The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 9)

Once again I’ve gone back to the coalface to dig out another episode in my ongoing series reviewing the Fighting Fantasy line of gamebooks. This time around, we have the last two books to be released in 1987 and the first couple from 1988. As we’ve seen previously, we’ve entered a phase in the series where, despite their names being on most of the covers, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone had rather stepped back their day-to-day involvement with the franchise; Jackson had produced his final contribution to the series way back in 1986 with Creature of Havoc, and whilst Ian Livingstone would write a few more, he’d do so very infrequently.

As I outlined at the end of the previous article, this also coincided with a lot of the other writers of the better Fighting Fantasy books also bowing out of the series, creating a bit of a succession problem. We’re now well into the part of the series when third-party authors would contribute the bulk of the work (all of the books in this article were by writers other than Jackson and Livingstone), and when the pool of writers was being expanded (three of the four books I cover here are by writers who hadn’t previously written a Fighting Fantasy gamebook).

Midnight Rogue

Scenario

You are an apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild in Port Blacksand – the City of Thieves from the gamebook of the same name – and tonight is the night of your big test. To prove you’re worthy of graduating from your apprenticeship and becoming an accepted guild member, you must undertake the perilous mission of stealing the Eye of the Basilisk, a priceless gem known to be in the possession of the merchant Brass.

1987’s Midnight Rogue is notable for being the sole Fighting Fantasy book written by Graeme Davis, who WFRP fans will know as a co-designer of the original edition of that game; the same year would also see the release of his acclaimed WFRP scenarios Shadows Over Bögenhafen and Death On the Reik. As well as his WFRP duties, Davis was a fairly prolific writer for other Games Workshop lines at this time – he was a regular White Dwarf contributor, and another 1987 credit for him would be as one of a large team of contributors to the Green and Pleasant Land sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu.

It makes sense, then, that Jackson and Livingstone would get Davis to contribute to the Fighting Fantasy line, and it’s encouraging to see him present a scenario which breaks out of the “go defeat the latest Big Bad who wants to make trouble” rut that the series had become stuck in.


System

To the basic chassis of the Fighting Fantasy system, Davis adds two new features: limited backpack space and special skills.

In terms of backpack space, Davis notes that you can only stash six items in your backpack; your sword, clothing, and money do not take up backpack slots, your starting potion does, your Provisions take up a single slot in total. If you want to carry more, you need to discard stuff.

As far as special skills go, you have to pick three skills that you have learned from the Guild from the following list:

  • Pick Pocket
  • Pick Lock
  • Climb
  • Sneak
  • Hide (seems stingy to make this a separate skill from Sneak!)
  • Spot Hidden
  • Secret Signs

These essentially work like the superpowers in Appointment With F.E.A.R.: if you have the skill, you get additional options at some points, if you don’t, you don’t. Unlike in that gamebook, you don’t get an explanation here of what your special skills actually do, which feels like an oversight. Sure, most of these are self-explanatory, but “secret signs” isn’t (I assume it means Thieves’ Guild signs, but that’s a pure guess), and the distinction between Sneak and Hide could do with clarification; furthermore, whilst “Climb” tells me that I can climb stuff, it doesn’t really give much of a guide as to how good I am. Does it mean baseline competence with grappling hook and rope, or does it mean I can go full Spiderman? Guidance on stuff like this seems necessary if we’re to be able to make meaningful choices about skill use.

Gear

This is quite close to the “Livingstone standard package” the most generic early Fighting Fantasy book offered – you have your 10 provisions, your choice of a potion to restore Skill, Stamina, or Luck, a torch, leather jerkin and leggings, and backpack. In addition, you have 5 gold pieces, a hand-lamp to give you enough light to see by without giving yourself away, and a tinderbox for lighting your lamp or torch.

Now, there’s an ambiguity here: in the rules on backpack capacity we’re told that our potion takes up 1 slot, and the 10 Provisions take up 1 slot. We’re not told whether the torch, hand lamp, and tinderbox each take up a slot. On the one hand, it feels like realistically they should – but that would leave us with only 1 slot spare, which feels astonishingly stingy. If they don’t count, then we’d have 4 slots going spare, which seems like a more reasonable number. Of course, if using the hand lamp is stealthier than the torch, I could just ditch the torch… I’ll start out counting these as each taking up a slot, and see if that seems obscenely restrictive.

