Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Riddling Reaver


 THE RIDDLING REAVER

Paul Mason and Steve Williams; Edited by Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The second release designed to turn FF into a fully-fledged RPG system (following on from Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy – The Introductory RPG) is the first FF to introduce us to Mason/Williams’ seemingly favourite creation, The Riddling Reaver, who would later re-appear in Slaves Of The Abyss and Magehunter, as well as a prequel short FF in Warlock 13 called The Dreaming Sands. It is also one of the wackiest FF books ever which, whilst certainly imaginative and almost Roald Dahl-esque in its macabre humour in places, borders on silliness in other parts and is very inconsistent and lacking in overall cohesiveness.

However, the feeling of disjointedness can be overcome to some extent by playing the book in the manner that the rules suggest – the cover clearly states that this book is “Four thrilling role-playing adventures” and the recommendation is that it be played out in four separate sittings to get the most from it, although the claim that this could ever constitute four adventures is pushing it as each part would hardly be memorable if played in total isolation – Steve Jackson’s Sorcery this is not! It is even divided into four “Acts” to make the desired approach even clearer. Plus, it would be pretty exhausting for the players, not to mention demanding on the GM, if you were to attempt to play this book through in one session. You’d probably all get bored with what would seem like a catalogue of daft situations in four tenuously-connected environments, but, broken down into four sections, it can be very fun and entertaining as the players try to second-guess the Reaver’s constant tricks whilst making sense of some of the bizarrest situations that any FF has ever presented. In fact, situations is what this book is all about as it is a RPG scenario in the style of the myriad scenarios produced for Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer, and not a “sit and play it through” FF book. The book is designed to be read by GMs only and gives as thorough a description as possible so that the GM only has minimal padding to add dependant on what the players say and do. To keep the feel of FF, the GM is required to supply the linearity that normally holds FFs together and there is little room for wild digression on the players’ behalfs as several NPCs act as “guides” throughout the adventure to keep it all on track. This book is actually quite demanding on the GM as they would need to be very familiar with each section before it could be successfully played. This is very different to the dungeon approach of the two mini-adventures presented in Fighting Fantasy – The Introductory RPG where each room/encounter/etc was a small cameo. TRR has a flow from section to section (or at least within each Act it does!) and the interlinking sections must be understood fully before attempting to GM this book, otherwise it could comes across to the players as just a mess. This is another good reason to follow the book’s advice and play it in four distinct sittings – attempting to play the entire book at once will show that it actually is a bit of a mess overall!

The introduction suggests that this book CANNOT be played without already having a copy of its predecessor but this is not the case as, assuming you understand the FF game mechanics, there is no reason why you can’t play this book without needing to fork out for Fighting Fantasy – The Introductory RPG. FF had become a major franchise by the time TRR was published and this comes across as nothing more than cynical marketing. There are actually some very neat extra rules listed in TRR that could be applied to any FF RPG (again, without needing to know anything outlined in the earlier book) and that should have been employed in the FF series as a whole. There is a particularly good rule regarding unconsciousness (presumably to lessen the chance of one person dying and having to sit the game out whilst the other players plow on ahead without them) where if your Stamina is reduced to zero you are out cold, rather than dead, and can be revived. Stamina dropping to -1 suggests a fatal wound. The zero = unconscious rule would be a bit awkward to use in FF books in practice (unless there were lots of wandering Samaritans about the place to help you) but these new Stamina loss rules do make good sense. The RPG standard of bigger weapons doing more damage but being harder to use due to size/weight is added in this book and the need for this rule is pretty much a given to create realism. FF books have tried to factor this in with Skill penalties, but with mixed results, and the deployment has been scattershod across the series as a whole. Steve Jackson’s “editorial” influence is apparent in the inclusion of Mighty Strike, where a double six roll in combat causes a fatal wound instantly (he used this concept again successfully in Creature Of Havoc) and this also makes a lot of sense. After all, cutting into a finger will not hurt as much or cause as much of a problem as cutting someone/something’s head off! Finally, Magic is included. One player can opt to be a wizard taking Skill and Stamina penalties in return for choosing from a set of spells lifted straight from Jackson’s The Citadel Of Chaos. There are points in TRR where magic is genuinely handy and can make progress easier, so this is a nice touch (even if the spells are hardly exciting or original) that adds a bit of variety to play and characters. On the subject of characters, this book apparently works best with five players, which, again, would be quite a logistical undertaking for the GM and I can’t help thinking that more time would be spent debating what anyone is going to do (especially as many situations call for only one player to do something) if this many people were playing. On the plus side, the more players there are, the more ideas can be suggested to solve things and the less chance of any one player’s stats being reduced to the point of death at too early a stage, which would ruin things.

