The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Fancy breaking a few spells? I thought you might, ya old SPELLBREAKER you!
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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Ah, Spellbreaker. The memories I have of this book. Not very strong memories, I admit, because it was the memory of being in a bookshop and choosing Revenge of the Vampire instead. If I’d have known how much I’d dislike Revenge of the Vampire, I’d have definitely gone for Spellbreaker instead.
This is another of Jonathan Green’s works, and technically the first of his to be on the Fighting Fantasy list. Given the direction he’d take his later works like Night of the Necromancer, I was surprised to see that at first glance this book seems almost ‘normal’. The only thing system-wise that’s different about it seems to be that it includes a faith score, which works just like faith scores always work in Fighting Fantasy.
The moment you start this adventure, you’re thrown into the middle of a storm. You’re chased by demons through the fields, until you get to an abbey and seek shelter for the night. While there, you witness a stranger steal an ancient book. Right off the bat, you’re thrown into a fairly tricky battle with a demon that the thief has summoned. The demon itself wasn’t too challenging, as my skill and stamina rolls were fairly decent this weekend.
After dispatching the demon, the monks of the abbey give you an exposition dump, explaining that the book that the thief stole contains a spell that can unlock a big scary box. And that inside this box is the Doctor, who will emerge and silence will fall. Or it may just be a big scary monster that will slay the universe, whatever. And it’s all my fault, because I let the stranger into the abbey with me. I’ll give it this, it does involve you into the story very nicely.
That’s the good side to this introduction. The bad side is that it does feel quite rushed, spread over only two paragraphs and a background segment, meaning that the reader has to get through massive walls of text to become involved in the story. If this had all been put over several more segments, with choices to be made, you’d have wound up feeling so much more involved in the story.
Having spent most of the following morning studying up on demons in the abbey’s library, I begin my journey to track down the book. Along the way, the wealthy Lady Attana hires me to guard her as she travels to a small city which is also en route, and although I’ve little interest in doing so I decide to help protect her anyway. After her traveling party is attacked by a couple of brigands, she rewards me by giving me the key to her treasure box… which was stolen by the brigands. So if I’m able to ever recover this box, I can actually get my reward.
I decide to ditch the rich woman at the nearby town, and go my own way. It’s not a Fighting Fantasy book without a visit to a seedy old tavern, so I spend the night in one, where I am confronted with one of the most horrifying and evil creatures ever to walk the face of the earth. A clown. Clowns scare the crap out of me, they really do, and this tavern has one prancing around bothering people for money in exchange for songs and jokes. I sheepishly hand over a gold in exchange for a song, hoping that this will be the least dangerous option, and he sings a song and leaves me alone.
The next morning I am still shaken from my horrible experience the night before, so I head to the local healing temple. I get a flask of special blessed healing water, but while I am at the temple an old beggar also asks me for money. Having learned from the night before (the clown gave me nothing special in exchange for the gold, except for the song), I ignore the man. In his rage, he casts the vicious and unforgiving Beggar’s Curse upon me! I don’t know quite what the curse will involve as the story progresses, because I play these books blindly and without checking them out ahead of time, so maybe we’ll see later. Maybe not.
I soon come across another beggar, only this time he is laying face-down in the street and evidently dying from the plague. I feel a bit guilty about earlier, even though the beggar who cursed me was a different chap entirely, so I give this plague-beggar a nice meal. In exchange he tells me that he has come here from another city, which was invaded by rats following visit from a mysterious stranger some days ago. Hmm, could this stranger be related to the book thief, maybe?
I spend the remainder of my wage from Lady Attana on going to see a puppet show! Remember what I said about clowns? Well, puppets scare the crap out of me as well! And puppets of clowns are even scarier, but there’s none of those in this show. I sit down and watch it, and I assume it’s very much like Les Mis. Following it, I buy one of the puppets, so that I have my own little piece of disturbing nightmare fuel to carry around with me forever (or at least, until it crawls out of my backpack and slits my throat as I sleep).
The mysterious rat-bringer I mentioned? The one who the plague-beggar warned me about? Turns out that he was waiting for me in the local alleyway, and wasn’t related to the book thief at all. He’s a sinister piper, probably on holiday from his usual home of Hamlin. Either way, he decides that he doesn’t like me all that much, because when he’s unable to put the jedi mind trick on me with his flute, he then decides to fire rats at me. Actually throw them at me full-force. I’ll let that image simmer in your mind for a moment.
