Friday, June 26, 2015

Exploring Titan 4: The City of Thieves

I'm five books into the Fighting Fantasy series, and the world of Titan (as yet unnamed) is beginning to take shape.  The series hasn't yet reached the point where the books are explicitly connected, but every one (with the exception of Starship Traveller, of course) has introduced one of the major building blocks of what will eventually become the continent of Allansia.  The City of Thieves introduces three more of those building blocks: the town of Silverton, the tower of Zanbar Bone (the Night Prince!) and - most importantly of all - the city of Port Blacksand.

I'll begin with Silverton, because it's the one that requires the least amount of discussion.  It's your generic fantasy town in peril, basically, but we do learn a few things about it.  It lies at the crossroads of the main trading routes in its area (about fifty miles east of Port Blacksand), and the hero arrives there after a long walk through the "outlands".  Trade items such as herbs, spices, silks, metalware and exotic foods often pass through, and as such it's a prosperous town.  The architecture and the fashion reflects that wealth, apparently (which makes it a bit more difficult to sympathise with their plight, I must say, as does the willingness of the townsfolk to throw the mayor's daughter to Zanbar Bone).  You know, after actually looking at the details, it's not quite as generic as I said at the start of this paragraph; most of the scenes here are set inside the tavern (The Old Toad) and the focus here is on mayor Owen Carralif's story, so it's easy to gloss over the details.  I've never really paid much attention to the town's description, and it does have a bit more character than I had thought.

Zanbar Bone's tower is less than a day's travel on foot from Silverton (in the winning paragraph, the hero leaves the tower in the afternoon, and arrives that evening).  It lies somewhere to the north of Port Blacksand, about a day-and-a-half's travel on foot.  The tower isn't described in great detail, and to be honest it never strays far from the standard tropes of the undead wizard's tower.  It has the usual menagerie of the dead (vampires, mummies, zombies), and the vast majority of the atmosphere that the place evokes comes from Iain McCaig's art.  Even Zanbar Bone himself receives little in the way of backstory or personality.  It's not even clear what he's trying to achieve.  Yes, he wants Owen Carralif's daughter, but we never learn why.  Even so, a few things can be inferred from extraneous details in the tower.  He has his Spirit Stalkers, to function as messengers and servants, and even as his doorman.  The vampire lady on the second floor is said to be his servant, but to my mind she is almost certainly his consort.  The Death Hawks who attack the hero on the roof seem a bit random, but could be kept there by Bone to send messages to his allies.  (They're nowhere near as random as the genie that the hero finds in the same location; presumably his jar was dropped by another adventurer who failed to kill Zanbar Bone, just as the shields in the foyer were).

And now, we turn our attention to the major part of this adventure, the city of Port Blacksand, commonly known as the City of Thieves.  It's various descriptions leave the reader in no doubt that this is an unpleasant place to be.  Owen Carralif says that it is home to every pirate, brigand, assassin, thief and evil-doer for hundreds of miles around.  The air around it smells of decay, and the wall near the main gates is lined with skulls on wooden spikes and starving men in cages.  It's pretty obvious that its ruler, Lord Azzur, is an awful tyrant, and his city is a "wretched hive of scum and villainy", to steal a phrase.

But how does the city work?  Azzur is a tyrant, and his guards are jack-booted thugs of the first order.  Yet inside the city, lawlessness reigns supreme.  Muggings, thefts and murders seem to be happening constantly, and the perpetrators have little fear of reprisal from the local constabulary.  It's difficult to reconcile Azzur's seeming despotism and the chaos inside the walls of Port Blacksand.

So let's look at the guards, and how they actually behave in their interactions with the hero.  The first is the gate guard, who seems to have orders to keep undesirable people out of the city.  If the hero tells this guard that he's looking for the wizard Nicodemus, he will be arrested and thrown in a jail cell.  If he pretends to be a merchant the guard will let him  in, regardless of how flimsy his cover story may be.  The message here is clear: Azzur doesn't want anyone in Port Blacksand who isn't looking to contribute to its economy.  The guard himself is obviously not too zealous about his duty, and will let the hero in so long is it looks like he's done his job.

