Sunday 31 July 2022

Vengeance At Midnight



Alexander Ballingall

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Let’s get something very clear from the start here: I do not like the Silver Crusader concept. I hated Appointment With FEAR and could do little more than tolerate Deadline To Destruction. It’s not that I don’t like superhero stuff generally, I just found AwF a gimmicky empty playing experience. For me, it’s one of the very worst FF books play-wise so the idea of there being a third instalment of something that I could happily have lived without the first part of was far from inspiring. But, like it or not, we find ourselves back in Titan City and donning the costume of the Silver Crusader, alter-ego of Jean Lafayette, once again in this 269-section piece from Fighting Fantazine Issue 8. The fact that all three parts are written by different people also amplifies the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped as Steve Jackson evidently only intended for there to be one of these otherwise he would have expanded the concept himself (and it would have made a far better RPG if you ask me although the thematic similarity to Games Workshop’s Golden Heroes may have prevented that from happening).

Time has passed since Jean’s last run-in with a major superbaddie (The Dynamo from DtD) and there are a couple of neat little bits of story arc advancement here where you now have a girlfriend called Helen and your relationship with your boss seems to have improved a lot as you are no longer constantly showing up late for work due to your crime-fighting commitments. But of course sooner or later Titan City would be threatened by another lunatic in a silly costume and you have started hearing rumours of a journalist having disappeared and the possibility of a new nutter hatching a nefarious plot against everybody. So off you go to save the day, starting with a run-in in a warehouse, the discovery of a consignment of teddy bears, and then the whole saga unfolds before you. As with the previous two adventures, a lot of the actual content involves choosing various places to visit as you try and gather intelligence to crack the case, a lot of these choices being potentially somewhat uninformed and random. There is a path to follow though based on key bits of information but unravelling it is tricky and the true path itself is very tight, something which brings me to the first big issue with this mini-FF: it is unreasonably difficult. There are several moments where you have to fight a catalogue of opponents and death by Stamina loss is a frequent problem. That said, if you choose the Super Strength Superpower and thus have a default Skill of 13 this becomes a more realistic proposition, something which is so fundamental to victory that it can effectively render the other three Superpower options pretty redundant. These lengthy fights also usually require you to track combat rounds as this can affect how the fight plays out so there is some bookkeeping to do in amongst all the dice rolling (and dying and having to start over) too. Furthermore, the majority of the fights that are with just one or two opponents are usually against very strong foes (both in Skill and Stamina) as they are supervillains which also means a very high Skill on your part is vital, plus a high Stamina too if you are going to have any hope of staying alive. If this isn’t imbalanced enough there are only two opportunities to restore Stamina (both by 6 points when you wake up the next morning) which is hardly fair. Similarly, there are a lot of Luck tests (especially on the true path) and, again, very few chances to restore Luck, so a high Luck is also vital. There is one particularly irrational moment where you have to pass a sequence of three Luck tests and two Skill tests – fail any and you miss a vital password that you cannot win without knowing. This is frankly ridiculous. Furthermore, there are a lot of letter-to-number conversions to find hidden sections which, whilst I like this mechanic as it is an excellent cheatproofer, can be taxing plus one of them is calculated incorrectly and leads you to the wrong section so, unless you have a solution, errata list, or can be bothered to sift through each section until you find the right one, the game is broken and cannot be completed “properly” (although with the crazy stat issues you could argue it is broken anyway).

One feature that sent AwF’s difficulty into the stratosphere that I am glad to say has not been carried over from the first Silver Crusader outing is the annoying reliance on arbitrary guesswork to find hidden sections and this was the main thing that made me hate the original book so much. As a concept and rules-wise though, the same structure that existed in the previous two instalments is all here again: you have a choice from four Superpowers and the list is the same in all three adventures; you can gain Hero Points as you go along based on how heroic or otherwise your actions are; you get three Clues from the outset; the whole thing plays out over a few days; the usual umpteen jokes and riffs on popular culture are here again; and you are not supposed to kill opponents in combat (instead they surrender once their Stamina is reduced to 1 or 2) as you are a good guy. There are a few variations on some of these this time around though as the Clues basically do nothing other than just give you abstract information that you then ignore as everything you need to know to actually finish the adventure is told to you in the course of the story. Rather more problematically the Superpowers also have no influence on how the plot actually plays out. A great feature of AwF was that it was basically four adventures in one (albeit all very frustratingly short ones) so had huge replay value. Not so the case there as each Superpower just subtly nuances events and how you negotiate certain moments to ultimately lead to the same point either way. This is rather sloppy design and creates the illusion of something that just is not there: choice of how your superhero functions and the ability to affect the game as a result. Obviously this makes replayability limited but the fact that you are going to die in almost every attempt might be enough to compel repeat attempts. Hero Points are handled very differently here as you start with 3 rather than 0. This is because should your HP ever drop to zero you have to turn to section 99 and suffer the consequences when the Federation Of Ultrapeople (The Avengers? Justice League? The X-Men?) send Lady Chartreuse (“a drink so good they named a colour after it” to quote a certain Tarantino movie) to deal with you which is survivable although you cannot accrue any further Hero Points after this which does make you rather less heroic. Also, there are several different “scales” of victory where, whilst the true path is very tight and linear, you can reach the win section having tied up various loose ends along the way and finish with more Hero Points (in the previous two Hero Points were purely for you to measure an extra success aspect and try to finish the book with more of them and thus more heroically on subsequent playthroughs) so for the first time in a Silver Crusader adventure Hero Points actually have an in-game purpose which is good to see. The biggest problem here system-wise though has already been raised which is that, unless you choose the Super Strength Superpower and start with Skill 13 you simply will not be able to finish this due to the scale and number of fights you are faced with which is a big own goal for a concept based on variable superpowers.

Without labouring a point too much when it comes to the fights you are expected to deal with, it has to be said that the very first one in the warehouse at the beginning seems especially unfair as you can die or reduce your Stamina dangerously low before you have even done anything of any consequence and there is no reward for surviving it other than not being dead. There is also a key fight with Volt Head that is effectively broken for various reasons and the same fight seems a bit unsavoury as you are trying to save a female hostage whilst you fight Volt Head but the chance of her not dying in the course of events is incredibly low – this just seems odd and very unheroic to me.

Which brings us neatly to the subject of the key villain of the piece who is called Volt Head (and we see him on the cover of this issue of the ‘zine in fact). In a nice element of continuity/lore he is the brother of The Dynamo from DtD so he does presumably have a personal beef with you to add some colour. Indeed this adventure is crawling with FF-related Easter Eggs, far more so than either of the previous two gamebooks, and is a dream for fanboys. Amongst others we have the link between Volt Head and The Dynamo, Wolmaran Apartments, a villain called The Warlock, the Owl and Weasel pub which is next door to the Black Lobster restaurant, and there is a copy of the unpublished Saga Of The Stormchaser in Cottonworths (so it comes out eventually then lol). A couple of nice little general popular culture references that I personally found more amusing than the usual ones these Silver Crusader adventures are filled with are Ben Seven, Karl Marks, and Da Femme who “wears a form-fitting dark yellow suit” (so that’s literally an analogue of The Bride from Kill Bill in her figure-hugging yellow jumpsuit then). What did annoy me a bit though is that the elusive and essential password (the one you get in return for somehow beating the interminable odds and passing three Luck and two Skill tests in succession) is “Voldemort” – this is possibly a bridge too far for me, is too literal, and it isn’t even trying to be a clever take on something like the naming conventions and characters in these Silver Crusader adventures otherwise are. Why did the author do this?

The author himself is Alex Ballingall (Editor of the ‘zine) and he does write very well with a lot of atmosphere and detail to bring his adventure to life. Most of the game sections are relatively long but there is often a lot of dialogue to accommodate (essential to get that comic book feel) and variances with Superpower prompts that need to be factored in (not that they make much difference in the long run). Each key character (ie YOU, the supervillians, and the cops) is written in such a way that they have obvious personality and traits and this does add a lot of depth to the proceedings. The lengthy sections may look off-putting on first sight but they do work well in context and AB has done a good job of putting his take on Titan City across. I wish I could say the same for his art which “graces” this adventure as it is best described as “rough” and looks incomplete and amateurish (the teddy bear fillustrations are particularly awful) but it is better than what he did for Resurrection Of The Dead in the first issue of the ‘zine and he does a good job of emulating the comic book panelled look that Declan Considine produced for AwF and this is a clever visual that suits the concept. The colour cover for this one is also by AB and, again, looks rough and incomplete and is certainly not of a good enough quality to be on a cover especially as most ‘zine covers have been really good professional pieces of fantasy art. I do wonder if they were struggling for contributors art-wise for this Issue?

There are a few interesting design points that I feel are worth bringing up with this adventure, the most apparent being that section 1 is a normal game section rather than the beginning and the introduction gives you options sending you to other paragraphs to start the game. This in real terms is a pretty minor thing but I do find it interesting and I always like to see gamebooks having functions like this that subvert expectations in how they should be designed and these are always an unexpected surprise that makes them feel a little bit different when the author has taken the time to think to do this. There is also, more conventionally, an open ending where you meet the Titanium Cyborg again in prison and it is suggested that a fourth part is on the cards. I read a thread in the Fantazine discussion group suggesting that the Helen character (who, incidentally, does nothing other than get mentioned at the start as existing, have a shower at one point in the book, and show up again right at the end, so including her was not really worth it as she serves no purpose other than to expand your character’s history a little bit) might turn bad in a potential fourth part of the saga. In many ways I hope there will not be a fourth because three is more than I ever really wanted!

