Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

In 1982 a book was released that took the experience of a fantasy role-playing game but removed the necessity of a large group of players and intimate knowledge of several thick (not to mention expensive) sourcebooks. The reader would decide where to go and how to react to each situation, and roll dice to deal with some dangers while keeping track of special items that would allow them to deal with others.

It was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first in the venerated Fighting Fantasy series. In my opinion a lot of the best interactive books of all time carry the Fighting Fantasy label, and the fact that the series is being republished now complete with never-before-seen books says I’m not the only one.

This is where it all began, with you playing a daring adventurer on a quest to penetrate the treacherous caverns of Firetop Mountain, defeat the evil warlock who reigns supreme over its many dangers and lay claim to his treasure trove. It wasn’t a very sophisticated premise, and neither was the adventure built on it. You wander around a series of tunnels and rooms, some which seem a bit out of place in a den of evil. Like the room where skeletons build boats.

It’s pretty plain the bugs were still being worked out of the system when this was written. The book warns about overusing your Luck stat (as the more times you’re called upon to test it, the less reliable it is), but lets you refill this stat far more often than succeeding books. I’d almost say it gives out Luck points like candy. Also, during one fight with a pair of monsters, their being totally blasted gives you a bonus to your attack rolls, while it seems like something should have been a figured-in penalty to theirs. Even if the end result is basically the same.

Also, the book contains something I hate more than just about anything in books like these: a maze. This one is particularly insidious, and took me a long, long time to map properly. I found it deliciously appropriate in a later book, Phantoms of Fear, when you ran into a former adventurer who was driven insane trying to get through this very maze.

Yet, the book manages to succeed in spite of these drawbacks. Aside from the maze, it isn’t overly difficult. At least until you finally get to the end and have to face a guardian dragon before squaring off against the Warlock himself, but that’s what gamers expect. Besides, there are ways to greatly reduce the threat both of those baddies pose. The thing with needing numbered keys found through the dungeon to open the treasure chest might seem kind of cheap, but it makes sense in a way. Imagine being the Warlock, and having the last laugh when the guy can’t get to your treasure after all he went through.

The artwork by Russ Nicholson is quite good. I wouldn’t call it his best work, but it’s up there. As for the writing, the imagery’s pretty good, and the story elements are just strong enough to keep you interested while not making you think too hard about what goes on. In these days of epic quests, it can be kind of nice to go on a nice, simple fantasy adventure. One free of silliness with snakes and bridles.

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