The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 6)

It’s time once again for another one of my (very) irregular reviews of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. In previous instalments I’ve covered the books up to late 1985 (including Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! spin-off series), and for this one I’m going to cover the last books released in 1985 and the first ones from 1986. The glut is well and truly underway, and a fairly wide range of authors have been recruited to serve it – in fact, each of the gamebooks I’m reviewing this time around were written by different authors.

All of them are men; in fact, not a single Fighting Fantasy book was written by a woman until Crystal of Storms by Rhianna Pratchett, released last year by Scholastic. Despite a certain homogeneity of author, otherwise the series seems to be zooming in a range of different directions, with science fiction, superheroics, pirate adventure and samurai missions encompassed in the concepts this time around. And we start out in the four-colour world of comics, as after quite some delay since my previous article in this series we finally make it to our…

Appointment With F.E.A.R.

Scenario

It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Jackson’s mind was on superheroes in 1985. In the previous year, Games Workshop had just come out of a failed bid to produce a Marvel-themed superhero RPG – the RPG licence eventually went to TSR instead – and had consoled themselves for their loss by releasing a spruced-up edition of Golden Heroes, a superhero game which had originally been self-published in 1981 and which they’d bought the rights to in the vague hope of using it for Marvel before deciding to release it as a generic supers game in order to recoup some of their losses.

It should be remembered that this is comfortably before stories like Watchmen, The Dark Knight ReturnsA Death In the Family and The Killing Joke injected a big fat dose of grimdark into the superhero genre, so the tone of Golden Heroes tended to be bright, colourful, and optimistic; this is also true of Appointment With F.E.A.R., which if Jackson didn’t write specifically to perhaps spark interest in superhero roleplaying at the very least came out at an opportune time to do so.


The gamebook casts you as Jean Lafayette (a name quite well-chosen for the purpose of readers of any gender imagining themselves as the hero), a hero whose parents subjected themselves to dubious genetic experiments as a result of your mother really, really wanting to test out her theories to the extent of using herself as the guinea pig. Your parents had a change of heart when they realised that a life being poked at in a lab was no way for a human being to live, and concealed the existence of your powers from the rest of the team. Now an adult, you work in an ordinary office job by day – but when crime alerts and public emergencies intervene, you become the Silver Crusader, defender of Titan City (a mashup of various US and UK cities with the serial numbers filed off in terms of its landmarks).

Now you face your greatest crisis yet. You have received word that the supervillain organisation F.E.A.R. – the Federation of Euro-American Rebels – intends to have a major summit in Titan City in the near future, and in attendance will be none other than Vladimir Utoshski, AKA the Titanium Cyborg – the megalomaniacal leader of F.E.A.R. who combines Blofeld-esque plots with incredible skills in cybernetics. If you can find the meeting and gatecrash it, this might be your big chance to put away one of the greatest threats to public safety the world knows – but if the meeting goes ahead undisrupted, who knows what horrible gambit will be unleashed on an unsuspecting world?

System

In keeping with being a superhero game, along with the usual Fighting Fantasy stats you get Hero Points, which you earn by doing heroic stuff and may lose if you do something that’s a little shady or causes people to lose confidence in you. This extends to the combat system – if you beat an opponent down to 1 or 2 Stamina, they surrender and you can hand them over to the authorities, but if you take them down to 0 (possibly if you use Luck to do double damage for your final blow) you kill them – at which point you lose a Hero Point. (This has the nice side effect of shortening the combats, since of course they will usually end at least a round sooner than they otherwise would.) They don’t seem to have much of an actual game mechanical impact, mind, they’re more useful as a measure of how well you did on a particular run.

In terms of superpowers, you can pick one of four power sets. Each will give you a power or set of related powers, plus give you a list of clues to pick two from to represent your starting information.

Gear

You don’t really closely track equipment in this game – after all, it’s not a fantasy dungeon-crawling experience where each potion and gold piece matters – so you don’t have an extensive gear loadout. The main bits you possess at the start of the game of actual note are your Silver Crusader costume and your Crimewatch, a wristwatch which alerts you to when crime is happening.

