Beneath Nightmare Castle
The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Let’s journey Beneath Nightmare Castle!
In 1982, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, founders of Games Workshop, released the book ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’. Intended as an introduction to tabletop role-playing games of the era, the book’s choose-your-own-adventure format mixed with simple dice-based combat proved massively successful, giving rise to a full series of books – Fighting Fantasy. With over 65 books in the series by a legion of authors and illustrators, the series’ legacy continues to this day. Come along with us as Cybe and co play through each one – with no prior knowledge, no hints or walkthroughs and no cheating!
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I wish that I could give this book a really epic introduction, complete with all the memories I had associated with it. But just like my last playthrough, this is a book I didn’t get to play as a kid. I remember seeing it plenty of times in shops, sitting on the shelf beside other FF books, but there were always others that inevitably caught my attention more.
So as a result I just kinda skipped past this one at all times, until now. I must admit that it looks pretty intriguing, with some horror elements and a Willpower stat that is very reminiscent of Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity system. From what I have read on my fellow gamebook blogger’s pages, this book has quite some strong Lovecraft elements to it.
As a result, I will play this very much like a Call of Cthulhu game, which means I will be running away as often as possible and will emphatically NOT be looking in any ancient books that I happen to find along my travels. Hopefully the plan to run away as often as possible will be wise, because I rolled a mere 7 in Skill. My scores for Luck was better at 10, and my Willpower (this book’s stand-in for the Sanity system) is 11, and a decent 19 for Stamina.
I don’t start with any items or provisions, instead I was on my way to the town of Neuburg in order to visit the Baron there, who is an old friend of mine. Showing the survival instinct that is typical of me, I immediately walk into a trap and get captured by a group of very suspicious characters.
What follows is perhaps the best example of my complete and utter inability to play these books with any level of success. I awake in a dark cellar. A mysterious voice offers to cut the rope that is binding me. I accept, and search the cellar. It seems that I took too long, because a group of cultists then toddle down the stairs to meet me. They chase me around the cellar for a bit, then knock me out. I wake up tied to an altar and being sacrificed by hideous abominations of nature.
So I restart the game. This time I choose to hurry out of the cellar instead of searching. I stumble into the main hallway, and look out a window to see that the city below me is deserted. I come to a door. I try to knock it down, but don’t roll well enough on the dice and attract the attention of six guards, who proceed to gradually beat my stamina points down to nearly zero. They then knock me out. I wake up tied to an altar and being sacrificed by hideous abominations of nature.
Restart. This time I tell the stranger in the cellar that I do not want him to cut me free. He does not, and leaves me there. Cultists come into the cellar and knock me out. I wake up tied to an altar and being sacrificed by hideous abominations of nature.
Restart again. I sense a recurring pattern here. This time, I manage to knock down the hallway door successfully. An entire squadron of guards do not come running. I leave the building, which appears to have been a local guard post, and head to the local tavern. The streets are deserted and the doors and windows of the houses are boarded up. Once I am inside I eat a hearty dinner, and speak with the innkeeper who tells me some friendly jokes. The book then tells me that I am starting to feel more relaxed, and states “Maybe you have been imagining things. How could anything be wrong in a quiet town like this?”
Yes… how could it? Nothing unusual here at all, nope. Nothing at all. It’s almost enough to make you forget about being kidnapped, beaten, and chained in a basement. Nothing odd about this city at all. Tra la la.
So, because it’s such a nice and lovely night, I decide to head out on a moonlit stroll. Hoping to perhaps discover the secrets of the town’s weirdness, I am very quickly attacked by a pair of Blood-Lickers. What are Blood-Lickers, I hear you ask? They’re what a ‘cute little puppy’ would be if they were designed by Clive Barker. The pair of them proceed to savage me down to a single remaining stamina point.
I somehow manage to survive enough to kill the beasts and cut one of their tongues out as a trophy (technically it’s a ‘sucker-covered tentacle’, but let’s not split hairs here). I head right back to the tavern, where I sleep for the rest of the night and awake to a big dinner the next day, recovering a few scraps of health.
My new quest becomes ‘get food, recover stamina’, so my first course leads me to the marketplace. It’s at this point when I start to discover just how sadistic the game really is, because I find myself being pickpocketed by a little 9-year old girl, who promptly stabs me. The book then forces me into a round of combat with this child, whose skill and stamina is utterly shockingly awful. Without any alternative, I whack the little street rat child, who is probably starving slowly to death, with my sword. That sound you are hearing now is my heart breaking, just a little.
