To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Ian Livingstone brought out a new gamebook, Blood of the Zombies. Eschewing the nostalgia-heavy approach of his previous FF anniversary celebration, Return to Firetop Mountain, Ian’s new book avoided the world of Titan altogether, did away with much of the standard ruleset, and set a new benchmark for being unplayable by the rules.
Return was intended to be the last FF book published by Puffin, but it sold so well that the series kept going for another 3 years and 9 books afterwards. I don’t know if it was by design or not, but Blood was the last FF book brought out by Wizard Books. In a recent poll at the Fighting Fantazine forum, it was voted the worst book in the entire range, and more than a third of the voters gave it 0/10. I rated it slightly higher than that because of the artwork, but it is currently my least favourite book in the series. I say ‘currently’ because I haven’t yet had a go at any of the titles published after it, and while Blood-induced lack of motivation isn’t the only reason the later books remain unplayed in my home, it is a significant contributory factor.
I bought a copy online when it originally came out, and I seem to remember my first attempt at it ending with my character losing a fight against a horde of sewer rats. My second try ended when I decided I couldn’t be bothered to keep playing, and this blog entry will cover my third go at it.
My character in this adventure is a second year student of mythology, and I’m spending the summer break seeking legendary creatures in Southern Europe. I don’t know if my failure to grasp that mythological creatures tend not to actually exist is more an indictment of the quality of the teaching or of my own intelligence, but either way, I doubt that I’m the sharpest spoon in the drawer.
To be more precise, I was trying to find assorted fantastic beasts, but during a vampire-hunt in Romania I was captured by a trio of thugs, and am now shackled to the wall of a cell in Goraya Castle, a prisoner of someone named Gingrich Yurr. Apart from his name and the fact that he’s in charge here, the only thing I know about Yurr is that he intends to kill me.
My jailer, an overweight bully named Otto, amuses himself by putting my food just far away enough that I can’t reach it without stretching my chains so taut that the shackles cut into my flesh, and no visit from him is complete without a vicious kick to the ribs. The food is terrible, and there’s not enough of it to meet my basic nutritional needs, so I’m in pretty bad shape, all things considered.
There’s no Skill or Luck in this adventure, which means that character creation consists of determining Stamina by rolling two dice and adding a number. Originally the number to add was 12, but in response to complaints about the excessive difficulty of the book, Ian Livingstone upped it to 20. Which is a bit like initially setting the bar for a high jump at 2km, and then lowering it by 50 metres when the contestants say it’s not possible to jump that high. Nevertheless, I will go with the revised method, so I end up with:
The rules don’t say anything about whether or not it’s possible to exceed my starting Stamina, which I’m interpreting as meaning that there is no limit. According to one statistically-minded fan who enjoys analysing probabilities, the chances of winning even with this take on the rules are less than one in a million, so even if I knew the optimal path through the book, I’m not likely to succeed at it. Nevertheless, I will have a proper go at it, despite the temptation to deliberately fail at the earliest opportunity and move on to a more enjoyable book (which description covers almost all of my gamebook collection).
As in Escape from the Sorcerer, it has taken my character an inordinately long time to reach the conclusion that an escape attempt would be advisable. You’d think that being told that my captor is going to kill me would be sufficient grounds to want to get away, but no, it’s taken almost a week of inadequate (and rancid) food and physical abuse to bring me to the point of deciding to seek my freedom. Perhaps, being a student, I’ve grown accustomed to leaving important tasks to the last minute (or later), but with no TV, bar, friends or internet in my cell, it’s not as if there’s been much to distract me from the task in hand.
Calling out to Otto might put him in a bad mood, so I wait for his next scheduled visit. When he brings me a fresh bowl of near-inedible stew, I provoke him into attacking with an insult (a rather idiosyncratic one, but by no means the most ridiculous one to appear in FF). As he prepares to kick me, I lash out with my legs first. I have the option of trying to kick him in the head, but I’ll go with what John Steed once described as the ‘old school’ approach: “Always aim for the body.” More chance of hitting something.
