Tuesday 13 October 2015

The Temple Of The Pharaoh



Tom Williams

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The news that Issue 13 (aka Special Horror Issue) of Warlock magazine would be the last came as an unwelcome surprise to me when I bought it in 1986. I had only been collecting the magazine since Issue 11 so my new-found extra gaming outlet was short-lived, plus I just really liked the idea of a FF-centric magazine that also covered other gamebook systems (in its latter issues, at least) rather than the more RPG-focussed White Dwarf that frankly never did much for me. It was especially appropriate then that the short FF adventure included in #13 would be a modern day-set effort which mixed traditional mummy movie horror tropes with the modern understanding (as well as early-20th Century superstitions) of Ancient Egyptian culture.

As with the only other (at the time) modern-set FF book (#10 House Of Hell) this one starts out with you experiencing a technical failure in your chosen mode of transport and having no choice but to explore a death-trap to get back on track. However, in this adventure you are more complicit and less surprised at what you find as you are an Egyptologist searching for a legendary lost temple/pyramid complex in the desert, so you have a decent idea of what to expect within. You have flown around aimlessly for days trying to find it before you suddenly stumble across it and immediately crash your plane as you do so (an implied curse, perhaps?) Naturally, as you were trying to find the site, your initial motive is simply survival (although why this makes you enter the complex is not entirely clear – what are you realistically expecting to find in a tomb that could possibly help you out?), but, as the intro points out, you soon get a more specific quest: to destroy the undead Pharaoh Terratakamen. There is also an incidental side mission of acquiring as much valuable plunder as possible to become rich as well as famous for your exploits. So, there are essentially three reasons to be doing what you are doing and one could arguably play three times with three distinct goals should one wish to widen this adventure’s potential horizons a bit and add re-playability. Yes, the survival concept seems peculiar, but the hunter-killer and/or treasure-hunting motives are as good a reason as any other to head into the complex (this is FF, after all), although these do sit a little awkwardly with your characterisation as you are told from the get-go that you are not an adventurer, you are an explorer, and you do need to try to keep this in mind as you go along.

What works very well in terms of making you feel the concept is the laying-on thick of prior knowledge that only subject experts would know, which shows that you are what you are meant to be. In some gamebooks you can feel like you know nothing at all about something you are supposed to be an expert on, but that is certainly not the case here, especially in the (appropriately) casual manner that Egyptian Gods and other major players are presented to you. You can meet Imhotep, Amon-Ra, Set, Se-Osiris, Isis, Sekhmet (and you know them all by name), plus three generic animal-headed Gods as well as finding a scarab, and being familiar with your structural surroundings ie you can identify the courtyard, throne room, etc within the complex rather than the text just relying on “ugg, pyramid”-type stereotypical Egyptian imagery. I like the immediate immersion and it does make you feel like an expert which really helps with playing the character and it is not long before you are an explorer and are quite comfortable with not being a great hero of some sort or other.

The explorer idea, as well as the classically exotic “unexplored world” setting, make this feel like an especially-graphic Boy’s Own-type of romp, and the way you can find the journal of a previous victim of the complex adds hugely to this as this is straight out of Rider Haggard or Indiana Jones, or such like. The journal gives some handy clues as to how to progress but does not give the entire game away (although it does tell you how to defeat Terratakamen) and is especially useful in early playthroughs as you, just like the doomed writer of the journal, feel your way around the site. Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent just how doomed previous visitors have been as this adventure is quite difficult if only for its labyrinthine map and some quite harsh instant deaths based purely on taking a wrong turn. The final act is especially tough as literally any false move can kill you. However, it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion and think this is a very short adventure as, should you choose a particular path very early on, you will skip an entire (massive) section and jump straight to the final act, although you will have no chance as the essential items for victory can only be found by a very thorough exploration of a maze that takes up the vast majority of the adventure’s body. The maze itself is as convoluted as they come in mapping terms and it is probably just as easy to blunder around as it is to try to draw up an incomprehensible spider’s-web of a map and try to beat it analytically.  As it stands the actual flow of the adventure involves entering a gateway, finding an underground passage, negotiating the huge maze, then avoiding several instadeath traps, before negotiating the inner sanctum’s lethal catalogue of “pick the right option” checkpoints. This might not sound very interesting but, curiously enough, this is actually very interesting and I really was quite gripped whilst playing due in part to the “so this is the modern day – what the hell is going on?” vibe, as well as the sheer depth of subject knowledge that the author pours into the text. Clearly Tom Williams knows his Egyptology and, by the end of this gamebook, so do you! Thankfully, he avoids the very creaky cliché of bandage-wrapped mummies shuffling around and instead goes for a deity- and trap-based dungeon design. The initial sections wherein you find a range of corpses some of which are wearing modern day attire does send quite a shiver down the spine as you realise that this lost tomb complex is still fully functional, albeit as if it were 4000 years ago (there are even some Greek slaves to find at one point, which is a lovely historical detail.)

