Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game

Tabletop role-playing games can be very difficult to explain.  I must have explained Dungeons & Dragons to my dad a dozen times, but without fail he would ask the same question whenever I came home from a game: "Who won?"  I've read tons of RPG rulebooks that never even make the attempt, or bury it so far into the book that it becomes irrelevant.  Most of the gamers I know learned to play not by reading the books, but by playing.

I didn't.  I had to figure RPGs out by reading the manuals.  Luckily I had two of the very best to work from.  The first was the D&D Basic Set, written by Frank Mentzer, which may be the single greatest RPG tutorial ever created.  The other was Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game by Steve Jackson.

I was already well familiar with Fighting Fantasy by the time I read Fighting Fantasy (this could get confusing), so I had a bit of a leg-up.  But Jackson's intro to RPGs is really well done.  He doesn't get bogged down in minutiae, such as how much a Peruvian Hornswizzle can carry over its head.  Instead he constructs a very simple game system, and sets about using it to illustrate the basics of how RPGs work.

The book begins by explaining the differences between a gamebook and an RPG, describes the roles of the GamesMaster and the players, then gives an example of play.  Chapters 3 and 4 have rules for character creation and combat, and chapter 5 has tips for dealing with common situations that will arise during play.

Jackson's advice is usually on the money, I find.  He keeps things loose, stresses the importance of keeping the game moving, and never gets bogged down in trivia.  He points out a lot of common-sense things, like ensuring the players have a light source when underground.  It doesn't sound like something you would need pointed out, but it stuck with ten-year-old me.  Jackson keeps the focus on things that will come up in the game often, and that's exactly the right approach to take for teaching RPGs to kids.

If there's one problem with Fighting Fantasy, it's the system itself.  Every player character is a basic warrior, with Skill, Stamina and Luck scores rolled exactly as they are in the gamebooks.  The most important score is Skill: it determines how well you fight, how well you search, how well you sneak, and pretty much how well you do everything.  Now, take a two-person party where one character has a Skill of 12, and the other has a Skill of 7.  That first guy will be better at everything.  In theory this is a cooperative game, but there's always competition between players, even when they're working together.  Especially younger players of the sort that this book is aimed at.  I've seen fights break out over whose character is stronger, and I've seen those with stronger characters bully the weaker members of the party in-game.  Fighting Fantasy is fine as an introductory system, but the lack of balance (and any form of character advancement) really limits its longevity, and can lead to problems at the table.

The meat of the book, though, are the two adventures that comprise the latter half.  There's a short introductory adventure - "The Wishing Well" - followed by a longer, more involved affair - "Shaggradd's Hives of Peril".

"The Wishing Well" has little in the way of set-up.  It's set in a dungeon at the bottom of an ancient well, where nobles and princes of long ago would come to cast in gold coins and make wishes. The well has long since dried up, and now adventurers go there in search of treasure.

It's very much a "funhouse" dungeon, with little heed paid to ecology or any sort of logic.  It runs on what I like to call "dungeon logic", which is something I'm fine with.  Sometimes you don't need to explain what the orcs eat, you know?  They're just hanging around waiting for adventurers to fight. Nevertheless I'm going to make an attempt to explain this dungeon based on the clues contained within.

The first question that comes up is: who made this dungeon at the bottom of the well anyway?  For this, I refer to Room 4, which contains a portrait of a fellow named Marg the Slaymaster.  Marg is described as long dead, and I theorise that the dungeon was once his base of operations.  His place of Slaymastery, if you will.  Perhaps the mummy in the sarcophagus in Room 6 is actually Marg himself?

From there I would say that the dungeon was taken over by the evil Spider King, who is still the Big Bad in residence.  The Spider King may have been in league with Marg, or may have killed him, or may have just moved in after the Slaymaster's death.  He is, however, in an area accessible only through a locked door, which begs the question of who locked him in there?

The other two characters to be found in the dungeon are Thrushbeard the Dwarf, and the wizard Nandras.  Both of these guys are friendly (Thrushbeard moreso than Nandras), and Nandras has the key needed to open the door to the Spider King.  It seems to me that Nandras sealed the Spider King away, and took the Wishing Well as his HQ along with his associate Thrushbeard and his calacorm servant.

