Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Dervish Stone


Paul Struth

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Issue 1 of Warlock magazine ran a competition where readers were asked to submit a 200 paragraph FF adventure using the basic rules from The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, the prize for the lucky winner being £100 cash (quite a lot in 1984) and the publication of their adventure in the magazine. The winner was this submission by Paul Struth which would be the featured mini-adventure in Warlock number 4 and, in spite of some glaring plagiarism from the George Lucas back catalogue, it’s actually quite a decent way to pass an hour or so.

The premise itself is simple in the spirit of WOFM’s mercenary treasure hunting vein. A dervish called Shanhara once found a massive diamond and hid it in a secret, booby-trapped location that everyone then forgot how to find. YOU have stumbled across a parchment instructing you to go and find the diamond and YOU cannot resist, so off YOU go. The trip itself begins in yet another typical Titan town with the usual inn, chance to buy stuff, etc, followed by the bulk being a trek across the Twin Suns Desert to locate and negotiate the cave where the diamond is hidden.

The idea of a desert with “twin suns” brings to mind Tattooine in Star Wars and the sheer number of references (nay, blatant thefts) from not only Star Wars, but also Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Flash Gordon make up the bulk of the key moments in this adventure, which, whilst fun, can get repetitive and is frankly corny:
  • ·         From Star Wars we get: Twin Suns on a desert wasteland, use of a Jedi mind trick to get past the authorities, a cantina bar moment where even the dialogue about “he doesn’t like you... neither do I” (which I paraphrase, unlike Struth!) is stolen, encountering a Sandcrawler (which is at least a creature this time, not the Jawas’ mobile robot emporium), and a lengthy (and fairly lethal) episode over a carnivorous pit in the desert which is clearly a Saarlak (stolen, for a bit of variety, from Return Of The Jedi rather than Star Wars!)
  • ·         Lifted from Raiders is the entire final section’s trap network within the Lost Cave Of The Dervishes itself: a pedestal that needs weighting to avoid triggering traps, a crossbow bolt trap, a big stone door that slides down on you, and, most blatant of all, a big stone ball that chases you down a corridor
  • ·         The Flash Gordon steals are only marginally more subtle (I emphasize the word ”marginally”), with a trial that involves sticking your hand in various holes and seeing if something nasty stings you (ie Prince Barin’s world) and a ride across the desert on Griffins that sort of echoes Prince Vultan’s Hawkmen

Given that most of the interesting moments are made up of the above, you might expect this to be dull beyond all possibility, but it is not and the atmosphere of oppressive and relentless sand and heat, along with a feeling that you really are just wandering aimlessly into a yellow abyss, are very well put across. The desert meanders in various directions (many of which lead to you dying of exposure) although the deeper into it you get, the easier it is to survive, as the instant death sections are the same two over and over (due to the limited number of paragraphs available) so you get used to recognising their numbers and going in the other direction when they are offered. It will take several attempts to make any real progress though, plus the showdown with Kuperan (a hitherto unseen Fire Giant creature type) is really pretty tough, both within his lair and then flying over the Saarlak equivalent whilst trying to stay on a Griffin, so there is much to encourage replay. Numerous nomads and another unique creature type (Laupers – a desert catperson) add variety along the way as some are hostile and some can help you, which all adds up to quite a bit being crammed into a small number of paragraphs and Struth has done well to get as much fun stuff in as he does.

The opening town (Alaysian) is not as involved or as well-designed as the desert, but it does give a prologue to the main event and adds colour (literally) and variety to what would otherwise just be a hot and dangerous slog in the desert. Plus, you can get to tackle a fairly scenery-chewing loony in Alaysian, should you feel inclined, although the town serves mainly to help you buy the items you will need later on.