To add to the very well-realised game design, your character’s starting inventory makes perfect sense in context. You start with 3 Provisions (all that there was in your plane when it crashed) and a fire-axe that you feel compelled to bring along at the last minute. The usual stats of Skill, Stamina, and Luck are all you have in terms of building a character, but there is no need for anything else as you are exactly what you are – a semi-stranded chancer. In classic FF style, if you lose your fire-axe you fight with a -2 Skill penalty until you can find a replacement and there is at least one other Skill penalty to suffer too and this is a very noticeable feature of this adventure as, if you have a low starting Skill I doubt you have much chance of survival if you take the combative approach as most battles are with very tough foes: Swarm of Bats Sk 10 St 12; Isis in cobra form Sk 12 St 16; Corpse Sk 4 Stamina INFINITE, plus if it hits you, you die instantly; Se-Osiris Sk 13 St 12; Set Sk 12 St 15; “Creature” (a sort of Egyptian abomination that mixes several species into one and is understandably beyond any naming conventions) Sk 10 St 14; Statues (if you use the wrong item on them by accident) Sk 14 St 14; and finally Terratakamen himself who has a whopping Sk 14 St 20 although you only have to try to last for 3 Attack Rounds before the text decides you are fighting a losing battle and lets you try something else and/or die trying. We need to temper this catalogue of super-baddies though as only a small number of these combats are totally essential to success: play your cards right, avoid certain paths, and do not be psychotic and you will find that you can plot a less deadly route, at least in combat terms. There are also a few key Luck tests (involving the classic idea of pyramids being riddled with traps) that can have fatal results if failed, but they come late on and the difficulty level overall ramps logically up as you approach the final showdown, plus several of the battles are with Gods so you can hardly expect an easy ride really, so the difficulty in general does suit the flow and the concept.

The shopping list here is not huge, but certain items are necessary to win (plus some make the going slightly easier) and the maze section makes finding them all the harder to add to the challenge. I have to admit that I do not like mazes (I think they are a paragraph-consuming cop-out) but many Egyptian tomb complexes are built like mazes so this one is a sensible (if rather frustratingly repetitive) feature. Only certain parts of it yield anything of use and I’d hazard that replaying is essential to uncovering the items you need (unless you are really lucky on the first attempt, of course!)

There is an intriguing moment late on where you are asked a riddle by Isis, the answer to which requires some knowledge of Ancient Egypt to get right. Either the writer knew this was probably going to be beyond many people and intentionally designed it this way, or the section randomising got cocked-up, but the correct answer section is on the same page as the riddle section (in fact it’s practically parallel to it) which does make the 1 in 4 chance of guessing correctly a bit easier. On the one hand, the challenge element is removed in this episode but, on the other, how many players will really know enough about Cleopatra to ever be able to get this riddle right? So I can live with this as it is, if only to avoid a factually obscure (and completely unrelated to any info you collect in the adventure), 75% chance of dying, penultimate test.

As is the norm with Warlock mini-FFs, this one has its fair share of typos but there seem to be less than usual and this adventure is generally better proofread than the typical Warlock offering, which is a good thing as it allows us to focus more on TW’s obvious fondness for his subject matter. Putrefaction and/or immaculate locations are described in some detail and the feeling of being in an Egyptian temple-tomb comes across from the outset. The desert flight does feel sun-baked and the interiors are ominously described. The best descriptions by far are those of the creature/deity encounters and the smell that lingers around Set is especially vividly detailed. Likewise, the “Creature” is explained in enough detail for it to be both horrific but also slightly elusive in the mind’s eye as it is, essentially, beyond explanation (although the picture of it kind of covers anything you haven’t already got your head around!) The text also flows better than the usual Warlock fare as the minefield of dodgy punctuation that normally plagues these, causing fracturous sentences that jar as you read them, is largely missing, bar a few rogue capital letters but that’s no crisis and is hardly noticeable. The art here is by Dave Carson (of Beneath Nightmare Castle fame) and he does graphic body horror very well, although the art here is more restrained than in BNC, but is frightening enough to still give you a chill and really suits the general feel of this adventure. Unfortunately, the art is very randomly scattered throughout the text and rarely sits anywhere near its related section meaning that you sometimes stumble across an image of something that was described to you several paragraphs ago. On the one hand, it allows our imaginations to play a bigger part in the visual aspect, but on the other hand, the art is so well-rendered and suited to the concept that it would be better if the layout were a bit more sympathetic to both the gamebook and the reader, but that’s more a criticism of the art/layout department than the adventure itself.

For a short subject (only 194 sections) this one does feel very big as you play it and no paragraphs seem to be wasted, even by including a maze. There is a sense of awe (both in the player’s mind as the complex unfolds in front of you and in the writer’s respect for the material) and you do feel that you are delving into the unknown whilst also trying to discover something hitherto only known to legend, just as the 1920s/30s explorers would have done. Similarly, your thirst for wealth and fame is constantly reinforced as you are told the value (in shekels, appropriately enough) of any treasure you find and you often casually steal what treasures you find. It would be an interesting alternate mission were you to play purely to amass as much wealth as possible and this is one of the many ways this adventure compels you to want to replay it. If there is one oddity in the game design, it is how to use Provisions – to me, at least, the instructions are ambiguous as to whether you can only eat when instructed or if you are free to eat whenever you want to. There are definitely some sections that offer you the chance to eat, but they do make the proviso (as it were) of if you have any food left which suggests that you could be free to eat at any stage. Likely as not, this will not really cause a problem, but it is a little curious if you read it literally (or try to.)

This is a really enjoyable and intriguing adventure overall, and the depth of detail, combined with the desire to achieve any or all of your three aims is enough to make this work very well. Williams really knows his subject and this comes across throughout. There is no drop in quality at any stage and even the maze suits the setting. Warlock’s mini-FFs were always quite hit-and-miss, but this one is a definite hit (plus it matches the "Special Horror Issue" theme very effectively) and ensures that Warlock goes out on a high rather than with the boring whimper that would be FF's other mummy-themed entry (#59 Curse Of The Mummy) which ended Puffin’s 59-book run by curing us of insomnia. If you have not yet played The Temple Of The Pharaoh, I would recommend you do as you will not be disappointed and, at the very least, you will come out of it knowing a bit more about Pharaonic Egypt (whether you want to or not!)

