Tuesday, April 25, 2017

House of Hell (preview) - Attempt 2

Last time, I racked up too many Fear points, and was scared to death by a Zombie.  Hopefully this time I'll do better, but that's the catch-22 of this gamebook: you have to look for clues, but looking around invariably increases your Fear.

For stats I rolled a Skill of 11, a Stamina of 16, a Luck of 10 and a maximum Fear of 8.  In another gamebook I'd be happy with those rolls, but Skill isn't all that important in House of Hell.  The vital stat here is Fear, and a Fear of 8 isn't going to last all that long.  I'll just have to do my best and try to rack up as many hints and clues as I can.

Okay, starting again: I took a wrong turn down a dirt road, crashed my car during a storm, and walked to a spooky house to ask to use their phone.  At the front door, I have the choice between using the doorknocker or the bell-pull.  Last time I used the knocker, and was invited inside by the butler.  This time I decided to use the bell-pull, and was surprised when a trap-door opened beneath my feet, and I fell down a few metres into a pile of hay.  (This increased my Fear to 1. I also had to Test my Luck to avoid hurting my wrist, which I did successfully, leaving me with a Luck of 9.)

I was in a cellar underneath the house, and there were footsteps approaching. I decided that I wouldn't have time to search for a weapon, so instead I hid behind the door and waited. The man who entered was a hunchback, and as he didn't look all that threatening I stepped forward and announced my presence. He told me to follow him, and as I did he started babbling about the Master expecting a guest, and having dinner laid out already. He also mentioned his specially matured cheese, which raised my suspicions.  (Seriously, never trust italics.  Something's always up when they come into play.)

Eventually we reached a door, and he gave me directions to go up into the house; he wasn't allowed upstairs himself. I entered the next chamber on my own, and soon received a shock, as I was swarmed by bats. I batted them away and raced up some nearby steps, shaken by the experience. (My Fear was increased to 2.)

The stairs ended at a hallway lined with animal heads, and I decided to explore further. The heads were all of dangerous beasts: a bear, a wolf, a tiger and a "serval" (a type of African wild cat). I could hear a growling noise, which gave me a fright (increasing my Fear to 3).

I guess the illustrator doesn't know what a serval is either.

I could also hear footsteps approaching. I decided to stand my ground and wait to see who it was. It was a butler named Franklins, and after I explained the situation he seemed to understand, and led me into the reception hall. Then he went to fetch his master, and it wasn't long before they both returned.

(At this point, the narrative had routed me back to where I would have gone had I used the door-knocker, although it didn't give me the chance to check the paintings in the reception hall.)

I was introduced to the Earl of Drumer, and we sat and shared brandy together. (A relaxing experience that reduced my Fear to 2.) Then we had a meal where I drank white wine, had a main course of duck, and finished up with fruit, coffee and brandy. (I didn't eat any cheese, due to the hunchback's italics from earlier.)

After the meal Franklins showed me to my room (labelled with a plaque as the Fortesque Room). I noticed that the windows were barred, but rationalised it as a way of keeping out intruders. I was tired after everything that had happened, so I climbed into bed and went to sleep.

In my dreams I was chased by a swirling cloud of gas, which caught up to me and caused me to cough and choke. I woke up, and found that my pillow and bedclothes were holding me down and smothering me to death. (An experience which increased my Fear to 4.) I was able to escape (by rolling under my Skill on two dice) and decided that it was time to get out of the house.

On the landing I turned right, and was confronted by the apparition of a young bride (increasing my Fear to 5). She beckoned me into a bedroom, where she told me about the evil Lord Kelnor, and that he could only be destroyed by the Kris Knife. Before she could finish her story she was attacked by ghostly Great Danes, and I ran away.

I decided to ignore her story, and escape from the house rather than help her. But rather than dash right down the stairs I decided to proceed cautiously. At the bottom of the stairs there were three doors. I tried the door on the right, but it was locked. The door on the left led into a study with many books. In the study I saw a message appear on a piece of paper: "beware the astorbed". (Seeing the message increased my Fear to 6.)

I read a book on black magic, inside of which I found a pentacle that supposedly had powers over devil-worshippers. (A find which restored my Luck to 10.) I decided to continue looking through the books, but instead I found a button at the back of the bookcase. Pressing the button revealed a secret passage, which I was too curious to ignore.

The narrow passage led to some stairs, and at the bottom was a choice of two doors. The door on the right was a food store, filled with bread, dried meat, cheese, fruit, fish, wine and cakes.  I wasn't hungry, so I left the food and opened the door opposite. The room beyond was a cell of some sort, and sleeping in there was a man in a white gown.

This guy's man-boobs might be the most disturbing thing in this adventure.

The man woke up as I entered, and asked if I had come for him. Startled, but wanting to know more, I answered that I had. At first he seemed cheerful enough to go with me, but then he drew a knife from his gown, and declared that he wasn't going without a fight. The battle was a desperate one, as I was unarmed, but he was no skilled fighter. He managed to wound me three times (reducing my Stamina to 10) before I could subdue him. Rather than finish him off, though, I spared his life, and he told me his story.

He explained that he used to be a part of the Master's "coven", but his conscience could not allow him to condone such evil. Rather than allowing him to leave the coven, though, his fellows had instead locked him up, and planned to sacrifice him. He explained that Kelnor could only be killed by the Kris Knife, and that he must be summoned in a red room.

Before he could finish the door burst open, and two men entered wearing masks made out of the heads of dead goats. They attacked us with knives, and we fought one each. The devil-worshipper was a better fighter than my ally, but I managed to sustain only one wound before defeating him (reducing my Stamina to 8). I was too late to save my new friend, though, as the other devil-worshipper killed him. I knocked him out, and fled. (I tried to use the pentacle in this section, but it's not meant for this encounter. I also wonder why I wasn't given the option to take a knife from any of these guys.)

I went back through the study and up the stairs, where I continued around the landing. At a junction I turned left, and entered a door marked as the 'Lucretia Room'. Inside was a bedroom, lit by a single candle and filled with many plants. Asleep in the bed was an old woman. I decided to wake her up, but when I touched her I found that she was cold. The woman was dead! (An experience which increased my Fear to 8, equalling my maximum.)

Maybe this is the 'astor bed' I'm supposed to fear?

And so I died, frightened by touching an old lady's dead body. Anticlimatic, no? I find it odd the things that increase your Fear score, and by how much.  Touching a dead body is worth 2 points?  But seeing a ghost is only worth 1?  Why does being attacked by cultists wearing dead goat heads not increase your Fear at all?  It doesn't make a lot of sense, nor does dying because I touched a dead body. I guess I have to assume that the hero of this book has an incredibly weak heart.

I'm still enjoying it, though.  I'm not sure which bits are different from the book version.  I don't remember the bell-pull trapdoor at all.  I'm pretty sure that the name-plates on the doors are different in the book.  Other than that, I'm flying blind here.

I don't know if I've made much progress, or found any vital clues. Learning about the Kris Knife is step one, but I remember it being very difficult to find.  I was pleased to get through the meal without being drugged, as I remember that being essential to winning in the book.  Here, it doesn't seem at all necessary.  I'm pretty sure that the old lady has an important clue, so I'll have to come back to this room on my next attempt.  Even then, I doubt I'll win next time. Rather than the linear progression of other FF gamebooks, House of Hell is like a puzzle-box, with each attempt revealing just a little more of what's inside.  I know I'll crack it eventually, but it's devious, so I could be on this one for a little while.

Friday, April 21, 2017

House of Hell (preview) - Attempt 1

My fear of goats is all down to this gamebook.

Before House of Hell was published as book 10 of the Fighting Fantasy series, a shortened version of it was included in Warlock magazine #3. Written by Steve Jackson and illustrated by Tim Sell, the book is one of my favourites in the series, so I'm interested to see how the magazine version differs. The preview of Caverns of the Snow Witch from Warlock #2 was much the same as the book, although it did have different illustrations. The House of Hell preview has the same illustrations as the book, but I've been assured that the adventure itself has been changed in some important ways.

