Return to Firetop Mountain

“Can I have some salt with my plate of eyeballs?”

Return to Firetop Mountain by Ian Livingstone

Covers: Les Edwards, Martin McKenna

Illustrations: Martin McKenna

I like McKenna’s new cover the most:

Zagor has opted for heterchromia, which is a stylish choice of eye colour.

“Come on you fuckers! Come and try again!”

That was actually tweaked for the cover. The original version is even better. You can find it on his website.

So this was the 50th Fighting Fantasy book, and also came out ten years after the original Warlock of Firetop Mountain. So it was a big celebratory party, and also the planned end to the series. Of course by writing a sequel to the original book everyone went bonkers for it, and so the series stumbled on to the eventual end nine books later.

I’m sure you can vaguely guess the plot. The thing is, the plot is a retcon. Zagor, previously seen as a reclusive Warlock living in solitude and being harassed by bloodthirsty women with swords who were after his treasure, is now a crazed wizard who knows all manner of evil magic and was stopped from being an evil bastard by a bold adventurer (i.e. me). History is written by the victors, I suppose.

Statistics

Skill: 8 (WHAT?)
Stamina: 23 (Phew)
Luck: 9 (Argh!)

Equipment: Sword, backpack, lantern. No armour, provisions, nor a potion. So this is going to be one of those books, then.

Onward to Adventure!

I’ve been on one of those treks through the wilderness that adventurers sometimes feel compelled to do. I’ve trekked far and wide and have come to the village of Anvil, which is two days from Firetop Mountain. Well, it was Firetop Mountain, but the strange red plants on the summit have all turned black. When I inform the local innkeeper that I seek a new and profitable quest, he eyes me warily and says, “Does the name Zagor mean anything to you?”

“Wasn’t he killed by some madwoman with a sword ten years ago?”

“Yes but it didn’t stick, and now he’s having people abducted from our village to provide parts to make a new body!”

“Right, has he still got a big chest full of gold?”

“Probably. I mean, they just spontaneously appear around wizards, right?”

“Okay then, I’m the woman for this job. I’ll kill him and take his stuff.”

That sorted, I get a free room for the night and the next day I set out. However, since Zagor has likely upped his game since the last time some woman trekked into his mountain and killed him, I decide to follow the advice of the innkeeper and go visit Yaztromo down by Darkwood Forest.

I barely get a hundred yards from Anvil when the innkeeper, who is named Moose for reasons unknown to any but the bizarre minds of peasants, comes running after me. Apparently a couple of villainous fiends called “trackers” overheard us planning to do Zagor in a second time and have made off to let him know I’m coming. Naturally I don’t want an angry warlock waiting for me when I get to the mountain, so I follow the innkeeper into the undergrowth, stopping to grab a shield someone left lying about. It turns out to be useful, because on of the bastard monsters throws a dagger at me. I proceed to kill one, while Moose takes out the other. Some quick looting later and I have some gold and some daggers.

I part ways with the innkeeper and proceed along the trail, being given a mushroom by the local rhyming mushroom grower, and then turn south towards Darkwood Forest. On the way I rescue someone staked out for the ants and get a ring of invisibility for my troubles. This is turning out to be a rather profitable side quest. Except then it gets dark and I have to go to sleep, the only place that seems safe happening to be the cellar of a burned out hut. It’s full of insects, which I spend some time killing. I also turn up some wooden blocks and a numbered key, so that’s probably useful.

The next day I head on down to Stonebridge, and find the Dwarves expecting me. Someone thoughtfully sent a carrier pigeon to left them know I was coming, so they have arranged a boat to Kaad for me.

“Kaad?” I ask.

“Yes, Yaztromo has gone there to help fight a plague.”

“No, why is it called Kaad?”

“How the hell would I know? Our town is called Stonebridge because we have a stone bridge. Whatever the hell a kaad is, that’s why the town is called that.”

I suppose he has a point. I board the boat and it sails down the river, the only excitement being an Orc killing one of the crew with a throwing axe, and a carrier pigeon somehow knowing how to find me. It has a message from that innkeeper. Apparently Zagor, who has better spies than any government, has sent a Doppelgänger to Kaad, where it will pretend to be Yaztromo and try to kill me.

The innkeeper from Anvil apparently has better spies than Zagor.

When I get to Kaad the fake Yaztromo meets me at the gates. I immediately run it through, banishing this evil spirit from the world, and avoiding an unnecessarily long duel. In the city, the real Yaztromo (you can tell because he swears a lot) tells me that I need to find some gold dragon’s teeth inscribed with numbers of mystical importance, because they’re the only way to kill Zagor now. Of course, the usual deal with darkness clause applies and Zagor has to keep them in his mountain. Yaztromo then tells me to go and buy the usual adventuring supplies because he’s too busy trying to cure the plague to come and help out.

I wander off to find a store where I can buy some equipment. The local adventuring supply store has a range of items, and I promptly purchase garlic, mirror, gloves, and some other stuff. See garlic, grab garlic. I then catch the local Giant Eagle Airlines flight to Firetop Mountain and head inside. I arrive at a T-junction. I turn right and find a boarded up door. What mysteries must lie behind this portal! If only I had a crowbar, I could pry the boards off and then enter. No, wait! I could charge in boldly, breaking the door down! Surely that would be the best plan. Oh well, that isn’t going to happen. But I’ll take this brass egg in a bottle instead.

Onward! Past locked and sealed rooms that no doubt held riches and peril, and then I find a bunch of Orc skeletons, which I re-deadificate. All that is in the old kitchen they were residing inside is a case that has “the giver of sleep to those who never can” inscribed inside the lid. That’s a bit rubbish. I continue, finding a torture chamber that happens to contain a corpse which has a ring that is probably handy for seeing through illusions. The torture chamber also contains a net that just missed me. The Goblin responsible needs to be taught a lesson, so I clamber up the rope to the secret room above the ceiling. Inside I find the sword of a legendary Chaos Champion. Okay whatever, the fancy sword is mine now. I pursue the horrid little shit down a tunnel that ends in a pit – which I discover without falling down it – and then on my way back I get trapdoored into a prison cell. I set the straw on fire to make the Goblin come running in, and I kill the bastard. Easy peasy.

I continue deeper into the mountain, finding several tunnels have caved in. Eventually I wind up with a third sword, and an increasing number of daggers. At least if there’s no treasure I have a lot of junk to sell. Finally, I reach the famous river. Thankfully I have a couple of Zagor coins from the body of the Tracker I killed to pay the ferryman. Unfortunately I am attacked by Lizard People on the other side and have to dive into the water and swim downstream. Eventually I find myself in another cavern, with two exits. One labelled PITS and the other PUZZLES. Presently puzzles are particularly preferable.

Down the Puzzle Tunnel I find a room lined with books and also home to someone calling himself The Inquisitor.

It's another Ian Lvingstone cameo!

Inquisitor Livingstone, I presume?

He gives me some trivial number puzzles to do and then lets me read his books. Unfortunately the one on elementals is written in tiny text I can’t read. Oh well, I’m sure it won’t be that important. I continue into the dungeon, and pass a door with raucous laughter behind it. I knock, and am asked for a password, which I happen to guess because I found a word on someone’s corpse. For my trouble I’m entered in a sheep’s eye eating contest.