In terms of difficulty, this adventure is very varied, being weighted neither in your favour nor against you. Instant failures are reserved for the desert and the two main set pieces (the two-part Kuperan episode and the final cave full of traps) which avoids any early disappointments and lets you get a decent handle on what is involved to help with subsequent attempts. Most of the combats (barring two in particular) are very easy and most of your foes are very weak, plus combat only happens in logically necessary situations ie with stupidly aggressive foes or in important moments where you would expect to fight for your life. In the later stages there are a lot of Luck and Skill tests (including a jumbled one where Skill and Stamina get mixed together, if you happen to spot this) so you will not complete the final part without a high Luck score, although this balances out against a lot of opportunities to gain Luck points, including one where you are awarded a Luck point when it’s not actually been possible to lose any Luck yet (ditto, two different Skill bonuses)! Likewise, you start with 20 Gold Pieces, are immediately given another 20 (if you interpret the text that way) and can get lots more, although only the starting 20/40 GPs are of any actual use to you as you need these to buy all the useful items in Alaysian. A further unusually generous move (especially for a 200 section short, although it does replicate the double dose in WOFM and is not unusual for Warlock magazine short FFs) is that your standard-issue Potion that you select at the start contains two doses, although you might need both to raise your Luck or Skill sufficiently.

Due to the A4 format of Warlock magazine, this adventure does suffer from a problem associated with all this magazine’s mini-FFs in that some sections offer moves to sections that are on the same page which does encourage cheating a bit. The only way to realistically avoid this would have been to position these paragraphs on different pages (and, conversely, some numerical distance apart), but this is just a minor criticism of the structure and it doesn’t detract from playability or enjoyment. I suspect there are also some inaccessible wasted sections that you can’t actually access due to your always having certain items otherwise you would not have survived that far but, again, you don’t notice this as long as you don’t read every paragraph or are curious to see what would happen in the other (impossible) scenario.

It is worth taking a moment to assess how successful this adventure was in satisfying the brief to win and to see whether this was chosen on its fun appeal or its meeting the criteria of the competition:

·         ”Using the same system as WOFM” – just about, other than the opening Gold
·         “Design a game of 200 references” – check
·         “An exciting and original background” – you are as greedy and self-satisfying as you are in WOFM so it’s not original, but it is interesting enough to make you want to play it
·         “perhaps a jungle or a desert wasteland” – taken literally, it’s a desert wasteland!
·         “A mission to find somebody or something” – check, you find somebody AND something
·         “make it sound believable” – the desert is very well executed
·         “present a real challenge” – it’s tough when it needs to be, but is not overly hard

All things considered then, the brief was met and this should have been a worthy contender, but the sheer amount of idea theft (especially at a time when Star Wars and Indiana Jones were still very recent) works against its originality, even if it does not detract from the overall enjoyment.

The cover of Warlock number 4 depicts the Griffin riding section of the mission and is lovely to look at with its colourful presentation. The incidental art in the text is by House Of Hell’s Tim Sell who has no distinct style as such, but his humanoids tend to look like they’re melting which is a bit odd to my eye. This is hardly an issue, though, as the images are often nowhere near their respective paragraphs so it’s hard to make the involving connection with the art that you would in a gamebook format anyway.

For a first non-SJ/IL magazine offering this is certainly no masterpiece, but it’s still fun and atmospheric to play. Credit has to be given for such effective use of a limited number of sections and there’s plenty of material to keep you interested. As it’s short it can be played through quickly and is far from dull. If only the best moments had any shred of originality to them...

Sunday, 23 February 2014

#55: Deathmoor


Robin Waterfield

Reviewed by Mark Lain

On first picking it up, four things immediately strike me about this book: 1) It is suspiciously thin; 2) The cover is appalling; 3) Paragraph 400 is an instant death; 4) Promisingly, it is by one of the most consistently good FF writers. On playing it, the reality of these four first impressions can be summarised as: 1) It’s relative brevity is surely an act of mercy on the player; 2) The cover is worse than the contents; 3) This is an indication that you can expect to fail umpteen times; 4) Yes, RW’s first three FFs were all good (he wrote the only genuinely great Sci-Fi FF for a start), but his fourth (this one) is the exception.