The adventure itself is divided into four distinct parts, each with its own environment and aim. Part One is the most tenuous as the players just happen to stumble across an event that the GM may have to make some effort to convince them is worth investigating as it’s hardly inspiring. Assuming they are interested (or have to be somehow forced to get involved), the first Act involves ascending a tower to discover the Reaver, followed by using a set of his riddles to gather a bunch of items from around Kallamehr which will then allow them to reach Act Two. The tower itself offers little other than an introduction to the main characters of the piece. The trawl around Kallamehr can be quite interesting and there are inventive moments where tattoos can be got that have special properties (remember this is meant to be a RPG so anything gained in this book will still be there for the players in further adventures) plus it’s possible to become a wanted fugitive. The usual FF fall-back of random encounters in certain oft-visited places determined by dice rolling is present, but this does keep things varied and helps with continuity. Overall though, Act One is nothing special and just sets the scene. You also get to pick up a NPC in Act One who is basically the GM’s legitimate channel to either keep the players on track or outright help them if things start to go off-course or the players are just stuck (the riddles aren’t easy in some cases!)

Act Two involves a boat ride (on the Reaver’s boat “Enigma” – hardly takes much to think that up plus the Reaver’s habit of wearing green does bring to mind Edward Nigma/The Riddler from Batman), the sole aim of which is to still be alive when the boat reaches the location of Act Three. Act Two, in spite of its being a connecting stage, actually has some of the most inventive moments in this book. Granted, the usual random encounter dice roll is still in play for the top deck of the boat, but the rooms in the hold can be very interesting. Especially intriguing are the vision box (where each player sees something different, some appealing, some terrifying) which can lead to all sorts of player reactions, the painting room (which requires Crystal Maze-esque ingenuity on the part of the players to figure out what to do), and a room where everyone is miniaturised and meet a “giant” mouse with very high stats. Indeed, several of the encounters on the boat can be quite tough (the mouse, a plesiosaur, and a very dangerous chimera) which makes survival that little bit tougher and, along with the more original rooms, adds a lot to what is otherwise a linking section. There is also a room that may seem incongruous at this stage, but that gives an important clue about the Reaver’s obsession with taxidermy which will prove useful to know later in the adventure. Likewise, the first door with a riddle on it that tells you how to survive the room is found on this boat – again, this is a handy clue for success later in the game. Act Two ends with having to negotiate a riddle room. As before, the riddles are not easy and provide a nice challenge to the players.

Act Three sees the players arrive on an island where the Enigma has taken them and this is where the theme of the book lurches awkwardly towards feeling rather too much like Island Of The Lizard King. There are two types of Lizard Man here, as well as Pygmies, Head-hunters, and other primitive creatures/peoples. This section really does not gel with the previous two and this is where the book starts to become disjointed and any feeling of natural flow starts to fade. Granted, the players do meet the Reaver face-to-face as soon as they reach the island, but he’s in disguise and the players might not actually realise it’s him. The initial jungle section is fairly forgettable and is the least satisfying part of the adventure as a whole. However, the far side of the jungle houses The Shrine Of Destiny which really does take some imagination to even reach as you have to cross an invisible bridge to access it – how long it would take the players to work this out is anyone’s guess. The Shrine itself actually turns out to be something’s internal organs which is certainly a surprise, although it probably doesn’t take that long to work this out once the players are inside it. For the most part, the trip through the shrine is as lacklustre as the jungle that came before it, but the final stage where the players meet the (very strong) Icons Of Good and Evil is another very inventive touch, followed by the Act closing with the Reaver revealing his true identity and escaping in an airship.

