BENEATH NIGHTMARE CASTLE
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.