Sunday 11 May 2014

#43: The Keep Of The Lich-Lord


Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The combined gamebook achievements of Morris (Blood Sword, Fabled Lands, Virtual Reality, etc) and Thomson (Falcon, Way Of The Tiger, DuelMaster, etc) are not to be under-estimated and the prospect of a co-written FF by them both is a mouth-watering one. This is Dave Morris’ only completed/published FF entry, whilst Jamie Thomson had previously brought us (with Mark Smith) two impressive FFs: #11 Talisman Of Death and #20 Sword Of The Samurai. Expectation is high, then, for what should be a brilliant book, considering the talent and pedigree of the writers.

I always like to glance at the Adventure Sheet before I start ploughing through the rules so that I can prepare myself for any interesting or confusing new stats or mechanics to contend with and there is nothing new on this one, which suggests a conventional old-style FF (unusual for a later release.) However, on reading the rules we discover TWO new stats that are nowhere to be seen on the Adventure Sheet which means you need somewhere else to keep track of them. Annoying. Even more annoying is that it quickly becomes apparent that bothering to record these extra stats is a complete waste of time as they are highly unlikely to have any bearing on anything! Resolve is another name for concepts we have seen in other FFs such as Fear, Faith, Willpower, etc and is your ability to hold fast when faced with the Undead rather than freaking out and not being able to do anything useful. On first reading the explanation in the intro, it seems that this might be out to scupper you pretty quickly – roll one die and add 5 (ie the highest this can go is 11) – but when you read on, the cracks start to show through. When you have to Test Your Resolve, you need to roll under your Resolve on two dice. With a ceiling score of 11 this seems quite tough, but you then get to increase your Resolve by one point every time you are successful. Conversely, you have to reduce it by one if you fail, but the odds are definitely in your favour once you start getting a few lucky rolls and it goes up, or if you start with a high Resolve anyway. To make things a bit easier, your Resolve can never drop below 2, but it can exceed your Initial Resolve, finally being capped-off at a maximum of 12. As Resolve tests are fairly common, it won’t take very long to reach a Resolve of 12, which makes any further rolls against it redundant (or it might even be effectively redundant from the outset if you start on 11) and therefore takes away the element of terror and uncertainty when faced with the Undead (which is presumably what Resolve was designed to highlight.) The second new, and even more badly exploited, stat is your Alarm Value. This only comes into play once you have reached the final stage (Bloodrise Keep) and tracks how much unwanted attention you are drawing to yourself as you try to find the main baddie. A good idea in principal, especially as the Undead in this adventure are a sort of collective consciousness that die if their leader dies so you would assume they will know if any of their number is being attacked, but it is highly unlikely that your Alarm Value will increase enough to cause you any real problems and there is only one (literally) life or death checkpoint where it will make any real difference to you, and even that is easily avoided. These stats were evidently designed to add foreboding in the environment and a sense of care/urgency to your actions, but they are both so easy to survive that they are rendered almost completely ineffectual.

