Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Caverns of the Snow Wotch: Final Thoughts

As I settle in to write my thoughts about Caverns of the Snow Witch, I'm wondering how much my personal experience of the book colours my assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. I mean, of course it does; reviews of any sort would be pointless otherwise. But what I'm getting at is this: I finished this gamebook in one go, through a series of very lucky dice rolls. Now I know that in reality Caverns is a brutal, linear slog, and that the likelihood of me completing it on my first attempt was pretty slim. Nevertheless, I did, and unlike some other books (I'm looking at you Island of the Lizard King) I only had to experience it once rather than 10+ times. Thus it was quite enjoyable. So, while I'm concerned that I might be a little too generous, I do have prior experience with Caverns, and I'll try to look at it objectively, as much as that's possible.

The first thing that's immediately apparent is just how structurally different Caverns is to every Fighting Fantasy that precedes it. Rather than having one main quest that is laid out at the outset, this book presents a number of quests that progress from one to the next. You begin by hunting down a Yeti that has slaughtered an outpost, and from there you take on a mission to destroy the Snow Witch. After accomplishing that most gamebooks would be over, but once you escape the caves the story becomes a travelogue as you accompany your newfound companions back to their homes. Finally, the Witch's death curse is revealed and you have to find the mysterious Healer to get rid of it. It's a bit scattered, and the book feels aimless during the travelogue sequence, but it just about hangs together, and it's a small step towards gamebooks becoming more sophisticated in their storytelling.

Back in June last year I wrote about my final thoughts about the preview version of Caverns, which appeared in Warlock magazine and ended around the point where you first battle the Snow Witch. I had some harsh things to say about it at the time, and a lot of it still stands, but I feel like it holds up a lot better as part of a longer adventure. There are still some weird mechanical things going on, and the screwiness involving the Crystal Warrior is unforgivable, but there's a lot to like about it, especially in Ian's ability to evoke an environment. He goes all in on the frozen Icefinger Mountains, and it feels genuinely inhospitable. This is aided greatly by the stark illustrations of Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, which have an odd "woodcut" quality to them. I don't feel that they're quite as appropriate for the second half of the adventure, but for the first half they're perfect, and a huge improvement from those in the magazine version.

In the gamebook version the hero must escape the caves with the aid of two newfound companions, Redswift and Stubb, and also face down the Snow Witch a final time. Ian had toyed with companions in earlier books - Throm in Deathtrap Dungeon, and Mungo in Island of the Lizard King - but only for a brief amount of time. In Caverns, Redswift and Stubb are with you for most of the adventure, and although they're similarly doomed (Stubb's fate is ambiguous, but he probably dies not long after you part ways) it's nice to have them hanging around for a while. It's too bad they don't have much personality, beyond the odd wry or sarcastic comment, but they've got more going for them than the Snow Witch herself. The early Fighting Fantasy books were never big on investing their villains with character: "Impudent peasant!" is the closest thing that Balthus Dire ever gets to a personality, for instance. But the Snow Witch (is she ever called Shareella in this book?) takes the cake as a non-entity. She gets a great origin story in later material, but there's no sign of it here, where she is a generic evil Vampire sorceress and nothing more.

Once the book leaves the Crystal Caves, and the hero ventures south with his companions, it takes the tone of a travelogue as I mentioned above. At this point the adventure becomes excessively linear, and involves a long slog of difficult, unavoidable combats. Nevertheless, the writing here is great, and this is the first time that Allansia genuinely comes to life as a setting. Indeed, if you're just reading the main series this book is the first time that Allansia is even named. For fans who had been with the series from the beginning this must have been great.  Ian had crafted a loosely connected trilogy with his last three books, but this is where he really draws it all together: there are references to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Fang and Deathtrap Dungeon, Nicodemus from City of Thieves, and even a prologue of sorts leading into The Forest of Doom. It's a shame Ian couldn't work in references to Island of the Lizard King or Citadel of Chaos, but other than those two this book connects everything that has gone before. (Well, not Starship Traveller, but that's understandable. Or Scorpion Swamp I guess, which may not have been finished when Ian was putting this one together.)

It all culminates with the search for the Healer, which takes the standard Fighting Fantasy set-up and turns it on its head. A lot of gamebooks go like this: you see an interesting thing; do you want to investigate the interesting thing or ignore it? Inevitably the reader will investigate, be rewarded or punished for it, and move on to the next interesting thing. It's how these books work. The final stage of Caverns changes that up a bit, by having the Death Curse constantly draining the hero of Stamina. So while you may want to investigate the interesting thing, and you need to in order to find the Healer, there's an element of tension added.

While the book does do some interesting things with the story and the structure, and is an important building block in the creation of Allansia and Titan as a whole, as an actual game it leaves a lot to be desired. As I've mentioned before, I rolled a character with a Skill of 12 and a Luck of 12, and I still just barely squeaked through. The sheer number of unavoidable combats with high-Skill foes makes the book impossible for weaker characters, and even with a strong character too much comes down to pure luck of the dice. It's a fun book to read, but it's less fun to play.


Due to the linearity of this adventure, I covered almost everything. I missed one of the three discs along the way, and there was an encounter with some Centaurs and a Night Stalker that I didn't find. The most significant thing I missed, though, was an encounter with an elf who turns out to be Redswift's brother, Ash. Not only does Ash get to mourn his dead bro, but he also gives you an origin for the Healer, and ties him in to Nicodemus from City of Thieves. I've never found this encounter before in multiple play-throughs of the book, and it adds so much to the story.


There are no errors that I could find, unless you count Ian's decision to force you to fight the Crystal Warrior with the war-hammer. As for useless items, there are several: some salted fish, a candle, a pair of leather sandals, a stuffed rat, a box of teeth, a jar of pickled lizard tails, some stale bread, and some charcoal sticks. All of it's the sort of stuff you find in the pockets of goblins and orcs, and pretty obviously not important (although with Ian you never know).


I count 23 instant death paragraphs in this book, and this one was my favourite:

Eaten alive by grubs at the bottom of a pit surrounded by the bones of the dead. It's a grim one.


Story & Setting: The icy setting for the first half of the book is novel and well-realised, and the second half does a lot to establish Allansia as a place. It's a lot of fan-service, but it's well-written fan-service. Throw in the interesting structure of the book, and there's a lot to like here. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Toughness: Despite my relatively pleasant experience this time around, this book is hard. It's long, linear, and loaded with tough battles that can't be bypassed. The only thing that saves it from the minimum rating is that there aren't any hard-to-find items that are critical to success. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The illustrations are great, and the writing is evocative. It's a great-looking book, even if the style doesn't fit the second half quite as well as the first. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Mechanics: The Fighting Fantasy system is usually solid, but Ian manages to do some screwy things with it here. In particular there are a few scenes where you need a Skill of 10+, whereas in most other books you would simply roll against your score. Losing because of a bad roll is something I find acceptable. Losing because my scores aren't high enough? That I have problems with. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: The innovations here are in story and setting, rather than mechanics: the icy wastes (although it's not clear whether it was published before or after Joe Dever's Caverns of Kalte), and the progression of the plot through multiple quests. Mechanically it's the same as most other FF books. Rating: 3 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: The monsters of the Icefinger Mountains feel fresh, but while there are several new additions to the FF monster pantheon none of them really stick in the mind. And while Redswift and Stubb are around for most of the adventure, they're a little bland. The same can be said for the Snow Witch, who is a generic villain. The Healer is probably the most interesting figure in the book, but remains mysterious. There are a lot of characters, but most of them aren't that interesting. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Amusement: I had fun on the one play-through I did, but I know from experience that the linearity of the book makes it dull and over-long on re-reads. Most of the fun comes from spotting the references to older books. Rating: 4 out of 7.

The nebulous bonus point will not be awarded. The above scores total 26, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 52. That puts it just slightly above Island of the Lizard King, which was similarly linear and hard, but without the narrative flourishes of Caverns. That seems fair.

NEXT: An Exploring Titan post on Caverns (which might be a long'un), and then it's on to Warlock magazine #3.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Caverns of the Snow Witch - Attempt 1

Deep within the Crystal Caves of the Icefinger Mountains, the dreaded Snow Witch is plotting to bring about a new ice age. A brave trapper dies in your arms and lays the burden of his mission on your shoulders. But time is running out - will YOU take up the challenge?

Caverns of the Snow Witch, written by Ian Livingstone and illustrated by Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, is the ninth Fighting Fantasy book.  It will be familiar to readers of the blog, because I've already covered the first half, which was printed in Warlock Magazine #2. There's a temptation to accuse Ian of laziness here, by repurposing and expanding an adventure that he'd already written, but Warlock makes it clear that Caverns of the Snow Witch was always intended to be a book in the main FF series, and it was simply cut down to use as a preview for the magazine.

As I've covered the first section of the adventure already in magazine form, I won't dwell on it at length; the only difference between the two versions is the illustrations, as far as I can tell.  If anyone wants a more thorough treatment of this section of the adventure, they can check out my first post about it here.

In my last post, I had hoped that I would roll high stats so that I could knock off this book quickly. Well, somebody was listening, because check out these figures: Skill 12, Stamina 21, Luck 12.  Those are some superior genetics.  For my potion I chose Strength, because I'm well aware that Stamina loss is quite high in the later stages of the game, and the ten Provisions provided aren't enough to cut it.  I figure that my other stats are high enough that I don't need to worry about restoring them (although Luck is always a concern).

