Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Dark Usurper: Attempt 1

Today's Fighting Fantasy installment is somewhat unusual, in that it was not part of the main series of books, not a spin-off book, and not a part of Warlock magazine; "The Dark Usurper" was serialised over three issues of White Dwarf.  At the time White Dwarf was probably the premier gaming magazine in the UK, so I can see the logic here in trying to introduce FF to gamers who might not yet be on board with the series.

"The Dark Usurper" was written by Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill.  I can't find anything that Hill worked on aside from this, but Sutherland wrote a bunch of gamebooks, and is a name I recognise from 80s gaming.  (Although now that I'm googling him, not as much stuff is coming up as I'd expected.  Now I'm wondering why his name is recognisable to me, because I haven't read any of the gamebooks he wrote, and there's not much else to be found.)

This adventure seems to be pretty divorced from the world of Titan, and is unusual in FF canon in that you play a specific character, Corwin Calbraith, son of the Duke of Skeln.  For years Corwin has been away fighting the heathens in a crusade, an ill-fated venture that ended with the king wounded and his coffers empty.  Corwin left his lands under the rule of his trusted friend Evald Senskell, but when he returned the lands were under the rule of a new duke, and the people were sullen and strangely silent.  Corwin rushed to his castle, only to be captured by grey-skinned creatures and imprisoned at the top of the highest tower.

That's where the adventure begins.  The rules aren't provided at all, the reader is simply told that they must have access to a Fighting Fantasy gamebook.  That's one way to drive sales, I guess.  As far as I can tell, this adventure just uses the most basic of FF rules.  You don't start with any gear, so all that's required is to roll for Skill, Stamina and Luck.  For my first attempt, I rolled a Skill of 11, a Stamina of 22, and a Luck of 8.  Are those stats good enough to make it through?  I have absolutely no idea.  This is the first time I've laid eyes on this adventure, so I'm completely in the dark.


I lay in my cell after three months of captivity, pondering my options of escape; three months was a lot of time for pondering, and I had come up with three ingenious plans.  I could either overpower the guard on his next visit, tie my bedding into a rope and climb out the window, or start prising up the floorboards.  Of those options, I decided that going out the window would be my best bet.

After knotting up the bedding, I figured that my makeshift rope would reach about 20 feet below my window; not enough to reach the ground, but perhaps enough to make it to a window below.  I decided to risk it, and soon I was dangling precariously at the end, with a window about six feet to my left.  I swing over, and scrambled in through the window onto a staircase.  (This required a Luck test, which I succeeded at; I got a Luck bonus straight afterwards, so my total remained at its maximum of 8).

Heading down the stairs, I came to an open door.  In the room beyond were three hideous humanoids, noisily playing cards.

Despite the illustration, I don't have a sword here

I decided to sneak past (requiring a Luck test that I passed, reducing my score to 7), and in their semi-drunken state they didn't notice me.  I escaped from the prison tower out into a courtyard.

I had three options: the main gate, the armoury, or the stables.  I figured that the armoury would probably be guarded, so instead I opted to go to the stables to find Aryl, my loyal steed.  I entered carefully, and managed not to startle the horses.  Aryl was there, and I led him back to the courtyard.  It was tempting to go to the armoury to find a weapon, but instead I mounted my horse and rode for the gate.

Two large trolls were guarding the gate, and they heard my approach (as I failed a Luck test, that reduced my score to 6).  My horse knocked one of the trolls aside (after I rolled an odd number on one die), but I spurred Aryl onwards, and soon I was across the drawbridge and at the top of a nearby hill.

At the top of the hill, I saw a light flickering to my left, and dismounted to investigate.  The light led me to a trapdoor, which I opened,  Easing myself into the chamber below, I saw a chest covered with on old rug.  Inside the chest was a bundle containing a sword: it was Stroma, the sword of my father, its balance still perfect.  I strapped it to my belt and climbed back to the top of the hill.

(At this point the continuity gets really screwy, as my character decides to summon his horse with a whistle, and Aryl thunders out of the castle.  Never mind that I just rode him out of the castle a couple of entries ago, here he is escaping all over again.  I've read loads of gamebooks, and I don't know that I've ever encountered a blunder as big as this one.)