Oh good.

My fellow contestants are a Barbarian, a Caveman, and a Troglodyte. The Barbarian insists on a side bet, which I agree to. Then the judge tells me the rules: I have to eat as many of these things as possible in five minutes. They are uncooked, cold, slimy, and they’re eyeballs. I contemplate the pile of eyes, and realise that when you gaze long into a pile of sheep’s eyeballs, the pile of sheep’s eyeballs also gazes into you. Then the competition starts. I lose by a single, solitary eyeball, but beat the Barbarian. He refuses to hand over my winnings, so I kill him and take it – a gold tooth with a number stamped into it.

Well, that’s good. I carry on until I hear the sound of someone chopping wood from behind a door. How difficult can a woodcutter be to deal with? The answer will never be known, because the occupant of the room is actually a Chaos Warrior. You can always tell you’ve met one of these bastards because they never, ever take off their armour, which is covered in spikes and evil runes, which is a useful visual aid if your nose isn’t working. They also love ridiculously huge swords, which this particular Chaos Warrior is using to wallop a wooden practice dummy. I am left without any option but to fight the Chaos Warrior, because the usual trick of pretending to be selling single-use magic items won’t work. These idiots just attack anyone they meet on sight.

Yes, I know, just like adventurers. But I’m wholesome and good because I don’t do the whole spikes and runes thing. Unfortunately, I’m also not as good at this whole combat deal and so I die, and Zagor will reign terror and chaos down on Allansia.

Who needs two hands when one will do?

“Not so easy this time around is it, you fuckers!”

Wrapup

Chaos Warrior: Skill 10, Stamina 10. I might have been able to win, but the Skill 10, Stamina 10 Barbarian whittled me down to 4 Stamina previously. Drat. I checked afterwards and found it’s also an essential encounter, so there’s no getting around that one.

It’s a pretty good book, though appallingly hard near the end, with multiple required items to even get to Zagor and then you need all four dragon’s teeth. Did you notice how I got no provisions or potion at the start? There’s so few ways to recover Stamina that it’s positively unreal. But it’s still enjoyable. The first third of the book is a tour of some famous parts of Allansia, which was probably an extra Ten Years of Fighting Fantasy bonus. The middle third is the first half of the Warlock’s dungeon, which was surprisingly similar to the first book, with some of the descriptions being the same and even some items turning up. Marvellous fun.

I can only assume that Zagor, having settled down to a quiet life of card tricks after his time spent in Evil Wizard School, has lost the plot after being killed because he didn’t seem the evil wizard sort in the first book other than his penchant for hiring monsters to guard his dungeon. But I think this is really a side effect of Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World turning him into a full-blown evil wizard who took over a Dwarf stronghold.

Of course his devotion to Chaos (Team Chaos is the overarching evil force of the universe based around Titan in the later books) gives a good reason why these people working for him are so willing to be bought off, let people wander through to the inner sanctums of the mountain, and generally just not do their job of protecting their boss.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: “One of them calls out and they all throw their razor sharp spheres at you.” – Razor sharp spheres. Riiiiiight.

Ridiculous Battle: So many to choose from, but Zagor, Skill 11 Stamina 18, is a mandatory fight. There’s also a Skill 12, Stamina 12 Chaos Slime Beast you can avoid, and, oh no not again, six mummies, Skill 9 Stamina 12… one at a time. Sound familiar? You can kill a die roll’s worth with your lantern, but then it’s back to the mummy horde grindstone. Well, okay, this book came first, but it’s still like that bit in Curse of the Mummy. Joy.

But the real prize goes to the – thankfully avoidable – Chaos Beast Man: Skill 12, Stamina 13. But that’s not all! If you lose more than one attack round it immediately turns into a Mutant Beast Lord, Sk 14, St 14. Bloody hell.

Victory: You get to pry as many gems as you can carry out of the solid gold throne Zagor has had made for himself and cart them off to Anvil. Everyone then expects you to take them back into the mountain to see Zagor’s dead body. It’s right there where you left it… But missing the skeletal left arm that was the only part of the original body left – can he be reborn again?

What Was I Thinking? Not jumping down that dirty great hole. That is, in fact, the way to win the book.

Eye of the Dragon

“Find your own damn orcs to kill!”

Eye of the Dragon by Ian Livingstone

This one was originally a short adventure in the 1982 book Dicing with Dragons. The book itself was an introduction to role-playing games, so the adventure was really a sampling of the crazy excitement that you can get up to with some dice. I think there might be a need for explanatory materials like this today, since there’s still a general ignorance of what RPGs actually are.

I don’t know anything else about it, other than I’m playing a character who has a pathological urge to drink anything in a flask she sees, so I might as well get on with the dungeon exploring…

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 23
Luck: 11

Equipment: Er, I assume I have a sword, armour, and backpack, but it only mentions 10 provisions in the intro to the book. I get 10 gold and a fancy emerald in the background.

Onward to Adventure!

I find myself in Fang, down on my luck and in need of a change in fortunes rather fast. The Trial of Champions is happening next month, and I’m trying my best to fight the urge to enter. Contestants are given the run of the town for a month, but then I’ll get killed in the dungeon. I’m fighting the overwhelming magnetic pull of the dungeon, but it’s taking all my will. Unfortunately, with so many hired swords hanging around town for the suicidal adventurer championships, there’s not a lot of good, honest, murderous work to be had to distract me from certain doom.

I am sitting around in a tavern, pondering what to do, when a newcomer enters. I ask him what he’s been up to, and he introduces himself as Henry Delacor. He’s spent five years looking for a legendary statue of a dragon. A metre high, with gems for eyes, and wildly valuable. When he eventually found it, he saw the eyes were missing. If both eyes are not in the dragon, it is lethal to the touch. Thankfully, one of them was in the maze the dragon is hidden in. Unfortunately, he didn’t find the other. “I reckon I can find it,” I say speculatively. Delacor thinks this is an okay idea and will turn over his map and the eye to me on one condition: That I drink some slow-acting poison so I will be certain to return with the dragon within fourteen days for the antidote.

This sounds stupid, right? Well I’m an adventurer. Nothing is too stupid for me to try. I down the poison and set off immediately!

After a three-day trek to Darkwood Forest, and two days of roaming about looking for the woodcutter’s hut built over the entrance to the underground maze, I am finally set to go down there and kill some monsters. But the hut is deserted, so I quickly loot it of everything I can find. This comes to one axe head with a mysterious inscription. I figure there’s got to be an axe handle around somewhere, so I take it. Down in the dungeon, I take the first left turn I find, and run into a door. Inside, there is naught but a mirror. I have a look in it, and am wracked with pain. Oh, one of those mirrors. I smash it to pieces, take a shard as a memento of my heroic victory against a big sheet of reflective glass, and leave through the door opposite. I enter a room with a pool of water, that has some gold coins at the bottom. This is probably a trap, so I continue out the other side. Along the corridor from the obviously-a-trap room, I find a door with a window next to it. There’s a woman inside, busy with something. I knock, and get no response. I enter, and she turns around just as I notice she doesn’t so much have hair as a reptile house. I avoid looking at her, and hold up my piece of mirror. When the hissing stops, I kick over the newly-formed statue and then search the room, coming up with a skull necklace that causes me to hallucinate skeletal warriors. Nice toy, I suppose.

