Daggers of Darkness
The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Let’s get our hands on the Daggers of Darkness and see who we can stab!
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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Daggers of Darkness is a fairly standard FF adventure. Let’s check and see what’s new with it, before I start my playthrough. The most stand-out thing about this book is the cover. It is the best cover of any FF book of all time, because it shows a mongolian barbarian who seems to be wielding a death-mace-whip weapon of some sort, and his trusty eagle companion, jet-skiing across a river by means of standing on top of two saber-toothed tigers. There is simply nothing better than this image. Compared to jet-skiing tigers, Game of Thrones falls flat on its face. “Oh, you have dire wolves? Can I jet-ski on them? I don’t think so!”
Well, the formula of the adventure seems standard. A villainous warlock (or in this case, the vizier Chingiz) is trying to usurp power in Kazan, and I need to go and stop it, or something. Aside from the usual stats, the book also has a poison rating. Well, not so much a rating, but it’s a little drawing of a man with his body parts blocked out into seperate areas. As you go through the adventure, you fill in more and more of the body, until the poison takes over and you die. Charming. So already the book is devising new ways to kill the player.
So how do you get poisoned in the first place? What are the plans of the evil vizier? What are my starting stats for this game? Let’s find out! Well, stamina’s a lowly 15, but skill’s a decent 9, so it looks like we might do okay this time.
The adventure starts as an assassin is trying to stab me to death. So, not fooling around, then. The last time I started an adventure by almost being stabbed, I wound up being accused of being the false prophet (wow, an Ultima reference? I’m feeling very retro today!). He barely manages to scratch me with the titular dagger of darkness, but in doing so I have been intoxicated with the poison that will slowly try to claim my life.
I was rescued by a drinking buddy, who turns out to have been a wise wizard all along. Kinda like Cliff the mailman in ‘Cheers’, but without the uniform. Anyway, he tells me that I’ve been targeted by the assassin because I’m one of the ‘Select’, a group of people who may compete to claim the distant throne of Kazan. There’s a whole history as to how this comes around, it’s a very complicated and involving story which adds a lot to the general atmosphere of the book, but it essentially boils down to this – if I want to become the ruler of Kazan, I need to find some amulets that are guarded around the land. That’s the only way I’ll be able to confront the vizier, get a cure for his poison, and kick him in the knee for being such an evil plonker.
With Cliff’s advice still ringing in my ears, I head out on my travels. Before long, I find another of the Select, who is laying dying with one of the daggers of darkness embedded in his chest. He manages to tell me which way the assassins went, so I opt to head in the opposite direction. I don’t have the chance to rob the body though, because the full force of the poison that flows through the poor victim causes his body to crumble to dust – along with ALL OF HIS POSSESSIONS as well! How does that work? Seriously? Did the gold coins in his bag get poisoned too? Damn, I don’t stand a chance with that kind of poison in my system! I’m lucky that plants don’t just die as I walk past them…
I follow the dying man’s advice and head in the opposite direction from the assassins, but it’s not before long that I hear riders on the road up ahead. Taking the advice of Frodo Baggins, I decide to get off the road and hide. I’m sure that I find a really nice hovel under a tree to hide in, hoping that it’s neither assassins or Nazgul that are on the road. Whoever it is, they’re a bit smarter than Nazgul though – rather than falling for my trick, they just unleash an eagle on me which pecks me until I stagger out of the hiding place. I hope Sauron is taking note of this tactic.
It seems that the riders weren’t assassins, because when they confront me and I tell them that I’m one of the Select, they greet me with praise and respect and offer to take me along on my journey. They even give me a horse to ride on. An old gray mare (which ain’t what it used to be), and before long I’m making really good progress.
Well, we make good progress until we’re attacked by orcs and my entire party is scattered or killed during the night (although I’m sure a couple manage to scramble into Fangorn Forest and are probably eaten by Ents). I chop up a few of the orcs, but I’m left stumbling in the dark. From somewhere in the shadows, I am assailed by a ‘dark warrior’, who I have to assume is one of the vizier’s assassins. I take a skill penalty due to the darkness, but I’m still able to overwhelm my enemy and push on.
