Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Resurrection Of The Dead


Alexander Ballingall

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.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Warlock magazine short versions of book-published adventures


Ian Livingstone


Steve Jackson


Ian Livingstone


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

In its infancy, Warlock magazine needed to find a way to present its main offering of a mini-FF adventure in the days before any readers started chancing their hand and submitting their original adventures for consideration. Indeed, the headline on the cover of Issue 1 states “cash prizes for your own Fighting Fantasy adventures” with a competition inside asking readers to send in their efforts in return for money (and publication in the magazine and canonic legitimisation of their contribution, of course). Obviously, before the entries came flooding in, Warlock needed to find a way to fill the intervening issues and this was done with a combination of revised versions of already published books and teaser versions of imminent ones. Thus, Issues 1 and 2 contained the already getting on for two years old The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain split roughly 68/32 (ie Part 1 had 273 sections and Part II had 127 sections), Issue 2 filled itself out further with a 190 paragraph truncated version of the soon-to-be-released Caverns Of The Snow Witch, and Issue 3 gave us a 185 section version of the also then forthcoming House Of Hell (with the definite article prefixed on for good grammatical measure). All of these versions are in some way, and to varying extents, different to their book equivalents and all are worth a look for various different reasons.

Starting at the beginning, WOFM as presented in its two-part form is probably the subtlest in terms of how it differs to the more familiar book version. By all intents and purposes, the adventure per se is the same. In other words, the map is identical (even the torturous Maze Of Zagor is identical if you can be bothered to map both versions and cross-check them), the encounters are all in the same places, and the plot and purpose are the same. The only obvious difference is that the numbered keys to open Zagor’s treasure chest are scattered about in different rooms to the book and the order of the numerical placing in terms of progress through the dungeon of each numbered key (bar one) is different too. Similarly, the combination needed to win at the end is different (well, it’s one numbered key different, anyway!) A criticism many people (myself included) have levelled against the book version is that it is totally illogical plot-wise and that your motives are mercenary and wholly without honour. In this respect, the magazine version is actually slightly improved though as its Introduction (here called the “Background”) makes more sense as it starts with a chance encounter with an old man who relates the Zagor situation to YOU which segues neatly into your reasons for wanting to enter Firetop Mountain. Whereas, the book version’s intro (more abstractly entitled “Rumours”) has no apparent context and just throws YOU straight to the point where you want to enter Firetop Mountain. I prefer the magazine version’s lead-in as it is just more satisfying and jars far less in that it adds more depth, colour, and reasoning to the whole concept of the adventure.

I’m not going to go over territory again that is already covered in my review of the book version, suffice to say that the magazine’s opening spiel states that this version of WOFM is “specially revised” to make it distinct from the book version which, by all accounts, is a good thing as most people reading Warlock would no doubt have read the book previously. As I have said, the only material difference between the two is the background context and the alternative numbered key mechanics, but there are some subtler differences for the sharp-eyed to pick out. Obviously, and by necessity, the paragraph numbering is different in the Warlock version as the areas up to the boathouse on the north bank of the river are covered in Part 1, whilst the ghoul chamber through to Zagor’s study and treasure room are in Part 2, meaning that the Livingstone-penned part is effectively now numbered as sections 1 thru 273, and the Jackson part is numbered 274 thru 400. This does present a starker imbalance in quality for me than in the book as I far prefer the variety and exploration opportunities of the Livingstone half to the frankly irritating and very repetitive Maze of Zagor that dominates Jackson’s section. By definition then, Part 2 is rather less satisfying than Part 1 as it is literally just the Maze bookended by the ghoul chamber and the dragon/Zagor/key trial climax. Given that most of the keys (even in this version) are in Part 1, it goes without saying that you cannot play Part 2 on its own as most essential items needed to complete Part 2 are to be found in Part 1. In theory you could play Part 1 by itself but it would end on a cliffhanger and be totally inconclusive so I doubt you would realistically want to do this unless you really cannot face the Jackson part of the adventure again and are curious about finding the repositioned keys. Just playing Part II in isolation would be very uninteresting. A more stark difference is in the art. Whilst 90% of the art is the same fantastic Russ Nicholson work that was seen in the book, there are a couple of little changes: the image of the entrance to the mountain is very different and far more busy and foreboding with its heads on spikes and swirling mists that give it a lot more drama than the book original; the full-page title plates to both Parts are new pieces by Tim Sell and are radically different in style to Nicholson’s art, having a rather darker appearance and feel to them which does make the whole thing rather more sinister; also, the larger A4 size of some of the illustrations hugely increases their impact and does Nicholson’s work far more justice as you can see the detail in them to far greater advantage than in the book – conversely, the much smaller format of some other illustrations in the magazine version reduces their effect and is almost an insult to the art at times (Zagor and the Iron Cyclops, in particular) and I do not understand why the star/hand room (a relatively incongruous cameo) was considered important enough to be blown up to a full-page spread whilst Zagor himself in all his glory is hardly even A6 in this version.