The last question remaining is just where to place this adventure.  At this point in FF history, we only have Allansia and Kakhabad to work with.  It doesn't feel like this fits with Kakhabad; the sense of grime and squalor present in the Sorcery! epic isn't in evidence here.  It could be placed in the regions surrounding Kakhabad, but we know very little of those. I'd be inclined to place "The Wishing Well" in Allansia.  There aren't any indications of what terrain it might be found in, so it really could go anywhere.  Any placement is conjecture, I'm afraid.

Before finishing up with 'The Wishing Well" I'd like to point out the introduction of the Nandi Bear, a savage bear-human hybrid.  I don't think this monster has appeared previously, unless there's one in The Shamutanti Hills.

The second adventure, "Shaggradd's Hives of Peril" gives us a bit more to go on.  Ten years ago, a Black Elf named Shaggradd discovered a dungeon beneath an old oak tree, and she purchased the surrounding woods.  Rather than enter the dungeon herself, she began advertising for adventurers, and allowing them to enter for a fee of ten percent of their plunder.

I was able to make sense of "The Wishing Well", but there's no hope with the Hives of Peril.  The only way it makes sense is as something designed to challenge adventurers.  There are certainly a lot of cool ideas, and interesting set pieces.  Steve Jackson knows how to come up with cool stuff.  None of it fits together though.  Still, it might be fun to examine some of the things that are here and try to figure out some sort of logic.

The most incongruous of these is the trio of dwarves who have set up an eating house in a dungeon at the bottom of a hollow oak tree.  It's impossible to imagine how they maintain a business, though I do appreciate Jackson's wry closing sentence: "It has not been a good day for trade".  No shit.

Not far from the dwarves is Barnabas the Beggar, another encounter that makes me wonder just what the hell he's doing there.  A beggar needs people to beg at, you know?

There's a sequence of rooms that spins around every twenty seconds, so that the doors don't always lead to the same place.  Found in these rooms are an Aardwolf, a Changeling, and an Apprentice Witch.  Why are these creatures living in rooms that constantly spin around?  I don't know.  I don't even think Steve Jackson knows.

In the southern portion of the dungeon there's a Vampire, and an Evil Priest.  You could perhaps say that these guys are in charge, but there's nothing to indicate that this is the case.  To the east there's a wizard named Morphyr, who is relatively friendly, and his buddy known only as the Man of Many Years.  They might be in charge as well.  Who knows?

At this point I should probably throw my hands up and say "dungeon logic".  The only other explanation is that the dungeon was created by someone not described in the adventure, and that all of the creatures found within were imprisoned there by said mysterious entity.  I could even make it Shaggradd, if I really wanted to.  It's all fruitless conjecture, though.  This is a dungeon, and the things within it work because it's a dungeon.  What other explanation is needed?

A few monsters make their debuts here.  The first is the Chestrap Beast, a gremlin that lurks inside chests and leaps out to attack victims with its long arms and claws.  The Giant Aardwolf first appears here, though it's not very interesting, and is only hostile due to its long confinement.  I think this might be the fist time we see a Changeling as well; it starts in the form of a baby, then takes the following three forms in succession as it is wounded - a werewolf, a goblin, and a fire demon.  There's a Spectre, which is a sort of ghost that can't really harm the party, but tries to trick them into harming themselves.  It can also possess people, and make them take unexpected or dangerous actions.  A tree in one room has fruit that will hatch into hostile Geese, which makes me think that Steve has been playing a lot of Runequest.  The party may encounter a Salamander, a small heat-resistant lizard.  Or a Weretiger.  Or a Cockatrice, the mythological chicken with the paralysing breath.  There's a Yeti here, which I think might be the first in FF.  It gets hard to keep track.

As for placing this adventure, the only clue given is that it's in a wood somewhere.  The presence of Bomba Fruit in the dwarven eatery might indicate that this takes place in or near Kakhabad - said fruit has appeared before in The Shamutanti Hills - but much as with "The Wishing Well" the tone doesn't feel right.  I'd be more inclined to place it in Allansia, somewhere to the north given the presence of the Yeti.  That would also solve the problem of who Shaggradd bought the land from.  Most of southern Allansia seems to be wilderness, with no ruling body.  In northern Allansia we have Chiang Mai and its various provinces.  Barring any further evidence, that's where I would place it.

