Friday, 6 May 2016

#54: Legend Of Zagor


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Part 3 of the Zagor series of books (the previous instalments being The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Return to Firetop Mountain), Legend of Zagor was part of a high concept multi-format event consisting of this book, an elaborate (and expensive at £49.99) Parker board game, and the four-part The Zagor Chronicles series of non-interactive novels. All were independent of one-another in as much as none were reliant on, or required, the others to play/read/understand, although prior knowledge of the novels can aid in navigating certain parts of the gamebook, the board game and gamebook follow very similar design structures, and the overall story arc is generally the same across all three formats. Indeed, the gamebook and board game involve YOU playing out the plot of specifically the second Zagor Chronicles novel, Darkthrone, which involves a group of four adventurers making their way through Castle Argent in a bid to hunt down and kill Zagor who, due to a technical error in trapping a Bone Demon in the Casket of Souls, has been released into the castle in demon form.

For several reasons, the nature of the overall plot concept means that this gamebook is unlike any other FF book published. Most strikingly unique is that YOU play one of four pre-defined characters: Anvar the barbarian, Braxus the warrior, Stubble the dwarf, or Sallazar the wizard. This is both problematic and of benefit – it is a problem as YOU are not the hero, instead YOU are someone else; it is a benefit as it allows for numerous interesting changes to the dynamics and creation of your character. Each of the four has different strengths and weaknesses, and the adventure, whilst fundamentally the same, has key differences dependant on whom you are:

  • Anvar cannot be hurt by the plethora of door traps scattered about the castle, but he struggles with wearing armour which limits the combat bonuses available to him by finding any armour and he is useless with a crossbow

  • Stubble is normally able to avoid taking full damage from projectiles/missiles because they tend to go over his head as he’s short, he is naturally luckier than the others so has the potentially highest starting Luck of the four, he gets more starting gold also as dwarves covet gold, he has a natural advantage when fighting any foe that is made of stone, but he can fall foul of the inter-racial dwarf-elf antagonism problem, his essential magical weapon is far harder to acquire than those of the other three, he can only wear special small-sized dwarf armour (there is only one set available that fits him) and can’t use larger or clumsy types of weapons

  • Braxus has no obvious things in his favour or against him, other than that his adventure is comparatively un-nuanced due to this

  • Sallazar is most affected by the text (especially in the earlier stages), can use various spells contained in the Amarillian Grimoire (although the use of this is limited by his Magic Points and the fact that his combat spells require him to first win an Attack Round before he can use any of them), he gets a natural advantage in Spot Skill tests, can occasionally teleport to avoid some of the more difficult combats (in particular, the Orc throne room which involves fighting 11 compulsory enemies), but he gets no armour or large weapons, has severe starting stat penalties, and is likely to die very quickly if you play as him as he is easily the physically weakest of the four
When initially rolling up each character it quickly becomes apparent which ones will make for an easier or harder gaming experience. Starting stat ranges for each character are: Anvar - Skill 7-12, Stamina 19-24, Luck 5-10; Braxus – Skill 7-12, Stamina 14-24, Luck 4-9; Stubble – Skill 6-11, Stamina 14-24, Luck 6-11; Sallazar – Skill 5-10, Stamina 9-24, Luck 4-9. It does not take a genius to see that playing as Anvar or Braxus is easiest (Braxus edges it as the overall easiest due to Anvar’s disadvantages above), Stubble whilst statistically a decent character gets a rough deal as his adventure is probably the trickiest due to the difficulty in getting his magic sword, but poor old Sallazar is all but useless due to having desperately low starting stats and rarely being able to use his combat magic “advantage” as he’s not going to be winning many Attack Rounds. On the plus side though, having four characters to choose from gives you four subtly different adventures to play out meaning there is lots of replay potential in this book, even if I doubt anyone can win fairly with Sallazar (and maybe not with Stubble either.) 

