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Friday 2 September 2011

The origin of the Lich Lord

I've previously posted the various FF gamebook proposals Jamie and I made to Puffin. Though I preferred some (actually, most) of the others, the one they went for in the end was Keep of the Lich Lord. I don't remember a whole lot about it. As it was set in the Fighting Fantasy world, it wasn't personal to us and we treated it as just a job. Hopefully we made a decent fist of it, but I guess the right people to answer that one are the collectors of FF books.

The proposal that the Puffin editors picked is here exactly as we originally submitted it:
You have journeyed to the Arrowhead Islands east of Khul, where you signed on for a short time as a mercenary in the famous White Tiger Regiment. Now your term of service is up, but just as you are packing your belongings to leave Port Vernale, word reaches you that you have been summoned by the Triumvirs - the Council of Three who rule the Varadian Alliance. You arrive at the Council Chamber to find old General Dolon waiting for you. He explains the situation as you wait together for your audience with the Triumvirs.

"Even though you're a foreigner, you've learned a bit about our country while you've been here," he says. "You know that the various city-states of the Varadian Alliance are the outer bulwark of civilization against the reavers of Blood Island. Our fleets hold those chaos-pirates in check, and have done for centuries. Now that could be changing. Our main eastern fortification is Bloodrise Keep, on Stayng Island. We've lost contact with the Keep and the outlying villages."

Before General Dolon can tell you any more, you are called into the Council Chamber. The Triumvirs are studying a glimmering image that hangs in the centre of the chamber - a V-shaped line of verdant islands set in an azure sea. You realise it is a strategic map of the Arrowhead archipelago fashioned by means of mirage-spells.

One of the Triumvirs points to a bright red dot on the shore of the easternmost island. "This shows the location of Bloodrise Keep," he says. "The General will have filled you in on the background details. We have here the last report filed by Castellan Braxis, and it sheds a rather sinister light on recent developments there."

You take the report and quickly scan it. Bloodrise Keep will shortly fall, it reads. The troops I sent to investigate the strange lights in the sky above the village of Menela have now returned. They have marched back to within sight of the walls but refuse to answer signals. A runner sent out came back shivering with dread. He got close enough to see that the men have grey mask-like faces and their eyes are the staring eyes of zombies! In place of their old battle standards they now carry ragged black pennants - the symbol of plague. Even as I write it is close to dusk and the camp is active. Troops are massing, and people from the villages are also milling about the camp as though hypnotised. I can see a man in tarnished silver armour who appears to be in command. Now he has given the order for his troops to advance. There are too many, and the small garrison I have left cannot hope to hold them off for more than a few hours. I will send this report by messenger pigeon and hope it is not shot down by the enemy's archers. Now it only remains for me to take up my weapons and go out onto the battlements for the last stand. I regret having failed in your service, my lords. I am your dutiful vassal, Braxis, Castellan of Bloodrise Keep.

"A brave man..." you say grimly as you hand the report back. "Do you have any information on who the silver-armoured warlord might be? And how he took control of Braxis's troops?"

"It is all too clear," says one of the Triumvirs. "The black plague-standards and tarnished silver armour are the trademarks of Lord Mortis of Balthor, who was formerly Tyrant of Stayng Island and who tried to conquer the eastern provinces of our nation. It took the combined strength of all the Varadian armies to defeat him, for he was a mighty necromancer as well as a warlord, and it is said that he recruited his own army from the bodies of fallen foes."

Baffled, you turn to General Dolon. "How is it I've never heard of this Mortis?" you ask. "I didn't know there'd been any wars within the archipelago for centuries."

"There haven't," he says. "This all happened two hundred years ago. Mortis died in battle and was buried in a black granite tomb near the village of Menela. Now it seems that he has returned from the grave to take his revenge."

The Triumvirs nod in agreement. "He is even now turning the people of Stayng into undead," says one. "His evil will eat at our good empire like a cancerous wound until excised. For this we have need of a sharp knife. You."