House of Hell is set in the present day (well, in the 1980s probably), and begins with the hero driving down an unfamiliar road during a storm, having been given bad directions by a white haired old man. After swerving to avoid a person standing in the road (who may have been the same old man) he totals his car and is forced to seek help from the spoooooky house in the distance.  It's a cliched horror set-up, but the rest of the adventure makes up for it. I'm not lying when I say that House of Hell provided me with some of the most vivid nightmare fuel of my childhood.

As far as rules go, House of Hell introduces a new mechanic that will be central to the adventure: Fear. Before beginning the adventure, you roll 2d6, and record that number as your maximum Fear score. Your Fear begins at zero, but during the adventure various things will drive that score up, and if it ever equals your maximum fear you will die of fright. It's a pretty effective tool for maintaining tension as you explore the mansion.

I rolled a Skill of 7, a Stamina of 20, a Luck of 12 and a maximum Fear of 9.  Because I begin the adventure with no weapons, my starting Skill is actually 3, which is probably an accurate depiction of me in the real world. In fact I don't have any equipment at all, and don't begin with a potion or any provisions. It should be okay, though, I'm just going to knock on the door and ask to use the phone. Everything will be fine.

Meeting the Addams Family would be a best-case scenario here.

When I reached the front door of the house, the place looked abandoned; everyone was probably asleep as it was nearly midnight. The front door had a brass knocker, as well as a bell-pull hanging beside it. Reasoning that the knocker would have less chance of waking everyone in the house, I decided to try that first.

The door was eventually answered by a butler, who invited me inside. He hurried off to fetch his master, who I was informed was "expecting me". This should have raised some alarm bells, but perhaps I was just happy to be out of the rain.

Despite its ramshackle appearance from the outside, the interior was quite opulent. I decided to study some of the paintings on the wall, choosing that of a beautiful young woman (because I ain't about to look at a portly gentleman or an elderly woman instead). A plaque below the painting read 'Lady Margaret of Danvers, 1802-34'. As I stood admiring the painting, I heard a whispering and thought I saw the lady's lips moving. I moved my head closer, and she warned me to beware the house, that Lord Kelnor was already plotting my death, and that I should avoid drinking his red wine. It was a chilling experience (that increased my Fear to 1), and I decided to leave the house immediately.

I made for the front door, but when I tried to open it an electric shock ran up my arm (reducing my Stamina to 18). I would need to find another means of escape.

The butler then returned, with a man who introduced himself as the Earl of Drumer. The earl led my to his drawing-room, where I dried off in front of the fire and he offered me some sherry. Somewhat wary, and mindful of the warning of the lady in the painting, I didn't drink the sherry and instead waited for the earl to question me. The earl was annoyed, but his efforts to reassure me did little to calm my nerves (which increased my Fear to 2).

Widow's peak, he's definitely evil.

The butler summoned us to the dining-room, where a meal was served. There was a choice of white and red wine, and I chose to drink the white. Then we had soup, and a main course of either duck or lamb; I chose the lamb. As we ate, the earl told me about himself: he is the last of his once-prosperous family, but after the death of his sister at age 32 - found naked in the woods with strange marks on her neck - there were accusations of black magic. The farmers who once worked their land gradually left, although the Earl of Drumer dismissed it as superstitious nonsense. I wasn't convinced. After all, the lady in the painting had also been 32 when she died...

The butler returned with a selection of fruit, cheese, coffee and brandy. I chose to take cheese, coffee and brandy. (It's irritating to me that there are three choices given here, but none to avoid the coffee. I know I'm going against popular opinion here, but coffee is a vile brew.  In my head, my character just had cheese and brandy.)

Our meal ended, and the earl offered to have his butler show me to my room. I tried to stand up, but my head was spinning, and I collapsed into unconsciousness. It was that bloody coffee, I knew it.

When I woke up I was in a plain room with my hands and feet tied with rope. It was still dark outside, and the rain was pelting heavily on the window. I devised a plan: I would break the glass and use it to cut myself free. (At this point I was asked whether I want to Test my Luck, which is an unusual option in Fighting Fantasy; I'm pretty sure that Steve is the only writer who uses it. I chose to use my Luck, and rolled successfully, reducing my score to 11.)

I broke the glass, and managed to cut myself free without being cut. The door to the room was not locked, and it opened into a hallway. To my left the passage ended at a door, and to my right it continued on, but as I could hear squeaking coming from that direction I turned left. Suddenly I was confronted by the apparition of a young woman in a torn bridal dress. She beckoned me into the room, and I followed her despite being shaken by the experience. (My Fear increased to 3.)

I have no joke here, this is just a cool illustration.

The room was an elegant bedchamber. The ghost-woman explained to me that the house was ruled by Kelnor, a Black Priest of the Night, and that he planned to sacrifice me to the Demons of Hellfire. A young nurse had already been trapped, and was being sacrificed tonight. She also said that Kelnor could be defeated if I found the Kris Knife, but before she could tell me where to find it she was distracted by the baying of hounds. Two spectral Great Danes attacked her, and soon she had disappeared completely. I fled from the room, but I was now determined to destroy Kelnor as she had asked.

Along the corridor, there were two doors on the left marked with names: the Albemarle Room and the Rousseau Room. I tried the Albemarle Room, which was empty. I rested for a short time (restoring my Stamina to 20), before something caught my attention at the window. Passing through the wall was a human figure, carrying its own severed head in its hand. (My Fear score increased to 5.)

Whoever cut off this dude's head did a good job leaving his collar intact.

I stayed to hear what the headless ghost had to say: it told me that I was going to die, and be trapped as a ghost in the house forever. The ghost then faded back through the wall, but I was on the verge of panic. (My Fear increased to 7.)

Back in the corridor, I entered the Rousseau Room, and found it filled with boxes and furniture covered with white sheets. I searched under the sheets and in the boxes, but all I found was a chaise lounge, some easy chairs and some crockery and cutlery. As I was searching, one of the sheets rose into the air, giving me a fright. Instinctively I grabbed at the sheet, and discovered that it was merely being pulled upwards with string. I was relieved, but I decided not to wait and find out who had pulled the string. (My Fear had increased by 1 here, then decreased back to 7.)

I followed the passage and came to some stairs leading down, which I took. In the hallway below were doors to my left and right, as well as one in front of me that I believed to be front door of the house. Figuring that escape would not so easy, I ignored the front door and chose the door on the left.

I was in a study, lined with old leather-bound books. On a desk there was a piece of paper, and as I looked at it words began to form. Eventually the message was finished; it read: 'Beware the astorbed'. I didn't know what it meant, but I was unnerved. (My Fear increased to 8.)

I was desperate now to find something to fight my captors with, so I looked through the books. There was one on black magic, and another on hypnotism. I opened the book of black magic, and something dropped onto the floor; it was a pentacle on a chain, carved with the number 66. A piece of paper accompanying it told me that it had power over devil-worshippers, (My Luck was restored to 12, and I was informed that I could turn to 66 if I ever found myself in a situation to use the pentacle.)

I left the room and went back upstairs and turned right. Another passage crossed the one I was in, and I turned right again. On the left wall were two doors: the Gordelia Room, and another that was unnamed. I decided to enter the unnamed room.

Inside the room was a hearth, and a box sitting on the mantelpiece. Curtains along the wall bulged unnaturally, but I ignored them and tried to open the box. Something was happening behind the curtains, though, so I put it down to investigate.

As I approached, something struck me in the chest (reducing my Stamina to 18 and increasing my Fear to 10.) I had endured too much, and the last thing I saw before I died of fright was the Zombie that had been lurking behind the curtain.

I think I've bumped into this guy on a few nights out in Melbourne.

THE POST-GAME
I didn't do very well, did I? I failed to make it through the meal without being drugged, and I also failed to find a weapon. I did learn about the Kris Knife, though, and the pentacle was a lucky find. To be honest, I never expected to make it through. Even when I was young and used to play the book regularly, I would still forget how to beat this one. Winning House of Hell for me was always a process of trial and error, taking multiple tries to build up the hints I needed to survive.  I reckon it will take me at least another three or four shots to succeed, if I'm lucky.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Warlock Magazine #3


Before I tackle the adventure in this issue (a preview of Steve Jackson's House of Hell), there's the rest of the magazine to cover.  Here goes!

