This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
Alright, fine, the next part of my Fighting Fantasy reviews has been a long time coming. I’m working on it, OK? As a matter of fact, I’ve been prodded into getting back into a gamebook mood over the past year by two things – the first being the Fighting Fantasy-themed podcast Kyra, Dan, Shim and I did a while back, and the second being Games Workshop getting back into the gamebook gig with their new Path to Victory line. Although Games Workshop strictly speaking weren’t the actual publishers of the Fighting Fantasy books, there’s little doubt in founding the series Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were at least partially hoping to provide a gateway drug to gaming in order to cultivate a new generation of customers; equally, since the Fighting Fantasy setting and Warhammer‘s fantasy world developed in parallel, both game lines ended up influencing each other a lot. And yet, at the same time, Games Workshop never seemed to realise that a Warhammer gamebook could be really popular with its customers – until now, that is.
Black Library have been running a print-on-demand sideline for some time now, but they’ve mainly been using it to make long out-of-print material from their back catalogue available when they don’t think there’s a sufficient market for it. (Or, in the case of Space Marine, where the naughty non-canonicity of it all makes them all flustered and swoony.) The first Path to Victory gamebook, C.Z. Dunn’s 40K-based Hive of the Dead was to my knowledge the first all-original print-on-demand title from them. Presumably, part of the reason for making the books print-on-demand was that they didn’t seem sure there’d be a market for them at all. In fact, when I bought the book at least the term Path to Victory didn’t appear on it (due to it being print-on-demand they may have updated that at some point) – evidently it was successful enough to convince Black Library it was worth doing a whole series of them, and so the Path to Victory logo proudly appears on book two in the series, the Warhammer fantasy-based Beneath the City of the White Wolf by M.F. Bradshaw.
In a way, gamebooks for Warhammer and Warhammer 40000 are a perfect fit for the POD side of the business – they might only appeal to a subsection of Black Library’s readership, but they’re an easy sell to those readers of an age to have lived through the Fighting Fantasy craze, as witnessed by the fact that when I got the e-flyer announcing Hive of the Dead I forwarded it to Dan yelling ZOMG 40K GAMEBOOKS!!!!! In a way, the books also represent Black Library sneakily getting back into the RPG business, if only in the form of solo adventures as opposed to fully-featured RPGs; their Black Industries subsidiary had successfully overseen the resurrection of WFRP (that’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying in case you didn’t know) and had produced the first 40K RPG Dark Heresy in house before Games Workshop shut them down and outsourced the RPGs’ development to Fantasy Flight Games (who have done a credible job with the 40K RPGs but made a complete hash of their new editon of WFRP). Evidently there’s still an appetite for crossing the book publishing and gaming streams at Black Library, and gamebooks seem to be the perfect way for them to scratch that itch.
Now that the second book, Beneath the City of the White Wolf, has come out and made it clear that Black Library are in this for the long haul, it’s about time I reviewed these things. I’ll be sticking with the format from the Fighting Fantasy reviews, with the odd tweak as I’ll explain as I go along.
Hive of the Dead
There’s no introductory section explaining the scenario, which considering the fact that mid-to-late period Fighting Fantasy adventures often expected you to wade through page after page of exposition before kicking off the action is a blessing. So I guess I’ll cover most of this when I write up my first run.
The gamebook comes with a fairly simple and straightforward system based, unsurprisingly, on a stripped-down version of the Warhammer 40000 wargame rules. You have your Weapon Skill, Strength, Toughness, Attacks, Wounds and Purity scores; Weapon Skill is a measure of how good you are at hitting things, Strength is used in the Advanced Rules (of which more later) to determine how effective your attacks actually are, Toughness is used to resist damage from successful attacks, Attacks is the number of attacks you have in a combat round, Wounds is the number of wounds you can suffer before dying, and Purity is a new stat to this book which is presumably a measure of how much the Emperor
loves you doesn’t hate you.
Interestingly, your stats are not randomly determined – you use the same pregenerated stat-block every time you play the game. Whilst in theory this limits replay value compared to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, where in theory a low-Skill run would play out very differently to a high-Skill one, in practice this is just bloody sensible. First off, it’s nicely reassuring to know that I should, unless C.Z. Dunn has completely botched this, be able to complete the adventure provided I have good luck and sound judgement based on the stats I go in with, whereas many Fighting Fantasy adventures were either literally impossible or so difficult as to be impossible if you had a low stat (particularly if you had a low Skill 7) that it wasn’t even funny. Secondly, the book is clearly designed for gamebook newbies to be able to pick up and play with ease and minimal prep, so not making us roll all our stats is friendlier to them. Thirdly, since we’re working on a system derived from the wargame a difference of even 1 point in Weapons Skill, Strength, Toughness or Attacks would be overwhelming. (Wounds deviates from the wargame scale and starts at a default of 10, which would be ludicrous for a normal human in the wargame but is sensible for a gamebook where you don’t have dozens of lives at your command to throw away.)
