In the 70s and 80s, long before the days of the Internet and the socially enriching advents of Snapchat and Youtube comment threads, kids only had the option of three ways to pass their time - being rich, sniffing glue or playing Dungeons and Dragons. Naturally, choosing either one of these paths through adolescence came with its own unique set of consequences, narrowing down the kind of world you’d find yourself in as an adult. If you were rich, congratulations! You now have a job working for your Dad at his trust company, doing nothing but buying yachts, eating French cheese and further exacerbating America’s class divide. If you chose sniffing glue, then you likely now get to enjoy a considerably broader landscape of potential experiences, such as sniffing other suspicious white substances and shouting at purple dinosaurs who won’t leave you alone. And if you chose the Dungeons and Dragons route, well - at least you had friends who were as nerdy as you were - friends you’ve probably kept to this day as well. And you also get to enjoy the warm inclusion of such geeky hobbies into mainstream culture, if not for the fact that you’re now so old, you’re wondering why all of these young dice-rollers and cos-players are now congregating on the lawn you want them to get off. But what if you liked the idea of D+D, but didn’t have any friends? You deserved to have your own adventures too - ones that didn’t involve crying a lot or being locked in the cupboard under the stairs by your over-protective mother. Luckily, these desperate years were also the same age in which a certain book genre rose to prominence among the spotty adolescents who experienced such social isolation: the choose-your-own-adventure gamebook! Yes indeed - even if you couldn’t exact any influence on your own social worth, you could at least alter the fate of your own self within the world of fiction! And what second-person escapades you could have. You could, for example, assume the role of a knight venturing into a dark kingdom to vanquish an evil sorceror. But it doesn’t stop there! There was also the prospect of being a knight venturing into a dark kingdom to vanquish an evil vampire. And last, but not at all least - being a vampire sorcerer venturing into a dark knightdom to vanquish an evil king. The choices of story were certainly as vast as they were utterly nerdy. And the choices within such books could wildly vary too. With you calling the shots on what your assumed character should do in a given situation, any choice was tinged with both the chance of victory, or the threat of death (or: finding out you lost, just putting the book down and going outside instead). With such a genre enjoying so much popularity for its time - despite only ever being a flash in the pan - and the amusingly dorky, usually bad fantasy/sci-fi writing antiquities prevalent in such books, it’s only right and fair that such a pastime gets a good old nostalgic critique in the 21st century. What better way to do so than with an infrequent mini-series of articles dissecting the classics of this most dweeby of fiction categories? We start with the one book that fans consider to be the most classic of them all.. Fighting Fantasy’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain! (If you already know how these gamebooks work, you can skip down to the next section. Otherwise, turn to page 327823832. Ha ha, that’s an in-joke. But really, you should carry on reading..)
First, Some BackgroundOf all the brand and series names that adorned the front of these gamebooks (and there were a surprising number of them), Fighting Fantasy was the one moniker that readers would have recognised the most. Bookstores, libraries, and now thrift stores - this series’ books, of which there are almost 60 in total, continue to show up everywhere. They’re also the product of a couple of pretty well-known individuals within the traditional gaming industry too - a certain Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson*, original co-founders of the wallet-burning, mortgage-busting empire of tabletop games that is Games Workshop. Though there are no Space Marines or violent fantasy takes on American football to be found here, there is still an awful lot of subject manner across the series’ entire run that sits within the same wheelhouse. It’s all trolls, goblins and social ostracism - I’m sure you know the drill. How it all works is in a manner also similar to another form of entertainment that computer nuts have indulged in for decades - the text adventure. You’ll start with an opening paragraph telling you your situation, before it closes with a bunch of possible choices to progress it along:Simple stuff, right? Think of all the possibilities that will unfold based on the pages you turn to! Like further shame, and being laughed at by the ‘cool kids’ at school. On top of all this page flipping and tough choices in a world that doesn’t