, my mates and me were obsessed with Fighting Fantasy books. These choose-your-own-adventure stories, created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, separated themselves from other turn-to-chapter-number-X books of their ilk by having dice-determined battles and tests of luck, skill and strength along each journey. I guess I was most into them when Knightmare was on British TV, and the Games Workshop board game HeroQuest was on everyone's Christmas list, around 1990 or so. By that point over 40 Fighting Fantasy books had been released, and I had a lot of them: The Keep of the Lich Lord, Armies of Death, Robot Commando, Freeway Fighter, Island of the Lizard King. I could go on. The titles of these things were always awesome(ly lame, really, but not when you're ten).
The very first book in the series, and the most famous of them all, is The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I have an edition from the year of its release, 1982 – not a first edition, but a pretty ragged copy. Its popularity led to two direct sequels, plus both board and video game adaptations. The goal of the player is fairly simple: this warlock's got a load of treasure, and you want it. I didn't buy it in 1982 – I was two years old, and while an advanced reader early doors, no baby genius. I can't actually remember when I picked up my copy of Warlock, but I know it wasn't the first FF book I owned, and also that I never really gave it the attention I did other, newer series entries.
Earlier in 2015, I interviewed Ian Livingstone, just because I could, really. "I never minded when people cheated," he told me. "I think 98 percent of children cheated though Fighting Fantasy." Well, Ian, I'm a man, man. It's time to make amends, and properly, following all of the rules regarding combat, tests of luck and any other dice roll actions. I plucked four books from my stash of FF titles, thinking I'd be able to play through a few in a single afternoon. Idiot, me. These things take ages, when played as they're meant to be. I started The Warlock of Firetop Mountain just after half one in the afternoon. I closed the book over two hours later, having not actually finished at all. It beat me. But I recorded the particulars of my adventure up to that point, which you can read (an edit of, as the complete text is massive) below.
First things first, my initial stats need deciding. Stamina 19, Luck and Skill both set at ten. Seems okay, doesn't it? I pack my ten provisions and a Potion of Strength – could have gone for Luck or Skill, but nah, I prefer breathing – and get stuck into Warlock's intro. "Only a foolhardy adventurer would embark upon such a perilous quest," I'm told by villagers living in the shadow of the mountain. Sounds about right. The warlock's treasure is apparently protected by two unique locks, and guarded by some mean beasts. I'm encouraged to keep a map. This is advice I choose to ignore, because I am an idiot.
1: The mountain "looks menacing", its name-giving redness at the top "probably some strange vegetation". Inside a cave, ostensibly the entrance to this fortress, the walls are slimy, the air cold and dank. I reach a junction, where west or east are my only options. Go west, life is peaceful there.
71: A "goblin-like creature" is blocking my way. It's asleep, though. I choose to test my luck, to tiptoe past. This means rolling two dice, and if the number is equal to or less than my Luck score, I get lucky. If it's more, that's not going to be good for me. Every time I test it, I lose a point from my initial Luck score – so the more you test your luck, the more risky it becomes, see? I rattle the dice in my hand and release: eight. I'm past.
82: Another one of those goblin-things. He's out of it, too, but guarding a box. I'm going to test my luck again here, because why else would a sentry be here unless he was guarding something of value, right? Eleven. Unlucky.
33: I have to fight what turns out to be an orc. This is my first proper Fighting Fantasy battle for 25 years (I did sometimes do the fights, though rarely all the other stuff), so bear with me. Basically, your opponent has their own Skill and Stamina scores – in this case six and four respectively. I have to roll two dice for the orc's attack, add the result to that six, and that's its attack strength. I then roll again, both dice, and add the number to my Skill score. Whoever has the highest number overall, wins that "round", the loser having two points deducted from their Stamina. I can also use luck in battles to either inflict more damage or, if it goes wrong, merely graze the enemy and leave myself open to a counter attack. But I'll leave that because fight.
147: Two rounds later, I've bagged my first kill. There's a single piece of gold in the box – thanking you – and a mouse. I let the pet go, which restores my Luck to its initial score.
These are the four books I picked out to play, but I've only got to 'Warlock' so far. Which one shall I do next?
285: After some wiggling around corridors, randomly choosing which direction to go in, I find myself in front of a door, the other side of which a man is screaming for help. Immediately I'm thinking: trap. I haven't come here to save anyone, just to rob a wizard of his treasures. Yet, my conscious gets the better of me. I break down the door.
36: There's a mad old dude in here, absolutely filthy, waving a wooden chair leg in my face. I didn't come in here to murder anyone, so I try to calm him down.
263: "You are free!" I tell him. He seems pretty happy with that. Doesn't want to cave my skull in. He came after the warlock's treasure years ago, but was captured and imprisoned by the orcs. He tells me to "pay respects to the boatman", and to pull the right lever on the wall ahead to open the gate. Noted. The keys to the boathouse are guarded by a man and his dog. Again, useful. You be on your way, now. Just look out for that guard I didn't kill when I had the chance.
