Thursday, June 16, 2016

Caverns of the Snow Witch (preview) - Final Thoughts

The secondary adventure in a magazine designed to support a gamebook line is never something you expect to be good.  Few would be disappointed if it didn't quite meet the standards set by the main series. Basic competency is enough, surely.  Ian Livingstone had a fair bit of experience writing gamebooks by this point, and one would expect that he could knock up a passable adventure in a lazy weekend.  Caverns of the Snow Witch certainly feels like he tried to do that, and to be honest it's almost as good as I would expect a magazine adventure to be.  Almost,  but not quite.

This is a frustrating one.  The basic set-up is there: a mission to destroy the evil Snow Witch, who is plotting evil beneath the Icefinger Mountains.  It's a classic, tried-an-tested scenario that's perfect for a traditional adventure.  The arctic setting adds a bit of interest, as does the atypical beginning with the hero just trying to make a quick buck by hunting down a Yeti.  It's a solid adventure, but some of the design decisions and smaller details let it down.

Take, for instance, the final battle with the Snow Witch, where you're required to have a Skill of 10 to stake her through the heart.  Admittedly, it's not as bad as I had first thought: this only results in an instant death if you don't have the garlic.  Still, I find it a particularly grating bit of design that goes against the spirit of the FF rules.  (Note that the books rarely follow that line in the FF rules that states that any adventurer, regardless of stats, can win.)

There's also the encounter with the Crystal Warrior, who is very powerful and will most probably kill any less-than-awesome adventurers.  You can avoid it by having a genie turn you invisible, but only if you don't have the warhammer needed to fight it.  So if you have the only weapon that can kill it, you have to kill it; there's no other option, even if you have a low Skill, or you're close to death.  To me it's completely backwards: options to avoid a fight should always be available before the fight.

And then there's the ever-present, ever-increasing Ian Livingstone problem of too many difficult combats.  I understand that FF fans were constantly writing to Steve and Ian to ask them to make the books harder.  Steve had a fair reaction to this request: he increased the difficulty of the puzzles, and made the correct path harder to find.  Ian's reaction?  Throw in a lot of unavoidable combats with opponents of Skill 10+.  It's frustrating, like I said.

The last major problem I have with the adventure is the villain.  The Snow Witch is yet another evil wizard, but being a lady isn't enough to give her a personality.  Even the twist that she's a vampire does nothing for her.  She's just a non-entity, and the confrontation at the end has no weight to it.

I feel like I'm being unfairly harsh to Ian, so I should say a few kind things.  I do like the set-up at the beginning, with Big Jim Sun and the hunt for the Yeti.  Ian's very good at setting adventures up, and he's also quite good at evoking an environment.  The opening stages of the adventure with the hero trekking through the icy mountains is good stuff.

In six attempts at this adventure I covered pretty much all of it.  The only area I missed was a storeroom guarded by a Zombie.  It contained the garlic I needed to help me fight the Snow Witch, and the ground minotaur horn that I could have used to avoid the Dragon.

There aren't any blatant mistakes in the adventure.  There are a few items that never get used, but they're all the sorts of things that you can tell straight away are useless: a stuffed rat, sandals, a box full of teeth, pickled lizard tails, the sort of things that Orcs and Goblins collect that are just there for flavour.

This adventure features nine instant deaths, and one alternate ending in which the hero survives without getting the Snow Witch's treasure.  Most of the deaths are pretty banal, to be honest, and more than a few of them are due to being bitten by a vampire.  I just did that with the magazine version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and I don't want to repeat it here.  So I'll go with a personal favourite:

The good old "drop a mountain on them right at the end of the adventure" trick.  Love it.


Story & Setting: The story is decent, though not all that well realised, and does little to distinguish itself from all of the other "kill the evil wizard" adventures out there.  The setting of the Icefinger Mountains is novel for Fighting Fantasy, and evocatively presented (at least in the outdoor sections).  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Toughness: The adventure relies too heavily on unavoidable combats, and is almost impossible for a low-Skill character to complete.  Success relies almost entirely on the luck of the dice.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Duncan Smith provides the illustrations, which are serviceable if uninspiring.  I do have to give him credit for fidelity to the text, though.  Livingstone's prose is solid as usual.  The magazine format doesn't do it any favours.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: This adventure uses the standard FF rule set, with no changes.  Aside from the standard poor design decisions that are common to the series (i.e. a magic sword that increases Skill instead of Attack Strength), this also has the "Skill 10 or higher" bit in the Snow Witch battle that irked me so much.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: The arctic setting is a new one, but ultimately this adventure doesn't add much that hasn't already been done, and done better.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: This adventure has a few standards (goblins, a dragon), some snow-based enemies (the yeti, a mammoth), and a few new monsters (the sentinel, the ice demon and the crystal warrior).  None of the new entries are all that inspired, though.  Big Jim Sun has a bit of personality, but the Snow Witch is a blank slate.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Amusement: This is almost a fun adventure, if a somewhat over-familiar one.  A few bad design elements and a profusion of hard fights mars it, as does a lack of interesting choices in the encounters.  I'd certainly had enough of it by my last attempt.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

No bonus point for this one.  The above scores add up to 18, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 36.  That sounds about right: it's on the lower end of mediocrity.

Next: The Seven Serpents!  Get hype!


  1. The attitude taken by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson to their 'mini' adventures in Warlock magazine is telling.

    Ian's mini-adventure is essentially the first half of the full-length Caverns of the Snow Witch, with a few minor alterations and different illustrations.

    Steve's House of Hell (Warlock 3) is shorter but very different version of the adventure. Many, many choices will yield different outcomes, the correct path is absolutely different and completing the mini-adventure really only give you a tease of the full glory of the full-length House of Hell.

    No guesses as to which I preferred.

  2. It's pretty indicative of Ian and Steve as a whole, I feel. I think my writing on the blog has made it pretty clear that I think Steve's work is vastly superior. That's not to say I don't enjoy Ian Livingstone's stuff, because I really do love it, but there's a definite sense that he's phoning it on sometimes.

    I'm really looking forward to Warlock #3 now. House of Hell is a personal fave, having provided some of the most vivid nightmare fuel of my childhood.