Tuesday 25 March 2014

The Floating City


Ruth Pracy

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Warlock #8 offered this short FF submitted by reader Ruth Pracy which forms the first part of a trilogy that would continue in The Land Of Changes and end with In Search Of The Lost Land. From the outset there is a feeling that this effort is rather more mystical and almost ethereal compared to the more conventional short subjects that preceded it, but there is also an air of pretension and, in places, an awkwardly slapdash construction to it as well.

The opening spiel comes across as almost pompous in tone. Whether this is to create the feeling of other-worldliness or is just an example of archly up-its-own-arse writing is hard to say, but the latter tends to overshadow the former somewhat. Your character is presented as an opportunistic drifter who happens across an incident where the story of a kidnapped Dwarf is related to you and you see this as a chance to reap the reward that the Dwarf’s master (Lord Karon) will no doubt be offering for saving him. Lord Karon lives in the fabled Floating City of the title, which lies to the north in the Winterworld Mountains and your mission involves trekking across the frozen wastes of Winter and finding your way into the city to save the day (although there is a twist at the end which you might have already been told about if you've met the NPC who gives it away in the name of advice.)

The nature of the setting here is very interesting and the overall world where this and its two sequels take place is probably these three adventures’ most inventive feature, a world which has no seasons, instead having lands of perpetual Winter and Summer, with an inter-connecting area that variously shifts between Spring and Autumn (the Land Of Changes of the second adventure.) This first part is set in Winter so involves an icy wasteland, inhabited by typically tundra-dwelling creatures and full of the perils associated with these environments (ie glaciers, ice flows, and snow.) I really like ice-based FFs as there is a real atmosphere of peril to be felt in them, you don’t meet the usual fantasy fare of Goblins, Orcs, Elves, etc in this type of adventure, and ice FFs are few and far between.

One of the key features of Warlock mini-FFs is the unique encounters and there are several to be seen in TFC including the Tornaq (an aggressive one-eyed female spirit that lives in rocks), the Quiquern (a six-legged toothless dog that can apparently suck you to death, but never does), and the warped concept of the Radical Regenerative (a mutant humanoid that keeps growing extra appendages all the time and can have a Stamina of 20 unless you find its weak-spot and use a harpoon against it which, for some reason, is the only weapon that can really hurt it.) Throughout Ruth Pracy’s adventures it becomes apparent that she is rather fond of warped creature imagery, unpronounceable naming conventions, and bizarre and inexplicable strengths/weaknesses in creatures. Indeed, there is also some otherwise unheard-of news that Yeti cubs have poisonous bites which, whilst adding an extra danger element along the way, doesn’t mesh with any other FF Yeti that I’ve ever met (and there’s no mention of it in Out Of The Pit either) so this sits awkwardly with me in the context of FF world continuity.

The mission itself is a mixed-bag. On the one hand, it can be quite tough to negotiate and there are several key items that you need, but multiple playthroughs will eventually show that there are (as far as I can tell) three distinct true paths, none of which are mutually compatible with each other. This can both add re-playability and add to the confusion as you try to link-up the map of the game and realise that certain combinations of essential items are not possible to find on the same route (for example, you cannot get both the Angekok’s amulet AND a red feather), meaning it could take some persistence to beat this game, unless you happen to stumble across one of the correct routes quite quickly, or the unusual atmosphere and icy setting make you curious enough to want to see everything there is to see. And this is a big problem with this adventure as, to be honest, other than avoiding traps and using cunning/the correct items at two or three pivotal “test” moments, there isn’t all that much to it and the safest of the three true paths is quite short and fairly uneventful. If you have decent enough stats you can flesh things out by taking a more hazardous route which rewards you with more to see and do, but you will have to deal with at least two very tough combats so whether you will survive remains to be seen. That said, you do have two doses of Potion from the start so you have a reasonable hope of survival even if you do take the dangerous option(s), notwithstanding a potential Skill penalty of -3 if you antagonise some Ice Sprites and they shatter your sword to smithereens.

