THE WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN PART I
THE WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN PART II
CAVERNS OF THE SNOW WITCH
THE HOUSE OF HELL
Reviewed by Mark Lain
In its infancy, Warlock magazine needed to find a way to present its main offering of a mini-FF adventure in the days before any readers started chancing their hand and submitting their original adventures for consideration. Indeed, the headline on the cover of Issue 1 states “cash prizes for your own Fighting Fantasy adventures” with a competition inside asking readers to send in their efforts in return for money (and publication in the magazine and canonic legitimisation of their contribution, of course). Obviously, before the entries came flooding in, Warlock needed to find a way to fill the intervening issues and this was done with a combination of revised versions of already published books and teaser versions of imminent ones. Thus, Issues 1 and 2 contained the already getting on for two years old The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain split roughly 68/32 (ie Part 1 had 273 sections and Part II had 127 sections), Issue 2 filled itself out further with a 190 paragraph truncated version of the soon-to-be-released Caverns Of The Snow Witch, and Issue 3 gave us a 185 section version of the also then forthcoming House Of Hell (with the definite article prefixed on for good grammatical measure). All of these versions are in some way, and to varying extents, different to their book equivalents and all are worth a look for various different reasons.
Starting at the beginning, WOFM as presented in its two-part form is probably the subtlest in terms of how it differs to the more familiar book version. By all intents and purposes, the adventure per se is the same. In other words, the map is identical (even the torturous Maze Of Zagor is identical if you can be bothered to map both versions and cross-check them), the encounters are all in the same places, and the plot and purpose are the same. The only obvious difference is that the numbered keys to open Zagor’s treasure chest are scattered about in different rooms to the book and the order of the numerical placing in terms of progress through the dungeon of each numbered key (bar one) is different too. Similarly, the combination needed to win at the end is different (well, it’s one numbered key different, anyway!) A criticism many people (myself included) have levelled against the book version is that it is totally illogical plot-wise and that your motives are mercenary and wholly without honour. In this respect, the magazine version is actually slightly improved though as its Introduction (here called the “Background”) makes more sense as it starts with a chance encounter with an old man who relates the Zagor situation to YOU which segues neatly into your reasons for wanting to enter Firetop Mountain. Whereas, the book version’s intro (more abstractly entitled “Rumours”) has no apparent context and just throws YOU straight to the point where you want to enter Firetop Mountain. I prefer the magazine version’s lead-in as it is just more satisfying and jars far less in that it adds more depth, colour, and reasoning to the whole concept of the adventure.
I’m not going to go over territory again that is already covered in my review of the book version, suffice to say that the magazine’s opening spiel states that this version of WOFM is “specially revised” to make it distinct from the book version which, by all accounts, is a good thing as most people reading Warlock would no doubt have read the book previously. As I have said, the only material difference between the two is the background context and the alternative numbered key mechanics, but there are some subtler differences for the sharp-eyed to pick out. Obviously, and by necessity, the paragraph numbering is different in the Warlock version as the areas up to the boathouse on the north bank of the river are covered in Part 1, whilst the ghoul chamber through to Zagor’s study and treasure room are in Part 2, meaning that the Livingstone-penned part is effectively now numbered as sections 1 thru 273, and the Jackson part is numbered 274 thru 400. This does present a starker imbalance in quality for me than in the book as I far prefer the variety and exploration opportunities of the Livingstone half to the frankly irritating and very repetitive Maze of Zagor that dominates Jackson’s section. By definition then, Part 2 is rather less satisfying than Part 1 as it is literally just the Maze bookended by the ghoul chamber and the dragon/Zagor/key trial climax. Given that most of the keys (even in this version) are in Part 1, it goes without saying that you cannot play Part 2 on its own as most essential items needed to complete Part 2 are to be found in Part 1. In theory you could play Part 1 by itself but it would end on a cliffhanger and be totally inconclusive so I doubt you would realistically want to do this unless you really cannot face the Jackson part of the adventure again and are curious about finding the repositioned keys. Just playing Part II in isolation would be very uninteresting. A more stark difference is in the art. Whilst 90% of the art is the same fantastic Russ Nicholson work that was seen in the book, there are a couple of little changes: the image of the entrance to the mountain is very different and far more busy and foreboding with its heads on spikes and swirling mists that give it a lot more drama than the book original; the full-page title plates to both Parts are new pieces by Tim Sell and are radically different in style to Nicholson’s art, having a rather darker appearance and feel to them which does make the whole thing rather more sinister; also, the larger A4 size of some of the illustrations hugely increases their impact and does Nicholson’s work far more justice as you can see the detail in them to far greater advantage than in the book – conversely, the much smaller format of some other illustrations in the magazine version reduces their effect and is almost an insult to the art at times (Zagor and the Iron Cyclops, in particular) and I do not understand why the star/hand room (a relatively incongruous cameo) was considered important enough to be blown up to a full-page spread whilst Zagor himself in all his glory is hardly even A6 in this version.
