Saturday, 25 October 2008

#37 - Portal Of Evil

I never really thought of Stegosauruses (Stegosauri?) as 'evil', but whichever deity it was that saw fit to give my character the journey he experienced tonight certainly is. 

I was a big fan of dinosaurs long before I heard of Fighting Fantasy; that combined with perhaps the shortest set of rules in a FF gamebook since it began and an intriguing concept (a portal? of evil?) meant I was looking forward a good, classic adventure.

So I wander towards Kleinkastel, a small (presumably German) town near the forest which contains the titular portal of alleged evil. On arrival, without coinage I'm forced to sleep in doorway. So far, so suck, but it was to get worse.

A man and a lizard-bird-dinosaur thing woke me up, demanding I hand over my shit. Figuring this was perhaps one of those backward, counterintuitive decisions where fighting him gets me killed and handing over my weapon gets me a better one back, somehow, I gave in to their demands. With unspectacular skill and stamina rolls, I decided any fights I could avoid would be a good idea.

Nope. Bastard just took my shit and left. D'oh.

In the morning I went begging for food, as I had none and no money, still.

Anyway, once fed I decided to enter a competition in order to win the backing of a big-money benefactor - heperhaps  could give me a sword, at the least. Unfortunately after doing pretty well, one of the challenges was the I Survived a Japanese Game Show or American Gladiators-esque round where we were hung with rope by our ankles, trying to cut each other down. But um, I didn't have a sword, and I doubt even with a -4 skill penalty, I had no chance of cutting down my opponents with my bare hands. 

Anyway, before heading into the forest alone, I had the chance to buy a sword - for 5GP. I had no money!!! Aaragarhhghgh.

I wasn't killed by the first creature I came across in the forest - a Struthiomimus -but the second, a zombie - 'cause I didn't have an official Shaun of the Dead Ring of Taking a Cricket Bat to Zombies, or something. 

Strewth. What a terrible run.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

#36 - Armies of Death

At first I thought, what, another far-off growing threat I have to extinguish? But Armies of Death is a bit different than the previous... however many it is I've had to do in the past couple of months! 

First of all, you get your own army this time around, which I thought was going to be awesome, but I never really got to use them. I might have rolled 7/17/7, but a series of lucky rolls meant my army spent pretty much their entire time hanging around just making me feel cool.

I started by hiring a ship to make my way to Zengis, but only because it was called the Flying Toucan. Normally taking a boat in FF books is a fast-track to drowning, being attacked by pirates and getting lost, or all three, and especially so with over 200 men... but the Flying Toucan? I had to.

Good choice too - as I hinted at before, my dice were stuck on rolling low, and we were soon in Zengis with barely an eyelid battered. If mercenaries bat eyelids. There was the small issue of being attacked by pirates (one out of three ain't bad), but they soon backed off when they saw I had over 200 men (I'm going to keep saying that, as it's not often you've got over 200 men at your command in a FF book).

On arrival in Zengis, the book made my character wander around alone for some reason - this is where a modern computer-based RPG would detect I'd rolled seven for my skill, and let me take over 200 men with me as bodyguards (okay, I'm going to give up on the 'over 200 men' thing, as it's beginning to sound a bit fruity, and I don't think medieval mercenary armies were ready for gay commanders in chief, batting eyelids or not). I found a gold ring with the number 45 inscribed on it, and immediately knew it would come in handy - not because it's gold, or that a burly dude with an axe claimed it was his, but 'cause it had a number on it. Numbered rings were all the rage in 1988 Allansia.

So this guy wanted it back, not that it would fit his fat fingers, each of which probably contained a higher skill rating than I, so I ran. My luck might have been down to about four by this stage, but still, I got away with it and ran into a bar where my luck continued, a bunch of 'vagabonds' telling me where to find the lead bad dude.

Wandering on alone, cause obviously Zengis is safe, I wandered into a pet store and bought a creature that sounded suspiciously useful - a kangaroo that could sit on my shoulder and turn us invisible. Now, I've often read elsewhere how many of Ian Livingstone's books can be glorified item hunts, but come on... how specific a situation would require a magic kangaroo? For sake of suspension of disbelief and immersion, I'm kind of glad I didn't last long enough to find out.

So onto that death - I'd just won a pie-eating contest, and survived an assassination attempt (perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to stand on the table after eating that much pie - if anything, the failed assassination attempt just stopped me from falling off the table and dying much more embarrassingly) when I came across some barrels outside, bound to contain an item I'd need 50 paragraphs later, no doubt. Instead I came across a leprechaun, who wouldn't bugger off, so I went to attack him. Now instead of being protected by the yeti tooth the captain of the Flying Toucan had given me earlier, as he said I would be, the leprechaun used his magic to glue me in place. I lost two luck points, placing me on one, I tested my luck and what do you know, you can't roll one or lower with two dice... and a sewer goblin came along and killed me. 