First Run

Skill: 11
Stamina:
 21
Luck:
 11
Special Skills: Climb, Pick Lock, Spot Hidden

I beat the book on this go-around, but I would have found it far from easy if I didn’t have such a good Skill. Whilst for the most part the book is quite good about not sending high-Skill monsters after you unless you have actually made a mistake, there’s an unavoidable Skill 10 monster (with some nasty twists to his fight) who you have to encounter, which thanks to its powers I was at a disadvantage against but I managed to get through thanks to good luck, decent Stamina, and an edge of my own (I had a sword where if you hit an opponent with it, you get +1 on your next attack roll, which alleviated the disadvantage). Still, I maintain such combats are dick moves if you haven’t put opportunities to raise Skill above its initial score in your adventure, because a Skill 7 character will usually be flattened by a Skill 10 opponent.

However, aside from this issue I thought the book was extremely fair. It’s clear that your experience of the game will differ greatly depending on what skills you pick. I opted not to take Sneak or Hide because I figured with a high Skill I didn’t need to avoid fights so assiduously, and Pick Lock and Spot Hidden ended up serving me very well. Climb is a bit of a trap option – there’s an option early on, if you are nice to one of the beggars aligned with the Thieves’ Guild, to get a grappling hook, which takes up a backpack space but allows you to use the Climb skill even if you didn’t choose it at the start. (The grappling hook is at least somewhat useful even if you have Climb – I used it to deal with a pesky gargoyle whilst I was breaking into the Merchants’ Guild headquarters.)

At the same time, if you lack a particular skill it doesn’t necessarily lock you out of everything involving that skill – where it would be logical for you to get to have a go at something anyway, you can do so, and usually you either get to make a Skill or Luck roll to see if you get the thing anyway or you take some sort of penalty like a Stamina hit when you don’t do it 100% properly. It’s a good way to make the game a touch more varied depending on what skill picks you take (since some bits will be easier than others depending on your choices), aiding replayability, without the need to add a large number of alternate routes.

What of the other system innovation? Well, the backpack slots thing turns out to be not much of an issue. A lot of items are designated as not actually filling a slot, and Davis is careful enough about declaring when items do in fact take up slots that when there’s an ambiguity about it I am inclined to assume that the item doesn’t take a slot (since he would have said if he did). In addition, there’s paragraphs late in the adventure which assume you still have your light sources present, which means they can’t take up backpack slots (since if they did there’s a chance you would have discarded them). The main point of unclarity seems to be whether valuables notable largely for their value in gold pieces count as backpack items – if they do, then this feels stingy since your regular gold pieces don’t take a slot, so items whose only purpose is to stand in for gold pieces arguably shouldn’t, but if they don’t it feels a little unrealistic.

The adventure also stands out for its interesting structure. You begin in Port Blacksand and your first order of business is to figure out where the Eye is kept; once you have done in, you have to get inside and then go through a trap-filled dungeon. There’s a notable increase in difficulty in the dungeon – nothing too absurd, but you feel at risk in a way you haven’t before – whilst the Port Blacksand section is a bit more forgiving. In addition, since the Port Blacksand part of the mission is about information-gathering, if you fail to acquire the information you need to get to the dungeon, the book sends you back to paragraph 1 to try again. This isn’t without bumps – it’s far from unclear whether you can repeat encounters like this – but it’s a nice gesture, and I don’t think it makes the game overly difficult since getting the info you’re missing isn’t necessarily risk-free.

Midnight Rogue is a welcome shot in the arm for Fighting Fantasy at a time when the series badly needed it, and demonstrates that a gamebook can play fair and not indulge in absolutely absurd difficulty in order to be enjoyable. Davis’ prose is terse but highly flavourful, and does a great job at conveying the seedy environment of Port Blacksand and the ominous atmosphere of the dungeon section. It’s an absolute crying shame that he didn’t write more contributions to the series. Hm, maybe Cubicle 7 and Games Workshop could see about commissioning him to do some WFRP solo adventures?

