Monday, 28 July 2014

#23: Masks Of Mayhem


Robin Waterfield

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Robin Waterfield’s second FF was his first medieval offering (his first book, #18 Rebel Planet being a Sci-Fi outing) and was still only the fourth book in the series to be set in Khul. Opinion amongst the fan community always seems to have been polarised over this book – some love it, some intensely despise it, and it is true that there is certainly a lot of great material here as well as there being many valid reasons to hate it.

The plot puts you in the role of the King or Queen (the intro cleverly uses the term “ruler” to avoid any gender bias) of Arion in north-east Khul. Your sidekick wizard, Ifor Tynin, summons you (again, a thoughtful piece of writing points out that his knowledge of magic makes him your equal, otherwise being summoned by a subordinate would be peculiar) and tells you that the fell sorceress Morgana is planning on wreaking widespread havoc by unleashing eleven undead golems on the world. But there’s more to it than this as each golem wears a mask she has made using each of eleven special sigils that hold the keys to power over everything. She now only needs the twelfth sigil (the “one ring to rule them all” then) and she will be able to control her creations. Your job is to find and kill her before she gets hold of sigil #12. Confused? You probably will be, but there is so much to the plot as it unravels throughout the book that you can’t help but give credit to RW for creating such a thorough concept and this is definitely one of the densest FF storylines around. The people of Arion have a very small-town mentality and no-one ever bothers to venture far (not even you, so presumably there are never any diplomatic trips to anywhere else) meaning you really are stepping into oblivion. There is a map of the area, but, other than knowing the general direction you want to go in, what lies ahead is a frightening mystery. In plot terms, what lies ahead is a trek across various terrains (forest, hills, marsh, plain, river, icy mountains – so, most of the possible options, really), meeting several key NPCs who can help you in your task, collecting numerous often incredibly well-hidden items, and, most intriguingly, discovering that you actually have the twelfth sigil on your helmet meaning it was all a big ruse to lure you to Morgana’s lair. Plus, there’s a traitor added to the mix who is actually in league with her. Overall, this FF has a plot that is logical (if you can keep up with it all), is surprising, and is genuinely well-planned.

As an adventure, the number of different environments makes for a very varied experience and there is intelligence on show both in terms of the writing and of the design to it all that makes it rise above just being a bog-standard medieval journey type of adventure. Effectively, it can be broken down into a series of cameos, but they are all equally interesting and some are very perilous. You start with the choice of a forest or hills (we won’t count the third option of trying to cross Lake Nekros as that kills you instantly if you pick it) then you descend into a disused mine as you try to reach Fallow Dale en route to Castle Hever where you need to rendez-vous with another King to get him to give you his Horn, which you are told is an essential to success. He asks you to undertake a side mission (catching a Sabre-Toothed Tiger for him) which is a fun diversion played out on a grid map where rolling the die progressively determines what direction your hunting dogs go in and then what the tiger does. From here you cross the Pikestaff Plain where a very interesting and unusual mechanic comes into play whereby whether you choose to follow some ants around for a bit or not then unlocks a slightly different turn of events – I like this as it is nice to see an attempt being made to subvert linearity in FFs. Then follows a real killer when you get caught in a bush-fire and it can take several attempts to beat this section as you burn to death horribly over and over. Next is a ravine/river part which hides one of the hardest to find and most important items in the book, then there is an optional trip into the lovely-sounding Marsh Vile, another lethal section where any false move leads to death, but it is possible to be given the solution to surviving the marsh by talking to someone just before you enter, even if the true path through it turns out not to be exactly what you are told. Finally, you enter the snow-capped mountain range of Krill Garnash which is Morgana’s domain. Negotiating the Affen Forest section takes a bit of thought as you encounter some particularly wary and astute Elves, the mine can be bit disorientating as you have to double-back on yourself, and the river part is a nightmare designed to make you fail. Whilst the bush-fire and Marsh Vile do make sense in their lethal-ness, it can get frustrating as you fail to get through each one umpteen times. The really key cameos involve having to find hidden paragraphs (by turning to sections you have previously been told about or, more often, by multiplying or adding section numbers to/with various numbers of things you have found) and RW takes the hidden paragraph-ary to all new levels as there are so many numerical challenges at make or break points that it can become quite demoralising if you manage to beat the first handful only to be faced with yet another one seemingly ad nauseum. RW loves extremely complex mathematical concepts in his FFs (Rebel Planet has its very tough binary code solution and the end of Deathmoor makes you do probably the most complicated calculation that I’ve ever seen in a FF book) but Masks Of Mayhem’s over-reliance on this really takes it a bit too far and it does get slightly soul-destroying, especially in the glade where you find Vashti which puts you through a relentless catalogue of number-crunching exercises. OK, so this is all intended to make cheating impossible and to give a more satisfying challenge level, but taking it to this extreme also makes winning practically impossible too! The final insult comes right at the end where you have to identify who the traitor is before they literally stab you in the back. The clues to the traitor’s identity are so subtle as to be near non-existent and you are not even explicitly told that you need to do any particular sums or whatever with the relevant character’s name even if you can figure it out - the solution is "40" from his name "I-forty-nin" but it's unlikely many people will ever guess it as it's so obscure. It is possible to make a lucky guess as to what to do, but it is more likely that most people will just give up out of frustration (or despair at having to do yet more maths) at this point, which is a shame given the general quality of the adventure as a whole.