Next: It's time to continue with the Sorcery! epic, as I play through Khare - Cityport of Traps.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (revised) - Attempt 1, Part 1

In my last post, I mentioned that Warlock Magazine #1 contains the first half of a revised version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.  I am a huge fan of WoFM.  If I had to nominate the book that has had the most influence on my life, it would be right up there.  That said, I can't get much more out of it at this point.  I've scoured every nook and cranny of Firetop Mountain, and I know all of its secrets.

That's why I'm so excited to play the revised edition.  It's basically the same book, but the keys needed to open the Warlock's treasure chest have been placed in different areas of the dungeon.  To succeed I'll have to ignore the path to success that I have etched in my memory.  When I was a child, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain felt mysterious and frightening.  I felt like it had secrets that I could never discover or understand.  In later years I did discover those secrets, but now that feeling of mystery and danger has returned (albeit less powerfully than before, but that's the way of adulthood).  I get to explore Firetop Mountain all over again, and I couldn't be more stoked about it.

The introductory illustration, as drawn by Tim Sell

While the text of the adventure might have been altered from the original, the rules remain exactly the same.  It even retains WoFM's particular idiosyncrasies, the rules that appeared there and nowhere else: you can only eat provisions one at a time, and only when instructed by the text; and whichever potion you choose to take on your adventure has two doses.

The Background section has been completely rewritten from the original.  It begins with the hero travelling across the Pagan Plains, where he meets an old man pushing a handcart.  The old man talks about his village's failing crops, and blames it on the evil emanating from Firetop Mountain.  He says that the mountain is ruled by a Warlock, who has loads of treasure, and that the villagers would be grateful if the hero could get rid of him.  The hero travels to the village (named as Anvil, which is cool; I'd always seen Anvil on the map from Out of the Pit and wondered where it came from).  From there the Background follows the same path as the original: the hero gathers rumours about the Warlock, and the womenfolk cry when he leaves for the mountain.  I like the expansion of the Background.  It ties the book closer to the rest of the series, and gives the reader a slightly more heroic reason for invading the Warlock's home.

Okay, time to roll my character: Skill 10, Stamina 19, Luck 8.  That's a more than viable character for this book, at least in its original form.  As long as none of the monsters have been altered, I should be fine.  I chose the Potion of Fortune, as usual.  Now, let the adventure begin!

Russ Nicholson re-interprets the entrance to Firetop Mountain.  So much menace!

The re-written Firetop Mountain still begins with the same old familiar T-junction.  I went east, bashed down the door at the end of the passage, and fell into a pit (reducing my Stamina to 18).  Nothing's changed here, I see.

Heading west, I encountered the Orc asleep at his post.  I failed the Luck test required to sneak past him (reducing my Luck to 7), and had to fight, but the Orc was easy pickings.  Again, this is just like the original book.

I entered a door further along the passage, and stole a wooden box from the Orc sleeping within (requiring a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 6).  As expected, the box contained a single gold coin and a mouse, which I released.  At least my Luck got restored back to 8.

The next door I entered was an uninhabited sleeping chamber, containing yet another box.  Upon opening the box I was attacked by the snake inside, and swiftly dispatched it.  I was expecting to find a key in here, perhaps with a different number than in the original book.  To my delight, I instead found 6 gold pieces.  (This was the point at which I realised that the key locations had been changed, and my interest in this revision increased a great deal.)

From there things progressed much as expected: I killed a pair of drunken orcs (learning the Dragonfire Spell afterwards), and fought the Orc Chieftain and his servant.  The servant actually hit me twice, which is somewhat embarrassing.  The trap on their chest caused me to lose a further 3 Stamina, which left me with a meagre total of 11.  The chest contained the usual 25 gold pieces (raising my total to 32), a Potion of Invisibility, and a black silk glove.  What was new was the key hidden under the glove, engraved with the number 125.  I ate one of my provisions (leaving me with 9, and raising my Stamina to 15) before continuing.

