Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone
|Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone|
|Category: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: The level of engagement with the gaming involved in these books means they still have an appeal to this day, despite their electronic competition and perhaps in spite of their slightly mediocre writing.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 232||Date: August 2017|
|External links: Author's website|
It's all in the numbers… For one thing, this rerelease is of one of the classics of the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' styled books that started to come out in the mid-1970s, and that, with the aid of a gaming rule system inbuilt, became the herald of so many fantasy gaming careers from the early '80s on. As the launchpad of one of the most popular and successful franchises it shifted many thousands of copies. While the series has been reprinted several times over, with different levels of adherence to the original sequence and numbering system, this has only ever been number one. The book is seeing the light of day again for its 35th birthday, and a new publisher has once more started with this stepping stone, with the promise of a brand new number 6 to celebrate. But how has the original managed to stand the test of time, and is yet another edition really something to still be excited about?
What strikes me now is that the gaming system really is a clever one – simple, yet involving, and one guaranteed to make the book one you have to start more than once. I concentrate on that over and above the writing, because the text is quite basic, repetitive and nondescript, being just about descriptive, atmospheric and engaging enough for the young target audience. Also, to get the full flavour of the book you really do need to understand the mechanics of it. This goes a heck of a lot more towards being a game than you might think…
To start with, you have to set up your character's attributes – and it is 'you' throughout, from the unchanged slogan on the front cover (You are the hero!) to the ever-present second-person narrative and questions the books demand you answer. You need to roll dice to fix your numbers – your levels of skill, stamina and luck, and then proceed through the book, in this case trying to survive a subterranean adventure against all manner of beasties, in search of an evil magician's hoard. You have to measure how much you can carry, how much food you are still toting round, and what coins you've acquired, and for every encounter you have to play, again with the dice, to see if you can actually win the resulting fight. Any defeat, and it's back to square one, with I guess (although this is never stated) your chance to keep with the same stats or try and improve them for a second go round.
The thing is, of course, that you will definitely need more than one go round in this book. It's not for nothing that it suggests twice that you form a map. Twice it would appear you leave one realm of the book with no way back – either a river or a portcullis trapping you closer to your aim. Multiple plays (OK, reads – but again it's the gaming that's to the fore) would be needed to make sure you know all the ins and outs of the terrain, and where everything you might want to keep for the end scenes actually is (and in one instance you can get to be fighting a vampire without knowing what its stats are, and I can't believe that error has lived 35 years). You flick endlessly from the book's beginning to the middle to the end and back, following the directions to skip to the relevant passage among the 400 here, and certainly in the middle of the story there is a chance to almost go round in circles. You can easily get to a conclusion of this book and not have gone to all the right places en route, and while things are generally generous (yes, you can and should rest and eat there, where I thought a monster would stumble upon you, and no, hardly any of the drinks you come across are toxic) there is far too great an opportunity to get to the end and not have got all you need.
That wickedness aside, it is still a fun experience. I picked it up after a gap of decades and read – I hate to say this, but even way back when I was ignoring the mechanics of the battles in these books and just trying to find the right path to the end, so for once the verb is appropriate – and actually itched to go and find some dice. (The books soon picked up on printing random dice throw results on the pages, as here, but that never struck me as a satisfactory equivalent.) The thing is you might never have got this review, for I can see the book being a taunting thing that takes ages to battle through – it's one thing to know where to go and what choices to make – the learning curve is quite an involving one, even if this is a fairly slender volume – it's another to have done it with skill and stamina intact, and with luck, meals and gold holding out. I think this might have been the only one of the original series I actually conquered, although I didn't have anything like them all.
This then is no mere book, nor is it a book portraying the gamer's experience. It is, first and foremost, a game, and one that was much better than I remember. (The book itself, to repeat, is quite on the average side – all the early rooms having the same straw mattress in the corner, for some reason, is but one sign of how unsophisticated the read is). With that in mind, I intend to actually play the new volume – fingers crossed the dice serve me well.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy. We also have a review of Fighting Fantasy: The Port of Peril by Ian Livingstone.
For the younger readers, WCS Ultimate Adventure: Mars! (Worst-Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure) by David Borgenicht drops you in the middle of real-world information about the red planet, and makes you play to survive.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone at Amazon.com.
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