Chasms of Malice

Scenario

Long ago, in the time of its foundation, the kingdom of Gorak was plagued by a dire Malice. Tancred, founder of the nation, strived against it, and ultimately prevailed, but this victory was not without cost. Tancred’s brother Orghuz was corrupted by the Malice and became its primary agent, and in the process of doing spawned the seven Khuddam, evil entities born of the Malice that serve him.

To contain Orghuz’s power, Tancred placed the Great Seals on the artifact known as the True Shield, and stashed it in Gorak Keep. Orghuz and the Khuddam were banished into the deep chasms underneath Gorak, a lightless realm of deep tunnels and caves inhabited by the Gaddon folk, who having adapted to the darkness can fight in pitch darkness without impediment and were tasked with guarding the bound Orghuz and the Khuddam. In the intervening time Tancred’s line has fallen into obscurity and the office of Lord Ridermark established as the new head of state in Gorak.

Now there are signs that the Malice has returned. The current Lord Ridermark summons the wizard Astragal to investigate. Astragal discovers that the Seals have been broken and the True Shield stolen – a sure sign of the return of Orghuz – but also finds a sliver of hope. As it turns out, you are the lost heir to Tancred – but you know nothing of your royal lineage and currently serve as “third-assistant-rabbit-skinner” in the royal kitchens.

Plucking you from this meagre drudgery, Astragal equips you and tells you your mission: go down to the Dark Chasms, seek the True Shield, and take down Orghuz. But beware, for Orghuz can only be slain if all the Khuddam are slain too…

I’ve just made the above seem far, far more coherent than the extremely terse introduction to Chasms of Malice actually is. Luke Sharp’s second Fighting Fantasy book – his previous one being Star Strider – makes a bad first impression with perhaps the most perfunctory background section to a Fighting Fantasy book I have seen yet.

Sure, early books like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain had fairly terse background sections, but there’s two issues here. The first is that that might have been the norm during the early years of the series, by this point in time longer and more developed background sections were the norm. The second is that when previous background sections were short, that’s because they were presenting a situation which was either inherently quite simple or which would be introduced more through the early phases of gameplay, so they were of a suitable length to communicate the information they need to convey.

By contrast, the background section here is both very brief and borders on total incoherency; there’s a lot of fantasy names being dropped on you and concepts being introduced and barely any effort expended on actually fleshing them out sufficiently. If the actual gameplay portions of the book are flavourless fact-dumps of this level of brevity, this is going to be an absolute chore to play.

System

For the most part the system is much as it has always been, but with one real stinker of an addition. This is the “one-strike combat” subsystem, which is intended to be used in situations specified in the text as being one-strike combats. The intent is to represent fights that take place on narrow ledges, rope bridges, and other situations where it’s less about wearing you opponent down and more about successfully knocking your opponent off the ledge to fall to their doom before they do the same to you.

It works like this: you roll 2D6 twice, once for yourself and once for your opponent. Whoever rolled highest survives, whoever rolled lower is insta-killed – no take-backs, no testing your Luck to save yourself, no recourse whatsoever. (If the rolls tie you reroll until there is a definitive winner and loser.)

As well as being an absolutely all-or-nothing roll, the one-strike combat roll is also an immutable one – at least as presented here, Skill has nothing to do with it. This feels counter-intuitive, as well as contradicting how ordinary combat works – if in normal combat higher Skill makes you more likely to hit your opponent, surely in one-strike combat it should make it more likely to, you know, hit your opponent. Why does Skill suddenly stop being useful? For that matter, if the outcome is purely random, why can’t I use my Luck?

No, sorry – there’s no getting around it, one-strike combat is just a 50-50 chance. There is, in fact, no point in making it a matched 2D6 roll – you may as well just toss a coin to resolve it. I confirmed that Skill doesn’t affect one-strike combat by quickly looking through the book and establishing that yes, there are paragraphs that call for one-strike combat rolls without telling you the Skill of your opponent, which means that Skill can’t be a factor (because if it were then the book would tell you the Skill of the people you are fighting).