First Run

Skill: 9
Stamina: 18
Luck: 10
Power: Super Strength

This initial runthrough quickly clarified how the gameplay of this book works in practice: you’re going about your day to day life in Titan City fighting the odd criminal or supervillain who pops up, whilst keeping your ear to the ground for clues which might help you locate the F.E.A.R. meeting. The clues you get when you choose your superpower, and other clues you pick up in play, can give you a leg up in facing some of the crises in front of you – sometimes they just give you useful hints, in other instances they tell you that under certain circumstances you should turn to a different paragraph (often in forms like “if X happens, you can use this information by subtracting Y from the current paragraph number and turn to that paragraph”).

You have a busy life, with alerts coming up on your Crimewatch or crises breaking out in your vicinity all the time, which means you can’t tackle every incident that breaks out in your vicinity. The result is that solving the game will likely come down to figuring out which crimes yield the information you need about the F.E.A.R. meeting and are amenable to being solved by you (not all of them will lend themselves to your particular powers or statline), or critical information which makes dealing with some of the other crises in the game easier, and focusing on those.

As a result, in this first go-around I ended up encountering some situations I just didn’t make any progress on, simply because I either didn’t have the right preceding clues or the situation didn’t call for a super-strong guy. Still, the super-strength power set is rather good: it also comes with flight powers on the side, and it means you have an effective Skill of 13 in combat, which means you can steamroller most fights you run into. (In fact, I don’t think I encountered a situation where I had to use my Skill outside of a fight, making Super Strength a good pick if you roll poorly on Skill.)

As the days go by the situations you face end up more perilous, and include more insta-Game Overs. This go-around I got blasted by a laser weapon that had been set up as a trap, in a situation where I guess it is possible there might have been a clue earlier on that I didn’t get which would have given me an out but which, since I didn’t find any such thing, felt like it came a bit out of the blue. I finished up this run with 7 Hero Points.

Second Run

Skill: 7
Stamina: 17
Luck: 9
Power: Psi-Powers

As you might expect, the Psi-Power superpowers set gives you various powerful psychic abilities, which includes a certain capacity to avoid combat in some situations (though you lose 2 Stamina every time you make use of the ability so it’s not to be overused). This is handy because I had Skill 7 this time, though Jackson at least avoids using too many high-Skill, high-Stamina enemies in this gamebook and works in appropriate opportunities to rest up and regain Stamina.

In fact, this brings in a time management aspect to the gamebook, since at points you have a choice between slacking off and regaining Stamina or being more active and potentially getting more opportunities to acquire information. It also became apparent this playthrough that some information can be obtained from more than one source, which is rather helpful and means there is more scope to take opportunity of this if needed.

As it stood, I was finished off this time around (having earned 20 Hero Points) by a sinister mastermind who turned out to have superior brain powers to mine. This feels like a bit of a shame – if you see a mega-brained supervillain and you have psychic powers, that seems like a setup for some badass psychic combat, not an insta-loss. Though, again, maybe there was a countermeasure I missed.

Third Run

Skill: 8
Stamina: 20
Luck: 10
Power: Energy Blast

Energy Blast is not such a hot power. You have to roll equal or under to your Skill to use it, in which case it automatically stuns enemies, but you aren’t always able to get off multiple blasts in a combat, and each time you use it you take 2 points of damage. Whilst a power that can shut down combats is useful, some opponents have attacks which can reduce your Skill, which means you can get into a death spiral against them that makes it harder to get an Energy Blast off even if using a second one is possible. (Annoyingly, the combats don’t make it clear when it is or isn’t possible to get off a second blast; I assumed it always was unless the text states otherwise.)

This is particularly poor compared to Super Strength, where yes, you still have to do the whole fight, but most of the time your fighting Skill of 13 will be way above that of any of the foes you face and you will almost certainly win all but the toughest fights, are quite likely to win those, and will probably come through weaker fights without a scratch, and it always works. There are a few instances where having an energy beam is the only power which will work to solve a particular case, but other than that it’s not a great power.

This time around, I seemed to get really unlucky with the crimes I picked and the investigative tacks I took, since I didn’t get any clues as to where the F.E.A.R. meeting was at all – which meant when I got to the last day of the game I lost with a paltry 6 Hero Points on my tally.

