FF43: The Keep of the Lich-Lord

Nicholas Campbell
Per Jorner
Robert La Vallie (spoiler - true path)
Phil Sadler
Laurence Sinclair
John Stock
Richard Wood (spoilers - win condition, true path)


[Nicholas Campbell]

The Keep of the Lich-Lord is well known for being one of the easiest books to complete in the Fighting Fantasy series, and you should be able to complete it within about five attempts, if not sooner than that. Some readers have completed it on their first attempt, but unfortunately I'm not among them.

The book is set on Stayng Island, one of the cluster of islands known as the Arrowhead Islands which lie well to the east of Khul. Lord Mortis, a former ruler of Stayng Island, has risen from his tomb and is turning most of the island's inhabitants into undead zombies. You have been sent to Stayng Island and must defeat Lord Mortis on your own. Your journey takes you to several villages, and there are lots of other places to visit along the way to Bloodrise Keep, where Mortis' undead army have gathered.

As I said earlier, The Keep of the Lich-Lord is easy. Early on in the game, you can visit a village and get your sword sharpened, allowing you to inflict 3 STAMINA points of damage instead of 2 every time you hit an opponent - which is nice! While you're in this village, you can also get a spear which inflicts double damage on undead opponents, which you will encounter a lot of once you reach Bloodrise Keep. Then there is a shield which reduces the SKILL of undead opponents by 1. You will not be surprised to hear that the book can be completed with minimal Initial scores, which I usually like; on this occasion, though, the sheer ease of the book reduced my enjoyment of it. Even if you don't obtain these items, you can complete the book with average Initial scores.

There are also two extra scores. RESOLVE represents how well you can hold your nerve when confronting undead creatures, and it starts at 6-11. It works a bit like LUCK, except that if you roll less than or equal to your RESOLVE, you can increase it by 1, which makes it easier the next time you need to Test your Resolve, and only adds to the factors which make The Keep of the Lich-Lord such an easy gamebook. There are actually some hints throughout the book which suggest that Testing your Resolve wasn't intended to behave in this way. The other score is Alarm Value, which is only used once you enter Bloodrise Keep; the higher this value reaches, the more likely it is that you will be caught. However, it's not used to good effect, and is a largely worthless addition to the game.

The Keep of the Lich-Lord isn't a bad gamebook as such, but it would have been a lot better if more thought had gone into its design and development. I have managed to complete it in just 37 references - and I thought Starship Traveller was short! However, the writing and imagery are both good, and there are many interesting locations and people to visit.

Rating: 6/10


[Per Jorner]

A startling number of reviewers claim to have won this book on their first go. I am not among them, but my two initial failures both involved remarkably bad luck in combat, such as losing to an opponent that I out-Skilled as well as out-Staminaed. The reports of TKotLL's lenience are in fact not exaggerated, and this is one of its drawbacks, along with an abundance of minor design glitches which I'll get back to.

At the start of the book you are deposited on an island (which is a little bigger than you might think looking at the map, or else has a very compressed ecosystem) to liquidate Lord Mortis the undead knight/necromancer. It won't take you long to figure out that the locations on the island are arranged so that you can visit some or all of them as you please on your way to Bloodrise Keep. Stopping off will not always be beneficial - at least not without the proper foreknowledge - but in general allows you to pick up items and bonuses to make your enemies scatter like chaff before you, or something.

You will be able to get one weapon that does 3 damage to everyone, and one weapon that does double damage to undead (i.e. 8 damage on a successful Luck roll). There are ways to raise your initial Skill and Luck. You can acquire no less than two Potions of Strength in addition to your 10 Provisions, or you could forgo one of the potions in favour of a suit of armour that reduces all damage by 1 (non-combat damage as well, I take it). You can get an item that reduces the Skill of undead enemies and which also has other uses. In fact, you may forget to actually apply all these bonuses because you don't really need them. Mortis had damn well better tremble in his boots.

Despite the number of paragraphs used for each major encounter it shouldn't take a lot of time to figure them out, and since ultimately there aren't too many, replayability suffers. One of the reasons is that many sections have quite a low probability of ever being used, such as the ones regarding failing Resolve or Alarm Value rolls in the keep. Another is that the book rarely if ever hides important information or items down mutually exclusive story branches, but tends to let you cycle through all the available options. The first time you reach an encounter you may not solve it optimally, but you probably won't die, either, and next time you'll probably breeze right through. It shouldn't take you more than three or four games to tick off all the high points of the book, maybe winning on the second or third. Despite a minor smattering of instant deaths the book is just too lenient; imagine my surprise at losing 3 Stamina after falling into a pit and impaling myself on stakes, or the way you can lose 2 Stamina by taking an arrow in the chest. What did they use as reference material - Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Forest of Doom?

