ASCENT OF DARKNESS
Reviewed by Mark Lain
Stuart Lloyd is very prolific in the world of writing amateur fan FFs (and AFF modules) as well as being a regular fixture in Fighting Fantazine so it was fairly inevitable that a short FF of his would appear in that same publication sooner or later and Issue 11 brought us this interesting adventure. I say it is interesting because of the very original idea of creating here what is effectively a classical Greek epic in FF form.
YOU play a heroic figure, the son of a King, and the leader of an army of men engaged in an ongoing war with the Caarth. You receive a letter from your mother and return home to find that your father is gone and the evil cult of Elim is threatening everyone’s existence. Cue an eventual trip to Fire Island to get to the bottom of the problem and resolve it. The story arc takes you from the Desert of Skulls/Karnath Tor (where you are fighting the Caarth) to Carsepolis (your home) via one of three different terrains (mountains, forest, coast), then on a sea voyage in a tireme to Fire Island. A point to note here is that Carsepolis is the ancient city upon which’s ruins Port Blacksand was built and this is the first “official” trip to classical Port Blacksand that we have had from FF. Kudos for this then. As this is an adventure cut from the cloth of Homer, your character comes replete with several suitable traits. You start with a sword, a spear, and a steel helmet, but no armour (very Greek!), and have 50 Gold Pieces to your name. YOU also have to choose from one Heroic Power and one Heroic Flaw: the Powers are basically boosters to your attributes but the Flaws are more subtle and affect the path itself, sometimes giving alternative approaches and sometimes forcing you down certain routes. The Flaws also give some balance to avoid you being excessively strong (although you should be anyway given the context) and the descriptions of the Powers in the Introduction are very detailed and colourful with some nice legendary context to what you have done in the past. You also get Heroic Stunts that you can use in battle (a lot) which can swing things in your favour if the dice (ie the Gods) are on your side. There is also an unusual approach to rolling up your Skill, Stamina, and Luck here where you can only have each stat be rolled up to a certain level but then your chosen Power will boost one of these to a potentially powerful amount. Again, this suits the concept. This kind of idea is a trademark of SL’s amateur FFs so it is good to see it applied to this offering too. There is a neat little heroic touch too where if you do anything particularly unheroic you will lose Luck points - this is clever.
The initial battle with the Caarth is a good opener as you are straight into the action and have a few strategic decisions to make but the end result is basically the same. An amusing little inclusion is that there are only 300 of your army left after the battle which is a nice nod to The 300 Spartans of classical legend, but there are a lot of possibly overly Greek references along the way including the codewords (Perseus, Heracles, and Odysseus) and the fact that your father is called Agamemnon. This does create a bit of disconnect from FF as these names are just too well-known and too associated with Greek legends. The idea of the Achilles Heel Flaw is just about ignorable as it has become a euphemism but it is still directly related to Achilles so throws another Greek non-FF trope into the mix. What SL has managed to do in terms of encounters though is get a good mix of FF and Greek material, with all the Greek encounters being equally FF encounters as they are already lifted from classics and established as FF lore: harpies, the mermaid, and the hydra in particular. What is very apparent in the combat encounters is that almost all of your opponents have stats in double figures and are equally as legendarily powerful as YOU. Indeed we see some very high Staminas in this adventure (many of the fights are multiple foes fought as one), but for once this is actually offset against your potentially being a bit over-powered too so there is some balance here. Some foes can even use Stunts against you which make those fights particularly varied (and dangerous). A lot of fights have adjustors to shave extra Stamina points from you under certain conditions which does add to the realism of fighting several foes as one.