So, background. When the adventure begins, I'm working as a caravan guard for a merchant named Big Jim Sun. We find an outpost full of people who have been killed by a rampaging beast, and Big Jim asks me to hunt it down, a job I accept at the price of 50 gold pieces.  Wasting no time, I head off into the icy wilderness.

  • For some reason I took the ice bridge, instead of walking around the crevasse, and I had to fight a pair of Snow Wolves. Normally I would take the other path to fight the Mammoth, but my memory had failed me. I killed the wolves easily, so it didn't really matter.

  • I sheltered from a blizzard by carving an igloo with my sword. It never stops being ridiculous.
  • I ignored the trapper's hut, where I could have regained some Stamina and picked up a spear and a warhammer. As I discovered while playing the preview, possessing the warhammer will get you killed due to a design flaw later in the book.
  • Further up the mountain I found a Yeti fighting the trapper: this was the beast I was hunting. I killed it, and the dying trapper told me about the Snow Witch and her plan to bring about an ice age. It was up to me to stop her.

  • On the way to the Snow Witch's caverns, I avoided an avalanche with a successful Luck test.
  • I soon made it to the caverns, and found a bowl of liquid that restored some of my Stamina and provided resistance to cold.
  • Further into the caverns I encountered a Mountain Elf, who was wearing a magical collar that made him a slave on the Snow Witch. I convinced him that I was there to kill her, and he gave me his cloak to use as a disguise.
  • I came to a kitchen with a Gnome cook and his Neanderthal servant. I killed the Neanderthal, let the gnome run off, and looted them place, finding a magic flute, a rune-carved stick, a rose with a healing scent, and an Amulet of Courage that gave me a +2 Skill bonus.

  • There was a cave with some cultists worshipping an Ice Demon, but I was able to slip by in my cloak.

  • I rescued a Dwarf slave from a pit, and he gifted me with a sling and three iron balls, as well as the needlessly cryptic clue "Beware the White Rat".  He couldn't have added "It's a Dragon?"
  • I was greeted by a wizard, a servant of the Snow Witch, and wasted no time in attacking him. He tried to fool me with illusory images of himself, but I was able to strike the real wizard, and smash the prism he was drawing his power from. The illusionist fled (never to be seen again), and a genie sprang from the smashed crystal, offering to to grant me the power of invisibility just once.

  • With three tunnels to choose from I picked the middle path (through a skull mouth) and encountered a Frost Giant. One ball from my sling knocked him out, and on his corpse I found three magic rings. I put on the gold ring (which provided resistance to cold), and the copper ring (which gave me the ability to summon a warrior to my aid just once), but I left the silver ring behind.

  • Next I encountered the dreaded Crystal Warrior, the place where most people probably die in this book. I didn't have a war hammer (as I had deliberately avoided getting it), so I wasn't forced to fight it. Instead, I called on the genie, and I was able to flee while invisible.

  • Soon after I found a storeroom with a Zombie guardian.  After quickly dispatching it, I looted the place and found the following stuff: a jar of ground minotaur horn, some garlic, a box of teeth, a jar of pickled lizard tails and four dragon eggs. The book only lets you take three items, so I went with the minotaur horn, the garlic and a dragon egg.

  • Soon after that I encountered the White Rat I had been warned about. It would have transformed into a White Dragon, but instead I sprinkled it with ground minotaur horn, and the transformation was halted. Huzzah!
  • Nearby was a sarcophagus, and in it was the Snow Witch; she was a vampire! I fended her off with my garlic, then rammed by rune-carved stick through her heart. Huh. That was easy.

And that's where the magazine version of the adventure ended. In that version the hero decides to go back and collect his reward from Big Jim Sun, but in the book the hero has more adventures in the caves and beyond. My stats at this point in the book were:

STAMINA: 10 (of 21)
LUCK: 10 (of 12)


EQUIPMENT: Sword, Leather Armour, Backpack, Potion of Strength, Cloak, Magic Flute, Rune-Carved Stick, Amulet of Courage (+2 Skill), Sling and 3 Iron Balls, Ring of Cold Resistance, Ring of Warrior Summoning, Jar of Ground Minotaur Horn, Garlic, Dragon Egg

And now, onward to unexplored territory!

Now that the Snow Witch was dead I could see a vague shape at the back of the cavern, so I went to investigate. Frozen into the ice wall was an ornate trunk full of gold and jewels. Jackpot!  Using my inexplicably effective sword I hacked the trunk out of the ice, and I couldn't resist grabbing a golden idol. The idol sprung to life in my hand, and transformed into a golden warrior - a Sentinel, the guardian of the Snow Witch's treasure.

This was a hard fight, and my Stamina was already low; the Sentinel wounded me three times, reducing me to a Stamina of 4 before I was able to kill it. Quickly I scoffed three of my Provisions when the battle was over (which left me with 5, and restored my Stamina back to 16).

The trunk contained 600 gold pieces, but for every 50 I took I would have to drop one item.  I left behind my cloak, my rune-carved stick, my jar of ground minotaur horn, my garlic, and my dragon egg, and took with me 250 gold pieces. (Most of these were items I'd used previously, and I was banking on not having to use them again. I know how Ian Livingstone designs gamebooks, so I was pretty confident in getting rid of them. The only item I had misgivings about was the dragon egg, as I hadn't found a use for it yet.)

After gathering my treasure I was met by a Dwarf named Stubb and an Elf named Redswift, both former slaves of the Snow Witch. They offered to help me escape from the caves, and I gladly accepted. Redswift showed me a path behind an illusory wall, and we made our way through.

We came to a junction, and chose to head left. On the floor we found a glass orb that glowed with swirling colours. I picked it up, and it started to swirl rapidly. Redswift and Stubb warned me to get rid of it, so I placed it carefully on the ground and we continued on our way.

The tunnel turned right, then right again, and came to a junction where I turned left (this was the book railroading me, not my own choice). On a wall we found an iron casket with a handle shaped like a serpent.  We decided to draw lots to see who would open it, and Redswift drew the short straw. His keen senses warned him that the casket was trapped, and he disarmed it. Inside was a pair of elven boots which would grant the wearer completely silent footfalls. Again we drew lots to see who would get the boots. Again, Redswift drew the short straw, and gleefully claimed the boots. (This scene involved rolling dice to randomly determine who gets the boots. It's kind of refreshing for NPCs to try to claim treasure in a gamebook, actually, but it only works if the item isn't critical to success.)

Following that we had a seemingly pointless encounter with a Cave-Man at the next crossroads. I sent Redwift and Stubb ahead, and took care of him myself. (He wounded me once though, and reduced my Stamina to 14.)  I found a star-shaped disc in the Cave-Man's belt pouch and promptly looted it; my ploy to get the others out of the way and claim the treasure for myself had worked.

I caught up with Redswift and Stubb, only to find them at the mercy of a strange, octopus-headed creature that had its tentacles wrapped around their heads: a totally not IP-infringing Brain Slayer!

Luckily for me I was wearing an Amulet of Courage, and was able to resist being hypnotised. I drew my sword, and made quick work of the disgusting though possibly tasty creature (with my Stamina now reduced to 12). With the Brain Slayer dead, Redswift and Stubb recovered.

Searching the chamber, we found two pots. I opened the red one, and found a square disc (I'm sensing a Livingstonian pattern here). Against my better judgment, I also opened the grey pot, and found a scroll. As soon as I started reading it the writing began to fade, but I was fast enough (with a successful roll against my Skill) to learn a spell that will protect me against Air Elementals - Gul San Abi Daar.  (It also granted me a Luck bonus, restoring my score to 11.)

Further along the tunnel we found a door with a dagger stuck in it. Unsurprisingly, when I pulled the dagger out it came to life and slashed me (reducing my Stamina to 10).  The three of us managed to jam the dagger back in the door (with a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 10), and we continued on.

Beyond the door was another long tunnel. Stubb complained about being hungry, so we sat down and I was forced to share my Provisions with them (leaving me with a mere 2, and restoring my Stamina to 14. This book bloody loves making you waste Provisions.)

At the next junction we headed right. The tunnel ended at a door with a scrap of parchment on it which I was unable to read. I showed it to Redswift, who quickly tore it up and insisted that we move on quickly. NOTHING OMINOUS HERE, NOPE. WE'RE ALL GOING TO MAKE IT HOME AND LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER. (Actually, no, as future events will reveal I just murdered Redswift. I'd feel bad about it if he wasn't an elf.)

In the next cavern we found a number of stalactites dripping liquid. Without a shield I was forced to walk through it unprotected, and of course it was acid which burned through my clothes and skin (reducing my Stamina to 10, and my Luck to 9.)

Soon we came to another cavern, where a glass globe sat atop a plinth of ice. Within the globe was the spirit of the Snow Witch, and she demonstrated her power by choking one of her Orc servants to death with its slave collar.

Not wishing the same thing to happen to Redswift and Stubb, I fired an iron ball at the globe with my sling. My aim was true (the result of a successful roll against my Skill), but all it did was cause a lightning bolt to fire from the globe towards me.  I was able to dive aside to safety (with a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 8.)

She then started choking my pals, and I challenged her to a combat of any type she desired. This was enough to get her to spare my friends, but she also wanted to stall for time to think of a suitable game, and so she summoned Zombie versions of Stubb and Redswift for me to fight.

(What a weird encounter. How and why does she have Zombies of R-Swift and Stubbsy? It's quite a pointless battle, to be honest.)