So then, is Vengeance At Midnight worth staying up late to experience? I’ll be honest and say I did actually quite enjoy it. The idea of the exploding teddy bears triggered by a signal from a computer is a fun 1960s Batman type silly way to bring about the apocalypse and the supervillains seem less crappy in this one than the previous two. The fact that Hero Points finally serve some sort of (albeit limited) useful purpose is good to see. The usual in-jokes are everywhere (I can take or leave these as they are a bit too knowing) but the FF Easter Eggs are a nice inclusion. It is way too hard though (to the point of being unfair), the requirement to get the password is insane, there is no way you can get anywhere without maxed-out stats, the Superpower choices are rendered useless, and the art is terrible. But of the three Silver Crusader efforts this is still less annoying to me than AwF but is not as conventional as DtD so it does have some merit to recommend it. Yes, it’s nothing special but it is certainly worth giving a go even if the odds are hugely stacked against you and it is absolutely broken due to an adding error by the author.

Wednesday 27 July 2022

Ascent Of Darkness



Stuart Lloyd

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Stuart Lloyd is very prolific in the world of writing amateur fan FFs (and AFF modules) as well as being a regular fixture in Fighting Fantazine  so it was fairly inevitable that a short FF of his would appear in that same publication sooner or later and Issue 11 brought us this interesting adventure. I say it is interesting because of the very original idea of creating here what is effectively a classical Greek epic in FF form.

YOU play a heroic figure, the son of a King, and the leader of an army of men engaged in an ongoing war with the Caarth. You receive a letter from your mother and return home to find that your father is gone and the evil cult of Elim is threatening everyone’s existence. Cue an eventual trip to Fire Island to get to the bottom of the problem and resolve it. The story arc takes you from the Desert of Skulls/Karnath Tor (where you are fighting the Caarth) to Carsepolis (your home) via one of three different terrains (mountains, forest, coast), then on a sea voyage in a tireme to Fire Island. A point to note here is that Carsepolis is the ancient city upon which’s ruins Port Blacksand was built and this is the first “official” trip to classical Port Blacksand that we have had from FF. Kudos for this then. As this is an adventure cut from the cloth of Homer, your character comes replete with several suitable traits. You start with a sword, a spear, and a steel helmet, but no armour (very Greek!), and have 50 Gold Pieces to your name. YOU also have to choose from one Heroic Power and one Heroic Flaw: the Powers are basically boosters to your attributes but the Flaws are more subtle and affect the path itself, sometimes giving alternative approaches and sometimes forcing you down certain routes. The Flaws also give some balance to avoid you being excessively strong (although you should be anyway given the context) and the descriptions of the Powers in the Introduction are very detailed and colourful with some nice legendary context to what you have done in the past. You also get Heroic Stunts that you can use in battle (a lot) which can swing things in your favour if the dice (ie the Gods) are on your side. There is also an unusual approach to rolling up your Skill, Stamina, and Luck here where you can only have each stat be rolled up to a certain level but then your chosen Power will boost one of these to a potentially powerful amount. Again, this suits the concept. This kind of idea is a trademark of SL’s amateur FFs so it is good to see it applied to this offering too. There is a neat little heroic touch too where if you do anything particularly unheroic you will lose Luck points - this is clever.

The initial battle with the Caarth is a good opener as you are straight into the action and have a few strategic decisions to make but the end result is basically the same. An amusing little inclusion is that there are only 300 of your army left after the battle which is a nice nod to The 300 Spartans of classical legend, but there are a lot of possibly overly Greek references along the way including the codewords (Perseus, Heracles, and Odysseus) and the fact that your father is called Agamemnon. This does create a bit of disconnect from FF as these names are just too well-known and too associated with Greek legends. The idea of the Achilles Heel Flaw is just about ignorable as it has become a euphemism but it is still directly related to Achilles so throws another Greek non-FF trope into the mix. What SL has managed to do in terms of encounters though is get a good mix of FF and Greek material, with all the Greek encounters being equally FF encounters as they are already lifted from classics and established as FF lore: harpies, the mermaid, and the hydra in particular. What is very apparent in the combat encounters is that almost all of your opponents have stats in double figures and are equally as legendarily powerful as YOU. Indeed we see some very high Staminas in this adventure (many of the fights are multiple foes fought as one), but for once this is actually offset against your potentially being a bit over-powered too so there is some balance here. Some foes can even use Stunts against you which make those fights particularly varied (and dangerous).  A lot of fights have adjustors to shave extra Stamina points from you under certain conditions which does add to the realism of fighting several foes as one.

With very strong enemies to fight and your Power and Flaws offsetting each other, the question of difficulty arises quickly but because of the balancing factors you can get through with average stats (or as average as you can have here) plus there is no optimum choice of Powers or Flaws to scupper you from the outset. The Powers do not really affect the actual adventure itself all that much (bar in combat) but the flaws certainly do and the Achilles Heel is just that and does make the adventure rather harder if you choose this Flaw. It is also theoretically possible to have two Powers by acquiring the Strength Of Telak from a bronze apple so if you start with this Power that can be a bit of a sucker punch (or a big plus if you started with one of the other two!) So whilst the Powers and Flaws are presumably intended to nuance and change the adventure only the Flaws really do in terms of the actual path you follow. It has to be noted that a lot of the Stamina penalties through misadventure are quite harsh (routinely losing you 4-6 points) but there are many opportunities to restore back to your Initial Stamina (as well as getting restoratives for Skill and Luck too) and to replace lost spears (which are very useful) – the fact that many of these are blessings from the Gods adds to the whole classical package. If you can find either the Shroud Of Ashra or the Shroud Of Vuh in Carsepolis (not particularly hard to do) these will make things noticeably less lethal in the later stages and there is at least one item that is essential on a certain path and you cannot get beyond the first Act without having poison immunity. Indeed, when I first read this I thought it was broken at section 99 because I did not read the text closely enough and whatever choice I made killed me – but that is not the case and there are two examples of where close reading based on notes you have taken is vital which is a nice bit of cheat-proofing without resorting to arbitrarily guessing that you are supposed to go to a secret section (something that frustrates me hugely in some FFs). Luck tests are very rare (the instructions say you will need to test Skill, Stamina, and Luck but these rarely happen and I can only find one Stamina test) and there are only about a dozen instadeath sections, mostly for doing stupid things or not having crucial items, so this is reasonable enough. The true path is not especially hard to find as the adventure is very linear with clear convergence points to round off each Act and there are two win outcomes (which results in the final section not being the end and is just a standard game section) but I suspect the optimum ending is that where you have your father’s ring and he survives rather than the version where he dies and you become King (which is still a win really though, but just a bit less heroic). The fact that there are no pre-defined combinations of Powers and Flaws needed to win adds yet more fairness to the piece. The choice of the three Act 2 paths (forest, coast, mountains) adds some nice variety for replays but none is optimum as such and each affords you several useful items including stat bonuses, the vital poison immunity (important in avoiding an overly linear true path) and some Flaw immunities, and the ability to emulate Powers that you may not have. I have noticed though that the coast path is the tightest in terms of the goodies you can come out with (a limit of two from the choice you are given), the forest path restricts you to picking three, but the mountain path appears to have no limit so you can come out with a catalogue of useful paraphernalia on this path to make you very strong indeed. The view is that the best path is the forest as it is the shortest of the three, is theoretically combat-free (depending on what you do), and gets you the various apples that make a later challenge considerably easier, but having a bag load of useful stuff from the mountain path is not to be sniffed at either. The coast path is probably the hardest as you need a dagger otherwise you get assassinated but as this repeats in the Final Analysis I’d argue that this is de rigueur anyway. Similarly, in Carsepolis you can theoretically go everywhere (with a couple of inter-related restrictions) and the freedom to explore is evident even if each of the areas is fairly brief, you don’t really do any exploring as such, and the endgame of acquiring a crew and a dagger is the same and very achievable either way – there is a certain order needed to how you visit bits depending on your chosen path and some ways result in getting a free crew whilst others are more expensive and I’m sure you can end up with lots of crews too if you choose to continue exploring rather than heading straight for the docks the first chance you meet the required conditions. As with the second Act the Carsepolis part is mostly designed to your advantage which gives an expectation of a big climactic finale on Fire Island. But before you get there you have the tireme voyage and a hydra to contend with (which isn’t really very hard). Then comes the end Act on Fire Island itself which is pretty short and colourless and quickly gets to the point with the conclusive showdown (well, there are only 219 sections, after all, and the second and third Acts do eat rather a lot of these up).

