THE DARK USURPER
Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill
Reviewed by Mark Lain
This is a real curiosity: the only full FF solo adventure ever to appear in White Dwarf magazine (in three instalments spanning issues 61 thru 63) and the only FF contribution from Jon Sutherland, better-known for the historically-based Real Life Gamebooks series, Battleground General (where you command actual World War II campaigns), and the short-lived two-player Double Game books. Judging by his bibliography on Amazon, Sutherland is quite an authority on military history, having also written a number of non-fiction books on the Second World War in particular, and, unsurprisingly, the Real Life series are generally quite historically accurate within the limits of having to allow the player at least some freedom to determine their fate. It comes as no great surprise then that this adventure plays out rather like a strategic wargame.
The plot is classic medieval material. YOU have returned from a three year Crusade (to retrieve the Holy Chalice from what is described simply as “the clutches of the heathen”) to find that the Kingdom has turned rotten under the regency of your friend Evald Senskell. As soon as you returned to your castle you were imprisoned and have been incarcerated for three months. Now you have decided you have had enough and that it is time to go and sort this all out. Simple, but interesting enough to spark our curiosity. As the adventure is spread across three issues, it is divided into three roughly similar-length parts, each covering a self-contained part of the story. Part 1 is the simplest and just involves you escaping from your captors and making a run for it, although it is also the longest at 102 sections as there are various ways to achieve your aim. Part 2 (running to 98 sections) involves you discovering that you are some sort of chosen one whose coming the poets of old foresaw, whilst Part 3 (the shortest at 95 sections, but also the most exciting) is basically a big battle to liberate your homeland. The whole adventure, then, runs to 295 paragraphs, or roughly ¾ of a FF book, which is pretty big for a magazine-printed short subject. (Incidentally, Part 1 should have been 103 sections and, at a glance, seems to be, but the eagle-eyed will spot that section 63 is missing!)
Anyone familiar with Sutherland’s Real Life series will quickly begin to make comparisons between those books and this adventure and the big niggle with it is that it feels rather more like a Real Life book than a Fighting Fantasy offering due in part to JS’ style, but also due to the slightly awkward way that FF rules are deployed. Firstly, there aren’t actually any rules, as such, and the player is told instead that they either have to know FF rules or have access to a FF book to be able to find out what the rules are. OK, I know we are all familiar with how FF works, but rules would still be helpful and some mechanics are clearer than others due to the lack of instructions:
- We start in prison and are specifically told that we do not have any weapons, armour, or money, yet we also do not start with a Skill penalty due to this (although we do fight with penalties in Part 1 if we have not found a sword)
- Presumably we have no Provisions or Potions either?
- We are instructed to make a decision roll at one key point in Part 3 which just means rolling a dice and following the result of the number thrown. This reads awkwardly and would have been better-placed as just being told to roll a dice (or, better still, to test our Luck)
- Eating to replenish Stamina is completely ignored, although we are told we pick food up along the way
- A fairly vague moment tells us to regain all lost Stamina (but does not name it as such) and does not feel FF-specific enough
- Other than fighting without a sword, there are no Skill penalties incurred at any point
- There are, however, a huge number of Luck tests along with many Luck bonuses, which does leave the player overly at the mercy of pure chance given how few decisions there are that really affect anything
And it is this last point that really hits the Real Life influence home – this adventure is extremely linear and you are almost always forced back onto the intended path no matter what you do. Although initial playthroughs do not necessarily show this, playing every possible option will expose this problem very quickly, leaving you feeling that you really don’t have many choices at all. This is a big similarity with Real Life books where the only two real choices are given at the beginning where you decide which of two parties you want to side with and the rest just writes itself, and you don’t even get that choice in The Dark Usurper!
There are, however, some aspects of Sutherland’s gamebook-designing style that make this quite refreshingly different. If you get defeated in combat you are always sent to a paragraph which describes your death and, sometimes, an aftermath of some sort (in this adventure most are normally the King mourning you in some way) - whilst you are still dead, at least the game does not just abruptly end there for you like it does in most FFs. Part 3 in particular plays-out like a strategic wargame where you are asked to make various decisions as to how to manage the battlefield: Do you charge? Do you defend? Do you do a runner and try to protect the castle instead? Will you lay siege to the castle and make everyone inside die of plague? Do you kill your captives or show them mercy (or even just leave them to the mob)? All these choices raise this above just being a linear story and are quite unique to FF in their elaboracy. Likewise, mass combat is decided by rolling x number of dice and multiplying certain numbers to determine each side’s casualties and, in a neat touch, if you charge you do more damage to the confused enemy than if you choose to defend. This is a far more effective approach to mass battles than FF’s only other real attempt in the lacklustre Armies Of Death and does give a lot of variety for re-playing this instalment. To add colour to these battles, if your casualties are too high your army can lose motivation and/or your enemies can capitulate if their death toll is too high or if their leader dies. Plus, realistically, charging gives you a psychological advantage and you do get the feeling that the book generally prefers courage and the will to fight (you are a crusader, after all), although some over-ambitious decisions can have disastrous outcomes, especially if your army is slaughtered as you have to run off and live the rest of your life as a hermit in an alternate “non-win but still alive” outcome that encourages you to re-play to find the absolute victory ending. The concept of battlefield strategy plays a large part in much of Sutherland’s gamebook work and it translates neatly here and makes for a unique approach in the context of FF.