Further on I find a kitchen with some giant rats inside. The overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the early days of my adventuring career prompts me to walk in and slay them. A quick search of the kitchen turns up what looks like a potion. There’s only one way to find out. I sample it, and find some of the bites clearing up. It is a potion! My spirits lifted by the positive results of drinking whatever bottled liquid I come across, I search deeper into the dungeon. I come to a dead end with a door… and am trapped by a portcullis. I enter the room, and find a fancy marble floor with some foot marks inside a circle. An evil voice instructs me to step into the circle, and laughs evilly.

“No, evil laughing voice,” I say. “You show yourself first!”

The voice laughs again, painfully loud. I figure, what the hell. When I step into the circle I am suddenly rendered unconscious. I wake in a filthy cell. I scrabble in the dirt and find a trapdoor. I then search some more and find a gold nugget and a gold bracelet. The bracelet naturally turns out to be cursed as soon as I put it on. Feeling a bit put out, I drop through the trapdoor and find a torture chamber. I loot a chest and leave. Exploring up ahead, I turn a corner and find a fountain in the shape of a hideous crone. I’m thirsty enough not to care, and am rewarded by it being a magical healing crone fountain. Further on I find a chair carved to look like hundreds of skulls. I take a seat, only to find it is a magical healing skull throne. After those two encounters with rather ugly décor, I think nothing of opening a door with rodent skeletons nailed to it. Inside is a two-headed troll. Big deal. I kill them and steal all the things in their room, including a broken dagger. I walk onward, ever deeper into the bowels of the earth. Eventually I find an underground river, plunging into the depths, with a raft conveniently tied up on the shore. I don’t know if this is such a great idea. I backtrack and go along a different route. I eventually come to a door with a woman inside chanting a strange rhyme. I am agog with wonder over what hideous creature she will turn out to be, and step inside. The occupant is just a run-of-the mill witch.

“Hello,” I say, “I don’t suppose you have seen a large and valuable emerald lying around?”

I don’t get an answer, because a pair of vampire bats attack me. I dispatch them with ease, but then she unleashes her horde of rats. Amazingly, the cursed bracelet I’m wearing has the power to repel rats. The downside is she then turns her arms into snakes and attacks me. She gets a few good bites in, and I stagger back, poisoned. I fish out that potion of healing and drink it.

“You’re stopping to drink a potion in the middle of a fight?” the witch says incredulously.

“Of course,” I reply, running her through while she’s standing there looking surprised.

At that she turns into a mouse and runs away. Suddenly, the steam from the cauldron (of course there’s a cauldron, she’s a witch) starts to form the image of the crone, holding out the twin of the emerald eye I already have. I grab for it, and the cauldron explodes. Not my best moment.

The illusion of the witch reappears, and tells me her name is Vigdis. I tell her she’s one ugly old crone, and she thinks this is a compliment. Well, okay, flaunt what you’ve got. She tells me I can have whatever is in a box on her shelf, and I grab it and get out of there. For my trouble I’ve earned some gold, some garlic, and a key with a number stamped in it. As I proceed, I consider that it’s always good to have as many objects with numbers on as possible. At the end of the passage I find a door, and when I quietly open it, I see a gleaming object in the light of a lone candle. I swipe the pendant and put it on, and saunter off. Or I would, but the floor collapses and I plunge into a spider lair. After dispatching the spider, I search the room. I find a good many things, including numbered keys, broken daggers, holiday tree ornaments, and a sharpened stick which I can use to make anything I find look like a much better discovery than is at first apparent.

I clamber out of the spider pit, and continue up the hallway that was previously a dead end. From behind a door I hear cries for help. Inside, a lavishly appointed room has at the back an iron cage with a beautiful young woman locked inside. I decide to help. This can only end well, right? The door to the cage is unlocked, and given the size of her canines, it’s not surprising. I fish out my garlic and ward her off for a few moments. What would be really handy here is a silver dagger. Let’s take stock: Silver box, silver arrowhead, two pendants on silver chains, and some broken ordinary daggers. What the hell, the trusty blade will do the job, right? I make quick work of the vampiress, and then a bat flies out of the pile of dust. It is the spirit of the fiend! According to vampire lore, she will have a new form in two night’s time, and be out to get me. If I’m still down here she’ll have to take a number and get in line. I poke around in the dust and find an emerald pendant. It’s not the right emerald, but it’s still worth coming out of this vampire business with something.

Further on I find a room full of greenery. I enter, only to be attacked by a gremlin. After killing it – the hard way, there’s no handy skylight – I find a cupboard, which has a jar of green paste in it. I decide to eat some. It’s not tasty, but at the bottom of the jar is a key with a number on it. Further on I come to a grim archway with a pair of skeletons standing in alcoves. I know how this goes, and proceed to smash them to bits. One of them has a spiffy helmet, which I steal. It causes me a brief headache, but the snake head necklace I grabbed from the gorgon counters the curse. Further along from Skeleton Arch, I find a red door. Someone is chuckling inside, so I step in, and find the room is quite small. The voice says it belongs to a wizard trapped in another dimension. I proceed to tell him about my quest to find the golden dragon, starting with my trip to Fang, and continuing through all my adventures, ending with when I found the red door.

“..and then I thought, this door would be a lot better if it was painted black, so I came in here to suggest it.”

“I agree,” says the disembodied voice, and then makes a numbered key appear in thanks for the story. I travel onward, and come to a T-junction.

Most T-junctions offer no dilemma for me, but this one has some arrows chalked to the wall pointing right. This might be a trick, or maybe I’m meant to think it’s a trick and go in the other direction to my doom. But what if this is a trick to… You know what? I’ll just follow the arrows. I walk onward, and find another junction with more arrows leading off in one direction. The other is a room full of sand. There’s several objects sticking out, and a convenient shovel.

Hey, free shovel!

I go into the room to do some digging, but a giant sandworm springs from the ground. A voice in my head tells me to try out that crystal dagger I found, and with one stab the sandworm dissolves into sand. I proceed to dig for victory. I turn up a veritable treasure trove of junk, including a broken chair, a torn flag, a chest of gold, a tattered book, and a staff. I strike the staff on the ground and am knocked over. It’s a staff of thunder. The book has some rhymes in it. One of them encases me in iron bars. This seems to be a problem, but the green paste has also given me super strength, but only when trapped by iron bars.

I return to following the arrows, and eventually find a rope hanging through a hole in the ceiling. I give it a tug and a bell rings out. I can’t imagine that’s good, but try to climb through the hole anyway. Above I see a treasure trove of stolen goods… and also three Niblicks, who start to beat the snot out of me while I clamber up. What is with tiny people and being sadistic tricksters, thieves, and murderers? I do battle with this dungeon’s resident midgets, and then loot their loot. I grab yet another shield, and scoff some apples, a scroll with a spell for blasting holes in walls, and pick up a sword with a showy pommel stone.

The sword promptly tries to cut my throat! I stare down at it in shock, noting the name “Razaak” engraved in it. As I struggle to stop the blade, my cursed bracelet overcomes the power of the sword, much to my relief. I sit down and try to relax by appreciating a lovely painting of a dragon. The dragon comes to life and tries to attack me too! I slay the tiny painted dragon and decide it’s time to leave before the rest of the objects of art try to murder me. On the way back past the junctions I find some silver coins. These are not normally worth picking up, but I’m already carrying a broken chair, several kinds of dried leaves, and a shovel. What’s some small change?

