Island of the Lizard King

“So close!”

Island of the Lizard King by Ian Livingstone

With a title like that you know it’s going to be a dyed in the wool sword and sorcery story, don’t you? Check out the cover:

The Lizard King is a total badass and it's best not to try and sell him Amway.

Doesn’t he have an awesome crown? It’s pretty cool. Crown. Yes.

Yeah, epic. The new cover is nowhere near as cool. So, what’s the backstory to it?

This book contains an island, with a Lizard King on it. The island is called Fire Island because it has a volcano. Presumably there’s a sister city program going on with Firetop Mountain. The island was a penal colony founded by some prince on the mainland, who had the bright idea of attracting Lizard Men (I assume that because it was the 80’s this is the dated way of saying Lizard People) as immigrant workers from their home city of Silur Cha with very low wages. Princes are idiots, because anyone with an ounce of sense would have realised that there’s more vicious criminals in Allansia than good people. So he gave up on this penal colony idea… and stopped paying the guards, who promptly started to torture the prisoners. Because nothing says “hey, come and give us our back pay” like torturing criminals who are so unwanted that they were stuck on an island with carnivorous Lizard People.

The island also has a whole bunch of stereotypical indigenous people, which for some reason the Lizard King didn’t kidnap to work their… gold mine? This makes no fucking sense! What are the Lizard People going to spend all this gold on? I suppose first they need to build a ship and sail up to Port Blacksand, since that’s the only city where they’d even be welcome.

Okay, but then these books are never about making sense and more about an excuse to rampage through a setting and kill a lot of stuff. And there’s a lot of killing in this one. It’s quite hard! A double-digit Skill score is usually best.

Statistics

Skill: 11 (I did, in fact, re-roll after dying in the third paragraph)
Stamina: 22
Luck: 12

Look, there’s no bloody way I was going to get halfway through this book with a Skill of 9.

Equipment: Sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, potion of… Stamina, I think.

Onward to Adventure!

I feel like a holiday, and decide to head for Oyster Bay, which is on a peninsula that’s effectively cut off from the mainland by some huge cliffs. It’s supposed to be a peaceful and quiet place. Also, my old friend Mungo, a retired adventurer, lives there. Unfortunately, when I arrive there’s some bad news. Mungo lays out the problem for me.

“Fuckin’ Lizards came while we were out fishing and kidnapped a whole bunch of people to slave in their gold mine! I’m going to go fuck them up, because that’s what adventurers do!”

I figure I should join this quest. Mungo is as a brother to me. Also, there’s a probably a shitload of gold on that island. But it’s good to get an idea of the dangers.

“How bad is it out there?”

“Pretty fuckin’ bad. The Lizard King? He’s into voodoo and black magic and also likes to try and breed Super Lizard People. But that didn’t work and so now there’s hideous mutants everywhere! Also his magical potions got into the water and now there’s enormous carnivorous plants and hideous beasts!”

“So,” I say, “it’s no different to Port Blacksand, Darkwood Forest, the Icefinger Mountains, and in fact everywhere else on this continent?”

“Yeah, it’s going to be fuckin’ great!”

No problem then, time to set sail for the Island of the Lizard King and rescue a bunch of slaves, kill the reptilian overlords, and also make off with a shitload of gold. It is an uneventful trip, and when we arrive there’s a choice of climbing over some rocks to either the left or the right. I opt for right. We immediately find some pirates, burying a chest. It’s probably got gold in it, so we charge on in. I manage to kill two of them, and then turn only to witness Mungo being run through by the captain. That was quick.

I kill the pirate and then stand around watching Mungo die instead of letting him have a sandwich. I am a callous and miserly woman when it comes to food. I do bury him though, since there’s a shovel handy. The pirate chest contains… iron bars! Damn, that’s not gold. But maybe one of them will be useful. I make my way up a goat track and then camp for the night. In the morning I set off into the forest, cutting my way through the undergrowth and looking out for monsters. Instead of Lizard People I come across head-hunters. You can tell because they are wearing shrunken heads tied to their belts. They promptly start arguing about something. Head-hunters? Really?

“Um, is this serious?” I ask.

“Shut up,” says one of the head-hunters, “we have to decide who gets your head!”

“Wait a minute, you don’t have to conform to the narrow stereotypes of indigenous peoples imposed on you by-”

“Don’t mock our culture by implying it’s a mere regurgitation of colonial narratives designed to reinforce the superiority of Allansian society!”