I had the option of riding to the road and the nearest village, but I figured that it would be best to keep out of sight, and headed for the woods.  Deep in the woods, and safe for a time, I settled down to sleep

(This is where part one ends, and part two begins.  The introduction to part two says that my friend Evald Senskell was tricked and imprisoned by Barnak, the titular Dark Usurper, which is news to me.  None of that was mentioned in the previous introduction, and I didn't learn anything of the sort during the adventure.)

I awoke in the morning to find that my supposedly loyal steed had disappeared in the night.  (So that whole continuity break was completely pointless!)  I headed deeper into the forest, and soon enough I was pretty sure that I had become lost.  (At this point I had to make a Luck test, which I failed; my score was reduced to 5.)  I heard a scream to the north, and rushed off to investigate.

I soon came to a clearing, where three goblins were poking a bound man with their spears.  Without hesitation I drew my father's sword and charged at them, catching them unawares.  One of them wounded me, but even with three-to-one odds I made short work of the goblins.  (The goblins were Skill 5 Stamina 4, Skill 4 Stamina 5, and Skill 5 Stamina 3.  There was no guidance as to how they should be fought, so I had them all fight me simultaneously just to make things a bit more difficult.  At the end of the fight my Stamina was 20.)

I cut the old man free.  He applied some herbs to his wounds, and gave a high-pitched whistle.  Two pumas emerged from the forest, and bounded to his side.  He introduced himself as Asmund, and told me that he knew a great deal about the problems that I faced.  He offered to take me to his home, and I graciously accepted.

Soon we reached a small clearing with a wooden house, and went inside.  There we drank cider, and Asmund offered to teach me some of his skills in exchange for the green gem in the pommel of my father's sword.  Reluctantly I handed it over, and he attached it to the end of his staff.  Seeming somehow stronger and more bold, he told me to sleep, and said that we would begin on the morrow.

In the morning I awoke to find that the old man had provided me with new gear: a surcoat, a red cloak, a wolfskin stole, a hunting lance, and a shield emblazoned with the mask of death.  I dressed myself like a total badass, and went outside to take Asmund's test.

The air was full of shimmering lights, and Asmund told me to take them from the air.  Rather than snatch at them, I held out my hand and concentrated; the lights gathered in my palm.  I had earned the gift of Asmund's Floating Spheres, and was told that to use them I should cast them at a foe and stand well back.  I was given enough for two such attacks.  (No indication was given as to what these attacks do, so I assume that at some point they'll be given as options in the text.)

Asmund told me that I should head for the village to the north and seek out Jorkell, who would help me to defeat the usurper Barnak.  He gave me some fragments of his own gem, and also the companionship of his two pumas.  Then he recited a prophecy at me:

When the fair-headed man comes forth,
His garments red as blood,
His devices strange and wild cats for kin,
Smite shall he the beast, and we shall be free.

I bid farewell to Asmund and went on my way, with his pumas loping at my side.

I headed due north, and soon came to the village of Kari.  After camping for the night, I headed toward the village.  The gate was manned by four guards, so I decided to scout around the outside of the village walls.  A lone sentry stood by a watchtower overlooking the area.  I tried to sneak up behind him, but (due to a failed Luck test that left my score at 4) he turned and saw me.  The Sentry (Skill 5, Stamina 5) was no match for me though, and I killed him easily.

There were no other entrances into Kari, and the walls were too high to climb, so I resigned myself to going in through the main gate.  The gate guards stood dumbfounded as I walked past with my pumas and my rad skull shield.  The crowd burst into cheers at my appearance, and surged towards me.  I gave a rousing speech, then went to find Jorkell, the garrison commander of Kari, who was at the barracks.  I handed Jorkell the fragment of Asmund's gem, and he placed the stone in a circular metal device, where it started to glow. (I have no idea what this is about, but Jorkell states afterwards that Barnak's sorcery is gone, so I guess it has something to do with that.  This is the first I'm hearing of Barnak being a sorcerer though.)

Together we went inside the barracks, where some frightened goblins were ready to defend themselves.  I showed them no mercy, and the goblins were put to the sword.  Jorkell waved a severed head about, and seemed entirely too into the whole thing.  He was starting to grow on me.