General Dolon takes you straight to the harbour, where a ship has already been prepared for you. Although he is hardly a young man, even you have difficulty keeping up with his brisk strides. On the way he explains that most of the military strength of the Varadian Alliance is currently tied up fighting the reavers of Blood Island. "That means you're on your own," he says. "In any case, because assassinating Mortis would immediately neutralise his entire army of zombies, the Triumvirs feel it makes more sense to send one capable individual than a body of troops."

On arriving at the ship, Dolon introduces you to the captain and then accompanies you to your cabin for a final briefing. He gives you a map of Stayng Island and a Ring of Communing. "The ring will allow you to telepathically communicate with us for information or advice - but over such a large distance it will only function a limited number of times, so use it sparingly."

A whistle from on deck signals that the ship is ready to cast off. Dolon turns in the doorway of the cabin for a last word. "Don't forget," he says grimly, "it's vital that you stop Mortis before his undead army can join forces with the reavers. All our lives are in your hands."

"Rest assured, General," you reply as you slip the Ring of Communing onto your finger, "I'll return Lord Mortis to his grave."

It is only after he has saluted you and left that you find an inner voice adding: "...or die trying." Now turn to

Since most of the military strength of the Varadian Alliance is currently tied up fighting the reavers of Blood Island, the protagonist is on his own. The Triumvirs feel in any case that, because assassinating Mortis would immediately neutralise his entire army of zombies, it makes more sense to send one capable individual than a body of troops. It is vital that he stops Mortis before the undead army can join forces with the reavers.
The protagonist is given a map of Stayng Island and a Ring of Communing. The latter item allows him to telepathically communicate with the Council for information or advice - but only a limited number of times during the adventure. Once having reached Stayng, he can travel to one of the three villages mentioned. It is most sensible to go to Menela, where Mortis was buried - in the tomb he will find an ivory spear which was thrust into Mortis's chest by a hero of old, and which still has the power to destroy him. The other two villages contain some useful clues, though it is important that the protagonist does not waste so much time looking for these that Mortis leaves with his undead fleet. In Menoa there is an old wizard hiding in the sewers who may give the protagonist a useful potion to bolster his resolve against necromantic hypnosis. In the third village, Keladon, the protagonist may encounter a centaur who will act as a steed, allowing much faster movement around the island. It is also possible for the protagonist to meet up with some villagers in a "refugee camp" in the woods. Among them is a minstrel whose songs of ancient heroes contain several clues as to how to overcome Mortis.

The book features two special rules systems. First is the Resolve characteristic, which is rated from 6 to 12. It is a measure of the protagonist's ability not to panic when confronted with undead, and his resistance to hypnosis. Resolve is used in a similar way to Luck, except that it increases each time it is used - because the protagonist gradually gets inured to the horrors he will encounter on Stayng. A clever player will exploit this fact, allowing himself to get used to minor encounters first rather than charging straight in to tackle Mortis with all his undead legions.

The second rule feature is completely unique and unlike anything tried in other gamebooks. When in the Keep, the protagonist will have to avoid undead patrols. Patrols which he does fight will fail to report in after their tour of inspection, and the central security of the Keep will tend to note this and despatch more patrols to the area to investigate. This is represented by a cunning rule technique. Each encounter the protagonist has gives him an Alarm Value to add to a running score. The Alarm Value is reduced by 1 each time he turns to a new entry without encountering something. If he turns to an entry that does involve an encounter, however, then the current Alarm Value is doubled and the new Alarm Value is added to that. The total Alarm Value determines the strength of the encounter: the higher it is, the more zombies he must fight. The impression given is of an intelligent security network operating inside the Keep. The protagonist must try to avoid patrols - and, even more importantly, he must get out of areas of the Keep where he has seen several patrols in a short time, otherwise the security system will begin to home in on his location and will send ever-tougher patrols to capture him.
Aficionados may like to compare that to the proposals for The Mists of Horror, Knights of Renown (the precursor to Fabled Lands), The Curse of the God Kings and Dinosaurs of Death. (There's actually one more, but I think we'll save that for a special occasion. Tantalizing or what?)