The Fire Island section highlights a big problem though with this adventure as in parts it is a real mess. The hut/wizard cameo only makes sense if you choose to enter the hut otherwise you find yourself dealing with the second half of it anyway even though you opted against it (plus you seem to hurtle backwards on the map for no reason to get back to the hut you didn’t know you were visiting!) There is a really clumsy bit of layout/design where section 104 leads to 107 then to either 103 or 105 followed by 105 going to 103 anyway so everything for that cameo is on one page. This also happens earlier on when 114 leads to 115. There is also a weird bit of design on the coast path where you can defeat the harpies in combat to then go straight to an instadeath section if you don’t have a dagger and get assassinated (might as well just let the harpies kill you really). It seems odd to me that the Carsepolis section can allow you to go everywhere (bar the conjunction between the Temples of Ashra and Vuh) an infinite number of times as you are always sent back to the same section to choose where to go next and there is no suggestion of a limit on visiting frequencies (this results in the enormous variety of crews you can have as mentioned above). In the endgame there is an impossible sequence of sections/Flaw prompts (142 to 35 to 71 etc) as, if you have one Flaw there is no way you will have another one, so querying this three times over in an unfeasible combination is pointless. A similar issue occurs with the Flurry Of Blows Heroic Stunt which renders it basically useless as there are no multi-enemy combats and all of these are treated as single foes. There is also an incorrect section link where you are sent to paragraph 133 but it makes no sense in context so somehow the completely wrong text has ended up on this section. With all these errors (and the way they amplify themselves in the Fire Island Act) I do wonder if the ‘zine’s supposed team of playtesters and adventure editors actually exist (or know what they are doing!) and it does distract from the potentially exciting climax to the piece where your classical hero gets to be all classical and win against insurmountable odds.

But the Fire Island bit also throws up a few lovely bits of FF lore for those who want to find them. On first landing on the beech the text tells you that you are “ever watchful for giant crabs” (well, you would be wouldn’t you as 2000 years later poor old Mungo comes a cropper in their claws) and the lizard men are already oppressing humans by enslaving them leading to an uprising inspired by YOU, but in this case they are being forced to build a temple to the evil Elim rather than worked to death down the mines. Interestingly, there is no mention of the infamous Lizard King so I guess he hasn’t hatched from his royal egg yet. The way Carsepolis is ancient Port Blacksand is nice too but there is no real correlation between the two. A possible conclusion that can also be drawn is that classical FF world is similar to classical Earth world in that all heroes are male as it is explicitly stated here that you are male – not an issue as it works in context but it could remove the immersive YOU idea if you are a female player.

A big epic piece like this with the overhanging theme of an impending Evil should have some pretty epic art in it and this was entrusted to the always reliable Michael Wolmarans (aka Mike Tenebrae). The only problem is that he seems to be having an identity crisis with his art here as it ranges from excellent (the very sinister colour cover, the fillustrations especially the Greek helmet, the full pager on page 38) through middling (a lot of the people) to a few pieces that just look incomplete or rushed (the lizard men are especially bad and look totally unthreatening, the zombies make less sense the more you look at them, and the tavern brawl looks like something out of a childrens’ comedy cartoon). Okay so I know this is a fanzine and contributors will probably be working for nothing but still if we compare these with MW’s fantastic work for the ‘zine on Escape From The Sorcerer there is definitely something inferior about the art here. What does lift it well above the inconsistent art is SL’s writing which is pacey, full of energy and an obvious love for the gamebook form, and keeps you interested regardless of any glaring errors that might be annoying you. SL knows a huge amount about gamebooks and the concept and mechanics included here are excellent and show this very clearly.

This is a highly original effort and the classical theme and early-Titan setting alone carry it. The mechanics where you are naturally strong and have legendary talents and weaknesses are great and perfectly suit the concept. It is not especially difficult and is very fair, plus it is not especially long and can be played through in about half an hour or so. The multiple paths and more than one ending add great replay value, as do finding out how different combinations of Powers and Flaws can affect the proceedings. The errors are frustrating (especially on Fire Island where they do distract you from the finale as you try and get your head around them) but the lore and snappiness of the whole thing do make for a decent adventure. The originality of theme and the fusion of Greek classics and FF lore make this well worth a look as do the paciness, overall fairness, and SL’s quality writing and understanding of the gamebook form and how to manipulate it. The art does it no favours but I tended to just ignore it and look at the plethora of fillustrations. If the errors had been ironed out by whoever was supposed to be proofreading/playtesting it, this would have been a real winner. As it is it is just good rather than great.


Wednesday 11 May 2022

Six-Gun Friday



Gaetano Abbondanza

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The idea of a Western FF has been bandied around for years. Warlock magazine mentioned it as a potential genre in its occasional reader questionnaires but nothing ever came of it. There is an argument to say that it would not fit comfortably into Titan but as samurai and Eqyptian-modelled pyramids found their way in there is no real reason why a cowboy setting could not be worked in somewhere or other, especially as each part of Titan has a distinct identity of its own. When Six-Gun Friday appeared in Fighting Fantazine Issue 13 I saw this as a mixed blessing: it was a brave and welcome move into hitherto unexplored territory for FF, but I personally find most Western movies pretty tedious and they are my least favourite genre. That said, I do like the stylised violence of the Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone movies as well as some of the other (admittedly wildly OTT) spaghetti Westerns, the more revisionist  later efforts like Dances With Wolves, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Soldier Blue  and Unforgiven, and the more original efforts like High Noon. Okay, basically I don’t like the traditional ultra-macho John Wayne/John Ford/Howard Hawks cowboys-and-injuns stuff.

So, what is Six-Gun Friday about? YOU play the part of a Marshall in a small Wyoming town. (Well, that immediately resolves the “how to fit Westerns into Titan” question – the answer is to simply not bother even trying!) The bank gets robbed and YOU set out to bring the perpetrators to justice who it quickly becomes apparent are the much-feared Friday Clan, a bunch of outlaws who tick lots of Western character trope boxes: two brothers who are the sons of a preacher man (to almost quote Dusty Springfield), an ex-lawman gone bad, a tubercular medic, a train robber, and a sociopath. In your pursuit of the Fridays you travel from your hometown of Bent Reed to the rather larger Cheyenne before engaging in a final showdown on a moving train en route to Phoenix. What is interesting plot-wise is that the Background gives no indication of what is to follow. Instead, the very lengthy and thorough Background is exactly that – a background to your character’s history, and a very detailed and convincing one at that. Section 1 then opens with you winning a game of chess against your Tonto-esque sidekick Rodrigo and then the bank robbery saga unfolds from there. Rodrigo leaves the proceedings pretty much immediately (so you don’t have to contend with a FF companion’s inevitable death) and then returns near the end to play another brief but plot-helping supporting role (and he stays alive, remarkably!) As you play on and get deeper into this gamebook, you soon discover that there are many ways through and there is no true path as such. Instead, the order that you might encounter the various Fridays in based on your decisions influences how each playthrough pans out. The scope for exploration of the possible paths is considerable and the replay value is, by FF standards, far higher than usual. Some paths will prove easier than others - being a marked man or not initially tangling with enough Fridays will make things trickier – but each one has its own little nuances and some can be negotiated with a minimal Skill score, although the more combat-driven paths will need a decent Skill for you to stand a chance, particularly in fist fights as all hand-to-hand opponents have high Skill and Stamina scores. There are also two possible endings: the optimum one has you killing all six Fridays, and a rather unexpected non-win outcome can be found where you turn bad and join the Friday Clan (a nice touch of anti-hero Western tropeage there). The train end Act is particularly climactic and very cleverly designed: essentially it is a gunfight where you follow a sequence of tactical moves and options, recording your Friday kills by noting down Xs – once you have five Xs noted down (and you can get two in some sections if you pull off some better moves and/or get lucky with dice rolls) you move on to the ultimate showdown with the Friday’s leader. This part really is exciting and is much more interesting than many FF final analyses as even this can turn out in a few different ways, plus it is a true test of your decision-making in conjunction with dice rolling and your initial choice of Special Skills (ie real RPG-influenced stuff).

On which subject, the mechanics of this piece are neatly modified to suit the context. You have to choose two Special Skills from five options: Fast Draw (which means you always get the first shot off in gunfights), Tracking (self-explanatory Tonto stuff), Detection (a bit Sherlock Holmes-y), First Aid (so your First Aid Kits restore 5 rather than 3 Stamina), and Spontaneity (a kind of common sense crossed with streetwise-ness). For once, these skills are all variously useful, none are useless, and there is no optimum combination. Instead they affect how certain moments play out and/or make some incidents easier to get through. Spontaneity is the most entertaining as you come up with all sorts of ways of wriggling out of situations, sometimes in amusing ways. Obviously, Fast Draw sets you up best at the end but the others will help there too in their own ways so it pays to play through several times using different combinations just to see what happens. What does strike you on creating your character is that there is no Luck score involved – whilst this may seem anti-FF it does avoid the potential clash of Luck rolls with Special Skill use plus as there is no magical aspect here it does make sense to exclude Luck. Standard FF combat rules are only used for fist fights where you logically cannot ever kill your opponents (and there are plenty of them which is a nice Wild West touch), with unique gunfighting rules being used for weapons combat: if you are shot you Assess For Damage by rolling 1d6 and adding 3 to the result to see how much Stamina you lose (this may seem harsh but getting shot is often pretty terminal so this is realistic), whilst firing at an opponent involves Testing Your Aim by testing your Skill with 2d6 but only rolling sub-your Skill is a success so a high Skill is handy if you go down the gunfighting route (and you have no choice at the end). A final unique rule is your choice of Primary Firearm: there are two to pick from, either a Colt .45 (-1 from the total when Testing Your Aim as it’s pretty accurate) or a Smith & Wesson .45 (+2 to total when Assessing Damage as it’s pretty lethal). Again, both weapons have their uses and neither is a better or worse choice. Finally, as Provisions would make little sense in the Old West, you have four First Aid Kits which each restores 3 Stamina (or 5 if you have the First Aid skill). You may argue that surely if time has moved on so has medical effectiveness, but getting shot can happen quite a bit in this adventure and there is only so much patching up of bullet holes that you can realistically do, so this makes sense too. An interesting point to note here is that this is one of the small number of FFs that defines exactly who you are down to your name: you are called Mathew Slade (which also defines you as male). I don’t have a problem with this (most Marshalls were male) but taking another name can be slightly distancing from it being YOU who is playing the lead role and I’d imagine the gender thing is off-putting for female players. Setting you as male though does help some of the interactions with female NPCs work properly and it is what it is.

