Monday, September 28, 2020

Temple of Terror - Attempt 3

I had another crack at Temple of Terror this afternoon, and let's just say this will be a quick one.  I rolled a Stamina of 19 and a Luck of 11 (not bad), but I also rolled a Skill of 8.  This is yet another Ian Livingstone book where a low Skill makes it pretty much a suicide mission.

After choosing my spells (Create Water, Open Door, Read Symbols and Fire), I decided to take the overland route again.  I didn't relish facing the Giant Sandworm with such a low Skill, and I knew that fight was unavoidable on the path via Port Blacksand.

Heading south, I ignored the encounter with the Dark Elves, as well as the trapped amulet left by Malbordus.  The Dark Elves have a bow and some arrows, but I figured I could go without them.  That night I camped near some boulders, and one a die roll I scored a 1, meaning I was attacked by a Cave Troll (Skill 8, Stamina 7). I started well, dropping it down to 1 Stamina, but then it hit me a few times in a row.  My Stamina was 13 by the end of the fight.

Following that I was attacked by a Harpy (Skill 8, Stamina 5), which further dropped my Stamina to 11.  Then I was picked up by a Giant Eagle sent by Yaztromo, and attacked by a Pterodactyl.  This is where I discovered that I really should have gone for that bow (or taken a Magic Arrow spell): not only does it wound the Pterodactyl, but it also drops its Skill by a point.  As it is, I had to run the Eagle vs. Pterodactyl fight at a 2 Skill disadvantage.  Nevertheless, I managed to scrape through by using a lot of Luck to increase the Eagle's damage.  I'm not sure if that's strictly following the rules, but it's not like Ian Livingstone plays fair so I feel perfectly justified.  My Luck by the end had been reduced to 9.

Further south I found a mirror buried in the sand (and ignored the clay pot with the poison gas inside).  After that, I came to my nemesis from the last game: the Sand Snapper.  This creature has two tentacles, each one with Skill and Stamina of 7.  If at any point the Snapper hits twice in a row, it's an instant death.  I was keen to get this fight over with as quickly as possible, so I burned some Luck here as well.  It hit me twice, but this time I managed to kill it.  Much to my disgust, the bite it had given me before the fight started resulted in me losing a further 4 Stamina, and 1 Skill.  I ate a provision, and at the end of this whole ordeal my Stamina was at 7, and my Skill at 7.

Continuing on, I saw a large lizard-like creature approaching, with large yellow eyes.  It was a Basilisk, but I had the perfect defense: a mirror to reflect its deadly gaze.  I killed the beast and moved on.  (It's odd to see a Basilisk that kills with its gaze, rather than turns its victims to stone.  Killing is more mythologically accurate, as far as I'm aware, but usually these kinds of books take their lead from Dungeons & Dragons).


I found some footprints and decided to follow them, but they only led to a dead body with a horrified expression.  I figure this guy got killed by the Basilisk, and with little else to do I took his water canteen and continued.  Past that I came the tent of the nomad merchant Abjul, who I'd met in my first attempt at the book; I'd finally reached the point where the paths converged.  With a full coin purse, I bought everything Abjul had to offer.

I needn't have bothered, because the next encounter was with the Giant Sandworm.  With Skill 10 and Stamina 20, it made very short work of me.  I didn't even get a single hit in.

THE POST-GAME

Once again I didn't make it far, but I did manage to fully explore the overland path.  Having done so, I think I'm going to ignore it from now on.  First off, it doesn't get around the Giant Sandworm; that one seems to be unavoidable.  Secondly, it has two very deadly battles in addition to the Sandworm: the Sand Snapper and the Giant Eagle/Pterodactyl aerial duel.  Finally, it only has two items to pick up (the bow and the mirror), and both of them are already useful by the time the Sandworm is reached: if I know my Ian Livingstone design sensibilities, they won't be used at all later in the book.  From now on, I'm going to persist with the Port Blacksand path, until such time as it is proven to be the wrong one.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Temple of Terror - Attempt 2

I'm back for another round with Temple of Terror.  Last time I got myself killed by a Giant Centipede very shortly after making it to the lost city of Vatos.  Dying in battle is maybe the most annoying way to lose in Fighting Fantasy.  If you lose because of a choice you made, or because you weren't carrying the right item, at least you gleaned some information from that.  Don't open that chest.  Don't eat that mushroom.  Make sure you find that silver hammer.  If you get killed in a fight, it's no help for future games, except to tell you that maybe you need to roll a better Skill next time.  So, I'm going into this attempt without much in the way of guidance as to what I should and shouldn't do.

For this game, I rolled a Skill of 9, a Stamina of 19, and a Luck of 12.  Not terrible stats, but I didn't fancy my chances in that unavoidable battle with the Giant Sandworm.  There are two paths at the beginning of this book: you can either take a boat downriver to Port Blacksand, or you can journey to the desert on foot.  I'm not sure where these two paths converge, so I decided this time - after choosing my spells from Yaztromo (Create Water, Read Symbols, Open Doors and Fire) - to travel overland in the hope that I wouldn't have to tackle the Sandworm this time.

After an hour of travel through scrubland, I spotted a plume of smoke rising to the east. I decided to investigate, and saw that the smoke was coming from a burning hut.  Two Dark Elves in black hoods were shooting flaming arrows at the hut.  When the owner of the hut was driven outside by the smoke, they shot him dead.

Paragraph 316 says I just burned down your
house and shot your ass full of arrow.

Figuring that the Dark Elves might be servants of Malbordus, I attacked them with my sword.  The first Elf (Skill 5, Stamina 6) got one blow in (reducing my Stamina to 17), but I managed to kill the second (Skill 6, Stamina 5) with ease.  On their corpses I found 2 gold pieces (which brought my total to 27), as well as a bow and two arrows.  I took time to bury their victim before moving on.

Further south I came to a patch of land that was completely blackened, with a smell of decay in the air.  In the middle of this area was a bronze medallion etched with the letter M.  Taking this for another sign of Malbordus' passing, I ignored the obvious danger and picked it up.  Instantly my hand started to burn, and I dropped the medallion to the ground.  Luckily I had not used my sword hand, but the medallion still left the letter M branded on my palm.  (The hand I used was determined by a Luck test, which I passed (reducing my score to 11).  The burn dropped my Stamina to 16.)

When night fell, I took shelter in a clump of boulders and went to sleep.  During the night I was awakened by heavy footsteps, and attacked by a Cave Troll (Skill 8, Stamina 9).  The fight went well for me initially, but the Troll responded viciously, and by the time I killed it I was close to death myself.  (It dropped me all the way to 4 Stamina.  At one point it won four consecutive combat rounds, so things got pretty hairy.)

In the morning I ate a meal (restoring my Stamina to 8, and leaving me with 9 provisions).  Not long after I set off, I saw a bird-like creature swooping down at me, and heard a piercing shriek.  I was being attacked by a Harpy, and I knew enough to stuff cloth into my ears to keep out its mesmerising call.  (This was assumed by the book, not a decision I had to make.)  With no Magic Arrow spell, I was forced to fight it with my sword.  The Harpy (Skill 8, Stamina 5) proved to be an easy foe, and I emerged from the battle unscathed.

As I continued, a leather pouch dropped from the sky, containing a note from Yaztromo.  He informed me that Malbordus was ahead of me, and that he had sent a Giant Eagle to speed me on my journey.  I gratefully boarded the Eagle, who carried me south, but that gratefulness became shortlived when a screeching Pterodactyl swooped out of the sky.  I shot it with an arrow (requiring a roll under my Skill on 2d6+3), but when I tried to shoot it again I dropped my bow.  There was nothing I could do now but hold on as my Giant Eagle (Skill 6, Stamina 11) battled the Pterodactyl (Skill 7, Stamina 9).  I had my doubts as to whether my Eagle was up to the task, but despite sustaining some wounds it managed to kill the Pterodactyl, and we were soon on our way again.

