The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. It’s been a long time since we started our adventures, so let’s now RETURN TO FIRETOP MOUNTAIN!
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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Sometimes, they come back.
It was 1992, ten years after The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain was published. The Fighting Fantasy series had been a big hit, a huge hit. By this stage there were 49 books in the main series, not counting all of the side series and spin-off items. For the fiftieth book, Ian Livingstone wrote Return To Firetop Mountain, a book which boasts its pedigree right on the cover.
And that’s a lovely cover, showing a veritable army of monsters, with the imposing mountain itself looming in the background, atop which stands the haunting visage of the now-undead warlock Zagor himself. The cover also features the letter ’50’ in huge, powerful lettering, making damn sure you know what number in the series you’re holding. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that this may have been intended to be the last in the series, because of the strong theme of returning to where it all began.
Funny thing, for the 30th anniversary of FF, I was in London to get a copy of Blood of the Zombies. In 1992 on the tenth anniversary of FF, I bought a copy of Return to Firetop Mountain in London. Specifically one of the airports, while waiting for a flight back home from a peculiar adventure involving the BBC which we won’t get into at this point. I hadn’t even realised at the time that FF books had been out for 10 years, all I knew was that this was the fiftieth and Zagor needed to be taught a lesson.
So let’s get to it. I’ve been spectacularly lucky with my rolls in creating my character here, with a skill of 11 and a stamina of a full impressive 24. From what I remember of the book, I need to collect dragon’s teeth in order to win, just like you collect keys in the first game. Only this time, rather than stealing his treasure, your goal is to destroy the evil warlock. I have to admit, it’s a more noble and heroic goal. To paraphrase from a Dungeons and Dragons game I played once, the truth of the first book is that we’d broken into an old man’s home, beaten him up violently, and stolen his possessions like a group of chavs.
Eager to go and pick on the poor old man again, my adventurer has grabbed the quest to head into the mountain, where Zagor is imprisoning local villagers and using their body parts to create a whole new body for himself…. ick. I’ll try not to think about that too much. Anyway, as I set out on the journey to the mountain, only to be stopped by the tavern keeper from the local town, who tells me that a pair of scouts are on their way ahead to alert Zagor’s forces to my arrival. Together we duck into the undergrowth, where I find a rather nice polished shield just laying in the dirt.
The shield comes in quite useful, because the scouts attack soon after and I’m able to deflect their throwing dagger with it. Together, myself and the tavern keeper make short work of the scouts, and find a few coins marked with the letter ‘Z’. I guess that Zagor is minting his own coins now. Got to admit, that’s the mark of a real evil genius. I wonder what the exchange rate is between Zagor coins and the Euro right now. In fact, the British pound sterling is still very strong against the Bison Dollar, due to M. Bison’s inability to kidnap the Queen.
The scouts were also carrying a scroll which puts a curse on me when I look at it, lowering my skill to a 9. Why would they even have this kind of thing? And why would they be carrying a cursed scroll around in their smelly boots? I’m sure it’s some kind of evil plan of some sort. I opt to press on towards Yaztromo’s Tower, which along with Port Blacksand is one of the most important (and often-visited) locations in the whole of the FF universe. I’m pretty certain that Ol’ Yaz will be keen to help me. We’re friends, see, from way back in the Forest of Doom days.
As I travel to the tower, things are certainly not uneventful. I am given a mushroom from a travelling mushroom seller, and am rewarded with a ring of invisibility in gratitude for saving a man who has been tied to the ground by bandits. Nearing the dwarf village of Stonebridge, I spend the night in a rickety old hut, and find a key hidden there (keys are always, always useful). I spend the night in the celler of the hut, and although I can hear scratching of claws and inhuman mutterings from the main part of the hut, but they don’t come down to bother me. The next day, we arrive in Stonebridge.
The dwarves are taking a break from drinking ale and singing about gold. In fact, they have discovered a new hobby – sailing. They tell me that my buddy Yaz isn’t in the tower, but has gone off on a little holiday to the village of Kaad, which needs to be said in a William Shatner voice from now on. They invite me to sail with them down the river to get to KAAAD!! so I pack my things up and go along with them.