NPCs play a huge part in this adventure and it is very dialogue-driven, which is something I like. The dialogue feels like it is from Westerns and the various characters you meet are all very suited to the theme. In fact, the whole package is very well written and feels very authentic – the author must really understand and a have a fondness for the genre. Generally very long sections add to the sense of a slightly ponderous sweaty Western movie and work well in context. With this though comes the effect that this is quite a mature piece due to some of the language and concepts (prostitutes, etc) and it is certainly not for younger audiences (I did say I favour 15 and 18 certificate Westerns!) Alongside the emphasis on talking is an emphasis on driving the plot and the pacing in this piece is excellent as it builds to a heart-pulsing conclusion. It feels fast-moving and never lets up to the point where it is hard to put it down or find a suitable break point if one is needed. As there are many plot strands, Codewords are used very effectively here and I’m not a fan of these generally but here it helps keep things logical and in order without having hundreds of sections to work with. The fact that most of the Codewords are desert snakes adds to the atmosphere and the sense that the Fridays are bad news. A couple of the Codewords also have an ominous effect, quite clearly telling you that you are a marked man, which surely is not going to end well. One structural point which does alienate this somewhat from FF (and gamebooks generally) is that there is only one item to be found and even then it is far from essential (but it is at least another nice Western trope – a bottle of sarsaparilla bitters!) Curiously, the lack of items to collect barely had any impact on my playing experience so it obviously is not an issue, plus why would you collect items when you are tracking outlaws? Information and help is what you need here and you get these in spades from all the dialogue and run-ins with various people. It is worth mentioning that you never need to reload your gun (John Woo would approve) and I feel that needing to track and conserve your ammo would have been a neatly nuanced mechanic as you can otherwise just fire rounds off all over the place with no thought for the fact that keeping at least six bullets for the end might be prudent. It is a minor niggle, but it is there all the same, especially as gunplay is a big feature of this effort and there is no other inventory to have to manage bar your four First Aid Kits.

This brings me to difficulty. I have already said that a high Skill is a definite advantage, but a player with rock bottom Skill can still win if they are a bit more careful in which Special Skills and weapon they choose. A low Stamina though will give you no chance as getting shot will always do at least 7 points of damage, you can only ever restore your Stamina four times with First Aid Kits, and there are very few opportunities in the text to regain Stamina. Plus opponents are generally pretty strong (as they should be to survive n this environment). But then, as I have already said, getting shot is often fatal and survival of the fittest was a fact of life in the Old West, so this is realistic rather than just unreasonably hard. The fact that some paths are less dangerous than others though does make each playthrough either easier or harder depending on what path you find yourself following in conjunction with Special Skill choices.

I am often quite brutal in my criticism of the internal art in Fighting Fantazine’s mini-FFs. Some have had genuinely excellent art that sat well alongside the main series of books and their benefit of far higher publisher’s budgets. Others had amateurish rubbish that had such a detrimental effect that the adventures would have been better off without any internal illustrations. Massimiliano Amadesi (no, I don’t know who he is either but I’ve found a YouTube video of a comic book art exhibition he put on in Bologna a few years ago so I suppose he must be known for that) created the internals for this piece and I do rather like his thick-nibbed heavily-inked art. It definitely captures the look and feel of a Western and it is neither fussy nor sparse. His saloon scenes have lots of nice detail and he draws characters in a caricatural way that suits the stereotypes of the genre. I have just one gripe: the image for section 185 is from someone else’s perspective (unless you are having a pre-hanging out of body experience) as you are in it! The ‘Zine’s covers always carry the colour art for the given issue’s mini-FF and the dusty desert image by Michael Wolmarans (better known to many as Mike Tenebrae) for this adventure is very good indeed. The hand of cards sat front and centre shows a really effective summary of the feel of the adventure and the whole image overall is hugely effective.

I have briefly mentioned the lengthy sections full of Western flavour and the author’s obvious understanding and appreciation of the genre, but it is also very apparent that Gaetano can really write. The prose is excellent, the atmosphere is full-on, every character has their own personality and unique-ness (many also have motives for why they are where they are and why they are doing whatever they are doing, especially the girls), the pacing is perfect, and there are not even any obvious errors (neither textual or structural).

Overall this is a really classy and highly original effort in a whole new territory for FF to branch into. Given the real world setting and the adjusted mechanics there is the question though of whether this is really FF. Arguably it is not, but it is a cracking little adventure anyway and a good gamebook is a good gamebook regardless of the system. There is even a useful Afterword tagged on the end explaining the historical elements and adding even more context. And on top of all this, the title itself is very clever: there are six members of the Friday gang and everyone carries six-shooters. An excellent gamebook that should be played over and over again to discover all the different threads and path variations. This is potentially the absolute best of the ‘Zine’s mini adventures.   



Thursday 27 January 2022

Sister Angela's Veil



Mark Lain

Explained by Mark Lain

Let’s start with the really obvious thing here – I wrote this mini-FF that appeared in Fighting Fantazine Issue 16. So I will try to be as objective as possible and offer some trivia about this piece as we all my opinions on it. The original idea for Sister Angela’s Veil came from one single cameo, the chestnut orgy, itself actually a red herring that serves no purpose to the true path and, more to the point, can lead to you missing an essential piece of information later on, assuming you choose to use an item that can only be found in the orgy room. The concept of this episode is based on a true historical event that I stumbled across whilst watching an episode of The Borgias. Basically a group of corrupt Priests were duped at a feast that developed into an orgy and chestnuts were served in amongst all the frivolity. As it happens, the women involved in this event also wore veils (and little else) so this is where the overall veil idea also came from. So, essentially, I constructed an entire adventure around this one event then I subverted it by making it totally unconnected to the optimum way through. Indeed, the observant will notice a few steals from true history and/or popular culture, but that is a feature of my adventures that I do not try to conceal. The most obvious examples in SAV are: the (Borgia) chestnut orgy; Father Grandier is named after a real 16th Century Priest who was at the centre of the “Devils Of Loudon” case that was documented in Aldous Huxley’s book of the same name, itself the source material for Ken Russell’s 1971 movie The Devils; Grandier’s (potential) suicide by slashing his wrists in the bath is based on a moment in Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose as is the idea of a forbidden book having its page edges laced with poison to prevent prying eyes; the Chapterhouse is based on that found in Wells Cathedral, a room that fascinated me when I frequently visited it when I was growing up in Somerset; the automaton powered by a section of the ground is an amalgam of the daleks’ power source in the first ever Doctor Who dalek story from 1963 and Tick-Tock from Return To Oz

Next came the real point of the piece – the investigation into the missing holy relic of Sister Angela De Culpa (a bit of an Enigma Mea Culpa reference in that name). The veil idea’s inspiration has already been covered but, when I realised that if you write it in the possessive (ie with a s at the end of the character’s name) you get an anagram of what would be the big reveal of the adventure:

Sister Angela’s Veil = Sister Angela Lives

Not the toughest verbal puzzle ever as the name is still evident, but the point is there. As an aside here is the question of why I called her Angela and I honestly have no idea. Maybe a subconscious angel image for religious iconography or perhaps it’s just a pretty name that came to mind and seemed to flow nicely, who knows, but The Name Of The Rose comes into play again in how YOU get involved in the mystery as there is a definite parallel with the sending of William Of Baskerville in Eco’s story and, again, I make no apologies for this.

The location was always going to be a convent in the Moonstone Hills just because I wanted it to be remote to add a sense of your being vulnerable and a long way from home. The convent layout is based on a genuine convent medieval floor plan (I forget which one or where it is), albeit simplified and heavily re-arranged. My original idea was that the convent had turned to vice since the veil vanished and that its residents were now under the influence of a malign trance from beyond the grave as, without the veil’s positive presence, the literal corruption of death had turned the convent into a brothel which would explain why there could be things like orgies going on in there (although I never fully nailed quite how this had come about in logical terms). But this idea got vetoed when I submitted the first treatment to Fighting Fantazine (they said, correctly, that it didn’t quite make sense) so, as I wanted to curry favour and my endgame was to see my work in print to get it some audience exposure, I acquiesced and changed it to an “untainted” convent but that still housed some nasties and a few people of dubious virtue.

