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!)