Seizing Otto around the waist with my legs, I manage to topple him, and use my chains to choke him into unconsciousness. Relieving him of his keys, I unlock my shackles and transfer them to his wrists. He starts to come round, and I intimidate him into telling me everything he knows about Yurr by threatening to kick him in the ribs. He must have a very low pain threshold, as the previous section stated that I was barefoot, which is liable to limit the damage I can actually inflict with a kick. Mind you, that ‘everything he knows’ isn’t particularly helpful, as he’s never met the man, and all he’s found out about Yurr’s plan is that it’s something ‘unspeakably terrible’ involving his prisoners.
As I head for the door, Otto begs me to release him, so I throw the shackles key out of his reach and taunt him before leaving. The corridor outside leads to a door in one direction, and further than I can see in the other. Might as well see where the door leads first.
I step into Otto’s living quarters, which are in a pretty grotty state (though better than my cell). The only things of interest to me in it are a shoulder bag (startlingly, I don’t have the option of keeping any of the random clutter inside the bag, so I guess there’s never going to be a moment in this adventure when survival depends on my having a magazine about accordions on me) and a half-eaten plate of meatloaf and potatoes. I polish off the food, gaining some Stamina in the process, and catch sight of a metal box under the stove. Investigating, I find that it contains a penknife, fifteen dollars, and some string, all of which I add to my inventory.
Returning to the corridor and heading the other way, I observe some graffiti on the walls, only some of it in a language I know. What I can read is decidedly doom-laden. Further along I catch sight of a black canvas pouch hanging from a hook. This being one of Ian Livingstone’s later books, investigating things is almost as likely to get me killed as not investigating things. Still, if I check out the pouch and die, I know to avoid it in future, while if I don’t take a look at it, and there’s something essential inside, I’m dooming myself without learning anything helpful. So I open the pouch and find a key with a number on it, a box of matches, and a marker pen. Nothing obviously lethal (well, the matches could theoretically lead to a scenario in which I get set on fire and die horribly, but then, not taking them might lead to horrendous doom on account of being unable to set something else on fire), so I’ll take the lot.
At the far end of the corridor is another door. I can hear footsteps from behind it, but it’s not as if there’s anywhere else to go if I want to escape from here, so I go through, finding myself in a store room in which a couple of Yurr’s staff are taking inventory. One introduces himself as Boris, and indicates his willingness to accept a bribe in return for not raising the alarm. The other, named Gregor, has a bandaged head.
Attempting to make a dash for the other exit from the room seems like a bad idea, so I’ll see if Otto’s money is good for buying more than just silence. And for some reason choosing not to try running away results in my telling the men how I was kidnapped. I mean, why would I bother recounting my woes when Boris has already indicated that he knows at least part of what befell me and is only interested in whatever money I might have? Mind you, my sob story does appear to have slightly distracted him, as he seems to have forgotten the ‘pay up to keep me quiet’ thing, and is now offering to sell me useful items in return for the cash he craves.
The first thing Boris wants to sell is information about what’s going on here. Even if whatever exposition he can provide is not essential for success, there’s no way of getting to see what equipment he’s willing to sell unless I pay for the info-dump (thereby preventing repeat players from relying on what they can remember from previous attempts and saving their money for additional useful artefacts), so I hand over ten of my hard-pilfered dollars.
Boris then explains Gingrich Yurr’s insane plan. Which is not just insane in the way that any megalomaniacal fictional villain’s plan to destroy humanity/the world/whatever is, but also in that it makes no sense and could never work if the author weren’t glossing over certain fundamental flaws which are liable to guarantee its eventual failure.
So, Yurr hates humanity. Boris doesn’t give a reason for this, but as I know that elsewhere in the book it is revealed that Yurr owns a set of FF gamebooks, I shall draw on my own experience and speculate that, when he remained a fan even after the fad had passed, his ‘cooler’ classmates started to mock and deride him for his interest in the series. And attempted to defenestrate him on one occasion. But while I eventually moved on from such experiences, he remained embittered and decided that the best response to having been bullied would be to create an army of Zombies with which to conquer the world. Thus, with the assistance of some scientists whose motivation is even sketchier than his own, he has created a mutant gene which, when introduced into the bloodstream of physically weak individuals, transforms them into mindless Zombies. For the past year he’s been having his henchmen kidnap people, and, after imprisoning and starving his victims until they’re sufficiently feeble, zombifying them with injections of tainted blood. Some time soon he’s likely to infect himself with the mutant gene, and then lead his Zombie army against the rest of the world.
