Reviewed by Mark Lain
Robin Waterfield’s second FF was his first medieval offering (his first book, #18 Rebel Planet being a Sci-Fi outing) and was still only the fourth book in the series to be set in Khul. Opinion amongst the fan community always seems to have been polarised over this book – some love it, some intensely despise it, and it is true that there is certainly a lot of great material here as well as there being many valid reasons to hate it.
The plot puts you in the role of the King or Queen (the intro cleverly uses the term “ruler” to avoid any gender bias) of Arion in north-east Khul. Your sidekick wizard, Ifor Tynin, summons you (again, a thoughtful piece of writing points out that his knowledge of magic makes him your equal, otherwise being summoned by a subordinate would be peculiar) and tells you that the fell sorceress Morgana is planning on wreaking widespread havoc by unleashing eleven undead golems on the world. But there’s more to it than this as each golem wears a mask she has made using each of eleven special sigils that hold the keys to power over everything. She now only needs the twelfth sigil (the “one ring to rule them all” then) and she will be able to control her creations. Your job is to find and kill her before she gets hold of sigil #12. Confused? You probably will be, but there is so much to the plot as it unravels throughout the book that you can’t help but give credit to RW for creating such a thorough concept and this is definitely one of the densest FF storylines around. The people of Arion have a very small-town mentality and no-one ever bothers to venture far (not even you, so presumably there are never any diplomatic trips to anywhere else) meaning you really are stepping into oblivion. There is a map of the area, but, other than knowing the general direction you want to go in, what lies ahead is a frightening mystery. In plot terms, what lies ahead is a trek across various terrains (forest, hills, marsh, plain, river, icy mountains – so, most of the possible options, really), meeting several key NPCs who can help you in your task, collecting numerous often incredibly well-hidden items, and, most intriguingly, discovering that you actually have the twelfth sigil on your helmet meaning it was all a big ruse to lure you to Morgana’s lair. Plus, there’s a traitor added to the mix who is actually in league with her. Overall, this FF has a plot that is logical (if you can keep up with it all), is surprising, and is genuinely well-planned.
As an adventure, the number of different environments makes for a very varied experience and there is intelligence on show both in terms of the writing and of the design to it all that makes it rise above just being a bog-standard medieval journey type of adventure. Effectively, it can be broken down into a series of cameos, but they are all equally interesting and some are very perilous. You start with the choice of a forest or hills (we won’t count the third option of trying to cross Lake Nekros as that kills you instantly if you pick it) then you descend into a disused mine as you try to reach Fallow Dale en route to Castle Hever where you need to rendez-vous with another King to get him to give you his Horn, which you are told is an essential to success. He asks you to undertake a side mission (catching a Sabre-Toothed Tiger for him) which is a fun diversion played out on a grid map where rolling the die progressively determines what direction your hunting dogs go in and then what the tiger does. From here you cross the Pikestaff Plain where a very interesting and unusual mechanic comes into play whereby whether you choose to follow some ants around for a bit or not then unlocks a slightly different turn of events – I like this as it is nice to see an attempt being made to subvert linearity in FFs. Then follows a real killer when you get caught in a bush-fire and it can take several attempts to beat this section as you burn to death horribly over and over. Next is a ravine/river part which hides one of the hardest to find and most important items in the book, then there is an optional trip into the lovely-sounding Marsh Vile, another lethal section where any false move leads to death, but it is possible to be given the solution to surviving the marsh by talking to someone just before you enter, even if the true path through it turns out not to be exactly what you are told. Finally, you enter the snow-capped mountain range of Krill Garnash which is Morgana’s domain. Negotiating the Affen Forest section takes a bit of thought as you encounter some particularly wary and astute Elves, the mine can be bit disorientating as you have to double-back on yourself, and the river part is a nightmare designed to make you fail. Whilst the bush-fire and Marsh Vile do make sense in their lethal-ness, it can get frustrating as you fail to get through each one umpteen times. The really key cameos involve having to find hidden paragraphs (by turning to sections you have previously been told about or, more often, by multiplying or adding section numbers to/with various numbers of things you have found) and RW takes the hidden paragraph-ary to all new levels as there are so many numerical challenges at make or break points that it can become quite demoralising if you manage to beat the first handful only to be faced with yet another one seemingly ad nauseum. RW loves extremely complex mathematical concepts in his FFs (Rebel Planet has its very tough binary code solution and the end of Deathmoor makes you do probably the most complicated calculation that I’ve ever seen in a FF book) but Masks Of Mayhem’s over-reliance on this really takes it a bit too far and it does get slightly soul-destroying, especially in the glade where you find Vashti which puts you through a relentless catalogue of number-crunching exercises. OK, so this is all intended to make cheating impossible and to give a more satisfying challenge level, but taking it to this extreme also makes winning practically impossible too! The final insult comes right at the end where you have to identify who the traitor is before they literally stab you in the back. The clues to the traitor’s identity are so subtle as to be near non-existent and you are not even explicitly told that you need to do any particular sums or whatever with the relevant character’s name even if you can figure it out - the solution is "40" from his name "I-forty-nin" but it's unlikely many people will ever guess it as it's so obscure. It is possible to make a lucky guess as to what to do, but it is more likely that most people will just give up out of frustration (or despair at having to do yet more maths) at this point, which is a shame given the general quality of the adventure as a whole.