But it’s not just the maths and sheer volume of number clues that you have to find that make this seem rather oppressive in its difficulty: the amount of testing of both Skill and Luck that you have to contend with is excessive, especially as failure will almost always lead to death; there are two different stages where your Provisions’ restorative value is reduced to +3 Stamina rather than the usual +4 which, coupled with the ridiculous number of times you are forced to eat or suffer the consequences (ok, the mission lasts several days so this does make sense in context, but any suggestion of freedom to use your Provisions when you feel inclined is lost completely) seems a little unfair; and, the “essential” Horn of Hever (the focus of the first part of the mission) is actually pretty useless and makes no difference to your eventual success, plus the seemingly very handy Skill advantage it gives you against evil foes hardly ever does anything as most of what you fight is specifically stated to not be evil.

On the other hand, combats in general are not especially difficult (even the Ice Dragon only has Sk 10 St 14 which is very weak for a Dragon) and only the really strong creatures and foes have Staminas in double-figures, but the Giant Blood-sucking Spider does seem overly-strong for an insect type with St 14 (ie the same as the Dragon!) Morgana herself is very weak (for an end baddie) with Sk 11 St 6, although the book does explain that she is frail but highly-skilled in magic so this is a good bit of planning. A bigger gesture towards helping the player out a little bit is that this book uses the traditional FF rules with no extra stats and you start out with the basic equipment, 10 Provisions, and a choice of the three standard Potions (Skill, Strength or Fortune.) Given how many Luck tests you are faced with, the best choice by far is the Fortune Potion (as long as you start with a decent Skill score, of course) and the extra point it gives will prove very useful. Stats-wise, this book cannot realistically be beaten without both Skill and Luck in double-figures, plus a decent Stamina score will get you through all the eating-related moments and the parts where you have no choice but to take damage.

Clearly then, this book is noticeably weighted against the player and this is no more so apparent than through the sheer number of instant deaths (I count 40-plus and some can be reached from more than one section), some through failing Skill or Luck tests, but the majority seem quite irrational eg: just wandering off into the mist never to be seen again, or getting arbitrarily eaten by things. After a while, taking a wrong turn and instantly dying all the time becomes very wearing and repetitive, which is at odds with the really well designed plot and adventure elements. It is in fact possible to die after your first choice (three paragraphs in), which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Whilst there is some variety to the route you can take (you can choose to do the forest and the marsh or not bother with either or both and it won’t affect you too much) and the “ant following or not” episode offers variations on a set of outcomes, the vast majority of this book is very linear with the emphasis being far too much on collecting several very hard-to-find items, not losing your helmet (difficult in the river section), and, most fun-destroying by far, having to collect way too many number clues.

