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.