Tuesday, 4 December 2012

#9: Caverns Of The Snow Witch


CAVERNS OF THE SNOW WITCH

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Number 9 in the original series started out life as a mini-adventure in Warlock magazine and evolved into a sprawling epic when released in book form. This adventure is effectively three stories in one, starting with your initial mission of having to hunt down and kill a yeti that is causing a nuisance to passing caravans, followed by a tip-off that you just can’t resist involving ridding the world of the Snow Witch Shireela then heading out of the Snow Witch’s caverns only to have to defeat a resurrected Snow Witch, and finally discovering you’re dying and having to trek around Northern Allansia finding the only person who can heal you.

Sadly, this book was where Ian’s annoying habit of making his books unreasonably hard began. Unless you have very high stats you don’t stand a chance as there are just too many very tough encounters, most of which cannot be avoided if you are going to win. In fact, from very early on you are faced with monsters with skills and staminas in double figures, which makes this book hard-going and doesn’t have the gradual build-up in encounter strengths that you would normally expect. Due to this, the Snow Witch herself is not comparatively strong (in the context of everything else that is thrown at you here) making her one of the least memorable baddies in any FF. Yes, she comes back to life, but the second terminal encounter with her is a silly scissors-paper-stone game that is arbitrary to the point of unfairness. Plus, it is no great surprise that she can resurrect (and you actually are expected to be astonished when she turns out to be a vampire) as she clearly has fangs in the cover picture so one of the book’s two big pay-offs is hardly gobsmacking news when it comes. The revelation that you have been fatally cursed is more of a surprise, but this is the point where the book really starts to fail as you will genuinely have lost the will to live when you discover that the apparent purpose of the exercise (given the title) is not the end and that there is an awkwardly tagged-on coda that you now have to wade through.

... And this is the biggest problem with this book: it overstays its welcome and becomes fairly arduous after a while. If you can make it to paragraph 400 you are genuinely exhausted and it really does feel like you have just trekked across the Icefinger Mountains and into the wilderness beyond. I recall it taking around 3 hours to play through this from start to finish and, due to it being pretty difficult, it takes some motivation to start over. This book, arguably more than any other FF produced, is the book where save points will come into play as it’s just too long and drawn-out, as well as being pretty punishing. Ian’s favourite tricks of being doomed to failure unless you happen to have a catalogue of key items is very much in evidence, as is his desire to completely ignore FF’s claim that anyone, no matter how low their stats, can win. In fact, even with maximum stats your chances are not great!

As this is an Ian Livingstone effort, notwithstanding how difficult and how endlessly long it is, there is much to recommend it all the same. Ian’s typically vivid and well fleshed-out environments and descriptive prose are nicely done and you do get a sense of being in a barren icy wasteland, followed by some forbidding icy caves. The encounters are some of the most locality-appropriate in any FF and the desire to go overboard with wacky monsters that sometimes ruins FFs is avoided here which does maintain a good atmosphere. As this is one of the few ice-set FFs, many of the encounters are unusual and fairly unique which makes playing this interesting, even if most ice-dwelling FF monsters seem to be practically immortal if this book is anything to go by! Plus, Ian insists yet again on providing us with some NPC companions, even if they don’t instantly die or run off for once. Granted, they do eventually come a cropper but they do survive long enough to actually add something to the adventure and to feel like they have a place in the plot, which is very unusual for IL’s usually fated or cowardly sidekicks and is probably FF’s only really effective use of companions (although Masks Of Mayhem did a fairly decent job of this.)

FFs are often criticised for having either far-fetched or completely illogical plots, but COTSW does have a very logical flow to it. The progression from one mission to another adds realism (as opposed to the usual knowing what you are meant to do right from the word “Go”) and makes this seem like more of an adventure in the sense of wandering and discovering what you have to do next as you go along. It is, however, a shame that Ian got over-involved in throwing twists and turns at us and this is ultimately at the detriment of enjoying the story as it just goes on forever. After a while you really do stop caring and hope that one of the excessively tough encounters or a lack of a key item will be the end of you.

The art is also very unusual. This is the only FF that opted for woodcut-style heavily stylised illustrations, rather than fairly traditional fantasy art and, whilst the results are mixed and work better in some places (brain flayer, snow witch, crystal warrior) than in others (the yeti and hillmen are terrible) there is no denying that the art gives this book a very unique feel. It’s just a shame that the cover betrays one of the book’s secrets (see above) and I think the woodcut art should have extended to the cover as the cover is far too out of keeping with the interior art and seems a bit too conventional. As for the Wizard re-issue cover, this makes it look like it could be cheap porn as Shireela seems overly-seductive in a Lust for a Vampire style. Basically, they've never quite managed to nail the cover on COTSW, which is a shame as FF covers are often great and normally add a sense of theme/tone to what is waiting for you on the inside.

This is probably one of the FFs I have played the least times, not because of a lack of interest in the first two sections, but because of its sheer length and the fact that the final third (tracking down the healer having escaped the mountains) just does not fit and seems to be an afterthought to try to add something different to the original short adventure purely for the sake of adding paragraphs. This would have been better left shorter and ending after killing Shireela for the second time. Granted we wouldn’t have the logical plot element of having to get out of the caverns, but we also wouldn’t have to endure the atmosphere-ruining and frankly inferior final section.

Sometimes less is more and that is definitely the case here. Whilst this book has a lot to recommend (initial atmosphere, unusual art, interesting and in-context encounters, useful NPC companions, a proper flowing plot) it is probably the weakest of all the Jackson/Livingstone-penned Medieval-era FFs due to its sheer length, over-difficulty and, worst of all, the problem that it long overstays its welcome. Play the first two parts and then either stop there, or play the third part as a separate adventure on a different day otherwise a) you will be bored before long, and b) you’ll feel like you’re reading a very schizophrenic FF.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Fighting Fantasy - The Introductory Role-playing Game



