Wednesday, 19 September 2012

You've Had This Place Redecorated, Haven't You?

I didn't get the first issue of Warlock magazine when it came out in the shops. It appeared to be mostly a reprint of  The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which I already had, and cost almost two thirds the price of an actual gamebook. The second issue didn't initially appeal that much, either, but I knew what was in it, and when I saw the book of Caverns of the Snow Witch in the shops, I erroneously assumed that the 'teaser' version of it in the magazine was the whole adventure, and as there was still a copy of issue 2 in the newsagents on Monson Road, I bought it as it was cheaper than the book. I soon realised my error, but enjoyed the magazine anyway, got all subsequent issues, and eventually came across a second-hand copy of the first one, at which point completism kicked in and I bought it. I must have found another one, in better condition, since then, because I remember using the squared paper on page 11 to map Firetop Mountain as far as the river (at which point I ran out of space), but there's not a trace of pencil on page 11 of the magazine I have here.

I'm not sure when I discovered that the version of TWoFM in the magazine wasn't quite the same as the book. Well, as it was split across the first two issues, I knew that some sections had been moved around so every decision prior to the 'To be continued' led to a section in issue 1, but for a long while I had no idea that there was more to the changes than that. But the correct path is not the same as in the book, some of the keys have been moved, and there's been the odd other tweak here and there. So as this provides an opportunity for a playthrough to cover some areas of Firetop Mountain I'd normally avoid, as I did pretty poorly at the original version of the adventure, and as someone has expressed an interest in seeing the Warlock variant covered here, it's time to visit an alternate reality's version of the very first Fighting Fantasy adventure...

The first difference is the Background section. Which was called 'Rumours' in the book. But it's not just the title of the prologue that's changed. In the original version, I was already set to enter the mountain and kill the Warlock, and had spent a couple of days in an unidentified village close by, listening to half-accurate gossip. Here, I start out just trekking across the Pagan Plain, where I encounter an old man who, upon hearing that I'm looking for adventure, suggests helping him and his community out. They live in the village of Anvil, two days' travel from the mountain, and are worried about the 'vile creatures' that have been moving into the region. They also hold the Warlock responsible for the failure of their crops. Circumstantial evidence at best, but 'save the downtrodden peasants' is a little less mercenary a motivation than 'nick the Warlock's treasure'. The actual information the villagers provide is much the same as in the book, with a little added colour, but the advice about the ferryman has changed to 'beware the strange ferryman who charges Gold Pieces for his services'. It's called 'capitalism', Dennis.

There's a new illustration of the cave leading into the mountain, too. A bit fanciful, depicting mist and beasts and skeletal remains unmentioned in the text, but quite evocative.

The rules are the same as in the book, right down to the 'two doses of Potion, which can be drunk at any time' quirk. This time round my character is a more promising
Skill: 10
Stamina: 16
Luck: 11
I'll take the Potion of Strength, as the Stamina's a little low, but it shouldn't be a problem as long as I don't get overconfident.

The adventure itself starts off just like the book. I'm pretty sure the wrong turning at the first junction still leads to the room where the Warlock keeps his spare hole in the ground, and sufficiently certain that there's nothing important that way to not bother checking. Dozing guard, check. Slumbering relief guard with boxed mouse, check. Snake-in-a-box, check. But inside the box along with the snake are six gold pieces, rather than the key expected by anyone who's burned the optimal route through the book into their neural passageways through repeated play.

Drunken Orcs guarding Dragonfire spell, check. The biographical details that go with the spell don't actually make a lot of sense. Di Maggio spends his life developing a spell that works exclusively against evil Dragons, and which will destroy the caster if used for the wrong purpose. But he's too old to go Dragon-slaying himself, so to ensure that the spell doesn't fall into the wrong hands (even though it's already rigged to burn any wrong hands that attempt to use it) he hides it in a complex of tunnels inside a mountain ruled over by an evil Warlock. Er, what?

Junction with one turning leading to a room where the Orc Chieftain is beating his servant, check. And the servant still suffers from Stockholm Syndrome (or the Allansian equivalent - let's call that Craggen Rock Syndrome, since the first FF book with a 'wind up serving the villain' failure ending is set there) and attacks you if you try to defend him. Booby-trapped treasure chest, che- Ow! And in addition to its usual contents, underneath the glove is a key. But not the key that was originally in the snake box. This goes to 125 (not 111).