If we look on the bright side, you can win with pretty much any initial stats (though ironically at this point in the series they had removed that particular declaration). In the end, though, the way the mechanics come into play simply isn't the book's strong suit. The world design and writing are. The island of Stayng has its own mythus which, although not a priori connected to your quest, will show up in tales and relics and perhaps nudge you around as well as provide you with the tools of success. The language rivals the best I have found so far in FF, full of imagery and motion. In light of this it's a little disappointing that there are so many "copy and paste" sections and descriptions; you get the feeling it's because of laziness rather than not being able to come up with other ways of expression.

The Skill vs. Attack Strength issue is even more confused here than in most books. There are four instances of raising your Skill, either by way of item, potion or blessing, all of which may occur before you can lose any Skill. One of them does tell you explicitly to raise your initial and current Skill. Another comes as a potion which can be carried around awaiting a Skill drop, which is also rather straightforward. A third comes in the form of an item which could presumably be used analogously to the potion, but in that case is a rather disappointing purchase. The last one is of the "you feel great after your victory" kind, and would probably be ignored by most players (certainly no one would assume that the Stamina boost in that paragraph should be able to take your Stamina above its initial value), but why is it there to begin with? Adding to the confusion, the book refers to both Skill-raising potions as Potions of Skill but treats them different technically - and none of them works as the standard Potion of Skill. Finally there is also one paragraph which says that as you are going to fight unarmed, any Skill bonuses from weapons do not apply. Not only does this strongly point towards the interpretation of Skill as having "components" or a "memory", but there really isn't any item that this passage could be referring to. It annoys me that all of this ambiguity is still around in book 43 of the series; it's not as if at this point no one's had a chance to read the rules.

The Resolve mechanic isn't all that great, either. It begins at 6-11; a successful check with two dice (sometimes modified) will raise it by one, while a failure will drop it by one. In the most likely case your score will reach 12 well before the endgame, making all remaining checks redundant. However, there are some small indications that the writers may not have intended the mechanic to work as presented in the rules. I'm thinking of the mysterious inclusion of the word "permanently" in paragraphs 89, 108 and 214, and the instructions in paragraphs 147 and 262 to raise your Resolve seemingly in addition to the normal increment for the test you just passed. It's possible that they meant - originally, at least - for the Resolve score not to increase automatically on every successful check but only on special occasions, of which there are several. Played this way the stat becomes a resource to be earned and managed rather than a near-formality.

A little list of other design peculiarities: The Arrowhead Islands and the Varadian Alliance are sometimes referred to as the Delphic Islands/Alliance, hinting at a name change. If Mortis was buried with a spear sticking out of his chest, how could they put a lid on the sarcophagus? There's nothing in the text to suggest that the Temple Guardian is undead, but it's still drawn as a skeleton. It makes no sense to note down the current paragraph as instructed in 35, since that's not where you're supposed to return. Groan of the week: one of the inns in the book is called Sword of the Samurai, another Down among the Dead Men. There's no good explanation for why paragraph 47 doesn't end in the same way as paragraphs 18 and 70. In 167, there's a huge difference between having Skill 11 (in which case you have lots of die-rolling ahead of you) and Skill 12 (in which case you can award yourself an automatic win). Why doesn't the galley take off while you wait "a few hours" in paragraph 174? When you fight Captain Jarmesh, the book "resets" his Stamina instead of letting you keep track of it. Paragraph 186 says you pass the inn, continue east and then spot something to the south, but then suddenly you're not even through the forest, travelling north. The Skull Beast should be fought with blunt weapons - so how come if you have the sharpened sword, it will effectively do normal damage? The keep's towers are identified in the text as the east and west towers, but according to the illustration for paragraph 144 they should more properly be called the north and south towers. Paragraph 203 says you must discard your "current weapon" to pick up another one - if you already have three, does that mean you can keep two? You may explicitly lose your weapon in 175 or 234, but nothing is said of any consequences (might be interesting to pummel an undead knight in plate armour to death with your fists). One of the encounters in which you can use the Charm of Disruption is in fact not on the path where you get the Charm, which means paragraphs 69 and 279 are impossible to reach. In 204, it doesn't say whether to fight your opponents one at a time or simultaneously. If you whack Mortis in combat the ending is a bit of a let-down if you already reached one of the more colourful endings. In the final paragraph your Ring of Communing magically appears even if you've discarded it during the adventure.