I was able to defeat the Zombies, with only the Dwarf wounding me once (reducing my Stamina to 8). With her minions dead, the Snow Witch declared that we would be playing a game called "discs", and that if I didn't have any discs I would lose. Luckily I had two, so I was ready to play. (I'll admit, I got worried here, as I was sure that there were more than two discs to be found. Normally, missing items in an Ian Livingstone joint would be fatal.)

The game was a standard rock-paper-scissors type deal - squares beat circles, circles beat stars, and stars beat squares. With only a square and a star to choose from, I opted for the square. The Snow Witch revealed her own disc - a circle!  I had won! Her globe filled with white smoke, then shattered, and  - I shit you not - Redswift, Stubbs and I stood around giving each other high fives. Such a vulgar display of camaraderie would not go unpunished, though, as the caverns started to do the standard "lode-bearing villain" schtick, caving in now that the Snow Witch was dead.  We managed to avoid the falling ice (with a successful Luck test that left me with a score of 7), and escape to the surface. We were free, and our adventure was over.

Oh wait, no it wasn't. Stubb wanted to go home to Stonebridge, and Redswift likewise wanted to return to the Moonstone Hills. I realised that Big Jim Sun probably thought I was dead, so I decided to accompany them both. Should be a nice, lovely stroll through the wilderness.

Two arduous days later we reached the River Kok, about fifty miles downstream from Fang and Deathtrap Dungeon.  We decided to head in the other direction, and soon found a man asleep by a raft. We asked him to row us across, but he was tired and told us all to bugger off. Normally I would murder this impudent fellow, but the option wasn't given, so we continued downriver.

Further along the river we found a boat, and I decided that we should wait for the owner to arrive. We made camp, and rested while Stubb went looking for food (restoring my Stamina to 10). I woke up to the sound of battle, and saw Redswift fighting a Dark Elf (the Poochiest of fantasy races), who he quickly dispatched. We looted his corpse, and found a vial of green liquid. Redswift couldn't identify it, but I was always ready to gulp down some strange, unknown liquid. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a Potion of Health (which restored my Stamina to 14, my Luck to 8 and would have restored my Skill by 1 if I'd needed it.)

Soon Stubb returned with a rabbit, and mixed up a hearty stew (which restored my Stamina to 18). Then we crossed the river in the Dark Elf's boat, and set off across the Pagan Plains. We passed Firetop Mountain in the distance, and Stubb wondered if the Warlock still ruled there.  Before I could tell him that I had hella-murdered the Warlock, we were interrupted by an old man carrying a sack. He offered me some information for the price of 2 Gold Pieces. I was flush at this point, and happily forked it over. He told us that the nearest water-hole was poisoned, and that a large number of Hill Trolls was gathering north of Stonebridge.  We set off as quickly as possible.

Along the way we were randomly set upon by a pointless flock of Bird-Men. I was able to defend myself in time when one of them swooped at me (with a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 7), and then I had to fight it to the death. It was a strong foe (an unavoidable Skill 12, screw you Ian), and it wounded me three times before I was able to kill it (leaving me with 12 Stamina).

With the flock dispersed, we continued, and grew thirsty under the hot sun. We reached a water-hole, with an Ogre lying face-down in the middle of it. If the old man's warning hadn't been enough to discourage me, this would have done it, and I decided not to drink. I was wearied by thirst (reducing my Stamina to 11), but it was better than being poisoned.

Further along, we found the dead body of a dwarf, who Stubb identified as Morri the ironsmith from Stonebridge. He had been killed by Hill Trolls, but more importantly he had a full water-bottle, and we swigged that sweet, sweet loot-water (restoring my Stamina to 12).

We settled down to camp, and Redswift took first watch. Unfortunately (due to a failed Luck test that left me with a score of 6), we were attacked in the night by a Werewolf. I had to fight it one my own - no idea what my so-called friends were doing - and it wounded me once (reducing my Stamina to 10).  (I was worried that I might have contracted lycanthropy, but this book doesn't bother with it. I was totally free of any deadly curses or disease, yes sir, completely 100% clean.) I ate one of my Provisions anyway, just in case (restoring my Stamina to 14, and leaving me with but 1 meal remaining).

In the morning we set off, with Stubb excited at the prospect of reaching Stonebridge. Before we could reach it, though, we encountered a party of six Hill Trolls, and Stubb couldn't resist charging at them. I was forced to battle two at once, in a hard-fought contest. The first Troll went down quickly, but the second was tough, and almost killed me before I emerged the victor. (This fight was as close as it could be; I ended it with 1 point of Stamina left, and would have died if not for a successful Luck test to reduce the damage dealt. That test left me with a Luck of 5.)  With my life ebbing away, I drank my Potion of Strength, and was restored to full health.

After the battle we marched into Stonebridge, and found that the Dwarves were strangely gloomy. Their fabled war-hammer had been stolen from King Gillibran, and a Dwarf named Bigleg was organising a quest to retrieve it so that it could be used to rally the Dwarves.  Stubb decided to go with Bigleg, and apparently it was a Dwarves-only affair, because Redswift and I weren't invited. We left to head for the Moonstone Hills, while Stubb and company departed for Darkwood Forest.  (And Stubb's death, if The Forest of Doom is to be believed.)

As we left Stonebridge, Redswift and I encountered a trio of Hill Trolls, but we were able to avoid them (with a successful Luck test that left me with a score of 4).  As we travelled, I started to feel ill, and Redswift was looking sick as well. He explained to me that we had both read a Death Spell curse in the caverns of the Snow Witch, and we were dying. He suggested that we look for an old man in the Moonstone Hills known as the Healer.

Eventually Redswift died (good riddance, elf), but I was able to soldier on due to the Potion of Health I had drank earlier. I grew weaker (my Skill dropped to 11, and my Stamina to 20).

I followed the river into the hills (losing another Stamina point), and soon found a hollow tree stump with a rope descending into it. I pulled on the rope, and saw that it was covered in Flesh Grubs. I was lucky to have avoided them (and restored my Luck to 5 because of it).

I came across a footpath leading into the trees, and decided to follow it. There I found a hut, and an old man in robes asleep inside.

The old man's shelves were filled with berries and herbs, so I decided to enter. The old man awoke, and when I asked him if he was the Healer he said that he was, and that he could cure the Death Spell with special herbs that would cost me 50 Gold Pieces. I paid eagerly, and he mixed the herbs into a soup.  I left in high spirits, but after a sleep I felt worse (reducing my Stamina to 16) - the Death Spell was still active. I'd been swindled!

I didn't want to waste more time, so I decided not to exact revenge and instead kept searching for the Healer. On the far bank of the river I could see the smoke of a campfire. I leaped over using some rocks, and (with a roll of 4 on a d6) made it safely to the other side. There I had a pointless fight with a Wild Hill Man, who I killed emphatically.

The Hill Man had a duck cooking on the fire, which I ate (restoring my Stamina to 20). When I was finished, I followed a goat trail higher into the hills (and lost another point of Stamina), then descended into a gorge. I saw a cave in the gorge wall, and decided to investigate.  The cave was dark, and I shouted to see if the Healer was there.  I got no answer, so I left (and lost yet another Stamina point, leaving me with 18).

Along the way, I stepped on a Rattlesnake, but (due to a successful Luck test that left me with a score of 4) when it tried to bite me it instead got a mouthful of my shoe.

Further along the gorge I saw a rope ladder leading up to a wooden hut hidden in a tree. I climbed up, and was attacked by a very mistrustful Man-Orc, who got killed for his trouble (although he did reduce my Stamina to 16). I took a candle and a tinder-box from him and went on my way.

Even further long (uuuggggghhhhhhh finish already) I came across a sleeping Barbarian. As I wasn't wearing Elven Boots (why didn't I nick them off of Redswift's body?), the Barbarian woke up and was very angry indeed.

His implausible body-builder muscles couldn't stop me from killing hm though, and on his body I found three silver arrow-heads and a copper armband engraved with the words 'Strength is Power'. I whipped it on, and found out that it was enchanted (and restored my Skill to 12).

Soon I found a large rock slab carved with the image of a fiery bird, with steps leading up to a cave.

I went inside, where I found an eerie cave full of masks of the most hideous aspect. There was a deformed figure in robes there, and he introduced himself as the Healer. He offered to cure the Death Spell, but warned that it would involve a possibly deadly ritual.

The first trial was to wear the Mask of Life. I put it on, and immediately was wracked with pain. (I had to roll a die and subtract that number from my Stamina; I rolled a 2, and my Stamina was reduced to 14.)

The next trial was to cross a chasm over a narrow log in the dark. I was allowed to light my candle, however, which made things easier, and I crossed with no trouble (and a successful Skill check).

Once I was across the pit, the Healer informed me that if I possessed a dragon egg he could use it to make a relaxing concoction. I used to have one, but I had long ago dropped it in favour of more gold. He warned me that, without this potion, the next stage would be much more difficult.

My third trial was to walk past a wailing Banshee, and she proved to be a horrible sight. I was unnerved by her howling, and the temptation to strike out at her was strong. So strong that, without the Healer's potion, I was unable to resist, and was forced to fight the Banshee. We were evenly matched, and the battle went her way to begin with (she won five Attack Rounds without me scoring a hit), but then the tide turned and I was able to win just barely. (This was another close call, as I finished the fight with 2 points of Stamina. I ate my final Provision, restoring my Stamina to 6.)