In fact, it gets worse. The paragraph I found has you doing four one-strike combat rounds before proceeding. There is a question mark over whether rolls where you and your opponent match count as a round or not, since you can interpret those either as a draw or as a voided round, but I am inclined to say they don’t count because in the context of the paragraph with the four one-strike combats you are facing down four foes so logically you need to beat all four to get through. If this is the case, then the probability of winning this combat is only 1 in 16. Your odds aren’t enormously better if you let draws count as “rounds” for the purposes of the paragraph, and of course if there are other one-strike combats on that run your chances of overall survival become even more remote.

I badly, badly hope that the number of unavoidable one-strike combats in this book is “zero” and this is basically a system conceit for strongly hinting you have done something very suboptimal, because the alternative is that Luke Sharp has no goddamn idea how probability works and has designed a gamebook where to win you must effectively toss a coin a certain number of times and get heads every time.

Another feature of the game is that it presents you with the names of the seven Khuddam on your character sheet and instructs you to cross them off as you slay them, so we’ll see how that pans out.

One more thing: as well as Provisions being a concept in this book, there’s also Fuel. In some circumstances, if you have Fuel you can start fires and cook your food; cooked Provisions can, where directed, heal an extra 2 points of Stamina. This is an actually neat idea because it incentivises waiting until you get to a point where you can cook before eating Provisions, rather than just chomping down on them whenever your Stamina dips 4 below its maximum.

Gear

This gamebook provides you with one of the most bizarre bits of equipment you start a Fighting Fantasy game with, Tabasha the Bazouk, who is supposedly a cat goddess. Don’t get excited, this does not mean she is a kawaii catgirl companion. (If you want that, try Phantasy Star 2.)

She appears like an ordinary cat, but she can intervene on your behalf in the adventure 9 times. One of those times must be to provide a function as a Skill or Luck potion (and you must decide at the start which she works as), but she can apparently do other things. Supposedly at any time we can send her off to fetch Provisions, but no details are given on how many she fetches when she does this and it’s unclear whether this is meant literally or should be read as “at any point in the adventure, we might give you the option to make use of her like this”.

You also start with sword, backpack, leather armour, and 5 Provisions.

First Run

Skill: 11
Stamina: 20
Luck: 12

Ooof. I absolutely, positively cannot be arsed with this one.

Whilst the prose in the main section of the book isn’t quite as incomprehensibly terse as it is in the background section, it’s still not great. There’s essentially no effort to impart flavour. Stuff just sort of happens out of the blue. Your cat goddess companion keeps doing stuff and it’s almost never clear whether it is meant to count as one of the little services they can do you or not. Save-or-die or instakill situations are rife, and you are asked to make crucial choices with no information. It’s like Deathtrap Dungeon, except Deathtrap Dungeon had some flavour to it at least.

There’s some interesting bits here; there’s a fun cypher language used by the Gaddon, and in the early stretches of the gamebook some effort is made to establish a scenario where the Gaddon are fighting a fierce resistance effort against Orghuz’s forces. Still, there are entirely too many paragraphs in the book which just involve “some arbitrary enemy shows up, fight them!” and choices of routes without clues as to which way is correct. (The cypher does give some route clues here and there, but nowhere near frequently enough.) The token effort at developing the setting largely develops over the course of play, as the gamebook becomes increasingly sparse.

There’s some attempts here to develop some new mechanics – perhaps the most successful is the mechanic where you roll 2D6 to determine a difficulty for a task, then roll 1D6 and add your Stamina to try and beat that total. This is handy for tasks which become harder if you are injured – healthy characters will more or less always succeed such challenges, badly hurt characters will be in trouble. However, it is not consistently applied – in some situations calling for such a roll, Sharp switches gears and says “OK, roll 2D6 to establish the difficulty and roll 2D6 to see if you beat it”, which is in effect a coin toss.