...And therein lies the root of this book’s (only real) problem: it is just too damn easy and makes the FFs that are regarded as uncharacteristically straightforward (in particular #29 Midnight Rogue, #3 The Forest Of Doom and #34 Stealer Of Souls) actually seem like a challenge. In KotLL pretty much everything is laid at your feet and you do actually have to make quite an effort to fail:
  • ·         Moments where, in other FFs, you would almost certainly expect to die instantly, only result in slight chafing here (eg: being hit full-on with an arrow causes -2 St, as opposed to being fatal, which in reality it probably would be!)
  • ·         You can very quickly acquire various weapons to make you extra-dangerous in battle: your sword can be sharpened to always inflict -3 St in combat, you can find a spear that always does double damage to Undead AND a shield that reduces Undead foes’ Skills by 1 (which, in an adventure where most of the encounters are with the Undead, is a bit over-lenient!)
  • ·         A particular route can lead to you having a Luck of 16, which makes Luck tests frankly ridiculous
  • ·         There are only 17 instant deaths, almost all of which are for doing bloody stupid things that you would be unlikely to attempt (or by failing Luck tests, which you will struggle to manage to do once you reach the stages where failure becomes fatal)
  • ·         If having a potential Luck of 16 and superhero-type weaponry at your disposal isn’t enough, there are umpteen opportunities to improve/replenish your stats (including several increases of your all-important Resolve score)
  • ·         There is very little combat needed in the early stages and it is possible to get to the end with still only a handful of encounters that can only be resolved with a fight
  • ·         There are three different ways to kill the end baddie, all of which are mutually exclusive, and two of which will just kill him outright without the need for combat, Luck tests, or in fact anything that would constitute an effort to prove yourself
  • ·         There are no essential items that success or failure will be dependent on. OK, there are some items that will make life easier for you, but it’s not as if it’s going to be particularly hard here anyway!
  • ·         Finding the end baddie is very easy. He is in two different possible locations, based purely on which way you go, but hiding isn’t his strongpoint and he comes to you whatever you do so you don’t have to search very hard for either of his locations (and failing the only important Alarm Value check will only kill you outright in one of these places)
  • ·         There is no true path, primarily due to the absence of any key items, yet it is also possible to visit almost every location (bar the battle site, where nothing happens anyway) on the way to the final section should you feel inclined. Alternatively, you can take the shortest possible route (which will have no comparative effect on your chances of success) and finish the book in just over 35 paragraphs, making it also potentially extremely short
  • ·         Although everything that you can buy here is unusually expensive (min 25/30 gp for the cheapest stuff, rising to 60/70 for some classier items – er, none of which you really need, of course), the book is very generous in terms of giving you large stashes of money along the way, plus you start out with 25 gp anyway
  • ·         The most successful set-piece of this book takes place in a graveyard which houses a nest of vampires that are terrorising a local village. If you choose to visit it you would anticipate that surviving this is not going to be an easy task. However, in KotLL even a vampire infestation is easily sorted out as you can take either one or two NPC companions with you (who hate each other, to add a bit of tetchy interplay to the proceedings) and you can let them do some of the fighting for you. Add to this the fact that, even though you are racing to find the vampires before sun-down, there’s a very good chance that you will find them as they can be found in at least three different locations (each of which will have different effects on them), removing the thrill of the chase somewhat

On the plus side, the vampire cameo is just one of a large number of (optional) sections of this adventure that really make it come alive and it is through vivid writing, combined with genuinely worthwhile things to see and do, that this book really deserves to be played and re-played, not to try to win (which will disappoint and take no effort at all), but to experience just how much colour and atmosphere has been written into it. Everywhere you go (bar the non-event that is the battle site) there is a game-within-a-game for you to play, be it vampire-hunting, ridding a village of a bizarre beast that is eating the inhabitants, foiling a pirate slave ring, visiting a safe-haven woodland full of refugees, discovering the remnants of a long-dead ancient race, or infiltrating the keep where the main baddie is holed-up. Anyone who has ever played any of Dave Morris’ Blood Sword gamebooks will be familiar with his use of extremely evocative language, lengthy descriptive paragraphs, and an atmosphere of foreboding that starts mysteriously and then grows ever more oppressive as the game progresses. Morris and Thompson’s books are often quite complex in vocabulary terms and also in design and are aimed at more mature readers, but this makes for a very immersive experience and the environment in KotLL is very well constructed. Much thought has gone into both the back story to current events and also the history of the setting in general and you really do feel this world as you discover its past and present along the way (there are even two locations with National Trust-style explanatory commemorative plaques telling you all about what happened there!)