Curiously, the Editorial in Issue 2 of Warlock says “In the next issue we will be featuring a Fighting Fantasy adventure written by Steve”. Er, what’s Part 2 of WOFM then? Also, in the same Editorial is the statement that “Caverns Of the Snow Witch is an adventure “for newcomers to Fighting Fantasy”. I wholeheartedly disagree with this remark given how ridiculously difficult CotSW is. If this was my first experience of FF I’d be put off by it for that very reason even if it does give a decent indication of the usually unfair difficulty levels and extreme linearity of Livingstone’s FFs. If you are more familiar with the full-length book version, the version of CotSW presented in Issue 2 tends to feel like a trailer (which, by all intents and purposes, it is!) as it is, word-for-word, the first half of the book version ending after you have defeated the Snow Witch for the first time. This format makes the opening Act when you are hunting the Yeti feel “bigger” in terms of how much of the adventure it takes up and it takes away the feeling that the book version gives that the Yeti section (which is, let’s face it, the initial reason for your quest) is just a Prologue to lead to the big reveal that makes you want to vanquish the Snow Witch. Unfortunately, this also creates the effect of making the first Act seem all the more crushingly hard as you are bombarded by a catalogue of high-powered combats, Luck tests, and stat penalties that, whilst harsh in any version, seem all the harsher in a short subject. Add to this the fact that the magazine version only gives you 5 starting Provisions (which would normally make sense in a half-length FF but is not very reasonable in this particular adventure) and no Potions and you really are up against it with this. The book version is very unfair due to all the tough combats, multiple Luck tests, and loads of stat penalties, but this shorter version, in spite of being exactly the same, seems even more relentless in how much it is out to get the player.

Horribly hard opening salvo aside, as this is literally just the first half of the book, anyone familiar with the book version really has nothing to gain from playing the magazine version unless, like me, you find it a more satisfying experience just to kill the Snow Witch and end it there rather than having to go through the arduous ordeal of the post-caverns coda that is simply very dull. The truncation in the magazine version has positives and negatives and neither version is ultimately all that good. As a good third or so of the magazine version is taken up with the pre-caverns part, this version seems rather unbalanced and the caverns do not seem especially “epic” once you are in them. The flipside of this is that the book version goes too far the other way and just way overstays its welcome. A happy medium would have made for something actually very satisfying and I would suggest that the definitive version (Director’s Final Cut?) would end after the second Snow Witch kill. As she is a vampire her resurrection and you having to deal with her twice does make sense and, as both showdowns are very different, it keeps it interesting. What kills the book off for me is everything that comes after the second Snow Witch slaying, none of which, obviously, is in the magazine version. As there is no second Snow Witch fight, there is no frustratingly arbitrary scissors-paper-stone disc battle but it also makes her first (and only, in the magazine) death seem rather too easy, assuming you have the items you need to kill her. Unfortunately, the early finish also means that the brilliant Brian Slayer is not in the Warlock version, neither are the dwarf and elf companions (whose validity of appearance is a matter of opinion anyway). That said, most of the better encounters are in the first part so are still here: the Crystal Warrior, the illusionist, the Ice Demon worship room, the plot devices of the influenced dark elf and the goblins tormenting the dwarf, etc so the actual content in the magazine version is very good. Indeed, the story element is still decent even in this truncated form and it is definitely better for not having the death spell part which makes the book seem like it goes on forever. Conversely though, and this is often an issue with Warlock short subjects, the way the magazine version just stops after the first Snow Witch death makes it all a bit “meh” and there is a lot of build-up to seemingly very little. The fact that the book version handled the extension of the adventure so badly makes this all the more unrewarding regardless of which version you are reading. As the shorter version is still blighted by the harsh Yeti part and a generally unfair and ridiculously linear feel, these problems do amplify themselves in this version, although I would suggest that the compulsion to play the short is greater than that to play the book if only because of the awful post-caverns section in the book, but overall I suspect neither will inspire much replaying.

