Tuesday 25 February 2014

The Dervish Stone


Paul Struth

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Issue 1 of Warlock magazine ran a competition where readers were asked to submit a 200 paragraph FF adventure using the basic rules from The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, the prize for the lucky winner being £100 cash (quite a lot in 1984) and the publication of their adventure in the magazine. The winner was this submission by Paul Struth which would be the featured mini-adventure in Warlock number 4 and, in spite of some glaring plagiarism from the George Lucas back catalogue, it’s actually quite a decent way to pass an hour or so.

The premise itself is simple in the spirit of WOFM’s mercenary treasure hunting vein. A dervish called Shanhara once found a massive diamond and hid it in a secret, booby-trapped location that everyone then forgot how to find. YOU have stumbled across a parchment instructing you to go and find the diamond and YOU cannot resist, so off YOU go. The trip itself begins in yet another typical Titan town with the usual inn, chance to buy stuff, etc, followed by the bulk being a trek across the Twin Suns Desert to locate and negotiate the cave where the diamond is hidden.

The idea of a desert with “twin suns” brings to mind Tattooine in Star Wars and the sheer number of references (nay, blatant thefts) from not only Star Wars, but also Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Flash Gordon make up the bulk of the key moments in this adventure, which, whilst fun, can get repetitive and is frankly corny:
  • ·         From Star Wars we get: Twin Suns on a desert wasteland, use of a Jedi mind trick to get past the authorities, a cantina bar moment where even the dialogue about “he doesn’t like you... neither do I” (which I paraphrase, unlike Struth!) is stolen, encountering a Sandcrawler (which is at least a creature this time, not the Jawas’ mobile robot emporium), and a lengthy (and fairly lethal) episode over a carnivorous pit in the desert which is clearly a Saarlak (stolen, for a bit of variety, from Return Of The Jedi rather than Star Wars!)
  • ·         Lifted from Raiders is the entire final section’s trap network within the Lost Cave Of The Dervishes itself: a pedestal that needs weighting to avoid triggering traps, a crossbow bolt trap, a big stone door that slides down on you, and, most blatant of all, a big stone ball that chases you down a corridor
  • ·         The Flash Gordon steals are only marginally more subtle (I emphasize the word ”marginally”), with a trial that involves sticking your hand in various holes and seeing if something nasty stings you (ie Prince Barin’s world) and a ride across the desert on Griffins that sort of echoes Prince Vultan’s Hawkmen

Given that most of the interesting moments are made up of the above, you might expect this to be dull beyond all possibility, but it is not and the atmosphere of oppressive and relentless sand and heat, along with a feeling that you really are just wandering aimlessly into a yellow abyss, are very well put across. The desert meanders in various directions (many of which lead to you dying of exposure) although the deeper into it you get, the easier it is to survive, as the instant death sections are the same two over and over (due to the limited number of paragraphs available) so you get used to recognising their numbers and going in the other direction when they are offered. It will take several attempts to make any real progress though, plus the showdown with Kuperan (a hitherto unseen Fire Giant creature type) is really pretty tough, both within his lair and then flying over the Saarlak equivalent whilst trying to stay on a Griffin, so there is much to encourage replay. Numerous nomads and another unique creature type (Laupers – a desert catperson) add variety along the way as some are hostile and some can help you, which all adds up to quite a bit being crammed into a small number of paragraphs and Struth has done well to get as much fun stuff in as he does.

The opening town (Alaysian) is not as involved or as well-designed as the desert, but it does give a prologue to the main event and adds colour (literally) and variety to what would otherwise just be a hot and dangerous slog in the desert. Plus, you can get to tackle a fairly scenery-chewing loony in Alaysian, should you feel inclined, although the town serves mainly to help you buy the items you will need later on.

In terms of difficulty, this adventure is very varied, being weighted neither in your favour nor against you. Instant failures are reserved for the desert and the two main set pieces (the two-part Kuperan episode and the final cave full of traps) which avoids any early disappointments and lets you get a decent handle on what is involved to help with subsequent attempts. Most of the combats (barring two in particular) are very easy and most of your foes are very weak, plus combat only happens in logically necessary situations ie with stupidly aggressive foes or in important moments where you would expect to fight for your life. In the later stages there are a lot of Luck and Skill tests (including a jumbled one where Skill and Stamina get mixed together, if you happen to spot this) so you will not complete the final part without a high Luck score, although this balances out against a lot of opportunities to gain Luck points, including one where you are awarded a Luck point when it’s not actually been possible to lose any Luck yet (ditto, two different Skill bonuses)! Likewise, you start with 20 Gold Pieces, are immediately given another 20 (if you interpret the text that way) and can get lots more, although only the starting 20/40 GPs are of any actual use to you as you need these to buy all the useful items in Alaysian. A further unusually generous move (especially for a 200 section short, although it does replicate the double dose in WOFM and is not unusual for Warlock magazine short FFs) is that your standard-issue Potion that you select at the start contains two doses, although you might need both to raise your Luck or Skill sufficiently.

Due to the A4 format of Warlock magazine, this adventure does suffer from a problem associated with all this magazine’s mini-FFs in that some sections offer moves to sections that are on the same page which does encourage cheating a bit. The only way to realistically avoid this would have been to position these paragraphs on different pages (and, conversely, some numerical distance apart), but this is just a minor criticism of the structure and it doesn’t detract from playability or enjoyment. I suspect there are also some inaccessible wasted sections that you can’t actually access due to your always having certain items otherwise you would not have survived that far but, again, you don’t notice this as long as you don’t read every paragraph or are curious to see what would happen in the other (impossible) scenario.

It is worth taking a moment to assess how successful this adventure was in satisfying the brief to win and to see whether this was chosen on its fun appeal or its meeting the criteria of the competition:

·         ”Using the same system as WOFM” – just about, other than the opening Gold
·         “Design a game of 200 references” – check
·         “An exciting and original background” – you are as greedy and self-satisfying as you are in WOFM so it’s not original, but it is interesting enough to make you want to play it
·         “perhaps a jungle or a desert wasteland” – taken literally, it’s a desert wasteland!
·         “A mission to find somebody or something” – check, you find somebody AND something
·         “make it sound believable” – the desert is very well executed
·         “present a real challenge” – it’s tough when it needs to be, but is not overly hard

All things considered then, the brief was met and this should have been a worthy contender, but the sheer amount of idea theft (especially at a time when Star Wars and Indiana Jones were still very recent) works against its originality, even if it does not detract from the overall enjoyment.

The cover of Warlock number 4 depicts the Griffin riding section of the mission and is lovely to look at with its colourful presentation. The incidental art in the text is by House Of Hell’s Tim Sell who has no distinct style as such, but his humanoids tend to look like they’re melting which is a bit odd to my eye. This is hardly an issue, though, as the images are often nowhere near their respective paragraphs so it’s hard to make the involving connection with the art that you would in a gamebook format anyway.

For a first non-SJ/IL magazine offering this is certainly no masterpiece, but it’s still fun and atmospheric to play. Credit has to be given for such effective use of a limited number of sections and there’s plenty of material to keep you interested. As it’s short it can be played through quickly and is far from dull. If only the best moments had any shred of originality to them...

1 comment:

  1. I dunno, I can recognise Tim Sell's style a mile away and being such a fan of House of Hell I find it a shame that the only other gamebook he illustrated was the universally mocked Sky Lord!