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.

COOL STUFF I MISSED
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.

MISTAKES AND RED HERRINGS
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.

BEST DEATH
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.

S.T.A.M.I.N.A. RATING

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.)

THE POST-GAME
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!

ATTEMPT 1


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.

ATTEMPT 2


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.

THE POST-GAME
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.

EVIL ATTEMPT 1

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.

THE POST-GAME

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.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Scorpion Swamp: Attempt 1



You're no fool.  All your life you've heard tales of Scorpion Swamp and how it is criss-crossed with treacherous paths leading to the haunts of its disgusting denizens.  One step out of place spells a certain and lingering death.  But now, the swamp holds out the lure of treasure and glory - and you cannot resist the challenge!

It is with great relief that I temporarily take my leave of the Sorcery! epic, and return to some good old traditional Fighting Fantasy.  It's not that I dislike Sorcery!, far from it.  But that series is on the high end of the gamebook complexity scale, and sometimes it's nice to tackle something a bit simpler.  Luckily for me, it doesn't get much simpler than Scorpion Swamp.

Scorpion Swamp is the eighth book in the Fighting Fantasy series, written by Steve Jackson and illustrated by Duncan Smith.  The name "Steve Jackson"  on the by-line of a gamebook is usually good news, but this time around there's something of a caveat involved: it's not that Steve Jackson.  No, the writer of Scorpion Swamp is a totally different bloke from the one who gave us the Sorcery! epic, Citadel of Chaos, and half of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (oh alright, he also wrote Starship Traveller, nobody's perfect).  The Steve Jackson of Scorpion Swamp was (and still is) the head of Steve Jackson Games, and a damn good game designer in his own right.  He's probably best known for creating GURPS (the worst-named RPG of all time), but has a pretty high number of other classic games on his resume: Ogre, Car Wars, Illuminati, Munchkin...  The guy is no slouch, is what I'm getting at.

I've always found it amusing that once the FF series took off, and Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone weren't able to keep up with the demands of the publishers, that the first guy they got in to write a gamebook was also called Steve Jackson.  I'd love to know whose call it was, and if they really did it on purpose to fool people.  If so, they certainly got me: I thought for years that Scorpion Swamp and Demons of the Deep were by Real Steve.  I also thought that Real Steve was the designer of GURPS and Car Wars, so I was really fooled.  Anyway, if the publisher's intention was to trick its customers it worked, but there are only so many Steve Jacksons in the world who are capable of writing gamebooks.  Later on, Penguin just slapped Ian and Steve's names on the cover in shiny foil and put the real author's name on the inside in microscopic print.

I described Scorpion Swamp as simplistic, but that's perhaps not the most accurate description.  On the surface it seems like a straight-forward adventure with little to distinguish it from earlier books in the series, but there's more going on under the hood.  There's no main quest, for starters: Scorpion Swamp offers three quests that can be undertaken, and that already makes it stand out.  The use of spells is another welcome addition, even if the system is far less sophisticated than those used in Sorcery! and Citadel of Chaos.  Perhaps the biggest innovation, though, is that Scorpion Swamp allows you to explore its confines as you will, even giving you the option to return to areas that you've previously explored.  Most Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are desperate to funnel you towards the endgame, and in that regard Scorpion Swamp is really quite refreshing.

That's enough preamble, it's time to adventure.  Let's get to it!

BACKGROUND
The hero of this book is your prototypical Hardy Adventurer, roaming the land and killing monsters and whatnot.  He's always avoided Scorpion Swamp though; due to a combination of labyrinthine pathways, an evil fog that covers the sky, and a tendency for compasses to become worthless within it, the swamp is virtually impossible to navigate.  Many adventurers have tried, but most became lost and were killed by the swamp's evil denizens.

While going about other adventuring business, Our Hero helped an old lady through the wilderness, and was rewarded with a magic ring that grows warm in the presence of evil.  It also gave the wearer the ability to always know which direction was north, and that gave the hero an idea: he would use it to explore the depths of Scorpion Swamp.  Why?  Who knows!  It's something to do, I guess.