Combat, in the basic rules, is quite simple. The game will tell you which side has initiative, you roll all the attacks for the side with initiative first, then give the other side their attacks, and then alternate until one side or the other is dead. When you roll attacks you roll a six-sided die for each of the attacks the combatant possesses; if the roll is equal to or greater than a target number (determined by the combatant’s Weapon Skill) they hit. If the person they hit had any Saves due to wearing armour or other protections, they get to roll to see if their protections absorbed the hit; any hits not saved do damage based on the weapon used.
Advanced rules are offered which both bring the rules closer to the tabletop rules and are intended to make things more challenging. (Naturally, I’ll be using them.) The advanced rules distinguish between ranged combat and close combat; obviously, you can only participate in ranged combat if you have a gun, so if you’re facing down some zombies with a lasrifle it makes sense to spend a few rounds shooting at them in ranged combat before you get into close combat. In the advanced rules, after you roll to hit an opponent successfully you also have to roll to wound – you compare the Strength of the weapon you are using (or just your basic Strength score) with the Toughness of your opponent, and have to roll to beat a target number, just like in the wargame. Finally, in the advanced rules you have to keep track of how much ammo you have left in a clip – and when you run out you have to either spend a round reloading, or switch to a different gun, or go to close combat.
Apparently I get no gear by default! Boo. What’s more, in addition to weapons and ammo I can only carry six items at a time, and if I drop one I can’t go back and get it later. What is this, Knightmare?
Anyone, onward for the Emperor I guess.
Right, so, 41st Millennium grim darkness of the far future and all that, turns out I’m waking up in a jail cell wearing an Imperial Guard uniform but with no memory of who I am or how I got there and two troopers lying dead outside my cell. No sooner do I notice that they are there, the blighters start moaning and doing the zombie thing; I’m having none of that, so I swipe a laspistol off one of them just before he reanimates to give me that crucial ranged combat advantage before they close in on me. Once we hit close combat, I notice a problem – the game hasn’t specified how much damage I do in hand-to-hand if I am using my bare fists (an errata sheet was actually put out for the book – and hopefully corrections are incorporated into current printings, but it wasn’t out yet when I did my playthrough). A flat 1x modifier to wounds inflicted (close combat damage stats always being expressed as multipliers, as the helpful glossary explains) seems fair.
Defeating the rotters, I head out to find that the rest of the command centre I’m in is in a similarly corpse-strewn state – and the pict screens reveal that the hive city we’re posted in is choked with zombie hordes. Overhearing an encrypted message on the vox system, I scrabble to find a codebook to decrypt it, deducing in the course of doing so that I’m part of the Cadian 616th Regiment, posted to Hive Septus on the planet Subiaco Diablo. Decoding the vox signal as an evacuation order, I decide to make my way out quickly (though not before squabbling with a dead guardsman over a medpack, or having to put down a couple of dead guardsmen and a commissar who seemed intent on preventing me leaving). As I leave, I ruminate that the main effect of the advanced rules seems to make combat last interminably longer (and thus consiume more ammo), which I suppose is realistic and can be tense but could do with tightening up in future gamebooks to make the process less tedious. Still, touring the hive I was quickly impressed by how well Dunn’s narration created a tense atmosphere as I scrabbled around desperately looking for weapons, ammo, and a means of getting to the evac point without running into too many zombie hordes. Unlike many Fighting Fantasy books, Hive of the Dead doesn’t shy away from throwing in long description of your character doing awesome things or getting into terrible trouble.
After travelling through sewers, encountering cultists, wandering through abandoned city streets and getting a lift from a Chimera tank, I finally reach the evac point, where the scenario shifts focus from staying on the move to keep ahead of the hordes to digging in and staying alive until the shuttles can come to take the Guard forces offworld to fight against Abbadon the Despoiler’s latest Black Crusade (which the undead plague was evidently a harbinger of).
