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Friday, 25 April 2014

The Keeper of the Seven Keys

Well, this is odd. In all the posts about "lost" Fighting Fantasy books, I've never actually featured the write-up for The Keeper of the Seven Keys. Correspondence at the time seems to indicate that Jamie and I submitted this to Puffin Books twice, first in April 1988 and then again the following year alongside the Fabled Lands prototype concept Knights of Renown.

Why two submissions? I think there may have been a change of editor at Puffin. At any rate, neither of them bit, and of all the proposals we came up with, the one that they plumped for was possibly the least interesting (Keep of the Lich Lord). I was recently asked in an interview by Jonathan Green why I didn't write more Fighting Fantasy books, and I think that answers the question.

We must have done quite a bit of work on this one, when you consider that the written proposal that gets sent to the publisher is just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly it was a concept that Jamie and I were pretty keen to do. Around the same time, I had the idea of doing a computer game called Dungeon Builder where one player would design a dungeon with a set number of points - 5 per orc, 10 for a pit trap, or whatever - and then a friend could try taking on the dungeon with a character based on the same points score. You could put allies into the dungeon for the contending player to find (those cost negative points) and even get tricksy by dropping an illusion spell (2 points) of an imprisoned knight onto an orc (5 points) so that it could tag around with the contender and backstab him when he least expected it. A gamble, of course, as he might have spent 15 points on the Detect Illusions skill. I mention that because Keeper of the Seven Keys would work pretty well as a boardgame or videogame, so maybe we'll resurrect it one day in another form.

Enough chat. You came here for the gamebooks, right? Thus, without further ado, the original pitch to Puffin from April 1988:


This gamebook is intended as something original, markedly different from all previous gamebooks, and with a vein of humour running through it. The pattern of all gamebooks to date has been hero setting out to destroy the evil lord/demigod/demon, battling against great odds. The Keeper of the Seven Keys sets out to reverse that role. The reader plays the so-called Evil power beset by the fanatic forces of good. The book presents things from the viewpoint of the poor persecuted Lord of Darkness! So as to avoid any moral dilemma for younger readers, the so-called "Lord of Darkness" is actually no villain but a much maligned hero.

You are Karabane, Master of the Seals and Runes, Knower of the Way and Member of the Honoured Society of Sages, an ancient and venerable society now all but extinct. Many years ago you set out on a quest to defeat a powerful demon lord who threatened the continent of Khul. Unable to completely destroy this entity, you were forced to bind it with powerful spells into a dimensional cage. Since then, you have dedicated your life to maintaining its imprisonment and have been forced to take up residence in the ancient castle of the demon lord. Through the intercession of divine forces of Good you have extended your life to carry out this mission. Each year for the last two centuries you have performed the rituals of binding.

Unfortunately the people of the land have come to view you as a force of Evil, the fearful inhabitant of the Tower of Doom, for your home is a fell forbidding place. They know you as Bane, or the Banelord, the Evil One, He who Sits in Malice, the Purveyor of Terrors, and so on. They call the old castle the Tower of Doom, The Place from which None Return, the Citadel of Illimitable Agonies, and the like. They call your servants the Creatures of Hell, Banebeasts, Servants of the Dark One, Fanged Horrors of the Tower of Doom, etc. Well, most of your servants are the original inhabitants and are indeed evil beings - but you have bound them to your will and thus the service of Good. After all, they are more reliable then mere humans.

For a time you played along with popular belief. You caused illusions of evil magics to light up the night sky around your home. You sent demons, flapping and cawing, to circle your tall towers and baroque battlements. This suited your purpose, for you wished to remain undisturbed by prying eyes, to execute your mission alone. Better for the safety of others that they continue to regard you as evil, and thus keep their distance. But now it seems that policy has backfired.

The nearby city of Arkand lives in fear of you. Poor harvests, blighted crops, disappearances, murders and so on - all are laid at your door. Crazed prophets, eager for congregations and donations, talk of your rise to power and the threat to civilization you are supposed to represent, and of how you must be destroyed, excised from the land like a canker. Kings and lords offer rewards for your death. Several times in the past you have had to fight off fanatic heroes and adventurers who sought to penetrate your citadel and slay you. Most failed to get past your wards and servants, but some have won through to your Inner Sanctum and you were then forced to use your sorcery to defeat them. This saddens you for they are great and good heroes, but you have been unable to reason with them. Many times you tried but they would clap hands over ears, yelling things like "Avaunt ye, spawn of Hell! I will not listen to your vile blandishments and devious words, O Lord of Lies!" You have never ceased to marvel at the determination and courage of these heroes. By your sorcery they are all kept safely in a millenial slumber, bound inside blocks of adamantine crystal. Regretfully you cannot free them, as they would merely attack you once more. All you have ever wished for is to be left alone. But it is not to be.