With very strong enemies to fight and your Power and Flaws offsetting each other, the question of difficulty arises quickly but because of the balancing factors you can get through with average stats (or as average as you can have here) plus there is no optimum choice of Powers or Flaws to scupper you from the outset. The Powers do not really affect the actual adventure itself all that much (bar in combat) but the flaws certainly do and the Achilles Heel is just that and does make the adventure rather harder if you choose this Flaw. It is also theoretically possible to have two Powers by acquiring the Strength Of Telak from a bronze apple so if you start with this Power that can be a bit of a sucker punch (or a big plus if you started with one of the other two!) So whilst the Powers and Flaws are presumably intended to nuance and change the adventure only the Flaws really do in terms of the actual path you follow. It has to be noted that a lot of the Stamina penalties through misadventure are quite harsh (routinely losing you 4-6 points) but there are many opportunities to restore back to your Initial Stamina (as well as getting restoratives for Skill and Luck too) and to replace lost spears (which are very useful) – the fact that many of these are blessings from the Gods adds to the whole classical package. If you can find either the Shroud Of Ashra or the Shroud Of Vuh in Carsepolis (not particularly hard to do) these will make things noticeably less lethal in the later stages and there is at least one item that is essential on a certain path and you cannot get beyond the first Act without having poison immunity. Indeed, when I first read this I thought it was broken at section 99 because I did not read the text closely enough and whatever choice I made killed me – but that is not the case and there are two examples of where close reading based on notes you have taken is vital which is a nice bit of cheat-proofing without resorting to arbitrarily guessing that you are supposed to go to a secret section (something that frustrates me hugely in some FFs). Luck tests are very rare (the instructions say you will need to test Skill, Stamina, and Luck but these rarely happen and I can only find one Stamina test) and there are only about a dozen instadeath sections, mostly for doing stupid things or not having crucial items, so this is reasonable enough. The true path is not especially hard to find as the adventure is very linear with clear convergence points to round off each Act and there are two win outcomes (which results in the final section not being the end and is just a standard game section) but I suspect the optimum ending is that where you have your father’s ring and he survives rather than the version where he dies and you become King (which is still a win really though, but just a bit less heroic). The fact that there are no pre-defined combinations of Powers and Flaws needed to win adds yet more fairness to the piece. The choice of the three Act 2 paths (forest, coast, mountains) adds some nice variety for replays but none is optimum as such and each affords you several useful items including stat bonuses, the vital poison immunity (important in avoiding an overly linear true path) and some Flaw immunities, and the ability to emulate Powers that you may not have. I have noticed though that the coast path is the tightest in terms of the goodies you can come out with (a limit of two from the choice you are given), the forest path restricts you to picking three, but the mountain path appears to have no limit so you can come out with a catalogue of useful paraphernalia on this path to make you very strong indeed. The view is that the best path is the forest as it is the shortest of the three, is theoretically combat-free (depending on what you do), and gets you the various apples that make a later challenge considerably easier, but having a bag load of useful stuff from the mountain path is not to be sniffed at either. The coast path is probably the hardest as you need a dagger otherwise you get assassinated but as this repeats in the Final Analysis I’d argue that this is de rigueur anyway. Similarly, in Carsepolis you can theoretically go everywhere (with a couple of inter-related restrictions) and the freedom to explore is evident even if each of the areas is fairly brief, you don’t really do any exploring as such, and the endgame of acquiring a crew and a dagger is the same and very achievable either way – there is a certain order needed to how you visit bits depending on your chosen path and some ways result in getting a free crew whilst others are more expensive and I’m sure you can end up with lots of crews too if you choose to continue exploring rather than heading straight for the docks the first chance you meet the required conditions. As with the second Act the Carsepolis part is mostly designed to your advantage which gives an expectation of a big climactic finale on Fire Island. But before you get there you have the tireme voyage and a hydra to contend with (which isn’t really very hard). Then comes the end Act on Fire Island itself which is pretty short and colourless and quickly gets to the point with the conclusive showdown (well, there are only 219 sections, after all, and the second and third Acts do eat rather a lot of these up).