Fighting Fantasy – The Introductory 
Role-playing Game

Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain
Steve Jackson was always the innovator within the FF writing pool. He gave us the first Sci-Fi FF (Starship Traveller), the first modern-day FF (House Of Hell), the first (in fact, the only) full superhero FF (Appointment With FEAR), the first FF where you can use magic (Citadel Of Chaos), the first multi-part FF epic (Sorcery!), and the first FF where you start a) clueless about what’s going on and b) get to play a monster rather than a human (Creature Of Havoc). He also gave up writing FFs on number 24 after only penning 9.5 books (including the 4 parts of the Sorcery! epic) in favour of working on the expanded FF universe and trying to push the possibilities of the concept. To this end, in addition to executive producing masses of off-shoot material (including jigsaws, poster books, Advanced FF guides, ZX Spectrum/Commodore 64 games, etc etc) he created a boardgame version of Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, penned the first FF novel (The Trolltooth Wars) and wrote two primers/adventures in a bid to make FF into a true RPG system (this book and its follow-up, The Riddling Reaver.)
Whilst The Riddling Reaver was a full-blown multi-player scenario in the traditional sense of a FF book, Fighting Fantasy was rather more than that. It covers the rules for using FF as a RPG and includes two adventure scenarios for budding GMs (or people running out of ideas) to cut their teeth on and/or use to initiate the un-initiated.
The Wishing Well is a short adventure (SJ recommends a maximum of 90 minutes playtime, but I doubt it would take this long as my average play-through time for most full FF books is about 2 hours) in a disused well that presumably looks like it might be quite interesting which can be the only explanation why your adventurers choose to go down it given that we are offered no back story other than that the wealthy used to throw gold down it and make wishes so presumably all that gold must have built-up over time and still be in it somewhere. As for the scenario itself, it is best described as a fairly random selection of encounters and situations that are fairly generic, but still fun, FF fare. You start knowing nothing and you gradually build-up the very scant information that there is as to who now has the treasure and how you might get hold of it. In one sense, as this is only meant to be a short intro adventure, you wouldn’t expect masses of detail and situations as it would seem unrealistic and most who bought this book will have done so based on their liking other FF books so are probably familiar with the “everything including the kitchen sink” approach already used in Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. On the other hand, the encounters in this adventure seem very higgledy-piggledy and could be substituted for equally unlikely encounters at will. I really struggle to understand the presence of a mummy – this seems awkwardly forced in as the beauty of FF was the often location-appropriate creatures you meet. At least it’s linked into the “plot”, unlike the mermaid which, whilst pretty irrelevant to the overall adventure, does add a fun element where an adventurer can fall in love with her and either be led off into the sunset or end up fighting his friends in a bid to defend her honour. This also shows that there is often humour in FF. Some of the encounters are actually with quite tough opponents in terms of extra attacks (hellhound), special skills (mermaid), or the ability to keep coming back to life unless destroyed in a certain way (mummy). I would have preferred just one special creature as having a lot of them takes away the exclusiveness and mystique of being faced with one, especially as there are less than 20 sections to this adventure. Normally FF books do reserve the special creature for a key moment and tend to make the other creatures fairly standard. However, if the idea of this adventure is to turn people on to FF, then the more unusual the encounters the more likely a player is to come back for more, so this is forgivable. The inevitable FF dungeon-trawl trap is present (a pitfall trap in this case) and, whilst most traps tend to be an annoying hindrance to progress, this trap is actually quite fun to negotiate as it really makes the players think. In fact, most of the non-creature situations are designed to intrigue and make the players use brains as well as brawn, which is key to RPGs. Plus, I really like the infinity corridor which must be lots of fun for the GM and also needs ingenuity on the players’ parts. This adventure also deals with the common problem of getting to the end of a FF, winning it, and then not being expected to get back out of whatever thing you are in the depths of now. As this is a true RPG, you can go in any direction, revisit locations over and over (without illogical plot re-sets) and be expected to a) get back out alive and b) remember to have a contingency plan to get back up the well-shaft, so there is an element of realism here that rarely exists in FF books.
The second scenario is Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril. As it is far longer it is, by definition, possible for it to be far more fleshed-out and vivid. This adventure is a sort of cross between Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon and, had it been used for a gamebook scenario, it could have been one of the best ever as it has masses of inventive situations and is very varied and fun to play. Even reading it through again (as a GM) for this review was fun. Some encounters are extremely original and it’s a shame they didn’t appear in any FF books - I particularly like the possibilities room and the fantasy room where whatever people say happens, although this would never suit a FF book as it involves an infinite number of possible events happening so needs human interaction to work. My gripes about too many special creatures in The Wishing Well do not extend to this second adventure as the specials are rare, well-hidden and VERY special and, to add to the fun and the need to explore as much as possible they all have ways of being overcome eg: the dragon can be held at bay, the vampire defeated, etc. There are also some interesting (if maybe a little frustrating) morphing creatures that start out soft but then turn into lethal “specials” when they are near-dead (the changeling and the weretiger bloke.) The inventiveness in places of this adventure is matched only by that of Deathtrap Dungeon – the four rooms that move around, the hot-floored room, and the mirrored water-floored room are all brilliantly-executed. In particular, the hot-floored room requires much invention by the players to beat it, whereas a FF book would presumably offer you the chance to talk to the salamander (how long would it take a player in a RPG to figure this out?) which would ruin the fun of this room. As with most dungeon-trawls the ever-present room inhabited by dwarves is here and this time it’s a small cafe-bar where all sorts of good and bad things can befall the players. Again, this is lots of fun and means each player can try something different with a different outcome.­ There are also THREE separate opportunities for players to add a NPC to their team, with mixed results. There is a lot of fun to be had in commanding your own small zombie army and it increases the chances of the players surviving as the zombies can fight for you or handle the tougher challenges on your behalf. Taking the lying beggar with you is probably more fun for the GM than the players, but the Man Of Many Years is the best-kept secret as he gives little away but handling him correctly definitely pays-off. Plus, unlike Ian Livingstone’s almost-universally useless NPC hangers-on, all three of these options can be useful to the players and won’t run off or drop dead within minutes of them joining the party. Interestingly enough as well, all the noise about treasure at the start of the adventure really is true and your players can amass a small fortune in gold and jewels if they make the right choices. Add to this the fact that, to beat certain rooms, you need to return to other areas, this makes for a great RPG where you can explore everything, failing certain areas initially, only to find what you need, retrace your steps, and then move further on. The soul-destroying, linear element that always mars FFs if you are missing an item you must have is remedied here, assuming the players are willing to explore everything. There is even an under construction section where the GM can add more rooms and encounters of their own making so this could really go on forever! Also, this adventure successfully handles the problem of illogically-located creatures - as the Hives are man-made any creature could have been put there (again, just like Deathtrap Dungeon.) I have one small issue, but it’s so minor as to be hardly relevant – the initial premise is very similar to that in the abysmal Eye Of The Dragon (which IL used part of as a sample adventure in his own RPG primer Dicing With Dragons) in which a secret set of chambers hidden under a tree contains untold wealth if you can deal with the pay-off with the person who tells you about it/lets you in, BUT, this is so minor and Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril has so much interest, variety and ingenuity on offer that this is hardly noticeable after a few chambers have been visited as even the most simple parts of SHOP are better than anything offered in EOTD.
Additionally, whilst it may be wasted as the players may or may not ever get to see it, Duncan Smith’s art is really good here and reminds me of Iain McCaig’s superb artwork in Deathtrap Dungeon (which has a similar feel about it in general, as I’ve said.) He gives a great sense of caverns and corridors and there is a claustrophobic feel to it that really suits these two adventures and their tones. Sadly the cover is fairly poor and gives away a secret from the second adventure. Incidentally, how many people have noticed that the cover art is reversed between the original orange-spined issue and the later green-spined black dragon-cover re-issue? (Look at the pictures and you’ll see it straight away!)
The actual raison d’etre of this booked can be easily overlooked due to the adventures it contains (one OK, one superb), which is to attempt to turn FF into a true RPG. Yes, we are offered rules for dealing with various situations in the intro that we wouldn’t get normally in FF (as the book would handle these as we went along), but is a rulebook really necessary? FF is so straight-forward once you are used to it that the consequences/rewards for success or failure should be easy enough to build into your own adventures without SJ’s input/blessing. Indeed, I was creating RPGs to play with friends using FF rules for years (mostly because it was much easier than Dungeons & Dragons and you didn’t die on your first battle due to only having 1d4 of Strength) before I finally read this book (in fact, I didn’t even own a copy until 2008 as it simply didn’t appeal to me due to the awful cover!) and there was nothing it added that I hadn’t already done. That said, it would be a shame not to have this book if only to discover the sheer brilliance of Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril and to get an idea of what FF writers were capable of creating but they couldn’t practicably include in standard FF books. For me, the second adventure in this book is the closest SJ ever came to the best of IL’s work (Deathtrap Dungeon, Trial Of Champions, City Of Thieves) and shows that he wasn’t just a creator of gimmick FFs.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

