Saturday, 9 November 2013

#56: Knights Of Doom


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

This book has a problem. In fact, it has two problems – Spellbreaker and Dead Of Night. If it weren’t for the brilliance of these previous two books, Knights Of Doom would qualify as the last genuinely great FF from the original series. As it stands, if you have never read either of these other two books, KoD is indeed pretty great. If you have read either (or both), then it doesn’t take a genius to notice what is lifted from where and makes KoD seem like old news, even though it is still a good book all the same.

The entire structure (make your way around a pre-defined map of your homeland, visiting various towns and being sent on side missions in each) mirrors both books. This is not a criticism as such in that FFs can be given more structure if you can trace your route on a “published” map of the area (plus you may well know your homeland anyway) and get more of an idea of where you are going and how close you are to the end, but the fact that this is set in Ruddlestone again (where Spellbreaker is set) does make it seem a bit samey. You could equally, of course, argue that this flows logically on from Spellbreaker (and you are in a different bit of Ruddlestone) and that this gives coherence to Green’s chosen part of Titan. Each to their own with this but, structurally, this one does seem a bit stale to me if you play these books in their intended (released) sequence.
A bigger problem is that the concept is so close to Dead Of Night that it’s difficult to not see this as a clone. In both books YOU are a Templar charged with saving the land from an impending invasion of nasties. In DoN the scourge was Demonic, in KoD it is the Armies of Chaos that are attacking, but the feeing/effect is much the same. The Chaos aspect is unusual for FF as Chaos is rarely incorporated other than in random one-off run-ins as latter-part challenges in pre-set dungeon scenarios. In that sense it is nice to see Chaos playing a major role in a FF book. On the other hand, this does make this book feel far too close to Warhammer material and, due to this, it does feel a little “isolated” within the FF series as a whole. That said, Green does enjoy exploiting the history of Titan as laid-out in Titan - The Fighting Fantasy World and this is one of the beauties of Green’s FFs as they really do try to link into the wider FF universe. The wars with Chaos play a big part in Titan and this FF does follow on from that episode logically, even if most gamers will probably notice the Warhammer similarity before they make the association with Titan, as the former is more obvious.
The book flows in the same logical way as DoN in that the further you progress, the greater the evidence of invasion from Chaos. You travel from North to South and, the further South you get, the more over-run with Chaotics the environment becomes. This makes good sense and follows DoN’s logical flow from fact-finding to defence to final showdown in the eye of the storm. As with DoN, you also benefit from having a horse (that, as is always the case with horses in FFs including the one in DoN, dies or bolts part-way thru), a magic sword, and some special Templar skills. Here they are just called Special Skills and, whilst not quite as enemy-focussed as in DoN (where you are very specifically a Demon-slaying specialist), they are more balanced here between Warrior and Priest skills (which you would expect from a Templar as they were as much warriors as they were holy men) and seem to be more universally practical. You can choose four from a list of nine options (five Warrior type and four Priest type are on offer) and, to ensure you balance your character in a logically Templar-esque manner, you must choose at least one of each type. The write-ups of the Warrior skills often give you a clue as to what this adventure might involve, which is a handy inclusion: Battle Tactics makes you better at influencing and commanding armies (and you need to build up a decent-sized and strong force for the final section), Ride gives you the ability to guide a horse through tough terrain and also allows you to ride replacement mounts (a clue that you are probably going to unsurprisingly lose your horse at some point), Target and Weapon give you acuter fighting skills and/or accuracy (Weapon also allows you to carry and use a second weapon which is handy as you will almost certainly lose a weapon as the story progresses), and Tracking is a throwback to American Indian stereotypes. The Priest Special Skills are mostly lifted straight from DoN and serve the same purposes as those found in DoN – Arcane Lore is a variation of Speak Demon, Banish Spirit is literally Banish Undead, Commune is a more advanced version of Meditate that allows you to detect “vibrations” from the spirit world, whilst Holy Strike is the only new one here where you have the ability to fire a holy blast at your enemies (making fighting the Undead pretty easy for once.) The inclusion of these Skills adds much to the feeling of your character being highly trained and, as with DoN, works very well in the context and feel of this book, plus, again, there is no correct combination and Luck rolls can often do just as well to get you through Skill-based situations.