As this is one of the complex 50s-series books, the rules do not stop at the differences between the four characters you have to choose from and, overall, this is an extremely complex book by FF standards. You start out with 12 Provisions but you are regularly forced to eat or suffer a Stamina penalty, so this seemingly generous offering is far from that. Yes, you can get extra food along the way and it is possible to completely avoid the forced eating later in the book if you find a particular object, but overall the sheer amount of force-feeding will quickly deplete your supplies of food. Unusually for FF you start with two weapons – in addition to a character-defined weapon (axe, sword, staff, etc) you also get a back-up knife which you can use to fight with (although it only does 1 Stamina of damage) if you lose your main weapon. This is a nice touch as it decreases your vulnerability and still gives you a slight hope in combat situations. Each character starts with a certain number of Magic Points dependant on their character type (Sallazar naturally has far more than any of the other three, but as some spells will use 4 or 5 points even this is not much of an advantage for him) and these can be used to charge certain magic items that can be found along the way. I found this one of the hardest rules to remember to incorporate and it seems clumsy and over-complicated, even though it does add RPG-style realism to the proceedings. Finally, there is the matter of the Tower Chests. Finding these is the crux of the adventure itself – each time you find one you must Test Your Luck (and lose 3 Stamina if unlucky due to them being booby-trapped), then you roll one die to determine if you have found a Golden Talisman (each one you have reduces Zagor’s Skill by 1) or a Silver Dagger (which reduce Zagor’s Stamina by 1 for every one you’ve got), and then you regain the just-used Luck point for finding a Tower Chest. Given that Zagor has Sk 16 St 20 there is no question that the Golden Talismans are rather more useful in the final showdown with him than the Silver Daggers as you really do not want Zagor winning any Attack Rounds due to the sheer damage he will deal you (see below), but, without any of either you simply have no real chance of defeating him so you have to get as many as possible and the text does lay this fact on pretty thickly. You also need to try to find Magic Rings as each gives you +1 Magic Points and makes using magic items rather easier (of key importance as it is not possible to win without a magic sword.) Finally, the first part of the Castle also contains several creatures that can afflict you with different types of Plagues, without finding the antidotes to which you are screwed, but there are several ways of getting the antidotes so this is more of a hindrance than a real obstacle to completion. 

The Tower Chest and Magic Ring concepts contribute to the most jarring aspect of this adventure. As you wander around trying to find and collect these items you rapidly start to feel like you are token-hunting in readiness for the final battle with Zagor and, by all accounts, that is exactly what you are doing. If we think too about the way the book is designed something begins to become starkly apparent. The body of the adventure (excepting the initial and final short sections) involves YOU entering a central area on a given level wherein you are presented with a frankly bewildering list of options to go through doors or along passages. You are then free to visit all or as few of these options as you wish (and in any order, although you will have to return to complete some having acquired information or items from others) before moving on to another level which will offer you another catalogue of doors and passages to explore. There are in total 15 of these areas to visit making this seem little more than a repetitive and seemingly never-ending cycle of the same basic thing with no real variation until you reach the final episode and take on Zagor’s two guardians followed by the man himself. It is difficult to visualise this structure as anything other than the layout of a traditional board game in text form and it can get very dull very quickly due to this. Likewise, as you often need to backtrack, mapping is absolutely essential otherwise you have little hope of navigating forwards and backwards through the onslaught of mind-bogglingly similar locations. Low and behold, as you draw out your map you find yourself drawing out the plan of a board game, with emphasis on the word “board/bored”! 

Not only does this design approach make playing this book a pretty torturous ordeal, but it also means that any sense of plot is quickly lost amidst the sea of mostly anonymous doors and passages. This problem is all the more disappointing as the opening section starts extremely well with a background taking in the plot of Ian Livingstone’s Casket Of Souls as well as that of the first Zagor Chronicles novel, Firestorm. Sadly, whilst the adventure is, as we have said, the plot of ZC#2 Darkthrone in game form, it is dumbed-down in its presented form and, in spite of the events and encounters being taken straight from the book (as well as some of the solutions) it is not long before any semblance of an ongoing storyline goes out of the window as the execution is just so turgid. Yes, some elements of the novel would not translate well (especially Anvar being a werewolf as that would take the already dense rules well beyond manageability), but to reduce what could have been an increasingly more foreboding ascent of the castle to a series of door-opening choices is a major own goal. Curiously, the final section where you must deal with Zagor’s end bosses (a Mummy and a War Dragon), followed by Zagor himself picks up again and is quite exciting, but it comes far too late for redemption which is a pity as, interestingly, the intro and final sections do knit together very neatly as you use info gleaned at the start to overcome the very last part where you have to throw the dead Zagor into the Heartfires within a time limit. 