Sunday 4 October 2015

The Dark Usurper


Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill

Reviewed by Mark Lain

This is a real curiosity: the only full FF solo adventure ever to appear in White Dwarf magazine (in three instalments spanning issues 61 thru 63) and the only FF contribution from Jon Sutherland, better-known for the historically-based Real Life Gamebooks series, Battleground General (where you command actual World War II campaigns), and the short-lived two-player Double Game books. Judging by his bibliography on Amazon, Sutherland is quite an authority on military history, having also written a number of non-fiction books on the Second World War in particular, and, unsurprisingly, the Real Life series are generally quite historically accurate within the limits of having to allow the player at least some freedom to determine their fate. It comes as no great surprise then that this adventure plays out rather like a strategic wargame.

The plot is classic medieval material. YOU have returned from a three year Crusade (to retrieve the Holy Chalice from what is described simply as “the clutches of the heathen”) to find that the Kingdom has turned rotten under the regency of your friend Evald Senskell. As soon as you returned to your castle you were imprisoned and have been incarcerated for three months. Now you have decided you have had enough and that it is time to go and sort this all out. Simple, but interesting enough to spark our curiosity. As the adventure is spread across three issues, it is divided into three roughly similar-length parts, each covering a self-contained part of the story. Part 1 is the simplest and just involves you escaping from your captors and making a run for it, although it is also the longest at 102 sections as there are various ways to achieve your aim. Part 2 (running to 98 sections) involves you discovering that you are some sort of chosen one whose coming the poets of old foresaw, whilst Part 3 (the shortest at 95 sections, but also the most exciting) is basically a big battle to liberate your homeland. The whole adventure, then, runs to 295 paragraphs, or roughly ¾ of a FF book, which is pretty big for a magazine-printed short subject. (Incidentally, Part 1 should have been 103 sections and, at a glance, seems to be, but the eagle-eyed will spot that section 63 is missing!)

Anyone familiar with Sutherland’s Real Life series will quickly begin to make comparisons between those books and this adventure and the big niggle with it is that it feels rather more like a Real Life book than a Fighting Fantasy offering due in part to JS’ style, but also due to the slightly awkward way that FF rules are deployed. Firstly, there aren’t actually any rules, as such, and the player is told instead that they either have to know FF rules or have access to a FF book to be able to find out what the rules are. OK, I know we are all familiar with how FF works, but rules would still be helpful and some mechanics are clearer than others due to the lack of instructions:

  • We start in prison and are specifically told that we do not have any weapons, armour, or money, yet we also do not start with a Skill penalty due to this (although we do fight with penalties in Part 1 if we have not found a sword)

  • Presumably we have no Provisions or Potions either?

  •  We are instructed to make a decision roll at one key point in Part 3 which just means rolling a dice and following the result of the number thrown. This reads awkwardly and would have been better-placed as just being told to roll a dice (or, better still, to test our Luck)

  • Eating to replenish Stamina is completely ignored, although we are told we pick food up along the way

  • A fairly vague moment tells us to regain all lost Stamina (but does not name it as such) and does not feel FF-specific enough
  • Other than fighting without a sword, there are no Skill penalties incurred at any point

  •  There are, however, a huge number of Luck tests along with many Luck bonuses, which does leave the player overly at the mercy of pure chance given how few decisions there are that really affect anything

And it is this last point that really hits the Real Life influence home – this adventure is extremely linear and you are almost always forced back onto the intended path no matter what you do. Although initial playthroughs do not necessarily show this, playing every possible option will expose this problem very quickly, leaving you feeling that you really don’t have many choices at all. This is a big similarity with Real Life books where the only two real choices are given at the beginning where you decide which of two parties you want to side with and the rest just writes itself, and you don’t even get that choice in The Dark Usurper!

There are, however, some aspects of Sutherland’s gamebook-designing style that make this quite refreshingly different. If you get defeated in combat you are always sent to a paragraph which describes your death and, sometimes, an aftermath of some sort (in this adventure most are normally the King mourning you in some way) - whilst you are still dead, at least the game does not just abruptly end there for you like it does in most FFs. Part 3 in particular plays-out like a strategic wargame where you are asked to make various decisions as to how to manage the battlefield: Do you charge? Do you defend? Do you do a runner and try to protect the castle instead? Will you lay siege to the castle and make everyone inside die of plague? Do you kill your captives or show them mercy (or even just leave them to the mob)? All these choices raise this above just being a linear story and are quite unique to FF in their elaboracy. Likewise, mass combat is decided by rolling x number of dice and multiplying certain numbers to determine each side’s casualties and, in a neat touch, if you charge you do more damage to the confused enemy than if you choose to defend. This is a far more effective approach to mass battles than FF’s only other real attempt in the lacklustre Armies Of Death and does give a lot of variety for re-playing this instalment. To add colour to these battles, if your casualties are too high your army can lose motivation and/or your enemies can capitulate if their death toll is too high or if their leader dies. Plus, realistically, charging gives you a psychological advantage and you do get the feeling that the book generally prefers courage and the will to fight (you are a crusader, after all), although some over-ambitious decisions can have disastrous outcomes, especially if your army is slaughtered as you have to run off and live the rest of your life as a hermit in an alternate “non-win but still alive” outcome that encourages you to re-play to find the absolute victory ending. The concept of battlefield strategy plays a large part in much of Sutherland’s gamebook work and it translates neatly here and makes for a unique approach in the context of FF.

