Sunday, 27 April 2014

In Search Of The Lost Land


IN SEARCH OF THE LOST LAND

Ruth Pracy

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The second part of Pracy’s trilogy of adventures ended with the promise that “The next part of this epic will be published in Warlock in a few months time”, then Warlock ended at Issue 13 which left us all wondering whether Part 3 of the story would therefore ever appear, or at least it did if you hadn’t given up on this trilogy after the lacklustre second instalment and decided you really couldn’t care less whether the demise of Warlock meant we’d never get to see this one out. Strangely enough, nine months after the final issue of Warlock had been published, the magazine it had made no secret of its antagonism towards, Proteus, finally printed the missing third episode of Pracy’s “epic”, albeit using a set of “different” rules.

Part 1 (The Floating City) was set in an icy wilderness and was reasonable, whilst Part 2 (The Land of Changes) took place in a forest and was dull, and thus Part 3 takes us into a third textbook fantasy adventure environment, starting in a very convoluted dungeon that zig-zags off in all sorts of directions and even goes around in circles in places, before giving us a site-seeing tour of Norse legends once we approach the Lost Land itself. The initial dungeon section is fairly standard fare with North-South-East-West options, items to collect, and a lot of doors that have a habit of closing behind you forcing you to carry on forwards. This is probably the most linear of RP’s three efforts, although this is semi-disguised by the sheer amount of floating around, passing out, and being generally transported about that happens here. Certain items are essential to success (eg: it is possible to find yourself looping around endlessly in the dungeon if you can’t find a silver wristband, until you take a wrong turn and die, that is) and the Lost Land section is only slightly less linear than the beginning part, leading you through volcanoes and ice, with the only real option being whether you go via some Giants or not, but it does at least offer some slight variety and sits somewhere between the multiple-route design of Part 1 and the very specific true path approach of Part 2.

Interestingly, other than its huge reliance on Northern Hemisphere mythology, one or two examples of items coming and going regardless of what you do, and the return of Pracy’s sometimes insulting jibes at the player (section 130 is one of the worst failure paragraphs I’ve ever read in a FF), this offering is rather different structurally and conceptually than Pracy’s previous adventures:
  • ·         There are far less unique creature types this time
  • ·         There is far less need to make allies and you can more easily get away with killing
  • ·         This is much more dream-like and feels almost like the Grail quest scenes from Excalibur
  • ·         There are hardly any “non-win” alternate outcomes, but there are numerous instant deaths which otherwise tend to be a rarity in Pracy’s work
  • ·         Typos, bad grammar and mis-linked sections are largely gone (enough to not be distracting) making it seem that more care has been taken in the execution
  • ·         Most worthy of note is that there is far less paragraph wasting (but still a small amount) and sections are generally longer and more descriptive as if this is designed to feel more fleshed-out and climactic

(Presumably) as this was not a Games Workshop/Puffin publication, the rules have been altered (sort of) which means you could play all three adventures and use a different rule system for each, given that Part 1 uses FF rules only and Part 2 allows for either FF or D&D rules to be used. Unlike Part 2, you are not given the option to carry over your character again (which does detract from continuity when playing through the complete “epic”), but it wouldn’t take much imagination to translate your FF attributes into those used here. Skill is re-named Dexterity and Stamina is called Strength – as these are rolled up in exactly the same way as their FF equivalents and cannot exceed their Initial values, these are directly interchangeable so the adventure’s FF origins are only very thinly disguised. Ditto, Rations which restore 5 Strength points are more generous than FF, plus you start with six and you are not restricted as to when you can eat (outside combat, naturally.) Oddly, no other starting equipment is mentioned, but you can assume you have a sword, armour and a backpack otherwise you are going to struggle! A more radical departure from FF rules is the complete removal of any concept of Luck, but you do get Wisdom instead which plays its part very well – you are often required to roll against your Wisdom (ie test it) to determine if you are worthy enough to progress, particularly in the final stages and there is a suggestion of your character having developed from an impetuous chancer in Part 1, through proving your worth via an old sage figure in Part 2, to discovering a sort of Promised Land in Part 3 (overtones of Star Wars, maybe, but this self discovery tale is used all over the place in popular culture so it would be unfair to call this plagiarism.)

Whilst on this subject, this third part of the story arc carries on directly from Part 2 and you start still in the company of Gether, with the Moss Maiden’s challenge compelling you to seek out the Lost Land which contains (you discover) the legendary Stones of Sariram that hold the source of Gether’s land’s power. The opening dungeon trawl is the caverns that were referred to in Land of Changes, then you travel through The Stupa Of The Lost Land to the other side of Winter (is that not back where you started in Part One?), and finally discover the Lost Land itself which, given that it is peopled, seems to have already been discovered before you got there (although it is a land of legend, rather than a New World.) There is nothing out of place about the plot of this (or the trilogy as a whole) and weirdness is made acceptable by the generally mystical feel of this adventure, especially the latter half which you would expect to be pretty unusual considering its mythical status. The sheer weight of Norse material that comes to the fore in the final parts is laid on a bit too thick (Miollnir, Ragnarok, Ginnungagap, Heimdal, Bifrost Bridge, etc) and whilst it does not affect the plot or the gaming experience, it can feel like you have long since left Titan and are now on Earth. I accept that it is not explicitly stated anywhere that this series is set in the FF world of Titan, but it can be assumed that it is meant to be (I think?) to make it more in keeping with the canon.