Curiously, the Editorial in Issue 2 of Warlock says “In the next issue we will be featuring a Fighting Fantasy adventure written by Steve”. Er, what’s Part 2 of WOFM then? Also, in the same Editorial is the statement that “Caverns Of the Snow Witch is an adventure “for newcomers to Fighting Fantasy”. I wholeheartedly disagree with this remark given how ridiculously difficult CotSW is. If this was my first experience of FF I’d be put off by it for that very reason even if it does give a decent indication of the usually unfair difficulty levels and extreme linearity of Livingstone’s FFs. If you are more familiar with the full-length book version, the version of CotSW presented in Issue 2 tends to feel like a trailer (which, by all intents and purposes, it is!) as it is, word-for-word, the first half of the book version ending after you have defeated the Snow Witch for the first time. This format makes the opening Act when you are hunting the Yeti feel “bigger” in terms of how much of the adventure it takes up and it takes away the feeling that the book version gives that the Yeti section (which is, let’s face it, the initial reason for your quest) is just a Prologue to lead to the big reveal that makes you want to vanquish the Snow Witch. Unfortunately, this also creates the effect of making the first Act seem all the more crushingly hard as you are bombarded by a catalogue of high-powered combats, Luck tests, and stat penalties that, whilst harsh in any version, seem all the harsher in a short subject. Add to this the fact that the magazine version only gives you 5 starting Provisions (which would normally make sense in a half-length FF but is not very reasonable in this particular adventure) and no Potions and you really are up against it with this. The book version is very unfair due to all the tough combats, multiple Luck tests, and loads of stat penalties, but this shorter version, in spite of being exactly the same, seems even more relentless in how much it is out to get the player.
Horribly hard opening salvo aside, as this is literally just the first half of the book, anyone familiar with the book version really has nothing to gain from playing the magazine version unless, like me, you find it a more satisfying experience just to kill the Snow Witch and end it there rather than having to go through the arduous ordeal of the post-caverns coda that is simply very dull. The truncation in the magazine version has positives and negatives and neither version is ultimately all that good. As a good third or so of the magazine version is taken up with the pre-caverns part, this version seems rather unbalanced and the caverns do not seem especially “epic” once you are in them. The flipside of this is that the book version goes too far the other way and just way overstays its welcome. A happy medium would have made for something actually very satisfying and I would suggest that the definitive version (Director’s Final Cut?) would end after the second Snow Witch kill. As she is a vampire her resurrection and you having to deal with her twice does make sense and, as both showdowns are very different, it keeps it interesting. What kills the book off for me is everything that comes after the second Snow Witch slaying, none of which, obviously, is in the magazine version. As there is no second Snow Witch fight, there is no frustratingly arbitrary scissors-paper-stone disc battle but it also makes her first (and only, in the magazine) death seem rather too easy, assuming you have the items you need to kill her. Unfortunately, the early finish also means that the brilliant Brian Slayer is not in the Warlock version, neither are the dwarf and elf companions (whose validity of appearance is a matter of opinion anyway). That said, most of the better encounters are in the first part so are still here: the Crystal Warrior, the illusionist, the Ice Demon worship room, the plot devices of the influenced dark elf and the goblins tormenting the dwarf, etc so the actual content in the magazine version is very good. Indeed, the story element is still decent even in this truncated form and it is definitely better for not having the death spell part which makes the book seem like it goes on forever. Conversely though, and this is often an issue with Warlock short subjects, the way the magazine version just stops after the first Snow Witch death makes it all a bit “meh” and there is a lot of build-up to seemingly very little. The fact that the book version handled the extension of the adventure so badly makes this all the more unrewarding regardless of which version you are reading. As the shorter version is still blighted by the harsh Yeti part and a generally unfair and ridiculously linear feel, these problems do amplify themselves in this version, although I would suggest that the compulsion to play the short is greater than that to play the book if only because of the awful post-caverns section in the book, but overall I suspect neither will inspire much replaying.
