Saturday, 18 May 2013

#52: Night Dragon



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.

1 comment:

  1. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a fantasy artist of my generation who wasn't influenced by H. R Giger!! He was a huge influence on me, although so was Patrick Woodroffe and Brian Froud...but to be honest, the Alien influence was handed down to me in the brief!!
    I'm still proud of that cover - it was my first published colour work and the original is still over my mantlepiece.

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