Interestingly, the gamebook actually gives you a choice of what task you want to do whilst you are waiting to be evacuated: the choices include defending the front doors, manning a Sentinel lifter, and patrolling the freight tunnels. Opting to go patrolling, I took the flamer offered me (and was grafteful for it) and headed down the tunnels to look for trouble. This introduced me to the spectacle of cultists who chose to “start shooting” at me… despite the fact that they were armed with clubs, not guns. Oh well, thanks to my flamer they were toast anyway. (Incidentally, the game never told me how many shots there were per tank of prometheum so I said “fuck it” and assumed it had infinite capacity unless the game told me I ran out of gas.) Shortly after that the Chaos forces showed up for their big push; barely avoiding succumbing to a Plague Marine’s demands for surrender due to my purity score being untainted and pristine, I surprisingly managed to win through to the end of the adventure and beat the thing, though I think a certain amount of luck had something to do with it.
On balance, I’m favourably impressed; the gamebook seems to offer multiple paths to the end and in addition to that is one of the best-written ones I’ve personally come across. There are some undeniable proofreading issues that need to be dealt with, of course, but if Black Library stick around in the gamebook business I’ll certainly check out whatever they put out.
Beneath the City of the White Wolf
Unlike Hive of the Dead, this time around we actually get to know who the hell we are from the start. The gamebook casts the player as Absalom Kross of the Knights Panther – an order of knights devoted to the defence of Middenheim, the City of the White Wolf. This is cool but will mean nothing to people who aren’t already fairly conversant with the Warhammer Fantasy setting, but then again people who aren’t keen on the Warhams won’t buy print-on-demand Warhams gamebooks so I suppose that’s fair enough.
Anyway, the introductory paragraph does a good job of puffing you up and emphasising that you’re a bigshot hero of the Knights, as well as emphasising that the Knights Panther have carte blanche to root out Chaos by any means necessary, which is all fine by me. (Hopefully the action of the gamebook won’t make me look like a complete berk who isn’t allowed to do anything against the rules.) After the intro gives the background, paragraph 1 sets the scene – you’re part of a force led by the Graf of Middenheim, your liege, marching forth to drive Beastmen hordes out of the Drakwald Forest, from which they’re launching devastating raids. Sounds routine…
Unsurprisingly, it’s much like Hive of the Dead with only a few cosmetic changes and mildly different starting gear, of which more later. Once again, because you’re playing a pregen you don’t get to pick your stats, but the stats you’re given are fairly meaty so that’s fine by me. Purity has been renamed Taint, which is fair enough since in WFRP the emphasis has always tended to be on avoiding the corruptive taint of Chaos as opposed to retaining an unwavering, fascistic devotion to the tenets of the Emperor. (If your Taint hits 6, that’s an insta-death apparently.)
Interestingly, this time around there’s no advanced rules/basic rules distinction; evidently, Black Library have decided that anyone who’s interested in print-on-demand gamebooks in the first place is going to be able to deal with the advanced rules. The examples of combat also suggest this adventure is much more focused on melee combat than ranged combat – only to be expected in a setting where there is substantially less dakka than in the 41st Millennium. This, incidentally, means having and maintaining a decent Strength score is particularly important this time, since melee weapons do damage based on the Strength of their user.
In stark contrast to Hive of the Dead, I actually start out with decent kit this time – woo! There’s a fairly basic sword, three healing packs (to be used when directed by the adventure), a randomised amount of pocket change (5 schillings plus 1 six-sided die roll). Most significantly, I start out wearing plate mail, which has a chunky armour save of 4 – which basically means that statistically speaking, half the attacks which would otherwise have wounded me bounce off. Between this, the statline, and the premise, I figure this adventure assumes I am going to be wading into combat and butchering monsters by the score as opposed to desperately scrabbling to just keep myself alive, as in Hive of the Dead, so they’re at least trying to make sure the system can accommodate a range of different gamebook concepts. Let’s see how successful they are…
Early on the gamebook already gives you a tricky choice – pursue a bunch of Beastmen tracks at top speed to catch up with them, or stick around in the village they’ve just butchered to look for survivors? I opted for the chase, given that the paragraph descriptions had consistently made it clear that the Knights Panther are all about hacking up Chaos beasts rather than necessarily helping the unfortunate and I personally am out for blood. Suspecting an ambush, when the Beastmen split into two groups I decided to follow them up to higher ground, since I didn’t want to be in a position where I was fighting one group of Beastmen whilst the ones on the high ground tossed stuff down on me. Sure enough, it’s the Beastmen camp, and we make our attack. As I charge in for the assault, I’m quite impressed by how well M.F. Bradshaw’s paragraph text gets my blood racing and makes me thirsty for battle – it’s a quite disturbingly Howardian talent of his, it seems. It’s a good thing I’m only attacking wretched mutants instead of actual human beings, otherwise that would be a bit dodgy!
