Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Retrospective: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Released in 1982, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is the first entry in Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's series of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, about which I've spoken before. I was a big fan of these books in my early teen years, in part because they allowed me to "play" on occasions where I was unable to get together with my friends as I usually did. Ultimately, though, what kept me reading them was that they were extremely well done, both in terms of the fantastic world they presented and the challenge they presented. Achieving victory in the better Fighting Fantasy books was a difficult proposition, even assuming you rolled well against the many opponents and obstacles you'd have to face in the course of your adventure -- and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was definitely one of the better books in the series.

The basic premise of the book is simple. The reader is an adventurer on a quest for a treasure hidden deep within the caverns and dungeons of Firetop Mountain. The mountain is populated by all manner of fearsome beasts, living and undead. It's also the home of the Warlock, too, a dark magician who's none too eager to have the treasure stolen from him. To that end, it's well guarded within a chest possessing a double lock. Finding the two keys needed to open the lock is thus as important as finding the location of the treasure itself. Naturally, the keys are guarded by some of the deadliest creatures in Firetop Mountain and there are numerous false keys scattered about as well, making it hard to determine whether one has truly found those needed to complete the quest.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, were it a printed adventure module, would most assuredly be called "old school." Not only is the place very deadly, with several opportunities for instant death (forget "save or die"), but the structure of some of its puzzles (like figuring out which keys are the real ones) more or less necessitate meta-gaming. That is, you might have to fail several times in your quest and then start over, using the knowledge gained from previous attempts to succeed on your next try. Personally, I never minded this, as it kept me interested in the book, determined to "beat" it, but some might find it "immersion breaking." The same might be said of the dungeons and caverns of Firetop Mountain, which definitely veer more toward the "funhouse" end of the spectrum than they do toward anything more naturalistic.

I owned the American version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which featured the Richard Corben cover pictured here. The interior illustrations, though, were those of Russ Nicholson, just as in the UK original. I cannot tell you how profoundly the illustrations in this book affected me as a young person. I was familiar with Nicholson's work from the Fiend Folio, of course, but, for some reason, perhaps my ambivalent opinion of that manual of monsters, his work on Fighting Fantasy made a much stronger impression. The combination of the artwork, the world it conveyed, and the real difficulty in concluding the book successfully -- oh, how I loathed the maze section -- all combined to hook me on Fighting Fantasy. I picked every other volume I could get my hands on and was so enamored of the format that I even tried my hand at other gamebooks, some of which I'll talk about in the days to come.


  1. I cannot tell you how profoundly the illustrations in this book affected me as a young person.

    Me too. Fighting Fantasy, and the Warlock of Firetop Mountain in particular, greatly influenced how I approach D&D. The game was first introduced to me as being "Like a CYOA but you can choose anything you want" and that's still my favourite way of playing RPGs.

  2. I never played/read "Warlock" but I have whiled away many hours playing/reading Jackson's "Sorcery!" books which included an option for the reader to be a spell-caster.

    The four adventure books, The Shamutanti Hills, Kharé; cityport of traps, The Seven Serpents and The Crown Of Kings, covered nearly every sort of environment that a D&D adventurer might find (excluding weird extraplanar stuff). They were truly an epic campaign arc... for one.

  3. I picked up a few of the FF books recently from Amazon and am planning on going through them with my son. I love the artwork too. Very evocative...

    Several of the FF books have been released for the iphone as well and I have a couple of those. They are really great too and its nice to have all the dice rolling and stat tracking handled by the cpu for you. :)

  4. I bought tihs for the kindle and it is great! This type of book is what the Kindle was born for as it not only handles the hyperlinks but the dice rolling and the record keeping.

    And the original illustrations are in there as well.

  5. The Fighting Fantasy books were a great deal of fun, though I was much fonder of the Lone Wolf series. As I understand it there is a good deal of difference between the UK and USA versions of Lone Wolf. Lone Wolf is interconnected so your character grows in power.

    Warlock of Firetop Mountain is also a boardgame. I have my old copy sitting on my shelf but haven't played it in many, many years.

