REVENGE OF THE VAMPIRE
Reviewed by Mark Lain
If watching Hammer horror movies taught us only one thing then it’s that vampires never really stay dead for long and that, sooner or later, some convoluted plot connivance or other will bring them back to (un)life. So it is then, that twenty books on from his original appearance in the genuine classic that is #38 Vault Of The Vampire, Count Reyner Heydrich is back in book number 58 to get his revenge. Quite how he is back is not entirely clear, but we do learn in the intro that his life-force is maintained by a Soul Jewel and that destroying this will finish him off for good, but the main point is that he’s back and your job is to find and kill him.
What is clear from the outset this time is that you are not the same character who killed him in the first book, as his identity, as well as those of his sister Katarina and his wronged brother Siegfried, are all news to you. This is not unusual for the few official FF sequels that ever appeared and revisiting old territory with new eyes is very much the norm with these. As before, you find yourself meeting a stranger in a tavern from whom you discover the story of Heydrich and you determine to kill him, but this time your source of the story is murdered over night and you take over the mission from him (rather than being the only person stupid enough to attempt it) and thus begins one of the longest FF books ever.
The books from number 51 onwards are known for taking a more complex and mature approach to adventure gaming, tend to be very long and labyrinthine, contain a lot of anti-cheat maths and hidden section mechanics, go into far more exposition with very long paragraphs, and are full of continuity errors and typos. All of these are very much in evidence here, but no FF book shows as much of a lack of care in its execution as this one and, on that score alone, this book is an absolute mess that is, in places, literally unplayable. The problems with this book are well-documented, but in brief, we are expected to tolerate:
- · Mis-linking paragraphs, of which there are at least eight, some of which just make the next stage seem slightly confused (eg: disregarding if you do or don’t have a particular item) and others of which are rather more disastrous and send you to another part of the adventure entirely thus ruining any sense of logic and flow (oh, and missing out most of the book in at least one case)
- · NPCs that you have already potentially killed early on that you can re-encounter having come back to life and then have to kill again (and not in a good, plot-enhancing way, but in a shoddy non-proofread way that shouldn’t be happening)
- · A similar problem with the book announcing that a horse (that you might not have) has bolted and references to a merchant that you might not actually have with you
- · A combat where the creature (Huge Basilisk) is listed as having two Skills and no Stamina (although I didn’t notice this the first time around as we are so used to reading stats as Skill x Stamina x that the eye can deceive and mask this one)
- · Names and spellings that occasionally change, sometimes in the same paragraph
- · The rules tell us that we have Magic as a stat when it actually means Faith
- · The Adventure Sheet features three boxes for Skill, but we don’t get any Stamina or Luck, although the rules say we do, the game mechanics rely on us having them and, well, the fact is that we bloody well do have Stamina and Luck in this adventure (there’s just nowhere to write it down)
- · I think there are some paragraphs that you can’t actually reach at all - I can’t find any route to section 8, for example, although I don’t want to re-tread the dull monastery section again to try to prove myself wrong, so this might not be an actual error
- · There are several typos and grammatical errors, some which can render sentences almost incomprehensible
- · Then there’s the infamous buying a horse vs getting into the inn situation that effectively makes it impossible to complete this book (using the intended route) without cheating. In brief, to get to the inn you need to buy a horse. You cannot buy one if you have less than 8 gold pieces, but if you have got more it costs an indeterminate and infinite amount equal to however much gold you do have. You then reach the inn on horseback and have to pay a further 1 gold piece to stay the night. As you have spent all your gold just getting there, there’s no way you can pay to get in so you can’t get an essential item that is hidden inside and you are screwed. BUT, the impact of this depends on just how literally you take the book’s instructions. Why would you pay out all your gold when we already know we need at least 8 gold to buy one at all? Does logic not suggest that we just pay 8 gold and take the horse? Or do we all cheat so much in these books anyway that pricing peculiarities are small-fry compared to some of the more critical cheating we allow ourselves to get away with? There are numerous ways around this problem suggested on forums but, the fact remains that, in real terms, this cannot be completed in the way it was written to be. The Fighting Fantazine FF solutions forum does, however, suggest an alternative route through the game where you do not need to get the key item (Sewarth’s Codex) from the inn and can still complete the book fairly (notwithstanding all the saving throws and tough combats along the way, of course), but this is not without its problems too as it involves negotiating a mis-linked section (or, if you don’t, the particular cameo involved will make no sense whatsoever) and is so long and episodic that it took me over three hours just to read through that method alone!