At this juncture, let us look at the submission process that eventually led to SAV seeing the light of day in the pages of the ‘zine. After changing the treatment the concept was accepted by the Editor and I set about with gusto writing the adventure. I tend to work quite quickly once I get going so this took a month or thereabouts from first draft to submission-worthy version. I then waited 12 months to get the first set of proof-reading and play-testing notes back from the ‘zine. Various edits, questions, and corrections were suggested and I addressed these as needed (I believe there is still a section mis-link that we all missed, but it wouldn’t be FF without mistakes lol). One issue though that arose from the outset was one that I would not back down on and, subsequently, this does seem to have become something of a point of controversy with this adventure and I have seen it mentioned in pretty much everything I have read about SAV, this being the killing of the changeling in its initial baby form. The standard objection is the morality of killing a baby. I will address this as it is important and, in at least one case, I received a pretty vitriolic comment concerning this episode on an online gamebook forum. I have defended the relevance of the baby kill since the ‘zine first raised it and my justification is twofold: 1) when was FF ever conceptually moral in any way? 2) if you read on from that choice, you quickly realise that the baby is more than it seems when you engage it in a sequence of increasingly tough combats (in other words, by the next playthrough the player will know the truth of this section). So, I submitted my revised text and I waited. And I waited. A further full 12 months later (to the month), I received another set of proofing/playing notes querying more (mostly minor) points and requesting more corrections. By this point, quite frankly, I had long-since lost interest in this adventure and moved onto other projects so I no longer cared and just agreed to whatever they suggested, minus the baby kill which I absolutely refused to excise from the adventure as it is a neat trap for the unwary player (replays should show how to correctly deal with it) and it also links back to an earlier cameo so it adds some coherence too. I acknowledge that, in isolation, what you are expected to do to tackle the changeling may seem unsavoury but context is everything and I think it is a key part of the experience of this adventure.

Once the final draft was settled on by both parties, the next stage was when I was asked for an art brief for the cover, x number of internals, and x number of incidentals. I always like to have the big set pieces and any moments of awe or horror illustrated in my gamebooks, so choosing what to have visualised is usually something that is in my mind’s eye as soon as I design that particular part of an adventure. So this was an easy task, even though the project was, as far as I was concerned, very old news by then. This was the only time that I have been required to write an art brief without knowing who would be producing the art, so I had to write the briefs without the benefit of being able to exploit and play up to an artist’s style. By a bizarre coincidence, the colour cover was by Michael Wolmarans (aka Mike Tenebrae) who I have since worked with several times on my own Destiny’s Role gamebook series and he is very good at interpreting my briefs how I see them. I liked the cover when I saw it – it was striking and captured the sense of mystery that I was looking for, but I have read a lot of negative comments saying that it is a bit too grotesque or unsettling (again, since when was FF meant to be cosy?) However, and this is another unique experience for me adventure writing-wise, I did not see any of the art until the ‘zine issue was published and I was rather less impressed with the internal art by Simon Walpole which is, let’s make no bones about this, pretty poor. I have seen worse in the ‘zine and I accept that this is a fan work, but the art did it no favours at all and is far too bright and cartoonish for what I was looking for. There is no way I would have accepted any of it for a DR book but I did not have any say in the art the ‘zine matched to my text so it is what it is.

This subject neatly brings me to my personal opinion of an adventure written by me. First the positives. There are some fun moments of black humour that I enjoyed: the Potenza curse that renders your weapon useless (ahem); the initial moment where if you refuse to co-operate the book basically says “Sod you, stay outside and die, then”, but phrased better obviously; and the part where you can end up having to blunder your way through the leading of a religious service if you have killed a particular character. For those who focus purely on the polemic baby kill, I say this: I do have a sense of humour after all. And I do like the way that, as a mood piece, it is pretty taut and it definitely has atmosphere. I have seen it described as “weird” which was the intention as I wanted to do something a bit mysterious and outré, whilst also creating a fairly traditional building exploration adventure. In fact, I do think that the overall mystery-solving concept worked well. Generally, I see this as an adventure of moments and I’m not sure how well it gels, but there are several cameos that I really like: the orgy, the scriptorium, the trippy garden and its hidden tomb, the calacorm (who doesn’t like calacorms?), the automaton (which doesn’t quite fit though), and the bathroom Grandier encounter that can go any number of ways and really does require the player to tread carefully and think. When I wrote it, I liked the whipped suspended “fallen” nun but in retrospect it is maybe a bit too sado-masochistic, but then this adventure does get pretty dark (as many reviewers have pointed out) and this was heavily influenced by the 1970s Italian nun-sploitation movies that Redemption re-released in the ‘90s that are utter shite yet oddly compelling at the same time. Plus, this cameo does link to the changeling and adds even more context to what unsavoury events may have taken place in the recent past in the convent. On a similar note (and in the next chamber to the changeling) is the immured nun-wight which is another true history concept (devotional walling in of oneself) that I’ve fused into a fantasy horror trope for shock effect. I think the adventure overall has quite an old school feel, but the added violence and nastier moments do serve to pull it into the 21st Century.

Re-reading it for this review is the first time I have read it since I submitted the final draft (I couldn’t face it until now because the whole overlong saga of getting it into print was too arduous and I hated this gamebook for so long because of this) and it does stand up pretty well, but if I had full creative control and speaking now with the benefit of hindsight, I would definitely do some things differently to address what I see as its negatives/failures. There are way too many Luck tests (often with fatal outcomes for failing) and I doubt a Luck score of less than 11 or 12 will get you very far. Likewise, there are some tough fights so a high Skill is essential, especially if you fall foul of the Potenza curse and/or lose your weapon at Square One (which is maybe a bit unfair, but you are entering what you are made to believe is a holy place so it does add up). The “Angela claiming to be Amandla” moment can just seem like a typo but it is meant to emphasise the lie that links what Grandier tells you so it’s actually a key text prompt for victory, but it did not come across very well and probably doesn’t really make sense so I should have made her lying more obvious (possibly just by choosing a better fake name for Sister Angela to utter). I would definitely make the meaning of the “veil of lies” concept more explicit generally as that is the point of the title (well, that and the anagram that exposes the lies) and the “veil” maguffin. I would also write it how I originally intended it ie with the fall to prostitution angle, but I would definitely give it a more logical base as I would have the time to develop this properly as it was discarded before it got the chance to become something that worked in context. I think overall that my now negative view of this adventure is born out of the prolonged creation of it (and my subsequent disappointment when I saw the internal art) and the fact that it was never quite what I planned it to be. Indeed, when I first started planning this adventure, the process of expanding the ideas and designing the overall map was a very exciting time (especially as I knew where it was going to be printed) but after 2+ years of development hell there came a point where I was just going through the motions, which is a shame really.

There are a couple of important points to note at this juncture. Firstly, the mirror episode (step into it or smash it?) is a trick I used to include in many adventures that I GM’d for friends when we played out scenarios in my early teens. For some reason this idea captured my young imagination and its being featured in SAV is a nod to its inclusion in basically every adventure I ever created when I was young. Secondly, this is the only time I have ever used a Bestiary to mine ideas for encounters to include (in this case, Out Of The Pit for pretty obvious reasons) and we have OOTP to thank for how the whole changeling part found its way into the proceedings. I think I probably chose to refer to OOTP to try and give SAV a more “FF authenticity” feel, but I cannot be certain anymore quite why I did this. I seem to recall that the calacorm was always going to be there so the prison cells were a given and the way you can get knocked out and come to in them is very much a homage to The Citadel Of Chaos.

My personal opinion is that SAV is an average mini-FF in the context of what has appeared in Fighting Fantazine as their output (just like Warlock before it) swung from brilliant adventures to utter dross. The ‘zine has at times definitely offered better mini-FFs than SAV, but there has certainly been some that are inferior to it in its pages too. For a long time it seemed like SAV might be the magazine’s mini-adventure swansong but it looks like there is a new Issue imminent after several years’ hiatus. To close I will ask myself the question “Am I proud of Sister Angela’s Veil?” For sure, I am proud that I got my work published in the ‘zine and I do not take this for granted in any way. That the adventure got a positive comment in You Are The Hero Part 2 from one of the ‘zine’s staff just before it was released was also a pleasing moment for me. Of all the adventures I have written (both amateur and professional) this is my least favourite, but this is as much because I like to complete a project and move on rather than endlessly going around in purgatorial circles revisiting it well after the fact as it is for any artistic or quality reasons. It is way too hard and the true path is very tight but it was designed as a challenge and a mystery to solve rather than a slash-and-collect-your-way-to-victory affair. That it was never quite how I imagined it is a problem that probably bothers me more than anyone else. The bottom line is that gamebooks are created for people to play and art of any kind is designed to both entertain and to provoke/inspire a reaction from those who experience it. The fact that some people have played it and felt compelled to comment online suggests both of its fundamental purposes were achieved but I myself would never rate it any higher than a decent but flawed effort.

Friday 21 January 2022

Warlock magazine RPG scenarios


Steve Jackson


Paul Mason & Steve Williams


Dale Ashman


Graeme Davis


Paul Mason

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy – The Introductory Role-playing Game primer book attempted to turn the FF solo gamebook concept into a full-blown multi-player RPG, something expanded further with Marc Gascoigne and Pete Tamlyn’s three book AFF series, which was itself then developed massively by Arion Games in the early 2000s and beyond. The original Puffin FF series only produced one full scenario book for SJ’s basic FF RPG, Paul Mason and Steve Williams’ The Riddling Reaver, but Warlock magazine offered several smaller-scale FF RPG scenarios in its pages, all of which fundamentally required existing familiarity with SJ’s original FF RPG book to be able to play them.