suffer from perpetuating stigma for certain hobby choices, Fighting Fantasy books also add that most precious of D+D game-playing mechanics to the mix - dice rolling. Yes, you get to roll whole dice during certain parts of your journey through the book, which will have an impact on the situation, and your fortunes. Picture now - you sitting there with that book open by yourself, occasionally reaching for those dice, concentrating and hoping for a good roll. Don’t you look so cool and fashionable? No. No you don’t. But roll dice you must - for all of Fighting Fantasy’s books employ a system that requires it. It even flings it on you before you even start the book, as your character will need to generate a small set of vital stats to determine how worthy you will be for its challenge. You gotta roll a D6 for Skill (your general sense of agility and handiness at combat - you’ll be fighting a lot in these books), 2 D6s plus 12 for Stamina (basically energy points - lose ‘em all through bad choices or combat and you die), and a D6 for Luck (a facet that will fuck you up by constantly having to test for it in certain scenarios). As for combat? Well, any enemies you face will have Skill and Stamina scores as well. Roll two dice for yourself and add it to your Skill - do the same for your enemy. Whoever gets the higher score gets to inflict 2 points of damage on their assailant, and take 2 points off their Stamina. If either person’s Stamina drops to zero or lower, then - *nerdy squeal of surprise* - they have emerged victorious! In any case, as the Fighting Fantasy series went on, some of the books also threw in their own, unique additional rules to keep players on their toes. Fortunately, being the very first book in this collection, The Warlock of Fire Mountain doesn’t have many more nuances than previously mentioned, meaning I don’t have to prattle on any further about arbitrary numbers that won’t help you get a girlfriend.
Anyway, On To The BookPrior to the digital age, Fighting Fantasy boasted a total of 59 titles in its array of adventures - a range that you’d have to keep pretty interesting and varied (at least to your audience) for them to keep coming back for future volumes. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain though is pretty standard 80s fantasy fare. Hey, I suppose when you’re the first of your kind, you can afford to just go with whatever was popular with the sword-and-sorcery loving squares at the time - and in this case, that meant being a brave adventurer going on a jolly treasure hunt to take a precious hoard of valuables from an ‘evil, wicked’ magician. I use those quotes intentionally - as the explanation of the story will show. You, being some tough sword-wielding bad-ass with a penchant for gold, have decided to take on the task of venturing into a mysterious mountain, said to contain a wealth of lucrative treasures, and come back out with as much filthy lucre as you can carry. There’s just one problem to this plan - that treasure happens to belong to a very powerful sorcerer (warlock, whatever) who’s done quite the job to turn the mountain into a impenetrable fortress packed with monsters, traps and other annoying little obstacles. You however, being a traditional fantasy stereotype with your big muscles and your big sword, laugh in the face of danger. You will not be deterred by such perils - in fact, they probably turn you on like the broad-chested weirdo you are. And so, after a two-day journey, you pitch up at a village at the foot of the mountain to firstly gather yourself for the deadly quest, and to gather more information about the supposed dangers of the dungeon you’re about to step into. General overview - you get on well with the locals, you learn a bit more about the elusive warlock, and all the women love you:We did say this was a ‘traditional’ fantasy, after all. No tough, boundary-breaking anti-heroine types here - in this world, all the girls are cooing wenches. As if they’d dote on such a guy in the real world! They’d at least check his Tinder account first. Inconvenient gender labelling aside, there’s also some inconvenient holes in the plot too. Namely, what exactly has this warlock done to deserve getting his treasure stolen in the first place? All the folks at the village seem in pretty good spirits, so it’s not like he’s using his mountain to inflict fear and terror upon them. Truth be told, if you’re some kind of omnipotent wizard dude who can cast wicked spells and shit, you deserve to make a fortune and not have some poncey chancer venture into your subterranean abode to try and steal it all. No wonder he decided to hire the monsters - he clearly had to do something to stop wave after wave of these supposed ‘heroes’ from burgling his stuff. Anyway, I’m sure you’d like to know how this all pans out, so guess what? I played the game so you don’t have to! Let’s find out how the story unfolds, shall we?