Whatever way you look at it, the sheer scale of this book’s structural mistakes is unforgiveable and I doubt if it was subjected to any kind of proof-reading process at all which is a huge shame as, with more design care and less padding-out, this could have been a worthy successor to Vault as there is a lot of good material on offer here.
Firstly, there has been considerable effort put into making this book’s creature encounters imposing and memorable. Yes, just like Vault the emphasis is on the undead, but this time type expectations are played with, imagery is often warped and dark, and KM’s imagination has run riot to create as many interesting foes as possible. Take the Grand Revenant (Sk 10 St 14), for example, that comes back to life each time you kill it until you find a particular item to finish it off for good. We meet a Cave Wisp (Sk 11 St 4) that is very weak, but extremely hard to hit at all due to its speed. There are blurred type boundaries with a Vampire-Ghost and a Ghoul-Monk to add some nice fusion ideas. The vampire concept is taken even further with the appearance of a Vampiric Jelly that doesn’t hurt you but will kill its host and several Vampyres which are essentially Succubi in the Lucy Westenra style. An interesting modification of the Ghoul concept features with a Steel Ghoul which is fused with metal and therefore extra-tough, but cannot paralyse like normal Ghouls (which is a relief.) My favourites by far though are the very warped ideas that would not be out of place in the goo-fest that is #25 Beneath Nightmare Castle, the Proto-Zombie which is essentially a Stage 1 work in progress Zombie that can’t fight, and the best by far, the Zombie-Coach which is bizarre yet fascinating – this is Heydrich’s coach that you can see early on in the book but is actually a decaying physical form that envelopes you so you fight it from the inside and its internal workings are described in a way that emphasizes the sickening-ness of this thing. Honourable mention also goes to the Megaghoul which is a Ghoul to the power of quite a lot. These unique encounters are very worthwhile and add an element of uniqueness to Heydrich’s unholy minions. Granted, many of these combats are made extra hard due to innumerable modifiers and most of what you can meet are “Specials” but that was hardly unusual in either Keith Martin’s books or the final Puffin series entries full stop. Another interesting inclusion is the way that, rather than having consecutive combats with 1st x, 2nd x, 3rd x etc, Martin favours deploying the more mundane encounters in packs (eg: Wolf Pack, Ghoul Pack, Zombie Pack) which have high stats (Stamina in particular) but do add a variation to the normal multi-foe combats in FF.
Secondly, notwithstanding the fundamental structural problems, the design (or intended design) of this book is very similar to that of its predecessor, in that you have a certain amount of freedom to visit areas in any order you wish (barring the initial sections) and, once in buildings/dungeons, you can see everything possible in any order, including some re-visiting to collect items and then going back to other places where you need them to reach another stage. The rules even refer to the need to retrace your steps in parts and the subversion of linearity seen in Vault is back again in force here. However, this is not without its problems due to the sheer scale of Revenge’s game map. Vault was 95% restricted to the inside of a square-shaped castle - a concept which was easy to get your head around and to keep track of by mapping. Revenge attempts to massively expand the idea, sending you first to a monastery, then a road trip, followed by some villages, a mountain crag, then Mortus Mansion (the house Heydrich has rented and effectively this book’s castle Heydrich, but with less floors) and finally another village before you enter an underground dungeon (the luridly-named Ghoulcrypts) where Heydrich is hiding out, along with several ancient vampires that are supplying his life-force and five ancient Knights who act as a mechanism to prevent the vampires from escaping. Phew! This adventure is extremely large and ambitious in its scope making mapping and planning your route a big task, especially with sub-routines in two buildings, plus a dungeon complex. The dungeon is actually mercifully small with limited options for exploration, the monastery is a manageable size (but is dull) and Mortus Mansion, whilst smaller than Castle Heydrich as we have noted, has far too many doors leading off in semi-directions, which is hell to map. Put the whole game together and you have a huge and confusing playing board which, by default, also results in a book that can easily take four hours to work through. Non-linearity and a lack of obvious true path are always good to see, but this is just mind-bogglingly huge! Plus, if you want to visit everything that you can (including the red herrings) just to take it all in, you are in for a long old slog given that the interior moments are far more interesting than the exteriors. Also, as with Vault, the book does signpost the irrelevant areas in the buildings by offering these options less than the ones you are supposed to take, but by this point you are probably grateful to have fewer options!