It can be assumed that you are expected to use the same character through all three parts as this is essentially a part-work single adventure, not a series, and prior knowledge of characters, events, and equipment is expected in Parts 2 and 3. On the subject of equipment, very few items are found or needed, although a sword is a given (and unavoidable in Part 1 as you will always be taken to where you father’s sword is hidden), and Asmund’s Floating Spheres are handy in Part 2 but not essential. You cannot avoid getting a horse in Part 1 but it buggers off as soon as Part 2 starts, but Part 3 is largely devoid of items or item-based outcomes, instead focussing on medieval warfare. Part 1 gives a certain amount of choice as to how to handle what it throws at you, although it is fundamentally linear and the choices you make only really affect if you have to fight and with what (and maybe give slight differences in plot continuity information that you pick up.) There is an illusion of choice though, as there are three ways to escape your prison cell and the courtyard can play out with minor variations. Part 2 makes the assumption that you have established that Evald Senskell has not gone in fact power-mad after all and has, instead, been toppled by the Dark Usurper of the title, one Barnak, although you might not necessarily know that if you accidentally-deliberately killed the person who tells you this in Part 1. The decisions you make in Part 2 have very little effect on anything as this is the most linear section by far and will force you into the key situations, otherwise Part 3 would make no sense whatsoever (or would need many more branching paths than 95 sections allow for it to work properly.) Part 3 is the section you are most likely to come a cropper in if you don’t make your strategic choices wisely. This makes perfect sense as Part 3 is essentially the book’s climax and should be more of a challenge. There is not much searching required to find Barnak, although you can seek out your allies to fill the story out and make it bring more loose-ends together if you want to. Barnak himself is not the toughest of end baddies (Sk 9 St 10), but he is far stronger than any of the mega-weak previous foes you might have had to fight (Skills of 3/4/5 are the norm here.) That said, if you make a particular roll, you can fight him with a +3 bonus to your Skill which means rock-bottom characters have a decent chance in this adventure. An interesting outcome worthy of mention also comes when, if Barnak defeats you in battle, your army still eventually kill him even though you have not actually “won” in the strictest sense of the word.

This brings us to the biggest similarity to Sutherland’s Real Life books – this adventure is ridiculously easy. There is no true path to find as the book offers little but the true path (barring Part 3.) Combats are very easy and, other than Barnak, are often avoidable. You can get all your army killed, but that is quite unlikely as the odds are in your favour as long as you pay attention to the text when it tells you the sizes of armies (often a little too incidentally, by the way.) The biggest challenge is probably all the Luck tests and a low Luck will cause you problems. Low Skill and Stamina, however, should not be an issue.

There are a few peculiarities/nuances that are worthy of mention that can make this flow a little oddly in spite of its largely inflexible plot linearity. It is possible to find an ally (Julian) dead in a cell in Part 3 and you are expected to be shocked by this, although you might just have killed him yourself in Part 1. I can only assume that Sutherland did not want or legislate for us to kill him in Part 1 otherwise a) this bit makes no sense, and b) we would not know about the usurping that is the crux of the story as Julian tells us this key bit of detail. Rather more awkward is the moment in Part 2 where we are told by Asmund that we are the chosen one. Part 2 only features one illustration, a beautifully-rendered full-page colour image of a warrior dressed in all the equipment that Asmund kits you out with – this character is male and blond (even the poem says he’s blond), meaning the player is likely to be distanced from their character unless they happen to also be male, blond, and have long hair (at least the picture is from behind to avoid total disconnection from the role!)

On the subject of art, this colour illustration is by Alan Hunter – Part 2 is otherwise devoid of any art at all. Parts 1 and 3 are better-catered for in the art department, having incidental images as well as a couple of larger pictures, all by Temple Of Terror’s Bill Houston, and the art is generally very full and effective, with more than a hint of Bryan Talbot in it.

Sutherland’s Real Life series always read (to me anyway) as being targeted at the middle age-range of the gamebook readership. The content is certainly not suitable for young children and the vocabulary and concepts are far too complex, but the slightly preachy schoolteacher-y tone has carried over into The Dark Usurper and it does seem to read a little bit immaturely, assuming you can get over the characters and the setting/plot background.

The setting of this adventure itself is another aspect that sets it as a bit of an outcast from the FF series in general. The background feels very Earth-bound and there is no suggestion anywhere that the key locations are meant to be on Titan (not that it says they are on Earth either, mind you) so this is a hard adventure to contextualise in that sense.

White Dwarf was always the sort of general RPG “big brother” to the much more FF-centric Warlock magazine, but the printing gremlins that plagued Warlock are also getting in on the act in The Dark Usurper, but to a far less detrimental effect. I have already mentioned paragraph 63 being conspicuous by its absence from Part 1 (not that many playthroughs will require you to try to turn to it as only one section links to it), but there are some other errors: at least three sets of Luck test outcomes are actually reversed (pretty obviously, too!), section 10 in Part 3 has no onward link (although, again, I had to play many times before I needed to go to section 10, so this might go unnoticed), and there are a few very minor typos and oddly-structured sentences that would benefit from commas or full-stops. That said, for a magazine-published short FF, this is comparatively well proofread and is far less messy than many of Warlock’s offerings. If it’s noticeable, it’s a problem, and here it is barely noticeable.