  6. The Lone Wolf series is available for free online, by consent of the author and copyright holder, Joe Dever, at:

    Project Aon

    The first 25 books in the series, plus the Grey Star books, things like the Magnamund Companion, programs for making play easier, etc.

  7. The one and only FF book I ever owned/played was The Forest of Doom. It had the great Richard Corben cover of what I guess is a mountain lion clinging to the shield of a warrior, with said warrior surrounded by all manner of other nasty beasts. I don't think the interior artist for FoD was Nicholson, but it had a big impact on me. It was very grim, and the creatures all had a strange sinewy-ness to their physiques that was unnerving to my young self.

  8. @By the Sword - Yes! The Sorcery! series was awesome! Wish I still had those.

    I bought WoFM when it hit the local bookstores and absolutely loved it! I had no interest in TSR's Endless Quest series, but a solo-gamebook with stats and dice and combat... well, that was Awesome! And the artwork is fantastic!

  9. Not only is the place very deadly, with several opportunities for instant death

    Oh, dear, I'm afraid you are twice mistaken here. Your mileage may vary, but I love Firetop Mountain because:

    - the place is not all that deadly, since as a rule, YOU only get in trouble if YOU are actively looking for it.

    - monsters are not all that hard, and there's more than an effective way for dealing with the most powerful ones.

    - there are almost no instadeaths. You can only loose by (1) running out of stamina in a combat, or (2) not getting the right keys.

    I cannot tell you how profoundly the illustrations in this book affected me as a young person.

    Ditto about this.

    It's a nice touch that the book almost lack of a backstory, leaving to your wits who is the Warlock, who are YOU and why are YOU going into his Mountain. It's another nice touch that the open ending give YOU the option of taking the defeated Warlock's place.

  10. P.S. I still own my copy of Forest of Doom. Damn it, now I really want to bust it out and play it after all these years. Well, after all, my blog is about me getting back into gaming, right? ;-)

  11. I played a lot of Fighting Fantasy in my pre teens, and bought up the D20/3e module conversions originally published by Myriador and now part of the Greywood catalogue. Never played them, though:

    Warlock of Firetop Mountain
    Caverns of the Snow Witch
    Deathtrap Dungeon
    Trial of Champions
    Forest of Doom
    The Shamutanti Hills
    Khare - Cityport of Traps
    The Seven Serpents

    Unfortunately, it seems that even though they appear in the catalogue the products are no longer downloadable.

  12. "I cannot tell you how profoundly the illustrations in this book affected me as a young person."

    I think the real question is: Did they correctly illustrate dwarves or not?

  13. It's funny. Yesterday I blogged about starting RPG in 1984. I came to RPG through the german version of THE WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN. I also posted the german cover (which looks a lot more like a childrens book).

  14. This is a great book. Anyway, quit riding on my coat-tails! ;) I've been writing about Fighting Fantasy all this week on

    Awesome post though. Russ is the best.

  15. Given that it's the first book and they didn't really know what they were doing, Warlock is quite strong. I wouldn't say it's one of the best of the series though, Russ or not. Creature of Havoc and Moonrunner are probably my favourites.

  16. "I think the real question is: Did they correctly illustrate dwarves or not?" --- Coldstream

    Yes, they did.

  17. JasonSavoda said:
    "As I understand it there is a good deal of difference between the UK and USA versions of Lone Wolf."

    Different covers, and Books 13-20 of the US versions are abridged (rightly so, if I might add). Books 21+ weren't published in the US, oddly coinciding with FF, in which books 21+ weren't published in the US, as well.

    I enjoyed Lone Wolf very much, particularly books 1-5. After that, the quality began to gradually drop off, IMO. Books 13-20 are!

    But getting back to FF, I've read about a lot of love for Nicholson's art now and in the past. And while I won't disagree with that sentiment, I'd put my vote in for Martin McKenna as the best of the FF artists. Appearing in the later volumes, around book 40+ his depictions make the creatures leap off the page. If you haven't read any of the latter FFs, do yourself a favor and try to get your hands on Dead of Night, Legend of the Shadow Warriors and Revenge of the Vampire to name but three, both for story+game+fantastic art.

  18. Warlock of Firetop Mountain was also seminal in my gaming history (I picked up the brit copy which for some reason was in a bookstore here in the Philippines) along with the next four in the series.