303: After some more walking, ignoring more screams behind more doors because, come on now, I'm not here to be a hero, I arrive at the gate the stinky prisoner told me about. I pull the right lever. I'm through.
311: Some getting lost later, I find myself in a room covered in two different designs of floor tiles – ones with stars, and the others open hands. There's one exit, opposite where I came in. I've got to make a decision: stars, hands, or simply don't give a shit either way and just stride on over. Stars. Obviously stars.
218: Made it. More wandering follows. I have to dunk myself in a river, which washes me to the bell for a ferryman – ring it, and presumably a chap will pop along to sail me the rest of the way across what appears to be a pretty massive expanse of the wet stuff. Two gold pieces, though – I only have the one. There's a bridge, stretching ahead of me, into the darkness, but it looks pretty decrepit. I'm not swimming anymore. I ring the bell.
3: An old man rows towards me, from the other side – from where I need to be. He wants three gold pieces, the greedy bollock. I don't have that much coin, so the only option I have available is to "threaten him". That's it. Pay up, or threaten an old man just trying to make a living down here, in the dark, with no friends. All alone. Just a man.
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127: He doesn't take my threatening tone very well, at all. He transforms from a wizened relic into something rather bigger and stronger, his teeth growing into points, his arms turning hairy. I dare say there is magic afoot. Not good, Harry-Potter-fucking-about-to-impress-the-girls magic, either. Where was the option to pay my respects? That slimy inmate I set free definitely implied I could engage in small talk with the ferryman, who is now super pissed and demanding five gold pieces. All I can do is fight him, and I don't want to because, it turns out, he's a "wererat". You know, like a werewolf, but a lot less cool and way worse at basketball.
342: He's an absolute wuss. I cut him down, take what money he has – two gold pieces – and sail across. But when I look back, the body's gone. Spooky.
49: After walking the wrong way along the riverbank and coming across a bunch of skeletons building a boat – I leave them to it, as I'm not sure what their insurance policy is regarding injuries in the work place, and I don't want their wives going without – I finally step through a door into a previously unseen room and receive a whack on the back of my head. There are four very gaunt men in here. One of these sods struck me when I wasn't looking. Total cheap shot. But, no need to cause a scene. I'm sure we can settle this like grown-ups. I try to talk to them, but they mumble unintelligently and get mad at me. Well, if it's trouble they want.
282: They're zombies. Of course they're zombies. I have to fight all four, but for reasons that only they know, they only come at me one at a time. The first gets a hit in on me, and the third also lands a lucky strike. Fucking zombies. But they're in a better place, now.
115: "The poor wretches almost look happy… but you sense that you are not the only one to know of their deaths." Uh oh. I check out their weapons. Unremarkable, nothing to salvage – and then a scream pierces the air, and I'm automatically rushed to investigate it.
205: I'm in a crypt. There are coffins – which you expect, I suppose. The book's all like, "Oh, if you're scared, little mister pissy pants, why don't you leave? Here's a door." No way, book. I'm opening one of these things up.
254: Except I don't get the chance. The largest coffin begins to open by itself, which you might think unnerving but, yeah, zombies. So obviously there are vampires or here, too. This one is tall and pale, standard vampire vibes. He asks me over and I'm thinking: no way is this guy just after my blood. We've only just met, after all. One step at a time.
352: "You begin to weaken under his gaze – lose one Stamina point." Now, I don't know much about vampires but I'm pretty sure that your garden-variety broadsword doesn't deal one all that much damage – you need silver, I think? I don't have any of that in my backpack, just some snacks I'm yet to eat and this ill-gotten gold. Does gold work on a vampire? I expect he could trade it for some peasant's virgin daughter, down at the village. I'll try the gold.
279: A crucifix? Where was I supposed to pick up a crucifix? I don't have a crucifix. Right, a crappy sword against evil incarnate, let's go.
333: We're evenly matched for Skill. This is going to be close. After 13 rounds we're both down to two Stamina points. It's next goal wins, pretty much, only with death delivered swiftly to the loser. One more roll. His attack score is 18 and I'm shitting it and then I roll 20 and it's goodnight, you blood-sucking ballbag.
327: Naturally, the "dead" vampire transforms into a bat and buggers off. I scoff some grub, boosting my Stamina, grab 30 gold pieces from out of the coffins, a "Y-shaped stick", and a book. What book? Just a book. Grave robbers don't need to read. I'll use it to level a wobbly wardrobe later.
This was how I spent my afternoon. And you?
286: After more blind fumbling around a load of passageways – I really should have made a map – I reach some stairs, going down. At the bottom, there's a chamber with three very dead bodies on the floor. Like, very dead. Do I want to search them? Nah, you're alright. I press onwards.