This Skill penalty highlights a frustrating feature of this and, in fact, all of RP’s adventures, in that they are plagued by textual inconsistencies to the point where they seem quite carelessly put together which is at odds with their conceptual depth in the sense of the area they are set and the sense of awe and almost fairy tale fantasy styles and ideas that they contain:

  • ·         The aforementioned Skill penalty is offset when you find a spear (which you can only take if you’ve lost your sword – a nice “worthiness” touch) which adds 1 to your Initial Skill but ignores the fact that you have lost 3 Skill already and is therefore purposeless unless you use a Potion Of Skill to restore this stat
  • ·         The introduction gives you 5 Provisions and says that these can only be used when the text specifically tells you that you can use them. Annoyingly, I cannot find any section that actually lets you do this, so these are also completely useless to you
  • ·         There are numerous typos, punctuation errors, and incorrect paragraph links – typos and dodgy grammar are an irritant that can be over-looked, but bad section links can ruin a game completely
  • ·         As is often the case with FFs, there are continuity problems where the text will decide you’ve done something you might not have, or requires you to use something you can’t possibly have if you’ve got to where you are at the time, which is just shoddy
The biggest issue by far with RP’s adventures is that they are fundamentally too short, being padded out with ultimately pointless diversions that have no bearing on the true path(s), and containing far too many episodes that are cut down into multiple paragraphs that can only lead into each other as you are told to “Turn to A”, then “Turn to B”, etc, ad nauseum. This adventure could easily have been cut down to 100 paragraphs and still have been the same actual game, minus all the padding.

On the other hand, a very neat calling-card in Pracy adventures is the multiple endings, only one of which is an actual “win” outcome, where you can survive via various sorts of semi-victories, but not the optimum one that actually constitutes winning. Becoming King or just getting out mean you have survived, but you haven’t achieved the intended objective and the text makes you feel that you are settling for the consolation prize when, choosing another option at key moments, could have led to victory. I like this idea as it is nice to not just fail by dying in adventures all the time but to, instead, experience an anti-climax which leaves you alive and almost certainly encourages you to try again in a bid to get a better result next time around.

Pracy’s writing style can be, as we have mentioned, at times atmospheric and almost dream-like, yet also has moments of pretension and even off-handedness (eg: “You are in trouble”) which gives an awkward feeling of prosaic inconsistency. In places, Pracy really wants you to “feel” her world, whilst in others it seems that she can hardly be bothered to finish a cameo off properly at all.

The accompanying art here is by Pete Martin and makes for very full and detailed fantasy art (the Floating City itself is especially fairy tale in appearance), but, for the most part, has very little “ici-ness” to it and several images have out of context backgrounds (especially the Radical Regenerative and the arty Yeti montage thing.) Also, the massive picture of the Sedna gives away her secret as the shadow of an old crone is seen in her shroud which hardly makes the great identity reveal moment much of a surprise when/if it comes. Equally, the incidental art contains far too many clues as to what the key items you need for success might be and, whilst on initial playing you will not pick up on this, once you start to build up the game map you will realise what these images are of and the fact that these are the key items you will need to find to win. This adventure came in the period when Warlock had stopped directly linking its cover art to its featured mini-FF so Chris Achilleos’ cover image of what I assume is a Werewolf is nice and atmospheric but has no actual direct bearing on this adventure in any way. I am inclined to think that the full page picture of The Floating City itself that comes immediately before paragraph 1 is probably meant to be the “cover” and it definitely has a sense of awe to it, even if it does take away the big pay-off of seeing/reading the description of the city when you finally reach it.