We’ve encountered some really bad gamebooks in this series, but this is the first one I’d say is genuinely joyless to attempt to play. I really want to know what happened here, because whilst Star Strider had some major issues and doesn’t quite come across as a fully polished work it did at least have some flavour, a well-realised future universe, and some neat bits like the London Underground labyrinth. For Sharp to turn in such a clearly inferior work is shocking. It’s the sort of thing that puts me in mind less of “published Fighting Fantasy author” and instead makes me think “an 11 year old wrote this as a fan effort and Puffin decided to publish it”, except the 11 year old would have more fun with it.

Did Sharp have a science fiction Fighting Fantasy concept rejected or something? Was this his way of throwing a strop at being told “you need to produce fantasy material, bud, we aren’t taking any more SF submissions”? (We’re three books away from Sky Lord, the final science fiction Fighting Fantasy book.) It feels like clutching at straws to speculate like this, and yet that feels more plausible than “Luke sat down, wrote this book making a good faith attempt to make it entertaining, and considered it acceptable to submit”, though neither interpretation explains why Puffin were so misguided as to actually publish it. There had already been 5 books in the main series preceding this one in 1987; would there really have been that much of a market gap had they held this one back for further revision, or just rejected it?

Battleblade Warrior

Scenario

For six years the Empire of the Lizard Men has been besieging the city of Vymorna in southern Allansia. The defenders are stretched to the limit. The king has been slain; Queen Perriel has now taken the lead in the battle, as have you, her child and heir. All the Queen’s magics have failed to summon supernatural aid – and one day, you have a dream which suggests why that is. In that dream you encounter Telak the Swordbearer, Lord of Courage and patron of those who take up arms against evil, who confirms what you have feared: the war in the mortal realm is paralleled by battle in the divine realm, and the gods are sore pressed against the dark forces they must battle. However, Telak tells you that there is a way that you can get aid. You must head east, to the mountains, and seek out the one known as Laskar, who will guide you to a weapon you can use to strike back against the forces of evil.

Battleblade Warrior was the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook of 1988, and the only gamebook in the series written by Marc Gascoigne (though he had another gamebook – Night of the Creature – lined up to be produced as #60 in the series, but it would never emerge due to Puffin cancelling the series, and there’s every chance that he hadn’t gotten around to actually writing it when the cancellation came down). It’s a little surprising that Gascoigne didn’t write more gamebooks in the main sequence, because in the series as a whole he had already established himself as a key figure, and he would only become more important as time went on.

As well as being a regular writer for Games Workshop (he designed Blood Bowl and the Judge Dredd RPG, and after spending a while away from the company would return to set up the Black Library fiction imprint), Gascoigne had by this point provided his editing skills to the monster collection Out of the Pit and Titan, a systemless book describing the Fighting Fantasy setting. Whilst the former was largely a matter of simply collating monster entries from various preceding gamebooks, Titan involved a bit more creativity, taking essentially unconnected gamebooks and reconciling their backgrounds to arrive at a description of the setting which would then provide a baseline canon which later gamebooks could refer to for consistency’s sake. Later, he would write a couple of Fighting Fantasy novels, he and Pete Tamlyn would pen the volumes of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, and Gascoigne would be an editor for the main line.

But does all that knowledge of the Fighting Fantasy setting and its underpinnings translate to the ability to design a good gamebook? Let’s see…

System

This is mostly a straight-down-the-line implementation of the standard Fighting Fantasy system, with the only new rule flagged in the opening section being that you can only carry up to 4 Provisions at once. Given how good Provisions are, that’s probably a game balance thing to stop you carrying so many that you can heal up indefinitely; in fact, Gascoigne seems to have a pretty good handle on the system, because he includes in the rules section some fairly cogent advice on playing.

Gear

In paragraph 1 you get assigned a hunting knife, sword, backpack, clothes, and 4 Provisions.

First Run

Skill: 11
Stamina:
 22
Luck:
 7

The adventure opens with you getting to choose two of three special items to take along (a bow which shoots instakill-arrows, a healing salve, and a glow-globe to provide light) and then figuring out which route to take out of town. I chose to try and sneak out, steal a boat, and float downriver, and got reasonably far before I failed a Luck roll and got eaten by a T-Rex.