Back on the path I come to a door where some people are eating loudly. I open the door, only to find some green and ugly creatures that are clearly orcs. Every adventurer has to kill some orcs at some point. I kill one, and in the middle of my battle with the second someone walks in and offers to help out for some gold. The orc and I stop and stare at this blatant money grubbing. “Look, I think I’ve got this one,” I say. The mercenary shrugs and walks out. The orc, infuriated at the interruption, smacks his skull open as he walks away. I use the opportunity to skewer the orc. Searching the disgusting mess the orcs lived in, I find a blue bottle. On opening a beturbaned man is suddenly floating in the air. He gives me a magical brooch, and disappears. I search the bodies and come up with a fish hook, bell, and some buttons. The quality of treasure in here varies wildly.

I carry on, finding a trail of blood. I follow it to a door, and enter to find a Dwarf chained to the wall. It turns out his name is Littlebig, and he’s been looking for the emerald eye as well, and has been tortured by someone called Sharcle for information. I figure teaming up might be a good idea. We proceed through the dungeon. As we walk, Littlebig tells me he’s actually named for his uncle Bigleg, who died a hero trying to save the town of Stonebridge. I listen to the rambling, and am nearly killed by a fireball from an evil wizard.

“Oh come on,” I say. “Why is it always fireballs?” and smack the staff of thunder on the ground, blasting the wizard to pieces. We carry on, and find a wizened old man. I try talking to him, but he ignores me. Okay, old man, I’m not playing along. We turn right, and come to a store room, which is full of maggot-ridden food. Further on the corridor becomes cold and dank, and a cyclops comes out of the mist armed with an axe. It’s not a very big cyclops, though, so I kill it with ease and Littlebig swipes the axe.

Just out of the mist is a door which says “Pia’s Potions” – a shop in a dungeon? I figure it’s worth checking out. The proprietress is an astonishingly beautiful woman, in her own clichéd harem pants and midriff baring top way. I wave some garlic at her just to be on the safe side, and then try the sample healing potion she’s offering. It turns out to work just fine,so I buy up some more potions and try to chat her up.

“I guess you should know, I’m really eighty,” she says.

“What?”

“I’m eighty, but the potions generally keep me looking younger.”

“I can live with that,” I say, truthfully. After all, it’s been how many years? Besides, she’s hot. “I can swing by after I sort out this whole dragon statue business and we can go get something to eat in Stonebridge.”

The Dwarf is not impressed with my picking up strange women in the dungeon. “Look, you have plenty of time to chat up pensioners later,” he drags me out of the room. “Dragon statue!” We walk on, with me speculating on what kind of music she likes and where she’d like to eat. “How would I know?! I’m a Dwarf, you’re human women!” Thankfully a skulking figure with a sack distracts me from planning a date. I give chase, and run into more black-robed dagger carrying people. I guess they’re thieves. The thing about thieves is, whatever they have on them is not theirs in the first place, so it’s okay to take it all from them. Of course you have to kill them first. They have some more fish hooks. I’m not sure what these fish hooks will be good for, but I suppose I can carry a lot of them. After all, these items have no appreciable weight and should not be considered for encumbrance unless hundreds are carried.

Further on Littlebig finds a secret door, which turns out to be a hidden area built by Dwarves to rest in. I guess they must come down here every few months and try to clear out whatever monsters have taken up residence. We devour all the food, and I find a map. Further on we find a body lying on the ground, which I loot of all its possessions, including a sword called Skullsplitter. This sounds like a rather useful sword, to be honest. Oh, look, there’s also, another potion! I throw it back in one go, and then start to convulse and cough up blood. Poisoned! I suppose that was going to happen sooner or later…

Wrapup

That’s what happens when you drink every vial of liquid you find.

This is the most fun dungeon crawl book I’ve read so far. The combat is easy enough and even some of the cursed items turn out okay. Some of the gimmicks are ones I recognise from earlier books, like the arrows on the wall, and the numbered keys. It was astonishingly easy apart from the unnecessary vampire encounter, but if I hadn’t died there were at least three difficult combats coming, one of which is against an opponent that deals twice the normal damage.

Having a sidekick to provide exposition is a nice touch, but a Skill of 8 makes him almost completely useless. Littlebig also serves to give a second chance for some of the dangers in the book, though

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: A mercenary walks into my fight and asks me to pay him to help out? What? No, I don’t think so.

Ridiculous Battle: The Gigantus, which is a Skill 12 monster that deals 4 damage instead of 2 when it hits. Not even a remotely fair fight for the average adventurer. The dragon just outside the chamber with the objective is bigger and tougher, but you can walk right past it.

Victory: You leave the villain of the story bleeding to death, find out the poison was a lie, and party with the Dwarves in Stonebridge, and possibly some woman with a ridiculous taste in headgear. The statue is apparently worth around 335,000 gold pieces, making it the largest haul I’ve seen.

What Was I Thinking? Using magical items to deal with the evil wizard. Adventurers kill wizards! Kill the wizard, take their stuff, and I would have made it. That’s what I get for not sticking to the basics.

Temple of Terror

“It’s like a diabolically lethal episode of Sesame Street.”

Temple of Terror by Ian Livingstone

Well, this is embarrassing. It seems this one is a sequel to The Forest of Doom. So: I definitely got the dust of levitation, managed to get that casket open, killed the ghoul, and got the hammer to Stonebridge, where I’ve been resting up after my adventure in the National Park of Doom.

Plotwise: find some stuff and kill the villain. This is a generic adventure with some magic loaded in. Not the simple magic of Citadel of Chaos, but the more risky stamina bleeding type from the Sorcery books. About a third of the adventure is trekking through the desert to the site of the real action, too. Variety is the spice of life, folks. The lost city really doesn’t feel like a city, just some passageways to wander through.

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 20
Luck: 8

Equipment: Standard issue sword, backpack, leather armour, 10 provisions. But no potion. Who needs potions when you get magic? I suppose I also have that gaudy helmet from the end of Forest of Doom.

Onward to Adventure!

I’m resting up in Stonebridge after recovering the hammer of the Dwarves when Yaztromo comes bustling in to town and recounts a story about how some evil wizard is going to go and find some magical dragon artefacts, turn them into real dragons, and then some Dark Elves will give this evil wizard some ancient evil secrets and then… oh, right. Death, destruction, chaos, the usual. He asks for a volunteer to go out into the Desert of Skulls, find the lost city of Vatos, and take down this Malbordus character.

Killing wizards is what adventurers do best. “I’ll do it!” I boldy cry. Yaztromo answers with “Do I know you?”

I remember the time warping powers of Darkwood Forest and tell him it’s not important. He then leads me out of the village and back through the forest – such a novel experience to travel south through Darkwood – and eventually we get to his tower. He offers to teach me some magic, which sounds handy. I opt for Create Water, Fire, Open Door, and Read Symbols. All self-explanatory, and useful. I enquire about the handy magical items he usually sells, figuring a backpack full of magic items is always handy.

“Them? They’re cheap junk for rubes.”