We flew over the Whitewater River, and at dusk we reached the edge of the Desert of Skulls.  I camped for the night, but when I woke up I discovered that the Eagle had flown away.  I would have to make the rest of the way on foot.  After a short time in the desert sun I became parched, and had to use a Create Water spell to refresh myself.  I also took the chance to eat a meal (restoring my Stamina to 12, and leaving me with 8 provisions).

Soon I walked past the bones of some huge creature, and noticed a box half-buried in the sand.  I decided to open it, and found a mirror and a sealed clay pot.  Curious, I cracked the pot open, and got a face-full of poison gas for my trouble (leaving me with 6 Stamina, and reducing my Skill to 8).

Is this the only skeleton in FF history that
doesn't spring to life and attack?

That night I slept out in the open, and ate a meal in the morning..  By mid-morning I was getting thirsty again, but I found some water by cutting open a cactus.  I ate another meal before pressing on. (These two meals restored my Stamina to 14, and left me with 6 provisions remaining.)

Suddenly my foot sank into the sand, and I felt a sharp pain.  I stabbed my sword into the ground, and was shocked when a great beast emerged, like a crocodile with two grasping tentacles.  It was a Sand Snapper, and I would have to sever both of its tentacles to survive.  The first tentacle (Skill 7, Stamina 7) wounded me twice before I could cut it off.  The second, though, managed to wrap itself around both of my arms, and I was helpless as it dragged me below the sand to my death.

A lesser author would have called this a
Croctopus.  And by lesser author, I mean me.


THE POST-GAME
I didn't actually lose all of my Stamina in that last fight.  The Sand Snapper has a special ability whereby it gets an automatic kill if it wins two consecutive Attack Rounds, and that's how it did me in.  I probably owe my death the the Skill penalty I copped when I breathed in the poison gas; I'll have to avoid that next time.

Unfortunately, that early death meant that I didn't get to find out where the two paths at the start of the book converge.  I was hoping to check both out fully, so that I could assess which of them looked the most likely path to victory.  I have stronger memories of the Port Blacksand path from playing this as a kid, so I suspect that's the one I need to take.  At the moment, though, I have no idea, so I have to keep trying both.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Temple of Terror - Attempt 1

So, uh, about that emotional farewell I gave at the end of my last post...

It seems I'm back.  My circumstances haven't improved, but after a few weeks of not blogging I found that I missed it.  It turns out that I'm mentally better off when I'm producing something, even if that production happens to be as insignificant as a blog about Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.  So, for the moment, the blog continues, with Ian Livingstone's Temple of Terror.

Cover by Christos Achilleos

The dark, twisted power of the young Malbordus is reaching its zenith. All he needs now is to retrieve the five dragon artefacts which have been hidden for centuries in the lost city of Vatos, somewhere in the Desert of Skulls. Each day that passes brings him closer to them and only YOU can stop him! YOUR mission is to reach the lost city before Malbordus and destroy the treasures he seeks. But beware! Each step you take leads you closer to your doom...

Temple of Terror really is the end of an era for Fighting Fantasy, as pretty much the tail end of Ian Livingstone's run as the series' main author.  Of the books before this, Ian wrote or co-wrote seven.  Of the 45 books that follow in the original series, he writes four.  Opening the series up to different writers gives it more scope and variety, and was the only way it was ever going to have any kind of longevity.  But for me, regardless of the many gameplay issues his books have, Ian Livingstone's books are the core of Fighting Fantasy, and the series loses a lot without his regular contribution.

(That said, I had no sense of this back in the day, because I thought Ian and Steve wrote all of them.  After all, their names were right there on the covers.  I was even convinced that they drew the pictures themselves, never mind the wildly differing art styles.  Some kids are dumb, and I was one of them.)

The background of this book begins with Malbordus, a child abandoned by his mother in Darkwood Forest and raised by evil elves.  As Malbordus grew it became apparent that he was gifted in the ways of dark magic, but he had to pass one final test before the elves would teach him their secrets: find five dragon statues in the lost city of Vatos, and bring them to life to lead an army in the conquest of Allansia.

The wizard Yaztromo got wind of this plot, and hurried to Stonebridge to find a hero to go to Vatos to stop Malbordus.  Yaztromo, introduced in Forest of Doom as little more than a means by which the player could buy magic items, comes into his own here as the most important good wizard in Allansia.  He'll fill that role in most of Ian's books going forward, and while he's pretty much a Gandalf knock-off, well... every generic fantasy setting needs a good Gandalf knock-off.  It comes with the territory.

Yaztromo finds the hero of the book resting in Stonebridge after a recent adventure, and while it's not outright stated that this is a sequel to Forest of Doom, it's pretty heavily implied.  The hero is tasked with travelling to Vatos, and destroying the dragon artefacts before Malbordus can get his hands on them.  We're back in familiar territory here, with a classic hero-vs.-evil-wizard plot.

We're in familiar territory as far as the rules go, as well, because Temple of Terror doesn't add anything new to the basic FF ruleset.  Creating my character, I rolled a Skill of 11, a Stamina of 18, and a Luck of 9.  For equipment, I had a sword, leather armour, a backpack, a lantern, and 10 provisions.  Yaztromo also gave me a pouch containing 25 gold pieces (which may very well be the same gold pieces I used to buy stuff from him back in Forest of Doom).


Before sending me off on my quest, Yaztromo took me to his tower to teach me some magic.  He had ten spells to choose from, but only had time to teach me four.  (This is a little ridiculous, honestly.  Pretty much all fantasy fiction treats magic like it's something that takes years of painstaking study to master, but here Yaztromo can teach someone a few spells in what feels like at most a matter of hours.  At least in Scorpion Swamp Fake Steve Jackson had the decency to explain this with one-use spell gems when he wanted to pull the same trick.)

The ten spells are Open Door, Creature Sleep, Magic Arrow, Language, Read Symbols, Light, Fire, Jump, Detect Trap and Create Water.  For my four, I chose Open Door, Read Symbols, Detect Trap and Create Water.  That last one seemed especially vital, given that I was heading into the desert.  For the others, I opted mostly for spells that would allow me to detect and avoid danger.  Or, in the case of Open Door, avoid losing because I failed to find a key somewhere. I know your tricks, Ian.

There's no specific limit on the number of times a spell can be cast, but each casting drains a small amount of Stamina.  The only spell of the four I chose with no Stamina cost is Create Water.

Led by Yaztromo's pet crow, I headed south until I reached Catfish River, where an old barge crewed by unsavoury characters was moored.  There was also a rope bridge across the river, but rather than take it I decided to approach the barge crew and book passage to Port Blacksand.  (Allansia has really come together as a setting by this point.  Pretty much the entire opening of this adventure is made up of elements that were established in earlier books.)


The captain told me it would be 5 gold pieces for passage, and I decided to pay it rather than haggle with him.  I spent the whole journey asleep on a coil of rope, and before long I disembarked in the infamous "city of thieves".  (The hero of this book must be young man, because I'm pretty sure that if I slept on a coil of rope I wouldn't be getting up again for at least a few days.)

As night approached I started looking for a place to stay.  An old man in tattered clothes jumped out of a doorway in front of me, and told me that for 1 gold piece he could lead me to a place that offered a room, soup and bread.  Impressed by this man's obvious integrity, I was 100% convinced that his offer was genuine, so I gave him the gold and followed him to a dilapidated house.  As soon as he knocked on the door, two club-wielding things burst out and attacked me.  I'd been set up in a manner so subtle that I had not even the slightest inkling that it was ever going to happen.

The Robbers (Skill 8, Stamina 7 and Skill 7, Stamina 7) attacked one at a time, and the first one landed some strong hits early, but once I recovered from the shock I made short work of them.  (I was hit twice during the battle, reducing my Stamina to 14.)  The old man had run off with my gold piece, but a search of the robbers' pockets turned up a brass telescope and 3 silver buttons.