How I DiedOkay, sod it - there’s usually only one way a Fighting Fantasy book ends, and that’s through painful, miserable death. It’s the main reason why these books garnered such a following - some of them were crazy fucking hard to win at. Death often came under the guise of four different things:
- Death in combat
- Death by a Luck roll that forced you into a fatal situation
- Death by making a bad choice and turning to a page / paragraph number that forced you into a fatal situation
- The book just fucking hates you and kills you out of spite
So off I went on my merry little escapade of stealing somebody else’s property. Naturally, I wandered around a lot, with lots of paragraphs that told me I was in a corridor and that I could go either north, south, east or west, whatever. Naturally, I also came across monsters. In typical fantasy fashion, they were all either really goblin-y, really dead-like or really ill-contrived. The first one I encountered was pretty set in the third camp. If you were to walk into an empty room, see a box on the table and open it, what would you expect to find inside?
Not a bloody snake, that’s for sure! It’s not even one of those stretchy felt ones that pop out of comedy store gifts either. This one was definitely more of the bitey kill-you variety. But it’s just a flippin’ snake and I was a tough dude with a sword. I dealt with that shit pretty easily. Onward we went - more dimly-lit passages, more choosing to go north - and stumbled across these two warty dudes:
Believe it or not, the image above is not a photo-realistic sketch of two imbibers at a rural Welsh pub. Nope - these were in fact two orcs, who as the accompanying paragraph suggested, were in the middle of getting shit-faced in their quarters before I walked in on them. Would I decide to sit down with them and indulge in a bit of beer-drinking and cross-fantasy-racial banter? Probably open up about why I felt the need to step into their home and ransack it for everything it’s worth? No, for they were Orcs. And I was Big, Muscular, Likely Womanizing, Most-Definitely-Likely White Fantasy Hero, and by all expectations, I had to kill them. So I did! Other combat encounters went swimmingly - I killed a couple of goblins (standard), a giant sandworm (cool!), a wererat (what is that exactly?), and even a dismembered hand that came to life from the floor I was walking on. I don’t know what possessed the writers to include such a thing along with all the others, but I imagine the Addams Family might have had something to do with it. And then, there was this fucker:
Gnarly, pretty awesome illustration aside (all of the drawings in this book are pretty cool in that 80s fantasy way, actually), this piece of festering flesh would be the end of me. You see, prior to stumbling on this guy - a Ghoul by the book’s description - I got myself caught up in what seemed to be a mausoleum. At least, it seemed that way from all the coffins lying around and the sizeable group of zombies I had to kill to get past. Unfortunately, this particular encounter caused me to lose most of my bloody Stamina - but it also came with the subsequent reward of finding a whole bunch of swag on them that would no doubt come in handy in my later adventure. Gold, a crucifix, mysterious keys (no doubt for the warlock’s treasure chests) - this was a pretty good haul. And so I left that room, went down some stairs, saw some more corpses I could pillage from and - shocking revelation - one of these corpses came to life, and promptly kicked my arse. A moralistically apt outcome for such a greedy dungeoneer, but it was what the Ghoul then did with my arse that was far more upsetting:
Gah, seriously? This is now one memory I’ll never be able to shift. And it’s not even a real one. Thanks, Fighting Fantasy!
