The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Now it’s time to venture into… The Keep of the Lich Lord!
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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I’m in two minds about this book. It’s not one that I played when I was a kid, in fact it’s not one that would even stand out to me from the first look of it. The blurb sounds very standard and formulaic sadly, describing Lord Mortis (honestly, who names their son Mortis? You’re kinda limiting his entire career prospects to ‘evil necromancer’ with a name like that) having come back from the dead and raising an undead army.
Well, of course he is. Also, you’ll notice that on the cover, the titular Lich Lord towers several dozen feet higher than any of his undead minions – perhaps he has the same unfortunate Napoleon-ish condition that affects World of Warcraft bosses, that forces them to be the biggest person in the entire room.
The second thing that worries me is that this book has two additional stats, resolve (which measures your fear at facing undead beings) and alarm (which measures how aware the inhabitants of the keep are of your presence). That isn’t the problem though, they’re actually petty neat. The problem is, neither of these stats are listed on the adventurer’s sheet, which means that you have no place to record them. This does not bode well, but I’ve been wrong about books before, so I’m more than willing to try this out and see how it goes!
Decent stats this time around, my skill is 9, luck of 11, stamina of 18. My resolve is 6, which probably means I’m scared of even a drawing of a zombie. I want to come up with a bit of history for my character, who has been asked by the rulers of a certain far-distant land to go and clean up the mess all by myself.
There’s no army to support me, purely because that would make things too easy. Because I’m evidently the type of person that you send into certain death with a certainty that he can accomplish what an entire army cannot, I’m going to call my character Jack Bauer.
So Jack Bauer is sent off to the Lich-Lord’s island with only a mobile phone.. erm, ‘ring of communication’ for company. On my way, I stop in at a small decrepit old inn called the Sword of the Samurai… agh god that books haunts me! It seems that the locals are all fairly terrified of the night, so to help put their minds at rest, I proclaim loudly that I am planning to invade Bloodrise Keep and slay the Lich Lord. I even say it nice and loud to make sure that the Lich Lord’s pirate lackies can hear me, surely that will work very well and have no negative downsides whatsoever!
I leave the inn on the very next day, heading north until I find a small village. Once there, I speak with the elders who tell me that as well as being beset by Mortis’ forces, their people are being preyed upon by a monster… oh honestly people! Can you not take care of yourselves at all? I mean, do you rely on wandering adventurers to kill every monster that preys on you? Just pick up a heavy stick and go fix things yourselves. Right, fine, I’ll go kill your monster for you. Ingrates.
I really start to take a dislike to these villagers when one of them offers to sharpen my sword in exchange for two of my provisions. No! Hands off my provisions, I need them to live! I mean c’mon, the damn monster is killing your friends and family – are you really so conniving that you’ll actually charge me the food I need to survive, just so that you can rub a stone against my sword for a while? Get lost!
I go off and kill the monster for these fools, which in the end of it all turned out to be some kind of monkey with a large heavy ball on the end of its tail. I return to the village, and they give me fifty gold. When I then ask if they will show me the way to the Lich-Lord’s tomb, they refuse to help until I brow-beat them into it. As I said, ingrates.
The one person I’ve press-ganged into helping me out with my adventure (some poor schlub by the name of Khiro) eventually shows me to Mortis’ tomb. I’m not quite sure why the book is so convinced that I need to go here in order to verify that the guy is indeed up and about – the fact that he’s raising an undead army that are invading the local area seems a good indication of this. I glance around, and Khero has done a runner, leaving me to trudge through the tomb all on my own.
I’m asked to make a resolve roll, because I sure enough do see a drawing of a skeleton that looks a bit scary. Okay, actually it’s an engraving on a wall – but it does kinda prove my point that my character is terrified of anything and everything around him. Being Jack Bauer, this is very unusual. I’m going to put it down to post-traumatic stress.
I do indeed find and examine Mortis’ opened tomb, and recover a runic spear from the body of the poor dead idiot that opened the tomb in the first place. As I pull the spear free, the dead idiot lurches up and tries to kill me, forcing me to stab him repeatedly with the spear. It seems that Mortis’s very presence was enough to convert this poor fool into a zombie, or something. However, I’m quite happy to find that the spear deals double damage to the undead.
I use my ring to discover that the spear was used to keep Mortis’ body in place for so long – until now, that is. This should be very useful in putting the Lich Lord down again, hopefully for good this time. I really do like these anti-undead spears, they have a Lone Wolf feel to them…
As I head back to the port, I am attacked by some of those pirates that I’d expected to turn up earlier. Almost forgot about them. Sure enough, they ambush me with arrows while I’m on the way back to the port, and I opt to flee, seeking shelter in a nearby cave. As I stumble into the depths of the cave, I notice that the walls are made more out of structured brick than stone, and some of the bricks have engravings on them.