Jamie and I split the work right down the middle, with him doing the 200 paragraphs up until you enter the keep, and me taking over from there. But editor Marc Gascoigne, now at SF publisher Angry Robot, took exception to about fifty sections that were devoted to wandering around a cemetery on the cliff tops, a classic gamebook maze set-up where you had to know the sequence of directions to get out. I added an extra series of encounters in the keep to replace the cemetery sequence outside, so in the end you got about 60% me and 40% Jamie - though he jumped in and contributed part of Blood Sword book 5 when Oliver got too busy on other things, so in the grand scheme of things it probably all evens out. And if there is anything more you could possibly wish to know about this Fighting Fantasy book, you'll certainly find it in this very comprehensive write-up!

We have a real gamebook scoop coming up in about two weeks. But plenty of other cool stuff before then, never fear.


  1. Ah "l'excellent Dave Mortis"... oups, pardon "Dave Morris".
    The French language readers' review is rather good :
    I shall try to have a look at this book...


  2. I don't know about the original paperback's availability, Olivier, but I have a snippet of news for e-gamebook fans, namely that Fabled Lands LLP is licencing an iPhone version of Keep of the Lich Lord for release next year.

    I do appreciate that many people don't have iPhones, and to address that point we are also licencing the FL series to appear as apps for Android, Kindle, Blackberry, browsers - you name it. More news on that in due course.

  3. I always felt that Keep of the Lich-Lord was one of the stronger FF books. I'm reaching back a little in my memory, but I enjoyed having a couple of companions to pal about with - something that's pretty rare in non-linear gamebooks. Nor was it obscenely difficult when it came to the dice-rolling - some of the FF authors seemed to think that pumping up the Skill of opposing baddies to obscene levels, so that you had to roll miraculously just to complete the book, constituted some sort of 'challenge'. I've never even played a couple of the FF books I picked up in my late teens, just because I can't be bothered banging my head against the wall replaying and replaying until I get the right rolls (I became surprisingly meticulous about not cheating on dice rolls as I started to get a little older...).

    The Ring of Communing panicked me a little, though - knowing that it had a limited number of charges, I always wanted to wait until I REALLY, REALLY NEEDED IT before firing it up... and so consequently, I got to the end of the book without ever even using it.

  4. It's the same for trapeze artists, PW. They like to know the net is there, but if they get through the whole performance without needing it, so much the better :-)

  5. Btw another snippet of news about Keep of the Lich Lord - it is coming back in a new revised form as part of the Fabled Lands universe. It's too early to say any more yet (we don't even have "ink on the deal" as they say in La-la land) but you'll be seeing some new images and updates in a month or so.

  6. Hi Dave,

    As I'm currently collecting all FF books for my son, I had the opportunity to play it again a few months ago (french version). It's a good gamebook and like someone said, it feels good to have an adventure that is not insane as far as difficulty is concerned. PWgresty is correct : being now 36, I don't cheat anymore but I'm also much less patient... So thank you to have balanced very well Keep of Lich Lord :)

    Regarding the gamebook scoop, I do hope Avenger will come back - I'm also collecting and replaying WotT so I hope that my (and so many other readers') frustration will end soon. At last! ;-)

    All the best,
    Steve / Geneva / Switzerland

  7. Steve, I must admit to having rather overlooked Lich Lord as part of my own and Jamie's work. Because it was done as part of the FF series originally, I suppose we didn't feel as close to it as to our other books. But it's gratifying to hear you enjoyed it. Maybe I need to take another look.