There is of course a pay-off to be had from the board game layout of this book. It is, in theory, possible to go just about everywhere in the castle assuming you do not die and/or your character is specifically precluded from accessing a particular place or encounter - a feature which only really affects the locations of each character’s magic sword, although there are a few other minor restrictions here and there too. In this sense, this is the most RPG-ish of all the FF books and you can roam more or less freely. This means that the usually soul-destroying “instant failure due to being missing an item“ points are largely eliminated as you can go back and try to find certain key items to access the next level barring combats that require magic weapons although, as these are very pivotal moments, I can accept this one concession when the rest of the castle exploration is so freeform. An observation at this point would be that, given just how much you are expected to remember and integrate, in another RPG link, this would benefit from using a DM if only to manage all the factors and play conditions that develop along the way as it does become quite confusing. 

Given the design and approach of this book, this is a very ambitious undertaking and is only really fully appreciated if you do take the time to really scrutinise and absorb the rules as well as mapping the dungeon out at which point you will see how the castle sections interlink and how the encounters and episodes unfold. Sadly, the dullness of the playing experience is not likely to show any of this to very good effect and another problem with this book is that its crushing level of difficulty dawns more and more on you as you bumble onwards through its doors and corridors. It has to be said that every character except Sallazar has a decent chance of reaching fairly far into the dungeon as long as info from previous playthroughs is used to help to avoid dealing with too many of the very tough encounters that can practicably be avoided. There are of course some compulsory very tough fights (the Orc throne room is especially gruelling, although the pathetic Sallazar is unique in being able to avoid this part) and the dungeon is riddled with some very old school FF dungeon traps to catch you out. Whilst there is also the obstacle of the plagues in the earlier sections and frequent poisonings throughout, the overall factor contributing to this book’s difficulty level is the sheer number of battles to fight (necessary or otherwise, given that some are character-exclusive and others you will just stumble across, especially in early playthroughs) with special foes that have powerful combat adjustors:

  • Plague Bearer – only Sk 5 St 4 but gives you the plague if it even wounds you only once

  • Sir Davian - Sk 12 St 16 and you are better off talking to him instead of killing him but he’s very strong if you do feel like trying to bump him off

  • The Orc throne room – a sequence of four consecutive fights, each with a pair of Orcs, each pair of which is increasingly tougher than the last, culminating in a pair with Sk 8 St 12. Deal with these and you then must fight their leader, Thulu, who has Sk 9 St 17

  • Plague Zombie – Sk 7 St 6 but gives you a more lethal form of the plague than the Plague Bearer, again if it even wounds you only once

  • Mungus – a massive jailer (who looks like Peter Vaughan) that has Sk 7 St 19 and does you -3 St damage with each blow

  • Two Castle Imps – very weak within themselves but, as you fight them in a cramped passageway all but Stubble suffer harsh Attack Strength penalties (Anvar -4, Braxus -3, Sallazar -2)

  • Fog Wyvern – can be completely avoided by sacrificing a Luck point but, if you don’t do this (and it comes before you even enter the castle!) you encounter it and it fights with Sk 10 St 16

  • Wizard-Ghost – Sk 9 St 10 but for the first two Attack Rounds he casts a fire spell which, if he hits you either or both rounds, does you -4 St damage for each successful blow

  • Chaos Champion – St 10 St 15 and you must roll an extra die each time it wins an AR to see what extra damage it does you, ranging from an additional Stamina point, through Initial Stamina or Luck penalties, up to Magic Point penalties or it going completely berserk and taking 2d6 of Stamina off you!