Right…

I am promptly sent off towards the Catfish River, which I can follow to Port Blacksand and then catch a ship to the Desert of Skulls. Alternatively, I can take an overland hike. I figure a ride on a river barge will be relaxing, and pay for passage. Eventually Port Blacksand comes into view. Naturally, a band of ruffians tries to rob me within two seconds of my getting off the barge. They’re probably employed by the Port Blacksand Tourism Board. When your city has a reputation as the City of Thieves then you want to make sure people don’t go away saying, “no-one tried to rob me, what a rip-off!”

I find an inn called the Black Lobster, and arrange passage on a ship headed south. Since this is a drunken pirate tavern, it’s only a matter of time before I end up in a fight with someone, and I skewer him good and proper. The next day I skip down to the wharf, find the ship, and the captain tells me that I’ll have to help load the cannons in any battles, because one of the gunners was killed in a tavern brawl by some madwoman.

Right. Off to a good start, then.

Naturally the first ship we meet is a man-o-war, and the Belladonna is sunk quickly. I swim for the ship, hoping they aren’t the sort to execute pirates. It turns out to be a ship full of Dwarves, so I make with the fast talking and the name dropping and they offer to give me a ride to the desert. Things are looking up, since the alternative was swimming there. Unfortunately, the desert is exactly as advertised, and so I trudge along the coast gloomily wondering why all-powerful wizards can’t procure magical maps. Alas, my day at the beach is cut short due to some warnings marked out by shells, so I have to turn inland. I’m promptly beset by three enormous wasps. I trek onward, looting a corpse, and later trading a silver button I looted from the robbers in Port Blacksand for some water from a passing camel rider. I know, killing people for their buttons is wrong, but they probably stole those buttons from someone else in the first place. So, actually, I liberated the ill-gotten buttons from the evil thieves, who are in a way sort of like tax collectors. I’m practically a folk hero!

After the sandstorm that springs up as soon as I think how it could be so much worse and at least there’s no snowstorms like up in the Icefinger Mountains, I find a discarded bell. I’m an experienced adventurer so I don’t think twice about hoarding every stupid item I come across just in case they come in handy later. Onward, I find a tent staked out in the middle of nowhere. It turns out the occupant is a trader, and he sells me some interesting items, including a gristly bracelet of mermaid scales. I know it sounds wrong, but he assures me they were evil mermaids.

Following the advice of the trader I set off southward, and suddenly am beset by a sandworm. I’m overcome with a sense that this thing is very familiar, but I can’t quite place it. I kill it anyway. Onward, through the scorching desert I travel. Over dune and through… that gap between dunes, whatever it is… past the obviously poisoned oasis, ever closer to my goal. It’s not so bad out here, really. There’s monsters, sure, but the splendour of the stark environment is to be marvelled at. Take, for example, the interesting pile of rocks I found. Look at the interesting way they have tumbled together, and the way the sand has partly covered them. Look, if I move one you can see… me being stung by a scorpion.

I don’t like this desert any more. It’s a rubbish desert.

In the crevice I find a bag containing a glass ball, inside which a tiny sprite is trapped. I smash the ball, and the little sod throws some pixie dust at me and says I should make a headscarf out of the bag, since eventually I will die of sunstroke, and also that golden winged helmet looks ridiculous. It’s probably a good idea, and so I do. The desert heat is a bit much, after all. After some more walking through the endless sands, I come across a city half buried in the sand. Vatos! My Open Door spell makes quick work of the side door next to the half-buried gate, and I make for the nearest building. Inside, my adventurer instincts take over and I start looting everything in sight. I’m having a ball, because this is a lost city so I should be in the clear to do whatever I want. Thus, when I walk around the corner and am tapped on the shoulder, I’m quite shocked.

It’s not the Vatos Police, instead it’s an emaciated slime dripping thing which gurgles “DEATH” at me. Oh blast, it’s the Messenger of Death. This annoying creature is legendary, not only for it’s disgusting appearance, but also because it has a pathological need to play stupid games. “So,” it says breezily, “here’s the deal. I run around the city and scribe the letters of the word DEATH-” it reverts to the horrible gurgling for that word “-and then if you find them all, I get to kill you!” The Messenger of Death shoves a pencil and small card into my hand. It has the letters d, e, a, t, and h in bold print, and a checkbox under each one. “So, check off the letters so I know if you’ve seen them, okay? And remember: DEATH.” With that it runs off. I look down at the card and consider that maybe I should have told Yaztromo to do this quest himself. I sigh and continue into the city.

Further on I find a hidden door, and inside am attacked by a giant centipede, which is guarding a bucket hanging from the ceiling. Well, let me tell you, any bucket being guarded by a giant centipede is a bucket I want to look inside! It turns out it’s lucky I did, because one of the dragon artefacts is inside. Through the other door of the centipede bucket room I meet a giant floating spiky ball with a single eye. “You,” I say, “would look cooler with tentacle eyestalks.” This only serves to make it very angry, and it tries to mesmerise me. I respond by closing my eyes and stabbing wildly, taking it out in one hit. No problem. After wandering through some more passageways I find a ladder, and clamber up. In the room at the top is a gnome, who stares incredulously at me. “Are you wearing a bag on your head?” he asks. “It was hot outside,” I reply as I sheepishly take it off, replacing the helmet on my head. The gnome fills me in on the city. It seems the lost city is not so lost any more, and some of the passers-by who stop in the city for shelter stay. The high priestess sends out raiding parties to loot caravans for food. It all sounds a bit unstable to me, but I suppose it’s how things are here. The gnome asks me if I have a telescope, and I trade one I picked up somewhere for a look through his cache of flotsam. The gnome just so happens to have the crystal dragon, meaning I have three more to find.

I travel deeper into the maze under the city. After killing skeletons and raiding tombs, the corridor slopes downward into a chamber half filled with water. I figure there’s got to be something horrible in there, and wade in. Thankfully the tentacled thing runs away from my bracelet of mermaid scales, probably because anyone wearing something that evil is to be avoided if you live in the water. Further on, picking up the sliver dragon which was left lying around, I come across a phantom, who tries to murder me with its deadly gaze. Whatever. I just throw a button at it and it collapses into a pile of dust. The undead in this city are particularly flimsy. Further on I find a long display of tapestries, and I steal one with an impressive phoenix picture embroidered on it, because that’s what adventurers do. Then I go and look at a mural depicting orcs driving a horde of undead to destroy a massed army of humans and dwarves. It’s not bad, and the artist is still working on it. It’s part of the high Priestess’ Vatos Arts Festival. Win, or be sacrificed to the evil gods. I have finally found a group of people more foolhardy than adventuers. How the hell do they get past the sandworms to get here? Stab the things with their paintbrushes? Embroider them to death?

I wander past various torture chambers, riddle rooms, and boring nondescript passageways until I find myself in at a door with a donation box. Wondering what will happen, if anything, I drop a coin in. It causes a panel in the door to flip up, with the letter T scrawled on it. I wince in pain, because the messenger of death uses a really ugly font, and cross off the letter on the card. Inside the door it is pitch black, and so I can’t see the blade set at shin height.

