Sunday, 26 May 2013

#35: Daggers Of Darkness


Luke Sharp

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Up to this point, Luke Sharp did not have a good track record with FFs. His first (#27 Star Strider) was nothing more than a diversion and his second (#30 Chasms Of Malice) was abysmal. Likewise, #27 was whimsical and very easy, whilst #30 was unfair and tedious to the point of being unplayable. Understandably, my expectations were low when this third offering appeared.

This book is the second part of a trilogy by LS of adventures (Chasms Of Malice, Daggers Of Darkness, Fangs Of Fury) that are linked by location (the neighbouring kingdoms of Kazan and Gorak) and “sponsor” (the wizard Astragal.) Presumably you are not the same adventurer as you were in Chasms Of Malice as that character is almost certainly dead given how ridiculously lethal that book is, plus the two characters have very different backgrounds: in CoM you are a lowly kitchen-hand, whereas in DoD you are one of the Select, a group of elite raised with eventually competing to become King in mind. So, already this book has some depth of backstory and not a confusing assault of information like you were exposed to in LS’ previous two books, but a fairly straightforward explanation of the socio-political structure of Kazan, where this book is set. Kazan is made of six key locations, each run by tribes who are clients to the King who’s seat is in the “capital” city of Sharrabbas. There is no system of succession through lineage, rather, people can put their children forward to become Select and they are then groomed to eventually compete for the crown, which is where YOU come in as one of those competitors. The “test” involves trekking across Kazan’s wide variety of terrains, undertaking trials in the mazes that each of the six key locations uses as tests for the Select, with the aim of collecting each of the six medallions that are the rewards for success in the mazes. These medallions then help to complete the final trial in the Fortress at Sharrabbas. However, on this occasion, there’s an added complication as the current King is a despotic dictator who is out to stop the Select at all costs through the use of assassins and necromancers, and YOU have just survived a murder attempt by one of his assassins. An extra complication on top of this is that the assassin used a poisoned blade which has put a slow-acting toxin into your body. This toxin reacts to physical exertion (especially battles) and the more you over-do it, the more it gets into your system. Finally, the only way to stop the toxin is to put the blade (the Dagger Of Darkness of the title) back into the hands of the person who sent it to kill you which, as it happens, is the current King himself. So, there’s a lot going on here and rarely do you get this much depth of plot reason combined with such a fleshed-out and well-designed “world.” This is more akin to the expansiveness you find in an entry in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World, rather than an individual gamebook and it really does make this book exceptionally involving.

As the plot plays out, there are various environments to visit, each with its appropriate challenges (eg: you can freeze to death in the initial snowy wastes, etc), and lots of different ways to make allies and get help as you go along. You can travel with various groups, buy passage on a boat, get involved in tribal “trials” to test your mettle, get transported by the Boulyanthrop (a sort of birdman tribe), etc etc, so there’s all sorts to see and negotiate your way through. Along the way your progress is hampered by necromancers (including one that has an attack that’s a bit like Moses dealing with the Egyptians in The Ten Commandments) and the evil King’s Mamlik assassins. There are diversions where you can partake in a jousting tournament, there are two mazes to visit, and there’s lots of other cameos to keep it interesting from start to finish. Everything flows logically and it all makes sense which is good to see. Plus, the pace is exciting and the story moves quickly with no dull parts anywhere.

Kazan has an interesting and unique selection of creatures living in it, including the Boulyanthrop (helpful birdmen), Mamliks (ugly assassin creatures), Khomatads (fanatical elf-orc type creatures), and Fangtigers (sabre-tooths that can be skied on, basically.) To help visualise all these hitherto unknown fantasy creatures, each one is illustrated at least once which helps counter one of the few things this book has excluded – there is no explanation of the background or nature of these new encounters, other than an obvious fanaticism and inherent good or evil nature. FF books often try to contextualise any newly-invented foes, but this does not happen here, which is a shame, but at least the art makes it pretty clear what you’re up against, so this is a lesser point given the overall way that Kazan is so well-developed as a setting. To balance things out, regular FF encounters such as Orcs, Dwarves, Goblins, etc are peppered along the way to give a familiar feel and make this seem to fit into Titan as a whole. Again, this is well thought-out. Luke Sharp’s seemingly favourite invention, the Gryphawk, is here (as seen in Chasms Of Malice), and references are made to Tancred The Magnificent who was also a main character in that earlier book, plus the Darkfight skill is back. Whilst CoM was undeniably dire, at least LS is showing a continuity in the land of Kazan (an area of his invention where only he set FFs) so this adds even more to the overall effect of DoD as a very well-designed adventure within a well-designed environment.

There are some other interesting elements to the structure of this adventure as well. The progress of the poison through your body is tracked by the use of Poison Units. The Adventure Sheet includes a drawing of a person with the body divided into 24 sections. Every time you over-exert yourself (normally through battle, but also in strenuous situations such as surviving in the snow, etc) you are instructed to mark off x Poison Units. If you reach 24 the poison has killed you. This stat works very well as it makes that particular plot thread flow logically and appropriately throughout the adventure and adds an element of urgency and suspense. It also makes you unusually wary of combat. There are some battles that are unavoidable but, as so many encounters can turn into getting help or a lift somewhere, you quickly learn to assess a situation before you go in for the kill. I like this aspect as it makes you think and behave like an honourable “chosen one” and adds yet another layer of depth to the game.

