Tuesday 7 July 2015

#41: Master Of Chaos


Keith Martin

Reviewed by Mark Lain

At first glance this book seems like a very conventional “go find the baddie and kill him” outing, but it would be very unlike a KM book if it were to be as facile as the premise seems. As soon as you start reading the Rules and the Intro section, however, it becomes apparent that there is going to be rather more to it than just a hunter-killer concept.

YOU are engaged by the wizard Amberon to travel from an otherwise indeterminate location somewhere on Titan to Khul where you must locate the Master Of Chaos (Shanzikuul) and retrieve a Staff of Power that he intends to use to unleash Chaos-based mayhem on Khul. Nothing new there, but the fact that the wizard has arranged for you to be secreted into the city of Ashkyos by pretending to be a captive on a slave-ship suggests that this is not going to be a Business Class journey. The opening slaver gambit is slightly far-fetched but does suggest the idea of covert secrecy, so I can accept this (just about.) Once you reach Ashkyos you then have to scour the city for goods and services, before setting off across a desert via the rather smaller and grimmer town of Rahasta (the name of which changes to Rabesh at one point), and then onto the Ruins of Kabesh (which was completely destroyed by the forces of Chaos during The Great War) to find the hidden entrance to the Chaos Pits where Shanzikuul is hiding-out. A simple plot but the extra added elements are what makes it a bit different to similar FF books in this vein. Firstly, you start without any weapons, armour, shield or provisions. This makes perfect sense given that you start out on a slave-ship and it creates a sense of urgency once you reach Ashkyos as without any of these you are unlikely to live very long. To add an extra dimension of realism, for as long as you are weapon-less you can only use your fists to fight, which will only do a foe 1 Stamina point of damage. Similarly, having no armour or shield will make you vulnerable to attack, meaning you fight with a -2 Skill penalty until you can find these items. The lack of food naturally makes your ability to restore lost Stamina impossible so, again, it is imperative that you acquire some pretty quickly. As is often the case in KM FFs, encumbrance sort of comes into play here in that you are limited to only being able to carry a maximum of 12 Provisions at any one time (or only 4 if you have no backpack to put them in) but, in a very neat twist, if you can get your hands on a camel, you can double this to 24 (which incidentally you really will desperately need in the desert section!) KM is always adept at adding aspects of realism to his books and MoC is no exception thanks to these features, although they are demanding on the player and involve a lot of remembering to factor these in in the more free-form RPG style of gamebook design that is a KM trademark. Two additional mechanics are also included: a Notoriety stat and several Special Skills. The Notoriety stat is a reflection of how much attention from the authorities in Ashkyos you are drawing to yourself – kill someone and it will go up, likewise cause trouble and it will increase too. It starts at zero and, should it rise to 8 or more, you have to get out of town immediately regardless of whether you have finished exploring or not. This stat works really well, adding to the sense of urgency whilst also making you take extra care in behaving yourself and you do feel under pressure to get what you need to do done before you have to quit town. Sadly, the Special Skills are far less successfully deployed. The main positive is that there is no optimum combination, although certain Skills will save your life in some specific situations that can be avoided by taking other courses of action. In essence, they are a means of steering you out of lethal moments that you should not really be in and/or a means of acquiring useless or fairly obvious information that you have no real necessity to know. It occurs to me that the generally unappealing naming-conventions of the Skills do kind of suggest that they are a non-vital afterthought: Acute Hearing (for eavesdropping, basically and, even then, not very often), Animal Wisdom (useless – just states the obvious a lot), Blindsight (sounds handy, but rarely gets any use), Climbing (will save your life at least once and is of generally more use than most of the others, if still far from essential), Move Silently (self-explanatory and can be substituted by buying Boots of Stealth), Tracking (again, adds very little of value to your progress). The adventure would be no worse off without these Special Skills but they do at least give the impression that you might need them, even though you can win just as easily without using any of them. It is often the case in FFs that, if two extra mechanics are included, one will work far more effectively than the other but rarely is the difference in deployment as stark as it is here.

Whilst we are on the subject of starkly contrasting elements of this book, the overall design of the adventure itself is very unbalanced and changeable. The initial section on the slave-ship just seems to exist simply to try to reduce your Stamina by as much as possible thus making you all the more reliant on food once you start to get hold of it. At the very least, you have to lose 5 Stamina points in this short episode, but it is possible to lose up to 22 if you make the wrong choices meaning all but the most powerful of characters will be dead before they even reach Ashkyos and the adventure proper. This seems very unfair and, whilst it is obviously designed to make you pay attention to your actions and to learn from previous failures, it also seems very harsh and does not give a good impression of how much hope you have of getting through the rest of the book. However, once you land at Ashkyos the interest level and the fairness change dramatically. Ashkyos is a very eventful and varied city with much to explore and lots to do, notwithstanding the limits placed on you by allowing your Notoriety to increase (although you can get around it all without getting ejected as long as you are careful.) This is the best bit of the book by far and I really did not want it to end – I could quite happily have spent the entire book in Ashkyos. As is common with KM FFs, you are free to roam around the city in any order, re-visiting areas as you may need to, until you either get thrown out or decide you have done everything you want to. The non-linear approach of this part of the book allows cause-and-effect mechanics to come into play and there are lots of side missions should you choose to accept them. You can of course acquire lots of useful equipment, including sword, shield and armour (to eliminate any combat penalties), money, lots of food, a helpful talking mongoose sidekick called Jesper, and a camel (amongst other things.) Make the wrong choice and you can also be robbed of everything here!