“But…”

“Look,” says a different head-hunter, “you’re no doubt concerned about the cultural influence of your society on us, but I can assure you it’s an actual tradition we have dating back thousands of years, and it’s very important to us. But we really aren’t sure who should get to take your head.”

“You could… fight me one at a time?”

They look at me and then turn to each other, and a heated discussion takes place. Finally they agree and try to kill me. I kill them instead and set off into the jungle, collecting junk from the bleached bones of dead prisoner, and also meeting an escapee who trades me a map and a lockpick for some food. Clearly I should have brought more sandwiches with me.

I travel onward, fighting giant insects, finding glowing rocks, and finally running into a band of pygmies, armed with blowpipes. After my last encounter I am not so sure I want to reassure them that I do not hold any dated and anachronistic views about their culture. They seem to expect me to give them something. I feel incredibly embarrassed, but I give them an axe I found. To my dismay they think it’s a religious artefact. I leave and wind up in a swamp, where I run into a thing called a Marsh Hopper. These little shits are knowledgeable about the ways of the swamps they live in, but they also lead people into the liars of giant and terrible swamp creatures. I follow it warily for a short way and then cut and run, only to end up covered in leeches. I use up a cheese sandwich removing the leeches. Do not ask how, it is secret adventurer lore.

It's a big head with tentacles but not an octopus.

I did not meet this monster.

Onward, up a hill, and then down into the gorge beyond, and then along the gorge to the other end, and finding a note which mentions a hidden raft somewhere along a river. I travel further, finding a magic pouch that will hold everything I carry, and eventually reach the raft. The trip upriver is about as uneventful as being attacked by crocodiles and insane escaped prisoners can be, but eventually I reach the slave village by the mines and start killing Lizard People. Then I am drawn to the mines. The first thing to do is to turn left, and the second is to climb down a ladder. The third is to kill a Lizard Person and take their bucket of water. I continue onward and find some Dwarves singing while they toil under the cruel Lizard Person taskmaster. I leap out and cry,

“You know, singing while working in a mine is a stereotypical thing for Dwarves to do. Are you singing of your own free will or is the Lizard Pe-”

“Just kill the fucking Lizard, woman!” shouts one of the Dwarves. Ungrateful little sods. I do so anyway. Afterwards I disguise myself using the Lizard Person’s cloak and the Dwarves lead me to another group of prisoners, guarded by a pair of Orcs. The Dwarves soon make short work of them and my band of very angry Dwarves, Elves, and Humans go on to free the other slaves and then kill all the Lizard People guarding the encampment outside. Things are looking up, but we now have to take out the Lizard King and his small army of followers.

Also, according to an Elf, a super-bug called a gonchong is stuck to the Lizard King’s head and makes him invincible and able to telepathically command his army. For fuck’s sake, this quest! It’s okay though, all I have to do to find out how to defeat this incredibly powerful combination of psycho voodoo sorcerer Lizard King and psychic brain parasite invulnerability insect is to climb up the fucking volcano and find a shaman who lives up there and ask him nicely how to kill them both. You’d think the knowledge of how to kill the most dangerous bug in the known world would be distributed far and wide, but no.

Fuck!

I set off, telling my makeshift army to meet me at the old prison fort in two days time. Along the way I find some kind of message from the Shaman, telling me to wear a feather in my hair so he knows I’m friendly. What the hell? Couldn’t he just come and say “Hi there, here’s how to beat the gonchong, here’s another dozen cheese sandwiches and here’s also a magic sword of fucking up Lizard Kings”? Of course not.

It's like a snake but angrier.

I did not meet this monster either.

Eventually I reach the volcano, having found a dead seagull and tied one of the feathers into my hair. I sigh and start climbing up the mountain, and eventually find the Shaman, who is a walking cliché, but I’m too tired to point this out. Instead he sets me three tests, which I pass with ease. Then I get the dirt on how to kill Tyrannosaurus Rex. Apparently I have to sever the proboscis of the gonchong, after I kill the Lizard King, who can only be harmed by a fire sword, of which he has several, being compelled to collect them in the usual way that deals with evil entities for power work. Also, if I can find a monkey things will go much easier because all Lizard People are scared of them.

Okay. So. That’s a ridiculous set of things to do. I leave the Shaman and proceed towards the fort, running into a Mutant Lizard Person riding a Styracosaur. I kill the dinosaur and then kill the Lizard Person, and trek onwards, finding a monkey conveniently chained to a dead sailor. I don’t even know any more, this island either has it in for me or is giving me the keys to the city, so to speak. It’s almost like the island wants me to beat the Lizard King. If it expects me to hang around being some kin of guardian afterwards, it can guess again. I continue and eventually meet my ragtag army.