You are told at the start of the book that you need to find as many as possible of the six Medallions mentioned above. All six are listed on your Adventure Sheet and you have to mark them off as you find them. In an interesting twist (which I hope is a twist and not a continuity error), you can only get up to two of them and it’s most likely that you’ll only get one, if that. Making you find all six would have taken ages and turned this into an epic slog which would have detracted from its fast pace. Also, when you reach the final trial, if you have no Medallions you may think you’ve failed, but it transpires that all they do is give you two special skills that you don’t really need anyway. This is a refreshing change to the usual “find 20 items and if you’re missing even one, you’ve blown it” approach of some FFs and is a neat twist. There’s then a second twist where it turns out that it’s not the King that’s your real nemesis, but his daughter who, once you’ve returned the dagger to him and rid yourself of the toxic curse, promptly kills him leaving you to think fast about how to finish her off. Again, the honourable act wins out, which means that the themes of this book and the technique to beat it last from beginning to end with no lulls or inconsistencies, which is quite an achievement within the body of FF as a whole.

Money plays a big part in this book as you will often need to bribe people to help or pay for useful information. There are numerous financial ups-and-downs throughout the book, including being robbed of all your gold, but there are lots of chances to acquire it through taking part in various games with cash prizes. You don’t need to buy many items as such and, in fact, there isn’t much to collect at all as you are required to “collect” help to guide you through, more than tangible objects.

The lack of a shopping list is a feature of Luke Sharp FFs, but it suits this book and fits the concept well. Other Luke Sharp-isms also come into play, but are handled better here than usual:
  • ·         Random dice rolls that determine success or failure. There are several occasions where you are asked to throw two dice and compare the numbers or you die which, whilst difficult, seems much less arbitrary here than in earlier Luke Sharp FFs
  • ·         Luck tests where failure kills you. As the book progresses, these get more frequent but, again, seem to be in context and don’t seem as much of an endless catalogue of ways to make you fail than in his previous books
  • ·         Routes impossibly looping into each other. This is only really noticeable if you try to map this book (and Chasms Of Malice before it), but routes twist and turn and meet up with routes that are in completely different directions at times. This doesn’t detract any from the enjoyment of this adventure, but it does look messy if you’re trying to find your way through it in a structured fashion using what you’ve learned in previous plays
  • ·         Being knocked unconscious as a way of sending you to a key “save point.” There was a tavern in Chasms Of Malice where nine times out of ten you’d end up out cold and transported to a later stage. This happens here as well with the final fortress, but it’s far more avoidable and tends to only happen if you take too many risks, rather than being almost inevitable, as it was in CoM

The long and the short of this is that, whilst Sharp can’t resist including his trademark nasty foibles, he has put them to better use this time. It would have been better to have seen these excised completely, but this is obviously how he writes FFs so at least he’s toned them down to give you a cat in hell’s chance of winning plus, with a plot and design as good as this book has, it can be overlooked far more easily. Most importantly the incredibly unfair, really stupid (and, let’s face it, impossible to survive) one-hit combat is nowhere to be seen here, so this book is automatically far better for this alone. Indeed, the combats are, with the exception of the understandably strong necromancers, pretty easy and few encounters have stats above 8 or 9. This is a welcome throw-back to early FFs where tough foes were few and far between (except end baddies or naturally tough things like vampires and dinosaurs) and you do feel like you have the upper-hand expected of a tough, experienced adventurer. Of course, the low-ish stats are a red herring as you need to avoid combat as much as possible otherwise you’ll die of poisoning. On the subject of your 24 Poison Units, it is highly unlikely (unless you are psychotic) that you will use these up and die from poisoning, so I’m glad to see that this extra stat is not simply there to kill you off really quickly like “new” stats often are. Instead it adds tension and caution to your approach.

Martin McKenna drew the internal art for this book and it’s really great. It feels and looks like fantasy art 100% and there’s a really fantastical look to his towns in particular. These illustrations add even more to what is already a very atmospheric book. The cover is one of the most beautiful images ever used on a FF cover and is a key moment in the early stages of the book, which is good as the covers so often depict irrelevant moments from FF plots.

Interestingly, when you first start this book you could be forgiven for thinking this will be another horribly difficult book to play given that you are told to mark off 2 Poison Units and deduct 1 Stamina point on paragraph 1 before you’ve even done anything. Yes, this is no walk in the park, but this genuinely is a FF book that you can beat with low stats. The trick is in finding the right allies to get you through the book safely, whilst using your wits and brains to survive. You will probably need a decent Stamina score, but you can restore some Stamina in taverns etc so you are not on a constant downward spiral which is another problem in some FFs.

This book is an above-average entry in the series, especially as it came at a time when FFs were becoming quite unimaginative and very unfair. This is one of most well-designed in terms of context and concept and it keeps you interested all the way through. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible and, on design alone, you will want to replay it to see everything it has to offer and to work out how to play the character of a “Select” in such a way that you can win. Rarely has the inherent nature of your character played such a major part in a FF book and rarely have so many NPCs come into play so effectively, recurrently, and usefully (there is no dying instantly or running away going on here.) With this book Luke Sharp redeemed himself and showed that he actually is capable of designing a really brilliant FF adventure that you won’t discard after one play-through. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

#12: Space Assassin


Andrew Chapman

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Originally advertised in Warlock #3 as FF#13 Assassin, the second Sci-Fi FF (eventually #12 in the original series) had very little to live up to given how dull the first effort in that genre (Starship Traveller) had been and was a chance to instill renewed faith in Sci-Fi FFs into fans of the series.... and it failed miserably. In fact, after these two outings, it’s a miracle any more futuristic FFs ever got green-lighted and, indeed, very few would be.

