Friday, August 19, 2011

#7 - "Island of the Lizard King", by Ian Livingstone (1984)

Okay so the cover of this book is another one of them Cistine chapel joints. It's deep. I'm pretty sure that the original portrait is in a vault in Switzerland, it probably belonged to Mubarak's cousin or something. I heard there is a task force in the British Museum set up only to find this picture and bring it back for HRH the Queen's boudoir. This thing is like a bargaining chip in international diplomacy. Folks is like "okay you can keep your plutonium refinery but first you gotta give us back the OG print from Island of the Lizard King". You might think I'm joking, but this is too important.

The focus of this masterpiece is the boss of the book, the Lizard King, putting in a good run at the title of History's Most Menacing Nudist. His reptilian tackle is mercifully obscured by his snarling pet - you might take it for a panther or puma, but it is in fact a mighty BLACK LION. And, I hope, genuinely black and not just a normal lion that's been doused with a poisonous dye like that poor tiger from Beastmaster (it died, you know).

The only plausible criticism is one of accuracy. According to the book, the Lizard King is supposed to wield a "flaming" sword - he has a collection of them, which is a bit surprising since they're the only weapon in the world that can actually damage him, but I suppose he felt safer knowing where they all were. Anyway here on the cover he has a scimitar that is just kind of gleaming, I mean I'll grant that it is really gleaming a lot, but it's a far cry from honest-to-goodness flaming. Then again, as we saw back in Forest of Doom, flaming swords can be pretty hard to draw - perhaps it's better to just draw whatever kind of sword you're good at, rather than over-reaching and winding up with basically a feather-duster.

Background

The set up of this book is that you're on your way to the small coastal village of Oyster Bay. Why? You want to take a break, visit your old friend Mungo, do some snorkelling, dig up some pipis and whatever.

BUT WAIT A MINUTE - was that the sound of a needle skipping across a record, universally recognized signifier that "the game done changed"? I certainly hope so, because the game HAS done changed. This is the first time we have seen any indication that a Fighting Fantasy protagonist has a friend, or indeed any kind of normal human relationship. Ian Livingstone tells you how to feel about Mungo in typically straightforward prose:

You think about the good times you used to have with Mungo, his constant cheerful nature and willingness to help people in need. You find it difficult to believe that so much evil exists in the land when there live the likes of Mungo. 

You plainly have some pretty sappy feelings for Mungo. But while having the two of you lay around on the beach explaining why and how much you value each other could qualify as an adventure in friendship, the Fighting Fantasy seal always signifies adventures of the significantly more violent kind.

Your guarantee of stabby times since 1982.
Therefore, you arrive at Oyster Bay, polystyrene surfboard tucked under your arm, only to discover that your holiday has already gone badly awry. LIZARD MEN from nearby Fire Island have twice raided the village, kidnapping several young men and kicking over some buckets. Your buddy Mungo bursts out of a hut and announces that he's going to sail to Fire Island to mount a rescue, and then "stares at you in silence". You reluctantly set aside your beach-ball and remove the knotted handkerchief from your head. Then you button up your aloha shirt and kick the jandals from your feet. And then you take the snorkel out your mouth and ineffectually try to scrape the bright orange zinc from off your nose. "Alright Mungo you old son-of-a-bitch... let's go save those villagers" you growl and you both grin wolfishly and laugh like men, and then, old brothers-in-arms that you are, you and Mungo do the Predator handshake.

Mungo lays on some ill hospitality by boiling up a lobster and then he explains the setting of the book as the two of you tuck into that bad boy. Your destination, Fire Island, is basically an aborted gulag that was set up by some   jerk-off called Prince Olaf who doesn't get mentioned again. He built a prison on the island and shipped a bunch of "undesirable characters" (read: political dissidents) over from the mainland before suddenly losing interest in the whole venture. After he stopped paying the Lizard Men, they re-purposed Fire Island as a commercial concern and gave the former prisoners a chance to learn marketable skills by having them dig a bunch of gold mines. Unfortunately these mines don't have a great Health and Safety record and there's a bunch of administrative and governance issues all round. At the bottom of things, it seems like the whole situation is Prince Olaf's fault, but nevertheless it's the Lizard King that you're clambering into a boat to go and murder despite that fact that he has really just been carried along by circumstances and is pretty much just playing the hand he was dealt. But he did kidnap and enslave those villagers I suppose, so there's that.

