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.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Scorpion Swamp: Final Thoughts

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.

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.

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!