The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Join us as we step through the fearsome Portal of Evil!
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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Right, so, Portal of Evil. Never played this one before. The front of the cover tells me that it involves a goblin with a pet stegosaurus or something similar, and the back of the book tells me that an evil something-or-other has awakened in the mountains. It’s not very specific, but at least it doesn’t jump right into wizards with unpronouncable names raising undead armies again.
The back cover also has a sticker on it which the book seller put on, stating that the quality of the book is ‘verygood’. Sadly this sticker can’t be removed without tearing the cover. Book sellers…. don’t do this. Ever.
On first glance, the book looks simple enough in terms of system, no additional ‘time’ or ‘honour’ scores to keep track of or anything, just skill and stamina and luck etc. So let’s dive right in.
Long story short, there’s a mountain full of gold, people are mining there. But weird stuff has been going on, miners have vanished, so the mine owner has asked me to go look at it. The book tells me that I’ve bought a map of the area, which is duplicated on the inside cover of the book. Uhh.. no, it’s not. The inside cover of the book is blank. Maybe it’s just my copy of this. Hmm.
Anyway, with or without a map, I head off to meet the owner of the mine. During the travel, I bump into an elf and her pet dinosaur. They’re being pursued by some soldiers, and after I fight them off, the dinosaur tells me that he’s actually an elf who has been put under a spell by an evil portal. It doesn’t make much sense, but who am I to argue? It’s a talking dinosaur, man! I’m just wishing that the book gave me the option of locking a chain around its neck and selling it to the circus.
The dino-elf tells me that I should go and talk to Gartax, an old miner, who is organising a resistance movement against the portal and its worshipers. This doesn’t seem like a very profitable way to spend my time, but hey, maybe it’ll be good for a laugh. It’s not long before Gartax sneaks up behind me, holds a knife to my back and demands to know who I am. After spilling the beans about who I am, Gartax leads me back to his secret rebel base camp, which I’m secretly hoping will look like the ewok village.
It seems that the leader of this group is happy to hear that the mine owner has hired me, and tells me a few useful details. Such as that the mine owner in question is a dwarf, but doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s a dwarf, so he shaved off his beard and wears very tall shoes. I suppose even a dwarf can have a bit of a napoleon complex. He also tells me that there’s a wizard who lives near a lake to the south who can help me.
But first, he wants me to protect his camp from an attack by the minions of the portal, who are all brainwashed zombie types. Gartax’s soldiers are all useless, but so are the zombies, so I kinda imagine that this attack just involved groups of people all swinging swords around blindly and missing with each attack. Over the course of a few hours, my character has trudged around the battlefield, killing all the enemies single-handedly.
Taking only a bunch of food and one of the portal zombie’s evil magic amulets with me, I head off in pursuit of the wizard of the lake. It’s not too long before I find a cave near the lake, which I proceed to stick my head into in the hopes of finding the wizard living there. Instead, I find that the cave contains a giant lizard monster called a Stegocephalian. It’s not much of a threat, possessing only three skill points. It does have a 19 in stamina though, so although it’s an easy fight, it takes forever to whittle it down.
There’s no wizard in the cave, keeping the lizard as a pet or anything. I continue to follow the lake along, until I find an actual proper hut. I knock on the door, hoping to meet the wizard this time. Instead I find a hungry dwarf who, in exchange for a meal, gives me his boat. “Right,” I say to myself, “I’ll just take the boat and find the wizard. He’s got to be around here somewhere!”
I hop into the boat and head out into the middle of the lake. And, this being a Fighting Fantasy book, it’s only a few pages later that hit some rapids, and only a few moments later that I’m washed up on the shore of the lake, having lost all of my belongings except for my sword. And by sod’s law, I am immediately attacked by bandits.
The bandits insist that I tip out my backpack, so I upturn the soggy, empty bag and let them decide how much of the water and fish they’re going to take from me. Telling me that they’re unhappy with my offering, I duel with their leader. When I win and then spare his life, the bandits let me leave with their respects.
By this point I’ve all but given up on meeting the wizard, when I stumble across a shadowy cloaked figure on the side of the lake. I tell him that I’m looking for the wizard, and when I answer his rather easy riddle, he admits that he’s the wizard I’m looking for and that he will help me out. I catch a boat out to his little island, where he gives me a magic anti-zombie ring. Makes you wish the chaps from Walking Dead had one of those, eh?
He also hands me over a magic sword, and tells me that he’s going to head off to the nearby town in order to arrange for the people to get their act together and fight back against this evil portal and its army. The wizard, whose name I don’t think I’ve been told at this point in the adventure, promptly climbs onto his robot horse and offers me a lift. If you’ve ever seen the old 1959 Mexican Santa Claus movie (or its MST3K episode), I’m remembering the scary-ass robot reindeer at this point. And you really should check it out if you want to see Santa Claus fighting the devil.