Continuing down Clog Street and into Harbour Street, I soon found the Black Lobster Tavern. I paid a gold piece for a room for the night, and another for an introduction to a ship captain who could take me down the coast.  Gargo was the captain of the Belladonna, and the price of passage was 10 gold pieces.  He didn't seem like the sort of man to haggle with, so I paid his price before retiring to my room. Along the way a clumsy patron spilled some ale on me, and I made amends by buying him another round.  This cost me another gold piece, and I started to wonder how long my funds would last.  (Buying these drinks reduced my Luck to 8, and left me with just 6 gold.)

The next morning I boarded the Belladonna, which I was surprised to discover was a pirate ship (because Belladonna sounds like the name of a respectable trade vessel, sure).  Due to crew shortages, I was told that my job would be to man the cannons, and it wasn't long before my services were required.  A ship was sighted off the starboard bow, a man-of-war that opened fire on us.  The Belladonna was no match for a warship, and after a brief skirmish it started to sink.  I managed to get safely to the deck before the ship sank (with a successful Skill check), and decided to float away on a piece of masthead rather than trust to the mercies of the enemy crew.

For two days I drifted on the sea, growing weaker and weaker.  (I had to roll two dice, and subtract the total from my Stamina. I rolled a 10, which reduced my Stamina to a worrying 4.)  On the third day, I was washed up on a sandy beach, with desert stretching to the horizon.  I still had my backpack and belongings, but water had seeped into my provisions, ruining three of them.  Luckily (due to a Luck test that reduced my score to 7), I had washed up near a grove of palm trees, and was able to replenish some of my strength by eating some coconuts.  I ate one of my provisions as well, to get back as much strength as I could for the journey ahead.  (This restored my Stamina to 11.  The loss of provisions was determined by a die roll, for which I scored a 3.  It also caused me to lose a point of Luck, leaving my score at 6.)

I decided to walk south along the coast for a while rather than head inland.  Soon I came to a strange pattern made out of seashells, with a feathered spear thrust into the ground at the centre.  I cast a Read Symbols spell (reducing my Stamina to 10), which revealed that the beach ahead was sacred, and that walking on it would anger the "demon of the beach".  I decided not to risk it, and headed inland.

Not long after I heard a buzzing sound overhead, and was attacked by a trio of giant Needle Flies.  With no spell that could harm them, I was forced to fight them with my sword.  The Needle Flies (Skill 5 Stamina 6, Skill 6 Stamina 7, and Skill 7, Stamina 6) were weak, and attacked me one at a time; only the last one managed to wound me (reducing my Stamina to 8).

Following my battle with the Needle Flies, I stumbled over a dead man lying face down in the sand.  In his hand was a pouch, which contained a small golden key.  I pocketed it before moving on.

As the day wore on, I saw a rider on a camel approaching through the heat haze.  I decided to approach rather than hide, and he offered to trade me a canister of water for some treasure.  I gave him one of my silver buttons, and gladly took his water.


After departing from the rider I was caught in a sudden sandstorm (which reduced my Stamina to 6).  When the storm subsided, I found a brass handbell half-buried in the sand (due to a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 5).

I continued on, slaking my thirst with water from my canister.  Half an hour later I came across the tent of a desert nomad, and decided to enter.  The nomad, whose name was Abjul, was a merchant.  After providing me with a meal (that restored my Stamina to 10), he showed me the wares he had for sale.  None of the items seemed all that practical, but I bought a crystal key and a brass flute (this left me with 1 gold piece).  Abjul told me that he thought Vatos was to the south.  I thanked him, and continued on.


Soon after, a tremor in the ground warned me of danger, just before an enormous Sandworm broke the surface.  I had no choice but to fight the Sandworm (Skill 10, Stamina 20), and it was a long, drawn out affair.  I eventually killed the great beast, but it was a close call (I was left with just 4 Stamina).  I took one of the Sandworm's teeth with me, and ate a provision (restoring my Stamina to 8) before moving on.  (This is the sort of thing I hate most in Ian's books: an unavoidable fight with a really strong enemy.  The Skill here isn't super-high, but that Stamina is ridiculous, and guarantees that the fight is going to take ages.  And let's be honest, the FF combat system isn't interesting enough to justify long, drawn out battles.)


After a cold night which sapped my strength, I woke up in the morning and ate another provision.  (The cold dropped my Stamina to 5, and the food brought it back up to 9).  I passed by an oasis with birds circling above, but decided not to risk drinking from it, as I already had some water (as well as my Create Water spell if I needed it).  I instead decided to investigate a pile of rocks nearby, which turned out to be a bad idea, as I was stung on the hand by a scorpion (reducing my Stamina to 5).  After crushing it with my boot, I found a sack beneath the rocks.  Inside was a glass orb, in which a Sprite was trapped.  I broke the sphere and released him, and in gratitude he blessed me with good luck (restoring my Luck score to 6).  He also informed me that I could use the sack as a headscarf to protect me from the sun, and I gave him my thanks before he left.

Soon I finished the rest of my water, and managed to avoid heatstroke due to the sack I was wearing on my head.  (I do wonder how the Stamina loss from the heatstroke compares to that from being stung by the scorpion.)  Eventually, through the desert haze, I saw the ruins of a walled city in the distance.  Finally, I had reached the lost city of Vatos.  I ate one of my provisions before approaching (restoring my Stamina to 9, and leaving me with just 3 provisions remaining).


The entrance gate was closed, but there was a smaller wooden door nearby.  I opened it with my Open Door spell (reducing my Stamina to 7).  On the other side was an open square, with an archway on the other side.  I entered the archway, and descended some stairs.  At the bottom of the stairs was an iron casket, which I opened.  Inside was an iron helmet.  It seemed suspicious that a helm would be sitting here in the open without being looted, but this was a lost city after all, and presumably uninhabited.  I put the helmet on my head, and was pleased at the fit (and the +1 Skill bonus).

As I continued down the corridor, I was started by a tap on my shoulder.  Turning around, I saw a horrid, gaunt figure, with thick slime oozing from its eyes and mouth.  It whispered one word to me - "Death!" - before it disappeared.  This was a Messenger of Death, who had been sent by Malbordus to assassinate me.  The Messenger delighted in playing games with its victims, and had hidden letters of the word "death" in my path.  If I found all the letters, the Messenger would appear and drain my life.  (I've always loved this encounter, but it's a terribly inefficient method of assassinating someone.  Malbordus would have been better off sending ten blokes with knives.)


The corridor ended at a T-junction, with some drapes hanging on the wall ahead.  I was wary of uncovering any death letters, but also determined to find the dragon statues, so I drew back the curtain.  It concealed a door, which I opened.  The door led into a bare stone room, with a bucket hanging from the ceiling.  I was alerted by a skittering, just before a Giant Centipede appeared and attacked.


I was unable to escape, and the Centipede (Skill 9, Stamina 7) proved to be a formidable foe.  So formidable, in fact, that it killed me, and my adventure ended in its crushing mandibles.

THE POST-GAME
After losing 10 Stamina while drifting at sea, I felt like I was in a constant struggle to maintain my Stamina.  I also got low on Provisions, and got a little conservative with them.  Even so, I should have beaten the Centipede, as its Skill was two points lower than mine.  The odds were in my favour, but the dice weren't, unfortunately.  Next time I need to try to make it to Vatos without losing so much Stamina.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Dark Usurper - Attempt 2 & 3

Hi all, I'm back from enforced lockdown with another post on "The Dark Usurper," the serialised Fighting Fantasy adventure from White Dwarf magazine.

For this attempt, I rolled a Skill of 7, a Stamina of 17, and a Luck of 10.  Not great stats, but most of the enemies I fought in my first go-around had Skills ranging from 3 to 5, to I'm not all that worried about it.