From there I went through two junctions, and killed five more Orcs in a kitchen (which reduced my Stamina back to 11; I also used a Luck point to kill one of the Orcs instantly, which reduced my score to 7).  I didn't find any new keys or items, but the bow known as the Giver of Sleep was still there, and that's nothing to scoff at.  I also got a nice Stamina bonus for my bravery (restoring my score to 16), and a Luck bonus that restored me back to 8.

More familiar territory: I saved the crazy man from imprisonment, and listened to his tales of Firetop Mountain.  I wasn't able to break down the door to the armoury, so I'm not sure if there's anything new in there (and my Stamina was reduced to 15 in the bargain).  I killed the two Goblins in the torture chamber easily enough, and claimed the cheese from their pockets.

Once through the portcullis, I opted to turn left at the junction.  Normally I would go right, but with the path to victory changed for this version it made sense to choose the alternate path.  Unless Jackson and Livingstone are trying to swerve me, and make me think I need to take a different path, when in actual fact the same old path will lead to success...  They are devious buggers, I wouldn't put it past them.  Still, left I went, and into territory that I have yet to detail in the blog.

I soon came to another junction, and opted to go north.  The passage ended at a cavern, with no path through.  At the sound of footsteps I hid in a crevice, and watched as an Ogre entered the cavern.  Not wanting to leave his pockets unrifled, I attacked the Ogre, and quite an epic battle ensued.  We had three drawn rounds, and he wounded me thrice before I could kill him (reducing my Stamina to 9).  I used my Luck twice during the battle to kill him faster, reducing my score to 6.  It hardly proved worth it, as all he had in his possession were 3 gold pieces.  I pilfered them nonetheless (raising my total to 35).

Back at the junction I turned west, then turned north.  I passed a narrow passage heading west and decided to take a look.  It didn't go anywhere; instead it just got narrower and narrower, as a ghostly voice laughed at my predicament.  I returned to the passage and continued north.  (I've often wondered if this section was thrown in just to pad the book out to 400 paragraphs.  It doesn't serve any other purpose.)

I came to yet another junction, but this one had a recess where I could sit and eat provisions, which I did (leaving me with 8, and restoring my Stamina to 13).  I chose the west passage, which later turned sharply north.  As I continued the floor collapsed beneath me, and I had to test my Luck in order to avoid falling in.  I was Unlucky (reducing my Luck to 5 and my Stamina to 12), and tumbled into the pit.  At the bottom there were two passages, but from the southern one emerged a Troll.

One of my favourite Russ Nicholson illustrations.  It's a shame the scan I got is terrible.

I was able to avoid the Troll with my Potion of Invisibility, and escape through the north tunnel.  (I didn't have a choice as to whether to use the potion or not.  I always worry when I skip a battle like this.  What if the Troll had something I need to win?  Ah well, the escape granted me a Luck bonus that restored my score to 7).

I ascended a flight of stairs, presumably bringing me back up to the main level.  There was a door at the top, and beyond it I could hear scratching.  When I opened it, I was confronted by a trio of Giant Rats.  Not to worry though, I was able to distract them with my cheese, and run through the room unharmed (restoring my Luck to 8).  (Again, I worry that I've missed something.)

At another junction I chose the north passage, which ended at a large cavern.  This cavern was home to a Giant, over three metres tall.  (In a lovely touch of verisimilitude, Ian and Steve make sure to include a hole in the ceiling, so that the Giant can actually leave his cavern.  Good thinking, lads.)  I attacked the Giant, but before I could close on him he flung a dead pig at me.  I was Lucky, however, and the carcass missed me (but my Luck was reduced to 7).  The Giant proved a strong foe, and he hit me three times before he went down (reducing my Stamina to 6).  It was all worth it, though, because in his belt I found 8 gold pieces (raising my total to 43) and a metal key engraved with the number 9 (a stroke of good fortune which restored my Luck back to 8).  (At this point, I'd like to point out that the Ogre has a higher Stamina than the Giant.  That doesn't seem right, does it?)

Back at the junction I turned east, and at another junction the book forced me to go north.  I came to the bank of an underground river, where I decided to rest and eat provisions.  But before I could take a bite, there was a turbulence beneath me, and I was attacked by a Giant Sandworm.