One Beastman camp butchered later, and it’s on for another fight, as we come upon a Temple of Shallya being burned by some of the Beastmen. Hearing the screams of one of the priestesses from inside, I run into the blazing inferno to rescue her and then
get killed really easily by a Beastman.
Look, they got lucky and they have a decent multiplier on their weapons and I was really unlucky on my armour saves and the gamebook didn’t give me a chance to use a healing kit, OK? Don’t laugh, dammit, performance issues aren’t funny.
(In fact, in reviewing this gamebook I don’t think I saw a single paragraph where I was told I could use one of my healing kits, with all of my healing occurring at points where I was able to rest and was given food and healz by NPCs – it’s like Bradshow just plain forgot to put the healing kit instructions in the game.)
Right, next go. 11 schillings in my pocket and I’m feeling lucky. The dice are with me too – I get to the Beastman in question unscathed and cut him down with ease. I’m pleased to note that the gamebook doesn’t punish you for abandoning the line of state troopers fighting the Beastmen outside in order to go help the priestess – after all, you have an entire army with you, they can deal with the rabble. Plus the priestess gave me a healing potion I can drink at any time to heal all my wounds, so score.
Anyway, with the battle over the Graf sends me back to Middenheim because there’s word of odd goings-on back home – a spate of nocturnal kidnappings have got the peasants good and worried, if he doesn’t take some sort of action he’ll have riots in the streets on his hands, which as the Crusader Kings addicts amongst us will know is really irritating when you’re the middle of a war. Beating the facts out of a few witnesses, I learn that the kidnappings have something to do with people being dragged down into the sewers, at which point I put two and two together and realise this is a Skaven-themed story. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just that the Skaven are the exclusive users of the sewers in Warhammer – no actual human beings use sewers because if they did, where would all the crap smeared all over the streets come from?
No sooner than am I in the sewers I’m given a choice of three forking paths with absolutely no information on any of them aside from compass directions. Sigh. I go west because it’s the last option on the list and run into a sewer mutant. I smush it and move on. A few branches and some lucky guesses later, and, yep, face-to-face with a Skaven. I head back and confer with the City Watch, sucking air through my teeth and saying “Yep, you’ve got a Skaven infestation here. Going to cost a bit to get the exterminators in here.” Then I’m off to the Undercity, which is like a set of deeper sewers with less poop, and I’m offered the choice of being boring and going through the Graf’s mansion, negotiating with the cultists of Morr the god of Death to let me in through the graveyard, or ASKING THE DWARVES TO LET ME IN. Obviously I go for the dwarf option because it’s the one most likely to get me an awesome dwarf sidekick or a kickass battleaxe or something.
Apparently I have to swear fealty to a dwarf God to get in, and that might cause a scandal if it gets out… but on the other hand, it’s not like Grungni is a Chaos God, and it’s not like the dwarves are inclined to boast to outsiders. So I swear the oath. Dwarves for the Dwarf God! Sure enough, one of the dwarves turns out to be willing to be my guide in return for me helping them killing some goblins. Lucky I’m good at killing – but not fast enough at it to kill two night goblins in time for my little buddy to set some explosives, which I’d have thought would mean I insta-failed the “kill the goblins” side-quest but apparently I still have opportunities to get the job done. (The gamebook even directs me to note down a particular number, which presumably will be used to determine success or failure at the end of this sub-plot, which I found rather impressive.) Anyway, we go on the next mission, on which we head out to poison the goblins’ beer, when I run into an actual bug! On paragraph 6 you get option to turn to either paragraph 346 or paragraph 192 – but whilst paragraph 192 makes sense in context, paragraph 346 relates to the previous segment of the side-quest. Hopefully the errata will fix this one.
So, I could cheat here and keep doing this part over and over until I succeed at the first mission, but that would be naughty. So I go along to paragraph 192 and it turns out to be a decent option after all – except then it tells me to “roll for damage as you would normally”, and you do that roll against the gobbo’s Toughness, and no Toughness is given in this paragraph! I sigh and go with the toughness for the goblins I fought earlier, which luckily I remember. Not good enough, and I end up with the most deadly possible battle in the final confrontation between dwarf and goblin: a warboss on a riding squig. I win, but because its stats are more evenly matched with mine it takes for-frigging-ever – they seriously need to look at the system on these gamebooks because unless you are either significantly better or significantly worse than your opponents the combat is very swing-and-missy. Still, kudos to Bradshaw if, as I suspect from flicking around, he provided similarly detailed side quests correpsonding to each Undercity entry point, because that would require a particularly careful rationing of his 400 paragraph budget.