There's a later encounter with a pair of guards who ask to see the hero's merchant's pass.  If he doesn't have one, they will instantly try to arrest him.  Again, the guards are hassling someone who's in town for reasons other than the circulation of gold pieces.  The later encounter with the trolls Sourbelly and Fatnose goes much the same way (and you should always be wary of a constabulary that has trolls on the payroll).

The last encounter that I haven't mentioned involves some guards chasing an escaped prisoner.  The guards claim that he's a murderer, but the prisoner himself says that he was jailed because he was robbed, and thus unable to pay his taxes.  I'm inclined to believe the prisoner in this case, as his story jibes too well with the behaviour of the other guards in Blacksand.  If it is true, then the city officials seem more concerned with imprisoning those who can't pay taxes than those committing genuine crimes.

The evidence is strong: Azzur is interested far more in how much money is flowing through his city, and far less with how the people inside its walls are treated, and what conditions they live under.  The guards seem to be there to keep out people with no goods to trade, or money to spend, and to otherwise protect Azzur's business interests.  It's difficult to see how this works with the scads of characters in the book who are living in obvious poverty, but I guess that every city needs a working underclass, and Azzur is probably keen to make sure that these people will work for next to nothing.

Monsters and Other Personages

At this point I should talk about Nicodemus, who is important to the story after all.  It seems that he was a heroic wizard at one point, as Owen Carralif thinks that he will come to his aid when asked.  He must also be quite powerful; Carralif thinks that he could defeat Zanbar Bone, and though we have little evidence to support that fact there's no reason to doubt that he's amongst the top wizards of Allansia.  Whatever Nicodemus' former skill and demeanour, he's given up the public lifestyle and settled in Port Blacksand, there to eke out his twilight years in seclusion from those seeking his aid.   It's never said what caused him to become a recluse; perhaps there was some incident in his past, or perhaps he's just grown old and tired as he says.  I know this though: the old bastard's forgetful, and his little slip-up with the formula to destroy Zanbar Bone has resulted in countless deaths for people playing this book.  Unfortunately for Nicodemus this is the one personality trait he displays besides "generic wizard", and so it's the one thing I remember about him.  Stupid Nicodemus.

Before I get into discussing the new monsters, it would be remiss of me not to mention how cosmopolitan Port Blacksand is.  Not only does it feature the usual fantasy hodge-podge of men, elves and dwarves, but the city is riddled with races that most other fantasy settings would label as "evil".  Fighting Fantasy isn't above that sort of thing, but it's quite refereshing to see a fantasy city that has goblins, ogres and trolls rubbing shoulders with the so-called "good" races.  It's another thing that adds to Port Blacksand's charm.

I believe that Man-Orcs make their first appearance here, being an orc/human crossbreed.  There's not much to say about them, except that I like their name rather more than the usual term of "half-orc".  Of more interest are the Bays, a group of friendly brown-skinned goblin-like creatures who are encountered playing their favourite game, "Bay's ball".  Ignoring the dastardly pun, it's not clear whether the Bays are a race of their own, an offshoot of the goblin race, or even just a goblin gang that hangs out in Port Blacksand.  I'd be inclined to go with either of the latter two, especially given that they aren't encountered in any other Fighting Fantasy books (as far as I know).

The trolls that show up in this book are an interesting case, in that they behave very differently than the one we saw in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.  That one was a cave-dweller, and seemed much more savage than Sourbelly and Fatnose, who are functioning (if unpleasant) members of Port Blacksand's city guard.  That's not necessarily a contradiction; humans have exhibited the same range of behaviours after all.  But later in the book there's a possible encounter with a Cave Troll, which brings up the idea that the troll race may have a number of different sub-species and off-shoots.

We've seen animated creatures before, and even some animated plant-life in The Forest of Doom, so the Leaf Beasts encountered in the public gardens are nothing new.  Similarly, the Giant Centipede is the latest in a line of giant creepy-crawlies, and notable only because we haven't seen one before this.