Given the status accorded to the FF books from number 51 onwards as highly sought-after (and often expensive) collectors’ items that also in playing terms are very rewarding, #55 Deathmoor, whilst still not cheap to get your hands on, has none of the elements that make the last few books generally so rewarding:
  • ·         The extended adventure concept – missing, Deathmoor is surprisingly short
  • ·         The plethora of extra rules to get your head around – missing, the very basic FF rules are used here (Skill, Stamina, Luck, Provisions, Potion, Gold)
  • ·         Lengthy, descriptive paragraphs that add depth – missing, RW actually seems as bored as the player (only #4 Starship Traveller shows the same level of author disinterest in the project) and appears to be desperate to get this over with
  • ·         Rich conceptual design and depth of setting to give a more “adult” or “advanced FF” feel – missing, this is the kind of facile effort that would be unsatisfactory to even the youngest and most undemanding/inexperienced adventure gamer
  • ·         No evidence of play-testing to iron out numerous bugs and continuity errors – missing, this one actually flows properly (that’s a plus, by the way)

So, other than the last point, it is not really surprising that this book gets over-looked and that so few people ever mention it much. Coming as it did between the high concept boardgame tie-in of Legend Of Zagor and the historically-rich Chaos epic that is Knights Of Doom, Deathmoor must have seemed very tired. Had it been released early on in the series, it might be easier to have a more favourable opinion of this book, but it just doesn’t offer enough to be relevant as a later entry.

Easily the laziest part of this book’s conception is your mission. You are an adventurer who is currently living it up diving for scarlet pearls off the Isles Of Dawn when you are called to the court of King Jonthane of Arion as his daughter has been kidnapped and the villain of the piece is demanding a huge amount of gold as a ransom. Granted, FF rarely uses the “fighting through perils to save a Princess” plot idea, but that’s because it’s a hackneyed concept that’s better suited to Disney than to role-playing. To add insult to injury, however, it’s not long before you meet two plumbers called Oiram and Igiul (read them backwards) at which point you realise you are playing Super Mario Brothers (there are different coloured mushrooms to contend with later in the book, as well) and that Waterfield really was on auto-pilot with this one. The opening section actually tells you that you are too late to get the commission because your rival (Fang-zen) got there first which means the first part of the adventure proper involves catching up with him and nicking an all-important document from him that is basically the contract to do the rescue job – perhaps it would have been easier just to say “Oh well, never mind then” to the King and have gone off and found a better adventure to get involved in. Once you’ve got the document you then have to chase an Ogre called Otus who is the connection between the King/YOU and the kidnapper himself (Bowser, presumably?) Bowser turns out to be called Arachnos and is an agent of Chaos, but is not anything like as genocidal as most agents of Chaos, given that he is (on the surface at least) just in it for the money (rather like RW was when he wrote this book, I fear!)

And that’s the plot, crappy but workable, assuming the adventure environment is full of surprises and intrigue... which it is not, instead it’s full of often inexplicable instant deaths, illogically looping paths that lead to parts of the moor that would otherwise be miles from each other if you map it, and lots of new creature types that don’t seem to exist anywhere else. The final item is not a bad point in itself (innovation is always welcome) but several of the new creatures just seem to be other creatures with new names - surely the Pterolins are just Rocs and Pelagines are Fishmen? Conversely, the Blackhearts (crosses between Dark Elves and Orcs), the hideous (and wonderfully-named) Tantaflex, and the Semerle (a missing link fish-reptile thing) are all imaginative inclusions. In most cases, any unfamiliar creatures are well described, even if those without illustrations can be a bit hard to visualise, and I really don’t want to imagine the bizarre and disturbing sex act that spawned the first Troll-Orc! Mention must also go to the Flintskins, a primitive and wary tribe that you need to be careful when dealing with (and are they corruptions of Flintstones or Skinflints?)