The prospect of dying in or becoming part of a Zombie apocalypse has convinced Boris that the good wages he’s been getting are no longer incentive enough to remain in Yurr’s employ, but staff aren’t permitted to leave the castle (and the retirement plan probably involves a syringe of contaminated blood), so Boris is hoping to be able to bribe his way out. Mind you, now that I’ve escaped from my cell, he comes up with a new idea, and encourages me to single-handedly track down and kill every single Zombie in the castle, since if I don’t, he, Gregor, I, and every other human alive, must surely be doomed.
Let’s just think about how inevitable Yurr’s triumph actually is. What I know of the book’s mechanism for determining ultimate success or failure tells me that the maximum possible number of Zombies in Yurr’s army is the number of sections in the book – 400. The rules indicate the Zombies not to be the most robust of opponents – even using just my bare hands, I could potentially kill three of them in a single round of combat. And while the infection hazard posed by the mutant gene in their blood does theoretically mean Yurr’s army can add to its numbers, the fact that it seems not to affect healthy people – hence the whole ‘chain abductees up and half-starve them for around a week’ part of the zombification process – should limit its effectiveness.
A quick online search reveals that a couple of years ago the land-based divisions of the Romanian Armed Forces numbered a little under 36,000. So even just to conquer the country in which Yurr is based, his puny Zombies will have to overcome an army that outnumbers them something like ninety times over, and is equipped with tanks, machine guns, assault rifles, grenades and, at a pinch, pointed sticks. As serious threats to humanity go, Yurr’s Zombies don’t even rank alongside TikTok challenges.
I concede that this Zombie army does pose a threat to me. I’m one man, currently in fairly poor condition, and armed only with a penknife. Thus, Boris’ decision to leave all the Zombie-killing to me rather than start thinking of low-risk ways in which he could, say, use the contents of this store room to thin the Zombies’ ranks isn’t a whole lot smarter than Yurr’s scheme. But as my character is the sort of idiot who thinks the smartest response to, ‘Oh! An escaped prisoner. Give me money and I won’t alert the guards,’ is to whine, ‘Some mean people with clubs captured me and brought me here against my will,’ I agree to oppose Yurr’s army single-handed.
Desperate for money as he is, Boris completely forgets about how he was going to sell me tat from the store room in return for whatever cash I have left after paying for the plot summary, so I have to jog his memory by asking if there’s anything here that might aid me in my quest. He rattles off a list of items, each costing one dollar (expensive for pencils, but not bad value for steel pulleys). I can only afford five, so I go for rubber gloves (to reduce the risk of infection), AAA batteries (in case I need to power something), a hacksaw (which could help me get through metal bars), a magnet (for a shot at retrieving otherwise inaccessible keys) and one of those pulleys (no idea why I might need one, but it’s such a weirdly specific thing to have on the list that I’m not taking the risk of going without). They may not all be of use, and I might have passed up something that will prove essential later on, but right now I’m mainly operating on guesswork (‘mainly’ since Boris dropped a blatant hint about the open wounds on my wrists, so the gloves seem a pretty sure bet).
Once I’ve made my purchases, the book asks if I want to bring up the subject of provisions. As I’ve just spent all my money, it looks a bit pointless, but I’ll give it a go anyway: even for Ian Livingstone at this stage of his writing career, ‘bludgeoned to death by someone who sees you as the saviour of humanity because you dared ask him for food’ seems that bit too ludicrous an Instant Death to include. And Boris is suddenly in a generous mood, and gives me a chocolate bar and a bottle of water, giving my Stamina more of a boost than Otto’s meatloaf and potatoes did. There’s no mention anywhere in the book of a sponsorship deal with the likes of Evian or Nestlé, but sometimes you have to wonder…
Leaving the store room, I head down another corridor to a T-junction. Going the wrong way here is sure to guarantee failure, but there is a brief plea for help written in blood on the left-hand wall, so I’ll take a chance on its being a hint and go that way. It leads to another door, which I open. Behind it is a laundry room, and my attention is drawn to a cupboard door, in front of which are a kit bag and some cleaning equipment. There may be a Zombie in the cupboard (House of Hell features a couple on one doomed path), so I’ll check the bag first. It contains some clothes and trainers (footwear at last!), and a baseball bat that does better damage than the penknife I found earlier.