The most striking and important aspect of Warlock’s version of CotSW is the art. The book version featured the unique woodcut-style art of Gary Ward and Edward Crosby which made it visually very unusual within the series and very memorable for it too. Personally I would have loved to have seen more from this pairing but it wasn’t to be for whatever reason (probably very tight deadlines to produce the art, from what I can gather). The magazine version uses the much more naturalistic and semi-cartoonish art of Duncan Smith. I liked his work in Scorpion Swamp and Fighting Fantasy – The Role-Playing Game as it suited the feel of those pieces, but CotSW is rather darker and more oppressive in tone which makes his interpretations of the visuals seem almost trivialised. Now, this might just be because I’m so used to the book’s art and am a fan of the woodcut visualisations that any other version doesn’t look right, but I just do not feel that the Smith version works. Some of his illustrations here look fine (the minstrel with his curly-toed shoes is nice, Big Jim is very real-looking, the zombie is very effective, and his dark elf is unusually sinister for a Smith image) but the bulk of it is just too “cutesy”: the Ice Demon is far too friendly-looking, the Yeti is hideous and looks like a deformed sloth, the Crystal Warrior looks like Thor for some reason, I have no idea what the hell is going on with the Sentinel, and the Snow Witch herself is a bizarre mixture of sexy and unalluring both at the same time. Interestingly, the cover to Issue 2 has Peter Andrew Jones’ take on Duncan Smith’s take on Shareela (or possibly the other way around) which seems to work rather better with her striking a pose in a skull-shaped cave entrance but that may well be because PAJ is a far more accomplished fantasy artist than Duncan Smith in my opinion. Having said all this, Smith’s version of the imagery does present a different take on the whole concept and it would be interesting to see how my opinion would have been affected had his art been used in the book and the woodcut versions had never existed. I still think it would have seemed not dark enough in tone but we will never know. It would also be interesting to see what Smith would have made of the plates for the rest of the adventure and maybe even his version of Les Edwards’ cover image, but this is all conjecture.

The big surprise reveal in Issue 3 was Jackson’s The House Of Hell – the first modern day-set horror FF adventure. The even bigger surprise for anyone who read both versions was just how much they differ and, for those curious about this, the Warlock version is by far the most interesting of the four (or three, if you count the two Parts of WOFM as one adventure) short versions of book adventures that Warlock had to offer and is a real revelation for several reasons. Firstly, as soon as the adventure proper begins, you start to notice the differences as even the ways into the house are not the same as those in the book and you can find yourself tumbling into the cellars without even getting through the front door! Enter the house itself and you find familiar material presented in an unfamiliar layout. The differences are considerable and just a few are: the layout of the upstairs rooms is completely different and the naming conventions are more “posh” house or hotel names rather than specifically Satanic/demonic names like in the book; the lethal cellar which in the book is a series of ways for YOU to die is much smaller (basically just the sacrificial man in the cell and the girl being sacrificed on the altar cameos) and it is fairly easy to escape it; there is far less reliance on Jackson’s patent hidden section puzzle structure, although the magazine version does still add a different challenge factor with two essential hidden sections that you need to find to survive (which are much more conventionally signposted and require no guesswork); there is no annoying minimum Fear score needed to succeed (it’s 9 in the book) as the true path suggests 5 Fear points are all you need to sustain for a win so the Fear score you initially roll won’t necessarily mean you can lose before you have even started playing like in the book, plus there are far less red herring rooms designed just to scare you and dangerously increase your Fear; the big reveal at the end of the book where Franklins the Butler is actually The Master is not in this version and it is the Earl of Drumer himself who has to be defeated to win; there is no Hell Demon fight as killing Drumer is all that is needed to escape the house (which is a bit of a disappointment as the Hell Demon is one of my favourite end baddies as it is truly terrifying and I liked the fact that the house was actually inhabited by The Master himself as it made it feel all the more “Hell”-ish); and most importantly and noticeable is the fact that the magazine version is far easier, in fact it does not take long at all to beat it as long as you map it out whereas even mapping is not much help in the book version! The whole map of the shorter version has been rearranged (with the exception of the initial part where you meet Drumer and have dinner with him) and, given the radically different solution too, this is in many ways a completely different adventure to the book version. The fundamentals are there in both - the background premise, the sacrifices/Master summoning, the ghost lady and Morgana helping you, the Fear mechanic, your need to find a weapon or take a -3 Skill penalty, the Kris Knife maguffin, the inherent evil within the house – but the actual way the adventure plays out is very different. The cameos/encounters in the short version are all in the long version and (barring some stuffed animal heads that growl at you as you pass them and the trapdoor outside the front door) there is nothing here that is not in the book, but it is the overall presentation that makes this so different. Obviously, there is a huge amount of material in the book that is not in the magazine version (as it’s less than half the length) but most of the really memorable key moments for me are there (George the vampire, Morgana and her plants, the headless ghost, the ghost girl, the nude sacrifice, the talking paintings, the nerve-wracking food choices at dinner, etc) and only the brutal torture chamber game and the Hell Demon reveal really feel like losses in my opinion. That said, the ending variation where Drumer rather than Franklins is the main baddie is a nice twist and makes it feel even more different (if that is possible). As an aside, the very close reader will also notice that some of the text in the magazine version (especially the intro) is worded differently and/or sentence structure is rearranged too when compared to the book.

