Sunday 27 April 2014

In Search Of The Lost Land


Ruth Pracy

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The second part of Pracy’s trilogy of adventures ended with the promise that “The next part of this epic will be published in Warlock in a few months time”, then Warlock ended at Issue 13 which left us all wondering whether Part 3 of the story would therefore ever appear, or at least it did if you hadn’t given up on this trilogy after the lacklustre second instalment and decided you really couldn’t care less whether the demise of Warlock meant we’d never get to see this one out. Strangely enough, nine months after the final issue of Warlock had been published, the magazine it had made no secret of its antagonism towards, Proteus, finally printed the missing third episode of Pracy’s “epic”, albeit using a set of “different” rules.

Part 1 (The Floating City) was set in an icy wilderness and was reasonable, whilst Part 2 (The Land of Changes) took place in a forest and was dull, and thus Part 3 takes us into a third textbook fantasy adventure environment, starting in a very convoluted dungeon that zig-zags off in all sorts of directions and even goes around in circles in places, before giving us a site-seeing tour of Norse legends once we approach the Lost Land itself. The initial dungeon section is fairly standard fare with North-South-East-West options, items to collect, and a lot of doors that have a habit of closing behind you forcing you to carry on forwards. This is probably the most linear of RP’s three efforts, although this is semi-disguised by the sheer amount of floating around, passing out, and being generally transported about that happens here. Certain items are essential to success (eg: it is possible to find yourself looping around endlessly in the dungeon if you can’t find a silver wristband, until you take a wrong turn and die, that is) and the Lost Land section is only slightly less linear than the beginning part, leading you through volcanoes and ice, with the only real option being whether you go via some Giants or not, but it does at least offer some slight variety and sits somewhere between the multiple-route design of Part 1 and the very specific true path approach of Part 2.

Interestingly, other than its huge reliance on Northern Hemisphere mythology, one or two examples of items coming and going regardless of what you do, and the return of Pracy’s sometimes insulting jibes at the player (section 130 is one of the worst failure paragraphs I’ve ever read in a FF), this offering is rather different structurally and conceptually than Pracy’s previous adventures:
  • ·         There are far less unique creature types this time
  • ·         There is far less need to make allies and you can more easily get away with killing
  • ·         This is much more dream-like and feels almost like the Grail quest scenes from Excalibur
  • ·         There are hardly any “non-win” alternate outcomes, but there are numerous instant deaths which otherwise tend to be a rarity in Pracy’s work
  • ·         Typos, bad grammar and mis-linked sections are largely gone (enough to not be distracting) making it seem that more care has been taken in the execution
  • ·         Most worthy of note is that there is far less paragraph wasting (but still a small amount) and sections are generally longer and more descriptive as if this is designed to feel more fleshed-out and climactic

(Presumably) as this was not a Games Workshop/Puffin publication, the rules have been altered (sort of) which means you could play all three adventures and use a different rule system for each, given that Part 1 uses FF rules only and Part 2 allows for either FF or D&D rules to be used. Unlike Part 2, you are not given the option to carry over your character again (which does detract from continuity when playing through the complete “epic”), but it wouldn’t take much imagination to translate your FF attributes into those used here. Skill is re-named Dexterity and Stamina is called Strength – as these are rolled up in exactly the same way as their FF equivalents and cannot exceed their Initial values, these are directly interchangeable so the adventure’s FF origins are only very thinly disguised. Ditto, Rations which restore 5 Strength points are more generous than FF, plus you start with six and you are not restricted as to when you can eat (outside combat, naturally.) Oddly, no other starting equipment is mentioned, but you can assume you have a sword, armour and a backpack otherwise you are going to struggle! A more radical departure from FF rules is the complete removal of any concept of Luck, but you do get Wisdom instead which plays its part very well – you are often required to roll against your Wisdom (ie test it) to determine if you are worthy enough to progress, particularly in the final stages and there is a suggestion of your character having developed from an impetuous chancer in Part 1, through proving your worth via an old sage figure in Part 2, to discovering a sort of Promised Land in Part 3 (overtones of Star Wars, maybe, but this self discovery tale is used all over the place in popular culture so it would be unfair to call this plagiarism.)