Scratching noises from within the cupboard appear to bear out my suspicions, so I grip the bat in one hand and reach for the door handle with the other. The doors burst open to reveal two Zombies, and I take a swing at them. I may be the one holding the bat, but it’s the Zombies that are ‘out’ by the end of this little set-to.
Inside the cupboard I find a medical kit, which I can use to restore some Stamina, and two boxes of bullets. No gun into which to load them, but I’m sure I’ll find one before long. There’s no exit from the laundry room other than the door through which I entered, so I return to the junction and go the other way.
After a while I see a small latched door to my right. A reasonable rule for late Livingstone books is ‘check everything, and when something harms or kills you, remember to avoid it next time round (unless it looks like a dangerous but essential encounter, in which case hope to fare better against it in future)’. Don’t rely on it in real life, though, because reality lacks a retake option. Behind the door is a pretty filthy storage cubbyhole, with a couple of plastic boxes in it. One contains old newspapers and magazines, the other holds books, a wallet containing a couple of dollars, and another box of bullets.
The book has no rules regarding encumbrance, so I take everything. If I need kindling to go with those matches, a newspaper should suffice. Those books aren’t likely to pose any kind of threat – I guess one of them could turn out to be a copy of Blood of the Zombies and provoke a game-ending existential crisis, but that seems a bit too outlandish a trick for Ian Livingstone. Even if Edward Packard was doing that sort of thing for Choose Your Own Adventure as far back as 1983. And there are obvious uses for the bullets and money (even though there’s no option to go back to Boris to buy scissors and packing tape).
Further along the corridor I see an old mattress propped up against the wall. I can’t take that with me, but I can look behind it – and, of course, it’s concealing a side turning, which is just wide enough for me to squeeze through sideways on. Predictably, I investigate, finding it to lead to an abandoned workshop containing an anvil and assorted tools. Oh, and eight Zombies hiding behind a plastic curtain, who rush to the attack. There’s no way I’m getting through this fight unscathed, and a series of mediocre rolls causes me to take 12 Stamina damage while slugging my way through the undead octet. If I’d only been armed with the penknife, I’d probably be dead by now.
The only tool worth acquiring from here is a pair of blacksmith’s tongs. No idea what I’ll need them for, but I’m sure Ian has something in mind. Behind the curtain is another door, so I take a closer look at that. It’s locked, but that numbered key I found earlier fits it, so unless Ian is being devious, this is the way to go.
Behind the door is a coal store. One other door leads out of it, and a key hangs on a hook next to it, but I’d better check that there’s nothing under the coal before I go any further. And I find a plastic sack containing a rope and grappling hook. Bound to come in handy somewhere…
The key next to the other door unlocks it, letting me into a boiler room. That too has another way out with the key beside it, but I’d better search the boiler room before I go any further. And I find a small cupboard behind a boiler, containing some medical supplies that restore a little of the Stamina I lost fighting that last bunch of Zombies. While I’m treating my wounds, a trio of Zombies slides down the air vent and into the room, and I have no problem bludgeoning this lot into inactivity.
Resuming my search of the room, I find a crowbar. As a weapon, it’s no better than the baseball bat, but I take it anyway, as the bat won’t be much good if I need to prise something open. And if I’d been unarmed or only had that lousy penknife when I got here, I’d probably be a bit annoyed that I didn’t get to find the crowbar until after fighting the Zombies.
I unlock the next door, which takes me to another corridor, probably a continuation of the one with the mattress in. No choice of which way to go, though, as I can hear someone approaching from the right, and as killing every single Zombie is the only way to win, I have to investigate. And that ‘someone’ turns out to be a quartet of Zombies. Batter up!
While I lose another point of Stamina in that fight, the Zombies lose their existence. And one of them is carrying a pistol – unloaded, but as he was holding it by the barrel, the likelihood of my getting shot would have been around zero even if it had contained any ammunition. The bullets I found earlier fit it because the complexity of the rules is not of the right calibre to allow for differentiation of bullet types.