#11: Talisman Of Death




TALISMAN OF DEATH

Mark Smith & Jamie Thomson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

When I first read this book as a child in the early 80s it seemed at odds with previous FFs, plus its tone felt more adult. With hindsight (and far more knowledge of gamebooks in general) the difference between TOD and other FFs is fairly explicit – other FF books ARE FF, TOD is not. It was written by the writers of the Way of the Tiger series of gamebooks, was illustrated by Bob Harvey who also illustrated Way of the Tiger, and is even set on Orb, the setting of Way of the Tiger. No matter how you look at it, TOD is fundamentally Way of the Tiger with FF rules. The fact that Way of the Tiger (and also Joe Dever's Lone Wolf, but that is just an aside in the name of factual accuracy) were the only other gamebook series that came anywhere near giving FF something to feel threatened by suggests that this book was basically a peace-gesture between the two series. To make it seem slightly less blatant you start as a human on Earth who is chosen by some Gods to go to Orb on an errand, but the fact remains that this book could just as easily have not been in the FF series. However, this book is actually very good and is probably one of the most unique-feeling of the FFs because of all this.

From the outset you feel different about your character in this book. You are used to being told you are the best sword/gun/wizard/pilot/etc in most FFs – in TOD you are a simple human with no background credentials who just ends up being cannon-fodder for the Gods (there’s a nice Greek mythology touch here), which makes a refreshing change. You genuinely don’t feel confident as you play through this and you get a real feeling of vulnerability as various tricksters, rival groups, evil things, religious zealots (of which there are loads of one kind or another in this book) and even dinosaurs try to get in your way. For this reason alone, this book is a lot of fun to play.

Added to that is the fact that the plot is actually very absorbing and eventful, with masses of encounters to keep your interest up and lots of places to explore in subsequent play-throughs, even if, in the final section, the path becomes very thin and linear. I have one gripe with the plot and this is a gripe which can only have become apparent in recent years since Tolkien became ultra-popular again: this book is a rip-off of Lord Of The Rings. You are a fish-out-of-water sent on a suicide mission in an unknown territory to ultimately destroy a piece of equipment that, in the wrong hands, is bad news for everybody. Along the way you are hassled and threatened by Envoys/Minions of Death (read: ringwraiths) who will do anything to steal the talisman (read: ring) from you. The parallels are obvious, but the book is still enjoyable in spite of this.
I briefly mentioned the adult tone of this book. Some of the situations are genuinely disturbing – the vivisect, for example, is horrific and the prevalence of zealous monks/high priestesses/etc gives a worrying feeling of reality. FF works best when, whilst you are drawn-in, you also can feel that it is all a fantasy. Take Balthus Dire’s unholy creations in Citadel Of Chaos for example – they still manage to seem unreal, but TOD’s encounters are often uncomfortably real and unpleasant. The attacks by the envoys of death are genuinely frightening and will now seem very similar to the death-eater/dementor attacks in Harry Potter. As TOD followed on the heels of the controversial House Of Hell with its modern-day setting, devil worship, virgin sacrificing, etc, TOD probably felt quite tame and toned-down by comparison, but these two books were clearly FF coming of age. The production team presumably also felt a bit disquietened by these two books as the series then lurched into awkward Sci-Fi again (Space Assassin) followed by a Mad Max copy in Freeway Fighter, before settling comfortably back into its traditional medievalism roots with Temple Of Terror (although the envoy of death idea was carried-over into TOT with the much more inventive Messenger of Death.)
Much has been made of Bob Harvey’s art in FF reviews, but I personally like it. He brings a down-to-earth feel to the books he has drawn and his human characters are very realistic. His creatures, however, aren’t quite so good in this book, especially the dragon which looks more like a recoiled albino-eyed scaly cat – dragons should be regal and impressive, not sinewy and sorry-looking. Personally, I much prefer his work in Seas Of Blood and Demons Of The Deep but his art did add even more to the unique feel of TOD within the FF series.
The cover too is unusual. The image of the envoy of death riding a sort of horse/wraith and thrusting the talisman at the viewer with lightning etc around it is very Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in feel and is, again, a bit more real than unusual as it could play on the psyches of those who believe in this. It definitely sets the tone though and makes you fear attacks from the envoys/minions of death. Interestingly, this was one of the few covers (the other most noticeable being Forest Of Doom which was just made a bit more frightening) that wasn’t hugely changed for the Wizard re-issues – with TOD though, the original cover was more frightening and the Wizard version has a bit more of a Sleepy Hollow comfortably-gothic feel to it.
TOD is also unusual in that it manages to be logical and there is little to criticise plot-wise. It does feature the usually irritating reincarnation trick, but in TOD it actually makes perfect sense. You work for Gods and Gods are omnipotent so why can’t you be allowed to be brought back from the dead by them? Thankfully you can only be reincarnated in the final section, so there is still a danger of instant death which means the challenge is not negated too much. Plus, if you are allowed to come back to life, you forfeit some essential items and have to get them some other way, which makes it a bit more interesting. In this respect, TOD does what books such as Forest Of Doom failed miserably to do – it properly and logically handles the re-set button, plus it removes the normal soul-destruction of dying a few steps before the end, especially after you’ve survived everything else this book will already have thrown at you!
The ability to come back from the dead/re-set the story is a mixed blessing in FF. In Forest Of Doom it simply blew all credibility out of the window and was frankly stupid, in Scorpion Swamp it was handled neatly (although you could pretend you weren’t re-setting an area you had already been too), and in Night Of The Necromancer it’s the entire purpose of the exercise as you are dead from the outset (although it can all still go wrong, even then!) In the first two books this meant the game itself was stupidly easy. In Night of the Necromancer it meant the game was incredibly difficult. This suggests that FF writers struggle to deal with this element. Talisman Of Death is, in spite of its many encounters, potentially-disastrous situations with other people/things that want to steal the talisman, and multiple mini-missions along the way that could go wrong, actually not too hard to beat. I think it took me only two attempts and that was only because I missed all the hog men bit the first time and didn’t get a vital piece of equipment (although that did mean I got to fight a catalogue of hard-as-nails dinosaurs.)
As a child this was my least favourite medieval-type FF book, probably because I simply didn’t understand what it was getting at and, at 8, I wasn’t the right age for it. As an adult, and with the benefit of the Lord Of The Rings movies, Harry Potter, and post-9/11 global paranoias about religious cults, this book is actually very intelligent and whilst it definitely does not fit in with most of the other FF books, it certainly makes for a more adult gaming experience and is very satisfying to play, if a bit too easy in the end.