Were it not for its extreme harshness, this could have been one of the best “out-and-about” epic trek FFs ever as its depth of plotting, its two shock revelations, and its ability to maintain the interest through vivid descriptions, variety of events, and genuine sense of a voyage of discovery as you pass through areas that were only known to you by name and reputation, all ought to amount to a brilliant book. If you were to strike it lucky and find the true path after only a handful of playthroughs (thus avoiding most of the umpteen unfair instant deaths that blight the book), meaning you mostly are exposed only to the excellent design, rather than to RW’s cruelty to the player, then you would happily accept this as a brilliant FF. Sadly, it is so hard that the more times you play means the more times and ways that you will die, and, even after beating one part, you will probably only wind up dead shortly afterwards, especially as the bush-fire is followed quickly by the river and then a few sections later you might have to deal with Marsh Vile. In other words, the feeling that the good parts were wasted by making it so unfair will get the better of your wanting to think that this is brilliant sooner or later.

I am a big fan of Waterfield’s vivid descriptions and the effort he usually (the dismal Deathmoor excepted) puts into creating a believable and thorough world in which his adventures play-out and the writing here is mostly above average, even if some of the deaths make no sense when you think about them and paragraph 400 is the kind of thing Andrew Chapman or Luke Sharp would be embarrassed to write it’s so short and anti-climactic, especially given the epic scale and sheer difficulty of what you’ve gone through to get there. A really big plus of his effort in this book is the imaginative creature design and there are some unusual and intriguing inclusions here such as the Blackhearts (evil Elves that you thought were extinct), the Spriggan (hideous overweight fairies), the Doragar (Orc-Troll crosses bred for hard labour tasks), and two mutations of more familiar creatures, the Chion and the Ice Hulk. All these add to the idea that Khul and Allansia have their own distinct races and species which makes Khul seem very different to Allansia, when it could so easily have just been a clone where non-IL/SJ FFs were set, which would have been a shame.

A real plus-point in this book is Russ Nicholson’s art. He has really excelled himself in places 
with this one and some of his best internal art is on show. If you get fed up of dying all the time, the art will hold up in itself and he mixes the style seen in his early FFs with a darker-looking more intricate approach in places, making this a really nice selection of varied art that shows nuances such as day and night or intelligence/stupidity of encounters very well. John Sibbick’s cover focuses on one of the Golems which, whilst they are part of the main purpose of your mission, only actually get one paragraph given to them of actual adventure so it is useful to be able to visualise them via the cover. There’s an elemental earthiness to the cover image and the weird all-important sigil is highlighted so the cover ultimately complements the plot and adds another layer of richness in your being able to “see” what is happening.

Masks Of Mayhem is not an easy book to summarise. Its design and ongoing interest make it a winner, but RW’s total disregard for player enjoyment due to it simply being unfair also makes it very hard not to get fed-up with it. This should have been a great book, but sadly it just ends up being frustrating. Appreciate the superlative plot and the art, but hate the fact that death or not finding enough number clues will get boring after a while. This deserved to be so much better...

Thursday, 10 July 2014

#25: Beneath Nightmare Castle


Peter Darvill-Evans

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Book #25 in the original series is something of a turning-point. It was the first to be released with the gold dragon cover and was the last one I got on initial release. I don’t know whether the move from the iconic green zigzag cover design did for me, or if I was just moving onto other things then, but it would be several years before I would return to the series. Stylistically and thematically this was a major swing and heralded what was to come in the more adventurous books from the 30s and (especially) the 40s parts of the series. This was the first “what the hell is going on?” book, where you really have no idea what you are trying to achieve until you start to play. Previously, the FF books’ premises were laid-out on a plate and the point was basically just to win, rather than to figure the mystery out and then win. Here the notion is introduced of gradually unravelling a mystery and allowing the story to develop as you explore, rather than submerging yourself in a pre-defined idea (although a key NPC encounter early on can tell you everything you really need to know and also that you are a “chosen one” figure.) It is also the first genuinely dark and often disturbing FF book. Granted, #10 House Of Hell was quite frightening, but in an Old Dark House, Grand Guignol sense. The terror is presented in a rather more unsettling fashion in BNC, and there are some very warped recurring motifs and regular use of repulsion-inducing terms such as “protoplasm”, “slime”, “tentacles”, “ooze”, “acid”, and “glutinous”. Also, the instant deaths are presented in unusually long (for deaths) paragraphs that relish in describing in graphic detail exactly how horribly you are dying. Some have suggested that this is a full-on Horror genre piece, but I disagree – this is still Fantasy writing, but in its darkest, Call Of Cthulhu-esque form. There is certainly a sense of the Gothic in the exterior sequences, but the “dungeon” parts (which are the bulk of the book) are very dark Fantasy, possibly too dark for some as this book does verge on the potentially disgusting in places, but this is still Fantasy all the same. A good parallel would be with David Cronenberg films. It is too easy to simply call his movies “Horror” as they exploit a darker part of the human imagination, a sort of “Body Horror” that often involves a lot of stomach-turning slime and ooze. BNC is the FF version of a Cronenberg movie. It is the darkest kind of fantasy, too complex to be all-out Horror, but too nasty to be traditional “cosy” Tolkien fare. Put simply, there is something very interesting going on here in that FF is being moved into more adult territory that would herald the experimental and often structurally complex books that were soon to come.

