I'm not dead! The blog is not dead! After a two-month hiatus, mostly brought on by the holidays, I'm back with my final thoughts on Scorpion Swamp. I haven't done one of these since June; I've almost forgotten how. Nevertheless, I'm done with this book, and I have thoughts. Let me show you them.
There's a school of thought that Scorpion Swamp is a bad gamebook. It rarely makes it into the fan-favourite lists, and is often criticised for being "too childish", and "too easy". It's also the first book not to be written by one of the series' co-creators (not that we knew it at the time), which is another potential strike against it.
Here's the thing: Scorpion Swamp is pretty good. It's really well-designed, with multiple quests and an area that can be freely explored as opposed to the usual "linear path with side-passages" structure of most Fighting Fantasy books. It's innovative in ways that books like City of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon and Island of the Lizard King haven't been, and yet those books consistently rate higher. Why is that?
I think a lot of it has to do with the disconnect between the set-up of the book and its reality. Here is the description of Scorpion Swamp from the Background: "criss-crossed by numerous trails that twist and turn in all directions". The sky above it is a constant gloom, monsters lurk in its depths, and it's supposedly impossible to explore without getting lost. It sounds deadly.
But what's it like when you play the book? Nice straight paths leading to "clearings". No particular mention of the gloom, and not as many monsters as you might have thought. It doesn't even feel like a swamp. What sort of swamp has clearings? Sure, the magical Brass Ring helps your character to explore it, and the paths are possibly simplified in the writing, but the swamp as presented is nothing like the one in the set-up.
The criticism of the book's childishness is also not without merit. There's no doubt that it's pitched at a slightly younger audience than the seven books previous, and that tone isn't helped by Duncan Smith's illustrations, which are cartoonier than those of his predecessors. The Fighting Fantasy books before this had a sense of nastiness about them, a feeling that the world was out to kill you mercilessly. Scorpion Swamp does have its nasty moments and its share of violent deaths, but it doesn't revel in them the way that earlier books did. It's more whimsical than malicious.
The book is also criticised for being too easy to win, and that's reasonable. Compared to the average FF, it is quite forgiving. Most of the instant deaths are the result of stupid decisions, there are no unavoidable and unwinnable combats, and the free-roaming nature of it means that you won't lose because you picked the wrong turn at an intersection. Have a look at that list though: do those things strike you as good game design? Yes, Scorpion Swamp is easy in comparison. I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing.
That simplicity is off-set by the multiple paths. Being able to choose between questing for Good, Neutrality and Evil is a welcome change from the standard two FF motivations: "greed" and "killing evil wizards". The book is obviously weighted in favour of Good: it has what is probably the easiest quest, and it even grants you a stat bonus at the beginning. Being Evil is generally punished, and has the most difficult quest. I'm not opposed to this in principle, but the book insists on telling you how guilty you feel whenever you do something bad. How do you know how bad I feel Fake Steve? Have you even seen how punchable the Master of Flowers looks?
Still, despite the disconnect between concept and execution, Scorpion Swamp is quite a bit of fun. It's not one of the greatest of the series, but it deserves a better reputation than it gets, if only for how well-designed and balanced it is. It might even be the best one to start a young kid off with, unless they're really into the blood 'n' guts aspect of fantasy gaming.
COOL STUFF I MISSED
I covered most of the book, but there are a few cool things I missed. The Curse spell in particular is an option that I didn't use all that much, but just about every use of it is entertaining. There's also the option to battle the evil wizard Grimslade, which is perhaps the most sure-fire way to get yourself killed in the book.
MISTAKES AND RED HERRINGS
Guess what? There aren't any. Every item in the book has a purpose somewhere, and every paragraph can be reached. Like I said, this one is really well-designed.
This book has a surprisingly high 15 instant failures, as well as five endings in which your character has failed but managed to survive. There wasn't much competition, to be honest. I mean, just check out this beauty.
"Then the entire tower glows red-hot and explodes." Sheer poetry.
Story & Setting: Scorpion Swamp, with its twisting paths and gloomy depths, sounds really cool. Too bad it's not like that at all. I have to knock this one down for the disconnect between background and execution, but then again I should bump it up for having three different quests. Rating: 3 out of 7.
Toughness: It's a bit easy, but it always plays fair, and it stays true to the idea that a character can finish the book regardless of stats. Still, it could stand to be a little more difficult. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Aesthetics: The writing is simplistic, the illustrations are mostly a little too cartoony, and none of it matches what was set up at the beginning. None of it's bad, but there's little here that's evocative or memorable. Rating: 3 out of 7.
Mechanics: This mostly uses the standard Fighting Fantasy system, with the addition of some single-use spells, but it gets some bonus points for the multiple paths, and the ability to explore the swamp at will. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Innovation & Influence: On the surface it doesn't feel all that innovative; perhaps that's due to it being pitched at a younger audience, and the tendency to equate "adult" with "sophisticated". In reality it's the most innovative main-series FF since Starship Traveller, and it implements its ideas far more successfully than that book did. Free-roaming and multiple quests, what else do I need to tell you? Rating: 5 out of 7.
NPCs & Monsters: There are quite a few new monsters in Scorpion Swamp, but they leave very little impression. Only the Sword Trees stick in the memory, and that's because they're such heinous bastards. It's full of NPCs though: the five Masters, Selator, Grimslade, Poomchukker, the paladin Gronar, the ranger, the giant, etc. None of them have much depth, but they're distinctive and they all have a reason to be there. Rating: 4 out of 7.
Amusement: I enjoy this book, but I don't love it. It's a mild diversion that I'm happy to break out now and then, but it rarely jumps to mind when I'm thinking about my favourites. Ranking: 4 out of 7.
Scorpion Swamp doesn't get the nebulous, ill-defined Bonus Point. The scores above total 29, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 58. That seems about right: slightly above average.
Next: Caverns of the Snow Witch! Let the STAMINA loss commence!