  • Stone Colossus – Sk 8 St 18, if it hits you roll a die and it does you -3 St damage on a 5 or 6 roll, plus if you roll an 11 or 12 for its AS you must spend a Magic Point to avoid being turned to stone by its whip that is made from basilisk leather

  • Elranel the Thief – another NPC that should be spoken to rather than fought but, should you fight him, he has Sk12 St 13, you fight with -1 AS unless you have a Ring of Truesight as he is only semi-visible due to a cloak he wears, and his poisoned dagger inflicts –3 St

  • Giant Stone Golem – Sk 9 St 16 but he can at least be hit by all types of weapon

  • Grool, a massive mutant Ogre with Sk 9 St 22

  • Mutant Chaos Ogre – Sk 7 St 14 and you must roll a die after every AR regardless of who won each one, roll a 6 and you take an automatic -3 St as it spits corrosive acid at you

  • Hellhorns x2 – both Sk 9 St 10 but if you are hit you must roll a die to determine damage taken, a 1 is the saving grace of only causing you -1 St damage, but you could also lose 2 St and 2 Sk, or even 4 St; there’s also a tougher Hellhorn Champion with Sk 10 St 16 that does the same randomised damage on each hit

  • Air Elemental – Sk 12 St 15, cannot be fought with non-magical weapons and you start on the backfoot if you lose an opening Luck test

  • Spectre – Sk 10 St 14, cannot be fought with non-magical weapons and, if it gets even one hit on you, you roll a die and any roll other than a 6 causes you to lose 1 point from your current and InitiaI Skill scores

  • Young War Dragon – St 10 St 16 and if it wins an AR you roll one die, a 5 or 6 meaning you are burned by its breath and you lose 4 St

  • Great Mummy, the first of Zagor’s end guardians – Sk 10 St 22, no special attacks, just really strong!

  • War Dragon, #2 of Zagor’s end guardians – Sk 15 St 20 and if it wins an AR you roll a die and it causes you anywhere from 1 to 4 St damage

  • Dark Knight – Sk 11 St 17, again no special attacks, just really strong

  • The Zagor-Demon – oh God, where do we begin! He has Sk 16 St 20 and you can shave points off him for each Golden Talisman or Silver Dagger you have, plus you can choose to attack with different special weapons (if you have any) in each round, however, if he hits you... his 1st hit does you an insane -7 St damage, the 2nd an equally grim -5 St damage, the 3rd costs you 1 Sk and 2 St, the 4th and 5th hit you for -3 St until, finally, from the 6th hit onwards you “only” lose the standard 2 Stamina! Let’s face it given his Skill, even in reduced form you are going to take some serious damage here!

Admittedly, by no means are all of these combats essential to victory, but the Great Mummy, War Dragon, and obviously Zagor all are, plus several others will be too, making this a rather depressingly long list of uber-tough baddies to try to defeat. It’s only fair to add that combats in the early stages of the book (bar the Fog Wyvern which is only a few sections in) are relatively easy (Skills of 8-ish, Staminas in a similar ballpark) but the list above is easily 75% of all the battles in here!

Whilst the mostly ridiculously-strong foes will cause you by far the biggest problem in beating this book, most of the other aspects of its design will not cause a seasoned FF player too many problems, especially as instant deaths are very few and far between (because they aren't needed, given that the combats will almost certainly kill you eventually.) There are a lot of mathematical cheat-proofing moments throughout that involve converting names, section numbers where you found things, the material a bridge is made from, and even the first four letters of four gems into hidden paragraph numbers that can have anything from a limited impact on you (an item that gives you a certain combat bonus may be accessed, for example) through to a critical one (such as the dragon keys that open the door to the final section.) Whilst there are some essential items to find (the magic sword for your chosen character being the primary example), many items are curatives or bonus-givers that affect whatever you have allowed (or will allow) yourself to be exposed to along the way and the book’s non-linear design works in your favour as it removes the many critical fail points that almost all gamebooks will scupper you with. Indeed, there is no true path to find with repeated playthroughs, the trick here is more to use knowledge gained in previous failed attempts mainly to avoid as many crushing encounters and Stamina-sapping traps as you realistically can. There are a generous two options to have a companion NPC come along part of the way with you and both of these can be very useful in easing the pressure on you, especially in preserving your Skill and Stamina for the final three mega-fights. There is no doubt that starting Luck scores can be desperately low but the emphasis on testing Luck is very sparing, instead there is a huge focus on Skill testing, often with deadly or severe penalties for failure and you have no chance without a decent starting Skill (another reason why being Sallazar is a lost cause.) The sheer volume of Skill (and Spot Skill for noticing things) tests is as tediously repetitive as the catalogue of identical-sounding locations and this too can make this all rather thuddingly dull. That said, everyone except Sallazar has decent opportunities to raise their Attack Strengths along the way ready for the later combats, meaning your Skill limitations will impact Skill tests more than anything else. Interestingly, once you have bested Zagor (when you finally ever do!) you have to go through a lengthy time-controlled trip back through the castle to the Heartfires where you have to hurl his body into the flames to destroy it for good. As this is restricted to being completed in a certain maximum number of seconds, this makes an already crazily tough final part of a very hard book even more difficult. Whilst this is well-deployed (you choose actions and are told how long each takes which allows you to keep a running total of seconds you have used) it can seem a bridge too far in a) difficulty and b) even more extra rules you have to contend with.