As is often the case with later FFs, there are three distinct stages to the adventure, starting with a look around Arion, then negotiating Deathmoor itself, and finally a short dungeon that forms Arachnos’ lair. Arion is quite fun (you can play Pinfinger in an inn) but has nothing that you can’t see in every other largish Titan conurbation (inns, docks, market, rich megalomaniac’s house), whilst Arachnos’ lair is a bizarre downwards tunnel tumble offering side passages and an inordinate number of ways to die. As for the main event, Deathmoor itself is tedious, has little of interest, and is not inherently all that deadly. Instead the apparent profound stupidity of your character is a major obstacle whilst on the moor – amongst other idiotic acts you can sleep-walk over a cliff and/or lose key items in two separate combats without there being any logical reason for dropping them, other than that the book wants you to. Sadly, RW’s apparent vindictiveness towards the player is where this book really becomes overly harsh to play and he seems to be taking his frustration with the project out on YOU:
  • ·         Instant deaths, many of which are off-hand in their handling, are very common and often make little sense and can come as a real surprise and seem out of context
  • ·         Also, some of the instant deaths could surely be avoided by combat but the book decides far too often that you are dangerously out-numbered
  • ·         It is possible to fail as soon as you start by making the wrong choice at paragraph 1
  • ·         Failing to get the document in Arion means you can’t progress beyond that stage and, even if you do, there’s another 50/50 progress/instantly fail decision to make as soon as you leave Arion and catch up with Otus
  • ·         The encounter with the Cradoc involves yet another 50/50 life/death decision about which of its heads you need to cut off
  • ·         Luck tests are in abundance
  • ·         Arbitrary dice rolling to determine your fate is in even greater abundance
  • ·         In the style of Steve Jackson’s tougher books, there are certain points where you need to make a judgment call on whether to go to a section you learned about earlier in the book. Unfortunately, the hints that you need to do this are so subtle and are almost off-hand remarks in the text which means you are fairly unlikely to pick up on them
  • ·         Some “important” information is of little relevance and can be substituted with guessing which takes away the feeling of success you should get from what ought to be moments of achievement
  • ·         It is possible to find a code-breaking document that is incomprehensible and seems to serve no purpose (or did this get forgotten?)
  • ·         Worst of all, the final showdown with Arachnos can only be won by solving a maths problem that is so ridiculously difficult that it makes any other FF puzzle seem like simplicity itself

Oddly, one area that you would expect to see included in a book this unreasonable would be tough combats, but most of the foes in Deathmoor are actually very easy to beat (assuming you have a Skill of at least 9), very few have special attacks, and some even suffer Attack Strength penalties or can be weakened by surprise attacks (or dropping a house on them in the case of the Marsh Orcs, which is the only real injection of light relief anywhere in this adventure.) Even more out of context are certain scattered acts of unusual generosity which, whilst few and far between, seem at odds with the generally unbalanced nature of this book and do add to the feeling that this was thrown together in a few days with hardly any care. When you fight Fang-zen (your rival who, you would assume, can give a good account of himself against you), his Skill is two less than yours, ie he could have a Skill of 5 so he isn’t much of a hardy adventurer then really. It is also possible to increase your Initial Luck to 14, and to fully restore your Skill and Stamina by being blessed. Also, money is not difficult to come by, even if it has scant use once you leave Arion (and you start with 20 GP anyway.)

The subject of the Initial Luck increase gives me mixed feelings. If you also use the Potion of Fortune you could actually have an Initial Luck of 15 which is an unusually high allowance in a FF book, but you will certainly need it due to the number of Luck tests that this book throws at you. The location of the +2 Luck bonus (a temple that is a relic of the ancient civilisation that used to live where Deathmoor now is) exposes another example of the lazy construction of this adventure. We are told about the civilisation early on in the story, yet this is almost entirely ignored for most of the book bar a couple of isolated moments.

In some parts, there are moments of unpleasant grisliness, especially when we are told that the word “WAIT” has been spelled out in the severed limbs of the 15-year-old Princess’ friends, and Waterfield does seem slightly obsessed with getting you lost in misty marshes and/or burning people to death in his FFs. One of the real strengths, though, of his books is the lengths he goes to do describe environments/experiences/backgrounds to create a real sense of place, yet this is all but absent from Deathmoor. Only when you need a compass (or have to blunder aimlessly around without one) do you get the feeling of an oppressive moorland – compare his writing in this book with his background descriptions in #18 Rebel Planet or his dreamscapes in #28 Phantoms Of Fear and it’s hard to believe this is the same author. There are moments of player belittling that bring to mind Space Assassin, “That was stupid” being probably the worst example here of giving you little motivation to stay interested. Even the winning paragraph can only be bothered to stretch to a few sentences and there is hardly any feeling of victory to be had from it.