Rolling Up My Dude

SKILL- 11
STAMINA - 20
LUCK - 10

These were good numbers. Standard rules again, I paid careful attention this time and remembered to mark 10 PROVISIONS on my Adventure Sheet. And just as well, because this book is just filthy with combat. I basically had to keep a sandwich in my free hand even as I was sword-fighting. I got beat up so many times I had to eat nine meals a day, four of them simultaneously. Just shoving a taco into one corner of my mouth and smashing a watermelon slice against the other. All sitting cross-legged on the bare ground post-fight to wolf down a big bowl of instant mashed potatoes, right next to the steaming guts of some barely-slain abomination. That's when you know you're on the ropes. That's when it's tough.

The Adventure

Paragraph 1 kicks off with the boat trip to Fire Island, which the book uses as another opportunity to remind you of what good buddies you and Mungo are. In what may be the longest continuous speech by any Fighting Fantasy character (eight sentences), Mungo relates the story of how his father, a circus strongman, entered the Trial of Champions one year and predictably died. "At least he tried" Mungo notes with callous good cheer. Let the record show that I have retroactively decided that my protagonist in Deathtrap Dungeon was actually Mungo's dad.

Strangely, when you come in sight of the island, Mungo leaps to his feet and "shouts 'Land ahoy!' at the top of his voice, as though he were yelling the news to the crew of a galleon".

"Shit, Mungo, I'm right here. And Fire Island looks like it's all of five miles away, it must've been visible for hours. What the hell is wrong with you."
Mungo beaches the boat and once again the book's first choice is to go either left or right. Given the option of "scrambling" over rocks to the left vs. "clambering" over rocks to the right I went with scrambling since it sounds easier, if marginally less dignified. So, after scrambling with vigor and pizzazz to the next cove over, you make it about halfway up the beach before Mungo is snatched up and mercilessly dandled by a GIANT CRAB that just pops up from under the sand. The intense pathos of this scene is slightly undermined by the fact that the illustrator didn't trouble to find any reference material for what a crab's face looks like.

Crabs, crabs.... they got like googly cartoon eyes, a big old  mouth like a catfish, and little Martian antennas, right? Or am I thinking of alligators?





You're given the option of abandoning Mungo and fleeing but such tactical good sense cowardice is immediately punished as you blunder into quicksand and are forced to see your friend devoured while you slowly drown. For added poignancy Mungo yells "Why!?", "No!!!" and "I forgive you!!!" as he is drawn inch-by-inch into the creature's anatomically anomalous muppet mouth. 

Not that aiding your friend does him any good. It might look as though he's on a mildly thrilling fairground ride, perched daintily up there on the claw, but apparently he was getting 100% of his internal organs crushed. You murder the crab just quickly enough to hear him gasp his last. In the book his dying words evince the same "easy-come, easy-go" attitude he displayed to his father's proxy-suicide - "Oh well! A lot of use I've been!" - which didn't really ring true for me so I wrote my own version. 



Mungo's Last Words
(the remix)
"Ah... my friend... my friend... it got me... that... that fucked-up looking crab... I swear that thing had eyelids... it's killed me, it's killed me dammit... all up to you now... you get that lizard, that Lizard King... PROMISE ME YOU'LL GET HIM, YOU PROMISE ME DAMMIT ... ah... shoulda gone right... back when we landed... I told you... clambering... much.... easiaaaaaaaah........... "

Of course if you do decide to go right instead of left at the beginning, you run into some PIRATES who are partway through the hilariously stereotypical act of burying a treasure chest, and Mungo gets fatally stabbed by the captain. There is absolutely no way to keep him alive long enough to get further than the intertidal zone. I mean this guy can't even reach the dunes. Reading for the first time as a child I felt utterly gypped as I had been genuinely enthusiastic about the novelty of having a companion on the adventure. However, his only purpose is to set up the story and provide some under-developed motivation for the protagonist, after which he is ruthlessly dispatched before he can start demanding inconvenient new combat rules.

Both PIRATE CAPTAIN and GIANT CRAB are SKILL 10 fights by the way - first fight in the book. Remember back in Warlock when they were breaking us in with GOBLINS, SKILL 5? They saved SKILL 10 for the MINOTAUR, who was like a minor boss. Now we got our best friend dying and SKILL 10 fights straight off the bat. Sheesh.