Fourth Run

Skill: 7
Stamina: 20
Luck: 9
Power: Enhanced Technological Skill

Enhanced Technological Skill is basically the Batman’s Utility Belt skill (you even have an Accessory Belt where all of your homemade gadgets reside), and in essence it has a lot of the same problems that Energy Blast has but worse: your devices tend to either be very useful in particular situations, or near-useless, and they don’t even give you any combat benefits most of the time. I got beaten to death by the Scarlet Prankster and died with 8 Hero Points to my name.

Still, by this point I’ve now sampled all the powers, seen a good cross-section of the clues, and think I can plan my later runs more effectively. My plan now is to pick Super Strength if I roll badly on Skill (since that will instantly compensate for it in all combat situations and then some), and then Psi-Powers or maybe if I’m feeling lucky Energy Blast if my rolled skill is particularly solid.

Fifth Run

Skill: 8
Stamina: 18
Luck: 12
Power: Super-Strength

This time around, I beat the book, having gained a pretty solid idea of how to best acquire information as a Super-Strong hero. In fact, I even stumbled on a second route, different from the one I had found in my Psi-Powers playthrough, to finding the all-important Circuit Breaker. This is the device which allows you to disrupt the Titanium Cyborg’s circuitry, so that the final fight against him goes from being impossibly hard (he has Skill 18 by default, for crying out loud!) to a breeze for a Skill 13 super-strong hero (he gets dialled back to Skill 9). After slapping him down I ended the book with a respectable 32 Hero Points.

On the whole, I think there would still be some replay value to the book after this, since the solution for each power set is clearly going to be rather difficult. That said, the other power sets will likely be quite frustrating to play with if you make a bad Skill roll at the start of the game. That said, I did notice that not every crime I busted on this run yielded absolutely plot-critical information necessary to win: as a result, the game is more forgiving than the likes of, say Deathtrap Dungeon, where you pretty much have to pick the right choice every single time or you lose.

Overall, I felt the book does a pretty good job of implementing a four-colour comic book universe feel – complete with sly little references to various more famous comics characters. (There’s also plentiful references to then-current pop culture in general, to better get across the idea that this is taking place in the modern day.) I also note that by this point Steve seems to have noticed that a bad Skill roll at the start of the game is often a death sentence in Fighting Fantasy, so providing the Super-Strength power to crank your Skill up for combat purposes is a nice gesture there.

Appointment With F.E.A.R. is clearly a continuation of Steve Jackson’s long-standing efforts to branch the series out into more genres, but I’d say it’s closer to the standard set by House of Hell than Starship Traveller when it comes to providing a solid scenario to go with the tweaks to the system. In fact, I’d say in general it set a new standard for Fighting Fantasy, particularly with the multiple viable routes through the game (both in terms of power choice and your actions in actual play).

Rebel Planet

Scenario

Human colonisation of space has backfired horribly! After obtaining human-tech FTL drives, the three closely related but subtly diverging native sophonts of Arcadia launched a series of devastating attacks against Earth’s colonies, and finally Earth itself. The underground organisation SAROS is trying to co-ordinate the human resistance, and believes it has hit on a desperate plan to end the Arcadian tyranny: a strike against the central Arcadian computer complex would completely disrupt their culture, because all the Arcadians have an implanted connection to the computer which provides them with instructions and motivation. Without that, they would be left vacant and listless.

You are the agent who has been chosen to undertake the journey to Arcadia and enact the plan, using the cover identity of a humble merchant to avoid scrutiny. Your route will take you to the colony worlds of Tropos, Radix, and Halmuris along the way, and you must contact the rebel cells on each world as you go – for the computer complex is protected by a nine-digit binary code, and only by obtaining the intel gathered by each planet’s cell will you be able to figure out the code, break in, and bust up that computer.

This is another science fiction Fighting Fantasy book, and the first to be written by Robin Waterfield. Waterfield’s day job is as a classics professor, but his bibliography includes six gamebooks – four Fighting Fantasy entries and, in collaboration with Wilfred Davies, the books in the brief, abortive Webs of Intrigue series of gamebooks. (These were aimed at a somewhat older reading age than most of Puffin’s gamebook ranges – think young teens – and presented complex modern-day detective stories.)

