Sunday 20 April 2014

The Land Of Changes


Ruth Pracy

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The second part of Warlock reader Ruth Pracy’s trilogy that started with the snowbound and slightly mystical The Floating City was published in Warlock #11. Set this time around in the interim area that links the first part’s Winter with the final part’s Summer, this adventure takes place in what is basically little more than a forest that lurches violently between Spring and Autumn environments. This transformation process is known as “The Changing” and the intro goes to great lengths to make out how dangerous and unpleasant an experience getting caught up in the middle of The Changing can be. In keeping with the first adventure’s opening spiel, it also pompously sets the scene for what actually seems like quite an intriguing descent into the unknown. Unfortunately, this second instalment is rather weaker than the first (which was functional, but certainly no masterpiece) and is probably one of the least interesting short subjects to be published in Warlock magazine overall.

Unusually for FF, you are given the opportunity to carry over your (presumably victorious) character from the first part, but this presents several issues. Firstly, do you assume that you are fully healed following the rest period that the intro mentions and that you qualify for the full complement of potions and provisions that the rules tell you you have, or do you re-use your previous character in the exact condition that he/she finished Part One? Following on from this quandary, this adventure can be played using either FF or D&D systems. This is a nice idea as Warlock was keen to promote role-playing in general in its later editions as opposed to just being a FF magazine as it was in its early days, and this gives you options for how you wish to approach the mechanics of your adventurer. On the downside, using D&D rules totally precludes you from using your previous character and takes away any sense of continuity between the first and second parts of the story, plus using D&D rules makes the adventure less involving as there are some situations where only FF rule users can gain or be penalised in stat terms making the FF approach feel more nuanced than the D&D route (especially with Luck adjustments.) I suppose as well that the usual problem of how to handle dying comes into play here – if you die in Part Two do you go all the way back to the beginning of Part One again, or do you just carry on from the start of TLoC without having to go through a full re-tread to get back where you are? (I’d imagine most would plump for the latter.)

A criticism of Part One was its sometimes clumsy construction, and that is certainly the case again here, even if this time around you are allowed to eat without being instructed by the text (which is good as this means that you can actually eat this time!):
  • ·         The rules mention testing your Skill or Stamina, but nowhere in the text are you required to do either of these (I can find 8 Luck test sections, but that’s it)
  • ·         The true path (and most of the false ones) are all very short, meaning there are several multi-paragraph episodes that could easily be cut down into one making the adventure take up half as many sections whilst still being exactly the same
  • ·         There are lots of typos and textual inconsistencies, including a shambolic opening ramble that states “who knows where you came from”, then, er, promptly tells you exactly where you came from
  • ·        It’s probably a proof-reading problem (and Warlock certainly had plenty of these!), but the punctuation in this adventure is insane, with rogue commas in particular turning up all over the place, making it read very awkwardly and disjointedly – an adventure should be fast-moving and vivid to draw you in, not such a grammatical mess that you spend as much time trying to understand the sentences as you do trying to feel like this is happening to you
  • ·         Due to the messy structure and lack of play-testing, there is an additional (and I suspect quite important) alternate (“failure”) ending (paragraph 72) that you cannot reach as it has no linking section, but does result in you finishing up in the Summer lands, which is where you are trying to get to

The flip-side of the Pracy-esque cons is the nicer touches that she also always includes in her adventures:
  • ·         You need to gain allies and behave yourself even more in this adventure than in Part One, and the psychotic approach is very much discouraged in favour of using some intelligence to negotiate the key moments and choose your moves wisely
  • ·         The true path is not as easy to find this time around (and there is only one as far as I can tell), even if it is disappointingly brief when you do finally figure it out
  • ·         You need several items again this time and they can be quite tricky to get hold of (until you figure out how to ingratiate yourself with the locals)
  • ·         The interesting feature of “non-win” endings is used again here where you achieve a “victory” of sorts but not the desired outcome, which does encourage you to try to find the optimum ending, although several of these are rather obscurely sign-posted and you will have to make some 50/50 calls that will lead to either victory or failure without you really understanding why
  • ·         A particularly neat inclusion is that you can acquire a horn that allows you to escape instantly from the entire forest in various moments of peril. OK, it’s just another way to get to more “non-win, but alive” endings, but it’s an interesting concept

Whilst your actual mission is simply to safely reach your homeland (Summer), the real point of this instalment is to meet a Moss Maiden who gives you your mission for Part Three and tells you that you are the chosen one who has to find the fabled Lost Land. You have to prove that you are the person she seeks and you do this by generally behaving yourself and making a couple of correct key choices at the right testing moments as mentioned above. In adventuring terms though, this means that nothing much happens on the true path other than you accepting the mission for Part Three and this adventure is basically just a fairly mundane bridge between The Floating City and In Search Of The Lost Land. Even the much-advertised “Changing” only happens on the incorrect routes and, whilst it is disorientating and its description does make you feel as sick as your character is meant to feel, it’s a bit of a let-down that you aren’t actually meant to witness it, even if the opening section’s warning is probably intended to alert you to the fact that the true path avoids it.

Similarly, of the always imaginative (and unpronounceable) unique encounters included here (and these are a big plus of RP’s FFs), two can only be found by going the wrong way (the very tough windy beast called a Mazzamarieddu, and the Fechan), whilst the true path is dominated by the Moss Maiden and a group of mischievous but actually very helpful dwarf spin-offs called Brownies (and their evil cousin, the Redcap, which is described as horrific but just looks cute in its picture.) There is also a potentially intriguing encounter with the Gwyllion late on, which provides another challenge, but you might just be starting to get fed up of this adventure's mental tests by this time.

Other than the tough battle with the Mazzamarieddu (which you might as well try to lose as you’ve already lost the game if you’ve met it anyway), the main challenge in this adventure is to make the correct non-kill choices and find the ultimate ending by using your intelligence rather than your sword-arm. There are two excessively harsh moments, one involving an aging curse where you lose 3 Skill and 6 Stamina permanently, the other being a pillar with a choice of four runes where three will lead to instant deaths (including the one you seem to have been told is the right one), but otherwise most of the failures are through finding a survival ending other than the one on paragraph 200, which is a refreshing change for FF even if there are rather a lot of non-win outcomes in this adventure.

As was generally the case with later Warlock mini-adventures, the magazine’s cover image is nothing to do with what is going on here, but Pete Martin’s art within the adventure itself is really good, being full-framed, atmospheric and very highly-detailed, which is especially helpful as the encounters here are mostly unique to this adventure. The key items you need make up the bulk of the incidental between-text smaller images, but this adds flavour and gives you useful hints for when you have failed umpteen times and are trying to work out exactly what you need to find to beat this mission. I am pleased to say that Pracy’s text is less curt this time around, there is much more dialogue (especially with the Moss Maiden), and you do not feel quite so insulted when you make a bad choice.

Despite having some nice touches (especially the art, the need to use your brain, and a sense of environmentalism), there is so little actually going on here that it does make this a rather empty experience if played in isolation. As an interlude between the other two parts of the story it works fine, but it is just too short on substance to be considered an adventure in its own right. If The Floating City captured your imagination, then it’s worth carrying on with the story, but this just does not stand up on its own.

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