Russ Nicholson can't draw sand.

I only had 6 Stamina left, so this was a tense battle.  I used my Luck to kill the Sandworm more quickly (reducing my score to 7), and came through unscathed.  I was able to finish my meal (leaving me with 7 provisions, and restoring my Stamina to 10), and I also decided to take a swig from my Potion of Fortune (raising my Luck score to 9).  Then I entered the river and swam downstream.

Soon I was washed up on another beach.  Here there was a bridge, and a sign advising me to ring the bell to summon the ferryman.  I rang the bell, paid him 3 gold pieces (leaving me with 40), and he ferried me to the opposite bank.  (I'm wondering if I should have killed him.  He might have had a key. This book has me feeling guilty for not murdering people.)

(At this point, I want to point out something that's been annoying me about The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for decades.  The southern bank of the river is paragraph 218, and the northern bank of the river is paragraph 214.  As a youngster I would often reach the northern bank, then turn to 218 and find myself inexplicably back on the southern bank, in a bizarre time loop.  It doesn't trick me any more, and the problem was undoubtedly my own stupidity, but could it have hurt Ian and Steve to separate these two paragraphs a bit?)

I had two passages to choose from, and door in front of me.  I chose the north-west passage, which led to a foul-smelling room where a sleeping man was being guarded by his dog.  I coughed to wake him up, and asked what he knew about the Warlock's treasure.  This made him angry, which made his dog angry.  I tried to pacify them, but they were having none of it.  I killed the fire-breathing dog (although it burned me once, reducing my Stamina to 9) but the old man (who was actually a Werewolf) hit me twice (reducing my Stamina to 5).  I used my Luck twice to deal more damage to the Werewolf: once successfully, and once unsuccessfully (leaving me with a Luck of 7).

After the battle I ate provisions (leaving me with 6, and restoring my Stamina to 10).  On a hook on the wall I found a set of keys marked 'Boat House', and another key engraved with the number 111.  (Another key in a different location).  I raided the Werewolf's pantry, claiming a jar of pickled eggs worth two provisions (raising my total to 8), then returned to the river bank.  Normally I go through the door to the north at this point, but this time I headed east towards the boat house.

Using my keys I entered the boat house, where a large number of Skeletons were busily constructing boats.  I tried to bluff my way through, claiming that I was their new boss.  They didn't believe a word of it, and I found myself face to face with five Skeletons.  The first attacked me by himself, but the others came in pairs.  I was able to win through unscathed, much to my surprise.

I could hear more Skeletons approaching, but I had time for a quick search, and decided to look in the bench drawers.  In the original book there's a key hidden here, but in this version I found a silver throwing dart.  I had to discard an item to take it (I left the black silk glove), but it was worth taking, as it can be thrown before any battle, with a die roll of 1-4 indicating a successful hit.

I left through the north door, hiding from Skeleton reinforcements (and gaining a Luck bonus that restored my score to 9).  While hiding I ate some provisions, leaving me with 7 (and restoring my Stamina to 9).

Further on I entered a room, where a hideous-looking man was asleep (or dead) in the corner.  There was a box on a table nearby, and I tried to tiptoe across to take a look.  The creature's eyes flicked open, and it advanced on me.  The creature was a Wight, and the first blow I struck proved to be ineffectual; as an undead creature it was immune to my normal sword.  I armed myself with the 'Giver of Sleep', and with a successful Luck test (reducing my score to 8) I was able to kill it instantly with the silver arrow.  Inside the box I found 18 gold pieces (raising my total to 58), and I also received a Luck bonus that restored my score back to 9.  Before continuing I ate another provision (leaving me with 6, and restoring my Stamina to 13).

I left the room through the north door, and the passage soon bent around to the west.  Some way along there was a narrow opening the led north, and I squeezed find a staircase heading downwards.