The premise of this book revolves around your being the titular Space Assassin who is sent on a mission to bump-off a crazed scientist (Cyrus) who has been abducting alien species to conduct hideous experiments on. Not content with that, he now intends to use your homeworld for a more ambitiously-hideous experiment which will have disastrous effects on everyone/thing that lives there, so the Assassins’ Guild have decided he needs “terminating with extreme prejudice” (to quote Apocalypse Now.) The plot involves you having to find your way onto his ship, the Vandervecken (pretty good name actually), and make your way through whatever obstacles you find, eventually tracking Cyrus down and killing him. The plot sounds quite intriguing when you first read the introduction and there is some motivation to play this (which, sadly, fades very quickly once you get into the mission.)

The mission itself does have a logical flow inasmuch as there is a limit to how tangential wandering through the corridors of a spaceship can realistically be, so most of the decisions are of the turn left or right, open the hatch/don’t open the hatch, pull the lever (normally disastrous), or open the door type. So it’s a dungeon in space then, really. The direct route (up the corridors) is, understandably, very linear, but there is an alternative route that you can find yourself taking (and most likely will as there are numerous ways that you can inadvertently end up on it) and this is one of the ways in which this book totally beggars belief – somehow Chapman thought it appropriate to put an entire planetscape on the ship with forests, ravines, rivers, plains, etc. What the hell is that all about? There is just no context to this idea at all. The first time I ever read this, I thought there’d been an error at the printers and that my copy had got jumbled into some other FF – sadly, this was not the case and SA really is meant to be like this. If you can manage to stay on the corridor route, the book is bad, but at least it makes sense. If you find yourself on the “planet” deck you are sent on an endless catalogue of North-South-East-West junction choices that eventually loop back on themselves so you can end up just going round and round forever until you either get lucky and find the way out, get even luckier and get killed by something (not that there’s much there, by the way), or decide you’ve had enough and bin the book. All this stupid section achieves is eating up loads of paragraphs that could have been put to better use writing a decent FF book.

There is a mercy in that you are saved having to waste too much time playing this as the linear corridor trawl is quite short and it does not take long to reach Cyrus, but I’d much rather have seen a longer and more immersive mission, rather than pathetic excuses to flesh the pages out. Not only does the “planet” use up loads of sections, there is also an (admittedly fun, given what else is on offer here, but it comes very late on and you won’t care anymore by then) tank battle game where you are forced to play one-on-one against the book – this eats into the paragraphs as well, as you chase each other around. Added to this is a feature that seems like it should be useful but that, again, just pointlessly wastes sections – you can acquire various guidebooks along the way that advise on things like robots or alien species. Sadly, the “advice” tells you nothing of any use eg: “this creature is very dangerous” just as said dangerous thing attacks you.

This book would have some saving grace if it was at least well-written, but it is not. The text is very informal, almost jocular and, at times almost seems smug and sarcastic (as if Chapman knew this was poor.) This has to be one of the worst-written FFs ever, both in terms of the prose itself and its dull/ridiculous structure. The few aliens you meet seem to be small and cute (there is a particularly bizarre encounter with some space squirrel things) if at times aggressive, and the NPCs are all one-dimensional. Plus most of what/who you meet seems to be more than willing to give you advice or surrender equipment to you (unless everyone hates Cyrus, but can even androids have emotions?) than you’d normally expect (or, at least, than would present any level of challenge.) There are so many stupid episodes in this book that it’s impossible to list them all, but, notwithstanding the planet debacle, amongst other encounters we are offered a philosophical droid that is becoming obsessed with the meaning of its own existence, a room that can only be described as the Vortex in The Adventure Game, three ship’s cleaners that seem to be felines and instantly attack you for no apparent reason (why are cleaner cats psychotic?), and a robot that asks you gibberish questions that you are somehow expected to be able to reply to with similarly partisan twaddle. To boot, this all may sound whacky in a satirical way (like Star Strider manages to achieve), but it’s not – it’s all just desperately uninteresting due to the slapdash way that it’s written and put together.

...And it’s a shame because, on reading the rules, the unique game mechanics could have led to a really well planned and varied adventure. Firstly there is the Armour stat – this represents the battle suit you are wearing (which can be swapped later on for an even better stat-boosting one) and adds a bit of realism to your ability to take hits from lasers etc. There are rules for dealing with Gunfire combat which are basically a prototype of testing your Skill, but they do add variation from traditional hand-to-hand combat rules. You can also sometimes throw a grenade before combat if (realistically) there is time and/or space to do so. There is a futuristic version of Provisions (Pep Pills) that restore a more “advanced” 5 Stamina points (health technology has logically improved.) My favourite rule is the fact that you can roll one die and use the number to “buy” various different weapons that have various different damage levels – I always like to see modifiers being applied for weapon size/power and this is a nice realistic feature. It soon becomes apparent that there is no point in choosing an assault blaster as you can often pick these up by destroying robots, but at least there are choices and realistic variables here. If only these rules had been used in a better book!