We emerged from the Healer's cave, and he informed me that I must watch the sunrise from the summit of Firetop Mountain in order to be cured. I would need something made of silver in order to attract a Pegasus to fly me there, and luckily I had three silver arrow-heads.  The Pegasus flew me to the summit, where I sat down unknowingly in a patch of Sleeping Grass and drifted into a deep sleep.

Dawn approached, and if I didn't wake up I would not be cured of the curse. The Healer sent me a vision in my dreams of a fiery bird, and I needed to remember the name of it in order to wake up. I knew that it was a Phoenix, and was able to pull myself out of my slumber, just as the first rays of dawn crept into view. I was cured!

Wow!  I just finished a gamebook on my first attempt!  How long has it been since I did that?  I think I have to go all the way back to The Forest of Doom.

I wasn't expecting to finish Caverns of the Snow Witch so quickly, but the dice were very good to me.  I rolled near-perfect stats, had some very good fortune with some difficult Luck tests, and just barely scraped through the most deadly combats.  The one choice I made that was the difference between success and failure was taking the Potion of Strength at the beginning.  I remembered that this book was hard on Stamina, and also that it found ways to make you waste your Provisions.  Thankfully my memory was good, and I made the right decision.

But yeah, mostly I can chalk this victory up to luck.  Some memory was involved, particularly in the first half that I played recently in Warlock magazine, but that was a small factor.  The dice were the real hero, and they got me through.  Sometimes, especially when Ian Livingstone is at the helm, that's all you need.

Next: After my wrap-up posts on Caverns of the Snow Witch, I'll be taking a detour to look at Warlock magazine #3, which I can see is mostly a preview of House of Hell.  I've heard that it's somewhat remixed from the book version, so that will be really interesting to check out. I'm looking forward to that Real Steve Jackson goodness.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Exploring Titan 8: Scorpion Swamp

It's time (finally) for another installment of Exploring Titan.  Because I've been mired in issues of Warlock magazine, as well as the Sorcery! epic, I haven't done a proper one of these since December 2015.  Please bear with me, I might be a little rusty here.

The last three Fighting Fantasy books were dedicated to establishing the FF setting of Allansia, but Scorpion Swamp gets away from that and very much feels as though it stands alone.  No doubt this has something to do with it not being written by Ian or Real Steve.  In fact, this is the first book in the series set on the continent of Khul, aka The Place Where We Stick All The Bits That Don't Fit Anywhere Else.  But Khul hadn't been invented when Scorpion Swamp was published, so fans at the time probably thought it was set on Allansia.  There's one scene that hints at that being the case (when the hero bluffs about being on a mission collect monsters for Baron Sukumvit's Deathtrap Dungeon), and the tone of the book fits it quite well.  It fits Allansia better than what Khul will become, if we're being honest.

I'll begin with the Background, and see what we can learn there.  Scorpion Swamp is described as being criss-crossed by  twisting paths, and covered by an evil fog that hides the sky and prevents navigation.  (As I've mentioned before, this isn't the reality of the book, but I'd like to assume that the paths on the map are greatly simplified due to the character's possession of the magical Brass Ring.)  The little town of Fenmarge is found on its southern outskirts, the town of Willowbend is to the swamp's north, and the Foulbrood River crosses the swamp flowing from west to east.

The hero of the book is on the King's Highway when he helps the old witch who gives him the magic ring.  Fenmarge is said to be to the far west of the kingdom, and the hero travels through mountains, hills, plains, and damp lowlands to get there.  Original readers may have thought that this kingdom was Salamonis (from The Citadel of Chaos) but a glance at a map of Khul shows that it is probably the kingdom of Arion from Masks of Mayhem.

(There's also an issue with the Khul map from Titan and the Foulbrood River; the river flows from west to east as I stated above, but the Khul map shows that it should flow the other direction.  Perhaps the nature of Scorpion Swamp is enough to screw with this sort of thing, or perhaps more realistically the river simply flows past the swamp heading west, curves back east for a bit, then curves back to the west on the other side.  While we're at it, if nobody has ever mapped Scorpion Swamp, why is there a bridge crossing the river?  Who built the thing?)

There's not much to be said of Fenmarge. It's described alternately as a little town and a village, where travellers are common and fighters unremarkable.  There's a tavern, some shops, and a market-place.  (The shops mustn't be all that great, because the hero never thinks to stop in them and buy supplies.) Somewhat contradicting the "little town" description, when the hero is looking for Poomchukker's house he gets lost in a "tangle of streets and shops".  So it's hard to tell exactly how big the place is meant to be.

As for Willowbend, we learn even less about it than Fenmarge.  We know that it has three inns, and a shop that sells potions and spell gems.  It seems altogether less friendly than Fenmarge; the hero gets robbed of he sleeps at the wrong inn, and once word of his exploits gets around he'll be set upon by greedy cutpurses. One of the taverns is exceptionally rowdy, bandits live on the outskirts, and it's populated by a group of foresters. I get the sense of rough town of woodsmen and shady characters living on the very edge of civilisation.

(One of the inns has a curious name: Tancred's Flying Horse.  Fake Steve Jackson was probably thinking of the historical Prince of Galilee, but there's a legendary king named Tancred in a later FF book, Chasms of Malice, so it fits together really well.  They're both set on Khul as well, which makes it extra-good.)

The thing that I find most curious about Scorpion Swamp is just how many wizards there are lurking within it, and around the fringes.  There are the five masters, the Neutral wizard Halicar who runs the shop in Willowbend, and the three wizards from Fenmarge (Grimslade, Selator and Poomchukker).  I wonder if there's something about Scorpion Swamp's nature that draws them there?  I find it strange that they're all able to coexist in such close proximity, particularly Selator and Grimslade, who are of opposite alignments yet live in the same town.  They're both known by the locals, and it doesn't seem to be a secret that they're both wizards.  Perhaps we should take a closer look at all nine of these wizards.

I'll begin with Halicar, because he's the easiest: a pleasant young man who runs his shop selling potions and spells. The world would be a better place if every wizard was more like him.

Then there's Poomchukker, who isn't actually a wizard, but rather a merchant who has gathered a decent array of magical paraphernalia. He's described as tall and "immensely fat", with a braided beard and bright red skin.  It's that last part that intrigues me; is he even human?  Does it actually mean "bright red", or does he just have red skin the way that a regular person might get, say, from a sunburn?  I'd be inclined to think the latter, as I can't think of any red-skinned humanoid races that live in Titan off the top of my head.

Selator, the good wizard (who bears a resemblance to Benny Hill), seems more interested in a simple life in his garden than any sort of power and wealth. His goals are similarly low-key: he wants to restore the Antherica plant, which is useful in White magic, and has been hunted to near-extinction by evil wizards.  It's perhaps this that has kept him out of Grimslade's cross-hairs: he's working for good in simple ways, behind the scenes, without relying on conflict, and so the evil wizard considers him beneath his notice.

Grimslade is another matter entirely.  He ticks all the evil wizard cliche boxes, although there are a few scenes that paint him as petty and faintly ridiculous (that might have something to do with Fake Steve's writing style more than anything).  There's no doubt he's powerful: he's stronger in battle than either Zagor or Balthus Dire were.  He can summon demons, transmogrify people into spiders, animate statues.  He's not one to be trifled with, but his goals could be said to be as low-key as those of Selator: he wants to study the amulets of the Masters, presumably for his own personal gain in power.  I do wonder how he gained so much power, but one possible answer is that he sold his soul to a demon, as a one shows up to claim it after you kill him.

And finally, the Masters. There are five of them: the Master of Spiders, Master of Frogs, Mistress of Birds, Master of Wolves and Master of Gardens.  They claimed the swamp as their own "recently", and the locals of Fenmarge are afraid of them despite the fact that two of them are Good and two are Neutral.  Whatever their goals are, they're not open about them.  Each has a magic amulet that grants them their power (or perhaps just enhances it).  None of them seems exceptionally powerful, and although they seem to be connected on some level, they don't seem to be working together.  To be honest, most of them seem content to just sit in their clearings doing not much of anything.  The amulets are probably linked somehow, and may have an intrinsic link to the swamp.  It's all conjecture, because there's just so little information given about them.

Also of interest is Gronar, the supposed peasant who takes a great interest in the hero's desire to explore the swamp.  He offers the player the choice of three patrons, but to one who will only consider serving Good he grants a bonus, and reveals himself to be some sort of paladin.  He comes complete with a cross embroidered on his robes, which may seem out of place, but it isn't the first time we've seen a cross used as a holy symbol in FF (the other time being the crucifix seen in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain).  Whatever his origin and religion, Gronar is the first such holy warrior that we've seen in the series.

But what of the other denizens of the swamp?  Yes, it's time for monsters!  Many of the monsters encountered in Scorpion Swamp are animals, or giant variations of them: a bear, scorpions, spiders, wolves, crocodiles, a giant eagle, and giant frogs.  The giant frogs have probably been created or altered magically, as they have large fangs.  There's a pair of Giants who differ little from those encountered previously in other books (aside from being friendlier), and a Will o' Wisp who behaves much like the one in Island of the Lizard King.  The Unicorn is the standard mythological variety, though it has the distinction of being the first such creature to appear in the series (I think).  The Swamp Orcs are probably just regular Orcs adapted to their environment.