Junction with turning leading to a room full of squabbling Orcs, check. Superfluous Skill bonus for beating the Orcs in battle, check. Bow and silver arrow that archery experts say is entirely the wrong design for use against humanoids, check. Locked door with ex-adventurer imprisoned in the room behind it, check. The accompanying illustration takes up a whole page, and the increased size enables me to notice details that had previously escaped my notice, like the little critter in the muck (bottom left-hand corner), or the prisoner's rather horrid overgrown toenail. The man still calms down when yelled at, and reveals whether or not the genuine and booby-trapped levers by the portcullis have been switched around for this variant.

Locked door to weapon store containing shield that's barely worth using, can't be bothered to check. Goblin torturers (as in Goblins who are torturers, rather than torturers of Goblins), dead Dwarf, and cheese, check. Portcullis and levers, check. And the lever indicated by the man in the cell is still the correct one.

The junction beyond the portcullis is the point at which the major divergence between book and magazine versions occurs. Well, the encounters to be had on the various branching paths ahead are the same in both variants, but the path on which you find all the necessary keys is not the same. So it's farewell to familiar territory, and off into the less well-known...

A side tunnel leads to an empty chamber, and Schroedinger's Ogre follows me into it. I call him that because he's only following me if I actually enter the chamber. Halt outside, decide not to go in, and turn back, and there's nobody behind me. Step across the threshold, and I immediately hear him approaching. (Insert Twilight Zone theme music.) Now, if you're familiar with the victory-proof routes through the book, you may know that this Ogre carries a key. Not this 'this Ogre'. He's pawned it for 3 gold pieces, by the look of things.

Ignoring a side turning that just leads to a dead end and being laughed at, I reach another junction. Go the wrong way here, and I'm in trouble. This would have been a tricky decision three years ago. However, in 2009, having been introduced to the fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game Wesnoth by friends, I made a few custom maps for it, including one based on Firetop Mountain, and I've played on that map often enough that I know which way leads to the Troll. And that's the way I don't want to go here.

Beyond that junction I'm less clear on exactly what is where, but I know the layout well enough that I should be able to check out every room between here and the river. The first one I check contains an old man, who invites me to have a wager. I decide to give it a go, and the game turns out not to be fixed. Winning also gives me a boost to all three attributes, most of which are already at maximum, but if I'd pulled the wrong lever back at the portcullis, the Skill replenishment would be very welcome.

My route next passes through the room with the mosaic floor. Even if you've never been this way, you'll probably have seen the illustration if you've played the book, as one of the paragraphs across the page from it is set in the Maze. It's another full-page picture here. Perhaps not the best candidate, as the blank walls and ceiling make it a bit sparse, and at this magnification it becomes clear that the tiles at the far end of the room are a little crudely drawn. Still, it wasn't supposed to be seen this big, so it's not much of a reason to criticise Russ Nicholson.

I cross the floor using only the safe tiles, and take the correct turning at the next junction, winding up at a door with a skirt. Beyond it is the room containing the next key. Of all the keys in the dungeon, the one that really couldn't be relocated is this one, as it's shown in a picture. Well, the room could have been swapped with another one, but when the key is depicted hanging on the wall, there's no opportunity to say that this time round it's inside a boot or in a Sandworm's stomach or wherever. Anyway, I get the key and, catastrophically, fail the roll to hold my breath and avoid breathing in the toxic gas that gets pumped into the room. It's not lethal, but the Skill it costs me could be vital later on.

At the next junction I don't get to choose which way to go, because there's an arrow carved into the rock, and the text says I decide to go the way indicated. Lucky for me that it's not showing the way to some inescapably lethal trap, eh? Despite my depleted Stamina, I don't pause to eat Provisions by the river, because I know what will attack me if I try, and it's not worth getting into the fight. Not even for the full-page version of the picture in all its Sandworm-erupting-from-riverbank glory.

So I jump into the water, and the current whisks me downstream to the point where all post-portcullis routes converge. This stretch of the river is rather more inhabited than the rest, so I won't try swimming across. Use the raft, though it steers worse than a supermarket trolley? Risk the rickety bridge? Or ring for the dreaded Money-Charging Ferryman? I take a chance on the raft, and manage to get across to the far bank.

There are three ways to go from here, and it might matter which one I choose. Up to four keys can be acquired between the entrance and the Warlock's chest, and I can't remember which of the four is the red herring. If you know the book well enough to be aware of the location of the first key after the river, you know which way I have to go now. But this time round, it's the right way for the wrong reason.

Regardless, I head for the room where I'll find the sleeping man with the dog and the untied bootlaces. I wake the man and chat with him, as his story has some interesting implications. Apparently, several years ago a heavy thaw caused the river to swell and cut off this part of the subterranean complex. Its inhabitants starved to death, so the Warlock turned them all undead. So if everyone who inhabits the region north of the river is undead, and this man lives north of the river...