THE RULES
For the most part, Scorpion Swamp uses the standard Fighting Fantasy rules: Skill, Stamina, Luck, all that jazz.  There are no provisions or potions though; instead you get a selection of spells to cast during the adventure.  That's not important at this stage, though, because spells aren't obtained until later.  More on that at the relevant time.

CHARACTER CREATION
I rolled a Skill of 12, a Stamina of 20 and  Luck of 10.  When the book described me as a hardy adventurer, it was not kidding.  I began with a sword, some chainmail armour, a backpack, and the aforementioned magical brass ring.

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS



After a long journey I arrived in the town of Fenmarge, situated on the south edge of Scorpion Swamp.  As is customary, I made my first stop at the local tavern, and did a spot of boasting, telling everyone within earshot that I'm totally awesome and that I was going to explore Scorpion Swamp.  The townspeople were shocked, and told me that on top of the other dangers I'd already heard about, that a group of wizards known as the Masters had recently taken up residence in the swamp, making it even more dangerous than before.
Despite their attempts to discourage me, I politely explained to them that I was determined to enter the swamp, and they let me go.  All except one, a farmer named Gronar who insisted that I should have a purpose beyond "random mapping and beast-slaying".  I agreed with him, and he told me that there were three local men with need of a strong fighter who could enter the swamp.  He continued, saying that the first was a wizard devoted to the cause of Good, before taking a convenient pause to swig his ale.

I took the hint, and blurted out that I would only serve Good.  Gronar seemed pretty chuffed about it, as he told me that the wizard's name was Selator, and that I should go and see him.  He also called me a "paladin", and gave me a blessing that raised my Initial Luck score to 12.

(Scorpion Swamp was one of the earliest Fighting Fantasy gamebooks I read, predating my knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, so I spent a while thinking that Paladin was my character's name.  And yeah, I totally picked Good just for the Luck bonus.  Nothing like a statistical incentive to promote virtue.)

I left the tavern and made my way to Selator's house on the outskirts of Fenmarge.  I found Selator in his garden, and explained that I wanted to help him, telling him about my magic ring.  Selator was satisfied, and launched into a big ol' bout of plot exposition.  The short version of his story is that he wanted me to find the last Antherica berry, growing in the centre of the swamp.  The berry had powerful healing properties, but no use in evil magic, and so evil wizards had set about destroying them all.  If I found one for Selator, he could ensure the plant's survival.  My reward would be that I could keep any treasure I found within the swamp.  Thanks for nothing, Selator.


Selator offered me six spell gems, each of which contained a single casting of a spell.  I was able to pick from the Good and Neutral spell list.  I'll do a quick run-down of the spells available to me:

Neutral
Skill: Restores Skill points equal to half of initial score
Stamina: Restores Stamina points equal to half of initial score
Luck: Restores... ah, you get it.
Fire: Sets things on fire.
Ice: Freezes stuff
Illusion: Creates an illusion.  (Did I really need to explain these?)

Good
Friendship: Makes a creature like me, so long as they understand the idea of friendship
Growth: Makes a plant grow larger
Bless: Restores Skill, Stamina and Luck of another creature

I chose Friendship, Growth, Bless, Stamina, Fire and Ice.  I figured that my Skill and Luck scores were high enough that I wouldn't need to restore them.  The spell gems are good for one use each.  You can take multiples of one spell, but I decided to spread my choices out for maximum versatility.

And now, on to Scorpion Swamp to find the Antherica berry.  I walked past an ominous skull-and-crossbones sign, following a trail to the first clearing.  The path was blocked by a large patch of soft ground, but I had no trouble jumping over it (by rolling less than my Stamina score on two dice).

I took a path leading west, and in the next clearing I found a log cabin.  I was immediately confronted by a bearded man flanked by a pair of wolves, and by his amulet I identified him as one of the Masters that I had been warned about.