The art is barely passable; there are too many figures against a uniformly grey or black background, too little in the way of detail and backdrops overall. Gallagher did better in FF39, and that wasn't great. The duplication of Kandogor on the wall is strange, though I suppose the artist can't be blamed for that (look at the cover and tremble at the protagonist's spear-chucking abilities!). There's a remarkable difference in style between the stiff and rough depictions of Mortis (did we need three of those?) as compared to the much more finely drawn image of Elindora. I do like the small pictures, especially the silhouetted wolf and the swarm of bats.

Another odd but largely unimportant observation regards the paragraph numbers, which often seem to have been chosen less than randomly. From paragraph 1, you proceed through sections 41, 81, 121, 21, 101 and so on, i.e. an even number followed by 1. Continue along one of the paths available and you will soon enter a portion of the adventure where all sections end with an odd number followed by 2. Other parts of the book look completely "normal", but check out paragraph 331, containing no less than seven references all ending with the number 1. If this is part of a system to space out paragraphs more evenly it doesn't seem to have worked, as if anything this book has more clustering of closely related paragraphs than usual (e.g. going from 289 to 293 which is just across the page, or going from 377 to 378 in just two steps).

After all that niggling a summation might be in order. The adventure's open and generous structure, with no particular significance ascribed to any of the options, and the way you can quickly stumble across an easy way of winning, simply means the book is not as meaty or challenging as it could have been. Even if you try to do everything in a single game, it's a little bit like playing a CRPG and stocking up on wands and potions before the final battle, only to find that the head villain is a pushover and that once the credits start to roll, all your micro-management counts for nothing. It's still worth the ride for the writing, though, which is head and shoulders above some of the more insipid contributions to the series, and the "dam buster" ending is a corker. With better art, less redundancy and better integrated puzzle elements, the book as a whole could have been one as well.

Rating: 6/10


[Robert La Vallie]

Keep of the Lich Lord is a Keeper

In Keep of the Lich Lord, your job is to decimate the Lich Lord, a really nasty guy. It is up to YOU to stop him.

This enjoyable book allows you two options. You can explore the various huts, cemeteries, caves, and other dwellings of this island. This is a worthwhile experience, not only because there are artefacts which will help you in your quest, but also because the writing entices you to do so. The cemetery alone is worth the price of admission.

On the other hand, if you are a "meat-and-potatoes" kind of person, and you want to get right down to killing the Lich Lord, well then, you can proceed on over to his fortress. Though to do so will lessen your enjoyment of this book, you can kill him rather quick and easy.

Here is what I suggest. In too many Fighting Fantasy books, your quest seems to be neverending.  In addition, you are compelled to visit certain regions to ensure the success of your quest. As a result, they are not well-written at times. In Keep of the Lich Lord, even though you do not have to visit certain areas, I'd suggest you do so.

People who are penning their own home-grown Fighting Fantasy adventures should use this as reference material.

Rating: 9.5/10


[Phil Sadler]

In this book you find yourself on a paper-round and late for school... just kidding! You actually find yourself having to save the world from another accursed, all-powerful necromancer.

So you set out with a vast army of veteran soldiers and attempt to find him... just kidding! You actually set out alone (again).

Let me just start by saying one thing: this is the first FF book I have ever played that I completed on my first go! That's right, after 20 years of reading/playing these things, I've finally done the impossible! Now, is that because I was incredibly lucky or is the book incredibly easy? Well, I did seem to have more than my fair share of good fortune, what with high initial stats, a lot of right choices and a lack of too many powerful foes to face. Having said that, the book does seem much more lenient than usual, in that, there are a lot of ways to power yourself up, several ways to avoid or weaken foes, and some of the 'essential' items turn out to be not quite as essential as you might think.

Was this book a good read? Yes, it was a lot of fun, not one of the greatest I hasten to add (even if you discount its unusual ease) but well worth investigating.

I doubt you'll find it as easy as I did though because, as I've already mentioned, I had quite a bit of luck on my side (including 11 points of it in a literal sense!). What I don't doubt is that you'll enjoy the locations (both uplifting and intimidating), the encounters (both horrible and humorous) and the writing itself (both grisly and pretty).

When all's said and done I, for one, didn't regret the partaking of this enjoyable romp.