The Dark Usurper is actually a pretty decent adventure, particularly for the dominant mass combat system in Part 3. There is not much choice in play terms but that only comes through if you play it several times and, given how easy it is (other than all the Luck tests) you are not likely to need many attempts to beat it, so this might not be too apparent. I like the setting and the very “real”-feeling background, but this would have been better as a stand-alone (or Real Life) offering, rather than trying to force in FF rules as it just doesn’t seem to fit properly with the series. Yes, you can apply FF rules to any RPG system in theory, but FF is more than just a system given the complete world that gradually develops through the series. It does not take long to play through all three parts of this and, as something to keep you occupied for an hour, this is a worthy gamebook as it has enough going for it to make it entertaining (if you can find it!)

Monday 28 September 2015

Rogue Mage


Graeme Davis

Reviewed by Mark Lain

With its Nikita-style second-chance-to-redeem-your-fallen-self-by-being-given-a-choice-that-isn’t-really-much-of-a-choice plot idea, Rogue Mage initially gives the impression of potentially being a genuinely juicy hunter-killer dungeon trawl adventure. The lengthy intro section sets the scene well as, instead of being either executed or maimed, you are forced into accepting an assassination mission from the Guild of Magicians to locate and despatch the rogue mage of the title, a certain Galthazzeth. Sadly, as soon as you start playing, it quickly becomes blindingly obvious that this is justifiably considered by many fans to be the weakest of all the short subjects published in Warlock magazine.

Essentially you start at the dungeon entrance (Galthazzeth’s lair), fight a Goblin gnawing on a human bone (which immediately provides you with some of the key items you might need), then enter the dungeon proper, taking various inter-looping paths before quickly and easily finding Galthazzeth’s inner sanctum, fighting him, then chasing him a bit and finishing him off effortlessly, before entering a maze where his life/power source is hidden, destroying this, then rather suddenly and anti-climactically facing your final challenge (a Luck test, rather lamely) before reaching paragraph 200 after a very short amount of playing-time has elapsed.

The first problem, then, is obvious – this gamebook is way too short and appears to amount to rather less than its 200 sections should suggest it will be. On my first playthrough I somehow took the shortest possible path and found Galthazzeth far too quickly for it really to make much sense why. I had very few items, but still managed to defeat him, then I had similarly little difficulty in reaching the win outcome. Very unsatisfying. So I tried a different, and curiously possible, approach whereby I literally took every tunnel and turning and went basically everywhere in the dungeon, before finding the exact same outcome. I had all the items, but this made very little difference other than making my victory all the simpler. So then I tried it with rock-bottom stats (Sk 7, St 14, Luck 7) to see if there was any challenge to this at all and suddenly things got a bit harder as a major design element became massively apparent – there are so many Skill and Luck tests in such a relatively short amount of space that anyone with Skill sub-10 and Luck (literally) sub-11 or-12 is going to struggle. Or, rather, they would if it wasn’t for the overly-generous availability of Potions. You start with the standard-issue single option from Skill/Strength/Fortune, but this adventure uses the WOFM rule (common in Warlock magazine’s short FFs too) where each bottle contains TWO rather than one dose. Yes, there are several Skill penalties along the way, so a Potion for this is justified, but you can find a second one along the way, meaning you can restore your Skill THREE times as you go along. Likewise, there are an incredible TWO additional Fortune Potions to find (raising your Initial Luck to ridiculous levels if you think to use them quick enough), plus two doses of a low-impact Strength Potion that each restore 6 St points. If you find all these, along with the two doses of whichever one you choose to start with, only the Skill tests are likely to really present a challenge. But, I’d suggest the brevity of the dungeon is the challenge here as you are unlikely to find the time to actually consume all these potions before you reach the rather sudden ending (although subsequent playthroughs might make this rather more obvious!)

A little more challengingly, death by Stamina loss is of course quite possible as the familiar Warlock FF error of the rules telling you you have 5 Provisions that you can only eat when told to in the text - a text which never actually allows you to do so - could scupper you somewhat. Indeed, many of the combats in this book are with tough foes which increases the likelihood of dying in battle. Galthazzeth (understandably as he’s the focus here) has Sk 10 St 15 and various spell-casting attacks whenever he wins two consecutive ARs, a Giant Beetle has Sk 9 St 16, the Slithering Horror has Sk 10 St 14 (x two, as you fight each tentacle with the same stats), and Galthazzeth’s right-hand man-monster the Clone Slime has Sk 4 St 30 and makes you fight two Slime Figures every 3 ARs (although killing these costs it 10 St per Slime Figure so you won’t have to fight many of them!) These stats all do make sense in the context of the foes and, in that respect, this element is well-designed and quite balanced. The remainder of combats are with Goblins in the early section of the dungeon and Antmen in the later parts, both of which form Galthazzeth’s guard minions and are easy prey for YOU. The Goblins seem to exist mostly to supply you with items to make the Galthazzeth showdowns easier although the second one just lets you kill him without a fight either way.