The Fire Island section highlights a big problem though with this adventure as in parts it is a real mess. The hut/wizard cameo only makes sense if you choose to enter the hut otherwise you find yourself dealing with the second half of it anyway even though you opted against it (plus you seem to hurtle backwards on the map for no reason to get back to the hut you didn’t know you were visiting!) There is a really clumsy bit of layout/design where section 104 leads to 107 then to either 103 or 105 followed by 105 going to 103 anyway so everything for that cameo is on one page. This also happens earlier on when 114 leads to 115. There is also a weird bit of design on the coast path where you can defeat the harpies in combat to then go straight to an instadeath section if you don’t have a dagger and get assassinated (might as well just let the harpies kill you really). It seems odd to me that the Carsepolis section can allow you to go everywhere (bar the conjunction between the Temples of Ashra and Vuh) an infinite number of times as you are always sent back to the same section to choose where to go next and there is no suggestion of a limit on visiting frequencies (this results in the enormous variety of crews you can have as mentioned above). In the endgame there is an impossible sequence of sections/Flaw prompts (142 to 35 to 71 etc) as, if you have one Flaw there is no way you will have another one, so querying this three times over in an unfeasible combination is pointless. A similar issue occurs with the Flurry Of Blows Heroic Stunt which renders it basically useless as there are no multi-enemy combats and all of these are treated as single foes. There is also an incorrect section link where you are sent to paragraph 133 but it makes no sense in context so somehow the completely wrong text has ended up on this section. With all these errors (and the way they amplify themselves in the Fire Island Act) I do wonder if the ‘zine’s supposed team of playtesters and adventure editors actually exist (or know what they are doing!) and it does distract from the potentially exciting climax to the piece where your classical hero gets to be all classical and win against insurmountable odds.
But the Fire Island bit also throws up a few lovely bits of FF lore for those who want to find them. On first landing on the beech the text tells you that you are “ever watchful for giant crabs” (well, you would be wouldn’t you as 2000 years later poor old Mungo comes a cropper in their claws) and the lizard men are already oppressing humans by enslaving them leading to an uprising inspired by YOU, but in this case they are being forced to build a temple to the evil Elim rather than worked to death down the mines. Interestingly, there is no mention of the infamous Lizard King so I guess he hasn’t hatched from his royal egg yet. The way Carsepolis is ancient Port Blacksand is nice too but there is no real correlation between the two. A possible conclusion that can also be drawn is that classical FF world is similar to classical Earth world in that all heroes are male as it is explicitly stated here that you are male – not an issue as it works in context but it could remove the immersive YOU idea if you are a female player.
A big epic piece like this with the overhanging theme of an impending Evil should have some pretty epic art in it and this was entrusted to the always reliable Michael Wolmarans (aka Mike Tenebrae). The only problem is that he seems to be having an identity crisis with his art here as it ranges from excellent (the very sinister colour cover, the fillustrations especially the Greek helmet, the full pager on page 38) through middling (a lot of the people) to a few pieces that just look incomplete or rushed (the lizard men are especially bad and look totally unthreatening, the zombies make less sense the more you look at them, and the tavern brawl looks like something out of a childrens’ comedy cartoon). Okay so I know this is a fanzine and contributors will probably be working for nothing but still if we compare these with MW’s fantastic work for the ‘zine on Escape From The Sorcerer there is definitely something inferior about the art here. What does lift it well above the inconsistent art is SL’s writing which is pacey, full of energy and an obvious love for the gamebook form, and keeps you interested regardless of any glaring errors that might be annoying you. SL knows a huge amount about gamebooks and the concept and mechanics included here are excellent and show this very clearly.
This is a highly original effort and the classical theme and early-Titan setting alone carry it. The mechanics where you are naturally strong and have legendary talents and weaknesses are great and perfectly suit the concept. It is not especially difficult and is very fair, plus it is not especially long and can be played through in about half an hour or so. The multiple paths and more than one ending add great replay value, as do finding out how different combinations of Powers and Flaws can affect the proceedings. The errors are frustrating (especially on Fire Island where they do distract you from the finale as you try and get your head around them) but the lore and snappiness of the whole thing do make for a decent adventure. The originality of theme and the fusion of Greek classics and FF lore make this well worth a look as do the paciness, overall fairness, and SL’s quality writing and understanding of the gamebook form and how to manipulate it. The art does it no favours but I tended to just ignore it and look at the plethora of fillustrations. If the errors had been ironed out by whoever was supposed to be proofreading/playtesting it, this would have been a real winner. As it is it is just good rather than great.