#8: Scorpion Swamp

SCORPION SWAMP

Steve Jackson (II)

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Very few FF books have received such universally damning reviews and offended the sensibilities of FF fans as much as Scorpion Swamp. However, I really like this book and people need to see beyond the superficial desire to pan it and see it for what it actually is – an extremely important and original entry in the series. This book was FF8 in the original series and has never been re-issued which is a great shame and it seems that the FF production team took public opinion very seriously here and decided to consign SS into some sort of obscurity where it could be forgotten and not be allowed to upset anyone anymore.

For many different reasons, SS was a major breakthrough and people seem to have forgotten this:
  • ·         It’s the first Titan-based FF to be set on a continent other than Allansia which suggests even greater size and scope for the series’ future at that time and also, perhaps, that Allansia was for SJ and IL to exploit and that there was another continent for the new boys to play with
  • ·         It’s the first FF that could be said to be a true RPG as you can move freely in any direction within the swamp, free of the usual FF restrictive linearity, plus there is a built-in mechanism to deal with revisiting sections you have already been to. No having to suspend disbelief and accept that things constantly reset themselves and dead stuff reincarnates itself like we had to tolerate in Forest Of Doom
  • ·         It’s the first FF that actually gives you a choice of mission, meaning there are at least three different ways to play, making the playability of this book streets ahead of the previous seven and, for that matter, most of the other FFs. Personally I like to play all three missions simultaneously as this is probably the most interesting approach but you need to play at least three times before you even know what the three options are
  • ·         It’s the first FF where you get an allegiance of some sort meaning your characters can vary dependant on whether you choose to work for Good (being a wholesome Mr Nice Guy and getting to feel good about yourself at the end), Neutral (pretty boring really), or Evil (lots of fun as you get to be fairly sadistic, but the book does admonish you at the end if you chose this route.) As you get to use magic as well, your allegiance dictates your choice of spells (very RPG-ish in theme). Good spells are generally healing or helpful to those you meet, Neutral spells are pretty basic and act as a substitute for the usual potions you can have in FF, and Evil spells are either for battle or for causing people/things to suffer some sort of unpleasant mishap
  • ·         It’s the first FF not to be written by either of the series’ creators. Yes, it’s written by A Steve Jackson, but not THE Steve Jackson. It felt odd at the time to be playing a non-SJ/IL FF, but it paved the way for lots of other writers to add their styles and approaches to the series which helped keep it fresh in its later years, plus SJ (II) is adding a lot in terms of the RPG feel that SJ/IL hadn’t thought of, plus he’s not a bad author, so credit where credit’s due
  • ·         It’s also the first FF to be released with the now iconic green spine and green zig-zag stripe on the front. This was my favourite generic series cover design and gave uniformity to the series which further added to the feel that this was a whole body of work. Plus, I never liked the later gold/black dragon cover designs introduced as of #25 as they seemed tacky by comparison.

With all this innovation on offer, I struggle to understand why so many people dismiss this book outright. And it’s not just got new and fresh ideas to offer – this book is actually really good fun to play. The swamp is interesting and varied, but it does have one failing in that it is hardly the intimidating “you don’t want to go in there” sort of place that it’s made out to be - in fact, many of the encounters are human-type and fairly non-lethal. Yes, there’s an unpleasant bloodbeast-thing and some of the usual FF fare, but these are countered by whimsical encounters such as a Will-O-The-Wisp and a sort of conman who tries to rip you off. Key NPCs are the “Masters”, a group of wizards (and one witch) who inhabit the swamp and have followers dependant on what they are master/mistress of (Wolves lives with wolves, Birds with birds, Frogs actually is a giant frog, and Gardens is a sort of cantankerous Titchmarsh figure who’s plants protect him) – the only gripe here is their “mastery” doesn’t seem very far-reaching as neither they or their acolytes go any further than whatever number clearing they live in. There’s even a little town at the other side where you can rest and/or get into an altercation, to create a feeling of having “survived” and got out of the other side (which is actually pointless as you have to go back to the entrance to win!)

On that note we find another key element of this book which is unique – the clearings are numbered which makes mapping this FF far easier than most. This may sound facile but, as you need to return to the start to complete any of the three missions, you will not get back without retracing your steps with a map. Mapping was a suggested means of finding the true path in previous FFs, but in SS you really cannot win (unless you’re really lucky) without using a map. Add to this the fact that the Neutral mission is to actually make a map, you can get a little more of a feeling that YOU are the hero and that this adventure is more than just words and dice. The feeling of absorption is a make-or-break thing with FF books – some draw you into their world vividly (eg the superbly-designed City Of Thieves, or the very atmospheric Beneath Nightmare Castle or Howl Of The Werewolf) and this really makes you feel involved in the story; others are oblivious to their readers and make no attempt to set any kind of scene (eg the dull and lifeless Starship Traveller or the simply badly-written Space Assassin) so are lucky to get a second or third play-through. SS gets around any shortcomings in its construction by forcing you to map the area and also by giving you the sense of who you are – are you Good, Neutral or Evil? Should you feel bad about murdering the Masters in the name of Evil or is that what being evil is? Should you feel a nice warm glow when you heal someone if you are Good? Should you feel quite as empty and cheated as you do if you decide to be Neutral or is that what you get for sitting on the fence? The answer is “Yes” to each of these and that’s the beauty of this book.

