Reviewed by Mark Lain
With its Nikita-style second-chance-to-redeem-your-fallen-self-by-being-given-a-choice-that-isn’t-really-much-of-a-choice plot idea, Rogue Mage initially gives the impression of potentially being a genuinely juicy hunter-killer dungeon trawl adventure. The lengthy intro section sets the scene well as, instead of being either executed or maimed, you are forced into accepting an assassination mission from the Guild of Magicians to locate and despatch the rogue mage of the title, a certain Galthazzeth. Sadly, as soon as you start playing, it quickly becomes blindingly obvious that this is justifiably considered by many fans to be the weakest of all the short subjects published in Warlock magazine.
Essentially you start at the dungeon entrance (Galthazzeth’s lair), fight a Goblin gnawing on a human bone (which immediately provides you with some of the key items you might need), then enter the dungeon proper, taking various inter-looping paths before quickly and easily finding Galthazzeth’s inner sanctum, fighting him, then chasing him a bit and finishing him off effortlessly, before entering a maze where his life/power source is hidden, destroying this, then rather suddenly and anti-climactically facing your final challenge (a Luck test, rather lamely) before reaching paragraph 200 after a very short amount of playing-time has elapsed.
The first problem, then, is obvious – this gamebook is way too short and appears to amount to rather less than its 200 sections should suggest it will be. On my first playthrough I somehow took the shortest possible path and found Galthazzeth far too quickly for it really to make much sense why. I had very few items, but still managed to defeat him, then I had similarly little difficulty in reaching the win outcome. Very unsatisfying. So I tried a different, and curiously possible, approach whereby I literally took every tunnel and turning and went basically everywhere in the dungeon, before finding the exact same outcome. I had all the items, but this made very little difference other than making my victory all the simpler. So then I tried it with rock-bottom stats (Sk 7, St 14, Luck 7) to see if there was any challenge to this at all and suddenly things got a bit harder as a major design element became massively apparent – there are so many Skill and Luck tests in such a relatively short amount of space that anyone with Skill sub-10 and Luck (literally) sub-11 or-12 is going to struggle. Or, rather, they would if it wasn’t for the overly-generous availability of Potions. You start with the standard-issue single option from Skill/Strength/Fortune, but this adventure uses the WOFM rule (common in Warlock magazine’s short FFs too) where each bottle contains TWO rather than one dose. Yes, there are several Skill penalties along the way, so a Potion for this is justified, but you can find a second one along the way, meaning you can restore your Skill THREE times as you go along. Likewise, there are an incredible TWO additional Fortune Potions to find (raising your Initial Luck to ridiculous levels if you think to use them quick enough), plus two doses of a low-impact Strength Potion that each restore 6 St points. If you find all these, along with the two doses of whichever one you choose to start with, only the Skill tests are likely to really present a challenge. But, I’d suggest the brevity of the dungeon is the challenge here as you are unlikely to find the time to actually consume all these potions before you reach the rather sudden ending (although subsequent playthroughs might make this rather more obvious!)
A little more challengingly, death by Stamina loss is of course quite possible as the familiar Warlock FF error of the rules telling you you have 5 Provisions that you can only eat when told to in the text - a text which never actually allows you to do so - could scupper you somewhat. Indeed, many of the combats in this book are with tough foes which increases the likelihood of dying in battle. Galthazzeth (understandably as he’s the focus here) has Sk 10 St 15 and various spell-casting attacks whenever he wins two consecutive ARs, a Giant Beetle has Sk 9 St 16, the Slithering Horror has Sk 10 St 14 (x two, as you fight each tentacle with the same stats), and Galthazzeth’s right-hand man-monster the Clone Slime has Sk 4 St 30 and makes you fight two Slime Figures every 3 ARs (although killing these costs it 10 St per Slime Figure so you won’t have to fight many of them!) These stats all do make sense in the context of the foes and, in that respect, this element is well-designed and quite balanced. The remainder of combats are with Goblins in the early section of the dungeon and Antmen in the later parts, both of which form Galthazzeth’s guard minions and are easy prey for YOU. The Goblins seem to exist mostly to supply you with items to make the Galthazzeth showdowns easier although the second one just lets you kill him without a fight either way.
For a short (no, VERY short) subject, there are many items to find, along with the abundance of potions and some money (that you never need), but none of them are actually essential to victory. An Ian Livingstone dungeon, this is not, instead the items just make certain parts a bit easier. As I’ve said, the bulk of the items come in the early sections and these areas of the dungeon loop about and inter-connect in a seemingly impossible way. Add to this the fact that you can endlessly backtrack and re-trace your steps before finding Galthazzeth’s badly-hidden hiding place and you may quickly get bored with wandering around aimlessly constantly re-visiting the same unexciting locations. It could be that the maze-like nature of the dungeon is meant to make this seem deceptively long but, by mapping it, you will quickly find the inner areas that you are looking for. And the back-and-forth routing reveals one huge problem with this adventure – the reset button. Be prepared to suspend disbelief as creatures you have killed illogically come back to life if you return to their locations and you end up carrying loads of each item (including, in fact, even more Potions!) If the dungeon in its basic form is not boring enough, re-treading it infinite times will make it seem all the more unbearably uninteresting. You do have the option of varying your approach here and there by taking one of the many options to listen at doors instead of bursting in on things, but this only ever tells you either nothing whatsoever or that there are sounds coming from inside that suggest life. How exciting, NOT! At least this uses up some spare paragraphs to get closer to the full 200 being employed. Likewise, a few cut-and-paste alternative approaches eat up a few more precious sections that could be put to better use making the adventure longer and more satisfying. Even one of the “alternate” possibilities where you might not have met a Goblin Shaman gets cocked-up when it just appears out of the blue, but the text refers to it in such a way that it thinks you know about it.