The inevitable inclusion of extra attributes that later FFs almost always seem to have is in evidence two-fold here with Honour being effectively the opposite of Evil in DoN whilst the always problematic Time tracks your progress compared to how much of Ruddlestone the Chaos armies have managed to take. I am always sceptical when Time is involved, as this does often restrict you to a pretty narrow true path and gives little allowance for digression or exploration. OK, I accept that thwarting a Chaos invasion is something of a race against time, but part of the fun of FF is in exploring. Given the number of side missions that are offered to you as this book progresses, it will take many replays to a) beat the Time trap, and b) actually find the extremely narrow true path. Annoyingly, the Time and Honour attributes seem to work against each other as the only way to build up the required number of Honour points you need for the Honour checkpoints is to help the locals and undertake side missions, but these side missions take ages and eat up vital time making passing the Time checkpoints all the harder.
The main criticism of Spellbreaker (Green’s first published FF) is the incredibly low percentage chance of actually completing it due to the sheer number of items you need and that is very much in evidence again here, with a shopping list that Ian Livingstone would be proud of. There are so many essential items that it is very easy to lose this book early on without even realising it and multiple replaying is essential to coming anywhere close to finding the true path as it is so extremely linear. It has also been suggested that the combats in Green’s books are unusually tough and no FF book comes tougher in this sense than KoD due to the sheer amount of combat that is involved. Add to that the fact that every other combat has adjusters and this really does feel relentlessly weighted against you encounter-wise. There is a slight gesture to fairness at the start of the book when you can plunder your starting castle’s armoury for special weapons that do extra damage etc, plus you can collect items along the way that will reduce opponents’ Attack Strengths and fighting the Undead is comparatively easy, but that does not hide the fact that I’ve never seen so many modifiers in use in a FF book and that some combats are just insanely difficult:
  • ·         Cockatrice Sk7 St7 – deceptively easy as, every time it wins an Attack Round, you roll one die due to its poisonous breath. Roll 3, 4, or 5 and lose 1, 2 or 3 Skill, roll a 6 and you die
  • ·         Chaos Knight Champion Sk12 St12 – if you don’t have Weapon (Lance) Special Skill you start off with AS -1, plus not having Ride is another AS -1. If it wins 2 Attack Rounds (highly likely with a Skill of 12 and your potentially only having a maximum Skill here of 10) you are unhorsed and lose 4 Stamina, followed by fighting with a further AS -2. In other words, if your Skill is only 7, you are potentially down to 3 Skill here!
  • ·         Four Chaos Centaurs Sk10/9/10/9 St9/10/10/11 – if you don’t have Ride, again you have AS -2. If a Centaur hits you, you roll one die and take -3 Stamina damage on an odd number roll. If you hit a Centaur, again, you roll one die and an odd number means you only inflict -1 Stamina of damage to it
  • ·         Hill Giant Sk9 St11 – roll one die every time it wins an Attack Round. If you roll a 5 you lose 3 Stamina. Roll a 6 and you are knocked over, taking 1 Attack Round to get back up which gives the Giant a free hit on you
  • ·         Ogre Overseer Sk9 St10 – roll one die every time it wins an Attack Round. Roll a 6 and it steals your weapon, causing you to fight on with AS -3
  • ·         Beast Man Champion Sk12 St14 – does -3 Stamina damage every time it hits you (again, likely to be quite often!)
  • ·         Belgaroth Sk12 St17 – the final baddie. His armour means you only ever do him -1 Stamina damage, but he does you -3 Stamina and -1 Honour. If your Honour drops to zero, you have gone over to the dark side (but at least this tough battle is justified as he’s the big boss)
  • ·         Beast Man Shaman Sk8 St7 – if he wins the first Attack Round you lose 5 Stamina
  • ·         Chaos Warrior Sk10 St9 – does you -3 Stamina damage and you fight with AS -1 due to being on a battlement. If it ever gets AS 22 (ie it rolls a 12) you fall off and die
  • ·         Knight of the Flame Sk12 St12 – does you -3 Stamina damage
  • ·         Cailleach Sk12 St12 – Test your Skill before every Attack Round, fail and you are transfixed with fear allowing it to automatically win that round
  • ·         Iron Golem Sk10 St16 – you only ever inflict -1 Stamina damage on it, but it always does you -3 Stamina damage. If you roll a double you have smashed your sword and then have to fight with AS -3. If it wins two consecutive Attack Rounds it throws you against a wall causing you one die of damage

