RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
Reviewed by Mark Lain
When Fighting Fantazine first appeared in 2009 I personally welcomed the deliberate attempt to replicate the format of the much-missed Warlock magazine, whilst also adding some new and fresh ideas of its own. In particular, the inclusion of Warlock’s Omens and Auguries, Out of the Pit, and its centrepiece, a unique mini-FF in every issue, were all really nice touches to give Fighting Fantazine a familiar feel, whilst the new features such as the exhaustive and fascinating The Fact of Fiction, the unreadably smug Everything I Know I Learned From FF, the personal recollections of The Magic Quest, and the blogger style material etc all gave the ‘zine its own contemporary angle without seeming to just be a clone of the original magazine. Naturally, as was the case with Warlock way back when, material for the first issue was in short supply as it was yet to become established amongst the gamebook community, so it is no surprise that Issue 1’s mini-FF would be penned by the ‘zine’s Editor, Alex Ballingall. By his own admittance, AB wrote this over a weekend, so if it had any shortcomings this would surely explain why.
The first thing that comes to mind when reading the Rules to this adventure is that it is probably going to be rather difficult. You start with no Provisions, no Potions, no weapon (and the associated -3 Skill starting penalty), but you do at least get a backpack (to put the nothing in that you start with) and 30 Gold Pieces. Well, at least the money allowance is generous. This may all seem a bit harsh but it quickly makes sense when you read the background to the piece. YOU are a wealthy (presumably, as you have servants back at your house) merchant (and ex-adventurer) who has just returned from a few months away trading in Royal Lendle. Your home town of Bandur Green is in a state of consternation due to weird lights that appear at night in the nearby battlefields on the road to Kings March and, recently, people who have gone to investigate the weird-ness have started disappearing and/or returning insane, including a good friend of yours. Spurred on by the human interest element of your newly-mad friend and an oddly unclear inclination to save the day (why would a merchant be so gung ho?), YOU decide to get to the bottom of the peculiar happenings and deal with whatever is causing them.
The adventure only covers a two day period, Day One being a general recce for information and equipment, with Day Two being the day of reckoning when you head off into the fields to face the end baddie. Day One is the vast bulk of the adventure and involves an exploration of various parts of the town to see what you can unearth about what is going on. You can visit the Frantic Rat tavern, the abbey where your now-mad friend is recuperating, the cemetery where some local legends from the era of the battlefield’s battle are buried, the local blacksmith to try to acquire a weapon, and you can survey the battlefield itself during the presumably safer daylight hours. It is in theory possible to visit all of these areas in any order (although the futile blacksmith hunt can use up too much time and curtail your investigations prematurely if you persist in pursuing it) and the book gives the illusion of RPG-style free movement, but in fact key areas must be visited in a very specific order to get the correct hidden area prompts in the required sequence and, as you can only explore each area once, it will take a lot of failed attempts to unravel the puzzle of the correct order and, even if you do find the necessary information to locate the hidden sections, the prompts within the text are so very subtle that you can easily miss them, particularly the critical ones at Narron’s grave and when following tracks out in the fields.
This concept of hidden section signposting being so subtle that it becomes obscure is a trademark of Steve Jackson’s FFs and his modus operandi are very much an influence on this adventure. The starting Skill penalty for having no weapon appeared in House Of Hell, you can suffer -2 Stamina penalties if you will not (or cannot) eat Provisions at various points (plus the forced eating does not carry any Stamina bonus) as per the Sorcery! epic, the end baddie attacks you with spells lifted straight from Sorcery!, and you can encounter a Living Corpse which was a memorable creature from Khare: Cityport Of Traps. The relative brevity of the adventure should you fail to find the hidden sections is also a feature of SJ FFs, as is the combination of confusion and frustration caused by repeatedly failing but not really knowing why until you finally do unlock all the hidden areas. Overall, this adventure feels very like a SJ effort, but with the marked difference in writing styles.
And Ballingall does write very well, with an atmospheric and coherent style that keeps things moving along nicely and you certainly do feel compelled to keep trying to beat this FF as the elements of mystery and plot are very well-handled. Indeed, as this FF was written over a single weekend it is surprisingly consistent considering it is effectively a rush job. You really do feel drawn into the plot and the whole piece is very much driven by its storyline and themes which are constantly referenced making it all feel very focussed and at no point does it start to wander or become vague. Added to this is the fact that AB really knows his FF lore inside out and this helps to make it all feel in keeping with FF as a whole, rather than the slightly disconnected feel that some Warlock mini-FFs gave the player. The way that some of the more interesting FF monsters (Living Corpse, Xoroa, Night Stalker, Wight, Dryaden, Elementals, etc) are weaved into the plot also keeps it from feeling run-of-the-mill. Interestingly, the Dryaden was actually a reader-submitted creature in Warlock’s Out of the Pit thread and, again, this inclusion shows that AB is thinking outside the usual basic FF creatures box and trying to make the most of his 200 paragraph limit to give us something a bit more memorable. Personally, my favourite encounter was with the three Possessed Goats which is both amusing and a key plot point!