There is much to praise in SS, but there must be a reason why so many FF fans hate it and there are definitely some shortcomings to this book, but no more surely than in any other? The problem here is that the issues are with pretty important aspects:
  • ·         Ease – all three missions are annoyingly easy (unless you want the frog talisman which is impossible to get and not worth trying for as the Evil YOU doesn’t need all the talismans) and it’s possible to complete each one on the first attempt, which might be why there ARE three as it encourages re-playing
  • ·         Lacklustre Missions – the Good mission is OK but you can get fed-up with being a do-gooder. Bizarrely, the Good mission is probably the hardest as the Master of Gardens is hidden away on a far edge of the swamp and is the least likely character to meet unless you’ve found him in the past on one of the other missions, plus he’s a git so you’ll probably be fairly inclined to kill him by accident! The Neutral mission is hardly worth bothering with, but it does vindicate your map-drawing and allows you free-reign to explore the entire swamp with some justification. The Evil mission is the most satisfying in that it has the FF “kill some baddies” feel to it, until you discover that the people you’re killing are far nicer than your chosen mentor and you feel a bit guilty for slaughtering people who seem to be minding their own business. Plus, most of the Masters are at the start of the swamp so you’re less likely to get your teeth into things and explore much
  • ·         Art – there’s something lacking in the art in SS as it all seems too bright to be in the depths of a murky and deadly swamp. Plus it has a strange cheeriness to it that also doesn’t fit. Granted, the art is well-drawn (unlike some other FFs) but it just doesn’t seem right and sets the wrong tone
  • ·         Plot – there isn’t one really. Basically, no-one else will enter the swamp, you come along and pick a wizard to do a favour for, in you go, roam around, do what you need to do, then it gets dark and it’s time to go back to see your chosen boss and find out what crap you get in return. No satisfying back-story to set the scene, no context to where you are, and not even the slightest feeling that this swamp is in any way dangerous. In fact the swamp itself has a real feeling of The Emperor’s New Clothes about it – sooner or later someone is going to admit that it’s just not scary! Plus, there’s no satisfyingly-evil crackpot to despatch or unimaginable wealth to be had for getting to the end

Scorpion Swamp is definitely playable and has in-built systems to allow replay without repetition, which I really like about it. Yes, it’s easy, but it’s also undeniably enjoyable because of its original approach within the context of FF. I have always liked this book ever since it came out and it really should get another chance to find a new, less harsh, audience. Maybe it’s aimed at younger players, but FF WAS designed for kids so where’s the harm in having the odd FF that you can actually beat without cheating or having to play it 100 times first? My advice would be to play all three missions at once and visit EVERY clearing – it’ll soon become apparent that this book has variety and lots to offer, as long as you can tolerate its fairly key shortcomings.


#5: City Of Thieves




CITY OF THIEVES

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

This was the second FF book I ever got and this was the one that really got me hooked on the series and defined Ian as my favourite FF author. I’m not sure what my feelings towards the series would have been if I’d got the lame Starship Traveller, the fun but far too simple Forest Of Doom or the satisfying but inconsistent Citadel Of Chaos as my second FF, but I didn’t. Instead I chose COT based purely on the very atmospheric cover and the fact that, at the age of seven, Zanbar Bone looked a much more interesting baddie than a half-assed battle droid, a lizardy shape-changer, or Big Bird’s melanic cousin having a bad hair day! COT is the first FF that is intended to be part of an interconnected series, it being the first of a Livingstone trilogy that continued with Deathtrap Dungeon and ended with Island Of The Lizard King. We are finally seeing concrete evidence that the FFs are a global body of work and that these books are set on the same landmass. Plus, this book introduces another key NPC to the series: the wizard Nicodemus (who I have always thought was less annoyingly wacky and more adult-oriented than Yaztromo.)

COT is not perfect, but it’s certainly got enough brilliance in it to say that it is the first genuinely superb FF.

Firstly, there is the art – the images are excellent, atmospheric and really suit the feel of the book.

Secondly, there is Port Blacksand itself. PB is one of the best planned-out and most vivid townscapes in any FF book and the FF editorial team also clearly thought so as it gets revisited several times in later books (Midnight Rogue, Temple Of Terror, Night Dragon, Blacksand, etc) and even gets its own entry in Titan – The FF World. The town is varied, exciting, there are no dull moments, and it really does feel like a town full of cutpurses, rogues, thieves, and generally unsavoury people/things that you wouldn’t want to introduce your Granny to.

Thirdly, there is the difficulty level. Yes, this is IL, so the book is linear and the true path is tight but can be found with multiple visits and mappings. This book is challenging enough to be worth trying to beat, but it’s far from the pointlessly impossible difficulty level that marred some of IL’s other FFs. The sheer interest and fun levels of COT make you want to keep replaying a) to try to beat the book because you realise quickly that you actually can, and b) just to see what every nook and cranny of PB can throw at you.

There is also the plot. Unlike many of the earlier FFs, COT does not have umpteen plot flaws and loopholes and avoids the wild improbabilities that can often be found if you look beneath the surface of what you’re doing. The plot is simple but effective: PB is being oppressed by an undead baddie (we hadn’t had an undead uber-psycho in FF yet) and you are an assassin who has to get into PB in the first place, work your way through it, find the wizard Nicodemus, get his advice on what to do, then collect the usual shopping list of key items (which, in COT you actually know what are!) before heading out of town to take Zanbar himself on on his own turf. The multiple tasks/stages adds a lot to this plot making it far less one-note than most FF plots and, on completing a stage, you really get the feeling that you are achieving something and getting somewhere. The fact that you know what the main items you need are reduces your chances of disappointment if you get all the way to the end without them as, in COT, you can’t leave the town stage unless you have all of them so you know if you’re losing before it’s too frustratingly late. The dynamic here is similar to Steve Jackson’s 4-book Sorcery series where you complete sections of a story by repeated attempts and then pass through to the next stage in the knowledge that you are not on a hiding to nothing - much more satisfying and far less demoralising. The plot becomes even more interesting and you are challenged again when you discover that old Nicodemus is actually senile and has made you collect too much stuff as he can’t remember what you actually need to beat Zanbar Bone. This adds a neat twist and means that you cannot simply bulldoze past Zanbar at the end – you have to make the right choice to win. Personally, I like this aspect as it keeps things interesting all the way through the book. If there is one criticism of the plot it would be that home security is non-existent in such a supposedly rough neighbourhood and no-one seems bothered when you wander in and out of their houses uninvited, but this is a minor point in the grand scheme of things.