And that's where the adventure ends, for now.  My character, as it currently stands, is as follows:

Skill 10, Stamina 13, Luck 9

Gold Pieces: 58
Provisions: 6
Gear: Sword, Leather Armour, Backpack, Lantern, Potion of Fortune (one dose left), Shiny Key '125', Bow, Silver Arrow, Metal Key '9', Boat House Keys, Key '111', Silver Dart

I'm happy with this so far.  My stats are still good, I have plenty of resources left, and I've already found three keys to the Warlock's chest.  For all I know, these could be the three I need.  I suppose we'll find out when I tackle Warlock Magazine #2.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Warlock Magazine #1

I'm back from the Christmas hiatus, with a look at the first issue of Warlock magazine.  This is significant, at least to me, because as a kid I had no idea that Warlock ever existed.  Everything I've covered for the blog so far has been heavily tinged with nostalgia, and fond childhood memories.  I'm reading Warlock magazine for the first time ever, so I feel like my opinions will be a little more objective.

Before I delve in, though, it's time to hit the Wikipedia highlights.  For those who haven't heard of it, Warlock was a magazine co-published by Games Workshop and Penguin that covered fantasy gaming, with a focus on gamebooks and Fighting Fantasy in particular.  It lasted for 13 issues, running from 1983 to 1986.  I see that it was published in Australia, but I would have missed it because my FF fandom didn't begin until 1988, well after it ceased publication.  I'm surprised to see that Warlock continued in Japan until 1997.  I'd be interested to find out just what that magazine covered.  (Further research shows that there are conflicting dates as to the last issue of Warlock.  Wikipedia puts it at 1997, citing the official Fighting Fantasy website.  The FF wiki puts the date at March 1992, and gives more concrete information.  I'm far more inclined to believe the latter.)

Alright then.  Warlock issue #1.

One Step Beyond: The Origins of Fighting Fantasy: I had expected this article to reveal the process that led to the creation of the FF series, but there's not much of that here at all.  What this really is is a short history and explanation of Dungeons & Dragons, written with the goal of turning gamebook readers into tabletop gamers (and Games Workshop customers, presumably).  Ian Livingstone's Dicing With Dragons gets a mention, as does the upcoming Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game.

Out of the Pit: This article was written by Ian Livingstone, and it introduces four monsters, three of which will later be used in his own gamebooks.  The first such monster is the SENTINEL, an animated creature used to guard treasures.  It was first created by Baron Kognoy of Kaypong, a province to the east of Fang.  He hired a wizard to create a potion that could be sprinkled over any gem or metallic object: when touched by bare flesh, the item would transform into a warrior composed of the same substance (the item could, however, be safely handled with silk gloves).  The potion became so popular that Baron Kognoy started selling it, doing a roaring trade.  BIRD MEN are pretty much what it says on the tin, bird-like men who live in rocky crags and attack humans that pass by.  EARTH DEMONS are spirits that dwell beneath the ground, rising up to attack those who step on them.  They draw their strength from contact with the ground, and can be more easily defeated is separated from this source.  There's a rudimentary origin story about them being created by an alchemist spilling his chemicals.  The MESSENGER OF DEATH is the most interesting of the four: a soulless assassin with hollow eyes and a mouth filled with slime.  They sentence their victims to death by tapping them on the shoulder and whispering the word "death".  Then they hide the letters of that word along the victim's path, and if the victim reads all of those letters the Messenger will show up to drain his life force.  It's possibly the least effective assassination method there is, but at least it has character.

How To Map: This is a short article with tips on mapping gamebooks, and some symbols that can be used to represent various dangers.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain part 1: This is the centrepiece of the issue: a reprint of the first half-or-so of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.  I was prepared to skim this one, until I discovered to my delight that it's slightly different to the original.  The keys have all been moved to completely different places, and some new treasures have been added where the keys were.  I'm looking forward to digging into this one, so look for it in my next post.

And now, for the piece de resistance...  the very first map of Allansia!

Click to embiggen.

This is a thing of beauty, even if it doesn't quite match up with the maps that will come later.  Not only does it show the locations of Book 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7, but it details some areas not yet introduced.  Appearing here for the first time: the Desert of Skulls, Anvil, the Pagan Plain, Whitewater River and the Icefinger Mountains.  I'm pretty sure that this is the first time the Moonstone Hills get named, and I'd bet the same for the Red River.  Maps will eventually become one of the coolest parts of the series, and this is the first (except for the rubbish one in Forest of Doom, which doesn't count).