Fuck It, Let’s CheatLike practically everyone who played these gamebooks, the easiest way to win the game was to just throw the rules and the dice out the window (hopefully while the book’s writers are passing by it) and skip around the paragraphs. For Fighting Fantasy titles, you could also just jump to the fabled paragraph 400 at the back of the book, which always had the final victory passage of text given to you when you finally completed it. For ultimate spoiler purposes (who knows, you might actually want to read it), we ain’t gonna do that. But I will tell you about some of the book’s other interesting highlights, most of which also involve the book withholding some final, nasty tricks up its sleeve to screw you over with. For example, should your intrepid explorer get past the underground graveyard / undead disco that claimed mine, you’ll eventually get to a maze that is the most maddening thing about the entire book:
Ooh, more compass-based meanderings. But it's a maze this time - how intriguing, you might think. Except that like most labyrinths, it doesn’t have a map. Also, you don’t have a visual guide to assist you either. If you’re not willing to draw one out on actual paper, you’ll essentially have to memorize it in your head as you furiously leaf back and forth through the pages like some troubled Christian just discovering that the Bible isn’t a morally cohesive whole. Also, if you have a brain as addled by both insomnia and alcohol like mine has become, you’ll also forget certain paragraphs and keep going around in circles again and again - thus turning your brave dungeon-crawler into a wandering idiot whose heroic feat of killing an arse-biting ghoul (by cheating, no less) is now rendered useless. If you do manage to get through it though, you’ll find a pretty fearsome discovery at the end of it:
Fuck yeah, a dragon! As Wizards of the Coast will tell you, you can’t have a dungeon without a dragon. This one looks like he’s been partying too hard with those orcs though - he looks hungover as all hell. Too much Fireball Whiskey will do that to you. (I’m so punny. Are you sick of the humour yet?) Finally, should you overcome that, and ALL the rest of the trials the book mercilessly throws at you, you’ll come face-to-face with Firetop Mountain’s warlock, who’s rightfully pissed that you’re after all his plunder:
This nameless (at least in this book - Fighting Fantasy’s lore indicates his name is the typically bad fantasy-esque Zagor) warlock seriously has a “don’t fuck with me, I’m a wizard”, kind of vibe. Although that headband also makes him look like the lead singer for an early 80s funk-soul band. Didn’t get that reference? Don’t blame yourself - my jokes are shit. Besides, by then listing all of the different weapons you can use to defeat him (should you have picked them up), the book on its own can provide the laughs:
There are many branches through this book, and I clearly didn’t find the best one. If only I could have gone the right way and found that mystical piece of cheese that would have doomed this hapless magician to an untimely end! But nope - I guess one of the other items will have to do. Or we could just stick with cheating. Yeah, cheating’s alright. Turns out though that even after you 'defeat' the 'evil' Zagor, you come across an even more nefarious nemesis - the mechanics of the book itself:
There are two things that are VERY, VERY critical in the above paragraph. Firstly, you are told at the start of the book that the chest hiding the warlock’s famed treasure requires two keys to open. It’s not until you get to the very end that the book tells you that you need three - bastards! Problem two: each of the keys also has a number on it. When the time comes, you gotta add these numbers together, and then turn to the paragraph that the final sum corresponds with. Talk about an underhanded way to stop people taking the easy route - it’s one thing to force cheaters to use random number guesswork to complete the game, it’s another to make them do math! Basic arithmetic, you’ve beaten us again!
And Finally…All in all, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a relic of the nerd-dom of days past - a pretty standard dungeon fantasy adventure wrapped up in 400 passages of text, most of which is also coloured with pretty standard magic-and-monsters writing (though it is at least cohesive and flows well). It’s a fun little literary trinket from yesteryear - one that gets the ball rolling for the rest of Fighting Fantasy’s hair-pulling, fatality-assuring paths to inevitable deaths with each book they released. It’s a lot of walking around corridors too, which most certainly becomes tedious by the time you hit that friggin’ maze. But hey, it’s still good, clean, dorky fun (apart from the arse-biting) that’s amusing to come back and reminisce on - and we’ll definitely be coming back to check out more of these titles in the time to come. Congrats also for making it to the end of this write-up too. The future ones will definitely be shorter. I swear, I’m never explaining the history of gamebook systems ever again... *: The British one, not the American guy of Munchkin fame. Although, he ended up writing a few books in the series as well - BECAUSE CONFUSION
Copies of the original Warlock of Firetop Mountain can still be found at numerous online sources - in particular eBay and thrift booksellers on Amazon. Also, those with more modern tastes might be interested to know that the book lives on as an actual PC role-playing game. You can check it out at http://store.steampowered.com/app/324740/ - who knows, we may even end up reviewing it here.
Media utilized in article is property of: Steve Jackson / Ian Livingstone / Puffin Books