Reviewed by Mark Lain
Fortress Throngard is, at 172 sections, the shortest stand-alone mini-adventure to be printed in the pages of Warlock magazine, appearing, as it did, in Issue 9. I assume this is another reader submission (many Warlock short subjects were) as I have no idea otherwise who Tom Williams is, but I may be wrong on this matter. Whoever he is, this adventure shows him to be quite skilled in designing gamebooks structurally, even if the opening spiel hardly grabs you by the throat and demands that you play: all we get is three brief paragraphs setting the scene by telling us that the wood of Ergon has been the site of abductions in the name of the wizard Throngard, that you are squire to a certain Sir Falfax the Fair, that he has been captured, and that the only way you can save him is by getting yourself abducted in Ergon and taken to Fortress Throngard to pull off an inside job rescue mission. A previous statement in the initial header section also tells you that you can prove your worthiness to become a knight yourself by rescuing Sir Falfax, so I’m guessing that the real intended outcome of this adventure is getting yourself knighted rather than either liberating Sir Falfax or dealing with Throngard himself, but presumably both of these are prerequisites to achieving a knighthood.
The Rules tell us that we start with the standard FF equipment of sword, leather armour, and backpack, along with the Warlock mini-adventure modifications of 5 rather than 10 Provisions and one from the usual choice of three starting Potions that contain two rather than one doses. You also get the more unique additions of a shield and, as soon as you read the Introduction, you also discover you have a knife and a picklock. These last two items sound very specific and presumably must have an impact on the adventure: dungeons, lockpicks; yes, I think that’s a logical combination so this appears to make sense…. Or rather it does until you finish reading section 1 which tells you that, in fact, you are unarmed bar your knife and you have now acquired a stout stick. Add to this, the comment in the Introduction that You know that any other equipment [than your knife and lockpick] will be taken as soon as you are captured and you have to assume that you actually have no equipment except for the knife, lockpick, and the stick that appeared from nowhere, and that the time you spent noting down the other stuff (including the rare starting shield) was wasted as you don’t have any of it. And this causes a big problem as it makes the double-dose Potions of Skill and Strength completely useless as there is no way you can drink them before you start. On the other hand, the Potion of Fortune is very handy assuming you think to drink both doses before you begin as you will automatically increase your Initial Luck by 2, giving you a starting Luck range of minimum 9 to a maximum of a whopping 14 which, when you consider that you are made to Test Your Luck in only four paragraphs (although two of these can be handy in getting an easier path through), is very generous. So, from the outset, we have a worrying number of glaring errors and the adventure hasn’t even begun!
What is pleasing to see though is that section 1 gets straight to the point in plot terms and immediately has you meeting three potential abductors. You have a choice of three ways to tackle them, all of which ultimately lead you to imprisonment in the dungeons of the titular fortress (that’s good, right?), although one can be more disastrous and results in you becoming weaponless as you lose your knife (presumably your stick has vapourised as it never gets mentioned again after section 1) causing you a -2 Skill penalty which, whilst a little harsh so early on, is realistic as you are unlikely to be knowingly left armed after capture and you should not have full Skill potential if unarmed. From your cell you then have to explore the dungeon area of the fortress before climbing some stairs to a gallery area lined with doors (and occasionally some animated armour) which conceal the chambers of various dignitaries, uber-nasties, and some essential equipment and knowledge. Now, this last is an interesting point – for a short adventure the shopping list is reasonably long and involves both equipment and information, much of which you cannot find until you reach what, at first, appears to be the end. Couple this with the fact that the very early areas of the dungeon ask you frequently if you have info or items that you can’t possibly have been anywhere yet to gather and it soon becomes apparent that you actually need to head for the “end” first (or as soon as you know a certain piece of info) and then backtrack and double-about on yourself here and there to gradually piece the true path together. This becomes all the more apparent when you start to get direction options that allow you to retrace your steps and in the way that you can often get knocked unconscious and wake up back in your cell at the start of the dungeon complex which you might think is a bad thing, but is actually often to your benefit. So, here we have an interesting non-linear design where you have to return to previous areas and effectively have to defeat Throngard first before exploring the earlier areas. This might sound problematic as FFs rarely deal well with revisiting areas but this adventure (for the most part) handles the reset button successfully and avoids the usual illogicalities by not having things come back to life and/or not having already collected items available to you a second time. So there is quite a bit of sophistication in these 172 sections in terms of design, the path through, and the mechanics, and such a level of complexity is unusual for the early days of FF before authors began routinely deconstructing the concept from the 40s numbers onwards. Indeed, when you crack this adventure and see the complete route to success, it becomes evident just how complex this mini-FF really is.
