The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. It is time, I think, to confront the warlock one last time and end the LEGEND OF ZAGOR!
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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Here’s an interesting question. Which was designed first – the Legend of Zagor book, or the board game?
You see, I genuinely can’t tell. I’ve spoke about the board game before, but now I’m getting my teeth into the book. This book always stuck out as different in the later stages of the Fighting Fantasy series, and I think a lot of it comes down to being vaguely cross-platform. I suspect that at this stage in development, it was already decided to create a board game, so the decision was made to attempt to replicate it as a book. But that’s just a guess, I’ve no evidence to support it.
But I can explain why I think that. You see, this book features four selectable characters. You’ve got Anvar the Barbarian, Braxus the Warrior, Stubble the Dwarf and Salazar the Wizard. The only real difference between them is their advantages, disadvantages, and how many magic points they each have – their skill and stamina are determined normally, but with very slight differences between the four. The advantages tend towards bonuses towards rolls, and the disadvantages tend to be which weapons or armour they can use. Magic points can be spent to cast spells, and it’s pretty self evident which characters will have more or less of those.
The book’s layout is not as complicated as some others released at this point in the franchise. You have a castle to explore, and the aim is to find special treasure chests. When you open each of these chests, you have a chance of recovering a pendant or a dagger, which are used to defeat the powerful boss monsters. The book is completely open and upfront about this. Which is one of the reasons why I suspect it was written with the board game in mind.
I want to pick the most balanced character for the first playthrough, so we go with Braxus the Warrior, who has no real disadvantages and a handful of magic points to spend. The introduction into the adventure is very well written, binding elements from the Casket of Souls and so on into a story that ultimately comes down to this – Zagor is back, and you need to go to Castle Argent to kill him again. I’ve got mixed feelings about this, because it does have the slight downside of making the otherwise excellent Return To Firetop Mountain rather anticlimactic. I have a soft spot for Return, remember.
Anyway, after hitting the local market to stock up on a few odds and ends, I catch a boat out to the dread castle. Given that this is a Fighting Fantasy adventure and I’m on a boat, it’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes. Some creepy fog descends, and I’m asked if I want to spend a luck point to get through the journey safely. I decide to play it risky, and don’t spend it. In return, a giant and very powerful dragon flies down and beats the ever-living snot out of me for a while.
After (eventually) killing the thing and nursing my wounds, I start to wonder if all the monsters are going to be that over-powered. It seems that my worry spreads to the crew of the ship, because they refuse to even go to shore with me, instead just dumping me in a small raft and telling me to row to the castle instead. I get to the island, and proceed to explore some of the ruins around the place. Eventually we manage to find a well, which is enchanted and gives me some advice in exchange for a gold coin.
Arriving at the gates to Castle Argent, I’m asked if I want to use an ‘open’ spell to get through the door. I opt to save my magic, and push my way through the door, stepping over a trip-wire, and hurrying into one of the nearby doorways. I am then very nearly caught in a net trap by a group of goblins, who I proceed to smack over the head without much difficulty, and find a longbow in the debris of the hallway for my trouble. It’s about this point in the adventure that I realise that I’m going to be testing my skill and luck a LOT!
I stumble around the castle for a while and eventually find my way into the guest bedroom. I start to dig through the mattress and find a magic ring, and an ‘open’ spell scroll. As I leave, I notice a hidden door in the corner of the room. I’ve always been a sucker for checking these out, so I head down the tunnel, managing to trip and smack my head on the floor as I do so. Eventually I get to the other end of the tunnel, which holds a door that has some weird runes marked on it. I decide to cast the ‘open’ spell, and that is precisely what sets the runes off, causing them to explode.
Grumbling angrily, I stumble into the room to find a very angry dark elf, who was hiding here. He tells me to get out, but I want to talk. Things don’t go too well as we discuss and debate our mutual positions, and he ends up falling on my sword several times. I steal his magic ring and a few gold pieces and run for it.
I stumble around for a while now, having no real idea where I’m going. I should probably map this place out. In fact, the entire area seems to be very apt for making a good map. Perhaps that’s the intention. Anyway, I eventually find my way into the feast hall, where I am beset by a swarm of rats. I’m guessing that these are not the snuggly, affectionate type of pet rats. Seriously, they’re the cutest things in the entire cosmos.
