Sunday, 23 February 2014

#55: Deathmoor


Robin Waterfield

Reviewed by Mark Lain

On first picking it up, four things immediately strike me about this book: 1) It is suspiciously thin; 2) The cover is appalling; 3) Paragraph 400 is an instant death; 4) Promisingly, it is by one of the most consistently good FF writers. On playing it, the reality of these four first impressions can be summarised as: 1) It’s relative brevity is surely an act of mercy on the player; 2) The cover is worse than the contents; 3) This is an indication that you can expect to fail umpteen times; 4) Yes, RW’s first three FFs were all good (he wrote the only genuinely great Sci-Fi FF for a start), but his fourth (this one) is the exception.

Given the status accorded to the FF books from number 51 onwards as highly sought-after (and often expensive) collectors’ items that also in playing terms are very rewarding, #55 Deathmoor, whilst still not cheap to get your hands on, has none of the elements that make the last few books generally so rewarding:
  • ·         The extended adventure concept – missing, Deathmoor is surprisingly short
  • ·         The plethora of extra rules to get your head around – missing, the very basic FF rules are used here (Skill, Stamina, Luck, Provisions, Potion, Gold)
  • ·         Lengthy, descriptive paragraphs that add depth – missing, RW actually seems as bored as the player (only #4 Starship Traveller shows the same level of author disinterest in the project) and appears to be desperate to get this over with
  • ·         Rich conceptual design and depth of setting to give a more “adult” or “advanced FF” feel – missing, this is the kind of facile effort that would be unsatisfactory to even the youngest and most undemanding/inexperienced adventure gamer
  • ·         No evidence of play-testing to iron out numerous bugs and continuity errors – missing, this one actually flows properly (that’s a plus, by the way)

So, other than the last point, it is not really surprising that this book gets over-looked and that so few people ever mention it much. Coming as it did between the high concept boardgame tie-in of Legend Of Zagor and the historically-rich Chaos epic that is Knights Of Doom, Deathmoor must have seemed very tired. Had it been released early on in the series, it might be easier to have a more favourable opinion of this book, but it just doesn’t offer enough to be relevant as a later entry.

Easily the laziest part of this book’s conception is your mission. You are an adventurer who is currently living it up diving for scarlet pearls off the Isles Of Dawn when you are called to the court of King Jonthane of Arion as his daughter has been kidnapped and the villain of the piece is demanding a huge amount of gold as a ransom. Granted, FF rarely uses the “fighting through perils to save a Princess” plot idea, but that’s because it’s a hackneyed concept that’s better suited to Disney than to role-playing. To add insult to injury, however, it’s not long before you meet two plumbers called Oiram and Igiul (read them backwards) at which point you realise you are playing Super Mario Brothers (there are different coloured mushrooms to contend with later in the book, as well) and that Waterfield really was on auto-pilot with this one. The opening section actually tells you that you are too late to get the commission because your rival (Fang-zen) got there first which means the first part of the adventure proper involves catching up with him and nicking an all-important document from him that is basically the contract to do the rescue job – perhaps it would have been easier just to say “Oh well, never mind then” to the King and have gone off and found a better adventure to get involved in. Once you’ve got the document you then have to chase an Ogre called Otus who is the connection between the King/YOU and the kidnapper himself (Bowser, presumably?) Bowser turns out to be called Arachnos and is an agent of Chaos, but is not anything like as genocidal as most agents of Chaos, given that he is (on the surface at least) just in it for the money (rather like RW was when he wrote this book, I fear!)

And that’s the plot, crappy but workable, assuming the adventure environment is full of surprises and intrigue... which it is not, instead it’s full of often inexplicable instant deaths, illogically looping paths that lead to parts of the moor that would otherwise be miles from each other if you map it, and lots of new creature types that don’t seem to exist anywhere else. The final item is not a bad point in itself (innovation is always welcome) but several of the new creatures just seem to be other creatures with new names - surely the Pterolins are just Rocs and Pelagines are Fishmen? Conversely, the Blackhearts (crosses between Dark Elves and Orcs), the hideous (and wonderfully-named) Tantaflex, and the Semerle (a missing link fish-reptile thing) are all imaginative inclusions. In most cases, any unfamiliar creatures are well described, even if those without illustrations can be a bit hard to visualise, and I really don’t want to imagine the bizarre and disturbing sex act that spawned the first Troll-Orc! Mention must also go to the Flintskins, a primitive and wary tribe that you need to be careful when dealing with (and are they corruptions of Flintstones or Skinflints?)