I’m not so grumpy about that test-Luck-or-die roll because it was at least flagged as being potentially serious, and I ended up in the dinosaur zone because I pressed north a long way without veering east into the jungle, having been given multiple chances to do the latter, and perhaps in future I will take the hint and go into the jungle. For much of the adventure Gascoigne does a very good job of writing paragraph text which gives you some idea of the consequences of particular choices, and rewards making good use of the information you have to hand (I think my river ride was easier because I hugged the north bank, for instance, and per the map in the inside front cover of the book it’s the south bank where the lizards mainly come from.)

Gascoigne’s writing style is also very flavourful, giving you a real sense of the stakes at hand without overloading you with excessive setting information. On the whole, I’m enjoying his writing style and the adventure enough that I feel not at all frustrated with the outcome this time, which is the sign of a really good Fighting Fantasy book; let’s see if the quality holds up.

Second Run

Skill: 11
Stamina:
 21
Luck:
 8

On this run I beat the book. I opted to sneak out of the city overland rather than taking the river route, and pleasingly discovered that the overland route seems to be entirely distinct from the river approach, which is an admirable level of freedom of choice. Indeed, Gascoigne very much does not seem to be a believer in the “only one true solution” school of thought when it comes to Fighting Fantasy: once you encounter Laskar, he tasks you with retrieving the Eyes and Arm of Telak, a pair of sacred artifacts; you’ll fail if you haven’t found the true Eyes, but if you didn’t find the Arm you still get a chance to snatch it back during the final encounter.

This does mean Battleblade Warrior might come across as easy, but it isn’t. Whilst Gascoigne has the good sense to keep most monsters at a low level of Skill, and reserve high-Skill monsters for avoidable encounters, there’s a mandatory Skill 10 fight to get the Eyes (though if you picked the bow and managed to keep hold of it and have an arrow spare by this point, it doesn’t say you can’t use the bow to instakill this foe, so that’s a small mercy).

In addition, there’s the occasional moment where Gascoigne either sets up a somewhat boring fight (fighting foes where you only do 1 damage when you hit them, which makes the combat twice as long – more dangerous if your skill is close to or less than the opponent’s, simply boring if your skill is much higher), and at least one point where the system directions you are given are genuinely pointless. Specifically, there’s a fight in which all combatants have their Attack Strength reduced by 2 – however, the absolute value of your Attack Strength is totally irrelevant, because the victors and losers in combat are defined by relative value, with whoever’s Strength was highest winning the round, so if everyone’s Attack Strength is reduced by the same amount, it’s exactly the same as if the penalty didn’t exist at all.

(There’s also a howler of an editing error here – a bit where you’re sneaking up on a guard and must test your Skill, but the paragraph numbers you are supposed to turn to are switched around, so if you succeed the task you get the thing which should logically happen if you fail and vice versa.)

What allows the book to overcome these flaws is Gascoigne’s flavourful text, which really conveys the atmosphere of a desperate, perilous mission against dire odds. My main criticism of the story is that it ends too soon; it concludes once you have obtained the superweapon, and it really feels like it could have done with a victorious return to Vymorna rather than cutting to end credits when you’re just about to leave the dungeon to go save your city.

Had Gascoigne managed to combine his obvious skills as a prose-wrangler with game design chops of a similar level, he’d easily be the best Fighting Fantasy author; as it stands, the book reads remarkably well, but the gameplay gets a little limp towards the end of the quest. The book is still enjoyable and worthwhile, but it’s not quite a classic.

Slaves of the Abyss

Scenario

The city-state of Kallamehr is in a crisis! After the death of its former ruler, the widowed Lady Carolina took the throne, but then had to send the realm’s armies north to deal with an invasion by an opposing power. Now a messenger from the east has come, babbling incoherently about another army that’s emerged from out of nowhere. You and eleven other renowned adventurers have been summoned by Lady Carolina: you must take up the defence of Kallamehr. But will squatting behind its walls be of any use, or must someone sally forth to investigate this mystery foe?

Slaves of the Abyss is the first gamebook in the mainline Fighting Fantasy series by Paul Mason and Steve Williams; previously they’d penned The Riddling Reaver, the sole campaign-length adventure for the Fighting Fantasy RPG (non-Advanced version), and Mason had done a couple of gamebooks which were tie-ins with the Robin of Sherwood TV series. The two of them would go on to do another collaboration in the Fighting Fantasy main line – Black Vein Prophecy – and Mason would pen a couple more gamebooks solo before the Puffin line came to an end.