A discussion of this book would not be complete without discussing the question of its authorship. As it stands it is credited to Ian Livingstone, however there is little of his style on show here. Yes it’s very hard, yes there are lots of items to find and, yes, there are many fiendish traps, all of which are IL trademarks. In every other way though, this plays out like a Keith Martin book with its number-crunching puzzles, poisons/plagues, the need for a magic sword, dark atmosphere, demands on the player to remember to factor in things like rope lengths and the need to collect empty bottles along the way to use later on, the style of the final battle where umpteen items need to be used to affect you and your foe’s base Attack Strengths, and the subversion of the major IL mechanic of true path linearity. In 2014 it finally came out that this book was indeed written by KM rather than IL, but it would be hard to think otherwise even without knowing this! To continue in that vein, the Zagor Chronicles novels were written by IL and Carl Sargent. Keith Martin is CS’ pen-name so it all begins to make sense that KM wrote Legend of Zagor too. It is worth mentioning that, whilst the gamebook follows the plot of Darkthrone, one major feature is changed in that Sallazar is dead in the novel and he is replaced by his sister, Jallarial. This is a little frustrating as Jallarial was the most three-dimensional of all the novel’s characters but, as the novel came out a few months after the gamebook this might actually be an in-joke to remind us just how likely to be dead Sallazar is if you have tried to play as him! Another interesting difference in the cross-format event that these books were part of is that all the central locations that all the doors and passages radiate out from are named differently in the gamebook to those in the board game which isn’t a problem I just thought it worth mentioning.