Whilst on this subject, this third part of the story arc carries on directly from Part 2 and you start still in the company of Gether, with the Moss Maiden’s challenge compelling you to seek out the Lost Land which contains (you discover) the legendary Stones of Sariram that hold the source of Gether’s land’s power. The opening dungeon trawl is the caverns that were referred to in Land of Changes, then you travel through The Stupa Of The Lost Land to the other side of Winter (is that not back where you started in Part One?), and finally discover the Lost Land itself which, given that it is peopled, seems to have already been discovered before you got there (although it is a land of legend, rather than a New World.) There is nothing out of place about the plot of this (or the trilogy as a whole) and weirdness is made acceptable by the generally mystical feel of this adventure, especially the latter half which you would expect to be pretty unusual considering its mythical status. The sheer weight of Norse material that comes to the fore in the final parts is laid on a bit too thick (Miollnir, Ragnarok, Ginnungagap, Heimdal, Bifrost Bridge, etc) and whilst it does not affect the plot or the gaming experience, it can feel like you have long since left Titan and are now on Earth. I accept that it is not explicitly stated anywhere that this series is set in the FF world of Titan, but it can be assumed that it is meant to be (I think?) to make it more in keeping with the canon.

In terms of challenge level, this adventure is not especially difficult, but it can get rather muddled and confusing the first time around. I assume the sense of disorientation is deliberate and certainly makes mapping a nightmare with areas looping onto each other, but it is interesting to find a FF where the sense of the mystical renders it tough to get your head around (as a Lost Land of legend should) rather than just contending with tough combats and needing a catalogue of items to win. Yes, there are some key items to find, but as this is pretty linear you will easily find them all after only a few attempts. Creating a mental image of some of the locations you visit can be bewildering (think Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which created similarly impossible scenes in my head when I read it) and there is a gigantic scale to some of it to give you a sense of your small-ness compared to where you are (literally, at one point when you find yourself in a Giant’s glove!), but you are basically dealing with a sense of awe and vastness, rather than fighting for your life. To keep it in context there are some combats to be fought, but none are especially tough (the Garm, which is meant to be hell-spawn, is very weak with De 7 and St 3 but you meet it very early on and you don’t really want to feel like it is a lost cause that soon on) other than an incredibly strong Mountain Dwarf who has St 20. It is possible to choose to fight some very tough figures from legend (Heimdal and the Fenriswolf) but this is not essential and you will benefit from taking other options to get by them, whilst the most impressive encounter by far here would be with Heruka (who has three heads and six arms, each holding a different weapon that you must individually beat one-by-one), but if you defeat it you will lose the game anyway so my theory that there are no unreasonable combats required becomes apparent as you trace the true path over several failed play-throughs. Re-playability potential is pretty high as the sense of spectacle carries this one through and the idea of building a character up to be worthy enough to find the Stones of Sariram is compelling in itself. It’s not often (other than in those FFs that involve faith- or sanity-based attributes) that FFs require you to prove your worth in this way and this is a really appealing part of ISotLL. Similarly, it is possible to fail on your first choice, which might seem harsh but a) you are supposed to be worthy, and b) playing either of the previous instalments which give you a huge clue as to how to avoid this.

When you do beat it, there is an open ending for a fourth part that never happened, which I am glad of as this is climactic and spectacular enough to be a suitable ending to the series, plus there is a limit to how much of Pracy’s wholesale exploitation of myth we can realistically tolerate and this is definitely as far as it needed to go whilst still holding an interest for players. Pracy clearly values her source material and wants us to get something from it as well. In Parts 1 and 2 her writing style was arch and felt overly smug. In this adventure, she tones it down and lets the descriptions of the environments speak for themselves rather than sounding like a bombastic GM that you’d rather not have to deal with more than was necessary, which again makes this one much more tolerable and enjoyable to play.

The art (by seven different artists) has more continuity to it than the number of illustrators involved should suggest and there are some very impressive images with a real sense of awe and/or terror in them. Some pictures have a sketchier feel whilst others are more realised, but it all works well to my eye. The cover depicting the final episode (by Keith Berdak) is rather less effective and seems over-simplified compared to the rest of the art and rather understates the importance of what it depicts.