ATTEMPT 2

As you might recall, the adventure begins with the hero, Corwin Calbraith, imprisoned in a tower while an evil brigand (who you might describe as a "dark usurper") lords it over the surrounding lands of Skeln.  Last time I escaped by knotting my bedsheets and swinging out the window; this time I decided to try prising up the floorboards. Surprisingly this worked, and I was able to create a hole and drop through to the stairwell below.  Skeln really skimped on flooring when it built this castle, but it's paid off in the long run.

After killing some goblins I escaped into the courtyard.  In the last game I ignored the armoury, figuring that it would be more likely to be guarded.  This time I checked it out, and it turned out to be a good move: I found a loyal subject there who told me all about how the evil Barnak took control of Skeln (the second part of the adventure assumes you have this knowledge regardless of whether you learn it).  He then led me through some tunnels outside of the castle, to a small chamber where my father's sword Stroma was hidden. I took the sword and climbed up into the forest, bidding my servant farewell.

After summoning my horse Aryll with a whistle, I rode off into the forest and slept the night (ending the first part of the adventure).  In the morning Aryll was gone.  Heading deeper into the forest, I met a pair of pumas, who led me to a clearing where an old man was being menaced by goblins.  I saved the old man, who was really the wizard Asmund, and he took me back to his cave, where he outfitted me with some rad clothes and told me about a prophecy saying that I would save the country.  (I gave this more detail in the previous post, but this sequence is very linear so I'm not going to go over it again.)

I left the old man and made my way to the village of Kari, where I met up with Jorkell, the captain of the local guards.  We overthrew the local goblin garrison, and went out to scout the countryside.  On our way back, we were forced to battle a small army of 200 goblins that outnumbered us four-to-one.

I decided to split my force, and attack the goblins from both sides.  I mentioned in my last post that I had some trouble deciphering the rules for mass combat; as written it seemed as though it was impossible for my army to lose.  It says to roll two dice for every 5 men you have, and on a roll of 1 or 2 you lose that many.  Then you multiply the result by the other die, and those are your casualties.  I'd been applying enemy casualties for every roll, but I on a second reading I think I'm only meant to do so when I roll a 1 or 2.  It certainly works out a lot closer when doing it that way, although it does draw the battles out a lot.  It was all a bit of a moot point anyway, because every round you have to roll for yourself and Jorkell as well, and I managed to get myself killed by rolling a 1.

ATTEMPT 3

That was a quick go, so I decided to have another crack. For my third attempt, I rolled a Skill of 11, a Stamina of 21, and a Luck of 9.

At the beginning there was one escape option I'd yet to try: attacking the guard when he brought my food.  As soon as he entered the room I kicked his sword away, then killed him with my bare hands.  After that it was a simple matter to escape the castle by going to the armoury and having my servant lead me outside.

I met the wizard Asmund, made my way to Kari to join forces with Jorkell, went out scouting, and beat the goblin army by charging right up their middle (which seems to be the best of the options for fighting them).

At the beginning of part 3, I was holed up with Jorkell and an army of 600 in Kari, awaiting the arrival of Barnell's forces.  Rather than sally forth to meet them, I decided to stay in Kari and make use of our defensive position.

The attack soon came, and the fighting seemed to be heaviest at the east wall.  I sent 100 men (the maximum possible) to reinforce, and we drove them back.  I decided then to seize the initiative and counter-attack, inflicting great losses on the enemy.(I had to roll 2d6x10 for my own casualties, and 4d6x20 for theirs.)  Having lost more men than me, the enemy fled in rout, and I sent my men in pursuit to cut them down.

With the main enemy force in retreat, I decided to go and meet Berwin, an ally with an army who I'm not sure has been mentioned prior to this moment.  My forward scouts spotted a group of 40 goblins, and we rode them down and slaughtered them.  Soon we met with Berwin and joined our armies before heading for Barnak's castle.

At the castle, I had three options: a frontal assault, a lengthy siege, or entry by subterfuge.  The third options seemed like the one to involve the least casualties, so I took ten volunteers with me through the servants' tunnels (the same ones by which I had escaped).  We reached the tunnels without being spotted (due to a successful Luck test).

Once inside the castle, I had the option of freeing Asmund, freeing Evald (the regent who let Barnak take over), or finding Barnak right away.  I figured that Evald would be useless, and besides that I had no idea if he was even alive.  I'd have liked to find Asmund, as a powerful wizard is always handy, but I had no idea where he might be.  Rather than waste time taking a guard prisoner, I decided to be done with the whole thing and go kill Barnak.

I found him in the throne room surrounded by thirty guards.  At that moment the sounds of battle grew louder: Jorkell was leading an assault on the castle.  Half of Barnak's guards left, but I decided to be patient.  While I was waiting, I spotted Asmund in a cage, and near him was a gem on a statue by the door.  I decided to take the gem from the statue and fit it in the pommel of my father's sword.  (This required an "ideas roll", a simple 50/50 shot in 1d6.  The sword previously had a magic gem in it, which I had given to Asmund in part 2.  Where this gem in the statue came from is anyone's guess, unless it's the same one.  Even then, there's no explanation for why it's been placed on a statue.)

With my father's sword pulsing with power, I turned to face Barnak.  He was a formidable opponent (Skill 9, Stamina 10, which is practically god-like by the standards of this book), but I hacked him to death with ease.  (I was already at Skill 11, and the gem in the sword boosted that to 14.)  Barnak was dead!

I freed Asmund, and went to find Evald, but I was too late: he'd already been murdered in his cell.  Emerging into the courtyard, I saw that my forces were still locked in battle with those of Barnak.  I shouted out that Barnak had been killed, and the leaderless enemy surrendered. Tired of the slaughter, I ordered them rounded up and exiled from Skeln.  It was time to assume the reins of leadership, and I became Duke of Skeln, with Jorkell and Berwin as my generals and Asmund as my chief advisor.

THE POST-GAME

Well, I'm glad that was quick.  It's all rather linear, and most of the choices don't really matter, dying in mass combat is pretty much the only way to lose unless you do something really stupid or ignore the advice of Asmund.

For reasons I'll elaborate further on below, I'm going to wrap this one up quickly and give it a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating now.

S.T.A.M.I.N.A Rating:

Story & Setting: Not being set on Titan, this adventure has something of a unique flavour for FF.  It's very clearly inspired by the Crusades, and it has a real-world English/Celtic vibe.  I think some bits of magic and a few goblins and trolls are the only fantasy elements in here.  The story isn't one that FF has seen before, but it's somewhat cliched nevertheless.  It's also marred by some continuity glitches, as well as a whole load of things that never really pay off.  The authors go out of their way to give you awesome gear, some magic, and a pair of pumas that follow you around, then basically ignores them all.  Not to mention the prophecy, which is just there for no reason. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Toughness: As I mentioned above, the adventure really goes out of its way to funnel you into the right direction, as all of your choices generally lead to the same result.  It's also very difficult to lose, unless you roll badly during mass combat.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Being split across three issues of White Dwarf don't help it here, but it does have some rather nice illustrations from Bill Houston, who also illustrated Temple of Terror.  Of particular note is the painting in part two by Alan Hunter, which enhances the adventure's Celtic vibe.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: Mechanically this might be one of the worst gamebooks I've ever read.  There are options that point to the wrong number.  There's an entire paragraph missing from part 1 (luckily not one that's necessary to winning).  Continuity glitches are rife, especially surrounding your horse in the first part, something made especially egregious when your horse ditches you at the start of part 2.  It's a mess really, and that's before you factor in the ambiguous rules for mass combat.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: The setting and story for this are somewhat novel for an FF, and I have to give it some props for its focus on mass combat.  The rules are a little difficult to interpret, but the choices outside of that system are fairly well done.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: In terms of monsters this adventure is thin on the ground, with only goblins and trolls.  It has a few NPCs, but none of them rise above the level of cliche, and Barnak is a paper-thin villain. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Amusement: I can't say I loved it, but I can say that it was short. Rating: 2 out of 7.