After my adventure in the Corridor of Hidden Knives I come to a room strewn with garbage. It’s a bit disgusting, but I consider searching through it all. Unfortunately then a one-eyed mutant with a magic blasting rod comes in. “I’m collecting for charity,” I say, hoping it doesn’t notice the sword and armour and blood running down my leg. I frantically dig out that bell I found in the desert and ring it, as though I’m collecting for orphans. The sound causes the undead monstrosity agonising pain, which is good. But it drops the rod, which somehow causes the ceiling to lower. I grab the rod, open the door using a key I happen to be carrying, and saunter out, throwing the rod over my shoulder and listening with a wry smile to the crunch of the Night Horror being crushed.

I find myself in a room being used by a wood carver, who is working on a wall carving of the city being attacked by sandworms. I inspect it more closely, and find a secret panel containing yet another dragon statuette. One more to go. I carry on through the next door, and find myself in a room full of weapons and insane cultists. To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long. I make up some story about delivering a gift to the high priestess, and they buy it, but won’t let me wander around to find her. I hand over one of the now-useless keys made of valuable metals I already found the door for and make a hasty exit. After killing some stone hands stuck to the walls (i.e. I hit them until they stopped trying to hurt me), I reach a turning where to go straight on I have to pass under a shower of golden ran. This is possibly a bad joke, but I know the high priestess is in here somewhere and if I’m right the last dragon will be there too. I step through. Inside is a luxurious room, with wonderful works of art, and splendid furniture, and cushions everywhere, and an angry guard, who I kill. Feeling tired after murdering my way through the city, I decide to take a nap.

I’m woken by someone coming in to the room, and before I can explain – by which I mean, make up a story – he summons an air elemental. That’s not good. I notice the phoenix symbol on his hat and drag that tapestry out of my backpack, and at that he believes anything I say. Once he’s gone I turn to the door, and try to magic it open, only to find my ability to cast spells has been taken away by that shower of rain at the door. I’m forced to use my sword to smash the lock, and then I find myself in a short passage with two doors at the end, each with ancient runes inscribed in them. That would have been no problem if only I had the ability to cast spells. I go through the right hand door, and come to a room full of hieroglyphics. Wow, I bet they would have been interesting to read. What a shame I can’t cast that useful spell any more. My attention turns to the clay pots on the floor.

One pot has a copper ring, which may or may not come in handy. Another jar contains a monkey paw, which will no doubt be bad news, and the third contains… the letter E. It’s not that I have to mark the stupid letters off on the card, it’s that they magically hurt me when I see them. If the Messenger of Death picked a longer word, e.g. apostrophe, he’d be guaranteed to not have to turn up after a victim finds the last one. I carry on, and come into a room filled with treasure. Now this is what people get into the sword wielding maniac profession for. I grab myself the incredibly valuable golden skeleton statuette, then open a golden casket and find a note which says “The Messenger of Death awaits you.” This is confusing, because I’m not sure if this counts or not. It hasn’t seared me with supernatural power, and though I’ve just seen all the letters in the word “Death” all at once no slime drooling monster has turned up to kill me. I decide to get out of there in a hurry anyway.

I wander on, pillaging a fruit bowl, and find a pair of skeletons guarding an archway. Or, really, part skeletons. They only have skulls for heads. Skeletons are normally not a big deal, so I figure these half-skeletons will be even easier, since they can bleed. Through the archway I find Leesha, High Priestess of Vatos, who is being fanned by a servant. She snaps her fingers and the fan-wielding fiend attacks. Fan versus sword is not going to go down as the most heroic of battles, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say, I find it to be a breeze.

I decide to try stabbing Leesha with a sandworm tooth, for no good reason other than the thought pops into my head. She flees, since I have found her one weakness. I’m not sure that qualifies as a sorcerous weakness, considering sandworms are enormous and can kill hardened adventurers. It’s more like a general weakness everyone has. I pursue, pausing to poke at a statue of a dog. A golden dragon falls out, completing the set of evil artefacts. Poking at the fittings has never been so productive. I chase the evil priestess down another corridor, and come across a badly sunburnt dwarf, who is carrying a hammer. I stop and ask him what he’s doing here. Apparently he was sent by Yaztromo to deliver me a warhammer, since nothing else can smash the dragon artefacts. Always with the last minute advice, these wizards. “Hey, this hammer looks familiar,” I say. “Yes, it’s the hammer of Stonebridge,” he replies. “Try not to lose it.” With that he falls over dead. You know, any old warhammer would have been fine. I bet if he’d died in the desert I’d have had to go trekking around the dunes looking for the damn thing.

I run onward, and find myself in a room with a circular pit. I feel overwhelmed with the urge to smash some things with a hammer, and wallop the bone dragon into splinters. So far, so simple… Except Malbordus comes floating out of the pit. He’s not very happy that I beat him to the dragons. Unfortunately for him, the ring I hauled out of that urn turns out to block his baleful magic, and so it comes down to fight to the finish: evil sorcerer with a cursed sword against magicless woman with a warhammer and an ostentatious winged helmet. I prevail, and then smash the remaining dragons to pieces.

Victorious in my quest to slay the evil sorcerer, and destroy the evil artefacts, I wander out of the room and find my way up some stairs and outside. I’m in the middle of a temple full of evil fanatics, in a city full of evil raiders, in a desert full of giant sandworms. No giant eagles are forthcoming to snatch me from the battlements and take me home. I shrug, and head for some nearby steps to get down to ground level and find my way out of the city. Nothing in the job description says the adventure stops just because the villain is dead.

I’m just not sure how things will go in the desert now I can’t magically create water any more…

Wrapup

Livingstone is notorious for making his books require certain items to win, but here it’s not too bad. Five dragons, one telescope, and a hammer. Only the telescope isn’t clearly laid out at the start (I would assume that talking to the dwarf with the hammer is obvious). Most of the other items that make the book easy to solve are non-essential, so it’s entirely possible to get through it with minimal struggles – provided you have decent stats and make a few lucky dice rolls. Some of the spells are not essential either, and that makes the book really fun. Unfortunately the telescope being required does mean there’s only one way to get to the city. Miss any of the dragons, and the adventure ends just before the spot where the climactic battle would happen with you seeing Malbordus flying away on one of the ones you missed.

It’s a very lethal adventure. You need about twenty units of provisions to make it through, since you’re burning stamina for spells and there’s some mandatory combats and also mandatory heavy damage moments. But you only get the usual ten. This makes the book a much more worrying affair.

The Messenger of Death seems silly, but it makes every moment searching around the city ominous, since you have to find five items and poking into every nook and cranny is the way to do so. There’s also a double-cross where the last letter is hinted to be in a certain location by another character, and thus it’s possible to skip past that point, think one is safe, and walk right into it.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: When the text said I was sitting down to have a rest in the middle of the high priestesses chambers. No, that’s a bad idea. No. No, please don- oh well.

Ridiculous Battle: The sandworm. Higher stats than the main villain? It should have been sent after Malbordus instead of me.

Victory: You get to smash some more dragons, and then trek back out of the desert, while optimistically thinking Yaztromo will teach you some more spells. There is an assumption that the player looted the best stuff out of the not-so-lost city. The reality is it’s possible to walk out of there with nothing.

What Was I Thinking? Taking Create Water – it’s impossible to finish the book without getting something to trade for water anyway. I should have guessed that, but was overcome by a sense of immersion and wanted to be a real adventurer ready for anything the journey can throw at me.