Fighting Fantasy News: This news round-up reaffirms that Caverns of the Snow Witch and House of Hell were intended as books first, and adapted for the magazine as a secondary concern. It also says that Caverns was published "last month", which reassures me that I've got things in the right order.
  Talisman of Death is mentioned as the next book in the series after House of Hell, which it was. The next book after that was supposed to be The Rings of Kether, but that's not the case; obviously it got delayed somewhere along the line. Freeway Fighter, Temple of Terror and Assassin are all mentioned as upcoming. No, not Space Assassin, just plain old Assassin. I would have been super-excited as a kid by the first title: I get to play an assassin! Cool!  Space Assassin? Not so much. I never did like the sci-fi books all that much.
  In other news, the third Sorcery! book gets a plug, there are computer games coming out based on The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom, and the Warlock of Firetop Mountain boardgame is in the works. There are also mentions of plans for Out of the Pit (which isn't named yet), as well as the PuzzleQuest books The Tasks of Tantalon and Casket of Souls.  With the amount of material being produced, we're probably looking at the peak of Fighting Fantasy's popularity at this point.

Dungeons & Dragons: This article, written by Mike Brunton, is a very bare-bones explanation of what D&D is, aimed at people who would only be familiar with gamebooks. It also briefly mentions Runequest and Traveller. There's nothing too in-depth here, but it does a decent job of outlining the game and pointing readers in the right direction to get started.

Out of the Pit: This month, the three monsters featured are the winners of the Create-a-Monster competition from Warlock magazine #1.

Doom Demon (by Andrew Mayo): The Doom Demon is a "Prince of the Undead", who rides a flaming chariot pulled by a two-headed Devil Dog. Flames also stream from his hair, and clothes, and it's been speculated that he may have links to the "element of fire" (perhaps a reference to the plane?).
  He is found in the Desert of Skulls, but is only ever seen at night. During the day he resides in his Castle of Black Steel, at the fiery edge of Hell. Many believe that he's tied to the desert somehow.  (There's a passage that says he "rides out and roams the Desert of Skulls, southwards from Oyster Bay to the Whitewater River, where his domain ends". I hate to break it to the author, but the Whitewater River is north and east of Oyster Bay. What he wrote makes no sense, but I'll let it slide because the rest is metal as fuck.)
  The Doom Demon draws his power from a chain of skulls around his neck; the skulls are the remains of "the twelve mages of Ciarensia", whose souls the Demon trapped within. He also wields a whip made from the hair of a Hag who once tried to curse him, and wears a flaming black cape that sustains his incorporeal form.
  The Demon has hollow eyes that can hypnotise its foes, which can only be stopped by reflecting its gaze with a mirror. The Demon can then be destroyed by tearing away its cape, and casting holy water into its eyes to bring it back to life, after which it can be killed in regular combat.
  The only three people known to have seen the Doom Demon and lived are a trio of Dwarven fishermen who spied it from the northern bank of the Whitewater River.
  (Wow, there's a lot to unpack here. Yes, there are a lot of cool ideas, but there are almost too many; you could probably get three viable, interesting monsters out of what's here, rather than one that's loaded with clutter.  As for lore, the biggest thing here is "the twelve mages of Ciarensia". There's no mention of what Ciarensia is, but it's been theorised on the Rebuilding Titan Yahoo group that it was an ancient province where the Desert of Skulls now lies. It's as good an idea as any, and there's nothing to dispute it as far as I'm aware.)

Shadow Monster by Simon Wood: The Shadow Monster is created by dark magic (with Zanbar Bone called out as a practitioner). The sorcerer inscribes a sun-lit wall with invisible runes, and whenever a passerby casts a shadow on that wall, said shadow will take material form and try to kill the one who cast it. See Andrew Mayo, you only need one good idea to make a good monster!

Cave Vampire by Bruce Newson: This monster is basically a huge vampire bat, found only in the deepest, darkest caverns. It likes to feed on blood (naturally), but it's sensitive to light and can't bear to see its own reflection.

The Warlock's Quill: This is the letters page. Two people ask whether there will be an FF fan club. Another gets some rules clarifications, and is told that you can't raise your stats above your initial level unless specifically instructed. Another reader complains about being lost in the Maze of Zagor, and is told by the editor that "I hope you stay there till you rot". That's pretty much how I always imagined Ian and Steve felt about their readers.

Market Mayhem by Ian Livingstone: This is a board game created by your friend and mine, Ian Livingstone. Set in the market-place of Port Blacksand, it uses the standard FF rules and involves players each controlling a character and pursuing their various agendas until things devolve into a brawl.
  It's not entirely clear how the game is played. Players move about the board, interacting with each other and having conversations and possibly fighting each other. I suppose that the players are expected to play their character's personality as outlined on their card, which should result in conflict, but it's all a bit vague to make for a good board game.
  The NPCs are all various types of traders, guards and performers, with one escaped slave and a beggar. The most notable thing here is that one trader deals in "beautiful young girls", which is an area that Fighting Fantasy doesn't normally get into. Extreme violence, yes. Sex slavery, not so much.
  There are 14 player characters: Bruno, an alchemist who hates dwarves; Denzil, an assassin disguised as a minstrel; Deraco, a drunk pirate; Keesh, a dwarf looking for a present for his wife; Meriella, an elf searching for her lost sister; Misk, a treasure-hunter looking for the assassin who stole from him; Ragnar, a half-elf who loves to kick dogs; Vartan, a short-tempered warrior; Yam-Yi, a priest looking for a statuette stolen from his shrine; Dorig, a half-orc who enjoys the suffering of humans; Karlos, who is looking for a girl who was take from his master's harem; Kazanelle, who has a load of stolen statuettes; Pollius, a priest looking for donations for his dilapidated temple; and Zeno, an elf here to pick holly who hates the abuse of animals.
  There are a number of things to take from this. First, Dorig is a Half-Orc, which is not the usual term used in FF; he should be a Man-Orc (although I won't be surprised if both are used in future FF books).  Second, Ragnar is a Half-Elf, which I believe is the first time we've seen one of those in an FF product. (EDIT: No wait, there were some in the Introduction of Citadel of Chaos, spying for the Grand Wizard of Yore.) Third, we have Karlos, who has been paid by an "eastern noble" to retrieve a girl who was stolen from his harem. This is all very Arabian-flavoured, and it's the first hint we get that such cultures exist on Titan. (The only such culture on Allansia that I can think of is Kallamehr from Slaves of the Abyss, which is not east but rather far to the south-east. It might be the best option, though.)

The only other thing in the magazine is a crossword puzzle, which is has a lot of clues based on Fighting Fantasy things, some that would be common knowledge for British people but might stump foreigners, and some other general knowledge stuff. It wasn't that hard.

Next: House of Hell! Not the book, though, the magazine preview. I'm really interested (and a little nervous) to see how this differs from the version I'm familiar with.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Exploring Titan 9: Caverns of the Snow Witch

This post has taken me quite some time to get started, and that's because it's difficult to know quite where to begin. Here's the problem: Caverns of the Snow Witch covers a lot of ground. It's expansive in a way that no other book in the series has been to this point. (Okay smart-ass, Starship Traveller is more expansive, I guess. But I didn't have to write an Exploring Titan about that one, did I?)

I suppose the best starting point is to point out something I've already mentioned in earlier posts: this is the first book which mentions Allansia, and treats the place as a unified setting. Ian wrote his last three books as a loose trilogy, and then in Warlock magazine #1 published the first ever map of the Fighting Fantasy world, as seen below.


(I'm going to credit the creation of Allansia primarily to Ian rather than Steve. Most of Steve's fantasy books take place in Kakhabad, or in the Trolltooth Pass area south-east of the map above, whereas pretty much all of Ian's are set in Allansia.)

