The Forest of Doom

The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were blockbusters of the era. Join us on the third adventure, to the twisted and evil Forest of Doom!

In 1982, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, founders of Games Workshop, released the book ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’. Intended as an introduction to tabletop role-playing games of the era, the book’s choose-your-own-adventure format mixed with simple dice-based combat proved massively successful, giving rise to a full series of books – Fighting Fantasy. With over 65 books in the series by a legion of authors and illustrators, the series’ legacy continues to this day. The DiceWolf team play through each one – with no prior knowledge, no hints or walkthroughs and no cheating!  

Forest of Doom is one of those early books that tried something new. Think about it like this – the first two Fighting Fantasy books were dungeon crawls. One takes place in the dungeon of Firetop Mountain, the other changes the general design and goes for a castle, but they’re still dungeon crawls. This is the first book that tries to create an outdoors area. It is a mostly cosmetic change though, with pathways through the forest acting like hallways, and clearings acting as rooms, so it’s still a long way to go before it develops to the type of vast landscapes like you see in the Sorcery! series, but it’s a first step in that direction.

I don’t remember much about this book from when I was a kid. The story is straightforward enough – somewhere in the forest, two halves of an ancient dwarven hammer are hidden. Find them. Then go and get a pint at the local pub. I really do need to point out, though, that your character in this book does immediately come across as a borderline psychopath. It’s nobody’s fault really, the writing tries to make him seem like an excitable adventurer. The problem is that it goes a little overboard – the introduction sequence talks just a little bit too dramatically about how you have rejected society and wander the wastelands with only your sword for company, dreaming at night of murdering green-skinned people, getting thrills from killing ‘evil’ men… the first choice the book offers you is if you want to attack an old man or not. These are not the actions of a heroic individual, these are the actions of a crazy person.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s back up a little. One night, while making camp, I stumble across a dying dwarf who tells me about the hammer that’s lost in the forest, and that his people desperately need the hammer in order to save his people from an army of trolls. He tells me to go and speak to Yaztromo, the wizard who lives in the forest, who later goes on to appear in several other Fighting Fantasy books. I assume that I agree to this quest because I’ll be able to kill things along the way. The next day I get to Yaztromo’s tower, and the book asks if I want to attack him. Of course I bloody don’t!

He then shows me a bunch of items that I can purchase. So, time for some shopping – let’s go wild in the aisles on today’s episode of Supermarket Sweep! Today I have bought fire capsules, boots of leaping, armband of strength, potion of plant control, headband of concentration, role of climbing, garlic buds, ring of light, net of entanglement, holy water, and nose filters. So just to explain, these items take the place of spells in this book, allowing the player to perform feats that are situationally useful much like magic did in Citadel of Chaos. Later books in the series use a combination of the two. And with that, I head off into the forest!

I instantly start to wander around with no clue where I’m going, until I find a talking crow. It offers to give me a clue if I pay it, but I’ve already spent my gold – I assume that crows, which cannot conceivably carry money, have a very good use for gold coins that they simply have neglected to tell me about. Instead I simply pick a random direction and walk in it until I run into two hobgoblins. I kill them easily, looting their bodies of their hard-earned possessions. I don’t know when I’ll need a brass flute, two maggot-filled biscuits and a necklace made of mouse skulls, but you never know what might be useful in these books. Also, I could have been an accountant if I’d have gone to university, rather than the Fighting Fantasy version of Jason Voorheys, murdering green people and stealing their maggotty biscuits.

The next clearing contains a hole in the ground. As much as I try to avoid the urge to dive into random holes in the ground, this time I just can’t resist. As the Gatekeeper in the board game Atmosfear would say, I head into the black hole. Congratulations to all three people out there who get that reference. Inside, I find a giant Stingworm, which I kill. There’s not much in the hole, except for some gold coins and a potion which, when I drink, increases my attack ability. This proves useful very soon, because the very next room ‘clearing’ is a small cave, in which I can see a large ogre. The picture looks more like a traditional mountain man, but the book says it’s an ogre, so it’s an ogre.

Either way, ogre or not, it seems to be tending to a goblin which it has caught and locked in a small cage. Being a violent psychopath, my only options here are to react violently, so I’m unable to talk to the ogre, instead running over and stabbing him to death. I then unlock the goblin’s cage, stab the goblin to death (I feel that I’m going to be describing this adventure to a therapist one day) and take the object that the goblin has hidden on a string around its neck – the handle for the hammer!! Wow, that was easy. First part done. I’m also able to grab a silver box that the ogre had hidden in his cave for some unknown reason. No idea what it’ll be useful for, though.

