The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Now let’s head into the grand mini-series of gamebooks in the lands of Kakhabad: SORCERY! – THE CROWN OF KINGS!
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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And here we are – after travelling through three books (and dying horribly in each of them), we arrive at the finale of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series, The Crown Of Kings! The Mampang Fortress stands before us, in the distant mountains – and within, the dread Archmage! Think we can do it? Well, first of all we need to get to the fortress, and that’s not as easy as it sounds…
Our trek resumes in the Low Xamen foothills. The fortress is in the distance, clearly visible against the sky. The route winds through the mountains, and there are clear signs of life around the trail. Before too long, we arrive at three caves – our first choice in this book. That’s quite nice, and really sets the tone for the adventure in that it has not one but three choices. Definitely gives you the feeling that this is the big conclusion to the epic. Which, of course, is a sentiment that’s echoed by the book being twice the size of a typical Fighting Fantasy book!
I settle into the cave that’s furthest away, in no small part because there are hoof-prints outside which causes me hope that whoever may be inside would be friendly. Instead, I find a satyr. She’s quite friendly. Well, I mean, she’s not aggressive and doesn’t attack me. Well, I mean she doesn’t attack me because she’s dead. But I guess that’s as friendly as people in the Low Xamen foothills can be!
Feeling a bit perturbed, I leave that cave and stick my head into one of the others, hoping that perhaps we can find some treasure. As I head into the second cave I am met by a terrifying wailing sound. So horrific and so haunting is it, which the text asks if I wish to head in. Drawing my sword, I venture onwards, fearing that I’ll meet whatever it was that killed the satyr. The source of the noise is a Jub-Jub – a small fuzzy critter that defends itself by wailing loudly. Startled, it runs off. Well, at least the cave is safe!
The Jub-Jub’s cave contains a small glass bottle, which holds a little scrap of paper which features writing in a mysterious language. I figure this is quite enough cave-diving, and decide to press onwards with my travels. I push on into the mountains, choosing to risk crossing a potentially rather dangerous rope bridge. Shortly thereafter I catch sight of a large nest up in the Cliffside but, knowing that the area is packed with exceptionally vicious bird creatures I decide not to gamble quite that far.
Sure enough, it’s not long before a Birdman decides to swoop down and peck at me. Nasty bugger it is, too – but easily dealt with by means of a hefty dose of fireball spell. Boom. Hurling a fistful of flame at the birdmen seems to cause their feathers to ignore and them to tumble out of the air with a smell similar to roast turkey. The next obstacle we come across on our trek through the mountains is nothing less than a rope. It’s not an angry, living rope that tries to snap at me, oh no – it’s a rope swing. I have the option to grab it and swing across to the other side of the chasm, all Indiana Jones like. I decide that no, I’m not feeling especially suicidal today, and take the long route around.
The trek through the mountains in the first part of this book is deadly. I was left with the sincere impression that Steve Jackson really hiked up the difficulty in this section, and left the player weaving their way through a series of instant deaths. There are doubtless numerous important items littered around the area, and I really don’t think that I was able to collect any of them aside from the piece of paper that we mentioned earlier. But eventually, with much effort, we wind our way to the fortress itself. Of course, we need to survive a deadly rock-slide before we can get to the door, oh no!… But fear not, because thanks to the WAL spell, which creates a rather handy little magical barrier to keep us safe from the tumbling boulders, our hero is able to elude this terrifying trap and make their way to the door to the fortress itself!
The Archmage’s fortress is a terrifying sight, decked with foul spikes and evil gargoyles that leer down on the player ominously. So ominous and fearful, in fact, that you lose one Skill point until you get into the fortress itself! That’s pretty harsh, there’s no other way to put it!
Getting into the vast gate that surrounds the fortress, however, is another matter – we can sneak in, or make a run for it while the guards are looking in another direction. It seems that sneaking in is significantly easier than I thought because, as I draw closer, I realize that they are slouching around drinking from flagons. Oh, silly drunken guards, you never change. Once I get through the gate, I’m extremely close to accessing the fortress proper. Not a bad day’s work – we camp out for the evening.
During that night, the Goddess Libra appears before us in a vision. She tells me that she is pleased with my progress, but that she cannot help me once I am inside the fortress. Oh gosh, thank you sooo much! Instead, she states that she is aware of a hidden entrance into the fortress, and tells me that I can access it by deducting 92 from any paragraph. This is one of those ‘if the paragraph makes sense, then it is the right one’ type of a deal – not one that generally care for personally because my idea of ‘making sense’ isn’t necessarily the same as anyone else’s, if I’m honest. I tend to prefer the more specific ‘if this is correct, the paragraph will start with a specific word’, but… well, it’s all an anti-cheating system really, isn’t it?