Caverns of the Snow Witch takes place over an area that spans much of the north-eastern portion of Allansia, so I'm going to split this post into various topics and discuss each in turn.

The Icefinger Mountains
The Icefinger Mountains stretch across northern Allansia, a range of snow-capped peaks. Winters in northern Allansia are said to be "cruel and bitter", with thick snow, icy winds, and frozen lakes. (This seems to only be true in the areas north of the River Kok, as there's no mention of ice and snow once the hero travels south.) The foothills of the Icefinger Mountains are dotted with outposts, where merchants from the south travel to trade cloth, utensils, weapons, salted meats, spices and tea for furs and ivory carvings made from mammoth tusks. Little else is said of the people who live in these outposts. In Deathtrap Dungeon there was a mention of "druids of the north", and an implication that the barbarians in that book hailed from the north as well. There's not much else north of Fang besides the Icefingers, but whether those druids and barbarians are connected to the outposts remains a mystery.  The only native we meet in this part of the book is the ill-fated trapper, and he doesn't seem like fit either description.

The Crystal Caves
A network of caverns that lies beneath the Icefinger Mountains, they were carved out of a glacier by the followers of the Snow Witch. The trapper mentioned above describes them as "legendary", and says that he's been searching for them for the last five years. Legends have circulated about the Snow Witch's treasure being frozen in the cavern walls. This all raises the question of just how old these caverns are. "Legendary" would suggest that they're very old indeed. They can't be older than the Snow Witch herself, but as a vampire she's effectively immortal.

The caves are inhabited mostly by the Snow Witch's servants, a collections of slaves that is composed of various humanoids including orcs, goblins, neanderthals, elves and dwarves. Possibly the most intriguing inhabitant of the caves is the Ice Demon that the Snow Witch's followers worship, but more on him later.  A good portion of the Snow Witch's followers are there unwillingly, and have been taken from areas as far south as the Moonstone Hills. (Whether Redswift and Stubb were captured while close to home or on a journey to the Icefingers is never clarified.)

The Snow Witch
One might expect a lengthy entry here, given that she's the major villain of the book, but the Snow Witch is very much a blank slate as of this book. She'll get an interesting origin later on in Titan, but none of that stuff is relevant to what I'm doing just yet, so I'll focus on what we learn about her in this book.

The trapper (him again!) describes her as "a beautiful yet evil sorceress who is trying to use her dark powers to bring on an ice age so that she can rule supreme over the whole world". We know that she has her lair in the Crystal Caves under the Icefinger Mountains, and that the vast majority of her servants are slaves that are kept under her control with magical collars. Oh yeah, she's also a vampire. Nobody knows why. And after she dies, her spirit enters a crystal orb. She seems to have an affinity for playing games, and is a stickler for adhering to the rules - she even allows herself to die when she loses a game to the hero of the book.

Aaaaand that's it. Like I said, she's kind of a blank slate at this point.

The Journey South
The hero (along with Redswift and Stubb) journeys south from the Icefinger Mountains, reaching the River Kok after two days of walking. They cross the river some fifty miles downstream from Fang, then walk across the Pagan Plain passing west of Firetop Mountain, heading for Stonebridge. The trio sleep exactly once on the way to Stonebridge, which means that the journey takes less than two days. (If these travel times are accurate, then Allansia is seriously small; the map above could be traversed in no more than a week on foot.)

The mentions of Fang and Firetop Mountain leave things suitably vague as to whether the events of Deathtrap Dungeon and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain have happened yet, but there's no such ambiguity when it comes to The Forest of Doom. As soon as the hero reaches Stonebridge we're treated to a lead-in to that book, as Stubb leaves to take part in the doomed expedition to find Gillibran's Hammer, while the Hill Trolls are massing for war. Chronologically speaking, this book may be the earliest of the series thus far; if it were easier, it would make the perfect lead-in to the rest of the series.

(At this point I'd like to point out something of an inconsistency in the way that Darkwood Forest is described in The Forest of Doom. It's supposed to be really dangerous, but there are far deadlier monsters in the Pagan Plain as depicted in Caverns. Some of that is that the Trolls are massing for war, but it still isn't very consistent.)

The Moonstone Hills
I believe that this is the first time that the hills are named in a gamebook, although it's possible that I'm wrong and they were named as such in The Forest of Doom. We learn here that the Moonstone Hills are home to a tribe of Wood Elves; there's also an encounter here with some Wild Hill Men, which is a lovely call-back to The Forest of Doom. The hills as presented here are densely populated with various hostile humanoids, but their most interesting inhabitant is the Healer.

The Healer
The mysterious Healer lives in the Moonstone Hills, and will heal you of the death curse laid on you by the Snow Witch. If you meet Redswift's brother Ash, he will relate the Healer's origin story: he was disfigured and cursed with disease by "the Dark Ones", for ridding the wizard Nicodemus of a Death Curse that they had cast upon him. (Nicodemus, of course, is the reclusive wizard from City of Thieves. As for the Dark Ones, they're described here only as "evil spirits of the night", but they'll get a bit more backstory in Titan.) After being disfigured, the Healer withdrew from society, and will only see those who are sick. His magic is more ritualistic and shamanic than that of other Allansian wizards, and seems to be tied to the many masks he has hanging on his wall; one such mask helps to cure you of the Death Spell. This cure also requires a number of trials, and I've never been quite sure of the purpose of them; how does crossing a chasm in the dark and walking past a shrieking Banshee help matters? Whatever the answer is, the Healer doesn't provide it - he's quite secretive, albeit in a benevolent manner.

Monsters
There aren't a lot of new monsters in Caverns of the Snow Witch - in introducing Allansia as a unified setting, it uses a lot of pre-existing monsters in ways that make sense. From earlier books we get Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, Orcs, Zombies, Neanderthals, Cavemen, an Air Elemental, Centaurs, a Werewolf, Hill Trolls, Wild Hill Men, a Man-Orc, a Genie, and some Hobgoblins.  Gnomes have appeared in the series before, but usually as inherently magical creatures - the one here is simply a cook. Bird-Men have appeared in the Sorcery! epic, but this is the first evidence we have that they exist in Allansia as well. There are also some monsters that are simply variants of pre-existing monsters, adapted to a snowy clime: the Snow Wolves, the Frost Giant, and the White Dragon.

The Mammoth and the Yeti are both appearing here for the first time, but there's not much to say about either. One is an unusually large and hostile elephant, and the other a shaggy beast that is vicious enough to slaughter an entire outpost for human flesh. They match up very closely to portrayals in general pop culture.

The Ice Demon is interesting in that it's being worshipped by the Snow Witch's followers; obviously she's in league with it somehow, although their exact relationship isn't spelled out just yet. It's also not clear whether the demon seen here is in its true form, or is simply a spirit animating an ice statue. It's also not displayed with much intelligence, but it does have an icy breath that can freeze its foes.

The Crystal Warrior is a statue carved out of quartz, and animated by the Snow Witch's magic. Presumably, they're difficult to make, because she only has one of them. It's completely impervious to bladed weapons, but can be harmed with a war-hammer. It also relies on sight to detect it's enemies, as it's able to be avoided by turning invisible. (It's quite possible, as presented here, that this Crystal Warrior is unique, and that only the Snow Witch knows how to create them.)

The Sentinel seen here is a guardian of the Snow Witch's treasure - it's encountered when you pick up a golden idol from said treasure, and it bursts out of your hand to become a golden warrior. Again, it's possible that this is another construct that only the Snow Witch knows how to make.

The Brain Slayer is a D&D Mind Flayer with the serial number filed off - a robed humanoid with an octopus-like head and the mental power to entrance its victims. Unlike the Mind Flayer, which feeds directly on brain matter, the Brain Slayer merely wraps a tentacle around its victims head and feeds on its "brainpower". To be honest, it robs the creature of a lot of its horrific aura.

Flesh Grubs are also D&D analogue monsters, this time standing in for Rot Grubs. They're basically big maggots that will burrow into exposed flesh with their hook-like fangs. Brrrrr.