Nevertheless I let her scurry away, and continue my quest to get my stamina up to double digits. I’m able to buy three meals, and walk through the marketplace stuffing my face for a while, until I come across a small goblin who offers to sell me a fork. Because I know that it’s useful to have as much junk in your backpack as possible, I buy this fork, only to discover that it is actually the head of an ancient spear. I expect that finding the rest of the spear is a large part of the adventure.
I head to the temple district, where I dump into an old man who tells me that he is a priest. I quickly recognise this man as the same one who rescued me from the dungeon earlier. He tells me that I am the chosen one, because into every generation a slayer is born and all that kind of stuff. And to show that he’s serious, he sticks a knife in my face, making damn sure that I don’t even think about running away and abandoning this quest. I’ll give it this, he’s one of the most colourful quest-givers I’ve ever seen.
The quest itself is a fairly simple one, but as per usual I’ll avoid the specifics in case you ever want to read the book and would consider them a spoiler. Isn’t it odd that, due to the internet’s general attitude towards spoilers, I’m hesitant to even name the villain in a 20 year old book. Spoiler for you all – Darth Vader is Luke’s dad, Frodo isn’t really dead, and Rosebud is a sledge! Anyway… There is an evil being who is going to be resurrected, and it is his influence that is tainting the city like a big ol’ smelly taint. So I need to go to the keep, find a magical talisman, and kill the evil thing. Easy enough.
But first, in order to receive the blessing of the gods, I need to complete an ordeal. Not a ‘test’, but an ‘ordeal’, which evokes a whole different variety of mental images. Never trust any god who insists that you undertake an ‘ordeal’ for them, because they’re secretly standing up in the clouds laughing about it with all their other divine buddies. My worries prove to be unfounded though, as the ‘ordeal’ is simply climbing up a tree.
Yeah, so technically the tree is several hundred feet tall and might be Yggdrasil or something, and I faint halfway through climbing it, but it seems that I passed the test and my initial stamina and willpower is increased – no mention of improving my puny skill score though. Anyway, the old mad priest tells me that there is ‘part’ of an ancient weapon somewhere in town that might be useful – oh hi there, spearhead in my inventory! I’ve pretty much done everything I want to do in town, so I bid the old man farewell and head towards the keep itself.
I’m not foolish enough to go to the keep’s main entrance, so I find a path leading to the main gardens. Hoping to find a way to sneak into the keep, I eventually stumble across a hole in the wall of one of the towers. This proves rather unhelpful, because the tower in question is not connected to the rest of the keep. Oh, and it has a small pool of water inside it, inside of which is a shoggoth. It takes a few rolls to be able to escape from the thing unscathed, but I resolve to be a little more careful when checking out the towers.
It’s not long before I find my way to a stairway that leads out of the garden and into the main keep itself. The book tells me that I take a break to have a meal, and it occurs to me that this is one of those books where I’m only meant to eat when directly told that I can – the instructions were not entirely clear on this, so I suppose that technically I shouldn’t have healed up quite so much at the market earlier, but we’ll ignore that because OH MY GOD THE MONSTER’S TENTACLE HAS EATEN MY MEALS AND IS NOW ENORMOUS AND IS TRYING TO CHEW ON MY FACE!!
Seriously, that actually happened, and I’m pretty impressed that it did. Normally these books treat the backpack as a nebulous space full of anything from spellbooks to shields to full silver dining sets, so this was quite a nice twist. I sneak into the main building through a window though, and there are two doors – one of which is barred from this side. I decide not to open it, on account of it being barred from this side means that they’d want to keep something on the other side out!
As I sneak through the servant’s corridors, I hear the sounds of shouting and eventually catch sight of a small, whimpering little goblin. The poor little creature tells me a sad story of his life carrying soup back and forth between the violent, abusive orc in the kitchen and a violent, abusive orc who’s guarding a door. I take pity on the poor creature, because I’m a lovely and kind-hearted person who would definitely never hit a little orphan girl with my sword.
So I offer to carry the soup to the orc instead, and give the goblin a sock so that he can be free from his life of slavery. I don’t have anything to poison the soup with, and I’m hoping that once I’ve given the orc its soup, it will be happy enough not to care. Instead, it glugs down the soup, then beats me with its axe until I’m dead. Here ends the adventure, death by playing butler.
This is a very neat adventure. It has a lot of very cool ideas, and offers a lot of new twists that weren’t yet standard in FF books at this point in the series. There are some moments of utter innovation as well. It is also, especially at the beginning, fiendishly difficult. This gamebook is an utter charm to read, and some real fun. Just… try to have a high skill point, okay?
Cause of death: I was axed some very hard questions…