Forest of Doom

“What kind of idiot makes a warhammer that can be taken to pieces, anyway?”

The Forest of Doom by Ian Livingstone

Cover: Iain McCaig

Illustrations: Malcolm Barter

This Shapeshifter is out to get the

Words cannot adequately describe how cool this picture is, but I have to try: It is incredibly cool. Damnit, words! You’re just not up to this task!

Now, this is an exciting one for me. That’s because the original cover is the single most awesome picture on the cover of any book, ever (I reserve the right to revise which coveri s the most awesome cover ever at any time). That spiny bastard beckoning the reader to take him on, looking like trouble squared, just makes me want to know why on earth I’d end up in that situation to start with. After all, as an adventure-inclined protagonist naturally I want to run headlong into danger, and with that creature presumably a typical representative of the population of the region, I know I’m heading into a forest that is full up to the canopy with doom. Naturally the re-release has a cover that is nowhere near as great (but they filed off the “the” in the title, which is a bit of an improvement). This is an ongoing trend with the new books: The covers are often nowhere near as dangerous looking, or mysterious, or exciting. Though admittedly some did get improvements, when you have a back catalogue with a cover like this you should probably consider using it. That artwork sold the book and in fact the entire series to me as a child without having to look at the back cover. To be honest, this cover is what sold the book to me now, so naturally I’m starting here.

Statistics

Skill: 12 (Yes!)
Stamina: 20 (Great!)
Luck: 8 (I’m going to die!)

Equipment: Sword, Leather Armour, Backpack, Potion of Fortune (I think I might need that one with a luck of 8), and the standard ten units of Provisions.

Onward to Adventure!

I’m a wandering adventurer, a practitioner of the noble and ancient craft of wandering around and getting into violent trouble. I also eat rabbit. You might be wondering how I catch them armed with only a sword. Well, it’s obvious. I wander around until a…

RABBIT
SKILL: 2
STAMINA: 1

Turns up and attacks me for no reason.

Roaming about the countryside murdering every wandering band of orcs or goblins or whatever the hell comes along is so much fun that I don’t mind the isolation and lack of proper laundry facilities. One fine evening, I’m sleeping off a hard day’s monster killing (a rabbit is a monster), dreaming of more monster killing, only to be woken by a dying dwarf, riddled with crossbow bolts. It turns out that he’s on a quest to recover the warhammer of Stonebridge for their king so he can rally the other dwarves against the trolls. Fairly normal stuff, then. He asks me to finish this mission of dwarven inter-village politics, and dies. I promptly loot the corpse and contemplate that I might get some more gold for wandering through a forest looking for a hammer, I think this sounds like a walk in the park. In the morning I follow the directions I was given and head off to Yaztromo’s tower. Yaztromo is a wizard who moved out here for isolation and solitude, and thus naturally runs a magical item store. I think he has not got this hermiting business quite right. He should take a lesson from his colleagues in benevolent wizardry and live inside Darkwood Forest instead of just outside the trees. Nothing keeps pestering adventurers away like living in one of the deadliest places you can find. You’d think the good wizards would all go and live in the Deathtrap Dungeon. Yaztromo is also not very bright: His items are single-use, which is great for repeat business, but repeat business is not so brilliant for hermitry. Since I’m an adventurer in a world where it always pays to carry around everything you find just in case, I buy over half his stock. Gosh, what possible use could things like holy water or garlic buds have? Gloves of missile dexterity sound handy. So does this thing labelled “headband of concentration”. I’m damned if I’m falling for “rod of water-finding” though. It’s probably just a forked stick, and I’m not even going near a desert anyway.

As I arrange the gewgaws in my backpack I laugh and mention how easy it’s going to be to find a used hammer in a forest. Yaztromo conveniently knows that the hammer was swiped by an eagle, which dropped the hammer into the forest after being intercepted by some ominously named birds called deathhawks, and that two goblins found the hammer, and they unscrewed the head from the handle and each took half of the hammer. “Oh god, no,” I think to myself, “not a scavenger hunt.”

Off to the forest! It’s very dark and gloomy. I head west at the first inevitable crossroads, and help someone trapped in a snare, and he robs me of two of my hard-won magical items. What a bastard. On the upside, I come across a goblin who appears to have a suspiciously hammer handle-like rod. Is this one of the hammer components I’m after? Hah, no. It’s a shape changer. These spiny fiends apparently like to trick people and then fight them. I wind up half dead, and have to eat a cheese sandwich. As I wander onwards, I learn that not only is this forest full of thieving bastards and spiky monsters, the vegetation is going to make a good attempt at killing me as well. I can accept that a sentient tree might be one of the perils of this forest, but when the grass starts trying to suck my blood I begin to think the best way to do this quest would be to go and find a wizard, convince him to burn the forest down, and then sift through the ashes. I am certainly not going on any more forest related adventures in the future without buying an axe and a scythe first.

After my encounter with the wonders of nature I cross the local river and make camp. The next day I wander around and find a cave. Caves are second only to dungeons in their ability to attract adventurers, so I have look inside. It’s home to a cave troll, asleep in a chair. It occurs to me that stealing his things might be easier than killing him and then stealing them, so I give it a go. I’m lucky, and come out of this with a brass bell and some gold. If this seems pathologically criminal, remember that the primary industry of Allansia is killing people and stealing their stuff. I am an entrepreneur.

She reappears on this same tree every two days.

She was surprisingly angry at my crashing past and waking her from her nap.

I’m also a maniac with a desire to clamber down an old well I just found. There appears to be a tiny tunnel down there, so of course I’m going to have a look. Except I took the fast route, thanks to falling off the ladder and smacking my head on the side of the well. This is what adventurers do, folks: Fall off ladders and into water. I decide my tunnel rat side quest is over, since I want to get into the sun and get dry. I glare at the well and squelch off. As I amble along letting the sun do its work, I come across a small man sitting, asleep, on a huge mushroom. He is wearing a bright red jacket and cap. Is he a gnome, one of the jolly folk who enjoy playing pranks and japes on travellers in the woods; or a redcap, that violent race of bloodthirsty murdering midgets who kill on sight just to re-dye their hats? I could wake him up and find out, but that’s not a good idea. If he’s a gnome I’ll have to endure several practical jokes and then when I leave a bucket of custard balanced on a tree branch will upend itself over my head. I’m not enthusiastic about japery after that little trip down the well, so I decide to leave well enough alone. Gnomes are always trouble.

Further through the forest I come across a dwarf, who is sitting on a log. I ask if he is from Stonebridge. He is not, and completely loses the plot, ranting about how he hates those Stonebridge dwarves and wants to find their wondrous hammer to take back to his home town of Mirewater. Apparently it was his eagle that was stealing the hammer. I may not have any hammer parts, but I have the consolation prize: The villain responsible. I’m a heroic adventurer on the side of good – I assume, I actually have no idea – so I do what comes naturally: I draw my blade and challenge him to a duel. I make short work of my opponent, drink his vial of dwarven healing potion, and head onward.

