Sunday 2 March 2014

Dungeon Of Justice


Jonathan Ford

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Following the publication of Warlock magazine’s “Write a short FF” competition winner (The Dervish Stone) in Warlock Issue 4, its runner-up, Dungeon Of Justice, was printed in Issue 5. Whilst TDS was a town/desert effort, DOJ is a more traditional dungeon trawl (unsurprisingly, given its title) that has as many if not, in fact, more merits than the submission that actually won.

The premise is an unusual one for FF, even if it has been used umpteen times for Sci-Fi movies, in that YOU are wrongly accused of murdering an Elven Chief and must undertake a trial by ordeal to determine your innocence or guilt in the aggrieved Elves’ eyes. YOU must enter the titular Dungeon Of Justice, hunt around for a gold idol, then reach the exit in one piece. Get there with the idol and you are judged to be innocent as only the truly virtuous would be able to find the idol, but arrive without it and you are toast as you are clearly guilty (according to their legal system, at least.) Pretty interesting idea as, for once, you are not glory/treasure hunting or saving the world from the latest in a series of homicidal maniacs. Considering that the competition winner did involve treasure hunting, you’d have thought DOJ would have edged it in terms of originality, but obviously not... As this is an early FF the basic rules are used, but with the common Warlock variant of having only five Provisions and carrying two rather than one dose of your chosen Potion. Plus, the Adventure Sheet seems to be green for some reason.

Considering that this is a 200 paragraph effort, an incredible amount of material is crammed into the reduced number of sections and the dungeon is actually very large when mapped. There are a myriad of different directions you can go in, some longer than others, some criss-crossing into others, and some heading off into more exclusive areas, so replay options are many, especially if you want to see everything, and it’s worth the effort doing so regardless of whether you have already beaten it as there is a lot of imagination on show here. It is probably fair to say that Ian Livingstone’s first Trial Of Champions foray in FF #6 Deathtrap Dungeon is the benchmark by which all FF dungeons should be measured given the sheer variety of physical traps, mental challenges, combats, item-seeking, rival players, etc, but Dungeon Of Justice holds up pretty well considering it is a fan-written effort and is half the length in section terms.

Firstly, this dungeon is pretty dangerous and there are some very entertaining ways to die - slipping into a furnace, falling into a bottomless pit, getting eaten by baby birds, falling foul of (ahem) “false idols”, etc and this is another example of a FF where it’s worth dying just to read the lengthy descriptions of your own demise! Secondly, some encounters are unique and can only be seen in this adventure - the Xlaia (a two-headed rabid dog with solid gold claws) and the unusually weak and undignified (for Dragons) Mud Dragons are interesting, but my favourite is a moment where you have to fight your own reflection which exactly duplicates your stats bar a -1 Stamina penalty that it suffers due to the effort involved in changing from 2D to 3D (very inventive justification.) Along the way you can run into other individuals who are also being judged (with the mixed results that would be expected in terms of helpfulness or otherwise) and this adds colour to the idea that this form of justice is common practise and that “participants” can spend years roaming around the twisting and turning corridors trying to find a) the idol and b) the way out. An interesting point to note on this is the way certain areas will send you to other parts of the dungeon that do not map out logically – is this intentional to create a maze effect and disorientate you the more you wander around aimlessly or are there bugs in the text that just send you to the wrong paragraph? It would be easy to write this off as the latter option but there is a possibility that this is intentional design as it adds depth to the whole concept of finding people who have been stuck in there for years. We all know FFs are notorious for wrongly inter-connecting sections, but it seems to fit in this case and this adventure seems too well-rendered for there to be such glaring continuity errors.

A welcome inclusion is several red herrings (and the opening spiel does warn about these) including a seemingly essential three-part door combination, a gold key, and an illusory version of the gold idol. It is nice to see such obviously useful finds turning out to not be the sole answers to life and death and, whilst there are some essential items, the shopping list for the true path is thankfully not all that long. However, actually finding the gold idol really is very difficult - I mapped the whole dungeon and still hadn’t found it, leaving me to have to resort to reading each paragraph in turn, then tracing the section links back to a point that I’d located previously - even if the route to it is rather convoluted: you need to throw yourself (probably quite counter-intuitively) into a river, then FAIL a Skill test, and finally PASS a Luck test to get washed up at the point where the idol is hidden. This presents an interesting situation in that this adventure partially meets the usually wildly inaccurate claim that you can win an adventure even with rock-bottom stats. A high Skill is of very little use as you will struggle to fail the essential Skill test in the river, plus most combats are fairly easy and a lot of them can be avoided completely. There are a lot of Stamina penalties (mostly for stupid acts like throwing yourself down things) but these are semi-avoidable with a couple of key items (the Cloak Of Levitation is particularly important) and some common sense. Luck tests are common so a high Luck is handy, but with two possible Potions Of Fortune, plus a chance find that stops your Luck ever dropping below six, you could probably get through on nowse and learning from several previous failed attempts alone, even if you have crap stats.

The handling of the idol discovery itself seems oddly dismissive. Finding either of the handy keys (gold or iron), the door combination or, in particular, a (useless) big ruby, is met with a verbal fanfare, but the idol is mentioned in its paragraph in an off-hand way and you could be forgiven for skimming over it and not even realising what you have found. You don’t even get a Luck bonus for finding the idol. This is something of an anti-climax, especially when you’ve narrowly-avoided drowning to get to where it’s hidden, but it could suggest that, as you know you are innocent, finding it is inevitable (maybe?)

The sheer scale of this dungeon makes finding the true path a tough task (although you can take a few different routes as long as you hit the key sections on the way) and 14 of the 200 sections of this adventure are instant deaths which seems high but dungeons are always especially difficult to negotiate so this suits the genre and is acceptable. Any less deadly moments and this would have been too easy as a) this is a dungeon, and b) this is intended to kill all but those with genuinely clear consciences, so it makes sense at least.

For a non-professional FF, this is very well written with long descriptive paragraphs that set the scene atmospherically. If there were a criticism of the prose it would be that your character seems a little arrogant at times, especially in the final (victory) section where you just shrug your shoulders and wander off in search of treasure again. Are you like this because you know you are innocent so never had anything to worry about? Is this bravado to show the Elves that you are not phased by their deadly trial? Or, has the writer assumed that, as you’ve won, you don’t want to be bogged down in descriptions of your relief as you gush with positive emotion? Whatever the explanation, almost all of this adventure does feel like an oppressive and unfair ordeal that you are unlikely to survive so it works for me in that the context and approach mesh nicely.

Alignment of image to paragraph text in Warlock’s A4 format is always a problem with these mini-FFs but in this case (barring the full page images) the pictures have been put next to the corresponding descriptions to give you an idea of what you are looking at. The art is by Bob Harvey whose work I do not like generally, but his pictures here are not as stylised as usual and, discounting his ridiculously pygmy-ish Elves, are passable. Warlock often matched the colour cover art to the featured mini-FF and for Issue 5 the Mud Dragon graces the cover which is atypically subdued and very dark and murky. As a cover this is too understated for my tastes, but it does accurately reflect the dark cavern that the Mud Dragons live in, plus these are a very unique species that we might not normally be able to visualise so it works as a cover for the adventure better than it does as a magazine front.

For me this adventure is better than the one that it came second to in the competition. Both make very effective use of the shortened length and fit a large amount of material in, but DOJ seems more logical, is more challenging, has more to discover and, most pertinently, is a million times more original as no mention of Harrison Ford or George Lucas was needed in this review! A good effort in spite of its weak title that makes it sound like a cheap S&M porn movie.

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