There have been Demons in FF before (most notably the Fire Demon from Forest of Doom), but the one that Grimslade summons and the one that shows up to claim his soul are new.  We've never seen the classic "soul-claiming" type of demon in FF before this, and it suggests that there's a version of Hell, or something similar.  The Demon that Grimslade summons, with its SKILL of 16, is the strongest enemy in the series to date.

There are some original creations as well.  The Pool Beast, as shown on the cover, is described as a "great, brown, rubbery creature". It lives in a pool (natch) and rears up to attack the hero when he gets near. The most curious thing about it is the jewel embedded in its forehead.  How did it get there?  Was it born that way? Probably not.  Again I would suggest a magical origin, but Fake Steve gives us very little to go on.

The similarly-named Dire Beast as described as having six clawed limbs, red eyes, and a hide of coarse grey hair. The hero mistakes it for a boulder, but although the things claws are said to be rock-like it's otherwise not made of stone.  It's really just a big, aggressive animal, and there's not much to it.

Near the northern edge of the swamp there's a Slime, which might be the first creature of its type in the series.  It is first encountered as a coating of green slime on the surface of a pool, but at the hero's approach it coalesces into a large blob about two metres wide and heaves itself out of the water.  It's oddly susceptible to swords, and an Ice spell will freeze it solid.  Slime creatures are a D&D staple, but I don't think there have been any in Fighting Fantasy before this.

There are three types of plants that menace the hero as well.  The first are the Fear Flowers, whose pollen induces terror (and the loss of SKILL points).  There's nothing else to them.  The second is a large patch of Crab Grass, which is the most literal representation of a terrible pun: blades of grass, each with pincers like a crab.  They grab at passersby and try to kill them, presumably to feed on their blood or their rotting corpse.

Thirdly, of course, we come to the dreaded Sword Trees. They're described as dark green, and rather small.  Initially it's said that each of their limbs ends in a sword, but this may not be altogether literal: they're later said to have "bladed branches", and a Growth spell causes them to grow more limbs and make them more deadly.  Presumably, that spell doesn't grow them actual swords.  So, despite what the illustration shows, they don't fight with actual swords but branches shaped similarly to those.  And although the illustration depicts them with faces, they can't see, and attack purely by sound.  Undoubtedly the worst thing, though, is that their limbs grow back very quickly; anyone who plays this book will soon understand the annoyance of having to re-fight these things every time they go through that clearing.  I hate them.

Finally, there are a lot of human enemies in this book.  Brigands, the Masters, the Thief, the Ranger.  The Masters have there own reasons for living in the swamp, and the Ranger's presence could be explained (he's probably an adventurer of some sort).  I wonder about the Brigands, though, and the Thief.  Who are they planning to rob if nobody travels through the swamp?  The Brigands aren't so bad, as you can rationalise them as hiding out in the swamp to avoid authorities.  The thief is a real mystery, though.

So, as far as monsters go there's not much to write home about in Scorpion Swamp.  None of them had any lasting legacy, and they're curiously absent from Out of the Pit.  It's yet another thing that contributes to the disconnected feeling this book has from the rest of the series.

Well, that's that for Scorpion Swamp. There are some odd mysteries, some coincidental links to later books, but little in the way of hard details.

Next: Next up is Caverns of the Snow Witch, which I've technically played through half of already as a part of Warlock magazine.  Unfortunately, that was the easy half...  Hopefully I get lucky and am able to knock it off quickly, because it's not a book that I want to spend a great deal of time with.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Scorpion Swamp: Final Thoughts

I'm not dead!  The blog is not dead!  After a two-month hiatus, mostly brought on by the holidays, I'm back with my final thoughts on Scorpion Swamp. I haven't done one of these since June; I've almost forgotten how.  Nevertheless, I'm done with this book, and I have thoughts.  Let me show you them.

There's a school of thought that Scorpion Swamp is a bad gamebook. It rarely makes it into the fan-favourite lists, and is often criticised for being "too childish", and "too easy".  It's also the first book not to be written by one of the series' co-creators (not that we knew it at the time), which is another potential strike against it.

Here's the thing: Scorpion Swamp is pretty good.  It's really well-designed, with multiple quests and an area that can be freely explored as opposed to the usual "linear path with side-passages" structure of most Fighting Fantasy books.  It's innovative in ways that books like City of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon and Island of the Lizard King haven't been, and yet those books consistently rate higher.  Why is that?

I think a lot of it has to do with the disconnect between the set-up of the book and its reality.  Here is the description of Scorpion Swamp from the Background: "criss-crossed by numerous trails that twist and turn in all directions".  The sky above it is a constant gloom, monsters lurk in its depths, and it's supposedly impossible to explore without getting lost.  It sounds deadly.

But what's it like when you play the book?  Nice straight paths leading to "clearings".  No particular mention of the gloom, and not as many monsters as you might have thought.  It doesn't even feel like a swamp.  What sort of swamp has clearings?  Sure, the magical Brass Ring helps your character to explore it, and the paths are possibly simplified in the writing, but the swamp as presented is nothing like the one in the set-up.

The criticism of the book's childishness is also not without merit. There's no doubt that it's pitched at a slightly younger audience than the seven books previous, and that tone isn't helped by Duncan Smith's illustrations, which are cartoonier than those of his predecessors.  The Fighting Fantasy books before this had a sense of nastiness about them, a feeling that the world was out to kill you mercilessly.  Scorpion Swamp does have its nasty moments and its share of violent deaths, but it doesn't revel in them the way that earlier books did.  It's more whimsical than malicious.

The book is also criticised for being too easy to win, and that's reasonable.  Compared to the average FF, it is quite forgiving.  Most of the instant deaths are the result of stupid decisions, there are no unavoidable and unwinnable combats, and the free-roaming nature of it means that you won't lose because you picked the wrong turn at an intersection.  Have a look at that list though: do those things strike you as good game design?  Yes, Scorpion Swamp is easy in comparison. I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing.

That simplicity is off-set by the multiple paths.  Being able to choose between questing for Good, Neutrality and Evil is a welcome change from the standard two FF motivations: "greed" and "killing evil wizards".  The book is obviously weighted in favour of Good: it has what is probably the easiest quest, and it even grants you a stat bonus at the beginning.  Being Evil is generally punished, and has the most difficult quest.  I'm not opposed to this in principle, but the book insists on telling you how guilty you feel whenever you do something bad.  How do you know how bad I feel Fake Steve?  Have you even seen how punchable the Master of Flowers looks?

Still, despite the disconnect between concept and execution, Scorpion Swamp is quite a bit of fun.  It's not one of the greatest of the series, but it deserves a better reputation than it gets, if only for how well-designed and balanced it is.  It might even be the best one to start a young kid off with, unless they're really into the blood 'n' guts aspect of fantasy gaming.

I covered most of the book, but there are a few cool things I missed. The Curse spell in particular is an option that I didn't use all that much, but just about every use of it is entertaining.  There's also the option to battle the evil wizard Grimslade, which is perhaps the most sure-fire way to get yourself killed in the book.

Guess what? There aren't any. Every item in the book has a purpose somewhere, and every paragraph can be reached.  Like I said, this one is really well-designed.

This book has a surprisingly high 15 instant failures, as well as five endings in which your character has failed but managed to survive. There wasn't much competition, to be honest.  I mean, just check out this beauty.

"Then the entire tower glows red-hot and explodes."  Sheer poetry.


Story & Setting: Scorpion Swamp, with its twisting paths and gloomy depths, sounds really cool.  Too bad it's not like that at all.  I have to knock this one down for the disconnect between background and execution, but then again I should bump it up for having three different quests.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Toughness: It's a bit easy, but it always plays fair, and it stays true to the idea that a character can finish the book regardless of stats.  Still, it could stand to be a little more difficult.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The writing is simplistic, the illustrations are mostly a little too cartoony, and none of it matches what was set up at the beginning.  None of it's bad, but there's little here that's evocative or memorable. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: This mostly uses the standard Fighting Fantasy system, with the addition of some single-use spells, but it gets some bonus points for the multiple paths, and the ability to explore the swamp at will.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: On the surface it doesn't feel all that innovative; perhaps that's due to it being pitched at a younger audience, and the tendency to equate "adult" with "sophisticated".  In reality it's the most innovative main-series FF since Starship Traveller, and it implements its ideas far more successfully than that book did.  Free-roaming and multiple quests, what else do I need to tell you? Rating: 5 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: There are quite a few new monsters in Scorpion Swamp, but they leave very little impression.  Only the Sword Trees stick in the memory, and that's because they're such heinous bastards.  It's full of NPCs though: the five Masters, Selator, Grimslade, Poomchukker, the paladin Gronar, the ranger, the giant, etc.  None of them have much depth, but they're distinctive and they all have a reason to be there. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Amusement: I enjoy this book, but I don't love it.  It's a mild diversion that I'm happy to break out now and then, but it rarely jumps to mind when I'm thinking about my favourites. Ranking: 4 out of 7.

Scorpion Swamp doesn't get the nebulous, ill-defined Bonus Point. The scores above total 29, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 58.  That seems about right: slightly above average.

Next: Caverns of the Snow Witch! Let the STAMINA loss commence!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Scorpion Swamp: Evil Attempt 2

Having completed the quests for Good and Neutrality, it's time for me to return to the Evil quest.  I attempted it a while ago and failed, mostly because I kept adventuring well past the point when I should have left the swamp.  I was killed by the Master of Plants, which is faintly embarrassing.  Sure, he has a Skill-draining spell, but there's just something about being killed by a gardener that rubs me the wrong way.  There may be some vengeance in the offing.

