Talisman of Death

The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Join us on the eleventh adventure, as we seek the sinister Talisman of Death!

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 sure I read Talisman of Death before, but I just can’t remember when. At several points during my childhood I would comb through local libraries for Fighting Fantasy books, and I strongly suspect that Talisman of Death was one that I borrowed at some point. I never owned a copy, and just can’t remember anything significant about it. That’s about to change, though. This is one of those strange Fighting Fantasy adventures in which you start out as a regular person on planet Earth. It wastes utterly no time in throwing you into the new setting though, by casting you as the chosen earthling who has been selected by a powerful god-entity to save the world of Orb. This whole “earthling thrown into fantasy story” trope is one that we tend not to see a whole lot and it’s quite nice to see it here.

I’ve rolled up a skill of 9, which is not bad for a mere earthling who has probably never wielded a sword in her entire life. I’ve got a luck of 12 and a stamina of 23, so things are starting out looking fairly hopeful. The adventure begins with you being informed by a sinister voice that I have been chosen (but not what I’ve actually been chosen to DO) and I am then immediately chucked into a big empty underground chamber. Nice. I’m already starting to suspect that this is all a big joke being pulled by my university chums.

My time sitting around in a large empty chamber is quickly interrupted by the sudden arrival of a group of adventurers who demand to know what I am doing here. I decide to be honest and tell them that I’m actually an earthling who was chosen by an alien force and dumped in this dark room somewhere for no known reason. I figure that the situation can’t get any worse, but amazingly the group believe my crazy story, and tell me that I have obviously been sent to aid them. Uh, sure.

The wizard of the group (because what half-decent group of adventurers would lack a wizard?) hands me an amulet and tells me that if it falls into the wrong hands then the God of death will be summoned and eat the world for lunch because Gods of death tend to do this kind of thing, and that I am their only hope. Ah, no pressure then. With that, a horde of monsters rush into the chamber and proceed to brutally stamp on the adventurers. With his last breath, the wizard teleports me out of the dungeon. I look around the overworld and start my trek towards wherever the nearest large city happens to be.

No sooner am I on my way, that I catch sight of a group of orcs approaching from the south. I seem to immediately recognise them, despite being an earthling who has never seen an orc in real-life before, but eh, I guess maybe our understanding of orcs are perhaps derived from aliens? Who can say. I choose to avoid them, only to notice another group of dark elves approaching from the north, which causes even more questions. I promptly run from both groups, not wanting to end up being crushed by either ones… but the moment I find somewhere safe to hide, both groups rush over and beat the snot out of each other!

Glad to have escaped this little orc-elf battlefield incident, I rest by a lake to catch a few moment’s breath. As I drink the cool water, one of the nearby trees decides that it wants to grab me and drag me off to… do whatever trees do to their prey. Eat them via osmosis, I suppose. Either way, I whack it with my sword until it changes its mind, and I find that its sap has some interesting healing properties. I pocket some of this sap – if you have any idea how I manage to carry around a handful of tree sap in a backpack, please let me know.

As I continue through the woods, I notice a dark elf scout sniffing along my trail – it seems that the elves made short work of the orcs, and have been pursuing me across the lands. I dive into the river to lose throw off the scent, but this is utterly ineffective and before long I’m running across the open plains with an entire dark elf squadron hot on my heels. Joy. It’s only by the timely intervention of a group of riders that causes the elves to turn and flee. The riders in question, consisting entirely of warrior women with spiky helmets and big swords, demand to know what I am doing in the lands of Rohan (or wherever the hell I’ve wound up).

I ask them to take me to their home city so that I can can find some help. The book asks me if I wish to hand over my sword. I choose to ask if the riders would mind awfully if I held onto it for now, which the book interprets to mean “take out your sword and hit the riders” I… uhh… After being soundly thumped over the head, the riders drag my stupid unconscious body to the city of Greyguilds. The book keeps asking if I want to try to escape from these riders, even though they seem quite nice and didn’t chop my head off when I started randomly waving my sword around earlier. Eventually we arrive in the city of Greyguilds, a noble city of learning which is full of many old men in robes who carry books around. The book then tells me that I am ‘no match’ for these men, obviously for no other reason than to insult me further. Thanks for that, book!