For a short (no, VERY short) subject, there are many items to find, along with the abundance of potions and some money (that you never need), but none of them are actually essential to victory. An Ian Livingstone dungeon, this is not, instead the items just make certain parts a bit easier. As I’ve said, the bulk of the items come in the early sections and these areas of the dungeon loop about and inter-connect in a seemingly impossible way. Add to this the fact that you can endlessly backtrack and re-trace your steps before finding Galthazzeth’s badly-hidden hiding place and you may quickly get bored with wandering around aimlessly constantly re-visiting the same unexciting locations. It could be that the maze-like nature of the dungeon is meant to make this seem deceptively long but, by mapping it, you will quickly find the inner areas that you are looking for. And the back-and-forth routing reveals one huge problem with this adventure – the reset button. Be prepared to suspend disbelief as creatures you have killed illogically come back to life if you return to their locations and you end up carrying loads of each item (including, in fact, even more Potions!) If the dungeon in its basic form is not boring enough, re-treading it infinite times will make it seem all the more unbearably uninteresting. You do have the option of varying your approach here and there by taking one of the many options to listen at doors instead of bursting in on things, but this only ever tells you either nothing whatsoever or that there are sounds coming from inside that suggest life. How exciting, NOT! At least this uses up some spare paragraphs to get closer to the full 200 being employed. Likewise, a few cut-and-paste alternative approaches eat up a few more precious sections that could be put to better use making the adventure longer and more satisfying. Even one of the “alternate” possibilities where you might not have met a Goblin Shaman gets cocked-up when it just appears out of the blue, but the text refers to it in such a way that it thinks you know about it.

Structurally, then, and plot-wise (what there is of it after the compelling introduction), this is quite shoddy, and to add insult to injury the common Warlock typing-pool gremlins have been at this adventure in a big way. There are many typos and rogue full-stops in the middle of sentences which make reading this a frustrating experience at times. In particular, “eat” is always written as “cat” and “east” is always “cast”, for some reason. The fact that going “cast” or finding Goblins that “cat” human flesh is pretty common here will amplify this even more.

As this is a traditional (if underwhelmingly short) dungeon trawl, we would expect traps, challenges, memorable foes, and moments of bravura imagination and originality. Granted, there are several original encounters here (the clone species and a Scitalis/Treasure Snake add some interest), but GD has to fall back on Livingstone-isms to get the few available surprises into the proceedings – the Scitalis idea is good but is basically just an illusional treasure trove gimmick, whilst the Imitator disguised as a door is straight out of Baron Sukumvit’s far better-designed dungeon. Luck-testing is a given in surviving dungeon trawls, but here there is far too much reliance on testing Luck (as well as Skill) and this primarily governs how the plot pans-out for you, especially with finding items. For an adventure as short as this, a lot less leaning on stat testing would make it flow far better. Also, very unusually for a dungeon trawl (or a gamebook in general), there is only one instant death in the whole thing and that is caused by, surprise, surprise, running out of Luck and getting irretrievably lost in a maze. The presence of a maze might make you think that there will be some lengthy wandering trying to get out but, instead, you just test your Luck or get straight through it with a map. Not much challenge there then!

Other than an interesting background gambit and a few unique encounters, for the most part this is an uneventful, excessively short/boring, relatively easy, and badly proof-read adventure. So, why the hell was this chosen to be re-printed in the 10th Anniversary Yearbook that appeared in 1992? I would take any of the Warlock shorts over this one any day. I don’t know who Graeme Davis was talking nicely to but surely this did not deserve a second outing. However, its re-publication did allow for the typos to be eliminated so this version reads far slicker and more professionally. In fact, for the eagle-eyed, there are actually several differences between the two printings:
  • ·         A few section numbers have been moved around (for what difference that makes)
  • ·         Two of the already pretty weak “sword-fodder” foes have had their stats further reduced so they die even quicker (although the tough ones all remain as per the Warlock version so these are no easier)
  • ·         Almost every paragraph has had slight wording tweaks and paraphrasing
  • ·         The introduction (the only good bit, really) has been truncated and also heavily edited to remove any of the more graphic references to hanging, cutting hands off, and ripping still beating hearts out of chests (sorry, is FF not meant to be graphic, then?)
  • ·         The Guild of Magicians has had a re-brand and become the Guild of Wizards (the difference being....?)
  • ·         All art is removed (the original only had three large images – the exterior of the dungeon, a Ghost, and Galthazzeth himself – along with a few incidentals, but these are all well-rendered and do help us visualise at least some parts of the adventure)
  • ·         The adventure now has a setting specified, the town of Wolftown, where the original existed in a nameless void with no location or context being given
  • ·         All references to Dungeons & Dragons rules are gone

The lack of errors/typos is welcome, but I’m not sure that any of these other changes really amount to much other than saving space for the necessary page format of the 10th Anniversary Yearbook.

The excising of any D&D mechanics was probably essential as the original version was published in the very brief two-issue era when Warlock’s mini-adventures catered for gamebooks to be played using either FF or D&D systems. It has to be said that, of the two, Rogue Mage utilised D&D rules far more effectively than The Land Of Changes did and the nuances built into the FF rules as regards stat manipulation/penalties are also felt properly if you play using D&D rules, so there is some potential for system-flexing. Sadly, this does not take the focus away from the over-riding dull-ness of Rogue Mage as a game.

It is worth noting that the cover of Warlock #10 (where Rogue Mage’s first iteration appeared) does actually feature a wizard of some sort, but he is not Galthazzeth. Instead he is the result of John Blanche re-working a reader’s competition-winning entry to design the “Warlock” of the magazine’s title. Still, there is a connecting theme with the mini-adventure and this is a good thing as, by this stage, Warlock’s short FFs were usually unrelated to the cover images of the magazine. As for the cover, JB’s bright evocation of the Warlock bristles with energy and is one of the magazine’s more animated and colourful cover images and I like it a lot. For historical completeness’ sake, Citadel Miniatures released a Limited Edition metal miniature of the Blanche Warlock which is now quite collectable (mine was painted for me by a certain Mr Steven Leicester who you may remember from another post on this Blog!)