There's a creature called a Lizardine that has a shop in Port Blacksand, selling magic brooches.  It's described as a lizard-like humanoid, with red scaly skin.  It has a fiery breath weapon, but I'm more intrigued by it's status as a more-or-less friendly salesperson.  Sure, if you steal its wares it will respond by trying to kill you, but otherwise it just wants to do polite business, and its status as a dragon man is otherwise irrelevant.  I like that a lot.

The last inhabitant of Blacksand that I feel needs a mention is the Serpent Queen.  She lives in apparent opulence, and has a haughty enough attitude that she could be an actual queen.  Nevertheless, she must pay taxes to Lord Azzur, as she is quick to hand gold to the hero if he pretends to be a tax collector.  She also seems quite familiar with the personalities of various shopkeepers, so she is far from a recluse.  She just happens to be a lady with a snake's head, and no explanation for that is ever given.  Sometimes Fighting Fantasy books present weird things that are just there, a part of the world and nothing to do with whatever quest the hero happens to be on.  This is one of those weird things, and I hope that her mystery is never solved.

With Port Blacksand tied up, I'll move on to Zanbar Bone's servants.  Most of them are by-the-numbers undead, but there are two new creations.  The first are the Moon Dogs, which are described as "trained killer hounds".  Bone sends them every night to terrorise Silverton, and given their importance to the main plot I would love to tell you everything that the book says about them.  Alas, there's not much more than that.  They are said to be "stronger than four men", but the hero himself must be capable of dispatching two at a time if he's going to succeed in his quest.  They don't seem to be magical at all, or undead.  The hero can kill them with his sword.  They seem to be exactly what the book says they are, big dogs trained by Zanbar Bone to murder people.  That's enough, I suppose.  (There's also no illustration given for them, which I always find frustrating when it comes to new monsters.  I'd rather see this than the umpteenth orc or giant rat.)

The Spirit Stalkers are similarly important, and serve as Bone's messengers and servants.  They have a bit more agency and intelligence than the average undead, although they don't seem capable of hiding the fact that there's something obviously "wrong" about them (a skeletal body and hissing voice tends to have that effect).  Their touch putrefies living flesh, and they can only be killed by a silver arrow through the heart.  That's about all we learn about them, but it's enough to separate them from the run-of-the-mill undead.  (And again, no illustration.  Did we really need another picture of skeletons?)


If my notes are correct, it's time for me to leave the Fighting Fantasy series proper and tackle the first of the Sorcery! books: The Shamutanti Hills.  I'm really looking forward to it; it will be really nice to play through a book that I haven't read a bajillion times before.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

'Best Death Award' Retrospective

In my last post I introduced the 'Your Adventure Ends Here Best Death Award'.  Since I'm already a few books into this project, I should go back and retroactively award the first four Fighting Fantasy books as well.  So, without further ado, the best deaths from books 1 to 4.

Book 1: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

It's the gleeful dancing that does it.

Book 2: The Citadel of Chaos

There are a lot of good options from this book, but I went with the one that best encapsulates Balthus Dire's disdain for peasants. 

Book 3: The Forest of Doom

Fire Demon!  This is a better ending than finding the Hammer of Gillibran, surely?

Book 4: Starship Traveller

Cloned, imprisoned, then blown up along with an entire planet.  Endings don't come much suckier than this.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

City of Thieves: Final Thoughts

City of Thieves, the fifth Fighting Fantasy book, continues the series' gradual coverage of stock fantasy settings. Book 1 featured a cave dungeon, book 2 a citadel, and book 3 a forest. Now we've moved to the city, and that setting is what provides much of this book with its verve and sense of fun.

This is Ian Livingstone's third gamebook, and it has by far the most character of any of his efforts thus far.  Sure, the plot is recycled from previous books, but it's the setting that makes it great. Port Blacksand feels like a living place, a city where things go on regardless of the presence of the hero. The book is loaded with mysterious happenings and things that don't make sense, but feel like they might if you'd only arrived a few minutes earlier.  No matter how many times I read this book, and despite the fact that I've read every single entry, I feel like if I just explore enough I'll find something new.  This is where Livingstone hits his peak as a writer and as a designer.