This time, things are bad. The beautiful Princess Araminta, fancying herself a scholar, scoured the Great Library of Arkand in her quest for knowledge. She discovered the history of the Society of Sages and the truth about you - who you really were and your real purpose. Curiosity aflame, she set out to visit you. Many tried to dissuade her but she crept out of the city at night, in secret. She came to you and you welcomed her, not only out of courtesy but because you were eager for the company of another human after so long. She loved your books and ancient artifacts and has spent days studying in the castle library where she is even now. But she is outstaying her welcome. The townsfolk say that you bewitched her and that foul demons spirited her away to your tower. The King of Arkand has promised her hand in marriage or a reward of fifty thousand crowns to the hero or heroine who will rescue her from your "evil clutches". Many heroes and adventurers flocked to Arkand and, in fear of your life, you went to Princess Araminta and begged her to return to her father's court. Absently she refused, patting you fondly on the head while she studied an ancient mirror that reflects the enhanced image of those who look in it so that they appear ten times more beautiful than they really are. She said she was enjoying herself too much and was not ready to leave. What could you do - short of throwing her out by force? And that, of course, would be quite wrong...

Some of the most powerful heroes and heroines of the age, mighty warriors and skilled sorcerors, have gathered at Arkand to pursue the quest. Their vow: "to slay the evil Banelord who has cast a dark shadow across the land for too long." Even now your outer defences have begun to sound the alarm. Winged Homunculi and Lesser Imps have come to you bearing messages. Groups of adventurers are heading towards the citadel and they look tough. And worse still, tonight is the very night you must perform the Rituals of Binding that must be performed each year to seal the demon lord Gagrash, Devourer of the Living, Bestower of Death, Giver of Unimaginable Sufferings, in his prison once more. If he escapes, the whole land could be destroyed! What are you going to do?

Special rules for The Keeper of the Seven Keys

The player will generate his or her character as normal for Fighting Fantasy (Skill, etc). Then some additional preparation is necessary. Essentially, the reader examines the map of the castle and places the defences and snares at his or her disposal so as to prevent the entry of three groups of heroes. Some of the heroes will inevitably win through to the Inner Sanctum for a climactic battle, but with skilful choice of defences the reader should be able to minimise the threat.

At the same time that this is going on, the reader must perform the rituals to bind the demon lord. Thus he or she also faces a race against time. There are also various other options and puzzles that must be solved - the reader will not just be sitting in the Inner Sanctum directing things. The demon lord must be bound by hourly rituals involving the use of the seven keys and thus the book will be divided into seven chronological stages. During these stages the rituals must be performed, the heroes will be penetrating further into the castle, and the reader will be taking defensive steps as needed. Passage of time is recorded by crossing off hours when directed to do so in the text:

Hour of the Wolf
Hour of the Dragon
Hour of the Bear
Hour of the Wyvern
Hour of the Tiger
Hour of the Unicorn
Hour of the Moon (midnight)

A map of the castle will be provided, as below:

The Tower of Doom, or The Place from which None Return, or The Citadel of Illimitable Agonies, or "Home Sweet Home".

A list of the reader's servitors will also be given, as below.

20 Demonkin
Winged gargoyles from another plane. You travelled there and bound them to your service a century ago.

50 Orcs
You must dress as a hideous demon and constantly display your powerful magics whenever an orc is about. They believe you to be a demon and worship you. You must bind them to your will with fear, for fear is all these filthy orcs understand.

2 Hellgaunts 
Demons of the Abyss. You have bound them to you - in your Sanctum you have two vials containg their smoking black hearts. Whoever possesses the hearts controls the hellgaunts.

4 Winged Homunculi
Little creatures like tiny winged old men. You created them in your laboratory using secrets of alchemy you found in an old parchment. The homunculi are useful as spies and messengers.

4 Lesser Imps
Slightly larger than the homunculi. Hideous little winged beasts that you won to your service using sorcery when you first defeated the demon lord Gagrash. Again useful as spies and messengers, although some also know rudimentary attack spells.