The problems don’t just amount to bad writing and stupid game design. Assuming you don’t fall into one of the many traps and die instantly (including a self-destruct function on the ship that you can accidentally set off, leading to an unnecessarily protracted death as the book counts down to self destruction by eating up even more paragraphs!), this book is actually very easy. As with most Sci-Fi FFs, there are hardly any items to collect and most of those that you can find (including a squirrel that I have no idea what you are supposed to do with) rarely if ever serve any useful purpose. The combats are all fairly easy with low stats (even Cyrus himself only has Sk 9 St 12 and you don’t need anything special to be able to fight him), you quickly learn to avoid levers and buttons so it’s easy to see through what is meant to catch you out, most of the rooms you can visit offer nothing other than something to do if you’re bored with walking down corridors, and the book is so linear that the true path is difficult to avoid (even if you end up on the stupid planet deck.) Add to this the fact that it’s not worth even rolling up a Luck stat as Chapman seems to have all but forgotten that there’s such a thing and, all in all, you get an adventure that you can complete in comparatively few sections with very few rolls of the dice (especially if you’re trigger-happy and take the often available option of just blasting whatever you meet without even getting into combat.)

All these shortcomings ultimately amount to one massive failing on this book’s behalf – it is very difficult to not lose interest part way through and there is no feeling of immersion or intrigue, you just want it over with one way or another. If you die it’s a relief, if you win you just don’t care – and neither does the book with its perfunctory three sentence paragraph 400!

You could get some mileage out of the art which is futuristic looking and is fairly weird to suit the weird things that are going on on the ship, but even this makes a basic error as the images are cropped wrongly and don’t fill the full frame – in most cases they are almost square-shaped leaving several centimetres of blank page under them. The cover has an air of mystery to it (and is by the always great Chris Achilleos), but the scene depicted is just one short cameo that offers no challenge (hardly surprising) and is instantly forgettable, but the cover is at least atmospheric and dark (which is more than can be said for the contents.)

So, there is little to recommend this book. It’s not as dull as Starship Traveller but it’s much stupider and is designed even worse than ST. The writing is appalling and it’s hard work sticking with it, even when it’s as short as it is. It’s a real surprise that the FF selection committee let this one get through. In a word: Rubbish.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

#52: Night Dragon


Keith Martin

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Once it had reached its 50’s, the series took a distinct step towards longer, more adult-oriented, and more complex adventures, and Night Dragon is a very “advanced” entry to the cannon. It is also probably the best of all the latter-end books.

