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...


  1. 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!
    And c) minus several items without which there is no way of obtaining all the teeth.

    I'm about a month away from playing this one for my blog. I remember enjoying the nostalgia aspect the first time I had a go at it, but before long the grind of 'roll up character, do (mostly) the same as on the previous attempt, and (if lucky) survive long enough to find a new way of getting killed' robbed it of any joy.

  2. As regards "The lie that the book can be won with average stats..."

    I wonder if a superior (or at least more involved) method of character creation would be the following:

    Base stats: Skill 9, Stamina 15, Luck 9

    Player Rolls 1d6, can choose to put those points into Skill, Stamina or Luck. Each Point Placed in Stamina increases it by 3.

    The maximum initial starting stats (of each individual attribute) are Skill 12, Stamina 24 and Luck 12. So if you rolled a 6 you couldn't start with Skill 15.

    This new method would:
    1. Still retain an element of luck (in the dice rolls).
    2. Have players think about and mould their own style of play (rather than risking everything to dice rolls).
    3. With the minimum Skill raised players will always feel heroic and will have a fighting chance at the game's combat.
    4. Successful completion of each adventure could yield 1 additional attribute point (although you could always do this last point anyway I suppose).

  3. Hey Malthus, you reckon you could do a Night of the Necromancer review at some point. Loved this review though. ;D

    1. It's on my list but I don't think it's going to be the next one. Watch this space though...

  4. Loved the cover of this one, liked the contents less so.

  5. Just replying the books, still hate this book. It has none of the joy of the original book, but at least it allowed books 51,52,53,54 and 58 to exist.