Emerging from the cave, I am quickly caught by a hunting snare. I cut myself down with no injury to myself, and continue on my way – I presume that if I had failed the requisite roll, my fate would have been a little less pleasant. Eventually I spot a small hut up in one of the nearby trees. I climb on up, hoping to meet some friendly elves. Instead I find a giant ape, who I will re-name to Gorilla Grodd. He smacks me with a bone a few times before I kill him. At least, I think that’s what happened – this might just be a case of being an unreliable narrator and I may have just butchered the poor defenceless man in his sleep, that would certainly be in keeping with character. However I did it, I claim the ape man’s bracelet of skill for myself, which boosts my skill by one point. I’m now pretty impressive, although my stamina is flagging a little.

I head through the forest’s undergrowth until I’m being bitten and snapped at by some especially nasty plants. I chug down some potion of plant-control (which I’m fairly sure is the origin of Poison Ivy in the ‘Batman Forever’ movie) and command the vines to quit bothering me – that’s a simple enough affair, and serves to show how the item/magic system works.

The next clearing boasts one of my least favorite types of fantasy creatures – a centaur. I hate these things. Out of all of the mythological races, they seem the most, well, indecisive. And I’m fairly sure that they’re over-compensating for something… I resist the urge to attack him, and instead actually have the option of speaking to him! He gives me a ride across the river in exchange for some gold – a decent deal, because river water shouldn’t be that shade of greenish-brown… I make camp for the night on the other side of the river.

I’m attacked during the night by a giant spider, but I kill it easily enough and the next morning I find another cave containing yet another ogre. This one, however, is sleeping. Y’know, there’s enough ogres in this village that, if they worked together, they could probably move out of the caves and build their own little town. But in any case, I wrap my net of entanglement around it (isn’t the name of that item a bit of a redundancy?) and steal everything it owns, which consists of a leather bag. I feel a right little criminal now. Fleeing the ogre’s cave, I find that the bag contained a few gold coins and a brass bell.

Trudging along towards the west, I eventually come to a small well. I throw a coin in, and the book tells me that I wish for more gold coins (maybe I could actually take my fate into my own hands and start saving money instead, perhaps starting with not throwing my money into holes in the ground). I decide that wishing won’t make this happen, I’m going to need to climb down into the well and find the coins! I head into the well, and emerge about half an hour later significantly richer and bathed in the blood of many goblins. It seems that the little people had set up their own network of homes in the tunnels under the well, where they grew rich on the gold that people threw down there – until I slaughtered the whole lot of them. Feel a bit guilty now.

Y’know, it bares repeating again – you really come across as a demented serial killer in this book. I mean, I just massacred an entire community of tiny, mostly weak little gremlins… Remember those jokes I made at the start of the page about how your character is written a bit strangely? Well it has really panned out to work exactly like this in practice. Maybe this is what they were going for when they wrote it – “The slash-happy adventures of Mr Murderey McStabYourFace”. If so, this is really well executed in the murderous choices you’re given throughout the story.

While you’ve been reading that, for instance, I’ve been lathering some healing mud on my wounds and butchering a Pterodactyl. A bloody Pterodactyl! You thought they were extinct? Well they are now! That was the last one I’ve just hacked apart. Hope nobody will miss them.

The next part of the adventure becomes very strange. I venture into a small tunnel, which leads to a large mining area beneath the forest floor. Inside are a group of clones, small hairless beings who have been enslaved and forced to mine fungus. I make my way out of the place as quickly as possible, being very careful not to overstay my welcome, attempt to kill any clones, and not to eat any freaky red mushrooms. Inside a barrel I do manage to find a well-crafted shield, which is very helpful in my battle against the lord of this mine, The Balrog. Well, maybe not the Balrog of Tolkien’s story, but any whip-wielding fire demon is a balrog to me. It’s a pretty tough fight even by the standards of the book, but I manage to kill it with the help of my newfound shield. With that, I hurry out of this strange area and get back to the sunlit upper world.

I continue through the forest, until I find a small house. Sadly I don’t have a silver key to unlock the door, and I don’t want to risk trying to force my way in because that never works well in these books (running into doors has a tendency to hurt me as much as being hit by a sword, for some reason), so instead I push on through the undergrowth until I see something especially sparkly in the leaves and debris. I lean down to examine it, when all of a sudden a giant dragon flies down and shoots fire at me. It misses, but the book then tells me that I have a weird compulsion to play that brass flute I found at the being (which is actually a wyvern, not a dragon – is there much difference really?) I must be honest, that’s not really what my first compulsion would be if I seen a giant fire-breathing flying lizard. I wouldn’t be thinking “Hey dude, want to jam a few tunes?”, I’d more likely be thinking “Aaaaaaaagh oh my god run! Save us!” but I suppose my character knows best. Thankfully, the flute is a magical Flute of Dragon-Sleeping-ness…. oh, sure. Of course. Such things exist, right?