A Dark Elf appears for the first time here. We've seen Black Elves a few times before this, but not Dark Elves. They're described here as the natural enemies of wood elves, and they wear "familiar black cloaks". We get little else, and there's no explanation of the difference between Dark and Black Elves. No mention is made of them having dark skin, either.

The Night Stalker lives in a cave in the Moonstone Hills. It's a hunched, sinewy, creature with an ashen face, folds of grey skin, and sunken eyes (and a hell of a set of fangs if the illustration is to be believed). It skulks through its dark cave, lighting its way with a dim lamp, and attacks intruders on sight.

The Pegasus, appearing surprisingly for the first time (I think), is the classical winged horse of mythology. The Healer summons one, and claims that it will fly you anywhere for a gift of silver.

I believe the Banshee that appears here is the first in the series. It's described as a "hideous spectre whose face and hands are shrivelled and who only has one large nostril and a single tooth". It's also explicitly female. Curiously, the Banshee is harmless if you're able to pass by it without displaying fear or otherwise acknowledging it by speaking or touching it. It will let out a "doom-laden" howl, but let you pass if you're able to resist lashing out at it. Not only does it scream, but it can speak as well, and does so by telling you that you're going to die. Such is the fear that it induces that many foes will be frozen while battling it (rolling under your SKILL score with two dice is required, or you automatically lose the Attack Round).

So that's Caverns of the Snow Witch done and dusted. I doesn't introduce a lot of original elements,  but it does a lot to draw pre-existing elements together and establish the flavour of Allansia going forward.

Next: Next up is Warlock magazine #3, which contains a preview of House of Hell that apparently changes many things from the book. I'll probably cover the non-gamebook stuff first, then the House of Hell preview. I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Caverns of the Snow Witch: Final Thoughts


As I settle in to write my thoughts about Caverns of the Snow Witch, I'm wondering how much my personal experience of the book colours my assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. I mean, of course it does; reviews of any sort would be pointless otherwise. But what I'm getting at is this: I finished this gamebook in one go, through a series of very lucky dice rolls. Now I know that in reality Caverns is a brutal, linear slog, and that the likelihood of me completing it on my first attempt was pretty slim. Nevertheless, I did, and unlike some other books (I'm looking at you Island of the Lizard King) I only had to experience it once rather than 10+ times. Thus it was quite enjoyable. So, while I'm concerned that I might be a little too generous, I do have prior experience with Caverns, and I'll try to look at it objectively, as much as that's possible.

The first thing that's immediately apparent is just how structurally different Caverns is to every Fighting Fantasy that precedes it. Rather than having one main quest that is laid out at the outset, this book presents a number of quests that progress from one to the next. You begin by hunting down a Yeti that has slaughtered an outpost, and from there you take on a mission to destroy the Snow Witch. After accomplishing that most gamebooks would be over, but once you escape the caves the story becomes a travelogue as you accompany your newfound companions back to their homes. Finally, the Witch's death curse is revealed and you have to find the mysterious Healer to get rid of it. It's a bit scattered, and the book feels aimless during the travelogue sequence, but it just about hangs together, and it's a small step towards gamebooks becoming more sophisticated in their storytelling.

Back in June last year I wrote about my final thoughts about the preview version of Caverns, which appeared in Warlock magazine and ended around the point where you first battle the Snow Witch. I had some harsh things to say about it at the time, and a lot of it still stands, but I feel like it holds up a lot better as part of a longer adventure. There are still some weird mechanical things going on, and the screwiness involving the Crystal Warrior is unforgivable, but there's a lot to like about it, especially in Ian's ability to evoke an environment. He goes all in on the frozen Icefinger Mountains, and it feels genuinely inhospitable. This is aided greatly by the stark illustrations of Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, which have an odd "woodcut" quality to them. I don't feel that they're quite as appropriate for the second half of the adventure, but for the first half they're perfect, and a huge improvement from those in the magazine version.

In the gamebook version the hero must escape the caves with the aid of two newfound companions, Redswift and Stubb, and also face down the Snow Witch a final time. Ian had toyed with companions in earlier books - Throm in Deathtrap Dungeon, and Mungo in Island of the Lizard King - but only for a brief amount of time. In Caverns, Redswift and Stubb are with you for most of the adventure, and although they're similarly doomed (Stubb's fate is ambiguous, but he probably dies not long after you part ways) it's nice to have them hanging around for a while. It's too bad they don't have much personality, beyond the odd wry or sarcastic comment, but they've got more going for them than the Snow Witch herself. The early Fighting Fantasy books were never big on investing their villains with character: "Impudent peasant!" is the closest thing that Balthus Dire ever gets to a personality, for instance. But the Snow Witch (is she ever called Shareella in this book?) takes the cake as a non-entity. She gets a great origin story in later material, but there's no sign of it here, where she is a generic evil Vampire sorceress and nothing more.

Once the book leaves the Crystal Caves, and the hero ventures south with his companions, it takes the tone of a travelogue as I mentioned above. At this point the adventure becomes excessively linear, and involves a long slog of difficult, unavoidable combats. Nevertheless, the writing here is great, and this is the first time that Allansia genuinely comes to life as a setting. Indeed, if you're just reading the main series this book is the first time that Allansia is even named. For fans who had been with the series from the beginning this must have been great.  Ian had crafted a loosely connected trilogy with his last three books, but this is where he really draws it all together: there are references to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Fang and Deathtrap Dungeon, Nicodemus from City of Thieves, and even a prologue of sorts leading into The Forest of Doom. It's a shame Ian couldn't work in references to Island of the Lizard King or Citadel of Chaos, but other than those two this book connects everything that has gone before. (Well, not Starship Traveller, but that's understandable. Or Scorpion Swamp I guess, which may not have been finished when Ian was putting this one together.)

It all culminates with the search for the Healer, which takes the standard Fighting Fantasy set-up and turns it on its head. A lot of gamebooks go like this: you see an interesting thing; do you want to investigate the interesting thing or ignore it? Inevitably the reader will investigate, be rewarded or punished for it, and move on to the next interesting thing. It's how these books work. The final stage of Caverns changes that up a bit, by having the Death Curse constantly draining the hero of Stamina. So while you may want to investigate the interesting thing, and you need to in order to find the Healer, there's an element of tension added.

While the book does do some interesting things with the story and the structure, and is an important building block in the creation of Allansia and Titan as a whole, as an actual game it leaves a lot to be desired. As I've mentioned before, I rolled a character with a Skill of 12 and a Luck of 12, and I still just barely squeaked through. The sheer number of unavoidable combats with high-Skill foes makes the book impossible for weaker characters, and even with a strong character too much comes down to pure luck of the dice. It's a fun book to read, but it's less fun to play.


COOL STUFF I MISSED

Due to the linearity of this adventure, I covered almost everything. I missed one of the three discs along the way, and there was an encounter with some Centaurs and a Night Stalker that I didn't find. The most significant thing I missed, though, was an encounter with an elf who turns out to be Redswift's brother, Ash. Not only does Ash get to mourn his dead bro, but he also gives you an origin for the Healer, and ties him in to Nicodemus from City of Thieves. I've never found this encounter before in multiple play-throughs of the book, and it adds so much to the story.

MISTAKES AND RED HERRINGS

There are no errors that I could find, unless you count Ian's decision to force you to fight the Crystal Warrior with the war-hammer. As for useless items, there are several: some salted fish, a candle, a pair of leather sandals, a stuffed rat, a box of teeth, a jar of pickled lizard tails, some stale bread, and some charcoal sticks. All of it's the sort of stuff you find in the pockets of goblins and orcs, and pretty obviously not important (although with Ian you never know).

BEST DEATH

I count 23 instant death paragraphs in this book, and this one was my favourite:


Eaten alive by grubs at the bottom of a pit surrounded by the bones of the dead. It's a grim one.

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

Story & Setting: The icy setting for the first half of the book is novel and well-realised, and the second half does a lot to establish Allansia as a place. It's a lot of fan-service, but it's well-written fan-service. Throw in the interesting structure of the book, and there's a lot to like here. Rating: 5 out of 7.


