THE WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN
Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone
Reviewed by Mark Lain
It is difficult to retrospectively review this book objectively as, for those like me who got it when it first came out, this was where the FF phenomenon and a key part of being a male growing up in the 80s began. Opening this book now and seeing the evocative illustrations always makes me feel attached to it. Russ Nicholson’s art in this book, whilst far from his best for FF, seems perfectly suited to introducing the bizarre and other-worldly atmosphere of FF. We must remember that, on first writing, the initial FF books were written in a vacuum. There was no Allansia, there was no FF world – each book was just a concept that would eventually be tied together as a whole body of work. WOFM was where it all began – it set out the standard set of rules for stat generation (Skill, Stamina, Luck would be the starting point that later books would add other attributes to), use of potions and provisions, equipment, etc. The combat rules were quite elaborate, but also very appropriate as it made your stats mean something. Also, WOFM was the only collaboration between FF’s creators. At the time the book seemed to flow quite fluidly but, having become familiar with the different approaches and styles of Steve and Ian, it seems a bit disjointed and who wrote what is explicitly obvious to the point where it feels almost like you are playing two different books. This approach kept reading later books interesting as you anticipated their styles and enjoyed that in them, but WOFM now seems awkward due to this. Personally I prefer the first (Livingstone) half as I prefer his dungeon-trawl approach, rather than Steve’s more gimmicky novelty approach to FF (although it would be Steve who would really push the boundaries and experiment with FF in later books.)
The back story is quite intriguing and does draw you into wanting to know what’s inside the mountain. However, this is the first example of one of WOFM biggest problems – the plot is totally illogical. Basically, you, the brave and honourable adventurer, are about to rob a little old man of his treasure after murdering him first. The standard FF fall-back motive that he’s going to destroy the world had not come into play at this early stage in the series. The motive is sheer mercenary greed. Similarly illogical is that the keys to the warlock’s treasure chest are randomly strewn all over the inside of the mountain so you have to assume he never opens it to take a look! There is also the question of why he seems to have such a large captive workforce, how a shop could ever turn in a profit hidden so deep in a mountain, and why there’s a gambling room in there. I think you have to suspend disbelief and remember that this was the first of an untested series and that Puffin was taking a big risk so SJ and IL threw as much as possible at this story to make it varied enough to attract an audience.
..And varied it indeed is. The scene is set for so many of what would become FF standards that it plays now like a compilation of FF’s greatest hits. We have the fundamental FF creature premises set out for us: goblins (offensive), orcs (evil), dwarfs (nice but blustery), human NPCs (generally pleasant if you don’t try to kill them, or alternatively, manipulative and calculating), ghouls (come with the added problem of paralysis in combat), wights (only hurt by magic weapons and best avoided which is probably why they were used so sparingly in later FFs), vampires (a total nightmare to fight due to hypnosis and set out from the outset as one of FF’s toughest foes), skeletons (sword-fodder), giant and were- versions of just about anything, etc. We see two of Ian’s favourite nuisances – traps (later done to deadly perfection in Deathtrap Dungeon) and linearity in terms of only being allowed to ever head toward wherever the end of the line is (annoying). We also have numerical reference tricks (keys, in this case) which Jackson would later exploit well in House Of Hell and pretty much perfectly in Creature Of Havoc. There is the 50-50 good or bad choice options (helmets in this case). We also can’t forget the inevitable shopping list of stuff you might need later on (although in WOFM it’s quite fun collecting items and most of it comes in handy so it seems effectively controlled here.)
A criticism of many FFs is that they are either too easy or depressingly hard. WOFM is neither of these. It is certainly not simple and it takes many attempts to complete. The Maze of Zagor is tough, the river part is tricky, fighting Zagor himself takes ingenuity on the part of the player, and then you can still lose if you have the wrong keys (although that’s a bit disheartening when you’ve got so far and then fall at the last hurdle, but most FF books will do that to you.) Instant deaths are very rare here which removes the frustration of simply making a seemingly reasonable choice and ending up dead which would plague later books in the series. However, WOFM is challenging and varied enough to make people want to play again in the knowledge that they will eventually beat the book. The impossible FFs are exposed as impossible from an early stage which is just annoying.
WOFM also has other aspects that make it appealing: certain plot elements are lifted from classical mythology (maze, minotaur, gargoyles that attack you if you try to steal their jewelled parts); there is evidence that your mission does not exist in isolation (you meet a previously-unsuccessful adventurer – sadly he does what so many seemingly decent human NPCs in FF do (that don’t die) and runs off pretty much immediately); and there is humour in it (tools that make you feel good when you watch them work and a chair that heals you in return for sitting on it.)
Most importantly WOFM makes you want to play more FF books which is the key to its success. If the first FF that came out was exceptionally difficult, or ridiculously easy you would be less inclined to open another one. WOFM is far from perfect but it does exactly what it was designed to do. Gimmicks and concept manipulation would come later in the series, but this book is an excellent foundation that is still fun to play even after 30 years.