The first thing that strikes the reader on embarking on this adventure is a sense that this is not going to be very easy at all. The first line of the introduction tells you that you have been captured in a net-trap which immediately puts you into a defensive position of peril. What follows is the need to get out of a prison cell, then to explore the Khul town of Neuburg and unravel whatever obvious nastiness seems to be hanging over the place. YOU play the role of a friend of the Margrave of Neuburg Keep so there is a human interest element in that you are fundamentally seeking to help an old friend out. The problem is you don’t know what it is yet that you are trying to help him out of and you need to establish what has happened to the town and then rid the town of the unknown unpleasantness. There is a malignant presence everywhere you go in the form of “Southerners” who wear desert-style robes and have partially-covered faces to add a sense of mystery. As you delve deeper you discover that they have “pets” called Blood-Lurchers which are horrific dog-abominations with tentacles and a serious bloodlust. These creatures stalk about at night which means the place is pretty much deserted after dark (all windows and doors are described as boarded-up), adding bucket-loads of atmosphere, which is both mysterious and worrying. Once you’ve explored the town you will inevitably find your way to Neuburg Keep itself which is where the adventure goes from being an atmospheric and unsettling mood piece to a genuinely disturbing goo-fest. But it does all flow logically and makes sense once you discover the nature of the source of the blight (an amorphous multi-appendaged jelly called Xakhaz.)

Given the sheer unfolding evidence of the nastiness of whatever is infesting the Keep, this book is understandably very difficult and you are set up from the word “go” as feeling rather out of your depth. It’s a sign of a tough FF that you can die at three different points in the opening half a dozen or so paragraphs (the beginning is actually extremely tough to get through on initial attempts) and there is no let-up at any stage, with instant fails/deaths around almost every corner (I count 47), numerous Luck tests that often lead to death if you fail, and the very neat inclusion of a new stat, Willpower. Unlike many additional rules in other books, the Willpower concept really adds depth to the flow of this adventure. You roll it up by rolling 1d6 and adding 6 (ie range is 7-12) and it is regularly tested once you enter the Keep in the same way Luck is tested, including deducting a point every time you test it. It works so well because it effectively controls your grip on sanity. Given the twisted imagery and hideous creatures that you face in the Keep a measure of how much it is all getting to you mentally draws you in very effectively. If your Willpower drops below 6 and you subsequently fail a Willpower test you will go bonkers instantly, and this can happen at any number of key points that either drive the main elements of the plot or that are just bloody horrible. OK, it’s very similar to Fear in House Of Hell, but it is more imaginative to lose by going mad rather than by dropping dead from fright and it feels more satisfying and appropriate in context. Whilst losing by failing a Willpower test is one of the more likely ways in which you will repeatedly find yourself having to start over, there are also four occurrences of extremely difficult tests against combined attributes, which is something rarely seen in FFs: there are two different situations that involve rolling 8d6 (yes, eight!) against your combined Skill and Stamina, a further scenario with 8d6 rolled against your combined Willpower and Stamina, and an only very slightly more forgiving roll of 5d6 against your combined Luck and Skill. The first three would give a rolled-up number range of 8-48 against a maximum combined attribute score of 36, and the marginally more lenient test gives you slightly more hope with a range of 5-36 against combined stats of maximum 24. This is an unusual idea for FF, but does come across as weighted against you.