Having rode through the air on the back of the wizard’s terrifying robotic abomination of nature, I stumble into town and sleep for the night. Rising the next morning, the book offers me a chance to beg for food, but I decide to just pay for my dinner instead. It seems that the wizard, the mine owner I was supposed to meet but never got around to it, and the Margrave (the head of the town, for those not up to speck on their outdated semi-medievil titles) are having a council meeting to discuss what they should do about the portal’s evil army.
It is announced that they will put together an army of their own, with a champion to lead it. The champion will be chosen by means of a tournament, which is an excellent way to make sure that the best fighters in your city are all crippled or dead by the time the huge battle comes around. Seriously, why does that never occur to anyone in these kind of books?
Anyway, it seems that they’re wanting to go for the less lethal kind of tournament, because the first test is to stay still while the mine owner puts slugs on my face. The second test is to do some maths. No, I’m not joking.
It’s only the third test that involves any combat, and when I get to this point, I remember that Gartax mentioned that the mine owner loves a bit of a duel himself. So I challenge him, and it proves to be one of the hardest fights in the book so far.
Nevertheless, as the battle draws to a close I’m given the option to throw the fight, which I do. Following Gartax’s suggestions from earlier, I applaud the mine owner and tell him that he is as strong as a very tall dwarf. He’s so happy that he invites me back to his place, where he gives me the horn. No, really. He has a magic horn, which can summon some eagles, and he lets me have that valuable artifact. After the sex.
The town is very happy to have a new champion, so much so that they decide to abandon the idea of forming an army and send me off alone to stop the invasion of the portal people. I’m given more food, some gold, a magic potion, and sent off on my own to fix the world. I stumble hopelessly into the forest, without a clear direction in mind, sure to face a horrible and gruesome fate.
After killing another dinosaur and its portal-zombie owner, I wander into an abandoned village. Hearing a bunch of people approaching, I hide in an abandoned tavern, only to be attacked by giant maggots. The bunch of people are some of the Margrave’s soldiers, and they have to come and rescue me from the giant maggots, which is suitably embarrassing. By the time they finish interrogating me and let me go free, I’m wondering if this is worth the paycheck.
Stumbling blindly through the forest a while longer, I come across a nice garden, belonging to the inhabitants of a tree house. I decide to be friendly, climbing up to the house to say hello to the inhabitant. The elf witch inside threatens to hit me with her touch of death spell unless I go and clean up her garden. So, while the forces of evil are crawling over the planet’s face, I spent a few hours gardening for an unhappy person. In return, she gives me a pair of budgerigars, which is just weird. “Thanks for cleaning my garden. Here, have a budgie.”
After a few hours of exploring, I find myself surrounded by wood elves. They offer to take me to their forest home for an evening of dancing, singing and whatever else elves do. I take a sip of my magic potion, and it shows me that the entire elven settlement has been possessed by portal-zombies! For some reason, the book won’t let me fight my way free from them and insists that I let them escort me back to their treehouse.
That evening I try to sneak out, but find that the door is magically sealed shut. The spell on the door says that it’ll let me through if I can guess its number, but I can’t do this, so I instead have to leap out of the window and fall to the ground below.
I survive, though.
Meanwhile, the entire village of possessed-elves go off to invade the Margrave’s town. Yeah, hope you all changed your minds about putting together an army of your own! So, I push onwards. There are more and more portal zombie patrols, and I’m needing to sneak through the undergrowth to make progress. Before long, I catch sight of a path leading towards a mine.
Clambering over the fence for the mine, I head into the tunnels. And then, completely unexpected to me, I come face to face with the portal. I wasn’t quite expecting it to be sitting there, all happy and content. I’m told that it feels ancient, like a thing from beyond the dawn of time. And then it begins to probe my brain.
I’m a bit confused at this point. Is the portal a sentient thing? Is it GLADOS? Is it a shoggoth? I don’t know. All I know is that the fall from the elven treehouse took far too much damage from me, meaning that I just wasn’t strong enough to resist the portal’s mind-whammy. I turn into one of its mindless zombie minions, and promptly toddle off to chew on the Margrave’s kidney.
Portal of Evil was a lot of fun. The combat is quite sparse, but it makes up for it by being pretty damn hard-going on the dice rolls. The atmosphere is very nice, and I’d definitely score this book highly. Eight portal-zombies out of ten, or whatever.
No cake at the end, though.
Cause of death: Portal-whammy!