But it’s not just the maths and sheer volume of number clues that you have to find that make this seem rather oppressive in its difficulty: the amount of testing of both Skill and Luck that you have to contend with is excessive, especially as failure will almost always lead to death; there are two different stages where your Provisions’ restorative value is reduced to +3 Stamina rather than the usual +4 which, coupled with the ridiculous number of times you are forced to eat or suffer the consequences (ok, the mission lasts several days so this does make sense in context, but any suggestion of freedom to use your Provisions when you feel inclined is lost completely) seems a little unfair; and, the “essential” Horn of Hever (the focus of the first part of the mission) is actually pretty useless and makes no difference to your eventual success, plus the seemingly very handy Skill advantage it gives you against evil foes hardly ever does anything as most of what you fight is specifically stated to not be evil.
On the other hand, combats in general are not especially difficult (even the Ice Dragon only has Sk 10 St 14 which is very weak for a Dragon) and only the really strong creatures and foes have Staminas in double-figures, but the Giant Blood-sucking Spider does seem overly-strong for an insect type with St 14 (ie the same as the Dragon!) Morgana herself is very weak (for an end baddie) with Sk 11 St 6, although the book does explain that she is frail but highly-skilled in magic so this is a good bit of planning. A bigger gesture towards helping the player out a little bit is that this book uses the traditional FF rules with no extra stats and you start out with the basic equipment, 10 Provisions, and a choice of the three standard Potions (Skill, Strength or Fortune.) Given how many Luck tests you are faced with, the best choice by far is the Fortune Potion (as long as you start with a decent Skill score, of course) and the extra point it gives will prove very useful. Stats-wise, this book cannot realistically be beaten without both Skill and Luck in double-figures, plus a decent Stamina score will get you through all the eating-related moments and the parts where you have no choice but to take damage.
Clearly then, this book is noticeably weighted against the player and this is no more so apparent than through the sheer number of instant deaths (I count 40-plus and some can be reached from more than one section), some through failing Skill or Luck tests, but the majority seem quite irrational eg: just wandering off into the mist never to be seen again, or getting arbitrarily eaten by things. After a while, taking a wrong turn and instantly dying all the time becomes very wearing and repetitive, which is at odds with the really well designed plot and adventure elements. It is in fact possible to die after your first choice (three paragraphs in), which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Whilst there is some variety to the route you can take (you can choose to do the forest and the marsh or not bother with either or both and it won’t affect you too much) and the “ant following or not” episode offers variations on a set of outcomes, the vast majority of this book is very linear with the emphasis being far too much on collecting several very hard-to-find items, not losing your helmet (difficult in the river section), and, most fun-destroying by far, having to collect way too many number clues.
Were it not for its extreme harshness, this could have been one of the best “out-and-about” epic trek FFs ever as its depth of plotting, its two shock revelations, and its ability to maintain the interest through vivid descriptions, variety of events, and genuine sense of a voyage of discovery as you pass through areas that were only known to you by name and reputation, all ought to amount to a brilliant book. If you were to strike it lucky and find the true path after only a handful of playthroughs (thus avoiding most of the umpteen unfair instant deaths that blight the book), meaning you mostly are exposed only to the excellent design, rather than to RW’s cruelty to the player, then you would happily accept this as a brilliant FF. Sadly, it is so hard that the more times you play means the more times and ways that you will die, and, even after beating one part, you will probably only wind up dead shortly afterwards, especially as the bush-fire is followed quickly by the river and then a few sections later you might have to deal with Marsh Vile. In other words, the feeling that the good parts were wasted by making it so unfair will get the better of your wanting to think that this is brilliant sooner or later.
I am a big fan of Waterfield’s vivid descriptions and the effort he usually (the dismal Deathmoor excepted) puts into creating a believable and thorough world in which his adventures play-out and the writing here is mostly above average, even if some of the deaths make no sense when you think about them and paragraph 400 is the kind of thing Andrew Chapman or Luke Sharp would be embarrassed to write it’s so short and anti-climactic, especially given the epic scale and sheer difficulty of what you’ve gone through to get there. A really big plus of his effort in this book is the imaginative creature design and there are some unusual and intriguing inclusions here such as the Blackhearts (evil Elves that you thought were extinct), the Spriggan (hideous overweight fairies), the Doragar (Orc-Troll crosses bred for hard labour tasks), and two mutations of more familiar creatures, the Chion and the Ice Hulk. All these add to the idea that Khul and Allansia have their own distinct races and species which makes Khul seem very different to Allansia, when it could so easily have just been a clone where non-IL/SJ FFs were set, which would have been a shame.
A real plus-point in this book is Russ Nicholson’s art. He has really excelled himself in places
with this one and some of his best internal art is on show. If you get fed up of dying all the time, the art will hold up in itself and he mixes the style seen in his early FFs with a darker-looking more intricate approach in places, making this a really nice selection of varied art that shows nuances such as day and night or intelligence/stupidity of encounters very well. John Sibbick’s cover focuses on one of the Golems which, whilst they are part of the main purpose of your mission, only actually get one paragraph given to them of actual adventure so it is useful to be able to visualise them via the cover. There’s an elemental earthiness to the cover image and the weird all-important sigil is highlighted so the cover ultimately complements the plot and adds another layer of richness in your being able to “see” what is happening.
Masks Of Mayhem is not an easy book to summarise. Its design and ongoing interest make it a winner, but RW’s total disregard for player enjoyment due to it simply being unfair also makes it very hard not to get fed-up with it. This should have been a great book, but sadly it just ends up being frustrating. Appreciate the superlative plot and the art, but hate the fact that death or not finding enough number clues will get boring after a while. This deserved to be so much better...