2 Automata of the Wizards of Qor
Two mechanical warriors that you created following ancient texts from the legendary land of Qor. Soulless creatures of ivory and iron with visors that spit lightning-bolts.

In the Beastpits you keep various hideous beasts you have created or captured and enslaved. They can be released in certain areas but are equally likely to attack anyone (including you and your servants) who enters their assigned area.

The Enchanted Gate
The gate of the keep. Anyone who passes with evil intent against your person triggers the gate. It screams a warning that can be heard throughout your Citadel.

The Castle Defences
At the start the reader is provided with a chart to fill in, placing his defences as he wishes.

Wall A:
Wall B:
Wall C:
Wall D:
Tower of Night:
Tower of Stars:
Tower of the Moon:
Tower of the Sun:
Postern Gate:
The Well:
The Rivergate:
The Orc Barracks:
The Demonkin Barracks:
The Hall of Ancient Artifacts:
The Beastpits:
1st floor of Keep:
2nd Floor of Keep:
Inner Sanctum:

To place:
• 2 Hellgaunts (separately, one in each area)
• 2 Automata (separately, one in each area)
• 2 units of 25 orcs each
• 2 units of 10 demonkin each
• 2 groups of 2 homunculi
• 2 groups of 2 imps
• The beasts

Also the following, set to patrol area, will attack all comers:
• The Manticore
• The Gorgon
• The Wyvern

The reader will also have the following creatures in his Sanctum at the beginning of the adventure: 1 orc messenger, 1 demonkin messenger, 1 homunculus and 1 imp.

In addition to three Potions of Strength and one Potion of Fortune, the reader will also have several wonderous items at his disposal:

The Orb of All Seeing
This enables you to examine any area of the citadel at will, though it takes some time to examine an area.

The Staff of Might
Adds 1 to skill and 1 to damage done in combat.

The Ring of Excellent Defence
Subtracts 1 from any Stamina loss that results from a wound taken in combat.

Book of Spells
Enables Karabane to cast various spells:
• Lightning Bolt - an attack spell that inflicts the loss of 1-6 Stamina points.
• Battleskill - adds 1 to Skill for the duration of a single encounter.
• Healing - restores one die's worth of lost Stamina.
• Confusion - reduces the target's Skill by 1.
• Teleport - enables Karabane to teleport back to his Sanctum.

These spells will generally be usable when indicated in the text.

Other items are held either in the cellar or in the Hall of the Ancient Artifacts. Karabane will have to take time fetching these if he thinks they might be needed. Such items are those whose name and general function is known, but whose precise powers must be tested (possibly with unexpected results) during the course of play. They include the Mirror of Reflecting Thunderbolts, the Iron Bell of Meragren, the Shield of Ice (said to absorb flame), and so on. These things may become useful depending on how the plot develops.

The reader will also be provided with a list of the heroes gunning for him and some useful information about them. These are:

Barak Arakyn the Berserk
A berserker warrior in light armour who wields his two-handed battleaxe "Slayer". A peerless fighter of heroic strength and endurance.

Sir Gondris of the Order of Knights Errant
A paladin of an order dedicated to destroying evil everywhere. Wears full plate: the Armour of Purity, the Shield of Truth and the Sword of Wrath. A renowned knight of unswerving purpose and redoubtable might.

Kalara of Arkand
A noted adventurer and suspected thief. Has a reputation of being a rogue. She wields the Longbow of Qor and the Arrows of Flame.

Arcos Arcanus
Master of Magics and Doctor of Marvels. A powerful wizard of great power and repute.

Alchemist of Fernor and Priest of the Holy Ones. A famous 'smiter of evil'. A fanatic priest and creator of many herbal potions which can be used in combat.

Uldarik Hsao
Master of the Martial Arts and Supreme Sensei of Unarmed Combat. A martial artist from Hachiman, skilled in all forms of unarmed combat.

Fudoshin Raiko
A lordless samurai from Konichi in Hachiman. This famous master of the sword has sworn to destroy Karabane even at the cost of his own life.

Syrena, Amazon of Kelados
A mighty fighter, she is known to wield the Helm of Thunderbolts, and the Sword and Shield of Chrysos (an ancient legendary hero).

Prince Chemcho of Sariandor
A noted warrior-mage. Wields a slender sword of night-black steel. This dashing roguish adventurer is said to know some powerful spells.