As an aside, Proteus’ presentation was less focussed than Warlock’s and this makes reading/playing the game rather disjointed as you have to find your way through a minefield of incidental advert pages that would be better placed after the main event. This is more of a hindrance than an issue, but it is still noticeable as you flick backwards and forwards looking for the paragraph you are turning to.

This is easily the best of Pracy’s trilogy, generally avoiding the irritants that detracted from the previous two. It is the most eventful and certainly the most imaginative, but is also the most reliant on legends for its material. You get a sense of place more easily and it is far easier to immerse yourself in the world around you. There are some flaws, but overall this is an interesting effort which requires close and repeated reading to properly appreciate the setting and concept. The post-dungeon part is much more worthwhile, but the contrasts between the sections suit the plot and add to the impact of the latter parts. You could easily play this without bothering with the first two adventures and it would still be good, but there is something to be said for working through the whole cycle to find out how it all pans out, plus it will definitely make Part 3 seem all the better. Far from perfect, but still a decent offering (if only it had a less inane title...)

Sunday 20 April 2014

The Land Of Changes


Ruth Pracy

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The second part of Warlock reader Ruth Pracy’s trilogy that started with the snowbound and slightly mystical The Floating City was published in Warlock #11. Set this time around in the interim area that links the first part’s Winter with the final part’s Summer, this adventure takes place in what is basically little more than a forest that lurches violently between Spring and Autumn environments. This transformation process is known as “The Changing” and the intro goes to great lengths to make out how dangerous and unpleasant an experience getting caught up in the middle of The Changing can be. In keeping with the first adventure’s opening spiel, it also pompously sets the scene for what actually seems like quite an intriguing descent into the unknown. Unfortunately, this second instalment is rather weaker than the first (which was functional, but certainly no masterpiece) and is probably one of the least interesting short subjects to be published in Warlock magazine overall.

Unusually for FF, you are given the opportunity to carry over your (presumably victorious) character from the first part, but this presents several issues. Firstly, do you assume that you are fully healed following the rest period that the intro mentions and that you qualify for the full complement of potions and provisions that the rules tell you you have, or do you re-use your previous character in the exact condition that he/she finished Part One? Following on from this quandary, this adventure can be played using either FF or D&D systems. This is a nice idea as Warlock was keen to promote role-playing in general in its later editions as opposed to just being a FF magazine as it was in its early days, and this gives you options for how you wish to approach the mechanics of your adventurer. On the downside, using D&D rules totally precludes you from using your previous character and takes away any sense of continuity between the first and second parts of the story, plus using D&D rules makes the adventure less involving as there are some situations where only FF rule users can gain or be penalised in stat terms making the FF approach feel more nuanced than the D&D route (especially with Luck adjustments.) I suppose as well that the usual problem of how to handle dying comes into play here – if you die in Part Two do you go all the way back to the beginning of Part One again, or do you just carry on from the start of TLoC without having to go through a full re-tread to get back where you are? (I’d imagine most would plump for the latter.)

A criticism of Part One was its sometimes clumsy construction, and that is certainly the case again here, even if this time around you are allowed to eat without being instructed by the text (which is good as this means that you can actually eat this time!):
  • ·         The rules mention testing your Skill or Stamina, but nowhere in the text are you required to do either of these (I can find 8 Luck test sections, but that’s it)
  • ·         The true path (and most of the false ones) are all very short, meaning there are several multi-paragraph episodes that could easily be cut down into one making the adventure take up half as many sections whilst still being exactly the same
  • ·         There are lots of typos and textual inconsistencies, including a shambolic opening ramble that states “who knows where you came from”, then, er, promptly tells you exactly where you came from
  • ·        It’s probably a proof-reading problem (and Warlock certainly had plenty of these!), but the punctuation in this adventure is insane, with rogue commas in particular turning up all over the place, making it read very awkwardly and disjointedly – an adventure should be fast-moving and vivid to draw you in, not such a grammatical mess that you spend as much time trying to understand the sentences as you do trying to feel like this is happening to you
  • ·         Due to the messy structure and lack of play-testing, there is an additional (and I suspect quite important) alternate (“failure”) ending (paragraph 72) that you cannot reach as it has no linking section, but does result in you finishing up in the Summer lands, which is where you are trying to get to