He sets his dog on me. It breathes fire. Soon it doesn't breathe anything. This displeases the man, who turns out to be a Werewolf. The sort that operates on the Incredible Hulk model rather than the lunar cycle. Despite having a higher Skill than almost every opponent I've had to fight in this adventure (and my now having a reduced Skill), he doesn't so much as inflict a scratch on me. Not that his form of lycanthropy is contagious, but I was half-expecting to need a swig of potion before the fight was done.

Anyway, I help myself to the ring of keys on the wall. In this version of the adventure, one of them is numbered. The key to the boat house door is there as well, but I don't need to go to the boat house to get the key with the number on. Good thing, too, as there's something very useful on the path that doesn't go via the boat house. So I just grab the only edible thing in the Werewolf's larder (a jar of pickled eggs, so some may disagree about 'edible'), and make for the door in the cliff face.

Incidentally, if you were to search the part of the boat house that contains the key in the book, you'd find a silver-tipped throwing dart that can be used to injure an opponent before a fight commences. A little thought has gone into that: shortly after the boat house there's an opponent that can only be harmed with silver weapons. Thanks to the silver tip, any damage done by the dart doesn't have to be retroactively negated following the revelation that conventional weapons do nothing. Oh, and the picture of the boat house is another full-page job, so Murray might want to track down a copy of the magazine so as to get a better look at the Skeletons (which, judging by the description of their movements, must have been animated by Ray Harryhausen. As are all the best animated Skeletons).

But I'm not going that way. I'm going via the darkened room where I get rendered unconscious by a blow to the head. Not that I'm a fan of cranial trauma (mind you, I do have a still-just-discernible scar on my left temple as the result of a disagreement with a paving stone several years back), but if I can survive the fight with the Zombies that inhabit the room, I can do something about remedying that depleted Skill of mine.

Anyway, I come round, and deduce that it was probably the Zombie with the club that hit me, as the scythe, the axe and the pick carried by the others would have drawn blood. The Zombies must have some conception of symmetry, as the corpse of their previous victim is in the north-east corner of the room, while I've been dumped in the south-west. Three of them injure me during the subsequent fight, but at the end I'm the one still standing, so I make my way over to the corpse in the corner and search it.

This eggshell-skulled individual has a sword, shield, leather armour, a little money, and a silver crucifix. I'm pretty sure this is the only crucifix in all Fighting Fantasy. There are crosses aplenty in later books, but a crucifix has someone crucified on the cross. Given that most FF books are set in a completely different reality to the one I inhabit (one in which, to judge by the little evidence available, crucifixion has no significance beyond being what Black Elves do to people who annoy them), I can see the logic behind dispensing with the overly specific iconography of the crucifix while still retaining the cross as a symbol that repels evil (on account of its familiarity in western media).

For inadequately explained reasons, I can only take two things from the dead adventurer. Oh, and somehow the very act of searching the corpse provides a Skill bonus, which I'd forgotten about. Once I've chosen, I get to learn more about what I took. The book gets a bit melodramatic here: 'What are these mysterious items you have collected?' While I didn't go for it, the dead man's money is one of the 'items', and there's nothing very mysterious about money (apart from the way that it keeps running out). Still, I chose the sword and the crucifix, which rather makes me sound like a Crusader, now I come to think about it. Oh, well, never mind. Anyway, there's nothing very remarkable about the crucifix, but the sword turns out to be enchanted, and gives a bonus to Initial and Current Skill, leaving me better off than I was at the start of the adventure. To give a counter-moral to Marsten's: Rum may refresh, but a magic sword penetrates the parts drinks cannot reach.

An unidentified noise startles me into leaving the room. I'd have got a more specific noise if I'd investigated something other than the corpse, but the sword more than makes up for the vagueness. The next room I enter is a crypt, containing an altar and several coffins. Of course there are Vampires here. Well, at least one Vampire. Possibly more. Regardless, the route I took to get here bypassed the place where I could have got some wooden stakes, so I can't have a shot at being the klutziest Slayer ever (you can read about how that pans out in Marsten's playthrough, which I've already linked to once) and the loot in the crypt isn't important enough to justify the risk of fighting the Vampire, so I don't loiter.