I rolled a strong character this time around: Skill 12, Stamina 18, and Luck 8.  That should be more than good enough to get this done, and to put Scorpion Swamp behind me.

I got through the preliminary stages of the adventure without any trouble, talking politely with Gronar before taking a job with the evil wizard Grimslade.  (In my last evil game, I played it as belligerently as possible.  This time, I'm going for cool pragmatism.)  Grimslade tested me by animating a Goblin Statue, but I smashed it to bits with such efficiency that he awarded me with a magic sword, and six spell gems.  The spells I chose were Withering, Luck, Skill, Fire, and two Stamina spells.  With that done, it was off to the swamp to retrieve the amulets of the Masters.

At the first clearing I headed west, where I found the Master of Wolves hanging about in his cabin.  I wasted no time in attacking him, and his pair of pet wolves.  The wolves went down with no trouble, but the Master wounded me twice before I was able to kill him (leaving me with 14 Stamina).  With great satisfaction I looted his amulet, and checked one Master off the list.  Four more to go!  (I wonder sometimes if the Master of Wolves is even a wizard.  He never uses any magic, and aside from his affinity with wolves he seems like little more than an antisocial hermit.)

From there I headed west and north.  I lost some blood to leeches while wading across a stream (leaving me with 13 Stamina), before encountering the dreaded Sword Trees.  With great satisfaction, I blew them into dust with a Withering spell.  (No exaggeration here, it's always immensely cathartic to destroy these bastards in an instant.)

Heading north again, I met a wounded Unicorn that was uncharacteristically hostile.  Reasoning that retreat would lead me right back to the regrown Sword Trees, I fought and killed the Unicorn.  It died easily in its weakened state, and I took its horn as a trophy.  I also found two more spell gems hidden in the clearing: Friendship and Luck.  (This required a successful Luck test, which reduced my score to 7.)

I took the west path, past a patch of Fear Flowers that drained me of two Skill points. There I met the Mistress of Birds, and even though I demanded her amulet in a most threatening fashion, she insisted on giving me a fake amulet that she assured me would be good enough to fool Grimslade.  I had no vested interest in Grimslade's desires, only in being paid, so I took the fake amulet and went on my way.

(Heading back past the Fear Flowers drained yet another Skill point.  Needless to say, I used my spell after this to get back to my initial Skill of 12.)

From the Unicorn clearing I headed north (losing 2 Stamina to some swamp gas), looping around the bank of the Foulbrood River.  Along the way I performed some preemptive murder upon a Thief (who wounded me and reduced my Stamina to 7); it was him or me!  Heading east, I was swarmed by a horde of scorpions, and stung multiple times (reducing my Stamina to 5; this was the result of a failed Luck test, which reduced my score to 6.)

To the north I crossed a bridge over the Foulbrood, avoided a Giant Eagle, and left a Dwarf to be killed and eaten by a Giant Scorpion.  I continued north until eventually I encountered a Ranger who was so bad-ass that he could lounge casually on a rock in one of the most deadly places in the world.  Knowing that Rangers are good I lied about the nature of my quest, and he reacted with some friendly chit-chat.  (His friendly reaction was due to a successful Luck test.  I had used one of my Luck spells before the encounter to restore my score, but now it dropped back to 7 due to this Luck test.)

From there I went east, and realising that I was nearing the lair of the Master of Plants I restored my Stamina with a spell (raising my total to 14).  I didn't mess about here; my goal was to take his amulet, so I attacked him instantly.  He cast a spell to weaken my sword arm, but it wasn't enough to save him.  It wasn't even enough to make the poor fellow look respectable, as I was able to kill him without suffering a single wound.  (It wasn't quite as satisfying as blasting the Sword Trees, but getting revenge for deaths in previous games always brings a smile to my face. What I wasn't smiling about was the 3 Luck points I lost from killing him, which reduced me to 4.  Seriously, this book goes out of its way to punish you for being evil.)

Taking his amulet gave me three out of five.  I could have quit at this point, but I was doing well enough that I decided to press on for the other two.  (It's exactly the same mistake that I made in my last unsuccessful attempt, but I was confident that my superior knowledge of the swamp would get me through this time.)

I retraced my steps back to the eagle's nest, and noticing that the bird was gone I climbed up and found a gold chain.  (Okay, so I failed the Luck test and fell the first time, reducing my Stamina to 12.  With my Luck so low, I used my second Luck spell to restore my score to 8).

I headed back south across the bridge, avoided the scorpions, and travelled east until I reached a pool with healing properties (which restored my Stamina back to 15).  Some more travelling south led me to a clearing where I was ambushed by a trio of Swamp Orcs.  One of them let loose an arrow that grazed my sword arm (which would have reduced my Skill to 11, were it not for my magic sword), and I was so incensed that I attacked them all.  The battle was lengthy, but I killed them all and emerged unscathed.

Further south I came to a clearing inhabited by giant frogs, as well as the Master of Frogs.  I made up a story about seeking monsters for Baron Sukumvit's Deathtrap Dungeon, and luckily he believed me.  Alas, even though I had befriended him, the Master was too quick for me, and hopped away when I tried to murder him.  I still had to fight a pair of his Frogs, though, one of which bit me (reducing my Stamina to 13).  (It turns out that you can't get the Frog Amulet without an Illusion spell, which is kind of a bummer.  Fake Steve usually doesn't require specific items or spells to solve a problem, but that's not the case here.  As usual, his bias against evil is showing.)

Retracing my steps past the dead orcs, I headed west and was attacked by some Crab Grass.  Sensing a pointless encounter, I fled south and was wounded as I ran away (reducing my Stamina to 11).

The next clearing was covered with cobwebs and spiders, so I restored my Stamina with a spell.  The Master of Spiders was here, and I engaged him in battle.  He wounded me with his poison-tipped wand (which dealt more damage than usual, and reduced my Stamina to 15), but I was otherwise easily victorious.  I claimed the Spider Amulet just before the Master's body burst into flames and set the clearing ablaze.

With four amulets in my possession, I left the swamp and returned to Grimslade's tower.  I suspected that he might cheat me, so I demanded payment before handing over the amulets.  The evil wizard honoured his bargain, and I collected a hefty 2,000 gold pieces for my troubles.  Victory and wealth were mine!  (The book made a point of saying that I feel guilty about helping him, but bollocks to that.  It's not that I'm pro-evil, it's more that I don't like gamebooks - or any form of entertainment in which the main character is played by me - telling me how I feel.  That should be up to me to decide.)

Ugh, finally.  For such an easy gamebook, I've been stuck on Scorpion Swamp for ages.  That's my own fault for being so thorough, I suppose.  I could have moved on after completing Selator's quest, but I just had to complete the other two.  It's a sickness.

I had very little trouble with the evil quest this time around,mostly because I knew what to expect and was able to prepare accordingly.  It was a little disappointing that I couldn't get all five amulets, but I'm not about to try again.  Even I have limits.  I do wonder if it's even possible to get the real Bird Amulet; I don't believe that I've ever done so.

Next up will be a post with my final thoughts on the book, followed by an Exploring Titan.  Then it's on to Caverns of the Snow Witch, which is going to be a real drag because I already played through half of it earlier this year.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Scorpion Swamp: Neutral Attempts 1 & 2

I tried the good quest in Scorpion Swamp, and succeeded.  I tried the evil quest, and failed.  Well, I'm nothing if not systematic and predictable, so here comes that neutral quest.  Like Switzerland, I am fighting for all the values of neutrality.  Go neutral!


The dice were not kind to me during character creation this time around: I rolled Skill 7, Stamina 16, and Luck 11.  That's a good Luck score, but any good scores are irrelevant when you have a low Skill.  This was going to be a tough game.

As mentioned in my preamble, when presented with the option of three employers I chose the mysterious Poomchukker, the neutral one.  I found his house near the town marketplace, and was surprised when the door was answered by a young goblin girl.  She led me inside, and I finally met he of the awesome name, Poomchukker.  POOMCHUKKER.

Poomchukker revealed to me that he was a merchant, and he wanted me map a path through the swamp to the town of Willowbend on the far side.  He was dubious of my chances of surviving Scorpion Swamp, so I boasted about my magic brass ring.

That's when he surprised me: Poomchukker offered to buy the ring for 100 gold pieces.  I looked at the pile of gold, then looked at my Skill score.  There were a lot of factors to weigh up here, the most notable being my character's likelihood of staying alive.  I didn't like the odds, so I took the gold.  Quite gratifyingly, I was told that I had enough to live on for a few years, or to "carouse wildly for a month or so".  My adventure was over, and while I technically hadn't won, I still call it a victory for Skill 7 adventurers everywhere.  Sometimes you gotta know your limitations.


I rolled much better stats for this game: Skill 11, Stamina 20, and Luck 12.  With scores that good I was tempted to take another crack at the evil quest, but in the interests of maintaining the thematic unity of this post, I stuck with the neutral path.  I also made another tactical decision: cowardice.  I decided to play in as cowardly a fashion as possible, avoiding all combat and just generally trying to speed through the swamp.  Haste can often lead to death, but we'll see how it goes.

So, once again I went to visit the magnificent POOMCHUKKER, who gave me a choice of five spells from the Neutral list.  I went with Ice, Skill, Stamina and two Fire spells.  (Fire spells are always more useful than Ice.  It's a magical fact.)