Structurally, then, and plot-wise (what there is of it after the compelling introduction), this is quite shoddy, and to add insult to injury the common Warlock typing-pool gremlins have been at this adventure in a big way. There are many typos and rogue full-stops in the middle of sentences which make reading this a frustrating experience at times. In particular, “eat” is always written as “cat” and “east” is always “cast”, for some reason. The fact that going “cast” or finding Goblins that “cat” human flesh is pretty common here will amplify this even more.
As this is a traditional (if underwhelmingly short) dungeon trawl, we would expect traps, challenges, memorable foes, and moments of bravura imagination and originality. Granted, there are several original encounters here (the clone species and a Scitalis/Treasure Snake add some interest), but GD has to fall back on Livingstone-isms to get the few available surprises into the proceedings – the Scitalis idea is good but is basically just an illusional treasure trove gimmick, whilst the Imitator disguised as a door is straight out of Baron Sukumvit’s far better-designed dungeon. Luck-testing is a given in surviving dungeon trawls, but here there is far too much reliance on testing Luck (as well as Skill) and this primarily governs how the plot pans-out for you, especially with finding items. For an adventure as short as this, a lot less leaning on stat testing would make it flow far better. Also, very unusually for a dungeon trawl (or a gamebook in general), there is only one instant death in the whole thing and that is caused by, surprise, surprise, running out of Luck and getting irretrievably lost in a maze. The presence of a maze might make you think that there will be some lengthy wandering trying to get out but, instead, you just test your Luck or get straight through it with a map. Not much challenge there then!
Other than an interesting background gambit and a few unique encounters, for the most part this is an uneventful, excessively short/boring, relatively easy, and badly proof-read adventure. So, why the hell was this chosen to be re-printed in the 10th Anniversary Yearbook that appeared in 1992? I would take any of the Warlock shorts over this one any day. I don’t know who Graeme Davis was talking nicely to but surely this did not deserve a second outing. However, its re-publication did allow for the typos to be eliminated so this version reads far slicker and more professionally. In fact, for the eagle-eyed, there are actually several differences between the two printings:
- · A few section numbers have been moved around (for what difference that makes)
- · Two of the already pretty weak “sword-fodder” foes have had their stats further reduced so they die even quicker (although the tough ones all remain as per the Warlock version so these are no easier)
- · Almost every paragraph has had slight wording tweaks and paraphrasing
- · The introduction (the only good bit, really) has been truncated and also heavily edited to remove any of the more graphic references to hanging, cutting hands off, and ripping still beating hearts out of chests (sorry, is FF not meant to be graphic, then?)
- · The Guild of Magicians has had a re-brand and become the Guild of Wizards (the difference being....?)
- · All art is removed (the original only had three large images – the exterior of the dungeon, a Ghost, and Galthazzeth himself – along with a few incidentals, but these are all well-rendered and do help us visualise at least some parts of the adventure)
- · The adventure now has a setting specified, the town of Wolftown, where the original existed in a nameless void with no location or context being given
- · All references to Dungeons & Dragons rules are gone
The lack of errors/typos is welcome, but I’m not sure that any of these other changes really amount to much other than saving space for the necessary page format of the 10th Anniversary Yearbook.
The excising of any D&D mechanics was probably essential as the original version was published in the very brief two-issue era when Warlock’s mini-adventures catered for gamebooks to be played using either FF or D&D systems. It has to be said that, of the two, Rogue Mage utilised D&D rules far more effectively than The Land Of Changes did and the nuances built into the FF rules as regards stat manipulation/penalties are also felt properly if you play using D&D rules, so there is some potential for system-flexing. Sadly, this does not take the focus away from the over-riding dull-ness of Rogue Mage as a game.
It is worth noting that the cover of Warlock #10 (where Rogue Mage’s first iteration appeared) does actually feature a wizard of some sort, but he is not Galthazzeth. Instead he is the result of John Blanche re-working a reader’s competition-winning entry to design the “Warlock” of the magazine’s title. Still, there is a connecting theme with the mini-adventure and this is a good thing as, by this stage, Warlock’s short FFs were usually unrelated to the cover images of the magazine. As for the cover, JB’s bright evocation of the Warlock bristles with energy and is one of the magazine’s more animated and colourful cover images and I like it a lot. For historical completeness’ sake, Citadel Miniatures released a Limited Edition metal miniature of the Blanche Warlock which is now quite collectable (mine was painted for me by a certain Mr Steven Leicester who you may remember from another post on this Blog!)
In summary, Rogue Mage is a weak and uninteresting short adventure with the emphasis on the word “short”. Little of any consequence happens, it is rather too easy (notwithstanding failure by loss of Stamina or Luck), Davis offers little in the way of description or immersion in his text to give an image of the environment we are in, and its best feature by far is the introduction which, as I said earlier, really does grab your attention and make you want to play this massive disappointment of an adventure. The use of the words “gripping solo adventure” in the strapline is, well, a lie, and I struggle to believe that this is from the same mind that gave us the wonderful Midnight Rogue (other than the re-use of the “rogue” tag, of course!) Take my advice - just don’t bother with this.