After burying Mungo in the sand - not in the fun way -  I made my way up the beach and into the tropical vegetation. At the outset the protagonist's plan seems to be simply to walk inland until he gets his bearings which is an okay plan if you've got nothing else to work with I suppose. This first part of the adventure is much in the vein of earlier books, particularly Forest of Doom, just a wander through some more or less random encounters, this time in a vaguely Caribbean setting. An early encounter was with some HEADHUNTERS who appeared to have gotten lost on their way to an Allan Quatermain story from 1910 or something.

Let's just take this at face value okay. 
These guys are all about, and only about, hunting heads. The first time you encounter some of these dudes they have an actual argument about who is gonna be the one that gets to gets to hunt your head, no joke. The  level of intense skull contemplation going on in the ceremony above rivals a hundred Hamlets.

There's also a group of menacing PYGMIES, complete with blow-pipes and darts. You can appease them by handing over a plain old hand axe, which they... (sigh)... reverently accept as a religious artefact. It's all a bit suspect, really. They will give you some scroggin if you push your luck which is handy since like all food in Fighting Fantasy it is the regenerative equivalent of a dumpster full of stem cells.

Many of the encounters are extremely generic and forgettable - "You are walking around. Watch out -- GIANT DRAGONFLY!" - to the extent that I suspect the adventure might've only been 300 paragraphs in draft and needed some padding. But there are a few encounters that tie into the overall narrative, e.g. you can encounter a couple of escaped slaves from the mines. I also found a helpful "if you are reading this I am already dead" note left by another escapee that led me to the mine entrance and my first encounter with two LIZARD GUARDS who were keeping an eye someone's haphazardly stored crockery collection.

"Boss said ta guard them pots and such and that's what we gon do."
When you enter the mines something resembling a script starts to kick in as you sneak around freeing slaves from their LIZARD MAN overseers (at one point I even disguised myself as a LIZARD MAN by putting one of their cloaks - god knows how that fooled anyone, even from behind, it's not like I have a big Dimetrodon sail poking out my back, but it worked somehow - maybe LIZARDMEN hunt by smell?)  I managed to free 63 slaves in my sweep through the mines and we all tumbled outside and finished off the remaining guards. After that the boys were all hot to go and storm the Lizard King's fort but one Elf who never bothered to introduce himself took me aside for a few paragraphs of rapid exposition. Apparently the Lizard King had achieved his #1 standing in the society of LIZARDS by allowing a malevolent brain parasite called a GONCHONG to infest him, which somehow makes him invincible. Anyway the Elf insists that you need advice from the island's Shaman or the assault on the fort will be doomed, so you tell your team to just hang out for a couple of days while you go find the Shaman. "It would be impossible to to track him down in a group" the protagonist announces without any justification whatsoever, and the freedmen just say "okay, suit yourself" and then away you go. Incidentally, you also bum out a guy from Oyster Bay by telling him of Mungo's fate. He's like "Mungo? DAMN" and you're like "I know!"

The narrative doesn't give you any indication as to where the Shaman might be but you just wander off and after another series of random encounters, unerringly walk right up to him at his home halfway up the slopes of the active volcano that gives Fire Island its name.

I suppose a nice pair of dress pants and a tucked-in shirt was too much to hope for. 
You explain that you want advice as to how to defeat the Lizard King and his GONCHONG and the shaman "jumps in the air upon hearing the word Gonchong", which is a cute detail. I'd like to know whether he does this every subsequent time it comes up in the conversation, but the book doesn't say. Anyway, being a shaman, he demands that you undertake some "disturbing and painful" trials to prove yourself worthy of his wisdom. You have to pass three trials of your choice, from a set of six: Luck, Fear, Pain, Revulsion, Strength, and Dexterity. Basically, passing each of these requires either an item or a successful dice roll against one of your stats. The exception is "Pain", where the book tells you that you're in extreme pain and gives you the option "put up with it, y/n", which makes it the easiest of the trials unless you're extremely serious about role-playing. The Trial of Luck is basically a coin toss and in the Trial of Dexterity you just have to throw a dagger at an orange, so it's not all as wonderfully traumatic and primal as advertised either.