As Tim Sell seemed to be actively involved in the early numbers of Warlock, it is no surprise that his art as seen in the book is used in the magazine version too which maintains the dark, demonic feel that his art contributed to the book. Close examination of the illustrations will show three that did not make it into the book as they are only relevant to the shorter version: the stuffed animal heads, the Earl of Drumer attacking alone (as Franklins is irrelevant in this version’s climax), and the study is laid out differently with the ghostly message that appears on the paper being different as Shekou plays no part in the true path in this version. Also, as with the two halves of WOFM before it, we get a full-page title plate montage of various horrors from throughout the adventure which is something of an assault on the senses. Whilst on the subject of the title, the magazine version is notionally entitled The House Of Hell with the definite article that was not on the book version. The title card does not have the “The” but the cover headline does have it, as does discussion of it inside the magazine, and this version is generally referred to with the “The” in place. (I guess it’s a handy way of distinguishing versions or whatever, too). As is always the case with Warlock mini-FFs, the illustrations are various sizes from full page spreads to tiny asides and the larger format particularly benefits the closing image of the blazing house with evil spirits emanating from everywhere but as usual, some images are played down too by being too small. An interesting point of note is that the notorious nude sacrifice image is here and is larger than it is in the book which serves to emphasise the fact that there is nothing seditious about it at all as you literally cannot distinguish anything that could be construed as controversial (something we have all always known!) The cover image of Warlock Issue 3 by Terry Oakes is suitably eerie and its central blanched-faced demonic creature is certainly unsettling but it isn’t actually in the adventure, although the Norman Bates-type Hellhouse stands in the background awaiting the unwary so there is definitely a kind of link between the magazine’s cover and the adventure inside.

I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that these three/four Warlock shorts are often overlooked as they are considered to be the same as the book version. However, in every case, there is something very obviously different about them (WOFM’s variant key locations and solution, CotSW being half the length and having completely different artwork, and HoH basically being a different adventure entirely) and these are of rather more interest than fans probably realise (with the possible exception of the, admittedly mercifully, shorter CotSW). HoH is clearly my favourite as it is so very different and is light relief in difficulty terms when compared to its bigger brother. WOFM is more of a novelty variant for the completist but, as it was the granddaddy of them all, it makes sense for it to be the opener for launching Warlock magazine too, even if Part II is hard work by any standards when presented in this fashion but is also a necessity in completing the piece. As I have said, CotSW offers little other than a far less tedious slog than the book, but it is still stupidly hard to the point of being simply unfair, and I cannot see it having much mileage compared to the book version bar the different perspective that Duncan Smith’s interpretation of the imagery can offer and even this is inferior to the Ward-Crosby visualisation. The larger format of certain art plates shows them to fuller advantage than in the books, but the far smaller plates do not do the images any favours, plus the usual problem in Warlock mini-FFs of linking sections often being on the same page due to the large page size can reduce the surprise somewhat (not that there are any in CotSW, in particular).