“Okay, so I guess we should attack the fort,” I say.

“Why are you carrying a monkey and wearing feathers tied into your hair?”

“Because the monkey is our secret weapon.” I reply, and order the attack before anyone can argue. The battle rages, I fight my way through a horde of monsters, and get inside the fort. Faced with two doors, I go through the one on my left and find a jail, with an old man inside.

“It’s okay, old man, you are rescued!” I’m feeling pretty good. I’m in the fort, rescuing people, everything is going according to… He grows spines, turns green, and attacks me. Shape Changer! That wasn’t part of the job description! Not fair! I kill the spiny green bastard and then carry on through the fort, killing and looting, and then make my way upstairs to the battlements. The Lizard King is there! So is his pet, a black lion.

Voltron style!

No, not like that. What do you think this is, Robot Commando?

I fight the black lion, and kill it, barely surviving. The Lizard King is a bit angry about that, since it’s kind of hard to get fancy big cats on an obscure volcanic island. He comes forward, about to attack me, but the monkey on my shoulder scares him. I leap to the attack and a furious battle ensues, with the reptilian tyrant urged on by the evil bug on his head. But alas, he gets a lucky shot in and I die. The Lizard King clearly chose his headgear well.

Wrapup

So, that one was going well until the lion. I had 1 stamina afterwards and then the Lizard King – with a skill of 6 – managed to hit me once. Other than the fact that it’s crushingly difficult to get through all the combats (double-digit Skill is a must and even then, it’s difficult), the book is winnable without having to find a list of items – the only thing you really need to stand a chance is the monkey and some dice that like you.

On top of the embarrassingly dated pygmies and head-hunters, there’s also the head-hunter village, which is an exercise in feeling like I fell into an H. Rider Haggard novel. I also left out the feral woman with a sabre-tooth tiger, the cave woman, and basically the only thing missing was more dinosaurs.

But as a story it’s pretty good, featuring a few NPCs, an environment that makes sense, and a plot that isn’t too epic while not being too low-key. There’s also clear goals from the start. So all in all, it’s an okay gamebook. Not brilliant, but not awful.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Mungo, lying on the sand dying, no matter which way you go, cannot be saved by stuffing a pile of cheese sandwiches down his throat, or making him drink a potion.

Ridiculous Battle: So many! But probably the Lizard King’s pet lion. Skill 11 Stamina 11 isn’t that amazing, but the Lizard King (sk 12 st 15) can be whittled down to a Skill of 6. A fat lot of good that did me, though!

Victory: Nothing much, just a short description of the former slaves defeating the Lizard King’s army and a mention of Mungo, the worst sidekick ever.

What Was I Thinking? I didn’t actually do anything stupid. I used to own this book, so it was a bit hard to mess it up. But I’ll level with you: The first time I played this all those years ago, I made the mistake of eating everything the text let me try to eat. That was really stupid.

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8 Responses to Island of the Lizard King

  1. Stuart Lloyd says:

    Great playthrough and blog! Keep it up!

  2. blakjak says:

    Loved reading your playthrough, keep it up !

  3. Jonas Juul says:

    I’m pretty sure, this was the first magic book I ever played. Certainly among the first. Brings back memory of the elemtary school library, like 20 years ago. As with all the books, the art is amazing and deserves so much praise am glad you post some of it – and YES, the original cover is, well mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…………………!

    And it sucks, there was no way to keep Mungo in the game! It’s quite a different book, in that the paths are very easy and the main problem lies in the skills of th monsters you encounter. You won’t suffer an instant death, but death by combat, unlike most other games.
    And yes, it’s funny, the minute after someone tells you, you need a monkey you find a monkey you can just take. How often does that happen in real life?? You need a bigger appartment and the next second you find a bigger appartment you can just occupy – I WISH!

    • I think Lizard King is more a chance to explore a lost world scenario, and so it works out. But the combat is very hard from the mid-point in the book. I was dismayed to lose this one, it’s still a favourite.

  4. Last night I played Island of the Lizard King for the first time since I was 12. I had a memory floating around for these last 30 years of a “gonchong” that creeped me out. I didn’t recall the book, but remembered the freakish brain-bug.

    It’s a solid adventure. As you said, a “explore the lost world” sort of scenario. It’s not one of their best, but not one of the bad ones either.

    • I think the Gonchong is such cool thematic element in every way that it’s impossible to not love it even if it’s easy to deal with. Probably not a good book for people who are afraid of insects though.

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