One of the new creatures offered here is a Cradoc (half Dragon-half Ogre) and it is this that graces the cover in what is amongst the worst FF cover images ever. The Cradoc just looks ridiculous – what was Terry Oakes thinking? Furthermore, this is another example of a FF cover that shows a far from important moment from the book, but it does at least reflect the lackadaisical nature of the package as a whole. If there is one person who has made an effort, it’s Russ Nicholson, whose internal art is as effective as always, even if most of the new creatures are quite manically drawn, whereas the more familiar moments are more controlled in their rendering.

Overall, Deathmoor is a fairly minor entry to the series which is blighted by harshness and just generally not being very interesting. It is no surprise then that it has faded into relative obscurity and is surely of more interest to collectors than to gamers. Play it if you are curious and can get hold of it, but this is easily one of the least essential from an adventuring perspective (which is, after all, the real reason why FF exists.)

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

#50: Return To Firetop Mountain


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

For anyone who originally discovered FF by way of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, the prospect of a sequel is a very juicy one indeed. Cunningly released as a 10th Anniversary book, set 10 years after the first and, originally, intended to be the series’ swansong, this book ended up being such a success that Puffin gave the series a stay of execution, if only for a further nine books. To further increase the appeal of this offering, the idea that the original’s writing team of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone would work together on it would surely be too much excitement for one FF fan to cope with. Could we even get art from Russ Nicholson to top all this off? In a word, no. However, the internal art is by the equally great Martin McKenna, so this was still looking promising at the conceptual stage. Things started to lose their attraction when SJ bailed out supposedly due to other commitments, leaving IL to put this book together all on his own. For me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I always preferred Ian’s initial half of the book to the rather more manic Jackson second part, but that’s just because there always seemed to be far more to see and do in Ian’s bit, and there’s no question that the original wouldn’t have been anything like as varied and surprising if it had just been a Livingstone dungeon trawl.

So, what common Livingstone-isms do we get as a result of IL writing it by himself?
  • ·         Linearity – check
  • ·         Cameo from irritating idiot wizard Yaztromo – check
  • ·         Long shopping list of often dangerously well-hidden essential items – check
  • ·         Sequel with so-so introductory prologue bit before we get to the bit we are really waiting for (like in #21 Trial Of Champions) – check
  • ·         Theory that anyone can win no matter how low their initial stats being a complete lie and you having little hope unless you roll maximum Skill and Luck and damn high Stamina – check
  • ·         Often very difficult trivia challenges with Inquisitor-type figures – check
  • ·         Lots of instant deaths and/or life/death situations – check
  • ·         Over-enthusiastic sidekick who instantly dies - check

It may seem, then, that this book is a typically harsh later series entry peppered with Livingstone’s oft-criticised combination of wandering down tunnels and deciding whether to open doors or not, interspersed with occasional traps along the way, mixed in with a large number of factors that are likely to make you die. Which it is, to an extent, but there is much more to it than just this as the construction and thought that has gone into making this really feel like a return to Firetop Mountain rather than a cheap cash-in follow-up are what really make it a winner.