    Lone Wolf I loved as well (and it was a different appeal)and I discovered it when I moved to the U.S.

  19. I was fan of both the Fighting Fantasy books as well as the Lone Wolf Books. Great fun!

    I'm surprised to see no mention on this thread about Cubicle 7's Advanced Fighting Fantasy rpg. Which, from what I understand, is a 2nd edition of an rpg-ized version of Fighting Fantasy, released in the late 80s. Not sure how the system stacks up.

  20. Oh My Goood!

    I played them all and I owned then all! Bang my head against the wall!!!!! Summer of 1987 I was in College and driving a truck first real job out of High School, drove a 20' straight job based in NJ between Boston and DC and out west as far as Akron, OH! It was the best summer of my life! Spent most of my nights sleeping at home, put in a LOT of OT!!! Had no one and no time to play D&D with, so I did the GAMEBOOKS, did them all, from Choose your own adventure, to Steve Jackson's fighting fantasy and sorcery, to Lone Wolf, a short lived companion, Greystar the Wizard, and there was also another gamebook series of only four books. Fought through them all! Made it through Caverns of Kalte without getting killed. Damn those eskimos and their kids shooting arrows riding in the dads' backpacks! Will borrow them for my D&D campaign if ever my players will go Arctic. And who can forget the Dhaxx, carnivorous mini-minotaurs eating that poor fighter alive! Survived that one too! THAT was the best summer of my life. When I graduated college in 1990, I had a trove!!!! Bough up a lot of Avalon Hill board game titles at my local drug store for $1.50 a piece. You read it right! Ergo for all of the TSR's Gamma World line, bought it at my local game store at 90% discount when the TSR went out of business or something. In 1990 I graduated college and decided to be a grown up. (KICK ME!!!!) Career, gym, and all that. I gave it all, three crates worth to some other gamer. He threw out about half of it and kept what he liked. I WAS A FOOOOOOL!!!!!!

    Still, 1987 was the best and happiest Summer in my life and Fall of 1987 I attained my highest GPA and made Dean's List. I LOVED the early Lone Wolf adventures, but then they did a Magna Kai series and a third series. The biggest problem I had was that the subsequent two series recycled the same old six skills aka kai disciplines, just describing them differently. That was the biggest turn off.

  21. The first system of AFF was fun, but flawed. Too much - well, nearly everything - depended on the SKILL stat, meaning that there was quite clearly better and worse characters in a party, rather than just different. If I remember right, the advancement rules led to characters that are superpowered. It worked well for one-shot scenarios, but then the basic FF system - and 'Fighting Fantasy', the introductory RPG was a great book with good advice for beginning GMs - is perfectly adequate for that.

    More, though, Titan, the world that many of the FF books were set in (retrospectively, in some cases) - is a great Fantasy gaming setting - the guide book to this world, Titan (strangely enough) is well worth getting. I understand that Titan will be reprinted (or is already reprinted), but you can pick up copies of the original editions - large format and paperback sized - for relatively cheap on eBay. I still think that it'll make a great world for WFRP1e/2e gaming.

    I'm waiting to sell some duplicate FF books (I have a LOT) on eBay before I pick up the new Advanced Fighting Fantasy.

  22. Also, just to say, the original editions of Titan are system free.

    And that there is something quite refreshing about being able to play an RPG out of three paperback books (A/FF, Titan, and Out of the Pit) after playing with rulebooks, settings, and adventures that are spread across multiple big (expensive) books.

  23. Yeah, I loved the ones I had. My favorite was Trial of Champions, a sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon. I can still remember surviving the arena, only to get lost in the maze, where I opened various doors to discover whether treasure or trap was inside. STRANGELY similar to my D&D experiences..

  24. Yes, there is a new edition of Advanced Fighting Fantasy. It's based on the same system, but with tweaks to remove the absurd imbalance DrBargle mentions; it is however still compatible with the earlier material and indeed the reprints of both Out of the Pit and Titan are straight reprints with no amendments.

    I'd also second the notion that Titan is a great setting. It's a bit of a patchwork, but it's so evocative and strange, like classic D&D in many ways, but also not, a strange foreign cousin.