The Master of Wolves told me to bugger off, but I wanted to learn more about the layout of the swamp, so I cast a Friendship spell on him.  His mood quickly changed, and he invited me inside his cabin for a chat.  He told me that I should cross the river by "the easy way", and not to look for traps where there are none.  He also gave me a magic word to use when threatened by wolves, which seemed much more useful than his lame advice.  A bit disappointed, I took my leave and headed north.

I soon came to a shallow stream, and rather than waste a spell I decided to wade across.  As always happens when wading in Fighting Fantasy, I emerged with bloodsucking leeches attached to my legs.  (I had to roll two dice, and lose a number of Stamina points as shown on the lower of the two dice.  Luckily for me that meant I only lost 1 Stamina, leaving me with 19.)

In the next clearing I found myself surrounded by weird trees, each with limbs that ended in swords.  Unsurprisingly, they moved to attack, and I had to defend myself against the Sword Trees.



(I hate this encounter so much.  Hate hate hate.  You'll find out why as I progress.)

I cast a Fire spell on them, thinking to destroy them instantly, but all it did was subtract 2 Stamina from them.  I was forced to battle them with my sword, but luckily I got through with only a single wound (reducing my Stamina to 17).  The Sword Trees had no treasure, so instead I pocketed a handful of their seeds.

From there I headed west, into a dead-end clearing with nothing in it but a large grey boulder.  I was about to leave when the boulder stirred, and was revealed as a Dire Beast, a shaggy six-legged monstrosity intent on killing me.  Instead I killed it, suffering one wound in the process (and leaving me with 15 Stamina), and cut of some of its claws as memento of the battle.  (Seriously, seeds and some claws.  This is the great treasure of Scorpion Swamp.)

There was no way to go but back the way I had came.  Which I did, only to find that the bloody Sword Trees had grown back.  I killed them without being hit, but honestly, I've already had a gutfull of them.  And this isn't even the last time I'm going to have to fight the bastards.  To top it off, I have to read Fake Steve Jackson's stupid "fertilizer for the trees" pun every time.  Screw you, Fake Steve.

This time I went north, and came to a clearing where I found a lovely Unicorn.



Well, maybe not so lovely: the Unicorn was injured, and looked ready to attack me as I approached.  Rather than fight it, I cast a Bless spell on the Unicorn to heal its wounds.  The grateful Unicorn dug a hole in the ground, and there I found two spell gems: Friendship (to replace the one I'd already cast) and Luck.  Huzzah!

I headed north again, through a bank of swamp gas that caused me to lose 2 Stamina (leaving me with 13).  Soon I reached the bank of the Foulbrood River, which was infested with crocodiles.  I decided against trying to cross, and walked east.  The ground sloped upwards until I was on a cliff overlooking the river, with no way to go further east.  I could see a bridge in that direction, but again I decided against swimming and headed south.



In a pleasant glade, I encountered a friendly fellow leaning against a tree eating cheese with his knife.  He offered to share his meal, but my magic ring warned me that he was evil, as if the cheese-eating and dapper clothes hadn't warned me already.



I wasn't about to accept this guy's hospitality, or leave him alive to sneak up on me, so a thorough swording was my only option.  He put up a good fight, wounding me three times before I killed him (and leaving me with 7 Stamina.  At this point I cast my Stamina spell, and restored my score back to 17.)  His only possession worth looting was his red cloak, which I pinched, as well as some of his cheese.

(The line after you kill the Thief is hilarious: "He wasn't as clever as he thought he was!"  I dunno, was he trying to be clever?  He invited me to dinner, and I rammed a sword in his head.  Maybe he just wanted to chat?  Even evil people don't do evil stuff all the time.)

I headed east, and in the next clearing was accosted by a horde of Scorpions.  Who would have expected it?!?



I was able to avoid their initial charge with a successful Luck test (leaving my Luck score at 11).  After that I tried to jump over them, which I did by rolling under my Stamina on two dice.  Easy.

Heading north I came to the bridge over the Foulbrood River and, remembering the advice of the Master of Wolves, I crossed it without incident.