    Way of the Tiger is certainly the series that most gamebook aficionados are keen to see return. As you might expect, it's high on our to-do list ;-)

  8. ... I don't mean to suggest that Keep of the Lich Lord was especially 'easy'. Just that there was more than one way to defeat Lord Mortis - and a gigantic Skill wasn't absolutely essential, depending on the route you took.

    I liked the Way of the Tiger books, too... but I really loved the Falcon series, also by MS/JT. It was just an absolutely fantastic sci-fi/time travel concept. The technical drawings were spectacular. I really, really enjoyed playing it. But rather rare, if I remember. If we're adding things to the 'to-do' list, I feel that, with a bit of prodding, the Falcon franchise still has a lot of life in it.

    (Not to reopen the 'pirate PDFs' conversation of a few posts back, but for over ten years I'd never been able to track down the final book in the Falcon series... until recently, when I pulled a pirate PDF off the Internet. Morally questionable, I know, but I was elated to at last see the end of one of the all-time great gamebook stories - hell, one of the great SCI-FI stories.)

  9. PW, you'll be glad to hear we did already look at bringing back the Falcon books too. They're a little way down the list, not having the popularity of WotT or even Blood Sword, but we hope to get to them eventually. We're just wondering whether to stick with the original "2000 AD" feel or try to modernize the concept a little. What do you think?

  10. I realise your question was directed towards another commenter, but I think the "2000 AD" feel was very well-suited for the Falcon series (which I personally prefer to Way of the Tiger, although I'm probably in a tiny minority there).

  11. Hi Hamza, I agree. The problem we face now is that Falcon was very much of its time. (SF dates faster than fantasy does.) So we thought about how Dr Who has updated, making the time travel elements more personal and less "agent of T.I.M.E." in that early '80s style that Falcon had. I went as far as writing a whole new rationale for the series, but we then decided that would better used in a new project. So maybe we'll release one Falcon book with minimal changes and just see how it does.

  12. What, you want to modernise a series that's about travelling into the past?

    I can see the 2000 AD tone in Falcon - planets inhabited solely by robots, or giant alien spiders pursuing you through deserted spaceships. But I always found there was a Star Trek element to it, as well. In 3034, Earth seems a cheerful place. True, we only ever get to see Falcon's - somewhat privileged - perspective of his home planet, but people there seem pretty optimistic, all in all. Falcon's objectives often line up with, say, Jean-Luc Picard's - he obeys the orders of his higher-ups, and strives to protect the human race (and any aliens that aren't overtly hostile).

    But then, heroes require a dash of rebellion, these days. Doctor Who is, as you say, strictly an independent do-gooder. The all-new Starbuck and Apollo flout their commanding officers' orders with alarming frequency (and never seem to suffer greatly for doing so).

    I've always thought of Falcon as a sort of time travelling James Bond. In the 60s and 70s, he was a war veteran and absolutely loyal to Her Majesty. And yet these days he's been rebooted as a maverick who breaks into his boss's home and hacks into the British government's computers. The older Bond stories have more charm, though I feel that's more due to a recent tendency to sashay between big-budget action scenes without really telling any kind of story than a flaw in the character of Bond himself.

    With the power of a time machine at his disposal, it'd be tricky to recast Falcon as a gritty rulebreaker without some kind of limiting factor. If he does decide his own interests are paramount, what's to stop him, say, travelling into the past and using his technology to found a religion about himself, then living like a god-king when he returns to the present? Doctor Who is at least profoundly conscientious, and so wise and long-lived that he doesn't care about earthly wealth or power (plus his TARDIS tends to go on the fritz whenever the plot demands it...).

  13. (Part 2... my thoughts were too long and rambling to be posted as a single comment...)