The background is notable for having a significant number of women in places of power; alongside Lady Carolina herself, several of her advisors are women, and the one other adventurer in the “defend the city” posse mentioned by name in the introduction is one Sophia of Blacksand. Fighting Fantasy at its best was always at least somewhat inclusive simply because the second-person prose allowed you to imagine yourself as the hero, but it’s nice to see some inclusivity extended to the NPCs as well. (And from a product from 1988, no less, making this the eleventy-billionth bit of proof that the whole “women are intruding on Men’s Hobbies” rhetoric of pathetic 4Chan types is absolute nonsense.)

It’s also interesting that this is the second “rescue the city from a siege” adventure in a row in the mainline series. I suppose it makes sense since so many Fighting Fantasy books adopted a “track down and defeat the big bad” format for their plots, and in many respects it’s way more interesting for the big bad to be proactively doing something rather than just sitting patiently at the end of a dungeon like Zagor in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain; “besiege a city” is a logical thing to have them do, along with “disrupt the countryside” as in Chasms of Malice.

System

Pretty much straight-down-the-line, but for a couple tweaks. The first is that the sword you start out with is quite good, so if you roll double-6s in an attack roll you insta-kill your opponent (but lose this ability if you lose the sword). This is clearly adapted a little from the “roll double-anything and you insta-kill your foe” rule in Creature of Havoc, and is a nice little additional edge.

The second tweak is the “time box” mechanic: basically, as time progresses you have to tick off boxes on a diagram on the inside front cover of the book (or just note there are 20 boxes and keep a count. When you get to 18 boxes filled, an assassin shows up to try and eliminate you; when you hit 20 boxes, you’ve taken too long and the city falls.

Gear

Fairly standard sword, armour, backpack, and so on here, plus 5 Provisions and 5 gold pieces.

First Run

Skill: 9
Stamina:
 22
Luck:
 7

You’re given the choice early on of which job you want to take on: go north to warn the armies, go east to investigate the strange new invading force, or stay in town to see to the defences. I guessed that the correct option is to go scout out the east, and since that takes you to a confrontation with the big bad of the gamebook I think that was the right course of action.

I ended up doing fairly well until I failed at the last moment due to not having a crucial item and/or martial arts technique needed to actually confront the big bad and survive, so for my next jaunt I’ll see whether I can find either of those things. A fun subplot here involves you being pestered by priests if you pick up a certain idol of a golden fist dropped by two “Black Elves” (ugh) who raid your camp the first night of your travels – the idol was stolen and they don’t believe you’re innocent if they find it on you, and may have been briefed against you. I’ll see if I can forego picking it up this time because the diversion involved in being caught by the priests might have caused me to lose my opportunity to find the elements necessary to victory.

So far, it’s been fun, despite a (so far as I can tell) mandatory fight against a Skill 10 opponent, which is never a good idea in a gamebook which hasn’t given you generous opportunities to boost your Skill because it just fucks you over if you rolled poorly in for your initial Skill.

Second Run

Skill: 10
Stamina:
 16
Luck:
 8

This time around I got to the same confrontation and failed again, despite learning the hidden martial arts technique, which means that I definitely need to find the key item necessary – the “Reaver’s bottle”. Shame I haven’t a single sodding clue where to find it. I broke at this point and checked a walkthrough, and you can essentially only get the bottle if you allow yourself to be taken prisoner by the priests at the earliest opportunity and are not carrying the bottle – no other combination of factors allows you to get to the encounter where you can obtain the bottle.

This badly soured me on the book, to the point where I didn’t bother playing to the end. You are told that time is of the essence, and that is actually correct – running out of time makes you fail. Making the decision here which prevents you wasting time with the priests will lead to you being punished with inevitable failure, which means that the sensible strategic choice actually screws you. This is horrible from a gameplay perspective – and even more annoying when, on checking, it turns out the crucial encounter is with the Riddling Reaver, at best a pointless encounter with the villain from their previous book and at worst an annoying instance of them throwing a deeply irritating NPC who spends his time belittling and insulting you before giving you help.