The first of these, appearing in Warlock #5, was In Search Of The Mungies’ Gold, a hybrid campaign and boardgame written by SJ himself, which is played out on a board also included in the magazine. It additionally requires the GM to read and be familiar with The Apes Of Mauristatia, an Out Of The Pit article also included in that issue, so pretty much everything the GM would need is there bar the FF RPG book that is a given pre-requisite to have read otherwise I struggle to understand why you would be attempting to play this! Reading over the scenario will also reveal that an understanding of the plot of the Sorcery! series (if you are to make the most of the Hermit character), a copy of The Shamutanti Hills, and a copy of The Citadel Of Chaos (that, just like in that book, will win you loads of money that you are unlikely to need) are also all needed to be able to include absolutely everything that this scenario asks for. The scenario’s premise itself is simple. Mungies are apes who like to collect gold (for some reason that even the text admits is not really clear other than they just seem to like stealing it) and rumours of their gold stash are doing the rounds in Kharé. This has attracted the attention of the group who are about to play and they get in a boat, sail across Lake Lumlé, and thus begins the game as they land and search around the board looking for the fabled horde. The GM decides in advance where on the board to locate the 16 game-defined encounters and the players make their way from board square to board square as they explore the area and the GM does have the option to add more of their own material if needed. The instructions do insist on six characters (possibly to make some of the tougher encounters easier maybe, otherwise I can’t understand exactly why) and any shortfall in players has to be made up by NPC hired hands played by the GM who are bribed to do the bidding of the players in the group, player Skill tests and suitability of potential financial rewards for the NPCs permitting. The instructions are helpfully clear on how to go about successfully planning the way encounters are located on the board, and importantly point out that creatures should be logically placed in their habitats, encounters with NPCs who can advise on finding the gold are placed in reasonable positions (eg: they can be found near the boat to get an early hint or somewhere in the wrong direction to put the adventurers back on the right track), and that the gold is not put somewhere totally unfair (in the boat being the example the text gives - as there are two encounters that must precede the gold square I can’t really see how this can happen, but the text’s point is admittedly a valid one, all the same).

The encounters themselves are what makes this piece interesting as the four species of apes of Mauristatia are well designed and unique, especially the Wraith Apes who are harder to fight at night than if encountered during the day and are less likely to attack during the day, which could be handy if the players happen upon them in daytime (although this would largely be through sheer luck). Indeed, the GM must track the time of day as the characters move about the board and, in keeping with Sorcery!, if they go a day without eating they will suffer a Stamina penalty so there is added realism in that respect and managing the 5 Provisions each player starts with is a key part of being victorious, although finding the bomba fruit will definitely help in this respect. The Champaque is also intriguing in that it can grow progressively stronger if certain conditions are met. The titular Mungies themselves can only be fought if a player has a Skill of 10+ otherwise they will just run away as they are very fast so a group where every player has lower Skill scores can in theory have an advantage, especially as there are seven Mungies to contend with. Conversely, a weak party may struggle against the lethal Manticore that can be found if players are particularly unfortunate!      

In terms of difficulty, notwithstanding the Manticore and potential instadeath at the hands of a Blade Tree, this scenario is not too hard, and the added option of using the GM-controlled NPCs (if there are any in the party and they can be convinced to fight on the players’ behalf) makes this all the more the case, and a tactical party will think to use this and the players should be thinking tactically anyway. Slightly harsh is the rule that Escaping is not allowed (especially if the players find the Manticore), but it does allow the various traits of the different apes etc to come to the fore much more. The relatively small size of the playing area (and the possibility that the party could just blunder their way straight on to the correct path to the gold with no real resistance) does make for what is likely to be a short game but the GM does explicitly have the option to include the contingency plan of including the return journey back to the boat should the players find the treasure too quickly. Obviously a savvy party may well opt for the same safe route back but the GM could of course subvert this and reorganise some unused encounters that have arrived on the scene in the intervening period. The return journey coda adds a double-jeopardy factor as the boat is found to be damaged meaning only one player can ultimately leave with the gold so it becomes a winner takes all situation which does unravel the collaborative aspect but is something of a potential twist in the tale (unless of course the party just decides to give up on the gold and abandon it in favour of camaraderie, thus completely defeating the object of the exercise).

The all-important replayability of course comes from the randomness of how the board can be laid out (just like SJ’s subsequent WOFM boardgame) which does make this different to most pre-designed scenarios as they can be very proscriptive and there is a noticeable absence of scripted prompts to read out to the players which emphasises even more the boardgame feel of this piece. However, I cannot help feeling that there is an element of lazy design with the “refer to this or that book for ideas” element and, although the play area is small, alternate pre-written options for encounters to allow subsequent playthroughs to be very different would have been a nice add-on. That said, the inclusion of the various apes does make this more interesting and worthwhile than it would otherwise have been and there is a clear sense of place to the setting which overall makes this a decent first stab at a scenario from Warlock magazine. Personally I would have liked something longer for players to get their teeth into more but the return journey can allow for the unused material to still get included if needed and will extend the game’s duration, so SJ was thinking on his feet when it came to making this more than fifteen minutes’ worth of play. Incidentally, a gamebook adaptation of In Search Of The Mungies’ Gold was included as the mini-FF in issue 4 of Warlock’s spiritual successor Fighting Fantazine in 2010 which greatly fleshed out the original premise and concepts.

Warlock #7 gave us the next of these scenarios in the form of Paul Mason and Steve Williams’ Deathtrap On Legs, a sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon that follows directly on from the end of that book and probably works best if one of the party has genuinely just completed it (the instructions do say to do this) given that the concept here is that the winner of The Walk has just slept off his or her ordeal and is joined by a team of groupies (the rest of the playing party) who watched the victor enter and subsequently emerge alive from the Trial of Champions. The groupies have to join forces with the victor and, as one, they head off to an inn in Fang where the group is mysteriously invited to get some R&R at the tower of one Badedas the Blue (shades of Tolkien in that naming convention). However, little do they know that the tricksy Baron Sukumvit has spiked the victor’s laurel crown with a smelly juice to allow him to be tracked by a vicious Crocosaurus ridden by a Gumar hunter whose job it is to retrieve the 10,000 Gold Pieces prize money that Sukumvit is not best-pleased to have parted with and to silence any possible news spreading of the besting of his famous Trial (in other words, to kill the victor), so the whole thing is a set-up. Tangled up in all this too is Jaiphrai Ah’cha (one of Mason-Williams’ many punny characters that resurface in various of their FFs and is an alternative identity of their favourite creation, the Riddling Reaver) who is despatched to keep an eye on proceedings and make sure the Gumar hunter comes out victorious at the end of all this. As an aside at this point, it is worth noting that it is in Deathtrap On Legs that we discover that the character who leads contestants into the Trial is the very same Mr Ah’cha so that is a nice bit of lore to come out of this piece. I think for authenticity, not only should the victor be played by an actual immediate winner of Deathtrap Dungeon, but the groupies should also be played by characters who have been a party to the entrance and emergence of the same character - some simple general background given to these players by the GM would suffice to set the scene for the non-victor players, but this would definitely add to the immersiveness and understanding of who is who. The text does state that the victor character can carry over anything they found in Deathtrap Dungeon (which makes perfect sense) but, bar any obvious “open use” items such as food or weapons, their usefulness would have to be edited in as custom moments by the GM for this aspect to really work, but it would definitely add something and drive the idea of continuation more effectively.  

So, what of this highly-promising idea then? Well, this is the problem because there is not actually much to this scenario other than the gambit of getting to the wizard in one piece via a plain where nothing happens unless the GM throws in a couple of random plains-based encounters of their choosing, a forest where the first crocosaurus harassment takes place, and the tower episode which does have some surprises but is the only decent part and even then only really breaks down into two events plus the necessary crocosaurus and Gumar killings. An added problem is that most of the players will be asleep during the crocosaurus attacks in the forest as only the player on watch will be awake to experience what is going on, although several visits from the creature can happen so that different players can be awake to experience the same moment which would add some context. Further exacerbating all this (or the lack of “all” in this) is that, other than the rather strong reptilian beastie with its Sk 14 St 18 stats, hardly much of a challenge is presented. Jaiphrai does a vanishing act, Badedas has been turned into a fairly weak zombie, the Gumar is hardly strong, and an inconsequential wild boar vs freaking out Hillman moment is not going to cause a party of the intended 3-6 players much trouble. Granted there are a couple of neat but very slight moments where the GM gets to have some grunty gesticulatory fun trying to articulate the Hillman telling the group about the crocosaurus he has seen passing by (if they can interpret this at all) and inside Badedas’ tower is a pool not unlike that where the famous Bloodbeast resides in DD (it’s actually a teleporting portal in this case though) but any excitement that could be caused by the possibility of another Bloodbeast encounter is dashed quickly.