The book’s complexity comes primarily from the sheer number of extra rules and number-crunching that you have to contend with. On initially reading the introduction, the new rules can seem pretty bewildering but they are integrated seamlessly into the book and they are fairly easy to find your way around. You have three additional stats (which is a lot in the FF context) amongst various other advanced rules:
  • ·         Honour is exactly what it sounds like – do something nice and your stat goes up, be nasty (especially by grave-robbing) and it goes down. This stat isn’t used much and you could be forgiven for forgetting it’s even there, plus there are only one or two occasions where a decent Honour score will really make any difference, so this is a non-starter really
  • ·         Nemesis is a great stat and is deployed far better. As you progress through the story, you become more known to your final enemy and, the more known you are, the more minions are waiting for you once you reach the later stages of the book. Make more of a nuisance of yourself or be too self-evident and the challenges awaiting you later on will increase. There is a certain satisfaction in having a fairly high Nemesis score in that you can despatch more of the Night Dragon’s henchmen which does give the feeling that you are gradually reducing its defences. That said, many of the encounters caused by a high Nemesis score are fairly lethal so this is risky. The Nemesis stat adds a lot of logic and tension to the plot rather than allowing you to just turn up out of the blue and kill the final baddie regardless of what’s already happened, which would be a bit illogical (if very common in FF)
  • ·         Time Track is a mixed-bag. Several FFs have used time tracking elements, mostly to limit the time you can take (eg: you have a certain number of hours/days to do something before it all goes horribly wrong), but Night Dragon handles time largely to determine how strong the Dragon has been allowed to become before you reach it. However, the final pay-off with Time Track has hardly any bearing on the Dragon’s eventual battle stats and, unless you take a truly inordinate amount of time dawdling everywhere you go, it won’t really make much difference in the end. The book makes you constantly adjust the stat, sometimes one-paragraph-after-another, and this can get very tiresome after a while. Yes, this is designed to create tension and there is logic in wider exploration taking longer, and you do get frequently warned in the final stages that various digressions will waste precious time (which is all good and adds to the atmosphere), but it’s a bit of a let-down when it turns out that all the time you have spent tracking time itself was a bit of a waste of, er, time!
  • ·         Eating – you start with a fairly generous 12 Provisions, but you are limited to only ever being able to carry a maximum of 12 (unless you find the special bottomless bag thing that can hold up to 17.) This is a neat rule (that was used in a few other later FFs as well) and goes some way to addressing the sometimes outrageous amounts of baggage that FF characters are able to cart around, fight whilst holding, climb mountains with on their backs etc etc. Encumbrance is a big feature of true RPGs and it’s nice to see it used in FF (if only it had been a “standard” function – it works especially well in the Warlock Of Firetop Mountain boardgame where you really have to put some thought into what six items you need to have with you.) There are no other carrying limits in Night Dragon but food limiting is a nice feature which perhaps also adds an element of food being able to rot if kept too long? Further to this, this adventure presumably lasts a fair amount of time (maybe 2 or 3 weeks if the Time Track is anything to go by) and you are (logically) instructed to eat or lose Stamina at various points along the way. Eating when instructed does not restore Stamina so you have to balance out using Provisions to keep you alive with having enough Provisions to cope with the book deciding you are hungry. This is actually very clever and adds an element of realism to the plot, as well as requiring the player to think strategically about using their food wisely. It is also nice to note that acquiring more provisions is very easy both by buying them and by foraging/hunting (it soon becomes apparent that investing in a bow is a good move) so you are unlikely to run out unless you decide to restore your Stamina a bit too often
  • ·         Mathematics as an antidote to cheating – Keith Martin loves mathematical conundrums in his FFs and, whilst this book is very heavily weighed-down by them, they do make it practically impossible to cheat at the crucial stages, which makes the book all the more fun to try to beat. There are loads of numbers that you are required to note down and it can get quite confusing working out what’s what until you get used to “labelling” all the numbers you write down. Helpfully, the book tells you what to call many of the numbers but you do find yourself writing numbers down far too much and there are parts that seem less like a game and more like a maths exam. There is a lot to be said for including “cheat-proof” elements in FFs and you really do need to explore everywhere possible to get all the numbers (which adds depth to the environment) and credit is due to KM for managing to construct these parts of the book coherently (with one annoying mis-added exception) and keep track of which sections link to which as one item may need its reference doubling at one stage when it’s used but trebling+50 at another stage. This is all very sophisticated in terms of game design, but you will need a calculator (unless you’re a savant) to avoid you getting confused trying to add-multiply-subtract-divide etc in your head. Interestingly, with some crucial game stage exceptions, many of the maths puzzles are not life or death situations and, instead, they mostly just give you advantages
  • ·         Modifiers are used a lot in this book which adds to the experience of this being “real” and is another feature from traditional RPGs. Many combats have modifiers of one kind or another, be it the common FF concept of restricted movement/light/etc or various special attacks. Assassins and the Night Dragon’s various other acolytes normally have poisoned weapons which cause extra damage – it is worth pointing out as well that the poison will eventually drip off the weapons so will only affect you in the early stages of combat. This is brilliantly-executed and is very realistic. Especially-large foes can stamp on you, etc causing extra damage, plus there are the usual special attacks such as basilisks that can turn you to stone (and you them as well if you have a mirror and get the right dice roll), mirror demons that can pull you into their dimension (which, again, you can trap them in as well with the right dice roll), etc. There is a lot of realism in all the battle modifiers that this book uses, but, on the flipside, you do get the feeling that every combat is a “special” and things feel a bit weighted against you in that you rarely get to fight anything “normal” that will just roll over and die. There are also a lot of ongoing stat modifiers that you have to keep track of (in amongst all the other numbers you have to write down) in preparation for fighting the Night Dragon itself. Certain weapons and pieces of equipment (especially an ancient sword, shield and armour combo that you need to find) will affect both your and the Night Dragon’s final combat stats and, given that the ND itself is monumentally strong you really do need to make sure you get your modifiers right! I really like all the ways that combat stats can be affected in this book and, whilst the combats are gruelling and seem relentlessly-hard, there is a realism here that usually exists in RPGs but that isn’t seen in FF
  • ·         If all these aspects don’t make Night Dragon seem like “Advanced FF”, there is also a rule that allows you to use your experience as an adventurer to boost your starting stats. As you are a hardened warrior that is no doubt up to the seemingly suicidal task in hand, you get an additional 2 points to boost your Skill and Luck by 1 each or your Stamina by 2 (up to a maximum of Sk 12, St 24, Lk 12.) This is another nice touch and the RPG idea of age/experience is rarely seen in gamebooks

So this FF is very close to a true RPG given all the extra rules that are included and it has even more to offer in this sense as well. Whilst your actual progress through the book is as typically linear as FF could ever be (it’s literally a straight line, bar two alternative routes to the same place right at the start), each location you visit gives you almost unrestricted freedom to explore, be it in towns where you can look at pretty much all there is to see (unless you get evicted, arrested, or have to run away for your own safety) or in the icy wastes where you can visit all the key locations you need to go to in any order you choose. Likewise, in buildings/caves/mountains/etc you are free to visit every room etc in any order until you find what or who you are looking for. This really does give the feeling that you are in control and it’s really good fun being able to see as much or as little as you want without the book deciding that you press on in some direction or other and/or completely ignore a corridor or door that the book tells you looks uninteresting. This approach is a welcome change in FF and breathes new life into any FF book that actually offers it.

There are also some other clever game mechanics written into Night Dragon. There are plenty of opportunities to go shopping along the way and many items are not location-exclusive which gives you more than one chance to acquire them if you couldn’t afford them or didn’t think they looked useful last time you saw them in a shop. Indeed, a very subtle feature is that different prices are charged in different towns so you have to shop-around a bit and manage your money cleverly. The book is not as generous with gold as it is with food, but there are still lots of chances to get more money along the way (including a really amusing episode where getting yourself arrested turns out to give you a safe place to sleep for a few days with free meals thrown in plus you win some gold playing dice with the gaolers to boot) plus you start with 2d6+3 of gold pieces, which is a lot compared to what most FFs give you (when they even give you any!)