The flip-side of the Pracy-esque cons is the nicer touches that she also always includes in her adventures:
  • ·         You need to gain allies and behave yourself even more in this adventure than in Part One, and the psychotic approach is very much discouraged in favour of using some intelligence to negotiate the key moments and choose your moves wisely
  • ·         The true path is not as easy to find this time around (and there is only one as far as I can tell), even if it is disappointingly brief when you do finally figure it out
  • ·         You need several items again this time and they can be quite tricky to get hold of (until you figure out how to ingratiate yourself with the locals)
  • ·         The interesting feature of “non-win” endings is used again here where you achieve a “victory” of sorts but not the desired outcome, which does encourage you to try to find the optimum ending, although several of these are rather obscurely sign-posted and you will have to make some 50/50 calls that will lead to either victory or failure without you really understanding why
  • ·         A particularly neat inclusion is that you can acquire a horn that allows you to escape instantly from the entire forest in various moments of peril. OK, it’s just another way to get to more “non-win, but alive” endings, but it’s an interesting concept

Whilst your actual mission is simply to safely reach your homeland (Summer), the real point of this instalment is to meet a Moss Maiden who gives you your mission for Part Three and tells you that you are the chosen one who has to find the fabled Lost Land. You have to prove that you are the person she seeks and you do this by generally behaving yourself and making a couple of correct key choices at the right testing moments as mentioned above. In adventuring terms though, this means that nothing much happens on the true path other than you accepting the mission for Part Three and this adventure is basically just a fairly mundane bridge between The Floating City and In Search Of The Lost Land. Even the much-advertised “Changing” only happens on the incorrect routes and, whilst it is disorientating and its description does make you feel as sick as your character is meant to feel, it’s a bit of a let-down that you aren’t actually meant to witness it, even if the opening section’s warning is probably intended to alert you to the fact that the true path avoids it.

Similarly, of the always imaginative (and unpronounceable) unique encounters included here (and these are a big plus of RP’s FFs), two can only be found by going the wrong way (the very tough windy beast called a Mazzamarieddu, and the Fechan), whilst the true path is dominated by the Moss Maiden and a group of mischievous but actually very helpful dwarf spin-offs called Brownies (and their evil cousin, the Redcap, which is described as horrific but just looks cute in its picture.) There is also a potentially intriguing encounter with the Gwyllion late on, which provides another challenge, but you might just be starting to get fed up of this adventure's mental tests by this time.

Other than the tough battle with the Mazzamarieddu (which you might as well try to lose as you’ve already lost the game if you’ve met it anyway), the main challenge in this adventure is to make the correct non-kill choices and find the ultimate ending by using your intelligence rather than your sword-arm. There are two excessively harsh moments, one involving an aging curse where you lose 3 Skill and 6 Stamina permanently, the other being a pillar with a choice of four runes where three will lead to instant deaths (including the one you seem to have been told is the right one), but otherwise most of the failures are through finding a survival ending other than the one on paragraph 200, which is a refreshing change for FF even if there are rather a lot of non-win outcomes in this adventure.

As was generally the case with later Warlock mini-adventures, the magazine’s cover image is nothing to do with what is going on here, but Pete Martin’s art within the adventure itself is really good, being full-framed, atmospheric and very highly-detailed, which is especially helpful as the encounters here are mostly unique to this adventure. The key items you need make up the bulk of the incidental between-text smaller images, but this adds flavour and gives you useful hints for when you have failed umpteen times and are trying to work out exactly what you need to find to beat this mission. I am pleased to say that Pracy’s text is less curt this time around, there is much more dialogue (especially with the Moss Maiden), and you do not feel quite so insulted when you make a bad choice.