Nevertheless, I creep past the sleeping lizard and am now able to find a pair of gauntlets in the debris, which raise my skill level even higher. I’m quite happy with this, and with the throwing knife I find there as well, and so I continue to push through the undergrowth until I am confronted by a traveling band of bandits. They demand five items from my backpack. So I give them five of them – specifically the useless fire capsules, the throwing knife, the mouse skull necklace, and two maggot-encrusted biscuits. Enjoy your dinner, fools!

And with that, I stumble through the tree line and see the village of Stonebridge ahead of me. I have survived the forest… But have only part of the hammer! Oh no, I have failed… Except I have not. The book gives me the chance to travel around the forest and start over from the beginning!

And this is where things get very, very peculiar.

“Hello” I say to Yaztromo. He stares at me, not a speck of recognition in his eyes. “It’s me, again.” I say.

“Do I know you?” he asks.

“Yes” I say, “I was that guy who was searching for the hammer?”

“Young man, I have never seen you before in my life” says the wizard.

And so on. I go back up to his storeroom, and buy every item that I’m not already carrying, leaving me with only ten gold coins in my pocket.

And so I journey through the forest once again, this time resolute to choose every different option possible this time in the hopes that it will in some way aid me in my travels. I manage to get my pockets picked by a thief who I’ve been kind enough to release from a trap. I kill a shape-changer (the same one pictured on the books cover, I expect). I eventually stumble across and kill a wild boar, whose gold nose ring helps refill my supply of gold. And as I camp overnight I am attacked by vampire bats, who I fend away with garlic.

So yes, I travel through the forest again. This time I manage to find a silver key along the way. When I find my way to the locked hut again, I unlock the door and find a stairway that leads down into a tomb. There is a sarcophagus there, but I am unable to open it without something called ‘powder of levitation’, which Yaztromo didn’t have for sale. Aside from that, the adventure plays out mostly the same – I avoid the wyvern, I give my junk items to the bandits, I leave the forest…

And I go back to the start to begin the adventure again. Yes, I played through this adventure three times! My skill had been buffed to the point where combat was easy, and by gulping down the potion of luck that you start the adventure with, my luck score was suitably high enough and… by the third time I went through it, I was getting a bit sick to death of Forest of Doom, to be honest.

This time through, I manage to stumble upon a mud hut in which a man is challenging… who exactly?… to arm wrestling contests. I beat him by cheating with the armband of strength, and he gives me some powder of levitation. I really don’t know who this person is challenging to these contests, but urgh, I don’t care, I’ve got the item I was needing. Maybe he wrestles bears. If so, he would be the coolest person in the entire book.

I kill a werewolf when I make camp that night, and the next day I arrive back at the silver key house. Again. And yes, I played through this book three times! But it all paid off in the end. Because in that tomb inside the house, I find a ghoul, who I easily dispatch with Yaztromo’s holy water. And inside the tomb, beside the ghoul… I find the head of the hammer.

If this book was Warlock on Firetop Mountain, I’d have failed. If it were City of Thieves, I’d have failed. But no. Forest of Doom, in letting you start over from the beginning, let me read those fabled words, ‘turn to 400′.

The dwarves of Stonebridge are overjoyed that I bring the hammer to them. I guess that they completely forget about this army of trolls, because instead they give me a golden helm, and fill by backpack with gems. And throw a massive feast and celebrate. No doubt I will butcher them all in their beds that very night. But for now, that doesn’t matter, because….

In retrospect, I think that this may be why Ian Livingstone wrote in this kind of feature to restart the book. It’s not a fool-proof way to play repeatedly though – each restart costs you in terms of your luck score, meaning that eventually your luck score will get so low that you’re unable to restart and die en route back to the beginning of the adventure. From a gameplay perspective, it’s interesting to see this type of feature.

Forest of Doom is a pretty solid book, for this early in the series. You can still see the dungeon crawl formula at work, but it dresses the cosmetics in such a way that you are easily able to look past that. There’s even a few moments that, when I played it, made me think of how this type of cosmetic style has been used in later forms, in particular during the second and third Zork video games. But I could continue to analyse this book for hours, would that even interest anyone here? Point being, this book came out before the Fighting Fantasy books even had a decisive formula, and it was already pushing to develop something new and explore different locations for the hero to adventure. There’s a whole load of new ways for puzzles to work, and the item system takes the place of the magic system from Citadel of Chaos in a very curious way, reminiscent of the inventory system in video games. If you’re so inclined, you can see the way in which elements from this book were later developed in City of Thieves and so on…. but who cares? I won! I WON!!

Cause of death: None, victory.

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