Phantoms of Fear
The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Now it’s time for us to go face-to-face with the Phantoms of Fear!
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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The cover of this book is certainly noteworthy, because it shows a very vivid picture of my ex. No, seriously, I always thought that this was what the titular monsters in Spectral Stalkers should look like. This book is quite unlike Spectral Stalkers though, in that your playable character is an elf. As an elf, you have a Power stat, which you can use to cast a few spells. You also can tap into a special living realm when you dream, which basically turns the entire adventure into a drug-fuelled haze while your character sleeps on a tree branch for a while. Good thing to do while there’s an evil death-god planning to destroy the world, right?
Oh yeah, and that’s your quest. Go and stop the evil death-god. Somehow, I quickly come to suspect that the key to solving this adventure lies in the dreams that the character has, because the very first thing you’re doing in the game is sleeping. You dream of your home forest being twisted and destroyed, and a statue of an old powerful and possibly goddess-type thing beckons you on, offering you puppies and swords. Yes, really. No, it doesn’t make much sense to me either.
The dream continues until I attempt to cast a fire spell at an especially unpleasant piece of shrubbery, only to be informed that I cannot cast spells while I’m asleep, and am roughly propelled into the waking world, promptly losing two power points as I do so. From the dream, I have learned that the evil death-god has made a giant pit of nastiness in the middle of the forest, which presumably means we’re going to have to find a dungeon and get some dungeon-crawling on.
You’re informed that, as a wood elf, you are confident that you don’t need to take any food with you on your journey, and toddle off into the forest with only a pointed stick for safety. Ten minutes later you’re starving to death and struggling to scavenge enough berries to survive. I’m so impressed with the skill of the wood elves so far. I manage to direct him into a small bush, where he gathers some berries, eats them, and promptly falls asleep. My sleep is then interrupted on account of being attacked by a giant hawk which is attempting to peck my eyes out.
Having killed the giant hawk, the character decides to actually do something sensible and go gather enough food to continue his journey. In the process of which, he is attacked by a bear. I can only picture the image there, a little wood elf digging through a bush, collecting berries, and finding a giant twelve-foot tall grizzly bear instead. Anyway, no sooner have I collected some food, than the character trips on some poisoned plants and infects two meals worth of food with some kind of toxic tree venom.
Without any real indication of where to go, I stumble cluelessly around the forest for a while, until I find a pathway leading to the west. Some distance along the pathway, I’m given a few chances to roll a test of luck, or the option to turn back. This is always a bit of a dead giveaway that there is some kind of horrible spiked trap tied to a tree or something, and no sooner have I confirmed that I want to press on in this direction am I confronted… with a horrible spiked trap tied to a tree. Because I’m not quite a total idiot, I avoid the trap, but I’m gradually losing faith in the character’s preternatural woodland survival skills.
My lack of faith is immediately confirmed when the character, a wood elf, falls out of a tree. The book tells me that the character assumes that this is due to the tree’s unnatural corruption, and a foreboding warning that he should sleep on the ground that night, but I am not even slightly convinced at that. My new theory is that the character is simply a very tall dwarf without a beard. I fully expect him to find a bow and arrow later on in this adventure, and accidentally shoot himself in the arse with it.
I hide under some leaves and have a dream about being beaten up by an ice monster. Upon killing it, I’m informed that I wake up feeling refreshed. The next paragraph tells me that I then rest for a while, which is confusing as I’d just finished sleeping. Now convinced that my inept beardless dwarf also has narcolepsy, I’m ready to pack up and continue on the journey when I am attacked by the strange mutated man-creature whose leaf-shelter I’ve slept in for the night. Slept in, I’ll remind you, because my character couldn’t climb a tree without falling out of it. I suspect that this is going to end up like one of those episodes of Star Trek, the kind in which the crew need to save themselves from their own stupidity.
The whole next day’s journey is uneventful, it seems. But the book does give me a luck point simply for making it this far. Words are failing me at this point. Normally in these books, you’re given a luck point if you kill an especially dangerous enemy or find a holy relic. In this one, I’m given a luck point simply for not tripping over my own shoelaces and hitting my head on a rock while moving from point A to point B. It’s getting late at that point, so we decide to risk setting up camp in a cave on one of the nearby hills.
I choose the cave which is littered with half-gnawed bones, because that seems the safest option. Look, don’t question my logic here. I have a refreshing sleep, dreaming of magic pools which remind me a lot of the first Narnia book, and when I wake the next morning I’m given the option of exploring the rest of the cave. Far in the back of the cave, we find a skeleton with its hand trapped under a boulder. When I move the boulder to one side, the skeleton springs to life and starts trying to kill me with its magic ring. I can only assume that this is not meant to be the skeleton of a long-dead Green Lantern, but after knocking the skeleton down and trapping its hand back under the boulder, it goes back to sleep.
I continue to crawl through the cave until I eventually emerge from the other side, feeling as if I somehow didn’t manage to acquire any of the hidden loot that I was sure would be hidden in a dark cave. In the distance I can see the weird twisted corruption of the evil dark-god thing, which has been tainting this region of the forest. As I approach, a strange gust of wind knocks me over. I’m assuming that it is actually meant to be some kind of radiating ageas of raw tainted evil, or something equally powerful enough to almost knock a heroic warrior of good from his feet. But frankly, at this stage in the adventure, I’m beginning to suspect that the elf just fell over from a strong breeze.
Despite getting closer to the heart of darkness itself, our illustrious hero decides that now would be a good time to fall asleep by a lake. He has a dream of little forest pixies, who he dances with and talks to plants with and assorted other nonsense. The pixies ask if I want to stay with them, and I have to roll a dice in order to possess the slightest scrap of common sense. I roll a six, which means that our illustrious hero decides to spend the rest of his days dancing with the pixies, chatting with plants, and generally not destroying the evil god-monster of death and chaos.
I can’t really dislike this book, despite the main character’s utter ineptitude. The descriptions are vivid, especially the dreams. The artwork is extremely good, bringing the imagery of the story to haunting life. It’s certainly not one of the poorer Fighting Fantasy books, but it doesn’t really do a whole lot to make itself stand out from the crowd. It reminds me a lot of Portal of Evil, in many ways, so if you enjoyed that one then I’d recommend giving this one a shot.I also genuinely love that it’s an adventure in which you play as a non-human adventurer for once – that’s a lovely change. I don’t think we see this kind of thing in the series again until Legend of Zagor, which had a dwarf as a playable character.
Cause of death: Abandoned my quest to dance with the fae folk.