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!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Caverns of the Snow Witch (preview) - Attempt 5 & 6

I'm back again, with another couple of attempts at finishing the preview of Caverns of the Snow Witch from Warlock magazine #2.  This half-a-gamebook has given me all sorts of bother, but hopefully I'll be able to win this time.

Okay, I said that I made a couple of attempts, but lets all ignore Attempt 5, shall we?  I rolled a Skill of 7 and got my character trampled by the Mammoth.  I always appreciate a gamebook with a quick method for killing weak characters.


The dice were far kinder to me this time around: I rolled a Skill of 12, a Stamina of 19, and a Luck of 12.  I couldn't ask for a finer specimen.

I didn't take any chances in the early stages of the book, and took the same path I outlined in Attempt 3 & 4.  This time I murdered the Neanderthal in the kitchen, and claimed all of that sweet kichen loot: the magic flute and the rune-carved stick.  Otherwise, things were much the same up to the point where I killed the illusionist with the prism.

(My stats by then were Skill 12, Stamina 18, and Luck 9.  I had 3 provisions left, and I was carrying a warhammer, a spear, a cloak, a magic flute, a rune-carved stick, and a sling with 3 iron balls.)

After I killed the Illusionist I took the middle path through the skull mouth, as the other two paths had led me to instant death in earlier games.  The passage opened into a large cavern that was the home of a Frost Giant.  I wanted the rings in his chest, so I was quick to knock him out with a well-placed shot from my sling (this required a roll against my Skill, but with a score of 12 I couldn't miss).

I forgot to add this one last time.

The giant's chest contained three rings: one copper, one silver and one gold.  From an earlier game I knew that one of these rings was cursed, and would significantly drain my Skill.  I didn't want to risk it this time, so I took the gold ring, the only one that I knew was safe.  The gold ring provided me with protection from the cold, and also restored my Luck back to 10.  I left the other two; I knew that one was good, but I couldn't risk taking the bad one.

Further along the tunnel I encountered the dreaded Crystal Warrior, the bane of many an adventurer in the Snow Witch's caverns.  Last time, I had been severely weakened, and it had murdered me.  This time I was at maximum Skill, and I was able to get one back.  It hit me once (reducing my Stamina to 16), but I was able to smash it to rubble with my warhammer.

(I'm aware now that leaving the warhammer behind and using the genie's invisibility power is the far better option here.  I thought I'd take my chances anyway, seeing as my Skill was high.)

After the battle I came to a T-junction, and turned left.  The tunnel came to a large chamber that ended in a wall of ice.  In the centre of the room was a sarcophagus, with the lid propped open.  A white rat suddenly scampered out of the sarcophagus and ran towards me.

The stuff of nightmares.

I wasn't about to trust this situation.  Not only had a friendly Dwarf told me to "beware the white rat", but I've also learned that nothing good ever comes out of a sarcophagus.  Not even cute mammals.

Sure enough, the rat started to change shape.  If I'd had any ground minotaur horn I might have been able to do something about it, but as I hadn't found any all I could do was watch as it transformed into a White Dragon.  A copper ring might have been useful to avoid this fight, but I didn't have that either.  Luckily, my gold ring was enough to protect me from the Dragon's breath: without it I would have been subject to a 2-in-6 chance of taking extra damage every round.

The Dragon had a Skill of 12 and a Stamina of 14, so we were almost evenly matched.  Somehow, mostly through the use of my Luck score, I was able to scrape through with only being hit twice.  Straight after the fight I ate a meal (restoring my Stamina to 16), so I got out of this fight just as strong as I went into it.

After I defeated the Dragon, a figure rose up from the sarcophagus.  It was the Snow Witch, who was revealed to be a vampire.  I had no garlic to repel her with, so she tried to dominate me with her gaze.  I had to roll against my Skill to resist, but once again my Skill of 12 meant that there was no way I could fail.

Gnarly hat.

At this point I realised that I could kill her with a stake through the heart, and luckily I had found one in the form of my rune-carved stick.  I thrust the stick into her heart.

(This might be one of the worst pieces of gamebook design that I have ever seen.  You can only succeed at staking the Snow Witch if your Skill is higher than 10.  There's no roll involved, no element of chance at all.  You need a Skill of 10 or higher, and if you don't have it then bad luck.  I'm pretty sure this is the only way to win, which makes it even worse.  The instructions even have the gall to include the line saying that anyone can win no matter their initial rolls!  What a load of old bullshit! Ian, this is your worst move yet.)

With the Snow Witch dead, I was free to explore her cavern.  Frozen into the wall of ice was a trunk full of treasure.  I hacked it out of the wall and started emptying my backpack so that I could carry as much gold as possible.  There was one last obstacle however: a golden idol transformed into a Sentinel, the Snow Witch's final guardian.

The Sentinel hit me once (reducing my Stamina to 14), but I made short work of it.  Now, with the Snow Witch dead her followers would be free.  I left the caverns and made the trek back to Big Jim Sun.  Even though I was loaded with riches, I was still greedy enough to go and demand the 50gp reward for killing the Yeti.  Business is business, after all!

The beginning of this adventure is solid (if a bit too difficult), but the end just devolves into a series of battles against very strong opponents.  I only made it through because my scores were super-high.  And that bit about requiring a Skill of 10 to stake the Snow Witch?  Unforgivable.  I missed some items that might have made the final encounters easier or more interesting, but as I experienced it it's a poor ending.  Hopefully the book version clears some of these problems up.

