Sunday, 30 June 2013

#21: Eye Of The Dragon


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

After 20 straight re-issues of material we already had, Wizard Books finally bit the bullet and offered FF fans a new book. With “Brand New Adventure” proudly emblazoned across the cover, when this appeared in 2005 it was an exciting release - the first new FF book since the original series’ swansong #59 Curse Of The Mummy came out 10 years earlier. Even more importantly, this was not a “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present” effort, but was written by series co-creator (and my personal favourite FF author) Ian Livingstone, had a great cover image of a smoking dragon’s face in close-up, and impressive-looking internal art by the always good Martin McKenna. So this promised a lot at first glance. I eagerly took a copy from the shelf in Waterstone’s, took it to the cashier, handed over my hard-earned, and darted home to play this wonderful-looking book. I played it. I closed it. I put it on my FF shelf and I tried to forget about it.

This adventure is a very traditional dungeon trawl in the style of the very earliest FFs and it must have come across as a retrograde step when it appeared as the 21st in the first Wizard series, given the sheer variety of adventures that had preceded it. The original series developed progressively, with the more involved and idea-stretching books coming further into the series. As the Wizard re-issues started with most of Steve and Ian’s books many of the more “out there” ideas had already been seen with books like House Of Hell, Creature Of Havoc, Armies Of Death, Legend Of Zagor, and Appointment With FEAR all already available. There is nothing wrong with old-school dungeons, but this book actually manages to be derivative of its own series, makes the FF concept seem genuinely tired, and reads like all the outtakes and alternate takes from The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon have been swept-up off the cutting room floor, stuck together, and bound up inside a cover with the title written on it. TWOFM is seminal in that it was the first FF ever and did something never really seen before up to that point. Deathtrap Dungeon is probably the most inventive, varied and exciting dungeon ever created in FF. EOTD is the FF series’ answer to cheap exploitation movies like Peter Sellers’ Trail/Curse Of The Pink Panther or Bruce Lee’s Game Of Death where every last inch of available footage was chucked together with some filler scenes to attempt to create something new that was fooling no-one with any sense of irony or taste. There are actually several moments lifted directly from TWOFM and Deathtrap Dungeon including (spiked) pitfall traps, seats that give you energy, helmets made of different metals that you can pick from to wear, rooms that speak to you, an inexplicably-located shop, numbered keys... the list goes on.

The actual plot is as ridiculous and far-fetched as any of the more illogical FF plots are. You are in a pub in Fang (just before the annual Trial Of Champions) where you meet Henry Delacor who tells you about a dungeon under Darkwood Forest that contains a very valuable gold dragon with two emeralds for eyes. The emeralds are hidden somewhere in the dungeon and trying to take the dragon minus its eyes will kill you. He has already tried to find it, but, as he found only one emerald eye, he couldn’t remove it safely. He challenges you to take his emerald, find the second one, retrieve the gold dragon, and bring it back to him to sell and divide the spoils between you (he somehow knows it’s worth the rather randomly precise figure of 335,000 gold pieces – does he already have a buyer then?) However, there’s a catch. To make sure you don’t rip him off and steal the lot he forces you to drink a slow-acting poison so that you have to return to him to get the antidote. Is this not the most biased insurance policy ever? Surely any hardened adventurer would just nick the emerald and go it alone and the apparent stupidity of the character you play here is quite awe-inspiring. There then follows a name-checking trek to Darkwood where you note Firetop Mountain and Stonebridge en route to a woodcutter’s hut deep in Darkwood that you presumably never seemed to notice when you played The Forest Of Doom. What follows is a frankly tedious and dated meander up various largely featureless corridors, being offered the chance to open different kinds of door (some on the left, some on the right, just to add a bit of totally unexciting variety), open some chests, or turn left or right at various junctions. Fascinating stuff (not.)

It quickly becomes apparent that you are going to spend a lot of time writing items down that you have found and the amount of stuff you end up carrying around with you is genuinely ludicrous. Of course, as this is an Ian Livingstone book, the shopping list of items you need to succeed is quite lengthy, but I did end up wondering how you still manage to fit a huge gold dragon in your backpack at the end. Do you just dump everything else once you’ve found the main thing you’re looking for? To be honest, there’s no point in even picking half of it up as it often never seems to have a purpose.