Putting the enormity of it all aside, there are many really neat features woven into the progress of this book, including the fact that you start with an unusually generous 12 Provisions and you have a carrying limit of 12 Provisions throughout. The book does cover this aspect well and there are several moments where you can acquire enough Provisions to fill your allowance. It is possible to earn food and gold along the way (although you suffer time penalties for it) and you are required to note the value of disposable items that exist purely to be sold to get you money to buy things you actually need. As with the freedom to roam idea, we are getting into RPG territory here and I like this, even if it is demanding on the reader in a way that FF usually avoids for the sake of simplicity. Indeed, noting things down and having to remember to do certain things to succeed is a theme of KM’s later FFs and his favourite device of numerical coincidences leading to mathematical ways of finding the way forward is on overdrive here. Many times we have to note down how many of something or other are on an item and then multiply, add, subtract or divide it to find a cheat-proofed section. Cheat-proofing is all for the good, but this book takes the maths too far in the way that many of the post-50 books did and it can detract from the enjoyment of what is an adventure, not a maths and memory test. On the plus side, at least this book actually bothers to tell you to note the numbers down, unlike some FFs where these key facts are mentioned only in passing and you are likely to miss them. There are also elements of realism included that do raise this above the FF norm of disbelief suspension, inasmuch as you have to eat (a lot) or lose Stamina, we have already mentioned the options to work for food and money, and Blood Points are especially realistically deployed. These are another carry-over from Vault and have similar effects on the final stages when you find Heydrich, but they are essentially a time marker here and are less abstract than they were in the first book: spend days working and it costs you BPs, miss a clue and have to blunder around searching instead and you lose BPs, go the wrong way on a wild goose chase and you lose BPs. Likewise, key achievements increase your BPs such as (as before) destroying Heydrich’s coffins or despatching his more important acolytes. Another really nice feature is the use of NPCs – you can find a merchant who makes your life easier in the next village to where you meet him, there is a good balance of helpers and antagonists, there are places where you have to complete side missions for obvious baddies to get key items, and of particular note is the meeting with Vantiane who comes with you until you have fought three combats together, then she leaves, but her presence is actually an advantage as she makes some tough combats easier and the book does not dictate her departure like in other FFs, rather your number of subsequent combats with her in tow will control this (again, it requires note-taking and memory, but I like it all the same as it differs from what we are used to from companions.)
The number of plot aspects and elements of game design brought forward from the first Heydrich book do create a real sense of the story continuing and it is good to see no jarring or awkward bits that have either been forced in or excised completely. I am especially pleased with the far greater role played by Afflictions this time around and they are handled much better here – the diseases such as Lung Rot are very noteworthy and the Afflictions seem more imaginative and less of an afterthought in Revenge. Faith is also back, but its use is more balanced along with Afflictions and Blood points and it tends to impact only the more important moments early in the book. Once you are in Mortus Mansion is does kick in rather more evidently, but there is a far greater concentration of evil there (and in the Ghoulcrypts) so that does makes sense. The only original mechanic not re-used at all is magic, but this did not fit in the first book too well and only came into play in the final act so its exclusion here is no loss. As an aside, I really appreciated a little in-joke when you can find a tiger-skin rug that you are told you are pleased not to be attacked by – a direct reference to an episode in Vault which adds a little more to the ongoing saga idea.
Keith Martin has always had a tendency to address the reader as if a GM is speaking to you, rather than the less direct approach of other FF writers, and this is definitely the case again here. I do really like how he writes with long descriptive sections full of atmosphere and menace and there is an interesting moment where he appears to be commenting on how the final baddie showdown sits within the FF series as a whole. He tells us “[The Count] is the most powerful enemy you will ever have encountered” and this is almost true (he has an insanely high Sk 15 St 30) as only the Night Dragon in Martin’s #52 Night Dragon is stronger with its base stats of Sk 17 St 32, but however you look at it, the regenerated Heydrich is incredibly hard to fight. The good news is that, as with the Night Dragon, you can collect various items to shave points off his Skill and Stamina, but the fight is still very much in his favour. Similarly, as was the case in Vault, you might have to fight him up to three times (dependant on what items you have as the first fight is completely avoidable as is the third – sadly the second combat is the one where he has Sk 15 St 30 and this is unavoidable) and it is also possible to follow fighting him with having to contend with his sister, Katarina, again who suddenly appears out of the blue to try to finish you off. This time around there is no subplot of sibling rivalry and she just wants to kill you as she is now also a vampire herself.