Things seem to go from bad to worse here. It seems that any time I set foot in a city in a Fighting Fantasy book, really awful things happen to me. The less said about Blacksand, the better. So in Greyguilds, I am taken to see the leader of the city, a lovely woman called Hawkete (presumably her brother is named Hawk), who steals the talisman of death from me and has me thrown out into the gutter! Okay book, you’re just trolling me now.

Hoping to recover the talisman, I worked my way through the streets, pausing only to drop into a blacksmiths store to buy a new sword to replace the one that the riders had pried from my grasp earlier. Then, in the middle of an alleyway, a billowing cloaked figure confronts me and tells me that it is a messenger of death and that it wants to take the talisman from me. I calmly tell it that I don’t have the talisman. It calls me a liar and punches me in the gut until I hit it back. This is an extremely difficult fight, because each time it hits me I lose a skill point, meaning that this quickly comes down to a battle of luck.

I’m eventually able to get away from this weird creature, and keep on through the alleys. Shortly afterwards, I hear a group of thieves planning to rob a jewelery store. I drop into the store, intending to tell the owner about this, but end up getting attacked by the thieves instead. The store owner gives me a giant ruby in gratitude, although at this stage a load of bandages would be more useful.

I leave the store and then step in a bear trap.

Let me rephrase that. I step in a bear trap. In the middle of a city street. Someone had set a bear trap. For what possible reason would someone do this? Just… what was the logic of this trap, again?

While I’m lying in the city streets, a group of robed figures walk over to me. They tell me that they are the cultists of the god of death, and that they want the talisman. I roll my eyes, tell them that I don’t bloody well have the talisman. The first robed figure calls me a liar and punches me. I feel a strange sense of deja vu. But then, thankfully, a group of the town’s guard come marching down the street, and the cultists make a quick retreat.

The guards see me as I lay in the street, clutching my bleeding leg that’s stuck in a bear trap. They laugh. Then they walk away, laughing about it. I hate the guards of Greyguild City.

I sit there on the street, stuck in the bear trap, for some hours. Eventually, a man comes up and offers to help me out of the damn thing. He is a scholar and offers me a place to stay for the night. I tell him about my adventures, although by this point in the adventure I’m half expecting him to probably sell me into slavery or something. But to my shock, he is actually rather helpful and tells me that I should check out the local tavern in order to get some leads as to how to get the talisman back. He then gives me a broach to wear so that he will know I’m not a shape-changer in future… wait, does this kind of thing happen often? Does the city of Greyguild often have hordes of changelings walking the street? Has the Dominion taken over? Are the guards mocking me because they are secretly Jem’Hadar?

The term ‘dive’ doesn’t begin to describe the bar that the scholar sends me to visit, ‘miserable and foul-smelling’ might be a good start. I buy a pint and I’m offered the chance to talk to the surly guys in the corner ‘who look like thieves’. I don’t quite know what a thief in the world of Orb looks like, but they look like it. Possibly because they’re wearing masks, have bags with dollar signs on their sides, and are stealing each other’s wallets constantly. I try to ask them if they would be interested in a job, and they seem vaguely curious and ask me to drop by the Thieves Guild tomorrow morning to make a booking. I’d never have thought thieves were so specific with their paperwork!

I leave the tavern, and I’m promptly told that I can have a point of luck for getting out of the place alive. Urrgh… seriously, where did my life go wrong? Most people feel lucky if they win the lottery, I feel lucky if I go for a pint of beer and don’t get stabbed in the face.

Whatever luck I did have instantly runs out a few minutes later. I’m walking happily down a street, when a robed man crashes through a nearby window and into the middle of the road. People from inside the building start to flee in panic. I have no idea how, but the people inside this particular building seem to have found an Ice Demon, which is now out of control and running amok. The ice demon’s cold aura immediately hurts me. Then its fists do.

And try as I might, the dice simply aren’t with me on this fight. Before long, the ice demon has punched me into little pieces.

Talisman of Death is a very strange book. Not in a bad way, but in a very atmospheric and entertaining way. It’s not going for the slightly surrealist atmosphere you’ll find in some of the earlier Fighting Fantasy books, but it has its own sense of strange comedy and is often very entertaining to read. This was a decent and enjoyable book, I wouldn’t rate it high enough to consider it a must-have, but it is a nice enough read in itself.

Cause of death: Ice Golem Smash!