With no arbitrary bonus point, the above scores add up to 16; doubled that gives it a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 32. That places it dead last, a full 4 points below such luminaries as "The Dervish Stone" and the preview version of Caverns of the Snow Witch.

NEXT: Well, I'm sorry to say that there may not be a next.  I'm currently at the beginning of six weeks of enforced lockdown, separated from my family through no choice of my own, and I'm pretty much reevaluating my entire life at this point.  You might have noticed that I sort of half-arsed this post; blogging's not really on my mind right now.  So, I'm taking a break.  Will I be back?  Honestly, I have no idea.  I enjoy blogging about various things, but it really has been taking up way too much of my time.  So I might be back, at some nebulous time in the future (possibly with a format change that sucks up less of my time).  Or this might be my final farewell, in which case, I say thanks to everyone who dropped comments over the years, especially such regulars as Ross Nolan, Ed Jolley, the mysterious Unknown, Mike, and my Best Internet Friend Tim Byrne (aka Aussiesmurf).  You guys made all the effort worth it.  I'll still be on Twitter (@NPMahney) if anyone wants to keep in touch, or hassle me into bringing this blog back to life.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Dark Usurper - Attempt 1


Today's Fighting Fantasy installment is somewhat unusual, in that it was not part of the main series of books, not a spin-off book, and not a part of Warlock magazine; "The Dark Usurper" was serialised over three issues of White Dwarf.  At the time White Dwarf was probably the premier gaming magazine in the UK, so I can see the logic here in trying to introduce FF to gamers who might not yet be on board with the series.

"The Dark Usurper" was written by Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill.  I can't find anything that Hill worked on aside from this, but Sutherland wrote a bunch of gamebooks, and is a name I recognise from 80s gaming.  (Although now that I'm googling him, not as much stuff is coming up as I'd expected.  Now I'm wondering why his name is recognisable to me, because I haven't read any of the gamebooks he wrote, and there's not much else to be found.)

This adventure seems to be pretty divorced from the world of Titan, and is unusual in FF canon in that you play a specific character, Corwin Calbraith, son of the Duke of Skeln.  For years Corwin has been away fighting the heathens in a crusade, an ill-fated venture that ended with the king wounded and his coffers empty.  Corwin left his lands under the rule of his trusted friend Evald Senskell, but when he returned the lands were under the rule of a new duke, and the people were sullen and strangely silent.  Corwin rushed to his castle, only to be captured by grey-skinned creatures and imprisoned at the top of the highest tower.

That's where the adventure begins.  The rules aren't provided at all, the reader is simply told that they must have access to a Fighting Fantasy gamebook.  That's one way to drive sales, I guess.  As far as I can tell, this adventure just uses the most basic of FF rules.  You don't start with any gear, so all that's required is to roll for Skill, Stamina and Luck.  For my first attempt, I rolled a Skill of 11, a Stamina of 22, and a Luck of 8.  Are those stats good enough to make it through?  I have absolutely no idea.  This is the first time I've laid eyes on this adventure, so I'm completely in the dark.

ATTEMPT 1

I lay in my cell after three months of captivity, pondering my options of escape; three months was a lot of time for pondering, and I had come up with three ingenious plans.  I could either overpower the guard on his next visit, tie my bedding into a rope and climb out the window, or start prising up the floorboards.  Of those options, I decided that going out the window would be my best bet.

After knotting up the bedding, I figured that my makeshift rope would reach about 20 feet below my window; not enough to reach the ground, but perhaps enough to make it to a window below.  I decided to risk it, and soon I was dangling precariously at the end, with a window about six feet to my left.  I swing over, and scrambled in through the window onto a staircase.  (This required a Luck test, which I succeeded at; I got a Luck bonus straight afterwards, so my total remained at its maximum of 8).

Heading down the stairs, I came to an open door.  In the room beyond were three hideous humanoids, noisily playing cards.

Despite the illustration, I don't have a sword here

I decided to sneak past (requiring a Luck test that I passed, reducing my score to 7), and in their semi-drunken state they didn't notice me.  I escaped from the prison tower out into a courtyard.

I had three options: the main gate, the armoury, or the stables.  I figured that the armoury would probably be guarded, so instead I opted to go to the stables to find Aryl, my loyal steed.  I entered carefully, and managed not to startle the horses.  Aryl was there, and I led him back to the courtyard.  It was tempting to go to the armoury to find a weapon, but instead I mounted my horse and rode for the gate.

Two large trolls were guarding the gate, and they heard my approach (as I failed a Luck test, that reduced my score to 6).  My horse knocked one of the trolls aside (after I rolled an odd number on one die), but I spurred Aryl onwards, and soon I was across the drawbridge and at the top of a nearby hill.


At the top of the hill, I saw a light flickering to my left, and dismounted to investigate.  The light led me to a trapdoor, which I opened,  Easing myself into the chamber below, I saw a chest covered with on old rug.  Inside the chest was a bundle containing a sword: it was Stroma, the sword of my father, its balance still perfect.  I strapped it to my belt and climbed back to the top of the hill.

(At this point the continuity gets really screwy, as my character decides to summon his horse with a whistle, and Aryl thunders out of the castle.  Never mind that I just rode him out of the castle a couple of entries ago, here he is escaping all over again.  I've read loads of gamebooks, and I don't know that I've ever encountered a blunder as big as this one.)

I had the option of riding to the road and the nearest village, but I figured that it would be best to keep out of sight, and headed for the woods.  Deep in the woods, and safe for a time, I settled down to sleep

(This is where part one ends, and part two begins.  The introduction to part two says that my friend Evald Senskell was tricked and imprisoned by Barnak, the titular Dark Usurper, which is news to me.  None of that was mentioned in the previous introduction, and I didn't learn anything of the sort during the adventure.)

I awoke in the morning to find that my supposedly loyal steed had disappeared in the night.  (So that whole continuity break was completely pointless!)  I headed deeper into the forest, and soon enough I was pretty sure that I had become lost.  (At this point I had to make a Luck test, which I failed; my score was reduced to 5.)  I heard a scream to the north, and rushed off to investigate.

I soon came to a clearing, where three goblins were poking a bound man with their spears.  Without hesitation I drew my father's sword and charged at them, catching them unawares.  One of them wounded me, but even with three-to-one odds I made short work of the goblins.  (The goblins were Skill 5 Stamina 4, Skill 4 Stamina 5, and Skill 5 Stamina 3.  There was no guidance as to how they should be fought, so I had them all fight me simultaneously just to make things a bit more difficult.  At the end of the fight my Stamina was 20.)

I cut the old man free.  He applied some herbs to his wounds, and gave a high-pitched whistle.  Two pumas emerged from the forest, and bounded to his side.  He introduced himself as Asmund, and told me that he knew a great deal about the problems that I faced.  He offered to take me to his home, and I graciously accepted.

Soon we reached a small clearing with a wooden house, and went inside.  There we drank cider, and Asmund offered to teach me some of his skills in exchange for the green gem in the pommel of my father's sword.  Reluctantly I handed it over, and he attached it to the end of his staff.  Seeming somehow stronger and more bold, he told me to sleep, and said that we would begin on the morrow.

In the morning I awoke to find that the old man had provided me with new gear: a surcoat, a red cloak, a wolfskin stole, a hunting lance, and a shield emblazoned with the mask of death.  I dressed myself like a total badass, and went outside to take Asmund's test.

The air was full of shimmering lights, and Asmund told me to take them from the air.  Rather than snatch at them, I held out my hand and concentrated; the lights gathered in my palm.  I had earned the gift of Asmund's Floating Spheres, and was told that to use them I should cast them at a foe and stand well back.  I was given enough for two such attacks.  (No indication was given as to what these attacks do, so I assume that at some point they'll be given as options in the text.)

