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).
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.
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.