The final Act is easily the best. The first part involves the players trying to reach the Reaver’s inner sanctum. This is the part of the adventure where the Dahl-esque black humour (and at times total lunacy) kicks in proper, from the opening negotiation of a waterfall that flows upwards, via a tricky Leprechaun surrounded by giant butterflies that are trying to eat tiny dinosaurs, followed by a possible encounter with a Tremlow (a very terrifying-looking, but totally cowardly monster that runs off instantly), a library where (admittedly stupidly) reading a book about summoning Fire Demons gets the players attacked by one, then a series of encounters with more of the Reaver’s taxidermy including two false-ending style stuffed Reavers and a set of stuffed versions of the players themselves, and then a room where the riddles on cupboard doors give clues as to what’s in them, it really does seem that the writers have thrown everything at the last section and it’s definitely worth getting through the previous three Acts to get to here, if only for the sheer entertainment value. There are even some Wheelies to run into (more evidence of probable Jackson tinkering and shamelessly adding in bits from The Citadel Of Chaos.) If the players can survive all this madness, they must then use a clue to figure out how to get through the door that leads to the very last section – the Reaver’s lab. This part does draw together some previous (seemingly random at the time) encounters. For example, the machine the Reaver uses to make the Mutant Lizard Men from Act Three can be found, as can the machine he uses to create his minions, the Replicanths (which by now the players will have encountered lots of in Act Four). There is another throw-back to Batman (in particular the 1966 movie) in a room full of powdered creatures (just add water). Other encounters include a particle bender (that allows the GM to have some fun mixing things together with bizarre, if arbitrary, results), an almost impossible to kill single-handedly suit of animated mechanical armour (Sk 14 St 20) that only works when it contains a player (who can also be hurt once its Stamina drops to 5!) and that all weapons work against with a damage penalty of -1. A void room (plagiarised from Deathtrap Dungeon) presents probably the most lethal threat in the whole book and is the last obstacle to negotiate before reaching the Reaver himself. Sadly, the ending is a total anti-climax as it is not possible to get near the Reaver and he escapes. This is almost unheard-of in FF as the feeling of achievement that players get from surviving to the end and killing off the final baddie is all but missing.

Overall then, plot-wise, whilst there is little inter-connecting material between the Acts other than chasing the Reaver, the plot has no illogicalities and its bizarreness is actually very suited to its subject matter, even if it is very bizarre in places. The big let-down is that it is book-ended by an intro and ending that are in turn uninspiring and disappointing, and Act Three could be left out completely and replaced with something more suited to the almost Arabian Nights feel of the other three parts (everyone seems to be wearing fez and Ali Baba pants) or just something better! On a positive note, the ever-welcome element of series linking is also present when you can meet the person who supplies the creatures for the Trial Of Champions.

Some of the ideas in this book are genuinely original and imaginative and solving the riddles/tricks can be very complex (even if some can be solved by accident.) It is a matter of opinion what the reader/players might make of some of the attempts at all-too-clever jokes in the text – Hammet The Dash, Cona Nundrum, and Jaiphrai Ah’cha – and there is an over-riding feeling that this book is designed to introduce the Reaver as a marketable new NPC rather than another FF crack-pot for the player(s) to despatch. He doesn’t actually seem very evil (which might be why he’s allowed to survive) and the best analogy I can think of is that he’s the Trickster Gods’ sort of Pope!

If this book were a single-player “standard” FF it would be very hard as the riddles are often tough, things like the void room are instant deaths, and some situations would only be reversible if you kept running into benevolent NPCs throughout the book which could get annoying. Likewise, many of the encounters are with creatures with stats in double-figures. All this is made far easier with a group of players so the chance of everyone making it to the (hopeless) ending is pretty high.