Stupid yeti tooth. 

So um, I was enjoying Armies of Death, actually. It seemed to have a mix of things - sailing, barroom antics, wandering streets, an apparent distant army waiting to be vanquished... I wish I'd gotten further, but also fear I would've ended up frustrated I was missing a single item essential for progress, or something. I'd also have liked to have a mass battle at some point - even if the battle system was simplistic and random. 

Speaking of random, when the Flying Toucan came ashore, the captain coughed and took a while to recover. I really did think ooh, a foreshadowing of some kind of disease that will run through my army, decimating it and putting pressure on the need for more troops later on... but no. Weird.

The book moved quick, sometimes a little too much so, but on the whole was better for it. 

But does anyone else think Ian Livingstone's face on the back cover is a deeper red than the back cover itself?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

#35 - Daggers of Darkness

At first Daggers of Darkness sounds awfully familiar - an enemy is ammassing an army, you're society's only hope, etc etc. But there are several differences here, largely in the gameplay - poison is spreading through your body, and instead of just killing the top bad dude, you've also got to ascend to the throne in his place.

With other extra bits and pieces, like collecting powerful medallions in some bizarre and inefficient ascension ritual, semi-magical powers and several passages of rolling dice and suffering at random, it's an interesting set up that works in some places but seems annoying in others.

I rolled 10/17/10, so took the Potion of Stamina and set off left. I sson discovered that after pretty much every fight, the poison would spread further - no matter how many times I was cut and bled some of it out! The adventure sheet supplies you with a body chart so you can track where it goes, but it doesn't seem to matter just what parts of your body are infected. I ended the book with a clear head and right leg, but the rest of me was riddled with it. 

Anyway, on my way I crashed at a beggar's place, waking up to an assassin. I had the option to roll out of the way of his dagger, or stop it with my hands. Err, I chose the former. Perhaps if these assassins didn't insist on using the shortest blades possible, they'd actually stab someone properly. 

Wandering further, I chose again to take the left path, this time because it was advertised with a picture of a horse and I could totally do with a horse right about now, I thought. Someone did eventually give me a horse, but only after tying me to the ground and letting it kick the shit out me first. Apparently it was a test, but it's not as if my skills or luck had anything to do with it - then again, I was tied to the ground.

Eventually I came to the maze of Bogomil, and entered, knowing one of the magic medallions would be in there. Don't make me explain the reasoning behind collecting medallions, just know they're important! The beggar told me which path to take through the maze, god only knows how he knew, but his directions got me through, medallion in tow. It was sitting on a trap, Indiana Jones-style, and I knew it'd need the weight of ten gold pieces to balance it - unfortunately I'd spent my money getting the directions here, ironically enough.

So I grabbed it, suffered through the volley of arrows, and kept on. The maze was pretty much the only part of this book I didn't choose to go left at every opportunity.

On exiting the maze, my good wizard friend sent me a message that all the medallions had been found, already, so I'd better head to Sharabbass and meet the evil dude. 

Okay, I'm not really focussing enough on why this book was frustrating. So many times where other books would have tested my skill or luck, I was instead asked to roll a die so many times, then so many times again, and compare the numbers - if any matched, something would happen - usually losses of skill and stamina points, or even death. But to be honest, it was never that scary, because the author played pretty loose and fast with losing and gaining stamina all the way through Daggers of Darkness - at one point, a waft of fresh air replenished me three stamina points. Goddamn! Throwing a ball on a chain into a hole cost me a stamina point each time; to think, I could have been killed attempting the hammer throw. 

So wandering on, I came across another contestant for the throne who conveniently died and left me another medallion (thankyou left path, again!). Going left again, an elf helped me slip past some orcs and a necromancer into Sharabbass (how bad a necromancer do you have to be in order to end up on orc duty?), where I went left and eventually found myself on the Street of Forty Guilds.

Now, as this is a 400-page book, not a 4000, only four of the tradesmen's shops were open. The first I went into just happened to be that of the very dude I needed to find - he loaded me up on mystery potions, then led me to the final mazey-kind of thing. I'm being vague, cause it was a little anticlimactic, to say the least!

I wandered through the final section, didn't even use my power of 'Great Wisdom' like was hinted at in the text, found the bad guy sitting on a bed, he told me to go fight his daughter, but instead I just wandered on up to the throne and sat on it. Err, and won!

By far the easiest FF gamebook so far, as long as the random dice rolling doesn't kill you. There wasn't much that seemed to threaten instant death; and as at every opportunity I had, I went left, it didn't seem to matter which way you went - in fact, I got two medallions, which apparently is about the most you can get anyway, and there are only three mazes anyway (whilst there are apparently seven medallions).