Arriving at the entryway to the fortress, I figure that the best way to get inside is the old knock-the-door-and-run-away trick. When the guard sticks his head out and finds nobody there, I slip past – only to run face-first into three other guards! I mean, can’t fault them, they’re clearly better than the ones at the outer gate! As the four of them rush towards me, I cast DUM – a spell which causes one of the four guards to trip and knock himself out. The remaining three are dispatched easily enough! So far, so not dead.
The entire fortress is packed with guards. I am able to sneak through a door to the right of the main hall – it’s exceptionally rusty and squeaks something fierce, but I’m lucky in that I can get through without alerting the guards. No sooner have I got into one of the hallways am I confronted by a group of, uhh… oh dear. Well, I’ll describe this encounter as tactfully as I can. A group of Black Elves meet me and, before combat begins, they make a comment about how disgusting my skin colour is. Black Elves, as I’m sure you can guess, are elves with black skin. We could go into a discussion here about why the defining feature of them that signifies that they’re ‘evil’ is the dark colour of their skin, but I won’t go into that here. Instead, the book offers me the chance to laugh it off and try to befriend them, which I choose – instead, the book states that I make a similar comment back to the elves, which can only be described as exceptionally racist. My character then continues, unabated, to make more and more racially charged comments – completely without my input as a reader – telling the elves that they ‘must surely find it hard to see themselves in the dark’, until the elves have had quite enough of me. The book tells me that I have learned that the elves’ sense of humour doesn’t extend to laughing at themselves (!) – because, of course, it’s the elves who are to blame for being upset at being subjected to my character’s racist tirades.
The elves quickly chase my character out of the room, much to my relief and ever-lasting embarrassment. I’m soon able to find my way to a large set of double doors, which I open by means of whispering the password that Libra had given me earlier. This section of the fortress is occupied mostly by Birdmen – before too long, I hear their footsteps approaching. I hope to elude them by diving into a nearby room. No sooner have I shut the door, though, than I notice that there are three other Birdmen standing in the room I’ve just entered! I try to talk my way out – hoping that I don’t start spewing racial insults at these poor people!
I chat with the birdmen for a while, politely asking them about their hobbies and if they have any news about the current affairs in the fortress. To my amazement, they start chatting away, telling me that the Archmage has been spending a lot of time in his tower lately, and awaiting guests. Hey, I wonder if that guest might be me! Having proved that good communication and open sincerity beats casual racism any day, I leave the Birdmen to their lunch and begin my favourite Fiighting Fantasy gamebook pastime – wandering blindly around hallways until I find something of interest!
Sure enough, I find my way into a greasy and ill-kept room. It is occupied by a creature called a Mucalytic, It’s easy enough to kill it, but it’s a monster which does something nasty to you if it hits you three times. I, mercifully, don’t find out quite what that ‘something nasty’ is, because I kill it before it gets a chance to do that. My reward is a bottle of cooking oil that it was drinking at the time I interrupted it. Eww.
Leaving the chamber, we come to a tunnel which ends in a pair of doors. One leads to a room containing an old, grime-encrusted machine. After playing around with the machine for a while, I figure out that it’s an automatic blade-sharpener, so I polish up my sword nice and fine. There’s no other way out of the room with the machine, so I head back to the other door. This one contains an inferno. Yeah, just… a literal inferno. “This is where the fire lives”, I guess. The book gives me the choice of either diving blindly into the inferno or, y’know, not. Choosing not to simply loops me back to the hallway, and because there is only the machine room, I don’t have much of a choice. With nowhere else left to go, I dive into the inferno room. Hey, maybe it’s just an illusion or… nah, I die. Horribly.
So ends the tragic tale of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! An adventure which saw me die in a field of flowers, drown in human excrement, starve at a lakeside, and finally just hurl myself into a chamber of fire. It’s been a wild journey, we never did get to the Archmage or recover the Crown of Kings though. I know that when you do eventually encounter the big bad, you face an especially challenging situation which requires you to out-think your enemy rather than outfight them. No spoilers, but it requires careful use of the Zed spell!
Sorcery! is a heck of a good series, and certainly one of the best products to bear the Fighting Fantasy label. Although perhaps it has aged… somewhat…
Cause of death: Jumped into a fire because of lack of alternatives.