One feature that I’m not sure works too well in the context of the feel of this adventure is the Dreamland “trip”. Whether this is designed to add a mystical element to the book is hard to say, but it seems a bit too existential, making you potentially fight yourself and/or your entire family at certain points. There is a useful part where you can fight a Dreamland version of the Night Dragon which a) gives you an idea of what you’re up against at the end (not that this is a secret as the lethal mystique of the Night Dragon is laid on thick throughout the book) and b) adds another modifier that reduces the final showdown Dragon’s stats, but other tough combats within Dreamland will often mean that you have been ejected from Dreamland and woken up before you get this advantage. You also get a bit of help from a flying ginger cat (I wonder what that actually is then?) that will give you a lift to any one of the three locations where the special sword-armour-shield are hidden, but this just saves you time and food and walking is just as safe. In some ways this part of the book works, but overall it gains nothing from what seems like airwave interference from Phantoms Of Fear!

The Dreamland episode is the only anomaly in what is otherwise a very watertight and well-planned adventure and plot. You start by meeting an injured Dark Elf in Port Blacksand who wants to hire you to head far North to the frozen wastes of Allansia to kill the titular Night Dragon who is awakening and will destroy the world (at least it’s not a person this time.) This is a very ancient Dragon that, due to its being protected by the Unbreakable Oath (the Dragon version of the Geneva Convention) cannot be killed by Dragons so the Conclave of Dragons (the Dragon UN?) need a Human to go along and do the job for them. And so the plot goes along with YOU travelling North through various terrains and (increasingly-nervous) towns until you reach the Dragons’ Conclave and get briefed by the Dragons themselves on the three key items you need to have any chance against the Night Dragon. You then head off to find the three items (sword, armour, shield) and can then go to face the Night Dragon itself in its mountain lair. Everything flows logically and makes perfect sense. Equally, this is not a mystery and the locations of the key items are known to you – the challenge is not in finding them, but in actually getting hold of them, as various tough combats are involved (which isn’t really a surprise here.) The inclusion of the Nemesis score, all the maths, and the stat adjustors makes the plot even more cohesive as actions early on will affect what happens later, rather than everything just unfolding in front of you regardless of what’s already happened.

Combat-wise we have already mentioned that most combats involve special attacks or stat modifiers, but, in the early stages of the adventure you could be forgiven for thinking this is combat-free as there are hardly any battles at all early on. Once you reach the latter part of the book the number of combats increases considerably and you are frequently pitched against very tough foes, the bulk of whom have one or both of their stats in double-figures. The combats here are undeniably hard, but the various weapons and items that can improve your own stats, give instant kills, or give you some other kind of advantage go some way to remedying this, but these encounters are still very harsh overall. The Night Dragon itself is the strongest single foe in any FF book ever (Sk 17 St 32) and you could be forgiven for thinking that beating it is impossible. Granted, beating it is certainly not easy (it does 3 points of Stamina damage to you in every hit for a start) and even with a Skill of 12 you are at a -5 disadvantage in every Attack Strength roll, plus with an unadjusted Stamina of 32 you need to hit it 16 times, so it doesn’t look good for you! However, whatever modifiers you have collected along the way come into play here and that’s why it’s so important to actually pay attention to all the seemingly interminable number-jotting that you have to do to get this far. I think I had a proportionately adjusted Skill of 19 so, whilst the battle will take ages whatever happens, it can be won. Just to make the combat part of this book all the more extremely tough, the Night Dragon will then reanimate (or its head does, at least), turn into a big spider thing, and attack you again, this time with Sk 11 St 12 (which in most FFs would be an exceptional foe in itself, here it’s just par for the course!) If you survive that you then have to run from an imploding mountain lair, testing your Skill three times as you go, taking 1-5 Stamina damage on each failed roll...

So, defeating the final part of this book is as big a challenge as any FF will present to you. But, overall this book is not actually that difficult, if we put the multitude of high-stat combats aside. There are an awful lot of Skill Tests to cope with, but they go fairly unnoticed and seem to fit correctly, as opposed to the often unfair and repetitive Skill or Luck Tests that you find in FFs. Indeed, Luck Tests are comparatively rare in this book. Instant death paragraphs are a real rarity here, and it is possible to make it to the end without some key items, although it will make the end combat(s) very hard-going. The extra stats and rules add realism and plot dimension, rather than adding ways of killing you in the way that extra stats like Fear, Faith, Willpower, Infection, etc from other FFs normally will. Very unusually, the true path is comparatively easy to find due to the book’s extremely linear format (for example, the feeling of achievement you get when you first find the Dragon’s Conclave is quickly lost when you realise you can’t avoid going there!) and your freedom to roam and explore as much as you want so it won’t take many attempts to find everything – the challenge here is in surviving the combats.

We have made much of the RPG style of Night Dragon and this extends to Keith Martin’s writing. Paragraphs are long and descriptive, creating lots of atmosphere and a sense of the environment that you are in. The various acolytes seem very mysterious and shady, the Night Dragon is played-up as a serious foe from the word “go”, and the townsfolk get more and more tetchy and agitated the further North you get. Often, the book is written in such a way that it sounds like you are being addressed by a DM – there is a lot of use of “Now” in the sense of “OK then” to prefix statements, you are trusted to only go to certain places “if you haven’t already” and occasionally you are told that doing certain (very stupid) things would be “suicidal.” The art complements the writing perfectly, being dark and, in the case of the tougher foes, very disturbing. Tony Hough, who did the internal and the cover art, is clearly influenced by HR Gyger and the Night Dragon itself is very frightening and throws more than a nod to Alien. Putting the ND on the cover takes away the impact of meeting it, but it’s a brilliant cover and sets out exactly what you are up against, so it’s hard to imagine anything else working better as a cover for this book.