You certainly can’t fault Waterfield for lack of ambition – the book starts off with, by the standards of Fighting Fantasy books of this vintage, a rather unusually detailed future history and other setting information, including a breakdown of the temperaments of the different subgroups of Arcadians. It’s clear that Waterfield put a lot of energy into imagining the science fiction setting of this book – but does it hang together under the rigours of play?

System

In an interesting twist, your character is meant to be an ace at martial arts, which means that in any instance of unarmed combat you have a chance of ending the fight quickly with a strike to a pressure point; whenever you hit a foe you can roll a D6, and if you hit 6 then your opponent is taken out instantly. This raises the question of why you don’t just fight unarmed all the time, but maybe there’s a Skill penalty for doing so – we’ll see when we get into playing this.

Gear

As well as your starship and trusty laser sword, you also start the game with 2000 credits (which you are warned you may need to conserve to successfully beat the book) and a pack which can store up to six items.

First Run

Skill: 12
Stamina:
18
Luck:
 7

This didn’t go well – on Tropos I trusted the wrong guy who ended up calling an overwhelming number of Arcadian goons on me. Never mind – I’ll know to avoid him next time.

Second Run

Skill: 9
Stamina:
22
Luck:
12

This time I did a little better, making it to Radix before getting stuck in an annoying maze which I think I will try and avoid next time around; contextually, it really does seem like the book is open to multiple solutions, since I seemed to get to the rebels on Tropos and obtained the clue through what contextually seemed to be a suboptimal route.

It’s also notable that in lieu of Provisions there seems to be a fairly decent resting mechanic – each interstellar trip gives you an opportunity to get half your Stamina points back. Appointment With F.E.A.R. also included a resting mechanic where a quiet evening at home would earn you back 6 Stamina points; either way, it’s good that the books not providing a handy supply of extra Stamina offer such alternatives.

Third Run

Skill: 11
Stamina:
20
Luck:
9

This time I got to the third world, Halmuris, before dying because I couldn’t kill a guard in time to escape from the spaceport. I think I ended up taking a very suboptimal route through Radix, since I ended up losing all my equipment before getting to Halmuris (though I did get some form of clue to the code there and the loss of equipment seems unavoidable after you find the clue), and then I ended up being unlucky at Halmuris and getting painted into a corner as a result. One thing the book likes to do is to sap Luck from you whenever you have even a small setback, or throw multiple Test Your Luck situations at you in a row – which is brutally punishing when you consider that Luck goes down every time you roll on it as well.

Fourth Run

Skill: 10
Stamina:
17
Luck:
9

This is the one where I ended up cheating to get through to the end, though on having all three clues I did manage to work out the code to the computer centre on the first pass.

Rebel Planet lost me for several reasons. The first is that the book is really bad at offering you meaningful choices. Some choices are not meaningful because they make literally no difference to your course through the book – sitting at a professor’s lecture or going to get a coffee in the student common room at the university on Radix gives the exact same bonuses and penalties and the exact same plot-critical information.

This creates the illusion of free choice where it actually doesn’t exist, and feels like an annoying way of padding out the paragraph numbers to hit that magic 400; it would be better to condense these actually-linear sections into single paragraphs, and use the paragraph budget that is freed up in this manner to flesh out other sections of the book.

Other choices are not meaningful because, whilst they are of crucial life-and-death importance and taking the wrong choice will set you up for failure and destruction, you aren’t actually given any information which gives you a fair chance of deducing the correct one; it’s the Deathtrap Dungeon syndrome where on your first run through a section of the game you may as well randomise your choices because you’d be just as likely to succeed that way as actually trying to think things through. (At one point there is literally a “pick between two doors, with no contextual clues, and if you choose the wrong door you die” choice.)

The other big failing of the book is that it’s just kind of a clunker in terms of actually reading it. There’s the seeds of an interesting setting here, and sometimes when Waterfield is particularly excited by a subject the prose comes alive and there’s a bit more flesh on the skeleton – it’s just that he’s often a bit idiosyncratic about what he considers to be especially interesting.

The book is also pretty sloppy about how it applies its ideas – the Arcadians are supposedly all hooked up to the central computer, after all, but except when I actually blew up the computer I encountered nothing which indicated that this had any real effect. Certainly, all the Arcadians I met seemed to act as individuals, and at points they are described as using comlinks to communicate – despite the fact that the computer connection is supposed to be the fastest form of communication. Why would they use vocal communicators for radioing each other when they could just use their computer link? Similarly, there’s another bit where an Arcadian seems to have a mental health episode, which you can exploit for intel, except surely the computer would pick up on that. It just doesn’t seem like Waterfield really thought through the implications of his premise.