In summary, Rogue Mage is a weak and uninteresting short adventure with the emphasis on the word “short”. Little of any consequence happens, it is rather too easy (notwithstanding failure by loss of Stamina or Luck), Davis offers little in the way of description or immersion in his text to give an image of the environment we are in, and its best feature by far is the introduction which, as I said earlier, really does grab your attention and make you want to play this massive disappointment of an adventure. The use of the words “gripping solo adventure” in the strapline is, well, a lie, and I struggle to believe that this is from the same mind that gave us the wonderful Midnight Rogue (other than the re-use of the “rogue” tag, of course!) Take my advice - just don’t bother with this.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

#20: Sword Of The Samurai


Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Samurai culture has always fascinated me, be it Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai movies, my ex-house mate’s worrying collection of katanas, or the various museum exhibits of armour and weapons. There is just something very elegant and dignified about it all, along with a lethal efficiency and the importance that honour plays too. The ubiquitous duo of Smith and Thomson have released a vast number of gamebooks together, as well as each of them individually having penned several others, and, for this, their second entry into the FF cannon they present us with one of my favourite gamebooks of all time.

I’d imagine many peoples’ initial reactions to this title would be confusion over just how feudal Japan fits into Fighting Fantasy and the simple answer is that it does not. Instead, the basics are uplifted and deposited in the region of Hachiman, an area cut off completely from the rest of Khul that has, coincidentally, developed in exactly the same way that Japan did. OK, this may seem like a point is being stretched but there is no real reason why this could not have happened and it avoids MS/JT’s second FF having the same problem as their first (#11 Talisman Of Death) in having to be set somewhere other than Titan, making it not quite fit with the bulk of the series. In fact, the “orphan state” nature of this second book actually works in its favour and makes the setting all the more plausible. The plot is the real glue that binds this alien setting to the overall Titan concept as it fuses Japanese samurai concepts with the standard FF plot of retrieving a key item from an evil uber-baddie who intends to wreak havoc with it (oh, and killing him too, of course.) The baddie here is Ikiru (also the title of a non-samurai Kurosawa movie, incidentally), the Master of Shadows who has nicked the sword of power (the dai-katana, Singing Death)  and taken it into the Pit of Demons ready to unleash all hell on everyone. You are the Shogun’s Champion (that old FF chestnut of being the elite version of something-or-other) and you are despatched to retrieve said sword. At face value, this is fairly straightforward, but the execution of this book makes for something much more involved and involving.

Firstly, you can be one of four different kinds of samurai by choosing a Special Skill. You must pick one from Kyujutsu (archery), Iaijutsu (fast draw), Karumijutsu (heroic leaping), or Ni-to-Kenjutsu (fighting with two swords). Thankfully there is no optimum choice, meaning the book can be completed using any of these and each allows for huge re-playability as they have different effects on how certain moments in the book will play out. My personal favourite is the archery option as you get a bow and four different types of arrow in addition to your standard equipment, and each behaves differently, although sneaking around picking off opponents rather than stepping bravely forward and fighting them with a sword can affect your honourable samurai status at times. I am also rather fond of the two sword combat skill as this gives you both a longsword (katana) and a shortsword (wakizashi) (normally you only get the long sword/katana) and allows you to act like the cover image and also to stand rather more chance in combat, especially if you have a Skill of sub-10. Fast draw is handy for getting auto-hits in combat but you have to remember it’s there otherwise it will do nothing so this one is a bit of a sleeper. Heroic leaping plays a big part in certain plot instances but it is just not all that exciting to be able to jump around when what we really want from a samurai book is fighting with samurai swords!

The second key feature in use here is the extra stat of Honour. This exists to force you to play out the role of a samurai – act honourably and your Honour increases, do something dishonourable and your Honour decreases. Very logical, really, but there is more to it than that as, should your Honour drop to zero you are forced to commit ritual suicide (sepukku) to eke out one last honourable act from your fallen existence (is this really meant to be for kids, out of interest?) There are a small number of key moments where your Honour score is checked, although these will rarely lead to failure, rather they will just make you do a bit more to progress. In a neat opening gambit, whichever direction you initially choose will lead first to a scenario where your ability to play the samurai role is tested. This is good to see as it really brings you into your character and gives an indication of what is expected of you in this book.