In essence, this can be summed-up as, basically, off the group goes, they try and avoid being killed by the crocosaurus/hunter, they get to the tower hoping to meet their host, they find the maguffin of the piece (that Badedas is dead and they have been duped into going there so they can be killed off), and then it all ends very suddenly. It is kind of like an alternate extended ending that got deleted from a movie of DD and has been included as an extra feature on the DVD edition. It is unlikely to take long to play (maybe as little as 30 minutes) and definitely needs the GM to add more random (ie non-plot) cameos in to put some meat on it and get around the lesser issue of everything being directly related to the plot which does detract from the realism that unconnected encounters and moments in an exterior setting should give. It is far less imaginative than we have come to expect from the Mason-Williams team but it does have the “big reveal” ending that Mason was always a proponent of in his FFs.

In conclusion then, Deathtrap On Legs is fairly inconsequential overall. It is a good concept in the way it follows DD in a potentially intriguing manner but sadly it makes nothing of its possibilities and little more can really be said about it. The title is pretty neat though.

The Tower Of Hades, written by reader Dale Ashman and presented in Warlock #8, is an altogether lengthier and much more involved affair than the previous two efforts and, in spite of the action taking place all in one location as opposed an outdoors trek like In Search Of The Mungies’ Gold and Deathtrap On Legs, it feels much bigger overall, largely due to the sheer amount of material and content incorporated into this scenario. It takes another simple premise (the group’s friend, Belkor the Dwarf, has failed to show for a rendezvous so they go to where he was last known to be and try to establish what has become of him) but this time makes way more of it. Initially, the group explores the inn where Belkor likely disappeared (the Horizon Inn) and unearths a mysterious cult at work. From there, they find an entrance hidden below the inn buildings which leads first into some underworld caverns, and then into the Tower Of Hades of the title. This may not sound big map-wise but there are about 40 areas to explore, which is a lot for a “mini-scenario”. There is a lot of sleuthing required on the part of the players and this is far from a simple adventure but the inn section is not especially tough and acts more as a prelude and basic intro to the concept. It is when the group enters the actual tower itself that this really erupts into a seriously challenging scenario.

The tower is on several levels and, as the players explore, the real scale of what is going on becomes apparent. In many ways this has echoes of what would come with Zharradan Marr’s marranga abominations in Creature Of Havoc as the big baddie of the piece (Ar Gadayon, an evil sorcerer) is conducting vivisection experiments on various creatures and unfortunate locals with a view to creating an unholy army of nasties to unleash on the world (shades of another SJ effort there then as this is not dissimilar to Balthus Dire’s shenanigans in The Citadel Of Chaos). An interesting point to note here is exactly what world this is as this scenario is set in something called “The Outlands” and appears to have no Titan link of any kind. This is not a problem, on the one hand it does make it exist in a vacuum within the FF cannon, but it does at least show originality as the author has not tried to piggyback on another author’s work – potential then to genuinely play this as a standalone scenario but I admit there is no real reason why the GM could not retcon The Outlands into the standard FF worlds somewhere to incorporate it into a larger campaign. But I digress, let’s get back to the tower. Each level of the tower has numerous rooms to explore as the story reveals itself and the players must piece together the ever-increasing amount of evidence they find to a) rescue Belkor, and b) take out Ar Gadayon himself. Some elements (especially some power spheres and deactivating a light beam) are complex and would require a lot of lateral thinking by the players which makes this feel more like one of the more elaborate D&D modules and is a far cry from either of the previous two Warlock scenarios in this respect, and these sections do require very close and repeated reading by the GM to fully understand what is being described. What I really like about this piece though is how focussed it is on its concept and how well-designed and developed this is, from the hierarchy that can impact events in various ways (dress as a higher member of The Order that makes up Ar Gadayon’s acolytes and you will be afforded more respect and some moments will be made easier than if you dress as a lower member or don’t opt for disguising at all) to the gradual revealing of the vivisection aspects, through the way the tower acts as a self-contained living space for the sorcerer’s minions (both human and Ogre), and even the way Ar Gadayon himself is presented as a cultured insane genius of sorts. Depending on how skilfully or clumsily the players negotiate the game map (from even the very first part in the inn) this adventure can be made easier or harder and some members of the group can easily get captured and become destined for torture/experimentation themselves unless the other players can find where they have been taken so the chance of the group getting split up is pretty high which will obviously make things harder. Tangling with the Order too early in the piece can be disastrous (and the Order are very strong opponents with stats in double figures) as can doing obviously stupid things like antagonising a massive regular whose table at the inn is permanently reserved for him or trying to fight the local militia who can show up if the group causes too much trouble in the inn section. The inn section is largely about ground work in introducing what is going on and trying to keep the group in one piece before locating the tower and unravelling the crux of the piece.

Something that makes this stand head and shoulders above its two predecessors is the focus on plot (Mungies is just a smash-and-grab exercise and Deathtrap has a concept but it barely gets used to any good effect) as the players discover more and more as they progress, whilst remaining fixed on the original aim of finding Belkor. Once it becomes apparent what is really happening a two-fold challenge comes into play of rescuing the group’s friend and also vanquishing Ar Gadayon. Obviously Belkor can be found either alive or dead (if the former, then he is a usefully strong NPC to have in tow for the later stages of the game) so there may only be one aim albeit tinged with revenge, but the ultimate victory condition would be to defeat Ar Gadayon and have everyone including Belkor live to tell the tale. But any kind of win in this adventure is hard fought as (and the intro even warns of this) the scenario grows increasingly harder as you get further along and the Final Act really is very hard indeed (way more so than Mungies or Deathtrap), especially due to the amount of logic and thinking out of the box required from the players to negotiate the tower given that the earlier two scenarios were mostly just killing opponents to get to the goal, whereas this one asks the players to divine how to operate and/or deactivate mechanisms, how to best approach situations, etc etc. In other words, this is a much more nuanced and traditional take on role-playing where brains will win over brawn even though sheer strength is still needed in places (and strength in numbers for the multi-opponent fights with tough enemies). To curb the psychotic approach in the inn section though, the number of spare seats at each table in the inn is cleverly limited so the full party cannot join any one table together, which is a neat touch that also requires the party to separate and gather intelligence to bring back to the group. Conversely, in the tower any combat is better-handled collectively as the difficulty ramps up but, again, combat should be avoided if only to be strong enough to handle the end game.

I have noticed one glaring error early on where a group of adventurers can be met in the inn – the text says there are six of them then goes on to only ever describe five of them (a similarly famous error existed in Blade Runner so is this a gag?) but a sensible GM would notice this and either add a sixth or just tell the group there are five, so this is hardly a crisis. There is some fun to be had by the GM in playing the barman, Belkor, Ar Gadayon, and the various cultists and ogres, and everything feels very full and fleshed-out in this scenario. The content of the tower in particular is very original and intriguing material. Admittedly, it could be a long session to play, especially given all the problem-solving, but RPG scenarios are more often long than short (brevity was a criticism I levelled against the previous Warlock offerings) and that just makes for a more satisfying adventure with lots for the players to get stuck into. There is also no real need for the GM to improvise in this scenario and nothing needs adding to make it more exciting to play. In fact, the whole thing is so focussed and neatly-packaged that any random stuff would feel at odds, plus where would you put it anyway given the play map here?

This scenario was the one that raised the bar for Warlock’s FF RPG offerings in my eyes. It feels complete, is very well thought-out, is a serious challenge for the players, and is full of logical and interesting moments. It is arguably a bit too difficult at the end, but this just makes it more climactic and the mixed emotion element of Belkor being either alive or dead at the end makes it all the more worthwhile. Ar Gadayon’s mini-empire is fascinating as is what he is up to and his tower is well-worth a visit. Really good stuff, particularly as this was a reader submission rather than a professional effort by one of the GW inner circle.

The third consecutively-published scenario (in Warlock #9) was Graeme Davis’ The Ring Of Seven Terrors and was a very effective treat. Very much a cameo to be incorporated into a larger overall campaign (otherwise this may feel a bit random and incomplete), this is effectively a sequence of seven challenges bookended by the over-arching idea of a burial barrow surrounded by a stone circle. The quality and interest here comes in the variety of shifting environments and encounters inter-related to the way the stones and the tomb morph from one form and appearance to another, each transition designed to suit a theme. Overcome one challenge and the circle/tomb transforms into its next configuration, it’s as simple as that, but the nature of what the players are faced with is far from simple as each presents a “Terror” that the party must contend with in various different ways.