This does not end well. Along the way we are sabotaged by a boat full of orcs, who shoot half the boat’s crew. After managing to escape the orcs, we sail along until we catch sight of an important messenger bird flying over to us, carrying extremely important information for the success of my mission – but before it can arrive, a giant eagle catches the bird and eats it. And to top the day off in the best possible way, the ship accidentally collapses and we all fall into the river and the whole crew get eaten by piranhas. Except for me. I suppose I had been sure to bring a snorkel with me.
To be fair, it could have ended worse. The sky could have spat fire at me. So I guess we got out of it alright in the end.
Dragging myself along the bank of the river, I realise that I’m probably not going to live to see Firetop Mountain. It all seems so far away. As I lay there trying to recover, I renew my determination to succeed. I refuse to just lay down and give up, even when a poisonous snake decides to crawl over me. I get up and march on towards KAAAD!!
Along the way I see an old hunchbacked man. He asks me for a gold coin, and being the generous and kindly sort, I hand over one to him. Sadly, he seems to take offense to my asking if he’ll accept Zagor Money, and beats me with an ugly stick. No, really, his magically-enchanted walking stick turns me into a hunchback too. My skill score has now plummeted to a mere 7. So much for a good deed! I explain to the man that I’m not one of Zagor’s minions, and eventually he believes me and apologises. But tells me that he can’t fix the power of his ugly stick. Seriously, old man, why do you even have something like that?
I arrive in KAAAD!! to find that it’s a plague site. It seems that Yaz’s holiday out here wasn’t just sight-seeing after all. I’m eventually able to track him down, or at least someone who looks just like him. I’m rather suspicious of the kindly old man I meet who claims to be Yaztromo, as I’ve never known him to be particularly friendly in any of the previous books. Turned out that this is indeed something of a beginner’s trap, because this man is an imposter. It’s a changeling monster posing as Yaz, and he proceeds to kick me around the whole town before I’m able to land a lucky blow and kill it.
I have already used up all of my Star Trek Deep Space Nine jokes about Changelings, so let’s just move on.
When I find the real Yaz, he grumbles and moans about everything, so I know it’s the real him. He then gives you the means to kill Zagor – finding the gold dragon teeth that are hidden around Firetop Mountain, and also figuring out the right magic words to use them. He gives me some gold coins to buy some items, and… does not heal my hunchback-ery status ailment. Oh gee, thanks sooo much Yaz.
So after a quick bit of shopping (wherein I gather the usual dungeoneering supplies of rope, leather gloves, garlic, silver knives and the like), a friendly local elf gives me a ride on the back of a giant eagle to the base of Firetop Mountain, and we are finally ready to begin the adventure proper. With my both my skill, stamina and luck now just a mere 7 apiece. Gosh, I’m doing well at this!
I venture into the entrance tunnel of the mountain, and am confronted with the first choice from the very first Fighting Fantasy adventure – turn left or right. In Warlock, turning right leads to a pit trap, so I decide to see what new twist this book has put on this. The door into the room is boarded up, but I find a bottle on the floor that contains a small brass egg. No idea what that’s doing there, or how someone managed to fit an egg into a bottle. Oh well, let’s get exploring!
A good few of the rooms from the original layout are sealed shut, but I eventually find one occupied by a group of skeletons, who all seem to be arguing over what to have for lunch. There’s about five of the buggers, and because I’m barely able to survive a strong wind at the moment, I decide to sneak out of the room before they can stamp on me. I head into the next room I come across, which seems to be a rubbish site. I dig around and do manage to find a tin whistle and an onyx egg. Odd, I wonder why there’s been two eggs already in the dungeon.
I find a chain on the wall and, hoping it’s not an alarm bell, give it a good yank. It opens a secret chamber. I can’t quite resist the urge to stick my hand into secret chambers, so I grope around inside it until I find a sealed container inside the chamber, immersed in enough acidic goo that is sure to ruin those nice leather gloves I’d bought. Inside the container I find a gold dragon’s tooth. Not too bad, not too bad!