The encounters in this book are also interesting. There is a balanced mix of human and creature encounters. There are no out-of-place encounters and everything seems to fit the environment. It is possible to get lucky as much as it is possible to get ripped-off which makes taking chances interesting. Some of the items you find are simply rubbish which is rare for FF as most of the stuff you tend to collect in FF is spectacular, valuable, or makes you tougher in some way. The rubbish items do, however, seem like they could prove handy (old knucklebones?) which makes collecting items fun as normally in FF you can tell what will and won’t be of any use. In some FFs there are so few items that the effect of them is blindingly obvious. In others, there are so many items you can collect that you get bored of finding stuff and writing it down after a while as there’s no sense of achievement. COT gets the balance just right. There are some unique creatures that have not resurfaced in other FFs (eg: leaf beasts) which gives an impression that PB is different to other places in Allansia, but there is also enough standard fare to stop it seeming like it exists in a bubble and helps make it feel connected to an outside world. There is also a lot of fun to be had in revelling in some of the places/people you can see/meet. The pubs, the harbour, the market (the first properly-located one in FF rather than an improbable shop like in Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, the totally ridiculous shop hidden underground in a place no-one knows exists in Eye Of The Dragon, or the pointless visit to see Yaztromo in Forest Of Doom), Nicodemus, the sewer, and the town guard/prison are all vivid and are just a few of the great moments to be found in COT that make PB come alive and seem like a teeming and dangerous town.

Even the cover art is well thought-out and is even bordered with a neat frame image. It seems to me that this cover was not an afterthought in the way that the shoddily-executed covers of some FFs such as Citadel Of Chaos or Phantoms Of Fear seem to be and that this cover had considerable design effort put into it.... and Zanbar Bone really does look like a daunting foe rather than the nice Granddad figure of Zagor on WOFM or the campy undead pharaoh reaching pathetically forward on the cover of Curse Of The Mummy.

Is this Ian’s greatest FF achievement and had he thrown all his cards on the table with COT? For a short time you would probably have said “Yes” but then came Deathtrap Dungeon...

#4: Starship Traveller


STARSHIP TRAVELLER

Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Steve Jackson was always the innovator out of him and Ian Livingstone. Livingstone liked to develop Titan (well, Allansia) whilst Jackson liked to expand the possibilities of FF and experiment with it. The first Sci-Fi entry into the FF cannon would inevitably come from Steve and it came very early on (number 4 in the original series.)

Sci-Fi and FF have often been said to make awkward bed-fellows but it has to be said that very few Sci-Fi FFs ever saw the light of day – there were at most only nine and that is assuming you view the superhero one (Appointment With F.E.A.R) as Sci-Fi – so it’s hard to fairly judge their success or failure. The fact that no more were released after number 33 (Sky Lord) suggests that the FF production team and/or Puffin certainly viewed them as a non-starter and it doesn’t help that the Sci-Fi FFs were book-ended with two of the worst FF books ever (Starship Traveller and Sky Lord) as that has hardly helped their image. Granted, most of the Sci-Fi FFs were poor or pretty lacklustre (only Robot Commando and Rebel Planet were genuinely good) but we don’t have much material to go on.

Sadly, Starship Traveller was the first truely bad FF as it was the first one that’s bad points wildly outweighed any good points it may have had... and it has many bad points:
  • ·         The sheer amount of time it takes to roll-up all the extra characters and ship stats would suggest that all these will have some pivotal role to play. This is not the case. The extra crew are just there to die instead of you and I count only two ship-to-ship combats. This is very frustrating and is actually a complete waste of the player’s time.
  • ·        The plethora of extra rules (hand-to-hand combat, phaser combat, ship-to-ship combat) seem like they will add extra layers to playability and options. This is not the case. Phaser combat is boring, hand-to-hand combat is just FF combat, and ship-to-ship combat is practically non-existant (see above.) A wasted opportunity that makes it hardly worth reading all the extra pages that explain all these useless rules.
  • ·         The art is two-dimensional and lifeless. Much of it is just line drawings with no background to immerse you in what you are seeing. Medieval set FFs are easy to imagine in your mind’s eye as they are close to what we see of our own history, Sci-Fi is not and needs visualising properly. If this is Space, the illustrations really convince you that staying on Earth is much more exciting.
  • ·         It is possible to complete the book without touching the dice once. This is just lame – where is the element of chance that dice-rolling creates? Or, did Steve deliberately eschew dice-rolling because he knew you would be sick of rolling dice and had thrown them away in frustration once you’d wasted half an hour creating all your crew and ship?
  • ·         Worst of all, it comes across very clearly that even Steve got bored with this one (he has suggested this in interviews) and that he rushed to finish it. He couldn’t even be bothered to name all the planets! It also doesn’t take long to reach the end and win, or reach the end and find you have the wrong co-ordinates. On that note, it took me many attempts to beat this book and I thought it was really hard until I mapped it and saw how obvious the true path actually is!

Listing the book’s good points is a far shorter job and is much harder in that it is so hard to find any of any real note. Yes, it is basically Star Trek crossed with the popular Traveller RPG so it gets credit for being savvy enough to jump on the bandwagon of popular culture at the time. It was a brave effort in that it was the first attempt to transplant FF’s very Middle Ages-era-centric game mechanics, but the total lack of any effort to exploit the futuristically-appropriate extra rules kills that one dead. There’s a certain amount of curiosity employed when you first start planet-jumping but this is marred by most of the planets being boring with very little to do or discover and it wears-off when you realise how soon you will reach the far side of this particular universe.

The only neutral aspect of this gamebook is the plot. It does not suffer from the blind illogicality or ludicrous convolutions of some FF plots and it isn’t totally one-note like some others. Your ship is sucked through a black hole into an alien galaxy and you have to find the correct co-ordinates to get back out the other end and home again. Bizarrely, some planets hide items or information that you need to use on later planets. This is hard to accept unless they are all some sort of United States Of Planets. It stretches the point too much but you can see that it tries to make its galaxy into a conventional dungeon-trawl where you need something from earlier on to get through something later on, which may have been done to make it more applicable to the FF conventions.