It’s all a rather strange encounter, but I’m able to kill the piper without too much trouble. The city guards are so thrilled with my help in saving them from this horrific rat plague, that they accuse me or murder and chase me out of town.
I travel through the countryside for the rest of the day, and as the sun starts to set I manage to find a small hobbit-hole type of house in the ground. An old mole-lady, Talpas, bids me welcome and offers to let me stay there for the night.
She offers to read my fortune, using runes this time rather than tarot cards. But this is a Fighting Fantasy book, so she still manages to find that my future will contain evil and death and so on! I’m… unsurprised. The usual tarot card reading in a Fighting Fantasy game means that your cards are The Tower, Death, Judgement, Death again, Burning Pits of Fiery Pain, Pointy Swords In The Chest, Death, The Angry Bartender, Death, and Death again.
The next morning I continue my journey, and come to the plague-beggar’s village. I head around it, not wanting to risk catching deathly lurgy or the dreaded man-flu. Then I’m attacked by a pack of wolves. Then I wander into a forest and get attacked by a gang of bandits. So in short, this leg of my journey is best recalled as containing a lot of pain, sharp teeth and pointy sticks.
The bandits swear that their leader, a villainous figure known as The Mask, will have revenge on me for beating up his crew, but I’m not afraid of early Jim Carey films, and decide to ignore the threat of his vengeance and push on in my quest to recover the book. Next stop is the village of Fenford, where I find a nice old priest in a local inn. He tells me that if the Evil McBaddieMonster has already been released, I can seal it back into the pandorica with an item/spell/thing that can be found in a tomb not far from here. Then I make the mistake of speaking to a witch-hunter, who notices a small amulet that I’d stolen from the piper’s corpse the previous day, which causes him to scream “Burn the witch!” at me. A bar-room brawl erupts and I’m forced to flee the city. Again. This seems to happen to me every Friday night.
Following the priest’s advice, I head right into the nearby swamp, and am promptly attacked by a big vicious swamp-crawling beastie that manages to beat half of my stamina points off before I even manage to lay a hit on it. The swamp then seems to turn into a tangle of pathways and turns, which I stagger around blindly until I come across a little floating will-o-the-wisp type of critter called a Fetch. It attacks me too, and each time I hit it with my sword, I get electrocuted.
Barely alive and smelling slightly of barbeque, I eventually find my way to the hut of a swamp-man called Sam Boggart, who finally seems friendly. He offers to make me some potions, but I don’t have enough herbs for him to make anything useful. That, and I’m too busy bleeding all over his hut’s carpet. He offers to take me to the tomb, which is located in the heart of the swamp. “Can’t you help me tie my arm back on?” I ask him.
Soon enough, I get to the tomb, which is on a small island in the middle of the swamp. If I was hoping to find an item, I have no luck. Aside from the sarcophagus, the tomb is utterly empty. In desperation I try lighting a few candles and speaking to the spirit of the dead mage, but my faith score is just too low for this to work, and I’m forced to leave the tomb empty-handed.
I emerge from the swamp, without any special item or spell to help me on my way and no doubt still bleeding profusely. I get to the road-side, and hear the pounding of horse-hooves in the distance. A friendly traveler rides up, and offers me a lift to the nearby town. I thank him so much, because there’s a good chance I’ll be able to see a doctor and get my lungs put back in. I hop onto the horse, which promptly takes off into the sky. I turn to the rider, who has turned into Dan Aykroyd I guess because he then asks me if I want to see something really scary. Y’know, we do need a new Twilight Zone movie, really.
The rider was a horrible Wight monster, and because I didn’t have a magic holy weapon, I’m forced to try to run away. Which is kinda difficult to do when you’re about fifty foot up in the air. I think you can guess how this one turned out.
So yeah, Spellbreaker. Aside from the pacing at the start, it’s a pretty solid adventure with a lot of interesting encounters, like most of Jonathan Green’s books. There’s a lot of good creepy moments, which you know that I love, and the artwork is crisp and detailed (although I found myself wishing it was Martin McKenna as I think he’d have really captured the darker elements of the setting. I never did get to find out what the Beggar’s Curse was, though. Please do let me know.
Cause of death: Falling through the air, swoosh…