The most striking and important aspect of Warlock’s version of CotSW is the art. The book version featured the unique woodcut-style art of Gary Ward and Edward Crosby which made it visually very unusual within the series and very memorable for it too. Personally I would have loved to have seen more from this pairing but it wasn’t to be for whatever reason (probably very tight deadlines to produce the art, from what I can gather). The magazine version uses the much more naturalistic and semi-cartoonish art of Duncan Smith. I liked his work in Scorpion Swamp and Fighting Fantasy – The Role-Playing Game as it suited the feel of those pieces, but CotSW is rather darker and more oppressive in tone which makes his interpretations of the visuals seem almost trivialised. Now, this might just be because I’m so used to the book’s art and am a fan of the woodcut visualisations that any other version doesn’t look right, but I just do not feel that the Smith version works. Some of his illustrations here look fine (the minstrel with his curly-toed shoes is nice, Big Jim is very real-looking, the zombie is very effective, and his dark elf is unusually sinister for a Smith image) but the bulk of it is just too “cutesy”: the Ice Demon is far too friendly-looking, the Yeti is hideous and looks like a deformed sloth, the Crystal Warrior looks like Thor for some reason, I have no idea what the hell is going on with the Sentinel, and the Snow Witch herself is a bizarre mixture of sexy and unalluring both at the same time. Interestingly, the cover to Issue 2 has Peter Andrew Jones’ take on Duncan Smith’s take on Shareela (or possibly the other way around) which seems to work rather better with her striking a pose in a skull-shaped cave entrance but that may well be because PAJ is a far more accomplished fantasy artist than Duncan Smith in my opinion. Having said all this, Smith’s version of the imagery does present a different take on the whole concept and it would be interesting to see how my opinion would have been affected had his art been used in the book and the woodcut versions had never existed. I still think it would have seemed not dark enough in tone but we will never know. It would also be interesting to see what Smith would have made of the plates for the rest of the adventure and maybe even his version of Les Edwards’ cover image, but this is all conjecture.
The big surprise reveal in Issue 3 was Jackson’s The House Of Hell – the first modern day-set horror FF adventure. The even bigger surprise for anyone who read both versions was just how much they differ and, for those curious about this, the Warlock version is by far the most interesting of the four (or three, if you count the two Parts of WOFM as one adventure) short versions of book adventures that Warlock had to offer and is a real revelation for several reasons. Firstly, as soon as the adventure proper begins, you start to notice the differences as even the ways into the house are not the same as those in the book and you can find yourself tumbling into the cellars without even getting through the front door! Enter the house itself and you find familiar material presented in an unfamiliar layout. The differences are considerable and just a few are: the layout of the upstairs rooms is completely different and the naming conventions are more “posh” house or hotel names rather than specifically Satanic/demonic names like in the book; the lethal cellar which in the book is a series of ways for YOU to die is much smaller (basically just the sacrificial man in the cell and the girl being sacrificed on the altar cameos) and it is fairly easy to escape it; there is far less reliance on Jackson’s patent hidden section puzzle structure, although the magazine version does still add a different challenge factor with two essential hidden sections that you need to find to survive (which are much more conventionally signposted and require no guesswork); there is no annoying minimum Fear score needed to succeed (it’s 9 in the book) as the true path suggests 5 Fear points are all you need to sustain for a win so the Fear score you initially roll won’t necessarily mean you can lose before you have even started playing like in the book, plus there are far less red herring rooms designed just to scare you and dangerously increase your Fear; the big reveal at the end of the book where Franklins the Butler is actually The Master is not in this version and it is the Earl of Drumer himself who has to be defeated to win; there is no Hell Demon fight as killing Drumer is all that is needed to escape the house (which is a bit of a disappointment as the Hell Demon is one of my favourite end baddies as it is truly terrifying and I liked the fact that the house was actually inhabited by The Master himself as it made it feel all the more “Hell”-ish); and most importantly and noticeable is the fact that the magazine version is far easier, in fact it does not take long at all to beat it as long as you map it out whereas even mapping is not much help in the book version! The whole map of the shorter version has been rearranged (with the exception of the initial part where you meet Drumer and have dinner with him) and, given the radically different solution too, this is in many ways a completely different adventure to the book version. The fundamentals are there in both - the background premise, the sacrifices/Master summoning, the ghost lady and Morgana helping you, the Fear mechanic, your need to find a weapon or take a -3 Skill penalty, the Kris Knife maguffin, the inherent evil within the house – but the actual way the adventure plays out is very different. The cameos/encounters in the short version are all in the long version and (barring some stuffed animal heads that growl at you as you pass them and the trapdoor outside the front door) there is nothing here that is not in the book, but it is the overall presentation that makes this so different. Obviously, there is a huge amount of material in the book that is not in the magazine version (as it’s less than half the length) but most of the really memorable key moments for me are there (George the vampire, Morgana and her plants, the headless ghost, the ghost girl, the nude sacrifice, the talking paintings, the nerve-wracking food choices at dinner, etc) and only the brutal torture chamber game and the Hell Demon reveal really feel like losses in my opinion. That said, the ending variation where Drumer rather than Franklins is the main baddie is a nice twist and makes it feel even more different (if that is possible). As an aside, the very close reader will also notice that some of the text in the magazine version (especially the intro) is worded differently and/or sentence structure is rearranged too when compared to the book.