Turns out that the cave leads down into an ancient and long-forgotten tomb of the goddess of good fortune. Wow, isn’t that lucky? Not so damn lucky, because I almost fall down a pit trap. I manage to avoid falling to a horrible death, though. Staggering to the alter, I desperately try to grab some of the temple’s treasure, only to be confronted by the temple’s guardian. It tells me that I must slay it in order to obtain the treasure.
This fight includes a mechanic in which every round of combat I win, I am required to roll a dice to see if I am lucky (in which case I inflict extra damage) or unlucky (in which case I inflict less damage).Guess which one I am. Go on. Guess. I’ll give you a clue – I’m in the temple of luck. So naturally, I am utterly unlucky, and the temple guardian beats me up with a large sack full of irony.
I chow down on a meal to recoup as much of the damage as I can, and help myself to the temple’s treasures, which includes some gold, a golden whistle, and an elixir. Leaving the temple, I’m able to rest up for the night before I push onwards. Soon I come to another inn, this one on the side of a local cemetery.
The atmosphere in the inn is tense, as I’m sure that most inns that are built beside cemeteries are. The innkeeper has taken to hanging garlic around the place, and the locals eye me suspiciously and do not talk much. I do, however, see one hooded figure keeping to himself in the corner, no doubt waiting for Frodo and chums to drop in.
I try to squeeze as much information from the locals, but they are tight-lipped about whatever terror lurks in the cemetery. As I head up to my room, the hooded figure tries to talk to me, but is shoo’d away by a soldier. The soldier tells me that he is a survivor from Mortis’ attack on one of the local fortresses, and presses to know who I am. I don’t much trust him, as I don’t really think Mortis is the kind to leave survivors. I make my excuses and head up to the room.
During the night, the hooded figure sneaks into my room. I’m waiting and about to strike, but I find that the figure is an elven woman who is also on a mission to take down Mortis. She tells me that the cemetery is haunted by Mortis’ wife, who is now a vampire. I think it’s actually quite sweet that Mortis had a wife, it just shows that evil necromancers know love as well. Maybe if we could just remind him of love, he will abandon his evil ways and we can live in peace and…
Oh, no, the elf wants to stick a stake through Mortis’ wife’s heart, chop her head off and burn the bodies. Oh well, I guess that works too. Sensibly, we head off under cover of daylight, when the vampires are in their lairs, and it is a simple matter to dispose of them without even breaking a sweat. It makes me wonder why so many adventurers never think to do things like this – just kill the damn vampires when they’re asleep during the day. I literally don’t even need to roll a dice for it. I find them, stake them, end of problem. The elf gives me a magic ring that can summon the aid of elven magic, and heads off to leave me to my work.
I’m unsure which way to travel next, so I use my ring of communication to get some hint as to where I should be heading towards. The magic voice on the other side of the ring (I wonder if this is like a green lantern power ring, and has a little computer inside it) tells me that some pirate ships under Mortis’ employ are heading towards one of the nearby villages, and may be carrying some useful clues. I set that as my next destination, which is doubly useful as the forest where my elven friend originates is en route as well. Maybe I can drop in and say hi to her.
In the forest, I don’t find the elf, but I do meet a few of her kin who have set up a small camp and are keeping company with the refugees from the neighbouring villages that have fallen to Mortis’ army. I encounter a bard who tells us all a song of Mortis’ previous defeat, mentioning a few items that were used to accomplish this task. Isn’t it useful when you meet a character whose main function is exposition?
Mr Singing Exposition tells me about a runic spear that was used (oh hey, that sounds familiar!) as well as an elven charm which I don’t think I’ve encountered yet, and an artefact that is hidden in a tor not far to the west of the camp. I head off to the tor, as the item that it apparently hidden there is connected with the items I grabbed from the temple earlier. Specifically the golden whistle, which I assume I need to blow on at this particular location. Given that it’s called Whistlestone Tor, I think I’m guessing correctly here!
As I travel there, I am attacked by a pack of ‘whipperwolves’, which are regular wolves who have whips instead of tails, possibly because natural selection in this part of the world is a cruel joke. I barely survive, again. I manage to drag my beaten, battered body to the tor, being given the chance to snarf down one meal and use my elixir from earlier to recover as much of my health as possible (turned out that it’s a healing potion), I was still very wounded. It’s really my own fault for not running away from the Whipperwolves, the silly abominations of nature that they are.
Of course, when I actually get to the tor, it’s guarded. Not by men in armour or anything sensible like that, nope, the ancient people who’ve built it decided that a rock golem would make a better choice. It, like most rock monsters, has a stupidly high stamina score, while mine was in single digits. Only by blasting my luck score down to a tiny sliver do I manage to survive this fight, and even then I survive with only two stamina points remaining. Are you on the edge of your seat yet? I turn to the next page, fully expecting the rock golem to fall on me and kill me anyway.