After heading into the swamp I took the right-hand path, then immediately went north from the next clearing (avoiding a potential encounter with a bear).  The next clearing I entered was the lair of the Master of Spiders, but I made short work of him and his web-shrouded domain with a Fire spell.  The whole place went up in a blaze, the Master was killed, and I fled to the north (with my Stamina reduced to 17 due to minor burns).

In the next clearing I was attacked by some Crab Grass.  It wounded me in the first round, so I fled in the second (with my Stamina reduced to 13 overall).

Heading east, I encountered a trio of Swamp Orcs.  One of them grazed me with an arrow (reducing my Skill to 10), so I ran away.  To the sound of Orcish jeers, no doubt.

I went north, then east, where I drank at the healing pool (restoring my Stamina to 16).  From there I headed back west, jumped over some scorpions (which involved a Luck test that reduced my score to 11), travelled north over a bridge, avoided fighting a giant eagle, went west, left a Dwarf to be eaten by a Giant Scorpion, went north, then went west.

In the next clearing I saw a Will o' the Wisp trying to lead me to the west, but I wasn't having a bar of it.  Nothing good ever comes of following lights in a swamp.  (Nothing good ever happens in swamps period, but Wisps make everything worse.)

Instead I headed south, where I encountered a huge Slime lurking on top of a pond.  Before it could attack me, I froze it with an Ice spell which killed it instantly.  Ice, you were handier than I thought you'd be.

Heading east I came to a clearing where I found a band of Brigands lying in wait.  This really begs the question: who are they lying in wait for?  Nobody can survive the swamp!  No-one goes in there, supposedly.  These guys have chosen a really bad spot for brigandage, but I suppose that if my mission succeeds their business will pick up, as then they can rob Poomchukker's merchant caravans all they like.

My ring did not register the brigands as evil, so I stepped out and greeted them in a friendly fashion.  The brigands were a sporting bunch, and rather than gang up on me, they offered me the chance to fight a duel with their leader: if I struck the first blow I could continue to Willowbend, and if the leader struck first I'd have to give them something of value.  I didn't feel like I had any better options, so I accepted.  The brigand leader was no slouch, but even with my wounded arm (and reduced Skill) I triumphed, and parted from the brigands on good terms.

I headed north, and soon I had reached my goal: the town of Willowbend!  I'd made a map of my path through the swamp, and now all that remained was for me to return to Poomchukker.  Before that, however, I needed a rest, and I had the choice of three inns: the Black Bear, the Bent Spear and Tancred's Flying Horse.  I went with the Bent Spear (as recommended by the brigands) and had a good night's sleep (that restored my Stamina to 18).

The next morning I visited the local wizard, Halicar, who offered to give me some spell gems in exchange for items of value.  Alas, I had nothing of value, and so I had to venture back into the swamp with no more spells than I had before.

I had but to retrace my steps, and my mission would be complete.  The brigands let me pass, and the slime was dead, so no problems there.  I got over-curious with the Will o' the Wisp, though, and decided to see what might happen if I did follow it.  (I know, I'm a dickhead.)  The Wisp led me into a mud-hole; I was able to pull myself out (and avoid any damage with a successful Luck test that reduced my Luck to 10).  (At this point I decided to cast my Skill spell, restoring my Skill to 11.  This was a stupid mistake, because in the very next paragraph I failed a Luck test and had my Skill reduced back to 10.  Just the worst timing.)

Retracing my path proved to be safe, until I got the clearing with the Swamp Orcs.  They were still lurking there, and I had to fight all three at the same time.  There was no option to run, so I was forced to battle to the death.  Their deaths, as it turned out, although two of them wounded me (reducing my Stamina to 14).

I headed back west, once more fleeing from the Crab Grass (and having my Stamina reduced to 12).  I couldn't go back south, as the clearing of the Master of Spiders was still on fire, so I went west instead.  Along the way I looted a warrior's corpse (finding a golden magnet).  Eventually I emerged in a clearing with an angry Unicorn, but I simply left and waited until it was gone.

From the Unicorn clearing I headed south, where I met my old nemesis: the Sword Trees!  I opened with a quick Stamina spell (to restore my score to 20), and a Fire spell to wound them, then I went in with my own sword.  This was another unavoidable battle, but one I eventually won (albeit with my Stamina reduced to 16).  Killing the Sword Trees is always satisfying.

To the south I encountered a leech-infested stream that I had to wade through (further reducing my Stamina to 12).  Even further south I met the Master of Wolves, but he was antisocial rather than actively hostile, and I was able to hurry past him.  From there it was a simple trip east, then south, and I was out of the swamp and back in Fenmarge.

With map in hand I went back to Poomchukker, who was well pleased.  Not only did he give me a huge emerald, but he cut me in for half of his savings for the next year.  I suspect there'll be some creative math involved here, but being ripped off by Poomchukker is beyond the scope of the book.  I had succeeded, and a life of carousing wildly was in my future.

That was refreshingly easy.  Knowing the pathways is a big help, as is knowing what spells to use, and when to run.  I breezed through the journey to Willowbend.  Heading back was a bit harder, as I had to fight the Orcs, and there's no way to avoid battling the Sword Trees at least once (unless you have a Wither spell, which I didn't have access to).  Still, I was never in any danger, and was able to knock the whole thing off in about half an hour.  I figure I have one more post to complete the evil quest for this book; depending on my stats, I'll either try to get all five amulets, or take the easy route and go for three.  Either way, I want to wrap this one up and move on.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Scorpion Swamp: Evil Attempt 1

In my last post, I technically achieved victory in Scorpion Swamp by completing the quest of the good wizard Selator.  There are two other quests in this book, though, and I am duty bound to win them both.  So, armed with my magic ring, and ready to explore the swamp once more, I decided that this time around I was going to play it as a right bastard.

(As an aside, it's always thrown me off that the good wizard's name rhymes with Skeletor.  I frequently have to remind myself that "oh yeah, he's the good one".)

For my stats I rolled Skill 11, Stamina 15 and Luck 12.  These stats were the impetus for me choosing evil this time around.  I feel like the evil quest is the most difficult to beat, so I'm only going to tackle it when my stats are high.

All right then.  I got swamps to explore, murders to commit, treasure to loot, puppies to kick and presidential offices to run for.  Let's do some evil.


Upon entering Fenmarge I went to the tavern, where the locals told me I was a fool for wanting to enter Scorpion Swamp.  One of them had the impertinence to put his hand on my shoulder, so I put my hand on my sword and threatened to kill them all.  Much to my surprise the townsfolk weren't scared or impressed, so I slunk away in embarrassment (reducing my Luck to 11).

Before I could leave the tavern I was accosted by a fellow named Gronar, who offered to help me find a quest.  Instead I ignored him; random mapping and beast-slaying sounded pretty good to me.  He insisted that I'd need help to survive in the swamp, but again I ignored him and made my way to the swamp.

Apparently I should have listened, because my first foray into the swamp (glossed over by the book in one sentence) resulted in me barely surviving to return to Fenmarge.  (This required a successful Luck test.  If memory serves, failing said Luck test results in a fatal end.  I made the roll, and was penalised a further 2 Luck points for general stupidity, leaving me with a score of 8.)

I sought out Gronar and apologised (I didn't mean it), and he told me that there were three local wizards looking for an adventurer to explore Scorpion Swamp: the good wizard Selator, the evil Grimslade, and the mysterious Poomchukker.  Reasoning that the forces of evil would pay the highest (and resisting the urge to serve such an awesomly named wizard as Poomchukker), I left to find Grimslade.

Nobody wanted to direct me to Grimslade's tower, until I found a skinny ruffian in the marketplace who helpfully gave me directions.  It just goes to show, sometimes the evil people are the best ones.  Grimslade's home had the standard super-villain decor, with the gargoyles and the jagged towers and the whatnot.  Not only that, but my magic ring was growing hot, warning me that Grimslade was really, really evil.  (Stupid ring.  Why doesn't it detect that I'm evil?)

When I entered the tower, Grimslade - a skeletally thin figure in black robes with glowing runes on them - was waiting for me, and already knew what I wanted.  He told me that he wanted a fearless servant, and I replied that I had no fear.  (I skipped the option where I tell him about the ring.  Never let evil wizards know you have good stuff.)  Grimslade's reply was to use his magic to animate a nearby Statue of a Goblin, which I had to fight to prove myself.

I beat the statue without being hit (using a broken chair leg, no less) and Grimslade was impressed.  He cast a spell to restore my Luck (back to its initial level of 12), and gifted me with a magic sword.

(This is another one of those irritating magic swords that increases Skill, rather than Attack Strength.  I was so annoyed that I went back and re-read the rules.  It says, and I quote: "A Magic Weapon may increase your Skill, but remember that only one weapon can be used at a time!  ... Your Skill score can never exceed its Initial value."  I was all set to weasel my way around the rules, but it seems pretty concrete to me: there's no weaseling around the word "never".  I'm going to allow myself some slight leeway, though, and use that Skill bonus to offset any penalties that I later receive.  It's something I probably should have been doing for years, but instead I've only been adding the bonus when I gain a magic sword.  I don't know why it never occurred to me to do it this way from the beginning.)

Grimslade explained that several wizards have taken up residence in Scorpion Swamp, and that their powers seem to stem from the amulets they all carry.  My task was to bring him at least three of those amulets, with my reward being 500 gold pieces per amulet.  Bingo!  I knew that choosing evil would pay off.