Unusually, especially for IL, this book is not particularly difficult once you’ve found the correct route. Even more unusually, there is more than one way through the dungeon as long as you find the main parts as you go. Additionally, it is very easy to bluff your way through two key moments rendering the main challenges of the game meaningless. Firstly, to avoid being crushed by a moving wall shortly before you find the second emerald you need to recite the Hole In The Wall Spell. If you select “Yes” to the question of whether you know it, the book gives you a choice of three lines to pick from, giving you a one in three chance of just guessing irrespective of whether you have genuinely found the spell or not. It would be more normal for a numerical cheat-proof solution to be applied here. Secondly, to open the door to the gold dragon room you need to remove five weapons from the wall in the correct order. Get any one wrong and you are dead. To enable you to do this, the wall also has five metal doors behind which are five clues telling you the order to pull the weapons out. The little doors open with matching metal keys (gold, silver, bronze, etc) that are hidden around the dungeon. This time each key does have a numerical reference, but you only need a maximum of four to win given that a process of elimination will tell you what info is being the fifth. Sadly, this is handled very badly as success is not dependant on having any keys at all, given that you can simply guess the order. Correctly guessing the first four in a row is undeniably tough and requires plenty of luck, but it is always possible.

It is no real surprise that the usual lie about being able to win through regardless of your stats applies here and only characters with mega-high stats have any real hope, if only because there are many Skill and Luck tests, although only a small number are potentially fatal if you fail (in fact, for IL, there are comparatively few instant deaths full stop.) There are lots of Stamina penalties along the way, but by far the toughest part (and probably the only really hard part as even the Hell Demon can be simply run away from, whether you have a kris knife or not) of this book comes with two combats that you cannot avoid if you want to win: a Sk 12 Gigantus that does you 4 Stamina points of damage each time it hits you, and a Sk 10 Doppelganger that you have to fight with a -2 Attack Strength penalty. It is possible that you can find yourself in a third (even harder) combat if either you don’t have the elven boots or you fail a Luck test due to having a clumsy sidekick when you are trying to sneak past a Black Dragon that, if awakened, has Sk 14 St 18 leaving you pretty much toast by that point. An unusual (for IL) balance exists here though as there are also ample ways of increasing your Stamina by drinking various potions that you find along the way (which is made a little trickier as there are also several poisons to catch you out), plus you start out with 10 Provisions. There are similarly several Skill-boosting discoveries including one that awards +1 Skill so early on that you can’t possibly have lost any Skill yet. Are we in that case supposed to ignore the rule that says you cannot exceed your Initial Skill? Either way, something has gone wrong in the planning, which is a bit shoddy – badly play-tested FFs are always frustrating and whilst this is a minor oversight compared to books that are literally rendered impossible due to bad editing (#58 Revenge Of The Vampire probably being the worst culprit), it is still irritating.

Ian Livingstone often cannot resist giving us a NPC to travel with (usually regardless of whether we want them or not) and this adventure is no different in that respect when you discover the Dwarf called Littlebig (who is later revealed unsurprisingly to be related to Bigleg from The Forest Of Doom.) It is possible to go past the room where Littlebig is being held prisoner but if you do the book makes you turn around and go back to get him in another example of FF making decisions for YOU when YOU are supposedly in the driving seat. Unlike almost all other NPCs, Littlebig does not immediately die, run away, or try to murder you for no apparent reason and Littlebig will always survive for as long as you do. He is actually quite useful as he can share combats with you, meaning some tougher foes can take double damage where you only get hit once (and Littlebig is seemingly impervious to damage), plus he can read dwarven runes and there are lots scattered about later in the adventure that can help you find the safe route, but he also suffers from verbal diarrhoea (which does at least liven things up), is ridiculously cheerful, and is annoyingly clumsy so can get you into trouble here and there. He is also a key plot driver as he was also searching for the emeralds and the gold dragon and now wants revenge on his captor (someone called Sharcle.) Once you’ve found the dragon and taken it, there is an actually quite neat plot twist (if you aren’t bored rigid by the tedious drudgery of the dungeon by this time) where Sharcle turns out to be Henry Delacor who turns out to be a thief and tries to rip you off so you kill him. This leaves you with the slight problem of having no poison antidote so you head for Stonebridge where Ian Livingstone’s favourite (and ever-annoying) wizard Yaztromo tells you that you never were poisoned and it was all a big scam to get you to do all the hard work. This is a nice twist that ties the whole storyline together, but you really won’t care by this time.