On the whole, the impression I get here is that Waterfield had broadly got to grips with the general process of how you put together a Fighting Fantasy adventure, but had also gotten into some bad game design habits which, to be fair, the likes of Jackson and Livingstone also indulged in from time to time. I wouldn’t say it’s outright bad, but it’s certainly not a particularly memorable release.

Demons of the Deep

Scenario

You’re the first mate of the good ship Sunfish, and you’ve fallen afoul of the fearsome pirate Captain Bloodaxe, captain of the Troll. After a skirmish, you are the only survivor of the Sunfish; Bloodaxe and his gloating crew toss you overboard, fully intending to watch you drown. However, is it over for you? We’ll just have to see…

This was the second Fighting Fantasy gamebook to be written by the other Steve Jackson – the one from the US who runs Steve Jackson Games and who designed The Fantasy Trip and GURPS, as opposed to the one from the UK who co-founded Games Workshop and co-created Fighting Fantasy. You might remember that Scorpion Swamp, his previous effort in the series, was rather bogged down by an ambitious attempt to present an “open world” adventure, complete with a choice of three different quests to attempt, since in practice it meant that within the 400 paragraph constraints of the format all three quests ended up a little under-baked.

This time around, there’s a single quest – survive being dumped in the sea and get your revenge on Captain Bloodaxe – so hopefully we won’t have those issues this time around.

System

No particular departures this time around, this is an extremely bog-standard book.

Gear

You almost have the same loadout here as you get in what I call the “Livingstone Model” – the bog-standard “usual system, usual set of starting items” version of the Fighting Fantasy rules and starting gear that Ian Livingstone almost always goes with. In common with the loadout from that, you start with leather armour, a sword, a bag, and 10 provisions. (Jackson justifies this by depicting the pirates loading you down with a heavy bag of food, so that you will sink all the better; presumably, having seized the Sunfish‘s supplies and added them to their own, the pirates now have more food than the Troll has storage for.)

The big difference is that you don’t start out with a free Potion to restore Skill, Stmaina, or Luck; if you had, this would align with the Livingstone Model more or less exactly.

First Run

Skill: 7
Stamina:
20
Luck:
11

That’s not a promising statline to start out with, but Jackson seems to have realised this; early fights are against fairly low-Skill opponents, I found at least one opportunity to get Skill training, and there’s a Merman sauna where their promise of making you a “new man” is alarmingly true: when you go in you get an opportunity to completely redo your stat rolls. Lucky rolling there, and finding Skill training afterwards, meant I actually finished this run with this statline:

Skill: 13
Stamina:
21
Luck:
10

How did I make out? Not as stonkingly well as you might think for Skill 13. After being dumped overboard, I sank down to discover that, through sheer coincidence (or cosmic synchronicity) I’d happened to fallen right in the middle of a magic pentagram laid out in a courtyard of lost Atlantis – and I’d grown gills. Opting not to go back to the surface until I worked out how I was going to be breathing for the rest of my life, I explored a little and met a friendly mermaid who explained that yes, this was Atlantis, and yes, it was pretty dangerous, but if I made my way through and perhaps found some of the precious Black Pearls whose magic might help swing things my way, I could catch up to the crew of the Troll, avenge my crewmates, and win the day. But I must get to the surface by the end of the day, for then the magic will fade and I’d lose my gills.

As it panned out, I found a few Black Pearls (but not many) and also learned of some alternate routes to success – like gaining the aid of the fearsome Sea Dragon to fight the pirates with me, at the cost of bribing it with the entire treasure carried by the Troll – but I had found none of the means which would allow me to find the pirates once the sea-spell faded and I needed to return to the surface. This meant I got one of the less-successful endings: I was alive and clinging to a plank, and might be rescued sooner or later, but my survival’s not guaranteed and I didn’t get to confront the Troll, so I’ll have to try again, but this run gave me some idea of the overall schtick of the book: it’s a whimsical undersea adventure in an Atlantis ruled by competing clans of merfolk and Deep Ones (yes, they’re specifically called Deep Ones and yes I get to kiss one of them), there’s a reasonable emphasis on fighting stuff and grabbing treasure and not a whole lot in the way of a more involved plot but it’s pretty entertaining stuff anyway.