It doesn’t, and I am surrounded by a blue light which crackles and charges into my, filling me with power. I have been inbued by the favour of the goddess of luck, which boosts my initial luck score by quite a bit, as well as my other stats. It’s not too bad, but I thought I was to get a special item or something? I guess not, because no sooner am I done here than I’m hurried along to the village. Yeah, I’m a little confused about this, the game seems to think I’ve done all I need to at the tor.
Anyway, I get to the village to find that Mortis’ pirates have landed and are taking the inhabitants prisoner. I use the elven ring, which renders me invisible (don’t they all?) and sneak aboard the ship. I sneak down to the hold, planning to rescue as many of the prisoners as I can and use them as an impromptu fighting force in order to take over the ship, but one of the pirates escapes and raises the alarm. The book then tells me that I flee from the ship, leaping overboard and getting shot by arrows. So much for my idea.
Having managed to utterly fail at my pirate adventure, I press on and soon see a horseman being pursued by a pack of wolves. And by ‘horseman’, I mean a centaur. Stupidly, I decide to help him by throwing some of my spare food to the wolves. The centaur is grateful for my help, and offers to give me a ride along the way. I’m not keen on this idea, and the centaur quickly gets tired and makes an excuse to go and do something else. I don’t blame him, I’m sure he doesn’t want to go home and have to tell his friends about the strange man he met that rode him around a field.
Along the road, I see a man hanging from a gibbet. A common sight in medievil times, sure, but this man is wearing the tattered armour of the keep. Perhaps he’s a legitimate survivor, put here by Mortis’ forces for some cruel joke. I’m ready to unlock him, but I first need to fend off the crows that have decided that this man is their dinner. I fend the crows off, and as I unlock the man’s cage I realise that he’s a zombie. Still, it’s not a complete waste of my time, as I’m able to rip a heavy mace out of the undead’s grip as I push on towards the village of Benrai.
Benrai’s a bit of a mess. Mortis recently invaded the place, and although the villagers seemed to be able to repel his forces, it came as the cost of pretty much every single life in the village. It’s a ghost town, full of dead bodies. The only survivor mentions that Mortis’ army is lead by a strange spider-skull thing which seemed impervious to arrows, but he died before he could tell me where the village keeps its hidden secret treasures (how rude!)
I find a trapdoor in one of the abandoned buildings, and start to sneak down into the basement below. I find that it is inhabited – the town’s alchemist has been cowering there. He has been spending his time making a potion of bravery, and when I tell him that it’s a bit too late for him to use it, he tries to sell it to me. Sigh. Again I have to remind you – I am saving the world here, stop trying to sell me things. Just GIVE me the damn potion! Actually, you know what? My resolve score is high enough, so just keep your damn potion, I’m off to Port Borgos.
My last stop before I get to the Keep itself, Port Borgos is a total ghost town, lacking even the dead bodies that littered Benrai’s streets. I’ll give the book one thing, it really does build the sense of desolation and ruin as you get further and further along. If I wanted to be a bit more pretentious, I’d compare it to Heart Of Darkness. Except that I’m pretty sure neither the book or the movie Apocalypse Now had a giant skeleton-spider monster that needs to be hit with a mace. Although I could be wrong about that, it’s been a while since I seen the movie.
The book asks if I have an ‘iron’ mace. I got a ‘heavy’ mace from the zombie in the gibbet, and I’m going to assume it’s the same thing. I give the monster a few sturdy whacks with it. This seems to only result in it getting angry and biting me. I do eventually manage to squish it, but I’m once again down to only two stamina points as a result.
I find that the Skull Beast has left a dark cloak in its wake, which I can use to help avoid detection inside the keep – which is my next and final location. On the dawn of the next day, I approach the Keep of the Lich-Lord!!
Crossing the moat into the keep is easy, as the undead seem to have made a damn out of human skulls in order to keep the water out. I use my ring of communication one final time, and it tells me that it may be a useful idea to find some prisoners inside the keep and convince them to help break the dam. I head into the main courtyard, and sneak into the barracks. Inside the barracks I find a being which is ‘neither alive nor undead’, a foul and bizarre mish-mash of alchemy and necromancy called a Werewight. It’s smell deals me two stamina points of damage. Which kills me.
I repeat – I get all this way to the keep, and a monster’s stench is enough to kill me. Death by body odour.
I initially had some reservations about this book, but I’m glad to say that in the end I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a very interesting book, structured in such a way that you get to travel to a lot of interesting areas, and the sense of danger ramps up as you progress by means of the atmosphere becoming darker and more threatening. Some of the monsters are very goofy even by Fighting Fantasy standards, and although I’m sure I missed a lot of the more useful items, I think I got quite far and did quite well with this.
I’m actually going to rate this book quite highly as a result. If I had to come up with some kind of arbitrary scale of measuring how enjoyable it is, I would signify this with a numerical value of eight skeleton’s fingers out of a possible number of ten. But I’m sure that scale of rating enjoyment will never catch on.
Cause of death: Werewight Stech!