During the book the reader will have the opportunity to consult his library about the heroes and their weapons and abilities.

The heroes are divided into three groups of three:

Group A - Sir Gondris, Mogresh and Fudoshin Raiko
Group B - Kalara, Prince Chemcho and Barak Arakyn
Group C - Syrena, Uldarik and Arcos

The following would not be known to the player, but it demonstrates the general course which the book would take and is divided into stages, corresponding to the hours:

Of course, some heroes may not even get all the way through, depending on the reader's actions.

The optimum conclusion leads to the remaining heroes witnessing the start of Karabane's battle with the demon lord. If Karabane can convince them where the true evil lies, they will help destroy the demon lord forever and Karabane will have succeeded in clearing his name. This conclusion requires the reader to act with restraint, putting himself into danger at some points in order to achieve a non-violent resolution to his battle with the nine heroes

*  *  *

A few notes of mild interest: Gondris was the name of a player-character in my Tekumel campaign at Oxford. Serena was a very fit instructor at the gym Jamie and I used to work out at. Arcos was a character Jamie played in the RuneQuest campaign that I and Oliver Johnson ran for a while to playtest the Questworld scenario pack that Games Workshop had commissioned us to write. (I say commissioned, but no money ever changed hands nor did they go so far as to give us a contract.) Uldarik was the name of one of Jamie's NPC bodyguards in the Tekumel campaign that I and Steve Foster ran in London. Mogresh may have taken his name from Mogs, the nickname of one of the players in that campaign. You get all the trivia here, eh?


  1. That sounds awesome. I can imagine this as an iPad game and being lots of fun. Although the book sounds cool too!

    1. It would have been hard to do as a gamebook, but I think we could have pulled it off. I wish Puffin had taken a punt on it, as Jamie and I really wanted to write it - which probably explains why we didn't take no for an answer first time. We could still do it as a boardgame or an app, mind you.

  2. Sounds amazing would have loved to have played it a nice twist on the Fighting Fantasy adventures

    1. I'm wondering why we never tried to work it into the Fabled Lands series. Probably because those were all about open-structured, multi-quest adventures, but we could at least have used a variant on the core concept to deal with an attack on the player's stronghold or something. Just to try out the idea, really.

  3. This is brilliant, Dave, and should have happened! What an amazing addition to FF it could have been.

    I don't suppose you would offer an opinion as to where in Khul the Tower of Doom, Arkand, Sariandor, Kelados and Fernor might be? I've always fancied the large (undocumented) area between Hachiman and Corda in the east of the continent, where we might expect people with such varied names as Chemcho, Fudoshin, Morgesh, Hsao and Kalara to co-occur.

    1. I don't even know what Khul is, I'm afraid, though I'm guessing it's a continent in the Fighting Fantasy "world of Alan" :-)

    2. Btw, while Ian and Steve often picked names from people they worked with or their holiday destinations, and I generally used character names from my role-playing games, I really don't know where Jamie and I plucked Chemco from! Must have been struggling for inspiration that day.

    3. Fair enough, I suspected that might the answer! If Jamie has any thoughts, I'd be interested to know.

    4. I don't think Jamie is any more familiar with the official FF world than I am. All his books in the series were set in Orb. The exception was Keep of the Lich Lord, but IIRC we just made up all our own characters and places (Chaideshu was Jack Bramah's character in our Tekumel campaign, for example) and one of the Puffin editors, probably Marc Gascoigne, suggested where it could all fit into their setting.

    5. OK, so for a bit of fun, and as a response to Jamie's tweet about the location of Arkand in the Fighting Fantasy world, I've done a blog post suggesting where it might have been had Seven Keys become an FF gamebook. We can only dream!

    6. Even though I'm not at all familiar with the FF world, I got a kick out of reading your great article, Paltogue.

      And how about other FF fans out there - would anyone else like to weigh in on this question?

    7. Btw the FF wiki could do with an update on those "lost" gamebooks. I've written up a lot of them on this blog, but most of the links are broken:

    8. Glad you like it! How about you & Jamie, IL & SJ, and Tin Man get together and create a brand new FF app of it?!

      I know, I know, it's never going to happen, but wouldn't it be good if it did. Some new, high-quality, app-based, original FF adventures would be very welcome.

      I'll see what I can do about updating the Wiki page if someone hasn't beaten me to it already.