As would be expected from a gamebook which shows so much Jackson influence and as we suspected from reading the Rules, the difficulty level here is quite high and this is certainly an adventure that requires close reading of the text, note-taking to establish the order of events, and umpteen failed attempts, assuming you can ever actually figure it out at all! I must confess to resorting to reading each section in isolation and trying to piece the puzzle together that way which, with a 200-section piece, is less arduous a task than it might sound. Once you have fathomed it out the solution is both clever and extremely tight in true path terms. You need to pay very close attention to the text and to information that NPCs give you to find the necessary prompts, plus this also helps you to appreciate just how much focus there is on the plot from beginning to end. Day One is relatively gentle on the player (hidden sections and order of service notwithstanding) but Day Two quickly becomes a catalogue of tough combats with over-powered opponents and this gets very repetitive. On the one hand, if you have failed to find certain essential items in Day One this does help you to die quicker before you fail at the end, but it also has the opposite effect that, should you have finally untied the various knots in Day One, dying in combat against a stupidly-strong monster can seem a bit unfair. A noteworthy issue with one combat (on Day One) is the Living Corpse fight that yields an essential item. The fight is constructed in such a way that, although each individual appendage is very weak, the fight can potentially go on forever – clever loop of doom conceit (à la Jackson’s Creature Of Havoc) or design flaw? Who knows. If you can find the key items, negotiate the labyrinth of hidden areas, and get past the harsh fights on Day Two, the final showdown with the villain of the piece (Dar’Noth) is also very hard (he has Sk 11 St 19) and, as opportunities to replenish Stamina are rare, combined with the –2 Stamina or eat mechanic (you only get 3 Provisions at best and at least one is required for force-feeding by the text), you are likely to be on your last legs for this final fight. I always feel that an end boss fight should be challenging and justify their being the end boss, but the combats on the whole in Day Two are collectively too difficult in real terms and if you do not have a Starting Skill in double figures you do not stand a chance, particularly as you can be expected to begin the adventure with a Skill as low as 4! On the flipside of this though, there are three opportunities to destroy the ring (this is essential for victory) which is very generous and is not in keeping with an adventure with as tight a true path as this, and there is even a non-win ending where Dar’Noth is killed but you haven’t dealt with the ring (which controls the living dead that he is raising from the battlefield) so there are still loads of undead roaming about for the locals to deal with until the ring finally gets disposed of. All things considered though, this is generally a very hard adventure but, as it is a Jackson adventure in spirit, you would not expect anything else as there is no such thing as an easy Jackson FF.
So, now we come to the subject that really sets the Fighting Fantazine FFs apart from their Warlock predecessors: the art. Warlock had the benefit of access to FF’s pool of professional fantasy artists and this really lifted the whole experience of its mini-FFs (many of which were penned by fans rather than professional authors). Fighting Fantazine is a fan production. Naturally, there are going to be people out there in fandom who can write prose and design adventures just as well as the pros who were part of the Games Workshop/Puffin inner circle. There are far less likely to be many artists who are skilled enough to produce the required quantities of professional-looking fantasy art that aren’t already professionals themselves that will naturally demand a living wage for their work. Yes, there are some very talented amateurs around but it seems that they were not available to offer their services for free for Resurrection Of The Dead as the internal art here is frankly terrible. I will make the concession that I made in the opening paragraph that AB had to do a lot of the legwork himself to produce Issue 1 (and I don’t want to take anything away from the sterling work that goes into each issue of Fighting Fantazine) but I just don’t think that Ballingall’s what I will diplomatically call “limited” artistic abilities do any justice to his clearly impressive game design and writing talents. It would have been at odds with the whole ethos of FF if there were no internal art and I appreciate the effort to give consistency, but I would really like to see what this adventure would have been had it had better (or even professional) art as a dark, atmospheric gamebook like this would have looked fantastically effective had it had brooding and unsettling art in the style of The Dark Chronicles Of Anakendis or Fortress Throngard. The magazine’s cover (as was sometimes the case with Warlock too) serves as the mini-FFs cover as well but, again, this just does not work with this adventure. The image itself does show a moment from the gamebook (which is a bonus), but it is not how I visualised it at all - it just seems too bright and is not remotely unsettling for something that is supposed to be part of a descent into unknown maddening horrors. Andrew Wright (of creature compendium assembling fame) created the cover image and, as with Ballingall, I have to say that he is a far better writer and has a far more vivid imagination when describing monsters, than he is an artist drawing them. His art is marginally better than AB’s but neither really does the adventure any favours at all.
At this juncture, I want to discuss the title. Resurrection Of The Dead is a very literal description of exactly what is taking place and causing the issues that Bandur Green needs you to resolve. Firstly, it does slightly detract from the mystery as it gives away the underlying crisis. Secondly, it has none of the dynamism or sense of intrigue and foreboding that a gamebook title would be expected to have. OK, the news that the dead are being resurrected is not something you want to hear, but the initial mystery and discovery set up of the adventure itself is at odds with the title. When I started encountering undead it was not much of a surprise, shall we say!
For what is by all intents and purposes an amateur FF, this is a promising start for Fighting Fantazine. The depth and manner in which the plot takes centre stage is impressive and drives the piece effectively. The author’s knowledge and deployment of FF lore makes it feel canonic and the choice of encounters is varied and keeps thing interesting. The NPCs are colourful, feel real, and play an important part in your exploration of the situation. I’m not sure I like the over-reliance on Jackson tropes and mechanics and this does feel like both a homage, and a sucking-up, to Steve Jackson. That said, the adventure functions well for the inclusion of the Jackson-isms, but the signposting could have been more explicit to encourage replay rather than have players give up in despair. Interesting and generally enjoyable stuff that belies its, by necessity, rapid creation (and crap title), but the art pulls it down a lot and it is too hard overall.