Beyond a crossroads, I reach a part of the complex that is under construction, with a staircase to a lower level being excavated by magical tools. Or rather, with an assortment of magical tools slacking off beside an unfinished staircase until I show up, at which point they suddenly get busy. Love it! While working, they hum Heigh-Ho. Yes, the tune from the animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. My theory is that the Warlock plans to turn this mountain into Disneyland Allansia. Whatever the truth, while watching the tools at work, I relax sufficiently to recover that last missing Skill point, after which I head back to the crossroads and go a more finished way.

Before long I see an opening in the wall, leading to a completed flight of steps leading downwards. This is the point at which the portion of the adventure in issue 1 concludes. Not the most exciting cliffhanger ever. Normally, I will cover serialised adventures in instalments, but as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was designed as a complete adventure and just split up for the magazine (plus the fact that the remainder of the adventure consists mostly of wandering around a maze), I shall not stop here.

The room at the bottom of the stairs contains three corpses. I find some money on the first one. Somehow, as I move towards the second one, I manage to kick the third one, which lashes out at me, and unexpectedly wounds me. This is the Ghoul that so morbidly fascinated me on my first attempt at the adventure, and while the delightfully repulsive illustration isn't full-page, it is a little larger here than in the book. Even the more recent trade paperback variant.

My improved Skill should suffice to win me the fight, and even if it doesn't, the Ghoul won't get to paralyse me and eat me alive, as my Stamina is just low enough that the wound that would paralyse me will kill me instead. As it turns out, I don't take another scratch. The only thing of value the Ghoul has is a pair of earrings (in a pocket, and thus not visible in the picture at any magnification), but the body I was going to search when I was so rudely interrupted has on it a bottle of fluid and a barely readable map of the Maze of Zagor. There's no illustration to enable even an attempt at making out the layout of the maze (not that I need one), and the semi-legible text merely indicates the presence of ---GER in the north and SM--- P---LE to the east. It took me years to twig that the latter was probably 'Small People'.

Not as informative as this

I also have the option of testing the liquid. Alarmingly, my technique turns out to be 'swallow some and hope it's not harmful', but on this occasion it pays off, as the liquid is Holy Water, which restores most of my lost Stamina. In later books it becomes apparent that Holy Water is harmful to Ghouls, so I have no idea how corpse two managed to get himself killed by this one. Unless he died elsewhere, the Warlock found the bottle on the body, and he thought it would be amusingly ironic to have it guarded by the Ghoul, so nobody would find it until they'd dealt with the opponent against which it would be most effective.

Stairs up lead to another passageway, and a portcullis drops behind me. I have now reached the Maze. And I don't need to refer to the picture above to help me through it. First off, I head to the Minotaur's room. This Minotaur isn't so tough, and before long I have the key he guards. Hey, while I said there was only one key that couldn't be relocated, I never claimed it was the only one that didn't get relocated. And from the number on this one, I deduce which of the keys I've found is not required.

That done, I take the most direct route to the Dragon's chamber. Oh, I could visit the Dwarves or the Mazemaster (who gets an all-new full-page illustration that omits one of the doors leading from the room), but there's no need. I go through one secret door along the way, managing not to trigger the alarm when I activate it. The spell I learned way back near the beginning gets rid of the Dragon, and beyond that is just the Warlock's suite.

Of course, not having fought the Iron Cyclops this time round, I don't have the item that averts combat with the Warlock. There are still two potential ways of making it easier, and as one requires me to successfully Test my Luck, and I've already had a couple of implausibly Unlucky rolls this adventure, I won't chance another. Instead, I down the Potion of Invisibility I found in the Orc Chieftain's chest. Treasure chest, not anatomical. That makes the fight a lot easier, and all that lies between me and victory is key selection.

So I try the keys I think are the right ones, and get redirected to section 387.

This is a stroke of evil genius by whoever reedited the adventure for the magazine. You see, there are some section numbers that tend to stick in the memory. And if you know The Warlock of Firetop Mountain well, you may be aware that 387 is the 'use all the wrong keys and get killed by poison darts' ending, while 169 is the 'use all the right keys and get sent to 400' section (and 192 is the unreachable one put in to make an even 400 sections). In the magazine, 169 and 387 have been swapped around. So back when I made my first successful attempt at this variant (having already got the 'you don't have all the right keys, and thus fail' ending at least once), reading that instruction filled me with dread and confusion. At least two of those keys had to be right. It wasn't possible that they were all wrong. And yet I'd been sent to the doom-laden 387. So I turned to it, realised what the sneaky reeditor had done, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Now I know the trick, there's not the same mix of emotions. But it still feels good to win, even after playing often enough to have inadvertently memorised the optimal route through the Maze.

No comments:

Post a Comment