    9. You mean Blood of the Zombies wasn't enough for ya? :-)

    10. "I don't think Jamie is any more familiar with the official FF world than I am. All his books in the series were set in Orb."

      False! Ah-hah! 'Sword of the Samurai' was set in the land of Hachiman - which, being in one of the earlier FF books, was soon integrated into the canoncial world setting. As part of the continent of Khul. Being essentially set in a fantasy version of feudal Japan, it was really, really similar to some parts of Orb, or even Akatsurai. I'm guessing a bit of cut-and-paste went on with the setting.

      I think the land of Hachiman did show up in another FF book many years later, 'The Crimson Tide' - probably the hardest, most frustrating gamebook I've ever played. That's not a good point.

      Man, I've memorised a lot of gamebook trivia in my life.

    11. And... The Crimson Tide was written by Paul Mason, who played Karunaz, bodyguard to Jamie's Baron Jadhak, in our Tekumel campaign. Karunaz appeared in one of the Blood Sword books IIRC, and Jadhak's closest ally in the campaign was General Tlangten hiSsanyusa, played by Mark Smith, creator of Orb.

      Well, you did mention trivia, Paul!

      If there are any similarities between Hachiman (wtf, btw!) and Akatsurai they are purely coincidental, as I based the latter's Japanese elements on the culture and ghost stories of the Heian Period, whereas I bet the influences in FF are Muromachi and Edo. Just a hunch based on the bits of Japanese history that role-players & gamebook authors tend to cherry-pick ;-)

    12. Btw some reviews of The Crimson Tide. The mudworm that kills everyone was apparently added by the ferocious android himself, editor Marc Gascoigne:

      ("Makes Jonathan Green look like a benevolent fairy godmother." Lol - always get smashingly written reviews from Mrs Giggles.)

    13. And how could I forget, Ed Jolley has given it one of his always-interesting reviews also:

    14. Yes, it's all flooding back now. I wasn't specifically thinking of the infamous, unbeatable mudworm that appears right at the beginning - I was thinking more of the book's mechanic that you have pick up codewords as you go along (à la Fabled Lands and various others)... except that if you were travelling along the 'victorious' route, the codewords formed a sentence in their own right that gave you an extra, secret option towards the end of the book. Fiendish, fiendish gameplay.

      I read an interview with Paul Mason somewhere where he said that with The Crimson Tide he set out to write the most difficult Fighting Fantasy book ever. If so, he succeeded. After much frustration, I once sat and read every single paragraph in the book, in order, cover to cover, trying to figure out how to reach the book's victorious conclusion. I still didn't find it. That devilish, secret option really was well hidden.

      Had no idea that Paul Mason shared an RPG pedigree with yourself, Jamie and Mark Smith, however. Ah, yet more trivia to store up in my brain.

      Just glancing through a few reviews of The Crimson Tide, by the way, I don't think the adventure took place in Hachiman. But that country certainly gets a name check. Some marauding baddies from that country appear, or somesuch.

    15. "It will be realized that entries make no sense if read in numerical order..." You were warned!

  4. Hi Dave,
    Great post! How about turning it into a novel ? Generally speaking, do you have any plans to release (fantasy) novels in the near future or will you focus essentially in gamebook-related projects such as Blood Sword ? Thanks.

    Best regards, Steve

    1. Novels are definitely the focus of Jamie's and my company, Steve - as you can read about in this post from just a few weeks back:

      The Dark Lord books derive from the same interests and inspirations that led us to come up with The Keeper of the Seven Keys, and in fact we're considering turning it into a gamebook, app or boardgame (or all three) with Dirk Lloyd taking the place of Karabane.

      Meantime, my own personal focus these days is comics and interactive fiction - not necessarily at the same time. Having worked as both a professional writer and game designer, I'd like to do more with interactive stories, which suffer from being technical exercises more often than compelling entertainment - with some notable exceptions. So that's probably the direction I'll explore. Things like Blood Sword and Fabled Lands really are just spare-time projects for the fans.

  5. The really interesting bit in this post is the Dungeon Builder game. Did that ever get released?

    1. Jamie and I left Eidos before we got the opportunity to develop it further. I was adapting it anyway to be a "design a crime for a friend to solve" game rather than the original concept of a dungeon built to a points limit. But I'm sure somebody must have released a game like that in the intervening two decades!