I was able to pass trials of Dexterity, Strength and Fear, whereupon the shaman rolled his eyes back and danced around for a while in a disgraceful display of charlatanism before looking me at me po-faced and just relaying a bunch of straightforward information. He says that you need a fire sword to kill the Lizard King/GONCHONG super-organism and, thanks to his woefully poor judgment, the Lizard King happens to have a small collection of them at his house (albeit magically disguised as rusty old knives). He also reveals one other incredible detail about the Lizard King, a moment of unalloyed genius for Ian Livingstone - I'm tempted to issue a spoiler warning but given that this entire blog is basically fat spoilinoma, I won't bother - the Lizard King is terrified of monkeys. "Lizard Men suffer an innate fear of monkeys, even if controlled by a Gonchong" the shaman states with a shrug, as if to say "don't blame me, this bull crap is coming straight from the spirits". All of it boils down to "keep an eye out for some crappy-looking old knives and a monkey", and with this advice fixed firmly in mind I headed back down the mountain to rendezvous with my troops. But unfortunately, I never made it.


Failure, and Death


I stated earlier that this book is lousy with combat, and despite my solid SKILL roll of 11, by the time I met the Shaman I had faced a steady barrage of tough opponents and was down to STAMINA of only 5. Worse yet, I had eaten all my Provisions and the handful of scroggin I got from the hardware-worshipping PYGMIES. So it was pretty bad luck for me that I ran into a LIZARD MAN riding on a fucking dinosaur.

Nuts.
Educated readers will have immediately identified the mount as a STYRACOSAURUS, which is like a Lexus-driver's version of the TRICERATOPS. He has SKILL 11, STAMINA 10 - by applying LUCK rolls to Attack Rounds I was just able to scrape through this fight with a single STAMINA point to spare. The rider, who up until that point had been leaning back in the saddle buffing his nails, then stepped from atop the corpse of his steed to attack me:

MUTANT LIZARD MAN - SKILL 9, STAMINA 9

Not overwhelmingly powerful but he only had to hit me once. He did.


Monsters, Combat, Noteworthy Encounters

There was probably an opportunity with this book to introduce some interesting tropical monsters but apart from a few carnivorous plants and those very broadly-drawn "tribal" stereotypes mentioned earlier, we mainly get the usual greenskins (GOBLINS, ORCS, OGRES, TROLLS etc), generic giant animals and of course some LIZARD MEN eventually. Even a tropical variety of GOBLIN that is e.g. wearing Bermuda shorts and a coconut bra, or something like that would have been welcome, but no dice. Nevertheless there are a few interesting beasts in the book, my favourite probably being the GONCHONG itself, delightfully creepy in both concept and appearance.

GONCHONG!
Also of note are these silly little GRANNITS, which look much like a horse-shoe crab would if it were drawn by someone who thinks crabs have people faces. I guess that isn't surprising.

Some GRANNITS in their natural habitat - a cave.
Inset: A horse-shoe crab in its natural habitat - a naked man's photography studio.

From skimming the book it looks like you can actually pick up a GRANNIT and keep it to throw at someone later on. There's also something called a RAZORJAW which, intriguingly, "has evolved to kill all other species".

I'll tell you one kind of encounter this book ain't got though...

The SKELETON Report


So there's every other generic monster like ORCS and OGRES and GIANT FUCKIN' WHATEVERS on this island, but no SKELETONS? That hardly seems proper. Given the lack of magically animated skeletons, I turn my attention instead to the other kind of skeletons - those that are found inside of SEXY DAMES.


And the illustrator was evidently a fan of One Million Years B.C. because they're both cavegirls. The first is a "blonde girl with wild feline eyes" and a pet SABRETOOTH TIGER. You can either run away from her or fight and slay her TIGER, which makes her cry and then you just sidle quietly away, feeling like a bit of a dick.

Somewhere out in the world there's a dude who was eleven years old in 1984 and now can't explain why he has a fetish for poorly-drawn sabre-tooths.
 The other cavelady leaps out from a cave (where else?) and just immediately hiffs a spear at you. With her it's a straight up case of kill-or-be-killed. Not such a big deal as she's only SKILL 5, STAMINA 5, which is pretty sexist now that I think about it.

I got a feeling this illustrator owns every book by Jean M. Auel and if you drop them they always fall open at the same pages. Just a hunch. 
After you put her to death you can enter her cave which is full of rubbish and "smells of rotten food and stale body odour". There doesn't seem to be any shampoo bottles, leg wax or even so much as a safety razor, which suggests a bit of a disconnect between the author and the illustrator.