That said, the final act in Zanbar Bone's tower is a little uninspired, and reliant on cliche.  But what do you expect from a necromancer's tower?  Most later FF gamebooks would have glossed over the Port Blacksand section, and focused on the tower. I feel like Livingstone made the right choice here, by putting the focus on the city. There's far more novelty to be had there.

As good as Livingstone is, though, as much of the credit must go to illustrator Iain McCaig. The illustrations range from humourous to horrific, and are packed with detail. His crowd scenes are particularly great, with all sorts of cool things going on in the background.  McCaig only illustrates two Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, but he's so good that his work almost defined the line. (I would only place Russ Nicholson above him, and that is perhaps more because of childhood bias than any other reason.)

As far as gameplay goes, this one is as straightforward as it gets.  It's difficult, without being unfair. Yes, there's a patented Livingstone treasure hunt, but the items you need are not all that hard to find.  And yes, there is one unavoidable combat that is very difficult, but there are some combat bonuses to be found that can mitigate this.  AND YES, the 1-in-3 choice at the very end of the book is really rather awful, and the sort of thing that inspired millions of children to become dirty cheaters.  Even with those flaws, I stand by my assessment that this is probably the most well-balanced book that Ian Livingstone ever produced.

So yeah, this is one of the all-time greats. It's in my top five Fighting fantasy books, for certain. (For the record: Warlock of Firetop Mountain, City of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon, House of Hell, Creature of Havoc.)  It features perhaps the greatest synergy of writer and artist that the series ever had, it hits a good balance between challenge and frustration, and it's just a hell of a lot of fun.  One of the best.

Cool Stuff I Missed
I covered most of the book in my three attempts.  The main path I missed was right at the beginning, at the initial three-way junction.  I never took the western path down Key Street, and there's a reason for that: one the encounters is with a gang of snipers who either force you to leave ten gold pieces, or shoot you full of arrows.  Not only that, but this encounter also leads to a healer who will only heal you if you give him your sword, so it's bad all around.  There are two other areas of note along that path: a locksmith shop, and a lizardine selling magical scorpion brooches.  You can also find a pair of Elven Boots, but they only grant a bonus to Skill.  The other two paths feature items that increase your Attack Strength, which is always better.  This is obviously the least beneficial of all three paths, and so I never took it.

'Your Adventure Ends Here' Award for Best Death

Not a death as such, but it is pretty horrible.  It's the two trolls that take turns beating the shit out of you that tipped this one over the edge.

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

Story & Setting: The story is a basic item hunt combined with an evil wizard that needs killing. It's done well enough, but it's well-trodden territory even at this stage of the series. It's the setting where this book shines; Port Blacksand is chaotic, weird, and intriguing, and I'd love to have more books set there. Rating: 6 out of 7.

Toughness: Finding all of the items can be tough, although most of them are found in logical places, and there are clues to the ones that aren't.  Combat would be just about perfectly balanced if it wasn't for that super-hard Moon Dog battle near the end.  And then there's that trick the book pulls at the end, where you have to choose the right ingredients to use to kill Zanbar Bone.  A two-in-three chance of death, with no hints as to which is correct?  Unforgivable.  Without this, City of Thieves would score quite high. With it, I think I have to split the middle.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The writing's atmospheric, the illustrations are top-notch, and the cover is great.  Gamebooks don't look much better than this.  Rating: 7 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's the standard FF system, with no additions, and I can't think of anything that the book does wrong in this regard.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: It's the first city adventure, and Port Blacksand is a large part of the setting going forward.  There's very little innovation, but quite a bit of influence. Rating: 4 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: The monsters in this book are mostly the standard fantasy humanoids and a bunch of undead, but there are loads of cool characters here.  Most of them only show up briefly, but Livingstone defines them sharply, and McCaig's illustrations go a long way in giving them character. Nicodemus, the Serpent Queen, Sourbelly and Fatnose, the many shopkeeps.  The fuckin' Night-Prince.  It's good stuff. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Amusement: There are always new things to find in Port Blacksand, and the encounters are quirky and intriguing, and often nasty.  This one's always fun to return to. Rating: 6 out of 7.

Yes, City of Thieves gets a bonus point, because I said so.  The above scores total 37, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 74.