Asmund told me that I should head for the village to the north and seek out Jorkell, who would help me to defeat the usurper Barnak.  He gave me some fragments of his own gem, and also the companionship of his two pumas.  Then he recited a prophecy at me:

When the fair-headed man comes forth,
His garments red as blood,
His devices strange and wild cats for kin,
Smite shall he the beast, and we shall be free.

I bid farewell to Asmund and went on my way, with his pumas loping at my side.


I headed due north, and soon came to the village of Kari.  After camping for the night, I headed toward the village.  The gate was manned by four guards, so I decided to scout around the outside of the village walls.  A lone sentry stood by a watchtower overlooking the area.  I tried to sneak up behind him, but (due to a failed Luck test that left my score at 4) he turned and saw me.  The Sentry (Skill 5, Stamina 5) was no match for me though, and I killed him easily.

There were no other entrances into Kari, and the walls were too high to climb, so I resigned myself to going in through the main gate.  The gate guards stood dumbfounded as I walked past with my pumas and my rad skull shield.  The crowd burst into cheers at my appearance, and surged towards me.  I gave a rousing speech, then went to find Jorkell, the garrison commander of Kari, who was at the barracks.  I handed Jorkell the fragment of Asmund's gem, and he placed the stone in a circular metal device, where it started to glow. (I have no idea what this is about, but Jorkell states afterwards that Barnak's sorcery is gone, so I guess it has something to do with that.  This is the first I'm hearing of Barnak being a sorcerer though.)

Together we went inside the barracks, where some frightened goblins were ready to defend themselves.  I showed them no mercy, and the goblins were put to the sword.  Jorkell waved a severed head about, and seemed entirely too into the whole thing.  He was starting to grow on me.

Jorkell offered to show me the extent of Barnak's control, and asked if I wanted to ride west or approach the castle.  I decided to check the situation to the west, and rode out with a force of 50 men.  Scouts soon reported that there were 200 creatures on the road ahead, so I decided to turn aside and head for the castle.  Upon seeing the castle, it was apparent that I'd need far more men to take it.

Before heading back to Kari, I decided to check out the village of Skelah.  It was deserted, as Barnak had taken the people as slaves.  While I was in Skelah, I got news that the enemy had cut off our lines of retreat to Kari.  If we were going to return there, we would have to fight through an army of 200 goblins.

Outnumbered four-to-one, I decided that a quick frontal attack would be the best option.  We hurtled towards the goblins in two columns, crashing into them and sending them into disarray.

(At this point the battle is resolved with mass combat rules that I'm not sure I understand.  I'll quote them in full. "There are two hundred of them, for every five troopers throw two dice: for each 1 or 2 thrown you lose 1 man, then multiply the two dice scores by each other and that is how many goblins are killed; do the same thing for you and Jorkell, a 1 only means death."  So I throw two dice for every five troopers, but am I counting the goblins or my own troops?  If it's the goblins I'm rolling 80 dice, if it's my own troops I'm rolling 20.  Either way it doesn't matter, because the way it's set up there are always loads more goblins dying than humans.  I mean, for every two dice rolled 1 or 2 men can die, and 1 to 36 goblins; I'm not sure it's possible to fail.  I reduced the goblins down to 98, and only lost 2 men, which really doesn't seem right.  I'm really not sure if it's a bad system, or if I've just interpreted it incorrectly.)

The goblins surrendered, and we rounded them up and led them back to Kari for interrogation.  I decided to head back into the forest to seek advice from Asmund, but his place was deserted.  I searched around for him, but soon came to the conclusion that he'd been captured by Barnak.  Returning to Kari, I reported the situation to Jorkell, and together we made our plans to defeat the usurper Barnak.

(Part two ended here, and part three began.)

We prepared our defenses as men flocked to my banner; I had 600 able-bodied fighters at my disposal.  At mid-morning, I was told that the enemy approached.  I decided that we should remain in the village and prepare for the attack.  Watching from the tower, I estimated that Barnak was attacking with around 2,000 men.  I placed 400 men on the walls, and held back 200 in reserve.

The enemy surrounded the walls, but their heaviest attacks came on the east side.  I erred on the side of caution, and reinforced them with 50 men.  The enemy swept my forces from the walls, and I threw the rest of my reserves into the fray rather than retreat to the citadel.  Our losses were greater, and the enemy poured through the gaps in our defense.  (I had to roll 2d6x10 for my own losses, and 3d6x10 for theirs.  The dice were unkind.)

I called the retreat to the citadel, and there with 400 men we made our last stand.  (At this point I had to make a Luck test, but with a score of 4 I had little hope of success.)  I urged my men to fight, but despair set in, and they started throwing down their weapons.  I kept fighting (prompting another Luck test that I failed, because my score was now 3), but the enemy forces were too much, and we were overwhelmed and slaughtered.  My adventure was over!

THE POST-GAME

I'm not sure if I got done in by bad decisions at the end there, or a bad Luck score.  If it's the latter, then the adventure has some real design problems, unless there are ways to restore Luck that I've missed.  (I mean, it has some design problems anyway: that continuity error with the horse is pretty bad, and the mass combat rules don't make much sense.)  I'm tempted to give myself a potion of fortune and ten provisions at the beginning; it doesn't make sense in-story, but it's technically within the rules of vanilla Fighting Fantasy.  I'll hold off on that for now, and see if the adventure is legitimately winnable first.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Freeway Fighter - Final Thoughts

Both covers by Jim Burns

Freeway Fighter, written by Ian Livingstone and illustrated by Kevin Bulmer, is the thirteenth  book in the Fighting Fantasy series.  It's set in a lawless post-apocalypse, where society has completely collapsed except when it comes to cars: yep, we're in Mad Max territory here.  This is an area that gaming explored very thoroughly in the 1980s, but I feel like this is one of the earlier examples.

I've developed a theory about Ian Livingstone's later books.  It's more of a gut feeling than something I've tested, but I'll lay it out here anyway.  Basically, it goes like this: if you're on a path where you're not getting many fleshed out encounters, or adding things to your inventory, you've probably gone the wrong way.  If you're finding lots of stuff, and the encounters are interesting, you're on the right track.

The reason I'm bringing this up now is because I'm seeing the first signs of it in Freeway Fighter.  This is Ian's seventh book in the series, and his second-last as the primary writer of Fighting Fantasy.  After the next book, his entries become much sparser: two in the 20s, one in the 30s, and one in the 50s (we won't count Legend of Zagor).  I do wonder if perhaps he was starting to get a little bit of burnout at this point, after a pretty prolific writing stretch (with Games Workshop duties on top of all that).

If you map out Freeway Fighter, there are two main parallel paths, one heading east from the beginning and the other heading west.  Both of these paths are done well at the start - and either one can lead you to victory, at least initially - but after a while it becomes obvious that the western path is where all the good stuff is at.  And sure enough, that's the one you need to take to win the book.  I'm not sure that this is entirely an Ian Livingstone thing; it could be a problem with gamebooks in general.  I could maybe be talking out of my arse.  I'll try to keep an eye on it in the future to see if I have any idea what I'm talking about.

Back to more relevant topics, the main plot of Freeway Fighter sees you on a mission to get a tanker of petrol from the town of San Anglo and bring it back to your hometown of New Hope.  Along the way, you'll meet all manner of crazed individuals, most of whom will try to kill you or rip you off.  It all culminates at San Anglo, where you have to take on a gang known as the Doom Dogs, before a quick return journey to New Hope.

For the most part, Ian manages to keep things entertaining.  The encounters can get a little bit repetitive - there's only so much interest in being attacked by different types of cars - but when the encounters are good they're very good indeed.  The blitz race is the absolute high point, and might be one of my favourite encounters in all of Fighting Fantasy.

