Sunday, August 11, 2013
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: Some Thoughts
I've already written about the significance that this book has to me, so you'll understand that this is by no means an unbiased review. This book was my gateway to fantasy gaming, and I have nothing but love for it. I'm not blind to its flaws, though, and it certainly does have some.
Probably the biggest is how disjointed the setting feels. There is some sort of structure to Firetop Mountain: Orcs near the entrance, tougher monsters further in, lycanthropes near the river, undead after that. Many of the encounters are interesting, but they don't connect much at all. This has a benefit, in that you never really know what's coming next (unless of course you're re-playing the book), but it also makes Firetop Mountain feel a bit unreal.
Structurally it's pretty simple. The dungeon design (at least before the river) is basically a straight line, with a few branches here and there. It wouldn't hold up for a game of D&D, but it works fine for the purpose of the book. It's obviously designed for replay value. You need three keys at the end to unlock the Warlock's treasure chest, but there's no guarantee that you will find them. You will probably even find some fakes. It's unlikely that the reader will complete it on the first try, but that's fine. This isn't a gamebook that rewards intelligent decision-making; you can simply fail by choosing to go left instead of right. What it does reward is persistence, mapping, and exploration over the course of multiple read-throughs.
From a structure standpoint, the Maze of Zagor is probably the most impressive thing in the book. It's not a particularly difficult maze when you look at a map of it, but the way it's written makes it disorienting unless you map it out carefully, and the teleport traps strewn about make that even more difficult. Sadly it's also the most boring and frustrating part of the book, and I've already mentioned how I used to get stuck here a lot as a kid, going around in circles.
The confrontation with the Warlock is also quite well done, with a number of fun options. You can duke it out with swords, if you feel like a very tough battle. You can drink a Potion of Invisibility and fight him that way, or you can lessen his power by burning his enchanted cards. Or you can do what I did and go for the insta-kill by using the Eye of the Cyclops. Gamebooks are always improved when there are multiple paths to victory.
In terms of game-design, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain hits a good balance. There are some tough fights, but most can be avoided. Most importantly, the book can be completed by a character regardless of Skill, Stamina and Luck scores. The Iron Cyclops is the toughest unavoidable combat, but I have scraped through that fight with a Skill 7 character before. At this point, the claim that any adventurer can make it through is still a true one.
I also need to give props to Russ Nicholson. In later years his style gets a lot thicker and busier, but here I love the thin line-work. It's brilliant, atmospheric stuff, as iconic as anything by Erol Otus or Dave Trampier. Just check the last two posts, there's some amazing work there.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is hardly the best of the Fighting Fantasy series; the authors are obviously still figuring out how the format works. But it is very solid, well-designed and fun, with great illustrations. It may be a little too much of a "funhouse dungeon" for some, but for me that's a bonus. This is without a doubt one of the cornerstones of early fantasy gaming.