Toughness: Despite my relatively pleasant experience this time around, this book is hard. It's long, linear, and loaded with tough battles that can't be bypassed. The only thing that saves it from the minimum rating is that there aren't any hard-to-find items that are critical to success. Rating: 2 out of 7.


Aesthetics: The illustrations are great, and the writing is evocative. It's a great-looking book, even if the style doesn't fit the second half quite as well as the first. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Mechanics: The Fighting Fantasy system is usually solid, but Ian manages to do some screwy things with it here. In particular there are a few scenes where you need a Skill of 10+, whereas in most other books you would simply roll against your score. Losing because of a bad roll is something I find acceptable. Losing because my scores aren't high enough? That I have problems with. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: The innovations here are in story and setting, rather than mechanics: the icy wastes (although it's not clear whether it was published before or after Joe Dever's Caverns of Kalte), and the progression of the plot through multiple quests. Mechanically it's the same as most other FF books. Rating: 3 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: The monsters of the Icefinger Mountains feel fresh, but while there are several new additions to the FF monster pantheon none of them really stick in the mind. And while Redswift and Stubb are around for most of the adventure, they're a little bland. The same can be said for the Snow Witch, who is a generic villain. The Healer is probably the most interesting figure in the book, but remains mysterious. There are a lot of characters, but most of them aren't that interesting. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Amusement: I had fun on the one play-through I did, but I know from experience that the linearity of the book makes it dull and over-long on re-reads. Most of the fun comes from spotting the references to older books. Rating: 4 out of 7.

The nebulous bonus point will not be awarded. The above scores total 26, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 52. That puts it just slightly above Island of the Lizard King, which was similarly linear and hard, but without the narrative flourishes of Caverns. That seems fair.

NEXT: An Exploring Titan post on Caverns (which might be a long'un), and then it's on to Warlock magazine #3.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Caverns of the Snow Witch - Attempt 1


Deep within the Crystal Caves of the Icefinger Mountains, the dreaded Snow Witch is plotting to bring about a new ice age. A brave trapper dies in your arms and lays the burden of his mission on your shoulders. But time is running out - will YOU take up the challenge?

Caverns of the Snow Witch, written by Ian Livingstone and illustrated by Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, is the ninth Fighting Fantasy book.  It will be familiar to readers of the blog, because I've already covered the first half, which was printed in Warlock Magazine #2. There's a temptation to accuse Ian of laziness here, by repurposing and expanding an adventure that he'd already written, but Warlock makes it clear that Caverns of the Snow Witch was always intended to be a book in the main FF series, and it was simply cut down to use as a preview for the magazine.

As I've covered the first section of the adventure already in magazine form, I won't dwell on it at length; the only difference between the two versions is the illustrations, as far as I can tell.  If anyone wants a more thorough treatment of this section of the adventure, they can check out my first post about it here.

In my last post, I had hoped that I would roll high stats so that I could knock off this book quickly. Well, somebody was listening, because check out these figures: Skill 12, Stamina 21, Luck 12.  Those are some superior genetics.  For my potion I chose Strength, because I'm well aware that Stamina loss is quite high in the later stages of the game, and the ten Provisions provided aren't enough to cut it.  I figure that my other stats are high enough that I don't need to worry about restoring them (although Luck is always a concern).

So, background. When the adventure begins, I'm working as a caravan guard for a merchant named Big Jim Sun. We find an outpost full of people who have been killed by a rampaging beast, and Big Jim asks me to hunt it down, a job I accept at the price of 50 gold pieces.  Wasting no time, I head off into the icy wilderness.


  • For some reason I took the ice bridge, instead of walking around the crevasse, and I had to fight a pair of Snow Wolves. Normally I would take the other path to fight the Mammoth, but my memory had failed me. I killed the wolves easily, so it didn't really matter.


  • I sheltered from a blizzard by carving an igloo with my sword. It never stops being ridiculous.
  • I ignored the trapper's hut, where I could have regained some Stamina and picked up a spear and a warhammer. As I discovered while playing the preview, possessing the warhammer will get you killed due to a design flaw later in the book.
  • Further up the mountain I found a Yeti fighting the trapper: this was the beast I was hunting. I killed it, and the dying trapper told me about the Snow Witch and her plan to bring about an ice age. It was up to me to stop her.

  • On the way to the Snow Witch's caverns, I avoided an avalanche with a successful Luck test.
  • I soon made it to the caverns, and found a bowl of liquid that restored some of my Stamina and provided resistance to cold.
  • Further into the caverns I encountered a Mountain Elf, who was wearing a magical collar that made him a slave on the Snow Witch. I convinced him that I was there to kill her, and he gave me his cloak to use as a disguise.
  • I came to a kitchen with a Gnome cook and his Neanderthal servant. I killed the Neanderthal, let the gnome run off, and looted them place, finding a magic flute, a rune-carved stick, a rose with a healing scent, and an Amulet of Courage that gave me a +2 Skill bonus.


  • There was a cave with some cultists worshipping an Ice Demon, but I was able to slip by in my cloak.


  • I rescued a Dwarf slave from a pit, and he gifted me with a sling and three iron balls, as well as the needlessly cryptic clue "Beware the White Rat".  He couldn't have added "It's a Dragon?"
  • I was greeted by a wizard, a servant of the Snow Witch, and wasted no time in attacking him. He tried to fool me with illusory images of himself, but I was able to strike the real wizard, and smash the prism he was drawing his power from. The illusionist fled (never to be seen again), and a genie sprang from the smashed crystal, offering to to grant me the power of invisibility just once.


  • With three tunnels to choose from I picked the middle path (through a skull mouth) and encountered a Frost Giant. One ball from my sling knocked him out, and on his corpse I found three magic rings. I put on the gold ring (which provided resistance to cold), and the copper ring (which gave me the ability to summon a warrior to my aid just once), but I left the silver ring behind.


  • Next I encountered the dreaded Crystal Warrior, the place where most people probably die in this book. I didn't have a war hammer (as I had deliberately avoided getting it), so I wasn't forced to fight it. Instead, I called on the genie, and I was able to flee while invisible.


  • Soon after I found a storeroom with a Zombie guardian.  After quickly dispatching it, I looted the place and found the following stuff: a jar of ground minotaur horn, some garlic, a box of teeth, a jar of pickled lizard tails and four dragon eggs. The book only lets you take three items, so I went with the minotaur horn, the garlic and a dragon egg.


  • Soon after that I encountered the White Rat I had been warned about. It would have transformed into a White Dragon, but instead I sprinkled it with ground minotaur horn, and the transformation was halted. Huzzah!
  • Nearby was a sarcophagus, and in it was the Snow Witch; she was a vampire! I fended her off with my garlic, then rammed by rune-carved stick through her heart. Huh. That was easy.


And that's where the magazine version of the adventure ended. In that version the hero decides to go back and collect his reward from Big Jim Sun, but in the book the hero has more adventures in the caves and beyond. My stats at this point in the book were:

SKILL: 12
STAMINA: 10 (of 21)
LUCK: 10 (of 12)

PROVISIONS: 8

EQUIPMENT: Sword, Leather Armour, Backpack, Potion of Strength, Cloak, Magic Flute, Rune-Carved Stick, Amulet of Courage (+2 Skill), Sling and 3 Iron Balls, Ring of Cold Resistance, Ring of Warrior Summoning, Jar of Ground Minotaur Horn, Garlic, Dragon Egg

And now, onward to unexplored territory!

Now that the Snow Witch was dead I could see a vague shape at the back of the cavern, so I went to investigate. Frozen into the ice wall was an ornate trunk full of gold and jewels. Jackpot!  Using my inexplicably effective sword I hacked the trunk out of the ice, and I couldn't resist grabbing a golden idol. The idol sprung to life in my hand, and transformed into a golden warrior - a Sentinel, the guardian of the Snow Witch's treasure.