The impressive and fun Ashkyos section leaves you waiting for something climactic or equally varied to happen later on but, unfortunately, it never really does, making the post-Ashkyos section seem inferior and rather flat. Indeed, the most dull part by far (and also the most wildly unreasonable in terms of difficulty) comes when you leave Ashkyos and head into the desert, thus embarking on a relentless catalogue of eating and/or Stamina loss that is so repetitive that you start to wonder if this is the same book! There is some realism in this section as your Provisions can go rancid in the heat plus trying to get through on foot is suicidal but, either way, if you have not found a Ring of Endurance you have little hope of making it. Plus, you cannot survive at all unless you have at least one of either a camel or Jesper with you. This demonstrates the importance of completing the Ashkyos section properly but it makes a non-linear freedom to roam book into a straight line death-avoidance slog. The difficulty spikes dramatically again here and this part is even tougher overall than the slave-ship. You have the option of hiring a boat but it misses out some key items rendering the easy route redundant.

Next comes the uneventful hell-hole that is Rahasta which you hardly even notice you are in, then you head for Kabesh and the final showdown. The Kabesh section is another free-form exploration but you are limited to only visiting certain parts of it once so this section is quite linear and must be explored in a certain pre-determined order which is a shame after the RPG feel of Ashkyos. There is enough variety to the ruins to carry this part but each element literally only uses about three or four paragraphs with not much really happening other than a few consequences of your actions in Ashkyos (at least we have ongoing plot functions) and you get the impression that KN used up all his best ideas in Ashkyos then just rattled through the rest of the book as quickly as he could to get to the end. You do have the option of helping some nomads (and they will help you in return) to add a bit of interest, but this is not essential to victory. Finally you find the Chaos Pits (which are blatantly easy to find and leave you with no feeling of achievement from locating them) which amount to no more than a couple of choices (with a few instant deaths if you are really stupid) followed by finding the end baddie himself.

The final showdown with Shanzikuul is a very typical KM end battle in that he is very powerful (Sk 13 St 16) but with the right items you can potentially have Sk 15 yourself by this stage and he will conversely have Sk 11 in that scenario which makes him less deadly than he seems. Furthermore, the usual KM trick of allowing you to briefly perform some actions in the battle’s interval before it resumes happens here before you fight him again with slightly replenished Stamina. And it would not be a KM climactic battle without a third consecutive combat, this time with a Dark Elf who is on the same mission as you are, but only one of you can win. Naas the Dark Elf is presented as your nemesis throughout the book (assuming you meet him in Ashkyos, otherwise he just bizarrely appears out of the blue at the end), and this is one aspect of brilliance within the plot flow of the book. Equally, you can end up with TWO recurring foes if you choose to tangle with a Necromancer who also first appears in Ashkyos. Logical plot flow and recurring motifs really add to the experience of a gamebook and their inclusion here raises the post-Ashkyos sections above just being anti-climax after anti-climax.

Anyone familiar with KM’s books will be aware of his perpetual fixation with magic swords and, unsurprisingly, in this book you cannot win without finding one. Thankfully, what he does manage to deploy far more efficiently than normal is the maths-based cheat-proofing that his books contain. Mechanisms to make cheating impossible are always welcome and, for once, there are only a couple of examples in play in this book which means the balance between gaming and number-crunching works far better than it often does in FFs where numerical clues determine the true path.

Another Martin-ism is his prose technique where he addresses the player directly as if he were a GM. In MoC his conversational tone is a bit more informal than usual and there are injections of humour that aren’t generally seen in the normally very darkly toned KM gamebooks. In particular the moment where you have to let Jesper go and get laid by a female mongoose before you leave Ashkyos is very cheekily amusing. Indeed, this book’s tone (especially for a Chaos-themed effort) seems lighter throughout than KM’s books usually do which can help it to seem less weighted against you which, overall, barring the slave-ship and the desert, it is not.

Martin’s FFs are notorious (with the obvious exceptions of his first two, #34 Stealer Of Souls and #38 Vault Of The Vampire) for being very difficult and MoC is wildly schizophrenic in this aspect as most of it is actually quite easy. Yes, the desert is insanely hard and the slave-ship prologue can be if you are particularly unlucky, but the rest of it is pretty much plain-sailing. Acquiring most of the essential items is easy enough, the Ashkyos section is very forgiving and you can explore every corner of it as long as you avoid the authorities, and the Kabesh/Chaos Pits final parts are hardly going to be a challenge if you have done the right things in the earlier sections. The increasing linearity as the book progresses guides you on the right route and you are unlikely to take more than a few play-throughs to beat this book. Even the glaring error (in the black dragon editions, at least) where you are told in section 229 to use the non-existent inside cover map of Ashkyos as a compass to help you navigate around has no impact at all on whether you win or not. Better use of the Special Skills could have made this much more challenging but would also have put too much emphasis on blind lucky choices rather than on the gaming experience itself.

A great feature of MoC is David Gallagher’s internal art which is varied (some light, some dark images) and quite threatening. This is a little at odds with Martin’s informal writing but you are meant to feel under pressure and out of your depth and the art really does highlight this fact. Les Edwards’ cover image has taken some abuse over the years (apparently even he admits it is his least favourite FF cover) but it does show a key moment near the end so credit should be given for this as so many FF covers show incidental moments of little import. I will happily admit that the picture itself is pretty poor (Gallagher’s internal image of the same creature is much better) but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, as they say!

In summary then, this is a mixed bag. The Ashkyos section (with its mixture of making money and getting equipment vs increasing your Notoriety) is far better than anything else in this book and thankfully takes up a large chunk of the adventure. From there onwards the material is much flatter and is a bit wanting in terms of something equally impressive needing to happen late on (that never does) to balance it all out. Similarly, the difficulty levels are all over the place and you often wonder where you stand with it all. All the same, Master Of Chaos is a decent gamebook as its better parts over-shadow its failings and KM controls his game mechanics deployment well. Overall, though, this seems like a hangover from the generally so-so 30s part of the series to me.