With the benefit of hindsight these adventures are probably more for the hardcore fan to play and enjoy making comparisons with the book versions than anything else nowadays and they are certainly far less essential than their book counterparts. That said, HoH in Warlock Issue 3 is well worth seeking out even if the other two are probably only curious diversions. 

Monday, 1 July 2019

#48: Moonrunner


Stephen Hand

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Often listed in fans’ Top 10 Best lists, Moonrunner has a formidable reputation as one of FF’s most accomplished gamebooks. The third (and final) FF from the very talented (and now somewhat reclusive) Stephen Hand, Moonrunner is a follow-up (not a sequel) to the extremely impressive #44 Legend Of The Shadow Warriors and continues the themes of the immediate aftermath of the Wars of the Four Kingdoms. YOU are not the same veteran as YOU were in the previous book though as your mission this time is rather more personal and you are seeking to bring to justice the unusually unluridly-named (for FF) Karam Gruul. Indeed, you play the part of a Bounty Hunter who, as this is a vengeance quest, eschews the usual motive of huge amounts of gold in favour of just getting closure. That’s not all, however, as there is more to your beef with Gruul (snigger) than just disapproval of his behaviour in the wars, but it is not until the end that the real meaning of the title becomes apparent.

Already, it should be evident that, by FF standards, this book is big on plot and the focus is very much on story and characterisation rather than killing things and collecting items (although equipment can be key to your success, all the same). From the outset everyone you meet is a well-developed character rather than the usual one-dimensional sword fodder, even down to potential throwaways like Orc Guards who have their own vernacular and ignorant way of speaking. Every NPC is fleshed-out, be it the way they speak, their obvious personality traits, some foible or other, etc etc, and you really do feel that you are dealing with “real” characters that have an identity and motive. Equally, almost everyone is out for themselves and you quickly learn to trust no-one unless they prove themselves to be worthy of your trust. And that’s one of the big aspects of this book: the way the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion is maintained from the very first to the very last word that you read, which makes the setting (primarily the town of Blackhaven) one of the most oppressive locales in any FF book. Blackhaven itself is described in the Introduction as “a place so dangerous that the City Guards have to go around in groups of ten” so does that make it trump even the legendary Port Blacksand or FF’s other famously lethal celebrated setting, Kharé? I guess it does if it warrants that description! I will always be the first to say that Port Blacksand is FF’s best-designed settlement ever and, whilst Blackhaven (in terms of how much you can visit) seems to be smaller and less varied in its scope, it definitely gives PB some competition in terms of the sheer imagination that has gone into designing it and the over-riding theme of gothic horror prevails throughout. It’s hard to name my favourite part of Blackhaven as almost every cameo and area is brilliantly executed, but I do have a soft spot for the Rohmer Theatre (I happen to like The Phantom Of The Opera concept), Craven Asylum (as I like Lovecraft/Batman-type loony bin tropes), Gustav Hollmann’s wax museum (the Chamber Of Horrors at Wookey Hole will always be with me), and the mind-bendingly-named Last Octopus inn. That said, there is not one part of what you can visit/see in Blackhaven that isn’t exciting, unsettling and hugely imaginative. Even though the bulk of this adventure restricts you to an exploration of Blackhaven, it really doesn’t matter as you will want for more, and every playthrough will reveal something new as you unravel (and fall foul of) its lethal locations.

But the locations are far from the only thing that is out to get you in this book, as certain characters will haunt and torment you to the very end if you happen across them. First and foremost is the oft-mentioned Conrad the Maniac Guard (with a name like that you can’t help but be worried!) who will endlessly pursue and harass you right to the finale if you make the mistake of crossing him and, as his cameo occurs very early in the game, he will become a serious thorn in your side. Oh, and did I mention that he’s indestructible? Right, yes, he’s indestructible, so you really do need to keep out of his way if you can as you have enough to contend with without his interference too! Another, more subtle, endless tormentor that you can get tangled up with is Baron Milescu the Vampire. His mechanic comes in the form of a phial of his blood that you carry with you. The blood gives you a combat advantage but the pay-off is that, after EVERY combat, you must check to see if the phial has broken. If it has the Baron will appear and then you are in trouble! Not only are NPCs an Achilles Heel though, as many items you can collect are also a mixed blessing. In particular, the Skull of Mora Tao can be a key item to success, but it is also a massive nuisance. Basically, it feeds on the holder’s spirit in return for staving off mortality. Certain activities will arouse it and, if you don’t feed it a Skill point each time it gets hungry, it will grass you up to the “authorities” wherever you are and whatever you are trying to do. It is worth mentioning something at this point which these features raise and that is the amount of wry black humour in this book. The Skull’s behaviour is particularly amusing, but this book is riddled with little moments of gallows humour. Take the applications of the Disguise Special Skill for example, which has you dressing up as Orcs and vampires, amongst other things, repleat with plastic novelty fangs etc, or the inclusion of a boasting gobshite (who has seen and done everything) that accompanies you on the tour of the wax museum. Similarly, there are moments that seem to almost be digs at the accepted norm of fantasy gaming, and FF in particular. For example, the Introduction (which, as we have already seen, fires a shot across the bows of the big name cities in FF) justifies an equipment selection as “not for you the cumbersome leather armour so beloved of amateurs”. Nice. I have to mention another line in the Introduction which could be Hand even going as far as to parody himself with the comment ”It is the dead of night”…

