The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. But now we have to flee from the terror of the Spectral Stalkers!
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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This is a weird one. You see, I know that I can complete Spectral Stalkers. It’s one of the easiest Fighting Fantasy books to complete, because it has a built-in segment that will jump you from near the beginning to near the end. The temptation to use this choice is pretty huge, especially as I’m sure that if I did, this would be one of the first books I’d have won in this blog.
But I’m not going to do that, because I can strongly remember from playing this game as a kid just how much fun playing Spectral Stalkers was. It’s fairly unique among the FF books, because it works very much like the old D&D Planescape setting, meaning that the player jumps between some very different worlds. Some very unique and interesting locations. I remember this being a lot of fun, but it’s been so long since those days that I can’t remember what those worlds were, or why it was so fun.
So let’s see if we can remember, eh?
I start off with a skill of 8, luck of 7 and stamina of 21, so not too bad. I also begin with a trail score of 0, which I’m sure will increase as the adventure goes on. The higher this score goes, the greater the chance that the titular Spectral Stalker will come ripping through the walls of reality and feast on your gooey, gooey brain-matter. Speaking of feasting, I only have two meals to start off with. But none of them are brain-matter, they’re probably chicken.
I start my adventure in a travelling gypsie’s tent having my tarot cards read. Y’know, when I was younger, I used to play the Ultima games on my old PC, which was as old as dirt. These games would use that tarot card sequence as a way to generate your character class, by asking you moral questions to go along with the cards. For instance, you’re a knight and your lord has insulted someone, do you uphold your oath and stay silent or do you truthfully speak out against your lord, that sort of thing, all very impressive.
Sadly this has nothing to do with this adventure, because all that happens is that the gypsie tells me that I will go on a long journey that will take me beyond this world. Well, it’s better than pointing at the cards and screaming “I see death! DEATH!!!” like they usually do. Still, I leave the tent and notice a storm is brewing. As I rush for shelter beneath some trees, there is a flash and a loud bang from the sky, and a winged creature falls onto the path before me.
My first instinct is to help the creature… okay okay, my first instinct is to stick its charred and broken body in a cage and charge punters £10 a turn to gawk at a real-life angel. But being a hero, I decide to help first. He gives me a package and begs me to take it, mentioning the name Archmage Globus and telling me to “beware the Spectral Stalkers!” I unwrap the package, and discover that it contains a very strange sphere.
The sphere swims with weird objects and landscapes, as if it contains an entire universe. Or universes. It seems that the orb is a means of teleporting between these worlds, as the moment I pull my gaze from it, I’m no longer in the same place I was standing a few moments ago, but am instead in a large building. The walls are lined full of shelves of books, so it’s pretty clear that I’ve fallen into L-Space.
I find a sign that reads ‘Enquiries’, beside which sits a bell. I ring the bell, and from behind a desk emerges a dragon! A great, fearsome, fire-breathing dragon, belching fumes and wearing delicate glasses and… oh wait, the dragon’s the librarian. And I’m sure she has a better attitude than the woman in my own local library. I ask her if she knows Archmage Globus, and she directs me towards a large book that contains details on every mage in the known universe. See, even back before they had computers, ‘they’ were keeping tabs on you!
The book tells me that Globus is a powerful mage who specialises in travel between different worlds, and studies the ‘aleph’, an artefact that contains all things that exist. I realise that I’m carrying this item around in my backpack, so I decide to walk a bit more carefully so as not to shake the universe while I walk. I eventually come to a doorway that’s sitting snug between two bookshelves, which leads to an office of powerful artefact study. I knock, and the door itself asks me to hand over four gold coins!
I take a deep sigh and fork over the gold, step through the door, and a bucket of water falls from the top of the door right onto my head. The man inside, Wayland by name, seems to have a sense of humour that borders on the about-to-be-kicked. The book even gives me the option of attacking the man, and it takes all of my patience to restrain myself and talk to him normally. My patience is rewarded as he hands me a bottle of a potion that removes all water from me. Very odd.
This cosmic joker tells me a few useful things, such as that the library is a non-space between the walls of reality and other timey-wimey stuff, not to stay on the same world for too long otherwise Spectral Stalkers will come for me, and to keep an eye out for round objects (because they’ll be useful, or something), and then he hurries me away through the exit so that he can jump into his tardis and go away before he regenerates into Tom Baker or something. I leave the library (being told my a dwarf as I leave that if I lost my hat, it’s probably been eaten by a grue and I’ll never see it again), waving it a fond farewell, and try to decide where to go next. Globus lives in the Ziggaurat world, but I don’t want to go there yet. I trust in the aleph to take me where I need to go.
It seems that the aleph hates me, because it immediately sends me down a dark tunnel that leads straight into the Temple of Doom. I’m not even exaggerating here, the chamber is full of chanting cultists and the high priest is a giant skelaton warlord by the name of Syzuk the Devestator, who declares that I will be their prisoner. Gosh, thanks for this, aleph. I decide not to resist as they advance, hoping that Indiana Jones will swing in and save the day.
Evidently he does not, as I wake up in the middle of a great battle. Bundled on Syzuk’s war chariot, he directs a massive army as they crush the last alliance of men and elves. The Devestator’s side is definitely winning, but just as victory is assured, Isildur (or some other lucky bugger) shoots an arrow into Syzuk’s shoulder, forcing the titan to collapse.