Further north I came to a tall tree with a nest at the top.  A Giant Eagle watched me from its perch, but made no move to attack me, and I was able to leave the clearing in safety.  (If I'd had a feather or a bird amulet, things might have been different.)

I headed east, and had the misfortune to find myself in a patch of quicksand.  One successful Luck test later (leaving my score at 10), I was able to escape (at the cost of reducing my Stamina to 15).

Travelling north, I stumbled over what I thought was a dip in the ground, only to discover that it was actually a huge footprint.  An angry giant blocked my path, brandishing a club and yelling that I could not pass.



I tried to reason with the Giant, and suddenly he burst into tears.  It turned out that he had lost the handkerchief that his wife had made for him, and was rather upset about it.  I offered him the "red cloak" that I had taken from the Thief, and this cheered him up immensely.  He informed me that the berry I was looking for was in a clearing to the north, but that I should watch out for wolves.  (All the while, I imagine my character trying not to do a spew.  Imagine carrying around a 3 foot square handkerchief used by a giant?  My only consolation is that it was described as being new, and so probably unused at this point.)

I went north, and sure enough, Wolves.



I used the magic word that the Master of Wolves had taught me, and the Wolves had a play with me before I moved on.

In the next clearing I found the berry, with a distinct lack of fanfare.  The option of eating it was a tempting one, but I resisted it and instead picked it and put it in my pouch.  Now all I had to do was retrace my steps, and return to Selator.

That would be too easy though.  I went back to the Giant's clearing, but instead of continuing south I veered to the west.  I soon came to a four-way junction, and took the south trail.  I could hear the sound of fighting, and it seemed that I had arrived at an opportune time: a Dwarf warrior was locked in combat with a Giant Scorpion, which was poised to kill the poor fellow.



I attacked the Scorpion, which wasn't badly wounded as "evidently the Dwarf was not a very skilled fighter" (harsh, Fake Steve).  I, on the other hand, was supremely skilled, and made short work of it.  I was too late to save the Dwarf, though.  I might have healed him with a Bless spell, but I didn't have one, so I did the only thing I could in the circumstances, the only right thing to do: I looted his corpse.  What I found was a vial of potion, which I greedily gulped down.  It was a potion of handsomeness, but alas it was made for Dwarves, and my body was subtly reshaped to be shorter, stockier and beardier.  The net result was that I had to reduce my Skill to 11 for my next battle.

Heading east, I came to the clearing with the Eagle's nest.  The Eagle wasn't there this time, and I couldn't resist climbing up to have a stickybeak.  I was Unlucky and fell (reducing my Luck to 9 and my Stamina to 13), but on my second go I made it to the top and found a gold chain.  Finally, some actual treasure!

I went south and back over the bridge, then south again to jump over my old mates the scorpions.  From there I went west, back to the clearing where I had met the Thief.  Instead of retracing my steps north, I took the path to the south, where I found the signs of a battle and the body of a fallen warrior.



The unfortunate fellow had been shot with arrows by Swamp Orcs, and was very dead.  I looted a golden amulet in the shape of a magnet from his corpse, and moved on.

I went west, back to the Unicorn clearing, then south, only to find that THE BLOODY SWORD TREES WERE BACK AGAIN.  I decided to try another spell this time, and risking everything on a bonehead decision I cast Growth.  The idea here was that the trees would grow so big that I'd be able to slip by them.  Instead, they all grew extra arms, complete with swords, and I had to do the same fight again, only with the Sword Trees having their Stamina doubled from 12 to 24.  Frustration kicked in here, and I cast a Luck spell to restore that score to its Initial level.  Then I spammed Luck tests with every blow I struck to increase the damage.  I was able to kill the enhanced Sword Trees, although they struck me twice (leaving me with 9 Stamina, and a Luck of 5).

Heading south I once again came to the stream with the leeches in it.  This time I froze it with an Ice spell, and crossed without incident.

South I went, past the Wolf Master's cabin, then east to the entrance clearing.  One jump over some soft ground, and I was home free.  I gave the berry to Selator, he grew a plant from it, and we had a good old bit of chat afterwards.  The Antherica was saved, and I had succeeded in my quest.