Racquel Welch, just reeking of rotting food and stale body odour. 
Moving on, I almost felt obliged to bump the sexy count up to 3 after the Lizard King made a late play for recognition with this weirdly sexual-looking pose from the book's final boss fight:

I mean, if homie ever put on some damn clothes this would be okay. But as it stands it looks like one of them 9-ball themed porno shoots. 
Final Thoughts

I feel like Lizard King probably has the best plot out of any of the books so far. Which isn't to say that it's really a great plot, but it does at least work as a story.  You can imagine it playing out as a fantasy action movie, maybe one of the more coherent barbarian movies like e.g. Conan the Destroyer or Beastmaster. Whereas Forest of Doom, say, would be more equivalent to one of the really rubbish ones like Ator the Invincible and the projectionist plays the reels in the wrong order and also a fire alarm goes off before the end of the film and you have to evacuate the theatre.

Actually though I mentioned Beastmaster earlier, I retract that. Beastmaster is a bunch of nonsense - this book has a much better plot than Beastmaster. If you manage to not die, after visiting the Shaman you re-unite with your freedmen for a final battle with the Lizard King's forces, climaxing in a duel between you and LK and his kitty-cat atop the fort. Provided you're not silly enough to give the GONCHONG a chance to jump on your head after the fight, you and your troops triumph over the ev mine mismanagement and paragraph 400 ends: "Mungo would have been proud of you". So you can see there's something like an arc there.

I should note that although our hero has sprouted an unprecedented capacity for adult friendship and concern for others, he has no greater impulse control than any of his predecessors as I found myself turning down opportunities to e.g. stick my whole arm into a hole in the ground, or eat some unidentified fungus growing on a log (that one happened in Forest also, in much the same way: you win a battle and then you're like "oh hey check out this fuzzy stuff growing on that log next to the corpse of my slaughtered foe"). But I played fairly conservatively because for the first time since Warlock I really felt I had a good shot at winning - there aren't aren't a lot of ways to instantly die from making poor decisions, or because you missed an item earlier on - even if you fail to talk to the Shaman you can still blunder your way through to the finish. What difficulty there is comes mainly from the large number of high SKILL opponents strewn throughout the book. It is fairly linear, and I suspect that is a function of the tighter story. I'm not saying that it is impossible to have both a non-linear storyline and an okay plot, but I expect it's more of a challenge to write. We shall see in the weeks ahead if any of the later books really pull it off.




13 comments:

  1. The Gonchong always creeped me out as a child, a particularly imaginative bad guy IMO. I also took a perverse pleasure in letting it INFECT MY BRAIN after defeating the Lizard King.

    RIP Mungo, pouring one out for the fallen soldier.

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  2. The Fighting Fantasy series gave us so much, but surely among its greatest gifts is the Gonchong. I try to sneak one into any campaign I run.

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  3. What an excellent idea for a blog! Thanks to Neil ^ for pointing me to this.

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  4. After defeating the Lizard King (and that pesky Gonchong) it would have been nice if you had the option of exhuming Mungo and adding to the skeleton count.

    Great run through and very funny as always :D

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  5. @Tim, thanks, I can't take credit for the idea though, I first saw it done here:

    http://fightingdantasy.blogspot.com/

    I had to bite the concept though because homie wasn't counting the skeletons.

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  6. @kelvingreen, one thing the book doesn't make clear that I wonder about is who is really in charge of the Lizard King. Whose will is at play? Is it all GONCHONG? All lizard? Some mix of the two? Which one of them is it that knows about alchemy and genetics?

    The text suggests that LK "allowed" himself to be infested by the GONCHONG, which suggests he didn't see too much of a downside. But then again, he might've just been a dumbarse.

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  7. Awesome as always! For the SEXY DAMES report you neglected the kneeling near naked girl offering the Headhunter chief the ritual sacrificial dagger...

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  8. ha ha yes i realized that a bit late and couldn't be bothered editing the image again... but if you mouse over the sexy count i did at least acknowledge this in the alt text

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  9. Ah, good, you're back.

    The GONCHONG was something of a classic and very useful for AFF Directors looking for a suitably unnerving boss monster - a harder than average fight that potentially turns a player at the end? Bargain.

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  10. Great to see a new post here! Thoroughly enjoyable and funny as always. I liked this book as a kid but had forgotten about Mungo and the muppet-mouthed crustacean! Always found the single-function 'friend' characters in these books a bit sad (they dispensed a bit of plot, and then they were toast!) and it's nice to see Mungo receiving a bit of attention.

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  11. Brilliant as always, Murray. This book annoyed the hell out of me but I did manage to complete it after 34567 tries.

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  12. Thanks for writing this. I love your introduction.

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  13. I cried with laughter reading this. brilliant!

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