The complexity level is, for me, one of the real stand-out aspects of this piece and I was genuinely impressed with how TW worked so much neat design into so few sections making this probably one of the most efficient and section-effective FFs. Add to this the size of the multi-level map and the way most of the encounters are key to the plot and thread together very well, and you get a very satisfying playing experience. Curiously though, this is also a bit of a dichotomy if we set this off against the shambolic equipment mess at the start, some inexplicable moments such as you having to abandon an item if you wish to take a deck of cards (just how big are these cards?), an awkward jump between sections 5 and 21 which simply does not make any sense, a combat against a foe with no Skill (do you automatically win, then?), a bonus to your Skill that is actually a bonus to your Stamina, and a weird connection between two key rooms involving the dragon’s chamber/fortress entrance. Similarly, there are far too many close section links, sometimes one leading directly to the next one or to two or three sections away. I realise this was endemic of Warlock FFs in general due to the limited number of sections but it does kind of ruin any surprise at times although, taking into account the non-linear back-and-forth structure, perhaps this might not be such a problem after all in terms of actually defeating the adventure as a whole as I feel the real point is to work this part out rather than contend with individual section connections in microcosm.
A complex design often suggests a high difficulty level, but that is not necessarily the case here. Whilst you are at a weapon disadvantage early on, should you become completely unarmed, there are several opportunities to acquire a new weapon. Likewise, your initial loss of all Provisions solves itself with several rooms where you can acquire replacement Provisions and/or eat what is in them. The Rules do state that you can only eat when offered the chance to do so by the text, but the book remembers to give you these chances so that part is not broken (and the ability to double-back means that you can always return to one of these areas should you need to eat again). Similarly, you can restore Luck and even Skill here and there so there is a good balance between stat bonuses and stat penalties. What is rather odd is the stats of combat opponents: the frequently encountered dungeon guards are very weak (presumably Throngard is not too concerned about actually guarding anything or keeping any prisoners under lock and key), whilst skivvies like the butler seem over-powered. Some opponents are very strong (dragon, demons) but they should be so this makes sense and you can weaken the dragon considerably if you have a bow and arrow. In fact, if you read a key book that you need to find to gather essential info you will be told how to negotiate certain strong enemies so you should not come a cropper. Even Throngard himself does not have to be fought (you can’t fight him even if you want to) and instead needs to be trapped which is a nice twist on the end baddie idea (especially as you in fact meet him earlier on than usual) even if this does leave a loose end as he is still alive so can probably go back to abducting people in Ergon woods as soon as he works out how to liberate himself. This is one of the few major plot loopholes in what is an otherwise generally logical story arc and the adventure always remains well-focussed on the plot with several NPCs to meet, some of whom are prisoners (the resigned-to-the-inevitable Gandorn primarily) and some of whom are Throngard’s sidekicks. On the subject of prisoners there is a very neat requirement to gather companions and you cannot win unless you have both Sir Falfax and a big group of peasants with you. A clever touch in regard to companions is that some prisoners are nuts and will hinder your progress so there is some fun to be had too in figuring out who will and will not be of help in your mission. Obviously, you will fail if you do not find Sir Falfax (and there is a non-win ending where you escape without him) but instant death sections in general are few, which adds to the overall impression that this adventure is genuinely winnable and it can even be completed with rock-bottom stats which is a refreshing and rare thing. This all suggests further that this adventure’s real reason for existing is its structure and the player having to unravel the puzzle of the true path rather than the soul-destroying FFs where the author is trying to kill you constantly and show how much he or she hates you. In fact, aside from dying in combat, you will only usually die instantly if you do something completely stupid or blunder into a portal that leads directly to Hell, which does give the fortress and Throngard himself an undeniably sinister bent, whilst also explaining why there are demons roaming about the place and why Throngard’s close associates are a vampire and a witch, as well as making sense of an episode where a ghost really desperately seems to want out!