THE POST-GAME
That was a bit easy, wasn't it?  Here's the thing: I have the path memorised for this quest.  It's a fair bit harder when you're wandering the swamp with no idea which is the right way to go.  Still, I'll take it; an easy victory every now and then is a heartening experience.

So what next?  Normally it would be a wrap-up post followed by the next Exploring Titan, but that's going to have to wait.  I did say there were three quests, after all, and I intend to complete them all.  I'm not sure which will be next, but it probably depends on my stats.  If they're high, I'll go for the Evil quest, otherwise I'll try the Neutral one.

Oh, and here's my map so far:

I'm going to try to hit every clearing in the course of my three quests.  I could probably have done some more exploration here, but it's a decent start.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Sorcery! Attempt 10 - Book 3: The Seven Serpents

Another week, another crack at the Sorcery! epic.  Last time I fell afoul of the Serpent of Time, which I imagine was a sticking point for many a reader back in the day.  Every path provided for that encounter leads to death, so there must be a non-obvious solution somewhere earlier in the book.  The trick is to find it, otherwise I'll be right back to The Shamutanti Hills.  Please, no, and thank you, I'd rather complete The Seven Serpents and be on to something else.

For this attempt I rolled scores of Skill 7, Stamina 22 and Luck 10 (raised to 11 at the end of book 1).  Passable.  In most other books I'd be gnashing my teeth at that Skill score, but in Sorcery! it ain't so bad.

I won't dwell on The Shamutanti Hills or Khare - Cityport of Traps for too long.  I got through them without too much trouble, following my usual paths.  The only new thing I recall discovering is what happens if you keep making successful Luck tests while trying to rob the Chainmaker: eventually you're caught in a net, and the old man from the prison at the start of the book shows up to let you out at the cost of returning everything you just stole.  It's a rare case where it's better to fail a Luck test, as you get to keep the Chainmaker's stuff as well as kill him and take his magic chain.

I also traded for the Large Backpack in the Gnome's shop.  It's not particularly special: it lets you ignore the text whenever you're instructed that you can only take an item by leaving one of your own items behind.  In theory it's a handy thing to have, but I don't recall being told to do this anywhere in the Sorcery! epic.  So unless it happens in The Crown of Kings, the backpack is basically worthless.

I began The Seven Serpents with a Stamina of 12 and a Luck score of 10.  I went through the opening scenes of the book, fighting the Nighthawks and visiting Shadrack.  I discovered that you can't escape the Nighthawks by casting a WAL spell; birds can just fly around a magic wall.  It was worth a shot.  I'll try anything to get out of that initial battle, even though I suspect it's a futile effort.

Following my visit with Shadrack I encountered some Centaurs and befriended them.  This time I decided not to visit the snake-charmer, and had the centaurs take me to the Black Elf caravan, where I posed as a merchant and bought a whole raft of stuff: a Hewing Axe (useful for cutting trees, but with a -2 penalty in combat), an Orb (can be thrown to hurt enemies, but has a chance to break every time), a Pearl Ring (worth 10gp, and useful in casting the invisibility spell), some snake-bite antidote, a vial of water (labelled as holy water, but actually not blessed at all), and a spellbook.  The spellbook was from Analand, and I was forced to destroy it so that it could never fall into the wrong hands, but buying it gave me the opportunity to have a look through the spells again and refresh myself.  (I can always use a refresher on the Sorcery! spells.  There's a small selection that I know well, and a lot that I never use at all.)  All up this stuff cost me 36 gold pieces, and left me with but a single coin to my name.

After leaving the Black Elves I camped for the night, eating my last meal in conjunction with the Bomba Fruit I had obtained in book 1 (which doubled the Stamina gain from the meal).  At this point my Stamina was 16.

The next morning I headed north-west.  (This was off my usual path, but I had to do some exploring to find a way to defeat the Time Serpent.)  The plains in this direction were empty, and all I had to show for it was a day of uneventful trekking and a night of bad sleep, all done on an empty stomach.  (All I lost from this ordeal was a single point of Stamina, which seems a bit lenient.  Based on that my character could survive about 20 days without food, which initially sounds ridiculous but is actually quite accurate to real life.)