I immediately leap up and plan to strike the tyrant’s head from his shoulders and claim all the glory. Sadly at the last moment, his horses go wild and flee, breaking a wheel from the chariot as it does so. The wheel seems to have runes marked on it, and it creates great fear in the men and elves who look at it, making me certain that this is the One Wheel to rule them all. I take it, easily slipping an entire chariot wheel into my backpack with no effort at all.
The aleph takes me to a world with a great purple sky, I am standing at a stone table in an overgrown garden. A large number of little green monks shuffle up the garden path, muttering prayers. Their leader finally looks up, gapes as he sees me, and proclaims that I am his messiah. He tells me that I have returned and that I will take the jewel of sleep to overthrow his evil overlord. Now I think we all know that I’m not the messiah, I’m just a very naughty boy, but I still opt to play along with these chaps.
The monks create a jewel of sleep (a hollow gem filled with a strange liquid) from a collection of leaves they’ve gathered from the garden. The book gives me the option of taking the gem and doing a runner to another world, but because the gem isn’t round, I assume it’s not the item I need to collect from this world. After nightfall, I journey to the tyrant’s castle.
I find that the castle itself is empty, the rooms full of dust an disrepair, and without any skelatons or vampires lurking in them. I head to the top of the castle, and find the tyrant – a geriatric old man who has no power and is about as anticlimactic as the end of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He asks me to grant his dying wish by showing him the aleph. I do, and he tries to grab the thing from me. The book then tells me that I flee from the old man, which is totally ridiculous – given the choice, I’d kick the old man in his elderly old hip for trying to nick the entire universe from me! Still, at least I got the Jewel of Sleep from this silly world. Let’s go somewhere else.
I emerge in a desert world. Stumbling through the dunes, I come to a small village. An old lady asks me to buy a candle for a single gold coin, and tells me that selling these candles is the village’s only source of income since so many of its people have gone missing. She begs me to help the village find their missing inhabitants, and like a fool, I agree to the idea. Maybe they’ll give me some of their secret supply of Spice.
It seems that the root of the problem is the local potter, who has made a golem out of clay. The golem is now running a bit of a riot, having taken over the potter’s home, and generally being a bit of a pain. Thankfully I remember what happens when you remove water from clay, and by chucking my anti-water potion over the golem (which I very nearly fail to do, due to my rather low skill rating), I reduce the golem to pieces of dry sand.
There’s no sign of the other villagers that went missing following this, so I have to assume that the golem ate them. Either way, the potter offers me a choice of rewards – a box of gold, or a round clay ball. Oh hey, it’s round! I’ll take that, thank you. The potter tells me that this is a wise choice, because the ball contains pure distilled life-force. I shake the ball, and it rattles. For some reason, I didn’t think life-force would rattle. Anyway, I leave this world and head to the next one…
I appear on stage in front of an amazed crowd. Ah, the giddy thrill of the theatre! My first urge is to launch into one of my Shakespeare monologues, but then I notice that I’m not alone on the stage. Beside me is a stage magician, who blags to the audience about having conjured me from thin air. Apparently his previous guest from the audience, the daughter of the baron of this land, has vanished into the backstage areas.
The magician’s assistant leads me into the back stage, where I’m all ready to retire and enjoy a leisurely day of relaxation and hot baths. But strangely enough, it seems that the stage magician is less than honest, and plans to kidnap the baron’s daughter. I find her locked in a cage in the backstage dressing rooms, she tells me that the magician has the key to her cage. No sooner has she declared this, then the magician enters the room.
I draw my sword and am prepared to slay the conjurer, when he opens his mouth and reveals his vampiric fangs. Yeesh, why are things never easy? You know, back in the old days, if a vampire wanted to seduce a baron’s daughter he’d just use his preternatural charm. Nowadays it’s all dressing up as a stage magician, putting on a show, sparkling in daylight…. modern vampires just don’t have the style they used to back in the old days.
Modern vampires are also immune to normal weapons, it seems. His wounds knit together as I inflict them, and he quickly feasts on my blood, ending my trip between worlds.
Spectral Stalkers is still a lot of fun to play, if you’re happy to put your fate in the dice that determine which world you’ll wind up going to next. I wasn’t able to piece together what the significance of the round objects was yet. Either way, I quickly noticed that I didn’t wind up gaining any trail points, so I guess I didn’t over-stay my visit in either world.
As I mentioned at the start, you do get a chance to go right to the Ziggaurat world, which takes you right to the ending.Which I suppose can make this the easiest of the Fighting Fantasy games. So I’d recommend avoiding that option, and enjoying the ride between different realms. I hadn’t expected to enjoy this one as much as I did, it’s good to see it holds up to memory.
Cause of death: Manticore-induced exhaustion…
One thought on “Spectral Stalkers”
Heading straight to the Ziggurat World isn’t the easy route some make it out to be. The endgame includes a pretty harsh ‘do or die’ Stamina roll (at full health the character you rolled up would have slightly worse than 50/50 odds of surviving it), which can only be avoided if you picked up one of the right items on another world. There’s more than one object that could help, so you’d need to be pretty unlucky for the randomness of travel by aleph to cause you to miss out on every chance of getting something useful.
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