As Tim Sell seemed to be actively involved in the early numbers of Warlock, it is no surprise that his art as seen in the book is used in the magazine version too which maintains the dark, demonic feel that his art contributed to the book. Close examination of the illustrations will show three that did not make it into the book as they are only relevant to the shorter version: the stuffed animal heads, the Earl of Drumer attacking alone (as Franklins is irrelevant in this version’s climax), and the study is laid out differently with the ghostly message that appears on the paper being different as Shekou plays no part in the true path in this version. Also, as with the two halves of WOFM before it, we get a full-page title plate montage of various horrors from throughout the adventure which is something of an assault on the senses. Whilst on the subject of the title, the magazine version is notionally entitled The House Of Hell with the definite article that was not on the book version. The title card does not have the “The” but the cover headline does have it, as does discussion of it inside the magazine, and this version is generally referred to with the “The” in place. (I guess it’s a handy way of distinguishing versions or whatever, too). As is always the case with Warlock mini-FFs, the illustrations are various sizes from full page spreads to tiny asides and the larger format particularly benefits the closing image of the blazing house with evil spirits emanating from everywhere but as usual, some images are played down too by being too small. An interesting point of note is that the notorious nude sacrifice image is here and is larger than it is in the book which serves to emphasise the fact that there is nothing seditious about it at all as you literally cannot distinguish anything that could be construed as controversial (something we have all always known!) The cover image of Warlock Issue 3 by Terry Oakes is suitably eerie and its central blanched-faced demonic creature is certainly unsettling but it isn’t actually in the adventure, although the Norman Bates-type Hellhouse stands in the background awaiting the unwary so there is definitely a kind of link between the magazine’s cover and the adventure inside.
I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that these three/four Warlock shorts are often overlooked as they are considered to be the same as the book version. However, in every case, there is something very obviously different about them (WOFM’s variant key locations and solution, CotSW being half the length and having completely different artwork, and HoH basically being a different adventure entirely) and these are of rather more interest than fans probably realise (with the possible exception of the, admittedly mercifully, shorter CotSW). HoH is clearly my favourite as it is so very different and is light relief in difficulty terms when compared to its bigger brother. WOFM is more of a novelty variant for the completist but, as it was the granddaddy of them all, it makes sense for it to be the opener for launching Warlock magazine too, even if Part II is hard work by any standards when presented in this fashion but is also a necessity in completing the piece. As I have said, CotSW offers little other than a far less tedious slog than the book, but it is still stupidly hard to the point of being simply unfair, and I cannot see it having much mileage compared to the book version bar the different perspective that Duncan Smith’s interpretation of the imagery can offer and even this is inferior to the Ward-Crosby visualisation. The larger format of certain art plates shows them to fuller advantage than in the books, but the far smaller plates do not do the images any favours, plus the usual problem in Warlock mini-FFs of linking sections often being on the same page due to the large page size can reduce the surprise somewhat (not that there are any in CotSW, in particular).
With the benefit of hindsight these adventures are probably more for the hardcore fan to play and enjoy making comparisons with the book versions than anything else nowadays and they are certainly far less essential than their book counterparts. That said, HoH in Warlock Issue 3 is well worth seeking out even if the other two are probably only curious diversions.