The combined themes of horror/demonism (even Throngard has to be trapped in a pentagram) and the escape peril central plot make for an interesting sensation throughout of the fortress being an oppressive and dangerous place that you really do want to get out of as quickly as possible and TW makes a good job of presenting the urgency of your mission through his fast-paced and unfussy prose. Initially, you do get a feeling of being well out of your depth and the whole mission seems to be a lost cause until, that is, you discover how easy it is to get out of your cell (over and over again), and start to unravel the game map. On that subject, mapping is pretty much essential otherwise the toing-and-froing will confuse you as the directions offered are presented from the perspective of exactly what direction you are facing at any one time (ie right could lead from a room on the left back down in the direction you might have just come from) which is actually a very good thing, although it could have been simplified by using compass points (as these would never change) rather than left/right/straight ahead. The actual mapping of this adventure though is straightforward as there are no real convolutions as long as the occasional weird section link doesn’t confuse you.
The dark theme requires dark imagery and this is a rare occasion where FF cartographer Leo Hartas gets to illustrate a FF adventure (yes, I know he did loads for other series, but not for FF itself). His work for, for example, the Golden Dragon gamebook series, irritated me as it had a very cartoonish look to it, but in Fortress Throngard he shows a real flare for the gothic with large swathes of black tones accentuated by stark whites to highlight the horror (eg the vampire and Throngard himself) or by filling the frame almost to bursting to show the grotesque nature of some characters like the cooks or the guards. There is a touch of how I visualise Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy of gothic grotesqueries in Hartas’ work here and it’s a shame that he did not get a chance to illustrate a full FF. For some reason, whoever did the layout work for this edition of Warlock made an absolute pig’s ear of positioning the images in relation to their respective sections and often the impact of a section’s illustration is lost due to it being somewhere else entirely (especially the very impressive full page vampire and Throngard in his study), which is a shame as I found myself having to play the full adventure and then look at the artwork afterwards to visualise things more fully. I have to say though that Hartas’ illustrations of Throngard, the vampire, and also the dragon are all fabulous pieces that really do benefit from the larger full magazine page size treatment they get here. The main magazine cover art is by the always superb Chris Achilleos and features a melee between a wizard, a dragon, some vampire bats, lizards etc and, whilst impressive, only bares a passing connection to this adventure and is probably not intended to be associated with it as, by Issue 9, the trend of having the magazine’s cover art act as the mini-adventure’s cover too was over.
In spite of some glaring errors and a train wreck of a beginning equipment-wise, this is a great little adventure. The complex and unorthodox structure is enough to carry it, but its slick pacing and the real sense of desperation that you get whilst playing it all add up to make this well worth your time. I would have been curious to see what other ideas Tom Williams may have had and it’s a shame that we did not get to see any more from him as, if this is any indication, he had great potential as a gamebook writer. Add in Leo Hartas’ brilliant visuals and you get a tight, effective mood piece with a threatening villain and a human interest mission that also includes the usual gamebook self-aggrandisement. The difficulty level is just right and the whole thing pulls together very nicely thematically and plot-wise. This is far better than a lot of gamebooks that are over twice its length in paragraph count and its 172 sections actually work in its favour as, by necessity, this really drives the pace. This could have been pointless and empty but, delivered in the way it is, the overall package is very very good.