This was a hard fight, and my Stamina was already low; the Sentinel wounded me three times, reducing me to a Stamina of 4 before I was able to kill it. Quickly I scoffed three of my Provisions when the battle was over (which left me with 5, and restored my Stamina back to 16).

The trunk contained 600 gold pieces, but for every 50 I took I would have to drop one item.  I left behind my cloak, my rune-carved stick, my jar of ground minotaur horn, my garlic, and my dragon egg, and took with me 250 gold pieces. (Most of these were items I'd used previously, and I was banking on not having to use them again. I know how Ian Livingstone designs gamebooks, so I was pretty confident in getting rid of them. The only item I had misgivings about was the dragon egg, as I hadn't found a use for it yet.)

After gathering my treasure I was met by a Dwarf named Stubb and an Elf named Redswift, both former slaves of the Snow Witch. They offered to help me escape from the caves, and I gladly accepted. Redswift showed me a path behind an illusory wall, and we made our way through.

We came to a junction, and chose to head left. On the floor we found a glass orb that glowed with swirling colours. I picked it up, and it started to swirl rapidly. Redswift and Stubb warned me to get rid of it, so I placed it carefully on the ground and we continued on our way.

The tunnel turned right, then right again, and came to a junction where I turned left (this was the book railroading me, not my own choice). On a wall we found an iron casket with a handle shaped like a serpent.  We decided to draw lots to see who would open it, and Redswift drew the short straw. His keen senses warned him that the casket was trapped, and he disarmed it. Inside was a pair of elven boots which would grant the wearer completely silent footfalls. Again we drew lots to see who would get the boots. Again, Redswift drew the short straw, and gleefully claimed the boots. (This scene involved rolling dice to randomly determine who gets the boots. It's kind of refreshing for NPCs to try to claim treasure in a gamebook, actually, but it only works if the item isn't critical to success.)

Following that we had a seemingly pointless encounter with a Cave-Man at the next crossroads. I sent Redwift and Stubb ahead, and took care of him myself. (He wounded me once though, and reduced my Stamina to 14.)  I found a star-shaped disc in the Cave-Man's belt pouch and promptly looted it; my ploy to get the others out of the way and claim the treasure for myself had worked.

I caught up with Redswift and Stubb, only to find them at the mercy of a strange, octopus-headed creature that had its tentacles wrapped around their heads: a totally not IP-infringing Brain Slayer!


Luckily for me I was wearing an Amulet of Courage, and was able to resist being hypnotised. I drew my sword, and made quick work of the disgusting though possibly tasty creature (with my Stamina now reduced to 12). With the Brain Slayer dead, Redswift and Stubb recovered.

Searching the chamber, we found two pots. I opened the red one, and found a square disc (I'm sensing a Livingstonian pattern here). Against my better judgment, I also opened the grey pot, and found a scroll. As soon as I started reading it the writing began to fade, but I was fast enough (with a successful roll against my Skill) to learn a spell that will protect me against Air Elementals - Gul San Abi Daar.  (It also granted me a Luck bonus, restoring my score to 11.)

Further along the tunnel we found a door with a dagger stuck in it. Unsurprisingly, when I pulled the dagger out it came to life and slashed me (reducing my Stamina to 10).  The three of us managed to jam the dagger back in the door (with a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 10), and we continued on.

Beyond the door was another long tunnel. Stubb complained about being hungry, so we sat down and I was forced to share my Provisions with them (leaving me with a mere 2, and restoring my Stamina to 14. This book bloody loves making you waste Provisions.)

At the next junction we headed right. The tunnel ended at a door with a scrap of parchment on it which I was unable to read. I showed it to Redswift, who quickly tore it up and insisted that we move on quickly. NOTHING OMINOUS HERE, NOPE. WE'RE ALL GOING TO MAKE IT HOME AND LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER. (Actually, no, as future events will reveal I just murdered Redswift. I'd feel bad about it if he wasn't an elf.)

In the next cavern we found a number of stalactites dripping liquid. Without a shield I was forced to walk through it unprotected, and of course it was acid which burned through my clothes and skin (reducing my Stamina to 10, and my Luck to 9.)

Soon we came to another cavern, where a glass globe sat atop a plinth of ice. Within the globe was the spirit of the Snow Witch, and she demonstrated her power by choking one of her Orc servants to death with its slave collar.

Not wishing the same thing to happen to Redswift and Stubb, I fired an iron ball at the globe with my sling. My aim was true (the result of a successful roll against my Skill), but all it did was cause a lightning bolt to fire from the globe towards me.  I was able to dive aside to safety (with a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 8.)

She then started choking my pals, and I challenged her to a combat of any type she desired. This was enough to get her to spare my friends, but she also wanted to stall for time to think of a suitable game, and so she summoned Zombie versions of Stubb and Redswift for me to fight.


(What a weird encounter. How and why does she have Zombies of R-Swift and Stubbsy? It's quite a pointless battle, to be honest.)

I was able to defeat the Zombies, with only the Dwarf wounding me once (reducing my Stamina to 8). With her minions dead, the Snow Witch declared that we would be playing a game called "discs", and that if I didn't have any discs I would lose. Luckily I had two, so I was ready to play. (I'll admit, I got worried here, as I was sure that there were more than two discs to be found. Normally, missing items in an Ian Livingstone joint would be fatal.)

The game was a standard rock-paper-scissors type deal - squares beat circles, circles beat stars, and stars beat squares. With only a square and a star to choose from, I opted for the square. The Snow Witch revealed her own disc - a circle!  I had won! Her globe filled with white smoke, then shattered, and  - I shit you not - Redswift, Stubbs and I stood around giving each other high fives. Such a vulgar display of camaraderie would not go unpunished, though, as the caverns started to do the standard "lode-bearing villain" schtick, caving in now that the Snow Witch was dead.  We managed to avoid the falling ice (with a successful Luck test that left me with a score of 7), and escape to the surface. We were free, and our adventure was over.

Oh wait, no it wasn't. Stubb wanted to go home to Stonebridge, and Redswift likewise wanted to return to the Moonstone Hills. I realised that Big Jim Sun probably thought I was dead, so I decided to accompany them both. Should be a nice, lovely stroll through the wilderness.

Two arduous days later we reached the River Kok, about fifty miles downstream from Fang and Deathtrap Dungeon.  We decided to head in the other direction, and soon found a man asleep by a raft. We asked him to row us across, but he was tired and told us all to bugger off. Normally I would murder this impudent fellow, but the option wasn't given, so we continued downriver.

Further along the river we found a boat, and I decided that we should wait for the owner to arrive. We made camp, and rested while Stubb went looking for food (restoring my Stamina to 10). I woke up to the sound of battle, and saw Redswift fighting a Dark Elf (the Poochiest of fantasy races), who he quickly dispatched. We looted his corpse, and found a vial of green liquid. Redswift couldn't identify it, but I was always ready to gulp down some strange, unknown liquid. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a Potion of Health (which restored my Stamina to 14, my Luck to 8 and would have restored my Skill by 1 if I'd needed it.)

Soon Stubb returned with a rabbit, and mixed up a hearty stew (which restored my Stamina to 18). Then we crossed the river in the Dark Elf's boat, and set off across the Pagan Plains. We passed Firetop Mountain in the distance, and Stubb wondered if the Warlock still ruled there.  Before I could tell him that I had hella-murdered the Warlock, we were interrupted by an old man carrying a sack. He offered me some information for the price of 2 Gold Pieces. I was flush at this point, and happily forked it over. He told us that the nearest water-hole was poisoned, and that a large number of Hill Trolls was gathering north of Stonebridge.  We set off as quickly as possible.


Along the way we were randomly set upon by a pointless flock of Bird-Men. I was able to defend myself in time when one of them swooped at me (with a successful Luck test that reduced my score to 7), and then I had to fight it to the death. It was a strong foe (an unavoidable Skill 12, screw you Ian), and it wounded me three times before I was able to kill it (leaving me with 12 Stamina).


With the flock dispersed, we continued, and grew thirsty under the hot sun. We reached a water-hole, with an Ogre lying face-down in the middle of it. If the old man's warning hadn't been enough to discourage me, this would have done it, and I decided not to drink. I was wearied by thirst (reducing my Stamina to 11), but it was better than being poisoned.