As I travel further I run into a group of bandits led by a woman. Now here, I think to myself, is a woman who I have much in common with. She takes people’s things and maybe kills them, I kill people and take their things. We are both making our own ways in the world, obviously not willing to conform to the so-called normal society we were born into. Perhaps she could send her band of thieves away and we can sit down, have a chat, get to know each other, build a fire and drink this bottle of fine vintage I happen to have, and then … hah, no, of course not. My options are to hand over the goods, or fight.

Bandits dispatched, I find my way out of the forest. I have none of the items on the scavenger hunt list, so I am forced to trudge around the forest to start my search all over again. Not for this woman, the simple turning about on the spot and walking back into the forest! No! I shall wander southeast along this convenient path, crossing the convenient bridge, and walking alongside these inconvenient hills swarming with inconvenient wild hill men, who try to murder me with inconvenient arrows. Despite making a larger target than a dwarf, I escape with my life.

Now some mysterious magic happens and everything is as it was before. I saunter up to the tower, and find that Yaztromo has forgotten who I am. He has all the same things for sale – I suppose he made some more – but is happy to tell me the same story as before. It is as though I have travelled back in time! Having bought one of everything, I return to the forest, this time heading east. I come across a signpost with a crow perched on it. It says hello, and in hearing my insane quest directs me north for the reasonable sum of a gold piece. Apparently Yaztromo turns people into birds and only changes them back when they collect enough money. Clearly he’s got some kind of wizard extortion thing going on and lives out here away from civilization to avoid difficult questions from interfering authorities.

Following the advice of a shapeshifted crow is a silly idea, but it’s better than no advice at all, and so I head north. Eventually I come across another cave. The unstoppable force of the cave draws me into the shadowy opening. I peer inside and decide to take a shot at the ogre who lives there with a handy rock. Because that’s what people do under the influence of a cave. The ogre goes down, and my attention turns to a caged goblin, who ungratefully attacks me with a stool when I unlock the cage. Now, I could go into detail about the relative merits of using a stool as an offensive weapon. It has a bit of weight, can knock someone out, and can serve as a crude shield. Or I could just point out that a sword is longer, and I already have a significant reach advantage over a four foot tall green pile of warts. Score: Humans 1, Goblins 0. Oh hey, he’s wearing the hammer handle as a pendant!

My luck clearly on the upswing, I saunter off into the forest, whistling a jaunty tune, a spring in my step, and promptly end up suspended upside down from one of those comical rope traps, with my sword lying on the ground. This is why you’re supposed to carry spare weapons. Eventually an annoying brat dressed all in green comes wandering by, and offers to let me down for some gold. “Okay, fine, whatever,” I say, fishing some coins out and throwing them down. “Ease me down slowl-” I stop in mid sentence, and stare at the hilt of my sword right in front of my eyes. I sigh, take it, and chop through the rope, crashing to the ground. I arise from the leaves like a wrathful demoness, only to find the forest brat long gone. Typical. Kids these days.

I wander west, picking leaves out of my hair and wondering how a small child survives a forest that eats adventurers alive, and then come out into a wide grassy plain that for some reason is in the middle of the forest. I bet someone else came through here, got angry with the killer vegetation, and burned a good chunk of the forest out. Good riddance. Of course, it’s more easy to notice the vast number of people paying a visit to the forest in an open space. It’s not really the Forest of Doom, more the Forest of Doom if You Are Not Careful. As a passing hunter informs me, this is the best place to find game in the northern wilderness, so why would there not be hordes of people trooping through here? The Allansian Conservation Department should be notified. Except they’re probably too busy trying to protect endangered species like the Greater Dungeon Dwelling Evil Wizard or the Common Mushroom Sitting Gnome.

Further along the meandering path through the Grassland of Doom, I come across someone staked out for the vultures. Having moved on from the days when I was a cheery, optimistic hero to being the cynical, world-weary archetype, I ignore him and wander off. It grows dark, and hopefully this won’t be another night of giant spiders. Thankfully that is not to be. Instead I get vampire bats, who apparently hate garlic as much as I love it. The next morning I head up some hills and get shot at by some dirty hippies, who get skewered for their trouble. I briefly wonder if they were just hermits annoyed by my presence. There seems to be a lot of isolated cottages for a forest that is apparently full of doom. Perhaps it’s just a nice quiet place for people looking for solitude, and they just spread around bad rumours to keep the place from becoming gentrified. Of course the downside is attracting people like me. A creeping suspicion comes over me. What if I’m the doom in the forest? What if this is all some convoluted moral tale I am trapped in? My very life could be a lie!

A Wyvern is a big lizard that breathes fire, not to be mistaken for that other big lizard that breathes fire.

The Wyvern is sort of a cheaper version of a Dragon, but they don’t skimp on the fire!

Back under the shady canopy and roaming the wooded byways of the most crowded and tourist-filled deadly forest in the land, I pass by a familiar well. I warily walk past, looking straight ahead, like I’m a swordswoman with places to go and people to kill, hoping I don’t catch its attention, and continue. I pass by by a friendly friar, whose very presence in Darkwood Forest goes one step further towards confirming my suspicion that I may actually be slaughtering the visitors to a national park. Then I find a mausoleum.

The only things that exceed caves in sheer adventurer attracting power are crypts and dungeons, and what is a mausoleum but a small crypt? I barge on in, intent on plundering the riches of the dead. Or at the least getting me a skull to use as a puppet. I am in luck! There’s a goblin skeleton sitting in the corner, picked clean. I grab the skull for a souvenir and turn to the sarcophagus. The lid is far too heavy for me to move, so I look through my backpack for something to move it. Potion of insect control… net of entanglement… fire capsules… rod of water finding… Nothing.

Well, that’s okay, I can always go around the forest and search around some more. I leave the crypt and eventually come across… some bandits, led by a woman. I decide to pay the toll of five random objects, handing over some junk I found in the forest, as well as that rod of water finding. I then leave the forest and come to Stonebridge. Since I don’t have the hammer head, I naturally walk off with the handle and try to circle the forest again. The very same walk southeast along the convenient path, across the convenient bridge, and then once more past the inconvenient hills swarming with inconvenient wild hill men. They have another try at shooting me, only this time I am seriously unlucky and die, riddled with inconvenient arrows.

Wrapup

Well, it’s a good enough book, but really the forest is an illusion: It’s just a dungeon crawl. The ability to start again is nice, but it means the entire forest is reset. You can ignore some of the crossover stuff a second time through the forest, but the bandits were unavoidable and ruined the illusion. What got me was the fact that it’s nowhere near as hard as it could be. I only died to an abysmally low luck score, and there are only four necessary items to find in the whole book, two of which are goals. On the upside, there’s quite a bit of variety in this one. The outdoor setting means a more natural feel – I wasn’t left with the notion that there was some seriously bizarre reason why all the monsters didn’t kill each other. It also feels spread out, rather than being packed into a relatively small tunnel network. There’s also plenty of NPCs who you can interact with, in that limited gamebook way – but it would have been nice if friendly greetings didn’t have an option to attack the person in question. Overall, far easier than I expected.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: When the bandits were resurrected. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid this in a gamebook, though.

Victory: You get a golden helmet that’s worth a fortune, and a box of gems. Except this kind of conflicts with the whole wandering loner background, since what use are riches to someone who hates being anywhere you can spend them?

What Was I Thinking? Help someone? In this forest? Hahahaha, no. Just don’t.

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