We have mentioned the gothic horror theme throughout this book and this, along with the wry humour, amplifies itself in the sheer number of classic horror movie references that are there to be discovered and enjoyed by those who want to find them. This book is a veritable celebration of the genre and Universal Pictures’ 1930s/40s horror cycle in particular. The list of horror movie-related easter eggs is pretty exhaustive, but the ones I picked out are: Matra Ouspenskaya who is incarcerated in Craven Asylum = Maria Ouspenskaya who always played the gypsy roles in Universal horrors; Lugosh who is holed up in Priestsgate is one letter away from (Bela) Lugosi; (Wes) Craven Asylum, along with the character of the Shocker (which was a Wes Craven movie title); The grave robbers Kilmarney and Hoggy: grave robbers open the 1931 Frankenstein movie, plus the illustration gives them a striking resemblance to Vincent Price and Peter Lorre; also they are later described as “fearless vampire hunters” (Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers perhaps?); The whole idea of the Wax Museum requires no explanation!; The Rohmer Theatre and its organ-playing phantom; The return of Doctor Kauderwelsch as a reanimated assemblage of body parts in the company of Son Of Kauderwelsch ie Son Of Frankenstein; You can jump/fall down a windmill blade at Weathern Mill à la Victor Frankenstein in the climax of the 1931 Frankenstein; The machete-wielding Conrad the Maniac Guard who just won’t stay dead no matter how many times and different ways you kill him (including drowning and burning) is clearly Jason Voorhees from Friday The 13th (and he even looks like him in the illustration, right down to the hockey mask!) The list goes on…

Whilst the horror movie influence is almost impossible not to notice, I don’t personally see this book as a horror genre piece in the same way that #10 House of Hell or Keith Martin’s two Count Heydrich books are out-and-out horror. Some may disagree but I say this because the quest, the item/info hunting, and the underlying generic approach of exploring the city and then heading towards your final destiny is very much traditional medieval fantasy rather than archetypal horror. Yes, some characters are straight out of horror, but you need to be familiar with their sources to realise this, otherwise this book is not horror in the totally explicit way that HoH or the Heydrich books are. The system and mechanics of this book add credence to this argument: you start with a sword, backpack, etc and 2D6+12 Gold Pieces – all very conventional medieval fantasy launch points. You also select four Special Skills from a list of nine which have no horror concepts in them and are all very conventional fantasy talents. In fact, the list of Special Skills would not be out of place in a skills-driven book like #29 Midnight Rogue and there is a definite link in this respect. Add to this your five starting Provisions and a special (very realistic and welcome) rule about a -1 Skill penalty for fighting hand-to-hand, and you get the foundation of something very standard, fantasy genre-wise. The only “given” missing is a starting Potion, but FF had mostly eliminated this by this stage in the series. Hand’s own Legend Of The Shadow Warriors used more realistic rules incorporating Armour adjustors (which I really liked) but I’m not sure that this level of nuance was really necessary for Moonrunner as it is the plot development that we are expected to focus on above anything else.