It is hard to be positive about ST and it did not set a good standard for Sci-FI FF. The subsequent one (Space Assassin) is famously just as dire, the next two were novelties (Freeway Fighter ie Mad Max, and Rings Of Kether ie Philip Marlowe in Space), followed by a superhero effort that I can take or leave (Appointment With F.E.A.R.) Not until number 18 (Rebel Planet) would Sci-Fi FF find its feet in terms of all-round quality. It’s interesting to note that the absolute worst Sci-Fi FFs (Starship Traveller, Space Assassin, Sky Lord) all begin with the letter ‘S’ and that the best ones (Robot Commando, Rebel Planet) begin with ‘R’. Spend your time looking for coincidences rather than wasting it playing this gamebook – it’s much more fun!

#3: The Forest Of Doom

THE FOREST OF DOOM

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Quickly following Steve Jackson’s first solo effort (Citadel Of Chaos) came Ian Livingstone’s The Forest Of Doom. FOD is unusual for a Livingstone effort, yet, at the same time, is a very generic Livingstone FF. It is unusual because it’s ridiculously easy (assuming nothing kills you) given that, unless you die, you CANNOT conceivably lose. Rarely is Ian so forgiving and only this once has he allowed us unlimited chances to go back to the beginning and have another try if we haven’t got what we were looking for (more on this later), plus there are relatively few instant deaths which is very unlike Ian. It is also generic Livingstone for two of the usual reasons in particular:
  • ·         Linearity – there is only one true path and you are forced to head for the end.
  • ·         Shopping list – you literally visit a shop at the beginning, there are lots of items you need to progress safely (although not as many as usual for Ian), and you can find yourself carrying masses of stuff once you start going back through the forest over and over again.

Presumably at this early stage, Ian hadn’t yet thought of making his gamebooks borderline impossible which is a refreshing change for anyone who first comes to this book after some of his later tougher efforts.

I have mixed feelings about the fact that you can start over if you reach the other side of the forest without the things you are looking for. In one way, this is totally anti-FF as you are only normally given one chance and must, through repeated playing and mappings, gradually discover the solutions – that’s part of the fun and challenge of FF. On the other hand, the forest itself is so packed with good encounters, variety and fun things to meet and do that it would be a shame to not give you the chance to discover everything it has to offer. In this sense, FOD is probably one of my favourite early FFs; in the sense that the difficulty level is zero, FOD is the closest FF ever got to the short-lived and impossible-to-lose Starlight sister series (which was designed, ironically, for your sister!)

There is a more frustrating problem, however, caused by the endless restarts in FOD, that being that the plot is rendered meaningless unless you can accept that the forest can reset itself every time you go back to the start, including anything you killed coming back to life, any surprises being surprises again, and any items you found having left a trace of themselves which have formed into a full duplicate of something you already have! This is annoying as it means you can end up with loads of the same useful (or useless) pieces of equipment and can render yourself indestructible with endless Skill, Stamina and Luck increases. More worrying is that, if you keep finding one half of the dwarven axe and not the other, you can end up with loads of them when there is meant to be only one of this unique and life-saving object, which brings us to the purpose of your mission. You run into a wounded dwarf who tells you that an axe that the dwarves of Stonebridge desperately need to fend-off total annihilation has been broken in half and hidden in Darkwood Forest somewhere. Being a good guy you decide to find it and return it to Stonebridge which lies inconveniently at the exact opposite side of the forest to where your dwarven friend met his dwarven maker. This incidentally is the first incidence of Ian’s annoying habit of killing-off seemingly nice NPCs, but it does at least give some meaning to your wanting to traverse the forest. So instead of killing someone who wants to destroy the world or seeking some immeasurable fortune, you are running an errand in FOD, which does make it quite different to most FF plots and you feel more like a good Samaritan than the usual FF concept of being the best swordsman or wizard or angel of vengeance or hitman in the land.

Ian’s books are often lengthy and full of vivid detail and this one is no different in that sense. The forest is well-developed in the text and you do feel that you are actually in a forest as you make your way through it. Sadly, part-way through you can find a hill range as well as an open plain which seem at odds with a dense and impenetrable forest – oh dear, there goes any last remnant of plot coherency if there ever was any! On the plus side, this does actually add even more variety so we have to accept yet another of FOD ‘s simultaneous blessings and curses. Variety is the key to the enjoyment of this book and it contains many interesting (and often foresty) creatures (although the pterodactyl feels totally out of place) as well as lots of nice trees, huts and other woodland locations to explore. There’s even an underground mine inhabited by weird clones that I can’t help thinking parallels the underground world of the underpants gnomes in South Park nowadays! But at least it’s another unexpected twist and it keeps FOD from never getting dull, plus you even get to run into a sad Friar Tuck and make him into a happy Friar Tuck if you have the right item. Part-way through we are also faced with a situation lifted straight from Warlock Of Firetop Mountain – the hard-to-negotiate river. It might be unoriginal in FF terms but, again, it does break up the “shall I go east, north or west up the path this time” decisions you mostly have to make.

There is only one really wasted opportunity in FOD and that is the use of very basic magic. You are not a wizard (that would be too out-there for Livingstone) but you can purchase magical items at the beginning. Sadly, these play very limited roles in the book and might as well not be there. If anything they are just an excuse to introduce us to Yaztromo. In terms of the overall FF cannon and the development of a FF world, FOD is very important in this sense. We meet Yaztromo in his ubiquitous tower, we meet the dwarves of Stonebridge for the first time and we get a sense that there is war between different species in Allansia. All these ideas would be developed in later FFs and are pivotal in creating a FF universe as opposed to random happenings that take place in a building, town or mountain in an otherwise context-less bubble.

Ian’s writing in FOD is as colourful and absorbing as the art is hideous and disturbing. Rarely in FF is there an illustration as crass as the catwoman! The poor quality of the interior art is even more surprising given how great the cover is. The shape changer in a forest on the cover really sets the tone and fits well with Livingstone’s prose. Sadly, this raises yet another desperate plot inconsistency – if you encounter the shape changer on the first trip through Darkwood you are going the wrong way I’m afraid and you have already missed part of the dwarven axe. Almost all FF covers involve key plot elements or key encounters along the true path but not FOD as that would presumably make some sort of sense and logic was not on the agenda when FOD was created.

All things considered, FOD is not a bad FF. In fact, I really like playing and exploring it as it offers a lot and I think it is very under-rated. Unfortunately, it is best described as a heroic failure due to its ridiculous ease and lack of any logical story arc. Play it for variety and enjoy it for that and for Ian’s vivid creation and you will be pleasantly surprised. If you want a challenge or a logical plot don’t bother as it will just frustrate you.