I was then able to choose six spell gems to take with me, from the Neutral and Evil lists.  I chose one each of the evil spells (Curse, Fear, Withering) as well as Fire, Stamina and Skill.  I was expecting a lot of battles, and made sure to pick spells that could restore my abilities.

I took my leave of Grimslade and headed back into the swamp, this time with a purpose to guide me.  At the first clearing I jumped over a patch of soft ground (thrilling adventure!) and took the right-hand path.  That path led to a clearing with a large stone and a hollow tree.

I wasn't about to rest here without checking out that tree first, and it was just as well.  No sooner did I approach the tree than a Bear stuck its head out.  I attacked it with gusto, and was able to kill it without suffering a single wound.  Alas, it had no treasure, so I left this clearing to the east.

In the next clearing was a "small pool".  When I approached it, a great, tentacled beast rose up to attack me  (I question the description here, because a creature like that wouldn't fit in a small pool.)

The Pool Beast had a violet jewel embedded in its head, and I was never going to flee with such riches on offer.  I attacked it with my sword, and although it wounded me twice (reducing my Stamina to 11), I was able to kill it and pry the gem from its forehead.  The only exit from the clearing was back the way I came, so I retraced my steps to the bear clearing, and headed north from there.

(At this point, I'd like to point out that the illustration above is completely wasted.  The Pool Beast is on the cover already!  Use an illustration for something else!)

The next clearing was festooned with spider webs.  A pavilion floated above the surface of the swamp, and sitting on a throne inside it was a sinister-looking chap wearing a spider amulet: the Master of Spiders!

I considered casting a spell, but nothing seemed immediately useful, so I resorted back to my usual tactic of sword-to-the-face.  The Master fought back with his wand, the tip of which glistened with venom.  He struck me twice before I killed him, and the venom made the wounds more severe than they otherwise would have been.  (Each blow subtracted 3 from my Stamina instead of the usual 2, reducing my Stamina to 5.  I also used a point of Luck to kill the Master more quickly, reducing that score to 11.)  When I claimed his amulet, his body burst into flames, setting fire to some nearby webs.  I hurried north from the clearing to avoid being burned.  (I also cast my Stamina spell at this point, restoring my score to 13.)

The next clearing was thick with grass, which looked pleasant enough, but I should have been more wary.  Each blade of grass had a pincer at the tip, and they reached out to attack me.  It was Crab Grass!  (Oh ho ho, I see what you did there Fake Steve.)

Whipping out my trusty magic sword once again, I chopped the grass down (all 16 bloody Stamina points of it) and continued on my merry way down the path to the east, past a tree with the words "Beware of Orcs" scorched on the trunk.  Pfft.  Orcs.  Nobody has to beware of Orcs. (Except for Boromir, the wimp.)

No sooner did I enter the next clearing than an arrow went whizzing past my head.  Sure enough, three Swamp Orcs were there with bows at the ready.

Another Orc fired at me, and the arrow grazed my arm (reducing my Skill to 10, a wound now offset by my magical sword).  Enraged, I once again attacked with sword in hand, and had to fight all three simultaneously.  I dispatched the first two quickly (using a Luck point to expedite the process, dropping my score to 10), but the last was able to wound me three times before it died (reducing my Stamina to 7).

(When the arrow was fired at me, the book asked if I had a golden magnet amulet.  As I recall, having that amulet is very bad indeed.)

The Orcs had a few gold pieces (frustratingly not enumerated), as well as a crude map that indicated a frog with a crown to the south of my present location.  My curiosity piqued, I headed in that direction.

As expected, the next clearing was infested with frogs.  There was also a man perched on top of a huge mushroom: the Master of Frogs.

He greeted me, and I acted with friendliness in return, all the while eyeing his amulet with greed.  I didn't want to tell him about my evil mission, so instead I made up some story about being in the service of Baron Sukumvit of Fang, and searching Scorpion Swamp for monsters to be used in Deathtrap Dungeon.  (This might be the sole connection this book has to anything else in the series.)  Alas, he did not believe my story (because I failed a Luck test, reducing my score to 9).  Not only that, but he set a pair of Giant Frogs on me.  I was able to kill them without suffering any wounds, but by that time the Master of Frogs had escaped into the swamp.  That was one amulet I would not be getting my hands on.

I retraced my steps back past the dead Orcs, then headed north.  The next clearing was empty.  Heading east from there, I came to a lovely glade with a crystalline pool of water.  It looked inviting, but I decided to wait rather than drink right away.  A lizard came and drank from the pool, and seemed to suffer no ill effects.  I drank from the pool myself, and discovered that it had magical healing properties (which restored my Stamina to 10).

I decided to retrace my steps back to the clearing where I had fought the Crab Grass, and from there I headed west.  In the next clearing I found a dead warrior, with a golden magnet pendant around his neck.  I claimed the pendant, and moved on to the west.  (I'm pretty sure that the amulet is safe to carry, so long as you don't get shot at by the Orcs.)

In the next clearing I encountered a Unicorn, maddened by claw wounds on its flank.  I didn't fancy a battle with the creature, so I cast a Fear spell, and it fled from me.  With nothing else of interest here, I continued to the west.

I emerged in a clearing covered in flowers.  My ring was warning me of evil, and eventually I realised that I was standing in a patch of Fear Flowers, and breathing in their fear-inducing pollen.  I quickly fled to the north, shaken by the experience.  (All up I lost 2 points of Skill, which left me with a score of 8.  There's little that's deadlier in Fighting Fantasy than a loss of Skill.  I'd question why these flowers were registering as evil on my magic ring, but I think I already have my answer.)

In the clearing to the north the swamp gave way to lush, tropical plants, with hundreds of brightly coloured birds flitting through the trees.  A large parrot asked what my business was with the Mistress of Birds.  Sensing another amulet to purloin, I asked the parrot to lead me to its mistress.

The Mistress of Birds addressed me politely, and I noted that my ring did not sense any evil about her.  I demanded that she give me her amulet, but instead she gave me a guilt-trip about serving an evil wizard, and offered to whip me up a fake amulet.  Oh, and then she told me that I should totally kill the Master of Spiders for being evil, because Good is always judgmental and hypocritical.  Rather than give her the thorough stabbing that I wanted to, I took the fake amulet and went on my way.

Unfortunately, I had to retrace my steps back past the Fear Flowers, which resulted in the loss of another Skill point.  Confident that I wouldn't have to navigate the Fear Flowers again, I cast my Skill spell and restored my score back to 11.

The urge to explore deeper into the swamp was upon me,  so I retraced my path back past the unicorn (now gone), the dead warrior (still dead), the Crab Grass (destroyed), and the Orcs (slain).  From the empty clearing north of the Orcs I headed west.  That clearing was overrun with scorpions, but I was able to leap over them to safety and carry on to the north.

I crossed the Foulbrood River using the bridge, and further north found a nest being guarded by a Giant Eagle.  The Eagle's keen eyes spied my fake bird amulet, and so it let me pass unmolested.

I headed west from there, just in time to witness a Dwarven Warrior being pincered to death by a Giant Scorpion.  With the Scorpion thus distracted, I hastened past without bothering to help; the Dwarf was probably dead anyway, and I figured that perhaps I could come back later and loot his body once the Scorpion had eaten his fill and left.

Heading north I came to a four-way intersection, where I headed north again.  Soon I was hailed by a Ranger, who was just chilling on some rocks.  Doing some Rangering.  (How come he doesn't get lost in the swamp and die?  Where's his magic ring?  Huh?  Huh, Fake Steve?)

I totally lied to the Ranger, telling him that I served the forces of Good.  He fell for it (as I passed the requisite Luck test, leaving my score at 8), and allowed me to pass by and head east.

The eastward path was very well-tended, with all sorts of healthy, beautiful plants.  I was approached by a middle-aged dude, who introduced himself as the Master of Gardens.

Get a load of this guy.  I hadn't met too many folks who looked more in need of a good punch in the snoot, but instead I refrained and cast a Withering spell at him.  I had reasoned that, being so in tune with the plants and such, the spell might affect him, but instead it passed through him and killed one of his trees.  His reaction was somewhat underwhelming: he set my hair on fire (reducing my Stamina to 8).  Hardly the act of a great, powerful wizard.

His next act, though, was a doozy, as the dude simply waved his hand and reduced my Skill score by 3 points.  WHAT.  THE.  ACTUAL.  FUCK.  That is some potent stuff.  Where was that spell in Zagor's arsenal, or Balthus Dire's?  Lightweights.

Even with that reduction, my Skill was two points higher than that of the Master of Gardens.  I should have beaten him.  I almost did, but once I had him down to 4 Stamina the dice turned on me.  Thus, I ended my path of evil at the hands of a gardener, and my adventure was over.


There's something faintly embarrassing about  dying in Scorpion Swamp, because it has such a reputation for being a cakewalk.  That's a fair assessment for the Good and Neutral quests, but it's a bit more difficult to win the Evil quest, especially if you try to go for all five amulets as I did.  I really should have headed for the Master of Wolves right after getting the fake bird amulet, but I was determined to try my luck.  Next time, I'll know to bring more healing magic.

Oh, and before I sign off, here's my map so far:

Looks like I've got most of it.  I'm not sure which quest I'll take on in my next attempt; I'll decide that after my stats have been determined.  And if my stats are really high, I might just take a stab at killing everything in the whole damned swamp.