Initially, it seems that your main aim is to gather information and you start out finding some leads very quickly. However, the book is sly in this respect as your opening leads are deadly red herrings (one causes the recurring Conrad nightmare) and, in a neat twist, if you hunt around too long and find too much intelligence, Gruul will be onto you and progress will quickly become very difficult. The underlying function of Gruul’s always being one step ahead is controlled by code words, as are the consequences of certain actions when dealing with NPCs. I am not usually a fan of code words in gamebooks but here they seem un-intrusive and really do make the cause-and-effect flow well, especially as they usually lead to entertaining moments rather than driving the adventure excessively as is the case in some gamebooks that use code words. Interestingly, other than you being frequently penalised for drawing too much attention to yourself, Gruul himself is a slow burn and seems very shadowy and intangible in the early stages. Normally FF lays the big baddie on thick from the get-go, but here you have to slowly uncover him as you go along. That said, and in a brilliant bit of plotting, his influence is everywhere and he is always on the front foot which just adds to the oppressive atmosphere and your feeling that everyone is out to get you (and most of them are as Gruul’s stranglehold on the region is pretty comprehensive!)

The Special Skills mechanism has a huge influence on how your adventure pans out and your choice of Skills is at the core of the gaming experience you will have. There is no optimum combination as such (I hate it when you can fail a gamebook before you’ve even started just by choosing the wrong selection), although some combinations can make things easier or harder than others. The Special Skills are checked and used very regularly and are the central function in this gamebook’s design as the book has multiple paths to success based on what Skills you have. Equally, this book can be completed with rock bottom stats (a rare and welcome thing in FF), assuming you have the complementary Skills to get you through and/or tread carefully. Obviously, avoiding certain perilous areas can lower the reliance on Skills and Luck Tests can be substituted (at times), but you will very quickly have a Luck score of zero if you rely on this as your only gambit and might even end up dying quickly especially as some Luck tests are critical. Skill tests are also liberally scattered throughout and, in a neat twist, passing them can get you into worse situations (or even kill you) as succeeding at a manoeuvre might not be the ideal outcome. There are also a few 3D6 Stamina tests at particularly crucial points so maintaining a decent Stamina score by using experience of previous attempts at the book and eating at the right times is wise. Indeed, this book is riddled with -2 Stamina penalties, particularly when trying to acquire key items. However, there is no way you will be able to collect EVERY key item and suffer every Stamina penalty as the Skills-driven plot elements, as well as certain time limits (in the very Skills-influenced Harbour Row section, for example, some parts of which can be very time-consuming) and impossible path combinations, prevent this from being a serious problem. The obvious point to make at this stage is that this book is totally non-linear with multiple paths through, many of which are mutually exclusive, which makes the replay possibilities endless as you cannot possibly visit everywhere in one playthrough, and, trust me, with the wealth of consistently excellent material on offer here, you will want to revisit this book over and over again.

The factors we have just discussed might suggest that this book is rather difficult and it is certainly a challenge to complete it regardless of the route, but this is more down to you needing to map out and unravel the book which means you need your head screwed on, rather than the book being weighted against you in any traditional sense. The Special Skill driver is consistently deployed and does not seem to be out to scupper you at every turn, and the Stamina penalties will not mount up as much as it seems if you just flick through and tally up how many there are (as you don’t need to, and can’t, suffer them all in one single play). Various perils are avoidable if you know how to avoid them (Conrad in particular) and treat NPCs with a certain amount of dignity and respect (shopkeepers, for example) and even the really big infested areas full of kill points (eg: Penkhull and its Fogwalker blight where you have a one in six chance of insta-death after every combat) are not essential to visit on some paths. (And even the Fogwalkers can be nullified with a certain Special Skill). The difficulty or ease of your quest can be influenced by a function whereby you need to make important decisions about when and how to use certain items (the Wards in particular, all of which fiendishly have a penalty to you for using their advantageous properties) and, very unusually for FF, this book is very light on combat (again, because the focus is on plot and the use of your chosen Skills to find alternative paths to victory). What combat there is is generally fairly easy barring a few “Specials” that are as powerful as would be expected, which is very logical and fair. The final showdown with Gruul (the natura fight) will probably require you to still have some key items from the Harbour Row section but even this might not be the case. However, as this fight has you totally at the mercy of a dice roll it does seem a little arbitrary and the result can be deadly through the fault of no previous decisions you have made. That said, survive this part and the code words come back in force and, if you have caused too much trouble on the way, you will pay for your irresponsibility with failure at the final hurdle. The real trick to beating this book, and the reason I maintain that it is tricky and cunning rather than literally “difficult”, is in mapping (as I have said) and knowing how to almost respect its design. By this I mean that, at face value, you are generally free to roam and can visit areas in whatever order you wish (within the limits of time and your chosen/assigned path), even being able to revisit some areas, but the point is that you do not actually want to! Rather you need to identify which routes and areas go with which combinations of Skills and plot your path this way rather than trying to see everything and best everyone otherwise you will soon come unstuck. That is what I mean about respecting this book – it rewards careful close play and penalises gung ho killing and plunder, something which is rare in a gamebook. Therein lies the secret to just how cleverly designed this books really is and it is one of, if not the, most intelligent book in the FF series. Keith Martin’s FFs used this freeform RPG-style approach too, but in a less controlled and subtle fashion.