    The Fighting Fantasy series has an important role in the gaming upbringing of many Brits; as the boss at Vaults of Nagoh says, a whole generation of British gamers went "2000AD > FF > GW > RPGs".

  25. This is the only Fighting Fantasy book I ever read and I remember enjoying it immensely. Isn't this the one with the Vorpal Bunny? Great stuff.

  26. Lone Wolf seems a lot more 'high fantasy' to me, even though it was another British series. It has a more epic plot arc, with the main character being an elite ranger/wizard and the last of his kind.

  27. @JB:

    I think the Vorpal Bunny was Grailquest, a series which was much more jokey.

  28. Usual grab bag of Fighting Fantasy web resources:

    Rebuilding the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan:

    Fighting Fantazine:

    Unofficial Fighting Fantasy forums:

    Titannica the Fighting Fantasy wiki:



  29. The thing I remember most about the Fighting Fantasy books?

    The bewildered expressions my dad made when he'd walk past my room and see me reading, rolling dice, and furiously scribbling on scrap paper.

  30. @Justin - Hah! I remember trying to present a book report of a FF gamebook (Forest of Doom, I think) in primary school. I remember the teacher being quite confused.

  31. I was crazy about gamebooks too - my favorite by far was the amazingly well written Blood Sword series - set in the Land of Legend from the Dragon Warriors RPG. Dave Morris, one of the writers of this series (amongst many, many other books of all types), keeps a wonderful blog at

  32. This book was the first of its kind, and one of the bests. Not just a classic, but a true masterpiece. When I say "a masterpiece", I mean that it set the standard against which other adventures should be measured. Sadly, few of them live up to it.

    What makes it so great?

    1) It's all about the player's choice.

    In spite of the Firetop Mountain not being a proper megadungeon, in its four-hundred sections there is room enough for branches, sub-branches, side-chambers and detours. And you the player are not forced into encounters you don't feel like. If YOU think than an encounter is too dangerous, irrelevant to your quest or simply boring, you can just bypass it. There's an alternative way of dealing with the DRAGON, besides combat. There are more than two alternative ways of dealing with the WARLOCK. For any other encounters, you are given the choice of fight or flight. And often there's even a third option, either talking, bribing, or whatever.

    2) It's meant to challenge the player.

    WotFTM is not for the easily frustrated. If you are looking forward to finish it in one sit or two, you rather don't even try and play some 'Lone Wolf' instead -no sarcasm intended here, 'Lone Wolf' game-books are highly recommendable themselves-. In theory, there's nothing in the book which forbids the player from beating it at her very first try (indeed there's a Laurence Sinclair who claims that his mom completed WotFTM in her second go). But there is only one true path to the treasure, and the authors have made their best in order to obfuscate it among a miriad of possible routes. It's not a game-book, but a PUZZLE-book, and the kind of puzzle that can only be solved by trial and error - or mad luck.


    At the beginning of the story there's a rumours section in which YOU are suggested of looking for keys as you make your way through the dungeon. As you will learn the hard way (unless some moron from the Net spoils the fun for you), this rumour happens to be true. You will need three numbered keys, no less, to unlock the treasure's chest. And when you get all three keys, you will discover (hard way again) that not every numbered key opens the chest. Since you are not given a clue of how many keys there are, the whereabouts of each one, and which key is good and which is a fake, it's unlikely for you to complete the book before exploring every corner of the dungeon. Did I forget to say that most of the corridors are one-way only? Most of players won't finish the book without replaying it many, many times.


    3) It's fair with the player.

    As far as he sticks to the true path, any character has a fair chance to beat the book, no matter how low his entry stats (7, 14, 7, anyone?). Beating the book is a matter of exploring, aka trial and error, not of gambling ('Deathtrap Dungeon', I'm looking at you).

    4) It's nice to the player.

    The character can die by loss of stamina points, or end stucked in the treasure room. But, two or three exceptions nonstanding, he won't find any insta-death along the way. Insta-deaths are evil: they punish healthy exploration ('Citadel of Chaos', I'm looking at you), and ruin the STAMINA management sub-game.