If we can see beyond the motivation-destroying way that the castle is presented to us in this book, it is actually designed in a pretty convincing manner map-wise. Some rooms are empty, some are trashed, some have Orcs squatting in them etc and this suits the concept of the castle having been over-run by an evil hoard. Similarly, everyone you meet has a real reason to be there and this is not just a randomly assembled dungeon with disparate and inexplicable people and locations scattered about it. The way everything fits the plot and context is very well thought-out, so it’s even more of a shame that it just all seems the same when you try to play through it all. The encounters can be quite interesting, but the way to reach them combined with the inevitability of yet another impossible fight coming sooner or later combine to make this book a very long, excessively repetitive, and often arduous slog.
Not only is this structurally and conceptually unique within the FF series, but it is also the only FF gamebook to be set in the parallel universe of Amarillia. There is a brief linking nod to Titan in the intro when Yaztromo gives you your mission via a Jedi-style holo-communication thing direct from Allansia and this helps this seem less cut-off from the FF world, but fundamentally the only recurring link is via Zagor himself. Rather awkwardly though, in spite of this being the third book in the Zagor gamebook cycle, there is scant reference made to the previous two. Zagor has a treasure chest and his power comes from a deck of cards again as was the case in WOFM, and the only surviving part of his pre-Demon incarnation is his skeletal left arm (a reference to the closing lines of Return to Firetop Mountain), but otherwise this book seems to care little that there were two instalments before it. Whilst I do not see this as a fault in how the game plays, it is definitely a failing in maintaining the ongoing mythos of FF’s first and most famous baddie. The character you play cannot be expected to make links between the three books as you play a fresh protagonist that has never known of Zagor before. For you as the player, though, strong inter-connecting threads between the three parts of the saga should be a comforting necessity that is sadly absent.
Few gamebook fans could disagree that Martin McKenna is an exceptional fantasy artist whose work verges on the darker (horror) side of the fantasy spectrum. His work here is as excellent as ever and many of the tougher foes look truly terrifying and awe-inspiring (the Chaos Champion, for example.) It is interesting to note that, in places, McKenna apes others’ work (which he often did in other FFs particularly by drawing influences from Hammer Films) and, whilst there is nothing here lifted from Hammer, the Orc throne room is a literal copy of Iain McCaig’s version from Casket of Souls and the Chaos Champion looks strikingly like the LJN-produced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons action figure called Warduke. The cover intentionally parallels that of the board game and I acknowledge that this is a marketing necessity to sell units of the book to the board game fans and vice versa, especially as the book cost less than 1/10th of the board game’s asking price! Incidentally, by the time Wizard’s reissue came out this was no longer a consideration and their rather terrifying hellish red demon cover reflects the impact of Zagor’s demon form and is ultimately more effective for this.
This is a frustrating gamebook for so many reasons and it is simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst FFs ever. Primarily in its favour are its logicality, the variety inherent in the different character choices, the totally free-form non-linear way that it plays, and the fact that you don’t keep losing at key equipment checkpoints where you are instead able to return to a previous place and keep hunting for whatever it is you need to move onto the next part. Weighing heavily against it is the extreme difficulty of the combats, the boring and endlessly samey presentation of the dungeon, and its sheer length (a playthrough from start to finish is easily a three or four hour sitting) if you do choose to take the explorative approach which you need to do if you want the maximum amount of firepower against Zagor at the end. The unbalanced nature of the characters is also a problem and playing as Sallazar only has one real saving grace in that it keeps the adventure short when he dies very quickly! Personally I’d suggest that Stubble makes for the most satisfying experience due to the influence his size can have on events, but, of the three characters that can actually win in real terms, his adventure is rather tougher than either Anvar’s or Braxus’, making for an even more insanely difficult gamebook. Overall, I’d say that the initial lure of more Zagor quickly wears off and that this book’s good points do not get enough chance to shine through what is essentially little more than a very boring, stupidly hard, and very long board game in print format.


  1. Livingstone finally admitted what we already knew (that he did not write this book) in You Are The Hero. He also mentioned that he did not write the chronicles either.

    Great read through by the way!

  2. I wonder why Livingstone even got credit for this one. Clerical error?

    1. No idea. Possibly a contractual thing? The skewed writing credit did at least mean that we got one of KM's books in the Wizard reissues though.

  3. Mark, as usual a perceptive review. This book really is tedious! An attempt to turn another form into a gamebook that didn't work, albeit with great illustrations!

  4. Its most likely because he co- created the character of Zagor.

    I must hand it to you Mark, that's about as thorough a dissection as I've ever read of a FF book. Its true that Keith Martin's adventures are notoriously hard to complete with possibly SIEGE AT SARDATH the hardest of all. ( and one you have yet to review )

    Difficult , long and complex , even frustrating. All of these can be applied to a KM book but ' boring ' is not one I'd use !

  5. coming soon

    an all new FF game book from Steve Jackson in which Malthus Dire attempts to avenge the death of his half-brother Balthus.

    And maybe the new issue of fighting fantazine will also come out.

  6. I did wonder about the inclusion of a Spectre in this book which is one of Keith Martin's favourite monsters not Ian Livingstones

  7. mark, just read your article in the long overdue fighting fantazine 15, some great memories there.

    1. Yes, it was fun dredging up those memories

  8. Doesn't the Plague Bearer win automatically just be winning a single attack round? I remember that the text says that if it wins an attack round: "the touch of the horror turns you into *a plague bearer" forced to turn other poor wretches into diseased wanderers. Your adventure ends here."

  9. mark, are you planning to review SIEGE OF SARDATH ?

  10. Actually the touch of the Plague Bearer is more lethal than the Plague Zombie - it's the Plague Bearer who turns the player character into a zombie at a single touch.