The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Stand by my side as we take part in the SIEGE OF SARDATH!
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 tell you a little more about my experiences with this book, but I’d never even seen a copy until it arrived in the post. For some reason, it always eluded me when I was looking through the Fighting Fantasy sections in book shops. Maybe it was there, and just didn’t jump out at me. I can’t say. Truth is, there’s not a lot about this book that jumps out to the audience. The title is relatively uninspiring, and the blurb really doesn’t do much to spin the imagination. Maybe I simply passed it up in favour of better sounding books. Did I miss out? Let’s see.
Either way, even the cover was new to me, sporting a well-dressed elf type man, possibly a vampire, striking a dramatic pose. It doesn’t look much like a siege, I must be honest. The book takes place in somewhere called the Forest of the Night, which sounds like the Forest of Doom’s emo younger brother. I’m not going to complain though, I wore enough black in my teenage years.
On a quick glance through the rules section (which is all I do these days. I’m sure I’ve missed loads of important things in previous books due to this, but eh, re-reading all that stuff is just not interesting to me), this book has a time system which is based around the day of the week. You have bundles of herbs to use to heal yourself instead of food. It also starts you off with a bow, which allows you to fire arrows at an enemy. You roll to see if you hit or not, and seems that you’re able to roll a set number of times before regular combat begins, so this acts as a way to take a few shots at the enemy before they can hit you. Got to admit, I like that idea a lot!
It seems that the elf city of Sardath is surrounded by a forest. Not just any forest though – an evil forest. Thing is, it didn’t used to be surrounded by it. The forest has moved, possibly growing legs and strolling down the riverbank until it’s got to the city, only then to start releasing poisonous spiders and ettins in the faces of the poor elves. My noble hero isn’t from Sardath though, we’re from another nearby city and I’ve been asked to go and help the elves out.
In case it wasn’t clear enough, a council is called in which we discuss just who to send. A messenger who has just arrived asks to speak with me, whereupon he tells me that he’s really an evil duplicate of the messenger. After a rather hectic fight sequence in which he tries to flee and I pin him down, only for him to then cut his own throat rather than be taken prisoner, the council decides that yes, there is probably something a bit evil about this whole affair. Smart council, that.
I dread going into the forest, probably because I’m no doubt going to meet Radagast inside. I fear Radagast, as I tend to fear anyone whose headgear consists of bird dung. I’d suggest he have a bath, but I’d be worried that he’d trip on the soap while getting out of the bath, break his neck, and regenerate into Paul McGann the White. Speaking of wizards, I’m vaguely annoyed at the council’s lack of wisdom in this matter, so I go to see the local astrologer, a powerful mage called Liam. Obviously Tim was busy.
Liam summons a Suma, a messenger being of the gods that I only recognise because it had an entry in Out of the Pit last week. The Suma tells me that I’ll need to keep ahold of an amulet if I want to suceed in my quest, and that I should seek out a Khornu Wych. I’m not sure quite how much use a corny witch will be, so I just nod and play along. Deciding that it’s best to get a move on, I head out of the city and come to the edge of the forest, where I see a travelling trader… and I’m reminded that the forest was meant to have cut off all trade routes. Suspecting another doppleganger, I have a pre-emptive attack, only to discover that the trader was not only an honest merchant, but a ninja as well. He pelts me with a glass jar of poison gas and vanishes into the distance.
I’m feeling vaguely adventurous today, so I opt to head to Sardath via river. It seems that I’m a particularly awesome person, because I have my own boat all ready and waiting for me. So I hop on board and start the journey into the heart of darkness. I’ll tell you right now that if I find Marlon Brando at the end of this quest, I’m going straight home. I sail around an old broken rope bridge and eventually make camp for the night. I am watched from the forest by evil glowing eyes (they’re never evil eyes until they’re glowing, y’see) and I’m told to note down paragraph number 178 in a circle on my adventure’s sheet if I just want to ignore the eyes and go to bed. It’s an oddly specific instruction that I should circle the number, so I choose that option. But I’m careful to set a camp fire first, just in case.
The book scolds me for setting a camp fire and deducts a luck point from me for doing so, and during the night I am attacked by a giant spider that spits its webbing at me. That’s not quite how webbing works, but because this is a children’s book, we’ll file that under suspension of disbelief and press onwards. I turn to the paragraph I was told to circle earlier on, and continue to sail down the river. While clearing some weeds off the boat, some of the weeds bite me and drain my blood. Apparantly it’s a plant called bloodweed, and the book then asks if I want to chop it out of my way with my sword, or clear it away by hand. For a moment I suspect that this is a bit of an idiot test, but when I choose to chop it up with my sword, I am told that the bloodweed had already had enough to eat and it wasn’t necessary to kill it. As a result, I’m told that the natural force of luck that I carry with me throughout my quest is diminished, and I lose another point of luck… Now wait just a damn minute here! Why am I being deducted luck points for making the careful choices here?