Second Run

Skill: 8
Stamina:
23
Luck:
9

And on this run I got what I consider an acceptable win. Not the best possible win – therein, I guess, lies most of the replay value – but an acceptable one. The major difference in the different potential victories on offer seem to lie in a) whether you use the Black Pearls or some other means to take down the Troll crew, and b) if you went with the Black Pearls, how many you collected.

This, incidentally, means that the standard blurb at the beginning about there being “one true way” through the book is nonsense: there are several viable routes through, though perhaps only one reaches the optimal ending. By and large, Jackson has done a good job with this gamebook of signalling what you need to a) complete the gamebook at all and b) get the best possible ending; he also does a fairly good balancing act, whereby it’s reasonably easy to get to a victory, but difficult to get to the best victory.

That said, his writing style is still fairly sparse and the setting of the book lacks some of the richness (implied or directly depicted) of more baroque Fighting Fantasy books. I’d say it’s pretty solid, but not essential.

Sword of the Samurai

Scenario

In the land of Hachiman – essentially a fantasy version of Shogunate Japan – you are the Shogun’s champion samurai. Revolt and banditry has wracked the land, for the sword Singing Destiny – one of the Shogun’s regalia of office – has been stolen by Ikiru, Master of Shadows, and taken to his mountain stronghold of Onikaru, the Pit of Demons. You are tasked with heading out, retrieving the sword, and – if you have learned the secret of Singing Destiny which unleashes its hidden powers – slaying Ikiru.

Set in the far east of Khul, the slightly unfortunately named “Dark Continent” of the Fighting Fantasy setting, this is the second of two Fighting Fantasy books designed by the team of Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson. Thomson would later collaborate with Dave Morris of Dragon Warriors fame on Keep of the Lich Lord, but otherwise Smith and Thomson would (along with Dave Morris) become fairly prolific gamebook authors working outside the context of the Fighting Fantasy series, benefitting from the gamebook boom it inspired and the swathe of publishers keen to put out competing series. In that sense, this book could be seen as the end of their apprenticeship after they had debuted with Talisman of Death in early 1985, a book which was rather linear, a bit too obviously ripped direct from their home D&D campaign, and deeply unoriginal at points but which had a lot of charm despite that.

It’s also notable as a book which, whilst still firmly in fantasy, attempts to engage with settings beyond “a muddled oversimplification of medieval Europe with the serial numbers filed off” by basing the game in a muddled oversimplification of feudal Japan with the serial numbers filed off. This may be another instance of the Fighting Fantasy line taking an inspiration from tabletop RPGs, since it had become something of a fad at the time. Bushido from 1979, in particular, had ended up being a minor hit, and it inspired the regrettably-titled Oriental Adventures hardback for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons which was a major release from TSR in 1985. In terms of its setting and some of the more visceral combat sequences, Sword of the Samurai seems to be influenced both by these waves being made in the tabletop RPG world and vintage martial arts movies. Let’s see how the execution goes, shall we?

System

The major tweak here is that in addition to the standard Skill, Stamina, and Luck attributes, you also have an Honour stat. This always starts out at 3. Do something which bolsters your honour, and the score goes up, do something dishonourable and the score goes down. During play some situations may play out differently depending on your current score, and if you ever hit 0 you must turn immediately to paragraph 99 – in which your character, momentarily reflecting on their actions on their mission, decides they have lost all honour and commits seppuku.

It’s an interesting mechanic, but I have reservations about it. On the one hand, it is a good example of game design that gives a compelling game mechanical reason to behave in a manner appropriate to the character you are playing, so that the game mechanics and the themes of the narrative or the cultural mores of the setting are not fighting against each other but are in fact working in concert, which is always pleasing when it happens.

I admit I am not an expert on the subject matter – but I feel like a samurai who was on a mission to save their Shogun – and the world – from the Master of Shadows, and who had been told by their liege that they were the only one who could perform the mission would tend to opt to complete the mission before committing seppuku over their actions during it, since under these circumstances abandoning the mission to attend to matters of personal honour would cause the downfall of one’s lord and thus even greater dishonour.

