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.

1 comment:

  1. Fangs of Fury is more like this book than Chasms of Malice, you would be glad to hear. I enjoy these two books because although they give an impression that the odds are stacked against you, they are actually quite fair, leading to quite an exciting adventure. All the random dangerous situations and being knocked out is not as bad if you know it's not instant death.