The adventure is certainly packed with incident, and that might be one of my biggest complaints about it: it feels like you can't drive a mile without being attacked, to the point where I started to feel like I was being specifically targeted.  The attacks are so frequent that it feels like there should be some sort of overarching plot, like maybe the Doom Dogs got wind of your journey and are trying to take you out.  It never eventuates though, and as such the setting feels a little too much like it's out to get you, and doesn't quite feel real because of that.

In terms of difficulty this is one of Ian's better efforts, with no super-difficult combats and little needed in the way of inventory.  There is a lengthy gauntlet of Skill checks at the end though, so you still need good stats.  Plus there's the constant need for petrol, which is going to spell the end for most players in their early attempts at the book.  It makes sense for the setting, but it's pretty anticlimactic to have your adventure end because of an empty gas tank.  I've always wondered why the mission was set up the way it was; why not have San Anglo send the petrol to New Hope, rather than have it fetched by a guy in a car that definitely doesn't have enough petrol to make the trip?

The illustrations by Kevin Bulmer are pretty good.  Aside from having the ability to draw cars (which can be a bloody nightmare), he has a lot of fun throwing in cameos by movie stars.  I could be misinterpreting some of these, but Chuck Norris, Mr. T, Bennett from Commando, and Clint Eastwood all make cameos.  The crossbow guy kinda looks like Armand Assante, and I've seen other people say that Michael J. Fox is in here as well.

On the whole, Freeway Fighter has a lot of great moments, and there's nothing particularly wrong with it, but there are a number of very minor things that stop it from becoming a classic.  Even so, it's definitely among the best of the sci-fi books in the Fighting Fantasy series.

COOL STUFF I MISSED

In my ten attempts, I covered most of the encounters to be had in Freeway Fighter.  Probably the major one that I missed was the Ratman in the motel at the end, which is an almost certain death sentence.  If you meet him you're almost bound to get bitten by a rat and contract the plague.  You can still finish your mission, but you have to go off into exile to die, while the people of New Hope build a statue in your honour.  To be honest, it's a better ending than you get from beating the book.

Other than that there are some wild dogs you can fight right at the beginning after meeting Johnson, an Outlaw who tries to kill you if you drive over his mines (I managed to avoid them every time), an encounter with a guy who tries to throw molotov cocktails at your car after disabling it with iron spikes, and a jeep full of Doom Dogs that you might meet if you're unlucky on the way to their camp.



MISTAKES AND RED HERRINGS

There are very few outright errors in this books that I could find.  The only one that jumps out is in the encounter with the barricade and the two bikers.  You can avoid getting your wheel blown off with a mine, but the end of the encounter assumes that you have to spend time changing your spare tire.

There were a bunch of items I never found a use for, though: a chain, a pair of handcuffs, a grenade, and a throwing-knife.

BEST DEATH

Freeway Fighter has 27 instant death entries.  From playing the book you'd assume that around half of these would involve running out of petrol, but that's actually just a single entry that gets used multiple times.  Most of the deaths are clustered towards the end of the book, from the Doom Dogs' camp onwards.  My favourite comes from a little bit before that point.


This is what happens if you try and fail to escape from Leonardi and his goons after losing the drag race.  It's makes me laugh, because it's such an overreaction.  Like, what are these guys even doing there?  What do they get out of forcing people to drag race them?  It's probably the most nonsensical encounter in the book.

S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating

Story & Setting: The plot is a decent one, but that's because it's pretty directly knocked off from Mad Max 2.  Likewise the setting (although I gather this book is set in the US rather than Australia).  That said, it's not like originality has ever been the major drawcard for Fighting Fantasy: pretty much all of the books are drawing heavily on pulp literature, TV and movies, so Freeway Fighter is in good company.  What really counts is how those settings are brought to life, and this book does a decent job.  The wasteland here feels perhaps a little too lawless, with what feels like one lunatic after another packed into a pretty small area; with a little more work tying things together it might have felt a bit more well-realised.  Even so, it holds together pretty well. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Toughness: On the Ian Livingstone scale this one rates pretty well, without a single unavoidable high-Skill encounter.  It's still difficult though, and you'll need high scores to get through: the final stage of the book is a gauntlet of Luck and Skill tests, and if you fail any of them it's game over.  The main path to victory isn't too difficult to discover, but it's a bit more linear than I'd like.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The writing is good here, and you can tell that Ian is having a good time writing something different.  He almost comes across as though he'd welcome the civilisation-ending plague, as long as it gave him the opportunity to drive really fast without fear of the police.  The cover's good, and I like Kevin Bulmer's illustrations; it's fun trying to figure out which movie stars he's based the various characters on.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Mechanics: There's quite a bit going on in this book, with rules for melee combat, shooting combat, and vehicle combat, but it's all kept simple and fits pretty well into the FF system.  I can't think of anything in the rules that annoyed me here, so I have to give it pretty good marks.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Innovation: It seems weird to be praising a book for ripping off Mad Max, but this is the first gamebook to do it, so it gets some kudos.  There's also a bunch of new stuff going on in the rules.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: Being set in post-apocalyptic America doesn't give Ian much scope for using monsters, but there are plenty of crazed humans along the way, most of whom want to kill you and/or steal your car.  There are certainly some memorable encounters - the guy in the gladiator helmet springs to mind - but a few too many of them boil down to being attacked by a different type of vehicle.  Now it's a motorbike! Now it's an armoured car! Now it's a Ford! Now it's a motorbike... with a sidecar!  The best encounters are very good, but there are a few too many of the same type.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Amusement: I've never been one to love the books that aren't set on Titan (House of Hell excepted).  Freeway Fighter is among the better of them, but it's still not a favourite.  At it's best - the blitz race - it's extremely good, but nothing else in the book matches that level of excitement.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

The above scores total 28, which doubled give a score of 56.  I won't give it any bonus points, which gives it a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 56.  That puts it 15th out of 21 adventures so far, sitting just below Scorpion Swamp and above Caverns of the Snow Witch.

NEXT: I'm taking a detour from the main series to tackle The Dark Usurper, a Fighting Fantasy adventure from White Dwarf magazine, from back in the days before it became a glossy advertisement for Warhammer.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Freeway Fighter - Attempt 10

I'm nearly there.  I'm nearly at the end of this book, I'm sure of it.  It's kind of embarrassing to be ten attempts into a book I've finished multiple times before with no success to be had, but that's what happens when you try to beat these books legitimately.  It's all down to the luck of the dice at this point.

For this attempt I rolled a Skill of 12, a Stamina of 36, a Luck of 11, a Firepower of 8, and an Armour of 32.  Well, the dice had been kind to me at the beginning.  That Firepower was concerning, but I felt like those other stats would be enough to see me through.

Having been through the book so many times, I had my path pretty much set.  I'll quickly run through each encounter in point form just to recap.