Lowered into the Undercity, I immediately come across… another dwarf, only this time it’s a riddling dwarf. Oh, great, it’s turned into fucking Knightmare, next they’ll be making me wear a uselessly huge helmet and obey three bickering voices in my head. Fortunately, the riddles are easy enough because they’re sodding ancient and I can get past, and I get a cool sword out of the deal so I guess I can live with this. Locating and freeing the abducted slaves, I learn from them that the Skaven intend to blow up the mountain (because they hate our freedom), but thanks to my whizzy new sword I can win the ensuing fight quickly enough to prevent them detonating their pile of black powder. It looks like there’s not much left to do bar take down the Skaven leader – which between my magic sword and a handy dwarf grenade I’m able to make short work of.
Kidnappees rescued, job done, right? Well, apparently not, since assassins jump me at the Knights Panther HQ. This sets up a fully statted-up torture sequence – where the various techniques available to you affect the assassin’s Wounds and Taint score, and the trick is to get as much information out of them as possible before they expire. Of course, it turns out there’s a Chaos cult – no good Warhammer adventure would be complete without one – and off I go to root out the enemy within. To be honest, the cult sequence seems to be a bit rushed – what’s there is really good as far as the investigative portion goes, but the denouement is ridiculously cliched and also kind of anticlimactic: after you stop the ritual the adventure just stops and you’re told the Temple of Sigmar will handle the rest of the investigation and you can go off heroing.
It particularly pales in comparison to the rest of the book, where it’s evident that there are many more routes you can take through the adventure than the one I opted for (and consequently a lot of replay value). I wonder whether Black Library aren’t constraining themselves a little too much by sticking to the 400 paragraph format of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – I mean, these are print on demand books, so why not make them a little thicker and ask us for a little more money? (I’m also not convinced that adding another 200 paragraphs to the adventure would necessarily entail adding 50% to the price of the book…)
Still, on the whole I think Path to Victory is going from strength to strength with this one, though there’s still the gameplay issues to be ironed out and more diligent proofreading and playtesting was clearly called for at points here.
What impressed me about both Hive of the Dead and Beneath the City of the White Wolf was that they were clearly both designed by people who on the one hand had a lot of love for the gamebook format, but equally had a clear enough grasp of it to know what’s frustrating and what’s fun and what experiments might be worth attempting with the format. Both Bradshaw and Dunn deliver great descriptive text which really get across the tone and atmosphere of their gamebooks, as well as using the system to their advantage to suit the sort of story they want to tell – the two gamebooks feel like very different experiences, Hive of the Dead being a desperate scrabble for survival whilst Beneath the City of the White Wolf is a joyous plunge into all-out slaughter. On top of that, both gamebooks use various means to gleefully embrace nonlinearity, and thus boost replayability – I’d like to see how preparing for the Chaos assault in Hive of the Dead pans out differently, for instance, whilst I get the impression the cult/conspiracy plot twist at the end of Beneath the City of the White Wolf isn’t such a twist if you happen to have obtained evidence of the conspiracy during the course of play.
In short, despite the errors (and errata sheets will clean those up nicely), both of these gamebooks are of a very high quality indeed. Between the excellent atmosphere-maintaining paragraph text, the nonlinearity, the avoidance of save-or-die situations and the willingness to experiment, they compare favourably to the best of the mid-period Fighting Fantasy books – the ones which came out after the first twenty or so highlighted the possibilities and restrictions of the format, but before the line got stale and samey. And on top of that, they are Warhams gamebooks, at long last. My one major criticism of them would be that by casting the player as a very specific character each time, the gamebooks make a lot of assumptions about them – in particular, you’re a dude both times, which is particularly problematic since the NPC gender ratio is skewed massively towards dudes in both. (This is particularly irksome in Hive of the Dead, where – especially if they only used your surname – there’s no reason why they couldn’t at least have maintained a strategic ambiguity about the player’s gender.)
So, Path to Victory is not quite Axis of Awesome stuff yet, but with the potential to climb there with subsequent releases, and they are very, very good indeed. I haven’t had such fun with a gamebook since I was 11, back when I couldn’t think of anything better to do with a relaxing evening than sitting in bed with my orange juice and my adventure sheet and my mapping paper and my gamebook and my dice. They’re so good that I only feel a mild twinge of embarrassment that my exciting 21st century bachelor lifestyle involves me spending my evenings in much the same way and writing about it for your entertainment.