    I'm sure it could be done - and yet I feel it would mean rewriting the existing gamebooks quite extensively, which might not be what you had in mind. In my fairly inexpert opinion, I'd say that, if you plan on republishing, or re-e-publishing, the Falcon gamebooks, only small changes would be necessary. If you were to plan on extending the franchise in much the same way you have with Fabled Lands, it would be worth revising the core concept of Falcon to a degree. Some ideas: -

    - Change the name of the series. Much as I love the gamebooks, the name 'Falcon' has always bugged me. 'Fabled Lands', 'Way of the Tiger', 'Blood Sword', 'Dragon Warriors' - these all really give a flavour of what you'll find between the covers of the book. 'Falcon' doesn't. It just happens to be the hero's moniker.

    - Would this series have the legs to become an RPG? If so, there's a risk that characters would all be a little too similar. Yes, one might be human and one a Rigellian and one a weird shapeshifting alien - but they'd all have telepathic powers, and they'd all be following the Temporal Executive's orders. As you say, the elements in the mix would need to be more personalised (returning to my earlier Star Trek comparison, it would need to be more Deep Space 9 than Next Generation).

    - If it were an RPG, time machines would need to be bigger, too. Better to keep the group together with all that temporal hopping about.

    - ... and if it were an RPG, various sourcebooks could detail alien planets and races - and yet others could be historically-themed, detailing certain places and events in Earth's history (and alien history). It could be educational too, y'see.

    - If the Falcon series were to have any prominent visual element (if it were to become an app or, hope beyond hope, a movie) the Powers of the Mind would be tricky to convey. I think telepathy just doesn't come over well pictorially. Professor Xavier does a lot of mind-reading in X-Men: First Class - but even then, he often unnecessarily places his fingers to his temples as some sort of clumsy visual cue.

    Well, I'm probably getting way, way ahead of myself with most of these ideas. Hope there's something in there of use, though.

  14. For Olivier (and other french readers), here's another nice forum about gamebooks. The link points to "Keep of the Lich Lord" reviews and may contain spoilers :


  15. I luckily bought Keep Of The Lich Lord back in the gamebook golden age and really enjoyed it. It's a solid book, and to my mind the only real drawback that's been found is the shorter run-time due to multiple endings. A re-theme would be very interesting... and perhaps not just for FL, either. Maybe some "Legendary" possiblities abound - after all it would make for a cool Bloodsword prequel and DW scenario. How about multiple digital versions? 8^)

    Falcon must surely be an under-appreciated gem if ever there was one, with my favourite of the series being Book 2 "Mechanon".

    Oh, and have you read 2000AD recently? It's been through a very impressive renaissance over the last half-decade with some excellent scriptwriting.

  16. Wow, I look away for an afternoon and suddenly the comments are coming thick and fast. I didn't realize Falcon still had any love out there.

    I guess I should leave Jamie to comment on your suggestions, PW, as I must admit to never having played all the way through any of the Falcon books. I certainly wasn't thinking that the hero needed to be grittier or more bolshy, just that the original stories are a bit emotionally cool (like old-style Dr Who) and seem to be more to do with space opera than time travel. I mean that in the sense that you could give Falcon a spaceship instead of a time machine and it wouldn't hugely affect the subject matter of the adventures. (I agree about changing his name. They should've just called him Uranium Cat and have done with it.)

    Steve, thanks for the link - a very interesting review when run through Google Translate. (My problem is, I sat at the back in French lessons and just read the old Trigan Empire comics that were kept in a box in the classroom.)

    Jiminy... Don't even joke about multiple digital versions, I can't tell you how close it came to that :-)

  17. Merci Steve. (pour aider Dave à s'en sortir): "un quattuor de joyeux lurons créatifs" = "un quartet of creative gay dogs" = Dave Morris + Jamie Thomson + Olivier Johnson + Mark Smith !


  18. I like that, Olivier. It should be inscribed on our gravestones.

  19. All good points pw, interesting. Not sure if there ever will be a Falcon rpg, but I guess you never know. And he is like an old skool James Bond in space time, having to rework that would mean effectively rewriting the entire series, in which case you might as well write a new series. So I guess if we do get those Falcon books out again, we probably won't change things that much. Changing the series name is a real possibility though.