Impressive gamebook design is not everything though, as the writing needs to be compelling enough to justify the material. In this task, Hand excels and his prose is rich with atmosphere and texture to immerse you from the outset. And he never drops the ball at any point in what is a truly superb piece of gamebook writing, in the literal sense. He even plays with your mind’s eye in places and subverts your expectations: take the Last Octopus inn idea or the description of Mawn Pretoragus’ sanctum made up of “constantly shifting angles” – just try to actually visualise that. It makes sense as words, but does not make sense as an image: think MC Escher, but in text form. The perfect companion to Hand’s horror themes and sensibilities is Martin McKenna’s Hammer-influenced internal art. I cannot think of a better FF artist than McKenna to visualise Hand’s worlds and it is no surprise that McKenna illustrated all three of SH’s FF books. MM’s work here is as excellent as ever and he really captures the terror and mystery of what Hand throws at you. The cover by Terry Oakes is one of Oakes’ better efforts showing a scene of colourful carnage that just might be the back story to this piece, given how controlled the actual content of this book is.

The Universal horror influence on this book is clear, but there are also Lovecraftian tropes such as Craven Asylum and the very Lovecraftian Ectoplasmic Lurker (again, brilliantly drawn by McKenna in all its eldridge glory) that very generously restores your Stamina every time you wound it. More conventionally terrifying is the Shocker with its huge single eye (drawn almost hypnotically by McKenna), but there are also some very cleverly designed and unique encounters such as the Xen-Viper and the Obsidian Predator. Hand does not try to be too high brow and unique though and there is a place for some conventional fantasy species such as Orcs and suchlike – again, a brilliant bit of design that shows considerable thought in the planning of this book. We also cannot fail to mention that Hand favourite that debuted in Legend Of The Shadow Warriors, the Mandrakes, who are back (well, one of them is) in a genuinely unexpected cameo role (remember to use fire lol). This gives a nice link to the earlier book and the return of the Frankenstein-like Doctor Kauderwelsch is another welcome inclusion, along with some development of her character and update on her fate between the two books. A very subtle little linking inclusion too is the Shadow Warrior masks in the image of Kiennar’s Curiosity Shop. Very clever.

If I have any criticism, and they are fairly trivial niggles really, they would be that, to get the most out of this book you do need to have read/played Legend Of The Shadow Warriors or you will miss out on the inter-related material and the mandrake and Kauderwelsch bits might seem jarring and randomly inserted with no context behind them, and that, even at twice the length, I would not be able to get enough of this book. Yes, the limit of 400 sections keeps it taut and effective, but you cannot have enough of Blackhaven and its superb selection of incidents and experiences. On the subject of the 400 sections, it is noteworthy that paragraph 400 is not the victory section. Normally, FFs that subvert the “Turn to 400 and win” approach have multiple win endings but this one does not seem to go by that rule. Maybe it’s just hand going against the grain again or maybe we are expected to feel a hollow victory? It’s not a big issue, but it’s worth bringing up, I think.

The word “masterpiece” is used far too liberally in reviews, but I struggle to find a more suitable word to do Moonrunner justice. It is intelligent, well-designed, eminently replayable, the challenge is more cerebral than normal in gamebooks, and the emphasis on feeling the plot and the world of this book over simply slaughtering everything in sight and stealing items, makes it a hugely satisfying experience. The book grabs you and fuels your imagination from the very start and it is very hard to put it down as there is no let-up in its brilliance from one moment to the next. What Hand would have followed this with we can only guess, but, if this is a step towards something even greater, I can only assume that the planned but never produced Blood Of The Mandrakes would have been the greatest FF book ever, as Moonrunner is up there with the absolute best. Truly outstanding.