This is more or less the opposite of fun. Whilst Mason and Williams are certainly creative, flavourful writers, they clearly had a lot to learn about gamebook design here – like “punishing people for clever play which avoids pitfalls is obnoxious and pointless” and “if getting a particular item is crucial to progress, providing some faint clue of where that item might be obtained is only sensible” and “having your pet NPC crash in as a deus ex machina to provide the key item for your adventure makes you look like an absolute tosser”. As such, Slaves of the Abyss goes into the category of “good effort, interesting ideas, lovely writing, horrid game design”.

The Canary Says

So, did the injection of new talent represented by this crop of books help boost the series’ hit-miss ratio? My answer to that one is a resounding “kind of, but not really”. On the one hand, we’ve got two keepers here and two gamebooks I don’t highly rate, which is more or less the average for this run of articles. (The only article where I’ve gone with a 100% thumbs-up rate is the Sorcery! review, where I endorsed the entire sequence, and only the first article and the previous one had one thumbs up and three thumbs-down; the rest have either been either 50-50 or three good/one bad.)

On the other hand, the two best gamebooks from this chunk of the series were by writers who never came back to do a second one! Marc Gascoigne at least gave us the Advanced Fighting Fantasy books after this, so there’s that, but it’s a genuine shame that Graeme Davis never came back to Fighting Fantasy after the excellent Midnight Rogue. As for the two duds of this crop – well, I’ll be nice and say that Paul Mason and Steve Williams clearly had a lot of potential and I’ll look forward to seeing if Black Vein Prophecy is an improvement over Slaves of the Abyss, but so far Luke Sharp’s been two-for-two on the duds, and we’ve not seen the last of him. I’m definitely getting a sense that the series is retaining the wrong people.

Still, there’s more new faces to come – including one who will end up being the most prolific author of the latter part of the Puffin series. But we’ll get to that next article.

As usual, here’s my rundown of the books covered so far and how I rate them quality-wise.

----------------------------------------
Appointment With F.E.A.R.              😀 (Sheer delight)
                                       |
House of Hell                          |
                                       |
Sorcery!*                              |
                                       |
Midnight Rogue                         |
                                       |
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain        |
                                       |
Robot Commando                         |
                                       |
The Rings of Kether                    |
                                       |
Island of the Lizard King              |
----------------------------------------
Space Assassin                         🙂 (Recommended)
                                       |
Battleblade Warrior                    |
                                       |
Beneath Nightmare Castle               |
                                       |
City of Thieves                        |
                                       |
Seas of Blood                          |
                                       |
Talisman of Death                      |
                                       |
Freeway Fighter                        |
                                       |
Demons of the Deep                     |
                                       |
Creature of Havoc                      |
----------------------------------------
Forest of Doom                         :S (Collectors only)
                                       |
Phantoms of Fear                       |
                                       |
Temple of Terror                       |
                                       |
Citadel of Chaos                       |
                                       |
Slaves of the Abyss                    |
                                       |
Crypt of the Sorcerer                  |
                                       |
Sword of the Samurai                   |
                                       |
Rebel Planet                           |
----------------------------------------
Caverns of the Snow Witch              😦 (Downright bad)
                                       |
Masks of Mayhem                        |
                                       |
Starship Traveller                     |
----------------------------------------
Deathtrap Dungeon                     😡 (Pissed me off)
                                       |
Trial of Champions                     |
                                       |
Star Strider                           |
----------------------------------------
Scorpion Swamp                         D: (OH GOD WHY)
                                       |
Chasms of Malice                       |
----------------------------------------

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

3 thoughts on “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 9)

  1. Marc G

    Thanks for kind comments!

    You’re broadly correct BTW – Night of the Creature only got as far as a one-page pitch and half a dozen pages of loose notes. The basic idea revolved around being shrunk down to sneak into a wizard’s walled mansion, via his magical poison-garden.

  2. Pingback: The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 10) – Refereeing and Reflection

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