#2: The Citadel Of Chaos


THE CITADEL OF CHAOS


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

FF2 (in the original series) was the first solo offering from Steve Jackson. Steve always seemed more interested in expanding the possibilities of FF and pushing the boundaries, but this was often at the expense of adventure length. Ian’s efforts were generally longer and, therefore, more immersive, but with less neat gimmicks than Steve’s. COC gives us the first neat gimmick in FF – the ability to use magic.

Magic is handled well in this book as it is stat-driven in the same way as Skill, Stamina and Luck so the higher your Magic stat, the more spells you can cast and, therefore, the more powerful a wizard you are just like if you have high Skill you are a better swordsman and if you have high Stamina you are physically tougher and can take more of a hammering. Making Magic a stat also makes it appear less like an add-on and it seems to fit more naturally into the FF game mechanics. The spells are pretty good as well, giving a nice mix of stat-enhancing spells to keep you alive, battle spells to make other people less alive, and handy spells that just do useful stuff. In many ways, the spells act in the same way as items normally would in FF so there are less items to collect in this FF than in some others. Initially the spells may seem like a bit of nice fun to make you feel more like you’re in a fantasy environment, but later in the game it becomes apparent just how useful these are and, in the final monumental showdown with Balthus Dire himself, you really need to use your ingenuity and think your way through the wizard battle that you are involved in, which really makes the spell-casting aspect feel essential to winning (and it is!)

Apparently Jackson spent ages thinking through and planning the end battle and it shows. It will take many attempts to get it right and that’s if you can even get this far as COC features one of FF’s greatest and most formidable creature encounters: the Ganjees. I defy anyone to defeat the Ganjees on their first attempt as they are unlike anything you will meet in any other FF and have to be Jackson’s crowning achievement in terms of creature invention. However, we must not detract from the other creatures in COC as it has one of the most imaginative yet, at the same time, wholly believable and non-ludicrous (as some later FF beasts would be) creatures of any FF. The calacorm (bizarre and very thick), miks (sort of practices for the ganjees, really), hydra (classical), gark (ugly), rhinoman (you feel a bit sorry for it) and the various semi-vivisection transplant things (ape-dog, dog-ape) all fit very well with the idea that the Black Tower is full of Balthus Dire’s unholy experiments. Dire also seems to be obsessed with cross-breeding (gark, rhinoman, etc) which adds to the suitably weirdness of COC’s creatures.

There are also some interesting human encounters which add to the atmosphere of the book. You meet Dire’s children and his wife which I personally felt was a very nice touch. I was less impressed with the witches and ghost – they seemed to fit awkwardly into what is otherwise a very original selection of encounters on the whole. It also must be noted that, not only is Dire a despot who wants to destroy the world and creates bizarre abominations, but he’s also image-obsessed as several of the encounters are copying his hairstyle!

Whilst we have much to praise this book for in terms of sheer originality and interest-factor given what you can meet along the way, the plot itself is far less interesting. You are a sort of straight-A Hogwarts graduate sent to kill-off FF’s first (and far from last) madman who wants to destroy the world in some way or other. At least you get to kill this one in a more interesting way than most of the others! The story within the adventure can be roughly divided into four distinct sections: 1) The outside bit (not much of interest here other than it suggests that the Black Tower is fairly tolerant of vagrants on its doorstep and the wind woman thing is frankly irritating); 2) The “Downstairs” of the “Upstairs, Downstairs” class division (lots to see and do, with a nice scene-setting atmosphere, but basically a dungeon trawl); 3) The “Upstairs” bit (mostly info gathering, possibly too short on real substance, and blighted by a continuity problem involving a seemingly-mobile library); 4) The Black Tower itself (the best bit by far - a satisfyingly spooky series of hard-as-nails encounters to prep you for Dire himself.) By definition, given that you are climbing a tower, this book is linear but, in this case, it actually works as you wouldn’t expect to be able to head off in all directions if you are heading further and further upwards, so at least what there is of the plot is logical.

Interestingly, if you play this book, then play WOFM you can see distinct parallels in terms of Jackson’s style and technique:
  • ·         Both books involve requiring a combination to a lock at their climax
  • ·         Both involve a gambling hall, although the one in COC is far better fleshed-out than that in WOFM and you find yourself staying there for ages to win seemingly-unlimited amounts of gold pieces that are no use to you at all in this book (which is annoying as you think that there might be a really useful expensive thing you need to buy later on)
  • ·         Both involve references to Greek mythology (minotaur in a maze in WOFM, the golden fleece and a hydra in COC)
  • ·         Both involve ingenuity and thought to defeat the final baddie, rather than sheer brute-force

You can also see several of the more frustrating elements of Jackson’s FF work:
  • ·         COC is actually rather short (granted, it’s only a tower) which reduces the feeling of something to get your teeth into (although umpteen attempts at bettering the Ganjees, followed by explosive showdowns with Dire may make amends for this), whilst the Maze of Zagor in WOFM seems long only because you spend half the time being knocked out and deposited in some random part of it, which becomes boring very quickly
  • ·         Jackson is obsessed with secret passageways – COC uses them sparingly, WOFM has some in the Maze of Zagor, and later Jackson FF’s House Of Hell and Creature Of Havoc  are pretty much nothing but secret passageways

One thing I really like about COC is the art. Russ Nicholson’s work in this book is very well-rendered and really encapsulates how you are visualising the Black Tower in your mind as you work your way through it. Hair is wispy, there is lots of black, and the picture of a Ganjee sends a shiver down your spine, as does the wizened butler. As you progress from “Downstairs” to “Upstairs” the imagery is far whiter and cleaner and gives a nice impression of passing from class to class. Sadly, the cover is pathetic. Quite why the unholy hordes of Balthus Dire are being led by what looks like Big Bird covered in soot is beyond me. The revised cover was better, but shows the wind woman which seems an odd choice as she’s a fairly irrelevant encounter in my opinion but at least she’s well-drawn.

Overall I like the originality of the encounters and the imagery more than the playability, notwithstanding the final quarter which is superb. Magic is handled well and is key to beating this book (unlike most other magicky FFs where it tends to get forgotten along the way) and is an example of Jackson’s experimentation not going so far that the book becomes confused and  unplayable or simply unbearable. The second FF built nicely on the foundations of the first, introduced us to a far more foreboding and terrifying baddie, and gave us a valid reason for trying to defeat him. Unfortunately, the trade-off was shortness of game and the need to be patient and bear with it in terms of the gradual increase in quality as it progresses. All things considered, this is a solid entry in a series which was still in its infancy and has by far the best deployment of magic after the Sorcery! Series.