The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. It’s time to tackle the dreaded Stealer of Souls!
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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Stealer of Souls is another book I never played as a kid. The cover shows an ominous looking figure standing in a dramatic pose, facing the reader. The same description applies to about 90% of the interior artwork, too. The story seems simple – an evil warlord/wizard is raising an army of bad things, and you need to go kill him. Oh, alright, the bad guy is called Mordreneth, he has a base on the Isle of Despair, and has kidnapped a nice wizard called Alsander too.
The inside cover has a map of the Isle of Despair, with such interesting landscapes as a swamp, a lake, a forest, some hills, and a bunch of mountains. No cities, no massive rips in the fabric of space and time, nothing like that. The book also boasts no additional stats or systems from the standard Fighting Fantasy set, just the skill, stamina and luck scores. Lastly, this copy I’m reading used to belong to a kid called Sam Rayner. Sam, if you’re out there, leave a comment and you can win a prize. (the prize is nothing).
The book opens with your character being given his quest by a big high muck-a-muck who tells you to go and fetch the kidnapped wizard, and then you’re packed off onto a ship to sail to the Isle of Despair, which I will henceforth refer to as The Isle of Somewhat Unhappiness. Mid-journey, a giant blackbird swoops down from the sky, which I promptly kill. Hope it wasn’t an albatross.
The ship arrives at the Isle of Broodingly Sulking, and I climb into a raft to row to the shore. I’m attacked by a giant crab, which leaves me alone when I chuck some food at it. Shortly thereafter, the crab’s owner, a sea giant, says hello and apologises for his pet’s behaviour, offering me a bed for the evening and a hearty meal in return. He also gives me an old scroll with a poem on it, which I dump into my backpack along with a jar of insect repellent that the ship’s captain gave me earlier.
The giant also gives me three meals to take with me, which makes me very happy (remember, each meal restores 4 stamina points, so that’s a lot), but the very next paragraph tells you that the damp has ruined two of them, rendering the entire gesture rather frustrating instead. The road then splits into two paths, and I pick the path that has less mud on it, because I don’t much fancy getting stuck in a swamp and eaten by Gollum.
We trudge on for a while until we eventually find a cave to sleep in for the night. While checking it out to make sure there are no horrible monsters, a poisonous centipede bites me. But it’s evidently not too poisonous, because it only causes 2 points of damage, rather than a lingering death or anything.
The next day as we journey along, we meet a lizard man asks me to go and kill a giant bird that’s been bothering him. I clamber up the cliff to the bird’s nest, fall off, and sustain only minimal damage before climbing back up again and killing the giant bird. The lizard gives me some generic loot (“Here, have some Generic Loot!”), which a forest imp tries to steal from me while I’m asleep the following night.
When I notice that the imp in question is trying to steal my Generic Loot ™, I’m given the option of just letting the imp go, or murdering him in cold blood. Which seems a bit harsh, even for my standards. I immediately have a moral dilema. Should I risk losing whatever reward the imp will give me for sparing his life, purely so that I can indulge my urge for mindless butchery? I decide to let the imp go, and he gives me some luck powder in return.
Soon I come to another crossroads, this one with a signpost. I follow the one which has a large deathly skull on its sign, which eventually leads me to a small cottage. There are two hobgoblins knocking seven shades of excreta out of each other in the garden, which causes me to do what any sane person would do in this situation – get some popcorn and enjoy the show.
Eventually the two monsters have murdered each other (for my viewing pleasure), so I head into the cottage and find an old man tied to a chair, he tells me that the monsters were fighting over which one of them got to kill him.
Questioning the logic of the hobgoblins is, of course, pointless, so I simply talk to the old man and he tells me that I should ask the local tribal leader about the scroll I found earlier. The book then guides me straight back to the signpost at the crossroads, and tells me in no uncertain terms to pick another path.
Heading south this time, I find the tribe of forest-dwellers that the old man mentioned. Their leader offers to sell me a few items in exchange for the Generic Loot I got earlier, so I hand over the Loot and get a key, rope, and some white oil. I talk to the leader about the scroll, and he explains that the poem written on it is about an ancient nasty monster thingy called the Stealer of Souls, and that if I hear it singing, I should avoid it. Hmm, good to know.
The book then guides you right back to the crossroads yet again, and throws you down the only untraveled path. After travelling for a while, we find a house. Entering, I find an old man who is chained to a wall, but while I look around for traps, the illusion fades to reveal that the old man is actually a mad evil cultist who wants to stab me to death for no apparent reason. And I guess he was just waiting there for random strangers to come into his home, with this illusion spell in place and… eh, everyone needs a hobby.
Despite the house being decorated with skulls, alters to the dark gods, and generally looking like Ed Gein’s holiday home in the Algarve, I’m told that I need to sleep there for the night. My sleep is interrupted by nightmares (no, really? But it’s such a nice house!) which are so bad that they cause me to take three points of damage, somehow. Anyway, the next morning I find a trapdoor in the house, and follow the stairs down until I find the entrance to the Iron Crypt, the place I’ve been searching for on this island… wow, that was convenient!
I bend the bars of the doorway into the crypt, and chop up a few goblins as I stumble through the tunnels. At this point in the adventure, you might have noticed one thing that I’ve neglected to mention so far, and that’s how well I’m doing. Frankly, I still have plenty of provisions left, which means that my health is fine and dandy. In fact, I’m rapidly starting to suspect that this adventure is just a little too easy.
The book then decides to correct this by throwing me into a maze. Urgh. Think you all know how I feel about mazes. I stumble around blindly for a while, killing ogres and snakes and random generic skeleton monsters. This goes on for a while. Soon, I stop even noting down which tunnel I’ve taken, because they all blur into one another, such is the way of mazes in this type of book.
Having then deciding to completely screw me over, the book describes a chamber in the maze as having ‘sound’ coming from it, so I head in to investigate, and am promptly eaten by the Stealer of Souls. No, the description didn’t say ‘singing’, because if it did, I wouldn’t have gone in. It said ‘sound’, which could have been anything, from the sound of goblins marching around in circles, to the sound of a baby eating a cat.
This book was… it was definitely a book. It had a cover, and it had words, and the words were printed on paper, so it was definitely a book. That’s the most remarkable thing I can think to say about it, really. I wish I could say more, but there’s just so little to say. I’d suggest reading Michael Moorcock’s Stealer of Souls book from his Elric series, but I’m afraid that one would put me to sleep too. And if you want that, why not just watch the first Star Trek film? That’s guaranteed to put you to sleep! In fact, I think I’ll go and watch that right now….
Cause of death: Eaten because of ‘sound’.