I think that I’ve figured out that this book isn’t going to be one that rewards being played cautiously, so the moment I catch sight of one of the creeping forest-dwelling critters that’s been following me, I fire a hail of arrows at it, while screaming “Death from above!” Naturally, the thing runs off, and I’m told that a little bit of the sick darkness of the forest comes to rest inside me, which costs me yet another luck point and JUST WAIT A MINUTE HERE! AGAIN? So, I’m hemoraging luck points something terrible, and the next paragraph tells me that a party of little frog-people armed with spears has now surrounded me and asks me to test my luck. Guess what I’ll roll here.
Yep, I was unlucky. The frog-people are the next to scream ‘Death from Above’ as they hurtle all their spears at me, impaling me terribly. I do manage to survive though, with only five stamina points remaining. I hurry the boat along, while they give chase for a while, but they eventually get bored and let me go. Soon I reach another rope bridge. Checking my map, I think that hey, this is pretty good. I’m not far from Sardath at all now. Another day’s travel and I’d probably make it. But I’m not in the best of shape, and there’s a little town called Colhryn to the north-east that I can get to if I abandon the boat and travel by foot. I choose to go there, hoping to rest and heal up before I head to Siege-ville.
En route, I am attacked by a giant spider, but I kill it without too much trouble. On my way to Colhryn, I learn that it is not a town, but a person I know who lives near the edge of the forest. Maps are funny like that. Anyway, I’m on my way to reach his… weird forest-dwelling hut, I guess… when I stumble across a zombie. I attempt to kill it, but it is aided by a horrible necrotic ooze type of thing which wraps around my leg and tries to… I dunno, do whatever oozes do. Bubble at me, I guess. Still, I manage to turn and run away before the things kill me.
Without having the chance to meet Colhryn, and realising that I’ve never met the corny witch that the Suma mentioned earlier, I decide to write off the day by curling up and getting some sleep. I’m awoke the next morning by a dwarf merchant riding a carriage along the road. Despite the option to flee into the street screaming at him about the horrible doom that has befallen Sardath, I instead choose to hitch a ride with him. Shortly down the road, though, he’s eaten by a monster. Really, he should have known better. Anyone who joins you for an adventure in a Fighting Fantasy book is doomed to die terribly. I have the option to try to fight this giant monster, but given that I have single-digit stamina points and that the monster in question is described as ‘Cthuloid’, I decide that course of action would be suicide. The book suitably punishes me for my act of self-preservation by deducting yet another luck point.
And finally, I arrive at Sardath. The place is definitely under siege, not by an army of course, but by the force of darkness that permeates the forest. Out on one of the many rivers leading to Sardath, I catch sight of a small boat that’s in ruins and struggling to stay afloat. I help the sailor to shore, and he thanks me but doesn’t give me any gold because he’s a cheap git. He promptly realises that he’ll probably get eaten by a grue if he accompanies me on my journey, so he scurries off in the other direction.
The northern region of Sardath is surrounded by a rocky outcrop, and I find a dead dark elf on the outlying area. I’m asked to roll my skill, with a modifier dependant on the day of the week that it is. It seems that the later in the week it is, the more awful the result. I don’t find anything on the elf, which is the best response. I’m assuming that the worst response is that it turns into a zombie and eats me. Either way, it is soon getting dark, and I’ve almost reached the entrance to Sardath proper. Yay.
The book asks if I want to make camp for the night. Because I’m so close to the city, I opt to push on. As a result, a horde of giant winged monsters swing down from the sky and kill me. I don’t even get the chance to fight them off, they just kill me through sheet instant-death. Strangely, death by flying monsters this time.
This is a tricky book to review. On one hand, the atmosphere is fantastic. It’s very well-written, feeling both exciting and dramatic at times, with a real sense of freshness to the prose. The storyline itself is simple, but it pulls it off brilliantly. As you’ll have noticed, I took the route through the river, but there are others as well, so it feels nice and varied and you’re rewarded by rich descriptions throughout. On the other hand, it’s pretty brutal in terms of punishing the choices you make, and doesn’t skimp on deducting luck points if it feels your choices weren’t in keeping with what it wanted you to do. As a result, you can sometimes get into those horrible ‘try to guess what the author is thinking’ type of puzzles. Your character is meant to be a skilled ranger that is wise and skilled in the ways of woodland survival, but that doesn’t mean that the player himself is!
These are flaws that can all pretty much be forgiven, though. And the book does invite repeated playthroughs, I really can’t deny that. I’d like to play this again. Problems aside, it’s very rich and definitely a lot of fun. I’d consider this one of the under-rated FF adventures, and if you can look past the flaws mentioned above then you’re going to find this quite a noteworthy title!
Cause of death: Death by flying monsters.