Possibly I am wrong and culturally speaking this would be an entirely appropriate use of seppuku. But I feel like it’s a rather heavy-handed, ham-fisted way of handling a foreign culture – depicting people hailing from it as though they are machines who automatically commit suicide on running out of honour points, rather than people whose decision to commit seppuku was very much a decision.

By contrast, in Bushido if you lose honour, you lose honour, but you are never obliged to commit seppuku as a result of doing so (though that can be a means to ensure that your character’s Karma is not marred by the loss – relevant because reincarnation is a factor in that game. Is this accurate to Japanese culture? I would be pleasantly surprised if it was, but it’s evident from Bushido‘s discussion that a good faith attempt had been made to deeply research the matter and to consider why people would choose to take this route.

Another system addition is the inclusion of special samurai abilities, of which you may choose one at character creation (a bit like power selection in Appointment With F.E.A.R.). These are kyujutsu (archery), iaijutsu (fast draw), karumijutsu (acrobatic leaps), and ni-to-kenjutsu (dual wielding weapons), and all offer different edges, though some seem to be always effective in combat whilst others (karumijutsu especially) provide situational advantages, so you might not get to use that ability much if your playthrough doesn’t take a route which provides it with many opportunities for use.

Gear

Along with the standard 10 Provisions, you also start this gamebook with samurai armour, a katana and wakizashi, and the Seal of the Shogun – the latter being your badge of authority.

First Run

Skill: 8
Stamina: 20
Luck: 12
Ability: Iaijutsu
Honour Score By End: 3

Since I had a fairly low Skill score this time around, I took Iaijutsu – the quick-draw ability which means that, regardless of opponent skill, you get in a fast attack at the start of combat that takes 3 Stamina points off them. I thought this would both be a useful advantage in combat and be an ability which I didn’t have to make Skill rolls to successfully use.

Ultimately, however, this isn’t really enough to counteract the severe disadvantage the bell curve gives you when you are fighting someone whose Skill is even slightly greater than yours, so in retrospect this seemed to be a bad option. I was facing opponents of Skill 7-9 fairly early on, and rapidly got slaughtered trying to fight a renegade lord’s samurai who were trying to massacre an innocent village.

Second Run

Skill: 9
Stamina: 18
Luck: 8
Ability: Karumijutsu
Honour Score By End: 7

This time I beat the book, but I did it by cheating.

The point where I decided to cheat was the Tourney of the Planes section of the gamebook. This is something you get shunted into regardless of which route you take through the gamebook: eventually, once you reach Ikiru’s mountain, you get teleported way into an otherplanar space where you are challenged by a diabolical Dai-Oni to this tournament and given a chance to obtain allies from various locales before facing the Dai-Oni and his team of allies. So far, so Pokémon.

The process of obtaining allies involves having various little mini-encounters with them, often involving you either successfully recruiting them or having an unproductive fight with them (sometimes you have the option of pulling out if it’s clear you aren’t going to get anywhere with a particular ally). I think the way the gamebook is designed it is impossible to recruit all the allies available for the Tourney – in many cases getting them onside requires you to possess particular items, and there’s no route through the game which would allow you to get all the items in question.

Then when you have the actual Tourney you have to pick which ally of yours you send to fight the goons Dai-Oni sends against you, in order, and you have to defeat each of those goons and the Dai-Oni himself to proceed in the adventure. (Pokémon comparisons intensify.) If you send the wrong ally against the wrong foe, that ally gets killed off in short order and you have to choose someone else to send.

You don’t have to show up with the optimal selection of allies; if you defeat the first foe with an ally, then even if you run out of other allies you can fight your way through the Dai-Oni’s remaining goons and the Dai-Oni himself, though this is a series of quite tough fights and since boosts to Skill are sparse in this gamebook (Singing Destiny gives you a boost, but you won’t get the sword until you’ve beaten the Dai-Oni) you are probably screwed at this point unless you were lucky with the Skill roll at character creation.

However, you must show up with an ally who can defeat the toad that is the first enemy the Dai-Oni sends against you. If it eats all your allies and you have to fight by yourself, you aren’t even given a chance against it: you’re just told you are worn down by fighting the enemies and get killed.