Further along I see a wooden crate next to a manhole cover. The crate is nailed shut, so it’s a good thing I brought that crowbar. Especially as the crate turns out to contain a couple of grenades. Going through the manhole would lead to the fight that ended my first attempt at this book, but I’m in better shape this time round, and if there are any Zombies in the sewers… Gotta catch ’em all.
So I pry open the cover, descend into the sewers, and get attacked by 15 Mutant Sewer Rats. I don’t think these count as Zombies, but I’ll make a note of them anyway. A grenade takes out almost half of them, a clip of bullets eliminates most of the rest, and I save ammunition by using the crowbar on the rest, losing 11 Stamina in the process.
Continuing to explore the sewers, I find the anticipated Zombies (so fighting the rats is unavoidable, and guaranteed to cost some Stamina). Only two of them, so it only takes a swipe with the crowbar to put them out of action. One of them is wearing a gold locket, which opens to display the photo of a young woman and the engraved name ‘Amy Fletcher’. Even taking decomposition into account, I don’t think the Zombie looks anywhere near similar enough to the subject of the photo to be Amy, so I’m guessing that it stole the locket, or was a friend of Amy’s in former life.
More exploration leads to an exit from the sewers and a metal grille blocking the way further down the tunnel. As I bought that hacksaw, I can cut my way through the grille, and I think I’d better do so. Needing to use an item to get past something increases the likelihood of there being something important on the other side. It doesn’t take long to cut a hole I can get through, and a little further ahead I catch sight of a green bottle floating in the sewage. I use a stick to flick it out of the effluent, and it smashes to reveal a piece of paper, on which is printed the number of a combination lock. Don’t even ask…
Up ahead, the passage terminates in an opening too small for me to get through, even if I wanted to try a Shawshank Redemption-style escape bid. So I turn around and head back to the nearby shaft leading up. That leads me to another room, containing nothing but the key to the door that is the only other exit. I appreciate that all these ‘locked door with the key close by’ set-ups are a means of ensuring that readers who went the wrong way earlier don’t get the opportunity to explore the areas they missed when the true and false paths converge, and locked doors are less of a contrivance than ‘you decide to ignore that route because you have a bad feeling/it smells funny/just shut up and turn to the section I say you should turn to, loser‘, but this is still a bit hokey.
The door leads to a corridor, which doubtless connects to the one I left in order to enter the sewers. But to my right is a flight of stairs leading up, which is so much more appealing than checking that my subterranean detour didn’t bypass a Zombie that I automatically head that way. Yes, I know that whatever vestigial sense of fairness remained in Ian Livingstone by the time he wrote this means that there won’t be essential encounters on both of two mutually inaccessible paths, but my character doesn’t know that this is a gamebook, and thus has no good reason to assume that there’s no need to double back and make sure he didn’t miss something.
Anyway, stairs. They lead to the ground floor of the castle, where life-sized portraits adorn the walls and a hallway leads off to both left and right. I’d better check the portraits for convenient clues and Zombies doing the corny ‘peer through cut-out eyeholes’ routine. They depict Yurr patriarchs throughout the years, up to and including Gingrich himself. The text says it shows him to be a fearsome individual, but the accompanying illustration gives me more of a ‘middle-aged version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’ vibe.
I take a closer look in case the picture’s detailed enough to show the registration number of the car in the background or a name on the collar of Yurr’s white rabbit or some other detail that’ll turn out to be a crucial password or the like at a later stage. The only detail of the picture made clearer by this advanced scrutiny is the make of the car, and I’m nowhere near enough of an automotive geek to know what (if anything) is signified by its being an Austin Healey. Mind you, I do also notice that the painting is slightly askew, so I check behind it and find a concealed door.
Naturally, I check behind the door. It’s another cupboard, this one containing a shotgun, four boxes of cartridges, and two of bullets. None of which bring me any closer to knowing whether I should head left or right along this hallway, so I’ll go for the direction that is more frequently correct in Ian Livingstone gamebooks.
I pass a mirror, and am startled to see how much of a toll my imprisonment has taken on me. Around a corner I see a door on one side, and of course I investigate. Behind the door is a washroom, and someone has left a wristwatch and a pair of glasses on the basin. After a good wash and a restorative drink of tap water, I continue on my way.