Further along, we found the dead body of a dwarf, who Stubb identified as Morri the ironsmith from Stonebridge. He had been killed by Hill Trolls, but more importantly he had a full water-bottle, and we swigged that sweet, sweet loot-water (restoring my Stamina to 12).


We settled down to camp, and Redswift took first watch. Unfortunately (due to a failed Luck test that left me with a score of 6), we were attacked in the night by a Werewolf. I had to fight it one my own - no idea what my so-called friends were doing - and it wounded me once (reducing my Stamina to 10).  (I was worried that I might have contracted lycanthropy, but this book doesn't bother with it. I was totally free of any deadly curses or disease, yes sir, completely 100% clean.) I ate one of my Provisions anyway, just in case (restoring my Stamina to 14, and leaving me with but 1 meal remaining).

In the morning we set off, with Stubb excited at the prospect of reaching Stonebridge. Before we could reach it, though, we encountered a party of six Hill Trolls, and Stubb couldn't resist charging at them. I was forced to battle two at once, in a hard-fought contest. The first Troll went down quickly, but the second was tough, and almost killed me before I emerged the victor. (This fight was as close as it could be; I ended it with 1 point of Stamina left, and would have died if not for a successful Luck test to reduce the damage dealt. That test left me with a Luck of 5.)  With my life ebbing away, I drank my Potion of Strength, and was restored to full health.


After the battle we marched into Stonebridge, and found that the Dwarves were strangely gloomy. Their fabled war-hammer had been stolen from King Gillibran, and a Dwarf named Bigleg was organising a quest to retrieve it so that it could be used to rally the Dwarves.  Stubb decided to go with Bigleg, and apparently it was a Dwarves-only affair, because Redswift and I weren't invited. We left to head for the Moonstone Hills, while Stubb and company departed for Darkwood Forest.  (And Stubb's death, if The Forest of Doom is to be believed.)

As we left Stonebridge, Redswift and I encountered a trio of Hill Trolls, but we were able to avoid them (with a successful Luck test that left me with a score of 4).  As we travelled, I started to feel ill, and Redswift was looking sick as well. He explained to me that we had both read a Death Spell curse in the caverns of the Snow Witch, and we were dying. He suggested that we look for an old man in the Moonstone Hills known as the Healer.

Eventually Redswift died (good riddance, elf), but I was able to soldier on due to the Potion of Health I had drank earlier. I grew weaker (my Skill dropped to 11, and my Stamina to 20).

I followed the river into the hills (losing another Stamina point), and soon found a hollow tree stump with a rope descending into it. I pulled on the rope, and saw that it was covered in Flesh Grubs. I was lucky to have avoided them (and restored my Luck to 5 because of it).

I came across a footpath leading into the trees, and decided to follow it. There I found a hut, and an old man in robes asleep inside.


The old man's shelves were filled with berries and herbs, so I decided to enter. The old man awoke, and when I asked him if he was the Healer he said that he was, and that he could cure the Death Spell with special herbs that would cost me 50 Gold Pieces. I paid eagerly, and he mixed the herbs into a soup.  I left in high spirits, but after a sleep I felt worse (reducing my Stamina to 16) - the Death Spell was still active. I'd been swindled!

I didn't want to waste more time, so I decided not to exact revenge and instead kept searching for the Healer. On the far bank of the river I could see the smoke of a campfire. I leaped over using some rocks, and (with a roll of 4 on a d6) made it safely to the other side. There I had a pointless fight with a Wild Hill Man, who I killed emphatically.


The Hill Man had a duck cooking on the fire, which I ate (restoring my Stamina to 20). When I was finished, I followed a goat trail higher into the hills (and lost another point of Stamina), then descended into a gorge. I saw a cave in the gorge wall, and decided to investigate.  The cave was dark, and I shouted to see if the Healer was there.  I got no answer, so I left (and lost yet another Stamina point, leaving me with 18).

Along the way, I stepped on a Rattlesnake, but (due to a successful Luck test that left me with a score of 4) when it tried to bite me it instead got a mouthful of my shoe.

Further along the gorge I saw a rope ladder leading up to a wooden hut hidden in a tree. I climbed up, and was attacked by a very mistrustful Man-Orc, who got killed for his trouble (although he did reduce my Stamina to 16). I took a candle and a tinder-box from him and went on my way.


Even further long (uuuggggghhhhhhh finish already) I came across a sleeping Barbarian. As I wasn't wearing Elven Boots (why didn't I nick them off of Redswift's body?), the Barbarian woke up and was very angry indeed.


His implausible body-builder muscles couldn't stop me from killing hm though, and on his body I found three silver arrow-heads and a copper armband engraved with the words 'Strength is Power'. I whipped it on, and found out that it was enchanted (and restored my Skill to 12).

Soon I found a large rock slab carved with the image of a fiery bird, with steps leading up to a cave.


I went inside, where I found an eerie cave full of masks of the most hideous aspect. There was a deformed figure in robes there, and he introduced himself as the Healer. He offered to cure the Death Spell, but warned that it would involve a possibly deadly ritual.


The first trial was to wear the Mask of Life. I put it on, and immediately was wracked with pain. (I had to roll a die and subtract that number from my Stamina; I rolled a 2, and my Stamina was reduced to 14.)

The next trial was to cross a chasm over a narrow log in the dark. I was allowed to light my candle, however, which made things easier, and I crossed with no trouble (and a successful Skill check).

Once I was across the pit, the Healer informed me that if I possessed a dragon egg he could use it to make a relaxing concoction. I used to have one, but I had long ago dropped it in favour of more gold. He warned me that, without this potion, the next stage would be much more difficult.

My third trial was to walk past a wailing Banshee, and she proved to be a horrible sight. I was unnerved by her howling, and the temptation to strike out at her was strong. So strong that, without the Healer's potion, I was unable to resist, and was forced to fight the Banshee. We were evenly matched, and the battle went her way to begin with (she won five Attack Rounds without me scoring a hit), but then the tide turned and I was able to win just barely. (This was another close call, as I finished the fight with 2 points of Stamina. I ate my final Provision, restoring my Stamina to 6.)


We emerged from the Healer's cave, and he informed me that I must watch the sunrise from the summit of Firetop Mountain in order to be cured. I would need something made of silver in order to attract a Pegasus to fly me there, and luckily I had three silver arrow-heads.  The Pegasus flew me to the summit, where I sat down unknowingly in a patch of Sleeping Grass and drifted into a deep sleep.


Dawn approached, and if I didn't wake up I would not be cured of the curse. The Healer sent me a vision in my dreams of a fiery bird, and I needed to remember the name of it in order to wake up. I knew that it was a Phoenix, and was able to pull myself out of my slumber, just as the first rays of dawn crept into view. I was cured!

THE POST-GAME
Wow!  I just finished a gamebook on my first attempt!  How long has it been since I did that?  I think I have to go all the way back to The Forest of Doom.

I wasn't expecting to finish Caverns of the Snow Witch so quickly, but the dice were very good to me.  I rolled near-perfect stats, had some very good fortune with some difficult Luck tests, and just barely scraped through the most deadly combats.  The one choice I made that was the difference between success and failure was taking the Potion of Strength at the beginning.  I remembered that this book was hard on Stamina, and also that it found ways to make you waste your Provisions.  Thankfully my memory was good, and I made the right decision.

But yeah, mostly I can chalk this victory up to luck.  Some memory was involved, particularly in the first half that I played recently in Warlock magazine, but that was a small factor.  The dice were the real hero, and they got me through.  Sometimes, especially when Ian Livingstone is at the helm, that's all you need.

Next: After my wrap-up posts on Caverns of the Snow Witch, I'll be taking a detour to look at Warlock magazine #3, which I can see is mostly a preview of House of Hell.  I've heard that it's somewhat remixed from the book version, so that will be really interesting to check out. I'm looking forward to that Real Steve Jackson goodness.

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.