Leaving the ruins of my comrades behind, I head into the unforgiving snow. The snowstorm begins to get wilder, sapping both my stamina and spurring on the poison in my system. In the midst of the storm, a sinister magical force of unspecified origin (I have to assume the vizier or his assassin’s hands are involved, because the book doesn’t really tell me otherwise) coaxes me to lay down in the snow and wait for death. But I draw on my strength and, seeing an image of Cliff the mailman shimmering before my eyes like some kind of celestial Obi-Wan Kenobi, I push onwards!
By this point, the poison’s already starting to really build up and it’s close to taking a full third of my body. I haven’t found any of the medallion/talisman/amulet things as of yet, and I’m rather certain I should have come across one by now and simply missed it. Maybe my luck will change soon, because it’s not long before I’m rescuing a fellow adventurer from a pack of goblins. He seems a trustworthy sort, so I tell him that I’m one of the Select.
It turns out that this is a good idea, because he teaches me how to fight in the dark. Which would have been really useful a few sections ago when I was fighting the dark warrior, but I don’t mind. We head to a nearby tavern, where I have a quick meal. It seems that things will be settling down for a while…
But of course, me and ‘peaceful’ don’t co-exist in the same general area. After a couple pints of ale, a group of mercenaries burst into the tavern and throw a net over me. They knock me out, and I wake up later on in a dingy caravan where I’m informed that I will spend the rest of my life in the fighting pits. Oh joy. Does this mean that I will one day rise through the ranks, only to be released and seek my revenge against the evil Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones) and his snake cult? I certainly hope so, and to prove it, I challenge my cruel slavemaster to a duel.
He knocks me around the arena for a while, beats me in combat, I no doubt pee myself, and he leaves me in a pool of my own embarrassment. Strange, this didn’t happen to Conan.
Anyway, it seems that my willingness to stand up and make myself the center of attention has caught the notice of one old man, who tells me that he has been watching for the Select, and he can tell that I am one. Being one of the traditionalists, he wants to see the old rituals of royal ascension maintained, so he hurries me to my freedom. We journey to his home city, where I am plied with food and wine (and I chug down my Stamina Potion now so that my health is maxed out) and I’m told about the trials that stand before me.
In order to win my first medallion, I need to win the test of chance. To do so, I need to make my way from one side of a chamber to the other. There is no floor, only a series of pillars which I need to walk over the top of. Several of these pillars hold vicious snakes. So in short, it’s like the movie “The Golden Child”, if you remember back when Eddie Murphy made good films (oh, so long ago)…
But more deadly. And more random, because your movement direction is determined by the dice. You roll 5/6 to move up or down, 3/4 to move left or right, and if you roll 1/2 then you stay where you are. You cannot go back, I assume because the pillars you’ve just stepped off will crumble into the pit beneath you once you step away from them. And if you’re bitten by a snake, you lose three stamina. If you’re bitten by three snakes, you die.
Oh, and if you can’t move on any given turn (either because you’re unable to move in the direction that the dice indicates, or because it rolled 1/2), you lose one stamina point… I don’t know why. I assume that there’s a group of men standing at the entrance who throw rocks at you or something. It’s the only logical reason, because as it plays out, I wasn’t able to get across this pit. Eventually, only one step from being all the way across, I rolled a 2 and my stamina hit zero. Because the book doesn’t tell me WHY it is that I died, and because my ‘men throwing rocks at you’ idea sounds too sadistic even for this type of test, I’m going to just assume my character died from a bad case of death.
Not a bad book, the atmosphere is very thick and you get a real sense of history and fantasy environment from it. It’s a lovely escapist piece, because it gives a very unique feel to the area and culture you’re travelling through. But the downside, it’s one of those very difficult books. It often feels like the author was trying to make sure you couldn’t get through some parts without vast amounts of luck (actual luck, not the stat).
Cause of death: Uhhh… death.