A wasted opportunity, even if the original premise sounds cliched - there was enough different in the set up to make Daggers of Darkness a classic, but it falls short for just being so easy. So many times it seemed I was going to be missing a vital piece of information - the number of times I was offered some for an amount of money I couldn't afford - but it didn't matter. Nothing seemed to matter in the end - as long as I got there, it was a cakewalk.

Hell, the medallions even let you come back to life and pretend you'd won the last fight no less than three times... each. In a world where even air can give you three stamina points, what was the point?

Saturday, 4 October 2008

#34 - Stealer of Souls

So there's no more sci-fi in FF from here on in apparently, and with Stealer of Souls deliberately or not it seemed Jackson and Livingstone were determined to get the series back to basics.

In SoS, you're an adventurer tapped to undertake a mission to rescue a good wizard who has been captured by an evil wizard and imprisoned on an island where no one's magic works but his (hence why they're sending a grunt such as yourself instead of another wizard). The adventure sheet is basic, you're given the basic leather armour, sword, lantern and 10 provisions and sent on your way, simple as that really. 

So far, so awesome. The cover art's good, the writing is descriptive, the story's simple and launches you right in. Unfortunately, this is where it all goes a bit wrong for SoS - at least on the path I took. For too long, it's just too basic, random and dare I say it, boring.

After arriving at the Isle of Despair (just east of the Island of Scars, what a welcoming place) I somewhat randomly chose to head due west, and hack'n'slash my way as best possible. I've got good stats (11/19/10), and this seems a back-to-basics, so yeah. I've already dispatched a giant bird, a giant crab and a plain ol' giant this far without much trouble, so why not? The giant's cave supplied me with some preserved and (I assume) dried fish, which bizarrely went off later when it got wet. Come on, it's fish, and it's dried... 

Further on down the western road I have the choice of continuing west, or going north down a path marked by a skull on a pike, or south to where there's a stick covered in bloodied bird feathers. Ah, west. Hack'n'slash. No detours.

Eventually, after a few more fights, I came across a small house, killed the dark elf present, then had no choice but to sleep the night. I say no choice, as there was no option given by the book - an all too common feature for much of the book. It was annoying, cause given the option, I would not have stayed there - but then again, the trapdoor (which apparently didn't bother me too much the previous evening) in the morning led me to the Iron Crypts where the good wizard was apparently being held. How convenient. 

The Iron Crypt itself I found largely to be a random wander where pretty much walking as west as possible seemed to have just as much success as it did on land. It's as if the author, in his first FF book, wanted to keep everything as simple as possible, and just made the easiest way to complete it going west at all opportunities. 

Hack'n'slash became hack'n'slash'n'bend after my western journey was interrupted by a set of iron bars. Oddly enough, later in the book not once but twice my character (it's surely not 'me' when the book gives me my decisions so blatantly gives up on doors upon realising he's not in posession of the right key. Or any key. Wow, I made it through an entire dungeon without any keys. But the point is, if I can bend iron bars, I can knock down wooden doors. Right? So.

Once again just going west (or random, if west wasn't an option) did me good, getting me to the good wizard, whom after teaching me three spells (and only three - he even knew in advance how long it would take me teach each one and how much time he had) teleported himself back home. Err, what? I know he was chained up and all, but come on - it's not as if he had to wave his wands around now, was it? Or can't he cast spells with people looking? I was a bit miffed, having had to fight off a multitude of creatures with one hand while covering my yawning mouth with the other to get this far.

So I wandered on up to the evil wizard, and despite not having ANY of the special items the text called for, or any spells left, I was able to get up close and personal with him and hack him to pieces, saving the world and bringing my FF score to seven from 34.

Well, writing the ending that way is a bit harsh on the book - the third act (following wandering west across the island and then west across the dungeon) is pretty damn good. You're stuck in the evil wizard's empire of illusion, and instead of going west you have to choose from coloured passageways - the enemies are inventive, the basic spell system cleverly implemented and there are even subtle clues as to what obstacles are ahead depending on the path taken. Maybe it's just in comparison to the preceding hour of adventure, but it really shines and meant when I did reach, and subsequently beat the evil wizard, it felt good, rather than a relief it was all over. 

But no matter how well the book ends, nothing can excuse this bizarre sentence on paragraph 96: "The rich smell of spices, the glitter of silks and other treasures do not tempt you, for you cannot carry these items." Huh?! In an adventure where on three separate occasions I lost stamina due to the smell, I'm pretty sure I'd be finding a way to carry spices, for jebus' sake! If I can bend iron bars, I can carry spices. And if I can wear a silk glove, I can carry silks. 

That, and the forced nature of the first two thirds of the book mean Stealer of Souls ain't no classic, but far from a disaster thanks to the cool third act. And propsto the author for not making it full of instant deaths! I'm not sure which of the future books are his, but apparently they're vast improvements. Looking forward to them.