This book is a rare and brave departure from the series as a whole and tries to do something different with the FF concept by creating FF’s only full RPG scenario. The extra rules add a lot and add welcome logic to how FF functions. It is difficult to know what standard would have been achieved with later FF RPG books as this is all we have to go on, but this is a decent start in spite of its flaws. It’s certainly too inconsistent and over-reliant on wackiness and it seems a bit smug at times as it’s not as clever as its writers think it is even though, in parts, it’s as inventive and as complex to crack as FF ever gets. 

The biggest challenge (and probably a reason for the concept of a FF RPG never really taking off) is assembling, and maintaining the interest through the duller parts, of five players to even give it a go in the first place...

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Demonstealer



DEMONSTEALER

Marc Gascoigne

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The second FF novel (and the second in the Chadda Darkmane cycle) starts immediately after the end of its predecessor, The Trolltooth Wars, but is a very different style of novel. It would have been simple to attempt to create a Trolltooth Wars II, but it is good to see that the FF novels series is showing variety in its second outing.

Marc Gascoigne’s writing style is noticeably darker than Steve Jackson’s and the approach is different from the outset. Gone is the FF-xploitation of the first novel, which relied in some part on name-dropping of various key NPCs and locations to draw the reader into accepting a non-gamebook FF entry. As Chadda Darkmane is by now established as a new NPC, there is far less need for over-extemporisation and contextualising to keep things feeling familiar to the reader. Only Yaztromo is carried-over from the first novel and the remaining protagonists are totally new FF characters in the form of a new sidekick for Darkmane, a new baddie’s acolyte, and a new main baddie himself. Gascoigne is in some ways taking a risk by not using a “known” gamebook enemy, but the change is welcome and there is a mystique to this book’s villains that would be missing if familiar (and probably dead in a continuity-bending way for those who have completed the relevant book) gamebook baddies were used instead. The Trolltooth Wars needed familiar (and, preferably, high-profile) enemies to help the reader to relate to the book. Demonstealer has the advantage of coming second and being far free-er to develop Darkmane as a character and make him the central figure going forward. It is odd to note that the concept of Amanour (which was very important to understanding Darkmane’s motive) plays an almost non-existent role in this book, but it did make him seem like a bit of an ego-maniac and its absence has little impact. The Cherva (or, rather, A Cherva) sort of returns during a visit to the Cherva’s home-town but, thankfully, this is only a brief cameo and Gascoigne is wise not to bring back the Jar-Jar Binks of the piece. Knockabout humour worked well in The Trolltooth Wars and suits Jackson’s writing style, but would not sit right with either Gascoigne’s darker tone or the generally darker themes of this second book.

The plot centres around the theft by a sort of evil monk-sorceror person, from Yaztromo’s tower, of a scroll which is needed to free an uber-demon from the rock that it’s imprisoned in. Having stolen said scroll, the miscreant acolyte frees the uber-baddie’s four secondary demons (also imprisoned in a sort of Stonehenge thing) en route to releasing the main demon himself from a mountain. All pretty simple plot-wise, with none of the elaborate war/dimension-jumping/inter-wizard antagonism of The Trolltooth Wars. Indeed, the plot progresses at a more leisurely (but still urgent-feeling) pace and is basically a pursuit of the sorceror/four released demons in a bid to reach the prison-rock of the main demon without a) too many innocent bystanders getting their souls stolen by the demons, and b) the main demon getting released before Darkmane arrives to prevent it (and the inevitable destruction of the world.) So, the plot of Demonstealer is far more akin to a standard FF gamebook plot and this gives it a more claustrophobic and “adventure-like” feel to it, which does work in the sense that these novels are intended to be taken in the FF context. Along the way there are several fairly gruesome killings of various people whilst the four demons hunt for fresh bodies to move around in (one ends up drawing the short straw and having to be a cart-horse at one point, which is a nice touch of dark humour) and Darkmane acquires his sidekick as a direct result of the sidekick wanting revenge on his friend’s having been killed for a shell to house a demon, so there’s some good plot coherence and understandable motives for the reader to sympathise with. In The Trolltooth Wars it was sometimes hard to work out if you were meant to root for Balthus Dire or Zharradan Marr or the fairly obnoxious Darkmane at times, but there is no blurring of the roles in Demonstealer – you are clearly backing the goodies in this book. Plus, Darkmane seems less arrogant (due to the playing-down of Amanour) and therefore is easier to will on to defeat the demons. An interesting point is that far more is made of Darkmane’s dislike of sorcery and there is a pivotal moment where he has to swallow his pride and read the incantation from the all-important scroll, otherwise the main demon will be freed - this is a neat bit of character-development, not dissimilar to the way Luke Skywalker is rather impetuous and naive in Star Wars, but then matures as he becomes more self-aware in The Empire Strikes Back. I like this as it helps the reader/viewer warm to initially slightly annoying characters as they become more experienced adventurers.