Then I notice something odd. Yaz told me that the dragon’s teeth had numbers printed on them. This one has an icon, a little heart surrounded by a ring of fire. No idea why this is. Could be that it’s a code of some sort, which I’ll decipher later in the adventure. This reminds me of an curious thing that happened a few weeks ago. I bought some incense for my flat, to create a relaxing zen atmosphere. I read the label on the dragon’s blood incense, and I’m guessing that the company must have had complaints from customers because the box included a large section which read “Dragon’s blood is a type of plant. This product does not contain real blood from any dragons.” My mind boggles sometimes, it really does.
I figure that it’s pretty unlikely that the next room would contain anything useful after that, so I skip it and instead go into the following room which appears to be a torture chamber. There’s a skeleton laid out on a rack, and he’s sporting a rather nice gold ring. Hey, who’s averse to a little bit of looting the dead? I try to pry the ring off, when a net damn near descends on me. It’s only by the luck of the dice that I barely (and I do mean barely, as if I’d rolled even one number off then I’d have been caught) avoid it.
I notice that the trap was set by a goblin, and I lose my patience. I charge after the little bugger, my low stamina score be damned, I’m not going to be caught by a damn goblin. I follow him into a tunnel, where I find the ancient sword of the first Chaos Warrior… wait, what? I… don’t even… huh? I genuinely don’t know what this is doing here, but eh, I take it with me planning to sink it into the goblin’s head. I charge after him, scrambling through tunnels (and falling over) and leaping over piles of skulls, until I eventually admit to myself that he’s escaped and I’ve lost him. Pah. Pah, I say. Pah, pah, and pah again.
I try to figure out where I am, and find that I’ve wound up somewhere completely off the map of the original game. Again, the way that the dungeon here is structured to be built ‘on top’ of the old one from the first book, it’s very impressive! So instead of trying to figure out where the heck I’ve got to, I go into a nearby room and find that it’s full of statues. Each of the statues look like a warrior, except with an expression of horror on their faces. Then the door behind me slams shut, and a wall on the room starts to lift up, revealing something snake-like beneath. Oh joy. I employ my amazing special technique for how to deal with horrifying medusa-type monsters – I try to run away.
Oh great, the door’s locked. But not to worry, because the book gives me the option of using an item to help me. I’m so lucky that I found that polished shield at the start of the adventure, eh? Just like in the original Clash of the Titans, I’m sure that a polished shield will help me slay this monster. I turn to the section and…. oh, I can’t use my shield. I don’t know why, the section just simply doesn’t list it as an option. Maybe I lost my shield at some point. Maybe it was rendered scratched and dented when the scouts threw a knife or two at it. Must be honest, I’m a bit disappointed that it isn’t even mentioned.
Instead I have the option of using garlic, a mirror, or a tin whistle. I don’t have a mirror, and garlic is for use on vampires, which leaves me the whistle. Hey, maybe medusas are allergic to loud noises? Let’s try it.
No. No, they are not allergic to loud noises. I’m turned to stone on the spot. On the plus side, I like to think that I strike a stunning pose, in order to make sure that I leave a damn beautiful corpse.
Return to Firetop Mountain ranks up as one of the underrated gems in the Fighting Fantasy canon. The way that it uses the original dungeon layout as a base, but builds on top of it to create a whole different adventure is very impressive. The inclusion of the entire adventure tracking down Yaztromo is excellent, giving the player the chance to see a see and experience some classic Fighting Fantasy tropes.
The atmosphere feels rich, and the writing is very strong with Livingstone’s style. It feels that there are traps and dangers around every turn, and I strongly feel that I only got as far as I did on this playthrough by luck. The artwork is among the best in the series, fully detailed and utterly vibrant. It’s a real shame that this book is overlooked so often, because if the series had gone through with concluding with this book as was initially planned, it would have been a damn good send-off.
Out of all of the Fighting Fantasy books, I consider this to be an under-rated gem, and definitely suggest that you give it another playthrough today. Go on, do it. It’s raining outside, you may as well put your feet up and play this for a few hours. You’ll enjoy it!
Cause of death: Turned to stone.