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.