I am in two minds about this offering. It is unusual in that it borders on fairy tale/Camelot/Inuit legend motifs and there is a nicely weird ethereal atmosphere in parts. The icy setting is not really used to full advantage but is functional enough to feel right, but its relative brevity (if we see through all the unnecessary padding material/section links), annoying plot inconsistencies, and even more annoying stylistic inconsistency tend to make it all feel like a bit of a let-down given the intriguing and original overall world where this and its sequels take place. The multiple true paths and numerous alternate “lose but don’t lose as such” endings add re-playability, but overall this is a missed opportunity. Perhaps if all three adventures in this cycle had been joined together into one book (which would remove the need for excessive padding-out) it would have been more satisfying, but far more proof-reading and play testing would be needed to remove the over-riding feeling that this is basically a bit of a mess.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Dungeon Of Justice


Jonathan Ford

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Following the publication of Warlock magazine’s “Write a short FF” competition winner (The Dervish Stone) in Warlock Issue 4, its runner-up, Dungeon Of Justice, was printed in Issue 5. Whilst TDS was a town/desert effort, DOJ is a more traditional dungeon trawl (unsurprisingly, given its title) that has as many if not, in fact, more merits than the submission that actually won.

The premise is an unusual one for FF, even if it has been used umpteen times for Sci-Fi movies, in that YOU are wrongly accused of murdering an Elven Chief and must undertake a trial by ordeal to determine your innocence or guilt in the aggrieved Elves’ eyes. YOU must enter the titular Dungeon Of Justice, hunt around for a gold idol, then reach the exit in one piece. Get there with the idol and you are judged to be innocent as only the truly virtuous would be able to find the idol, but arrive without it and you are toast as you are clearly guilty (according to their legal system, at least.) Pretty interesting idea as, for once, you are not glory/treasure hunting or saving the world from the latest in a series of homicidal maniacs. Considering that the competition winner did involve treasure hunting, you’d have thought DOJ would have edged it in terms of originality, but obviously not... As this is an early FF the basic rules are used, but with the common Warlock variant of having only five Provisions and carrying two rather than one dose of your chosen Potion. Plus, the Adventure Sheet seems to be green for some reason.

Considering that this is a 200 paragraph effort, an incredible amount of material is crammed into the reduced number of sections and the dungeon is actually very large when mapped. There are a myriad of different directions you can go in, some longer than others, some criss-crossing into others, and some heading off into more exclusive areas, so replay options are many, especially if you want to see everything, and it’s worth the effort doing so regardless of whether you have already beaten it as there is a lot of imagination on show here. It is probably fair to say that Ian Livingstone’s first Trial Of Champions foray in FF #6 Deathtrap Dungeon is the benchmark by which all FF dungeons should be measured given the sheer variety of physical traps, mental challenges, combats, item-seeking, rival players, etc, but Dungeon Of Justice holds up pretty well considering it is a fan-written effort and is half the length in section terms.

Firstly, this dungeon is pretty dangerous and there are some very entertaining ways to die - slipping into a furnace, falling into a bottomless pit, getting eaten by baby birds, falling foul of (ahem) “false idols”, etc and this is another example of a FF where it’s worth dying just to read the lengthy descriptions of your own demise! Secondly, some encounters are unique and can only be seen in this adventure - the Xlaia (a two-headed rabid dog with solid gold claws) and the unusually weak and undignified (for Dragons) Mud Dragons are interesting, but my favourite is a moment where you have to fight your own reflection which exactly duplicates your stats bar a -1 Stamina penalty that it suffers due to the effort involved in changing from 2D to 3D (very inventive justification.) Along the way you can run into other individuals who are also being judged (with the mixed results that would be expected in terms of helpfulness or otherwise) and this adds colour to the idea that this form of justice is common practise and that “participants” can spend years roaming around the twisting and turning corridors trying to find a) the idol and b) the way out. An interesting point to note on this is the way certain areas will send you to other parts of the dungeon that do not map out logically – is this intentional to create a maze effect and disorientate you the more you wander around aimlessly or are there bugs in the text that just send you to the wrong paragraph? It would be easy to write this off as the latter option but there is a possibility that this is intentional design as it adds depth to the whole concept of finding people who have been stuck in there for years. We all know FFs are notorious for wrongly inter-connecting sections, but it seems to fit in this case and this adventure seems too well-rendered for there to be such glaring continuity errors.