The sheer number and difficulty of many of the combats makes winning this book with low starting attributes all but impossible and you will need above average scores in all of Skill, Stamina and Luck to stand any chance in general, as you are also faced with numerous Skill and Luck tests throughout the book as well, especially near the end, with many of these resulting in death if you fail them.
As this book is so incredibly difficult due to the combination of narrow true path, many items being needed, Honour vs Time, and a seemingly never-ending series of (often very tough) combats, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no enjoyment to be had in playing it but, just like Spellbreaker before it, KoD is so rich in period atmosphere and historically detailed cameos that it makes for a very interesting gamebook. Along the way you can find yourself being accosted by what is basically Robin Hood and his Merry Men, get involved in a Wicker Man rescue attempt, visit a group of tumuli on a misty hill, kill various things that are tormenting the locals including a Necromage (another near-copy of a side mission in Dead Of Night) and the aforementioned nightmares that are the Cockatrice and the Cailleach, go on a boar hunt from Cleeve Manor (that turns out to lead to an unexpected plot twist much later in the book), and help a Dwarf defend his house from an all-night Hellhound attack (again, pretty much a copy of an incident in DoN.) All these (as unoriginal as some of them are) add a lot of fun and rich detail to the land of Ruddlestone (which was already richly presented in Spellbreaker so this adds even more) and really makes you feel involved in the plot. There is even an ongoing episode where a flying assassin’s dagger keeps bothering you at night, plus accidentally summoning the Demonic Slayer is a lighter moment in what is, overall, a very dark and serious book. There are a few other humorous aspects (if you spot them) where inns are called the Wild Goose and the Red Herring but you could miss these given that you are probably desperately trying to stay alive. It is also quite fun to feel that you are also up against it with the ignorant attitude of the locals, most of whom do not like the Templar Order, and you spend a lot of the earlier parts of the book trying to avoid being run out of town or being lynched by wandering bigots.
With all this on offer, this book is very involving and detailed, but (astounding level of difficulty aside) it does suffer from a Jonathan Green-ism that I have never particularly liked, namely the codeword idea. Spellbreaker did not include this, but from KoD onwards, reversed codewords (eg: reggad which causes the assassin’s dagger to keep harassing you) would play a large part in how the plots of his books unfold. For me this feature is very transparent and obvious and does not sit well with his atmospherically very successful and well-written books (barring, maybe, Curse Of The Mummy, which is easily his weakest effort.) Indeed, in many ways, Green’s FFs read better as novels (atmosphere, setting, interesting events, historical elements, consistent flow, etc) than they do as games (too difficult, very linear, out-of-place rubbish codeword concepts, etc.)
Interestingly, you are not only required to make your way to the final showdown alive and furnished with lots of items but you also need to solve (often very hard) puzzles to collect clues to getting into the final sections (the mathematical cheat-proofing that I always like to see in FFs is pleasingly present here) and amass groups of allies who will join you at the end and sacrifice themselves as part of a makeshift army you need to assemble to have any chance of getting through the final part. The climactic battle(s) make the rest of the book seem comparatively easy and there is a real feeling that a titanic showdown against Chaos is taking place. Green likes set-pieces (his many side missions and in-village cameos evidence this) and this final part of the book is exciting, intimidating and you really do feel doomed (which you probably are, in the unlikely event you have even got this far!)
Chaos imagery needs to be spikey and spindley and that is definitely the theme of the art throughout this book. Tony Hough’s HR Gyger influences come through again in his work here (like they do on the cover of #52 Night Dragon) and his Chaos images really do capture the feeling of terror that you are supposed to be feeling. Some of his human images are a little cartoony, but they do contrast well with the nasty appearance of the enemy of the piece. Hough also drew the cover and his art does seem to work better in colour. KoD’s cover is certainly not up to the standard of his Night Dragon cover work, but the limited pallet (purples and reds) does give a night-time feel and there is a strange otherworldliness to it that is appealing.
This is a hard book to summarise. If played with no previous knowledge of Dead Of Night it would seem exceptionally good, if exceptionally hard. As it stands, it is not original enough to be classed as an above-average book, but it has so much material/content depth and is very long and epic-feeling that it certainly holds up well, especially as it came so late in the original series. It is a good effort, but is just too difficult to be considered as essential. Play it and enjoy it for its atmosphere and the obvious effort that has gone into it, but don’t expect to be able to beat it – even the online solutions are only suggested approaches and are dependent on being very lucky with dice rolling! Incidentally, this is the only one of Jonathan Green’s FFs that hasn’t been re-issued (or published full stop) by Wizard Books meaning that collectors routinely pay £20+ for decent condition copies.