  • The encounter with Johnson, who is heading for New Hope after the death of his family.  There's not much to glean from this but information, so I usually skip it.
  • Joe's Garage.  This is an ambush with little benefit, so I drove right past.
  • The Red Chevvy.  With my Firepower so low, I blew it off the road with a rocket.
  • After turning right at the first junction, there's a booby-trapped ambulance.  The Highwayman who set the trap has some credits and a pair of knuckle-dusters, so I sucked up the damage and killed him for his stuff.  Luckily, he only shot me once, so I avoided incurring a Skill penalty.
  • The two Bikers at the roadblock.  The best way to get through this encounter is to shoot the roadblock with a rocket, but this time I decided to conserve my rocket and drive around.  They mined my car, which did some damage, so I jumped out and had a shootout with them on foot. With my Skill so high, it wasn't much trouble, even though I had to fight them both simultaneously.  On their bike I found some more credits and a pair of handcuffs.
  • The town of Rockville, where the biker gang has taken Sinclair, one of the leaders of New Hope.  I passed the Luck test to avoid being hit by the rocket launcher, and returned fire with a rocket of my own (the only way to defeat this encounter).  After that I was able to rescue Sinclair, and find some petrol and a pair of wire-cutters.
  • After turning east and south, there's an encounter with an Armoured Car.  An oil slick will knock it off the road unless you roll a 6 on one die.  I've yet to fail this roll.
  • After turning west, south, and west again, there's a blitz race that can be entered to win some petrol.  Winning requires a number of Skill and Luck tests, as well as a 50/50 guess right at the end.  I won, sustaining a small amount of damage.  As usual, the iron spikes I dropped to slow my opponent down never deployed.  It requires a Luck test, and so far I've failed every single time, and the consequences are that you get damaged by a grenade.  I was lucky enough to roll low for damage this time, but in other games it's really messed me up.
  • South of that is Spark Plug Pete, who will fit your car with a supercharger for 100 credits and two packs from your med-kit.  I happily paid his price.
  • Further south is an overturned Dodge on the side of the road.  Investigating this is essential to victory, even though it involves being bitten by a rattlesnake and incurring a -1 Skill penalty.  I sucked it up begrudgingly, and claimed the coil of plastic tubing in the car's glovebox.
  • After that is an encounter with a motorbike and sidecar that rides up and starts shooting at you from behind.  I'd been killed previously by the automatic 1 point of damage they inflict, so I took great pleasure in sending them skidding off the road with my last oil slick.
  • There's an abandoned police car further south, with a bullet-proof vest in the boot that can offset the Skill penalty from the rattlesnake.  It can't be opened without a crowbar, though, so I kept on driving.
  • East from the next junction there's a place that does car repairs.  I stopped in there, paid 200 credits, and had my Armour restored to its maximum of 32.
  • East of that, there's a Duellist who has blocked the road with a bus.  He demands that people pay a toll to pass, or else engage him in a pistol duel.  I chose the duel, and he shot me for 1 point of damage.
  • East and south is a group that doesn't let anyone pass unless they beat their champion Leonardi in a drag race.  I wonder what they get out of it?  The race involves each side rolling a die, with the first to reach 24 being the winner.  With the +1 bonus per die roll from my supercharger, I barely managed to squeak a victory.
  • South of that is an abandoned truck with a full tank of petrol.  I siphoned the tank with my plastic tubing, and was able to continue.
  • After that is the encounter with Amber, signalling that you're close to San Anglo, and must infiltrate the camp of the Doom Dogs, a gang that is menacing the refinery.  Amber gave me some energy pills, which restored me back to my full Stamina of 36.

From this point I'll go back to my regular format.  I had a Skill of 11, a Stamina of 36, and a Luck of 8, and my car had a Firepower of 8 and an Armour score of 32.

As we infiltrated the camp to disable the vehicles of the Doom Dogs, Amber kicked a stone.  The guard on patrol didn't hear (due to a Luck test that reduced my score to 7) and we were able to crawl up to the fence.  I cut through the fence with my wire-cutters, and together we set limpet mines on their vehicles before sneaking back out.

Unfortunately, one of the mines failed to detonate, and the Doom Dogs gave chase in their station-wagon.   I was in good shape (with a Stamina of more than 10) so we were able to make it back to the Dodge before we were caught.

A battle with the Station-Wagon (Firepower 10, Armour 19) ensued, too close for me to fire a rocket, and after three passes I had sustained some minor damage (reducing my Armour to 27).  The Station-Wagon tried to ram me with the huge spike on its front bumper, but (with a successful Skill check) I was able to avoid the worst of it.  Even so, our cars were locked together, and there was no escape.

A challenge came over the Station-Wagon's speakers: fight "The Animal" in hand-to-hand combat, or I'd have to shoot it out.  I thought about it for a while, and decided that shooting it out would be the better option.  (I really did weigh this up for quite a while.  The Animal and I would have been equal in Skill, and I didn't fancy a 50/50 battle.  On the other hand, I was worried that shooting it out would be an instant death.  I took a chance on the unknown option.)

Amber and I opened fire, and the Doom Dogs fired back at us.  There were four of them and two of us, so I had to kill two of the Doom Dogs (Skill 7, Stamina 13 and Skill 8, Stamina 14) myself.  It proved to be little trouble, and I was only injured once despite them both firing at me simultaneously (reducing my Stamina to 32).


Amber took care of the other two Doom Dogs, but we had forgotten that there was one more: the Animal!  He charged at me, snorting through his mask, and caught me in a bear-hug (reducing my Stamina to 30).  Amber tried to hit him with a spanner, but she missed, and the Animal continued to squeeze (further reducing my Stamina to 28).  On her second swing she hit, and knocked him out.  We tied him up (well that's what the book says, but actually I put a bullet right through his skull) and drove the Dodge into San Anglo to a hero's reception.

At San Anglo I was able to rest while the petrol tanker I had come for was being prepared (restoring my Skill to 12 and my Stamina to 32).  I woke up to the sound of gunfire: the remainder of the Doom Dogs were attacking San Anglo's oil refinery!  One of them blew open the town gates by ramming a small truck into it, and the Doom Dogs drove into San Anglo as the townsfolk panicked.  (Didn't we disable all of their vehicles?  I guess they spent the night fixing them up.)


I was able to take charge (with a successful Skill check), ordering the townsfolk to take cover in their cabins.  One of the Doom Dogs ran out from cover, and tried to jump in the tanker's cabin and drive it away.


I gave chase, and was shot in the side in the crossfire (due to an unsuccessful Luck test, which left my Luck at 6 and my Stamina at 31).   By the time I reached him, he had started the engine.  He tried to shoot me, but I was quicker (my Skill was 12 compared to his Skill of 6).  I was able to take him captive, and used that to make the Doom Dogs retreat.  They fled into the desert, and I allowed my captive to follow them.

With the threat of the Doom Dogs beaten, it was time for me to return to New Hope with the petrol tanker.  I had to abandon the Dodge, because I had to drive the tanker, and nobody from San Anglo was grateful enough to accompany me back.

After driving for an uneventful day, I pulled into a motel car-park.  I decided to sleep in the cabin, not wanting to risk leaving the tanker unattended.  In the morning I took off again.  After an hour or so I spotted two bikers coming up behind me, each armed with crossbows.  At first I scoffed at their choice of weapon, until I realised that their intention was to puncture my tyres.  I was able to take one of them out with the tanker's machine guns (with a successful Skill test), but before he died he shot my tyre, and I was forced to stop the tanker in a terrifying skid.  The remaining biker challenged me to a duel, winner takes all.  I liked my chances, so I accepted.

We faced off, revolver versus crossbow.  I was quicker on the draw, and shot him dead.  (This involved each of us rolling a die and adding it to our Skills.  He had a Skill of 7, so there was zero chance that he was going to be able to beat me.)

The rest of the journey was uneventful, and as dusk approached, I drove the tanker into New Hope.  With the petrol the town would be able to flourish, and do some small part in the process of restoring civilisation.  I had also rescued Sinclair, so my mission was a complete success.

THE POST-GAME

Finally!  I was just reaching the point where I was starting to get sick of playing through the same stuff over and over again, so victory came at about the right time.  There was one final hurdle at the end, where I was asked if I'd been bitten by a rat on the return journey.  I suspect that this would have happened at the motel, so I'm pretty happy that I decided not to go inside.

Ten attempts is not so bad, I guess.  One of those was the result of going somewhere I shouldn't, and a few more were the result of running out of petrol.  Most were down to the numbers, which is somewhat out of my control.  I'm just glad that the book has plenty of options for avoiding vehicle combat; my Firepower score was low, but between rockets, spikes and oil I got through.

NEXT: After the wrap-up post for Freeway Fighter (just one, because it's not set on Titan) I think I'm going to check out "The Dark Usurper" from White Dwarf.  It's a shame to put off my long-awaited return to Allansia in Temple of Terror, but I want to cover everything in some semblance of chronological order.