After finding nothing to the north-west I veered back north-east.  I encountered a whirlwind, but previous games had warned me against it, so this time I just left without investigating.  Again I headed north-west (exploring in a zig-zag pattern, for no particular reason), and came to a village of primitive humanoids known as Klattamen.  The Klattamen invited me into their camp to eat some roast meat, and I heartily accepted given that I hadn't eaten in over a day.  The meat restored my Strength (raising my Stamina to 17), but there was obviously more to this than good hospitality.  Sure enough, I was soon called out to face the best warrior in the tribe in single combat.

Skippin' leg day.


I could have cast a spell here, but it seemed dishonourable, and I also thought it might hurt my chances of winning favour with the Klattamen.  Instead I fought the Klattaman Champion with my sword.  He wounded me once (dropping my Stamina to 15), but after that I made short work of him.  (Though I considered magic dishonourable in this situation, I wasn't above using my magical Armband of Swordmastery.  It's hypocritical, but it's also pragmatic.)

The Klattamen regarded me with respect following my defeat of their champion, but instead of hanging around and lording over them I decided to press on.  They seemed pissed about it, but none of them tried to stop me, and I was able to move on.  (I'm wondering if I missed anything here.  There seems to be no benefit in this encounter at all.)

Soon I came to the outskirts of the Forest of Snatta, and after a night if undisturbed rest (restoring my Stamina to 18) I made my way inside.  At the first junction I chose the right path, and found my way blocked by an infestation of Strangleweed.  (Readers with a good memory will recall that I was killed by this encounter on my first run through the book.)  Undeterred, I took out my Hewing Axe and carved a path forward.  (And most satisfying it was, too.)

At the next junction, within sight of Lake Ilklala, I took the left-hand path and came to a hillock with a door in it.  I went inside, where I met the elf sorceress Fenestra.  Rather than rush straight into a conversation about the Seven Serpents (as I did last time), I decided to ask if she had any magic that might be useful to me.  She got pretty excited to be meeting another wizard, and offered to trade me any item might aid me in spellcasting.  I didn't take her up on the offer, though, because she wanted two of my items for one of hers.  I guess it makes sense, because logically she already has everything, but it didn't seem like a fair deal to me.

Now that we were getting along, I turned the conversation towards the topic of the Seven Serpents.  Fenestra revealed that the Water Serpent had killed her father some time ago, so she had no love for them.  She gave me a flask of oil, explaining that it would be useful in killing the Water Serpent.  She also revealed that she had the Sun Serpent trapped within her glass orb.  I was expecting that I would have to battle it, but it seemed that it really was imprisoned.  Instead I used my Serpent Ring, and extracted a secret from it: "beware the breath of the Mucalytics".

I asked Fenestra about crossing Lake Ilklala, and she offered to sell me a whistle with which I could summon the ferryman.  I didn't have the 2 gold pieces needed to buy it, so I had to trade her my gold-backed mirror instead.  (I chose that item because I couldn't remember the spell that required it.)

Before I left, Fenestra offered me the choice of three gifts: a medicinal potion, a lucky charm, and the whistle (which I had already purchased).  I took the charm, which can be used once to restore my Luck to its initial level.

After leaving Fenestra, I came to yet another junction and chose the right-hand path.  This might have been the worst possible decision, because I soon found myself confronted by four Snattacats!



I knew that fighting them would be suicide, and I suspected that running away might be equally foolish, so I cast a FOF spell.  The magic kept the Snattacats at bay (reducing my Stamina to 14), and I was able to escape.

Eventually, I made my way out of the forest, and reached the shore of Lake Ilklala.  It was evening, and I couldn't blow my whistle until daybreak, so I settled down to sleep (reducing my Stamina to 11 due to lack of food).