I'll do a quick wrap-up post to finish this one off.  I won't bother with an Exploring Titan, because this is so similar to the book version.  After that, it's on to the third book in the Sorcery! epic - The Seven Serpents.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Caverns of the Snow Witch (preview) - Attempt 3 & 4

Half a gamebook.  That's what I'm stuck on right now.  I suppose that there's no reason a short gamebook can't be difficult, but there's something about it that galls me.  It's not even a real gamebook!  I should be done with this thing by now!  I never should have made that no-cheating rule.


I can't blame the dice for my misfortune, because my stats have been rather good in all my attempts so far.  This time around is no different: I rolled a Skill of 12, a Stamina of 21 and a Luck of 10.   It would be nice to be able to point at a guy with Skill 7 to justify my lack of success, but nope.  I only have my own curiosity and stupidity to blame.

I got off to a bad start right at the beginning of my adventure.  As usual I opted for the path with the Mammoth, but despite my Skill being higher it absolutely mauled me.  It hit me five times during the battle, and I was left with a mere 11 Stamina by the time I killed it.  This did not bode well for the future.

The rest of the initial stages presented me with little difficulty, and I was able to raid the trapper's hut and kill the Yeti with only some minor wounds.  I had learned my lesson from last time around, and I avoided the blizzard in my nice, warm igloo.  I still had a Stamina of 11 when I reached the Snow Witch's lair, and I was able to restore that to 14 by drinking the potion near the entrance.

This time around I decided to attack the Mountain Elf when I encountered him.  He was a pushover, but rather than kill him I opted to spare his life.  He was pretty happy about it, and even happier that I was here to kill the Snow Witch, so he gave me his cloak.  Always nice to have a disguise in enemy territory.

At the next junction I followed the Elf's advice and turned right, into uncharted territory.  I soon came to a kitchen, where a Neanderthal was stripping the skin from a dead moose, under the supervision of a Gnome chef.

Insert the Gordon Ramsay invective of your choice.

When I entered the Gnome offered me a stale cake.  This was a pretty meager haul, and I fancied myself against these two, so I attacked them.  The Neanderthal died with little trouble, and the Gnome fled to raise the alarm.  (That's what the text says he does, but the Gnome's escape affects nothing at all.)

For a kitchen, the cupboards were loaded with treasure.  I found a magic flute, a rune-covered stick, a rose that restored my Stamina to 17 when I smelled it, and a book.  Unfortunately, the book had a poison needle in the clasp, which dropped my Stamina back to 13.  In better news, inside the book was an Amulet of Courage that restored 2 Skill points.  This was fairly useless for me, but I kept it anyway just in case it would come in handy later.

After leaving the kitchen I came to the cavern with the Ice Demon and its worshippers.  With my cloak and a successful Luck test, I was able to sneak through unhindered.

Following that I rescued the Dwarf from the pit, and went on to confront the Illusionist and his prism.  At first I tried to trick the Illusionist by saying that I had come to play my magic flute for the Snow Witch.  He seemed happy enough to let me pass, but I didn't trust the path he tried to lead me down, so I killed him, and released the Genie from his prism.

Last time I had chosen the right tunnel after defeating the Illusionist, and ended up trapped between two gates.  This time I went through the skull mouth, which led to a large cavern inhabited by a Frost Giant.  I had the option of running through before he spotted me, but what kind of an option is that for a self-respecting adventurer?  It's no way to obtain loot, that's for sure.  Instead I knocked him out using the sling that the aforementioned Dwarf had given me.  (This required a roll against my Skill, but with a score of 12 it was impossible to fail.)

The Giant dropped a chest, which contained three rings and a cracked bottle.  The bottle was perfume, so I ignored it and moved on to the rings.  One was gold, one was silver, and one was copper, and I made the decision to try them all.  This is always a bad idea in gamebooks, but I was hoping that the benefits would outweigh the penalties.

The gold ring provided magical protection from the cold, a handy thing to have in an ice-themed adventure.  The copper ring gave me the power to summon a warrior to my aid but once.  The silver ring...  The silver ring was cursed, and drained my life force.  I had to roll a die, and subtract the number from my Skill.  Of course, I rolled a 6, and went from legendary killing machine to doomed fool in one stroke.  My only hope was to find a hefty Skill bonus, and soon.

Instead, what I found was a Crystal Warrior.

He looks a bit like Unicron.

The Crystal Warrior was one of the Snow Witch's guardians, and had apparently been sent to deal with me personally.  My sword was useless against it, but luckily I had a warhammer (looted from the trapper's hut).  Unluckily, the Crystal Warrior's Skill was far in excess of mine.  I was able to get one good hit in, but aside from that it destroyed me.

Done in by my curiosity once again.  Well, I say that, but I put the silver ring on first, so I would have suffered the penalty regardless of my decision to try them all.  At least now I know to avoid it next time.

I assume that the Crystal Warrior is unavoidable; I encountered it at a four-way junction, so I figure that the two paths I haven't explored yet converge here.  It's a hard fight, and the annoying thing here is that I should have more options.  What about that warrior that I can summon with my ring?  What about the Genie I liberated, which said it could turn me invisible?  Both of those were options I would have used if the book allowed it.  It didn't, and I was forced into an unwinnable combat.  You win again, Livingstone.


This should be a quick one.  I followed much the same path as the previous entry, with a few minor differences.  Instead of fighting the Elf, I told him I was here to join the Snow Witch, then changed my story and told the truth.  He gave me his cloak without the need for battle, so that seems like the best option to go for.  In the kitchen I took the stale cake instead of fighting; it restored a mere 1 Stamina, so engaging in some chef murders seems like the better way to go.

After killing the illusionist I chose the left path, and much like the right path I was trapped between two gates.  I didn't have the key I needed to unlock them, so I was trapped and my adventure was over.  An abrupt and unsatisfying end.