With this adventure FF successfully re-invented itself as an adult-targeted game system. This is a very satisfying book to play and to read, it is complex and lengthy, but never confusing or boring. If you are willing to overlook the very tough combats and the fact that you will be reaching for a calculator as much as for your dice, then this is a brilliant FF that is easily one of the best ever.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

#53: Spellbreaker


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Jonathan Green arrived very late on in the original series and is (still) strictly-speaking FF’s newest writer. Spellbreaker (#53 in the original series) was his first published FF, followed by Knights Of Doom (#56) and the original series’ swansong Curse Of The Mummy (#59). When the series was resurrected by Wizard Books, he would later publish a further four new FFs and is, other than Ian Livingstone, the only FF author to have offered exclusive material to the two Wizard series. Another parallel with Livingstone is that Green’s books are notorious for being extremely difficult and Spellbreaker is no exception, especially in its original Puffin imprint (the Wizard version being only very slightly easier in that some of the tougher high-stat encounters have had their scores reduced.)

In spite of its coming so late in the series, Spellbreaker is on the whole a very good book and would probably have been viewed as a potential series classic had it been released during its heyday as it has lots going for it, in particular brilliant handling of theme and atmosphere. There is a genuinely-accurate medieval feel to this FF and there is a great sense of paranoia and hysteria amongst the people you encounter. The book features witches (both real and imagined), a very accurately unfair witch trial (that YOU have to survive), the plague, curses, herblore, highwaymen, religion (including relics and the belief in “blessed” and “holy” objects), and the idea that something or someone is locally doing something nasty to each town that is the cause of whatever strife it is experiencing. Indeed, each town you visit has its own problems in microcosm and another brilliant touch of historical accuracy is that rarely does anyone you meet know (or care) about the ins-and-outs of your mission and what is happening or believed to be happening in the outside world – their only pre-occupation is with events in their own town or village and they are generally ignorant of anything beyond their towns’ boundaries. This creates a great feeling that you are in the midst of history and, whilst the sense of history coming alive in this book is very much that of Earth, it puts Titan in a context that is familiar and understandable and this works really well in my opinion.

Similarly, the paragraphs in this book are unusually long for FF and Green makes the most of his text to pile on the atmosphere with considerable amounts of description and contextual extemporisation. There is something insane (yet appropriate to the themes) going on in every place you visit and there are no “filler” locations to make you feel short-changed. Add to this the number of side missions you can go on along the way and this all makes for a very well-written adventure overall.

Indeed, the side missions themselves usually turn out to be important to your success and risk-taking is key to winning through this book. This isn’t a FF where you can play it safe and take the direct route. The true path is pretty narrow, but you have to zigzag about and visit several seemingly suicidal locations to acquire everything you need, making this a very challenging FF and it’s not 100% linear, giving a small amount of scope for exploring different routes to get the same end result.

The difficulty level of this book has often been criticised as being bordering on the ridiculous, but there is a lot of satisfaction to be gained if you are willing to rise to the challenge. This book is not unfairly hard in the sense that the atmosphere and quality of the writing and overall feel does encourage you to replay it and try to beat it and it can realistically be beaten, but you do need a lot of luck with dice rolls in particular to win. However, this is far from the depressing experiences of FFs such as Chasms Of Malice or Curse of the Mummy  where, after a fairly short while, you just can’t be bothered to even try and is more akin to the really excellent but incredibly hard series entries like Deathtrap Dungeon or Creature Of Havoc.

The theory has been put about that you have less than 8% chance of completing this book fairly and there are certainly numerous very tough aspects to it, but there is often a balance to how they are deployed:
  • ·         You need a very high amount of money to acquire all the (purchasable) herbs and other items you need to win and it is possible to get robbed of all your gold at one point early on which makes this all the harder, but it is also possible to acquire unlimited amounts of money by exploiting a glitch in a certain town where you can keep going back ad infinitum to get more gold
  • ·         There are several cases of arbitrary dice rolls where a certain number range (eg 1-3 on one die) leads to instant death, but most of these seem to be logical in context (eg during a witch trial where you need to roll to see if you hold your breath under water for the mandatory three minutes to avoid being declared a witch) and don’t strike the reader as unfair in the way that they are used irrationally in, for example, Luke Sharp’s FFs
  • ·         The list of items you need to collect is extremely long, but this is handled in quite a good way as both obviously useful items and seemingly incongruous ones are needed, as are several potions and herb remedies, which often involves you having to select the correct items (especially if money is short) rather than just being presented with everything on a plate
  • ·         There are several combats with foes that have stats in double figures and this is undeniably difficult to keep having to contend with (and then the final baddie is Sk 12 St 18) but the tougher foes are all in context as they are “area bosses” or hell-spawn, which you wouldn’t expect to be easy meat. Granted, this is often made all the harder as you do take an awful lot of Attack Strength penalties and there are a lot of special battle circumstances to contend with that do seem to come one after the other, so this aspect does swing towards the overly-difficult
  • ·         The Faith stat is used again in this FF and its deployment is inconsistent, affecting you heavily at the early and end stages of the adventure, but fading into inconsequence in the middle section. Many of the Faith tests are weighted against you (although the power of prayer or your character’s own belief is clearly going to be a very variable and haphazard thing to base your survival on so this might be good game design) and you do need a very high Faith to survive. There are quite a few situations where you can gain Faith points (normally by doing good and, conversely, doing bad things reduces it, which is another nice thematic touch) but you need to be very lucky with dice rolls when testing your Faith to have any hope of surviving. But, as with the money question, it is possible to exploit the same glitch to be able to increase your Faith to almost unlimited levels so, is there really a glitch or are we supposed to discover this by replaying and experimenting?
  • ·         At one point you have to lose a combat to gain a key item which is odd in the general FF ethos, but could be argued to be another element that is there to be discovered. A good FF requires thought as well as fighting prowess, so this is an example of having to do some stuff other than simply hacking and maiming your way through everything you encounter. Unfortunately, this is an awkward situation as you will need a very high Skill to be able to defeat the numerous very tough enemies so the likelihood of actually managing to lose the battle in question is low – this could have been handled better
  • ·         There are at least three mathematical puzzles to be solved (one which is very hard and leads to instant death if you get it wrong, although the answer is a very low number so it doesn’t take long to stumble across the answer paragraph if you try to cheat) meaning anyone not particularly numerically-gifted has had it
  • ·         Probably the biggest warning of how hard this FF is going to be comes when it is actually possible to die before you’ve even started as you have to fight a Sk 8 St 9 Fire Demon on paragraph 1! OK, so this is very rare in FF and it was certainly a new idea (this being only the second FF to do this, after the rather arduous #51 Island Of The Undead), but it’s genuinely ridiculous to be able to die so early on