Before long I’ve worked by way into another corridor, and found my way to a wizard’s sanctum. I can tell it’s a wizard’s sanctum because the book tells me it is one after I try to smash down the door and get hit with a fireball for my trouble. I don’t think I’m doing too well at this book. I cast an open spell, eventually, and am rewarded with a rather nice haul of loot, which also contains my first silver dagger of the adventure. Not too bad all in all.
I manage to find my way into the castle’s jail, which is without a doubt one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. I stumble my way into the jailor’s room, where I am attacked by a gigantic golem. My stamina is now seriously flagging after this combat, so I do my best to recover as much of it as possible while I search the room and find the jailor’s keys. Then I meet Mungus. Mungus is a gigantic, and very powerful, boss type monster. An ogre-like prisoner with a massive hammer and the ability to quickly turn my head into a smear in the floor.
Somehow I survive the battle, but my stamina is not going to be able to get up to its initial level any time soon again. I don’t even get one of those special treasure chests for my trouble! Well, I don’t get one from Mungus. I do get one elsewhere in the jail. It was guarded by a giant dragon. Which was locked in one of the cells. For an unknown reason. Seriously, who locks a dragon in a jail cell? Well, Zagor, I guess. Maybe he was angry with it. I don’t know. Either way, the thing is a bloody titan to destroy, and in return I get another silver dagger, some gold, and a magic wand that can only be used by the wizard character.
So far, a LOT in this adventure is only useable by the wizard character….
I trudge back upstairs and reap my way through a bunch of zombies and skeletons, which are no real match for me compared to the dragon. Soon, I find my way into the upper area of the castle, which is such an achievement that I’m given a boost to my scores. Woo, my stamina is back up to double figures again!
In the upper floor of the castle, I find my way into a room which contains a set of dwarven armour, useless to me. There is an old and ruined art gallery, which I investigate. I find a painting of an old wizard, Zagor himself, who threatens me and causes me to lose luck points. Oh, that wacky wizard, playing his silly painting games. I wonder if they’re paint by numbers…
I work my way to an especially large and important hallway, which contains several coloured doors. I head into the green one, and I’m beset by a giant plant elemental. After doing a little bit of pruning, I stumble my way into a ladies make-up room, from which I steal a bunch of cosmetics. The book claims that I’m doing this so that I have a disguise I can use to fool the monsters in the castle, but I’m not so convinced. Hey Braxus, it’s cool man, you can wear the makeup if you like, I won’t judge.
I manage to find the hall of heroes, a ruined gallery of the greatest warriors in the known universe. I’m saddened not to see any monuments to my own awesomeness here, given how many of these adventures I’ve been on. I do find a small secret doorway, which a knight called Sir Davian is using to barricade himself in and hide from the orcs. Because Braxus is a massive egotistical git, he then insults Sir Davian until the poor man hands over his magic armour.
Sir Davian also tells me that an old friend of his used to possess a magic sword that could do all the fighting for him, floating through the air and dispatching enemies while his friend would do more important matters. I like this idea, because it would let me outsource all my fighting work to the sword. I head off to follow the knight’s directions to find the sword, but I evidently get quite lost, and stumble into the barracks, where I encounter a very large and very angry statue that beats me around the head with a large club.
And so my adventure ends there, on the receiving end of a very large club.
I really don’t know what to make of this book. The writing is good in terms of description and atmosphere, and the artwork is very appealing. It has all of the dungeon crawl elements of classic FF. But on the other hand, the general layout and way you navigate around the dungeon is overly complicated, as are the rules and over-use of dice systems. You test skills and luck more than any other rolls in this adventure, except perhaps for the combat, which is often just far too brutal and does not scale well as the adventure progresses.
I really end up thinking that this book was attempting to closely emulate the board game and present that in a book style, and that comes across to its detriment. This had some real potential, but I think it was too ambitious in trying to do something that didn’t fit with what the general context of the adventure gamebook formula. I’d give it points for trying, but not for execution.
Cause of death: Went clubbing a bit too hard…