Interestingly though, only one route (the easier one) really develops your actual Honour score, the other takes a more situation-based approach and it is this difference which adds the third important element to this book – there are two, wholly distinct, paths through to victory. Head west and you will first have to deal with the rise of a rival opportunist Shogun (this is avoidable but most options will lead to him) who has seized power, followed by a trek through the Forest of Shadows, then on to your target (the Shios’ii Mountains) where the entrance to the Pit of Demons lies. Going east takes you through loyal territory which is blighted by a nocturnal problem with Undead, followed by a tricky episode at a river inhabited by Kappa, then into either the dangerous Spider Fens or the somewhat dream-like (and very dangerously linear) Enchanted Garden. The westerly route is the easier of the two, although it does involve a short-lived (and rather ambiguously-allied) companion, a tough riddle-solving moment with a Tatsu (wingless dragon) that I defy anyone to fathom out, then a brilliant cameo with the Zombie Samurai and river full of animated skeletons from the cover (which does take a bit of nowse and/or item-holding to beat.) The harder eastern path is longer overall and requires you to have decent stats otherwise you will struggle, although it does generally exploit your skill selection more effectively. If you can find the map that allows you to access it, the Enchanted Garden is probably the toughest (albeit non-essential to victory) part of this book as any false move will kill you but it does add an extra challenge once you’ve beaten all the other parts. Once you’ve taken your chosen path, both routes converge in the mountains where you are faced with The Hub and things get weird, but this is actually one of my favourite parts of this book as it really is totally unexpected and it makes sense of the seemingly disparate and unconnected encounters and item collecting that both paths will present to you. The Hub is effectively a waiting room with eight doors, each leading to a different plain of existence, bar the eighth which takes you to the penultimate showdown of the book, the Tourney of the Planes (sic.) You can visit as many or as few as you wish in a bid to get allies to help you face the four opponents that you have to deal with in the Tourney itself, but which allies will help you depends a) on which route you took to get here, and b) on which items you have or actions you chose on the way. This is really clever as it stops this part from being so easy it becomes academic whilst also meaning each playthrough can, in theory, produce a different outcome here. Having made some allies you can then decide that it’s time to go to the Tourney and fight four opponents, all “specials”. As this is a book with a great variety of potential plots, you can survive with just one ally (the first opponent can only be defeated with an ally) but you need the right allies to beat the right opponents, otherwise you have three very tough battles to contend with here. Beat this part and you then reach your final goal, the Pit of Demons, and your final showdown with Ikiru himself (a toughie with Sk 12 St 12.) As with the rest of the book, there are numerous ways to tackle him (the easiest is by using Singing Death, assuming you have found its secret, of course), ranging from straight combat to outright killing of him with a successful Luck roll (although this is only possible if you have Singing Death.) If you don’t have the dai-katana this fight is much harder and Ikiru gets the Luck advantage in that if you fail a Luck roll he can kill you instantly. The latter is rather more akin to a FF final baddie battle and it does make the end more climactic as well as much harder, even if it does mean you don’t retrieve Singing Death until after Ikiru is dead and removes the plot mechanic of using his ill-gotten gains against him.

What is probably becoming apparent from all this is that this book is not particularly difficult and is more of a book to re-play to freshly discover all its different plot-threads rather than a book to try to unravel a solution, given just how many there are here, and ample re-playability is one of its big plus-points. None of the routes are unpassable (bar one sub-route that gives you loads of warning not to take it) but it must be said that most combats (especially those on the easterly path) are actually quite hard (Skills of 10+ are generally the norm), but the four different approaches to combat dependant on your chosen Special Skill do take the edge off this to an extent. What I find odd is that any Samurai you fight (notwithstanding a fairly strong Ronin who hates you) are by far the weakest opponents you will take on – are they not supposed to be elite warriors, or is this designed to imply that Hachiman is a really lethal place? Even the rogue Shogun, Tsietsin, is not that hard to defeat and I do struggle with this idea. Similarly, key checkpoints are just the “do you/don’t you” choice type and nothing other than the Tatsu riddle episode really tests whether you are cheating or not, which makes this all the easier.

The sheer variety of different versions of certain routes and episodes leads to a necessity to have a lot of cut-and-paste paragraphs but this does result in every option making perfect sense and aids continuity enormously (Tsietsin’s castle, in particular has several variations on a theme/approach to discover.) A curious by-product of all the possibilities you have is that only certain specific options will lead to you seeing the art for creature encounters (and most here are unique, given the setting), which, again, demands that you re-play if you want to know everything there is to know here and, as this is the only FF to be set wholly in Hachiman, you definitely will find yourself wanting to know as much as you can about the region. This book is our only resource on Hachiman, and it thankfully allows you to travel around most of the region, seeing its unique and original monsters, and being immersed in its fundamentally Japanese idiom.

Alan Langford’s art is the perfect complement to MS/JT’s to-the-point but very thorough writing style and this book oozes with Eastern atmosphere. Langford brilliantly captures exactly how the mind’s-eye interprets the descriptions and some of the art is truly phenomenal in its combination of horror and exoticness. Take the Rokuro-Kubi group image or the attacking Undead Samurai as cases in point, although almost any illustration from this book could be cited as perfectly suited. The Eastern horror sense is countermanded with the awe-inspiring nature of certain creatures, especially those intended as allies in The Hub and/or the almost “deity”-level opponents such as the three Demons in the Tourney of the Planes. Likewise, Peter Andrew Jones’ cover is phenomenally good featuring, as it does, one of my favourite foes from the book (even if you only meet it on the Westerly “easier” route, but I guess that’s another thing to discover on subsequent playthroughs!) Mel Grant’s reinterpreted cover picture for Wizard’s Series 1 re-release takes a more horrific and “modernised” approach to the Undead Samurai image but the excessive use of red (the river is red, but so is the sky) does not work as well for me as the darker Puffin cover. Still, Wizard’s cover is pretty good and is far better than most of their botch-jobs.

On the subject of the Westerly route, it is interesting to note that you can amass a massive amount of money, none of which is of any use to you. Is this a clever deceit to remind us that this book is about Honour not Wealth, or is it an awkward oversight? I’d prefer to plump for the former and give another mark for excellent design as MS/JT don’t really drop the ball at any point with this book, notwithstanding its ease which is impossible to ignore but does work in the re-play and multiple possibilities stakes, and the rather jarring Tatsu riddles section.

Needless to say, I rate this book very highly and everything (even the relative ease) works and holds together thematically and contextually really well. Thankfully, Smith and Thomson’s FFs were re-issued in Wizard’s first iteration making this book all the more findable for those who don’t have it, although it is one of the later issues which are tougher to locate so you are more likely to pick up a Puffin original which is worth it as the Puffin version has the better and more suited cover to complete a quality package.  Essential reading/playing.