Despite having some nice touches (especially the art, the need to use your brain, and a sense of environmentalism), there is so little actually going on here that it does make this a rather empty experience if played in isolation. As an interlude between the other two parts of the story it works fine, but it is just too short on substance to be considered an adventure in its own right. If The Floating City captured your imagination, then it’s worth carrying on with the story, but this just does not stand up on its own.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Figure Painting


By Mark Lain and Steven Leicester

To accompany my imminent thoughts on The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain boardgame, this “General FF musings” post is on the subject of the six little plastic characters that act as playing tokens as you wend your way through Zagor’s mountain dungeon. As this is a boardgame, Games Workshop had the sense to give you miniatures to make the experience seem more like a table-top RPG (which, in a fashion, it is, given your freedom of movement etc) and in the box you get a Dwarf, an Elf, a Cleric, a Knight, a Wizard, and a Barbarian (fairly close to your rival NPCs in the Deathtrap Dungeon book then.) The decision on which one you choose has no effect whatsoever on the mechanics of the game eg the Wizard cannot use magic, etc, so these are simply place markers on the board. Let’s face it, whether you’re a hat, a dog, a boot, or a car in Monopoly makes no difference either so this sits somewhere between boardgame and tabletop RPG in my book, but we’ll leave the subjective angle for the write-up of the boardgame to be found elsewhere in this blog.

I originally got the game when first released and there was something a little lacking in shuffling these inch-or-so-high red plastic things around the board. Closer examination showed the sheer level of detail (not too far from that found in metal miniatures) on the figures and it was pretty clear that a decent paintjob would raise them to the stellar standards of the metal minis that some of my gaming friends were so covetous of and of which I was so envious. A few trips to Games Workshop to watch and chat with the clever people who showed up there purely to get access to free paints showed me some of the techniques involved and I was convinced I could pull this off. To put this in perspective, I was 12 or 13 at the time and not bad at making model aeroplanes so I assumed the skills could be transferred. I started with the easiest one, the Knight, and, after a couple of coats of silver, the project was cancelled due to there being no correlation between my aircraft modelling skills and my (total lack of) skill in painting things that are highly detailed and only 2 centimetres high! So five red and one half-silver figure remained employed as the player tokens for WOFM boardgaming sessions.

Fast forward another 18 or so years and, now in my early-30s, I have become quite a dab hand at building most kinds of scale model. Cue another attempt at tackling the WOFM figures. This time all six were included and now all six were ruined with shoddy paintjobs using eggshell railway modelling paints that look great on trains but ridiculous on little fantasy people. So the figures got stripped which left them semi-pink due to the stripper bleaching some of the colour out of the original red plastic when it lifted my crappy paintwork... and thus, the six little characters got dumped on my modelling bench and sat in disgrace for just over seven years whilst I tried to find a solution to what was becoming the longest modelling project I had ever attempted and made the four years it took me to still not yet finish a Merlin helicopter kit for my step-brother seem like a quick-looking turnaround.

We are now in mid-2013 and a friend from Facebook’s FF groups happens to post some pictures online of some figures he has painted for a figure painting competition (what else?) Suitably impressed, I email him on the off-chance he might be willing to draw the final curtain on the seemingly never-ending saga of my WOFM boardgame figures and their journey towards having some life and colour to them. I pass the Luck roll and Steven Leicester agrees to take on the commission and, finally, my almost 30-year-long crusade to paint my WOFM minis is at an end. And, in the true WOFM-style collaborative spirit we are now at the river bridge, so we must pay the ferryman to cross over and from here on, in Steven’s words, this is how it was done...

I'd known MALthus for a while from enjoying his blog and some banter on the Fighting Fantasy fans page via Facebook. We share a similar taste in music, went to the same University, and are both FF obsessives!

He'd seen some of the miniatures I had been painting for my own pleasure, which I had posted images of on my own Facebook page, and had some complimentary things to say about my work. It was then the proposal came through. 

"Do you think you could help me realise a 25 year long dream?"

At first I wondered what on earth he could be getting at, but it then became clear the painting of the miniatures featured in the WOFM boardgame was the goal. Well how could I refuse? I own the game myself, and my own set has stayed unpainted for a good few years. Thought it would be good to try someone else's before tackling my own.