In the morning I blew my whistle and summoned the ferryman, who offered to take me across the lake for 4 gold pieces.  I didn't have the money, so I was reduced to fighting him.  I could have used a spell, but it didn't seem worth it, and although he hit me once (reducing my Stamina to 9) I was able to quickly subdue him and convince him to row me across for free.

The ferryman left, and returned with his boat, though his demeanor had become suddenly ruder than before.  (Should I be surprised?  I just beat the guy up with my sword!)  I called him on his attitude, and sure enough discovered that his body had been possessed by the Serpent of Air.  Rather than use a spell against the serpent, I searched the ferryman's body, found the Serpent's original skin, and tore it to pieces.  That destroyed the Serpent of Air - my first for the adventure.

With the ferryman dead, I was forced to row myself across the lake.  Towards the centre I noticed a disturbance in the water, and went to investigate.  As I drew closer, something tried to tip me out of my boat, but I was able to stay in with a successful Luck test.  That "something" was the Water Serpent, which coiled up to attack, but I was prepared for it: I poured the contents of Fenestra's oil flask over it, and the Water Serpent was destroyed.  Two out of seven!

Soon I had crossed the lake, and was wading through Vischlami Swamp.  I had to test my Luck at this point, which I did successfully.  Nothing happened, so I'm not sure what I just saved myself from.  Knowing Steve Jackson, and taking the terrain into account, it was probably giant leeches.

I heard something approaching from ahead, but rather than hide I decided to stand my ground.  Three Marsh Goblins crashed into the clearing, evidently being chased by something.  Figuring that I'd otherwise be unable to communicate with them, I put on my green-haired wig and cast a RAP spell.  The Goblins revealed that they were running from a great Serpent.  They had been trying to use a sacred scroll given to them by Fenestra to drive it out, but were unable to read it.  I got them to show me the scroll.



I promised to do what I could to destroy the Serpent, and the Goblins continued their flight in the opposite direction.  I marched forward to my destiny, presumably with green wig still upon my head.

Before long I was confronted by the Serpent of Time.  This encounter would have been certain death, but with the aid of the scroll I was able to defeat it.  I read the chant (by deciphering the Roman numerals and turning to paragraph 59), which caused the Serpent to float sluggishly in the air.  The resulting combat was a one-sided affair (with the Serpent having an effective Skill of 1 due to my use of the Sham's Serpent Staff), and I crushed it with gusto.

After a brief rest I continued my journey, and soon reached the foot of the Zanzunu Peaks.  I had defeated (or left trapped) four of the Archmage's Serpents: Sun, Air, Water and Time.  Three of them, however, would no doubt be streaking ahead of me to warn their master.  The third leg of my journey was over, but the final - and most dangerous - was still ahead: Mampang Fortress.


(I hadn't used my prayer to Libra at any point during this adventure, so I used it now to restore my stats to their initial levels.  Gotta be at my fighting best for The Crown of Kings!)


THE POST-GAME
I did it!  As I suspected, the Time Serpent was the last obstacle in this book.  I was also correct about where I would find the means to defeat it: the Marsh Goblins by way of Fenestra.  In the end this wasn't a super difficult book, although finding and defeating all of the Serpents might add a little extra challenge.  I only found four of them in this run through.  I know roughly where to find the Moon Serpent, and the Earth Serpent, but I missed them this time.  The location of the Fire Serpent remains a mystery.  I'm hoping to beat The Crown of Kings in a single attempt, but the chances of that are slim to none.  No doubt I'll have plenty of chances to search for the Fire Serpent on my subsequent trips through this book.

NEXT:
That won't be for a while, though, because as I've worked out release dates (based on ads in Warlock), The Crown of Kings came out circa February 1985, about four months after The Seven Serpents.  Between those I have five main series Fighting Fantasy books, and two issues of Warlock.  For those of you looking forward to the conclusion to the Sorcery! epic that's bad news.  For me, who is looking for a break from the Sorcery! epic, it's like manna from heaven.  Next up is Scorpion Swamp, which has its detractors.  Personally, I have a lot of time for it, and I'm looking forward to re-visiting it.