In terms of challenge level, this adventure is not especially difficult, but it can get rather muddled and confusing the first time around. I assume the sense of disorientation is deliberate and certainly makes mapping a nightmare with areas looping onto each other, but it is interesting to find a FF where the sense of the mystical renders it tough to get your head around (as a Lost Land of legend should) rather than just contending with tough combats and needing a catalogue of items to win. Yes, there are some key items to find, but as this is pretty linear you will easily find them all after only a few attempts. Creating a mental image of some of the locations you visit can be bewildering (think Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which created similarly impossible scenes in my head when I read it) and there is a gigantic scale to some of it to give you a sense of your small-ness compared to where you are (literally, at one point when you find yourself in a Giant’s glove!), but you are basically dealing with a sense of awe and vastness, rather than fighting for your life. To keep it in context there are some combats to be fought, but none are especially tough (the Garm, which is meant to be hell-spawn, is very weak with De 7 and St 3 but you meet it very early on and you don’t really want to feel like it is a lost cause that soon on) other than an incredibly strong Mountain Dwarf who has St 20. It is possible to choose to fight some very tough figures from legend (Heimdal and the Fenriswolf) but this is not essential and you will benefit from taking other options to get by them, whilst the most impressive encounter by far here would be with Heruka (who has three heads and six arms, each holding a different weapon that you must individually beat one-by-one), but if you defeat it you will lose the game anyway so my theory that there are no unreasonable combats required becomes apparent as you trace the true path over several failed play-throughs. Re-playability potential is pretty high as the sense of spectacle carries this one through and the idea of building a character up to be worthy enough to find the Stones of Sariram is compelling in itself. It’s not often (other than in those FFs that involve faith- or sanity-based attributes) that FFs require you to prove your worth in this way and this is a really appealing part of ISotLL. Similarly, it is possible to fail on your first choice, which might seem harsh but a) you are supposed to be worthy, and b) playing either of the previous instalments which give you a huge clue as to how to avoid this.

When you do beat it, there is an open ending for a fourth part that never happened, which I am glad of as this is climactic and spectacular enough to be a suitable ending to the series, plus there is a limit to how much of Pracy’s wholesale exploitation of myth we can realistically tolerate and this is definitely as far as it needed to go whilst still holding an interest for players. Pracy clearly values her source material and wants us to get something from it as well. In Parts 1 and 2 her writing style was arch and felt overly smug. In this adventure, she tones it down and lets the descriptions of the environments speak for themselves rather than sounding like a bombastic GM that you’d rather not have to deal with more than was necessary, which again makes this one much more tolerable and enjoyable to play.

The art (by seven different artists) has more continuity to it than the number of illustrators involved should suggest and there are some very impressive images with a real sense of awe and/or terror in them. Some pictures have a sketchier feel whilst others are more realised, but it all works well to my eye. The cover depicting the final episode (by Keith Berdak) is rather less effective and seems over-simplified compared to the rest of the art and rather understates the importance of what it depicts.

As an aside, Proteus’ presentation was less focussed than Warlock’s and this makes reading/playing the game rather disjointed as you have to find your way through a minefield of incidental advert pages that would be better placed after the main event. This is more of a hindrance than an issue, but it is still noticeable as you flick backwards and forwards looking for the paragraph you are turning to.

This is easily the best of Pracy’s trilogy, generally avoiding the irritants that detracted from the previous two. It is the most eventful and certainly the most imaginative, but is also the most reliant on legends for its material. You get a sense of place more easily and it is far easier to immerse yourself in the world around you. There are some flaws, but overall this is an interesting effort which requires close and repeated reading to properly appreciate the setting and concept. The post-dungeon part is much more worthwhile, but the contrasts between the sections suit the plot and add to the impact of the latter parts. You could easily play this without bothering with the first two adventures and it would still be good, but there is something to be said for working through the whole cycle to find out how it all pans out, plus it will definitely make Part 3 seem all the better. Far from perfect, but still a decent offering (if only it had a less inane title...)


3 comments:

  1. It is [...] the most reliant on legends for its material.

    The other two were just as reliant on legends, but they used ones less likely to be familiar to the readers. The Floating City is packed with creatures and characters from Inuit mythology, while The Land of Changes has a more scattered focus, drawing on Welsh, Scottish and Italian folklore among others.

    Some years back I reviewed In Search of the Lost Land in the form of a mini-gamebook pastiching Ms. Pracy's style. It's at http://gamebooks.org/show_item.php?id=1962, for anyone interested.

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    1. I am aware of the references in her previous two adventures, but I'd say the steals are much more in your face in this one which is why I suggest it is the most reliant on legends. The other two go some way to just about disguise them, but this third one is much more obvious in its borrowing.

      I read your gamebook-style write-up some time ago, incidentally.

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  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

    ReplyDelete