A welcome inclusion is several red herrings (and the opening spiel does warn about these) including a seemingly essential three-part door combination, a gold key, and an illusory version of the gold idol. It is nice to see such obviously useful finds turning out to not be the sole answers to life and death and, whilst there are some essential items, the shopping list for the true path is thankfully not all that long. However, actually finding the gold idol really is very difficult - I mapped the whole dungeon and still hadn’t found it, leaving me to have to resort to reading each paragraph in turn, then tracing the section links back to a point that I’d located previously - even if the route to it is rather convoluted: you need to throw yourself (probably quite counter-intuitively) into a river, then FAIL a Skill test, and finally PASS a Luck test to get washed up at the point where the idol is hidden. This presents an interesting situation in that this adventure partially meets the usually wildly inaccurate claim that you can win an adventure even with rock-bottom stats. A high Skill is of very little use as you will struggle to fail the essential Skill test in the river, plus most combats are fairly easy and a lot of them can be avoided completely. There are a lot of Stamina penalties (mostly for stupid acts like throwing yourself down things) but these are semi-avoidable with a couple of key items (the Cloak Of Levitation is particularly important) and some common sense. Luck tests are common so a high Luck is handy, but with two possible Potions Of Fortune, plus a chance find that stops your Luck ever dropping below six, you could probably get through on nowse and learning from several previous failed attempts alone, even if you have crap stats.

The handling of the idol discovery itself seems oddly dismissive. Finding either of the handy keys (gold or iron), the door combination or, in particular, a (useless) big ruby, is met with a verbal fanfare, but the idol is mentioned in its paragraph in an off-hand way and you could be forgiven for skimming over it and not even realising what you have found. You don’t even get a Luck bonus for finding the idol. This is something of an anti-climax, especially when you’ve narrowly-avoided drowning to get to where it’s hidden, but it could suggest that, as you know you are innocent, finding it is inevitable (maybe?)

The sheer scale of this dungeon makes finding the true path a tough task (although you can take a few different routes as long as you hit the key sections on the way) and 14 of the 200 sections of this adventure are instant deaths which seems high but dungeons are always especially difficult to negotiate so this suits the genre and is acceptable. Any less deadly moments and this would have been too easy as a) this is a dungeon, and b) this is intended to kill all but those with genuinely clear consciences, so it makes sense at least.

For a non-professional FF, this is very well written with long descriptive paragraphs that set the scene atmospherically. If there were a criticism of the prose it would be that your character seems a little arrogant at times, especially in the final (victory) section where you just shrug your shoulders and wander off in search of treasure again. Are you like this because you know you are innocent so never had anything to worry about? Is this bravado to show the Elves that you are not phased by their deadly trial? Or, has the writer assumed that, as you’ve won, you don’t want to be bogged down in descriptions of your relief as you gush with positive emotion? Whatever the explanation, almost all of this adventure does feel like an oppressive and unfair ordeal that you are unlikely to survive so it works for me in that the context and approach mesh nicely.

Alignment of image to paragraph text in Warlock’s A4 format is always a problem with these mini-FFs but in this case (barring the full page images) the pictures have been put next to the corresponding descriptions to give you an idea of what you are looking at. The art is by Bob Harvey whose work I do not like generally, but his pictures here are not as stylised as usual and, discounting his ridiculously pygmy-ish Elves, are passable. Warlock often matched the colour cover art to the featured mini-FF and for Issue 5 the Mud Dragon graces the cover which is atypically subdued and very dark and murky. As a cover this is too understated for my tastes, but it does accurately reflect the dark cavern that the Mud Dragons live in, plus these are a very unique species that we might not normally be able to visualise so it works as a cover for the adventure better than it does as a magazine front.

For me this adventure is better than the one that it came second to in the competition. Both make very effective use of the shortened length and fit a large amount of material in, but DOJ seems more logical, is more challenging, has more to discover and, most pertinently, is a million times more original as no mention of Harrison Ford or George Lucas was needed in this review! A good effort in spite of its weak title that makes it sound like a cheap S&M porn movie.