The initial pre-mountain section is much of a much-ness. There are two choices of route, one much longer and more dangerous than the other, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out which is the correct one that yields what you are going to need later in the book. The longer route is basically a series of cameo sequences involving a boring boat ride, Yaztromo, a fake Yaztromo Doppelganger (in a nightmare encounter that can go on forever), a little town with various quirky people/locations in it, and then a potentially fatal lift you hitch on a bird that takes you to the entrance to the mountain itself. The shorter route is duller, but does get you to the mountain a) a lot faster, and b) much more likely to be alive and actually get there at all! Indeed, getting to the mountain and re-living what made the original book such a seminal experience for us all is probably what we started playing this book for in the first place... and we are not disappointed at what we find. The map of the first (Livingstone) half of the original has been re-used here and it makes for a real trip down memory lane, although you are explicitly told that YOU are NOT the adventurer who killed Zagor the first time around which does slightly distance you from the point of the exercise here. However, the overlaying of the new version onto the old is so vivid and well-written that this alone makes this book essential to any FF fan. You do find yourself having to pretend to be surprised here and there, but seeing what various moments from the first book look like 10 years later really is a wonderfully nostalgic experience, amongst which are:
  • ·         The Giver Of Sleep’s case is still there, dusty but empty
  • ·         The skeleton of the (now dead) sleeping Orc guard is in its recess in the tunnel wall
  • ·         There are marks on the wall where the paintings were hung in the painting room
  • ·         The health-restoring “Rest ye here, weary traveller” seat is still in its position, but the lettering has worn off making it a bigger risk to sit on (although it still works)
  • ·         The remains of the dummy-levered iron portcullis trap can be found
  • ·         The ferry boatman still works the river (and is still prone to lycanthropic episodes if provoked)
  • ·         Some corridors have caved in and several doors are now padlocked or barred shut

This first half of the mountain isn’t just a re-tread of familiar territory, however, as other dangers and inhabitants have moved in which add variety and mystery to the proceedings. Once you have negotiated the river, you are faced with a complete re-design of the dungeon. Gone is the frustrating Maze Of Zagor (thankfully) and in its place is an extended dungeon section which is less original than Jackson’s part in the original, but seems more fitting to the idea of this just being basically a dungeon trawl. The second section is far tougher than the first (which in itself is not without its fair share of perils) and opens with a choice of two different “tests” rather akin to the series’ two Trial Of Champions outings. You can choose either (very tough) combats or a pair of mental tests, one of which is so difficult that you’ll wish you’d risked the Stamina on the combats instead. From there on in, you find yourself in a typically Livingstone-y dungeon cycle of items/combats/traps/death-avoidances until you eventually (if you ever get there) get to take on Zagor himself.

The Zagor character is an interesting one for many reasons. For a start, he was named retrospectively and is never referred to as anything other than “The Warlock” in the first book, but we would no doubt have known him as Zagor by the time the second book came out, given his appearance in The Trolltooth Wars novel and his write-up as one of the key evil wizards of Allansia in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World. The way he is handled in the two Firetop Mountain books is dramatically different, and this second book’s Zagor is a far cry from the reclusive, treasure-coveter of the first. For a start, he is now undead, given that “somebody” killed him in the first book and he has used magic to resurrect himself and is now slowly re-building himself from body parts that he is plundering from the locals in Anvil (although he is still missing an arm and he quite fancies nicking yours, as it turns out) making him into a super-intelligent Frankenstein’s monster affair. He has also become something of a megalomaniac in the Balthus Dire vein – his throne room has a huge Z on the door and he has started minting his own coinage (called “Zagors”) so he is not quite as subtle as he used to be either. Neither does he disguise himself as an old man, nor does he feel the need to store his power in a deck of cards anymore. Indeed, when you finally locate him, he wants to fight you half-naked and with big knives, so you do get the feeling that he’s perhaps become a bit of a pompous tosser over the last 10 years. It’s good in a way that Zagor is rather more sinister and imposing than he was in the first book, and the build-up that other NPCs give him is certainly justified this time around, plus we are surprised to see just what the re-animated Zagor is all about, but you do get the feeling that this is Zagor to the power of 10 and that he has been souped-up for an early 90s audience. The surprise of what he now is is welcome, but the disparity from the original Zagor is a little awkward. One thing he has in common with the first incarnation is the fact that his Achilles heel(s) can be found inside the mountain. In the first book, his decision to scatter his treasure keys all over the dungeon made no sense at all (although it is eventually explained away in The Trolltooth Wars), whereas this time we get the explanation that he has to balance out his use of a regeneration spell with the requirement to leave the objects of his destruction around the dungeon to allow potential vanquishers to make him pay the price for his sorcery. A little far-fetched, but at least it is logical this time around. The objects that you need to find to give him his just desserts are six teeth made from various substances (you are initially told it’s four that you need, but it turns out to be six), including one that seems to have element-changing properties in that it starts out as silver and later is referred to as bronze, although continuity was never a strong point of FF books, especially the later ones. These teeth have (in five cases, continuity out the window again then) numbers on them which are, and remember this is a Livingstone adventure, the references you eventually need to turn to to use them. In an unusually helpful move, there are also pages from books strewn throughout the dungeon that have the numbers written on them (including the missing one) and tell you what beats what (in a scissors-paper-stone stylie) which does make the pre-Zagor Elemental battle a little fairer than it would have been if you had to guess what to use and when. The Elemental battle itself is more climactic than the final showdown with Zagor and does add an extra element of challenge and interest and makes the tracking down of all the teeth seem all the more valid and essential to your victory (which it is, as you can’t get to Zagor without completing the Elemental fight.)