Another turn of the corner, and the corridor passes the foot of a staircase. I imagine this is where the two turnings at the top of the previous stairs converge, and suspect that there may have been Zombies on the path not taken. No opportunity to check, though, as noise from the top of these stairs alerts me to the approach of a dozen armed Zombies, one of them wielding his own severed hand, which holds an axe. This lot do extra damage with their weapons, so I use the second of those grenades to do as much damage as possible at the outset, eliminating three quarters of the mob before any of them can get in a blow. After that, few enough remain that I risk going back to the baseball bat rather than use up ammunition on them, and I fell them without losing any more Stamina, but I’m still down to single figures by now.
Proceeding up the stairs, I take the axe (but not the hand that grips it). Damage-wise it’s no better than the bat or crowbar, but it’s good to have in case I ever need to reenact a scene from The Shining. At the top of the stairs I have a choice of three directions. For what it’s worth, I’ll stick with the one I tried before, in case it’s the correct choice this time round.
The corridor leads me past an abandoned gymnasium. No Zombies in it, so I’m sure that was another wrong turning, but I do restore a couple of points of Stamina at the water cooler before continuing towards my inevitable failure. A little further on I find the changing rooms, which have been thoroughly trashed, but contain none of the undead vandals. In one of the lockers I find a wallet containing a bit of money, some receipts, an assortment of cards (some membership, the rest credit) and a piece of paper with a number on it. Most likely a red herring. Convenient for me that the signs on the doors are in English rather than Romanian – less so for any non-multilingual locals.
At the top of another flight of stairs is, no doubt, the point at which the routes from the last junction all converge. Noise drifts up from downstairs, so I have no choice but to descend, finding sixteen Zombies fighting over a dead dog. All turn their attention to me, so I use the shotgun to thin their ranks. A couple of blasts take out the lot, but the Zombies that survived my initial attack give me a pretty serious mauling while I’m reloading, so I doubt that I’m going to last much longer.
Close by is an alcove containing a bloodstained wheelie bin. Checking the contents, I find a number of plastic bottles that, judging by the dregs they contain, were used to transport blood. Most likely tainted blood. One is cracked, and has leaked blood all over the notebook that is the only other thing in the bin. I put on my rubber gloves before reaching inside to retrieve the notebook. It turns out to be a log of victims turned into Zombies – mostly just one or two a day, but I’m guessing that the mad scientist who kept this log came from America, as they were particularly productive on the third of July, doubtless expecting to be taking the following day off.
More usefully, the notebook also mentions Yurr’s telephone extension. Now all I need do is leak it to a few call centres, and he’ll be so busy fielding calls about PPI, insurance comparisons, funeral plans, and accidents that weren’t his fault, he’ll never find time to unleash his Zombie horde.
Continuing on my way, I become aware of a particularly foul smell, and find a blood trail on the floor. The trail passes straight by a side turning, which makes me suspicious. It’s such an obvious hint to follow, it could be intended to distract me from a short but essential dead end. There’s no way I’m winning on this try, so I might as well put my theory to the test. If the side turning is an instant death or an obvious detour past a Zombie encounter, I’ll know to ignore it if I ever play this again and fare better on the way up to this choice.
I proceed to a corner decorated by a marble bust and a suit of armour. Putting the armour on is such a ridiculous idea that I have to see what happens if I try – maybe there’s something important hidden inside it, which can only be found by someone daft enough to consider wearing it.
Rather boringly, it just weighs me down enough to further deplete my Stamina. If I hadn’t had a drink at that water cooler, putting on the armour would have killed me. The armour is accompanied by a sword, which does the same damage as the bat, the crowbar and the axe, and despite its being less versatile than a couple of them, I still take it with me.
Somewhere not far behind me, somebody unleashes a pack of slavering Attack Dogs. The weight of the armour makes it impossible for me to outrun them, and they rapidly bring me down and go for the vulnerable points of the suit, quickly biting away what little Stamina remains to me.
Looks like I should have gone with the obvious trail of blood after all. Still, dying like that means I can now reshelve the book and move on to something more fun. I do have dishes to wash…