Much of the book’s difficulty could be justified when considering the plot. You are caught in a (demonic) storm with a seemingly-friendly stranger that you stumble across and you both seek shelter in Rassin Abbey. Your sidekick turns out to be evil and steals the Black Grimoire from the Abbey. The Grimoire is needed by yet another nutcase who wants to take over the world and, as you let the thief in in the first place (and he can’t get in without an invite) you feel morally-obliged to help retrieve it. There is a lot of plot and it comes across through the lengthy descriptive passages throughout this FF. You are guided by your Faith score and would understandably struggle up against such odds so maybe this book is ultra-hard for this very reason. The religious overtones in terms of your Faith being tested in difficult situations cannot be lost on many readers and the difficulty vs subject/plot ratio works for me in this sense. Overall this book is very well-plotted, it is totally logical and never veers off into flights of ludicrousness. The historical accuracy adds even more to the success of the plot and this book is noticeably fast-moving (in fact, it is a race against time anyway, so this is another good feature.)

It must also be noted that there are ample opportunities to increase your Skill, Stamina and Luck and you are not short of Provisions and sustenance if you are on the true path. Yes, there are some fairly harsh stat penalties along the way as well, but there is certainly a balance in how your stats are affected and it is certainly not all weighted against you, notwithstanding the Faith score issues mentioned above. There is actually a 5th stat that can come into play in this book as well, should you visit the plague town: Infection measures how much the plague has taken hold and can be controlled by using certain herbs and worsened by certain curses or rat bites you might have picked up. The Infection stat is used really well and adds a real sense of how quickly the plague could affect and kill its victims – it also heightens the sense of urgency and desperation when you are playing.

Considering how tough this book is regarded to be (and it definitely is!) there are certain points where it is possible to accidentally cheat to your benefit without even realising it. Occasionally, it is assumed you have a special weapon and it is also possible to pretend you know certain incantations by just turning to an offered paragraph as opposed to being asked to turn to a “secret” section that you would have found the secret to earlier on. In the really key situations you really do need to have noted down the special section reference or you die, but there are a few exploitable glitches that can work in your favour nonetheless. In particular, to find the required location at the very end of the mission you are asked to multiply the special number you should have already found by 50. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that in a book of 400 sections there are only eight possible answers to this conundrum and it isn’t likely to be number 400! Rather awkwardly, one of the possible multiples of 50 (paragraph 150 in fact) is two game stages on from the actual target section (200) and, should you turn to this in error, it reads as if it flows logically from where you currently are and you could be forgiven for accidentally cheating at a really tough point in the adventure as there is otherwise only a 1 in 3 chance of actually getting from section 200 to 150 safely if you follow the proper intended route!

As this is fundamentally a book about human superstition, the art should be suitably archaic and look medieval to complement how well-written the text is. Alan Langford’s art is normally seen in the more “prehistoric”-themed FFs (Island Of The Lizard King, Battleblade Warrior) so it is nice to see him using large swathes of dark colours and blocking in where he would normally leave gaps and give a sun-drenched desert island feel. The art in this book is very night-oriented and definitely suits the adventure very well. The cover on the original Puffin edition is also drawn by Langford, but, in colour, the picture doesn’t have the same feel as the internal art and is a bit too busy. From a distance it looks cartoonish and it’s only when viewing it up close that you can appreciate how demonic it is. The Wizard Books re-issue cover is actually the same image but zoomed-in and considerably browned giving less colours and looking far less cluttered. For once, Wizard have managed to succeed in modernising and updating a FF cover, but it is a bit too dull with its brown-on-brown look.

So, in summary, this is a really good, very well-written and enjoyable FF. It is undeniably very tough, but this is not to its detriment and should be put alongside the likes of House Of Hell in the sense that its difficulty is to be seen as a challenge to be savoured due to its remarkable atmosphere and the level of effort that has gone into giving it a sense of place and context. Certainly a much better debut than most of the other FF guest authors managed to put together.