Saturday, 12 April 2008

#8 - Scorpion Swamp

Scorpion Swamp was the first of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks to mess with the formula, to fix what wasn't broke, the first to take drugs and experiment with its sexuality, so to speak.

Well, maybe not, but it is still quite a departure from the previous six. Firstly, magic spells. Magic freakin' spells! The story is non-linear, allowing you to re-visit previous locations. Non-freakin'-linear! There isn't a single goal, but a choice of three, determined by your early choices in the town of Fenmarge. Three-freakin'-quests! And you had no food. Which just plain sucked, and was almost the death of me on more than one occasion. If Homer Simpson had a supply of Power Sauce bars to help him to the top of the Murderhorn, the least the writer could have given us to wander through Scorpion Swamp was a banana or something.

Ah, the writer. One of the little-known things that elevates the Fighting Fantasy series above others, is that the first book not written by co-founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone was written by none other than Steve Jackson. Confused? The former is a Brit, the latter, a Yank. Awesome.

With the change in authorship came a change in style, obviously. Something that stuck out were the amusing, pithy comments that often accompanied battles, usually along the lines of 'if you die here then maybe you shouldn't have done such and such' or implying your remains will become fertiliser. Much better than the boring old, 'If you defeat whatsisface, turn to page x'.

Anyway! I got skill 10, stamina 21, luck 12, and headed into the swamp armed with barely more than some parchment and pencil in order to make a map for my boss, Poomchucker. Yes, Poomchucker. I had a choice of three wizards to serve: one good, one evil, and one 'strange' with the name Poomchucker. Well, that was a no-brainer...

He wanted me to make a map, which was convenient, because in the book's introduction it said making a map was very important anyway. So I entered the swamp (covered in 'evil fog' by the way, which amused me; I always thought fog had its good points, to be honest), and soon came across a 'Master of Wolves' (no word on whether he danced with them). The option was there to fight, and at this stage I was full of stamina and skill, so thought why not. It was a tough battle, I took his 'Wolf Amulet' and headed over to ransack his hut - magically sealed. Damn, I thought, I have all these magic freakin' spells, but no, there was nothing I could do about it, the book maintained. Ah well.

I decided that as I had approached the swamp from the south, chances were that the town I was looking for, Willowbend, was on the other side, so I headed north. I needed food badly already - wolf guy was pretty tough. Of all the rule changes, why the hell no damn food?! I had to use several luck points to defeat him, a common feature of many future battles in the swamp.

One stamina spell (already!) and several leech bites later, I began to wonder why this Poomchucker couldn't just go around the swamp to find his damned Willowbend.

I next came across some trees wielding swords called 'Sword Trees'. Okay Jackson #2, I'm thinking about now, something's not right here... I defeated the trees (barely) only to be told I pocket some of their seeds - why the hell would I bother? I can't imagine for what purpose I'd need hostile swordfighting trees. They'd knocked me down to only a few stamina points - lucky I'd burned them with a fire spell beforehand, or I'd probably have been killed.

Next I came across a river which I iced over using a spell, only for my bridge to crumble halfway across. Luckily I soon swept by a stone bridge which I can only assume the 'evil' fog prevented me from seeing earlier.

I kept venturing north, killed a unicorn, and left a giant eagle in peace (I'd just killed one endangered species, I didn't want to start on another) and fell into quicksand, which knocked me down to two stamina points... the 'Wolf Amulet' let me pass a bunch of, um, wolves, and a giant I chanced across was just a big wouss who'd lost his hanky. Counting my blessings - I'd gotten past an entire pack of wolves and a giant while on only two stamina - I soon came across a big purple berry.

Anyone who's read my previous posts will know I hardly ever pass up the chance to eat shit on my adventures, and with a lack of anything edible on my journey to date, I pigged in. Two more stamina! Sweet.

I then met a ranger who advised me Willowbend was to the south then west; I followed those exact directions, which happened to also be the way in which a Will'O'Wisp was travelling; bad omen, it led me into a mudhole, and I was back down to two stamina.

My next opponent was slime. Not the ghost, but actual slime. I noticed one of the options - try a spell - led to paragraph 400. Ooerr. Out of interest, I had a quick peek, but no, it wasn't instant victory - it was just another paragraph. Steve Jackson II really did do something different with Scorpion Swamp!

Anyway, I beat the swamp without taking a hit (luckily, as a single one would've killed me). Some brigands soon approached, but a quick friendship spell sorted them out. They recommended a tavern to spend the night at, which I did, gaining a measly two (two is always measly, even if I only have two to begin with) stamina points - what was I sleeping on, the floor? Luckily a local wizard swapped me a stamina spell in exchange for my unicorn horn.

Now, I figured the trip home would be easy - I'd killed or befriended everything on my path home, but something happened - it wasn't as easy to navigate back. Everything seemed a little different, and some things - like the scorpion horde and the Sword Trees - were back in full force. I would've killed for some stamina-regaining spells of the like they must've had!

I was particularly annoyed when after dispatching some orcs, I was told their provisions were 'too disgusting to touch'. O RLY? Said who!? I even ate a defeated thief's cheese, my standards can't have been that high.

Eventually, I scrambled from the swamp with six stamina points left, and completed my quest.

I have to say, I really enjoyed Scorpion Swamp, and felt the change in style and format really, really worked. It built upon the 're-visiting' functions Forest of Doom had introduced, and made them work in a much more realistic, natural manner. I was particularly impressed how the trip back wasn't as simple as it seemed, mimicking a real sense of confusion one would have in a real swamp of its type. The return to some locations even built upon what had happened in previous encounters, a feature that may seem natural in computer games or more complex publications, but quite an achievement in a 400-paragraph book in the infancy of its series. Kudos to Steve Jackson II.

In my uber-box of books, there two copies of this one; one as above, which I assume is the original - it appears by book eight, Jackson the first and Livingstone realised they had a pretty decent franchise going, and began designing them as such; the second with the later, flashier logo that's well-represented here. I played the second, not that they're any different in content, but the newer one was in better condition. Much like my success rate, after completing Scorpion Swamp - 25%!

It wasn't easy though, I had excellent luck with the dice, and used my good luck score often in battles. Overall I enjoyed Scorpion Swamp, and would definitely recommend it. Hell, there are two more quests I could go back and attempt, which I won't right now, but yeah. A book you can come back to, probably.


Solarn said...

I was horribly afraid of the monster on the cover of this when I was a boy, which is strange, because at the same time, I always found the Basilisk on the cover of Deathtrap Dungeon sort of cute and it's even more disgusting-looking.

Unknown said...

Ahhh - Scorpion Swamp... the first book written by a non-Brit.

I didn't mind this book, although I was always disappointed that the Neutral and Evil quests paid you in solid money, while the 'Good' quest simply gave you a mug of alse and some hearty congratulations. WTF?

I hope Ian Livingstone cringes with shame about how this adventure manages, in the same 400 paragraphs, to effortlessly replicate the ability to revisit paragraphs in a way hopelessly muffed by Forest of Doom. The creation of atmosphere and the idea of Spell Gems is fantastic as well.

Kudos, Mr Jackson II>

strom-z said...

one of the best FF in the series maybe, really fun with the map

Steve Flanagan said...

Scorpion swamp left me with the most lasting memories of any of the Fighting Fantasy books that I read.
I mapped out the whole swamp and drew a map. Just scanned it today and posted it off to the

Steve Flanagan said...

Here's a link to my map of Scorpion Swamp:

Steve Flanagan said...
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