107: "You begin to have second thoughts about searching the bodies." Do I, though? I thought this was my adventure, my way? I'm not going back in there. They're all decomposed and gross. I've killed a vampire – whatever's around the corner, I doubt I'll need anything more than these hands and this sword to stop it breathing, permanently.
197: I'm in a fucking maze. This might take a while.
391: (Several minutes pass.) I am going in circles, here.
234: "Your rummaging attracts the attention of something sinister… turn to 161."
161: This is interesting. I have to roll one die to determine what kind of enemy I fight. Five means I meet a skeleton. His mates must have been, like, "Hey, Steve." I'm assuming the skeleton is called Steve, because why the hell not. "Steve, we've seen this adventurer wandering around the place, weirding us out while we were doing our wicked shipbuilding. Mind going to, you know, sort him out?" But I kill Steve. In this twisted place, Steve's bones will never be discovered. Steve's wife will receive no pay-out. Steve Junior will not only grow up without a dad, but no guaranteed college fund. Oh, Steve. It could have been so different. Back to the maze.
179: Some time later, I'm face to face with a minotaur. I get that, contextually. In the Ancient Greek story, a very similar beast lurks at the centre of the Labyrinth, so presumably I've made the middle of where I need to be. This one, who we'll call Eric since I've taken to giving my enemies names, only wants to fight, so fight we do. Eric is pretty handy, with a Skill score of nine to my ten. I suddenly feel that I should have eaten something when I was strolling around with nothing to swing my sword against. Eric lands the first telling blow. And the next. And the next. The dice hate me. The book says I can test my luck after three attack rounds, and make for the exit. I try to escape. I roll a three. It's enough.
54: After muddling my way around the maze a little more, I begin to suspect I might need to kill Eric. I get some provisions down my gullet and head back in. Just like the vampire encounter, it goes to the wire. And just like my epic fight with the unholy nightmare that shall from now on be known as Dave, I scrape through by the skin of my certainly bloodied teeth. I find some gold and a red key, inscribed "111". The villagers mentioned keys. This could be important.
227: After more maze "navigation", I stumble into a room full of four small men, smoking and drinking and playing cards. I can choose to chat with them, so I do.
They're alright, these guys. By which I mean they don't instantly want me dead. They tell me I'm in the Maze of Zagor – Zagor is the warlock's name – and the only way out is to turn right out the room, then right, left, straight on and, no, actually, that might be wrong. Thanks for nothing. All the same, I split a meal with them, because I'm nice like that. I realise now that I accidentally cheated – you're only supposed to eat provisions when instructed. I told you I was rusty. Eric should have killed me given the state of me post-Dave. But since I'm alive, I follow the ale-swigging foursome's directions. Except, I don't follow them very well, and wind up more lost than I was before.
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206: After what feels like weeks of flicking from one page to another and then back again, I'm suddenly in a room, standing in front of a quill-holding man sat down at a desk who's looking at me like I'm some sort of scum he's just scraped from his shoe. I can choose to be pleasant, so that's what I do.
220: "He is enraged by your pleasantries." What is wrong with people in this place? He casts some sort of magic, knocks me out, and when I come to I'm at the dead-end of a passage. Fucked it. Back in the maze, I again attract the attention of something nasty. Whatever will it be this time?
161: One. It's a goblin. The goblin is dealt with. I'm bored. I drink my potion: all Stamina restored. I fumble my way to a room where an orc chieftain is whipping an underling. Sod that, I think; I'm going to stand up for that servant grunt. I leap at the big guy, but his slave, rather than cheer me on, grabs something sharp and begins poking me with it. Ungrateful snake. I kill them both without a scratch, and smash the lock off a chest beside their dead bodies. Unfortunately it's booby-trapped, and a poison dart nicks a point from my Stamina. No big deal. Inside is an invisibility potion, plus more gold and a single silk glove. What relevance this has to the quest, I will never get to discover.
311: Several moves later, and I'm back in the room with the stars and hands, and I have no idea how. Perhaps I misread a number. Should I have searched the bodies? I don't know. I think it's time to just sit down and die. Or, just to be clever, walk on the hands. I mean, what's the worst that could happen? One comes to life, I stab at it, and nothing else. Through the door, back to where I've already been. Forget this. Dead.
Except, I do continue to flick through the pages. I discover a second key, in a room full of poison gas. But then I'm back at the river and the ferryman/rat. I must have taken a wrong turn several moves ago, and picked up a chapter I wasn't meant to. Which is a shame, as for a good while I was having a great time with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I've since read a few articles heavily criticising the maze, which is where it all went wrong for me, and also seen a good many maps of it, so if I want to work my way out again from the chieftain, I could. I suppose I should, really. Dave's still in there, somewhere, acting the big man, giving random orcs that eye of his, licking his thin lips. I swear when I next see that undead slag I'm going to deal him a damn fine thrashing.
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