The actual mission here is to rid an island (Stayng Island off the far east of Khul) of an undead necromancer (the luridly-named Lord Mortis) who has been accidentally-deliberately re-animated after 200 years lying dormant and has made short work of turning many of the island’s inhabitants into his undead minions. He has already taken the Northern part of the island based around Bloodrise Keep (where he has imprisoned the island’s former Castellan) and YOU are a mercenary hired to kill him off. Yes, this is fundamentally another lunatic-of-the-week effort where all you need to do is assassinate the madman, but there is far more depth to it than just that and, for once, your character comes across all the way through the book as simply being in it for the money, rather than as a do-gooder, which perfectly suits the idea that you are a mercenary. There is a sub-plot where Chaos Pirates are working with Mortis to enslave the locals to make capturing the island easier, and many people are leaving while they still can (via your initial landing point.) You discover a sort of Elven resistance movement (who’s demi-God just happens to be in Bloodrise Keep as well) and you also have to deal with a traitor situation, your handling of which will affect what happens when you reach the Keep (well, a little bit anyway.) The aforementioned optional Vampire hunt is actually to despatch Mortis’ wife (Lady Lotmora), which adds a sense of anticipation and acts as a support act to the main event of bumping Mortis himself off, plus you can visit his (empty) tomb to get an idea of what to expect when you find him (and also to get one of the two different items that can kill him without you having to lift a finger.) A really inventive moment comes when you visit a temple that is an archaeological remnant of an ancient civilisation that once lived in the island. The main item you take from there is the Elixer Of Lhyss, the effects of which are different based on your die roll when you drink it – the result can be good or bad (there are three outcomes) which adds an element of surprise on re-plays and is a nice change to the usual situation with drinks in FFs where you are normally totally at the mercy of the writer’s generosity or sadism.

The logical yet multi-layered premise (which is not all presented on a plate, but rather, unfolds as you discover parts of it) gains extra credence from its encounters. As the island is being over-run with Undead, most of what you meet is exactly that and this is what you would anticipate from the restrictive environment of an island. There are more “normal” people in the untouched South than the already devastated North, and the further you progress, the nastier your foes become. Combat encounters are fairly sparse, but those that you come up against are interesting and in context, if sometimes a little bit weird (Werewight, Whipperwolf, Skull Beast, etc.) The Keep itself also has a lot of cannon-fodder Skeletons and the like which, again, makes sense, as it’s the garrison for Mortis’ undead army.

There is a minor structural criticism in that there are a lot of “cut-and-paste” sections but, as these deal with alternate versions of the same thing (eg: whether you have one or two companions in the graveyard, or whether you spend too long getting to the quayside), this is forgivable as it avoids the problem you sometimes find in FFs of having/doing something that is impossible based on the route you have taken to reach that point. There are also a few “knowing” inter-textual references where you find pubs called the “Sword of the Samurai” and “Down Among the Dead Men” which are cute but also a little bit pretentious (although there is nothing wrong with product placement on the authors’ behalves!) Rather more cleverly, you can find a stat-boosting sword (if already potentially having a razor-sharp one is not enough for you) that was made in Hachiman (the setting for Sword of the Samurai) and I always like to see evidence of cross-referencing to aid the creation of a global FF world. There is a grating aspect as well, though, which suggests that the adventure had been re-thought at some point during its creation, in that the overall island group and its Alliance changes its name part-way through, but you may or may not even notice this. Also, you are given what the book calls a very important ring (the Ring of Communing) by your sponsor at the start and you would be forgiven for thinking this will prove pivotal in the adventure. Sadly, it has no real impact on anything (you can even lose it and it makes no difference), other than to give you a semi-useful clue to beating Mortis at the end. For the most part, you just find yourself getting yelled-at for using it at the wrong times and, in one of the few moments of bad continuity, it works in paragraph 400 regardless of whether a) it has any charges left in it, or b) you even still have it!

A book with such well-rendered atmosphere and theme needs art that is equal to that and David Gallagher’s internal drawings are very dark, in keeping with the prose. Monsters are very stark whites on very shadowy backgrounds which make them seem all the more horrific and there is an intensity to many of the illustrations that suits this book in my view. The cover is curious as nothing is really happening on it (the title takes up a lot of the available space), but it shows Lord Mortis as a huge, almost Napoleonic figure dominating his hordes, which is subtle yet strangely appropriate.

This book’s excessive ease is at odds with the atmosphere created and the general themes. It is very well-designed and exceptionally well-written. Its non-linearity, with no particular true path, and relative freedom of movement, make a refreshing change to the usual very specific route you need to normally find in FFs, and the sheer quality of this book as an adventure (as opposed to a game that you need to win) raise it well above just being written-off as “far too easy.” Granted, it is very very simple to beat, but at least there is variety even in how you can easily beat it! The new stats are a failure when they should have driven the plot devices, but for once we have a book that can be completed with low stats, and this entry has so much to offer that, in spite of being stupidly easy, this is still a great gamebook as well as a great piece of fantasy fiction.