Overall grade: 7 (out of 10)


[Laurence Sinclair]

Before I start, I must say that I am a great fan of Dave Morris' work, from his work on Knightmare and Heroquest to the Dragon Warriors role-playing game. And he retains his unique style in this book. While you must attempt to carry out the cliched task of killing an evil-risen-from-the-dead-wizard before he can take over the world, you do so by travelling a land filled more with folklore as opposed to mythology, lesser evil opponents rather than grandiose mosters of awesome power.

I did complete the book on my first attempt, but I just had to go back and look again, as there are so many small details tucked away to reward the dilligent reader, and no-one can write dialogue like Mr Morris.

Of course, if you're not me you're going to want soem other reason to read the book. It does have a new characteristic, RESOLVE, which is used when facing the plentiful Undead that the Lich-Lord has raised in his service. Testing your Resolve makes a change from testing your Luck, anyway. There is a slight flaw in that, when you pass a Resolve roll, you get +1 Resolve, meaning that the tests soon become a mere formality. It's sad, but it's just another in the long list of secondary charcateristics that suffered because of their rules.

The book is far from perfect, but it's a pleasure to read even after you've completed it, and the more mundane enemies make a change from the fantastical creatures so prevelant in other FF.

Rating: 7 out of 10


[John Stock]

And now we arrive at The Keep of the Lich-Lord. This one is nothing new on the rules department, unless you count Resolve, which is a measure of how hard it is to scare you witless.

The plot is solid - a certain Lord Mortis has risen from the dead and taken over the fleets of Chaos Pirates who've raided and holed out in Bloodrise Keep. And it's your job to finish them off by killing the big cheese, Lord Mortis.

Now this book has been highly criticised for being "too easy". I don't agree at all. While it is theoretically possible to find and beat Mortis very quickly, it is very difficult to do so unless you take some of the many detours available. The cemetery, in which you must find the body of the Lady Lotmora, Mortis's vampiress wife, is worth the price of admission in itself, and getting the Spear of Qadarnai can make killing Mortis a whole lot easier.

Therefore, in my opinion, this, while not classic FF, is a very solid read and is good if you, like me, appreciate the later, more original in terms of plot and atmosphere, books in the series.

MY RATING - 7.7/10


[Richard Wood]

The plot of Keep of the Lich Lord is very simple: an undead knight from ages past has escaped from his crypt and overrun a castle on a remote island from where he plans to begin a campaign of conquest with his army of zombies, and you have been sent to assassinate him.

You would think that slaying someone who is already dead and has the power to massacre an entire garrison of elite soldiers and then reanimate them under his control would be somewhat difficult, but in fact this is the easiest gamebook ever written. There are no less than THREE different ways to kill the Lich Lord: you can impale him with a magic spear, drown him or just beat the crap out of him. Since they are all equally effective it's really only a question of which resolution you personally find the most satisfying. It would have been much better if it was necessary to use all three options to win, since this would make the climactic scene more challenging and give the whole adventure a more epic feel. It would also compel you to visit more locations on your way to the castle, since as written all you have to do is get there - and you can take the shortest route possible.

This is my only criticism of this book: it is too easy. However, all is not lost. There is plenty to do on the way, although none of it is obligatory. There are a number of story arcs involving a ship of pirates raiding a fishing village, a foul skull-shaped demon, a gang of vampires, the undead lord's crypt and a human traitor who has sided with the undead and appears as a recurring character. As soon as I finished this book (on the first go) I immediately went back to the beginning and played it again because the first time round I accidently let the pirates escape and I still wanted to get them. Therein lies the challenge: if you aim to not only complete your mission, but also to successfully deal with every single adversary in the book and rescue every innocent person it is much more satisfying to read.

The book is generally well written, with an appropriately dark and sinister bad guy, and three things in particular appealed to me. I am a big fan of the undead and I always love the moments in any book or film where the hero encounters someone he once knew who is now undead. Sure enough, there is a paragraph where you are confronted by your best and oldest friend who has become a zombie, and his vacant soulless eyes fail to recognise you as his horribly mutilated corpse shambles towards your reluctantly raised sword...

Secondly there is a small number of gamebooks in which you can legitimately increase you Skill, Stamina or Luck scores above their Initial values, and this is one of them. Here it is possible to attain a Luck score of 16. Which is nice.

Finally I have never liked the books in which you begin as some kind of novice adventurer or a farmer out to avenge the death of his family or something. At the start of this book you are already a seasoned veteran mercenary with such an established reputation as the deadliest fighter around that when the region is threatened by an undead army the government immediately handpicks YOU for the suicide mission that will bring them decisive victory. That's more like it.

Rating: 7 out of 10