What is quite interesting, though, is that, in spite of the very real difficulty of this book, there are some contrasting moments of generosity that make it feel fair, if undeniably very hard all the same overall:
  • ·         The rules do not mention any limit to your Skill score. Stamina, Luck and Willpower are explicitly stated as not being allowed to exceed their Initial values unless told otherwise, but Skill is not and if you can find certain helpful key items you can have a potential Skill of an incredibly high 18!
  • ·         Ditto, if you pass an “ordeal” early on, you can increase your Initial Stamina and Willpower by 2 points each
  • ·         Very few combats are especially tough and most enemies have stats under 10, meaning the usual lie about winning with poor stats is actually true here (although a high Willpower is pretty essential)
  • ·         The final baddie (Xakhaz) normally has incredibly high stats of Sk 14 St 32 which may seem interminable odds, but the Trident of Skarloz allows you to inflict -5 St damage on him in addition to the usual 2 (ie -7 per successful hit), drinking the Berserk Rage Potion ups your Skill by 4 points, and the Talisman of Loth reduces his Skill by 1, meaning, if you have all this kit, he is actually an enemy that can be killed quite easily. Plus, if you throw a green orb (bomb) at him he starts the fight with Sk 9 St 10 and then you can kill him in two attack rounds

Unusually as well (for such a hard book) is the realisation after several playthroughs that there is more than one route through this. The truest path certainly is far less dangerous, but is not very easy to find and is very tight, which makes the existence of the rather more perilous alternative routes all the more welcome and reduces the usual feeling of hopelessness that the books that lean towards the tougher end of the FF difficulty spectrum often leave you with after umpteen unsuccessful attempts. Naturally, this also adds more scope for re-playing even after completing the book and you will want to re-play this to experience as much as possible of its atmosphere and its best feature by far, its sheer inventiveness.

The majority of the encounters in this FF, especially those in the castle, are like nothing you will ever see in any other FF book and, if you can stomach them, they are well-worth seeking-out. The aforementioned tentacle-mouthed Blood-Lurchers act as an initial glimpse of the warped concepts that are to come further along, including a Snuff Hound (a hairless dog with a long nose), Chrabats (zombie mutants that look like frogmen), the Vlodbad (another multi-armed jelly that can sprout more arms each Attack Round), a Mutated Woman (the result of a viral experiment that has caused her to have, unsurprisingly, a mouthful of tentacles), the Bakk-Ruman (a legendary bat-humanoid-dog with massive blind eyes), and a crateful of animated bodyparts (with Stamina 18 as there are so many of them!) My personal favourite, however, has to be the Vitriol Essence, effectively the slimey embodiment of aggression that is not impressed at having been disturbed and does you -4 St damage with its acidic talons, which can then result in the pain driving you insane.

If all this isn’t weird/nasty enough, there are also some moments that border on being quite grim, especially the occasions where you have to ruthlessly kill children (one being the result of a failed Luck test at an early stage that more or less means you have lost much later on), an encounter in a prison cell with two people who have been infected with a disfiguring disease (the Mutated Woman and her slightly less disfigured brother) that you can potentially also catch, the amount of experimentation in general that Xakhaz has perpetrated on innocents, and the often macabre deaths that you can suffer, particularly those involving acid and/or corrosive oozes of various kinds, plus there are numerous opportunities to get executed or sacrificed.

An important point to mention, though, is that the often excessively graphic moments are off-set against a lot of very black comedy along the way. You can find a battle axe that turns you psychotic meaning you must always select the fight option if it is offered and you can never escape a combat (which can lead to killing some helpful characters by accident) although you do get a +2 Skill bonus if you have it, a Weightloss Potion that bans you from eating Provisions for the rest of the adventure, you can accidentally get turned into a tree, and/or can end-up being killed by becoming the target in the Southern “Warriors’ nightly “dropping a rock on the prisoner” game. Indeed, Peter Darvill-Evans’ writing is punctuated throughout with a wry darkly-humorous tone and he makes every effort to add as much depth and colour to his descriptive passages as possible (even if it does emphasise the nastiness in parts) and you really do feel the corrupting influence within the Keep, with its walls that drip slime, and its balance of both obviously abandoned and obviously in-use areas. His choice of vocabulary is intentionally oppressive and he seems keen to make sure that we appreciate just how many different words for “ooze” he knows, but it definitely pays-off and sets the exact atmosphere that he was obviously aiming for.