Within the context of the FF cannon, there are many links to other books in the series: Darkwood Forest, Fang, Bigleg, Yaztromo, Stonebridge, Firetop Mountain, plus if you choose to search the hut right at the start before descending into the dungeon below you find an axehead with something strange inscribed into it. Could this be a link to the Stonebridge dwarfs’ weapon you need to find in The Forest Of Doom? As it serves no purpose at all in EOTD it can only be some sort of linking feature within the series. Whilst inter-relation between entries into the series is a feature I always like to see, there are so many here that it seems like a desperate attempt to validate this book’s relevance to the cannon as a whole. Plus, I still fail to understand why the hut and its vast underground dungeon aren’t found in The Forest Of Doom. Has it been subsequently built? Also, given the sheer amount of things that seem to live down there, the presence of a shop, various rooms with complexities such as artworks or creatures working on weapons etc it seems that this dungeon is a deliberate creation intended as a challenge in the same vein as the Trial Of Champions or Shaggradd’s Hives Of Peril. The design of the dungeon is certainly no accident and this is where the concept becomes a) totally illogical and b) appears to exist for the sake of writing another FF book.

The awkward nature of this dungeon’s existence for existence’s sake could be tied back to the adventure’s origin which brings us to another major issue here – this is NOT a brand new adventure. Yes, in this format it might be new and, yes, it had not been issued as a FF book, but the dungeon design and plot itself (albeit in reduced form) originally appeared in Ian Livingstone’s RPG primer Dicing With Dragons published pre-FF in 1982 as the first adventure scenario for Ian’s planned Fantasy Quest system that would be adapted and morph into FF once he merged it with Steve Jackson’s ideas. The art in the original was by early FF artist Russ Nicholson (a favourite of mine whose work really seems to epitomise FF as it started so early in the series) and this was clearly the blueprint for Martin McKenna’s art in the FF version – in some case he has very closely “adapted” Nicholson’s work, but, that said, I do think McKenna’s work in EOTD is very effective, being well-drawn and very complete in its look and certainly far better than the adventure itself. The cover is equally good and gives nothing away about the plot, leading you to think the dragon is a physical creature which adds some intrigue (although any interest quickly fades when you start playing!)

Unfortunately, the tedious slog through the fairly unexciting dungeon and the stupid plot premise are not the only areas where this falls flat as the encounters themselves are uninteresting and hardly anything new is offered up. When you consider that this was the 60th “new” FF book to be published, you’d have thought that IL could have come up with some interesting and unique encounters given what some of the later books had brought to the table. On a positive, I really like the Gigantus (and McKenna’s illustration really hits its imposing and horrific appearance home), but most of the creatures are bog-standard Orcs, Ghouls, Zombies, a Vampire, a Gremlin, Spiders, some Skeletons, a Troll, an Ogre, etc etc yawn yawn. There is a fairly complex show-down with a Snake Witch that is probably the only well fleshed-out and thought-provoking encounter you ever have here, but for the most part the creatures you meet are either very basic or there’s just no rational explanation for why they are there. Why would something as “sophisticated” as a Vampire or a Hell Demon be dossing around in an underground tunnel network? In many cases getting away from encounters is not difficult (bar the two tough and unavoidable ones mentioned earlier) and the worst offering by far is described simply as an Evil Wizard. He does mention his name at one point, but he’s mostly referred to (the combat sections included) as “Evil Wizard.” For someone like Ian Livingstone who has demonstrated great imagination many times in the past, this is a frankly desperate state of affairs.

This adventure’s dated and dull design overshadows that fact that, as always, Livingstone’s writing is actually very vivid and descriptive and the atmosphere is well created here. Sadly, this also works against it as too much information can reveal the failings and that is certainly the case here. The descriptions make it all too abundantly clear just how unoriginal and empty this adventure is.

I doubt many people will play this more than once or twice as there is so little of interest to encourage repeat playing. The fact that it is not linear could add some re-playability, but there is little here to fire the imagination in what is simply one of the most boring FF books ever. It makes no sense, offers nothing new (especially coming so late in the series), and is well below the standard we expect from Ian Livingstone. The most interesting thing about this book is that it has a rather random total of 407 paragraphs (and 400 is still the victory one.) 

Depressing. Let us never talk of this again.

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