As is often the case with later FFs, there are three distinct stages to the adventure, starting with a look around Arion, then negotiating Deathmoor itself, and finally a short dungeon that forms Arachnos’ lair. Arion is quite fun (you can play Pinfinger in an inn) but has nothing that you can’t see in every other largish Titan conurbation (inns, docks, market, rich megalomaniac’s house), whilst Arachnos’ lair is a bizarre downwards tunnel tumble offering side passages and an inordinate number of ways to die. As for the main event, Deathmoor itself is tedious, has little of interest, and is not inherently all that deadly. Instead the apparent profound stupidity of your character is a major obstacle whilst on the moor – amongst other idiotic acts you can sleep-walk over a cliff and/or lose key items in two separate combats without there being any logical reason for dropping them, other than that the book wants you to. Sadly, RW’s apparent vindictiveness towards the player is where this book really becomes overly harsh to play and he seems to be taking his frustration with the project out on YOU:
  • ·         Instant deaths, many of which are off-hand in their handling, are very common and often make little sense and can come as a real surprise and seem out of context
  • ·         Also, some of the instant deaths could surely be avoided by combat but the book decides far too often that you are dangerously out-numbered
  • ·         It is possible to fail as soon as you start by making the wrong choice at paragraph 1
  • ·         Failing to get the document in Arion means you can’t progress beyond that stage and, even if you do, there’s another 50/50 progress/instantly fail decision to make as soon as you leave Arion and catch up with Otus
  • ·         The encounter with the Cradoc involves yet another 50/50 life/death decision about which of its heads you need to cut off
  • ·         Luck tests are in abundance
  • ·         Arbitrary dice rolling to determine your fate is in even greater abundance
  • ·         In the style of Steve Jackson’s tougher books, there are certain points where you need to make a judgment call on whether to go to a section you learned about earlier in the book. Unfortunately, the hints that you need to do this are so subtle and are almost off-hand remarks in the text which means you are fairly unlikely to pick up on them
  • ·         Some “important” information is of little relevance and can be substituted with guessing which takes away the feeling of success you should get from what ought to be moments of achievement
  • ·         It is possible to find a code-breaking document that is incomprehensible and seems to serve no purpose (or did this get forgotten?)
  • ·         Worst of all, the final showdown with Arachnos can only be won by solving a maths problem that is so ridiculously difficult that it makes any other FF puzzle seem like simplicity itself

Oddly, one area that you would expect to see included in a book this unreasonable would be tough combats, but most of the foes in Deathmoor are actually very easy to beat (assuming you have a Skill of at least 9), very few have special attacks, and some even suffer Attack Strength penalties or can be weakened by surprise attacks (or dropping a house on them in the case of the Marsh Orcs, which is the only real injection of light relief anywhere in this adventure.) Even more out of context are certain scattered acts of unusual generosity which, whilst few and far between, seem at odds with the generally unbalanced nature of this book and do add to the feeling that this was thrown together in a few days with hardly any care. When you fight Fang-zen (your rival who, you would assume, can give a good account of himself against you), his Skill is two less than yours, ie he could have a Skill of 5 so he isn’t much of a hardy adventurer then really. It is also possible to increase your Initial Luck to 14, and to fully restore your Skill and Stamina by being blessed. Also, money is not difficult to come by, even if it has scant use once you leave Arion (and you start with 20 GP anyway.)

The subject of the Initial Luck increase gives me mixed feelings. If you also use the Potion of Fortune you could actually have an Initial Luck of 15 which is an unusually high allowance in a FF book, but you will certainly need it due to the number of Luck tests that this book throws at you. The location of the +2 Luck bonus (a temple that is a relic of the ancient civilisation that used to live where Deathmoor now is) exposes another example of the lazy construction of this adventure. We are told about the civilisation early on in the story, yet this is almost entirely ignored for most of the book bar a couple of isolated moments.

In some parts, there are moments of unpleasant grisliness, especially when we are told that the word “WAIT” has been spelled out in the severed limbs of the 15-year-old Princess’ friends, and Waterfield does seem slightly obsessed with getting you lost in misty marshes and/or burning people to death in his FFs. One of the real strengths, though, of his books is the lengths he goes to do describe environments/experiences/backgrounds to create a real sense of place, yet this is all but absent from Deathmoor. Only when you need a compass (or have to blunder aimlessly around without one) do you get the feeling of an oppressive moorland – compare his writing in this book with his background descriptions in #18 Rebel Planet or his dreamscapes in #28 Phantoms Of Fear and it’s hard to believe this is the same author. There are moments of player belittling that bring to mind Space Assassin, “That was stupid” being probably the worst example here of giving you little motivation to stay interested. Even the winning paragraph can only be bothered to stretch to a few sentences and there is hardly any feeling of victory to be had from it.

One of the new creatures offered here is a Cradoc (half Dragon-half Ogre) and it is this that graces the cover in what is amongst the worst FF cover images ever. The Cradoc just looks ridiculous – what was Terry Oakes thinking? Furthermore, this is another example of a FF cover that shows a far from important moment from the book, but it does at least reflect the lackadaisical nature of the package as a whole. If there is one person who has made an effort, it’s Russ Nicholson, whose internal art is as effective as always, even if most of the new creatures are quite manically drawn, whereas the more familiar moments are more controlled in their rendering.

Overall, Deathmoor is a fairly minor entry to the series which is blighted by harshness and just generally not being very interesting. It is no surprise then that it has faded into relative obscurity and is surely of more interest to collectors than to gamers. Play it if you are curious and can get hold of it, but this is easily one of the least essential from an adventuring perspective (which is, after all, the real reason why FF exists.)

1 comment:

  1. Personally, this is one of my favourites - I know it's not the best in terms of quality, but I'm very drawn to it. I think the cover's actually quite cool. :)