...And that’s pretty much the plot. Zagor is back from the dead, needs body parts from Anvil’s people to re-build himself and Anvil’s people need someone to kill him again, YOU are that someone and you have to find the tools you need to complete the job. Simple in the style of the early FFs, but it does at least make sense this time around, which is more than can be said for the original book! However, as this is book number 50, this is far harder than the first Zagor outing. We’ve already covered the list of standard Livingstone FF features that are included and, whilst this is far from impossible like some of his books, it is certainly very tough given how many items you need and the fact that it is very seldom that you can recover any lost Stamina (you set out with no Provisions, for a start.) Skill bonuses are more plentiful and you can carry two swords and acquire armour to make Skill penalties less likely. Also, only a few select special encounters are particularly hard, but those that are are VERY hard. Zagor himself is not as strong as you would maybe expect (Sk 11 St 18) but there is no way to weaken him so you have to face him with these stats and chances are that yours (Stamina especially) will be pretty low by this point. In typical IL style, there are lots of instant deaths (30 count), although Luck tests are less common than was the norm by this stage in the series.

A big plus of this book is how much Livingstone’s writing has progressed from the first FF. Descriptions are far longer and immersive and there is a great feeling of re-visiting somewhere you haven’t been for 10 years when you find the mountain entrance (even if your character has never actually been there at all!) There are some seemingly cramped moments where many rooms are crushed into a small space, but the urgency of the prose and the many and varied situations/encounters make up for this.

McKenna’s art works well in the context that this is a whole new Zagor we are dealing with, so the cosy familiarity that would have been present had Russ Nicholson drawn the art for this book is replaced with McKenna’s more gothic and “real” looking drawings. As for the cover, it is stunning with its royal purple border, huge “50” proudly presented at the bottom, and quite frightening-looking undead Zagor looming over Firetop Mountain and a teeming horde of baddies. The difference between the two concepts and Zagors is reflected well through the contrast between this cover and the first book’s (at least in its first form) “old man” cover. As usual, Wizard’s reissue covers dumb down the effect too much to be of any interest.

For fans of the first book, this is essential playing material. There is much fun to be had from revisiting the dungeon, from seeing what has changed and what has stayed the same, and from seeing what Firetop Mountain is like without Steve Jackson’s input. For fans of the more “out there” FF books (particularly those in the 20s and 40s parts of the series) this may seem a bit old hat in that it is basically just a traditional dungeon walk-through, but for anyone to whom The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain will always have a special significance, then this is a great book despite its continuity problems and the lack of anything remotely ground-breaking being included. Would this have been the best ever FF if SJ hadn’t backed out? Would it have been blighted by out-of-place (for the idiom) hidden paragraphs accessed by doing maths whenever it seemed appropriate? Or would we have been bored by another visit to the Maze Of Zagor? Who knows, but for me Ian has made a really good fist of going it alone with this and this book is certainly a worthy sequel rather than a bigger-budget, louder, and showier, but otherwise pointless sequel, which would have been a great shame. Plus, for anyone for whom this still isn't enough Zagor, it has an open ending suggesting he might be back for another sequel...