Now some of you may be thinking this is what I do for a living. As nice as it would be to earn my crust painting miniatures, I'm by nature quite a slow painter and I couldn't get enough models done to pay my way! For me its always been seen as nothing more than a relaxing hobby, and I would urge anyone who thinks they might enjoy it to give it a go. 

I haven't been painting that long myself. I first picked up a paintbrush in anger around three years ago, and as most miniature painters will tell you, for the first few months my efforts were appalling. But like anything, persevere and you WILL get better. If you do take it up here are my top tips for any beginner:

·         Don't get disheartened at first. Keep at it and you will improve.
·         Make sure you have a good lighting source where you paint. A daylight lamp makes a world of difference.
·         Make sure you always use clean water, and never take the paint straight from the pot. Always water it down a little first on a pallette.
·         A few thin coats are better than one coat that is too thick. Slapping the paint on will obscure the detail on your models.
·         Get a good tutorial book. I'd recommend How to Paint Citadel Miniatures from Games Workshop, as this has been a huge help.
·         Get the best brushes you can afford. I use Winsor and Newton Series 7 brushes. Yes they are around four times the price of non sable hair brushes, but they will last for years and always come to a nice point.
·         Don't be lazy! Clean up after your sessions. Your brushes will thank you for it. Use a brush cleaner after every session. I'd recommend 'The Masters' brush cleaner.

So what are the stages to painting a model? I'll quickly run through these to give you an idea of how to go about it. First you need to have an assembled and built model! Luckily the WOFM miniatures are all one piece so you're good to go with no assembly or clean up. Don't be fooled into thinking painting is quick. I'd estimate each of these models from start to finish took me around 3 hours each.

Stage 1 - Undercoat
You'll need an aerosol can of black spray undercoat/primer. I use either Army Painter black spray or Games Workshop ‘Chaos Black’ spray. You can get loads of other colours than black, but black is good for beginners. Take your model outside and give it a quick undercoat. Stick it to some wood with double sided tape to keep your hands clean! Don't go mad either with the spray, you want to nice thin coat, not a deluge. The undercoat will give a nice smooth surface to paint on.

Stage 2 - Basecoat
Apply a primary base colour to each area. For the Wizard miniature I used a dark grey for his hat and cloak, a sky blue for the undergarments, dark flesh for the skin, gold for the belt, desert yellow for the beard, sliver for the staff top and brown for the staff handle.

Stage 3 - Wash
A wash is a very thin paint, specially designed to flow into the recesses of a model to give shade and definition. Black wash was used on the cloak, hat and staff top. A brown wash was applied to the staff handle. Flesh wash to the skin and finally a sepia wash to the beard.

Stage 4 - Neaten up
Use the same base colours to neaten up any wash which hasn't dried in the recesses.

Stage 5 - Highlights
Simply use a lighter shade of your base coat colours on the edges of the model or any raised sections to create natural highlights.

Stage 6 - Basing
Using PVA glue, apply sand, slate, rocks, artificial grass - anything you like really, to the base of the model to add character.

Stage 7 - Varnish

If you're painting models for gaming, such as the ones from WOFM, you will need to give them a spray of varnish to protect them. This is done in the same way as Stage 1.

I could go on for several pages, but most of you would have fallen asleep reading, or vowed to never visit this blog again! As I said earlier if you want to know more, YouTube, websites like Cool Mini Or Not, or the excellent How To Paint Citadel Miniatures book offer a wealth of information.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up a starter box set of models, some paint, glue and brushes and give it a go. You might find out you love it as much as I do. You might also find you get mentioned on Twitter by a certain Mr Ian Livingstone, but I'll let MALthus pick up the story from here...................

So now I am the proud owner, after many years, of six beautifully painted and finished WOFM minis. The only problem is that now my Legend Of Zagor figures look distinctly uninteresting in their black and cream plastic and, it seems, so do Mr Livingstone’s, but that’s another story. For the timebeing I’m rolling two dice against my Luck score to see if the Trickster Gods of eBay will allow me to win the Limited Edition metal Warlock figure (from the cover of issue 10 of Warlock magazine) so that Mr Leicester and I can collaborate on a second project. Until then, MALthus Dire and Steven Leicester Present... (only kidding!)