Jorkell offered to show me the extent of Barnak's control, and asked if I wanted to ride west or approach the castle.  I decided to check the situation to the west, and rode out with a force of 50 men.  Scouts soon reported that there were 200 creatures on the road ahead, so I decided to turn aside and head for the castle.  Upon seeing the castle, it was apparent that I'd need far more men to take it.

Before heading back to Kari, I decided to check out the village of Skelah.  It was deserted, as Barnak had taken the people as slaves.  While I was in Skelah, I got news that the enemy had cut off our lines of retreat to Kari.  If we were going to return there, we would have to fight through an army of 200 goblins.

Outnumbered four-to-one, I decided that a quick frontal attack would be the best option.  We hurtled towards the goblins in two columns, crashing into them and sending them into disarray.

(At this point the battle is resolved with mass combat rules that I'm not sure I understand.  I'll quote them in full. "There are two hundred of them, for every five troopers throw two dice: for each 1 or 2 thrown you lose 1 man, then multiply the two dice scores by each other and that is how many goblins are killed; do the same thing for you and Jorkell, a 1 only means death."  So I throw two dice for every five troopers, but am I counting the goblins or my own troops?  If it's the goblins I'm rolling 80 dice, if it's my own troops I'm rolling 20.  Either way it doesn't matter, because the way it's set up there are always loads more goblins dying than humans.  I mean, for every two dice rolled 1 or 2 men can die, and 1 to 36 goblins; I'm not sure it's possible to fail.  I reduced the goblins down to 98, and only lost 2 men, which really doesn't seem right.  I'm really not sure if it's a bad system, or if I've just interpreted it incorrectly.)

The goblins surrendered, and we rounded them up and led them back to Kari for interrogation.  I decided to head back into the forest to seek advice from Asmund, but his place was deserted.  I searched around for him, but soon came to the conclusion that he'd been captured by Barnak.  Returning to Kari, I reported the situation to Jorkell, and together we made our plans to defeat the usurper Barnak.

(Part two ended here, and part three began.)

We prepared our defenses as men flocked to my banner; I had 600 able-bodied fighters at my disposal.  At mid-morning, I was told that the enemy approached.  I decided that we should remain in the village and prepare for the attack.  Watching from the tower, I estimated that Barnak was attacking with around 2,000 men.  I placed 400 men on the walls, and held back 200 in reserve.

The enemy surrounded the walls, but their heaviest attacks came on the east side.  I erred on the side of caution, and reinforced them with 50 men.  The enemy swept my forces from the walls, and I threw the rest of my reserves into the fray rather than retreat to the citadel.  Our losses were greater, and the enemy poured through the gaps in our defense.  (I had to roll 2d6x10 for my own losses, and 3d6x10 for theirs.  The dice were unkind.)

I called the retreat to the citadel, and there with 400 men we made our last stand.  (At this point I had to make a Luck test, but with a score of 4 I had little hope of success.)  I urged my men to fight, but despair set in, and they started throwing down their weapons.  I kept fighting (prompting another Luck test that I failed, because my score was now 3), but the enemy forces were too much, and we were overwhelmed and slaughtered.  My adventure was over!


I'm not sure if I got done in by bad decisions at the end there, or a bad Luck score.  If it's the latter, then the adventure has some real design problems, unless there are ways to restore Luck that I've missed.  (I mean, it has some design problems anyway: that continuity error with the horse is pretty bad, and the mass combat rules don't make much sense.)  I'm tempted to give myself a potion of fortune and ten provisions at the beginning; it doesn't make sense in-story, but it's technically within the rules of vanilla Fighting Fantasy.  I'll hold off on that for now, and see if the adventure is legitimately winnable first.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to hear there was a 'White Dwarf' FF adventure. It sounds flawed but kind of cool and I like the illustrations.

    The original version of 'White Dwarf' was a little before my time (when I first got into RPGs in the early/mid-90s it was already entirely about miniatures gaming) but in the late 90s I picked up a 1987 issue in a second hand shop once and was shocked at how different and how much fun it was - a 'D&D' adventure, 'Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay' rules, a 'Paranoia' adventure, comic strips, reviews... even the Games Workshop minatures had a pleasingly anarchic old school look to them. It seemed like it was a very cool magazine.