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The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982)

This week, Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, specifically ones illustrated by the great Russ Nicholson. Let’s start at the start with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

This book launched the Fighting Fantasy line in 1982. It is one of, if not the, first gamebooks to marry pick-your-path narrative with an RPG-like system for character creation and combat. It is a simple and sturdy D6 system with three attributes, just enough to give the adventure some tooth without bogging it down. 

The book is a straightforward dungeon crawl, with you entering the lair of the warlock Zagor with a mind to kill him at claim his treasure for your own. Simple and to the point, if a bit morally bankrupt. This is livened up by room after room filled with bizarre inhabitants and weird traps, brought to life by Russ Nicholson (more on that in a minute). 

The book is split into two parts. Ian Livingstone wrote the first, which proceeds along a set course, propelling you along and forcing you to make decision basically at random. The second, penned by Steve Jackson (the Englishman, not the American), is a maze which allows for free (and often circular) exploration. The two parts are unified by the fact that there is one single, optimal path through the book, and the idea is that it should take multiple attempts accompanied by maps and notes to learn what it is. Livingstone’s approach would mostly win out, forming the template for the majority of the Fighting Fantasy line and most other similar, system-based gamebooks. 

But let’s talk about the art, yea? I think the success of this book is ultimately down to Russ’ interior illustrations, which are equal parts gorgeous, gruesome and mysterious. That wormy ghoul in particular has a reputation of having pushed limits of acceptability for what was essentially a children’s book. And Zagor. Man, that is one heck of a warlock, right? Catching a glimpse of that illustration of him was more than enough motivation to want to confront him. Dude is pure intriguing. 

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