First up is War, made a little trickier by the potential for the group to become separated and part of it being unable to see what has become of the other part. This first section generally goes easy on the players though and involves an easy fight on a post-battle scene with a group of skeletons equal in number to how many players are facing them. A gentle opener then. This is followed by Famine, the scene having transformed into a desert wasteland, the stones and tomb now sandstone. This one is deceptive as it seems there is no threat, but in actual fact Sand Weevils are eating the group’s supplies and the result can be serious if bitten causing terrible hunger and worse. Next the scene switches to a sea of vile brown slime, the barrow having become a mudbank and the stones dead tree stumps. This bleak locale is Plague and the party must fight a group of Decayers (again equal to as many as there are in the party) which can inflict a slow-reacting rotting disease further down the line (another reason why this is best played within a larger campaign so that the ramifications can really be felt to full effect). If everyone is still alive (and they should be as the first three stages are very survivable) the group next faces Madness as the tomb becomes a black domed crypt supported by seven pillars (the stones’ latest form). The exercise here is to deal with a Banshee, complete with its ability to mesmerise and render defenceless any hapless player caught in the spell of its wail. The Banshee is the first physically strong opponent here with Sk 12 St 12 and can only be fought by untransfixed players but the rub here is that she will only attack mesmerised characters getting autohits so this is the first stage that could really separate the strong from the weak and potentially deplete the party. Assuming at least some players survive, we move onto Death, the scene unchanged but it is now night and signs of other tombs and burials can be discerned. All the group’s weapons are now made from silver and, as before, a number of opponents equal to the current party headcount appears, this time Crypt Stalkers. GD has been generous here in giving the group the required magical weapons to fight these opponents otherwise this would have been wildly unfair and the Crypt Stalkers are pretty weak (Sk 8 St 6) but they do have special attacks, but again this is offset as any Crypt Stalker that gets a kill will vanish. Stage 6 sees a wall of flame appear around the circle and the stones/tomb are now made from a red-veined black stone which smokes ominously. The group’s weapons have also taken on the same appearance being black metal with red warping streaks. This disturbing and weird scene is the prelude to a fight with a Hell Demon with Sk 14 and 4 Attacks, so we are in seriously tough territory now (quite literally Hell). As a gesture of benevolence, the Demon’s Stamina is calculated proportionate to the number of players +6 ie given that this scenario is suggested for 3-7 players it will have St 9 at its weakest and 13 at its strongest so, in spite of its very high Skill and its multi-attacks, it can be physically not too extreme a proposition. If the group are still standing after this, erm, hellish experience, there is a bright flash and everything turns white, the ground, barrow, and tomb all now being mirrored as the group faces the seventh terror: Self. Each player must fight a duplicate of themselves with the same Skill and Stamina as they have. Once each doppelganger is dead everything goes back to how it looked at the start of the scenario including (generously and possibly relievingly) the reincarnation of any players who may have died at any point in the series of ordeals (albeit with only 1 Stamina point!) To allow for some continuation into subsequent scenarios (and in keeping with the famine episode) there is a narrow chance that some players may still have their silver or red/black sword and its relevant stat bonuses, which is a nice touch and helps this feel part of a bigger campaign/story. Survive this and the party has defeated the Seven Terrors. Ah, but then comes the final challenge because, remember, this started out with the players finding a stone circle with a tomb at its centre which now opens up to allow them access. In they go and they find the occupant who has become a Death Wraith. He is not especially strong but the restricting interior of the tomb means only two players can viably fight him and, unless one of them was lucky enough to find they still had a magical weapon, they must make a grab at one that is to hand otherwise they cannot wound this last nasty. If they do succeed the reward is lucrative and worth it.

What this scenario has that the others discussed so far do not is a relentless pace with no let up or time for the players to draw breath as one encounter follows another in quick succession. The energy and tension grows as the cameos get ever tougher and more foreboding and the final analysis where the players literally face themselves is very clever (in fact, the whole thing is very clever). There is also far more invention on show here than in its three predecessors and Davis was at the time quite an exponent of the FF RPG concept having contributed several articles to Warlock developing the system. My personal favourites from the Terrors are the grim and gloomy Plague, the vicious Hell, and the highly original Self (everyone’s worst fear is to face themself in mortal combat lol), but everything offered here is great material delivered with atmosphere and impact to spare.

Another point of interest here though is the art, as every one of the encounters (bar Self which would be impossible to illustrate) has a single illustration to accompany it and these here are by Trevor Hamond, an artist with a truly unique style, but whose work for FF was restricted to three issues of Warlock only and nothing else. This is a huge shame as his art is very impactful and striking, looking to me almost like a primitive version of Gary Ward and Edward Crosby’s woodcut style from Caverns Of The Snow Witch, and he should have been used more in my opinion.

The Ring Of Seven Terrors is a superb scenario which, if built into a larger campaign as an extended episode, would be a brilliant inclusion to both reward and penalise the party, and is the first really essential FF RPG scenario from Warlock magazine.

We would have to wait until what would prove to be Warlock’s swansong with Issue 13 to get another FF RPG scenario from its pages, the high concept The Dreaming Sands by Paul Mason, itself another part of PM’s ever-growing Riddling Reaver-related story arc. This piece does not specify how many players it is designed for which makes it less proscribed in that sense. It also starts with a sure-fire crowd-pleaser by setting its opening in Port Blacksand’s ever-popular Black Lobster tavern. All very promising then. The concept is that Lord Azzur hires the group to resolve a “plague” that has beset the city. The nature of this plague is within itself alone a very clever idea as peoples’ nightmares are becoming reality and wreaking havoc. At the bottom of all this is of course that pesky Reaver again and, whilst no prior knowledge of his activities is necessary, it would definitely be of benefit to put all this in a wider context and make it feel like an extension of the adventure the players would have hopefully already experienced in The Riddling Reaver. The group is hired to locate the source of the problem and eliminate it by heading south from Port Blacksand to see what they can find. Before leaving the city they cross paths with Angelica (the Reaver’s daughter) who masquerades as a helping hand but is actually there to try and scupper them and prevent them reaching what turns out to be the Reaver’s castle.

The adventure per se involves a plains trek divided into several pre-defined sections (no GM-determined layout this time around, which does make this something of a one-shot in design terms once the party has won), each with a set encounter/cameo in it. There is a well-balanced mix of the conventional and the unique here with wolves/elves/centaurs/ogres/trolls offset by previously unseen creatures such as Nikrechauns and the Lords of Gond (the leader being the very powerful Naijem-Nosoth). Obviously the unique material is the more interesting: Nikrechauns are sort of pre-school Leprechauns that are far less troublesome but will turn into Leprechauns once they have got the requisite pot of gold together, and the Naijem-Nosoth (an anagram of Jamie Thomson for the more observant) is lethal but is also vulnerable to high-pitched noises to give some fairness to him being potentially over-powered otherwise. However, the standard stuff is also well-handled with a Dark Elf encounter in particular being very neat and totally in-keeping with the plot as they are convinced the players are a dream and do not in fact exist! The Centaurs are fun too as they are basically on a sort of religious pilgrimage. What may be becoming apparent in all this is that killing is not necessarily the way forward in this scenario (the Trolls are so stupid that they can just be baffled into non-aggression, for example) and PM’s preference for plot and concept over strong-arming one’s way through is very much to the fore again here. That said, there is Angelica to deal with sooner or later and she is very strong (Sk 14 St 20) and a force to be reckoned with.

A really interesting mechanic here is that the actual location of the Reaver’s castle is never given away and with good reason: the players must either visit every area to reveal it or, and I think this is probably PM’s intended approach (assuming the players can think like him and attempt this) is to roll a dice to decide where to go next and, lo and behold, his castle will appear suddenly. This is an original way to handle the finding of the player’s goal and adds the randomness of the whole Reaver concept to the “true path”. Even more randomness comes into play once the players are in the castle. There is no castle map and the GM simply improvises an intentionally impossible and unmappable design. Again, random choice rather than trying to be rational and put any sense of reason into the equation is the only way the party can locate the Reaver himself. In his chamber is the source of the problematic nightmares (a sorcerer called Alokurga) and, in itself, this is easy to resolve assuming the players can use a lateral thinking technique to get him out of his dream state (which causes his death at unseen hands). However, the Reaver then appears (the owner of the unseen killing hands of course), goes into a typical bad guy confessional soliloquy, and promptly vanishes. And that’s that.

But, there is a whole other level to this scenario too: dream attacks. And this is where the GM really comes into play. Whilst the map of the scenario and its various encounters is set, the dream attack concept is not and the GM can choose how and where to attack the players with dreams of whatever kind he or she can conjure up in their imagination. This is where it can get really interesting (and potentially terrifying) as the players will quickly start to question what is real and what is not, making the elements designed by Paul Mason seem all the more threatening and unpredictable. Indeed, the over-arching theme here is the blurred line between reality and dreams and, as the aim is to stop the dream plague that has hit Port Blacksand, it makes perfect sense to have the players getting affected by this too otherwise it is just a means to an end that could get forgotten in what PM is clearly trying to avoid from becoming little more than a seek-and-slay exercise.

The dream aspect is quite demanding on the GM but there is fun to be had in trying to be as warped as possible with this aspect. As with The Riddling Reaver, the GM is also expected to come up with cryptic ways of responding when playing the part of the Nikrechauns, which could be a challenge requiring some decent pre-planning. But these are just two examples of how original and different this scenario is and, when handled as intended, this is a great little adventure for a sharp-minded group of (probably more experienced) players. Mason’s usual tendency to emphasise plot over play is not as evident as usual here and he really gets the balance right between concept and a really satisfying adventure. For sure, this is more cerebral than most scenarios and is not really suitable for a group that just wants to kill everything and collect the spoils, but this is a welcome change and if GM’d properly this is a very intelligent scenario to both play and referee. Kudos to Mason for taking a risk that paid off with this.

So, Warlock made a concerted effort to develop the FF RPG concept which deserves credit. However, the results were very mixed, ranging from pretty empty and uninteresting to extremely good. There is simple stuff here and very intelligent stuff, which would suit a variety of playing requirements in terms of what people are looking for. Some of these are very set by the creators, others are more freeform and require greater input from the GM. Each has its merits but some are definitely way better than others. But for variety, I cannot fault what Warlock tried to do with these efforts.