As a note on the darkness of the tone of this book, there is much mention of poisons and acid and many special attacks are based around these. Again, this brings to mind Beneath Nightmare Castle and makes Revenge seem far less Hammer-esque than Vault and rather more graphic and Cronenberg-ish. That said, there is no question that the overall atmosphere and feel is still very Hammer influenced and the return of Vault’s Martin McKenna on internal art duty adds yet more interconnection with the earlier book. So much of the art here is superbly gothic that it’s hard to pick out a favourite image, although the Grand Revenant, the image of Heydrich’s coach, and the Demonling are definite stand-outs from an exceptional field. There is a really animated beauty to the Vampyre crawling from the grass and you can almost see it moving jerkily and spider-like as if Ray Harryhausen was involved. Also, anyone who has seen Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell will know exactly where McKenna got the idea from for the Corpse Golem, although, again, let’s not take anything from the sheer brilliance of the artwork. Similarly, I don’t know if MM is a Whovian but I can’t be the only one who sees more than a passing similarity between Dr Verruckte and the William Hartnell Dr Who! To complete the reunion of writer and artist, the overall continuity between first and second books is completed with Les Edwards back on cover drawing duty. I don’t personally like Revenge’s cover as much as that on Vault as Heydrich seems to be cowering away from us, but this is purely a comparative opinion and it is still an effective cover with a title font that is about as good as they were getting by the final days of the series if we consider just how unsympathetic and slapdash most of the other latter-end title letterings were.
If we put the crippling structural issues aside, the difficulty level here is certainly leaning towards the tougher end of the spectrum and this book is certainly harder than the first. There are still moments of generosity (food, gold, many Luck and BP bonuses) and it is possible to find more than one of some of the essential items (there are two chances at getting stakes and magic swords, for example), plus the general lack of a true path gives you a fighting chance, but given how powerful most of the combatants are, mixed with dealing with afflictions, several (but not too many) instant deaths, ridiculous amounts of number-crunching, and an outrageous final baddie fight, the likelihood of getting anywhere without very high starting stats is pretty slim in reality. Add to this the Faith mechanic which, as before, works both in your favour and against you regardless of rolling under or over it (it is purely situation-driven which admittedly adds an element of unpredictability, which is good to see) but is also, as before, a real minefield, and you have a pretty hard book overall. It’s not as hard as some of the other later FFs, but it’s certainly a challenge. Whether you rise to the challenge or just get bored by the book’s sheer length probably depends on your willingness to accept the inconsistency of the plot progression and the way that some parts are very exciting and effective whilst others seem to be asides with very little of interest going on. I felt that the witch section on Crab Peak was totally at odds with the brooding tone of the rest of the book, but as it yields a key item, it has to be gone through. The early sections in pursuit of the Count’s coach are really exciting and well-paced and make you think that this book will be as rollicking as Vault. Sadly, the chase then gets sort of forgotten as you follow clue after clue and it becomes more of a “wandering about getting stuff” affair. It picks up again for Mortus Mansion and the Ghoulcrypts because you actually get to deal with Heydrich himself in these parts so the focus seems to return, but generally speaking this is very inconsistent.
For collectors, this book is one of two Holy Grails (along with #57 Magehunter) and getting a copy in decent condition for less than £35-£40 is good going. I have seen some people asking up to £140 on eBay but that is just ridiculous money. Opinion has it that less than 5,000 copies of the last three Puffin FF books were printed so this is certainly a top rarity and the fact that none of Keith Martin’s adventures have been reprinted by Wizard adds to the collectability. But, FF books are fundamentally games to be played, not trinkets to be coveted and I’d be curious to know how many people who own this one have ever actually took the (considerable amount of) time to play it properly.
I for one do find this book quite enigmatic, not only for its legendary collector’s status, but also for the desperate state that it ended up being released in in terms of its monumental number of errors. What would it have been like if it had been play-tested properly and published in a polished, error-free version? Would it just have ended up being tedious and overlong, or would it have been a masterpiece of satisfyingly complex horror gamebook writing and design? It certainly has a lot going for it, but playing it just becomes frustrating. If the longer duller parts were tightened up and the reader could focus on the good bits this could have been really worthwhile. Sadly, in its current form it is ultimately never going to be viewed as anything more than a shambles.