So the plot here is far less ambitious than the first novel, but in some ways works better as it feels far more like a FF gamebook would. Plus, Demonstealer has the benefit of being Part 2 of the series so has less to prove to a sceptical audience who expect FF to be a game, not a suspicious-looking attempt at expanding a franchise. There are still various obstacles for Darkmane to negotiate along the way, but the focus here on the end-goal is always very clear. There are no big set-pieces other than the climax, which makes the climax feel far more, erm, climactic than Trolltooth’s catalogue of big events/site-seeing trip around Allansia approach. The final scene of the book where Darkmane is faced with the demon on the mountain is actually quite disturbing (as are the body-snatching attacks along the way) and you do get the feeling that the mission is doomed to fail as the demons are always one step ahead of Darkmane. This adds to the darker tone, but also adds to the impact on the reader, so it works well. There is also continuity from the first novel due to Demonstealer beginning with Darkmane in R&R at Yaztromo’s tower, recovering from the wounds he incurred in his “all-or-nothing” suicidal jump from the Galleykeep at the end of the first novel. Coherence and series-linking is always nice to see in the FF “cycle” as a whole and, as the series was developing into a huge-scale body of work with a by-now fully-established Tokien-esque back-story (in Gascoigne’s Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World), it would have made little sense for this book not to continue in the same vein. It even adds another element of back-story when we discover something about Yaztromo’s past in the context of his having imprisoned the demons in the first place – so he was a proper wizard after all, rather than a doddery old fool who sells you useless “magical” junk in The Forest Of Doom and teaches you far from essential spells in Temple Of Terror.

Art-wise, this book has one of my all-time favourite FF covers and it really sets the tone of the novel with its blacks and reds. Thankfully, Gascoigne’s writing matches the cover perfectly and the tone is consistent and well-suited to the plot throughout the book. A really nice moment comes when we are treated to a performance of a popular Allansian ballad - this really adds to the medieval atmosphere of FF and is yet another layer to the FF folklore that Gascoigne is key in documenting. Sadly, although I’m a fan of Russ Nicholson’s art, the internal incidental art lends very little to this book and the tone would probably have been better-suited to having no internal art at all – but that would hardly fit in with the identity of FF and how FF books “work”, and it doesn’t detract any from the immersion into this novel. It must be said, though, that this novel is written in a more adult manner so internal art is not necessary in this sense.

As this book moves at a less frenetic pace than The Trolltooth Wars and is linear rather than flitting from location to location and scene to scene, it is far easier to pick up and put down and be read in a more casual manner as it is very easy to keep up with Demonstealer’s plot flow. That’s not to say that it doesn’t make for a satisfying cover-to-cover read in one sitting, because it does and is very easy to read, but it is definitely easier to break away from the action and return for another sitting without losing the feel of the novel.

In summary, this is another really good FF novel and is so different from the first that it encourages you to finish it and move onto the third FF novel to see what variety and/or surprises that can offer...