It can be assumed that you are expected to use the same character through all three parts as this is essentially a part-work single adventure, not a series, and prior knowledge of characters, events, and equipment is expected in Parts 2 and 3. On the subject of equipment, very few items are found or needed, although a sword is a given (and unavoidable in Part 1 as you will always be taken to where you father’s sword is hidden), and Asmund’s Floating Spheres are handy in Part 2 but not essential. You cannot avoid getting a horse in Part 1 but it buggers off as soon as Part 2 starts, but Part 3 is largely devoid of items or item-based outcomes, instead focussing on medieval warfare. Part 1 gives a certain amount of choice as to how to handle what it throws at you, although it is fundamentally linear and the choices you make only really affect if you have to fight and with what (and maybe give slight differences in plot continuity information that you pick up.) There is an illusion of choice though, as there are three ways to escape your prison cell and the courtyard can play out with minor variations. Part 2 makes the assumption that you have established that Evald Senskell has not gone in fact power-mad after all and has, instead, been toppled by the Dark Usurper of the title, one Barnak, although you might not necessarily know that if you accidentally-deliberately killed the person who tells you this in Part 1. The decisions you make in Part 2 have very little effect on anything as this is the most linear section by far and will force you into the key situations, otherwise Part 3 would make no sense whatsoever (or would need many more branching paths than 95 sections allow for it to work properly.) Part 3 is the section you are most likely to come a cropper in if you don’t make your strategic choices wisely. This makes perfect sense as Part 3 is essentially the book’s climax and should be more of a challenge. There is not much searching required to find Barnak, although you can seek out your allies to fill the story out and make it bring more loose-ends together if you want to. Barnak himself is not the toughest of end baddies (Sk 9 St 10), but he is far stronger than any of the mega-weak previous foes you might have had to fight (Skills of 3/4/5 are the norm here.) That said, if you make a particular roll, you can fight him with a +3 bonus to your Skill which means rock-bottom characters have a decent chance in this adventure. An interesting outcome worthy of mention also comes when, if Barnak defeats you in battle, your army still eventually kill him even though you have not actually “won” in the strictest sense of the word.
This brings us to the biggest similarity to Sutherland’s Real Life books – this adventure is ridiculously easy. There is no true path to find as the book offers little but the true path (barring Part 3.) Combats are very easy and, other than Barnak, are often avoidable. You can get all your army killed, but that is quite unlikely as the odds are in your favour as long as you pay attention to the text when it tells you the sizes of armies (often a little too incidentally, by the way.) The biggest challenge is probably all the Luck tests and a low Luck will cause you problems. Low Skill and Stamina, however, should not be an issue.
There are a few peculiarities/nuances that are worthy of mention that can make this flow a little oddly in spite of its largely inflexible plot linearity. It is possible to find an ally (Julian) dead in a cell in Part 3 and you are expected to be shocked by this, although you might just have killed him yourself in Part 1. I can only assume that Sutherland did not want or legislate for us to kill him in Part 1 otherwise a) this bit makes no sense, and b) we would not know about the usurping that is the crux of the story as Julian tells us this key bit of detail. Rather more awkward is the moment in Part 2 where we are told by Asmund that we are the chosen one. Part 2 only features one illustration, a beautifully-rendered full-page colour image of a warrior dressed in all the equipment that Asmund kits you out with – this character is male and blond (even the poem says he’s blond), meaning the player is likely to be distanced from their character unless they happen to also be male, blond, and have long hair (at least the picture is from behind to avoid total disconnection from the role!)
On the subject of art, this colour illustration is by Alan Hunter – Part 2 is otherwise devoid of any art at all. Parts 1 and 3 are better-catered for in the art department, having incidental images as well as a couple of larger pictures, all by Temple Of Terror’s Bill Hunter, and the art is generally very full and effective, with more than a hint of Bryan Talbot in it.
Sutherland’s Real Life series always read (to me anyway) as being targeted at the middle age-range of the gamebook readership. The content is certainly not suitable for young children and the vocabulary and concepts are far too complex, but the slightly preachy schoolteacher-y tone has carried over into The Dark Usurper and it does seem to read a little bit immaturely, assuming you can get over the characters and the setting/plot background.
The setting of this adventure itself is another aspect that sets it as a bit of an outcast from the FF series in general. The background feels very Earth-bound and there is no suggestion anywhere that the key locations are meant to be on Titan (not that it says they are on Earth either, mind you) so this is a hard adventure to contextualise in that sense.
White Dwarf was always the sort of general RPG “big brother” to the much more FF-centric Warlock magazine, but the printing gremlins that plagued Warlock are also getting in on the act in The Dark Usurper, but to a far less detrimental effect. I have already mentioned paragraph 63 being conspicuous by its absence from Part 1 (not that many playthroughs will require you to try to turn to it as only one section links to it), but there are some other errors: at least three sets of Luck test outcomes are actually reversed (pretty obviously, too!), section 10 in Part 3 has no onward link (although, again, I had to play many times before I needed to go to section 10, so this might go unnoticed), and there are a few very minor typos and oddly-structured sentences that would benefit from commas or full-stops. That said, for a magazine-published short FF, this is comparatively well proofread and is far less messy than many of Warlock’s offerings. If it’s noticeable, it’s a problem, and here it is barely noticeable.
The Dark Usurper is actually a pretty decent adventure, particularly for the dominant mass combat system in Part 3. There is not much choice in play terms but that only comes through if you play it several times and, given how easy it is (other than all the Luck tests) you are not likely to need many attempts to beat it, so this might not be too apparent. I like the setting and the very “real”-feeling background, but this would have been better as a stand-alone (or Real Life) offering, rather than trying to force in FF rules as it just doesn’t seem to fit properly with the series. Yes, you can apply FF rules to any RPG system in theory, but FF is more than just a system given the complete world that gradually develops through the series. It does not take long to play through all three parts of this and, as something to keep you occupied for an hour, this is a worthy gamebook as it has enough going for it to make it entertaining (if you can find it!)