Now, there’s seven allies you can obtain, but of these only two can defeat the toad. And it is absolutely possible that, despite not making any decisions which was clearly misguided (as in my playthrough, where I got quite decent honour and got nothing but positive feedback about my choices), you simply never encountered the things you need to obtain the services of one of those two.

Worse still, there isn’t really much rhyme or reason when it comes to which of the allies you have obtained are the ones capable of defeating the foes they face, because you aren’t really told much about who or what they are and their capabilities; you just have to guess and do it by trial and error. To play through this honestly would require you to do a bunch of playthroughs and just kind of hope that you run across the relevant items, and there’s nothing you can do in a subsequent playthrough to meaningfully increase the chance that you actually get the correct trinkets; I faced down the Dai-Oni with three allies by my side, in a playthough I don’t think gave me any opportunity to find more, so it would be entirely possible to get a different but overlapping set of three allies and still end up with nobody who can kill the toad.

The whole thing is an utter pain, and is the point where I outright gave up on this run and started blatantly cheating. See, here’s the thing: Ian Livingstone admits to designing gamebooks like Deathtrap Dungeon the way he did because he knew that people would cheat anyway, and he probably wasn’t the only Fighting Fantasy author to do that. However, I think this attitude opens the door to the sort of bad design where the book just isn’t fun or satisfying to play honestly, so of course people will cheat, and the gamebook will suffer for it because people won’t even try to tackle it honestly.

In the case of this particular bottleneck, I can’t imagine anyone subjecting themselves to multiple near-identical playthroughs only to adjust their choice of what ally to send after what foe in this part. And given that you’d also need to probably have some do-overs to figure out the optimal allies to send after the remaining Dai-Oni goons if you want to avoid a horribly nasty fight, and even then, if you have handled the Tourney optimally, you still have a fight against a Skill 10 foe (meaning that if you rolled 7-9 on Skill at game start then you will probably die here), this makes the Tourney an astonishing pain.

Really, this whole last stage of the gamebook feels rather slapdash – with you first teleported to the Tourney and having all these mini-encounters to gather allies, and then teleported direct from there to Ikiru’s throne room. It feels like a lot of connecting tissue has been hacked out and left on the cutting room floor – like Thomson and Smith had a much more ambitious story planned first, only to realise that they couldn’t fit it into 400 paragraphs. Either way, it means that despite being very flavourful early on the gamebook falls over severely in the last act.

The Canary Says

Overall, with this crop we see Fighting Fantasy entering 1986 in the midst of a glut of releases, quantity threatening to overcome quality and the hit/miss ratio an even 50/50. Though I found reasons to like all four of these gamebooks, I think both Sword of the Samurai and Rebel Planet were a bit underbaked.

It’s the two Steve Jacksons who turn in solid work this time around, with the UK Steve Jackson’s Appointment With F.E.A.R. perhaps being the absolute star of the show. In fact, I think it was the best Fighting Fantasy book yet, not least because it offers excellent replay value based on which superpower you chose at the beginning of the adventure.

OK, here’s the big chart of how I rank each of the books:

----------------------------------------
Appointment With F.E.A.R.              :D (Sheer delight)
                                       |
House of Hell                          |
                                       |
Sorcery!*                              |
                                       |
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain        |
                                       |
The Rings of Kether                    |
                                       |
Island of the Lizard King              |
----------------------------------------
Space Assassin                         :) (Recommended)
                                       |
City of Thieves                        |
                                       |
Seas of Blood                          |
                                       |
Talisman of Death                      |
                                       |
Freeway Fighter                        |
                                       |
Demons of the Deep                     |
----------------------------------------
Forest of Doom                         :S (Collectors only)
                                       |
Temple of Terror                       |
                                       |
Citadel of Chaos                       |
                                       |
Sword of the Samurai                   |
                                       |
Rebel Planet                           |
----------------------------------------
Caverns of the Snow Witch              :( (Downright bad)
                                       |
Starship Traveller                     |
----------------------------------------
Deathtrap Dungeon                     >:( (Pissed me off)
----------------------------------------
Scorpion Swamp                         D: (OH GOD WHY)
----------------------------------------

* Assuming that you:
- play it as a wizard
- play the books in sequence
- and take then end of each book as a "save point".

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