It is to PD-E’s credit that he also manages to design a well-structured gamebook. The Willpower rule works very effectively, as does the differentiation between your potentially sky-high Skill whilst restricting other stats to make you vulnerable whilst still giving you a chance of survival. There is a semi-ambiguity in how to use Provisions, but basically you can only eat when the book says so. Whilst on the topic of Provisions, we see a rare moment where your backpack comes into play – if you decide to take a piece of Blood-Lurcher mouth tentacle you will discover that it has taken its chance to eat all your supply of food whilst it was in your backpack. More black humour and an added cause-and-effect moment, which adds more logical depth to the proceedings. The initial section in the town itself is handled almost in a RPG fashion whereby you are able to visit all three parts in any order should you feel inclined, rather than being limited to one or two. Again this increases the routing and replay possibilities, and it is nice to see a FF that isn’t too restrictive and linear. Yes, there are three or four inevitable points along the way that all the routes will incorporate, but they are key to the plot and it would make no sense at all if you didn’t have to penetrate the Keep entrance somehow, or kill Senyakhaz (Xakhaz’ similarly-named female facilitator) to be able to access the underworld where Xakhaz is lurking, and one of the real design treats comes at this stage where you have a choice of two possible “routes” into the underworld, one which is a direct entry, the other (the more interesting one by far) involves rolling a die and either losing immediately, getting sent to the correct destination, being fired into another dimension entirely, and, my favourite, going back in time and having to re-defeat Senyakhaz and attempt the portal a second time. Very imaginative.

Even the title of this book is an intriguing departure from the previous FF norm of either a character heading (Space Assassin, Freeway Fighter, The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, etc) an abstract overall location (The Forest Of Doom, Rebel Planet, Temple Of Terror, etc), or the plot-driving object (Masks Of Mayhem, Sword Of The Samurai, etc) in that the title is a very specific preposition telling you that you are going Beneath Nightmare Castle. No other FF title is quite so literal in its setting-out of exactly where you can expect to find yourself and it is all the more effective when you discover just how little you know about your mission in the early stages. To add effect, the cover is a well-drawn night image (dark blue and black hues with a massive moon in the middle) which adds to the “nightmare” idea, and the contents are certainly the stuff of nightmares. My only qualm with the otherwise very well-worked combination of cover art and title is the girl in spiked armour reaching threateningly towards you as this does not happen anywhere in the book (at least not like this, anyway.) Instead, if you find the girl, she is hidden in a cell deep within the Keep (not outside), is chained to the wall, is in tears, and you do not have to fight her. In fact, it is discouraged to do so and you are left feeling a little morally empty if you do kill her. However, should you pick up on it, incidentally, the victory section (400) can seem a little odd in continuity terms if you do let her live, as you are made heir to the Keep and no mention is made of her which is strange as she is actually the Margrave’s daughter. I guess the parts of Khul with Germanic naming conventions (ie the Darvill-Evans’ FF set parts!) operate the rather more traditional and archaic system of chauvinistic succession, then?

The internal art (by Dave Carson) is a mixed-bag. In parts it brilliantly visualises the hideousness of what you are faced with (lots of tentacles and dripping things, and the Bakk-Ruman gets a special mention for being a brilliant drawing), whilst in others it is a little too starkly black-and-white with only limited detail to bring things to life. If it is intended to emphasize the bright horrors against the dark dank insides of the Keep then this works well, but there are moments that could be more artistically fleshed-out here and there. On the whole though, your imagination is already running riot at PD-E’s lengthy descriptions of everything so you are probably less likely to rely on drawings to create the image. On a historical note, there was meant to be a picture of the Mutated Woman’s tentacle-riddled mouth, but it was censored out due to being too graphic – this book was (incredibly, considering its very lurid nature), after all, meant for children!

In summary, then this is a very good, if excessively horrific, FF book. It is very difficult, but is also very balanced and extremely well-designed. The extra rules actually add something for once and the intended effect and concept is so well-rendered that you can’t help but really feel involved in the story. It will take many attempts to beat it, but it rewards replays and, assuming you have the stomach for it, everything along the way is worth exploring. Well worth discovering and/or re-discovering.